The Shadows that Befall Us

Photo by Christer Stromholm

He was back. Lee got word at the pharmacy as he picked up a prescription for his sister. He was whistling a Sinatra tune, “Summer Wind”, which made hunched over, pale Harriet smile as he approached the little window. It was already hot as blazes and all he could think about was his boat, the rippling water and time off from his boring as ever junior loan officer job. He was a good whistler and everyone liked a good whistler, he thought, something cheering about it. One thing in his favor, anyway.

“So Rita has a toothache, huh? I feel for her. This will take care of it. Is it getting pulled or can Dr. Cramer fix it?”

Harriet wanted the rest of the story before she would release the bottle to him. She sucked on the end of her pen, waiting for details.

“She’ll be fine, thanks,” he said, not knowing one way or another, he was just to pick it up and deliver it.

“Well, now, you both keep up your strength because your old friend is back.” She watched him sign off, then put it in a little white bag, handed it to him. “And no doubt you’ll get a knock on the door one of these evenings.”

Lee’s mind darted here and there. A friend, maybe Tom, a childhood neighbor and fellow graduate from state college; he had called awhile back. Or Lisa, whose heart he accidentally stepped on, so she took off for the coast. He hoped it wasn’t she–he was better off living an uncomplicated life

“I’m sure whoever it is, is just passing through, and we’ll enjoy a cup of coffee. Thanks for the heads-up, Harriet, gotta go.”

Harriet let him take the bag and turn away, then said, “It’s Mick. Mick Stavros is back.”

He was whistling again but when that name hit the air the tune evaporated. Lee stood in the aisle as a couple wove around him with their fussy child. He turned back to her but Harriet was on to the  next customer. She only looked at him when his hand was on the door’s brass push plate. Shook her head as he exited.

******

“If there’s only one thing you might not have said for the rest of our lives, it’s that!”

Rita slammed the refrigerator door shut and dropped two cans of beer on the table. She didn’t know why Lee had to linger now that he had left the medicine and told her the bad news. He lived in the third dwelling of their jointly owned triplex and they seldom saw each other unless there was good reason. Her infected tooth and resultant pain qualified. Rita had left work and gone straight to Dr. Cramer, gotten the verdict, then had lain down. She was not in a mood to be trifled with much less attacked with worse news, nor did she want to down a beer with an antibiotic. But this was not the usual afternoon so she opened the beer and washed the pill down.

“When? Why? Where is he so we can make certain to avoid him at all costs? And do the cops know he’s here?”

Lee protested with palms up and against humid air. “I don’t know anything but that. Take it easy. It’s been…”

“Nine years, that’s how long and I want it to be one hundred. Forever.” She squinted her eyes at him and sat down. “I thought he was going to Houston after he got out, see what his uncle could do. That was the last Mr. Stavros said of it and he wasn’t full of misgiving about it, either.” She rolled the chilly beaded can against her forehead, which was hotter than usual due to the infection. Her hand went to her jaw;e leaned forward. “He had better leave us alone, Lee.”

Lee glanced at her cropped reddish blonde hair. It had been long once, all the way to the middle of her back, “that amazing Marlin family hair” people always said of it, even his with its abundance. Hers was shorter than his was. The day Mick had gone to trial for his crimes, she had cut it off with her own scissors to shoulder length. Then it seemed like she cut it a little shorter each year. No one knew why exactly. His nostrils flared and he put his own thoughts away.

“He will, don’t worry. Everyone in town will know soon and be watching him. Mick never did have a clue about what makes sense in the larger world. I guess it must be in the genes, whether you have an instinct for good and smart or not. I mean, his father is not the best example though he’s changed.”

Rita snorted. “The way you break down complicated matters to the smallest, most simple components! Mick Stavros made the wrong choices because he wanted to; he’s not unintelligent, he’s a…”

Just saying his name caught her off guard, the way it rolled around the kitchen in sunshine like honey. The pain in her jaw and the news were both sleep inducements. She longed for sudden oblivion.

“You can stay but I have to take a pain pill, hit the bed and get over this thing,” she said and got up. She hesitated, then squeezed his shoulder. “Keep cool, Lee. That was so long ago, we don’t need to revisit it, right? Let’s just bide our time. He’ll get bored and leave or get run out. We just won’t answer the door or pick up calls if he tries.”

You’re warning me? Of course the past has to stay where it belongs. We’ll be okay, call me if you want to talk later. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

As he ran down the porch steps, crossed the yard to enter his unit on the end, he thought, We’ll be okay. Unless he’s here for you.

******

The sun went down at some point during her fevered dreaming but all she could see in her slumber was the day she met him. Mick was standing with back to thin May light and his face was only partly visible. His hands were tucked into his pockets; he stood tall with a casual authority, that’s how it seemed, feet planted apart. As she passed him he turned his head to look at her and then she saw his eyes in the sudden sunshine, that rich amber surrounding brown. They were curious, bold, with questions that somehow foretold the answers.

“How you doing this beautiful day? Are you the one I’m waiting for?”

She felt his unusual, magnetic presence,  and briefly entertained the idea that he had been planted there to test her purposeful mind. But she kept up a fast pace to the locked employees’ entrance of the building. She laughed under her breath. Was that an old fashioned come-on or was it just a risky, foolish thing to say to someone who could be the one to decide his fate at the treatment center? She looked over his shoulder, noted the outline of his strong, straight body; stubborn shoulders; head turning as if scanning the horizon. But he looked back at the last minute, saw her still there, and their gazes caught.

Rita twisted and turned, sat bolt upright in the darkness, heart pounding, face and neck slippery with sweat. She threw off the covers, padded to the kitchen, took out a bottled water and smoothed her face with some of it before drinking. It was eleven o’clock. Her mouth was less tender, but not enough. Rita opened the door to the back yard and sat on the stoop sipping, easing into full consciousness. And as she did the past slid forward, took a place beside her. Rita studied the landscape until convinced she was alone.

Mick Stavros was a fledgling criminal and an opiate addict of a few years when they became acquainted. He had been in jail, he was being given another chance and he was intent on changing before it was too late, that’s what he said. Rita sometimes heard him from her desk in the office next to the group room; his voice could boom though it was often quiet. His words weren’t that much different from many others’, and she knew far less than she surmised. Her work was scheduling and phone intake; she had little direct contact with patients unless she was needed to check them in. But Mick seemed to find a way to catch her eye or even occasionally call out her name with a wave as he passed from one room to another. The other women who worked at the front desk agreed he was good looking, smart and cagey as they came. They alerted Rita to watch herself, don’t get friendly. She was barely twenty-one. They were experienced in that work; they knew what they knew.

“Boundaries, first and last,” they said.

“Of course!” she responded, irritated they believed she was that naive. But it was too late.

A swift breeze swept over her as she drank the water; she cooled in the enveloping darkness. The grass smelled so sweet in the dampness of night. A bird called out now and then but all else was quiet. She turned so that she could see Lee’s unit; his bedroom light was still on and it reassured her more than she wanted to admit.

I wasn’t that naive, I just went mad, she thought. I temporarily lost mind and soul.

She shivered violently from head to toe so got up, went into the triplex, trudged up the stairs and took two more over-the-counter pain meds.

She would stay home the next day while her tooth settled down and the antibiotic kicked in. She did not want to hear it: “Can you believe it? Mick Stavros is back in town.” The treatment center could be a gossip mill. She worked in the thick of it, would have to endure scrutinizing stares and whispers even though she was now the office manager– despite it all. Despite a haunted, arduous recovery on every level. She kept many things to herself when people expressed sympathy that bordered on pity. She would not be humiliated again.

******

Lee turned off the bedside light, then lay with arms folded behind head, eyes wide open. How long it had been, not just in years but in everything else, his goals, achievements, lifestyle. Not that he had been going down a bad road back then. Two years older than Rita, he had finished community college before her, started at the bank as a teller. But he was restless then in a way that he hadn’t been since, anxious about whether or not he was doing the right thing staying in Marionville County, if he should consider joining the Merchant marines or take a road trip at the least instead of doing what his parents thought was good for him. Yet he loved numbers and even the physical handling of money, the way it all added up to the same thing all the time if he was conscientious. How his public interactions, his skill and interest were rewarded. He intended becoming more, in time. Still, there was an itch that he couldn’t get well scratched. Even boating on the lake didn’t do it some days. His girlfriend pressured him for an engagement, his parents hoped he’d remain in town and fit in but rise up, show off a little. Lee was looking for something more but what, he didn’t know.

Mick lived on the lake with his father and three brothers. The Stavros family had rented out eight prime waterfront log cabins and also canoes for two generations, going on three. Everyone knew each other around Marionville, especially on Lake Minnatchee. It was the place to go for fishing and boating and water skiing, for daydreaming and walking your dogs and jogging and making out with your heartthrob. And partying. The Stavros’ weren’t entirely avoided but no one found them easy to know. They kept to themselves. The father was known to drink too much and then behave erratically. The boys were more like him than Grandfather Stavros, who as an immigrant from Greece had worked so hard to create a good business. Mick was generally pegged for wilder living; he seemed older, apart from most like his brothers. He’d had some theft charges in high school. People said he liked at least weed, maybe more–a lot of kids did. But no one could put their finger on just who he was or what he’d get up to next.

After school years, every now and then Mick and Lee would bump into each other at the lake or a bar, share tales and a drink, joke about surviving high school, but Lee never felt comfortable enough to call him an actual friend. Mick was smart enough and had a flair abut him but he was sketchy. He was a social acquaintance who acted more like everyone’s buddy even when few responded in kind. He was the sort who entered your space then just stayed there.

It all began at the first yearly summer party when they were in their early twenties. Everyone went. His friend Tom Harvey’s family owned a large house on Lake Minnatchee’s south perimeter; they had a great speed boat and even a pontoon. No one was really excluded; it was more an annual town affair since the broad yard sloping down to the water was perfect for making merry.

Mick had come alone. He’d wandered over to Lee and the usual gang and soon asked if they wanted to drag race. Lee’s buddy Dale, a fast driver, didn’t turn him down nor did a handful of others. It was summer, it was a fine night, they wanted to pull out the stops. One by one they slipped away and met at Four Corners Road where it ran through deep forest, less patrolled than anywhere else that night. Lee was thrilled to be part of the action; he hadn’t done anything reckless like that for a few years. The driver, Dale, was better than good though he worried about Mick’s renowned skills. But it was just for fun.

Before the race, Mick pulled Lee aside.

“You know I can drive you amateurs right off the road, instant tragedy. I figured with a few beers in you, you’d all bite. But there’s another reason for it. I plan on meeting up with your sister and want her phone number. I’ll even let Dale win if you give it to me.”

Lee was confused. “Rita? Why? She’s as straight arrow as they come, not your type at all, believe me.”

“Oh but we’ve met, just not really talked. It was at her work.”

“Really, you’re a customer there? Even  a worse scenario.”

Mick closed the small distance between them, stared down at him. “I need her number. She can speak for herself but I can’t talk to her there. So just hand it over after the race–I’ll let Dale win this one, got it?”

Dale won. No matter how Lee had protested, Mick insisted and finally got the family landline unpublished number.  At least it was better than her cell. A year later things would be entirely different. That number would no longer be workable and Mick would be gone downstate. And Rita would not be the same. The trouble, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon occurred at Tom’s house much later. The very house where everyone had enjoyed a smorgasbord and had fun in the water. The very one where after the drag race, Mick had sidled up next to Rita and told her how incredibly smart and funny she was, and how he admired her new white tennis shoes.

Rita turned away but not long enough. Mick’s low smoky voice was like a drug and she felt her skin and brain wake as if from endless slumber. She took his words in and all the meaning behind them despite the warning going off like that moment was a five alarm fire. They both had begun to burn.

******

Lee finished a burger and drink at Mighty Tim’s Grill and Bar and felt satisfied. It had been a good week at work. No one had seen much of Mick since he had come into town a week earlier.

Tim wiped down the counter. “Naw, he’s visiting his father at the hospital. Old man had pneumonia and it was touch and go. So Mick got out, came back to see family. He’ll soon be gone, that’s a fact.”

“That right?”

The taunting response rose a few feet behind Lee and he didn’t have to look behind him to know who it was. He hoped he was wrong. Tim gave him a wary look and moved along down the bar, smacked his rag a little too hard on the counter.

“Lee. Long time.” Mick climbed onto the next bar stool, nodded at a couple of staring people, then at Tim. “Cola with ice over here.” He beckoned Tim back, turned to Lee. “Catch me up some, buddy.”

“See you’re doing okay, that’s nice. How’s your dad?”

“Yep, off booze, off it all. Got to be good, parole, man, but it’s fine. My father’s going to be right as rain; the tourist business needs him. You?”

Tim set down a cold bottle with a glass and left. Lee watched him as he leaned over the bar, talked to a few customers who then stared at him and Mick. He stood. He could see Lee’s natural quiet swagger even as he sat in a bar, as easy as if he always did this, he was a loyal customer and all was well with him and the world. And there was something more that made him nervous, cockiness, steely confidence, as before but so much more.

“I’m good, work at the bank and like it. But I’m about out of here. The week was too long, I need to get rested up for the sunny week-end.”

Mick poured the cola slowly into the glass, sucked off some foam, chuckled. “Yeah, the lake, huh? You got a little game since we last met. Success and all. Well, good for you.” He turned to better see Lee’s face. “I’m not going to ask. I know she’s done well, too. Tell her ‘hi’ for me. I’ll be moving on to Houston.”

“Yeah, sure, and good luck, Mick.”

He turned on his heel when Mick grabbed his jacket sleeve. Lee swallowed, unable to say the words he so meant to say but he looked down at the seated man with narrowed eyes. A foe if ever there was one; he needed Mick to see his as the same. Mick let go.

“Just wanted to say your sister deserves so much more than this town can give her, know that? She’s amazing.”

And Lee’s body went cold, felt heavy; his mind clouded. He felt a whoosh of light-headedness a split second, then turned his back on Mick Stavros and took off.

******

“I’m telling you, I think he knows where we live now.” He was on the phone as soon as he left the bar.

“What can we do about it, Lee? The police know he’s here, his parole officer surely knows he’s here. He’ll be gone and we won’t ever have to think about him again!”

Rita’s stomach quivered but she didn’t want him to know it. She wanted to be courageous, not needy. There was a time when she needed everyone but could hardly say why. When the depth of her fears and the bitterness of betrayal were like an endless tidal wave. But she got over it. Mick went to prison for something else entirely despite inciting her to lose her common sense and far worse. And she had learned to live better than before, with more strength and faith.

“He said he wouldn’t bother you. But call or come over if you have any reason to–”

“Yes, okay! Alright, Lee, thanks. I’ll check in later.”

It was still light when Rita took her lawn chair and placed it so she could see the gate to her back yard. It was a pleasant view, her border blooms bright and healthy, the dimming sky blues streaked with scant stratus clouds. The middle unit of the triplex looked empty but an older couple occupied it; they taught at the college. A light then came on in their upstairs bathroom as if to assure her they were home. She patted her cheek and found the pain had receded much more the last few hours, was barely there.

Assurances. Those didn’t align with other thoughts and feelings. Rita was watching the side yard and her place. She was watching the night arrive in barest movements, as if it was helping prepare her for full darkness. First, sunset’s performance which was just just detected beyond the roof line. She was happy with their investment, feeling alright about living there and near her brother. But she didn’t feel reassured nor free of the sudden upsurge of anxiety. She felt riveted by the night, every sound, sight and scent magnified. She was most afraid that she might finally have to see him yet also feel what was felt so long ago–their passionate needs exchanged, the thrill of his nearly shape-shifting presence, strange feelings never felt before.

Before she saw his darker prowess, his errant ways. Before she crossed a border into Mick Stavros territory. Before things went bad. She rested, waited for nothing and everything.

He arrived late but not so late she was drowsy. He managed to jump over the low fence behind her, it was only his full landing on dampened dirt and flowers then a slight swish across the lawn that alerted her, his movements swift and quiet. Thieving motions, the strength and nimbleness, the silence that came naturally to him.

“Mick,” she whispered.

He pulled her up to him and she slumped, almost falling through his arms. When she righted herself, his face and labored breathing hovered about her neck and hair and face.

“Your hair…”

Rita’s chest tightened and her voice fell away as she felt the blade of a knife in her skirt pocket, then withdrew it, lifted it, readied it at his side. Hand steady.

“I’m sorry for the bad end, Rita, how it all went down. I never meant to…I wish I had…but I have to disappear for good.”

His breath was warmly fragrant as if he had exuded exotic plant, a night flower. Just as always. He spoke carefully so as not to further startle her or cause any disturbance that might bring others. His lips grazed her cheek. She wanted to scream, take fast action, but did not. She almost believed him, longed to find him changed despite her alarm, the old anger but she would not be mystified by him.

Mick released her with care. He traced the edge of her jawline with his thumb, then melded with deep shadow and disappeared through the side gate.

It was as if he was never there.

Rita collapsed on moist grass face first and what had to be hundreds of tiny, stalwart stems of greenness were prickly against her skin. She exhaled into spiky grass, inhaled the scent of loamy earth as if remembering to breathe this ordinary air. And her heartbeat rose and fell with relief.

Her phone rang. She pulled herself together.

“I’m calling because you were supposed to check in! I worried,” Lee said.

She held the cell phone with sweaty hands. “I’m sorry. I had things to do, time flew.”

“You’re alright then? We can both get sleep tonight? And what about your tooth?”

Rita looked up at the sky, the stars like ice and flame, brilliant although so long dead, and the moon like a giant pearl glowing, lovely and calm.

“All is well, Lee, thanks for the call. I will be even better tomorrow,” Rita said as she positioned the knife’s point and blade down as was safest. She entered her home. Locked the door. Gazed through its small window into the swath of darkness.

 

The Better Part of Love

Family by Wiliam Eggleston
Family by William Eggleston

That year I had buried my parakeet, Blue; our lame dog, Lucy; a kitten that never had a chance; and my own mother, so I wasn’t about to lose my brothers. I told the social services lady I could manage but she was doubtful. At sixteen, I knew more than they realized. I didn’t talk so much, not to strangers, which was the majority of people. And not about things that were irrelevant, like what meals I could cook, if our tiny, dingy bathroom was disinfected with regularity, how I managed to do laundry. If I could really manage the boys and even pay bills. Like all that was of primary importance to them. The boys, yeah, I got that one. The bills? We had a few of those. I worked after school. And mom had saved some. That was a shock.

Who do they think did all the work? My mother was sick for years, right after Willy was born. No father, ever, okay? In fifteen minutes I wanted to usher that social services woman straight out to the road. But, you know, the game. I nodded, gave her a grin that seemed grateful. Gave her descriptions of three cheese and beef goulash, our favorite, and how I scrubbed walls and toilet with vinegar and water. How I hung wet clothes on the line all year long after using Aunt Sally’s ancient washer. She lived across the road. Not my blood aunt and not the best humored woman but I’d fight for her if she was cornered by a badger or even a bad person. She sat with my mother near the end, then made us all stay in school.

Willy was nine then, Luke twelve. I had turned sixteen the week before Mom passed. There wasn’t anything to that but a cake Aunt Sally baked and ice cream Vern brought from his trailer and his daughter, my closest friend that spring. Mom sat propped in bed though she kept slumping over. Luke would set her upright, fix the pillows again. We all gathered around her, licking chocolate ice cream and icing off our chins, talking about a thunderstorm the night before, and Sally, to my embarrassment, said how much I looked like mom. I had never seen that; I avoided the mirror most days.

“You do, Jessie, more and more,” Sally said. “I wasn’t sure how you’d turn out when you was born but finally you got good-looking.”

Vern grunted. “She had a much better chance than you.”

“Hush. They must have got some hill genes, that’s why, although those ones usually go bad in the end. Not tough enough or honest enough to hold up under much pressure. Poor things.”

I thought, Oh, no, not this again, sorry old whiner that she is. She meant the folks who lived up the hill, the ones with education or money or both. We lived in the valley, where land and housing were cheap. Aunt Sally hated money, what it meant to the world. How she couldn’t keep it long enough to get out of her little brown house with moss eating up the roof and mice aggravating her all night as they scrambled inside the walls. Mildred, her fat cat, couldn’t even keep up with them.

Mom opened her eyes. “Hill people, good and bad like anywhere. My kids got the better part of love, that’s all. Good kids. ”

Vern and Sally were silenced. I wasn’t sure what she meant. We got her care and attention as she could give it, yes. But did she mean something else? I put that aside. She reached for us. I was overcome and looked away when her eyelids shuttered. I knew that was how she saw us–her excellent offspring–but she never quite said it. Just encouraged us, made us study hard and taught us manners, washed our faces with a worn wash cloth. Said we were good, not bad like some parents told their kids. We just made mistakes, she said. Stuck our drawings and report cards and a few class awards on the frig. The usual hopefulness of a mother who never had much more than two sticks to rub together but got by. Who imagined a far finer future for each of us.

She wasn’t a saint. She had three kids and never told anyone who the father or fathers were when pressed for paternity information. I got the idea she was real pretty as a girl, as well as smart–not that much had changed–and had a great liking for men. Unlike some women, like Aunt Sally who thought they were poison. Such traits in my mother weren’t bad things, like criminal leanings or something. No one said terrible things about her that I heard. She worked at the mill, long hours, and most often came right home.

But I understood by my teens that her choices could have been better. Life might have been easier for her and us. Once I overheard her tell Aunt Sally she didn’t want to marry, anyway, after her only husband left. I wasn’t around when she knew that one. He was born lazy, Vern agreed said; the guy skipped out a year later. Mom was way too young, Aunt Sally informed me, as if I couldn’t figure that out. I was born when she was twenty.

“Maybe she does. Hill genes.” Mom whispered as if in a dream. As she did more and more.

Aunt Sally leaned over her bed, bright eyes fixed on her face. “Who’s got ’em? Jessie, then? ”

Our mother managed only a frown as her head slipped off the pillow. I helped her lie down and tucked in the sheets and blanket. Tried to not dwell on why she groaned so, biting her lower lip hard when she had to move.

Still, I thought she’d stay with us until summer, at least. I wanted so much more than was left to have.

After mom passed, the social services woman came and went with documents and her one hundred questions. After the mess of court, it was determined I could continue caring for Willy and Luke. People stuck up for me, teachers and Pastor Dave and family friends. But I had to keep my part-time job at Miller’s Drug and “seek secondary support” from Aunt Sally, plus deal with random visits from the social services lady. Which was ridiculous when you considered that she said she’d never had kids. And Sally swore too much, was sarcastic and a collector of random animal figurines and ancient magazines. But she cared about us. A lifelong worker at the mill lkke mom; volunteered every Saturday at the thrift shop. (This was good for us; she snagged us clothes for next to nothing.) Plus, she didn’t drink except a couple of beers Friday night when she played canasta.

I was surprised I didn’t have to fight harder to keep Willy and Luke and stay in our house. Our roof threatened to cave in near the back porch. I had to grow up even faster and make sure they made it through their teens okay. That meant I’d be like a mother day after day for another ten years, they reminded me. I said nothing to that but “Right, got it.” The authorities were probably relieved to not have to find us new places to land. Or mom fixed it somehow.

Life went on. That’s what people say when things settle down after hard times happen. The boys were subdued a few months. I woke up dazed, was never in the mood for anything to rock the boat. I liked my job as a cashier and was liked back. My grades remained good enough. Willy was a wild child who had turned sullen the least couple years as mom got sicker.

Now he helped out more often. He’d clean up behind me in the kitchen as I cooked, no chatter, just us two getting things done. Sometimes I’d quiz him on vocabulary or math. Luke was out more and more biking with friends or practicing on his homemade skateboard. I felt those two things saved him from trouble. He had to check in with me every day after school at the drug store and be in by dark. Willy went to Pastor Dave’s or a friend’s house until I got off.

It didn’t seem like anything more bad could happen for a long while.

One night Willy plunked his tennis shoes down and told me he had to have new–or at least newer–ones. I agreed. There were holes in the fabric. They were worn down at heels and toes. He had an old jacket on that mom said had been left by a friend way back, no more explanation than that. I thought it looked military. It had moth-chewed holes. I had nearly tossed it recently but Willy liked it and sometimes had to do things differently. I let it be.

I studied the frig contents for inspiration.

“I think we’d be better off if there weren’t so many of us,” he said.

“What? We’re not a big family, never were.” I counted the eggs to see if there were enough and got out the last of the mozzarella cheese. Egg sandwiches would do.

“I meant if you didn’t have to worry so much about how to take care of us. I know you do, don’t lie!”

I turned around and looked at him. He glowered back.

“What else is new, Willy? Worry is a way of life in the valley. Everyone has to stretch their energy and dollars.”

“But you’re sixteen and now you have to start working every week-end and I have to stay at other places. Luke is gone a lot and you have too much to do. And mom isn’t here, remember?”

I heard his voice break into tears before I saw them so put down the iron frying pan beside the bowl of eggs.

“Come here.”

“No, Jessie. I’m telling you it stinks….” his voice shattered, then was muffled by more tears.

“We’re okay. We’ll be okay at some point, anyway. Just have to be patient. Sure it’s hard, what’s easy about much of anything? But you have to stop fearing the worst. That won’t help. Mom’s gone, that’s already the worst of it… the rest I can handle fine! We don’t have too many in this family, you hear me?” But my voice had edged into a register that wound up to a small shriek and it scared us both.

He looked up, red nose streaming, and yelled back, “When will that lady come and tell us we can’t stay together? When will she take me away? That’s what Henry said today, that this is stupid because everyone knows it can’t work for long!”

I placed each hand on the table either side of him, leaned close, face-to-face.

“Henry O’Toole is an idiot. He knows nothing of what I can and will do to take care of you and Luke. He doesn’t know I have been doing it for years. He says wrong things because he’s totally ignorant of the truth, he lives on the hill and hasn’t suffered through much at all–not yet! Henry is just wrong, okay?”

Willy stopped crying and wiped his nose on a sleeve. I grabbed a tea towel and he rubbed his face with it.

“His darned iguana died last year, he said.”

I threw up my hands. “Well, then! A dang crying shame!”

Willy started to laugh.

I thought that was the end of it. He went out on the porch as I got the eggs ready. I called Luke at his friend’s house and told him to get home. The table was set so I called to Willy to help with the apple juice or milk. No answer. I leaned my head out the screen door.

“Willy? Egg sandwiches coming up. Come in now.”

But he wasn’t there. I walked around back calling his name, then crossed the road to Aunt Sally’s.

She was making coffee and a savory pot of soup. “Not seen anybody–got home late. All okay?”

“I think so. I’ll let you know.”

“Good.”

Luke skidded to a stop in front of the porch as I returned.

“Willy took off. He was very upset earlier, said he worried I might not be able to take care of us. You hear that from him?”

He looked away, then back at the house. “He gets…you know…low, sad. We miss mom. But you’re here for us. I don’t worry much.”

“Much?”

Luke took off his baseball cap, scratched his sweaty head. “Yeah, well, we owe for bills and you can’t drop out of school. I was thinking maybe I could do something on week-ends. Yard work or walk dogs. On the hill. But Willy’s too young.”

His eyes held mine a moment–his clear and blue and fearless, mine, grey and anxious and squinty in the waning light. “Grey like the color of pearly twilight,” mom used to say. I felt a wave of longing.

“But he’s gone, you said?”

Luke and I took off down the road.

Spring peepers, crickets and birds sang us into the first veil of darkness. Soon more layers would settle over earth and leave us blind with night. The creatures barely reassured me as we walked, calling out Willy’s name. After few minutes my heart rapped against my ribs and my breath came faster. The woods beckoned but I knew we wouldn’t get too far without a flashlight, which I hadn’t bought new batteries for yet. There were so many things I should have done, and one was paying more attention to how Willy felt.

“He’s got to be nearby, it wasn’t that long before I called him for dinner.”

“He’s hiding out, that’s all.”

The night sky turned from coral and pink to a luminous dusky purple. The trees were already dark and dense.

“Willy Van Buren come out!” I yelled as loud as I could. “It’s too scary out here without both you boys! Come out now!”

Then a car was coming fast, its headlights thrown about like searchlights into the blurry countryside. Luke and I waved our arms so the driver wouldn’t plow us down. It came to a soft stop across from us. I grabbed Luke’s hand and we stepped back.

“You kids alright?”

A man with a shirt and tie poked his head out the open window. He looked familiar but Luke tightened his grip. We turned away and kept walking with purpose.

“Hey, I know you two–you’re the Van Buren children. Lillian’s kids!”

The car door opened and shut. Luke and I sped up more. We were a few hundred yards from Vern’s.

“Who is that?” I hissed as we half-ran.

“I think he works at that big law office downtown, Parks and Taylor. Why would he be here? Maybe we’re in trouble!”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him around.”

The stranger called into dark that obscured landscape and each other even more. “Wait, please! I knew your mom! I’m so sorry she passed….too young.”

I stopped then and turned to face the man, Luke pulling at my hand.

“Well, who are you to care about our mother? You need to move on. We’re going to our friend’s right there.” I indicated with my head where it was and stilled my voice as best I could and planted my feet on the road. “I don’t know you, mister.”

“I’m sorry; this must seem odd. Of course you don’t. I’m Phillip Parks, an attorney in town.”

He strode toward us as we backed up, then held out his hand. It remained suspended there. His face looked softer and older in the headlights. Mr. Parks did look concerned.

“I was driving around after meeting with a client, just thinking, rememembering things. Because I knew Lillian pretty well. She and I went to school together long ago. I was…quite fond of her. I actually wanted to stop by and see you kids sometime, offer help. I know things are rough. It’s serendipity that I found you right now.”

“That right?” Luke’s voice held an edge. “Why would you want to  see us, Mr. Parks? Are you going to inspect our house and take notes on what my sister isn’t doing perfectly? Or worse?”

He yanked my hand so the ligaments in my wrist burned.

“We have business of our own so nice to meet you but good-bye.” I stated to run with Luke. We could see the yellow lights of Vern’s place. But then the car seemed to be following us.

Willy stepped out of the shrubbery and threw his arms around me.

“Where on earth–?”

“I took off for Vern’s, I’m sorry!”

“Don’t do that again!”

“Willy, don’t be stupid–making a fuss for Jessie!” Luke gave his head a soft smack.

We watched Vern wave at us and close his door. I almost ran and banged on his door so he would walk us home. But Phillip Parks’ car had stopped, lights flooding the road and our faces. The driver’s door opened. H strode to us.

“Here.” He handed me an envelope, the sort that has a store-bought card in it. “You can open it now or later. I was going to mail it. I wanted to express my sympathy. I had to offer my help but thought it better to see you in person. That’s all.”

I turned it over in my hands and looked at the front. He, in fcat, had to be Mr. Phillip Parks. There it was, addressed to me with a “Miss” in front of my name.

I ripped it open, wanting the whole thing to be done with. I scanned the flowery scene, read the inside without registering the canned words. Because into my hands fell his business card and two crisp one hundred-dollar bills.

I held it all out to him. “Why this? We don’t know you at all.”

He put his head in his hands. I was scared he was going to start crying and the world was going to stop turning and nothing would ever be righted again. I tried to call mom close to help us.

But he was okay when he looked up. “I hope you all can come to my office tomorrow. The main thing is, I told Lillian I’d help you if anything happened to her. And I’m good for my word. But I can explain more then.”

Luke swore, out of disbelief or amazement, but I almost took him to task right there for rudeness. Willy just stared, having missed the earlier encounter with the stranger. But I offered my hand and shook his, just like mom had taught me to do.

I didn’t want to know more. I did want to consider so much cash in hand and tomorrow I’d decide what was best to do. Likely meet Mr. Parks at his office and clear things up. I had an idea what he’d say to us and thought it might fill me with both relief and more heartache. He turned and started to walk.

I had dinner to reheat or remake. I had homework to complete. I was tired out and it had just been one more day. Still, I saw his shoulders sag worse.

“Mr. Parks, we haven’t met in good circumstances. But I want to say thanks for the money and I appreciate your remembrance of our mother. I’ll call your office tomorrow.”

He hesitated, then put his hand in the air and waved.

I wove my fingers through Luke’s and Willy’s as they chattered. We took our time getting home. Crickets sounded like choristers and an owl said something good. Willy whistled in response. Luke shook off my grip to pick up a stick, help lead the way. Whatever came, I already knew I had the better parts of love on either side of me and in heaven above.