Our country

Our Country

Noonday sun turns tin hovels into ovens and bakes the earth into a choking dust that clouds behind the Jeeps. He glances at the unfriendly eyes watching him with from dark, impassive faces. No matter. He’s come for what is his.

His driver halts before a shack, and he can hear the rhythmic chant of women’s voices inside. He motions his men to wait. No need for a scene yet. He strides through the doorway where the women dressed in shades of red are gathered around a low pallet on the floor.

He says, “Where is she?”

The keening continues.

He grabs the bony shoulder of an old woman in a dress faded almost to pink. “Where is she?”

The woman shrugs and moves aside to reveal her still form. A woman in soft crimson, with a scar puckering her right cheek, bathes her.

“What the hell is this? What did you do to her?” he shouts.

The scarred woman looks up. Expressionless. “What did you do to her?”

He pulls out his pistol. He hates her knowing eyes.

She says, “You can kill me, but in the end, you’ll lose. This is our country.”

He pulls the trigger.

Pavane for a Suburban Mother

On a Saturday, the parking lot of farmers’ market is like a giant playground filled with bigger, meaner kids all waiting to knock into you. There is nothing more intimidating than a Main Line mother in a Land Rover who is gunning for the same parking space you’ve scoped out. She’ll cut you off without a thought, while jabbering away into her cell phone, completely oblivious that she’s driven the wrong way on a one-way lane to do it.

Someone honks at me when I cross the parking lot and block the progress of her SUV to an open parking space. I jump a little, scoot between the parked cars, and count myself lucky that I wasn’t run down and left like a grease spot on the asphalt.

Once inside the bustling farmers’ market I wander from stall to stall. I’ve forgotten what I wanted, but I meander among the bright green and yellow gourds and fat orange pumpkins, the fresh bunches of crimson radishes and deep purple eggplants. The flower stalls feature ghosts and witches scattered among the bright fall mums. Halloween has come to the farmers’ market. I can smell apple cider in the air along with the usual coffee.

I buy carrots, apples and butternut squash along with a cup of warm apple cider. Then I manage to find a lone table squeezed into a corner of the small lunch section and stare out into the parking lot.

Usually I see at least ten or more people I know at the market, but today I have been mercifully anonymous. I’m not sure what’s happening to me. Why I find it easier and easier to slip out of my life and into this quieter place. I stir at the cider, and feel my eyes fill with tears I blink away. I am a stranger in my own life.

I suppose the problem is that I’ve always drifted along with the current because I’ve been afraid. I’ve never wanted to stand out. I’ve always wanted to blend. No controversy please. Nothing unpleasant.

I dance along the edges of friendship, because friendship is a tenuous thing. It slips away quick as a whisper. I am a good friend, but I never hold on to anyone too tightly. I never talk too freely, nor drink too much. Not even with my husband, especially not with him. We dance our stately dance, always in perfect time, always in step, never quite touching.

Each year seems to weigh more and more heavily upon us, and the silences, the things unsaid, grow deeper and darker. The children John was so eager to add to our little circle have enriched us at a cost. Every year I feel as though a little portion of myself has chipped away. I am no longer me. I’m John’s wife or someone’s mom. It is little wonder that I must be introduced to John’s co-workers over and over again.

I swallow the dregs of my cider and stand up, gathering my packages. The air feels a little colder as I walk to my car. In the bright sunlight, I am little more than a passing shadow.

Storm

Ominous clouds are gathering overhead when Tess loads Emily into the shopping cart and strapped her in. She hasn’t bothered with an umbrella, though Emily’s blue raincoat drapes over the handle of the cart.

Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.

Emily turns the pages of her well-chewed animal book. Content for the moment. “Coo-Coo,” she says and holds up a picture of a white cow.

“That’s right. Cow,” Tess says in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. She smiles, and Emily smiles back.

Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.

Tess glances up when they pass under the security camera, she and wishes she hadn’t. Her hair, unwashed for two days, is pulled into a limp ponytail; her black tee shirt crusted with a variety of stains strains against her overlarge breasts. She’s given up trying to get back into her jeans and wears a pair of gray sweats.

She has to shop and pick up the twins. Jimmy and Nick will barrel into the car, laughing and vying for her attention, when she really wants quiet, but she’ll listen and smile and ask questions because they need her.

Life is always more hectic when James is home. It’s easier when he’s traveling. He always wants diner at six. He wants the kids in bed by eight. He wants the kitchen cleaned. He wants sex. He wants and wants.

“Ca, Ma. Ca.” Emily points to a black and white cat.

“Cat, Emily. That’s very good.” Tess kisses her youngest, the surprise baby who’d come five years after the boys. Three years after she’d lost Alice. She resents James for that too. He was driving when their car was hit. She knows it’s unfair.

Since the accident she’s had a weird recurring dream where she’s running down the Yellow Brick Road, but she’s not heading to the Emerald City. She’s heading for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but when she finds the pot, all the gold inside turns to hair curlers. Tess isn’t sure what it means, though she always did want curly hair.

She has a comfortable life. She volunteers at the boys’ school when she can get her mother to watch Emily. She just has this empty spot in her gut that won’t go away. Sometimes she thinks it’s going to swallow her whole.

Tess unloads her cart and pays for her groceries. Usually, she chats with the clerk, but today, she’s quiet. She has five minutes to get to school.

“Mamamamamama.” Emily’s wail shatters her small shell of concentration. Emily’s book lies on the floor, and she tries to wiggle out of her seat. Blood is welling out of her nose. Since she was a baby, Emily has suffered from intense and unexpected nosebleeds. They aren’t dangerous, and they usually only last a minute, but they are terrifying to Emily and to strangers.

“Is she okay?” The clerk is offering Tess a wad of tissues, which she snatches before she scoops up Emily.

“Yes, thanks. She’s got a little cold. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tess can feel her cheeks burning as she bends down to grab Emily’s book.

Someone says, “Poor little thing.”

Another voice mutters, “Why would you bring a sick child out in this weather?”

Tess’s eyes are stinging. The clerk, a young girl with spiked black hair and a pierced nose, gives her a sympathetic smile. “Do you need help to your car? I’ll get you help.”

Tess shakes her head. “I’m fine. I—“

But a young guy, one of the developmentally disabled kids the store hires, is already at the cart. Tess knows him vaguely. Ritchie. He wears a bright yellow poncho and gives her a big goofy smile.

“I got the cart,” he says. “Big storm outside. You need an umbrella.”

Tess grabs Emily’s blue raincoat before he goes skipping out the door with her cart. Emily’s arms are thrashing, and Tess barely forces them into the coat. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” she says, but Emily howls louder than the wind.

Tess walks the gauntlet of staring faces, ducking her head down. She passes a couple of teenage boys who look at her as if she’s some kind of circus freak, and she almost laughs when Emily flings out her snotty hand.

“Damn, is that blood?” One of the boys cringes.

The rest of the boys laugh, but at least they aren’t laughing at her.

Ritchie waits just outside the door, and she points to her big SUV. She hates it, but James insisted it was just the right car for a three-child family. Big, substantial. A real mom car.

Ritchie unloads her groceries, but declines a tip. Tess is left standing in the rain, rocking sobbing Emily against her. The little girl’s cries slowly turn to sniffs and finally Tess can slide her into her car seat along with her damp animal book. She shoves aside some of the trash in the back seat: a half-empty bottle of water, a baseball, Nick’s magnetic chess game. The detritus of her children’s lives.

She shuts the car door and walks slowly to the driver’s side ignoring the pouring rain, knowing she’ll be late for the boys, dinner will not be served at six, and James will be disappointed in her once again.

Tess gets into her car and sees that Emily has fallen asleep in the back seat. Rivulets of water run down her face, and she uses the bloody tissues to wipe her arms. Bits of white cling to her wet skin.

There’s nothing to do but go on.

She leans her head against the steering wheel for a moment before she straps on her seat belt and starts the engine.

The rain pours down like it’s the end of the world.

House for Sale

I see Jane Mullen’s silver Toyota parked at the side of the curb and glance at the clock. It’s only four now, so I’m right on time. The overcast sky makes it seem later than it really is.

She gets out of her car smiling. “I’m afraid Denise is running a little late. She said to go on and look at the house without her,” she says. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

The brick Georgian rises up three stories against the darkening sky surrounded by stately oak trees and well cut hedges. A winding slate path leads to the front door, which is painted a cheerful welcoming red. It sits atop the hill alone in the cul de sac, though neighboring houses are close by.

Robert will like that. Neighbors close, but not too close. The houses here are all different from one another, not “another cookie cutter development”. I notice a woman peering out of the window of the house closest to the Georgian on the left side. She must be the neighborhood snoop. Well, there isn’t much to see. Robert, the kids, and I live a quiet life.

Jane clears her throat. “Shall we go in?” She pulls the key from the lock box and wrestles with the front door. “Damn. I wonder if this is the right key,” she mutters, twisting and turning and pushing. The door doesn’t budge until she gives it a good shove, and then it springs open and she practically falls through the opening.

“Oh, my, I guess I pushed to hard,” she says and gives a little laugh. Uneasily, I think.

It seems quite dark now, and she flips on the lights. They’re dim, but they work. The house itself has a closed in feeling as if it has been empty for a while. We walk into the living room first. It’s spacious with a lovely brick fireplace and wide curving front window. The parquet floors need a polishing, but they are lovely. Beyond the living room is an office, and I’m surprised to see a large mahogany desk still sitting there. It matches the built in bookcases. Boxes of papers stand on the desk and files litter the floor.

“Looks like someone forgot to pack up,” Jane says in a forced cheerful voice.

“I hope we can get a hold of them,” I say.

We inspect the powder room then walk through a family room with a high ceiling to the kitchen and stop in horror. Someone has taken a hammer to the to the kitchen. Giant chunks of black granite lie on the floor, the cabinets are smashed through, and bits of broken china and glass glisten on the floor.

“Oh,” Jane says.

When we walk into the dining room, we can see that someone has smashed a hole through the ceiling. We exchange a look.

“Do you want to go upstairs?” Jane asks.

I don’t, but I do. I don’t understand if vandals have broken in and deliberately destroyed this beautiful house, but I need to look.

“I think we should. Maybe this just happened.”

We walk up the stairs, and I hear Jane’s heavy breathing. It matches my own. I wonder why my hands are so cold.

We look in the hall bath. It has been tiled in the largest, most beautiful, green glass tiles I have ever seen. They are almost translucent, and they have, for the most part, been smashed. The pale bathtub door has been shattered.

The master bedroom, which takes up the left side of the house and has two walk in closets, has it’s own bathroom with the same glass tiles in an opalescent white. I can see the dining room below through the smashed floor.

Two other bedrooms share a bath and are intact. A smaller room on the far end of the hall smells damp. The walls are covered with symbols. Stars and moons. Pentacles and suns.

We look at each other before we head up to the third floor. To our right is a storage room, filled with boxes. We hear the rustling of something, and close the door before we find out what. To the left are two bedrooms and a bath. One bedroom is empty, the walls painted white. The second has dark blue walls covered with collages. One is of faces in the throes of all kinds of emotion—fear, joy, anger. There is a collage meant to convey the horrors of war. Another collage features syringes and pills and people. A single photograph of a woman with a cat. The single bed is unmade and smells of old body odor. The room is thick with dust and the pall of sorrow.

I am shaking with cold.

“Hallo. Hallo. Sorry I’m late.” A cheerful voice calls.

Jane and I both jump. We are down the stairs in a minute to face Denise, a plump, smiling woman in a vivid red dress, who seems so terribly out of place in this horrible house.

“What happened here?” I ask.

“Oh. You mean the holes,” Denise says. “It wasn’t burglars, and the family is ready to make repairs.”

“But what happened?”

Denise sighed. “Look this house has been on the market for almost two years. It was the Evensham place. Dr. Sam Evesham, the psychiatrist? His oldest son was killed in that terrible car accident on the turnpike a few years back and his daughter ended up killing herself.” Denise shook her head. “It was too much for him. He went crazy one night. Took a hammer and started smashing away at the house then put a gun to his own head. Now nobody wants to even look at the place. It should be going for well over a million, but it probably won’t come close to that.”

“Was there a wife? Other kids?”

“The family just wants to be rid of this place. If they can’t find a buyer, they’ll probably sell to a developer. Shame really.”

“His wife?”

Denise’s eyes flicked to Jane. “He killed his wife and the remaining three kids.”

“Oh.” I looked at Jane. I was still freezing, but she looked calmer now. A little annoyed.

“I guess that means you aren’t interested,” Denise said.

I shook my head. “Sorry.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t mind waiting a minute til I lock up,” Denise said. She exchanged a look with Jane. “This place at night gives me the creeps.”

Watch Your Intentions

For a long time she heard only the rushing of water over the rocks as she ran along the side of the swift-flowing creek. She’d lost one shoe when she’d escaped from the trunk of his car; the second was tucked into her coat pocket.

Deeper into the woods she ran, until her bruised and bleeding feet gave out beneath her, and she pitched forward grabbing onto an ancient tree for support and sinking to her knees. When she looked back a pinprick of light followed her.

He was behind her. He was growing closer. He was hunting her, and she was feeble prey indeed.

“I cannot do this.” She ran her hands up the gnarled surface of the tree and breathed in the smell of lichen and damp earth. The moon sent forth a pale glow from behind a veil of light purple clouds in the deep blue sky. Small creatures twitched in the undergrowth, watching.

“Help me,” she said, her voice scratching against her throat. Leaning her head against the tree, she fought back her tears. She had to be strong. Her daughter depended on her.

When the first drops of rain began to fall, she struggled to her feet. The rain came, soft at first, then in heavy sheets. The trees began to sway and murmur.

But the pinprick of light had become a dime.

A branch slapped against her face, and she looked up. Half-way up the tree was a deep split. If she could climb, she might be able to hide among the branches. She might be able to wait out the storm. She grabbed her shoe from her pocket and flung it as far as she could.

The dime of light had become a quarter.

She fitted her foot into a notch and hefted herself up. Her feet were slippery and unsure, but she grasped another notch and pulled herself higher. The wind whistled, as she wiggled and squirmed until she reached the deep crease.

The quarter of light had become a half dollar.

She settled in, pulling her coat over her head. Shutting out the horror creeping ever closer. Damp and chilled as she was, an odd warmth crept over her as she lay tucked inside the hollow of the tree, and lulled by the sweet smell of old wood and leaves, and the sound of steady rain, she found herself drifting off to sleep.

When she opened her eyes, she could hear the sound of water, but it was just the creek flowing. Birds chattered close by, and she could tell by the heat on her back that the sun was shining. She risked peeking out of her hiding place.

The sun shone down from an intensely blue sky on the quiet woods.

She saw it then. Protruding from the next tree was a hand grasping her shoe. As she watched, the hand disappeared.

A Rip in The Fabric of Time

I think someone drove a nail through my shoulder. Maybe they poured some drain cleaner down my throat and glued my eyes shut.

I struggle to sit up, and force my eyes open, expecting to find blood and gore smeared on the pillow. There’s nothing there except a faint outline of my head. When I roll my shoulders, though, pain shoots down my right arm. That’s not a dream.

I maneuver my body sideways and lower my legs to the floor. My toenails are bright green. I stare at them and try to remember how they got in that state, but it’s no good. I don’t remember anything about last night after I walked out of my office into the rain. I’m not even sure what day it is.

I glance at my watch. It reads 7:04. From the pale light streaming through the window, I assume it is morning, and I struggle to my feet. Oh dear, what did I do last night? I wander to the bathroom to perform the necessities than drag myself toward the kitchen. I stop in the living room and stare out into the backyard.

I have lost my mind.

A young woman with auburn curls and dressed in a short purple tunic is brushing a white horse with some kind of horn coming out its head. She sports diaphanous wings. I trip over the low round ottoman and fall on my face.

I hear the door open, but don’t look up.

“Stanley,” a soft voice says. “Are you all right?”

“What has happened to me,” I say into the carpet.

She pats much shoulder as if I were a frightened woodland creature. “Why don’t you sit up? You’ll feel so much better.”

I push myself up, but I do not feel better, even though she smells like jasmine and vanilla and fresh grass after the rain. I try not to gape.

“How do you know me?” I ask.

“You don’t remember,” her voice is a little sad. “Last night just before you left work, you said, ‘Oh please, just let something happen. I need an adventure or I’ll go mad.’ I heard you, Stanley. We had an adventure.”

“But why don’t I remember?”

“You’re coming back to your world. In a few hours you won’t remember anything. I’ll be a dream, if that.”

“A dream?” I shake my head. Oh no, not a dream. That would mean I’d be heading back to the gray world of Williams, Clark and Winston. I’m already running late, but I don’t move. “But I don’t want to forget. I want to remember.”

She smiles. “Oh, Stanley. Don’t you see? You’re not ready. Not yet. When you want to remember, you will.” She leans forward and kisses my forehead, and I get a fleeting impression of eyes the color of jade, rimmed with purple.

The alarm rings.

I sit up, my right shoulder throbbing like a toothache. I’ve been dreaming . . . something, and now I have to rush. No time for breakfast. Just a shower and shave, and I grab a coffee before I board the train.

Weak sunlight filters through the soft gray clouds, and I catch the whiff of something familiar. Vanilla, mixed with some kind of flower. It reminds me of something. It doesn’t matter. I’m late.

I exit the train and hurry topside making my way to the tall, gray glass skyscraper that houses Williams, Clark and Winston, wave my ID and run to the elevator. I’m behind my desk with one minute to spare.

Mrs. Durnham has left a large mug of black coffee on my desk. I breathe in the aroma and think for a moment I smell vanilla. But then it’s gone.

What a strange morning.

Rain begins to fall, running down the sides of the windows like soft tears. I lean back in my chair to take watch before I turn to the pile of folders in my inbox. They smell of ink and paper and urgency. I grab the top folder and begin to read. I need to concentrate.

There is important work to be done.

The Fairies Came Calling

I used to sit behind the thick boxwood hedges where the house cuts in two feet then continues on straight. It made a perfect little niche for me to set out my china tea things for the fairies. It was best towards twilight when the light turned soft rose and the fireflies sparkled and the toads in the window wells croaked out their full- throated symphonies. Soon the cicadas would join in and the crickets would begin to chirp and the doves in the weeping willow would coo ever so softly.

I would hide there from Cousin Carol Anne when she came to visit with my Uncle Peter and Aunt Alice. Carol Anne said fairies were stupid and it was much better to stay in the cool house to watch TV. Carol Anne said she was going to be an actress someday because she was beautiful, not a plain old nobody like me. Carol Anne threw our cat Tinker in the swimming pool because she didn’t like the way he looked at her.

Every evening I would sneak out of the house and hide from Carol Anne until Mama called for me to come in. Every evening I had to listen to her chatter on about how much better her house was than mine. How her room was bigger and her clothes were fancier. Every night I asked the fairies to take Carol Anne away.

The last evening of their visit, I was hiding behind the hedges when Carol Anne came looking for me. I sat still and quiet when she passed by the boxwood hedges and crossed down towards the woods that ran behind our house.

“Where are you, Emily? I’m gonna tell your Mama you’re hiding on me,” she said.

I closed my eyes and shrank into the wall. “Don’t let her find me.” I said it over and over until I realized that Carol Anne had stopped calling.

The fireflies were twinkling, the frogs and cicadas and crickets had begun their symphony. I heard footsteps outside the hedge and Mama’s voice. “Come on in, Emily. You and Carol Anne need to stop playing.”

I poked my head out of the hedge. “But, Mama. It’s just me in here,” I said.

There was a terrible fuss over Carol Anne. The police came and looked for her for days. Dogs tried to track her, but her footsteps ended at the edge of the woods. They brought in all kinds of specialists looking for blood and any kind of trace of Carol Anne, but she had disappeared.

Aunt Alice went a little crazy and had to go to a special rest home after a while poor Uncle Peter was left to deal with the police and the TV reporters and all the publicity.

I told the police the fairies took Carol Anne, but no one believed me. How could someone just disappear?

Of course, I’m grown up now. I know there are no fairies. I know that Carol Anne was never found. Everyone said, “Oh, we could have lost both girls,” but I always believed they wished that I had been the one who was grabbed.

I didn’t grow up to be a famous actress. I just grew up. I have always been just Emily, the one who wasn’t taken. Was I lucky that day?

Carol Anne knows the answer