Because

Because she said no, I find myself adrift. I am wanderer in a strange land where all life’s vivid colors have turned to shades of grey.

I still hold all of those dreams in my memory, my castles in the air, forever lost. They linger, mirage-like just beyond my window.

But I lie in the cool dark, her words a burning tattoo on my heart. “We cannot be. We are too different. I am promised to another.”

She swept away in a whisper of jasmine and bergamot, and I cursed the hatred that fractures acceptance.

“We are too different.”

And yet we are not. Does she lie on her bed and think of me? In the deepest night does she call out my name?

When morning comes, I’ll move on once again, but tonight I’ll dream. I’ll hold her in my arms again and pray to never wake.

Everyone Gone

It took three days to travel up the rain-swollen river. Suhan piloted the boat.

“Doctor go to big house. Very much sick,” he would say over and over like a mantra.

Each day the sun beat down without mercy, and I would feel my skin blistering as the sweat soaked through my clothes. I listened to the brown water pushing the boat onwards, the birds cackling in the lifeless trees, and drank sparingly from my bottled water.

On the second day towards evening, the boat collided with something, and Suhan called out in terror. It was a bloated body. Suhan began to rock and pray.

On the third morning as we drew close to the plantation the river was choked with bodies, and a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky. The great house was burning.

“Everyone gone,” Suhan said, his eyes like black tunnels. “Everyone free.”

Despite the heat, I began to shiver.

The Berry Picker

When summer comes, I help my family by picking berries. It’s outside work, so I make a game of it. I scramble through the rows of ripe strawberries and pluck the fat red fruit quick as I can. I don’t mind picking, though my arms get sore after a few hours, and I wish I had shoes. But at least I have decent clothes and a hat.

Mr. Bigalowe says I’m the fastest worker he’s got. Sometimes Mrs. Bigalowe watches from the porch. She always smiles at me and asks how I’m doing, and I say, “Quite well, thank you, Ma’am,” just like Mama taught me. She offers me lemonade, and it’s cool and tart and sweet all at the same time. I don’t gulp it though. I always thank her. She smiles, and says we’re friends. Though if we were real friends, I guess she’d let me come inside instead of standing on the porch.

On the last day of berry season, Mrs. Bigalowe calls me over. She says she hopes I’ll come visit and gives me a heart-shaped strawberry tart with a golden crust. It looks like something from a storybook.

“Don’t forget to visit,” she says.

I nod and thank her. On the way home I sell the tart for five whole cents.

 

Changes

We smile at each other across the table, and I think of you as you were, when we made so many reckless promises. Before the dreams fell and shattered, the words hurled in anger, the lies told to cover more lies.

Memories can be sweet summer days. But they can also swirl around you like smoke obscuring what you don’t want to see and cut you like so many tiny shards of glass.

You have never understood that each cut leaves a tiny scar. Now we sit at opposite ends of the table, not touching, bound yet unbound. Frightened to let go, and exhausted by reality.

You sit back in your chair and sigh. “Are you happy?” You don’t wait for me to answer. You run a hand through your hair. It’s still thick and wavy. I’ve always thought it was your best feature. “It’s time for a change,” you say.

Wanderlust

Sitting in the gray vinyl seat, I stare out the window at the jets zooming down the runway and ascending into the sky. I’ve always loved flying: the feeling of the jet engines kicking in, the plane accelerating, then the ground is falling away. I think it’s the taking off part that I really like after take off, flying becomes pretty routine, like life.

I guess that’s why I’ve never been able to stick with a relationship for very long.

But right now, I watch the jets and shift around in the uncomfortable seats. I hear a child crying, and watch a family with a baby plop down a few seats away. I hope I’m not seated too close. The mother is a slight woman, short and red haired, and she wears sandals. The man looms over her, scruffy and clad in a stained Batman tee shirt. Not attractive. At least she begins to nurse the child a small, sticky-looking bundle of red curls in a blue onesie.

I hear someone mutter disapprovingly, and want to say, “Oh, do you prefer the screams of hungry baby on your four hour flight?”

It doesn’t matter. Soon enough the plane will board, and I’ll be in my seat. Window seat, of course. As soon as possible, the earphones will go in, and I’ll drift away. My mom worries about me being lonely, but I tell her my life is just perfect.

On The Ward

It’s very quiet on the maternity ward tonight. It’s as if the little ones and their mothers know to be quiet and still. I walk down the hall and listen to the tap of my shoes against the linoleum floor. I love evenings like this. They’re so rare. Usually the some little lamb is crying, or one of the nurses is traveling to help one of the new mothers.

I open the door to the nursery and wave to the nurse on duty. As usual, we’ve placed the largest and smallest babies in front. I breathe in the smell of my children and take a mental picture of their small round faces. The largest is a nine and one-half pound, blue-eyed boy with beautiful long lashes and blond hair, the smallest a chocolate drop of a girl with liquid brown eyes and fuzzy black curls who weighs in at almost four pounds.

They are a study in contrasts wrapped in their blue and pink blankets, tiny pink, white and blue striped hats perched on their heads.

On impulse I snap a picture on my phone.

I want to place them in the bassinet together and ask the boy to look out for her, this precious child, born to a mother who’s barely more than a child herself. I want someone to look at this little bundle and realize what a wonderful gift she is before I send her back to a home where her mama has to struggle to put food on the table or maybe struggle with her own demons. I want her to go to a nice happy home like this sweet little blond cherub where he’ll be welcomed and loved, and he won’t live with the fear of going to bed hungry at night.

I’ll fail. The people from Social Services have already been in to talk to her mama. I’ve talked to her mama. She lies in her bed, sullen and unresponsive, except to mutter, “He just walked out on me. How I supposed to work with a baby? What I gonna do now?”

Tomorrow I’ll send two children home, just like I have for the past thirty years. I’ll smile at the parents and wish them and their children well. I’ll wish for miracles. Just like always.

My Bad Nature

My Daddy always said I was born with a bad nature. Mama said I had a mean streak. If I do, well, tomatoes come from the same pack of seeds.

They always did like to pretend they were fancy people. They sure did love the big house with all its fancy velvet furniture and gold plated bathroom fixtures. I never did understand why you needed a gold-plated handle on your crapper, but nobody ever asked my opinion.

After Russell was born everyone sort of forgot about me, like I was some kind of mongrel dog you could keep in a broke down kennel. They sent me to school, but I wasn’t much for studies. I remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Pinkwater telling Mama how she ought to consider special school for me.

Dummy school was what she meant. Sure enough, the next year the next year they packed me off in a special green bus to a school with all the “special” kids. Special my ass. They were slow as snails. Some of them smelled like snails too. I got kicked out after a year for trying to burn the place down.

After that Mama tried tutors for a while, then she just gave up. She had Russell. He was her sweet boy, her golden haired angel. It killed her when Russell drowned in the lake. He was five. How was I supposed to know he couldn’t swim? Poor Mama just couldn’t stand losing Russell; she swallowed a whole mess of pills one afternoon and never woke up.

Daddy blamed me, of course, but I wasn’t even in the house. I don’t know how she got hold of those horse tranquilizers. I guess she really wanted to escape.

Of course afterward Daddy and I had some real good rows. His face used to get so red! He used to chase me out into the field. Who knew he had a bad heart? The day he dropped dead in the potato patch, it came as a real surprise to me.

Of course then Uncle Ford and Aunt Latice and cousin Myra came to live with me until I was of age. I didn’t like that much. Aunt Latice always pretended to be so sugary sweet, but I could tell she was plotting. She would walk around the house with her tape measure and say, “Don’t you think we should spruce things up a bit?”

I didn’t like that idea. Not one bit.

She and Uncle Ford were always meeting with her brother who she insisted I call Uncle Clay. He was some kind of lawyer, and I’d hear them in the green parlor. The formal parlor where all the fancy green velvet couches were covered with crocheted doilies on the arms and portraits of all the family stared down at you. Even Mama and Papa.

One Sunday I heard them in there, the four of them, and I sneaked down the stairs. When I heard Myra laugh and say my name, I felt the anger boil up. This was my house. She could go to hell.

I went to the hall closet. It was time.

I sneaked back to the parlor, threw open the door and blew them all away with my Grandpa’s 12 Gauge. Then I dragged the bodies to Uncle Clay’s car and drove them to the quarry.

It took a while to clean up the blood, but I managed. Now the house looks all spic and span, as Mama used to say.

The police came by a few weeks later, and I said Uncle Ford took Aunt Latice and Myra on a trip with Uncle Clay. They looked around a bit, but didn’t find a thing out of place. I may have gone to dummy school, but I’m not stupid. Then a woman from Child Services came. She said they shouldn’t have left me on my own. I said I’d be eighteen in two weeks, so I’d didn’t really care. She said she’d check with her superiors.

After she left, I took Uncle Ford’s pistol from his dresser. I clicked off the safety, swearing that if she showed her face here again, my house would be the last one she ever entered.

Dandelion Dawson and Me

Since Charlie died, I’ve mostly spent my time in the garden pulling the weeds and trying to keep the roses healthy. Truth be told, I never was much good at it. Charlie used to say I had a black thumb. The only thing ever grew for me were hydrangeas. We have great pink hydrangeas in the front yard. Charlie didn’t like them near his roses.

Susan next door always said it didn’t matter because I made the best angel food cake in the county. I haven’t made any cakes since Charlie died—almost four months now. I guess my heart just isn’t in it.

I was out in the yard one day when Susan leaned over the fence. “Martha,” she called, “you’ll never believe it, but those nice Richardsons down the block are building a mother-in-law suite.”

“For his mother or hers?”

“I don’t know.”

As it turned out, it was for her mother. Dandy. I’d only ever known one female in my life named Dandy. Her real name was Dandelion Dawson, the meanest girl I’d ever met. She haunted me and hunted me in grade school, and she grew up to be a nightmare in high school: tall, blond, and perfect. She was a dandelion all right: impossible to miss or to destroy.

I’d heard she married some big shot and moved to New York. Now we were going to be living in the same neighborhood again. I planned to call the realtor as soon as I cleaned out my house a bit.

A few days later Amy Richardson came knocking at my door with her mother in tow. Dandy Dawson had aged well. I told myself it was plastic surgery and botox, but she was in great shape.

“Mom said she and you went to school together,” Amy said in a bright, desperate sort of voice. “I thought maybe you might like to have a reunion.”

She almost ran out the door.

I looked at Dandy. “So what’s the story?”

“That was short and sweet. No nice to see you?”

“Do you want me to lie?”

Dandy gave me a smile. “Oh, she gets tired of me hanging around all the time. I make her feel uncomfortable about her life choices.”

“What’s wrong with her life choices?”

“Do you see the way she dresses? Straight out of Goodwill. My God. She’s a teacher. She has all those grubby, little specimens climbing on her all day, which she says she loves. And that husband of hers isn’t much better. They live in this development with their child, which I’m sure they expect me to babysit when they start back to school. It’s absurd.”

I gazed at Dandy’s beautiful tan suit with its white silk blouse and her gold jewelry and wondered why she’d chosen to live here.“So why live with them?” I brushed off my dirty jeans, thankful that at least I didn’t get fat. I’m still short and small, though I colored my hair a light golden brown. Dandy used to call me the Mouse.

Dandy shrugged. “My late husband burned through most of our money. I’m not poverty stricken, but living in New York is out. All this is temporary until I figure my next move.”

“So what about you, Martha. I heard your husband died. What’s keeping you here?”

“This is my home.”

“You shouldn’t be so sentimental.” Dandy looked around the kitchen. “If it were me. I’d sell it all and travel.”

“Well, I’m not you, and I have children. Well, I have a son. In graduate school.”

Dandy slouched into a chair. “Well, the truth is, Martha, your son will graduate and get his own life. So should you.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’d want to travel alone.” Of course I had always dreamed of traveling to London and Paris and Rome, but Charlie had been a homebody. He always did worry so about the roses.

“Now that I’m living with my daughter, I have money to travel again,” Dandy said.

Good God. Travel with Dandy Dawson. What a horrible thought.

She smiled as if she could read my mind. “Oh, come on, Martha. I wasn’t that bad to you. You at least never teased me about my wretched name. Do you know what it’s like to be called Dandelion Daisy Dawson? It was hideous.”

“I suppose.”

“We’ll do an easy one. London first. If you have a bad time, I’ll never bother you again. Swear.” She glanced at my filthy jeans. “Really. No one can actually enjoy grubbing in the dirt, can they?”

“Of course.” I said it vehemently then sighed. “Maybe not so much.”

Her face lit up in a knowing smile. “Then we have things to do.”

Inertia is a strange thing indeed. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, but once it starts to move, it zooms. “We have a great many things to do indeed,” I said.

Marta Wore Green

El Toro was packed every Friday, and I had to strain to see her at the other side of the bar. She sat with her friends laughing and drinking Sangria while I slouched at my window table and sipped a glass of club soda. When the waitress set down a braised leg of chicken she chattered for a moment, and I answered mechanically, but I wasn’t listening. I was watching.

Could she feel me? She looked up once or twice, but the crowd swelled around her. Nothing to see. I was a ghost shadow. She wouldn’t recognize me in any case. I careful, so careful, never to look the same when I visited the bar. She was careless. She always came to the same place on Fridays.

The first time I saw her in the elevator I knew I had to have her. She didn’t notice me then either. She was talking to someone named Brian, and I learned her name was Marta, and she worked on the tenth floor. Design. Her hair was long and black; she smelled exotic and wore bright colors: reds, yellows, oranges.

It was easy to look her up in the company directory, to find her apartment. I was so careful at work never to pay outward attention to her. But I watched. I took pictures. I studied the object of my desire.

Marta. Tonight she wore green, and I knew it was a sign.

I paid my bill and left the restaurant, but I knew the way she would go. It was a perfect night: a little chilly with a pale sliver of moon dangling in the cloudy sky. Rain would be coming soon, cleansing and cold.

As I crouched behind some trees in the tiny park, I listened to the leaves shivering in anticipation. She’s coming. She’s coming. And I ventured a peak. Marta strode up the dark street, pulling her scarf tight around her neck.

In the end, people are trusting. I only had to step out behind her and gasp, “Oh, help me.” Who is afraid of a frail old man? Poor Marta. She should have been. It was so easy to take away her cell phone and get her into the car.

I sedated her at once before I took her away to add to my permanent collection. I’ve even changed her name to Suzanne. No one can hear her cray any more now that I’ve cut out her tongue. I’ve told her it’s important that she keep herself looking pretty for me, but lately she’s begun to let herself go. Maybe it’s because I cut her beautiful black hair and hung it on the wall next to the others. Ponytails, Mother used to call them. I probably shouldn’t have let her see the wall.

Then again, maybe it’s good for her to know that there are others out there and that she can be replaced.

It’s not my fault really. If only Suzanne Bartollo had said yes all those years ago. If only she hadn’t laughed at me and called me a freak. After that, all the other girls mocked me and called me a freak, and no one would go out with me. Someday I’m going to find Suzanne Bartollo, and I won’t even give her a chance to apologize. I’ll take my big knife and hack her to pieces.

 

A Thin Line of Vermillion

She lay in the tub, surrounded by the scent of roses, and tried to rid herself of his heavy, musky scent. It lingered, even when she sank below the water and held her breath for as long as she could. She popped up gasping.

His words echoed in her head. “You belong to me, and I will never let you go. You are my wife, my love, my muse.” His presence surrounded her day and night, even when he wasn’t there. His canvas monsters hanging everywhere, watched her move throughout the house. The servants looked at her with pity, but guarded the doors.

Once she believed that marriage to the great Portafaro would be a dream come true. He would take her to his great house on the mountain, and she would watch the peasants below; she would look out at the hungry sea and live like a queen. now she knew that all such dreams came at a price.

Soon the gold light of afternoon would give way to the purple shadows of evening, and he would return. Once again they would sit at the long table, and he would watch her with his hungry eyes then draw inspiration from her body.

It was never enough. His art demanded more each time. Every day she walked swathed in white, the soft, cool fabric almost too harsh against her purpled flesh. Every day she dream of escape.

On the porcelain sink sat his straight razor, and she stared at it languidly. it winked at her in the sunlight, whispering at her to come closer, and she rose from the tub to pick it up. She ran the edge of it over her thumb and watched the blood quickly bubble up.

A sharp rap at the door. “Senora, are you finished? Do you need help?”

“No, no, Carmelita. Just a few more minutes to soak.”

She stepped carefully into the tub. The underside of her arm was still smooth and white, save for the road map of blue veins that ran just below the skin. The razor barely stung as she drew it up. A thin line of vermillion opened up on first one arm then the other.

Already she felt dizzy, and she watched the white curtains billow out in the afternoon breeze. Wind chimes tinkled. Spirits lingered just beyond her sight, and if she listened, she could hear them calling her to follow.

“I’m coming,” she whispered. “I’m coming. He cannot follow me now.”

She let herself slide down under the welcoming water. The scent of roses covered her now, the song of the wind chimes grew fainter as the wafting breeze faded away. Silence.

I am free.