Talk Out the Fire (A Short Story)

Harley Orr noticed everything.

When he and his mother lived in the city, he noticed the smell of exhaust and of people all around him. He noticed the other children in his daycare, their unmatched socks, and how the teachers always had dark circles under their eyes. He noticed his mother, how she moved like a racecar, and only stopped to sleep. He noticed how she stirred his mac and cheese for dinner, fast and then slow, always with the same wooden spoon, and served in the same blue plastic bowl. He noticed that he spent a lot of time alone.

Now, in the hill country, he noticed creaky house sounds and musty forest smells and the way the light slanted just right at about 4:00 in the afternoon on the second Sunday in March, on the creamy white wall of his new bedroom in his grandmother’s house.

They’d moved in with his grandmother not too long ago, Harley and his mother, and the little clapboard house on the mountain felt different, but not in a bad way.

“It won’t be forever, baby,” his mother had told him. “Just until I find a new job.”

He noticed how his mother’s voice tightened on those words, “new job.” His heart beat a little faster.

“But we’re not homeless, are we, Mom?”

“No, baby, we’re not homeless.”

“And we can stay here for a while, right?” Harley pressed his fingers into his palms, waited for her answer.

“Not if I can help it,” she’d said. “Your nana sure would love it, but we’re not hill people, you and me.”

Harley didn’t know what that meant, but he did know he liked his new room. It had a big window that faced an oak tree and a creek in the back yard. The house did smell a little, like dust, Harley thought, but it was clean and you didn’t have to eat your dinner on the couch, because there was a dark wood table right in the kitchen.

He also liked his grandmother. He noticed how she always smelled a little like caramel and peppermint, and how she smiled a special, crooked close-lipped smile at him when she thought he wasn’t looking, and how her knobby fingers combed his hair as gently as if he’d been a breakable thing.

“Look here,” she’d told him, perched on the side of his new bed the first night he’d slept in it, “this is your home now, understand? I want you to be happy here, okay?”

“Mom’s not happy,” Harley’d replied.

“Well, it’s awful hard to make Arlene happy, but we’ll see what we can do, won’t we?” She’d reached over and given his shoulder a squeeze, and then she’d said, “Goodnight, Harley-bug.”

He’d never had a nickname before.

That first night, Harley hadn’t slept much. His new room during the day felt bright and warm, but at night, it felt a little like a haunted, dark cave. He noticed the quick skitter of something outside, the groan of a shutter in the wind, the “sshhhh” of the breeze through the branches. In the morning, his grandmother had told him not to be scared, that it’s always a little hard to get used to new places.

“Remind me when you’re older, and I’ll tell you all about when your papaw built this house, and how we got used to it together.”

Harley’s mother got a job that first week, waitressing at a diner in town. She called it “temporary.” The hours were long, but the pay was good, and Harley was happy enough to spend the time with his grandmother. He noticed pretty quickly that things moved a little slower at her house. Mornings always meant a big breakfast, sometimes biscuits and jam, and sometimes scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. In the afternoons, his grandmother would walk down the hill to the mailbox, always pausing a few times to pull a weed or just look around or up at the sky. She’d start dinner at 3:00 each day, stringing beans or peeling potatoes or shucking corn in the sunroom. Now that the weather had changed, and the air was starting to warm, she liked to sit out on front porch, a plastic bowl nestled in her lap.

They sat together one day in the sunlight, watching the trees sway in the gentle spring breeze, and Harley helped string the beans while his grandmother peeled potatoes and onions. He noticed that his grandmother always gave him a little extra on his plate, if he did some of the work himself.

“You’re getting to be pretty fast with those green beans,” his grandmother told him.

“I like green beans,” he said. He adjusted the bowl in his lap, to show her just how many he’d done.

“Next, maybe I’ll teach you how to chop the firewood. I reckon you’re big enough to handle the ax.”

Harley looked over at her, eyes wide as saucers, breath caught right in his throat.

She winked, “I’m only kidding, bug.”

Harley released an audible sigh.

They sat together, both working in silence, until the vegetables were all ready to be cooked. Just as they both stood to go into the kitchen, Harley noticed a deep rumble from down the hill. He’d never heard a sound quite like this one, so gravelly and deep and loud. It was loud. He grabbed his grandmother’s free hand, dropped the bowl of beans.

“Nana!”

“It’s just a truck, Harley, don’t you worry.”

But she was moving fast, pulling him into the house. She told him, quicker than she ever talked, “Go on up to your room and don’t come down.”

“Nana?” Harley stood still at the bottom of the stairs. He noticed tears on his cheeks, and a sting in his eyes. He realized he was crying. “I’m scared.”

His grandmother came over, and she hugged him, tight but not hard. Outside, he heard car doors slam, and yelling, and worst of all, he heard someone screaming. Not quite screaming though. Screaming and crying together. He’d never heard anything like that before.

His grandmother let him go, turned him around and nudged him toward the stairs. “Everything’s fine and don’t you worry. I just got a feeling you don’t want to see what’s about to walk through that door.”

This time, he ran up the stairs two at a time. He slammed his bedroom door behind him. He thought about locking it, but noticed it didn’t have a lock. He hadn’t noticed that before. He took deep breaths, slid down onto the floor and pulled his knees to his chest. And he listened.

He heard the screen door open, and the screams and cries. And he heard muffled voices.

“…happened?”

His grandmother.

“…to the stove. Hot cast iron…oil in the frying pan…”

“…on into the kitchen…at the table…”

His grandmother, again.

“…thank…”

And then, everything went quiet.

Harley was scared, but he was also curious. He couldn’t help it, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it. He didn’t want to get in trouble, but he wanted to know what was happening, and he wanted to make sure his grandmother was okay.

He stood up. Slowly, a little at a time, he turned the doorknob, and as quiet as he could, he opened the door. He stepped out into the hall, and crept down the stairs. He rounded the corner, and peaked into the kitchen.

He saw three people. One older woman, and one little girl. He noticed she was about as tall as he was, and that she had a big, red, horrible burn on her arm. And he saw his grandmother, standing over the girl. Her back was turned. She touched the girl’s arm, right on the burn. Harley winced, and he must have made a noise, because his grandmother turned around and spotted him.

“Come on in here, Harley. It’s all right.”

He took a few cautious steps, and then, feeling a little more brave, took the last big strides to the table. He sat down across from the little girl. He noticed her eyes were red, but she didn’t cry anymore.

“This is Helen and Libby. Libby’s about your age.”

Libby sniffed.

“Now, Harley, I need you to be real still and real quiet, and I’m going to work on Libby’s arm.”

Harley did as he was told, and he watched.

His grandmother closed her eyes. She held Libby’s burned arm in one hand, and with her other, right above the angry red splotch, made a little pushing motion in the air.

She said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

A little push in the air, right over Libby’s arm, and then again, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

Harley just stared.

Once more, his grandmother pushed at the air above Libby’s burned arm, and said, “Water won’t burn, fire won’t quench, God’s word won’t lie.”

His grandmother opened her eyes, and looked at Libby. “Does that feel better?”

The little girl nodded her sandy blonde head, looked at her arm, poked at the burn, and smiled a little. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered.

“Thank you, Alice,” the older woman said.

“You don’t need to thank me at all,” Nana told her. “Just make sure you keep that child away from the stove when you’re cooking.”

The older woman stood up, and ushered Libby out of the room.

“And bring Libby back one of these days to see Harley.”

“I will,” the older woman said, and opened the screen door. “It’ll be nice for her to have a kid her age to play with.”

Libby smiled at Harley, and Harley smiled back.

They left through the front, and Harley heard the car start and then make its rumbling way down the hill.

His grandmother walked over to the sink and washed her hands. “You snuck downstairs, rascal,” his grandmother said. But she didn’t sound angry, and after she dried her hands on a kitchen towel, she beckoned him to her, to sit on her lap. “I didn’t want you to be scared. Your mother used to hate it when this happened. She’d be mad if she knew I showed you. Thinks it’s not real.”

“You fixed her,” Harley said.

“I took the pain away,” his grandmother answered. “I talked the fire out of the burn.”

“It’s like magic,” Harley told her. “You made her better.”

“In a way,” she said.

“How?”

“It’s my gift, straight from the Lord himself, and it belonged to my daddy before me.” She gave Harley a squeeze and said, “One day, I’ll give it to you.”

Harley’s eyes went wide. He shivered, a quick chill that started at the top of his head and made its way down to the tippy tips of his toes. “Really?”

“You’re my grandson, aren’t you?”

Harley nodded.

“And this is your home?”

He nodded again.

“Then yes, sir. But not for a long time, so don’t you worry.” She set her jaw and looked right in his eyes. “You’re a smart, brave boy. Don’t be afraid.”

Harley wasn’t afraid. For the first time, in as long as he could remember, he wasn’t afraid at all.


Thank you for reading! This is the third of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here are the first two stories, if you’d like to read them: 

The Roads

This Place

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!

The next story will be posted at the end of April.

This Place

“How do you stand it here?”

“What do you mean?”

The two of us sat together on top of a giant round hay bale, the largest in the field this year, staring out at the stars. In the chill of a mid-February night and the light of the full Snow Moon, we could see our breath hanging in the air in front of us.

“The dark. The quiet. The…nothing. There’s just nothing to do,” he said.

“I’m used to it, I guess,” I answered.

“I will never get used to it,” he said.

“It’s not that bad. I think you’re blowing things out of proportion.”

“No. You just don’t know the difference.”

“That’s mean,” I said.

“You guys don’t even have a movie theater.”

He’d moved at the beginning of the school year. His parents had dragged him halfway across the country when his dad took a new job, all the way from sunny, funky Austin to the lonely, scrappy mountains of Russell County. We’d met on the first day of school, but only because we had to.

“I’m supposed to give you a tour,” I’d explained, my backpack slung over one shoulder. “It won’t take long.”

“Thanks,” he’d said. “I kind of figured.”  

We’d walked up and down the three main hallways and the side wings of the red brick block of a high school. I’d asked about his classes, invited him to sit with me and my friends at lunch. I’d offered to meet him after school and show him around town, or, at least, what little town there was to show. He’d said yes.  

It had been almost a half a year since then.

“It’ll start to get warm soon,” I said. “The redbuds are really pretty in spring.”

“Those are trees, right?”

“Yes. The next town over has a festival when they start to bloom. We should go.”

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” I said back. I squeezed his hand.

I’d introduced him to the hay bales on the winter solstice. He’d spent the entire Christmas season lamenting the chintzy 1970s decorations sprinkled along Main Street.

“They’re sort of charming,” I’d said. “Like looking into another time.”

“I spent last Christmas in Germany,” he’d said. “I wish you could see the Christmas markets there.”

“Maybe someday,” I’d answered. “Why aren’t you traveling this year?”

“My dad’s too busy.”

“Come to my house tonight,” I’d offered. “My mom’s making steaks, and I’ve got a surprise for you after.”

I don’t know what sort of surprise he’d expected, but he didn’t seem impressed by the rolling pasture and enormous hay bales.

I’d always walked out to the fields on cold, clear nights. I liked the silence, the peace. And in the winter, I loved the brightness of the stars against the dark, empty landscape. I’d thought maybe he would, too. I didn’t know much about what it was like living in a big city, but I knew it never got dark enough to see the stars.

“This is my own personal light show,” I’d told him. “I wouldn’t bring just anybody out here to see it.”

He’d laughed, and said, “So you think I’m special?”

We’d kissed then, for the first time. “I like you,” I’d told him. “You’re a jerk, but I think you’re pretty cool.”

“I like you, too,” he’d said.

I wanted that night to live in my memory, always.

“I like you,” I told him now. “And I like this.”

“I like you,” he said, from somewhere far away. “It always looks the same out here.”

“Not at all! The constellations are changing all the time.” I pointed up, showed him Orion and the Big Dipper. “Some nights,” I added, “you can see the milky way.” Did he truly not notice? “Once, I saw the Northern Lights. They almost never come this far south.”

“I saw them when I went camping in Alaska.”

“I’ve never been to Alaska.”

“You’ve never been anywhere.”

“I’ve been to Nashville. And to Myrtle Beach.”

He harrumphed, released my hand, and hopped down.

“I’m going home,” he said. “It’s cold and I’m bored.”

“Well, excuse me. Sorry I’m not interesting enough for you.” I took a deep breath, let it out. “You’re being a snob.”

He turned around and looked up at me. “Don’t be like that,” he said.

It usually ended this way. Him, walking away from me to go play whatever latest video game he got online, or to video chat with his friends back in Texas, or to tinker with his computer. Me, on the verge of tears, clenching my jaw to keep from yelling at him, feeling like a dumb small-town hick.  

“I’m not being like anything,” I said. “I just wanted to share this with you.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. Let’s just go home, okay?” He started to walk down the hill.

Strictly speaking, the farmer next door didn’t like having trespassers on his land, but because he knew me, he usually let it slide. Our two families had been sharing this little valley for five generations. He wouldn’t start trouble over two stupid kids sitting around on top of hay bales in the dark.

“I thought it might make things better,” I said. “I mean, for you.”

“What?”

“I thought you might feel better, if you could see what makes this place special.” I hopped down and walked over to him. I caught his hand again, held it up between us in both of mine. “I know it’s not big or loud or anything, but this is something you can only do out in the country. There’s nowhere else in the world quite like this.”

“You’re hopeless,” he said, but he pulled me in and kissed me quick on the lips. “Someday you’ll get out of here, and you’ll understand why I hate it.”

“This is my home,” I told him. “It doesn’t matter where I go. I’ll always be from here.”

“Wait and see,” he said. “You’re too good for this place.”

He turned and walked away. From the bottom of the hill, he called up to me, “Are you coming?”

“No,” I answered. “I’ll stay.”

“Well, see you tomorrow, then.”

I stood right where he left me, planted in that one spot. I looked out ahead at the dark expanse of field and pasture, and at the rolling mountains in the distance, illuminated by the silvery cast of the full moon.   

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

Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

Here’s January’s story, if you’d like to read it: The Roads

And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted on Friday, March 26th.

The Roads

“The ridge or the glade?”

I am eight, and it’s my birthday. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s gold Toyota Tercel, holding a cake box in my lap.

She looks at me, stretches a hand out to tweak my nose, and asks, “The ridge or the glade, Betsy-bug?”

I am sixteen, learning to drive myself, on a hot day in the middle of a mountain summer, behind the wheel of my grandfather’s enormous red and white Ford truck. He’s forced me into this, like it’s all a big joke, and as I struggle, sputter, and sit white-knuckled behind the steering wheel, he laughs.

He reaches over and steadies my trembling hand, and asks, “The ridge or the glade?”

I am twenty-two, heading south on I-81 from college for Christmas with the boyfriend I once thought I’d marry. We sing along to whatever plays on the radio, and rest our interlocked hands on the center console of a silver Nissan Altima.

“You have two choices,” I tell him, “once we get close to the house. The ridge or the glade.”

“The what now?”

“Those are the two roads we can take, once we get into town,” I explain. “Would you rather take the ridge or the glade?”

“I literally don’t know what those things are,” he says.

I glance over at my city boy. I can’t help but smirk. He’ll learn soon enough, but for now, I explain again.

“There are two ways we could get to my parents’ house. One takes us through a clearing. Do you get carsick?”

“I don’t think so,” he answers.

“Okay, good to know. The other takes us up over the mountain. Which one do you want to see?”

“The glade, I guess,” he says.

Turns out, he does get carsick. The tight curves, the dips and the little inclines of the glade road are too much for his nervous stomach.

“You could have warned me,” he says, once we’re safely parked in the driveway and unloading bags filled with laundry and textbooks.

“I did,” I say. “We’ll take the ridge next time.”

For the first half of my life, two roads brought me home, one high and one low, both so clear in my memory that I could drive them blindfolded even now.

Tonight, my mother’s voice wakes me.

“The ridge or the glade,” she whispers, close to my ear.

Outside, it snows, and the wind howls, and the dying embers of the wood fire beside my recliner glow bright and alive in the midst of a winter storm that the Weather Channel calls one for the century.

I almost answer her. “The ridge,” I almost say. I’ve always loved the ridge best, and it’s right on the tip of my tongue. But as I come out of sleep, and the drowsy haze lifts from my mind, I stop.

I stop because I am alone in my living room, tucked under a blanket my granddaughter knitted for my seventieth birthday. My mother’s been gone for nearly twelve years, and it’s been almost as long since I’ve seen the ridge or the glade.

I am sixty-one, sitting at a table in a sterile, white and gray office space. A real estate agent, an ancient friend of my long-dead uncle’s, sits beside me. Across from us, an attractive young couple beams and radiates excitement and energy. They’ve told me my mother’s home is their dream home, where they’ll raise their family, where they’ll build their life together. I sign the papers and the home belongs to them.

I am sixty-one and three quarters. I drive through the ridge one last time, intending to say a final goodbye, now that my mother’s affairs are settled. I round the curve and look to my right. My mother’s house, my home, has disappeared. In its place, the beginnings of a new structure rise from the landscape, a beast unlike anything the little valley has seen in all its many eons. I take the glade back out into town, and though I want to, though I want to change everything, I don’t look back.

I rise, pushing myself up against the thick, round arms of my oversized La-Z-Boy. There was a time that I would have been embarrassed to own it, but I practically never leave it these days. The blanket falls to the floor and I don’t pick it up. My back feels stiff and my joints ache. It’s the cold air, I think.

I make my way through the dark, to the kitchen sink where I pour a glass of tap water and drink it down in one gulp. I stand still for a moment and look out the window at the snow falling fierce and heavy in the halo of a bright orange streetlight. I haven’t thought of the roads home in years. I used to dream about them. I’d dream of driving in the dark, of rounding curves too fast or of creeping along beside the meadow flowers and the cow paths. But tonight, now in this moment, I can’t get them out of my mind.

I pour another glass and carry it with me back to the side table by the recliner. I settle in, under the blanket by the fire, and I feel myself again drifting off into sleep. I wonder if I’ll dream.

“The ridge or the glade?”

This time, it’s my voice, my question. My mother sits beside me in my white BMW, and warm sunlight shines in through the windshield. I remember this car. It’s the first one I ever bought for myself.

I look over. My mother is young again, and so am I. Her chestnut hair matches mine, and together we smile the crooked smile that was passed down to us.

“The ridge,” she says. “You like the ridge best.”

“I do,” I answer, “but I know you love the glade.”

“I love them both,” she says. “Mostly for where they take me.”

“Me, too,” I say.

We take the glade home.

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

Thank you for reading! This is the first of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.

If you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted on Friday, February 26th.

2021 Short Story Challenge Theme!

You guys, I have agonized over this. And I’ve gotten some really good suggestions. I’ve looked at quotes and poems, at nouns and verbs and adjectives, at artwork. I wanted to pick a theme for 2021 that feels accessible, not esoteric, and that will lend itself to lots of different stories from lots of different people with lots of different life experiences.

So, here it is, the theme for my 2021 Short Story Challenge:

Home. A place of comfort for some, a place of anxiety or fear for others. For many of us, a place we’ve seen plenty of in the last several months. A physical space, or a feeling, a certainty or a longing, a boon or a burden.

I feel like home has plenty of stories to tell. I hope you’ll join me in telling twelve this year. Let’s see where home takes us.

My story for January will be up next Friday, January 29th. (And then I’ll resume the regular Found Friday feature.) I…haven’t started writing it yet, but I’m excited to see what it will become.

And, if you want to write along and post a story for each month this year, I’m excited to see what you’ll create.

Let’s make 2021 a year for stories.

Short Story Challenge 2021!

At around this time last year, I’d made up my mind to write twelve short stories for each month of 2020. The idea was that each story would have something to do with its respective month – inspired by a holiday, typical activities, the weather, etc.

I enjoyed the project so much that I’m doing it again in 2021. This year, I think I’d like to challenge myself to write twelve stories around a central theme. But I don’t know what that theme should be! So, I thought I’d reach out to you, wonderful readers, for your ideas and suggestions.

And to see if any of you would like to join me in my Short Story Challenge 2021. 😊 It’ll be fun!

So, what do you think my central theme should be?

**********

If you haven’t read them and you’d like to catch up, here’s a list of the twelve stories from 2020. Some of them I really like, some of them could have been better, but either way, it’s kind of cool seeing all of them listed here. I enjoyed writing each of them. I’ve put asterisks by my favorites.

January 2020 – Charmed

February 2020 – Snow Moon

**March 2020 – Something Borrowed

April 2020 – The Green Man

May 2020 – The Bridge

**June 2020 – The Day Thomas Leonard Came Back

**July 2020 – Magic Hour

August 2020 – Birthday Funeral

**September 2020 – Memories of September

October 2020 – The Sleepwalker

**November 2020 – In the Time It Takes

December 2020 – The Last Glenmoor Christmas

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.

IMG_1127

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.