Aftershock

The students slouched in their seats in Mrs. Irving’s counseling session. It was the last period of the day, and the spring heat made the room feel stuffy and airless. Someone wore perfume that smelled like a mixture of cotton candy and vanilla. It mingled uncomfortably with the aroma of sweat and body odor that permeated the room. Emma DiAngelo drew spirals in her notebook while Will Einbender and Ted Butler texted about the stupidity of this whole meeting. Meredith Hargrove sat with her hands folded and pretended to pay attention.

“Now, kids,” Mrs. Irving said. “I know how traumatic it is when we loose a friend, especially a sweet girl like Jennifer Drew. It has repercussions that spread out through the entire community.” She spread her arms wide as if she were trying to encircle the assembled group.

Lexi Granger stifled a yawn and fumbled in her pencil case for her green pen. In its eraser she had embedded a tiny piece of a razor. Carefully she traced a white line on her finger.

 

“Would anyone like to share their remembrances of Jennifer?” Mrs. Irving said as she brought her hands together.

The kids looked around uncomfortably at each other. Who really wanted to talk about Jennifer Drew? She took a bunch of Oxycontin tablets and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. She had been there, and now she wasn’t. No one in this group was particularly close to her. Meredith Hargrove didn’t like her, and if Meredith didn’t like you, you were doomed.

Lexi punched the razor in the pad of her index finger and watched a drop of blood well up. Meredith didn’t like her for a while, and she used to say things like, “You should kill yourself ‘cause you’re just a loser.” Now Meredith mostly left her alone because in seventh grade Lexi turned Goth and told Meredith she’d stick a razor in her lunch sometime.

Meredith wasn’t used to people talking back to her.

“Jennifer was smart,” Ted Butler said. “She was nice, but kind of shy. Like she kept to herself. She was a good lab partner.”

He didn’t mention that Jennifer asked him to go with him to Junior Prom last year, and he said no. Well, he hadn’t exactly said no to her face. He told her he’d let her know then told Dana Rosenberg to tell her. As far as he knew, Dana was Jennifer’s only close girlfriend.

He wasn’t even sure why he didn’t say yes. Jennifer was pretty enough. She just was a little strange. Quiet. She studied all the time. She took a lot of AP classes.  Even the Asian kids thought Jennifer was a brain. She had did have cool green eyes, but who wanted to go with someone like that?

Actually, she did go to prom with Mike O’Connor. They’d been dating ever since.

“She was nice, and it’s totally sad, but I didn’t really like know her,” said Missy Rogers. “We didn’t have any classes together.” She crossed her legs and swung her stiletto-covered foot. That wasn’t a surprise. Missy brought up the bottom half of the class. She earned her nickname “Little Grinder” in middle school, and her cell phone number was on speed dial for every guy who was horny and hard up.

She was a good-time girl, bouncy, blonde, a three-letter jock and one of the richest kids in the school. Her parents owned a bunch of beer distributor stores, and the taps were always flowing when Missy gave a party, which was every weekend. Mostly everyone liked Missy; she might have been dumb as a post, but she liked to laugh and never acted like she was better than anyone else even though she lived in a giant house with an indoor and outdoor pool.

Emma DiAngelo said, “Maybe she just never adjusted. Like I think she missed her old school.” She glanced at Meredith as if asking for approval. Meredith gave her a small nod.

A few other kids offered comments about how alone Jennifer always seemed, how sad. They said the kind of things that adults always took so deeply to heart. They’re grieving and fragile, Mrs. Irving thought. She hoped they wouldn’t have a rash of copycats. It worried her.

Lexi Granger looked around the room. Some of the kids on the edge might follow with their own attempts to follow Jennifer, but not this group. She didn’t believe copying suicide had much to do with Jennifer. It had more to do with their own pain. But teachers didn’t know much; they loved the kids like Meredith, the ones who kissed up and put on a show, the ones who saved their cruelty for quiet moments to be doled out like so many poison pills.

They get it in the end,” Lexi’s mother liked to say, but that was a lie too.

Will Einbender stared out the window and wondered if he’d go to the funeral. He wouldn’t mind going. He’d get out of class for the morning and part of the afternoon. That’d be great. He didn’t even know Jennifer, but it kind of spooked him that she killed herself. He never knew anyone who wanted to die. He liked lacrosse and YouTube. Maybe he’d want to die if he couldn’t play lacrosse. He thought Jennifer ran cross country. He thought Mike O’Connor knew her. Mike was goalie for the lacrosse team, and he might know about the funeral.

Meredith Hargrove listened to everyone speak then said, “I think we should maybe collect money for flowers or see if there’s a charity Jennifer’s family would like us to send money to, Ms. Irving.” She couldn’t believe no one had thought of that yet. At least she hoped no one had.

Meredith didn’t care in the least that Jennifer was dead. Jennifer had a higher GPA and was sure to be ranked first in the class. Not any more. Jennifer was already the first girl in the school’s history to get fives on five AP tests her junior year. She had been admitted to Harvard and Yale and Brown. Meredith had only taken four AP’s junior year and had gotten a four in calculus. She hated Jennifer Drew. Now she smiled at Mrs. Irving. “I don’t mind collecting the money.”

“How sweet, Meredith. What a wonderful idea.”

How stupid were adults, Lexi Granger wondered.

Meredith  said, “Maybe we could talk to Mr. Roseman about setting up a scholarship in her name.”

The other kids in the room looked at Meredith Hargrove and murmured their assent. Each of them remembered their own encounters with Meredith. Some long ago; some fresh as last week. Meredith would collect another brownie point on the body of a girl she tormented.

 

“You’re just amazing, Meredith,” Lexi said. She gave Meredith a poisonous smile. “I’m sure Jennifer wherever she is appreciates your . . . kindness.”

“Why thank you, Lexi,” Meredith said. She chose to ignore Lexi’s tone.

 

The bell rang.

“Bitch,” Meredith said as she breezed past Lexi.

Lexi grinned. “You’d better hope Jennifer’s not a vengeful ghost.”

Meredith flounced away with Emma DiAngelo.

In the locker room that afternoon Emma DiAngelo started fill her backpack when she saw Mike O’Connor, and she smiled. He starred in all the school plays and probably would have been a target for all the bullies except he also was the top ranked lacrosse goalie in the state. He was also six feet of gorgeous. Emma had a crush on him since middle school, but Meredith liked him too, so she never did more than say hi.

Mike O’Connor never said much to either of them.

Now he fiddled with the dial of his locker and threw the door open. He jammed books into his backpack, and Emma could see from his compressed lips and narrowed eyes, he was angry. She didn’t know whether to stay or go.

He glanced up and saw her.

“Oh, Jesus. Just the thing to make my day, one of the Witch Bitches.”

Emma felt the air go out of her for a second. How dare he call her that? Didn’t he know she was one of the most popular girls in school?

“You can’t call me that!”

“You gonna tell Meredith? Maybe send me some nasty e-mails like you did Jenny? Go ahead. I don’t give a shit. Everyone hates you anyway. They only pretend to be nice to you. Run along, Emma. Tell your bitch queen everyone here hates her. They just pretend to like her.”

Emma’s fingers tightened around her backpack. Mike O’Connor looked at her as if she were pond scum. She wanted to say something, but no words would come.

He slammed his locker shut and stalked out of the room. Emma listened to his footsteps echo down the hallway. She went into the bathroom and made herself puke.           

Meredith Hargrove got into her shiny blue Audi with Emma DiAngelo and checked herself in the rearview mirror. Emma was quiet this afternoon. She said she felt sick and looked it too. Meredith hoped it wasn’t contagious. She pulled out of the parking spot and waved at Mrs. Standish, the Vice Principle. Mrs. Standish had nominated Meredith for the G. H. Kettering Award that went to the outstanding student in the senior class. She intended to get that award. It would be the cherry on the topping of the perfect credentials that helped get her into Amherst.

Will Einbender and Ted Butler joined the rest of the boys lacrosse team on the field. Coach Dickenson called for a silent prayer for Jennifer Drew before the guys started practice. They quickly forgot her once they began running sprints. Ted ran a little slow today. His right knee hurt, but it didn’t stop him from making some vicious hits once practice started. Friday they played Dunsten Prep. The team needed to be in top form. If they beat Dunsten, they’d be number one, again.

Coach said Mike O’Connor wouldn’t be there today, so they’d have Greg Porter in goal. Greg was okay, but Mike was the man.

Ted knew Mike was close to Jennifer Drew, but practice was practice. Still, he figured Mike would be here for the game. Mike would never let down the team.

Will Einbender loped across the field with easy grace. “In the bag, dude,” he said. “Who’s number one?” They high fived.

Missy Rogers wanted to get home so she could lie back on a lounge chair near the hot tub and grab a beer. Her parents hadn’t opened the pool yet, but the hot tub was working. She didn’t want to get into the tub, but she wanted to soak up some rays while it was warm. Prom was coming, and she wanted to be tan. It would show off the hot pink dress she bought with her mom’s VISA.

She was hosting the best after-prom party ever. She went through her mental guest list. She supposed she’d have to invite Meredith. That would be a drag. Meredith was such a bitch. Secretly most of the class hated Meredith, but maybe she wouldn’t come. Maybe she’d fall down a flight of steps and break her neck. One thing was for sure: Meredith would never kill herself. Too bad. Missy’d kind of like to hear that Meredith swallowed a handful of pills. She hit the gas on her little Mercedes and headed home.

Lexi Granger walked out of the school and kept walking until she got to the park. She sat under a tree, pulled out her razor and began to pull it over her inner thighs. She wished it were Meredith Hargrove’s neck. She wondered why people like Jennifer seemed to get crushed while the ones like Meredith always seemed to win. It didn’t seem right.

“What are you doing?”

Lexi looked up into Mike O’Connor’s face. She’d been so intent on her carving, she hadn’t heard him approach.

“Jesus Christ, are you crazy?” He sat down beside her. She wanted to tell him to shove off, but he looked so confused, Lexi didn’t have the heart.

“It makes me feel better,” she said at last. “Like the pain builds up, and I have to let it out or I’ll explode.”

He leaned back against the tree. “You shouldn’t cut yourself,” he said at last. “You should talk to someone.”

“Yeah, right. So they can tell me about my deep-seated mental issues?” She dropped the razor into her pencil case. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”

“The coach let me off today. He knows Jenny and I were friends.”

“That’s good, I guess.”

“I guess.” He shrugged. “Tonight’s the private viewing.”

“That blows.”

“Yeah.”

“So why’re you telling me?”

“Because Jenny said you were one of the few people who talked to her. I can’t talk to Dana right now. She just cries all the time.”

Lexi pondered that for a few minutes. “Jennifer was my peer tutor in pre-calc, y’know? She didn’t make me feel stupid. I actually got a B in math.”

She pulled out a white fuzzy dandelion top and examined it. When she was little, she used to call them wishies because when she’d blow on them, she’d make a wish and hope the little pieces of white fuzz would carry her wishes through the air. She stopped believing in the power of wishies when she was about ten.

“I don’t know why she did it,” Mike O’Connor said. “Six weeks from the end of school. She was almost free, and she couldn’t hang on any more.”

When he was in middle school, kids used to make fun of him for taking dance lessons until he got tall and showed up on the lacrosse team. They didn’t think it was funny the way he played goal. All of a sudden he went from Mike the Fag to Mike the Superman. Maybe that’s why he liked Jenny so much. She never slapped labels on people.

“It’s not your fault,” Lexi said. “Maybe she just was too deep into the shit.”

“Maybe.”

She touched his arm. “Hey, you think I could come to the viewing tonight? Everyone will come to the funeral tomorrow to get out of school. It’ll be a zoo.”

He looked at her for a moment and nodded. “You think you could leave the dog collar and razors at home?”

Lexi blew on the wishie. “Maybe, I’ll even wear regular clothes.”

 

Sugarplum’s Gift

“What’s that sound? Is it the cat? She sounds like she’s having a hairball!”

“That’s not her hairball noise. She probably saw a bird at the window. Go back to sleep. I have to shower.”

Gary pushed back the covers. Emily settled back and began to drift toward sleep. Down the hall, Sofie was already moving around; she didn’t hear Logan yet, but he always was the last up. Just ten minutes more.

She heard the shower go on and began to drift.

“Hagggh. Hagggh.”

She heard the sound again. It didn’t sound normal at all. Maybe something had gotten into the house. She didn’t know what kind of creature made that noise. She hated living out here in the woods. Sometimes she felt under assault by all the critters that wandered the perimeter of her home. She liked the city. Concrete, car exhaust, people. She understood those things. Ticks, raccoons, foxes, deer, and all the other things that inhabited their property were aliens; moreover, since they were there first, they seemed disinclined to give way to the people who came to live there. Emily didn’t blame them.

She wished the land had stayed house free.

Sugarplum trotted into the room, her head down, shoulders hunched. She began to play in the corner, and Emily settled back under the covers. In the bathroom, she heard Gary turn off the shower and knew she’d have to get up. He always drove Sophie, while she took Logan. Emily hated mornings. She closed her eyes. Five more minutes.

Sugarplum jumped on the bed and slowly walked up toward her. Sugarplum loved to cuddle, and Emily smiled.

“Hagggh.”

Something dropped on her shoulder, something small and furry, and alive. Emily heard herself screaming before she recognized the field mouse scambling through the covers. Sugarplum was on it at once.

Emily heard the pounding of feet. Greg stood in the doorway, water still running down his face. “What the hell happened?”

“Sugarplum has a mouse! Just get it!” She could still feel the damn thing dropping down on her bare shoulder.

“Jesus Christ, I thought someone attacked you,” Gary said. She could see he was trying not to laugh. He grabbed Sugarplum who still had the mouse clamped in her jaws. “Well, it’s dead now.” He held it up by its tail and walked downstairs in his towel.

Sophie popped her head in the doorway, eyes wide. “Eww, a mouse?” She looked at Sugarplum who was circling the bed looking for her prize. “Well, I guess Sugarplum brought a gift for you, Mom.” She glanced away. “Dad really needs to hurry up.”

Logan pushed past her. His hair stuck out in all directions; his eyes were blurry from lack of sleep. “Mom, I never even knew your voice went that high,” he said. That was impressive.”

“Everyone get dressed,” Gary said as he came back into the room. “We’ve got to get moving.”

Emily pulled herself out of bed. She wanted a shower, but now there wasn’t time. She’d do it when she got back. In fact, she’d drive Logan to school in her pajamas. She just needed to brush her teeth and scrub her arm. Her skin crawled, and for the hundredth time she wished she lived someplace else.

She glanced down at Sugarplum who still prowled the sheets. Sugarplum looked up. Her orange fur bristled, and her green eyes glittered. It was her hunter’s posture.

“Hagggh. Haggggh.”

Emily backed away and went to the bathroom to get ready.

 

Olivia

That week after graduation we headed down the shore for Senior Week. In those days “down the shore” was the place to go. With its huge boardwalk, mile-wide beach and tons of hotels, Wildwood was the preferred place for the thousands of kids spilling from the Catholic and public high schools. We weren’t the rich prep schoolers. Our parents couldn’t afford trips to Cancun or Florida or the Bahamas, and it didn’t matter. The drinking age was eighteen; the pot was easy to get; and we were without parental supervision.

Our house sat four blocks back from the beach. Ten of us had paid one hundred dollars, but fifteen to over twenty-five kids would end up crashing there at night.

I remember the cloudless sunny days when we would head for the beach to bake ourselves. Even though I was a natural blonde, I never burned and slathered my skin in baby oil. I knew how good I looked in my bikini. Jake told me every day I was hotter than the sun.

 

I wasn’t like Olivia. I wasn’t sure how Olivia had managed to get in with our group, but she just showed up in her pink flowered sundress with a suitcase. Everything about Olivia was big and squashy. She never wore a bathing suit, just shorts and a tank top that stretched across her huge breasts. She had long dark hair and a big smile, so no one bothered her, especially since she volunteered to make breakfast.

When you’re hung over or coming down, it’s kind of nice to have someone to make you breakfast, even if it’s just dry toast and tomato juice. We decided to let Olivia have the small back bedroom because no one really wanted to share a bed with her. Jake said it was kind of like having a maid.

 

We all had our routines. Get up eat, head to the beach or wander the boardwalk, maybe grab some pizza, and start drinking. I don’t know what Olivia did. Sometimes she came down to the beach and sat reading a book. She always looked like someone’s mother because in addition to the shorts and tank top, she always wore a big floppy hat.

Some of the guys called her “Orca”, and the rest of us kind of laughed. I don’t know if Olivia heard or not.

 

The last night I saw her we were hanging on the boardwalk, and I was standing with Jake. It was a little breezy and he put his arms around my waist. I remember cuddling into him, hearing the beat of his heart. All around all people laughed and screamed, and I could smell cotton candy and buttered popcorn, the meaty grilled odor of hot dogs; tinny carnival music played while people yelled from the roller coaster and tilt-a-whirl. In the circle of Jake’s arms, though, I felt safe and protected.

He said, “Look, there’s Orca.”

A couple of people started to laugh, and I glanced up.

She was standing near the fudge shop with a guy who was kind of in the shadows, but he looked pretty big. I couldn’t see his face, but Olivia was smiling. I thought for a moment she had a pretty smile.

A bunch of our friends came up then, and when I looked over at the fudge shop Olivia was gone. I thought I glimpsed her walking away with the big guy, but the crowd swallowed them up.

I never saw her again.

 

A lifeguard found Olivia under the boardwalk two weeks later. She’d been strangled and raped and lay naked in the sand. I thought she’d be so embarrassed to be seen naked.

A few of us went to the funeral at St. Anastasia’s. It was closed casket because after two weeks, I guess she was in pretty bad shape.

I remember that it was stinking hot, and the stained glass windows sent gashes of garnet light across the floor. In my black dress, I stood in line and sweated and wondered why I felt I had to come to this service. Jake held my hand, his face screwed up in puzzlement. He didn’t quite understand why we were here either.

“It’s not like we were friends with her,” he said.

“We were with her at the shore, Jake. She was in our class. Please.”

He kissed me. “Whatever you want, baby,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird.”

I remember Olivia’s mom stood stone faced by the coffin as Jake and I approached her.

“I’m really sorry about Olivia,” I said, and Jake mumbled something similar.

She just nodded. “We’re you her friend? I don’t remember you.”

“We had some classes together. She was a very nice person,” I said. “We were all staying at the same house.”

“Yet not one of you knew who she walked off with.” Olivia’s mother looked like she wanted to say more, and I felt Jake’s hand tighten over mine. “Well, thank you for coming.”

I went up to Olivia’s coffin and knelt down to say a prayer, but nothing came out. All I could see was the round girl with the shorts and tank top walking down the boardwalk hand in hand with a guy whose face remained a shadow. He was never caught.

Any one of us could have been Olivia that night, except we were a group, and she was alone.

I couldn’t get it out of my head. Jake and I broke up a month later because he said I was obsessed.

Olivia walked with me for a long while. I felt her beside me when I set off for college and met many of her sisters on campus–the kind of girls I always mocked in high school—chubby and smart. When I tried to be friendly, they were polite and distant.

“The sorority girl wants our notes,” one girl said.

They liked to call me a dumb blonde, sometimes when I was in the same room. I told myself I didn’t care because I was still pretty and popular. I went to parties had boyfriends, and still got good grades, but none of the really smart people wanted me in their study groups.

When I graduated and went on to law school, the smart girls surrounded me. I felt a kinship with them, though now they excluded me even more as if I was a reject.

“Our group is filled,” one of the girls told me. “Try one of the guys’ groups. I’m sure they’d love to have you.” When I walked away, I heard her say, “Could you feel her draining your IQ or what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” someone else said. “She’ll be fine. She’s just here to grab a husband.”

Over the year, though, they began to soften toward me because I worked hard. In the middle of my second year, one actually invited me into a study group. I learned we weren’t so different. We were all trying to do something important with our lives, and if I was the girl they hated in high school, they were the girls who intimidated me in college. I don’t know if I would have realized it, if I hadn’t been for Olivia.

At graduation the girls congratulated me. When I hugged them and wished them luck, I did so sincerely. They were women of substance and had made me better by forcing me to excel. Many of them went on to powerful law firms, two are federal judges, and one works for the Secretary of State. I went to work for a mid-sized firm and do pro bono work for a non-profit that’s fighting to stop a proposed oil pipe line. We all keep in touch.

I did marry another lawyer. The girls were right about that.

When I finally greeted our daughter, I held her in my arms, felt her warm breath against my cheek and touched her tiny perfect fingers. It was as if I held my own redemption in my hands.

“She’ll be as pretty as her mother,” the nurse said as she left the room.

Later that day I dreamed Olivia was standing in the doorway in her too tight shorts, tank top, and floppy hat. She gazed from me to my daughter lying in the bassinet beside my bed, her face frozen into a mask of indifference.

“She’ll be different, I swear,” I whispered, but my voice came out hoarse and raw. “She’ll be clever and good and kind. She’ll be better than me. Please don’t let anything happen to her.”

Olivia just turned away.

 

Night Games

Red. Stop. Watch. Wait. Breathe in and out. Streams of light. Music and laughter inside the Tapas bar. So many pretty faces with red-lipped smiles and strong white teeth. She glances at me and smiles. I smile back. She takes a sip from her second glass of dark crimson wine.

See me sitting by the window. My eyes stare back at me. Hungry.

I swallow black beans and small beef strips. I gnaw at a chicken thigh grilled in green chili sauce. I touch a tart apple foam with my tongue. Not enough. Never enough.

Yellow. Caution. I pay my bill and step out into the steamy night. Too crowded. Many people roam about. Car horns honk. Across the street a boy vomits while his friends cheer. I walk to the alley down the street and pull on a black hoodie.

Green. Go. The restaurant door opens, and she is alone. She walks away from the noise. Four streets up. Two streets over. I am quick, quick. I am a shadow.

She reaches the house  and walks up the steps. She doesn’t fumble with the keys, but I am super fast. I force her through the door. We crash to the floor.

“Ouch,” she says. “This is the last time for this game, George. It’s gotten old.”

She is correct. It’s the last night for games.

I whisper, “Goodbye, Marie.”

Tonight is good.

 

Aftermath

BREAKING NEWS

 

HUNDREDS DEAD AFTER CAPITOL SLAUGHTER

 

 

 

Top Stories                                                                                                May 13, 2023

 

_____________________________  From John Libotti, CNN__________________________

 

·      Source: Captain Dwayne Marks, Capitol Police.

 

·      Witness said the gunmen appeared from nowhere.

 

·      Gunman used assault rifles with high capacity magazines

 

 

Washington, DC–The total body count is not yet final in the slaughter at the U.S. Capitol this morning, but death tolls are expected to rise to over 500. CNN can now confirm that 51 senators are dead, and 25 critically wounded, though names will not be released until family members are notified, and 307 congressional representatives are believed to be dead or wounded, though that number may rise. Over one hundred staff and legislative aids and twenty-five Capitol police officers may also have been killed or wounded in the worst act of terror committed on U.S. soil since 9/11. According to Captain Marks, the gunmen have been neutralized. Six are confirmed dead. Two are in critical condition.

 

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by the casualties and have reached out to facilities like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda Maryland for help.

 

Little is known about the gunmen or how they gained access to the Capitol at this time, but DC Metro Police and FBI sources confirm that the shooters used M-4 carbine assault riffles with high capacity magazines. It is believed that one of the shooters may have been a former Navy Seal, but this has not yet been confirmed.

 

At this time the Army is assisting with the removal of the bodies.

 

The shooting comes on the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Access Bill, which called for the removal of all metal detectors from all public buildings with the exception of the White House and Supreme Court. The bill, which was part of the NRA’s “Don’t give an Inch” Campaign, helped propel a number of new pro-gun legislators into office.

 

President Donald Bartold will address a stunned nation this evening.

 

#

 

 

 

Mrs. Zamora Moves In

The apartment on Pine Street was surprisingly cheap, which worked well for me, considering it was my first apartment, and I didn’t have a lot to spend on rent. My landlady, Mrs. Franklin, lived on the first floor as did little Mr. Fiedler, a nice old gentleman I seldom saw, but who wore large hearing aids and a soft gray felt hat that he always tipped politely to me. A married couple named Jon and Erin Glascott, and a twenty-something woman named Maggie Luzzi, who was never there as far as I could tell except for the occasional Sunday when she breezed in to pick up some clothes and disappeared with her boyfriend, occupied the second floor apartments, and way up on the third floor I lived in a surprisingly spacious place. True, the ceiling sloped in the bathroom, which was tiny, and I needed a window air conditioner to augment the building’s central air that didn’t seem to work above the second floor, but the ceilings were high and the window seats were deep. I lived near the grocery and a bunch of cafes. Since I usually worked from seven to seven, I wasn’t going to be home much, so what could go wrong?

Within two weeks of my arrival, the Glascotts moved out. I didn’t care much that Glascotts were leaving. After all, I had only said hello once to them in the hallway, so it wasn’t like I was loosing best friends, but two days later I came home from work to see a tall woman swathed in what looked to be red scarves and black leggings standing in front of the building directing movers, and I stopped mouth agape.

The woman wore a red satin turban that sparkled with a huge rhinestone pin. I had never seen a modern woman wearing a turban, much less one so gaudy. It matched her four inch red patent leather stilettos. From the back the woman, despite her turban, was in great shape; she had the lithe body of a dancer and long, muscled legs; from the front, she had the face of a gargoyle. Too much plastic surgery left her eyes pulled up and back and her skin stretched unnaturally tight over her skull. Her lips had been enhanced by collagen implants and bloomed around her flashing white teeth. Guessing her age was impossible; she looked like she had been dipped in formaldehyde.

I almost dropped my bag of groceries.

I tried to slip past her, but she swung around to survey me, her right hand on her hip.

“You must be the third floor girl,” she said. “Kelsey? Katie?” She extended her hand palm down as if she expected me to kiss it.

“Alana,” I said. “Alana Carver.” I shook her hand and let go as quickly as possible.

“I knew you had a K in your name. I am Rasha Zamora. I’m moving in today. I don’t like loud rock and roll or rap music,” she said. “Or negative energy. I’m very sensitive.”

“I don’t play rap music,” I said and wondered if I had an escape clause in my rental contract. I didn’t care about the security deposit. “I work.”

I walked past her straight to the landlady’s apartment and saw Mrs. Franklin hovering in the hall in her usual dark blue shift. Her white hair looked a bit disheveled and the corners of her mouth pinched in distress when she saw me.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“Oh, Miss Carver. I had no idea who was moving in. She’s an old friend of Mr. Stinson, and he owns the building. He didn’t say anything.”

“Maybe she’s just eccentric.”

Mrs. Franklin seemed so discombobulated that I felt it was a bad time to say anything about my new neighbor, especially when I was so seldom home.

“She told me she wants me to cleanse the building. I don’t know what that means. It’s very clean.” She held out a bundle of what looked like straw tied together, and I smiled. White sage.

“She wants you to burn it. It’s a ritual. You burn the sage and the smoke is supposed to cleanse the bad spirits.”

Mrs. Franklin handed me the sage. “That sounds like one of those witch things. I’m no witch.” She walked back to her apartment and closed the door with a finality that left no doubt that she wasn’t dealing with the new tenant, the sage, or any witch rituals.

I figured a little sage wouldn’t hurt anything.

As I lay in bed reading that evening I heard the sound of music being played at top volume. “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” warbled the singer in the sort of high, semi-operatic voice I always hated. It seemed like the song was stuck on repeat because it played over and over again until I banged on the floor. Then it paused only to start up again.

I called Mrs. Franklin. “Get her to turn down that damn music,” I said.

Mrs. Franklin sighed loudly. “I think she’s a little deaf.”

“I want to go to sleep.”

At last the music stopped.

At six a.m. I was out the door and off to work. When I returned the damn song was playing. I could hear it as I climbed the stairs, sweating like a pig. I turned on the air conditioner, but I could still hear it. I turned on the television, but that song seeped through the walls.

It was time to take action. I walked down the stairs and knocked on Rasha Zamora’s door. After a moment she answered. The apartment smelled of burned sage, and the song blared in the background. Decorated in red and gold velvet with a big red oriental rug on the floor, the place looked like a bordello from the 1920’s. Giant red lamps trimmed in gold fringe stood on marble topped mahogany tables. It was as outrageous as Rasha Zamora who wore a black catsuit with a fuchsia chiffon skirt and jazz shoes.

“Mrs. Zamora,” I started, “That music.”

“It’s glorious, I know. My favorite song. Beyond the Blue Horizon. Only happy things to look forward to there. Jeanette McDonald sang it in Follow the Boys, you know. It’s the best version.”

“You’ve played it two days in a row.”

“It’s my good luck song,” she said and lifted her leg up in the air until it was almost horizontal. “Not too shabby, eh? Do you know I danced with Clark Gable and Cary Grant when I was younger?”

“That’s very nice for you, but I wonder if you might play the song a little quieter?”

“Quieter?” Rasha Zamora stared at me as if I’d told her the devil was coming for her soul. “I am releasing positive energy into this building,” she said. “You’ll see.”

“That may be, but I can’t sleep.”

“You should download your own copy, or whatever you young people do now. It will bring you luck. And don’t forget to burn white sage to cleanse your apartment. Listen to the lyrics, dear. They’ll make you happy.” She went to a large brass urn and pulled out a bundle of white sage then shooed me to the door. “Take this and burn it. Now I must stretch.”

“But I—“

“Just feel the positive energy.” She closed the door.

I went to my apartment and made brownies for dinner.

The next morning I wrapped the leftovers and on my way to work put them outside of Rasha Zamora’s door thanking her for the sage. When I came home that evening, my empty dish sat in front of my door along with a red crystal and a note of thanks. The crystal, she wrote, would help me find true love.

Our relationship continued this way. Every night I made something for Rasha Zamora, and every day when I returned from work I’d receive a little note with a stone or a healing crystal. Sometimes she would invite me to her apartment and tell me about her days as a dancer. The good days, she called them, when she danced in the movies or on Broadway.

“But eventually you get old,” she said. “You run out of energy. Sometimes when you’re young and beautiful, you’re foolish. You don’t realize how quickly it passes. Then pouf, you’re an old husk.” She smiled when I started to protest. “Oh no. I don’t regret a thing. In life you always go forward.”

After a while I .0

got used to Beyond the Blue Horizon, maybe because it didn’t sound quite as loud or maybe because it just became background noise. It got stuck in my head, and I’d find myself humming it at odd times. Mrs. Zamora would ask if I felt the positive energy. I always said yes, though I’m not sure I felt anything.

One night the apartment was quiet. It felt odd after months of Beyond the Blue Horizon. It was so odd, I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I knocked on Mrs. Zamora’s door, but there was no answer.

When I returned from work, the EMT’s were taking her away in a black plastic bag.

“Poor thing,” Mrs. Franklin said. “Did you know she was eighty-nine?”

“She danced with Gable and Cary Grant,” I said, feeling oddly nostalgic.

“She was a pip,” Mrs. Franklin said. “But I think I’ll miss her all the same. Her and that silly song.”

I watched the ambulance pull away into traffic and thought Mrs. Zamora had flown beyond the blue horizon at last.

 

 

The Hunters (Story A Day Challenge 14)

       

On the edge of a mountain, silhouetted against the setting sun, there is a small ramshackle cottage made of wood.  It is a hunting lodge of sorts, outfitted in the most Spartan way with a lumpy cot, a sleeping bag and several filthy blankets, a moldy pillow. It has no electricity though there is a fireplace, and the shelves are stocked with the necessities: plastic containers of water, cans of coffee, tins of vegetables and Spam. A few plastic bags of beef jerky lie on the rough hewed wood table next to a large lantern. There is one glass window that’s covered with a film of yellowed plastic.

 

            The cottage is not inviting. It’s a lonely place teetering at the precipice of the mountain, but the view of the valley is spectacular. The man busily shoveling doesn’t care about the view today. He has more pressing thoughts on his mind.

 

            In the red-gold light the deer are both intrigued and frightened by the sound of digging. They sense danger, but do not run yet; they remain hidden in the thick trees along the ridge, their breath coming in quick puffs of white.

 

            The snows are coming. Not tonight, but soon.

 

            The man’s voice pierces the quiet.  “What do you think, Oscar, have I dug deep enough? Been working on it long enough.”

 

            A small brown and white dog runs around him barking and pawing at the  burlap sack tied to the back of the bay gelding who stands patiently next to the pile of rocks the man has moved earlier.

 

            “Now, Oscar, be still. We have work to do.” He cuts the rope that binds the sack to the gelding, and the sack falls with a thud to the hard earth.  Grunting, he drags the sack to the deep hole and pushes it in.

 

            “Go to hell,” he says and starts to hum. Twilight is coming, and he contemplates waiting to fill in the hole, but knows it has to be done now. He can’t risk the ground freezing.

 

            The deer move a little closer, watching him shovel layer after layer of earth into the huge hole before he slowly pushes the rocks on top. The area doesn’t look quite the same as before. A buck paws the ground uneasily.

 

            That quickly the man turns and fires the rifle lying on the ground beside him. The buck falls and the rest of the herd scatters. The man smiles.

 

            “Did you see that, Oscar? I could feel ‘em watching. What a shot! Almost dark too.” He pulls at the gelding’s reins. “Come on, Forsooth.” Horse and man walk carefully up the embankment to where the stag lays. He’s a young one, but he’ll do. The man slings him over the horse’s back and heads down the ridge with Oscar.

 

            It’s close to eight when he arrives home. It’s dark and cold now, but there’s a casserole in the oven all warm and bubbly. The table’s set for him, and Sarah places the casserole in front of him. Oscar trots into the kitchen.

 

            “Walter, where were you?” Her voice falters at the sight of the blood on his clothes.

 

            “Got me a young buck up the mountain. Was tracking him for hours,” Walter says. He washes his hands and sits at the table without going upstairs to change. “What’s the matter, Sarah, you look a little pale.”

 

            “You know I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Sarah backs against the stove. She wishes she had the nerve to swing the meat cleaver against Walter’s head, but she has to wait. Soon Edward will come, and she’ll leave everything behind.

 

            They’ve planned so carefully. Edward will pick her up, and they’ll just go. She’s even hidden money away for it.

 

            She dishes out food for Oscar who runs over to slurp it up.

 

            “Yessir, We’ll have some mighty good venison,” Walter says and digs into the casserole. It tastes especially good tonight. “You’re a great cook, Sarah. That’s the best casserole you ever made. What’s in it?”

 

            “Oh, just the usual. Diced tomatoes, cheese, meat, potatoes, onion, all that.”

 

            “Well, you’re a good wife, Sarah. I never want to lose you.”

 

            “I know Walter.”

 

            “Here, Oscar come taste this.” He snaps his fingers and the dog comes running but he just sniffs at the glob of casserole. “What’s the matter? You ate too much already?” Walter stuffs his fingers into his mouth. “Your loss.” He looks at Sarah. “Ain’t you eating?”

 

            “I did earlier. I was saving the casserole. I wanted it to be perfect.”

 

            Walter grunts. “I’m gonna go skin that deer, then I’ll wash up.” He turns and looks at her from the door, his face bland. “By the way, I think that Edward Ames fella up and moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see him around here again.”

 

            Sarah takes a breath before she answers. “Did he?”

 

            Walter nods. “Got to get to that buck.”

 

            She sits down on the kitchen chair trembling when he goes out to take care of the deer and wonders what he did to Edward. She wonders if he’s found her small reserve of cash. She’s afraid to check.

 

            Sarah looks at the casserole. Walter’s eaten almost half. She places the casserole in the refrigerator and washes the dishes. She goes to bed meaning to read, but can’t concentrate. When she hears Walter enter she turns off the light and pretends to be asleep, but she knows it won’t matter. Even after his shower, he still smells of blood when he crawls into bed.

 

            “Sarah, I did it for you,” Walter says. He feels a little dizzy, but he can see the outline of his wife in her white nightgown and is filled with desire. “I do everything for you.”

 

            He grabs her and pushes the nightgown up. He yanks down her underwear  and thrusts himself into her, telling her he loves her, over and over. Sarah doesn’t need to do anything. He squeezes her breasts and comes inside her. She wants to vomit.

 

            In the morning, Walter feels a little off, but he goes out to do his chores. He chops a load of wood and feeds the livestock. A storm is coming. He can smell the snow. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get out in a blizzard, and phone service can go off at anytime. He thinks about driving into town, but decides he’s tired. He’s had too much lifting and hauling the last few days. He finishes the casserole at lunch, but by dinner he feels gut sick. Sarah gives him chicken soup as the flakes begin to fall, but Walter can only swallow a little before the diarrhea strikes.

 

            The weather service announces that this will be a bad storm, maybe two or more feet of snow. Sheriff Joe Allan calls to ask if they need anything, and Sarah says they’re fine for now. Joe Allan says to call if they need anything. He always has been a little sweet on Sarah. She could have married anyone on the mountain, but her father was greedy and practically sold her to Walter Nolan because he needed cash to keep his logging business afloat. Joe Allan thinks it’s a crime in these modern times to be able to sell a daughter for cash.

 

            No wonder Sarah fell a little for that young Edward Ames from Seattle. He’d come through scouting locations for some software business looking to bring jobs to underdeveloped areas. They had big ideas about keeping the area green and growing the economy. Joe Allan isn’t sure a software company is the answer to the job problems in this area, but he has hopes.  Logging is all they have, but he doesn’t want to see his beloved mountain stripped clean, even though he understands that the men need jobs.

 

            It made him happy to see Sarah with the old twinkle in her eyes. Now she sounds tired and beat down again. If she’d even look in his direction, he’d take her away, but for now all he can do is offer to help if they get snowed in.

 

            By midnight the snow is falling hard, and everything seems strangely hushed. Even the wind seems muffled by the falling snow. Joe Allan looks out of his bedroom window and watches some small animal–a fox maybe—dart  around the edge of his house. This is light powdery snow that drifts down and sparkles in the emergency lights around his house. Just for fun he takes a ruler outside. It’s already over ten inches. He thinks about Sarah locked up in that big house on the ridge and lifts his face to the sky. Snow brushes his face like frozen kisses.

 

            Walter lies on the floor huddled near the toilet while Sarah fetches him a fresh ice pack. He can feel the fever building. He must have caught something out in the woods digging. He stayed too late. He should have come back sooner, but what if someone found the burlap sack? He closes his eyes and rests his head against the porcelain rim.

 

            “Okay, Walter,” says Sarah, “put this on the back of your head. It’ll cool you down. You have a fever is all. You must have got the flu.”

 

            Walter is so thirsty, but he can’t keep anything down. He starts to see things like Edward Ames’ bloody face right before he wrapped him in plastic and rolled him in burlap. Edward Ames was going to run off with Sarah. That just wasn’t right.

 

            Walter can hear the stag paw the ground right before he shoots it.

 

            Sarah watches Walter clutch the rim and babble about the deer and the hole in the ground. She listens to the soft whoosh of the snow and leans over. “You just lie here, Walter, you’ll feel better in the morning.”

 

            In the morning Walter is slumped by the toilet covered in vomit. Sarah draws him a bath and helps him into it. She props him in the tub and cleans the mess on the floor.

 

            “What’s . . . wrong . . . with  . . . me?”

 

            Walter’s face is yellow. His eyes are bloodshot from retching so hard. Clearly his liver is failing.

 

            “I don’t know, Walter. We don’t have phone service, and it’s still snowing. But I can take the jeep and try to get to Joe Allan.”

 

            “No, stay here.” Walter tries to rise up, but sinks back into the water.

 

            Sarah wonders how long he can go on without water or food. “I’ll get you some ice. Maybe you can chew on it.”

 

            Outside the snow keeps falling. So fast and hard that she can barely see the outline of the barn, but she needs to go out and feed the chickens and the horse. She needs to check for eggs. Sarah ties a piece of rope to her waist and attaches it to the door before she makes her way to the barn. She puts a blanket on the horse, mucks out his stall, and gives him fresh oats and hay. She feeds the chickens and checks for eggs. Then heads back to the house.

 

            Oscar barks when she returns and sheds her wet things. She feeds him and checks the phone. No dial tone. She checks on Walter. He’s vomited and shit again so she puts him back in the tub when she changes the sheets. She decides to leave him in the bathtub so she can hose him off and covers him with a sheet and blanket. Walter’s eyes look glazed.

 

            “What happened to me?” he says.

 

            Sarah just wipes his face with a damp cloth. “Try to sleep.” She brings him more ice chips.

 

            By evening the snow starts to slow and Joe Allan is out directing the plowing. He glances up at the ridge determined to get up there by tomorrow morning at the latest.

 

            The moon begins to push through the clouds, an almost full moon—either waxing or waning. The silver light casts eerie shadows on the woods. Deer, foxes and bears watch the men with their plows carve out roads through the powdery snow.

 

            “There’s some trees down,” one of the men says. “It’ll take a while.

 

            “Let’s get to it,” says Joe Allan. “There’re people stranded up there.”

 

            Despite his best efforts, Joe Allan and his men don’t get through to Sarah and Walter Nolan’s house until late afternoon of the next day. He finds Sarah trying to coax Walter into sucking on some ice while he floats naked in tepid bathwater.

 

            “Oh thank God, you got through,” Sarah says, and throws her arms around Joe Allan. “Walter’s been so sick for the past day. I don’t know what it is. I tried calling but the phone’s been out.”

 

            Joe Allan looks at Walter. He’s a pathetic specimen right now. Jaundiced, red-eyed, wasting away, he looks like something from a horror movie.

 

            “I don’t think we can wait for an ambulance. We’ll get him out of here now, Sarah.”

 

            They wrap Walter up as best they can and load him into one of the heavy- duty plows.

 

            “Jesus Christ, what happened to him?” someone says.

 

            “Just get him down to County General,” says Joe Allan. “I’ll bring Mrs. Nolan down myself.”

 

            “Can I make some coffee for you and the boys, Joe?” Sarah asks. “I’ve got a big urn.”

 

            “We’d appreciate it, Sarah. What happened?”

 

            Sarah frowns. “I don’t know. He came home a couple nights ago with a buck. We had dinner, and by the time the storm started, he was sick as a dog.” She sighs. “It was awful, Joe. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Talking crazy. He said he saw Ed Ames down a hole way up the mountain near his cabin where he shot that buck. Is that even possible?”

 

            Joe Allan shakes his head. Now it makes sense. Before the storm hit, he’d gotten a call from Edward Ames’s company. The guy hadn’t checked in or called in over four days. If he is buried up that mountain, they won’t find him until spring.

 

            Joe Allan pats Sarah’s hand. “Tell you what. I know you’re worried about Walter, but driving down the mountain tonight is crazy. You should wait till tomorrow. The roads’ll be better then. I’ll find out about Walter then you can take what he needs to the hospital.”

 

            “Joe, that’s just so kind of you. I’m so grateful. Tell the truth I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since he’s been sick.  Here, I’ll make you that coffee.”

 

            After the sheriff and his men have left, Sarah takes the coffee grounds and lays them on a piece of plastic. She goes to the freezer to remove the jar with all the scrapings from the casserole. She triple wraps everything in plastic and puts on her boots and coat. She slides a pair of extra batteries in the pocket then grabs the lantern. The snow is up to her knees, but she makes her way to the barn, clears a space under the hay and begins to dig. She spends a long time at it because the ground is hard. At last the hole is deep enough, and she drops the package into it and shovels the dirt on top. She stamps around the place she was digging until the dirt looks flat and undisturbed then mixes some hay on top of it. She makes her way back to the house and washes her hands.

 

            At the hospital the tests will show that Walter has ingested a massive amount of Amanita phalloides mixed in with Amanita virosa or death angel mushrooms mixed with destroying angel mushrooms. Unfortunately the toxin from the mushrooms has destroyed Walter’s liver and kidneys and his systems are shutting down.  He’s dying in the Intensive Care Unit despite the hospital’s best efforts.

 

            “If only we’d gotten to him earlier,” Dr Kitteridge says, “He might have had a chance. The damn snow.”

 

            “I just don’t understand where Walter would have gotten mushrooms at this time of year,” Joe Allan says to Sarah as they watch Walter struggling to live.

 

            She looks at him with wide blue eyes. Her lips tremble slightly. “I just don’t know, though you know how he always said he could live off the land. He kept all kinds of things in that cabin of his.”

 

            Eventually, she knows they’ll find a glass jar with the residue of those mushrooms and maybe some packets of beef jerky, though she figures that Walter ate the jerky. She knows her fingerprints have long been wiped clean on that jar.

 

            The doctor waves Sarah into the room. “I’ll give you a little privacy,” he says. “He hasn’t got much time.”

 

            Sarah takes Walter’s hand gently and smiles. She leans very close to his ear as if she’s kissing him. “When you die, Walter, I’m going to put you in a hole too,” she says.

 

            Walter’s eyes grow wide and his pulse jumps erratically. He can’t speak because of the tube in his throat.

 

            Sarah lays Walter’s hand on his chest. “Goodbye, Walter.”

 

            She walks out to Joe Allan, and puts her hand on his arm. “You’ve been such a rock for me, Joe. Would you stay a little longer?” She lays her head against his shoulder. She’s always liked Joe; he’s kind and good. She could get used to someone like that.

 

            Joe Allan feels his heart swell. “Anything for you, Sarah. Anything for you.”

 

            Walter lies in his bed dying. He remembers the stillness of the high mountains, the peace. He doesn’t know how Sarah knew about Ed Ames, and he’ll never know. That’s the hell of it. He thinks about the buck hanging in the barn and realizes she got him just like he got that buck.

 

            In Walter’s cabin mice scurry about looking for crumbs of food, but find nothing. Walter has removed anything they could eat. Beef jerky wrappers lie on the floor. Water drips through a hole in the ceiling onto the spot near the fireplace, and great icicles hang from the eaves.

 

            Out on the mountain the deer pick their way though the deep snow foraging for whatever plants they can find. They come to the rocks near the cabin and sniff. Something is different: something dark and decaying lies hidden deep beneath the earth.

 

            A stag lifts its head. The scent of death and danger hangs in the air here, but it dissipates in the biting wind.