Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.

 

Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archaeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for any creative types, thus our tolerance of perceived “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it slightly scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a “dirt buster” handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with unrelated objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Five fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, a very old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new white votives. A box of long matches was in a coffee can along with two overripe bananas. Books on every available spot. Dead plant–or perhaps it was just exceedingly wan, soaking up any thin rays that fell upon a wooden shelf, and next to two more that seemed much more willing to survive. Bones propped up on the next shelf between books: not quite menacing and of different sizes. Don’t ask me what, my imagination could run rampant; perhaps mementos from a student dig.

I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire or other health hazards but for some reason–intelligence, wit?–I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen a flickering glow from the sidewalk. That was always welcome to see as I trudged up the walkway.

I just backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a woolly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Chapel House and the Lake Spirits

(Courtesy of Pexels; photo by Wendy Wei)

They’d been scheming for a couple of weeks, the four of them, meeting after school, texting far too late into the dark chill right before Halloween. Nels was a master planner; he could be counted on to come up with the best party ideas, or just stuff to do on Saturday nights. He could put together impulsive hi-jinks, outrageous and funny–at least to Casey, Tran and Marika. He stirred up their excitement with his words. Not even as tall as Tran, he seemed bigger and taller, and thick messy hair flopped over his forehead, almost hiding eyes. His friends and associates described him as “magnetic” and it wasn’t far off. Others gossiped, said sure, he was creative but sort of nuts, sometimes cool but also tacky. At times, unnerving. That energy infused him with a mixture of danger, mystery and ebullience, resulting in unusual scenarios which he sketched in his journal and colorfully imagined– quite cinematically. He wanted to be a director some day despite his father’s likely ridicule. That he was a theater nut softened his extreme reputation at school.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, rubbing his palms together, “I have the plan at last for Halloween. That mute woman. You know– on the peninsula, Ms. Swanson.”

“Sophia Swanson…why her?” Marika was braiding Casey’s hair but her hands paused. His words brought up a sense of unease, not excitement. She was widowed after her husband drowned and she hadn’t spoken for over two years.

Tran thrust his long, skinny legs out, closer to the heat of the fireplace. “She’s an interesting one. But maybe too chancy–she isn’t our usual Halloween target. Why not play it safer? I graduate this year, remember, and don’t need bad press.”

“Well, wait a sec, her husky-mix dog doesn’t run loose and she’s likely to be alone, so little risk. Nothing actually will be damaged, right? ” Casey hands felt the braiding progress and she indicated Marika could finish. “It depends on what you have in mind, Nels.”

“You know I believe a good scare is good fun, and there are advantages out there, like approaching by the lake in a boat, or walking up the dirt road and waiting until after midnight. Nobody goes out there to trick or treat. So we can be the first!” He opened wide his arms. “She could use a real Halloween moment, don’t you think? To shake things up?”

His booming laugh careened off vaulted ceilings of the large split log house. From the corner of his eye he saw his mother from her spot in the dining room. She got up, walked by them and upstairs, waving a cheery goodnight as she ascended. She went to bed early when Nels’ dad was on trips, which was often.

“So, what’s the plan already?” Tran asked as he jumped up, restless with interest already.

Marika shook her head, frowning, but she knew she’d join in. They’d been the Birch Woods Clan, BWC, since fifth grade, well over six years–a silly name they’d come up with during a childish secret ceremony so long ago. But it kept them loyal even now.

Casey checked out her braid, got up, and stood by Nels. Her man, first and last.

“Here’s the beauty of it…” Nels began, and they all stood at attention before him as if compelled, even though they weren’t, not really. And they’d never been caught, even if many suspected they did the crazy Halloween deeds. They knew how to act fast and get out in time.

******

“Here are your groceries,” Will said and handed the two bags over to Sophia.

She smiled gently, lightly bowed in her dancerly fashion, her hands set in prayerful mode as a thank you. He liked to watch her move in simplest ways, as she’d been a dancer for decades; perhaps one day she’d return to it. She managed her life alright despite not speaking. Will was kind to shop for her if she had a more challenging day. Sophia marveled that he had time or interest. At 74, he was not without impediments. And his wife Anna’s long recovery from a stroke didn’t seem to faze him much. The lines around his observant eyes just deepened and his dear face seemed thinner. His spirit stayed positive.

The chapel-house–so named since it’d been a historic chapel before the Swansons renovated it–was warm and fragrant. Scents of eucalyptus and clove as a white oak fire smoldered teased his nose. A smell he thought of as “the old chapel” lingered and made him think of thin, yellowing hymnal pages, winter’s damp woolens and bodies packed together in an iron wood stove kind of heat. And Daedalus– called Dae– her elegant big dog, wagged his luxurious tail, licked at his hands. It was not easy to leave her inviting domain but he had to hasten back to Anna. Their lives were changed but still good, if harder than they’d planned when he’d left his post as editor at The Clarion.

How fortunate I am, Sophia thought, to know this man and Anna. He had always and was now looking out for her yet ran these errands and stayed a few moments to catch up. She liked to visit them in town.

“So what’re you doing for Halloween tomorrow? I see you actually carved a jolly pumpkin for the porch. Coming out for the library’s family event? Or to the Bluestone for pumpkin cookies and coffee, at least?”

Her eyebrows shot up–she smiled, shook her head slowly.

He knew better than to ask. She didn’t naturally gravitate to social events; it was nearly impossible to communicate as it was. Sophia pointed to a DVD cover on the mantle. He couldn’t make out the title but knew she liked the classics, so nodded. Likely some old Boris Karloff. At least that–she could find some laughs here and there.

They exchanged a few more words and he took his leave after she gave him a quick hug. She was thirty years younger than Will was, but he appreciated her litheness, that long ginger (threaded with white) hair about her face (usually pulled back), appreciation in those strong arms. She needed to find someone to love her, someone who merited shine of her talent and smarts and beauty, he mused. He shut the door behind him with a tip of his hat.

Sophia wavered at the fire, undecided what to do next, leaned her forehead against the hand carved mantle. The flames sparked and leapt until they became a scarlet canvass upon which she saw herself dancing, dancing to Stravinsky’s breathtaking “Firebird Suite.” She straightened her back, lengthened her neck and thew back her shoulders, trying to keep back any release of nostalgia with its tears. Reaching for her ever watchful Daedalus, she ruffled his fur then got to the simple task of putting away the food. But the night stretched ahead like a hall of mirrors as gusts shook the pines beyond the safety of her home–and in every intangible mirror she saw Thomas drowning and drowned, his empty boat shattered as lightning illuminated the restless north woods waters.

******

TZ and Frank were glad to help out a friend with the library’s “Kids’ Fright Night Party” but they were keen to get down to the lake so after an hour they were done. It hadn’t rained. Though a prescience of snow slipped along the wind’s edge, it was a clear, starry night. If they were lucky they’d enjoy a last bonfire with the others.

By the time they arrived at the Ring Lake’s rocky shore, the bonfire was big enough to be glimpsed from town center. Buckets and buckets of water were lined up, circled around merrymakers. There was the requisite illegal beer, pot smoked, and costumes that people sported spanning from the ridiculous to frightening. They had opted for simplest masquerades: ghostly beings, created with white grease paint and a few holey sheets.

“No one comes as that, anymore!” Marika laughed. “Good one–if simple-minded!”

“You make a good Cleopatra, how fancy if overwhelming,” TZ admitted. She wanted to like Marika but it wasn’t easy. her group was so over-the-top, and you could only give offer so much attention before it wore you out.

Frank asked, “Where are the other mighty BWCs?”

“Ha ha, we don’t go by that, anymore! The guys are eating and Casey is dancing over there, wild creature. As usual.”

“She is dressed as a leopard…” Frank said admiringly.

“What are you four up to later?”

“What could you possibly mean, TZ?”

“Duh, your usual Halloween trespass and scare tactics. You never miss a year.”

“Can’t even prove it, can you?” Tran said as he sidled up with a hot dog in both hands then gave one to Marika.

Frank put an arm around Tran. “No, but so far nothing really bad has happened so there’s no reason to collect evidence, right? I know you’re up to something!”

Tran shook off his arm and gave a hard laugh. “Spoken like the cop you will become!”

“More likely a lawyer, or forest ranger…” Frank retorted as he strode closer to the bonfire.

“See you fools around, don’t get too crazy!” TZ shouted over her shoulder as she caught up with Frank.

Marika spine tingled all the way up to the nape of her neck. TZ and Frank had gotten close to Sophia Swanson, helped her out. It made her wonder even more if this was the right person, an okay thing even in so-called fun. But Tran had left already and was chatting up another girl; he was in high gear, as was Nels. She took a big bite of the charred, mustardy hot dog and looked for Casey. Her best friend, Casey: Nels’ girl, his most loyal and avid accomplice. What was Marika doing in this sticky web? Maybe it’d be the last Halloween mischief for her. She was 17; this was all getting old. She went to the fire, faded into the chattering, laughing groups. She had been drawn to the party’s gaiety, but for a moment she leaned closer to the scorching heat, closed her eyes, dreamed of escape, of growing up and having a real life.

******

Sophia looked up at the original clerestory windows in her loft. There was already a constellation or two to be seen up high, tiny dots of light for a heavenly map beyond treetops. They’d added a huge floor to ceiling window in the lakefront wall. They…she and Thomas. She had bargained hard for it so she could have a light-filled dance studio, and use it secondarily for painting. She got a tall wooden stool and watched as the panorama revealed itself though a gateway to the world.

Often she often did this: sat with hands flattened on thighs, eyes riveted by first a slow approaching sunset, then the 20 or so minutes of the stirring blue hour. She was calmed by it, sky above transformed in sheerest colors, the lake alive with the bloom of hues. The woods and water, their powerful green and blueness. Then: it was as if wind and waters of that horrible night so ferocious returned, and the rising in her of memory of his anger, his going out in his boat. Not coming back. Her growing muteness the response she had to give when first responders arrived.

She still could not swim though she was good at it. She avoided looking at Stump Island beyond the peninsula where the boat had crashed against earth, roots and stone, useless. It was too magnetic a scene even as it repelled her. But if she didn’t look out from her snug home she’d never enter it like any other person who loves the freer life of water, wind, minerals and plants. Which she did. Only from a distance since then, a voluntary jail. Hands pressed against a barrier of glass, eyes filling with beauty, heart quivering, mind wondering.

Cabins and cottages along the shoreline blinked on one by one in navy twilight. Hers could be easily seen from the water, but not quite her body at its post in shadow. There were excited shouts here and there; a late, last speedboat careened to a nearby dock. The night was just beginning for some, revelries intensifying. Dae put head on paws, mobile furry brows like additional commentary as his eyes searched the night. Sophia gathered her shawl and loosened it about her, then stood and spun around three times, head back, hair flying. And heard tree branches suddenly scratch and brush the chapel house, her house creak and crack. At least she had an escape with a good movie, “The Raven”– for some silliness.

Sophia started down the stairs but Dae stood, ears standing upright; he stayed stock still. Then lay down again, watching. Sophia ran lightly down the stairs and found the movie to begin. When he barked once, twice, then again, she only turned up the volume. He was always barking at night creatures and twinkling lights rippling on water’s surface.

But he didn’t quiet down. She paused the DVD and ran to see what he saw. Dae was focused on the scene beyond the window; he didn’t acknowledge her.

And she saw it, too. Fire. Fire on the water.

On or above it? Reflections were impossible to separate from original sights in growing darkness as the elements merged together. But the fire was moving, two–wait, four fires. Or red lights, lamps? No. It swayed and flared as did fire. Torches, then. Each held by someone in a boat. Dae barked more loudly but Sophia heard boisterous voices–and they were making a chant or a kind of song strange to her ears. Ominous rumbling slipped across water. She ran to get the pole that opened the clerestory windows high above and hooked a latch, then opened two. Now she could hear better; they came closer and closer. There was a drum beaten rhythmically as the boat approached the peninsula and the torches, large and held aloft, burned brighter, bigger. She stood at the window and listened intently, her shawl tight about her, Dae readied with body tensed, head high and still.

The odd rhyme was repeated loudly, almost yelled out:

“Four spirits move–into the night,

ghost beings–made of anger and fright,

and Thomas arrives –for Halloween,

Thomas Swanson–go to your queen!”

Sophia stumbled backwards.

The boat came to rest at the shore and they got out, dressed in white, torches held far above so faces were unseen. The ghastly chant continued as they moved toward the house. My god, were they conjuring him, these people? Had he the will to taunt her through them? Sophia stepped farther back, Dae barked wildly, dizziness overtook her as nausea stirred. She felt it, a terrible scream, but could not let it out, and stumbled across the floor to a corner here she tried to breathe slowly, tried to be rational. But she was failing and they were coming. And she had no voice with which to call for help.

The doorbell then, heard it it ringing insistently. Every cell in her body resisted it; she froze. Dae ran downstairs growling at the heavy pounding, more noise and then there were footsteps on the stairs and she thought, this is going to be the end of me...

Shortly there came before her one she knew so well.

TZ took her hands. “Sophia! It will be okay, stand up, it’s going to be okay, it’s stupid pranksters!”

She gathered Sophia into her strong young arms.

“It’s kids, a bad prank on you and I’m so, so sorry! Frank’s out back, he’ll get them if they’re still on your property!” She gave Sophia a little shake, her own five feet eight length plus full mental powers trying to gain a little control of this woman who, at six feet, looked frail now. But TZ knew Sophia; the woman had an extraordinary will and would come around.

“I need to go and help him,” TZ siad and left with Dae.

Sophia roused herself. She had to see what was going on so followed in a moment, then flipped on outdoor floodlights and slid open the sliding glass doors to the large patio. Dae was racing after the intruders in full voice, TZ not far behind him.

The apparitions had vanished, torches flung into the fire pit sunk into the wide stone deck–burning bright, plumes of smoke curling and with stink of kerosene, the only evidence of their presence. For the boat was gone, as well.

Frank jogged back from the front of the chapel house with Dae trotting beside him, both panting. TZ straggled. Frank’s palms pushed against his thighs and he bent over, head hanging. Then they gathered about the fire pit and TZ and Sophia poured water from watering cans over the hissing flames.

“I called police, they’ll flush them out,” he said. “I’m know who they are. Unbelievable–but that’s what they do on Halloween.”

TZ shot him a look. No need to further worry Sophia–they could inform her of any outcomes later.

But they knew she wanted to ask: why? Why would anyone do that when Thomas’ death had even been investigated, she had been heavily questioned, and it truly haunted her yet? And the little gang of BWC was made of those who gave little or no thought to consequences of their decisions. Or so it seemed. Nels, that is Nelson Hartman, talented, angry son of a high powered businessman who was rarely around. And Tran? Chinese-American, moved there with parents and grandparents who never quite adapted, and for good reason: deeply embedded racism. But Casey was, well, Casey–she didn’t care for most rules and expectations, was entirely loyal to Nels.

Then there was Marika who’d broken down when Frank grabbed her arm, begged him not to turn her in, she was done with BWC, old friends or not.

“Besides, I saw something out there, it was ….” It was more than she could say, apparently.

He left her sniffling at the side of the road though it was a bit harsh of him. It wouldn’t do to have Sophia see her in such a state. Let Marika ask for any forgiveness later. Frank knew the others would collect her–unless the cops got them first. Someone–he thought Tran was also less than all in–had just left, taken the boat rather than be caught. Daedalus nipped one of them–he heard one cursing at the dog as they dashed down the road, their sheets flying. How ironic that they’d had the same simple costume idea for worse.

Frank put an arm around the shaken woman–someone he admired and respected. Who was looked straight into his eyes, subdued and angered.

“We just felt you might be on their list–they do something crazy every year…a pact they made, I guess. Trying to make a creepier night of it…I don’t get it. But that was beyond mean. They’ll face charges if you press them.” He scrubbed the top of his head in exasperation. “We all worry about you out here.”

TZ shushed him. Of course he didn’t “get” the mini-terrorizing; Frank didn’t have a cruel bone in him. But at times he talked too much when staying quiet could help more. She beckoned to Sophia they went inside where she seemed to come back to herself.

After they’d had a fresh mug of coffee with cinnamon scones Will had brought, and they’d told her about the costumed kids at the library and showed pictures, and shared their week-end plans and asked if she wanted more leaves raked yet, which she shrugged about, Sophia gestured to the sofa as if to ask them to stay and see the film. Dae, however, jumped up beside her and lay his length there, put his head in her lap. TZ and Frank said it was time to go, they had more plans. Sophia waved goodbye, her silhouette clean and strong in the doorway.

“She always looks like some amazing…goddess…” TZ said.

“Yeah, a frozen-in-time-goddess. A famous dancer whose life was put on a long pause, such creativity and big emotions shut down…”

This was what TZ liked about Frank, He looked like a lumberjack but was so much more.They got into his truck, said nothing more of it all.

After they’d gone, Sophia went up to the loft to the tall widows. She studied the water’s surface gleaming like silver here and there in moonlight. Was that movement another boat, a sudden light another torch? Was that chilled mist hovering over the little island a thing she could not define? She pressed her nose against the glass, breath obscuring her view. Was Thomas still languishing in autumn waters? She heard him sometimes, felt his presence always, his rage and brilliance, his love and restlessness. She and Dae mused on the night’s events, shivered one after the other.

Sophia got the clerestory pole with its hook, closed the latches of both high windows so that all was shut out–please, Thomas, leave me–for one more night.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Matter of the Blood Oath

Photo by Hakan Hu on Pexels.com

It was a radiant red and gold fall Monday morning when everything got ready to change. Not that Perth would know it from a glance around the quiet house or when crossing Dartmoor Parkway, the traffic thickening and their mother waving from the porch, or the train right on time along Fourth Street. Victoria was ahead of her but not by much.

It would take the day cracking open–didn’t everyone hear it?–at lunch hour. It made her brain hurt, all the crackling and crashing as her mind took in, then recoiled at the scene before her.

Her sister didn’t even glance her way. How could she? Her wide brown eyes were glued to Dominic’s, the new boy’s, the one who sat across from Perth in eighth grade English class. Vic, as she called her at school, ten months younger but in the same grade, had him in drama class. They’d briefly noted him during the first week of the semester. And only because his thick dark hair fell to his shoulders and his bare ankles hung out where his jeans might have covered them. It was otherwise obvious he was out of place, though all new kids were out of place, as they knew. The sisters had moved a lot. (But now all three were “firmly planted,” their mother said, “in very good soil, we will bloom accordingly.” Perth and Victoria hoped with every fiber of their beings she was in this marriage for the long run.)

Perth carried the lunch tray to where she usually sat, between Jana and Elise, across from Vic. The two of them were in heated discussion about who did better in a math pop quiz and why Mr. Mercer was a terrible teacher, so Perth leaned forward and said,

“Hey, Vic.” She craned her neck to see Dominic but he was looking at his cheeseburger before taking a huge bite.

Victoria looked the other way while picking up several pieces of lettuce and tomato and stuffed them in her mouth. She acted embarrassed by that and she licked her fingers, then grabbed a napkin. Dominic was oblivious, attacking the burger, but he lifted a free hand at someone passing by. he had a friend already, that was good.

“Hey Victoria, what’s up, gorgeous?” Perth asked again, hands palm-up in the air. She then speared veggies from her chef salad. Why was was she being ignored?

Dominic’s gaze drifted around Jana, who took off, and landed on her. Vic gave up, flashed a smile as fake as possible at her. Perth gave her a level, cool stare.

“Well, hi,” Vic said, “I’m eating lunch, like you. Like Dom and Elise. What do you want? We have fifteen more minutes to eat. So, if you don’t mind…”

That wasn’t strictly true; they had over a half hour, but if they wanted time to walk around or fix their hair and all or gossip with friends, they had fifteen more left to eat. And they always made good use of their break times. They were together in school as they were usually around home: Perth and Victoria Didrikson, the reigning “Irish twins.”

“Hi Dom, I’m Perth, Vic’s sister, or do you know her as Victoria?” She gestured to her sister. “It makes a difference. Only insiders call her Victoria.”

“Perth, quit already!”

Dom swiped at his greasy mouth and shook his head, dark hair shimmying. “Just Vic, we met a couple weeks ago. Hey, aren’t you in my English class?”

“Yeah, with Miss Marsh, good deal, huh? Mrs. Harner is a cruel one. What are you working on for the essay?”

Vic stood up, tray in hand, salad barely touched. “Excuse me, Dom, you done? Let’s go outside where there’s more air.”

He shot her a grin, grabbed his tray and, to Perth’s shock, just followed.

Perth felt a slow burn make way from face to chest to gut. She listened to Elise jabber on about something, tried to finish lunch. But nothing felt right. Perth had an impulse to go to the nurse’s station and say she was sick. Because all in all, she sort of was. Vic had found a boy when they had absolutely sworn them off for another year. They had a yearly oath, and they each signed it. Then they pricked a finger and let a drop of their blood mark the page right under their names. It was one of a few mysterious ways they did things. It was like that since they had been kids.

******

The first thing everyone wanted to know was why she had such an weird name. Perth was, after all, the capital of Western Australia. Or if you didn’t know it, now you did. Her mother was born there and she’d had a supposedly idyllic childhood. Until her family immigrated to Canada, namely Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Maddy, their mother, had thrived there even more. Although the island was a bit isolated, not nearly as much as it was in Perth (where ocean and outback surrounded that city). She’d loved it so much that she fell in love and got married there. Later, she named her second child for that city.

Neither of the sisters quite recalled the city on the island; they had been two and three. But after Maddy’s divorce they’d lived across Canada several years. And then she met Keith, an American businessman, and that was that. That was five years ago. Now they were in Cincinnati and it could be worse, they guessed. But all through the ups and downs, Perth and Victoria were stuck together, one in mind and action more often than not, even though not in age or appearance. Nothing could have pulled them apart, not really, not even their tendencies for clear territorial space or their differences in musical taste or a constant need of reassurance that they were equally loved by their gorgeous, smart, but at times distracted mother. It had so often been romance that she preferred or so it seemed to them, and they had vowed to avoid it at all costs. Or at least as long as they possibly could, until age thirty or forty when they had established careers and good friends and homes of their own. Nearby, of course.

Maddy hugged them close when they told her the plan, thinking she might agree it was smart. They did not speak of the signatures and blood.

“Maybe so,” was all she said. “You never know what’s ahead. It is all an adventure…”

But ambiguous words meant little to her daughters; they were devoted, and so bold with certainty. She’d not forgotten how hard past times had been, the pain she’d suffered. Maddy had grown up cared for and secure, though, and she knew it had saved her. She now worked as a speech therapist four days a week; she’d remarried well, was happy again. But it had taken a terrible divorce and several more promising or miserable men, of being poor and deeply lonely while slowly finishing college–all in between then and now, meaning her degree and then Keith.

Perth and Victoria got wounded some in the fallout along the way. Maddy regretted this. What could be done but live a healthier life now, be generous with love? But she was a more and more realist. Heartbreak was not something they’d avoid. And that made her ache deep inside where no words lived.

******

After lunch, Perth obsessed about things. It was as if a part of her had been misplaced, and there was bodily discomfort, and when she looked around for her sister at her locker down the hall, he was there, one hand up, his body half-circling Vic’s. Perth’s body clutched; she felt it as anger, but who was she mad at? Him? Her? Her own self? Hormones? Hers must be sluggish or defective, despite being ten months older. Her sister did look older than she did, and Victoria thought she knew more, that was clear.

When they met back home and sat at the dinner table, Vic avoided Perth’s scathing looks and talked little or to their mother and Keith. Maddy noticed but said nothing; the girls had their rough moments. Their stepfather had little clue–who got anything about freshly minted teenagers?

Since they had their own rooms avoidance was a snap later, or so Victoria hoped. She was texting with Dominic, nothing that interesting yet fascinating to her, and she had homework to do, and her elaborately designed and colored “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the doorknob. Maybe Perth would respect that awhile.

But Perth pounded on the door. Victoria wished for her to go away.

“Victoria, let me in,” she said in a loud whisper into the keyhole. “Time to talk…”

“No.” Vic was watched the phone screen for Dom’s response.

“I can get in, you know.”

“Not without breaking down the door. Do not pick the lock.”

“Come on, you can’t refuse your big sister entry. It’s against the rules,” she whined.

“Your rules, not mine.”

There it was, three small words from him: have to go. She stared at perth through the door.

Perth leaned her back against it. She could hear their mother and stepfather laughing over whatever dumb show they watched. “I’m bored. I want the whole story.”

Victoria sighed, got up, walked around the end of her bed, looked out the window. It was a hard cold night; stars glittered like ice and a frost warning was up. It would be another beautiful day in the morning and they’d meet at lunch, maybe, again. In drama class. Casting had occurred for the play and if he got the male lead and she got the female lead….She recalled the way his hands laced fingers, then slid behind his head and then neck, his elbows sticking out. She didn’t know why that got her, but it did, they was he seemed more…something…open, reachable…that minute, even though it was more a stretch. He was two inches taller than she was already. He was funny in a quiet way. It made her feel dreamy.

A hand smacked hard once at the door and Victoria started, then bounced back onto her bed.

“Go away, Perth, you’re only making things worse…”

She lay very still, staring at the ceiling, fiddling with silky fringe on her purple flowered pillow held against her chest. There was no more said, and not even Perth walking away was heard. And that suddenly scared her. Enough to stop thinking about Dominic, enough to make it tough to get on her homework. What was happening? How could such a thing make them slide around each other, but ready to fight?

******

It went that way, more or less on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday Perth stopped going to–much less talking at–her sister’s bedroom door. She stopped sitting at her usual lunch table so she wouldn’t see the two of them excluding the world. She and Elise ate outside on the lawn as there was a warming spell, and when Janna joined them one day, Elise warned her to not ask about Dom and Vic, it upset Perth more each day and it was all over school already: Vic and Dom, together.

“Are you so freakin’ mad or jealous or what?” Janna asked, anyway. “Why her and not us?”

“No, it just isn’t what I expected, that’s all,” Perth said. She made a scornful face, then pulled her long hair back into a ponytail so the wind wouldn’t readily catch it, turn it upside down.

“You have the best hair,” Elise said. “Vic and you got lucky.”

“Thanks…I have the best sister when she isn’t an idiot,” Perth said.

“She’s not an idiot, just dumbstruck with puppy love,” Jana said and Elise socked her in the shoulder. “I mean, who can blame her?.”

“Oh, please. He’s okay, just a new eighth grade guy and why she is so mesmerized…well, I don’t get it. He isn’t all that smart or anything.” Her eyes filled suddenly and she closed them. “And she promised!””

“Mesmerized…he’s dangerous magic!” Jana wiggled fingers at them and gave them a hard stare, one eyebrow raised, the goofy one as usual.

Elise sat up straight, ears perked up by Perth’s last words. “Promised what?”

Perth wasn’t listening. Dangerous. Yeah, that’s how it felt, as if they’d entered a dark maze, and she couldn’t quite find the way to Vic even though she felt her so nearby she almost heard her breathing. Laughing at her. And that guy calling out to Victoria. But why did her sister avoid her? They’d always talked. They’d always known what the other most needed or wanted. Yet Perth could figure almost none of this out. It was as if she had been suddenly closed out. Victoria took one step that way, not the other way where Perth and she were used to going, and the world they shared stopped turning. She felt queasy and dizzy–again.

“It’s like Vic pulled down the shades, turned out the light and even my banging on the door doesn’t matter. Okay, 911–but big deal, just not answering, Sis.”

“Oh,” Janna said.

Elise put her hand on her friend’s shirted back, smoothed away damp wrinkles from unseasonable heat and wondered what it was like to have a sister. She had an older brother who she might do without.

“Crap, Perth,” Jana said and sat closer to the other side but the truth was, it was just a boy so why all the drama? She sort of had a boyfriend who was really just a good friend. Much better that way. They were only thirteen, fourteen, anyway.

******

“Quiet down some!” Keith called upstairs.

It was Victoria’s music for a change, very loud soul or was it pop music. Perth liked Ella Fitzgerald lately, a real shocker, but then she was a unique one. A couple months ago it had been David Bowie, of all people, and before that, some rapper he had never heard. Sampling, that was a good thing he thought. He’d also noticed the girls weren’t talking much, and Maddy was getting worried. He lingered at the bottom of the stairs. The music quieted. Perth stuck her head out of her room, took one step into the hall, so Keith retreated.

Perth tiptoed to Victoria’s room, bent down and slid a note under the door. She backed away then disappeared into her own room.

Victoria’s head was bent over the first play script, hair draping a side of her face as she tapped her pencil against her lips. She had gotten the lead but told no one at home yet. But she heard the paper slip over the worn floorboards and knew what it was. Her eyes lost focus on the words below. Dom hadn’t gotten a part so a stage connection was out, but he was working on lighting. She was excited. She’d always imagined being a stage actress so now it could start happening. A lot was changing. She felt breathless at times, her situational anxiety rearing its head (or so their mother would say, it ran in the family).

She slipped off the quilt and retrieved the note. It got right to the point.

What have you done with my wonderful sister?

She opened the door but Perth was not there. She crossed the hall and knocked.

“Who goes there?” Perth called out in a booming voice.

“One lady of the forest, to another.”

“Are you armed with sword or words?”

Victoria paused, almost letting go a chuckle. This is how it went.

“I come in peace…my sister bids me welcome,” she said.

“I will confer with my cabinet and ferns.” A momentary silence, then a brass bowl was struck. “Enter with hands and mind open and free.”

Maddy was halfway up the stairs when she heard some of the exchange. Her throat tightened as she pressed hand to chest, and returned to her husband.

Victoria entered a room lit with soft white, star-shaped lights strung about two windows and across top of the wall behind the bed. Two huge ferns hung in planters in opposite corners; a tarnished brass deer perched on her desk beside an ivy. Perth was seated at the desk–as she often was–but stood gracefully, shoulders back. The one who danced best, had such posture.

“Okay, I know, it’s stupid, but Dom is the first guy I’ve really noticed and–“

“So stardust got you but that shouldn’t interfere, should it, with us–“

“Right. I thought he might like you, though.”

“Sure, no interest indicated either way.”

“So what’s next?”

Perth and Victoria eased back on fluffy bed pillows, looking at the soft lights.

“I think you need to revise the oath a bit,” Victoria said.

“Me? I did nothing, changed nothing. You’re the changer.”

“But we’re getting older.”

“I suppose. But why do I have to alter the document”

“You know.”

The wind came up, rattled maple limbs like a handful of dry bones. Soon Perth would be able to see out across the street again. She liked the comfort of dense greenery more than an open vista but that was nature.

“I know, I’m the writer Irish twin. Really ought to be accurate and say Australian, that makes more sense…”

“Perth! Listen: no more bloodletting?”

“Agreed. I will just revise a bit: we’ve determined that flexibility and understanding are crucial when faced with a possibility of any outside love, but we must never lose our sister bond.”

Victoria lay her head on Perth’s shoulder. “Yeah. Well stated, sister.”

“Well received, sister.”

Perth and Victoria knew their mother was anxious downstairs, hoped to hear what they were up to this time, but they did what they always did. They kept their secrets to themselves, unless threat of harm was evident and imminent. And none was.



Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Fortuitous Forgiveness

If only, if only, if only…it was a well worn refrain, no, perhaps more a mantra for Maxine.

Eve worried they might be her mother’s last words one day, they hung between them so often, cluttered up space like meaningless items. It made her want to bolt, or at least grab the wine bottle and pour a tall one. Her parents didn’t drink, so that would come later.

“If we’re revisiting this topic even before coffee and pie, leave me out of the discussion.” Eve rose, took a serving dish and wooden salad bowl in her hands.

From the corner of her eye she noted her father had picked up the paper from the next chair over–Alden’s chair, topped with a booster seat– and proceeded to hide behind the Culture and Arts page. She wondered how long it would take him to check the stock market and predicted thirty seconds max.

“It is what it is, Maxine, let it be,” he mumbled. The pages were rustled, turned faster.

Eve disappeared through the kitchen’s Dutch doors; Maxine’s words sailed through like crows on the wing, undeterred.

“If he’d just finished his degree, this wouldn’t have to happen, you know that, Douglas, and he still could do that,” she intoned, dabbing her thin lips with a beige linen napkin, four of which I had ironed before they came. “If only he had given two thoughts to what it would mean…” She sighed and shook her head, a luxuriant bun freed slightly from its pins. Her hands–so like parchment they scared Eve lately– deftly re-secured it.

The leftover chicken and dumplings and salad disappeared down the garbage disposal and Eve turned it on. Let it run longer than needed.

What her mother was really saying was, If only you had gotten your Masters’ in chemistry or business management, this might be avoided–and: if only your husband did more to secure your family’s future. And saying it to her, not to the tension-saturated air. Eve being a teacher wasn’t enough for them, she knew that already. It had always been about the correct education and supposed power that brought. It was as if they were stuck in another decade when degrees meant financial and oddly, perhaps even spiritual victory. It brought respectability and status, after all. In their day. That was another story. One that Maxine seldom grew weary of sharing, putting a present day twist on things that was entirely made up.

Certainly she was not talking to Eve’s husband, Mick, as he was out, just as he tended to be for every Sunday mealtime. He was at his best friend’s huge garage where Garth was working on another of his special order paint jobs. Mick loved to see the shiny designs come to fruition; some of them were his ideas, in part, though he never shared the credit. “I’m the amateur, a spectator, he’s the pro; it’s all good,” he always said.

Mick was a landscaper, and he used his design sense in garden and lawn development and execution. But he had been laid off. As usual. It was heading toward winter and Mick was the most junior member of the team. He’d do snow removal until spring, and watch Alden, their three year old. They boy slept now, thankfully; he could dream about puppets and parks and wooden blocks, unaware of the stress his grandparents created with a few tiresome words.

Her father said something low to her mother– likely, Maxi, soft pedal it, play this snafu down, not up. He isn’t a bad sort.

Eve hung her now throbbing head, then straightened up and looked out a window, took in the expanse of open land. The mountains beyond. Breathed. Turned off the disposal.

“Look at Alden, there’s my boy, sleepy head! Come to join us at Sunday table, have you?”

Douglas’ voice boomed with happiness and relief. Eve could hear Maxine getting up and tottering over in her too-high heels to give her grandson a soft hug. She was not a hugger, but for her only grandchild she made the exception. Eve rinsed her hands, dried them, lifted her head and smiled, then greeted her son.

“Hey, my Aldy boy!” She wanted to squeeze him.

“Alden, up just in time for apple pie?” Douglas reached out a hand.

The child took it, then rubbed one puffy eye and ruffled his straw-colored hair. “Yes, pie and then match-the-cards game with Grandpa!”

Maxine sighed. “It’s always Grandpa. You boys! How can I get this child’s attention more? And where do you suppose he got all that blond hair? Maybe it will still darken.”

Stop talking so much nonsense, get on the floor and play, Eve wanted to say, but retrieved the fragrant, warm pie, the plates and forks. The thought of Maxine removing her heels and sitting sideways on the cat-furry rug in her herringbone skirt and silk ivory blouse made her smirk. And Alden’s messy, gorgeous hair? She wished Mick was there, his thick, bright waves making the overt point for her. Again. She checked her watch.

Maxine and Douglas should have stayed in Chicago suburbs another couple of years. But Douglas had retired and they wanted to ease into a simpler life, or so they said. They might have given Eve and Mick more time to get ahead, to build their lives with one another. Now her parents were a half hour down the road, through the hilly farmland, in a smaller manse in East Braxton.

******

Eve wished she could say it was always this way. But things once were normal, or what she knew to be normal, and she had been happier. Then all changed when her father got the Big Promotion. She was eleven then, halfway through school and already itching for more freedom. The family home, a sweet 1920s bungalow, was sold and then they moved into a five bedroom brick house, too much space but never mind, they had intercoms, and a yard that took half a Saturday for her brother, Tim, to mow. Their father was gone more than he was home; when he was home he was near-invisible or they wished he might leave again for all he understood about their lives. Their mother was gone, too, maybe more–to the beauty salon and spas and on shopping trips, at various club meetings and luncheons. She learned about roses and had many planted, front and back. About costly perfumes and handbags and had her closets renovated. About Chicago’s splashier charitable events where she’d get her photo put in the “People Out and About” section. She found being home more and more tedious as time went by. She liked to celebrate her sudden good fortune with her new friends, with new clothes.

Tim and Eve got many things done for themselves or they learned who to call. Eve became a budding cook but against her will. They got hungry when their parents were late, then later, so at last Maxine hired a cook three days a week. They learned how to fake their parents’ signatures if they wanted or needed days off school. If they got sick they checked in on each other more often than not. Tim ran quietly down the long hallway before he went to sleep around midnight–he was two years older–and stuck his head in, told her good night, good dreams. Even if she was asleep, though more often she lay there staring at the ceiling where starry stickers glowed. And Eve checked for light seeping under his door when she got up to use the bathroom or listen for her parents and if she saw it she knocked softly until he said to come in. Usually he was reading. If he had had a nightmare–which he had pretty often– she patted his arm, gave him a little hug.

In the morning, when their parents asked if they slept well, they smiled in unison, said, “Of course.” They knew better than to distract them from their fast-paced lives. Even then, their mother could turn up her lecture voice in a flash as their father hid behind work or the paper.

Things might have gone on like that–not comfortable in most ways, but pleasant in others– until they were sprung from the brick house by virtue of time: their eighteenth birthdays. But Eve and Tim grew restless long before they were ready to handle what beckoned. They drank on the sly, they smoked pot. They had some interesting, wilder friends in common. They helped each other with school work that otherwise may have sunk them; they waited until they got out of detention for tardiness or skipped classes. Share and share alike. “Two goofy heads together are better than one,” Tim liked to say.

Then Tim turned seventeen and decided he wanted to be some kind of race car driver. Street racing. Illegal, risky. He drove far too fast and took chances that scared her and she liked to avoid it. And that was it, wasn’t it, for the madcap duo? She was not there; he kept on. He didn’t last at it despite a sterling reputation. It went bad fast and as hard as possible. Spinal injury, head trauma, they whispered at school as Eve slumped down the halls– when she even attended. Before he got a decent chance at more life, he was stalled completely. And not surprisingly, Eve was blamed in large part. Why didn’t she stop him? What happened the night she ignored his antics? Why didn’t she tell their parents about it before it was too late? Never mind that she was with a girlfriend that night, watching old movies. She and Tim had been less attuned to each other that past year. Still. Why had she not done more to discourage him? Why, why, why?

If only…

Maxine and Douglas faltered under grief heaped on them a long while. They looked to Eve for much and got little back; she was worn out, she was drowning, too, as she tried to tread waters of her daily life. So Maxine blamed her, too. It was one long sentence that never seemed to end.

“If only you’d been there, you could have stopped him, he adored you, I know you could have…”

Douglas stopped talking. Not entirely, no, he had that big job and its demands to navigate daily, and it took his mind off much. But at home, he was a quiet man made nearly mute, like a creature that goes small and silent as a bad storm comes.

And Tim lay in a hospital bed, tended to by nurses, specialists, physical therapists. And he still did. At home, yes, that came finally. But what was the difference? He saw little he desired as he looked out at the world.

Eve was determined to finish high school and leave. It almost killed her to go to classes knowing Tim could not, would never come along with her as he once had. He barely stayed alive despite her daily talks with him, her ministrations to him, her prayers mumbled in tears. When he stabilized and could flick his eyes at her, she knew she had better leave then– or never. She could not bear the “if only” anymore.

She got a degree in earth sciences–botany her favorite–and then taught middle school students ravenous for knowledge about the beautiful and changing earth. And that was something, wasn’t it. It was about all she had. She counted on that need, to get up each day, be there for her students. It carried her until the week-ends when she drove two hours each way to visit Tim for at least a day. And their parents. So it was working then in a way, despite the continuing loneliness she hadn’t anticipated. The roaring silence of night as she tossed and turned in bed, a darkness beaded with hardness of guilt. The stunning lack of peace in early morning even as coffee brewed, a good plan for the day at her fingertips. The fact that she could not call her brother to tell him about the kids, her book club, the sporty car she was thinking of buying. He could not even put a mug of steaming brew to his lips or smile at her. Eve didn’t know for certain if Tim knew she loved him even more than before. But she thought so, felt so. How could he not when they had always known what the other thought? Well, almost, almost.

Nothing was sure and good enough to bring real happiness back. Until practical, cheerful Mick came into her life with dirt on his hands and room in his heart for her. Who knew kindness could be such an easy thing for some to give and for her, so hard to learn to accept? They got married, they moved to the semi-rural town of Marionville.

******

Douglas and Alden were on the floor flipping and matching little animal cards as Maxine read a book Eve had recommended and loaned her when the back door swung open.

“Hey beautiful, what’s cookin’?”

“Chicken and dumplings,” she said, smiling at him. “Just put it in the frig.”

He pushed the back door closed with a foot and placed two bags on the table. Eve could see a couple of garden tools and his requisite bags of snacks, her own list of nonfood items.

Maxine and Douglas were just putting on their coats at the front door. Mick gave Eve a kiss on her neck and then went to bid them goodbye.

“Hey, folks, how was dinner? Sorry I couldn’t make it, Garth and I were busy working on a car, a 1992 Chevy–“

“Well, we missed you, but your afternoon was likely more entertaining,” Douglas said, eyebrows rising, his narrow hand shaking Mick’s square one briefly.

Mick wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was joking or serious. He knew the older man was not much for family chat but he loved his daughter (and her cooking) and, of course, his grandson so came along dutifully. Perhaps Mick really ought to show up more. He could deal with being given a hard time but it was worse when he got barely a nod on Maxine’s worse days.

“Ah, hello Mick, nice to see you, how’s business going?” Maxine said as she pulled on her favorite burgundy calfskin and cashmere gloves. Mick thought how much Eve might enjoy those, too, but would never consider asking for such a luxury.

“As a matter of fact–I was waiting to tell Eve–” he turned toward the kitchen, then swept up his babbling, reaching son. “Honey, come on out.”

She wiped hands on jeans and leaned against a door jam, crossing her arms. She’d hoped her parents would slip out faster. They of course asked him about work and they already knew he’d been seasonally laid off, so why?

“I’m happy to say I just got hired on at the Jameson Farm. Their evergreen tree farm needs more help, along with other land maintenance jobs. I can work through Christmas, at least! And a part time job tending the art museum’s winter garden just came open, so that’s an option.”

Eve moved to hug her her son and husband tightly. “Wonderful, Mick!”

“Mick, good news is always welcome,” Douglas said and patted him heartily on the back.

“It’ll pay for bread and butter, I suppose…” Maxine buttoned her coat, smoothed stray wisps of hair at her temples. But she paused, almost unsteady; her husband reached out but she batted him away. Her wrinkled pale eyelids lowered as if to shield them of her real thoughts.

Eve looked at her mother with the one look she tried so hard to not show. The one that could set fire to stone. But her mother stared at her with a face gone softer, then took a step closer to Mick. When she spoke her voice was almost frail. Tentative. But gentle.

“You do know you’re a good man, Mick, don’t you? And that we’re -I am–so glad you married our daughter.”

Douglas drew himself up, nodded at Eve and Mick, then opened the front door and let themselves out.

“We’ll see you and Tim next Saturday then,” Eve called out.

She’d followed them past the open door, wanting to offer something more, words floating in twilit, chill air. The visit was their routine, but she wanted to make sure; an urgency had come over her. Tim needed to see his nephew every week, Alden needed to see his uncle. She had to be near him, tell him things. Had to believe he heard her, even now. And Mick, he just had love enough to share.

Maxine lifted a hand in the fast falling darkness, her back receding. Douglas touched his hat brim with a finger, opened the car door for her, helped her in.

The shivering family of three went indoors. Alden got his blocks out. Mick built and lit a fire in the sooty old fireplace.

“Well, Mick.” She had to be careful what she said–Alden was all ears and too much feeling wanted to spill over. “I suspect–I know–it’s time for me to let the past go. I just decided that I have to forgive what was not, and cannot be, any different. And just be there more for my parents. For Tim.”

He turned on his knees and patted the floor beside him as fledgling flames spat, sputtered and flared. Mick sat cross legged, put an arm about her, pulled her into him. When she settled with a sigh, Alden sat in her lap one hand held up to the fire’s warmth and one hand on his father’s knee. Their good and right fit.