Memories of September

I remember apple trees and shucking corn, and the smell of oil in a cast iron pan. A fine dust of white flour on the counter, and fried apple turnovers sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar at the center of a lace tablecloth.

I remember red and gold leaves, raked into thick pillars taller than me, and a woodpile at the bottom of the hill, stacked tight and high in advance of the coming cold.

And I remember my grandmother, her stubby, gnarled fingers, like knobby roots on an ancient tree, wrapped delicately around a tiny sewing needle. She made me a bright pink apron once, and I remember parading around the house in it, swooshing it around my hips like a ballgown.

There are things I don’t remember. I don’t remember the name of the family who lived down the hill, or the phone number I used to call to say hello to my grandmother after school. I don’t remember my grandmother’s face, though I recognize her in pictures, and I’d know her voice in a crowd even now. Some days, I don’t remember the names of my children and their children. Or so they tell me. And though I can play my favorite song on the piano, my own fingers now stiff and curved, I can’t remember the words.

Memories are precious things.

I used to spend whole days with my grandmother. We’d cook and talk, and she’d watch her gameshows. She’d tell me about when she was a girl, how she loved to read and play ball, how she was her class’s valedictorian, and how she always wished for a black-haired grandchild. My own hair was auburn. What’s left of it now whisps around my head in spindly gray spider’s webs.

One September day, just after the leaves had started to turn, my grandmother sat with me on her front porch. The air was still warm, but the breeze carried with it the bitter cold sting of winter. I must have been about seven. My grandmother had made us root beer floats and we were rocking back and forth in old wooden chairs, keeping rhythm with each other.

“How old are you,” I asked.

“Seventy-five,” she said. “I’m an old lady.”

“You’re not that old,” I answered. “Seventy-five isn’t that much more than fifty.”

“Well, then, I’m just over middle-aged,” she said, and laughed. She had a crackly, dry sort of laugh.

“Yeah,” I nodded, and dug my spoon so deep in my glass that root beer sloshed over the top and into my lap.

I can’t remember if the rocking chairs were painted red or white. I don’t know what happened to them after my parents sold the house. Maybe they’re still out there somewhere, rocking another grandmother and grandchild.

My grandmother died when I was twenty, and I have many more years behind me now. Time makes blank slates of all of us, slowly and meticulously, and unrelenting. Soon, like my grandmother, I will be a name in the family tree, a face in an old picture, a story or two at a holiday gathering, and people will argue over the details.

After I got lost driving myself to the grocery store one morning over the summer, my children hired a nurse to live with me, Heather, and she tells me not to worry about things like time. She says that I am strong for someone my age. She’s young, and once when I asked her, she told me she still remembers the name of her kindergarten teacher. I couldn’t remember something like that, even before I started losing pieces of my own story.  

It’s September now, late in the month and early in the fall, and the leaves have just started to turn. I ask Heather every day to help me outside, where I can sit on my own front porch and watch as the wind blows them down.

Today, she’s spread a fleece blanket over my legs and she’s sitting beside me, reading aloud from my favorite book, Jacob Have I Loved. I can’t remember who wrote it.

“Heather,” I say, interrupting her just as they’ve discovered the sister can sing, “have you ever shucked corn?”

She folds the book up in her lap and says, “I don’t think I have. You can buy it from the store already ready to cook.”

I ask her if she can go to the store later and buy some corn that hasn’t been shucked. She says yes and goes back to reading.

Twenty minutes later, she leads me to my bedroom and I drift off to sleep. I dream of corn on the cob and of root beer floats.

************

My grandmother taught me how to pull corn off the stalk and shuck it. She taught me how to string beans and how to fry chicken and make biscuits so well that they came out golden and flaky every time.

Sometimes we’d make a batch of biscuits for no reason at all, and we’d eat them toasted and slathered with a thick smear of dripping yellow butter. This she bought from the store. I remember her telling me how to make homemade butter, once, but I can’t remember what she said to do.

I sent poor Heather to the store this afternoon with a grocery list a whole page long, but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed happy, in fact. Maybe she’s relieved I finally want to do something besides stare out at the garden.

We’re in the kitchen together now, and I’m instructing her on how to mix the biscuit dough just right and how you need to salt each piece of chicken individually before you cover it in flour and crushed up Corn Flakes to fry it. I’m too weak to stand long enough to do it myself, and she’s being a good sport.

“We’re going to have a feast,” she says. She’s got flour on her chin and smudged just under her eye.

“This was just a normal dinner when I was little,” I say. “You should have seen what we used to put on the table every night.”

“You’ll have to teach me more,” she says, and I nod.

“I never could get red velvet cake right,” I answer. “We could try that sometime.”

“I’d like that,” she says.

She comes over to sit by me at the table, and she brings with her a package of four ears of corn, all still in their husks.

“Now,” she says, “you tell me what to do, and I’ll just follow your directions.”

I tell her the best I can, miming everything and probably looking silly, but she doesn’t laugh. She gets to work. Her long, slender fingers are quick and she makes the whole thing look easy.

“One day, you’ll teach someone how to do this,” I say. “You can tell them you learned from the second best.”

“I can tell them I learned from the best,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone better.”

She finishes cooking everything and we sit down to eat together. She tells me little things about her life, and I smile and nod and try my best to bite down and grab the corn off the cob with my teeth. Eventually, she cuts it off for me and I eat it with my fork. It’s such a small thing, but it’s one more. One more thing I’ve lost. I can’t remember the last time I could eat corn right off the cob. It was kind of her to let me try.

After dinner, Heather helps me to bed and sits down beside me once I’m settled under the covers.

“Thank you for sharing all those recipes with me,” she says.

I roll over on my side and close my eyes. She reads for a bit, her gentle, even voice almost a song.

************

I remember nights without street lights, with stars as bright as flame and a big, yellow harvest moon in the sky. I remember the bitter smell of wood fire, burning hot and steady in the old metal stove downstairs. I remember evenings spent playing Rook and drinking cold boiled custard.

I remember the rustle of the wind through the leaves and the stiff cornstalks in my grandmother’s garden. I remember her dented black mailbox, at the top of the hill. I don’t remember the address, but I remember the long walks up and down, my grandmother beside me, beckoning me to keep up with her. I remember complaining that it shouldn’t be so hard to get your mail.  

Tomorrow I will ask Heather to pick up some green apples. We’ll make fried turnovers, and I’ll tell her how I learned to peel apples without a fancy peeler, and how my grandmother used to make jars and jars of apple butter and keep them on shelves in her basement, ready for visitors who wanted a little something sweet.

I will tell her these things, while I can still remember them. Maybe I’ll even ask her to write them down. And maybe someday someone will find them, and I will become a new memory.

Birthday Funeral

All of my stories are a bit personal, in one way or another, and all of them have at least a kernel of truth or two. This one is special, because it’s extra personal, and because there’s a lot more than just a crumb or two of real life. I couldn’t think of anything else to write for this month. This is the only story that wanted telling.

************

“You really don’t have to do that, you know.”

Sara stood in front of the sink, peeling a peach. Sticky juice dripped down her fingers and into the basin. If she’d been smart, she’d have thought to get a bowl and collect it. Wasted juice made for a dry cobbler, and she would not be taking a dry cobbler to the funeral dinner. She’d rather turn up empty-handed than risk her reputation on dry cobbler.

“Sure, I do,” she said.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” said her mother, from her perch at the breakfast bar.

Really, Sara shouldn’t be cooking anything. As family of the deceased, Sara’s obligations consisted of weeping quietly, accepting condolences and awkward hugs, and finding a place in her grandfather’s tiny kitchen for the massive collection of casserole dishes and KFC buckets friends and neighbors had been dropping off for the last three days.

“It’s what I can do,” she replied. “And it’s what I want to do. Can you grab me a bowl?”

“You’re just like him,” her mother said, and passed a green plastic bowl over from the pantry. “You always have to be busy.”

“So, you’re saying it’s genetic?”

Sara could practically hear her mother’s eyes roll. She looked over and winked.

“Just like him,” her mother said.

“I’ll miss him.”

Sara’d been living in California for the last three years. She hadn’t gotten home as often as she wanted to, and when she heard her grandfather had died, it’d felt like a punch to the gut. When she moved, he’d been as hearty as ever. He’d refused to slow down. He’d laid floor tile and worked on old trucks and split firewood, and even now, she just couldn’t imagine him as a frail old man. He’d never even lost his hair, until cancer treatments took it from him. Sara dreaded old age.

“Let’s go outside once this is ready to bake,” she told her mother. “I’d like to enjoy the view for a little while before we head to the funeral home. It might be the last time I’ll see it.” She tried her best to hide it, wiped it away as fast as she could, but a single tear trickled halfway down her cheek. “I don’t think I ever realized how special it was.”

“Your grandpa used to say this was God’s country,” her mother said. Sara heard a sniffle and the rustling of a tissue. “He was proud of you. He wanted you to come home, though.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry this is happening on your birthday. He’d hate that.”

Sara was grateful the cobbler was ready to bake. She shoved it in the oven and went straight to the door. She just needed a minute, just a second, to pull herself together. Outside, August heat radiated off every surface, and the humidity settled around her shoulders like a weighted blanket, close and heavy. Sara sat down in the porch swing and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and another. She heard the screen door open and close, and then felt her mother sit beside her.

“I’m glad I get to share today with him,” Sara said, and opened her eyes, squinting against the bright morning sunlight. “I just wish none of this was even happening.”

“I know,” her mother said. “Me, too.” She took Sara’s hand and held it.

They sat like that, hand in hand, in silence, just looking out at the mountains in front of them, the fields and pastures, and the little church down in the valley.

“Do you remember when you locked your grandma out of the house?” Sara’s mother asked, and giggled.

“I don’t! I don’t think I ever did that. I wasn’t that mean when I was little.”

“Oh, you did,” her mother said. “And you told her she was old and you were new.”

“Oh, God, I did not!”

“You most definitely did, Miss Meanness,” her mother replied.

“I was a terrible child,” Sara admitted. “Do you remember the little girl who used to stay in the old house down the hill?”

“Who?”

“I used to go down and play with her. I can’t remember her name.” Sara thought about it, and couldn’t remember much, except, “the bats! There were bats in the attic and she used to talk about how she’d hear them in the middle of the night. They kept her awake.”

Sara’s mother didn’t reply.

“She had long dark hair and freckles,” Sara added.

“Sara,” her mother said, “no one’s lived in that house since I was in school.”

“Well, she didn’t live there all the time. She just visited family.”

“That house has been empty for years.”

“No,” Sara insisted. “No, I remember playing with her.”

“You must be thinking of something else,” her mother said.

“No,” Sara said. She thought of it again, the little girl and her pink bedroom, her tattered white curtains, how she laughed when Sara didn’t know how to braid. “No, I remember.”

The oven timer buzzed, pulling Sara out of the moment. She went inside. She had things to do. No matter what else might happen today, no matter how faulty her memory might or might not be, she would not let that beautiful biscuit crust burn.

************

After the funeral and the dinner that followed, Sara went back to her grandfather’s house with the rest of her family. The sun hung low on the horizon now, almost invisible behind the ridge line. She sat on the porch swing alone, rocking gently back and forth. The high heat of the day had broken, but she could still feel the dewy, warm air through her itchy funeral clothes.

She hated funerals. She hated everything about them. She hoped no one would ever plan a funeral for her.

“Just put me in the ground and drink some wine,” she said, out loud for no particular reason.

“You know this family doesn’t drink, right?”

Sara’s uncle walked out onto the porch and sat beside her.

“Sure they do,” she answered. “Just not in public.”

“Like all good Baptists,” her uncle added. “I’m sorry about your birthday.”

“Everyone’s said that,” Sara said. “It’s fine. I’m actually kind of honored to share the day with him.”

“When are you heading back?”

“A couple of days, I think.” Sara hadn’t checked her work phone since coming home. She didn’t know what kind of mess she’d walk back into. “I’m not sure.”

“We’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss y’all, too.”

“You can always come back. They’ve got newspapers here.”

Sara wouldn’t be coming back here to live, not ever. But she said, “I know. Maybe someday.”

Her uncle nodded and stood up.

“Hey,” she said, “before you go, can I ask you something weird?”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Do you remember the family that used to live down the hill?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“There was a little girl, right? About my age?”

Her uncle thought for a moment. “Yeah, they had a little girl.”

“Oh, thank God. I thought I was crazy.”

Her uncle nodded. “I’m surprised you know that, though.”

“Why?” Sara felt a pang in her stomach, doubt or fear or something deeper.

“You never met her. They were gone before you were born.”

“What?”

“Yeah, they lost her. She died in a car accident. They moved not long after it happened. Not sure where they went.”

Her uncle went inside, leaving Sara alone again, in the deepening dark. She looked down the hill, at the white steeple and the gray ruin of a house just visible in the last light of the day. And she remembered being down in the pasture, playing with a dark-haired little girl, spinning in dizzying circles and giggling so hard she got hiccups. She remembered her grandfather calling down to her, his gruff voice beckoning her back home.

“Sara,” he’d said, “get back up here! It’s not safe down there by yourself.”

Now he was gone, and Sara knew her family would sell the house.

“If we keep it, every time we walk in, we’ll just be expecting to see them and they won’t be there,” her mother had said.

Sara wouldn’t be back here again. This view, the porch swing, the mystery girl. None of it would belong to her anymore. She’d only have the memories. She supposed death was always like that, leaving you with questions and no one to answer them, with memories and no place to ground them. What a birthday present.

Sara stood up and stretched her arms. After one last, long look, she walked inside.

Magic Hour

Somewhere in some universe, Joey still exists. I know, because I’ve seen him.

*************

We always argued over where to go on vacation. I like exploring, adventures, and cold places. Joey always wanted to just relax, wind down, sit on a beach somewhere and do nothing. It drove me crazy. Every year, we’d take two weeks off and make a plan. Every year, we’d have a fight about the plan.

This year, I rented a beach house.

My therapist told me I never give myself time to slow down, that I hold myself to impossible standards, that I let other people do it, too, and I should be kind to my mind and my heart. My mother told me I’d lost too much weight. My friends needled me, every minute, to take some time for myself, to breathe and open myself up to my feelings, as if I needed a reminder of the aching, empty, endless, hollow void in my chest. And none of them offered to come with me, of course. Summer is family time, after all.

But I caved anyway, and I rented the beach house, because I missed Joey. And because I wanted to prove I could like it. And because screw him. And because it seemed like the best thing to do at the time.

The day I arrived, the cleaners were still there, finishing up.

“It’s a great house,” said an old woman with impossibly purple-gray hair.

“Looks like it,” I replied, because I’d only gotten one foot into the door.

“I hope you enjoy your vacation. I wish I could get away for a whole two weeks by myself!” She winked at me.

I didn’t tell her it wasn’t a choice.

When Joey and I had gone on our annual vacations before, we’d always looked for the smallest places we could find. We wanted to be close to each other, even though we weren’t very good at it. There was always conflict, by the end. There were tears and hateful words and, though we were both ashamed of it, sometimes a bruise or two. But we wanted to love each other.

I booked a six-bedroom monster with two kitchens and seven bathrooms at the end of an island, on an acre-wide plot of windswept sand dunes. I needed the space. My grief needed a mansion. It could expand to fill oceans. I wanted it to, and then I wanted to dry it up, burn it to ash, cast it out into the universe and finally be free. I wanted to wallow, and then I wanted to rise.

I stayed in bed for the first two days, in the cavernous master suite with the curtains drawn. I didn’t even turn on the TV. I just laid there, in the silence, in the dark. The blankets stayed crisp and straight, settled over me like a shroud. I was immovable, still as a dead body.

And then I pulled myself up, that third day, and ate a fried egg sandwich with extra hot sauce. Joey hated hot sauce. I dressed in a bathing suit that probably looked a little too young for me, and slathered on SPF house-paint sunscreen, and went to the beach. I was on auto-pilot, really, robotic, going through the motions. But I got myself out, and I set up my chair and my umbrella and I sat there, even though I hate sand and I hate hot weather and I hate the acrid smell of saltwater.

Eventually, with the sun low on the horizon, warm on my back, I fell asleep.

I thought it was a dream, at first. I woke up to a neon pink sunset and saw him there, in front of me. Standing near the water’s edge, in the ridiculous bright green swim trunks he always insisted on wearing, Joey waded into the surf up to his ankles, and turned around and smiled.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” he said, his voice as familiar, and flippant, as always.

I didn’t have time to reply. I blinked once, twice, and then the world around him seemed to ripple, almost flicker, and he was gone, like he’d never been there to begin with.

“What the hell?” I said out loud, to no one in particular. The moon was rising, and I was the only one left on the beach.

Magic Hour

I think a weaker person might have cracked. You just never know how you’re going to react to something impossible, right? But this is what I did. I packed up my chair and my umbrella, I took myself back to the house, and I had a glass of wine and went to bed. I woke up the next morning, and went to the beach again, and this time, I brought a camera.

I don’t know what had possessed me to bring Joey’s giant Nikon camera with me in the first place. I’d just felt like I needed to, because he would have. I’m not even sure how it ended up in my closet, but I found it and packed it. He’d have been proud I remembered, and then would have begged me to please be careful with it, because it was expensive and I was clumsy, and there was no way I’d be able to afford to replace it.

I sat out there all day, sweating, itching all over from sand and sunscreen, listening to the incessant, thunderous, irritating roar of the ocean, until the moon sat high above the water. Nothing happened. Nothing. I don’t even know what I was expecting to see.

I threw Joey’s stupid, massive camera into the breakers.

The days passed in a boring haze. I did all the things you’re supposed to do on a solo vacation as a single woman. I sat by the water, I swam in the waves, and lost my favorite bracelet for my trouble. I shopped. I went out and had a few drinks at a local dive and shucked oysters with a fun group of drunk strangers. I even managed a one night stand. In his bed. Not mine. But it all felt worthless. I just kept coming back to that moment, at sunset, Joey looking back at me and smiling.

I’d spent so much time, in those first few months, trying to build my life back up, trying not to focus on Joey and the beautiful mess we’d had and what I’d lost. And here he was, invading my head, not letting me go, again, over and over.

My last day, I headed out to the water’s edge. I watched the gulls fly overhead and waited. I have spent countless moments of my life just waiting. How many of them, I thought, for Joey? He’d never waited for me.

I eventually drifted off, and woke at sunset, again. I looked ahead at the water, and he wasn’t there. I felt relief. Just a huge surge of relief.

But then fingers brushed mine, and I turned and saw him, reclining in a chair beside me, bathed in that same late evening light, gold and pink and almost too perfect to be real.

“We should go in soon,” he said.

“Why?”

“It’ll get cold once the sun’s down.”

“I’m not cold,” I said, just before he flickered and vanished.

“Fine,” I said, to the empty space by my side.

************

I still see him, every now and again. I can feel him. I can feel him breathing. I can feel the air move around him. I can feel the weight of him, the mass of him, the difference it makes in the world. I wish I couldn’t. I’d make it stop, if I could. I’d break free of it. It’s worse than losing him in the first place, and worse than living with him before that.

I never know when he’ll turn up. It’s always quick, at sunset, always just when the last light of the day glows bright and then fades. I heard someone call that magic hour, once. I thought it had something to do with photography. I wonder, now, if there’s more to it than that, and if that time between day and night, when the world shimmers, really is just a little bit magic.

Joey used to talk about all the things we’ll never learn, and all the things we can’t understand. Once, when we were together camping in Patagonia, he snuggled up beside me near the fire and looked up at the stars.

“Do you think we’ll ever really know everything that’s out there?”

“I think people smarter than me have tried and failed to answer that question,” I said.

“Yeah, but if you could have the answers, wouldn’t you want them?”

I don’t know.

The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

We found him in the creek.

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He was crouching low over the water just like we were, looking for crawdads. It was June, the hottest, longest day of the year, and he was just there, like he’d been there the whole time, only he hadn’t. Not five minutes ago. Not one minute ago. We were certain we hadn’t seen him, and all of us agreed. Just this little boy. Dusty blonde hair, lots of freckles, striped red shirt, white shorts. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. We weren’t, either, so that didn’t feel too weird, but the fact that none of us had seen him there earlier, we just couldn’t shake how strange that was.

He said his name was Thomas Leonard, and that he lived in the big house on Morrison Street. We told him the only big house on Morrison Street was torn down two years ago to build condos. He said his mom would be missing him, and he was already late for dinner, and he should get along home before Marcus Welby. We didn’t know who that was. We let him walk away. What else were we supposed to do?

We didn’t realize this kid was THE Thomas Leonard. Every kid in our town knows the name Thomas Leonard. He’s the biggest, saddest secret, the scariest bedtime story. Or, he was. Thomas Leonard disappeared fifty years ago.

It happened like this.

One day, Thomas Leonard tells his mom that he wants to go to the creek and try to catch crawdads with his friend. His imaginary friend. He hasn’t had an imaginary friend all that long, and his mom thinks it’s weird that he’d make one up at his age, but apparently he’s always been a lonely kid. She’d hear him in his room all the time, by himself, but not acting like he was by himself.

“You can’t be G.I. Joe ‘cause I’m G.I. Joe. You gotta be Mickey Mouse.”

And then silence.

“Fine. I’ll be Mickey Mouse this time, but next time, I’m G.I. Joe. You’re awful mean sometimes.”

Stuff like that. See? He was a weird, lonely kid.

Anyway, he asks his mom if he can go play in the creek, and she says fine, go, but be home before dinner, and please remember to wear your shoes back this time. He says okay, and leaves the house at about 3:00 in the afternoon. He never comes home.

They only ever found his shoes.

Everything changed after Thomas Leonard disappeared. The town installed street lights, for one. And they built this huge bridge over the creek, just in case Thomas drowned in three inches of water. And no parent ever let their kid go to the creek alone, not even fifty years later. People remember things forever in this town.

We all thought it was silly, how we had to follow rules just because some dumb kid probably got lost in the woods, like, almost 40 years before we were even born. It’s not like they found any evidence that Thomas was kidnapped or murdered or something. But every time we saw a missing kid on the news, some parent in some house would say, “It reminds me of Thomas Leonard.”

No one ever talked about him out in the open, but this was the town that Thomas Leonard made. The street lights, the bridge, the rules. We heard this rumor once that his mother paid for all of it, out of some family inheritance or something.

She goes up to the mayor one day, after Thomas disappears, and she looks terrible. She looks like she hasn’t slept in a year, which would probably be about right, actually, and she says, “As long as I live, this will never, ever happen again.”

And the mayor looks at her and says we’ll try our best, and about a month later the street lights go up.

Thomas Leonard’s mother lived in this town until the day she died. She sold her house and moved into a little apartment above the antique shop. She stopped going out in public. And about a month before the evening we found him in the creek, she died.

“So sad,” everyone said. “But at least she’s with Thomas now.”

We saw the procession for her funeral. It was only, like, three cars.

But everything she paid for must have made a difference, because there hadn’t been so much as a sprained ankle at the creek in fifty years.

The day we found Thomas Leonard, we’d decided to go out one last time, before we got too old. Kind of like trick-or-treating. No one went to the creek after they turned fourteen. It was considered childish, something you only did if you weren’t cool enough to do something else. We weren’t really sure what that something else was, because hanging out in the grocery store parking lot smoking cigarettes and listening to music from your car radio just didn’t seem all that cool.

So we walked down to the town square, and around the corner to the picnic pavilion, past the swings and down the hill, over the train tracks and across the bridge. We’d only been there for an hour or so when we saw him, and we talked to him for less than five minutes before he walked away. Sure, we thought it was strange, but it wasn’t until about fifteen minutes later that we made the connection.

We got ourselves together as fast as we could and went in the direction we’d last seem him walking. We made our way back up the hill and into town, and we didn’t see him anywhere. And nothing seemed wrong. Like, we asked everybody we saw, and nobody had seen him. A couple of people actually yelled at us for playing such a terrible joke. We started to wonder if we were crazy, because it was impossible. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back looking exactly the same. No one disappears for fifty years and comes back, period. But we knew we’d seen him. We didn’t make it up.

We started to wonder, though, if someone had played a prank on us. So when we got home, we Googled his name. And there was his picture, clear as day. The boy we saw was definitely Thomas Leonard. Without a doubt. Same hair, same freckles. We tried to tell people, but no one would listen. We went to bed thinking we’d seen a ghost, and that it was probably the weirdest thing that would ever happen to us, and that maybe we didn’t want to go to the creek ever again.

And then, the next morning when we woke up, we saw the news. We couldn’t believe it. Who would believe it?

See, on the same evening that we found Thomas Leonard, on the longest day of the year, at the creek down the hill from town, Rebecca Bishop disappeared. She’d ridden her bike down there alone right after we left. We’d just missed her.

It’s been about three months, and they’ve only ever found her shoes. She’s the new biggest, saddest, scariest bedtime story.

Maybe fifty years from now we’ll go back. We might be crazy, but maybe we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll all still be here, in fifty years. We’ll be old. It’s so long, and we make promises to each other all the time we know we won’t really keep. But maybe we’ll keep this one, and we’ll be there, at the creek, waiting for her.

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The Bridge

“You do it.”

“No, you do it.”

“You big baby.”

“That’s mean! You’re always trying to scare me!”

Allie and Michael lay on their bellies, staring into the damp, moldy crawlspace under their red brick ranch-style house.  They’d explored every other inch of the place, starting with the attic, over the course of the last week.

“It’s not my fault you’re a big fraidy-cat,” Allie said.  She scooted forward along the bright green grass until her head and shoulders had disappeared into the dark.  “There’s nothing under here except dirt and spiders.”

“I hate spiders,” said Michael, and shuddered.  He sat up and brushed off his Yankees T-shirt.  “I want to go home.”

“This is our home.”  Allie emerged from the crawlspace with smudges of brown grime under her chin.  “Dad got a new job, remember?  We live here now.”

Michael’s bottom lip began to quiver.  Allie put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly.  “It’ll be okay,” she told him.  “Don’t cry, dummy” she said, and stood up.  “Let’s go have lunch.”

Allie and Michael grew up in the city.  They’d lived in a cramped fourth floor walk-up above a bodega all their lives, and this new house in the country, with lots of windows and a wide-open yard, frightened them both just a little.  It excited them, too.  They’d never had their own rooms, and sometimes, at night when the unfamiliar noises got to be too much, Michael would climb into Allie’s bed, and they’d huddle together imagining car horns and sirens.  Their mother had died in December, and their father had decided they all needed a change of scenery and some fresh air.  Now, in May, a little more than a week after moving in, all three of them secretly missed traffic and crowds and hustle.

Their house sat on a dead-end, gravel road in a valley, surrounded by old-growth forest six miles away from a one-grocery-store town.  Allie and Michael hadn’t quite worked up the courage to explore the woods, but they had spent time walking up and down the road, waving to the few neighbors they had and making up stories about them.

“Mrs. Roberson has an army of rats in her basement!”  Michael didn’t like Mrs. Roberson.  She had a cloudy left eye and a hunch in her back.  She’d dropped off a broccoli and rice casserole for them, though, the first night they’d spent in their new home.  Michael didn’t like that either.  He hated broccoli.

“Heather Fields hit a boy with her car once, and she didn’t even stop!”  Allie, who at eleven was all knees and elbows, and showing the first signs of acne on her cheeks, was just a little jealous of the beautiful, sophisticated sixteen-year-old Heather.  She drove a red sports car and had offered to take Allie to the mall three towns over once school was out.

After they’d eaten, just past the high heat of the day, and with nothing left to uncover in their house and all of their toys still tucked away in boxes, Allie and Michael went for a walk.

Michael noticed the narrow dirt trail first.

“Where do you think that goes?” he asked, pointing into a dark canopy of tree limbs and thick vines, down a path barely wide enough for two people.  “I never saw it before.”

“‘I’ve never seen it.’  Talk right, Michael.”  Allie peered down the path herself.  “Let’s go look.”

Allie dragged Michael along at first, keeping a tight grip on his sweaty hand, but he got excited and broke her hold when they found a long wooden bridge.  It spanned about a hundred feet, over a slow-flowing creek and above a field full of yellow buttercups.  Michael ran to the middle and looked down.

“There’s lots of dead trees down there,” he yelled back to Allie.  “And there’s a snake in the water!”

Goose Creek

“Don’t go down there,” Allie called to him, and quickened her own pace, careful not to step too hard on the old boards.  “This thing’s really old, Michael.  It’s not safe,” she said, once she reached him.  “Let’s just keep going.”

The trail seemed darker as they walked on, the tree canopy closer, and all the leaves brittle and lifeless.

“Do you hear that?” Allie asked Michael.

“I don’t hear anything,” he said.

“Exactly,” she answered.

“Stop trying to scare me!”

“I’m not!  I just think it’s weird.”  Allie grabbed for Michael’s hand again and pulled him closer to her as they kept walking.

Ten minutes later, the canopy opened up to reveal a fork in the trail, and at its center, a stone farmhouse, tucked away behind two of the biggest sycamore trees Allie and Michael had ever seen.  The house’s shutters were ragged, bright white that had gone gray, and its metal roof looked close to collapsing.  On its rickety front porch, a gray-haired old man in faded denim overalls sat in a rocking chair.  He stood when he noticed them.

“You two lost?” he asked.

“No sir,” Michael answered.

“We were just walking,” Allie added.

“Only people ever come see me are lost,” the old man said.  He beckoned them forward with a paper-thin arm.  “Sit with me a while?  I just made some strawberry ice cream.  Seems a good day for it.”

Allie and Michael looked at each other, and then up at the man, and walked up the front porch steps side by side.  Allie sat on a whitewashed porch swing off to the right, and Michael on the top step.

“I’m Amos,” the old man told them.

“Allie Daniels,” Allie replied.

“I’m Michael,” said Michael.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Amos,” Allie added.

“Nice to meet you two, as well,” Mr. Amos said.  “I’ll just step inside a minute and be back with some of that ice cream.”  The screen door creaked close behind him.

“Is this okay?”  Michael chewed at the nail of his pinky finger.

“I guess so,” said Allie.

“Dad always tells us not to bother grownups.”

“He invited us,” Allie reasoned.

Mr. Amos returned holding three ceramic mugs overflowing with ice cream, each scoop studded with bright red strawberries.  He presented one to Allie and one to Michael, and sat back in his chair with his own.

“I always did love strawberry ice cream best,” he said.  “You’re lucky you stopped by while they’re in season.”

“What’s that mean?” asked Michael.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Allie explained that they’d just moved from the city, and that they hadn’t even started school yet, and that Michael wouldn’t know a fresh strawberry from a spaghetti noodle. “And mom always did the grocery shopping before.”

“Before what?” Mr. Amos asked.

“Our mom died,” said Michael.

Mr. Amos sat his empty mug down on the window ledge behind him.  He shook his head and tucked his knuckles under his chin.  “I’m real sorry,” he said.  “My wife died about three years ago.”

“Do you live here alone?”  Allie felt bad asking the question right after it came out of her mouth.  “Sorry.  It just looks like really a big house for one person.”

“I’ve been here a while,” he said, and got an odd sort of foggy look on his face.  “Things never really were the same after she went.  Seems like I used to live totally different.”

They all sat silent for a moment.  Allie picked at a hole in the seam of her pink tank top.  “Everything’s different now for us, too,” she finally said.

Michael, from his perch on the top step, slurped the rest of his ice cream down in one bug gulp, and said, “I don’t like it here.  It’s too quiet and there’s nothing to do.”

“Well, now we got each other, don’t we?”  Mr. Amos got up and clapped his wrinkled hands together.

“Really?”  Michael’s eyes grew to the size of saucers.

“We could come back tomorrow,” Allie said.  “We could bring some books and games and stuff.  Have you ever played Crazy Eights?”

“I don’t reckon I have,” Mr. Amos said.  He came around to collect their mugs.  “But I still got room in this old brain for some new stuff.”

Allie glanced at Michael, and the two of them stood up in unison.

“We should get back home and stop bugging you for now,” Michael said.

“You’re not bugging me at all,” Mr. Amos said.  He nudged the screen door open with his bare foot and stepped inside, clutching the mugs to his chest.  “Y’all wait just one more minute before you leave.”

When he came back this time, he handed Michael an intricately carved little wooden fox.  “I carved that when I was about your age,” he said, “from a sycamore tree in my back yard.  Looked just like one of those before it fell down in a storm.”  He pointed to the trees in front of the house.

“Can I keep it?” Michael stared down at the fox in his palm, and wondered just how long it took Mr. Amos to make it.

“I think you should have it,” Mr. Amos answered.  “It’s meant for a boy, not for an old man.  It feels like it’s been sitting here waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” Michael said.  He looked at the fox one more time before stuffing it, as gently as he could, into the pocket of his khaki shorts.  “Can you teach me how to make one?”

“I sure can,” Mr. Amos said.  “Y’all come back and see me whenever you want.”  He smiled at them.

“Thanks,” said Michael, and smiled back.  Allie realized it was the first time he’d smiled since they moved.

“Thank you for the ice cream,” said Allie.  “We’ll come back tomorrow, before lunch.”  She paused.  “If that’s okay,” she added.

“I look forward to it,” Mr. Amos said.  “It’s been a long time since I had company.  I think I’ll sleep real good tonight, now I’ve got two new friends to see in the morning.”

Allie and Michael stepped off of Mr. Amos’s porch and out toward the path.  They turned around once, just before they reached the sycamore trees, and waved.  The old man waved back, and, as they walked away, Allie and Michael never heard the creak of his screen door.

************

They went back the next day, carrying a cardboard box full of sandwiches, chips, sodas, and books for Mr. Amos, and a deck of cards, so they could to teach him to play Crazy Eights.  They found the dirt trail, and crossed the bridge, but found no house at the fork in the path, and no sign that the house behind the sycamore trees, or the old man who lived there, had ever existed in the first place.  In his pocket, Michael felt the solid weight of the little wooden fox.

************

The following May, as the school year wound to a close and Allie and Michael began to dream about summer and all of its promise and possibilities, they decided to look for the house at the fork one more time.  They had to do it in the morning, because Allie had a sleepover later that day, and Michael wanted to meet some of his friends to practice for football.  He’d be old enough to play in the fall, in the youth league in town.

They didn’t expect to find anything, and couldn’t explain how they’d ever found anything in the first place.  None of their neighbors knew of a man called Amos, and all of them insisted there had never been a trail off of the road, or a bridge, or a stone farmhouse.  The whole neighborhood, they said, had been carved out of the woods only twenty years ago.  But Allie and Michael wanted to go back and see, for themselves, just in case, and so on a humid, overcast day, they set out looking for the trail.  They found it, and the bridge, and the fork and the giant sycamore trees.  Only now, instead of Mr. Amos’s stone farmhouse, there was a log cabin, and on its porch, a young man with dark hair in a plaid shirt rested in a red Adirondack chair.  He stood up when he noticed them coming.

“You kids lost?”

Allie and Michael looked at the young man, and then at each other, and walked up the front porch steps.

The Green Man

The woods 2

Leland Foley always worked at night, when the little village was sleeping.  In the forest behind the small collection of farmhouses and cottages, no larger than thirty households, he’d found his latest project.  Among the dark thickets, surrounded by black branches stretched against silver-blue light, seated high and relaxed on his bright yellow excavator, he’d hack and push and dig and turn, and by morning, would survey his work with a proud grin and a cigar.

The night before the village’s annual Arbor Day festival, Leland worked.  It had rained all week, and the ground beneath his machine was soft and pliable.  The narrow river that wound through the length of the woods flowed high.  A chorus of owls and crickets and foxes sang and cried, and Leland was glad the motor of the excavator drowned out the cacophony.  Leland liked quiet in the woods, because it meant he could focus on the sound of making money.  Every crack of every limb, each thud of a fallen tree onto damp earth, sounded, in his mind, like the ping of a penny dropped into a piggy bank.

He’d had a piggy bank, when he was a boy.  It had been a gift from his father, who, as Leland had torn open cheerful red wrapping paper and clawed into a cardboard box to get at his birthday present, had imparted the wisdom by which Leland lived his life: “Bullshit walks,” his father had said, and placed a firm hand on his shoulder, “and money talks.  Remember that, son.”

Leland had since grown up, grown nearly old, and had given the same gift and advice to his own young son when the boy had turned eight.  Only he’d added, “Money means you can leave a mark, kiddo.”  The boy had looked at him dully, attention already moved on to the next brightly-wrapped package, some kind of toy, probably.  “You haven’t done anything with your life if you don’t leave a mark.”  His wife, her hands crossed at the waist of her pink silk house robe, had glared at him across their heavy oak breakfast table, but had said nothing.

In the morning, Leland and his family would join in the Arbor Day festivities and plant a tree in the village square.  His wife had insisted.  “At least try to make them like you,” she’d nagged, and argued that everything would be easier if he was on good terms with the villagers.  He did not look forward to the festival, but he would participate, if only for the photo opportunity.  He had several acres to clear before then, and so he kept at work, lulled into an easy rhythm by the beeping of the excavator, thinking of nothing in particular.

At around 5:00, with only an acre or so left to go and the first gray light of morning on the horizon, Leland took a break.  He climbed down and stretched his gangly arms and his thin legs.  He walked around the work site and surveyed his progress, his tired eyes sweeping over the flattened landscape, visualizing what would come next.  He’d already created a few nature trails, had made plans for a gazebo, a pond, and a tennis court, and would soon start clearing lots for large, luxury homes.  Maybe twelve, he thought, or a few more.  People would pay a lot to live in close-knit, characterful villages these days, and if no one else would take advantage of this free and empty space, then he certainly would.

He’d leave it to others, of course, to do the building, and he’d pay them well, with the profit from selling the timber.  But the clearing, the earth-moving, that he liked to do himself, the product of his own labor.  When this project was done, the village would be remade from a sleepy, old world hamlet into a new, modern, luxury community, one that he’d envisioned and created.  He’d build a town for the twenty-first century, a legacy he’d leave behind for everyone to see.  The villagers didn’t like it, had let him know and had complained to the local zoning board, but they would come around.  And if they didn’t, Leland didn’t much care.

He walked forward a few steps, loosening his stiff knees, feeling the give of the newly turned earth beneath his heavy work boots, and saw an orange flicker in the close distance.  It took a moment for him to process, but he realized he was looking at a campfire.  And a campfire meant a trespasser.  As quietly as he could, he made his way back to his SUV, a walk made longer knowing he wasn’t alone on his land, and grabbed the baseball bat he kept for self-defense.  And just in case, he tucked his gun into his belt.

He snaked, quick and silent, towards the campfire, and saw a young man, probably not more than twenty, reclining against a tall ash tree, his head cocked back and cradled in his hands, his long legs stretched in front of him.  He looked to be sleeping, but Leland approached him with caution.  In the firelight, it was hard to make out details, but Leland thought he saw a shock of red hair, a crooked nose, and, a few feet away, stashed against a boulder, a blue backpack.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, the young man opened his eyes and smiled.

“Well, hello, sir,” he said, cheerfully.  “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“I own them” Leland answered, flat and sharp, “and you’re trespassing.”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”  The young man reached into his pocket and produced a tattered map.  “I never could read these things,” he said.

“The highway’s a few miles east,” Leland told him.  “You should move on, or I’ll have to call the police.”

“Sure,” the young man said.  “Only you never answered my question.”

“Excuse me?”

“What are you doing out here in the woods?”  The young man stared at Leland with wide, curious eyes.

“I’m working” Leland barked.  “And these woods belong to me.”  He added, for good measure and to make himself clear, “So you’d better move on.  Now.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the young man said.  “The wood’s are no place for working.”  He paused, thought for a moment, trained his eyes on the campfire. “Not for regular folks, anyway.”

“Yeah, well, regular folks have to work to make money,” Leland replied.  “And you’re in my way.”

“I think you’ll find you’re in mine,” the young man said, quietly, and if Leland thought he perceived a shift in the young man’s demeanor, a sudden coldness in his speech, he couldn’t be certain.  The young man looked up and added, with a bit more volume, “If the highway’s east, then I’d have to go through you to get to it.”

Leland had no answer to that, and said only, “I thought you were bad with directions.”

The young man leaned forward, began to shovel dirt onto the fire with his hands, and said, “I’m bad with maps, but I’m good with directions.”  He stood and stamped on the smothered embers a few times, and then stepped away.  He grabbed his backpack, hefted it onto his shoulder.  “And I’m good with the woods.  Seems like you are, too, in your own way.  Or bad, depending on how you look at it.”

Leland said nothing.

“Let me tell you a secret before I go,” the young man said, and stepped in close.  He leaned over Leland’s shoulder, his lips close to Leland’s ear.  “You’re standing in a fairy ring.”

Leland looked down, and found that he stood in the middle of a small circle of mushrooms.

“And the moon’s full,” the young man added.

Leland looked up.  Ten minutes ago, there’d been only clouds, but now, he could see the full moon, bright and looming in the lightening morning sky.  And wrong.

The woods and moon 3

The full moon wasn’t for another two weeks.  Leland was nearly certain.  He’d seen the information only this morning, when he looked at the weather.

“You should make a wish,” the young man whispered, and then laughed, loud and hardy.  He stepped past Leland, close enough that his threadbare backpack brushed Leland’s arm, and began to trudge through the underbrush, whistling as he walked.

Leland watched him go, didn’t dare move until he was out of site.  He went over their conversation in his head.  And he thought, in spite of himself and for the briefest moment, of a wish.  A wish to leave a legacy in these woods, to remake them.  A wish to make a mark.

Leland’s feet began to tingle.  He looked down again at the tiny, snow white mushrooms all around him, surrounding him on all sides, no higher than his toes.  He began to feel stiff all over, and realized he couldn’t move his knees, then his elbows, and then his neck.  Somewhere in the forest, he heard a fox scream.  Or perhaps it was the high-pitched yowl of his own voice, just before his lips sealed shut.  In his last moments, he thought of houses.  Neat rows of cream siding on a flat, sodded landscape missing its carpet of deep green forest.

And then he didn’t of think anything at all.

********************

In a little forest outside of a tiny village, near a serpentine slip of a river, stands a broad, dark-limbed tree that village children call “The Bad Man.”  It is an ominous thing, all black knots and rough, prickled bark, with leaves like human hands.  When the wind blows through its spindly branches, the villagers say it screams. The children insist that it holds the spirit of a greedy man who disappeared a long time ago, and they play a game to see who’s brave enough to touch it.  The adults don’t say so, but they grow up believing it, and they avoid that part of the forest.  The tree stands on its own, covered in a thick layer of black moss and poison vines, set apart from the ashes and sycamores around it.  At its base rests a ring of white mushrooms.  And high on its trunk, sticking out like a cancerous knot through the moss and vines, is an angry, twisted face.  The villagers say it’s been there for a hundred years, maybe more, like a blight that will never heal.

Something Borrowed

The war raged and ravaged and tore at the outside world for a year before the draft.  The whole country watched grainy news footage of dusty, decimated cityscapes and bleeding, wide-eyed children waiting for treatment in makeshift hospitals.  It all felt very far away, before the draft.  After, no one could run far or fast enough.  The draft would catch up with you eventually, if you were a healthy young man without connections.

Nick Keene had been running his whole life, and he was an expert.  He’d started the day his mama killed his daddy in their kitchen.  In the high heat of a Deep South summer, Nick had watched the whole thing, had seen his mother plant a knife deep in his father’s potbelly, had seen his father drop, bleed, and close his eyes a final time.

“Nicky,” his mama had implored him, wringing her bloody hands around a ratty dishtowel. “Nicky baby, you gotta say you did it.”  She stepped over his daddy’s body, not even cold.  She put those stained, raw hands on his shoulders.  “You tell’em you did it.  Ain’t nobody gonna put a baby on death row.  You love me, don’tchu baby?”

He did, in the deep, whole, unconditional way that only children can love, but he ran.  He ran and ran until he reached the next state, and then he kept going.  He missed his parents, his life, his home, but he never looked back.  He was twelve years old, and he’d been running ever since.

********************

Nick Keene became Nick Keys, shirking the weight of a family name and a desperate guilt he couldn’t bear to carry.  A string of low-paying jobs took him all across the country, but hard luck followed him everywhere.  He fell out with a girl in Omaha after she lost their baby, crashed a car working as a chauffeur in Los Angeles, lost all his money teaming up with a card counter at the tables in Atlantic City, broke a toe on the docks in New Orleans.  Whether it was something big or something tiny, Nick couldn’t catch a break.

Things had started to change in Kentucky.  At twenty-one, Nick made his money playing music with another runaway.  Tommy Flint was the best guitarist Nick had ever seen, and he often wondered why Tommy had never been discovered, especially considering that Tommy’s ex-partner, Rocky Rush, had.  Rocky’s music topped charts all over the world.  Nick was jealous, and knew Tommy must feel the same, but together, he and Tommy had styled themselves Flint and Key, and they were pretty good.

Two guitars

They hitchhiked when they had to, and took night buses when they could.  They’d stay a little while in a town and then move on.  Nick didn’t know what Tommy was running from, and Tommy didn’t ask about Nick’s past, and between the two of them, they had enough suffering and fear and bad luck to write ten albums worth of songs.  Good songs, songs that made money and got people talking.  Nick figured it was only a matter of time before the right person heard the right one, and they’d be set up for the rest of their lives.

On the night Nick got his draft notice, they sat across from each other in an almost empty diner after a bar gig, splitting a Hot Brown and cold pie over steaming cups of dark black coffee.

“What’ll you do?” Tommy asked.

“Shit,” Nick replied, and took another bite of pie.  “Shit,” he said again.  The white lights overhead suddenly felt too bright, and Nick rubbed his eyes with the calloused fingers of one hand while he considered.  “I have to go see my mama,” he finally said.

“I didn’t know you had one,” Tommy retorted, in a mild attempt to lighten Nick’s mood and the terrible enormity of the situation.  They both knew the draft was a death sentence.

“I didn’t come from nothing,” Nick said, and put three dollars down on the table.  “Everybody has a mother.”  He got up from the vinyl booth, heaved his guitar case over his shoulder, and walked out, leaving Tommy behind him.

“Now, wait,” he heard Tommy plead, shocked and distressed in a way that warmed his frightened heart.  “Don’t go off alone.”

Nick just kept walking.  He heard the door jingle as it closed behind him.  He’d never been good at goodbyes.

********************

It took three weeks to make his way home.  When he got there, robbed of his guitar at a bus station in Tennessee and sick from hunger, Nick found his mother in the graveyard, six stones down from a tall magnolia tree.  He found his father, too, not far away, but he lingered by his mother’s plot, scooping the creeping weeds away with the toe of his scuffed brown boot.  He leaned over and ran his fingers along the carved letters of her name, Judith Keene.  She’d only been gone for a month.  He’d only just missed her.  She’d never tried to find him, and he’d never come back to her, not in nine years.  He’d never even written her a letter.

Nick walked from the cemetery to the house where he grew up.  He stood on the sidewalk, just out of the glow of the one leaning streetlight, and stared at the final ruin of his childhood.  The bungalow sat empty and dark, covered in an impenetrable curtain of thick kudzu.

“You’re Nick Keene,” someone said from behind him.

Nick turned, but didn’t step into the light.  “What do you know about Nick Keene?” he asked.

A woman took a step towards him, coming into the halo of bright yellow light, and smiled.  She was a knockout.  Bright auburn hair, ivory pale skin, dressed in a dark blue cocktail dress.

“I know you’re him,” she answered, “and I know you’re hungry.  Come on with me and we’ll get you a sandwich and something to drink.”

She turned and started walking, and Nick followed.  He was hungry, and she was offering.

“Who are you?”  He caught up with her, looked at her delicate profile, and realized she couldn’t be much older than he was.

“I was a friend of Judy’s” she said.

“You knew my mother?”  Nick couldn’t recall that his mother ever had close friends, or any friends at all.

“I did her a favor once.”

“What kind of favor?”

The woman didn’t answer.  Nick wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.

“Where are we going?” he asked instead.

“My place,” the woman answered.  “Everything else is closed.”

“Why’re you helping me?”

“Well,” the woman stopped, “the way I see it, you have no past, not anymore.  And if you’re back here, that probably means you don’t have much of a future, either.”  She looked him right in the eyes, and held his gaze.  “You get drafted?”

Nick looked down at the pavement.  “Yeah,” he answered.  “I wanted to see my mama one last time.  I wanted to make things right.”

“Then the least I can do is feed you,” the woman said, and started moving again.

Nick followed, and lost track of time in the humid night air.  He thought they might have gone about a mile, into what was left of downtown with half of its boys away at war, when she walked around the corner of the bank and unlocked a side door.

“Here we are,” she said.

He followed her up a set of narrow stairs and into a large apartment.

“How long’s this been here?”  Nick looked around him, at the expensive furniture and the tall windows.  “I don’t remember this being here when I was a kid.”

“Sit down,” the woman said, and motioned to a leather armchair in the corner.  “I’ll only be a minute.”  She walked towards what Nick assumed was the kitchen, and turned the radio on before stepping out of site.

Rocky Rush’s caramel voice flooded the space around him.  Nick wondered what his life would be like, if he’d been discovered like Rocky, flown off to Hollywood or New York to record music and become famous and live secure and safe for the rest of his life.  All it would have taken was one moment, one right moment in front of the right person.

“Lucky bastard,” Nick grunted.

The woman came back with a plate of club sandwiches and a rocks glass full of something brown and syrupy. “That’s what you want, then,” she said, “to be up on stage, to be a star.”

Nick considered.  He took a bite of food, and a swig of what turned out to be good whiskey.  His throat felt warm.  “I want enough money to live in a place for more than a few weeks.  I want a job that won’t end when the project’s done.”  His voice started to quiver.  “I don’t want to go and fight and die in a country I don’t care about.”

“Your mama didn’t want to die, either,” the woman said.  “She told me so herself.  Said she’d do anything to stay free and alive.  She missed you, though, towards the end.”

Nick realized he’d finished the whiskey.  The woman took it and poured him another, standing over him after handing him the glass, swaying lightly to the rhythm of Rocky’s minor key love song.

“Do you play music?”

“I did,” Nick said.  He told her about Tommy, and their time together and their songs.  “But somebody swiped my guitar outside of Memphis,” he finished.

“That’s too bad,” the woman said.  “Luck’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”  She sat down beside him, nestled herself right against his shoulder.  “I bet you’re every bit as good as Rocky Rush.  I bet he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Nick said.  He’d finished the second glass by now, and felt himself getting tired.  He felt tired all the way to his bones.  He leaned his head back.  The woman snuggled in closer.  He could feel the silk of her hair against the skin of his neck.  “Lucky son of a bitch.”  Nick closed his eyes and sighed.

“You want it, don’t you?  Just a little bit of his luck.”

Nick didn’t reply.

“To be a star?”

“I do,” Nick said quietly.

“I thought so,” the woman said, and kissed him lightly on the lips just as he drifted off to sleep.

********************

Nick woke up alone, with a painful hangover and a heavy ball of dread and fear in the pit of his stomach, and no memory of how he’d come to be in the empty attic above the bank.  He remembered, though, that he was going to war, and that his mother was dead.  He had no past, and his future was a pine box six feet under the cold ground.  He stood up and made his way down the stairs and into the bright sunlight, each step taking him closer and closer to what he knew would be the end.

The closest military induction center was four towns over.  Nick walked in and gave his name at a small desk in the front.

“Keene?”

“Nicholas Keene,” Nick replied, and gave his birth date as he presented his draft notice.

The lanky soldier behind the desk looked through every piece of paper in sight, and then said, “Hang on just a minute, a’right?”

Nick waited.  The soldier came back empty-handed, and told him there must have been a mistake, and that he was free to go.

Nick figured the mistake was on their side, that it would catch up with him eventually, but he went, and he used what little money he had left for a bus ticket that would take him as far away as he could go.  On the bus, he sat down beside a paunchy older man in a khaki suit.

“Hey, I know you,” the man said.  “You’re Nick Keys, aren’t you?”

“Who’s asking?”

The man reached into his pocket and presented Nick with a crisp white business card.  “I caught your act in Louisville a couple of months ago,” he said.

“I know your name,” Nick said.  He couldn’t believe it.  “You’re with Columbia.”

“Sure am.  Just down here to see some family, and then I’m heading back up to New York.”

“Oh,” Nick said.  He waited, hoped, the man would say more.

“You here alone?” the man asked.  “Where’s your partner?  You two were dynamite together.”

“He’s still in Kentucky,” Nick answered.  “I’m on my own,” he added.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” the man said.  “Are you interested in being a solo act?”

********************

Rocky Rush died in the war a year later. That he had even been drafted surprised his many fans and broke the hearts of thousands of teenage girls.  The shock of his death started a movement among young people all over the country to hold the government accountable for allowing so many young men to die in a conflict many of them didn’t even understand.

Nick played his first sold out show the night he heard the news.  He wrote a song about Rocky, once he was back in his dressing room and three beers deep.  It hit number one, and stayed there long enough to break a record.  Nick Keys, the runaway with no home and no family, was a star.

********************

Tommy Flint sat at the bar of a dive outside of Cincinnati, hunched over in his threadbare coat with one hand resting on his tattered black guitar case.  He downed a shot of the strongest thing the bartender had on offer, and hummed the chorus of Nick’s latest hit.  He laughed, low and bitter.

“That lucky son of a bitch,” he said.

“Who?” a delicate female voice answered back.

“Nick Keys,” Tommy answered, with a little less enunciation than he’d like.  “He was my partner,” he finished, and held up his empty glass for a refill.

“Oh?”

Tommy lifted his head and turned to see a striking young woman with auburn hair and ivory skin, wearing a blue cocktail dress.

“I met him once,” she said.  “I did him a favor.”

“He was a good guy,” Tommy slurred.  “Better than all of’m.”

“I’m sure you’re a good guy, too,” the woman said.  “And I’m sure you’re just as talented as he is.  He probably just ended up in the right place at the right time.”

“Mmhmm,” Tommy replied.

“Luck’s funny that way, isn’t it?”

She held up her hand to signal the bartender, and ordered a champagne cocktail.  “This round’s on me,” she told Tommy.  “Is that what you want, then?  To be on stage?  To be a star?”

Tommy downed another shot.

“Just a little bit of his luck,” the woman purred.

“I do,” Tommy answered.

The woman leaned over and kissed his cheek.  “I thought so,” she told him.

Snow Moon

It had been an in-between sort of winter – too warm for snow, and too cold for much of anything else.  Days and days of frigid rains and half-lit skies had passed in a steely, gloomy blur, giving way to more of the same.  All of that would change tonight.

From her cubicle window, Julia watched a robin perch on a ledge of the neighboring office building, and wondered if the little thing knew what was coming.  Her farmer grandparents had taught her that nature always knows, and is prepared, and she wondered why humans so often counted themselves as separate animals.  No one at work seemed prepared today.  Forecasters anticipated the storm’s arrival by 7:00, and now, at 4:45, the office was still abuzz with talk of this meeting and that presentation.  She just wanted to get out the door, onto the road home before the inevitable, interminable traffic jam, and only two emails and a check-in with her manager stood in her way.

Twenty more minutes, she thought, tops.  Just twenty more minutes, and then she’d be on her way to pajamas and hot chocolate and BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, her snow-day traditions from high school onward, and tomorrow, she’d take a walk and make a snow angel.  She wanted hers to be the first footprints.  That had been her favorite thing, when she was young and living on a farm way out in the country with her parents and her grandparents.  She always wanted hers to be the first set of footprints on a fresh fallen snow.  It proved that she, and not anyone else, loved the snow best.  And that had been so important, when she was ten.

Snow Day Footprints

Maybe she’d even build a snowman, she thought.  She hadn’t built a snowman since college.  “Let’s get crazy,” Julia mumbled to herself.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh,” Julia said.  She should have known nothing is ever just to yourself when you work in a cubicle farm.  “Sorry,” she told Sarah-from-the-next-cube.  “I was talking to myself.”

She watched as Sarah nodded and went back to her work.  Julia hated working in an office environment like this.  There was never privacy, but you had all the anonymity you never wanted.  Everything was tinged in somber shades of off-gray – the desks, the carpet, the overhead lights – and people seldom smiled.  Not even the company’s monthly “happy hour” was truly happy.  It was just a tired-out group of not really friends pretending they weren’t networking to get ahead, trying not to appear as drunk as they were.  Artifice and gameplay dressed up in business casual, that’s all it was.

But this job paid the bills, and the bills fed her, kept her in books and clothes, and allowed her the little luxury of a trip here and there when she needed to get away.  She was planning to visit England in the summer, to see Bath.  She’d always dreamed of going to England, and the salary from this job made it possible.  You had to work to live, and work wasn’t always fun, she told herself, over and over.  Her life was just like everyone else’s, she reasoned.  And then she wondered when she had decided to be okay with that, and resolved to start looking for something new, just as soon as she got back from her summer trip.  Maybe she would even move back to the country and take up work on the farm with her parents.  It would be nice to be with her family again.

Two emails and a useless but thankfully brief meeting with her boss later, Julia had packed her messenger bag with her laptop, power cord, mouse, and notes on her priority assignments, and was standing in the elevator, waiting for it to make its slow, creaky way from floor eleven to the lower deck of the parking garage.  She sighed and leaned her head against the wall.

“You look tired,” said an amiable, masculine voice from the other corner.

“I am,” Julia answered.  She hadn’t realized anyone else was in the elevator with her, but that wasn’t surprising.  Her mind had been running on one track since this morning – get home before the snow, enjoy the snow, daydream about snow – and now, at the end of the day, there just wasn’t any room for anything else.  “But I’m really excited for the snow,” she added.

“So, you’re one of the people who likes snow?”

Julia straightened up and turned, and saw that her companion wore a smoky-colored gray suit and light blue tie, and a pocket square.  A pocket square, of all things.  She thought she’d seen him before, was fairly certain of it, but you could never tell.  He looked familiar, but so did every other Caucasian male sporting a dad-bod wrapped up in a suit and tie in the entire building.  Dark hair, brown eyes, and not very memorable at all.  But he looked friendly enough, casual and relaxed, his hands in his pockets.

“I am,” she answered.  “What about you?”

“I love snow,” he said, “and I like this time of year.”

“Really?”

“I do.  I like the feeling of starting fresh.”  He smiled.  Julia noticed his straight, white teeth.

“Most people feel that way about January.”  Julia smiled back.  It felt like the right thing to do.  She hated office banter.

“Sure,” he answered, “but I like February better.  You know it comes from an old Latin word?  Februa, to cleanse.”

Julia hadn’t known that, and said so.

“The Romans had this festival, the Februalia.”

Julia hmmed and nodded.

“And I really do love the snow.  The best snows are always in February.”

Julia nodded again, and hummed a noncommittal “Mmhmm.”

“I’m boring you.”

“No!”  He was, and she would have loved a quiet ride, but she certainly didn’t want him to know that.  “Not at all.  I love snow, too.  When I was little –”

Before she could say more, the elevator lurched to a stop.  Floor two.  Julia felt stuck in a nightmare.  Bad enough being trapped in the elevator.  Worse being trapped in the elevator with an almost complete stranger right before a snowstorm.  They could be in here for hours.

“I don’t think it will be long,” the man said.

Well, that was strange, Julia thought.  “I hope not,” she replied.

“When you were little…”

“What?”

“You were talking about the snow, when you were little.”  The man raised a hand from his pocket, prompting her to continue.

Julia had lost the thread of the conversation when the elevator stopped.  “Um, yeah, when I was little.”  She struggled to collect the thought.  The man waited.  “When I was little, I used to stay up all night waiting for snow.  I wanted to be the first one outside.  I wanted to make the first footprints.”

“I get that,” the man said.

“I just thought snow was the most magical thing.  I still do, actually.  Work is boring, you know?  It’s like life just gets in the way of the things we should be enjoying.”

“Yeah,” the man replied.

“I think if I could just live in a snow day forever, I’d be okay with that.”

“Really?”  The man raised an eyebrow.

“Of course!”  Julia found she couldn’t really stop herself from adding, “everything slows down when it snows.  People actually take the time to be happy.  It’s like they can’t do that on a normal day.  Because there’s too much to do.”  Julia paused for a moment, to take a breath.  “Snow means you have to stop.  You just have to stop and appreciate the moment for once, and I love that moment.”

The man smiled again, and Julia realized it wasn’t an unpleasant smile.  “I think everyone has a moment they’d like to live in forever,” she said, “and that’s just mine.”

“I can see that,” the man said.

“Well, what’s yours?”  Julia asked.

The man opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, the elevator jerked into motion.  “Well,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad.”

“No,” Julia said, and asked again, “so, what’s your moment?”

The doors pinged open on level two of the garage, and the man stepped out.  “I’m made of moments,” he said.  He winked as the door closed.

That had certainly ended abruptly, Julia thought as she went down one more level, and then walked to her silver sedan.  5:31 – earlier than she’d left in days, and plenty of time to beat the storm home, if she took a few neighborhood roads and shortcuts.

********************

It snowed for a solid fourteen hours, give or take.  Julia spent the time looking out the window, curled up in her favorite overstuffed armchair.  She caught up on some reading, drank hot chocolate, and watched some of her favorite BBC miniseries.  She stayed up all night.  When the snow stopped, she put on her winter coat and galoshes and walked for an hour or so, enjoying the crunch of the crisp white powder under her feet, and the fresh, icy smell of a winter finally come.  Hers were the first footprints.  She made a snow angel, and she built a snowman, and when the sun went down on the glistening landscape, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon, high and bright and silver against a dark blue satin sky.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

********************

A desk in the corner in the corner of a nondescript office building sat empty.  A manager approached Human Resources, asking to hire for a position, and curious as to why it had never been discussed before.  The work went on as it always had, as if Julia had never existed at all.

The man in the gray suit had moved on, too.  A new office building, a new elevator.  He found himself alone with a young man, on the tenth day of March at 5:16 in the afternoon.  The young man looked on the verge of tears, his eyes glassy and rimmed with red, and his hands trembling as they tried to grasp the handle of a black canvas laptop bag.

“Rough day?” the man in the gray suit asked.

The young man dropped his laptop bag to his feet.  It landed with a thud on the floor of the elevator.  “Yeah, people suck.  But it’s just a job.”  He took a deep, shaky breath and said again, “It’s just a job.”

“Sounds like it’s not the right job,” the man in the gray suit replied.

“Yeah, really,” the young man snorted.

“I always thought I’d be doing something more interesting,” the man in the gray suit said.  “I’ve never liked working in an office, but it sure is convenient.”

“I hate it,” the young man said.  He ran his fingers through his hair and added, “I’d rather be hiking.”

“I love hiking,” the man in the gray suit said.  “What’s your favorite trail?  I’ve heard there are lots of good ones around here.”  The man in the gray suit did not hike.

“Oh, man, when I was a kid, there was this trail out west that we used to go to every year and –”

The elevator jerked to a stop between the fourth and fifth floors.  The man in the gray suit smiled.  “And?”

********************

Winter turned to spring, and then to summer and fall, and then winter again, and again many times.  Julia’s face grew fine, spidery lines, and her hair turned coarse and ashen.  Hers were still the first footprints.  And as the world outside moved on, one season after another, year after year, she sat on her front porch steps and stared at the full moon over the diamond-bright snow.  Yes, she thought, I could live in this moment forever.

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