Short Story: The House on Sutherland Lane (Part 2)

If you missed part one, catch it here. Otherwise, here you go:

“Leave that poor woman alone.”

“As president of the HOA, it is my job to care about our neighbors.” “That’s just your excuse to be nosey.”

“Bite your tongue. I just want to help.”

Emily made a rather large and embarrassing scene last year when Tristan left her for the local school teacher, who was twenty-two. She threw his stuff everywhere, screaming and cursing left and right. She kept saying something about how she never should have come here and how she hated him and wished she never left California and how she would never make this mistake again. They were only married for six years. Eric and I have been married for twenty- three, and sometimes I wish he’d leave me for another woman.

Eric doesn’t say anything else, and I don’t wait for him to speak. I already have my coat and gloves on. I open the door and step into the sharp air. It’s getting so cold, breathing hurts. I wrap my scarf around my nose to warm the air.  I clutch my arms to my chest, trying to keep out the cold. As the light fades and the street lights turn on, each passing minute seems to drive the temperature further south. I reach the curb before Emily’s house and stop a few feet before her garden.

I watch her focused eyes and steady arm move quickly between weed and plant. I watch the way she deftly clips, pulls, and hacks at the garden’s plants. The result is stunning. The garden starts at the curb and goes back six feet into the yard. Every few feet, a new plant erupts from ground. A stone path separates the two sections evenly and leads to the house. The front row of flowers is a maze of marigolds and the next row is full of small pink and red roses.  White lilies line the stone path and end a few feet before the house.

“Your garden is beautiful,” I finally say.

She jumps with a start. Her eyes meet mine and narrow. Her lips form a flat line. She looks back at the ground, and her arm whacks the weeds harder.  I wonder if it’s me she imagines in the dirt.

“Thank you,” she says, so quiet I almost miss it.

“You’re welcome. How do you keep them in bloom so long?”

“Meticulous pruning,” she says, and her eyes flick up. She snips the head off of a small rose bud.

“Oh,” I say. A cold breeze slithers up my coat. I move my back foot closer to the house and wrap myself tighter in my coat. “It’s so cold outside. Aren’t you freezing?”

“No.”

She wears a long sleeve shirt covered in mud and small moth holes. Her pants are worn and muddy, as well. Her skin is red and small patches look nearly frost bitten. “You look it,” I say.

“I’m not.”

“You know, Mrs. Robins down the street uses these plastic bags to keep her flowers from dying in the cold. You put this bag thingy over the flowers. It works like a miniature,” I pause. “You know I can never quite remember the name,” I laugh, but it sounds forced. I hope Emily doesn’t notice.

“Greenhouse,” she says.

“Oh, yeah! That’s the one. Well, anyway, I’m sure if you talk to her, she’ll show you how to keep those beautiful plants alive all winter long.”

“I won’t be here much longer.”

“Oh? What do you mean?” I try to stifle the excitement in my voice, but it’s hard.

“I mean, I won’t be here during the winter. I’m going back to California. I couldn’t care less to live through another winter here.”

I don’t say anything, but the knot in my stomach loosens slightly. I repress a sigh of relief.

“I’m just getting the yard ready to sell,” she says.

I look at the garden, but my eyes wander to the house behind it. The brown paint is peeling slightly. The panel walls are loose in areas and completely missing in others. Not to mention, there are several small holes in the roof. “What about the rest of it?”

She glares at me, and my face turns pink and hot.

“I don’t have time to fix the rest of it. I don’t care about it much either. We bought it as a fixer upper, so I don’t mind selling it that way.” She doesn’t say her husband’s name, but we both know that’s who she means when she says “we.”

“Oh,” is all I can say. I wait a few more seconds, but she stops looking at me and resumes the work on her garden. “I’m sorry to see you go. I know we’ll all miss—“

Short Story: The House on Sutherland Lane (Part 1)

I stand at the kitchen sink, elbow deep in soapy water. I mindlessly caress the water for any signs of leftover dishes from dinner. It’s still early, though. In the west, the sun shines just above purple mountain peaks. Usually, I like to have dinner made and finished before the sun sets, so I can sit on the porch and enjoy tea and cookies.

I won’t be sitting on the porch tonight, though. Across the street, my neighbor, Emily Hale, hunches over rose shrubs and marigolds in her yard. Her head bobs among the different plants, inspecting and analyzing each before she hacks away at weeds and unruly vines. Occasionally, she gets up and stands behind the shrubs, which still have some blossoms despite the coming winter, to admire or criticize her work; then, it’s back to hacking. I creep down a little at the sink when she stands up, so she won’t see me watching her.

I can’t take my eyes off her. I have never seen a face as strange as hers. She has a long, pointed nose and black eyes surrounded by the wrinkles of crow’s feet. Emily’s jet-black hair once fell to the middle of her back, which made her pale face appear striking. A few weeks ago, though, she hacked her hair to pieces and left only an inch or two that now look like mangy feathers. There’s a furrow so deep in her brow line that even across the street, I can visibly see it. She’s ten years younger than I am. She looks so much older than thirty-three.

There aren’t any laugh lines around her mouth. It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen her smile.

My fingers brush past the edge of one of my favorite porcelain plates. “Gotcha,” I say to myself. I clean the last dish and drain the sink water.

I reach the living room and lean on the door frame. My husband watches the local evening news on his 52 inch flat screen television. He sits on my favorite plush blue sofa. Under each elbow is a pink and white embroidered pillow. I narrow my eyes at him.

“Eric, elbows off my pillows,” I say.

His forehead wrinkles and his lip puckers. “Jesus, Maggie. What’s the point of having these things if I can’t ever use ‘em?” My nose crinkles at him, and I waddle over to the couch and pluck one of the pillows from under his arms.

He glares at me and puts all of his body weight on the remaining pillow. “Please,” I beg. “You know how important they are to me.”

Everything is important to you.” His lip snarls, and he refocuses his attention on the news.

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

He doesn’t look at me. His reply comes from the side of his mouth as if answering my question isn’t worth all of his effort. “I’m tired of not being able to touch anything in my house.”

I roll my eyes and sit on the couch. I think of Emily across the street. “She’s lucky her husband isn’t around to ruin all her prized possessions,” I mumble.

He turns the TV off and looks at me. “What was that, darling?” He says with a sarcastic scowl.

“Nothing. I was just thinking about Emily. You can keep watching television if you want.”

“Thank you for the permission, but if you’re sitting here, I know you’re gonna interrupt it anyway. What were you sayin’?”

“I was just thinking about our neighbor. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her smile. I just wonder about her, especially after she hacked off all her beautiful hair.”

“It looks sexy.”

My eyes widen. “Well, I think it looks atrocious.” I say it like a challenge, daring him to argue with me.

“She’s in shock.”

“She’s losing it,” I say.

“Give her a break. She’s had a hard year, Margaret.”

“I know. The ladies in town are concerned.”

“I’m sure you’re all very concerned.” His eyes roll.

I ignore his comment. “It’s been a year since Tristan left her. She’s had plenty of time to move on and get on with her life. Now is not the time to hack your hair to bits and be rolling in dirt all evening. She should be meeting other men, falling in love again.”

Eric laughs, and it takes me off guard. “What?” I ask.

“If I dragged ya away from your home and all the people you love and then left ya for a younger woman, it would take ya years to recover.”

“So you do listen to the neighborhood gossip,” I say and smile. He shakes his head.

“I talked to her.”

“When?” My eyes go wide again.

“Last month.”

I don’t say anything.

“She didn’t even get to go to her daddy’s funeral a couple years ago because Tristen said they couldn’t afford it.”

“I heard she didn’t get along with her father.”

“If ya asked, you’d know she loved her father. His death crushed her.”

“She didn’t act crushed. She just pouted all around the neighborhood.”

“Probably ‘cause she couldn’t go to California. She doesn’t have anyone left.”

“No one?” I ask.

He nods. “Ya may want her to leave, but she’s got nowhere to go.”

Again, I don’t respond. I call my mother every week, even to this day. I still see my big sister a few times a year. I can’t imagine not having anyone.

I straighten myself. “I know it’s been hard for her, but that’s still no excuse for her behavior lately. Just last week, someone saw her in the grocery store and tried to say hi, and she didn’t respond. Who does that? And someone else saw her yelling on the phone, swearing up a storm. She’s very rude.”

Eric shakes his head and turns the television back on.

I stand up, and as I stomp back to the window to resume watching Emily, the wood flooring whimpers under my weight. The skyline lingers in orange, pink, and the lightest of blues. I try to take it all in, but Emily is hard to ignore. Her angry scowl distracts me from the beautiful Midwest sunset. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for thirty-eight years, and I won’t let some bitter woman ruin this place for me. If I can talk some sense into her, maybe she can learn to act normal. I march towards the front door.

“Maggie, where are you going?” My husband calls. The television volume turns down. “I’m just going to talk to Emily. I’m worried,” I yell to the living room.

“You aren’t worried.”

“No, I really am!” I am worried, I tell myself. The better she’s doing, the better the neighborhood does. I’m sure I can help out. She just needs someone to listen.

Short Story: Eight (Part Two)

If you missed part one, go here.

She smiles again. Jaime’s phone starts ringing in his pocket.
“It looks like I need to get going.” He thrusts Arra through the door. She hits Binglie with a thud, but the small woman doesn’t move an inch. Arra turns back toward Jaime, but Binglie wraps an arm around Arra’s waist while the other hand grasps the file. Jaime gestures toward Binglie’s arms. “Do whatever you want with that.” It isn’t clear if he means the file or Arra. He throws Arra’s trash bag past Binglie and into the house.
“See you soon, Jaime.” Arra looks up.
Jaime laughs. “If you’re so certain, I suppose I will.” He starts to descend the stairs.
A small black blur crosses his neck and hides behind his collar.
“Jaime!” Arra’s voice is high-pitched but hoarse, like she hasn’t spoken in months.
He turns on his heel and glares at her.
“Eight,” Arra says.
He takes the stairs two at a time and wraps a massive hand around Arra’s throat. “What did you say to me?”
Her face begins to swell slightly, but her only response is a small smile. Jaime lets her go. Jaime and Binglie’s eyes meet. “I hope to see you soon… With this one obedient.”
Binglie nods.
“Drive safe,” Arra says.
He makes a deep guttural growl. He turns away, as Binglie yanks Arra inside and slams the door.
“I wanted to watch him leave,” she says.
“How does it feel to want, my dear?” Binglie pushes Arra through the living room. There’s a thin layer of dust on the top levels of cabinets and bookshelves and the prints of paintings lining the walls, otherwise, the house is spotless. Fresh lines of a vacuum mark the floors and arch around the furniture. The colors on the couch shine bright and crisp and unused. Arra scans the room harder. Spider webs hide in the cracks between some of the furniture. There’s a fire place in the center of the farthest wall, but ash doesn’t line the bottom like Arra’s previous parents’ home.
I come from my hiding spot and latch a thin, almost transparent rope to Arra’s back. She notices my appearance behind her and smiles.
“This place is so neat, Binglie” she says.
“When I speak to you, call me Mrs. Choice. Otherwise, don’t speak.”
“I don’t like it here. I’m glad my friends came.”
Binglie chuckles. “You have no friends here.”
Binglie leads Arra through the living room to the study in the back of the house. Bookshelves line the wall, but cob webs and dust cover nearly every shelf. A gold lamp illuminates the room in a dull yellow. A middle-aged man sits behind the desk, studying paperwork. He looks up when Binglie raps at the door. “Bron,” she says.
“Who’s this?”
“New girl.”
Bron rolls his eyes. “Thank you, dear. I can see that. What is her name?”
“Arra,” says Arra.
Bron stands and walks over to Arra. His eyes scan the little girl up and down. The left corner of his mouth pulls up. “She’s a confident little thing, isn’t she?”
Arra nods. Bron kneels down, so his eyes are level with hers. His fingers wrap around her mouth and dig into her cheeks.
“Don’t be.” He looks at Binglie. “How long until she’s eighteen?
“Nine years,” she says.
He sighs. “That won’t do.”
“I won’t be here that long,” Arra says.
Bron moans. “Make her stop.”
Binglie nods. She grabs the back of Arra’s shirt and pulls up, catching under her armpits. Suddenly, she’s two feet off the ground. She tries kicking Mrs. Choice, but her new mother just moves her out of kicking reach. Arra gives up and just hangs there, staring at Binglie.
“She’s our last,” he says.
“I know. We’ll take care of it before then.”
“Then why take her in?”
“Her story’s incredibly interesting.”
Bron raises an eyebrow. “What is her story, then?”
“All of her last foster families have died of things like heart attacks, organ failure, blood clots–seemingly normal, but when you add the multitude of dead.”
His voice rises like a child asking for candy. “That’s a lot of death surrounding one little girl. All of them, you say?” He’s smile widens.
“Yes,” Arra pipes up.

To be continued…

 

Short Story: Eight (Part One)

In the mountains of San Bernardino, just behind Resting Grace Cemetery, there’s a building unseen by patrons of the grave and citizens of the curious. It stands hidden behind rows of thick pines and forgotten loved ones. Polk Home for Disadvantaged Children houses the most vile rejects of the Foster Care system, including its caretakers—Bron and Binglie Choice. Mr. and Mrs. Choice care for their way-ward children with as much love and kindness as rabid lions.

Being the sole survivor of “The San Bernardino Orphanage Massacre,” I believe my story carries the most accuracy among the swirling and outrageous rumors. Permitted, I’d like to set the record straight. My name is Cane the Great, and this is the story of Arra Needers.

 

I sit at the window sill, anxiously awaiting Arra’s arrival. A man I presume to be the newest social worker assigned to the young girl he currently drags toward the building. His buzz cut contrasts his clean, silver suit that bulges over his muscles.

At barely 4’11 and seventy-eight pounds, Arra appears unthreatening, yet Jaime’s tan hand remains steady, even when they reach the door. She clenches a black trash bag, which carries all her belongings. I tried to convince her to steal a backpack or something from one of her old families’ houses, but she always refuses. “Stealing is bad,” she says. After everything that’s happened in her life, stealing seems a petty issue; she’s firm in her naïve views of good and bad, however.

Jaime’s strong arm pokes the door bell.  The low ringing bell sounds more like a bad omen than an alert to the arrival of guests.

“Don’t get any ideas, girl. This is the end for you,” I hear him say—his deep voice echoing through the door.

Arra’s eyes flick up, and a small smile pulls over her white teeth. Her hair twists down her back in tight braids, and her dark brown eyes scan the building in front of her. I know this building well. I’ve been here for quite some time—watching and learning everything I can to assist Arra’s transition.

The afternoon light casts dark shadows across the stone building. Every window is lined with bars, making escape impossible except through the back door or front door. Footsteps stomp toward the living room. I rush behind the curtain.

“Who is it?” A woman’s voice echoes.

“Jaime Villa,” the man says. “I have your newest daughter.”

The woman cackles—it comes from deep in her throat and explodes out of her mouth like thunder. The door swings open.

The little girl stands close enough that I can hear her heaving breathing. My heart yearns to comfort her, but I stay hidden for fear of being found by my newest hosts.

“Jaime, always a pleasure,” says the woman, whose name easily escapes my mind. I peek out from the curtain, just a little. The woman’s light green eyes look like slashes on her thin face. There isn’t a pore or freckle in sight, but a light dusting of make-up. Brown hair flows from her head like a waterfall to her slender waist.

“It’s been too long, Binglie,” says Jaime. Ah, that’s her ridiculous name.

The woman smiles, and Arra’s mouth falls open. There are no curves in Binglie’s teeth, only sharp shark-like teeth.

“It’ll be longer. The old man doesn’t want any more children.”

Jaime’s head cocks. “I thought this was his favorite business.”

“It’s mostly mine, but it pays the bills. When I see you again, it’ll be the usual—one child less.” Her eyes finally move from Jaime to Arra.

“Speaking of, who’s this?”

“Arra Needers,” he says. He hands her a file that he kept tucked under his free arm. “That’s everything you’ll need to know.”

Binglie looks through it, speed-reading each page. “Interesting.”

“I told you that you’d want her.”

She smiles again.

Micro Story: Memories

From before my birth, my mother ran a daycare. My early memories are laced with the faded faces of children I barely remember or speak to anymore. Daycare was conducted in the garage-turned playroom of the single story home of my early childhood and planted on the corner of Second and Vicky.

It seemed so large to me, like walls running on for miles. I felt like a gold fish swimming in a backyard pool. The air was stale and flat, smelling of cement and car oil. Swamp coolers were the only relief from dead, garage air. The walls were the color of sea shells, with just as many imperfections. To the far back and on the right side, a white door let out to the grass land beside the small house.

Inside the room, I sit on a small translucent chair, a color a bright as snow white’s lips. There are cartoon faces on the seats, faded and scratched from jean pockets and constant stacking and unstacking.

A dirty-blonde haired girl I don’t like stalks toward me. Her curly hair nearly covers half of her round, chubby face. She starts to squat onto the chair next to me.

“You can’t seet here. It’s for summun else,” I stutter out. A feeling I don’t recognize pangs in my stomach. It feels like I could throw up, but not quite. I furrow my eyebrows at her. I’d do anything to not have her sit by me.  

“Oh,” she says. She walks away. A mix of pride and shame stir in my chest.

I am not quite four, and I have just told my very first lie.