“The Classics are dead, Dad,” I said. I stood angry and defiant against the doorjamb, arms crossed. My declaration passed into his ear and entered a holding pattern just outside his brain. He was at his desk, reading some ancient tome and had to finish the paragraph before he could fritter away valuable brainpower on conversation. I’d learned to wait it out, like he was some old desktop computer that took forever to process. I didn’t like the limbo of the silence, but I was patient whenever I wanted to see the effects of a good jabbing.
At last, he raised his head from the book and looked to me. “Well, yes and no,” was his infuriatingly ambiguous answer.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“Well, the cultures they derive from are no longer extant, sure, but it doesn’t mean they’re not worth preserving. Worth studying.”
“Why?” I let the word fall out with a dull thud.
“Well…Well, because so much of modern society…derives from principles and cultural referents originally introduced and cultivated…” I held my gaze but tuned him out. He was starting to talk like some tenured English professor, which he wasn’t. He was an untenured American professor at a crappy little university in Nowheresville, barely keeping the family financial situation together.
While he went into lecture mode, I thought about my shift at the Submarine Emporium, a sad little sub shop in what passed for the town’s commercial district. I’d started working part-time at Mom’s request to help pay bills. And just like that, track and field went out the window for the rest of the year. I could hardly believe it. I’d been on the team since freshman year, and that track scholarship would paying for almost half of my college tuition, but I’d be closing out high school in the damn bleachers.
I cut Dad off. I’d come by his office to lash out at him, not get a lecture. I brought out my nastiest retort. “The Ancient Greeks aren’t going to pay for Jenny’s college.” And I punctuated my sucker punch by walking out. I wince to think of it now. My Dad likely had no visible reaction, but I can only imagine how much it must have hurt. It was clear that Jenny had been an accident. She was seven years younger than me, and a second kid had strained the chronically bad family finances even worse. Dad was barely hanging on career-wise, and as soon as Jenny became old enough to babysit herself, Mom began cobbling together a patchwork of part-time gigs. Some waitressing here, some clerical and secretarial gigs there.
On the bus down to the Submarine Emporium, I stewed even more fiercely. I’d had this very cynical view of Dad back then. I figured that he fancied himself some Old World member of the intelligentsia, fighting to preserve noble ideals and mythologies in the harsh, artless wastescape of the United States. But to me, he was just pretentious and out of touch with reality. And did he really think Jason and the Argonauts would magically sail out of one of his books of mythology, hoisting aloft a valuable golden fleece we could use for doctors’ bills? Would the tacky billboards along the dirty, plain highways suddenly sport paintings and mosaics of Olympians and demigods? I hated all of it. I wanted nothing more than to wallow in squalor even worse than the solidly average, boring American town to which I’d been sentenced.
I clocked in at the old, barely functioning machine in the back of Sub Emp before donning my logo-stitched cap and heading to the front. It was just me and Carlos tonight. He was late-twenties, I guessed, and worked shifts at the grocery store when he wasn’t at SE, or sleeping, or doing whatever it was he did with his free time. Like all my fellow wage-earners at the crappy sub shop, he and I shared a rapport of glaze-eyed silence, going about our work in a passive trance that generally helped squeeze the minutes by a little faster. When the shop was empty, which was most of the time, I did homework in the back, ready to jump up as soon as the bell on the front door tinkled. On the occasions when Gina or Favro, the owners, dropped in to supervise, we underlings would shuffle around finding trivial tasks to make ourselves look busy.
The worst was when people I knew came in. We’d either chat politely while I spread mayo on their sandwich, or else we would just stew in the awkward silence. Either way, it was unbearable. I might not have hated the job as much if I hadn’t been in school and if it hadn’t been in my hometown, but I was trapped. And the biggest insult of all? I would usually have to eat my dinner at the Sub Emp since Mom was too busy to ever cook those days. The goddamn poetry of that perfect humiliation. It quickly became incomprehensible to me why anyone would voluntarily purchase and consume those slimy, foul-tasting subs.
Jenny, then eleven, had to fend for herself after school, and I worried about her. The physical state of the house couldn’t quite be described as shambles, but it was getting close, with no one to consistently tend it. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to go to college and get away from it all, but on the other, I feared what further mire the house and my family might slip into in my absence. Jenny would probably have to start babysitting soon to help earn money.
“Toaster’s broken,” I told a rotund customer who had just asked for a tuna melt. That toaster oven had been malfunctioning for over a week now, and Gina and Favro hadn’t gotten around to bringing in a repair guy.
Mr. Rotund just stared at me. “Really?” he asked with unmistakable forlornness. I nodded. He sighed heavily, the wave of defeat almost visible as it flowed over him. I almost felt sorry for the guy. That sudden crush of sorrow in his face wasn’t just over some untoasted sub. This must have been some final disappointment topping a week’s worth of them. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, just staring up at the menu like a despairing supplicant. At last, he just said, “Never mind, then,” not really looking at either me or Carlos before turning around and trundling slowly out of the store. Carlos went back to sweeping, and I just stood rubbing exhaustion from my eyes.
When I was little, Dad had lined my room with picture books of Greek myths. At bedtime, he would sit by my bed with one of the books and regale me with kid-friendly versions of Greek myths, pointing excitedly to the illustrations on each page. “And look! There’s Hypnos, the god of sleep! Soon he will come to you and carry you off to the world of slumber.” He turned the page. “Maybe there, you’ll see Phantasos,” he pointed to the ethereal-looking figure, “one of the sons of Hypnos. “Phantasos is the god of dream and imagination. When you dream, it’s because Phantasos is playing picture shows in your head.”
And I remember being excited by this sort of thing at first, but the problem was that I actually believed all of it. Dad wasn’t great about qualifying his bedtime stories with the disclaimer of ancient myth, so when I went to school and started telling other kids about the gods and demigods that invisibly populated our world, it mostly led to bullying. I expected other kids to already know. I’d assumed their parents had told them too, since it was the truth of the world, so when they didn’t believe me or called me crazy or an idiot, I’d start crying and yelling. This went on for a couple years, I think, until I was finally disabused of those notions at about the same time that most kids stop believing in Santa Claus.
Dad was a Classics professor, fanatical despite his general failure in academia. The dinky university that employed him didn’t really pressure its professors to publish, but that didn’t stop Dad from trying—and almost always failing. He’d only ever had a couple papers published, and those only in small-time journals of the field. He was never invited to conferences, and the school never agreed to pay for him to attend them. So, he sat up nights ascetically grading papers and doing his own futile research, clearly more for his own diversion than any sort of professional development. It made me angry. He probably could have made time for a demeaning part-time job like me and Mom, but apparently, the learned, gentleman scholar was above that.
I got back home from the Sub Emp that night a little after 11, thoroughly exhausted. At least I don’t have track practice tomorrow, I sardonically consoled myself. But I still had to bike to school every morning since no one had time to drive me. Fortunately for Jenny, we lived right next to the middle school, so she could just walk. I afforded myself a couple shots of vodka from the liquor cabinet to help me unwind, and then I trod with my recently adopted gait of heavy defeat towards my bedroom.
Dad usually locked his study, but for whatever reason, the door was ajar that night. Remembering the altercation from earlier, I felt the anger pulse back to life, briefly rising above the surface of exhaustion, and I took a few steps into the room. It was always the messiest room in the house, even worse than my bedroom. Crappy bookshelves leaned precariously against the walls, half the shelves buckling under the weight of their loads. Papers and more books lay piled on the floor and the desk, not to mention trash spilling out of the little waste bin and scattering around the dusty carpet. I pictured Dad working contentedly in the grand library of an old and respectable English estate, carelessly scattering its contents about as he worked, dropping empty potato chip bags on the ancient stone floor.
For whatever reason—probably a mixture of boredom, curiosity, contempt and alcohol—I started looking through the papers and books. He was pretty well supplied for an academic of his lowly status, and I often suspected him of spending reckless portions of our meager savings on books for his “research.” I absently started scattering pages about and flipping through one of the books—some moldering volume on Hellenic farming practices—like a browser at a flea market. When I accidentally tore one of the pages, some cord triggered in me, and I didn’t fight the impulse to tear out a fistful of the yellowing leaves. From there, the frenzy carried me. I tipped the crappy shelves, ripped books down to their innards, and scattered the viscera about in what was probably the worst bibliographic carnage since the burning of the library at Alexandria. I left the study in a state of ruin. Compared to the bedlam I’d wrought, it had been a pristine sanctum before. And I fled from there on the fumes of my rage, heading to my room and collapsing on my bed, falling asleep with my Submarine Emporium uniform still on.
When I awoke in the morning, I began my routine robotically, and it wasn’t until I was under the shower that the recollection of last night’s vandalism hit me. My heart started to race in spite of myself. I got dressed, crept quickly downstairs, and slipped out the back without risking breakfast. I stopped for a bite at the Fast-Mart and got to school just in time for the end of first period. (As a second-semester senior, I wasn’t that invested in punctuality anymore, especially when I’d had a late shift at the SE the night before. My grade for my first-period class had dipped dangerously close to the D range.) All day, I dreaded going home. For the first time, I was disappointed at not having a work shift that night.
After the final bell, I walked towards the bike rack and, as always, had to pass the field where my friends from track were all warming up. I kept my head down and walked quickly. Once I’d gotten my bike my bike, I rode to a nearby park where I hung out, did some homework, and generally stalled for time.
A few hours later, I finally got the nut up to head home and screw the consequences. Like Odysseus into the cyclops’ cave, I ventured without fear. But when I got home, I found only Jenny. She sat watching TV in the living room, lazily handling the remote and barely looking at me as I walked in. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey.” I looked at the TV instead of at her. “Where’s Mom and Dad?”
“Work.” She changed the channel. A bowl of goldfish crackers sat next to her. She dug her hand in and stuffed some into her mouth without taking her eyes off the television.
“You gonna have a real dinner tonight?” I asked. “Or just crackers?”
“Can you make something for us?” she asked. One of the cartoon characters said something vaguely witty and way too postmodern.
“Sure,” I replied.
We dined on the couch, in front the of cathode glow of the television set, munching crackers and some sandwiches I’d thrown together. The fridge hadn’t presented many options.
I sat around in my room for the rest of the night, doing some homework, poking around on the internet, masturbating, and hating my life. I pictured my ex-girlfriend, Miranda, at some post-track-practice party, rubbing up against Tyrone Derrien. My social life had pretty much imploded since leaving track and boarding the deathly Submarine Emporium.
I was about to hit the hay early to make up for lost sleep when the knock on my door finally came. “Yeah?” I said.
But the answer was in Mom’s voice, not Dad’s. “Can I come in?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I said.
She gently swung open the door and stepped in, hands gripped together, eyes unfocused, like a stymied land surveyor. After a moment, she focused on me and said, “I was just in your father’s study.”
I said nothing.
She responded with a stolid silence of her own.
After a moment, I broke. “Has he seen it yet?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably, but he hasn’t said anything to me about it.” I didn’t know what to say, and Mom just continued to stand there. Slowly, tremors began to take hold of her shoulders, her face crumpled, and one of her hands flew to her brow. I realized with a shock that she was crying. I suddenly felt with full force the magnitude of my idiocy. I was an impulsive jackass, and while Dad was a stoic rock I could jab forever without breaking, I hated to see Mom hurt. I felt like should say something or get up and comfort her, but I just sat there, frozen like the scared, reckless Icarus I was.
I remember thinking then that maybe Icarus flew close to the sun to spite his father Daedalus, and while Mom stood there, sobbing and begging me to just be strong through the rest of the spring and the summer, to be strong for her sake and the sake of the family, all I wanted to do was rip off my melting wings and plunge headfirst into the ripping waves, never to resurface for another breath.
That morning, after the call came, Melly attended to the airline and the car company. She called her firm to arrange coverage for the week’s court dates. She even called Sam’s boss and left a message. Then she sat for a moment to catch her breath, her eyes pressed shut. There were so many things she did not want to see--the family pictures on the refrigerator, the vase on the breakfast table Clyde had given her last Mother’s Day, the wall calendar with the Thanksgiving Holiday circled in brilliant red. The darkness did not, however, protect her. She was deluged by memories and sat, her face in her palms, weeping.
Fragments burned in her ears: “accident…left of center…instantaneous.” She wondered how much pain a body could feel in an instant. Then she laughed and wondered how long she would feel it. She kept laughing until she choked on her tears.
After a while she went upstairs to pack. She felt as if she were moving in slow motion through jellied air. Even at that she was done long before Sam. He took forever to pack his duffle, his clothes strewn like entrails across the bed while her bag sat ready by the door. When she looked in for the third time, he was holding a pinstriped shirt in the air. Melly wasn’t sure if he was trying to put it on or throttle it.
“Just pack it. The flight is in less than an hour.”
For another moment, Sam struggled with the shirt as if she had not spoken. Then he’d stuffed it in his bag.
Sam drove them through the silence to the airport. Security, boarding, and the flight were all the same soft beige blur. In the cab, Melly dug into her purse for the address. As the cab rolled through the afternoon cityscape, she admired the weathered stone buildings, the long green lawns, the bright October foliage. She understood why Clyde had wanted to leave home and go to school here. He’d always liked beautiful places.
There was no need to go to the morgue, since Clyde’s roommate had already identified him. Still, she went. When they got there, a slender doctor with hair that reminded Melly of corn silk took them into a small room and told them he was very sorry. He ran an impossibly smooth, unmarked hand through his hair and asked if they wanted to see Clyde. Melly followed him half way down the hall before she realized Sam was not with them. She excused herself and returned to find him in the corner where she had left him, staring at a point on the tile just beyond his extended legs.
“Come on, Sam.”
“What difference does it make?”
In the wake of his answer, their eyes met for the first time since the phone had rung and turned her world inside-out. She was not surprised by the emptiness of Sam’s gaze. After thirty years of marriage, his faulty emotional circuitry was hardly news. At least a decade had passed since she’d bothered to excuse him with “he’s the strong, silent type” or “still waters run deep.” She’d known for a long time that no matter how competent she was—how smart or patient or good—she could do nothing to navigate the space between them. Now, for the first time in what seemed like ages, she felt her impotence and isolation. They slid like a stiletto between her ribs.
She paused, throat full and hands trembling. She would not allow herself to be drawn in. A “never mind” was building in her, but an old memory erupted inside her and she saw them together: Sam and Clyde, a tangle of arms and legs on the sofa, shrieking and giggling. The force of the memory buoyed her and drove her toward him. Still, she could barely credit it when she heard herself speak.
“Let’s find out together."
It was clearly Anna Mantin’s fault that Devander Rush got beaned in the head with a snowball. She was beautiful and he was in love with her; he knew that for sure.
All of the other boys had stopped throwing snowballs to look at Anna too – all of them except Anna’s cousin, Arnold Smith. It was Arnold who beaned Devander.
Anna was from Louisiana and was visiting her cousin Arnold in upstate New York. She had never seen snow before. Arnold had told Devander that she was coming, but he had forgotten – or he’d simply shelved the information as unimportant. Girls were a pain. They all shrieked and complained when the boys came near them. Unlike previous years, this winter they all stopped playing outside and instead seemed content to lock themselves in each other’s bedrooms where they giggled and talked about stupid things. So why would Anna be any different?
After all, she wasn’t the only girl whose breasts began to bud beneath her shirt. She wasn’t the only girl with long brown hair, with freckles, with a crooked little nose that scrunched up when she laughed. But Anna was the only girl in town who was exotic, and when she threw a snowball at Arnold on that first day she arrived, it was obvious that she was happy to play outside with the boys. And she wouldn’t tire of playing with them the whole two weeks she was in New York. And Devander knew from that first moment she came walking over the hill from the Smith house, he would have to do everything in his power to keep the other boys from finding out that he was in love with his friend’s cousin.
The allure was irresistible: Anna came from a different land, where people talked funny and wrestled alligators. It was true, because she told them all about it, about the time an alligator hopped onto her uncle’s boat while they were fishing at a place called Sawgrass Creek. “Right there in the boat – just jumped right on in,” she said. “My uncle beat it in the head with a paddle.”
Devander had no idea why he felt the way he did, why he thrilled at the sight of Anna’s hair peeking out from beneath her cap, or why he loved the way she smelled. She sweated under all her layers and from all the work required to make snow forts, but unlike Devander’s friends, something about the way she smelled, the way she sweated, the overwhelming allure of the smell of her skin as she turned quickly in the confines of the snow fort – something about it was different. There was a hint of some type of artificial fruit – green apple or watermelon maybe.
Devander had never felt such a thing in all his eleven and a half years. Though he could barely bring himself to speak around Anna, none of the other boys had any such trouble. All of them, including Arnold, jostled for her attention. They punched each other, offered her gifts of various unusable sorts (Mikey Kay gave her a hockey puck), snapped her bra strap under her shirt, and agreed to be her guide in all matters of snow and snow forts. During all this, Devander sat back and watched, wondering if this was the way courtship worked.
But day after day, all of it remained a mystery. A week went by, a week where Devander spent each night staring up at the ceiling, or at his Buffalo Bills posters, or out the window in the direction of the Smith house. There, the tip of the roof stuck up against the dark sky like a beacon. Anna was in there somewhere, and he burned with envy that his stupid friend got to watch her brush her teeth, comb her hair, refuse to eat her spinach. And each night, Devander would resolve to make his move the next day – a move the likes of which he could scarcely imagine.
The next day came and went and Devander didn’t say a word to Anna, but instead moved around the snow fort, avoiding a barrage of snowballs from invading armies, thinking all the while that time was slipping away from him and soon it would be dark and soon Anna would go back home with Arnold, where, Devander was sure, they sat next to the fire together and shared blankets and hot chocolate.
One day, as usual after a long day with all the neighborhood kids frolicking in the fort, Anna and Arnold went home.
It was Casey Walsh who had the idea first. “Let’s get into Arnold’s shed. Maybe we can see Anna,” he said.
They ran over to Arnold’s house and crept around back to the shed, which was always unlocked and which had been built up against the house. All someone had to do was look through the crack between the fourth and fifth slats to see right into the window of the lower level bathroom of the Smith house. The boys neared the shed only to find Arnold leaning out of the window of his bedroom.
“I knew it,” he said. “Forget it, you jerks.”
There was a general groan of protest, which soon grew into defiance. Arnold quickly gave in to the mob, ran outside, and plunged into the shed, where the boys were lining up to get a peek. “I turned the bathroom light on,” Arnold said as he positioned himself for the first look. Devander stood back, so in awe of Anna Mantin that the idea of seeing her in the bathroom sickened him even as it filled him with an almost uncontrollable urge. Despite it being cold in the shed, he realized he was sweating. To Devander, Anna was above such gross attempts to sneak a peek and he wanted to scold the other boys for their attempt.
But instead he said nothing.
An hour passed, each of the boys except Devander glimpsing into the bathroom, only to report that nothing and no one had been in there.
“Hey, you haven’t even looked at all. You like girls, don’t you?” one of the boys asked.
“Yes,” Devander replied.
“Then go on.”
Devander walked to the crack. He put his eye there and saw only an empty bathroom. From his field of vision, he could see the outline of his own eyelash, a towel hanging on the back of the door, the wooden doors of the cabinet beneath the sink, and the edge of the toilet bowl. It was a dull scene, but so filled with potential that Devander’s unblinking eye began to dry out.
Then the bathroom door opened. It was Anna.
She closed the door behind her. He could only see from her midriff down to her shins, but he knew it was her. He saw the outlines of her long, slender legs, swimming in the huge jeans he figured all girls in Louisiana wore.
She walked to the sink. She stood there for a long time. He couldn’t tell what she was doing, but she didn’t move. Finally, she shifted to where Devander was looking. She placed two hands on the top of her jeans and unsnapped the button. Then she took down the zipper. She was still facing the crack and was barely two feet from Devander’s eye. As the zipper went down, it revealed pink underwear patterned with little red watermelons. Devander saw everything: the green outline of the rind, the little black seeds swimming in the deep red pulp. He gasped.
There were hands all over him, pulling him away from the crack as the boys crashed into one another, trying desperately to get a look. Devander fell against the side of the shed. An empty oil can came clattering down from a shelf. The boys burst out of the shed, leaving Devander alone inside. He sat against the wall. Though he had been in the shed a hundred times, he looked around at the tall shelves, crowded with junk, and it seemed like the first time he had ever been in there. Jars of pennies, old license plates, various tools and machines, an old rusty bike missing its chain: all these things stared down at him with menace.
Though the shed was suddenly a dark and scary place, Devander couldn’t leave and soon he drew his eye once more to the crack. This time, the bathroom was empty.
With his eye still to the crack, the door to the shed flung open. There stood Anna, a halo of light from the house surrounding her.
“You sneak!” she yelled, and then slammed the door.
Devander couldn’t utter a word. Instead, he remained sitting where he was – breathless, motionless.
For the next two days, Devander didn’t go outside. He didn’t join his friends to play in the snow. Instead, he sat in his basement and watched TV, answering only “Nothing,” and “Cause I don’t feel like it,” when his parents asked him what was wrong and why he wasn’t out with his friends.
All the while, he waited for the inevitable punishment when his parents discovered what he had done. He imagined the phone ringing, his mother pleasant at the sound of a friendly neighbor’s voice, her own voice suddenly getting lower and more grave, her turning to look at him with a very serious expression on her face. He imagined the lecture afterward, why it is such a terrible thing to spy on a girl like that. But he didn’t care about the lecture or the punishment that would surely follow. It was Anna. That was what he cared about. She would hate him. She would never want to see him again.
On Sunday morning, when the roads were cleared and the family went off to church, Devander feigned illness – promptly believed by his parents who thought it unusual that he hadn’t been out of the house in days – and buttoned up as soon as he was alone, to go and sit in the snow fort, where perhaps he could soak up the only remnants of Anna now left him. Maybe she had left a glove there, or even a strand of her hair. He would take anything, any keepsake to hold and touch and smell and cherish even until the snows were all gone.
But there was nothing of her – only well worn paths in the snow and the tracks of a thousand boots. Devander slumped against the wall of the fort, idly scratching at the cracks in the walls that let through shafts of blue light.
Devander didn’t notice the crunch of approaching boots. It was only when the light was blotted out by a figure standing at the entrance did he look up to see Anna standing there.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
Devander stared at her, but didn’t say a word.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked.
“I, um . . . why aren’t you in church?” he asked, proud he had managed to say anything at all.
“My daddy says I shouldn’t go to church with them. Even if they is family. He doesn’t like Protestants much.”
“I told them I was sick,” she said.
Devander waited for the recriminations. He was ashamed that he had spied on her. He wanted to tell her that he hadn’t meant any harm. He wanted to tell her that he was sorry, that he loved her, that he wanted to go to Louisiana with her. But he said nothing. And neither did she.
He closed his eyes, and Anna’s little red watermelons danced through his brain. He felt the hard press of Anna’s mouth on his lips. His knee shot out mechanically, as if Dr. Kearns had hit it with his rubber mallet. He did not press his own lips in response. Instead, he marveled at the foreignness of the sensation, the way the forceful exhalation from Anna’s nostrils played upon his upper lip and cheek.
She pulled back from him. “I’d have shown you my underwear,” she said finally. “You’d only had to ask.”
Devander, still reeling from his first kiss, blew forth: “I didn’t see anything, Anna. I swear.”
“Sure you didn’t. Well, I’d have shown it to you . . . if you wasn’t such a sneak.”
Devander was speechless. He wanted to continue his defense – he hadn’t seen anything. If he said it enough times, to her, to his parents in his imagined defense, to himself, he too would believe it. He wanted to grab her, to kiss her again, to touch her freckles and smell her skin, but he couldn’t do or say anything. Instead, all he thought of at that moment was what she had said to him.
If you wasn’t such a sneak.
Even though it was part of that wonderful, unattainable thing that was Anna Mantin – that very Anna-ness, he couldn’t help himself.
“Weren’t,” he said.
“If you weren’t such a sneak. You said wasn’t. It should be weren’t.”
Anna looked at him. “You’re a weird kid,” she said, and crawled out of the fort, leaving Devander alone, where he sat until it grew dark and where he began to shiver uncontrollably. He caught a cold that turned into bronchitis the following day, the day that Anna went back to Louisiana.
His parents berated him for leaving the house in the first place. “You’ve turned your little cold into this,” his mother said, pulling a thermometer out of his mouth. “One hundred and two degrees.” But he wasn’t listening. He was too caught up in the saccharine refrain of Anna Mantin’s poor grammar; it was only that soft cadence that burned through his head like a fever.
If only he had it over again, to be swept away by the appeal of that phrase, to lose himself in its linguistic erroneousness, but if only he wasn’t . . . only he wasn’t . . . only he wasn’t . . .
Monday morning, Pauline was confronted by the "congratulations" banner her co-workers had put up Friday. They'd meant well, she reminded herself as she ripped it from the wall. None of this was their fault.
Ten years at the Happy Day Daycare Centre. How was that even possible?
Her thoughts turned, as they so often did, to her older brother Bill. Things would be so different if he hadn't crashed his motorcycle into a tree that rainy fall night.
For one thing, she wouldn't be here wiping runny little noses, or playing Duck Duck Goose so often that the damned birds chased her around in her sleep.
After Bill's funeral, her parents had turned his bedroom into a guest room which made no sense. No one ever visited.
They couldn't bear to part with Pauline so soon after Bill's death. So she stayed, took a job at Happy Day and got her early childhood certificate. One year turned into two, two drifted into three...
Her career goals didn't die though, not right away. When Pauline mentioned going to school to get her nursing degree, her mother would purse her lips. "The economy is terrible! There are no jobs for nurses."
Her dad would say, "You'd have to move to the States."
Lots of people moved for their jobs though. She had a flash of Bill shoving her out the door. "You know you want to, Pauls. Just go."
But what was the sense in conjuring up her dead brother? He was gone and she remained here in an endless groove. The only adults she saw were her co-workers or the children's parents. Sure these were people she liked and who seemed to like her, but no friends. Not really.
The girls she worked with, Jenny, Ellen and Barbara, made it their mission to find the right guy for Pauline. But it always ended the same. The date would loom, a big number circled in red on her bedroom calendar, far enough away to dream on. Afterwards it would fade into another unpleasant memory of an awkward encounter. No second date. No second chance.
Eventually they all stopped pestering and made no further mention of a friend they'd love her to meet or someone they knew who was "just perfect" for her. No more encouraging hugs followed by statements like, "We'll get you fixed up, Pauline."
It was no use. Every woman on the planet was in on the secret, how to get a man, except her. Somehow she'd missed that lesson.
Worse, it was the nagging feeling, like a cloying scent you couldn't get out of your nose, that life was busy streaking past her.
It was a faint comet, a shimmer of a thing she could almost glimpse out her bedroom window as its tail moved out of sight. It got smaller and smaller. Soon it would vanish.
Sometimes she thought about her few high school friends who'd once kept in touch. Eventually they ran out of things to say to each other; those old ties loosened and fell away.
It was like when Bill took her to the carnival and they'd waited on a platform for their turn on the ride Bill had raved about all summer. "It's easy, Pauls," he'd said. "When the big chair comes along, just hop on." Pauline had watched it inch its way around the bend, but when the moment came the bench seat was impossibly high and seemed to be moving faster than ever. She couldn't hoist herself up. Bill tried to help, but in a panic she'd wriggled out of his grasp and ran down the rickety stairs.
"It's all right," he'd said when he caught up to her. She turned back to see new riders on the bench. It had kept on going without her.
There was that one time though, near the five year mark at the day care centre, Pauline came home one afternoon and insisted she was going away to school. Her parents shared a knowing look, but didn't contradict her.
Those weeks of preparation had whirred by. Pauline applied online to her three college choices, researched residences, and the hospital she hoped to intern at. For the first time since Bill passed, a kind of electricity lit the air and everything around her.
But when her father died of a heart attack one Tuesday morning while Pauline was at work, the whole house of cards collapsed.
As she turned from the grave to follow the mourners to their cars, her mother stopped her. "Please don't go, Pauline." There was no denying what she meant. Stay with me. I need you here now. College can wait.
A month passed. Pauline suggested her mother move in with one of her widowed friends or look into an assisted-living apartment. Her mom's eyes would fill with tears and she'd say, "I suppose I'll have to give up my home. Oh, but not yet, please Pauline!"
They fell into a routine, one where the hours between washing the supper dishes and bedtime stretched out like a long line of fresh white untouchable sheets on a clothesline.
Sometimes she'd take a book and walk down by the pond at the back of their property. She pictured herself in the future, an old woman, not much different than she was now probably, reading a cheesy paperback that bled into all the others, but mostly staring into the dark ripples of the pond.
In the meantime, her mother seemed to shrink into old age. She shrugged off the household responsibilities, the bill payments, the property taxes, who they should get to clean the gutters, roof repairs. These things fell to Pauline who might as well have held out her hands and said, yes, I'll take care of them.
"But you don't mind do you, Luv?" Her mother always asked Pauline. "Oh and will you take me grocery shopping tomorrow after work?"
Now back to reality in the middle of the empty day care, Pauline shivered. "Someone walked over my grave." She arranged pint-sized chairs and tables in the main room. In one corner, miniature vehicles, tiny trikes and wagons stood waiting. In the other corners sat easels and art supplies, a plastic stove and fridge set, and a colourful garden where children could "harvest" their crops.
"Pre-employment training sites," she thought.
They were too young to know what they wanted to be when they grew up, and it was all a big lie anyway. Nobody ever tells you: few people get the life they hope for.
She went to the art supply closet and took out little, paint-stained smocks. Would some of the children grow up to be artists? How much was already hard-wired into their brains?
What was she, Pauline, predisposed to? Apparently this. An aptitude for standing in the same spot for ten years.
Soon her co-workers filtered in. Moments later, the children and their parents followed.
By 10 a.m., the familiar wave of loneliness washed over Pauline as she stood surrounded by children, their small hands forever reaching, grasping, their faces looking into hers for answers she didn't have. Why this and why that? Honestly, Pauline had no idea why anything was the way it was.
The distinct sound of a child throwing up grabbed her attention.
But no, it was Barbara, leaning over a chair. Her face was...grey!
She collapsed. Pauline raced to her while Ellen and Jenny stood and gaped. They'd all been CPR trained. Why wouldn't they move?
Pauline pointed to Ellen. "Take the children to the gym.”
"Jenny," Pauline said, "help Ellen and call 911, then report back to me."
Pauline leaned over Barbara, supine on the floor. She listened for breathing, checked for a heartbeat. Nothing.
Jenny ran in only long enough to say, "I just called 911."
"Come on, Barbara," Pauline said between compressions, "don't you dare stop fighting."
She worked for ten minutes, cursing herself for being so stupid. She should've kept Jenny back to spell her off.
It felt like forever before the EMTs entered and took over. She watched and waited, barely breathing. Her mind raced over her morning with Barbara. Had she seemed ill or tired? But Pauline couldn't recall.
Finally, the EMT performing CPR looked up. "We got her."
"You did a good job here," he said to Pauline as he loaded Barbara's gurney into the ambulance.
Her mother met Pauline at the door. "Oh my, what a scare you had! Will Barbara be alright?”
Pauline nodded and went to the patio door. For a while she stood there and looked out past the fence to the pond. Just a glimmer of a thing that would remain there forever.
"Are you okay?" asked Mom.
She imagined what Bill would say: "You can't blame Mom for playing the guilt card. It's worked so well." He'd grin. "You have to live your own life, Pauline. Starting now."
"Are you okay?" her mother repeated.
"I will be." She turned. "Mom, we need to talk."
Cameron Vanderwerf is a Chicago-based writer. His past work has appeared in Pilcrow & Dagger, Literally Stories, Page & Spine, Fiction on the Web, and the anthologies "Twisted: Short Stories by Young Writers" and "Where Cowboys Roam."