Torpedo

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.

“How?”

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.

Featured image: Shutterstock, vesnam, ArtBitz, Richman21

Not Margaret

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,

“Who then?”

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?”

She nodded.

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

Lady Greensleeves

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?”

“Extra-small.”

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.”

“How come?”

“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

The Farmhouse

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

The Art of Honorable Grieving

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

In Passing

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.  

“No cats?”

“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.

“Why not?”

“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?”

Henry nodded.

“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.  

“The plant?”

“Yup.”

“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.   

“What?”

“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.”

“Why not?” 

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.

“Doing what?” 

“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.  

“From who?”

“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.

Checkmate indeed.

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

The Annual Cull

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 Very Last One

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

Ten Miles from the Ferry Landing

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.

“Well, congratulations.”

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.

“Hello, Danny.”

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.”

“I see.”

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 did.”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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

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.”

“Honest?”

“That too.”

Donny giggled.

“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?”

“Donny Clatterbuck.”

“Mara. That’s my sister, Juliska.”

Juliska grabbed the balls from Donny’s hands.

“You live here?” Mara asked.

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Hungarian.”

Donny shrugged, and Juliska laughed.

“Big difference,” Mara said. “And you?”

“You want to know if I’m black or white?”

“Or what.”

“I’m a Clatterbuck.”

“Nice.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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?”

“Eighteen.”

“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.

“Yes, sir.”

“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:

“Ready!”

Featured image: Shutterstock, Vladimir Sviracevic and James Weston

The Boy with Purple Hair

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.

“Hello, Kyle.”

“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.

“Shut up.”

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.

“Yeah.”

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

Thanks for Reaching Out

Grubman sipped his cappuccino, eyeing the café’s youthful crowd with their hair and tattoos and futures. They were as oblivious to life’s lessons as they were to the fat content of their drinks. At least he had that on them. He knew all about defeat.

Across the room, a young woman sat by a window. She wore a navy pea coat. Long red hair dusted her shoulders. The morning light suffused her face with a warm glow.

“She is lovely,” said a resonant male voice. It bore the slight trace of a foreign accent.

“Huh?” He squinted up at the voice and a man’s backlit silhouette.

“May I sit, Mr. Grubman?”

Groobman,” he corrected, as his pupils whirred to a focus. The man had a close-trimmed beard and skin the color of toast.

“Mr. Groobman,” he said with a slight bow of the head. He had a smooth FM-radio voice, though not from any station in this country. He wore a gray sharkskin suit, its jacket short and tight. Skinny pants stopped short of black-and-white high-tops, as if he’d had a sudden growth spurt. He dragged a chair from an empty table, scraping it along the tile floor.

“It’s close quarters here,” Arthur said in weak protest. The stranger sat. He placed his lidded cup on the tabletop. A wisp of steam snaked from its pinhole vent. Scribbled on the cup’s side in black marker was the name “Faisal.”

“Do I know you?” Grubman was sure he didn’t know any Faisals, but it seemed like the thing to ask.

“Let’s say we are friends who have not yet met.” He had the silky manner of a luxury car salesman.

“I’ll just say I don’t know you.” The name written on Arthur’s own cup was “Ramon.” He liked to order his coffee under an alias. One day he was Dmitry, the next, Santiago. A touch of intrigue in a humdrum life.

“Faisal al-Rahman bin Hussein.” The man offered his hand. Grubman took it warily, then dropped it fast.

“How do you know my name?”

“It was put forward by a colleague. A man of vision.”

Put forward?”

“I am not at liberty to say more.”

Grubman arched an eyebrow. He saw Bond do it once in a movie. “Look, I don’t know what you’re selling,” he said, “but I don’t go in for religious stuff.”

“Nor do I. I am not here to proselytize.”

“Two Chabad guys once pulled me into a van and forced me to don phylacteries. I emerged badly shaken.”

The man nodded with sympathy. “As anyone would.”

Grubman shrugged. “They meant well.” He didn’t like making common cause with this guy. A silence fell between them. “So, what’s your pitch?”

“I admire your directness, a quintessential American trait. You, how do they say, cut through the bullshit.”

“It’s been said of me before.” It hadn’t, but he saw it as a new brand he wished to cultivate.

Faisal reached into his jacket, withdrew a small journal and thumbed through it. He stopped at a page and read aloud: “Arthur Grubman. Few friends. No respect from wife and daughter. Thirty-two years an analyst with Greencastle & Franklin. Terminated unceremoniously.”

A Grubman forefinger shot up. “A modest ceremony was held in the break room,” he said. “Just to be accurate.”

The man continued. “And I see that you and your brother have not spoken in five years.” He closed the notebook and returned it to his jacket.

“Walter has country club friends now. He calls himself an equestrian.” In a consoling gesture, Faisal patted Grubman’s forearm, outstretched as it was on the table. Grubman pulled it away. “Where’d you get all this stuff? There are privacy laws, you know.”

“All publicly available intel,” the man said. It pleased Grubman to hear the mundane facts of his life referred to as “intel.” Faisal went on. “Sir, what if instead of contempt, the mention of your name brought only tears of love from your family? What if your former employer bemoaned the day he dismissed you?”

“Sure, in some parallel universe.” Arthur looked across the room. The girl in the pea coat reached behind her head, gathered her ginger hair in one hand, and brought the other around to tie it into a loose topknot.

“I see you as a heroic figure, sir.” Grubman’s mind was elsewhere. It took a moment for it to drift back.

“An invisible hero maybe,” he said. “The world cares not for a man who meets his obligations.” His random phrasing hit a Kennedyesque note.

“The world will care when we bring it to their attention.”

“What are you suggesting — a publicity campaign?”

“More or less.”

“Pick one.”

“I would call it an image makeover.”

Grubman snorted. “My life is a Gulf oil spill. And if it’s money you’re after, my income is fixed.”

“We can work within your budget.”

So, you’re in public relations?”

“More like an event planner.”

“Weddings? Bar Mitzvahs?”

“Our métier is conjuring an environment.”

“Can you put that in English? And not just the French part.”

“We set the stage for a client to act, to take charge. To allow, as it were, his inner hero to emerge. There is nothing like a brave and selfless act to alter one’s public perception.”

“Well that’s not totally out of character for me. Given half a chance, I would always help people. I’m that kind of guy. In the right situation.”

“We shall create the right situation.” He looked around for eavesdroppers, then leaned in, sotto voce: “Do you recall that pilot who fought off a hijacker? Then landed his plane in Jamaica Bay with no loss of life?”

“Sure, who doesn’t? Now that’s a hero.” Faisal turned his palms up and smiled.

“What?” said Arthur. “You did that?”

“Captain Willoughby was in need of an image realignment. His personal life was, what you call, a shit show: gambling, drugs, domestic battery.” He flicked a speck of lint from his lapel.

“Huh. He seemed like such a straight arrow on the news: tall, with that flinty little mustache, so media savvy and confident.”

“Weeks of preparation went into it. Our first client. Everything grew from that. We have learned much since.”

“Jeez. How do you pull a thing like that off?”

“There were many moving parts, a huge task.”

“So, wait, what are you saying? You got some kind of event planned for me? To make me look … heroic?”

“At this point, nothing is worked out. We have an inkling of a concept.”

“What is it?”

He shook his head. “Still in the development stage.”

“Understood. But you can give me a hint, right?”

His face was a mask of regret. “At this point, it is too embryonic.”

“Gimme a ballpark. I can work with a ballpark.”

“I would be doing us both a disservice — ”

“Look, I’ve been there — forced to do a long-range earnings forecast. They tell you they won’t hold you to it, then they hold you. I won’t.”

“I always rehearse a pitch,” said Faisal. “I am reluctant to … wing it.”

“It’s a work in progress, understood. C’mon.”

Faisal sighed as though Arthur had backed him into a corner. “You are a persuasive man, sir. Remember, this is just spit-balling.” A pained expression said it was against his better judgment. He took a breath. As he began to speak, his hands painted a picture. “Times Square. A sunny spring day. Crowded with theatergoers, tourists, children. Unnoticed by all is a man. Nondescript. Run of the mill. He ambles into their midst, drops his backpack on a bench. Sits. Removes his cap. Drinks from a water bottle. Quite normal. Nothing to see here. After a moment, he stands, puts his cap back on. Walks off. He leaves behind his backpack. Arthur Grubman is the only one to witness this.”

“Times Square? Never go there. Such a zoo with that pedestrian mall.”

“You are there on this day. And you suspect the man was not forgetful. The act seemed deliberate. Sinister. You replay it in your mind. Did you just see what you think you saw?”

“Did I?”

“You did. And, for a moment, you are frozen. A case of cognitive dissonance. You gather your wits. Stir yourself to action. You have seen something and you must say something. You, Arthur Grubman, know you must warn people.”

“Yes, I would do that. That’s me in a nutshell.”

“‘Get away! Get back!’ you yell to the mob, tentative at first. ‘Get back!’ But alas,” his brow furrowed, “this is New York.”

“Sure, they think I’m a screwball. Lunatics in this city are a dime a dozen. A dime, ten dozen.”

“You wave your arms, you point: ‘A bomb! Run!’”

“This is not a test,” I could yell. “This is happening, people!” Arthur was caught up in it.

“Yes, good. Now you have the attention of some. They begin to back away from the bench.”

“Thank God.”

“But not many, and not fast enough.” Grubman slumped. “Some think it is a sick joke. A stunt. Only you comprehend the full gravity of this moment.”

“I can size up a situation faster than most. I don’t get enough credit for that. So, I call the authorities, right?”

“No. There is no time. You must take action. Now.”

“I scream louder, wave my arms … ”

“Yes, that too. But something more drastic is needed.”

“What else can I do? I’m only one man.”

“You run to the knapsack.”

“I do?”

“Yes. And you throw your body over it.”

Arthur looked confused. “Why?”

“Because you are Arthur Grubman. And underneath that hapless exterior is a spine of forged steel.”

“Hapless? Is that how I come off?”

“A turn of phrase, disregard it. Now, people run. But you fear you may have only made a fool of yourself. Most likely the bag is filled with books or clothing.”

“Odds are.”

“Time stands still. An unearthly quiet.”

“False alarm.”

“KABOOM!!” Arthur flew back in his seat. “Huge explosion. BIG. Thick, acrid smoke. Lampposts topple. Billboards shatter. Storefronts, blown to bits. A war zone. At first, silence. Then: screams, crying. The whoop-whoop of car alarms. Police cars. Fire trucks. Shrieking sirens. Homeland Security. Hazmat suits. Rubble is searched, witnesses debriefed. All agree: it is a miracle. The selfless act of one man saved a hundred, maybe more. No tourist, no child is hurt. Your body — something to do with physics — blunted the blast’s full force. It makes news worldwide. There are candlelight vigils. Streets and schools are named after you. The Arthur Grubman International Airport. A Grubman statue is proposed for Broadway. You are an inspiration to humankind in a cold and cynical age. At the White House, Hilda and Tara — that is your wife and daughter?

“Yes.”

“They receive your posthumous Medal of Freedom. Tara’s emotional tribute to her dad logs a hundred million views online!” Faisal was clearly spent, moved by his own tale. “So. What do you think? First impression.”

Grubman stared at him for a long moment.

“What else you got?”

“No. Really? I led with my strongest one.” He seemed crushed by the response. “It was too soon, I knew it. You pushed me into it.” He pouted and studied the clear polish on his manicured nails. In a subdued voice he said: “If you have notes, we can address them.

“I got a note all right, a big one. Look, maybe you have something else? Something more like that pilot who ditched in the bay? The one who lived?”

“This is the problem with an early success. You are always urged to repeat yourself. Succumb and you stagnate creatively.” Faisal sulked for a moment. “Then again. I may have something that involves commercial travel.”

“Great. Now you’re talking.”

“Though I am shocked you passed on Times Square. When I think of the hours our team put in.”

“Look, there were a lot of good things in it, don’t get me wrong. It’s just—well, what’s the other one?”

“All right.” He took a deep breath. “Again, winging it.”

“Understood.”

“Broad strokes.”

“We can fill them in later.”

“Please reserve judgment till the end.”

“Promise.”

Faisal composed himself, and managed to summon a new enthusiasm. “Fade in: The Acela Express from Washington, D.C. With stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.”

“Good. I like it. And a train can’t fall out of the sky.”

“Friday afternoon. Packed. Senators, congressmen, lobbyists, all returning home for the weekend. And you, Arthur Grubman, everyman, are onboard as well.”

“Why?”

“Can we address motivation later?”

“A reflex. Sorry.”

“You have just toured the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, our nation’s most patriotic sights.”

“So, you’re an American citizen?”

“Pending. Then, without warning, a figure in black appears in First Class. Ski mask, assault rifle, thousands of rounds of ammunition.”

Grubman’s mood soured. “Is this the same guy from Times Square?”

“You’re killing my rhythm. He may be a lone wolf, or part of a team. He has emerged from the restroom, or down from the roof and between cars. Yes, better. We need to storyboard it. You can see my lack of preparation.”

“Not a problem, continue … ”

“The man fires an explosive round into the ceiling. A fearful hush comes over the car.”

“Can’t he just yell to get their attention? A bullet can ricochet and hurt someone. I mean, as long as we’re staging it.”

Faisal shot Grubman a look. “The passengers are frightened, whimpering. He assures them they will be freed upon arrival in New York.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“But no one is fooled. His plan is clear. At Penn Station he will open fire, mowing down hundreds of commuters as well as those present. You can smell the fear. There is weeping, praying.”

“Where do I figure in?”

“You, Arthur Grubman, will have none of it.”

“I might have some of it.”

“No. It is against every fiber of your being. You are a student of history. You know that those who do not learn from it are doomed.”

“Which history specifically?”

“The Munich Agreement, the Hitler-Stalin Pact … other things. You take a deep breath, steel yourself.”

“Don’t know what I can do, I’m unarmed.”

“You bolt from your seat and tear up the aisle.”

“Why? Why would I do that? It’s out of character.”

“Not your true character. You are a patriot. You have just paid honor to our martyred presidents: Lincoln, Kennedy. You walked among the alabaster tombs of Arlington. You know there are times when a cause is bigger than one’s self. We call it courage. We call it heroism. You go straight for the gunman.”

Grubman paled. “Can you give me a golf club, or something? Maybe I can whack him with a three-iron.”

“The militant raises his Kalashnikov.”

“No.”

“Squeezes the trigger … ”

“Stop!”

“RATATATATATATATATATAT! RATATATATATATATAT!” Grubman flinched. “Bullets rip into your flesh!”

Oh, God.

“A hundred find their mark before you hit the floor! Smoke seeps from your shredded clothing. You bleed out in the aisle.”

“How does this help anyone?”

“Aha. You created a distraction. Two beefy marines on leave see their opening. They jump the evildoer, pummel him, restrain him with belts. I know the perfect men for this, I think they are available. The assassin lies there comatose — but alive.”

“I’m glad he is.”

“Authorities debrief him. Co-conspirators are rounded up. Future tragedy averted. Homeland issues a statement: ‘Without Arthur Grubman’s heroic self-sacrifice, countless innocents would have died.’ It makes news worldwide. There are candlelight vigils. Streets and schools are named after you. The Arthur Grubman International Airport. A statue is proposed for Penn Station. When our two marines receive medals at the White House you, too, are present — in spirit. Our President declares the second Monday of every August Arthur Grubman Memorial Day.”

“Why August?”

“An open month, no national holidays. He hails you as an inspiration to humankind in an otherwise cold and cynical age. Your wife and daughter will live out their long lives with a deep pride — but a pride tinged with profound regret. For they never knew the nobility and selflessness of the father-slash-husband who lived in their midst.” Faisal, exhausted, sat, and flashed Grubman a triumphant look. “Your candid reaction?”

Grubman felt as if he’d been sucked into a tornado and spit out. He was drained of all emotion. “I can’t help but notice a certain recurring theme in these scenarios,” he said with a trace of weariness.

“And that is?”

“I die! I die!” Heads turned in his direction. He didn’t care. “The problem with all these proposals is I get dead. Look, you did a lot of nice work here. Love the whole hero concept. But I don’t need to be that big of a hero.”

“You underestimate the challenge. A big problem needs a big solution.”

“I’m not a pedophile! Not a serial killer! I’m just a guy. I’ve lived a respectable life. Can’t we modify it so I come out alive?” He thought for a moment. “Can I give you a for-instance?”

“I love people telling me how to do my job. Fine, go ahead.”

“All right, picture this. Manhattan. I’m standing at a street corner waiting for the walk signal. To my left, a bus is racing to make it through the intersection before the light turns. Behind me, on the sidewalk, I hear something approaching, something tinny, scraping, and in the corner of my eye I see a kid, maybe six years old, speeding along on a scooter. Not slowing down. He’s about to race off the curb into the path of the bus. A woman yells, “Noah, stop!” He keeps going. Without hesitation, I swing around, grab the kid and swoop him up into my arms. “Whoa, where you goin’, little guy?” I say. His scooter rolls into traffic, crushed under the monster bus wheels. The young mother runs to us. She sobs with gratitude, throws her arms around me. “How can I ever repay you?” A passerby gets it on video. It makes the five o’clock news! What do you think? Hero, but not dead hero.”

Faisal shook his head. “Won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Too local.”

“It goes viral.”

“Any idea what you are competing with today on the internet? What it takes to break through? Your scenario is cute. You may get some small media buzz. But it has no legs.”

“I don’t need the airport, the statue, the medal.”

“You also won’t get the schadenfreude of your wife and daughter’s guilt and self-recrimination. That’s a big part of it. You want that, right?”

He did. He nodded.

“For that we need your death. Your death is the icing on the cake.”

“All right, let’s turn it up a notch. I’m waiting for a subway. A blind woman comes along, sweeping a white cane before her, feeling her way across the platform. She approaches the edge. And before anyone can stop her, she tumbles onto the tracks. We hear a train thundering toward the station. She’s out cold. People are frozen. But not me! I leap down from the platform. The train is loud, closer. No time. I roll her limp body into that shallow trench between the tracks and dive on top of her. The F Train screams in, five cars roll over us till the brakes hold. Workmen climb under with lights. Commuters on the platform wait and watch. When the two of us crawl out, alive, they’re ecstatic. Jaded New Yorkers cry tears of joy.”

“And I suppose someone gets it on video.”

“Big time. Who doesn’t have a cell phone today? We’ll have lots of coverage. I’m on the 11 o’clock news, the cover of the Post.”

Faisal spoke slowly and patiently as if to a child. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed: there is a high bar for news today. Today you need mass casualties or their potential to even qualify. You need a deceased hero. “

“You keep pushing that. The pilot in Jamaica Bay! Today he’s a living network analyst!”

“Pete Willoughby still had more to contribute, as did his 280 passengers.”

“And I don’t?”

Faisal shrugged. “Not so much.”

“Wrong. I have plenty to give. I’m thinking about volunteer work. Maybe lepers. They don’t get much play these days. And why does everything have to be a terrorist plot? It’s distasteful. There are ways to be a hero without hugging a time bomb.”

“Terrorism hits people where they live, so to speak. Visceral. Besides, I like to stick with a milieu I’m familiar with. They say ‘write what you know.’”

“What do you mean “familiar with”?

“Well, I once lived … on the dark side.”

At first Arthur did not catch his meaning. Then it dawned. “A terrorist? I’m sitting in Starbucks with a terrorist?”

“Please, use your indoor voice.” He looked around nervously. “Former terrorist. The preferred term is ‘jihadist.’ My nom de guerre was Abu Jamal. Perhaps you saw my wanted poster?”

“You don’t dress like any jihadist I know.”

“Former. Former. Can’t a man have a second act?”

“I’m glad you saw the error of your ways.”

“To be honest, it was no way to make a living. Sleeping in safe houses, on the sofas of confederates, waiting, always waiting. It is a young man’s game. One soon learns that blowing up a shopping mall is not going to fix the world.”

“I could’ve told you that. That could’ve been my heroic act. Stopping you.”

“I wanted a future, a family, a permanent cell phone number.” He nodded to his iPhone 12 on the table. “For five years I lived in this country, in a cramped flat, eating fast food, waiting to be activated. I watched as men half as clever got rich. I saw the American Dream in action. I grew intrigued by capitalism and a free market. I thought: why not me?” He buffed a smudge on the crystal of his Rolex with the opposite sleeve. “I hit on an idea, one that could only work in this great, generous country. It was this: Why not take the terrorist template and turn it on its head? Repurpose it. Monetize it.”

“This is a real Horatio Alger story.”

“Instead of the suicide bomber as hero to his cause, why not sell the hero rights?”

“That’s where I come in — the shmuck who drowns in a pool of his own blood.”

“Everything has its trade-offs, Mr. Grubman. We need your death to underline the virtue of your life. Be honest. Your passing would not be a big loss.”

“It would to me. I’m not a bad guy. I contributed. I kept Greencastle & Franklin within its fiscal limits for thirty-two years. I married, fathered a daughter.”

Faisal shrugged. “On the world stage? A bit player in a non-speaking role. But in death, ah, in death you could shine. There you could step to the footlights. Think of your grandchildren picnicking in Arthur Grubman Park. Imagine their pride.”

“Grandchildren? Have you met my daughter? A real sour puss.”

“Look, some do better in death. Take Lincoln. In life, a dour, awkward man. Size 14 shoes. His countrymen called him a monkey. In death? Ten thousand biographies, a billion pennies, a Town Car! Who knows what you could accomplish dead.” He clasped his hands together on the table and leaned forward. “Your choice is simple, Mr. Grubman. Do you want to be a live zero or a dead hero?”

“But death is the end. Finito. As long as I’m alive, I have a chance to turn things around.”

“You had decades to do that. Get real, sir. I offer you a chance to stop being a passive observer of your own life.”

“By ending it?”

“I call it proactive.”

“But doesn’t a modest life have worth? Mine is precious to me. I enjoy the little things: a fresh cup of coffee, a walk in the park, a limited crime series on cable. An unimportant life, I guess, but why throw it away? You know what they say: you only live once.”

“They also say, ‘When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ Speaking of which, may I ask, were you planning on burial or cremation?”

“Burial. Near my parents.”

“A mistake. Nothing is sadder than an unvisited, untended grave. Weeds, a weathered gravestone defiled by graffiti. . .”

“You’re a real ego booster.”

“Imagine, if you will, the gravesite of Arthur Grubman, national hero. Think of his memorial. Grubman’s Tomb. Built with millions in small contributions: two dollars, five dollars. The People’s Tomb. A fountain, an eternal flame. An eternal fountain! Tour buses at the curb. That Grubman will never be alone. Crowds will flock to him. His resting place will be a modern Mecca.”

“I won’t have a moment’s peace.”

“Your family will cry over you on Christmas and Father’s Day!”

“I only wish I were there to enjoy it.”

“Who is to say? Do we really know what happens after we are gone? In any case, you can enjoy it now. You can savor it now.”

So, Grubman tried it on for size. In his mind’s eye he saw Hilda and Tara trudging up a snowy slope to his crypt, a bitter wind slapping at their cheeks, if-onlys spinning in their heads. A busload of tourists part as the two women step forward to lay a holiday wreath. They bow their heads in prayer before his monument — simple, understated, solid granite, like the man himself. And engraved thereon: “The world cares not for a man who meets his obligations.”

Faisal slid a business card across the table. It was black and made of a hard laminate. A phone number in silver foil numerals seemed to float above it like a hologram.

As Grubman walked home from Starbucks, he weighed the pluses and minuses and weighed them again. His takeaway was the same. When you got down to it, it was better to be Arthur Grubman alive than Gandhi, Salk or Jackie Robinson dead. Sure, those guys have their triumphs, a toehold in history, the gratitude of mankind. But Arthur Grubman, alive, can walk into Mulligan’s for a beer. Life, he thought, still has the edge.

Grubman fumbled with his keys. He placed his computer bag on the console table in the foyer. He heard a familiar voice and the laughter of women. He turned and walked into the living room.

“There he is! The man of leisure.” Walter was sprawled on the couch. He held a tumbler of amber liquid in his bronzed hand. He was dressed as Grubman had last seen him, in dungarees, scuffed cowboy boots, a western shirt with pearl snaps. A tan felt Stetson on his head.

“What brings you in from Tombstone?” said Grubman to his brother.

“Starting already?” said Walter. He looked at Hilda and Tara on the loveseat. “See how he starts?”

“Don’t start, Arthur,” said Hilda.

“He’s from Teaneck. Who dresses like that from Teaneck?”

“What do you care how I dress?”

“You want to chase your brother away for another five years?”

“I can try.”

“I was in town for a meeting, Art. I thought I’d make the gesture.”

“He made the gesture, Arthur.”

“The problem with you is,” said Walter, “you’re a grievance collector.”

“Me? Live and let live is my motto.”

“He’s got an enemies list, Uncle Walter,” said Tara.

“Another country heard from,” said her father.

“As I was saying to the girls,” said Walter, “you ought to come to Colorado and see our spread. We’ll saddle you up.”

“Not my thing, Tex.”

“I can just picture him on the open prairie,” said Tara.

“My fan club,” said Grubman.

“You know what Ronnie Reagan said,” said Walter. “‘There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.’”

“Reagan. You used to loathe Reagan.”

“I woke up,” said Walter. He sucked the last bit of liquid from his glass. “If you want to give your money to the rabble, go ahead.”

“Why don’t I refresh that for you,” said Hilda. She scooped up his glass with an eagerness Grubman had never seen.

“You did one smart thing, Art. You found the right girl here and stuck by her.” He winked at Hilda.

“Yes, and I’m the stuckee,” she said. The two in-laws laughed. Hilda dropped ice into the glass and topped it off with Grubman’s best scotch. She handed it back to her brother-in-law, who raised it in toast: “Stay positive, test negative.’ He downed a huge gulp. “By the way, I want to extend an invitation.”

“An invitation? Sounds exciting,” said Hilda.

“To the grand opening of the Walter and Mae-Ling Grubman Cancer Pavilion at Aspen Valley Hospital. It’s important to give back,” he said. “We’re only here for a short time.”

“Seems like you’ve been here for hours.”

“Arthur!” said Hilda.

“I’m kidding him.”

“Don’t hold it against Walter that he made something of his life.”

“And I didn’t?”

“Hey, kids, don’t get in a row over me.”

She looked at her husband. “You let life happen to you, Arthur. You never aimed high, took a risk or followed a passion. And who you were is who you still are.”

Grubman reeled. His shoulders sagged. Humiliated, he lowered his head and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. There, his right hand felt a hard, plastic business card. He ran his thumb lightly over its edge.

“Truth be told, Art” said Walter, “you found a safe little corner for yourself and spent thirty years in a defensive crouch.”

Grubman beheld the contempt of his wife, daughter, and brother. He stroked the card in his pocket. As he pressed his thumb down onto it, its sharp point dug deep, deep into his skin.

Featured image: Daroff advertisement, The Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1958

Six Things You Didn’t Know About To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird went on sale 60 years ago this week. The two-part structure of the novel deals with the Alabama childhood of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and the challenging case taken on by her lawyer father, Atticus. It’s one of the most widely-read books in the United States and a staple of middle and high school curricula. In honor of the six decades that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been a cultural touchstone, here are six things you didn’t know about To Kill a Mockingbird, its writer, and the award-winning film.

1. The First Draft Is an Entirely Different Book

Lee lived in New York City in the 1950s, working in reservations for British Overseas Airways. Her childhood friend, the writer Truman Capote (more on him later), connected her with an agent in 1956. Lee’s friends supported her for a year so that she could write her book; the novel, Go Set a Watchman, sold to the publisher J. B. Lippincott Company. Editor Tay Hohoff felt the book had promise but also that it needed more work. For over two –and –a half years, she worked with Lee to transform Watchman into the book that would be To Kill a Mockingbird. In a twist that could only happen for a book as famous as Mockingbird, that first draft, Go Set a Watchman, was released as its own book in 2015. HarperCollins, who published Watchman, faced harsh criticism from several quarters for marketing that positioned the book like a sequel rather than a first draft; they drew additional fire for the perception that Lee had been manipulated into allowing the release just a few weeks after the death of her primary caregiver, her sister Alice.

2. Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Kansas

Truman Capote wasn’t just Lee’s childhood friend; he was the inspiration for the character Dill in Mockingbird. In 1959, as Lee waited for the publication of the novel the following year, she went with Capote to Kansas on a research trip. Capote was pursuing an article on the murder of a farming family, the Clutters. The article eventually grew into Capote’s seminal work, the 1966 book In Cold Blood. Over the years, that trip has taken on an almost mythic status in the literary world. It’s been depicted in two films: Infamous, based on George Plimpton’s book Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career and starring Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as Lee; and Capote, based on Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same name and starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. The trip was also depicted in the acclaimed graphic novel Capote in Kansas by writer Ande Parks and artist Chris Samnee.

3. Lee Received Presidential Material

Harper Lee Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Uploaded to YouTube by C-SPAN)

It’s not unusual for writers to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the National Medal of Arts. It’s very unusual to receive both on the strength of one book. For 55 years, Lee had only one novel published (and some argue the validity of Watchman as a novel at all, given its odd draft status). However, it’s a tribute to the impact of the book that Lee received the Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2007 and the Medal of Arts from Barrack Obama in 2010.

4. The Novel Continues to Face Challenges

Despite the novel’s iconic status, it remains one of the most challenged by various groups that want it removed from school curricula or public libraries. It was the seventh most-challenged book as recently as 2017, according to the American Library Association. As early as 1966, the book received challenges on the basis of content related to rape. Despite the anti-racism messaging prevalent in the book, it’s been challenged for containing racial epithets. Mockingbird also draws fire for its inclusion of profanity not related to race.

5. Atticus Finch Set a High Bar

The trailer for To Kill a Mockingbird. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Atticus Finch has been praised as a both a literary hero and, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, a hero of film as well. Peck won an Academy Award for his work in the 1962 film. The American Film Institute’s 2003 list, “100 Heroes & Villains” named Finch as the greatest hero in American movies. In 1993, DC Comics writer and artist Dan Jurgens used a scene in Superman #81 to cement the notion that the adaptation of the novel is Clark Kent’s (and therefore Superman’s) favorite movie. Over time, some writers have questioned the lionization of Finch, mainly noting that he takes on a racist in the courtroom, but does little to take on the racism endemic in their hometown.

6. The Mystery of Boo Radley

The mysterious nature of Boo Radley in the novel and film has made him something of a cult character and a shorthand reference for an unseen figure in a narrative. The role of Radley marked the film debut of celebrated actor Robert Duvall, who has since been nominated for seven Academy Awards (winning one for Best Actor in Tender Mercies). British band The Boo Radleys took their name from the Finch’s neighbor. And Bruce Hornsby’s song “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” is about the events of the novel related to the character.

Featured image: Shutterstock

The Things Loretta Can’t Have at The Bluffs of Placid Haven

No Lagoon Breeze

The prior owners of her Craftsman-style townhouse had let things go. Not only their marriage, Loretta heard, but also their kids, their money, the house. And because of that, a lot of folks wouldn’t touch it, said divorce and delinquent kids were curse and contagion, that the house was forever haunted by the ghosts of people who half-died while still living there. But Loretta wasn’t scared by any of this. She had nothing left to lose except a pile of cash to plunk down on a place to make new friends with people who liked a little more order and a little more space and a little more neighborhood than what she had living in the city for the past 40 years.

Loretta knew going into it that the house needed some work. Stained carpets. Three fist-sized holes in the master bedroom closet. Half the blinds pulled up crooked or not at all. And nothing had been painted — much less wiped down — in years. Loretta’s bank statements reminded her that she was going to have to pace herself if she still wanted to eat. Hang pictures over holes and place potted plants strategically on floors. Scour YouTube for DIY tips. Acquire the time and energy efficient knick-knackery of modern life in other ways.

For now, Loretta could swing a gallon of paint to freshen up the front door. She browsed color chips at the hardware store and took home a few sample jars in a range of turquoise, her favorite color. She wanted something deeper than the Tiffany’s box that cradled the gaudy engagement ring her sister Tawny just received — who gets engaged with a diamond a fourth time!? But something lighter than the Caribbean pics her former co-worker Daphne posts on Instagram during couples getaways — who wears a string bikini in her 60s!? She wanted no suggestive reminders of what she didn’t want but everyone said she would maybe one day still probably like to have, the things you are not supposed to tell an unattached woman her age but people do anyway because they are impolite or unhappy themselves.

As Loretta painted the last of five different swatches above the brass kick plate, she saw a woman’s reflection moving behind her on the sidewalk. A fluffy beige puppy was sniffing around near the woman’s feet.

“Updating your front door?”

Loretta turned around on her knees. It was Marj Switzer, President of The Bluffs of Placid Haven Homeowners Association. A lame duck president near the end of her second four-year term, and who Loretta heard takes every advantage to enforce the rules while she still has time.

“Yeah, thinking about it.” Loretta pointed to the dog at the end of a blue rhinestone leash. “Cute puppy. Yours?”

“Just picked him up this week! Tucker. He’s a Pyredoodle. Great Pyrenees and Standard Poodle mix.”

“Looks like he’s gonna be a big guy.”

“Nope.” Marj closed her eyes and shook her head with a smug smile. “Breeder said he should stay close to 40 pounds based on her last few litters.” Marj picked up Tucker and snuggled him close to her face. “You’re aware of the list of pre-approved colors in the Rules and Regulations, right?” She nodded toward the door.

Loretta wanted to pinch Marj’s condescending smile into a mute line and twist it. “No, I wasn’t. But I’m just testing out some colors to see how they look at different times of day.”

“Admiral Navy, Desert Steppe, Ship’s Hull … that’s a gray … Brick Red, Douglas Fir, and Obsidian. Those are the six approved colors. And you can’t have the same color as a neighbor on either side, of course.” Marj glanced at the bright blue stripes of wet paint glistening in the early May sun. “But those would’ve been fun ones! Too bad.”

Loretta stood up and took three steps closer to Marj. “Just six colors to pick from?”

“Surely you know this community is part of a homeowners association. We try to keep everything uniform. Consistent. Safe and predictable. I’m not sure how it was in the city where you lived, but that’s why people move here.” Marj leaned down and put Tucker on Loretta’s lawn. After spinning in three urgent circles the dog squatted and released a small mound of loose shit.

“I get there are rules about keeping things a certain way. But paint colors? On a door? How does keeping a short list of approved colors keep anyone safe? It’s just a bit of joy painted on a few square feet of solid wood.”

“He must’ve gotten into something he wasn’t supposed to.” Marj scooped as much of the shit off the grass as she could and tied a knot in the tiny plastic bag. “The list is the list. If you want to appeal there’s a process … ”

“Forget it.” Loretta looked to the left and then to the right at her neighbors’ front doors. “Black seems appropriate here. Excuse me. Obsidian.”

Marj flashed her pert smile before heading back down the sidewalk. “Nice chatting with you. I’m sure you’ll love it here once you get settled and learn the rules.” She glanced toward the brown smear on the lawn. “Sorry about the little mess.”

No Ollalieberry Pie

Loretta tried to get away with it that first summer she owned the townhouse. Right off her back porch grew those royal purple berries no bigger than a thumbprint. The ones that her great-great-granddaddy helped develop on a West Coast farm, just like Mendel with his peas at the monastery. Loretta was open about it too — nothing clandestine like the ganja Beatrice McBarron grew in prim yellow pots on her deck, telling everyone they’re spider flowers that just won’t bloom goshdarnit! wink wink. Loretta tended and picked and sorted and piled those berries into deep-dish pie pans lined with her famous buttery dough. Made a dozen in late August for her neighbors on Breezy Terrace, suggesting a scoop of vanilla as she passed steaming pies across their thresholds. Her phone blew up later that night and she read the texts over and over and over. She was giddy from her new rank in the neighborhood.

OMG this pie!!!!!!!

What’s in this pie!?!? SO. GOOD.

I just ate three slices for dinner don’t tell Gary LOL!!!!

I need this recipe!

U R AMAZEBALLS

thank uuuuuuuu

The next morning there was a knock on Loretta’s front door. Loretta peeked out the sidelights. The lime green cover of the HOA Rules and Regulations was tucked under Marj’s arm. Loretta smoothed her hair and opened the door.

“Can I come in?” Marj didn’t wait for an answer and as the door closed behind her, she handed Loretta a sheet of paper. NOTICE OF VIOLATION was written in bold across the top. For the next thirty minutes, Marj recited sections and subsections and parts and subparts of the Rules and Regulations, admonishing Loretta because only certain fruits and vegetables were acceptable to grow in gardens at Placid Haven, and ollalieberries were not on the list.

Loretta cocked her head to the side. “How’s a blackberry or raspberry that much different from a ollalieberry? It’s a hybrid of those two! They’re all just berries growing on a bush and they make great pies.”

“I’m not here to get into all that. The rules are the rules. If you want to discuss it with the Board you obviously have a right to a hearing first. I direct your attention to section … ” She trailed off as she pointed to the paper in Loretta’s hand.

Loretta scanned the notice and looked back at Marj. “Is this because I didn’t bring you a pie? I only made enough for my neighbors on Breezy. None of them complained about the kind of berry. Terri even asked if I could make three more for her mahjong tournament next weekend.”

Marj’s bottom teeth pulled at her upper lip as she opened the door to leave and then she glanced back over her shoulder. “I’ve got to run. If you pull the bushes out by the close of business tomorrow, there’s no more problem.”

Loretta spotted Tucker’s head in the passenger window of Marj’s car parked at the curb. “Looks like he’s getting big.” Marj laughed but didn’t reply.

At 4 a.m., under the cold glare of the back door floodlight and still in her nightgown, Loretta plucked the remaining ripe berries to freeze them for one more pie, then dug the ollalieberry bushes out of the ground. Fucking ridiculous, she grunted every time her spade cut into the soil, her hair in sweaty ribbons across her forehead. After she tossed the bushes next to the trash barrel, she stared at the three wide holes and contemplated her options: fill the holes or plant blackberries or raspberries instead. She thought of her great-great-grandaddy and all those summers he spent perfecting his hybrid berries. How raspberry and blackberry pies would never have the neighbors texting her late into the night because they could get them on the cheap at Clippity Clop Farm. She looked at her watch: the garden center would open in three hours. She dropped her shovel on the ground and went to clear out the back of her trunk to make room for the bags of loam before going back inside to shower.

No Parrots

The thing Loretta had hated most about living in the city was not having a yard. At the human level, the city had soul and nuance, but structurally, things were pragmatic and anonymously claustrophobic. All she had was a sloping balcony with a couple potted flowers and her bike. At Placid Haven she finally had a real yard and she planned to use every inch of it by filling it with fun and friends. This is what she lived her whole life for, to loosen up and let go a little by dashing off quirky e-vites for mai tais and coconut shrimp on the deck. For eight straight weekends, Loretta curated the perfect mix of kitsch: three hot pink flamingos soldered from scavenged metal, a green wooden parrot with her house number painted on a sign hanging from its beak, half a yellow surfboard anchored upright into the ground near the small stand of white and yellow hollyhock, and twelve solar-powered LED pineapple lights staked along each side of the walkway to her front door.

When she came downstairs on Labor Day to marinate meats and assemble fruit kabobs for her cookout, Loretta saw Marj through the front window measuring the parrot and jotting some notes on a pad of paper before taking a picture with her phone.

Loretta bolted out her front door. “Can I help you?” Her eyes went wide in disbelief.

“These are gonna have to go. I mean, unless you get approval from the board first.” Marj pointed to the surfboard and flamingoes. “Definitely exceed the height requirements.”

“What?”

“Nothing taller than twelve inches unless you get approval first.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me … ”

“But it’s going to be a hard sell anyway. I mean, that is if they are even considered sculptures or compatible by the board … ” Marj walked closer and pointed to an open page of the HOA Rules:

Oversized decorative objects are defined as any object exceeding 12 inches in height and 12 inches in either width or depth and includes, but is not limited to, such items as sculptures, fountains, driftwood, free standing poles of any type. Oversized decorative objects will be considered based on their size, color, scale, location, compatibility with architectural and environmental design qualities and their visual impact of adjoining lots.

“And the parrot with my house number? The solar lights?” Loretta asked.

“Hmmm. You’re right. Well the lights are out too, I suppose. Section 237(d) says no extraneous light fixtures.”

Loretta stared at the thick layers of eyeshadow and mascara in competing shades of blue that matched the array of plastic bangles clicking on Marj’s wrist. “This is unbelievable. Why is everything so strict around here?” Loretta scanned her neighbors’ yards and realized for the first time that they all looked exactly the same except for the color of flowers. Two warm licks on her calf made her turn around. Tucker was panting with his eyes half-closed near her feet. Loretta looked back at Marj. “Has he stopped growing yet? He looks a lot bigger than forty pounds.”

“It’s the way his fur makes him look.” Marj thumbed through her book of rules twice and frowned before closing it. “Since it’s only ten inches, the parrot might be okay. I’ll need to check with the rest of the board to determine whether it’s considered a small exterior object or a sign, which have a different set of rules obviously. You’ll hear back from me soon on that.” Loretta noticed Marj’s acrylic nails were painted a bright shade of blue when she’d made air quotes while saying sign.

Loretta stomped over to the pineapple lights and pulled them from the ground in rapid succession, then ripped the parrot from its post and tossed it on the pile of lights. “Don’t bother,” she replied.

No Dog-Walking

So far, retirement hadn’t been exactly what Loretta hoped for. Her funds were starting to dwindle because she overspent on lattes and mediocre mall tacos just to have somewhere to go, and the electric bill was higher than she had budgeted for because the night sweats had unexpectedly returned. She also realized the way she relaxed was by keeping busy. She missed the long hours of rushing between city blocks to meet clients for small talk about design and corporate missions that fueled her fire in CorelDRAW when she created pamphlets and websites. She could only take so many watercolor and wreath-making sessions at the clubhouse, and Tiki Bar Tuesdays too often ended with Rosaria cornering her at the horseshoe pit for a bitchfest about her ex-husband.

The residents of Placid Haven didn’t exactly need any graphic designers, but Loretta did see one potential income source: dogs. Most residents seemed to own dogs, and dozens of non-Haven people walked their mutts through the quiet neighborhood. She could easily earn a couple hundred dollars a week and get out of her own way.

Loretta tacked up flyers at the clubhouse, created an Instagram account, and posted on the Placid Haven Facebook page to let people know about Loretta’s Leash Walking Service. In just two days, she was tethered to a fat French bulldog, two wheezy pugs, a recalcitrant Lhasa Apso wearing a pink bow, and a Doxie Scot that spent the first ten minutes of every walk nipping at the bulldog’s heels.

It took Marj three days to leave the voicemail.

“Hey, it’s Marj. Listen, I saw your dog walking ads … cute name! … but I’m not sure if you’re aware of this … home-based businesses are kiiiiinda not allowed at Placid Haven. I’m sure you’ve read the regulations and probably just forgot. Section 140(a) spells it all out. True that Teddy Baxter does everyone’s taxes for half-price but we kinda look the other way on him. ANYHOO. I’m sure you’ll know how to correct this … situation. See you at the clubhouse luau tonight. Bring your party shoes!” Loretta deleted the message then opened her laptop to order two collapsible water bowls and a thousand poop bags.

Two weeks later, Loretta rounded the corner of Breezy Terrace with her pack of dogs when she saw Marj coming from the opposite direction. She looked like she was in a hurry as Tucker slowed down to investigate the other dogs. Rhinestones glinted in the sun as he pulled his leash taut to sniff the Lhasa Apso’s rear end. “Come on, Tucker. Let’s go.” The women avoided eye contact.

Tucker pushed against the middle of Loretta’s thigh as he moved toward the pugs cowering behind her. “Sounds like you don’t have time for a visit today, buddy.” Loretta gave him a quick pat on the head.

Marj yanked the leash and told Tucker to sit. “We don’t,” she sighed. “Started a new part-time job at Bristol Asphalt and Paving. Just some administrative stuff. They’ve been so busy with all the new subdivisions going in. But I can’t ever seem to get there on time.”

“Well, I won’t keep you.” Loretta stepped back away from Tucker.

“Now that I think about it … maybe you could walk Tucker in the mornings for me so I’m not always ten minutes late?” She untangled Tucker from the pugs’ leashes and glanced at the small crowd of canines circling Loretta. “That is, if you can even take on another dog.”

Loretta hesitated. Was Marj casting bait? She wanted to keep her Marj encounters to a minimum, but turning down an extra $25 when she was already out walking another five dogs didn’t make sense. Neither did stepping into a stinking pile of shit.

Before Loretta could answer, Marj continued to consider the idea out loud. “Of course I’d have to give you a key … But maybe we could keep this between us? Seems as though no one else on the board has minded this prohibited endeavor of yours.” Marj reached down to pet one of the dogs. “In fact, this is JJ Morton’s Doxie Scot, isn’t it? Seems like a bold move for the Board Secretary to go along with this.”

“I can do it. Monday through Friday?”

“I have Fridays off.” Marj smiled as she fished a key from her pocket. “Could you start tomorrow? I have a spare key hidden in the yard so you can just take this one.”

When Loretta came to get Tucker the next morning, she couldn’t coax him out of his crate, not even with the “good” treats. “Come on, buddy.” She leaned down to attach his leash and hoist him to a standing position, but he wouldn’t budge. With the other dogs waiting and tethered to the front porch railing she didn’t have time to negotiate, so she picked him up. “How much do you weigh, Tucker? My goodness!” His beefy breath was warm on her cheek, giving her that goofy dog look that made it hard to be annoyed. “There’s no way you’re forty pounds,” she said as she set him down with a grunt and patted his sides.

No Fiberglass Composite

Despite many mornings of tangled leashes and stepping on the paws of her furry charges when she first started, dog walking was proving to be a lucrative venture: Loretta now walked two groups a day (plus a wait list) and had a comfy cushion in her bank account.

She wanted to spiff up her yard and remembered the funny planters at her cousin’s pool party last year. Assorted chubby, troll-like faces atop stumpy legs and oversized feet with no arms or torso in between, with ferns and grasses for hair. A quick online search revealed they were called Mugglies and the local garden store had dozens in stock, plenty for the small crowd she planned to welcome to her front step.

Loretta spent a full Sunday adding potting soil and a variety of fringed and sprouty annuals to give the faces some silly hair. Their expressions were varied — crying, laughing, grimacing — and she couldn’t help but laugh when she stepped back to look at all thirty-three of them ready to greet her after every dog walk and trip to the grocery store.

When she went to get Tucker for his walk on Monday morning, there was a note from Marj near his leash on the counter.

Hey Loretta, Noticed your new plants yesterday. Just FYI those kind of containers aren’t allowed. Concrete or terra cotta pots only. HOA Sec. 49(a)(xvi)(2). Thanks again for walking T!

S

Loretta’s pulse quickened. She stared at Tucker dozing in his crate before striding to Marj’s master bathroom. She flicked on the light and scanned the room. The edge of a bathroom scale stuck out from under the maple vanity. She pulled it out. Dust-free. Of course Marj would be the type to keep meticulous track of her weight.

She put the scale on the kitchen floor and plucked a dog treat from her pocket. “Here, Tucker!” He walked toward her open hand. As he took the treat, she picked him and stood on the scale. Peering over his fluffy back, she read the number: 231. She put him back on the floor and stepped back on the scale: 164.

The green cover of Marj’s copy of the HOA rules was tossed on a stack of cookbooks near the fridge. Loretta scanned the table of contents. Pets. Section 22.

No more than one approved, registered cat or dog per unit; no exceptions. The weight limit on any pet is 40 pounds (unless the pet is an approved assistance animal).

She did the math in her head. “Well, well, Tucker.” He moved closer to her and pushed his head against her leg looking for a scratch behind the ears. “Looks like you’re twenty-seven pounds too big, mister.” His tail started wagging.

As she walked her second group of dogs, Tucker now back at home and no longer blinking those brown eyes at her, Loretta thought about her next move. She could confront Marj about Tucker’s weight and the violation of the rules. But that was too easy and not worth the trade of simply removing the plants on her front steps. She had the better hand here. She had to play it right.

That night, after trips to the garden center and hardware store, Loretta brought her crew of Mugglies into her kitchen. “OK, kids, temporary change of plans.” She downed a handful of sweet and salty nuts, opened a can of Dr. Pepper, and cued up the YouTube video she found earlier that afternoon. In another tab she went to the Placid Haven Facebook page and scrolled for photos she could crop, enlarge and print for the project; she found the best ones among the photos uploaded from the annual clubhouse pool party and Vic and Dollie’s 50th wedding anniversary luncheon. She organized an assembly line along her counter: empty square concrete pots, spray glue, printed photos cropped to various sizes that could be seen from a distance of several yards if you squinted, polyacrylic finish, wide paintbrush, and a couple of rags. The kitchen window was open and the fan was on so the fumes wouldn’t get to her while she worked.

The project took long enough that eventually she switched from Dr. Pepper to Grand Marnier on ice so she wouldn’t lose her nerve.

When the concrete pots were dry to the touch, she repotted all of the Muggly plants and brought them outside. It was dark outside and only a few of her neighbors were still awake in their homes. She arranged them along her front patio to face the street like spectators at a parade. Loretta knew the first people to see her new arrangement of plants would be the runners and early morning tennis doubles pairs walking to the clubhouse. Marj would see them last on her drive to work.

The pounding on her front door came precisely at 8:47AM. “Loretta! What the hell are you doing?” Marj shouted through the heavy door as she continued to pound her fist. “Loretta!”

Loretta opened the door and glanced at the concrete pot Marj had plucked on her way to the door. It was the one with the picture of Marj’s half-closed drunken eyes rolling upward. Without saying anything, Loretta crossed her arms in front of her chest and waited for Marj to unleash her tirade.

“What the hell are these?” Her face deepened to red as she pointed to the rows of pots behind her. “Why do all these pots have faces of me? I look ridiculous in all of them! Have you been spying on me and taking pictures? Where did you get these?” she yelled.

“Placid Haven Facebook page.” Loretta smiled at her, arms still crossed.

“You must get rid of them. Immediately!”

Loretta reached over to the small table next to the door, opened her copy of the HOA rules, and began reading aloud. “Residents may have plant pots or planter boxes on front porches, patios, decks, and backyard stone retaining walls. Pots and planter boxes shall not be placed on driveways or sidewalks. Pots or planter boxes may be no larger than 16” wide and 16” high. Pots and planter boxes shall be manufactured of only of one of the following materials: terra cotta, unpainted wood, and concrete. Pots and planter boxes are allowed without permission so long as the plants are pruned and maintained in good health, free of weeds, and do not obstruct a neighbor’s view.”

She paused. Marj’s eyes were darting around the room like she was trying to remember something. “Not sure what the problem is here, Marj. Concrete pots … not too big … no weeds … ”

Marj interrupted. “They have my fucking face!”

“Hmmm.” Loretta glanced back down at the page. “Funny. Nothing in here prohibiting fucking faces.”

“Look, I … ”

Loretta held up her hand and flipped to another page flagged with a bright pink Post-It. “The weight limit on any pet is 40 pounds.” She tossed the book on the side table and stared at Marj.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Marj asked.

“Tucker’s got … shall we say, a weight problem?” Loretta smiled her mean girl karma smile, the same one she used when she ran into the three colleagues who stole her client list and started their own company that failed within the first ten months.

Marj’s face went pale. “What are you talking about?”

“He’s twenty-seven pounds over the limit. I weighed him myself on your bathroom scale.” Loretta took her phone out of her pocket and showed Marj the photo of Tucker’s paws dangling over the digital scale display.

“You had no right to do that!”

“Maybe. But I’m sure the Board would love to know someone’s breaking the rules. I mean you certainly seem invested in keeping order and safety for our community. He could be a danger being that big. Unsafe. Be a shame to see him go … ”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You need to leave now. I have to get ready to walk the dogs.”

“Give me my key back.” Marj held out her palm. “Your services will no longer be needed. I’ll find someone else.”

Loretta silently unwound Marj’s key from the ring she had for her clients’ keys and handed it to her. She opened the front door and stood to the side to let Marj pass.

When Marj was back on the front porch, she turned around and faced the dozens of pots staring back at her, all with her own face. With her mouth open and full of food. Frowning. Raccoon eyes from being in the pool. The worst of them all: a pinky in her nose. She had on fake eyelashes which meant it must have been taken at Vic and Dollie’s 50th wedding anniversary. The plants in the pots had coarse, wiry leaves, some bushy, making her look like a deranged caricature of herself. Loretta’s front door squeaked as it started to close. “Wait!”

Loretta pulled the door open a little wider. “Yeah?”

“Tell me what you want.” Marj set down the pot she was still holding. “Tell me what I can do so you’ll get rid of these and not rat me out about Tucker.”

As the pie cooled on the wire rack, Loretta scanned the Placid Haven weekly bulletin linked on the Facebook page. Upcoming events, recent real estate transactions, and updates on the new security guard gate. She scrolled to the bottom of the page for the list of HOA regulation amendments voted on at last week’s meeting. Section 140(a) now permitted a limited number of home-based businesses: tax preparation, pet care services, personal trainer, and online sales of homemade jellies and jams. Section 22 now allowed for dogs up to 45 pounds and the Board amended the list of permissible garden plants. The motion to amend the list of approved paint colors was tabled until the new board president was sworn in next month because “President Switzer recused herself from voting due to an inability to be impartial on the issue.”

When the pie was cool enough to carry, Loretta walked over to Marj’s house and knocked on the door. There was some movement inside and she heard Tucker whining, but no one came to the door. Loretta set the pie and a bag of low-cal dog biscuits on the wicker chair next to the door before heading two doors down to walk the pugs.

Loretta walked toward the small dog park on the other side of the development and thought about what she needed to do later that day: repot her plants into the Mugglies and move them to her backyard and order ollalieberry bushes with expedited shipping so she could transplant them before the first frost. As she fiddled with the pugs’ leashes to let them run loose, she felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket. The dogs ran in big circles while she read the text: Thanks for the ollalieberry pie. It’s almost as good as the raspberry pie from Clippity Clop Farm!

Featured image: Shutterstock

Mr. Leith

She was 11, which at that time was a child. She went and stood near her mother and said, “Mr. Leith is cute.” Her mother was at the sewing machine. Every mother sewed, had a flower garden, had a box of recipes and wrote hers out for the others on her own cards. Or maybe not every single one. No, some didn’t have to, or didn’t know they had to.

Lucy was not going to. She was going to do whatever she wanted. She only said Mr. Leith was cute because of her older sisters, who used the word every day on the school bus and at the dinner table and in their room — they were twins and got to share a room. Not so long after that, Lucy would go right past them both, to words they would not have dared to speak. She came late, her mother always said to her father. She’s not the same as the twins, she has her own ways. Lucy knew that made her the favorite.

Mr. Leith was the plumber. He had been the little brother of the plumber — more than a dozen years between his brother’s age and his — and then his apprentice, and now he drove the Leith & Leith truck alone. He would be in the kitchen where the pipes and spigots were giving out or he would disappear down the ladder to the well. When his brother was gone, he began to bring a dog with him, a hound. The dog stayed in the truck; she would put her paws, carefully one at a time, up on the rim of the truck bed so she could think about stretching her neck down to be petted. Her eyes scanning the house for Mr. Leith were a lighter brown than her coat. Amber, Lucy’s mother said. They shone as if with tears as she looked for Mr. Leith. She wouldn’t look directly into Lucy’s eyes when Lucy stood there petting her.

Mr. Leith would be 32 in August, her mother said. His brother had had his heart attack at 46. When he was on his own after his brother died, Mr. Leith had gone to the pound to get the dog, whose name was Brownie, so as to have company on his rounds. They were always on their own, the Leith brothers, poor things, her mother said. Never did have much in the way of a home. How do you know? Lucy said. The mother died before the war, her mother said, and the father drank. Tom Leith never did marry, but this one got married in his teens.

Lucy could see for herself that Mr. Leith was not cheerful. She could remember the older brother laughing at him and bringing her Snickers bars.

Mr. Leith the Second. That’s what Lucy calls you, she heard her mother tell him one summer day. That day two things struck Lucy. First, she stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked at Mr. Leith half under the sink. She saw his long back and his waist. She saw his jeans. When he hunched his way out she saw his shoulders spread to their full extent and his hand go to the back of his neck. She felt herself sucked into another body. She put her hand on her own neck under the hair she was growing long.

Won’t you have a cup of coffee? her mother’s voice said. This irritated Lucy because it was what her mother said to people who had dropped in, and then they stayed. Usually she said tea or coffee, but she didn’t offer Mr. Leith the choice. No thank you, he said. Thought I’d take a look in the well, he said, as if the well with its unsteady pump were his own to look at if he chose.

Later in the day he was in the kitchen again with his tools and Lucy went in and asked him about the dog. Why can’t she get out and run around? Or come in? We could let her in. No, he said calmly. He didn’t say anything more and the sensation she had had earlier when he was under the sink went through her again, followed by a wish to be mean. She said to him, Don’t you get all dirty when you have to do this stuff?

No, he said. He held out his clean hands and looked at them. Some heat came to her face and she shut her eyes and rubbed the eyeballs through the lids. What did your father die of? Your brother I mean. I mean I used to think he was your father. When you both came, whenever that was, when I was young. You always came with him. I thought you were his kid. And why can’t your dog come in? Now she was talking a mile a minute.

He was a father, more or less, said Mr. Leith. Less, he said after a pause. That was when he looked straight at her as he was standing up and she thought she couldn’t breathe. She don’t want to get in anybody’s house, he said. She’s a trained dog. I trained her. I’m the on’y one she wants to be with.

Why do you say on’y instead of only? Lucy said. She couldn’t stop herself.

Why do you say what you say?

She was ready to pretend that made her mad. Without looking at him she was scuffing her foot on the rag rug. Now he had his subject, though, the dog. She was the best dog they had over there, he said. She’s voice trained. I don’t have to raise my voice. I’ll say her name, or what I want her to do. Or I’ll lie two fingers on her back and she’ll stop what she’s doing and wait for me to say.

Lie two fingers? Lucy said. She almost gave him the rule for lie and lay. She could tell he had been told about it, maybe gently by her mother the teacher, and had it wrong. Instead she said, How can she tell how many it is?

She knows.

Why doesn’t he talk? she asked her mother out on the porch where she couldn’t be heard.

He’s tired and he doesn’t have anything to talk about, her mother said, as if those were accomplishments. It’s his wife Jewel, she added. She’d make anybody tired. Always waiting for the check.

Her mother always gave Mr. Leith his check through the truck window, as if she had just remembered and had to run out with it and make him roll the window down.

His wife’s pregnant, her mother said, and her brown eyes took on a shine like the dog’s. Pregnant, she said again.

Later her mother kept talking to him about the sink and the well and the bill. They had sat themselves down at the kitchen table. Lucy couldn’t hear her and he wasn’t answering. Her mother had lowered her voice as she did with the twins so they would have to quiet down about boys and listen. He had his head down while she talked in the low voice; he wasn’t saying anything. A silence fell. Lucy could hear the mutter of the tractor with her father on it at the back of the farm. While it was going on her mother laid a hand on Mr. Leith’s forearm. After a minute he put his own hand on top of it.

For years Lucy could think and think about this without being able to see exactly how it came about so slowly and without surprising her. Mr. Leith, Mr. Leith, she always said to herself when she remembered it. She could see her own hair almost to the shoulders and she could still see the face of the dog in the truck, but not his face, bowed over the kitchen table.

Valerie Trueblood has published short stories in One Story, Iowa Review, the Seattle Times, and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. A contributing editor to the American Poetry Review, she has also authored a novel and short story collections, most recently Terrarium (2018).

This story is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Doghouse

How do I tell Chris he can’t be friends with Kevin?

“I’m not driving you to Kevin’s anymore.”

“Because I jumped off his barn?”

How do I tell him without him thinking it’s his fault?

“No.”

“Because I fell in the gravel pit?”

“No.”

Maybe I could call the school? Have them do something? Kevin’s unclean. He has bug bites. He lives out on the edge of the district.

“He lives way out of town. Chris, I don’t have time. Kevin’s welcome at our house.”

That’ll happen.

I pull past the lilacs into our driveway. I’m chewing a gob of Trident to quit smoking. Black walnuts pop under the tires. Chris runs inside and the storm door bangs shut behind him. The splatted walnuts smell bitter, like fall is bitter. It snowed last night. The sky’s pink behind the city where I have to drive for work tomorrow, and where I have to take Chris for counseling again after.

Our farmhouse has character the way an old dog has character. We don’t farm but Chris’s grandfather farmed. I remember Chris in the field picking strawberries, filling his little basket, covered in red. I remember brown grocery bags filled with corn shucks, and mashed potato craters filled with gravy. But my parents-in-law died, and my husband divorced me, and I don’t think Kevin Herendeen is a good influence for Chris.

* * *

When Kevin told me he had a pond on his land, I believed him.

“Let’s catch frogs,” I said. “Caught one with red spots last summer.”

“Watch out for snappers,” Kevin said.

We crossed the county road into a field and walked for a while.

“I can’t find it,” Kevin said. In the sun his blue eyes shone transparently. He wore a dusty tan shirt all the time, and his arms were darker than the shirt, not muscled but ready for them. He could lift a hay bale. His golden retriever plowed a path through dead corn stalks. “She’s flushing turkeys,” Kevin said. “Zelda’s a hunting dog. Watch out if she gets one.” The stalks tore like paper. Her fur matched the color of Kevin’s buzzed hair. I wore a mullet. Mom said it looked good. Years later I discovered a brown birthmark on the back of my neck.

The back of Kevin’s neck was red.

I pointed at a dimple in the land. “I bet there’s a pond down there.”

“That’s the gravel pit.”

The pit’s dull yellow walls had been scraped out by excavators. Sliding down we trailed ocher streaks in the sand while Zelda strafed the rim. At the floor we chased each other up crane-dropped conical piles of dirt and gravel. Pretending to ski I bounded down collecting pebbles in my shoes and sand in my socks. Rocks clacked under my feet. I tripped headlong, scraping over aggregate. Sitting in a pile at the bottom I examined my palms, the little flakes of curled skin. My left ear burned.

“Am I bleeding?” I asked, pointing to it.

“Yeah,” Kevin said.

“Like bad?”

“Yeah.”

“I gotta go home.”

We came through the neglected corn rows toward Kevin’s house — insulated around the exterior with hay bales, an empty silo towering behind. Mom circled her Astro Van in the driveway — a dirt-worn track in the yard between the house and the barn. I was late. Following Zelda I ran through the field and across the street to her. When I saw her scowling face I cried.

* * *

Chris showered. I’ll have to wait on the water heater before I can do a load. I set our meatloaf and lima beans on the counter. He likes my meatloaf but takes a small portion — he never eats enough — and joins me in the den. Chris used my Pantene. I see his ear is healed. He heals like he’s impervious. I remember gravel in the wound, fingers curled into claws, mouth opening like a dark doorway crying Why Mom? Why did you bring me here to suffer? We’re watching Urkel. I want him to smile with the laugh track, but he doesn’t. How could I have let him play at Kevin’s? His father’s a farmer. He’s always out on the back forty. I can never get him on the phone.

* * *

Sleeping over at Kevin’s wasn’t like other sleepovers. We had the house to ourselves because his dad made a bonfire out back and we weren’t invited. I never saw Kevin’s Mom. I think the school psychologist recommended all the kids of divorce play together, and that’s why Mom let me go there. We sat on the floor close to the TV. The braided rug smelled like dog piss and piss cleaner. Rough wood floors, walls sticky with cigarette resin. Things were left out at Kevin’s: toys, dishes, tools whose use I could never guess. At our house everything had a place. Alone with room-temp pizza and a two-liter, we watched The Leprechaun — rated R. The worst part is when the leprechaun puts holes in a guy’s chest jumping on him with a pogo stick. The leprechaun giggles the whole time. I’d never seen Kevin’s dad up close. He’d be riding a tractor or four-wheeler kicking up a dust wake, dog in chase.

Zelda barked behind the house.

“Let’s spy on the bonfire,” I said. I was sure we’d stay up all night.

Kevin stretched, yawned with his eyes open. “I’m tired.”

“Don’t you wanna sneak out?”

Kevin pressed a game into his Nintendo. The screen went blue, silhouetting his face. “We’ll get caught,” he said. He blew into the cartridge.

“But I’m the guest.”

Kevin glanced from the TV to the dark window. Cold air leaked through the pane. He went up and turned on his bedroom light, then clicked off the downstairs light. He opened the screen door very slowly. I was sneaky, too. Once, I followed my dad to our barn and caught him smoking after he’d said he quit. He flicked his cigarette into an oil drum full of butts.

Kevin avoided the tractor ruts and disappeared in high grass. I followed. The hazy sky glowed above the far city. Smelling sweet smoke and florid air left me half alert and half dreaming. Kevin crouched, pulled my shoulder down. “No talking,” he whispered. I flinched at popping sap. Kevin’s dad heaved on a pallet, and sparks swarmed the sky. We elbowed forward and Zelda barked. Kevin lay flat as though listening to the earth. I gripped clumps of grass as though the earth shook.

I can’t see anything,” I whispered.

Don’t!” Kevin said.

I inched forward. Darkness hid me beyond the fire’s circle. Zelda lay behind the fire, tail sweeping up dust. Hunched on a round, Kevin’s dad sat beside her. Through flame tips I studied him: ponytailed, bearing the same tight-tendon arms as Kevin, unshaven with imperceptibly blonde stubble. His glazed pottery eyes pierced the fire heart. Fueled by a clear bottle, his lips muttered. Zelda absorbed it. Melted glass shards glinted upon the ash bed. I listened over the rushing fire to strings of curses and nonsense. I’d never known anyone could get so drunk, so beyond words. I guessed at the bottle’s fullness, wondered how long until it would be thrown in the fire, shards tinkling like wind chimes. Zelda’s ghostly orbs roved, searching for me.

I backed away. Following his bedroom light I sprinted to Kevin’s and found him in bed sleeping or pretending to. I couldn’t sleep until after dawn, when the bottle broke.

* * *

We share a bathroom and Chris sprayed the toilet seat again. I can’t call him in to wipe it up because I’m worried. I rinse my face wishing sun damage washed out. I’ll run the dryer before work tomorrow. It shakes the house and I don’t want to hear it tonight. I only kept the old farmhouse for the district; I didn’t want to uproot Chris. That was maybe a bad idea. His father was handy. Chris used to have nightmares and come to our bed; when his father said no, Chris would sleep in the laundry basket.

I poke into his room to say goodnight. He has a galaxy of stick-on stars on his ceiling. “You okay?” I ask, settling on the bed. He’s under the blanket facing the wall. “That was reckless today. Do you know what reckless is?” He won’t shift to face me. Reckless is being suicidal without knowing what suicidal is.

“Kevin did it first,” he mutters into his pillow. I rub his back and he cries. Thank god he’s crying. “He dared me.”

“But you’re okay?”

“I didn’t want to. For ski season.”

Chris wants to go to the Olympics. I stroke his back until his tremors settle, then I rise and say, “Sleep tight,” but it feels sarcastic.

Before I shut the door he says, “Mom?”

“Hmm?”

“It’s fine. I don’t want to go to Kevin’s anymore.”

I shut the door and walk past the laundry basket. Later I dream of packing him inside it, like luggage, but his arms and legs keep growing.

* * *

The snow blinded until sun melted the dusting. I guess Kevin’s dad was excited to use the plow because he piled dirty snow against the barn. The barn was my favorite part of Kevin’s property. It had a hay loft.

“Wanna see a deer brain?” Kevin asked. It was hunting season.

I followed him behind the barn where his dad had strung up and flayed a deer. The gutted deer made an impression. It was just hanging there like an unzipped tent. Kevin stepped to a workbench where a brain like a small human brain rested on newspaper, as out of place as anything else at Kevin’s.

“Why’d your dad take its brain out?”

“Dare you to touch it,” he said.

I poked it. It felt solid — not mushy — and cold.

“Dare you to lick it,” I said.

Kevin grabbed it and raised it to his face. He sneered and threw it hitting me in the chest. I reached down and whipped it back, missing by a mile. The smashed brain rolled into sawdust. Kevin carefully wiped it off and placed it on its paper. Our hands were sticky as if from frog catching. We wiped them on our jeans and went inside the barn where nail pegs hung shovels, pitchforks and scythes. The ceiling was high to fit machinery. All the heavy wood beams reminded me of church. I followed Kevin up a ladder of 2x4s nailed to the wall behind a combine with unbelievable tires. We came through a square hole in the ceiling to the hayloft where it smelled less like oil and more sour like straw. Bluish sunlight entered through barn side chinks. Bales stacked to different heights resembled Kuwait City — squarely built here, bombed to jigsaw there. I’d seen it on TV. Kevin mounted the stacks and disappeared. Climbing on top I saw that bales had been removed from against the loft’s back wall, making a stairway down. Kevin rustled somewhere beneath my feet. “Come on!” he yelled. “Down here.”

Straw scraped my back as I crawled. The tunnel wound left and right, up and down, arriving at a chamber. He’d removed bales and set down plywood and replaced the bales. It might have taken years. “It’s booby trapped,” he said. I didn’t believe him. Kevin sat on a bale examining a Hustler. In dim light I saw a pile of them. They showed penetration. “I stole them from my dad,” he said. “He doesn’t know.” His eyes flashed. I think he meant the fort. Loose straw and blankets covered the floor, a couch pillow, a bag of tobacco with an Indian on it. Once, Kevin came to school with straw in his hair. “You want one?” he asked, lifting his chin at the reading pile.

“I’ll get caught,” I said. I sat beside him. I smelled my hands.

“You’re the guest.”

I knew I couldn’t lift even one bale; imagining the weight of twenty above my head, the plywood ceiling seemed to sag.

Kevin pushed past me and crawled out.

“Heads up!”

As I emerged, a stack of hay bales wobbled and fell clogging the entrance like a dynamited mine shaft.

“Told you it was booby trapped.”

I opened my mouth to swear but someone did it for me.

“Somanabitch!” The voice came from outside. We peeked through the slats. Kevin’s dad was at the workbench with the sawdust brain, mumbling, beyond words.

Escape route,” Kevin whispered.

He tugged me and I followed him to the loft window. We climbed onto the old stable’s roof, which gave access to the upper barn roof. Our footsteps rattled the aluminum sheeting. We stood facing the driveway. My fingertips were numb, my nose wet in the cold sun. I thought Kevin wanted to show me the roof, show me that he could climb out here or anywhere he wanted on his thousand acres. I could see very far up there, to the city, but I couldn’t imagine a thousand acres.

Kevin jumped off. I crouched to keep my balance, as if the barn itself had suddenly thrust upward. Sliding my feet to the edge, I leaned out. Kevin wiggled out of two thigh-deep post holes in the snow pile. “Come on,” he urged. I considered lowering my body below the eave first. Would I tear my shirt? Kevin squinted at me, focusing the glint in his eyes. “Don’t wait too long or you’ll never jump,” he said.

He was right.

“I’m climbing down,” I said.

I slunk back from his view and went to the lower roof and from there to a fence. Walking in the silo’s frigid shadow, I passed the doghouse. I crouched and peaked in. She was balled up tight. I reached in to pet her. She was frozen to the ground.

Kevin stood behind me now, his jeans wet from snow.

“Your dog’s dead,” I told him.

He tilted his head. That was all. Sometimes death has to process. Or maybe Kevin already knew.

“Let me jump,” I said. “It doesn’t look high now, from here.”

Kevin stood below in his dusty tan shirt with his arms crossed. I tried to judge my landing so I wouldn’t hit his post holes. Mom’s Astro Van turned up the driveway.

“Better hurry,” Kevin said.

“Okay,” I said. I stepped off the roof, wind rushing in my ears.

Kevin acted funny whenever I left his house, like there was more to show me — something better than a frog pond or a secret fort. I lifted the van’s door handle prepared to see Mom’s scowl again when Kevin’s dad came from behind the barn holding a farm tool I didn’t understand. He shifted his trucker hat high on his head and smiled at my Mom (who still lives there in my memory, who still throws my ski boots, wrapped a month before Christmas, down the stairs at me, who still shoves me when I’m much too big to shove and I shove her back). I wish I could possess my child-self then, right there in the Astro Van, and tell her it’s fine, I grow up fine. I don’t become my father.

We left Kevin and his dad standing in the driveway.

Featured image: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division