Language Lessons with Vincent Price

I’ve got Michael Jackson on my mind a lot lately; I’m not sure why, and no matter what I do, he just won’t beat it. In any case, you have him to thank or curse for this latest writing effort, a short fiction piece that plays with denotations: namely, the word funk (noun), third definition, meaning “a slump.”

It is loosely based on a prompt for the Trifecta writing challenge, which asks for 33 to 333 words on funk. Mine falls outside the word count, at just past 500 words, and I won’t have time to shave it down before the deadline, but here’s a light, fluffy piece for a change of pace. I hope you enjoy it, especially in a week filled with so much negative world news.

***

FICTION, HUMOR

Language Lessons with Vincent Price

©Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014

Gwen Marsh didn’t know how she’d get past the gargoyle at the gate—weather-bitten Mrs. Brainerd. She of the Oil of Olay stench and inky fingers.

VincentPricefromTheBat-greggorysshocktheatertumblr

This is a publicity still from the movie The Bat (1959), starring Vincent Price. Obtained at GreGGory’s Shock Theater site.

She pressed the brittle-boned paperback closer to truant cleavage as if it were a secret Valentine. Or, in this case, a vile-entine. Gwen could nearly hear Ashley’s breathy words from yesterday: D’ya really think so? I guess we could ask an older kid. Push play again. More hushed giggles.

She glanced down and let the book fall away from her chest: The Totally Bawdy Book of Hickory-Switch Humor, Putrid Put-Downs, and Salacious Slang.

Mom would tan my hide if she knew I had this book, not to mention how I’d gotten it. It was marked for check-out by adults only, in Mrs. Brainerd’s precise hand—and lovingly sealed with twine besides.

I’ve got to go through with this! Gwen pumped herself up to do the unthinkable.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Brainerd was stamping away, going one-by-one through a stack of returns. Every so often, she’d squint and wrinkle her upper lip like Elvis’ evil clone, close the cover harshly, and audibly humph.

Gwen needed some kind of diversion. Pulling the fire alarm lever might work, but then if it didn’t, she’d be in even deeper doo.

Oh, for the love of Michael Jackson! Gwen imagined the pink leather jacket shimmering in the closet she shared with her little sister. It wasn’t the signature look, but it was the best her parents could afford.

“What the . . . funk?” she whispered, letting the forbidden word coil around her conscience. Maybe it doesn’t mean what we think it means. Ashley’s a Southern Baptist, so how would she know? She isn’t even allowed to watch TV, much less buy a cassette. “Devil music,” her parents would probably say.

Gwen strained to remember all the lyrics. I’m sure the spooky old dude in the song says “funk.” She had slipped back to a table near the bathrooms. It was almost closing time. In a few minutes, the plucked vulture would flap her wings, circle through the library, and catch Gwen red-faced.

She dug in her backpack and fished out fingernail clippers. After two clips, she was in, with fingers sprinting to salacious slang.

There it was! But, then, no. This word has no n. She scratched at her black curls, but after a few moments thought to race to the open dictionary at the end of the reference section stacks.

C-D-F. She moved her finger down the page.“Funk . . .” she read the definitions quietly to herself.

Dang, don’t I feel like a fool! Michael, how could you trick me? I am most definitely not thrilled!

Even as Gwen was lamenting her luck, she ceased to be aware of her surroundings. Only the click-click-click brought her back, and she turned to face Mrs. Brainerd . . . and her Fate.

Talk about a funk! I have a feeling I’m gonna be in one long, grounded slump by the time she’s done talking to my mom about this “unfortunate incident.”

THE END

Presidents’ Day: A Short Fiction Story

Hello, friends and family, readers and writers. Here in the States, it is officially Presidents’ Day, a date crafted to celebrate some of our most-respected leaders of the past two-hundred odd years, namely George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born in February.

Having looked back at a 4th-grade social studies paper of mine, I’ve been thinking about history a bit lately, and how it, too, is subject to the interpreter’s perspective. As an armchair historian (probably not the best terminology; perhaps a history aficionado is better), I pose to you a few questions: can we ever intellectually believe, fully, any account of a past event or leaders, especially those events and personages long-since gone or are we doomed to view it through some lens of subjectivity? Of course, some historical accounts are much more trustworthy than others. What do you think–can one write nonfiction that is wholly noneuphemistic? As fiction-writers, what debt do we owe to historical accuracy? For myself, when I write about a historical person or event, I make every attempt to be accurate and hew to the evidence base, but the rub is knowing when to break the rules and writing conventions. For instance, I picked up Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle over the weekend; I’ve been reading the opening pages of a lot of novels lately to get a sense of what great literature does to hook the reader by the mouth or other appendage. Obviously this work is an alternate history, a “what-if” writ large. But it is peppered with enough details that we are familiar with, I think, to draw us into an uncharacteristic story that at least bends the rules.

So, this round-about discussion is a way to introduce a short(ish) historical fiction piece that I’ve been writing over the last year-and-a-half or so. I have purposefully kept the president’s identity vague, but those history buffs and professionals among you will likely guess it straightaway, if not from the portrait, then from the text.

Please let me know what you think about this or other writerly issues. And thanks for reading!

_____________________

Mary & Kids Portrait-cropped

This is a Kelly & Sons portrait of the First Family, with the president strategically cropped by me; the full portrait is available at the excellent United States Library of Congress/American Memory Web site. Make sure to visit it often!

FICTION

An Uncommon Solace

©Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014

The wan, gaunt figure who folded out long legs and arched over the scientific paper and magnet–laden desk in my small office seemed little like the portraits or newspaper accounts—or Washington gossip, for that matter.

“Doctor Henry, my wife . . . she sees things at night, in our bedroom. Things which I do not.”

“Is that so, Mr. President. Would you kindly elaborate?”

“She sees our dear lost son, she says, standing at the foot of the bed, smiling sweetly at her. It gives her solace, so I am not much inclined to divest her of that comfort. She does get so vexed, thinking he’ll be all alone in ‘the immensity,’ she calls it, without her motherly hand to guide him.”

“How long has this . . . apparition been manifesting to her?”

“Now that July has almost dawned, it is drawing nigh a year and a half, Henry.”

“And how is it that I might be of service to you and your grieving family with this troubling matter?”

“She has a sitting planned for tomorrow evening, in the White House. Now that we have had the chance to speak and you know my skepticism on the matter, I was hoping that you might offer your expertise for tomorrow. That is, that you might attend as an observer. As my science advisor, you have that right, if I request it.”

“I would be most pleased to be of help, Mr. President. As you’ve related to me, you know something of the observations of Lodge regarding electromagnetic waves. I myself am disinclined to believe in spiritualism.”

“All I am conscious of at this trying time is my poor power to bring succor to Mary for our son. When I was younger, she used to put each infant in a wagon and I would walk with him until it was time to take leave for my office. ‘Pretty business for a lawyer’ one neighbor called to me. What I would not give to have that sweet commerce of him perching upon my knee now, amid this terrible war. Oh, the burden! My dear Will is gone. Gone, gone, gone!”

He choked back emotion, such that I saw his racked chest heaving, before beginning anew. “Would that I had been around more for all the boys.”

This man, our leader, had seen our Republic through the best of times and the worst, and, so, it was all I could do to offer some comfort in my own small fashion.

“Mr. President, you mustn’t blame yourself. You have had three difficult roles—husband and then father to your sons and to the nation. I shall be ever grateful to assist you with this pressing issue.”

***

That woman! The thought of her fears flummoxed the president on the carriage ride back to the White House. Her bull-headedness shall uncouple me yet. His eyes drifted to the teeming streets, where a watermelon-seller hawked his wares, flinging shouts from a rickety cart like waste from a chamber pot into the Potomac.

As he watched the tableau, his mind fell in step with the rhythm of the horses’ hooves meshing with the wheels’ dusty symphony. The sounds floated another raft of memories forward. He didn’t know he’d closed his eyes, but he was already traveling. He reflected back on the bold men in Poughkeepsie yelling, “Where’s the Missus?” They did not yet know her as Mary or as Mrs. President, for it was the president-elect’s inaugural train ride. He made another stop at a now long-gone trainside speech in Ashtabula. To the throngs gathered to set eyes upon him and the entire family, clamoring for Mary to make an appearance, he’d talked about her stubbornness. I’ve always found it very difficult to make her do what she did not want to, he’d said.

He was alone, and so he laughed aloud—an uncustomary joy, of late, in these sticky summer weeks.

Before his mind turned to practical matters, he lamented all that he’d put her and the boys through. The anonymous letters addressed to her, marred with macabre skulls and crossbones and promising her husband’s assassination. Even 7-year-old Tad, dear boy, had received a repulsive black-faced doll, which was meant for his father, at the post office.

Reviewing weather reports with Stanton was on the slate for later that evening, but the president could not turn the force of his intellect away from the idea that a different kind of storm was bruising the clouds above . . . ready to not only burst forth upon the country, but to besiege his own domestic environs. For Mary abhorred storms.

***

After making arrangements for the next evening, I sat down with a stack of papers that young Mr. Thomas had gingerly brought in. I think the boy was petrified of me. “Yes, Doctor Henry,” was the most that usually issued from his lips. His eyes were perpetually downcast as he bowed and slunk back out of my office here in the Castle.

I eagerly surveyed the volunteers’ monthly reports of weather observations, including chartings of daily wind conditions, precipitation, and temperature, as well as their predictions for the first week of July. I paid particular notice to the data from Pennsylvania, in hopes that this information would prove valuable evidence to the president on how to proceed in the future.

***

As I came into the bedroom that late afternoon carrying correspondence to be read and a trail of woes besides, she beckoned me near at once. I thought she meant to scold me, but for a moment the jovial Mary returned. She had me stoop so she could smooth an errant shock of hair, blanched though it was becoming around the ears.

But instead of kissing me in the sensual way only she could, after she’d made her adjustments to my physiognomy, she began in again about her premonitions.

She seldom hesitated, in private, to remind me of her childhood prediction that had come to fruition, or her ominous predictions, delivered oftimes from the land of nodding-off.

“Mary, darling, what would you have me say? I loved . . . him as much as you, even with all your motherly love.” I allowed my voice to break here, in our inner sanctum.

The woman’s blue eyes fell at the mention of the child in the past tense. Does he not still love our handsome lost son?

Recollections crowded into the man’s mind, like the throngs that cheered him along the trestles. “Do you remember the time he and Tad went to the candy-pull? They were covered from head to toe with molasses candy! I’ll never forget it!” The president made a motion to slap his knee convivially, but halted.

The redhead pursed her lips. “You were there that night Willie came back to us. I would have you say that you saw him, too. That you believe. Perhaps Madame Mina can help you to see that–”

“I have expressed my view on that charlatan Madame Mina! Doctor Henry will attend . . . ”

“My husband! This is not about trifling science or one of my sittings! This is a matter of the heart, a concern of the soul. Did you not see our dear Willie? Can you not believe that something, anything is utterly beyond your apprehension in this world?”

I had not seen the child–our beloved missed son!–at our bedpost.

“My dear, your heart is full, and I dare not dispute you. Your love well hallows his memory. That is all I need see. As long as I have my memories—our memories—he shall never perish from this earth. Please trust in what I say, that it is the truth.”

I waited, though the sound of rain as it drilled drops into our window made me rush forth again.

“Now, let us retire a bit early, my dear.” I implored, showing my lawyer’s skill in swaying. “This storm that seems to be at our window may be a portent of the coming evening. Shall we call off the gathering? Madame Mina can wait one more day, can she not?”

I embraced her with all the fervor I still possessed. It had been a tumultuous year so far, and July promised no better.

I could not conceal my joy when she consented to return the embrace, and we stood entwined despite the lightning struggling with the shadows, or perhaps because of it. I imagined not a grotesque chiaroscuro in the nearby garden as the statuary seemed to move in the light-not-light, but a flaring of human effort and knowledge, of the seeping of our countrymen’s blood rendered somehow both beautiful and preternatural, all united in the crucible of strife. I warred with myself, as I often did these days: Were these men, and their wives and women-folk as well, too good for this earth, just as our dear, departed Willie . . . and what right had I to call for such sacrifice?

As the light ricocheted unpredictably around our bedchamber, I remembered how our darling Will, usually given to darting about with his bosom buddy and brother, Tad, had hidden, under Mary’s skirts, perplexed at the teeming crowd that beckoned him from trainside. In that instant, I almost felt I saw a change in the shape of the light next to my desk as it took on a strange, yet familiar, form.

Perhaps there are some merits to Mary’s sublime imaginings after all. What she sees as . . . . spirits, I suppose you might say . . . who can know what to call them, they of the strange land and tongueless head that none but the most attuned can hear?

That she consented to call off the séance and instead stay with me that evening attested that the foundation of our marriage-bond remained steadfast. As for everything else, I would only have to wait, hoping that the earthly unity of cheer and good-will would someday return to our bereaved house and the nation.

THE END

References

I am indebted to the following as I undertook research on this brief piece:

  1. The Smithsonian magazine, on Lincoln’s whistle-stop journey to Washington
  2. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean Harvey Baker
  3. Mr. Lincoln’s White House (Web site), on notable visitors such as Joseph Henry
  4. Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Joseph Henry Papers
  5. The Abraham Lincoln blog, on the inaugural train trip
  6. Smithsonian Institution Archives, on Joseph Henry’s background in meteorology
  7. Abraham Lincoln Online, on the death of Willie Lincoln

When We Were Handfuls of Dust: Part II of Cliff-Hanger

Hello, and thank you for visiting or returning to this little experiment I’m tentatively thinking of as the fiction junction (I’m sure the name is already taken, however). Here on my Wordsmithery blog, I hope to present at least one fiction piece weekly, making use of varying lengths, a gaggle of genres, a menagerie of styles, and so on. Right out of the box with the second post–and the first fiction presentation after the “Fiat Lux” introduction, I probably bent my already-plastic rules a bit by undertaking a cliff-hanger as part of the challenge presented by WordPress’s Daily Post, then evidently I missed their deadline for pingbacks for the second part of the cliffhanger. I also came to their challenge a bit late as well. All that said, I was already committed to finishing or at least advancing this young adult fantasy with possible paranormal elements, and I enjoyed reading other posts besides. I’m a new-old blogger (for a little mystery, you can parse that one!), for those who don’t know me. So, I am still navigating all the elements to a modern blog using WP; this is a roundabout way of saying that I might throw a poll at the end of the story if I can get it to work correctly and the demands of parenting will allow. See what you think with this follow-up story (after acquainting yourself with part I if you haven’t already), and I welcome any and all fruitful feedback, as ever. I’m even thinking this week of posting a self-critique of both parts, because there are definite stumbles in each section of the story.

And now, without further ado, here is the second part of Sam’s story:

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When We Were Handfuls of Dust,

Part II

© Leigh Ward-Smith, 2014

N.B.: Contains mild profanity and possible triggers for susceptible persons

from Part I: As I stoop down and reach for the book, The Faerie Queene, which is turned upside-down and looks like the roof of a gingerbread house dreamily decorated with a myriad of animals . . .

By Nils Blommér

This painting is titled “Ängsälvor” (“Meadow Elves” in English; by artist Nils Blommér in the 1850s), and it was obtained via Wikipedia, through which it is in the public domain as a photograph.

. . . the menagerie in book form seems to undulate on its own. You should have seen me jump! I mean, already I am the kind of person who’s more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs, but then add on top of it all this unexistence crisis. I bumped another stack of books as I scooted back and fell on my butt. Amazingly, the books didn’t topple like dominoes. A funny thing happened, though, and I wasn’t on the way to any forum—as far as I could tell, anyway. From that vantage point I could just peek under the “roof,” but what I saw made me rub balled fists into my skeptical eyes and blink the dust away. What appeared to be a miniature human-like creature huddling, a bit stooped itself, was smack-dab in front of me. A sniffing interrupted my astonishment, and I became aware K.B. had nosed in after me, which catapulted a kind of panic to land solidly inside my already coiled-up gut. The little figure let out a muffled squeal for the both of us, and then I saw a little blur dart out away from the dog’s direction and mine. Its blue garment fanned out and long brown hair spiraled back, which led me to believe it wore a dress of some kind. Is it a girl . . . elf? What would that be, a gelf, maybe? That’s the best word I could come up with at that spurred moment.

Snapping fully back to this gnarly reality, I quickly realized I had to catch it before K.B. did. K.B. wasn’t vicious in the least, but she sure wouldn’t hesitate to play with a squirrel or other little critter if she could get her paws on it. Playing, of course, meant vigorous head-shaking, mouthing, critter-tossing, and an altogether bad time for any small furry I’d ever seen her encounter. So I hoped the training we’d done back in the fall would kick in when I needed it, for something made me think this . . . whatchamacallher . . . might be important to the mystery of what was happening to me. And not just for the “wow, that’s awesome!” aspect of finding a mythical creature. What I mean is, nobody expects to find a unicorn munching clover in his backyard or an ogre next to the rubber ducky in her bathtub. Nobody outside of Piers Anthony, anyway. (A Groucho-esque voice intruded just then in my head: “Outside of Piers Anthony, it’s a reeeealllly dark and depressing place”! What a uni-CORNY joke, another part of my mind half-way teased, then snickered.)

I clicked in my cheek and gave the “sit” command just hoping. K.B. whipped her head around, whimpered, and then sat her wiggly, stub-tailed bottom almost to rest on the dried blood–brown carpet. I moved around the first disturbed pile to where the creature had run, and left of K.B. But she had moved out of sight again. Smart move! I wondered if I’d be able to find her among the tight and not-so-neatly stacked piles. I’m guessing there was  a good 500 or so books shoehorned into the room, even below the blinded window, and interrupted only by a small walk-in closet where Grandma’s cat, Pepper, had hid seven mewling kittens just a couple months ago. I loved those little puffballs, but, still I wished Grandma would get her cat fixed. Drifting, my mind fixed on a distant buoy, one where I was a veterinarian performing life-saving surgeries and routine exams; a hero to people who loved their pets. If I chased my dream of working with animals, all the way to vet school . . .

“Woof!” K.B. hardly ever barked, but this muffled outburst was enough to bring me back. The closet door was closed, and I moved over to open it just in case. Nothing I did seemed to budge it, though, so I figured something must be keeping it latched. Weird. But I didn’t have time to deal with it now. The gap under the door was so low and slender, I doubted the girl-creature could get under it anyway, so I hopefully scanned the nearby stacks. Nothing. Damn! Despairing, I let my skinny legs sink me low. It had been that kind of a day—one big ol’ letdown—and finally the tears dropped. I noticed they were real as they fell but seemed absorbed instantly into the tide pool of carpeting.

For better or worse–mostly beyond the latter—as I grew up, it seemed that this was my family and the circumstances were never going to change. The family would keep disintegrating around my ears, never mind what I did or how I felt about it, laying an ugly, unexpressive ash over my dark curls. My Fate was kind of the Road Runner to the Wile E. Coyote that was me. It would jet out its tongue in derision, then run, leaving me a loser or at least none the closer to self-knowledge.

I guess there was some comfort, a tiny security in the chaos. The family was as certain as Pisa, and though it leaned at an odd angle, it stood. Good, bad, or otherwise, it was always there, tilt and all. Now, I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t Vesuvius itself. Or, if not, at least in the encircling shadow of that epic ancient volcano that sealed its neighbors in a powdered, airless death pose.

What did I do to deserve this? I began  to wail and rock myself. From a distance where my outburst couldn’t be heard, I thought I probably looked like a farmer greeting the rain during a drought, with the broad, flat plains of his palms parallel to the sky and his eyes sprinkling happy tears of their own. But joyous tears were ancient waters, running deep and curving enchantingly away, receding from the hell of what shared the table, couch, bed, and bath with us. Or was us, maybe.

K.B. began to whine, probably in response to my distress, and if she’d had a full tail it might have thudded the carpet in nervous abandon. Just then, “shut up, dog!” echoed from another room. It was Momma. I was surprised she heard, because she was usually so involved with a book or writing numbers—or out at a bingo place. She was even gone most schooldays this year when I had almost tumbled off the bus and slogged in with way too many books in my backpack. I saw a program tucked in among the random papers a couple days ago announcing an event for this weekend, printed on neon-pink paper:

$$$50 pots, crazy &/wild bingo—free (yes FREE) hotdog’s, and coffee; come, one, come all!!!!!! Bing-Ohhh!!!!!!!

It screamed with its abundance of unnecessary punctuation. Mrs. Hendrix’s head would have snapped off at the neck to see such “abysmally horrific grammar,” as she put it. I was secretly glad I didn’t have to diagram or rewrite any sentences that Jack’s Bingo Parlor had cooked up for their fliers. Mom had dragged me there a few times instead of letting me stay home. The days-old coffee was okay; the hotdogs, I don’t know, since I don’t like those. I guess the coffee made me feel more adult, so I tolerated it, but it always felt like drinking cigarette ashes because it was so bad at Jack’s. About the only thing going for the place was that it had fewer people, which meant the mushroom cloud there was only at threat-level seven for my asthma. I felt sorry for whoever owned the stores on each side of this parlor, because it must have really stunk to high heaven with all the smoke and smokers everywhere. The entire atmosphere made it seem like the perfect place for hope and luck to choose for a murder-suicide.

It took me by surprise when Momma came through the doorway to berate K.B. again. “What’re you whining at, you fool dog!?” And K.B., like many intelligent dogs, seemed to take it to heart in some way—if nothing else, it was the tone.  She slid down onto her shaved pink belly, her muzzle between outstretched paws but curled away from Momma, as if wishing that by not seeing Momma, Momma wouldn’t see her. Nor would her outstretched hand be able to swat K.B. or hook onto and then drag her out by the collar. “I don’t know why we don’t ship you to the pound,” she concluded over saucer-sized spectacles when the dog didn’t rise to her sneers. She also didn’t notice me. Nor did she bother picking up the spilled books. I was glad for the junkiness of it all this one time.

“Please come out,” I tried again, falling into a puddle of strength, somehow. I was now more convinced that no people in the house heard or saw me, but I was less sure whether that applied to mysterious or mythical creatures. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.” I waited as long as I could stomach the patience, but nothing happened except a faint rustling I couldn’t locate in the room, though K.B. turned her head in the direction. “My dog’s name is K.B., and she won’t hurt you either. See? She’s sitting because she does what I command, so she won’t move until I tell her to.” Now there was no sound. “My family call me Samuel, but I like Sam better,” I spoke to the silence.

It was only a moment until a quiet-seeming “I know” punctuated the air. It definitely sounded like a girl’s voice.

“If you already know me, how come I don’t know you? I mean to say, please tell me what your name is.” The silent treatment again.

But trust seemed to be building, for she spoke again, with a briefer silence separating us. “I am called Flora. Flora Mae Jacobs. Or I used to be.”

She was surprising me already. I didn’t know small, potentially magical people had last names.

“Who . . . I mean, what are you, Flora, if you don’t mind my asking?” I ventured the question, hoping she wouldn’t take it as rudeness.

“I think I am just like you, Samuel Osric Blinn.”

“Please, it’s Sam. Just Sam  . . . Sam-I-am, thank you, ma’am!” I tipped an imaginary cap and grinned in the direction from which her voice had come, edging ever so slightly closer.

The silly joke hadn’t seemed to register. Either that, or she was as petrified as I was. She was still hiding, after all, but at least she had poked the rounded ends of what seemed to be two black shoes from behind a stack of books on the right wall, adjacent to the closet door. In that area, the four or so stacks that moved out away from the wall had some separation from some of their neighboring stacks, at random, so that on one side, they were cross-hatching with nearby books, then on the other there was a small canal separating them from other stacks. It seemed to be just enough that a small creature—uh, person—could walk between some of them.

I tried once more. “Will you come out, please? If you’ve watched me enough to know my middle name, which I hate and never, ever use, you know that I’m honest, right? And if I’m honest, then you should believe that I will keep my word. And I really will. K.B. and I won’t hurt you, Flora. Can we talk face-to-face, or at least face-to-top-of-head?” I smiled politely, hoping she’d understand I meant that in the best way possible. I never thought I’d be taller than just about anyone; so far, I took after my five-foot-six dad, or five-foot-zero mom, in that regard.

“It is not you,” she began low then stepped from behind the books, “that I am . . . concerned about. It is the others in this house. As for your dog, we used to have one, too. My brother, Milo, and I found him back out there near the pond, with a ripped paw. We named him Charlie, after one of my favorite movie stars. Milo and I used to . . .” Her voice trailed away, so much so that I was afraid she was going to bolt. “So I am not scared of your dog. Besides, I have watched and even petted her before. I know she is friendly.”

As ambient noise floated in from outside, I think we all became aware of movements out beyond the small living room in the open house: the distant sound of the refrigerator door closing more than a little too hard, then ice cubes propelled into a glass, and bits of a conversation. “Report it . . . I don’t have . . . my husband collects . . . take it, then, see if I give a . . .” I could tell Momma was on the phone and pacing around like penned-up tiger who hadn’t eaten in  a week.

Meanwhile, K.B. again whimpered and wiggled where she sat, not moving otherwise, as the voice ballooned and shrank, finally rising and coming closer at once. She looked from me to the girl in blue, like she didn’t want to let either of us out of her sight. Just then, the door swung fully open, quickly, and Dad plunged in, in a hurry. Looking straight through me as I looked into his eyes, he instead went over to K.B. and hovered menacingly. The way I see it, he was goaded into the display by Big Momma, the evident silverback in human-female form. “Look, Dog, you can’t make a mess in here or be so annoyingly loud. She’s on the phone with somebody in there. Another bill collector, from the sound of it. She sent me in here to keep the peace, but you better believe she won’t hesitate to take a piece if she storms in—and it’ll be a piece of your ass, not mine! So, BE QUIET!” he shouted as he wagged a short, stoutened index finger at the cowering dog. His sallow blue eyes had seemed to both dull in the irises and narrow overall from a rounded-semicircular shape to a half-moon one. Except in this case it was the moon rising over a small, fleshy mound; I always wondered if I’d have eye baggage once I got older, if it kind of went with the territory of being an adult and having “responsibilities,” whatever they truly meant. The way some adults said it, reeeee-sponsibilities, lengthening the word to practically double its normal size, which was already massive, made it seem like a fakey code word. A wink from adult to adult that only they were in on the joke and calculated to scare us kids into good behavior. Well, I always was one to mind them pretty well most of the time. It was either that or the hickory switches came out of the woodwork (pun intended, I thought), “just like my daddy used to do to make me mind him,” as Momma would say.

It was probably a good thing that Flora had ducked back into the stacks as she heard footsteps coming in. Our conversation so far made me wonder if she had been poking around the house a while, maybe even longer than we had lived in it—for close to the last six years. We didn’t know a lot about the place, but the seller had told us her “old-maid aunt” had owned it since at least the early forties and that the house was built sometime around “the Great War,” in 1915. Even at my age, I wasn’t too sure why any sane person would think a war was great, but I guess they couldn’t very well call it the Big-Assed Disagreement, or BAD, at least not officially or for history books anyway.

As swiftly as he had entered, Dad moved out of the room with a bit of a wobble, but he left the door so it was agape. The conversation from outside had ceased for the time being. I realized I’d been biting back my breath and didn’t even know it just then. But would Flora ever come out again? I didn’t want to lose her—a potential friend, if nothing else, as I went through this crisis.

“Flora?”

“Yes, Samuel?” She moved shyly from behind the stacks and came almost to stand a foot or so away. “Can we go somewhere else to talk? I hang out in the basement area a lot. It’s kinda my playroom and sanctuary all rolled into one. Are you able . . . I mean, do I pick you up or . . .?”

“I am able to move on my own quite nicely, thank you. I guess you do not realize it, but I have lived here for awhile—in the cabinets, in the walls, whisper-quiet. But this is not the first time I have been overlooked.” Her last word was almost inaudible.

I hated tense moments like this. Her tiny head dipped down and to the side, revealing the yellow ribbons at the nape of her neck. I figured her to be probably my age, but she was very oddly dressed. That is to say, most teenage girls, in my limited experience, wore shorter dresses. But blue jeans or leggings were more the norm at my school. Or at least they were; I had just gotten my latest—and last—report card for Purvis Middle School (yes, we were not only “purvs” but got the unfortunate PMS acronym, too, much like my horrific string of names). I was getting ready for the next grade, which included a larger school and probably even bigger obstacles than finally asking out Ashley or telling off Richie, if I ever percolated the gumption to do either.

“Let’s go,” I enthused, hoping I covered up any momentary awkwardness. We were at the stage that I didn’t want her to feel bad or to know that I knew she was feeling bad. I practically drifted through the house and down the wooden stairs as I kept turning back to watch her run from hiding spot to hiding spot. K.B. probably provided a pretty good diversion, too, loping through the small rooms. And I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think she was visible to Momma and Dad either. Sometimes, I reckoned then, it was good to have someone in your life—even if you were currently no one.

THE END . . . for now

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