we hurl through this tunnel of
beeches and careless mulberries
green silence pressing you and me on all sides
my fingers drumming the steering wheel
what is the word for it
trees that keep their dead leaves
dry papery offerings
to distract deer from eating their bark
in the hungry winter
I could rattle off the word
you could recite a poem by James Crews
we could talk about holding on to something
as light splinters the canopy
If I could remember the word
Lavender, sweet and heavy, floated in the air. Not lavender from a field or a bar of drugstore soap, no the smell of one of those fancy candles. Sarah hadn’t known what to expect. The waiting area looked like a nice hotel lounge, of course it would. What had she expected a Halloween set with blood splattered walls, grey boughs of cobwebs, and maybe the coroner would be dressed in a slinky black dress ala Elvira. Sarah snorted a laugh.
She cackled. Her laughter careened into a painful wail. Rick gaped. They looked at each other for the first time since that 2 AM call from Elysian Crest.
Sarah had found the wilderness therapy camp online. She had done the research. She had made the call, talked to the camp director. Sarah had read the glowing reviews and even spoken to other parents who had sent their teens with behavioral issues to Elysian Crest. She had brought the idea of going away to get better to her baby girl. Together they convinced Rick to let Penny go to Utah, to Elysian Crest, more like Elysian Fields.
Sarah laughed louder. She was a siren. Wild eyed Rick stared. He blinked. Suddenly he grabbed his wife holding her tight enough to hurt. Over and over, Sarah screamed into his chest her nails digging into the flesh of his back. He squeezed tighter, flooding Sarah’s shoulder with tears.
Rick had been waiting to wake up from this nightmare. He had talked to the police. He had arranged for their flights and hotel. Rick had made the calls to his folks and Sarah’s. Rick had called the kids, explaining over and over again that Penny had died, no the cause of death hasn’t been determined, no no one knew exactly what happened in the desert, no no no. The camp director Linda Something had hinted at some overdose bullshit but Rick knew his kid. Penny was headstrong, angry, and Captain SmartAss. But his spitfire loved herself too much to fly too close to the sun. Rick did what needed to be done but as he watched himself Rick knew he would wake up and they would be a family.
Waiting, they fasten onto each other. Eyes shut tight, they rocked in the heavy sweetness. Sarah shuddered in his arms. Rick stroked and whispered, “I got you.” Sarah gripped Rich’s nape as his ocean crashed into her. This is real, Rick thought. Sarah’s hand was his lifeline.
A shadow fell. Sarah opened her eyes and saw Penny. She saw Penny’s dimpled face with that look when she had done something wrong but didn’t really think it was all her fault and just wanted everyone to get over it. Sarah took a sharp breath. Rick turned hoping one last time to wake up. They faced the stranger.
“When you’re ready, I can take you back to viewing room for the official identification,” the coroner said.
“Still or bubbly,” the waitress said. Avery flashed her a generous smile. “Just a Perrier with lime. Carl pick your poison. The club has an Scotch selection or—“ Carl growled. “Look, this isn’t a social call. I just need to see those financials!” Avery and the waitress looked affronted. With its panoramic views of lush golf courses and sumptuous wicker chairs, Wilshire Country Club was unaccustomed to raised voices. A few blue hairs at the neighboring table raised their eyebrows. Avery tossed apologetic glances to the other diners. Carl scoffed loudly. “Just make that two Perriers and leave the wine list,” Avery said to the waitress. His voice was butterscotch smooth with a touch of levity. Smiling Avery sent her off. He turned his full attention on Carl. Carl was a hard man. High school lineman and an ex-Marine, Carl was tough but a lot of guys were tough. That didn’t bother Avery. Carl made his first packet wildcatting in Georgia before going into frozen yogurt franchises. Carl was smart and that made Avery nervous. Avery looked down at his Oyster Perpetual. The Rolex was heavy gold with bevel diamonds. Avery remembered how he told Belinda he was meeting an investor when instead Avery was doing a little retail therapy. The sales staff was gracious as he tried on watch after watch. Avery remembered slipping into the Oyster Perpetual, the weight made Avery lighter, more free. “Let’s stop dancing you’re cute but you not my type. I’ve invested two million in your film licensing firm but I need to see the contract with HBO as well as all the oversees licensing agreements,” Carl said. “This is basic and I don’t see the problem.” Avery watched the diamonds on his timepiece sparkle in the afternoon light. Carl studied the younger man’s face. Avery looked bored. “Carl I’ve been transparent with you but I’ll never share that information with investors. I see your uncomfortable, I don’t want anyone to be unhappy, so let’s part ways,” Avery said. Avery moved his wrist catching the light. “Wait what!” Avery patted his blazer jacket for a nonexistent check book. “No worries, let me return your original investment and your earnings from this quarter and just shake hands.” The waitress set down their waters. Avery took a long slow drink hoping Carl bought the story. A prism of light from the Rolex dazzled Carl. “Hold on just a minute,” Carl said. Avery smiled with relief behind his glass.
Luz had been pretending to scratch her nose to cover a yawn. She had been up since five cleaning the house then getting the kids off to school and herself to work. They were down three social workers at the Intermediate Unit and she knew the minute she got home a pile of things undone would be waiting by the door. Luz had been debating supermarket chicken or frozen pizza when she realized her new patient had asked her a direct question.
“I’m sorry,” Luz said glancing down at her notes, “Sullivan, my connection is a little slow. Could you repeat that last bit again you were breaking up.”
The dark haired boy chuckled. With a sprinkle of freckles and big bright eyes, his pixie face was central casting adorable. Only his thin smile made him appear older.
“Yeah sure late nights make bad bedfellows. I said therapy is a paradox. Talking to make things better it is so stupid, bro. I mean talking is boring and lasts forever and only makes me madder then I do things and then then I need more therapy,” Sullivan said. “It’s like a vicious circle.”
“You’re very insightful, Sullivan. I understand therapy is weird and uncomfortable. But let’s give it a chance. I’m here to listen to you. What would you like to work on with me?”
Luz gave her patient her warmest concerned therapist look. He stared back with dead doll eyes. They stared at each other for several moments. Creeped out by the kid, Luz returned to the notes from BetterSpace.
They read: Sullivan Pine, 15, adult guardian Joseph Pine (grandfather) concerns: truant, ignores curfew, slipping grades, poss. oppositional defiant disorder. Luz gave a slight groan. Her day job was filled with ADHD, ODD, kids with a whole host of alphabet disorders. Stifling another yawn, Luz knew she would be too tired to stop by the market.
“So Sullivan tell me about your life a little,” Luz asked.
Another bout of stares stretched between the boy and his therapist. Luz glanced up at the clock over her monitor, parsing out the rest of the night.
“So you live with your grandpa.”
“He’s not my real dad. He doesn’t own me. No one owns me. His way or the highway, right. Everything has to go his way and he’s never wrong. I’m sick of his shit. I’m not a kid. And I don’t have to take it.”
A scowl settled over his cherubic face. Sullivan vibrated with anger. He tapped his foot against the chair he was sitting on in his living room. Thunk, thunk, the wooden raps grew louder.
“I’m not a puppet. I have my own mind, my own voice. I’m not going to do what he tells me. I’m not going to just sit and take it. I will speak my peace. He’s the only one I have problems with. Just him. I can’t wait until I am out of this house. I’m never going to see that dickhead again.”
“Okay, I hear you. What do you think is behind you two not getting along?”
Sullivan pushed back from the table, shouting. “Not getting along! That’s not what I said. You’re not listening. You’re taking his side. Making it like I have the problem. Like I get angry for no reason. He pulls a string and I have to jump up and do my chores, tell him where I’m going, when I’ll be back. Like it is my job to help me. He should get off his old ass. It’s not my responsibility he’s old and sick. I have to beg him for money, beg him for rides. He thinks everyone has to be like him to be legit. Reading books and being old and boring. Then if I say I’m going to do something and I legitimately forget. He calls me a liar. Then I guess I am a liar. I’m a liar! I’m telling a lie now.”
Luz watched as Sullivan swept a shelfful of delicate wood carvings to the floor.
Sullivan roared, “I’m telling a lie right now.” Each word was punctuated with snapping, cracking wood.
With a sharp crunch, the boy stomped his overturned chair. Luz watched from across the state as an older man ran into the dining room screaming. Sullivan pulled back his arm with a splintered chair leg in his hand. Luz’ screen went dark.
A silvery flick of drones swooped and soared over a mirror lake. Transports streamed past Mount Shani. Their chem trails sparkled like diamonds against the platinum sky. Lewis 5 stared out the window over its station as it chopped Italian parsley. “What do you think it’s thinking?” William whispered. “Well it has been chopping herbs for three hours so I hope it is thinking of the lunch menu,” Peony whispered back. With an impatient snap, the android turned its dark gray head to face its staff. The sous chefs hurried forward with bowls of lemon balm and pineapple geraniums.
The murmurs of hungry patrons rose. The Oobah was the hottest restaurant on Saturn with four Michelin stars. Only ten guests per seating, only one seating at night Oobah was the talk of the galaxy. Artificial lifeforms had been the backbone of food processing and preparation for centuries. Rollo Carmella had set the haute cuisine world aflame when he inexplicately promoted an andriod to head chef at Ares, his flagship restaurant on Mars. Reporters considered it a promotional stunt, patrons thought it was a prank, critics opined he was making a comment on post-industrial throwback to naturalistism, until they tasted Lewis 5’s food. Customers weep with joy over the oyster mushroom risotto. Moans of ecstasy accompanied the beef Wellington. Lewis 5’s limoncello tart led to a standing ovation. When Rollo moved his culinary find out to the wilderness of Saturn everyone thought he was crazy. Lewis 5 grew more creative. Poetry in edible ink covered pastry shells, pork medallions en papillote scented with smoke from Black Forest, each meal was an ephemeral work of art. “Dear God tell me it’s ready. People have been waiting for over an hour,” the maitre’ d whispered into the kitchen. “Ssssh,” William hissed back. “It’s coming.” Peony made a rude gesture. The lights dimmed and then went out. The patrons murmured in excitement. Tiny faux votives flickered on as the smell of frankenise rolled into the dining area. Solemnly the waiters brought in simple white ceramic bowls of cheese soufflé. One guest snorted before his partner kicked him under the table. Everyone began to eat. The room was completely quiet except for the occasional scrape of a fork. The quiet was eaten up by sobs as the patrons finished their bowls. William turned to Peony who was scooping out the remains of the souffle on the counters. A tear slid down her cheek. “Freedom,” Peony said. “It tastes like Lewis 5 wants to be free.”
Bright white paper mostly smooth with a little rough, the sketch pad was wide open on the braided oval rug. Her box of Crayola 64s was tipped over spilling a rainbow of options. Shamrock and mountain meadow, the grass was a mix of green slashes. River searched for the sepia for her oak tree trunk.
“It’s not a religion, it’s more self-help. First they break you down, releasing you from the habits and cycles holding back your true potential. We are expanding our minds, healing our souls,” Perri said.
“Okay, but Mom said there was this money involved, all this money. She said you were asking for all this money and stuff and I just don’t understand,” Uncle Chris said.
River added a pine green pine tree next to her oak tree to keep it company. Next she worked on the house. River closed one eye to draw the straight triangle roof on top of the square house. Her eyebrows knitted in concentration when she realized her house was askew. Quickly River added more leaves to her oak tree to hide her mistake.
“So this is about Mom. Dammit, you’re here to spy on me. Here to tell me I’m wrong too?” Perri’s voice rose. Uncle Chris said something soft and kind-sounding too low for River to hear. She snapped the point off her electric lime crayon and hid it in the crayon sharpener hole.
Perri shouted, “I’m hurting too. And for the first time in a long time I’m feeling good about myself and no one will support me. I have positive people around me for the first time. But all anyone can talk about is a few lousy dollars. What about me? When do I get to be happy? When do I get something for myself?” Perri began to cry.
“Sis, you know it is always you and me. We have each other’s back no matter what. I’m looking out for you that’s all,” Uncle Chris said.
River drew faster, scrubbing wild watermelon over the brick red house. Her roof was atomic tangerine above a shocking pink rectangle door. The midnight blue of River’s four paned windows smeared under the pressure of her moist hand like bruises.
“Let me show you the literature and you can come with me to an encounter group. Lance encourages us to bring friends. If you don’t believe me, you’ll see, you’ll see.” “Okay, I want to read it,” Uncle Chris said.
Perri pushed away from the table and ran back to the small apartment’s one bedroom. Uncle Chris rubbed his eyes when Perri left the room. He looked over at his niece, so quiet, coloring in the living room.
“Hey short stack show me what you cooking up?”
Her crayon paused in mid air. River stared at her uncle open mouthed. “No. Not done. No one can see it until it done.”
River wondered if the sky should be black or outer space, a strong peaceful gray.
“Not even for your favorite uncle?”
River looked at him then her eyes returned to the page. “You’re my only uncle?” River’s hand made broad strokes darkening half the paper.
“C’mon, do me a favor? I could use a smile right now.”
River slowed down and then sighed. Uncle Chris was making sad puppy dog eyes at her. She closed her sketch book and went to sit on Uncle’s Chris’ lap.
Uncle Chris opened River’s book.He studied the bright drawings.
“Cool house short stack, what’s up with your sun?”
“The sun blew out a long time ago. Now the moon makes the trees grow and keeps the house warm. See, see.”
“I see short stack, cool very cool,’ he said.
River drew wiggly canary lines from her sliver of a perwinkle. Uncle Chris hugged her tight and let her go back to drawing.
I tucked my cell into my back pocket and pulled a serious face. “Baby, the bank has messed up my account. My benefit check got held up so my bank froze my whole account,” I said. I watched her back she washes the dinner dishes. I can tell by the tension in her neck, the sudden stiffness in her movement that this mark doesn’t believe me. Typical, I thought. This one was a little smarter than my last two girls, a little smarter. After a deep sigh I started weaving my story. “How can that be? You said you would get me my money—“ she said. I shouted and slammed my fist into my hand. “This ruins everything. I want to take care you. I wanted to show you I am dependable. I know it has only been a few weeks but we’ve…” I said. I turned away and buried my face in my hands. My shoulders shook. The woman switched off the water and hugged my back. She said soft words to soothe my nonexistent hurt. I felt her melt into the small of my back. Gathering her petite frame into my arms, I kissed her hard, dominating her senses. Her legs wobbled ever so slightly. Just as she surrended to my kiss completely, I pulled away. I had been careful to be passionate but restrained. Chicks always think waiting for sex means gallantry. I tucked the mark’s head beneath my chin. Bump, the kid ran into my legs. It squeezed my legs like a vise. I hid my grimace. “Hey sweetheart whatcha doing down there?” I said, swinging the child up into the air. She squealed with delight. Kids loved me. I laughed. “I love kids,” I said. The girl’s smile blossomed as her resolve drifted. “Do you like Happy Meals sweetie? As soon as I get back I’m taking you and Mommy out for burgers?” it squealed again right in my ear. I handed the kid to its confused mother. “What where are you going?” I shrugged into my jacket. “I told you babe my bank messed up. I need to go the main branch in Boulder. I told you I need to get your money back. You’ve been so good to me. Let me hold your car Boulder is only 90 minutes away and then you’ll have your money. You want your money right. Then Happy Meals!” I said tickling the kid under its chin. Confidentally I headed for the front door of her apartment. I reached for her car keys on the wooden rack. “You’re okay right. You’re cool with this. You trust me baby right.” I held her gaze and waited. I noticed she was a pretty little thing standing there in her kitchen. Her kid waved bye bye. Eyes a little frighten the mark nodded. Finally light and free, I was out of the door and outside in moments.