Never stop at rummage sales with Fischer-Price toys clogging the driveway. Bargain hunting wasn’t rocket science, but there were rules and this was Rule #1. The value so-called happy families placed on faded plastic crap depressed her – memories that were too precious to give away, but easy enough to part with for a twenty. Not that she was in the market for a tricycle or a tea set. People with babies were the least interesting people in the world. How could these people – parents, as sun-bleached and worn as their children’s discarded toys – have anything worth the bother of parallel parking?
She idled in front of 1723 Doty Street, slouched in the driver’s seat, covered in Classified Ads, as if hiding were the same as being invisible. As if she needed to bother at all – she’d gone unnoticed for all of her nineteen years without having to do a damn thing. Even now in the car she was alone, which was something she’d gotten used to. Mom begged off, again, calling yard sales “garbage picking,” among other things. She preferred to stay home and sip her strong, bitter tea, unsweetened. “I’d rather not spend my time thinking about what people leave behind,” she liked to say – about a lot of things.
1723 Doty Street. The address was never said aloud, never written down, never tucked away for safe-keeping, yet never forgotten. As she looked upon the house numbers – proudly displayed on glazed floral tiles – they lost all meaning, like a word repeated over and over. Her ballpoint bit through the cheap Penny Saver pulp, marking the steering column in blue ink as she crossed out this particular listing forever and all time. Mom was right. She shouldn’t have come.
She preferred those dark, detached garages so popular in older working class homes, anyway. Ones built in the suburbs of long ago – so long ago, in fact, that they now were considered part of the inner city. Untold stories hid in tiny one-car carriage houses that smelled of termite damage, spilled oil, and endless time. Sawhorse tables displaying the detritus of a generation as if in offering to a second-rate god. Where NPR droned on a transistor radio and heirlooms went two for a dollar.
How many Saturdays had she rummaged the streets of her hometown? Venturing down windy overgrown roads and potholed dead ends, finally escaping the city limits all together, only to find herself here, staring down this generic, vinyl-sided, three bedroom, two bath, ranch that provided no clues at all. There was nothing for her here. What did she expect?
Ostensibly, she went out looking for marbles. German swirls, onionskins, agates. She liked how they caught the light, how inclusions in the glass trapped the sweet air of long ago, a preserved instant in time when things were, presumably, better. Wholesome and whole, the way time gilds family values and families. Sometimes marbles contained mica flakes. Those were her favorites, the way she could hold them to her eye, the glittery specks and swirls becoming nebula, becoming entire galaxies, a macrocosm in microcosm, an entirely new universe, a fresh start, in the palm of her hand.
Nothing like that on Doty Street, Ground Zero of the advertised “multi-family sale-apalooza.” Just an unflavored sprawl of starter homes for starter families, or in some cases, second families. Young children, young wives. Typical, wide-eyed, entitled American dreams. The houses weren’t like the one she’d grown up in – the homes were too perfect, too new. Even still, they seemed like institutions of permanence and magnitude next to the ambitious, yet infant landscaping. Twiggy trees staked against the wet westerly winds. Scrubby shrubbery that would crisp the next time a Saskatchewan screamer blew in from the north. Nursery-grown turf that had been unrolled onto salvage soil and left to die.
She gave them eight, ten years, tops, before the families here outgrew their fledgling homes. Then one day, they’d realize they didn’t know each other anymore. They’d buy up, spread out. More room to breathe. More room for their hobbies, more room for their things. More room for them to ignore the distance between each other, the gulf widening until relative strangers drifted in no less than 3500 sq ft., sometimes staying together for the kids, sometimes not even that.
She went to put the engine in gear, to bust loose of this godforsaken warren of mediocrity, when a knock on the driver’s side window startled her.
“Hey, lady,” a boy of around ten said, in that over-loud “outside” voice all children have, “I’m selling lemonade. You want some?”
The kid was freckled and peeling from a week-old sunburn, his damp fingers touching the windowsill of her car like a gecko climbing a wall. He straddled his bike in the same easy way she guessed a cowboy might treat his favorite horse. She wondered where the rest of his posse could be.
She cracked her window. “You’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“You’re not a stranger, you’re a potential customer,” he said.
She watched an older couple walk down the drive carrying a bean pot lamp. “Speaking of customers, you’re letting those two marks get away.”
He glanced over his narrow shoulders. “They said they can’t have sugar because of their diabetes.”
“Too bad you’re not selling zucchini.”
“Would you buy zucchini?”
The couple popped their trunk and set about fitting the cumbersome, heavy yet breakable treasure inside. A moment later, they pulled away from the curb, heading her way.
“Okay. Maybe next time.” The boy pushed off on his bike, swerving into the street, directly in the path of the car.
“Jacob, watch out!” she called. Knowing his name, secretly, silently, was different than saying it, yelling it aloud. She felt the transgression, even if no one else did.
The car pulled up short with a cry of the brakes and a sulfur smell. Jacob zipped around the front end, oblivious to the danger he’d narrowly avoided. The neighbors milling around the sale table looked up. One pointed out into the street. What up until now had been an unobtrusive drive-by would become worthy of the Neighborhood Watch if she took off now.
She threw the car in park. She opened her door and climbed out, displacing air, as if to merely stand on the asphalt in the midst of this planned development of nuclear families she had to make room. The boy pedaled lazy, wobbly circles around her, like a satellite in an unstable orbit. From the growing shade cast by the house, she felt warm, curious eyes on her. She was a stranger too close to the young. She ignored the kid, trying to shake off the feeling as she made the slow and pensive amble up the drive, casting appreciative glances at the card tables of crap. Just get in and get out. Do not make eye contact. That was Rule #2.
The woman there – Barbara, the woman’s name was Barbara – wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d imagined a homewrecker, whatever that looked like. What she got was a homemaker, nothing special. Blonde hair over-run with gray, as if the dust of a decade had settled over her without her noticing. Gentle brown eyes and a large thin mouth that greeted her with the sort of smile tossed by “strangers are only friends you haven’t met yet” people.
Those kind of people. Ugh.
She smiled back, briefly, forced, and then looked away.
Up close, she could see there was far more for sale here than Jacob’s old toys. All around her in tidy, catalogued piles stood the stockpile of a decade. She ventured further into the garage, feeling like a trespasser, but drawn by the rack of used clothes. Would she recognize an old shirt? A long out of style windbreaker? A pair of dress shoes, leather cracking over the toes?
Nothing seemed familiar as she browsed, her fingers travelling over the unfamiliar fabrics. There was no sense of loss, no expectations found wanting. Granted, the luggage set that had walked out the door all those years ago had been on the small side, a relic from a much earlier, less complicated age. The suitcases only had room for necessities. Like so much else deemed unnecessary, she had been left behind.
Mercifully, she had few memories, though whether that was because clients and work functions were always more important or simply because there was nothing she wished to remember, she couldn’t say. There were no training wheels, no little league, no family vacations. Of that, she was sure.
The cars had been pulled out for the sale, parked elsewhere, leaving the garage looking expectant. The walls, still white, the concrete floor, devoid of stains. Along one side, a workbench, partitioned off, not part of the sale. Tools hanging on the pegboard had been outlined like bodies at crime scenes, at once efficient and vulgar. Everything here had a purpose. Trimmers for trimming. Hammers for hammering.
“Are you alright?” Barbara called over.
She nodded and turned her gaze to a high sliding window, a source of natural light, if not breeze. The narrow sill displayed a small bird’s nest, a muddy baseball, and an old mayonnaise jar full of marbles.
In her peripheral vision, she saw movement as Barbara came around from behind the card table, an arm outstretched. For one agonizing moment, she thought the woman meant to give her a hug.
“Here, you look like you need this.” She held a red plastic Solo cup. “It’s lemonade.”
She didn’t want anything from this woman, but took the drink anyway, thinking it less awkward to do so than to refuse. “Thank you. How much for those?”
“What, the marbles? Oh, I don’t think my husband intended to sell those. No, he wouldn’t want to part with those.” Barbara cast a glance around the driveway as if searching for her husband amid the offerings.
It was the same hopeful, despairing, knowing look she recognized in her own mother.
“Drink—you’ll feel better.”
She drank. Despite the garage’s neatness, despite the spaciousness, there was no air. Sweat broke out on her upper lip and palms. She tucked her purse tighter under her arm, steeling herself to run.
The woman was looking at her as if expecting a response of some kind. A social nicety, a –
“Sorry. How much do I owe you? For the lemonade?”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” Barabara said, her eyes narrowing.
She finished the lemonade, letting a moment pass.
“Yes,” Barbara said.
“You’re wondering if I recognize you.”
There was a red Ribbon Lutz Swirl in the jar. A couple Clambroths. Was that pale pink one, like polished rose quartz, a handmade Moonie? Clearies, opals, slags …They were all there, a collection that must have taken a lifetime to assemble, just hanging out on a shelf in the garage. Forgotten. “Surely, for the right price?”
There was a Banded Indian Swirl, identical to the one in her own collection. It had been her very first. The one she got from –
“Sorry, dear. Those marbles are the only thing he has from his father. They used to collect them together.”
Nothing was worth a damn without knowing its origins, its beginnings. Knowing, at one time, whatever it was, it had been valued. Sometimes that was all that separated one man’s trash from another man’s treasure.
“You look just like your picture. You must take after your mother.”
She’d been given so little from him. Time. Affection. Love. She didn’t even get his smile. But there were the marbles. And that wasn’t nothing.
The difference always came down to a matter of provenance.
And that was Rule #3.
A shrill, clipped voice nudged at the fabric of Caroline’s uneasy dreams, pulling her towards wakefulness. She shifted, uncertain where she was, and who might be there with her.
“Thank you for attending on me at such an inconvenient time, my lord,” the voice said.
Caroline couldn’t make sense of who was speaking. She shifted beneath the blanket, feeling as if it was really wrapped around her brain. Her thoughts shied away from trying to comprehend her situation and she felt the pull of sleep tempting her back to oblivion. She was so tired, so comfortable even though slumped in a chair, and something told her the waking world was not a place she wanted to be.
A deeper, gruffer voice replied to the first, pulling Caroline’s attention further into the conversation.
“Majesty, I live to serve. How may I be of assistance to you?” this voice, that of a man, asked.
Caroline latched onto the fantasy scene that seemed to be playing out around her, adding imagined details to it, as an alternative to rejoining reality. The male voice brought the image of a stocky, middle-aged man into her thoughts. She pictured him struggling down to one knee before an elaborate throne. In her mind’s eye, he was dressed in an Elizabethan costume, the tight doublet restricting his movements. A woman who was obviously a queen, judging by her crown and finery, sat very upright, looking down her nose at him. The queen’s imperious tone suggested she did not fully appreciate the lengths he would go to in order to carry out her bidding.
A sharp, astringent smell wafted from somewhere nearby, jarring against the picture Caroline had built. It brought unpleasant associations with it, and Caroline fought against its influence.
The queen spoke again. There was something about her voice that nagged at Caroline’s memory. It was familiar, but distorted, as if someone was trying to sound like a queen and taking the character too far. Caroline still wasn’t completely awake, though, and her mind refused to focus. The queen’s squeaky words penetrated the fog of sleep still shrouding Caroline’s mind, allowing her back into the half-dreamed medieval scene playing out in her thoughts.
“It has been brought to my attention that I am not long for this world. To reward you for your faithful service in the latter part of my reign, I bequeath my estate and all my possessions to you.”
This was an unexpected turn of events, and prompted a surge of grief that swamped Caroline’s thoughts for a moment, before she pushed it resolutely away. She concentrated her attention firmly on the exchange of the two characters. Something told her the suppressed emotion was connected to the elusive familiarity of the queen’s voice, but she resisted following the path to comprehension.
“Majesty, I have no words for the honour you bestow upon me.” The courtier’s calm tone suggested the news of the queen’s impending death was not a surprise to him, but gave Caroline no indication of how he really felt about it.
Caroline also thought that perhaps she had misjudged the queen, since she obviously valued the courtier highly enough to set him up as ruler in her stead.
The queen continued, “You realise, of course, that this also includes all my responsibilities, as the crown will now fall to you.”
Something about this troubled Caroline, more so than just the double-edged nature of the gift. Surely the queen couldn’t just choose who the crown would pass to on her death. There were rules of succession and, even if she had no heirs, the decision of who would rule after her would not be hers alone. The whole thing was starting to feel very strange, as Caroline grew more and more awake. For one thing, why was she sleeping in the presence of royalty in the first place?
She fought to focus her thoughts on her immediate surroundings, and opened her eyes. Everything seemed suffused with white light for a moment, and then the scene resolved itself. Her daughter Millie sat up in bed, a wooden peg doll in each hand. One did indeed sport a rough approximation of a doublet, fashioned from blue felt and gold thread. It was prostrated before the other, which had an elaborate red felt dress and a paper crown, decorated with red sequins.
The real world collided with Caroline’s dreamy imaginings and shattered the illusion. Tears pricked her eyes as she watched her daughter playing, and the smell of disinfectant assaulted her nose once again.
The dolls had been lovingly made by Caroline’s fiance, Daniel. Millie wasn’t allowed many personal items, and had little space to store them, so Daniel had produced the dolls to be her companions, as they were small and versatile. Caroline had worried that Millie might reject them as too simple and old-fashioned, but she had in fact accepted them with delight. They had provided many hours of entertainment. Millie and Daniel had worked together on a range of outfits and accessories for them, and Millie amused herself endlessly by creating new characters and scenes for them to portray. The queen and courtier pairing was new, at least to Caroline, and she wondered when Millie and Daniel had had the opportunity to fashion their clothes.
The activity had brought Millie and Daniel closer together, which Caroline had rejoiced at, and she was glad they were continuing to find time for it. Everything about their lives was so uncertain and changing so fast, so it was lovely for the two people she loved most in the world to get along. Daniel was always coming home with scraps of material and mismatched beads from the primary school where he worked, eager to bring them when they next visited Millie.
Caroline decided not to interrupt Millie’s current theatrical by letting her know she was awake. Instead, she closed her eyes again and let the exchange of dialogue wash over her, amazed as always by her daughter’s imagination and command of language.
The courtier was responding to the queen’s announcement that he would become king, and Caroline thought he was taking it remarkably calmly.
“Majesty, your news brings heaviness to my heart, but I will do my best to serve both you and our great country in this new role.”
Caroline wondered if she would be able to accept such news with such equanimity. Taking on the duties of ruling a whole kingdom was a massive job, not to mention having to deal with the death of the queen as well. She thought about her own situation and knew it wasn’t so easy to deal with new responsibilities in the face of impending loss.
The queen sounded very level-headed, considering what she herself must be going through.
“I am glad to hear it, and I know I am leaving the country in safe hands.” Millie’s portrayal of the queen faltered for the first time, her voice slipping back toward its normal register. “She has been a wonderful mother to me and she will need a lot of care and love once I am gone.”
A sharp pain squeezed Caroline’s heart at this and her eyes flew open again. She took in the stark reality of the crisp, white sheets, the fluorescent strip lighting, and the incessant beeping of the machines at Millie’s bedside in the cancer care unit of the children’s hospital.
Millie moved the queen doll closer to the courtier and spoke in a softer version of the queen’s voice, as she finally looked up to meet her mother’s gaze.
“I entrust this most sacred of duties to you, my lord Daniel, in the knowledge that your strength and compassion will see the country through the difficult times ahead and in the hope that you will eventually lead her into a new era of happiness and prosperity.”
Caroline couldn’t speak. Her heart was too full of pain and love, and Millie’s oblique reference to their situation was almost more than she could bear. She looked down at the protrusion of her heavily pregnant belly, and then back up into the eyes of her beautiful daughter. Their time together was running out, and a whole new life beckoned to Caroline, full of joy and excitement. But how could she move forwards into that life, knowing that Millie wouldn’t be there to share it with her? And how could Millie be so strong and so generous in the face of her life being so unfairly cut short? She would leave them, all too soon, and life would necessarily go on without her, even though Caroline couldn’t yet conceive of that. They were supposed to be a family all together; Caroline and Daniel, Millie and the new baby. But the universe had conspired against them with Millie’s diagnosis, and now every joy was inextricably intertwined with sorrow.
Millie reached out to place one of her hands on her mother’s swollen belly in a gesture of benediction, as Caroline began to cry.
To retrieve my phone, I agree to go to Pete’s apartment. I could have insisted on a different meeting place; I know I should have, but I’m curious to see how he lives. I think his apartment will be utilitarian and sparse since he only moved to the Falston School District about a month ago.
It’s 3:40 when I park in the lot. I’ve driven past this apartment complex many times but never knew anyone who lived here – or at least not for long – so it’s a new experience to climb the stairs to the second floor, transverse the hallway’s burnt orange shag carpet, stand in front of a white door, and knock.
I jump back when Pete pulls open the door as if he were standing behind it, waiting for me.
He says, “Finally!”
“You said 3:40.” I glance at my rarely worn anymore watch. “It’s 3:42.”
“Which means you’re late.” He sweeps his arm through the air, ushering me in.
“By two minutes.” There is a scent coming from the kitchenette which reminds me of the apple tart with oatmeal crust my grandmother used to make. He didn’t bake for this, did he?
Pete shuts the door then walks past me into the living room area with plush chairs and a matching sofa. He says, “I write up students who are two minutes late to my class.”
“You do not.” I admire the artwork, the shelves with books and knickknacks, the hominess. I see him pat the cushion on the sofa beside him. I inhale, tempted. Oh, so very tempted. I say, “Can I get my phone?”
“I don’t know.” He crosses one long leg over the other and eases back against the corner of the beige sofa. “Can you?”
I put my hands on my hips, look over the spines of the books, smile when I see one of my favorites on his shelves. “How did you come across Alex Pruteanu?”
“How could I not?”
I pull out the copy of Gears to see if it’s signed. “Have you read Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World?”
“With the Jello heart?” Pete asks; I look; he smiles. “Yes, I’ve read Pat Pujolas.”
“What about Karen Stefano?”
“The Secret Games of Words is one of my favorites.”
I scan the shelves for the telltale light green spine. “I don’t see it.”
“My sister borrowed it.”
I look over my shoulder at him. I can’t remember meeting anyone as broadly read as myself. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“I refuse to rush into anything with you.”
I look at the shelves some more. “You should have gotten your sister her own copy.”
“You don’t know Lena,” Pete says. “I won’t get it back.”
“So that stealing thing runs in your family?”
“Yes, Tara.” He shifts. “Though I merely traded your phone for mine last night. Now come on, please sit.”
I put the book back, walk to the chair farthest away from him, and sit. He grins then slides down the couch and leans over, his whole focus on me.
“Have you been thinking?” he asks.
I wonder why he thinks I could have done anything else but think about last night. “Yes, I’ve been thinking that I can never trust you again.”
He chuckles. “That’s not true.”
“The hell it’s not.” I stand up. “Not after your little stunt.” I walk over to the other chair and turn around. “Dealing with Calista this morning wasn’t bad enough. My ex showed up on my doorstep on his lunch break to ream me about not calling him back like I said I was going to.” I sit, cross my arms, stare.
Pete scowls. “How did I prevent you from calling him back?”
I lower my eyes. I realize I could have, and if I had tried, I would have noticed that Pete switched my phone for his then. All of this could have been avoided. “I was too busy thinking about the ethical morass that this is.” I look up at him and see his features relax. “Administrators can’t date teachers.”
He nods once. “Haven’t you read John O’Donohue?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why?”
“He wrote a book about Anam Cara.” Pete moves to the chair I vacated.
I wait. He says nothing and it drives me crazy. I don’t want to ask what Anam Cara means. I want to leave. I stand up and walk toward the door. “Where is my phone?”
“You’ll get yours back when I get mine.” I turn my head knowing I sound juvenile, but remind myself that he started it, which is as infantile as it gets. From the corner of my eye, I see Pete walking toward me. I feel him lace his fingers through mine and there is a jolt.
“Anam Cara loosely translates as “friend of my soul”.” He tugs at my hand and I turn to melt under his gaze. “And when you meet that person, you know.” He puts his other hand on the small of my back. “Sometimes, when you lock eyes for the first time, there can be some doubt.”
I breathe. I breathe. I breathe.
“But when you touch, like this, you feel it.”
I stop breathing.
Pete leans in close, his lips nearly touching mine. “What do you feel, Tara?”
My knees falter. I answer with a kiss.
R.L. Ugolini has had short stories published in over three dozen literary journals and anthologies, including, most recently, Cicada, Demonic Visions Vol. 3-6, Red Rock Review and Crack the Spine. The Summerset Review nominated one of her short stories for the 2011 Million Writers’ Award. Her first novel was released by Samhain Publishing in 2015. She lives in Texas with her husband.