Kathy Steblen is a wife, mother, and counselor who works primarily with teenagers. She is a visual artist who also loves to write short fiction. Previous publications include flash fiction found in "Every Day Fiction," and the anthology, "Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales From 100 Word Story." She lives with her family and a hound dog puppy in upstate New York along the Erie Canal.
For that whole hot summer after Jolene had found her mother dead, she heard the woman’s voice speaking to her--desperate utterances whispered through the pines, crescendoing on the wind, and murmured under water--messages meant for her alone, telling her how to stay alive. What do you imagine would be the worst day to find a dead mother? You might say on Christmas day or even Thanksgiving, but the day happened to be on Jolene’s seventh birthday: July seventh, nineteen seventy. That date was full of sevens and it should have been a lucky day. Jolene came downstairs, excited to see a balloon or two, maybe some presents, but what she found was a dead mom collapsed in a chair from an overdose of vodka and pills. It might have been an accident, which may have been easier to weather, but there was a penciled note scrawled in a shaky hand—you could almost see her mom’s state of mind in that feint, wobbly script, written by someone who was barely visible, someone who wanted to be erased. Jolene kept the note in her top dresser drawer. The note said: “My heart hurts too much to go on. The best part of my whole life was being your mom, but I’m doing a bad job of it. Your better off without me.” The second “You’re” was spelled: Y—O—U—R. Her dad, after he read it, said, “She spelled ‘your’ wrong.” Jolene remembers it that way, as the one thing he had to say about that note, which goes a long way in explaining why her mom thought she did a bad job at everything. What a bastard. A part of her died that day too, right alongside her mom. She felt punished because, afterwards, she was sent to “spend time” at her grandma’s house, a lady she didn’t even know. Her dad said it would be a good way to heal, spending the rest of the summer with her mom’s mom. And besides, he had to work. Jolene’s dad said they were heading to a town where her mom grew up, a place outside a city named after big, dumb cows. He drove for about two hours west from where they lived in Rochester, passing by life size statues of buffalo grazing along a strip of grass between the lanes of highway. “Dumb name for a city,” scoffed her dad. “Buffalo never lived here.” “What are buffalo?” asked Jolene. “Like I told you, big dumb cows,” he said, stringing the words out long. He thought for a moment, then said, “Shoot. Two of them do live here after all, and you’ll meet ‘em.” He laughed at his own private joke, one that Jolene did not understand. For the rest of the trip she kept peering out the car window, anxious to see some live cows resembling those statues they’d passed along the way. Finally, after paying the toll, they traveled along some roads with less traffic, then almost no traffic, slowing down in front of tiny yard full of dandelions and a short driveway. The mailbox out front read “Sherman,” her mom’s last name. Her dad swung the car onto the gravel and Jolene remembers the crunchy sound under the tires as the engine went dead. After a long trip of open windows and her hair flying every which way, they sat for a minute in silence with nothing but the sound of a far-off train hailing the beginning of her new life. The heat settled like gel around her neck. “This is the place,” declared her dad, looking at an old rusty mower in the middle of the lawn with a cardboard sign propped up against it that read: For Sale. “She’s always trying to sell busted up shit to stupid people.” The house stood tall at the side of a cul-de-sac, plain and narrow with grey tar paper shingles, out of which lumbered a short, stocky woman with frizzy gray hair, wearing a yellow muumuu dotted with stains down the front; some looking old, some fresh. The woman and her dad eyed one another warily like dogs catching a whiff of something they found offensive. The woman nodded. “How you doing, Jay?” She said it without a smile. “Just fine, Beverly,” said Jolene’s dad, like he was settling an argument. He picked up the suitcase and the three of them headed towards the house. Before they even got through the flimsy screen door, they were assaulted by the smell of cat piss. Six cats tip-toed along the countertops licking wads of jam or ketchup, the same colors that were splashed on the muumuu. The old woman noticed Jolene and her dad scanning the cats. “One more an’ I’ll be ‘Crazy Cat Lady,’” she said. Her voice held a bit of a cackle. “But I ain’t there yet. Number’s seven. All I got is six.” “Is that right?” smirked Jay. “You got three more than the last time I was here.” “Those three are long gone now. That’s a ways back. You ain’t been here in some time.” She looked pointedly at Jay who stared back at her with defiant deadpan eyes. “Anyways, people keep giving me their cats when they can’t take care of ‘em.” Grandma glanced over at Jolene as if taking inventory. “She favors you, I guess, ‘cept for the eyes. That color’s all Sherman. Other than that, I don’t see none of Terri in this girl.” “She’s in there, alright,” said Jay. “The way she acts is all Terri.” “Good,” said Grandma. “Least I know what I got here then.” After a quick trip to use the bathroom, Jolene’s dad ruffled her hair and said, “See you later, Kiddo.” It seemed like he was putting on a show for the old woman because he’d never ruffled her hair before, had never called her Kiddo. Jolene wrapped both arms around his waist and held on. He patted her back and promised to pick her up in three weeks. Three weeks means nothing to a girl of seven—he may as well have said three years. Jolene remembers Grandma leading her up the spindly staircase to see her own room for the first time. It had just enough space to hold a tiny wooden dresser and a small bed draped with a faded coverlet, the color of weak tea. Grandma said this room was a no cat-zone and Jolene should shut the door to keep them out. “Don’t let nobody in here you don’t want coming in,” she said, and demonstrated to Jolene how to slide the latch on the door to lock it from the inside. The latch was placed at the height where a child could reach it. Jolene wondered who’d be trying to get in when it was only her and Grandma living there in the house. Through the open window, Jolene spied an above ground swimming pool out back, weathered and listing to one side. It looked like heaven to her on that hot July day, full of water reflecting the clouds, with green patches quivering below it, like miniature islands. Grandma took Jolene to K-mart to get a bathing suit. Jolene begged for the one that made her look like a mermaid. It was just a regular two-piece, but attached to the bottoms was a gauzy, blue skirt covered in big silver sequins that sparkled. Grandma worried that the sequins would get caught in the pool filter and told Jolene not to wear the skirt part in the water, but what girl of seven can resist flipping her tail? Later, in the pool, she admired how her hair flowed out around her, undulating in the water like golden ribbons, and, with the sparkly teal and silver tail flashing below, she dreamed herself to be a real mermaid. This gave her some power to think that maybe she could survive life without a mom. As Jolene practiced twirling and summersaults under the ocean waves, a station wagon pulled up front, spilling out cousins, three loud boys and one sulky girl. The boys leapt into the pool, exploding the water like bombs going off all around her. Jolene grabbed onto the side and held tight as water surged over the edge. A woman strolled into the backyard and Jolene’s stomach flipped to see her mom, now fat, wearing a brassy yellow wig; her mom’s pert nose replaced by a pig’s snout. “Put your eyes back into your head, Jolene. I’m your aunt,” said the woman, peaking over the side of the pool, running her eyes up and down the length of Jolene, devouring her with a curious, hard look. Grandma bustled outside and stood beside the aunt, who said, “Guess Jay thought Terri was too good to visit us, but not his girl, huh?” said the woman. “How long she here for?” Grandma shrugged, staring into the pool. The aunt lit a cigarette and Jolene noticed she had stubby hands with chewed up nails covered in chipped red polish. She wore heavy turquoise rings on every finger. Jolene avoided looking at the aunt’s face, maybe because the sun glared harshly over the top of the woman’s head; Jolene would have had to squint. Or maybe she didn’t look because seeing her mom’s face all puffed up and yellowed, with mean eyes, was a lot to take in. “I got some stuff I gotta get done today,” said the aunt. Jolene noticed the girl cousin roll her eyes and mumble low, under her breath. “I aint taking the boys all day,” said Grandma. “They ate up the Captain Crunch last time. All of it.” The aunt, ignoring Grandma, stared straight at the girl. “You got something to say about it, Denise? I think you better think about shutting-up.” “I didn’t say noth’n’,” said the girl. Her tone held fire but she broke eye contact and looked away from her mother’s challenging gaze. “I’ll get back in two hours,” said the aunt to Grandma, stubbing out her cigarette on the side of the pool. Grandma shook her head, looked up and rolled her eyes at the sky, which must have meant “yes,” because both of them trudged back to the house and left the kids to splashing. Jolene’s girl cousin glided under the water and popped up beside her like some kind of fluid, lanky eel. She put her face too close to Jolene’s; a round pale face, full of freckles, some in blotches so big as to form patches of rust. Her eyes matched the darkest freckles, a reddish-brown, not unlike the color of Jolene’s eyes. Her round head looked too big for her thin, long body. “I’m eleven. How old are you?” demanded the girl. “Seven,” answered Jolene. “I’m a mermaid.” “Did you know my mom is your mom’s ‘dentical twin?” asked Denise. “That means they look just alike.” “My mom was pretty,” declared Jolene, stating a fact. “Your mom’s dead,” said Denise, also a fact. She ducked below the surface and Jolene felt shocked to feel her bathing suit bottoms being tugged down over her narrow hips, peeled off fiercely as she kicked in horror. Denise persisted until she had the costume wadded into a ball, tossing it over the edge of the pool onto the dirt and rocks. Jolene had to climb up the aluminum step ladder with no bottoms on, in front of those boy cousins who whooped and snickered and slapped their hands on top of the water in excitement. She looked frantically around for a towel but didn’t see one and ran to rescue the muddy crunched up ball of her gauzy blue tail. She charged through the back door, hardly able to see through her tears, the mermaid’s magic drained out of her. Denise chased behind. Grandma stood alone at the sink, peeling potatoes, looking worn down by the sheer weight of her life. She wrapped a dish towel around Jolene’s bare bottom. “What happened?” she snapped, with annoyance. When Jolene blurted out her story, Grandma turned to Denise. “Why’d you do it?” Denise replied, innocently, “I just wanted to see if mermaids had private parts, Grandma.” Grandma said to Jolene, “I told you not to wear that skirt in the pool.” Grandma didn’t seem to realize that a girl of Denise’s age is old enough to know that mermaids are pretend. Even Jolene, age seven, knew that. She did her best to avoid the wily Denise, playing indoors for the rest of that hot day. She huddled under Grandma’s Formica table playing with the battered Barbie dolls Grandma had given her, the cats taking turns hopping down to bat the dolls’ snarled hair. After a few days, Grandma tired of Jolene skirting around her feet. Aunt Dulcie dropped off Cousin Denise, and Grandma told them, “Play outside awhile. Let me be.” Denise wanted to play hair salon. She collected a bucket of supplies, tossing in a brush, a comb and a handful of bobby pins. She opened a drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors. “Let me see what you got of mine,” said Grandma, peering into the bucket. “Bring it all back to me. And no scissors.” She plucked them out of the bucket and slid them back into the kitchen drawer, making Jolene wonder if Grandma actually knew that Denise was a menace. Denise led Jolene out back to take a seat on an overturned crate next to the shed in a block of shade. She brushed Jolene’s angel hair, lifting it off her neck with the comb and letting the strands fall, a few at a time, back into place. The tickling sensation of it raised goose bumps on Jolene’s bare arms, despite the heat. She missed being cuddled; hadn’t been hugged since her mom died. Her dad’s hair-ruffle didn’t count. “Your hair is so much prettier than mine,” lamented Denise, running her palm against its silkiness. Denise’s hair was a frizzle-frazzled mess, the brindle color of wood shavings, coarse as a mare’s tail. Jolene didn’t like Denise’s hair but she was trying to make a friend of her cousin that day, so she said, “I wish my hair was curly like yours.” “I can make your hair curly,” said Denise. “Let me go get some curlers.” She carried the bucket to the edge of the field behind the shed along which grew prickly burdocks and milkweed with bumpy green pods. Denise picked the weeds until the bucket was half full. She separated Jolene’s hair into sections, rolling the burdocks like curlers to hold the hair tight to Jolene’s head, careful to get every strand gathered into the bundle. She cracked the milkweed pods open and rubbed the white sticky glue against the balls of hair until it felt, to Jolene, itchy and hot. Denise said, “When you unroll it tomorrow, your hair will be all curly.” Jolene touched her hair. The burdocks wouldn’t budge. Back at the house, no amount of Grandma’s coaxing or cursing or tugging with the comb could loosen Jolene’s hair from that trap. Finally, out came the scissors from the kitchen drawer. Jolene heard the chirping blades slicing through stiff wads of her hair. The ragged balls of glue-infused burdock dropped around her feet as Denise sat transfixed, perched on a chair, watching with amused, hungry eyes. No more mermaid hair. Grandma asked Denise, “Why’d you do it?” Denise made her eyes wide. “We were pretending. She wanted curly hair. The burdocks were curlers, Grandma. I didn’t know they’d stick so hard.” Jolene, even at age seven, thought, “what bull.” Grandma rolled her eyes and sighed. That night, curled under the thin bedspread in misery, nearly bald, she was surprised to hear her dead mother speak to her for the first time; not in a regular voice, but as if that voice were whispered through pine trees in the wind. Jolene felt a chill like someone blowing on her neck, causing her to stiffen. She listened closely to hear the message: No more tricks, Jolene.Don’t fall into another trap. Jolene woke up a different sort of girl, cynical, but not completely motherless. The few visitors who sometimes showed up at Grandma’s house to have coffee gazed at Jolene with voyeuristic pity, clucking, “Poor thing.” They didn’t realize the courage infused in her that night by the windy, urgent voice of her mother. The next time she saw her cousin, Denise plunked a big silver coin into the pool. It slowly descended, head over tail, to land on an island of algae. Denise said it was pirate’s treasure and if Jolene could dive down to get it, she could keep it. Jolene, not sensing a risk, swam under the water to scoop up the treasure. She felt Denise’s long foot find her back, pressing down hard; felt the strong fingers of Denise’s hand curling over her head to keep her down. Jolene could not swim up. At first, she thrashed, but the foot pressed harder each time she tried to twist away. I can’t breathe, thought Jolene, panicked, her chest aching until her mother’s voice raged like an ocean wave crashing, pretend to die. Jolene went limp, holding her breath, about to explode, when the hand and foot released her. She surfaced, sputtering, gulping for air. Her cousin arched against the edge of the pool, looking triumphant with a face that said, “Gotcha.” Denise seemed to be everywhere that summer, swimming around Jolene in the pool like a circling shark, threatening to strike at any moment; bursting open the bathroom door when Jolene was on the toilet, the boys bending over to peek in, their faces exalted, mouths agape and honking like unruly geese, Haaawww! until Grandma would yell, “Quit your monkey’n. Let her be!” And they’d scatter. Then there was the pathetic mouse, small and mangled, found on top of her bed. “Told you to keep that door shut, else the cats get in,” scolded Grandma, but Jolene knew it wasn’t a cat that placed that mouse dead center on her bed. Jolene wondered if her dad would ever come. At night she began using the lock, not because Denise was in the house, but because Denise was in her head. ***** The best times were Thursdays, when Grandma told Jolene to help her go through the junk in the shed, pick out some things to lay on the table out front for the weekly yard sale. Grandma never used the word “junk,” though, but instead said, “going through the inventory,” like they worked in a real store. Jolene helped Grandma pick out toasters and tools, mildewed cardboard boxes full of old greeting cards, musty- smelling skeins of yarn, spools of thread, and bald tires. Everything was laid out on card tables at the end of the driveway on Thursdays and hauled back in on Sunday. Grandma would sit out there for hours in a lawn chair wearing a floppy straw hat, waiting for cars to pull up. A sign out by the road guided people her way. The sign, written on a piece of cardboard, read, “Yard Sale. Come find your hidden treasure.” But hardly any cars ever came, and the people that did show up pretty much knew that the tables were full of junk, not treasure. One look at the plain grey house, the old woman sitting there in the broiling sun without any tree to offer shade, the ancient card tables scattered with rusty old tools-- the cars usually circled around and left. Grandma would tip her hat at the retreating headlights and say, “Your loss.” Once in a while she’d sell a thing or two, stare at the handful of dollar bills like they were a thing of beauty, then cram the wad of cash somewhere down the front of her shirt and give Jolene a wink. “Gotta be patient,” she said, nodding affirmatively. “It pays off.” ***** One morning, as Jolene munched toast smeared with jam, Grandma said to her, “Jolene, listen. Your dad ain’t coming to get you. You’re gonna have to stay here with me.” The toast suddenly clogged in Jolene’s throat like a ball of damp cardboard. There was no way to swallow and she gagged, spitting it out onto her plate. Instead of being angry, Grandma said, “It’ll be okay.” Her face was the one she’d used one time when a man asked if the old lawn mower by the road still worked—“It’ll need some repair is all; it’s a damn good mower.” Grandma lied matter-of-factly, her lips a straight line, an earnest plea lingering in her eyes--trying to sell busted up shit to stupid people. “But I don’t want to stay here,” Jolene whined, “I want to go home.” Grandma raised her voice slightly and said, “He ain’t coming for you, Jolene.” Then lowered her voice and added, “The man’s a coward.” Jolene went upstairs and fell on her quilt, crying. Later on, Grandma stood in the doorway. “Quit your crying, Jolene. Get your sneakers on. I’m taking you to a spot you’ll like. Somewheres your mom used to play.” She made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stuffed them into baggies, and Jolene climbed into the old Rambler. Grandma swung the car out of the driveway and they traveled about two minutes down the road to pull into a parking lot in a grassy field. Grandma sort-of hobble-walked with a hitch in her gait, using a cane, doing her best to lead Jolene along a pathway through the woods to a gorge. Parents with children, hikers with dogs, lovers holding hands, all trotted along the trail like a disjointed parade. “Mind me, now,” warned Grandma. “See them boys up there?” She pointed to two children Jolene’s age, peeking over the side of the cliff, the only spot not blocked by brush or trees. “Them boys are too close to the edge. You stay next to me. You can run off when we get down there, but it’s a drop from up here. A girl fell off last year.” “What happened to her?” asked Jolene. The notion of it made her want to peek over the edge with the boys. “What’d’ya think happened to her, Jolene? Don’t ask dumb questions.” A rocky path led through the woods and narrowed as they descended down an incline to a stream. The Shhhhh of the falls strengthened with every step; white noise like a huge, deafening silence; a command from God, Shhhhh. The falls suddenly appeared, cascading endlessly; frothy swirls churning at its base with a misty fog rising upwards like a thousand-winged angels. The stream was strewn with boulders the size of Volkswagens. Children scrambled up to play on them, and lovers reclined to sunbathe. Grandma carefully lowered herself to settle on a log. The walk had been treacherous for her. They ate the sandwiches in silence, looking around at everyone leaping amongst the rocks, laughing and splashing. Jolene felt like an uninvited guest at a party. Grandma let her chin drop to her neck, closed her eyes and said, “Go ahead, Jolene. You play a bit. Let me be. I gotta rest some. There’s a surprise up there you’ll wanna see.” Jolene splashed in the stream, slowly making her way up to the mouth of the falls, pushing through the pulsing current in her sneakers as if wading towards a holy destination on a religious quest. She noticed, drawing close, that a bright orange flame blazed from a recess behind the falls, the sheets of water covering it like a transparent veil. She stood in wonder. “There it is, there it is!” shouted a little girl in a high-pitched voice, racing up next to Jolene. The girl’s mother bent down and squeezed her daughter in sideways in a hug. The girl pushed herself into that hug, clearly enjoying the preciousness of herself being cherished. The mother pointed to the flame, explaining something about natural gas. The girl wasn’t listening. Her eyes traveled all over her mother’s face as she spoke, adoring being adored. Jolene was close enough to see the mother’s warm caramel eyes, to hear her say, “All day, all night, it never goes out, never dies. It’s like love.” The girl touched a dangling strand of her mother’s hair. “Doesn’t it get tired and want to take a nap?” The mother laughed, charmed by her girl’s reply. She clasped her daughter’s hand and they picked their way up closer to the flame. A chasm opened for Jolene just then, an indefinable longing ignited-- her whole life ahead with the tireless need to be held aloft in the eyes of a mother. All day, all night, it never goes out. Jolene’s attention switched to a movement next to her, two monarch butterflies fluttering in a playful dance. It was odd to see them so far down in the gorge. As she watched, they rose higher and higher out of sight; a flittering duet tracing a figure eight. Jolene wondered if the “special surprise” Grandma forecast was the butterflies or the flame. In her memory afterwards, seeing those fluttering wings of orange just out of reach brought her mother into the present in a flash as strong as an embrace. She pictured the two of them playing together on the beach, on a good day. The water was always cold. Her mom pointed to the horizon—“That’s Canada over there”---the memory of her mother’s face, unguarded, wistful, then full of something akin to joy—“Kick ‘n’ paddle, Jolene, kick ‘n’ paddle!”—and Jolene would swim right into her mother’s outstretched arms. Jolene waded back to where her grandmother rested. “You seen the fire?” asked Grandma, rising unsteadily to her feet, grasping the cane that looked inefficient to hold her weight. Jolene nodded, a solemn feeling taking hold of her. “All right,” said Grandma. “We can go then.” Halfway up the trail Grandma needed to rest. She leaned on her cane, looking sideways towards the edge of the gorge, lapsed in reverie. “You might’a sat on a rock that your mom played on when she was little. Her and Dulcie, they used to be down here for hours. Your mom, more so. She used to make fairy houses.” She looked at Jolene, sadness tugging at her weathered features, drawing her mouth downward, a flutter in her eyelids. “That flame,” she said in a thick voice that startled Jolene with its’ emotion. Jolene waited to hear more but Grandma straightened her back, started to walk again, slowly. “They say it’s eternal, never goes out,” she said, her voice recovered. “It do sometimes, go out. Has to be lit.” ***** The next day was Sunday. One of the boy cousins, the middle one, had a birthday to celebrate. Grandma sent the three boys out into the field to gather rocks for building a fire pit. She showed them, with her hands, what size rock they should collect: “Like a small loaf of bread,” she said. “Not a big loaf.” The project lasted the whole afternoon, with the boys pulling rocks of all sizes out of the earth, racing to stack them next to the shed in an endless contest of brawn and speed. They then dug a hole in which to burn the firewood and had to refill it. “You ain’t gonna bury a goat,” snapped Grandma. “Do it right, like I told you.” Finally, the rocks were stacked to form a shape resembling a circle, the firewood placed and ready to be lit when the sun went down. Jolene and Denise dragged lawn chairs out of the shed and set them up around the fire. The children held pointy sticks speared with marshmallows that browned to sticky perfection but, more often than not, ignited, charring black in the crackling fire. The boys dared each other, taking turns sticking their bare feet just above the flames to see who could last the longest. Denise hoisted her long feet over the flames and won, her eyes squeezed shut with determination. Aunt Dulcie and Grandma joined them after a bit, Dulcie sitting down heavily with a grunt, popping open the tab on a can of beer. “Can I have a sip?” asked the eldest son, posturing for his brothers. “You eighteen yet?” asked Dulcie. “No, but I’m gonna be in…” he tried to calculate “Seven years.” “How’s that?” said Dulcie, smiling. “Try nine. Nine years.” She looked at him for a moment, searching his face. “Here,” she said, handing him the green can. “One sip.” Her son took a swig, hesitating before he swallowed, making a face as if he’d just sucked a lemon. “Mmmmm,” he said, rubbing his belly, his lips puckered. He looked around at the faces of his siblings, glowing, as if he’d just won a prize. “Goof,” said Dulcie, shaking her head with amusement. Denise, who was sitting close to Jolene, gently bumped her arm and gave a light-hearted conspiring eye-roll to Jolene, as if to say, look at this freaky family you’ve joined. Jolene had never felt more rooted into this group and she had gratitude at being included, at seeing the contented faces of her relatives illuminated by the orange glow of the fire. To see Aunt Dulcie looking this way too, enjoying herself, gave Jolene confidence to relax as well, hoping that maybe she could create a family out of this bunch. “Went to see the fire in the falls yesterday,” Grandma offered. “Ahhh, we wanna go!” said the birthday boy. “I heard that flame keeps lit ‘cause a’ all the gas. They told us in school.” “Gas is a fart!” yelled the littlest of the three, and the boys burst into laughter, shrieking. The middle one tipped in his chair, knocking into his older brother who smacked him hard on top of his head with a balled-up fist. The birthday boy began to cry. “See why I don’t take ‘em?” declared Grandma, looking straight ahead into the fire. ***** The next morning Dulcie came to the house alone and sat at the kitchen table with Grandma. There were no cousins around. A serious tone alerted Jolene not to enter. She listened, perched on the stairs, unseen by the women as they sipped coffee. “I gotta see Jay’s face now for the rest of my days?” said Dulcie. “When’s she going?” “I told you,” said Grandma. “She’s here now, for good.” There was a pause as someone shifted in a chair that made a squeak, the sound of liquid pouring into a mug. Dulcie coughed. “Denise has gotta see him too, now,” said Dulcie. Jolene wondered what was meant by this—she had not seen her dad in a very long time. Was he here somewhere, hidden, appearing only to Denise and Dulcie? “You girls made some bad choices back when,” said Grandma. “Now stop with your monkey talk.” Another pause. The air in the room pulsated. “Bad Choices?! You’re saying I made the bad choice? Me? I’m the one!” There was the sound of a chair scraping across the floor, a mug smashing, the screen door slamming shut. Jolene leaned out cautiously to look through the doorway of the kitchen, noticing the bulky form of Grandma struggling to bend and gather up the chards of that chunky white mug. Jolene thought about how hard that mug must have been heaved in order to break. Later that day, as Grandma reached to put away some dishes in the cupboard, she was surprised to see Denise out of the corner of her eye, standing silently outside the screen door. “Get yourself in here, then,” said Grandma. “If you’re coming in, do it.” Denise entered and stood scowling; her vision seemed unfocused, staring at the middle ground. The screen door had hidden the blotchy patches of red, but once indoors those blemishes materialized on her sweaty face, blooming like some type of hideous garden. There was a crosshatching of cuts on her cheek below her right eye and her bottom lip was raised in one spot with a single drop of blood where it was slightly split. Dulcie had dropped her off and sped away. Grandma looked at her and turned away quickly as if witnessing something obscene. She went to the freezer and shook ice cubes out from a tray into the sink, wrapping two of them in a dishtowel which she wet under the faucet with cold water. “Sit down,” she commanded. Denise complied. Grandma twisted the end of the dish towel to keep the ice from falling out. She handed the bundle to Denise who pressed the wad to her swollen lip, a wordless routine understood by them both. Grandma said, “Who done it, your mom or Milt?” Denise replied in monotone, “Milton just hits the boys now.” Grandma shook her head, irritated. Jolene observed that Grandma’s voice volleyed between two ways of speaking, either flat-toned or annoyed: “You two got to learn to get along!” she scolded. Jolene sidled up to Denise. She had the urge to reach out to hold her hand--an urge she resisted. Instead she said, “Who’s Milton?” “Jolene, quit with your monkey questions,” snapped Grandma. “An’ quit staring at me,” said Denise. Jolene tried to train her eyes on something else in the room besides Grandma dabbing more ice against Denise’s swollen face. She watched the cats instead, the way they arched themselves luxuriantly against the table legs, oblivious. Jolene wandered into the backyard, gathering small sticks and rocks at the edge of the field, imagining how to arrange a fairy house. The day was hot and monarchs bobbed and lit on the milkweed growing in abundance at the edge of the field. She became engulfed in creating a tiny structure out of bits of moss, stone and bark. Her imagination soared with the notion that fairies would discover and inhabit the little room: the bark beds made soft with milkweed silk, pebble chairs and a rock table set with tiny pods full of hard, red berries. A long, dark form shadowed her reverie and jolted her from play. Jolene looked up into the wounded face of Cousin Denise. The florid redness on her cheeks had paled to reveal streaks of scratches, the actual lines made garishly visible now that the rash had faded. Jolene’s heart ticked rapidly in her chest, waiting for Denise’s malefic foot to demolish the delicate cottage, but Denise sat down, crossing her legs in front of her. She leaned forward to caress the spongy carpet of moss with her outstretched finger, pressing down, forcing a small recess. She leaned back on her hands, closing her eyes, her face turned up to the sun, resting. Jolene was able to take a long, furtive look at her: the pug-like nose, too small and short for her wide face; her eyelashes, stiff as whiskers, curled and reddish-blond. Denise was flat-chested with broad muscled shoulders and hard lean arms and legs. She looked vulnerable somehow, not soft, or even safe, but damaged and defeated, like those injured lion’s Jolene watched on the nature show, Wild Kingdom—the way the beasts withdrew when they were maimed, and you knew that death was not far off. Denise stood back up, rubbed her eyes. “What’s the house for?” she asked, looking down like a menacing giant. “The fairies,” said Jolene. “So they could live here.” Denise half grunted, half laughed. “You believe in fairies?” Jolene considered a moment. “Yes,” she affirmed. “They used to bring me money when I lost a tooth.” “How much?” “A dime,” said Jolene. “You should’a asked for a quarter. Take a walk with me,” said Denise, dusting off her bottom. “I have a secret to tell you; a big one. I’m not supposed to say it, so we gotta be farther out.” Jolene looked around. There was no one nearby—everything was silent except for the occasional buzz of a cricket or the trill of a bird. There was not even a wafting breeze though the field’s grass to make a sound. Jolene felt ruinously sleepy. She hadn’t eaten a thing that morning because Aunt Dulcie was there, and then Denise had shown up. Her head felt mashed and pulpy. She did not want to walk. “Come on, stand up,” ordered Denise. “Walk with me.” Despite the heat and quietness, Jolene felt a cool wind stroke her neck. A sound thundered in her head like water when it got trapped in her ears after swimming in the lake. Her mother would tell her to jump on one foot and jolt her head to one side to loosen it, only this sound was magnified, accompanied by a current of words streaming below it, unintelligible, frantic. Jolene stood shakily, joining Denise. The two of them made their way into the open field. Jolene had to run to keep up with Denise’s long-legged stride. Denise occasionally tore up handfuls of grass or ripped the periwinkle heads off of cornflowers as she glided by. When Jolene finally turned to look for Grandma’s house, it was small, impossibly far away. “I guess this is far enough,” said Denise. She held a smooth gray rock in one hand, the size of a grapefruit. Jolene had not seen her pick it up and wondered where it came from. The girls sat down at Denise’s lead, facing each other, pushing the weeds aside to create a sort-of nest. “Can you guess what the secret is?” asked Denise. Jolene’s head buzzed with heat and hunger, but she searched back in the day to form an idea. “Who is that guy Grandma named?” she asked. “The one who hits the boys.” “Milt. Milton. He don’t hit ‘em much, just when they need it. He’s their dad,” said Denise, pulling up a wide strand of grass, splitting the middle and blowing through it. Like a tiny horn, it trumpeted. Jolene tried to do the same but accidently tore the grass in half and Denise offered no instruction. “Isn’t he your dad too?” Jolene asked, shyly. Denise shook her head. “Where’s your dad then?” “That’s the secret,” said Denise. Her eyes looked darker somehow, almost black. A flush spread across her cheeks. “My dad is Jay.” Jolene could not believe it. The concept seemed impossible, as if Denise had said that cats can fly or fish can walk. The air around them cooled. A breeze picked up and ruffled their hair. A few minutes passed as Jolene had no words she could think to say, but something brewed in her chest, a swirling sensation she couldn’t control; a microburst. Finally, she shouted, “No, he isn’t!” said in a voice you would use to call back a dog running into the street. Denise nodded her head yes, affirming a fact, her lower lip drawn up so tightly as to crater her chin with dimples. “No!” cried Jolene, desperate to have her one dad back as her very own. Denise stood up and screamed, “You think you’re so great! Your mom was a slut an’ everybody knows it!” Jolene had heard that word “slut” only once, used by her dad, shouted at her mom. Jolene remembered herself being in the back seat of the car, crumpled to one side. Her dad was driving, racing to pick up her mom who was with “Aunt” Lucy, her mom’s best friend. Her dad dragged her mom out of Lucy’s trailer, yanking her down the steps and tossing her into the backseat next to Jolene. “Three sheets to the wind,” said her dad, which Jolene thought sounded like fun at first, but then he glared at her mom in the rearview mirror. “Drunken slut”-- he nearly spit the words, then stopped looking back. Jolene did not know what that word meant, but guessed it was something vile like throw-up, or mutilated worms that crawled out of the ground and died in the rain. She remembered the cutting sound of it, how the word started out sly like the hiss of a snake and ended hard, like a door slammed shut. Denise stepped backwards, bent at the knees and whipped the rock hard. It landed square on the upper part of Jolene’s forehead, knocking her backwards against the ground. She curled onto her side, seeing red in her close vision, surrendering to something heavy enveloping her like a dark cloak. Minutes or hours later, she didn’t know how much time had passed, she came to. The blood had dried. Her forehead felt as if it were stretched as tight as a drum. She lay there watching everything close up, like a bug might see it, so close that things were split in two: sticks and stems were stripes of brown and green; pink balls of clover doubled, like colorful balloons at a party. In a dreamlike trance, she delighted to see the stained-glass orange and black wings of a monarch, praying beside her. “Mom,” she whispered hoarsely. Her head felt thick and dense, as if stuffed with a wet woolen sock. After a bit more time passed, Denise was there leaning over her, pressing her tiny pig-like nose against Jolene’s cheek. “Wake up, sleepy-head.” She tossed a flower chain across Jolene’s neck, dandelions braided together. “Look, I made you a necklace,” she said. “We gotta head back now.” Jolene’s memory was foggy. She needed to eat, needed to drink water. “You fell,” said Denise. She helped Jolene to her feet and placed her hands firmly on Jolene’s shoulders, peering hard into her eyes. “You fell,” she repeated louder, firmly, with emphasis on the word fell. “It ain’t lying. You did fall.” Jolene knew that this was the story she must tell or risk a darker fate. She did not remember much of the day, except for two things--the word “slut,” wickedly roused to life in her mind, and also her mom, praying beside her in the guise of a butterfly. The girls returned to Grandma’s house, Denise adjusting her steps to match the slower gait of Jolene’s. To an outsider, it was a touching sight to notice the bigger girl caring for the smaller, her arm draped protectively over the younger one’s shoulders. As they entered the yard, Aunt Dulcie, from behind the kitchen window, screeched to Grandma, “They’re coming! There they are!” and she ran out doors, grabbing Denise into a hug that lasted a while. Jolene kept moving towards the house, her peripheral vision darkening, creating a tunnel into which she surrendered, collapsing just inside the screen door. “Damn!” said Grandma. “That’s a goose egg!” Jolene heard the voice as if it were far away, muffled by pillows. “What did you do, Denise?” And instead of Denise answering, Jolene heard the voice of Dulcie say, “Why you always think’n Denise did something wrong? Always blame’n Denise. Kids fall sometimes, ya know!” “That what happened?” insisted Grandma, giving Jolene a shake. Jolene simply nodded her head, yes. “You best be goin’ now,” said Grandma to Dulcie and Denise. “I had about as much as I can take from the two of you this day.” They exited through the front door with Dulcie muttering, “Jeez,” in protest, as they left. Grandma applied something called a butterfly bandage to Jolene’s forehead, first rinsing the laceration with a stinging liquid that smelled like a doctor’s office. Grandma ran a shallow bath and Jolene was helped to lay down in the warm water made sudsy with some blue dish soap. Her body ached. She was given five pink baby aspirin to chew, like eating flavored chalk, and Grandma left the door ajar as she fixed a dinner: hamburgers stacked on wonder bread with ketchup, and potato chips and strawberry milk. Jolene put on her pajamas even though the sky was still bright and sunny. Grandma let her eat in the living room on the foldout tin tables and let her watch T.V. as the cats slinked along the back of the couch, keeping her company. “You probably need a stitch or two,” said Grandma, looking with concern at her forehead. “But it’s Sunday. Doctor’s closed.” ***** Jolene woke up and looked in the mirror at the purplish jam-colored medallion on her forehead, split just below her hairline in a red, angry gash. For the next few days she floated in the pool by herself, on her back, watching the drifting clouds. Those pool floating days were a time of reflection, a time to rest and think about ways to be safe. Her mom spoke to her that week in a quiet, pleading way, and she had to listen not only with her ears but with her whole body, in order to let the message sink in. Sometimes she held her breath under water, feeling the hum of an internal order that seemed to connect the inside part of her with everything that was outside: the sun, the grass, the open sky. It was hard for her to explain how she felt this connection so deeply, but the message it told came from her mom and buoyed her up--it told her to live. She didn’t think that she could hide from Denise much longer. One day that week, the front door was found to be wide open and Grandma shouted at Jolene to keep it shut. “I lost Misty that way,” Grandma lamented, without explaining who Misty was. Jolene knew it must be a cat. “She got out,” Grandma warned. “Went off to catch mice in the field back there and the fox got her. Them fox are a mean bunch. Catch’n cats and they don’t even eat ‘em, just like to kill for fun. They do it to chickens too sometimes, if they can sneak in a coop.” Jolene started thinking Denise was a fox. “How can you get rid of a fox?” asked Jolene, her pupils dilated with the gravity of the question. Grandma looked a little surprised, but told her, “You gotta’ set a trap and kill it, or shoot the damn things when you see ‘em running. It’s hard to shoot ‘em ‘cause they’re so sneaky, come’n’ out mostly at night. Traps work better.” ***** The August sky was roiling with olive and lavender clouds gathering above, the same colors as Jolene’s fading bruise. Today was not a pool day, said Grandma, as it may rain and lightning can fry you in water, just like boiling grease in the deep fryer. Jolene sat on the back steps watching the clouds overlap to form a dense canopy. She felt bored and lonely and anxious all at the same time. Tingles ran up and down her arms and over her thighs as the grasses in the field swayed and whispered secrets. She had a secret too, something incubating and waiting for a time to hatch. Grandma spoke to her from inside, behind the screen door. “Denise has to come over today,” she said. Her voice was part apology, but she added in a tone that was unyielding, “That’s just the way it’s gotta be. She has a hard time look’n’ at you and you have a hard time with her, I guess, but you gotta work it through. Your mom and Dulcie didn’t talk for years, and then look what happened.” Her chest heaved in a loud sigh. She seemed like she had more to say, miles more, but stopped herself and went into the bathroom. Jolene heard water running and something that sounded like a sob but it could have been the squeaky pipes. Afterwards, she shuffled out and made lunch, fried bologna sandwiches on wonder bread with ketchup. Denise showed up at the back door like a specter, her face healed up except for the split in her lower lip, still visible as a thin red line. “Sit down,” said Grandma. “You girls gotta eat, then find something you can do together. There’s playing cards in the drawer, or a jig-saw puzzle--something. My bursitis gets bad in this weather and it’s capturing my knees. I gotta go lie down. Let me be. I bought Twinkies, and you can have one. One.” Her eyebrows raised up, looking at Denise. “Don’t let me see you eatn’ the whole box like your brothers do.” She lumbered to the stairs and winced as she took the first step. Jolene was left in the room, alone with a penny-eyed fox. “What do you want to do?” asked Denise, sinking her yellowed teeth into the spongy cake of the Twinkie. Jolene did not reply but concentrated on unwrapping the cellophane of her own treat. When she got it unwrapped, she pushed it over to Denise, a sacrificial offering, her own appetite flying out the window, her stomach falling to the floor. “Look,” said Denise, devouring the second Twinkie and licking the fluffy white filling off of each finger in turn. “I think we can have some fun today. Take me to the flame, I wanna see it.” “Me too,” replied Jolene. The girls headed out of the cul-de-sac to a street that curved onto the main road. Jolene was uncertain which way to turn but Denise took the lead and turned right. Cars whooshed by at arm’s length as the two of them made their way along a narrow shoulder littered with paper wrappers and shards of amber glass. After a short time, what turned out to be not much more than a mile down the road, they came to the same lot where Grandma had parked on that sunny day of the picnic. Today there were no cars in the lot. The wind was kicking up, arching the tree branches upward. Stony grey clouds marched across a milky sky. They started down the rocky path that led through the woods. The temperature dropped and Jolene, dressed in only a tee-shirt and shorts, felt chilled; her skinny arms and legs unshielded. Denise wore shorts, but also a navy windbreaker which came down to her thighs and gave the illusion that she had no pants on. Trucks had beeped when they were on the road and one driver had stuck his head out the window yelling something nasty—Jolene could not tell what—but Denise had raised her middle finger to him. The falls could be heard in the distance, the reverent hush of rushing water near the edge of the gorge. Denise skipped off the path to the place where Grandma had warned Jolene not to get too close. Denise’s legs looked too sharp and long to be skipping--a fraudulent display of innocence. Even at seven, Jolene could see this, how people could fool you. “Come look,” said Denise. “You can see the waterfall from up here.” Her back was to the path, but she swung her predator’s head around to gaze at Jolene, a silent transaction passing between them. Jolene felt a rush of fear wrenching her gut. She felt the breeze wafting onto her neck, heard the powerful voice of her mother’s urgent message crescendo from the trees and the wind and the water gushing over the rocks, Save yourself, Jolene. “Look here, Jolene,” said Denise, her eyes as black as the shiny beach stones that Jolene found in the water along the frigid shores of Lake Ontario. Jolene was suddenly struck with a memory--remembered searching for the blackest of the black, the whitest of the white, while her mother would search for the ones shaped like hearts. On those good days they’d fill a bucket’s worth of rocks and sort them out on the dock later on, as the gulls swooped and hollered in the rosy sky. No more tricks, Jolene, her mother raged. “Where’s the flame?” Denise called to Jolene, balancing along the precipice. “I don’t see it. Maybe it went out.” Jolene drew nearer, an arm’s length away. Denise turned her head around again, a ravenous look in her feral eyes to see Jolene so close. A sharp wind lifted her heavy hair, making it fly momentarily up around her face. “Come on.” She motioned with her hand, encouraging Jolene to step closer. Denise turned her head back again to face the gorge. “It’s right there,” she said, pointing. “Come see it! Don’t be a chicken!” Her words were taken by the wind. Jolene took a step closer then shoved the middle of Denise’s bony back, hard, with both hands. Jolene did not look over the edge to see her half-sister’s descent down the face of the craggy cliff. She shivered, picturing the determined countenance of the murderous Denise, climbing back up the canyon wall, grabbing ahold of rocks and roots like a super villain set on revenge. When Jolene finally forced herself to peek over the edge, what she saw was Denise’s body splayed on the bank of the creek down below, looking diminutive from her vantage point up above. Jolene could almost believe that Denise was fast asleep. She picked her way down to the water and crouched next to the lifeless body feeling helpless, like wingless bird, anchored to the ground. There were sounds echoing across the gorge. Jolene was unclear of their direction: voices, dogs barking, the sound of dry, shuffling leaves. Three exuberant dogs crashed through the creek to greet her, shaking off the water in a spray that soaked her. A woman scrambled to catch up with the dogs, shouting apologies from far away, “They’re nice, don’t be scared, I’m sorry! Bad dogs! Caleb, come here! Bandit! Shadow!” The dogs nuzzled and sniffed and pranced and pawed around Jolene, ignoring the woman. When the woman reached Jolene, she was out of breath, continuing to apologize in a huffing sort of way. She was tall, with a long white braid going down her back. She wore a denim jacket embroidered with yellow peace signs. As soon as she noticed Denise, the woman began to sputter, “Oh shit, oh Fuck, Jesus! Fred!” She turned and cupped her hands around her mouth to make a megaphone. “Fernaandoooo!” The word echoed across the canyon. She took off her coat and draped it over Jolene’s shoulders. A man, shorter than the woman, appeared on the other side of the creek and quickly made his way across, adroitly hopping from rock to rock. “Holy shit,” he said, staring at Denise. His skin, hair and eyes were dark, in contrast to the woman, whose face was as pale as the moon; her brown eyes had a lighter cast, like a blue sky reflected in a muddy creek. The man crouched down, speaking to Jolene in a slow, deliberate cadence. “Are you okay?” he asked, kindly. “Where’s your mom or your dad?” And Jolene could not answer either question. “We need to take her somewhere,” said the man to the moon-faced woman. “To the hospital or something, I don’t know.” Jolene said, “I live with Grandma.” “Okay then, we’ll drive you home,” said the man. In the parking lot was a single car, a light blue Volkswagen. Jolene jammed herself in the backseat with two of the three big dogs. The third dog sat up front on the woman’s lap. Fat drops of rain began to smack hard against the windshield. “Just in time,” said the woman, turning around and smiling. Jolene handed up the woman’s coat as the car felt warm and damp, smelling like old wool and mildew. A song came to life on the eight track, a calming melody and voice that sang about sunshine coming softly through someone’s window. Jolene liked the idea of sunshine entering softly through a window; there’d been so much getting through, lately, that wasn’t soft. The man turned around. “Where do you live, honey?” Jolene did not know, and so he said, “Okay, we’ll drive one way, and if you don’t see it, we’ll go the other way.” “I think we should just drop her off at the police station,” said the woman. “Think it through,” said the man. “You want to go there and have to answer a million questions? There’s stuff in the glove compartment. We’re driving around with a child we don’t know. We just saw a body at the bottom of Chestnut Ridge. And the shit I ate is starting to kick in about now. In fact, maybe you better drive.” They took some time getting out and re-arranging, switching places in the car. One of the dogs in the back started to whine and paw at the seat, seeing that now there was a space available on her daddy’s lap, so they switched around the dogs too. The woman, hands on the steering wheel, turned around and smiled again, but Jolene noticed worry creep into her bloodshot eyes. “Where do you live now, sweetie? It’s going to be okay.” The car turned right. Down the road a piece, Jolene recognized the post where she and Grandma hung the sign for the yard sale. “Right here!” she shouted, and the car swung down her road. It pulled up front and Jolene got out. “You okay, Kiddo?” said the man. “Is Grandma home? We’ll make sure and sit right here ‘til you get inside.” Jolene walked through the front door, waved to the couple, and there was Aunt Dulcie, her chubby hands clasped across her heart. “Where the hell have you girls been!” “We went to the falls,” whispered Jolene, feeling as if her throat was closing. “What?! Where’s Denise?” screamed Dulcie. Even at seven years old, Jolene knew enough to hide the full truth. Though the concept of deceit was rather new to her, Jolene replied, “She fell,” while thinking, It ain’t lying. She did fall. “Where the hell is she!?” Dulcie was shaking Jolene by the shoulders and Grandma lugged herself down the stairs, wincing in pain, screeching at Dulcie, “Let her be!” Then Jolene had to say that Denise got too close to the edge and fell off, and Grandma moaned as if in physical pain, and maybe she was in severe pain, the way she doubled over, screeching, “I told that girl about the spot! We stood there once and I told her, Denise, you ain’t to come near this spot! She had to show-off!”--Jolene, now knowing that the cunning Denise had been there before and knew the falling spot. Dulcie sprang to the bathroom, threw up in the toilet until there was nothing more inside her and then she phoned the police who went to the bottom of Chestnut Ridge and retrieved the dead body of her daughter. ***** A service was held at the Anthony Carelli Funeral Home on Main Street and Denise Lynn Sherman was laid to rest in a white casket with pink roses placed atop; the mourners formed a line that wound around the building. There was a hubbub in the funeral parlor, words circulating among some who paid their respects, that the girl’s own father hadn’t even bothered to show up to bury his girl. “Let him show up now,” said the man named Milton, rolling up the sleeves of his white dress shirt to reveal muscular arms made ropy with snaky blue veins. Once outdoors, the coffin was placed in a big, impressive black car. Jolene learned that it was called a hearse. The day was sunny but crisp, a prelude to autumn, with a wide blue sky decorated with puffy, white clouds—a child’s drawing of a pretty day. Dulcie stood like a solemn statue the whole time the mourners came through; the only part of her moving was her hands, shaking the hands of others, or allowing herself to be drawn into a hug. The boys continued to rough-house, and Dulcie let them, as if any life she’d had in her was drained out for good, with no energy left to yell. The boys, dressed like little disheveled men, chased one another in circles, wearing ties that perpetually faltered to one side. Grandma was mute, contained. Jolene hovered next to her as if she were a sheltering tree that offered shade but nothing more. A trail of cars and motorcycles drove in the slow procession to the cemetery where the coffin was already removed and waiting, set on a carpet of fake grass, hovering over what must be a dug-out pit hidden beneath it. The man from the funeral parlor stood tall and official as the family shuffled to gather around the site. He read some formal sounding words from a tiny book, words that did not resemble much in the way of meaning, but everyone stood at attention, listening, even the boys. There was a bobbing, fluttering monarch, flickering over the coffin above the roses. Aunt Dulcie grabbed the arm of her husband, leaned into him with tears streaming down her face, pointing excitedly as she exclaimed aloud, “It’s Terri, come to say good-bye!” And maybe, in feeling the devastation of such great loss, not only for this recent event, but for all the things of sorrow that came before it, she momentarily forgave her sister. Tenderly crouching next to the leg of her youngest boy, she watched the butterfly, her eyes glassy with rapture. The butterfly lit upon the coffin, gracefully wafting its’ exquisite orange wings. “She’s telling Denise the way to heaven,” marveled Dulcie, and Jolene was surprised to hear her aunt heralding a miracle to those who gathered, begging witness for them to believe: a slut transformed into an angel on this hallowed day--but Jolene knew the truth promised by this enchanted visitor, its’ message uttered to her alone. She could hear the infinitesimal whisper of those sagacious, delicate wings, murmuring in the rhythm of her own heart beating: safe now, safe now, safe now.