Date Published: September 13, 2019
Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.
After Anna Shields receives an invitation from her estranged Aunt Lydia, she flies to Tennessee to find a number of older women-Tasha, Sadie, and Chloe-also living on Lydia's farm. Losing power during a blizzard, the women share dark and startling secrets. Skating between past and present, they reveal frighteningly desperate things that they have done. Anna begins to realize, to her shock, that these things are connected to her own past and become key to her future.
Tasha watched from the kitchen window as the young woman and child made their way through her yard. The woman seemed to be carrying something large, and the little one was skipping along behind. Tasha dried her hands and lifted Riley from the high chair, dusting cookie crumbs from her shirt.
“Want to go outside to play?” Tasha asked her daughter.
Riley nodded. “On the jungagym?”
“Sure, on the jungagym.” Tasha thought if she were to design playground equipment, she’d call her company JungaGym. They went out the back door and into the yard, following the woman and child, dressed in matching overalls, marching past the garden towards the tobacco field, as if on a mission. Tasha couldn’t tell if the little one was a girl or boy with shoulder length hair. She wasn’t sure what the woman was carrying on her hip, either. Tasha thought the visitors more curious than dangerous—but she was new to the area, and this was unusual. As her husband Mack would say, “Be aware of your surroundings at all times.” He’d been in the military for half a minute, and this was his takeaway line.
“Hello?” Tasha called out.
The woman stopped and turned.
“I’m Tasha.” She waved as she approached. “Knightly. Tasha Knightly.”
“I’m Sadie. Sadie O’Grady. Nice to meetcha.” Sadie was wearing a white tank top under a pair of too-large bib overalls, unbuttoned at the hips. She was obviously very pregnant. Under one arm, she hefted a giant turtle.
The towheaded toddler holding his mother’s free hand was introduced as Jacob. He looked up at Tasha, his grin wide and toothy. She saw the same lace of flowers woven through his hair as his mother’s.
Sadie rubbed the bump of her belly. “And this guy, his name is Joshua, as soon as he gets here.” She looked down to Tasha’s knee, where Riley hung like a drunk on a lamppost with her thumb in her mouth. Tasha ruffled her fingers through Riley’s soft curls. “This is Riley, and obviously,” she gestured to the house behind her, “we’re new to the neighborhood.”
Sadie looked around to the bank of forest rising behind them, the open pasture before them, and the tobacco fields running beside them. “Haven’t you noticed you are the neighborhood?”
Tasha laughed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s me, my husband Mack, Riley, and the baby.” Tasha thumbed over her shoulder. “Lacy; she’s asleep in her crib. But yeah, that’s about it for the neighborhood. Just us.”
“Unless you count those cows over there.” Sadie pointed to the hill.
“I find comfort in the mooing.”
“I hear ya. Before we moved here, I’d mostly always lived in neighborhoods, in towns. That first night, I remember sittin’ on our porch, sayin’ to Jimmy, “It’s a stygian blackness—’”
“I’m sorry,” Tasha interrupted. “What sort of blackness?”
Sadie did not pause. “Stygian. It means extreme darkness, sometimes a forebodin’ sort of darkness. It’s from the River Styx.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Tasha admitted to Sadie. This was something unusual for her, admitting she didn’t know something. Usually, she’d pretend to know, try to grasp the gist of the topic, and listen. Listening seemed to be the greatest knowledge of all, to Tasha. Blurting her ignorance to this stranger in her yard with a turtle under her arm was not like Tasha; yet there was something innocuous about Sadie—a gentleness, with no judgement—making her somehow safe. Or at least that’s how it felt.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Sadie said. “I’ve been readin’ all about the underworld lately, Hades, and the River Styx is part of that story.”
“I like that word, stygian,” Tasha said.
“It’s a good one! Sounds just like what it means: ‘beyond darkness.’”
“Yes, ‘beyond darkness.’”
“It’s lonely,” Sadie mused, and stared across the field.
Tasha allowed Riley’s hand to slip from her own. The little girl had taken her thumb from her mouth and was eyeing Jacob, who was eyeing her back.
“That’s how it feels out here, sometimes. Especially when Mack is away on business, or hunting, or helping some old friend out of a jam.”
Sadie’s gaze narrowed. “Your husband…he’s gone a lot?”
“Let’s just say he’s not around a lot. I don’t mind, really. Sometimes it’s easier.”
“I understand. My Jimmy travels, but we’ve got cows, goats, chickens, and what have you. Can’t say I get very lonely.”
“You don’t? What about people? Don’t you get lonely for people?”
“Not really. You can’t see with your naked eye, but there are actually a bunch of us mamas and babies tucked into our own little coves all up and down this valley.”
“Sure! I happen to be your closest neighbor: just a quarter mile up the goat path.”
“Are those your goats I see every now and again?”
“They shouldn’t be. There’s a bunch of wild ones that run loose. Don’t let them near your kids; they’ll butt them.”
“Good to know.”
“If mine are this far, they’re too far. They’ve all got the same pink collars and jingle bells. And they won’t hurt you, unless you antagonize them somehow.” She hefted the turtle against her hip.
Tasha jerked forward. “Can I help you with that?” she offered, not really wanting to touch the turtle.
“No, that’s OK. I’m gonna let him go down by the creek.”
“Can I take Jacob? Hold onto to him while you make your deposit?”
Sadie pressed Jacob’s hand into Tasha’s palm and grabbed the turtle as it began to slide from her hip. She lifted it upside down, over her head. Her skinny arms concealed her strength as muscles flexed. She walked a high step through the tall field grass, seeking out the perfect spot. Spying a shaded area, she headed for the damp creek bank. Once there, she squatted and brought the turtle down carefully from her head, pointing it to the water. All the reptile’s limbs, tail, and head had retreated into the shell of his home. Sadie planted bunched fists on nonexistent hips. After some time, she toed it. She thought it might be dead, then decided, for no one reason, that it wasn’t. She turned and made her way back through the field towards Tasha, holding onto the toddlers.
“Can you stay for bit?” Tasha asked, as they walked towards the house. She gestured to a play area under the canopy of a big oak tree. There was a picnic table and lawn chairs cooling in the shade. Riley loosened from her mother, took Jacob’s hand, and skipped to the nearby sandbox.
“If you don’t mind, I’d love to sit down for a minute before headin’ back,” Sadie said, and made her way to a lawn chair.
“I’ll run in and check on the baby.” Tasha dashed by. “I’ll bring down some…tea? Sparkling water?”
“Water would be great,” Sadie mopped her brow, and was grateful for the breeze. She watched Jacob and Riley leave the sand box and head to the play fort. They’d crawled through a small doorway at the bottom, and were suddenly waving to her from the top.
“Mama! Do you see me?” Jacob called. “I’m up here!”
“Is that you, all dressed in shinin’ armor like a knight?”
“With a sword!” Jacob waved a thick stick out the opening as evidence.
“See me?” Riley shouted excitedly.
“In the gold cape, wearin’ a gold crown and holdin’ a gold wand? Is that you?”
“Me!” Riley stomped her feet, and shook a puny stick with authority.
Tasha carried a tray as she returned, laden with sweaty glasses of ice water, juice boxes, and an array of cheese and crackers. She set them on the table between the lawn chairs.
“Wow, you just whipped up a feast!” Sadie sat up and piled pieces of cheese on a few crackers. “I am a little hungry, I admit.”
“So, how’d you wind up bringing that giant turtle here?” Tasha asked, watching Jacob and Riley chattering away on the swings.
“This isn’t the first time he’s invaded my pond. They do bite, so I like to get him away from the kids and animals. In the past, I’ve set him loose over near Lydia’s place.”
“Lydia? Wintersen? The woman who paints birdhouses, down at the Sunday market?”
“Yep, that’s Lydia. She paints birdhouses, barn-board signs, stuff like that…Yep, that’s Lydia, all right.”
“Oh, she is just lovely. I bought an old milk can she’d painted with our name on it; it’s on our front porch.”
Sadie grinned, and looked away.
“What? Why do you think that’s funny?” Tasha asked. “Are you laughing that I put a milk can on my porch?”
Sadie waved her hand, “No! No, I think that’s sweet. No, I’m smilin’ because those milk cans, and birdhouses, and every what-not Lydia puts a paintbrush to…Well, folks just love ’em. Especially tourists.”
“Oh, I see. I’ve been sucked into a tourist trap?!” Tasha became indignant. “Well, I like to think of it as contributing to the local economy. Helping out the natives, and such.”
This made Sadie sputter the mouthful of water she’d taken. She giggled and shook her head.
“Now what’s so funny?”
“Oh, all those things she sells at the market, from her tool-paintings to those booties she knits are just pocket change to Lydia.”
“What do you mean?”
“Between Lydia Wintersen’s land holdin’s, rental properties, and stock market investments, believe you me, she’s got more money than the pope.”
“Then why is she selling her wares at the market?”
“Maybe because she wants you to think she’s poor, not because she’s actually poor, no—not even close.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Did you buy that milk can ’cause you thought some poor farmer was doing her best to make ends meet, or because you loved it?”
“Well…actually, I love it. And I was looking for something like it for the porch.”
Sadie shrugged, “OK, well, I might be wrong…”
Tasha laughed. “No, it was the birdhouse and booties I bought because I thought she was a poor farmer trying to make ends meet.”
“See!” Sadie leaned forward and raised her finger. “I rest my case. Lydia’s got her very own tourist trap goin’. It’s all based on the notion that folks love to come here, and want to take a little piece home. Lydia’s a part of that magic.”
“I can see that. I bought into it, for sure. I will say, I love my booties.”
Sadie laughed. “Well, you might not have need of another bird house, but you’ll want to keep buyin’ those booties. She sells them all over the country, you know. There’s usually a waitin’ list.”
“I did just order a pair for Mack. I had no idea how popular they are, not that it’s surprising.”
‘Honestly,” Sadie leaned forward as if about to confide a secret, and whispered, “I think Lydia’s big money actually comes from her real paintings.”
“The ones on the barn-boards?”
“No, Lydia’s a true painter. I mean, an artist. Her paintings are hangin’ in galleries all over the country. Big galleries, too!”
“I accidently saw a check for over ten grand stapled to a receipt for one she’d sold.” Sadie gave Tasha a quick glance to see if she was being judged for her slipped confession. “I wasn’t snoopin’,” she protested, defending herself. “I was makin’ a phone call from her desk, and it was just layin’ out there in the open. Hard to miss.”
“I had to look away just to not see it,” Sadie said, slyly.
Tasha burst into giggles.
Sadie turned sideways to face her. “I didn’t say I wasn’t a snoop, mind you, but I do have rules. If it’s just layin’ out there for all the world to see, who am I not to see it?”
Tasha shook her head. “Oh, Sadie, you are funny.”
Sadie smiled, taking in the compliment. She settled back in her chair and said knowingly, “I will say this: that Lydia Wintersen, given all her dough, is one of the best people in the world.”
Tasha smiled. It confirmed what she already felt. “I’m glad to hear that; I like her. She invited me to a…gathering, I think she called it. Sometime next month?”
“Oh, you should definitely come. It’s a gatherin’ for women and children.” She whirled a finger in the air to include the surroundings. “For our neighborhood. All weekend. We set up tents, cook food over fires, and hang out.”
“That sounds nice.”
“There’s always music, and we let the kids loose. You’ll meet your neighbors, if you come.”
“I’d like that…” Tasha hesitated. “Where does Lydia live?”
“Just over that little ridge. Past those cows you like listenin’ to. Those are her cows.”
“Well, I had no idea.”
Sadie pointed to a spot to the left. “See through that gap between those two big hemlocks? That’s Lydia’s chimney. At least, one of them.”
“Well, that’s not very far. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I have seen smoke coming from over that way.”
“She’s been there a long time. We—me and Jimmy—we actually rent our farm from her right now.” Sadie kicked at the dirt. “One day, we might buy it.”
“That’d be nice.”
“On the other hand…when the furnace goes out, it’s nice having a landlady to fix it,” Sadie said, somehow working it out in her head as she thought about her circumstance.
“That’s true too.”
“We make a bit of a triangle, we three: you, me, and Lydia. I’m over there on Adam’s Mountain, you’re here on Bench Bald, and Lydia’s up Cady’s Cove. ABC!” Sadie smacked the arm of the chair as she realized the connection.
“Well, this just makes me happy,” Tasha said. “What a great couple of neighbors to discover!”
Sadie smiled and patted her shoulder. “And for us, too.”
“So, why’d you decide not to let the turtle loose at Lydia’s?” Tasha asked.
“He kept comin’ back! I thought maybe if I turned him loose facin’ south instead of north, he’d find somebody else’s pond to call home. But I think maybe the real reason I headed this way was to meet you,” Sadie said.
Sadie interrupted, shouting, “Jacob! You get down from there before you crack your head open!” Jacob was hanging upside down from the top rail of the swing set, a good distance from the ground. “I mean it! Don’t make me get up!”
He reached for the chains of the swing and flipped himself through, landing as if it were an Olympic dismount. He almost bowed, as it was near perfect, but stopped himself.
“You’re lucky this time, mister!” Sadie called out, but Jacob and Riley had already rounded the fort, hiding on the other side.
“He’s about to give me a heart attack,” Sadie said, and sat back.
“I thought you handled that quite calmly,” Tasha noted. “I was close to making a run for him.”
“Oh, no! You can’t do that with Jacob; he’ll make it worse. That kid will start walking along the beam, or whatever crazy boy idea he gets in his head next. Just like his father.”
“Is Jimmy a daredevil?”
“No, Jacob’s a true daredevil; Jimmy’s more like a reactor. Daredevils actually think through their deeds somewhat; Jimmy just blindly stumbles around in his,” Sadie remarked, surprised she’d shared Jimmy’s failings so easily with Tasha. “It’s why I started studyin’ numbers. Tryin’ to figure out our little family.”
“Numerology and all that?” Tasha asked. She’d grown up in San Francisco, so a lot of this New Age stuff wasn’t terribly new to her.
“Sort of. Jimmy, Jacob, and I all have five letters in our names. And fives are all about adventure: risk-takin’, high energy. I have to admit, there’s a lot of that goin’ on in our little house. That’s why I’m givin’ this one,” Sadie patted her belly, “a six-letter name. Sixes are calmin’, nurturin’, unconditionally lovin’. I admit, I can use some unconditional lovin’.”
“Couldn’t we all,” Tasha agreed. She kept her eye on Riley, who was now dancing across the lawn.
“Sorry, Jimmy tells me all the time I get obsessed. He’s probably right. Lately, it seems like I get into the weeds about things.”
“What about threes?” Tasha suddenly thought to ask.
“Threes? Oh. They are big deal numbers. They’re symbolic, and they’re everywhere.”
“You mean like the Holy Trinity?”
“Holy Trinity is only one. The ancient Chinese thought three was the perfect number.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m not sure yet; I haven’t gotten that far in the book.” Sadie grinned. “It’s patterns, in mostly everything. Beginning, middle, end…past, present, future…birth, life, death!”
“Good grief!” Tasha exclaimed. “I hadn’t thought about it ’til now, but threes do seem significant when you think about Greek mythology, where you have the three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades…”
“What do they stand for?”
“Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades—”
“The underworld,” Sadie interrupted.
“Exactly,” Tasha said. She stood and raised her hand to her brow to shade the sun rounding the oak tree. “Now, where did those little buggers go?” she wondered aloud. “Oh! There they are, heading for the creek.”
“Jacob!” Sadie cupped her hands and yelled through the little megaphone. “You get back here!”
The children stopped mid-field, and seemed to discuss the matter between themselves.
“Riley!” Tasha’s turn to shout as she took a step toward the field. “Come back here, right now!”
As if weighing their options the little pair hesitated, then turned around and ran back to the play area.
“Testing us,” Tasha said and returned to her chair.
“Yeah, they are. And that’s a good thing, I suppose.”
“Another set of threes,” Tasha returned to their conversation, “‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’ ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ ‘The Three Apprentices,’ three guesses in ‘Rumplestiltskin’…There are a lot of threes in fairy tales.”
“Like I said, threes are a big deal everywhere.”
“We could probably name them all day,” Tasha agreed.
“Think about it: you, me, and Lydia living in a triangle. ABC…it means something. Life paths, compatibility, even destiny. Maybe that’s why I dropped that turtle off here, today…threes.”
“There are no coincidences,” Sadie stated. “How could there be, when God is everywhere and in everything?”
“You believe that?”
“Of course. I mean, just look.” Sadie swept a hand across the landscape in front of them. “I think all of that has a little piece of God in it, just like you, just like me. And that means we’re all related—bugs, grass, turtles, and people alike…”
“I like that idea better than thinking of some gray-bearded, judgmental old man looking down on us and deciding our fates—or coincidences.”
“Yeah, I gave up on all that a long time ago, when I gave up the Baptist Church—Southern Baptist.”
“Yikes…” Tasha wasn’t very religious. She’d grown up going to a progressive church, back home in San Francisco. She had only heard stories about the Bible-belt Southern Baptists. Mack’s family did go to one of those churches, but Mack had no interest in attending.
“Oh, yeah. I left the church when I met Jimmy. He was into TM; you know, Transcendental Meditation?”
“You mean floating and stuff?” Tasha asked.
“It’s more complicated than that, but yeah, that’s part of it. I did it for a while, but then I got bored with all that sittin’ and thinkin’, tryin’ to find a higher power…when what you really want is a hot dog.”
Tasha laughed out loud. Sadie’s straight-faced deliveries added to the substance.
“True enough! You laugh, but have you ever sat cross-legged for, like, five hours, listenin’ to the grumblin’ tummies of everybody around you, and not had images of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches dance in your head? No?” Sadie smiled. “Then don’t laugh.”
“So, I take it you don’t do TM anymore?”
“No. I don’t, but Jimmy does. Funny how he’s stuck with it.”
“Do you go to church?”
“Oh, hell no…unless you count this right here.”
“Well, I wasn’t, but I get it.”
“I’m doin’ a lot of readin’ about ancient goddesses, Mother Earth, the universe, rituals. Have you read Starhawk?”
“No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I’ll loan you my copy of Spiral Dance. You’ll like it.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I am a big reader, I admit. I’m glad to meet another.”
“True enough, I’ve always got three or four books goin’ all at once.” Sadie pushed herself up from the chair. She stretched her back, and called to Jacob to come along. “We’ve got to get back,” she said. “Thanks for the water and the rest, and the chat.”
“I am so glad you decided to dump your turtle here, today,” Tasha said.
“Destiny!” Sadie grinned.
“Maybe.” Tasha shook her head. “Hey, want to get together for a playdate one of these days?”
“Playdate? Hell, come over any time. We don’t need to make a playdate.”
“All right then. How will I find you?”
“Follow the goat path; it’ll spill you into our backyard.” Sadie headed for the little lane. She put out her hand for Jacob, and they went up the skinny path.
If it hadn’t been for the babies, the mortgage, no money, and being trapped in the crack of an ass of a mountain in Nofuckingwhere Tennessee, Tasha would’ve packed up the girls and headed back to the Bay Area, where life mattered. She would not be going to some lame women’s gathering at her new acquaintance Lydia’s. Going home was her fantasy, prayer, and fondest wish ever since Mack dragged her here, “temporarily.” Two years later, it felt permanent.
The ground sucked at her ankles as she walked across the yard; grapevines tangled her hair as she passed. In the garden, on her hands and knees, she felt an urge to lie face down in the dirt, allowing the vegetables to grow over her, covering her; allowing autumn winds to blow dry husks and brown leaves, hiding her; allowing sugary white snow to drift over her stripped white bones, forming a perfectly splayed, frozen five-point star. That’s how they’d find her—eventually.
She should have known you don’t build a giant McMansion in the middle of a cow pasture in bum-fuck Egypt if you’re only going to stay for a couple of years. “And then Paris, Babe!” Mack had said when she reminded him after the first year, and again after the second. He’d been pretending until this morning. This morning, the truth had come out.
This morning, he’d complained that she was taking the girls camping with a bunch of witches, from what he’d heard down at the lodge. That he even belonged to a lodge was news to her. He’d kept his redneck ways hidden the whole time they were away at college—but now that he was back home in hillbilly country, he was a full-blown bumpkin.
“What is the point of sleeping in some moldy tent on a cow-pied pasture with a bunch of women dancing around naked?” he’d demanded.
“What is the point of spending a weekend riding in go-carts chasing little white balls around a manicured lawn with a bunch of men wagging their dicks around?”
“I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
“Then how about dignifying this answer with the truth? When the hell are we moving out of this shithole state?” She threw it in his face again, but she couldn’t help herself; she’d had it. “When’s Paris, Mack? Or any fucking where but here?”
He slung his golf clubs over one shoulder and his travel bag over the other. “Never, Tasha. We’re never leaving. This is my home. Now it’s our home. Get used to it.”
Then he slammed the door in her face.
Pushing a stroller carrying provisions, Tasha trundled up Lydia’s long winding driveway with Lacy in the pack on her back and Riley skipping along ahead of her. She heard the festivities spread around the farm before she saw anyone. The first sounds were squeals of children’s laughter, coming from the creek. There was distant drumming, music, and the easy, melodious chatter of many female voices. As Tasha rounded the bend, she could see brightly colored tents pocking the far pasture. A dozen or so hoisted animated flags flapping in the wind, signaling home base for roaming children. There were a few small plumes of smoke rising from cook fires, and there was a larger fire pit anchoring the temporary community.
What she hadn’t told Mack was that she wouldn’t be sleeping in a moldy tent on a cow-pied field. Instead, she’d been invited to stay in her own bedroom in the farmhouse, along with a few other mothers with babies. She headed for the cool shaded porch, peppered with women. Lots of women of all ages, sizes, colors…and in varying stages of undress. Tasha noticed that all of the women were braless, and most were topless; she felt awkward and overdressed in her bra, mom jeans, and Disney T-shirt.
Riley pointed to the porch and called out “The Story Lady!” The little girl flew up the steps and landed in Marie Raposa’s lap. Marie was known far and wide as The Story Lady. She’d been holding story hour every Saturday at the library, ever since she was a teenager. She played guitar, had a bunch of puppets, and rewarded cuddles with the candy she kept in the pockets of her calico apron. Marie was married to Frank Raposa, the local butcher (and philanderer), with whom she had a bunch of kids. Riley snuggled against Marie’s soft bosom. Tasha shrugged, and Marie waved her away.
As Tasha began lugging the stroller up the stairs, she was shadowed by a figure at the top, eclipsing the sun. Tasha shaded her gaze as a turbaned Lydia, carrying a large platter of fruits, cheeses, and breads, descended the steps and settled in front of her. Nestled among the pink peaches, rosy apples, and rounded melons, Tasha saw two plump bosoms belonging to Lydia, whose grin widened as she watched Tasha’s eyes fall to the friendly fruit.
“You made it!” Lydia said, her voice welcoming. “After we spoke yesterday, I wasn’t sure if you’d come.”
Tasha recalled the phone conversation, in which she’d confessed that she didn’t think she’d be able to make it. She’d confided that her husband wasn’t wild about the idea of the girls in a tent. This led to Lydia’s offer of a bedroom in the house instead. “For the sake of the baby’s health,” was how Lydia had put it.
“Here, let me put this down and show you to your room.” Lydia’s eyes held Tasha’s for a moment longer than she would normally have allowed a near stranger, but Tasha could not look away. She felt pulled, then pushed, her insides stilled in ways that both frightened and intrigued her. This woman was about to shift the plates under the planet where Tasha had been planted, only she didn’t know how.
It was the last day of the gathering, and Chloe Middleton awakened early. The drizzly rain pattering the roof of the tent was soothing. She was not alone, she noticed, but sandwiched between Lisa and Jane Raposa, Marie’s (The Story Lady’s) little girls, each curled into a tight ball on either side of her. She didn’t remember them coming to bed the night before, and couldn’t recall when they’d arrived—but she didn’t mind, as they were keeping her cozily warm in the damp morning air. Dawn was dark, and gray light filtered through the moonroof. She watched the storm clouds gathering above. Wrapping her arms around each little body and hugging them closer, she ran her fingers through their equally soft curls. She believed this was the perfect last morning of a perfect weekend of wonderful women. Oh, she liked that thought: A weekend of wonderful women. It sounded like a good title for a story. She wished her notebook were within reach, as she always liked to write these ideas down. Looking at the wooden box beside her sleeping bag, she saw the journal clenching a pen in its fold and managed to stretch just enough to grab it without disturbing the little girls.
She flicked on the flashlight she kept under her pillow and opened the book, dislodging the pen. She was immediately confused as she shone the light on the page. The handwriting was foreign, not her own; large, scrawled, black letters were etched into the page. The pressure of the ballpoint had dug gullies and divots into the paper.
See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.
The Story Lady
Carefully extricating herself from between the little girls, slowly Chloe slid up and out of the sleeping bag. She pulled on shorts and sweatshirt, then counted breaths as she tied her sneakers. Her hands were shaking so much she kept snagging the tent zipper. “Come on, Chloe; keep it together,” she hissed. Finally freeing a passage big enough to slip through, she saw the little girls had curled around each other as she re-zipped the tent flap. She stood to see the stilled and sleeping camp huddled beneath the mist. Light drizzle steadily drenched everything; she pulled up her hood, looked to the house, and ran for Lydia.
They’d signaled a quiet alarm. Lydia sent Chloe and Sadie to send a whisper through the camp for some to start the search and some to stay with the children. They spread out. Numerous pairs ran in the many directions while others stayed with the children, including the little Raposa girls. Chloe and Sadie went together across the fields. They noticed the small hanks of calico cloth littering the goat path between Lydia’s and Sadie’s farms. Initially, the ragged patches were tied to bush and tree branches; further along, Chloe could tell they’d been ripped and tossed, like rose petals leading to a romantic evening—except these shredded pieces of colorful fabric were now muddied and wet. As the women followed them, Chloe grabbed Sadie’s hand and wouldn’t let go.
They stood before the gap in the sliding door of Sadie’s goat barn, where the tattered remnants of The Story Lady’s calico apron lay in a heap. The barn was a tall weathered building once used to house hay, but it now contained more than a dozen of Sadie’s favored barnyard animals.
“Wait,” Chloe tugged on Sadie’s arm. “Don’t go in there alone. Shouldn’t we get someone? Lydia?”
Sadie pointed to the calico apron, now a mere scrap of its former self. “She’s in there, Chloe. What if she’s hurt?”
“You’re right. You’re right.” Chloe let go of Sadie, who pushed the door wide enough for the pair to enter the dark cavern. As Chloe’s eyes adjusted, she felt the dry warmth of the barn; the sweet smell of hay and the musky smell of goat mingled, making her stomach turn. The animals were rousing, huffing, snorting, and beginning their morning rise.
It was Sadie who startled her by shouting, “MARIE? You in here?”
They walked along the opposite edges of the rectangular barn, passing stalls, troughs, hay bales, and feed sacks, only to meet at the other end. They turned and stood, staring down the length of the yawning gloom.
“Where could she be?” Chloe whispered.
Sadie held her breath, listening to all the familiar sounds: goats grunting, the hum of the generator, water dripping from gutters and catching in rain barrels at the corners…but there was another sound, a small sound that did not fit. A creaking, warped-wood wincing sound, rhythmic like a docked boat might make: a sound out of place in this barn. Sadie let her ears tune in and her eyes followed upwards, to the hay loft: to the long pole rafters, to the rope tied to the joist, tied to Marie’s snapped neck. Just above them she saw a slight flutter of white, the slip of a nightgown waving in surrender.
Someone forgot about the little girls. Everyone was screaming their mother’s name; hysteria loosed, women grabbed babies and children grabbed hands, and all ran towards the horror, not away from it. Wailing women and sirens coming led, each sounding the urgency, the emergency, and the exigency of the chaotic mass of bodies racing through the wet grasses. Across river stones, jumping post rail fences, they spilled like ants escaping fire, not knowing they were heading for flood waters that would carry each away on a fragile leaf of a morning that none, not even the youngest, would ever forget.
It was Chloe who saw them first: the little Raposa girls, clinging to one another. Hands grasped tightly, they skittered through skirts of mothers and clumps of children. Their curdling yells for “Mama!” reached Chloe’s ears, and she ran towards them. When she saw Lisa and Jane making for the barn door, she double-timed her own little legs, and leapt to catch their clasped bodies; instead, just out of range, she slipped in the mud, fell, and came up empty-handed. Like a receiver who had both wind and ball knocked from her grasp, she rolled over in time to see the little pajama-clad pair slip through the door. She was upright when the rise of their screams began echoing through the barn, sending swallows and swifts from its eaves. It stilled everyone. Like a tableau vivant caught on stage, the shrill keening signaling the little girls’ terror filled the cove like a reverberating ringing caught in the curve of a bell.
Lydia threw another log on the fire and watched as the sparks flew up into the black starless sky. She sank back into the lawn chair, and leaned both elbows on both knees. Sighing heavily, as if there was not one more thing her body could do, she pulled papers and pot from her pocket and carefully began to roll a joint. Next to her, Chloe uncapped the jar of white moonshine, strawberry infused, made by locals in stills hidden in the hollers of these hills. She let the liquid tingle inside her mouth before swallowing. It was smooth, sweet, and satiny sliding down her throat. People have the wrong idea about moonshine, she thought. She looked over to Lydia, licking the gummed sleeve of the joint. Just like they have the wrong idea about weed. Lydia took a hit and passed it to Chloe, who traded it for the Mason jar. Lydia thought, Not even weed and ’shine can cut through the fogged horror of this morning.
Sadie emerged from the darkness, coming from the path in the woods. She sat beside Chloe, took the joint, held her breath, and exhaled a long, humming sadness. “Jimmy says not to worry about the boys. Says I can stay here tonight—if that’s OK with you, Lydia.”
“That’s fine with me, Sadie.”
“I’m staying, too.” Chloe said, handing Sadie the jar of moonshine. ’Shine was something Sadie would normally pass on, since she wasn’t much of a drinker, but she took the jar and stuck her nose in the opening. It was like getting a big whiff of a pungent, sweet flower. She inhaled again, and once more.
“For God’s sakes, Sadie; quit sniffing, and just take a sip. You’ll be glad you did,” Lydia said.
Sadie took a sip and another toke, then passed both down the line.
Up the drive came a pair of headlights, a car slowly bouncing towards them.
“Oh, crap. Who the hell is that?” Lydia squinted. “I am in no mood for anybody but us.”
Tasha turned off the ignition, and looked over to see that Riley was sleeping soundly on the seat next to her. She adjusted the pillow, and pressed a teddy bear securely into the crook of the little girl’s arm. Turning around, she checked to see that Lacy was safely strapped in her car seat, thumb in mouth. She tucked the blanket around the baby’s shoulders, and quietly slid out of the vehicle, closing the door gently. She walked towards the fire, where she saw that Lydia was not alone, but with Chloe and Sadie. Tasha did not know the two women well, but found she loved them anyway. All three of them, actually, Tasha considered as she approached. She was totally in love with all three of them. This thought comforted her, even though it wasn’t entirely true; she did love them all, but it was only one of them whom she was in love with—and this thought terrified her.
“Tasha!” Chloe exclaimed. “Is everything all right?”
“It is,” she said. Warming her back against the fire, she stood facing the three older women. “I was just…Well…” she turned and gestured to the car. “The girls are asleep in there.”
“Sit down,” Lydia said, patting the seat beside her. “Here.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mean to intrude…”
“No intrusion from you, Tasha,” Sadie took a long hit off the joint. “For a minute there, we thought you were Carly Samson; she would have definitely been an intrusion, but we like you.”
Tasha smiled, but it was an effort.
“You OK?” Lydia asked.
Tasha nodded, but actually wasn’t sure. She gladly sipped from the mason jar Lydia handed her, and let it settle her shaking hands and slow her thumping heart. “It’s just that when I got home, Mack had left a message saying he was going to spend another night away. And…Well…after this morning, I just didn’t want to be alone, I guess.”
“No worries there,” Sadie said. “Why do you think we’re all here?”
“I’m glad you came,” Lydia said, and patted Tasha’s hand.
Chloe soothed, “It’s times like this when it’s best not to be alone with the images imprinted in our minds. Sometimes they can be more terrifying than what we see with our own eyes. You can always look away from what’s in front of you, but when it’s in your brain…well, there’s no escaping it then.”
They were quiet for a while, each lost in her own thoughts.
“Chloe, did you know Marie was that unhappy?” Lydia asked.
Chloe’s eyes didn’t leave the fire when she nodded, somewhat regretfully. “I didn’t know it was this bad. I didn’t know that she was so angry, so desperate, so…determined.”
“What do you mean, determined?” Tasha asked.
“Oh, I don’t know how to even admit this, but Marie knew Frank was cheating on her. She told me so, and then I…Well, she and I would…Oh, it’s too awful.”
“You and she would what?” Sadie pressed. “You can’t just leave it there.”
“We went spying on him.”
“Like detectives. We’d follow him, watching through the windows; when possible, we’d take pictures. Marie would make notes. She swore it was for evidence later, when she filed for divorce—but she never filed, or even got a lawyer. It was almost as if she was more interested in plotting her revenge than actually carrying it out. I never thought…never could have even believed that this is how she’d do it. What have I done?”
“You’ve done nothing, Chloe, except try to help out a friend.”
“I don’t know about that, Lydia. A real friend wouldn’t have egged her on, treated it like a game. A real friend would’ve known it was unravelling her. A real friend would’ve listened better.”
“I’m sure you listened just fine.”
Chloe reached into her pocket and pulled out her journal, handing it to Lydia. “Then why’d she leave this in my journal?”
See how many whores will fuck you without me around to take care of your 7 fucking kids, clean your dirty fucking house, and blow your tiny fucking dick.
The Story Lady
Lydia read the note and passed it along to Tasha, who read it with wide eyes and passed it to Sadie.
“Jesus,” Sadie muttered. “What the hell?”
“You wouldn’t expect that those words came from Marie, would you?” Tasha said.
“You never know about people,” Lydia offered.
“I feel like I should’ve known about this. I should’ve known better, more…Or…I don’t know, something that could’ve helped or stopped her,” Chloe said.
“That’s not your burden,” Sadie said. “That’s a burden for Frank Raposa to bear.”
“That and seven orphaned children,” Tasha concurred.
“What should I do with this?” Chloe held up the journal. “I probably should’ve given it to the sheriff, but I just didn’t have the heart to expose any more of Marie than was already bared in her…passing.”
“Those poor children. That’s not something they should know about,” Sadie said.
“Frank Raposa should know it.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure Frank Raposa knows exactly why Marie did what she did, note or no note. If anything, Marie did put an end to his running around, pretty sure of that,” Lydia said.
Chloe said, “Lisa and Jane Raposa are going to be living with that final horrible image of Marie burned into their brains forever, just like it’s burned into ours. That’s bad enough.”
Tasha couldn’t help but shed a tear as she listened to the three older women, and tried to swallow back a sickening sadness.
“Throw it in the fire,” Lydia said.
Chloe looked stunned. “The note?”
“Yeah, the note. Get rid of it.”
“But…Shouldn’t I…tell someone?”
“Tell who? We know. That’s enough.”
“She’s right,” Sadie said. “No one needs to know about this. It’ll only be fodder for gossip, and you know how this valley loves gossip.”
“I don’t know,” Chloe hesitated and glanced again at the vileness written on the page. “Tasha? What do you think? You’ve been quiet.”
Tasha shrugged. “I think it’s the saddest thing in the world. The madness she must have had inside her…the pain that drove her to do such harm…to everyone. To herself, her kids, Frank…” a tear slid down Tasha’s cheek, and she felt embarrassed. “And to us.”
They all turned to her, surprised by the usually reserved Tasha’s forceful words.
“She did this to all of us,” Tasha said accusingly. She admitted to herself there were many times in the last few years when she’d thought to leave Mack, maybe even exit the planet; but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, knowing her absence would affect everyone in her life, even if she were no longer in it. “It was selfish,” she said quietly.
“She’s right,” Sadie said. “Marie did this to us all. We all have to live with a piece of this horror now.”
“Throw it in the fire,” Tasha said. “Words like that will only twist an already twisted heartache.”
Chloe felt her heart beating. Words…words mattered. She was a writer; she knew. Words were mightier than the sword. They were also mightier than the dollar, the position, even the purpose, because just a few right ones strung together in the right order, delivered to the right audience at the right time, could right the world—or wreck it. Her own words had earned her money, position, and purpose her entire adult life. They comprised her writerly sword, and with it she had learned how the right words could lift or crush a spirit. Tasha was right; Marie’s words made her suicide worse, somehow, more ugly than pitiful—if that’s fair, she questioned herself. Chloe ran a finger over the black etchings on the paper; the ridges of the imprinted symbols were scored into the page like Braille. She felt the fierce anger in each furrowed incision.
“No child should ever know something like this about her parents,” Lydia said, holding Chloe’s gaze. “It’ll be our secret, Chloe; we’ll keep it for those poor little Raposa kids.”
With that, Chloe ripped the page from her journal and tossed it into the flames.
Anna, Lydia, Del and Rae flipped through brochures while waiting for the incoming advising specialist of Living Oaks Estates to lead them on a tour of the facility. They’d left Patty back at the farm to watch over Frances, a duty she said she’d prefer to “Picking out Frances’ final resting place,” making Anna cry. The sisters were glad Patty wasn’t with them; her cryptic comments would just make Anna’s imminent choice that much harder.
The lobby of the Estates’ common house rivaled that of the finest hotels: thick carpeting, low chandelier lighting, and a live ensemble trio playing easy listening music in the corner, next to a massive rock fireplace burning a low, soothing gas flame. The overall peaceful energy was reflected in the relaxed smiles of the greeters, the medical caretakers, and the residents themselves. Anna noted that some were walking freely, if slowly. Many were using walkers, scooters, and motorized wheelchairs; a few were accompanied by uniformed helpers or a visiting family member. This caused Anna to imagine Frances, here, and knew she’d be in this last category.
“Feels like a funeral home,” Anna remarked.
“More like a spa, if you ask me,” Del said.
“Reminds me of the Four Seasons, in Manhattan,” Rae noted.
“Hello!” a chipper young woman in stylish business attire was already extending her right hand, heading for Lydia with a folder under her arm and a giant toothy smile on her face. She wore a lanyard around her neck displaying her photo ID. All the staff wore them, Anna noticed. “My name is Tiffany Thomas, and I will be your guide today. Any questions you have, just ask!”
After the introductions, Tiffany walked backwards while describing the scenery, showing off the in-house conveniences. She directed their attention to the beauty parlor, exercise room, theatre, post office, pharmacy, book store and café, pool, and on and on…It is a spa, Anna thought, but not one whose amenities Frances would ever enjoy. Anna followed behind the aunts with Amelia sleeping in the sling across her chest. She didn’t want to listen to the descriptions of the services and opportunities, or even the important stuff—the physical therapy programs, the incorporated care, and the memory center, which monitored decline and ministered appropriate care. The voices ahead sounded like the adults in the Peanuts cartoons she’d watched as a kid—Wah wah wah wah, wah—so she tuned them all out.
The tour ended in the type of apartment unit that would be most appropriate for Frances. It contained a small kitchenette, large bathroom, roomy bedroom, living room, and a gated garden area. They sat in the living area on the staged couches and chairs, listening as Tiffany whipped through the details of the residency terms—prison terms, Anna thought—and the kind of care provided. As far as Anna could tell, Frances would be locked up in this surreal place for the rest of her life, as her mind disappeared and she forgot everyone. What kind of daughter does that to her mother? Anna thought guiltily. She knew how good the farm had been for Frances in these last few weeks. She knew how settling Amelia’s arrival had been on Frances’ wandering, too; she’d stayed close to the house, and spent much of her time with her granddaughter. Amelia seemed soothing therapy for Frances. Maybe they’ll wait ’til the fall. She’d decided to put the move off when Lydia’s voice called her back to the conversation.
“Anna, did you hear Tiffany? There will be a unit ready at the end of next week,” Lydia said, careful in her choice of words. She’d watched Anna’s retreat from the guided tour, and saw Anna’s imagination taking over the benign scenarios, applying each to Frances. Lydia could tell that Anna wasn’t feeling the relief that everyone had hoped for her to find during the tour. Instead, a more determined look of stubborn machinations had appeared on her face; Lydia could surmise Anna was trying to figure out another way Frances could stay on the farm.
Anna only looked at them.
Del leaned across the table in Anna’s direction, seeing the same determination on Anna’s face that Lydia had. She said, quietly and pointedly, to her niece, “Anna, there is no other way. Do you understand?”
“Aunt Del’s right, Anna; it’s the most compassionate thing to do. You’ve got to see that now, don’t you?” Rae asked, gently.
Anna’s continuing silence prompted Lydia to take her hand and look into her daughter’s eyes. “It’s time, Anna. There’s Amelia to think about. That’s where your attention should be. That’s why these places exist: to take care of people like Frances, so that people like you—and Amelia—can live a normal life.”
Tiffany, in an efficient but unintrusive manner, shuffled the paperwork back into its fancy folder. Softly, she said, “We do realize how difficult this decision can be, and we want you to feel comfortable. So, how about I draw up the paperwork? That’ll take a couple of days, and you can all take that time to commit to it. A small deposit will hold the unit for a month. How does that sound?”
“That sounds ridiculous!” Del responded—not to Tiffany, but to Anna. “This damn thing needs to be done today! Now, Anna!”
“Now, Del—” Lydia started.
“No! This has to be said. Anna needs to get a handle on reality!” Del threw a dark glance at her older sister. “Here’s the thing, Anna. Rae and I are leaving at the end of the week. I’m assuming Lydia wants to go back to Santa Fe, and Patty’s leaving tomorrow for the Keys. So then what? Fucking then what, Anna?”
Lydia stood. “OK, stop, everybody.” Looking at Tiffany, Lydia said, “We’d like you to get the paperwork in order,” and handed her the deposit check she’d already written up.
They’d been silent on the drive back to the farm. Each had retreated to her own room without a word to the others. All were sad and frustrated and angry, but only Anna was confused. She’d fed and rocked Amelia on the balcony for a long time, thinking and not thinking. Trying to do the right thing isn’t always easy, she’d decided. She noticed there was singing coming from below, and she heard the voices of her aunts lifting from the kitchen window. She heard laughter and giggles, too. Oh, lord. Have they all gotten into the pot again? she wondered. Carrying Amelia in her basket, Anna went down to the kitchen.
The radio was playing and all the sisters, including Frances, were dancing and singing to the music. Patty was twirling with a joint hanging from her lips and a bottle of wine raised above her head. She waved to Anna. Del and Rae were dancing back to back, and Lydia held Frances’ hands as they two stepped. Anna placed Amelia’s basket on the nearby settee and did a little hop-step into the group. She imagined this as a scene from their girlhoods, picturing their younger selves dancing right here, listening to the very same radio—maybe even the very same station and songs. Frances spun to Patty, took a hit off the joint, then spun again to Anna, who laughed with her mother as they twisted together. Anna spun Frances off to Del and began dancing with Rae. After the third song had finished, they all plopped themselves into chairs around the table, having exhausted themselves.
“Oh, God…Remember when we would dance all night in the kitchen together? What fun we had,” Rae said.
“Especially after Daddy and Mama were gone. I hate to say it, but things got better for us, didn’t they?” Patty asked the sisters, who were scrutinizing her. “Seriously; when they…left , we were all so much happier. Don’t you think?”
“I do,” Del said. “I’ll admit it, I think things got a whole lot less complicated after all that business.”
“I just can’t believe these old bones can still click together to a tune and not fall apart,” Lydia said, redirecting the conversation. She took a long drink of water, then added, “Must be this old wrinkly skin holding them together.”
“Muscle and nerve memory is interesting,” Anna said. “Like when you hear a specific song, it can take you right back to the time you first heard it, or danced to it, or fell in love to it.” She got up from the table and went to the fridge for a drink. “Anybody want anything to drink? Mom, can I make you a drink?” Anna asked over her shoulder. When Frances didn’t answer, she turned around to see Frances was absent from the table. “Where’s Mom?” Anna slammed the fridge door closed.
The group searched the kitchen in a glance to see that Frances was missing.
Anna looked to the empty settee, where she’d set the baby basket earlier. “Where’s Amelia?”
They turned over chairs in the haste of their rising. Each woman took off in a different direction through the house. Upstairs, downstairs, through the parlor, through the Studio, and onto the back deck they raced, each calling Frances’ name.
All of them landed in the entry at the same time and shot out the front door, tumbling off the porch. They searched the nearby landscape in a circular pattern, covering the lane, the yard, the woods…They had started towards the barn when Lydia spotted Frances, sitting on the dock at the pond. She called her name and began her ascent up the path, heading towards the gazebo; the others followed first with their gazes, then ran to join her. Lydia stopped, holding out her arms like a gate. Anna and the sisters bumped into her and each other, freezing. They all saw the Moses basket floating in the pond, and Frances kicking her feet in the water while waving to the baby.
They sped to the water in one collective bunch. Lydia did not shed her jacket, jeans, or shoes before diving into the pond. Rae grabbed Anna to keep her from following Lydia while Del ran to the dock, lifted Frances by her hair and armpits, and began dragging her away. She was screaming at her sister, terrified and crying. They stood stock-still, holding a collective breath, as they watched Lydia carefully near the rocking basket. She heard Amelia mewing inside, caught a glimpse of waving feet and wiggling toes, and reached a slow hand to the basket. She was in over her head, treading water while trying not to disturb the unsteady cradle. Able to gently push the basket ahead, she and the baby floated carefully to shore. Anna broke from Rae’s hold, reached to the water and grabbed the basket first try. She lifted a surprisingly dry and cooing baby from the bed, marched past the sisters into the house, and locked herself and her daughter in the apartment, letting the sisters tend to each other.
Patty, who’d stood back smoking a cigarette while her sisters leapt into action, had watched the near tragedy play out before her—not unlike her handling of every tragedy that had played out before her throughout her lifetime, beginning with their father, but not ending with their mother. They’d found Roy, her first husband, in the bottom of his fishing boat. It had sprung a leak and was half full of water by the time they’d turned him face up, an empty whiskey bottle in his hand. Patty’s last husband, Dave, had died of a coronary right before her very eyes, breaking her heart. She considered Dave the best one of all her husbands. These were her tragedies.
They’d changed Frances clothing before trying to calm her with some soup, which she wouldn’t eat. After administering Frances’ insulin, Lydia threw away the empty insulin vial and syringe, then crept back to Frances’ bed, sitting beside her sister. Taking Frances’ hand, she looked into her blank eyes. Lydia could tell that Frances had no idea who she was, but was smiling expectantly nonetheless.
“I love you, sister,” Lydia whispered, hoping for the words to be returned, but the vacant stare Frances held since she’d been dragged away from the pond was one that Lydia thought would remain forever. She stroked Frances’ damp forehead, remembering the baby, the little girl, the calf-wrangler, teenager, and mother Frances had been. Lydia pressed her lips to Frances’ forehead, tears streaming down her face. “I’m so sorry, baby sister. I’m so very sorry.” Frances fell asleep in Lydia’s arms.
They gathered in the kitchen around the table. Anna and her aunts were all very quiet, still shaken from the afternoon’s episode at the pond. No one said a word while they waited for Lydia, who emerged from the pantry carrying a mason jar of clear moonshine and a sleeve of paper cups.
“I think we can all use a little kick of this. Don’t you agree, ladies?” Lydia poured carefully and passed around the cups. She filled hers last and lifted it first. “Here’s lookin’ atcha, ’cuz that’s all I’ve got in me right now.” She saluted and slammed back the shot.
They all downed the first one, and sipped the next.
Anna looked at them, and cleared her throat. She said softly, “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.” It was all she could get out before tears brimmed. Every time she pictured the reed basket floating on the pond, she wanted to vomit; she’d never been so scared in her life. When she closed her eyes, trying not to think it, she couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened had they found Frances even three minutes later, or after the basket had flipped. Ugh, she thought, knowing she couldn’t help that she was on the edge of a full-blown freak out. Lydia reached over and took her hand. She seemed to have been reading Anna’s mind.
“Everything—You hear me? Everything is just fine.” Lydia soothed. “The baby is fine, you are fine, we’re all fine…and in a few days, Frances will be fine.”
Anna crumpled into Lydia’s arms and sobbed.
“Look, honey,” Rae said. “We’ll all be here until the apartment is ready for Frances at the end of the week.”
“That’s right; Anna, we won’t abandon you. We’ll stay through to see her settled,” Del said, very gently—especially for Del. “We’ll take turns with Frances. We’ll be on shifts ’til it’s time.”
Anna nodded and blew her nose. “I know she can’t stay here. I think I’ve known it all along, it’s just…well…she’s my mom…” was all Anna could say.
Lydia looked around the table. “Someone should sleep in the room with Frances. We can take turns, starting tonight. Any takers?”
“Not me,” Del said. “No offense, but as you can tell, I don’t have the patience. Not for a nighttime shift, anyway. I’ll do barn duty with her. You know: she finds the egg, I re-hide it…takes hours. That’s what I’ve got in me.”
“Well, if I’m going to be on shift, I’m going to need my sleep tonight. I am wrung out. It should be Patty, anyway,” Rae said.
“Me? Why me?”
“Because you haven’t done a damn thing since you got here. You didn’t want to even talk about the nursing home for Frances, never mind visit it.”
“Hey! Somebody had to stay here with her.”
“And today,” Rae complained, “all you did was stand there smoking while your great-niece was floating in the middle of the pond!”
“Look, you all seemed to have it under control. Lydia did what Lydia always does: charge to the rescue! And Del went off on Frances, which is the kind of thing Del has always done. You made sure Anna didn’t dive in after Lydia, which was your kind of thing to do. Me? I wait to see where I’m needed. What do you want from me?”
“To take the first night shift with Frances,” Del said, and got up. “I’m going to bed.”
“Fine,” Patty said, “I’ll be glad to get it out of the way.”
They turned off lights, locked up doors, and headed to their respective rooms.
Lydia turned the key in the lock to Frances’ room. She and Patty tiptoed inside, then pulled out sheets, blankets, and an extra pillow from the closet. “Here, I’ll help make up the little cot for you,” she said. “We brought it in here the first night we brought Frances home from Maine. Anna and I took turns until she seemed OK to sleep through the night. It’s not bad. Mattress is comfy.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve slept on worse, believe me,” Patty said.
After they’d finished, Lydia turned to Patty. “The little fridge here is mostly for Frances’ insulin, but there’s water, juice, some snacks, and fruit in it if either of you need it.” She looked over at Frances, sound asleep thanks to a double dose of the sedative Lydia had given her earlier. “I think she’s out for the night.”
Patty followed Lydia’s gaze. “I hope you’re right. I’d like a good sleep.”
Lydia turned at the threshold. “I’m going to lock you in. You OK with that?”
“You gonna let me out in the morning?” Patty sort of teased.
“Of course. Well…that is, if I don’t lose the key,” Lydia said, and laughed. “’Night, Pats…and thanks.”
The next morning, Lydia was up early. Tapping lightly on Frances’ door, she turned the key and entered the darkened room. Frances was turned on her side, deeply tucked and snuggled under the covers. Lydia tiptoed to Patty, on the cot. She too was sound asleep, and snoring softly. Lydia gently shook her shoulder, and Patty turned, squinted, and tried to get her bearings.
“Lydia? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. It’s early, I admit, but I wanted to see if you needed me to take over.”
“And you woke me up for this?”
“I know; I see the absurdity in it now. Want me to bring you some coffee?”
“Is my shift over?” Patty looked at Frances. “She OK?”
“Sleeping still. Probably traumatized about yesterday.”
“Aren’t we all?” Patty sat up and slung her feet over the side of the cot. She went into the bathroom, not closing the door to do her business. She asked, “Is it cold outside? It feels cold in here.”
“A little frosty this morning. Why?”
“I want to go have a smoke, and I don’t have a jacket,” she said coming out of the bathroom.
“Here, take my sweater,” Lydia said peeling it off, and handing it to her sister. “I’ll takeover here.”
“I’ll bring you coffee when I come back up,” Patty said, and closed the door behind her.
Lydia had fallen asleep on the cot in Frances’ room. It wasn’t Patty returning with coffee that had awakened her with a start, but something else. Something frightening, she guessed, since her heart was racing. She sat up and placed her hand against her breast, attempting to slow her heartbeat with a few deep breaths while allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim light of the room. What had awakened her so abruptly? She heard voices and movement down below. Peering at her watch, she saw it was nearly nine; she’d slept quite a bit, and saw a cup of coffee by the clock on the little night stand. It was cold. She steadied her breathing and cocked her head like a hound dog, listening to…nothing. That’s when it dawned on her; she was hearing only her own breath. No sound came from Frances, who was in the same position she’d been in earlier, when Lydia had relieved Patty of her duties. She crept closer to her sister.
“Frances?” Lydia placed her hand on her sister’s shoulder, bending to see her face—but she was on her side, and her head was deep in her pillow. Lydia shook her sister’s shoulder, but nothing felt right. Frances was rigid. Lydia backed away, dismayed. How many dead bodies can one discover in a lifetime? she wondered. Lydia turned and started banging on the locked door. Panic set in; when no rescue seemed coming, she started kicking the door and yelling. It took a few minutes for the sisters to reach her, but by then Lydia—strong, stalwart Lydia—was sitting on the floor with her back against Frances’ bedstead, in a heap of sobbing choking tears. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what was happening. Del stepped over Lydia and climbed onto Frances’ bed. She tried for a pulse, a breath, any faint sign of life, but finally the cold of her sister’s skin told her the situation was hopeless.
Del looked at Rae and Patty. “She’s gone.”
Earlier, Anna had left to take Amelia to her doctor’s appointment; she said she would be errand running for awhile afterwards. Lydia had learned this while rocking with her coffee on the porch, waiting for the ambulance and Doc Morton to show up. Lydia wasn’t sure whether to call Anna, just let them take Frances, or make them wait until Anna returned so she could say one last goodbye. Oh, hell; who knows what’s the right thing to do? she thought. Lydia had called Tasha, who always knew the right thing to do—but all she could offer was “Sometimes it’s OK to do nothing, let it unfold itself. You’ll know what to do soon enough.” Which may have been the truth, but certainly wasn’t the right thing.
The doctor had arrived with the ambulance, conducted his exam of Frances, and directed the medics to take her body to the ambulance. He’d spoken quietly with the sisters, most of whom he’d known since they were kids in high school together. He’d assured them that the kind of shock Frances had endured the day before, the trauma of it, the stress on her heart, was unlikely to be the cause of death. “With dementia,” he said thoughtfully, “sometimes, the whole body just forgets how to work.” And with that, he left the sisters to their grieving—all except Patty.
“I’m outta here!” Patty announced, stepping onto the porch as the green and yellow airport shuttle pulled up.
“What?!” Del and Rae shouted together. They were sitting on the porch with Lydia, waiting for Anna to get home. “What do you mean, you’re outta here?”
Patty hefted a bright orange duffle bag. She was dressed in flip flops, a tank top, and Bermuda shorts. “You heard me. I made my flight reservation this morning. I was lucky; I didn’t think I’d get one ’til tomorrow…but there’s room on the four-oh-five, turns out!”
“Patty, Frances just died. Anna doesn’t even know yet. Aren’t you even going to stay to bury your own sister?”
“Nope. I’m gonna leave that to all you weepy campers.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, you all can sit here twistin’ your tissues, bawling your eyes out, bein’ all sad Frances is dead if you want to, but not me. If you ask me, couldn’t be better timing. If you ask me, Frances is in a better place than she’d ever be, in some damn facility where nobody knows your name—not even you. Nope, I’m happy for her. And so, no; I don’t care to sit around cryin’ over spilled milk.” She hugged each of her sisters, and made her way down the steps. “Tell Anna I love her, and tell her to bring that baby down to see her auntie and granny in the Keys.”
“Well, I’ll be,” Rae said.
“You’ll be what?” Del asked.
“I don’t know, but I’ll be. I think Patty might be the most selfish person I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Rae said.
“People don’t change,” Lydia said. “Not really.”
Thankfully, there was no time to continue the conversation as Anna’s Jeep came bumping down the lane. She tooted the horn and waved to them.
“Oh, Lord; here we go,” Del said.
They’d held the funeral at the farm. It was a small gathering. Just the sisters, except Patty, and Judith, Josh, and Little Mike attended, and an old friend of Lydia’s, Carol: a newly-minted, computer-based priestess who’d only performed weddings up until this, her first funeral. She said nice things that no one really heard and recited an ancient prayer that no one really knew, finally lifting her arms to the heavens, beseeching a God no one really believed in to take care of their sister.
Del and Rae left for the airport right after the funeral. No one shed tears at this parting; they’d all been spent these last few weeks. Both the sisters and their niece were glad they were leaving. Once they were gone, Lydia, Amelia, and Anna were alone together. Anna thought the house seemed empty, and a little sad. It was the same way she’d felt after all the old gals had gone for good last spring, which felt like a lifetime ago—and she guessed it had been. Anna was hoping Lydia would stay a little longer; having her near was a comfort, she’d found, since Frances’ passing.
Sitting on the balcony rocking Amelia after her meals was becoming a ritual she shared with her daughter. Anna pictured them eating bowls of cereal before school when Amelia got older, and they could actually speak in full sentences to one another. For now, Anna pointed to the birds and named their songs for the baby whose eyes were just beginning to focus. Anna told Amelia big stories, and she watched the contortions of her daughter’s mouth as she began to attempt small, expressive responses to her mother’s words. Anna hadn’t quite figured them out yet, but reacted to each gurgle and coo with the same astounded surprise and delight. Lydia was right; everything was fine, even when it wasn’t. Anna was learning to accept that: accept that life has a way of rolling in regardless of our plans, and all any of us can do is respond to it with our better selves.
Anna heard the back door open and slam close, and saw Lydia step onto the lawn. She was wearing her favorite pink and gray sweater. It sure is chilly enough for it this morning, Anna thought, watching her mother—yes, her mother—make her way to the barn, to her cows: those big beautiful bossies who’d saved her life, those many years ago. Oh, maybe not the same ones, but ones like them. They’d brought Lydia and now Anna comfort, respite, and joy. Anna thought she would keep cows and chickens for Amelia—and herself, she admitted. Maybe there would be soft, wooly, pet lambs in their future, too. She could picture Amelia romping with lambs and chickens and cows. Anna could imagine that, and it made her smile.
Lydia had decided to take one last moment with her cows. She’d made her plane reservations for the next morning, although she hadn’t told Anna yet. She knew her daughter—yes, her daughter—wanted her to stay longer. But she was missing Tasha, and feeling the aching in her joints that this damp cold morning inspired, even with her sweater buttoned up to her throat. She caught a whiff of cigarette in its yarn, and remembered that Patty had last worn it the morning Frances had died. Lydia had never been a smoker, but she didn’t mind the smell—it reminded her of Patty, and that was somehow comforting.
Lydia stopped by each stall, petting the soft muzzles and looking into big curious eyes. Oh, how she loved them; her only regret about Santa Fe was not being able to see her cows each morning. Tasha had rescued a little black and white cat and named her Vache, which was French for ‘cow,’ but it didn’t quite translate for Lydia. Funny, she thought, the things we women do to make each other and ourselves happy. Little things, selfish things, inadvertent things…but more often determined things—things that help us forget, help us cope, and help us remember. And then there are those things done in desperation: silence and secrets, befriending and betraying, lovingly lying to protect us and save us from and for ourselves. Women do and have always done these things.
Lydia stepped backwards, a few feet away from the cows and into the middle of the barn. She slowly turned in a 360, taking in every small part of its dusty sweetness. Particles of the whole farm floated in sunbeams squeezing through cracks. She eyed the chickens, squatting fat and happy on the eggs in their nests. A small tilt of her head, and she listened to swallows swooping across rafters. When she’d come full circle, she closed her eyes, breathed in slowly, and slid her hands into the pockets of her sweater. In the right pocket, she felt the butt of the cigarette Patty had smoked that last morning before she left. At least she didn’t throw it on the ground, Lydia thought. In her left pocket, her fingers absently smoothed a small cold, glass bottle.
She pulled out the empty insulin vial and syringe. Staring at them in her palm, as if they’d come alive and were dancing on the flat of her hand like cobras, she tried to wrap her mind around their appearance in her sweater pocket. Lydia thought of Frances’ last night alone with Patty. It wasn’t so hard to imagine, going back to the beginning: to Patty and Mama. Lydia slid back the big door, squinting against the blinding sunlight.
She tossed the empty vial and needle into the trash bin as she left the barn.
About the Author
Cynn Chadwick is an author of seven novels: Cat Rising; Girls With Hammers; Babies, Bikes, and Broads; Cutting Loose; Angels and Manners; As The Table Turns; and That's Karma, Baby... Her books have been nominated for the Lambda, Golden Crown, and Stonewall Literary Awards. Over the course of her career, she has done readings and speaking engagements including: Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans, The Authors' Arena at Book Expo America in Chicago, Human Rights Campaign Headquarters, DC, AWP in Atlanta, Amelia Island Book Festival, FL, Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville and UNCA are just a few of her past speaking and reading engagements. She holds a BA from Norwich University and both an MA and MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. Over the last, nearly, thirty years, she taught creative writing to fifth-graders and senior citizens, teachers and homeless teens, college students and convicted felons and have been equally touched by each of their stories. She lives with her wife Elenna and their Springer Spaniel, The Amazing Andy, in the Blue Ridge Mountains is where she taught in the English Department and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.