The Shave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Emma Williamson


Photo Credit: Chris Michaels/Flickr (CC-by)

Quarantine ends tonight, and my husband has decided to celebrate by shaving his beard.

I watch as he sits on a folding chair underneath the old oak tree, balances the shaving supplies on his lap. His thick, full beard gleams reddish brown in the rich afternoon light.

Our three acres grew unchecked during the year of quarantine. Sprawling wild rose bushes climb the sugar maple; untended grass and shrubbery tangle in the field. The overgrown copse of cedar to the east shimmers in the August heat. And up high in the branches over my husband’s head is the papery husk of a wasps’ nest that I was supposed to destroy, swaying gently in the breeze.

I frown, hoping he’ll sense my distress. Tell me he’s changed his mind about the beard.

Instead he stares at himself in the tiny hand mirror. He pulls at his beard, sets his jaw. Turns his head this way and that.

“Just tell me why,” I say.

He angles the mirror with one hand, maneuvers the scissors with the other. Hacking away at his beard, a sound like so many whispering blades.

“It’s itchy,” he says.

He rubs his chin as if to prove it to me.

“But you know how much I love it.”

A breeze ripples the foliage, tall grass brushing my bare legs. My arms prickle with the sun’s heat.

“I just want to,” he says finally.

“You just want to.”

He splashes his face with water from the plastic bowl.

“Yeah, I just do. Okay?”

He pumps shaving gel into one palm and rubs his hands together to get a thick lather. Then pats down the remaining bristles.

“Look, Anna. The pandemic is over. We start work in a couple of days. Everything is going to go back to normal.”

“So?”

“So,” he says, “I can’t fucking stand this beard anymore. I want it gone before I go back to the office.”

I press my lips together, thinking of my own return to work.

The drive: forty minutes in my aging Toyota Camry, travel mug of coffee beside me. Talk radio blasting opinions on how the government fucked up its response to the pandemic. The death toll. What to do with all the bodies.

The office: dull cinderblock walls and fluorescent lighting that make my fine lines look like trenches. Tupperware of soggy greens and cherry tomatoes, a listless chicken breast.

And the people: Karen and Maude, constantly asking me why I’m not pregnant yet, and James, my lecherous boss, his eyes sliding neatly to my breasts. Irate customers beaming their misery directly through my headset into my brain.

And I can’t forget the other banal details of living. Obligatory pedicures during sandal weather, monthly trims and root touch-ups. Scrolling through the endless glossy posturing of social media. The bright beep of each grocery item as it moves from the conveyor belt into my cloth sack.

The rest of my life.

“Where’s the razor?”

“What?”

“The razor,” he says. As though I don’t know what a razor is.

“I’m sorry, I forgot.”

I can feel his eyes burning into my back as I walk through the yard toward the house, tall wild grass tickling my forearms.

Sunlight flashes on the upper windows as I reach the back deck, like the house is blinking its glassy eyes. I’ll miss the way our home comes alive with light as the day unfolds.

Then I imagine it—the house—waiting for me to return from my cubicle every day. Like a barren womb, empty and useless. Waiting to be filled with life.

*

Inside the house is thick with hot, stale air, the loamy scent of earth and foliage. I’ve stopped caring, but it’s impossible to ignore. With a day of air conditioning and a wipe-down with lemon pledge, maybe it’ll go away.

The razor is in the medicine cabinet, as expected. A straight razor, gleaming in the daylight filtering through the bathroom blinds. The drugstore sold out of the plastic ones early on. This is all we have.

I unfold it and press the blade to my finger, watch a thin line of blood seep out. I’m not sure how the razor is this sharp when he hasn’t used it in months. He might cut himself.

That might not be a bad thing. Maybe it would force him to reconsider the shave.

I find myself opening the vanity drawer, where last year’s used pregnancy tests sit. Row after row, all negative.

That’s when he’d started working late. Looking at me as though I didn’t exist.

I close my eyes, watching as his long, achingly romantic text message history with the other woman unfurls behind my eyelids from memory. It still hurts, all these months later.

But I know it’s all over now.

After all, she’s dead.

She was one of the first to die, bringing back the disease from a girls’ weekend in Miami. I read about it on Facebook. There wasn’t even a funeral because gatherings were banned at the time.

I never told him about her death. I assume he knew, though. Shortly after the woman’s mother posted her obituary, my husband went completely blank. He didn’t eat. Barely slept. Once I heard him sobbing in the shower.

I waited for him to get better with the patience and commitment that only a wife can provide. I continued snapping the tomatoes off the vine and chopping them for the salad and barbequing the fish he’d caught and smiling and stroking his beard and massaging his neck. Eventually we started having sex again and I forgot all about her.

Other than wondering where her body would be stored until the morgues re-opened.

I squeeze the blood from my finger, watch it drip into the sink and slide slowly down the drain.

I remember his beard from the early days. When we first started dating. The pleasant roughness when he kissed me, my lips raw and aching afterwards. Its scrape against my skin when he moved down my body, pleasure throbbing at the edge of pain.

When his scruff started growing a few weeks into quarantine, I swallowed my excitement. My husband breaks anything I love too much. Better not to mention it at all. But I longed for that beard under my fingertips. In bed, I gripped it in one hand, pulling him in. Eyes closed, so he wouldn’t see how greedy I was. How much I needed him.

*

My husband strokes the razor down his face as I hold the mirror. I gulp the swampy air, trying to dispel the pressure building in my chest.

There are so many lasts.

This is the last day I’ll wear that old embroidered caftan from my college days. The one he hates me wearing in public.

The last day I’ll let my hair dry into wild, beachy waves.

My tan will fade.

There will be no more long, leisurely suppers by candlelight. No more fish from the river, no more evening games of Scrabble. No more silence.

He’s already disappearing from me, bit by bit.

The power’s supposed to be up and running by tonight. By tomorrow morning we’ll hear the hum of the combines from the neighbour’s field, distant strains of morning traffic from the highway. Our charged phones will bleat with text messages sent months ago. Grass will be mowed. Stores will open.

I’m teetering on the precipice of a world that I will never be able to escape.

“What do you think?”

I snap to. It’s worse than I expected.

I’m staring at a stranger. His cheeks are gaunt and sunken, his brow more pronounced without the balancing effect of his beard. All these months of eating no processed food, of hiking and fishing. He’s lost weight, maybe ten pounds.

I make a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.

“It can’t be that bad,” he says uneasily. “Hard to do it in front of a hand mirror, but I think I did a good job.”

This was the face she saw. She looked into this shorn face and she pressed her hands to these bare cheeks. And that smooth, hairless chin pressed between her legs as he fed upon her.

You see me like no one else does, he had written to the other woman.

Was that true?

I’ve always wanted to ask him that. Is that true, what you wrote?

“You missed a spot,” I say, pointing to his throat. It’s a tiny patch, no bigger than a quarter.

“Aw, shit. Really?” He moves to feel it.

“No, don’t touch it, it looks sensitive.”

“Ok, can you hand me the mirror?” He sits down, motioning to the tray.

“I’ll do it for you,” I hear myself say.

“Thanks, babe,” he says.

He sits back down, and I stand before him. He hands me the straight razor. It sits heavy in my palm, the metal warm from his touch.

A wasp investigates, possibly drawn by the shaving cream’s cloying scent. The cream has melted into the bowl of water, leaving a scummy sheen on its surface, but the smell still hangs in the air. Or maybe it’s us, our bodies ripe with sweat. The insect buzzes lazily around my husband’s head. He swats at it aggressively.

“You’re making it angry,” I say.

“I thought you said you got them all,” he says nervously. “Do you have my epi-pen?”

“It’s in my pocket,” I lie.

“Can I have it?”

“Hold still.”

I pat water on his neck, watching as his jugular pumps blood steadily, wondrously. I prod his springy flesh. I marvel again at the fact that we didn’t get sick, that we are still here. So fully alive.

“Well, come on,” he says. “What are you waiting for?”

I swallow. “I just want to make sure I do this right.”

“It’s not rocket science, for fuck’s sake.”

My fingers itch to feel it again, that bristly tuft of hair. What I’ve held onto all these months of quarantine.

I press the razor to his skin, trying to get the angle right. And I see myself—like I’ve skipped a few slides ahead in the film reel of my life—plunging the razor deep, watching the blood spurt from his clean-shaven neck.

His eyes are huge, terrified. His fingers paw at his throat, slippery with blood. His mouth opens in a strange sort of grimace. The metallic smell of his blood mixes with the heady floral scent of the yard.

I could do it. It’d be easy. He trusts me. Perhaps then he would understand how important the beard was, how much it mattered.

He raises his eyebrows, gesticulates. As if to say I should get on with it.

“This is the problem with you, Anna,” he says. “You take forever to do anything.”

I stare back. I don’t know why, but I’m thinking about the Polaroid tucked into a picture frame by our bed. My husband and I on our wedding day, framed by a silky-looking Jamaican beach. I wear a pure white slip dress, hair loose; he’s in khakis and a white collared shirt. It’s always bothered me, that photograph. His smile is wide, earnest, his cheeks pinked with sun. To any casual observer, he looks happy.

But if you look closer, you can see it.

His body, his hips, are angled slightly away from me.

The razor trembles in my fingers. His artery pumps. I am standing outside of myself, looking down at him. I’m floating, fading away. The sun moves from behind a cloud, drenching my body with light.

I see my long wave of hair, the light cotton caftan skimming my knees.

I see my hand held to his throat.

And I watch as the wasp circles him, me, us, its buzzing violent and electric, like the thrumming of my heart. Almost as though it’s deliberating which one of us should kill him first.

pencil

Emma Williamson is a Canadian lawyer turned emerging poet and fiction writer. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of Toronto School of Law, and the Humber School for Writers. Emma is working on a novel and several short stories, and was recently long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Alice Munro Short Story Prize. Emma lives in Toronto with her husband and son. Email: emmawilliamson23[at]hotmail.com

Morning Run

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Justine Gardner


Photo Credit: Corey Butler/Flickr (CC-by)

The fragrant main dish lies steaming on the restaurant table: a cat, whole and deep-fried, and still alive. It purrs when she pokes its crackling skin with the knife—

Something nudges her, leaving a moist slick to cool on her chin. She rises out of the dream, gasping, fingers in her cat’s fur. Listens to its purrs. Her husband’s congested snores that move his body, the bed, with every inhalation. She counts the seconds between his breaths, measuring his need for oxygen. Her watch says it is five-thirty. A glance at the monitor shows the baby smooth with sleep.

She gets up. She pads to the bathroom, then the kitchen, feeds the cat before taking her own half-cup of thin coffee. Her ten almonds, the bite of dried fruit. The jar of apricots is nearly empty. The snip of sky out the kitchen window is dark, but tinged with the early glow of sunrise.

She pulls on leggings, a tank top, straps on her phone. She slips out the apartment door, easing it closed behind her. The hall is ripe with the smell of the overflowing trash closet. The super has been sick, she heard. She hasn’t seen him since last week. Or is it the week before? She can’t quite remember the last time she spoke to a neighbor. The last time she heard the children crying from 6D.

She adjusts her mask, her hands already in their latex gloves, and takes the stairs. Fifth, fourth floors quiet, the lights out on both landings, the bulbs smashed. On the third floor, she smells fried fish through her mask and she thinks of that purring, crusted cat from her dream, feels the sour sip of coffee at the back of her throat. On the first floor there is a man sprawled in the stairwell, mask half slipped from his face, a bottle of vodka spilled from his hand. She does not recognize him as she steps over his prone body—but then there are so many people in the building it is hard to know for sure. He could be a stranger off the street; it wouldn’t be the first time.

She walks briskly through the lobby, pushing open the glass doors with her elbow. The air feels lighter outside; it moves with a slight breeze. The streetlamps are bright against the indigo sky. She breathes, as deeply as she can through the mask, feeling it tighten against her face and then bowing out on the exhale. She smells her coffee breath. And then under that, the rich, moist stink from the garbage bags piled at the base of the thin street tree. Soon, she thinks, there will be a wall of trash. A rat burrows through one bag, looks at her as she looks at the trash and then digs back in, stringy tail the last thing she sees.

She starts to run, slowly at first, letting her muscles warm themselves. She is sweating already. At dawn the air is cooler but it is still August, it is still eighty degrees at six a.m. She runs, faster now, catching sight of the park, the park she cannot enter—not since June—so she will run alongside the stone walls, imagining herself within.

Leaves crunch underfoot, making her think for a moment of that crackle of fried skin, the purring cat. She keeps running, her pace growing comfortable, her legs feeling their place in the usual rhythm. She adjusts the face covering, keeps it from sliding too far forward, although part of her wants to let it slide all the way, untie it, and throw it in the gutter with the bags of spilled trash and let the heavy August air encase her. Maybe she’ll take off her gloves, her clothes one piece at a time as she runs, dropping each item on the curb, her crumb trail home, until she is naked and sweating, pores open, ready to absorb everything around her.

She keeps running, the mask in place, counting off the red posters set intermittently on the park’s low walls. She can read only a bit as she passes each one, but she knows what they say: Closed until further—by order of—the Department of Health—and Mental Hygiene—Do not enter—Penalty can include a fine and—or arrest.

She doesn’t want the fine, or to be arrested, although that last part she knows is a lie—the jails were emptied out months ago and not by an order from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As for the fine, they would have to catch her to give it.

She smiles, considers this as she runs, approaching the nearest entrance. There is no way to seal it, not completely. A police car will be stationed there, waiting to stop anyone trying to slip through with their dog, their toddler, their bottle of vodka.

But there is no one at the entrance—no police car, no soldiers. The barricades are open slightly as though someone pushed against them, sliding in. She pauses, looks left, right. The streets are empty. She wonders: has she seen anyone at all? Not a single car driving down the avenue, not one siren heard crying in the distance.

She slips between the barricades and runs, faster now, across the main road toward the glinting flash of lake. How long has it been? Three months? She can’t remember. She can’t think of the last time she went this far from their apartment—this far alone, even. But now that she is here, inside the park, she feels something brighten within her, wake up. She runs, enjoying the pound of her feet against the pavement as she nears the water.

The lake is still, and barren. Where are the geese? The birds? And then she remembers: they’d been removed by the same force behind the red posters. Known and probable vectors. She runs faster, the mask slicked to her face with sweat, her throat dry. Still, she runs. Who knows when she can do this again? Who knows if they will catch her, return her to the apartment, to her sick husband, her baby, her—

A cat streaks past on the path, a wiggling kitten in its mouth. She jumps, startled, and stops, panting, hands on her thighs. She watches the cat dip into the brush and vanish from sight. A cat is alive. A cat is alive in this park where the birds are all dead and the humans forbidden.

She starts running again, around the edge and down the steep hill. She catches a smell through her mask, something deep and chemically sweet. There is a fog rolling at the base of the hill, the sound of a motor; she sees a truck’s shape through the cloud. She stops. Backs up, watches the slow progression of the gray vapor as it seeps up the hill, creeping toward her. She turns back the way she came, running now, the mask slipping from her face. She pulls it up, holds it to her nose, her throat burning with that sweet, too sweet smell.

She crosses the road, races out the park entrance and crashes into the armored chest of a soldier.

“What are you doing here?” the soldier yells through their gas mask, eyes wide behind their goggles. “Didn’t you get the order—” They clip something at their collar. “We have a civilian at the east gate—”

She runs, faster than she has ever run before, her legs flying over the concrete. She runs and runs until she is at her building and up the stairs, panting and coughing her way over the body of the man and his vodka, up and up and up until she is at her front door, pawing for her keys in her pocket. She sheds her clothes on the doormat, there in the hall, leaving everything, even her underwear, her sports bra in a heap, and slams the door behind her.

It is a long time before she can breathe normally again. Ten minutes? Twenty? She leans her bare skin against the wall, feeling the searing in her chest, her trachea sandpapered and salted. Finally, she takes in air, a gulp, then another. But the smell is on her, that sweet, sweet smell.

She lurches toward the bathroom and runs the shower, standing under water that is too cold, scratching at her skin with the thin piece of soap.

She emerges, eventually, wrapped in a towel, shivering in the air-conditioning, her throat burning. She enters the bedroom, her husband just sitting up, looking at her with sticky eyes.

He points to the window, toward the tips of the park trees they can just make out over the roof of the building opposite. They are glowing, gold, orange—they’re burning.

She sits down on the bed next to him, watching the flickering, the rising smoke. He coughs, and leans against her. She puts her arms around him, kisses his cool forehead. Behind her the baby cries out on the monitor.

She thinks of the cat, the kitten it carried. She wonders if it knew before she did that it was time to run.

pencil

Justine Gardner is a former dog trainer, past pizzeria proprietor, and current freelance editor and writer. She was born, reared, and still resides in Brooklyn, NY, along with her husband, young son, and two cats. Her story “Nature Will Provide” was a finalist in Regulus Press’s 2018 Literary Taxidermy Competition and published in the contest anthology, Telephone Me Now. Her story “Blood, Bone, Feather” appears in Issue 51 of the quarterly NewMyths. Follow her on Twitter @JBGrumpstone. Pronouns: she/her. Email: justine.gardner[at]gmail.com

Staring At The Sky

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
C.A. Rowland


Photo Credit: John Brighenti/Flickr (CC-by)

Sarah’s gaze was drawn to movement outside the window. Dawn had broken, but there were still more shadows than light among the oak trees that were beginning to fill out their branches with delicate light green leaves.

She’d looked up from the sewing machine where she was adding the last stitches to a face mask. A child-size face mask of bright colors of oranges, yellows, and greens, which she hoped would help banish some of the fears and illness that had swept through Virginia, as well as the rest of the world.

What Sarah had seen outside was more substantial than the waving of a branch when a bluebird launches itself into the air. A spotted brown deer maybe, since they wandered early in the morning hours, seeking out the moist leaves of the deep green hostas that had burst through the soil to reach for the summer sun.

As she watched the trees and shrubs, nothing else moved. She hadn’t yet opened the window after locking it for the night since her nearest neighbor was half a mile away. Still, she should have been able to hear a few birds singing in the new morning.

She brushed off the feeling of unease, attributing the movement to the shadow of a large bird soaring about the treetops, which were twice the height of the three-bedroom house she lived in. Sarah got up and moved to the window, wondering if maybe Al had been right about curtains.

He hadn’t cared that they were surrounded by woods or a hundred yards from the county road, he wanted windows with coverings. To reduce their utility bills, he’d said. She’d removed them shortly after he died, but she now realized that anyone could see inside if they wandered the property. See her and that she was alone, four years now and counting since he’d passed.

With each minute, the light filtering in through the dark bark of the pine and oak trees strengthened until it warmed and cheered her, chasing away any thought of what might have been there. She moved back to the sewing machine and the rhythmic hum of the needle moving up and down, piercing the fabric and then pulling out, lulling her into calmness.

Sarah looked up, her aching back and the growing stack of face masks, letting her know it must be close to noon. As with all her quilting circle friends that were home sewing as well, she’d stocked up on food for the next two weeks. She was well inside the virus’s target zone of those over sixty-five, although she had no underlying conditions that the virus might use to weaken her system. A ham and cheese sandwich with a few chips was on the menu today.

Sarah moved to the kitchen, where she busied herself. Over the sink, a small square window looked out over the backyard and the rust-red stained deck. She and Al had searched for several months for a green aluminum table and rocking chairs that would blend into the surroundings. They’d spent many a summer evening outside around that table.

As she turned back to the sink, her arms filled with the lunch makings, she looked out, her mouth dropped open, and she jumped, spilling everything from her arms to the floor. For just a quick second, Sarah had thought Al was sitting here. Much as he’d done when he was alive, basking in the sunlight while drinking a cold glass of tea.

The man sitting there was not Al. He was skinny like Al but seemed bonier, almost like a drug addict or someone deep in the throes of the last stages of cancer or other disease. His head was turned toward the forest behind the house, with a beige cowboy hat shielding him from the growing heat of the day.

His camouflage backpack sat beside him, leaned up against his blue jean-clad legs. He seemed relaxed.

What the hell was he doing there? Would he leave on his own, or would she have to run him off, or maybe call the police?

Who was he? A drifter?

Sarah remembered her grandma telling her stories of the Depression. If there was anything Granny knew how to do, it was stretch a meal. Six kids and an alcoholic husband who didn’t always have work, she pinched pennies. She also had an open back door for those down on her luck.

With three growing boys, she’d had no worry about any stranger getting out of line back then. Most had just been grateful to partially fill their bellies and move along. Was that what Sarah faced now? Someone just down on their luck as the pandemic fears caused businesses to close and workers to lose their jobs or worse?

The man seemed cleaner than Sarah expected. If he had no home, it hadn’t been for long, or he had a few resources to call on.

Times had changed. Last year, a man had been seen wandering the woods behind several houses after he lost his home to foreclosure. There’d been break-ins before he was caught. That was when Sarah began sleeping with the pistol underneath Al’s pillow.

Sarah hugged herself. She’d been raised by Granny to help those in need. Was this her time to step up, or would going outside to confront this man be foolish? She wished Al was here. He’d know what to do. No doubt he’d step outside and talk man to man with the person.

Could she live with herself if she failed to act? She might never know if one gesture from her might make a difference. Or would he just leave?

Sarah looked around. Safe in her house. Making face masks for unseen recipients—safe from the disease ravaging the country. Safe. Safe. Safe.

What would her mother do?

She’d been a child of the Depression, and it had had an impact. Her mother saved every penny and spent as little as possible.

But her Granny—there was no doubt that she’d lend a hand if she could. She wasn’t stupid or careless, but she never turned down those in need, even when it meant she went without.

Sarah had always hoped she’d be like her. Now, she had the choice to step up or not.

She watched the man for another couple of minutes. Then she picked up the food she’d dropped, stalling as she struggled with the decision.

Sarah turned and headed down the hall to the master bedroom. This room had no curtains on the windows either. She grabbed some jeans and a long sleeve shirt to replace her thin t-shirt and shorts.

The closet was the only room that didn’t have a window, so she changed there.

Exiting, she stared at the bed for a moment before she moved to Al’s side. She stared at the pillow.

She’d never liked guns. She’d never wanted to own one.

Al had insisted when they bought the house. Too many animals around that could be a threat. Plus, their neighbors were even further away back then. Al wanted her to be able to handle any situation. Now she was glad she’d been to the range to shoot. She still hated the idea of killing anything, but she was on her own and wanted to think she could protect herself.

She removed the gun. Checking that the safety was on, she tucked inside her jeans in the center of her back, the cool metal sending chills up her spine. She pulled the shirt tail over the top of her jeans. She might not be able to get it out as quickly as she needed, but Sarah was still quick for being sixty-eight years old, and she could run if she needed to.

Sarah headed back down the hall and out her back door onto the deck. She closed the door with a click so that the man would hear her coming. Sounds carried in this area of the county.

She took a few steps forward and approached him from the other side of the table. Keeping her distance, both for safety and because the last thing she needed was to be so close to someone, she could catch the virus.

“Can I help you?” Sarah asked.

The man’s movements were slow as if he was aware that she was being careful. He turned and lifted his head to stare at her.

“No, ma’am. Just stopped to rest my feet a while. I’ve been traveling some through the night. Didn’t mean to bother you.”

Sarah wasn’t sure whether she could trust that. At the very least, he was polite, although knocking on her door to ask permission would have been the ordinary courtesy.

“That’s fine,” Sarah said. “You from around here?”

“Was.”

That wasn’t so helpful.

“Planning to move on?”

“Sure.”

The man reached down to pick up his backpack. He looked back up at Sarah as if to ask her if she meant right now. His stomach growled.

“Have you had anything to eat today? I was about to make myself a sandwich. Making two is no trouble.”

“I’d appreciate that, ma’am.”

“I’m Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

Sarah turned to walk back to the kitchen, her nerves on edge. This was her most vulnerable time with her back to him.

“They call me Leon.”

She smiled, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. Names were important to know.

In the kitchen, Sarah quickly made two ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches. Each went on a paper plate with some potato chips. She grabbed a bottle of water for him as she took the plate out to Leon.

Still careful, she laid the plate on the table with the water and stepped back.

“Thanks.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, this seems like a bad time to be traveling,” Sarah said.

Leon reached across the table and dragged the plate so that it was in front of him. He lifted the water and took a long drink.

“That sure tastes good.”

Leon took a bite of the sandwich.

Sarah waited. Her Al had been like this. Slow to answer and precise in what he said. He’d loved to tell a story, but you had to get him talking first and in his own time.

“Had a room in a house down the county road. I’m a day laborer, and the work dried up. She and her husband had lost their jobs, and they were barely able to put food on the table for the family.”

Sarah frowned. She knew times were terrible, but the folks who were her neighbors wouldn’t usually put someone out when everyone was struggling. Still, she could detect no guile in his manner.

“Sit as long as you like. There’s water from the spigot on this side of the house, from the well, so it’s fresh and cold.”

Leon nodded and took another bite.

Sarah turned and headed back in the house, placing her feet carefully, her back rigid with some tension still left.

Inside, she ate her sandwich standing up at the kitchen window.

She watched Leon finish his food and drink the last of the water. He set the bottle on the paper plate and stared off into the woods.

Sarah made sure the kitchen door was locked and headed back to sew.

A few hours later, she headed to the kitchen. She had some left-over chicken salad she’d planned to eat for her supper.

She checked the deck. Leon was still sitting there. She sighed. She’d hoped he’d have left so she didn’t have to face him again.

A man down on his luck. She’d seen a few in her lifetime. Al had brought a few home to work around the house, helping him with projects that were more than one man could do. Sarah had fed them all. She could do no less now.

She filled two paper plates with the salad and grabbed another water bottle. Sarah headed outside.

“I was fixing myself some supper. I expect you’re hungry as well, so I fixed a plate.”

Leon turned toward her and smiled. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but it seemed genuine enough.

“Ma’am, thank you. It’s been a few days since I’ve had more than one meal.”

“You’re welcome. You mentioned you’d be moving on.”

“I will. I’m wondering if you’d mind if I spent the night on the deck. I’d be no bother. It just beats being in the woods.”

Sarah swallowed hard. She’d hoped her hint would mean he’d move along.

What could it hurt?

“I guess that’d be all right.”

Leon nodded and began to eat. Sarah picked up the lunch plate and water bottle. There were only crumbs on it, but feral cats, raccoons, and foxes might be drawn by the smell of food. She’d be back for the supper plate once Leon had finished eating. No sense asking for trouble.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah realized that if Leon attacked her or tried to steal from her, no one would know about it. She headed to her sewing room, where her phone was beside the machine.

She texted her best friend, Linda.

Sarah: A man stopped at the house today. I’ve fed him. He is sleeping outside on the deck tonight.

Linda: What? Who is he? Are you safe?

Sarah: I think he’s harmless and down on his luck. I’ll call you in the morning. But if I don’t call, call me just to make sure nothing’s wrong. If you don’t reach me, call 911.

Linda: I don’t like this. Should I come over and stay? Should I send Jeffrey?

Jeffrey was her neighbor. He was ten years older than both of them, and a turtle would win in a race with him. But he was a good man who’d do anything for Linda.

Sarah: No. Just being careful. Doubt anything will happen.

Linda: I’ll be calling at 7.

Sarah laughed as she put the phone down. Just a few texts and she felt better already. Someone would be checking on her if they didn’t hear from her. Not entirely safe but a bit of net, just in case.

Back in the kitchen, Sarah looked at the window and saw Leon had finished his meal. She went outside and picked up the plate.

“Need anything?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I’ll just bed down here for the night. Gonna be a clear sky with stars. Better than any T.V. show.”

“All right then.”

Sarah headed back inside and locked the door. She checked all the windows and doors to make sure all were secured and walked to her bedroom.

She knew most of the sounds that the house made, but she quickly realized any noise was going to keep her awake. She turned on her book reader and scrolled through the unread novels. She needed something light, so mysteries and suspense were out. A soft light on the other side of the room was on, and she decided to leave it that way. She’d slept with it on before, and she’d do that now.

In the end, Sarah found an old favorite classic and began to read.

*

For the next three days, Sarah and Leon kept up the routine. She fed him lunch and supper each day. He sat on the deck during the mornings.

In the afternoons, he’d wander the property. He had a few pruning tools in his backpack, and she saw that he understood plants. A clip here and a clip there.

Sarah understood. Just like Al and a lot of the men she had known over the years. Unwilling to take a handout unless they found a way to pay their way. Leon was paying her for the food in the only way he could.

Every morning and evening, Sarah checked in with Linda.

Each day, Sarah got her mail and ran an errand or two, which took her away from the house. She checked to make sure the doors were all locked, and that nothing had changed each time she returned.

Linda: When is he leaving?

Sarah: Don’t know.

Linda: I don’t like this. I’m going to come over with Jeffrey so he knows you aren’t alone.

Sarah: No. I’m fine. I’ll ask him to move on.

Linda: Tell me when you do that.

Sarah headed out at lunchtime with a hamburger and chips.

“Seems like someone might be missing you. Don’t you think you should be contacting them or going to see them?”

Leon looked up at her from under the brow of his hat. He shook his head.

“No. Nobody to contact. But sounds like I need to be moving on. Tomorrow okay with you? Looks like its gonna rain.”

“That would be fine. I have a tent in the garage. Why don’t I get that out for you? You can use that to keep some of the wet off you?”

Leon smiled.

“That would be very kind of you.”

Sarah headed back inside, kicking herself for making the offer. She knew almost nothing about this man. He’d probably spent many a night in the rain throughout his life. Why on earth did she say that?

Because she liked him. In Leon, she saw what she’d loved in Al—the slow movements, his respect for her, and his paying her for what she was doing for him.

Sarah realized she was sad and a bit lonely, but not so lonely as to do something stupid like bringing him into the house.

In the garage, Sarah located the camping tent and a sleeping bag. Al had been an organizer, and she’d left it all where he’d carefully placed things. The tent and bag were dusty from being left in storage, and she shook them both, the polyester bright blue waving like flags in the wind.

When she took out the supper meal, she made a second trip with the camping gear.

“You can put this up in the grass if you’d like. Anywhere back here is fine.”

“I’ll do that shortly. Maybe by the garage so that the house breaks the wind.”

“That would be fine.”

Sarah pulled out a rocker and sat down.

Leon looked over at her.

“I come out most nights to watch the sunset. Thought I’d join you if you don’t mind.”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t realize I’d kept you from seeing the sky.”

“I don’t always do it, but with the storm blowing in, I thought I’d sit a few minutes.”

Leon went on eating.

Sarah realized it was peaceful, partly because she knew this was the lull before the rain and wind would arrive.

In the end, she got up and picked up the plate.

“Good night, Leon.”

“Good night, Sarah.”

Sarah closed the kitchen door and locked it. She headed down the hall to her bedroom, which shared a wall with the garage.

Sarah: I’m headed to bed. Leon is leaving in the morning.

Linda: I’m relieved. Text me when he leaves.

Sarah: Will do.

A few minutes later, she heard Leon pounding the stakes into the ground to hold the tent in place for the night.

She found her book reader and clicked it open to the novel she was reading. She’d always had trouble sleeping during storms.

Sarah sat up straight in bed, realizing she must have dozed off. Her reader was dark, but the light across the room was still on.

“Dammit, get off me. You bastard, I’m gonna kill you.”

It was as if the shouted words were inside the room. Sarah realized that they were coming outside the walls.

A man screamed.

Leon.

Sarah was up, grabbing yesterday’s jeans and shirt.

Pulling them over her flimsy gown.

She jerked the pistol out from under the pillow.

Jamming her feet in shoes, she ran down the hall.

Grabbing her phone.

Through the kitchen she ran, hitting the light switch that turned on all the outside lights.

Down the pathway to the garage area.

Around the corner of the house.

Sarah could see the tent was askew. As if something had attacked it.

The wind?

No.

Leon was on the ground outside, with two of the largest raccoons she’d ever seen around him.

They snarled, and he was fighting them off.

Sarah clicked off the safety and shot the gun in the air.

“Out. Get out,” she yelled.

Four sets of gleaming eyes turned to look at her. Then they turned back to Leon.

Sarah could see scratches on his arm where they had gone after him. The pants on one leg looked to have a large wet spot—from the rain or something worse.

Sarah moved so that she could shoot away from Leon.

She aimed and fired near one of the animal’s legs.

The ground poofed where the bullet hit.

She aimed again.

Fired.

The raccoons ran.

Sarah fired again—behind them but making sure they didn’t return.

She hurried to Leon’s side, leaning down to check for wounds

“Where are you hurt?”

Leon moaned and leaned back on the ground, his arm over his eyes.

“Those damned raccoons scratched my arm and leg. One bit me. Shit, that hurts.”

“You need a doctor. I’m calling 9-1-1.”

“No.”

Leon almost screamed the word, and Sarah fell backward.

“What?”

“They’ll take me to the hospital. They’ve got the virus there. I’ll die if I go there.”

Sarah had heard there were such fears. Linda knew someone who had a relative die because they wouldn’t seek treatment.

“You need bandages. I’ll be back.”

“No ambulance. You hear me?”

Sarah ignored the words. She’d already risen and was hitting typing the numbers on her phone.

In the kitchen, Sarah pulled out dishtowels and some plastic gloves. She headed to her sewing room, grabbed scissors and an old bedsheet she used as a foundation for quilt blocks.

As the operator answered, Sarah gave her address and told her what had happened. She had hung up before she was back out through the kitchen door. Leon was getting help whether he wanted it or not. Raccoons didn’t attack unless they were rabid. He needed a doctor.

Back around the house, Sarah dropped everything on the ground. She pulled the gloves on—the ones she used while washing dishes. Not ideal, but they’d have to work.

Sarah cut the bed sheet into strips. Leon had lowered his arm and was watching her.

“Your arm is bleeding. I’m going to put a towel over it and tie it off. I’m going to need your help.”

Leon nodded.

Sarah folded the red-and-white checked dishtowel and placed it on his arm where the deepest scratch was. Leon held it in place while she tied it off with a strip of the bedsheet.

She moved to his leg. It was by far the worst.

Sarah picked up another dish towel. She stared at it.

“What’s wrong?”

She shook her head.

“Nothing. It’s one my mother embroidered for me.”

Sarah laid on it on the leg. It couldn’t be helped. A man’s life was more important than a keepsake.

She slid a bedsheet strip under his leg and brought it to the top. Tying it off, she moved to his chest and side.

“All of these need to be sterilized and treated. I’m not a nurse. I can only do so much,” Sarah said.

“No doctors.”

Sarah continued to put towels over his wounds and add some pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Leon laid still, his breathing labored from the battle he’d fought, and his eyes closed.

As the first sounds of the ambulance siren rang through the night, Sarah wondered what had brought the raccoons out. She hadn’t seen any signs that they were rabid.

Lights flashed as the ambulance turned into her driveway.

“Dammit. I said no doctors.”

“Raccoons can carry rabies, which is much worse than the virus. I had no choice.”

Leon opened his eyes.

“There’s always a choice.”

“You’re on my property. I’m not willing to let you die or become sick because I didn’t do anything.”

Doors slammed, and two uniformed male attendants hurried over.

“What happened?” a tall, young blond-haired man asked.

Sarah explained the situation.

The second man leaned down and began examining the wounds, pulling up the dishtowels to see below.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” Leon said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” the blond-haired man
said.

“No.” Leon took a swing at the dark-haired attendant with the unscratched arm.

The dark-haired man opened his case and pulled out a syringe.

Stuck it in Leon’s arm as he continued to struggle. Then he went limp.

“We’ll be taking him to General Hospital. You can follow us if you want, but with the virus, you won’t be able to come in,” the blond-haired man said. “We can give the hospital your phone number if you want.”

“He’s only passing through. I won’t be going there.”

The two men nodded.

They pulled a stretcher from the back of the ambulance, placed Leon on it, and loaded him inside.

As they pulled away, Sarah wrapped her arms around her waist. She stared at the vehicle until it turned onto the county road and drove away.

She walked back to the house and washed up, throwing the gloves in the trash. What had happened outside while she slept?

Sarah walked back to her bedroom, knowing she’d never get back to sleep. She took a quick shower and sat on the bed, staring at the wall.

A couple of hours later, as the sun streamed in, Sarah changed into her clothes for the day and headed back outside. She took a new pair of gloves, just in case. The tent and sleeping bag would still be there.

As she rounded the corner, she caught her breath. The grass was torn up. The tent had deep tears down one side as if someone had cut it with a knife. Likely the raccoon’s claws. But what were they searching for?

Sarah took a couple of steps closer. Two empty tin cans were at the cloth door of the tent. Leon’s backpack was open, and more tins were inside the tent and in his pack.

What were they doing there? They reeked of days’ old chicken.

Not five feet away was her trash container. Why hadn’t Leon thrown them away?

All her care in making sure no trace of food was left on the deck, and he was storing these cans?

That might have been what drew them. It was like he’d sent out a smell invitation for the animals.

It didn’t matter. He was gone. Sarah needed to clean this up.

She moved to the waste container and threw the top open.

She gathered up the cans, the sleeping bag, and the tent, and tossed them in.

She slammed the cover shut.

Sarah had saved the backpack once she removed the tins. It held other things of Leon’s that he’d likely want, including the pruning tools he’d used on her plants.

Which meant he’d probably be back.

And none too happy with her.

Sarah picked up the backpack and raised it to her nose. Still smelled of food.

She took it inside. The last thing she wanted was to violate his privacy, but it couldn’t be helped. She emptied it and made sure it was washable.

Sarah texted Linda while the backpack churned in the washer.

Sarah: He’s gone. Had a run-in with raccoons and he went to the hospital.

Linda: There’s a story there. Are you okay?

Sarah: Yes. Just sad. He was scared.

Linda: But you couldn’t do anything else.

Sarah: I know. Still feels awful.

Sarah signed off and went to sew. She’d always found that her mind cleared when she sewed. Today, she kept wondering whether Leon would be back, and if so, how angry would he be. She’d decided to put his backpack on the aluminum table on the deck once it was dry. She’d leave it out all day, bringing it in each night.

Sarah didn’t sleep well that night or the next one. Not knowing if Leon would come back angry left her with keeping the light on at night and reaching out at times to make sure the pistol was there under Al’s pillow.

Two days later, Sarah returned from grocery shopping. As she placed her cloth bags on the counter, she glanced out the kitchen window, just as she had several times before.

The backpack was gone. In its place was something white. Sarah headed out the kitchen door.

The white was a dish towel with some light red stains, but it was clean. She turned it over, and a shiver ran up her spine. The towel was embroidered. Leon had returned the towel her mother had made for Sarah.

Sarah looked around, wondering if he might be watching from the woods. She figured she’d never know. What she did know was that Leon had forgiven her for sending him to the hospital. She knew he’d had to travel ten miles to return the towel, as well as he’d taken the time to wash it. No one did that who held a grudge.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. She wasn’t sure she could handle anything or anyone that came her way, but she knew she’d never question meeting a challenge like this again. She could stick to who she was and wanted to be, and be able to meet whatever came from that.

Sarah hoped Leon found his way to another who would help him, a place where he could watch the sky and was safe. That’s what she’d be doing tonight on her deck—watching the stars and the sky.

pencil

C.A. Rowland is a recovering lawyer turned writer. Raised in Texas, she now calls Virginia home—a place of history, folklore and inspiration. She’s published short stories and non-fiction articles and her first amateur sleuth mystery set in Savannah, Georgia, “The Meter’s Always Running,” is being published in June 2020. She has stories in the Fiction River anthologies, Spies and Stolen. You can keep up with Ms. Rowland’s upcoming fiction and travel adventures at carowland.com Email: carolyn94549[at]gmail.com

The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Mirage Lin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Gripping the phone tight between sweaty fingers, I close my eyes, breathe in the heavy air and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ My voice sounds thin and tinny.

The voice reassures me that he will be in touch again soon. He reels off the digits of his direct extension along with a helpline number. ‘In case you need to talk to anyone.’

It’s a while before I realise that I am still clinging to the phone, the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I try to picture the person belonging to the voice, wonder what he is doing, now he has ticked off this awkward task from his list.

I stand and stretch and head to the bathroom where I splash cold water over my face then stare into the chipped enamel sink. Slowly I raise my eyes and turn, catching the mirror only obliquely, passing a glance at the image which is never quite what I expect.

In the kitchen, I half trip over the curling lino. Sun streams through the glass; it bounces off metallic surfaces, blinding me and threatening to turn the strain behind my eyes into a full-blown headache. For weeks the heat has built with no relief, mirroring my inner tension, as if I’ve been half-expecting something to happen.

I make a cup of coffee, splash in some milk, then cradle the mug between my palms, warming my hands, which seem to have retained a sensory memory of that time outside time, those clock-stopped days.

I gear myself to call my parents, wishing I could postpone, knowing that nothing could excuse a delay of any kind. Relief battles with frustration when the answerphone kicks in. I cannot blurt out my message, so instead I stall: ‘I’ve got some news. Please ring me back.’ I picture them listening and knowing instantly, the way that I did.

Good news or bad? Dad always asks that. It is hard to say.

This all happened long ago and I have pressing things to do, working from home no excuse for slacking. I return to my home office and sit in front of my laptop and manage to spill my gone-cold coffee. I try to re-immerse myself in the figures which fill my screen, grounding myself in the present, filling the crevices of my brain with facts, trying to force out the voice pounding in my ears.

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

The shriek of the alarm sliced through my thumping head. Emma groaned. It would have been so easy to curl up and drift back down; I was determined not to. I rolled towards the kitchenette. Emma was doing her best to feign sleep and I nudged her with my foot. ‘Come on Ems. Rise and shine.’

She opened her eyes. Her face seemed to mirror my own, looking every bit as crap as I felt. ‘What time is it?’ she asked, the same question every morning.

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

We’d crashed on the pull-out sofabed four hours ago; it seemed better not to spell that out. ‘We need to get there early.’ Rising with the sun was worth it—surely—to enjoy the early morning quiet on the slopes. ‘This is our last chance.’ We’d been travelling for several weeks now. Time had slipped past and we’d arrived at our next to final day.

Released from exams, the two of us had one last summer of freedom ahead of being shackled to the confines of office life. Friends were heading for salt-white beaches. Lazing in the heat and avoiding sunburn held no appeal. ‘What about skiing?’ I’d said.

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

‘Sure. There are plenty of places where you can do that. It’s just a question of going up high enough.’

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

We plotted a train route, joining the dots between major European cities, stopping off at smaller places with hiking trails in between, but the highlight of the trip—literally—was Zermatt, the traffic-free town in the shadow of the Matterhorn, with ski lifts whizzing you from the alpine flowering meadows up to the glacier, snow covered twelve months a year.

Emma was unenthused about my insistence on up-with-the-lark starts. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be relaxing and enjoying ourselves?’ she said.

‘Come on. We can nap this afternoon. It’s never the same once the hordes get going.’ Plus the ski lifts closed at two, before the snow turned wet and heavy. I scooped generous measures of coffee into the pot, added water and put it on the stove. I started pulling on yesterday’s clothes, postponing till later the daily battle with the shower which cycled through from scalding hot to ice-cube cold. Emma finally stirred herself, giving in; she looked nine-tenths asleep as she took two steps to the bathroom, moving more slothfully than was necessary, a token protest. The rich aroma of coffee filled the apartment, promising wide-eyed alertness.

Outside, the air was sharp enough to cut lungs. I anticipated the usual progression whereby we experienced the four seasons in a single day. The ice of early morning would give way to two hours of a perfect spring, the sun warm on skin, the snow soft, exertion building up a sweat with fleecy layers needing to be discarded; later back at base the heat would build, the thin air strengthening the sunlight, so even though the temperatures were significantly lower than Geneva, we’d risk our fair skin burning if we weren’t careful; then though the evening would remain light, the warmth of the day faded quickly and it would feel more like autumn.

Freshly risen sun reflected off newly smoothed snow up above and dazzled my eyes. A brisk ten-minute walk would bring us to the lifts. My leg muscles were stiff from the accumulation of our daily exertions, first on the slopes and later on the dance floor. They’d soon loosen up. Neither of us had much to say, and we didn’t force it, content in our individual silences.

Approaching the chairs, we appended ourselves to a group of dour-faced people in luminously bright clothes, all speaking rapid German.

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

It was from Joel that I’d taken this idea of early starts. Our first evening here, he happened to be seated on a table next to ours in the cheapest eatery. Instantly, I had him sussed: young and single-minded, carelessly conscious of his athletic beauty, his sun-tinted unkempt hair and sun-kissed skin, wearing the right casual gear in a vibrant array of matching colour, a cool Aussie accent.

‘New Zealand actually,’ he corrected me. ‘Lots of people get that wrong. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

We slipped easily into casual conversation, with Joel keen to provide the insider tips for ski runs, eating places and nightlife, acting as if his hanging out here for several weeks made him some kind of expert. And though his easy chat could have been flirtatious, I knew it wasn’t, that I would never be his type.

He wasn’t my type either.

The following morning, I ensured we were at the chairlifts early. Sure enough, he was in place ahead of us and I hoped he didn’t imagine us being there was due to anything but the promise of clear slopes. He greeted me and Emma with a lazy ‘Hey,’ which I flipped back, feeling the rising flush, hating myself for the way he seemed to make me feel about fifteen.

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

This became the pattern. We’d exchange our itineraries and his always sounded vastly more thrilling. Emma and I had built up intermittent experience from childhood holidays, and we got up to speed on blue runs then progressed onto the reds. As the days went by, I was keen to go for black, wanting to press further, faster, pushing ourselves to our limits; Emma remained cautious. Each morning, Joel managed to convey how ordinary our ambitions were, in the nicest, yet most condescending way. He found the graded slopes too prescribed, too overused, too restrictive. Turned out he had skied all over the world and almost always headed off-piste. Not always harder, but certainly more satisfying, he said, his smile self-deprecating, seeming to imply the option was open to us too, if only we shared his spirit of adventure. Nothing like the pure expanse of the unknown. Even here, a popular area, often he could ski for hours and hardly see anyone. Just him alone in the mountains beneath the sky.

‘Awesome,’ he said, and I smiled tightly and mimicked the word sneeringly in my head. And just as he was getting into his swing, the chairlifts would come to life with a heavy clunk. He’d barely finish his sentence before turning, intent on claiming his place, focusing on what lay ahead, rather than lingering in timewaster chit-chat.

Out of sight, and Emma and I would disappear from his thoughts, while my mind still hummed with thoughts of him. And though the mornings passed well enough, I felt frustrated by the tameness of our chosen slopes, by the accrual of the middle-aged along with their precocious kids, all of them churning the snow up into criss-cross ruts. Today, I needed one last glorious morning to fix in memory, to help me through the dullness that was to come as I returned to England to embark on my fast-track civil service career.

Waiting in line, my mood was beginning to dip, exhaustion refusing to be shrugged off. I’d expected to see Joel and finally win some small measure of his respect. Instead, I had nothing but a conjured-up image of his supple limbs intertwined with those of the dark-haired woman I’d seen him with last night.

Not that it was any business of mine.

And not that I needed to see him. I had his ideas committed to memory, the most straightforward of the off-piste routes. No more difficult than many of the official ones. His claim echoed in my head.

This was our final chance.

The weather forecast was pinned up at the entrance to the ski lift: clouds bringing heavy snow were due to blow in from the West. Difficult to believe with the sky currently pale blue and clear, just as it had been all week. ‘Not looking good,’ Emma said.

I cut in fast. ‘Fine for now though. We’ll knock off early for lunch.’

It was almost time and I was muscle tense, waiting for the squeak and clank of well-oiled machinery, the passing moments before an officious Swiss official would open the gate barrier and bark at us and let us through. The group ahead took the first cable-cars. Close behind them, Emma and I moved forward towards the moving seats, choreographing things to settle ourselves and our paraphernalia of poles and skis and bags before the bars descended and locked us in, ensuring we could not slip out as we soared high above the soft cushion of white below, heading ever higher up into the mountains. I loved this. The stomach-drop moment of that initial swooshing upwards. The repeating stomach lurches whenever we bumped over one of the tall towers holding the whole thing up. I never fully acclimatised to the precarious feel of our high-flown transit, but that was part of the experience, the glorious aliveness which inhabited my body, fear mingling with exhilaration. Emma closed her eyes and tightened her fingers around the bar for the entire trip. She never managed to relax into it, or learned to enjoy the hammering of her heart.

The bars started to lift as we reached our destination and we jumped off. The Germans were still faffing around. I headed away from them and Emma tagged on behind.

I explained the route for the tenth time with Emma frowning at me; she never did have much of a sense of direction, choosing to rely on me, rather than putting the effort in herself.

‘And you’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ she asked.

‘Wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t.’ I tried to exude certainty, because confidence is a mind-trick, act it out and it’s there. ‘Just follow me.’

I adjusted my ski boots and checked the fastenings. I lowered my visor, positioned myself and then pushed away.

Images from the previous night kept flashing. Emma and me, dopey from afternoon snoozing, dressing for the evening in floaty cotton, taking turns in front of the cracked mirror as we applied make-up, intent on improving the canvas of youthful skin. Heading out to a cheap eatery and filling up on sizzling rösti washed down with wine. Moving onwards to a club, the hangout for youthful travelling types, and I’d never have admitted it to anyone, but part of me was on the lookout for Joel.

As always, he seemed surrounded by an adoring host of women. His fan club.

He came over, asked about our day, told us about his. Time slid by as we drank and laughed. Emma sipped the same beer for some kind of forever. Mid-evening and Joel drifted off, disappearing into the throng, and I allowed myself to coast with the crowd and anyone watching me would have figured that I was having amazing fun. But as I tripped the light fantastic out on the floor, unleashing an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition, inventing feverish dance moves amidst the swirl of coloured lights, despondency was taking hold. I caught passing glimpses as Joel paired up with a wispy looking girl with long dark hair and olive skin, the photo negative to my fairness, and though it was nothing to me, not really, somehow I minded. And the discontent lingered as we headed out into the snow that morning. I had no reason to believe that Joel would care, or even know about today, but I wanted to prove myself to him in the face of his casual dismissal, my mind forming the misconnection: I had lost out romantically; I was not going to miss out on adventure.

Slowly my mind cleared, unwelcome thoughts swallowed by the close-to-perfection scene. Unblemished white sparkling in soft early light. The thrill of the steep but manageable slope. My skill with the poles which had gained fluidity in the ten days we’d been here. I wouldn’t get far ahead, but I longed to immerse myself in the utter aloneness of the wild. To absorb myself in the pure tranquillity of the moment. A presentness untainted by past disappointments or future worries.

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

I felt the faintest pick up of the wind; a trickle of soft flakes melted on my lips and swirled in front of my eyes. Not enough to worry about. I heard nothing but the rustle of my clothes, the whish of skis slipping along the crust of snow, the whisper of my out-breath. Slowly the flakes built in size, in density, in churning momentum, building to form an encompassing cloud, casting a strange ethereal light, heightening my awareness of self, of existing within a time-stopped moment, a perfect harmonious dance of near-weightless body, mind and landscape.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped and looked behind me for Emma. How long I waited, my serenity turning to an irritated disguise for fear. How long before I pierced the silence to call her name, listening to the rustle of wind in trees and no reply, before I started to walk clumsily up the slope. How long before I began to panic. Before I realised how alone and helpless I was. Before the weather closed in deeper and I could barely see the back of my gloves. Before I decided the best, the only thing I could do was carry on down and get help, my mind frantically constructing a scenario in which she must either have overtaken me, or turned round and taken the chairlift. She’d be waiting anxiously for me at the bottom, of course she would, and over a boozy lunch somewhere warm, we would turn the events to anecdote, an amusing tale to retell our friends.

 

The screen full of figures glows at me, the data failing to order itself and divulge its meaning, my mind struggling to make sense of the story, those crucial aspects that I have always kept secret.

My sister died in a skiing accident. It is so long since I have seen the need to tell anyone this. She got lost in a suddenly descending snowstorm which forced the two of us apart, in an area where snow sometimes formed a thin layer over deep crevasses in the glacier. Her body remained unfound. None of this version of events—the version I told the police, the journalists, our parents, various therapists and the people I have met and tried to be close to since—is untrue, in the same way that a mirror neither hides nor reveals things fully. I tell people of the hot-cold panic of waiting, those unreal days of searching, of my struggle to describe the route we had taken, everything blurring as if seen through a blizzard.

‘Your sister has been found,’ the man on the phone said and for one heart-soar second I pictured her alive. ‘Some skiers discovered her body where the glacier has melted.’ Perfectly preserved, perfectly frozen, stuck in time. And needing someone to make arrangements for repatriation and burial.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Think it over. But yes, of course, if you want to.’

Time passes and outside the sun burns ever hotter, burning through the glass, scorching my skin. My screen has put itself to sleep. The phone rings, startling me from reverie and perhaps it is my parents, or possibly some journalist has got hold of the story. I make a move towards the phone and I catch my reflection in the blackened screen and imagine staring into a frozen mirror. Staring at the clock-stopped face which will stare back, the image of the self that was lost to me twenty years ago. The face of my much-loved twin. Youthful. Hopeful. Light still dancing in her eyes.

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter Magazine. She started her career as a theoretical physicist before moving into economics and policy advice. She and her husband live in Welwyn Garden City, UK. Twitter: @Sarah_mm_Evans

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


Photo Credit: Ruin Raider/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

There was a gentle buzz as the phone screen lit up, but Bebe didn’t spare it a glance. She continued methodically shaving the onion into paper thin slices. Her husband looked over from his pile of haphazardly diced pepper.

“You know, there are filters for spam texts,” Dominic laughed. “Unless you want to check out prices for roof replacements in Ohio.”

The knife slipped across onion into flesh. “Ah!” Bebe hissed, dropping the blade and heading over to the sink.

“Are you ok?” He grabbed the little first aid box from the junk drawer.

She nodded. “It’s nothing, just a tiny cut.”

He frowned as he handed her the antibiotic ointment. “How many times have I said that you don’t need to cut the onion so fine? We aren’t cooking for Iron Chef, Bebe.”

“I like to follow the recipe instructions exactly, Dom, unlike you. Those diced peppers are a tragedy,” she muttered, her hand shaking slightly as she took the bandage.

He kissed the end of her nose. “I know you like doing everything perfectly. But you don’t have to try so hard; I already think you’re the best.”

“You’re sweet,” She rested her chin on his shoulder, but her gaze was focused on her phone. “You’re still re-doing the peppers, though.”

“What do you want?” Bebe’s voice was a whisper though she was a good twenty yards from her house.

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Well, hello, to you, too, sister.”

Bebe exhaled impatiently. “Cece, I don’t have time for games. I still have the kids’ lunches to pack, and I need to get at least five hours of sleep to function at work tomorrow.”

“Ouch! So, just because I’m not a control freak who plans out her life down to the second, I should have to take care of this by myself?” she asked angrily.

“I don’t even know what this is yet,” Bebe looked down at the daylilies, frowning. Gardening was not her favorite pastime, but everyone else in the neighborhood had lilies, and she didn’t like to stand out. She began furiously plucking off the dead blossoms. “What is going on?”

Cece didn’t reply. Bebe waited, bending to pull an emerging dandelion, grimacing at the dirt that gathered under her classic French tips. The silence stretched, and dread settled in her limbs. She sat down on the grass. “Well?”

“You need to come home. As soon as you can. Plan to stay least ten days,” Cece’s words came out rapidly, tripping over one another in a garbled mess that only a sister could decipher.

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

“Yes,” Cece cut the question off. “Look, I’ve got to go, and so do you. Just get there by Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Bebe replied, though the call had already disconnected. Chaos was creeping towards the edges of her carefully cultivated life. A wave of dizziness enveloped her, and she fell back on her manicured lawn, breathing in the humid Washington air creeping out of the woods bordering her backyard. It was an old, dark smell, too wild for her to enjoy. She rose, smoothing out both the creases in her pants and the panic in her chest before heading back to the kitchen.

“Sylvie, you need to clean your room before you watch any cartoons,” Bebe lifted her eyes from the laundry pile.

“Mom!” Sylvie pouted. “I just cleaned my room yesterday! What about Josh? His room is a bigger mess!”

“Then he can clean his room, too,” Bebe leaned over and took her son’s Nintendo Switch out of his hands. “I want your rooms in order before I leave tomorrow.”

“Nice throwing me under the bus, Sylvie,” he snapped. “Mom, seriously, you think our rooms are filthy if we have one sock on the floor.”

She ignored his comment and gave him a stack of neatly folded shirts. “It wouldn’t hurt either of you to have a little less screen time. Take a break and put these away.”

Josh started to pull the clothes from her hands, but she tugged back. “Not like that, Josh! I just folded them. You’re wrinkling them all over again.”

“Just because you’re going to a lame technology detox retreat in the woods doesn’t mean we should have to suffer, too,” Sylvie groaned. “I want to watch Netflix.”

Dominic entered from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “Breakfast is ready, guys. Laundry and clean rooms can wait. Let’s have a good last day together. No bickering.”

“Then tell Mom not to be a psycho about our rooms,” Josh grumbled.

Bebe flinched. “Having an organized living space creates an organized mind.”

The kids both rolled their eyes as they went toward the dining room. Dominic caught her arm.

“Don’t be upset. No kid likes to clean their room or put away laundry. It’s nothing personal, sweetie. They love you; they’re just grumpy that they’re going to be stuck with lame ol’ Dad for two weeks.”

She tried to shake the hurt. “What’s so awful about wanting a nice, orderly home?”

“Nothing,” he reassured her. “And trust me, a week from now, when Josh can’t find his tablet, Sylvie has lost her third pair of soccer pads, and they’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch instead of your gourmet fare, they will be begging me to fly to Maine and hike three hours to your wilderness retreat to get you.”

Bebe pulled back, looking up with worry on her face. “Will you be all right without me, really?”

“Not all right, but we’ll survive,” Dominic grinned, cupping her cheeks and kissing them both. With the air of man defusing a bomb, he eased the shirts from her grip and set them neatly on the coffee table.

He put an arm around her waist and led her to the dining room, pulling out her chair. “Seriously, hon, I think it’s a good idea. You haven’t had a vacation in forever. Though, I have to say the whole wilderness, no technology is a surprise. Are you sure you want to go to the middle of the woods and commune with nature in the middle of summer? You spray yourself down with repellent to walk to the mailbox.”

Bebe smiled tightly. “It wasn’t my first choice, either, but apparently my friend Vivian from college swears by it for ultimate relaxation. Honestly, it isn’t exactly roughing it. The place has plumbing and central air. It will be a good opportunity to re-connect. And being away from phones and computers and television for two weeks won’t kill me.”

“Mosquitoes might though,” Sylvie snarked as she poked at her food. “They carry Ebola or something.”

“Or ticks,” Josh added, his mouth full of oatmeal. “You could get that citrus disease.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bebe replied automatically, though her face blanched of its color. “And it’s Lyme Disease with a ‘y,’ not an ‘i.’”

“Stop harassing your mother, you two.” Dominic put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I already put three kinds of bug spray in your luggage.”

 

Sunny’s Diner had seen better days. The majority of its business had shifted three miles west to the travel plaza just off the newer and much better paved four-lane highway. Most of the remaining customers were older locals who preferred the winding two-lane country road, plain black coffee with no fancy flavors, and the crispy hash browns of John, the fry cook of thirty-five years.

Bebe parked her rental car and took a steadying breath. She stared at the peeling yellow paint on the bricks. The smiling sun logo was missing an eye. How like this tiny town, she thought, to be half-blind.

“Bebe Carter!” a booming voice greeted her the instant she walked through the door. “We never thought we’d see you again!”

She pasted a friendly, non-committal smile on her face. “Miss Maryanne,” she murmured, nodding her head respectfully at the waitress, noting that all the heads in the diner had turned her way.

“Table for one?” the older woman looked toward the parking lot. “No one with you? No husband?” her eyes locked onto the golden band on Bebe’s left hand.

“My husband couldn’t get time away from work,” Bebe answered. “But Cece is meeting me.”

“Heaven have mercy!” Maryanne’s grin faltered as she placed two laminated menus on the tan Formica table. “I was real sorry to hear about your mama.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

“Hmm,” Maryanne hummed as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. She placed them on the table, along with a small ramekin of milk. “You still take cream, right?”

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

Maryanne leaned down, her yellow uniform smelling of homemade buttermilk biscuits and bacon grease. She put an arm around Bebe’s shoulders, not noticing how she tensed at the touch. “I know she was a hard woman to love, but she was still your mama. It’s ok to cry.”

Bile and angry words rose in Bebe’s throat, but she was saved from exposing her bitterness by Cece’s entrance, grand as always. Her younger sister threw open the door, sending the bell above into a frenzy of jingling. Cece was wearing ripped acid-wash jean shorts, scuffed army boots, and a paint-stained Alice in Chains T-shirt. For a disorienting moment, Bebe worried she had traveled back in time to high school.

“Good Lord, child,” Maryanne had rushed over to Cece, crushing her to her chest. “You didn’t clean up at all in twenty years.” She ran a finger over the dried blue splotch on Cece’s shoulder. “Still messin’ around with paint? Didn’t you ever grow up, girl?”

“Cece is a successful muralist. Her work earns her an excellent living,” Bebe felt compelled to come to her defense, though she had made similar comments about her sister’s appearance.

Cece winked at Maryanne. “Hear that? I have Bebe’s seal of approval. I clearly must have grown up, because she is a serious adult.”

Maryanne’s broad bosom heaved with laughter. “Too grown up for blueberry pancakes and sausage links?”

“Never!” Cece sat down. “Give Bebe the same.”

“No, I don’t eat gluten,” Bebe called out, louder than she’d intended. Everyone turned to stare at her again. “Fine. A small stack,” she mumbled, her fingers tracing an ancient crack in the table top.

After Maryanne had entered the kitchen, she turned to her sister. “This was a horrible place to meet.”

“What? You weren’t feeling nostalgic?” Cece took the milk, pouring the whole container into her cup.

“Hey! Some of that was for me,” she protested.

Cece shrugged. “Too bad, so sad, my Bad Bitch,” she taunted.

“You know I hate that nickname,” Bebe grimaced.

“With a name like Bebe, I couldn’t not give you an awesome nickname, sis. You’re just jealous you never came up with a good one for Cece, because you don’t have any imagination, just like our mother.”

That stung, and she was suddenly twelve again. “I do so, you… Cackling Chicken!”

Cece made a choking sound and slapped the table. “Oh my god! How long were you holding on to that one? It was even lamer than I imagined!”

“I was wrong, you didn’t grow up at all,” Bebe used her napkin to wipe up the few drops of milk that dripped from the ramekin, then began the futile task of scrubbing at a stain worn deeply into the table’s surface.

You were wrong?” Cece said in a tone of faux shock, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “I should have recorded that.”

Bebe’s temples began to throb. She wrapped her hands around the mug to keep herself from cleaning the entire table. “How long will this take?”

A serious expression settled on Cece’s face. It looked out of place. “Apparently, she pre-planned her funeral years ago, right after Dad died. So, most of that is handled. She has a plot next to his, and they’ll have everything ready for the burial tomorrow. I put a notice in the paper yesterday.”

“How many people do you think will come?” She put her spoon in her black coffee, stirring vigorously and aimlessly all at once.

“Hard to tell,” Cece chewed her lower lip. “On one hand, our mother alienated just about everyone in town at some point in her life. On the other, she was the main source of entertainment before streaming video.”

“So, you think the only people who will come are gossips and the ones who want to spit on her grave?” She tried to make a mental count and gave up.

Cece’s laugh was a mix of camaraderie and mockery. “I know—that’s half the town, right?”

To Bebe’s relief, the turnout was closer to twenty people. The guess about their motivations was spot-on, though. A dozen or so were faces she recognized from long-standing feuds with her mother, while the remaining mourners included the local conspiracy theorist and a woman who papered her study with obituary notices.

Bebe had never loved her sister more than when Cece announced loudly that there would be no reception after the burial. Bebe didn’t even mind the normally unbearable looks of judgment from those assembled. Cece put an arm around her, and she leaned in without hesitation, grateful to use the body language of grief to convince others to leave her alone. They stood side by side as if frozen in the summer heat, silently staring at the open grave as the cheapest coffin was lowered slowly into a cleanly cut rectangle. Time passed, all the cars pulled away, and finally, a backhoe began to fill in large clumps of earth.

“I forgot to throw in my rose,” her voice broke as she glanced down at the flower in her hand. All its thorns were gone, and putting a flower without defenses on her mother’s grave seemed cruel.

“Me too, except I didn’t forget,” Cece tugged on her sleeve, moving her a few steps over. “Dad would appreciate the flowers.” She bent down and placed the roses on the slate gray tombstone.

“Do we have to go there?” Bebe asked quietly. “Can’t we just pay someone to burn it down?”

Cece laughed bitterly. “I’m seriously impressed that you suggested that, but if she had been worth going to prison for, I would have poisoned her vodka twenty years ago.” She glanced over and grinned. “Speaking of vodka, I stopped at the liquor store. Want to go back to our crappy motel and get plastered?”

“No,” Bebe said tiredly. “Between the red eye flight and the time change, I just want to go back and sleep.”

“Fine, but stop by my room in the morning for an Irish coffee—I think you’ll need a shot of something before heading out.”

Bebe settled for the motel lobby coffee, which was foul and terribly weak. She wasn’t sure how anyone could make what was basically water taste burnt, but the Good Rest Inn had managed the feat. An inquiry about the room cleaning and linen replacement schedule had revealed that those services were only provided every other day, for the good of the environment. Fighting back nausea at the thought that the room she’d slept in hadn’t actually been properly sanitized, she sat down in the tiny breakfast nook and forced down a dry serving of corn flakes because there was no milk. Cece came in a few minutes later, holding a large silver thermos. Her face was mostly covered by large, reflective aviator sunglasses. She was wearing old, stained clothes, a red bandana over her hair, and a grumpy expression.

“Here,” she held out another bandana. “You are definitely going to want to cover that three-hundred-dollar blow-out.”

“It was only one hundred,” Bebe replied defensively. “And I was going to my mother’s funeral. I needed to—”

“Look perfect?” Cece cut her off. “I’m well aware of your compulsive need for projecting a perfect image. You’re going to regret wearing that perfect little yoga outfit, though. I have a feeling you’ve never actually sweat in it before. Come on, we need all the daylight we can get.”

During the short drive from the motel, Bebe tried to prepare herself. Nothing worked, though, and her chest filled with a deep ache as Cece turned beside a clump of poison oak that obscured all of the mailbox save the little rusted red flag. The winding drive was more purple coneflowers and goldenrod than gravel, and even the light sound of long grass brushing against the side of the Jeep was torturous to Bebe’s already frayed nerves. Cece steered toward a pile of wood and stone that had once been a stand-alone garage and parked.

Bebe stared in horror through the windshield at the structure. As unlivable as it had been during their childhood, this was worse. Part of the roof was sagging dangerously, and a mantle of ivy, moss, and algae had covered most of the siding. A front step was missing, as were several porch supports. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been condemned?”

“The county inspector was terrified of our mother, just like everyone else. I think she threatened to set him on fire once.” Cece pulled a large sack from the back of her Jeep. “Look, no local company will come to clean while there are biohazardous materials inside. We just need to deal with a few areas, and then we can make plans for other people to clean and fix up the rest. Then we can sell it and never worry about it again.”

“Is it really worth fixing?” Bebe asked doubtfully. She watched Cece reach back again and pull out a large blade. “Is that a machete?”

“Yep,” Cece replied. “Don’t give me that dirty look. I’m not going to hack you to pieces. The police trampled down a few spots, but we still need to cut a path. Unless you want to wade through a sea of weeds and a million chiggers to get to the front door.”

“What’s left of the front door,” Bebe could see from fifty feet away that the main door was missing a quarter panel in the lower left corner and tilting at an odd angle. She tried to disregard the mention of chiggers, but her fingernails began to spontaneously scratch at her arms.

Cece handed her a bucket with a roll of heavy trash bags, cleaning spray, paper towels, a packet of latex gloves, and a giant pump container of hand sanitizer. “You’ll need this. Follow me.”

“Wait!” Bebe grabbed a can of bug repellent out of her purse and sprayed it all over her body, then offered it to her sister, who took it without hesitation.

“Do you have a spray to protect against a breakout of childhood trauma?” Cece joked, but neither woman laughed.

Even though Cece thought she had no imagination, Bebe’s brain was excellent at self-harm, and by the time they had reached the front door, it already had convinced her that she was covered by thousands of tiny bugs despite the spray. She fidgeted nervously as Cece set down her things and lifted the door sideways.

“It was off the hinges?” Bebe asked. “Why?”

Cece groaned at the weight of the door, and Bebe rushed to help her. They propped it against the siding, waiting to see how far into the moss it slipped. “The police took it off when they came out to do the welfare check.”

“How long was she—” Bebe swallowed, taking the latex gloves out of the bucket and pulling them on with a snap.

“The coroner’s report said a few weeks,” Cece reached down and put a pair on as well, then stepped through into the dark hallway. “You’d better get your phone out and use the flashlight.”

Bebe hovered at the threshold. “I didn’t bring my phone.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bring your phone? Who doesn’t carry their phone these days?” Cece griped.

“I told Dominic I was on a technology detox retreat in Maine. I’m supposed to not have a phone,” she confessed, waiting for her sister’s scoffing censure.

But Cece only turned on her own flashlight app. “Just stay near me,” she muttered.

Bebe still hesitated, unable to force her feet into the house. Fear was spreading upwards from the soles of her feet, burrowing into her skin like chiggers, releasing the toxins of a thousand bad memories.

Cece’s hand snaked out, grabbing her and pulling her forward. “Don’t give her any more power, Bad Bitch. She’s dead.”

“It still smells like,” Bebe gasped as she stumbled against her sister, breathing through her mouth, not wanting to complete her thought.

“I know. We should’ve brought Vick’s and face masks,” Cece shone the light forward, revealing the precariously towering stacks of newspapers, cardboard, clothing, empty food containers, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous junk cemented together with cobwebs and twenty-five years of dust, grime, and cigarette smoke. “Do you remember the way through to the living room?”

Bebe closed her eyes against both the acrid smell and the memories rushing toward her. “Straight until the Dennis the Menace doll with the missing arm. Turn right, then left at the baby gate covered in broken Christmas lights. Don’t forget to duck by the stack of Good Housekeeping—there’s always a spider web there.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cece nodded, her voice low and shaky. She coughed, then continued, her normal sarcastic tone back in full-force, “Who could forget Dennis? That little shit has given me a lifetime of nightmares.”

They walked slowly through the winding path, turning sideways at times, crouching at others. Bebe had always compared going through her mother’s house with playing a giant game of Twister in which it was entirely possible to break a leg or worse with the wrong step. The last time she had been here, the day she’d packed her bag for college ten states away, she’d cut herself on a broken ceramic Precious Moments angel figurine, the jagged edge of its praying hands catching her thigh as she’d hurried past to the waiting cab. At the school health clinic, she’d gotten a booster for her tetanus shot, but her clumsy attempt to use butterfly tape to close the wound had resulted in a raised, silvery scar. When Dom had run his gentle fingers over it, she told him she’d gotten it by slipping against an open locker after swimming in the college pool, the first of many lies she had told him.

In the living room, the light was a little better. The windows had curtains, but they were in tatters, and the piles of debris hadn’t made it fully up to the top of the casement. There were only two spaces cleared. One was in front of the hulking television set purchased in 1990 where about forty grimy cigarette cartons balanced like filthy Jenga blocks. The other was a small area around the dry-rotted recliner, heaped with blankets, a stack of empty popcorn canisters depicting happy Boy Scout faces propping up the broken left armrest. The blankets were soaked in a black, slimy sludge that made Bebe think of a toxic oil spill. It smelled terrible; the stench intensified with the heat.

“Is that where she was when they found her?” She looked away quickly.

Cece nodded in reply, putting down her bucket and pocketing her phone. She opened one of the heavy-duty trash bags and handed it to Bebe. “Hold this steady.”

Her sister had always been the brave one, Bebe knew, but the amount of fortitude needed for this job seemed impossible. Cece grabbed the top blanket, folding the edges inward to lift it. Her arms strained, and she grunted. “God, that’s heavy.”

She dropped the bundle into the bag, and Bebe clutched at the plastic as it slipped out of fingers from the weight. A blend of fetid cigarette ash and death rose to her nostrils and she gagged, her burned coffee water emptying into the trash bag.

Cece snorted. “You just threw up on Mom.”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her gloved hand, Bebe lifted her chin defiantly. “And I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Excellent,” she hefted the next blanket. “That’s the attitude we need to get through this.”

 

As soon as they got back to the motel, Bebe took the bucket of cleaning supplies into her room and scrubbed every surface, including the walls. She stripped the bedding and took her rental car down to the local laundromat, which was across the road from the liquor store. Generally, her limit was two glasses of white wine, but today was exceptional in every awful way. The clerk raised his eyebrows at the five bottles.

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

“A pity party,” she answered with uncharacteristic honesty. He was a stranger she would never see again, and she had to tell at least one person the truth or her moral compass might rot away completely.

Unfazed, he bagged her purchases. “Right on. You might want to add some solo cups for easy clean up.”

She retrieved the clean linens and stopped by a gas station to get air fresheners. It was beginning to concern her that she would never stop smelling her mother’s liquid remains. After hanging the cardboard pine trees from the wall lamps and doorknobs, she remade the bed and took a scalding shower, using up her entire bottle of peach-scented exfoliating scrub. Her skin felt raw, but marginally cleaner. The clothes she had worn earlier went into one of the black trash bags.

There was no chance of her trusting the water quality of the motel’s ice maker, so she mixed herself a room-temperature margarita. She was sipping on her third when there was a knock on her door. Cece came in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes downcast. Bebe was reminded of how her little sister had once made a secret path between their rooms, a tunnel too low and dark for their mother to notice, their own little battle trench in the world war that was their home.

“I saw a roach in my room,” her voice was hardly audible. She glanced around. “All your cleaning probably scared it out of hiding.”

Bebe handed her the cup she was holding. “You can sleep here. I made margaritas.”

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

By the time the bottle of mixer was gone, and they had started on straight shots, the normal, abrasive Cece had returned. “I thought I was the bad child. I still can’t believe you told everyone at college that our mother was dead.”

“I was just so sick of people asking if I was going home for the Thanksgiving break. It came out, and then I couldn’t take it back.” Her words came out in a belligerent slur, then dipped into a mournful sound. “I promised myself I would never step foot in that house again.”

“Yeah,” Cece threw her head back to take another shot. Her bleary eyes met Bebe’s accusingly. “You left me behind in that shit show for two years alone.”

There was nothing she had done that pained Bebe more. Tears immediately began to stream down her face. “I know,” she leaned toward Cece, her body flopping sideways as she tried to hug her. “I’m so sorry, my little Cackling Chicken.”

“Whatever,” Cece said gruffly, but she moved into the hug. “Pain makes for good art.”

“Then you are definitely a world-class muralist,” Bebe murmured, her face hidden in her sister’s hair. It smelled like the overly floral motel shampoo, with an underlayer of ever-present turpentine.

“Did you tell them I was dead, too?” Cece asked in a whisper, her own cheeks wet now.

She shook her head so hard the room began to spin. “No. I put up every piece of art you sent me. Dominic and the kids are always asking when you will come out to visit, but I know you’re really busy.”

“How old are they now, your kids?” Cece wiped at her face with her T-shirt.

“Sylvie’s twelve, and Josh is ten,” Bebe answered, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose. “They’re good kids.”

“You dodged a bullet for them by never subjecting them to our mother,” Cece grinned, then added, “I bet you make them clean their rooms every day.”

Bebe opened her mouth to protest, but Cece raised a hand. “I’m joking. Well, like forty percent joking.” The smile left her face, her voice beginning to waver again. “I don’t doubt at all that you are a great mother, Bad Bitch. You were a great mother to me, even when you were just a kid.”

Bebe began to cry harder, her shoulders shaking. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t take good enough care of you—I left you behind.”

“Hey!” Cece grabbed her by the shoulders. “You mastered the art of making macaroni and cheese on a camping grill when you were seven. You cleaned my clothes in the creek, even in the winter. You stole baby wipes and washed my hair so I wouldn’t smell bad at school.”

“I should have taken you with me,” Bebe sobbed, snot mixing with her tears.

“No. You had a chance to get out, a scholarship; you had to take it. I got my chance, too, just a little later,” Cece murmured, handing her another tissue. “And I’m going to visit this Thanksgiving, on the condition that you don’t make me clean my room while I’m there.”

Bebe’s laughter was a wet sound, but happy. “How about you have to make your bed, but I’ll do your laundry?”

“Deal,” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the death of mom and the rebirth of our sisterhood.”

“Here’s to Bad Bitch and Cackling Chicken,” Bebe smiled, bumping her cup. “May their reinvented past clear the way for a brighter future.”

pencil

Amberdawn Collier is an adjunct professor of English at Ohio University. She earned an M.A. in English Education at City College, CUNY. She loves story-telling in all its forms and enjoys the challenge of writing prompt-driven stories that push her creativity in new directions. Email: acollier00[at]gmail.com

Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

pencil

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com

Derecho

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Pat Gaines/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Mile 1, Elise, Metro 295, Morning Dove Coffee

One of the new hybrids, sparkling and quiet, pulls into Transit Center Bay 4. It is early dawn and already hot, rather, still hot. There is a pneumatic puff as the doors open and cold air from the bus tumbles out, lost to the heat wave outside. Woven scents of soaps from all the morning showers descend and hang in the air as students bound for the community college, office workers, laborers, and nightlifers step down off the bus.

Elise rolls her bike to the curb and waves at the driver. He gives her the thumbs up. She rolls it off the curb, lowers the bike rack, loads her bike on the front section, secures the support arm over the front wheel and moves into the queue, bus pass ready to scan.

She smooths the back of her skirt as she settles on one of the higher seats at the back of the first section of the articulated bus. She pulls out her iPad and balances it on the backpack in her lap. She leaves the seat next to her open anticipating a full commute into the university district, Pill Hill, then the downtown core. The pneumatic puff repeats as the doors close and the bus pulls away like a quiet dragon. The air conditioning works double-time to make up for the heat that boarded the bus like another passenger.

The deep blue sky is full of towers of cumulus clouds doing a quickstep march. They are positioned exactly where one of the local hot air balloon festivals takes place. She watches them sail quickly toward her. Her attention shifts as the kids bound for early university classes settle in with their energy bars, Odwalla drinks, and bloodshot eyes. A few pull out texts or tablets; most look hopeful for a few more winks. One is already curled up in a fetal position, her checkered canvas sneakers tucked on the seat, jungle red nails at the ends of her small delicate fingers cup her ankles. Her black knit watch cap implores “Love Me.” She has a little pout painted red.

Back outside, the sky on the horizon has turned from deep blue to dark gray-green and the cumulus clouds, racing in her direction bump into each other, flare out flat, and connect at the top. She hears something slide as the bus rounds a corner and brakes for the next stop. She looks down to see a bright pink toothbrush with green bristles slide out from under a seat. A woman’s cane crashes to the floor. Across from her an Asian girl in black watch plaid skinny jeans and four-inch suede peach stilettos picks up the woman’s cane for her. A wraith thin woman with a fever sheen to her face climbs on with heavy luggage. Elise wonders that she could lift it. She sits and a big shiver wracks her body. She digs out her cell phone and throws one leg atop her bag.

A woman sits down next to Elise. Her benchmate’s feet with celeste blue toenails swing freely in white leather flip-flops. A flash of departing morning sun lights the chin of a passenger in a dragon tee and the forehead of another across the aisle with his Beats and his music. Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones. The crackle of a couple of good old-fashioned newspapers, books. Watchers with smiles, with arms crossed bleary-eyed, with straight-ahead stares. The articulated center of the bus, the last seats to be filled, hosts a lanky boy with baggy trousers and a ball cap pulled down low.

There comes a changing of the guard at the transit center. The new benchmate sits down on the flare of Elise’s skirt. Thumbs still poised over his phone, one man sleeps through it all. Beats person reads the newspaper over another man’s shoulder and the bus is now at standing room only. Elise watches the lake turn serious gunmetal gray-green, reflecting the color of the horizon. Sunlight no longer makes its way past the bank of clouds which have formed an arched shelf. Low, dark, and menacing.

The couple across from Elise release hands as the man gets up for his stop. The woman, smiling a private smile, now holds her own hands on her lap as they pass into the dark of the tunnel.

The bus emerges from the tunnel to amplified crackling and an alarming jagged light. Another, followed by two enormous booms, reverberates Elise’s insides. The clouds now form a ceiling, like the low dark roof of a sports dome, crack, crack, crack—a series of lightning bolts is followed by the bellowing thunder.

In the seat in front of Elise little hands hang on the window sill. A child’s face, freckles pressed against the glass, head turning, laughing, pointing, smiling with joy, and speaking his own special language. His world goes by the window of the 295 and it is wonderful. His fellow passengers show mixed feelings, few share his enthusiasm, most of them have never seen a sky like this, some hope this means the end of the heat wave.

As Elise puts her iPad away and readies for her stop, the deluge begins, driven almost horizontal by the wind. Great! She’s early for her meeting. She shrugs her shoulders. Oh well. As she waits in line to get off the bus she spots a place of refuge from the storm, Morning Dove Coffee, named after the Mourning Dove, but the proprietor feared the word mourning might steer some people clear of the premises. She isn’t the only passenger planning a dash for the Morning Dove. She taps her bicycle helmet at the driver and he gives her a nod and thumbs up. She removes her bike from the rack, lifts the rack back into place in record time. Soaked, she runs head down against the driving rain with her bike across the street and locks it on the bike rack near the entrance. She is not alone taking refuge in Morning Dove Coffee. It is packed with bedraggled folk, pools of rainwater are already gathering on the floor. Streaks of lightning crackle and thunder booms.

The screen over the baristas that usually displays album art and info about the current song has been tuned to a news channel. A news anchor is interviewing a NOAA spokesperson who is standing in front of storm cloud diagrams. “…and can you explain why the extent of this thunderstorm, this, um, derecho, was not predicted?”

“While typical thunderstorms are reasonably well-forecast, the complexity of a derecho-producing storm system is not yet fully understood and observation networks…”

Elise orders a quad, no room.

Mile 325, Exit 18, Peg’s, “Homemade Pies, Fresh Coffee All Day”

Peg carries the round tray full of plates of food as though it is an extension of her left arm. The coffee pot in her right hand, likewise, seems like part of her anatomy. Skinny as a rail, tough as they come.

“Ha ha ha, what Lucy don’t know won’t hurt ya, Dan’l, fresh out of the oven this morning. Peach, loaded with cinnamon the way you like.” Peg’s smoker’s voice can be heard from one end of the little crossroads café to the other.

“Come on, go for it, Dan’l, you know we’re not squealers.” Jolene, Daniel’s cousin, chimes in from the center of the café.

An impromptu barbershop quartet from the back corner starts up:

I dream of pie with the light brown crust
Baked by Peggy, with loving care
I dream of fresh peaches baked within
That crust of care and cinnamon

“All right already you clowns, but if Lucy finds out about this…” Daniel growls.

Peg, who knows her customers, already has Daniel’s pie on her serving tray. She triumphantly places it in front of him. “There you go, Dan’l, I think this is one of my best yet, but you tell me.” She sets the coffee pot down and puts her right hand on her cocked hip, waiting for his first bite.

He cuts his first piece from the point, closes his eyes, and makes a wish as he chews—a childhood habit. He chews dramatically slowly. “Hmmm, mmumph.” He nods, opens his eyes, swallows and reaches his arm around Peg’s waist. “Darlin’, they’ll be serving this up in heaven.”

She nods, satisfied, picks up the coffee pot, tops his mug off and continues her rounds.

“Gettin’ dark in here, Peg, did ya pay the light bill?” Jeff asks from the counter where he likes to sit, the first stool but one.

Peg dips at the waist a little and peeks out a window. “Say, would ya look at that sky? Ain’t seen a sky like that, since, nope, well, never like that… dark like that, but not that big… damn if it don’t look like an alien spaceship dominating the sky like that. Well, folks, hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Peg’s.”

“I could think a worse places. Peg, top off all our coffees, and how about pie all around since Dan’l says its good enough for heaven! Oh, and make it on the house. Har har har har.”

“Now I just might to spite ya, Levi, you old coot!”

The door opens and bangs and bounces as a gust pulls it out of the new customer’s hand. The couple are probably travelers, no one knows them, but they are just as welcome as the regulars. Peg, still busy with serving, says over her shoulder, “Sit anyplace you like, well except Johnie’s table over there.” She points with her chin at a table in the corner window. It has a single place setting, a poppy in a vase, a photo of a boy in uniform and a display of medals. Sitting on one of the window sills is a US flag folded and displayed in a triangle.

“Say, what is this storm you’ve brought in folks?”

“We feel like it’s been chasing us!” the woman says as she heads for a table toward the back. “Davey tells me not to worry so, of course, now I’m really scared.”

Everyone in Peg’s chuckles.

Davey grins, as he pulls out a chair for his wife. “Aw, now, Lois. Well, everybody, I don’t believe I can take credit for this one. The radio is saying it is what’s called a derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders. Not very common especially this far west. From what I can gather we are maybe about in the middle of the thing. I guess over 250 miles is not uncommon. They say the North American record holder covered 1,300 miles. Yah, Minnesota, into southern Canada then headed out off the coast of Maine.”

“Never heard of one. You, Nosey?” Peg pours Clement “Nosey” Gray another cup.

“Not I, not I, Peg. Cheers!” Nosey lifts his now-full cup, nods at Peg, then downs the hot brew in short order.

Outside the windows it looks like nighttime until a bolt of cloud-to-ground lighting lights up the sky and the café followed by a rolling thunder. Another streak of bright electric light reaches from above the clouds to the ground and rebounds back. Its thunder roar takes less time to reach them. It feels like Peg’s little café actually shakes. Crack-crack, double-strike, and a roaring rolling boom prompts sounds not dissimilar to the sounds made by crowds watching fireworks.

The lights flicker.

“Oh oh, get out yer Zippos, boys and gals, we’re about to go down, glad we got the gas going in the kitchen already!”

The regulars pull out lighters or matches, lift the little glass globes from the candles in the center of their tables, light the candles like it is common practice here. Davey and his partner Lois, non-smokers, look around. Jolene, at the adjacent table, passes them her lighter and Davey lights the candle. “Much obliged.”

Mile 815, Holly, Code J45.901, Mostly Caff Café

Holly, a long-time barista at Mostly Caff, is now also interning as a pulmonologist at Mercy, the nearby university hospital. Very near—across the street actually. Many of the customers at the Mostly Caff Café are in scrubs. She was advised to quit her day job as soon as her internship started but she is young and energetic and has her eye on an elite racing bicycle. Everyone told her she’d be consumed by exhaustion, but she decided to wait and see.

She likes working the café. There is something familiar and comforting about it. Even crowded. Somehow the blending of multiple, low conversations sounds like a loft full of messenger pigeons coo-coo cooo, coo-coo cooo. Then there are the regulars, many of them fellow students. She likes the contact.

She and Hank are an efficient duo with the shift change crowd. It is especially busy today with regulars and non-regulars. Today is a guest day. Easy to spot, the first group huddles rather than queues. Five of them all wearing visitor badges around their upper arms like blood-draw Cobans. They are talking amongst themselves; she pegs them for the type that chat constantly as the line moves forward. She is right. They form a block oblivious to the people just trying to maneuver through the café. When it is their turn they look almost shocked, the clump disperses as they peer into the cases of food and crane their necks to read the drink offerings. She smiles, right every time. Her eyes make contact with one of her regulars behind the group; they both shrug their shoulders, amused. “What are ya gonna do?”

Holly has not seen the sky since arriving for work. Everyone coming in is describing it differently, but all agree it is like nothing they’ve ever seen before. Fast-moving, a solid bank of low cumulus-like stuff, dark and menacing and heading their way. One person likens it to Birnam Wood’s assault on Dunsinane. All she knows is that, her ears, particularly sensitive to pressure changes, are bothering her. Suddenly the already dim Mostly Caff becomes even darker, like blackout curtains dropped, they way they do in the classroom prior to a video lesson. Just as sharply, darkness is broken as strobes, brilliant and revealing—almost blinding—flash brightly and give the room the feel of an old Gothic mansion in a bad horror film.

Soon a deluge is audible on the roof. More people pour into the already crowded café. Many, just off work, decide to wait out the thunderstorm before catching their bus home. None of the bus shelters are adequate to the task of shielding people from this thing.

Pitched above the cracks of lightning and the rumbling of thunder comes the sound of aid cars. It is not unusual to hear sirens since the ER is just across the street, but it is unusual to hear so many so close together. Suddenly beepers, phones, and watch alerts are capturing the attention of almost everyone in the place, including Holly. She glances down at her watch and asks one of her co-workers who was about to leave, “Hey Rhond, can you, um, not leave? I have an emergency call, I gotta run over to Mercy.”

Rhonda looks at her, shrugs back into her work apron by way of answer and mutters, “I won’t say it…”

“Thanks, Rhond, I owe ya.”

Over at Mercy, Holly is startled by the array of ambulances and aid cars. Inside, she finds chaos instead of what is usually a well-oiled machine of efficiency. She recognizes at least three triage nurses with their hands full with so many patients looking “life threatening” or at least “urgent.” She races through gurneys with people clearly in distress, many with intubations, and makeshift stations with oxygen bottles. She makes it to the locker area to jump into her scrubs. The locker room is more crowded than she’s ever seen it.

“What’s up, Bec?”

“Just up your alley, Holly, severe asthma attacks, some folks who’ve never experienced it before. The numbers… crazy. Almost like a fast-moving epidemic.”

“An outbreak of asthma attacks? Sure it isn’t some demented terrorist chemical attack?”

“Here? You watch too much news, kid. Hey Zack! They called you in too?”

Sandy, still in scrubs, who works in the office of the Unit Secretary, pops in just to drop off his backpack and interjects, “Yep, they even called me back. I guess they’ll want me pre-filling intake and charge forms. I already have it memorized. Code J45.901—asthma, unspecified, acute exacerbation.”

“I think they are calling everyone in. I saw this when I was a paramedic in Melbourne.” Zack is a resident. “Thunderstorm asthma. Lots of work done on this in Australia.”

Holly, Bec, and Zack, now into their scrubs, continue their conversation as they rush down the hall to see where they are most needed.

“Come on Zack, this is no time for one of your down-under stories.”

Zack continues. “No, straight. Lots of research done after several events including deaths. Theory is the violent activity of a thunderstorm breaks pollen grains into even finer particles than usual. The fragments or particles are so small they pass through the body’s natural defenses and get into the lungs. That’s why it gets some people who’ve never had asthma before and really does a number on asthma sufferers.”

The charge nurse puts Holly on preparing salbutamol and adrenaline syringes, some for the ER, some to go out with the aid cars. Bec is sent to help set up more resuscitation beds. Zack is given his first patient, a terrified boy. Already intubated, eyes wide, he clings to Zach’s outstretched hand.

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes “Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement” (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams,” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Lou Nell and her husband, Klee, live in Ashland, Oregon with three cats, her muses, Little Bear, Louie, and Valè. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

10 O’Clock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mike Wang


Photo Credit: niXerKG/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The summer of 1978 was meteorologically insignificant in Western New York. By all accounts, it was business-as-usual for the weathermen of Buffalo, but for me July of 1978 was a strange season of contrasts: days of pure bliss and nights of unadulterated terror.

My grandfather had died that spring: heart attack while driving that led to a tragic collision with a bridge abutment. I was only nine, but I remembered him well. At least, I thought I did. Today his memory is mostly a mélange of impressions: the smell of pipe tobacco, the proud look in his eyes when he introduced my siblings and me around at their country club. The summer before, in 1977, we had all made the long trek from England to their house in East Aurora. We were living overseas because my father was a pilot in the Air Force.

That first summer, at the tender age of eight, I thought I was pretty brave, but I had never met a thunderstorm. Living in England, we rarely had summer days topping 80 degrees, let alone generating enough heat and humidity to spawn anything like the gargantuan monsters that blew off Lake Erie every evening. That summer, I had quickly learned to hate bedtime because I knew what nightfall had in store for me.

It was diabolical. While every morning the sky would be clear and flawless, I learned not to be fooled. We would come down from our beds in the converted attic room that served as my grandparents’ office to the smiling faces of its owners. As we ate breakfast: juice and toast with homemade currant jam, an occasional egg, we’d plan the adventures for the day. We’d shop, we’d go to the local pool, get ice cream at Chet’s, maybe go into Buffalo proper to see a museum. Some evenings we’d go to the country club for dinner. As each day wore on, I would nervously note the small, puffy clouds building into cumulus. By the time we were back at the house, playing in their enormous unfenced backyard, I could see the towering fortresses of terror glowering at me from the stratosphere. Invariably, by dinner time, the muted roll of distant thunder asserted itself like a physical presence, making me nervous as a hare. My mother could see the anxiety building behind my eyes. She’d pat my leg and reassure me, but it never worked. I was terrified of thunderstorms.

As if to add emphasis and some tactile sense to my unease, one of the nights that summer we were all sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching a program on their enormous oak console TV. Certainly nothing could go wrong there. My grandfather and my father were in the room. All us kids were bathed and dressed in our PJs for bed. We were safe.

I remember being curled up on the sofa next to my father when an unearthly blue-white light filled the windows on three sides of the room. Not an instant later, the boom, no, the crash, no, the deafening roar of the thunder seemed to crush me down into the plush of the upholstery. My mother screamed at the same instant that the TV went black with an emphatic “Zot” and a wisp of smoke curled over the back of the set. Lightning had struck the antenna… which was bolted to the outside of the attic room where the kids slept.

The next day I loitered in the living room while the TV repairman (they came to your house back then) opened the vault-like back of the TV, revealing its intricate innards. When he removed the panel you could still smell the acrid aroma of burnt electronics. Pushing his cap back on his head, he said, “Whew! Never seen that before.”

Reaching into the guts of the set, he pulled out something that looked like a thick pencil lead, about half an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he poked it with a finger and it squished down into a powdery smear. “That’s a one million volt resistor,” he explained, holding out his hand to my grandfather. “It’s part of the lightning protection circuitry in this set. Good thing, too, or you’d have yourself a new coffee table. I’ll have you back up in a jiffy.”

At eight years old, I didn’t know much about lightning, but I knew that a million volts was a lot and that whatever a resistor was it had given its life to protect the TV. And, more importantly, I knew that the attic didn’t have any resistors and neither did my squishy little body.

So here we were again: new summer, old problem. This time the reassuring presence of my grandfather was gone and my father had stayed in England because he had to fly in some exercise so he couldn’t get time off. I was the man of the house. My little brother was useless, as they usually are. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time around the coffee table, speaking in low tones and abruptly changing the topic when any of the four kids strayed too close. There was an innate sadness the two ladies shared, sort of like a gray patina over both of them. We did a lot less adventuring that summer. Mostly stayed around the house and did things in Grandma’s little town of East Aurora.

I spent a lot of time in the basement. It was cool and dark and surprisingly dry. My grandfather’s tools and hobby equipment lived down there. I don’t think my grandmother was able to clear it out, not yet anyway. So my nine-year-old self spent many of those summer hours down amidst his train sets and golf clubs. I’d tinker at his work bench and look out the windows, high up in the cinder block foundation, watching the clouds build through the dirt and spider webs.

As evening approached, I’d get more anxious and taciturn. This summer my mother didn’t have the emotional reserves to spare for  me, so I’d work on comforting myself as night fell and atmospheric battle commenced outside. Eventually, the dreaded call of “bedtime” would ring out and all of us would trail upstairs to get in bed.

The attic was paneled and painted, but it had the strange ceiling contours of the inside of the roof, angled 45 degrees. Four twin beds took up the space where there was usually a small sitting area, while the desk and filing cabinets stood against the end of the room. There was one round window high up in the angle of the roof. Because of the shape of the ceiling, the acoustics of the room made it sound like my siblings across the aisle were right beside me. One by one, I could hear them drift into sleep and settle into a deep, regular breathing. As for me, I would lay there with the sheets pulled up to my nose, my eyes darting to the high window, waiting for each lighting flash and counting the seconds before the timpani of thunder reached me.

When the storm got close, the wind would increase and send the weathervane spinning in wild, rustily-shrieking circles. Rain would lash the window and pound on the roof tiles above my head. Then all I could do was curl into the fetal position and grit my teeth, clenching the covers over my head. Through my eyelids, each flashbulb pop of lightning registered as a pink haze. It was exhausting.

Eventually, the heat of the day would give up all its energy to the storm gods and the thunderstorms would wear themselves out. When they went to sleep, so would I, sweaty in my sheets and worn thin. That’s how every night passed. Slowly, so slowly, in a mindless terror. No one bothered to weigh me, but I’m sure I lost a couple pounds that summer. I stumbled around hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived most days.

But I started this missive speaking of blissful days. What of them? In actuality, there were only about three weeks of bliss. We had been there a fortnight and had 21 days to go, when on one of our trips to the public pool, I saw her. Beauty personified. To a nine-year-old, she was angelic. It wasn’t physical, really. I mean, she was nine as well. Her hips were straight and her chest was flat as mine. If it wasn’t for social convention, she could have pinned her hair tight and worn my swim trunks; no one would have seen a difference between us… though, that’s not exactly true.

She had an air, a certain carriage of the head and shoulders that set us apart. She seemed to float where I plodded. She dove into the deep end with the lithe grace of a naiad, pointed toes and hands reaching, long and lean. I plopped in like a baby duck.

We had been to the pool in the previous two weeks that summer, but I hadn’t seen her. Later she’d tell me that her family was visiting her aunt in Albuquerque (wherever that was). But the first day I saw her, it was like she singled me out. Across the pool, she nimbly lifted herself onto the edge and grabbed a towel, careful with the glasses that were wrapped in it. As she dried her face and put the glasses on, she turned and looked straight at me, smiling. I remember turning to look over my shoulder; certainly there must be someone she knew behind me. When I looked back and discovered it was me she was focusing on, her smile became a cascade of good-natured laughter. She had a strangely deep alto laugh for such a young girl. It had a tripping, almost singing quality that made people around her laugh along. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t talk to her that first day at the pool, nor at Chet’s where we usually went for ice cream after swimming.

Her family pulled up two slots down in the parking lot while we stood at the window and ordered Chet’s famous peanut butter ice cream. I looked away and pretended not to notice her while my family shuffled over to a concrete table under the corrugated metal awning. It was a thin pretense since my young psyche was constantly and acutely aware of her. It was like she was a magnet that made the compass needle in my mind follow her every move. We didn’t speak, but she caught my eye as we piled into the back of my grandmother’s Plymouth. She waved: a tiny but graceful motion of her still-raisiny hand. Somehow, I forced myself to wave back and added a wan smile.

That night, I gritted and sweated my way through another tortuous bout of thunderstorms, but it was somehow a little easier, a little less tortuous. I thought of her, out there somewhere, lying in her little bed, probably sleeping the sleep of the blessed, and it comforted me. In retrospect, it was strange that where both my mother and grandmother were so smothered by grief to lend me aid, an unknown little wisp of a girl could do just that. At the time, I couldn’t process that idea. All I knew was that thinking about her helped me weather the storm. As I drifted off to sleep, the thunder still echoing outside, I resolved that I would talk to her the next day at the pool.

But, it didn’t happen. At least not the next day. “It’s not fair!” I raged. “Why can’t we go to the pool?”

My mother was a little taken back by the outburst and my uncharacteristic vehemence. “Samuel, you know why.” She used my full name. “We’re going over to the Edmondses’ for lunch. Your grandmother wants to show you off,” she said, smiling. “Now be a good boy and get your shirt on.”

You can’t fight city hall. We drove off for lunch and then spent the afternoon playing in the Edmondses’ backyard while the adults spoke in the same muted tones that pervaded Grandma’s house. As it turned out, that little pause probably steeled my resolve to talk to the girl the next day. Now I was determined.

Sometimes temporary insanity masquerades as resolve. That next day, I was certainly mad, but full of resolution to speak to her. As soon as we got to the pool, I threw my stuff down and walked right up to her. She and her friends were quietly chatting on some chaise lounges at the far end of the pool. Socially inept as I was, I broke in without a pause in their conversation. Her friends awkwardly ended their confab in mid-sentence. I was vaguely aware of their puzzled censorious faces turning towards mine, but hers was smiling and open.

“I’m Samuel,” I blurted.

“Hi Sam-O,” she smirked back.

I wasn’t sure she had heard me, what with all the splashing and kids yelling behind me. “No. It’s Samuel.”

“Yeah, I heard you, Sam-O.” Now her friends were smiling too, but not in the same friendly way that she did. “You don’t mind if I call you Sam-O, do you?”

How could I mind? I mumbled something about, “No… fine with me,” as I looked at my bare feet, suddenly self-conscious about how dirty they looked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Helen,” she replied, blue eyes dancing behind her large frame glasses. In later years I would have called the color of her eyes heliotrope, but at that point I only knew that they were blue. Bluer than anything I had ever actually seen in person. The centers of the irises were slightly lighter than the purplish rim around each. “Captivating” is the word.

As if to exhibit my learned character, I said, “Helen. That’s name of a lady who launched a hundred ships.”

She laughed. That beautiful sound of falling water. It wasn’t a wicked retort, just an amused acknowledgement of my small mistake. “I think you mean she had a face that launched a thousand ships,” she giggled.

Now I was really confused. I contemplated my dirty feet again and murmured that maybe I wasn’t so good at math. That little comment brought forth another little gush of laughter, this time joined by the tittering of her friends. Aware that I had accidentally said something funny, I looked up and smiled back. Helen invited me to sit down and the circle opened to admit me. That was how it started: an awkward interruption, an instant nickname, a botched reference to The Iliad, and some good-natured laughter. Oh, that more of my lasting relationships were so easy to break into.

From then on, we seemed to be inseparable. Every day followed the same basic pattern: a quick breakfast and then a sprint into my grandma’s backyard. It turned out that Helen’s folks lived in a house that backed up to Grandma’s just a few doors down. No one had fences, so all the huge yards flowed together to make one giant park for the neighborhood kids to play in. We’d meet at the junction of the yards at the base of an ancient elm tree. Most times my pesky younger brother tagged along, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Other kids from the neighborhood knew that there was a daily meeting of the minds under the big tree, so it usually turned into an opportunity for hide-and-seek or tag or red rover. Sometimes we’d play kickball until lunch when the whole gaggle would pack into someone’s kitchen for baloney sandwiches and then it was off to the pool. After swimming, Chet’s was the order of the day, and then we’d chase fireflies in the falling light while the thunderheads built overhead. Eventually, all the moms signaled dinner time, and we would reluctantly retire for the evening. Helen and I were usually the last to trail inside; we’d stall and dawdle and look at each other over a widening expanse of grass until the elm tree blotted out our view.

The thunderstorms still raged every night, joining battle over Lake Erie, but somehow I didn’t care so much. It wasn’t that I was “cured” or anything, just that the space where the fear had rooted in my soul was slowly getting filled with the warm feeling of fellowship, kindred spirit, dare I say it? Love? I couldn’t articulate it then and I wouldn’t call it love today: it was both more and less than that. It was a call and answer. The recognition of “likeness” in another that was new to me then. I’ve felt it since, with my best friend, Bill, and with my wife; I can put words with concepts today, but then it was merely the awareness of a resonance between Helen and me.

It was as if that resonance served as a frequency that offset and canceled out the terror that had once vibrated through my heart at the first muffled sound of distant thunder. I still avoided bedtime. I still hated the darkness and the sudden stabbing white-hot light that filled the little window in our room, followed by the madly bellowing thunder. The weather vane shrieked and I still cowered under the covers for a time, but with less conviction, less urgency, less fear. I usually fell asleep early in the storm cycle of the evening and rose refreshed, ready to meet under the elm tree again that day.

Of course, it couldn’t last. We were going to be heading back to England in a week or so. My father finally joined us, done with his flying exercise. He’d watch me, puzzled, then shoot meaningful looks at my mother as I wolfed down my breakfast and bolted out the back door, screen door slamming. She’d sigh and smile and shrug her shoulders as they watched me running across the grass towards the big tree. I think she was happy to have my father, her man, in the house again, and I also think she saw the budding of joy returning to the family as well.

But, that summer, joy was working on a time limit. The spate of perfect days couldn’t go on forever. I tried to ignore it, but the paradox of time was, and is, that the very passage of each wonderful day with Helen brought the end of those days closer. I felt it. We both did.

As the day of our departure drew nearer, Helen and I would look for opportunities to break away from the rest of the kids. We’d find a tree and sit on opposite sides with our backs to the bark and just talk. We didn’t need to see each other. We didn’t need to touch each other. In fact, I had never purposely touched her except when we were playing tag, or handing the kick ball back and forth. There was no romantic physical yearning, or anything so poetic, though had it been a couple of years later, there might have been. There was only an acknowledgement, a settled agreement between our two souls.

The things we talked about were inconsequential. What do nine-year-olds have to talk about, really? It was the act of communicating, of “communing,” in truth, that we were interested in. All the more as that last day of August crept closer.

The fact of our impending separation stalked us, tracked us, and eventually moved in for the kill. My family was leaving the next day.  Mom could see the strained sadness on my face, but she was too involved with the logistics of getting her four kids and husband ready for a transatlantic flight to give me much solace. My dad was no help either. He was hustling around the house at the direction of my grandma, trying to finish all the little chores that had been neglected for almost six months now.

That last day, we went to the pool, of course, but it was an awkward interlude. Helen and I were both filled with a sense of impending loss that was tough for kids to identify. We talked softly and swam a little bit. As we dried off and sat in the sun to warm up, we chatted, averting our eyes from one another. I mumbled and bumbled and tried to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let me. We were desolate.

At Chet’s she got progressively quieter. I could read her mood. There was a deep contemplation raging behind her eyes. She was forming a plan, coming to some resolution. Right before we left for the evening, she whispered to me, “Meet me at the elm tree at ten.”

I nodded.

Our families were saying their goodbyes. We would be leaving for the airport early, so we wouldn’t see them tomorrow. Amidst that confusion of handshakes and back slaps and promises to “see you next summer,” I caught Helen’s eye and nodded again.

Dinner at home. Baths. The final packing that needed to be done. It all drug along with the somnolent sluggishness of a bad dream. In the back of my mind I heard the distant rolling thunder, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had promised to meet Helen outside at night when the storms were sure to be raging. For a moment, just an instant, my courage wavered. But then the look of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the totality of our summer together, crystallized my resolved to be there, under that tree, no matter what.

My father had given me a watch that year, one of his old ones. It was too big for me, so I hardly ever wore it, but that night I had it strapped to my skinny wrist. I hid under the covers so my siblings wouldn’t see the glowing hands on the watch face as they inched towards ten o’clock. Far away, faintly, thunder cracked and rolled across the lake. The lightning flickered, but at a distance. I held out hope that the storms would peter out before they got to us tonight. Maybe they would just march in another direction. Not to be. By eight-thirty, the rain was pelting the roof, the wind was busy pummeling the weather vane, and I was balled up under the covers steeling myself for what I knew had to come.

By 9:55, the storm was raging, but it was time. I slipped out of bed, momentarily caught in the strobe light of a flash of lightning. I saw, frozen on my retinas, the images of my brother and sisters sleeping. Then it was black again as the thunder pounded my eardrums. I was terrified. I took advantage of the noise that the thunder made to open the door and step out onto the creaky landing. The light from my parents’ room made a bar on the carpet in the hallway. I could hear their voices, muffled by the partially-closed door. My mother’s shadow passed over the light and I froze, but she was just walking to their closet. Downstairs the house was already dark.

I glanced at my watch. Just a few minutes to our meeting. I had better hurry. I slipped down the stairs and out the kitchen door, this time holding the screen so it wouldn’t slam closed. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressive. The bulk of the house sheltered me there on the stoop, but even so the wind was whipping the tree tops into a frenzy, blowing sheets of water that had already made a quagmire of the backyard. Lightning flashed, outlining the elm tree in black and white. The thunder tore the sky, louder than I had ever heard it.

I almost turned back, almost just went back into the house, but then I saw her. Across the vast expanse of the yard, I could just make out a white smudge, a blur, moving towards the tree. I instantly started moving too. Within moments, I was soaked to the bone, but not cold. Those summer storms had a sweet, warm quality to the rain. As I splashed across the yard, lightning cracked the sky again, followed very closely by the crash and peal of the thunder. She beat me to the tree. Underneath it was drier but still blustery.

She was in her pajamas too, a lightly ethereal, diaphanous white night gown. Our eyes met in the gloom, slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was smiling. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” I admitted, forlorn.

“Yeah, but you did,” she smiled again.

“This probably isn’t safe,” I had to nearly shout over a peal of thunder.

“I know,” she replied, the corners of her lips curled up.

“I think I love you, Helen,” I said, looking into her eyes.

“I know,” she answered.

“When will we see each other again?” I quested, a little frantic about the answer.

“We see each other now, don’t we?” she laughed and took my left hand in hers.

“I’m serious. Will you come to England?” I had to shout. The lightning and thunder were beating the sky overhead almost continuously, cascading in an avalanche of light and sound. Wind and rain buffeted us under the elm and I could hear branches snapping close by.

“Probably not.” She answered matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford that. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Much later.” She took a long look up into the branches overhead. “But I think we’ll always be… special to each other. You’ll always know me; I’ll know you.”

At that moment, she stepped back towards the trunk of the ancient elm. I clung to her left hand with mine. At that instant the air was filled with blue light, it flashed and froze the raindrops in mid-air. The thunder was so loud, so immanent, I felt it rather than heard it. Even today, in my mind, I see the ropey lightning, as if in slow motion, twining down through the crown of the tree, burning bark and leaves as it comes. Helen’s eyes were fixed on mine as the bolt flew out of the trunk behind her, passing through her night gown just to the left of her sternum, and then down her left arm into mine. We flew apart like a landmine had gone off between us.

Raindrops. My face is wet. Something smells like ozone and burning wood. As I opened my eyes, the scene came back to me. I was dazed. All I knew was that the old elm was a wreck, split from crown to root, and smoldering in the wind and rain. Helen? Where was she? I sat bolt upright off the wet grass. There she was lying on her back amidst the wreckage of the tree. I ran to her, a deep throbbing pain in my left hand slowly registering. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face was dewy from the rain; it held a serene half smile. The only thing that looked out of place was a small burn mark over her heart.

I touched her face. I sat looking at her then I started to cry. A moment later, my father was next to me, along with several of the neighbors. They had seen the old tree take a hammering, seen the destruction, and come out to investigate. If they were surprised to start with, imagine their astonishment when they found a little dead girl and a little boy with one of the fingers on his left hand nearly burned off.

Naturally, our plans changed. We couldn’t leave the next morning. There was the funeral, of course. A specialist had to remove the ring finger from my left hand and sew up the gap. He said he was giving me a “Mickey Mouse” hand. I think he was trying to connect with his pediatric patient and be funny at the same time. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but my parents didn’t see the humor in it. In any case, it was a week before he would let me fly back.

Eventually, we did go back. Life went on. Almost returned to normal. I never worried about thunderstorms after that. My hand healed and I got along just fine without that finger. I’m right handed after all, but it did affect me in one way later in life. I couldn’t wear a wedding ring. My wife understood. She knew about my accident when I was nine. I never told her about Helen.

pencil

“My name is Mike Wang (pronounced like “Long”). I know, Vera pronounces it like “Bang.” I’ve never talked to her about it, but I think she changed the pronunciation because it’s just easier in business. I get it, but if I ever do get a chance to talk to her, I’ll have to mention how difficult her choice has made my life! Anyhow, I’m a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls, 12 and 9. Been married for 28 years to the same great lady, Kris. I grew up in an Air Force family and I flew fighters in the Air Force for 21 years. Now I fly 737s for Southwest Airlines. We’ve lived in Phoenix for the last 19 years and I think we’re officially anchored here for the long haul. I’m not an author and I’ve never had anything published, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. This is a first step into a new world.” Email: mnkwang[at]aol.com

Seven Disconnected Facts about the Human Heart

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Patrick B/Flickr (CC-by)

1. The heart beats 115,000 times a day

The sky darkens and my heart beats uncomfortably fast.

I put the phone down and try to absorb the information, letting it pass from ear to brain. This is it. A possible match. Please get here as soon as possible. Time is of the essence.

For weeks the heat has built; for months I have waited for this call. Now it is here, I’m not ready; I long to return to balmy warmth and postponement. I look down at my list of shakily scribbled instructions. Nil by mouth. Not a problem now nausea has taken hold. Bring all current medication.

My rapid pulse is not good; it is important to remain relaxed and calm, to steer clear of all strong emotion, avoiding undue stress on a damaged organ. The wind has picked up, setting the windows rattling. The rattling of my heart feels like terror; perhaps it is also something else.

I breathe in slowly and slowly out, inhaling the smell of dusty heat through the open window.

I think how this is my once in a lifetime chance to regain my life.

I think how the operation has risks.

I think how someone has died, someone who most likely got up this morning expecting a perfectly ordinary day.

A car accident. An operation gone awry.

A murder.

A suicide.

A bolt out of the blue.

I won’t be told the details, not now. It is morbid to speculate, impossible not to be curious about the stranger whose heart is still beating, the heart which will become mine. Afterwards I will be given the opportunity to write a letter to the grieving family. Thank you for my gift of a heart from someone you loved and lost.

Presupposing that I am still around.

2. The heart is the size of a fist

Lightning flashes across the sky. I don’t want to do this: the thought sparks up hard and fast and I fist my fingers, reason battling against instinct. I stare at the veins on the back of my hand, their bifurcating pattern.

Operative mortality—death within thirty days—is between five and ten percent. Toss a coin four times, all are heads, fail to wake up, or wake up only to succumb to septicaemia. Is the former any worse than the latter? Is dying from the operation worse than dying from this natural but unlucky defect? There are no satisfactory answers.

I have little time left, but am unlikely to die today, not if I stay here safely at home. This is not the way I should be thinking.

The decision is made, my consent given when I agreed to my name being put on the waiting list. No amount of prior discussion—calm and rational—with doctors and my daughter, settles the matter within this instant. But the call has created an obligation. I owe a debt to unknown people—the person who died, the family who have said yes, the one who was next after me on the waiting list—to seize this chance. Even though, right now, every ounce, every minute of here and now life seems so much more precious than my nine in ten chance of a future.

Thunder cracks. I relax my hand. I stand and drive myself forward through the procedures. I retrieve my already packed bag, essentials pared down, keeping things light. I sweep up my cornucopia of pills. I make the single call I need to, leaving a message when Amanda fails to pick up. ‘It’s Mum. They’ve found a match. I’m making my way to the hospital now.’

She knows the score. She has been waiting for this phone call too. I know what she would say if she was here, all the reassuring words she thinks are good for me to hear, reinforcing all that the doctors have already said.

I am doing this for you, I think. So my adult daughter will not be orphaned, so her future children will know their grandmother.

This is my final call for an added decade.

3. The heart beats to an electrically controlled rhythm.

Lightning again, electricity discharging chaotically, then thunder, the gap between them shorter, the storm moving closer, a scattering of rain across the windows. I ring a taxi and try to still the waver in my tone. The woman’s voice—laid back, indifferent—does not provide confidence that this booking is being taken sufficiently seriously, the details properly marked down. ‘It’s urgent,’ I say, and I repeat my address.

‘We’ll be there soon as.’ She sounds annoyed at my pushiness, at my inflection of doubt.

And now there is nothing to do but pull on comfortable shoes and check I have my keys for the umpteenth time. To wander round my flat and double-check all the windows are closed. I confirm the battery level on my mobile phone and go in search of my charger and list the possible ways this will go.

Option 1: I will be in hospital for four weeks. Option 2: I will be sent home immediately, the match not confirmed, or tests revealing an infection, or a deterioration in my health. Option 3: I am not going to think about that.

If sent home, would relief or disappointment gain the upper hand? Best not to ask unanswerable questions. The rain builds; it clatters and runs down the windows in all directions.

4. The heart pumps 2,000 gallons of blood every day

I operate on autopilot, heading out into the deluge of rain to the taxi, suppressing the instinct to make a quick dash for it. Raindrops bounce off the tarmac; they course down the windscreen and I watch the smear of colourful umbrellas, grey buildings, and greenery outside. The trees with their summer leaves, which I hope to see turn to autumn reds and gold. Roses on the turn. Scorched grass. The people I don’t know, all of them precious, I hope, to someone.

Water drips from the ends of my hair. Shivering, I place my hand over my damp clothing above my poorly functioning heart, which is giving out in the summer of my life. I have no reason to feel attached to this, yet it has been with me from the beginning and I feel reluctant to let it go. I picture how the donor—the person, the body—will be scalpelled and then sawed open, the lungs still inflating, the organ still beating as it is cut free. The same process will be enacted on me, and then the reversal. I will receive a secondhand heart, be sewn back up and brought round. The details provoke a swell of nausea, my brain dwelling on the blood and guts details I’d prefer not to know.

At the hospital I am taken though to a small room whose closed window looks out onto the expanse of low-lying cloud. Someone will be with you soon. I have forgotten to bring anything to read. Unlikely I’d be able to concentrate, but I miss the page turning distraction. Minutes pass slowly and I ought to appreciate every one; instead I feel a fidgety anxiousness, and I try to mute my emotions down while, beyond the glass, light continues to flash and thunder rumbles distantly. I long for the cool freshness of the outside air; I am trapped here amidst the suffocating stuffiness.

The nurse arrives, briskly cheerful and I wish she wouldn’t be. ‘How are we today?’

How would anyone feel before such a major operation?

She takes my pulse and blood pressure, and then a blood sample. I’ve had this done so many times and you’d imagine I’d be used to it by now. Still, I manage to dislike the whole procedure. The application of the tourniquet, the prod and prick as she tries to find a vein. I close my eyes tight and try not to think about the pumping red flow. I have always been squeamish and it’s an unfortunate thing to be, given how much time I spend in hospitals.

5. A disconnected heart continues beating

I stand under the warm downpour of the shower and close my eyes. I wash thoroughly using plenty of soap, mud-brown and smelling of iodine. Dried, I pull on the hospital gown and draw a sterile dressing gown round tight. The doctor turns up, the man who I have seen regularly for months now. He runs through the practical details which I already know. ‘Have you any questions?’

His smile is forced, yet not unkind. I wonder how he feels. Trepidation, knowing what is at stake? The excitement of imminent performance?

I ask if the other heart has arrived yet.

The surgeon looks me in the eye in that disconcerting way he has and I picture this being part of his training. Always make eye contact. Don’t avoid awkward answers. Be honest.

Honesty is not a well-defined thing.

‘Not yet, but it will be by the time we need it.’

‘You won’t remove the old one until the new one arrives though?’

He lets his silence speak.

I have become an expert in this operation. The maelstrom of medical activity involved in cutting me open and severing my heart cannot be done in a hurry. The longer the other heart is on ice, the poorer the chances of success. Timing is everything. The logistical chain is complex. The heart might be in a hospital far away and a team from here will need to travel there for the process of harvesting. Harvest. It’s an uncomfortable term. I don’t know what word I might prefer, but not this one, conjuring picturesque farms abundant with fruits and grains.

What ifs pound in my head. What if the storm means the plane cannot take off or the courier car crashes in the wet? What if the icepack fails? I picture myself lying prone and opened out, my defective organ set aside and still beating, and the finger tapping wait for the new one to arrive. At what point would they put the old one back and what sort of chance would it have?

‘Trust me,’ the doctor says. ‘We’re not going to leave you high and dry without a heart.’

Trust is the hardest of things.

6. Laughter is good for your heart.

Time ticks by and I try to exist outside these moments, to rest suspended, in a state beyond thought. My last moments may thus be unarticulated ones.

The rain against the window starts to ease. My phone rumbles, interrupting my quasi-meditative state. I jolt alert in a wholly unpleasant way, heart beating fast. I pick up.

‘Mum.’

I feel reluctant to take this call, lacking the energy to adopt my usual role of not wanting to worry her. Nurturing, that’s how a mother should be; not needy. Yet now that her voice speaks in my ear, I discover how desperately I need to hear it. Neither of us will refer to the possibility of this being our last ever call, but we are unusually tender with one another. She makes a joke about my heart-age becoming younger than hers and we both laugh and I feel the tension ease. Rays of sun peak out from the leaden sky, the rain reducing to a few heavy drips.

‘I’m sure it will all be fine,’ she says, though very obviously she cannot be sure, not beyond the ninety-percent-plus success rate of at least getting through the first thirty days.

‘It had better be,’ I say.

She tells me that she is going to get a train later this evening and should be here for when I wake in the morning. I try to picture opening my eyes, feeling groggy and crap, yet alive, knowing this thing is over. I picture placing my hand on my bandaged chest and feeling a heart beating inside me, one which is not mine, one which has the capability to keep on going. I focus on the image of my daughter being there and the sun shining once more through the window. I am doing this for her.

We are out of things to say and we spend a moment listening to the imagined sound of the other’s breathing, and of their heartbeat. ‘I love you,’ I say and wait for the returning echo.

The door opens. ‘The nurse is here,’ I say. ‘I have to go.’

7. The beating sound is caused by the valves of the heart opening and closing.

The room is windowless, cocooning me from the outside world. I have always hated submitting to anaesthetic, that feeling of drifting away. As a child in the dentist chair, gas mask placed over my mouth, I kicked out, tried to fight the dentist off, before consciousness was switched off and I woke in an eye-blink to a painful, bloody mouth. In bed, sometimes, I catch myself on the very verge of sleep and the thought jerks me awake. The terror of the void. Of not emerging from it. Even though, once I am there, it will not be terrifying at all.

The anaesthetist has a carefully practised manner. She chats about everyday things, things which have no importance within the scheme of facing death. She wouldn’t talk about tomorrow’s weather—the calm after the storm—unless she thought I’d survive, would she?

What would she talk about?

The odds of my coming round are better than nine in ten. The odds will shortly turn binary: life or death.

A person has died; I ought to get my shot at living as cosmic compensation. But there is no ought to this.

The prick of the needle hurts. The woman apologises. Just my luck that she’s less than competent, or having a bad day. I dislike the thought of the cannula, of this opening into my vein. I cannot bear to think of what will happen once I go under. I long to rip the needle out, to shout and scream, to claw and fight my way out of here, to run carefree through the rain-washed world, inhaling the scent of green, to flee my only hope of living.

I don’t. I breathe in the scent of hospital and try to relax. ‘Count down from ten,’ the woman says. And dutifully I do.

Ten…

— I feel the steady beating of my heart —

…nine…

— I fist and relax my free hand —

…eight…

— I imagine the lightning jolt which will kick-start my new heart —

…seven…

— blood courses through my veins, carrying the drip feed of drugs to my brain and adding a mugginess to my thoughts —

…six…

— I picture my heart, disconnected, still beating —

…five…

— I hear the rumble of children’s laughter, my daughter long ago, the grandchildren who might one day come —

…four…

— I feel myself sinking, can hear nothing but the opening and closing of valves, the closing of one chapter, the opening of another —

…three…

…two…

…one…

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher Prize, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. Other publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Riptide, Best New Writing, and Shooter. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York. Twitter: @sarah_mm_evans

I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


Photo Credit: Douglas Eshenbaugh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

pencil

SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com