Author Archive for Lindsay Gasik

04
Oct
07

Exit at Nowhere’sville

By the time you’re six you know everything. You know that the sky is blue because that was God’s favorite color and that snow is made by Christmas Elves. You know that the scariest thing is the monster hidden under your bed and that your mother knows how to stop cars when you hold her hand across the street. You know that Jesus loves you and that your old dog Sadie went to heaven when she died.
By the time that you’re twenty you know that not everyone thinks that Sadie went to heaven and your mom got hit by a car walking through the Fred Meyer’s parking lot. You know that color is arbitrary and no one can explain cold and that Santa will never visit you because you haven’t had a chimney since you were seven. You know that the scariest thing in the world is dying and that Jesus doesn’t give a goddamn about you. And you wonder if anyone really does.
By the time you’re twenty you don’t know anything.
I spent one summer working at a gas station just off the Interstate. People came and went from all over, stepping crisp and sore from air conditioned cars into the soggy square of shade held up by gas pump pillars. Beyond our station was nothing; foggy blue sky and row after row of dusty barren hill, a tan and teal square of the world’s patchwork quilt. I always wondered what inspired people to stop at our station instead of driving the 15 miles farther to Greensboro, the main city. I don’t know why they call it Greensboro either. Green is a color I’ve never seen around here. But the station was always full of beat up station wagons from the sixties and hay plastered farm trucks, crabby squalling kids and half-drunken truck drivers that made me glad that I had nowhere to go.
Sometimes the driver might talk to me as they handed me their credit or debit or plain paper cash, tell me where they were going, or why they were driving that skinny frying pan stretch. I heard about weddings and vacations, births and friendly visits. But rarely I ever heard about a death. People going to a funeral aren’t apt to admit it to anyone, maybe not even to themselves. I don’t know why people would tell me these things, leaning out their car window with one hand on the wheel letting the cool air out the window and the hot air out their mouth. Maybe secretly everybody hopes that somebody out there cares and they’re willing to try near about everyone just in case it’s that somebody. Or maybe my presence in this overheated despair-hole evoked some kind of muted pride that they were heading off on the road.
I was paused leaning against the narrow air conditioned box where they sell cigarettes talking to C.C. and his lip piercing when his eyes slide to something just behind my head. He nods in that direction. Check them out he says and I turn around to look leaving a fog of condensed sweat on the glass where I was leaning. I don’t know why but the company makes us where a dark grey polo and jeans with our name embroidered in stiff red thread on the left pocket. Everyday around 4 o’clock those polos get to feeling like you’re wearing a jacuzzi instead of a shirt with a decoration waterfall running down your shoulder blades into the small of your back.
I look where C.C. is looking and I see two girls stepping out of a dark blue convertible bug the color of the sky at the edges of the horizon. First thing I think is that it’s too hot to be riding without the AC but I can see from the way their hair is still flying and loose from the ponytails that they’ve been riding top down the whole way. The driver rises from her seat and keeps rising until she’s nearly as tall as I am, the blonde poof of her ponytail just above my eyebrows. She walks around to our side and I can see her long long legs in tight bleached jeans above the hood of the car. Her streamlined body reaches even higher as she stretches each limb as quivering and pale as a swan. A perfect swan and you can see by the way she swings her icy hips that she knows it. The other girl stretches too revealing a flat brown stomach over her shorts. She looks up at Swannie from her compact height and laughs. I admire their contrast which to me is like some sort of colored painting on the stark landscape, the kind of contrast they talk about in high school english. Tall and short. Light dark. North south. Winter summer.
Swannie glances at me and C.C. both looking at her and rolls her pale sky eyes at her friend. Her friend just laughs again. I admire her short short shorts, as short as Swannie’s long long legs are long. A loud splash of color runs down the seam and it shows up sharp and brilliant against her polished brown skin. She is a bell, narrow waist and wide hips all polished copper brown like her flat brown stomach still peeking out between her shirt and shorts.
They begin to stroll toward us, the short one swinging her bell hips and Swannie sailing her frosted hair in a breeze that never existed before in our cement dull-drum.
“How much for a pack of Marlboro Reds?” Swannie asks, cool as that imaginary wind.
C.C. raises his eye brow ring. “Your mother know you’re buying cigs?” he asks.
“My mother doesn’t get a say in these things,” Swannie says without batting an eye. “How much?”
C.C. looks at me and winks. “With a beautiful cold complexion like yours you shouldn’t smoke,” C.C. says to the girl.
“I’m taking that as a compliment. Now are you going to sell me cigs or not?”
“You know those ads about losing weight aren’t true either. If you start smoking I think you might blow away in all the wind we get here.”
Swannie freezes and glares at him through the window. She knows and I know that the only wind around here is the wind that still flies through her hair. I think her eyes must be shooting daggers because I can feel prickles all over but C.C. just sits there and smiles, looking her up and up. Bell starts to wiggle uncomfortably, wagging her round round in those little shorts. It makes me uncomfortable too.
“C.C. just give her the cigs,” I say at last. “You’re acting retarded.”
Swannie doesn’t even blink, but Bell gives me a beautiful grin. “Yes,” she smiles. “Please.”
C.C pauses and looks at me. There’s a dimple around his lip piercing from being annoyed. “I’m going to have to ask for your I.D. Maybe I’ll find your phone number so can call your mom.”
“Seriously man.What are you doing?” I say, shrugging off C.C.’s glare. “Don’t give them a hard time. They know what they’re doing.”
C.C. stops and looks at me again, looking hard and thinking. A twisted grin splits his mouth drawing the skin around his piercing tight. “Don’t listen to this loser.” C.C. tells the girls. “He doesn’t even know what he’s doing.”
I glare at C.C. but now Swannie’s looking at me. “J.D.” she reads off my pocket. “Do all you guys go by your initials?”
“No,” I start quickly but C.C. cuts me off.
“How old are you now, twenty?” he says with disgust. “When are you ever going to go do with your life? You’ll be an old man pumping gas.”
“Hey, you’re still here too,” I snap. “Why don’t you go do something with your life?”
“’Cause I already did and I crashed and burned,” C.C. replies, smacking his lips with relish on the “b” of burned. His piercing draws tight. “Besides I don’t pump gas. I sell cigs.” He sits back smug like he won something.
“How is that different?” I start to demand but Bell is asking a question and the words die on my lips.
“Well what do you want to do?” Bell turns and looks up at me with her warm pudding brown eyes. It makes me feel all squirmy inside like spaghetti before its been rinsed.
“Dunno.” I mutter.
“Are you going to college?” Bell asks.
“No.”
“Going to school?”
“No.”
“Got a girlfriend?”
“Jesus, no. Its not your freaking business!” I practically shout, stumbling not to cuss. “Do you want regular unleaded or plus?”
“Neither. I didn’t come for gas. I came to pick up something to smoke.” All this time Swannie’s been watching us with her sky eyes rolling back and forth. She whips out her I.D. and slaps it on the stained counter.
“It’s probably fake.” C.C. says. He doesn’t move.
“Prove it.” Swannie hisses, leaning on the counter and staring him down. He stares back non-plussed. Bell begins to swing again.
“Fine. There you go. Reds. Go die of tar poisoning.” C.C. leans back and glares at all of us, his lip piercing protruding sulkishly.
“Thanks,” Swannie answers, grabbing the pack without even looking at it. She throws some wadded bills from her tight little pocket onto the counter and turns around. “C’mon Julia. Let’s get outta here.” Julia, Julia, the swinging bell.
“Where are you going?” I ask her as she starts to follow the icy swan trail back to her car.
“Road tripping,” she replies, smiling and bringing a flood of warmth back. I can feel sweat squeeze out my neck and trickle down my spine. “Our last chance before college.”
“Where to?” I ask.
“I don’t know exactly. We just sort of find out as we go. Its all part of the fun I guess.” she shrugs and smiles. A ringlet curl sticks to her forehead.
“Oh,” I say and start to watch her cross the cement square, leaving. “Hey,” I say impulsively. “What’s your number?” The words slide out fast before I can think and go swimming over the drowned cement.
She stops and doesn’t say anything for a minute and I know she’s going to see my sweaty grey polo and gasoline slick hair and say no. “Why?” she says instead.
I fumble. “I just wanted to talk to you sometime. Y’know. You seem pretty cool.” Someone’s turned the heat up even more and suddenly I’m melting in hot and sweat like that wicked witch turned into just a gray polo shirt that says J.D. in red thread.
“Okay,” she says. Two little pink roses blushes in each cheek, the petals spreading onto the sides of her nose. She pulls a little notebook from her purse and scratches down her number. The paper is magenta.
“Thanks,” I say and all at once I can’t stand the sticky gasoline stench that seems to sneak into my pores and clog my nose with heat and dead animal particles, dampening the pink paper with dirt. I repeat it. “Thanks.”
Julia turns away and jumps into the blue bug the color of the dark sky. Swannie’s had the motor running since she got in and the little car jumps as she backs it out. Julia turns and laughs through her seat belt at me, hair flying, out onto the Interstate to wherever. To nowhere. To part of the fun.
I watch them go and then start scrubbing dead flies off some old guy’s windshield who’s been griping about how only the young girls get attention these days and what a pity it is that the newest generation has no manners.
I’m twenty years old. I don’t know if there’s a heaven for Sadie to go to or why my mother lost her power to stop cars in that Freddy’s parking lot one day. I don’t know if color looks the same to everybody or if there’s cure to world violence. I don’t know why strangers off the Interstate leaning out car windows wasting fossil fuel tell me all the silly details of their silly lives. I don’t know if anyone cares. I don’t.
But I sure as hell know that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life washing the bugs off some hairless old man’s window. I hand the old fellow his rag and say “Wash it yourself.” He goes to sputtering and I walk right past him to lean back against C.C’s box. He looks at me with some amusement.
“What’s going on, partner?” he asks.
“Quittin’” I say, and nod as if that makes it more real.
“Where’re you off to?” he asks. “There’s nowhere else to get a job in this shit hole.”
“Don’t know,” I say. “Somewhere. Nowhere. I don’t know.”
“Sounds kinda aimless,” C.C. says.
“Yeah,” I say. “But that’s part of the fun.”
I’ve got Julia’s number clenched tight in my hand.

31
Aug
07

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
“She is half-crazy!” he was yelling. “Some sort of little she-witch! Brujita!”
As always, Crystal snickered at his accent. She lay on her bed with her crinkly brown hair strewn out like a fan across her pillow, listening to the argument down the apartment hall.
“Julio,” her mother begged. “You’re not going to let an 8 year old girl ruin our relationship, are you? Things were going so well.”
“Ya, except for that little punta!” he shouted, “There’s no way I’m living with no loco-crazy daughter! She tried to kill me!”
“She’s just a little girl,” Mami protested.
“No man is ever going to love you with a daughter like that,” Julio said, and slammed the door.
From her bed Crystal heard Mami sigh and smiled. Little she-witch. Brujita. She liked the sound of that. She rubbed her fingers together and gave an experimental cackle. Crystal the wicked witch.
She lay quiet as Mami clumped tiredly around the tiny apartment, hands behind her head wondering which of her tricks had finally sent Julio over the edge. He had been harder to get rid of than the other boyfriends. It was early early, before Mami had to leave for work. Soon she would wake Thomas in the room next door and help him get ready for his paper route. Through the curtain on the window the yellow glow of the street lamp bloomed like a dandelion head.
Crystal snuggled deeper into the covers and closed her eyes, flicking her too-thick hair away from her neck. In the other room she could hear Thomas waking noisily and slumping down the hall. She sprung from her bed and flung the door open, launching herself at Thomas just as he passed.
“Can I go with you today?” she begged loudly, wrapping her arms securely about his waist. “Please Thomas please?”
Her older brother dragged her into the living room. “Crystal, get off,” he said. “Mami, make Crystal get off.”
“Crystal, leave your brother alone!” Mami scolded. “I’ve had enough of your behavior.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Crystal protested.
“Oh, like I haven’t heard that one before. Tell me then, who switched Julio’s shaving cream for Nair?”
“I don’t know,” Crystal replied innocently, quickly switching topics. “Why can’t I go with Thomas?”
“Because Thomas has work to do. He’s a contributing member of this family, unlike you,” Mami shot back at her.
“I could have a paper route too,” Crystal said poutily. “If you hadn’t made me leave my bike at Daddy’s.”
“We don’t have room for another bicycle,” Mami said. “I’ve already explained this to you over, and over, and over.”
“I don’t care. It’s not fair. Why can’t I go with you, Thomas?” Crystal asked, turning to her older brother.
“I’m really tired right now, Crystal. I need to get this done. But I promise to let you take a ride after school today, okay? If you get all your homework done.”
“Okay,” Crystal unhappily agreed.
“There’s a pop-tart in the toaster for you,” Mami said, giving Crystal a kiss on the cheek. She paused in the kiss and hissed, “And you had better behave yourself today, God help me if I get another letter from Ms. Chessen…” she left the sentence hanging. She grabbed her coat and purse off the rack. Crystal stuck out her tongue at her turned back.
“Where’s Sean?”
“In the corner,” Crystal said, jerking her thumb at the couch. “Where he always is.”
Mami ran to the corner, her black high heeled shoes squishing down into the carpet. “Bye Sean,” she said over the couch back, “Mami will see you tonight.”
“I want the kitchen to be clean when I get home,” she said over her shoulder, and closed the door.
Crystal sneered and repeated the words to the closed door.
She went into the kitchen and pulled the pop tart out of the toaster. She gave it a contemptous lick and dropped it onto the counter.
“Hey Seanie,” she called, clambering onto the counter and pulling down a plate. “Breakfast!”
There was no movement from behind the couch. Crystal wandered into living room and peered over the couch at her half-brother. His downy mouse brown hair was ruffled like a baby bird. He sat criss-cross apple sauce, coloring the brown-grey carpet with red, blue and yellow legos.
“Seanie, I brought your breakfast,” Crystal said, waving the pop-tart in front of his face.
Sean glanced up, his grey eyes carefully watchful. Tentatively he reached up for the tart, but Crystal whisked it up out of reach, giggling.
“Not fast enough,” she cackled. “Try again.” Sean watched her for a few seconds, then gave a dismissive shrug and looked back down at his legos.
“Oh all right, you can have it.” Crystal dropped the pop-tart on Sean’s head. She turned around and sat with arms folded looking at the yellowing wall. She drummed one finger on her arm. A pale greyish light from the rising morning snuck in through the closed curtains. Crystal threw open the curtains and looked out onto the shadowy rain washed street. Thomas should be back soon. He would be all wet from riding through puddles. Crystal thought of her bike, carefully parked on the porch of her old house, the house where Daddy was.
She thought back to the days before the divorce. On rainy days Daddy would make his special hot chocolate, made with real chocolate bars and milk. Only Crystal was allowed to help make it. It was one of her special recipes, hot chocolate and chocolate cookies and anything with chocolate, just like cinammon bars and pies were Thomas’ recipes. Sean didn’t have any recipes, she realized smugly. He wasn’t Daddy’s kid.
Maybe she would make some hot chocolate for Thomas. Then maybe Thomas would let her go with him on the paper route. She got up off the couch and went to her room, where she kept the special dark chocolate her Daddy gave her for birthdays and holidays and Behaving-good days.
Crystal glanced at the clock. It was only seven o’clock. Plenty of time before school. She poured two mugs of milk, struggling a little with the milk gallon because it was mostly full. Then she broke off 2 squares of the chocolate, and hacked them into little pieces with the knife. It made sort of a mess, but Thomas would help her clean it up. She stood on a stool to put the mugs in the microwave.
Then she ran to the window to look for Thomas. The rain slid across the glass panes, streaking the street with varying shades of grey and black and yellow from the dying streetlamp. After awhile she saw him zip around the corner, throwing up a sheet of water. He parked the bike neatly against the wall and ran inside.
“Thomas!” Crystal met him at the door. “Guess what I made! I made Daddy’s hot chocolate!”
“Oh that sounds good,” Thomas said. “Thanks, Crystal.”
He hung his coat on the rack and went to change into drier clothing. Crystal set his steaming mug onto the table next to a poptart Mami had left. On second thought, she threw the pop-tart away and put a piece of plain bread into the toaster.
Thomas re-entered the kitchen, Sean clinging to his jeans. “Thanks,” he said again, shoving the toast into his mouth. Crystal sat across from him at the table, enjoying the warmth of her mug. It was just like before, but without Daddy.
“What’s that?” Sean asked, pointing to the mug.
“It’s hot chocolate,” Thomas asked. “Crystal, didn’t you make him any?”
“No,” Crystal admitted.
“Why not?” Thomas asked, handing the mug to Sean. Sean raised it to his lips with both hands, the jar-like shape obscuring most of his face.
“I made that for you!” Crystal howled. “Why did you give it to him?”
“Why didn’t you make him his own?” Thomas asked.
“Because it’s Daddy’s and mine secret recipe.”
“He’s our brother, Crystal,” Thomas said tiredly, eating the rest of his toast. His dark face had darker rings around his eyes. His curly hair was black with rain.
“He is not,” Crystal said beligerantly.
“Same mom, different dad. He’s our half-brother.”
“That doesn’t count,” Crystal insisted. “He’s not my brother.”
“He is our brother. And you should treat him like it,” Thomas said, taking Sean by the hand and leading him into the other room. “C’mon Sean, Let’s get you ready for school.”
Crystal put the dishes into the sink. She looked down into her half-full mug and dumped the remaining contents into the sink too. She was immediately sorry as the thick brown liquid flowed away down the drain.

30
Aug
07

Hunter

Hunter
Hunter sat on the steps outside the store where his daddy worked, selling milk and eggs to the mothers and cigarettes and whiskey to the men. The sun was sinking behind the old buildings, dyeing the sky a startling blood red. Hunter sucked at his teeth, prodding the one in the front with his tongue. It was a little loose, and wiggled when he pushed at it. He was worried it might fall out. He knew that sometimes people lost teeth in fights. His own daddy was missing the front one on the right. But teeth weren’t supposed to fall out on their own, at least not as far as Hunter knew.
Hunter had never been in a fight. At least, not a real one. He had been in a couple of school yard scraps, but the yard teacher always came over and broke it up before anyone started throwing punches. Hunter’s daddy used to be in a lot of fights. He had a long scar down one cheek from a knife cut. His daddy was so tough that he had won that fight with his bare hands. Hunter was dreadfully proud of his daddy for this. Hunter sometimes wished he would get a long scar down his cheek too, to prove his bravery and make his daddy proud.
His daddy didn’t do much fighting anymore, except sometimes with Hunter’s mama when he came home drunk. He said a smart man avoided such things, because he was liable to get himself killed, or put in jail, and then what would Hunter and his mama do? Now that Hunter’s mama was pregnant again, his daddy didn’t even fight with her anymore. Hunter was awful glad about that. His mama always cried afterward, and it made Hunter sad and sorta scared.
Hunter could tell from the way his daddy was closing up shop that he had had a bad day. Hunter guessed that he had already started on one of the beers he sold in the store, and would want to go to the pub down the street where the men went to drink. That meant that Hunter would have to go home by himself. He shivered a little, thinking about the darkness waiting for him. He wished he could go with his daddy to the pub, where it was warm and light. But Hunter wasn’t allowed to go in there.
Once he had slipped in after his daddy anyway, even though his daddy had told him to run straight home. He had hidden under one of the splintery tables teetering on a single leg. The smoke lay thick in mist-like patches throughout the dimly lit room where men sat in chairs with broken legs and backs and drank until they fell broken to the floor. Hunter had stayed, crouched under the table, blinking smoke from his stinging eyes, until a long legged woman noticed him peeking out at the men.
“Honey,” she said, bending down to look at him. “What are you doing down there?” Her face was hidden by piles of mascara and lipstick. The blood red of her lips and over-pronounced features had frightened Hunter, and he had withdrawn farther into the shadows.
“Is your daddy in here?” she asked. Hunter nodded slowly.
“Would he be mad if he knew you was in here?” Hunter nodded again. The woman sighed.
“Why don’t you come out now, honey, and we’ll slip you out the back, no trouble. Your daddy never has to know you was here.” Hunter crawled out from under the table, and accepted her outstretched hand. She stunk of alcohol and cheap perfume. She led him out of the room and through a dark hallway to a door, which led to an even darker alley.
“Now I don’t want to see you hiding under anymore tables, you hear me?” She said as she shooed him out. Hunter had nodded and scampered away through the darkness toward home.
Hunter wiggled his tooth and watched the sun set. Somewhere a siren wailed, its undulating shrieks piercing the restless silence of the street. Hunter knew the street wasn’t really deserted, even when it was quiet. There was always someone watching. He wiggled his tooth harder. It seemed to be getting looser.
The door to the shop closed, and Hunter’s daddy walked heavily down the steps. He was not a large man, small and wiry all over except for the soft pudge that hung over his belt from too many beers.
“Hey kiddo. I gotta go run some errands before I head home tonight. So you just run on home without me.”
“Kin I go with you?” Hunter asked.
“Nah. You just go on home and tell your Maw not to keep dinner waiting. Mind the alley and stay out of the shadows.”
“Yes, Sir,” Hunter said. He started walking down the street toward home. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and the buildings cast pools of liquid darkness not even the stuttering street lamps could penetrate. Hunter walked along the street, skirting potholes and trying not to be afraid. It was a game he played every time he had to walk home alone after dark. The darkness consumed the street, swallowing the familiar shapes of the weather-stained buildings in shadow. Hunter shoved his fists deeper into the pockets of his jacket and pushed his tongue against the tooth.
A rat scampered across through the light from the street lamp, casting a shadow as big as a small dog. An explosion of noise to Hunter’s right made him spin around, his heart pounding. But it was only a couple of alley cats who had found a trash can for their dinner.
Hunter quickened his step, wiggling his tooth ferociously. His neck and back felt bare and exposed, the hair standing on end. He tried to slow his breathing, reminding himself that he was almost home. Just a little bit further. In his mind he imagined his mother, who would be standing over the oven when he opened the door, or maybe stooped over his sister’s high chair feeding smashed canned peas into her slobbery mouth.
He peered around the corner of the alley. The narrow pathway was pitch-black. Hunter edged along the wall, trying not to act as scared as he felt.
Suddenly he froze. There were voices coming from a connecting side street. Hunter’s first instinct was to run. He steeled himself against his fear. His daddy wouldn’t run, of this he was sure. His daddy would stay and fight, if it came to fighting. He thought of the long scar. His daddy would be ashamed to have a coward for a son.
“Hey, there’s someone over there!” a voice exclaimed.
“Where?”
“There, hiding behind the dumpster.”
Hunter stepped of the shadows. “I am not hiding!” he shouted defiantly.
“Hey look what we got here!” Another boy yelled. There were four of them, all much bigger than Hunter, maybe members of a junior high gang.
“What’s a small fry like you doing out wandering the streets?” the first, taller boy, asked.
“None of your business,” Hunter said, standing up straight and balling his hands into fists inside of his pockets. The boys hooted and jeered.
“Well what if we wanna make it our business?” the tall boy asked.
“Well, it ain’t none of your business anyhow,” Hunter said bravely, his heart ricocheting around in his chest. “Now let me go!”
“Oh, he’s a tough one,” said the tall boy with admiration. “Now come on, squirt, show us how tough you are.” Hunter struck a fighting pose, his hands clenched into fists.
“C’mon now. You’re not afraid, are you?” the boy taunted. Hunter shook his head. Pushing his tongue against the loose tooth, Hunter swung at the tall boy’s middle. The boy neatly sidestepped his swing and punched Hunter in the stomach.
Hunter fell back against the wall, struggling to breathe. Another blow sent pain lancing through his jaw and he fell to the cracked pavement. He could taste the sharp sweet tang of blood dribbling across his tongue. The boy nudged him with his foot.
“You stay outta our territory after dark, okay squirt? And don’t go trying anymore tough stuff.” The boys moved off through the dark, and disappeared into the twisting labyrinth of streets.
Two tears trickled down Hunter’s face. He sat up and spat out the blood and the tooth. The tooth glistened in the faint light against the black pavement. He got up slowly, holding his aching stomach with one arm and feeling the ragged hole in his mouth where the tooth used to be. He stumbled home, angrily wiping the tears streaming down his cheeks on his jacket sleeve, leaving the little white tooth to be lost among the grime and darkness of the alley.

25
Aug
07

Blackbird Fly

The road was empty except for Caitlin and the blackbird. Somewhere, far behind, Jessie May was struggling along with her backpack. Caitlin sat down on her haunches and deftly fluffed the matted fur behind her ear, ignoring the chattering bird. The dewey morning air made the crevices behind Caitlin’s ears and elbows and legs feel sticky and in need of washing. It hung damply from Jessie May’s limp brown bangs, making her quiet face look sharply wan. The blackbird, in annoying contrast, was a vivid black, the dew causing it to sparkle like a black diamond. It ruffled its feathers and chirruped at Caitlin, who paused in her preening to give it a peevish stare.
“Hey, Cait,” Jessie May panted, letting her tattered purple bag slide down her arm to her feet. “Why didn’t you wait for me?”
Caitlin strolled over and began to knead the back of her head against Jessie May’s knee.
“Oh what a pretty bird!” Jessie May exclaimed, spotting the blackbird bouncing on a reed. Caitlin froze and stared icily at the bird, which sang a short aria and hopped down onto the road.
Jessie May sunk into a crouched position, perched wearily on the purple back. “Look how beautiful he is, Cait,” she said. Caitlin sat back and glanced reproachfully at Jessie May, and then at the bird. Its perky head cocked from side to side and its black button eyes gleamed.
“Are you hungry?” Jessie May asked, reaching into her pocket for the piece of toast that she was supposed to have eaten for  breakfast.  The blackbird whistled and slid across the road. Caitlin meowed in protest. “You already ate, Cait,” Jessie May replied. Caitlin hurrumphed and went back to washing the damp out of her joints, watching Jessie out of the corner of her eye.
Jessie May sat still, flicking the toast onto the road for the blackbird. She sat carefully, maybe stiffly, with one arm folded across her books, almost as if she was not just holding the books to her chest, but holding herself together. She herself had almost felt, through the long empty weeks, as if a part of her had crystalized and turned to glass while she waited. She couldn’t wait to leave.
Caitlin’s ears perked. A trail of dust rose above the blue pussy willows, announcing the arrival of the school bus. She felt the blackbird take flight and turned her head to watch it go, but only caught a flash of red and black in her peripheral vision. The bus moaned as it slowly came to a stop and Caitlin hopped three steps back. Through the cloudy door the bus driver grinned. “Nice to see you, Miss Jessie,” he said. “How’re you feeling?”
“Better, thanks,” she said, limping up the short flight of steps. “See you after school, Cait,” she called through the open doorway. Caitlin casually watched as the bus rattled away, and then ran right off the road.
The tall brown tipped cat tails swayed high overhead as she wove between them, expertly trotting over the half-rotted log stretched across a trickled stream. Her sleek black and grey body swayed on the flat surface of the muddied water as she streaked past.
She wanted to find where that blackbird was.  She thought she had seen it swoop into the blue-green bangs of a willow. She slowed to a trot as she came to its gnarled grey roots and looked up, narrowing her eyes.  The willow limbs twitched in the breeze, revealing only more snakey fingers of leaves. Caitlin was sure the blackbird was in there, somewhere.
“Caitlin!” Jessie May’s mother shouted. Caitlin ignored the call and stared up at the tree. “Caitlin, I have your milk here!” Lucilia hollered again. Caitlin’s whiskers wrinkled, then she darted away, leaping lightly over the tiny stream and dashing up under the white water stained porch.
She curled around the corner of the house at a leisurely pace, just as Jessie May’s mother set down the bowl of milk. Jessie May had painted the little bowl years ago, and Caitlin’s name was scrawled in clumsy blue letters around the sides. Caitlin admired the handiwork for a minute before condescending to the milk. She was going to miss Jessie May. She didn’t know why she was going back to school,  Lucilia said that if she didn’t want to she didn’t have to go. But when the alarm rang at 6:30 that morning, Jessie May had gotten up and dressed for school, packed the purple backpack with its usual load and shoved the toast into her pocket.
Caitlin had been vaguely distressed to find that Jessie May was not still in bed when she came by to wake her at a leisurely 7 o’clock. For the last few weeks she and Jessie May had lain in bed together and read the paper. Or at least Jessie May read the paper, Caitlin just liked to lie on it and feel the way the paper crinkled under her weight. Especially the comic section, because then Jessie May would have to move her paws or tail or sometimes pick her whole body up to read the words underneath. Then they would go into the kitchen and eat the breakfast Lucilia had left. Jessie May didn’t eat much, which meant that Caitlin got to nibble.  Caitlin liked their morning ritual very much, even if Jessie May scolded her for getting fat. Jessie May was certainly not getting fat.
In the afternoons Caitlin and Jessie May would walk a little way around the house. Jessie liked to sit on the bench and read, or sketch, and Caitlin would disappear into the foliage or nap in the sun. Sometimes they would watch tv, but the house only had two channels so Jessie May got bored. Sometimes she would try to work on her homework, but Caitlin made it very clear that it was much more productive to be scratched under her chin. Most of all Caitlin liked to nap on Jessie May’s stomach during the afternoons, or the mornings, or the whenevers. In the back of her mind she remembered that Jessie May had not always been so listless,  and registered faintly that she must be rather ill, but overall Caitlin was very pleased with the arrangement. She was not so pleased that Jessie May was gone, or that she had been feeding an obnoxious bird.
When she finished the milk Caitlin butted her head against the glass door until Lucilia let her in. Lucilia was doing a quick vacuum before she had to leave for work. Caitlin did not like the vacuum cleaner, so she fled to Jessie May’s room. She stalked around the piles of discarded clothing and papers and bits of sheet music that coated the carpet. Jessie May did not pick up after herself anymore. Caitlin did not approve of the new standard of messiness. Lucilia did not approve either, and nagged Jessie to clean up. Jessie said she would when she felt better.
The phone rang through the noise of the vacuum cleaner. Lucilia turned off the machine and pulled the phone off its cradle. Caitlin ran out of Jessie May’s room and bounced up onto the kitchen counter. “Caitlin, get off,” Lucilia hissed, putting a hand over the receiver. “Oh hi, honey, how are you doing? I was worried when you didn’t call last night.” She listened for a minute. “I thought you were coming home tonight?” She paused.
“Well when? You don’t know? Dave, you promised you’d be home this week.” She listened again. “Jessie May’s doing better, she went to school today. But she’s still very tired. She misses you. I think you should come home.”  She waited silently, tapping her red acrylic nails against the kitchen counter. “All right. Call me. Love you too.” She hung up and rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb and forefingers, obscuring the upper half of her face. She gave Caitlin a push. “Caitlin, off.”  Caitlin leapt off the counter and ran to Jessie May’s room to wait for her to come home.

It was nearly dark when Jessie May pushed through the blue weathered door and made her way down the dim hallway. The evening light cast a slightly foggy appearance onto her tousled belongings.  Caitlin was perched on the windowsill, blocking a chunk of light from entering which fell immediately below her into a black lazy shadow.  Somewhere outside the window, the blackbird was singing.
Jessie May slung the purple backpack into the room and slouched back into the kitchen. Caitlin unwound herself from the curtain and followed with quiet steps. The kitchen was lit by bright fluorescent bulbs. The white light streamed out the blackened square windows, giving the impression of the inside of a television screen.
“Mac and cheese?” her mom offered, spooning the cheesy shells into a bowl, another that Jessie May had painted. This bowl was dotted with shiny green hearts.
“Did Dad call?’ Jessie May asked, stirring the cheese with her spoon. She liked to eat with spoons rather than forks. She thought maybe it was because forks were too skinny and prone to dropping things. Spoons were much more friendly.
“Yes,” Lucilia answered, serving herself into a rainbow colored bowl Jessie May had painted when she was about seven. She ate with a fork.
“Is he coming home?” Jessie May asked, nibbling at the pasta shells.
“Not tonight. He said he’ll be home tomorrow if the meeting gets out early.”
“What is he doing over there anyway?”
“Working.” Lucilia turned away. “How was school?”
“Okay.”
“Did Tiffany help you catch up on your chemistry project?”
“No, she was busy today,” Jessie May said, squishing a shell against a green heart and watching the cheese spurt out of the shell’s tiny artery.
“Did you talk to your teachers about getting caught up?”
“Yeah.” Jessie May squished harder, until the pasta separated down the middle into two ragged halves. She ate one half.  “I gotta go start on my homework, I only have until Monday to get caught up in chem. That’s when grades are due.”
“Okay, honey. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Okay,” Jessie May slid off the kitchen stool.
“Jessie,” her mom called after her. “Don’t you want to finish your dinner? You didn’t eat very much.”
“That’s okay, Mom. I’m not hungry,” Jessie May shouted back.
Caitlin sat on Lucilia’s foot and licked her whiskers.
“Not for you, Cait. You’re getting fat as it is.” Lucilia placed the almost untouched bowl into the refrigerator. Caitlin gave her an indignant look and meandered down the hall.
Jessie May lay on her bed with the pink rubber at the end of her pencil embedded in her teeth.  Her chemistry book and various papers were scattered across the purple and blue bedspread. Caitlin leapt lightly onto the bed and settled on the papers, propping her chin on the book.
“Move, Cait, I’ve got to turn the page,” Jessie May said. Caitlin complained loudly.
“I’ve got to do this homework, Caitlin. If migrates go down much farther, I might not get into college.” Caitlin licked her whiskers. “What do you care? You don’t even want me to go.”
Caitlin purred and rubbed her ears against the book. Jessie May smiled and massaged the sides of Caitlin’s head. “ You’re the only whose stuck it out with me as it is. Everybody else, my friends,” she sighed. “Never mind. Let’s do this thing.” She placed one of the earbuds to her ipod in Caitlin’s ear. Caitlin sat up straight, listening to the strange sounds coming through the silver wiring. Jessie May bit her lip and wrote. Caitlin got bored and shook the little white pod from her ear. She curled up on a small pile of notes, enjoying the stiff noises they made, and fell asleep.

Jessie May had foregone breakfast again. In the pale morning light her wan face was divided into shadows by her thin cheeks and the vaguely haunted look in her eyes. Caitlin was upset that Jessie May was leaving. She was even more upset that the blackbird was there. Jessie May sat on her pack like before and sprinkled the ground with her breakfast.
“Look at that blackbird, Cait,” she said. Caitlin gave it a grudging half-glance. “He’s so happy. Why do you think he’s so happy?” Caitlin guessed it was because he had free breakfast.
As soon as the bus had gone Caitlin gave the bird a disgusted look and walked away, back toward the house. She meowed and butted against the glass door but Lucilia had already left for work in the battered blue mercedes. Caitlin sat down and gave a disgruntled snort. Her bowl was empty. The house was empty. The stupid bird was out there eating Jessie May’s toast.
Caitlin had almost given up on the house and was about to head down to the marsh when the noises of a hardworking engine shuffling its way down the driveway announced the arrival of a dented maroon pickup truck. Caitlin jumped down under the porch to watch as a tall man in a blue collared shirt with unbuttoned sleeves slammed the door shut and walked up the stairs. He tugged at the door, but finding it locked, reached into his back pocket for the key. His sleeves floated between his elbows and wrists. Caitlin followed him into the house.
“Hello, Caitlin,” the man said. “I guess you’re the only one here right now.” He reached down to rub behind her ears. Caitlin mewed. She wanted her morning milk.
The man opened the fridge and pulled out the milk carton, taking a white swig before placing it back as Caitlin watched, aghast. Then he went to the phone and dialed.
“Hey hon,” he said, leaning against the counter. “No, I won’t be there for awhile. I told you I had to come home for a few days. Remember?” He listened patiently. “My daughter’s been ill. She misses me. I haven’t been home much lately.” He patted the flesh of this thumb rhythmically against the counter edge. “I’ll try to call you tomorrow night. Love you too.” He hung up, then pulled the receiver back to his ear to dial again.
“Hey hon,” he said. “I’m home.”

Jessie May didn’t even look up when she walked into the house. She slung her backpack onto the floor and trudged into her bedroom. “Jessie,” Lucilia called. “Dinner!”
“Not hungry,” Jessie May shouted into her pillow. Caitlin swam out from the darkness under the bed and shook herself.
“Jessie May,” the man said, poking his head into her room.
“Dad?” Jessie looked around. “You’re home!”
“You  betcha,” Dave said, opening his arms for a hug. “I promised I would be.”
“Where have you been?” she demanded.
“I’ve been working,” he said. “My boss has been really giving me a hard time right now.”
“Why?”
“There’s just a lot going on at work right now. Everyone’s stressed, and my boss especially.”
“Why don’t you tell him to shove it?” Jessie May asked, following him into the kitchen.
Dave laughed. “I wish. Maybe right before I retire, when you’ve safely graduated from college and can support your old dad.”
“So how’s school?” Dave asked, sitting down at the table and rubbing the smooth but empty place in front of him. Jessie May quickly set the table.
“Umm,” She murmured, looking down at the napkins in her hands. “I’d really rather not talk about it right now.”
“Is everything all right?” Lucilia inquired, giving her a sharp look.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I just had a bad day today, that’s all. Let’s talk about Dad’s work.”
“Tell us about this project you’ve been working on,” Lucilia suggested. Dave explained that he was designing a new road system for a town a few hours away, because of the traffic problem.
“When will it be finished?” Lucilia asked.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll be finished designing it by the end of the year, but I might have to help oversee the building.”
“How long will that take?”Lucilia asked again.
“I don’t know yet. I just said that.” Dave said patiently, giving her an annoyed glance.
“Can’t you tell them that you can’t do the overseeing?” Lucilia kept asking questions.
“Honey, this is an important job. I’m getting paid really well for it, and Jessie May can go to college next year. It’s going to take a lot of money to support a kid in college.” The tone of his voice grew impatient.
“I know that, dear,” Lucilia began, her tone growing a little harder. “But it would be nice if you were home a little more often.”
Jessie May put her spoon down. “May I be excused? I really don’t feel well.”
“Why don’t you go take a hot shower,” Lucilia said, looking at Dave.
“Let us know if you need anything,” Dave said, looking at Lucilia.
Jessie May slipped off the chair and walked down the hall to her room. She stood in the messy purple lit room, staring at the bits and pieces of her life that littered the floor. Caitlin wound herself between her ankles and Jessie picked her up, slinging her front paws over her shoulder. Caitlin lay limp, her long grey tail swaying.
Jessie sat down on the bed and sighed. Caitlin shoved her face into Jessie’s neck. “Hey Caitlin, that tickles,” Jessie May giggled. She lay down and pushed Caitlin onto her chest.
Caitlin folded her paws and yawned. “Hey sleepy, you’re lucky you don’t have homework,” Jessie said. “I have to try and catch up with everything.” Caitlin flicked her ears and jutted her chin out for Jessie May to scratch. “I just feel so tired now, Cait. Some days I think maybe it would be easier just to melt into the floor than get up in the morning. And I know that isn’t right. But everything’s all so hard now. Like even normal stuff, like turning in homework or climbing the stairs. It’s stupid.” Caitlin turned her head to look at Jessie May’s face.
“I did something really stupid today,” she whispered. “I’m only telling you because you can’t tell anybody. I started crying in the middle of 4th period, for no reason at all. It was terrible.” Caitlin blinked. “I don’t even know why. I think I’m going crazy.”
Caitlin began to purr, stretching her neck out to be scratched as well. Jessie May started to scratch, but then began to cry. “Everything’s falling apart, Caitlin, and I’m falling apart with everything too.” She buried her face in Caitlin’s soft grey fur. Caitlin looked down reprovingly at the sticky salt tears becoming adhered to the shafts of her fur. But she sat, still and quiet, until Jessie May had finished crying and fallen asleep.

Sometime in the night Caitlin woke. She often woke in the night to prowl around the sleepy house, but tonight someone else was awake too. She lifted her head and stared through the open door into the black hallway.
“What is it,” Jessie May murmured sleepily. Caitlin climbed out of the hollow of Jessie May’s curled body and walked to the door. Jessie May got up and stood in the doorway too, rubbing her eyes. Then she stopped and listened. Somewhere, down the hall, someone was  crying. Jessie May padded after Caitlin, feeling her feet grow cold on the hardwood floor. At the door to her parent’s room she stopped and looked down at Caitlin. Caitlin’s eyes glowed eerily in the non-light.
Jessie May pushed the door open a crack. A soft pink light flooded the hallway, accompanied by a shiver of muffled sobs. Jessie cautiously peeked around the door. “Mom?” she whispered uncertainly. “Momma, what’s wrong?” She pushed the door open all the way and walked to the bed, sending a wavering pale shadow along the floorboards and wall.
“Jessie May, you should be asleep,” Lucilia sniffed, clutching a wrinkled pillow. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just tired.”
Jessie May sat down on the edge of the bed and awkwardly patted her mother’s back. Then in a swift move Lucilia sat up and put her arms around Jessie.  She began to sob into her shoulder. Jessie began to uncertainly rub her mother’s back, looking across at Caitlin, perched unceremoniously on the folded comforter.  On the other side of the bed was her father, staring unmoving at the pinkish ceiling. His hands were crossed over the sheet like a man lying in a coffin. She had forgotten he was home.
“It’s okay, momma, its all going to be okay,” Jessie May said, rubbing her mothers back and trying not to cry out with anger at her father, who ought to have been comforting her mother, but for whatever reason was not.

In the morning, the maroon truck was gone, along with her father.  Jessie May peeked through the slatted blinds at the bleak light sneaking across the empty driveway, and went back to bed. Caitlin murmured her approval of this decision and went back to sleep.
At 9 o’clock Lucilia came in and opened the blinds, forcing the grayish light to straggle lamely across the rumpled bed.
“Mom,” Jessie May groaned. “I’m tired.”
“I just wanted to check to make sure you were all right,” Lucilia explained, standing in front of the window and letting the weak light slither around her shoulders and wispy hair.
“I’m fine, Mom, I’m just tired. I want to sleep.” Jessie May buried her face in the pillow.
“Are you feeling okay? Is the fever back?” Lucilia bent down to feel Jessie’s forehead.
“I said I’m fine!” Jessie May groaned through the pillow. “I’m just tired. I stayed up too late doing math.”
“Okay, well I’m going to go to work, I’ll be home to make dinner. Call me if you need anything.”
“I’ll be fine!” Jessie May almost shouted. Then she sat upright. “Where’s dad?”
“He’s at work,” Lucilia replied, and closed the door.

When the soft putter of Lucilia’s battered Mercedes had fallen silent, Jessie May pushed Caitlin off her chest and sat up. “Ugh,” she said. “Another morning.”
Caitlin leapt to the floor and headed straight for the kitchen. Jessie May followed, dragging her feet and muttering. “You want your milk that bad, huh?”  Caitlin whined.  “All right, all right. I gotcha.” Jessie May pulled open the refrigerator door, needing to jerk it a couple times before it finally came loose. She bent and poured a stream of white into the blue bowl. Drops of milk sprayed clumsily onto the crooked lettering.
Caitlin began to lap noisily. Jessie May looked down at her. “Go ahead, drink your milk and be content. But what am I going to do? I have to go back to school sometime.” Caitlin looked up, milk dripping from her chin. Jessie May laughed and caught a droplet in her palm before it splashed onto the linoleum floor. “At least I’ll always have you, won’t I?”
The toaster popped. Jessie May swiveled to grab the hot bread. She dipped it into Caitlin’s milk and nibbled a corner. Caitlin watched her expectantly, licking skimmed cream from her whiskers. After a few bites Jessie May gave up and dropped the whole piece into Caitlin’s milk. Caitlin ducked back into her bowl and swallowed the soggy pieces.
“I wonder if I’m ever going to be hungry again,” Jessie May said thoughtfully, putting a hand down Caitlin’s back. “It’s not that I’m not hungry, I just can’t eat anything. Isn’t that weird?” Caitlin had no idea what she was talking about, so she ignored her and finished licking the sticky crumbs from the sides of the bowl.
After breakfast, Jessie May still couldn’t concentrate on her homework. The grayish light had turned to drizzle. She pulled on her purple slicker and matching rubber boots and opened the door. When Caitlin balked, Jessie May gave her a push with the toe of her rain boot.
The willow leaves hung heavy and limp, dangling haphazardly into the trickled stream. Jessie May looked unhappily into the unhappy sky and seemed almost to enjoy for a moment their shared opinion of the drizzly unhappy morning. Caitlin sat down and fluffled her fur, equally unhappy. She had the sneaking feeling they were looking for the bird.
Jessie May sat down on a log and stirred the water with a knobbled stick, waiting. She saw the bird’s silvery image before she saw the bird itself. Its feathers stood out like jagged dark puzzle pieces. Caitlin hissed. Jessie May smiled. She held out her empty hands.
“I’m sorry I don’t have any crumbs today. I already gave the toast to Caitlin.”
The bird whistled and bobbed its head from side to side in mock disappointment. It fluttered its wings, flashing red and forcing the water on the bank to slide away in a silver tide.
“He always looks so happy,” Jessie May remarked, resting her chin on her knees. “I wish I could be like that. Where does it come from, do you think? Happiness?”
Caitlin just looked at her. Then her ear’s perked. She turned and shot the road a deadly stare. Through the trees and reeds, the dusty maroon shape of Dave’s truck crumbled over the gravel.
“Dad?” Jessie May said quizzically, staring toward the road. She scrambled to her feet, knocking into Caitlin. The blackbird took flight, but nobody noticed where it went.
Jessie May ducked behind a log, not worrying about the mud that squelched through her buttons. Her father parked the car and climbed the porch steps, his tall boots thundering heavily on the old wood. Jessie May pressed her face into the log, leaving a red bark mark on one cheek. When he had closed the door she darted to her feet and ran, Caitlin winding in between her feet and getting caught around her pounding rain boots.
Jessie May peeked through the window. Her father was perched on the counter, his dirty heels hitting the cupboard as he absent mindedly swung his feet. He had his back to her, one ear pressed against the telephone receiver. Jessie May cracked the door to hear. Caitlin pushed it open all the way and wandered into the kitchen.
“Cait, get back here,” Jessie May hissed, then was quiet as her father started to talk.
“I’m sorry, Hon, but I won’t be back for a few days,” he was saying. “I know I said that, but things are different now. Jessie’s still sick. Yes she’s getting better, but I can’t come. I’m sorry about the concert tickets, sweetie. You can turn them in for a reimbursement. No, no one’s at home now. No, she still doesn’t know about you. And that’s what I need to talk to you about.” He waited, breathing heavily. “I need some time to think about this, sweetie. Yes, of course I love you, but I don’t know if I can go through with this.”
Jessie May stood frozen at the door, her eyes wide, barely breathing. Caitlin jumped lightly onto the counter and rubbed against Dave’s broad back. He jumped. “What? Oh, hi Caitlin. How’d you get in here? No, sweetie, its just the cat. Don’t worry. How’d she get inside?” He turned around to look at the door. His eyes met Jessie May’s.
“Hey, hon, I have to go,” he said slowly, his eyes still locked with Jessie’s. ”Yeah. Bye.” He hung up. There was silence. Jessie May’s bottom lip trembled. “Jessie…” Dave started. But Jessie had gone, her boots flashing through the flying puddles. Caitlin paused at the door long enough to give Dave a hateful stare and bounded out the door.
“Jessie!” Dave hollered. “Jessie May!”
Jessie May sprinted down the driveway away from the house. Her boots skidded on the gravel and her pants up to the knees were soaked with dirty water. Her heartbeat pounded erratically across her eyeballs and a dark wave rose at the back of her head. She ran until dizzy nausea forced her to her knees. The bits of gravel bit into her skin as she vomited sharply, dripping whitish fluid from her empty stomach. She realized that she was crying, but she couldn’t tell where the tears where coming from. They were around her everywhere, streaming down her cheeks and hair, ears and shoulders.
Caitlin sat and shook the rain from her coat, watching Jessie May cry. Her nose and tail twitched, but the rest of her was still.
There was a rustling on the side of the road. Caitlin’s head whipped around to face the intruder, but it was only the blackbird. With a chirp and a clatter the blackbird hopped onto a swaying branch, the red of its underwings glittering like a blood diamond. Jessie May half sat up and turned her mud teared face toward the bird.
“Did someone send you to cheer me up, blackbird?’ Jessie May asked. “Everything keeps getting worse and worse. I don’t know how you can.” She rubbed Caitlin’s skull with her thumb and forefinger, taking comfort in her soggy fur. Caitlin purred and wiggled into Jessie’s lap. The blackbird swooped across the road and back, showing off.
“Don’t you wish that we could fly like that, Cait?” Jessie said. “Fly away to wherever, or nowhere, or anywhere but here.” Caitlin wrinkled her nose. All the bird’s swooping was making her tail twitch.
“I think I’m going crazy, Cait,” she whispered.
There was a grinding sound from around the corner and with a raging screech the Ford careened into sight. Jessie May gasped and scuttled off the road into the ditch, Caitlin in her arms. Caitlin pushed herself under Jessie’s knees and crouched there, her eyes glinting eerily in the shadows at the blackbird, swooping carelessly onto the road.
The truck threw gravel from its tires as Dave saw Jessie hidden in the ditch and threw on the breaks. The blackbird jumped into the air, its wings gleaming black, then red, as it slammed into the windshield.
“Jessie, its not what you think,” he said, leaping from the truck. But Jessie  May wasn’t listening. She had leapt to her feet, screaming. The noise seemed to come from another world, another place, ripping through her abdomen and launching into shrieks. She was suddenly intensely dizzy, everything rippling with darkness as her own voice continued on and on.
“You killed it!” she hollered. “You killed it!”
“Jessie, its just a bird. It’s just a bird, Jessie. Calm down,” Dave reached out, trying to untangle her hair, hold onto her shoulders. But Jessie slapped him away. “I’m sorry. I said I’m sorry. You didn’t hear what you think you did,” Dave repeated. “I love you Jessie May. Listen to me!”
Through a mist Jessie heard the words, but she was beyond him. An earthquake was crushing her insides, and her voice was caught in sobs. The darkness continued to spread, blocking her sight and making her sway on her feet. She fought it.
“I hate you!” she screamed through the cloud hanging between her and the world. “You killed my blackbird!” She knew that wasn’t really why she was mad but it was as good a reason as she could think of. She began to flail wildly, fighting her father, fighting exhaustion and despair. She fell to the road and lay there, the gravel pinching her face, sobbing. Dave stood over her, bent and broken, his head pounding in his hands.
Caitlin sniffed the dead bird. It’s shining feathers lay slick with blood, some ruffled and twisted, others plastered to its body. She moved past it and padded slowly to Jessie May’s crumpled form. She put one paw on the girl’s face and mewed softly. Jessie didn’t move. She rubbed the back of her head against Jessie’s cheek, but still she didn’t move. Caitlin crouched down on her haunches and wailed.
The sound of an approaching car startled her mid-cry. The blue mercedes ground to a halt and Lucilia leapt out, eyes gleaming.
“Lucilia, I can explain,” Dave said, jumping to his feet.
“Explain my ass,” Lucilia snapped. “I already know about your girlfriend. Now what have you done to our daughter?”
“Nothing,” Dave protested. “I haven’t done anything to her. I accidentally hit a blackbird and she went absolutely ballistic. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You haven’t seen me yet then,” Lucilia shot back. Then quietly, “Jessie, Jessie honey, can you hear me?”
Jessie May opened her eyes and began to cry again. Lucilia helped her into the car and then turned to face her husband.
“You and me are going to have to have a little talk,” she spat. The fur along Caitlin’s back stood up. She hopped onto seat next to Jessie May and hissed through the window at Dave. standing silent and stony in the road. Then he climbed into his truck and began to back down the narrow driveway toward the house. Lucilia followed, glaring at him all the way.

In the early blue light of the dawn Jessie May crept out of the house to watch the sunrise. In one hand she clutched her father’s red pocket knife. She had dressed for school and tucked her backpack behind the fallen log she had hidden behind the night before. On the counter she had left a note. “Gone to school. Don’t worry. Love, Jessie May.”
Caitlin trailed behind her, mewling pitilessly about the hour and the warm rumpled bed left behind.
“Look, Cait, I didn’t ask you to come,” Jessie May said. Caitlin complained more quietly.
The morning silence seemed to fill Jessie, or maybe oozed from her, from the empty place inside where she had turned to glass. She paused in the driveway, looking back at the cloudy blue house with the worn white porch. From the maroon truck parked in the driveway she could hear her father’s snores.
They had fought long into the night, until finally Dave had cracked and begun to shout too, dissolving his wife into tears.
Jessie closed her eyes and tried to block out of the sound of their voices, lingering in the morning mist inside her memory.
“I’m ending it, Lucilia.”
“It’s too late for that.” A bitter laugh.
“It was wrong. Jessie May needs me. You need me. I realize that now.”
“Need you? Since when have we needed you? Jessie and I have been getting along without you just fine for quite some time. I think your new girl needs you more, by the amount you call her. When did you ever call me that much?”
“What? How do you know?” He spluttered.
“Phone bill.”
Pause. “The point is Lucilia, that I’ve decided to come back. I love you. I love Jessie May. And she does need me. She’s sick.”
“Since when is it your decision whether or not you come back? And since when did you decide Jessie May needs you? Where were you when she was really sick? Off with some secretary floozy, that’s where!”
“I didn’t realize,” he started. She cut him off.
“What, realize how sick she was? Our daughter was almost hospitalized. I went to all her doctor appointments, got all her medicine, talked to all her teachers, all by myself. And where were you? Screwing around!” Her voice rose to a shriek. Jessie May flinched at the memory.
“Lucilia, calm down. You’re being irrational.”
“Irrational! You, you…out! Get out of my house!”
Tears filled Jessie May’s eyes as the voices rang out through her mind. Caitlin climbed into her lap and she hugged her tight. Caitlin squirmed.
“It’s all my fault, Cait,” Jessie May whispered. “Everything. Because I’m sick. I can’t do what they want me to do. And I can’t go on like this. It’s too hard.” Her voice cracked. She turned, and walked over the half -rotting log  to the island where the willow grew. Caitlin followed anxiously. Jessie May smelled something like despair.
Under the willow was dark. The tangled willow branches were a silhouetted curtain against the grey horizon. Jessie May lay down with her face by the running water, letting the mud settle against her bones. She held out one hand, admiring the polished skin turned ghostly in the dim light. Then she flicked open the knife.
Caitlin flinched. She watched wide eyed as Jessie May turned the gleaming blued blade from side to side. “It’s time,” she whispered. “I’m so tired. I want rest.” She closed her eyes and imagined the red of her veins flowing down the trickled stream in a long ribbon, a lifetime of ribbon waving with the algae. The blade hung trembling, poised on a dewy breath inches above Jessie May’s pale sleeve. She bit her lip and pushed the point into the divot just below her thumb. A tiny slice of red welled and dripped around her wrist like a bracelet.
Caitlin pounced. Her claws sank into the soft flesh of Jessie May’s inner arm as the knife spun into the stream and disappeared.
“No!” Jessie cried, diving into the freezing water and scrabbling for the pocket knife. But the blade was gone, hidden underneath the pockets of mud and rotten reeds that lined the stream. She threw herself onto the bank and lay there, sobbing quietly. Caitlin sat on the bank and licked the blood off her paw, noting Jessie’s whereabouts with one eye.
“Why did you do that, Caitlin?” Jessie May asked angrily, sitting up and wiping her sleeve across her face. It left a muddy streak. Caitlin climbed to her feet and pranced purring around Jessie, her gray tail caressing Jessie’s face. She climbed into Jessie’s lap, sniffing reproachfully at the putrid stream bits clinging to her clothing. Then she looked straight into Jessie May’s face. Her big green cat eyes seemed to fill even the corners of Jessie May’s dark world.
Jessie blinked and shook Caitlin off her. She looked up. High above the island, nestled in the hidden hair of the willow, were birds. The red of their underwings shone as they fluttered from branch to branch, singing and twerping. A whole colony of blackbirds.
“Oh, Caitlin,” Jessie May said wonderingly. “He has a whole family.”
Caitlin peered upward too, noting with annoyance the way the new light sifting through the willow branches struck Jessie May’s pale face at an almost angelic angle. It was much too cinematic a moment. She snorted and leapt over the tiny stream toward the road.
“Where are you going?” Jessie called, scrambling to her feet. “Caitlin, don’t leave!”
Caitlin pushed through the reeds, bits of flower fluff sticking to her stripes. Jessie May blundered behind her, squashing the flower fluff beneath her boots. She leapt across the ditch water and on to the road, where the blackbird lay in all its deathly glory.
“Oh,” Jessie May said, staring at the twisted body. She knelt beside it. “It looks so pathetic.”
It was too early in the day for any fly or mosquito to have disturbed the blackbird’s sightless rest, but already its bright eyes had turned cloudy , ringed in coagulated blood. “I guess that would have been me, too,” Jessie May said quietly. Caitlin sat and licked fluff from her back. She took that as a thank you.
Jessie May thought a moment, and then scooped the bird up in her hands. She grimaced as its head swung limply over her thumbs, and tried not to think of avian flu.
Jessie May and Caitlin buried the blackbird in the soft earth in-between the roots of the willow. Above their heads the rest of the blackbirds flapped and chirped, going about their morning business. By the time Jessie May had patted the muddy mound into an oval, the willow had quieted and the sun had become a golden sphere balancing on the horizon. Jessie May swept her muddy hands against her pants, but she was coated so thoroughly that her hands remained hidden in their earthen gloves.
“I guess I can’t go to school like this,” Jessie May laughed, looking down at herself. In the golden light she felt somehow lighter, freer, smothered in mud and blood. She pulled her backpack out from behind the log, smearing the handle with more mud. Everything was dirty and wet and Caitlin picked her way carefully to avoid coming in contact with Jessie or the backpack. Her beautiful fur was stained and matted enough already.
As Jessie May crept inside to shower, Caitlin sat up on the patio and looked out across the road to where the reeds swayed and a solitary blackbird spun lazily over the creek. She washed carefully, wanting to be clean when Jessie May brought her her morning milk. The driveway was empty, both the blue mercedes and the maroon pick up gone. Caitlin didn’t know where they had gone, but she wasn’t worried. As Jessie May emerged from the house, drying her hair and bearing Caitlin’s bowl with its crooked lettering, Caitlin leapt onto her shoulder.
“What’s up, Cait?” Jessie May asked. “You’re going to make me drop your milk.”
She set the bowl on the rail and followed Caitlin’s gaze, over the stream and the willow, across the valley where the sun had left a dusty trail.
Caitlin began to purr. Somewhere a blackbird was singing.

06
Aug
07

Saved

Six-year old Tanner Johnson wriggled and squirmed in his sunday suit on the pew next to his mother. The starch in his stiff white collar and cuffs had softened under his relentless fidgeting, but the vest with the big black buttons still felt tight and rigid like a piece of cardboard against his spine. He pulled on the buttons and wiggled his shoulders.
“Sit still,” his mother whispered, taking his hands from the buttons.
“But I hafta go,” Tanner whined, kicking the books on the back of the pew with one outstretched toe.
“Do you remember where the bathroom is?” his mother asked.
“Yes.”
“Okay, you can be a big boy and go by yourself. But come right back. No dawdling, okay?”
“Okay,” Tanner sulked, sliding off the padded bench and crawling over crossed legs and skirts to the aisle. His mother watched him slip out of the big double doors under the gaze of the smiling ushers before turning back to the service.
Outside the sanctuary the church was utterly still. Heaps of flowers on silver trays lined the hall, waiting for the children to fetch them to decorate the Easter cross. Tanner ran a hand along the top of the trays, feeling the soft petals and knocking the flowers down in a yellow and orange avalanche. He picked up a daffodil and crumpled it in his hands. The yellow head caved and wrinkled, smearing his palms with orange pollen.
Through the window, the Easter morning looked as if it had been made of multicolored glass. Each blade of grass was a sparkling emerald so illuminated by the clear sunlight that it made Tanner’s eyes water to look at it. He wished he were home rolling in that grass with his dog, instead of being stuck in a shadowy old church that smelled too strongly of Easter lilies.
Something tickled his palm. He itched it against his sleeve, wiping the sticky flower juice onto his white cuff and leaving a streaky stain. He examined the hand, noticing the tiny black feelers still wavering in a quagmire of orange nectar. It was an ant. He squatted down, watching the trail of ants that looped around the trays before congregating among the yellow daffodils. Tanner put his face down close to the carpet, watching the neat moving line. He pressed one finger down on the line, feeling the unlucky ant wriggle against his finger tip and marveling at the immediate chaos as the ants spread apart, unable to rediscover their trail. “Stupid ants,” Tanner thought. “Why would you follow a bunch of crummy flowers inside when you’ve got loads more of crummy flowers outside?” He didn’t like flowers. They smelled like his sister’s lotion. He wondered where the ants came from.
Tanner pushed through the heavy wooden doors and crawled out into the sunshine, following the line of ants. The sidewalk felt cold and rough against his knees and fingers. He followed the ants all the way along the tidy lawn to the curb, where they disappeared into the bark at the base of the Easter cross.
Every year the church erected a large wooden cross by the curb. On Easter morning when Tanner arrived, it was already strung with flowers. Tanner didn’t really understand the cross. His mother said that a long time ago some guy had died on one and these crosses were supposed to make Tanner remember. Tanner thought that if he was supposed to remember that the guy died, the cross should be covered in blood, not flowers.
Tanner knelt behind the cross and shoved a piece of bark down the ant hole. A mass of black bodies appeared, swarming over the lawn and spilling onto the curb. Tanner liked the way the ant’s bodies shown in the sunlight, like black ninja armor.
Across the street a little old lady and her white dog stopped to look at a rose bush. The white dog looked at Tanner and smiled, its long pink tongue waving. Tanner shoved another piece of bark down the hole. He wished he were at home with his dog.

Alex Heid woke up with a headache. He couldn’t remember the details about why he had this particular headache, but it happened often enough that he could guess.
He had slept long enough through the clock alarm that neighbors downstairs had started pounding on his floorboard with a broom. It made his head throb to the uneven beat of the pounding.
Alex revved the engine of his blue Honda and drove through a stop sign. He switched his grande Americano to the other hand as he sped through the light Sunday traffic. His employer was such a tightass that he wouldn’t even give Alex Easter morning off. What a bastard. Any other time Alex would have skipped work anyway. But he had already ditched twice that month and one more time was liable to get him fired.
When he was a kid his parents always dragged him to church Easter morning. He had hated it, sitting there in his itchy Sunday clothes in the cloying lily air of the sanctuary. The preacher said that Jesus had died for all the sins of the entire world. Alex had known that nobody’s blood could wash him free of sin. It just made him feel more guilty because now he had the death of some idjit-martyr on his conscience along with all the other crap he’d done. And that was back when the kids still called him Alex Heid. Now most of his acquaintances just called him Acid Head.
The church came into sight. His mother was probably in there right now, perched primly on the pew in her little white hat and Sunday gloves, praying for the soul of her poor lost son. He took a gulp of coffee. He hadn’t seen his mother in years. She probably looked a lot older, maybe like the little old lady walking the white dog on the other side of the street. He took a wild swig of coffee and missed, dribbling the steaming liquid down his shirt. He cursed and swerved a little. Goddamn he had a headache.

Ms. Minnie Thomson paused at the rose hedge across from the church. In the April sunshine the budding leaves shown like ragged veins against the pale green skin. Josephine stared across the street.
“What’s that you smell, Jo?” Minnie asked the little white Westie. She glanced across the glaring street at the church. Its white steeple sparkled like a mirage. Once Minnie had been an active member, but after her husband Albert died the Easter before last, Minnie just hadn’t had the heart for it. She used to help decorate the large wooden cross the church put up for Lent. She would get there early and string it with daffodils and tulips from her garden. Now she and Josephine just admired. She gazed at the cross. A little boy was kneeling behind it with his back to her. He had a grass stain on the seat of his knickers.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in church, young man?” she called. The boy started and twisted around.
“No,” he yelled, thinking he was about to get in trouble.
Minnie smiled. “Maybe you should go back inside before your mama gets worried,” she suggested. It made her think of her own son’s escapes from the sanctuary. Usually she had found him playing in the nursery. He was dead now, having died serving over seas, and having left a pretty young widow. The gal had gotten hitched again a couple years back, so Minnie didn’t hear from her much anymore except for the occasional Christmas card.
“What’s that you got there?” Minnie asked the boy, seeing his hands were full of bark. She started across the street.
“I found ants,” the boy said. “Lots of them. Look.”
A blue Honda squealed around the curve and Minnie paused, balancing on the yellow dotted line in the road. Josephine backed up and barked. Acidhead Alex looked up from his spilled coffee and saw the old lady standing in the middle of the road. “Shit!” he yelped, swerving to the other side of the road and onto the curb. The wooden cross thundered into the front of his car.
“Hell, Lady” Alex hollered, forcing the door open. His now empty coffee cup tumbled to the pavement. “What the hell were you thinking, standing in the middle of the road like that?” The little lady didn’t move. “Look at my car. Do you know how much that’s going to cost me?” He shouted, wincing. What a headache.
“I think you’ve got more to worry about than your car,” the lady said, turning a peculiar shade of pale. She peered around him at the splintered wood jammed into his front bumper.
“What in hell are you talking about?” Alex said, walking around his crumpled hood.
“Aahh, Jesus Christ,” he swore, sitting heavily on the hood and clutching his aching head. “Jesus Christ.”
“I should hope you’re praying, young man,” Minnie scolded. “Now run inside that church and call for help.”
“Call God for help?” Alex said weakly, still clutching his head.
“No, fool. Call 911 for an ambulance. Quickly now!”
Alex leapt across the lawn and into the shadowy church hallway. Piles of flower petals on trays reared back in the breeze as he passed. He hadn’t been in a church since he was 15. He was almost afraid God would smite him as he ran like the devil through the quiet halls. “Jesus, a kid,” he thought as he ran. “A kid. I’m going to get fired for sure.”

Ten minutes had passed since Tanner had left the sanctuary and Tanner’s mother was getting anxious.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she whispered to her two daughters. “I’ve got to go find that brother of yours.”
The girls exchanged knowing glances and giggled, their ribbons bobbing.
“He’s probably playing in the nursery,” the eldest offered.
“Thanks Clara,” Mrs. Johnson replied. She picked her way carefully to the end of the row and out of the room.
She was standing in the abandoned nursery when she heard sirens pull up to the church. “Oh no,” she gasped, her heart launching into a frantic patter. She held onto her skirts and ran, high heels clicking down the dark flower laden hall.
Alex ran outside when he heard the ambulance pull up. The old woman was kneeling with the dog beside the fractured cross, singing a quiet hymn. Captured beneath the wooden beam, the boy lay still amongst the crushed daffodils and violets. There was a ragged tear along one side of his forehead, just beneath the hairline, where blood blossomed and dripped down his cheek and across the bridge of his nose like a tear.
Alex perched on the hood of his car, feeling sick. “I gotta lay off the shit,” he muttered, rubbing his pounding temples. “A fucking kindegardner. Jesus.”
A woman in a flowered dress raced across the lawn, holding her white hat to her head. When she saw the paramedics clustered around the boy, she burst into tears.
“I’ve been looking for him everywhere,” she blubbered.
“Are you the boy’s mother?” a paramedic asked.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Is he all right?”
“Well, it looks like that cross took the blunt of the blow. He may have a concussion and some internal injuries, but he’s coming around.”
“Momma?” Tanner whimpered from the stretcher.
“Thank God,” Mrs. Johnson said, grabbing his sticky daffodil fingers. “How are you feeling, honey?”
“My head hurts a lot,” Tanner complained. “And I’ve got flower juice all over me. I’m going to smell like Clara.”
The paramedics laughed. “You sure are one lucky fellow,” one said to Tanner. “Without that cross, you could be dead.”
“You’re one who can truly say he was saved by the cross!”
As the ambulance drove away, carrying Mrs. Johnson and her son, the church doors opened, spilling the congregation onto the sparkling lawn.
“Is everything all right?” the minister asked, standing like a balding disciple in his white robe.
“There was an accident,” Minnie explained, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Josephine whined.
“Why Ms. Minnie,” the minister said. “How good to see you again! I hope no one was injured?”
“A little boy from your congregation was taken to the hospital, but I think he’s going to be all right. A little boy named Tanner?”
“Oh yes, Tanner Johnson. Is he all right? What happened?”
“This young man here swerved onto the curb and hit him,” Minnie said, pointing toward Alex, who was slouching by his damaged car. “If the cross hadn’t gotten in the way, that little boy could have been killed.”
“Saved by the cross, eh?” the minister chuckled. “Well I’m glad our religion is of some service.” The minister peered at Alex. “Is that Alex Heid?”
“Yeah,” Alex admitted reluctantly, scuffing the curb with his shoe.
“It’s nice to see you again, Alex. How are you?”
“I’m fine.”
“What happened here?”
“Ah, I was heading to work and spilled some coffee on myself,” Alex explained sheepishly, looking down at the stain on his shirt. He didn’t mention the hangover. “But Mrs. Johnson said she won’t press charges, so I’m free to go.”
“Good, good,” the minister nodded his head. “ Your mother is inside. Would you like me to fetch her?” He looked eager.
“Nah. Listen Father, I really got to get to work.”
“Well all right, Alex. I’ll tell your mother you stopped by.”
“Thanks,” Alex said, hovering with his hand to the door of his car.
“Give me a call when you’re ready to be saved!” the minister called cheerily. “Happy Easter!”
Alex turned and gave him a weary smile. “Happy Easter, Father.” He got into the car and put it into first gear, flicking a meandering black ant off the stick. Through the cracked windshield he could see the remains of the cross. “Saved by the cross,” he repeated. “Jesus Christ.”  Then he drove to work.