A Greyhound bus pulled to a stop outside the Rattlesnake Cafe same as any other Wednesday.
Heaved burly to a stop surfing the sounds of squealing air brakes as tires snap-popped gravel whence the titan came, turning left if headed East, right if headed West, careening at breakneck braking speeds, skipping off the swimming highway tar into the spacious traveler’s lot to dispel curious and bloated bladder passengers alike blinking and fanning from the confines of the wheeled coffin into the rickety clickity clacking polar schema air conditioned confines of the gift shop and café beyond.
Passengers one after another cautiously emerged from the creaking, swaying, ticking behemoth shielding their eyes from an unabashed sun. They shuffled and stumbled across the gritty terrain bound for the blue painted door set into the side of the beige complex that comprised the Rattlesnake Café, Confections, and Convenience Company. If denizens braving a brief reprieve from the confines of the bus bothered to stop and soak in their surroundings, they might note the gas pumps, lottery signs, and official US Postal Service billboard affixed to the sprawling complex’s weathered and pitted façade.
Last to emerge and not blinking excessively dropped from the second from top step of the bus dropped 95 pounds of eleven year old onto the worn down gum soles of his sneakers. He stretched arduously and yawned wider than he’d ever offered up to any tooth driller. He snapped his head forward and scrutinized his locale, noting the officious crest of the United States Postal Service, the four state of the art circa a couple decades before he’d arrived on the planet gas pumps and the curious sign over the convenience store wing of the sprawling rancher of a business venture that read “Lottery, Burgers, BBQ, Taxidermy, Rattlesnakes.”
He scratched his chin with the edge of his cuff and turned to see where the rest of his fellow passengers had trundled off too. He noted the blue door, the way the big pane of glass in the middle of it warbled and oscillated like an oasis on the horizon, and nodded appreciatively. He began to walk towards the blue door and noticed a sign that gave him a moment’s pause. A sign painted on metal that had faded in the sun, a sign likely most his fellow passengers had missed as you had to look above and away from the blue door to spot it. The sign read, “Live snakes on premises.”
Ninety-five pounds of exhilarated eleven year old ran for the blue door as swiftly as his road coach stiffened legs could carry him.
People inside squint and shield their eyes when the boy threw the blue door open wide, and someone thanks him from the back when he pulled the door quickly shut behind him as he entered.
“You’re welcome, Merle.” He said with a quick wave of his hand. During the past couple days he’d made a conscious effort to learn everyone’s name on the bus. The road west is a long one, and people welcome sincere company, people willing to take time to listen. Even if that someone happened to be several decades your junior.
“What’ll it be, kid?” A burly man wearing layers of white said from behind the long diner counter where many of the bus riders were perched sucking back treats and beverages like the next stop might well be Siberia.
“What’s the best way to see the live snakes on premises, please, sir?” The boy met the burly man’s gaze atop a smile. The boy noticed that all conversation in the place stopped when he asked his question.
The man nodded while handing a parched patron a chilled beverage with one hand and writing an order for the kitchen with the other. “Head towards the back, follow the wall. Don’t touch nothing.” He cocked his chin as he slapped a dish towel into a draped ready position over his shoulder. “Someone’ll be back there in a minute.”
“OK.” The boy said, already heading past fellow travelers towards the back of the venue. He nod and smiled and waved at folks he’d gotten to know on the long trip as he passed, not realizing he’d likely never see any of them again.
Past paneling peppered with past-due license plates, past printed landscapes sun bleached to blue, and past framed photographs autographed by formerly famous passer though. Past a right turn to the restrooms and the odors emanating from them.
Past a dented water fountain he’d have to stand on tiptoes to reach. Past a double wide stub of hallway that opened into another wing of the establishment, affording a peek at round racks dangling cheap swag beneath a sign boasting that these baubles were proudly “Made in America.” Past a double hinged door propped open with a milk keg that gave view into a busy, bustling, boiling over kitchen.
Down a narrow hall recessed far enough away from the plate glass front windows that only the feeble flickering of the fluorescents up above illuminated the path to the big blue metal fire door adorned with various stickers telling cautionary tales and a big diamond shaped sign that read “Beware of” in black text on a toxic yellow background above the silhouette of a yellow dog in the middle of a flat black field. Someone had sometime Scotch taped a cut out photo of a rattlesnake over the dog, not enough to obscure the dog, just enough to point out a more pressing threat.
The boy in sneakers approached the door, paused to regard the sign, and then leaned closer bending at the waist to listen at the door. After a beat he pressed his palm to the door and it swung open silently on well oiled hinges. The room behind the door flared brilliant white light that caused the boy to step back and cover his eyes for a moment. Squinting and blinking rapidly, he stepped on foot across the threshold as though testing for landmines, then leaned in through the doorway to look around.
Snakes. Dozens of them. Lots of rattlesnakes, but others as well and besides. Corn snakes, a diamond head, some type that was solid black with a red diamond on his forehead. Yellow ones, red ones, big ones, small ones, some alone, some in coiled councils. Some patterned, some plain, some overt, some reclusive and teasingly showing peeks of coils amid their glass tank dressings. Dozens of heads turned, dozens of tongues flicking and tasting for scents on the air. Pairs of eyes all turned to regard the boy, more glass black than not, tiny versions of the boy reflected on their curves.
The boy stepped fully into the room and glanced up at the massive skylight framed excerpt of the relentlessly clear blue sky above outside. More windows lined the back wall of the considerable room, and outside sat a myriad of machines painted with rust and residue like cows set to pasture in years past milking. The room held a pint size labyrinth of wood and metal shelving and racks housing dozens of glass tanks of various scales and heights, thread through by copper wire in rubber sheaths like Thailand vines bringing electricity to heat lamps and self-warming rocks and hydroponic misters made from hole punched plumbing PVC pipes. There were also cabinets, a couple countertops on wheels, and a gurney that looked better suited for a mad doctor’s laboratory. And there were plants, big plants, some tropical with leaves like elephant ears, and others bristling with spines, cacti of respectable magnitude.
The boy wiped fresh beaded sweat off the back of his neck with one hand while his eyes dart from tank to tank, fixture to fixture; all the while a smile spreading and pushing his cheeks apart, curling up more on one side enough to push the eye above into a squint.
The boy ventured a bit further into the room, shoved his hands into his pockets and walked slowly as though browsing the latest fashions in department store windows. He carefully aligned himself as centrally as possible between each row and counter and touched nothing. He leaned and peered with eyes wide open as he went, pausing occasionally to shift his shoulders and lean his head for better view into this tank and that.
“See any you like?” A soft, crisp voice asked from somewhere on the other side of where the boy had gotten too. Sort of voice you’d expect from a woman. A young woman with freckles and red hair, done up in braids so tight they pointed up like bull horns. The boy shuffled to the end of the corridor of snack tanks and peeked around the corner. He frowned when he saw no one and looked the other way.
“Want to pet one, little prince?” The boy spun and found himself staring into the eyes of a corn snake, biggest one the boy had ever seen. He leaned back, looked up from the snake following the arms of the person holding it, and found a short haired woman with glittery eyes smiling at him. He smiled and shrugged. “Well, you’re braver than most boys I know, didn’t run away or squeal or anything.’
The boy, looking intently at the woman, shrugged again. He put out his hands, open and palms up, held them chest height. His eyebrows went up to round out his eyes.
The woman made a sound, something soft and inward like wind chimes in the eye of a hurricane. The boy cocked his head to the side and shrank one eye. And then his eyes widened again as he found himself suddenly holding a squirming, sliding, slithering being heavy enough the boy had to splay his legs and bend his knees to keep from toppling over beneath the heft of the banded serpent.
“So.” The woman stood nearby, hands relaxed by not tucked into the pockets of her ratty camouflage shorts. “Now that you’re so well acquainted, want to name her?”
The boy stopped weaving beneath the course correcting corn snake to fix a look on the woman. “Name her?” He looked sideways and found the snake gazing at him nearly eye to eye. He watched as it nuzzled down against his neck. “It’s a her?”
“She’s a her. Yes.” The woman pointed with one finger over her shoulder, “Follow me so we can feed her before she gets too sleepy to eat.” The woman turned on a heel and walked away, leaving the boy to stagger and duck walk behind her slowly, carefully, arms and upper torso full of draped and settling snake.
The boy had barely come around the corner of the end of the aisle before a heavy weight were lifted from him by someone considerably taller, if a foot can be considered considerably. The woman adopted an archer’s pose and the snake travelled and swirled along from her aft arm and chest to her free arm to drape and drop down into the Official Feeding Tank, as the sign on the side of the tank declared.
“You may not want to watch this.” The woman said quietly and the boy’s eyes clenched shut. He heard a squeal, a thump, and cracked an eye open in time to see the rear and tail of a mouse disappearing into the corn snakes unexpectedly expanded maw, lips and jaws working around as though made by Rubbermaid.
The boy’s eyes popped fully open and he watched the mouse tail disappear, slip away into the abyss. The snake turned to regard him with something of a cartoon smile as she popped her jaws back into socket and the boy wheezed as his body remembered to start breathing again.
He appeared thoughtful for a spell. The woman busied herself nearby moving things around and clanking drawers and cupboards open and shut with reckless yet practiced abandon.
“Matisse.” He said. “I think that would be the perfect name for her. Matisse.” He said, trying it out as he gazed into the snake’s eyes, smiling. “Hi, Matisse. My I call you that?” The snake regarded him briefly, then curled into coils to begin the slow process of digestion.
The boy heard another soft squeak sound and snapped his head around to watch the red haired woman carefully pluck a Lassie patterned mouse from a massive, cozy looking rodent warren, a high rise affair heaped with levels, nests, and things to chew, climb, or run on. He’d missed the mouse multiplex earlier, as he’d only seen it from behind, a normal enough looking antique dresser or cupboard. From the front he could see the brilliant handiwork, shelves or drawers removed, wire mesh added, a habitat on par with any chicken coup or yuppie condominium complex. “Wow.” He intoned.
“Wow is right,” The woman said as she held the mouse up carefully, tail trapped between two fingers while she petted its head soothingly. “Pinkeye keeps adding more to that every week. It’ll need its own room soon.”
The mouse seemed to relax, sitting back on haunches and sniffing the air, letting her smooth its ears back gently. “They could chew through the sides of this if they wanted too. Their teeth are amazing. Never stop growing, did you know that?”
The boy shook his head. She didn’t seem to notice, “In fact, rodents have to keep chewing, or their own teeth will eventually get too big and kill them.” The boy looked surprised.
“I think Matisse is a fine name for our girl over there. Pretty as she is.” The woman pointed with her petting hand to the Official Feeding Tank. “Could you help Matisse return to her tank for me please, while I go get Oscar?”
The boy looked back and forth between the woman and the corn snake, now coiled casually across the killing floor. The corn snake named Matisse lift her head to regarded him with one small, liquid black eye, her extended throat disconcertingly lumpy a little ways down her neck from her smooth, banded head. “Just slowly lower your hand and arm into the tank, emphasis on slowly, that mouse was a bit of a runt.”
“And while we’re on the topic of names, my name is Pip. You can tell me yours whenever you feel comfortable enough with the idea of sharing it with a total stranger.” The woman stroked the soothed Lassie mouse and turned away, walking down the line of tanks, leaving the boy to his own devices.
With a boxer’s shoulder roll, the boy walked to the tank and none too slowly at all stuck his hand into the tank as though testing the temperature of pool water, turning his face away and rolling up eyes to regard the heavens beyond the expansive skylight. The snake uncoiled, stretched its neck to slide up along the back of the boy’s hand, tugging along lengths that it draped to and fro to climbed up his arm and settle across the breadth of his shoulders. The boy looked at the snake and the snake back at him before resting her head on his shoulder.
“Would appear,” Pip said as passed by, “that Matisse has taken a liking to you. That really is a pretty name.” The woman walked away and the boy began to smile. She looked back over her shoulder, “There really is no accounting for taste among snakes, you know.” The boy’s smile disappeared while the woman wind chimes of the apocalypse chuckled again. Matisse’s tongue flicked against the boys check and he jumped slightly and smiled.
The boy returned Matisse to her tank, affording her a conveyance bridge with his twiggy arm that she sluggishly transit along, coiling down like a scaled soft serve Sunday unto the bed of her tank. The weight of her forced him to grip the side of her tank with his free hand. She looked up at him peering in over the edge of her tank, flicked her tongue, and settled her head into her coils for slumber. “Sleep tight, Matisse.” The boy said softly, and noticing the screen leaning against the back of the tank, dragged it up and across the top of the tank as though a blanket over a toddler, gently and gingerly.
He turned to find Pip leaning on the end of the aisle. “You’re a natural at this kid. Want to help some more? Oscar’s got some appetite; need to feed him something bigger. Such a glutton, you know what I mean?”
The boy looked at her with his head cocked to the side for a moment, shook his head, then asked, “Is Oscar a rattlesnake?”
“Of course,” Said the woman. “What else would he be with a name like that?”
Pip turned out to be the daughter of the establishment’s owner’s sister. The burly man behind the counter that he’d talked too, Earl, turned out to be the owner’s wife’s brother. Earl largely ruled the domain of the short order style kitchen, peaking out through a dull chrome metal lipped slot in the tiled wall dividing the dining room from where the real action happened.
The Rattlesnake Cafe had served its final customer of the day and seen him on his way out the door, flipping the sign in the door window over to tell the universe the joint was not closed, and to stop by again soon, sorry for the inconvenience.
Appler, the owner of this here fine establishment, fed the boy a comp’d meal about an hour after folks realized the boy would be staying longer than expected, what with the Greyhound bus having turned and wheeled out of the expansive lot.
After comparing notes, Earl and Pip reckoned the bus left around about the same time the boy was trying not to lose a hand feeding a crotchety old rattlesnake a fat black and recently mallet thwacked rat. Oscar the behemoth old rattler with one black eye and one hot red one and a trailing pyramid of rattles nearly nine inches long. The boy would be seeing that snake in scary dreams for years, he suspected.
The boy’d received introductions to all of the mixed bag of family available to be present. As far as the boy could tell, the owner’s family tree had a lot of branches living nearby and about all of them had some sort of role keeping the place going.
“I could earn my keep,” the boy said addressing the subsequent war council assembled in the dining room of the establishment. “I can do chores and help out in the kitchen.”
“We’re not a halfway house for juvenal miscreants, kid.” Wynona, the owner’s wife, said between sips from her Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boy, resting her backside against the inside edge of the of the horseshoe shaped island countertop. She had a raspy voice with no malice in it.
“I think you mean delinquents, dear.” Appler amended while patting his wife’s ample arm from across the counter. Appler had bought the place from a fella for a song nearly thirty years ago, and he still prided himself on rolling up the washed cutlery in fresh napkins every night after closing to be ready for what travelers might stop by the following day. “And we really could use the extra hands around the place.”
“Don’t even think it,” Pinkeye said, huffing as he said it, as puffed up and self important as a typical county high school state finalist football team jock benchwarmer could manage. “Could I point out a few obvious issues?” He threw up a hand as others in the room tried to cut in and avoid a tirade. After everyone conceded, Pinkeye continued. “For one, the kid would be sweatshop labor.’
“We don’t make shoes.” Heckled one of the late teenage twin girls sitting in a both along the wall, not looking up from her phone. Molly or Anette, the boy wasn’t quite sure which, and fleetingly wondered if they got confused themselves sometimes. Pinkeye glared, and then continued.
“Further, this is a kid, meaning a juvenile.” Pinkeye pointed around the room as if about to solve a mystery. “He has guardians or parents out there somewhere probably beside themselves wondering where the hell…” A twin coughed mockingl . Pinkeye glared their way, then scowled apologetically his elder’s way, “Excuse me, sorry. I’ll pay the jar later.”
Pinkeye breathed, exhaling quickly and loudly. “Someone has got to be wondering where their precious boy has run off too.”
The room abound with murmurs, nods, and stage whispers.
The boy shook his head, spoke softly, forcing folks to lean in. “Not anyone that’d matter.” His eyes scrunched up tight. “The ones that matter.” Voice thinning into a hushed whisper that blew with gusts of tragedy. “They’re not here anymore. Automobile accident.”
The boy sighed shakily. “Drunk guy in a dump truck leaving some gravel pit. Didn’t see the red light. Didn’t see Mom and Dad. They were in a little green Toyota hatchback.”
He looked up. “I was Mamaw’s house watching TV with Tom and Shannon. They’re older ‘n me so they pick the shows, and it’s stuff my folks wouldn’t’ve let me watch, like reality shows and stuff, so I’m praying my folks run late. They did that a lot. Ran late. Except that night they didn’t show up at all.”
The room stood mute, that stunned silence of people visualizing an accident unfolding before their imaginations as though witnesses from the shoulder of some country crossroads.
Pip pushed herself away from the wall where she’d been leaning and moved closer to the boy, sat down next to him and put her arms around his shoulders. He stiffened for a moment, then relaxed, leaned against her side. “You don’t have to tell us all this right now, little man.” She said.
“No, ma’am.” He blinked up at her, “I want to get this out. I haven’t really talked about it before, y’know.” He looked around the room, eyes full of cow eyed cat painting pleading. “And I want to stay here. I like the snakes. Even Oscar.” He looked at Pip until she nodded.
He sniffed, wiped his nose on the back of a skinny wrist.
“It took the police a while to figure out who they were.” He gesticulated close to his chest, speaking faster as he rattled off details. “Then took them longer to figure out where I was since I wasn’t at home. Mamaw kept sending Randy, her oldest boy training to be a nurse over to my house to catch my parent when they got home and give them hell – ” He glanced at Pinkeye. “Heck on Mamaw’s behalf for not callin’. Randy ran into a sheriff and, what with Randy wearing his hospital scrubs, there was some confusion before the sheriff understood where I was.”
Pip hugged the boy reassuringly, then slapped the booth table with a flat hand, sound like a gunshot. The twins jumped and looked up from their phones, clearly annoyed, bangs in their narrowed eyes.
“I put this to a vote.” Pip said, passing her hand through the air to acknowledge everyone in the room.
“I don’t think this is a democracy.” Pinkeye said. Earl entered from the kitchen, swinging door squeaking in his wake.
“It is today, kid.” Earl said, tapping the butt of a pack of Winston cigarettes on the edge of an unoccupied booth. He bobbed his chin at Winona. “And don’t you start, I was headed outside with these.”
Winona grunt. “I ain’t said nothing.”
Earl tapped his temple. “I can hear your thoughts since we hopped out of the slop, sis.” He pointed at Pip. “Call the vote, squirt.”
Pip leaned in close to the boy, whispered in his ear. “You sure about this?” He nodded. She nodded back. “You better be real sure. We vote you in, that means we’re making you family.. A part of this.” She said the last part somewhat louder, enough to set a few heads nodding, cause a couple smirks. “A part of all this fine as there is.” The boy nodded again, more determined, bottom lip getting a bite, light catching in thin ribbons of tears starting to spill onto his high cheeks.
Pip gave his shoulders a squeeze and stood up in the booth, folding a leg to use her knee on the seat cushion, reminding the boy of how old time movie stars would pretend to be pirates, tying back a leg to hide it from the camera.
“Let’s vote on this, people, and get on with it. I have chores to finish.” She chuckled and stage whispered. “And so will you if this goes your way. You real sure? Last chance.” He nodded up at her. “Good enough for me.” She voice had a smile in it.
“Show of hands, folks.” Earl moved things along. “All for yea.” Pip and Earl both put a hand in the air. Pip nudged the boy, he looked around and stuck his hand up.
A beat passed. A tractor trailer roared by outside, oceans and lions as quick to roll in as roll on away. The twins put their hands up without looking away from their phones. A few cousins about the room whose names the boy couldn’t remember put their hands up, likely happy to have some help with whatever needed doing.
Pinkeye glared around, then his face softened. He chuckled. “If the cops come looking for some missing kid, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.” He lift his hand up shoulder height, as though to show the least commitment to a vote could be given.
Appler had a hand up, though kept his attention on rolling up cutlery, doing so one handed, definitely a practiced skill. Wynona took a swig from her beer, swirled the can as though it held a fine cabernet, arms crossed over her buxom filled flower print halter top, corners of her mouth turned down.
Earl chuckled. “Don’t be contrary, sis. You know he’s gonna be working for you more than anyone else here, at least until he’s old enough to’ve dropped half a pair.”
She made a soft, spitting sound. “He’ll be doing lessons, too.” The boy sat back, surprised. Wynona pointed the bottom of her can his way. “I won’t have some grape wither on the vine under this roof.”
“I’m not sure that’s so much a mixed metaphor as one shoved into a blender, but I agree with the sentiment.” Earl nodded. “How about you, Apple pie?”
Appler answered without looking away from his rolling, though dropped his voting hand to get better productivity going. “Makes sense. Divide up the lessons, make sure we grow a brain in him. Pip can teach him horses, too. Never too early to start.”
“There’s horses?” The boy whispered. Pip smiled and nodded. “Goats, rabbits, armadillos. All sorts of critters. Used to be a monkey too, the spider kind. Until a real spider bit him. Poor thing. Guess it was spider jealousy, or something.”
“OK, I’ll go along with this if he’s getting lessons.” Wynona sad, jutting a pinky finger up into the air. “Now can we shut up and get to finishing up here for the night. I still have diner to make back home.”
“Two questions first.” Earl said. “Where’s he gonna stay?”
“He can bunk with me.” Pip shrugged, began to tick of points on her fingers. “I have another bunk in the airstream, bathroom and water are hooked up finally thanks to Marshal.” She looked at the boy. “Wait’ll you meet him. He’s nuts.” She continued to fold down fingers. “And the air conditioner is working fine. Heater is broke, but I can get extra quilts from the barn office.”
Earl nodded. “Kay, that’s settled. Any objections?” No one had any. “Girls, you can put your hands down now.” The twins let their hands drop. “Last question. Now that we’re taking this boy in, maybe somebody ought to get around to asking him his name?”
The boy grinned, not quite sure how it’d never come up. He thought suddenly of that Love & Rockets song, everyone likes to hear their name, please call my name.
“Gatensbury.” He said. “It’s the street corner where my parents met. If I’d had a sibling they’d probably have gotten the other street name, which would’ve been weird having a brother or sister named Third.” He paused and looked at Pip. “My Mom was jogging and my Dad hit her on his bike.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “I suppose that’s sort of ironic how things turned out.” He pursed his lips for a moment, shrugged. “Anyway, it’s my name, though folks usually just call me Gat or Gat Berry.”
“Last name?” Appler asked, cutlery rolls finished, moving on to putting chairs on tables. Cousins and Pinkeye moved to assist. Twins continued to fetisize their communication devices.
“Wikham-Kalamalka.” The boy answered, hopping out of the booth to help set the chairs up on the tables. “My parents hyphenated.”
“I don’t think we talks about those sorts of things in polite company.” One of the twins said, holding a fist up without looking up. Her sister answered the fist bump and they waved their fingers like firework explosions.
Pip hopped out of the booth and caught up to Gat. “OK, well, looks like you’re family now.” She smiled and punched him in the arm. “And fresh meat gets to sweep!” She pointed towards the door to the supply closet and laughed windchimes and pinwheels dancing against blustery winds passing right on by, dazzling beams of sunshine cascading after, marching down the valley’s swells and rolls.
Along the hemline of the Table Rock State Park, off a round shoulder of Country Rd. 90 sits a truck stop diner, a long single story outpost on the shoreline of a lake of asphalt and gravel. The place wears a mane of green, leafy kudzu; a shaggy carpet crept in from the overgrown lot behind. As the creaking, buzzing, revolving three story marquee sign perched atop two stories of metal pole says, Pearl’s has been servicing farmers and log haulers appetites for food and gas since the New Deal and the TVA paved paths through the Smokeys.
As dawn begins to tickle the undersides of low slung clouds, locals drop heavily out of battered pickup trucks to crunch across the gravel lot towards hot coffee and hearty breakfast. Most of them have been up for hours, rousting, feeding, milking, and mending their way through the morning chores required of a working farm.
Latecomers claim the few remaining swivel stools along the bar and slide into vacant booths against the plate glass windows while Pearl delivers beaded glasses of ice water and pours hot coffee into mismatched mugs. The windows afford a view of the parking lot, gas pumps, a couple tractor trailers, an empty highway, fields beyond, and faded mountains in the distance through a stringy curtain of kudzu tendrils.
“The problem with that plant is what’s living in it.” Sal sets his cup on the counter with a dull clunk. “Snakes. Copperheads swum up from the creek. Diamondbacks in from the fields. Black snakes thrilling out from the barns. Rattlers stretching out from the caves to yawn in all the shade.”
Down the length of the counter, weathered men and women bob their heads knowingly.
“That damn plant is payback for us bombing Japan.” Jonah’s teeth flash through the underbrush of his beard, eyes peeking out from beneath the oil-stained brim of his John Deere hat. “Don’t care what the government claims. That weed didn’t show up to keep the hillsides from washing away; it was a little thank you miss me not from Tokyo. And it brought the snakes out with it.”
“Gotta walk ahead of your herd.” Marly pulls the plastic stir stick out of her coffee to poke the air. “Walk around poking the weeds with a stick and hollering up a fuss.” She resumes stirring swirls of cream into the black void of her coffee.
“Gotta wear boots up to your knees, too.” Sitting one stool down from Marly, Fern tilts her mug on its heel to inspect the residue of lipstick she discovered on the rim. “Thank the good lord those things can’t fly.” She wipes her finger against her lower lip and holds it next to the brim. The colour streaks match. She nods slightly. “Most days, I just get my boys to drive around with the tractor and flush ‘em out.” Fern chops the counter with the side of her hand. “Hoe works best after that.”
“Don’t want to be getting that close, myself,” Sal says, waving a fork defensively across the counter, fending off invisible snakes. Numerous chuckles ripple soft and low down the length of the space. Earl rubs one thick hand over the knotted shapes of his other, particularly that spot where the last knuckle of his thumb used to be.
Richard says, “Got the boy out there now trimming the bangs off the barn. Getting to be I need to put up signs to tell me where the ends of the property are. Can’t find the fences or that old outhouse –“
“I remember sitting in that thing once and making the mistake of looking up.” Jonah acts out the scene, looks up, his eyes go wide. “Black Widows nesting up there by the dozens, every one of them looking at me like I’m some big, juicy fly.” He snorts. “Talk about a scare; I damn near didn’t have a constitutional again for a week.”
Richard chuckles. “I’m betting the spiders can’t even find the outhouse these days. My back lot is overgrown, every bit of it.” He takes a swig of coffee and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “That stuff comes creeping in overnight, tapping the windows to say hello when you wake up come morning.”
A plate of food lands on a paper mat in front of Sal. Pan fried meat, buttered toast, cheese grits, pair of eggs sunny side up. “Thanks, Pearl. Looks like the new kid ain’t breaking the yolks no more.”
Pearl grunts as she fetches more plates of food from the ledge. “Just don’t let him near the deep fryer. Kid could burn water.” Plates delivered, Pearl pours refills for farmers and truckers before pausing to help seat a Mother and her toddler son, a sleepy, clingy boy wearing a pull-up diaper and a Sesame Street tee.
The diner fills with the sounds of breakfasts getting delivered and consumed until open-mouthed chewing gives way to fresh conversations, some louder than others.
“I gotta get somebody to clear off the roof and the back lot,” Pearl says as she catches her breath and leans on the counter. “Another week people will see my sign up there from the road and wonder why it’s pointing to a bush.”
“My boy could do it for ya, Pearl,” Richard says as he swabs egg yolk up with his last corner of toast.
“I appreciate the offer, Richard. Don’t have a lot of extra money, though.” Pearl slaps the register next to her. “Times is tough all over.”
“Nah, Pearl.” Richard pops the soggy corner of toast into his mouth, speaks around it. “You just give him a couple of those pies to bring back, call it even.”
Pearl rearranges the smears on the lenses of her glasses with the corner of her apron. “Sounds like a plan, Richard. Tell him there’s tools in the shed, if he doesn’t want to drag his own over.”
“You mean your middle one, don’t you Richard?” Sal asks.
“Of course,” Richard says. “My youngest doesn’t want anything to do with this life, how we live it. Come of age, he won’t be able to hop a bus to the city fast enough.” He pushes his plate away; the paper mat goes with it. “Go to work up in some glass tower making more things the world doesn’t need.”
“Have to say, I’ll miss having him around to fix my computer when it goes on the fritz,” Jonah says, drumming his fingertips on the counter. Fern and Marly both nod agreement.
“Like when my mail all went missing that one time,” Fern says.
“If you wouldn’t click on every link people send you,” Marly says, causing a few laughs. “I mean, complete strangers you’ve never heard of send you something out of the blue.” Marly pokes Fern’s shoulder. “Didn’t strike you the least bit odd?”
“That’s getting noted in the old log, Marly,” Fern says, smile creasing up into a wink, tapping her temple with a yellowed nail. “Making fun of Fern has repercussions.”
“Send him around about noon, Richard,” Pearl says as she collects plates from the counter and dispenses them into a big grey plastic tub. “I’ll feed your boy lunch and show him what needs to be cut back and cleared.”
“Not going to be hard to spot; just go find the big lump where the truck stop should be and start cutting.” Jonah snips the air with two fingers. “Don’t stop snipping until you find a diner!”
“Then cut a little more just in case,” Sal says.
“And tell ‘im to watch for snakes,” Marly says. “They can climb, you know. Don’t want one of those things dropping on your head.”
Richard slugs back the last of his coffee and squeaks sideways to rise up off the swivelling stool. “He’ll be by, Pearl, soon as he’s done his chores.”
“Thanks kindly, Richard. Howdy to Neta for me.” Pearl hefts the bin of dishes with a grunt and hauls them towards the kitchen for a trip through the washing machine. “Hey doll!” she yells as she crosses the threshold into the kitchen, “How about some help here?”
“Heard the Woodmans got some goats to roam their property to help trim back all that kudzu,” Sal says as he holds the heavy diner door open for others to pass. “Couple meat goats from a cousin in Chattanooga. And a bunch of Nubians from Frank’s place.”
“Right,” Jonah says as he slaps bills on the counter and turns towards the door. “I remember Ben complaining about how many kids he ended up with.” Chuckles follow Jonah out into the parking lot.
Through the open door sounds roll into the diner of work boots on gravel, of heavy doors squeaking open, of suspensions settling under added weight, of a couple engines turning over.
“Betty told ol’ Ben he had to have one sort of kids or another to live on a farm.” Sal waves as Marly and Fern slip out.
Richard plucks his coat from the stand back by the restrooms. “He’s gonna have a hell of a time trying to milk all those things.”
“Pearl told me her oldest makes tea with it to stay off the bottle.” Sal grimaces. “Can’t imagine how foul that concoction must taste.”
“I’ve heard stranger.” Richard chuckles.
Richard walks back up the aisle toward the door, passing the Mother feeding bite-sized bits of food to her toddler as he does laps back and forth around the vinyl bench of the corner booth.
“Mornin’, ma’am,” Richard says, touching the tattered brim of his mesh-backed cap. “You got much road left ahead of you?”
The Mother looks up with tired eyes, nods, and musters an appreciative smile. “A little ways to go still, but I think we’re pretty close.”
“Lots of pretty countryside to see out here,” Richard says, nodding.
She nods. “Exactly what we needed. Life got so hectic for us in the city; we desperately needed a change of scenery. And he’s so busy; we had to get out of that condo.”
The farmer nods, casts the kid a wink. “I have three myself, two boys and a girl. Different as night and day. They’re a handful, but I wouldn’t trade ‘em for the world.”
“I bet.” She shovels up a bit of hash browns and aims it towards her son’s mouth. The boy opens up for the food without looking up from the paper mat he’s fervently wearing down a crayon on, creating broad stroke maps of cosmic orbits. “It’ll be interesting to see how he chooses to turn out. He’s like a sponge right now, so full of questions.” She grins. “And opinions.”
“It’s hard to tell when they’re so young.” Richard shrugs on his coat and begins buttoning up. “One of mine is a dreamer, my youngest loves computers, and my oldest, my daughter.” He waves towards the windows of the diner. “She’d be happy to see that damn plant covering everything. Pardon my French.”
“He’s heard worse,” she says with a smile. Richard chuckles and nods, turns on a well-worn boot heel and saunters out of the diner, clapping Sal on the shoulder as Sal lets the diner’s door swing shut behind them. The rising sun outside casts shadows of kudzu vines across the scuffed wooden floor.
The Mother spears a bit of omelette camouflaging spinach and pokes the air in front of her son’s face. “Alright, son.” She lets the fork bob to and fro, trying to distract him from his crazy course. “How about something healthy for a change?”
I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night.
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light.
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long.
I never heard the melody until I needed the song.
- Tom Waits, San Diego Serenade
The dewy sunlight plays across the leaves way Grandma’s knuckles plied dough. Every wrinkle a story waiting to tell for simply a passing ear half to listen. Every crease a superstition eye roll garnering while the breeze bullies clouds around, and late hours commandeering strict obedience by the howl of a glowing moon.
The sunshine turns the tumbling, drifting pollen thick through the lively air into haloed fairies, campfire sparks, and metal grinder showers, whirling and flitting with unsettled currents.
Golden light a lazy syrup drips down the toppled country lane riddled with shitty potholes as though plucked from slide guitar strings by fingers stretching while turning over mid afternoon nap. There’s still moisture under the remnants of leaves left over from past fall, winter hasn’t trudged grumbling all that far away, after all.
Sitting pretty as a picture on a stump of a rollaway rock, soles anchoring shoes pointed to the bushy, dappled, shaggy summer growth above, fingerprinting the hot asphalt with the well rounded stumps of her once boot worthy heels.
Mouth full of jawbreaker paragraphs not yet sure how to crumble or spit aside. Hands rubbed and still feeling numb, glittering tree tuft fairies flying or not, might as well be Alaska. Had once heard that was coldest place to be shy of insanity. Barely feel much at all. Considering, maybe, maybe no surprise.
Looking about and wondering if them freckles still dot her cheeks. She strains to catch her reflection in her footwear and concedes that allowances for buff shining to appease vanity were scuffed away long ago. Sighs soundlessly as though asking a deaf audience for attention. Only the grasshoppers and katydids bother to pass through offering unsolicited suggestions, yes and.
She touches her face and finds her fingers passing right on through. She shrugs and wonders if she’s cellophane, see through, a wisp of fancy. Sure, she can see her own self, what self respecting ghost would go blind to themselves after all the adventures they’d seen themselves through?
She’s distracted, and resists another trail head, so many mental distractions flitting past as she becomes combobulated, becomes one with herself, quite literally, though admittedly kindred too the feeling one has returning home to a crowded city flat after spending a week or three contemplating career changes, or abandonment, on some tropical shore hours before the next luau, smell of the roast pig starting to waft up the sandy beach like a swishing grass skirt across the thighs of a dancer making waves.
She spots a snail trucking along and shifts her foot away from its projected path. She says a few warm greetings and salutations, hears nothing, and supposes ghosts must get annoyed most with the silence of themselves.
“Strap in,” she mouths, leaning her face down close to the chocolate coloured shell banded with honey hued gold, puddle of invertebrate meat hauling it’s home and refuge along, trailer park invertebrate, eyes confidently out on vigilant stalks. She waved and wished the thing safe travels up that long and windy road. Rolling snail collects no moss. “You take care, fella. Watch out for salty puddles.” She tinks suddenly of crying, of tears. In the rain. She turns her face up to the sun and tries to let some optimism soak in.
The sunlight is scattershot leaf filtered. She doesn’t care, squinting int into the glowing patterns shifting leaves make. She’s been away a long time. Out of play, not even warming a bench. Or yelling at referees from the stands. Absent for all these days, weeks, months, years, and now, on her first appearance back on the far side of forever after, here she sits trying to talk to a wandering snail. The Snail Whisperer. She fleetingly considered slapping through a knee while silently barking an appreciative snort for the improbability of her entire circumstance.
“Hold on, fella, if you’re not going anywhere fast, I’ve some things I’d love to get off my chest.” He mouth moves without making a sound, yet she sees the snail as a salient spectator to her situation. Maybe a mouth reader as well. She decides to tell the snail a mixed medley, little bits of everything, and a whole lot of nothing at all. Her brain is a scramble, she realizes, and wonders if some impromptu improvisation may well shake loose enough information to inform for her some immediate best course of action. Take things as they come, let the words fall out, all the jawbreakers and jellybeans, turn them to dust on the asphalt and let those willows weep.
No one else happens to hear a thing, not a single utterance, nary a peep. Not at this juncture. Many chapters later, the reader, that being you, will learn some of the secrets she shared with her invertebrate acquaintance. What a high school biology textbook page might caption an illustration with the words terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc. Fancy words for forming minds.
She shares snippets and snapshots of recollection without context, feeling out with her gut’s gumption what happenings might be worth confessing to a passerby snail. Most involved insights about USO club politics, followed by a fairly exhaustive account of a particular, peculiar raccoon named Hank Crawford the Third. Once was kept as a pet after a harrowing rescue from a fox trap, moved on to thrill children and adults alike as a amicable amusement in the family den who would dance for treats and let special children he liked scratch him behind his ears. Hank’s story has a sad ending. The pot bellied rascal come down with an unfortunate case of taxidermy after an ill advised and rather sordid evening out in the backyard chicken coop. Thereafter the children stopped bringing him treats in the den, he moved from a featured spot on the mantle over the wide stone fireplace, deposed by a massive rainbow trout, not the sort that could sing, relegated to a top of a dusty bookcase where spiders wove tapestries from his fur.
She sighed, stood, and wavered as though her brain had gone starved for oxygen. She steadied herself with Al Jolson hands and let her grin form and go lopsided. Most peculiar beginnings often rolled downhill into utterly ridiculous if and thens. She delighted with the prospects of unexpected thens. She did the jerk and wiggle to shake some proverbial lead out, fanning her hands and popping her jaw, rolling her eyes and shoulders about, patting her sides and seeing that her satchel still hung securely from a strap slung diagonally across her chest. In it she hoped all her most treasured things still snuggled. She dared not yet check, for fear of what might be missing. Not every bauble can make the journey through the sort of curtains she’d crossed through.
She looked left and let her eyes drive up the road far as they could see. Perhaps I can jump up for a better view? Could be a ghostly super power. She tried, went up about a foot and a half, landed unremarkably, maybe sank a couple inches into the roadside dirt without disturbing a single thing, soon settling right back where her clod hoppers had started off from.
She shrugged and gave the road to her right a review. Either way the road warbled through long, hunched shouldered trees with shaggy bangs feeding out of the soggy trough of the runoff ditches that lined the shoulders of the craggy asphalt, thick barked titans defining the property lines of grazing fields.
She looked around, spun a full twirl, soon finding no one that seemed inclined to speak to her beyond the unsolicited suggestions the insects were barraging her with.
“Look, not sharing the rat, let’s get that straight right now.”
“I”m not a rat.”
“I’m a field mouse. You really don’t have to squeeze that hard, you know.”
She flapped a hand through her forehead trying to adjust a hat out of habit, discovering then that her customary lid had gone absentee. She shade her hand with her hand instead, squinting across the road into the one area she’d really not given much through to, preoccupied as she’d been with what rolled off down the lane to the left and right of her.
Looking straight ahead, she spied an old tomcat sitting on one of the jutting stones of a mortar-less rock retaining wall, about four feet up from the lip of the ditch, the edge of a property that overlooked the road, a lawn gone to seed ages ago, wild with weeds and wondrous sprays of untamed flowers. Tiny butterflies, bees, and June bugs flit about the vegetation, while here and there massive grasshoppers fanned their wings in spots of bleach bright sunlight. Beyond the yard sat a worse for wear country house, sagging and off kilter, neglected and crowned with a large arm from a tree that looked split by Paul Bunyan’s ax, perhaps by a lightning strike, though she couldn’t see any black scorch marks, just a lot of still very bushy, thriving leaves intermingled with ivy and kudzu vines competing across much of the building’s roof, eaves, and gutters. Tendrils winding down the posts and along the banisters of the wrap around porch. Heaps of moss grew up the clapboards of the shady side of the house, the cool side that the sun never quite reached.
She looked both ways quickly. The road failed to manifest another soul. She crossed quickly on rubbery legs, bouncing as she bustled, steps landing on something infirm, as though bounding across the top of a giant marshmallow. She stood at the lip of a stubby wooden bridge made from railroad ties that crossed the ditch to kiss the foot of the flagstone steps and wrought iron ornamental gate set into the stone retaining wall. She peered up at the cat and his catch of the day, a rat or field mouse. She could only see a swishing tail dangling like a bait worm from up over the massive blue cat’s jutting, caterpillar stubbly jaw.
“Look, I mean no offence.” A tiny voice pleaded from inside the cat’s mouth. “But if you intend to have me for lunch, I’d appreciate you’re getting on with it.” The rodent’s tail curled into an indignant point and jabbed at one of the cat’s eyes, a pearled blue eye from cataract or war wound, she couldn’t tell.
“Maybe you’re doing me a favor.” The tiny voice squeaked with a gallows humor to his tone. “That wife of mine used to roost in a Catholic household. You get my meaning? Not rest for the wicked, am I right?”
The cat chuckled, and the tail disappeared, punctuating a loud gulp. “Chatty rat. Where you headed, red?”
She floats on her hands on her hips, chin up to regard the big blue tomcat. Shrugs. “Can you hear me?”
“Hear you?” The cat licks his wide chest tufts noisily. “You haven’t shut up since you got here.” Squints his good eye as he sneezes. “Poor snail is probably traumatized. Who’s your writer, Emile Zola?”
She doesn’t answer, looking past the cat, eyeing the door set back into the depths of the shady, overgrown porch like the brow heavy eye of a boxer about to take a dive. She feels drawn, pulled, called. She points with finger, palm up. “This your haunt, cat?”
He looks back over his shoulder dexterous as an owl. “One of many, longer than most.” He switchblade flicked out a claw and licked the inside of the curve clean. “Lady there, kept the cream saucer perpetually wet, know what I’m sayin’.”
“Not an inkling,” She said. “Do you mind?” She asked the cat as she reached a hand towards the latch on the gate.
“Be my guest.” The cat said, and yawned wide towards the heavens with all the bored majesty he could muster.
“Much obliged.” She said, and creaked open the gate. She made her way up the flagstone steps that lead up to an overgrown path through wild jungle of a lawn, floating her palms flat over the bristling fronds swaying in the sun kissed yard, seemingly intent upon ushering her towards the sagging wooden porch gone grey from sun, neglect, and sadness she felt as the corners of her mouth fell.
“Had a feeling you’d want a look around.” Cat huffed himself up, coughed, hacked up a hairball wrapped field mouse. Said over his shoulder as he rose up and sauntered after the girl. “Been a hoot, buddy.”
The wet, blinking field mouse sat sullied on a stone and wondered which end of dead he’d emerged into. He heard the cat and sighed. “Yeah, thanks cat. Same time next week?”
The cat didn’t answer as it followed after the red haired girl, stopping just before the bottom step up onto the porch to sit on his haunches, head cocked to the side, favoring her with his one good eye.
She stepped across the porch, her footfalls silent, and knocked on the door. Her hand passed through. She focused and knocked again, this time hearing a dull thud, not as louds as she’d have expected, or wanted, but something anyway. No one answered. She turned to look at the cat sitting proper on the path in the yard. “Is anyone home?” She walked to the outside edge of the porch and strained to look out at the massive tree branch cradled in a section of collapsed roof. “Or has the place been abandoned?”
“Matter of perspective, ain’t it, red?” The cat yawned, showing a blue tongue and four key massive needle saber teeth, one of them broken off, tip missing. “Sort of both, sort of none at all.” He licked the back of a wrist. “Have a gander, doubt it’s locked. Who throws a bolt way out in these parts?” The cat affected a pronounced southern drawl as he said the last part. She considered for a moment that her not finding a talking cat strange of itself a testament to her experiences during her time away. Though at the moment she’d feel hard pressed to tell anyone anything about where she’d been, what she’d seen or done. So much of her mind felt wrapped up in a fog, and trying to steer a row boat into that dank mist made her feel uneasy.
She shook her head and turned back to the house to try the door. She carefully, with eyebrow knitting focus placed her thumb upon an old metal lever, wrapped her fingers around the rung beneath, and pulled. The level stubbornly dropped and she pulled. Creaks and squeals protested her efforts as she slowly coaxed the door ajar enough to potentially squeeze through.
She called out again into the darkness beyond the door. Dust and stale aromas replied. Smells of a big old house left dormant far too long. She looked back at the cat. “So what now, cat?”
“I’m not your spirit animal, lady.” The cat locked eyes on a passing squirrel coming around the base of a maple tree on the edge of the yard. The squirrel squeaked and shot up and around the tree’s lean trunk. The cat flattened his ears, squinting. “I have things to do. Go in. Stay out. Don’t care.”
She said, “Oh. OK. Well, then I”ll just be along my way then.”
She stepped down the cranky stairs and walked past the cat. She watched as the cat looked back and forth from her to the house and back again, its chin dropping, frowning, good eye glistening wetly.
“See, I knew it. You do care.”
“Do not.” The cat sniffled. Wiped it’s face across it’s forearm.
“OK, cat, I’ll go in.” She smiled, leaned down, and deftly tussled his ears before he could think to jerk away. “Since you seem so concerned about it.”
He snarled and hissed with halfhearted effort and mimed a swipe after her ankles as she bounced back up onto the porch and ducked into the house, turning sideways to get through the narrow gap. He sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his furry blue wrist. “Hope you go upstairs.”
He rolled to his feet and turned to walk back towards the road. He spot the field mouse still wiping off cat fur and other unpleasantness at the top of the stairs to the road. The mouse saw the cat and froze mid-swipe.
“Go home to those thousand kids already, Morty.” The cat growled low. “I need some space to think a think.”
The mouse waved and vaulted away down the flagstone steps towards the road, slimy fur glowing golden in the afternoon sun.
The cat settled in a patch of sunlight, casts a glance over his fur shagged shoulder at the house with his one good, gold sharded eye, then drops his head heavily on his forearms and huffs, hoping for a deep, buzz saw burring slumber. He finds he can’t get his cadaver milky pearl eye to close. He squints his brow try try to force the thing closed, not the first time this has happened. No luck. He sighs heavily, gets up on his feet and pads towards the house. Clearly he needs to keep an eye on that strange young woman with the fiery shock of red hair.
Kin followed Benny up the steps onto the double decker bus. Benny swept up, rounded the first row of seats and into the aisle, dropped his chin like a bull focused on a daisy and pushed his way towards the back of the bus. His girth sent kids scrambling to get clear. Kin followed after him, mouthing apologies as she rubbernecked all of the other children along for the voyage. The “field trip down memory lane” as the cherry cheeked official had called it. Most kids seemed roughly her age, a couple passingly familiar faces mingling with a seething horde of new ones. A small world maybe, but not that small of a town, these kids had come from all over. She felt she’d probably never see most of them again, not unless someone organized an anniversary reunion or something.
Benny led Kin into a thicket of mostly older, largely louder kids near the back of the bus. She heard singing and spied expensive shoes dangling down from the well hole at the top of the spiral staircase leading to the upper deck of the bus. She felt a passing pang of contempt at the sight of those pretty little shoes; kicks a far cry from the scuffed, hand me down, steel toed work boots she wore, leather worn away from the tips of the toes, scratched metal glaring up people’s skirts.
She shook her head slightly and scolded herself for rich kid envy, a resentment shored up by suddenly convenient blue-collar working class pride. Too preoccupied with classist associations, Kin nearly fell flat for the people when Benny grabbed her arm to drag her into an empty bench row.
“Don’t let those brats bug you, hey?” Kin turned to find a kid with huge eyes beneath a considerable jutting forehead sporting twin fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows. “Names Wooly.” He splay his hands to either side of his face like a blossoming flower. “Any guess why?”
Kin tried not to laugh, coughed up an embarrassed giggle like a hairball.
A red headed girl next to Wooly held up her hand to press pause on a conversation with a girl sitting knock kneed across the aisle. She turned her hand into a fist and punched Wooly in the shoulder. “Stop flirting, Wooly. Doubt she’s into worms.” Their school uniforms matched, Kin noticed, much nicer than her coveralls.
Wooly shrugged, showed his palms to heaven, and jiggled his brows comedically. “Sisters.” He said. “Just wait ‘til I turn into a pretty little butterfly.” He chortled a practiced cackle.
Wooly’s sister sighed for the cheap seats and returned to her conversation with her school mate. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the world and all, but I have to go find some old lady’s dolls? Seriously? Like, as if. She’s so old, I bet she’s ashes before we even get wherever we’re going.”
Her friend nodded emphatically, chalk full of commiseration. “I’m supposed to find some old guy’s toupee. Do you know what that is? I didn’t either. It’s fake hair.” The girls “ewwwwed,” collectively. “I know, right? I mean, I get that old people like lived a long time and need respect and all, but seriously, more’s the merrier.” She waved and looked back over a shoulder for good dramatic measure.
“I don’t think that is what that expression means.” Said a tall, gentle faced reed with the blackest skin Kin had ever seen. The owner of those peepers met Kin’s gaze and she realized she’d begun to stare at the boy and tried her feeblest to look away.
“You look surprised to be here.” He said. “What’s your name?”
Kin forced a smile that didn’t fit her face. “Kin. And I am. A bit.”
“You didn’t think you’d get picked, did you?” His eyes seemed bottomless. She wanted to throw pennies and make wishes. He swept a long hand around to indicate the kids heaving around them. “Neither did most of these guys. Am I right?”
“You already know it, Teddy.” Said one chubby kid from a couple rows away. “This seething sorrowful suck has seriously sequestered us.” He grinned, front teeth missing. “How about that alliteration?”
“You’re lisp sold it.” Wolly’s sister said, twin thumbs up before a sarcastic smile full of teeth.
“I didn’t see him drop any trash.” Benny said loudly from beside Kin, causing some kids to jump. Not Kin. She’d had nearly a lifetime’s indoctrination to Benny. His volume. His inability to comprehend the basics of human social etiquette. His frequently inadequate grasp of the obvious. His radiant heart twelve sizes too big. His hugs tight enough to crack ribs.
“He means starting all of his words with the same sound.” Kin answered softly.
“Oh.” Benny nodded, not appearing convinced even a little bit.
“Not Teddy any more, my friend. It’s Susan B. Anthony on this trip.” The tall kid smiled and Kin smiled along with him while completely not sure why. “And don’t a one of you make fun of poor Susan’s name here, ok?”
Laughter and raised pinkies filled the air.
“How many times you gone, um, Susan?” Wooly asked, bouncing on his knees, prompting his sister to ground him with a restraining hand on his shoulder.
Susan shrugged and appeared to count silently, lips moving slightly. “What, five, no, six. This’ll make seven.” He grinned. “One more and I gets a badge.”
“What? They have badges?” A curly head popped up next to the chubby kid. “I want a badge.”
“He’s having ya on, numb brain.” The chubby kid said, shoulder checking his neighbor. “You’re only supposed to go one time.”
Susan held up a finger, tapped the top of his shoulder. “Unless you’re staff.”
“And you have to be legal to be staff.” Said a blonde girl from the row behind Kin.
“Right.” Susan nodded. “Do I look legal to you?” A few kids laughed, others looked uncomfortable, including Kin. “Oh yeah, they love us assignees as kids, let us be the ones go out and see the world. But go and get grown up, options get real limited all the sudden.” He jutted his chin, “So me, I figure, why not make the most of this and get myself on the bus every year I can get away with it?”
Susan put his hand straight up in the air, his fingers nearly brushed the ceiling. “Show of hands, how many kids here assignees?”
Kin looked around, tense as though smelling scandal afoot. A couple tentative hands went up first, back in the back of the bus, more followed. Wolly’s sister and her friend nodded to each other and threw theirs up as though leading cheers for a sports team. She elbowed Wooly and his hand went up shyly. Kin felt Susan looking her way and dutifully put her hand up. Soon the latter half of the bus had become a forest of raised hands, every youth representing but one. Benny.
Benny looked at Kin, brow furrowed, cheeks flushing. Kin pat his thigh and smiled. “It’s ok, Benny. Just makes you special.”
“I’m not special.” He said quietly. “I’m just like everybody else.” He threw his hand up defiantly. Kin hazard a glance at Susan. He caught her look and nodded slightly. Benny isn’t an assignee, he’s real born, and Kin decided Susan probably now knew.
“How’d you do it, Susan?” Wooly asked. “How do you get to go so many times?”
Other than the faint sing songs drifting down from upstairs, the back third of the long bus fell strangely silent as people let their hands drop, a forest felled.
Susan looked around and ducked his head a bit, waving for folks to lean in. “It’s pretty easy when people don’t want their children to do it. There is always someone like me to stand in, and far as I can tell, no one seems to care long as the old folks get what they asked for, or something like it, or something you tell ‘em they asked for since most of ‘em can’t remember what they asked for anyway.”
Kin squint, considering the idea of substitutes. Susan saw her do it. He winked atop a smirk. Takes a long face to pull that much expression off successfully. Kin smiled.
Benny broke the silence. “I signed us up.” He beamed, his eyes disappearing behind the swell of his cheeks. He wrapped an arm around Kin and squeezed a gasp out of her. “And the lady gave me an ice cream.”
Susan nodded. At least, Kin believed he had, her vision had begun to swim. She still didn’t understand how Benny got picked, regardless of being coerced to sign up. Real borns never got picked. Of course, most reals weren’t shortchanged like Benny, either.
“I thought I’d get away with writing someone else in.” Said the blonde in the row behind Kin and Benny. “But I think she wrote me in, too.” She threw her hands up. “What a brat.”
“My parents entered my name.” A small boy said from across the aisle from Kin and Benny. “My sister did it before and they insisted I do it too.”
“Wait, I thought I recognized you.” Wooly said. “You’re Bardi’s little assignee brother? I knew your sister from school. My Mom fixed your arm once, remember? You used to fall down stairs a lot or something.”
The small boy nodded without looking up.
“Yeah, I heard what happened.” Wooly said, swatting away his sister’s attempt to cover his mouth. “Your sister Bardi went to get some old guy’s dancing shoes. What was it? Tag dancing or gap prancing, I can’t remember.”
“Tap dancing.” The boy said.
“Right, tap dancing, whatever that is.” Wooly paused to repel a fresh attack from his sister. She grunt and crossed the aisle to squeeze in with her friend. “So she goes into this big room, huge.” He flings his hands out to convey the scale of the space.
“A dance studio.” The small boy says so softly Kin suspects only she heard. She and Susan. One glance and she could tell that he hears everything. She peeked to confirm and found Susan looking her way. She pulled the front of her coveralls forward to hide her washboard chest, self conscience.
“Yeah, so his sister goes in there to get the shoes, and she sees all these mirrors, like the walls have floor to ceiling mirrors all the way around. And there’s these racks of shoes. Dancing shoes. She must’ve found some that fit her. Then she found some kind of music machine that she can crank up a tune on.”
Kin can see that all other nearby conversations have ceased. Young faces are peering down from the upper deck to listen in. Wooly has his hands up as though shilling snake oil. “And this girl is dancing, she has the music going and she’s twirling around like crazy.”
Wooly pauses and looks squarely at Shae for a moment. Lowers his voice. “When she spins out into the middle of the room, the floor breaks.”
Wooly slaps the back of his bench seat, causing most around him to jump, and at least one snooper from upstairs to gong their head on the lip of the stairwell. “She drops five stories, nothing to catch her but a parking garage.”
“I hear a fall like that, she didn’t feel a thing.” The chubby kid added assuringly, nodding deeply.
Kin felt an urge to cross the aisle and hug the small boy as she watched his shoulders start to go up and down, top of his head bobbing, cowlick hair swaying limply off his crown, tears working their way down his flushed cheeks.
Susan waved Wooly off, eyes slits that caused Wolly to duck out of sight. Susan leaned forward over the back of the boy’s seat to poke the small boy’s shoulder gently with a long finger. The boy shied away from the touch, chin tucked into his sternum.
“How old are you, little man?” Susan asked, voice soft.
Sniffling. “Seven.” The boy said without looking up.
“Nah, man.” Susan softened the a sound in man, turned it into mon. “You younger than that. Still got that adorable baby lisp.”
Susan rubbed the small child gently on the back, soothing. Shae’s shoulders stopped bobbing. “What’s your name again, little man?”
“OK, Shae, my little brother from another mother, how old you be, really?”
“Five.” Shae said softly. Kin’s eyelids flared.
“Oh man.” Susan ran his hand over his head.
Wooly popped back up, tall on his knees. “You’re five? Five?” He practically shouted the number. “They signed you up and lied about your age?” Wooly emphasized the “and” for full dramatic effect. “Whoa, you’re parents must really have a hate on for you.”
“They’re not my parents.” Shae said.
Shae is up and out of his seat before anyone can react. Up and headed for the front of the bus, straight into the crotch of a blonde woman with government authority swag like an out of control rash spread across the expanse of her pocket laden jacket. She adeptly catches Shae like she’s defending a goal, leans over and begins to shush the child with hushed tones. Everyone stares silently until she looks up and frantically waves at them all to go on with their business, eyes hard.
New conversations erupt around the bus. Beside Kin, Benny looks from the woman with Shae to Kin and back again, cheeks going red. Kin puts a hand on his arm and tells hims to breath slow, everything is all right. She knows the signs. Benny needs to stay calm, bus isn’t even moving yet.
Kin watches the woman console Shae. Console and effectively guarantee he doesn’t leave the bus. Kin feels eyes on her and glances over her shoulder, finds Susan’s gaze levelled on her. He doesn’t smile as his eyes turn towards Benny. Benny, who seems intent on counting down from chaos. Kin looked at Benny, then back to Susan.
“He’s quite a fella, isn’t he?” Susan’s flash of thin smile felt forced to Kin. “He maybe wrote you in to watch out for him. He’s on your dime then, kid. You’re responsibility. No take backs now.”
Susan’s smile vanished and he rolled around in his seat to look out the window. No matter how many times Kin glanced his way, Susan didn’t turn back until the bus lurched forward and rolled off the tarmac to join the progression of vehicles headed up the highway towards a destination far outside the city limits.
Soon after the government woman ushered Shae up the aisle. His face looked blotchy from crying, eyes swollen and red. Susan perked up and put up a hand and elbowed the kid next to him off the bench. The woman nodded and coaxed Shae onto the bench next to Susan. Susan leaned down and whispered something into Shae’s ear. Soon he had the boy sitting up taller, not long after laughing about something Susans had said. Kin watched them and suddenly felt that these were people she wanted to continue to know. Not just today on the bus, but after, once they all returned home.
She thought of Wooly’s story and frowned. If they all returned home.
At some point one of the crew put on music. Kin had never heard anything like the warbling guitars and pining voices bleeding from the speakers set into the walls of the wobbling, creaking cabin. Every tune became an instant classic to Kin, tamping mile markers into the journey as her rocking soul rolled along gathering no moss.
She watched the world pass by through a thick window, wondering how much of the distorted landscape came from grime on the glass versus the weight of time’s passage. Small houses reclaimed by nature, consumed, twisted trees jutting up from collapsed barns, glimpses of husks of mysterious and massive buildings when the road had high enough ground or the rolling shoulders sagged.
“When are we gonna be there, Kin?” Benny said from beside her.
“Soon, I think.” Kin said, shrugging. “Did you bring any books?” She looked at his face. “No, course you didn’t. Want me to read to you?”
“No, thank you for the offer, but I think I’m too excited to pay attention and I know how much repeating yourself makes you mad, Kin.”
“Benny, I… ” Kin stared at the side of her friend’s face. Around them kids chat or drowsed, head bobbing in time with the bumps of the road.
“I think we’re close, Kin. I think we must be.” Benny said, eyes showing far too much wet white in the gloom.
“Oh, we’re definitely close.” Susan said from his bench where he and Shae were playing a variation of Go Fish that involved Rock Paper Scissors whenever a player contested a response. A quick study, Shae had learned to contest every reply and always play Scissors.
“I heard one of the loaders saying this jaunt would be going nine hours deep.” Susan shrugged. “We’ve been rolling over eight so we must be close.”
“You’ve done this before.” Kin said. “Six times? Really?”
Susan began to deal. “This really is my sixth time.” He looked at Shae. “How many is that?” Shae held up double scissors. “Close, but you’re a couple fingers short, little man.” He pried the boy’s thumbs out. “There you go, that’s six.”
“Do you even submit an application?” Kin drew her feet up onto the bench and rest arms on her knees, leaning back against Benny’s cushy girth.
“Susan’s folks did.” He smiled. “I accepted on her behalf.” He plucked a scrap of paper from his jacket pocket and held it up. “Easy order to fill, couple extra things for her parents.” He lift his voice a bit to get Beny’s attention. “Hey big handsome, what’d you get asked to get?”
Benny looked surprised to be spoken too, fleeting glee too swiftly melting into sadness. “The nice lady I talked to said she wanted me to find her lost dog. She showed me pictures and everything, even gave me one, want to see it?” He began to root through his pockets.
“I told Benny that maybe we could find a stuffed animal or something. I mean, dogs just don’t live that long.” Kin said. “Do they?”
“Honestly,” Susan scratched his chin. “I’m pretty sure the only thing close to a dog to make it out there now is descended from wolves or coyotes, and even those seem few and far between.”
“So definitely not this then?” Benny held up a tiny, crisscross creased photo of a fuzzy ball with eyes and teeth.
Susan whistled. “I don’t think that was ever a dog. She’s right, find something fuzzy and put a couple googly eyes on it, lady’ll never know the difference.”
Susan pointed at Shae. “They took him to the same dude his sister’d talked too. Same request, tap shoes.” He scowled. “No offense, little guy, but more I hear about them, more you’re people starting to get on my last nerve.”
Shae nodded and held a card up for Susan to see, not fully getting the part about asking for a particular card. Susan shook his head and Shae readied his scissors.
Kin said, “That’s not a happy mission.”
Susan shrugged. “Forget them. We’re going to look for cool stuff and even if we stumble across some tap shoes, we’re not getting them. I mean, we aren’t even going to the same place his sister went. Those jerks didn’t even go see the old woman the kid was assigned to see, just dragged him back to that old dance teacher.”
“Wow.” Kin shook her head. “Technically I didn’t see the right person, either.” She pointed to the picture Benny still had out, squinting at it in the gloom. “He’s holding the dog I’d have been sent to fetch. We saw the man he was supposed to talk to and I could tell Benny wouldn’t get along with him.”
Benny put the picture away. “I didn’t like him. Something bad with him.” He hugged himself and shuddered, jostling Kin bouncing enough to nearly tumble her off the bench. “He scared me.”
“Benny doesn’t really trust anyone that reminds him of his grandfather.” Kin pat Benny over her shoulder, mostly to get him to stop moving. He settled. “Understandably, that guy scared milk sour.” Kin shrugged. “So we traded and he got the dog lady. I got a nice, soft spoken old man looking for something from his childhood.”
“They all want something from their childhood.” Susan said. “They’re the only ones with memories predating life as how we happen to know it.”
“True, just that he is easily ten to twenty years older than most of the elderly in that place.” Kin paused to let that sink in.
“So?” Susan said.
Kin shrugged. “He told me all about his childhood, about being passed back and forth every week between parents that couldn’t stand each other. People that didn’t want to own up to the child they’d brought into the world. So whenever they wanted to express their fondness, or to bribe him for his, they bought him toys, games, whatever he asked for or they heard boys his age might like.”
“Spoiled him rotten. Now he wants it all back?” Susan asked.
Kin shook her head. “No, exactly the opposite.”
She recalled listening to the old man with the vast, jutting eyebrows set blazing by the sunlight falling through the tall, narrow slit of his residence window. “He wants me to try to find a plastic case of little plastic figures that has within it the only toys he got from his parents while they were all together. Still happy.”
Susan nodded, lips pursed.
Kin continued. “His parents started out poor and could only afford to get him a couple little toys each year, one from them and another from some fictional character that snuck into people’s homes on some winter holiday.”
“Santa, baby.” Susan said. “You’re going to learn a lot about history on this trip.”
Susan let Shae win another hand and conceded another card that didn’t match anything Shae had. “Let me guess. His parents got money into their lives, maybe just one of them did, and presto the wonderful family picture is destroyed, love all leaked out of their lives.”
Kin nodded, thinking of her Nana. Of the ruined birthday dinner. Of that officious rap at the door that came because Benny fell for an ice cream bribe.
“Been there, done that.” Susan said. “Parents, man, overrated. Am I right?” He held out a hand to Shae. Shae looked at him with his head cocked sideways for a moment. Susan took Shae’s hand and guided it over to gently slap his open palm. Shae nodded, grinned, and exclaimed, “Again!”
Outside more and thicker clusters of buildings and houses began to dot the sides of the road. The front end of the bus got busy as the adult crew roused and began prepping for arrival. Kin could hear muffled instructions being given to the kids upstairs.
“Other than me, none of you guys have done this before, right?” Susan’s voice drew the attention of most kids in the last third of the bus. A couple sleepy heads dangled down from upstairs, fists rubbing eyes clear.
Susan pointed out the windows, at the remnants of houses, schools, and playgrounds passing by. “Let me be the first to warn you that what you see out there won’t line up with the sticky pudding your kindly administrative bodies have been shilling you, and you’re going to need to be ok with that.”
Susan surveyed meaningfully. Shea looked ready to size up a horse. Benny looked out the window, the waterbed of him warm against Kin’s back.
“And there’s some procedure about clouds.” Susan shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure why, but if you see a bunch of clouds coming in like it’s going to rain, pack up and head back to the bus.” He scanned the crowd. “Again, I don’t know why, but I’ve heard of buses leaving kids behind because heaven started dumping rain on ‘em.”
Kin started to laugh, then stopped when Susan glared at her. He shook his head sharply. She nodded, looked out the window and felt great relief seeing clear skies stretching out past the horizon.
“And you all have cards, right? Plastic with a shape on them.” Susan paused as kids began looking around themselves, patting pockets and opening backpacks. Kin watched kids find their cards as she tapped her own zipped safely inside her breast pocket with notes from the old man about where he’d lived as a teen on alternate weeks.
“Do not lose those cards.” Susan sounded like a parent. “Those get you a ride home.” Susan smiled. “Ideally they match up with a particular transport, but I’ve hopped the wrong bus home using my charm and the card I happened to have.” His smile disappeared. “I do know they’ll leave you behind if you don’t have one. Do not test this advice.”
An adult marched towards them up the aisle, issuing instructions and stipulations. Never once mentioning the clouds, or the cards. Kids looked back and forth from Susan to the adult. Susan stood and pushed Shae out into the aisle, ducked around the adult and beat the rush to the front. Kin saw Susan waving at the blonde woman that’d previously caught Shae, then lost sight of them as kids began to spill out into the aisles.
Impatient riders swarmed towards the front as the bus rocked to a halt among several other busses and an industrial collage of flatbeds, forklifts, cherry pickers, dump trucks, and a myriad of cargo trucks. Kin followed Benny through the press, scouring the crowd for Susan and Shea.
Outside Kin spot Susan talking to the blonde government woman that had earlier caught runaway Shae. A lot of words were shooting back and forth while both seemed concerned with keeping an over over their shoulders. The blonde woman’s face shifted from annoyed to concerned to exhausted to relieved. Susan easily stood a full head taller than the adult, and Kin wondered if Shae wasn’t the only kid on the bus lying about their age.
Susan plucked Shae up from the bustling crowd and hoist the child up onto his long bow shoulders. Kin watched Susan hold something up for the woman to inspect. Cards. Same kind Susan had recently given cautionary advice about to the kids at the back of the bus.
As she watched, the woman looked around, then took one of the two cards from Susan and dug a replacement card from one of her many pockets. Susan had a huge smile as he took the card. Soon as the plastic left her fingers, the blonde woman disappeared, scurried away, disappeared into the seething crowd. Kin didn’t understand. Return tickets, so what? Why trade?
Susan spot Kin and Benny and waved. Shae joined in. Beside Kin, Benny waved back, face disappearing behind a massive smile.
Once back together, Kin asked, “What do these cards mean?” She held up hers. “Really?”
Susan looked at her card, then said. “Looks like it means we’re sharing a ride home together.” Kin waited for more, Susan gave nothing else.
“Does the black diamond means something specifically?” She asked.
“Mine has a diamond on it, too.” Benny added helpfully.
Susan pat Benny’s shoulder. “Means we’re cohorts now. Let’s go find somebody can tell us where our destination is.” He pointed towards where other kids were grouping into packs, holding their cards up for adults to scrutinize. He elbowed Kin, pointed with his chin. “Black diamond means we aren’t with any of them. Giving a five year old a black diamond card is about as stupid as trying to stop a train with your forehead.” Susan frowned. “Black diamond means unchaperoned.”
Kin shook her head, at a loss for words. She glanced at Benny. Fifteen going on five.
As they wormed through the flash mob, Kin noticed some adults near an open truck were shrugging on vests and armor, others unloading weapons from crates. She poked Susan and pointed, he frowned and shook his head, pulled her along.
The first adult slow and unaccompanied enough to accost gave them directions to a group of scavengers near the farthest forward and likely first on scene massive vehicle. A burly, armored beast that might once have been several separate vehicles unnaturally conjoined into a segmented monstrosity. Wooden wedges locked it in place where it sat near the mouth of a bridge arching over open water into the heart of downtown. It wobbled on it’s shocks as people moved around inside.
Susan spot someone he knew and let out a war cry.
“Davenport, my man! You uglier than I remember.” Susan warmly displayed a lot of teeth.
A brick wall of a man looked up from his backpack, eyes surprised, delighted. He stood, closed distance, and Swept up Susan into a brotherly hug, taking Shae along incidentally.
“Group hug!” Shae announced loudly.
Davenport stepped back. “Teddy, man, I wondered if you’d make it this year.”
“It’s Susan now.”
“How many names have you had, man?”
“Teddy, Bootsy, Rosie, Martin. Couple more before that.” Susan grinned. “Gotta keep things fresh, right?”
“Sensing a trend.”
“Nah, this girl was white.” Susan grinned.
“So was Teddy.”
“Teddy was a girl?” Susan looked confused. “Nevermind that, we have addresses here but no one gave us a map for where to go.”
“Right. So you come interrupt my work so I can be your tour guide.” Davenport smiled.
“It’s not like that, D.” Susan pointed at Shae. “Little man here needs coverage, and I got no where else better to be.”
Davenport seemed to have noticed Shae for the first time. “Holy. How old is he?”
“To young not to know any better. Show him your scissor skills, little man.” Shae held up his scissors like a champ. Beside Kin, Benny emulated the gesture. Kin gently palmed his arm down.
“They with you too?” Davenport pointed at Kin and Benny.
Susan nodded. “I tried to shake ‘em, but they were too good for me.”
Davenport snorted through flared nostrils. “Ok. Well. You.” He pointed at Susan. “You will have to keep an eye on all of them.” He pointed at Shae, Kin, and Benny.
“The boy and I’ll tag along with these two and keep ‘em out of trouble. Fine by you?” Susan said.
Davenport shrugged. “Totally fine by me. Safety in numbers.”
Davenport squint towards the western horizon where the ocean kissed infinity. “Look, we’re still at the staging ground and there’s clouds burying the horizon.” Davenport pointed to a bumpy bank of clouds furrowed on the distant edge of the ocean. “That’s not as far out as it looks. Wind is swift this end of the world.”
Susan nodded, no longer smiling. “Look, I don’t mean to impose, but could you do us a kindly and not roll off without us?”
“Yeah.” Davenport flipped his bag shut and shouldered it. “Long as you’re back here before those clouds. Let me see your addresses.”
Kin and Benny obliged, producing the survivors’ request chits and Benny’s dog photo. Susan nodded without showing anything, hands open. Davenport gave Susan a curious eye. Shae pointed finger scissors at Benny.
“Ok.” Davenport handed the papers back. “You need to go downtown, across the bridge. I’m headed that way.” He glanced west. “Let’s get on the bounce.”
Susan looked at the massive green suspension bridge, back at Davenport. “That bridge is pretty high up.”
“We’ve had goons humping back and forth for hours. It’s fine.” Davenport slapped Susan on the back. “Shouldn’t you’ve dropped a pair by now, Susan?”
Susan feigned indignation as the group began shuffling towards the bridge.
Across the bridge and through the woods to a merry downtown core we go. Davenport passed them off to other ruffnecks in his detachment, each steering in the right direction, ultimately delivering the group into a length of street lined with tenant houses down one side and stubby, wide office buildings up the other.
A buff woman wearing a massive tool belt emerged from one of the tenant houses and waved to them. The group scuttled over, Susan cradling a weary Shae against his shoulder.
“Got word a bunch of kids were on this side of the bridge.” She grinned and Kin marvelled at the number of the woman’s teeth were encased in shiny metal. “Davenport wants you bugged.”
The woman leaned towards each of them and attached a gizmo looking like a beetle with a button fused into it’s back. Kin winced as the thing’s legs clamped onto the fabric of her coveralls.
She attached Shae’s to the back of Shae’s puffy vest. Easier for Susan to grab, Kin supposed.
“Panic button?” Kin said, pulling the front of her coveralls out to get a better look at the device.
“Yup.” The woman replied. “Get into trouble, hit the button and hope one of us is still in the vicinity.” She smiled and sunlight glint off her metal teeth causing Kin to squint.
Benny pointed to the black streaks going up the facade of the office building across the street.
“Fire.” The woman said. “Might’ve been on purpose. Look in there through the windows, see the shapes?”
The group crossed the street and peered into gloom through a long ago shattered plate glass window.
“Sort of.” Kin said. “Lumpy and jaggy? Like branches.” Kin felt her stomach flipflop. The idea of seeing dead people somehow hadn’t occurred to her.
The woman studied Kin’s face. “Yeah, you got it.”
“Why would they burn the dead there? Like that?” Kin said, voice weak.
“Who said they were dead when the fire was put to them?” The woman’s shrugged. “And on that happy note, I have to go, those bags aren’t going to fill themselves.” She pointed to a row of rubberized mail sacks sitting by the curb. “I believe that’s your building. Get in and get out. If the floors feel springy, get out. If you feel shaking, get out. If stuff starts falling from the ceiling.”
“Get out.” Susan said. “We know the drill.”
“You got light sticks?” The woman asked.
Kin answered. “Yes.”
“Good.” She said. “Probably dark as the inside of a bat’s ass in there. Don’t be afraid to pop some windows open for more light.”
“OK.” Kin said as the woman nodded, showed them an enthusiastic thumbs up, collected her mail sacks, and head away up the street.
Benny cracked a light stick and headed straight into the building.
Kin shouted, “Wait for us, Benny.” Benny ignored her.
On the stoop of the building, Kin fished two light sticks from her thigh pocket and held them out to Shae as Susan set the boy on the ground. “Do you want these? I have extra.” Shae smiled and took the waxy sticks, began popping and shaking them to make them glow. Soon the sticks were nearly too bright to look at directly. He walked slowly into the building, crouched a bit like a ninja, slowly waving the light sticks before him as though warding off malicious spirits.
“That was good of you, sis.” Susan said. “Glad you packed extras.”
As she passed Susan and head into the building, she softly replied, “I didn’t. He needs them more than I do.”
Benny swiftly disappeared from sight into the darkness beyond the foyer. Kin could hear heavy footfalls bounding away, and began to smell the years of neglect.
“Slow down, Benny.” Kin yelled into the gloom. “Where’d you go?”
“Down here.” Benny sounded muffled, far away. “The floor is bouncy.” Joyous laughter.
“Benny, that’s a bad thing.” Susan said from behind Kin while Shae’s light sticks lit up the hallway ahead of them, albeit from a low angle source.
They hustled towards the sound of Benny’s voice, stepping carefully down the length of a hallway, dazzling harsh light carving shapes from the clutter lining the walls that Kin willed herself not to become unsettled by. “We need to stay together.”
“We are together. There’s no one else in this entire building.” More laughter, getting closer. “It’s our building now, when you think about it.” A gale of gleeful laughter, not afraid one iota. “We could all take turns being king. I’d demand pie for every meal.”
“Pie does kick cake’s ass.” Susan said. Kin laughed.
Benny appeared from a doorway just ahead of them, grinning wide and waving his hands about. “I don’t think I’d want to live here though. Smells like the inside of a rotten pumpkin.” Benny pinched his nose dramatically, making his voice sound strange. “The smell is no big deal once you get used to it. Just breathe shallow and enjoy.”
“Sounds like a sweet deal. Allow me to run away now.” Kin stepped around a mound of cardboard and what might’ve been book covers once, pointed at a doorway. “Can you make out the number on there?”
Benny squinted at the door. “Sixteen, I think.” Benny pointed to an open doorway on the other side of the hall. “That side doesn’t have a door. The floor in there is awesome. Want to try it?”
“No, thanks. I like this whole staying alive thing. Sort of my thing.” Kin squint up the hall. “We’re close then. We’re looking for twelve and eleven, they should be across the hall from one another. Guess the old man and the dog lady were neighbors in a previous life.”
Susan said, “We’ll take the next ones down, then, see if we can find something fun to bring back.” He led Shae to Benny, pausing and pointing into the room with the missing door. “The building is mostly concrete, but if that floor in there is bouncy, means it’s likely missing support and could cave in. Sorry to ruin your fun, big fella, but if you like living, stay out of there.”
Benny stuck his lower lip out for a moment and mumbled, “OK.” Kin worried he might act out but as soon as the thought formed in her head Benny brightened up and began reading numbers off doors further along the hallway. “Fourteen, Thirteen, no number on this one. Oh, I think it’s a stairwell.”
Benny walked with Kin up the hall towards the doors with twelve and eleven on them respectively. The doors were offset from one another, one door displaced by a utility closet. Benny found a metal mop handle in the closet and took to waving it around like a sword against the darkness, making Shae laugh and demand a sword as well, a request soon answered with a plunger.
Kin tried both doors. The door to unit eleven held fast while twelve swung open easily. “Your room is open, Benny, so let’s get that recovery done first.”
Benny nodded, “If there’s anything left to recover. Remember what the teacher said about open doors.”
“Right, open could mean left in a hurry, or could mean looted.” Kin looked into the unit for a moment, saw a short hallway that lead into a larger room, presumably a living room. “Only one way to find out.”
Susan stopped Kin with a hand on her shoulder before her foot crossed the threshold. He waved at Benny to hand over the metal mop handle. “Hallways have more support than rooms, or so I’ve been told. Guess cause the framing is closer together. Always take a pole to tap your way along and listen to the sound of the floor. The more hollow it sounds, the less supported it is. If it’s hollow, start making sure it’s still strong enough, and try to stick to the edges of the room, not go out into the middle.”
Kin saw Shae nodding solemnly next to Susan’s thigh. Shae flipped the plunger upside down and rapped the tip of the handle against the hallway floor. Kin took the metal mop handle from Susan and smiled. “Thanks.”
Susan shrugged. “You’re the one with the huge backpack. Be a shame if you went through the floor. This is the first floor but most city buildings had a couple floors underneath for parking their vehicles or basements for laundry. Either way, nasty hurt come from a fall like that.” Susan pointed at Benny. “And I know I can’t carry him out of here.”
Kin laughed and tapped her way into the apartment. Benny followed after, walking on tip toe.
Kin negotiated the length of the short hallway and began to cross the room. She did the step, test, wait, step technique, hugging the wall just in case, tapping the floor with the mop handle and listening to what the floor reported back.
She crossed the room to the curtains on the far side, gave them a tug. Instead of opening, the rod holding the curtains popped out of it’s anchors and Kin found herself engulfed with dank smelling fabric. She yelped as the curtains pulled her to the floor.
Benny helped untangle Kin from the curtains, their eyes blinking from the stark daylight flooding in through the big, grimy windows overlooking railroad tracks and concrete docks heaped with rusted shipping containers like the ones used for residences back home.
Susan yelled from the hall. “You all alright?”
“Just pulled down the curtains.” Kin said.
“Good. Did the same thing once with a shower curtain. Nearly pissed myself.” Susan replied. “We’re heading up to have a peek into nine and ten. Meet you up there when you’re done.”
“Let me know if you find a dog.” Benny called.
Susan laughed. “Right, you’ll be the first to know, big fella. Oh, and I popped the lock for you on Eleven. At a glance looks like it’s pristine in there.”
“Thanks.” Kin called, beginning to tap her way around the room to the cupboards. “Come on, Benny, let’s find something fuzzy to take back for your lady friend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” Benny deadpanned. They both erupted into giggles.
After collecting a few items, Kin sent Benny on to help Susan watch over Shea while she rooted through unit eleven.
She found clothing, jewellery, a creepy music box, nothing worth dropping into her bag. People didn’t like the idea of wearing items not directly connected to their own family history. Her Nana would be horrified if Kin showed up with a gift bag full of some dead woman’s jewelry, maybe even call Kin a grave robber. No sweet bread for a month. So Kin’s backpack still held slack empty until she entered the bedroom that had to have belonged to the old man as a boy. His descriptions were thorough to the point of confusion until Kin stood among his kingdom and suddenly understood. Context is certainly everything.
Glossy posters of spaceships and monsters may have faded over time, but if at all, not by much. Once Kin opened the curtains and blinds, she stood in a boy’s room filled with toys, papers with posters, and heaped with organized passions, just as the man had promised. Comic books, something Kin had seldom seen and never touched before, each sealed inside a plastic bag with a white card insert to keep the comic book flat.
Toys still in their packages hung on pegs along the top of the walls, a few had fallen over time. Plastic castles made of tiny bricks with tiny plastic soldiers defending the battlements, landscaped across the breadth of thin shelving, what hadn’t turned into ramps from fatigue.
Kin leafed through the comics, careful of the aging, bulging boxes holding them, judging the thin books by their covers and selecting a few to slip into her backpack.
She took the castle and everything that seemed to fit with it, breaking it up to better fit it into her bag hoping her mental snapshots would suffice for later reassembly.
Kin plucked robots and reptiles, monsters and machinations, a mix of toys she thought would make children in her neighborhood happy, if nothing else.
The old man had told her where in his closet he’d stashed his plastic case of childhood treasure. She dug in and after exhuming a lot of stale and withered things, she felt something like a small briefcase and knew she’d found the old man’s long lost buried treasure.
She pulled it free, admired the scenes of epic space war on every surface, explosions and spaceships, a supernova and ample other cosmic chaos. She found the snap on the front and popped it open carefully. Inside the case sat a compartmented tray with a toy in each slot. She sat the case on the bed and wiggled the top most tray out of the case to reveal the case beneath.
And sitting in the middle of the lower tray sat a plastic character that had no meaning for Kin, but at a glance matched the old man’s description perfectly. Brown? Check. Plastic red wings? Check. Black face with pale, red eyes? Check. Little black plastic gun pegged into the closed loop of one hand? Check.
She held the tiny thing in her hand. It was shorter than all of the others, certainly uglier. The old man had explained that the toy represented an unpopular background character from the movies he’d adored as a child.
He’d been able to identify with the character since he’d felt unpopular and relegated to supporting background actor himself, in his family first and eventually school and life otherwise.
Further, as an unpopular character, the toy had been cheaper in the stores, clearance. All his parents could afford when they’d still been together. The most beloved toy of his childhood is the toy that no other kids wanted.
She turned the little figure over and over between her fingers, enjoying the feel of the plastic, standing by the window to read the text a finger stroke had discerned ran along the back of one of its legs. “Hong Kong, 1978.” She stared at the holes in the bottoms of it’s feet. She debated trying to move the limbs and decided if anyone should break something off accidentally, it should be the old man himself.
She returned the figure to the bottom tray, returned the top tray, and snapped the case closed. She felt relief that the whole case would fit in her backpack, then pulled the case out again. The pillowcases on the bed had similar art to the case. She shucked the pillows from the pillowcases and sheathed the toy case in doubly ply fabric sacks. She replaced the case into her backpack and had a last look around the room for anything that seemed irreplaceable.
Irreplaceable. Occurred to Kin tat that moment that out of her group, she would be the only one returning with exactly the memory requested.
She dropped a few other figures she spot that seemed related to the ones in the case from the floor, desk, and shelves. She looked at all the comics and other things she simply didn’t have room for. She wondered if someday perhaps she might come back, or someone like her. That question in mind, she closed the blinds and curtains, noticing as she did that the curtains were of the same themes as the pillowcases and toy case.
As Kin stepped back into the hall she heard felt the building shimmy, heard the colossal crash, followed by metallic screeching and strobing alarms.
“I don’t want to look. You look.” Benny had huge eyes and a shake to his voice. Kin felt no better. Smoke rolled out of a doorway at the end of the hall.
“I think it’s time to clear out.” Susan said, point back toward the foyer atrium.
“I’ll go look.” Shae said and dart forward. Kin caught him and stepped around him.
“Thanks Shae, but it’s too dangerous.” She squat down to match him eyeline. “Let’s get outside where it’s safe.” She pointed up. “We don’t want this whole building crashing down on our heads, do we?”
Shae slowly shook his head, still glancing towards the source of the dust and smoke, a child’s call to adventure.
“I want to go.” Benny said.
Susan nodded, “I agree with the big fella. This is most definitely not part of our regularly scheduled programming.” He hefted up his satchel. “I have more than enough to bring back, Shae can barely stand up since that kid won’t leave anything that looks magic behind.
He pointed at Kin’s bulging backpack. “You look like there is a whole ‘nother you inside that backpack of yours.” Susan grinned. “Andand we found a fuzzy toy critter for big man there, so he’s covered.”
“I have more stuffs than that.” Benny said, looking proud. “Let’s go.”
They first heard the voice when they emerged onto the street. Didn’t take long to see that the source of the distorted voice came from where something big and metal had crashed into the side of the building, and brought down a considerable portion of the adjacent structure. Susan whistled softly.
“Oh my god, oh my god.” The voice crackled and hissed, coming from a speaker that had taken a two story fall. “Gerdy? Gerdy? Hello?”
Shae put Susan’s legs between himself and the debris as something man shaped began to flail and heave in the midst of the carnage.
Kin looked at her compatriots, back to the struggling form. “what kind of suit is that? Looks like what painters wear to me.”
Susan nodded. “I think it’s a hazmat suit, except way bulkier than any of the ones I’ve run across before.” Susan turned and looked at Shae. “I don’t plan to hang around and find out why.”
“Oh god, I think my arm is broken.” Kin thought the distorted voice sounded calmer than such a declaration might merit. “And my leg. Poor leg. Yup, going to lose that.”
“Should we help?” Kin kept looking back and forth from Susan to the pinned stranger. “Maybe it’s someone from your friend’s team?”
Susan shook his head. “Nope. I have no idea where that person is from.” He looked up, the others followed his gaze. Clouds were wooly and well on their way across the sky above them, consuming the blue as though famished.
She looked at Benny. His calm surprised her. “What do you think, Benny?”
He shrugged. “What if that’ll were one of us?”
Kin nodded, rolled out of her backpack and sat it next to Susan. “Yeah, we should help.”
Benny rocked on his heels, chewing his bottom lip.
“My poor leg.” The distorted voice said. “I’ll definitely never dance again.”
Before Susan could react, Sheae bolted around his legs and scurried closer to the strange, slowing when his shoes began to shuffle through the skirt of the debris.
Kin quickly caught up to the boy, sliding noisily through loose bricks and plaster to put herself between him and the stranger. As they drew closer she could see how pieces of the buildings facade and a metal strut dangling a mane of colourful wires were locking the person in the suit in place. She looked at the damaged leg and had to look away, stomach tight.
“Hello?” Kin called out. “Do you need help?” She could hear Benny and Susan coming up behind her.
“What. Who’s there?” The person’s voice screeched, suited head raising towards them, a hand floundering around until it landed on the butt of something webbed to their waistline, unsnapped a clasp and began pulling out something bulky, something with a barrel. A gun. The children froze.
Somewhere up the street the breeze slapped a hoist line against the hollow metal of a flagpole, tapping out a melancholy metronome.
“You’re just children.” The head sagged back, the muzzle of the gun lowered. “Just children.”
Benny stepped past Kin and pointed at the metal strut. “If I move that, I think we could drag them out.”
The gun snapped back up. “Don’t.” The tip of the guns barrel flicked up a couple times sharply as though scaring away flies. “I know where you’re from.” The voice wheezed. “You’ll kill me.”
“I don’t think that’s in our repertoire.” Susan said. “And looks like you’re well headed there already on your own.” He made the shape of a gun with his thumb and forefinger. “Unless you want to die here, if you want us to help you, that bang banger has to go.”
The figure held the gun up in front of their visor, as though discovering an unexpected growth on their hand. The children watched the gun arc through the air, bounce off the cobblestones and slide into the gutter on the far side. “I’m not getting any younger.” The figure warbled.
Benny reached the trapped stranger first, Susan directly on his heels, directing and holding debris whole Kin carefully got a grip in the heavy fabric of the stranger’s suit. Up close, Kin could see through the faceplate, discover a gaunt woman, huge eyes sleepily looking back from inside the thick, burly suit.
Shea stood with the backpacks while the boys worked to get enough weight off of the stranger for Kin to tug her clear.
“She weighs a ton.” Kin said.
“Gotta be the suit.” Susan replied. “Benny, let’s trade. You lift this and I’ll wiggle that forward.”
“It is.” The woman said through a speaker on the neckline of the suit. “Best bubble suit brand in Heaven.” The crackling speaker made her laugh sound ghostly, Kin cringed. “There’s an armature in it that helps make a person stronger, faster. Fat lot of good that did when I didn’t stick the landing.” She pointed to the rooftops across the street. “Meant to touch down up there.”
“I think your suit’s what’s keeping your leg on.” Susan said, voice flat. “That’s it, Bernie, I can feel this strut starting to budge. You got your back in it, big fella?”
“I got it.” Benny said through clenched teeth, face flushed
“OK, when I say pull, girl, you pull like there’s a prize waiting.” Susan spat on his hands, something the woman’s face in the visor notably recoiled from. He gripped the metal dangling wires. “Ok, gang. One. Two. Three. And pull.”
Benny huffed, Susan puffed, Kin pulled, and Shae watched wide eyed. Kin felt her back begin to ache as the woman in the suit slid an inch, another, then cleared the obstruction and lurched across loose drywall flecked with colorful wallpaper towards Kin, causing Kin to drop backwards onto her backend.
“Benny, she’s clear, let go.” Susan said, letting go himself. Benny stumbled backward and Susan spryly got out of Benny’s way, standing to put a guiding hand on Benny’s shoulder. “Let’s get away from this building. I have a feeling more of that up there is going to collapse.”
The boys helped Kin drag the woman in the suit down the street and across to the far side. Shae tried to bring all the backpacks at once, found them to heavy, and began to fetch them o5ne after another.
They leaned the woman up against the wall. Susan reached towards the drooping helmet, she smacked his hand away and raised her head, staring at the sky. After a moment the woman’s head inside the helmet turned and looked at Kin.
“I’m not supposed to be in this area.” The woman seemed strangely calm to Kin. “I definitely wasn’t supposed to crash into it. Worst sneaky deployment ever.”
The kids put their packs back on. Susan picked up Shae and stepped back away from the woman.
“Is that a space suit?” Shae asked.
Kin thought of the toys in her backpack and nodded. “Sort of looks like one, doesn’t it. I’ve never seen a real one.”
“You guys are getting bold.” The woman winced, glanced at Kin. “Not you, you’re just a. Kid.” She winced again. “Whoever brought you. Coming this far south. Not the deal.”
“What deal?” Said Susan.
“Ha. Hunh.” The woman tried to stand, slide her back up the wall. Almost. Almost. Collapsed back down again. “Well that’s dandy.”
“What are you talking about?” Kin said. “What deal?”
“Your boss, or leader. He bailed, didn’t he, must’ve known we’d be ready.” She tried to stand again and Kin could hear things whining from all throughout the suit. No good, and Kin could hear a faint alarm sound pinging from inside the helmet. “Kids, I’m going to need a favor.”
“Ready for what? What deal?” Kin looked up at the approaching clouds.
“Doesn’t matter. None of it matters.” The woman leans over Kin, servos squealing complaint. Kin is positive the suit is keeping the woman alive and upright. “You wouldn’t believe the drugs this suit is propping me up with right now. Rainbows and butterflies, kids. Stay in school.”
“What favor?” Susan asked, also sky gazing. “Cause we have to go or we’re going to miss our ride.”
“If you haven’t already.” She laughed, distorted by the speaker enough to make Kin’s teeth itch. “As soon as I wiped out my suit called for help. If any of my fellows happen to see you out there, you’ll be euthanized. That’s the charming term we use up there in heaven, floating up there in the clouds. Euthanize.”
“I know what euthanize means, lady.” Susan said, holding Shae tightly. “Gang, crazy space suit lady is right, we gotta go.”
“Hey dark and handsome,” The woman just her face forward and kissed her faceplate, leaving a smear. “Did you also know that if I took off this helmet and did that to you that I’d be dead inside of fifteen minutes, ten if you cut out the melting eyeballs and bleeding out of every orifice part.” The woman laughed.
“Man, you’re so nasty.” Susan said. “Nobody dies like that.”
“Lucky ones did. Anybody left now most definitely would.” The woman sounded proud, punctuating her comments with a finger thrust into the air. “People that went up to heaven I mean.” She lowered her voice, whispering her words conspiritally. “The cloud people.”
Benny’s cheeks were flushed, brows knit. Kin put a hand on his arm, looked at Susan. “Do you know what she’s talking about?” Susan shook his head, brows high.
“Like your leaders would ever tell you what really happened.” The woman pointed towards a wide gap between the buildings across the street, several doors down from her crash site. Beyond the buildings, the children could see a rusty chain link fence with a lot of collapsed sections separating them from rows of train tracks and long dormant railway cars. “If you don’t want to meet more people from the clouds, heaven’s gun toting finest, I suggest you follow those train tracks to get back to your people.”
“What is she talking about?” Shae asked.
“No idea, little man.” Susan stood and looked around. “But she’s right about getting a move on. We need to get back to Davenport. It’s not safe for us here.”
“Nope.” The woman said, shaking her head fiercely in her helmet. “And now I’m dizzy.”
An explosion several blocks away caused the children to cower. Susan looked at Shae for a moment, then moved his hand to hit the button on the gizmo Davenport had given each of them.
“Wait,” the woman said. “That looks like a panic button. Hit that and it’ll bring your people this way.”
“That’s the general idea.” Susan said. Shae nodded.
“It’ll get them all killed.” The woman sighed, through the speaker sounded like an engine dying. “If they weren’t already in that explosion.” Another burp of an explosion sounded from far away. “Or that one.”
Kin’s jaw worked. “That what you do? Come down and blow up people?”
“Or shoot them. What you do with trespassers.” She pointed towards the tracks. “Follow those. Go left, beck towards the sea.” She waved her hand. “Should lead you most of the way back to the bridge. Or, if you really want to stay safe, look for a boat and paddle across.” The woman tried to pantomime rowing a canoe, failed miserably. “You know what I mean.” She formed a bridge with her hands held flat. “Don’t trust bridges when things are going boom.”
Benny cocked his head. “I think I hear someone coming.” Kin listened hard and sure enough the sounds of chatter were bouncing towards them from somewhere a block or so away.
“Once you can see the bridge, you’ll be ok to hit your panic buttons so your people can come get you, or at least know to wait for you before they run away.” She laughed. “They always run away.”
“So should we.” Susan said, turning on a heel and heading for the tracks.
“Why are you helping us?” Kin asked.
“I don’t like what we do up there.” The woman pointed to the sky. Kin looked up and suddenly felt menace in the thick steel wool clouds boiling and seething up there. “The jealousy. The pettiness. The secrecy.”
Benny took Kin’s elbow. “We have to go, Kin.”
Kin nodded and lead Benny away towards the collapsed section of fence after Susan and Shae.
The woman called after them. “Ask yourselves where all the orphans come from.”
Kin stopped. She turned back and saw the woman waving at them slowly, grandly.
Kin shook her head and took off after Benny, her pack heavy on her back, questions heavier on her mind.
There’s whispers in the weeds.
Turtling after a mother’s desperate shove triggers an avalanche of clothing, camouflage in a closet covering up a child with cauliflower hair. Finger pressed to whitened lips as her Mama backs out of the bedroom.
Drowning in the smell of stale laundry, peeking through gaps between fingers, sound muffled by cotton and polyester.
Straining to comprehend with every sense, to understand.
Cringing for the roar of a monster’s opera sung over a symphony of shattering glass and bursting furniture. Wincing for Mama’s voice, shrill and hoarse, details lost in the whirlwind. Thunderous cracks when there hadn’t been rain in weeks. She scuttles backwards away from the sound and the pain it represents, clutching her injured arm to her chest. More garments pour down upon her head.
Eventually couldn’t hear much of anything at all, just the hot evening breeze sifting through the dry weeds outside, brushing against the skin of the doublewide.
Papa used to keep the field groomed. Take pride in who you are no matter what your station or circumstances, he’d say.
Until one day. Something changed that no one talked louder than a mumble about.
Papa stopped mowing the field. Stopped trimming back the weeds from around the trailer’s flat tires, checkerboard apron, and cement block porch. The weeds began to grow, became ragged and restless, full of hostile opinions scratched from raspy throats.
Papa stopped talking much. He stopped celebrating refrigerator drawings or telling bedtime stories or leading expeditions to the creek for crawdads.
Left room for the voice of the weeds.
After a couple of weeks, Papa just disappeared. His husk still stood around. Shadow he cast more alive than what came from inside. After a little while, Papa disappeared altogether. An empty sack shoved into the back of a county sheriff’s car.
The weeds grew tall and strong, a ragtop mane that set the mobile home adrift atop gilded waves, insects flitting and forming orchestras.
She strained to hear anything more than the scratch of weeds and crawled close to threshold of the closet door. Swelling her chest with all her courage, she pulled the protective barrier away and crawled to clutch the bedroom door frame. She listened with all her might and could only hear herself, feel her breath hot on her forearm where she pillowed her head against the doorframe, her other arm clutched to her chest, hand tucked up into her armpit.
Out of the bedroom, she scuttled across the disemboweled living room into the tiny kitchenette, to her cupboard. A cubby accessible without a stepping stool. Afternoon snacks and self-serve breakfasts. Cereal with marshmallows, the kind in the bag pretending to be that kind in the box. Plastic bags, yellow labels, white boxes, black stars.
Thoughts raced through her head. Need to pack up and go. The monster could come back. Need to run away. Need to brave the weeds.
She began to select supplies and tried not consider where her Mama might be.
Mama would bring home snacks from her work. Tiny white donuts. Packet of 8 plus a little shape and the powdery ghost of the one that went missing. Pack the donuts. Pack the raisins too. Slow to do with only one hand holding things right, other still folded up close.
Scour the living room for keepsakes and prized possessions.
Bag of pirate coins to purchase train tickets or a pony. A bracelet made at the country fair. A book she liked to hear her Mama read aloud.
Stuff everything into a burlap bag. Struggling to stuff precious things in with only one arm, trying not to jostle that broken wing.
Rest for a moment. Feeling sleepy, cold, and alone. Swooning as a baby bird might when the nest has been flung away. Hearing waves.
Slapped awake by angry sounds and seeing a terrifying parade of shadows dancing across the walls. Red and blue lights causing her to blink and scurry back into the cupboard, hermit crab finding refuge.
The sunshine has gone out and left seething oil behind.
Yelling outside. Something crashing through the weeds. Pops and explosions, something slams heavily against the side of the doublewide. Everything rattles. Her tiny teeth feel loose against her tongue.
A howl that causes an ache deep inside her is cut off by a final gunshot.
Even the weeds go still.
Creak of someone stepping into the trailer, footsteps shuffling across the floor. Shuffle and crunch, getting closer. Dazzling light etching the edges of the cupboard door.
The door opens and stabbing light blinds her. A gentle voice speaks and she feels shame for the tears spilling down her cheeks, juts her chin.
The voice tells her help has come.
She lets the sheriff attached to the voice lead her out of her cupboard. She clutches her Grandpa’s bag with her one able hand. She refuses the woman’s attempts to pick her up as she shuffles to the door and stands on the stoop feeling the cooling evening air.
A loud rustling sound catches her attentions, she turns and sees a tarp settling over the size and shape of her papa on the ground outside her home. She felt a touch on her shoulder and jerked away, her vision beginning to swim.
“Someone go get the mother.” the Sheriff said, sounding far away, scooping the child up mid-swoon.
“We have the child. And get me some blankets over here, this kid is freezing. Where are the paramedics? Her arm looks a mess.”
A whisper of wind passed through the weeds. She felt soothed by the sound.
A fresh, cool breeze swept up an ovation as a mother’s arms folded around her child, pulled her away from the Sheriff’s chest. “I’m here, baby. I’m here. We’re safe now.”
Gentle rain began to fall, the first in months.
The weeds bowed beneath the falling drops.
Originally written for and graciously published within in the wonderful 2015 flash fiction compilation Baby Shoes: 100 Short Stories by 100 Authors
Because it already happens. Or happened. Or will happen again.
The state of words. Of seasonal flavors. Of Cherry Coke. Of madhouses burning. The roof is on fire. Let it burn. So wrapped up tight the skin across your sternum aches and lilts troll your lifting back.
I hold my memories like a sack of obedience and try to filter out the unnecessary, the stale bread, like combing a gone sour playlist, like purging an ex-client’s rolodex. The dead space between office door and building shared bathroom is a time for fleeting contemplation, while noticing a leak spot on light shorts subsequently affords pause for posturing.
And then the twist. The midlife crisis, presumptive as though assured a steady eighty. Trappings of clinging nostalgia, now met with late found disposable income. The dance of diligence on EBay. The duck and dive of purchases on the credit card statement when your spouse is CFO. So rare, so precious, great deal, unbeatable bargain. Lift the knees high while clogging those loose porch boards.
I offer you, hands well apart and holding empty, an earnest report. A rebooted cleanliness. An honesty no matter how benign or pathetic. Though I will never afford you a coy selfie. Though photographs, most selfies reflect deception, Kenny Rogers rotisserie Snap Chat roulette trying to hide chins, sins, or munchkins. There’s only so far you can tuck a turkey for neck, so far you can swell a sailboat.
Fallible, an admission, not deflection. Plain words with flowery prose deliberately chosen. Bass lines thrumming against a washing machine walls, dubstep Albatross heaving against monkey mists while rocky shores become pillow recipients. Sound and fury signifying nothing, and wilting silence while conveying a point.
So this will be the unflinching respite. The spit collender for every anecdotal whimsy my saggy cerebellum decides to clench brows producing. Georgia O’Keefe birthing sunsets. Robert Mapplethorpe subverting floral arrangements. I’m the honey bee licking fly paper. And that’s enough churn for one spill.