Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Catch Me Falling Now

The gist of it is that as I’ve settled into Marionville, I’ve been recovering from a head injury due to a hike interrupted by a stumble that triggered disaster. So I don’t have expectations, other than getting through each day. When your brain feels permanently fogged in, that’s how it is. It could have been worse, everyone says. I suppose so. The surgeries tried to correct things. My right leg is healing from two compound fractures; my nose and forehead could look and feel even better. My left arm is now more useful though it was also fractured. It was a long fall down a very steep, tree-occupied hill. I lost consciousness for three days. My mind still has starts and stops three months later. It’s an intricate, slippery thing, the brain.

My dad–and others–always said that I err on the side of verbosity. So I guess that part of my brain is hearty because words are working better in my mind. It wasn’t that way at first; it was three weeks before things came back into moments of focus. And words worked their way out a little bit at a time. I came around, made better sense, sought more answers. But there were none when it came to the story of a long fall and a supposed rescue by a passing stranger. I was present and aware and hiking, and then I was not. I was given help, then said helper disappeared as EMTs arrived. No one could identify that person from what I had heard.

So, a mystery and I live inside it every day.

Marionville is not where I want to be. My parents long lived here, now only my dad. But it makes sense for a quiet road to recovery. I’m on leave from my radio show until I can demonstrate more communication strengths than deficits. I often have to wait a few beats before responding, making simple decisions. Actual words get confused. I have too many rehab appointments. So I get it that I need time, two-three more months. I hope.

Dad and I keep company–about fair to middling. He has his part of the house–downstairs. I have mine, a bedroom and bathroom, a second room with a desk and single bed to do whatever in. Maybe practice talking in a microphone again, working on a radio show script. Sometime… Right now I gaze out the window a lot. I can think, sort of, but decent writing seems a forbidden event and talking is a crapshoot.

Like this morning.

Dad said, “I’m going fishing, want to come, Sammy-boy?”

The endearing term caught me off guard. But fishing sounded hard. I shrugged as he turned to his array of poles in the garage.

“Guess to stand in water? Can’t pitch a damn.”

“No pitching, we aren’t up for any baseball yet,” he chuckled.

“Fitching, fishes, ya know, hoof– hook in…worms!”

I was pleased to get a part of it out right. Some sentences came out worse than others.

He swung around, studied me gravely. “Guess you can’t use that arm yet. Maybe you forgot how, sitting in a radio station all those years. So it can wait longer, Sammy.”

“I…it’s…” I exhaled tiredly.

As it he didn’t want to cause more embarrassment for either of us, he paused a half beat, then left. I would have stood in cold lake water all day if it made him happy–if he’d waited a minute. But I don’t hold it against him. Retired fireman Carl Garfield Thomas is a man of few words and little sentiment showing on his sleeve. And I do look more like Mom, do love language like she did. And it is true that now, at 77, Dad is going it alone pretty well. Though he cares, of course; he just seems baffled and annoyed by my recovery at his place.

Me, too. I miss Issaquah, just beyond Seattle. I’m in Michigan for the duration. A childhood place left decades ago. I am not in my element, anymore.

But, then, what was normal and “like me” is all screwed up now.

Why did it happen, this accident? I’m not unfit. A thirty-eight year old man, I do enough–hiking, skiing, cycling on week-ends. I love the mountains. I do hike with others but am confident on my own even in the back country. That Saturday I was alone. A bit tired–had been out the night before, but that’s often the case on week-ends. I still felt ready for the hike. But there was loose rock, massive roots, steep descents. Or did something else happen? What came when?

I don’t know. It happened too fast.

But I want to know exactly why. How. There is so much missing. It makes me toss and turn, bad arm and leg in the way, sweating in the quilt, eyes open half the night.

I need to know it all. But it’s not there.

******

Dee calls to set up a lunch visit at the Spoon and Mug for lunch, a diner at the end of Lake Wenatchee. I reluctantly agree. Dad raises unruly white eyebrows but drops me off. I haven’t seen Dee for three years. We met when my parents moved here for retirement. I visited every Christmas, some summers of falls. And we stayed friends.

“Well, come here, Sam,” Dee says with a throaty laugh.

“Dee. Here we are.”

She gently wraps both arms about me, careful of my balance since I lean on a half-crutch wrapped about my forearm. Her plumpness warmly engulfs my wrecked frame.

We settle into our chosen booth, the one we always sit in, overlooking the lake. I inhale to my toes. Ah, fragrances of burgers, French fires and onions, fruit pies and too strong coffee. I haven’t had a venison burger in awhile, and order after she does.

She searches my face top to bottom, notes my lame arm and leg. I am not nervous with Dee and know the long jagged scar across my forehead remains deep pink; my nose is crooked despite surgery,

“Still handsome, huh?” she says. “You seem to be bearing up okay, despite the ordeal. I thought I’d meet up with a quasi-Frankenstein, but I was not–truly not!– one bit afraid, my friend. You’re still Sam T. Thomas, smooth jazz with most current commentary, right? Of course you are, just waylaid awhile.” But she blinks twice, eyes glossy. “And how’s it going at ole Carl’s? Fishing any good, yet?”

“Funny ask. No, so far. Bum arm, leg. I not a thing, he…this or that. Long days.” I’d warned her about my speech but Dee is a patient sort.

“I imagine. You’re used to being on the move in all ways. Rough, buddy. Give it the time it requires.”

We pause to check out our orders, sip hot coffee.

“So sorry you had to go through it, Sam. I couldn’t believe it when Carmela called me after talking to your dad’s friend, Sherry….”

I stop my fork halfway to my mouth–Sherry who?–but took the bite of cole slaw.

“…and it was a shock. You know your way around a wilderness trail! But accidents…that’s just the way they go. Sudden, a weird succession of events. I was relieved to hear you’re healing, though.”

“Except–brains.”

“Your brains are good, your mouth just needs a little rest, I guess.”

She beams good cheer and I flood with appreciation. A real friend is just what I need. A few back home are busy; they have important lives to get on with.

“Can I ask–Lily? Ok? Sch–shoo—classes ok?”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “back at it and glad of it. Both of us. She’s eleven, going on fifteen in her deluded mind. But doing alright. Overall.” She takes a bite, glances away.

“Martin?” I ask. That’s why Dad’s eyebrows raised, maybe.

“Yeah. Gone. Left one morning without even his usual juicy poached egg and bitter espresso. Back in Grosse Pointe. It was bound to happen, right? He couldn’t stay put up here. We tried hard but had to give it up.”

I think of Lily, reach for her hand. Now comes a barely audible whimper. When she stays quiet on the topic, I attack my venison burger with barely retrained relish which gets her smiling again. I never liked Martin; his hair and Lexus were too important and resolved to tell her later that it will become a better life for Lily–a good kid, a bright one–and her.

Time goes by as we cover basic news we want to know, relaxing with another mug of coffee. I do not ask about Sherry’s identity; that’s my dad’s business. Dee talks about work and Lily, asks questions I answer with extreme brevity. We have a fair picture of each other’s present state of mind. She is sad about Martin but has been letting go. I feel angry and curious about my issues., somewhat resigned but am not letting go.

“So, you can’t remember what happened exactly. From start to the end….when you woke up. I keep coming back to this. Not surprisingly, it seems you want to recall the details…not keep it in the dark like so many people would. How like you to have to dig, find the bits and pieces. And I understand that need to know everything possible, being a librarian.”

“Yeah.” I slowly nod at her–she does get it. I like her inquisitive spirit, too. And the sooner I can part the pea soup fogginess–it can’t all be the concussion’s effects–the better.

She puts an arm on back of the bench seat, narrowing eyes at me, pondering. “Well. I keep thinking of Heaven. Of course.”

Of course. But I chortle–not that I don’t know what she means. Because I do know. And why Dee places so much faith in a woman everyone else calls a crazed hippie artist or a soothsayer or perhaps a mastermind hiding out from the Chicago Mafia, I don’t know. I’ve only seen Heaven Steele in passing and that’s fine with me. I don’t need Ms. Steele to tell me all I have endured. I just need one hundred percent recall.

“Dee, I not all–“

“Not all about that kind of thing, I know, I know. But what is there to lose?” she says. “Let’s go see her–she has helped people. Please?”

I grunt, hold my hands up in the air, screw up a nutty face at her.

Maybe it’s the happiness of a full belly, good talk and shafts of honeyed light drifting through the streaked windows of down-to-earth-wonderful Burger and Mug Diner. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m bored out of my fuzzy brain. And my daily headache is ramping up. But I give in.

How can I rule out something Dee recommends if I haven’t tried it? I trust her. Why not trust her artist-clairvoyant?

******

Heaven Steele’s house is nothing spectacular though apparently she has money from her Chicago life chapter. I can hear a sweet jangling of glass wind chimes she makes by the dozens to sell to tourists and online. A narrow flagstone walkway winds down the hill to an older modern one-story set above the town. I expected a full glass mini-mansion so she could view the world, maybe keep track of us below. At this moment, anything can apparently manifest per gossip about the woman. I suggest a mystique equating very little.

Dee rings the doorbell, a sound of sonorous bells. When the door opens Heaven fills the space with her height, clothed in a deep blue tunic, dark loose pants. Barefoot. She steps forward to take Dee’s hands into hers, lightly takes my one free palm.

“Hello folks, welcome to my place.”

I wonder what that means–inner sanctum, hill temple, chimes studio, crystal ball room?–but decide to withhold judgment. There is a pleasant living room with large paintings on walls and richly colored upholstery, but she leads us into a dining area, past the kitchen then through French doors–I see a partly glass walled studio to the left and big paintings– and into a large courtyard.

I pause to rest my swinging, heavy leg and take it all in. Flourishing plants, brightly hued flowers, a gurgling fountain, rainbow of lights strung from tree to tree…who wouldn’t come here and expect to hear their fortune told? Or whatever she did. It smells good, feels tranquil. It surely offers sanctuary,

When we sit down, Heaven Steele eases into a seat across from us. Her silvery hair glistens in the dappled light. Her strong hands–they just appear strong–are resting on the chair arms. She inquires after Dee and Lily. It seems they know one another better than social friends might. But I’d had no cause to think of her one way or another. Before now, to perhaps learn…something. Or nothing at all.

Taking her space in I failed to really see Heaven Steele’s face, her eyes. But now mine catch hers and it’s clear what people have noted: one eye is blue, the other greenish-amber. I know this is hereditary–a childhood classmate had the same rare condition–but this doesn’t dampen the effect. I want to look away, yet she easily holds me in her steady gaze. So I look right back, give her a semi-fake smile.

“So recently Dee informed me of the situation. Maybe I can help. I sometimes snag experiences from others. You don’t have to believe in anything I say or do. I’m sorry it happened, Sam. But it was not to be avoided, no matter what you did. Your body took over, it likely tried to save you and then…”

I am taken aback. “Save me? About k-killed-ended me…” I gesture to my face, leg, arm.

“Yes. But wait.”

She keeps me in the thrall of her gaze even as I glance at Dee’s encouraging expression and back. Heaven lowers her eyelids, breathes out a really long exhale.

Please, I thought, no mesmerizing antics.

“What did you hear before you slipped? A sharp sound? A brush of the air? Close your eyes now, follow the path.”

I think back, eyes wide. I’m not closing them, I recall so little, looking at empty blackness behind my lids won’t show me one thing.

“I know you’re anxious. But there is a slight rustle in the underbrush, among the pine trees. You hear it but think nothing of it, a squirrel, a snake, a beaver along the silvery creek. A small clearing, then deeper woods. you tire…”

There was a creek, true. A rustling, but even tiny birds rustle. Lots of things. A creek I stopped by just before taking a turn in the trail, a clearing before I went on. She must see where I was. I close my eyes.

“You feel something out there, then a shot of energy along your spine, neck prickling, but you are soon to descend the trail, head to your car. You’re tired, warm. Almost out of water.”

I am on the trail, legs pumping dutifully, feet getting sore, throat parched as water is low so I wait it out longer. The light dims as I enter a thicker grove of cedars and pines, and if I hear footsteps I think they are far behind. The birds…they are now still as I push on after four hours of hiking narrow rocky trails. Out of the corner of my eye–the barest glimpse… of what? I keep on.

“What do you see, Sam?”

I feel my heart race, look around, see another pale streak, step slightly off the trail as i pivot, enough that I lose my footing, the steep side of the mountain suddenly like a magnet so I am going down, sliding, my legs catching on a stump, hands grasping and missing plants and branches, flesh tearing, leg hitting rocks and roots all the way down, trying to avoid tree trunks, arm catching on a thorny bush and yanked, then I roll over and over and over, head hitting hard places, arm shrieking with pain, then my god my leg, my leg… but…nothing. Hard stop.

Then a terrifying screech.

Me? or is it a woman? What’s happening? I am overcome, engulfed in pain. I’m out.

“Sam, Sam.”

Dee is crouching before my knees, shaking me gently and I am back as fast as I fell into the past. Heaven is leaning forward, breathing hard and almost breathless, her face alert and open, eyes finding me. Compassion.

“W-wh-what?” I say, suddenly sure of what it was out there.

Heaven speaks carefully. “Yes, a cougar.”

My skin prickles, jaw drops. How can I be surprised? There are bears and cougars and deer and so much more in forested mountains. I have heard the bears, carry bear spray; have seen great elk, sidestepped a rattlesnake once, felt I saw a wolf vanish between the trees. I know cougars stalk their prey a long while, with no sound.

And that they scream. Like a screeching woman. An entirely wild thing unlike me, us.

“Surprised by one,” I say. “Oh.” I rub hands over my face, lean back and run fingers through my hair. But then: “Why…how can I be…h-here?”

It might never have been me. But it was too close to ignore or finally forget. That I am one small human being in a world of other creatures.

Heaven says, “There was another, a mountain woman who realized your danger. She trailed you and the cougar. It was her body you saw that time before you fell. Moving with a rifle in hand. The first time you saw the cougar. I barely can capture a cougar running off, then her arms and hands thrust high, her voice deafening, almost like that of the fierce cougar. What happened? Not sure except she got to her cabin to call for help. And then she went back to wait until she saw their lights. Remarkable.”

We all fall silent, considering it all.

“Sometimes we get lucky–rescue comes at the right moment.” Heaven spreads her hands out, barely shrugs. “There is nothing more. Thank you for letting me witness your trial.”

Heaven makes tea for us. I am still shaking some, as if it all just happened, unsure if i was alive. Dee puts both arms about me, reassuring me. My skin and brain feel tumbled inside out. I can still feel the sensations of rolling down head over heels and the pain and the mindless fear. Was this possible? That I might even have died one way– or the other? That a ghostly wilderness woman saved me?

The burbling water calms me. The hot tea has lavender and other things that taste soothing and feel better going into my body. All three of us are quiet. The fountain splashes and colored lights brighten in the fleeing glow of an October afternoon. After our cups are emptied, we tour her art studio. I study the immense precision of her work, take in the jewel-toned hues, clean designs. I purchase one, but she insists on giving it to me. It will be beautiful to behold as the race toward winter begins, and snowfall comes. A crystalline background for the mobiles of tinkling glass asway in the biter winds.

“Wait and see what winter brings,” she murmured as we left.

But it isn’t a matter of believing in Heaven Steele. She definitely has her skills. But it’s more a matter of facing my fears and believing in myself again. With some help.

I have to manage the coming months, the work it will take. I can heal up from inside out. Become stronger than before if I do it right, find my way to the next good thing. I will accept this country my father loves. I hope to go ice fishing with him. And then there’s the gift of language from my mother who, though long gone, seems to call me to greater renewal. Maybe that was the reason for the fall. Maybe not. I’m digging my heels in for as long as it takes to find out.

Maybe I’ll even get a chance to say: “Heck of a good morning to you, Radio Marionville, hold on to the moment because Sam T. Thomas is here and coming at ya!”


Wednesday’s Words/Short Short Story: Ardis and the Feathered One

(Photo by Jack Bulmer on Pexels.com)

It had come to this absurd situation. One wrong footfall and boom!–her ankle puffed up like it was packed with dense stuffing. Except it had nerves, too, and persistent pain. Swelling that made the skin ugly, tighter. So much for the fearless, iron-legged hiker that Ardis had always been. An easy trail through the woods brought her to her hip, now bruised and sore. But the ankle twisted on the way down a rutted, rocky slope.

Slouched in her cushioned and creaky rocker, she stared out the picture window. Books she’d piled at the side table were hardly touched. The TV in the corner was blank, meaningless. Her pitiful right foot, encased in a rigid plastic and padded therapeutic “boot”, made her angry and at times tearful. It lay there like a forgotten thing, a useless thing that taunted her from the old leather ottoman. Until she reached for the crutches, forced herself out of inertia to hobble to the kitchen for sustenance or down the hall to answer nature’s call. She hated to drink too much or she’d be often compelled to make that miserable trip.

If only the sun would shine. Ardis then might see past the low grey clouds, be able to envision an end to 6 weeks, make plans for resumption of her life. At first her buddies Harry and Joanie stopped by after work; Aunt Ellie brought scones and steaming cappuccinos; her co-worker brought magazines– as if Ardis was in the hospital and could only handle cheesy reading material, but at least she came by. Now, almost no one came. Except birds and squirrels, but there were far more birds in her yard–which she had only half-seen before.

So, by default, Ardis had become a bird watcher. Not that she knew much about birds. They came and went, pecking at the soil or berries in bushes, hiding in potted plants on the deck, snagging a spot in a makeshift bird bath created by rain in a cereal bowl used and forgotten. Their chirruping and singing were pleasant, and before long she was trying to figure out who was partnered with whom, where they were flying off to, and if they’d scatter or fight when crows–birds, sure, but lately seen as titans of trouble by Ardis– descended. Where did they all go when it rained hard? Did they have family to help them find food?

She thought the same handful returned every day and so began to name them: Johnny Red, Angel, Big Talker, Ivan, Little Mo. It was entirely unlikely she could identify them well–she couldn’t even tell what species they all were–but it didn’t stop the naming. She’d attempted wrestling with her crutches–which conspired to topple her between Point A to Point B–to go outdoors. Once at the back door she’d opened it with difficulty, then only listened and watched from there. The early fall air smelled and felt sharply soothing. But after ten minutes of leaning against a hard door jamb, crutches cumbersome and her ankle beaming at her with pain–that was the end of it.

One afternoon she kept trying to read a book Aunt Ellie had generously brought her about Pacific Northwest birds. (Though no coffee or scones.) It was far less dull than her aunt had warned but less thrilling than imagined. But she kept at it until her eyelids slid shut, fluttered, fell again. In a flash her mind had hopped on the sleep train and gone elsewhere. She was high up and everything was shining in whites and blues, a chilly, bright landscape. Calm, silent. Free. Far from feet and other human and mysterious impediments. Her rocking chair afternoon rolled away from her as she moved effortlessly.

Thwack! Ardis’ eyelids flicked open.

Something had hit a wall, the window, maybe the picnic table outside… was it the neighbor kid’s ball? a pinecone rolling off the roof from last night’s rainstorm? Then she replayed the sound and suddenly bent at the waist in the rocker, straining her neck to better look out the window and to the deck. There were some feathers. A bird had flown hither and thither as usual, then rammed right into her big window.

Trying to get a better view, Ardis rocked forward little by little, began to slide off the seat and steadied herself. But were those bird feet? She shouldn’t be able to see feet sticking out in the air. Her heart stirred. She grabbed the crutches, positioned them so she could stand and better look out.

Yes, the bird was certainly knocked for a loop, lying on its side with twig legs and clawed feet straight out. It lay stunned, perhaps paralyzed. Or–dead? She looked from every angle she could, noting the sleek black head, white stripe, two black stripes above and below dark bead of its eye, a dab of yellowish color by its face, body clothed in greyish-blue—taupe?– feathers, a colored breast. But its small face, still as can be. A handsome feathered thing. She didn’t think it had been given a name. Maybe a visitor? What sort? She watched then concluded her window had sent it to its demise. And she was filled with an attack of sadness, eyes going misty. What to do? She shouldn’t touch it, move it. Flummoxed, she retreated to the ottoman. Waiting for something to happen, hoping it might get up.

Hearing that awful thud again and again in her head.

It just couldn’t die.

She sat with hands crossed flat against her chest. Perhaps five minutes went by, then she skootched the ottoman to the window. Looked down at the bird, noted its right wing set a bit apart from its soft rounded body. The wing seemed to move rapidly; she deducted it was a breathing movement. She held her own breath, put forehead to glass wondering if the wing was damaged. If it would ever fly even if it lived. Suddenly, the bird smoothly hopped upright onto its feet. Stood still, just breathing more gently. The wing didn’t look bent but who was Ardis to determine anything? It wasn’t taking a step. It just stood there on spindly legs, not even the head moving. Maybe it was brain damaged and couldn’t figure out what next. Or, after all, there was that wing– or maybe something was hurt inside?

Ardis was pondering, still, how she might help, then admitted with a mutter that she was no use to a bird, surely not one nearly accidentally murdered in her own back yard. By her own picture window as she sat there, unaware. The beat up creature–why wasn’t it giving the offending window a bad look or, more appropriately, gazing toward sky and trees? She wanted to get up and walk out, make apologies to it–crouch down eye-to-eye with it.

Damn that ankle. Her inability to find a good solution.

From the distance there rose a clear bird call. And the not-so-dazed bird turned its head to the call, lifted off the deck and swiftly flew off with nary a wobble. Just like that! Ardis’ hand flew to her mouth as she grinned like a kid, amazed.

She pressed her face close to the glass, searching tree branches, the hedge next door. Not a feather to be seen. No significant bird chatter. The bird just recovered its senses and strength and oriented itself. Took right off. How could that be when it had looked like a goner? Unlike Ardis, it had not sprained a thing when it met with sudden changed circumstances; it had just lost its bearings, and perhaps consciousness briefly.

Ardis moved backward and sat down, thrusting the crutches aside. Stared out her window a long while, replaying what had happened. Her alarm, sadness, concern, surprise. A sudden desire to protect birds from her windows and even more from her ignorance.

And then: what bird was it? A nuthatch? A warbler? A chickadee? Those two black stripes, a white stripe between, some yellow or was it orange or…? She grabbed the Northwest bird identification book and began the search. It was taxing to recall the specifics of birds marking, beak shapes, coloration. It was hard to figure out what birds lived where or, if migrating, when and why. But she persisted awhile until she had come up with five different possibilities. She should have taken a photograph.

As time passed she also thought how she needed more patience with herself. The swollen ankle. Her mistakes and frailties. Her lack of knowledge of so much. The bird did what it was meant to do so it might regain its sense of self, its righted bird-ness. She could do the same with her own circumstances, couldn’t she–wait it out, let healing happen until she regained her Ardis self. Just be still. Worse might have happened to them both. She could manage this interval of time, as her little miracle bird had managed its situation.

Her fascination with the identification process continued until the room dimmed, then filled with soft rosy light. She put the book down, looked through her window. There was a bird sitting on dangling branch, looking right at her. Her feisty bird? Wishing it so, she imagined it had come back–or maybe it was a sibling or a cousin. No matter. Redux: she named it in case she saw it once more. Redux, as it had been restored to itself, to nature, to her. Ardis offered a wave and it flew beyond a scrim of deepening dusk.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: A Fine Crepuscular Life

(Nightjar flight in early eve)

Ian sat on his perch in frail light, watching it leak from the yard into the linear space separating this world from another. It was a habit developed the past year, after everything changed, when he began to work in the dark, tiny anteroom of the cottage. It got claustrophobic, but it served the purpose. He’d made and set up a simple desk and tidy bookshelf; the room’s one window opened to the garden so that bees or a dragonfly and winged beetles and occasionally a bird flew to and fro through the screen-less opening. The window was stuck open through warm weather; he had to muscle it shut as fall arrived. He always liked the company of nature. He was happy to glance up, see vegetables and flowers as he worked at his computer. But he got outside whenever he could.

He sat on the weather beaten bench with its cushion of mosses, small cracks in its grain snagging him with a splinter now and again. It had been set upon Jupiter Hill, one that overlooked a small canyon fifty years earlier when the cottage was built. In the deep valley below glowed hundreds of bright pinpricks of subdivision houses. The place from which he escaped three years ago when Frieda and he split up. It was the best thing for them. She travelled on, the spacious brick house she’d bought before him a mere change station for her modelling career. He quickly purchased the falling down cottage. Made it more habitable the first year, stopped renovation the second year as he liked it rustic. And then the virus invaded all and he worked at home and was glad of it. It was cramped and aged and good enough for him.

“Good enough for a hermit,” Freida said in her arch way when she visited just once, words clanging in the rooms that he quickly showed her.

As was usually the case. One reason they could not sustain peace. She was a fighter; Ian was… not a fighter, exactly. He was, perhaps, leaning toward becoming a spiritual warrior. He didn’t feel he had a choice in the matter, just as she didn’t feel she had a choice in her ways. It was fireworks; once done, they were spent. Besides, it was true that Ian was drawn to the energy of very early morning and early evening.

“Like a vampire or werewolf?” Frieda teased. This thought excited her. It was an erroneous idea in general and patently ridiculous when she tried to connect it to Ian. But she had a genuine all-night sort of spirit.

He found himself feeling more at ease certain periods of time, too. Just as Freida found herself awake all night, sleeping much of the day; she moved at near-warp speed when the sun went down. And not given to contemplation, she stated made things happen, chiding him on his ability to sit still.

He once told her to settle things, “Yes, crepuscular, vespertine. Matinal, too. You know this about me, I am drawn to in-between things– times, ideas.”

He spoke while avoiding her cat-like eyes, amber gemstones set in tawny skin that spoke volumes–he just wasn’t sure exactly what they were saying. She was so tall and lithe that he expected her to leap across space rather than walk, and to land on him. All that was a reason he fell for her–as likely for so many who met her. And the curious woman behind them got hold of him. The intensity and intelligence lurking behind strange beauty. For a long time it kept him there; they were opposites that sparked.

She shrugged at his scientific explanation. “Such a technical person. All that isn’t the solution to our conflicts. I defend my own lifestyle by saying I’m nocturnal but so what? We still have to make it work in our shared reality. If we have love left.”

What did that mean, Ian wondered? They lived in conflicted realities, almost parallel, and it had become taxing. Love was by then a wrong perception, though he wished her no ill will. So not long after that conversation, he found the cottage. They bid one another good bye and fare well with very little rancor. He later wondered what she was up to after the pandemic hit but there was no urge to contact her. It had been an experience; he didn’t regret it or his leaving.

But this felt right, this cottage life, sitting here on Jupiter Hill. Away from much of what he felt was false for him. Away from the hard push and pull of things. Below the hill was a life he did not understand, even when he inhabited it for all those years. Here was a pensive watchfulness with the rhythm of nature, and he felt most as ease in an unfolding of dusk, the rhapsody of sunset putting on the cool elegance of fleeting blue hour, and the coming forth of stars in great violet-black skies. Creation demonstrating its theater of mystery and magic.

He sat very still, still as a rabbit outwitting a predator. He learned to spot elusive nightjars, owls, watched flurries of bats, and savored deer grazing at edge of the neighboring woods. Coyotes appeared, stared at him, slunk off on fast feet. He had a great fondness of birds ever since he’d dreamed of flying as a child. Once he felt certain there was a bear or a cougar rooting about at the edge of he woods and he stayed rooted, a jolt of excitement rushing through him. All creatures were welcome, as they had welcomed him. Even if a bit unlikely the possibility stayed with him, a promise of great things to come if he remained patient. Open.

Ian was in his element, no longer lonely. The solitary state was perfect–a relief. He raised his whiskery beard-adorned chin to the sky, breathed the green-laden air, closed his eyes in gratitude. Heard whirr and rush of wings overhead. Drifted.

******

There came the day when summer began to fade fast. Ian now kept a sweater on the back of his leather chair for cooler days. One afternoon he looked up from his computer. A twirling brown maple leaf had caught his attention. The another and another. He had noticed small groupings scattered on the yard recently, but had been too busy working to think on it. An architect, he’d been developing plans for a community of micro housing, a new contract with the city. As wind stirred chilly-edged air he realized it was time to add to the woodpile. His woodstove required constant feeding– though the cottage had only two narrow bedrooms, a tucked away bathroom and open living area with modest kitchen. It was an old place that creaked and moaned in winter as it hummed with warmth.

In the bottom right hand desk drawer, which he avoided opening more than once more, was an oversized postcard with a view of San Diego’s bright waterfront. He’d received it from Freida earlier in the day. She had been in the balmy city for six months fulfilling several good jobs, but work had dried up and it was not looking good. Ands she hoped he was doing well on on the hill and was content. She had signed it with her stylized cat motif and flourish of her name, underscored twice. As if he had forgotten her entirely.

Ian had been puzzled at first. They hadn’t communicated in two years; he hadn’t followed her on social media. He enjoyed such basic happiness it never occurred to him that she might return to sniff about the perimeter of his life. But, then, she was becoming financially unstable. Or perhaps unstable, in general, as happened when practical matters pressed too hard upon her. He didn’t want to expect the worst; life was hard for many these days.

But he pushed the good recollections of their old life aside. Ian finally had what he wanted, or most of it.

******

He wrapped up work later than planned, then made a salad topped with smoked salmon. He settled at his bench and ate with pleasure until satiated. The wind picked up. It carried the tantalizing scent of chilled rain, though it had been a long period of drought and few believed the great rains of the past would return soon. Ian enjoyed warmth of summer but his true nature was stirred by onset of autumn and winter. That long softening greyness, cloudiness creating barest shadow that easily sifted warmer light into a twilit time. And he longed for rain; his pores felt its absence, his skin tight and textured as parchment.

He took in the ribbons of luminosity rushing over hills and valley, melded into dimmer translucent rays, that distant horizon leeching color from autumn’s brilliant dome of blue. The sun had about left. His heart raced, breath became shallower. Time was suspended, as was he. Ian stood as the late September light transformed the body of land and the air blued; his eyes narrowed to focus on changing sky, saw moths flitting about, birds on sudden wing. He longed to be there, felt the magnitude of their labors and choreography of flight. He stood taller, reached up and up with hands to the infinite expanse.

Behind him there was a shock to the atmosphere when a low growl, insistent and pure went deep. He spun around to behold her, body lithe and streamlined, eyes afire in a rapid descent of evening as it began to cling to all life.

Freida, ready to pounce, black hair aloft behind her in the gusty night, arms lifting, her feet set to send her vaulting toward him. Her aim, her desire clear in the way she was. He felt the power of who they had been, once.

And then he turned, rose up. His feet left the good earth, he was fleeing gravity as surely as sunlight fled the end of day. His body lightened to a configuration of feathers, his eyes sharp as never before, and he felt the strong lift of the changing air currents. The baritone hoot of a barred owl floated near and vibrated in his cocked ears; the clear, stuttering call of the nightjar lulled and pierced as it passed, one eye on the man who would be bird, its powerful wing grazing his shoulder as it ascended in a twilit flash.

Ian followed, rid of all disbelief or fear–while below, Freida raced to the edge of Jupiter Hill, jumped higher than thinkable with a disgruntled cry. But her strong effort failed; she was gone, no more to be seen. And Ian flew on, the world below a whirl of troubles and triumphs. He might fall to ground as befitted common man, but he was certain he was on the verge of living as he had always imagined. He could fly between this and that, here and there. His own fine zone. And would be routed to new ones, passing through thin places, into greater wisdom. He was hovering on the cusp of creative abundance with the elusive nightjar at his side, was he not? For the time being, he was wholly free.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Benefits of Malaise

Chris couldn’t quite tell the difference between day and night. He knew if he said that aloud, Lana would stop in her tracks, eyes big as pie pans. At work he said only what was required. Oh no, that wasn’t right. He no longer reported to a job. He was a homebody now; he tinkered every now and then, he sat and sat. He wandered in his mind.

Day melted into evening into night into another dawn. The shadows on walls or floors lightened and darkened, lengthened and shortened. He watched them move about and thought how mysterious they were. Sheer ivory curtains swayed and fluttered when a breeze visited. But the light itself? It only seemed to dim and then dim more in waking hours, then disappear as time wore on. Once Chris pulled apart the curtains to peek out at midday and the sun was a spotlight that blinded him. He closed his eyes, turned back to his interior darkness, and the greyness of the room. It might make some difference if he moved about the house, just got up and left their bedroom for more than a few minutes, Lana had said.

Maybe; likely not.

In their room, he’d placed the antique wingback chair just so, then he could rest and fiddle with the radio on the little side table, punch the buttons of the TV remote–though TV didn’t much interest him. He had books, and every day picked one from the teetering stack. Flipped the pages as if he thought it engrossing when, in fact, he lost his place every other paragraph. If all else failed, he’d take five medium steps to the bed and flop down, stare at the squiggly lines in the ceiling until he grew drowsy.

Lana said it was almost like his room now, in the same way the far end of the sagging mauve velvet sofa was their cat’s: Captain’s spot. No one thought it wise to move him, especially after his eyes closed. Chris agreed it might not be wise to move himself, either. But Lana came to bed around ten-thirty, as always. Gave him a kiss on his cheek, smoothed the damp T-shirt against his back. He couldn’t bear to face her much of the time, those eyes that saw him. He squeezed his more tightly closed.

At least she had become more silent like he was, as there wasn’t much more to add to it. The facts: hiding out in the room, his too long pause. Languishing in your bitter disappointment, she said once, tears held at bay as she turned from him. He could not argue with it.

******

Lana carried on. For her, life went on if edited to feel differently. There was still cleaning and cooking–tidiness helped with her feelings of misalignment, the stress of his distress, and he still liked good meals though he ate half the amount now–and errands and bill paying and calls to family to try to reassure. But even if she had expected Chris would get a hobby or become a bona fide handyman when he retired–granted, it was a very early and forced retirement, as he said–she was so in error. At least at this point. Not that this bothered her. He read; did crosswords (just easy ones, she noted); he took out his ancient ukulele a couple times and attempted to strum a tune. And he slept. How he slept.

What wore on her was that he had made their bedroom his cave of isolation. It was their bedroom, not just his only she only needed it at night, she supposed. But if she stepped in during daytime, she felt a temperature change. Coolish when it should have been warmer up there–they’d never gotten the planned central air–what with summer going heat-wild but no, it was a strange well of shadows, and it seemed the walls insulated Chris like protection of earth about a real and deep well. She’d open up a window to air things out and he’d half-shut it, as if too much oxygen might be harmful. He kept a fan going all the time, facing outward so stray warmth and breath was sucked right out.

He is trying to live in a vacuum, she thought and it made her shiver.

After breakfast, while he leaned back in the ancient wingback (she’d spent too much money to re-upholster it in a fine wisteria print–how was she to know he’d be let go?) and stared at things she’d not ever see, Lana went to the market. Up by seven, put the kettle on, take Chris his breakfast on a tray, eat her own thick slice of bread with a nut butter and jam, then off she’d go. It was a sure thing to keep her better afloat. And a break from his melancholy.

The colors! The mix of voices, casual elbowing. The foods displayed in an artistic way–she’d gawk while fingering things. In her hands, tomatoes were smooth as silk, plump with juice; potatoes with their earthiness were weighty and consoling. Herbs were held to her nose; the aromas carried her away. The onions were pretty with papery skins and friendly, unlike when she chopped them for stews or tacos– in seeming punitive response they made her cry a bit. Then strawberries, black raspberries, raspberries and figs, peaches and apples–all called to her as if she was exactly who they were waiting for, and she was delighted to carry them home.

Sometimes she’d sit with her bag full of sustenance and watch others come and go. Mothers wheeling newborns about, older men with sunglasses perched atop balding heads, little children stopping play to blissfully bite into ripe nectarines, juices dribbling down their perfect small chins. Women with eyes bright with relief and happiness like hers.

And my, those astonishing flower stalls.

Lana was not that talented in their yard–mostly, she weeded and beat back bugs that nibbled away, trying to keep things going. So she bought flowers at the market in armfuls. Chris tended to complain that they’d wilt and be done so what was the point? But she had a collection of odd and lovely vases, even a few antiques scrounged over decades from flea markets and garage sales. She loved the act of preparing bouquets, the gentle separation of stems and trimming, arranging this way and that, in just the right vase. They were placed on tables throughout the house, each room they graced sparking with beauty. She smiled as she entered and exited and grazed their bold or pale, tender blooms with her fingertips. Their unique fragrances followed her from task to task. She sometimes thought she’d like to take a class on flower arranging, make it more than an amateur attempt. She thought, too, she’d like to wear them in her hair.

It was an hour or so that Lana spent at the market. She was lightened by it, always looked forward to chatting with neighbors and vendors. It assured her she held a welcomed place in the world, as did they. But then she had to go home.

Not that she didn’t have a place there. It had just shifted as their foundation trembled; big parts of their life were no longer settled.

Chris had fallen away. And she was taking care of him, trying to keep him from tumbling further. And if that meant bringing him meals and seeing that he got a good shower every couple days, she’d do it.

******

He might have done something different, he thought many times a day, so that he’d have been kept on as supervisor at the plant. Eighteen years there, unheard of these days, and yet he was one of the first to go when the pandemic stopped the world. But it was done, he reminded himself, and that was how it was–why wear out the simple truth of it with all his self-doubts? He was getting older, business was poor, they could do fine without him, it turned out so fare thee well old man.

Why it mattered so much he didn’t know. The job wasn’t something to brag abut, it was good work fairly well paid. He and Lana were not going to go hungry or lose their bungalow bought thirty-some years ago. So they wouldn’t likely redo the two bathrooms. They might not eat as well as they liked and no longer eat out, of course. Captain, their fat grey tabby, might have to endure nail cutting from him as all that cat upkeep business got pricey. Vacations might have to be cut the next few years, maybe forever, he wasn’t even sure yet.

They’d be okay. Still, it felt like a punch in the gut.

And what came next?

These thoughts coiled and uncoiled in his brain as he half-dozed, so that when he awoke with a start as a truck rumbled by he wasn’t sure if he had just dreamed of Angus burgers burning on the grill or Captain racing away as he wielded nail clippers or Lana catching him off guard as she waltzed right past him in a beautiful green dress, her dazzling smile with tears falling. Maybe he was recalling the past in altered form. There certainly wasn’t much going on in his present life. The future? Anybody’s guess. Chris could be nostalgic as much as he chose. It didn’t change a thing.

The life beyond the windows on their second story room barely pulled at him. He knew the Carters were jamming as many suitcases and bags as possible into the back of their camper van. To the Southwest in August, they’d informed him a couple months ago. Tom Hannelly had broken a leg when he fell from his cycle racing down country hills; he hobbled about in an unwieldy cast, swearing a bit. Tina and her three dogs were out three times a day; she now worked from home. And Margo and Danny were maybe still getting a divorce after the pandemic but for now they were a team trying to make it work, their two teenagers in need of cohesion.

The last bit he knew because Lana had updated him. He hadn’t asked, he never did; he counted on her to be the bearer of news. And most else. And like before, she was there with what he needed, even though he had been in an unfamiliar survival mode. She was his safety net.

Chris heard her come in and shut the door, jabber to Captain. He wondered what she’d bring him from the market for a snack. Then felt the guilt wash over him. He was stuck in this room–and didn’t care that much. He put his feet on the footstool, settled into the wingback and felt the tide of sleep lap at his mind, threatening to take him again. But he was sorry he made things harder for her. It’s just that the most pressing thing was how many lines were creeping across the ceiling he had almost memorized. And if he was ever going to look further into it. Beyond that, the room was getting stuffy despite the fan on high all the time–but there was enough good air, he presumed, to keep sitting there indefinitely. It just took too much effort to face what lay outside these walls, beyond the tiny corner of his life. Discomfort nagged at him and he shifted. There came a niggling restlessness that he ignored. He dozed once more.

Then her footsteps, steady but light, the only footsteps he loved to hear. Did she ever miss hearing his on the stairs or running down four steps into the breezeway and across to the garage with its apartment built on top (that had been empty since Teddy had left for post-grad work six years years ago, good for him) or grilling on the deck he had built last year? Did she wait to hear those steps as he waited to hear hers?

He felt the slip of breeze with a touch of cool sail over his eyelids, neck, hair. He stretched, got up, went the distance to the hall, then the bathroom–the farthest he had walked in some time.

*******

She spent a long time sorting and preparing bouquets of multi-hued dahlias and roses with sprays of greenery for three rooms. Then several minutes fixing the zinnias so they fit a smaller orange and white swirled glass vase with fluted mouth. She picked the freshest, brightest blooms, placed them in the water, patting them when done. She also nestled a mix of berries in a well used white ceramic bowl and brewed tea, Lady Grey, for his mug with its red-winged blackbirds motif. It didn’t much matter that he might not notice these things. She wanted to do it for him.

When she knocked softly, then entered their bedroom, she was surprised to see Chris showered and dressed in shirts and a fresh T-shirt. It had been almost four days since that had happened and it had almost scared her.

“Here you go, tea and berries, and my, you look nice, fresh.”

He gave her a weak grin, let his eyes roam over her; they landed on her hips a moment, then her shoulders and neck, her face. Remarkable, really; she always looked good to him. It had been awhile since he had really looked at much less seen her and her trim form and bright expression stirred a light flutter in his chest.

“I needed it, I suppose.”

She set down the tray after he put the radio on the floor. That old thing, a cumbersome black radio that he’d kept for twenty years and repaired twice. She heard him fiddling with stations sometimes, until he settled on local news or programs with old standards, as ever. She hoped it never broke down for good.

“Berries again,” he murmured, and pinched one between thumb and index finger, popped it into his mouth, groaned in appreciation.

She knew he enjoyed them, as much as he could. She watched him test the tea, blowing across the top of the mug first, then nod. Smoothing her chinos with damp hands, she said, “I’ll leave you to it, then,” and turned to go.

At the door, she heard him stir, then say her name. She turned and saw him sitting forward, mug set back on the table.

“I’m sorry, Lana,” he said.

He had said this often enough that she was sure he was, and she knew he meant it to bridge the narrow but obvious gaps between them. She had tried for two months months to be patient, to let him work it out, to be positive with fewer words and yet she hovered at the edges of his malaise, waiting, tending, praying, just trying hard to accept. The bee sting with the honey, she recalled her mother telling her of the flux of things in marriage.

“Drink your tea, it’s good tea, eat the berries, you’ll feel better. I’ll make a peach pie later.”

She smiled, started through the doorway but looked back a last time. He was hunched over bowl and mug, head in hands. So she went to him but sat on the bed a few feet away.

To speak or wait and listen.

His head felt thick as pudding but the promise of peach pie was so good gratitude welled up. Could a pie do that to his impoverished soul? How long was he going to let her carry the load while he suffered hurt pride and a loss of direction, still as a sloth in the heat of summer days and nights? She was near him and he ought to speak to her but Chris noticed an ant cross over the worn wood floor boards, then another and another, an orderly line in and out of shadows. Ants had purpose, they got so much accomplished, putting him to shame. And when had they started back in? Was it about fall already?

Lana lay back on the unmade bed and the feather pillow, long gray hair (no more beauty salon visits lately) strewn about it. She took a quavering breath in, let it out. Touched the silky sheets. It was a good bed; it had served them well, had been a nest and a briar patch and a chalice of sorts. As she closed her eyes, weariness engulfed her. Was she really that tired out? She never felt it when on her feet, moving and doing and looking forward. But here, in the middle of day, after flowers and berries and hearing his deep regret again, she felt nearly overwhelmed by the weight of their most ordinary lives. Her broad palmed, practical hands were crossed over her chest; the heat of them and the oppressive room pressed upon her. And she understood the need to sleep more.

And then he was beside her, a zinnia in hand. He touched it to her rosy cheek, traced her firm jaw, lips soft as dandelion fluff. She opened her eyes and what she saw was a small relief, and an offering, a remembrance of love. She took the flower, lay it aside as he lay down. And then he held one of her hands in his and they closed their eyes, midday sunlight peeling away bits of slinking shadow. Captain pounced, then lay at their feet, and a trickle of incoming breeze from a slightly ajar window felt like a spell or a blessing rich with jasmine. It was daytime but it might have been night, as the room felt so much more theirs as they settled close to each other, and it was not a fortress nor a place of doom. It was only a room of comfort.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Caught Between (Blood and Books)

Photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.com

Sauntering, that was the best way, browsing at her leisure, body reflecting both harmless and relaxed, feet shuffling a little. The table of books lay there like a banquet, and her fingertips skimmed a few covers. She couldn’t help herself. This was not what she was meant to be finding in a good day’s work but the bookshop had caught her attention the day before. She’d stopped momentarily. A large cat had rubbed its silky fur against her bare ankles, guaranteed to annoy her and that caused her to sneeze loudly three times; the calico jumped straight up. Then came a slight movement behind the big display window, a warning for her to move on.

Today she’d fared well in the market six blocks away: two fat yellow apples; a fresh scone in a paper sleeve someone put down by someone when looking at something; a golden pen with ten fine sheets of handmade paper (the sign said); two pair of thick socks. The socks would go to Gerry but the rest she was keeping. It was useless surplus, not ready cash. That would have to come from the half dozen fancy knock off watches and a bunch of real silver bracelets from a corner shop in Harleton. The old lady–who had been easily engaged in random patter–had picked up her chiming phone–church bells?– and it was a deal done fast and she was out of there. Then there was a sweet short wave radio on a floor in an open garage she passed–where was the owner? Drinking beer at the back, too slow on his feet to catch her.

Thieving wasn’t hard but energy-consuming–being ever watchful, smart and fast about it. Sheila was all of those, even as a kid. How many times had she been punished by her dad, and how often had she and her young aunt sneaked off again to find and raid a make up display, a table piled with purses, a bakery with mini cakes and still-warm biscuits displayed on a shelf by a front door to lure customers. They were most certainly lured, then filled up with the high of stolen sweetness. Though her dad said time and again, “You got bit by the devil’s wiles, it’ll cost you more than you know, my girl.” He knew all that and more because he’d been to prison for four years–he’d only been nineteen– for crimes no one spoke of now he was all legitimate. But Sheila knew it was burglary, maybe a few; he might not have been caught for all of it. She shuddered to think of it, her caring dad.

She was eight years old when it started; Auntie Jean was way older, fourteen. They made a perfect pair of kleptomaniacs, Jean had said laughing. She had the hands that, like magic, swiped and grabbed; Shelia was the lookout and runner once Jean lifted the thing and handed it off. Because who would think a little girl with pigtails could steal and run so fast?

Now–seven years later– it was Gerry and Jean and a handful of their friends. Mostly Shelia did minor stuff, she did what they said if she wanted a small cut, but sometimes she went her own way. In fact, more often she was going her own way and lied to them when she got back: “I was sooo close, then it got risky, I’m not going to juvie for you guys!” she protested. Or: “Everything’s tied down tight out there, can barely find anything worth much lately.”

They had bigger fish to catch, anyway–TVs, computers, cars, stuff Shelia didn’t want to know about. There business was growing. But when she was empty handed Gerry gave her a medium punch on the arm and Jean gave her a scalding look then moved on to other matters. Jean kept telling her in private that she becoming a big disappointment and if she couldn’t bring it in why bother sticking around? She was on the verge of being a liability. She had to get with it or get out, Jean was sorry but family or no family…. Shelia’s face burned with humiliation so on she went, looking for more targets.

They were family, yes. So Shelia stuck in with them. Still, she was better at school and worked at that harder. One thing her mother said before she left them was that her daughter–Sheila–was way too smart to live the low life and if she had any say left in the matter, the girl would become a lawyer, not a miserable petty–or worse–criminal.

“What’s the difference?” her dad had said, laughing with that edge he still had back then.

Her mother reportedly said, “You know what I mean. She could amount to something good. She could be anything if she gets a chance, just like me! But no, you have to stand in everyone’s way. You and your crooked paths to big dreams. What a joke!”

“I’m not in her way, just yours. She’ll get a different life, she’s smarter and better than you,” he grumbled and waved her off, his long suffering girlfriend of ten years, and his daughter’s mother, for good or ill.

But she’d soon left in a flash after losing some fight with him. And though he loved Shelia more than he could say, he worked six to seven days a week at the marina so she was on her own when not in school or watched after by a co-worker’s wife. And they got by, more or less, on his wages. He wanted better for them both. Shelia was six then. Her mother–those words sounded foreign to her. It was so long ago it was all a fuzzy dream of a memory. All she knew was her dad–who stuck by her.

She wanted to give him some of her cash but knew he’s had a fit. She bought a few groceries or personal items with the little she kept from Jean, sometimes stashed it under her bed in the jewelry box from her childhood. Her dad half-knew what she did but denied it to everyone. And his own self even more. As long as she did okay in the school year and no cops came to his door…what could he really do about it? It had to be in the blood. He blamed Jean but his niece blamed him and then he blamed his brother, her father. It was a waste of time to think about. Sheila was going to be okay.

To Sheila, the stealing was a habit, and she sometimes felt it was a pretty bad habit. One she might break someday. Or not. It bore little thought; it was not the major thing in her life. She was really trying to grow up.

******

It was the third time in a month the teenager came by and appeared to be casing the place, try to maybe steal one of the books. It always perplexed her that anyone would steal a book–there were libraries, for Pete’s sake. So Meredith circled in and out of her bookshop, very casually, and looked down the street, nodded at her.

“Nice day, hey? See anything you like?”

Just like that, the youth was gone. A very fast mover, like a ninja kid, she chuckled as she told her assistant. And never spoke a word. The girl tended to linger at the bargain mystery books on the table outdoors– but at other times she checked out a few memoirs and science books baking in August’s sizzling heat. Couldn’t be that she didn’t have the money–they were cheap in her opinion, deeply discounted after being long idle on shelves. Who knew? Might be a street kid. Maybe her ripped jeans were not due to fashion but because those were all she had. The large navy windbreaker hung on her narrow frame; her hair was worn swept into a short choppy ponytail, and she always wore sunglasses despite the weather. Once it rained suddenly; she’d left on the sunglasses but pulled a baseball cap from her jacket pocket, pressed it on firmly and slinked down the sidewalk.

Meredith thought of putting up a Free Library sort of box in the back alley for those who had no money; lots of people used it as shortcut so it might take off. So she set to it a few evenings later after closing time. As she rummaged through cast-offs by the back door Mr. Mercedes–so named because the calico sure thought he was all that— sniffed each book from the pile, then chose a couple of stacked ones to sit on. The cat had been wild and still disappeared a couple days at a time, yet always returned. Customers liked–or perhaps admired– him more than he liked them but he was tolerant enough after three years, even conversed to a few in his surly native cat tongue.

She worked a few minutes, feeling good about her effort, when Mr. Mercedes shot past her piles and raced around the corner. Meredith checked around it with caution. A mouse or-ugh-rat? A passing cyclist? What had he heard that she had not? She had closed up and locked the front door twenty minutes ago; her assistant was working on invoices in the back office. She went in search of the cat and came to the entrance.

The door, to her surprise, was slightly ajar. How had that been overlooked? Or was it jimmied? Mr. Mercedes had snaked inside; Meredith peered in the windows. There was a shadowy figure at the back aisles. She saw a hand skim then lift a few books off a shelf, drop them in a backpack. Art history section? The thief grabbed a few more in the next section, hunched down, crept between book stacks, perusing the bounty.

Should she call out to Annie, her assistant or call 911?

Before she could decide what to do, the culprit headed to the back door that was still open to the alley. As he passed the office Annie stuck her head out and shrieked as Meredith ran inside, then after the culprit. But a muffled crash stopped her at the doorway. She peered into the passageway beyond, Annie imploring her to stop right there,, and she narrowed her eyes at the the gathering dusk.

There: that teenaged girl, a booted foot on its heel in the now-impeded trajectory of the running, then falling thief–or was it really her partner in crime? The person sprawled onto pavement with a thud, books falling from the still-open backpack, each hitting ground hard, a few skidding away and coming to a pathetically scratchy, dirty full stop.

“What on earth is going on here?” she called out to both of the youths. “Leave all my books this instant or I’ll call police!”

The scruffy guy scrambled to his knees but the girl gave him another push so that he stumbled forward. Another two books fell from inside his hoodie but he was rendered useless at picking up any of them as she kicked at his ankles. He yelled an obscenity at her and took off down the darkening alley, long gone before Meredith could call out another warning.

The girl with her usual sunglasses and hat pulled low stood opposite her, hands on hips, mouth opened a little as she huffed some. Mr. Mercedes sat at her feet looking up, tail twitching. She glanced down a split second when Meredith entered the alley and walked towards her. But this was not welcomed by the book rescuer. She stepped way back. Mr. Mercedes stepped back as well, hissing at them both.

“Who are you? Why are you hanging out here so much, and how did you know he was going to steal something? Where did you come from?”

The wiry, sharp-featured girl with immobile face balled her hands up and jammed them into jacket pockets, well balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to take off.

“Well, thanks for the help–I think!” the anxious bookseller said, exasperated, as Annie circled up behind her.

Meredith picked up a couple books and then the two women tended to others scattered about. They were heavy, expensive coffee table books about art and photography, of all things.

“Stolen gifts for someone? Why these?” Annie said.

“Criminal opportunist! Why not just buy a used couple of tomes somewhere? How dare he!” Meredith whimpered and stood with hands on cheeks, studying the glossy volumes.

The books were all damaged to some degree. She might never be able to sell them for what they were worth–beautiful, informative, inspiring books. But it was her fault, apparently, since the door had been easily opened. Meredith tried to tune out the nervously chattering Annie and they wiped off the books with their shirttails, murmuring about the scare and torn covers and grime and what to do. Then Meredith recalled the young woman. still just a girl, really, and yet she was readied to fight or flee, and she spun around to find her.

Too late. She had flown.

******

“That was stupid! How much can it matter if Leo’s great-grandfather or uncle or whoever got those books for his seventy-fifth birthday? Was it worth all that trouble? Now what does he have? Nothing. Not one damn thing! And now no one can enjoy them either!”

She saw her Uncle Brad across the floor–“Blue” they called him due to the blue-black tear tattooed on his cheek–and he studied her with a quizzical look, then went into a back room and shut the door. Thankfully. She was always wary of him, even when he was nice to her-But he was often gone and Jeanie was second in command.

Sheila was pacing and yelling at Gerry and Jean. Leo had left in a funk, humiliated about having been foiled, ready to start a brawl with Shelia, his senior by two years but smaller, when Jean stepped in.

“Well, it isn’t only the grandpa, Sheil, it was a dumb, simple test! Jerry needs his nephew to get better at the simplest tasks and if he can’t even pick off a few stupid books…! Useless crew.” She shook her head in disgust. “But for you to interfere–that’s what’s idiotic, you know better, and it’s almost enough for me to–to–” She came toward Shelia with raised hand, face red as a radish, curly hair shaking as she advanced.

Sheila felt her insides quiver but stood her ground. “Aw, Jeanie, chill out. I didn’t know it was him at first. I was just hanging out, that’s all, and when I saw him break in–“

“You should have let him be,” Jerry pronounced with that rumbling voice. “What a couple of amateurs. Might be time to just prematurely cut both short, baby. But it’s not like it’s some major loss. Books, ya know? No harm done.” He put an arm around Jean’s shoulders, tugged her back. “Let’s not get her so riled up she shoots off her mouth at Speed.”

“Yeah, okay, never mind, I’m okay, my Sheil’s okay…well, aren’t ya?,” Jean cast her another look, then stomped over to the desk, where she fingered a big new batch of superior gemstone jewelry.

Speed, Sheila repeated to herself. Her father’s old name–his old identity. Shelia felt alarm shoot through her. If he even knew the extent of things going on with her. And here.

She surveyed the storage building, All the covered cars, stacks of boxes with TVs and computers and video equipment with hot new games and more–the giant desk where jewelry awaited assessment, at the dark corners where others of the group lounged like sly lazy dogs or talked on their phones making clandestine deals.

What was she doing there? Why did she persist in thinking this was really her family–and her fate?

“I’m so completely sick of this, of you all, I’m outta here!” she yelled and left.

No one said a thing. She was a kid, kids were impulsive and she was blood family.. Jean just had to wait and see. But she watched her niece go and sighed heavily. It was awhile coming to this, yet she always thought it. It wouldn’t be at all easy for little Sheil, the smart one, her protégé, slowly going sour. She had good instincts but too often she didn’t show enough common sense or lack of guilt for this line of work. It took guts and stamina and no looking back, only to the next job that might be the big payoff. Jean lived for that day so she, too, could walk away– but to her own private Shangri-La.

******

At Meredith’s Book Madness all was in order. They’d sorted out the inventory and found new ways to donate some books, started a couple new sales that were going well. The book library at back was being well used, too. In fact, they thought it brought more foot traffic and cyclists–and then to the front door.

The nine art and photography books that had been harmed by thievery were repaired and put on a discount table indoors; four had sold so far. They ordered a few more interesting volumes.

Annie unlocked the front door. It had rained the night before. The world smelled sweet and bright, warming up as sunlight streamed onto the quiet street and their ceramic flower pots along the outer wall. Then her eyes glimpsed a form at the far end of the building.

“Meredith?”

“Yes?” The answering voice wafted from back of the shop.

“Can you come here?”

Meredith came and gazed to the spot where Annie looked. Smiled.

Shelia roused, blinked in the honeyed light. She grabbed her hat which had fallen off a couple hours earlier; she’d been too tired to wait for the shop to open and dozed off. She had had little sleep all night. After she’d left Jean and Gerry, she’d gone home. She later–without thinking further– told her dad she wanted a change in her life but she wasn’t sure how to do it.

“Why all this?” he’d asked, elbows on the table, eyes piercing the short distance between them. “What do you mean, a ‘change’? Are you in trouble? I mean, more than I think? Tell me what happened.”

“No, not really. I mean, that depends on what you think…”

“I know you and Jeanie are thick as…you need to come clean with me, honey, and now.”

“You know I can’t say what I want to say, not really, and I know you know what you know. So what is there to say–except, what should I do now?”

“How deep, Sheila girl?”

“Not that deep in, I can swim to the surface.”

He rubbed his bristly chin and didn’t take his eyes off her, and it startled her, his intense stare, as if he was cutting through all her smokescreen of thoughts and seeing everything all through the years. Maybe he did, but then it was as if he looked far beyond her. And then he came back to her.

“I’m sorry, this is fully on me. So leave it to me.”

“No, Dad.” She shook her head vigorously.

“Don’t worry yourself, I know a couple of things, helpful things. And from now on, every time you get that itch…just tell me. We’ll fend it off. I’ve got your back, don’t you know that?”

He half grinned at her, the goofy one that revealed his bottom gold tooth so it winked in the light and at her. He was a nice enough looking guy, she realized, a man who’d aged too fast, but he still had energy and attitude enough for at least two younger guys. He could have gotten married a couple of times–she’d not have gotten in the way.

But he’d kept his nose clean, he told everybody, was about working hard and taking care of Shelia. Though he clearly had failed in some basic ways, he knew that already. Did he think he could’ve kept ignoring the worsening signs, though? No. Where did he think she got to when he was gone so long every day and even night? He had hoped for better times for her but suspected so long. The family, right, leave it to crazy Jean to screw it up worse.

Things just had to be made much better, he knew right then.

“Yeah, Dad, I know you’ve got me. I didn’t want to freak you out, make you sad– or worse…”

“Well, it’s lucky for me you have the sense to know when to speak up a little. And figure out you need a new direction.”

“You mean, lucky for me! I’ve sorta been on my own awhile, you know?”

“Yes–you’re right. We both are fortunate now that we put a few things on the table. And I’m stepping in this time, blood or no blood, no matter, we are not them.”

He rose to put his arms around her and squeezed three times for “I love you”, and she about cried, it had been so long since he’d done that. She squeezed back.

And that was it, for the time being. They’d figure things out. Or maybe he’d just do his bit and they would go on in a more normal way, their odd but more real way. She could only hope he didn’t step too hard on the dragon’s tail. Jean the Dragon Lady they called her–she was tougher than anybody she knew in their city. Except her uncle… and her dad, though he was not like much his brother, anymore

But for now here she was with a book lady who was looking her over as if seeing her for the first time, a creature who didn’t, in fact, have horns. An ordinary girl with some strange aspects.

Sheila didn’t remove her sunglasses to stare back harder. The woman didn’t take any offense at whatever she did, it seemed.. It was like she got it, though how was anyone’s guess.

“I’m Meredith; this is Annie. Want to give us some help? We have a bunch of books that need sorting,” she said, gesturing with a sharp motion of her head toward the store.

“Uh, maybe, I guess so.”

“If you catch on and come on time twice a week, and ask before you take anything, you can stay on. If not, you’re out. But I have to tell you right off I can’t pay you. You can, however, choose a cheaper book each week to take home. But we shall see how things go, alright? Name?”

Shelia stood up, smoothed her damp jeans and jacket, put her cap back on. The way this woman talked floored her. “Sheila. Wait a sec–did i even say I wanted an actual job?”

Meredith rubbed her forehead thoughtfully. “Oh, didn’t you? I thought you might have. And you were sitting out here waiting for us to open, right? Anyway, no worries–no pay, no real job…” and she went inside.

Sheila shook her head hard to clear it. Hesitated. Looked up at the fat clouds scudding by, heard cars honking and a cyclist’s bell ringing as he whizzed by, and those crows squabbling from the roof as if they owned the block. Smelled a bit of gasoline and a whiff of scraggly red roses growing by the sidewalk. Ordinary stuff. She wondered if the lady knew what she was really all about–and if she did, would she have offered her a gig, even for nothing? She was sure taking a chance. With a thief.

An about-to-be-reformed one, she corrected herself, and the idea excited and worried her.

Mr. Mercedes jumped out at her so she bent down to briefly stroke him; he followed her into the store. “Well, she let you stay, that’s kinda weirdly nice,” she told him. She tore off her jacket and stuffed her cap in a back pocket. Looked around the homey, dusty, beautiful bookstore. She took off her sunglasses and set them aside.