August in the Time of COVID

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Laura Sweeney


Image of a tree-lined lake at dusk. The shoreline is mostly in shadow. Leafy trees are in silhouette, backlit by the setting sun, and reflected onto the lake's smooth surface. The cloudless sky is a very pale blue tinged with pale yellow-pink at the horizon. The pink of the sky is mirrored on the water.

Photo Credit: Jamie Cantrell/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s August. Or is it? In this COVID time, hard to tell. Feels more like September though I’m not from here, don’t know the weather and whether it should be more humid or less. Leaves fall, still green.

August. Five months into this pandemic. Where has the time gone? March—stockpiling like a mad woman, April—teaching Zoom class, May—thesis defense, June—post MFA collapse, July—devouring virtual conferences. This may be a forced sabbatical, but it’s not a vacation.

When my dog Freya and I first moved here, to the boot of Southern Illinois, we lived in a crappy apartment in a writer’s ghetto too close to campus and, before that, at University Village. I discovered Carbondale is a border town, an in-between place, not quite southern, not quite northern. A place in transition. Like me.

It was the Bryant family who I knew first, maybe the only family I knew in town. Cheryl, my landlady, has a good reputation and came highly recommended. She told me this neighborhood on the corner of Billy Bryan and Gher nestled between two dead-end streets, is mostly quiet, safe. I mispronounced it as grrrr, but she corrected me, said: say Gher as in Gary. This August, going on three years as her neighbor. Once she invited me to a pancake breakfast. Often, she’s invited me for cocktails, even offered furniture, which I declined. My bohemian ways must seem odd to her; she must sense there is a backstory.

Don’t know the backstory of this house, other than it was built circa 1945. I try to imagine who might have owned it then, some soldier returning from war? A Japanese mental health specialist lived here a few years back and then a couple with Dobermans who scared the neighbors across the street. But that couple moved out suddenly in the middle of the night.

And Labor Day weekend we moved in.

My landlady was right. Despite the angst of no job no prospects, there’s peace here. I often fall asleep watching a rom-com. Last night it was Nights in Rodanthe. Freya sleeps next to me, nestled in my bedding in the middle of the living room on the hardwood floor underneath the ceiling fan, and I don’t care that some would oppose such a companion.

From here you can hear the train, or is it Amtrak, rumbling downtown just like I had as a kid, awake August nights in that house with no air conditioning lying so still next to the screened window trying to catch a breeze. And here, just like home, crickets and locusts chorus all night.

Freya and I love this yard, its unfenced expanse, getting to know the neighbors who walk by with their binoculars because they say they have spotted a rare bird though I didn’t catch the name. And yesterday the badger next door poked his head out from his cubby hole underneath my landlady’s garage and watched as Freya and I did yard laps. How cute he and his badger wife are as they look both ways before they cross the street, then scamper between garages, fences, and sheds.

Bark is beautiful, one of the newscasters said. And the Bradford pear tree that fans my front lawn. The tent caterpillar nests intrigue. Even the rake resting against our maple tree and the mushrooms that sprout nearby, tiny penises that grow into Chinese hats or cocktail umbrellas. This region is rich in mushrooms and research for their medicinal properties. In Oakwood Park, just blocks from here, thrive the red kind with white dots that remind me of elves or gnomes. And earlier this month, mustard-yellow ones that grow in Frisbee-sized patches proliferated my yard till they turned brown and shriveled like funnel cake. Are they safe or poisonous? In the case of war or famine, Americans don’t know the resources we have around us. Fortunately, Freya leaves them alone.

There’s a giant cobweb strewn across my front porch, so I avoid that door. And there’s no telling what other spiders I may find. Once, while admiring one dangling from her thread, the breeze blowing her back and forth, another jumped down my shirt. Fireflies and butterflies and dragonflies flit about. And a batch of boxelder bugs camped at the edge of my garage until I doused them in apple cider vinegar. Mud wasps decorated my garage doorway, too, with organ pipe nests until I doused them with apple cider vinegar. But we’ve come to a compromise. They build their nests above the garage door. I hear them buzzing.

The garage intrigues: plenty of shelves and outlets, a couple of paint cans, a medicine cabinet, two torn mattresses above the rafters, a yellow ruler tucked in the ceiling. Also a security box that yielded no treasure. The garage door leads into the foyer and a white board with the question “How will I be resilient today?” scrawled across it.

Still, yesterday it all welled up inside me. The dominoes are falling, as my landlady says. I wanted to escape hours away but opted to drive to Murphysboro State Park just miles west of here. Passed the Smoky the Bear sign, chance of fire low. Sat at a picnic table at Waterlily Point and played fetch with Freya who found an orange tennis ball near a fire ring. Took solace in the white egret at the edge of the marsh. And the pine cones lining the parking lot.

At home, I often sit on a stack of cement blocks beside my garage while Freya sunbathes at the edge of the driveway or that nook under the mailbox. My landlady offered a chair but somehow this stoop feels better. Once I found a five-lined skink, its yellow stripes and electric blue tail pulsing. Maybe it means my luck is shifting.

Once the loony neighbor from 704, the one who claims he has seven PhDs and is a veteran of the Air Force and Navy and Marines, knocked on my back door asking me to take him to the gas station. When I turned him away, he offered a blessing. Now he walks by spewing obscenities about Hitler or holy water. I make every attempt to not make eye contact. Maybe that’s not nice or neighborly. Maybe I should ask about his time in the service or his POW flag. Certainly, I don’t want Freya wandering over into his yard.

As we do our yard laps, I pray for a vaccine, for the elections, for the essential workers on the frontlines. And to keep this a peaceful neighborhood. With the exception of the creepy dude, or the occasional domestic squabble, or the shirtless guy with his beer gut hanging out, I feel safe here. It was divine intervention the previous renters moved out in the middle of the night with no explanation. This one-story soldier cottage no basement with foyer and sun porch is perfect for a writer and her dog.

Oh, how I want to believe it’s safe here. But shopping, even though Walgreens is within walking distance, is limited. I shop off-hours, annoyed by customers ignoring the intercom reminders to wear a mask. Annoyed by the escalating incidence rate. All summer I deliberated whether to move back home. Explained to my landlady that my elderly parents live in the northwest corner of Iowa. There’s a meatpacking plant, an outbreak. But folks at the checkout counter with no social distancing or face masks are creepier.

I’m one of the immunocompromised, a lung obstruction. Limited options. No one stares or mocks or asks questions or finds it unusual at all as I insert my EBT card, then afterwards check the hand sanitizer to be sure it’s ethanol not methanol, squirt a bit and rub my palms together as I leave.

Back on my block, I check my mailbox. Two years and still don’t know when the mail arrives. I don’t wear gloves anymore the way I did back in March when I’d wipe down every grocery item. Even my landlady is casual as she stands too close without a mask and asks about fall plans. I’m looking online for freelance gigs, wonder how much to reveal to her. But heard a preacher say when you know the nature of a thing it’s easier to deal with, and the nature of a landlady is to squeeze as much rent as possible. Fortunately, she understands my predicament, was willing to reduce my rent. I looked up the property tax online. She’s still making money.

Yes, the weather seems odd these days, as the school year is upon us. This morning, signs of life at the baseball diamonds. Nice to hear the country music play as Freya and I walked the gravel path. Good to hear the whack of baseball bats and to see the camaraderie of the men hitting balls in practice.

Still, our first August here seems so long ago, as the days weeks months run together. On my good days Psalm 23 comes to mind: He makes me lie down in green pastures. This house, on this corner, in this in-between place where Freya and I walk laps. I’ve decided to leave the branches the storm leveled as yard art. But on my not-so-good days, I’m weary. Weary. And just shuffle along, wondering when this winter that never ends finally ends, what will we do? Will we look back on this time in American history as if August never happened?

Before this pandemic, all the pieces were coming together: the winding path of my education, the veered career trajectory. But now this woman on sabbatical, this woman with no makeup, this woman who hasn’t given herself a pedicure all summer though she gets a kick out of how often her dog Freya grooms her paws, longs for days to dress up. What is the look in my eyes the clerk sees peering out from my disheveled hair and multicolored kerchief?

I check my stoop for the five-lined skink, sit and open a package. The book is Life Interrupted, about Nineveh and Jonah’s shelter in the whale. The heat makes me stand and go back inside to pour myself a glass of low-sodium V8 juice and despite video fatigue watch a few more rom-coms until six p.m., then turn on ABC news. I scan the coronavirusillinois.gov site for the latest incident rate. An hour later, go back into the kitchen and make hot chocolate even though it’s August. Freya potties outside, one more yard lap, before her last treat of the day. Maybe a splash of milk. Maybe a half teenie Greenie. We settle on our bedding on the hardwood floor to watch a movie and fall asleep.

pencil

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in Iowa and Illinois. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist’s Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her poems and prose appear in sixty plus journals and ten anthologies in the States, Canada, Britain, Indonesia, and China. Her recent awards include a scholarship to the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. In 2021, she received an Editor’s Prize in Flash Discourse from Open: Journal of Arts & Letters; Poetry Society of Michigan’s Barbara Sykes Memorial Humor Award; and two of her poems appear in the anthology Impact: Personal Portraits of Activism, which received an American Book Fest Best Book Award in Current Events category and finalist in the Social Change category. She is a PhD candidate, English/Creative Writing, at Illinois State University. Email: lauraswny[at]hotmail.com

Grow

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Tierney Acott


Image of Sydney red gum trees looking up through the gnarled branches and leaves to the sky. The branches are reddish, the leaves yellowish-green, and the sky pale blue. Low sunlight on the left is casting shadows on the branches and leaves.

Photo Credit: Bea Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The surf rolls in on a beach in a suburban stretch of coastline. Pinks and yellows streak the sky as the sun dawns over the ocean. A few surfers on the beach stretch and wade into the water. At the end of the strand is a small cove, surrounded by sandstone rock face. At the foot of it, three brown-skinned, brown-eyed children are pulling on snorkels and fins. The small girl, Zara, about six, is fastest and plops her way to the surf. Her brothers, Ollie and Leo, follow her.

She twists through the surf, torpedoing through each crashing wave, bubbles tickling her face and chest. A school of small, glittering silver fish pass beneath her and she waves to them, making a note to look them up in her brothers’ book. She swims all the way out until she’s level with the breakwall with the red and green lights at the end, then she pops up, searching for her brothers.

Her eyes are then drawn to another pair: atop the sandstone cliff face, amongst the bush vegetation, are two majestic, twisting Sydney red gum trees. Little white flowers cluster among their branches. She sees them every morning from her bedroom window, but in the golden glow of early morning, they look ethereal, bursting with magic.

A swish of saltwater into her open mouth brings Zara back to the present.

She swims back to shore, riding each tumbling wave.

“Hey, where are you off to?” asks Leo.

“I forgot something at home,” she calls as she passes them.

On the beach, she tugs her feet out of her fins, collects her flip flops, and scrambles up the overgrown path to the coastal road, barefoot and hobbling to avoid pebbles. She dips and dodges branches on this practiced route. She walks on the curb, balancing, until she stops in front of the Sydney red gum trees.

She gingerly runs her fingers along the trunk of the taller red gum tree. The bark of the tree is peeling away. She breaks off a piece. The tree shudders, sighs, and a few flowers fall to the ground. Then, a face emerges from the patterns in the bark on the trunk. The eyes from dark spots in the bark, and the long sloping lines gave the face a gentleness. Zara’s eyes widen.

“Oh thanks, mate,” the tall tree says with a sigh. “You’ve no idea how long that was itching. Almost makes you jealous of the trees with termites.”

“Careful what you wish for,” the shorter, more gnarled gum tree answers. It has a craggy face, like Zara’s father and his friends: skin cooked and shriveled from the sun and the fires they fight.

Zara laughs nervously.

“Look at the giggling little ankle-biter,” says the tall tree. “Oh! Manners. I’m Poppy and this is Summer.” Poppy gestures toward Summer with one of their branches.

“I’m Zara.”

“It’s great to finally meet you, Zara,” says Summer. “We’ve seen the way you treat creatures.”

Zara nods importantly. “I try not to hurt anything.”

“We’ve noticed,” says Summer, gently. “Which is why we want to give you a gift.”

“For me?” asks Zara.

“For you,” says Poppy.

The three of them stand looking at each other, Zara with her goggles pushed up on her forehead and snorkel dangling from her ear. A breeze makes its way from the scrub vegetation to the south and toward them. An aliveness sweeps across the cliffside as bushes and trees dance in the wind. When the breeze hits Summer and Poppy, they both shimmy and a flower falls from each of their trees.

“Whoa.” Zara bends down to pick them up. Attached to the flowers are seeds. “Can I plant this?”

“It’d be our pleasure.”

“We like dry sandy soil, you know, a good loam,” says Poppy. “You can take a few scoops from the sand here.”

Zara, clutching the flowers in one hand, darts across the coastal road to a red brick house with a white gate and a tall bottlebrush tree in the corner of the garden. She drops her flip flops and fins on the path and snakes round to the garage, which is filled with toys: surfboards, diving gear, a dinghy on a trailer. She finds where her mum stores the gardening stuff behind the dinghy. It is dark and shadowed—redback territory. She moves slowly, carefully. She finds a small ceramic pot and a trowel. She extracts them carefully, so as not to disturb any nesting spiders.

Then she quickly carries the pot, trowel, and flower back to Summer and Poppy.

“I found a pot!”

Zara carefully takes the seeds out of the flowers and sets them on the ground. Then she fills the pot two-thirds with sandy soil. She gingerly plants the seeds. She fills the rest with sandy soil and pats it gently.

“Ar, great work there, Zara,” says Poppy.

She sets the flowers down on top of the soil as an ornament. Then she stands suddenly. “I’m going to go water it now,” she says and turns to leave.

One of Summer’s branches swoops down and stops her running off. “Hold on there, little lady.”

Zara turns, and Summer’s branch retreats.

“You can water it, but don’t water it too often.”

Zara nods.

“Don’t like too much water,” says Summer.

“Makes us feel bloated,” Poppy says and chuckles.

 

Winter passes without its usual storms. Shelf clouds still approached from the south, dark grey and blue, and lightning still cracked and forked down to the ocean, but only a light drizzle ever fell to the earth. All the fanfare of years past, but none of the satisfying restoration. Zara, too young to remember the heavy rains of an east coast low, asked if it was going to rain anytime dark clouds blotted the sun.

Now, along the coast, the trees were brightening into a dull green and the sun a strong, golden hue. Zara, in shorts and a singlet, reads The Lorax on her bed. A sapling sits in the ceramic pot on the window ledge, watching Summer and Poppy out the window. This is Charlie.

“I want to be big and strong like those trees outside,” says Charlie, pointing at Summer and Poppy.

Zara looks up from her book. “You can’t rush it.”

Charlie winces, trying to grow faster. “Maybe if I eat more…” says Charlie.

She squints up to the strong summer sun basking through the window. Though it is late morning, the sky is not blue, but a hazy white.

Zara giggles. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Why not?”

“Well, those trees are big and strong because they grew slowly and well.”

Charlie harrumphs, sulking for a few seconds before asking, “Can we go out and see them?”

Zara closes her book and slides her legs off her bed. “Sure.”

Zara picks up Charlie and together they go downstairs and out the front door. The air is still, hot, and dry. Even with the hazy sky, the footpath is roasting and Zara hops onto the grass, crunchy from the heat.

Charlie is bouncing in excitement. Zara pats her soil, so she doesn’t fall out.

“Look!” exclaims Charlie. “There’s a bird.”

The bird caws. It’s a magpie.

“It sounds like one of Ollie and Leo’s droids,” says Charlie.

Zara laughs. “It totally does.”

As Zara crosses the street. Charlie points to the bottlebrush tree, which is in full bloom. Every branch is covered with thick clusters of vibrant, red needles. Charlie, in awe, shouts, “It looks like it’s on fire!”

Zara clamps her hand over the sapling.

“Shh!” says Poppy.

Summer hears and whispers conspiratorially, “We don’t say that word.”

“What word?” asks Charlie before— “Whoa! Look at the ocean in real life!”

Poppy and Summer exchange relieved glances.

“I want to live here when I grow up and be just as big and strong as you.”

Zara holds Charlie up to Poppy. Charlie’s little sapling leaves reach over and touch the trunk.

“Oh, wow,” says Charlie. Then she touches her own trunk and gets all misty-eyed.

All of a sudden, apropos of nothing, Summer perks up.

“Oh, oh! It’s coming,” she exclaims, then turns to Charlie. “Get ready, little Charlie.”

Poppy joins in on Summer’s excitement, the surface sand at their roots hopping with anticipation. Out in the ocean, the texture of the surface of the water sharpens and grows dark. It approaches them.

“What? What’s happening?” asks Charlie with a thinly-veiled nervousness.

“It’s the Southerly!” says Summer.

“The what?”

“It’s the Southerly wind that comes from Antarctica,” says Zara matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I’d love to go to Antarctica one day,” says Poppy.

“It seems pretty cool,” says Summer and winks at everyone.

“It’s definitely the perfect temperature. Cools us off on a beautiful hot day.”

Zara looks at the trees as if they’re out of their minds. “You know Antarctica is a land entirely of ice and—”

“Here it comes!” shouts Summer.

The Southerly wind floats across the scrubland along the coast, rippling branches as it makes its way toward them. When it hits Summer and Poppy, they dance and rollick, whooping and cheering. Charlie giggles and joins in. Zara holds Charlie’s pot high above her head, so she can get as much breeze as possible.

“This feels amazing!” says Charlie.

“Doesn’t it?” says Summer.

“It’s the best part of every day,” says Poppy. “Especially the scorchers.”

 

In the biggest window of the house, a Christmas tree is visible. Handmade ornaments hang on the branches. Zara and her brothers open the gifts scattered at the base of the tree. Outside, Poppy and Summer watch the festivities. Halos surround the morning sun and the sky is orange and hazy.

That afternoon, as the sun slides west, it takes on a red glow. The front door squeals open and Zara steps out. Her brothers run out in their swimmers and head down to the ocean. Zara pulls the door closed and hurries over to Summer and Poppy, holding something behind her back.

“Summer, Poppy. What are you up to sarvo?” says Zara.

“Happy Christmas, sweetheart!”

“Thanks, you too!”

Summer leans down to murmur to Zara. “Tell me, Zara. Why do you have a decapitated tree in your living room?”

Zara’s eyes widen, then her face crumples in confusion.

“Means the Christmas fir tree,” says Poppy.

“Oh. It’s fake.”

Summer sighs in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“I have gifts for you.” Zara reveals what was behind her back: a pair of red ribbons. “They’re ribbons,” says Zara.

Poppy and Summer swoon, flattered.

“Oh wow,” breathes Summer. “Gorgeous.”

“They’re beautiful,” croons Poppy.

“I gave Charlie a little one too. See?” she says and points to her window. Charlie sits on the windowsill of Zara’s bedroom looking outside. She has a small red ribbon around one of her little branches. “That way, no matter what, even if she’s still in a pot inside, you guys know that you’re family.”

Zara ties the ribbon around a branch of Poppy’s. Then she ties a ribbon around a branch of Summer’s. Summer gets emotional. Red sap oozing from her bark. It looks alarmingly like blood.

“Don’t go weeping, Summer,” says Poppy. “We need all the water we can get.”

Zara frowns. “I thought you hated water.”

“We don’t like a lot of it,” says Poppy. “But we haven’t had a rain in months. We’re parched all the time.”

“I can help!” says Zara and runs back across the street to her house. She goes around the side of the garden, where the hose lies coiled on the ground like a red-bellied black snake. She turns on the tap and runs across the street, dragging it behind. She stands in front of Summer and waters her roots. Summer gasps and sputters as her roots drink the water up. Zara begins to do the same for Poppy. Poppy also feverishly drinks the water.

The front door bangs open. Zara’s mum, a woman with dark hair and brown eyes, looks aghast.

“Zara!”

Zara innocently turns toward her mum. The stream drifts away from Poppy.

“Wait, no, bring it—” gasps Poppy.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” says Mum through gritted teeth as she marches across the garden. She pushes open the fence gate with enough force it swings round and slaps the other side. When she reaches Zara, she takes the hose from her and folds it in half, stopping the flow.

“We’re in Level 3 water restrictions!”

Zara’s eyes fill with tears.

“You can’t be using the hose for anything! Only Tuesday and Saturday mornings. That’s it,” says Mum. “Do you understand me?”

Zara nods.

“We can get in serious trouble. Lucky none of the neighbors saw you.”

Mum takes the hose back across the street. Zara turns to Summer and Poppy.

“I’ll come back Saturday morning.”

“Ah, don’t stress yourself over it, love,” says Poppy.

“Just make sure the little one gets enough water,” says Summer.

Zara sighs and slumps down next to Poppy. She leans against her trunk.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” says Poppy.

Zara looks down at the waves crashing below.

Mum turns around when she reaches the fence. “Zara, this is not okay. No bickies, sweets, or TV for a week.”

Zara’s lip trembles, but she nods.

“You know better,” says Mum.

Zara draws in the dirt with a stick while Debra, a blonde-haired, tan woman and neighbor, passes by in front of the house and stops to talk to Mum across the fence.

“Happy Christmas!” says Debra.

“Oh, happy Christmas to your family too! Lovely day isn’t it?”

Debra registers the hose in Mum’s hand. “Hey, you’re not watering, are you?”

Zara looks over at Mum. A few drops of water fall from the end of the hose. Mum hides them from view with her leg.

“Oh, no. No, I wouldn’t do that. Just tidying the lawn,” says Mum.

“How’re your plants doing? All of mine are dying.”

“Yeah, the hydrangeas are looking quite pitiful. Can’t seem to hold a bloom.”

“Your parents are down near Victoria, right?” asks Debra.

“Mm. Yeah.”

“How’re they doing?”

“They’re safe at the moment.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just hard because if it were to sweep through, you know, how fast can they evacuate?” says Mum.

Debra clucks her tongue. “I know. It’s awful. Henry’s dealing with the same thing. His parents are up near Byron. They’re in a care home. I don’t think they’ll try to evacuate at all.”

“Oh, that’s awful.”

Behind Zara, a magpie flies and lands on one of Summer’s branches. It calls out, drowning out the end of Mum and Debra’s conversation. Zara looks at the bird. It has brought food back for its chicks. She watches the parent feed the three little birds.

Poppy whispers. “Do you like our new tenants?”

“As long as they don’t swoop me,” says Zara, eyeing them warily.

“Nar. We’re teaching these magpies not to swoop. They’ll be nice magpies.”

“That’s good,” Zara says, watching Debra wave goodbye to Mum.

The magpies keep calling out to their parent, who flies away for more food. The three chicks jump around in their nest and practice flying. One falls out of the tree. It shakes its head clear, then trots over to Zara. She holds out her hand and it hops onto her palm. Zara winces slightly at first, but then relaxes.

A few minutes later, the parent magpie returns home. The chick tries to fly back into the nest, but misses it and careens into the brush.

Zara, Summer, and Poppy gasp. A moment later, the bird flies up and lands in the nest.

“He’s a wild one there,” says Poppy.

“Ah, but isn’t it gorgeous watching him take his first flight?” says Summer.

 

Zara wakes up. She waters Charlie with the cup on the windowsill. Charlie writhes around in the pot. She looks out the window at Summer and Poppy and the coast beyond. The sky is orange; the sun, still low in the sky, is shrouded in an aura. A few tankers troll past on the horizon. Zara checks the calendar on the wall: Saturday, December 28.

She runs out of her room, out of the front door, and around the corner of the house. She turns on the hose tap and hurries across the street, dragging the hose behind her. When she gets to the red gum trees, she unleashes a sparkling spray of water.

She waters Poppy first, then Summer. They both feverishly drink up the water. They are massively dehydrated.

After a few moments, Summer says: “Right. That’s plenty.”

“You sure?” asks Zara.

“Yeah,” says Poppy. “We don’t want to take more than our share. We’ll soak up the rest of this water over the next day or so.”

“Okay,” says Zara.

“Thank you,” says Poppy.

“You’re a real lifesaver,” says Summer.

“It’s alright,” says Zara with a shrug.

She takes the hose back to the house and puts it away. Inside, she flicks off her flip flops and walks around the corner to the kitchen. Mum sits at the breakfast bar reading the newspaper and drinking a coffee. Ollie and Leo eat four Weet-Bix with a dazed, sleepy look on their faces. Zara sits down at the table, plunks two Weet-Bix in her bowl, and uses both hands to pour milk from the carton. She looks out the kitchen window at the trees in the backyard and the clothes drying on the line. She chews methodically, wondering if those trees are alive too. Are they also thirsty?

The sky begins to darken. Zara doesn’t notice it at first, but eventually, she asks: “Is it going to rain?”

Mum continues reading the newspaper. “No, I don’t think so.” She turns the page. “Wish it would.”

Her phone sits on the countertop. It buzzes silently, hidden underneath the newspaper. On the screen is a NSW government alert: Evacuate immediately. If you don’t, you will die.

“Luckily the Southerly will keep the fires west of us,” says Mum and turns the page of her newspaper.

Moments pass.

Ollie wrinkles his nose, frowns. “The smoke smell is really bad today.”

Mum abruptly looks up from the paper and out the open window. She registers the darkness in horror. Her coffee spills as she leaps from her stool and staggers to the patio door.

Outside, a fiery blaze dances on the hills on the horizon. Charcoal black smoke rises above it, blowing toward them. The scrubland and trees on the hill are heard crackling in the heat. There are high pitched noises followed by explosive booms.

“Mother of—”

“Are they bombing the fire?” asks Ollie, stepping out onto the patio.

Mum turns around. “Get in the car. Now!”

Ollie pivots and legs it out of the kitchen while Leo and Zara scramble out of their chairs. At the front door, Zara hurries up the stairs to her room. She hears the front door open and realizes how thirsty she is. Parched like Summer and Poppy. Zara lifts Charlie’s pot from the windowsill.

“Zara! Now!” Mum calls from downstairs.

Zara’s throat is sticky and she can’t call back. She rounds the corner of her bedroom door as Mum shouts again, more frantic. “You can’t bring anything! There’s no time!”

At the bottom of the stairs, Mum takes her free arm. “Hurry!” says Mum.

Zara turns toward her flip flops.

“Forget the shoes,” says Mum, pulling her out the front door.

They run out of the house to the drive. Leo and Ollie sit in the red station wagon. Zara climbs in the back. Mum reverses out of the driveway.

“Mum,” says Ollie. “You left the front door open.”

“I know,” Mum says, doing her two-footed dance switching to drive.

Zara twists around in her seat to see Summer and Poppy. They are blowing, keeling over in the strong west winds, which are sweeping black smoke out over the ocean.

“Where are you going?” shouts Summer over the roar of the wind and bushfire on the hillside.

“Take us with you!” shouts Poppy.

Zara’s eyes well with tears. She clutches Charlie tight. Finally, she manages to choke out a few words and says in a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

The red station wagon speeds along the coastal road. It drives up a hill just outside town. As they crest the hill, they see a long snake of cars with burning red rear lights. The car slows to a stop. Mum looks to the west where the fires are quickly moving down the hillside to the shore. Embers blow well-ahead of the fires. Houses and trees distant from the fire line ignite into a battalion of smaller ones. A rogue ember blows as far as the coastal road and slides across the windscreen.

“Mum?” whispers Leo, his eyes glued to the ember where it floats out over the cliff faces. Mum chews her lip, but says nothing.

The sky grows even darker. Cars file in behind them. People honk. Zara holds Charlie close to her and watches in horror as the small fires join to make bigger fires, like water droplets on the walls of the shower. Mum squints ahead. Amidst the ever-darkening sky, she begins to make out fresh smoke plumes ahead, on the other side of the traffic jam.

She curses. Her feet tap in panic as she reverses the car and accelerates down the coastal road.

“Are we going back home?” asks Leo, his voice cracking from fear.

“We’re going to Plan B,” says Mum.

“When there’s not enough time?” asks Ollie.

“When there’s not enough time,” says Mum.

Leo and Ollie are terrified into a wide-eyed silence. Mum brings the car to an abrupt stop in front of their house, in between Summer and Poppy.

“Are you back for us?” asks Summer.

“Get out of the car,” says Mum in a frighteningly calm tone of voice. “Hurry.”

Zara exits the car and follows her brothers.

“How bad is it?” asks Poppy.

Zara stops to answer, but Mum takes her hand and pulls her ahead. She nearly drops Charlie. Zara and Mum follow Leo and Ollie down the overgrown path to the beach.

“Zara, we need to hurry,” says Mum as Zara trots two paces behind her.

Up ahead, Leo stops his running, clutching his side. “Mum, I have a cramp.”

“Keep running.”

Zara struggles to keep up, falling further and further behind. She is barefoot and she keeps stepping on rocks. Mum backtracks, picks her up, then Mum runs down the path to the beach with Zara looking over her shoulder, watching the fireline approach the house. Leo staggers next to Mum, massaging his side.

When they reach the sand of Cove Beach, Ollie stands there, sweaty and timid, as if he had shrunk. There are a few other families down on the sand. The fear is nearly as thick as the smoke. Mum, still holding Zara, and Leo jog to the end of the path and meet Ollie.

Mum, panting, says, “To the breakwall.”

They trot and lurch down the length of the beach toward the breakwall. The boys cough, and Zara can hear a wheeze inside Mum’s chest.

The sky is now so dark it could be night if it weren’t for the glow of the inferno approaching. Loud bangs echo across the water as trees on the hillside explode. Zara watches as the magpie family flies toward them. Two fall from the dark, smoky sky, and into the surf. Two more pass overhead. They do their droid call. One of their wings is singed.

When Mum, Zara, Leo, and Ollie reach the breakwall, they travel the length of it, hopping from large boulder to large boulder. They stop at the end next to the maritime red and green light. They pant, cough, sputter. Soot and sweat cake their clothes. Mum sets Zara down and wraps her family in a hug. Ollie begins to cry—first a whimper and then as involuntarily as breathing.

They watch the fires. The fire line engulfs their house. And like a monster with an insatiable appetite, it continues. It approaches Summer and Poppy. Embers shower them. They try to lean away from it. Their red ribbons are sucked toward the fires. Their branches bow in the wind and vacuum created by the bushfire.

Eventually, the fire captures them. Zara cries and shields Charlie’s eyes as Poppy and Summer are burned.

Still the fire doesn’t stop. It sweeps down the scrubland and the overgrown path to the beach, where it stalls. The families on the beach run out onto the breakwall.

The temperatures are hellish. Everyone is sweating and covered in soot. Leo steps down onto a submerged rock to cool down. Zara watches as both Summer and Poppy’s trunks explode. She cries even harder, her tears ploughing streaks on her dirty face. She blocks Charlie’s view, so she doesn’t see.

Ash from Summer and Poppy soars into the atmosphere. It floats over the breakwall. It floats higher, across blue seas, infecting blue skies. Across New Zealand. Across the breadth of the Pacific. The ash begins to fall near the tip of Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. It lands on the Antarctic Peninsula.

 

Zara, a few years older, digs a hole. She is in another coastal region of New South Wales. It has a similar overlook of the ocean, but lower to the sea, without the bluffs. Next to her is a large pot with a small tree in it. Tied around its trunk is a red ribbon: Charlie.

“Is it hard to dig a hole?” asks Charlie, bending over to look in the hole.

“There are harder things.” Zara pants. After a few moments, she stops and asks, “Ready?”

Charlie nods. Zara uproots her from her pot and plants her in the ground. She pats the soil down around the trunk.

“What do you think?” asks Charlie, standing straight.

Zara smiles at her. She reaches up and, like a fussy mother on the first day of school, tightens the ribbon on Charlie’s trunk.

“I think they would approve.”

pencil

Tierney Acott is a writer primarily out of compulsion. She has written many feature and short length scripts, several of which have been shortlisted in various Los Angeles and London-based writing competitions. These include “Coupla Kooks”, a feature finalist for several festivals and selected as a table read for the Richard Harris International Film Festival 2020, and an independent comedy pilot, “The C Word,” which was inspired by Tierney’s experience with thyroid cancer. Her first novel, I, Frances, was written for her M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin and was longlisted for Britain’s Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition in 2016. Her latest novel, Nigel, was longlisted for Britain’s Comedy Women in Print 2020 Prize. Email: tierney.acott[at]gmail.com

The Hardest Part

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Jessica Upper


Image of a basket of tomatoes. The basket is rectangular, wooden, with a handle. The tomatoes are large and irregularly shaped, in varying red hues. The background of the image is a pinkish wall and large window that are out of focus.

Photo credit: Susy Morris/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ellie’s* sister drove her back from the driving test centre in Marston for the second time in two months. Before they left the parking lot, they rolled down the windows in the back of Lisa’s car so that as much cool air could get in as possible on the way home. Once they reached the highway, the hot August wind whipped Ellie’s hair into her face, a few strands catching in the frames of her glasses. She pulled them out painfully and tried to hold her hair back with one hand, wishing she had an elastic.

With the windows down it was too noisy for the sisters to talk, which suited Ellie fine. What was there to say? She gazed out the window at brittle brown fields of soybeans alternating with lush swaths of leafy green corn. She had failed again, that’s all there was to it. Last time Lisa had been sympathetic and patronizing on the way home from the testing centre. Ellie had probably just had a bad tester, Lisa asserted. Next time she’d have better luck. But today’s examiner was a different person and the results were the same. He was a very kind man, Ellie had to admit, who seemed genuinely regretful when he gave her the bad news.

“Too slow,” was his verdict. “If you can’t keep up with the pace of traffic, it’s just as dangerous as going too fast. You need to drive with more confidence and that just comes with practice.” Ellie couldn’t imagine getting behind the wheel again, let alone attempting her driver’s test one more time. It was too humiliating. And yet, what choice did she have? Until she got her licence, she and the kids were stranded at home, dependent on anyone willing to give them a lift.

Maybe it was time to move into town, like John had done. How ironic, Ellie thought, that he had been the one to get an apartment in Fernville when she was the one without a car or licence. Part of her hoped his apartment was a real shithole, but when she remembered that the kids had to stay there on weekends, she took back this wish. Everything always came down to the kids.

Before long the house came into view on the horizon. Ellie usually liked travelling the highway back from Marston because of the vantage it gave of her home. Driving east from Fernville all you could see was a clump of trees, mostly white pines, just off the road, the farmhouse hidden among them like a face badly in need of a shave. But coming in from the southwest the house and most of the surrounding property was visible. It looked good these days, she conceded, especially since John had finally covered up the tar paper last fall with board and batten.

Had he already met the girl when he started all those jobs around the house? Ellie wondered. She’d imagined, in those absurdly warm early days of November, that Zoë’s impending birth had instilled a nesting instinct in him, the way that it supposedly did with mothers. But perhaps it was actually guilt that fueled John’s flurry of domestic activity, making it up to her before she even knew of his betrayal. Ellie had been relieved to see him up on the ladder every weekend as it meant she could take a break from nagging him about the siding. Now it made her ill to think that the completion of this work may have been a consequence of John’s affair.

As they got closer, Ellie turned her attention to the vegetable garden. Even from half a kilometre away, she could make out the abundant potato crop and sprawling asparagus plants, long gone to seed, the tangled mess of the herb garden, and raised beds full of ripening tomatoes. The children’s sunflowers created a radiant border along the driveway. The sight of those tall, hardy stalks, diligently and exuberantly measured by her daughter and sons throughout the summer, made Ellie’s eyes start with sudden tears. Their pleasure in something so simple as a growing plant coupled with their impulse to quantify this wonder touched her deeply.

But now was not the time for crying. Ellie had an urge to tell Lisa to slow down and let her jump, visualizing herself somersaulting from the car like a stuntman. She needed to get out as soon as possible, on to the next thing, away from her thoughts. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Ellie’s seat belt was off; she opened her door while the vehicle coasted to a stop, heat rushing in.

“Thanks Lisa,” she said, disentangling her purse strap from below the seat.

Her skin made a brief sucking sound as she pulled herself off the car’s vinyl interior. Standing, Ellie tried unsuccessfully to smooth the back of her damp shorts, then reminded herself that it didn’t matter. She was just going to change into work clothes anyway. The shorts could join the ever-expanding pile of laundry waiting for her in various hampers around the house.

Sizing up the garden as she walked down the drive, Ellie began a mental list of jobs to do: thin the new beet crop, weed the carrots, re-stake the tomatoes pulled over by the weight of their fruit. She was tempted to start right away, while the sitter was here, but the heat seemed to be at its most oppressive just now. Better to wait until the sun dropped a little, she decided. Besides, she needed to pay Dot first.

Lisa caught up to Ellie as she opened the front door. “Your zucchinis are gigantic,” she commented.

Ellie nodded in brief acknowledgment, hoping her sister was not going to stay long. Probably she should offer Lisa some zucchini, something to thank her for the ride. She had a ridiculous amount still to harvest, and should have picked them before they were the size of baseball bats. Yet, Ellie felt excessively possessive of this summer’s crops. Growing food seemed like the only thing she could do right lately. More than ever, she felt the need to hold onto everything the garden provided, like those families who farmed the land long ago, taking and preserving all they could get from the soil before the weather turned. There was no way of knowing when this overproduction of leaves, fruits, and tubers would suddenly stop.

“Mom!” yelled Rose as Ellie came through the door. She bounded over from the kitchen table where a game of Sorry! appeared to be in full swing. Pulling at the back of her own sweaty shorts, halting in front of her mother, she asked, “Did you pass?”

Ellie shrugged. “Not this time.”

“Oh.” Rose’s mouth turned down at the corners, conveying her dismay.

Ellie patted her eleven-year-old daughter’s shoulder as if she were the one in need of comforting, and hung her purse by the door. “How are things going here?”

“Great!” Rose’s cheeriness returned. She gestured to Dot, sitting at the table with Finn and Michael. “We’re playing round three. I won the first two times, but Dot’s in the lead now. She’s really good.”

Dot looked up from the gameboard smiling wanly. Ellie had the impression that the girl would rather be somewhere else. Watching her twirl a lock of blonde hair around her index finger, Ellie felt empathy for Dot, relegated to sitting around the sticky kitchen table, playing a game in which she had no interest, with some little kids.

A sudden screech emanated from upstairs.

“Zoë’s waking up from her nap,” Rose explained unnecessarily.

“I’ll go get her.” Dot jumped up from the table. Moments later she appeared back in the kitchen, Zoë in her arms. “I have a warm baby here for you!”

Ellie managed a smile. She had barely had time to take off her sandals, hadn’t even visited the bathroom yet, and here was Dot unloading Zoë into her embrace. The baby smelled faintly of zinc ointment and vinegar. Ellie could never figure out why her children’s sweat had such an acidic odour, but there was something strangely comforting about the smell. She couldn’t help putting her nose into the crease of skin below Zoë’s chin, inhaling deeply, while also making her daughter giggle. But then Zoë’s arm arced up defensively, her fist catching Ellie in the nose, the sweet maternal moment ending abruptly.

“Ouch, that looked like it hurt,” Dot said, wincing.

“I’ll be okay,” said Ellie, shifting Zoë to her hip. “Have the kids had lunch?”

“Not yet.”

“Okay.” Ellie inwardly wished she and Lisa had arrived home about half an hour later. She plopped Zoë into the high chair at the end of the table, sweeping up a sippy cup of lukewarm water from the floor and depositing it on her tray. “Thanks again, Dot. What do I owe you?”

“Twenty will be fine.”

Ellie returned to the hall for her purse. She opened her wallet, withdrawing the last bill inside, and wondered when she would next be able to get a ride to the bank in Fernville. “You’re okay to walk home?” she called towards the kitchen, where Dot was lingering. “I would offer you a lift, but…”

“I can give her a ride after we eat,” Lisa interjected.

Ellie sighed and rubbed at her temples, trying to remember what she had on hand for lunch. It was too hot to turn on the stove and the bread had run out yesterday. Her guests, she decided, would have to be satisfied with peanut butter on saltines.

*

The heat wave continued into the following week, even as the daylight began its slow ebb towards the autumnal equinox. Ellie tried to get into the garden as early as possible each morning, to water and weed before the sun’s intense rays undid all of her irrigation efforts.

Morning had never been her favourite time of day and now that John was gone, she resented it more than ever. Since Rose was a baby, John had always been the first one awake with the kids. He made them breakfast, sent them upstairs to brush their teeth before Ellie was out of bed. By the time she rose, coffee was waiting and the school bus only minutes away.

Of course, their morning routine had changed even before John left. Zoë, rarely wakeful during the night, was fully alert with the sunrise, crying to be nursed. Maybe she sensed that her three older siblings were early risers and wanted to be in their presence.

As usual the children were sitting in front of the television when Ellie and Zoë stumbled downstairs, eyes glued to the screen, mechanically raising spoons to their mouths from the bowls in front of their crossed legs. In the kitchen they left the cereal box out, surrounded by spilled milk and scattered golden flakes. More discouraging to Ellie, though, was the sight of the cold coffeemaker, holding yesterday’s grounds, not a drop of coffee to be coaxed from the carafe. How did anyone survive single parenting?

Last night Ellie had pulled out the canning pot and as many Mason jars as she could find, washed them all thoroughly and left them to dry on the counter. This morning the glasses sat gleaming expectantly and Ellie decided to forgo a cup of coffee until after she had spent time in the garden. She buckled Zoë into the bouncy chair beside Rose on the living room rug, turned away from the television; she would be more interested in watching her sister and brothers anyway.

“Keep an eye on her, Rose,” she instructed. “One of these days she might try to get out.”

Rose nodded, flitting her eyes briefly between her mother and the TV.

Ellie slipped on her sandals and opened the side door. The air was slightly cooler outside, vibrating with the shrillness of crickets’ song, mercifully drowning out the animated voices on the screen inside. Swallows swooped through the greenish-pink sky, scooping up mosquitoes from shady patches beneath the pines. Ellie felt a brief pang of nostalgia. She remembered moments like this growing up, when her father needed her and Lisa to go out to the lettuce patch to pick heads for the Saturday market. Just as now, she grumbled at getting out of bed early, but as soon as she was outdoors, the colour and stillness, the undeniable newness of dawn evoked an unlooked-for joy.

Ellie grabbed a basket hiding in the weeds and set to work among the tomatoes. Every plant seemed to have reached the zenith of its growth and was now evolving towards decay. Squatting, reaching among the yellowing leaves, Ellie felt some smaller branches snap off, yet most of the thick ropy network of vegetation held securely onto ripe bunches of red fruit. Ellie filled the basket easily and began loading a nearby plastic pail.

By the time she had filled a third, her craving for coffee, a slight caffeine headache behind the eyes, won out over her ambition to harvest the entire crop in one morning. There was nowhere to put more tomatoes, anyway; she had to process what she’d picked to make room in the kitchen. John was supposed to come get Rose, Finn, and Michael after lunch; so long as Zoë had an afternoon nap, Ellie could can several quarts later. She stood, swatting at an errant mosquito, feeling a sense of accomplishment, as if the jars were already filled.

She hauled the pails up to the deck, then brought the full basket into the house. The kids still sat zombified in front of the TV, their bowls now empty. Zoë was the only one moving, grabbing unsuccessfully at her toes with one hand, and chewing her fingers on the other like a dog with a bone.

While the coffee maker unhurriedly dripped oily liquid into its pot, Ellie sat at the table, allowing herself a moment of idleness. She closed her eyes to the messy kitchen, tuning out the shrill voices and symphonic soundtrack of the kids’ cartoons, bringing her fingers to her nose, inhaling the bitter, pungent tomato smell that would cling to her for the rest of the day, the rest of the season.

The phone rang. Probably Lisa, checking in. Hopefully not John cancelling. Ellie picked up the shiny black receiver and gave a tentative, “Hello?”

“Hi, Ellie.” It was Lisa. “Are you listening to the radio?”

Ellie blinked and glanced at the clock on the stove. 7:37. Usually she didn’t put the radio on until after breakfast, during her morning chores. “No,” she said. “Why?”

“They’re saying to watch out for tornadoes,” said Lisa. “In our area.”

“Who is?”

“CBC. It’s on TV too.”

“Huh.” Ellie glanced out the kitchen window where the sky was now decidedly more green than pink. “Do you really think so?”

“I don’t know,” said Lisa. “I mean, it looks fine outside here. Still hot.”

“Is it supposed to cool down finally?” Ellie asked, realizing she hadn’t listened to a weather report in the last two days.

Finn burst into the kitchen, a faint milk moustache above his lips. “Mom!” he yelled. “Are we going to have a tornado?”

Rose and Michael appeared behind him, the same question on their faces.

Ellie covered the phone’s mouthpiece. “Probably not,” she reassured the children. “Is that what you heard on TV?”

Finn nodded, his eyes wide. “I hope we do!”

“I better let you go,” Ellie said to Lisa. “Thanks for phoning.”

“Wait. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call you later,” she promised.

“Okay, guys. There’s nothing to worry about,” Ellie said to the children, who were still looking at her expectantly. “No more TV for now. You’ve rotted your brains enough for one morning.” She poured herself a coffee. “Time to get dressed.”

Rose rolled her eyes and Michael and Finn protested, but the three obligingly trudged upstairs. As soon as they had gone, Ellie turned the TV dial to the news station, keeping the volume low. Mug in hand, she rocked Zoë’s bouncy seat with her foot, watching the station’s meteorologist point to different areas on a map of southern Ontario coloured in pixilated bands that moved briskly, guided as it were by the sweep of his hand. With growing dread, she listened as he described the cold front expected later in the day, a wave of blue colliding with the yellow and red blobs around Fernville. The perfect conditions for a tornado to form, he said, droning on about weather systems and mixed air.

Ellie turned off the TV as the phone rang again.

“Hi,” said John. “You watching the news?”

“Yup.”

“Not a great forecast,” he said. “Especially for the garden.”

She was both bothered and touched that John correctly identified her first concern.

“Do you think we’ll get one?” she asked.

John clucked his tongue, considering. “Hard to say. We’ve never had one the whole time we’ve lived here. Maybe we’re due.”

Ellie wanted to say that was the stupidest reasoning she had ever heard, but bit her tongue. “Are you taking it seriously?” she asked.

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. I feel like we probably should take it seriously, for the kids at least,” he hesitated. “And this apartment doesn’t have a basement.”

Ellie’s heart sank. Her plans for the next twenty-four hours trickled away like drops of water running into the cracks on the garden path. She kept her voice flat. “Right.”

“Uh, also…” John cleared his throat. “I wondered if you could spare me some shelter.”

Ellie closed her eyes. What a request. Unbidden, her mind played out a scene of John caught up in a black funnel cloud, shrugging his shoulders helplessly as the children looked on, as if to say: “Blame your mother.” John always did have a way with words.

*

The pickup truck rumbled into the driveway a couple hours later, heat still nauseatingly present despite the appearance of clouds. Michael and Finn were thrilled at John’s arrival, bombarding him with questions about what was in his grocery bags as soon as he stepped out of the truck. They had whooped for joy when they learned they were not going to his apartment this weekend and moreover that he was going to stay a few hours. Rose seemed happy to remain at home, too, but was less enthusiastic when John showed up. She did not follow her brothers down the driveway, and offered John only a small smile when he ruffled her hair in passing.

“How did your driving test go?” John asked Ellie as he approached the deck.

Ellie gritted her teeth and looked away. “Didn’t get it.”

“Hmm.”

An awkward pause. Would he have advice for her? Condolences?

“Maybe I should bring stuff right into the house,” John suggested.

“Yeah,” said Ellie, relieved to drop the subject. “Definitely the water.”

“Okay, guys, let’s go set up camp in the basement.”

“I think I’ll help Mom instead,” Rose piped up.

Was this gesture of support significant? Ellie had tried to stay attuned to her children’s feelings since John moved out in June, but it wasn’t easy to discern allegiances. There had been tears initially, of course, and some confusion, especially from Michael, who was after all only four. John and Ellie struggled to explain that they needed to live apart for a while to figure some things out, although they could not say what those things were. Finn, who at seven exhibited some of his father’s easy-going manner, seemed to adapt quickly to the new situation; if he could watch Ninja Turtles and baseball at either residence, he didn’t mind whether it was the house he grew up in or his father’s two-bedroom apartment above the laundromat.

Rose cried too at first, but asked no questions, except: would she have to share a room with her brothers in the Fernville apartment? Ellie suspected Rose had heard the late night fights between her and John that started last winter, and had sussed out the situation with her father’s new “friend.” She was mature enough to know that her dad was guilty of some transgression, even if no one said the word “affair” out loud. Ellie and John both attempted to talk to Rose about the separation, encouraging her to share her feelings, but so far Rose had kept quietly opaque. Perhaps this was her way of expressing her dissatisfaction.

While the boys wrestled sleeping bags down the narrow cellar steps, Ellie and Rose gathered supplies upstairs, Ellie pondering how to ask Rose what she was feeling towards her father these days. In Zoë’s room, Rose filled a bag with sleepers, burp cloths, and toys, while her mother prepared to change her sister’s diaper.

“Do you want to learn how?” Ellie asked.

“Okay.”

Ellie showed Rose how to arrange two large squares of cotton on top of one another, lift the baby’s feet in order to tuck the cloth underneath her backside, then wrap the remainder up and over.

“The hardest part is putting in the pins,” said Ellie, “but there’s a trick. Watch.” She opened the clasp of a diaper pin, and gently ran the metal spear through her hair, close to the scalp. A moment later, the pin glided easily through the several layers of diaper cloth.

“Cool,” said Rose. “Who knew it was good to have greasy hair!”

Ellie glanced at her daughter sharply, but saw from Rose’s expression that her words were spoken without malice.

“Can I do the other side?”

Ellie watched as Rose carefully ran the second pin through her long, tangled locks then awkwardly pushed it through the white cloth without poking her sister or herself. The diaper was loose, but Ellie smiled her approval and demonstrated how to pull the plastic diaper cover up over Zoë’s legs, making sure the fabric was tucked inside.

“If you ever want to do it by yourself, let me know,” Ellie said, giving Rose’s hand a squeeze. She paused. “You’ve been such a good helper this summer.”

Rose squeezed her mother’s hand in return and then her eyes darted to the window. It was as if a curtain had suddenly been pulled across plunging the room into shadow. Rose and her mother got up to peer out at an early afternoon that now resembled dusk. Moments later raindrops pelted the window with such force that Ellie jumped back; the hairs on her arms rose with electricity. At almost the same moment, John bellowed their names from downstairs.

“Take Zoë,” Ellie commanded, while she stuffed more diapers in the baby’s bag, then tore down the hall grabbing blankets and sweaters from everyone’s rooms. By the time she got to the first floor and glanced out the front windows, water was streaming down, like a school play in which a rainstorm is created by people behind the scenes dumping buckets from the back of the set. As she hurried into the kitchen, a flash of lightning illuminated the room, thunder crashing a split second later, making the floorboards tremble. Somewhere in her brain, Ellie registered the dark stove clock; the power was out. In the same instant she remembered she hadn’t called Lisa back.

And then there was John standing in the entrance to the basement, waiting for her, and Ellie’s forward momentum suddenly ceased. At first she thought he was a stranger. How could this man look so out of place in his own home? Somehow the past eight months, distanced from one another in so many ways, seemed longer than the fifteen years they had been married. Ellie felt more shaken by this thought than by the storm as she moved brusquely past him.

“Ellie.” His voice stopped her as she reached the bottom step. She turned in his direction.

“Thanks for letting me in,” John said.

Before she could respond another thunderclap reverberated above them like a giant’s boot stomping down on the house; this time the lightning flash was simultaneous. Zoë began sobbing, a fearful crying Ellie had never heard before. She joined the circle of lawn chairs the kids had arranged around a camping lantern, took the baby from Rose and attempted to soothe her in a voice she hoped sounded calmer than she felt. In her arms, Zoë trembled and her cry changed to a whimper. For the next five minutes lightning and thunder continued in successive waves, crashing and insistent, until the gap between them slowly increased, replaced by a new noise.

“What is it, Daddy?” Michael whispered.

“It’s the wind.”

“Really?” asked Finn, doubtfully, and Ellie too questioned John’s answer. The growing roar outside had to be made by humans, a massive obnoxious motor intent on destruction. How could nature—the same force that had painted a serene pastel morning just for her—produce something so loud and malevolent? Underneath the roar, Ellie heard a snapping of tree branches and beyond that an icy pinging: the promised hail.

“What do you think of all this?” asked John, looking in turn at each of the children’s faces, his eyebrows raised in an exaggerated expression of fascination.

“It’s cool,” said Finn, and Michael immediately agreed.

Rose replied, “It’s pretty exciting.”

Ellie inspected the children’s faces as well, checking their sincerity. They seemed strangely unperturbed by the intense booms of thunder and alien noise of the wind. Even Zoë was nearly asleep. Perhaps they drew comfort from the six of them sitting here together after this summer apart. Or maybe it was just the novelty. Glancing around, Ellie saw that John and the boys had tried to make it cozy in the dank, cobwebby basement, placing candles on the metal shelving, laying out sleeping bags and pillows on some old skids.

“What do you think of the storm, Mom?” asked Rose.

“It is exciting,” Ellie agreed, catching her daughter’s eye, aware that she was being equally scrutinized. “And a bit scary,” she admitted.

“What about you, Dad?”

As he opened his mouth to answer, the naked lightbulb over John’s head snapped on, startling them all. John gaped in comic surprise at the bulb and the children giggled. The invisible curtain was once again yanked by an unseen hand across the only window in the room; sunlight spilled in.

“Is it over already?” asked Finn, disappointment furrowing his brow. “We didn’t even get to sleep yet.”

Ellie and John both shrugged, then sat listening. The world had gone quiet again.

“I’ll go check,” said John.

Twenty minutes later, standing shivering in the middle of what was left of her tomato patch, Ellie had the surreal feeling that she had never set foot in this place before. This was someone else’s garden, if it could even be called that. The ground around her was littered with uprooted plants still tied to their stakes, smashed tomatoes, an incongruous medley of stems, petals, and roots from other vegetables. Gone were the dusty pathways of the morning, replaced by puddles and chaos. The heat, too, was noticeably missing.

The debris in the garden and yard was significant: several saplings and large tree limbs had fallen in the wind, two garage windows were broken, the old chicken coop upended. Smaller branches, leaves, and sunflower remnants lay scattered everywhere. The garden clean up alone would take many hours, maybe days, and there was likely little to be salvaged. The three pails and one basket of tomatoes in the kitchen were all that Ellie would harvest of this crop.

At least the house was fine, she thought. The car, sitting unused by the garage, had pine boughs plastered all over it, but was undamaged. Most importantly, she and the kids and John were all safe. If a tornado had actually touched down, it would all surely be much worse. But the garden… The thing she had been holding to so tightly. All of those plants that would never be picked and preserved, the saved jars that would remain empty. Ellie looked around in bewilderment, swallowed hard. Was this the time to cry?

“Mom! Look!” Finn and Rose squelched through the mud, plastic bags outstretched between their hands. Ellie peered into Finn’s: dozens of golf-ball-sized lumps of hail clinked together at the bottom.

“Aren’t they awesome?” Finn asked.

Ellie could only nod, her throat tight with tears now. She looked up, saw John and Michael coming towards them, Zoë drowsing in her father’s arms.

John cast his gaze over the mess of vegetation. “Sorry about the garden, Ellie.”

Ellie met his eyes for the first time in months. She heard the sincerity in his voice and knew that he truly was sorry for the garden and maybe for everything else as well. But the apology could not change what had happened. The disaster could not undo itself. Little by little, Ellie knew she would let go of what was lost in the storm and the tranquility of the morning would return. In the meantime, she couldn’t stand to be in the garden nor John’s presence a minute longer. She turned on her heel and went back to the house alone.

*Names have been changed.

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Jessica Upper is an elementary school teacher-librarian in southwestern Ontario. Spending her days surrounded by books is a dream, and so is the thought of writing one. Perhaps she will some day, but for now a few thousand words will have to do. Like the main character in her story “The Hardest Part,” Jessica believes that summers are for growing gardens. Email: jessicaupper[at]gmail.com

The Case of the Missing Princess

Savage Mystery Contest ~ Third Place
Sue Seabury


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

Princess Poppycock is missing.

To be sure my message gets broadcast as quickly possible in this emergency situation, I speak directly into the communication device. “Repeat. Princess Poppycock—

“Missy.” Ashlee, the part-time supervisor who shows up on Friday nights, shouts up the stairs. For someone who is so into her phone, she can be remarkably low-tech at times. “Go back to bed.”

“But—”

Now.

“No need to shout,” I mutter exactly the way Ashlee does.

The empty princess canopy bed inside the antique dollhouse mocks me. I count as high as I know how (three, exactly my age), then turn down the volume on the communication device and make my move. Who knows how long Princess P has been missing? There’s no time to waste.

Mickey Mouse gives me a boost over the bars. I make a soft landing on the rocking chair and gather my troops. I take Bear-Bear, T. Rex, Cowie and Buzz Lightyear because you never know what craziness you might encounter out there. Then I head out the door, already lining up suspects inside my head. Three come immediately to mind.

My first suspect is sprawled suspiciously across the hallway. Woofers has the habit of napping by the heating vent, but he could be faking. I taught him everything I know. Woofers is a yes man if there ever was one. Walks, ball tosses, and even baths, he gets excited about it all. You might think Woofers is too nice to steal a princess. That’s where you’d be wrong. Promise him a bone-shaped treat and you can rope him into doing anything. He’s what’s known in the biz as a ‘fall guy.’

Woofers gives me a big lick. I am aware that this is his usual diversionary tactic, one he uses regularly to score free peanut butter or icing off my cheek, but he’s terrible at hiding the evidence. No matter how many times I tell him to be sure to get all the crumbs, he always manages to miss some, usually right on the end of his nose.

“Princess Poppycock is missing,” I whisper into his big, floppy ear. “Where is she?”

He just gives me another lick.

“Don’t even think about skipping town,” I warn, then continue on my way, leaving Cowie behind to act as muscle and keep an eye on the louche pooch.

One suspect down, two to go.

Next up, Jackie, alias: Cutie Pie. Don’t let the baby face fool you. Behind those big blue eyes lurks the soul of a demon who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants, be it cuddles or cake.

“Jackie. Wake up.”

“Gah?”

“Spare me the small talk. Where’s Poppycock?”

“Goo-goo-ga?”

“Don’t give me that nonsense. Hand over Poppycock and nobody gets hurt.”

“Ga-ga. Ha-ha!”

I don’t waste any more time with the nice-guy routine, but a thorough search of Jackie’s crib turns up nothing. I leave Bear-Bear next to the nightlight and Jackie’s communication device.

“If he tries anything funny,” I instruct Bear-Bear, “gimme a holler on the squawk box.”

Bear-Bear salutes. He’s a trustworthy soldier. So long as you don’t ask too much, he’s your man.

“And you.” I fix Jackie with my sharp eye. “If Princess P doesn’t show up soon, you’ll be hauled in for a second round of questioning.”

“Ha-ha, goo!”

Jackie plays the role of a carefree innocent, but we’ll see how he holds up under the interrogation lights in the bathroom. As collateral, I take his binky. Jackie cries in protest.

“Now you know what it feels like to lose the one you love!” I shout over my shoulder.

Next up: Bruiser a.k.a. my older brother Billy. He’s my top suspect. I was hoping to avoid having to interview him because he’s a tough negotiator, not to mention bigger than me. How am I going to pull this off?

A flash of inspiration strikes.

I do a one-eighty and stealthy as Santa Claus steal down the staircase to the living room. A light is on, which is bad, but my prize is in view.

I don’t see any legs sticking out from the easy chair or couch. Quick as an elf, I’m in and out, spoils in hand.

I take a few practice swipes on my way back up the stairs. I’m a good multitasker.

Before entering the danger zone, I count to three, listening carefully.

Silence within.

Maybe I can get lucky, rescue the princess and effect a clean getaway without Billy even knowing.

I use the tip of the sword to poke open the door. A dim light glows from the far corner of the room. It’s where Bruiser games, and also where he lies in wait for unsuspecting siblings who are innocently searching for lost toys. But this time I’m ready.

Jackie sure is making a racket down the hall. Maybe taking the pacifier was a tactical error.

Another count of three, then, diamond sword held high, I lead the charge in for Operation: Royal Rescue.

I only make it a few feet before being pelted by bullets. A diamond sword is minimally effective against a battery-operated Nerf gun.

“Out, nerdball. You’re supposed to be in bed anyway.”

“Hand over the princess and I’ll clear out lickety-split.”

He lets off another couple of rounds. I block some with the sword and a few others go wide. Bruiser is a very wasteful criminal. “You’ll get your hiney back into your room or I’ll tell Ashlee.”

No honor among thieves, and this one’s the worst of the worst. Anybody who would steal a cookie wouldn’t hesitate to steal a princess.

“I’ll give you one last chance to return Princess Poppycock and then—”

Ashleeee! Missy’s out of her room!”

“You will pay for this.”

“Can’t wait.” Bruiser gives me an evil grin, made extra evil by the missing front tooth. He claims a fairy took it. Right. We all know he traded it to the devil in exchange for total dominion over our parents. “Gimme my sword too, goofball.”

“You asked for it.” I fling the sword at Bruiser’s head, along with Buzz Lightyear because he’s hard plastic. He’s also Bruiser’s, so I don’t care too much if he gets dinged. (No offense, Buzz. We’re still pals, right?). Both missiles fall short but they leave a clear message: Mess with Missy and heads are gonna roll.

“Missy!” Ashlee’s voice echoes up the stairwell. “You’d better be in your room. I’m counting to three. One…”

A couple of good things about Ashlee: one, she’s totally addicted to her phone. Half the time she forgets her threats before she gets a chance to carry them out. And two, she’s super slow at counting.

Brandishing a fist at Bruiser, I threaten in my best Terminator voice, “I’ll be back.”

I dive through the door to my room before Ashlee even gets to ‘two.’ Told ya she was slow.

Note: Ashlee did not say I had to get into bed, only into my room. Some might say I am splitting hairs. I say I am adhering to the letter of the law, and Ashlee isn’t even a bona fide lawmaker in this kingdom. If anything, she’s merely a temporary tyrant-for-hire. But rental tyrants still hold sway in my mercenary parents’ eyes.

The situation is getting dire. I can’t sleep without Poppycock. She’s like my guardian angel, and I am hers. We’re like twins, fraternal ones. People ask all the time if we’re related. I think it’s the matching dresses.

Poppycock has been known to get a craving for a little late-night snick-snack. While the plates of fried eggs and whole fish wouldn’t be my choice for a midnight nosh, to each her own.

I do a second visual sweep of the dollhouse: kitchen, living room, dining room, study, the bedrooms and the attic, but to be doubly sure, I dump the contents onto the floor. Then I check the empty house for secret passages, in vain. Why does this always happen when the Finders-in-Chief go AWOL??

In desperation, I interrogate everyone in the room.

“Gronkle, did you see anything suspicious?”

The sweet yet intimidating dragon gives me nothing. Neither do any of the others in the room.

Tears threaten but crying never solved anything.

Think, Missy. Think. If you were the most beloved, desirable princess in the whole wide world, where would kidnappers take you?

To Disney World, obvs.

But how am I supposed to get there?

My Personal ATMs have made vague promises about Disney World, but so far have yet to come through.

A terrible thought hits me: would they have taken Princess P to Disney World without the rest of us? Could any jailers be so cruel?

I race to the top of the stairs.

“Ashlee—”

“It’s way past your bedtime, Missy. Your parents are not going to be happy if they come home and find you still up.”

“That’s my question! What time will they be back?”

“Eleven.”

“What time is it now?”

“Ten-fifteen. Now back—”

“To bed. I know. Just tell me one more thing. How long is eleven?”

“Less than an hour.”

“How long have they been gone?”

“About two hours.”

Three hours. That’s not long enough to go to Disney World and back… or is it?

“Missy! Bed!” Ashlee’s dyed blond hair shines in the hall light. Her fake tan and pale pink shimmery lipstick make her look like a photo negative, or something. In theory, her hair and shape and frilly skirts should add up to a princess. But somehow they don’t. She just looks trashy. More trailer park than Park Avenue if you know what I mean.

Nonetheless, she’s the only sheriff in town right now. I give her the thumb’s up. “Right-ho!”

Ashlee does not smile. “Give Jackie back his binky too.” She uses a long, daggery nail to point.

Curses! The incriminating evidence dangles from my neck. Might as well be a noose.

“Whoopsie, not sure how that happened.” I give a congenial uncriminal chuckle for good measure.

“Sure you don’t. Get a move on, Missy.”

I really don’t care for her tone.

A quick detour to Jackie’s room to drop off his gross binky and collect my troops, but now Bear-Bear is missing too!

“Missy! You’d better be in your room! One…”

Foot steps on the stairs.

I fly down the hallway to where Woofers was. He’s gone! And so is Cowie!

This is beyond catastrophic.

I can’t count that high, but I can tell Ashlee has come up more than three steps. I know because one of the middle steps makes a funny squeak like an elephant being tickled, and she just stepped on it.

Flinging myself at my doorsill as if a cliff is crumbling away from beneath my feet, I make it safely inside my room before Ashlee gets any further than ‘one.’ Yet another thing to like about Ashlee: her slowness.

First Princess Poppycock, then Bear-Bear, and now Woofers and Cowie. All gone.

Where could they be? Is it a conspiracy? Is there a party somewhere and I’m not invited?

Ha. Impossible.

Ashlee’s pointy nose crosses the threshold of my domain.

“Yes?” I inquire imperiously.

“You’re not in bed.”

“You didn’t specify.”

She lifts an eyebrow that looks like it was drawn on with a brown Sharpie, which is my least favorite color of Sharpie. (The Royal Keeper of the Pens has currently imposed an embargo on Sharpies, but it’s just a temporary injunction, I’m sure.) “Missy. Don’t make me put you in bed.”

She’s right. Ashlee inflicts the cruelest tickles when she puts you to bed. In a previous life, I’m sure she worked for the Spanish Inquisition.

I hustle over to the rocker and with a nimble leap, show compliance with her unreasonable demand—then I pause, balanced on the top of the bars.

“Or else?” I inquire.

“Or else?”

“What are you going to do if I don’t do as you say? Did you already punish me? Did you make a preemptive strike, as it were?”

“What are you talking about?”

Enough is enough.

“Where is she? And Woofers? And Cowie and Bear-Bear? Are you holding her ransom?” Curses, my voice wobbles. Not what you want when you’re interrogating. Like Winston Churchill advised: Always negotiate from a position of strength.

Ashlee scrunches her nose. Not an attractive look on her.

“Woofers is in his crate. I have some bad news about Cowie. You didn’t actually give Cowie to Woofers, did you?”

I invoke my Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer.

“As for ‘she,’ who do you mean?”

I glance around the room, looking for backup. Why did I sacrifice my best men? Note to self: next time, start with the second-stringers. I don’t trust myself not to cry and continue exercise my Fifth Amendment rights.

“Are you talking about Princess Poppycock?”

“Maybe,” I hedge.

“Oh, Missy. C’mere.”

Without ceremony, she scoops me off the railing as if I’m an escaped plastic bag or a baby or something.

She drags me into the bathroom. I practice holding my breath in case she decides to go with waterboarding.

“Did you forget that Princess Poppycock wanted to take a bath? Silly girl.”

Of course! The one thing my otherwise perfect antique dollhouse is missing: a bathroom. People must’ve been really dirty back in olden days. Sounds like fun.

Princess Poppycock lies in state in her special Tupperware. The bubbles have mostly popped, which means Princess P is looking too much like Lady Godiva for my taste, and undoubtedly for hers.

“Poppycock!” I screech and make a break for it from Ashlee’s arms. “What about Bear-Bear?”

“I don’t know. Where did you last see him?”

Humph. It’s like Ashlee knows I left him with that pint-sized scofflaw, Jackie. I busy myself finding Princess Poppycock something clean and dry to wear. She has a delicate constitution and catches cold easily.

Once Princess P is fit to be seen in her fluffy pink robe that matches mine, I say, “I may have spotted him guarding Jackie’s jail, uh, crib.”

“Let’s go look.” Ashlee takes my hand. She’s not always awful. “Here he is.”

Bear-Bear fell down on the job, and behind the nightstand. Like I said, he does his best work when you don’t ask too much of him.

“Come on, Princess,” Ashlee says. “Time for bed.”

I must say, Ashlee makes an excellent conveyance. Maybe if she behaves, in her next life she’ll come back as a Tesla.

Princess Poppycock safely in my arms, I drift off to the pleasing sound of Ashlee picking up doll furniture. She’s a decent picker-upper. She might also come back as a vacuum in her next life.

But all of this is mere conjecture. One thing that is certain is that the Case of the Missing Princess is solved.

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Email: sueseabury[at]gmail.com

Plums

Savage Mystery Contest ~ Second Place
Janet Innes


Photo Credit: Edna Winti/Flickr (CC-by)

Alice shoved open the front door enough to peer inside. “Oh no.”

She shoved harder. Boxes and bags rustled in its wake. She stepped inside, stumbling on a pile of junk as her brother entered their grandmother’s house behind her.

They stood in silence for a minute, taking in the room. Gram hadn’t always been a hoarder, just since their mom, Gram’s daughter, had died from breast cancer eight years ago. Plenty of time to fill what had been a homey cottage to bursting. Gram had slipped at home and broken her leg last week, dying in the hospital a few days later. The city subsequently condemned the house. Alice and Paul had the weekend to clear it out before it was torn down.

“You know,” Alice said, her voice faltering, “we could just walk away. The inspector said they’d just trash anything left.”

The small living room was piled high with furniture, newspapers, boxes, umbrellas, cushions, photo albums, even a baby’s car seat. Unruly stacks threatened to topple over and although a cleared path led through the room to the kitchen and hallway beyond, it was barely wide enough for one person to walk. How had Gram lived like this?

“This is awful,” Paul said. “I had no idea she’d gotten this bad.”

North Kingston, Rhode Island, was a long way from Seattle, where Paul worked in tech, and from Milwaukee, where Alice ran an organic fruit orchard. Losing touch with Gram had come easily as they entered their thirties and settled down. After their mom died, and then their dad, from a heart attack the following year, there was no family hierarchy to enforce visits.

“I visited a year or two after Dad died,” Alice said. “There was a lot of stuff in the guest room, but I didn’t think that much of it.” She paused. “That was the last time I visited. How about you?”

Paul thought. “Marjorie and I visited once after Mom passed.”

Alice nodded. Her brother and his ex had split up five years ago.

They picked their way to the kitchen. The counters were buried under mounds of trash, and crusted plates and cups piled high in the sink.

Somewhere in this disaster lay their inheritance—a Babe Ruth baseball card, back from when he was a rookie player with the Boston Red Sox. One had been sold at auction for more than three million dollars a few years ago. Their grandpa had collected baseball cards all his life, and after he died fifteen years ago, Gram always told them she kept the card safe in the house for them.

“Oh—look!” Gram’s dollhouse, a real antique, sat on the kitchen table. Its front could swing open, allowing free access to the rooms inside. Alice peered through one of the tiny windows, hoping the interior would be spared the damage surrounding them. “It’s still okay!”

She played with this dollhouse until she went to college and decided dollhouses were too childish. Seeing it now broke her heart a little.

Paul snorted. “With all that crap piled in front of it, Gram probably couldn’t open it to shove stuff inside. Come on, let’s see the rest.”

The tiny bathroom was dank and filthy. The guest room didn’t even have a path. Gram’s room did, but clothes and boxes were piled on the floor and littered the bed itself.

The work seemed impossible. But black knot had hit Alice’s plum trees, the majority of her orchard. As a dedicated organic farmer, she couldn’t use fungicide, and all her efforts at controlling its spread by pruning had failed. Last year’s crop hadn’t broken even. She had to replant her entire orchard—an expense in both time and money she couldn’t afford. If they found the baseball card, though, her orchard could survive.

*

They tackled the bedroom first the next day. But Gram’s dresser drawers, closet, and storage boxes were crammed full of clothes, mismatched shoes, scarves, and purses, while the boxes and litter that surrounded the bed like a moat produced nothing but junk.

“Dumpster 1, us, 0,” Paul quipped as they hauled yet another trash bag out the door. He straightened in the fresh air, cracking his back. “Oof. This is why I sit in front of a computer all day.”

They shuddered at the thought of rifling through the disaster of a bathroom, and Alice spent several hours shoveling out the worst of it.

“I can’t keep working in the house knowing Swamp Thing might rise at any time,” she said. Paul, in the kitchen, merely grunted. He was clearing out the cabinets, shaking through old cereal and cracker boxes, sifting through weevils in the flour and rice.

The siblings stood next to the dumpster late Saturday, looking at the sky splashed with pink and indigo.

“This is horrible,” Alice said. “I feel like a vulture.”

“And it’s all trash. We haven’t found any of Grandpa’s collection and even if we did, what are the chances of it being in decent condition? She probably used the baseball card as a coaster and we’ve been sorting through all this for nothing.” Paul kicked the dry grass.

“If we hadn’t been so wrapped up in our own lives, maybe we could have helped her clear some of this out earlier,” Alice said with a catch in her voice. “We’re bitching about this now, but this was how she lived.”

“It’s not like we knew that. And Gramma had Opinions.”

Alice could hear the capital letter in her brother’s voice.

“You think she really would have let us clear this out?”

“I don’t know. But we could have tried. We should have tried.”

The pink melted away overhead, leaving a wash of blues.

“She never said she wanted us to visit! Whenever I talked to her, she sounded fine, said everything was great,” Paul said. But everything clearly had not been great, and Gram had not been fine. And how often had he talked to her, really? Maybe a couple times a year. It was easy to let things slide if they didn’t demand attention, like his job, and his son. And now Marjorie was getting remarried to someone who made way more money than he did and Alex was going to have a stepfather. As it was, he only saw his son a couple of weekends a month. How long until Alex shuffled him down his list of priorities the way he’d dropped his relationship with his grandmother?

Alice knocked her shoulder against his.

“We’re both at fault. I could have visited in the winters.” Except she hadn’t wanted to. She loved her farm, loved her home, sitting in front of the wood stove with Tiffany, talking about their plans for the new season. She’d bought the orchard four years ago and it still felt precarious. She hadn’t wanted to leave it to come to Rhode Island. Hadn’t wanted to leave the nest she’d created—and might lose.

She sighed. “We’re here now. Want to do the guest room tonight? Then we’ll only have the living room to tackle tomorrow.”

“Only.” Paul laughed without humor.

Armed with headlamps and a generator-powered work light, Alice was wearily sifting through the millionth stack of magazines when Paul let out a shout.

“Allie, look!” He triumphantly held up a clear plastic bag, with a familiar album inside.

Hearts pounding, they slid it out of the bag.

Covered in plain brown vinyl, the album’s pages crackled from disuse as Paul and Alice turned them, first reverently, then with increasing concern.

“These are all Topps baseball cards,” Paul finally said. “I gave Grandpa this one.” He pointed to Nomar Garciaparra. “Thought it was hot shit as a kid, but it’s not worth more than five bucks.”

Alice nodded. “We both gave him baseball cards for Christmas that year. Here’s mine, Roger Clemens. It’s sweet he kept them, but…”

“None of these are valuable,” Paul said, flipping through the album. “The whole album’s worth a couple thousand dollars max. Better than nothing…”

But not enough. Not nearly enough.

Alice rummaged under the bed, retreating with a squeal as something rustled back at her.

“Some critter’s under there,” she said, retreating to the protective shine of the work light. “Let’s head back to the hotel for the night. We make sure nothing’s tucked behind these cards, and then we can come back first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” Paul said. He brightened. “Maybe we won’t have to deal with the living room at all!”

*

But further exploration revealed nothing beyond an unmistakable odor of mildew and decay.

“I don’t know if these cards are even salable,” Alice said, wrinkling her nose.

Paul tucked the final baseball card back into its plastic pocket. “They reek, that’s for sure. I don’t want this stinking up my room overnight. I’m gonna go put it in the rental car’s trunk.”

“Good idea,” Alice said as Paul’s cell phone rang.

“Actually, Marjorie’s on the phone. Can you stick this in the car?”

She nodded as he picked up the call.

“Everything okay?” Marjorie and he only spoke when it was about Alex.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” said his ex-wife. “Listen, I found an awesome summer camp for Alex that I think he’d really like. It’s a day camp, but it runs for all of July. They do STEM stuff, and hiking and archery and art.”

Paul rubbed one hand over his face. “Marjorie, Alex is seven. Why does he need camp? Little kids should be able to hang out in the summer. Plus, it’s March. Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself a bit?”

Her voice sharpened, as it usually did when they spoke about their son. “Since Ron and I are getting married at the end of June and we’re going away for a week’s honeymoon and then moving in to our new place, we need a plan. Who’s Alex going to stay home with?” Not you went unsaid. “And yes, it’s March. If we wait until May all the spaces will be filled and you’re going to have to find a babysitter. Last time I checked you didn’t have one lined up, so good luck with that.”

“Okay. But do we have to do this right now? I’m flying home on Monday. Can we talk about this then, please?”

“Applications just opened and I want to put one in a.s.a.p. I’m calling now because we need to put down a fifty-percent deposit.” She named the sum.

“Jesus!”

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Can you swing the price?”

Although system admins got paid well, the cost of living in Seattle was high, especially after college loans and child support, not to mention the private school Marjorie insisted on. Her soon-to-be husband had offered to chip in after their marriage, but Paul’s pride wouldn’t let him accept financial help from another man for raising his son. No matter how disconnected he might sometimes feel from his own kid.

With a sinking heart, Paul quickly ran through his monthly budget. He’d hoped to take Alex away for a trip this summer, maybe to Disney, just the two of them for a week or something, but there was no way he could do both.

“Listen, I can’t deal with this right now,” he prevaricated. “I just spent all day going through absolute filth, and I gotta wake up and do it all again tomorrow. I’m exhausted and hungry and I gotta take a shower. I’ll be back on Monday. I’ll give you a call Monday night and we can talk then. Okay?”

He hung up and went into the bathroom to turn the shower on to scalding. Please let us find the cards tomorrow. Please, he thought desperately.

*

First thing on Sunday, Alice and Paul headed back to the cottage. The early morning sun shone on the peeling clapboards and highlighted the years of dirt on the windows. The brick chimney leaned crazily to one side, and the low stone steps were cracked and broken.

“She can’t have sold that card,” Paul said. “Wouldn’t she have fixed up the house if she had?”

“Or bought a whole bunch of useless crap?” Alice pointed out. “Think of how much stuff we’ve thrown out! All that money wasted. It makes me so sad. She could have lived so much better.”

“Yup. The whole thing sucks.” He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. “Well, let’s get started, and hopefully this will be over soon.”

Alice made her brother search under the bed in the guest room, staying near the door and away from last night’s rustle. But the only exciting thing he uncovered was a mouse nest, as well as some very distressed mice.

The day ground on, unrelenting. First the guest room emptied, and then the living room.

“Bills, magazines, newspapers, cards, recipes, all this shit!” Alice exclaimed, shaking out yet another mildewed paperback, just in case their grandma had tucked the baseball card between its pages. “She probably gave it to the paperboy for a tip one Christmas.”

Paul blanched. “Don’t say that. It’s gotta be here somewhere.”

But as the sun started to set on an empty room, they had to admit theirs was a lost cause.

“This is such a shitty legacy,” Alice said suddenly. “We’re not even sad she’s gone, we’re resentful we spent all weekend cleaning this and have literally nothing to show for it. This doesn’t honor her memory or Grandpa’s or anyone’s.”

She felt her brother nod.

“I feel like a gold digger. And it’s Gram! I loved her, you loved her. We had good times together. Remember we’d always play cards in the summer?”

“She taught me gin rummy and snap.” A smile touched Alice’s lips. “We’d drink cream sodas and she’d let me light her cigarettes for her.”

“Remember that summer…”

Finally, in the dying light and the cleared-out house, they reminisced, trading their favorite stories.

Alice sniffed. “I should have come visit more often.”

“Me, too. Sorry, Gram,” Paul said softly. He stretched his back, groaning. “You ready to get out of here?”

Alice nodded. On Tuesday she’d start calling her bank to see about putting a second mortgage on her orchard. It was risky, but she didn’t have a choice.

She turned. The dollhouse sat in solitary splendor on the kitchen table. “I loved this thing,” she murmured, walking over to gaze at it. “You opened it?”

“Figured I’d see if she hid it under the carpets,” Paul said. “Nope.”

“It’s not in much better shape than the house is.” Dirt streaked the windows and the faded wallpaper, and the peaked Victorian roof had missing tiles. Miniature tables and chairs sat askew where Paul had moved them. “Shall we take this out to the dumpster? I don’t think it’s worth saving.”

They hefted it between them. At the front door, Paul lost his footing on the broken stone steps. The dollhouse smashed on the ground.

“The one nice thing, of course it broke,” mourned Alice, kneeling at the wreckage. A broken wall caught her eye. “Hang on—Paul, is that—?”

The torn wallpaper fluttered in the evening breeze. Beneath it, a sharp white corner, covered in plastic.

Kneeling beside her, Paul gently peeled the wallpaper away. Babe Ruth grinned up at them, his Red Sox rookie card intact. Alice gasped.

“The house—Gram said the card was in the house!”

As the sun set, the sky turned the deep violet of plums.

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Janet Innes is a writer and poet based in Rhode Island. Her work has appeared in Guilty and Lucent Dreaming. Twitter: @Janet_Innes_ Email: janet.parkinson[at]cox.net

The Wonderland House

Savage Mystery Contest ~ First Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Clarice Barbato-Dunn (CC-by-nd)

“Good riddance,” my father said, when Uncle Jasper disappeared. “Jane’s better off without that lump of dirt.”

I did not agree. After a traumatic holiday, I loathed Aunt Jane, but Uncle Jasper was still my favourite relative. He had been a wonderful playmate, always ready to share my dollhouse fantasies.

Aunt Jane’s dollhouse was a family heirloom. My great-grandfather was a famous cabinetmaker. He fashioned the dollhouse for a businessman who went bankrupt and could not pay his bill. Great-Grandfather kept the dollhouse and it stayed with the family, passing through the generations until my grandparents moved into a retirement home and it went to Aunt Jane.

As the eldest daughter, my mother should have had the little house, but my father was still in the army, we were moving through a series of defence force homes, and my grandmother would not trust removalists with the family treasure.

After my father left the army, my mother was able to realise her dream of a settled home, but by then Aunt Jane had the dollhouse. And, thanks to the argument on That Holiday, the sisters were not on speaking terms. For me, bad memories of my aunt were overshadowed by the excitement of meeting a baby giraffe at the zoo, after my mother collected me from the ill-fated visit.

Once we were in our new home, I was too excited about having my first pet to brood on the weeks I spent with a once-beloved aunt. My days were spent worshipping the fluffy grey kitten my father named Grisette.

Then Uncle Jasper disappeared.

He was a fly-in worker for Northern Mines and, after a two-week shift on site, he should have taken a plane to the city, followed by a taxi ride home to his wife. He never arrived.

Aunt Jane was waiting at the airport when her husband was due to fly back to the mine, but no Jasper turned up to catch the plane.

That prompted a call from a tearful Jane who wanted her sister’s support. My kindhearted mother took the phone. “Maybe Jasper met up with some old friends, and lost track of the time,” she suggested after murmuring the usual platitudes.

“Maybe he’s got another woman!”

When she came back to her cold dinner, my mother shared that waspish rejoinder with us. “Good riddance,” my father said, adding that Jane was better off without that lump of dirt. My parents were surprised that, in these troubled times, anyone would leave his job before he was certain of another one.

“Perhaps his deeds were catching up with him,” my father said. “And he couldn’t face the music.”

I tried to imagine the kind of music my good-natured uncle couldn’t face.

*

Eventually, Aunt Jane decided her husband was not coming back. She filed for a divorce, left a company which, I was sure, were glad to see her go, and sold her big house. She announced her intention to go travelling and, to my delight, gave the dollhouse to us.

She wrapped the dolls and furniture in bubble wrap, and put them, together with the house, swaddled in a blanket, in the back of her van and drove to our house. Although they had talked on the phone, it was the first time since That Holiday the sisters had met face to face. They spent a happy afternoon remembering their childhood games.

“Really our parents were very remiss, letting children play with such a valuable antique,” my mother said.

Aunt Jane disagreed. “The house was originally made for little girls, and we were very careful.”

“The Wonderland House,” my mother said softly.

I knew that name from my mother’s stories, and from the book we read together at bedtime. I had called my favourite doll Alice, after Lewis Carroll’s little girl and drawn pictures of my mother playing in the Wonderland House.

“Remember our tea parties?” Aunt Jane looked almost pretty when she smiled.

I smiled too. Those tea parties were one of my favourite stories. My mother would tell me how she and her sister made tiny foil cups for the dollhouse dolls and used a dropper to fill them with Coca-Cola coffee.

“We made cakes from biscuit crumbs for those lucky dolls,” Aunt Jane said, turning to me for the first time that afternoon, “but, of course we had to drink the coffee ourselves and eat little cakes. They were almost too tiny to taste.”

There was only one bad moment on that visit. As Aunt Jane was leaving my mother murmured sympathy for poor Jasper.

“He would have been a good man,” Aunt Jane said, ‘if he had not been led astray.”

I did not know why that comment made my mother so angry. She pushed Aunt Jane outside and slammed the door behind her. For no particular reason, she gave me a slice of chocolate cake before putting everything away.

Whatever she may have said about the way her own parents cared for an antique, my mother trusted me with the Wonderland House, and let me set it up in my bedroom.

That night, as I unwrapped the dolls and furniture, I remembered the games I’d played with Uncle Jasper. He would have enjoyed putting the tiny pieces in the little rooms but, this evening, I only had my kitten to keep me company. I loved Grisette, but she was not as good at thinking up ideas as Uncle Jasper had been. He would introduce the dolls to some activity, then later we would copy the game “in full size” as he called it.

After we had a tea party—only pretend as Uncle Jasper was not interested in making tiny cups—we would go into the kitchen and have “full-size” tea and cake. He made a string skipping rope with rolled paper handles for the little girl doll and followed that by a cutting a length of rope and attaching wooden handles to make a “full size” one for me. He would sit in the shade and to watch me skip. He also made a tiny ball for the Alice doll and took me outside to bounce a tennis ball.

We never included my aunt in these games because, as Uncle Jasper explained, “Jane is funny about her toys.” I did not like hearing the Wonderland House described as a toy, but it was fun to share a secret with a grown-up.

When he was home, Uncle Jasper was free all day, but Aunt Jane had a regular working week, so there was plenty of time for our fun. The housekeeper, Mildred, was supposed to keep an eye on me, but when she finished her work, she’d settle in front of the TV. I agreed with my uncle that we should leave her be.

The days with Uncle Jasper passed happily as we played with the Wonderland house, following that with “full size” games, and short visits to the girl next door. I realise now that when Jasper described these visits to his wife, he made it sound as if I spent most of my time with my friends, while he played golf.

Everything was going well until, one afternoon, a bomb scare closed Aunt Jane’s office and the staff were all sent home. We did not hear the van pull up, and my aunt came inside to find Mildred dozing in front of the TV while we were moving from the dollhouse to a new “full-size” game. The girl doll, Alice, lay in her tiny bed and I was scrambling into the big one that took up half the room.

The man doll was in bed with Alice, telling her a story and I knew Uncle Jasper would climb in beside me.

Aunt Jane was furious. I thought she must have really loved the Wonderland House to be so upset when we played with it.

She blamed me for “teasing your poor uncle,” and yelled insults while Uncle Jasper twisted the hem of his untucked shirt.

I was packed off to bed and a phone call to my mother had her booked on the next flight.

I did not see Uncle Jasper again.

The following day, when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, Aunt Jane yelled at me again, and sent me straight back to my room without as much as a piece of toast.

Luckily, my mother had managed to get an overnight flight. I did not spend too long sobbing into my pillow before she came in to hug me, throw my clothes into a case, and carry me out to the hire-car.

We stopped for pancakes on the way to the hotel, and with a few gentle questions my mother was able to make sense of the scene.

“I could strangle my sister,” she said, patting my shoulder. “It’s not your fault, lovey,”

*

The following days were full of treats, to make up, as my mother said, “For your aunt’s unkindness.”

I enjoyed going to the cinema, having ice-creams, and visiting the zoo, but I wished my mother would not include Uncle Jasper in her condemnation of the relatives. I tried to explain that he did not mean any harm when he let me play with the Wonderland House.

I told her about our games, and she agreed that there was no harm in having tea parties or bouncing tennis balls and her only comment about the doll’s story time was to suggest that in the narrow bed we might have found the “full-size” game uncomfortable. “You probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.” Which was what I thought at the time.

Now we had the dollhouse.

I opened the hinged front and peered into the little rooms, then I undid the bubble wrap and put each tiny piece of furniture into its proper place. I unwrapped the dolls and introduced them to Grisette. She tried to poke Alice and, looking at her sharp little claws, I decided she should play with her own toys. I tossed a twisted pipe cleaner, and she was happy to chase it, batting it with her paw and pouncing, like the tiger she probably imagined herself to be.

I turned back to the dollhouse, stroking the tiny fridge that my grandmother made, to bring the kitchen up to date. Each generation made some small change, as they would in a real family home. I thought the last little parcel must be Aunt Jane’s contribution, but she lacked my grandmother’s sensitive touch. The bottle was tiny on a human scale, but it was still way too big for a dollhouse.

I needed a magnifying glass to read the words “Drink me” on the minuscule label. That must be a potion for the Alice doll which, of course, I would have to drink for her. I was old enough to wonder whether the liquid was Coca-Cola or tap water, but young enough to be drawn into the game.

I decided the bottle was too big to go into the dollhouse. As I pulled out the tiny cork, it rolled across the floor. The movement attracted Grisette, but when the cork rolled against the wall, and she lost interest. She looked around for something else.

I had the bottle open, ready to offer the potion to Alice before drinking it myself, but as I reached for the doll, Grisette butted her head against my hand and sent the liquid splashing into the carpet. There was a smell of burning wool and a black-edged hole.

What would have happened to the little doll if she drank the potion?

What would have happened to me?

Aunt Jane had been almost pretty when she talked about her childhood games, but what had she been thinking? Had she really rung my mother for sympathy? Or was she playing her own nasty game? Did she want to hurt the child she blamed for the loss of her husband?

My aunt had filled the bottle and written tiny letters on the label. And she had talked about the tea parties where the girls ate and drank for their dolls. I heard again the words: “He would have been a good man if…”

I knew my mother blamed Uncle Jasper as well as Aunt Jane for the dismal end to That Holiday. What would she say when she saw the evil liquid that burned her carpet and might have burned me?

Would she hold my kind uncle partly responsible for Aunt Jane’s act? Or would she see the Wonderland House as an evil influence that was dangerous for us all?

That was how my child-self thought about the world.

Tonight, as an adult, coming to spend Christmas with my parents, I see a different world.

I know, and know my mother knew, the antique dollhouse was not the cause, or even the trigger, for Aunt Jane’s fury. It was the sight of a narrow bed, a little girl scrambling under the sheets, and a husband with his shirt hanging out. Had there been no dollhouse, Uncle Jasper would have found a different game to lead me along the path he had chosen.

I also know my aunt was not quite sane, that in her sly, twisted mind, a little girl had stolen the man she loved.

We had a wonderful evening. Over dinner my parents gave me news of friends from my father’s army days that still kept in touch, and we remembered the frantic housecleaning before the inspection that preceded every move. We laughed about my mother’s struggles as she established her garden in the present house and remembered the antics of a young Grisette, who was now a very dignified, elderly cat.

We did not talk about Aunt Jane, Uncle Jasper or the bones that had recently been found near the town where I spent that ill-fated holiday.

Now, in my old bedroom, I open the hinged front of the dollhouse and take out the Alice doll. Then I put her back, close the front of the house and gently pick up the mat I once put over a burnt hole, to hide the evidence of my aunt’s malice.

When I was living at home I’d become so used to that mat, that I rarely thought about the burnt carpet. Tonight, I look at my old room with fresh eyes. I remember how happily I arranged the dollhouse furniture, and how determined I had been, to hide the evidence of Aunt Jane’s final gift.

I have answers to questions that puzzled my younger self. I know why my aunt was so angry when she came home unexpectedly and why my parents detested my uncle. I can imagine the “music” my father said Jasper could not face. I also believe I know why my aunt’s husband never took a taxi from the airport and can guess where my aunt parked her van while she waited for his plane.

As I lie in bed, I say a quiet prayer to the powers that twice saved me from the evils of twisted adults and blessed me with parents who protected me.

But there is one final mystery, as I reach back through the years, trying to understand the incomprehensible complexities of my child mind. Why would a little girl, surrounded by her loving family, think she had to hide the evidence of a woman’s bitterness?

But that’s what children do.

pencil

Email: robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

Broken Bridge

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
DJ Tyrer


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

George blessed the storm. For most folk in Cumbria, it was a disaster, but for him and Bill it was a source of riches. The two of them sat in the cab of the rented van, wrapped up against the winter chill. Rain lashed against the windscreen, making visibility poor in the early-morning light.

The white van ploughed a furrow through the flooded lane, past the ‘Road Closed’ sign, sending waves sloshing over the hedgerows before the waters crashed back down behind them and rippled back into stillness. Overhead, the sky was a slate grey. Dark clouds glowered on the horizon, threatening worse: Most people were hoping they held snow that would fall upon the higher ground and offer the sodden county some respite, but they were hoping otherwise. The longer the rains fell, the more villages they could loot.

“Remember,” said George, glancing at Bill, “just take small things—jewellery, electronic gadgets, that sort of thing. Stuff you can hide in your clothes. If someone spots you hauling a widescreen TV down the street, they’ll know you’re up to something.”

“I ain’t stupid,” Bill replied.

George didn’t bother to correct him.

They were almost at their destination. The village had been evacuated after the bridge connecting its two halves had collapsed into the white, frothing torrent that had replaced its usually docile river.

“You sure it’s safe?” Bill asked, clutching the dashboard, as the van splashed down towards the cluster of houses, the water rising up its doors and dribbling in about their feet.

“’Course it is.” George slowed to a crawl, no longer able to discern what hazards the water might conceal.

“That’s odd,” Bill said, after a moment, pointing.

“What is?”

“The bridge.”

“What about it?” George was more concerned with keeping the van on the road.

“Look at it: it looks as if it exploded. There are chunks of it all over the shore.”

“That’s the force of the water for you,” George replied as he parked the van in a shallower area of water. “Right, let’s get out there and fill up. Come on.”

“Gah, it’s freezing,” Bill exclaimed as he climbed down into the water.

“Keep your mind on the prize.”

“Will do.”

They had to clamber over the sandbags that were piled up in the doorways of houses. While intended to keep homes dry, they had been overwhelmed by the rising waters and now served to dam the waters in. The various knickknacks and household items that made a house a home floated on the pooled waters. Even heavy pieces of furniture—tables and fallen shelving units—floated about like so much driftwood. There was a stink of sewage in the air.

They climbed the stairs. The homeowners had carried up as much as they could of value, conveniently laying the goods out for them to pick over. Finishing with them, they proceeded to grub through the bedroom drawers. Anything of worth was slipped into the many voluminous pockets of the coats they wore.

“Good haul,” George commented with a grin as they headed back down the stairs. Suddenly, he paused and put a hand on Bill’s shoulder. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“I thought I heard…”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

They were silent a moment. It was unlikely any rescue workers would be about, but it paid to be careful.

“Nah, it was probably nothing,” decided George and they continued on their way.

After a few houses, having picked them clean of trinkets of any value, the two men trudged back to the van and divested themselves of the objects stuffed into their pockets. In the back were a number of plastic bins, allowing them to sort the items by type. Then, they waded off down the street to the next set of houses.

“Hey, this one looks as if something crashed into it,” Bill said, gesturing towards one building that had been halved in size.

“Probably the water caused it to collapse,” said George as they went inside and began to look about the ruins. He sighed, annoyed. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. It’s too much of a wreck. Let’s move onto the next one.”

They climbed back down the piled rubble and began to splash their way along the street.

Suddenly, they were bowled over as the building just ahead of them exploded apart as if it had been struck by an artillery shell. It happened so fast, they didn’t register whether it was the blast or the wave that caught them. They plunged beneath the filthy, frigid waters. Then, they broke the surface, spluttering in terror and confusion.

“Help!” shrieked Bill. “I can’t swim!”

“Shut it, you muppet. It’s not that deep; you can stand.” George helped him to his feet, then looked about and said, “What the hell just happened?”

Bill just shook his head.

“Houses collapse inwards,” said George. “They don’t explode outwards.”

“Didn’t the news say something about the risk of a gas explosion?”

“They’ve turned it off. I doubt it’s that.”

“Then what was it?”

They were interrupted by the splash of an oar and a voice demanding, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?” A man in a kayak was paddling towards them along the flooded street.

“Just checking on our house,” George lied, easily.

“You’re not from around here,” the man countered. If he were a local, he probably knew his neighbours by sight.

“I meant our aunt’s place. She got out ahead of the flood, so we thought we’d best check how it was.”

“Really?” The man was silent for a moment, then said, “Still, whatever you’re doing here, it’s dangerous. Especially if you’re motives aren’t entirely pure.”

George ignored that last jibe and said, “Sure, I can see that: That house just collapsed.”

The kayaker laughed. “Collapsed. Yeah.”

Soaked through and feeling frozen, George found the man’s tone irked him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that it’s dangerous here.”

“No, come on, what do you mean?”

“Just that you really ought to get out of here, assuming you want to live.”

Although Bill shifted nervously, sending ripples out across the waist-deep water, George snorted and said, “Really? Is that meant to be a threat, or are you talking about the weather, ’cause the forecast says we won’t get another band of heavy rain till this evening. Things aren’t going to get any worse.”

“Floodwaters are the least of our concern.”

“Come on,” said George, turning to go and gesturing for Bill to follow him. “Man’s a loony.”

“Evil has been set free here,” the man called after them.

“Loony.”

There was the crash of another house being torn apart.

“Best get out of here,” George muttered. “The flood must be getting worse, after all.”

Then, they stopped dead, staring in horror. Something large and black loomed into view, having just crashed through another building. Brickwork tumbled off it as if shrugged away and water ran off it in rivulets. The size of a hill, they could barely comprehend its form: it had bulk and they had the impression of numerous legs, but beyond that it might have been a shapeless mass.

Bill swore. George gave a shriek.

“What is it?” Bill demanded as they continued to stare.

“Evil,” called the man in the kayak from behind them, maintaining his distance.

The thing began to turn towards them.

“Run!” shouted George, pulling at Bill’s shoulder.

The kayaker was already paddling swiftly away. Between waist and chest deep in the water, George and Bill could barely make much speed at all.

Behind them, the enormous bulk lumbered slowly but steadily after them. They attempted to pick up speed, but fear could only achieve so much.

“This way,” called the kayaker, turning down a side street. They followed as best they could.

“What is it?” George shouted after him.

“Evil—bound here for six-hundred winters within the bridge. When the floodwaters tore the bridge away, it was freed once more. You need to leave this place, if you want to live.”

“Back to the van,” said George.

Unfortunately, their only means of escape lay past the creature that threatened them.

There were more crashes, more houses being destroyed, as it headed towards them.

Clambering over rubble, they slipped around it and, finally, returned to the van. The man in the kayak was bobbing close by.

“You should hide,” he said. “If you leave now, it will follow your van. It might come for you, anyway—evil calls for evil. But, there is a chance: my grandmother taught me the old chants that bound it. I’ll try to bind it once again, if I can. You should be able to escape then, whatever happens. If I fail, perhaps the wind will change direction and blow in some truly-icy Siberian air. Maybe that will freeze it in the waters long enough that I can find a way to deal with it, or someone else can.”

“Well, I’m not hanging around to find out,” said George, climbing into the driver’s seat. He looked at Bill who was hesitating at the passenger door. “You okay?”

“I didn’t want to come,” he replied. “I’m going to find somewhere to hide.” With all the rubble about, there were plenty of options and he quickly jogged off to secrete himself. It was a wise move.

George decided not to wait. Leave the kayaker to his crazy plan, he decided; he turned the key. The van didn’t start. He swore.

The waters shook about him and he tried again, but still there was nothing.

Then, an enormous leg like a pillar of slick, black stone came down immediately in front of the van. A moment later, its twin crashed down upon its roof. George didn’t have the opportunity to register what had happened. He was dead.

Bill trembled where he hid. He was certain it was getting colder, that winter was here with a ferocity. He wasn’t sure where the man in the kayak had gone, but he could hear him declaiming loudly somewhere within the confines of the devastated village. Bill wondered if it were possible for the man to bind the thing as he said his ancestors had. He had a horrible feeling they would all die together in this godforsaken place.

Chill winds blew in and the voice of the man rose in pitch as he cried out again and again for the thing that had escaped the bridge to obey his words. But, wondered Bill, what was there to bind it within?

Maybe, Bill thought, if it followed the man, he might have a chance to get away.

Perhaps, with the temperature dropping, they would all die here of the chill. Bill certainly felt as if he might.

It was growing nearer.

Bill made up his mind. He started to run.

He might just make it, he thought.

He heard the pillar-like legs crash down into the water just behind him, sending up a spray that fell upon him like stinging darts of rain.

He didn’t make it.

Something seized him by the waist and he felt himself being raised up into the air. For a brief moment, Bill got a clear view of the devastation wrought upon the village. His final thought was to wonder if they had deserved their fate, as the man had implied: was this all some hideous punishment? Then, he ceased to wonder: He was dead.

The rain continued to fall and, slowly, the floodwaters continued to rise, the weather indifferent to the horror it had released.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hypnos, Occult Detective Magazine, parABnormal, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). Facebook. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

Cutting Your Own

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Bunny McFadden


Photo Credit: Robert Linsdell/Flickr (CC-by)

The red velvety rope steadied me as I trekked down the path, dragging my borrowed saw through the day-old snow. Through the perfect rows of tiny trees, I could see my children dashing. We’d never find the perfect tree in time, I worried, biting at my winter-chapped lips. And it had to be perfect this year since we’d be alone.

“Mama, that one’s so cute!” Valeria pointed excitedly at a hobbled tree, one even smaller than the rest of the miniatures. Her coat sleeve rode up on her wrist. They grew so fast. Next week marked halfway through kindergarten.

“Eww, that one’s ugly and short, just like you!” Aléjandro poked his head between the branches of the next row, his shaggy brown hair hanging over his eyes. A few sprinkles of snow began to gather on his cap.

“They’re all short, Alé!” Valeria snapped.

“Enough, I don’t want to hear it,” I could hear myself say. I sounded just like my mother. A shudder ran through me. I was beginning to think the miniature tree farm was a mistake. It sounded so picturesque when I saw the flyer sticking out of Valeria’s binder last week.

“Cut Your Own!” it read in mottled photocopied letters. A garish cartoon of an evergreen was crookedly drawn in the middle. At the bottom was an address on an unfamiliar road, but when I looked it up, it was only an hour from home.

“Let’s hurry up so we can get hot chocolate,” I called, but the kids were already past hearing distance. The rows of trees were neat, almost like desks in an empty classroom. If it weren’t for the snow that had begun to fall in earnest, I could see the end of the path and the little hut at the entrance. The conifers were just tall enough that I couldn’t see the kids, but I could hear them fighting. I stood alone in the row of miniatures.

I picked a rotten day to cut down a tree.

Last Christmas was so different. We took a plane to see Jeremy’s parents in Florida. It was the kids’ first time flying, and even on the tiny seats their little legs swung without touching the floor. I spent Christmas Day on the beach, reading for fun while the kids played with the waves. And then it was January and the bottles kept piling up and the conspiracies kept piling up and the snow kept piling up until I couldn’t take it anymore.

Substitute teachers don’t make a lot of money, and the district only paid me once a month, so when the eagle finally landed I bundled up Valeria and bribed Alé with screen time. The tree farm was in Edgewood, not too far of a drive. We didn’t really have the space for a full tree anyway, and most of our old Christmas stuff was in storage till I got the court things settled. “A mini tree will be perfect,” I kept saying to the kids. Small isn’t bad for now. Like I said about the rental. Like I said about the used car. Like I told Valeria when she complained her coat didn’t fit this morning.

Down the aisle, a hunched figure appeared. I turned my attention to the nearest pine, dabbing at the tear starting to chill my cheek. I wasn’t really in the cheerful spirit you have to be to say “Merry Christmas” without scaring someone half to death.

Each tree had a tag fluttering in the snowy wind. I reached out and turned this one over, trying to look busy. The tree was knee-high, so I had to crouch down to get a better look, leaning on the saw like a crutch. In blood red script on the tag was the word Noel. It was tied with a red thread. The name set off a dozen memories of late-night fights and printed police reports that Jeremy kept trying to get me to read. Common name, I told myself.

The stranger was beside me now, speaking. I straightened up, accidentally pulling the tag off. Embarrassed, I slipped it into my pocket.

“I said, did you find what you were looking for, mija?” the withered old lady smiled, revealing eggshell-white teeth. She gestured down at the tree from under her black wool cloak. The tree bent away in a gust of wind, brushing my leg.

“I think so,” I answered. The saw I’d borrowed from the neighbor down the hall suddenly felt heavy in my mittened hand. “Well, aren’t you going to cut it?” the crone said, almost urgently.

I bent down, reaching over the velvet ropes that separated the aisles, and put the saw to the bark, scraping it once. The sound made me wince. It hit me that I hadn’t seen my kids in a few minutes, but it would be rude to stop cutting the tree now…

“You know, I have to check with my daughter first. She’s the picky one,” I explained, setting down the handsaw against the rope. The withered woman frowned. Her black eyes narrowed at me.

“Better hurry before you get snowed in,” she warned.

I looked down at the ground. The snow at my feet was growing. She was right. I squeezed the tag in my pocket nervously.

The old lady began hobbling on stilted legs back toward the hut at the entrance. I couldn’t even see the headlights of cars on the road; the storm was getting worse. I looked down at the tree again.

“Mama!”

The shout sounded far off, muffled. I dropped the saw and spun, looking over the tops of the small trees. Something didn’t feel right. Maybe I needed something sweet; my blood sugar felt like it was dipping. “Valeria? Alé? Alejandro, you get back here right now,” I said, my voice rising. “Valeria?” These kids never listened to me.

The red velvet ropes along the aisle swung in the sharp wind. The strings of vintage Christmas bulbs above were unlit. Who puts together a Christmas tree farm and doesn’t even bother lighting the place? I ripped off my mitten and dug in my deep coat pocket for my phone or a snack, but I must have left everything in the car. Instead, I felt my fingers curl around paper. I pulled the tag out. It had gotten wet with snow; the red ink had bled and I could barely read it.

The kids were probably fed up with our adventure. The car was unlocked; they were probably in there, fighting over Alé’s phone. “He better not run out of data,” I thought to myself as the snow stung my face. This tree would have to do. I’d marked it, but I needed to do something about my blood sugar before I could finish.

It was getting darker by the minute, and they still hadn’t turned on the lights. I walked against the wind, holding the velvety ropes that separated the path from the trees. After what felt like forever, I was at the thin red door to the hut. It was the size of a garden shed; the window was on the other side, and I could see the edge of the chalkboard price sign. I knocked, mittens in hand.

“Mama,” I heard again. This time, the voice was much closer, and it was not one of mine. I could tell. Was there someone in the hut? I tried the handle; the brass was immovable but hot to the touch.

“Hello?” I shouted above the whistling wind. “Hello?

Suddenly the door opened a crack and the crone’s black eye was there. I couldn’t see behind her; she filled the frame of the door completely. Had she grown taller?

“Have you chosen, then?” the woman asked, her wrinkled mouth almost immobile.

I nodded my head. “Do I pay first?” I asked, handing her the tag.

She snatched it from my hand, looking down at the lettering. “Yes, yes, whatever price you think is right,” she told me, her black eyes glittering. She reached inside and grabbed a ceramic piggy bank shaped like Santa. That was a little strange. I couldn’t remember the price of a tree. My brain felt sluggish. I needed to eat something, and soon. I dug out a twenty from my pocket.

“Is that enough?”

She gestured silently to the ceramic figure in her hands. Instead of the familiar suit with black and gold buttons, this Santa was wearing a red robe that draped over his face. His arms were crossed in front, the sleeves meeting at their opening, and the slot for coins was right below the tip of his pointed white beard. I folded the bill and slid it in. A dozen Christmas lights flickered on behind me, their vintage bulbs burning brightly and illuminating the woman’s face.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of cocoa,” the withered woman asked, and I could see a loneliness in her face that hadn’t been there before.

“Sure,” I said after a moment, stepping into the tiny hut. An ancient radiator was plugged into the wall, and there was no sink or microwave. Everything sat on a small green card table. In the same outlet, there was a cord that led to a single electric kettle that looked like it was straight from the eighties. The withered woman reached into a box under the little card table and set out two plain mugs. “Cold day, isn’t it,” she said. I nodded politely, rubbing my hands together. There was a metal folding chair leaning against the wall; I maneuvered over to it and pulled at its rusty hinges.

“So, where’s the husband,” the woman asked as she clattered an ancient-looking can of cocoa powder around on the card table.

“Oh, it’s just me these days,” I replied.

I lost myself in thought for a moment, remembering the way Jeremy used to fish out his marshmallows for the kids to share any time we had hot chocolate together. Before he started thinking the neighbors were kidnapping children. Before he drunkenly accused one as she dragged out her trash cans in the wee hours of the morning.

The kettle whistled and snapped me back to the little hut. I could almost feel my hands again.

“Thank you for the cocoa,” I said politely, smelling the watery mess in my mug. I took a sip and nearly choked. It was unexpectedly spicy but better than I’d expected.

“Of course. A bit of chile powder, like my mother used to use,” she said. “That’s how they would make it back in my day. A bit of chile powder. Since the Mayans, you know. That’s the secret.”

I took another sip.

“That, and the blood.”

I didn’t have a moment to react to this; someone under the table enveloped my legs and I screeched, jumping halfway out of my seat. It was Valeria. “Mom, can we go?” she said, looking up at me, her voice muffled from under the table. “I’m cold.”

“How did you even get in here? Go wait in the car,” I said. “It shouldn’t take too long. Maybe Alé will help me cut our tree.”

“No!” the woman shouted. I’d almost forgotten she was there. She hustled us out of the hut, slamming the door behind her. I hadn’t even had time to put my mittens back on. She gripped my elbow tightly, her fingers like claws locked around my flesh. “You must do it alone.” Valeria shrunk behind me, hugging my legs tight.

“Sorry, she’s a little shy around strangers,” I explained. The woman’s tone changed. She smiled down at my daughter, her white teeth glinting.

“Quiet as a Christmas tree,” she said, beaming down at Valeria.

I turned to my daughter and put my hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right there, I promise. It won’t take me long.” She pouted and silently turned toward the dark lot where our car was parked. It was annoying that I had to do it alone, but I understood. There were so many laws about child safety these days. That was something Jeremy never understood when he would go off on those long rants about stolen children. The world wasn’t like that anymore. Maybe when we were growing up, but everybody had phones these days. It was another thing we’d argued about, and he didn’t let up even after we got Alé his own cheap cell.

The snow and wind had stopped and the air was still. The sun wasn’t out anymore, but the Christmas lights illuminated the long aisles of miniature trees. I returned down the center path toward the one I’d chosen, the woman walking behind me. When we reached mine, she deftly lifted the red velvety rope to make the trunk accessible.

Even in the calm, the needles seemed to shimmy.

“What did I do with the saw?” I asked, searching around. I left it right here, but it must have gotten covered with snow. I couldn’t even see our footprints from earlier, just mine and the owner’s, stretching back to the hut at the entrance. I crouched to look under the tree and saw a puddle of something sticky.

“Mama,” someone screamed in my ear. The sound made me fall back, my unmittened palms pressing into the snow. With my head next to the tree, I could smell it now. Blood. A scream rose in my throat.

The saw mark I’d made in the little trunk was bleeding. The puddle grew, turning the snow around the tree sticky with black blood. The smell was unmistakable, even to my frozen nose.

“What the hell,” I whispered, pushing myself back into a seated position.

The woman was suddenly above me, her eyes glowing unnaturally. Her smile had turned to a strange grimace. The wind tore at her black wool coat. Through the flapping fabric, I could smell a rot that bit at my cold nose above the smell of fresh blood from the tree. The lights flickered above me.

“Don’t say that in vain,” she snapped, her eyes growing blacker. She stretched out above me, filling the sky. The scream that was lodged in my throat shook itself loose now.

The withered woman reached out her arms and I saw feathers under her coat. She was transforming in front of me, growing taller. Little black barbs ballooned under her skin, erupting into feathers that sprang out wet and reddish black. She shook in front of me, wagging the feathers and sprinkling me with her blood.

For a moment more, I was frozen in horror, trapped under the giant bird-woman.

Mama!” I heard. Looking between the legs of the creature I saw Alé and Valeria there at the end of the aisle, screaming.

I kicked at the creature’s strange long legs, feeling guilty for a moment when I saw her falling, but it was too late. I turned and ran through the snow, away from the tree, away from the woman. The snow flurried around me, but I couldn’t stop. I yanked my children up, holding them under my arms as I skidded over the icy path to the car. Behind me, the snow flurried. A shadow lifted into the sky. The bird-woman rose into the air and flew at us with demonic speed. I reached the door of my car and threw the children in, clawing the door shut behind us. “Lock the doors!” I screeched, and my voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. We scrambled around, snapping the locks into place.

The creature slammed on our hood, dragging her claws deep into the thick metal. I fumbled in my pocket for the keys. Alé and Valeria screamed, clutching each other in the passenger seat. In front of us, the creature screeched, her beak opening to reveal an endless throat.

I made the sign of the cross and turned on the ignition. The headlights flashed on, and she was gone. A flurry of white snow passed in front of us, covering the claw marks in the hood. The engine sputtered for a moment, then whined in submission.

When we got home, the marks were gone.

We went with a plastic tree that year, in the end.

pencil

Dr. Bunny McFadden (she/they) is a Chicana mother who tinkers with words for a living. Email: bunny.the.bookworm[at]gmail.com

Rules

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: Adam Buzzo/Flickr (CC-by)

I looked down at my boots, trying not to shuffle while a cold wind blew between us.

My grandfather seemed like a giant standing over me, a giant who was shaking his finger at me. In his other hand, he held the rabbit that two minutes ago I was so proud to have shot. “We only hunt rabbits in winter, Narina.” He leaned closer, and though I couldn’t see him, I felt him get closer and imagined him drawing his grizzled eyebrows together. I’d seen it enough times before. “They carry a sickness in the warm months. It makes people real sick.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, registering the new rule: Wait until winter to kill rabbits. Rules had always made me feel safe, even if breaking them meant I’d get punished. But since punishments hadn’t lasted too long or hurt too much in the past, they just reminded me to be more careful. To think before I decided to do something. What scared me lately about rules was that the older I got, the worse punishments seemed to be getting for the same violations.

…like standing in the corner facing the wall for twenty-four whole hours with one of them always watching to make sure I didn’t move.

Rules. I’d learned some early: Don’t talk back. Never lie. Do your chores. Take your punishment. Others came later: Tell me if you see a strange person. Never go outside without your knife. Gut your kill in the field. Stay out the meat shed. I was eleven years old and had quite a long list to remember.

The first time Granddad gave me the rule about seeing a strange person, I was confused. From when I was really little, Gramma had read me stories about the long-ago-people in the Bible, but I’d never seen another human besides us. I thought we were the only people left, but the rule about strange people meant we weren’t. That was when I first started to wonder about other things I’d been told, whether they were true or not, but I trusted my grandparents then, and knew better than to ask for more information than they offered.

Even with my head down, I could tell Granddad was still looking at me funny. “Did you hear me, Narina?”

“Yes, sir.” I tried to be obedient—I liked how they treated me when I obeyed. But how could he expect me to obey the rule about killing rabbits when I didn’t know about it? It wasn’t fair. The whole concept of fair and not fair consequences was something I’d only recently thought up, but I knew it was right.

As for that day, I didn’t think I had done one thing wrong.

I had awakened before Gramma called me. That was unusual because I’d been having more trouble getting awake lately and Gramma said it was because I was growing up. That made no sense because Gramma and Granddad were already grown and they always got up really early.

Anyway, I’d been having a dream about running, racing a deer faster and farther than I’d ever been. When the deer jumped into a river, I followed it in, still chasing. The dizzy excited feeling the dream gave me didn’t fade like most dreams did when I sat up, and my excitement mounted as I thought about the river. I had been warned about the river.

I could go as far as I chose in three directions from our cabin. Only one direction was forbidden to me, and I was never to go that way. Not hunting, not hiking, and not for any other reason. Granddad said the river was in that direction, beyond our fields and beyond our forest, and that it was dangerous for me to even look at. He told me if I ever got lost and found myself near it, I was to close my eyes until I’d put my back to it and then hurry home as fast as I could.

I couldn’t help wondering if “beyond the river” might be where Granddad’s strange people lived, if they existed at all. I fantasized about what they might look like, made up reasons why we never tried to see them, and why I should be afraid.

But nobody said I couldn’t dream about them—a person can’t control her dreams—and maybe the dream would come back.

My insides felt all jumpy that morning. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t go slow. I needed to do something, so I got my knife from the table beside my bed, crept downstairs real quiet, and grabbed the .22 rifle by the back door. Then I ran to the place where our fields meet the woods.

After I shot a fat rabbit, I gutted it right away, just like I was supposed to, and ran back home fast. The proof was that blood was still dripping from the carcass Granddad had taken from me. I wanted to look at his face, but was afraid what I would see.

It’s not fair. I didn’t know.

I swallowed down a sigh and waited to find out what my punishment would be this time.

“So, this is the right thing done the right way.” I looked up to see him standing straight with a little smile curving his mouth. “Last week, we had our first hard frost, and this morning the ground is hard and there’s snow. Truth be told, it’s not much snow, but enough to call this winter. Well done, Narina.” Granddad always used my whole name instead of calling me Narry like Gramma did.

While I was still adjusting to the idea that everything was okay, he patted me once on my shoulder, the only way he had ever touched me. Gramma was another story. “And it’s a good shot too,” he said. “Right behind the front leg. I’ll hang it while you go help your grandmother.”

“Always hang your game for a few days” was another of his rules. He said it made the meat taste better and get tender, and we had a special outbuilding for that—the meat shed. Granddad did the butchering in there too. It seemed like it would have enough space inside to hang four gutted deer carcasses, but I didn’t know for sure. I wasn’t allowed to even look in there. “Don’t ask me why,” was another of Granddad’s rules.

He flicked his hand, the one holding the dead rabbit, and blood spattered in the snow. “Now git. You’re standing there like you been bewitched. Don’t let your grandmother do all the breakfast chores by herself.”

I ran to the cabin.

In the kitchen, I found Gramma bent over the woodstove, as tiny and neat a person as my Granddad was a huge one. She was lifting fresh cornbread from a covered pan onto a plate and didn’t look at me. “Where was you?” she asked.

“Hunting!” I leaned against the log wall and pulled off my boots. “I got a rabbit. With one shot!”

She looked at me with an odd expression and I wondered if she hadn’t quite heard me. As I was about to repeat myself, she said, “I am grateful for the food, Narry, and know your confidence comes from being well-taught and from practice. But avoid pride. No good comes of it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gramma had rules too.

I never knew my mother. Granddad said she died, “going someplace she had no business going,” whatever that meant. It never sounded quite right to me, but the one time I’d pressed him for details, I got locked in the feed room for two days with a jar of water but no food. All I knew was my mom died and her parents—Granddad and Gramma—had raised me on their farm where they mostly followed the old ways. I learned to live that way too.

We cooked and heated with a woodstove, kept food cool in the summer in our spring house, and did without whatever we couldn’t grow, make for ourselves, or kill. Planting started in early spring with cool weather crops like kale, broccoli, and beets. The rest went in as the weather warmed, mainly from saved seed. Once some colorful little envelopes of new seed appeared along with old clothes Gramma would remake into things for the three of us. I never knew where either the seed or the clothes came from, and all Gramma would say was, “God provides.”

For seven months, there was always something growing or needing harvest, and weeds that needed pulling grew everywhere our food crops did. Whatever we didn’t eat fresh had to be “put up” for winter eating, a big job after harvest.

We kept chickens for eggs, goats for milk, and a few hogs for cleaning up scraps. Sometimes Granddad would kill a hog or a chicken if hunting was bad or if he wanted something different to eat. But most of the meat for our table was whatever he—and more recently he and I—could shoot. We ate rabbit and squirrel, venison, groundhog, and some other meat I couldn’t identify. Some creatures are hard to tell by just skinned pieces. It wasn’t an easy life. But whatever else we lacked, we always had plenty to eat.

Gramma looked me up and down. “Go change and wash up before you lay the table, Narry.” She shook her head at me and I took one step back. “You need to learn not to hug fresh kills, but that can’t be helped this time. Put your bloody clothes in the vinegar pail. We’ll launder them later.” She meant the pail on the back porch where Granddad always put his clothes after butchering.

I changed and did as I was told with the soiled clothes. When I came back to get out plates and utensils, I remembered my great shot that morning and couldn’t help smiling. Then my mind went to what Granddad was doing with my rabbit right then and a question came out all by itself.

“Why won’t Granddad let me in the meat shed?” I had never dared to ask that before. “He should know I’m not scared of dead things, and if he let me watch him butchering, I could learn. And help.”

Most of my questions didn’t make Gramma angry like they did Granddad. This time, she shrugged her shoulders while she put slices of fatback into the iron skillet and slid them around so they wouldn’t stick. “It’s his special place,” she said. “One of them, anyways. People got to have their own places.”

That made me wonder where my special place was… if I even had one. It felt like something in me moved sideways and I held my breath for a second. Finally, I asked the rest. “But why can’t he share his place with me?”

I wasn’t paying enough attention and had to skitter away at the last second before Gramma got to me. Usually, she only pinched me when I did something bad, but sometimes it felt like she did it for no reason. Either way, she pinched so hard it really hurt, and the black and purple bruises lasted for weeks. She hardly ever did it when I was little, but as I got older, I had two or three of those bruises all the time, no matter how hard I tried to follow the rules. As old as she was, she could move like a snake and she was brutal.

I kept the table between us until she went back to the bacon as if nothing had happened.

After a few minutes, she said, “Narry, sing us a song.”

We didn’t have electricity or a telephone then—I didn’t even know about those things—and we never went anywhere except hunting. The only music I had ever heard were the songs Granddad played on his mandolin, and one of my favorites was “On Springfield Mountain.” I liked the story, about a boy who got bit by a poisonous snake. A girl who tried to save him died because she had a rotten tooth and when she sucked out the poison, it got in her too.

So, I started singing that, but Gramma stopped me. “Heavens, girl! That’s a frightful song. Sing something more suited to the child you are.”

I wanted to tell her I was no child anymore, but decided that was a bad idea. So, I held my tongue and tried think of another song. “The Green Grass Grows All Around” was a silly piece Granddad taught me when I was about five, but it seemed exactly what she wanted to hear because once I got going, she bobbed her head in time.

The salty-fatty smell of bacon filled the kitchen, and the sizzling sound made it smell even better. As I was thinking about cornbread, bacon, and the eggs I knew Gramma would scramble to go with them, I heard footsteps on the front porch.

My grandmother’s head snapped up. “That ain’t your Granddad’s walk. I need to… No, you’re faster. Run out the back door and fetch him from the meat shed!”

If Gramma was right and it wasn’t Granddad, then who? While I was still wondering, a knock sounded on the door.

“Stop staring, girl! Be quick!”

“But I can’t go in…”

“Git!”

I ran out, sliding in the snow as I rounded the side of the cabin. Over my shoulder, I shot a look toward the front porch. A strange man stood there holding a little case. He wore clothes like I’d never seen, a kind of jacket that didn’t look at all warm. It matched his trousers, both blue, but not like blue jeans. Shocked to see an actual stranger, I tripped and stumbled the rest of the way to the meat shed, arriving in a rush. I hesitated only a second before I banged on the door.

“What in holy hell…” Granddad bellowed from inside and the door flew open. I got only a glance at the long stainless-steel tables inside before he gave me a hard look and slammed the door behind him.

“A man is here,” I choked out. “Gramma said come get you.”

I swear he growled and took off at a limping lope, getting up onto the porch faster than I thought he could. The strange man turned as if to say something, but Granddad didn’t give him a chance. He grabbed the man up by the shirtfront, punched him once in the face, and dragged him backwards down the porch steps toward me.

I had a million questions I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to ask.

Granddad seemed surprised to see me still standing in front of the shed and yelled for my grandmother. “Pearl! Get Narina back in the cabin and keep her there. I need to deal with this.”

I didn’t wait for Gramma to come get me, but ran inside on my own. What I found there puzzled me. Never in my life had I ever seen my grandmother shaken—not when a bear was tearing the chicken house apart, not when she shot a copperhead that had me cornered in the barn, and not when she thought a fever would take both me and Granddad. But this man… it seemed like seeing this man had made all her bones like jelly.

A couple of times while we waited, I tried to sneak a look out a window, but each time Gramma grabbed me away. I heard noise a little later—like a shout or a wail—but I figured it was one of the animals. Even back then, my mind sometimes turned one thing into another and I had learned to let strange thoughts be. Usually, they went away.

It was a long time before I heard a door slam outside. I peeked out before Gramma could tell me not to and saw Granddad padlocking the shed. There was no sign of the strange man.

Boot steps on the porch. Front door creaking open. My grandfather framed in the doorway. “I sent him on his way,” was all he said.

Gramma went to him. “A car?” I think her voice was louder than she thought it was, because I hear her clear as day. He shook his head.

“What’s a car?” I’d never heard that word before.

Both of them looked at me, but neither responded. “Then how?” Gramma asked him in a whisper, but I still heard her. “Walking the road?”

He shrugged and said, “Still so overgrown you can’t hardly find it.” Then he sat down at the table and waited for Gramma to fill his plate.

I knew what overgrown meant, like fallow fields and gardens gone to weeds, but “car” and “road” were two new words. Apparently, they had to do with the man. “What’s a car?” I asked again. “And what does ‘road’ mean?”

Nobody answered me that time either, and it was all I could do to keep from getting loud. But I knew that wouldn’t get me anything but punished and I still wouldn’t have an answer. There had to be a way to find out all the things I wanted to know. There had to be.

I buttered my cornbread and stole looks at them between bites. They both kept their eyes down, fastened on their plates until their food was gone.

I was still looking at Granddad when he cleared his throat and locked eyes with me. I jumped.

“We will speak no more of this incident. You are to forget it, Narina.”

My mind spun as all the things I thought I knew fought to rearrange themselves. I had every intention of keeping silent despite the questions tumbling over each other in my mind. But I couldn’t. “Forget it? How can I? This changes everything!”

Granddad scowled and his mouth twisted into an ugly frown. “Not one thing has changed for you.”

“But that man!” I felt like something had hold of my insides, and I didn’t care what they did to me. “They’re beyond the river, right? Those people. A lot or just a few?”

Gramma’s eyes were as big as two full moons and Granddad gripped the edge of the table. He pushed himself slowly back, his knuckles white.

I knew I had crossed some kind of line and was afraid again, not afraid enough to keep silent, but my voice came out squeaky. “What else haven’t you told me? What else have you lied about?”

Granddad lowered his chin and glared at me from under heavy eyebrows. When he finally spoke, it sounded like thunder. “Narina, stop. I mean it. Stop. We’ve kept you safe from them. From yourself. Like we tried to do for your mother. She wouldn’t listen, and look what happened to her.”

I felt my head tilt sideways like a dog hearing a strange noise. “What do you mean? You said…” Realization dawned. “You lied about that, too.”

“Bite your tongue, Narry!” Gramma snapped. “What do we have to do to make you behave? Maybe you’d listen if we put you in with the pigs. You don’t need all your toes, and you’d remember that lesson for the rest of your life!” She reached across the table for my arm, but I dodged her and jumped up, knocking my chair over backwards.

Granddad stood up too, his face red and his hands bunched into fists at his sides. I held my breath. Not once in my life had he ever struck me, but right then I thought he would. I wondered if his fists would kill me. Instead of striking out, he took a few steps back, seeming to shrink. He cracked his neck sideways and said in a low tone, “All you need to know is that the creature is gone.”

“Creature,” my grandmother repeated.

Granddad’s eyes bored into mine, now more with sadness than anger. “It’s gone. You won’t see it again.”

I opened my mouth to ask them why they called it a creature instead of what it was, a man. Then I closed my lips tight together, locking my words inside. I felt years older than when I’d shot that rabbit only hours earlier, and wondered if my questioning was a serious mistake. I was confronting the ones who had always had more power than I did, and wasn’t considering what might happen to me. I wasn’t careful…

Wait. Be silent now. Just wait.

A few days later, I woke to the smell of breakfast cooking—bacon, but not quite bacon—and Gramma calling my name. My bedroom window was foggy and wet with tiny drops on the inside. Granddad called it condensation and said it was from my warmth on the cold glass. Odd.

After dressing, I went downstairs and began to set the table without being asked. I could see that Gramma must have been up for a while because a pile of sewing lay on the side table beside her favorite chair. I didn’t understand how she could see well enough to sew by just the morning light coming in the windows, and wondered if she somehow did it by feel.

“Making something for Granddad?” I asked her.

She nodded without taking her attention from the skillet. “I was. A hunting vest, I thought. But that fabric isn’t sturdy enough for that and I may make something pretty for you instead. The fabric’s got a nice feel to it. Might be nice against your skin. God provides. Go over there and see if you like it.”

I couldn’t help smiling. It had been a while since she’d made anything for me, and I liked the idea of getting something new. But as I got close to her chair, I stopped, first puzzled and then suddenly understanding.

The fabric was blue, but not like denim, and there was enough for matching jacket and trousers, both now completely disassembled.

I went to the window and saw it had started to snow again, large flakes drifting down in the still air. My grandfather was just coming out of the meat shed, limping against the weight of the slop bucket he carried, presumably for the pigs. A couple of long bones stuck out the top. We hadn’t gotten a deer in a long while, and the bones were too long for anything else I could think of. Granddad closed the shed door, but didn’t lock it.

Even from a distance, I could see his hands and clothes were bloody, the way he always got from butchering. Head down, he headed for the hand pump where I knew he would wash himself. He did, and when he finished, he hoisted up the bucket again and disappeared behind the barn.

We had a rule about lying, but I knew they’d lied to me, and I had unanswered questions. Like how old clothes appeared again and again out of nowhere, what “creatures” Granddad hunted that had meat I couldn’t identify, and why my grandparents kept us so isolated.

I needed to know what had happened to the man whose blue clothes had become a pile of Gramma’s sewing, what bones Granddad was feeding to the hogs, and what the bacon/not bacon was that Gramma was cooking that morning. I thought all those answers, but wasn’t willing to admit to myself what I feared might be true. Not yet.

The answers were in the shed, and if I went out now, I’d have at least a few minutes before Granddad came back or Gramma came looking for me.

A few days ago, I’d felt like I didn’t care what they did to me, what the consequences for violating rules might be. Now it was time for me to act.

Without giving myself time to reconsider, I ran to the back door and pulled on my boots. Then I grabbed my coat and the .22 rifle—I might need both. I heard Gramma calling me back, but ignored her and ran all the way to the shed, my breath coming in white puffs that sent snowflakes whirling. It wouldn’t be long before Gramma came after me. Called Granddad. And I was sure that whatever happened after that wouldn’t be good, given the pile of rules I was in the process of breaking.

I yanked the open the meat shed door and looked inside.

The carcass was headless and gutted, hanging over a hole in the wood floor. It was minus one leg and a strip of belly muscle, the same place where pork bacon comes from. I recognized what—or rather who—this had been. Not a deer. On the stainless-steel table beside the carcass lay a boneless chunk of meat, rolled and tied as a roast. My throat clenched when it struck me that I might have eaten a fair amount of this kind of meat in my life.

In a rush, answers to all my questions tumbled over one another. It all made sense now. I heard Gramma’s shout to me and another to Granddad and turned to see her trying to hurry herself toward me. She wasn’t fast. Neither was Granddad. They would never catch me.

I didn’t have a chance to think about what was I going to do now that I knew the truth about life on this farm. The decision came fast and easy, and almost before I knew I had decided, I was running as fast as I could in the one direction I was never supposed to go.

I didn’t know exactly where the river was, but it had to be there or else why would Granddad make a rule about not going past it. I believed it was there. It had to be. And just like in my dream, I would jump in and cross it.

Running faster than I’d ever run, I scared up a young doe from the underbrush and we raced together, just like in my dream. When we got to the river, I knew she would jump in and I knew I would follow her. I felt dizzy with the wonder of it, and my insides vibrated with something more exciting than fear. Maybe the unknown. Maybe freedom.

On the other side of the river, I would find those other people wherever they were. After that, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let my grandparents take me back to the farm.

I felt doubt crowding past the excited feeling. That water would be cold, winter cold, and if I made it to the other side, I’d be soaked. Maybe get sick. Maybe die from it.

“I’ll find another way over,” I told myself out loud.

Then I heard Gramma’s voice in my head. “God provides.”

pencil

Gail A. Webber is a retired science teacher who lives and writes on a small farm in Maryland. Her stories have appeared in Fiftiness, The Tower Journal, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and others), and in anthologies including 2016 Write Well Award, The Way You Walk Through Madness, and Writings to Stem Your Existential Dread. She has published three novels and a volume of short stories. Facebook. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Fitting Room #3

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Jason Porterfield


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

Cashmere topcoats. Merino wool scarves. Gloves made from some kind of nanofiber so new that it hadn’t been properly named. All illuminated by a golden show window light that invited thoughts of blazing fireplaces and designer Irish setters, crystal tumblers and old Scotch.

The shop windows on Duvivier Street held wonders that Dimitri LaFitte knew were out of his grasp. Those tony things may as well have been on display in a lunar showroom as in the street-facing windows of Faberge Leaf. It was the kind of store that probably checked one’s references before admitting access.

“Don’t even think about going in that place,” His uncle Dansby had told him one long-ago December evening when he noticed the teenaged Dimitri peering in as they walked by on their way to the city’s annual tree lighting.

“They wouldn’t let you in. You don’t carry the right kind of cachet.” Dansby rubbed his thumb against his fingers, the universal sign for cash. Dimitri felt his cheeks flush at the thought of his wallet, empty in his back pocket except for a picture of his ex-girlfriend, a losing scratch-off lottery ticket he bought at a vending machine, and his learner’s permit. Why bother carrying a wallet at all?

He thought of Dansby every time he walked by the storefront. His uncle so casually dismissed the idea of going into a place that was frequented by people who made astronomical amounts of money, whose hourly earnings may well have topped what Dansby made in a month as an accountant.

Dimitri didn’t exactly promise himself that someday he would go into that store as a customer, but he never passed it without experiencing a deep yearning for the kind of life its stock of luxury goods represented and the income needed to attain them.

Yet somehow Dimitri had not risen to those economic heights when fire ravished his apartment building some fifteen years later. He had a steady job, a collection of furnishings and clothing—most of it purchased new but not at boutiques. There was a little credit card debt but not enough to make it hard to pay his bills.

The fire department’s inspection of the ruins of his former apartment building revealed multiple structural issues were to blame for the conflagration.They found evidence that the building’s owners bribed city officials for years to look the other way when safety issues with the wiring and heating systems arose. A settlement with the tenants was offered and rejected. When a jury found fault with both the building’s owners and the city, a significant sum of money was divided among the former residents and Dimitri suddenly found himself rather wealthy.

His first acts on receiving his portion of the damages awarded were to pay off his debt, buy an inexpensive condo in the same neighborhood and reinvest a sizable portion of his payment so that he could remain relatively comfortable for life.

Only then did he begin to fantasize about visiting Faberge Leaf. He visited the store’s website, a glitzy affair of high-definition images that didn’t actually feature any merchandise and certainly didn’t mention prices. Apart from a few basics, he had not replaced most of his wardrobe after the fire. The one exception he made was to pick up a nice suit, a tailored specimen from a noted label. It was expensive, but didn’t threaten to put any kind of dent in his bank account.

Dimitri took the day off for his trip downtown. His new suit, worn a time or two to break it in, was cleaned and pressed. He called Uncle Dansby before getting dressed and told him of his impending trip to Faberge Leaf.

“Oh Dimitri, don’t go to that store!” Dansby practically shouted. “Take that money and go back to the place where you bought your suit. They know you now and they treated you well. Give your money to someone who has earned it.”

“You know I’ve wanted to shop there since I was a kid,” Dimitri retorted. “Now I’m someone who can actually afford whatever it is they stock there and I’m going to go there and they are going to serve me like they would any customer.”

“Let me ask you a question.” Dansby paused for long enough that Dimitri wondered whether he was still on the phone. He was almost surprised when the older man spoke again. “Have you ever seen anyone coming out of that store looking happy that they’ve been shopping there? Or looking like they just had the time of their life? Have you?”

“Well, no.” Thinking back, Dimitri couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone coming out of the store at all. Nor could he remember ever seeing anyone go in. But who, apart from security guards, notices people going into shops?

“See? That store didn’t solve their problems or make their lives easier. It probably made them worse. Now they had a pricey jacket but none of their things matched it. They had to go back for new accessories, new shoes, new jewelry to set it off. And by the time they finished, the whole thing would be out of date by the standards of the Faberge Leaf.” Dansby practically spat the store’s name in Dimitri’s ear.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Dansby,” he said, now holding the earpiece a safe distance away. “I won’t lose my head, and I’ll be sure to give you a full report.” He hung up before the older man could say anything else and proceeded to get dressed.

Dimitri hired a car to take him downtown. It was too cold to walk. Besides, he intended to splurge and saw no reason to waste the experience by taking public transportation or a common rideshare. His charcoal-gray suit was immaculate beneath his black wool overcoat as he stepped onto the sidewalk. A storefront mirror reflected his neatly trimmed hair, the matching tie and pocket square the suit store helped him pick out, his shiny shoes and the silver glint of his wristwatch, an expensive piece he had inherited from his grandfather and kept in a safe deposit box.

He was pleased with what he saw. He strode down the sidewalk with purpose and crowds parted around him, some pedestrians even stepping into day-old banks of snow to get out of his way.

Faberge Leaf appeared uncrowded, though he could see employees inside. He made to grab the door handle and pull it toward him, but noticed the buzzer just in time to avoid the embarrassment of having the door catch in the latch. He smoothly changed the motion and pressed the buzzer with his index finger, allowing a small smile to play across this lips.

A moment later, the latch clicked and he went inside.

The store was bathed in golden light, the sort that illuminates favorite memories of family gatherings or good times spent with friends. A faint aroma of jasmine was in the air. Hidden speakers played the sound of breaking waves. He felt soothed, content.

An employee glided over. Dimitri caught the man’s glance flick up and down his body, his mind surely assessing the quality of everything from his shoes to his haircut. He gave Dimitri a warm smile.

“Welcome, Sir.” He held out his arm. “May I take your coat?”

Dimitri murmured his thanks and passed the overcoat to the employee, who promptly disappeared with it into an area behind the sales counter.

“Would Sir like a refreshment?” Another employee had popped up at his right elbow with a tray of beverages. To his surprise, the cups held cold drinks rather than the coffee or aged Scotch Dimitri expected. He chose one at random that tasted of lychees and summer afternoons. He couldn’t wait to tell Dansby about being addressed as “Sir” like a character in a 1930s British melodrama.

The employee accepted his empty cup with a nod and followed the one who had taken his jacket.

“Please, Sir, take your time with the merchandise.” Another employee had approached. “Simply come to the desk when you are ready to try something on. And do stay out of the third fitting room. It is in a ghastly state.” The man made a face. Dimitri had a hard time imagining what would cause an employee of such a fancy place to arrange his features into such a hideous mask.

“Must be a really big spider,” he thought to himself, making a mental note to investigate the third fitting room at the first opportunity.

He took his time, going over fine scarves, gloves, and shirts of such fine knit they might have been made by caterpillars. He was briefly hypnotized by a display of neckties with patterns so subtle and understated that they seemed to hold the key to infinity.

Eventually he chose another suit, a silk and poplin outfit in a subtle, blue-check pattern that would be ideal for warmer weather. He grabbed a tie and pair of shirts that would match the suit. Thinking about conditions outside, he also selected a fine scarf that could only be cashmere and an umbrella with gold embossing. Nothing was priced, but prices did not matter.

He approached the sales counter and an employee promptly appeared.

“Would Sir like to try on those items so that we can assure a proper fit?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The employee came around the counter and led him to the back. “Any of these fitting rooms should be fine, except the one on the end. Stay out of #3.”

The employee emphasized the point by scowling at the fitting room door in question. Whatever Fitting Room #3 had done to him, he wasn’t ready to forgive or forget.

“Why not use that one?” After being in the store essentially by himself for more than two hours, according to his watch, this was the first limitation anyone had placed on him.

“It’s not up to our standards,” the employee sniffed.

“So it’s closed or something.”

“No, it’s closed. It’s just not for a man of your—ah—discerning taste. Please, Sir, don’t go in there.”

Dimitri saw it, the moment the employee had sussed him out as someone who maybe had enough cash to afford to step into Faberge Leaf, but would never again have that sum. Windfall inheritances. Lucky nights at the casino. A winning lottery ticket. The employee’s eyes told him that he was still trying to sort Dimitri into one of those categories.

“Very good,” Dimitri responded, injecting as much ice into his words as possible. He strode toward Fitting Room #3.

“Sir, I must ask you to stay out of there.” The words were almost forceful.

“Thank you, but your assistance is no longer required.” Without another glance at the employee, he entered the fitting room and closed the door with a satisfying click.

There wasn’t anything special about this room, he thought. The light was subtle, designed to soften lines and flatter features and figures. Every wall was mirrored.

He took a long look at his reflection, dressed in the best suit that he had ever owned. Even in the flattering light, it looked like an off-rack discount model when compared to the items he had seen in the showroom. He looked at the blue suit he had chosen. Next to it, the one he was wearing resembled the sort of garment prisoners are given after their sentences are up. He hurried to change into the one he picked out.

He dressed with pleasure. Every piece of the suit seemed to banish a month of winter from his mind. He smelled the jasmine again. His mouth tasted lychee.

He perfected the knot in his tie and once again stepped into his shoes. A multitude of Dimitris looked back at him. He glanced at his footwear. The shoes would do, but it wouldn’t hurt to check the store for something more appropriate. At least his watch went well with the new outfit.

He moved his arms, bemusedly watching untold thousands of Dimitris do the same. Up, down, out, flapping up and down, crossing and uncrossing. He sat down and stood up, then tried walking in place. When that didn’t work, he paced the circumference of the fitting room. The other Dimitris followed. He thought about humming a John Philip Sousa march, then remembered that he was in the most exclusive store in the city.

After three of four turns around the fitting room, Dimitri decided he had seen enough. The suit would have to be modified, but not by much. The employees had implied that they could tailor items in-store, perhaps even as he waited. He could have another of those delicious lychee drinks, or perhaps ask for something hot. He was beginning to feel a chill despite the hint of jasmine in the air.

It was time to go, but he had gotten turned around in the fitting room. He scanned the walls for the door. He was beyond being amused by the other Dimitris also scanning their own mirrored walls, so he didn’t notice that some of the reflected Dimitris simply stood there, watching him.

He turned in a circle, but couldn’t spot the door. He put out his hands and felt around, but touched only cold glass. The smell of pine needles drifted in through the ventilation system. He did find the hook holding his old suit. Feeling chillier by the second, he draped the blazer over his shoulders. Under the hook he saw a small button marked “Ring For Assistance.” He pressed it and listened for a sound. He heard the tinkle of icicles hitting the ground and shattering.

“I need assistance!” he shouted, pressing the button so hard his finger ached.

“Assistance is unavailable at this time,” a chilly voice informed him.

By then his breath was fogging in the air and he was shivering. The mirrors remained unclouded. If anything, they were more clear than before. He watched one of the Dimitris shiver for a moment, then stop.

“But I’m still shivering,” he said to himself. “I’m still cold and getting colder.”

His body was shaking violently. Unable to stand any longer, he slumped to the floor. The other Dimitris remained upright. Some appeared to straighten their posture, towering and looming from his perspective. Still wearing their new blue suits, they stepped toward him, unbuttoning their jackets as they did. Some Dimitris offered him wolfish smiles full of teeth. Others were expressionless.

He heard the sound of ice shattering as they breached their barriers. The smell of freshly frozen snow was in the air as the Dimitris reached for him with their cold, cold hands.

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Jason Porterfield is an award-winning journalist and author living in Chicago, Illinois. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com