Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Spoken, Unspoken

teenager-72-2 photo by Jeurgen Teller

What would she tell him and what would she keep to herself, she wondered as she trotted along the well-beaten path. Low branches snagged her sweater and bright flying hair. Wild blackberry bushes grabbed at her ankles. She made note of where they were so she could gather the last ripe offerings. How many Lil had harvested in late summer and still there were more. They hung on until the very end, fat with life, earthy and sweet. Stubbornly hanging on, those last berries. Stubborn like she was. And Quinn.

Lil was looking for him, zigzagging through the woods, up and down gentle hills but she was running from Ray and his words. Their father, more or less. He had it in for Quinn now and that meant likely Lil, too, in the end because they stuck together. The last of his words still rang in her ears.

“If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be a futile tug of war!”

It wasn’t a new threat, that his dominant role would insure authority. Yet the way it was said and when could mean little or much, and this time it was a warning she knew to heed. Quinn had shrugged off confrontations since he’d gotten a lot taller than Ray. If not as big otherwise. In fact, that was another thing Ray said a lot—Quinn had better grow up more if he planned on talking back all the time. And cut “that damned hair” or Ray would do something about it for him.

Lil pressed a palm to her forehead, swiped away sweat and stray hairs and something with wings that got away in time. She slowed her pace, calling out his name now and then. It was a lot of acreage, twenty acres and wooded for the most part, especially when you had to search. Quinn was fifteen, twelve months ahead of her, but he acted older, went his way as he pleased. To be honest both went their own way since their mother had died three years ago, but he’d be gone for a couple days or more, camping alone or staying with friends. She had bitterly argued against his taking off many times. Said he should take her with him, anyway.

“Why do you have to leave me here with him? He gets riled up and his mood turns sour. And he acts like I’m the only one who can make a bed or chop wood or simmer a pot of stew when you aren’t there to help us. I’m suddenly indispensable. Right in his line of vision like I’m some quarry. Well, maybe not quite that bad but still…”

Quinn always said, “If he ever hits you or anything else I’ll have to kill him.” He gave her that dramatic look beneath the fall of his hair, deep blue eyes going black.

How much he had changed, she thought, and yet not at all. Just tougher beneath his creative, pensive ways.

“Come on, you know it’s his words. They’re like rocks from a pile he hordes until he wants to throw his weight around. Ray can act mean, then he isn’t, anymore. You know, hot and cool.”

Quinn would lower his eyes, give her a quick hug, shake the hair from his face and say, “Yeah, but sometimes I have to leave before I lose my mind. Before I remind him again that Mom would never talk that way. He’s just privately a fool with a fat public job, he’s the one who needs to grow up–”

“Try to come home at night, though? I hate being in my room by yours and I can’t tap out a message on the wall because you aren’t there like before, any time I want. Lying there half-blind, listening to Ray snoring across the hall, muttering away. It’s worse when I’m alone. It makes me so want Mom back…”

Quinn calmed. “I can’t always have you with me, Lil, you know that. We just do guy stuff, we’re up too late and you have school.” He glanced at her. “I know I do, too, but it’s different for me. You were born with so much more potential.” A wry smile.

“Don’t be impossible!” She threw him a playful punch, he fended her off and they headed outdoors to Eagle River to forget the way things were. To take in unspoiled air, watch for beautiful, stealthy deer and name birds on the wing. Hope for a glimpse of the rare Sierra Nevada red fox, more silver than red one time they saw it. A lucky break, or a wilder magic.

Their talk was such a tired talk, anyway, repeated often. And she tried harder to hide her hurt from him so he wouldn’t feel guiltier, because it was true he had it worse with Ray. He took the brunt of all the grief and anger their mother’s death had poured into the man. Never mind that they had their own.

Ray was not their biological father, turning up two years after she—Surprise! Here’s Lillian Grace!–was born and their real father left with some stranger for parts unknown. Their mother was mostly okay with that, she’d said, in the end for the best, and then she met Ray in town one summer. Things rebalanced some, though he was more impatient than their own father if a steady man, a good provider, as she  let slip from her thoughts behind his back. Then she got sick  doing her own job, and left him on his own. Ray never expected to have to raise kids this way. Without the woman he adored with a doting if faulty love. And there they all were, three alone together. Except Quinn and Lil were a team, after that much more so.

It stung Lil deeply that her brother could ever leave her behind, though she understood he felt harassed, and he was older and a boy. As if that gave him extra rights.

The loamy river scent filled her nostrils as she ran. She thought of what Quinn always implied–that she’d finish school and have a chance at college. That he would not. But it wasn’t meant to be that way. Their mother had had high hopes for them both and Quinn was just as smart. Just not as motivated to learn from school books. Not these days. And Lil wasn’t that clear what she wanted to do. But she did know she didn’t want to be a nurse like their mother, catch a terrible sickness from patients, end up dying too young.

She felt a wave of relief as she lightly panted, feet slowing. There were glimmerings of reflected light on Eagle River, just beyond a scrim of leaves starting to slip off  their greenery and put on gold and rust. Surely he had to be on this stretch of the bank, another favorite area. He hadn’t been at the dock or the stony ridge at the inlet. By then Ray had stopped yelling at her to come back; she’d known he wouldn’t try to follow her. A week ago he’d hurt his knee during a fall from his truck bed. He’d unloaded a half cord of wood for their wood stove and somehow toppled. It had been one more reason why he’d steamed at Quinn, who had of course taken off in the middle of it, having heard more about his hair and friends.

It had started as usual.

“That hair will blind or strangle you one of these days, it’s always in your eyes or hanging around your neck. You need to clean up, Quinn. Get a job after school. And also leave that Wilson girl alone, she’s not in your league.”

“My hair is none of your business and it’s ridiculous you make a big deal of it. And what would you know about who’s in my ‘league’, as you put it? It’s clear you don’t think I’m good enough, just say it!”

Quinn had stomped off, gotten his bike, stirred up the dirt and dust. Lil helped with the wood. It was no big deal, not really hard, she just wished Quinn was helping her stack it so they could exchange a look, get the work done faster while Ray moaned on the couch, frozen bag of peas clamped on his knee. In two days it was better but he still limped about.

This time, though, Quinn had just wanted to go fishing. He was anxious to take off and was waiting for her to get home. As usual, Ray had things to say first.

“Your brother got caught with the Wilson girl today, I heard.”

He said this as soon as she was dropped off by her friend Carol and her mother and entered the house. Like he’d wanted to drop this bombshell for her ears despite Quinn standing there, too. She nodded at Quinn, eating cold macaroni and cheese from a plastic container; he tossed it on the counter and it slid, fell into the sink.

“Don’t talk about Anne.” The fork in his hand was pointed toward Ray, emphasizing each word. “And don’t imply I did something wrong.” He turned to Lil, who stood in the kitchen doorway, eyebrows raised, half-smiling. “I talk with her before and after school–you’ve seen us, right?” He tossed the fork into the sink, put the leftovers away.

Lil shrugged. “And? So?”

“Nothing, he just likes to yak at us.” He lowered his voice. “But I did get a crappy grade on that world history test. That sucks, have to do a re-take.  But now I’m going fishing. Want to come?”

“Sorry about the test.. No, not yet, I have homework. Maybe in a half hour, but then there’s dinner…”

“Let him start it, he knows how.”

Ray looked around the living room corner where he sat at a small desk paying bills. “What’s that?”

Quinn grabbed his fishing gear and left by the side door, urging her to join him. And she should have right then–didn’t she want to hang with him more? But the door banged shut and she went to her room to work on Algebra. In fifteen minutes, there was a knock on her door.

She said, “”I’m busy, Ray, homework.”

“Sorry, but we should talk.”

She ignored him, kept working.

“It’s about Anne Wilson and Quinn.”

Her pencil hovered above the paper as she considered. Was he going to just complain to her, gossip as ever, then go on his way? Or was it serious?

Ray Leger managed the historic, expensive hotel on the edge of nearby “wine country heaven” and he had long, sometimes variable hours. It must be a day off or he’d go in later, be back in the wee hours. Ray got to hear a lot of stories being the big manager there. Everyone had info to swap about residents as well as upscale visitors. The Wilsons were a family that recently moved there after vacationing in wine country for some years. She didn’t know what the parents did but Anne was popular in school now– smart enough, chatty and sporty. Lil liked her alright but from a distance. She’d been surprised her brother found her that interesting.

Lil got up to open the door. At least Ray never just walked right in, he gave them that.

“Thanks, Lillian.” He looked around for her blue antiqued wood chair, pushed off her robe and sat. “I’m hoping you can persuade your brother to stop seeing this girl before there’s more trouble. Mr. Wilson came to see me today at the hotel and he’s worried about his daughter’s reputation.”

“Really? Doesn’t he know we’re a family with a good rep? Didn’t he know and accept you before when they came down as tourists? Didn’t Quinn and I get introduced to Anne by her own mom? In fact, Mom helped out when Mrs. Wilson was ill with–”

“He saw them smoke together today, Lillian, before school.” Ray leaned toward her, his hands splayed on his thighs, feet planted on the floor. “Pot, you know. That’s not good.”

Lil inclined her head, frowning. “What? Pot? You mean Quinn doesn’t even drink, but he smokes pot from time to time and that’s the whole nasty situation?”

“Well, Jud Wilson is a chemist or something–he knows about drugs, all the affects. And he feels pot is super bad for teens and doesn’t want his daughter mixed up with it. Plus, there’s the hair issue.”

“Almost all of Oregon smokes pot, Ray. It’s legal. Where has he been?”

“They’re from Utah, originally. I think they lived in Arizona awhile.”

“Oh, they’re religious, maybe… might be Mormon? No,  that can’t be it, he and his wife love the wine here.”

“I don’t know about all that. They’re not liberal, no, and not everyone is here, you know.”

“Well, Anne should make her own decision and that should be that, right? She needs to discuss it with Quinn and her dad. We don’t have to deal with it all.”

“Wrong, he said he doesn’t want her to see him again. And he was very put off by his hair down his back, said it’s not what he’d expect from my kids…and Anne has other friends and Quinn should back off.” He spread his hands wide. “Made it clear. And I will not disappoint long-time associates….”

“How rude!” But Lil bit her lower lip hard, blinked a few times. Where was her mother when she needed her? They were her kids, not his, really–weren’t they, still? She would know what to do. Really, his associates?

“But worse, he’s bound to tell the law. You have to be 21 to buy marijuana, you know, just like for alcohol.” He shuddered ever so slightly. “And my hotel cannot afford any bad press, not of my kids not doing the right thing. It reflects on me, after all, then it gets out and it’s bad for business. It has to stop now. But he won’t listen to me!”

“Quinn already knows about being seen smoking with her?”

“No. I didn’t get that far. But they–parents and Anne– are coming over tomorrow night. Luckily, they were busy tonight. Gives us time to talk, think things out.”

Lil got up and paced. “Actually, you want me to break it to him so you won’t have to face off, right?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Thought you’d be concerned, too.”

“Or were you concerned about your job? You know he smokes. I have a couple times and you have, too, I’m sure! And you like your wine wine, drink at the hotel bar sometimes after work. I mean….both are common here, so isn’t it that this might somehow ruin appearances, us teenagers who can’t seem to toe the line?”

She felt disgusted, done with the conversation. Let him fight his own social battles and deal with Quinn himself. It was not her problem.

“No, not entirely. Maybe that’s why he isn’t doing as well in school the past year or two, have you thought of that, Lillian? Maybe he’s too stoned to care.”

Well, maybe our mother died and we still want her here, have you thought of that, Ray? she wanted to shout back. But she just sat on the edge of her bed. Saw the late day sunlight seep through blinds and paint thin bright stripes on the hardwood floor. Her feet were cold. Her hands were almost cold. It was going to start raining every day and she’d be outdoors less as temperatures dropped. Quinn and she would be trapped here with this man who didn’t even know them…well, a man who watched over them but lacked the skills and love their mother had.

Had his own worries and frustrations, sure. Hard to hate him for any of it. His own loss. Like hers, but different.

Still. She let out a long sigh.

“I do care, Lil, I really do– for both of you but he sure won’t hear that. Maybe he’ll think things over if it’s your voice saying it.”

Lil got up and went to the door. “You could be nicer to him. And you should go now. I’ll think it over.”

He looked at her without wavering long enough for her to feel pinpricks of tears. Who were they for this time? Him? Or as usual, for herself? And for her almost twin, Quinn?

But she left the room first. Ray followed a few steps, the felt the familiar sad emptiness as she bounded toward the front door to go warn her brother of impending complications.

He couldn’t stop himself so he yelled: “If that brother of yours still thinks he’s got to have his way, it’ll be one futile tug of war!”

******

Lil parted the heavy branches and there he was.

“Quinn!”

He was not fishing. He was in the river, clothes still on from what she could see. Eyes were closed tight against the world. Looked like he’d churned up the river bed. His long hair streamed over his shoulders. He must have heard her but didn’t speak. It scared her, his being so still, and she slipped into the water, too. Stood near him, unwilling to disturb his reverie further.

And for a perfect moment, she saw their mother. In his features, in the way he stood so quiet with calm face tilted toward the muddied, swirling surface. How she loved it there, fishing or swimming in it, playing “catch” with her dog, Jersey Girl, or teaching them how to snorkel and ride rubber tubes downstream after it rained and the water ran faster.

People often remarked that they looked like twins, Quinn and Lil. That they took after their  graceful mother rather than their disappeared father who was tall, mammoth-shouldered and walked heavily and confidently like the lumberman he’d been.

They both had some of her for always.

“I know,” Quinn said, “I know.”

Lil waited.

“All of it, Anne told me. Don’t ask why I jumped in, just wanted to. It feels good.”

His eyes were still shut. His body was moved a little by current that ran swifter there. They both held their ground and she shut her eyes, too, just to feel it all with him. Chilly and warm as currents altered their courses; soft and strong; familiar and strange with its power.

“Okay, ” she said.

“It’ll be alright, Lil. Anyway, I know a couple other girls– Anne isn’t the only fish in the river. And I don’t like to smoke that much so stop worrying.”

She looked at him then as his eyes flashed open. He grinned at her, grabbed her arms and dunked her; she dunked him right back. Soon they were in full skirmish, laughing and gasping, swimming out of each other’s grasp. They finally gave up, fell into each other as they scrambled and slid on the muddy, stone-embedded river bank, water streaming from every limb and their dirty faces. When they reached the flatter grassy part, Lil and Quinn collapsed under a tree, more happy.

A few yards away Ray stood watching, recalling the past. Ache filled him. How he wished he had some of what they had, was welcomed into that circle as he had been when they were small. He wanted to remember her with them now. He took a step forward. But it felt too hard and he turned back to the house as the two teenagers got on their feet. And saw him thread through thickets of blackberries, then limp through cottonwood, alder, maple and fir that stood tall in a dusky autumn haze–this place that was now shared by three.

 

The Shadows that Befall Us

Photo by Christer Stromholm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

“Boundaries, first and last,” they said.

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

Before the race, Mick pulled Lee aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

“That right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sure, and good luck, Mick.”

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mick,” she whispered.

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

“Your hair…”

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

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

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

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

It was as if he was never there.

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

Her phone rang. She pulled herself together.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lucinda’s Thirst

 

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Lucinda positioned the flower and snapped several photos. She eyed other bright Gerber daisies in crackled vases, fighting an impulse to grab a half-dozen. She was thinking of lining them up on the coffee shop’s open air ledge and shooting them in different clusters, then taking them home. She liked flowers in the same way she liked cats–glad to see them, happy to house them, nice to admire them and even feed them, but then they’d leave her alone. Why didn’t that work with people? The daisies cheered her more than her older brother, Linc, did so far today.

“What are you doing with that?” he asked, nostrils flaring, a quirk of the family aquiline nose. His iced mocha beaded up in the heat; he wiped it dry with a napkin.

“Uh, taking pictures of it?”

“Must you always have that camera at the ready? It’s not as if you’re a photojournalist for a thriving daily paper or opening a show at a gallery. I mean, it’s a hobby, just a hobby.”

He said things without hesitation, as if his pronoucements had a heft that others’ did not. She’d stopped taking seriously every sentence he spouted long ago. She knew he seldom meant any harm. His thoughts liked the limelight is all.

Still, Lucinda withdrew her hand from the second vase she’d been ready to snatch from an empty table. She would get the shot sometime. Linc bent over The New York Times, slurped the coffee. She sat on a folded leg, propped her chin in hand. How to survive endless sun and her brother for the remainder of summer, maybe much longer. When their grandfather left them a charming house on a hill he’d been excited. Linc could do consulting from any place. She was between college commitments–she’d dropped out last March and wasn’t ready to return–and their mother wasn’t interested in further subsidizing her needs, good cameras and photography, mostly, and cycling, some hiking, reading. This town could be it for a while, so long as they lived together without serious regrets.

He leaned forward; his dry fingers grazed her hand. “Oh, Luce, I just wish you’d try acting less downcast. Look at that sky and be happy. We both need happy. We’ll be here awhile, or at least I will.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, then at the sky. You couldn’t miss the sunshine blaring good will all over blueness and baked buildings. Heat held dominion here, it skewered vegetation, chastened the fragile skin of her lips, ransacked shadows. It forced people into the mighty river or indoors. If there wasn’t water it would have morphed into desert and mountains entirely and the town would never have been built. Which sounded more pleasant to her. But there was not any place she longed to be. This was good enough for now.

Her brother was searching her face with enhanced hazel eyes (courtesy of contact lenses), looking for the chink in her natural reserve. She’d agreed to get off the couch and come to the coffee shop just to see people milling about. It hadn’t occurred to her that East Canyon, despite being a tourist town, would be so devoid of the lovely crush of humans during the weekdays. Where was everybody? People more her age? Didn’t it used to be different here once, before they grew up?

“Define ‘awhile’,” she said. “Like for the fall and winter or are we looking at a twelve month deal?”

“So far it suits me. I’m considering making this my home base. It can be yours, too, until you’re ready to move on…like we already told mom. Right?” He looked at her as if the situation was a contract signed and sealed. “Or you didn’t understand that part of it?”

She thought, didn’t he understand her part? The one about her life being ruined last spring, how much she wanted to live like a slug, hidden and undisturbed? The part about not wanting to be his maid service while he made oodles of money? She had been informed she had to get a job at a grocery store or somewhere. No free rides. When had she and her brother last tried to live together? Seven years ago, when she was just thirteen. Her part was complicated. He just had work, adult obligations, his little dramas.

Of course, Lucinda allowed that Jeffrey had recently left him, so there was that; Linc obviously had his own miseries. She accepted him without fail but didn’t profess to deeply understand. He spoke little of the “whos” or “whys” of his life. They lived such opposite directions on any scale. He was chatty; she was introverted. He loved flashy objects money bought him; she appreciated second-hand things. Linc was always all-in while she waited, watched, pondered. Still, they had too much history not to mention shared blood; there wouldn’t be serious battles.

“I’m not thrilled to live where things die if left unattended for more than ten minutes without liquid hydration.” She sucked on an ice cube from her water for demonstration.

“Do you always think of life as a series of dire conditions? Like it is something that needs immediate saving? Lighten up.” Then he pressed fingertips to his lips. “I’m sorry, Luce, I don’t think. I see that things still seem that way at times. I’m here for you–you know that.”

She looked away. She resisted reference to difficult topics, found it gauche in public. The newspaper rustled and he fell silent, too. Then as if on cue, she felt her heart race and a shiver run up her sweaty back. The heat suffocated her. She wanted to get up and leap over tables and run like hell.

Eyes were on her, she could feel them. It was what happened: she knew what was going on around her without thinking.

She peered into, then swung her camera to the courtyard. First she saw the Australian bush hat, is that what that was? A fancy hat. Then the shoulders. How much could you tell about a man by his shoulders? These were broad and still. As if he could sit there for hours and not move but go into action as a moment’s notice. He was deeply tanned, older than Linc, wore jeans and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. He raised his head a  bit and she held the camera steady and snapped once. The second time he held up his hand, either a salute or a warning–she would study it later. She took one more to let him know she had recorded all details and she knew he had seen her.

She turned back to the interior, bit her lip. Linc folded the paper and picked up his wallet, stood and stuffed it in a back pocket.

“Ready?” Linc asked her. He looked fresh and calm, a smile easy on his face.

Lucinda got up and they left.

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The next day when they roamed the streets, it was cloudy, not so much cooler as variable. This was cause for celebration and Lucinda brought her better camera, started taking photos as soon as they walked. The differing light was much more interesting, gave more depth to things, allowed colors to vibrate which full-on sunshine did not. What looked flat and unappealing to her yesterday was fascinating today. She hummed as she shot.

“Nothing can be that interesting here. Wait until we get to the river. I’ve work to do on my PC so you’ll be on your own.”

Linc stayed close as they walked. He knew that something had again awakened her in the night, had heard her footsteps on the ancient wood floors, felt her anxiety permeate darkness and float down the hall to his room. He’d sat up, listening but she closed her bedroom door and that was that. It was a change for them both, yes, but a good one. They had spent many glorious summers here before the family had moved too far away. If only she would remember. He desperately wanted her to remember life when she felt secure and right with the world.

“Good,” she said, then snapped a picture of him before he settled his visor on his blond head. He looked abashed in photos if he was unprepared. When readied, he might be called dashing as well as a confident businessman. He put his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t shrug it off for a block.

They were passing the coffee shop. Lucinda saw the hat man again and kept on walking. The same daisies were vivid against a grayed interior. She wanted to put them in one big clear vase and shoot them against the shadows and a few lounging people, a soft blur behind them. Life in East Canyon, a long summer breeze, the caption would say.

The man stood. Lucinda sped up. Was he tracking her daily movements? Did he know where they lived?

“Wait up!” Linc hurried after her.

“To the river!” she commanded. She didn’t want to look over her shoulder but she did. She couldn’t tell if the man was watching her or not. Then he waved, and his gold watch flashed like a signal. Lucinda held her breath but another man ran across the street to join him. She felt her chest and throat loosen. Stinging air pressed into her lungs.

The legendary river was deep, steel-blue and broad. It always had scared her but in a way that moved her, filled her with wonder. This was one river that could carry people all the way to the ocean. She wasn’t the sort of swimmer that ever made a team, but she was still drawn to water. Linc settled on a picnic table under the shade of a large tree, water bottle in hand. He put his sunglasses back on after following her path a moment.

She’d worn a swim suit under her jean shorts and t-shirt but she didn’t plan to take the clothes off. Linc had encouraged her, even wore his old swim trunks with a polo shirt just in case. It made her laugh. He preferred sleek boats in water, his body dry. He was at his best languishing with a drink in his hand as he glided along.

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The waterfront was filling up with people. Windsurfers and kiteboarders zig-zagged the Columbia’s choppy waters. Kayakers and paddle boarders maneuvered away from land. Her camera was busy as she edged forward, focusing, framing, zooming in and out, finding scenes that spoke to her. In time her heart quieted, her hands steadied, the views cooperated with her eye and everything slowed. The clamorous sounds of life diminished as her brain engaged and instincts were given full rein. She was at ease. Peace stirred and filled her like a dream that carried her body and soul. If only she could feel this way every minute of every day. Her eyes focused on the distant mountain peaks, their gradations of browns and greens, the intricate textures.

And then she stepped off a ridge of land she had been following that meandered beside the river.

It was a fast descent but before she hit water she threw the camera back to land. She felt the magnet of gravity as she entered the massive volume of liquid, held her breath as feet and legs and trunk and head submerged. It wasn’t as dark there as she expected, but bright blue-green to silvered teal, then darker blue. Eyelids stunned, they fluttered, defenseless against thickening murk. Her lungs wanted to expand but she could not let that happen so she pushed out and down with her hands, kicked her feet as hard as she could against the current. The river’s will was so strong. She imagined this was like Eden where everything started, and she opened her mouth a little to it. Thought of mermaids and fishes and snakes and bugs, how they adored this place that held their life and death. This river was legendary, victorious in beauty and strength. But Lucinda had failed to overcome and her own beauty–had she not obscured it well? did the night enrage him? had he been taught to hate?–had been erased.

Why here and now? Why this river? After she had found things to love a little again. Photographs, of all things. And her grandfather had adored his grandchildren. Surely he wouldn’t lead her to such a finale, not after an already monstrous end to her happiness. That assault on all her hope, the taking of her power, the leaching of her small but only life: she had been perfect prey to a predator who got away as she was cycling to school one jewel-toned spring evening. One suspended span of time. Things shattered. Most pieces still seemed lost.

She thought these things but without words, without the meddling mind of the living but with the soul of the nearly dying. She knew what she knew and grasped for more. The river flowed and brought her with a starry sense of everything. She was drifting toward sleep. Things were different under the surface, in this netherworld of other kingdoms. Nothing…hurt.

Breathe, Lucinda heard from the depths, a flickering echo in her head. Breathe even when you think you have no breath left. You can live through anything. She breathed a tiny breath, enough that it tasted of mud, plant life, a strange pureness. She saw emerald, indigo and gold, a deep bowl of golden light held by hands of lightning in the waters of life. Lucinda breathed a whole breath, and it was well and good.

There was yanking and screaming as she was grabbed, pulled, pushed until her weight was gathered up and placed upon the earth. Her chest pummelled, air propelled into her. She tried to slip back.

“Luce! Luuuce! Open your eyes, breathe, breathe, breathe damnit!” he screamed.

Linc called; Lucinda returned.

She felt the river cruising in her veins. It slid up her throat as she hacked and coughed. She felt it clothing her, then falling away from her. Leaving her gently, her flesh so cold beyond the warmth, so soft yet like stone.

Lucinda opened her eyes and through the blur she could make out Linc’s scrunched face and behind him, the man with the broad-rimmed hat. He altered the view, was like a hole in the shining sky.

“Luce, this man, Al, he found you! We were talking about our work and things and we saw you go down so we ran and he spotted you in the water, Luce, he got you out. Can you hear me? Luce, I could have lost you!”

The sirens blotted out his voice, then more faces and hands but Lucinda felt the gurney sway like the river, holding her, lifting her higher. The sun was like a dancing flower, sweet, vivid. She reached out, found Linc.

“What?” he said. “What, Luce?”

“I know how to breathe underwater,” she whispered.

“No, Luce, no, you nearly drowned.”

“Linc.” She felt the blanket snugged around her, the blood pressure cuff pulled tight. “I breathed underwater. I’ll be okay now. Grandpa said so.”

They took her then. Linc climbed in bedside her, put her camera safely into one of her hands, held the other in his. He peered out the door windows for that man, for Al. Linc had to get his number, thank him, meet up with him, introduce him to Luce. They pulled away while Linc looked and looked. But he was not there, nor anywhere. His hat sailed over the river, gone.

 

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Hat’s Haven, the Banks of Burnt River

From Top of the Lake
From Top of the Lake

 

All I could think of was No, no, no. Who wouldn’t, unless they weren’t in their right good minds? It was our family place, our hand-hewn cabin enjoyed for decades of summers and week-ends, and now, recently, for me full-time. And Grandpa Hat wouldn’t be okay with the plan. But Jenks rarely listened to me despite my being ten months, fifteen days older. Anymore, I felt like a doorstop on his way in or out–I was there to make sure the way was clear for him and also to keep good air in or sweep bad air out, depending on his mood. He’d disagree but what does he know?

“I’ve got these buddies from work, “he said, “you know, the guys who like to ride with me on week-ends. I’m bringing them out for my birthday, so can you disappear for a couple days?”

I was holding the phone with one hand and scrubbing the porch with another. I’d let slip a whole plate of spaghetti when he called. I hated the wide planked pine boards to soak up any more stains.

“Not a chance, ” I muttered, phone pinned against my shoulder. “Marilew is coming over early Saturday with her son. You guys will be snoring away, hung-over and incapacitated until after least mid-afternoon. Try next week-end. Your birthday isn’t until Tuesday, anyway.”

“Tamson Louise, we’re coming. I’m turning thirty and I want to celebrate there!”

“I don’t even like your friends, Jenkins Harper.”

Jenks started talking to someone else. I could hear heavy machinery and people shouting. My brother was crew boss for a construction company. I was impressed with his success but not enough to feel generous.

“Sorry–I’m working, Tam, but don’t think I didn’t hear that. We’ll be up there by around seven. How about you and Marilew hang out at her place? We’ll be gone by tomorrow night.”

He’d told me, I heard him and that was that.

“Don’t dare bring any girls,” I shouted over the background noise.

Jenks laughed. I like his laugh. It leaps up from an easy place and usually makes me feel better. “Don’t worry. Five fools will be enough for one week-end.”

“And me, that’s six because I’m not budging.” But he’d hung up. “But I’m no fool,” I said to Aster, my recent boarder, a stray grey cat who seemed done with travelling. She yawned and studied the river about one hundred feet from the cabin’s porch, or the bugs hovering over it.

My brother Jenks isn’t a bad guy, but he had trouble becoming what you’d call domesticated. He’s more settled since he’s worked steadily. It took a couple years to get himself on the right path after he got out of prison. It wasn’t so dangerous what he did, just ignorant, wild and ill-conceived, as Grandpa Hat kept saying, a robbery of the local gas station that went awry within the first couple minutes. Jenks was waiting in a getaway car and that was bad enough. Tom Harkins, owner of the station, had a heart attack when the two guys in tiger masks barged in, one with a loaded shotgun in hand. Tom about died on the spot, for six hundred dollars in the till. Jenks had an attack of conscience and called 911 as the other two took off, then were apprehended. It wasn’t the first time Jenks had done something stupid but he was seventeen. Tom decided to forgive him. The jury did not. Three years and two months later, Jenks got out, hitched a few rides and broke into our cabin. He waited for Grandpa Hat to come home from grocery shopping. That was a mistake.

Grandpa Hat comes by his name because he will not now or ever take off his fisherman’s hat in the company of others. He says he can’t fish or think without it on. It makes him look sweet-faced but he is not quite that. So when he arrived home and Jenks was dozing at the table, Grandpa Hat grabbed his fishing pole and hooked Jenks on the collar. When Jenks startled awake, Grandpa Hat reeled him in tight. He made certain Jenks knew he didn’t want to see him there until he’d made something decent of himself.

My brother did that but they’re still not on the easiest terms, so I consider telling my grandfather about the week-end plans. Even though Marilew would have me, it was point of principle. Last year I’d unofficially staked my claim to the cabin. He didn’t appreciate it at first but he wasn’t the one who took care of the place. My mom and I did. Mostly me. Grandpa Hat was staying in town due to worsening eyesight and gout. So I thought of the cabin as mine for the time being. I’d been the one to give it a name as a kid: Hat’s Haven. It was the one place I could stand to be alive, anymore.

By Friday evening I’d tidied things up even though I knew it would all be undone. I made a big kettle of beef stew because Jenks liked it. I had a card and a gift for later. I thought about telling our mother but, well, let’s just say she doesn’t have much room in her life for Jenks. He reminds her of my father.

They arrived at seven forty-five. I could hear them long before I even saw him front of the line, his Harley leading the way. It almost made me miss riding with him. Aster’s ears wiggled about, then she raced off the porch and up the big oak tree. I waved at him and thought there were just too many of them. Inside I set the table. He flung open the door and gave me a brief hug.

They lined up and sat down, a solid wall of men, the kind you’d expect on a construction crew, the kind you’d look for a trail of ill-begotten deeds behind them. I acted as if they were invited guests, because they were. My brother’s. He introduced everyone. I knew two, Walt and Cole. The new guys looked tougher, Lonnie and Mag. I hated to think what Mag was short for, but he beamed at me like I was a love goddess with my stew and clean cabin. He was the oldest, in his forties. Knees of his jeans all ripped out, had a graying goatee and mustache, grimy shoulder-length hair. I avoided eye contact. and tried to be tolerant.

“Hey, this is some crazy good stew. Did you kill the bear and potatoes yourself?” he asked, cackling. “You got magic in that pot–I’m under your spell, girl!”

Everyone agreed, though Jenks gave him a hard look.

“Tam, it’s lookin’ good here! Place has never been so shined up. Did you make all these new curtains?”

I smiled back at him. I’m a costume designer– was, that is, in another life. Jenks always praised me for my skills when I was a kid. He brought me old clothes I could redesign, interesting buttons he’d found at a flea market. A high school play he was in got me started on the road to success. He’d liked acting before he got in trouble, but after two roles he said things moved too slowly. Guess he thought he liked acting the thug better.

Walt and Cole had joined us for dinner out in the city once. Cole had acted interested but I was not, having just divorced. I still wasn’t but he was a friend of Jenks’ I liked, a carpenter who made furniture on the side.

After dinner, Jenks had me take a picture of the group. He was on the left, then Walt, Mag, Lonnie and on the other end, Cole. I couldn’t get them to smile; Jenks fully repressed one. He, Cole and Walt went to the shed to look at some fishing poles and to get camp chairs. I headed to the river with Aster, who had come back down. I looked back and saw Lonnie and Mag settling in with their beers and a deck of cards. Mag caught my eye; I turned, walked faster. I truly hoped they’d leave for the bar before long.

Burnt River was part of the beauty of Hat’s Haven. It had taken me into its beauty as a child. I’d sit on my haunches and cast stones or a fishing line into the black-blue water and daydream about horseback riding and fairy glens and our dog Henry talking to me. Or maybe he did. Jenks would creep up and push me in the water but I’d get him back. We’d grab a couple tubes and float in the sun’s golden heat. Once we built a raft from old two-by-fours and cracked inner tubes from the shed. We made it almost a half mile before we sank but what a ride! The world passed us by, a silky summer mirage. We swam ashore and doubled over with glee at our questionable triumph, then made a better one. Jenks and I did have our good years.

I now listened for Jenks’ voice, hidden by bushes and grasses, then stuck my toes, sandals and all, into the cool, dark water. In the distance, thunder. I wondered how it would feel if I went swimming in a rippling spring current in the rain and I leaned toward water’s edge, then stepped in, my jeans getting wet, toes mucky.

Then his hand latched onto my arm and pulled me back, tight to his belly. His other arm went around my waist.

“Well, well. What sort of sister does that Jenks have here, hid away from everyone?”

I pulled hard but his grasp was too much.

“Let me go, Mag. I’m enjoying the river, and want to be alone.”

He pressed into me, his breath sour and hot on my neck. His hands shot to my hips. I wasn’t surprised he’d followed but he moved so fast. I tried to yell but nothing came. Aster meowed twice from under some bush. The water was rushing past. Sunset cast a peach and tangerine hue behind the trees while my heart was thumping hard. I felt his thoughts and was terrified. Mag let loose a low cackle as his hands crept to my chest and groped, but then he jumped back.

“What the-? What are you, anyway?”

He had met that sweep of emptiness, my changed flesh, that place where my breast had been, now gone six months. The cancer gone with it, maybe, but percentages meant nothing to me after this second bout. My horror was followed by relief and nausea. I fell forward into Burnt River, let my body be taken into it, legs sinking, arms half-heartedly attempting to keep me afloat. Maybe best to let them fall and my body disappear into the strange and damaged night. To join angels or faeries, the great starry deep, the only sanctuary where bodies were no longer needed. Where I would be free. I sank through the shimmering surface, saw the sun hide beneath the rim of earth. Nothing but water knew me.

Shouts, arms, hands yanking me. Head to my chest. More people running and yelling, the sickening sounds of fists and feet meeting muscle and bone. Sharp cries. Aster, I thought irrelevantly, has surely left me. Not even a stray would stick around for this.

“Tams!” Jenks pulled me up out of the water and close to him. “Don’t worry, it’s okay. Tams, I’m so sorry, more sorry than I can say! Tamsie, do not leave this damned world without me! I’m here, I’m here now!”

He carried me into the cabin. The others left, their bikes an explosion of sound. All but Cole, who had seen us, then taken Mag down and put him out before Jenks might kill him. I changed my clothes and Cole put on the kettle. Jenks built a fire; though it was too warm for that my teeth were chattering. We sat in silence. I let the tears fall but refused comfort other than Jenks hand atop mine. Soon I fell asleep in Grandpa Hat’s rocking chair. The next morning they were on the floor covered with blankets, the fire cold. Cole brewed coffee, Jenks whipped up eggs. My gift was to him was two tickets to a play. Jenks made a fool of himself thanking me ten times. But I was glad.

Can I tell you everything was fine after that? I cannot. I can tell you that Jenks really came back home, in the right way, that night. That Cole has come around and we have floated the river and talked. That I have come to be at peace with it, the lost breast, and my lost belief in life happily ever after. You might think it a small thing that Aster left for good but I haven’t the courage to seek another creature. The summer was too hot and dry and Burnt River ran so shallow fish died, then it stormed and it rose to the porch steps and washed away the shed. Grandpa Hat finally lost his sight. We read to him and share jokes. But he never knew what happened. No one did but those who were there. It was bad enough, but I know what worse is and that wasn’t close. Not keeping on is, and one thing my family does is just keep on. So here we are: Burnt River running fast or slow by Hat’s Haven. Family, a few friends. Me, and the future as it comes to us.

 

 

Mosquito

jack-corn National archives Who she used to be
(Photo: Jack Corn, National Archives, Who She Used to Be)

It couldn’t hurt. It might help, in fact, taking time from her busy schedule to visit her family and those who’d cheered her on (some) from the start. And those (many) who hadn’t. She didn’t have to stay more than a day or so. Take the early flight from Miami. Archie would go with her for company. All she had to do was call her mother. Her dad was still alive, correct? She had a two week break; breaks were for spontaneity, good or bad. This was good, right?

Travis Beecher turned around, phone in hand, and looked out the twenty-first story window of his agency. He let his gaze rest on the azure sea. Well, more of a grey-blue today but he never let reality spoil his vision. He had money to make, places to go, stars to propel into the stratosphere.

“How about it? I got my finger on the pop pulse of America, and this is good: Galicia Havers Meets Mother After Ten Year Rift. We could show you two in the garden you always talk about. Iced tea so cold it beads up the ole Mason jars. Apples all shiny, green and red in a basket on the table. I should have been a set designer!”

He could hear her breathing. That was one thing he wished she would work on; there was a barely audible but distracting wheeze that came when she got nervous and stated to hyperventilate a little. But that was usually the worst of it. She was manageable. She was exquisite, a high demand model; she was on her way up as an actress. He hoped.

“Galicia? Have you left the premises? Are you entertaining royalty over there so I have to wait?”

He thought she should drop the Havers but she didn’t agree. She’d already changed her first name. What was she doing? Consulting her calendar again? This was free time more or less, why couldn’t she just say okay and book the flight? The calendar hung on her kitchen wall; she filled it in with different colored markers. Tacky!

“I might.”

“She speaks! Look, no one’s twisting your arm here. You had mentioned you finally wanted to call them so this is just a variation on the idea. We can route you through–”

Galicia’s voice was quieter and more distinct. “I’ll do it. I’ll call my mother and if she talks to me, I’ll take care of the plans. Archie can’t come. No pictures.”

“Now, wait.”

“No one cares about me and my family. I’m not that important. And even if I was, family life is off the record.”

Travis lit a cigarette and let it dangle between his lips. “Look, everything you do is an opportunity to promote, sell. You know that. Good story here.”

Silence. A little wheeze. He wanted to tell her to get a drink but held back.

“I’ll let you know if it works out. I have to go, Travis. Dinner with Mr. Darnell, the producer, remember?”

“Good, good. Call me later.” Travis brightened. He could see the sunlight wedge itself between two masses of cloud, making its way to his place.

Galicia went to her closet and walked around. Not turquoise, not chartreuse or peony, not the little tweedy dress. She fingered the dove gray silk shirt and charcoal ankle pants. Silk was so cool, easy on the skin. She grabbed the sleeve and crumpled it in her hand, then let go. Yes, elegant. She slipped it on with the pants, then checked her face a last time. Rose lips. It was what was expected; it was what she did. But even as she locked the apartment door, her childhood fell over her like a clinging breeze. She said a prayer for strength: Holding tight, Lord.

******

Her mother’s voice nearly squeaked. “Alice? No. Alice Sue? Is this some mean trick? Who is this?”

“It’s me, mom. I…I thought we might get together…I mean, if you had the time, if you wanted to, because I have a couple days and can come by. I want to see you. Dad, too.”

“Come by? You can stop by for lunch, is that it? Are you ordering out? Because I don’t cook for strangers unless they’re recommended by a trustworthy friend.”

Galicia swallowed hard. What could she expect? She knew it would be a mistake. “Alright, I get it, you don’t want to have a thing to do with me. We had a terrible time… so sorry to intrude!”

She was close to hanging up, should do it, forget any building of bridges. Too much lost, misunderstood. Time had made it worse, not better.

“You did not bother with your own brother’s funeral, Alice Sue. No words between us for nearly ten years. What now?”

“Nothing, mom. I know, I know…”

She put her phone on speaker, laid it on the table, then made a ponytail of her thick caramel colored mane. The balcony was heating up. She imagined her mother on her own shabby back porch in baggy shorts and sleeveless cotton shirt. Was she heavier or still a scarecrow? Was her father stooped, his six feet bent with work and cares? Were they happier since their ambitious daughter had stayed out of their lives? Did they see her on magazine covers? They took no money from her all this time. Maybe they saw her face but turned away, her mother angry and confused, father wondering how she lived with all the nonsense.

“So, what is it?”

Her mother’s question dove into the Miami sunshine and floated. The Missouri cicadas were so loud in the background that Galicia couldn’t make out what her father said. She recognized his voice, so deep it rumbled even when he sighed.

“Mom, I’m just going to come. If you won’t open your door, I’ll just leave. But I need to see you and dad and Molly.”

A clap of thunder raced across the miles and left Galicia trembling. The cicadas were insistent; they scared her after all this time. They might be warning her off. Or telling her to hurry up, she couldn’t be sure.

“Well, then,” her mother said, “bring ordinary clothes. Rent a regular car. I don’t want folks running over here making a fuss. And I don’t like the company of strangers so come alone. You’ll be enough to handle.”

******

It had always been that way, she thought, as she drove the three hours from the airport through the Ozarks, slowing at the familiar curve of road, looking down the dirt paths, noting trucks parked  in the shadows. She had been enough to handle. When other kids were minding their parents she was running off with Willy, chasing after small game. Building hideouts deep in the woods. Willy called her “Mosquito” the way she doggedly trailed him, pestered him. She hated dresses, preferring to wear the same old jeans in winter and plaid shorts in winter that Willy said looked like a boy’s, knowing full well they were his-hand-me-downs. Alice Sue was good in school but foolish and wild after, her father said, his hand raised over her more than once, then lowered as he turned away, half-smiling to himself, his wife scowling.

But then she grew up. Tall like him. Beautiful like…who? Some said it was a younger Aunt Marilyn–now disfigured by cancer–she took after but her father shrugged. Then looked away. Her mother told her it would come to no good; looks created problems and then fell away. It didn’t make sense, Willy said, to be gorgeous when she didn’t even want to brush her hair. He evaded her. No matter her pleading, he went off with friends, leaving her to her own devices. But, still, later they’d met by the campfire pit to catch up. Willy with his beer, her with a stolen cigarette. They conspired and laughed. He predicted great things for them both. Gotta get outta here, ‘Squito, he’d repeat solemnly and she’d nod.

When he died, she was in Shanghai on a shoot. She got word a day after the fact. Galicia wanted to attend the funeral yet the thought of seeing him empty of himself was terrifying. Her mother had said he looked like life had taken him and dropped him off a cliff. It was true, she knew. Because of the alcohol. So she didn’t go. Couldn’t. And that was the end of everything. She went on. They turned their backs.

Galicia pulled up to the row of houses. each turned inward, tired from standing up so long. She parked and saw how their roof sagged. She saw the hearty flowers and vegetables her mother had planted. The wash drying on the line. She heard a screen door slam shut but it was no one she knew, just a raggedy kid running by, giving her a wide-eyed look. She got out and too one step toward their porch, looking and listening. Did they know she was there? Where was Molly?

“Molly?” she called, her voice wavering a little. The beagle should be making a fuss by now, howling and running out to guard her territory. Would she know her like this, all clean and shiny and smelling of money?

“Oh, my.” Her mother stood at the top step in the dark cool of the porch roof. Arms folded hard against her chest. “Molly’s long gone.”

As Galicia came forward she caught a glimpse of someone, a girl about ten years old, hair unkempt, wary eyes piercing the sultry air, arms all brown and bug bitten. And then she was gone.

“Alice Sue…” Her mother cried out and stumbled down the steps, cropped hair so grey, arms thin as pins, her hands held out.

She ran to her mother and held her close.

“There’s our Mosquito,” her father said. He just leaned against the porch railing, his eyes like those of a man who has seen a strange sight and might never find the words to tell what it felt like. They were three of the four in one spot. He and his wife would finally sleep through the night. He knew Alice Sue might look like something the world owned, but only part of her, and not for good.

(Photo prompt from http://www.patriciaannmcnair.wordpress.com)