Cherrie and Maggie

ceiling

So. I’ve been trying to count the lumps of plaster on the ceiling. And I’ve come to a conclusion: nothing makes a bed more uncomfortable.
I remember being young and trapped in here before. That was before I had a tv or computer of my own, but my father had brought in the old tv from the basement and set it up on my dresser. So that was at the foot of my bed and I at least had Oprah Winfrey and Classic Concentration to keep my mind occupied.
Now, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to entertain myself. For the most part, I can do that. I can usually leave the room and go wander the house or the yard or the street. I’ve even been as daring as to go to the mall, although I sometimes see people from school that I’d rather avoid.
Of course, there’s the melodrama, again.

“Do you have a geometry set?”
“What?”
Georgie’s voice was quiet from the other side of the door. “Mom said to ask if you have one.”
“If I have what?”
“A geometry set.”
“What?”
He said nothing for a moment and then knocked on the door. “What do you want?” I called out from the bed. I didn’t want to lose count, so I was careful not to move my eyes.
I heard the door knob rattle as he tried to turn it, but I had it locked. “Do you have a geometry set?”
“Go away!”

“Mr. Roberts is the volleyball coach this year. Miss Wong is pregnant, you know. You could see it in there by the end of last year. Right through her shirt.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you doing volleyball this year? I wasn’t going to because of basketball but I think I can do both.”
I took a bite of my sandwich. The meat looked grey.
“I was going to join cross-country.”
“Really? Oh, you’d be so good at it!”
“What? Oh, uh, no. I’m kidding, you idiot.”
“Oh.”

The second week of school and it rains every day. I don’t have money for the bus and I don’t have an umbrella. The words in my binders are starting to run. Running words. I wonder where they’ll go? Probably just to the bottom of the backpack.
“Isn’t it nice?”
“What?”
“The rain? It’s so warm! It’s like being in the shower.”
“I’d prefer being dry.” Why is she walking with me?
“It’s easy enough to get dry. Being wet is nothing.”
I closed my mouth and tried to walk a little faster. She kept pace easily, though. I should be able to get away from her and her short legs but she seems to have no shortage of energy.
“Were you going to join debate this year? You were so funny last year!” She laughed girlishly.
I’ve always wanted to say a girl laughed girlishly.
“Funny?”
“Oh, you know, the whole nuclear disarmament thing. You argued they should be kept in case the Vatican tries to take over the world.” She laughed again.
“That was a serious argument, you know.”
“Oh, haha!” Her laugh was less girlish. “Right. Like that could happen.”
“It’s happened before.”

There are more than one thousand, two hundred lumps of plaster on my ceiling.
“Do you have a geometry set?” My door was open and he was standing just in the hall.
“I don’t know.”
“Ok.”
He wasn’t moving. I stared back at him. Maybe he’ll disappear if I look hard enough.
“What do you want?”
“Are you coming downstairs?”
“What for?”
He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

In the morning, she was waiting on the sidewalk when I left the house. Georgie was right behind me coming out and stopped when he saw her. “Oh, hi Georgie!”
“Hi, Maggie.”
“Who’s your teacher this year?”
“Mrs. Nadia Hester.”
“Wow.”
“Wow.”
“How old are you, Maggie?” Georgie asked.
“That’s funny!” she said loudly. My ears folded over in response. “Today is my birthday. I’m fifteen.”
“What?” I heard myself say. “You mean you were fourteen yesterday?”
“Of course. If today’s my-”
“How can you be two full years younger than me?”
“Uh. I don’t know?”
“Happy birthday,” said Georgie. Then he walked away.

I’m getting tired of looking at the same things all the time. I know it’s a world full of wonders and all that but even wonders get boring after a while. There are only so many angles. I think maybe my math teacher would disagree but my feet are only ever just plodding on the ground. Everything looks the same after a while.
There are over 3650 lumps of plaster on my ceiling. I don’t think I’ll count any higher.
There are over 600 tiny holes in half of a ceiling tile. That should be how I count these things. I should divide the space into some much smaller fraction and then multiply my count out. Or maybe I should not do it at all.
The new boy is sitting in front of me. His hair is longer than mine. His ponytail gives a little flick when he bobs his head down to write in his notebook. I suddenly find myself pushing the ponytail from side to side gently with the eraser end of my pencil.
He sits very still for a moment and then glances over his shoulder at me. I quickly shove the end of the pencil in my mouth and try to look like I’m watching the teacher.

“You should definitely try this. It’s super.”
“I don’t like carrots.”
“The dressing! Oh, it’s so good!”
“But I don’t like salad.”
“I’m serious. I can have this every day.”
“I don’t like pepper, either.”

Some people take the bus home, the actual school bus. I don’t know where they could live, because it takes me twenty minutes to walk home and there’s no big yellow bus available for me. If I don’t want to walk, I need to get a city bus with all the creepy weirdoes.
“Do you know what I really like?”
“You like most things, don’t you?”
She stopped walking. I stopped, too. She kicked at the concrete of the sidewalk and looked at her shadow.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
I took a couple of steps and then turned to see she was still standing in the same spot. She suddenly looked very small and I once again wondered how she could be so much younger than me and in the same class.
‘What is it?”
“Nothing. You go on. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I stepped up to her and bent to look at her face. She wasn’t crying or anything.
“Aren’t we walking home together?”

Based on a little bit of math that I think I may have got wrong, I have determined there are seven-hundred and fifty-two million blobs of plaster on my ceiling.
“Mom says you have a geometry set.” He was standing in my doorway again.
“Get out of the way, I need to use the bathroom.” I pushed him aside and stepped into the hall. I really wanted a shower.
“What did Maggie get for her birthday?”
“What? Uh, I don’t know.”
“Where is the geometry set?”
“Goddamn it, will you give up?”
He shrugged his shoulders and walked past me and back down the stairs.

Georgie and Cherrie

ice tree

“Are you ready?” Cherrie was standing in the doorway to his room with her arms folded. He glanced at her face to see that she looked irritated. Normal, he thought.

“What are you doing?” she asked. Her voice always sounds the same, he thought. She always sounds like someone’s trying to crawl up her pant leg.

“I need you to walk Georgie to his friend’s house,” their mother had said while getting ready for work.

“What for?”

“I won’t be home in time. After school, take him to get a birthday present.” She gave Cherrie some money. “It’s a sleepover.”

“Boys have sleepovers? Will they be doing each other’s hair and makeup?”

Georgie was sitting in a chair facing his dresser. Cherrie was standing in the doorway getting more impatient. “Really, hurry up. We still need to go get a present.”

He reached down beside him and picked up a backpack. He stood and opened the second drawer of the dresser. He moved the top two articles of clothing and pulled out a pair of pyjamas. He was very pleased with himself.

“Are you finished?”

He put the pyjamas in the backpack and walked out past Cherrie. “I’m ready.”

Early morning, the day before, he opened the blind on his window and watched the trees appear in the darkness just before the rising sun. He kept his light off. While he stared, he noticed that the trees were never exactly indistinguishable but that they were a distinct form against a background. The background is the same colour as the trees, he thought.

After the sun was up, all the colours were filled in. He wondered how he could draw something that changed colour with the light.

Early the next morning, he set up a camera to take pictures of the darkened trees. He had spent the rest of the morning staring at the black images but could see nothing. Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll take the camera outside and see if I can get something. He wondered if there was some way to turn off the steetlights.

“What do you want to get him?”

They were in the toy section of a department store. The bust ride had been short. Cherrie had spent the entire trip staring at her phone and muttering. He hadn’t been listening to what she was saying.. He was watching an old woman sitting in one of the sideways seats with her grocery bags and purse. The grocery bags were in the seat next to her, the purse was in her lap. She was wearing a large wool sweater with some odd pattern around the hem and cuffs. It also had a large collar that curled slightly as it flopped over. The sweater is grey, he thought.

He watched the old woman watching the floor at her feet. She regularly looked toward the front of the bus but he could see she was uncomfortable staying in that position. He tried to see the items in her bags. In one, he could count the number of cans that were visible through the thin plastic, but the other one was shapeless. He decided it held bread.

He stared at the grinning stuffed bears before him. He momentarily thought they would look better once dirtied and torn.

“What about Lego?” she asked. “Don’t boys like Lego? How about a Transformer?”

He picked up a pop-eyed stuffed something. It had a shocked expression on its bizarrely elongated face. It also had a tail almost as long as its body. He recognized it from a cartoon. “This.”

“That?”

“This,” he nodded.

“Whatever,” she said. “Come on, then. I need to get some stuff, too.”

They walked through the kitchenware department and into the women’s clothing department. He liked the displays of knives and other kitchen utensils; he liked the pots and frying pans, too.

Cherrie walked to the section with underwear. She started taking bras off a display and holding them up.

“Your sister has big tits,” Brandon K. had said. They were playing softball, standing in the dugout, Cherrie was sitting on a bench by home plate with their mother. He looked over at her. She was staring at her phone and slouching over it to block the glare of the sun.

“No,” he said, and resumed watching the batter. “It just looks that way.”

“Where does it have the size on this goddamn thing,” she muttered. He watched her turn it around and around before giving up and pulling another off the rack.

“Are your tits getting big?”

He heard a giggle from someone a couple of racks away.

He watched her face return to its normal pale hue. She scowled and grabbed his arm. “Let’s go.”

“Excuse me, miss,” said a man at the exit. “I need to check the boy’s backpack.”

“What? Why?”

“Please,” he said. His voice was serious. Georgie looked up at the man’s face. He wasn’t exactly looking at either of them. His hand was out for the bag.

“Give it to him, Georgie. You think we’re thieves just because we’re young?”

“Store policy, miss. Backpacks are to be left at the door.” He opened the bag and looked inside. He shook it and tilted it. He doesn’t want to put his hand in, Georgie thought.

“Here you go,” he handed the bag back to Georgie without closing it. “Next time, use the cubbies.”

“Fucking asshole,” she muttered, “He should stick to beating off watching the security cameras, dipshit. God!”

The night before, he’d watched the sun go down. The colours drained out of the things on the earth and drifted away in the sky toward the setting sun. But the dark that came was not the dark of a settled night. It was colder.

The night before that, it had been cloudy. The sunset was an unimpressive greying of the world.

The woman had got off the bus two stops before the shopping mall. He watched her slowly pick up her things and get ready to stand after she signalled for the stop. He watched her ease herself down the steps and walk off toward an apartment building. Then she was gone.

“We forgot a gift bag,” he said to his sister when they were back on the bus.

“Who cares?” she said.

The Broken Key

supermug

Sunday morning –
The baby finally stopped crying and went to sleep. She felt bad for it, but she truly hated that sound. She couldn’t describe the feeling it gave her inside, the mix of anxiety and worry and anger. But when it stopped, a genuine feeling of peace immediately settled over her and she once again felt she could breathe.
She poured the last of the coffee from the percolator and sat at the table. He’d left the paper open to the half-finished crossword puzzle. She picked up the pen and filled in “bovine” for 18 down. Then she wrote “leverage” for 23 across.
Outside, the leaves were budding on the trees. She knew in a few more days, winter would seem like some foolish imagination of nature, a bare impossibility in the face of lush green foliage and life. She could feel it creeping around in her, though. A hard nugget of cold-wariness, a mild sensation of unease.
She drank her coffee.

Sunday afternoon –
The baby liked to be bounced gently while she walked. Few people were in the park at this time of year. The wind carried a mild frostiness with it that was pleasantly uncomfortable.
She could see her neighbour Barbara walk to her car. She stood a while at the door and then turned around and went back in the house.

Tuesday afternoon –
“I think he might have the beginning of a cold,” he said. He moved the auriscope to the baby’s other ear. “Has he been feeding normally?”
“If by normal, you mean all the time.”
“You should try a schedule. Babies are actually happiest in a routine.”
He sat behind the desk. “I don’t think he needs any medicine. Just keep him well-watered and watch for a fever.”
Like a plant. Keep it out of direct sunlight.

Friday morning –
2 down: ambiguous.
1 across: fatality.

Friday evening –
“I think we should go see grandma tomorrow,” he said to the baby. “We can make a trip out of it.”
“You mean just the two of you, right?”
“You don’t want to go?” He held the baby on his knee, hands around the ribs, and bounced him lightly up and down. The baby gurgled.
“He’s gonna spit up on your pants.”
“Oh no no,” he said as he stood and lifted the baby to his shoulder. “You’re gonna puke on Daddy’s shirt, right?” He laughed. The baby rubbed his face against his father’s shoulder and said, “Sheesh.”
“I could use a day to myself, actually.”
“Oh,” he said. She could see the uncertainty cross his face. She knew he was wondering if he could take care of the baby for a day. “I guess we could do that.”
“Here,” she said, “Let me take him.” She held out her arms.

Saturday early morning –
“You know,” she whispered to the eyes staring up at her, “You could sleep for more than two hours. I know you can because I can. And anything that’s good for me has to be good for you.”
The baby’s face wrinkled and his head turned away from the bottle. “Done, are you?”
She stood up and lifted the baby to her shoulder and rubbed his back lightly. She walked over to the window and looked out just as her neighbour’s porch light came on. The old woman came out of the house and walked down the steps to her car. She stood a moment by the car door and then said something and went back up the steps to her house. The light went off.
“Strange old bird.”
The baby burped.

Saturday morning –
3 across: madrigal
42 across: carp

Saturday noon –
She decided to eat her sandwich and drink coffee on the step. She’d spent the morning cleaning up the flower beds at the sides of the walkway from the drive to the porch. She liked small colourful plants more than the disorderly shrubs her neighbours seemed to like. Perhaps they don’t like them, she thought. Perhaps they don’t care.
The chill was lifting as the sun gained power. It felt good to be outside and in the air. The past seven months had started in a wet end to summer and a soggy autumn that dragged into the worst winter she’d ever experienced. Or that was how it felt at times. She knew everything was askew because of the baby. She was under the influence of a maleficent master. She knew she needed to take charge but she was so tired most of the time. When a break came, when the baby would sleep or be happy for a few minutes sitting in his own chair, she felt so very good for a moment. She felt almost as enslaved to the tiny respites as she was to her tiny tyrant.
Today, however, she felt useful and good on her own and not at all like a servant.
She heard the creak of screen-door springs from across the yard and looked to see her neighbour step out onto the porch. The old woman turned and pulled the door shut, then let the screen door swing closed as she walked down the steps. She walked to her car and stood at the driver’s side door motionless.
“Hi.” She waved from her own step. She put the last bite of her sandwich in her mouth and stood up. “Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” said Barbara. Her voice sounded like ice-cream melting. “Say, can you come look at this?”
“What’s wrong?”
She walked around the car to where the old woman was standing. For a moment, she could smell tea and onion.
“I can’t get my key to open this darn door. I think it’s broken.”
She took the key and looked at it. “No,” she said, “It’s just bent.”
“Oh, is it, now?”
“I can probably straighten it. Give me a minute.”
“Oh, I’d love you forever.”
She took the key back to her own house and around to the garden shed. Amongst the garden tools was a rusty box her father-in-law had given them when they bought the house. “I know you two don’t have a clue how to do anything, but you’ll always need a few basic tools.” So far, they had not needed any of them. They had only needed a plumber when the toilet would not stop running, and a plumber didn’t fit in the box.
She took a hammer out. She put the key on a patio stone and tapped it a few times until it looked straight again. She brought it back to Barbara.
“Here, try it now.”
Barbara took the key from her outstretched hand. She could once again smell tea but no onion. The key went in and the door unlocked.
“Thank-you, dear. I was losing my mind about this. You saved my life.”

Saturday late night –
The baby’s crying woke her. She fought back against the feeling of despair that seemed to creep out of the centre of her body. She didn’t move.
“The baby’s awake,” he said. He rolled over and looked at her. “Are you gonna get him?”
She didn’t move. He started to get out of bed. “No,” she said quietly.
“What?”
“He’ll go back to sleep.”

The Snowbank

snow leaf2

“Oh, I hate the snow.”

I looked at her. She was sitting in the snow up to her chest. Her legs were completely buried.

“You’ve been playing out here for three hours.”

“That’s a long time,” she said. She tilted her head and looked up at the sky. “Why didn’t the sun move?”

“Oh, it moved.”

I got in the car and backed out of the driveway. She waved from her nest.

My street rarely gets the attention of the town plows. It never gets any salt or sand or whatever else they put on roads. It’s a normal topic of conversation amongst the people who live here. When we meet at the road with our shovels in hand, we always complain how we pay so much in tax and never get any service for it.

But it does keep the street looking rather ideal, in winter. The snow stays white. Everywhere else, the snow soon turns into brownish sludge that gets on everything. Bella may hate the snow, but I hate the slush.

I pictured her while I drove. She was likely still digging around in the snowbank next to the driveway. She usually played out there with Nan, the neighbour’s girl. Nan is a hell of a name for a 5-year-old.

I regretted not taking a picture of her.

Later, when I finally got home, they were already waiting at the table.

“Where was Nan, today?”

“Alice said they all caught cold over there.” Maria put a dish of meatloaf on the table and sat. She put a piece on Bella’s plate.

“I don’t like Nan, anymore.”

“No? Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she muttered. She picked up her fork and poked at the meatloaf.

“You eat,” said Maria as she spooned corn onto the plate.

Later, after they were asleep, I sat on the couch and watched late night talk shows. It’s difficult to sleep at night when you work in the afternoons. It seems pointless to try.

There was a man on television doing a comedy juggling act. The audience was laughing. The man’s face was an odd mix of smiling, teeth gritting, and concentration. I felt myself starting to fall asleep.

“Daddy.” I felt her tug on my shirt. “Daddy.”

“Oh, hi. Why are you up?”

She looked at the floor. “I don’t know.”

I patted her head. She felt a little warm but I felt cold. I picked her up and carried her to her room.

Later, in my own bed, I could see snow falling in the light from the streetlamp. I cursed the curtains being open but lacked the energy to get up and do it.

That night, I dreamed I saw Roy Orbison standing waist deep in the snowbank. Bella sat before him, but facing away. He was playing guitar and singing that crying song.

I woke up before he could finish.

The Winter Queen

“So,” he said.

What?

“Damn this snow. Goddamn this goddamn road.”

The wind picked little cotton balls of snow and tossed them across the glass.

“Is this even the right way? Where the hell are we, now?”

What?

Her mind was abandoning her. The man kept talking, cursing the weather, the road, the other cars. She wanted to be in a field, on her back, staring at clouds. She closed her eyes.

“What’s the name of the place?”

Valhalla. Timbuktu. el Dorado.

– – –

“Your father’s cancer came back,” said the woman on the phone. “He’s not well.”

Is he home? Is he in the hospital? Is he in the ground?

“He was in the hospital today and refused treatment. He told them he wanted to come home, so I took him home. He had a hard time before. He says he doesn’t want to do it again, since it didn’t even work.”

But it did work. That was five years ago. Or is it that much worse, now?

“They say it’s worse this time.”

– – –

“Give your mother my love, dear. Give your father a hug.”

They are so kind. Or they seem so kind.

– – –

“This will be a truly stupid trip if we end up dead in a ditch.”

The lights were tricking. They seemed real and unreal. Bits of the world glowed a ways off, but they couldn’t in the night. Her eyes would not adjust to the dark with the blowing snow.

“Are you good?” She felt him look at her. Maybe she saw it reflected in the glass.

Fine. Fine. Good. Still alive.

Her hand slid through her hair. It felt cool through her fingers. It felt no longer her.

– – –

“Did you see the Winter Queen?” he asked.

His hair had turned white years ago. It now adopted a dishwater hue. His eyes glinted from the bed.

The snow was harsh.

“She can only be seen at night during a winter storm. And then only in glass. Trapped there. It’s her curse.”

Curse? Why curse?

He coughed, then he laughed, “Punishment is more rightly said. She was a nasty bit when she was young. Took men and made them give it all up. Now, I don’t mean it like that, get that look off your face. That’s part of it, all right, but they would’ve given that up to any pretty girl.”

She smiled. He winked and reached out his hand. She held it.

“But for her, they’d give up everything. Everything they ever could be or want or do. And somehow, she could then just swallow them whole.”

Why are the mean ones always women?

“Bullshit.”

Who punished her?

“They say a man went to her one day. She tried to take hold of him, but he refused. ‘What do you do?’ she asked. ‘Nothing,’ said he. ‘What do you want, then?’ she asked. ‘Nothing,’ said he. ‘What are you, then?’ she asked and he said, ‘If you truly want to know what I am, you must see me in the glass on a night of a winter storm.’ She hurried to the window to look out, for it was night and winter. Sure enough, the snow was blowing. ‘Come stand where I can see you, then,’ she said. And she watched in the glass as he moved up behind her and put his arms around her and together, without a word, they stepped into the glass.”

She squeezed the hand. His breathing was rough but he continued.

“So, every now and then, you’ll see her in the glass. She wants you to say what you are but you shouldn’t say it.”

What happened to the man?

“The same thing that happens to all men,” he smiled and leaned back against his pillow.

After the fire

“So, can you start over from the beginning?”

Her head hurt. The light was too bright above the man. She still felt a little dizzy. She wondered if she should worry about sleeping.

“I already told the other officer,” she said.

He shook his head. “No, he’s not police.”

“No?” She rubbed her forehead.

“No. He’s a paramedic.”

She let her eyes close. I don’t have time for this, she thought. Annie will be upset. She must be waiting –

“Listen, I have to pick up my daughter.”

“No, you have to tell me what happened. Your husband’s been called. I’m sure he can get her.”

“My husband?”

She looked down at her lap. The floor was formerly white tiles that had cracked and lost their sheen.

“I was driving to get my daughter.”

“Where was your daughter?”

“At the …”

“What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Annie. She was at dance. She takes tap and jazz.”

“And where is her class?”

“On…”

“Can you remember the name of the street?”

“No,” she said. Her hand wiped her eye. The pain in her head swelled and subsided.

“I’m sure your husband will get her. Can you tell me what happened on your way to get her? I need you to say it.”

“I don’t know,” she said and covered her face.

“Okay,” he said. He crouched before her and put his hand on her knee. “I’ll check back later, then.”

When she looked again, he was gone and the door was closed. She let her back ease into the chair. Her head hurt. She looked around at the walls and out the window. There was no sound in the room.

The door opened and a woman pushed a cart into the room. “Are you hungry, dear? Thirsty? Is everything ok? I have a couple of pills for you.”

“Oh, thank-you, my head is breaking in two.”

“There, now. That will be better.”

She picked up a clipboard from her cart and marked something on it with a pen.

“Can you tell me what day it is, dear?”

She thought hard. Annie had dance on Tuesday and Thursday. “Thursday,” she guessed.

“Mm-hmm,” and more writing on the clipboard.

“I can’t find my watch, do you know what time it is?”

“You should get some rest. The doctor will be in soon.” She pushed the cart out and closed the door behind her.

She leaned back to feel the chair behind her but it wasn’t there. She looked around again and saw she was on a bed. She looked around again and saw the room was not where she had just been.

“What’s happening?”

“How often have you been having this dream?” he asked.

She took her hand off her face. The doctor was sitting in a brown leather chair, she was sitting in what her father would have called an easy chair. The room looked like suede.

“Dream?”

He looked over at her without moving. “Are you ok? Do you need to go back to your room?”

Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe. I want to go back. Something is missing here and I want to get it back. I think I need something more here. I think I see it now. I think it’s just a fantasy. I think you made me wrong and made everything go to shit. This earth baked my life. This earth baked my life. This earth baked my life. I am a golden goddess born but burned to blackened capon. And this is my inheritance – a world of morons and psychopaths who think I have made a mistake. But it’s all been taken. And the blisters won’t pop – they just press more and more….

She smiled. “Hello.”