Kiara loved the sound of the wind rushing through the woodland. Earthy and rustic, it spoke of invisible worlds and steadfast powers beyond human control. Blades of spring grass poked up from last winter’s mulch, and buds swelled in the promise of better things to come. She sighed. If only…
The sun had crested over an hour ago, and she must return to her apartment, then off to her shrill, insistent work place, always maintaining a calm, professional demeanor.
A redbird alighted on a fence post, chirping an attractive, lilting tune. Why can’t I be a bird?
Her sister’s voice. Myra always knew where to look.
Kiara stepped from the shadows into the field. “Yes?”
“There you are!” Myra jogged forward. “Let’s go to the lake. Mother left a cold supper in the kitchen, and the boys won’t be back for another couple of hours.”
A thrill ignited Kiara’s imagination. “You think we could?” Doubt quickly cooled the spark to mere ash. “But I should prepare for—”
“Another workday?” Myra gripped her sister’s arm and tugged. “You’re always working, and when you die, your spirit will float about this beautiful planet, wondering why you ever lived.”
Aching pressure surged against an inner wall, splashing over the ramparts. Tears filled Kiara’s eyes.
The two women stood on the rocky shore, surrounded by cliffs held together by a phalanx of trees, ripples scurrying across the blue-green water.
A tall, lean man strolled toward them, waves splashing his toes.
Shock filled Kiara as she stared wide-eyed. “What’s Jagan doing here?”
Myra kept her eyes glued to the horizon. “Does he have to have a reason?”
Images of the muddy water, floating debris, homes half-submerged in the flooded plain filled her mind. So many had lost loved ones in the disaster. The funerals never seemed to end. Then they did, and everyone returned to work and normal lives.
Normal? What does that mean? “I thought he moved up north, away from—”
Myra shot her a glance. “He did. But now he’s back.”
“He doesn’t have family here. Not anymore.”
Scuffing a bare toe against a smooth rock, Myra rubbed a fish-shaped pendant hanging around her neck. “Doesn’t he?”
With a snort, Kiara tossed her head.
Jagan stopped and nodded. His eyes reflected grief mingled with endurance. “I was down the shore and saw you; hope I’m not interrupting.”
Myra hugged her sister’s arm. “Of course not. Mother has made enough supper for a spring festival; come and join us. The boys would love to see you. They’ve been working on a kite.”
His gaze glancing off Kiara, Jagan waited.
Words tumbled from Kiara’s lips before she knew what she was about. “Certainly. Come and be welcome. I have to return to work so someone should enjoy—” What? Life? She blushed in confusion.
Ignoring the unfinished thought, Jagan fell in step between the two women as they headed back to a small blue Honda. “You’re still at the same place?”
Kiara nodded. “Same work. Same family. Same everything.”
Myra’s tiny head shake obliterated the lie. The tiny woman pulled out her keys and slid into the driver’s seat. “You two sit in back and don’t tell me how to drive.”
After supper, Jagan met Kiara in the kitchen as she wiped the wooden table free of spots and crumbs. He tugged a towel off the rack and started drying the dishes. “Keeping busy helps, doesn’t it?”
Her throat tightening, Kiara kept her gaze glued to the polished surface.
“I moved away. Thought I’d find peace if I didn’t have to run into a memory every time I turned around.”
The distant sound of rumbling thunder echoed off the hills. “But now you’ve returned. For good?”
He smiled and lifted the clean stack of plates onto the middle shelf. “For good? That’s funny. I hardly know.”
With a shrug, Kiara dismissed his honesty. “I like to keep busy. Productive.” She squeezed the sponge and laid it neatly on the soap dish. “Not a problem.”
Jagan leaned against the sink and nodded. “That’s good. I hated it when I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Just a vague unease, like something was supposed to be inside of me that wasn’t.”
The wind picked up, and branches swished against each other, groaning in stormy delight.
A shiver ran down Kiara’s arms. “I should’ve headed back to my apartment this afternoon, but I got caught up in the spring sunshine. And Myra and mom wanted…you know.” She sighed. “I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow to make the drive if I want to get to work on time and do stuff.”
With a playful twinkle, Jagan twitched the towel at Kiara. “Love doing stuff, do ya?”
Laughter bubbled inside Kiara. “You betcha! The more stuff the better! I’m one of the best stuffers—” Suddenly, as if she had been stripped of every article of clothing like in a horrible nightmare, left without a single defense, choking tears killed all joy.
Jagan didn’t ask. He simply took her in his arms and held her. Softly, without possession, advice, or comment.
Her tears stained his brown shirt, but she couldn’t stop them. She hung on and let the tears do their work. After a deep calming breath, she pulled away. “I still have to go tomorrow.”
He nodded. “And you’ll manage another productive day.”
“I will.” She looked up and met his eyes. “And you?”
“I’m home now. Grief can find me whether I work or play.”
Rain pounded the roof and beaded the window. A breeze sashayed into the kitchen.
“I wish I were a bird…”
Jagan took her hand, led her to the doorway, and flung open the door. Messy drops drizzled and splattered.
He pointed to the treetops where a nest swayed in the wind.
Queasiness unsettled Kiara’s balance. “How do they stand it?”
He gripped her hand tighter. “It’s home.”
“The place where you face life’s storms.”
As the drops slowed, Kiara relaxed, peace enveloping her. Home isn’t a place. It’s a presence. For the first time in forever, her soul flew.
“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”
Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.
“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.
Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.
She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”
She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.
Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.
She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”
Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”
She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”
Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”
She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”
“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.
With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”
“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.
Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”
His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”
“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.
Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.
The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”
Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”
His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”
Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.”
Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”
A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”
Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”
“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”
The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.
Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.
He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.
Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”
She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”
“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”
A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.
“I’m ready for a break. You?”
She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”
Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”
She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”
He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.
They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.
A trio of squirrels scampered past.
Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”
Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”
“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”
A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.
Two plump robins hopped nearby.
He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.
She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”
She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”
He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”
“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”
Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.
“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”
Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.
“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”
Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”
“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”
A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”
He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”
She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”
He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”
Chasm stood on the baked, pounded ground and stared at his shoes, profoundly aware that they were several sizes larger than the others lined up beside his. A cool breeze cascaded over his hot body. He could hear his mother’s words loud and clear, “Don’t get overheated, boyo, cause I can’t find any glaciers to cool you off this time of year.”
He forced his smile in check.
The kid next to him squirmed.
Chasm nudged him. “Don’t move, Oleg, or he’ll kill us.”
The boy heaved a strained, exasperated sigh.
Coach screamed, “Hey, you two! Give me five more!”
Oleg’s eyes widened with horror.
Chasm choked. “Wasn’t my fault!”
The twenty-eight boys held the line, observing in constrained silence as Chasm awkwardly led the smaller boy around the track, taking tiny steps to keep pace with his companion’s short strides.
Giggles broke the tense silence.
Coach, his arms crossed high over his barrel chest, stood on the sidelines grinning, his jaws masticating contraband chewing gum.
The blazing Luxonian sun seethed in a white sky, heat piercing through protective covering. Even the best eye protection was poor defense against the damaging rays.
A wonder more of us don’t go blind. Chasm wiped sweat off his brow as he jogged forward, his arms limp at his side. Three more…
Chasm reached out.
The boy fell limply in his arms.
“Drop him and finish your laps!” Clearly, coach enjoyed his work.
The watching boys froze, stiff as petrified rocks.
So many times, he’d come home burning with humiliation, a sorry excuse for a son, but his mother’s nudge combined with a healthy snort, always revived his drooping spirits. “Think you got it rough? Try being a giant woman! Then you’d know what rough looked like up close and personal. Giant guys are fine. But giant gals scare the hell out of most everybody, even Luxonian shape shifter-types. Lordy, they can morph into Ingoti Lava Lizards, but a seven-foot human woman sets ‘em giggling in weird ways.” Her black eyes flashed, and her ebony skin glistened as she jutted her chin, contempt oozing through every pour. Until a glint of humor discharged the poison. “Should thank their lucky suns I’m so good natured, or they might not be so powerful now.”
Chasm knew the story, oft repeated, how she managed to chase off a strange ship that landed in one of the busiest intersections of the capitol. No one knew who the aliens were or why they’d come. But the Luxonian crowd that gathered round had been profoundly grateful for Adah’s help. Unexpected as it was.
Being the only refugee over seven feet tall, many boys looked to him for help. Chasm didn’t mind, but he wasn’t sure what to do most of the time. He looked around for help.
Coach sauntered forward. Unlike most Luxonians, his attitude sparked with resentment at the outsiders. Even though the human refugees had originally come to Lux by invitation, coach narrowed his eyes at every specimen he met, especially the boys he forced out under the sun “to keep them fit and healthy” as his job description decreed.
Killing us with kindness.
Chasm gripped Oleg’s limp body tighter.
Rex, a lanky kid, not nearly Chasm’s size but with an outsized spirit that towered above the average stepped from the disciplined line. “We’re done here.”
Coach turned his full glare on Rex’s impassive, staring eyes. “You think so?”
“How about I make you all do ten more?”
Rex peered along the line of watching boys.
Everyone knew that they lived at the mercy of their hosts—Luxonians who had accepted the burden of caring for a dying race of beings—but resentment had elbowed its way in over the years, making humans not so welcome.
Chasm’s heart clenched as his gaze darted from Rex to Oleg’s reviving form.
Oleg shook himself free and stood on shaky legs. He blinked as he stared at the coach. “Think you can kill me?”
Coach’s amused glance spoke volumes.
Rex waved at the line of boys ahead with a formal bow. “He can try. But we don’t have to let him.” He sauntered off the track.
The line wavered, eyes following but feet still.
Oleg gripped Chasm’s arm. “Let’s go.” He strode after Rex, panting but determined.
As the sound of footsteps padded after them, Chasm’s heart swelled. No matter his size, he finally filled his shoes. No glaciers needed.
Teal watched Arc’s holographic message twice and sighed. He passed his hand over the holopad; the wavering image disappeared.
Her touch soft, Sienna placed her hand on his arm, slipping around from behind. “What’s wrong?”
The thrill of her unexpected touch dissipated too quickly for Teal’s comfort. He glanced from the low couch to the shelf packed with OldEarth crafts—a decorated pot from Aram’s clan, a woven blanket from Ishtar’s clan, even one of Neb’s forgotten obsidian knives. He shrugged and turned away. “Arc’s worried. So, he’s got Zuri worried. And before you know it, I’ll be worried.”
Sliding around her husband’s waist, Sienna snuggled under his arm. A smile played on her lips. “Cerulean has been begging to go. Maybe…”
“I should have followed up before this. It’s just—”
Sienna nodded. “It was a big event. Everyone talked about it, but then, things died down. We’ll probably never know.”
Teal padded to the window and peered across the Luxonian skyline, the suns setting and moons rising. “Things are happening, changing. I don’t think humanity will ever be the same.”
“Can they handle the responsibility?”
A snort sounding rude to his own ears, Teal shrugged. “Of course, they can’t. No one can. It’s impossible. The very notion. God-man? We don’t even dare define—”
“Children can imagine what adults don’t dare dream of—the limitlessness of youth, perhaps?”
Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can’t even begin to go there. It has to be a misunderstanding. Wishful thinking.”
“And if it’s not? If it is real…” She joined him at the window, sharing the view.
Heat working through his body, Teal swallowed. “Define real.” A soft sound caught his ear. He glanced over his shoulder.
Cerulean, youthful, eager, and ready for anything stood in the open doorway. “Ark sent a message. He has something for me.”
Teal closed his eyes. Oh, God. He opened his eyes and met his son’s innocent gaze. “I’m sure he has.” He peered at his wife. They both knew. No one would be the same.
Ark zipped up his bio-suit, dragged on his boots, and glared at the pod swimming energetically in the murky pool against the back wall.
The door swished open, and Zuri tromped in, his head and hands bare, but wearing a modified version of Ingoti armor. “You ready?”
Ark huffed through his breathing helm; bubbles rose. “Now or never.”
The pool swished spasmodically, a riot of bubbles rising. The pod stopped and hung weightless, its large eyes staring, imploringly at Ark.
Zuri halted and glanced back. “What’s—I mean—who’s that?”
Ark cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his bio-suit. “Uh, my son, Tarragon.”
Zuri’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider if he’d had implants. “What? You never told me you had a son!” He slapped Ark on the back. Hard. “Congratulations!”
Stomping to the doorway, his boots smacking the ground with emphasis, Ark aimed for his escape. “It just sort of happened.”
Zuri swiveled his head as if testing the limits of his joints. “What does that mean? You have a son and you’re—what—irritated?”
Stopping on the threshold, Ark waved all six tentacles and forced a smile at the pod. “Just out of sorts, really. It wasn’t expecting it.” He scowled at Zuri. “I have important work to do. We both do.” He turned his back on the pod. “There’s a new player on Earth, a mystery being, who has a bet to win…a challenge. He’s trouble, make no mistake.”
“In proper diplomatic response, we’re going to…?”
“Meet Song and discuss possibilities. Then we return to Earth.”
“I thought we couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t is strong word. Shouldn’t perhaps…” Ark clumped out the door.
An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.
Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.
The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.
When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.
She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.
God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.
During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.
Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?
So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.
After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.
Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.
Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.
I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.
I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.
“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”
Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.
I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.
At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.
But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.
Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.
Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.
As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.
My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.
It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.
In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.
It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.
I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?
She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.
“Katherine? You’re home!”
I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”
“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”
Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.
“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.
She shook her head.
What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.
“I made grilled tuna with chips!”
In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.
Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.
Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.
She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.
It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.
But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.
So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.
When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.
Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.
Stupid mistakes left Trix cold. Her own especially. Who on planet Earth was responsible for spelling? And could she find a legal precedent for killing the nameless perpetrators outright or would it have to be a clandestine affair? Though surely, she’d had a good portion of the world’s fifth-graders in her corner.
Was it her fault that few human beings could state her name without topping it off with an “ie,” turning her name into a bunny meme, or that grey was spelled with an a on one side of the Atlantic and with an e on the other? What demon-possessed people to care—much less sing-song their way through a quarterly review, insisting that she better shape up or—
The words had been left hanging. Just like that. An unspoken doomsday “Trix End.”
Trix stomped through the grocery store, huffing through her mask, which only fogged up her glasses. Lord have mercy. Would the trials of the year never end?
Head down, shoulders at ear level, she maneuvered her cart through the seafood aisle, blinking at the prices. She mumbled to herself, though visions of serving shrimp with some-kind-of-undetectable-poison-and-watching-her-bossy-boss-slip-to-the-floor-dead flashed through her mind.
Glowing lava rocks exploding from an active volcano had nothing on Trix at that moment. She grimaced, keeping her eyes wide so that as far as anyone reading a masked expression could figure, there was a smile under there somewhere. She faced Brenda, one of the homeschooling moms who sat behind her at Mass. She had polished a small mittened-hand wave to good effect. “Hey, Brenda.”
“So, are you going to the Winter Fun Event on the town square on Sunday?”
Rolling her eyes to the ceiling, Trix mentally consulted her calendar. She had to teach school all week, an editing project was due on Thursday, her dad had slipped on the ice, so she wanted to drop off some chocolate panaceas on Friday. Saturday, she’d charge into battle against the encroaching spiderwebs, dust bunnies, and household scum that managed to accumulate when her back was turned. Sunday remained her shield against overwork and flippant insanity. “Well, I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot going on. And besides, is it safe?”
Attempting to avoid a maniacal expression, Trix hid her grin behind her mask. The “Is it safe?” comment usually stopped every conversation cold. She glanced aside at the rows of frozen foods. A suitable location, indeed.
Even behind her they-all-look-alike mask, it was obvious, Brenda’s face fell. Her eyes dimmed. Her joy-spark snuffed.
Geeze! Who cares about Winter Fun? I have my sanity to keep track of! Isn’t that more important!
Trix tried to cool the use of mental exclamation points, but her heart sank to her chilled boots. If Old Scrooge could see her now, he’d embrace her as a fellow frozen-soul.
Good soldier and honest Christian lady who kept faith with all sorts of happy thoughts, Brenda squared her shoulders and drowned whatever sorry-reality haunted the depth of her eyes. “No problem. I was just asking. You’re right to be careful. Just sometimes, you know—” She glanced aside, definitely not seeing the delightful array of frozen yogurts. “You’re doing well. That’s all that matters.”
Trix’s icy heart started to drip.
Her mistake hit Brenda like a bullet train. She burst with contrition. “Oh, I forgot. I said Trixie—and you hate that. Sorry. I mess up names all the time, so I use those stupid mnemonic-things to remember. But I still manage to—” Gripping her cart with dejected humiliation, she aimed for the meat and cheese aisle.
Her cheeks flushed, Trix swallowed a chunk of ice. She stopped Brenda’s cart. “I’m heading to the candy aisle to find something chocolatey for my dad. Want to come?”
As they turned into the next aisle and at the sight of Brenda’s tear-filled eyes, Trix snatched a box of cocoa off the passing shelf. “You want to stop by for a cup Sunday afternoon? We’ll both need warming up.” She grinned right through her mask.
Rebah stared—turning her head as far back as it would go—at the crow perched on an old wooden post in front of rows of golden corn stalks, as she drove no less than sixty on the rural Illinois road.
She should’ve stopped. By the time she made up her mind and looked in the rearview mirror, the proud plumage was flying high across the cornfield into the bean field.
Where’re you going?
It couldn’t hear her and wouldn’t care to answer if it did. Rebah only wanted to stare at it long enough to imbibe the magical power it held—the mystical passion embodied in a carefree moment.
She glanced at her handbag leaning forlornly on the passenger seat, the strap folded across the open pocket that held the keys to her current existence—her cell phone and her to-do list.
Jed, she repeated. Jed. Not Jeb or Jacob. It’s Jed. She tried to picture the man her husband told her owned the shop.
“Tall, lanky, elderly guy with gray hair.”
Gee, thanks, Honey. Got it now.
Rebah stretched her mind back. Had Brad ever used figurative language? Did he ever describe a person as more than a combination of physical attributes? It was one of the things she’d loved about him—his honest, clear thinking. Never sarcastic like her dad or manipulative like her sister. Just a straightforward kind of man.
Three plump blackbirds stood at odd angles to each other on the road ahead. Apparently, they weren’t in a hurry, but she was. As her car zoomed up to the twenty-yard mark, they flapped into the blue September sky, majestic and unperturbed. “We’re heading on anyway, Lady. Don’t think for a second that you altered our plans.”
She wanted to laugh. Giggle. A smirk would do. But she had to find Jed’s countryside shop and buy a part for the mower. It was an old mower and needed an old part, preferably one that worked. It was all Greek to her. Mowers belonged in the same category as electricity and nuclear fusion.
A right on Acorn Road, two streets down, and on the left, 119 E. Acorn Rd. a workshop appeared as if by magic. A wooden structure built back and to the left of a cottage that belonged in a land of “far away and long ago.” Charming hardly covered it.
The rock driveway lined with late-season flowers curved around the back of the shop. She parked, rolled down the window, and imbibed.
The porch cozied over two garden beds run riot with daisies, asters, chrysanthemums, and coneflowers. Cornstalks tied to the railings decorated the steps as a scarecrow stood watch, both his smile and his pitchfork ready for service. Hanging plants perked up the mellow season with dashes of red and green, while ceramic squirrels scampered down the steps, leading to a maple tree just breaking into full autumn glory.
Rebah climbed out of her car and exhaled. “Good God in heaven!”
“Yeah, I’d say that’s about right.”
The man’s deep voice followed by a light chuckle turned Rebah’s gaze.
Coming from the dim interior of the shop, ambled a man exactly as her husband described. Except her husband had failed to mention the bulbous nose, oversized ears, long grey beard, and the sweetest eyes she had ever delved.
“What can I do for you?”
Rebah wondered if she was in love. She wanted to live in this little house, sit on a bench, watch this gentle giant work in his shop, and absorb the conviviality that emanated from the air in this enchanted spot on Acorn Road.
She spluttered, “Oh, yes, actually, my-uh, husband sent me over to get a part. George. My husband. He needs something you have.”
She wasn’t sure if that last part was a question or a statement of fact, but she prayed Jed was a mind reader since she could no longer rely on the power of speech.
“George? Oh, yes!” Jed grinned impishly as befitted the gnome-spirit he represented. “I have the part right here in my shop. I was just cleaning it a bit. They get a mite dusty sitting on the shelf, don’t you know.”
A howl of laughter fought earnestly with a sob of despair. By all the saints, Rebah knew about dust! Dust bunnies and spider webs had beaten her into submission long ago. Who on earth cleaned an engine part? A pitiful squeak was the best she could manage as the battle ended in a draw.
“Well, come on in and have a cup of something while you wait. I like a little spiced cider as the evening draws close. Perks a fellow up after a long day.” He ambled back into the shop, turning a switch on the wall just inside the doorway.
Yellow lamplight flooded the room, conjuring images of children’s fairytale books. Cherry stained shelves lined the walls, filled with an impossible variety of projects. Small engine parts, kitchen essentials—toasters and mixers, a variety of wall clocks, one small organ, two violins, and, of course, an assortment of broken toys stood, sat, or leaned in repose for their appointment with Jed’s dexterous fingers.
Rebah tried to shake herself into conscious reality. “So, you’re a fixer? A repair guy?” Oh heck, that seemed as inadequate as calling a CIA agent a sleuth.
After pouring a fresh cup of cider into a mug from a dark brown jug and setting it within easy reach, Jed ran a cloth lovingly over the metal part that—in Rebah’s opinion—hardly deserved the attention.
She sipped the cider, warmth tingling all over. Her eyes strayed to the mower part. She frowned. It was just metal, after all. It would go in a machine, get dirty again, and no one would care in the least.
“I fix those things that I can. Mostly, I live life.”
A lump formed in Rebah’s throat. She blinked.
Two crows and three blackbirds hopped up to the open doorway, their bright eyes keeping a careful watch on Rebah.
Jed laughed. He laid the metal part on his workbench, scooped an old can into a plump bag hanging on the wall, then carried the full container of seeds to the doorway. He scattered supper to the hungry throng and watched them in serene joy.
Rebah watched his every move as absorbed as it was the finale of her favorite primetime drama. “God, I want what you’ve got.”
It felt like cold water in the face when Rebah realized that she had said the words out loud.
“Eh?” Jed returned to his machine part. He wrapped it in a clean cloth and laid it at the bottom of a paper bag. He folded the bag neatly and handed it to Rebah.
She slurped the rest of her drink, letting the warm tingly feeling bring a smile to her face, covering her confusion. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. “How much do I owe you?”
“Ten ought to cover it. It’s a recycled part and didn’t need much mending.”
She ran to her car, dropped the bag on the back seat, shuffled through her purse, found two fives, scurried back, and met Jed in front of his porch steps. She handed him the money. A longing nearly broke her heart. “I wish my place looked like this. More, I wish I felt like…this…place.”
To Rebah’s astonishment, Jed smiled.
“Yeah. That’s how I was when I first came here. I’d been in the army for more years than I can remember, fought people I didn’t want to fight, lost family to drugs and alcohol, though my youngest sister died of cancer last year. But you know, the old woman who owned this place said that it just needed tender care. If I’d give it that and do every task with gentle love, I’d be repaid in full.” Jed tapped the railing. “By golly, she wasn’t off the mark.”
Tears filled Rebah’s eyes. “You don’t mean that my place could look like this?”
“No. This place belongs here on Acorn Road. But the beauty I wake up to every day? Why, that belongs everywhere that’ll allow it in.”
When Rebah drove up to her short straight driveway, her husband, George stood on their overgrown lawn, grinning.
She grinned back. “I’ve got the part, and I’ll get dinner on in a minute, Love.”
When a crow flapped overhead, she knew whom she’d invite to dinner next.
Saundra realized that running between the raindrops, like so many things in life, wasn’t meant to be taken literally. So why was she scurrying madly to her neighbor’s house with any expectation that she would be dry when she got there?
Bradley stared hard as she leaped over the threshold into the open living room-kitchen of their ranch-style house.
“An umbrella was out of the question, huh?”
Saundra didn’t deem it necessary to reply. She knew why she’d come, and it outweighed mere comfort. She couldn’t look Bradley in the eye.
A woman’s voice screeched from the top of the stairs. “Hey! Kiddos, get ready for bed now, or Sandy won’t read you a story.”
The collective sighing, whimpering, and bickering over who got to pick out the first story plucked Saundra’s raw nerves. Who did she think she was? Superwoman coming to the rescue?
She peeled off her soggy shoes and figured that one evening in damp socks wouldn’t kill her. The kids might. But that was merely theoretical.
Anne tottered down the stairs on skyscraper heels, wearing a tight-fitting, burgundy dress that clearly hadn’t been outside the closet in years. Once landed, she tinkered with her earrings and shot a glance at her husband. “Get up there and make them behave.”
An eye roll clarified Bradley’s lack of enthusiasm for the assignment as he mounted the steps.
The initial plea-bargaining Anne used when asking for one night out with her husband without the kids had merely sent a flicker of anxiety through Saundra’s evening plans. No big deal. The kids were a little rambunctious Anne had said but easier than her nephews. Of course, Godzilla was easier than the aforementioned nephews.
A little girl’s scream, a man’s barking order, serious commotion, two slamming doors, pounding footsteps, and Bradley’s flushed face glowering at his wife made Saundra reconsider her assessment. Maybe Godzilla would be easier. After all, there was only one of him.
Anne snatched a lavender purse off a scratched end table and charged for the door. “They’ll settle down. Just let them cool off and read a story with milk and cookies before bed.”
Bradley jerked his car keys around like he’d prefer to catapult them rather than put them to their rightful purpose.
The thought, Get drunk fast, shot through Saundra’s mind. She nodded at Anne’s retreating back, dumbfounded.
It wasn’t until the Ford Explorer squealed into the night that she realized that the kids didn’t even know her. And she didn’t know them.
A little girl’s voice called from the tops of the steps—Sandy?
The milk and cookies were easy to locate.
Five-year-old Jimmy had a future in mountain climbing the way he scaled the kitchen counter, scrambled to the cabinet over the refrigerator, plucked the hidden cookies from the depths, (next to the chardonnay), and leaped to the floor with his prize.
Jan, at the cultivated age of seven, demurely retrieved three short glasses, lugged the gallon of milk to the table, and sportingly poured everyone a full glass.
Remarkably, a story compromise was reached on relatively benign terms. Each child picked out a short story, and Saundra got to pick a long one. After teeth had been brushed, the kids joined their sitter on the couch and curled up one on each side.
Their body warmth, light patter of rain, and the yellow lamplight settled Saundra’s nerves into a state of peaceful repose. Books made for an evening of simple pleasure. Every Friday afternoon, she read a short story out loud to her high school class. They always groaned the first time. They never groaned the second.
She cracked open the first book and climbed inside. Along with the kids.
By the time the clock chimed midnight, Saundra wondered if she should call the police. After The Velveteen Rabbit, the kids had gone to bed quietly. She shuddered through the late news, and the rain had quit, hours ago. She stretched out on the couch fully aware that she’d fall asleep within seconds.
Before her eyes closed, a door was thrust open and keys slammed on the counter, jolting her nerves wide awake. Loud voices. Slurred speech. Hard soled shoes pounding up the steps.
Saundra’s first instinct was to quiet the two down before they woke the kids. But the realization that this was their house shushed her mouth.
“Sandy? Where’d you get to, girl?”
Sandy rose and stepped into the kitchen.
Anne’s smeared eyeliner, drooping lower lip, and glassy stare froze Saundra in place.
“There you are. Thought maybe you’d abandoned me.”
“I’ve never do that.”
Water ran. Bradley’s heavy tread crossed the room above.
Saundra frowned as she glanced up. “The kids are asleep.”
“Sure. You did great.” She dropped her purse on the counter. “Mind if I pay you in the morning? I doubt my writing’s too clear right now.”
Slipping on her damp shoes Saundra sucked in a deep breath. She wanted the quiet peaceful time with the kids cuddled on each side of her, listening with bated breath, their eyes glued to the illustrated page. Sharing their love of a good story, life itself.
A lump rose in her throat, and words got stuck on the way out. “You two have a good time?”
Anne shrugged. “We drank and talked about the garbage in our lives.” Kicking off her shoes, she lost balance and had to grip the counter. “Piss poor world we live in. Kids will hate us when they grow up. Might hate us now, for all I know.”
Tears threatened. Saundra turned the door handle. “They don’t hate anyone. Yet.”
A star-filled sky accompanied Saundra home. The smell of late summer rain, wet earth, a faint rose scent lifted her spirits. She could hear Jan’s voice pleading, see Jimmy’s dark eyes imploring. “Will you come again and read to us?”
She would. She’d even run between the raindrops if she had to.