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

Remembering Beth

Fiction
Sarah Turner


Image of a woman in a knee-length red raincoat and knee-high black boots walking on a rain-slicked sidewalk toward the photographer. A red bag is slung over her right shoulder. Her left hand is tucked into her pocket and her right hand holds the handle of an umbrella. The umbrella, along with the top of her head, is out of frame. Her face is obscured by shadow. The background cityscape includes other people carrying umbrellas on the sidewalk, vehicles including a yellow taxi and white van on the street, and tall buildings on both sides.

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

Frank had said it in passing, but I couldn’t let it go. I stood up, paced to the window and said, ‘I don’t think that’s fair. Our mother was very fond of Beth.’ It was an understatement and as soon as I’d said it, I wanted to say more, but my chest was tight with the weight of everything I was feeling about Beth and I was struggling to stay calm. Frank was a stranger, I reminded myself; he had no right to make judgments like this about my family. Besides, it was years since he’d really known Beth. All the same, he had said it with so much authority, I couldn’t shake it off.

He was watching me closely as I turned back and he must have seen the agitation in my face, but he didn’t soften his tone. He said, ‘Fond? Oh yes, I’m sure she was, but one tends to expect more from one’s own mother. Beth did, anyway. She needed more.’

Our eyes met and I wished I hadn’t come to see him. It was too soon after Beth had died. Frank pushed at his glasses, closing his eyes for a second behind them, and focused on me again, rearranging a strand of white hair, as though suddenly conscious that I was watching him.

‘You know, Beth had no confidence when she first got to New York,’ he said. ‘At home, she’d always been the black sheep of the family.’ He had given the phrase ‘black sheep’ an ironic emphasis, suggesting that it was the kind of thing I might say, but that he would not. For a moment, I was almost amused by this assumption, but then it occurred to me that when he talked about Beth to people who knew nothing about us, this was how he would explain it. Beth’s family had been repressive, he would say; we had stifled her.

‘That isn’t true,’ I said. ‘Mum was proud of her. We all were.’

I’d turned to him as I said it, but I looked away almost immediately, because the half-amused, half-saddened smile on his face annoyed me as much as anything he’d said. He was toying with my memories of Beth, making me feel as though I’d hardly known her.

He turned his hand over with a slight yawn, examining the blemishes on it. His face was more angular than it had seemed in Beth’s photographs. He sat back in his chair with his legs crossed and swung one of them forwards from the knee repeatedly. It was the first sign I’d seen that he was not quite relaxed.

‘Oh sure,’ he said. ‘Everyone was proud in the end. But it was different when she was just starting out. She had no self-belief. She would’ve stopped acting altogether, I think, if Lucy hadn’t given her a little confidence.’ His eyes passed over me, to the window. ‘Lucy was a mother to her, as well as a friend.’

‘Beth already had a mother,’ I said.

He didn’t reply immediately. Outside, in the December sunshine, a crow landed on a rooftop with a twig in its beak. I watched as it dropped it and felt for it again. Frank sighed and carried on talking in the room behind me.

Beth had felt like a failure until she was in her mid-twenties, he said. ‘Your mother was so academic. It was important to her. But Beth—she just wasn’t like that.’ He shrugged, explaining that his wife had felt an immediate connection with Beth, that she’d talked to her endlessly, discussing her plans. She, more than anyone Beth had known up to that point, had given her confidence, convincing her that she could become an actress. ‘Helping her was one of the things Lucy was proudest of,’ he said. ‘Beth had so much potential. She just needed someone to unlock it, it had been buried so deep at home.’

All the time he was saying this, I wanted him to stop. He was pushing the past into a shape I didn’t recognise, relentlessly lifting and dropping it like a garden worker turning earth, shaking my sense that I had been close to Beth. I tried to gauge from his face why he was saying these things, but his expression was perfectly composed and I could see no emotion in it. He was talking in a measured way, as if he was listing simple facts. I glanced at the clock and wished again that I hadn’t come.

Ironically, it had been my mother who had asked me to visit Frank while I was in New York and I’d agreed because he’d been so good to Beth. Frank had not been able to come to Beth’s funeral. He had been too fragile, after an operation for prostate cancer, to take a transatlantic flight, but he’d sent a letter that brought Beth back to me more vividly than any of the other cards or notes we’d had at the time. Most of the letters had upset me; it had struck me as peculiar that people should outline Beth’s qualities in them, as though they were trying to justify our grief to us. My sister had died before she was forty. I didn’t need anyone to justify the way I felt.

Frank’s letter had been different: he had not attempted to sum her up, but had simply described his strongest memories of her, beginning with her as a shy young woman meeting him for the first time in their apartment, when she’d come to talk about the nannying job. He had written about her long hair falling over an unbelted raincoat, the mini-dress beneath it, and the sudden, magnetising smile she’d given when his daughter first appeared. He’d described the long conversations she’d had with his wife late in the evenings, after he’d gone to bed, outlined the intense friendship that had developed between them, and then described the first time he’d ever seen her on stage and realised just how talented she was. ‘Hard to believe it about someone you know,’ he had written. ‘But there was no denying it. I miss her. Please look me up next time you’re in New York.’

His letter had been concise but extraordinarily detailed. I’d liked him instantly, on the strength of it, and had looked forward to meeting him. I suppose I’d thought he would reinforce my memories of Beth in some way, or that talking to him would bring me closer to her, giving me access to the years she’d spent here, away from us.

Remembering this now, I softened and said, ‘She enjoyed her time here. It was important to her.’

He nodded, but though he smiled briefly, the expression was quickly replaced by a thoughtful severity. ‘It was very important, I think, because it was so good for her. She started to develop here—it was like she hadn’t been allowed to before. My wife understood Beth so much more clearly than her own mother had.’

My heart beat faster—my mother had adored Beth—and when I looked down at my hand, I saw that it was clenched. I let my nails dig deeper into my palm and deliberately calmed my tone,

‘It’s funny you should say that,’ I said. ‘My parents wanted Beth to get some qualifications so she’d have something to fall back on, but really, it was just accepted: she wanted to be an actress and we all knew she would. No one tried to hold her back.’

He didn’t seem to have taken this in; he was nodding as I said it, but rather distantly, looking at the light that was flooding in through the upper panes of the window.

‘Oh, I’m sure you’re right,’ he said eventually, in a remote, distracted way. ‘In retrospect it must seem like that. But at the time it was different. Beth was always negatively compared to you. She had very little confidence when she first arrived.’

He had looped back to the beginning of our conversation, repeating what he had said then almost word for word, as though he had taken in none of what I’d told him. His certainty about my family annoyed me. Beth and I had been close, and I knew she hadn’t come to America to run away, so much as for the opportunities she’d thought she might have here. Her letters and calls from that time were energetic and enthused. Just before she’d left for New York she’d been excited, blissfully optimistic, planning it all out in the kitchen with my mother. She would attend acting classes here, get to know people who could help her. All of us had gone out of our way to help her prepare.

I told Frank some of this, and he explained, in his careful, roundabout way, that it couldn’t be true, and we went on like this for another ten minutes, both of us eager not just to make our point, but actually to make the other admit that they were wrong, until I gave up and, in a depressed attempt to change the subject, asked him how his own children were. He glanced at me and hesitated. For a moment, I thought he was so determined to talk about Beth that he wouldn’t let himself be diverted, but then he shifted in his chair, shrugged, and began to tell me about his daughter, who was an attorney in Washington, and his son, who worked for a magazine downtown.

It was difficult for me to focus; I was still distracted by what he’d said about Beth. I thought of my mother holding my arm at Beth’s funeral as we followed the coffin into the church, her lips pursed, and her eyes entirely blank. Nothing any of us could say could help her. Her own brother had been killed during the Second World War, and when they’d received the news, in the tiny Northumbrian village where they lived, her mother had pushed her arm away as she’d tried to comfort her and flatly said,

‘I have nothing to live for now.’

It had been the largest, most devastating rejection of my mother’s life, and she didn’t repeat those words to any of us as we walked into the church, but I thought that perhaps she’d understood them for the first time: they were there in her eyes and in her shattered face.

Frank couldn’t have talked like this if he’d seen her then, I thought, but he hadn’t come to the funeral—he’d only seen her composed, punctual reply to his letter. It had been restrained and dignified, but I suspected that he’d seen only coldness in it, a lack of feeling that confirmed everything his wife had told him.

I wanted him to stop talking, so that I could begin the story with him again and make him see how loved Beth had been, but I couldn’t find a way to start, and I knew I wouldn’t convince him, in any case. He was saying that his son came over to see him often, that his children were a comfort to him, now that his wife had died. I said again how sorry we had been to hear that news. It was a little more than five years since it had happened. Beth had been extremely upset. He nodded, rubbing his left eye with a finger beneath his spectacles and glanced past me, at the window again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, there we have it. We’ve both been through it.’

I recognised the sparseness of his reply. He was shutting himself off just as I had done after Beth had died, when what I’d felt had been so devastating and at the same time so commonplace, that I hadn’t found a way to discuss it with anyone.

We sat facing each other for several minutes without speaking. Eventually, he asked whether I’d like more coffee, and then said, tentatively, as though he was suddenly conscious of the tension between us,

‘I have some photos—of her time here. I don’t know if you’d like to see them?’

It was the kind of thing I’d hoped for when I’d first called him. ‘I’d love to,’ I said.

Frank disappeared into a room off the hall, closing the door behind him. When he came out, he was carrying three photograph albums and he gestured towards the sofa, indicating that I should join him there. As he lifted the cover of the first album, I was almost nervous. I suppose I was afraid that I might cry. I bit the inside of my cheek, hard.

He showed me all the photos quickly, starting with the early ones of his children before Beth arrived—the little girl already walking, the boy wrapped in blankets in his mother’s arms—but didn’t comment on them, glancing down at the pages with a self-conscious detachment, as though these photos had very little to do with him. I wondered briefly whether that was how it seemed to him. Beth had given me the impression that he’d seen very little of his children when they were small, and I was careful, as he turned the pages, not to ask anything that might hurt him, now that his wife had died, or remind him of things he would rather forget.

‘Ah, here we are,’ he said. ‘This was Central Park, and quite early on. Look, you can see she’s still wearing English clothes.’ It wasn’t clear to me how he knew they were British—she was in a skirt and boots that could have come from anywhere—but I let it pass. Beth’s front foot was angled sideways in front of her. Her hair was down across her shoulders and the big smile on her face was for Nicole, who was waving at her from the top of a climbing frame.

It was some time since I’d seen a photo of Beth at this age, and the excited rush of recognition it brought back to me was quickly followed by sadness. There were more photos of her with the children; one of her looking serious, painting with Nicole at a small easel, and one of her sitting reading on a bed with both children. They were leaning against her, laughing. He paused at a photo of Beth and an older woman sitting in deckchairs amongst pots of geraniums, staring at it for several seconds before he could go on.

‘That’s Lucy—on the roof of the apartment we had then. They used to sit out there a lot after the kids had gone to bed. That would’ve been the first summer Beth was here. I was working a lot at that time.’

I scanned the photo several times. Lucy had short, very dark hair. She was in a knee-length skirt and sandals with a cigarette raised to her mouth, frowning at the camera. Beside her, Beth had been unexpectedly disturbed in conversation. I’d forgotten how she’d moved her hand like that to make a point at that age; it was a gesture she’d had for a while, and then discarded. She looked happy. I looked at her face for some time, trying to work out what she’d been feeling, and why she’d talked about her family in the way she had.

I’d seen very little of Beth while she’d been away. The first year she was in America she’d come back twice, once at Christmas, and again in July, but I’d been away myself in the summer, and in the second year I hadn’t seen her at all. She’d seemed different when she’d moved back, it was true—more determined, more sure of herself—and I wondered, thinking about what Frank had said, whether there had also been a new absence in her.

Coming home had marked the beginning of her success as an actress, and I wondered for the first time now whether she’d had to make some sort of mental break with us in order for that to happen. I hadn’t been conscious of her doing that at the time, and I stalled on that fact, not letting myself think further. I looked at her face again, and turned the page quickly, but though I sat with Frank for another half an hour and though the conversation moved on to other subjects, I couldn’t stop thinking about Beth.

As we talked, I told myself that he was wrong, that all of us had been close to Beth, but as long as I knew he thought otherwise, I couldn’t convince myself that it was true. Even as I left I was regretting the fact that I hadn’t been able to make him admit he was wrong. I walked across Lexington and Fifth avenues to the park preoccupied, wanting, in short, angry bursts, to go back to his apartment and make him go through it all again.

The morning frost had melted in a bright sunshine and the streets were full of people. I threaded my way amongst them, waiting at the edges of pavements for the lights to change, but I barely saw anything; my mind was still on Beth. When I got to the park I walked for a long time, moving quickly until, circling back towards the lake, I remembered that Beth had walked here often, and a sudden, vivid, memory of her as she’d been then made me feel calmer.

The lake was empty and very still. There were leaves on its surface and here and there, around the edges, there were patches of ice. I climbed onto a rock next to it, looking across at the buildings opposite, trying to work out why I was in this state.

I stood still, wanting to deal with this easily. I reminded myself that Frank was still grieving, too. It was important to him to preserve his memories of his wife, important to believe she’d helped Beth more than anyone else, but it seemed to me that Frank had distorted my memories of Beth, pushing her further away from me. He’d raised issues Beth and I could never resolve. I wished I could forget everything he’d said.

I went on for a long time, until I had circled the lake completely, and was walking south, past the horse carriages and the hotels by the time I realised that thinking like this had unleashed something in me and I was remembering Beth more clearly than I had for some time. Incidents I thought I’d forgotten were flooding back to me now, and they made her seem fuller, more real, than she had since she’d died.

At the skating rink, small groups of people were circling the ice. I stood in the sunshine, where it was warm, watching them, focusing especially on two little girls in matching hats and scarves who were holding hands, laughing together at something one of them had said. It didn’t seem long since Beth and I had been that age. I stood watching the skaters until long after the girls had gone, thinking about Beth—the whole of Beth—and piecing my memories of her together again.

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Sarah Turner studied English at the University of Oxford and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is working on her first novel, This Is Not a Confession. Email: sarahturnerfiction[at]gmail.com

The Photo

Fiction
Victoria Kemsley


Image of an abandoned prairie homestead consisting of several woodframe buildings. A two-storey house is the largest building on the left, with two smaller buildings to the right of it, and another to the far right partially obscured by trees. A foreground of green grass and scrubby trees makes up the bottom third of the composition; above it is a darkening sky with a hint of sun peeking out from gathering clouds. The slanted sun casts a warm glow on the homestead.

Photo Credit: Jeff Wallace/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“No, Hugh. No.” Melvina fell into a coughing fit. She signaled with her hand to wait. Hugh waited. “I’ll not have my children remember their mother like this. Sick, skinny, coughing. No.” Melvina wiped the blood from her mouth.

“Your children will remember you for the loving, beautiful mother that you always are. Come outside and have your picture. The whole family. We have never had a photograph with the whole family.” Hugh pulled Melvina’s Sunday dress out of the cupboard and put it on her bed. “That Resilient Realistic Pictures fella is not going to be here forever.” Hugh started to put the dress on her as gently as he could.

She shook it off again.

“I get the feeling… Hugh… that… you are not listening to me.” She started to cough again.
This argument had been going on for near on a week. Ever since they heard that an itinerant photographer was coming to Starling County. Such excitement. All their neighbors were chattering about what they were going to wear, and getting haircuts, and comparing notes about the best place on their properties to pose for the picture. There was no other topic on the streets in town. Just yesterday the good ladies of the Women’s Institute had been over to the farm for their bi-weekly visit. They about drove Melvina to put a pillow over her ears.

“I think my blue hat, don’t you, Cilia?” Mrs. Jones checked out her reflection as she swept the kitchen floor.

Mabeline, the teenager that worked for her, held the handmade dustpan. “No hat for me, Mrs. Jones. My curly hair will be piled high with a ribbon. The wind will be the ruin of the entire picture. Pray for me.” Mabeline was almost as pretty as she thought she was.

“It’s going to be fight getting my boys into a bath in the morning. I’m going to take my bath the night before so I can be ready. He won’t be at my house until Thursday, so there’s time for them to get used to the idea.” Mrs. Jones shouted more than spoke. Probably due to her years in that factory in Calgary before Tim Jones convinced her to make her life as a farmer.

“Hand me down that flour, will you, Della? This stew is like weak tea. I’ll stop by after supper, Mabeline, and wind the rags in your hair tomorrow. You can sleep in them, and take them out gently, mind. Your long hair will just flow like a river. You are so lucky.”

“I’m tempted to wear my wedding dress,” Sally Ferrell declared. “I really am. May as well get two uses out of the darn thing. That is a fine looking stew, Lily. Nothing like your fine rabbit stews, Melvina, but just dandy.”

“First thing I ever learned to cook on my own.” Melvina sat up and tried a little smile. “He was senior cook just before I came away. He declared that he was afraid that my new husband was going to starve to death if he’d had to survive on the state of my cooking. Non-cooking really.”

The ladies talked of nothing but the photographer for near on the whole hour of the visit. They never stopped working, though. Sweeping, cleaning the windows, freshening her sheets, cooking up a big rich meal for the family, complete with biscuits, cake, and pie for tomorrow, beating the one rug the McLarens owned. Young Mrs. Lawrence took all the dishes off the shelves and scrubbed them down while declaring herself too ugly to have her picture taken at all. Melvina was exhausted by the time they left. Nice though. So much happy life in her house.

Hugh was never much of a talker, but he stayed determined to have his way on the photo session. He had met his match in Melvina though. Other wives did just what their husbands said to do. Melvina knew her place to be a full partner. In this, and so many matters, she stood her ground.

“I want a nice picture of my husband and my babies. Right here on my table. I can look at it all day long. I’ll hear you outside and just look at you. Sandy’s new sweater is all finished now. Slick their hair down, Hugh.” Melvina still had enough energy to sew on the last of the cardigan’s buttons.

“You will be in the picture. The end.” Hugh stacked the wood by the stove.

“Helen can dress Phyllis if you can manage Jeannie. Helen can wear her little church dress. It’s a tiny bit small, but will look just fine if she wears that pretty apron that Jean Guilliame gave her last Christmas.” She bit the button thread off. “Do this for me, Hugh. I need my family right now. Will you do this for me?”

Hugh stopped arguing. She was right, of course. She did not look like the beautiful girl in that portrait she had sent to him during the war. Inside she was the same, but the outside was pale and boney and would break your heart to see.

“They want a photograph of their mother.” Hugh fed the stove to get it roaring for supper.

“Hand me my English box, please, my good Hughie. You know the one.”

Melvina’s mother didn’t write her very often, but once Dahlia came to accept that they were never coming back, she started sending little treasures over. The wooden box was Dahlia’s most prized possession. Lady Winston had uncharacteristically given the staff gifts on the occasion of the King’s coronation in 1911. Chinese boxes were all the rage then. Dahlia used her little box to hide her treasures and Melvina continued that tradition. At the moment it held the princely sum of $2.17 that it had taken her nearly a decade to accrue. The most recent $1.50 coming from the last sweater she had been able to knit. It was not a perfect fit despite Lesley Wilson declaring it to be.

“I believe he said two dollars, didn’t he, Hugh?” Melvina opened her little box.

“I have the two dollars. You don’t need to…” He started to shut her little box.

“I know you do, my husband. But let me do this with my own money, will you? Then you can tell my children that their mother gave them this gift. That will be better memory than a picture of a weak, sick and sad woman.” She carefully counted out all the pennies and nickels and one true dollar bill.

Hugh put the money in his pocket and left her to finish his chores.

When the day came for the photograph, Hugh decided that the picture was to be taken with the wide open prairie for a background, not the house or the barn as some people chose. He wasn’t so house proud yet. The boys wore the matching sweaters Melvina had made. Archie’s was, of course, worn by Sandy first. Melvina combed everybody’s hair one by one and had a quiet moment with each of them before they went outside.

“You’ll give your biggest smile, won’t you, Helen? You have such a pretty smile, my big girl. If you smile, your sisters can’t help but join in.”

“Jeannie, sweet girl, you are going to make a picture today with your Daddy, won’t that be fun? Then your pretty picture will sit right here on my table. I’ll look at it all the time, even when you aren’t here. I like that idea. Do you like that idea?”

“Yes, Mama.” Jean was just a toddler, but she could feel that this was a big moment. She started to cry. She snuggled with her mother until the last minute.

“Archie, don’t be frightened. It doesn’t hurt to have your picture taken.”

Archie squirmed as his mother gently combed his hair while he perched on her bed.

“You see my picture over there, Archie? I had to sit still, still, still. I’ll tell you a secret. Do you want to hear a secret just between you and me?”

Archie nodded.

“See how my arm is set across the front of me? Would you believe it? That is hiding a big pole that I had to put my chin on so I wouldn’t move. Isn’t that funny? See how my other hand is hiding the bottom of my chin? That’s hiding a metal platform. Mama’s whole chin sitting on a platform?”

Archie started to smile a little with the thought that he had a secret just for him and Mama.

“Back in those days you had to sit still for hours it seemed. But aren’t you lucky? You can just stand big and tall on the McLaren farm without a pole and smile like you heard a good joke. Can you do that, Archie?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“It’s up to you, Sandy. You are my big boy. My firstborn. I couldn’t be more proud at how big and strong you are growing. Almost as big as your Daddy now! You will show the others how to act, won’t you? Big and strong. Stand tall, my handsome son. I want to see if you can be taller than Daddy in the picture. I bet you will be. Let’s not tell him until we see the picture next week. It will be our secret.”

It was no good. They stood there, tall and straight as they promised. Everyone clean, shaved, combed, ironed, but sad. No one could smile knowing that Mama was waiting in her bed. Listening carefully for what was happening outside. They all tried to muster a smile like they said they would, but when the photographer came back the next week with the picture, it was clear. Hugh held Jeannie in one arm and the other two little girls leaned up against him. The boys stood on either side of him, staring at the camera suspiciously. Not a smile between the six of them. This was a sad family. With a missing mother.

“Well, look at this!” Melvina exclaimed when she saw the photograph. “My fetching family. You boys look so grown up. I don’t believe it! You look like a mirror of your father. I imagine when you grow up no one will be able to tell the difference between you.”

“Thank you, Mama,” Archie managed to squeak out before he ran out of the house.

“I can make you a frame if you want, Mama,” Sandy said.

“My goodness, Sandy. My cup runneth over. Thank you. Don’t neglect your chores though, or your Dad will have my head. I will put the photo with your nice frame right here on my table that Uncle made. I’m so lucky.”

The three little girls were curled up on her bed. They stared at the photo, not really understanding what was happening. Helen thought she was in trouble somehow. She didn’t know why, but the picture was not quite right. She had seen pictures of herself at school, this was not the same.

“Melvina…”

“It’s just fine, Hugh. This is my family and I’m proud to have the photo. Thank you for doing this for me.” With that she had a coughing fit, and the girls were scrambled off her bed and out the door. When she settled back on her pillows again, and she was alone, she took a real and true look at the photograph. She brought the photo to her chest and the tears came then.

Uncle crept up to the door of the little house to look in on Melvina, as he liked to do, then just as quietly backed out. He waved Hugh off when he saw him coming back into to check on her again.

“Leave her be, Hugh. She’ll not want to disappoint you.”

Hugh took a few paces back from the door and waited.

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Victoria Kemsley teaches writing to seniors at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She follows the ‘Learn then Teach’ philosophy. But sometimes it’s ‘Teach then Learn’. This piece is part of an anthology called Prairie Stories, that traces the life of her Grandfather and Grandmother who homesteaded in Delia, Alberta after the first world war. Email: victoriakemsley[at]gmail.com

Initiation

Fiction
Kathryn Bashaar


Black-and-white image of a group of elementary-school-age children, a dozen or more, in a crosswalk marching toward the photographer. The girls and boys are dressed in 1970s-era casual clothing, mostly short-sleeved shirts and pants in various styles and patterns; a few of the girls wear short skirts or dresses. In the background, a large leafy tree fills the right side of the photograph, a utility pole and "WALK" light are directly behind the children, and to the right, a semi truck and trailer is in the street. The street slopes gently upward and houses and trees dot the hill. Utility poles line the street and a few 1970s-vintage cars are parked on the sides.

Photo Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Flickr (CC-by)

Marky Murphy had lived more than twice as long as the doctors expected at his birth. I took my frail mother to the funeral home, where she hugged his tiny, comma-shaped mother. Mrs. Murphy wiped her eyes and shook her head, speechless with grief.

I approached the casket and gazed at Marky, whom I hadn’t seen in almost fifty years. Wisps of gray hair on his round head. The slanted eyes, the stubby fingers, the look of complete peace—and the scar. He still had it, a white slash above his right eyebrow. Ancient guilt stirred in my chest.

 

The neighborhood where Marky and I grew up was dominated by two enormous families: the Connors and the Santinis. Mrs. Connor and Mrs. Santini reproduced prolifically, an average of a child per year, sometimes delivering twins, so that each of them had five children between the ages of six and ten roaming the streets and woods and terrorizing the rest of us, and two or three more still confined to the yard, preparing to terrorize our younger brothers and sisters.

They were clannish, mean, bossy and capricious. One day you were allowed to join their games, another day not, for obscure reasons. The rules of their games changed to suit them and if you didn’t like it, too bad, go home, they still had more than a baseball team between them and you’d hear them enjoying themselves while you, a member of the rejected rabble, listlessly played with paper dolls in your room or jumped rope alone on the concrete patio.

But I don’t think they meant to hurt Marky.

One summer, they had a clubhouse in a small wood near the Connor home, a sprawling ranch with a two-car garage, bigger and grander than the average house in our neighborhood. There was a path to the clubhouse from the Connor yard. They’d built the clubhouse out of soda-pop crates and some wood scraps that their dads had around, and they had a cigar box which they were very mysterious about. I desperately wanted to know what was in that box. They referred to it often, in vaguely threatening tones, hinting that the box contained objects of great power and possible danger.

Other than the path from the Connors’ yard, the only way to the clubhouse was through a particularly brutal thigh-high stand of thorny underbrush which we called “jagger bushes” or just “jaggers.”

I raced my bike around the Connors’ dead end one blinding summer morning two weeks before my tenth birthday. The sun was high, white and jagged in the hard, blue sky, and the concrete sidewalk radiated heat. I looped the dead end languidly, hoping a Connor would emerge from their house and invite me in to play. For all that her children were the terrors of the neighborhood, Mrs. Connor was very particular about being disturbed by other people’s children. She didn’t like children who came to the door too early in the morning, or during meals, or who came in wearing dirty shoes or who “made pests of themselves” by coming too often.

I pretended not to notice when Sandy Connor emerged from their spacious garage on her own pink two-wheeler, until she started riding beside me, blonde ponytail swinging, trying to cut me off. Finally, trying to avoid her, I wobbled to a stop and put a foot down. Sandy stopped in front of me.

“Patsy Place!” she called, although I was right beside her.

“Yeah.” My heart fluttered a bit.

“What are you doing here?”

“Riding my bike.”

“This is our dead end.”

“Other people can ride on this street if they want to.”

“No, they can’t. My dad said. The street in front of our house is our property. You can’t be on it unless we say. It’s a law.”

“I see other people riding here,” I argued.

“Because we say they can. We didn’t say you could ride here. And you can’t come to our club unless we invite you either.”

“Well, can I?”

“Can you what?”

“Can I come to your club?”

“Maybe. I’ll have to ask everybody. We’d have to have a vote. Come to the woods after lunch and we’ll have the vote.”

“Okay.” I smiled ingratiatingly. “See ya later.” And I rode off, in case what she said was true, about the law.

 

On my way home, Marky was in his front yard playing with his pet rabbit, Din. As I passed, he called out to me and waved me into the yard. I laid my bike in the grass near the curb.

Marky poked a carrot through the bars of Din’s cage, smiling at me. “Din,” he said, handing me the carrot and indicating that I should try feeding the rabbit. We laid on our stomachs in the prickly, summer-dry grass. Grasshoppers popped around in front of us, and ants crawled on our sun-warmed legs.

I tried poking the carrot at the rabbit. Din ignored me at first, but then I waved the carrot under his nose and he took a nibble.

“Ayesh!” Marky cried approvingly. Marky said some regular words, but he also had a language of his own; that was why Din had such a funny name. “Ayesh” meant that he was either very happy or very upset.

We vaguely knew that Marky was different from the rest of us. When his parents allowed him to come out and play, we included him. We were casually cruel to him, but only in the same way that we were cruel to each other. We made fun of his cries of “ayesh!” just like we made fun of Jane Mulvaney’s lisp, or like the Santinis taunted me when they caught me picking my nose one day. Mrs. Murphy was protective, though; she usually kept Marky in the yard.

She came out the front door now, to check on us. Her worried brown eyes rested on me and relaxed a bit. “Hello, Patsy,” she said.

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy,” I replied, not looking up, still waving the carrot at Din.

“Din,” Marky said to his mother, pointing to the cage, making a gesture like rocking a baby, and then pointing to me.

“You want Patsy to hold Din?”

Marky nodded. “Ayesh!”

“Would you like to hold the rabbit?” Mrs. Murphy asked me.

I nodded, and she opened the cage’s latch. Marky fetched Din out very gently, his mother hovering over him, and handed the rabbit to me.

“Hold on to him,” Mrs. Murphy warned.

I’d never held Din before. He trembled in my arms, his pink nose twitching.

Marky smiled and nodded at me, making a petting motion.

I cautiously held the rabbit in one arm, and petted his back with my other hand. His black-and-white fur was very soft.

Marky nodded again. “Nice,” he said.

“He’s so cute,” I said. “I wish I could have a rabbit.”

“You’d have to ask your parents about that,” Mrs. Murphy said. She took Din from me. “I think he needs to go back in his cage now.” She dropped him into the cage and closed the latch.

“Bye, Marky,” I said. “Thanks for letting me hold Din.”

“Come back any time,” Mrs. Murphy said.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called as I picked up my bike and pedaled home.

 

I had a baloney sandwich, a glass of milk, and a plum for lunch, my thighs zipping off the sticky vinyl chair when I rose from the kitchen table. My mother was cleaning my little sister’s face and didn’t look up, just said, “Be back in time for dinner.”

I jumped on my bike, pedaled to the Connors’ and shyly rang the doorbell. They had the fancy kind of screen door, with their initial in wrought aluminum.

Sandy came to the door. “We’re still eating,” she said. “My mom’s mad. It’s rude to come to the door when people are eating.” She had a half-eaten Oreo cookie in her hand, a treat we were never allowed at our house, and her teeth were flecked with black crumbs.

“Okay,” I said humbly. “I’ll wait.”

“No, just meet us at the woods.”

“Okay.” I started towards the path that led to their yard.

“No, not that way.” Sandy opened the screen door and poked out her head. “You have to go in the other way.”

My stomach twisted. The other way led to the jaggers. But one did not disobey a Connor.

I waited where the path ended in jaggers for what felt like a very long time, and was ready to give up and go back home to my paper dolls and my jump rope when the Connor-Santini clan appeared on the other path, bearing the cigar box.

When they had gathered behind their barricade of soda-pop cases and scrap wood, Sandy called out, “Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?”

“Yes,” I called back.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in our club?”

Petey, the biggest boy, replied, “I vote that she should have an initiation.”

“Who votes for an initiation?” Sandy asked.

Ayes came from all the Connors and Santinis in attendance, from Petey down to six-year-old Anna.

“It’s voted,” Petey declared. “The initiation is that Patsy Place has to come to the clubhouse through the jaggers.”

My heart raced and my baloney sandwich heaved in my stomach. Between me and the clubhouse lurked a five-foot-deep, two-foot-high snarl of thorny scrub. I was so close to being in the club. But I hesitated.

“Patsy Place, do you want to be in our club?” Petey called.

“Yes,” I quavered.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” he decreed.

I bit my lip and lifted my right leg as high as I could, stamping a section of jaggers under my red, rubber-soled Ked. It was harder to lift my right leg and tramp down the next section. I felt the prick of the thorns on my inner thighs. But not until I contemplated my next step did I understand the trap I was in. As soon as I lifted my right leg again, the jaggers behind me would spring back up and trap me from behind. But some pride or determination or abject desperation drove me on, and I lifted my right leg again.

My red knit shorts were now pinned by half a dozen thorns from left, right and behind, but I was halfway there. I patiently detached the branches from my shorts, drawing pinpricks of blood from my small white fingers, and took another step. I felt the sharp scratches on my legs and refused to look down. The jaggers were a little higher here towards the barricade. My shirt and shorts were both caught and the bushes were too high in front of me to tramp down. But I was almost there. I moved forward. I could feel my clothes snagging and ripping. The jaggers tore at my arms and legs like tiny, vicious teeth.

I emerged at the barricade with a branch stuck to the front of my shirt and another one in my hair. When I looked down, I saw that my arms and legs were covered with small gashes, some of them with thorns still embedded. My shorts were a fuzz of snags, my white cotton shirt had a large tear and dozens of pulled threads. One fingernail burned, a thorn embedded beneath it.

Petey was laughing. “I can’t believe she actually did it!” he said to his sisters. To me, he said nothing.

“You’re bleeding,” Anna observed.

“So, am I in the club?” I asked.

“Who votes that Patsy Place can be in the club?” Sandy asked.

Ayes all around again, and I sat down on one of the soda cases. I didn’t notice the pain in my fingernail any more.

“That was funny,” Petey said. “I can’t believe you did it.”

“You’re going to be in trouble when our mom sees your clothes,” Kim Santini warned.

“No, I won’t,” I lied. “So, what do we do in the club?”

“We don’t have to do something every single time,” Sandy snapped. “Sometimes we don’t do anything. It’s just a club.”

“What’s in the cigar box?” I asked.

The mood turned somber. “You have to promise not to tell anyone,” Kim said.

“She won’t,” Petey said, “because if she does, I’ll beat her up and take her pants off and she’ll have to run home naked.”

Everyone laughed except me.

“Okay,” Petey said, “show her.”

Kim slowly lifted the box lid to reveal a bone nestled in dead leaves.

“We think it’s a human bone,” Sandy whispered.

“We’re going to find the rest of the body and then we’re going to find the murderer,” Kim added.

“Maybe it was you!” Petey yelled at me suddenly, and then laughed at my startle, slapping his knee repeatedly. When he finished laughing, he said, “Okay, meeting adjourned for today. Same time, same place tomorrow.”

I proudly trailed after them down the path that led to the Connor yard. “Bye, see you tomorrow, good meeting,” I called as I ran to the other entrance to retrieve my bike.

 

I went to the Connors’ door after lunch the next day. Sandy came to the screen door again. “My mother says you’re making a pest of yourself. Wait in the yard.”

I hung around in the Connor’s yard for a while, wishing to be invited in for Oreos and admiring the litter in their yard: dented bikes, seam-ripped baseballs, hula hoops, jump ropes, scratched metal trucks, and a couple of naked, disheveled Barbies with glitter nail polish chipping off their hands.

“Don’t touch our toys,” Davey Connor warned as the Connors flooded out of their house.

“Come on, let’s go,” Petey said, and we all ran into the woods, where the Santinis were already waiting for us.

Freddy Santini passed around a bag of Wise potato chips and everyone took big handfuls. I was on the end and got mostly crumbs. I licked my fingers and plunged them to the bottom of the bag to draw up the greasy remains of salt and potato.

“Ewww,” Kim exclaimed, pointing at me. “She got her germs in the bag. I don’t want any more.”

Although I longed for more crumbs, I put the bag down.

“The meeting will now come to order,” Petey announced. “First order of business: new members.”

My heart sank. I was enjoying the distinction of being the only non-Connor, non-Santini member of the club.

Freddy’s hand shot up. “I know who we can invite: Marky Murphy.”

“I don’t think we should invite Marky,” I said. “Isn’t he… retarded?”

“That’s a bad word,” Sandy scolded.

“Yeah, you shouldn’t say ‘retarded,’” Freddy agreed.

“All in favor of asking Marky Murphy to join our club say aye.” Petey said.

I reluctantly added my aye to the chorus.

 

The next day, rather than make a pest of myself, I wandered through the Connors’ toy graveyard, right into the woods where the Santinis and Connors already waited. Sandy, Petey, Marie, Jill, Nicky, Anna, Kim, Debbie and Tommy were in the clubhouse. Freddy stood with Marky on the other side of the jaggers.

Nobody greeted me or seemed to notice that I had arrived. They were milling around with an air of excitement and agitation.

“Shh, shh, shh,” Petey said, then intoned, “Marky Murphy, do you want to be in our club?”

Marky grinned and yelled, “Ayesh.”

The girls giggled.

“Then you must walk through the jaggers,” Petey commanded.

Marky looked confused.

Freddy explained, “Just walk through the jagger bushes to the clubhouse. Then you’re in the club.” He took one step forward, then stepped back and nudged Marky forward.

Marky frowned, folded his arms and shook his head.

“C’mon, Marky!” the girls yelled. “Please! We want you in our club.” They beckoned to him. “Pleeeease!”

Marky shook his head again.

Freddy gave Marky a shove. “C’mon. It won’t hurt you.”

Marky was bigger and stronger than Freddy, but he was caught off guard. He went down on his hands and knees. “Ayesh!” he wailed. His T-shirt and shorts were caught and his face was marked with a dozen scratches. He panicked and began to flail, trying to escape, lost his balance, and went into the brush head first. When he rose back onto his hands and knees, blood streamed over his right eye.

“He put his eye out!” Freddy yelled.

“Jesus Mary Mother of God!” Petey said. “Get out of here! Everybody out of here!”

We ran. I found my bike in front of the Connors’ house and raced home. I ran to my room, leapt into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and cried into my pillow.

I should tell, but then Petey would beat me up and take my pants off. Somebody would go looking for Marky pretty soon, and then the dads would know how to get him out of the jaggers. And he only lost one eye, so at least he wouldn’t be blind. That wasn’t really so bad.

Finally, I stopped crying and realized that I had to tell my mother, even if Petey did beat me up and take my pants. Just as I was getting up, my mother stormed into my room. “Patricia!  What did you kids do to Marky Murphy?”

I started to cry again. “It wasn’t my idea! I was going to tell you, just now!”

“Those Connor kids said it was your idea.”

“No, it wasn’t! It wasn’t me! It was Freddy!”

My mother sighed. “I can believe that.”

She sat on my bed. “What in the world were you kids doing in the woods anyway?”

“It’s a club,” I choked. “You had to walk through the jaggers to get to the club. I told them not to do it.”

“I see,” my mother said, glancing down at my own scratched legs and arms.

“I’m sorry, Mommy. But at least he’s not blind. At least he still has one eye.”

“What?”

“Marky’s eye. He put his eye out.” The tears started again.

My mother put her arms around me. “No, honey, no. He didn’t lose an eye. He was just scared and scratched up. The Connor kids told their mother and she called the fire department.”

“Are we going to jail?”

“No, no, the fireman had to cut through the brush.”

“I feel like I should go to jail. I feel terrible. I’m sorry, Mommy.”

“I know you are. But I want you to think about what you did and take a lesson from it. You’ll have to apologize to the Murphys. Your father and I will talk about whether there will be any other punishment.”

She rose to leave. “I think you’d better stay in your room until your father gets home.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and nodded, eyes and nose still running.

I wiped my face on my arm, crawled back under the covers and pulled them back over my head, although it was a hot day. I would rather anything than have to face the Murphys. Rather go to jail, rather if my father would spank me every day for a year. I would rather be yelled at by every teacher in every class every day for the rest of my life, rather have leprosy, rather be kidnapped by Communists, than apologize to the Murphys.

The Murphys were nice people. Everybody else in the neighborhood only had little kids, but Marky was the younger brother of two pretty, friendly teenage sisters who wore miniskirts and mohair sweaters and babysat the little kids sometimes. They gave me chewing gum and their old issues of Girls’ Life magazine. Mrs. Murphy was easy to talk to and had a candy jar. She was friends with my mom and came up for coffee and sometimes brought coffee cake that had crumbly cinnamon sugar on top. She had pleading dark eyes, especially when Marky was around. I would rather go blind myself than ever have to look into those eyes again.

 

That same evening my parents marched me two doors up to the Murphys’ little ranch house. The teenage sisters weren’t home. Mr. and Mrs. Murphy sat on the couch, Marky between them. Mr. Murphy was a city policeman and it occurred to me that he might still send other police to arrest me any time.

I stood in their dim, silent living room, with the candy jar on the coffee table, flanked by my parents, hanging my head.

My mother nudged me. “What do you have to say for yourself, Patsy?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Murphy,” I burst out, sobbing. “We didn’t mean to hurt him!”

“I’d rather if you directed your apology to Marky,” Mrs. Murphy said gently.

“I’m sorry, Marky,” I choked out. My eyes were squeezed shut. I couldn’t look at them. My head hurt. The room was warm and felt like it was swaying gently, like a boat.

My worst fear was that they’d ask me why I did it. I didn’t know why. But, instead, Mrs. Murphy said, “That’s all I wanted to hear. I know you’re a good girl.”

Mr. Murphy didn’t say anything. My parents ushered me out into the evening’s waning heat.

“Bye, Patsy,” Marky called.

 

My punishment was to play only in my own house or yard for a week, no friends. I didn’t want to go out, anyway. I played house with my little sister, jumped rope, drew new clothes for my paper dolls, read Nancy Drew mysteries. It felt just that I should be cloistered like a nun. It felt safe.

The second day I was allowed out, a Red Rover game was starting in Jane Mulvaney’s yard. Jane had cousins visiting from Ohio and so we had a respectable number to play even without any Santinis or Connors. It was after dinner. Cicadas screamed and fireflies blinked lazily in the blue evening light.

We were sorting ourselves into sides when Marky approached, smiling as usual. He took a place beside me, raised his arms and cried, “Ayesh!”

Chuckie Siebert laughed and nudged the boy beside him.

I froze. The chatter of the other kids receded and the world again began to tilt like a ship at sea. I felt like ants were crawling around right under my skin and I wanted to run back home, but something kept me rooted.

“Do we have to have her on our side?” Chuckie whined. He jerked his head towards one of Jane’s cousins. There was something wrong with her. She was skinny, not normal skinny like me, skinny like a starving person. Her glasses looked huge on her bony, big-toothed face. She looked around nervously.

Jane folded her pudgy arms. “My mom said we have to let Tracy play.”

Chuckie rolled his eyes and puffed out an annoyed sigh.

“There’s something wrong with her,” Alicia Smith whispered to me. “What’s wrong with her?”

Jane heard her. “There’s nothing wrong with her,” she insisted.

“Come be on our side, Tracy” I said. I could hardly believe I said it. As soon as it was out of my mouth, the ants were back under my skin and my stomach felt fidgety.

“Oh, great,” Alicia muttered. “Now we’ll definitely lose.”

“Come be on our side,” I repeated, and beckoned to Tracy.

Tracy looked around as if seeking someone’s permission, then walked across to our side of the lawn. She took Marky’s hand at the end of our line. Marky patted me on the back. “Nice,” he said.

“You’re going to lose,” Chuckie taunted.

“Let’s just play,” I retorted. I took Marky’s hand and squeezed it hard.

 

I looked down at Marky now, the man who had beaten the actuarial odds, the boy who, at age ten, had surpassed me in courage and character. I kissed my index finger and lightly touched it to his scar, then knelt to say my prayer.

pencil

Kathryn Bashaar‘s first novel, The Saint’s Mistress, is published by CamCat Books. Her shorter work has been published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Civil War Times and the literary journals Metamorphosis, PIF, Grand Dame and Persimmon Tree. My story “The Girl From Bethel Park” will appear in the anthology Children of Steel later this year. Email: kbashaar[at]gmail.com

Chopping The Vegetables

Fiction
Swetha Amit


Image of chopped tomatoes on a wooden cutting board. A whole tomato is in the bottom left corner and a white bowl of chopped tomatoes is at the top. On the right, the tip of a chef's knife blade and fingers of a woman's left hand are visible. Light from a source behind the camera casts shadows on the tomatoes, etc.

Photo Credit: Su-Lin Lee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. You stand there in the kitchen chopping the vegetables, listening to the sound of raindrops dripping on the window. The rainy winter of Northern California seems to have instigated your appetite. You peel the carrots, slice them along with the onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers. You take a step back and look at the vibrant display of shades in front of you, wishing you could add some color to your dreary life like the color of the plate of vegetables. You feel a tear roll down your cheek. And it’s not because of the onions. You wipe it away and glance at your reflection on the glass of the cutlery shelf above you. A pair of brown eyes on a dusky complexion with straight black hair stares back at you. The sky rumbles, and for a flinching second, you think you catch sight of an older version of you. You blink in disbelief. It cannot be! And yet it feels like it’s her.

 

Exactly a year since she went out of your life. Your world had come tumbling down with that phone call. You remember the last words of your mother before she left in her car. See you soon, she said, stroking your hair just like she always did. You were hoping to spend that weekend with your parents and talk about your future after graduating from UC Berkeley. You didn’t expect to see your mother lying still with her eyes closed at the hospital. That image continues to haunt you even today. Her face strangely looked peaceful. How could she leave you so soon? She had promised to listen to your plans, share your heartbreaks, shop with you for your wedding and change the nappies of your babies. Why, mom, why? You feel betrayed and shudder when you think of that voice over the phone that February evening: “Is that Amrita? I am afraid your mother has met with an accident and is in the hospital.” It was raining just like it was today. You dropped your phone, screaming for your father. You dialed his number with trembling hands several times until he picked up with an impatient Hello? You mumbled as tears flowed down your cheeks. At twenty, you sounded just like your eight-year-old self who was afraid of the dark. Vulnerable, petrified, and helpless.

You decided to take a break for a year. All you do is brood and visit the kitchen multiple times. A place that keeps you connected to your mother. You cling onto her memories of your moments with her here. It’s the only way you keep her alive. That scene at the hospital flashes in front of you. “It’s too late,” the doctor had said. “Severe head injuries and little chance of survival.” Her car had collided with another on the highway. The front glass was smashed, and the steering wheel was dripping with blood and droplets of rain. You prayed to God, hoping for a miracle. What wouldn’t you have done to see your mother open her eyes and smile at you as she always did? You saw nurses and doctors working on her, trying their best to save her. Those crooked lines eventually turned into one straight line accompanied by the beeping sound of the monitor. You open your mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. Your father’s hand on your shoulder fails to reassure you. He is clearly upset but strangely calm, knowing he had to be that anchor to help you combat this storm that had wrecked your sanity.

You recollect a strain in their relationship before your mother’s death. You could notice being the sensitive person you are, even if you were away from them. But they dismissed it whenever you broached the topic. “Busy with new contacts and deals,” your father, who worked at a venture firm, said. Your mother’s voice sounded tight and guarded. “Just a lot of reading and new releases,” she shrugged. A reviewer for a literary journal, she was constantly surrounded by books. Their nonchalant behavior nagged you to a point, compelling you to visit that weekend, citing the excuse of wanting to discuss your future academic plans. Your mother appeared to be flustered and in a hurry that afternoon. The door slammed after her, and the sound echoed in the hall. The aroma of cinnamon, cloves, and spices wafted in the air. You walked towards the kitchen and saw that she had cooked vegetable biryani—your favorite dish. Next to it was a bowl of raita.

You remembered those times when you and your mother would cook these dishes. It was a regular ritual every Sunday. As a little girl, you’d enjoy watching her smoothly pierce through the carrots and onions. The sound of the knife on the cutting board reverberated throughout the room. Chop chop chop, they’d go, sounding like musical notes to your ears, accompanied by a soft humming sound from her lips. Her eyes shone with pride, seeing the deluge of colors, shapes, and sizes as she cut them into small pieces. Sometimes you’d see water in her eyes. You’d ask why she was crying. “It’s from the onions,” she’d laugh through her tears. Then there were times she’d carve faces out of the leftover vegetables and arrange them neatly on a plate. “Mom, why do you do that?” you’d ask.

“Just for fun. I always indulge in creativity outside my writing. Try to make mundane things look interesting.”

“How?”

“In whatever ways you can.”

You would watch her sprinkle the colorful little pieces into a bowl of curd that she had whipped with a spatula to make it smooth. She would then garnish it with coriander leaves. When you were twelve, you learned this art. You felt all grown up to be holding that knife. Over time you mastered this craft and spent several joyous times with your mother. Your father would jokingly remark about not wanting to interrupt the women bonding. “My two lovely and talented ladies, you could give Julia Child competition,” he’d say fondly. There were times they’d drive from their home in the suburbs to the city. You would all gape at the view of Land’s End, stroll around Golden Gate Park, and picnic at Shakespeare Garden. Together you’d discuss Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello while munching on sandwiches and cookies. Those good old days and moments that felt like a different era were still close to your heart. You even remember those torrid arguments and tantrums with your mother. Over messy rooms, your bizarre piercings, tattoos, your choice of clothes, your mother’s spacing out resulting in her lack of attention towards you sometimes, her critique on your writing, expecting high standards from a schoolgirl. There were times when you felt she didn’t understand you. Like when you dated that boy she didn’t like from your class. Not your kind, she’d said. You called her a snob. Later she’d apologize and exuberate the warmth of a mama bear, embracing you in her arms.

Your father tried his best to be supportive and patient. Even those nights when you’d wake up screaming. Even when you refused to go back to school. Even when you weren’t interested in talking to your friends. Even when all you wanted to do was stay in the kitchen the entire day, chopping vegetables. “Post-traumatic stress disorder,” the doctor had said. “It’s tough. Give her time and always be there for her.” You feel grateful for your father’s support. Even though you knew he was hurting inside. Once, you even saw him crying silently. When you tried to comfort him, he said it was due to the onions he’d tried chopping earlier. You felt like a part of your body had been chopped off. You look at her photograph numerous times. Sometimes you almost feel like you see her standing in that kitchen, her slender build silhouetted against that marble slab, chopping the vegetables, and talking in her soft voice. One thought constantly troubles you. Where was your mother going on that Friday afternoon in the rain? Why was she in such a hurry that she couldn’t stop and chat with you?

 

Just then, you hear the door open and shut. Your father is home. You hear his footsteps coming towards the kitchen. “Smells good. Just like how Mamta used to make it,” he remarks. You smile weakly and accompany him to the living room. His newly-acquired beard makes him look older than his age. You spot the spurts of grey and the tired look in his eyes. Even though he hasn’t been working as hard as he used to.

“Were mom and you happy?” you blurt out.

Your father looks up and thinks for a while.

“Mamta and I shared a wonderful relationship.” His eyes had a faraway look. “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault. I often think I was spending too much time at work. Did you… did you ever feel neglected by me at any point, Amrita?”

You look at the door wordlessly, recollecting your mother’s last words at that same place. Her black dress, silver earrings, lip gloss, and pulled-back hair looked different. Quite a contrast from her usual flowery, bright-colored dresses and equally bright shades of lipstick. Your thoughts are interrupted by your father’s voice.

“Tell me, Amrita.”

You shake your head. He smiles with relief, but a look of concern immediately flashes on his face.

“Amrita, I am worried about you. I mean…” He pauses and gently pats your shoulder. “I was twelve when my mother passed away. My older brother and I pulled through because my father became a pillar of our strength till his death a few years ago. It’s hard…” he pauses and wipes a tear. “My extended family offered their support but…”

You knew what he was about to say. Your maternal aunt invited you over to Dallas, where she lived with her husband and two sons, for a change of scene. You declined. You weren’t up to meeting anyone. Not your paternal uncle who lived a few miles away with his family. Not your maternal grandparents in India. You didn’t want sympathy. You couldn’t bear the thought of looking at their eyes oozing with false concern accompanied by sighs. You look at your father and nod.

 

It was sometime during the Labor Day weekend when you started detecting some sort of tension. You were visiting home and excitedly making plans for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The lukewarm response by your parents left you baffled. Christmas vacation turned out to be a quiet affair. You all drove up to Mendocino, where your mother would spend afternoons scouting the bookstores for new releases at the bookstore. There were times she’d get phone calls in the middle of dinner. Your father would bite his lip, and your mother would look around apologetically. “Sorry. Just an emergency at work,” she’d say. The phone calls came around the same time, and she’d go outside to attend to them. Why couldn’t she talk in front of us, you’d think. You remember that one instance at the bookstore where you and your mother spotted the bookstore cat named after a famous classic. Your mother excitedly clicked a selfie of you both with the cat. It purred, and she stroked it. “Maybe we should get a cat someday,” she said. Being an animal lover, you instantly agreed, while your father wasn’t too ecstatic about the idea of a pet in the house.

 

You checked your phone to see if you had that photo. It was probably on your mother’s phone. For the first time after her death, you wonder about her belongings. What happened to her wallet and phone after her accident? You almost ask your father, but you stop. What holds you back? You aren’t sure. You want to try and look for it first. It’s dinner time. Your father eats the biryani and raita. “Nice,” he says. That Julia Child remark accompanied with that wide grin is missing. You remember the initial few months after your mother’s death.

 

Despite the house swarming with relatives, it felt empty. Your eyes were as red as the tomatoes, and it felt as though you had been cutting a thousand onions. You refrained from any social contact, and your teachers were understanding. When you visited her study and stood by the door, the smell of books wafted into your nostrils. Her desk was as tidy as ever. You imagined her sitting in that chair, her face buried into the pages of a book or typing away on her laptop. All those images would make you burst into tears and run down the stairs to the living room. One day, you decided to carry on making biryani and raita. Your mother would have wanted this. There were times you’d make it on other days besides Sunday. You hadn’t eaten properly for weeks except for an occasional nibble. Your father’s pasta seemed to taste like rubber. Somehow the rice and its yogurt accompaniment managed to elicit your long-lost appetite. It was the only remnant of your mother’s recipe. Not that she didn’t make other varieties. But the biryani and raita held a special place. It was probably because it was your first introduction to the culinary world.

 

Your father clears the table and loads the dishwasher. He retires to the den to do some work before bedtime. All he does is immerse himself in work. You go upstairs to your mother’s study and turn on the light. The laptop is on her desk, and her books are arranged neatly on a shelf next to it. You see a book next to the computer. You pick it up curiously and read the title. Ctrl Alt Del by Aditi Chaubey. What a unique title, you think. You find it strange as your mother wasn’t too much into self-help books. You study the synopsis and profile of the author on the back cover of the book. She worked at an IT firm in Mumbai, where she lived with her husband. Majored in computers. Hmm. Why did the name sound familiar? Did your mother mention anything? You wrack your brain while the clock on the desk ticked seconds. As you browse her desk, you come across a list of Indian authors. Now you remember! Your mother once mentioned how there seemed to be a surge of Indian contemporary authors across genres. She said Ctrl Alt Del was unlike the other self-help books. You flip through the pages and read the lines she has underlined. If I didn’t try to start afresh, I’d have dissolved in my own pool of sorrow. I would have been embroiled in the quicksand that I could never get out of. Was it easy? No. Every step felt as though I was carrying a massive rock on my shoulders. What did that mean? Why did your mother underline these sentences? Was there a hidden meaning?

The room was devoid of any dirt, thanks to the cleaners who came in every fortnight to deep clean your three-bedroom two-level house tucked away in a quiet neighborhood in Silicon Valley. Downstairs is the large living room with French windows and a spacious open kitchen that overlooked the backyard where your mother had a small garden. Along with her death, the plants lost their luster. You moved here at the age of seven after living in a cramped apartment in the city for three years. After your father got a job with a venture firm, you all decided to move to the suburbs, where life was more peaceful.

You open your mother’s drawer and find her car keys and a mobile phone inside. You gingerly touch the car keys wishing they had been misplaced on that fateful day. If only you could turn the clock back. If only you had stopped your mother from driving in that rain. But your mother weathered various such storms, including driving on the highway with the rains lashing furiously on her shield. “It’s so mystical,” she’d say, and her eyes would shine like gems. You take her phone and try switching it on. Of course, the battery was drained. You immediately put it on the charge, watching the battery’s red bar gradually convert to green, just like the traffic signal lights. Did someone jump the signal? you wonder. The driver in the other car was injured, but he had survived. Life is not fair, you think. Why couldn’t he die instead? The other driver, a middle-aged man, had exceeded the speed limit as he was in a hurry to get to a meeting. He was fined, and he apologized profusely after being discharged from the hospital. No amount of apology or money would bring back your mother. Your mother’s car still stood in the garage, looking as new as ever after the repairs covered by the insurance. If only humans could be repaired as quickly.

Fat blobs of salty puddles form on the keyboard. Your eyes are blurred as you switch on your mother’s phone. You see some unread texts and WhatsApp messages dated a year ago. Some forwards and personal messages. You go through her photos and check for that picture you were looking for. It’s there. You, your mother, and the adorable black and white furry cat. Her smile is as radiant as ever as it always is whenever she is surrounded by books. You send that message to your phone, hoping to print it and frame it. Just then, you spot a few other photographs. You feel lousy prying, but curiosity gets the better of you. These were photos of her office get-together. How different your mother looked! More poised and sober.

And then you see something that creates a nauseous feeling in your tummy, just like how you feel every time during the car ride up the hills. You see this bespectacled man with mousy brown hair dressed in a suit with an arm around your mother. It’s a group photo and looks like a harmless, friendly gesture. But deep down, you feel something. You aren’t sure what. Was it the way your mother was smiling? She has had men acquaintances before, but this man piqued your curiosity. You scroll down and see more photos of him, some of him and your mother at another get-together where she is wearing a navy-blue dress. Sophisticated and stylish. It almost feels like she’s someone else. Your mother wouldn’t change for anyone else. A person who talked about embracing creativity never bent their rules for anyone. So why now?

You check her messages. Sorry, mom, you mumble. You cannot help it. Guilt pricks you like a hundred pins in one corner of the head. Curiosity nags you on the other side. Your head feels like a zone of tug of war. You suddenly sit down feeling weak. The exchange of messages sounded like more than just a friendly exchange. You look at the name. John! Who was he? Was he the same man in those photos? You check her emails. This time you don’t feel sorry. John Silver. You see a flurry of emails from this name. They appeared work-related, but a couple of times ended up with ‘see you tonight.’ Did your mother meet this man after work? Was it the office get-together he was talking about? How did it all start? Were you overthinking? But those text messages. Nobody sent their colleague sweetheart or missing you my love messages. You scroll down again to see the dates of those messages. Your heart stops a beat. They were sent during their Christmas vacation at Mendocino. The last exchange was on the day of the accident. This cannot go on, John, your mother had written. There was a phone call dated on the same day. Did your mother go to end things with John? Did your father know about this? Was John married? Did he also have a family? Were your parents unhappy? Did he get to know? Why didn’t they tell her? Questions swarm in your head like a hurricane. You want all this to be just a bad dream. You shake your head and stare listlessly at the pile of books. Nothing makes sense to you. How you wish your answers were in those books. You clutch the phone. You type John Silver on Google. Images of the man in the photo show up on the pages. It was the same one, you think. He was the Editor in Chief of this literary magazine, divorced with two kids in his ex-wife’s custody. You shut the laptop and the light. You quietly go to your room.

You look outside the window, and the inky black sky stares at you. The droplets of rain on the trees make a rhythmic sound. You look at the image of your phone. Why mom? Your eyes are blurred with those salty tears as you taste them now. The barrage of waterworks wouldn’t stop. There is no one you can call. No one you can trust. You feel like someone has stabbed you with a knife. Your head hits the pillow, and you drift away to sleep. Nightmares of your mother’s laughing face, John’s smiling one, and your father’s sad one haunt you. You wake up to the sound of rain, and nature seems to be crying with you. You glance at the clock. It’s nine in the morning.

Your father pops his head in and looks concerned. “Not feeling well, Amrita?” he asks.

You shake your head. “I am fine,” you reply.

“Come down for breakfast then,” he says.

The only sound is the clink of spoons against the bowls of porridge. You look at your father and feel sorry for him. And then a sudden thought crosses your mind. It seemed bizarre. But your head isn’t in the right place. Did your father also like someone else in his workplace? You put your hands on your head.

He looks up and frowns. “Are you really ok?” he asks.

You nod.

He looks unconvinced. He receives a phone call and excuses himself out of the room.

You lose your appetite, and your legs drag you to the study. You look at the photos and the emails with a heavy heart. You replay your father’s response in your head, “There are times when certain things happen. It makes you wonder if you were at fault.” Did your father blame himself for your mother’s affair? Did he find out and chose not to confront her? Was it possible that John was in love with your mother and not the other way around? But what about your mother’s sober appearances? The mother you knew would never try and change herself for anyone. Did you ever know her at all, you ask yourself? Were those moments with her an illusion? Find creativity in the mundane things, her voice echoes in your head. Had her marriage become so ordinary? You were so absorbed in your thoughts that you didn’t hear your father calling for you. Nor do you hear those footsteps coming up the stairs. You are suddenly taken aback to see your father standing behind you. He stares at you and at the phone in your hand. Both your eyes meet. They elicit a certain sadness and unspoken words that bring out the ugly truth.

“Did you know?” you ask, trembling.

He just stares.

“Did you know?” Your voice shatters the frames on the walls.

“Amrita…”

“How could you not tell me?”

You feel betrayed. Who wouldn’t?

Your screams are louder than the ones when you saw your mother breathe her last. Your dad tries to explain. His long hours of work. Your mother feeling neglected, her tantrums, their endless arguments, her withdrawal, his discovery of the affair, a showdown, sessions with the therapist, her guilt, and the conscious decision of not letting you know lest it disrupt your mind. You aren’t convinced and cannot bear to stay a minute longer in that house. House. That’s right. You can no longer call it home. You feel a certain numbness. You can’t find a rational explanation. You feel sorry and angry at your father at the same time. How could they not tell you? You are enraged, hurt, disappointed.

You rush to the kitchen, grab that knife, start chopping the carrots, tomatoes, and onions vigorously. Chop chop-chop. The noise drowns your father’s pleas and attempts to explain. Chop chop-chop. You feel a strange sensation of slicing the oranges, cutting the carrots. You don’t stop. Water trickles from your red eyes. You are blinded and unable to see anything. But you keep chopping and don’t stop. Not even when you accidentally cut your finger and see the splats of red on the cutting board. You chop till a gentle hand steers you away, washes your finger, and bandages it.

*

A year later, you chop the vegetables in your own kitchen at an apartment by the waterfront. Chop chop-chop. You look at the array of colorful cut pieces. You dump the chopped vegetable pieces in the bowl of curd. You carve eyes and nose on three carrot sticks and place them around the bowl of frothy white liquid. You inhale the aroma of spices from the biryani. You arrange some garnished almonds and walnuts in the shape of a heart on top of the rice. Then you look at your reflection in the glass cabinet. You see a face with hair dyed red and eyes wearing grey contacts. Almost a stranger. The phone rings. The word Dad flashes on your screen. Chop chop-chop. The sound of the kitchen knife merges with the calls. At one point, you close your eyes and converge with the sound, tapping your foot. Try to make mundane things look interesting.

The phone continues to ring.

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Author of “A Turbulent Mind—My Journey to Ironman 70.3,” Swetha Amit is currently pursuing her MFA at University of San Francisco. She published her works in Atticus Review, Oranges Journal, Gastropoda Lit, Amphora Magazine, Grande Dame Literary Journal, Black Moon Magazine, Fauxmoir Lit Mag, Poets Choice Anthology, and has upcoming pieces in Drunk Monkeys, Agapanthus Collective, JMWW Journal, Full house Literary. She is one of the contest winners of Beyond Words literary magazine, her piece upcoming in November. She is also an alumni of Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 and the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop 2022.
Twitter: @whirlwindtots Email: swetha0627[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.

pencil

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

This Funny Thing Called Murder

Fiction
Annabel White


Photo Credit: Jo Naylor/Flickr (CC-by)

At one point or another I wanted to be a painter. But you know that already, don’t you?

It was summer when we met and we were sitting in that room at the back of the church, a woman in a floaty skirt explaining something to us about brushstrokes. I was wearing this dress I’d taken from my sister, my thighs sticking uncomfortably to the red plastic chair underneath me. I can’t remember what you were wearing. Whenever I think about you now you’re always just in overalls. You’re lying on the floor in overalls right now. I’m washing my hands in the kitchen.

I don’t think we spoke on the first day, although we did on the second and by the third you’d splashed a line of red paint across my cheek. We each had a canvas in front of us, perched on some flimsy-looking easel. Your paintings were never very good but I thought it was sweet that you tried. I must have told you that; I can’t think why else you would have splashed me. The others were shocked but I thought it was funny. You laughed and ducked when I tried to do the same to you and right then it felt a bit like love, didn’t it?

On the fourth morning you started waiting for me outside of the church and there I spent the rest of the week, stuck precariously on that ledge of knowing you wanted me and having no clue what to do about it, afraid I might do something to make it all go away. You walked me to the bus stop on the final day and I thought about saying something, I wondered why you hadn’t, and then the words all got stuck in my mouth and I said something vapid like best of luck for the future. You gave me a nod, then I got on the bus.

The painting course was only one week and you were just some guy but everything bad that’s ever happened to me followed quite soon after that so there must be some relevance to it, I suppose.

I was meant to go to art school. I’d been accepted for the following year and there was definitely a moment, some point in the past, before you and us and all of it going wrong, when I thought it might happen, that I’d become everything I wanted to be. But then all that stuff happened with my parents and all that money I’d been counting on disappeared and there I was a year later, still at home, flipping food-truck burgers in a peach-coloured cap and polo shirt. My boss was this dumpy guy called Neil. He was always sweating, even in winter, and mostly he just sat outside smoking cigarettes while I served the customers. Now and then he’d come inside to give a few futile orders, to assert some kind of masculine authority. He told a lot of jokes I made a point not to laugh at and I’d always catch him staring at my boobs.

I was dating a trainee accountant with shiny hair on the day you came by. His name was Aldo and he had these freakishly long arms. His skin was so pale he sparkled in the sun. You hated him, remember? We’d been together exactly two months and I was wondering if he knew, if I should remind him that night it was our two-monthiversary, when I looked up and there you were, asking for a burger with cheddar and onion. Your hair was longer than it was last summer. You were looking at something on your phone as you spoke and I wasn’t sure you recognised me. It wasn’t until I said ‘ketchup’s round the side’ that you looked me in the eye and asked if I was still painting.

‘A bit,’ I said, though really that was a lie because by then my paints had mostly dried up and for some reason I was pretending I couldn’t afford more. A year or so later I would move out of the food truck and into an office where I answered the phone for an insurance firm. We’d be living in that tiny place off Hamilton Court, my hair would no longer smell of processed meat, and soon after that I’d give up painting completely. It was too hard to try and too painful to fail, easier to make up excuses.

‘Are you?’ I asked as I passed you your change.

In your right hand was the burger and in your left hand you were holding a can of Dulux. Your overalls were splattered in duck egg blue. You lifted the can, mockingly. ‘Oh yeah,’ you said. ‘I’ve gone pro.’

I only saw the accountant a few times after that.

 

It was a year later to the day that my grandmother died. We had tickets for a concert, some Scandinavian group you’d loved as a teenager, and we’d rented a room in a fancy-looking hotel round the corner. You were excited because you wanted to stand on a sticky floor in a dark smokey crowd with people bumping into either side of you. You wanted to stare up at the men who’d made the hopeless fifteen-year-old version of yourself feel something. You wanted to feel that again. I was excited because I liked going out with you, because we never did things as a ‘couple’. You hated my friends, they weren’t keen on you and in time I grew tired of their saying I could do better, of listening to their judgments of you masked as concern. What started in bars and parks and public places moved to sofas and bedrooms, and the highs and the lows of our first year together went on like that, concealed behind closed doors. So that’s what the concert meant to me. The publication of what we usually kept so private. Us.

I’d just sat down at my desk, barely had a second to catch up with overnight emails, when the call came through. My sister was driving down, she said. She’d be here tomorrow. My boss gave me the rest of the day off. I called and called but I couldn’t get through to you. I walked out onto the high street. The sky was bright and offensively blue. I listened to a man on a saxophone play a song I couldn’t place. I gave him five pounds, then I walked into Tesco and bought two bottles of Merlot.

I don’t tend to drink wine but my grandmother was an alcoholic and I wanted to do something private, to pay my respects in some kind of way. She mostly drank red, which is the reason I never do. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can’t see her face. I can see her long frail fingers wrapped around a wine-stained glass, the smear of her lipstick on its rim, stale cigarette smoke filling the air. But I can never see her face.

I called you again and you didn’t pick up, so I ran myself a bath and lay in the scalding water, drinking glass after disgusting glass as I cried.

You were annoyed. You couldn’t see why if I was drunk and upset in the bathroom, I couldn’t be drunk and upset in a sweaty bar with Scandi-rock pulsing through us. We couldn’t get our money back on the hotel and you hated it when I drank this much. I cried some more as you poured the remaining half-bottle down the drain and six days later I got even more hammered at the funeral. You were never a good actor and I liked that about you at the start, but you played the part of supportive boyfriend appallingly. A lot more people voiced concerns after that.

 

She wasn’t a rich woman, my grandmother. The house was rented and all the money she had went on her lifestyle. But she owned this mirror, this ridiculous six-foot mirror that she’d decided to leave to me. It was huge and golden with spirals and tiny decorations all over it. Cupid and his arrow, peacock feathers, roses and thorns, random shit like that. I used to stare at it for hours, finding something new and different about it every time I looked.

When I was eight and my sister was nine, we were cartwheeling along the corridor of her house and one of us, I can’t remember who, kicked the mirror and it cracked. It wasn’t a big crack but it wasn’t the kind of crack you could hide either. I blamed my sister and she blamed me and no one ever got to the bottom of it. There was a time when I would have been able to say with certainty which one of us was lying, although somewhere along the way my memory of the truth and my memory of the lie merged together and I don’t know what actually happened. I’m not sure if I started to believe the words coming out of her mouth or the ones coming out of mine.

You didn’t want it. You said it was too grand, too embarrassing. You didn’t want people thinking we had that kind of money, not that anyone ever comes here anyway. The crack’s bigger than it used to be but I remember that one clearly. I remember the night, the fight, your foot in my grandmother’s mirror, the sound of shattered glass. I remember that one was you.

You’re not making any noise in the living room. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and I’m thinking I should probably polish it. I lift up my shirt where the skin underneath is smooth and soft and sometimes beige, sometimes black, sometimes blue. I examine myself in my grandmother’s mirror before I walk back to the living room and sit next to you on the floor. I stroke the side of your cheek and I whisper your name.

 

Do you remember the trip we took to Scotland? The rain didn’t stop and that Volkswagen I’d insisted on renting barely made it five miles. We chugged to a halt on this tiny road overlooking the loch. The afternoon faded into evening and we walked down the path to the rocks to the water. Huge grey clouds hung over the hills and the loch spread out flat and vast in front of us. The water was dark and freezing; you squealed like a child as we waded into it. It was a noise I’d never heard you make, and I laughed and laughed when you did.

That night we slept in the van with the doors wide open, the rain occasionally spitting on our faces. You wrapped me in the blankets, you said you weren’t cold, and when you kissed the tip of my nose, I brushed the hair off your forehead and you smiled. It was nice. We were both happy that night. You told me about the summers you used to spend in the Lake District and the little house on the hill your parents always rented. You told me about the pub in town, the one your dad took you to, the beer he’d let you sip as he said things like don’t tell your mother and there’s a good lad. The women he spoke to were the kind your mother hated and they would squeeze your cheeks and tell you what a heartbreaker you’d turn out to be. ‘Just like your father,’ they’d say and you’d look at your dad, who would have his arm wrapped around some woman you’d never seen before, and you’d smile politely as they laughed.

There were fights, you said, when the two of you got home. You’d go straight to bed but you’d hear them through the wall. She’d shout at him for being a drunk, for keeping you out past your bedtime, for doing who knows what with who knows who. Sometimes you’d hear a slap or a scream or a plate smashing in two though in the morning everything would be in perfect order again. You said those trips were the only happy memories you had from your childhood and when I pictured your spindly ten-year-old legs barely making it to the second ring of the bar stool it almost broke my heart. By your eleventh birthday your father was dead and by your twelfth your step-dad had moved in and he wasn’t the type to take his step-kid to the pub, much less the Lake District. Then three or four years went by, you moved out of the house and you never saw the inside of it again.

We saw your mother that one time in town, a couple of years after Scotland. She smiled with her mouth not her eyes and said that you looked well. You spoke to the ground not to her and before she walked away she passed you a couple of notes from her purse and told you to look after yourself. You were in an awful mood that night. I bought the wrong type of milk and we were all out of tea bags and you told me you wished you’d never met me. I said that I could have done so much better, that I should have married the accountant, that I’d be rich and happy and somewhere far away if I hadn’t been weighed down by you. I don’t know what you said next, if you said anything at all. I was washing the dishes and I remember your reflection behind me in the kitchen window, your hand in my hair, the look on your face as you yanked me to the ground. The zip on your jeans and the cold hard kitchen underneath me. It would have been three years ago now.

The next place we moved to was bigger. There was an extra room, a tiny windowless space off the kitchen. The estate agent made some uncomfortable comment about kids and the two of us looked anywhere but each other. You came home one night with an easel, just like the ones from that course we once took, and you put it in the middle of the room. I tried to paint, I really did, but something inside of me just couldn’t. You bought oil paints in every colour with money we didn’t have and on the evenings you weren’t around, I stayed in that room, staring at the blank canvas.

One night you came home, you were drunk and in one of those moods where you looked at me like I was the best thing that had ever happened to you. On other nights I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space, so ugly no one would ever want me. But that night you talked about going away, you wanted to take me to France, you wanted to know what the world looked like from the top of the Eiffel Tower. You opened the door to the spare room; I always tried to keep it shut. We were laughing as you undressed me and I stood behind the easel as you painted my body onto canvas.

‘Look,’ you said as you pushed the brush into blobs of pink and white and brown. ‘It’s easy.’

The painting looked nothing like me. My breasts all distorted, my thighs too wide. I refused to let you hang it. We did it a few more times though. We’d take turns. Sometimes you lay out on the sofa, your legs spread and your penis served like something on a platter. It was easy to paint you like that, just impossible to paint anything else. The naked portraits are hidden under the bed at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them.

 

You’re still warm to touch and I’m thinking I should probably call someone. You look strangely peaceful, lying there like that. It’s the closest I’ve felt to you in months. Tonight was different in so many ways. I’ve fractured my wrist a few times now, got punched in the face at least twice. The bruises on my stomach always heal and I hardly see the ones on my back.

But it was the first time you had your hand round my neck and in that second your eyes locked in mine, there was no air in my lungs and I thought fuck you really might do it. You didn’t, of course, you don’t have it in you but I couldn’t wait around until you did.

You were so drunk you passed out on the floor. It was easy after that. All those years I’ve kept the carpet so clean, it’s funny to think about now. All those fights that started when you trailed mud through our house or smashed cups of tea onto the floor. All those hours I spent on my knees, scrubbing stains out of it. Now the blood pools out in bright red splodges, running like rivers through the thread of the carpet. I dip my index finger into the source, the pool by your neck, and I draw a thin smear of blood across the cream fibres. I do it again and again until brushstrokes of blood go back and forth in circles around us. Your face is blank and you’ve definitely stopped breathing. The room is splattered with raindrops of red and in a way it sort of looks beautiful.

One might even call it art.

pencil

Annabel White is a writer based in London. Her fiction has been published in Mslexia and Brilliant Flash Fiction. My non-fiction has featured in The Release, Twentyhood Magazine and Sick Love Zine. Email: annabelwhite123[at]gmail.com

Return to Richmond

Fiction
Tony Press


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

Zeke followed the crowd off the train and into the streets of Richmond. It was his first visit in six years. It things went as planned, or, perhaps better to say, as hoped, his next trip would be with all his stuff, not that he possessed that much. He ordered a Lyft and gave an address in the Carytown neighborhood. It was a good place to have lunch, he had heard from two locals sitting across from him, and he didn’t remember anything better, so why not?

Yellow roses held sway on the small table beneath her bedroom window. Their scent, their shape, their fragile solidity, Annie appreciated all of it. She treasured the line from the Willa Cather story: The roses of song and the roses of memory, they are the only ones that last. May it be so, she requested, of the universe and anyone who might be listening. Even the letter carrier, just now walking by.

Xavier Puentes was Annie’s father, and he was dead. Annie had cared for him his last four dreadful months and, as is often the truth, relief had come only with the final breath. He had lived merely fifty years but had packed decades into some of those years. He was tired. His body was tired. Time was up.

When Annie’s call came, Zeke had been dozing in his tiny studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, listening to the Mets and Pirates. He woke, spoke, listened and spoke again, and within minutes was planning his journey south. The Amtrak schedule offered two choices from Penn Station: 3:25am and 10:35am. The early one would be perfect, giving him a late morning arrival in Richmond.

Very few people had come to the funeral, which had surprised Annie. Her surprise, too, surprised her. True, there was no family in town, or even within a three days’ drive, but she’d guessed some of her father’s old co-workers would show. Apparently, they hadn’t reached the “forgive and forget” stage yet. Or maybe they’d gone straight to the forgetting.

Under ordinary circumstances, Zeke wouldn’t have been home when Annie called. He would have been at his job in lower Manhattan, slinging hash—the vegetarian version—at a joint that had been running too long to be called “up and coming” but still hadn’t made a name for itself. Maybe the owner shouldn’t have called it The Nameless, but that was her call, not Zeke’s. Still, it was fortunate he was home, thanks to an unexpected private party that chose to bring in its own cooking crew. A night off with pay was a rare and beautiful thing.

Technology, like most swords, most doors, most fences, had two sides, but neither had helped Xavier. Not in the end. Not in the hospital, not at home with hospice, and not with his old career. Once television repair was a solid career, and so it was for him, until it wasn’t. Then the boss had everyone train in VCR repair. A bit later, the boss, with Xavier’s help, had torched the place, planning to split the insurance 80/20.

It turned out that a custodian named Wally Covington, who’d been the last of the cleaning crew to be laid off, had kept his key, continuing to sleep most nights in the backroom. Including that night. Three days later, the boss confessed, though not giving up Xavier, before killing himself. Xavier’s co-workers, however, had a well-founded suspicion of his complicity. And, it turned out, they had liked Wally more than Xavier.

Reflecting on her father’s next to last set of words: Mija, estaba con mi jefe. Tengo culpable. Soy un asesino, Annie recalled the days immediately after the fire: boss’s arrest, the jail suicide, and the embarrassment of the sheriff that such a thing could happen on his watch. The stories in the paper focused more on that than on the death of Mr. Covington.

Quicker than quick, a Lyft driver named Stuart appeared in a bigger than necessary car, and off Zeke went toward Cary Street, and Weezie’s Kitchen. Both of his train neighbors had urged it upon him, though they each threw three or four other names in his direction. If you like good food, you’ve come to the right place. One added: “The Rich in Richmond is really for the food. Maybe it didn’t use to be, but now, yes. Trust me.”

Picking through her father’s clothes, Annie created three piles. One for garbage, one for Goodwill, and one, much smaller, for grasping, though she couldn’t have said why. Well, she could say why for one of the items, her father’s grey-and-red Richmond Flying Squirrels T-shirt. They’d been at the ballpark together when he bought it, only last season, and it was still in good shape. They shared shirt size, too.

On the ten-minute ride with Stuart, a friendly tour guide, Zeke began to think the whole town was secretly paid by the Chamber of Commerce. “Yeah, the wife and I have been here five years and we ain’t going anywhere. Good size, good people, good weather… oh, and the food. The food. What brings you down here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Next week, Annie knew, required some semblance of normalcy. Her school had granted a week’s personal leave, and also placed an excellent substitute in her classroom, but on Monday, she’d be back. It was Spring, Steinbeck time: Of Mice and Men for the freshmen and, for the juniors, The Grapes of Wrath. It was her favorite time of year. And bingo, she realized yet again, each book ended with a kind of beauty in death.

A menu could be a beautiful thing to read. Twice, Zeke asked his server to please give him more time, he was having such fun savoring the pages. He had been wrong before, but this time he suspected the product would match the promotion. He chose the “Traditional Bennie” but with veggie sausage, and Kate-the-server agreed it was a good pick.

Longing, longing was a word she never used, laughed when she heard it or saw it, and yet. And yet, she was longing for Zeke. She must be. Why had she called him if not for that? When had they last talked—two years? Three? She considered “confessing” her use of the word “longing” to her juniors, a word that was omnipresent on the right side of the board, on the list of words to avoid, or, at a minimum, to think twice before using. Especially in writing. Especially in her class.

Killer food, that’s what Zeke would say if he were to Yelp this place. Flat-out killer. Even if he were not a professional, “New Yawk professional,” at that, he would have appreciated this food. Anybody with half a brain would, as long as their taste buds were intact. The vision, too, was important: the food arrived well-displayed on the plate. This was a nice landing. The rest of the day, he confessed to himself, about that, he was nervous. He walked out to the sunshine and soon was in another car

Jumping at the sound. A black SUV in her driveway, a Lyft sticker on the window.

It was happening. Zeke grabbed his bag and jumped onto the driveway.

He’s here. Look at him.

God, she’s beautiful.

Finally, they thought.

Even now, five years beyond, they relive that moment.

Dad is a memory, and they focus on the good parts, not his hatred for Zeke.

Catalina is three.

Billy is one.

All is well, in the small house, the classroom, and at Zekes Heartland Café, Fine Food from Z to A.

pencil

Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table. He claims 2 Pushcart nominations, 12 years in one high school classroom, and 25 criminal jury trials. He lives near the San Francisco Bay. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com