Although he was widely regarded as one of the most famous British authors of all time, Rudyard Kipling’s birthplace was across the world from the British Isle in what was then known as British India. Kipling drew upon his upbringing in Bombay as inspiration for many of his most famous works including The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901). The first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize in Literature harkened back to his childhood in his novel The Eyes of Asia, about a Sikh Man’s experience fighting in World War I for the British.
Published on May 19, 1917
SCENE: Pavilion and Dome Hospital, Brighton — 1915. What talk is this, Doctor Sahib? This Sahib says he will be my letter writer? Just as though he were a bazar letter writer? … What are the Sahib’s charges? Two annas? Too much; I give one. . . . No! No! Sahib! You shouldn’t have come down so quickly. You’ve forgotten; we Sikhs always bargain … Well, one anna be it. I will give a bond to pay it out of my wound-pension when I get home. Sit by the side of my bed …
This is the trouble, Sahib: My brother, who holds his land and works mine outside Amritsar City, is a fool. He is older than I. He has done his service and got one wound out of it in what they used to call war — that child’s play in the Tirah. He thinks himself a soldier! But that is not his offense. He sends me post cards, Sahib — scores of post cards — whining about the drouth, or the taxes, or the crops, or our servants’ pilferings, or some such trouble. He doesn’t know what trouble means. I want to tell him he is a fool … What? True! True, one can get money and land, but never a new brother. But for all that, he is a fool … Is he a good farmer? Sa-heeb! If an Amritsar Sikh isn’t a good farmer a hen doesn’t know an egg … Is he honest? As my own pet yoke of bullocks. He is only a fool. My belly is on fire now with knowledge I never had before, and I wish to impart it to him — to the village elders — to all people. Yes, that is true too. If I keep calling him a fool he will not gain any knowledge … Let me think it over on all sides. Aha! Now that I have a bazar writer of my own, I will write a book — a very book to my fool of a brother … And now we will begin. Take down my words from my lips to my foolish old farmer brother:
“You will have received the notification of my wounds which I took in Franceville. Now that I am better of my wounds, I have leisure to write with a long hand. Here we have paper and ink at command. Thus it is easy to let off the fumes of our hearts. Send me all the news of all the crops and what is being done in our village. This poor parrot is always thinking of Kashmir.
“As to my own concerns, the trench in which I sat was broken by a bomb-golee as large as our smallest grain chest.” [He’ll go off and measure it at once!] “It dropped out of the air. It burst, the ground was opened and replaced upon seven of us. I and two others took wounds. Sweetmeats are not distributed in wartime. God permitted my soul to live, by means of the doctors’ strong medicines. I have inhabited six hospitals before I came here to England. This hospital is like a temple. It is set in a garden beside the sea. We lie on iron cots beneath a dome of gold and colors and glittering glasswork, with pillars.” [You know that’s true, Sahib. We can see it — but d’you think he’ll believe? Never! Never!] “Our food is cooked for us according to our creeds — Sikh, or Brahmin, or Mussulman, and all the rest. When a man dies he is also buried according to his creed. Though he has been a groom or a sweeper, he is buried like some great landowner. Do not let such matters trouble you henceforth. Living or dying, all is done in accordance with the ordinance of our faiths. Some low-caste men, such as sweepers, counting upon the ignorance of the doctors, make a claim to be of reputable caste in order that they may get consideration. If a sweeper in this hospital says he is forbidden by his caste to do certain things he is believed. He is not beaten.” [Now, why is that, Sahib? They ought to be beaten for pretending to caste, and making a mock of the doctors. I should slipper them publicly — but — I’m not the Government. We will go on.]
“The English do not despise any sort of work. They are of many castes, but they are all one kind in this. On account of my wounds I have not yet gone abroad to see English fields or towns.” [It is true I have been out twice in a motor carriage, Sahib, but that goes too quickly for a man to see shops, let alone faces. We will not tell him that. He does not like motor cars.] “The French in Franceville work continually without rest. The French and the Phlahamahnds-Flamands — who are a caste of French, are kings among cultivators. As to cultivation” — [Now, I pray, Sahib, write quickly for I am as full of this matter as a buffalo of water] — “their fields are larger than ours, without any divisions, and they do not waste anything except the width of the footpath. The land descends securely from father to son upon payment of tax to the Government, just as in civilized countries. I have observed that they have their land always at their hearts and in their mouths, just as in civilized countries. They do not grow more than one crop a year, but this is recompensed to them because their fields do not need irrigation. The rain in Franceville is always sure and abundant and in excess. They grow all that we grow, such as peas, onions, garlic, spinach, beans, cabbages and wheat. They do not grow small grains or millet, and their only spice is mustard. They do not drink water, but the juice of apples, which they squeeze into barrels for that purpose. A full bottle is sold for two pice. They do not drink milk, but there is abundance of it. It is all cows’ milk, of which they make butter in a churn, which is turned by a dog.” [Now, how shall we make my brother believe that? Write it large.] “In Franceville the dogs are both courteous and industrious. They play with the cat, they tend the sheep, they churn the butter, they draw a cart and guard it too. When a regiment meets a flock the dogs of their own wisdom order the sheep to step to one side of the road. I have often seen this.” [Not one word of this will he or anyone in the villages believe, Sahib. What can you expect? They have never even seen Lahore City! We will tell him what he can understand.] “Plows and carts are drawn by horses. Oxen are not used for these purposes in these villages. The fieldwork is wholly done by old men and women and children, who can all read and write. The young men are all at the war. The war comes also to the people in the villages, but they do not regard the war because they are cultivators. I have a friend among the French — an old man in the village where the Regiment was established, who daily fills in the holes made in his fields by the enemy’s shells with dirt from a long-handled spade. I begged him once to desist when we were together on this work, but he said that idleness would cause him double work for the day following. His grandchild, a very small maiden, grazed a cow behind a wood where the shells fell, and was killed in that manner. Our Regiment was told the news and they took an account of it, for she was often among them, begging buttons from their uniforms. She was small and full of laughter, and she had, learned a little of our tongue.” [Yes. That was a very great shame, Sahib. She was the child of us all. We exacted a payment, but she was slain — slain like a calf for no fault. A black shame! . . . We will write about other matters.]
“As to cultivation, there are no words for its excellence or for the industry of the cultivators. They esteem manure most highly. They have no need to burn cow dung for fuel. There is abundance of charcoal. Thus, not irrigating or burning dung for fuel, their wealth increases of itself. They build their houses from ancient times round about mountainous dung heaps, upon which they throw all things in season. It is a possession from father to son, and increase comes forth. Owing to the number of army horses in certain places there arises very much horse dung. When it is excessive the officers cause a little straw to be lit near the heaps. The French and the Phlahamahnds, seeing the smoke, assemble with carts, crying: ‘What waste is this?’ The officers reply: ‘None will carry away this dung. Therefore, we burn it.’ All the cultivators then entreat for leave to carry it away in their carts, be it only as much as two dogs can draw. By this device horse lines are cleaned.
“Listen to one little thing: The women and the girls cultivate as well as the men in all respects.” [That is a true tale, Sahib. We know — but my brother knows nothing except the road to market.] “They plow with two and four horses as great as hills. The women of Franceville also keep the accounts and the bills. They make one price for everything. No second price is to be obtained by any talking. They cannot be cheated over the value of one grain. Yet of their own will they are generous beyond belief. When we came back from our work in the trenches they arise at any hour and make us warm drinks of hot coffee and milk and bread and butter. May God reward these ladies a thousand times for their kindness! But do not throw everything upon God. I desire you will get me in Amritsar City a carpet, at the shop of Davee Sahai and Chumba Mall — one yard in width and one yard and a half in length, of good color and quality to the value of forty rupees. The shop must send it with all charges paid, to the address which I have had written in English character on the edge of this paper. She is the lady of the house in which I was billeted in a village for three months. Though she was advanced in years and belonged to a high family, yet in the whole of those three months I never saw this old lady sit idle. Her three sons had gone to the war. One had been killed; one was in hospital; and a third, at that time, was in the trenches. She did not weep or wail at the death or the sickness, but accepted the dispensation. During the time I was in her house she ministered to me to such an extent that I cannot adequately describe her kindness. Of her own free will she washed my clothes, arranged my bed, and polished my boots daily for three months. She washed down my bedroom daily with hot water, having herself heated it. Each morning she prepared me a tray with bread, butter, milk and coffee. When we had to leave that village that old lady wept on my shoulder. It is strange that I had never seen her weep for her dead son, but she wept for me. Moreover, at parting she would have had me take a fi-farang note for expenses on the road.” [What a woman! What a woman! I had never believed such women existed in this black age.]
“If there be any doubt of the quality or the color of the carpet ask for an audience of the Doctor Linley Sahib, if he is still in Amritsar. He knows carpets. Tell him all I have written concerning this old lady — may God keep her and her remaining household! — and he will advise. I do not know the Doctor Sahib, but he will overlook it in wartime. If the carpet is even fifty rupees, I can securely pay out of the monies which our lands owe me. She is an old lady. It must be soft to her feet, and not inclined to slide upon the wooden floor. She is well-born and educated.” [And now we will begin to enlighten him and the elders!]
“We must cause our children to be educated in the future. That is the opinion of all the Regiment, for by education even women accomplish marvels, like the women of Franceville. Get the boys and girls taught to read and write well. Here teaching is by Government order. The men go to the war daily. It is the women who do all the work at home, having been well taught in their childhood. We have yoked only one buffalo to the plow up till now. It is now time to yoke up the mulch buffaloes. Tell the village elders this and exercise influence.” [Write that down very strongly, Sahib. We who have seen Franceville all know it is true.]
“But as to cultivation: The methods in Franceville are good. All tools are of iron. They do not break. A man keeps the tools he needs for his work and his repairs in his house under his own hand. He has not to go back to the village a mile away if anything breaks. We never thought, as these people do, that all repairs to tools and plows can be done on the very spot. All that is needed when a strap breaks is that each plowman should have an awl and a leather cutter to stitch the leather. How is it with us in our country? If leather breaks we farmers say that leather is unclean, and we go back from the fields into the village to the village cobbler that he may mend it. Unclean? Do not we handle that same thing with the leather on it after it has been repaired? Do we not even drink water all day with the very hand that has sweated into the leather? Meantime we have surely lost an hour or two in coming and going from the fields.” [He will understand that. He chatters like a monkey when the men waste time. But the village cobbler will be very angry with men!] “The people of Franceville are astonished to learn that all our land is full of dogs which do no work — not even to keep the cattle out of the tilled fields. Among the French, both men and women and little children occupy themselves with work at all times on the land. The children wear no jewelry, but they are more beautiful than I can say. It is a country where the women are not veiled. Their marriage is at their own choice, and takes place between their twentieth and twenty-fifth year. They seldom quarrel or shout out. They do not pilfer from each other. They do not tell lies at all. When calamity overtakes them there is no ceremonial of grief, such as tearing the hair or the like. They swallow it down and endure silently. Doubtless, this is the fruit of learning in youth.”
[Now we will have a word for our Guru at home. He is a very holy man. Write this carefully, Sahib.] It is said that the French worship idols. I have spoken of this with my old lady and her Guru [priest]. It is not true in any way. There are certainly images in their shrines and deotas [local gods] to whom they present petitions as we do in our home affairs, but the prayer of the heart goes to the God Himself. I have been assured this by the old priests. All the young priests are fighting in the war. The Frenchmen uncover the head but do not take off the shoes at prayer. They do not speak of their religion to strangers, and they do not go about to make converts. The old priest in the village where I was billeted so long said that all roads, at such times as these, return to God.” [Our Guru at home says that himself; so he cannot be surprised if there are others who think it.] “The old priest gave me a little medal which he wished me to wear round my neck. Such medals are reckoned holy among the French. He was a very holy man and it averts the evil eye. The women also carry holy beads to help keep count of their prayers.
“Certain men of our Regiment divided among themselves as many as they could pick up of the string of beads that used to be carried by the small maiden whom the shell slew. It was found forty yards distant from the hands. It was that small maiden who begged us for our buttons and had no fear. The Regiment made an account of it, reckoning one life of the enemy for each bead. They deposited the beads as a pledge with the regimental clerk. When a man of the guarantors was killed, the number of his beads which remained unredeemed was added to the obligation of the guarantors, or they elected an inheritor of the debt in his place.” [He will understand that. It was very correct and businesslike, Sahib. Our Pathan Company arranged it.] “It was seven weeks before all the beads were redeemed, because the weather was bad and our guns were strong and the enemy did not stir abroad after dark. When all the account was cleared, the beads were taken out of pawn and returned to her grandfather, with a certificate; and he wept.
“This war is not a war. It is a world-destroying battle. All that has gone before this war in this world till now has been only boys throwing colored powder at each other. No man could conceive it. What do you or the Mohmunds or anyone who has not been here know of war? When the ignorant in future speak of war I shall laugh, even though they be my elder brethren. Consider what things are done here, and for what reasons.
A little before I took my wounds, I was on duty near an officer who worked in wire and wood and earth to make traps for the enemy. He had acquired a tent of green cloth upon sticks, with a window of soft glass that could not be broken. All coveted the tent. It was three paces long and two wide. Among the covetous was an officer of artillery in charge of a gun that shook mountains. It gave out a shell of ten maunds or more [eight hundred pounds]. But those who have never seen even a rivulet cannot imagine the Indus. He offered many rupees to purchase the tent. He would come at all hours increasing his offer. He overwhelmed the owner with talk about it.” [I heard them often, Sahib.] “At last, and I heard this also, that tent owner said to that artillery officer: ‘I am wearied with your importunity. Destroy today a certain house that I shall show you, and I will give you the tent for a gift. Otherwise, have no more talk.’ He showed him the roof of a certain white house which stood back three kos [six miles] in the enemy country, a little underneath a hill with woods on each side. Consider this, measuring three kos in your mind along the Amritsar Road. The gunner officer said: ‘By God, I accept this bargain!’ He issued orders and estimated the distance. I saw him going back and forth as swiftly as a lover. Then fire was delivered and at the fourth discharge the watchers through their glasses saw the house spring high and spread abroad and lie upon its face. It was as a tooth taken out by a barber. Seeing this the gunner officer sprang into the tent and looked through the window and smiled because the tent was now his. But the enemy did not understand the reasons. There was a great gunfire all that night, as well as many enemy regiments moving about. The prisoners taken afterward told us their commanders were disturbed at the fall of the house, ascribing it to some great design on our part; that their men had no rest for a week. Yet it was all done for a little green tent’s sake.
“I tell you this that you may understand the meaning of things. This is a world where the very hills are turned upside down, with the cities upon them. He who comes alive out of this business will forever after be as a giant. If anyone wishes to see it let him come here or remain disappointed all his life.”
[We will finish with affection and sweet words. After all, a brother is a brother.] “As for myself, why do you write to me so many complaints? Are you fighting in this war or I? You know the saying: A soldier’s life is for his family; his death is for his country; his discomforts are for himself alone. I joined to fight when I was young. I have eaten the Government’s salt till I am old. I am discharging my obligation. When all is at an end the memory of our parting will be but a dream.
“I pray the Guru to bring together those who are separated. God alone is true. Everything else is but a shadow.”
[That is poetry. Oh — and add this, Sahib:]
“Let there be no delay about the carpet. She would not accept anything else.”
Featured image illustrated by Harvey Dunn, SEPS
We got off the bus in Göreme and found a room in the Kervansaray Otel. I was sick. The Kervansaray’s owners, a father and son both first-named Kemal, were troubled by my presence, alone, when Luke left. He said he was going to find me some crackers and bottled water, but he was gone for what seemed a very long time. We were the hotel’s only guests.
The Kemals walked up and down the hallway, checking on me. I lay shivering and burning up in bed and being sick into a T-shirt because I didn’t want to go past them to the bathroom. I watched their shadows against a sheet of textured gray plastic in the corridor wall. That plastic was compensation for having no window to the outside; it let some light in, but it also trapped me in place because I couldn’t hide. I even saw one Kemal bend down to peer through the keyhole, which was the old-fashioned kind with a big gap. I was sure they thought there was something wrong beyond the usual illnesses that seize tourists, and knowing that they suspected this made me feel guilty, even though I had done nothing.
The Kemals were relieved when Luke came back and took charge of me. I was relieved too. His breath smelled like sesame seeds. I rinsed my mouth with the bottled water he’d brought me.
“Better,” I said. “Better.”
The Kemals fetched glasses of tea for both of us. We stood in the plastic-lined hallway and drank politely, smiling warily at each other.
Luke and I had already had tea all over Turkey, given us by hoteliers and merchants and, yesterday, an elderly couple in Ankara who beckoned us into their plywood shack during a sudden snow flurry. Their çay might have been the reason my stomach was churning now, or at least part of the reason. I’d also eaten some carrot shavings with a kebab, though I’d been warned that fresh vegetables were dangerous. I thought I’d been to worse places and had ingested dirtier things.
When our glasses were empty, Luke did not want to stay inside. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. “Get you some fresh air, see the sunset. There are caves up the hill.”
“I don’t know how far I can go,” I said. Having him back and drinking some tea had settled my stomach a little but not enough.
The Kemals encouraged us. The son said, “The path is called Hill of Dreams.” The father said, “Some peoples lives in the caves.”
We had come to see the underground cities and bright-painted cave churches, jewels of Cappadocia. We hadn’t come to lie sick in hotel rooms by ourselves. So I changed into a long skirt and my last clean shirt, and I tied a scarf over my dirty hair.
“Good-bye,” the Kemals called after us in English. “Good-bye, good-bye!”
The hotel was on the edge of town. Luke and I walked up the Hill of Dreams, toward a giant silhouette of Atatürk done in black wire. His portrait was everywhere because he was the father of modern Turkey. We found a rock that would let us gaze through Atatürk to the sunset, and Luke took off his sweater and folded it for me to sit on. He put his arm around me in that way the guidebook told us not to do where we could be seen, and we leaned into each other.
On this trip, we had been highlighting Rumi’s poetry: The wound is the place where the Light enters you. And Your task is not to seek for love but to find the barriers that you have built against it. And Become nothing, and he’ll turn you into everything.
We were ready. To become everything, because we knew how it was to be nothing. We were making ourselves into new people in a place where almost all temptation was banned. Military police strolled the city streets in olive fatigues, and we were constantly afraid of being arrested. We knew that we hadn’t yet shed that wild-eyed, hungry look of people on the brink. We also knew that if you’re in the habit, you always know where to find more. Miles and miles of poppy fields stretched across the interior.
There were no police on the Hill of Dreams. It was the most alone we had been since landing. Luke kept a casual hold of my shoulders as if I did not need him to prop me up, and I tried very hard not to be sick.
When the sunset began to edge the clouds yellow and pink, Luke reached in his pocket and dropped a box into my lap. It was covered in coarse red velvet and it looked to me like a small, bloody animal.
“I found it in the village this afternoon,” he said. “When something is perfect, you don’t wait.”
What should a person say to that? “We agreed on a year.”
Luke misinterpreted. He said, “Don’t think you aren’t lovable, because you are. By me.”
We had been told that my insecurity was as big a problem as any other addiction. I wasn’t sure I believed that, but I was insecure enough not to question it. On this trip, Luke had given me some encouragement every day, usually in a way that reinforced a bad feeling: Don’t think you aren’t lovable felt like Nobody but me will ever love you. I supposed he would promise something like this in his vows.
“Go on, look inside!” Luke picked up the box and was about to open it himself when a coincidence came along.
An old man, or possibly one in late middle age, shuffled quiely up the path with a steadiness that must have come of a lifetime treading unstable ground. He wore a black fez and pants baggy to the knees, with a long, once-white shirt. Everything about him was loose and thin and barely held together.
I shrugged my way out of Luke’s embrace; I didn’t want to offend with public touching. But the man did not look at us. He came very close, yet kept his face pointed forward.
At first I was glad for the interruption, and then I was gladder when he stopped a few yards up the path. He made a clicking sound and flicked his fingers toward his body.
“Let’s go,” I said. I handed the box back to Luke. It was unlike me to be so impulsive, but I wanted to be anywhere the proposal was not.
Luke was torn. He mumbled, “I think I saw that guy in the village today. He was at a café or something.”
Anytime Luke was vague, I worried about what he did not want to tell me. He didn’t seem to have the same concerns about me, and that worried me in a different way.
Up ahead, the stranger waited. He flicked his fingers toward himself once more.
“Come on,” I said, “when are we ever going to meet someone like him again?” Even the old couple in Ankara had worn T-shirts, and they had a television.
Luke put the box back in his jeans. “Okay.” He helped me stand and we followed the stranger. It was good to be moving around, though I felt wobbly.
The man led us to a slope of crumbly karst, onto which he stepped as lightly and surely as a carpet. I hesitated. The slope was steep and I was tired from being sick; there was a perfectly good path we could have taken instead.
I tried out the languages of which I knew a little: “Français, Deutsch, español, English?” I wanted to ask about the path. “Yok?” I finished. No, nothing?
He didn’t answer. Luke took a step onto the karst, slid down, stepped up again, and held out his hand. I didn’t want this adventure anymore, but I felt I had to go too, since I had started it.
In this circumstance, it was all right to touch. We held hands and slipped and skidded, but our guide barely dislodged any pebbles.
It would be natural to seek one of Rumi’s lessons here, in the accidental encounter, the silent old man passing lightly through life. I tried. I was tired but I tried because I really wanted to believe that all of this meant something. I still didn’t feel great.
Luke pulled me the last few feet, onto a flat, terraced area. Incredibly, what we saw was worth all the effort. An old red-and-yellow wooden cart was parked there with a couple of goats tied to its wheels, and a handful of women in dark skirts and headscarves sat on the edge of a well, smoking cigarettes. They were surrounded by skinny cats twitching their tails like dogs. Behind, the cave mouths expanded as the sky colored orange. It was a picture from a fairy tale, a scene printed on brochures to lure tourists.
And it was here that our host at last showed his face. He turned to us, spreading his arms as if in a blessing.
I tried not to be sick again. The side we hadn’t seen was a knot of scar tissue and collapsed bone. It glowed vermilion in the dying light. And he had no left eye.
I remembered that line of Rumi: The wound is the place where the Light enters you. And I thought, What bullshit. What utter bullshit. I could not begin to imagine what had happened to this man, and I wanted to sympathize with him—but he frightened me.
We pretended we were merely tired. I took off my scarf to blot my face dry. Luke brushed the dirt off the thin cloth of my skirt.
The one-eyed man watched him touch me. So did the women.
I thought, Maybe one of them is his wife. I tried smiling. If they called out a welcome, then I would feel okay. I would stop feeling self-conscious and scared and that other emotion that was creeping in. Foreboding. Shame — the old excuse for so much I’d done.
The women stared stone-faced at the sky. They were not welcoming us. I looked at Luke, pleading; the stranger looked at him too.
Luke pointed down a trail that hugged the hillside and the line of caves, and he asked slowly, “You … live … here?”
So that was where the man took us. I didn’t want to go; I lagged behind as Luke set off. Then the old man wrapped his hand around my wrist. He tugged. I wanted him to let go, but when I pulled away he pulled harder toward, and Luke was already well down the path.
I was glad to escape from the women, at least.
We marched past a series of small caves. The doorways were low and didn’t always have actual doors in them; smells of cooking and mildew and smoke lingered around the openings, and what we could see of the dark interiors was all furnished with stacks of crates and clothing hung up on poles. Luke fell behind, peering inside each one. When I tripped, it was the stranger who steadied me.
“So cool!” I heard Luke say. His voice echoed; he was speaking into somebody’s home.
I wanted to shout at him to hurry up. And shut up. But would that have helped?
Suddenly we were at the last cave, or at least the last we could see. It was isolated around a curve and its path had crumbled away. Even from the outside it reeked of urine.
The one-eyed man ducked inside. I ducked, too, just in time to avoid knocking my head hard on the rock as he pulled me after him.
In the past, our habits had taken Luke and me to some dirty squats and alleys, but none had made me as queasy as this. Maybe some of them should have, but back then I’d been just too far gone to know what to feel. You might think places like this would have nothing you want, but in our experience they were the only ones that did.
The cave was a home. Or at least it was a crash pad. It had a blanket on the floor, and a pillow, and a few plastic crates packed with clothes and bottles. The floor was all dirt. The ceiling was low.
My stomach lurched. The old man had swung me around and now stood between me and the door.
Now he spoke for the first time, in a voice that was low and rough and missing some tones. It came as a shock. I could not recognize a syllable and I had never been so afraid.
“Que voulez-vous?” I tried. “Was möchten Sie?” I mangled the phrase Turkish waiters said in cheap restaurants: “Ne istiyorsun? What do you want?”
I got the words out just as Luke slid in and stood next to me, bumping my shoulder in a gesture that was just friendly but I hoped would look protective.
In English, the old man said, “Mon-ey.”
In a way it was a relief.
“He thinks we’re rich,” I said to Luke. “He must have seen you in town today.” That might have been mean of me to say, but it was true; Luke could get careless when excited, and he did like to impress people.
What I did not say was that the stranger thought we were addicts. I did not need to say it. We could not have been the first people he’d lured up the hill, and we were addicts.
Right now I wanted nothing more than to sink into it again. My nerves stung with craving.
“Mon-ey!” the man repeated impatiently. He seemed to grow larger, filling the space between us and the cave mouth. He flicked his fingers in that Come here gesture. This time I thought it meant Pay up.
I dug into my skirt pocket. Luke let go of me to search his own pockets, but I’d have bet they held nothing but the red velvet box. I found a few coins and a bill worth one thousand lira. Maybe I could just hand that over and go. We wouldn’t take anything; we’d just pay.
The coins hit the ground. “Yok!” Our host had smacked my hand hard.
Then he reached into his own pants. He pulled out coins of his own and threw them at me. They bounced off my shoulders, my breasts, my arms. They slid down my clothes and my skin.
Oh, I thought. Oh.
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t look at Luke now, could only feel so full of longing that it made me retch. The one thing that would stop the retching was the thing I had vowed not to have.
I had been digging in my pocket again, hoping to find it suddenly full. The one-eyed man grabbed my arm and shook hard. Then let me go, so he could make a circle with one thumb and forefinger. He plunged the other index finger inside.
At the height of our habit, I had been careless with my body and Luke did not mind. He encouraged it, in fact; he expected it. I had been lovable (he’d told me so even back then, in the worst of it) but my body did not matter. So I had been an easy trade for whatever was on offer.
Now things were different. Now we knew this: The body is not hidden from the soul, nor is the soul hidden from the body.
I felt in my bones that this was the moment. The moment at which we would have to become everything to each other, because Luke had to fight for me as he’d fought for his own life.
But he didn’t. He stood agape, staring at the coins in the dust.
A hand closed on my crotch. I felt it through the thin skirt, bruising me. The old man was faster than he seemed.
“Evet,” he said, “bu.”
Almost the worst part was getting away. Tripping and sliding and battering myself against the cliffside, aching all over, and not just where I’d been grabbed, where the feel of a strange hand would linger long after I’d escaped. Vomiting into the dirt and my own hair, scattering the underfed cats. I tried to run past the women, who stared frankly through the smoke of their cigarettes; they knew exactly what had happened, or they thought they did.
Luke stumbled along a few feet behind me. He was the one who was crying. He called out to me that he was sorry and he hated himself, over and over, like a chant. What he needed was for me to say I forgave him and to take the blame, but I didn’t. I lurched away.
So I fell down the Hill of Dreams toward a purple, star-speckled sky, where Atatürk’s profile was lit up in red neon and held the most beautiful moon inside.
The Kemals brought me tea and some bumpy crackers. They brought warm wet towels and looked away as I washed the blood from my cuts. They did not ask questions, not even about Luke. He had vanished somewhere behind me; I suspected he was looking for a café that sold anisette raki or some other drink. He wasn’t choosy.
The Kemals brought a telephone.
“You call to your father,” they told me. “You call to your mother.”
They wanted me gone so badly.
I thought they must know the strange man. They could have told me who he was, how he lost his eye, how many other fools he’d led up to his cave. How many women he’d wrestled to the ground, how many times he’d succeeded. Mon-ey. It had extra meanings here.
I didn’t ask. I knew that no matter what I told them, they would think this was not the old man’s fault. In all other eyes, fault was ours, for being what we were. Maybe the Kemals had even steered us toward the caves, thinking I needed to stop a withdrawal. Maybe they had told the old man to go find us. No one seemed safe to me now.
I called Turkish Air and found out I could take a bus to Antalya that night and then a plane home. It would cost everything I had left, and in a way I was pleased. Now I would have all I deserved; I would have nothing.
While I was packing in the light of a dim one-bulbed lamp, Luke turned up at last. His face was flushed and he reeked of anisette. That much was inevitable.
But somewhere he’d discovered that he still had hope. He watched me stuffing my laundry into my backpack, and he tossed the red velvet box on top.
I tossed it back, but it fell inches short. I was still weak. “Take it,” I said. “Return it.”
He picked up the box and stood, wiping it off on his jeans. I noticed that they were torn at both knees. He held it out to me again, his heart, on his palm. “I got it for you.”
Because he implied I was lovable, because he had bought me a ring, he thought I would absolve him not just for today but for all the times we’d been in danger but too far gone to realize it. And he thought that if we came out of this engaged, we would truly be all right.
I would not take the box. I said, “You need the money.”
“I’ll throw it away.” He raised his fist as if to hurl it right then.
“That’s your decision.”
“I’ll spend it on — ”
“I don’t care.” I really didn’t. Except that I wanted him to spend it all and be ruined too. I wanted him to fail.
I said, “It is not my job to rescue you.”
Luke drew his hand back to throw the ring, probably at me. Neither one of us was lovable now.
Just then, the Kemals pushed the door open. They had heard our voices raised; they had seen the shadow of Luke’s fist through the plastic panel. “No, no,” they said. “Not the lady, not the miss. You go now.”
They meant both of us. Both of us should go. One of them took Luke outside and the other one carried my backpack to the bus stop.
My Kemal and I waited in silence until a bus came. I think he was the father. He hoisted my bag into the bus’s underbelly and we bowed to each other, curt and without touching. I climbed in, and the bus groaned, and I was on my way, past the riddled hills.
It had been a whirlwind. And I thought, Whatever we know will blow away: up to the sky, to the moon and stars. But it will not happen soon. Not soon enough to stop breaking our hearts.
The red profile on the Hill of Dreams grew smaller and smaller, till it was swallowed up in the sky and I didn’t care to watch anymore. And that was it; that was Göreme, that was Luke and me.
Featured image by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Unsplash
Pity and I were smoking with a pair of sixth graders near the school’s lunch dumpsters when the gulls swooped in. We watched the birds pull at the spaghetti that streamed down the rims, remembering how the lunch ladies would fill up the bins each week with uneaten angel hair or fettuccine, how the flocks would dive in for the fresh stuff not ten minutes after.
“Lookit the seagulls!” one of the kids said. When he clapped, the ash on his Newport fell off in a clump.
“Don’t say ‘seagulls’,” I told him. “We live upstate. You see a sea around here? No? Call them ‘ring-billed gulls,’ then, if you want to get fucking technical. Common as head lice up here.”
“You shouldn’t cuss, Mr. Fitz,” said the kid’s friend, scratching his head. He had orange hair, not red. Orange. Bright as Bozo’s.
“This here is an employee smoke break, kiddo,” I said, laying a hand on Pity’s shoulder. “Mr. Fitz gets fifteen minutes of cancer every three hours, no teaching required. Government mandate.”
Pity piped in: “And fifteen minutes of quiet.”
“But those are seagulls,” Bozo started, and then, “Ow!” Because that’s when Pity zinged his lit joint at the kid’s left cheek. Principal Coach and the school’s steroidal Vice Principals didn’t mind our janitor’s pot stash so long as Pity was the one plunging toilets. Deadly aim, that Pity.
“I said ‘quiet’!” yelled Pity, not quiet at all. So the sixth graders trudged back over to recess in a huff. They’d return with their Newports tomorrow, and everything would be just fine again.
“Now that amateur hour’s over,” Pity said, “we’ve got demands to discuss.”
“Demands?” I said. I thought of my ex-wife, Jan Allen, and her girlfriend, Belinda. I thought of the legal envelope and the unsigned closing contract they’d dropped off with me again on Monday. I’d had enough of demands for the week. “Like what?”
Pity rolled another joint, took a small list out of his shirtsleeve pocket.
“West exit by the band room needs a fire extinguisher,” he started. “I can carve out a chunk in the brickwork there, but it ain’t up to code otherwise.”
“Easy peasy,” I said. I dreamed of calling the fire marshal if Coach didn’t comply. Red lights and helmets and the wrath of the local hook & ladder on him and everything. “What else?”
“Eighth-grade French needs a Blu-ray player,” he continued, “and Seventh-grade Geography needs an atlas of Europe with no East or West Germany on it. Just Germany. A big one.”
With Pity, it was never “Mademoiselle Flaneur” or “Mr. Grigsby.” Just the faculty’s grades and subjects. Pity could turn anything into ceremony.
“It’d be no more than fifty bucks,” Pity explained. He shot out five fingers on his left hand like he was learning to count. “Coach could go for that, no problem.”
“It’ll be eighty minimum,” I told him, our free period almost over. “We’ll have to go through central purchasing for it. Gotta find the lowest bid and all that.”
Pity shook both hands this time, ten fingers flying now. “Hell, boy, you know damn well Wal-Mart’s got the lowest bid. How come we can’t ever just buy from the supercenter?”
“It’s all invoices and budgets,” I said. I left it at that because sometimes I had to. “You done?”
Pity took another puff, and I waved the smoke away. “One more thing,” he said.
“Let’s have it.”
A gull landed on one of the bins next to us. I’d never seen one fish out and eat a meatball before, but here we were.
“You missed it at the meeting last week, but we got to talking,” he started. The meatball the gull had picked up was swallowed and out of sight now. But it bulged in the bird’s throat now and didn’t move.
“Spit it out,” I said.
In front of Pity and me, the gull started to dance and panic. It was choking on its spongy find.
“You talking to me or the bird?” Pity asked.
We watched the gull crank its neck up and down as it tried to dislodge the meat.
“You,” I said, still watching the thing thrash.
“No more Thursday night football,” Pity said. “Please.” He kicked the words out of his mouth like he was confessing to something terrible. “School spirit be damned.”
In front of us, the gull hit its head on the rim of the dumpster. It clanged back and forth on the edge, hard, but the ball in the middle of its neck stayed stuck.
“This something you all want?” I said.
Pity stepped in front of me. Made eye contact and looked all business.
“We took a vote,” he said. Held me by both shoulders like we were slow dancing. A foxtrot or a soft waltz, maybe. Like something Jan Allen and I might have done once.
Behind us, the bird started hitting its head on the plastic lid. In the cafeteria somewhere was a poster showing how to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
“Unanimous decision,” he pleaded.
I couldn’t see the bird as it fell. Pity was blocking my line of sight, and I wondered if he’d leave a burn mark on my shirtsleeve. But I heard the thing hit the pavement. A soft whump, and then we both turned to confirm something horrible or natural had happened.
“Okay, then,” I said. The gull’s one exposed eye stared up at nothing and at everything. Above us, a flock of white birds — his friends, maybe? — circled and made plans for noodles and half-eaten bread rolls. “I’ll let him know.”
On my parade to the Vice Principals’ rumpus rooms and Principle Coach’s leather-lined office, I thought of the frozen faculty bodies on Thursday nights and got angry. I thought of us standing in the cold, soda-streaked bleachers for two hours each week, cheering on every pissant play the JV squad ran. Five-yard interceptions from the QB to the other team. Views of the ball flying backwards behind the kicker. Hugs and tears alike in every huddle.
But these sad memories were fuel for me on the walk down. Drums before a skirmish. An application of warpaint. I carried a banner I’d found in front of me: a great triangle of sequined black and gold, our school colors. I was ready.
I could smell the Vice Principals’ jawlines before I could see their office block. Every day a fresh shave, every staff meeting an attack of mid-shelf cologne. Underbites on each of them that had never been fixed. Waxed forearms with popped veins that would’ve made the front office staff gaga if they all hadn’t been terrified of Coach’s personal defense line.
“Help you, Fitz?” one of them asked. ‘Russell’ or something just as baritone. The blondest and newest of the trio, trained to be a junkyard dog like the other two. But we called him ‘Eight’ since he patrolled that grade’s wing.
“Here to see Coach,” I said, unfurling my flag. I presented it to Eight with purpose and meaning and lies in my heart. “It’s important.”
I’d beelined over to the Principals’ office after chancing on a pair of randy high schoolers who’d come down on the bus from the hilltop campus. Before I turned the hose on them, I’d caught them fingering each other in front of Mrs. Trapp’s Art studio, and they’d scared the Color Guard on their way out to practice. One of the girls on the squad had dropped her black and gold banner, and I’d brought it with me now like a winged herald of glad tidings.
Eight latched onto the flag pole like a new toy, and I pivoted around the cloth in an underarm turn and into the first corner of the hallway before he could recover.
It was like dancing with Jan Allen. Made me sad to think of cha chas and rhumbas and box steps we’d never finish. I thought of her girlfriend, Belinda, who would never dip her as well as I might.
Six popped out of his hovel on the left as I entered, barricading the way forward, saying, “Can’t rightly say if Coach is in now, Mr. Fitz.”
“Not looking for him,” I said, pushing ahead. I was mustering up my best crazy eyes, like Jan Allen had made in the days before she got fed up with me and left. “It’s you, Six. Just you.” A feathered wedge of brunet bangs hung down over his brow, and I held him by his bricked shoulders. “You’re wanted out by the bus stop. Those high schoolers are back on their frotteurism again, and I need you to be our man on it. So are you on it?”
The light changed in Six’s eyes as he mumbled out “goddamnitwaithere,” and then sprinted down the hallway with Eight to defend our school against the heaviest of heavy petting.
And there I was: alone now in the paneled hallway of particle-board wood and yellowing class photos, right up until Seven’s door creaked open. I could hear his wood-bead bracelets clacking before he could step into the hall and block my way.
“Whatever you’ve got, Mr. Fitz, it can wait,” Seven said. He’d spread his knotted arms in front of him and above me, a bodybuilder in a bear pose. “Coach is due up in the field house for last period. Laps today. Maybe sprints. Totally important.”
Seven’s hair was black as a goth kid’s diary. It spiked out of the sides of his head in cartoon haystacks of pomade and determination.
“Totally,” I nodded, getting in close. I made like I wanted to lambada with Seven, which gave us both certain kinds of feelings — new, important feelings — but then I rapped my knuckles on Coach’s cheap particle-wood door behind him at the last second.
Seven’s wax-candled face tapered into a snarl the second we both heard Coach bark out, “Door’s open!”
“Don’t mind me,” I said, patting his deltoids. Seven growled, good dog that he was, but I couldn’t stick around to give compliments. I had plans.
Sunlight streamed in through the window that looked out over the west lawn of Klaus W. Tripeltrübel middle school. Dust motes drifted in the air, making the halo effect on the man all the more pronounced.
“Color me impressed, Fitz.”
In his glory, Principal Coach was a protagonist of a man, with a handlebar mustache and a close-cropped mohawk, everything below the neck the build of a ex-college football star, trapped now in fitted khakis and a gingham tie. Wild rumors flitted down from the administration claiming he’d once QB’d for Syracuse, tore through an M.Ed. program after an injury, and then married his cheerleader girlfriend after a pregnancy scare that turned into an actual pregnancy once they put their backs into it. Their American dream was the most American of all the American dreams.
“I thought for certain I was scheduled to cover final period again, but here you are.”
“Here I am,” I said. “Barely. Seven almost stopped me. Good defense on that one.”
Coach looked past me and into the bare hallway, empty now of VPs.
“Not good enough,” he said, touching the college ring on his finger. Like his wedding ring, the jewelry burrowed into his knuckles like it was practicing autoerotic asphyxiation. I daydreamed of something gangrenous happening. “You’ve got three minutes to tell me what you need before I cut for the gym,” he said. “Can’t be late or the kids’ll think they’ve run off another substitute.”
Two weeks ago, Mr. Connolly — who taught the “Career Explorations” class in the mornings, Phys Ed in the afternoons — had been caught high on ketamine he’d scrounged from who knows where. In his best impression of leadership, Principal Coach had driven Connolly to the local rehab and had taken over the last period of the day from the man, forcing the students to run laps since he didn’t know what else to do with them if it didn’t involve line formations and pass plays.
“Heaven forbid,” I said. Coach’s ass cheeks rested on the lip of his desk. I watched him bob up and down as he flexed and relaxed his glutes. “Now I know you’re a busy man, and I won’t julienne words. The union just needs you to sign off on two little things and one big thing.”
Principal Coach smirked. “Bearer of bad news from the Local #1135, are you?”
“It’s the job,” I said. I was unflappable. “Item number one: we need a fire extinguisher next to the band room’s interior doors. It’s going to require a cut into the stonework if you want it to match the set.” And then I shut the hell up.
First one to talk in a negotiation has lost, I remembered someone once saying. When Jan Allen told me she was leaving, I’d talked first and asked why.
“Since this isn’t a fine china pattern, you go and tell Pity,” Coach began, eyes closed now, “to pony out and grab a metal-and-glass box rig, punch a couple of heavy mollies into the wall, and then hang the new extinguisher up. No need to make anyone suck in aerosolized brick.”
“Done,” I said, surprised. Unlike Jan Allen’s revelation about whom and what she loved, this was going well. “Item number two: we need $100 for the French and Geography classrooms. I could get it out of petty cash right now and have everything set up in an hour.”
“Slow down there, Fitz,” Coach said. “Devil’s in the details. What are we talking about here?”
I puffed out my cheeks. I was ready to hoot, throw feces, make war. “A Blu-ray player for French, a new map for Geography. I could rig it up before they came back in the morning.”
Our Principal took his time on this one. Leaned his head back, gave pause.
“Buy the map for Mr. Grigsby. Get Pity on the installation.”
Dust motes ripped around the room in whorls and waves, dancing and falling.
“And Mademoiselle Flaneur needs?” he continued.
“A Blu-ray player.”
“Take the business card, but make certain the thing can play DVDs, too,” he said. “Bring back the receipt or I’ll turn campus into a smoke-free zone.”
The very idea. I was two for two, though, so my hackles were down.
“That’s fair,” I said. “Ready for the big ask?”
“Shoot,” Coach said, reloading his crossed arms like they were empty.
“Thursday nights,” I said, ready-steady, “are henceforth optional, not mandatory.”
I was expecting thunder and lightning. Something painful and loud.
Coach sniffed, “You go to hell.”
So here was the firmament, the levee unbroken. The cessation of chewed gum and bouncing buttocks.
“I knew you were going to hate it,” I said. “But you’re a reasonable man. You know forcing the teachers and staff to show up to the night games isn’t right. On top of that, it’s unfair.”
Our Principal’s posture stiffened, and I knew right then I’d lost. Our dance was over.
“Unfair?” He said it back to me. “Unfair? Well, that may be true. But what it is is contractually obligated. Page seventeen in your employee handbooks, if memory serves — and it assuredly does serve — and what it is is a show of loyalty to our students. And what it is is a sacrifice. A necessary one at that.”
He paused, lifted one cheek to fart, started chewing his gum again and grunted. Flatulence wafted in the air between us.
“Listen here: if I can sacrifice my afternoons to fill in because Mr. Connolly’s drying out down the road,” Coach continued, “then you all can sure as shit show up for an hour once a week to support the squad. You hear me?”
And then the desk bouncing started again, and so did Coach, and then the scent of the man’s gases was gone. Somewhere in the room, an alarm was vibrating.
“That’s time,” he said, arms uncrossing now. He moved to the door and grabbed a whistle off the coat peg. “See your sweet asses in the bleachers come Thursday night.”
Home was a Cape Cod the color of a fresh bruise in the middle of ivy-choked Tudors. Jan Allen and I had purchased it back in the ’90s, sometime right after grunge and flannel. Our realtor was a spiteful widower, angry and bitter now that flipping property had become a younger person’s game. Told us we should buy the place because it’d be a middle finger to the socialites who lived around us.
“This used to be the community gardener’s home,” he explained, tapping his cigar ash onto the living room carpet. “Back when this hellscape was a damn community.”
Jan Allen and I made an offer on the house that same afternoon. On the day we closed, she pocketed the keys, I shaved in the bathroom sink, and we lindy-hopped until we crashed into the hearth. After an ice pack and some takeout Chinese, we rode each other on the berber carpeting until we were dehydrated. I would’ve thought we were happy back then. Might’ve just been the low interest rates.
After making nice with Coach in his departure from the office and then beelining toward my driveway, Jan Allen was there, crouched on the stoop. Next to her was the girlfriend, Belinda, who held her arm like they were conjoined. The pair of them rose from their squat when I slowed and pulled into the drive, and I saw them as they would be seen: Belinda, short and feral, ropey with muscle from working at the kennels, and Jan Allen, tall as a motherfucker, which she was now. Or she always had been.
“Jan Allen,” I said. “Belinda.” In the old westerns I liked to watch, cowboys greeted each other with names and nods, not pleasantries.
“Good to see you, Fitz,” Jan Allen said. My surname was her pet name for me. Until a year ago, the name had been hers, too, right up until it wasn’t anymore.
“Good to see you, too,” I lied. We both lied. It was the same now as waving ‘hello.’
There was a pause in the air as pregnant as we’d never been. Next to my ex-wife, Belinda stared me down, unblinking, the white of a sharpened canine in her snarl for me to see.
“I know I asked this last week, but is there any chance you’re ready to close?” Jan Allen asked. “We won’t have a buyer much longer if you keep doing this.”
“No?” I said. There would be a cigarette in my hands if I could just make them leave.
“Then like I said last week: go fuck yourself,” she said, gutting past me toward the rig. Belinda loped right in step with her, growling and looking tired and angry and fierce. I’d never smelled venom before, but the stink of hatred on her was something awful. “Let me know if you ever want to stop paying your half of the mortgage, you idiot.”
While I still had the old homestead, Jan Allen still drove our black truck, with the big payload neither of us would ever need. In the moment she and Belinda knifed past me, I watched as the girlfriend sprinted for the passenger seat, leaping up into it so she could keep hold of her hex on me, or whatever she was cooking. But Jan Allen climbed up behind the steering wheel like she was mounting a Clydesdale, and I remembered that we’d once been in love.
“I saw a bird die today,” I yelled to her. It was tough to get her attention over the V12 diesel, but I pressed on. “It was there one minute, funneling pasta, and then it wasn’t.”
“What?” she yelled, her window down.
“And I saw two teenagers with their hands in each other’s pants,” I yelled back.
Jan Allen killed the engine just then, squinting at me from behind her wraparounds. She and gun enthusiasts wore the same eye protection.
“What?” she yelled. “Goddamn it, what are you saying?”
And I missed this house, I wanted to tell her. I missed us.
“It’s been a bit of a day!” I yelled back. “I’ve changed my mind?”
Jan Allen and Belinda murmured under the rip of the engine. I saw teeth and consolations, saw promises being made. But then the driver’s side door opened, and my ex-wife led me into our old home in a perp’s escort. Strong arms, my old flame.
“This better not be a trick,” she said. “We’ve got a pot of fettuccine Alfredo waiting for us back home, goddamn it.”
I thought of Jan Allen and Belinda mixing cream and parmesan cheese in a saucepan until it blended together. Of cracking pepper over hot, flaccid noodles.
“If you’re serious, initial here,” she said inside the door, closing papers appearing from her vest. “And sign here.” Our hands touched at the knuckles. It was the most action I’d had in months. “And here.”
“Are you happy?” I asked, wondering if she smelled old smoke in the house. If she did, we’d have to pay for the cleaning. “With her?”
“I will be,” Jan Allen said, flipping the paper over. Our realtor’s card was at the bottom of the page, his photo embossed above the name. Red polo shirt, forearms big as Belinda’s. “Sign and date here.”
So I did. I watched Jan Allen force all the air out of her lungs. She flipped the water faucet on and off again. Like she was checking on the condition of the place.
“Gotta say, Fitz,” she said, “this feels good. Long time coming, you know?”
“I know,” I said, wondering why I gave up everything I loved without a fight. “I’m sorry.”
And my ex said, “What made you change your mind?”
“If I’m being honest,” I told her — and I wasn’t being honest — “it’s work. It’s Pity and the admins and the other faculty. They look up to me now. Like I’m their defense against Coach and the VPs. It’s a leadership thing, babe.” I watched her flinch at the old pet name. “As above, so below, you know?”
“Not really,” she said, shaking her head. Her mouth hung open, and I loved her for it.
“Do you remember dancing with me?” I asked. “Like we did that first night?”
I watched Jan Allen pick up the contract and shuffle the papers together.
“We had a good thing there for a while,” she told me, smiling. “But you know that’s over now, right? I’m not that person anymore.”
“I know,” I said. Outside, Belinda was honking the horn. One beep, two. Foot revving hard onto the accelerator for effect. A wild scream of “Let’s go!” sent out from the open window and into the neighborhood.
“Well, that’s me,” Jan Allen said, leaning toward the door. She was almost to the foyer, to the front closet that hid nothing but pipes and galoshes now. “Look, Fitz, once we close and you move out, you should start over. Maybe find someone new. Someone who likes dancing, you know?”
I used to dream of Jan Allen and I celebrating our 80th birthdays with cake and passion. We’d travel on cruise ships to Canada because that’s what people our age would do. We’d die within hours of each other — maybe from a gas leak — and our surviving pets would eat our unmoving flesh because they wouldn’t receive nourishment otherwise, maybe starting with our faces because that’s what they loved best. We’d love them back, though, and buy them premium kibble until the end.
“I ought to,” I said. “Sure I will. I’ll do that.”
Then Jan Allen got that look in her eye like maybe she believed me, maybe she didn’t. Like everything else I’d loved in my life, I’d given this away, too. But she nodded just the same, said nothing, then hiked back to the truck. As she revved away, I watched Belinda knife an imaginary line across her neck at me. I read it more as a note of separation from her and her lover, an end to things, less so a threat of death and great pain, and then I called Principal Coach because I knew what Belinda had meant.
The boys’ early practice was just finishing up as I kludged into work the next morning. I watched the football team stream down the hill after their laps, several of them puking into the grass and making yellow puddles of eggs or chewing tobacco, maybe both. Behind them, Six, Seven, and Eight rustled them down through the grass like cattle, and, overhead, I swore I could hear the gulls making hungry sounds and smacking their beaks in anticipation. They had the foul appetites of dogs sometimes, and I worried about the future.
“Glorious thing to see, Fitz,” said Principal Coach. He wore a black and yellow polo with a chaw packet bulge in his gums. Below us, the VPs wore the same dark shirts and bulges as Coach, like myna birds in the mating season.
As above, so below, I thought.
Coach continued, “To see these young men being whittled into war engines, you know?”
I didn’t. “Got a second?”
“I will,” Coach said. Then to the boys: “Shower up, dress out, and if I hear about your stench from anyone in first period, we’ll do burpees until you deflate. Understood?”
And then the Greek chorus of vomit-fresh voices: “Yes, Coach, sir!” Below me, adolescents rolled down the hill in waves, bile and hope on their lips, and the VPs clapped in time.
“Now what can I do for you, Fitz?” Coach asked.
I paused. Gathered courage from the ether. “I come bearing gifts,” I said.
“You hate teaching general Phys Ed in the afternoons,” I said, “the students hate taking it from you, and you’re pissed you can’t make them run drills like they’re your second string.”
“Watch your tone, Fitz.” Around us, the ground was soaking up the ovals of vomit and chaw.
“But I can do it,” I said. “I can take Connolly’s class off your hands.”
Coach laughed then, but he still rubbed his scalp with both hands as though he were honestly thinking about it.
“What would you teach?” he asked. “Because you didn’t letter in a damn thing in high school.”
“Dance,” I said, unfazed. “Ballroom. Swing. Not so much modern or ballet, but you know I’d get their growing hearts pumping.”
“But — ” Coach started.
“What I don’t know,” I interrupted, “I can learn and then teach the basics. I’ve played some ball, served some volleys. I’ve tagged schoolchildren with dodgeballs, and I’ve drawn blood. But this way, with dance, maybe I’d at least give them something I’m good at.”
Coach’s rubbing intensified. The folds of his neck, the bristles of his mohawk, the stubble below his mustache.
“So what I get is a free period in exchange for the faculty getting out from Thursday night games?” he said. “Is that it?”
“That’s the proposal, I reckon.”
Scalp to earlobes, earlobes back to scalp, scalp down to bridge of his nose in a slide of thick fingers.
“You’ll all be there for Homecoming, though,” he whispered, “and every game during the playoffs, if we ever make them again. Every single one. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” I said. “We hear you.”
Coach looked out over the fields then, and I followed his gaze. Gulls flew overhead and sought out trash. In my future, I saw the shakes of nicotine-free afternoons hereafter, the sweat of young frames on freshly waxed gym floors.
“For you,” Mr. Grigsby said, slipping a blue Swingline into my hands. He touched my shirtsleeve, rubbed it like a St. Christopher’s medal, and I watched him kowtow away.
Around us on the Tripeltrübel gym floor that Thursday, the least athletic of the eighth graders waltzed in uneven boxes. They stumbled over shoelaces that weren’t there, groped asses by mistake or on purpose, blushing either way.
Next came Mademoiselle Flaneur. “For you,” she said, nestling a Toblerone into my briefcase. She bowed as she left, and I nodded my benediction. The chocolate would be gone before final bell.
“Been like this all day, has it?” asked Pity, slipping in silently. “You and the flock?”
In the far corner, a blond waif of a boy slipped and fell while spinning his partner. The girl sighed, kept dancing to the 3/4 time signature I’d piped in overhead. Another girl from the bleachers swept in to take the boy’s place, to lead, but we could all tell who was twirling whom.
I nodded. “Gifts to staunch a wound after falling on a sword, I suppose.”
“What’d you say to Coach?” Pity asked.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Just made a trade, fair and square.”
Last in line was Mrs. Trapp, her fingers smudged with pastels. Today was an advanced session of nude figure drawing, and, judging from her state of undress, she’d served as both their instructor and their model.
“I made you a little something, Fitz,” she murmured, placing something in my hands. I felt the rough fabric of a cross stitch in a hoop, set in a balsam oval. “It’s nothing, really, but thank you.”
We watched Mrs. Trapp straighten and march through the center of the gym, head high between the whirling dervishes of tweens and teens, then out the door toward not a scheduled football game but somewhere else. A home, maybe. Hers.
Pity said quietly, “Lookit,” and I did.
There, in my hands, Mrs. Trapp had laid a pattern sewn to look like our school mascot, the Tripeltrübel Troll, outlined in black and gold, its hands dripping red arterial blood and holding a person’s severed and mustachioed head, possibly Coach’s. I couldn’t tell, really.
“Now that’s damn pretty,” breathed Pity.
“No, sir, it’s ugly as sin,” I told him. “But it’s yours if you want it.”
Featured image: Shutterstock/Ola Koval
Even in business class, with an empty seat beside her, Becca couldn’t sleep. She turned on the overhead light and read the conference materials, Tort Law in Transition, 1982-1992: A Transatlantic Perspective.
She hadn’t wanted to go to London. She knew she should be chuffed, as Liam would put it, being asked to stand in for a senior partner and speak about American class actions. It was March 1992; the partner’s typed notes rambled on about patients suing the manufacturer of faulty heart valves; female coal miners alleging harassment; Vietnam vets suing Dow Chemical for diseases from Agent Orange. Becca had little experience with class actions; she suspected she was asked because she spent her first six months assigned to the firm’s London office. A coveted gig, that one, too, even if in reality it was a glorified document review. It changed her life forever. While living there, she met Liam, at the London Apprentice Pub in Isleworth.
“Didn’t I hear you have an English husband?” the partner asked when he showed up in her office Friday afternoon. “He can go too, if you like. You’d only have to pay his airfare.”
Becca said her husband couldn’t miss work. The partner stared at the only picture on her wall — a Hogarth reproduction: a bewigged barrister on a throne, scrawny clerks scrivening below, scales of justice lurking in a corner. The partner was looking for a wedding picture or at least a photo of Becca and Liam engaged in some sport, standard décor for recently-married lawyers. But there was no photo of Liam, or of Becca either, only an empty space on the wall above her desk, where a picture-hook remained.
The partner didn’t know that Becca’s English husband had left her. None of the lawyers and staff with whom she worked knew. Nor did her mother, who had moved to Florida and barely knew Liam. Nor her best friend from law school, who lived in Chicago and worked crazy hours, like Becca.
Later than she should have, Becca realized Liam wasn’t coming back. After Liam had been gone two weeks, it was her birthday. She thought she’d hear from him. When Becca’s mother called from Florida, she was all excited about the play her drama club was doing, Moor Born, about the Brontes. She was playing Anne, the least famous, least creative sister; nonetheless, the competition had been fierce. “By the way,” she asked, “what did Liam get you for your birthday?”
“It’s a surprise,” Becca said. “For tonight.” Her mother asked her to report back. Becca knew she wouldn’t ask again unless Becca brought it up.
Nine months later, the opportunity to tell someone — anyone — was gone.
Liam left in June, at the end of his second year teaching science at Manhattan Prep in Yorkville. He said he needed time to himself after the intense push of proctoring, grading, and graduation. He’d gone off this way before, beginning when they lived in Isleworth. He always returned the next day, or the day after.
This time, days became weeks; weeks became months. She wondered if he had returned to London. His passport was missing. But if so, where would she begin to look for him? With his cousin Saul? The two didn’t get along. Becca and Saul were more simpatico than Liam and Saul had ever been. Their six months in London now seemed a dream, fleeting and unreal. Liam had introduced her to only one friend, a struggling actor named Trevor Thorn, who was heading to Australia to appear in an independent film. There were Aunt Lillian and Aunt Rachel, both around 80, older sisters of Liam’s father, who died of a heart attack at 65. Liam referred to his spinster aunts and his cousin Saul as “the Jewish side of the family”; stuck in the Old World, he said, even though born in Leeds. The aunts had lived together for decades in a small flat in North London. When Liam learned that Becca was Jewish, he said, “I have some people I’d like you to meet.” Soon afterwards, he took her to visit the aunts. It was as if his Jewish lineage, for once in his life, enhanced his standing.
Several times after that first visit she went to see the aunts on her own. During her time in London, they were exceptionally kind to her. Aunt Lillian, with her erect posture and stark white cap of hair, her take-charge voice, grasped Becca’s hands to welcome her to their flat. Aunt Rachel was softer, rounder, her gaze transparent and direct. She listened intently to Becca, nodding encouragement, as if she knew what Becca was going to say before she said it.
Then, on a Saturday when Liam was gone, Becca ran a fever. She tried to reach the London office manager, but couldn’t. Her heart and head pounded; the room spun. She phoned the aunts. Eventually a knock. Aunt Lillian directed the driver to a North London clinic, near the aunts’ flat. A nurse wheeled Becca into a room so white she had to close her eyes. Someone undressed her and put her in a hospital gown, hooked her up to an IV, although Becca had no memory of any of this.
Becca woke in the North London hospital and there they were: Lillian in a chair, Rachel fussing with a tray. The smell wasn’t the normal hospital smell. “The sweetness of the soup,” Aunt Rachel had explained one Friday evening, “is from parsnips. On Fridays the grocer saves some for me.” Rachel settled on the side of the bed and brought a spoon to Becca’s lips. “Warm,” she said. “Not scalding.” Becca didn’t know how long she’d been in hospital, how long the aunts had been there. She wondered where Liam was.
That time, he came home the next day.
One of the aunts had died in January. Liam’s cousin Saul had written to her about it. She and Saul corresponded a few times a year since she left England, even after she married Liam. They’d spoken on the phone, too, usually when she was in the office, working late. Sometimes they discussed their legal work (Saul was a solicitor, specializing in wills and estates) or items in the news. But the main subject was Saul’s involvement with the Jewish East End Society, which promoted the work of Isaac Rosenberg, a World War I poet. Becca majored in English in college and concentrated on early 20th century English poetry. Yet she had never heard of Isaac Rosenberg until that first afternoon in the aunts’ flat, when Saul showed up late, his voice breaking with excitement about the new installation devoted to World War I poets, including Rosenberg, in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. “This is rather childish,” Saul said that day, “but I got interested in Isaac Rosenberg because of his last name, same as ours.” He included the aunts and his cousin Liam in the sweep of his hand. “Turns out we’re not related.”
“My last name isn’t Rosenberg,” Liam interjected. His father had shortened it soon after Liam was born, erasing all evidence of his Jewishness. “From my research,” Liam joked, “Rose is a good Scottish-Irish name, dating back to 1273 and Thomas, son of Rose, of Cambridgeshire.”
The day before the flight to London, Becca called Saul from her office in Manhattan. She dialed his work number, expecting an answering machine. She would leave a message that she was coming for a conference. That was all. She didn’t know if Saul would want to see her, or what she would say if he did.
To her surprise, he answered. “Funny you should call. I was over on Finchley Road and came here to clear up some things. We were speaking about you. My aunt’s taking it hard. Her little sister’s death. I told her I had let you know. She was wondering.”
“I’m so sorry. I should have written.”
Saul said he would pick her up from the airport. She protested that she could take a taxi and get reimbursed. Rush hour traffic was horrendous, he said; he could navigate the arteries of London better than most.
She gave him her flight number.
“I’ll be there,” he said, and for a moment her heart lifted.
On Sunday, she went to the office of the Jewish National Fund to plant a tree in memory of Aunt Rachel. “It’s not simply planting memorial trees anymore. We have other options,” the woman said, hair in a bun, tendrils escaping, glasses on a chain around her neck. On the wall were samples of different certificates and before-and-after photographs of bare deserts transformed into woodlands; the blueprint for a water reclamation project. “Here’s one that might interest you. The certificate recites a line from Isaiah, I will make of the wilderness a pool of water. The donation will support a JNF-sponsored water project.”
Becca explained that the donation was in memory of an elderly Jewish woman who lived in London, and that the certificate would go to the woman’s sister. The JNF lady considered that information. “Of course, there are always the trees. The British love to plant trees in the Negev, whatever the occasion.”
At Becca’s office, the mailroom clerk told her she was in luck; normally the pouch didn’t go out Sunday nights, but there was a bond offering on Tuesday and some notarized documents were going by courier to the firm’s London office for Monday morning delivery. They would deliver her envelope to Finchley Road on Monday morning, too. She wrote a condolence note on the firm stationery, which she inserted in the envelope with the certificate. Dear Aunt Lillian: I was so sorry to learn from Saul of Aunt Rachel’s passing. I know how close the two of you were. I will never forget the kindness both of you showed Liam and me when we came to your flat. On the holidays, you made me feel like a member of the family. I’ve made a donation to the Jewish National Fund in Aunt Rachel’s memory — the certificate is enclosed. Love, Becca
She brought her envelope to the mailroom and put it in the London pouch, with instructions to deliver it Monday morning. She wanted her condolence note and the JNF certificate to arrive before she did, to make up for not acknowledging Aunt Rachel’s death earlier.
On the plane, she read the conference materials, which covered new developments in England and America; insurance; cases against public authorities; and mass torts. For the last day, they highlighted a provocative panel on Tort Law as a System of Personal Responsibility, which posed several questions. Shouldn’t a rational person protect against mishaps or injury when planning a future action? Isn’t the failure to do so responsible for any misery that ensues?
She thought then of Liam, the source of her misery. She had done nothing to protect herself.
The evening meal service began. Becca said, no, nothing for her, but the cabin was cold and the flight attendant urged her to have the soup, chicken broth with noodles. A surprisingly tasty soup, it made Becca think of the soup Aunt Rachel brought her all those years ago, when Becca was stricken with pneumonia and too weak to eat. Aunt Rachel spoon-fed Becca, her grey head bent over the task; Aunt Lillian urging her not to spill.
Becca took Saul’s letter from her briefcase. Reliable Saul, who would be there to meet her. She felt warmed by that as much as by the soup. “I’m sorry to have to tell you that Aunt Lillian has died. No one expected it and as you can imagine, Aunt Rachel is beside herself with grief.”
She read it again.
Surely that wasn’t right. Surely Saul was mistaken.
By her third reading she knew she had made the donation and had JNF print the certificate in memory of the wrong aunt. Aunt Lillian had died, not Aunt Rachel. The packet being hand-delivered by the firm’s London office was addressed to Lillian but Aunt Rachel would be the one to receive it at the Finchley Road flat. She would open it eagerly, longingly, wondering what it could be.
The first time she met the aunts, she and Liam were invited to Finchley Road for tea. She expected Earl Grey and biscuits; instead, there was sherry, followed by pistachio-encrusted plaice, crisp roast potatoes, fresh peas, and strawberries with condensed milk. Aunt Lillian led the conversation, questioning Becca about her work, her family, how she and Liam met. Becca described her walk from Richmond to Isleworth. She was tired, hungry, and thirsty, and there it was, overlooking the river, The London Apprentice, with swans from central casting. And Liam.
Eventually, the only sound in the aunts’ flat was spoons scraping plates. Becca said she would do the washing up; both aunts protested mildly, but a fleeting look passed between them. Liam, who lounged at the table, his long legs extended, his chair tipped back precariously, made no move to get up. She assumed his aunts wished to speak to him alone.
In the kitchen, over the sound of water running in the sink, Becca heard raised voices: Lillian’s: “sleeping with others” and “Sarita and Ned” and “he’s your son.” Liam’s “I told her.”
What had he told her? Was the her in question Becca?
Liam had told her he had a son from a prior marriage. His ex-wife didn’t permit him to see the boy much. When the boy was older, presumably that would change. “For now,” Liam said, “there’s not much I can do.”
The first time Liam disappeared from Isleworth for two nights, after his return Becca asked him whether he had seen Ned. “I’d rather not talk about it,” he said. She didn’t ask him again.
On New Year’s Eve, 1987, Becca was alone in the Isleworth flat when the aunts called. “Where’s Leo?” Lillian asked. “Isn’t he with you?”
“You mean Liam.”
“Well, he calls himself that now. But he was born Leo, and he’ll always be Leo to me. Where is he?”
Becca said New Year’s Eve was a rare time when Liam’s ex-wife allowed him to spend the evening with Ned, who was 15. He’d stay overnight in Sussex.
“Is that what he told you?” Aunt Lillian asked.
She must have dozed, because she woke suddenly when the lights in the cabin came on. Damp croissants, English butter, and tea were served. The conference materials were still in the seat pocket, open to the page about the theory of personal responsibility in tort law. Often the victim is in the best position to consider the potential harm that might befall her.
At Heathrow, as promised, Saul was waiting. He greeted her with a bear hug, with his warm brown eyes, with obvious pleasure. His beard was trimmer than she remembered; his curly hair neat and trim, too.
Surely the envelope addressed to Aunt Lillian had arrived, and Aunt Rachel had opened it. But plainly she hadn’t spoken to Saul yet. Saul was chatty and light-hearted in the car; Becca, anxious and wary.
She hadn’t wept on the flight but felt like weeping now. She hadn’t been hugged like that in a while. The damp mist of the London air held her in check, like the cold water she splashed on her face in the plane’s lavatory.
“Are you nervous?” Saul asked. She looked at him blankly. “About your speech? It’s an honor, isn’t it? To represent your firm. But probably nerve-racking too.”
Saul was right. She should be worrying about her talk, rehearsing it, anticipating the questions. Instead she was consumed with being back in England, without Liam; consumed with her mistake.
According to the conference materials, she couldn’t register at the hotel until 3 p.m.
Saul was delighted. “There’s a Rosenberg exhibit at the Imperial War Museum. We can go before you get busy.”
He had taken the day off to be with Becca. “Yesterday I told Aunt Rachel you were coming. She insists we come for tea this afternoon. It’s the most cheerful she’s been since Aunt Lillian died. You know Aunt Rachel. She’ll serve us something.”
At the museum, Becca tried not to think of Aunt Rachel’s inevitable distress. Rosenberg was a painter as well as a poet. In the trenches, he turned exclusively to poetry. He wrote from the view of the lowly infantryman about the lice that tormented them, the shrieking near-dead, the rats that traversed the no-man’s land between Englishman and German. The men shipping out:
Grotesque and queerly huddled
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
Becca read and reread his earliest war poem, written before he enlisted:
Three lives hath one life
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone
Left is the hard and cold.
Honey was love; gold was work. That much she knew. Iron was war, hard and cold. Becca stood before a photograph of Isaac in an ill-fitting suit, the jacket buttoned tight across his chest; his younger brother Elkon in army uniform, his arm flung around Isaac’s shoulders. Both Isaac’s brothers fought in the war too. Their mother’s calmest moments came when her boys were in army hospitals. But the hospitalizations didn’t last long enough – or at least not long enough to save Isaac.
“I love that photo,” Saul said. “The suit Isaac is wearing was the family suit. He and his two brothers shared it. But look how he and Elkon are smiling.” The photo was taken in September 1917. Isaac’s last leave.
Becca imagined how Isaac’s mother felt when she learned her eldest son had been blown to bits on French soil. His remains were never identified. He and the other members of his company who went out that morning were buried in a cemetery in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the authorities unable to separate the remains of one soldier from another.
All disappearances are not equal, Becca thought. How poorly she had dealt with Liam’s disappearance. How cavalier she had been about an aunt’s death – as Liam himself would have been. Had she simply thought, absently, one of them died, as if which one it was didn’t bear noting? She couldn’t remember.
By what pale light or moon-pale shore
Drifts my soul in lonely flight?
Rosenberg was 23 when he wrote that; not quite 28 when he died.
“Look at this.” Saul drew her to an oil painting, “Head of a Woman ‘Grey and Red,’” from 1912. “Quick — who does she remind you of?” Becca didn’t know. “Isn’t she like a younger version of Rachel? The soft mouth, the clear blue-grey eyes, paying attention, always paying attention, and the hair pulled back the same way.”
“She’s pretty,” Becca said.
“Aunt Rachel is too, isn’t she?”
Becca had never thought so. She hadn’t thought Rachel wasn’t pretty either. But then, she had never really looked.
Saul deftly navigated the side streets on the way to Aunt Rachel’s, turning to avoid the traffic jam near Hyde Park. That’s when she saw him, or thought she saw him. Liam. A tall man with flowing blonde hair, shoulders hunched, a grey tweed overcoat, walking fast. She used to tease Liam about that coat. “All you need is a pipe,” she’d said. “And a Deerstalker.”
“The hat, never. The pipe, who knows?”
The tweed coat was gone from the closet in New York. When Liam left he knew it wasn’t for a summer weekend. He knew. She followed the figure as long as she could. He had Liam’s limber gait and long strides. But traffic was stopped, with only occasional lurches forward and she lost him. Her stomach lurched too, with hunger, with loss, with the debacle to come.
Saul hadn’t noticed the man she thought might be Liam. “The other night when you called,” he said, “I thought it was to resume our midnight talks. We hadn’t had one for a while. It wasn’t midnight in New York of course. But I figured that was the reason.”
Becca was half-listening, wondering whether the man she saw was Liam. For a moment, she had no idea what Saul was talking about. Had she actually engaged in midnight conversations with Saul?
Of course. One night three years ago, long after she and Liam were married and living in New York, she was in the office at 11:30 on a Saturday night, working on an emergency motion. Liam was off somewhere. Part of her wanted him to return and find her gone, wanted him to wonder where’s Becca? The phone rang. She let it ring, but picked it up before it went into voicemail. Suppose the partner was looking for her draft? “This is Becca.”
First, silence; then, Saul’s voice. “I didn’t expect to find you. Just woke up. Can you hear the birds?” He paused, then continued, not quite coherent. “Our last conversation, the war poets. A new book. Going to leave a message.” His voice husky, the barely awake morning voice of a man before he turns to you, filled with desire. It was 5 a.m. in London. “I know attorneys work late in New York. But midnight on Saturday?”
And so their midnight conversations began. They continued sporadically after that, always when she worked late. Sometimes she initiated them; sometimes Saul did. Often they made her feel unsteady. A discussion of Isaac Rosenberg’s portrayal of Adam and Eve — a painting, not a poem — disturbed her dreams. Then there were lines from an unfinished verse play that Saul particularly liked: Aghast and naked, I am flung in the abyss of days. After Liam’s disappearance, abyss of days seemed a familiar, even comforting, way to think of her existence.
Once she and Liam had skipped up the steps of the red-brick Victorian. The building had white pillars and an old-world air even though it had been converted to flats. Liam had kissed her on the landing. Now four years later she climbed the same steps, trailing behind Saul. The flat was in the back on the first floor; a slim dark mezuzah of burnished metal to the right of the door. Saul rapped lightly.
“It’s open,” Aunt Rachel called. She sat on the dark green velvet sofa. Three places were set around an oval dining table, the soup bowls in a quaint country pattern, rose and white. The apartment smelled of chicken soup.
Aunt Rachel wore a long-sleeved dress — a soft blue-grey color — with pearl buttons. Her eyes were the same color, the color of the girl’s eyes in Rosenberg’s painting.
Becca spotted her envelope on the end table near the sofa. She saw the JNF certificate and her condolence note on the floor beside it. She saw the certificate’s artistic depiction of a tree, its sheltering branches, designed to provide comfort after a death.
Only Aunt Rachel hadn’t died. Her sister Lillian had. Becca expected Rachel to be angry or bereft or weepy. She expected her to tell her devoted nephew Saul about the carelessness or cruelty Becca had perpetrated. Saul wouldn’t find Becca’s mistake funny.
In fact, it was the kind of thing Liam might have done. A failure to pay attention, a feckless act bordering on malice.
“Becca!” Aunt Rachel said. “Welcome! How was your flight?” She stood up, grasped Becca’s hands. Becca replied that it hadn’t been bad. Her first time in business class, paid for by her firm.
“Aunt Rachel!” Saul said. “Don’t I get a kiss?”
“Certainly. But first I want to look at Becca. How are you? And how’s Liam?”
“Working as we speak. We both work a lot. Sometimes we barely see each other.” Her voice sounded plaintive, self-pitying, not what she intended. The lie was not what she intended either. She thought she could dodge questions about Liam. But instead she had lied.
“How does he like New York? Do you miss your little flat in Isleworth?”
Saul intervened. “You lived opposite The London Apprentice, didn’t you? If you have a free afternoon, the three of us could drive there for lunch. It’s a lovely spot.”
Becca wasn’t sure she’d be able to leave the conference at lunchtime. “It is a nice pub, isn’t it?” she said, glad to change the subject. The day she met Liam she’d been so pleased to find it, a beautiful location on the Thames, mentioned in her guidebook. She was tired and a bit lonely. A shadow, the late afternoon sun in her eyes. She looked up from her bread and cheese, her shandy. He asked if she came often to The London Apprentice. She said it was her first time. Did she know about the secret tunnel used by smugglers? “What did they smuggle?” she asked, meeting his eyes.
“Booty. Isn’t that what they call it? Mostly booze, I think. To avoid customs duties. After William Pitt abolished the duties in the 1780s, the smugglers lost ground. Proof that laws create crimes, not the other way around.” He was casually erudite as well as handsome.
Later, after they moved in together, she told Liam he didn’t need to tell her where he was going. The worst thing would be forcing someone to lie. For whatever reason. Even if what you were lying about didn’t mean a thing.
“Speaking of lunch at the pub, let me go warm up the soup. With parsnips. Becca’s favorite.” Aunt Rachel stood up with effort, more unsteady on her feet than Becca remembered. Becca saw how Aunt Lillian’s death had affected Rachel, reminding her perhaps of her own fragility, her mortality, her need to take care.
With Becca’s note and the JNF certificate to make things worse.
“You sit down and I’ll warm up the soup,” said Becca.
“But you must be exhausted from the flight. You shouldn’t have to do anything. You just arrived.”
Saul explained that they went directly from the airport to the Isaac Rosenberg exhibit, how Becca couldn’t check in at her hotel until 3 p.m.
“All the more reason Becca must be exhausted.”
“Ladies, I’ll take care of the soup.”
“A very low flame,” Rachel said.
Saul left them alone together. Instead of sitting back on the sofa, Rachel, without looking at Becca, gathered up Becca’s note and the JNF certificate. She brushed off some invisible dust and placed the items face down on some oversized books lying horizontally on a bookshelf.
She sat at the head of the dining table, summoned Becca to sit beside her.
Now was the time to apologize. But how to begin?
Rachel looked at Becca with the direct glance of the woman in Rosenberg’s painting. “Tell me really. How are things with Liam?”
It was as if she knew. Saul emerged from the kitchen carrying a covered soup tureen and a ladle.
“Saul, dear, there’s bread and a knife on the counter.”
Becca breathed in the sweet smell of the soup. She wanted to be quiet now, to sit and eat, but couldn’t. “Liam left me. Perhaps you knew?” Becca spoke rapidly, hoping to finish before Saul returned, but there he was with the bread, looking at her fondly.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Nine months ago. It was mid-June, end of term. He said he needed a break. But he didn’t come back, didn’t call. A week later,” she struggled, “a week later, a letter arrived from the school, confirming that Liam had declined to accept the contract for another year. It said that if he ever changed his mind and returned to New York, they would welcome him.”
There was no retreat, no graceful way out. Were they angry she had lied? That she didn’t let them know earlier? “You’re the first people I’ve told. Not even my mother, or my friends.”
“How could you stand it?” Saul asked softly. “Alone?”
She quoted Rosenberg’s lines to him, the ones he loved. “It was an abyss of days. I got through by working. I thought of telling you, Saul. I wondered if he had returned to England. Perhaps he missed his son, or didn’t like New York. Or me.”
“That couldn’t happen,” Saul said. He looked away, picked up an apple from a bowl in the center of the table.
“I remember how after the two of you met, when you were living in Isleworth, Liam disappeared sometimes,” said Aunt Rachel. “Aunt Lillian and I worried about it.”
“I know you did. The two of you would ask, how’s our wayward nephew Liam? And Becca, how are you doing? You tried to warn me.”
“We didn’t know what to think. We thought he loved you, as much as he could love anyone. But maybe it wasn’t enough.”
“I realize something,” Becca said to Aunt Rachel and to Saul. Saul of the midnight phone calls, Saul who was managing to eat an apple quietly — not an easy task. “I thought love was one thing, and now it seems to be something else. What I thought it was, was the absence of lies. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
All three of them were silent after that. Saul looked for a place to throw out his apple core. “Here,” said Becca. She took the core and went into the kitchen, tossed it in the compost, wiped her eyes on a dishtowel. When she came back, no one said a word.
“Thank you for waiting,” she said.
They sipped the soup and ate the bread. “This is as delicious as I remember, Aunt Rachel. And it’s reviving me, too. Like it did when you brought it to the hospital.”
“You remember that?” Aunt Rachel looked pleased. She took another sip of soup and put down her spoon. “You both practice law. How long does someone have to be missing before you can dissolve a marriage, or declare them dead?”
Saul nearly choked on his soup.
Becca murmured that she didn’t know.
Someone would have to look it up.
On the concrete wall along South Alameda, the imaginary beds pushed up against real ones. It was Deb’s idea to commission a local artist by the name of Skid Robot to give the formerly septic Row a makeover by spray painting murals of headboards and canopies sandwiched between floor lamps and windows on the cement slabs against which people resurrected their cots. “Homes for the homeless,” she quipped, when long-term residents asked what the hell they were doing with their aerosol cans and bandana masks. For a moment, they stood around and watched, waiting to see what magic would materialize. Fairy godmothers, after all, almost always took the form of well-intentioned White women. For her part, Deb performed no sorcery and made none of the pictures herself, but she did inscribe “Joy and gladness!” in gold script over one of her favorite paintings, a garish, Christmasy portrait of a four-post bed with antediluvian drapes.
All of this, of course, happened during her younger, dumber days, when she was still a practicing Catholic and I was a pair of grubby hands vying with God for her attention. As the third in line on her totem pole of an eventual eight children, birth order effects alone bode poorly for my life outcomes.
I lacked the luck and predestination to be Jo, the firstborn. True, his father, he who shall never be named, acquired the status of honorary ghost in family stories, one ever lurking but never acknowledged. But Jo managed to overcome whatever sins his progenitor bequeathed on him with his absence and fulfill his duty as the achiever, the most-likely-to-succeed, the guy who locked himself in a tool shed for three months straight at the ripe age of 47 for the sole and exclusive purpose of learning French of the West-African variety. For work, he said. Other DEA agents diddled on Duolingo during prolonged stays on the toilet to fulfill their requisite duty to pick up a few lines prior to their deployment, but Jo did not believe in embarrassing himself.
I also didn’t inherit the second X chromosome necessary to be Kat, born after Jo and the first (and only) girl of the family. Beautiful but chunky, she quickly learned to ignore the things that men said and instead attend only to what they were willing to do. As for the siblings that came after me, well, they had even less of a chance than I did.
By the time I came onto the scene, Deb was already on the way to sainthood. Motherhood made her ineligible to return to the convent of her adolescence — Catholics, for all their family values, appeared to treat piety and human attachment as mutually exclusive, so inflexible were the rules surrounding the celibacy of nuns and priests — so she turned her efforts to more forgiving avenues of service.
To this end, she stationed herself and the three of us children at the Ammon Hennacy House of Hospitality. In exchange for undiluted devotion and occasional volunteering, the Los Angeles outpost of the Catholic Worker provided free housing for both those that needed it — the homeless who tired of the unremitting elements of Skid Row — and those who wanted proximity to the homeless capital of the country without actually being homeless themselves. Like Deb.
The idea, of course, was beautification, anarchy, world peace — in no particular order. Deb had commissioned the murals and added her own inscription commanding joy and gladness during the advent leading up to our first Christmas at Hennacy at the corner of 5th meets Towne, where local businesses had erected a concrete barrier, a wall to make the most inhabitable neighborhood in LA less so. The more militant of our housemates accused her of attempting to gentrify the Row, one holiday decoration at a time. “Skid Row will always be Skid Row,” she replied, a nihilist despite her penchant for all things Christmas.
It was an ill-advised move, one that continues to haunt, as bad decisions are in the habit of doing. No one of us knew at the time how ironic the command to be glad and joyful would become. But we should’ve known. Didn’t God himself command men to rejoice precisely when they didn’t feel like it?
Joy and gladness; gladness and joy! Deb wrote these same words for the funeral we never had, for the boy we barely knew. It was a good thing too — she understood how it would’ve sounded coming out of her mouth, even though she earned her liberal card the hard way, through systemic devotion to every child except her own, and even to all the grownups, except the ones we would one day become.
Accident, tragedy, loss. These are the words she could’ve used instead. Suffering tolerates description but not prescription, no? How Christ got away with it remains unclear. If any of us knew the answer to this, one of us might’ve stayed faithful, a believer to the end.
To be fair, if everyone had obeyed her original graffitied command and indeed rejoiced despite themselves and their circumstances, the accident wouldn’t have happened. Deb tells me that is blaming the victim. She tells me this kind of victim-blame is precisely the kind of thing my kind of people are likely to engage in.
She nods knowingly whenever we discuss the past and disbelieves everything I say because I am her greatest disappointment: the son that became a Republican. I say I switched sides not because conservatives were any more believable (trust me, they’re not) but because she was the best liberal I ever knew and even she couldn’t save anyone, particularly the ones that mattered. The one that mattered.
His name I don’t remember, nor his exact age or disposition. On good days he shuffled across San Pedro to disappear into the asphalted lot of Ninth Street Elementary, whose two-storied structures and small windows resembled a rest-stop motel, albeit one dressed up in the kind of bright, happy colors meant to seduce and comfort children.
His father, on days he emerged at all, gopher-ed out of his pink tent, needle still dangling from the crook of his arm like an extra appendage, one he could not live without. He’d stretch and blink at the sun, accusatory.
“Just flyin’,” he’d say to passersby, who did not ask what he was doing. Deb knew better than to offer him anything but a hand. She kept clean syringes in her fanny pack and passed them out like Gideon Bibles, three, four at a time. Unlike the Bibles, people were relieved to take her alms.
Once the kid tapped her on the elbow and extended his palms to receive her needled rations. “You want a candy?” she said instead. “I want to fly,” he answered. She shook her head and called my name. “Luc,” she said. “Give this boy your sandwich.” I handed over my bologna and swiss, but could never shake the look of pity he gave me. A sandwich could never compete; this we both knew as well as anyone
How does happiness make you feel? The joy from a lover is not the same as that from a friend; a g-spot orgasm is not identical to a c-spot one; cannabis is not cocaine is not alcohol is not opium.
Of these forms of joy peddled, only one is a cure-all for everything. Take it enough, and it eliminates the problem of life itself. It’s hard to turn down a gift like that, even harder to refuse it once tried.
Opium, opioid, how beautiful thou art! A staunch flower, a devastating friend. A somnambulist to the end. God might’ve made the poppy as an extreme behaviorist experiment in how far people will go in search for a little escape, but leave it to the American doctors to pass it out in the name of pain management and the Chinese labs to take it to the logical next level in the name of Fentanyl.
A little yeast moves through the whole dough; a mustard, the smallest of all seeds, becomes the biggest tree. A few grains of magic can take you to Heaven or Hell, because magic does not come with dosage guidelines. (If it did, it wouldn’t be so magical, would it?)
Jesus take the wheel! Father Boyle cried this to his homies at the counters of Homegirl Kitchen, gunshot distance from Hennacy, and it worked; the Son of God could infiltrate gangs with his heart tattoos and lack of judgment and quippable platitudes. The toughest thugs in town had holes like everybody else, and Jesus offered to fill them in the place of missing rent checks and father figures, updated textbooks and properly trained teachers.
Deb tried to do the same, but divinity had already come in the form of jagged little pills and milky spoonfuls of moon dust. Shit that threw Tinkerbell out of the vernacular. Oxy made fairies obsolete. Whether the Lamb of God was immune to the new competition remained a question to be answered.
Once she tried standing outside the pink tent and speaking to the boy’s father through the shiny polyester separating life from death’s waiting room. “Your son,” Deb said, over and over. “He good,” the father replied. “Do it for him,” she said. She meant, stop it already; get it together. He must’ve thought she meant something else entirely. He must’ve thought she meant, show him how.
To blame Deb for what ultimately happened would perhaps be akin to crediting Taylor Swift’s Instagram bromide (“get out and vote”) during the last election season for voter turnout in the midterms, or attributing the excesses of Christmas to the depravities of Halloween. Maybe it was just a matter of time; maybe temporal sequence doesn’t imply causality. To her credit, she did make one more attempt at salvation before the accident happened — a supervised injection site, in the first floor of Hennacy, three blocks from the slums of the Row, stocked with volunteers and non-judgment. This was before Vancouver tried it, before Philly pulled it off. You could imagine the fire and brimstone that rained on the streets the day she took her proposal to city council. Housewives from Echo Park, business owners from Chinatown, retirees from Boyle Heights — they all came to protest what it would do to their housing prices and their clientele and neighboring cities.
They weren’t the only ones. The man and his son showed up to City Hall too. At one point, the child tapped Deb’s bullhorn while it was resting uselessly against her side. She gave it to him; he took it, lifted the receptacle up to his lips.
I wish he quoted William Brewer, even Edgar Allen Poe would do. Instead he said nothing, only laughed, smile stupid and unremarkable, as if tickled by the existential anxieties of the sober minded people invading his living room. We should’ve known then: it was already too late.
When a child dies, it is always a tragedy, no matter the circumstances. Only when grownups perish does the context matter; whose hand was responsible makes all the difference. The day the boy died, his father was there too, right up there with him in the clouds, searching for a place to land.
An opioid seduces, then sedates. It lulls you to an oblivion until you forget to breathe, and then don’t. Freedom that suffocates; isn’t that the irony? Some of us run toward life; others can’t run fast enough away from it and need a little extra help.
That weekday morning the father-son pair failed to emerge from their candy-colored tent. The sun shone, then blistered. School bells rang, then went silent. Deb waited until lunch to launch herself into their orbit, a decision she later regretted.
She tapped gently on the tarp, useless. She unzipped the flap halfway, as if caught in foreplay. “Good morning?” she asked, a stupid question. The air smelled wormy and damp, but forever the soldier, Deb kneeled and parted the polyester, in search of someone to save.
The two of them lay side by side, resting kings entombed in sleeping bags. On each, an arm, sticking out of the batting unnaturally; the father’s occluded the son’s. His appendage, all too familiar, bore the same needle; next to them rested the same spoon, still shiny and damp. An opened bottle of water lingered nearby, standing sentry, bearing testimony to what was.
Deb grabbed the father’s wrist, pressed hard in search of rhythm. Finding a descending adagio, she dropped it and bent over his sternum to get a second opinion. His heart confirmed what she suspected: a tempo approaching its final al fine.
She opened her fanny pack: more needles, a Motorola flip phone, a single syringe, its mouth blue, and hope in a jar, its letters and lid orange, like the sun, like the life it promised to restore, when administered promptly.
Deb considered her options. Dialing 911 was out of the question. EMTs took too damn long; LA traffic was unforgiving even when matters of life and death were at stake.Plus cops were loathe to visit Skid Row, and for good reason: nobody liked them, regardless of color or gender or age. Calling out for help outside the tent relied on the kindness and dexterity of strangers, which, for all her liberalism, Deb did not trust or believe in.
She turned to the man, bent her head down low to his cartilaginous ears. “Sir!” she cried, a last resort, magical thinking at its best. “Hey,” she yelled, suddenly offended by his indifference. She spanked him on the throat with her palm, hoping for a reaction.
Getting none, she reached for the syringe and its filial vial. The closest thing she had used before was an Epi-Pen for the two times that Jo, ever the prodigy, got stung by a bee and proved allergic. She carried the device because she herself was deathly allergic to soy and eggs, an unfortunate combination that made her unnaturally thin and preternaturally suspicious of things that entered bodies.
Still, she had studied the brochure and taken the class. Her options were big muscle groups — shoulder, thigh, butt — for quickest delivery of the antidote. Unlike CPR, she had never practiced on a dummy. But now was her chance to prove that heroism needed no practice.
When Deb finally administered the naloxone to the father, mouth agape, skin blanched, eyes already gone, she didn’t notice his son riding on the same train towards permanent solutions for temporary problems. She thought he was merely sleeping, a child, drowsy. He looked like he was looking for heaven; little did she know, he was already there.
The father, forced to deboard, crashed with a jolt. His high, now ruined. He couldn’t help but hate his rescuer, perhaps not that different from the ways the unsaved despise the evangelist. He did not thank Deb, not then, not now.
For her part, she rebuked him for his ingratitude. “I saved your life, you’re welcome,” she shouted over his tremors, cross. She looked at his son, hoping that in him she would be able to locate the indebtedness she was missing, but required for her efforts.
The boy, by now, was sleeping, of course, in a rest that he would never recover from. Those who wander sometimes remain lost. Did the father sense this upon waking? Did some primordial string knit their heartbeats together, such that the one slowed in the absence of the other?
Perhaps if he had borne the child from his own entrails, maybe if they were once connected by a precedented cord, he could’ve known, or suspected, that the demography of the world he awoke to was a different one that the one he fell asleep to — n minus one.
Deb, meanwhile, talked and talked, oblivious to the fact that she was now at a funeral, one in which she herself was delivering the eulogy, for a boy, barely a man, that she never knew but tried to help, except when he needed it, depended on it, and she, in her tried and true tunnel, could only see his innocence and not his loss, and in her blindness gave his lifeline to his father, who neither deserved it nor wanted it, a cardinal sin it was: throwing pearls to swine.
If this were a proper tragedy — one written by Shakespeare or God — the denouement would go here, the communal lament, the significance of a hero’s life lost. But our hero was no lionheart, just a spandrel, a byproduct of men’s irresistible temptation to reproduce, or modernity’s siren call, or children’s insatiable capacity to pay for the sins of their fathers.
So unlike the kings and prophets that preceded him, the boy in this story did not live long enough to learn anything and bequeathed nothing, not even to the man he left behind, who did not die but lived. The day Deb moved us out of Hennacy, he was still in his pink tent, flying solo. History teaches nothing; if it did, we might live forever.
Deborah, Deborah. The day the boy passed, I stopped calling her Mom. We became acquaintances instead.It seemed the appropriate thing to do. Over the years, Deborah became Deb. Now I do not call her at all.
After Hennacy came Nick, pink and handsome, then Ben, plucked from San Telmo and reborn in Santa Barbara, where Deb was starting her own non-profit, a hospice house for people who couldn’t afford to die on their own. She reconfigured her life, leaving the man who had adopted Jo and donated the seed for both Nick and me, then weakly smiled when Ben arrived on the scene. A restaurateur who believed that wives, like customers, were always right, he was surprised that compliance alone could not keep a woman, or at least a woman like Deb, who moved on quickly, in search of men who were capable of saying no. At an anti-apartheid rally at Occidental, she met a librarian who shared the same name as her first husband but surpassed him in his attitudes towards imperialists. Together, they erected a shantytown meant to resemble the Khayelitshas of Cape Town but instead approximating the makeshift aesthetics of the Row. But no matter; she said nothing, only watched as a young Barack made a sophomoric speech outside the administrative center urging the chancellor to divest from global racism. People forgot what he said but remembered him. Deb, for her part, wenthome that night with the librarian and stayed until she bore Max, followed by Dom. At 45 she left the librarian and married a homeless gentleman whose alcoholism could not compete with his charm. He gave her Mike. Between lovers and children, she greeted death regularly, protesting selectively over causes that involved dead bodies (Rodney, Tiananmen, Iraq, but not the Berlin wall, climate change, or the women’s march); with time, they became old friends.
They say killing begets killing, because suddenly you have something to atone for. One killing is problematic; two, less so, because doing it twice means it wasn’t so bad to begin with. Could that be why Deb became the patron saint of the dead and dying? Possibly.
These days, when I am alone during the holidays, and Christmas in particular — a frequent state of affairs — I drive along South Alameda Street without stopping. I call Dad but not Deb and we talk about anything but why. I do not ask him what he was thinking when he let his young wife take his younger children to try to save the world, or whether he was tempted ever to come save us. He, too, does not ask what we saw and learned in his absence; he does not wonder if those could explain a few things, like where we spend the saddest (or happiest, depending on who you ask) day in December. We talk and I drive without reading the signage left behind by people who knew not what they demanded or scanning for neon tents on the tarmac, in search of something to memorialize because the imaginary homes and gold lettering are long gone, buried under new paint bragging about old tribes, as ancient as memory, as divisive as time.
In their place, there is no vacancy, no room for the children they commemorated, for neither Jesus in his godforsaken manger nor the boy in his doomed pink tent, born two millennia apart to a world that did not know what to do with either, both destined to depart before ever seeing old age, yet whose brief and quiet tenures left something to be desired, an impossible gap, waiting to be filled, or maybe just remembered by those who knew them in one way or another, or at the very least, thought that they did, however imaginary this might have been.
On the morning of her 13th birthday, Yésica eats her Os in front of the television, where she also sleeps. If there is no soy milk, she uses orange juice, and if there is no orange juice, she uses water. The morning news is a house fire, a school board vote split five to four, killed soldiers from Fort Bragg, lead in the water, a cat that can count to 12, a recipe for persimmons, the forgotten fruit, a pill that helps people who fart a lot, the weather, and sports.
Five to four makes Yésica feel itchy. With it, she makes nine, then divides by three, which makes her feel smooth. Farters eat too much gluten, as is commonly known. “I am allergic to gluten,” Yésica tells the screen.
Her Os are made of brown rice and that is something viewers might be interested in knowing. The weather will be mild, with a 60 percent chance of rain in the viewing area this afternoon, the weatherman tells her.
The weatherman reminds her of Mrs. Pfeffelman, her Science teacher. Except the weatherman uses Maps, not Books. His black hair is flat and shiny as her mother’s painted fingernails. When Mrs. Pfeffelman talks about numbers or the winds or the way heat rises from the ground to make a thunderstorm, she makes the things she is talking about seem small, like a ball or a box of jacks. On her desk, Mrs. Pfeffelman has metal clothes hanger arms holding the planets and a yellow Styrofoam sun. When her finger pushes the Earth, around it goes until the arm squeaks to a stop.
Books have things Yésica can see, not truth. Books with a big B, like Benson, places people go just as easy as getting in a car. But truth has a small t, everywhere and nowhere, smeared on her skin like her mother’s lotion. A capital T in truth would be spiky and too green. The small t is sleek, a handle that fits like her hand on a hairbrush. Perhaps there will be rain, but it won’t fall exactly when or exactly where the weatherman says on his Map.
Yésica likes sports, but she can never wait for it. She has to leave for school at 7:55 a.m., the color of daffodils. Otherwise, everything turns grey and prickly.
After rinsing her bowl and spoon, Yésica picks clothes from her clean pile. She has five white Henleys and five pairs of black Bermuda shorts, with black cotton crew socks rolled in balls and her Converses, black, with black laces that she ties in a double bunny, tight as she can. Before she will wear clothes, her mother washes out the sizing, 10 cycles minimum. Otherwise, the fabric pokes her like puppy teeth.
If there are no clean socks or the power goes out or if the Os box is empty, Yésica screams. This is the way of things. The screams wake her mother, who comes in to brush Yésica’s arms and shoulders with a nail brush. When Yésica stops, her mother uses the lotion. Then the day can start fresh no matter what number is on the clock.
Outside, the sun is hot. Her bicycle has long handlebars and a skinny, black banana seat. Yésica’s mother bought the bike for 55 cents. 5 + 5 is 10, a blue number. The rubber handles have silver streamers, which Yésica trimmed into nubs. She calls the bike Torpedo, because that is what is written on the frame: “TORPEDO.”
Every school day, she pedals to the end of Megan Faye Lane, then makes a right onto Blossom Falls. Megan Faye is a dead girl. Mr. Hobson Goode found her in the woods where he planned to lay cement pads for new trailers. The name is his way of honoring her, he told Yésica’s mother once, and to make sure the sick son of a bitch who did it goes to the death chamber, where he will be pumped full of rat poison. Megan Faye died when she was four, which is 1 + 3.
Today, Yésica’s mother will bring confetti cupcakes and cranberry juice for a birthday party in class. But Yésica never gets to class. As she pumps the pedals, she sees something on the side of the road that wasn’t there yesterday: a shoe. The shoe is muddy and kid-sized. Over it, the bushes are green and dense, cut straight as walls with Mr. Hobson Goode’s brush hog. Her mother tells her, “Go straight to school on that bike or you won’t have it any more. En serio.” But her mother never talked about seeing a shoe.
Yésica lays Torpedo on the roadside gravel. Carrying her backpack, she sees a dim path that leads into a brush tunnel. Further in is another shoe: the right foot. Kid-sized prints lead away from the shoe. The mud is so wet that she can count toes: 5. 4 + 1 = 5. 5 + 5 equals 10. Clear as the blue sky, she hears an invitation.
She knows this path. It is the path to where Megan Faye died.
A squirrel chucks at her: chuck, chuck, chuck. She wants to throw a stone, but there is only mud and rotting leaves. The path leads in, then turns to the right. She finds a Jolly Rancher wrapper that is pink and twisted. Pink makes her sneeze. Against her thigh, Yésica flattens the wrapper, then folds it into a triangle so that only the white inner side shows. Three points, worth keeping. She puts the wrapper in her pocket.
Sometimes, boys fight in the woods. They build forts and smoke. Yésica doesn’t hear any boys, only her own breath and squirrels and the trail with its signs, whispering like a television turned down very, very low.
Yésica reaches the pond Mr. Hobson Goode dug out to get the dirt he uses to flatten lots before he puts in cement pads. The edges of the pond are red clay. Pine trees, their roots sliced through and matted, angle over the brown water. Once, a boy whose name she does not know fell in. He had to be rescued with a ladder. Yésica saw him climb out with his clothes coated in thick, green scum. Water rolled down his brown legs and she thought of ducks on TV, when they tip their butts in the air then come up again, shaking the water off. His shorts hung heavy with water and low, and she wanted to run her finger down his bared stomach, following the curve that started at the sharp points of his hips.
She didn’t. Yésica doesn’t like people touching her without asking. Even then, it hurts. Sometimes, she wraps her mother’s arms around her waist, just for a second, then flings them away again. If Mrs. Pfeffelman touches her, she bites.
Yésica hears spoons clatter in a metal bowl. A red bird with a pointed head perches on a branch. Looking straight at her, the bird squawks: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 times. Seven. Seven tastes like hamburger-flavored tofu, moist and meaty. Her cousin Brittany is allergic to soy and breaks out in welts if she eats it. Seven makes Yésica hungry, but since she isn’t in the school cafeteria, she can’t eat her lunch.
She keeps walking.
By now, she can feel Mrs. Pfeffelman wondering where she is. Science is first period. Soon, Mrs. Pfeffelman will call her mother. Her mother will say to Mrs. Pfeffelman, “What on earth are you doing waking me up from mi descanso?” and Mrs. Pfeffelman will say, “Yésica is not here. Where is Yésica, is she ill?” And her mother will call the police.
This happened before. But before, Yésica did not see a shoe or a Jolly Rancher wrapper or a bird speaking to her in 1s. She had never had a thirteenth birthday before. 1 + 3, she thinks, equals 4. 4 is mysterious, a house with no door. On the other side of the pond are more woods and more brush and the place Mr. Hobson Goode said he would never ever go again.
Yésica is going. The red bird flits over her head
Yésica sees a gleam of metal, then a grey curl of window screen. Propped against a tree is a doll, its arm pointing toward a small trailer. Again, spoons clatter. Spoon is an especially nice word. Spoon is the thing it means. Round and hard and cold. The n is the handle end, which she likes to press into the soft pad on her thumb. Yésica eats with the same spoon every day. Her tongue knows it as well as the insides of her own mouth. Her mother says she has her grandfather’s mouth, with a broad lower lip and a deep bow. Pucker-mouth, her mother says. Pucker up, when she wants a kiss. Pucker makes Yésica laugh. Yésica kisses the air, and with her hand her mother catches the kiss, slow as a moth, and swallows it whole.
The doll warns her: be careful. The doll’s eyes hurt her to look at, so Yésica follows where the arm points, at a stump with an axe sunk in it and wood chips sprayed over the wet ground. Next to the stump is a bucket with a hole. She counts 8 crushed cigarette butts. She hates the number 8, with its rotting, twisted smell. The year she was eight, she did not say a word, for fear the stink would crawl right up her words, down her throat and into her soul, which is absorbent as paper towel.
The day before her 9th birthday, Yésica wrote a note to her mother: “What time was I born?”
Her mother stroked Yésica’s plush snake, since she knew better than to touch Yésica without an invitation. “9:33,” she said.
“AM or PM?” Yésica wrote.
“AM. They swaddled you during the morning traffic report. Like a red sausage. Screaming you were as they took you away. Maybe that is why you can’t get enough noticias.” Her mother wore her Hardee’s shirt, deep blue, and her red nametag: Moni. The snake was named Moni, too. Yésica loved the color blue so much that she had to close her eyes and dig the spoon into her hand.
“Ha,” Yésica wrote. The next day, Yésica spoke at exactly 9:33 a.m.: a rounded, pleasing number, like the hood of a car.
Now she hears voices: a man and a muffled voice that could be a man or a woman. Neither voice fits a kid-sized shoe. The trailer is not like the one she lives in with her mother. Theirs is long and white, with a wood porch in front that Uncle Toño built and metal awnings painted bright blue. Her plastic blue pool is in front, too, with two white plastic chairs. The mailbox has nine plastic daisies at its base, yellow and white and blue, 3 + 3 + 3. This trailer is splotched with grey and sags, the hitch propped on cinder blocks. The rubber tires are sunk in mud. Yésica can see the tracks from where the trailer was dragged in. A black pipe pokes from one window. The screen door hangs off the frame. To one side is a metal barrel next to a pile of something smoldering. Old clothes and empty cans are scattered everywhere.
The voices come and go. The trailer creaks when the people talking move inside. Then Megan Faye is at her side.
“I knew you would come,” Megan Faye says. Her voice is thick, like Yésica’s mother’s when she wakes up.
“It stinks,” says Yésica.
“Stinks,” repeats Megan Faye.
Megan Faye wears a nightgown with a lace collar. The fabric is worn flannel, pink, so Yésica sneezes. Her ghost face looks as if someone has dragged an eraser over a pencil drawing. Megan Faye doesn’t smell like anything. The trailer smells like sick.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Eat nothing,” the ghost answers, “or you will never be able to go home.”
“I ate my Os.” Yésica remembers her backpack, heavy on her shoulder. “My lunch is in my backpack. Can I eat my lunch?”
“No,” counsels Megan Faye. “They cannot see me, but they can see you. There is a boy here who needs your help. His name is Brad Connor.”
Megan Faye vanishes.
Yésica doesn’t know any Brad Connor. Does Megan Faye want her to knock on the screen door and ask for Brad Connor? Why should she do anything for Brad Connor? She doesn’t want to touch the lopsided door, since it makes her skin feel like a rash. Yésica wishes that her mother were there. Yésica thinks carefully about what her mother might say. Here are things her mother says: keep the television sound low so I can sleep por diós. Go straight to school and come straight back again. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Be polite. Remember to say please and thank you. It’s like the 3 that comes after the 2, her mother says, or the square root of 16. It is one thing that follows another thing, something tú tienes que hacer.
√16. How beautiful, a number in its own tidy trailer, with a hitch. She has to say thank you, Mrs. Pfeffelman, or please, Mrs. Pfeffelman, may I use the bathroom. Then she has to wait, wait, wait! for the person to say yes. Mother says that people talk to people and wait for them to talk back. At work, her mother says please and thank you until she is blue in the face, she tells Yésica. This is what people expect. This is how people get along.
“Blue in the face,” Yésica repeated.
“Not really,” her mother answered. “An expression. Like green with jealousy or red with rage.”
Other times, her mother says things like Don’t talk to that man! or Get away! Once, a man stopped in front of the trailer while Yésica was in the pool. He rubbed his pants over his wiener. Yésica wondered if this was some sort of exercise. Then her mother, who had been hanging laundry, grabbed her arm and pulled her into the trailer. Yésica screamed, but her mother didn’t let go. Her mother got a blanket and Moni, the plush snake, and wrapped the two of them tight as presents. Eventually, Yésica stopped and her mother got the lotion.
As she is wondering about Brad Connor and what her mother would say, a man leaves the trailer. His hair is long and grey. He wears a black t-shirt under a flannel shirt. She sees the ridge of his jaw bone and how his collar bone juts out and how the bones of his knuckles are swollen and creased in dirt. He lights a cigarette. Then he takes a long drink from a can of beer. Yésica smells the beer along with sweat and something else, like the chemicals under the kitchen sink at home. The man squints at the sky, then looks straight at her, crouched in the bushes. But he doesn’t see her.
He is 11, sharp as sticks: Stick Man. But Yésica thinks, no, that can’t be, there is no 9 or 10. There’s no order, and tú tienes que hacer. Then she remembers: Megan Faye has 9 letters in her name. Brad Connor has 10. Stick Man is 11. Twelve is tricky, since it separates the single digits and what she thinks of as true teens, where numbers get tastier, but also more dangerous. Of course, she is 13. Then she thinks: truth and its handle. Thirteen. The letter t. Torpedo. The truth is inside the numbers and the words like cream in a cream-filled doughnut. Something is about to happen and she is at the center of it, waiting.
A chain clanks. From behind the trailer comes a creature. Yellow eyes dig straight into her and she shudders. A low growl seeps from its mouth. The black and brown fur over its ribs form the number 12.
The hairs on Yésica’s neck rise and she stops breathing.
“Shut up, Brutus,” Stick Man says.
“You must find a way to distract it,” whispers Megan Faye. The ghost stands next to her, cradling the doll.
Megan Faye is gone again. This must be the way with ghosts, Yésica thinks. Just as people need her to look them in the eye and say words back, even if the words are stupid and obvious, like “Good morning” on a sunny morning or “Have a nice day!” when there is no way to change the kind of day a person will have, ghosts come and go as they please. Tricky as 12s. Her mother would tell her to be polite. So she must find Brad Connor and at least say hello.
“Get in here,” a voice from inside the trailer shouts.
Stick Man drops the can and crushes it beneath his boot. He goes back inside the trailer.
Brutus growls again. Yésica starts breathing and Brutus’s eyes narrow, needles on her skin. Stick Man and the other person are shouting. Yésica’s stomach rumbles. She has it: lunch. Yésica pulls her lunch bag from her backpack. The lunch bag has Velcro tabs, padding to keep food cool and a compartment for her sandwich, spelt bread with barbecue tofu and shredded carrots. There is an Ambrosia apple, chocolate-covered cranberries and a box of chocolate soy milk. Yésica pulls off a piece of tofu and throws it at Brutus. The dog’s jaws snap in the air. She throws another and another. Brutus does not look at her anymore, only at the flying tofu. So Yésica throws the whole lunch bag as hard as she can. Brutus catches it and drags it beneath the trailer.
For the first time, Yésica notices a pile of rocks under some low bushes near where Brutus had been growling. A stone is wedged over a gap. When she rolls the stone away, she sees steps cut out of the red clay. In the blackness is a bare foot, pale as a mushroom.
“Brad Connor,” she says.
The foot twitches.
“Hello, Brad Connor. Good morning, Brad Connor. How are you today?”
Yésica picks up a twig to touch the sole of the foot. It twitches again. “My name is Yésica Fernández. Today is my birthday. I am 13. I have come to get you.”
The foot disappears. In its place is a face. A boy’s face, streaked in green and brown and some wet red. “I can’t,” the face says. “I’m tied.” The boy crawls out. She sees that a rope is wound around an ankle. The rope is tied to the same stake as Brutus.
Yésica is excellent at knots, patient and strong-fingered. She is careful not to touch his skin as she works off the rope. Still, the boy does not get up.
“Brad Connor?” she says, looking off his shoulder so as not to get trapped in his swirling eyes. He holds out his hand. Her skin crawls but she can’t look away. His eyes are blue. “Help me up. I can’t stand alone. I’ve been in there three days. I’ve pissed myself,” he finishes, licking his filthy lips.
He stinks. He cannot stand without her. She puts her left thumb pad in her mouth and bites. As she does, she reaches out with her right hand. He grasps it and she pulls. His fingers are like worms and as shivery. Brad Connor has no clothes. She bites her hand harder, until she tastes her own flesh. Then he is beside her, still hunched but standing, his arm on her shoulder.
Megan Faye claps. “Hooray!”
“Who in Hell are you?” Stick Man is standing at the trailer door, his mouth hanging open. Instead of teeth, he has glistening nubs. “Marsha, get the fuck out here.”
From the trailer, a thing emerges. It has the body of a woman, but the face is a machine, with a black box where the mouth should be and goggles for eyes. Red patches crawl up her arms and down her bony legs. “What the fuck,” Yésica hears, as if from far away.
“What the fuck,” repeats Stick Man. “Boy, you get back in there.”
“No,” says Brad Connor. Yésica is whimpering with the weight of his arm, and her tongue tastes her own blood. She sees his wiener and the curve of his belly. He is not the boy from the pond. She has never seen Brad Connor before. She knows her mother would want her to hold Brad Connor up, no matter how much it hurts. No one has ever written that in a Book.
“Let’s go,” Brad Connor says to her.
“You’re not going nowheres.” Stick Man grinds his cigarette into the mud. “You are going to take your punishment.”
“Cocksucker,” says Brad Connor. “You are not my Dad.”
Stick Man steps up to wallop the boy with his fist. Brad Connor ducks, and his arm whips from Yésica’s shoulder. Yésica can finally take her hand out of her mouth just as Megan Faye spreads her tiny, razor-sharp wings. The ghost lifts up and thrusts a tree branch at Stick Man, who jumps back. Brad Connor runs.
“This bitch.” Yésica sees the woman’s face now and knows that she should say something. But the woman doesn’t wait for her. “I’ve a mind to … ”
Now truth is too big and tricky as a tornado. Yésica doesn’t know what comes next or what her mother would say or even where she should put her hands, so she whirls them. She wants to count washing machine quarters and stack them in piles or roll in the fall grass when it is toasted and sweet, like Crackerjack, or draw the blanket tight around her shoulders and listen to the weatherman talk about the high-pressure system just off the coast. There are some truths that have no words or numbers at all. Here is one: boys are not to be buried in the ground.
“Hello, Brad Connor!” she yells. The squirrels chuck madly, as if agreeing with her, and the red birds squawk in perfect 7s, surrounding her with invisible thorns.
The woman runs at Yésica, and Megan Faye’s eyes grow circular and vicious. Without warning, the ghost slices her wings at the woman’s scrawny neck. At first, the woman ignores her, as if the wings are just flies or Yésica’s own screams. Her hand closes around Yésica’s arms and Yésica screams even louder. Just as the woman starts to shake her, Yésica hears the woman gasp. The woman’s hands fly to her own neck and claws. She gurgles. Megan Faye batters her from behind, and Yésica learns another truth: there is no escaping a ghost’s fury. Yésica sees no blood, only the effects of a slow spread of nothingness in the woman’s lungs. Yésica takes her two hands and pushes the woman away.
“Lord have mercy,” the woman gasps. She bends, then topples over.
The squirrels chuck-chuck-chuck as Megan Faye swallows every bit of air around the woman. Brad Connor lifts a pair of filthy shorts from the ground and pulls them on.
“Water!” Stick Man cries. He kneels beside the woman. “Marsha, what the fuck? Where’s your inhaler? Girl, get you water for her!”
Yésica always does as she is told. She enters the trailer and sees a sink and a cupboard. The woman had been cooking something, but it is not food. The stink makes her eyes water. Beside the sink is a chipped and cracked glass. She can’t bear to touch it. Instead, she grabs a paper cup with “Hardees,” like the ones on her mother’s name tag. Yésica fills the cup and brings it to Stick Man.
“Here,“ Yésica says to him. “Here,” she repeats. Still he doesn’t respond. “Tú tienes que hacer,” she says. But she might as well be a ghost. He pays her no attention. She sets the water down, and it tips over. He doesn’t seem to care.
Brad Connor is gone.
Megan Faye is back to her original size. She sits on the stump where the chain holding Brutus is attached to a metal ring. Brutus is still under the trailer, ripping Yésica’s lunch bag to shreds. Megan Faye sucks her thumb.
“Why did you hurt her?” Yésica asks.
Megan Faye doesn’t answer.
Stick Man weeps. The woman curls on the ground as if asleep. “She never hurt no one,” Stick Man is saying. “That boy is bad to the bone. Stole. Hit her. Little cocksucker. Now she’s dead and all because of him.”
“Brad Connor was tied up in the ground,” Yésica is saying, more to herself than to him. “He was dirty. He had no clothes. He pissed himself.”
From the place where she left Torpedo, Yésica hears her name. Hobson Goode is the first to enter the camp. After him come three policemen. They talk into the black radios they wear on their shoulders. One of the policemen comes up to Stick Man, who is slumped beside the woman’s body. Megan Faye is gone. The doll sits against the tree, its arm is in its lap.
Then her mother appears, still in her PJs and barefoot. Yésica tells her mother about Brad Connor. She shows her the cave. He had no clothes, she says, and his legs were shiny with pee. She doesn’t tell her mother that she saw his wiener because her mother has gone white as Brad Connor’s mushroom foot. She wishes her mother would explain, but then she remembers that she threw her lunch bag to the dog and the dog has eaten it. Maybe her mother is angry about the lunch bag. Yésica is always losing them and if it’s not one thing it’s another, her mother says, and she should be more careful and money doesn’t grow on trees goddammit.
Yésica says she is sorry about the lunch bag. She will buy a new one with her allowance. Her mother shakes her head, shakes and shakes. Then her mother says, well, let’s go home, you are probably hungry. And she is.
Yésica walks behind her mother, placing her feet inside her mother’s footprints. Torpedo is just where she left it. She rides it home, then sits at the kitchen table to wait for her mother to arrive. Her mother makes her soup and gives her a confetti cupcake. Yésica hears her mother call in sick.
Truth is exhausting. Yésica has had enough for one day. Yésica rinses her bowl and spoon, then curls up in front of the television and falls asleep in her usual spot. A tap tap tap on the roof announces rain.
Brad Connor is on the news that night, boy rescued by local girl. “What a story!” the weatherman says before he talks about the high-pressure front approaching the viewing area. They show a picture of the boy, clean-faced and smiling. Yésica wouldn’t know him except for his eyes, which still hurt to look at.
The next day, while Yésica is at school, Hobson Goode hauls the grey trailer away. Although her mother forbids her to go to the pond, Yésica starts to sneak away when her mother is at work. She is careful to hide Torpedo in the bushes, so no one will bother her and her mother will not take the bicycle away.
They continue to meet. Megan Faye rarely speaks. She doesn’t have to. She and Yésica understand what happens in the woods. One thing follows another and tú tienes que hacer. The squirrels chuck and the birds speak in sevens as they hop from branch to branch. Even when it rains, the animals take the bits of bread and tofu Yésica throws, always hungry for more.
She was sitting up when I got into her room in the hospital and she turned to look at me, surprised to see someone, and I walked up to her bed and it wasn’t her. It took a minute for me to realize it. She looked like herself, her face and her body in the bed, except for her expression when she saw me. It wasn’t the way she always looked at me. She looked at me and she smiled, politely. That was the first moment of something impossible.
I had stepped right up to her bed and gripped her hands in mine before I stopped to wonder at that odd smile. My voice came out thin and wavering, startled when I expected to be glad. “Margaret?”
She looked at me, serious and sad at once, and said, “What? No. No.” After a pause, she added, “Where am I? What happened? Who are you?”
Amnesia, I thought, it had to be. She couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t remember a thing, couldn’t remember me. That happens when people hit their heads. I’ve read about it, and seen a movie about a character who forgot his life and had to get it back. Sometimes they end up remembering, as they heal. I thought, I hoped, that Margaret had just left her mind for the time being and she was lurking in the crevices of her wounded brain, waiting to come back and recognize me. It didn’t occur to me that something else might have happened in her head, that somebody else might be there.
I gripped her hands tighter and I said, “It’s me, sweetheart. You don’t recognize me? You don’t remember? You had a bad accident but you’re okay. You’re going to be fine.” I think I went on for a minute or two longer trying to be reassuring, listening to the tremor in my own voice and the rasp of her breath against the stifling air.
She shook her head when my words trickled to a stop, and she winced with the movement. She said, “I’m sorry.” Her face was so calm when she looked at me, and that’s when I started thinking that something was so different that I didn’t recognize what was happening at all. I kept my fingers wrapped around hers. Margaret wasn’t calm. She snapped and sniped at every little thing. She complained about the people at work or my messiness, and her words were sharp. They made me laugh until she laughed too, reluctantly, but we always ended up either bickering or laughing. She was never calm or still like this.
She didn’t apologize, not even when she’d done something wrong. When she ate my leftover Chinese food or forgot to pay the electricity bill, the most I ever got out of her was a shrug. She didn’t say sorry and she didn’t expect me to. This version of Margaret was apologizing even though she was the one hit and pummeled and sleeping in a hospital bed alone for too long a time. There were lines pressed into her forehead — she looked worried about me.
My mind was racing, weaving over and under this thing that had happened until it was all wrapped up in confusion and fear. I kissed her on the forehead, like a child, before I turned away. I left the hospital that night just like I had the first night after the crash, with the collision still shattering my thoughts and anxiety in little sparkling shards that dug into me all night. The train ride back was painfully long and slow, like the train ride there had been. Then, though, I’d been so eager to see my Margaret, to see her eyes open. On the way home I kept seeing her face in my mind, in its innocent unknowing. I’d expected a gasp of relief and the electricity of excitement.
The next day, luckily, was Saturday. I woke up and went straight to the hospital, so hurried I forgot to brush my teeth and cursed my sour breath the whole way over. Margaret was sitting up, smiling at the nurse who was taking away breakfast. She turned her head, cringing a little, to smile at me just as she had done the day before. It was so strange that I stopped there, in the pastel doorway, and looked at this lover I didn’t know at all.
When I walked up to her, she seemed pleased to see me again. Her whole face was happy, her eyes bright. I’d never seen her look quite like that. I said, “Margaret,” in a kind of curious croak. She shook her head again, gentle this time, and her smile turned rueful. I said,
She sighed, and there I saw a trace of my Margaret. That rhythm of breath was familiar to me. The inhale stretched the delicate lines of her throat and closed her eyes. The exhale seemed to take all the air from her body, and she had to gulp in more. When she sighed I felt my own chest burn as though my air were gone too. The cadence of her sigh was the same, and that linked my old Margaret to this new and strange one. Then she spoke and I noticed, for the first time, that her voice had changed. There was a new lilt to it. She said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t know you, though, and I don’t know this place. The last thing I remember is going somewhere, to the market I think, with my brothers. I don’t understand what’s happening, and why my hands are so pale and my voice so high. I sound like a stranger to my ears.”
She sounded like a stranger to me too. Margaret didn’t have a brother, and this was not her voice, these were not her words. This woman pulled on her words in a way that my Margaret never did. She talked like somebody I’d never met. She was quiet, and careful with her speech, and she was terribly frightened. I sat by her bed, holding my hand over hers, and didn’t know what to say.
An hour later I said goodbye, and her face fell. There were familiar lines between her eyebrows, ones I recognized, snaking their way into her skin with worry. I clasped her hand, pressed too hard on her fingers, and I left. There was too much confusion gathered in my mind, a great spiky jumble of uncertainty that pricked and pulled at me the whole way home, and for most of the night too. The question that came to me, after a long while of tossing and turning and trying to get away from the anxiety that clung, seemed so obvious I was surprised at myself that it hadn’t occurred to me sooner. There was somebody else in Margaret. Presumably something like the crash had happened to this strange person from far away, with her voice that rose and fell like that. If she was here, in Margaret’s broken body, then where was Margaret?
The next night my anxiety wore all the way through me. My words bit at her with an edge I didn’t mean to put in them. “I don’t even know who you are, and I want my Margaret back. Why are you here? Who are you? God,” I said, standing and pacing, “I don’t even know if she’s still alive or anything. God.”
The fear came back to not-Margaret, her eyes wide and staring at me, but there was pity in them too. I think that’s what broke my heart a bit. That pity cracked me open. It’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, sitting at the bedside of the person I loved and missing her with a deep unending ache. I sat looking at her face and wishing she were there, watching some stranger look at me with pity through my lover’s eyes. Everything felt heavy then, and I thought my Margaret might just be gone. I put my head down on the squeaky mattress, closing my eyes against the glare and the linoleum. After a bit, not-Margaret traced timid fingers through my hair.
I stayed like that, feeling the warmth of her hand on my skull, until visiting hours were over.
Those quiet visits must have lasted for more than a week. I came and held not-Margaret’s hand and we looked at each other, lost in ourselves. Sometimes I played a song for her if it was stuck in my head, or brought her the paper or maybe a book. A couple of days I sat by her bed and flipped through the book I was reading or a newspaper, nudging her every once in a while to read something out loud. She would tell me which phrases struck her, and her voice would halt on some syllables as though words were unfamiliar. For that first week or so, we spoke in words that weren’t our own, and the words belonging to us stayed pushed down and silent. Then we had a true conversation.
She said, “Tell me a story about Margaret.” Her own name from her mouth, in her strange voice, hung like ice in my chest.
I drew in a breath and said, “Okay, let’s see. So Margaret’s best friend is named Jenny. She actually was a friend of mine in college, we almost dated for about two seconds, but we didn’t and then when I got together with Margaret I introduced them, and of course Margaret stole her completely.” Talking about her while looking at her face as if she were not there felt like something that happened in the dreams that slip into early mornings, half-dozing before you wake and realize that it makes no sense at all.
“We sometimes had Jenny over in the mornings on weekends, for breakfast. Margaret used to have breakfast with her mom, you know, after her dad died. I guess you don’t know, actually. Anyway, her dad died when she was 12 and her mom’s the distant type. They made French toast on Sundays though and they had kind of a ritual about it. So Jenny sometimes comes over and the three of us make French toast. I think Sundays are one of the few times Margaret is really content, peaceful, you know? She sort of lives in a state of perpetual stress but when Jenny is there it’s easier. She said, sometimes, that she was making her favorite meal with her favorite people.”
My throat hurt, talking about Margaret. I missed her, and missed seeing the way she shook when she laughed, as though she was trying to hold the mirth in and it burst out of her anyway. Jenny made Margaret laugh more than anybody else. I swallowed past the ache and kept talking.
“She and Jenny would play pranks on me, or make very complicated jokes that I didn’t get, or something. This one time they both, I guess, decided beforehand, and when Jenny came over they spoke French for the entire time. So they spent literally three hours, making breakfast and talking in French over my head and cracking up because they were being ridiculous and making up words and probably making fun of me while I understood about every tenth word they were saying.”
Not-Margaret laughed, and her laugh was not Margaret’s. It was lovely, though, one of those trills of sound that makes a person want to smile. It made me ache, deep and dull in my chest, for the unfamiliar beauty coming out of the person I loved.
I couldn’t pull out any more words, but not-Margaret saved me. She told me a little bit about her brothers, both older. She said, “They make me laugh the most, though they only let themselves joke about half the time with me. They could never make up their minds whether they wanted to tower over me and be scary or whether they wanted to be a big wall in front, making sure nobody else could get through to hurt me.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I have a little sister and I switch between being annoyed and being protective, that’s just part of being siblings.”
Her mouth twisted then, half-amused and half-wistful. “Either way, they were always around me. I always felt small beside them, threatened or safe, I was always small. Even now my brothers — ” She stopped talking, her breath whisked away.
She set her jaw and blinked hard, like a child trying not to cry. “They’re still protective and scary. We were going to the market, I think, walking along and they’re still trying to keep me out of the road. There weren’t any cars the way we were going, I was dancing all around and they’re torn between laughing at me and yelling at me, trying to get me to walk in a straight line out of the way.”
We looked at each other then, and the silence stretched between us. Her eyes were steady on mine, and finally she spoke. “I guess it’s a good thing I’m here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “I mean, not that I’m in someone else, somewhere strange. You know that’s not what I mean. But if I had to be changed like this, however long it goes on, I guess it could be worse, right?”
“I guess,” I said. “Anyway. I should probably get going sometime soon.”
She shook her head, mouth tightening. “No, don’t. It’s early yet. Stay and talk to me a little while longer. Please.”
I stayed, her hand warm in mine and her voice lilting and laughing at me, until visiting hours ended and the nurse came around to kick me out.
Every once in a while, I forgot that she had been Margaret. The person looking at me from her eyes wasn’t Margaret. It got easier to think of them as her eyes, not Margaret’s eyes. They were the same color, they didn’t change, but they stopped looking like Margaret. They didn’t have Margaret’s glint of mischief, they just looked at me plainly. After a time, I looked at her without really seeing Margaret at all. I just saw her, for all that her eyes were a familiar shade of hazel and her face was written in lines I’d memorized over and over, shadows whose shapes were pressed in my mind in all their shifting patterns.
We got comfortable around each other. I stopped talking about Margaret, comparing them. It felt like we talked for ages. I visited every night, mostly until I had to leave, and it was a lot of nights. There was some complication with blood clots or something, and then they worried about something else. A bundle of health problems appeared. They all spread over Margaret like ink on a wet page from that one car crash that had blotted out her mind, staining her with somebody else’s bright colors. She stayed in that hospital bed another week, then another. It felt like a long time.
Once I walked into the hospital room to find Jenny sitting beside Margaret’s bed. They were talking quietly, and Jenny started when she saw me. She let go of Margaret’s hand and stumbled over her words for a minute, and then got out, “Good to see you, Margaret. I hope you feel better. I’ll just leave you two alone then.” She put her hand on my shoulder and left it there for a moment before she left. I wondered if I was imagining the hesitation that trembled on her fingers before she retreated and fled the hospital.
I sat by not-Margaret and asked her what they had talked about. She answered me, “Not so much, really. She asked me many times how I was feeling, how things were going, that sort. She talked a bit about her husband, her job, other friends I think. I told her many times that I was all right but still shaken, and that you’ve been wonderful and have visited me near every day.
“She looked a little confused at that, would Margaret not have said it?”
I shook my head. “I doubt it matters anyway in a situation like this, you can’t predict how people would act. Right? But you don’t think she could tell?”
Not-Margaret’s lips curled. I could see the laugh she was holding in her throat. “To tell the truth, I think she mostly talked so much she barely heard me. You were right, she is funny. And I tried to act tired, nothing else. Also, a nurse came by and said that they only needed to keep me here one, maybe two more nights.”
I sucked in my breath and sat quiet for a minute. Neither of us knew what would happen if — when — Margaret was released from the hospital. Not-Margaret had never been to our cramped apartment. She’d never sat swinging her legs from atop the tiny kitchen counter, or lain in our bed buried under the pillows and blankets overflowing to the floor. I think we were both afraid of what would happen then. There wasn’t anyplace else to go.
“Okay,” I said finally, letting my breath rush out in a gust. “I guess then we’ll go home.”
We looked at each other, wondering what that meant.
On Friday afternoon I took not-Margaret home, back to the apartment I’d shared with Margaret. I held her hand as we got on the train and she leaned against me. We jounced and jostled in the hard plastic seats and the curve of her forehead bumped closer into the crook of my neck with each toss of the train. It should have been familiar, but it sent tension arching in my bones and curling my fingers. When the train slowed at the first stop, I shifted a bit to put my arm around her. She started to withdraw as I moved, but settled back against me. The slap of footsteps and murmur of voices registered blurrily, at the edges of my mind. For that twenty-minute train ride, for every jerk and rattle that shivered us together and apart again, it seemed that my whole being was concentrated in my arm braced around her and her warmth nestled against the indent of my shoulder.
When the name of our stop crackled from the speakers, I stirred, and nodded at not-Margaret. She nodded back, her face pale and her lips pinched. I should have told her which stop we were.
Everything looked different now that she was here. The kitchen was small and dim, the sofa was nubby, and our bedroom was a hasty mess of sheets and laundry. The sun was sneaking away and left dingy light scattered across the floor. Not-Margaret wandered the apartment. She sat on the nubby sofa, and opened the drawers and cabinets. I cooked. She sat on the bed, cross-legged and patient. I waved her into the kitchen when the pasta was done, and we were quiet while we ate. Our eyes met over mouthfuls of spaghetti. It was somehow comfortable. We finished and talked for a while. She told me stories about her brothers and her friends. I laughed, and the bright loud sound surprised me.
Soon it was late, and the windows were black screens with bright pinpricks. I found old pajamas of Margaret’s. We brushed our teeth next to one another, our eyes darting in the mirror. We spat into the sink at the same time and both laughed a little. She got into the bed without hesitation. I slid under the blanket and arranged myself with care, trying not to bump into her. She shifted closer, laying an arm around my waist and fitting her head in the curve of my neck again. I debated, and then pressed a kiss into her hair and felt her smile against my chest. I lay awake listening to her breathing slow and steady, feeling the warm comfort of Margaret’s body against mine and the strange thrill of not-Margaret curling her fingers over my ribs. The tension held me stiff for a long time, and then it drained away and I relaxed into sleep.
It was late when I woke up, and Margaret was smiling in her sleep, her head on my shoulder. I eased her away and sat up, nudging her a bit. She blinked awake and I froze. Something was different, some new hardness in her eyes or a cautiousness to her waking expression. I panicked, thinking she had awoken in a strange place with me, a near-stranger, and was suddenly afraid. Her eyes lingered on mine and then she smiled. It was different, and I watched her for a moment, unsure. She said my name, and her voice didn’t lilt. I opened my mouth, but had no words. She drew in a deep shaking breath, and then she closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and looked at me with a steady, new, familiar gaze.
I found my voice, and spoke over the ringing in my ears and the desperate gasp suppressed in my lungs. “Margaret?”
I held her for a long time and we both cried a little. Finally I moved, backed away from her enough to crane my neck down, and asked her if she wanted me to make breakfast. She nodded against my shoulder, so I tugged her into the kitchen. While I whisked and poured, she sat on the counter and watched me. It took me longer than usual because my hands were shaking. My arms jerked, I couldn’t hold them steady, and I spilled across the countertop. Margaret let out a tremulous laugh that startled me, and when my eyes jumped to hers she smiled.
We sat next to each other at the table, eating French toast from the same plate. Margaret nudged over to me, her arm against mine. The surprise and rush of emotion was still swelling in my chest, and it bewildered me. We distracted one another from breakfast. I kept kissing her lips, sticky with syrup. I couldn’t believe I had her back. I couldn’t believe she’d been gone at all.
Later, when we’d nearly fallen asleep piled against the arm of the couch, I knew we had to talk about it. I said, “Margaret, you were gone. I mean, you know what I mean, there was somebody else here and you weren’t here. Do you know where you were?”
She shrugged, looking down. She said that she had woken up in a crowded hospital with a bandage around her head and a broken arm. There were two strange men there she didn’t know who told her they were her brothers and tried very hard not to cry. They all said she had amnesia and she didn’t know how to tell them otherwise. She went home with her brothers and stayed in their house with their mother, who fussed over her and made her soup. She spent weeks curled in the tiny bedroom she shared with the stranger’s mother, trying not to show her bewilderment and her anger.
Margaret paused for a long time, and I pulled her over to me. Her body was tight, tension threaded through her. When I put my arms around her, she leaned her head against my neck very slowly but she was still frozen.
The family worried over her and her new sharpness, she told me, the knife-edges they thought the accident had thrust into her. Margaret wasn’t very clear what had happened, but she didn’t want to know the wounds inflicted on the body that was not her own.
I set myself to washing dishes. In the kitchen, the morning sunlight peeked in with golden curiosity. Everything looked the same as it always had. I cleaned up our breakfast and put the dishes away. It looked like nothing had ever changed.
The day passed quietly. We talked in low voices. When it grew late, she drew in a sigh and let it fall out of her, and then she told me that she wanted to sleep. We went into the bedroom and I pulled the covers over her, slid in behind her, and put a hand on her waist. She moved to me and held onto me, so I wrapped myself around her. Her breath wavered in and out, and I listened and wondered if she was sleeping.
The next morning, she woke up before me. I could smell the coffee waiting in the kitchen. She was sipping, reading the paper, as if we could be back to normal already. It’s possible that she was just getting back to normal, easing into our life again like an old sweater that still held her shape. I was the one startling at its touch on my skin, right when I had begun to learn to shrug out of it. I sat down anyway and picked up my section of the paper, drinking my lukewarm coffee.
Margaret got up then, unfolding her legs gingerly and stretching upward. Her voice startled me. “I might call Jenny in a bit.”
“Oh,” I said, nodding. “That’s a good idea. I bet she’d love to hear from you now that you’re back home.”
“Yes,” said Margaret, “Exactly.”
I heated myself some food and brought her a plate, then returned to the kitchen. The food was still too cold, but it didn’t matter. I ate without thinking, typing one-handed as I tried to catch up on work. Margaret didn’t eat at all. I heard her voice, peaks and valleys of muffled sound, from the living room. Once in a while the crack of Jenny’s laughter rang through the phone.
The day faded more quickly than it had promised in the bright harsh morning. Days went by like that, more than a week, and we moved around one another as though careful not to break.
“What was she like?” she said, once, into the silence. I only shrugged. I was in bed with a book and Margaret with her laptop, and I fell asleep while she was still working or reading. When I woke up, too early, she was drawn tight into a knot, her arm clenched over her body and her face turned away. I watched her for a while, wondering if she dreamed she was still trapped in a sleeping body that belonged to somebody else. I was startled when she woke and turned to me.
Margaret was half-lit in the dawn sun, with a familiar caress of shadow clinging to her face. She looked up at me and she said, “This feels weird. It’s all the same but so much has happened. Do you know what I mean? We’re not ourselves anymore.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, too hasty, “who else would we be?”
She looked at me, a long solid gaze. “Somebody else,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence grow stale between us.
Margaret curled up and turned away. My head ached. I sat on the edge of the bed, resting my hands on the crumple of sheets, and looked at Margaret as if she was a stranger huddled on my bed. I don’t remember lying down, just the surprising feeling of being awake unexpectedly from a sleep I hadn’t noticed taking me over.
The morning was warm and the sun coming in from the window was insistent as always.
Margaret must have already eaten, because the scent of maple syrup was hanging in the kitchen. I made cereal and ate while I read the paper, as usual. Margaret was busy with something in the bedroom. There were erratic shufflings and thuds, and I was afraid to investigate. When I had gotten to the Arts section she came into the kitchen. “Come in the living room, I want to talk to you.”
As I stood up my stomach dropped. In the living room we sat on the couch. Margaret handed me a piece of paper. I looked at her. “We haven’t talked that much about what happened,” she said, “and mostly I just don’t want to. It was too strange and too wrong. You got to know this other person, and I got to know her life. Now that I’m back, you know, it’s just not the same. It’s just not. I’m going to leave — ”
I tried to say something, though I don’t know what. Her words hit me and sound came out, an undignified shocked squawk. So simple a sentence meant so great a change.
Margaret’s mouth wavered. She might have tried to smile. “I know. But what else is there? I guess — no, listen, it’ll be okay. Really it will. We’ll both be who we are now, or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t expecting this. I’ll be back later, somehow, for the rest of my stuff. Listen. I know some things about the other person, whose body, the one you met.” Her hand fell toward the paper I was holding before she pulled it back. “It’s her name, the address, anything else I remembered that I thought might be useful. Don’t open it until I leave, okay?”
I looked down at the folded slip of paper in my hand and Margaret bent to kiss my cheek as she went by. The door shut behind her, the same click as always, leaving me alone inside. I sat for a long time in my living room with the sunlight pooling at my feet, holding hope in my hand.
Featured image: Edvard Munch, Young Woman from the Latin Quarter, 1897, The Art Institute of Chicago, edited
For Vera, the transition from seeing a ghost to becoming one began subtly, like the first leaf sailing down to her sunny marigolds in September. It was not terrifying, because the ghost was so beautifully dressed. In a rusty-rose, tweed jacket with a peplum, a full skirt, straw hat and big, pearl earrings, she reminded Vera of her Auntie Jane, who had died when Vera was 12. As she faded, Vera detected the nocturnal smell of moonflowers — which grew, long ago, in Auntie Jane’s garden but never in Vera’s. Although pleasant, this encounter was jarring for Vera because she knew something about death. She had watched her father slowly pass away at St. Otto’s Nursing Home. She remembered him gazing past her and conversing with numerous invisible people, sometimes her recently departed mother and sometimes strangers. “Don’t lean back!” he had once warned her, laughing, with an amazed expression on his face. “There’s a man with a long white moustache right behind you and, look out, you are almost in his lap.” The nurse-practitioner’s theory — that chemicals flooding his brain were likely causing hallucinations — was more than offset by the observations of daily attendants who whispered that it was not uncommon for dying patients to have visitors from the other side. So Vera interpreted this visit as a friendly warning of her own demise. Well, at least I have time to prepare, she figured.
At breakfast the next morning, Vera perused the local newspaper for Driscoll’s Department Store advertisements. She had regrets about the suit her father was laid out in. No one could find the navy blue business suit he had worn to work on Madison Avenue, nor the one he had danced in, after retirement, aboard the QE2. So they selected the one he had worn to his wife’s funeral, which they found in his closet, still fresh from the cleaners, sadly waiting for the next grim affair. Vera swore she would go out in style and, luckily for her, Driscoll’s was having a sale.
A dress on page two caught her eye. It was a green, botanical print with long sleeves. “Fetch your leash, Toby,” she commanded her brown, miniature dachshund. “We are going shopping.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Maddie from Misses hurried across the parking lot to punch in at Driscoll’s.
The Misses’ Fitting Rooms were already full. Women with armloads of autumn dresses and recently marked down pants and blouses stood in line, waiting to get in; husbands yawned on couches; howling toddlers tried to jiggle free from strollers. All the while, Maddie’s friend, Olivia, merrily chatted with the shoppers as she hung up clothing.
“Hey, Maddie,” her voice sang out above the din.
“What’s up, Liv? You look great today,” said Maddie. And she meant it. Olivia, in her leaner days, could have been a model, with her stature, lush lashes, and long-layered hair, and simple outfits accessorized with eye-catching jewelry.
“Thanks. So do you,” she said, but Maddie was not convinced. With her wiry, red hair, square chin, and craft-loving hands, she never felt movie-star-beautiful.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” asked a shopper with a brittle voice, iridescent, white hair, and designer eyeglasses. A dachshund wearing a harness perked up in her shopping cart.
“How adorable! Look, Liv! What is his name?”
“Toby,” she said, proudly. “I take him everywhere.”
“May I help you?” asked Maddie.
“Yes, please. Can you tell me where to find this?” she said, pointing to a dress in a Driscoll’s ad.
Maddie recognized it immediately because it was one she had planned to buy herself the next day, when a special sale for associates was starting. She loved the silky fabric with little teal vines unfurling on a jade background. She had one hidden, tagged with her name, behind the folding table in the Fitting Room.
“Sure … follow me,” said Maddie, leading the customer to the new line of autumn dresses. As they meandered in and around the sportswear, Vera explained why finding that particular dress was important to her.
“I am going to be the guest of honor at a big party, with all of my friends and relatives, so I need something special to wear.”
“A milestone?” Maddie guessed it might be her 75th birthday.
“Yes,” said Vera, thinking more like a gravestone.
Looking through the dresses, Maddie asked, “What size do you wear?”
Same as me, thought Maddie, checking the tags disingenuously. She knew that the one she had stashed away was the only size-extra-small, botanical-print dress they had in the store.
“I think we’re plumb out of luck. Sorry. Want to try small?” Maddie asked. “Or maybe another color? We have an extra-small in aubergine … ”
“No. Thank you anyway,” said Vera, wheeling her cart, with Toby in it, around toward the back of the store.
Marisol, who was folding jeans on a table nearby, sniped, “They expect us to be personal shoppers!”
“They do,” said Maddie, tackling a heap of long-sleeve t-shirts on the other side, sorting them by color, folding and laying them one exactly on top of the other.
“People are pigs,” said Marisol, jingling bracelets as she twisted her long, black hair up into a knot. Meanwhile, Olivia pushed two z-rails full of clothing out into the aisles.
“Crystal wants you to run these now,” she said, meaning they had to hang everything where it belonged. Crystal, the assistant manager, had a strong build, a powerful laugh, and a glare that could make anyone’s stomach churn.
Marisol looked at the rails and sighed.
“At least we’re burning calories,” said Maddie. Shoulders aching, she grabbed one of the z-rails and pushed it down toward Misses, opposite Seasonal, where Christmas decorations were already encroaching on Halloween. A few children were playing with the interactive items — the display models of a light-up jack-o-lantern and a light-up haunted house; and a device for previewing holiday music CDs.
Maddie hung a few blouses in Clearance, where she spotted Vera and her dog a second time. Her cart was now brimming with Housewares sale items. Four cherry bath towels, a wicker bread basket, and two sunflower pillows were piled around Toby. A wind chime dangled from the cart handle.
Vera still believed her death was imminent, but her head asked how imminent. And her heart replied that surely she still had time to enjoy a few more bargains from Driscoll’s — a few more mornings in the garden, a few more loaves of crusty bread, a few more baths, a few more evenings on the sofa, watching TV with Toby. Maybe we’ll celebrate Christmas a little early this year, she thought, eyeing the snowglobes, tree ornaments, and scented candles across the aisle.
“Did you find a dress?” asked Maddie, feeling a tad guilty about the one she had kept hidden.
“Not yet,” she said.
Maddie, quite familiar with the size extra-small Clearance merchandise, deftly extracted a prussian-blue dress from the “Nautical Nights” collection and held it up.
“I love it,” said Vera, squinting to see the yellow price tag marking it down to $9.80.
“Try it on,” said Maddie, adding it to her cart, behind Toby.
About an hour later, in the fitting room, she saw the customer a third time as she emerged from one of the cubicles, wearing the prussian-blue dress. She looked fabulous.
“Very nice! Fits you perfectly,” said Olivia.
“Thank you,” said Vera. Then she did something odd. She laid down on the couch in the Fitting Room, folded her hands across her chest and closed her eyes. And asked Maddie to snap her picture with her cell phone.
Maddie looked at Olivia. “I don’t get it,” she whispered.
“Neither do I,” whispered Olivia. “But just do it and let’s get her out of here. Crystal is watching, and you have to finish those rails.”
Maddie took the snapshot and handed the cell phone back to the customer.
Vera opened her eyes, studied the photo, and imagined herself in a mahogany box, tastefully asleep in the prussian-blue dress. Not the one I had in mind, she thought, but it will do. She considered asking Maddie to call other Driscoll’s stores to inquire if they had the botanical-print dress in her size, but did not want to overburden Maddie, who seemed so kind. Besides, the one she had on was a great bargain. Blue dress, it is, she decided.
Maddie ran the rails until her shift ended.
On her way out, she saw Vera smile as a cashier rang up her purchases, wowing her with how much money she saved.
No one expected that as Vera exited the store, the giant letter “D” from big green DRISCOLL’S sign would snap off the building’s exterior and come pounding down on her head. Maddie, who was walking to her car, heard the noise and turned around to see the customer lying face down near the entrance, under the big letter. Toby, still strapped inside the cart, barked and wriggled, making the cart roll forward, toward the parking lot. Maddie ran back and stopped the cart, and waited with Toby until the police and the ambulance arrived.
The news coverage of the Driscoll’s accident started out on the front page, but shrank daily with each subsequent report. The stories focused on what could cause a letter to separate from a store’s signage (some speculated that bird droppings had deteriorated the fixture’s metal supports); whether a lawsuit for negligence would follow (one eventually did); Vera’s fate (she died of head trauma at the hospital, a few hours after her injury); and Toby’s fate (Vera’s sister adopted him).
No one reported the full impact on Driscoll’s employees.
Maddie arrived early the next morning. The store felt peaceful, devoid of customers, with the rain drumming on the roof. Vera’s death had not hit the news yet.
After punching in, Maddie retrieved the botanical-print dress from behind the table in the fitting room. She tried it on, and gazed into the tall, three-fold mirror in one of the cubicles. Maddie could not remember the last time a dress made her feel so beautiful. Mesmerized by her own reflection, it was minutes before Maddie realized she was not alone. An older woman wearing a sweet-but-nauseating perfume was standing behind her, dressed in an odd, rose-colored outfit and big pearl earrings. She tapped Maddie on the shoulder.
“What a lovely dress, dear,” is all Maddie heard her say. But she also whispered, under her breath, “If Vera can’t have it, no one can.”
When Maddie turned around, she was gone.
How strange, Maddie thought. She considered alerting Loss Prevention about the suspicious shopper but didn’t, because she couldn’t remember the correct number to call.
Around noon, Vera’s death was reported on the local television network. Everyone at Driscoll’s who happened to be eating lunch in the Break Room at the time heard the news from the giant flat-screen over the dining table. Maddie nearly choked on a potato chip.
“Isn’t that the lady you were helping yesterday?” asked Deirdre from Customer Service.
“Yes,” said Maddie.
“How sad,” said Deirdre, munching a sandwich. “I saw her in Seasonal, listening to the Christmas CDs … with her little dog in the cart. She looked sweet.”
“She was,” said Maddie, going back to the floor.
The sky outside the glass doors darkened. Lightning zig-zagged over the parking lot and, as the day wore on, little, random, unsettling things happened throughout the store. Sally from Kids noticed an unattended cart rolling down the aisle between Toys and Ladies’ Denim. Bill from Housewares observed the Haunted House and the Jack-O-Lantern lighting up on their own. Evan from Shoes got annoyed because a shoe box refused to stay put, repeatedly poking out an inch or so from the perfect wall of shoe boxes it had taken him over an hour to create. Deirdre heard a Christmas CD playing on its own. And in Misses, Maddie heard the sound of hangers sliding over rails from an area where no one was rummaging. Then she got paged by the robotic voice of Customer Call Box — “Misses … Misses” — only to find an abandoned shopping cart with windchimes dangling from the handle.
The rumor that Driscoll’s was haunted rapidly ignited and spread throughout the store.
Tara from Beauty, a college student with an elfin face, rainbow hair, and a nose-ring, reacted joyously. She had a passion for all things occult. Heart beating wildly, she ran to her locker to retrieve her prized possession — a mint tin that resembled a tiny ouija board — and brought it back to Beauty. There, a small crowd of associates gathered to watch her hold the tin very steadily in her palm, place a mint “plank” on top of it, and quietly asked the spirit its name. “It’s moving,” she said, gasping as the plank floated over the letters “V,” “E,” “R,” and “A.”
“It’s definitely Vera,” said Tara.
“I knew it,” said Sally.
“What does she want?” asked Deirdre.
Tara tapped on the mint tin some more and, seconds later, the tiny plank floated once more over the letters.
“What she came for,” Tara replied.
“Huh?” asked Deirdre. “Let’s ask Maddie what she was shopping for. She helped Vera yesterday.”
“Good idea,” said Tara.
“Heads up. Here comes Crystal,” said Bill.
Tara furtively tapped “Goodbye” on the tin and stashed it in her pocket, while the little gathering dispersed.
Meanwhile, Sal from Freight was delivering a fresh tote of hangers to Olivia in the fitting room. He said all this talk about a Driscoll’s ghost was “ridiculous” and “about the stupidest thing” he had ever heard. “Listen to me,” he said. “Everything has a logical explanation. Electrical malfunctions on account of the storm are probably to blame for everything weird that’s been happening.”
Olivia agreed, and reminded Maddie to buy her dress before going home.
Maddie’s eyes welled up with tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked Olivia.
“I can’t buy it now,” said Maddie. “It’s the one Vera wanted, and now she’s dead!”
“Sure you can. It’s not your fault,” said Sal, “that a sign fell on her head.”
“And you knocked yourself out for her,” said Olivia. “Who found her that gorgeous, blue dress?”
“But she really wanted the dress I hid for myself. I should have offered it to her.”
“Well, she can’t use it now,” said Sal, smirking, “unless she wants to be buried in it.”
Maddie knew Sal was only teasing her, but this comment made her recall Vera lying down on the fitting room couch with her arms folded across her chest, and she suddenly wondered if that was not exactly what the customer had in mind.
“Maybe,” said Maddie, “I should try to contact the family and let them know I found the dress she was shopping for, you know, in case they want to bring it to the funeral parlor.”
“Are you crazy?” said Olivia. “You want to contact a grieving family who doesn’t know you … ”
“ … and who is probably suing the store already,” said Sal.
“Crystal will have a fit!” said Olivia.
“I guess you’re right,” said Maddie, drying her eyes with a tissue. “So what should I do with the dress?”
“Buy it and wear it in good health, you nutjob,” said Olivia.
So Maddie bought the dress after punching out that day. Guiltily gleeful at all the money she saved, she carried her purchase out to her car, hopping over puddles in the parking lot. Maddie tossed the Driscoll’s bag onto the back seat and turned the radio on to her usual classical station which featured medieval music that day. As she drove, the music soothed her nerves — even though one of the songs was a long, flute and harp rendition of “Greensleeves” — until, about halfway home, she heard a rustling noise in the background. Was it static? She turned off the radio, but the noise continued. No, not static. Could it be the wind? No, it was coming from inside the car, behind her. When she stopped at the traffic light, she glanced at the back seat, and saw the Driscoll’s bag moving like something was crawling inside it. Nonsense, she told herself, like Olivia. It’s just the car jostling the bag around. Don’t panic, she told herself, like Sal.
At last, Maddie turned onto her street and pulled into her driveway. When she parked the car, the noise stopped. But she opened the back door to find the Driscoll’s bag empty and the dress sitting up like a passenger. It was just too absurd! How ridiculous, thought Maddie, laughing nervously. Then she spoke to the dress. “I don’t care how that happened,” she said, stuffing it firmly back inside the bag, “you are nothing but a piece of clothing and you won’t get the better of me!”
Maddie went inside. The house was empty, with everyone else still at work or school. Maddie poured herself a generous glass of Chablis. She went upstairs and changed into her new dress so she could see how it looked, with the proper shoes on, in her cheval mirror.
But for the zipper, which nipped a tiny piece of skin at the base of her neck, the dress went on easily and it looked amazing. Minutes later, however, although it didn’t look tight, the dress began to feel very tight. The silky-but-stretchy fabric compressed her arms and her middle.
She took it off, letting it drop to the floor, threw on a robe, and finished her wine. She decided to take a cat nap before making dinner, and sank into a dream in which the little teal vines on the botanical-print transformed into blue snakes with tiny red eyes and pointy, yellow fangs. They wrapped around her body, constricting her respiration, and bit into her flesh.
Luke was in the bedroom, hanging up his jacket and tie, when she awoke.
“Hard day, honey?” he asked. “I hope you don’t mind, but while you were sleeping, I ordered take-out — sesame chicken, pork fried rice, wonton soup and a couple of egg rolls.”
“What a husband,” said Maddie, hugging him.
“New dress?” he said, picking it up off the floor.
“Yes, but it’s going back tomorrow.”
“I don’t like it. I’ll buy you socks instead,” she said on the way downstairs to wait for the food delivery.
Maddie exchanged the dress at Customer Service the next morning. Within weeks, Driscoll’s sold out of every other dress in the same collection, both in-store and online because it was so popular; however, the extra-small, botanical-print one inexplicably remained in the store. Many women tried it on, and rejected it. Others bought the dress and later returned it for a refund. It became a running joke among the Misses associates to encounter the dress “hiding” in different places — crouched on a shelf behind some sweaters, dangling from the overhead trolley in the stock room, or burrowing under the disrespected, fallen clothing in Clearance. But Maddie never laughed. She never told anyone about the day she found it sitting upright in the back of her car — they’d think she was losing it, and maybe they would be right. And she had an additional reason to dislike that dress.
One day, while she was up on a stepladder, organizing the blouses that hung against the wall above a row of trousers, she fell and broke her wrist. She also suffered numerous contusions, and had to file an accident report.
“What happened?” Crystal asked her.
“I have no idea. I felt the ladder jiggle and I lost my balance.”
“The ladder moved?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. I guess I’m just clumsy,” she replied.
Crystal asked Sam in Loss Prevention to run the videotape caught on the store’s surveillance camera, which showed the botanical-print dress coiled around the bottom of one leg of the stepladder. Tugging it, it appeared to Maddie. She gulped. That dress hates me. It’s trying to kill me.
“Next time, be more careful when you use the ladder. Make sure there’s nothing under it,” said Crystal.
“Of course,” said Maddie, although she knew for certain that she had not placed the ladder on top of the dress.
At night, when the lights dimmed after the robotic announcement, “Driscoll’s is now closed,” the dress creeped among the shelves and slithered along the floors throughout the store. Maddie found it one morning with a trail of dust on one side.
“Well, we can’t sell it like this,” Maddie decided, so she took it to the cash register to print out a “damaged” ticket. The dress writhed as Maddie stapled the ticket to the sleeve with vengeance. Then she tossed it onto a pile of “discards” in Customer Service. “Goodbye,” she said to the botanical-print dress. Why didn’t I think of this before?
But that night, the dress escaped from the bin, wriggled free of the ticket, and made its way to the fitting room where Vera’s ghost waited, as always, to try it on.
Featured image: Two Women on the Shore (1898) by Edvard Munch, The Art Institute of Chicago
Two days after closing on our first home — a classic farmhouse in rural New Hampshire with a large plot of unused, fertile land out back — and my belly a month away from popping, Charles lost his job at the bank.
“How can we afford anything?” he asked, our room packed and bare the night before the movers were to arrive. His eyes fluttered with mortgage payments, utilities, upkeep, hospital bills, and food.
“We have a savings,” I reassured. “And my dad won’t let us starve.”
For the rest of the night, he pretended to be asleep even though I felt his anxious legs twitch beneath the covers, his shallow breath and restless shoulders cold against the pads of my fingers.
The next morning, he stumbled into the kitchen with eyes sunken, dark and pained. Charles blamed it on nightmares and because I said nothing, he assumed I believed him.
We said goodbye to our one-bedroom apartment just outside of the city. We lived on the second floor of that boxy place for three years and had experienced a proposal, a wedding, and the news of our little boy.
“We need a bigger home,” Charles said one day, and I agreed, and later that year with the help of his bank, our wish-and-a-prayer offer got accepted for the farmhouse.
The bulky movers lugged boxes into the hall and down the steps. Their sweat soured the air like an unbrushed mouth. With the walls empty of art and flowers, it seemed like no one had ever lived there, that no one could ever live there, and so we closed a chapter of our lives without any fanfare.
Charles drove behind the moving van checking their speed and paying attention to turn signals. A man of numbers, of order, of precision, should the hired help step out of line, I feared he would phone them for discounts and refunds as a temporary fix to his out-of-work status.
But they were professionals and did no wrong. Boxes and furniture inside by three in the afternoon, I tipped the movers in cash while Charles roamed the yard, and off they went. The baby kicked and our new life together officially began.
The field behind the house spread into the horizon, far too big for any one family. I imagined rows of corn stalks, of wheat, hay, and vegetables. Shades of green to compliment the blue skies and white clouds. So much potential, so much beauty. Along the edges, a hand-built stone wall marked the property lines with our closest neighbor whose big red barn glistened under the sun. Branches from the trees in our front yard swayed in the breeze giving the birds a reason to chirp. The land felt alive, and quiet, and still.
I spotted Charles shooing away a dog, a brown and gold mutt traipsing around the rear entrance to our home.
“Must be the neighbor’s,” I said.
“Git!” Charles said, flailing his arms, but the dog continued to sniff unbothered. A man in large overalls and dirty boots stepped out of the shining red barn and waved hello. He wiped his hands on a towel pulled from the front pocket of the overalls and stepped over the stone wall.
“Sorry ‘bout ’im,” the farmer said. “He’s prolly lookin’ fer the old owners. Name’s Stanton. Bob Stanton.” Bob held out his hand and Charles shook it, then palmed the back of his jeans.
“Good people?” I asked.
“Kept mostly to themselves, but pleasant nonetheless. Where y’all from?”
“Boston,” Charles said.
“Proper, or burbs?” Bob asked. He tucked his hands into the front pocket and rocked from heel to toe. His body was an enormous thing, as though peeling back skin wouldn’t reveal bones, but boulders.
“Burbs,” Charles said. He said it like he missed it, and my heart shrank at the idea that I had done this to him, forced him into a life he didn’t want.
“Scooter here means no harm,” Bob said, nodding at the mutt. “Gentle beast. Curious thing. When are you due?”
“Soon, maybe three weeks,” I said. I folded a palm over my belly, warmed.
“Havin’ rugrats puts it all in perspective. Got three myself. Gonna be a grandad ’fore the years up. A young stud like me, a grandad! Ain’t that a thing!” He whistled for Scooter, but the dog sat down and eyed Charles.
“If we need anything, we’ll let you know,” Charles said in the tone he used when ushering clients out of the bank. He turned to the mutt. “Go, go with your master.”
“Word to the wise, sweet-ums,” Bob said, nodding at me. “Be careful. Something about the land, the water maybe, can’t say for sure but the previous owner was set to pop three different times. Never made it to one.”
I looked at Charles and Charles’s face reddened. The stillness of the land, the eclipsing beauty, it didn’t seem possible, but I had no reason to doubt Bob as he lumbered back to his plot whistling to the birds. Scooter watched Charles pace and wagged his tail whenever my husband got close.
“Guess we have a dog now,” Charles said. Saying it out loud made him laugh, and when he laughed, I laughed, and just like that all was right in the world.
The next day, Charles went into town to apply for jobs. A small community with one bank, a newspaper, a library, and one restaurant, the odds were low that he’d come home happy. Fiercely hot, the sun cooking the green grass yellow, I allowed Scooter inside and gave him a bowl of cool water from the tap. He sniffed around, probably seeking the old owners, and then lapped from the dish.
I put plates and flatware away in the kitchen wiping each piece down with a small yellow hand towel given as a wedding gift. That day had brought together our families, our friends, and the promise that life was a shared celebration. Thinking back on it made me feel that our little boy might grow up happy.
The kitchen took up half of the downstairs. Natural edge counters ran the walls into stainless steel appliances. Scooter wandered into the living room, sniffed the blue couch and loveseat, circled into the dining room checking beneath the table stacked with boxes, and stopped to peer upstairs. The bristles of his neck rose and his tail shot out straight. His mouth pulled into a snarl with large canines catching the daylight. He growled once, then looked at me with innocent eyes, then back up the stairs with another short warning. Then, he came back into the kitchen to nap.
I went to the stairs and looked up unsure of what I might find. A window screen in the bathroom vibrated with the wind and I reasoned it to be what Scooter had heard. The bedrooms on either side had creaky floors and I told myself that a person walking or an animal scraping would have been more pronounced.
Before I met Charles, I was attacked in my own home. A man followed me to my apartment after a shift at the car dealership my father owned. For years, I worked everything from receptionist to financing, to payroll, and one day a man came in asking about me.
“Does she need a man?” he asked, and my brother Duggy told him to beat it unless he planned on buying a car. When he came back the next day, Duggy said, “Do you know Julie or something?” The guy smiled and said “Julie, is it?” That night, the man shouldered through my door and put his hands around my throat and said he loved me and to take off my clothes. I fought him away and Duggy, who lived in the downstairs apartment, heard the commotion and showed up with a handpiece keeping him there until the police arrived.
The man was just a creep, which I know is minimizing the situation, but my father always said I was as tough as I was beautiful. That idea kept me going. It made me look at life through a different lens though, and when I met Charles, I thought here’s a guy that thinks about everything, considers possibilities. Nothing gets by. His anxious habits will keep us safe. And they did. And I fell in love. And while he knew about the incident, he didn’t know that my father keeps me on the payroll out of guilt and I have enough money tucked aside to last us two years.
Kitchen boxes unloaded and broken down into flat slabs of cardboard, I sat on the couch with a sweating glass of ice water and stared into the dark reflection of the unplugged TV. Scooter moped in and flopped to the wooden floor. The baby kicked and I considered calling Charles about the mutt’s odd behavior, but I didn’t want to stress him out more than he was. Instead, I called a company that checks for mold and they were out within the hour scraping black flecks from the vents inside the central air ducts.
“That’ll do it,” the first guy said, peeling off rubber gloves and pushing his facemask to his chin. “Glad you thought to check on those.”
“What’s your name?” the second guy asked. The question wasn’t friendly. “Can you get me a glass of water?”
Scooter leapt up barking and both men jumped. The gravel driveway crunched under the wheels of Charles’s car and I watched my husband step out of the driver’s side, hair askew, dark sweat stains blotching the pits of his blue button-up. His body looked thin, withered, dehydrated.
“That your man?” the second guy said. He smirked. The stench of their sour sweat swirled into the room pushed by the cool central air, the smell of physical labor.
“What’s with you?” the first guy said, shoving his partner. He pointed. “In the van. Let’s go. Sorry, miss.”
“Missus,” I corrected, and the guys both held out their hands in apology.
They left and nodded hello at my husband as they passed in the driveway. Charles watched them go.
“We can’t afford contractors,” he said. He didn’t say hello.
“Free of charge,” I lied. “Our inspector sent them.”
“Oh,” Charles said. Scooter wagged his tail and received a head scratch from my husband. “Country life is going to take some getting used to. Guess he’s ours now?”
“Guess so,” I said.
Charles cooked a pasta dinner measuring out the water, salt, sauce, and butter. He told me about the town, how he felt like a foreigner talking to people, how he considered extending his job search to new towns in the surrounding area.
“Something’s got to be out there,” he said, staring into his untouched plate of food. I asked him to eat, and he ate, and a glimmer of life returned to his eyes.
The sound woke us, the midnight of the land squeezing our sight into malformed shapes in the worried panic of sleeplessness. Scooter stood at the top of the stairs peering into the dark barking so hard that the yips squealed at their ends. He growled and snapped, loaded his weight on his hind legs and hung his head low.
“Do you think he hears something?” Charles asked. He scrambled for his phone and dialed 911, the glow turning his face ghostly and pale. “Yes, our dog is barking and I think someone is in our home.”
I listened for signs of intrusion — the creak of a floorboard, the sour stench of sweat, whispered voices plotting harm — but found only the crickets and distant owls of the New Hampshire fields. The baby kicked, and I tried to slow my breathing.
Scooter barked, growled, and snarled at the dark until Charles rose from bed telling me to stay put and joined the dog at the top of the stairs. They peered into the first floor together. All was quiet and still. Suddenly, Scooter snapped out of it and laid down on the cool wood sniffing Charles’s thin, bare legs.
“Hello?” Charles called. “We’ve phoned the police! They’re on their way!”
We listened for a reply. Only silence. The farmhouse creaked and settled. It sounded like walking if I wanted it to, but I knew the truth. Faintly in the distance like a feather caught in the wind, we heard Bob Stanton weeping, the sound coming from his big red barn gone gray under the shine of the moon.
The police arrived with flashing blues so bright, they rippled across the silent fields into the horizon. Charles spoke with them about the mutt’s behavior and the police took notes, told us to call if we noticed anything unusual in the morning. Charles asked about Bob Stanton and how we heard the sound of crying, and the small-town police said it was the anniversary of his wife’s death and how none of his kids had come to visit. The officers left and all was quiet again, the type of quiet that hurts the ears, a screaming silence so thick it’s maddening. We didn’t sleep and eventually the sun broke over the hills to usher in the day.
Charles didn’t want to leave me alone, so he spent the morning outside gathering wildflowers for a bouquet. I watched from the wooden porch; my eyelids heavy. Bob waved from his land and I waved back feeling sorry for the lonely man. He made his approach and Charles spoke with him by the drive.
“Perfect season ta’ grow,” Bob said, nodding at the garden beds near the bulkhead. “Work with your hands, I’ll show yas how.”
“Maybe later,” Charles said, and then went inside to wash his hands, put on a new shirt, and make some phone calls about potential employment. Scooter brought Bob a large stick and the man tossed it into the field for the dog to bound after. He nodded at me with a tight-lipped smile and headed back to his yard.
“Tell me about her,” I said. “Your wife, what was she like?”
Bob stopped cold, his profile hanging over his stone shoulders.
“Loved ’er like the crops love a rainstorm in July,” he said. “Had ’er issues, but don’t we all?” He pointed at our land, to the garden beds, to the long stretches of grass around the porch. “Soil needs to be tilled. Land’s gotta breathe, same as the rest of us. Packed too tight, nothin’ grows.”
The back of his neck had gone leathery brown from the sun. I apologized if the police lights woke him, kept him from sleep, explained that we thought someone might have tried to get inside.
“It’s a different world out ’ere,” he said. “Takes some adjustin’.”
And with that, he walked over the stone wall, into his field, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day.
Inside, Charles hung up the phone and put his face in his hands. The air cooled and crisp, the sunlight spilling through the windows giving life to dancing dust particles, I rubbed the back of his head and thanked him for the flowers.
“They’re something, aren’t they?” he whispered, admiring the vibrant purple, yellow, and white petals. “Maybe we should grow our own.”
The baby kicked. It was only a matter of time.
Later in the afternoon, Charles got a call from the local bank. He put on a tie and headed into town to speak with them. I spent the day with Scooter walking the fields smelling the sweetgrass and swatting at pesky flies. At sunset, we both returned and Charles looked defeated.
“Offered a teller position. Entry level. A dollar above minimum wage,” he said. “I don’t want to take it, but I fear I might have to.”
“Don’t take it,” I said, but Charles stared into the blank kitchen walls calculating the cost of the future.
That night we stayed awake in bed, neither of us speaking, both of us wondering if this new life of ours was the answer. A silence this thick made me miss the rumble of cars, of passing trains, of people stumbling home from the bars. Being alone with my thoughts proved a challenge because it forced me to confront them. I wondered about our child and the secrets we’d keep from him. Would he grow up to know his mother ran from her past? That his father followed their mother when perhaps he didn’t want to? Would he believe the distance of the land, of the house, of his parents was normal and form relationships more of the same? What if someone broke into his apartment and tried to hurt him? What if he grew to be a man that does the breaking in?
Scooter growled again, this time from the cusp of sleep. Charles sat up and snapped his fingers to break the dream. The mutt looked at him, then to the doorway. He growled again, barked once, then rolled to his feet and crept to the frame. I sat up and watched.
“Charles,” I said. “I’m scared.”
“Of what?” he asked, his eyes peering into the darkness.
“Everything I cannot see,” I said, and he turned with eyes filled with understanding, with validation, and held me the way he did when we’d first lived in that boxy apartment with art and flowers decorating the walls.
Scooter calmed and plopped himself in the doorway, a wedge between us and whatever he sensed. I fell asleep cradled like a babe, comforted by the weightlessness of confession.
In the morning, I crept downstairs to find Bob and Charles working in the garden. Bob struck the earth with a hoe while Charles, on his knees, ran his hands through the moist dirt. They didn’t know I was watching, but they worked until noon planting seeds, setting irrigation, and tending to the land.
When they came inside for lunch, they smelled of dirt and grass, their sweat filled with the pungent scent of promise.
“Bob says we can sell our flowers,” Charles said. “He said he’ll teach me crops later, proper care, and lend out machinery for harvest. Says we can make an honest living and, on good years, do better than I did at the bank.”
“Happy to pass on the learnings of ma’ life’s work,” Bob said, hooking his thumbs into his overalls and rocking heel to toe.
“Charles,” I said, doubling over and struggling to breathe. Wetness burst down my legs sticky and thick. “The baby is coming.”
We hurried to the car, Bob telling us to go, that’d he’d watch over things, Scooter wagging his tail so hard that he couldn’t keep balance. We sped out of the gravel lot spraying pebbles across the lawn and kicked up a dust storm en route to the hospital.
A few hours later, our son came blinking into the world, his blue eyes large and wet against the light. Charles asked to hold him. He still smelled like the earth, though his hands had been washed clean by soap.
All day, we sat with our child gooey with love until we let our bodies rest, falling asleep to the soft beeps of machines.
“I miss the crickets,” Charles said, and any fear about our child’s future washed away like a rainstorm in July.
When we brought our boy home days later, Bob greeted us at the drive with a handmade wooden crib rounded and painted soft blue.
“Made this for yas,” he said. He’d also cut our grass and the small green leaves of flowers sprouted from the garden beds. Scooter ran through the yard in celebration of our return. We carried our child inside as he looked around with the large eyes of fascinated curiosity. What a world he must have seen.
We all ate dinner taking small bites of our food and ogling over the child.
“He’s perfect,” Bob said.
“Like his mama,” Charles said, and wiped a smudge from the child’s pudgy cheek.
That night, Scooter curled up by the foot of the crib and slept, only stirring when the baby did. From the bed, I watched the mutt drift into a dream, his brown and golden legs kicking as though running into the fields out back, a green world gone silver under the watchful moon, content to chase away the pesky critters that encroached those fertile lands.
Featured image: Country Gentleman, October 1939
Her father died in the early days of shelter-in-place, stranding the two of them in his house within the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up. He left behind two cats and a boisterous fifty-pound rescue dog named Dinky, all very much alive and missing the man who fed them too much while asking nothing in return.
Except for houseplants that would die with or without her presence, not a whole lot waited back in Maine, the place she called home. One more divorced, unemployed marketing director wouldn’t be missed. Even in regular times there weren’t a lot of jobs like the one that had left the state as part of a business acquisition. During a pandemic, when the economy rocked like a small craft in the Gulf of Maine caught as weather fronts changed, jobs were collateral. Portland was a rough place to seek refuge.
So Belinda, formerly known as Beauty to her family and close friends, used meditation, white wine, and occasional sleeping aids to temporarily nest in her father’s house. Always a clean guy, the intensity of his second battle with leukemia lingered in a slightly offensive blend of illness, strong cleaners and pet odors. During the ten days she kept watch by his side, the smells faded under the immensity of watching the man she loved for her whole life die. In the two weeks since he passed, she kept windows open by day, bought fresh clothes, and littered the house with air fresheners.
His ashes waited in the trunk of his favorite 2008 BMW 325i for the right time when she could drive north and spread the remains in a field where he hunted turkey with friends. A pair of someone’s old hiking boots, a knife to cut tape on the box, a camp chair and the fleece throw from his bed would keep his ashes secure. When the weather was right, she’d pack a lunch, free him on the empty field and keep watch for a time to be sure all was okay.
Nine years earlier, during the days before her mother’s funeral, Belinda observed a web of numbness settle over her father. A son of the Iron Range, his normal emotions ran from quietly happy to bravely stoic. Witnessing the rawness of his grief not even six months later at the side of her brother’s broken body seared her tear ducts, made the act of crying too painful. He did not deserve to suffer the losses of the two they loved so much. She was a minimal substitute for what he had known as father and husband, but they found a way to be good to each other. His hugs felt like home even in the week before he passed. He laughed at her jokes, was thankful for the fruit juice ice pops she made, let her hold his thin hand for hours. At the end he told her not to cry, as if losing him was no more eventful than scraping a knee, moving across the country, or ending a marriage.
All decisions and responsibilities were now hers alone. The brief will of Deck Blake had only two directives: a generous gift to the animal shelter and transporting a drop leaf table to a friend of her mother who lived across the river. Shelter-in-place meant she literally lived amid his stuff with no opportunity to draw down the bags with trips to Goodwill. Yesterday’s hard decision, discussed with Dinky, was to contact a junk collector to carry the first piles away. Her father would have been upset if he knew that his recliner, his mattresses, the drapes and old tools in the garage had been downgraded to junk. There were no other choices.
She thought about adding the dozen boxes, child’s rocking chair and ugly metal sculpture in the basement that had remained untouched 12 years after she and Aaron moved to Maine. Her then-husband’s promotion, a beautiful old house near downtown and the crashing Atlantic promised new beginnings for a tired young marriage. College sweethearts, they had become best friends, then merely pals by the time they turned 30. Watching her parents, she knew there wasn’t enough passion left to start a family or grow old together. She got the house, he found a new spouse. There was no blame, but she carried the failure forward.
In Minnesota, routines developed in the absence of human contact. Each day after opening the windows, Belinda fed the animals, cleaned the litter boxes, snapped a harness on Dinky and battled with him about direction, speed, unnecessary pee stops on a two-mile route. Back at the house she ate her toast, cereal and diet cola breakfast on the three season porch where spring sunshine barely warmed cool air. Then she headed inside to the dining room table to execute her father’s estate.
His trust allowed Belinda the choice of a few years of financial independence, or a nest egg to build retirement savings. Her Maine unemployment benefits ended soon and money banked from selling her house there might stretch through year’s end. The tiny, freezing, studio above a family’s garage was about the cheapest Portland rental place available. She’d held off grabbing a retail job, but even if she had, the pandemic would have taken it away.
Dread of losing the ocean, the forests, her deep friendships hung as heavy on her mind as the scent of death lingered in her senses. This city of her family was where she grew up, went to college, got married. Walking along the riverbanks she felt air pollution and high density housing weakening the emotional well-being nurtured by connection to the Pine Tree State and its rocky coasts. Minnesota organic blueberries were subpar to Maine’s crop.
Dinky and the cats rushed past her as she opened her father’s bedroom door. While not of any religious following, she had honored his passing with a mixture of Shiva and other grieving traditions. For two weeks she had not touched this door, hoping his spirit would travel to a place of peace. No funeral, no memorial service, the barebones notice he allowed to be printed among the COVID-19-jammed obits kept her unsettled, as if the solemnity of his passing had been debased. A good man deserved a good send-off.
Stripped, the mattress showed its age. She spread a tarp over it, then brought in boxes and bags to pack the first load of her father’s things. Room darkening drapes came down first to give the sun a chance to pierce her sadness. The windows she had washed on her first day with him still sparkled. A cat jumped to the sill, eyes turned toward the yard.
Dinky stayed by her side. The other cat perched on top of the bed headboard watching everything from Belinda’s movements to dust motes. Beginning in the small bathroom, she carried medical equipment, a scale and portable storage rack to the mattress. Linens she divided into cleaning materials and pet towels. Medications filled two grocery store bags that she placed in the shower stall. She left his hair brush and razor in the drawer. Everything else was thrown away.
While she worked, she talked out loud to the animals. She could stay here until summer, find them homes, sell everything, and return to Maine. Maintaining Maine rent and utilities would swallow thousands of dollars. Pragmatically she spoke out loud about the price of closing down life in New England. Free housing with a marketplace that had history of recovering from deep economic downturns. She could revitalize her father’s vegetable garden, keep his pets, treat renovating the house as work. He hadn’t asked her to make his house or memory her future, but she needed purpose.
Dinky broke her concentration as dogs are likely to do. Rounding up the cats, she once again closed the door. Watching from the patio while Dinky explored his domain, Belinda drew out her phone and pressed a favorites name.
“Hey, Beauty, how are you doing? Coming home soon?”
“That’s what I’m calling about, Aaron. This is a huge favor, but I wonder if I could ask you and Jacie to close up my place and send everything here. Not the stuff in storage, just the apartment. I’ll find a mover and make all the calls. I know Jacie sometimes rattles you, but she’ll know what I need and what to throw.”
“This is quite a jump. Maine is where your friends are. We aren’t married anymore, but we’re still friends. That’s why you called me. I know you’ll find another job here when everything settles down. You said you could never be landbound again.”
“People say a lot of things before something hits them in the face. I’ve thought it through and this is what I’m going to do. Nothing’s permanent. Are you willing or does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Think about it overnight and call me back. Don’t be hasty, Beauty. But if this is what you gotta do, I’ll help out. We’re friends, Beauty, and don’t forget it. No need to bother Jacie. Annie and I can pack the place.”
“Jacie has a key and would be pissed if I didn’t ask her. You can be in the same room for a few hours. I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
“You want me to drive your car out and drag a trailer with your stuff. I can help you get settled. That house needs some updating. I’d like to visit the cemetery and pay respects.”
“No nonessential travel. Remember there’s a virus out there. I don’t need a dead ex. Let the professionals take the risks. Jacie’s brother has been interested in the car. I was waiting for the weather to change so I could get around on the scooter.” She sat on the wood Adirondack chair her father had built. “I’ve got Dad’s dog and cats for company. There’s some relatives near and he emailed friends to look in on me. So I find groceries I didn’t order on the front porch and neighbors waving when I’m outside. One’s coming to the fence now. Talk later.” She was still a lousy liar. Took after her dad that way.
Dialing Jacie, Belinda let Dinky lead the way back in. She closed the door, then the inside door which she locked.
“I’m staying here, friend,” she said before Jacie spoke. “There’s no ocean and more fields than forests, but Dad’s trust means there are four walls that are mine and more money than I ever had in the bank. I’ll be able to find a job when it’s all clear. One that pays enough for a decent living. Freezing in 500 square-feet above someone’s garage and settling for a seasonal retail job are too much to pay to eat lobster rolls with my friends. I love my friends in Portland, but there’s no special person, no stable housing, no job, no prospects. I’m scared of what’s going to be left when the virus is under control. ”
“I was waiting for this call. This is why the lifers don’t invest in relationships with folks like us.”
“You sound like a Maineiac, friend.”
“I’ve only lived here since high school. Became a nurse so I could make a living. Married a local.” Her voice quieted, “I can hear your heart breaking. I’m gonna miss you, Beauty. And I won’t be the only one. Give me the details. I’m hoping you aren’t planning to come back and pack your place.”
“I’m hoping you and Aaron might take care of the packing. Just the studio. I’ll hold off on the storage unit until it is safe to travel.”
“Is your dad’s place getting better? You’ve been uncomfortable there since he passed.”
Belinda looked around the kitchen her father remodeled in 2000. She’d replace a few appliances, paint, replace some cabinet doors with glass, swap out the pulls and knobs, remove the blinds. Maybe soon. Knock down walls later.
“It’s growing on me. I started pulling down curtains and cleaning out a room. This is going to be my job for a few months. You know me, I’ve got to have a reason to get up each day. No telling what’s going to happen in the world, but it feels damn fine to outright own the place where I sleep and have enough money to eat more than eggs and toast. Makes the starting over easier.”
“Amen.” Jacie cleared her throat. “Now tell me what you need me to do.”
“First I need you to stay healthy, Jacie. I can’t watch the news without thinking of you pulling down doubles.”
“We’re all doing our best, friend. You, me, everyone.”
Featured image: yuRomanovich / Shutterstock
When the doorbell rang, Henry was checking the Facebook. Again. His wife had posted a photograph that had him thinking. It was a picture of pastel-colored cookies. There were three, one on top of the other: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and a fourth, a green one angled against the cookie tower. Beneath the photo, a caption: “The art of macaron making … not to be confused with macaroon making.”
Henry had never tasted a green cookie. Was it pistachio? He wasn’t sure if such a thing existed, and he decided it shouldn’t. He cringed at the thought. But the bigger question, the reason he was on the Facebook for the ninth time that day, was where was his wife? Was she at their house only 4.7 miles away, or was she in Paris studying macaron making? And since when was she the type of woman to differentiate between a macaroon and a macaron?
Was she by herself?
With a friend?
With a man?
She wouldn’t be with a man, he decided. It wasn’t that kind of break, after all.
The doorbell rang again. Henry took a moment to think about who it might be. Nobody even knew that he had taken this condo on the edge of town, but Henry decided to answer the door anyway.
When he pressed his eye up against the peephole, Henry didn’t see anybody. And he was about to step away when he caught a shadow in his periphery. Then the bell rang again and Henry saw the top of a head.
It’s one of those little people, the ones featured in medical specials, Henry thought. And he’s standing too close to my door, that’s the reason I can’t see him properly. He’s probably selling something.
The doorbell rang again.
So, Henry opened it. He was ready to reject whatever sales pitch this little person began reciting.
But Henry quickly realized that it was not a little person, just a child.
Henry and the boy stared at each other for a moment.
“Can George come out to play?” the boy finally asked.
His thick black-rimmed glasses rested low on his nose and his dark hair stuck straight up like it hadn’t been brushed since the last time he slept. There was a large gap in the front of his mouth where teeth ought to be.
“No,” said Henry.
“Why not?” asked the boy. He reached down and pulled up one of his tall lime green socks. He was wearing them with black, slide-on sandals.
“Because there is nobody named George here,” Henry said.
“Did he go out?” the boy asked. “With his mom?”
“No. George doesn’t live here. You must have the wrong door.”
This was a reasonable explanation. The units in the complex were all identical. The only appealing feature Henry had found in them was the fact that they were partially furnished and allowed a monthly lease. He was hopeful he wouldn’t be extending his initial commitment.
“Nope,” said the boy, “it says number twelve. This is where George lives. I live in thirty-six.”
The boy looked at Henry and pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. He poked his finger in his ear and wiggled it around for a moment.
“I’ve been here before,” the boy added.
Henry stared at him.
“You sick?” the boy asked.
“No,” Henry said. “Do I look sick?”
“Your eyes look all sick and allergy,” the boy said.
“Oh, that. Yes. I have some allergies.”
Henry could just call his wife, he decided. Call her at the house and tell her he wanted to come back. He wanted to come home.
“I have allergies too. I’m allergic to sun, broccoli, shoelaces and cat fur. What are you allergic to?”
“Allergic?” Henry repeated.
“What gave you the allergy eyes?”
“Oh, right.” Henry had never heard of a person being allergic to shoelaces. Perhaps it was only certain laces, made of certain fibers. Or perhaps, Henry considered, the child was lying. “Macaron cookies,” said Henry.
“That stinks.” The boy shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly. “I’d hate being allergic to cookies.”
He leaned to the right and looked past Henry into the condo. Henry stepped aside and peered over his own shoulder. There was nothing there.
“You got any pets?” the boy asked.
“Not currently,” said Henry.
“Never,” said Henry. “Why do you ask?”
“I thought maybe that’s why you have the allergy eyes. Being allergic to cats would be way better than being allergic to cookies.”
“It’s not all cookies,” said Henry. He could call Miriam and make her understand that he was devastated too. Just like she was. They were in this together.
“I don’t trust cats,” the boy said.
“I thought you were a salesman, you know. When you rang the bell,” Henry said. “A small salesman.”
“Ok,” the boy said. “Will you tell George I came over? I’ve been here before.”
“It’s only macaron cookies,” Henry said.
“I’ll come back later. Maybe tomorrow,” the boy said. He waved his paw-like hand, turned around and walked down the path, kicking at the ground as he moved away from Henry and unit number twelve.
The next morning, Henry did not open his laptop. He did this intentionally, wanting to prove that he didn’t have to check on her. Instead, he walked out his front door. The chill air bit at his bare arms and he realized he ought to have worn a sweater, but he didn’t care. He walked toward his car and saw a large Canada goose standing in a grassy patch.
The goose honked.
“Shut up, goose,” Henry said.
The goose took a few quick, waddling steps towards Henry. It cocked its head to one side. Henry glared at the goose then got into his car and drove to the grocery store.
He wandered into the floral section and accidentally bought a plant he thought looked a lot like the ones Miriam scattered around their house. It was a stalky thing, leafy and green. Difficult to kill, the woman at the grocery store told him. Those words lingered in Henry’s mind, although Henry suspected she used this line to describe all the plants. She had no idea what they implied to Henry. After all, who was going to buy a plant that was easy to kill? And her pitch worked. He wanted something that was difficult to kill, that could live in extremity. That something like that might exist was a comfort to Henry. So, he bought the plant. He also grabbed a few cans of tuna fish and some tomato soup. He debated buying the low sodium, organic variety. The kind that Miriam bought. But he reached for the regular, high salt, high chemical, condensed. He liked the taste better, and there was nobody around forcing him to do otherwise.
When he got home, Henry set the plant on the kitchen counter, next to the laptop. Then he lifted it and carried it to the center of the island. Only after the plant was settled did Henry give in, open his computer and log into the Facebook. His wife hadn’t posted anything new, although many of her friends had liked or posted clever compliments on her cookie picture. When he scrolled below the macaron photo he saw the condolence messages posted by her friends, their friends, all those months ago. But he didn’t read them. He’d never really read them. There was nothing anybody could say that would be of any interest to Henry.
There was nothing in between.
Cookies then condolences.
It made no sense to him. Henry snapped the computer shut.
That afternoon, when his doorbell rang again, Henry immediately knew who it was. He pushed his laptop, with the macaron picture that he’d been again trying to interpret, back and stood up. When he arrived at the peephole this time, knowing where to train his eye, he caught the boy’s head more quickly.
“Can George come out to play?” the boy asked.
“No,” Henry said.
“George doesn’t live here. Why don’t you try some of those doors,” Henry suggested, pointing.
The boy stepped back. “It says number twelve,” he said. “This is where George lives.”
He looked at Henry as if it were Henry’s turn to speak, but Henry just stared back.
Finally, “Your glasses are dirty,” Henry said.
The boy reached up to his ear and pulled off the glasses. “Yup,” he said. He wiped the lenses with his shirt. “That won’t work,” Henry said. “You need water.”
The boy spit on them and wiped with his shirt again.
“Not saliva,” said Henry. “Clean water. Do you know the difference?”
The boy looked up at Henry. “The difference between spit and faucet water?”
“Yup,” he said. “I do.” He nodded slowly. Then, “Can I use your sink?” the boy asked.
Henry knew of many reasons he should not let a stranger, even, or perhaps especially a child stranger, into his house. But the kid’s glasses were dirty. Grimy, even.
“Sure,” Henry said, “but be snappy.” He stepped aside and let the boy walk past. Henry pointed to the bathroom. “There,” he said.
The boy turned on the water and rubbed his fingers on the glass. He dried them on his shirt.
“Better,” he said.
But Henry saw smudges on them still. And those smudges grazed a memory in Henry’s mind he didn’t know was so near to the surface. Claire with her brown ponytail and turquoise reading glasses. She only wore them for doing her homework at the kitchen table. Henry would glance at her, head tilted over her book, finger marking a spot on the page and he remembered choking on the depth of the emotion he had for his perfect child. The magnitude of his luck in having her. He would be viscerally drawn to move towards her and lay his hand on her back or press his lips to the top of her head, just for the chance to breathe her in. Even now, the memory made him gasp.
Henry had a sudden and irresistible urge to clean this child’s glasses.
“Hang on a minute,” Henry said, reaching for and taking the glasses away from the boy. Henry walked down the hallway to his kitchen where he pulled open a cabinet door, pushed aside the ibuprofen and found what he wanted. Henry removed a lens wipe from a packet. When he turned, the boy was right behind him.
“I thought you said you didn’t have any pets?” the boy asked.
“I don’t,” Henry said.
“What about that?” The boy pointed at the plant.
“That’s a plant. Not a pet.” Henry wiped the lenses clean then did the frame.
“Is it alive?”
“Alive doesn’t make it a pet,” said Henry.
“I think, maybe. Maybe, it does.”
The wipe was almond colored when Henry returned the glasses to the boy.
“Wow,” the boy said, sliding them onto his face. “They’re brand new. It’s like I’m seeing rainbows. How’d you do that?”
“Lens wipes.” Henry held up the box. He began walking towards the door.
“You want to play?” the boy asked.
“No,” said Henry.
“Why not?” asked the boy.
“Because I’m an adult. I don’t play.”
“Okay,” the boy said. He turned to walk away but stopped and looked at Henry. “You know what?” he asked.
“You shouldn’t stare at those cookie pictures, if you’re allergic.”
“You were snooping on my computer,” Henry said.
“You can get a reaction that way. I know. It’s happened to me before.”
“Is that so,” said Henry.
“But with the shoelaces, not cookies. I was staring at them real hard, and I got itchy all over. My mom had to take me to the hospital because my throat started to shut up. I didn’t even touch them.”
“I was looking at a friend’s post on the Facebook, that’s all,” said Henry.
“Maybe we can play with your chess set next time,” said the boy.
“Next time?” asked Henry.
“Are you any good?”
“Were you snooping in my living room?” asked Henry.
The boy shrugged. “My eyes just sort of saw it when I walked past.”
“I’m okay,” Henry said. “I don’t play as much as I used to.”
Henry thought about it. “I guess I don’t have anybody to play with.”
“Because of you being an adult?” the boy asked.
“Not exactly. I’ve been busy lately,” Henry said.
“You ask a lot of questions,” Henry said.
“Ok,” said the boy. “Tell George I came over. Maybe we can all three of us do a chess tournament next time. If it’s ok with his mom.”
“Next time?” asked Henry, for the second time in not so many minutes. But the boy didn’t answer. He had already turned and started down the path, heading away from unit number twelve.
The next day Henry called Miriam. The phone rang six times before her pre-recorded voice came on, instructing Henry to leave a message. Henry’s eyes stung, he cleared his throat and got ready for the beep. But when it sounded, Henry couldn’t speak. He breathed heavily, and felt as if a boulder was being pressed into his chest. Henry remembered what the boy had said about his throat closing, and he hung up. He knew Miriam hated voicemail anyway and would see his name under her missed calls.
When the boy arrived that afternoon, he didn’t ask for George.
“I guess you’re here to play chess,” Henry said.
“Yup,” the boy said nodding. “But your goose almost chased me away.”
“I don’t have a goose,” Henry said.
“He honked at me and started to hiss. I tossed him some leftover granola bar and he chased that. He looks like a mean goose.”
“He should have migrated south by now,” Henry said.
“I think he wants to be your pet,” the boy said. “Like a watchdog.”
Henry stepped aside and the boy walked in. They went into the living room and sat in wooden chairs that Henry had assembled years ago. Henry had found them discarded in the basement before he moved.
“This is a cool set,” said the boy. He picked up the king and examined it. “He’s taller than my king,” he said, placing it back on the board. He tapped the wooden top of each pawn.
“It was a gift,” said Henry.
“It was a gift I gave,” said Henry.
“Who’d you give it to?” the boy asked.
“My daughter,” said Henry.
“Then you took it back?” the boy asked.
Henry cleared his throat. “She doesn’t really need it now. And it reminds me of her, so I like having it.”
“That’s cool,” said the boy. “I’d never get rid of a set like this though. I like how the pieces are fat and heavy.”
The boy played first and moved his pawn to e4. Henry bit his inner cheek. It was a good open, but was it luck or skill? Henry decided to find out and he moved his pawn to e5.
The boy didn’t hesitate and moved his pawn to f4. His little legs didn’t reach the carpet and they swung back and forth.
Henry was curious to see what kind of player the boy was. Henry captured his pawn with a move to f4.
The boy’s nose was running and he rubbed it with the back of his hand. He picked up a pawn with his germy little fingers. The boy moved his piece to g4. Henry quickly captured that pawn too, moving his own piece onto g3.
“Hey,” said the boy. “You’re cheating.” He looked Henry straight in the eyes.
“Mmmm … You don’t know this rule?” said Henry.
The boy shook his head.
“It’s called en passant.”
“In passing,” said the boy.
“That’s very good,” said Henry. “I captured the pawn attempting to pass by me as if it had only moved one spot instead of two.”
“Ok,” said the boy, examining the chessboard. “You sure this is legal?”
“Certain,” said Henry.
“Can you show me again?” the boy asked.
“Sure,” said Henry. He returned the pieces to their original spaces on the board.
“You moved your pawn here,” Henry said, lifting the white piece and moving it two spaces forward on the board. “But if you had moved it here,” he pointed to the square behind where the pawn now rested, “my pawn could have captured it. The en passant rule says that I can still take it. I just move my pawn to this square and remove your pawn.”
“En passant,” the boy repeated. “Doesn’t seem fair to take my piece when it’s not even in that spot.”
“It’s not fair,” said Henry. “But it is a legal move.”
The boy nodded and sniffed his nose.
“Let me get you some tissues,” Henry offered.
“That’s ok,” the boy said, reaching for his bishop.
Henry decided he’d have to disinfect the set when the boy went home anyway, and he let it go.
He now had a decision to make. Should he let the boy win? Henry wasn’t in the habit of crushing small spirits, and he didn’t like watching children cry. However, it might be embarrassing to lose to a child who was not his own.
These were the things Miriam was good at advising him on. She understood the nuance of situations that Henry couldn’t decipher. When Claire was young and Henry was just teaching her the game, Miriam told Henry to let her win. Initially, Henry bristled against this on principle. But he quickly found he enjoyed Claire’s glee, the way she giggled when she announced checkmate, far more than any joy victory could bring him. As she grew older and more skillful, Henry challenged her but still always let her win. When Claire was around 12, Miriam told him to stop doing that. She’d catch on soon. But Henry couldn’t. So, he’d take a victory occasionally but allowed her to put his king in checkmate the majority of their games.
Until the day when Claire said, “Daddy, you have to stop.”
“Stop what?” Henry said.
“It’s condescending,” she’d said. “You’re insulting me. I’m not a baby. I want a fair fight.”
So, Henry started playing real chess. And over the last ten years, Claire had come close to beating Henry many times, but she’d never gotten to announce checkmate. Henry so wished he’d let her win the last time they’d played. But of course, he’d had no way of knowing that would be the last game they shared.
Now, Henry couldn’t call Miriam and ask her what to do. And since this boy was nearly a stranger, Henry was even more confused.
Henry said, “How old are you?”
“Eight and a half,” said the boy. Henry thought that was still firmly in the let them win age range. Henry moved his knight.
“And where did you learn to play chess?” Henry asked.
“Hospital,” said the boy.
“The hospital?” Henry repeated.
“Yup,” said the boy, taking his turn.
What a terrible place to learn chess, Henry thought, moving again. The hospital. He remembered the phone call that brought Miriam and him there, the silent drive, the stark linoleum corridor with the swinging doors at the end, the glow of the blue-white light, and the permeating scent of ammonia.
“My mom’s there now,” the boy said, reaching towards the board.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Henry said. “I hope she gets better soon.”
“She’s not sick,” said the boy.
Henry remembered the look on Miriam’s face. The silent tears. Her lack of presence. It was as if she had turned into shell and the real Miriam had disappeared, dissolved into a dark tunnel.
“It’s your turn” the boy said.
“Right,” said Henry, looking at the board. “Why is your mother at the hospital, then?”
“Cause of my brother. He’s maybe gonna die. They’re trying to fix him.”
“That’s terrible,” Henry said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. Me too,” said the boy.
Henry could still see Claire in his mind. He remembered seeing and touching her that final time. He was supposed to identify her body. To confirm that his only child was dead. He’d been alone because Miriam was slumped down in the hallway, no longer crying, unable to move. A nurse had sat next to her and held her hand while she stared at nothing. The nurse told Henry to go ahead. So, Henry did. And when he saw Claire she was pale and grey and already cold. Yet somehow, she was still as exquisite and pure as she’d been on the day she was born. The thought of leaving her there was impossible, incomprehensible and Henry had begun to shiver and sweat all at once. If he’d been physically able, he would have lifted her off the bed and cradled her, carried her out of that frigid room with him. Even like that, he would have kept her forever.
“Doctors can do amazing things,” Henry said. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “I’ll bet your brother will be just fine,” Henry said. He didn’t really mean it, but it was the only thing he could think to offer.
“Maybe,” the boy said.
Henry had not made a final decision about letting the boy win, yet the child announced, “Checkmate.”
“Checkmate?” Henry repeated.
Had Henry let him win? His attention had surely slipped. Henry examined the placement of the pieces still on the board. He noted the pieces that had been removed.
He’d definitely gone easy on the kid. And he was distracted. But Henry felt a surge of relief in his stomach that the boy had won.
The boy stuck out his hand to shake Henry’s. “Good game,” he said. “Thanks for teaching me that move. I’m going to use that all the time.”
Henry shook his hand. It was small and warm and something about the way it fit so entirely inside Henry’s palm clutched at Henry.
“You’re welcome,” said Henry. “You’re a good player. We’ll do it again.”
The boy nodded.
After the boy left, Henry texted Miriam. I’m so sorry, he wrote. He was sorry for everything, even the parts that were not his fault. He was sorry he hadn’t made more cups of hot tea, brought her more boxes of tissues and sat quietly by her side in the weeks after. He was deeply sorry for cleaning out Claire’s room, donating those boxes to goodwill and planning that vacation. Even though he had been following the advice of a book on grief, a stupid book he’d bought online, he was very, very sorry.
Henry held the phone in his hand and watched the little dots dance across the bottom of the screen. Henry knew this meant she was replying. But then the dots disappeared, and the text screen remained blank.
Henry threw his phone against the wall.
The boy did not ring Henry’s doorbell again. After three days Henry noticed that he had never righted the chess pieces after his last game. He began moving each piece to its correct square. Quickly, Henry noticed that something was wrong. Something was missing.
The black king. It was gone. Henry scanned the floor. He peeked beneath the sofa. He stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said aloud.
A few days later, Henry decided he had to do something. He could wait no longer. He walked out his front door. He noticed the goose.
“You’ve missed migration,” Henry said. “You don’t belong here. You need to move on.” Henry motioned towards the sky and the goose stared at Henry. His tall neck was midnight bright against the grey day. He honked. Henry set his jaw and pressed his eyes into slits. He took a few steps towards the goose. Something rustled in the distance and Henry saw another goose fretting in the shrubbery. Both geese moved towards Henry. The bigger one began to hiss, the smaller one honked rapidly. “I live here,” Henry shouted. “Get used to it, geese.” Henry backed away a few paces before turning to trot down his path.
Henry rang the doorbell on unit number thirty-six. He heard a voice call out, “I’ll be right there.”
When she opened the door, Henry averted his eyes to hide his surprise. She was a hairless woman. He looked down, then back at her quickly, just to confirm. Indeed, she was bald with pale, sunken cheeks. Sick people made Henry feel nauseated. He looked at his feet again.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked.
“I’m looking for somebody,” Henry said.
“Anyone in particular?” she asked.
“I’m looking for … ” and suddenly Henry realized he didn’t know the boy’s name. He wondered what was the matter with him. He had never asked the boy his name. He decided it must be the situation with Miriam. Had he really never even asked the child for his name?
“A child,” Henry said. “The little boy who lives here. He has dark hair and is about this tall.” Henry held up his hand to mid-chest.
“There are no children here,” she said. “I’m here alone.”
“He had sticky fingers and smudged glasses,” Henry went on. “He doesn’t comb his hair.”
“I know what a child is,” the woman said. “I raised three of them. But there are none here.”
“He is a reasonably competent chess opponent,” Henry added.
“I think you have the wrong unit,” the woman suggested. Henry looked at the number on the doorframe. “No, this is unit thirty-six. This is where he lives.”
Or lived,” the woman said. “I just moved in yesterday.”
“I think he has my king,” Henry said.
“Your king?” the woman repeated.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Henry said. “You don’t look like you’re feeling well.”
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
Henry glanced at her for a moment before closing his eyes. Everything began spinning around him. The woman spoke, but her voice was distant, as if she were murmuring under water. Henry had a desperate urge to be back at home. His real home with Miriam, where things like this didn’t happen.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “Do you need to sit down?” She reached out and touched his arm. Henry stepped away. “I’m not contagious,” she said, shaking her head. “I was making a joke when I asked why you thought I was unwell. A bad joke, apparently.” The woman lifted both hands and rested them on her bald head. Henry looked at her then. Her eyes were filling with tears. Henry was making this sick woman cry. He looked directly at her head. It was well-shaped, Henry thought. He ran his fingers through his own, thinning hair.
“I know you’re not contagious,” Henry said. He cleared his throat.
“I’m living here while I get treatment,” she said, rubbing her fingers under her eyes. “This place gives a discount to patients who need an extended stay situation.”
“This was rude of me,” Henry shook his head. “That boy accidentally took a piece of my chess set. My king. You can’t play chess without the king,” Henry said.
“That is true,” the woman said.
“He may have stolen it. It might not have been an accident at all.”
The woman nodded her head. “He probably stole it,” she agreed. “Most children have thievish tendencies.”
Something about the way she said this made Henry laugh. There was a hint of mischief in her eyes, too. “But he was a nice kid,” Henry finally said, shaking his head. “Even if he stole it, I could tell he was a good boy.”
“Maybe,” the woman nodded.
Henry turned to leave but suddenly paused. “If you need anything, I’m in unit number twelve.”
The woman smiled, and that smile softened her eyes in such a way that Henry almost didn’t mind her bald head. It was no longer her most defining feature.
“Thank you,” she said.
Henry stared at her for a moment longer than was comfortable before waving goodbye.
Tomorrow, Henry would go to the store where he’d buy a few cans of chicken noodle soup, and a box of crackers. Sick people food. He’d select a few magazines that Miriam always read when she had a cold. Then he’d ring her doorbell, hand her the bag of groceries and ask for her name. He’d learn it was Elsie and he’d tell her his name was Henry. Elsie would invite him inside, but he would decline. He would remind her that he lived in unit number twelve, if she ever needed anything.
But he didn’t know any of that yet. For now, Henry began walking down the path. He realized that he never asked the woman her name and he vowed to do better with introductions. He saw that there was no car in her driveway and wondered how she got around. There must be prescription medication she needed. How did she pick that up? While Henry was thinking about all these things, it began to snow.
“Those geese better get moving,” Henry said aloud. Winter had definitely arrived. Maybe they’d be gone when he got back to his unit. He’d have to check. Snowflakes tickled Henry’s nose and cheeks. Quickly, white patches clung to the grass, lacing a doily over all the yards Henry passed. Henry tilted his chin towards the sky, opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue so that he could taste the icy cold. He considered the mystery of how countless snowflakes fell from the sky, yet no two were identical. It was a mystery he had pondered for years, ever since he was a child, yet another thing he’d never understand. And Henry decided that maybe that was okay. Maybe that was just the way it had to be.
Featured image: Shutterstock, Alexander_P
I hit my first deer a few weeks after my sweet sixteen party. I’d just gotten my driver’s license a few days before. It was a typical cool fall evening on a narrow bend, somewhere close by in this hollow. The chilly Southern Indiana breeze was blowing through, making the gravel road slicker than usual. A sort of freezing of the little pieces of stone in a way that they’d stick together like minute rice does if you don’t add enough water. I drove around that curve in Daddy’s yellow Ford Granada. Listening to a song from the Beatles — I think it was Let It Be. I sang along, my head barely above the wide yellow steering wheel. A taste of peppermint Chapstick on my lips.
The little doe just jumped out of nowhere. She came through the trees and some bushes, then introduced herself right quick to my large boxy headlight. I slammed on the brakes and felt the fishtailing of the backside. Daddy said later I’d kicked up a patch of Autumn leaves with the tires, which made it worse. Oh, I screamed and screamed as the car turned in circles. By the time I was done, that little deer was halfway to sandwich meat.
I felt bad afterwards. She was a mother. Her little boy came walking up to her body after I’d checked her out on the road. His tiny black eyes looked right through me. A sort of squeal from his insides and a tremble from that white fluffy tail.
I grew up real fast that day. Learned the consequences of a large automobile, and me taking too many loose risks with the accelerator. Well, I guess I learned some lessons like that. I sure did take that stretch of road behind me a little too fast this time too. Now, here’s another one, twitching on the ground off the side of my Lincoln Continental. The little squeal, although this time apparently from my radiator. The steam coming out from under the hood. A giant dent in the front bumper, which warps the reflection of the moonlight through them same fall trees.
I think I first met a deer back when I was five or six. We were in our nightgowns sitting on our living room floor playing a game of Put ‘n Take on the yellow carpet. That card game where you add pennies (we used buttons) to the pot if you got a match, and then at some point started doing the opposite by taking money back until the pot was empty. Mama always said it was me and at least three of my sisters that early evening: Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie. We were the youngest ones then except for Robby, but he would have been upstairs in the attic sleeping. The older kids either out with their friends or out of the house by then. All of us members of the old Schoettmeyer family.
Mama said she had her sewing kit out fixing a shirt that night. Daddy was probably a few drinks of whiskey deep laying on the couch. We girls were just sitting there in a circle, a warm fire in the wood-burning stove and maybe some music from the radio, which often broadcasted from the local polka club. We were probably giggling or maybe fighting over a button or two. Then, suddenly, a loud crash. A spray of glass all over us in that little room. The damn deer had plain jumped through the picture window beside the door. Must have gotten confused and thought he was running towards some warm shiny cave. He pranced around disoriented and covered in cuts of blood. We girls danced around too, all scared and screaming. Daddy thought he saw the devil that night, later blaming Mr. Jack Daniels.
It was Mama who took control. She set down her sewing kit and chased the deer out the kitchen side door. A trail of blood all across that yellow carpet. The smell of animal sweat and toilet-leavings. Daddy found the critter the next day towards the end of our gravel lane, dead. It took us weeks to get that picture window replaced. Months for us girls to stop having night terrors in our dreams (it didn’t help that the attic was crawling with a family of field mice). Southern Indiana has had a problem with deer for several years. There’s way too many of us, and way too many of them.
Of course, we Shoettmeyers weren’t the only ones getting attacked. Well, I guess attacked isn’t the right word unless you’re looking at it from the perspective of the animal. Irregardless, I remember that one weekend some spring when my friend Bette and her family were driving home from the high school basketball sectionals. Our team wasn’t worth the price of admission, but we’d all went to cheer on our school and then watched the annihilation of our little farm boys by those big players from Indianapolis. Bette’s dad made her leave that game early, I remember. Some sort of church prayer group that night, over in Millhousen. So, she loaded into the back of the family station wagon with at least two of her bratty little brothers who always seemed to have something sticky on their fat faces, whether it be ice cream or spilled soda or maybe snot.
Bette’s dad had a lead foot when it came to driving, and that station wagon was like a rusty old rocket with polished wood side panels. Bette said they were going over the crooked stone bridge at Cobb’s Fork pretty fast when they saw the group of deer standing in the middle of Millhousen Road. There were three of the hairy little white-tails, just staring wide-eyed at the oncoming headlights and frozen in place, much like our varsity squad on that basketball court that night.
Bette said the station wagon knocked two of the beasts off their feet, and the third did a ballerina spin straight into the air before landing smack dab in the center of the car’s roof. Bette got a big knot on the head from that collision, and I swear she just wasn’t right after that. A little weird twitch in her neck and moments in mid-conversation where she’d stop talking and stare blankly with a little bit of drool running down her chin. Her daddy laughed at that night for several years, and always bragged about how the county let him keep the meat from all three deer, even though I think the law back then only allowed one doe and one buck during hunting season. Well, he laughed until that head injury caught up with Bette. By the time we were in our thirties, she was in a nursing home barely able to speak her name. Soon after, she was gone.
It’s scary how quick time goes by.
My eldest sibling Alfred always had his favorite deer story, which he made sure we knew was better than any we had to tell. Alfred was 19 years older than me, my parents having started with the Catholic sex practices the first night of their marriage, popping out thirteen kids total before poor Mama’s uterus gave out in her mid-forties (she always said God gave her fourteen blessings in life — us kids and early menopause).
I was the third youngest, but still tried to challenge Alfred on the suspect nature of his story. After all, he had become quite acquainted with Mr. Daniel’s by then. But Alfred never backed down. He said anyone could hit a deer with a moving vehicle. He had knocked one down with his cold, bare hands.
I guess it happened when he was around 28, having returned from that Korean War and then setting up a farm next to Daddy’s. Alfred had quite a garden patch back then, in addition to the various corn and soybean fields. He liked to grow cabbage in that garden, for whatever reason, and made his wife Pamela cook the smelly weed twice a week.
But then one summer the deer took over. They ate through half the cabbage heads, coming out of the woods at night to make their feast. Alfred first tried to scare them off with aluminum pinwheels (ones he’d stolen from me and my sisters, which we’d picked up at the County 4-H fair). That didn’t work. Someone recommended a deer-proof fence, but he laughed off the suggestion, saying the damn animals could jump higher than any fence pole he’d met. So then one night he just sat on the back porch with his shooting rifle. Got bored real quick so he dipped into that whiskey bottle. A few rounds later he saw a whole family of spotted deer creeping into his garden patch. He shot the gun but nothing happened, then realized Pamela had removed the shells hours before (she always said he could have a gun and have a drink, but never in the same evening). He threw down the gun and went chasing after the deer through the garden, the shadows from the orange security light making it seem like there were twice as many. The deer started running in circles and trampling every other vegetable in the patch. Alfred didn’t care, he just wanted to save those last few heads of cabbage.
Alfred said he screamed and hollered and chased the deer back into the woods. But then he got knocked clear out of his boots and didn’t wake up till hours later, the moon at its highest point in the sky. He had his arm wrapped around what he thought was Pamela in bed, until he realized it was the cold broken body of a young buck. Turns out drunk Alfred and the panicked deer had run straight into each other, hitting so hard that Alfred lost consciousness (and control of his bladder, according to Pamela). The deer broke its neck. “Take that,” Alfred said, every time he told the story (in a more favorable manner). “I ran over a deer myself. Don’t need no stinking vehicle.”
Alfred was always such a character. He had that loud table-shaking belly laugh.
My dear sweet husband Phil also had his run-in with the pests. It was probably around the time our daughter Sammy was in kindergarten. It had been a rough few years for me and Phil, having tried everything to be with child. Then God surprised us with the gift of Sammy, a little baby sweetheart left at the local volunteer fire station, where Phil was captain. The County tried hard to find her parents, but came up empty. So, we eventually took her on, and that was that. I was a mother.
I think it was a summer night a few years later. I was at bingo at the Knight’s Hall with my seven sisters. Marjorie, Loretta, and Junie, of course, as well as Agatha, Rosemary, Greta, and Constance (Constance was visiting from Cincinnati, the rest of us girls never left Millhousen). We were laughing and drinking that Tickled Pink cheap wine that tasted like strawberries. A couple of us must have won a few games, as I recall a pile of cash somewhere in the direction of Agatha’s seat. But then old mayor George Harper walked over with a belt full of pull-tab tickets. He said he’d just gotten a call from the sheriff’s department. Turns out Phil drove his truck straight over a mailbox after smacking a deer sideways. I was panicked at first, until George pointed me in the direction of the house phone where Phil was laughing. “I took that damn deer fishing,” he said. I thought he was drunker than a skunk.
Course, I later heard the real story, or as real as a story from a man can be. Phil was driving towards the farm with a few buckets of catfish in the back of his pickup truck. He’d had a successful evening of fishing over there near Cobb’s Fork. Said it was easier to find the deeper holes in the creek now that the County had cleared away half the forest (for some new housing development, which never finished). I guess Phil took a turn near the old bridge, and he came upon a giant 12-point buck standing proud in the center of the blacktop. Phil hit the brakes and tried to miss it, but the animal charged his truck and they collided at thirty miles per hour. The buckets of water went flying in the air and dropped the catfish all around that deer, who had its antlers stuck under the front hood. Phil was lucky to survive that night, my dear sweet man. God sure gave him several extra lives, the old dog.
I think it was around that time the county noticed the problem with the animals. Too many deer and too many people slamming into them. The county went and got permission from the governor to do a culling, a so-called authorized hunt where the men could go into the woods on a Saturday morning and shoot around thirty-some white-tails in a mile or so radius. A way to thin the masses, since the deer had no natural predators (other than a Ford or Chevy on an evening drive). It sounded gruesome at first, and several people in town protested (mostly us ladies). But the county and old mayor George Harper persisted, and the hunt was on.
I still remember that morning. Little Sammy and I sat in front of the television watching a Puff The Magic Dragon cartoon while the sounds of gunshots came from the woods behind the barn. A constant series of pops, which scared Sammy at first until I gave her a few extra snickerdoodle cookies and told her it was just the sound of falling rain. Little love droplets from our heavenly father.
She was such a fragile little girl, that Sammy. A delicate little angel. Her hair was as red as Phil’s fire engine, and her cheeks were just as rosy. I loved her more than a man loves his football team. All the way into her forties when we lost her. A series of pain medications that she just couldn’t kick.
It’s crazy how life takes a turn now and then, just as sharp and crooked as this bend in this hollow. It’s enough to make you angry. To just go screaming in the night if you will, like Alfred went after those deer in his garden patch. But Mama taught us girls that you have to barrel through. Consider each day just as sweet as another cookie from the jar, and carry on. So here I am.
That deer still twitches near the front of my Lincoln Continental. The flashers blinking on the trees with their falling leaves. Casting everything into intermittent shades of red in this quiet cold night. I smell the crisp scent of burnt tire tread.
They decided the culling was so successful, they repeated it for several years thereafter. It’s funny, though, how it never really seemed to reduce the deer population. People kept running into the beasts at typical frequency. The collisions were so popular, it appeared other animals decided to follow suit.
Which takes me to my brother Dick, who always had to be the outlier. That man loved his dogs and chickens more than anyone I know. He was another one supporting that deep belly laugh.
Anyways, this was years before but it still proves my point. It was the night of the big dance in Judge Westerfeld’s pole barn. I was probably a teenager around then, but not yet old enough to drive that yellow Granada. People across town had been talking for weeks – the big regalia. Some kind of party that Junie, Robby, and I were too young to attend. A fundraiser of sorts for the local library, which was on its last donation. We snuck in anyways. The barn filled with bales of hay along the walls and different colored spotlights hanging from the rafters. A fiddler and a band set up in a corner. Tables of steaming potluck food along the back doors, with the smell of hot apple cider in the air. Women in long, frilly dresses kicking up their heels in the dirt at the center. Men standing awkwardly in circles wearing typical red flannel and blue jeans.
It was a simpler time back then, way before those cellular phones and internets. But it sure brought the community together. People from all different Protestant branches, and the crowd from our Millhousen Catholic Church. I fell in love that night. Not with Phil. He and I wouldn’t meet until a few years later at my cousin’s wedding. No, that night I fell in love with dancing, and it still is something I try to do now and then when no one’s looking. I wish people still appreciated a good two-step or square dance. I wish there were still places to go like Westerfeld’s barn to socialize with all the good folk.
Anyways, it was a chilly night and Dick was driving his daughters to a junior high lock-in before he headed over to the barn dance. The lock-in was sort of a slumber party in the high school gym, where the kids could play and bond under the watchful supervision of Principal Biddy (that’s what everyone called her back then, a sort of spinster lady that only laughed when it involved a kid getting spanked with a pig bone).
Dick was driving on County Road 3 between Millhousen and the school over near Westport. He saw the eyes first, reflecting in the rays of his headlights. He immediately thought “deer,” so he hit the brakes out of habit. But turned out it was young Junior Johnson’s prized heifer. She’d somehow escaped the pen and ran straight into the side of Dick’s blue van. The door buckled and manure sprayed across the vehicle windows. The girls screamed, probably haunted by that moment for years. Well, the trauma from the collision or maybe worse — arriving at the school lock-in in a van covered with shit.
I sure do miss that character. Dick, who probably was my favorite brother even though all five of them seemed to revel in making us girls miserable. Pulling our pigtails and hiding spiders in our shoes and such. But Dick would go out of his way to help a neighbor in need, whether it was lending a loaf of bread or helping rebuild a burnt-down farmhouse. That’s for sure. He was as good-hearted as any man can be. And it’s sad that the good Lord took him away a few years back.
That’s the problem as time passes. The slow loss of loved ones. The replacement of older family members with newer, distant generations.
It’s getting cold out. I think I’ll wait inside the car now until they get here. Surely, someone will drive down this road sometime soon. Just another happy accident. A deer and an old lady. The usual rhyme.
I think the most troublesome of the stories happened during my mid-fifties. Junie’s daughter Gracie had a Sunday morning paper route for that big news company up in Indianapolis. Every week she’d pick up the bundles off a truck that drove down to Millhousen around 4:00 a.m. Then she’d roll them up with rubber bands and spread them across her dashboard for easy handling. They were thick little suckers, full of inserts from the new fancy mall and grocery stores. I can’t imagine she could see the road good, driving that old Pinto she used to have. Not to mention the fog from the chilly early morning, spreading across the fields and those county gravel roads.
Now Gracie was a shy one, always was. As timid as a church mouse, and probably never spoke to a boy in her life. She was mid-20s around that time, and still working on her high school G.E.D. She lived with Junie and their three dogs, Junie’s husband having left them for some cheap casino waitress years earlier. Junie never was right in the head after that divorce, and neither was Gracie. It’s sad how us women sometimes only see ourselves through the eyes of men.
Anyways, poor little Gracie was driving down one of those less-maintained gravel roads over by Donnie Mae’s Beauty Shop, which was in the middle of the countryside on top of a steep hill. Gracie always wore coke-bottle thick glasses and had that stringy brown hair most of us Schoettmeyer girls had (if any of us had the nerve to show our natural color). They said the visibility was minimal, and she had her high beams on when everyone knows in a fog you use the low ones. Irregardless, the deer jumped in front of her Pinto near the big culvert just a few yards away from the lane up to Donnie Mae’s shop. Gracie hit the beast, and it went flying through her windshield. Next thing you know, she and the car and that animal were turned upside-down in the culvert. And that was that.
Another one gone.
It’s really quite startling when you think about it. The number of years that fly by, and the knocking off of loved ones one-by-one. It most always starts with the grandparents (mine were gone soon after I was born), and then the parents. A longer parade of time before the brothers and sisters and in-laws start to drop. Then in some instances even the children, like poor little Gracie and my dear sweet Sammy.
Of course, husbands are the least dependable when it comes to living. They’ve been known to go well before their wives in this small town. Old Phil left me for natural causes when he was 62. A little too much of the drink and his liver went out. I loved that man from here to Sunday. It left the biggest mark on my tired, old heart.
I lost Mama and Daddy in similar ways, to old age and mornings when they just didn’t choose to wake up. Alfred went about ten years after them, a victim of the cancer. Something that hit several of my siblings, including Loretta, Constance, Greta, and poor Agatha, who suffered the longest. Dick went by heart attack, as did little Robby (after too many years of party drugs that started at that fancy bible college down South). I didn’t even mention Randolph and Homer, who we lost to Mr. Nixon and that damn Vietnam War. That leaves Marjorie (stroke), Rosemary (a fall off the porch), and Junie (pneumonia just a year ago). My dear sweet sisters. Each one dropping off in sequence over a period of several years, along with various nieces and nephews (some of whom were older than me).
But that’s just the start of it. Old Mayor George Harper (shot dead), Judge Westerfeld (aneurism), Principal Biddy (ran over), Donnie Mae (sugar diabetes), and even Junior Johnson (opioids). All of them have passed into the Lord’s great kingdom, leaving me down here on Earth in this freezing cold. Me, sitting in this car at age 88. A stiff neck and bouts of mini-confusion. A tiny carcass of the woman I used to be. The last one standing.
Yes, the passage of time is the thing that hurts the most. The changing seasons and then the changing of times. Of habits (politeness switched to rudeness), community events (church fundraisers replaced with protest marches), and even ways of speaking (a friendly “hello” to that now frequent “f” you”). The things that people like, and how they spend their days, evenings, and weekends. An evolution of communication (in person to tapping on a phone), and how we socialize (used to be in person, now it’s through machines). It all changes.
I miss those times from long ago the most. The barn dances and high school sectionals. Junior high lock-ins and bingo at the old Knight’s Hall. Sunday drives through the countryside and the 4-H fair. Newspapers. A long conversation on the phone. None of that stuff happens anymore. Long since lost with the people who are no longer with us. The entire death of generations, replaced by younger ones with odd ideas. The folks I used to know when I was 16. The families. All of them gone to the soil and the hands of God. Populations of people thinned out through the mighty march of time. The sounds of their voices never heard again. Their memory likely lost. The same for me on that day I speak my last belabored breath.
It’s sad when you think about it. Terrible even. Just as painful as any run-in with these silly deer.
Well, here I sit. My teeth chattering from the creeping cold. The lights fading on my flashers from the diminished charge in my battery. The tall, skinny trees with their falling leaves. A shine of moonlight up above with the countless number of lost stars.
There’s a soft sound of footprints. Little crunching on the gravel. I look out the window and immediately fog the glass with my breath. I roll it down to see what’s all the ruckus.
Deer. At least five or six of them. A whole darn herd. Walking down the gravel road from behind me. Now surrounding my Lincoln Continental and this curve in the road amongst the forest. Each taking a whiff of the ripe smell of death from the critter at the front of my vehicle. A final salute, perhaps, to their fallen friend.
I look ahead and see the lights. Approaching slowly on the road before me. Blending into a shiny beacon. Perhaps finally here to take me home.
Featured Image: Shutterstock, oleschwander
The line of spectators started to form at dusk, and by the time Barry Pidgeon unlocked the turnstiles there would be over 10,000 eager customers waiting to hand over their rations just to catch a glimpse of the miraculous Anastasia.
He named his rare pet after the famous Russian duchess who had been executed during the Bolshevik revolution. Her body was never found, but sightings were reported for years to come, giving the people hope that against all odds she had somehow survived. The same was true of his Anastasia. After the Great Die Off of the late 21st century there were only rumors of living, breathing creatures, but against all odds Barry rediscovered animal life in Old Manhattan.
He was a copper wire scavenger in the once great metropolis. After North Korea blasted the city back to the stone age it wasn’t uncommon to see brave men like Barry dressed in nuclear immersion suits, popping potassium iodide tablets through their Isreali-made respirators as they scoured the ruins for recyclables.
Barry hadn’t breathed Earth’s oxygen since he was a boy. No one had. In the arms race of the Second Cold War nearly every country in the world developed their own nuclear weapons, and on that fateful day, September 11th, 2092 when President Jack Black the 3rd pushed the big red button in the war room, nearly every country followed suit and detonated their bombs. The air around him had changed from a balanced cocktail of three parts nitrogen, one part oxygen, with a splash of argon and carbon dioxide to a dangerous slurry of nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and toxic radiation.
Plants died. The “machine” that turned carbon dioxide into oxygen was no more. Animals suffocated and burned to a crisp. That “lucky old sun” that used to “roll around heaven all day” now punished the earth. No oxygen meant no ozone and so there was little to block the UV rays from penetrating fur and flesh. No crops. No meat. Nothing but the factory made Almost bars that doomsday preppers squirreled away in their underground bunkers. Barry still remembered the classic commercials of his youth.
“Is it food?” “Almost!”
And Barry was lucky to have paranoid conspiracy theorists for parents. Sure it meant that he was never vaccinated against easily avoidable viruses and that he spent most of his homeschool hours learning to disassemble and reassemble machine guns, but when the atomic dust cleared, he and his family poked their heads out of their asbestos-lined concrete bunker to live another day.
He had lived another 7,372 days and now he was 27 years old. His last memory of a real life pet were his chickens Tyson, Drumstick, and Nugget. They too survived the blast but they didn’t survive his father’s cravings for meat after all the factory farms disappeared in a flash. Nuclear holocaust is abhorrent, but eating your pets is just depressing.
And then one fateful day when he was ripping copper wire out of the walls at 725 5th Avenue, he just happened to open an apartment door to find Anastasia cowering in a dark corner.
It didn’t seem real at first. Like waking up to the Virgin Mary sitting at the foot of your bed or buttering a piece of toast only to discover the face of Jesus staring up from the crisp slice of Wonderbread. This was a miracle. A living, breathing animal existing, without assistance, in the poisonous air.
He worried that the precious creature would scamper away and would be lost in the ruins, so he moved cautiously into the former living room. He risked breaking the seal of his containment suit to shake out a couple of crumbs of an Almost bar. The momentary exposure burned his skin but it was worth it. The innocent little animal looked up at him with the most expressive eyes as if to say “Thank you, Barry. I’ve been waiting for you” and she proceeded to happily nibble away on the genetically modified protein packed morsels.
He found a shoebox still intact, a miracle in and of itself, and lured his new pet into its new home. He couldn’t focus on his work, opening the lid a dozen times an hour to marvel at his discovery. And for the first time in decades he felt something like hope. He thought back on all that Russian literature that his parents had been obsessed with and his mind jumped to the story of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Once believed to be dead. But no more. His Anastasia. Once believed to be extinct. But no more.
The exhibition hall was a reclaimed circus tent that Barry had scavenged from Coney Island. Its thick canvas blocked most of the UV rays and although spectators still had to suck on their oxygen tanks, they could at least remove their face shields long enough to take a look at his famed pet.
He employed weavers and tinkerers to manufacture a whole line of Anastasia merchandise and peddlers sold these momentos to those waiting in line. Cash money was worthless. During the depths of the great toilet paper shortage of 2095 armed thugs actually robbed banks just to use the greenbacks to wipe with. So people paid with scrap for the plush Anastasia dolls and Anastasia ammo with a caricature of her face stamped on the full metal jackets and the Anastasia brand water filters (where you’d suck up polluted water through her adorable body).
It was a bartering society, so the price varied based on demand and on the customer’s attitude. If you were polite and aluminum siding was booming, an 8-foot by 4-foot panel might score you an Anastasia canteen or an Anastasia fragmentation grenade. It all depended on the market.
The bleached white T.P. of Barry’s youth was worth its weight in gold and occasionally an eccentric businessman would arrive in the early morning hours to try to purchase Anastasia with a factory sealed 24-pack of Charmin from the year 2000. It was tempting because even with all of his fortune and fame, Barry still wiped with machine washable burlap like everybody else. But he couldn’t do it. Not only was Anastasia profitable, she was his pet and he loved her.
And he loved watching the way that children reacted when they got to see her. Their faces lit up. They would squeal with excitement. They would insist that Anastasia was looking at them, that she smiled at them, that she winked her eye at them. The moving walkway would escort them on to yet another gift shop and they would crane their necks until Anastasia was completely out of sight. They’d hug their plush Anastasia dolls to their chests and beg their parents to get back in line for another chance to see the World’s Last Surviving Wild Animal.
Most adults remembered pets and zoos. But telling a child about a puppy or a kitten or a chicken was like telling previous generations about pterodactyls and velociraptors. These were mythical creatures, and even in the virtual reality simulators, the children couldn’t wrap their minds around what it must have been like to go to sleep with a real life pet.
For a brief time after the die out, former jockeys from the now-defunct race tracks could make good money dressing up as oversized cats and dogs for the rich. For a few thousand an hour you could walk and groom and feed your rented “pet.” But soon radiation suits were required for survival, and no one wanted to play with a human posing as a fake dog wrapped in rubber and lead.
Every night Anastasia slept on Barry’s chest, inside his radiation suit. She would circle a few times and then settle into his tufts of hair and drift off to the Land of Nod. And this is how the accident occured. How Barry crushed his beloved Anastasia and deprived the world of its last living pet.
He was having the same old nightmare. The bombs were falling. The other children in the bunker were screaming. And Indigo Rain, one of the other mothers who had agreed to wait out the massacre with his parents, was losing her mind. She seemed to levitate up the iron ladder and before Barry’s parents could stop her, she was cranking open the hatch. She was screaming about just wanting to see the trees. Just one last look before the trees were gone. And at that moment a flash melted the skin right off her face …
He woke up sweating on the floor. In his dream he had thrown himself to the ground to protect his own face. And in reality, he had also thrown himself to the ground. He felt something wet on his chest and before he moved a muscle, he knew. Anastasia had been crushed. Her vital fluids were running down his sternum. He pushed himself up and she clung to his chest hair. He began to sob as he lay back on the bed and lifted his suit to give her some space, hoping to see her breathe.
She looked up at him. Those dark black eyes seemed to plead with him. They said “Why?” They cried “How could you?” And her thorax quivered. And she stretched out a single wing. And her antennae twitched. Once. Twice. And she was still. And the last living thing … the last cockroach, in the whole wide world, the very last one, was dead.
Featured image: Shutterstock, DM7
The old woman with a hearing problem had her head bent to the task of tossing bread scraps to the chickens. She didn’t know a young woman was driving a small car down her dirt driveway. Dora Gomes, who was about to take a sheet off the clothesline, saw the dust through the trees and heard the tires bump over the stones. Then she saw the woman in the car.
“You’ve got a visitor, Misa,” Dora said.
The old woman looked up, and when she saw the figure through the car’s windshield, she cried, “Sweet Jesus! Not another real estate person!” She dropped the bag of bread scraps, and all the chickens scrambled around in their frenzy to peck at their unexpected gift.
“Well, let’s find out,” Dora said.
The young woman got out of the car and said to Misa, “Excuse me, but are you Mrs. Correia?”
“Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want any. And my land’s not for sale. This here’s private property.”
The young woman laughed. “If you’re Misa Correia, then you’re my grandmother. I’m Odelia Correia, but people call me Odie. I came to Shallow Bay to meet you.”
“Misa!” Dora cried. “We all knew you had a granddaughter somewhere, and here she is. Isn’t that wonderful!”
Misa studied this stranger with her thick black hair pulled into an untidy ponytail. “Did your father send you?”
Odie knew a wary woman when she saw one, so she made her words rush out like a waterfall. “No, he doesn’t even know I’m here. I wanted to come sooner. For years, I begged and begged. They divorced when I was seven, and my mother whisked me off to California, and, well, there were issues. But I’m twenty-one now and just finished college, on my own, finally. I’m getting married in September, and Andrew and I will be living in Boston. I got a job in a management training program at a bank, and he’s going to be at Harvard Business School, so I thought this would be a good time to come, before I have to look for an apartment and start my new job.”
She glanced at the barn and chicken coop and at the untended pastures and fields that swept down to the distant shore of the Atlantic. “This is a beautiful place. I didn’t know you lived on a farm. When I got off the boat I asked people where I could find Misa Correia, and they all pointed me in this direction, so eventually I got here.”
“Ten miles,” Misa said. “This here’s the south side of the island.”
The wind sharpened, fluttering the sheet on the line. Dora unpegged it and said, “Maybe Odie would like something cold to drink after that ride. I’ll bring the laundry up to the house and make some iced tea.” She gave Misa her cane. “Watch your step around the chickens.”
A heavy silence hung between the two Correia women, each taking measure of the other. Erase the span of seventy years and they might have been twins; the fine shape of the jaw and eyes a lively brown.
Finally, Misa said, “How long are you planning to stay on the island?”
“Just a few days, long enough to get to know you, if that’s okay.”
“And your father? Where’s Matias?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t see much of him. We don’t communicate very well.”
The old woman let several minutes pass before she answered. “Matias is no son to me. We had a falling out about five years ago. Since then, we don’t communicate, either.”
She put on her glasses and studied her granddaughter. “They sent me your picture once, and now you’re all grown up. You have something of your grandfather about you, the shape of your face, maybe.”
Clutching her cane, Misa pulled herself to her feet. “I’m ninety years old, but I can still take care of myself, with a little help. Just so you’ll know, your father wanted to put me in a home off Island somewhere and take over my land. That will never happen, I told him. He stormed off and I haven’t seen him since.”
Odie felt sweat trickling down her neck. “Well, he never talked much about you. Whenever he mentioned Shallow Bay, it was all about how he could develop it and make a lot of money.”
She glanced at the old farm house and the beds of perennials. “I wouldn’t think he’d want to change a thing.”
“We’ll go in, now,” Misa said.
The inside of the house was cluttered with an accumulation of things Misa no longer needed but refused to toss out. Odie smelled cat urine and dust and made her way around stacks of old newspapers to sit by an open window. They drank iced tea and Dora had put out a plate of cookies, then she helped Misa into her bedroom located in the far reaches of the house and settled her in for her afternoon nap.
Dora returned to the kitchen and began to fold the sheets. “Last winter your grandmother tripped over a dish of cat food and fell,” she told Odie. “After a few weeks in the hospital, the doctor sent her back here but said she needed some help. I’m here three days a week.”
She checked the time and then she turned her attention to the refrigerator. “The truck from the market will be here in a few minutes so I have to clean out the old food to make room for the new stuff.”
Odie picked up the cat and gently scratched its ears. “So, she gets her groceries delivered?”
“She gets everything delivered, her food, prescriptions, even her library books.”
Odie thought about this for a few minutes, then said, “You’re here three days a week. What about the other four days?”
“Oh, she manages, but let me tell you, the place is a mess when I come back.”
“What, exactly, do you do, Dora?”
“I help her shower, I cook meals, do laundry, things like that. Mainly, I keep her company. She’s reclusive, and she’s very much alone out here. I’m trying to talk her into getting one of those little buttons you hang around your neck. You press on it if you fall, and it’s connected to the fire department.” She sighed. “No such luck. Misa’s proud and very stubborn. She does have a lawyer who handles her bill paying, though. If she didn’t, she’d probably forget to write checks and have her utilities shut off.”
Soon they heard Misa shuffling down the hallway and into the kitchen.
“I couldn’t sleep. It’s not every day I get a visit from my granddaughter.” She studied Odie. “How long were you planning to stay on the island?”
“Just until tomorrow. I got a room in town and I thought I’d come out and visit you in the morning, then leave. Is that okay?”
“Of course it’s okay,” Misa said. She turned to Dora. “Can you make up a bed for my granddaughter? She might like the spare room that looks out over the orchard.”
“I don’t want to intrude,” Odie said.
“You cancel that room. As long as you’re on the island, you’ll stay here.”
“Well, thank you. I appreciate your offer.”
After Dora left, Odie said, “What do you want me to call you, Nana or maybe Grandma?”
“Misa will do. It’s a little late for anything else, don’t you think?”
Odie lay awake for hours, trying to adjust her body to the damp, lumpy mattress. This is what mildew must smell like, she thought. Images of her grandmother raced through her thoughts, a woman worn out, frail, her eyesight and hearing faded, her gait unsteady, but her mind still sharp.
Why had her parents kept her away? Her father called her a crazy old loon. “She hasn’t left the island for years!” He’d said.
Odie’s own mother had described Shallow Bay as a dreary place, cold and wet and filled with dull people. I’ll make up for the lost time, Odie thought. I’ll get to know her and this place where she lives.
Her thoughts turned to Andrew, still in Sacramento. He’ll be furious when I call him and tell him I‘m not in Boston yet.
Soon, a cool breeze drifted through the window, lulling Odie to sleep.
Noise from the chicken coop woke her, and that’s where she found her grandmother.
“You’re up early, Misa,” she said, yawning. A weak sun was breaking through the clouds, and soon the dew on the grass would burn off and the day would be warm and humid.
“Every day I’m up with the sun,” Misa answered. “It’s these birds. I keep ’em locked up in the coop once it gets dark so the foxes and coyotes don’t get ‘em, but I let ’em out first light.”
Leaning on her cane, she scattered some seed around and said, “Let’s go in and have some breakfast. Then I’ll show you around.”
“You’re looking at twelve acres,” Misa told her later. They were sitting on a bench by the back door. “Your grandfather Antoine bought this land years back when the island was going through hard times and prices were low. He got it cheap, but had to work hard to turn it into a farm. He’d come over from the Azores as a boy. His father was a fisherman, but my Tony never took to fishing. He worked the land, but he built things, too. He built this barn and the house, and people hired him to build their houses, and that’s how he made a living. He was shrewd, your grandfather. Over the years, he bought up property in town, a house here, a house there, as investments. I’ve sold a couple, and I have some rent coming in. That’s what I’m living on.”
“Like my father,” Odie said.
Misa turned, abruptly. “No, not like your father. Tony had a soul, but Matias never showed any signs of having one. He learned the trade, but left Shallow Bay early on and went off to become a big time developer. He came back with plans to develop this farm, that’s how much soul he has.”
“And you sent him on his way.”
“That I did.” The sun had disappeared behind some clouds, and they felt a chill in the air.
“Shallow Bay’s become a rich man’s playground. They’re all after my land, so I made out a will and I’m leaving it to the Land Trust, a conservation group.”
“That’s a good thing, Misa.”
Misa pulled a sweater over her thin shoulders. “Time for my morning lie-down. Dora won’t be here today. You go look around, Odelia. My property goes right down to the beach.”
Odie went exploring. From her room, she’d already seen the stunted branches of an old apple orchard. A kitchen garden had once been planted behind the house. At one end, remains of herbs continued to flourish among the weeds: the spiky shoots of rosemary, the gray of sage, mint running wild, unchecked across the lawn, and Odie spotted the new fuzzy purple hats on chives. Among the perennials, the yellow faces of daffodils poked up among the weeds.
The chickens followed her into the empty barn. She picked her way around some rusty tools and walked its length, past rows of abandoned stalls, and caught the faint aroma of hay. Sunbeams slipped through slats in the roof, high above the barren loft, filling the air with dancing dust motes. In her mind’s eye she saw a parade of cows clomping through, ready for milking.
Odie left the barn and walked into a field. It had been neglected for years and had been reclaimed by grass, or were they wildflowers? She would have to buy a book and find out. They shimmered in the sun this early summer’s day.
The field ended at the beach. Odie took off her shoes and waded in the surf.
I want to be a farmer, she thought. I want to take up what my grandfather left behind, bring back the cows, plant the garden, plow up the weeds, tame the herbs. I want to reclaim the orchard, grow apples, and build a cider mill. I want to plant pumpkins and give hay rides. It’s an impossible dream because Andrew would never fit into a farmer’s life on this small island.
Odie went back to the house and made some sandwiches. As they sat in the sun, she said, “This place is like no other. It’s spectacular.”
Misa answered, “If you’re not in a hurry to get to Boston, you could stay a while. You haven’t had a chance to see the island yet.”
Odie felt her heart soar. “I’d love to do that. And when Dora’s not here, I can help you around the house. If you want, I could plant a small garden behind the back door. I think there might have been one there once. Then you could have fresh vegetables all summer long.”
Misa’s eyes became thoughtful. “You’re right, I did have a garden there, before I became too old to take care of it. All that bending and stooping! Well, it got to be too much.”
“I’d do all the work. Isn’t early June the best time to plant?”
“For some things, yes. Kale and peas should have been in weeks ago.”
They went into the kitchen and Odie washed the dishes. “Let’s go into town and buy what we need. You can show me around the island, too, and I want to see my grandfather’s grave.”
Misa pushed herself up from the table and took off her apron. “I’ll have to change my dress. Chances are I’ll run into someone I know, and I want to look presentable.” She found her cane and turned to walk toward the hallway. “The last time I was in town I was on my way home from the hospital after my fall. I’m still not too steady on my feet, so I won’t be able to do much walking.”
“That’s okay. You can sit in the car and be my tour guide.”
“Good! We’ll go to the Grain and Garden for seeds and fertilizer and such. Danny Tasso owns it now, and he’s been good about sending me someone to clean out the chicken coop and bring their feed every week. Once in a while he’s come out and done it himself. Maybe I can talk him into having the weeding done in my new garden, too.”
There had been a Daniel Tasso at Stanford. Odie remembered seeing him around, a short, whirlwind of a guy with wild, curly black hair and a beard. Surely this Danny Tasso who mucked out a chicken coop couldn’t be the same person. Stanford graduates headed to the corporate world. Andrew was planning to work for an investment firm in New York, and the only chickens he would come across would be baked in a marinara sauce at some Italian restaurant.
While Misa changed into another dress, Odie called Andrew.
“Have you found an apartment yet? I can’t believe you haven’t called.”
“I decided to visit my grandmother on the island of Shallow Bay. I’d planned to stay only a day or two, but I’m going to stay a little longer. She’s a very old woman, Andrew, and she needs some help.”
“Well, I need your help, too. I have three apartments I’ve found online for you to look at.”
“I’ll be there soon. Bye, Andrew!”
She shut off her phone, irritated that her future husband hadn’t shown more interest in her grandmother.
They pulled into the parking lot of Garden and Grain, and Danny Tasso hurried to the car. “Hello, Mrs. Correira. What brings you to town?”
“We’re bringing back my old kitchen garden, Danny, and we need some things. This here’s my granddaughter Odelia. She’s come to visit.”
This was their classmate. He’d cut off the wild curls, shaved the beard and was dressed in a grass stained T-shirt, but she would have known him anywhere.
“You’re Odie Correira,” he said. “I’ve seen you with Andrew Jenks at Stanford.”
“That’s right. Small world!”
“It sure is. Is Andrew with you?”
“No, he’s still in California.”
“They’re getting married in a few months,” Misa added.
An hour later, Danny tossed a bag of peat moss into the trunk of her car and slammed the door. “You’re all set, Mrs. Correia. You’ve got seeds, a couple tomato plants, some fertilizer and compost. You also have a shovel and a spade. That ought to get you started. I’ll be out tomorrow with my rototiller.”
“Rototiller?” Odie asked.
“Sure. That soil is hard as clay and packed with weeds. It has to be churned, dug up some.”
“He’s right, Odie. You’ll see what he means,” Misa said. “Now it’s time you took me home. I’m not used to all this running around, and I missed my nap.”
The ride home took them past a stretch of woods with its small development of new homes. “I’ve known the Tasso family all my life,” Misa said. “In fact, we could very well be related. Look back three or four generations at the Azores and you might find the link.”
“I bet you know everyone on the island,” Odie answered.
“Maybe once I did, but not now.”
A week later, as Dora was combing Misa’s hair, she said, “That little garden of yours is looking good. Danny Tasso’s been up here more than once since he dug up the back yard. I’ve never known any garden to need that much attention.” She twisted the hair into a thick knot.
Odie was at the sink, scrubbing out a pan. “He’s just following up. He brought out some more seeds, so now we have cucumbers, peppers and squash along with everything else.”
“Well, he’s a hottie. There’s not a woman on the island who wouldn’t jump into his bed, if asked.”
“Dora!” Misa cried. “What a thing to say!”
“Well, it’s true. What do you think, Odie?”
“I haven’t noticed. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m engaged to Andrew.” She dried the pan and put it back in the cupboard. “I’m going out to work on the herbs, and I have some basil to plant. Do you want to come out with me, Misa? I think Dora wants to catch up on some laundry.”
“Not today. It’s too hot. I think I’ll sit in my rocking chair and listen to the radio.”
Odie went out and soon heard the familiar sound of Danny’s pickup. She put aside her shovel and wiped the sweat from her face.
You are a hottie, she thought. Suddenly, Andrew and California seemed to be on another planet.
“Hi, Odie. I came up to see how you’re doing, and I brought up a bag of feed for the chickens.”
“Good! We’re getting low. That reminds me, I need to see if they’ve left us some eggs.” She swept her arm toward the garden. “As you can see, I’m working on the herbs today.”
“It’s looking terrific. Ready for a break?”
“Sure. Let’s go sit in the shade.”
They sat and leaned against the heavy trunk of a maple tree. A canopy of deep green leaves shaded them from the sun.
Danny folded his arms across his knees and looked off into the fields that stretched out behind the barn. “I would love to see this place become a farm again. Your grandmother would, too. Why don’t you stay on and make it happen?”
“Because it will never be mine. Misa’s willed it to the Land Trust. She’s dead set on keeping it from my father and his development plans.” She picked up a shiny leaf that had been blown off the tree. “Plus, I have a job waiting in Boston, and a wedding to plan.”
He grinned. “Just asking.”
A few days later, Misa asked Odie to take her into town. “My lawyer wants me to sign some papers,” she said. “She pays my bills and every once in a while I have to see her.”
“Sure. I’ll go to the library and hook up to Wifi. I need to check out the apartments Andrew’s found. Maybe I can have a virtual tour and tell him to go ahead and sign a lease on one of them.”
“So you’re going to be leaving,” Misa said.
“Yes, but I’ll come back to see you. I’ll bring Andrew.”
Misa made no comment and soon they were at the lawyer’s office. Odie helped her inside and handed her a piece of paper with her phone number scrawled across the top. “Have someone call me when you’re ready to leave, Misa. I’ll be across the street at the library.”
She headed for a computer, logged on and checked her email. Andrew had sent a picture of an apartment that was on the sixth floor of a high rise. The walls were painted in monochrome colors, and the kitchen was fitted with granite and high end appliances, but there was not a plot of land anywhere. She shut down the computer and wandered over to the magazine displays. She found one on organic gardening and took it over to a chair where she spent nearly two hours reading every word until she got a call from the lawyer. Misa was ready to leave.
“How about stopping for an ice cream, Misa? My treat.”
“Oh, I’d like that.”
They arrived at the turnoff to the farm when Misa said, “So, did you find an apartment you liked?”
Odie shook her head. “Not yet. I’ll start looking when I leave. Spending time on the farm has spoiled me, and I guess I’m not eager to live in a fancy box.”
“You could stay, Odelia.”
“I wish I could. But I have to start the serious business of making a living and planning a wedding.”
By late afternoon, the day turned dark and sultry. “There’s a storm brewing,” Misa said. “You’d better close the windows.”
It began as a sprinkle, but turned into a tropical deluge, and they went to bed listening to it beat against the roof. It rained all night.
Odie awoke to the sun and a clear sky. Out in the orchard, drops of water clung to the branches and glittered like diamonds. The house was quiet.
Misa must be out with the chickens, she thought. I’ll get up when she comes back in.
She got out of bed when she heard Dora’s car come up the driveway. It stopped with the sudden, harsh squeal of brakes and the car door slammed.
Dora was screaming. “Misa!”
Odie ran to the back door and out into the yard. Her grandmother lay sprawled on the muddy ground, and Dora was leaning over her, her head pressed against the old lady’s chest. The chickens were making a noisy fuss, fluttering their wings around the spilled feed.
“She’s dead! Oh, God, Misa’s dead!” Dora wailed.
Odie knelt next to Dora and took Misa’s hand. “Why didn’t you wake me up, Misa? I would have come out to the chicken coop with you.” She began to cry. “Please don’t be dead. Misa. Please don’t be dead.”
Dora pulled Odie to her feet. “We need to call the police. There’s nothing we can do for her now.”
The day passed amid a flurry of activity from the police, ambulance and, finally, the medical examiner.
“Hi there, Dora.” The doctor went into the house and then turned to Odie. “Are you the granddaughter?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m Odelia Correia.” Despite the heat of the day, she was huddled under a blanket on the couch, shivering as if a cold wind had made its way in through the windows.
He went over to the couch and shook her hand. “I’m Dr. Bean. Misa was my patient, and she was a fine woman. My condolences. It looks like she slipped and fell out there. The ground was muddy and wet from last night’s rain. But she had a bad heart and could have gone any time. I think the heart took her. The ambulance will take her to the funeral home and they’ll be calling you.” He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’ll be one hell of a funeral. Everyone knew her.”
“I’d better call my father,” Odie said when she and Dora were alone.
“Need some privacy?” Dora asked. She was sitting at the table and still sniffling into a wad of wet tissues.
“No. It’ll be a short conversation.”
She punched some numbers into her phone. “Hello, Dad. It’s Odie.”
“Odie! Andrew called and said you were up on Shallow Bay. Are you still there?”
“Yes, Dad. I’m calling to tell you Misa died this morning. I guess her heart just gave out.”
“Jesus! She’s dead? Well, whadda ya know! I thought the old girl would live forever. Okay, I’m in New York. I’ll catch a flight and be there tonight. Don’t do a thing till I get there, hear me?”
Odie slammed down the phone, and when Dora put out her arms, she fell into them and burst into another round of tears.
Matias came to the house late, in a car rented at the airport, and Odie was so exhausted she went to bed soon after he arrived.
She was up at dawn and went out to the chickens. She opened the hatch to let them out, filled their water bowls and scattered some seed, trying to avoid looking at the ground where her grandmother had died. When she went back into the house, her father was rummaging around in the refrigerator.
“There’s not much food in here,” he said. “I’ll pick up some groceries later.” He turned and looked at her. “I saw you out there with the chickens. We’ll have to scout around for a buyer, or maybe get them slaughtered. I’ll check it out when I go into town.”
Odie struggled to hold back her tears as she poured coffee into a cup and sat at the table.
Matias found a piece of cheese in the refrigerator, stuck it between two pieces of bread and sat next to her. The cat jumped up onto the table, and he swatted it away. Odie flinched.
“I bet she liked having you here,” Matias said.
“She could have gone to see you, but she refused to leave the island.”
“You never brought me here.”
“I hardly ever came, myself. And you were in California with your mother.”
He finished the sandwich and said, “She wouldn’t give up the farm, either. When I was here five years ago, I said, ‘Ma, let’s get you a nice apartment in town so you can be close to the church and all your friends.’ Then she said, ‘This farm is my church, and my chickens are my friends.’ What a crazy old woman!”
His eyes swept over the kitchen, the worn linoleum, the porcelain sink with its dripping faucet, the ancient wooden cabinets. “This place is a disaster, a tear down. She could have lived a better life.”
“She didn’t want to, Dad.”
He stood up and checked the time. “You’re right. I don’t know how many times I heard her say, ‘I’m ten miles from the ferry landing, and I like it that way.’ Well, I have to call the funeral home, and I have to get in touch with her lawyer. Who is it, do you know?”
“No, only that she has an office across from the library. Misa said she’d hired her to pay her bills.”
“Christ! I could have done that. I hope this lawyer wasn’t ripping her off.”
Matias drove into town, and when he returned he was in a foul mood. “I think the funeral home is jerking me around. That’s what happens when there’s no competition. You wouldn’t believe what he’s charging me. Anyhow, the funeral’s Saturday at ten, with a mass at St. Margaret’s. The priest is grabbing what he can, too.”
He emptied a bag of groceries and took out a can of beer. “The lawyer’s office was closed, but I got her name. It’s Lund, Katharine Lund. I’ll give her a call.”
Matias finished drinking the beer and reached into his pocket. “The undertaker gave me her ring. Here, it’s yours. Why don’t you go through her things and see if there’s anything else you want.”
Odie clutched the ring and felt another flood of tears well up.
“Did you get in touch with Andrew?” Matias asked.
“Is he coming to the funeral?”
“No, it’s hard for him to get away right now.”
“I can understand that. Well, I think I’ll go for a walk. I want to plan the house lots in my head before I bring in my people.”
“Dad, I don’t think so. Misa told me she’s leaving everything to the Land Trust. She hated the thought of the farm being chopped up.”
Matias laughed. “She told you that? I bet it was an empty threat. This has been Correia land for seventy years, and it belongs to me. I expect you to support me, Odie, If we have to go to court. You’ll tell the judge she didn’t have all her marbles when she signed that will.”
“No! I can’t do that! I wasn’t even here when she signed her will.”
“You can fudge it. We’re sitting on a gold mine.”
He left and headed for the barn, kicking a few chickens on his way.
A good part of the island population attended Misa’s funeral. The few mourners who went to the cemetery drifted away after Misa’s casket was lowered into the ground in a plot next to where Antoine lay.
A young, attractive woman who wore a severe gray suit approached them. “Mr. Correia, Miss Correia, I’m Katharine Lund, Misa’s attorney. I’d like to express my condolences.” Odie and Matias shook her hand. “I’m wondering if we could meet to discuss her will. Say, Monday at nine o’clock in my office?”
“Excellent!” Matias said. “I’d like to get this wrapped up so I can leave the island. We’ll try to get the house cleaned out by then.”
She nodded and smiled at Odie. “Until then,” she said.
They spent the weekend filling trash bags and packing boxes, and on Monday morning Matias drove them to the law office of Katharine Lund. Once they arranged themselves around a conference table, he got right to the point.
“Odelia tells me my mother planned to leave her farm to the Land Trust.”
“Until last week, she did,” Attorney Lund replied. “But she changed her mind. Here are two copies of her will.” She handed them some papers. “She put all her property into a trust, and made you, Odelia, the trustee. This way, we avoid probate and possibly help with taxes, depending on what you do with the land.”
“What?” Odie cried.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Matias said. “Odie’s just a kid.”
“She’s twenty-one, Mr. Correia. Your mother wanted the farm protected from development, but she told me that after she met her granddaughter she knew it should be kept in the family, and that Odelia would be a steward for the land. She said she thought Odelia might stay on and bring the farm back to a productive state.”
“My mother completely misjudged the situation. Odie’s going into banking, and, in fact has a job lined up. What about the houses she owned, her rental property?”
“Her entire estate goes to her granddaughter.”
“My mother was nuts,” Matias said. “She wasn’t competent. Everyone knew that.”
“It’s interesting that you should say so,” the lawyer answered. “She anticipated this reaction, so she insisted I bring in two psychiatrists to examine her prior to the signing.”
She handed them two documents. “She knew exactly what she was doing, and she was fully competent.”
Matias grabbed the papers, shot to his feet and leered at his daughter. “I finally get it. All this time you’ve been here you’ve been sucking up to her, getting her to change her mind about the Land Trust. It’s called manipulation, Odie. Well, I’ll see you in court!” and he fled the room.
Odie sat glued to the chair.
Attorney Lund sighed. “Wills can be messy, there can be a lot of anger. Anyhow, there are some documents you need to sign, Odelia. I’m happy to represent you if there are any claims from your father.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we’ll be hearing from him at some point.”
“So, what are you going to do now?” the lawyer asked after Odie signed the papers.
“Me? I’m going to learn how to be a farmer. But first, I have to find Danny Tasso. He needs to give me a ride home. I’ll bet every one of my chickens that my father’s gone straight to the airport, leaving me stranded.”
Featured image by Claudette Gallant
Donny Clatterbuck hated team sports — baseball, football, and basketball. On the short side, he had a solid build, with broad shoulders and a snub nose. In gym, he could climb a rope in a flash, and he was good on the rings and the pommel horse. But the county school didn’t compete in gymnastics. When he turned 14, Mr. Yates recruited him for wrestling.
“Every boy needs a sport,” the coach said. “Sport is more than training the mind and body. It’s a preparation for life.”
Donny wanted to prepare for life, but Mr. Yates never spelled out how sports would do this. For him it was like the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Donny gave wrestling a try. The foul mats, the other sweaty boys, and their obsession with body weight put him off. There was also the question of talent. The coach favored some boys with pats on the back, pocket money, and tips on dealing with injuries. Donny’s performance was so-so. He was agile and flexible, but other boys had size and power.
“Stick to it!” Mr. Yates said. “Nobody likes a quitter.”
“How do I get leverage?” Donny meant the physics of the lever, which was the only way he could win. He wanted more than a stock phrase.
“You want my honest opinion, Clatterbuck? If you work hard enough and set your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”
Donny’s father had skipped out years ago, before he could form a memory. A photo showed a lithe, dark figure wearing a baseball cap. The visor hid his eyes. Where did he come from, where did he go, and what was he like? In their one conversation on the subject, his mother was no help. A local girl, she had picked an outsider.
“That man gave a different story every time you asked. Sometimes he said he was mixed race, and sometimes he said Mediterranean, which covers a lot of territory.”
“Were you married?”
“You’re legit, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
“What about the last name?”
“He had more than one to suit the occasion. I kept my name to stay out of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Debt collectors, court subpoenas. He was in and out of jail.”
“Do I look like him?”
She turned her attention from the sock she was darning to the boy who was becoming a man.
“You look better.”
“When people ask if you’re black or white or what, tell them you’re a Clatterbuck.”
Janine Clatterbuck was preoccupied with earning a living as a waitress, meeting the payments on the mobile home, and dealing with Donny’s older sister. Annabelle was a girl of exceptional beauty and extreme low pressure, like a tropical system that sucks up all the energy nearby and spews it back in a torrent.
Like his mother, Donny’s teachers in the county school had their hands full. They saw him as a quiet boy who never acted out or shone in any subject. He was lost in the middle.
The summer he turned 15, Donny took up juggling. The how-to book said it was low-stress, an exercise you can do anywhere, a way to improve muscular coordination, and a skill that would come in handy in any social situation. The book was illustrated with drawings of a faceless human figure surrounded by little numbers and arrows, like a cloud of midges.
Daily practice was the key. Donny was determined. By the last year of high school, he could keep four tennis balls in the air, sometimes five. He could also spin a plate on a stick, twirl small hoops, and balance a chair on his forehead, though not all at once.
His grades were passing but mediocre. Donny was not college material. He wasn’t trailer trash, either. Annabelle was, but she fixed that. After a stormy argument with her mother, she left town with an older man who claimed to be a photographer. Annabelle was destined for a career as a fashion model and actress.
“A pair of boobs,” Janine said. Whether she meant the couple or Annabelle’s main attraction was open to discussion.
Juggling practice kept Donny out of trouble, but it was a solitary pursuit. He had no friends. And no enemies, thanks to his athletic build. Bullies looked for easy prey, sissies and shrimps.
Despite the promise of How to Juggle Practically Anything, nobody in high school or the mobile home park cared much for juggling. They watched Donny for a while, then grew bored with the repetition. A routine that would last several minutes and keep a crowd enthralled had yet to emerge. Practice was its own reward, like playing a musical instrument or running a mile every day. Skill was a secret kind of pleasure.
Donny graduated in May and got a job installing asphalt shingle roofs. Construction paid well, and Donny liked being high above the ground. He had no fear of falling. But the roofing contractor sent men out in teams, and Donny’s foreman harped on teamwork. Another talking point was the efficient use of material and labor. Donny’s coworkers wasted both. The game was to see how much they could get away with.
With Annabelle gone, the mobile home was more spacious. Janine Clatterbuck said Donny could stay so long as he was clean and quiet, which he was. He was gainfully employed. He paid for his own food, contributed to rent and utilities, and saved the rest of his wages toward a used vehicle. Begging for rides and waiting for them to show was getting old.
Donny wanted a pickup truck like you see on television, fording a stream or chugging up a dirt road, with massive treads. Instead he bought a compact car with good fuel mileage. The tires were almost new.
At the end of August, a traveling circus came to the county fair. A splashy poster showed an old-fashioned troupe of acrobats, clowns, and sword-swallowers. One girl stood on the back of a pony that raced around a ring, while another girl hung upside-down from a rope, her arms spread like wings. A master of ceremonies in the dress uniform of a European field marshal flourished a whip. The troupe was called the Magnificent Magyars, “on tour by special arrangement.”
Donny took a shower after work and drove to the fairground. The sky was still bright, but the heat of the day had passed. It was Friday, payday, and good to be alive. Donny wanted to see if anyone in the circus troupe juggled.
Two young women did. They looked like the girls on the poster. One was the star, and the other was her assistant. They played music on a boombox, up-tempo and loud, and they wore a costume of tights and a flimsy skirt. While one performed, the other gestured like a ballet dancer, as if to say: “Behold!” Their routine was not much better than his, a few minutes of balls and hoops. When the bowling pins dropped to the ground, nobody booed. The audience laughed, like it was a good joke.
Donny wanted to talk to the jugglers. What would he say? The set was over, and the crowd dispersed. He strolled in, picked up four balls, and started to juggle. The young woman watched, and the assistant ignored him. Donny finished with a behind-the-back flourish and bowed. There was no applause.
“Where did you learn?” the young woman said. Up close she looked tough, no nonsense. Browned by the sun, she had black hair.
“At home. I taught myself.”
“Not bad,” she said coolly. She was Donny’s height, though when she was performing he thought she was taller.
“Thanks.” Donny was elated.
“Not good, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not enough to have the moves. You need to wow the audience, create a little suspense, make them gasp in awe. Or laugh, like today.”
“Can you teach me?”
The assistant snorted with impatience. She wanted to pack up. The young woman talking to Donny was in no hurry.
“Who are you?”
“Mara. That’s my sister, Juliska.”
Juliska grabbed the balls from Donny’s hands.
“You live here?” Mara asked.
“You have a job? A car?”
Right then and there, Donny wanted to tell Mara the story of his life. The way she screwed up her eyes made him stop. Somehow, she already knew. And she didn’t care. No, that wasn’t true. She cared where he was headed, not where he had been. Donny saw himself through Mara’s eyes, and he felt giddy.
“The fair closes Sunday,” she said. “We move on to the next gig, and then the next, until the season is over. My father is the leader, more or less. Everybody is their own boss, but he puts together the tour. His name is Arpad.”
“Are you gypsies?”
Donny shrugged, and Juliska laughed.
“Big difference,” Mara said. “And you?”
“You want to know if I’m black or white?”
“I’m a Clatterbuck.”
“Can I meet Arpad?”
“He’s busy. Come back tomorrow.”
“Should I bring my stuff?”
“That depends.” Mara gave Donny that gimlet look again. “Bring whatever you’ll need on the road, and be ready to go.”
In a fever of anticipation, Donny went home. Janine was out, working a dinner shift. Anyway, how could he explain to his mother what he was about to do? He wrote her a note.
“I’m going to try something different. It involves travel, so I might be gone for a few days. Or years. It all depends. Love, Donny.”
He put the note in an envelope with some money, what he owed for the month. He packed one bag of juggling equipment and one of clothes. He went to bed expecting to lie awake for hours and woke at dawn from a sound sleep.
Janine’s bedroom door was closed. The rule was: Do Not Disturb. Donny left the envelope in plain sight on the kitchen counter. He loaded the car and drove to the fairground.
In the cool of the morning, kids were picking up trash, toting bales of straw, spraying water from a hose, and tending pigs, cows, sheep, and a llama. Prize ribbons were pinned to the pens. Donny knew some of the kids from school. The animals were their 4-H projects.
A village of campers, trailers, and tents had sprung up, out of the way and under some trees. Donny asked around.
“I’m looking for the Magnificent Magyars.”
Soon he was standing face to face with a lean man in his forties, evidently the master of ceremonies. Instead of the field marshal uniform, the man wore rumpled khaki pants, a collar shirt open on the chest, rolled-up sleeves, and a felt hat. Black eyebrows and a mustache gave him a fierce expression. This was Arpad.
“So you want to run away from home and join the circus, is that it?”
“I can pay you nothing, only food and bed. For that you must work hard, chores like a farm hand. There is no glamor in this life. You understand?”
Donny nodded, a lump in his throat.
“You have good timing. I need a young man to replace the one who disappeared last week. Into thin air, just like that!” Arpad snapped his fingers. “How old are you?”
“The same as my Mara.”
As if waiting to hear her name called, Mara emerged from the camper. She acknowledged Donny silently and stood beside her father. Donny saw the resemblance, except that Mara was not fierce. In the dappled sunlight, she was beautiful, softer than the day before. Instead of the showbiz costume, she wore jeans and a faded, oversize shirt, one her father had discarded.
“You are free? No strings?” Arpad said.
“Mara tells me you can juggle. Mara tells me the truth always. You will show me what you can do later. First, we have a little test, a … what do you call it?” Arpad turned to his daughter.
“Initiation,” she said.
“It is nothing,” Arpad said. He swatted away an imaginary bug. “It is entertainment!”
“We do a knife-throwing act,” Mara explained. “My father is an expert. In many things, but with knives he is the best. Normally I am the victim, the one who stands still in front of the target.”
Mara gestured to a six-foot tall board on which thin punctures formed the outline of a body, a ghost of herself. Meanwhile Arpad retrieved a black leather case. It snapped open to reveal a double row of steel knives. They glittered in the sun.
“You will be so good as to stand there,” Arpad said. He took a knife from the case and examined the blade.
Donny looked at Mara, and she smiled.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “Stand perfectly still. Don’t flinch. The knives must stick as close to you as possible. That is the point.”
In a daze, Donny moved into position. Mara made sure he was flat against the board. Her hand pressed against his stomach.
“One more thing,” Arpad said. “Keep your eyes open. If you blink, I know you do not trust me.” He held a knife in each hand, thumb and index finger on the tip of the blade.
Donny blinked rapidly, then raised his eyelids as far as they would go.
“So, you juggler, you fearless young man,” Arpad said to the world, “you who dare to speak to my daughter, the one I love more than my own life, are you ready to face death?”
Panic raced through Donny from head to foot, but he held firm. Mara stood within arm’s length, watching. Loud and clear, he shouted:
As soon as Stella opened her front door, she wanted to close it. There stood her son’s new friend, Kyle, a gangling 14-year-old with stubbly, purple hair, an angular face, and a hostile expression. Beyond him, fog hid whatever route he planned to take.
She wanted to pretend that her son wasn’t home, but he’d start a row if she sent Kyle away. Undecided about whether to fib, she forced her lips to smile.
“Tell Dave I’m here,” Kyle boomed, too loud as always.
“You could say hello.”
Kyle mumbled, “H’lo” and bellowed, “Dave, I’m here, come on.”
Dave dashed to the door. Both boys were shorter than average but otherwise opposites in looks, Dave’s smiling face sweet and handsome, his jeans, shirt, and smooth hair all clean. Kyle was grimy, badly raised, a convict’s nephew, totally different from Dave’s friends in his previous school.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Away, away to the soccer field,” said Kyle.
Unlikely in fog.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really, really.” Kyle sounded mocking, and she wanted to shove him away and protect her son.
“’Bye, Mom,” Dave said.
Too soon the boys became invisible in moist, heavy air. She trudged upstairs to her computer table, where she needed to concentrate on her work designing theatrical costumes. Worries flooded her mind. Kyle had become a problem soon after her husband’s employer moved the family back to a town they’d left a decade ago. Dave had stopped telling enough about what he did. He’d tried to hide his newest online purchase, a mask that looked like a real man’s face. If Kyle asked for a costume, she’d create a coyote.
I need a way to separate them, she thought. She and her husband couldn’t afford private schools for their children. They could pay for a summer camp, but too much could happen before then.
Being hearing impaired, Dave and Kyle talked loudly to understand each other. When far enough from other ears, Dave said, “I got an idea. Let’s go to the cemetery and get eerie videos to post on YouTube.”
“I got another idea. Today’s our chance to explore the Millers’ mansion and learn how a rich scientist lives.” Kyle pointed to a house where only the whitish stone stoop was visible. “Mr. Miller’s a microbiologist, so you’ll find some science stuff. They’re on a trip, and no one’ll spot us going inside, thank you, Mr. Fog.”
“How are you sure that no one’s home?”
“Their car’s been gone and their lights out since Wednesday, and a little kid told me they’re driving to national parks, real far away. Have you ever been inside?”
“No, the Millers are mean grouches.”
“They treated my favorite cousin awful, abysmal, when she worked there.”
“Cheated her out of pay?” Dave asked.
“Yeah, they’re crafty.”
The Millers had paid his cousin Crystal less than they’d promised. They’d fired her and described her as lazy in references. Often moody and sad, she hadn’t found another job; she didn’t divulge how she got money to live on.
“Are we doing a Robin Hood?” Dave asked.
“Today we’re explorers like Marco Polo, or you can be Darwin and learn about the possessions of a scientist.”
Dave could be a lookout while Kyle searched for whatever his 19-year-old cousin’s fence could sell. The cousin had suggested using Dave as an accomplice, starting small; they’d begun with shoplifting chocolate cookies and handing some to a homeless man who huddled under a blanket on a sidewalk; they’d progressed to socks on a “dare.”
“How will we get in, through a window?” Dave asked.
“Just follow me. It’ll be easy.”
“Are you — ”
“Someone’s coming,” said Kyle, whose left ear was better than either of Dave’s ears.
They silenced until after a tall boy strode past them, his boombox blasting band music.
“How did you get the bruise?” Dave asked, staring at Kyle’s cheek.
“Can you see it? My mother’s ex-boyfriend, a slimy worm, he tried to beat me, but he ain’t going to mess with me again. I hate him, I loathe him, I despise him. He knocked my mom against a wall and tried to punch her, and we all fought, and I pummeled him real hard and got rid of him.”
“An evil monster. Did he injure you anywhere besides your cheek?”
“No, it’s not bad. He ain’t never coming back.”
The worst part of the fight had been a flushed face’s sneer when Kyle swayed and toppled, but the brute’s departure was a victory. Mom wouldn’t open a door to him again.
“Tell me if you ever need me to help you,” Dave said.
“Thanks, you’re my best friend. Let’s go.”
They tiptoed behind the two-story, brick house and stopped at the back door. Although cocooned by fog, Kyle felt surprisingly shaky. A few weeks ago, he’d suffered hours of sitting, sweating, in a courthouse, accused of shoplifting a necklace of fake pearls. A witness identified him because of his flamboyant hair. His punishment was fright and the requirement of enduring a warning.
From that experience, he learned to conceal his hair. His heart beating faster at the prospect of his first burglary, he took supplies from his backpack, squeezed a black cap over his head, provided gloves for himself and Dave, and worked on the lock.
“It’s taking too long,” Dave said.
“Shut up. I almost got it,” Kyle replied, embarrassed.
After a few more minutes, he succeeded, and they tiptoed into a gleaming, yellow kitchen with an odor of an ammonia-based cleaning fluid. Everything, from the fancy, brass drawer pulls to the hanging, blue pots looked expensive.
“Look and see if there’s food to give away,” Kyle said. “I bet they eat gourmet stuff.”
Kyle hurried into the dining room, where a breakfront displayed silver plates and bowls that could help pay for a semi-automatic. He slowly, soundlessly opened the breakfront’s glass door. As he touched a plate with an acorn-patterned rim, a warning wail became audible. A police siren.
“Cops, let’s go,” Dave shouted.
The siren became louder, coming toward them and for them. Kyle bolted through the kitchen and followed Dave out the door.
“My DNA — I forgot — I bit into an apple,” Dave said, turning back. “I got to get it.”
He fumbled the knob, and Kyle had to turn it and shove him inside. While warnings of doom came closer, Kyle waited for that amateur to retrieve evidence. If police caught them, Dave would get off with a warning, maybe probation. And his parents’ scolding, but they’d blame Kyle. For Kyle, confinement, misery, the end of all his plans. People he wanted to impress would avoid him. He’d never again enter a home like Dave’s.
Kyle and Dave had noticed each other during Dave’s first day in their middle school. When he hadn’t answered a question, their English teacher had scoffed, “What are you daydreaming about?” A few kids snickered humiliatingly. Having guessed that Dave needed to read lips, Kyle scribbled, “whom” on a note and passed it over his shoulder.
“The answer is ‘whom,’” Dave said.
The teacher snapped, “Kyle, no more of your tricks. That’s a minus.”
The next day Dave got appropriate revenge by hiding the teacher’s eraser, annoying her and amusing the class. Kyle congratulated him; they agreed on their feelings about their teachers and subjects, wanted to see the same sci-fi movie, and began spending their free time together. He preferred Dave to his previous friends, who’d become more interested in drugs than in him or anyone else.
Blinking and staring at a skirt pattern on the computer screen, Stella wondered how to rescue Dave from Kyle’s influence. Maybe a coach could develop Dave’s skills so he’d get on a team with popular boys. As she touched her fingers to computer keys to begin a search, she heard a siren, which screamed louder, speeding nearer.
Had a neighbor called police? She froze, listening to a wail that stopped near where nasty Mr. Miller lived. He’d shouted rudely at Dave, who might, with Kyle’s influence, try a prank for revenge.
She rushed downstairs, her heart beating faster, and opened a door to fog. No sound except sparrows’ chirps, no way to know what was happening at the Millers’ house. If she ran there, she’d make the police suspicious.
Clutching her phone in case Dave called from a police station, she returned upstairs, her mind groping for solutions — more weekend visits with friends from the old school, another lecture by her husband, a GPS tracker. A misfortune, that her son and Kyle had a disability in common. If Dave would consent to wear a hearing aid, he’d make more friends. If only she hadn’t let him stay, last summer, in the badly managed camp where lightning struck a tree beside him and thunder damaged his ears.
Mom had told her to blame the camp, not herself. The evening before Mom’s heart attack, she’d sounded reassured by Stella’s fib that Dave liked his new school. Twice since then, Mom had appeared in Stella’s sleep, simply looking at her.
“Mom, what should I do about Dave?” Stella whispered.
Dave and Kyle ran together across uneven grass to a low fence, climbed over it, and dropped onto a mushy lawn. They dashed along a cement driveway and, on a sidewalk, slowed to a walk to appear nonchalant.
“That was exciting,” Dave panted. “Maybe a housekeeper was upstairs and heard us.”
“Shut up,” Kyle said. “Give me those back.” He pointed to gloves, took the evidence of intent. and stuffed them into his backpack. “We’ll hide behind that hedge until we’re sure we’re safe.”
They crawled behind bushes and crouched on moist grass only seconds before a car rumbled past.
After waiting many minutes, Kyle stood, shook stiffness out of his legs, and said, “We’ll go to the cemetery now. The cops will be scared to search for us there.”
“Yeah, and we’ll get videos for our alibi,” Dave said. “I hope my grandma’s been enjoying a peaceful snooze and not watching me.”
“You gotta be quiet and go fast.”
After sprinting about a quarter mile, they reached a sign saying Vale of Rest. Tombstones, crosses, and skeletal trees faded in gray air. Oddly, some of the oaks leaned over graves as if trying to shelter them. The scene appeared otherworldly, eerier than Kyle had expected. The moist air muffled sounds until something unseen crackled, maybe a spook behind them.
“Let’s race to the saint’s statue,” Dave said.
They tried to run on moist ground. After several paces, Dave stumbled, fell to his hands and knees, and sprang up. Facing a stone cross, he said, “My grandma’s there. I’ll go say hello to her.”
Kyle accompanied him and waited while Dave mumbled, “Hi, Grandma, we all miss you, but you’ll be glad to know, we’re all okay.”
Nearby, a bouquet of gladioli, roses, and lilies adorned a pale tombstone. An opportunity for Dave to steal successfully and become bolder.
Kyle pointed to it. “Go take those for your mom. You said she was mad yesterday because you forgot her birthday.”
“She’ll ask how I bought them when I don’t have any money.”
“Say I lent you some.”
Dave stayed still. “Promise you won’t get a picture of me filching.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Kyle asked.
“No, you’re smart. I bet we’ll find flowers for your mom, too.”
“Her? She don’t do nothing for me. She don’t even fix meals for me.”
When he left home that afternoon, she’d been lying, drunk, in a faded nightgown, smelling of sweat and wine, on a filthy sofa.
“I’ll ask my mom to invite you to dinner,” Dave said.
“She don’t like me. Go, collect the flowers so she won’t keep crabbing. I dare you.”
Nearby, in shifting gray, rustles traveled like whispers from underground. Something chilled Kyle’s arms — what? Had a ghost or mere air touched him? Bravery was tested in this cemetery, where the trees were spectral and tombstones vanished in darkness. Even walking felt strange here, their feet squishing as they approached a marble slab with an inscription: Martha Witherwhile, beloved wife and mother, 1945–2012.
“She died a long time ago,” Dave mumbled. “She won’t mind.”
They leaned over lilies and roses, which gave an unusually powerful fragrance. Kyle wondered if a bouquet would improve his bad-tempered mother’s moods, which became more volatile after his stepfather, several months ago, raged away. Now she was so drunk, she wouldn’t know what he did. She cared about him but not enough to get cleaned up at a clinic. He’d been surprised that she woke enough to accompany him to court, where she made an incompetent effort to help him.
Dave grabbed the bouquet and lifted it triumphantly over his head.
“Congrats, you did it,” Kyle said.
One successful theft that day, anyway, giving Dave more confidence. A gust snatched a few petals from the roses, and raindrops spattered onto grass, an excuse to leave a habitat of the displeased dead.
“Rain,” Kyle said. “Let’s go.”
They ran through light drizzle to Dave’s home, where his mother exclaimed about their wet clothes.
To Kyle, she said coldly, “You can come in and stay until the shower ends.”
He entered a realm of comfort, where an aroma of a baking apple pie made him want to plead, “I’m hungry, can you share some of your dessert with me?” He wished his home had the same healthy air, colorfully upholstered furniture, and shelves filled with books and framed photos of loved ones. A picture of a baby’s face showed how welcome Dave’s birth had been. Several magazines were arrayed on a table of polished wood.
“You’re chilled,” the mother said to Dave. “Go, change your clothes. Would you boys like some hot cider to warm you up?”
“Yes, thank you,” Kyle said.
“Sure,” Dave said. “First, I have a belated birthday gift to present to you.”
She opened her mouth, her expression changing from surprised to pleased. Dave lifted the bouquet from Kyle’s backpack, bowed ceremoniously, and presented it. She accepted it gingerly, avoiding the thorns. Then she looked over Dave’s muddied clothes, her eyebrows rising to a skeptical arch.
“Where did you get these flowers?” she asked.
Kyle wanted to shout, You old hag, why don’t you thank him?
“Uh, I bought them.” Fidgeting, Dave didn’t lie convincingly.
The mother’s smile dropped. “From where, from what shop, where? Tell me.”
“I forget the store’s name.”
“Where was it?”
“Uh, not very far.”
She squinted at Kyle’s cap, which he’d forgotten to remove. Then her bosom heaved a sigh, her narrow shoulders slumped, and she gazed toward a window onto rain that dimmed the light and pounded away all the day’s fun.
Her jaw dropped. “Mom!” She stared as if she saw someone outside. “Mom, I’ve missed you,” she called, her voice strained. “Can you come in? You’re upset. What did Dave do? Why are you pointing at the flowers? Please explain — Mom, come back.”
She turned to Dave. “I saw your grandmother pointing to the flowers and wagging a finger at you for a reproach. I think she followed you from the Vale of Rest.”
You’re pretending, Kyle wanted to shout, but anything he said might make her dislike him even more.
“Dave, did you steal the bouquet?”
Kyle elbowed Dave, trying to communicate, lie.
“I didn’t think anyone would mind,” Dave mumbled.
“That was stealing. The family who bought them wanted them to stay there. You’ll return them as soon as the rain stops.”
“I didn’t see no ghost,” Kyle snapped.
“My mother didn’t come here for you. Dave, your grandmother left her resting place because she doesn’t want you to become a criminal.”
Dave stared at his muddy shoes.
“I’ll tell your father,” she added.
Kyle stepped backward, toward the door. “It was my idea, and I persuaded him because I thought you’d appreciate a gift.”
The mother’s eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth to blast a condemnation. Obviously, she wanted to order Kyle away forever from his only trusted and respected friend. Away from his only chance to glimpse a clean home and a normal family. Scowling, she craned toward him and squinted at his bruised cheek. Remembering that a floor had banged his face, and he’d physically lost a fight, he smoothed a finger over sore skin where drizzle had rinsed off a pasty concealer.
“What happened to you?” She sounded puzzled.
“A visitor in his house, an evil monster, struck him when he was fighting to defend his mom,” Dave said plaintively.
“That’s a bad bruise,” The mother spoke more gently than before.
“He dyed his hair,” Dave said, “so people won’t notice his bruises.”
The mother’s face saddened. “Has your mother called the police about the abuse?”
“The beast ain’t coming back,” Kyle said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, we’re sure. I got rid of him.”
“His mom lies around and doesn’t do anything,” Dave said. “She doesn’t fix any meals for him, and he gets hungry.”
“I could find a list for her of resources for abused women. Kyle, would you like to stay and have dinner with us? A roast chicken with stuffing and apple pie.”
Was she inviting him to a homemade dinner and pie, accepting him into this home?
“Say yes,” Dave advised.
“Yes, sure, thank you.”
“It’s time for me to turn off the oven, and then we’ll have a talk about the stealing.”
As soon as the kitchen door closed, Kyle whispered to Dave, “You told me she used to act in an amateur theatre group.”
“I think the ghost was real because I felt a spook touch me in the graveyard, and Mom has seen Grandma other times.”
“I guess the dinner invitation is for real.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to tell her we won’t snitch anything again.”
A roast chicken, homemade apple pie, and an opportunity to learn the ways of respected people.
Wanting to sound nonchalant, Kyle said, “I’ll do anything for your mom’s pie.”
Featured image: Red orange / Shutterstock