Rain Boy

Every mother has days like this: she has twenty-seven hours worth of chores to fit into a twenty-four hour period. So she leaps out of bed in the morning (okay, some of us crawl) and  tries to be superhuman. As she gets the kids ready and makes food, in the back of her mind a little voice is reciting her to-do list: drop off the eldest at kindergarten, cash that check, buy groceries for tonight’s supper, pick up the eldest from preschool at three clean the kitchen, ditto bathroom, living room…we’ll just hope the guests don’t go down into the basement or look into the bedrooms…pay the electricity bill, take the car to get its tires aligned—and every time something goes wrong or slows down the hectic pace of the day, the little voice pauses, taps the mother on the shoulder and says, “You know you don’t have time for that, right?”

This little voice has been known to cause symptoms of stress, snappishness, and tears in the best of mothers at times. And none of them were parents to Justin Shoalter.

Amy Shoalter put her van into park, shut her eyes and sighed through clenched teeth. “I am doing fine. I am getting as much done as I can get done. I do not have to have my house perfect for Amelia Gross to see…” Her eyes popped open. “The lightbulbs! I forgot to add the lightbulbs—she’d make hay out of a dark dining room. Crap, where’s my list?” She rustled frantically through her pockets, found a scrap of paper, and scribbled it down. She glanced behind her. Her son’s dark head was bent over a battered stuffed dog, named with the endless creativity of a three year old: Doggy. He was bouncing Doggy on his knees and talking to him in a sing-song voice, “Grocery shoppin’…Grocery shoppin’…I like broccoli…but not wadishes…”

She her hands stilled for a moment and she smiled at his song. Why can’t people see him like that? She thought.  Not a danger, not a genetic anomaly, not a freak, just a normal little boy? Amelia seemed to think it was a poor parenting decision to have a son with a genetic condition.

But the clock on the dashboard was ticking through the minutes so she jolted into action. If it were anybody but the Grosses coming over—she shuddered and ran a finger down her list one more time and popped out of the van. She had twenty minutes, tops, and then she had to pick up Tabitha from kindergarten and get home to get the charcoal started in time to cook the steaks…

With this in mind, she rolled open the van side door and started unbuckling Justin’s car seat at high speed.

Justin patted her on the back as she lunged over him to get one of his shoes. “Grocery, mommy?” He grinned at her as she wedged his shoes onto his feet, still clutching Doggy to his chest. She ran a hand absently through his dark brown hair so a curl fell down over his forehead. They were unmistakably mother and son; dark hair, blue eyes, fair skin.

“Yes, grocery,” she said, unbuckling him as she talked. “Now remember, we talked about the grocery store last time, remember? This is inside, we don’t rain or snow, or fog inside. Right, Justin?”

“Yep!” he said, “Walk?”

“Only if you stay close to mommy.” She lifted him out and grabbed his hand before he shot off into the parking lot. “Not even a fine mist, understand, little guy?”

“Grocery!” He shouted, and tugged her forward. “Look at veggies!”

“No, honey, we don’t have time.” She was scanning her shopping list, fingers tight on her purse straps. “Let’s be fast, okay? Please be good for mommy.”

It wasn’t Justin’s fault that they didn’t make it past the shopping baskets before disaster hit.

The voice accosted her as they stepped into the cool air, purring and saccharine in a way that only a very unfriendly woman can be. “Hello, Amy…Fancy meeting you here.” A tall, lithe woman with brown hair curved perfectly around her face, paused by them on her way out, a shopping bag in hand. Her eyes drifted down to Justin’s Doggy. “Oh I see you’re still encouraging him to be dependent. I’ve got to get you that article about how especially important it is not to rely on external comfort when you’re dealing with children who have disorders.”

Amy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, Amelia. How lovely to see you. We were just picking up some groceries for dinner tonight.”

Amelia Gross tsked and waved a hand at Justin, who had Doggy hugged firmly in his arms as he examined a picture of a lion posted on the side of the ad stand. “He’ll end up drowning us all someday if you let him have that thing. Here—”

And she stretched out a perfectly tanned arm and snagged Justin’s Doggy away from him.

Justin responded like any three-year-old would; he shrieked.

However, unlike most two year olds, a small cloud also appeared over his head and began to drizzle a fine mist down on him, pasting his dark curl to his forehead and making the floor wet as he cried, “Doggy! Doggy!”

Amelia sighed and shook her head. She dropped Doggy in the buggy basket and patted Amy’s hand.

“This age is so difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing.” And she walked out, leaving Amy glowering after her standing in the entrance with a distraught child, a raincloud, and a growing puddle.

Before she could turn to take care of Justin, there was a cough just behind her right shoulder. She turned and found a man standing there, arms behind his back, a stiff smile on his face. He wore a button up shirt over a sizeable gut and his nametag read Ed. Ed pointed a finger at Justin (still crying) and said, “I thought you should know, your son is raining. I’d really appreciate it if you took him outside to rain, as he’s creating a slipping hazard.”

Amy gave him a thin lipped smile and went to grab Justin’s hand. “Please,” she whispered, “just stop raining. Doggy is right here. There’s nothing to cry about. Stop.”

An elderly couple, passing, skirted Justin and his puddle by several feet, and the woman sniffed: “That kid needs a good spanking…”

“can’t handle her own kid…” her husband agreed.

Amy felt a scream building inside of her. Justin’s eyes darted from her red face to his Doggy separated from him in the buggy and his lower lip trembled. “Mommy?”

Then she smelled it—the scent of ozone, of heavy raindrops and a sizzle of coming lightning.

“No, no, no!” Amy gasped. She backed away from the rainfall.  “Justin! Stop it this minute!” It was the wrong thing to say. Justin started to cry harder and—Amy cringed—there was a clap of thunder. It wasn’t an earth rattling rumble since it came from a thunderstorm about a three feet square in diameter, but it was right over Justin’s head and more than enough to frighten a little boy afraid of loud noises.

“No thunderstorms!” said the manager, pointing towards the door.

“Look, you’re not exactly helping!” Amy snapped at him, and reached for Justin’s arm to pull him towards the door. But the thunderstorm continued, hovering over Justin’s head, the dark grey clouds snapping with electricity and roiling just above his head. Justin looked up and cowered, his wet arm slipping out of Jessa’s grasp, covering his head. And the cloud grew and writhed around him, a grey covering that filled most of the entrance now, the rain drenching the weekly ad stand and pattering down on the tile floor. In the middle of it, Justin cried harder, his hands over his face.

“Come on!” Amy cried, and dove into the cloud to pick Justin up by his armpits. The rain dumped down on her hair, streaked her mascara and pasted her shirt to her chest, but she carried him and his cloud outside.

She sat him down in the sunlight though he was still crying under a cloud, and backed up, trying to paste her hair out of her face and look calm and in control and like all mothers deal with the occasional toddler sized thunderstorm. It didn’t work. First she sent nasty glares at the other customers staring at them open mouthed, and then she turned her head away and screwed up her face, desperately holding back tears. Behind her, the rain slowed to a drizzle and she could hear Justin sniffing.

“I just wanted to pick up a few things,” she growled, rounding on him. “Just a few things. Four, in fact. It would have taken fifteen minutes! Couldn’t you be happy for just that long?”

But he was standing there in a puddle, shivering, his shoulders hunched and his eyes full of tears. The clouds covering him slowly evaporated in the afternoon sunlight. Water dropped from the hem of his shirt and splashed onto the damp concrete. He lifted his eyes up to hers, full of fear. She opened her mouth to continue her lecture but stopped, mouth open. The haze of her own to-do list cleared and she saw him as he was; a small person, unable to communicate effectively, looking to her for protection and saddled with this stupid weatherman gene. She remembered how he cried when full sized outdoor thunderstorms came, and how much worse they must be when they come from yourself and you are a very small person still learning to navigate the waters of large emotions.

She shut her mouth, dropped down to the sidewalk next to him, pulled his sodden self onto her lap and kissed his head. “Were you scared, Justin?”

“Yeah.” He said in a tiny voice. “Mommy mad?”

“Not really at you, Justin. I’m sorry for snapping at you.” She sighed and rested her chin on his head. “What do you say to going home, getting into some dry clothes and ordering pizza for this evening? Ms. Gross can just stick her nose in the air and deal with it…don’t repeat that, Justin.

“He looked up at her and grinned.  “Pizza?”

“You know what, kiddo?” She got up, pulled him to his feet and crouched down in front of him. “Instead of just hoping you don’t get upset…let’s just buy you a raincoat.”

 

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Recycle your loved ones, please

“Francis Snyder isn’t producing oxygen, Dack.”

A thin man with a few wisps of strawberry blond hair on his head stood just in the entrance of his supervisor’s office. A poster hung behind the supervisor’s desk. Two children stood in front of a tree. A speech bubble over the boy said: “Thanks Mom and Dad. Because of you, we have a future.” And underneath in shimmering purple and silver letters it said LifeTree: Save the planet for your children.”

“Sentimental.” Said the man with the clipboard.

Solomon Dack, a man of twenty-five with the scowl of a cantankerous geriatric, rolled his eyes.

“The higher ups sent it over. It’s some retro thing from when they started the program. Back when they had to convince people it was in their best interests to be executed and recycled to fertilize a tree. Higher ups claim it improved morale. Like we have to bother with improving morale now that it’s illegal to live past forty-five! I think it just makes them feel better about reducing the age limit from 50 to 45.

“But don’t change the subject! Whaddya mean Snyder isn’t producing oxygen? It’s what trees do! They can’t help it! You keep coming and telling me these trees stop producing and I tell you, it’s impossible! What was the last one, just some meter malfunction, right? That’ll be it again. Your whole job is making sure those things run right.”

His junior just recited the facts in a monotone, his bulging eyes and sallow face expressionless. “Computer registered a fault, so I went out to check and she just isn’t producing anything. No problems with the computer, or the meter, or anything as far as I could tell. The tree appears to be withered.”

The supervisor took his feet down from his desk and groaned, slamming his hand down on a pile of paperwork. “This is the third problem this week! And now they’ve lowered the age cut off again they’re sending me more and more corpses every day, but does anybody think of the infrastructure? No. Dumb computer probably fed the tree nuclear waste or something…” Dack turned to his computer and said, “Pull up Francis Snyder.”

The two men stood in silence as the computer read to them: “Francis Snyder, born August 2032, recycled July 2081. African American. No known health problems. Became Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum. Average .71 lbs oxygen per day. Mild case of anthracnose fungus in 2097.”

“Well that tells us absolutely nothing.” Dack grouched.

“She was recycled in 2081—people were still hiding from the recycling gangs back then. Unusual to have volunteered.”

“Idiots.” The supervisor said. “Like they couldn’t see the ground cracking in front of them, even if they didn’t believe we’d burnt up the ozone layer. Computer, any special notes about Francis Snyder?”

“Francis Snyder was one of the first volunteers for the LifeTree program. Her daughter was suffering from Oxygen Failure Disease (OFD) and she believed her death would help her daughter breathe again. She read this before entering the recycling center and requested that the audio clip be entered into her file.”

“Back when they got stupid requests granted just by asking,” Drack said in aside to Harris.

The voice of a black woman came out of the speaker. Once it might have been a rich, full voice, but emotion made it squeak and crack. “Gloria. My daughter. I want so much for you to enjoy life. I can’t stand to see you struggle to breathe every day and know that there is something I can do to save you. You have married a wonderful man and you deserve a life together. Live long, and live well, daughter. Tell my grandchildren—”

“That’s enough of that.” Said Dack, and the recording clicked off. “As I said, idiots. Like one stupid old person dying is actually going to stop anybody’s OFD. Or Global Warming!” He pushed off the table and stomped past Harris. “Come on. Let’s go look at Snyder.”

They stepped out of the office building to a world split in half. On their left, cut off from them by a cloudy film that stretched up into the air, the sun beat down on cracked red soil and a few clumps of yellowed grass. On the right, endless rows of silver-grey bark and green leaves along paths dappled with fallen leaves and shadow. Each tree had a plaque, a meter, a wire running up its trunk and a balloon suspended above it. Harris and Drack climbed on an electric four wheeler and drove off down one of the rows.

Tree seventy-two was a large silver maple whose leaves had a sickly brownish hue and were withered. The plaque in front of it read Francis Snyder. Dack jumped out of the four wheeler and planted his feet. “Now look here!” He said, pointing a finger at the tree, “You made this problem! You were part of burning the ozone layer away! So you fix it! I don’t want to see any shirking on my farm, understand?”

Then he laughed, shook his head and bent down to tap the meter. “You know the government just asks for it, insisting we put up those stupid plaques for headstones and use their names. They’re dead! Who cares who they were?”

“Indeed.” Harris said.

While he fiddled with the meter, Harris pulled a plaque out of his pocket and moved over to the next tree, a sapling recently planted. Harris shoved the sign down into the freshly upturned dirt. “Forgot to put that in when that lady got planted yesterday,” he explained to Dack. “Corpse from the newest age limit reduction.” He stopped, an odd look on his ugly face. “Real pretty corpse. Makes me glad I bought that exemption.”

“She look young?”

“Very.”

“Eh, well. If you’ve gotta look at a dead person, why not look at an attractive one, I say. Better than some wrinkly old geezer, right?” Dack stood up and scratched his head. “The meter’s reading fine. The line’s connected, the computer is operating properly. What the heck is going on here?”

Both men looked up at the tree as a breeze stirred the leaves into a papery susurrus. The breeze died away and the leaves drooped like used tissues. Some of the edges had already began to curl into a crisp brown. The whole tree seemed to sag, a dark, withered thing against the acres of fresh green leaves.

“Well…” Dack said with false cheer, “It’s only one tree. They gotta die sometime.”

Harris cleared his throat. “Actually, sir, since we planted the new harvest of recycled people there are several more of our older trees doing the same thing…”

“How many?” Dack’s gaze was sharp.

“…Eighty-six.”

“What!? That’s almost ten percent of our trees!” Dack swore and jumped into the four wheeler. “Get in! If this is a blight, we have to stop it now! You realize if these trees die, our exemptions are worth crap? Everybody dies if they die!”

They sped away. As the dirt settled, a leaf from Francis Snyder fluttered down through the air, floating back and forth and finally landing in front of the new sapling’s plaque. The plaque read: Gloria Snyder. Born 2062 -Recycled 2107.

 

Drowning

His eyes were swimming pool blue. The cars on the street, the smell of a passerby’s cigarette, the shriek of the espresso machine inside the cafe, all faded away when he looked at her; a thrill like the first time you dip your feet into pool water on a hot summer day.

 

“I’m so glad you wanted to meet me here, Cara. I’ve just—been dealing with some stuff lately, and I need to talk to somebody. You’re the best listener I know and I just need to talk to someone about Jenny.”

“Didn’t you guys break up…a while ago?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I’m still dealing with all kinds of junk from that relationship. She just had all these demands. She was so controlling. Anyway, now she wants my couch.”

“Your couch? Seriously? She just all of a sudden wants your couch?”

“I know, right? It’s absurd! It’s just kind of opened up a bunch of old feelings and stuff. Sounds stupid, but you get used to being bullied around like that. Partly why I wanted to talk to you. You’re so undemanding, Cara. I love that about you. I feel like we can sit here and enjoy coffee and you don’t have all these expectations, like I’m a performing dog, or something.”

“Well, coffee for you, and a hot chocolate for me! … But I’m really glad you feel that way. You can come talk to me any time, seriously. I’m always available! Um…to be a listening ear, I mean. Always glad to listen. And help. However, you know. I’m a help-y type person!”

“Ha, well, that’s why I’m here! Came to the right place, I guess?”

“Yep. Help. Maybe not so much on not being socially awkward, but…”

“Oh, I like that part of you, too.”

 

The water in the swimming pool was as cold as it looked and she surfaced, gasping in shock. Too fast—she’d intended to slip in slowly, but she surfaced laughing, anyway, and floated on her back as the sun made crystal spangles out of the water lapping around her.

 

“Oh, hey Parker! You rearranged while I was gone! I thought we were going to do it together, after you’d got all your stuff moved in?”

“Yeah, but your energy was all messed up in here, and I just couldn’t take it. I’m taking that yellow chair of yours down to the curb—that thing is an eyesore. Where on earth did you even get a piece of crap like that?”

“It was my grandma’s…I really love that chair, Parker. I always sit there in the mornings with my breakfast. Reminds me of her. Please bring it back.”

“I can’t believe you’re making a big deal about this. You’re usually such a chill person. It’s an eyesore. I’m doing you a favor.”

“But—”

“Look, don’t get all mad at me. I just want to keep the peace. If you have to have it, we’ll put it in the dining room. And hon, you’re not eating breakfast alone anymore, remember? At least, I kind of hope you don’t want to sit alone in a chair, when I’m going to be back in our bed, eating the fantastic bacon and eggs and pancakes breakfast I’m making for us tomorrow.”

“Mmm…yeah? That sounds pretty good. I guess…I guess it can go in the dining room. –But only if I get breakfast in bed a lot, hear?”

“Anything for you, babe.”

 

She squinted against the glare on the water, a headache tightening behind her eyes. She wasn’t ready to get out yet, but it looked like there was some shade over at the far end of the swimming pool that she could rest in. But after a few moments paddling through the water, the edge of the pool looked very far away, almost as if she’d been swimming away from it all this time. Confused, she put her feet down to stand up and get her bearings. She sank. The water had closed over her head before she reacted and thrashed to the surface, spluttering and wiping water out of her eyes. There was nothing underneath her. Experimentally, she went underwater again, reaching for the bottom, and again she kept dropping, down, down… Opening her eyes, she looked beneath her. A deep, fathomless blue sunk beneath her. There was no bottom. Surfacing, she shut her eyes and breathed in deeply. No need to panic; she’d just swim back to the edge and get out.

 

“Are you ready to go, Park?”

“What? Ready to go where?”

“To the concert! You know, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, playing the score from Star Wars? The one I’ve only been talking about for months?  I’m so excited! I actually went out and splurged on a necklace I thought would look nice with—wait, what are you dressed like that for? It’s a formal event; come on, let’s get ready! I don’t want to be late—I like to hear them warm up; all that mixed up jangle of strings and horns and…why are you looking at me like that?”

“You know it’s pool night.”

“What do you mean, pool night? We planned a date night, remember? I bought these tickets forever ago, and I got a dress—”

“I told you two weeks ago it’s Rob’s birthday tonight and all of us guys are celebrating tonight at pool night.”

“I…but…I can’t believe this. You don’t even like Rob! You called him an ‘pompous idiot’ just last week!”

“What the heck is your problem? Why do you keep doing this? Every time I don’t do the thing you want me to do, you throw a fit and get all crazy—”

“I’m not throwing a fit I just—”

“And it’s never your fault. You’re completely reasonable, only your ‘completely reasonable’ means I have to toe the line, I have to do every little thing the way you want it. I’m sick of your controlling attitude! You used to be so hands off about things—I don’t know what the heck happened to that girl, but she sure isn’t the one I’m living with now!”

“Parker—I didn’t mean to—”

“I’m leaving. I’ll be back by one.”

“…I’m sorry.”

 

Her arms and legs ached. The final rays of daylight were shooting through pink and gold clouds, but down by the pool a cool air began to rise off the water. She told herself she’d not been swimming as long as she thought she had. There had to be an edge soon. Everything would be fine. Glassy ripples flamed a reflection up to the sky, and she could see nothing.

 

“I bet you think you’re real clever, Cara.”

“What do you mean?—hey, can you taste this? I don’t know if I put in enough salt.”

“Don’t change the subject. I know what you were doing last Tuesday at lunch.”

“…I was eating lunch…”

“Oh you’re really funny, Cara. I’m splitting my sides. See, I was across the street at Nathan’s Diner, and I saw you there. I saw you with another man. Do you think I’m going to let you get away with that?”

“Now, wait, just hold on—it was my boss. He had that brief I did all the overtime for, a few weeks ago, and he offered to get me lunch just as a thank you—and I even texted you, just like you always ask me to, to ask if it was okay, and you wouldn’t answer because you were mad at me, remember?”

“Oh no you don’t! You are not making this my fault. You always make it about you, poor little victim Cara! Too bad I know better.”

“Okay, okay, calm down! I’m sorry! It was just lunch!”

“Stop making excuses! I know the truth! Tell me the truth!”

“Ow! Stop, Parker, stop!”

 

The darkness swelled around her. The only part of her visible was her head, just barely bobbing above the sheet of black water. Her hair was pasted to her head and she shivered. Desperate, she spoke into the void: “Help?” Silence answered. There was nothing else to do, so she kept calling: “Help! Help me! Please! Help!”

 

Far away, a light flipped on, just a bright dot in the darkness. She started swimming for it.

 

 

 

 

Burnt Consequence

Every time, he resisted. But it was like an unbearable itch, burning into him, a need to know that singed his nostrils with smoke.

They were being seated at a restaurant when he saw the waitress recognize him. He held out, keeping his eyes on his plate when she came by, feeling his parent’s stares drilling into him. Keep your mouth shut. Keep your mouth shut. But as she handed them the check she paused and said to him, “You’re that guy, right? The one that went into the fire?”

And it burst out. “Do you think I did the right thing?”

He heard his father’s huff of breath, knew his mother had turned her head away, his sister had shut her eyes, but he kept his eyes fixed on the surprised face of the girl in front of him. She fiddled with her blonde ponytail.

“I mean…you do what’s good for you, right…?” But her eyes avoided the pink, drooping side of his face standing out in high contrast against the rest of his dark skin. “Um. So, anyway, you guys have a good day!”

In the car, his father exploded. “What do you want, Travis, somebody to come and fawn all over you, boy? We moved past that stuff when we moved past all that religious trash. You know the law. You know we don’t judge people no more! You want her to tell you what a good thing you did? You know that’s unhealthy, you know that’s rude as all get out.”

“You need to think about other people.” His mother said, her voice quiet, but hard. “How are you making them feel? Every time you ask that question, and you want praise for your choice, how do you think it makes the ones who chose differently feel?”

He sat in the backseat beside his sister, who had her arms crossed and her jaw stuck out. “I thought you said the counseling sessions were going well,” she snapped. “You’re so embarrassing! That doctor whatever is a quack, Mom.”

“Tessa.” His mother scolded. “The doctor is doing his best.”

Travis stared out the window and remembered smoke and flames.

Six months ago he’d been walking home through a poorer neighborhood. A lot of the houses were historical but their tenants or owners weren’t able to refurbish them to their proper historical glory and had to leave them falling down. He’d smelled the smoke first, a harder, sharper smoke that made his stomach clench in unease. And then he saw her long before he saw the building burning in front of her. She was standing on the sidewalk, bent double, like someone was kicking her in the stomach, and holding onto a crying toddler. “My baby!” She screamed. “My baby!”

On either side of the burning house, her neighbors were quietly hosing down the sides of their own houses, backs towards her pain.

But Travis felt her voice cut into him. She was fear; she was desperation. There was nobody coming to help her, at least not in time. When they passed the Tolerance Law five years ago they had to disbanded the volunteer fire department in favor of a randomly selected, government organized fire department. Response times were notoriously slow. He saw her clutching the toddler’s shoulders, heard her over the crackle of the fire, “Stay here, okay? You stay here! Be a good boy! Mommy will be right back!”

He didn’t even think. He just ran, dropping his backpack as he darted across the street and raced the woman into her own home.

Five minutes he was in the building. He inhaled the smoke. He was set ablaze as a wall burst into flames as he passed. He dropped, rolled and kept going. He found the baby, scooped it up against his chest, and turned and ran.

When he came out into a burst of fresh air there were lights and shouts all around him. He had a dim memory of dingy yellow canvas arms reaching out to pull him to safety. The baby left his arms at some point.

Two things he remembered clearly. One: the neighbor, one of the ones that had been busily hosing his own house down, stood against the white backdrop of the house, surrounded by the deep greens of summer lawn foliage, glaring at him. The depth of loathing on his face made Travis cringe back, stumbling away from him.

Two: They were strapping him onto the stretcher to be taken to the hospital. A head appeared in his vision, blocking the blue summer sky. He couldn’t see the features clearly, but hot tear landed on his face and he knew it was the mother whose child he’d saved. “Thank you,” she sobbed, “Thank you. You’re a hero.”

Those two memories were the clearest pictures that remained in his conscious mind.

The doctors did what they could for his burned face and arm at the hospital, though the mass of pink, burned skin bubbling up from the right side of his face and arm would probably never go away. It would stay with him like a badge, announcing to the world that this boy had ignored the Tolerance Laws.

At night, the flames consumed him again. His mother just cried. His father was silent. What have you done to us? Their silence said. How will we pay these bills? How will you ever get a job, looking like that? You think you were so self-sacrificial, but you never considered us. The guilt settled on him, as painful as the burns contorting his face.

They signed him up for a counselor afterwards. He’d gone into the office feeling hopeful, stuck out his hand to a white man with an untamed head of hair, an aggressive mustache and too many teeth.

“Hey Dr. VanBruen. Nice to meet you, sir.”

But VanBruen only bared all his large teeth at him in what Travis hoped was a smile and said, “We’ll see.”

Unnerved, Travis made his way to the couch and sat in it, instantly enveloped by pillows. It was so cushiony it was uncomfortable and he found it hard to think straight when one of the cushions kept poking him in his sore eye. The couch, it turned out, was the best thing about the counselor.

He had hour long sessions. Each session began with the Reading of the List:

  1. By my actions, I implied that I was making a better choice than Ms. Carter’s neighbors. [This was how he learned the woman’s name for the first time.] I am sorry for being arrogant and judgmental towards Ms. Carter’s neighbors.
  2. By my actions, I proved that I do not think about my parents’ needs or show proper appreciation for their efforts to raise me. I am sorry that my actions have caused my parents financial, emotional, and psychological difficulties.
  3. The choices I make must not destroy other people’s right to choose what’s best for them. This is the principal taught by the Tolerance Law.

Then Dr. VanBruen would start in, expounding on each point until Travis, still woozy from pain meds and poor sleep, would nearly nod off just listening to him. The doctor had him recite the points at the end, and usher him out of the office without even a “Goodbye.”

And Travis would get back in the car and smile at his parents. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Great session.”

The only thing he couldn’t hide were the questions.

He asked over and over again, to anybody who would listen to him. Was it wrong to do something drastic to save someone else? The thing that scared him was that he was angry at those neighbors who took care of their houses while a woman’s child burned. He knew that saving the baby had been terrifying, and dangerous and carried an almost certain chance of self-harm. So what right did he have to feel they had done the wrong thing?

He asked people about it for exactly one year. The last time, he’d been at school, hanging out with his friends and a new guy. They’d been laughing and talking, until Travis noticed the new guy trying not to stare at the pink skin twisting across his face and down his arm. All his friends had stopped talking about Travis’ choice with the fire and he appreciated that, but he couldn’t ignore the thought that this person might have answers for him.

“Hey,” he’d said to the new guy while everyone was talking. He gestured to his face, “You heard the story?”

The new guy nodded, wordless.

“So,” Travis leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, “Should I have done it?”

The new guy looked at him, the corners of his mouth turned down, eyes lidded. The seconds ticked by. Travis felt his ears growing hot as the other boy just stared at him, expressionless.

He finally spoke, his voice cold. “All I see here is an ignoramus who wants everybody to feel sorry for him because he made a bad decision.”

Travis didn’t ask anybody questions after that. It was too easy to be misunderstood, he told himself, and it wasn’t something he should dwell on. So he said what his counselor wanted him to say, he smiled, he made choices that validated other’s life choices, and he tried not scream when he woke up from a nightmare about burning to death.

His scars were healing. His face was still gnarled, but it faded from a raw meat pink to something closer to his own skin tone. Everything was returning to normal. He’d accepted reality, he’d taken responsibility for his actions. As he passed his parent’s room one night, he heard his mother’s voice through the door, “I’m so glad he’s gotten over that. I guess every kid gets into some kind of trouble, right? It’s such a relief he’s getting past it.”

Almost before he realized he’d done it, he stretched his face into his best attempt at a pleasant, well-adjusted smile and walked on past.

That spring his father talked him into co-coaching the first grader’s baseball team together. Travis agreed—it was nice that his father wanted to do something with him again instead of just be embarrassed. He was a good coach, and he enjoyed it.

One evening, as the sky went purple and the peepers began to sing, Travis walked into the restroom area after a practice. He stopped before coming around the corner as he saw his entire baseball team clustered around the snack machine. The plastic cover was off and each boy was taking a handful of candy bars or chips from the inside of the machine—all but one.

“Guys,” dweeby little Nathan Dreer squeaked, “We shouldn’t do this! It’s wrong!”

One of the taller boys, their first baseman, swung around to glare at Nathan, “Okay, first of all, dumbo, if we don’t get caught it’s not wrong. And secondly, who made you the one who can decide what’s right and wrong for us?”

Nathan stuck his chin out. “I don’t care. It’s wrong!”

The first baseman lifted his fist. “I’ll show you wrong, you little—”

Travis stepped around the corner and the boys froze in tableau. In the back, someone hissed, “You’re gonna get it now, Nathan!”

The first baseman straightened up and pointed a finger at Nathan. “He’s trying to force me to do what he wants!”

Travis looked at them, their angry faces, their muddy uniforms. He jerked his head over his shoulder. “All of you, get out. Time to go home. Nathan, stay a moment.”

They filed out, several boys snickering or glaring at Nathan as they stuffed candy bars in their pockets.

Then they were gone, leaving Nathan alone in the restroom hallway, clutching his hands in front of him. Travis’ dad would have reminded Nathan of the Tolerance Law, talked about how important autonomy was, how selfish and low it was to take that right away from people. He’d talk about respecting others choices and protecting other’s rights. He’d sound real good and patriotic.

Travis knelt down on one knee in front of Nathan and looked the boy in the eye.

“Listen,” Travis said, glancing over his shoulder quickly, “Don’t tell anybody, but—what you did just now—it was right. It was good. I’m proud of you. Don’t you let anybody tell you something else, okay? A lot of people believing something’s right—it doesn’t make it right.”

Nathan’s mouth fell open. Travis got up, still glancing over his shoulder. “Now, if anybody asks, I chewed you out big time, right? Go on, get out. I think your mom’s here to pick you up.”

His face lighter, Nathan scampered out. Travis followed him and stood in the archway watching the boys cluster around the field gate as their parents pulled into the parking lot. He ran a finger over the deformed whorls and pock marks on his face and stepped onto the field to go help his Dad clean up the dugout.

 

 

Boring Things

Last week I sat in a metal cylinder with a little over a hundred other people. After a brief wait and some preliminary safety instructions nobody paid attention to, the metal tube shot into the air and floated across the country, suspended between earth and space, no struts, no strings, no legs. Inside, we ate peanuts and drank various liquids out of tiny plastic cups, like it’s perfectly normal for something heavier than air to leap into the sky and stay there.

The weirdest thing was, it really was perfectly normal. Normal, and actually within the laws of physics.

I was flying out to a friend’s wedding in California. I’ve never been further west than Tennessee in my recent memory, so the western, desert landscape I landed in fascinated me.  I was unashamedly a tourist. Everything was brown, tan, ecru, taupe, and dust with the whole expanse of sky stretched out like a canvas above it. It was flat—determinedly and definitely flat. Even in the flatter parts of my current Southeastern state of residence, there are lumps and bumps, but this place looked ironed.

In the distance I occasionally saw a hazy outline of a mountain through the smog, but I didn’t pay much attention to it until I left for LA and actually drove into them. They leapt straight up from the ironed earth with no preliminary foothills, great big lumpy mounds, towering over the interstate. They were bald of trees, just bare, dusty grass and rock outcroppings, and they were beautiful.

And none of the people with California license plates were driving along with their noses pressed to the window to see them like I was.

In between those two experiences, as I mentioned, I went to a wedding (actually, in the process of writing this, I went to two weddings, but I’m just talking about the first one for symmetry’s sake.). Weddings are anything but boringly normal. They’re (hopefully) once in a lifetime events, magical, sparkling days. There’s The Dress and The Man and The Cake. They mark two people committing their lives to love each other; a picture of the supreme love relationship, the relationship between Christ and the church he died for. The one I was privileged to be involved in had all the sparkle and excitement a good wedding should have. We sent my friend off that day with her new husband, to embark on life together.

Actually, I would guess that over half the people at the wedding were married. We didn’t get excited about them. After the magic of the wedding day, it seems like people have a pretty low view of marriage. The institution of marriage seems less and less important. Many couples live together before getting married, turning the marriage ceremony from a celebration of new life to just a big, elaborate party. I love the T.V. show Chuck, but it makes me cringe when, after two of the secondary characters get married, the very first episode they reappear in, the wife is bemoaning how their relationship has lost its sparkle. That’s what pop culture frequently depicts marriage as—the end of the road. No more fun and games. Boring.

But if our eyes glaze over with boredom at the idea of huge metal tubes flying and massive, bare mountains rising out of the ground, we aren’t good judges of what is truly estimable. Marriages are normal—and also fantastical. Two sinful people making daily choices to put their spouse first, to seek reconciliation when wronged, to maintain a friendship over decades of daily irritations and drudgery—that’s an epic tale. And on the flip side, two people whose love and commitment get eaten away by sin and selfishness—that’s a tragedy to weep over.

And you know what? I’m going to play the I’m-very-pregnant-and-it’s-late-at-night card, and just leave that there for you all to think about with no proper concluding paragraph. Sorry.

 

 

Apple

The apple sat on the table, shining in the sunlight, round and red and delectable.

“There,” a woman’s voice said, “eat it.”

A pair of hands sat, flat, on either side of the apple, thin, bony, man’s hands with dark hair and chipped fingernails. Leaf shadows flickered over his hands as the tree above them moved in a breeze. He hedged. “I don’t really understand how this is going to help me to escape guilt.”

“It’s a practical application of what we’ve been talking about!” The woman’s voice grew rich with a smile. She interlaced her hands on the table opposite from the man’s. Her hands were manicured, nails painted a matching apple-red. “The only way to prevent it from being rotten is to eat it.”

The man pulled his hands back from the table and raised his eyebrows. His face was thin and stretched with skin that looked like parchment and his hair hung in limp strands down his back.

She laughed at his expression. “I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. You think its being rotten is wrong, that there’s something substandard about it. If you ate a rotten apple—a ‘bad’ apple—then it would make you sick.” She was leaning forward now, auburn hair falling down around her shoulders, a smile on her face. “But think for a moment; is it unnatural for an apple to rot?”

He frowned at the apple, and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess not.”

“So then can you say that it’s wrong for the apple to rot, if that’s a perfectly natural thing to happen to an apple?”

“Well I wasn’t—”

She reached forward and laid her hands over his, giving them a squeeze. “Just keep going with me for a minute. We’ve agreed that it’s natural for it to rot, correct?

He nodded.

“If it’s natural, then it’s correct. So who’s in the wrong about the apple?”

“Me, I guess. My ideas.” He was looking at her, rather than the apple, his eyes traveling from her long hair to her smiling face, to her low-cut blouse.

“So if you eat the apple and believe that the apple is everything it ought to be, then you will have made a step towards understanding the universe. And understanding yourself. There’s no need to label things ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ and no need to live with guilt about any of your life choices. We’re going to root that old thinking out of you.”

In the distance, the wheels of a cart creaked and grass began to whisper as someone walked through it, but neither man nor woman looked away from each other and the apple shining in between them.

A shadow fell over the apple and the man jerked his head up to look at the intruder. A farmer stood there, face lined with exposure to the weather, a smile in his grey eyes.

The farmer tipped his hat. “’Lo, ma’am, sir. Sorry to interrupt, but I saw you had one of my Romes, and I’m afraid that lot rotted unaccountably fast. I can pretty much guarantee that one’s completely wormy at the middle. I’m very sorry for the trouble, but I can give you a couple new ones if you want. Best ones of the season—was just about to take them off to the farmer’s market in town, but you can have one for free to make up for that rotter, there. It’s on me.”

He grinned affably at both of them and held out an apple to them. Greg stared at it, mouth slack, eyes round, and then darted a glance back at the woman. She wrinkled up her nose into a smile.

“I think we’re okay with this one.”

The farmer tilted his hat back and sucked in a breath. “Weellll, I’m afraid it’s not a maybe situation, see, my en-tire crop of Romes got worms. I can guarantee you that that beauty there is the wormiest apple I hope you’ve ever seen, ma’am. You get a bite into that thing, and unless you have a fondness for worms wriggling through your teeth, you’re going to be puking your guts out.”

The woman turned to Greg. “See what I mean, Greg? That’s the problem with the world. People don’t have enough faith. Think of how much this man has been wasting because he’s too small-minded to see the beauty and wholeness of this apple. Go ahead, take a bite.”

The farmer snorted like a horse and dropped his cart handle. “Beauty and wholeness? Do you not understand me? This. Thing. Is. Rotten!”

In one smooth motion his arm flashed out with a glitter of a knife in his hand, and chopped through the apple. The two apple pieces stuck for a moment, and then dropped open, rocking softly on the picnic table, revealing a mushy brown sludge protected by a thin sliver of healthy apple just underneath the skin. The mush stirred briefly as something dove deeper into its remaining apple slice. Greg swallowed, coughed, and his eyes slid involuntarily to the apple in the farmer’s hands.

But his therapist radiated angry heat. She sat up straight. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I’m trying to help this man. And maybe you don’t care about freeing strangers from destructive thought patterns, but I do care!” Her voice broke, suddenly. “I really do! And—and you just come along and put your stupid apple above another person’s life! I know it may look stupid to you, but this is a really important step!” She flipped back around, avoiding Greg’s eyes, flushed red. “I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ll—” She got up and walked away, pulling out a handkerchief as she went and blowing her nose.

The farmer rested an elbow on the picnic table and watched her go, chewing on the inside of his lip meditatively. He pointed the tip of his knife at her retreating back and asked Greg, “You fond of that woman?”

But Greg’s face was white and his eyes glowed with nervous excitement. He barely even looked at the farmer as he got up off the picnic bench. “Dana! Dana, wait!”

He ran after her, caught up to her, took her hands in his. The farmer slid himself onto the picnic bench, pushed the rotten apple further away from him, and began carefully paring himself one of his healthy apples.

In a few moments, Greg escorted Dana back, his arm around her waist, bent towards her as she dabbed at her eyes with her tissue. She shot one angry glance at the farmer and sat down at the table. Greg went around to the opposite side, but reached for her hand and held it. She sniffed and would not look at the farmer, who offered a neat slice of crisp white and pink apple to Greg. Greg looked at his hands.

Dana said, “This is a private counseling session.”

“This private counseling session is smack dab in the middle of my cow field. I b’lieve I’ll attend.”

She wavered, stopped, and rapped out, “I’ll ask you not to make any comments during the session.”

The farmer tipped his chin in agreement. Then he casually rolled the apple he still held in his hand across the table. It bumped a foot or so and rocked to a stop next to the halves of the rotten apple.

“What’s that for?” Greg asked.

The farmer shrugged and leaned back against the tree again. “I don’t want to impose any morality on your apple, there, but should you maybe want to not blow chunks all over your lady friend, you eat my apple. If you want to spend the evening at the pot, eat her apple.”

Dana’s gaze was steely and she raised an eyebrow at Greg. He smiled and squeezed her hand again.

“I know. Don’t worry. I know.”

With that, he reached out and picked up the first half of the rotten apple. The skin squished in as he picked it up. He looked in Dana’s eyes, and, his voice steady, said, “I believe in the rightness of nature.” He took a bite. The apple glooped, wetly. He kept his eyes on her and said, “My ideas about right and wrong are wrong.” Something inside the apple crunched as he took another bite and a sheen of sweat broke out on his forehead.

Dana leaned forward. “Don’t lose focus, Greg.”

His smile was shaky. “Focus. Okay.” He shoved the entire half an apple in his mouth. Brown mush spilled out the sides of his mouth. He gagged, his eyes bulging, and then gulped it down. Tears shone in Dana’s eyes and she beamed at him. “Oh my gosh, you did it! You did it!”

The farmer got up. He picked up his own apple, nodded cordially to Dana, then to Greg, who appeared to also be fighting back tears—or something else. As the farmer left, he heard a rush of movement and the sound of someone puking up rotten apple under the tree. He shook his head and kept on walking.

Greg knelt under the tree for several minutes, wiping the vomit from his mouth. Dana walked over to stand behind him; he saw the tip of her candy red pumps out of the corner of his eye. But there was no happy comradeship in her voice anymore. She was distant and professional.

“We’ll that is disappointing, but we’ll just keep trying until you’re strong enough to eat a whole one.”

He kept his head down, not meeting her eyes, swabbing at his own vomit and trying not to let her see him gag again and again, spitting out the leftover bile. Furtively, he slid his eyes sideways. Out over the rolling grass, blurred by heatwaves and dust, the farmer was pulling his cart of fresh, sweet apples.

 

 

Remnants

My mother never turned the mattresses. That could have been just an odd housekeeping peccadillo if she weren’t the sole proprietor of a bed and breakfast.

When I was thirteen, a guest mentioned it on the way out, “Hey, you could let your mother know those mattresses could stand to be turned or replaced or something. That thing had a ditch so deep I might as well have been sleeping in a coffin!” He laughed loudly and shut the door behind him, but his death-related simile made me nervous. I went to my mother and told her what he’d said, but to my surprise, she just pursed her lips and said, “It is not good to disturb them.”

That was all. No explanation. She was like that. English was hard for her, so she stored it up, keeping it in reserve for an upset guest or a customer who wanted a discount they didn’t deserve. Though the rest of the house remained the charming, Victorian farmhouse it had always been, the mattresses slowly dipped, settling into firm body prints. And as the mattresses aged, our customers left us. First my mother let the groundskeeper go (“I can mow the lawn,” I said) and then the cleaning help (“We’ll split the rooms and do them ourselves,” we decided).

But by the time I turned sixteen, we both spent our entire lives keeping the place up and we had only one guest reserve a room for the entire month of June. My mother sent me upstairs to clean the room he’d reserved while she fretted and poured over our growing pile of bills.

Upstairs was silent, but for the creak of the polished wood floorboards under my feet and the tick-tick of the hallway clock downstairs. I opened the door to the Iris Room; a corner bedroom with a window seat, dark purple curtains and a tall, four poster bed. That bed. I threw open one of the curtains, letting in a streak of white sunlight and turned to glare at the mattress, the dips so obvious that I could see them even under the elaborate quilted comforter draped over the top and the several layers of blankets underneath. I peeked out the door; my mother was on the other side of the house. She wouldn’t hear anything.

As quickly as possible I stripped the bed and hauled the mattress off the frame, struggling to prop it up in the air. For a split second it stood there, upright and wobbling, almost like it was alive—then it dropped back onto the frame with a thump and a cloud of dust.

I gagged. Growing up cleaning used bedrooms gives a girl a very informed imagination about what kinds of residue gets left behind to turn into mattress dust. I imagined all the bits of people’s skin and excretions and dirt and dead mites being sucked into my lungs at every breath and I ran out of the room, retching. After a trip to the bathroom to wipe off my arms and face, I went back.

The dust motes were still thick in the air when I pushed the door open, and I was coughing and waving my arms, when I saw a figure standing in the shadows, the light from the window falling between us so I couldn’t see the face. My arms dropped to my sides. “Hello?” I said.

The figure moved forward, the edge of the light barely illuminating its face. It was a boy, my age, good looking, with high cheekbones and clear skin. He waved, half-abashed, and said, “Hey um, is this the Iris Room?”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice unnaturally high. “What are you doing in here?”

“I rented this room. But….” He laughed, “It’s kind of, well, girly. I hate to be one of those guests, but, do you think I could pick a different room? It’s okay if you can’t…”

I thought he was our guest. Maybe he’d arrived early. Maybe he’d rung the doorbell and then come on up when we didn’t hear him. Maybe he’d left his luggage in the car.

“Sure! I think maybe the Pine Room would be a little manlier.”

He walked through the beam of sunlight and if I had any superstitions about boys who appear in dust clouds and shadow, they vanished. Other than being more attractive than anybody had any right to be, he looked like a normal teenager. His haircut was funny—kind of a bowl shape. It made him look a little outdated, and a lot more approachable. Because this was no garden variety boy, no, this boy had a broad smile and deep brown eyes and if he hadn’t been humanized by a dorky haircut I would have been embarrassed about wearing my rattiest shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too big for me.

I threw open the door at the other end of the hallway and he peered in and grinned at me, “Much better. Thanks. That bed’s still pretty worn out, though.”

I sighed. The mattress was as visible and lumpy as a skeleton under a silk sheet. “My mom refuses to ‘disturb’ them.”

He looked at me and then at the bed, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. “What if we turned them? Does she really come up here that often? Do you think she’d figure it out?”

I stared back at him and found an answering grin on my face. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”

It was the most fun I’d had in years. He would flip a mattress up, I would catch the bottom, we’d flip, it would slam onto the bedframe and we’d scuttle out to escape the dust cloud, trying to stifle giggles in our hands. We went through every room. The entire upstairs was coated with dust, there were bedspreads lying on the floors of every room, the mattresses were mostly crooked with the bedsheets on upside down, but he pulled me down to sit against the wall in the hallway, our shoulders almost touching, cheeks flushed, gasping from exertion and suppressed laughter.

When we regained our breath, the upstairs seemed unusually silent, like we’d thrown a blanket down and muffled everything in waiting quiet.

He turned to me, still grinning. “Now we see what happens when they’re disturbed.” His eyes lingered on my face, drifting to my lips. He his hand went up to cup the back of my head and I leaned forward, my eyes shutting as I waited for him to kiss me.

Nothing. I felt nothing—no lips on mine, no hand on my head. My eyes snapped open, face flushed. He was staring at me with wide, horrified eyes and I shrank backwards. Not many boys ever tried to kiss me—I must have done something wrong.

He stared down at his hands and then back up at me, the shock replaced with a rage like I had never seen before. It came so quickly, transforming his face. “It didn’t change anything! I’m not changed!”

“What do you mean?” I said, my voice trembling. “I don’t understand.”

He rose up, looming over me, and I saw his face contort, shifting before my eyes, a swirl of particles making his eyes too big and his mouth too wide. “Because I’m dead, you idiot, and you didn’t make me better! You woke me when you flipped the mattress, but now I’m still dead, and it’s your fault!”

I scrambled away from him, struggling to get to my feet but then I saw the rest of the hallway. They were pouring out of the rooms, normal, solid people at first glance, but then I saw how their faces blurred like shifting sands, their skin rippled, just dust moved by the wind. Their eyeless faces were turned to me. Their shifting hands were reaching for me. The boy screamed in my face, “I’m still dead! You didn’t fix me!”

I couldn’t get away. My feet slipped on dusty floor and they crowded closer, human shapes blurring before my eyes into a luridly colored cloud of grit and suffocating dirt. The boy was still screaming but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. My ears were clogged up, my eyes stung even squeezed shut, and still the dust encompassed me, blocking my nose, strangling me. There was no way out. They were going to kill me.

Then something cold hit me hard, knocking me forward and I lay, gasping in a puddle of cold water, more water splattering down on me as I stayed there. I hacked and coughed and spat out dusty snot, but I could breathe. Finally, I rolled over to see my mother, face grim, standing at the top of the stairs using a garden hose to douse the entire upper floor.

As soon as everything had been soaked, she dropped the hose, knelt down in the puddle and wrapped me in her arms. I cried nasty, dirty tears down her shirt.

It wasn’t until she’d pulled me downstairs, sent me to take a shower, and made a cup of hot cocoa before she said anything. “They collect,” she said, “Pieces of people and their memories, left behind in the mattresses, always wanting to go on and see the rest of their lives and always stuck.”

“Why don’t you throw them out?” I asked, wrapping my still shaking fingers around my mug. “Why not replace the mattresses every few years? Why the heck would you keep mattresses like that, Mom? Not only did they destroy your business, they almost killed me!”

She looked down. “I am sorry. But they don’t seem like ghosts when you meet them, do they? I thought—I did not want to murder them. I felt responsible.”

I thought about the boy, and his grin and the fun time we’d had throwing mattresses around. He’d been freeing the rest of them the whole. But he had seemed real, not at all like a ghost. I could barely believe it even now.

That evening my mother called the garbage men and offered them extra money to remove the mattresses themselves. We stood on the porch and watched them leave, one bare, stained mattress after another. They went off into the purpling dusk and my mother crossed her arms a firm set to her mouth. “No more ghosts. Tomorrow, we start fresh.”

No Raisins (or, The Day The Raisins Dried Up)

Milk

Eggs

Flour

Oatmeal

Raisins

Edith scanned her shopping list and pushed her buggy down aisle five, under the sign that said “Canned Fruit/Dried Fruit/Jelly/Peanut Butter.” She was going to treat herself and mix up a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies tonight. She couldn’t manage to eat a whole batch by herself, but the grandkids would like them when they came over tomorrow. Now. Raisins. Where were the raisins?

There were jars of cherries, dried apricots, dried bananas (awful things, Edith thought, like fruit-flavored Styrofoam) dried cranberries, dried cranberries flavored to taste like cherries, dried cranberries flavored to taste like blueberries, and dried cranberries flavored to taste even more like cranberries. But no raisins.

“Please,” Edith said to the grocery stocking boy, “Could you tell me where the raisins are? I’m sure I’m looking straight at them.”

His Adams’ apple bobbed as he swallowed and she thought he looked unduly confused for such a simple question. “Er…I don’t remember seeing anything called that.”

She blinked at him. (Really, what kind of rock do you have to live under to not know what a raisin is?)

There was a pause and the stock boy said, “Uh, let me ask my manager. She’s probably in the back.”

Edith agreed to talk to the manager and went to pick up her other items. But when the manager found her and Edith repeated her request for raisins, the manager just smiled and shook her head, “I’m afraid we don’t carry that, ma’am. You say it’s a dried fruit? Would it be in the international section?”

For a moment Edith just gaped at her, this intelligent looking, well-dressed woman, the head of a store for goodness’ sake, who had not even heard of a raisin, much less thought to stock it.

“A dried grape!” Edith said, waving towards produce. “A little wrinkled, purple-browny thing—like a prune, but smaller. Really, it’s very common. People use it in oatmeal cookies, sometimes in carrot salad, in those granola mixes…it comes in little red boxes with a pretty lady on the front?”

The manager suggested a health food store down the street and Edith was ushered out, feeling somehow that they thought she was the crazy one.

At the health food store she was pounced upon by a pink and green haired clerk who immediately beckoned her over to the computer with a wave of a well-bangled arm. “We have so much stuff, and some of it has strange names, so this is just the easiest way,” the clerk told her.

Edith’s eyes bugged at “strange names,” but she held onto her purse and waited politely.

“Can you spell it?”

Edith did.

The clerk sighed. “Well that stinks. I’m sorry. Not a thing. Sure you weren’t meaning Rise-En, our natural male supplement?”

Edith blushed from her toes to the crown of her head, apologized for troubling the cashier, and hurried out. She intended to give it up as a strange coincidence, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She stopped in two different grocery stores on the way home with the same results in both. Nobody had even heard of raisins.

She let herself into her house, put away the milk and eggs, and sank down into her armchair, suddenly tired. After all, she was getting old, maybe—but no! She sat up and thumped the arm of her chair with a fist. “I am not imagining raisins, for heaven’s sake! My oatmeal raisin cookies are the best cookies this side of the Mason-Dixon line!” She picked up the telephone and dialed a number.

“Selma?”

“Oh, Edie, is that you? You sound all tensed up. Is everything okay?”

“You are my oldest friend, Selma.”

“Since we were six!”

“Yes, and I trust you’ll be honest with me if I ask you a question?”

“Well of course—”

“Do you know what a raisin is?”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “A what? Like, raising? Barn raising? Roof raising?”

Edith sighed. “I’m sorry, Selma, I’ve got to go.”

She sat on her couch and frowned at the ground for several minutes. Then she got up and went to her back closet to rummage around. That evening Edith made several trips to and from the grocery store. Her house started to emit the most unusual sweet aroma, warm and comforting, but her neighbor couldn’t identify the smell when it drifted over into his yard.

The next afternoon, a little girl with banged up knees and her hair in pigtails sat on Edith’s couch. Beside her was a boy whose eyes drifted lovingly over to the closed 3DS that had been taken from him and temporarily stored on the highest bookshelf.

“What’dya think Grandma’s got? She said it was a special surprise.” The girl said, swinging her legs.

“I dunno. Probably cookies. It’s usually cookies.”

She sat up, her eyes twinkling. “Oh you sound like you don’t want them! I’ll be happy to eat them for you!”

“I did not!” He was affronted. “I was just saying that’s probably what they were. I’m gonna eat my own cookies and don’t you try to cheat me out of them Sara-Beth!”

Edith emerged from the kitchen. The door shut behind her, so her grandkids did not see the sticky food dehydrator sitting on the counter or the empty grape bags scattered around her usually pristine kitchen. She presented them with a plate of cookies that smelled of butter, cinnamon, and a darker, fruity scent.

Sara Beth snagged a cookie and munched it, pointing to the purplish wrinkled lumps scattered through it. “What’re those, Grandma?”

Don’t talk with your mouth full!” Edith said even as she panicked inwardly. She remembered all too well the moments she’d eaten a cookie she thought was chocolate chip only to find it was a raisin. Oh dear, thought Edith, I’ll turn them against raisins before I’ve even re-invented them!

“It’s not a chocolate chip—” she hurried to say, “it’s a raisin, a kind of dried fruit I…made up.”

“It’s good!” Sara Beth announced.

Her brother frowned and reached for another one. “What’s a chocolate chip?”

 

Babies and Rocks

After breakfast, my daughter frequently goes to the door, points at it, and says, “Gocks!”

By this she means she thinks we should go sit in our gravel driveway and play with the rocks.

Since she will eat the rocks if not closely watched I have spent a lot of time looking at rocks lately. I even looked up the type we have in our driveway: Goose Egg Stone. It’s billed as a “white and tan rock” but I can assure you, that’s a gross over-simplification. Today I found:

Pink—a Grandma’s bathroom kind of pink, the color of pink that goes with shells and scented soaps. There will also be an obligatory fuzzy toilet cover in this color.

Orange—not a rough sandstone orange, but a smooth orange, like somebody solidified and shrunk an orange push up ice cream into an ungeometric lump.

Crystal: Frosty white ice chips, lying out in my driveway in 80 degree weather.

And one that I decided was most definitely a chipped dinosaur’s tooth.

I feel like if I were a fantastic writer with clever insights I would segue from this into some thoughtful application about uniqueness or solidity. But here’s all I got from it: Rocks are cool. Sometimes it may be good to pretend to be interested in things a baby is interested in, partly to keep them from eating rocks, and partly because they may be onto something.

 

 

When The Rain Came

At 2:08 today, water fell out of the sky.

My grandma said it was the end of the world; probably aliens dropping poison on us. She said you could tell there was somebody up in the sky hiding because of the thick, puffy grey stuff that covered the sky before the water came down. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it before. She told me to get out the aluminum and to seal up the windows before poisonous gasses could get inside. She told me to hurry; she called me a lazy slob.

I went outside and shut the door on her screeching. I stood with the water pelting down from the sky onto my head, and turned to stare at our apartment window where I knew my grandma was standing. She was probably cussing me out up there, but I couldn’t even see her because of the water coursing over the window, rippling and shifting like liquid glass. If it was poison, it was beautiful poison.

Maybe Grandma would be less quick to see disaster in this strange water fall if she had to produce double the water production for our household. The government required my grandmother and me to produce .131 liters of tears every day—the normal amount for a two-person family. But Grandma didn’t like crying. When I came to live with her two years ago, she said I could stay with her rent free (who charges rent to a fourteen year old orphan?) if I cried her allotment as well as mine. What could I do? I had nowhere else to go, and crying extra doesn’t seem so difficult two weeks after your parents die.

So I cried all our tears every day and took them down to the tear-collection station by 8PM in the evening. There our whole town’s tears would be de-salted, sanitized, and sent to the national reservoir where they would be used to water the nation’s crops.

I looked up, letting the water splash onto my face. Thousands of tiny, sparkling dots fell evenly all around me, appearing out of the grey nothingness above and hitting my face and the cars and the ground seconds later, too fast for me to see each drop. I could never cry so fast—there had to be several pounds of water already on the ground, already evenly distributed, and more of it was falling.

The rivers and lakes left over after the war provide just enough water for animals and humans, but the tear-water goes to our crops. We would never waste any of it on un-planted ground. I stared, amazed, as the red, cracked earth turned a mottled dark brown, and then there was muddy water filling up the cracks. Part of me didn’t like that, to be honest. It just seemed so wasteful. After the first few months, with Grandma it got a lot harder to cry double. I had to drink water all the time. Sometimes she’d not let me eat till I completed the day’s crying, and since there’s only so fast you can cry, I frequently don’t get to eat till after 8PM.

The water fell slower now, just a tiny sprinkle pattering on my wet face. I was soaked through and when I inhaled I smelled an earthy, rich smell. The water hung from the eaves and dripped single, diamond drops onto the bare soil. Glorious, reckless extravagance.  My phone buzzed in my pocket. I pulled it out and read, “Public Service Notice: Tear collection for the city of Coaling canceled for today.”

I looked out to the east where the strange fluffy masses had broken up and the sun shone through. A knot of fear formed in my stomach—was this a freak event? Would it never happen again? Already I missed the pattering shower on my face.  Far in the distance I saw another puffy thing, hanging over a mountain. The water wasn’t gone. It would be back. I wanted it to come back.

Next time I would come out and try to count the drops before they hit the ground, and I would jump in the tiny lakes that filled the holes and dips of our parking lot, and I would stare up into the sky until every inch of me was wet. I smiled extra big up at my grandma in the window, put the phone in my pocket and went inside.