Daisy’s hair was a rich brown halo of thick coils. With a rat tailed comb, her mother separated the locks into smaller sections. Daisy with her tablet in hand sat cross legged on a pillow on the kitchen floor as Thea bent to rub coconut oil into the child’s hair. Sunlight from the window over the farmhouse sink lay across their shoulders. A vegetable stew bubbled in the crockpot and cornbread baked in the oven.
In the corner, the old radiator sighed with steam. Yawning, Thea stretched her back to stay wake in the cozy heat. Daisy stretched too and then broke out into song.
“Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do.”
Thea began teasing out the tangles and thinking about the accounts she had to reconcile.
“I’m half crazy all for the love of you. Ow!”
“Oh, sorry baby,” Thea said. She hoped all of the amounts would tally but she knew they wouldn’t. Stupid I can’t find my receipt Rita. “ I wish your daddy would learn how to do hair. Every Sunday you come back like a ragamuffin.”
“Mildred doesn’t pull my hair, Mommy.”
“Yes, I know you’re tender-headed, sweetie peach.” Gently, ever so gently. Thea began to braid.
“I’m not a sweetie peach. Mildred never calls me ragged muffins Mildred says I can be anything I want to be.”
Thea’s hands moved like water separating and joining weaving down to the ends. She looked over at her computer bag. Daisy hummed to herself.
That’s right sugar pop.” Thea oiled the girl’s scalp and massaged from her roots to her ends.
“I’m not sugary pop. Mildred says she couldn’t do what she wanted but I can.”
Thea thought next Friday she would tell Steven to make Daisy wear a satin cap or he can start taking this head to the salon.
“Mommy what’s hysteria?”
“What now? “
“Who is this Mildred? What kind of kid is this with two dollar words?”
“Mommy! Mildred is my friend, my special friend,” Daisy said.
Thea moved quickly. Shiny braids gleamed in the afternoon sun.
“She’s my special wecial friend who lives in my closet. Ow!”
“Sorry, sorry, how long have you had this friend?”
“Forever since we moved here. She used to keep me up with her crying. It made me so mad but you told me to use my words instead of my fists so I started talking and she started talking and we started talking. And then I could see her. Well I could see some of her.” Daisy broke out into song. “Give me your answer do.”
Despite the stove and the radiator, the kitchen suddenly grew cold. Thea’s hands froze in mid-air.
“What else does she say?” Thea said softly. She could see her breath in the air. Memories of this old house, her Mom Mom’s house, were she spent many sleepless summers seeped into the front of her mind. Closing her eyes, Thea slammed the five panel door on those thoughts She set down her comb.
“Just that she loves me like a mommy just like I was her little bitty baby that she doesn’t have anymore.” Daisy rocked to her song in her head.
On stiff legs, Thea climbed down to the tile floor eye level with her daughter. Thea smoothed the girl’s edges and kissed her forehead. Thea locked eyes with Daisy. They held each other’s cheeks.
“I’m your Mommy. You’re one and only Mommy. I know things have been hard with the move and changes but you and I haven’t changed. It’s impossible for anyone to love you like I love you. I’m your Mommy.” Thea lovingly tapped Daisy’s nose. Daisy hugged her mother tight.
Suddenly the kitchen was warm, heavy with the smell of buttery cornbread. The frost melted on the window glass taking away the words written in the ice from an unseen hand
“And I’m your butter bean,” Daisy said.
The day was bleeding out against the dark sky in ribbons of magenta and gold. The boys ran in small packs of four or five. More dangerous together than apart. Tennyson was the new kid. Justin had vouched for him but that only got him to the circle in woods not in the inside.
The woods were the green space tucked behind a small college. The four boys stood in a circle fighting the cold and the boredom.Tennyson’s parents had begged, borrowed, and stole to afford a modest house in the affluent suburbs with the best schools. But Tennyson made his own path. The four boys stood in circle sharing a bottle of liquor. Tennyson choked back the bitter fire in his throat and drank deeply.
The boys passed a joint and took turns playing tracks from their phones. Their grunts, whoops, and barking laughs punctuated the heavy bass. Flying, Tennyson bobbed his head to the beat.
Bobby stepped out of the darkness. The air was charged. He lit a cigarette, his spotted face crimson in the flame. Tennyson wanted to slip into the trees, wanted to sprint through the fields, wanted to cut across his neighbors’ backyards, leaping fences to the safety of his home. He knew his mom had saved a plate for him.
“What you looking at, freshman?” Bobby growled.
“Could I bum a Newport?” Tennyson answered in a deep voice, flaring out his chest to appear bigger.
“‘Member I told you I was bringing Ten?” Justin said.
Silence. After a pause someone chose another song and the boys bobbed their heads in unison for a while.
“It’s cold as shit out here,” announced Bobby.
“Well, Alfredo’s is already closed,” Tyler said, scratching his shaggy mane. “And my mom would straight up kill me if I brought folks home.”
“I know a place,” Tennyson said, his voice breaking.
The cackle of teens traversed the woods, cut through the square, hooted and hollered across the playground, and stopped behind the abandoned church. Tennyson showed them the broken lock on the cellar door. The inky black of the church basement swallowed them.
Tyler tripped over a chair. Justin tripped over Tyler. The pair started play fighting. Bobby flicked his lighter and attempted to light some kind of candle. The basement blazed impossibly bright. Bobby had lit a road flare that he lifted from his dad’s SUV.
“Careful guys careful,” Tennyson whined.
With a high pitched giggle Bobby lobbed the road flare to Tyler. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, freshman.” Sharp teeth shining, Tyler laughed manically in return catching the flare and tossing it over Tennyson’s head. Justin joined in the hysteria jumping for the road flare as it slammed against the far wall showering an old pile of hymnals. The laughter continued as Justin retrieved the flare and tossed it. Soon slender tongues of flames appeared among the dried pages.
Tennyson beat at the flames with his feet and then his coat. The others howled in the smoke before running outside. Wild, Tennyson tried to crush the fire. Justin pulled him into the cold of the night. Ten stumbled on the grass. Face striped with soot, he watched part of his life burn away and then Ten turned to run with the pack.
We thought of you today. I love you. I think of you everyday. Love, Mom
Charlie walked towards the rain streaked handmade sign. It was roughly taped to a traffic signal. Closely he peered at the words, tracing the familiar handwriting was a dirty finger. Charlie remembered grocery lists and birthday cards. Memories surged and crested over him. He leaned a hand against the pole to steady himself.
“You about to hurl?” Freddy shouted.
“Look, my boy, is hungover. How was the party, man?” Mick laughed
“I thought you were straight edge,” Vic said, joining in the laughter.
Charlie walked away from sign and climbed up into his rig.
Freddy tossed a stack of flattened boxes into the compactor. Vic and Mick held on to the truck’s rear. Charlie executed a tight reverse and headed out of the complex’s parking lot.
“I’m just sayin’. If you gonna hurl let a brotha know that’s all I’m sayin’,” Freddy said.
The cold front had moved out and morning was warming. The big green truck cruised around the complex’s curves. Charlie concentrated on the winding road looking for old ladies, clueless joggers, and tiny dog walkers. He could see his last Thanksgiving dinner at his Mom’s, watching football on the sofa, laughing with his cousins, helping Mom lift the turkey.
“Just let me know, man. That goes for gas, too. ‘Cause this one time Jack do you know Jack the driver not Jack the floor guy. He ate a bunch of tacos this one time—“
Mentally Charlie muted the conversation and pulled into the next parking lot. The crew hit the recycling bins. Mick was making up stories about all the things he did last Saturday while Vic and Freddy dumped bins and pretended to believe him.
“Hey there is another one of them signs,” Freddy called out.
The truck continued along its route. Charlie was back at school in the lunchroom reading a PostIt stuck to his juicebox: I love you, Mom.
“There’s another one.”
“ I wonder what it’s about,” asked Vic lifting a soggy loveseat
“It’s probably a viral ad like for a new app or a phone or something,” Mick explained.
“Nah, it’s a memorial for the living. Somebody is trying to call someone back into their life, man,” Freddy said carrying the other half of the furniture.
“Hey Rascal you want a mint?
“Mint? Dude where are you?”
Freddy ate his candy. Mick talked about all the girls dying to date him. Vic stretched his aching back. Charlie pulled out on the main road already back home.
An awkward silence lays awake between the warm sheets. Joseph wrapped his arms around Millie’s waist pulling her closer. “Don’t worry it happens to every man once in a while.” Millie is answered by a soft volley of snores.
“I love you so much. That’s what’s important,” Millie said as Joseph pretended to sleep.
“No, I’m fine. I just like being held,” Millie said to Joseph’s back.
“Don’t worry, you’re just over tired,” Millie said.
“I said, I am fine!”
“Umm, maybe you should like, talk to someone.”
“Wait, I didn’t even get my clothes off.”
“Maybe we should go talk to someone.”
“Is that it? No, I meant that was great, really. I have to get to work early tomorrow anyways.”
“It’s not you. It’s me. I need some space.” Space away from you, she thought. Shocked Joseph reached across the café table to hold her hand. Suddenly Millie grabbed her coffee mug and became fascinated by the scene outside the restaurant’s window. Joseph studied the turn of head, the set of her shoulder. He gestured for the waiter to bring the check.
“Thank you for inviting us to the party. The gingerbread was excellent. Next week the potluck is at our place,” Cassidy shouted across the driveway to Patsy, her next door neighbor. She dragged the trash can down to the curb. Wrapping her polka dotted robe tighter around her doughy middle, she waved to Mr. Miller walking his geriatric Peaches across the sun-drenched cul de sac. Cassie fetched the newspaper from the dew damp lawn and headed back inside.
Cassie scrambled eggs while she packed her husband’s lunch. Josh kissed her on the cheek before heading to the plant. She never looked up from the sink. Cassie loaded the dishwasher, started a load in the washer, and headed into her real life.
Her office was in Trevor’s old room. His Fast and Furious posters had been replaced with a pretty pink paint and a floral wallpaper accent wall. There were shelves of scrapbooking supplies and a new Cricut machine set up under the bright frilly window, but the real magic was the monitor and desktop. Cassie drew the blinds. She pressed the glowering red button. She sat her sweet tea on her Grumpy Cat coaster and waded into the electronic blue.
First her favorite online gaming site to place a few bets and see who was lurking in the corners. Cassie was gone. LuckyLeggs7 lost $300, flirted with some old pals, got invited to a late night poker game, and made promises she never intended to keep.
Next was the ‘gram to track her favorite stories and connect with her high school besties. HollistownHottie talked about who was hot and who was not. She had been stalking Bree, Trevor’s ex, teasing Bree about her size, her failed attempt at college, her nowhere job. Bree hadn’t logged on in a few days. Hottie was relentless. Condensation ran down her glass as she tapped furiously at her keyboard. Hottie scouted the internet and then sent a handful of inappropriate emails about the girl to Bree’s boss and Bree’s aunt in Wisconsin. Laughing, Cassie picked up her glass and drank it down.
Finally there were the chat rooms. Cassie rubbed her hands together. PrettyDangerous96 was provocative and like to push boundaries. Pretty was naïve and innocent. She had a folder of pictures of herself from 30 years before and carefully cropped nude photos from adult sites. PrettyDangerous96 was feisty and fun. Pretty was whatever she needed to be to be the center of attention. She flitted from chat to chat until AmericanSun logged on and begged her to answer his calls. Pretty purred and licked her lips.
“Honey?” The sound of Josh’s keys hitting the hall table wrenched Cassie away from the blue. She shut down. Arms open, Cassie ran to Josh. Her husband of thirty years was in kitchen with the mail in one hand and the other on the cold oven.
“Will dinner be late?”
Cassie leaped into his arms with a kiss. Josh held her wondering how did he get so lucky. The letters scattered across the linoleum.
Pass the Gravy
The clinking of silver rimmed fine china, the scrape of forks, the family dined.
“Pass the turkey. No, I want dark meat.”
“You took the biscuit I was going to eat.”
“Today’s writing prompt is 10 things you are grateful for and then you write about one of those things,” Kim said. The sounds of eating echo in the dining room.
“Dude it’s just bread. Did you want this one? How about this?”
“I thought I could be inspired by you guys,” Kim said.
“Tommy, don’t pick the bacon out of the sprouts.”
“Sam, let’s start with you. Name two things you’re grateful for,” Kim said.
Long teenaged silence. “What?”
“I can go.”
“Okay, Toms, what are you grateful for?” Kim asked brightly as the beginning of a headache whispered in the back of her skull.
“More potatoes, please.”
“I’m grateful for basketball and working out.”
Kim’s head rumbled. “Okay, that’s something. And you Sam,” asked Kim.
“Me, too. I am grateful for working out.”
“Well that was one thing.” Kim swept her hand across the table heavy with food. “Is there anything else in the whole known universe that you are grateful for.”
Thoughtful teenaged silence. “Nah that’s it. Just working out.”
The kids exchanged mischievous looks as Kim rubbed at her eyes.
“Well I’m grateful for my health. My condition is stable. You getting another one of your headaches, hon.”
“Is this fresh orange in the cranberries? ‘Cause canned oranges are a little sus.”
“Just eat the cranberry sauce and shut it.”
Plates passed back and forth. The chatter of laughter and silverware.
“What are you what are you grateful for.”
Kim answered, “I’m grateful for writing and I’m grateful for this my wonderful family.” You guys are great material, Kim thought. Sam rolled her eyes. Tommy stuffed the last biscuit in his mouth.
“You said there was pie, right.”
No Place for Secrets
Building Delta 34, Room: Sub-Basement 17 A, Location: Classified
Time: 9:58 am
Dr. A. Hartford: Transcript begin. Well it was mighty nice of you to show up on time.
Dr. R. Spader: Screw you, it’s a holiday weekend. I should be up to my neck in annoying uncles and roast turkey. What’s the big deal?
Dr. V. Carreaux: You didn’t review the prelims.
Spader: Look, princess, some of us have lives.
Carreaux: And some of us had to work to get here you son of—
Time 10:11 am
Carreaux: The subject is a Caucasian male, approximately 17 years of age, healthy but malnourished with a history of Tourette’s Syndrome, diagnosed at age 11, treated with clonidine and topiramate then ketamine and transcranial direct current stimulation—
Spader: What in the actual [deleted] there is off-label and there is off the freakin’ trolley that is no treatment for tics.
Hartford: Well as you know Dick the boy has more than tics. He’s psychic. He involuntarily utters phrases, clairvoyant phrases.
Hartford: if you bother to read my notes. I was there when they bought him in from [redacted]. He knew my whole life.
Spader: Will someone get me the Amazing Randi this [deleted] is crazy.
Carreaux: Boys, I’m tired and the Amazing Randi is dead. Let’s properly examine the patient before jumping to conclusions. This could be a clever hoax or the cover of Time magazine.
[Patient X enters]
Patient X: I’m sorry, Dr. Hartford. I was so tired this late night. It’s worse when I’m sleepy. I didn’t know that was your cousin at first.
Hartford: Stop, just stop talking. It’s fine.
X: It’s not fffine. Shut up, shut your mouth no one needs to knnnow about Carrie and me.
[Hartford exits Room 17 A]
X: I didn’t mean to embarrass him. He is a nice person and so lonely. He was so excited about me.
Carreaux: I understand. You don’t want to hurt anyone. Would you like a treat? The food here is on the bland side. Here take it. It is still sealed. I brought it from home.
X: Thank you. Strawberry I think I like strawberry. I remember liking red flavor KoolAid with my mom.
Carreaux: Tell me more about your mom. What else do you remember doing with her?
X: I can’t say. I’ve lost details. All my personal memories are soft and mushy like dreams, you know. FFFake what a [deleted] fake. I should go ddddig up the Amazing Randi to get a load of this guy. Fake! I’m sorry miss. I didn’t mean to curse in front of a lady. LLady love.
Carreaux: it’s all right. You almost sound like Dr. Spader for a minute there. Don’t apologize. Can you tell me how you got that black eye?
X: I got picked trying to score some Special K. Crowded holding cells are not the best place to be telling secrets.
Spader: Ha! Read my mind. Because I know you’re a
Spader: Vivienne this is what you call a cold reading. It was popular during the medium craze and phony fortune tellers still do it. Someone who is skilled at reading cues and making guesses
X: Hou-Houdini! Mommy got me a book on Houdini. I learnt magic tricks to make her smile in the hospital. She said she would nnnever leave me! Pick any card Viv. I’m afraid all the time. Don’t leave me
Carreaux: Richard no don’t
Spader: let go of me, Viv.
X: Richard I can’t let you go. I want you even though you don’t see me. I never tttold anyone.
Carreaux: [redacted] why does your voice sound like mine?
X: [redacted] why does your voice sound like mine? Must regain control. Now tell me your first memory? Why do you think it is important?
[Spader and Carreaux exit.]
X: Patient refuses to answer direct questions. Diagnosis possible schizophrenia.
[cc: Maj. General S. Treff, Director of Parapsychology, U.S. Army Office]
The Catherine Wheel
Golden leaves danced across the blacktop. April hurried from her car and up to the schoolhouse door. She willed her heart to beat more slowly and then rang the office bell. Under the shadow of Saint Catherine of the Breaking Wheel, April waited to be buzzed in. Buzz! April walked to the tall front desk where a very old nun sat.
“I’m so sorry to be late the traffic—“
“Oliver’s mom, they are waiting for you in the conference room,” Sister Bernard said, with cherubic pink cheeks and dead serious eyes. The nun gestured in no particular direction with a paper thin hand. April looked perplexed. So not the vice principal’s office this time. Is that good is that worse and where in the hell was the conference room? April waited and then turned. Sister Thomas the principal was standing behind her. April jumped.
“Right this way Mrs. Grayson.”
April followed the nun quietly suddenly a schoolgirl in a plaid uniform being sent to detention. But that’s just it I never had detention I never got so much as a B. After Sister Thomas, April stepped into the school’s conference. A too large walnut conference table was squeezed into what once may have been a storage room. Sister Thomas sat down between Mrs. MacGillicuddy, Tessa’s second grade teacher, and Ms. Wicke, the school psychologist. April pushed the image of the three headed hydra out of her head and sat down opposite.
“I’m so sorry to be late the traffic…” April’s voice slipped away as she made meaningless conciliatory hand gestures.
“A grave matter has come to our attention,” said Sister Thomas.
Mrs. MacGillicuddy slid an open religion textbook towards April. There was a childlike drawing of a naked and familiar man peeing in the shower. April slapped a hand to her forehead.
“This was found in Tessa’s religion book and she claims it was drawn by her brother Oliver. We questioned Oliver and he confessed that it was a picture of his daddy in the shower. Mrs. MacGillicuddy reached over and turned the page. Here was another familiar naked man drawing peeing and tossing dollar bills.
“And this is a picture of his daddy at the bank.”
April clapped her hands over her mouth. I am going to kill that boy.
“And this Saint Joseph.” April massaged her temples. Well at least Saint Joseph had on pants but he also had a devil horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.
“Is this what you family thinks of religion!” Said Mrs. MacGillicuddy.
What do you think we are nudist exhibitionist devil worshippers. “No of course not. We’re Methodists.” April searched the hydra for a glimmer of sympathy but all she got was Ms. Wicke looking uncomfortable.
“Oliver is in the third grade. He told me had drawn silly pictures in his little sister’s book to get back at her because she ate all of his Advent chocolates. I think he thought this was an old textbook.”
“Well we respect school property at Saint Catherine,” Mrs. MacGillicuddy huffed.
“There have been other issues with Oliver regarding behavior and grades,” Sister Thomas said.
“Sister Jerome told me he really tries in her small reading group.”
“We know you work outside the home. Do the children go home to an empty house?” Sister Thomas asked.
“No.” What the hell.
“Is their father in the picture?” Mrs. MacGillicuddy asked.
“Of course, you’ve met him at Back to School Night tall guy with a beard. What are trying to say,” April demanded. Ms. Wicke looked down at the checkerboard linoleum as if to find a crack to melt into.
“We are merely looking for answers to better understand Oliver,” Sister Thomas said.
My child is not a problem in need of a solution. He is a child. A good boy with a learning disability, excellent drawing skills, and a wicked sense of humor. April simmered.
“Some parents have wondered why a boy like this is still at Saint Catherine. We have a culture here—“
“Wait are you talking about my kid with other parents?” Shit I said that out loud. April stopped , reversed and switched her code switching skills up to the highest gear. There is a price other than money parents pay to get and keep their children in good schools. Her parents paid it and now it was her turn.
“We have a culture here, a high standard, a Saint Catherine of the Breaking Wheel’s way. It has been challenging I know for the new students from Saint Martin de Porres to become part of our community,” Sister Thomas finished. She folded her hands and tilted her head in a pose of deepest concern.
“Yes, we appreciate your concern. Oliver’s father and I are also concerned and we are looking at additional resources to support our son. We will work on Oliver.” April closed the religion book. Tears burned the back of her eyes.
Suddenly, April was outside the school, holding a folder of half finished school assignments. The wind slapped at her face. Ms. Wicke stepped outside.
“You have to ask yourself is this school the best place for Oliver,” Ms. Wicke said in a hushed tone before walking quickly to her car. The stature of Saint Catherine stood over the entrance, one arm outstretched holding a sharp spiked wheel, the instrument of her torture. Weighed down, April walked to her own car.
Fruits & Veg
Pet waved bye bye to her old man. He waved back and turned quickly to pretend blow his nose. Pet knew he was crying. Old people are sentimental. Youngsters were more practical. Pet looked up at the weak sun and pretend wiped sweat from her brow. She steered her boat towards the sun.
She sailed until the winds died down. Then she flipped on the solars, cranked the craft’s tiny motor, and sped on. All the while Pet scanned the water’s surface like her old man had taught her. Some fishers always sped across the deep without looking every which way. That’s why SweetCheeks and Little’s boat got damaged by rooftops last time. They limped back to Little Sheep Lake bailing water with no food to show for their troubles. That’s why Love didn’t come back home at all.
But her old man taught her to look forward and never back. He taught her those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. He taught her to measure twice and cut once. He taught her wherever you go there you are. Pet didn’t understand her old man all the time but she believed in him. Pet believed in the old man’s belief in happy endings. The twins MyPrecious and MyHeart said her old man had the oldtimers when he talked about big fur animals and fields of plants and all the foods we used to have. They said her old man should swim away to save precious resources. Pet shook the twins from her mind and weaved her boat down flooded streets. The waters were low this dry season.
Everyone who could work worked in Little Sheep. From the littlest to the oldest, everyone worked, farming mushrooms, drying moss for fuel, purifying the water, reusing what scraps of tech remained from the Before Times. Everyone worked so hard to just live that the people had no time for stories. No one made time to listen except for Pet. Pet adopted the man after they had both lost their families during the Rona outbreak ’86. She soaked up every story and peppered her old man with questions. Her mind held a library of stories of the way the world used to be. He had told her about Sleepless in Seattle and Friends, Good Times and Whose the Boss.
Pet docked against the remains of a lamp post. With sun and wind she had travelled for three days until she had reached dry land. The air shimmered from the moisture rising from the loamy soil. The land had only been here for a few months and would surrender back to the water in a few weeks. The world was an ocean with tides and mountain tops were islands.
While Little Sheep Lake (the old people still call her town a lake when most of the rest of the world was underwater most of the time) had mushrooms and lichen and moss there was a need for more vitamins. During the dry season the fishers searched the wet husk of the outside world for canned goods and green plants. Pet walked quietly and carefully always scanning. A stitch in time saves nine meant don’t fall and break an ankle. She had salvaged some plastic pots and bottles and plenty of wire but no food. Thunder broke like a gunshot. She ducked for cover under the archway of the remains of a brick apartment building. By the fisher marks this building had already been searched and searched. A storm now could mean death. Rain fell hard. Pet hummed the theme to The Flintstones to calm herself. The old man taught her fear is the mind killer.
In the near distance something white waved. It was a tarp. Tarps are always useful. Once the rain slowed Pet ran through the raindrops to the tarp. She traced the red letters on the white background: Walla Walla Downtown Farmers’ Market. Pet cut the nylon rope holding the plastic sign. Her eyes caught a green striped ball. Pet pulled. It was stuck to the moist warm soil. Pet’s knees buckled. She sank to the earth and stared in wonder. The old man had told her of this, of biting its pink flesh or spitting out it black seeds.
Carefully Pet dug into the soil and extracted the plant and its roots. She found dandelions and shoots of onions and wild garlic. With triumphant orange flowers, a pumpkin vine had swaddled a rusted mailbox.
Pet scanned the deep with the sun warm on her back. Laden with produce, her boat was low in the water but steady. She skirted around a church steeple and sang out the theme to Gilligan’s Island. Pet couldn’t wait to tell her old man her story.