Mrs. Tsai

It was past eleven at night when my mother called. The rain came down in great big sheets, and I’d been curled up under three blankets with the heater on for hours, reading a book about digestion.

            “You’re still up,” she said.

            “It’s not that late. What are you doing?” and before she could answer I started guessing, “Watching a crime thriller?”

            “Ha,” she said. “A western. The one with the good-looking sheriff who’s in your yoga class. What are you doing?”

            “Reading and resting,” I said.

            “It’s raining a lot,” she said. “Reminds me of winter in Pingtung.”

            “CeCe and I planted bell peppers this week, so it’ll be nice to have them watered without me having to do it,” I told her.

            “Is she asleep?” she asked.

            “Of course. She’s right next to me,” I said.

            I thought about my mother sitting on her green corduroy sofa in her new apartment with Tuo-Ba, her mop-like dog, watching the Western. From time to time, she must wonder what she would do next now that she was alone, except for the dog. A dog was good at filling holes in a schedule. A lot of walks to punctuate the day. Random and intermittent socializing with other dog owners here and there. Buying dog food and treats, vet visits. My mother took Tuo-Ba to volunteer at the library with a team of other service dogs. Children arrived to read to the dogs once a week, eagerly sounding out syllables on a bright blue carpet lined with drowsing dogs.

            She cleared her throat a little. I heard Tuo-Ba by the tinkling of his little tag.

            “Are you okay?” I asked.

            “Fine,” she said, but cleared her throat again.

            “Are you sick?” I asked.

            “No, I’m not,” she said and cleared her throat.

            I heard her walking around, opening a drawer. A faucet turned on.

            “I need your help with something,” she said.

            “What?” I asked, my voice perched.

            “Someone came over earlier today,” she said. “And they fell. They’re still here.”

            “What do you mean?” I asked. “Who came over?”

            My first thought was that she had invited a man to her place.

            “Wen-Ting, from the building,” she said, and drank water. “I invited her up to have tea after dinner.”

            CeCe flipped her arm in the air and smacked my pillow. Had I been lying down it would have been my nose. Lately I had heard snippets from all kinds of parenting gurus via podcast or Instagram about not letting your kids sleep in your bed. Boundaries! Sleep hygiene! Blah blah, I thought. But how about a black eye or a broken nose as deterrent?

            “How did she fall?” I asked.

            “She was leaving and she fell down the stairs,” my mother said.

            I had often been frustrated by my mother’s opaqueness, but this was really a new level.

            “Is she okay?” I asked. “Did she have to go to the hospital?”

            “No,” my mother rebuffed gently, as if I’d asked whether she wanted to try paragliding tomorrow.

            “No, she’s not okay, or no, she didn’t go to the hospital?” I closed the book and set it against my lap. The heater clanked and I could hear it clank below, too, in the downstairs neighbor’s apartment.

            “She didn’t go to the hospital. I brought her back up here,” my mother said.

            I was already setting and resetting the scene. Mrs. Tsai had fallen down some of the stairs, and crying in pain, had hobbled back up the stairs to my mother’s apartment? Maybe the injury was a sprain, a fracture. Maybe my mother had iced her ankle or wrist, and Mrs. Tsai had fallen asleep on the couch, not wanting to sit in the ER all night.

            “Did she break anything?” I asked.

            “I’m not sure. She’s resting. I need your help. It’s important, but don’t come now. Just come in the morning,” my mother said. “It’s late. No need to wake up CeCe.”

            I moved some of the hair out of CeCe’s face. Her skin was creamy as a cashew aside from the little white dots that sometimes appeared on her cheek. The corner of her mouth glistened with spit.

            “Okay,” I told her. “I’ll come right when we wake up.”

 

 

            Driving in the rain proved to be difficult. A car accident jammed all the traffic into a single lane. CeCe complained from the backseat booster about having to leave home without getting to play Barbies. But when I told her that Nai Nai would probably have some delicious moon cakes there and that she’d get to play with Tuo-Ba, she eventually changed course.

            We circled the block and meandered up a side street before finding a parking spot. And then we trudged through the rain under CeCe’s clear umbrella. Rainwater gushed down into the gutters.

            The slippery lobby was posted with a sign about the elevator not running, so we climbed to the fifth floor, one floor smelling like paint, another of boiling cabbage.

            “We’re here!” CeCe announced when my mother opened the door.

            “Oh! Come in,” she chirped, the heat from her apartment pouring out into the hall. Tuo-Ba shuffled forward happily, rubbing his moustache on our shins.

            The small dining table was arranged with plates of sliced fruit and moon cakes, covered in plastic wrap.

            “CeCe, will you help me feed and dress Tuo-Ba? I’m going to give your mom some books,” my mother said. She showed CeCe the food scoop and bag and pointed to a green diamond sweater for the dog.

            I followed my mother into her bedroom and found Mrs. Tsai face down on the bed with her knees on the ground. She was completely still.

            “Is she dead?” I asked in disbelief.

            My mother nodded, frowning.

            “Why did you bring her up here?” I hissed. “Why didn’t you call an ambulance right away?”

            “She can’t pay an ambulance fee,” my mother said crossly. “And her son doesn’t work.”

            “But now she’s here, and her legs are–” I swept my hand over Mrs. Tsai’s body, “like this!”

            “I need your help to bring her downstairs,” my mother said. “She lives on the second floor. We can put her on her own bed. Like this. Then I can call her an ambulance.”

            “The paramedics can’t help her now,” I said.

            “That way it won’t look suspicious,” my mother said.

            “I can’t get the sweater on,” CeCe was calling from the kitchen. And then as if she could teleport, appeared behind the door. “What are you doing in there?”

            My mother stepped out and led her back into the kitchen. The dog sweater was on halfway, but backwards. They laughed. I shut the door.

            If we carried Mrs. Tsai’s body back to her own apartment, would it seem strange that my mother was calling an ambulance? They were having tea and she’d fallen down the stairs on the way back home. If my mother had called for help, Mrs. Tsai would be in a hospital, or maybe she’d still have ended up in the morgue.

            “It’s me,” my mother said and quickly opened the door. “CeCe is watering plants on the balcony. We can cover Wen-Ting with a sheet, take her down to the apartment – I know the keypad code to unlock her door. We can put her on her bed. Then I’ll call the ambulance later.”

            “Well, we can’t do it now, with CeCe,” I said.

            “We can do it tonight,” she said.

            “But what about her fall?” I asked. “Won’t the paramedics see she has an injury from falling down the stairs? And won’t it be strange that her knees are like that? What if they match the sheet fibers on her body to your bed?”

            My mother scoffed. “That’s stuff they do on murder shows,” she said. “This was an accident. I should’ve just dragged her to her own apartment when it happened. Come out.”

            She closed the door behind us and we called CeCe in. Sitting at the table eating fruit and cakes, and drinking tea, I felt like I was in a bad dream. And had my mother said dragged?

 

 

            I returned to my mother’s apartment in the evening as soon as I dropped CeCe at her dad’s. The rain had ceased long enough for me to walk through the cold without getting wet. I was thankful since CeCe had taken the umbrella with her.

            My mother and I pushed Mrs. Tsai into a seated position on the bed. She was absolutely rigid and startlingly cold. When I finally dared to look at her face, her eyes were open!

            “Oh my God!” Her eyes were hazy, grayish.

            My mother reached out and had to push the lids down twice.

            Draped with a sheet and in a permanent yogic chair pose, we lifted Mrs. Tsai to the door and then hurriedly shuttled down one flight after another.

            “What if you’re questioned by the police?” I asked.

            “I’ll tell them we were going to meet for tea last night. She never came. This morning, I go to her door and she doesn’t answer. So I get worried and call the police. In case she fell. And she did fall.”

            We passed the floor that smelled of boiling cabbage. A dog barked behind a door.

            “If someone sees us, we’re screwed!” I whispered, running around the curve so that I could keep Mrs. Tsai level.

            My mother started to laugh her silent laugh.

            “Imagine someone comes out of a door right now. ‘What are you carrying? Looks heavy. Let me help you,’” I said.

            “No one is going to help us,” she said between our shuffling.

            When we got to the second floor, we hurried down the hall to Mrs. Tsai’s door and my mother trembled, lifting her side of the body with one hand while punching in the code with the other. She got it wrong the first time and I started to panic, sweeping the hall and staircase with my eyes.

            “I really hope you know the code,” I said. “We can’t go up and down, up and down like this.”

            When the door opened, we hurried in and followed the familiar floor plan to the bedroom. Like my mother, Mrs. Tsai lived alone. Her little apartment was tidy and smelled of cedar and camphor. A rattan living room set with red cushions crowded around an old TV.

            In the single bedroom, a big red calendar with a single date on each rice paper-thin page, and a black and white photo of her family of origin hung on the wall. We lowered Mrs. Tsai onto the bed, face down, and then maneuvered the sheet out from under her.

            “Won’t it look strange to find her like this?” I asked.

            “Probably,” my mother said. “Probably strange to find anyone dead.” She patted down Mrs. Tsai’s hair and smoothed her blouse.

            A narrow gray cat slithered into the room.

            “Tu zi,” my mother said, folding up the sheet.

            “Rabbit?” I asked.

            “The cat jumps like a rabbit,” my mother said. “Mrs. Tsai was funny.”

            “Should we feed her?” I asked.

            My mother turned on the kitchen light. We rifled through the cabinets and found it well stocked with tins of sardines in tomato sauce, pickled vegetables, rice, pork floss, dry noodles, and a variety of soy sauces and vinegars. Nice French wines frosted in the refrigerator, along with glass containers of cooked porridge, poached chicken, and tea eggs.

            “You two drink together?” I asked.

            “Sometimes tea, sometimes wine,” my mother said.

            “Will you miss her?” I asked.

            “Yes,” my mother said, clearing her throat. “She was a nice woman.”

            Finally, underneath the sink, I found the cat food and scraped it into the cat’s dish. We slipped out then and locked the door behind us. My mother had always been friendly and likeable, lighthearted. She had friends from before my father’s death, a few she still met for lunch or coffee. But Mrs. Tsai was a friend she’d made in this new life on her own.

            “What will you do tonight?” I asked as we walked back through the hallway.

            “Maybe go on a walk with Tuo-Ba,” she said. “It’s not raining.”

            “I’ll walk with you and Tuo-Ba,” I told her.

            She looked tired but pleasantly calm. I followed her up the stairs and back into her apartment. I pulled on my jacket as she leashed Tuo-Ba and straightened out his sweater. On our way out, I picked up her old umbrella that sometimes opened too far out, but still worked.

 

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Junior Steaks

We both order junior steaks, and she asks the waiter to turn on the fight. She says it just like that, “the fight,” and he understands. He’s got a lumpy, bald head, peppered with drops of sweat and he goes over to tell the guy behind the bar. We are seated beside a wall. Across the restaurant, people are seated beside windows.

            She asks, “How’s your summer been?”

            I say, “I moved.”

            “Oh yeah? How was that?”

            For my last month or so living in the old house, they played the same Tom T. Hall song every day and suggested I didn’t leave. “Call the whole thing off,” they’d say, “It’s not too late.” And I would say it was fine, that people moved all the time, people just moved. Anyone who found somewhere that cheap so much closer to the city would be stupid not to take it. Then I’d go up to my room, close the door, open the window, and cry. I give her a brief lesson on the geography of the suburbs. Bridges I drive over now.

            She begins to tell me that her summer was fine, except that the guy she was seeing drowned. She glances at the fight, frowns, then back at me. Yes, it was pretty sad. Pretty shocking. Pretty tragic.

            “The guy you were seeing drowned?” I repeat. I can see it clearly. I must be remembering a scene in a movie. The man is wearing a 1920’s style bathing suit and has center-parted hair. A British accent. British teeth. We have whiskeys and are pushing the ice cubes around with black stirring straws. I think of the Titanic. Now that’s drowning.

            “We don’t need to dwell on it,” she says.

            “How long were you two together?”

            “A month and a half,”

            “Oh,”

            “See? It’s strange. It’s strange. I’m not sure what I’m grieving – a summer fling? A future? The children we could’ve had, I mean.” She looks down at her drink. It’s gone. So are the steaks. I wish we had just stopped talking long enough to enjoy them. We order more drinks, doubles this time, and fries to split. The sweat drops on the waiter’s head are bigger now, as if he’s crying from his scalp. “So now you’re on a trip?” She asks. That’s why I’m here. Passing through and staying at her place. Before we came out here for steaks, she laid a folded mattress topper on the floor beside her own unmade bed, then said “It’s like a side-car bed.”  Her place is down the road from the restaurant, close enough to walk. She’s got a window box herb garden and a rabbit named Misty and the whole place, an unairconditioned studio, smells like it. Her linens are the color of surgical scrubs and I can tell, somehow, that she took them from the hall closet the day she left her parents’ house.

            “Yeah,” I say. “Just, you know, to shake things up.” We were never very close. I realize this now, downing half my whiskey. It was only ever proximity and I try to conjure an image of it. There was the time we drove an hour away to see our professors present at an Environmental Studies conference. All I can remember is coming back, her maroon station wagon cresting a hill in the springtime. And I think we had discovered a commonality, lactose intolerance or left handedness, something that seemed to matter then. And now we are here, looking down at the wood laminate table, a little uncomfortable because lonely people are afraid of each other.

            “There are three rounds,” she says, picking up her steak knife and pointing it towards the television, “and a one-minute break between them.” I nod but don’t turn around. I am not sure if I don’t care, or if I do care and that’s why I can’t look.

            “So, tell me more about the house,” she urges, using her knife’s tip to draw a smiley face in the juices left on her plate.

            “The house?” I ask.

            “Yeah, the house, the one you just moved to.”

            I stare at her and nod and think about the place. How all of the cabinets are labeled and none of the women wear bras and at night we sit around with our breasts falling in all directions and talk about dogs until one of us cries – cries about how good dogs are. Then we talk about talking, about ourselves and our habits. We talk about how we always talk about dogs until one of us cries. How strange this is. How special we are. Then bedtime, and we walk around the kitchen without looking into each other’s eyes. “There’s a big front porch,” I say.

            “Hey, that’s great,” she says. Then I sigh and look at the wall. There is a small, framed map of the state. That’s all there is. If we were really friends, I would’ve insisted we sit by a window. I study the image of the state, floating on a white page, trying to remember the borders. Was it landlocked? Was that a lake coast, up at the top?  “It was a long, Catholic service,” she says, through the ice cube she’s chewing. I turn in time to watch her wipe a drip of water from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. “Catholic with an open casket. And I hate open caskets and I hate Catholic services because all their songs sound like Broadway hits – I was raised Methodist, have I told you that?”

            “No, you haven’t.”

            “I was, and the music is better. Anyhow, I didn’t have anyone to sit with. None of my friends would come with me. I asked one and she said it wasn’t appropriate. She wasn’t family.” I finish the watery whiskey left in my glass. She does the same.

            On my last Saturday at the old house, I said that Tom T. Hall’s voice had an adolescent quality. It was a particular note, a strain of startling, boundless grief – the sort we are no longer capable of feeling once we reach adulthood but might be reminded of in a plotless dream. None of the others agreed, “not quite adolescent,” they said, frowning, “not adolescent, something else.” But there wasn’t much debate before we put the matter aside and drank coffee in the yard until only two of us were left. The shadow of the house was beginning to creep across the tufty lawn when he started in on it again, with waning conviction, saying it wasn’t too late.

            The whiskey floods me with affection for her – torrents of buoyant sympathy. I float on it like a lazy river at a waterpark, filled with Band-Aids and hair and timid children, too scared to ride the real attractions. The waiter wants to know if we want another drink. We don’t. He wants us to leave but doesn’t say as much. The droplets on his head are even bigger now, and they have multiplied. I take her hand. It is puffy and claw-like, with fingernails filed to points and I think of the man who drowned and wonder how it was to be attracted to a woman with hands like this. She’s going on in a stage whisper, leaning across the table, like a conspiracy theorist. She had nothing to wear to the service, she’d never met his mom, she didn’t know what to do – bring flowers? She’d been thinking of breaking up with him (actually, she’d decided on it).  She wasn’t close with his friends, and they were grieving so hard (that’s the adjective she chose: “hard”), harder than her. Should she have tried harder, she wants to know, tried harder to grieve harder? Should she have made some sort of performance? The front of her blouse is dragging in the ketchup on her plate.

            At church coffee hour as a child, I used to take the jelly donuts, suck the filling out, and then put them back on the platter. Their appearance was perfectly preserved, perfectly innocuous. But there was a backwash effect. With the saliva, I mean, if you can imagine that. It wasn’t kind.

            “Why are you crying?” she asks, a little incredulously, withdrawing her hand and leaning back in her seat.

            “I don’t know,” I say. She looks over my shoulder at the fight and I can see it reflected in her glasses, not in any great detail, of course – just flesh and bright lights.

 

            A few months after I make it back home autumn arrives over the course of a single weekend and in advance of the first frost, I ferry all the tropical plants from the big front porch into the living room and she texts me late one night to say that she found a dead opossum at the end of her street, that it was sweet, that it looked like it was sleeping. Before I can reply, she writes more, she says: “At any rate, it made me think of you.”

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On the Levee Once Again I Walk to Sharpen

my body to a blade. Weapon for nothing. Recall my first diet,
66 pounds, my proud refusal of a fist-sized milk carton.

My mother’s sister at 40, spooning Gerber peaches
into her mouth at the family table. Recall the game

my mother taught me when I was a teenager—
—find someone on the street who has my body—

Now without her how I will sharpen. Will be
vapor. Smoke. Furious at the world for nothing.

Rushing down the year’s dark corridor, street unspooling
every morning, tracking miles.

How I craved my mother’s judgement. Be vapor. Be smoke.
Be blade. Remember how it feels to desire

nothing, not even touch’s static. Remember why
emptiness still comforts like nothing else.

I will shrink myself down to where I don’t matter.
Thumbelina, tight and safe in a walnut shell.

Yet grief thickens everything. Even the imprint of my body.

Who’s keeping count.
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The Wounds of Childhood

We are the last to arrive. Jonathan parks on the gravel shoulder and is halfway out of the car before he remembers to help with Ellie. “Go,” I say, though I will cash in on his choice later. Jonathan is shouting greetings to his buddies who are lobbing sacks at the cornhole boards while I crate Ellie across the lawn to a picnic table covered in gingham. Here are the remains of the adults’ dinners, empty glasses and crumpled napkins, though the women, Peggy and Andrea, are still spooning puréed foods into their babies’ mouths. I leave Ellie in her carseat on the grass and reach for the open bottle of rosé.

            “You made it,” Peggy says, deadpan.

            “Barely,” I say. I’m allowed one glass of wine because I am nursing, so I must drink it slowly. “Why didn’t we stay in Duck again? This place took so long to get to.”

            “It’s better up here. Quieter,” Peggy says. She looks tired. The skin under her eyes bags down like an old basset hound’s.

            Andrea plays her part, like she did in college, smoothing things over between us. She reassures Peggy that the house is cute and super nice, ignoring what I can see from here, even in the dwindling daylight: this rental is a downgrade, old and unwanted. Its siding is worn and salt-baked. Spiderwebs glaze the floodlights while weeds eat through the driveway. I can already feel how damp the bedrooms will be, with loud ceiling fans that can’t compete with the humidity.

            As Andrea praises Peggy for getting the house on such short notice—we hadn’t coordinated our schedules until late April, when most houses were already booked—her son sucks his thumb and stares at me. He is a dull, lifeless weight on Andrea’s knees. He wears a blue helmet that is reshaping his skull, which was mushed on its journey through Andrea’s birth canal. With his helmet and dulled expression, he looks like a stoned NATO peacekeeper.

            “What’s so funny?” Peggy asks me.

            Instead of sharing my thought, I say, “Remember the house we got after graduation? It had seven bedrooms and a hot tub. Remember that hot tub, Peggy?”

            Peggy reddens and glances across the street, toward the sound of waves crashing on a shore that we can’t see. In her firm but forbearing, good-mother voice, Peggy says, “No thank you, Tommy,” to the child in her lap, who is trying to rip the buttons off of her shirt.

            Peggy’s dutiful husband, Seth, appears then and picks up Tommy, throwing him in the air so that he squeals. Peggy is gearing up to lecture me, the last of them to get married, get pregnant, accept my fate.

            “We’re not twenty-two anymore,” Peggy says, as if I could forget. “We don’t need to be close to the bars. We need a place that’s family-friendly. This house is small, sure, but there aren’t stairs for the kids to fall down or, heaven forbid, hot tubs to drown in. If you really feel cramped though, there is an extra bedroom between our rooms you could use. It’s got a crib.”

            “Great,” I say. “I absolutely will. Ellie hasn’t slept in our room for three months.”

            While Jonathan plays one last lawn game, I find our bedroom, which contains a musty double bed and a particleboard dresser. Ellie is fussing, as usual—she is always fussing—and the spit bubble between her lips and the blushing skin under her eyebrows tells me she’s hungry, again. The mattress sags and the frame creaks as I lower myself onto it, wincing at the scrape of Ellie’s single tooth on my nipple.

            While she nurses, I take in the room. There are coarse wood planks, nailed diagonally across all four walls. I squint at one and notice black outlines, here and there, peppering the planks. At first, I mistake these half-circle outlines, upturned at both edges like crescent moons, for irregularities in the wood. Rotted whorls, maybe, or carpentry mistakes, but then I lean over and touch one and my finger is coated in ash.

            When Ellie’s eyelids sink, I scoot to the edge of the bed and lug myself up, then walk through the door that leads into the extra bedroom, which is so tiny that a crib and rocking chair crowd each other like commuters waiting for a train. The odd planks cover these walls too, only here, the blackened crescent moons appear in uniform rows up and down the planks.

            The room is cramped, but the crib looks clean enough, and Ellie, exhausted from the drive, is snuffed out like a match.

When I hear Ellie’s throaty cries just two hours later, I nudge Jonathan. He groans and rolls away from me, but I won’t let him win this. I had her all evening. He can deal with her at night.

            “Your turn,” I hiss, before squeezing my eyes shut and trying for sleep. “Dammit, Jonathan, go in there before she wakes up the whole house.”

            But then, the noise stops. Ellie has gone from hungry crying one second to complete silence the next. There is a void of sound, as if Ellie has disappeared.

            I shoot up in bed, deciding that Ellie truly has disappeared: suffocated, fallen out of the crib, that she is suddenly, infantly, dead. I rush through the door between the rooms, and my hands are gripping the crib’s rail. I look down and see Ellie, and see that she is okay. She is so okay, in fact, that she is practically glowing in the moonlight that streams through the window’s wavy panes, her chest rising and falling with each breath.

            I take a few steps back until I am standing in the doorway. I am watching her breathe and marking this night in my mind: the first night Ellie has soothed herself back to sleep.

            Jonathan won’t believe it.

            I have nearly turned away when a flicker of movement catches my eye and I realize that Peggy is here, in the room with Ellie. Peggy is standing in the corner, between crib and window. The black of her high-necked, long-sleeved gown has merged with the wall behind her so that I might not have noticed her at all if it weren’t for her pendant. The pendant hangs on a silver necklace and is big and gaudy, for preppy Peggy, wide as the palm of a hand, but curved like a crescent moon with sharp points. It is creamy white, its edges a garish red.

            “Peggy?” I whisper.

            In the shadow, I can’t see her face, but I see her hand as she lifts it to the pendant. I hear her as she breathes out, “Shhh.”

As soon as Jonathan hands Ellie to me with a grumble about missing tee time, she is clawing at my left breast. I shift her to my other arm and seek out Peggy among the adults in the kitchen. She is pouring coffee and humming softly. I touch her shoulder and say, “Hey, thanks for helping out last night. How did you get Ellie back to sleep so quick? She’s impossible.”

            Peggy looks like a beachy angel in a silky white cover-up, her hair blown out. “What are you talking about?”

            “You took care of Ellie,” I say, but I hesitate at her confused expression. “Remember? I went in to get her, but you were already there. You were wearing black.”

            Peggy blows across the top of her coffee and rolls her eyes. “Who wears black at the beach?”

            By evening, my woman in black is a joke. Around the picnic table, Peggy asks if the woman not only calms babies, but changes their diapers, too. Andrea wonders aloud how much ghosts charge an hour for babysitting. Jonathan shakes the ice in his glass and calls into the dusk that he could use a top-off.

            I spray on more bug repellent and keep my mouth shut. I know what I saw. At least, I think I do, though surrounded by the nursing babies, the ball-busting fathers, the woman in black doesn’t seem so real. Could she have been a product of my sleep deprivation, of post-partum whatever?

            When we all head inside, I change Ellie’s diaper and dress her in her pink pajamas, then pick her up and walk toward the door that links our room to hers.

            “You’re letting the ghost have her again?” Jonathan says to my back, an audible smirk in the question.

            “I don’t believe in ghosts,” I say.

             But hours later, I wake up sweating, the sheets tightened around my knees. I grope for Ellie, then remember that she is not here. She is sleeping in the crib in the little room because I don’t like to sleep with her. I relish the time that I am free of her; Jonathan does, too, though he won’t admit it.

            That, and I don’t believe in ghosts.

            When Jonathan rolls toward me, vapors from his ginny breath mist over my face. I prop up on my elbow and listen for Ellie.

            After a few seconds, I hear the slightest whimper, or maybe it is a coo. Or it could be a whisper.

            In the little room, the rocking chair’s runners creak against the floor as the woman gentles my baby. Ellie’s hand reaches up for the pendant, and the woman accommodates her, letting the necklace fall so that it almost touches the space between Ellie’s collarbones, her pink pajamas burnished in the moonlight. When the woman bends down, her gowned body covers Ellie up, blots her out, swallows Ellie into her shadow until I can see no part of her, not her cloth-covered feet or fisted hands.

            Half of me is panicked, horrified by Ellie’s consumption into this woman’s shade, the other half embarrassed at the sentimental nonsense that is pouring from my mouth. “She’s mine,” I am pleading with the woman, but I am whispering too, because something about her demands that my resistance be quiet, like I’m negotiating with a nun or a grieving great-aunt.

            “She’s mine,” I whisper again. “She’s mine.”

            At this third plea, the woman’s torso rears back against the hard dowels of the rocker, and I am tripping over my feet, wrenching Ellie from her, not looking at the woman’s face, this woman who smells of dust and oleander.

            When Jonathan sits up in bed, I am clutching Ellie like she is my purse and someone tried to snatch her. Her chest is so warm that it burns.

            Dinner that evening is steaks on the grill, Peggy’s salad. I don’t help. I don’t pass out forks and knives, or pour the wine. I cuddle Ellie and sniff her hair. Instinct keeps drawing me back to the skin of her chest, which is the vulnerable shade of thawing ice, the blue blood coursing under it like a spring stream.

            Across from me, Peggy is tipsy, urging Jonathan to tell it again.

            As he tells it, I am the lunatic. I am the confused, attic-wandering mommy searching for her baby, one step from the asylum. “So then, she comes running into our room and tells me I have to scare away the ghost,” Jonathan says. “Only when I go in…”

            “…No one was there,” Peggy finishes. “I mean, obviously.”

            “Might explain why no one else had rented this place,” I snap back.

            Peggy groans. The wine has loosened her. She is no longer tolerating me, even though we once shared a kiss, immersed in a rental hot tub. When I put the tip of my tongue on hers, Peggy moaned and reached for me. She liked it more than I did.

            “It’s all in your head, and I’ll prove it,” Peggy says.

            “Oh, yeah? How?”

            “I’ll put Tommy to bed in there tonight.”

            She smiles up at her husband, who is swaying, the yellow liquid in his glass threatening to spill over. “We could use the night off, couldn’t we, babe?”

That night, in the salt air leaking through our bedroom window, I dream of ovals that flatten and bulge and wane to become crescents, of the moon juttering through its phases so quickly that it catches on fire, causing typhoon, mud slide, hurricane. I dream of a naked woman who has captured the moon and held it between her lactating breasts, can hold it there even though it burns. I dream of threes, of fairy tales, of the third night, when the humans fail and the witch wins.

            I wake up gasping, my throat burning. I yank off blankets to search for my asphyxiated baby but find her, soundly asleep, tucked against Jonathan. I breathe out, then ease myself back down, careful not to wake them, but I don’t sleep again, not for hours. Whenever I close my eyes, the phases of the moon whir by, full back to full again.

            Toward sunrise, I think of Peggy’s little boy, quietly asleep in the crib.

            I think of checking on him.

            I think of these things, and perhaps the thinking of them alone pulls me back into sleep, because soon I am drifting on soothing black swells.

The next morning, Peggy looks fresh and free in a purple tank top. She looks like the Peggy of old, who used to grind against strangers at The Wreck, who used to be a wreck herself. I am fuzzy from my dream, which feels silly now, in the dazzling gold of the morning, with Ellie happy in my arms, full of milk and tenderness.

            I am gathering myself to apologize to Peggy for a few things: for giving her crap about this sea-roughened house on the unfashionable end of this barrier island, for bringing her down with a ridiculous ghost story, for mocking her devotion to her son.

            I am about to apologize when Seth rushes into the room, holding Tommy around his belly as the child wails and rubs his chest, keening, mama mama mama, an incantation that starts quietly and expands to coat the walls.

            Peggy is a comet streaking toward them. She barks at Seth to put him down, and he does, holding him on the counter so that Peggy can unstick his pajamas from his body. When the little boy sees his own blood on his mother’s fingertip, he is stunned out of his wails. In the unholy silence that follows, the rest of us take in the blood and the charred, red-rimmed crescent moon now exposed on Tommy’s chest.

            I slap my hand over my mouth and do not say what I am thinking, instead rushing to gather up what Peggy needs, her phone, her insurance card, her shoes. And in the aftermath—through Peggy’s anxious updates from the burn unit, through all of the disappointments about the failed skin grafts and infections, through the questions that the skeptical woman from child protective services asks all of us—I never say what I am thinking.

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Mother and Child

Kyle is on her way home for Christmas. Home home, as in, where she grew up. She sits stiff in her bulkhead window seat, chewing on the teat of her water bottle and watching other passengers file in. She’s got her dog with her on the flight, her big retriever, the first time she’s flown with him, and she almost wishes a stranger would complain about it. Just enough for an excuse to get mad back at someone out loud. The only reason she didn’t take Iggy when she flew home last year was because her mom doesn’t like dogs, and this time—well.

            A flight attendant presses a coffeepot button and Iggy whines at the beep. The attendant turns, looks maybe admonishing, and Kyle puts a defensive, ready hand on Iggy’s neck. The attendant just winks and says, “He knows the coffee’s bad.”

            Kyle sighs. She grips Iggy’s collar’s leather strap. She could ask to have a drink before takeoff. Even at twenty-nine, airplane mini-whiskeys always seem riskily grown-up. She raises two shy fingers, but the attendant is looking away now. He’s smiling at the cabin doors. Another attendant escorts a young girl onboard.

            The girl has stringy blond hair, and a backpack, and a plastic pouch of papers on a lanyard around her neck. An unidentified minor—isn’t that what they call it? She could be five or she could be ten. Older than Kyle’s sister’s twins, but by how much? Kyle’s girlfriends would be able to tell, probably. Those trivia games at baby showers these days when everyone else knows, without guessing, about diaper tallies and babies seeing in black and white. Last time she was home, when she’d just broken up with Saul, Kyle’s sister asked over dinner, Was it because he wanted kids? and Kyle couldn’t explain how it didn’t feel that simple.

            That night, at that dinner, Kyle’s dad switched the subject on her behalf. He took her out for ice cream after and got her mind off things.

            He’s in Reno this year, with his brother’s family through New Year’s.

            Kyle prays the attendant will walk this little girl past her row—the airline has open seating—but the girl sees Iggy and her face lights up.

            The attendant whispers, “Do you want to sit with the doggie, sweetie?”

            The kid takes her seat slow. Her feet don’t touch the plane floor. She says, “Can I pet him?” and she puts her hand out carefully, calmly, settling her fingers on Iggy’s taut forehead. Kyle almost tells her, Be gentle. He’s anxious.

            Iggy nuzzles, softening under the girl’s touch.

            The girl says, “I’m Pearl.” She points at Kye’s wrist, the Series 6 Kyle bought herself as a holiday present. “I like your fancy watch.”

            Kyle shakes her wrist to adjust the band.

            Pearl asks for Iggy’s name, and then Kyle’s. “I knew someone named Kyle who’s a boy,” she says, not good or bad, the way Kyle’s nephews say, I am dancing. “Boston’s where my mom is and she had a dog Polka who couldn’t go with her when she moved.”

            “What happened to her?”

            “She went to live with Roger.”

            Kyle nods, like, Okay. But, the mom or the dog?

            The sky’s going dark outside the porthole windows. The aisle jams with elbowing passengers. A graying man in a safari shirt stops at the bulkhead row and asks Kyle if the aisle is free. “I like the legroom,” he says. He stows a camera bag in the overhead, leaves the satchel’s strap hanging down without seeming to notice. He’s about Kyle’s dad’s age, with crow’s feet and an easy grin, and a ring, the soft of his finger grown comfortably around it. His arms and legs fall lazy, splaying into Pearl’s seat space, and he registers Iggy with lukewarm surprise, as if, impossibly, obliviously, he hasn’t noticed the dog until now.

            The man nods at the lanyard around Pearl’s neck. “You must be a professional flyer.”

            Pearl grins. She tells him, “It’s my first time on an airplane.”

            The man looks at Kyle, an impressed face. Why didn’t you say so! He assumes they’re together, Kyle can see. She wishes she could just read her book. She wonders about her own first flight, vaguely remembers some long-ago trip where she’s small in a middle seat, her parents on either side playing rummy across her table. The memory hurts.

            “Pearl was just talking about going to see her mom in Boston,” Kyle says, to clarify.

            “Well, Pearl. I’m Roy.”

            When the plane lurches, beginning its taxi, Iggy cants forward unprepared. His nose bumps Pearl’s knee. There’s a rip in the knee of Pearl’s jeans that Kyle hadn’t noticed, a rim of dried blood on the denim hole and a scab on the skin underneath. Pearl sees Kyle looking and says, “It’s OK.” She touches the scab with a careful finger. “I was supposed to fly yesterday, but we missed it. I fell when I was running with my bag.”

            And no one put her in a new pair today, Kyle thinks. That’s bad, right?

            Pearl points at an old scar on Kyle’s elbow, as if to say, You fall too.

            When the attendant asks for Kyle or Roy’s confirmation they’ll assist Pearl—in an emergency, with any big problems—Roy looks at Pearl and smiles and raises his eyebrows. He says, “I don’t know, kid. You can swim, right?”

            Pearl frowns. “Like at the Y?”

            It’s the same as when Shannon texts teasing, haha videos of the boys doing things they don’t get are funny. Kyle feels bad. She gives the attendant a nod, but he needs to hear her say it. “Yeah,” she answers. “Yes.”

 

 

            Yes, Kyle’s mom has been seeing someone. That’s the sadness, the great Donne family drama. But the problem is that Kyle knew about Brian years ago, and her mom promised it had stopped.

            One night, when she was seventeen, Kyle burned through a computer cord and went to her mom’s office after hours, to pick up a spare. She found her mom and Brian, the receptionist, in an exam room, on a table. Kyle’s mom was beside herself afterward. She apologized, profusely. She called it weakness. Her humanity. Something Kyle would understand when she was older, a frustrating cliché Kyle has kept hoping will come true.

            Kyle’s mom said if the rest of the family knew, it would destroy everything, for nothing. And Kyle needed to believe her. She didn’t know how she could tell anyone—like, actually tell them. So, when it came out in June about her mom’s “mistake” with “Brian who she used to work with,” Kyle couldn’t say to her devastated father, her blindsided sister, that she knew more than they did. That she’d known, without knowing it, for twelve years. That it was so much more and worse than they thought.

            If you’ve been long holding a bomb that goes off in a crowd, probably no one forgives you if you tell them, I’m hurt too, or, But I believed it was dead.

 

 

            The plane wobbles going up. Pearl squeals and clasps her hands.

            Most people settle apathetic into books or sleep or laptops. Roy puts his headphones in and snags his bag from the overhead—Pearl gasps, pointing at the seatbelt sign—and begins cleaning his camera with a little swab. The kind of leisurely routine you’ve perfected on regular flights to worry-free destinations, Kyle thinks, a little indignant.

            Pearl tap-dances her feet across Iggy’s back and says, “Look at the clouds!”

            Pearl asks Kyle how cold it is outside the airplane window. Cold enough for snow? Will Kyle do snowy things over Christmas with her family in Massachusetts? Kyle asks has Pearl ever seen snow before, mostly to bumper the talk away from her own family’s activities, and Pearl shakes her head no. “There was snow in Boston last night that Daddy said I missed because I made us late,” she says. “He drove me three hours to the airport twice. Yesterday, and today all over again.” She adds this proudly, like it was nice that he went out of his way.

            That’s something Kyle’s dad always says—Need anything from the grocery store, Dad? What do you want for your birthday? Don’t go out of your way, as in, Let’s not worry about me.

            Kyle keeps Pearl talking about herself. Pearl likes school. Her best school friends are Lee and Ty. She likes this school better than two others she’s gone to because they hold after-school outside, and her favorite school subject is science, because they did an animal unit last month—“Mammals are all different kinds but they all have fur and the mothers do nursing.” She lives with her dad in Louisiana, and they had to drive so far because Houston is the nearest airport.

            When Kyle asks Pearl if she’s always lived in Louisiana, Pearl says yes, and Iggy sits up.

            “Mom used to live there too, before she went to live in Boston. I stayed with Sasha and Jax for a while until Daddy found out and I went to live with him.”

            Kyle asks slowly, “How long ago was that?”

            Pearl is matter of fact. “Two years.”

            While Kyle works out the sad math—never been to Boston, Mom’s in Boston two years—Pearl bends and stretches for a book by Kyle’s feet, the one Kyle planned to spend the flight reading. Kyle watches Pearl study the angry cover, a young woman smashing an old clock.

            Kyle clears her throat. She tells Pearl, whispering, just the two of them, “My dad’s in Nevada for Christmas.”

            Pearl considers this a moment. “Yeah,” she says, nodding. Understanding. “Las Vegas.”

            The metal drink cart rouses Roy from his camera screen. He pulls out his headphones and reaches for his wallet, announcing to the attendant, “Ian, let me treat my friends here.” Kyle just wants a water, but her will to pick a fight has faded. When the drinks arrive, they’re chocolate milk for Pearl and cranberry soda for Kyle, with a little airplane vodka for Kyle on the side. Roy winks and says, “I took a guess.” He ordered a tea for himself, and he turns to chat with Ian as he dips the bag in the hot water.

            The plane shudders. Iggy sniffs the rippling liquid in Pearl’s cup. Pearl whispers, “Kyle” and leans toward Kyle’s shoulder. “I only like strawberry. I don’t like chocolate.”

            Once, in the grocery store, when they were picking out a cake for Shannon’s birthday, Kyle’s mom said kids who don’t like chocolate aren’t kids. She said it like a joke. Kyle’s older than Shannon, and she remembers thinking, If she’s not a kid then what am I?

            Roy gets up for the bathroom. Kyle slips the tiny vodka in her purse. She hands Pearl the pink soda and tells her, “We can switch.”

            Pearl twirls the soda straw. “Like what Daddy makes for Joy,” she says.

            The surprising tastes and smells that evoke old memories are never the ones Kyle thinks they’ll be. She cradles the chocolate drink and takes a slow sip. She’s eight, at the kitchen table after day camp, drinking Nesquik with her pancakes. A nice morning. Simple. Black and white.

            The first mouthful of flavor fades away, and she takes another sip to try and get it back.

 

 

            Kyle has been mostly ignoring her mom’s texts and emails, after a few accusatory phone conversations right when the part-truth broke. So Shannon called, Mom’s envoy, to summon Kyle home for Christmas. She guilted Kyle for acting childish about the separation. “Marriages are long,” she said. “Mistakes happen.” Shannon, who’s twenty months younger than Kyle, and doesn’t know she doesn’t know the full story, and has only been married four years herself.

            When Kyle said it wouldn’t feel like Christmas, Shannon said, “There’s more about Christmas than walks with Dad.” Normal Christmases since Kyle moved away for college have meant walks with her father around the old neighborhood, sometimes several loops a day. He gets sentimental over the holidays, calls her Kylie and waxes nostalgic about when she was young enough that he knew her friends. He always points out new construction and says, They must have just put that up! If he does it to make her feel like the place isn’t changing too much without her, or because he actually hasn’t noticed the changes before, Kyle can never tell.

            Kyle sat on her couch, on the phone, Iggy nudging her with an orange boomerang toy. Shannon said, “Give me one good reason for staying in Houston by yourself.” Her tactic was, You are alone. You are not a girlfriend or a partner or a wife. You are not a caregiver. This was partly what Kyle was afraid of—face to face with Shannon for the whole Christmas week, Shannon taunting, Give me one good reason, and Kyle unloading what she knew about good reasons, making things worse just to prove Shannon’s insulting theories wrong.

            “It’s not as easy as just blaming Mom. You not talking to her is making it worse,” Shannon said. “What am I supposed to tell the boys if you’re not here? They’ll say, Aunt Ky’s not here for Santa, and where am I supposed to tell them that you are? What do you tell kids about something like that?”

 

 

            Kyle and Pearl share a bag of airplane pretzels and take turns feeding Iggy. One from Kyle, one from Pearl. Happy Iggy takes each bite like its own treat. Roy, watching over a magazine, smiles and says, “Poor thing doesn’t know they’re just pretzels.”

            Kyle feeds Iggy a big piece. “I think it’s nice.”

            Pearl cocks her head at Kyle’s brusque tone.

            They all watch Iggy lick the salt from Pearl’s little palm. The dog’s loved salty food since he was a puppy. The vet said he’d grow out of it and he hasn’t yet.

            The plane bumps over a surprise air pocket and Pearl says, “I bet my mom will pick me up from the airport in Boston.”

            They’re somewhere above Charleston—the cartoon arc on the TV map says it’s just over halfway. Roy turns his magazine page, and laughs, like Pearl was kidding, but Kyle rummages in the pretzel bag for a few more broken chips. She hands Pearl a piece carefully. “Was there something that had you thinking she wouldn’t?”

            “She was supposed to visit over the summer,” Pearl says. She holds her hand out for Iggy’s tongue. “We did the bed on the couch all made up for her. The other sheets because that’s her favorite, purple. And she never came and when we called her she said she had to take care of Mr. Petrezzi, but I know they were the days we planned because Daddy let me put the stickers on those days on my room calendar.”

            Roy picks a pretzel piece from up off the floor. He crumbles it absentmindedly into a dust that falls back down. He says, “Your mom will come get you,” and Pearl says “Okay” so easily convinced that Kyle hates to think what will happen if Roy’s simple promise is wrong.

            The guy Kyle really dated, Saul, said once toward the end that needing promises and being in love were opposite ideas, and Kyle asked him what promises he resented making. He told her she was proving his point.

            Pearl says, “Iggy’s thirsty” and holds out her empty soda cup. Kyle pours it full from what’s left in her Nalgene and Pearl tilts the cup for Iggy like a baby bottle. Pearl tells Iggy, “You’re a mammal.”

            Kyle wonders how old Pearl’s mom might be—Kyle’s same age? A Kyle-sized Pearl with Pearl’s stringy hair? Imagine Pearl walking into baggage claim and there’s no one there for her. Kyle hopes it would be true if she said to Pearl, Things shouldn’t be this complicated for you already. But what does she know?

 

 

            Kyle’s dad’s car waits for her in airport parking. He left it when he flew to Reno and mailed her a key. It will be after midnight by the time Kyle finds the car, and warms it up, and drives it out to the house. She’ll park in her dad’s old spot in the driveway, by the tree her mom once planted.

            Everyone will be asleep inside, so Kyle will try to be quiet, keeping the lights off, guiding Iggy upstairs in the dark—muscle memory—and slipping into her old kid bed. Her parents have never changed her room much at all. Still the same ratty stuffies and pre-teen wall posters and striped sheets from high school. The headboard has a worn patch where she used to rub her thumb when she went to sleep nervous, and she’ll try it, to see, but it won’t work like it used to. Iggy will take up the foot space, and Kyle will feel big in a small bed.

            In the morning, Christmas Eve, Kyle will get up first. Before even her sister’s little boys. She’ll put on a pot of coffee and wait in the kitchen for people to come down, elbows on the island counter, studying the water as it boils. The twins’ rocket toys have been left out on the floor by the table, and a pot is soaking in the sink. She’ll have expected them to make a bigger deal of her arrival, but maybe this is better. More real. Maybe it’ll help that it almost feels like a regular day in the familiar house.

 

 

            Over Baltimore, the pilot turns off the cabin lights. Roy pulls his camera out again. He scrolls Pearl through his bright pictures and talks to her about his Hanukkah plans, the gelt and video games he packed for his grandkids’ presents. Pearl squints at the glare of the digital screen in the dark. Before she can ask about one image, Roy is on to the next.

            He describes his daughter’s farm in Sherborn where his family is gathering. “It’s like the Cape without the water.”

            Pearl asks, “What’s the Cape mean?”

            Roy smiles. He picks up his jacket and tosses it over his shoulders like a cape cape.

            Pearl touches the jacket fabric.

            Kyle says, “She’s actually asking.”

            A man across the aisle falls asleep. His head tips back, and he starts to snore. Looking at him, Pearl points one finger at Roy’s camera and another at the overhead compartment and asks, “Am I allowed to get something out?” It’s clear by the way she receives her backpack from the attendant that the bag is light, and she extracts a single plastic folder. She lays the bag down on the floor and says to Iggy, “A pillow.”

            Kyle reaches for the seat light so Pearl can see.

            Pearl tilts the folder toward Kyle’s seat.

            The folder looks empty at first. Pearl pries back the pocket to reveal an assortment of photographs tucked below the flap. They’re softened, worn, but clean. No fingerprints. Handled with great care. Like Kyle’s mom with Kodaks after childhood trips—By the edges! Pearl searches for a specific photo, filing through them individually, and about ten prints in she stops and says, “This one!” She positions it under the spotlight. An image of a man asleep on a couch, a woman behind him doing bunny ears. Pearl whispers, “Cody was sleeping!” and holds the photo up toward the snoring man across the aisle, like, They look similar.

            Kyle says, “Can I?”

            She accepts the folder as if it’s fragile. The photos are glossy, on professional stock. She can’t think when she last held a developed picture, and it’s unsettling. Time-traveling, almost.

            There are school photos of friends, little rectangles with kid signatures on the back. The mismatched rectangle sizes and backdrop colors make what Pearl said about changing several schools feel real.

            There are a few candid group shots. One of Pearl at a bonfire in a whole group of children, the rest of them older. Middle or early high school, even. The most teenaged-looking girl with a plastic cup in her hands. One photo in a raggedy waterpark, a young woman dangling a laughing, bathing-suited Pearl off a deep-end diving board.

            “At night in the summer,” Pearl says. “Me and Nina at the pool.”

            In the photos of Pearl by herself, she looks so eerily unattended. Alone in a field with a water gun, shot from across a busy street. Posing thumbs-up for a New Dawn “All Gave Some” plaque. Cutting her own hair with brown hedge shears. Kyle accidentally presses her thumb on the haircut picture and the oil of her fingerprint sticks to the picture gloss when she pulls it back, leaving a smudge.

            Kyle tells Pearl, “I’m sorry.”

            Roy reaches for the waterpark picture. “Fun in the sun!”

            If Kyle could just shake him and say, You’re blind! You’re blind! Imagine Pearl packing all of these to bring with her, like show and tell. Mom, this is where I live. This is where I go to school. This is when they waved at me across a speeding boulevard. But, at the same time, who looks better—the mom-person who wasn’t there when these were taken, or the one who was?

            Kyle says, “Thank you for letting me see.” She hooks a wary finger through Iggy’s leather collar and tugs. It’s not her business. If she disapproves, she can’t tell of who. She has Pearl walk her through each photo one by one until the plane lands in Boston, and still she isn’t sure she’s done Pearl’s unknowing vulnerability justice.

 

 

            Christmas Eve morning, Shannon will come down first, and then her husband with the boys, and then Kyle’s mom. Kyle will hug her mom because it would look weird not to. Her mom will smell the same, the Baby Soft perfume her dad’s been gifting since forever. She’ll still have her ring on.

            Other than asking about the trip, Kyle’s mom will mostly hang back, watching the twins wrestle with Iggy. Kyle will pour Shannon coffee and tell her, “I did the roast half and half.”

            Shannon will say, “Two years ago we couldn’t get you up before noon.” She’ll point to their mom in the corner, mouthing, Talk to her.

            Kyle’s nephews say Houston like Ooston. “What’s far away as Ooston? Santa’s far as Ooston?” The T-shirts Kyle gave them last year still fit, so she must have guessed their size too big before, which is funny—they seem like babies now, compared to the fresh idea of Pearl on the plane. Kyle will tell them they have to come visit Texas and see it’s not so far, her brother-in-law looking at her like, We’ve heard that before.

            When the boys say, “Aunt Ky plays Duplos?” and Kyle’s about to say yes, Shannon will tell them, “Not Aunt Ky, boys. Go easy on Aunt Ky. What did we say?”

            There will be a lull in the late morning, the time Kyle and her dad would usually take one of their Christmas walks. Kyle will think about driving his car around the neighborhood instead, but then the idea seems cheesy. Like what she might have done if she was mad in high school. She’ll go from room to room noting the persisting signs of him. She imagined the house scrubbed Dad-clean, cut and dry, but he’s still in the pictures on the wall. His cereal’s still in the pantry. Some of his coats are still in the closet, tucked toward the back.

            Shannon will find Kyle in the Florida room, thumbing through an old Guitar World of his, and she’ll ask, “Where’s Mom?” accusingly, like Kyle’s banished her mother somewhere.

            Kyle will say, “I’ll go look.”

 

 

            They’re the first ones to deboard, because of their row. Pearl leads Kyle and Iggy down the jetway, saying, “You get to meet her now!” and Roy trails behind them, on the phone, unconcerned. The more Pearl skips and pulls her along, the more it convinces Kyle that even if Pearl’s mom does show up, she’ll be late or unexcited in a way that will complicate Pearl’s familiarity with disappointment.

            They emerge from the passage and Pearl’s mom is there, beside a TSA agent, shifting from one waiting foot to another. She’s just different enough from what Kyle was picturing to be surprising. Despite her hard face, Kyle guesses the woman is a few years younger than her—around Shannon’s age. She has a lanyard around her neck that matches Pearl’s. She has well drawn-on eyebrows that have smeared a bit throughout her day, and a shoulder-bag that saddles her skinny frame. Her clothes are black shoes and black jeans and a white dress shirt that bows open between the buttons, the kind of outfit that is probably a uniform and makes Kyle guilty in her leisurely plane clothes. Pearl’s mom looks tired and nervous. She holds a pink milkshake, in a cup with an orange TSA sticker, like she went through special screening to get it past security.

            Pearl sees her and runs forward. They hug, a tight hug, and stay holding each other for several seconds. Pearl’s mom says tenderly, “You’re taller,” and she wipes her cheek. She touches a finger to the knee rip in Pearl’s jeans. She hands Pearl the strawberry drink.

            Pearl says, “You remembered.”

            Iggy pulls his leash and Kyle holds him back, embarrassed at the choke in her own throat. Roy strolls past waving a contented, told-you-so goodbye.

            Pearl calls Kyle over, saying, “Kyle’s from my flight! And her dog!”

            Kyle inches forward, trying to keep a respectful distance. She snaps for Iggy to sit. She wraps her right hand around her left wrist to cover the fancy new watch, but then she’s afraid Pearl’s mom saw her do it. Pearl’s mom frowns and puts a protective hand on Pearl’s shoulder.

            Kyle says, “She did great,” and it sounds presumptuous out loud. “I mean, the plane didn’t scare her is all I meant.”

            Pearl’s mom says, “They assigned you to sit with her?”

            “I think they just thought she’d like my dog.” Kyle coils Iggy’s leash tight around her arm. “All she talked about was how excited she is for Boston. For your guys’ Christmas.”

            Pearl’s mom says, “I know.” She hoists the heavy purse on her shoulder, ready to leave.

            Kyle stands there with them. She knows she should say goodbye, and she doesn’t understand what she’s waiting for.

 

 

            Kyle will find her mom in bed, on top of the sheets, curled away from the door. Kyle won’t immediately step forward, but she also won’t back away. She’ll hold out her mug and say, “Do you need coffee?”

            It will be clear her mom’s been crying by the careening way she says Kyle’s name.

            Iggy, who follows Kyle in, will hop onto the end of the bed and sit, glancing between them. Kyle’s mom won’t shoo him off like she might have last year. Kyle will walk around to the other side of the mattress—her dad’s side—and get in. Face to face.

            Kyle will scoot forward, reluctantly. Nervously. She’ll budge one hand between her mom’s head and the pillow, wrap it around her mom’s back. She’ll use her other hand to lift her mom’s top arm and drape it across her own shoulders. They’ll lie that way a few moments, each of them holding with one arm and being held with another.

            “Iggy’s on my feet,” Kyle’s mom will say. “It’s warm.”

            “She’s good at that.”

            They’ll both wait for the other to say something more. Downstairs, the boys yelling something and Shannon yelling back. The metronome clock on Kyle’s mom’s dresser ticking. The stiff pillowcase cotton crinkling under the weight of their two heads.

            Kyle’s mom will say, “I know you’re mad at me.”

            “Yeah.”

            The clock clicks. Her mom does look pretty when she cries. Have men told her that? Kyle will wonder. How many? And who? And where? And when?

            “I’m mad at me too,” Kyle’s mom will tell her.

            “I can see that.”

            One of them squeezing the other one. Hard to tell which, their long, close limbs.

            “The last time you climbed in bed with me,” Kyle’s mom will say, “you were small enough to tickle my shins with your socks.” A shaky breath. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.”

            Kyle will study her mom’s sad, pretty face. Up this close, it’s hard to tell the parts that have aged and the ones that haven’t. Kyle will say, “I miss him too.” She’ll wish her mom would say she’s sorry. She’ll want her to say it the two ways—I apologize, and also, I know you do sweetie. There, there. Child and mother, mother and child. Both, at the same time.

            Kyle’s mom asks, “Will you let me talk to you about it?”

 

 

            While they linger at the gate, Pearl’s mom says, “—Well.” And Kyle wishes she could apologize to this tired, unknown woman. For interrupting the moment. For having believed she might not come. But Kyle also wishes there was a way she could ask, What kind of mother are you? Half in the shameful, condescending way of still judging for the bits she does know, and half in the way of really wanting—needing—to understand about the give and take. The moving away, and the showing up. The strawberry milkshake remembered. The long road getting here. The full story.

 

 

            With her head crooked on her arm on the pillow, Kyle’s neck will ache, but she won’t move. She’ll stay, hurt, listening, for longer than she would have thought she’d be willing to.

 
 
 
 

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Two Poems

How It Is Now, How It Was

as a boy panning the stream behind my house 
         for the minnows that drilled 
down the current in schools. They moved as one—
         muscular, thick, sequined—
so if I dipped down, I could nearly scoop 
         handfuls of their bounty up

to my chest like some dream of my hunter ancestors
          lost in the currents 
of my DNA. I imagine desire like this. 
          But whenever I stabbed 
my hand into that glacier water, they dispersed 
          at once, every one. And this entertained me 

until the day I did catch one, held its slim, jeweled body 
          inside my fist. The thrill 
of its tail flickering inside my palm 
          like candlelight, like a snake’s forked tongue
until I unclenched my hand to let it go and saw
          it was already gone.

Nurture

 

As souls in heaven, before inhabiting their bodies, children choose 

           their mothers. I heard my mother say this exactly twice. 

Once after we had fought in the car to cut the silent ride home. 

           And once on the phone with my aunt after my cousin shot himself 

through the mouth. I was born after a summer solstice 

           under a new moon. Rain thickened the green outside my window. 

Above my crib two portraits of angels hung.
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What the Dolls See

I come from a long line of nervous women. The nervousness started when my great granny’s brain cracked. I never met her, but here’s what I’ve been told: it was the Great Depression. She and hers were down to cornmeal and dandelions. She chased her husband with a meat cleaver until he promised that he and the kids would go without supper. She wanted to buy genuine taffeta. She wanted a pretty dress.

 

And my granny, she had broken thoughts, too. When my mama was pregnant with me, my granny climbed the sugar maple in her yard. Before Mama burned bridges with the men in the family, they swore Granny mistook the telephone wire for a branch. My mama said otherwise. Mama said Granny eyed it, and right before she took hold, she said: Goodbye, little life. She shook with the spirit.

 

Two weeks ago, my mama joined them in their crumbling. I told her I graduated and that made me a woman. I told her I was leaving Tennessee. I told her I was going north because I was in love. That was that. She said, “Dumplin, he don’t love you. He ain’t even a man.”

 

I bit my tongue. He drove a mustang. He had thick sideburns.

 

“He only likes you ‘cause you got that exotic look.”

 

I said, “You just don’t like him ‘cause he’s white and ‘cause he drinks up all the Coke.”

 

“Dumplin, you watch your mouth.”

 

“You don’t even got a man.”

 

She set my baby sister down, safe in a swaddle. She chased me, tank-top tugged down. Tried to squirt me with her milk. Pinched nipples—yellowed streams of milk from her chest. I hid in the safest part of the trailer. Her closet. The door gets jammed sometimes. She hunkered and tugged at the knob. That stuck sheet of pine was my savior. She gave up and sprayed the wood until Nevaeh cranked up her colic. Mama’s footsteps creaked away. Nevaeh’s whines rattled. We haven’t seen our mama since. She went with my man to Ohio.

 

It’s just us. Baby Nevaeh and me. We splay on the futon. She nurses the bottle just fine. I feed her until she wiggles away from the flow. The first time, I hurt her. Her squalling carried into the blue minutes of dawn. That lip-burn better not scar. We’re okay now. I nestle her in my arms, breathe in the vanilla malt on her breath. I coo. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Your mama is a fucking turd.” I rock her into dreams. “And since she up and went cuckoo, I’m gonna stay and care for you.” I settle her in the crook of the futon. What goes on behind those pretty eyelids, dark and thin as petals? What do those flittering eyes see?

 

My dreams have been haunted with mad women. Mostly it’s Mama sneaking up the slope of our yard in shadows. Meat cleaver swinging from her grip. Sometimes I’m the one who’s lost it, pushing Nevaeh into bathwater murky as sin. But I’m not like my family.

 

I dig in my old toy bin by the recliner and pick a Barbie. Her white face tattooed with purple marker. Hair chopped short. Clothes long-lost. I prop her on the windowsill behind the lace curtain. Beside her, a Cabbage Patch doll I stationed yesterday. They sit on pink doilies and watch the yard. At the end of the gravel driveway, the postal woman stuffs letters in the box. Her stomach bulges. Her mullet stiff in the breeze. She studies the window, shakes her head.

 

I pop in a VHS tape: Labyrinth. While it rewinds, I cook popcorn on the stove. The cabinets and pantry will hollow soon. Mama left her WIC papers, food stamps. I’ll need to get a job. I’ll keep Nevaeh fat. I sit on the carpet and start the movie with salted fingers.

 

A soft tapping on the door. I peer through the peephole. A plump, light-skinned girl stands in a windbreaker. Her hair tied in thick plaits. A Blow Pop pocketed in her cheek. She lives in a fenced-in house across the street. She knocks, louder.

 

I swing open the door and hush her. “I got a baby sleeping.”

 

“Why you got dolls in the window?” She smacks her tongue against the sucker.

 

“Business is better when it’s minded,” I say.

 

“My name’s Elma. What’s your name?” She cranes her neck past me, into the living room. “Can I hold your baby?”

 

“She’s sleeping,” I whisper.

 

“Hey, you got any ice cream?”

 

“You sure don’t need none.” I step in front of her.

 

She backs onto the porch. “That ain’t your baby.” She crunches the candy to shards. “My mama said that your mama is a easy heifer.”

 

Nevaeh cries. I shut the door on Elma and scoop Neveah from the futon.

 

Elma presses her face against the windowpane. She fogs the glass with her words. “What’s a heifer?”

 

By the time I get settled, the sister on screen tries to know the difference between a truth and a lie. Nevaeh sucks butter from my fingers. The movie ends at sunset. Dusk reaches up to the porch, to the windows. I lock the door and turn on the porch light. All that swimming darkness. I scoot with Neveah pressed to my chest, to the toy bin. A clay girl, strawberry-sized. Her cheeks freckled. Her arms pocked by the old gnaw of my baby teeth. She joins the others on the windowsill. I cuddle Nevaeh on the spread futon. We sleep.

 

In the morning, I give Nevaeh a gentle wash in the kitchen sink. Her soft scent: lavender, baby powder. I dress her in yellow cotton. She babbles in her stroller. Before we step out, I check my pockets—ID, WIC, pocketknife. The walk to the grocery store isn’t far, but if anyone tries anything, I’ll stab. If the sharpness won’t kill them in the moment, the rust will, later. I wait by the door and steady my heartbeat. No demons stalk in daylight.

 

The sun bakes the porch. It rained last night. The tulipwood swells, dark. I pull the door halfway shut before I see it—below the window, a teacup with a chipped brim. It sits on a saucer. And in that cup, ripped dogwood blossoms and twigs float in rainwater. I rush back inside with Nevaeh and lock the door. My hands shake in the toy bin. I fill the windowsill with watching eyes: porcelain, paper, wood. A doll with acorns for eyes. A little girl with chewed bubblegum eyes. The last doll is a nesting doll. Eyes on the outside, eyes on the inside. I place her in the middle.

 

We step out. The stroller’s sunshade protects Nevaeh’s eyes. She sucks a binky. I lock the door, tug the knob three times, slip the key in my pocket. I kick the teacup and saucer. They shatter on the sun-bleached lawn. The day is humid.

 

The air conditioner of IGA kisses our skin. My muscles ache. My breathing throbs. I walk slow in the coolness, lean my weight into the stroller. Sleepy saxophone notes slide out the speakers. I push past dewed produce, by towers of toilet paper, keeping distance from strangers. The white women with beauty parlor curls smile at Nevaeh with pity in their eyes. I shop: a pound of cheese, low-fat milk, whole wheat cereal. Nine cans of formula. A stocker with a stain of a mustache helps me carry the food to the cashier. The cashier is a little older than me with glossed lips.

 

“This is WIC,” I say.

 

The stocker lingers, helps stuff plastic bags. The cashier totals. I give her the papers and ID.

 

The stocker peers. “Name doesn’t match,” he says.

 

“She’s my sister. My mama’s sick,” I say.

 

“Have your mother come in,” he says.

 

“She’s on her deathbed,” I say.

 

“I’ll get a manager.” He huffs and struts away.

 

The cashier whispers: “There’s a shift change at five. I work a double today. If you can come back around six, I’ll ring this up for you, no problem.” She gives a half-dimpled smile.

 

My thanks: pressed lips, a nod. We leave our food in the bags, walk back down the backroad to our trailer. The lock twists open with a click. I undress Nevaeh in the dim living room. She’s drenched with sweat. Her tiny body lolls. I settle her on the futon in front of a dusty box fan. She takes the bottle. I eat macaroni. She sucks the cheese from my fingers. At 5:45 Nevaeh slips into sleep. I work the binky in her mouth and tuck her into my old bassinet. “I won’t be long,” I whisper. I lock the door and pound my feet on mud, to asphalt, to tiled floor.

 

When I reach the base of our yard, the bags sag from my wrist and arms. My back and shoulders full of ache. Elma crouches on the porch below the window. I toss the bags to the ground and jump up the two steps to face her.

 

She squints at me. “You broke my mama’s teacup.”

 

“What the hell you doing?”

 

She sprinkles bits of bermudagrass in a cup of milk. “The dolls told me they was thirsty. The dolls told me, Elma, come feed us tea.”

 

“They did not,” I say.

 

She sprinkles more grass and stirs with her finger. “They woke me up last night. They was mad. They told me you don’t help their thirst.”

 

“Go on and get before I tell your mama.”

 

“What’s a heifer?” she asks.

 

I give her a mad-mama look. I give her a look that tells her I’m three seconds from beating her with my flip-flop. She scurries away. I cart the groceries in and go straight to Nevaeh. She looks at me, eyes wide as quarters. Her cheeks tear blotched.

 

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I’m the sorriest.”

 

I plant feathered kisses on her forehead until she whines. She takes the bottle. While she sips in the bassinet, I harvest our mama’s things: jeans cut into shorts, tank tops crusted with milk, balled rubber bands twisted with her dead ends. A ceramic ice cream cone full of pennies. I dump the change on the floor and toss the cone in a trash bag with the rest of her things. A pair of scissors. A globe of yarn. There’s no more room in the bag. Hell, everything in this place she owns. I tie the bag, run down the porch, to the backyard. I toss it to the hem of the forest.

 

I talk to the bag. “Tomorrow, I’ll get a job. What I need you for?” I shoot spit to the mud. “What Nevaeh need you for?”

 

I fall asleep, naked, to Nevaeh’s light breathing and the lullaby on TV: You remind me of the babe. The babe with the power. The power of Voodoo. You do.

 

A sharp clanging rips me from my Mama-with-hatchet nightmare. I jolt up, throw on mama’s robe. The clock above the flickering TV tells me it’s three in the morning. The finished VHS tape sends out a steady bleat. I kill the TV’s power. Another clang outside. The rummaging sound leads me and the jut of my pocketknife into the black. Silence. Plastic crinkles. I run to the backyard. Elma hunkers over strewn clothes, rolls the ice cream cone between palms.

 

“What’s this mess?” I ask.

 

“The dolls told me there was a treasure.”

 

“You lie.” I fold the pocketknife. “You been watching me.”

 

She yawns. “I only been watching my dreams.” She pushes past me.

 

“That ain’t yours.” I reach for the cone. My thumbnail snags on her wrist.

 

She squeals. “You made blood.” She slams the cone to the ground. It chips on a stone. “You the heifer, ain’t you?”

 

Her feet pitter-patter away. I scoop up the mess, pile it onto the torn bag. Something leaps near my foot. I fork my fingertips through the dewed blades of grass until I feel it. The bumped skin of a cricket frog.

 

“Hello, little friend.” I carry his chirps inside and put him in the bassinet.

 

All the sleepiness leaves my bones. I shuffle to the kitchen. The magnet calendar on the fridge stops me from searching for pickles. Today is my birthday. The cabinets have what I need to mix. The sun peaks past the horizon when I finish: sweet cornbread with chocolate icing.

 

I take a tea candle out my room and put it on the cushion of chocolate. I suck down air and blow. The nineteenth wish of my life: let me give Neveah the care I’ve never known. I leave the treat on the counter and go back to my babies. The frog hides between two stuffed bears. I smear a little icing on the feet of the toys. The frog stays. “You just eat that when you get hungry,” I say. I cuddle with Neveah. Before I can close my eyes, she screams.

 

My morning is swampy diapers, warm bottles, two baths, back pats. At noon, she shuts her eyes and mouth. I find a white dress from our church days. I haven’t worn this since I graduated middle school. I squeeze in. My chest hugged flat. The short sleeves push out my arm fat. I slip into a black, hooded jacket. One sleeve is burned at the wrist. If I push the stroller just right, no one will notice. I nibble a slice of cornbread in the bathroom while I pretty my face. My choice of shoes: flip-flops, a pair of sneakers. Flip-flops will do.

 

Something thuds in the living room. I bolt into the hallway, to the futon. Nevaeh rests with a bottle poking out her lips. She’s safe. I look for what fell. The nesting doll, her innards split open. I put her together and return her to her post. The door is locked. The yard is empty. My steps can’t be heavy in this home. Something always breaks.

 

The mean heat of the afternoon makes me sweat. The sweat makes my skin lick the polyester. I itch. Nevaeh’s stroller wobbles over pebbles and sticks on the backroad. We cross the burning parking lot, into IGA. I go straight to customer service. A man with a moon belly stands at the register.

 

“I’d like to apply for a job.”

 

His thin-lipped smile stretches.

 

I stop filling out the application three times to feed Nevaeh, to change her. Emergency contact: N/A. Have you ever worked before? All my life.

 

“Come in a couple of days for the interview.” He takes the papers. “You’ll want to find a babysitter.”

 

I nod. The frog will keep her company. The dolls will keep her safe. I stroll her out into the early evening. The sky pink as taffy. When we reach the driveway, Nevaeh sputters out grunts. By the time I get her to the futon, her wailing hurts me. She won’t take the bottle. Rocking doesn’t soothe her.

 

“What you want?”

 

Her screaming eats at me. Her words formless as poor dough, but I know what she says. “You ain’t mine. You ain’t nothing but a heifer. You ain’t nothing.” Our fight is worse than throwing knuckles. She cries, I stroke her back. She wiggles away from milk, I sway. She calms a few minutes past midnight. She rests with puffy eyes.

 

I pace. My nerves won’t settle. I flick on the porch light. A mourning dove coos. That lonely sound feels like cold marbles in my belly. The frog still nestles between the stuffed bears. I take one. “She’ll be right back,” I say. I put her beneath the window, facing the wall. Pine and corkwood can’t block the sight. An extra pair of eyes offers me peace.

 

When our mama would get in a bad mood, she’d light a roll-up cigarette and fill the home with stink. In her room, the machine sits on a nightstand. My sloppy hands gut the first. Dry tobacco spills. The second cigarette is more paper than tobacco. I bring it along with a lighter to the door. I tap my pocket. Knife there, folded and ready. I unlock the door and open—just a crack. Nevaeh doesn’t stir. I blow smoke out into the sliver of night. It burns to the filter. I step on the porch to toss it.

 

Puddles of honey on the porch. Crowds of ants in a frenzy-march. Elma is a girl full of wrong. She’ll say, “The dolls want honey for tea.” The dolls don’t want anything to do with her. She knows that and hates me for it. She gave me bugs.

 

I drop the ember and filter to the porch. I creep as fast as I can to the bassinet. I cup the frog. “You a gift,” I whisper. It chirps. I go outside. The door clicks behind me. The frog squirms. I keep a tight grip and run down the driveway, across the street, to Elma’s mailbox. “Remember, you nothing but a gift.” I try to make it quick. The frog twitches after the second stab. My pocketknife shines inky in the starlight. I put his leaking body in the mailbox, on top of a grocery store’s ad paper.

 

I leave the knife in the kitchen sink to soak. I join Nevaeh on the futon. She reaches out in her sleep, brushes my mouth with her fingertips. “I hope you dream about nice things,” I say. I kiss her nails. “But don’t dream too nice. Don’t see pearls and taffeta. Dream about what you got, or you’ll wake up sad, baby.”

 

I wake up to the sugared singing of birds. Nevaeh’s eyes wander around the ceiling. I lift her. “You want breakfast, don’t you?” I bounce her in my arms, walk over to the window. A heat bubbles in my chest. I’ve never felt a fear like this in my life. Elma’s newest gift to me: on the porch, a wooden puppet sits with crossed legs. Ants trail up and down and up her stiff limbs. Her head is fixed up. Glossed eyes, knowing and never-lived, aim at the window. I meet her gaze.

 

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Watching Sermons on Facebook Live

i don’t know

 

if i’ve ever been happy

 

joy for me, a Rectory

 

built next

 

to the real thing

 

i try, i do

 

i shovel the front steps

 

i feel the proximal chill

 

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Fugues

Pumpkins rattling in the bed of a wagon. Paper crinkling around hot apple turnovers. Hay crunching under the weight of children crowding around the teenage girls serving them hot cider. Marjorie’s friend Raylene hummed through a bite of caramel-drizzled donut, nodding as she licked the fine dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon that clung to her lips. She’d waited over half an hour for this, inching past pies and cakes and generous jars of jams and butters made with fruit grown right there in Wilson’s Orchard. Raylene had suggested the outing—clearly intending it as a date but never technically using that word—and Marjorie, just fifteen days shy of her fifty-third birthday, had acquiesced in spite of the fact that she hadn’t been on a first date since her late husband Greg bought them tickets to Dune in 1984. She was twenty-one then, and broke, and the fact that he took her to Dune charmed her, as Raylene’s pumpkin patch charmed her, because she hadn’t expected to be known so well, so soon. She had been smiling gently since they arrived and was cradling a cup of apple cider to her chest, inhaling the warm, fragrant steam, when her phone started buzzing in her coat pocket, where she couldn’t feel it. Raylene had to tell her.

 

“What? Oh. Sorry, I thought I turned it off.”

 

“It’s been ringing for a full minute.”

 

“Stupid thing,” Marjorie muttered, shifting her cup to her right hand so she could take the smartphone out with her left. This particular phone was brand new—a much-needed upgrade that she’d been putting off for years while she debated getting rid of her phone entirely—so it still felt large and unwieldy to her, its smooth, flat face looking more to her like a tinted window on a car, maybe, or a sheet of thin black ice on the road. She flashed the screen. “See? Unknown. Probably just some telemarketer.”

 

Raylene groaned softly around her donut. “You want some?”

 

Its last shallow curve appealed to Marjorie, and she broke off a piece just small enough to tuck into her mouth like a marshmallow in front of a campfire. While Raylene ducked behind her toward a trashcan, Marjorie found herself longing for the smell of leaves burning inside of a steel drum and the sound of crackling as paper was tossed into the flame. This orchard was just remote enough and just spare enough for her to feel that she’d stepped back into her childhood and found herself standing at the edge of a wooded forest, crunching acorns with her boots. From where she stood, she could see hundreds of apple trees, dozens of dirt paths, and two large pumpkin patches speckled with orange fruits that appeared to glow in the soft autumn light. “Shall we?” she asked, finding Raylene suddenly beside her.

 

Without discussing it, they agreed to go the long way around, winding past the pond, then picking their way through the orchard itself, taking great care not to step on one of the many fallen fruits left to rot along the path. Raylene leaned close to whisper, “Smell that fermentation,” and wished aloud that she’d brought a bit of whiskey to spike their apple cider. Its warmth had begun to dissipate, but Marjorie still clung to her cup, finding its presence soothing, oddly, and familiar. In the course of their walk she’d learned that Raylene had two brothers (one older, one younger) but didn’t have any nieces or nephews and had lost both her parents to pneumonia within two months of each other. “They hadn’t spent more than a day apart in sixty years.”

 

Marjorie smiled tearfully. Greg had died just three years before—from kidney failure, not pneumonia—and she’d never let go of him. Sometimes, she still curled up in his big red chair and read him the newspaper. She wondered what he would say of this middle-aged woman who wore ripped jeans and bomber jackets and thought nothing of turning fifty in December. Careful. She’s the kind that likes to make herself at home.

 

Raylene had just picked up a pumpkin. “What about this one? I could see it with a face.”

 

Marjorie shook her head. “Too soft on the bottom. It’ll rot in less than a week.”

 

“You’re right.” Raylene nodded, turning the pumpkin over. “Good eye.”

 

Pickings were slim, and what pumpkins were left were typically small and misshapen, the lingering little runts that had survived weeks of culling by adults and children alike. Marjorie had thought there’d be more left, and walked around the patch with one hand in her pocket, toeing the smaller ones sullenly with her boots. Nobody else appeared to be interested in the pumpkins. The families had all gone for a ride on the tractor train, and when Marjorie heard any of them at all, it was only because a kid had tripped and skinned his knee on a rock. Raylene was kneeling, lifting a decent-looking specimen by the stem, when Marjorie’s phone started buzzing again. “Geez,” Raylene said. “Someone’s persistent.” She eyed Marjorie carefully. “Do you have a boyfriend I don’t know about?”

 

Marjorie shook her head, frowning down at her phone, which told her she’d received over six hundred texts from an unknown sender. I know you’re with her, the first read. I know you lied to me. Marjorie’s mind immediately flashed to Sharon, her work friend and technical assistant, to whom she’d lied in order to skip brunch and spend time with Raylene. But Sharon would’ve been overjoyed—ecstatic, really—to hear that she was going on a real date; she couldn’t possibly have written Ann said she saw you at the Co-op. Marjorie dismissed the possibility that these texts were meant for her after she read that. She didn’t know any Ann, and furthermore she’d never been to the Co-op with Raylene, so no one could’ve seen them there. Marjorie tucked her phone into her pocket, determined to ignore the texts and enjoy her time with Raylene, whose bright and complicated happiness seemed even more attractive after the little scare she’d had. She marveled at the ease with which Raylene inched into traffic and headed toward Marjorie’s house, as if she’d done this a thousand times before. This could be my life, Marjorie thought, then turned to look at Raylene and realized it already was.

 

 

It took them the better part of the afternoon just to carve, hollow, and rig the pumpkins on Marjorie’s porch with lights, and in all that time she forgot the messages only once: early, around 1:30, when Raylene gasped and said they should roast the pumpkin seeds and eat them as snacks. This prompted a bubbly half hour in which they sifted through the pumpkin pulp, plucked out the seeds, then attempted to rinse them off in a plastic colander ill-suited for the job. Cheeks flushed, hands sticky with juice, Raylene leaned in and with a faint smile invited Marjorie to meet her lips with her own. The kiss was gentle, close-mouthed, and lingering, and when it was over, Marjorie was so surprised that all she could say was, “I’ll heat up the oven.”

 

Raylene smiled at the jars of cardamom pods on the counter, brushing her thumb over the little red dish where Marjorie kept her plums. “You have a beautiful kitchen,” she said.

 

Marjorie shrugged, suddenly shy. “Greg liked to cook. I’m afraid I’m pretty helpless.”

 

“I doubt that.” With wet fingers, she touched the oyster shells stacked in one corner of the windowsill, where their dark, nacreous shells appeared almost bruised in the light. Marjorie liked their white ripples, their way of looking just like an eye encased in bone, and collected them like some people collect vases or coins. Greg had treated her to oysters whenever there was reason to celebrate: her promotion to Audio & Lighting Engineer at The Englert, his cleanest bill of health to date, the birth of their only granddaughter, Lily. Every occasion called for a different recipe. Fried oysters with tomato remoulade. Grilled oysters with a citrusy fennel butter. Smoked oyster chowder, and the best: raw oysters with a shallot rosé mignonette. “You ate raw oysters in Iowa? That’s brave,” Raylene said.

 

“I haven’t died yet.”

 

Raylene pointed to the pumpkin seeds, smirking. “These should go in the oven.”

 

While the seeds baked, Marjorie and Raylene dug around in the basement, looking for the Halloween decorations Marjorie had collected over the years. “Greg used to do all the organizing down here. I can’t find anything anymore.” He’d fancied himself a tinkerer, and the basement was littered with his unfinished projects: stalled watches halfway fixed, rocking chairs minus the rock, pebbles he’d forgotten to run through a tumbler to unlock their little gems for their daughter, Anita, the professional jeweler. “Anita was always a princess for Halloween—she loved tiaras. All those little stones, you know.”

 

Raylene brushed the dust off a box. “You said Anita was coming to visit?”

 

“She’s flying in on the 29th.” It was a tradition of theirs: dinner on the 30th—for Marjorie’s birthday—and then trick-or-treating with Lily. “It’s safer here than in New York, you know. Plus, Lily being here gives me a good reason to go out. It’s never as fun staying in and playing haunted house.” Marjorie put on a pair of slinky glasses and pulled the eyeballs straight ahead of her until the steel coils began to creak. She thought this would make Raylene laugh, and when it didn’t she finally heard the disappointment in Raylene’s question and knew she’d been hoping to ask her out to dinner for her birthday. She sifted through the decorations, searching for something to say.

 

“What is this?” Raylene lifted a kind of marionette out of the box.

 

Marjorie laughed, as if it should be obvious. “That’s Mr. Chainsaw. Greg liked to rig it so he’d dance down the steps whenever someone opened the front door; really freaked the neighbors out.” Mr. Chainsaw was a grinning, dancing skeleton standing just over two feet tall and wearing a brown plastic apron with a set of miniature gardening gloves. His chainsaw could be controlled with wires that pulled it up and down. Raylene mimicked the roaring sound as she faked slashing at Marjorie, who shielded herself with her arms. “Oh no, Mr. Chainsaw, don’t hurt me!”

 

“Give me all your candy!”

 

“But I don’t have any candy! All I have is pumpkin seeds!”

 

“That’s right,” Raylene breathed. “I almost forgot.”

 

Once the pumpkin seeds had cooled and Mr. Chainsaw was in position, Marjorie set out a pair of comfortable sienna-colored floor cushions so she and Raylene could sit on the floor of her living room and share a bottle of hard cider she’d bought at the Orchard. Marjorie was quiet then, listening to Raylene describe her job in the Admissions Office and thinking, all the while, of how loud her house used to be, of the rocks turning into gems, of Anita playing with her friends in the front yard, up in her room, and back in the kitchen, where Greg had taught them how to make pancakes, letting them clatter the bowls and whisk the eggs and spill milk on the floor; she hadn’t invited anybody new into their house since he died. It had been silent.

 

Raylene pointed to the sunset. “What color do you think that is?”

 

“Coral. Persimmon. Rust.” Marjorie’s phone beeped, but she ignored it.

 

“Whoever that is, they must really want to talk to you.”

 

“Oh, I think it just needs to be charged.” Marjorie didn’t check. She couldn’t bear it.

 

Her unwillingness to acknowledge her phone seemed to signal something to Raylene. She said, “Well, I should probably head out,” then finished her cider, glancing around the living room as if it were a fantasy she’d been indulging in despite knowing it could never really come true.

 

“You could stay a while,” Marjorie said, but Raylene shook her head, disengaging.

 

“It’s okay. I have to feed my dog, anyway.”

 

“You have a dog?” Marjorie followed Raylene into the foyer.

 

Raylene’s smile flashed and disappeared. “Yeah. Lucky. The dumb lug.”

 

Only then did Marjorie think to grab Raylene’s arm and prevent her from saying goodbye. When her fingers closed on the cool brown leather of Raylene’s jacket, Marjorie wasn’t quite sure what she’d say or how she’d fare under Raylene’s reserved yet hopeful scrutiny, but somehow she found the sense of mind to ask Raylene out to dinner that week. Her relief when Raylene said yes made it easier to face the messages on her phone.

 

653.

 

Marjorie made herself a pot of tea, snuggled into her favorite blanket, and began the slow process of unraveling the story behind these texts: they’d been sent by a woman; this woman was dating or had dated another woman, Sophie, and it had gone badly or perhaps was still going badly (she couldn’t be sure). What she did know was this: the texts were completely untraceable—there was no name, no callback number, nothing, just that day’s date (October 15th) and the timestamp (11:42 a.m.) indicating that all 653 messages had arrived at the exact same moment, like a swarm of bees. Her phone wasn’t supposed to do that. In fact, technical support said this was impossible, and yet—they couldn’t find Unknown either. Her messages had left her phone, bounced around a satellite, and arrived unexpectedly in a stranger’s coat pocket, where her cries of love and longing and frustration were wasted. Marjorie read the messages again and again, but always came to the same conclusion: that it was over.

 

Whatever relationship Unknown thought she was having, it was with a void.

 

 

Marjorie never stopped thinking about the messages. On her morning walks, as the winter light stretched like icicles through the clouds, she considered the corners of her town, seeing it as if through Unknown’s eyes. Here, the store where she’d picked out a birthday card; there, the café where she’d waited two hours just to realize her girlfriend wasn’t coming. Marjorie recognized all the landmarks: the bar on Market Street, that park with the swings, even the small hospital where Marjorie had seen the very same handprint as the sender (on a window by the children’s ward, on the inside of the glass, where Marjorie thought a febrile child had pressed their hand in farewell). Unknown’s texts referred to many dinners, parties, and dates that may or may not have happened, and may or may not have been happy; one even mentioned a concert that Marjorie had worked at the theater just that spring. She might’ve seen them there, Marjorie realized—their upturned faces might’ve swelled with laughter and gone quiet without her even knowing.

 

She threw herself into work at the theater, preparing for four different shows: one modern jazz-inspired ballet produced by the university, one reading and Q&A with a visiting writer, and one screening each of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with original scores performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, a group famed for composing on unusual instruments like sheet metal, garbage lids, and pots and pans. Of the four, the jazz ballet required the most attention, necessitating that she sync light cues to music in 5/4 and 7/4 time, whereas the writer just needed a spotlight and a microphone, and the Orchestra would most likely take care of itself. Matters were made worse by the ballet director, who didn’t know what he wanted. “Maybe a pink filter here?” His hands waved toward the dancer’s face. “Or the orange?”

 

Sharon dutifully replaced the optical filter on the third floor light stage left.

 

Up in the balcony, Marjorie muttered into mint tea, “Insufferable.” She shut her eyes for a moment, thinking again of Raylene’s hands: how they felt touching her own, how they’d hovered just above her cheeks, afraid to touch down for fear of smearing her with sticky pumpkin juice as their lips touched. She found it charming—that hesitation, that desire to get it right. Marjorie had made so many mistakes, when she was young and new to love, and this felt like that, like she had to relearn the rules, be careful not to get too attached too soon. She didn’t realize when her phone was ringing. Sharon had to wave up at her from the orchestra.

 

“Marge! Hey, Marge! Your phone’s blaring! Want me to get it?”

 

“Nevermind. It’s probably just a wrong number. I’ve been getting a lot of those.”

 

Sharon plopped herself down by Marjorie’s jacket. “I’m this close. This close,” she hissed, pressing her thumb and pointer finger together as Marjorie drew near. “I can’t stand it anymore.”

 

Marjorie nodded and retrieved her phone from her coat pocket. “He is tiresome,” she said, hesitating over her phone, which she’d yet to unlock. She felt sure it would be Unknown, but as it happened, that missed call was from Raylene—she’d called twice, actually, then left a message to see if they were still on for dinner. Marjorie’s pleasure at hearing this was marred by the fact that, immediately after playing Raylene’s message, her phone queued up a voicemail left by Unknown the night before: Sophie…Sophie…please, pick up….

 

Sharon leaned forward, worried by the strain on Marjorie’s face. “You okay?”

 

Marjorie shook her head. “I just need to make a call.” She retreated into the dark stairwell next to the stage, where she could ramble on in private about how work was really hectic and she couldn’t do dinner with Raylene that night. Or the next night. “I’m sorry.”

 

There was a long pause. “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind.”

 

Marjorie sighed. “I haven’t.” She tried to make this clear to Raylene, keeping her tone low and affectionate as she explained that this just happened to be the busiest week of the season. She wasn’t lying. “Look—why don’t you come to the show tomorrow? It’s at eight.” She shut her eyes happily when Raylene said yes.

 

Sharon was stretching when Marjorie came back out. “I’ll need a wheelchair pretty soon.”

 

“You’re twenty-five.”

 

“That doesn’t mean I’m not infirm. You don’t know my body.”

 

“Indeed, I don’t.” Marjorie dropped her phone into her pocket.

 

“You’re blushing,” Sharon said, pointing to her cheeks. “Was that a man on the phone?”

 

Marjorie smirked, knowing what Sharon would do, waiting for the slow, happy smile that would spread across her face when she said, “A woman, actually.” Marjorie had been waiting for this, for this moment of comfort, and finding it made it possible for her to relax, to breathe a little after a stressful week. Time passed quickly then. Music jittered out of the speakers, dancers leapt off the stage, and pretty soon it was the next day and the show was about to begin.

 

Doors opened at 7:30 p.m., when Kent, their volunteer doorman, stationed himself happily in front of the theater like a shepherd guiding his flock through the gates. The show was sold out, and Marjorie had to climb up toward the balcony to pick Raylene out of the crowd. “I might have to duck out,” she said, after leading them to their seats.

“Have you had dinner, at least?” Raylene frowned, slipping out of her jacket. Underneath, she was wearing a black fringe dress with a small pearl necklace. Marjorie was so unprepared for this sight that she just nodded and blushed as one of the ushers came by with a program and gave her a wink. Evidently amused, Raylene scanned the program.

 

“Am I going to like this?”

 

Marjorie smiled. Then, when Raylene looked unsure, she said, “Just wait.”

 

Soon, she was enraptured of the film, of the sweet, gentle Maria who captures the heart of the young, naïve Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who profits off the hard work of others in his employ. Much of the plot had eluded Marjorie when she last watched the film, but this new restoration, paired with the orchestra’s score, made it very clear that this film was less about class and privilege and more about chaos—that driving force that leads men to lust, machines to break, and cities to flood where no one can escape the flooding alive. Marjorie felt the drums pounding, the metal screeching in her heart, hollowing her out to better accommodate the sound. All at once she realized that she wanted to live exactly like this: in silence, in the theater, accompanied by an orchestra that could translate her every thought into great and terrifying music; there would be no miscommunication then, no chance of her saying the wrong thing or pushing Raylene away, only this hand holding onto hers, only this touch keeping her warm and this fear of the word Sophie… Sophie…Sophie…

 

 

Hermit thrushes had built nests in Marjorie’s backyard. She heard them singing, their high notes rising through the branches and piping into Marjorie’s bedroom, which overlooked the west side of Hickory Hill Park. Raylene had commented on it early one morning, asking, “Does one of your neighbors play the flute?” while listening to their melancholy tune—Oh, holy, holy, sweetly, sweetly. Theirs was an eerily human music. Marjorie taught Raylene how to hear it right: a single whistle followed by a series of notes in varying pitches, in a minor key, so that the thrush seemed almost to echo itself. She often lingered in bed, listening to their singing, but was awoken the day of her birthday by Lily’s boisterous call, “Grandma! Grandma!”

 

Anita followed Lily into the room. “I couldn’t hold her back any longer.”

 

Marjorie chuckled, sitting up in bed. “Hey there, Lily Pad. Who’s this?” Lily was showing off her favorite doll, telling Marjorie to say hi to Mr. Toad—he was shy, she said. This was Toad from the popular children’s book series Frog and Toad, and when Marjorie saw this doll, her first thought was that it was sad to see the two separated, after all the pages they’d spent quietly sitting together. She pinched the doll’s foot. “We must get Mr. Toad a friend.”

 

Anita settled in the armchair by the window. “There’s a Mrs. Toad back home.”

 

“Is there?” She tickled Lily’s stomach. “How incongruous.”

 

Anita smirked; the fragrant steam of her coffee had turned the tip of her nose faintly pink. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, and she’d straightened her naturally curly hair already, though Marjorie couldn’t figure out where she’d found the time. It was wise of her to move to New York, Marjorie thought—that city was more her speed. Anita always had a million projects. “She asked me to make some dresses so she could dress Mr. Toad up.”

 

“That’s my granddaughter—always ready for Halloween.” She strummed her fingers over Lily’s leg. “Guess what Grandma’s costume’s going to be.”

 

“A piano?”

 

“A princess!”

 

“Talk about incongruous,” Anita muttered into her coffee. “Let me guess—Ariel?”

 

“Princess Wensicia, actually. From Children of Dune.”

 

“Ahh, yes, Daddy’s favorite.” Her smile faded at the mention of her father. “You okay?”

 

Marjorie glanced up thoughtfully, wondering why Anita was the only one who ever asked that question. It seemed to her that she hadn’t been really okay for a very long time—since before Greg died, perhaps before he was diagnosed—and that she had instead been performing a kind of simple diminuendo, lowering her voice, softening her vowels, in preparation for that slow, lonely glide into the unknown. Until she received those messages, she’d been content to go quietly, even peaceably, bringing nothing with her, not even music; and then came the shrill, insistent buzzing, sounding like an alarm on her hip. No, Marjorie thought, she couldn’t tell Anita about this, so she ducked the question, asking Lily, “What would you like for breakfast, Lily Pad?”

 

Lily flung her arms open. “Pancakes!”

 

“How about pumpkin pancakes?”

 

With a gasp, Lily jumped up and ran down to the kitchen to get started. Marjorie laughed.

 

Her birthdays were always more or less the same: breakfast with her family, a little cream in her coffee, a nice long walk through the park, then a couple hours in between lunch and dinner when she could just sit at a piano and play Lily some music; sometimes, she chose Shostakovich, Fugue No. 4 in E minor; sometimes, she chose Mozart, Requiem in D minor. And then again, she sometimes liked to go to Nodo inside the Ace Hardware on N. Dodge St. and order a corned beef and pastrami sandwich to eat while she walked around the graveyard and visited the Black Angel under the gray Iowa sky. This year, she traded her coffee for tea, her walk for a romp through the leaves in her backyard, and her somber fugues for the gayer waltzes of Chopin. These were some of the few pieces that Anita still knew how to play, and when Anita took over, Marjorie started to guide Lily through a neat and happy waltz, letting the girl stand on her shoes so she wouldn’t fall. In the midst of this, there came a knock at the door.

 

Raylene had come to take her to lunch. “Am I too early?”

 

Behind them, Lily ran up the steps, excited to see Mr. Chainsaw in action.

 

Marjorie laughed. “No, no—we were just playing. Come in.” She guided Raylene into the foyer, touching her sleeve lightly as she leaned in for a kiss. Anita saw this from the living room, and when she came and joined them, she had a look on her face like this was the most interesting thing that Marjorie had ever done. Introducing Raylene was surprisingly simple—even Lily, who didn’t always take to strangers, slowly edged up to Raylene and plucked the thin white threads on her thigh, where her jeans had frayed. “We were just going to go to lunch,” Marjorie said.

 

Anita was quick to protest. “Stay, stay. We’ll order in. Do you like Wig and Pen? They’ve got a carnivore pizza that has all the meats.”

 

Raylene glanced at Marjorie. “Sure,” she said, very carefully, in case Marjorie objected.

 

Marjorie wasn’t quite prepared for this, but she accepted it easily and with a kind of grace that pleased her, because she hadn’t expected Raylene to fit so readily into all the facts of her life. Raylene held up well during Anita’s dutiful interrogation, detailing how they met (at the Saturday farmers market in the Chauncey Parking Garage: Raylene had been buying fresh mustard greens; Marjorie, turnips) and what their first date was like.

 

Anita’s last question was a simple one: “Where do you live?”

 

Raylene pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “A few blocks that-a-way.”

 

“That’s pretty close. Maybe we’ll come trick or treat at your place.”

 

Raylene smiled. “I’m actually going to a party. But I’ll leave some candy out for you.”

 

Anita didn’t know if she liked this answer. “Is this a costume party?”

 

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be going as Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot.” She mugged a bit for them, pointing her fingers like mock pistols and engaging in a little shootout with Lily, who aimed with one hand and clutched Mr. Toad with the other. When Raylene faked falling, Anita shot Marjorie a quick smile of approval. Yes, Marjorie thought, Raylene would do. When the doorbell rang and Anita followed Lily to the door, Marjorie paused a moment to think of her happiness, of the hand pressing hers, the receipt being signed, the plates clacking against the counter as everyone helped themselves to sausage and pepperoni pizza. It was a good birthday—the best in recent memory—and for that afternoon at least she didn’t think of Sophie or Unknown or the bright, brief joy she’d felt when she woke up in the morning and thought Greg was there beside her. Instead of dwelling on it, Marjorie took the board games out of the bureau, breezed through Lollipop Woods, and got mired in Molasses Swamp, too warm and loud and pleased with herself to hear it when her phone started to ring. This time, Unknown didn’t leave a message.

 

 

Trick-or-treating started at dusk, when the candles in Marjorie’s pumpkins lit up. Outside, wayward teenagers were roaming around, half in costume, half in jest, wearing vampire masks to hide their identities while decorating houses with toilet paper and robbing children of candy. Lily had been head-to-toe ready since 10:15 that morning (she’d dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and required nothing in the way of real make-up), but Anita took her time, mixing her face paints and gluing her eyebrows in order to transform herself into Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. This process was slow and methodical, so after Marjorie attached her own elaborate headpiece, she sat off to the side and watched as her daughter become the evil witch from the movie. Anita was still gluing on her nails when she asked, “How heavy is that thing?”

 

Marjorie brought her hand to the back of her head, where thin gold wires extended out of the crowned dips of her headband, shivering like the filaments of an incandescent bulb whenever she moved or breathed. “I’d say three pounds. Maybe four.”

 

Anita lifted one hand, studying her nails. “Let’s hope there isn’t any wind.”

 

Thankfully, the night was cool and dry, and the streets were lit with small orange lanterns flickering like ghosts in the moonlight. Marjorie walked in the grass, listening to the earth squish, while Lily walked hand in hand with Anita. “Mommy,” she said, “are there wolves in Iowa?” She was staring at a dog then, peering down his chocolate snout as he sniffed her tentatively.

 

Anita said there were no wolves. “Just corn. Lots and lots of corn.”

 

“That’s not true,” Marjorie said. “We also have fossils. And…football players; they might as well be animals.” Only last week, one of them had been caught urinating on a statue in the Ped Mall. And just a week before that Marjorie saw a group of tailgaters playing beer pong on a table they’d dragged out onto the sidewalk. It was 7:00 a.m. then, and she was walking to the river to meet Raylene. She was tired, and cold, and declined the tailgaters’ offer of a game, but gladly accepted the thermos of coffee Raylene handed her upon arrival. That was a good day, she thought.

 

Lily tugged her sleeve. “Grandma, can you hold my basket? My arm’s getting tired.”

 

“It isn’t even six yet.” She took the basket, weighing it contemplatively.

 

Anita tilted her head. “You’re thinking of going to that party, aren’t you?”

 

Marjorie smiled softly, glad that she’d been caught. “I’m just not sure I want to meet all of Raylene’s friends while I’m pretending to be somebody else. What if they don’t get it?” Marjorie’s Halloween costume painted her as a manipulative, fair-haired, middle-aged princess continuously plotting against her enemies; to look at her then, one would think she was a murderer, employing genetically modified tigers to hunt children through the desert. Princess Wensicia wasn’t who she wanted to be, wasn’t the right costume for her. She’d only worn it out of love for Greg, who listed the princess third in his top ten characters from Dune. Marjorie wished he could’ve seen her then. He would’ve known what to do.

 

“Lily won’t notice if you go,” Anita said. “She’s all about the candy.”

 

Marjorie nodded to herself, as if finding the courage. “I’ll walk back with you, then go.” It would be quite some time before Lily tired of filling her basket with sweets. Her riding cloak had pockets stitched inside the flaps and a large hood into which Lily snuck half a dozen Crunch bars and Snickers without Anita noticing. Marjorie saw their wrappers gleaming when a pale, ethereal light fell on them inside a haunted house. Poltergeists were hovering over them, she realized. The house’s architect had rigged them to descend from the rafters and glow in the dark. Like Marjorie and Anita, Lily seemed to find these ghosts soothing, their soft green glow like that of fairies in a forest clearing. Anita lifted her face, and when the light touched her cheeks it looked like she was staring at herself in an enchanted mirror. Marjorie watched Anita and Lily disappear into her house and then set out alone to the party.

 

It was a mile, maybe a mile and a half, across the train tracks and down by the river to the party. Marjorie wondered when the trick-or-treating would end and watched as the small children living next door toddled into the street, chasing after a golden, rounded truffle. She stopped about five blocks from her house when she saw the pale red siding of a house she’d passed many, many times before. Unknown had said she lived in a red house: no, it’s the Red House next door. I have my light on. Marjorie had imagined a tidy, one-story house, one with a porch swing and gas stove and rhododendrons out front, but this house was larger—emptier—the windows darkened as if in protest of the holiday. Just looking at it filled Marjorie with panic. Quickly, she walked down the road, turning left and then left again to check all the houses. To find the one Sophie had found on a night not unlike this one: bitter and cold and terrifying.

 

She stopped on the corner of East Bloomington and North Johnson. She’d been there before, on that late night walk when she’d seen the handprint in the window of the hospital. Mercy Hospital, its ambulance doors opened wide outside of its emergency room. There was a red house directly across the street—tall, handsome. Its paint was blood red. Its pale white columns as lustrous and polished as bone. This was where Unknown lived, she thought. In this house, on the first floor, in what sounded like a state of perpetual anticipation. Had it killed her? Marjorie wondered. Had all the waiting finally driven her mad? If only she knew. Marjorie wished she’d picked up the phone, wished she’d heard it ringing while she sat playing Candyland with her family. She’d changed her ringtone since, chosen something grand, orchestral, and easily recognizable: Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the dramatic allegro cued to burst from her phone whenever Unknown called. She’d been waiting for that sound all day, taking care to always keep her phone within earshot. When it didn’t come, Marjorie turned away from the red house. She walked a block, maybe two, and then paused to listen to her phone, its silence broken only by the distant cries of children whose voices followed her into the night.

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