The pavement pulsed with waves of heat, out of time and place in the city during late October. The bus stop was quiet. The park was void of anything that resembled a Saturday evening. There were a pair of forgotten pink rainboots sitting by the wishing fountain.
A rich, amber glow had settled into the horizon, over the ocean, supplemented by this sound heard by no one. Or possibly everyone.
Clouds gathered in the west mocking the sunset’s twin by hiding it from any possible observer. Or maybe calling to its observers. Bidding them west.
I stood on the deserted beach watching jagged, angry shards of ice, deposited by the waves, stack up on each other.
Like brittle, living panes of glass just waiting for a pair of feet to shred.
It was brutally cold and every breath hurt to take in. The thick velour scarf my mother had given me before she died sat frozen at my lips. My fingers inside my wool mittens had gotten too stiff to feel.
I worried for a moment that I might not make it back inside.
But I had to see.
His ship broke open the cove just as the sun made a sliver of fire on the horizon. The ice cover on the bay wasn’t thick, so I knew they would only make one pass.
He stood, behind the rail, alone. A lantern hung by his side. His breath sent plumes of vapor up into the first light of morning. And the breaking sun made the sliver of skin visible around his eyes glow.
My heart pummeled against the inside of my breast.
He lifted a gloved hand to his mouth, pulling the fabric loose so that I might see his smile. It was too far to see properly, really. But my memory colored his lips and made the silver in his whiskers glimmer.
I waved and giggled. I wonder if the sound made it to his ear. I imagined it could, somehow, and whispered my love into the wind.
I watched until I thought I might break.
But I knew I would do it again tomorrow, if it wasn’t too cold. A glimpse was better than nothing. It was enough to stoke the fire in my belly.
For me, it was just another day. A wonderful, exciting, beautiful new day.
Mav woke up at 5:45. As he slathered his cheeks in preparation for a shave, humming a tune that heated my cheeks, I made my way down to the kitchen smiling.
Mabel had stayed with a friend the night before, but she would be home for breakfast that mid summer morning and I was excited to make my little announcement. I hoped the kids would respond as well as Mav.
I started the percolator and was pulling out my frying pan when Marcus’ feet slapped hastily down the polished oak steps.
“Ma, what happened? What’s going on?”
His voice was too high and when I turned, his face was as white as porcelain. We’d just celebrated his fourteenth birthday a few days before, but his wide eyes and trembling lips made him look much younger.
“What’s wrong, dear?”
The sun was rising behind him, and it startled me to see sunshine in my kitchen so early in the day.
He grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the side door. As he flung it open, we both froze staring out at a sight I still cannot explain.
Maverick’s parents had bought us the property as a wedding present. It was a slice of a pie shaped meadow in the center of a beautiful ancient forest with trees topping out 40′ above the grass. We’d built our home alongside 13 other young couples, unknowingly creating what we would later call ‘Pinedale Oasis’. A sweet little neighbourhood that grew to the north and west, out of the trees and toward the city.
But ours had remained the last house, butting up to the woods to the south and east. Our kitchen door and window were always shaded from the sun by a thick copse of pine trees less than ten feet away.
Staring out at a hill filled with homes behind white fences and punctuated with tall oak trees, my mind couldn’t quite make sense of the landscape.
“What happened to the trees?”
I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The backs of twenty houses stood in my line of vision, all with tiered wooden porches supporting big tables with umbrellas and massive shiny metal boxes that must be for cooking because they all had knobs that looked like the ones on the front of my new six burner stovetop.
A couple of them had pools with Caribbean blue water sparkling in the rising sun. I watched a woman doing laps in one of them until she spotted me. She climbed out of the water in a bright pink bikini and stared at me with the same expression that I must’ve been wearing.
Mav’s voice broke through the haze. “What in heaven-”
“Dad, where did they- What is- How?”
Marcus’ hysterics brought me back to myself. I turned and told him to go put on clothes as I dashed up the steps to dress myself.
“We’ll just have to go ask them.”
The early morning heat loomed over us as old neighbors hugged each other and tried, noisily to make sense of this. The crowd from the new neighborhood was larger, but quiet. Most of them held shiny and strange flat boxes, some put them to their cheek and spoke into them while others jabbed or slid over them with fingers or thumbs. I even saw some of them holding them up at us like cameras, they even had what looked like a flat lense on the back.
Maverick kept his hand on me protectively all morning. It was comforting, even as it added a bit to the fear.
The blonde woman who had been swimming had walked over first. She had what looked like a rhinestone in the crease of her nose and several tattoos down each arm. It was unsettling until I realized many of the others did as well.
“Where did you come from?”
It was the question of the day. One I couldn’t answer.
Our phones hadn’t worked. But the electricity did. Dan Bradbury had turned on his television to static, but the radios all revealed we were no longer in 1967.
When the police arrived, they brought medics and firemen with them, which I thought was strange until Marcus whispered in my ear. “Maybe they think we’re aliens?”
When I could finally speak to tell an officer my name, his wizened eyes were filled with fear and pity and something else.
Mav wrapped both arms around me as we listened. Marcus sat on the other side of the hospital room with his head in his hands. My tears wouldn’t stop, and neither could my mind.
Fifty years prior to that day, our beautiful, quiet neighborhood had vanished. Without a trace.
The site was studied for decades. Scientists from all over the planet ran tests and studies. They searched for us.
My daughter searched for us. For decades.
She was living in southern California with her second husband. Twin girls from the first had both gone to Stanford and were now pursuing doctorates in different fields in different parts of the country. She also had a son with the second who has Down Syndrome and is named after his grandfather, but with an easier nickname for him so say.
Her voice sounds just like mine.
She’s about to celebrate her sixtieth birthday. But, as she told us she and Pete would come up with Rick on Saturday, I felt my sweet little girl bursting through the speaker. She wanted her mommy.
“Oh, Mabel. I’m so sorry.”
The tears caught, and her restrained demeanor broke into hiccuping sobs and the muffled questions of a young man who didn’t want to see his mother cry.
Marcus raised his head, his eyes reflecting his sister’s pain.
He stood and came closer. “Maby, it’s Marcus.” He cleared his throat and sat on the edge of the mattress. “I’m glad you’re ok.”
A tremor in his voice that vibrated through the fabric of time made her stop crying.
“You’ll be ok too, Marcus. I promise.”
They released me from the hospital late that night. We left stunned by the medical advancements of the past fifty years.
Three of us were brought in for observation. Mr Winstead had a heart attack when they told us it was 2017. Franny Gilson fainted and needed two stitches. And me.
Mabel is a gorgeous woman who doesn’t seem old enough to have grown children, except for the tiny wrinkles that flank her eyes and the grooves that frame her mouth. Rick is kind and sweet, his speech is nearly perfect and he loves to talk. He works at a store called Walmart and recently moved into a full time position which he loves.
His father could not stop staring at me. My daughter and I look very similar. Twenty years apart, instead of 30, and in the wrong direction. I can’t even imagine what it was like to meet us.
I couldn’t find a way to tell her about the baby. We talked for hours about everything. Just not that.
Mav had spent the four days before her visit sorting legal and financial stuff. He was exhausted, but was positively fascinated by Rick. He and Pete worked to explain modern sports, satellite television and something called Fantasy Football.
Marcus was lost to it all. Swiping his finger over the glass of his sister’s Smart Phone, he seemed to be absorbing all of this new technology much faster than me. As they sat, hunched over the device, I felt my heart break for all the years she lived without us.
And then he said it.
“Our brother will grow up with all of this. He’ll never know life without it.”
My doctor in 1967 called it a change of life baby. But fifty years later, it wasn’t unusual to have a baby at 40.
That night in the hospital, we got to see his little face, his perfect little body of 10 weeks, his amazingly tiny heart thrumming along as if nothing had ever happened. As if he hadn’t just vanished and reappeared 5 decades later.
The rain started just as she looked up at me.
He chased her outside, shouting for her to wait. It was like watching a film. The sound distorted by the rain as she cried out and fell to her knees. The way he looked back at me.
He picked her up. Held her to his chest.
There was no age between them as I watched her collapse against him. They just stood there, hanging onto each other.
And then, she laughed.
The sky above them brightened despite the downpour.
It was magic.
I won’t deny it’s been hard. On all of us.
Mav had to train for a new job. Marcus had to adjust to modern schooling which took tutors and counseling. We were paid for interviews, but not a lot, and for the next year, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of us. Sometimes, it still does today.
But when it is hard, I look at that photograph.
A picture I took, on a weird device that I didn’t know how to use, of my children.
Waiting is a game best left to the protagonists. They are methodical in their introspection, which of course is fascinating. But only in small doses for those in the world stripped of will and purpose.
The good guys can tolerate the doldrums of time wasted. For the rest of us, the ambling majority, the true posture of patience is pretty much impossible.
But give us something sweet to suck on while we wait, and that is a whole different story.
I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. It started with a ride on a bus. I sat two rows behind them, sweating and cursing under my breath when the bus overheated one Wednesday in August.
Her laugh gave me something to absorb besides the sweltering heat. I was drawn in by her luscious disregard for her surroundings, and I listened as he told a story about punching a brute at the top of a hill, one summer day just like that one, then watching him stumble down the rocky face, crying for his mommy.
I could almost hear the little bully’s wails in between her giggles and sighs.
And that first drink led me to follow them off the bus. All the way to her home.
He kissed her against an elm tree growing thick and full next to her front steps. The branches cradled their shoulders, hiding their lips from view. But I watched from a tree away as her leg wrapped around his, drawing him closer and closer until there was nothing between them but heat.
Guilt and embarrassment took me right past them at a pace that left me breathless when I turned the corner.
But weeks, then months passed, and I found myself there. Again and again. Waiting for another sip, another taste. One more glimpse of someone else’s delicious world.
I stood at the gate to the tiny alley that ran beside her building, the angry bite of late autumn making my cheeks and fingers red and raw, and I watched. He scraped a thick layer of frost from her windshield while she teetered on the stoop, sucking on one of those horrid skinny cigarettes and touching her bare throat.
She never dressed appropriately for the weather. But I suppose some people just carry too much heat inside their beautiful bodies to be bothered by the chill in the air.
They did this often, and despite my every attempt to give up this deplorable addiction, I continued to ogle them nearly every morning. My alarm went off at 5 and I was perched in my spot at the edge of the alley by 6:20.
Unless I’d fallen asleep in her back garden.
He would finish with the scraper and slide it into his back pocket. She’d toss her filter in the street. He’d bend to pluck it out of the gutter, shaking his index finger at her until she stepped off the curb and stuck her tongue out at him. Giggling. Cheeks rosy from more than just the temperature.
She was as predictable as ever. But not him.
He shook his head this time and stooped down so that his eyes were level with hers. He whispered to her, I could never hear what he said, even as the depth of his voice rumbled through my belly, but she cupped her hands in front of her and lowered her eyes. So obedient.
His gaze skimmed the street, forcing me back into the shadow of the alley, as he slipped the butt into her palms, drawing them together and lifting them into the air above her lowered head.
Like a magician’s assistant in a turn-of-the-century sideshow, holding up an invisible apple for the blade or bullets first strike. Trembling with something I felt in the pit of my own belly.
I imagined what he might be saying into her ear. “Don’t drop it again, little girl.” I didn’t need to see his face. It was branded into the backs of my eyelids. I could never be free from it.
His long, slender fingers played in her hair while he slipped his other hand beneath the hem of her skirt.
I’d never seen her protest, but there was a first time for everything. She whimpered and said something that brought his eyes back to hers, as his fingers tightened in her hair, tugging her head up to meet his glare.
My own thighs trembled and I used every ounce of my willpower to hold back a groan.
I knew it was wrong, this sick fascination with him. And her. I’m not insane, after all. Just a lonely voyeur with too much time on my hands.
But I had gotten more brazen, watching their windows and sitting on her back stoop to listen to them make love as I touched myself in the dark. I could envision the actions that went with each sound, I could imagine his expression in the amber light they always left on, as his fingers squeezed the sides of her throat and his body pressed against, inside, and around her.
I could even feel his fingers just then, as I watched them in this stolen moment, half a dozen yards in front of me.
He bent forward and kissed her on the cheek as he pulled her arms down and plucked the cigarette from her palm.
The look on her face made me whimper.
“Have a good morning, Lil. Don’t be late for work.”
He always was so fucking frustrating with his exit.
She saw me that morning. I’m sure she had a thousand times, but that day, she locked eyes with me. And I felt something inside me break.
I tried to turn and go, but I was frozen. Locked in the gaze of this woman I wanted to be. Coveting everything about her, down to the smooth, olive skin she got to live inside of. She stared at me long enough that I thought she might scream, or call to him. But she only stood there.
It was the first time I’d ever seen him turn back to her after saying goodbye. His exit was final, always. But this time he turned, walked back to her, and dropped his forehead to hers. And I heard him as if his head was bent to my own.
“I need you.”
Her eyes found mine again as that tiny, mischievous smile played on her lips. She slipped her fingers into his beard, kissed him in a performance worthy of an ‘R’ rating, then broke away breathless.
“Let’s call in sick.”
And from that day on, that wicked woman became my dealer in a drug that I’m not sure I’ll ever be strong enough to kick.
I’d never hurt either of them. After all, if they were gone, what would I wish for?
Nothing is quite as colorful and vibrant and real as someone else’s bubble. Even if you have everything you could ever want, there’s someone, somewhere, with more.
I watched her face glow behind the red embers of her cigarette as she pulled the smoke deep into her lungs. Exhaling a smooth stream into the darkness, her skin returned to a shade of porcelain reflecting the moonlight.
She licked her lips as she stared at the smoke floating away from us. Her mouth twisted as she caught me staring.
“No lectures today about my health?”
Kelly’s eyes were soft, a shade of maple syrup with flecks that sparkled like the stars. But the night made them gray.
I let my gaze fall to the beer in my hands, picking and peeling the golden paper, revealing a slippery, green glass bottle beneath. I held it up between us.
“Who am I to lecture anyone about their vice?”
I tipped it back to my lips and let the bitter, crisp tang wash over my tongue before swallowing several times until my head swam and the bottle was empty.
I cracked another open before looking at her again. Her hair was parted with a zigzag and twisted into two haphazard knots. She’d tucked the wispy strands of pale blue that had escaped behind her ears. It made her look younger. Vulnerable. Sexy.
She lit another cigarette.
“We don’t have to do this right now.”
Her voice was tight and crinkly, like a Mylar balloon being filled too full. I winced and tried to turn away, but her fingers slipped around my jaw as she scooted closer to me.
The concrete felt like an ice cold promise beneath me.
“You don’t have to decide anything, Will.” She swallowed, tracing her thumb over my lip, then lowered herself to her knees on the sidewalk beneath my feet. Shifting between my legs and tossing her cigarette in the grass, she took my face in her hands. Her voice went up like it always did before she cried. “I don’t need anything from you. Just let me love you.”
A tear slipped down her cheek.
I closed my eyes from the weight of everything. I could pull her against me and lose myself in the dog-eared comfort of us, our story written on pages too fragile to be erased and rewritten. I could…
I opened my eyes as she dropped her fingers to my chest. “I can’t, baby. It would be like-”
She pushed me, rising to her feet. Glaring down at me, her nostrils flared. “It would be like it should be. It would give us more time. It would-” her voice broke and with it, something in my chest burst.
I sagged forward, staring down at hands that had crushed her heart without even holding it. Fingers that had skimmed over another woman’s body, held another woman’s face, made another woman shudder with ecstasy.
“I’ll forgive you!” The volume of her voice made my head snap up and my eyes dart around the empty street. “I will change. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”
Her sobs cut her pleas into confetti. She fell again to her knees, wincing this time, but grabbing my shirt and pulling herself against me. “Please, William, please. You can’t do this! You just can’t do this to me!”
I’m not a cruel man. I never was. I could have stayed that night, chosen to do the “right” thing. And maybe we could’ve made it work.
But as I pulled her up and held her tightly, I saw my life, my future pass before me. Months or maybe years of mistrust. And the quicksand my infidelity had trapped me in would eventually suffocate me.
She sobbed into my chest as i tried to find purchase on solid ground. It was the first night of many that I would hold her and will her to be ok. Without me.
But the one thing I didn’t think about that night was loving her.
And that was all I should’ve thought about.
Her hair is dark violet now. Straight and sleek, framing her beautiful face like a piece of art. She stopped smoking and started running.
I watch her now, every evening, pass by the park where I proposed.
Sometimes, I can’t breath, her happiness hurts so bad. But that’s my fault.
Damien dropped the multi-tool, the heft of it slapping the gravel with a rough thunk. It sparkled in the waning light of dusk, it’s diamond cut ridges reflecting onto the device it laid beside
He had been painted in pinks and purples as we worked, but the sky continued to fade and the light couldn’t reach into his skin any longer. His thin blond hair went flat and gray in the dark, and his flesh, normally peppered with amber freckles that made me want to smell it, taste its spice, now took on the mottled simplicity of quarry stone.
I watched his fingers work.
“You ready for this, Pickle?”
His voice sliced through me like a hot knife. The beam from his heavy MagLight danced across my face, blinding me for a second before he lowered it again.
His torch blue eyes held me. Like a candle holds a flame, every muscle in my body worked to keep me from flickering.
I stepped toward him and opened my hand for it.
My voice was like a trumpet against the woods, and he slid the device into my grip. My heart raced as his fingers tightened around mine, his body moving closer. A breath caught in my lungs as the vague citrus hint of his cologne mingled with the acrid scent of his sweat.
I waited for him to let go, but instead, he pulled me closer. I could taste the cola we’d shared on the drive, still sweet and thick on my tongue, and wondered if it would taste different on his. The ruddy fullness of his lips made me tighten my grip on the black box, as it fell to my side.
His fingers rose to the back of his neck, unfastening the thick chain that sat there, a tiny vendor key hanging just between his collarbones on his slender but toned chest. When they came around my own neck, refastening the clasp, my thighs pressed together involuntarily.
Touching the small round shaft of the key, I wondered if he’d felt my heart racing beneath my breasts. If my unsteady breath was obvious. If I would collapse from the weight of my want combined with the heft of the responsibility he was placing around my neck.
His voice in my ear was just like an electric bass, strumming right through me.
“When you come back to me, I’ll give you something better.”
A film of smoke was the only evidence of the poison pumping out of that wretched place. He’d slid the gas mask over my face as he whispered my instructions. I knew some of the others received instructions too, but mine were different. And he wasn’t with any of them.
I felt it. When he spoke about the conspiracy, what they were doing to us, I felt the delicate wire of synchronicity between our souls. It wasn’t just physical attraction.
But I wasn’t naive. I knew his fingers dipped into the coffers of his other followers’ desires. I also knew that we all wanted him so desperately because of the melanocortins this plant pumped into the air, water and food.
As I stared up at the massive stacks, holding the device that would either change our existence forever or kill us all in one night, the doubt started to creep up my spine again.
My momma had worked in there. She loved that job.
Or so they said.
She died in her sleep. But they didn’t know I’d seen them. They didn’t know I had her diary. They didn’t know what she’d left for Damien and I to figure out.
I looked up into the trees and saw him.
His smile pushed down all the doubt. All the fear. All the hate.
It was all for him.
The train approached must faster than we thought it would. I thought someone might have seen me, I thought someone might try to stop it. But there was no one.
Just Damien. And me.
His mouth at my neck and his fingers between my legs.
The first explosion was beautiful. The second deafening.
Then, everything just collapsed.
Except me. And my momma’s mask.
Damien died on top of me. He made me leave on the mask.
“I know you thought it was for me, Pickle. But it was always for you. It was all for you.”
There are moments in life when your children stop being tiny extensions of you. They come in minutes at first. Then days. Weeks. Months.
Molly refused to let me hold her after her second birthday. Balling her little fists and bellowing in defiance, her hot, sour breath blasting me in the face whenever I attempted to pick her up.
“I do it. No grab me.”
Her independence was a double edge sword, driving her to develop maturity beyond her years. It made caring for her simple, but I longed for her affection. My best friend’s daughter would splay her fingers across her mommy’s cheeks and whisper. It made my heart ache.
I soaked up cuddles brought on by fevers and earaches, cherished moments instead of anxious interruptions. I may have wished for nightmares, relishing in her need for me during the lonely hours of the night after her father left us.
By the time she became a freshman in high school, however, our lives ran in parallel. I had swallowed the bitter pill of resentment because it was candy coated in the freedom to go out on weeknights or spend long weekends in the mountains without worrying. I trusted her in a way most parents wouldn’t.
She crawled into my bed that night, waking me from a sound sleep, my mind couldn’t process the adrenaline that pulsed through my system.
She smelled of leaves and the clean, electric scent of rain. Her skin was wet but warm where I lifted the backs of my fingers to feel her forehead. Instead of brushing me away, she buried her face in my chest.
“What’s wrong, Mol?”
A broken, breathy sob shook her whole body as she crumpled handfuls of my nightshirt and pulled herself further into me like she might hide beneath my flesh.
“Molly, you’re scaring me. What happened?”
I reached over the sliver of bed she occupied to click on my side lamp. She shrank further into the bedding and her sobs grew harder and faster.
As my eyes adjusted, I tried to push her back so I could see her face. She clung and fought, but the livid purple color of her cheekbone gave fury to my need to see.
“What the- Molly, look at me. Now.”
She turned into the pillow releasing a hiccuping groan but exhaled in surrender, turning red-rimmed, storm gray eyes toward me.
The left side of her face was one giant, swollen, mottled bruise. Her lip and brow were split and clotted. Clumps of mud matted her hair.
“How bad is it, mom?”
She choked on the words, a breathy whisper working against the parched rasp of her normal voice. She peered up at me, trembling, and I met her gaze with an instinct I’d thought disappeared long ago.
“Just bruises and cuts,” I lifted my fingertips to run over her damaged skin. “But no broken bones, I think. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow to be sure.”
I kept my voice steady and soft, despite the rage that boiled inside my veins.
“What happened, baby? Who did this?”
Fear flashed in her watery eyes before she buried herself in my breast again. I pushed down every urge in my being, knowing the best thing I could do was stay with her. But the need to say something was strong.
“You cannot let him get away with it.”
She sobbed for a long time, clinging like I was a life preserver. In the muted light, I stared at the picture on my night table behind her. A preschooler swinging her feet on either side of a massive branch, up high in a big oldtree in front of an orchard we’ve visited a dozen times.
Molly was holding a huge red apple, the size of a man’s fist, three perfect, round bites already missing from its flesh.
She climbed that tree by herself at four and a halfyearsold, ate that entire apple, plus half of another she picked for me, and wouldn’t even let me help her down.
When I looked back down at my little girl, now a brazen, vicious teenager, she stared back at me with wide eyes, blood in her teeth.
I pried her hands loose from their grip on my shirt and examined them. Three nails broken past the quick, knuckles cracked and bloodied, her right index finger broken.
She swallowed, gazing at the backs of her hands as she flexed her fingers.
The walls seemed to be breathing. Ugly, stained brocade peeling from the plaster shifted as the wind squealed through the broken glass of the old attic window. In the dark, he could barely see the figure. Like an absence of light in a room streaked with moonlight.
It moved toward him, somehow bending the light away. Repelling it by some unnatural means. He lifted his flashlight, but the bulb popped and hissed, leaving the space between them even darker than it had been.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
He took several gulps of stale air as the temperature dropped.
“Why are you-“
The room seemed to swallow the sound, choking off his voice until he lifted his fingers to his mouth, confirming it was still there.
The house shifted and swelled. Romeo’s brain hurt as though it were working without him. He brought his fingers to his temples, but the thing forced him to his knees.
He’d lived there as a child. The house was huge and dark, and the old musty wall tapestry had always felt alive. When he was young, however, it was the breath and laughter of all those women that brought it to life. Incense and perfume hung in clouds through every room. Its purpose had been to mask the bleachy, musky smells that would have otherwise permeated the air. But it had given birth to a sensory soaked existence, a daily lesson in manners and chivalry, the playful molding of a young boy’s identity in a place he simply didn’t belong.
Romeo had been named for his father, or so that was the story. But he never knew a father figure until Charles came to the house one evening to bleed the radiators.
There had been other men. The ladies called them suitors, but Romeo was not a dim kid. His mother’s room was directly below his, and he’d understood from a very young age that this was all business. He’d understood so well that, as Charles went from room to room, floor to floor, making repairs, Romeo was careful to follow him and watch his every move.
“How old are you, buddy?”
“Eight and a half.”
“You protectin’ these ladies?”
His chuckle bristled Romeo’s spine, drawing his face into a venomous scowl before he stepped toward the stranger, rivetting him with a stare that made his answer unnecessary.
“There ain’t no freebies here.”
Charles had lifted his hands, holding them palms out as he rocked back on his heels to rise from a low squat.
“Hey now, you’ll have no problems with me, kiddo. I’m just a handyman. I’m only here to fix the heat.”
There had been something in his tone that changed Romeo’s mind. It wasn’t instant, as he’d seen too many arrogant jokers in and out of these rooms, leaving behind bruises and twenty dollar bills that should’ve been hundreds. It was hard to believe there were any good guys out there. But what Charles taught him that night was far more important than how to repair the radiators and seal the windows with insulating tape.
It was almost 9 o’clock when he sat down at the kitchen table with him for a cup of milk and a slice of Molly’s spice cake.
“This your homework?”
With a mouthful, all Romeo could do was nod. But in the following twenty minutes, the repairman checked his work, showed him an easier way to do division, and managed to get himself an invitation to dinner the next night.
“As long as it’s ok with your momma.”
Romeo was so used to not talking to his mother, the statement surprised him. She was wiry, strung out and unfocused. She had a lot of suitors, in order to pay for the pills that kept her up and put her down, and if he had to tell the truth, he didn’t like her much.
But Molly, she had been his favorite. When he was small, he thought she must have been a fairy or at least part fairy. She moved like she was made of water or vapor, and she practically glimmered in the red robe cinched around her tiny waist with a satin bow.
When he was four, he asked if she wore it to hide her wings.
She’d giggled and scooped him into her arms, whispering in his ear.
“They are magical, my Romeo. They hide themselves.”
That night, in the kitchen with Charles, she wore a pair of black capris and a red sweater. But she still looked and moved as though she had wings.
She’d blushed and giggled, explaining that she wasn’t Romeo’s mother, but that she knew it would be fine.
The next night, she wore a crimson dress with black polka dots, and Romeo might have told her he wished he was older so he could ask her on a date.
Charles got the privilege instead.
In the year that followed, Romeo learned what it meant to be a man. He grew six inches that summer, and though he was only nine, he stood as tall as most thirteen-year-olds and was just as smart.
But Molly held him on her lap through the funeral, mopping his tears with her tissues and rubbing his back as though he were much younger than the sight of him announced.
Charles stood behind them, his hand resting on Romeo’s shoulder, letting his own tears slide down his cheeks.
Not for the corpse that was laid in a pine box in front of them, but the life of a boy who might be lost to the wind after this.
The state hadn’t wanted him to stay with Molly. Whether they could prove it or not, everyone knew what that house had been. What went on there. But Charles had a friend who knew a lawyer and scraped together enough money for a home of his own. And a ring.
They were married by a judge on a Friday, and they moved in with him on Saturday. It took months of legal battles, counseling sessions, and psychiatric evaluations, but when no one came forward to claim him, Romeo became eligible for adoption.
So, one completely anticlimactic afternoon, he became legally theirs.
But they had already been a family. Right from that first night.
The cold bit into his cheeks as his blood throbbed in his ears. He tried to look up, his lips pleading with no voice. But the roar of silence crushed him down further so that he lay crumpled, like a fetus, on the floor.
The visions spilled from his mind like water from an overflowing cup. Some incredible force surged through him, pinning him harder and tighter to the floorboards.
The oxygen in the room was depleted. The realization that he was suffocating made his mind swim with terror. But he couldn’t die. Not until he found her.
He focused on what had brought him here. The phone call from Molly, talking about the house, telling him how it was finally going to be bulldozed after seventeen years. Her voice had been so strange, so distant. Like she was in a trance.
She said she was there, giving it one last look. Trying to find the happy times where none were to be found.
But there had been. So many joyous moments were had in that place, only brought to a halt by a fire that managed to take only the life of the lost soul who caused it.
Memories of blanket forts, chess games, math quizzes, and dancing in their pajamas in the firelight scoured over him like sandpaper.
Her words had been clipped, muffled. Peppered against a static that sounded like alien breath.
And then she said the one thing he’d never, ever imagined she would say.
“Sometimes I wish I had never adopted you.”
The silence that had followed was as thick as oil. No static, no breath. But then, a scream that sent him running for the door as fast as his feet would carry him.
He realized now, it wasn’t her. And it sparked a recollection of something said with equal hatred when he was very small. A memory Molly never wanted him to have.
“I wish I had never had you.”
He had been vying for his mother’s attention as toddlers do, begging for something. What was it?
The word hung in the space around him, stopping time and wind and breath. He could smell the wax, feel it on his fingers. He remembered, after that day, he only ever drew Molly. That was the day he first wished he was hers.
A rage larger than the house threw him back, pinning him to the wall this time as the creaking, shrieking walls tried to expand to hold it.
It seared into him like the stings of a thousand scorpions, dumping poison into his bloodstream and making him wretch, and writhe. Hatred funneled into him from all directions before twisting, pulling back, threatening to rip him to pieces.
He clenched his fists and looked at the figure, glaring into the blackness until, finally, he could see.
The walls around them began to buckle with the building pressure, but he gazed deep into the vaccum and pushed himself free of the wall, he shouted.
“What did you do with her? Where is my momma?”
The figure before him shook with fury, black eyes burned into him, but still he moved toward it.
The thing released a feral roar causing the house to vibrate then flex inward before it drew in an airless breath and raised hands of reverse flames.
Fire without heat, blue and black tongues licked outward, stealing the light and oxygen once again. Bearing down on him, the dark mass grew and seethed. Its eyes were obsidian slivers set in flesh so black, he hadn’t been able to see the resemblance before.
He couldn’t speak to tell it. He couldn’t even cough or choke as the smoke from its flames siphoned the life from his body.
Instead, he closed his eyes. And prayed.
Not for himself, but for the life of another. Molly.
Please, let it have been fake. Please let Momma be alive.
He was chanting the prayer in his mind, his heart beating too loudly in his ears to hear the phantom’s whispers.
He prayed she’d never been there, that this was just like the other times he was drawn to this place by some need he could never quite meet. He’d called his parents home from the gas station, hoping Charles would answer groggily and tell him Molly was asleep. But it just rang and rang, seventeen times before Romeo climbed back into his dad’s old truck.
The fact that they hadn’t answered was the reason he was there, dying, right now.
And as he prayed that this thing had only somehow impersonated his momma, he heard her voice, calling his name from downstairs.
He was sure his brain had begun to falter from lack of oxygen. But when Charles’s voice boomed from below as well, he opened his eyes.
Romeo drew up whatever strength he had left and threw himself at the monster.
It was as simple as tackling smoke. Diminished by the presence of others or by his pure will to defeat it, he found nothing but air beneath him, and as he stood, gasping and clutching his chest, he stared down at the blackness seeping into and filling the cracks of the floorboards beneath his feet.
“Romeo, sweetheart? Are you up there?”
He turned and met her on the stairs, shimmering like a fairy in the moonlight. Then he looked back at the absence of light in his old room.
As impotent as a ghost as she had been in life.
He hadn’t thought of his birth mother in many years.
And as they took the steps back down to Charles, he promised himself he wouldn’t again.
Analise stepped into the waiting room, feeling a bit lighter than she’d left it. She exhaled weeks of anxious waiting, and her sigh shifted her husband’s gaze from the tiny screen in the palm of his hand.
Curt slid the phone into his pocket and straightened in his chair.
“Well? What did he say?”
She sat down next to him holding the papers out for him to read. He frowned before taking them.
“I’d rather you tell me.”
His tone was soft but firm, the gravel in his timber stealing any emotion from his voice.
She’d loved that stoic depth when they were dating. He’d seemed impenetrable, unshakable. She didn’t witness a crack in his armor until their wedding day, but once she saw it, she desperately wanted what was underneath.
He was never prepared for that, though.
It had taken him two months to ask her on a date, but only four to propose. And after they said their vows on his 29th birthday, he’d whispered a hundred times that night that she was the best present ever.
Her sister had warned her not to expect the honeymoon to last forever. But when she woke, naked and tangled in hotel sheets two days after her wedding to find him showered and dressed, reading a newspaper and guzzling coffee, she hid her disappointed tears beneath the shower.
It wasn’t that he was ever unkind. In fact, he was the perfect gentleman. But she rarely got the glimpses of that man who was so smitten he couldn’t take his eyes off her on her wedding day. She could probably count them on her hands.
She sighed, looking up into his bright, cool eyes.
“Well, he said I need to have a procedure to remove the growths, but he says it isn’t cancer.”
In a flash so fast she almost missed it, his face crumpled with relief before settling back to his normal, stony expression.
“So they are growths, but not tumors.”
A statement, not a question. But not without a tremor in his voice.
She’d lived too long with the desperation to make him feel, and had been defeated too many times by his dismissals and robotic responses. So she hadn’t tried to see beyond his shell for a very long time.
Suddenly, it was all she could see. “Were you worried?”
His eyebrows knitted together, for a moment glaring at her furiously. But his words came out in a choked whisper. “Of course.”
Twenty-four years, two kids, two houses, a dozen cars, a handful of tragedies, and she’d never seen tears in this man’s eyes until today.
“I’m not a boulder, Ana.”
It wasn’t the first time he declared this, pointing at his chest in defiance. She’d said to him a few times during the first few years of their marriage that he must be made of stone. The first time he’d said he wasn’t, they were watching Titanic. He’d wrapped his arm around her as she sobbed, staring at the screen in disbelief when Leonardo DeCaprio froze. She’d looked up at him, startled, and his face blanched as if she’d struck him.
She realized now that it had always been those moments where she experienced some significant emotion that she caught those glimpses inside his heart.
He smiled so broadly the day she first held her son that she thought his lips might crack. He shook with fury the day a drunk driver had sideswiped her, forcing her off the road and into a ditch.
When she’d stood on the kitchen table, shaking in terror as a mouse raced across her kitchen floor, he’d stalked that pest like a lion hunting prey to feed his family.
And when she told him she had been to the doctor for a biopsy, he held her so tightly that night that she had to tell him she couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve been a bundle of nerves for weeks, of course I was worried.”
Lifting her fingers to his cheek, she longed to push him for more. To let her tug off that armor and snuggle into the softness she so desperately had hoped was underneath. Or warm herself against the fire he kept secretly to himself.
But, as her heart pummeled against her lungs, she knew that would only encourage him deeper into himself. So, she kissed him quickly before taking back the papers and folding them into a little packet.
“Ok. Well, the biopsy came back clear. But the growths are fibrous polyps and my endometrial lining is very thick. They will have to do a D&C, do you know what that is?”
“That’s what you had after Joel.”
The memory of Joel’s birth and the hemorrhaging that had followed burned behind his eyes.
“Yes, but this will be scheduled in advance and without all the hysterics.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Quite a bit less dramatic.”
He slumped and laid a hand on her knee. “Less scary, you mean.”
Lifting her eyes to meet his, she held her breath for a moment.
“I thought I was going to lose you that morning, Ana.”
She’d never thought about what that day had been like for Curt. Her whirlwind first pregnancy filled with difficulties, followed by an emergency cesarean birth. She barely remembered the bleeding or the surgery that followed. She barely remembered any of it, truthfully. The memory of Curt handing her Joel 24 hours later overlaid everything else. The bliss of motherhood giving her amnesia to everything that had happened in the days and even weeks leading up to that moment.
She stared at him for a long moment. “You’re not going to lose me now, either.”
His face went slack before his eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Good.”
It was hardly a word, more of a release of breath pushed through the crack in his facade. She dropped her fingers to wrap around his in her lap, then drew her leg up beneath her so she could lean into him.
She thought about the way she’d always examined those cracks in his exterior, as if through a microscope. Trying to find a way in.
She’d been missing the fact that she was already in.
Every morning, he rose before her, showered and dressed, then waited for her to wake, ready with a cup of Earl Grey with two sugars. She focused on the fact that he wasn’t in bed with her instead of the big picture.
He held both of their babies for days before she could, but handed them over without question once her body and heart could handle it. She’d envied how they idolized him as they grew, and spent countless hours quietly at his side building, fixing, and painting. But if she’d just stepped back, perhaps she would’ve understood that he was keeping them out of her hair.
He never wanted to take exotic vacations, always opting for weekend trips to the country or the beach. But maybe it was never about the money or time off work. Maybe he just wanted to keep them safe and close.
Everything she ever saw as a dismissal could’ve been his simple way of showing how much he cared.
Reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, she watched his eyes follow her fingers, and she saw the same glow in his eyes that he’d seen on her wedding day.
“They will call me to schedule the procedure.”
She went on in a soft voice, to explain the surgery center and the outpatient procedure that should only leave her a bit sore for a few days. She slipped her hand under his arm and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. After she’d finished, he sighed another affirmative and pressed his lips against the top of her head.
“Let’s go somewhere nice for lunch. I’m in the mood for pasta.”
She looked up at him, her forehead lined with confusion. “Don’t you have to go back to work?”
Curt shook his head and kissed her again, this time on the bridge of her nose. “No. You’re stuck with me for the whole afternoon.”
“But- You don’t have to do that. I mean- You never miss work.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t always find out if my wife has cancer or not, either.”
Scanning his face, Analise grinned broadly as tears pricked her eyes.
He shook his head again as she hugged his bicep again. But then he stood, pulling her into his arms and holding her there long enough that she heard the nurses sigh and whimper behind the counter. He pulled back and cleared his throat, wiping his eyes with his thumb.
Raising up on her tip toes, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Let’s go home instead.” Pressing her lips to his ear, she told him she would make him pasta.