A Special Delivery – NYC Midnight Entry

The most important thing in Arthur Jenkins’ car was the picture of his wife taped to the dashboard. Its edges were rounded, little white capillaries sprouting in the corners. She posed on the hood of 1968 Chevelle, which they bought used in 1973. It was their first major purchase as a couple, followed by a series of homes they promptly outgrew as children and grandchildren took over their lives and living space. The other picture of her, the final picture, he kept in his wallet. But he didn’t look at it often.

The second most important thing in Arthur’s car was his glasses, which he removed while driving but required for reading. He punched the dome light on despite it being full daylight, certain he was parked at the right house but unable to verify because he could not make sense of his own handwriting. He searched the pockets of his jacket, prodded the insulated pizza bag, and returned to his pockets once again. Finally, he scratched a small island of liver-spotted skin on his head and nudged the wire frames with his knuckle.

“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, then lowered the glasses onto his face.

The address was correct.

It was a quaint, pastel yellow home not too far from his own neighborhood. The Ford Taurus in the driveway was a technological relic, but looked well-maintained, its pixilated paint job appearing almost intentional. There were faded bumper stickers for national parks and the vanity license plate was a riddle Arthur could not make out as he walked up the driveway. Blooming flowers lined the walkway with ceramic gnomes peeking around the petals. There was also a wooden sign that read The Witch is In!, which gave Arthur a chuckle, though he did not understand it.

He rang the doorbell and the house erupted with the sound of screeching birds. The animals were gently admonished as the occupant hummed her way to the door.  Arthur passed the bag from one hand to the other, and opened the Velcro to access the pizza within. It was his third week on the job and this was one part he failed to master, the exchange of pizza for money. He was never sure of the proper order, and always certain he flubbed the transaction when it was done. On Arthur’s second day he took the cash from a young man’s hand with his teeth, not knowing how else to receive the money.

The door opened and the scent of jasmine rushed forth. Arthur closed his eyes and fought the urge to sneeze. When he opened his eyes his jaw went slack. An apple-sized knot formed in his stomach. He immediately dismissed her as an apparition, closed his eyes tighter and opened them again. She wore a confused look that mirrored his own.

“Arthur?” she said.

Her hair fell in gentle purple ringlets around her face, which was both achingly familiar and utterly foreign, like returning to a hometown not visited in decades.

“Reesie?” Arthur replied.

It was her honey-brown eyes, now floating in a nest of wrinkles but otherwise untouched by time.

“Arthur, what are you…” she trailed off, smiling and taking in his tan slacks and red and blue polo shirt. At least he hadn’t worn the hat.

Arthur’s cheeks burned.

“It’s uh-, it’s a part-time job. Something to keep me sane. I-I don’t need the money. I have a retirement,” he blurted.

Perhaps it was a trick of the sunlight, but for a moment the decades peeled away and Arthur was left staring at the face of his first crush, a quirky girl who nearly caused a civil war in school for daring to wear pants. An opinion piece in the school newspaper prophesied a series of increasingly outrageous feminine behaviors if the wearing of pants was permitted, almost all of which did come to pass.

He tucked the pizza bag under his arm and simply stared with that teenaged, diffident smile. Reesie wore not pants but a silk kimono with dizzying colors, like the tropical birds in the cages over her shoulder. Dreamcatchers dangled from her earlobes, each a different color.

“Arthur, dear?”

“Yes, Reesie?” he sighed.

She nodded at the pizza bag, which was vertical and pressed against his body, melted cheese leaking through the seam and pooling onto Arthur’s right orthopedic shoe.

He righted the pizza bag, mozzarella dangling like pearly seaweed.

Smiling again, Arthur said, “Reesie, I haven’t seen you since reunion. Must have been thirty years ago!”

“Has it been that long? I remember your Doris wasn’t too fond of me that night.”

Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, “Never was. Not after she found my old yearbook.”

He avoided her gaze and wondered if his cheeks were as red as they felt.

“How’s that?”

The flutter in his chest intensified.

“Oh, nothing. Just a little thing I wrote by your picture. I think Doris might have helped it find its way to the trash. Haven’t seen it in years.”

She smiled and squeezed his forearm, “It’s okay, Arthur. How is she, by the way?”

Arthur looked at the oily splatter of cheese on his shoe and sniffed.

“She, uh, she didn’t make it. Cancer, just like her mother. It’s been about six months now. The kids thought I was getting too surly at home by myself. I rather enjoy the job, gets me out of the house and meeting folks.”

She lifted his chin and met his gaze, “Arthur, I am so sorry. Truly I am.”

He nodded and for a few moments they just stood in the doorway, birds cawing and screeching in the background. The memories of their high school days were like a shuffling rolodex in his mind. The vibrant memories, the ones that really stuck, featured the woman now standing two feet in front of him. 

“What brought you back, Reesie?”

She inspected her glossy, aquamarine toenails.

“Mom. My sisters and I took turns staying with her. Wasn’t really fair, though, as I never settled down and had a family. So, I moved in. She passed last October. I think about moving, but I might be too old for another adventure.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“This was her house. Those were her birds, too. Awful, noisy things. I know I had a reputation in school as a loony, but I’m not the kind of person who would keep birds,” she said, sniffing in disgust.

Arthur nodded and smiled and thought he could spend the rest of the day in Reesie’s doorway. Then he remembered the picture taped to the dashboard.

“I should…” he said, looking over his shoulder.

“Of course,” Reesie said.

“We should catch up,” he said, his smile hopeful.

“I would love to.”

Arthur pivoted, suddenly hyperaware of his gait, his attire, and anything else she might notice.

“Arthur, dear?”

She attached the term of endearment to his name in high school. It was practically his surname in her presence. It had the same electrifying effect on his limbs then as it had fifty years before.

“Yes, Reesie?” 

The name was a slight variation of her given name, Reese.

“The pizza, dear?”

His smile twitched.

“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered.

#

They exchanged numbers and Arthur scuttled back to the car having been summoned by a sarcastic text message from his seventeen year old boss.

“Don’t you judge me, Doris,” Arthur told the picture taped to the dashboard.

Were her brows furrowed in the picture? Was she upset?

Of course not.

Still, he glanced at the black and white softness of her face as he drove, certain she was evaluating the flush of his cheeks, the sheen of sweat above his eyebrows.

“We’re just friends is all. Not even friends, really. I haven’t spoken to Reesie- I haven’t spoken to Reese in years.”

Had he thought about her? 

Yes.

Sometimes when he saw a purple flower bobbing its flagrant petals amid a sea of yellow flowers he thought of her. When he saw a woman reading a book with a confusing title he thought of her. At night, on his side of the bed, he thought about Doris and how silent the room was without the beeping machines that gave her a few extra years of life. Sometimes those thoughts drifted through their years and decades together, and settled on Reesie and the particular way her ponytail swayed, like a frenzied pendulum. She walked with purpose. Though he forgot much of high school, he still recalled the cadence of her footfalls.

Arthur would smack the side of his head as if he could dislodge the rebellious wandering of his thoughts. He had been happy with Doris, truly, until the end. When Reesie called a little after seven PM he was sitting on Doris’ side of the bed looking at the pillow where she rested her head. Arthur ignored the phone call and hugged the pillow, which still smelled faintly of Doris’ lavender shampoo. She called again the following morning and twice in the afternoon. 

Arthur wrote a script and then edited it, using a thesaurus to add syllables to his simple words. But, he did not recite it to Reesie. He did not answer the phone. Instead, he pulled the picture of Doris out of his wallet and felt the weight of her absence as a cold, heavy stone in his chest.

#

On Monday of the following week Arthur reported for his lunchtime shift and learned he was requested, specifically, for a delivery. Bread sticks and a side salad with a Dr. Pepper thrown in to nudge the order over the $10 minimum for deliveries. He swallowed hard when he saw the address.

Doris eyed him the entire drive back to the quaint house with the peeping lawn gnomes. Arthur avoided speaking to her, opting to hum in an attempt to mask his anxiety. The hum quivered in his throat, never settling on a note. 

In high school Reesie’s directness was both alluring and terrifying. Arthur was dazzled by the confidence in her voice, the sprawling nature of her thoughts. Time, it seemed only stiffened her resolve even as it took its toll in other ways.

“You’re avoiding me, Arthur,” she said.

Arthur opened and closed his mouth like a fish that suddenly found itself on land.

“I called. I even sent a text and that was a pain to figure out. Why does it keep putting words in that I didn’t write?”

Arthur shook his head and slowly lifted the breadsticks.

“Oh, I didn’t really want those, Arthur. I wanted to ask why you aren’t answering my calls? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Reesie.”

“Well then?”

Arthur met her gaze and held it for a moment. 

“Doris…”

She nodded, slowly.

“I understand,” she said, then held one finger up.

She disappeared into a cacophony of bird noises. The door swung open again and Reesie held out a book.

“Keep it for a while, Arthur, dear. For old time’s sake.”

She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes, and she closed the door.

#

Arthur swirled his scotch as he opened the first page of the yearbook. That was what people did in movies, and so Arthur had always done it. He followed the paths carved by many feet, seldom straying, seldom pausing to look to either side. There were other paths he could have taken, unproven paths with uncertain destinations. Paths that wore pants, for example.

Reesie’s yearbook was filled with the looping script of her female classmates, a half-page from her English teacher, who urged her to continue writing. Arthur found himself in several pictures, typically not in the forefront but off to the side a bit. They were together in one, he and Reesie at a pep rally. Arthur noticed several of the young women in the bleachers were wearing pants. Most students faced the camera, but not Arthur. He was smiling at Reesie’s hand on his knee. 

She was such a free spirit, a silver dime in a bagful of pennies. Why had she ever made time for him?

He relived football games and dances, the scotch warm in his belly, likely a result of his expert swirling.

Arthur skimmed over the entries at the back of the book, feeling like a bit of a voyeur. He found his own compact paragraph, grimacing at the use of the words swell gal.

“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, slurring the words just a bit.

He recognized Reesie’s handwriting on the final page. It filled all of the white space. Arthur sucked in a breath and held it. 

Dozens, possibly one hundred times, she had written the name Reese Jenkins. In Arthur’s yearbook, which was not in a landfill but in a box labeled books in the attic, the same name was written under her picture in Arthur’s handwriting.

#

Arthur placed both pictures of Doris inside of her favorite book, and returned it to the bookshelf. He traced his fingers along the spine, which was rough and broken. She read the book every year during her birthday month. Early in the marriage it annoyed him. He did not understand how she could find enjoyment in the words she knew by heart.

“I enjoy them because I know them by heart,” she said.

Doris was his book. His beginning, middle, and end. It was not perfect, but no book is. 

He held the phone in his hands, his fingers hovering over the call button. 

On her last day, during her final lucid moment, Doris made Arthur promise many things. He agreed to her demands only half-listening to the words, only wanting her to continue talking.

“Arthur, you have to keep living. You have to,” she said.

He nodded, eyes stinging with tears.

Arthur downed the last of the scotch and said, “Okay, Doris.”

He pressed the button and it connected almost at once, his ear filling with bird noises.

“Hello Arthur, dear.”

“Hello Reesie.”

Away

            It happens all the time, though is rarely ever witnessed.  One celestial body crashes into another, millions of years of momentum altered in an instant.  In a Universe where distance is measured in time, it must happen every second, every fragment of every second, tiny asteroids ricocheting off of larger asteroids, satellites in an epoch-long gravitational dance finally seek to occupy the same plot of space-time, and destroy themselves in the process.

            His celestial body was a ship orbiting a gas giant.  When the asteroid collided with the ship it severed his tether to it, but he was left unharmed.  The recoil propelled him backwards, away from the gas giant, away from the debris of the ship, soundlessly expanding in one million directions.  The asteroid continued on its journey out of the solar system, its trajectory determined by a collision of celestial bodies light years away, at a time when the ancestors of Man walked on four legs.  

            The astronaut triggered his thrusters to steady himself.  He radioed in, but there was not even static in response.  He watched those tiny white fragments, little pieces of lint on black felt, and began to understand his plight.  Within the spray of metal and plastic were bits and pieces of the crew.  It was gone.  All of it.  A decade of planning, billions of dollars, his dreams…

            The thrusters could not overtake his momentum.  He sailed away from the planet and the pieces of lint that looked like fireworks frozen in time.  He could not sense the motion, but every few minutes he found the gas giant occupied less of his field of vision. 

            He triggered the thrusters to turn toward the sun.  From that distance it was perhaps only several times brighter than Sirius.  Yet its light still obscured the object he sought.

            In the minutes he searched for it he sailed thousands of miles away from the wreckage, from the gas giant and its dozens of moons.  Each breath he took brought him closer to his eventual fate.  And then he saw it, a blur of blue and its gray companion, no larger than a mote of dust.  

            How much time passed?  Thirty minutes?

            When would the ship’s final transmission reach the blue blur?

            There would be panic.  There would be pain.  In time, there would be healing.

            In that moment he only thought of the pain in one heart.  He wanted to tell the boy not that he loved him, but that this was inevitable, and he should not allow his heart to break over the inevitable. The asteroid, in its long existence, raced across the black emptiness of space, away from the warmth of any sun, without thought or malice.  It could have occupied an infinite number of places at infinite points in time.

            But, no.

            It had to occupy that place, his place, at that time.

            His breaths were like sand trickling from one side of an hourglass to the other.

            The sky opened up, a still, black sea with one million points of light.  It was all he ever wanted, to be among the stars.  But not at that moment.

            He closed his eyes and drifted weightlessly.  The sand drained in the background of his memories as he recalled the small bundle in its light blue swaddle.  The face would resemble his in the coming years, but then it was just a few creases and a little bump for a nose.  A still, small thing, a part of him now existing outside of his body.

            From thousands of grains of sand there were then only hundreds.  He took shorter breaths to preserve the oxygen.  This was inevitable, the man knew.  As the Universe wrapped its arms around him he felt no fear, but he did not know what, if anything, of him would remain when all of the stars went out.  He waved at the blue blur and transmitted one final time.  There were so many things he wanted to say, so many truths to speak to the expanse.  None captured the heaviness in his heart, and so he breathed the words he’d said every day for twelve years.

            I love you.

*

            The boy hovered over the eyepiece.  It was just a smudge of various colors, mostly shades of brown, crystalline blue at the poles, but it was still beautiful.  His father was out there.

*

            He was still, one gloved hand raised and frozen in place.  Away from the planet he drifted.  

            Every moment of his life, every untied shoelace, every triumph and tragedy, was a tiny course correction.  

            This was inevitable.

            The visor was cracked just so.  Twin rivulets sparkled on his cheeks.  Away he drifted, eyes wide and sightless.  Though the heart no longer functioned, it was full.

            Away.

            Away.

            To be among the stars.

Running Blind – NYC Midnight Entry

Near Camden, Alabama 1948

            “I’ll give you five minutes,” the deputy warden said, toothpick bobbing with the movement of his lips.

            “Sir?” Bill said, wiping the sweat from his brow with the striped sleeve of his shirt.

            It was late afternoon in August, and everything shriveled beneath the Alabama sun. The deputy warden had separated the three men from the rest of the chain gang and walked them down the road half a mile or so.

            “Don’t you mean suh?” he spat.

            Bill squinted toward the sound of an engine rumbling to life.  The remaining inmates were being loaded onto the bus headed back to jail.  He was chain-bound to two others, a big, simple man the inmates called Bobby, though no one knew his real name, and the old man with eyes like spoiled milk.  

            “What’s goin’ on, sir?”

            “What’s goin’ on is, that woman you raped was the daughter of a close friend, my best friend to be specific.  Now, the law says you get to have a trial, but I’m the law on this particular stretch of road.  I say you get five minutes befo’ I set the hounds loose,” the deputy warden said.

            He looked at his watch and corrected, “Four minutes.”

            Two trucks passed the bus and Bill saw the unmistakable silhouettes of hound dog heads catching the wind, ears like limp airplane wings.

            “Never raped anyone,” Bill said.

            “Not what she said.  No suh.”

            He checked his watch again, “Three-and-a-half.”

            Bill inched away and the others followed suit.  He was being set up.  He knew he was being set up.  He would be better off standing right there on that dusty road than running.  That was the excuse they needed, but in the moment, it didn’t feel like a choice.

            The deputy warden turned to wave at the approaching trucks.  His bulk tested the integrity of every seam and button of his shirt.  Bill bet hehadn’t been in the war.  Probably had a “heart condition” or something.  

            “C’mon,” he said to the others.

            The blind man did not speak but grasped the well-formed shoulders of the man in the middle.  Bill scanned ahead as he walked, chewing for just a moment on the possibility that any one of the three men might have had a slave grandfather who picked cotton in the very field they were entering.  Now, he was a free man in chains.  Beyond the endless, cloudlike tufts was a line of trees.  Probably half a mile as the crow flies, but their path to it would not be straight.  

            Behind, a new car joined the trucks idling on the road.  A man got out waving his arms.  He pointed in the direction he’d come and Bill heard three words that gave him a momentary reprieve from the toxic ball of panic growing in his belly.

            Bus turned over

            The deputy warden stomped on his hat.  His thin, blonde hair looked like a bad batch of cotton, something you might use to stuff a scarecrow with.  He watched Bill and the others scurry toward the trees.  

            “Coupl’a yours are injured, too, Don,” the man in the overalls said.

            The rapist would have to wait.  Might make the chase more interesting, actually.  With a whistle and a wave of his hand he rallied the men.  Hopefully, it was nothing serious.  Hopefully, he’d put the hounds to good use soon.  If not, well, Alabama would finish the job for him.

#

            They stumbled and fell, their cheap shoes sliding over the loose soil.  By the fifth time Bill dusted himself off and reverted back to his training.

            “Okay, now, I’m gonna say left and I want each of you to step with your left foot. When I say right you step with your right.  We get the hang of it I’ll pick up the pace a bit,” he said.

            Bobby grunted and the blind man nodded once.

            Bill watched the road.  None of the vehicles had yet returned and the trees loomed just ahead.

            “Left on three.  1-2-3-left!” 

            There was a bit of a delay.  The blind man stepped on Bobby’s heel.  But it wasn’t bad.  Bill had a time of it himself in basic training.

            “Right!”

            “Left!”

            Within a minute, they no longer stepped on each other’s ankles.  Bill had them nearly jogging by the time they reached the woods.  The air was still thick as river mud, but a few degrees cooler, at least.  

            Bill had grown up in these woods, but at that moment he was back in Europe, running for his life again.  As in Europe, he was unarmed.  Medics weren’t allowed to carry weapons, but a lot of stuff that wasn’t allowed to happen did over there.  They dodged exposed roots and glistening spiderwebs, the trees crowding closer and closer together.  

            “Got to get to water.  Got to lose the scent,” Bill huffed.

            Bobby grunted and the old man might have offered a yup in response.

            Running for his life again.  When he’d come back he marched in a parade down Main Street in Camden, right alongside the white men.  Deputy Don was probably in the crowd that day, clapping louder than anyone else.  He knew the woman who said he’d raped her. He knew she’d never been raped. But, she had fallen in love with a black man and fell pregnant with his baby.  Couldn’t say it was him.  They had a plan to run away together.  But, a baby was gonna come out of her with curly hair and umber eyes, and there had to be a reason for it.

            Ten minutes in and the pace staggered as if their legs were slowly turning to sand.  The underbrush pulled at their striped pants, hooked around their ankle chains.  The light leaking through the canopy was the color of honey.  Dusk approached.

            “We gotta get these chains off,” Bill said, stopping to look at the men.

            The old man turned his head and held up one finger.

            “Trucks comin’ back,” he said, voice thin as gauze.

            “How’s that?” Bill said.

            He nodded his head to the west.

            “Trucks.  Dogs’ll be comin’ right behind.”

            “You can hear that?” Bill said, fascination supplanting fear.

            The old man nodded.

            “Then we gotta get outta these chains now.”

            He looked to Bobby.  The man met his gaze and held it as he lifted his swollen arms.  In one violent motion he threw his arms behind, breaking free of the chains that bound his hands.  

            “Don’t do no good to bust out when they got a gun at yo back,” he said.

            The blind man smiled as if he’d seen everything.

            “Git me a big rock,” Bobby said.

            Bobby liberated both men from the chains, but they all still wore the heavy bracelets around their wrists and ankles.

            “Dogs is loose.  S’pose they’s one more thing to tell ‘fore we start,” the blind man said.

            He pulled a pant leg up and tugged his sock down.  The skin around is ankle was mottled black and purple, darker than an eggplant left to whither on the vine.

            “They did it last night.  Make today more difficult fo’ you, I reckon.  Done my best, but can’t run on it.”

            “Jesus,” Bill said.

            He instinctively reached for the bag of Army-issued medical supplies, but felt only his hip.  Given time he could fashion a stretcher, but time was the one thing they did not have.

#

            “They got the scent, boy!” one of the men from the trucks said.

            The hounds tore through the cotton field and paused at the forest’s edge.

            “Yup, shame he made a run fo’ it.  Heard he was on his way to bein’ a lawyer.  Took a blind boy and a dummy with ‘im.  Such a shame,” Deputy Don said with a wink.

#

            “Now, start veerin’ to the right some,” the blind man said.

            Bobby barely noticed the extra weight on his back.  Bill sacrificed the top half of his jumpsuit to the cause, crafting a crude sling to keep the old man off his feet.  Clouds blotted out the setting sun and they smelled of rain. The forest went gray, the leaves and trunks of trees the same color.  Rocks and roots seemed to jump out of the ground, and Bill was one sprained ankle away from being dog meat.

            “Touch to the left.”

            Bill adjusted course.

            “Nope, don’t put yo arms out.  Keep ‘em tucked nice and tight by yo side.”

            Bill obeyed.

            They agreed their only chance to survive the night was the river.  The old man, Jasper, Bill learned, took the role of navigator.  He cocked his head to the side, one ear listening to what was behind and the other to what was ahead.  Bobby absentmindedly began to hum and received a crisp smack on the back of his head for the effort.

            “Okay, gettin’ close.  Take five steps then I need you to crawl under those plants.  Brush off some o’dat cotton when you do,” Jasper said.

            Bill could barely make out the plants, but he did as he was told.

            “You, big man, walk right around.  Go up that ridge if you need.  River’s not far now,” Jasper said, ripping free another piece of his jumpsuit and tossing it in a briar patch.

            The dogs were mostly quiet.  It was the men behind that wouldn’t shut up.  To Jasper, he might as well have been right among them.  He could not make out the words, just the shapes of the words, but the laughter was like gunshots to his sensitive ears.

            Night arrived in concert with the storm.  The men, many built similar to Deputy Don, struggled to stay upright. The laughter became curses as the dogs followed the scent trails, the odor slowly soaking into the black Alabama soil.

            Jasper gave orders from his perch on Bobby’s back, directing the big man to take a different path from Bill’s.  By the time they reached the river even Bill could hear the dogs.  

            “They’re close!” Bill whispered.

            “Yes’m.  They is. They about to have a time of it, too,” Jasper chuckled.

            “What you mean?” Bill asked.

            “Just step on into that water and keep your ears open,” Jasper said.

            “Gators in there,” Bill said.

            The wind from the storm whipped the river into frenzy.  

            “Shouldn’t be in no mood to hunt in this weather.  Anyway, I can see ‘em just fine,” Jasper said.

            His white teeth glowed like moonlight in the dark.

            Bill entered the water, Bobby just behind.  They swam against the current, guessing the men in pursuit would expect the opposite.

            “Bit left.  There’s a gator on yo right but he’s sleeping.”

            Jasper navigated in water as well as he had on land.

            The texture of the hound dog calls changed.  It was frantic, tinged with pain.  

            “What’s that?” Bill asked.

            “That was the briars.  They’ll feel the poison oak on they noses in a while.  Got sumac waitin’ for ‘em at the water’s edge.  Men are in the thick of it right now, chasin’ ghosts.  Rain’ll spread it everywhere.  Ain’t no one gonna be laughin’ back there no more,” Jasper said.

            They rode the waves in silence only interrupted by Jasper’s directives.  

#

            At dawn the three men stood on riverbank, soaked to the bone with rain and river water.  Jasper leaned against Bobby, foot hovering above the soil.  Downstream, the dogs scattered, noses reporting conflicting information.  Deputy Don sat on a log, soaked in poison with his skin just beginning to tingle. When the screaming began he would be the loudest among them.

            Bill did not know what the day held for him, or the week or month.  He only knew he survived the night and that the shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy kissed the face of a free man.  

            Bill kneeled before Jasper.

            “Come on, old man, let’s see about that ankle.”

The Final Gift

He thought they would look like people, but they didn’t.  Only ever glimpsed through the narrow gaps between the fortifying wooden planks, he could not say what they looked like exactly.  But they weren’t people.

            “Just the one left, Daddy,” the little girl said, indicating the final, wrapped gift.

            The little plastic Christmas tree bent beneath the weight of the girl’s homemade ornaments, mostly tinfoil balls coated with the last of her nail polish. He thought it was the most beautiful Christmas tree he’d ever seen.

            “I wonder what it is,” he said, eyes darting between his daughter and the wooden planks as the murky dawn light was obstructed by movement outside.  At least they stopped pounding, for the moment.

            Throughout the night they pounded.  He told her it was Santa’s reindeer.  She nodded and smiled as she slipped into sleep.  He slept beside her, flinching as the mobile home shuddered from the onslaught.  It was their refuge, though not their home.  In the midst of the chaos he was glad to have found it.  But it was no fortress.

            She held the gift in her small hands, her words issuing in frosty clouds, “It says it’s from Mommy.”

            The man blinked tears away.  She had not noticed it was his handwriting.

            “That’s wonderful, sweetie.”

            She looked toward the door, which was crisscrossed with planks.

            “Is she coming back?” she asked in a voice as light as a feather.

            She proposed the question, in various forms, over the past three weeks. His affirmations lost vigor over time. 

            “Baby, I promise you’ll see her soon, maybe even today.”

            There was a cracking sound from the bedroom followed by a rippling chorus of inhuman voices.  The shadows in the room shifted as the invaders migrated toward the rear of the home.

            There were too many.

            Every other thought in his mind was there are too many.

            Her head was turned, following the noise of the disturbance.

            “Open it, sweetie,” he said, dabbing his eyes with his knuckles.

            She clenched her mittens between her teeth and tugged them free.  The electricity went out two weeks prior, so they made do with winter clothes and blankets.  Fortunately, the previous owner of the home was influenced by conspiracy culture, judging by the literature on the bookshelf  Therefore, the home was both remote and well-provisioned. 

At first, he made it seem like an adventure.  Up in the mountains, eating beef jerky for breakfast.  When she slept he listened to the radio and tried to imagine what they looked like, the things now outside his door, now ripping through the brittle walls.  In the chaos of their exodus, he had the presence of mind to pack a few gifts on the off chance their adventure endured until Christmas.

She shivered in her Snow White dress, the first gift opened that morning. He draped a blanket over her shoulders and then stood between his daughter and the rising din of snapping wood and shattering glass.

“Don’t worry, sweetie.  This place is magic, remember?  They will never get to you.  Open it,” he said again, mouth dancing between a smile and a frown.

She nodded and flipped the present over, searching for the seam in the gray light. There was a tremendous crash from behind and her face showed fear for the first time.  She was at that tender age where her desire to believe in magic constantly abraded against the reality of life.  Maybe the house was not magic.  Maybe Santa had not followed her snores to this strange, new home.

“Please open it,” he begged, hands secured behind him, back stiffening as the bedroom was breached.

She found the seam and slid her tiny fingers between the paper, breaking the tape.  

“I wonder what it could be,” she said, voice dreamy, pulled back to the magic again.

Her passions were as varied as her outfits on any given day.  In their former life, time was communicated through the piles of clothing strewn about the house.  A nightgown represented morning.  A leotard and ballet shoes indicated mid-morning.  Princess dresses were a sign of the early afternoon.  And so, he was only momentarily surprised when her Christmas list to Santa included what she then unwrapped.

“A cuckoo clock!” she said.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I love it!” 

The house shook as the invaders funneled inside.  The locked bedroom door was the only barrier between the two groups.

He hugged his daughter with one arm, tears spilling onto the crown of her head. 

“Push the minute hand until just before twelve and you’ll see the little bird come out,” he said.

She did as she was told and said, “It’s probably going to scare me!”

The bedroom door handle rattled.  His muscles were toxic with adrenaline.

“Sweetie, you know I love you, right?” 

“Of course, Daddy.”

“And you know your mommy loves you, too?”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said, eyes narrowed in concentration at the clock.

Blood rushed to his face, the sound of his heartbeat drowning out the violence behind him.  For a sliver of time it was just the two of them.  His little girl in her new dress, wrapped in a blanket, calmly breathing out steam as the bedroom door buckled.  His little girl who believed in magic.  

“You’re the most special girl in the world to me.”

“I know, Daddy,” she smiled, returning her attention to the clock.

“Just a few seconds now,” he said, moving behind her.

The world shrunk until it was only the space between them.  He felt his love for her as if it was produced by its own organ within him.  

“Here it comes!” she said as the seconds ticked.

Five

Four

Three

Two

One

The bird popped out, providing coverage for the sound of him flipping the safety off.  The invaders crawled into the hallway, but he did not look that direction.

In his head, he began his own countdown.

Five

Four

Three

Two

One

Pull

A Quiet Night on Poplar Street

“Hey, it’s me again.  I don’t know if you’re getting these, but I have to tell someone. The place doesn’t exist, bro.  I mean, it’s there, but I don’t think it’s real. I asked Mom about it and she didn’t- she couldn’t…”

            There was a burst of static on the voicemail, and he exhaled as if punched in the stomach.

            “I drove her there and she still couldn’t see it.  I’ll call you later.  I’m going back tonight.”

            The message was the last attempt at contact from my brother, Mike, now missing eight days.  I stood beneath a sign that appeared designed to be forgotten, white, cramped letters on a dark blue background.

            Poplar Street Eye Care

            The voicemails and text messages were increasingly frantic, my brother’s steady baritone sailing into higher octaves as his observations devolved into a frenzied certitude.  The ophthalmologist’s office was not real.  There were no patients.  No one ever entered but men did leave, always in suits.

            “They walk out, adjust their ties, and walk down the street,” Mike said.

            I did not recall having seen the office before, but could say the same for the various pawn shops and vape stores that littered Poplar Street.  The parking lot had room for only four cars and both the entrance and exit were blocked by chains.  A breeze kicked up a flurry of dried leaves and discarded napkins. I jammed my hands in my pockets and shuffled to the entrance.

            My presence was announced by a single chime.  I paused there, the wind whistling through the gap between the door and the frame, orienting myself to the small room, which was so dark it might have been illuminated by a lantern.  There was a cluster of bulky chairs in the center of the room, tufts of cotton jutting from gashes in the upholstery.  The walls were bare save for a single poster of the anatomy of an eye.

            I walked to the counter where a woman sat in an oval of yolk-colored light. Atop her hair was a bundle of curls, white with a bluish tinge.  She did not acknowledge my arrival, but dipped her fork into the Tupperware container. A bit of quiche trembled on the tines of the fork, which she inserted in her mouth.

            I turned my attention to the small television set wedged near the ceiling in the corner of the room.  It showed a news channel, but the image was grainy.  I squinted and saw that the attire of the anchors was dated.  The woman’s burgundy blazer was squared off by shoulder pads that nearly touched the tassels of her dangling earrings.  A reporter in the field inserted a yardstick into a drift of snow to the amusement of the studio anchors.

            It was early autumn and I was in Alabama.  

            “I am looking for my brother.  He’s been missing for about a week and seemed to have some strange ideas about this place. If he came in you might have remembered it,” I said to the woman behind the counter.

            She directed the fork into her mouth again, held it there, and withdrew it. The quiche still quivered on the tines. I looked at the container and saw that only a single morsel was missing.

            “No openings today, I’m afraid,” she said, placing an extra emphasis on the last two words.

            I snatched my cell phone from my pocket, intending to offer a picture.

            “Someone will be right with you,” she said, then abandoned the desk and her meal.

            I remained at the desk but returned my attention to the TV.  The broadcast must have been from the early 1990s, and was clearly not from Alabama.  A few minutes passed and a chime alerted me to the fact that the door opened.  I watched the back half of the man’s slacks as he departed.  I dashed to the front door and saw him on the other side of the glass, elbow out to the side as he adjusted his tie.

            My cell phone chirped at the desk and I raced to retrieve it.  The old woman was back in her seat pretending to eat the quiche.

            “No openings today, I’m afraid,” she said again.

            I made no reply but retrieved my phone and sprinted out the door to catch the man in the suit.

            The street was empty.  

#

            I listened to my brother’s messages, sought meaning in his texts.  Mike mentioned visiting the office at night and claimed once to have seen the waiting room filled with men in suits on one occasion.  With my options dwindling, I did the same, parking my car across the street that evening.

            “What in…” I said, opening my car door.

            Where Poplar Street Eye Care had been there was now a pet store.  I darted across the street and cupped my hands around my face, touching my nose to the window glass.  There were snakes and lizards, the blacklight glow of aquariums in another room.  

Al’s Exotic Animals

The sun-bleached signs taped to the inside of the windows indicated they had been there for some time.

#

I sensed my story about the vanishing ophthalmologist’s office complicated the investigation into Mike’s disappearance.  Each time I called the case had been transferred to a more junior investigator.

Six months after his final voicemail I received an alert on my phone. The front door camera was triggered while I was at work.  It was the time of day the mailman typically arrived, so I did not view the video then but did so later that night.

A man in a suit, face shielded from view by a fedora, stood on the porch.  He pressed the doorbell once and retreated. A few seconds later he adjusted his tie and turned away.

As he did the camera captured three frames of the bottom half of his face.

The cell phone shook in my hand.

“Mike?”