For Halloween [fiction]

Benefactor, a creepy arson tale for Halloween!


“He’s out there,” Sarah’s mother said. She rushed from the front window and snatched her cell phone from the dining room table. Her hand trembled while she dialed. She almost dropped the phone twice before she put it to her left ear. “Hello? Police?” Jessica’s face contorted into a mask of disappointment. “Yes, I need the police,” she said. “Hurry. Send someone right away. He may be crazy … my ex-husband. He’s been angry ever since the divorce.” Her bottom lip trembled as she forced herself not to cry.

Something heavy pounded against the front door. Thump thump thump. This time she did drop the phone.

“Don’t answer it,” Jessica said to Sarah. She scooted behind Sarah’s chair.

Sarah sat with her laptop on her lap. The screen showed her Facebook wall where five new updates waited for her to click on them. “Is the door locked?” she asked.

“Yes.”

The pounding started again, louder.

“Is the back door locked?” Sarah asked.

“Yes … NO.” Jessica hurried away to lock it.

The pounding continued. Sarah’s stepfather shouted for someone to let him in.

“Are all the windows locked?” she asked when Jessica returned.

“It’s January. Of course they are.”

The pounding stopped. Jessica grabbed her phone from the living room carpet and dialed 911 again. She gave her address this time. “You tell them to get here right away. They don’t want me calling the mayor.” She hung up, paced the floor, and watched the front door.

“Where are the sirens?” she asked a minute later. She went to the front door and peeked through one of the three diamond shaped windows. “I don’t see him. His car’s still there but he’s not inside.”

“He should be behind bars for terrorizing us,” Sarah said. She glanced at the back door past the kitchen. He stood there, large and dark, peering through the glass. She ran and closed the yellow blinds. The hulking shadow of her stepfather silhouetted the thin plastic.

“Let me in,” he growled, “or I’m going to break the glass and unlock the door.”

“The police are coming,” Sarah yelled. She hurried back to her mother.

“Where are they? Why aren’t they here yet?” Jessica asked. She stopped pacing and sat on the sofa next to Sarah’s chair. “This is a small town.” She lit a cigarette from the pack of Marlboro Lights on the coffee table and sucked menthol-flavored smoke into her lungs. She held her breath for several seconds, then forced it out. Smoke rushed to the ceiling.

Sarah closed her computer, breathed in the pleasant smoke, and waited for the police.

Three minutes later, her mom’s cigarette was in the ashtray and Sarah was at the front door. Her stepdad’s blue Impala from the 1990s was still there. Rust had eaten into the doors and fenders. Howard loved that car more than he loved her mother. It was shocking to see it like that. But Sarah knew times had been hard on him since the divorce. The plastics factory where he once earned premium wages had closed. Someone said he now worked as a maintenance person at one of the Walmart stores near Buffalo.

She felt sorry for him. Divorce had been brutal on the guy. Her mom had made out, getting everything in the settlement, including the small, gingerbread-style Victorian house that had belonged to Howard’s parents. The only thing he loved more than that car was this house.

A floorboard above her head squeaked.

Howard was in the house.

Jessica rushed past Sarah, heading to the stairs. Sarah caught up to her at the bottom step and stepped in front of her.

“Don’t go up there, Mom.”

“I have to. Let me pass this instant.”

Howard’s voice bellowed from upstairs. “Don’t come up here, Jessica. I have a gun.”

“Get out of my house, you son of a bitch.”

“Not your house,” Howard yelled.

Sarah pulled her to the front door and unlocked it.

“This is so my house. I hope the police lock you up for a long time for breaking and entering, you lousy—”

“Come on,” Sarah said, opening the door. She pulled Jessica outside into a winter chill. It clawed instantly through the back of Sarah’s sweatshirt. She shivered. Her mom complained that she was not inside, taking care of Howard with her fists.

“It’ll be okay,” Sarah said. “The police will take care of it. Meanwhile, everyone’s safer out here.”

An upstairs window broke and smoke rushed to get outside. Flames leaped from the curtains at the window.

Jessica screamed. “NO.”

When the first police car drove up, foul smelling smoke billowed from the front door Sarah had left open. That’s when she heard a gunshot. By the time the fire department arrived, the house was ablaze and burning the branches of two maple trees in front of it.

Blistering heat sent Sarah and Jessica into the street, which was a sea of emergency people and their vehicles with pulsating blue and red lights. A police officer led them across the street to the sidewalk, away from the firehoses and their house. Some of the neighbors who had peered from their homes joined them to watch the house burn. It was a giant, gloomy bonfire. No one spoke.

When part of the roof collapsed, Sarah ran to Howard’s car and kicked the front passenger’s door, denting it. “We’re homeless,” she yelled. She wept and Jessica pulled her into an embrace.

“We have nothing,” Sarah said.

Jessica released her and went to the driver’s door. “I thought I had lost them at the restaurant. We had been drinking.” She got into the back seat, took off her diamond engagement ring and handed it to Sarah. “The night Howard proposed to me at the restaurant, he gave me a matching set of earrings.” She dug around inside the seat. “I remember now that I took them off back here because I didn’t want to lose them while we … you know. So I wrapped them in a Kleenex. A-ha.” She backed up and staggered from the car. In her hand was wadded tissue. She unfolded the Kleenex and showed Sarah the diamond earrings. “These and our homeowners insurance will get us back on our feet.”

A well-dressed man in a fur coat and hat hurried to where they stood. “I’m so sorry, Jessica.” He looked at Sarah sadly. “You too, Sarah, you poor child.”

“Howard was inside, Ronny,” Jessica said. She took him by the arm and he steadied her. “He did this. A twisted act of revenge.”

Mayor Ronald Peters shook his head. “If there’s anything I can do,” he said.

Jessica pushed herself closer to him. “I don’t know what Sarah and I are going to do.”

The mayor put an arm around her. She rested her head against his shoulder. Sarah stood behind them and eyed the ring finger of his left hand. It no longer held the gold wedding band. Lucy Peters had died of cervical cancer more than ten years ago. It had taken him this long to let go. She looked away and watched plumes of water from several hoses douse the burning house.

It will be okay, she thought. Mother will provide.

Nightmare [fiction]

3 chapters from a story I worked on several years ago. I never finished it, but I have rescued parts for a story featuring Vree Erickson.

Happy Halloween!


~ 1 ~

The rush of icy air filled Sarah’s lungs and brought her senses back. She was in her bed, but the dark creature from the tree had followed. It hovered above her, levitating by the magic it used to lure her to its lair. Her scream burst from her mouth. She thrashed and kicked at her bedcovers to get away, but they held her fast.

The creature disappeared when her bed lamp clicked on. Mother’s worried face replaced the spot the creature had occupied moments ago. Her warm embrace took away the cold shivering through Sarah.

She helped Sarah out of bed, led her to the bathroom, and left her to undress and shower away her chills. Sarah felt the place on her forehead where the ghost of Susie had touched her. Her warning about Julie echoed in her mind. “She has the power to be inside you. She’s using you to look for me.”

Sarah fell to the floor and wept. She had gone insane. There was no other explanation for the strange dreams. She pounded a fist to the floor and yelled, “Ghosts and monsters aren’t real.”

They couldn’t be real. If they were, then what was Julie? A ghost? Or a monster?

Bile rose in her throat. She vomited into the toilet, watched the yellow sour liquid spread tendrils and flow like ooze to the bottom of the bowl, and wondered what was real. She pinched her right cheek to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. She felt nothing, so she dug fingernails into flesh and made her left forearm bleed.

“I’m not real. Or maybe I’m dead.”

But the delayed pain of her pinches and scratches told her she was alive. But she didn’t want to be. Not after what Julie had done to her.

Another odor, not as sour as the vomit, drew her attention to her armpits. She was very much alive and in need of a shower, now.

She let the shower’s pulsating spray of hot water massage her back. She shivered and shuddered as the anxiety of her recent ordeal left her. She closed her eyes to the warmth running through her. When she opened them, Julie stood in front of her, naked and radiant. Sarah yelped in surprise. She hadn’t heard the shower’s glass door slide open or close.

Julie smiled.

“Get out,” Sarah said.

Julie reached out. Sarah yelled louder. Pain crossed Julie’s face.

“Don’t you love me?” she asked.

“No. Never. So get out. Now.”

Julie’s gaze seemed to harden then, the way they had when Sarah had rudely used the F word on her.

“Why not?” She grinned, then licked her lips as though delicious syrup covered them. “My Sarah doesn’t know what she’s missing.”

Sarah flew open the door and stumbled out. Julie’s voice erupted from inside the shower. “Get back here.”

Sarah’s legs wobbled as she went to the towel rack. She wrapped a long towel around her.

Julie laughed. When Sarah turned back, the shower was empty. Water from the showerhead spilled to the floor. Sarah turned off the water, then sat on the toilet and shook. She tried to cry but the tears would not come.

A hand stroked her left cheek. Susie stood in front of her. Sarah bolted through her and ran to her room, threw on a pair of sweats and her tennis shoes, and ran from her mother’s haunted house. She was never going back. And no one was going to make her.

 

~ 2 ~

Sarah knew the way back to Clearview. She also knew the many miles that lay ahead of her.

When she reached the highway, she didn’t slow down. She popped up a thumb and prayed for someone to pick her up. No one passed by.

After walking for nearly three hours, her stomach complained of hunger. She was well into the countryside and had passed several cornfields. It was three weeks past July fourth and the cornstalks were barely above knee level. Rain had been scarce this year, but a storm brewed somewhere nearby. The humidity smelled ripe with impending thunderstorms, and the white sky had turned to a gray and green bruise. She glared one last time with all the hate she could muster at her mother’s house behind her, and hoped her anger could somehow inflict pain on Julie.

Her stomach yelled at her, so she scanned the area for food. It was too early in the summer to find any ripe fruit, berries or nuts, and she had no clue as to what lay inside the woods on either side of the highway. She spotted an apple tree with green apples along the edge of a field. The hard ones on the ground were dry and bitter, and the soft ones were rotten. She climbed the tree and found softer, juicier apples there. They were sour but helped ease away the thirst and soften her hunger pangs.

She ate and for the first time since moving into that creepy Odinwood house, and was able to think with a clear mind. She looked out over the countryside, enjoying the view and the coolness of the fingerlike branches wrapped around her. Canada geese honked from a pond just beyond a grove of pine trees. Water glimmered from where she stood and she knew she needed to go there and replenish the liquids she had lost during her walk if she planned to—

What? What did she plan to do? She had no plans, only a longing desire to get to Clearview before nightfall. And to do that, someone would have to drive her there. But what sort of person would stop for a pretty teenage girl?

She realized she was on her own until she reached Clearview and the friends she had left there.

A crow cawed from a nearby pine and caused her to catch her breath. Suddenly, the branches seemed to take on a sinister feel, like fingers with claws closing around her. She scrambled out of the apple tree and ran toward the water.

A hawk screeched from overhead, scaring her and causing her skin to prickle. The air outside the tree felt hotter than before, so she lifted her T-shirt to let in the tiniest of breezes.

She staggered through the tall grass and scratched at the dust and flies settling on her sweaty neck and arms. She slapped at the flies biting at her arms, then stumbled upon a wide footpath. It led toward the pines, so she followed it to a log someone had placed across a narrow creek. The air was cool here and she swallowed it into her lungs. Beyond the creek and between the trees and scrub, the pond beckoned her to rid herself of the sweat and dust and flies that fouled her body.

There were no thoughts of snakes or quicksand or any other danger as she raced to a deserted clearing at the water’s edge. The pond was small and except for a group of Canada geese swimming in the middle, the place was deserted. Green brush and willow trees surrounded the area and there were large crops of rush along the shore that served as refuge from the highway behind her. She hurried out of her clothes and draped them across the rush. She enjoyed the cool air as it pleased her exposed body. Then she strolled into the cool summer water until it covered her breasts. Her feet sank into the dark ooze of the muddy bottom, clouding the water as it rose all the way to her chin.

She stayed there for several minutes and let her body relax and go with the gentle push against her. Her tired body came alive and she wept, sobbing away anger, hatred, and frustration until a fly bit at her face and forced her to submerge and scrub away the dirt and sweat. When she surfaced, a gentle wind rustled in the trees. The cool breeze prickled her skin.

Crystal jewels of water that glittered like diamonds adorned her body when she returned to the shore, and the cooling air brought relief to the welts made by the biting flies. She sat and stretched out in the grass at the water’s edge and basked under a willow tree until she could no longer deny her fear of Julie. She had to get to Clearview and to Annie Freemont’s house if she wanted to stay alive. The Freemonts would let her stay for a day or two, and then she would have to work hard at convincing her mother that she couldn’t return to the house in Odinwood until Julia Stillman was gone.

She managed to put on her underpants without too much difficulty of sliding the cotton over wet skin. And she was about to hook into her bra when a knife’s long silver blade flashed in front of her eyes. She turned and stared wildly at the blonde-haired girl who smiled at her with a beguiled look that twisted from ice blue eyes.

Sarah screamed at the sight of Julie and the hunting knife gripped tight in her right hand.

Julie put a finger to her mouth. “You’ll scare away the geese,” she said. She wore a blue cotton shirt and low-cut blue jeans. Fresh mud covered her black hiking boots. She smiled too kindly as she held the knife at her chest.

“Is this your knife?” she asked.

Sarah covered her breasts even though Julie stared into her eyes, which locked her gaze. Her jaw turned rigid and her mouth became useless. She shook her head no when Julie asked again if the knife belonged to her.

“Found it lying here in the grass. A real beauty, with no rust or nicks or any blood on it.” Julie held the blade close to Sarah’s face. “If it isn’t yours, I think I’ll keep it.”

Sarah tried to speak, but her mouth stayed closed.

“I could use a good knife like this,” Julie said.

Sarah thought of running until Julie pressed the tip of the cold blade against her throat and backed her against a willow tree.

“Finders keepers,” she said.

Sarah swallowed and wished Julie away.

Julie laughed. “Cat must have your tongue.”

Sarah pleaded with her eyes for Julie to release her.

“Lucky cat,” Julie said. “I love tongue.”

Sarah tried to scream but her voice was gone. She clenched her jaw as Julie stepped closer and touched her right breast with her left hand. She pinched gently at the nipple. “Hell of a shock I gave you,” she said. “Did I scare you?”

Julie’s words felt numb to Sarah’s ears. Would the obviously insane girl actually kill her? The point of the knife pricked her skin. She stifled a cry and watched the geese swim on the pond, felt the wind breeze by, and saw it ripple over the water’s surface.

Julie took her hand from Sarah’s breast and held up a fat aquatic worm. “Can’t believe you didn’t feel this bloodsucker feeding on your tit.” She tossed it toward the pond. “That nipple will get sore. Why don’t you come home and let me take care of it for you?” She wiped blood from her long fingers down Sarah’s breastbone. “You do want to be my friend, don’t you?”

Tears flooded Sarah’s eyes. “Wh-What do you want?” she managed to ask in a raspy voice.

Julie licked the rest of the blood from her fingers. Then, “I came to see if you really think you can run away from me,” she said. “That’s all.”

“Please leave me alone.” Sarah struggled to breathe properly. The words felt dead as the pond disappeared beyond the wall of tears growing in her eyes. Her hearing stopped. Her tears fell away to let in grayness where Julie and the rest of the world no longer existed. She was unafraid in the grayness. Here she could move again, breathe again, speak again.

In the grayness, she screamed.

The pond hurried into view. She fell against the willow tree, then bawled as she hurried into her clothes.

Julie was gone. Across the pond, a goose honked. It sounded like her mocking laughter.

Then the first rumble of thunder traversed the sky.

 

~ 3 ~

Sarah could not believe Julie had followed her. Did Julie actually think scaring her with the knife would make her want to go back? How stupid was she?

Thunder growled.

Sarah stumbled toward the highway. She had to keep going.

More thunder growled. The storm was closer. A car passed before Sarah reached the highway. She wished she had remembered to bring her cell phone. She could have called Annie to come get her and be gone by now.

Sarah turned toward Clearview and the purple-gray sky. Escape from Julie and Odinwood meant going into the storm.

So be it. The thought of Julie following her did not slow her.

She scanned the woods for any glimpse of her. Her muddy boots were evidence she had come from the swampier part of the pond, which meant she had kept herself hidden by the woods on that side of the highway.

She flipped a middle finger at the woods.

A crow cawed from its perch atop a pine tree. Then the bird lifted into the sky with bulky wings as the first drop of rain struck the top of Sarah’s head.

The crow banked left, soared across the highway, and perched atop another pine tree. It pranced on a branch and positioned itself so it faced Sarah. Then it stared down at her.

She yelled at it, told it to fly away.

It cawed at her. A few more raindrops fell as she started up the highway. Sarah had gone about twenty yards when the crow flew past her head and landed a few feet in front of her. It turned, faced her and stood defiant.

Sarah refused to stop. As she passed to the left, it pecked the back of her right knee. She yelled out as pain burned there.

The crow struck her leg again with its chisel-like beak and sent more pain shooting through her.

She jumped away from the crow, then kicked at it as it came for another peck. It dodged her foot, spread its wings, and danced along the shoulder of the road as it squared off with her.

She turned and ran. More rain fell and struck her face. As she wiped rain and tears from her eyes, the crow flew past her head again and landed in front of her. Then it turned and charged.

Sarah screamed and kicked at it as it attacked her legs. Its beak made direct hits as she kicked and screamed at it to leave her alone.

Her legs throbbed in pain. The crow tore at her pants legs and at her tender flesh beneath the jeans. Her head swam and her knees nearly buckled. Her stomach lurched and she staggered to escape. Rain fell harder. A vehicle passed dangerously close. The driver blew its horn as the car whizzed past and continued on.

The crow continued its attack. Sarah kicked blindly, erratically, and uselessly. She stumbled, caught her balance, and looked up. A pair of headlights came at her, fast, and lit up her eyes in a painful, fiery red.

She leapt out of the way in time for the truck to miss hitting her. The crow took flight. Its flapping wings sounded like someone shaking sand from a beach towel.

When Sarah turned, the truck had stopped. Dr. Bisbee got out of the driver’s side and hurried to her.

“Sarah? Is that you?”

She nodded her head and sobbed.

“What are you doing out here on the highway?”

“The crow,” she said in a bullfrog’s voice. “It’s trying … to hurt me.” The pain behind her knees caused her to stagger.

Dr. Bisbee took her by the shoulders. “Where’s your mother?”

Thunder rumbled. Cold rain fell. Sarah lifted her head, opened her mouth, and let the rain quench her thirst.

Dr. Bisbee led her to the passenger door, away from the truck’s warm grill, and helped her climb into a dry seat. The allover warmth inside swallowed her immediately. Before the doctor closed her door, the crow cawed from somewhere nearby.

Magic Ointment [fiction]

An odd tale penned by my friend Lola Gentry-Dey and me. Based on a story Lola read when she was a child, this is her version with my two cents thrown in.

Once upon a time, an unemployed nurse named Sarah lived in a small village inside New York City, and though she had no family except a drunken nephew in Queens, she kept herself busy. She made it her business to call on her neighbors with hot chicken soup when they became ill, and she took care of many poor and homeless children.

One autumn night, as the wind howled outside her apartment windows, Sarah was in her bed and almost asleep when she heard a knock on her door. It was midnight, and she knew it must be urgent. She slipped into her robe and hurried to the door.

She looked through the peephole, saw no one, but the knocking continued. When she opened the door, a stranger—a small, ugly fellow with a fat, crooked nose and black, shifty eyes—gruffly said, “You must come and look after our baby. My wife is too ill to care for him.”

“Well, why don’t you take care of them?” Sarah asked.

“I would,” the ugly fellow replied, “but it’s poker night.”

Sarah didn’t like the looks or shiftlessness of this man, but she didn’t like to turn down anyone in need. So she dressed and pulled on a heavy coat to shield her from the weather, and she walked outside.

There on the street sat the little man on a large, black motorcycle. The bike’s chrome gleamed bright despite the darkness. Sarah hesitated.

“Up you go,” the little man said, offering his arm, and Sarah shook away her worries and climbed up behind him.

Before she could settle herself, the motorcycle was off, whisking so fast through the village that Sarah had to hang on to the little man for dear life. They rode for what seemed like a long time, and headed into the countryside, so Sarah lost her bearings. But eventually they arrived at a tiny bungalow made of wood.

Sarah dismounted and went inside. She had to pass several children quarreling in front of a noisy television until she found the little man’s wife lying in bed inside a tiny bedroom. Her skin was pale and her eyes dark with sadness, and in her arms rested a beautiful newborn child—a little boy with blonde hair so bright it shone like a halo, and a face as lovely as any Sarah had ever seen.

“You should be in a hospital,” Sarah said softly to both mother and child.

The mother shook her head sadly. “My labor was sudden and the baby came quickly,” she said weakly as she lifted the infant for Sarah to take him into her arms. Then the mother handed a small box to Sarah, and said, “Put this ointment on his eyelids as soon as he opens his eyes.”

Sarah carried the little boy into another room. Before long, he opened his eyes. Despite his beauty, the boy had his father’s black, squinty eyes. Just as the mother had instructed her, Sarah stroked his eyelids with the ointment. The baby smiled and closed his eyes and slept once more.

Sarah peered at the ointment. It was swirls of pink and violet goo and unlike any ointment she had ever seen or smelled before. Being curious, she stroked her own eyelids with the ointment.

In a flash, everything around her changed. The house grew from a tiny, dark, miserable place into a big beautiful mansion furnished with the finest things. When Sarah walked into the bedroom, the mother was no longer sad and exhausted; she was as beautiful as a Fortune 500 wife and dressed in silks and satins and brocades. The baby was not squinty-eyed—he was the handsomest child in the world.

And those quarreling children in front of the TV were not little boys and girls; they were imps with blazing eyes and pointy ears and wrinkled faces. Sarah now understood, for her grandmother had told her of such things; she had walked into a house of pixies, creatures that had likely abducted the woman.

She knew a thing or two about pixies from her grandmother, including this: She could not say a word against them or they would imprison her. So she remained silent, though she stayed for several days, looking after the sweet baby boy.

At week’s end, the woman was well again.

“Do you wish to escape from here?” Sarah asked her.

“No,” the woman replied, “it was my choice to marry into the family,” and she thanked Sarah for caring for her child. “Take her home now,” the woman said to her husband.

The little man was no longer ugly, of course, but he remained squinty-eyed and shiftless in demeanor, like every man Sarah had ever known.

Once again, they rode the black motorcycle through strange woodland until they reached Sarah’s apartment building. Before he left her, the man paid Sarah more money than she had ever been paid in her life.

She was, of course, overjoyed, but curious. “Why does one so wealthy gamble his fortune?” she wanted to ask, but she knew from her grandmother never to ask about the affairs of pixies. Instead, she thanked him and watched him drive away.

The next day she went to the supermarket and while selecting the finest tomatoes, the ripest melons, the sweetest apples, she noticed a squinty-eyed pixie also shopping there. At each place he stopped at, he stole something—eggs, broccoli, beets, anything he could grab.

Sarah did not think his criminal activity was any of her business, so she ignored him until he passed by.

“Good day to you, sir,” she said.

He turned on his heels and glared. “You see me?”

“Of course,” Sarah said, and she smiled knowingly. “And I see you’ve been busy today!”

The pixie’s face clouded with anger. “You see too much,” he snapped. “You stole from our magic ointment, and for that you will pay!” And he struck her with a knobby, wooden staff.

Sarah gasped and put her hands to her face, “I can’t see!” she cried. And sure enough, the squinty-eyed pixie had blinded her.

From that day on, Sarah stayed inside her apartment and used her money to pay a private nurse to sit and care for her. The nurse came every morning and left every night at bedtime. Though Sarah held no ill will to the fellow she had offended, she told her nurse to beware any pixies who may come calling.

The nurse promised, and when a year had passed and the spell had entered its fifth cycle, she—a beautiful woman who had given birth to a beautiful child—stayed the night until Sarah was asleep. Then she gently rubbed a healing ointment on Sarah’s eyelids before she left quietly, never to return.

In the morning when Sarah awoke able to see again, she happily busied herself in her kitchen, and then called on the sick with hot chicken soup, all the while wary of ugly, squinty-eyed men on motorcycles.

 

Waiting [fiction]

A quirky short story penned by my friend Lola Gentry-Dey and me, November 1999. Lola and I co-authored a handful of stories on the Internet while we were members of an online writing group.

Freshly shaved Robert Allen rose up swinging barbells at those fiercely mad occupants of the Union Gym down at Union Square next to Sailors’ Cemetery where Boston Rose sells cheap tricks and BJs as thin as the fish bone stuck in the throat of Colonel Shaw’s pet sandpiper lying dead at the south edge of town where Westinghouse Electric once blessed the beginning of the baby boom.

There was no wind or open sunlight anywhere, but the girl in love felt damaged by exposure to the outdoors, so she stayed indoors in her two-room flat above Westinghouse and ate whole grains, chicken salad, leafy greens, banana yogurt. That night, she drank a shot of Johnny Courage in her cheapest lingerie until Robert came with her ring. She wrote invitations, hemmed the dress, cut the flowers, made the cake, hired the photographer for the ceremony and reception, and planned for a sunny day of happiness indoors where she could polish her skin like golden armor to be the greatest trophy ever.

But Robert died from consumption the day before the wedding.

The girl stood alone at his gravestone on Butter Hill, waiting for a miracle. At ten A.M. the sun poured out her shadow like honey over daisies sunning in an eastern sky. The only movement then was the tendrils of her butterscotch hair and the twitch of her gaze twisting through this sunny field.

At noon, a black and white rabbit scampered to an afternoon sleep awaiting him across the rise where clouds floated in the north and had turned white again. She said, “If you’re alone now, you’ll always be alone,” but the rabbit scurried down its hole without a beginning, without ending, like jazz to her awakened mind.

Her toes tapped slowly at first, then quickened to endless tunes in her mind. Her hair swung at the small of her back, and the gradual rhythm of her hips distracted the gods from their wars above us. Attracted by her beauty, they brought frost and starless nights to the land. She lit a fire in a circle of dry grass and danced alone inside a Mackinaw coat acquired from a traveling priest looking for boys to join his army. She waltzed for many months to keep alive the music and its old pizzazz.

All the while, Robert Allen remained dead at her feet.

She went home the evening Robert’s Aunt Betty came floating from the hospital, looking for John Wayne on a TV controlled by a little black clicker box similar to the ones used by Uncle Ray all those years in the red light district before he died in the heavy arms of Rose.

Aunt Betty sat searching that TV for a familiar face, but Lucy and Sid and Uncle Miltie were not forthcoming from the clicker in her gnarled hand, choking the life from the big white buttons that glowed childish in the dark.

The girl made coffee in the corner kitchen while Aunt Betty watched the local news and wondered aloud from which foreign countries the melancholy reports came. The mystery became hers forever when an eight o’clock breeze from the window passed over her La-Z-Boy and she did not breathe it in.

The girl turned on a lamp and pronounced Aunt Betty dead at eleven-nineteen P.M. Next she called the coroner and roused him from bed, and then called out to family and friends. A crowd assembled and someone said they were glad to see that Aunt Betty died with family and not at a hospital.

The family nurse looked away and wept.

When Aunt Betty’s body was wheeled away, the gathering stirred from their corners and shuffled home.

Uncle Ray, Robert Allen and Aunt Betty remained dead outside the pages of the family’s photo album on the girl’s lap. She, who had been in love once, turned on the TV from the La-Z-Boy and forgot about the tunes in her head. She also forgot about jazz.

She watched TV daily and nightly and found new friends who came and left. And as her last day of life approached, she searched for an old familiar face on the flickering screen.

It never came.