Footprints/Madeline

Footprints/Madeline

In the morning I found footprints in the snow. I followed them from my bedroom window to the edge of the woods. I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods without an adult, and because this rule seemed reasonable to me I turned around and followed the footprints back.

Examined side-by-side there wasn’t much of a difference between my prints and these others. They were a little bit bigger, maybe. I put my foot inside one to check, and then walked in the footsteps until that became a game. I lost my balance halfway back across the yard and as I pinwheeled my arms to stay up the barest glimmer of a thought shot across my consciousness:

The footsteps go to my window and then stop. They don’t go back.

And then I hit the snow and the thought blew away. The powder puffed up around me in a crystalline cloud and fell back into my face. I had to turn to one side and then the other in order to build enough momentum to flip over so I could stand, and once I was up I stomped across the yard kicking up the biggest plumes of snow that I could with my new pink snow boots. I heard my mother inside and went in to demand cocoa.

“Are there are other kids around here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, sweetie,” she said. “Did you see any when you were outside?”

“I thought I saw one last night, in my window.”

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Toons and Little Worm

Toons and Little Worm

The way the story was passed down to me, when I was born I weighed four pounds seven ounces and was addicted to heroin. My mother gave birth in a crackhouse on Bedford, but it wasn’t clear if she went into labor while shooting up or if she just crawled into the first place she could find once her water broke. A junkie ran out and got a cop, and the fiends and chickenheads all cleared out while the ambulance crew tried to muscle in past them. I was in intensive care for the next year. My father visited once. On that day, in the hallway outside my room, he and my mother got into a screaming match that ended with her nearly clawing out his eye with a long fingernail. He said she was lucky he hadn’t brought his gun. Sometime later, a few days or maybe a few weeks, he was arrested for possession of crack and sent upstate for two years. During that time my mother lived with her mother in a walkup on Gates Avenue. My mother claimed to be a model and my grandmother described herself as a beautician. Neither one ever worked as far as anybody could tell, as models or hairdressers or anything. For a few of those years a man named Edwin lived with them. He was killed on Flatbush in a hail of bullets that made the front page of the New York Times.

When I was eighteen months old I weighed eleven pounds, and when I was two years old I weighed fifteen. By the time I was three my weight had crept up to twenty pounds, but only barely. My mother probably only weighed ninety pounds herself, and my grandmother maybe slightly less. It was hard to tell which was older; they both looked like old trees twisted by hard wind and rain. Of the two I was more afraid of my grandmother, whose face and body were gruesome with rage and hate. My mother wasn’t much different, but at times she could laugh like a little girl and show a hint of the beautiful woman she might have been in a different life. At least once before I was three my mother tried to sell me for drug money. The police said it got her about seventy-five dollars. Child Services took me back to my grandmother; my mother rejoined us soon after.

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A lesson from a caterpillar

A lesson from a caterpillar

The girls are mostly grown now, and according to Facebook they’ve become good friends, but I’ll change their names anyway, to protect the innocent. They were children, after all, by some reckonings the very definition of innocence.

By the beginning of May, just about the entire fourth grade had found a reason to let Shannon know that they didn’t like her. The consensus was remarkable. The less couth children groaned whenever they were partnered with her; the more polite kids signaled their displeasure more discreetly. Even the teachers (with varying degrees of tact and good intentions) let Shannon know that she was not, generally speaking, contributing positively to the broader elementary school community.

Because these were modern times, of course, outright rudeness to Shannon was strictly forbidden, no matter how much she had it coming, and so a lot of good kids got themselves in trouble when they finally snapped at her. I remember one especially delightful little girl who refused to apologize after saying something unexpectedly nasty–she turned to her teacher, trembling and teary, and said, “You don’t understand: she’s been in my homeroom since kindergarten!”

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Courage

Courage

Theodore Lewiston served two tours in Afghanistan, where he was awarded a Commendation Medal but more more importantly earned the respect and gratitude of his unit for fearlessly engaging camel spiders.

Returning home, Theodore found work as a security guard that from time to time required him to be big and scary, sometimes towards people who were bigger or scarier than he. Just as with the camel spiders, he showed a cool exterior while adrenaline surged through his veins, his not-insignificant fear hidden behind a cool gaze and steady voice.

Nobody ever asked him but he liked to imagine someone–a grandchild, perhaps–looking at his various citations and asking him about courage. What was the hardest thing you ever did? Or, “What was the most courageous?” Nobody would ever ask it that. “What was the scariest thing you ever did?”

He had a ready answer, one that would seem characteristically calm and cool but would reveal itself in time to be profound true, he thought.

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The Wishing Stone

The Wishing Stone

“Would you like your table now or would you like to wait for your party at the bar?”

Lisa started to ask for the table, but then crinkled her nose and pointed to an empty stool. “I better wait at the bar.”

And wait she did. Wait and wait. First with a wine, then with a second, and after that she let herself graduate to a cocktail. The first in order to have something to do with her hands, the second to give him a little more time, and the third because even though she didn’t even want him to come it still hurt that he didn’t.

And then he came.

“Sweetie, I’m so sorry.” He used his sad voice, the one with a little whine and a choked little tear. “Were you waiting long? Of course you we were waiting long, what am I saying? I’m sorry. Are you in a hurry, can we still do this?”

She sighed. “Sure.” Lisa motioned to the bartender and reached for her purse.

“Oh no, let me.” She didn’t protest, and in a fraction of a second decided against making a comment or even a face. He was already in the hole, and would probably dig himself further in before the evening was over; she didn’t need to pile on. At least not at first.

The maitre d’ showed them to a table for two by the window. Lisa sat where she could see the front door. It gave her the option of planning out escape routes if she needed them.

“Hi, my name is Derrick, and I’ll be your server today. Here are your menus, take your time. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Hi, Derrick. I’m Tom. This is my daughter Lisa.” His charming voice. Tom Grand was a man of many voices. He toggled through them with ease. “Water for the table, and I’ll have a Diet Coke.”

Lisa downed the rest of her cocktail and arched an eyebrow at her father. “She’ll have another one of those,” her father chuckled. Derrick the Waiter chuckled, too. When he was gone Tom leaned forward, playfully, conspiratorially.

“I don’t want you to think I’ve gone religious or AA on you. I just figure it’s been a long day, I probably should focus on rehydrating tonight.”

She hadn’t thought about his choice of beverage at all. At that moment she had been thinking that she probably didn’t need another drink, and that although she had been very hungry not long ago she suddenly didn’t really feel like sharing a meal with her father or anyone. She just wanted to go home. Barring that, she should probably switch at least back to wine.

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The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

Observe the detail on the bumper of an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback: “Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid,” two of the corners peeled back slightly, one of them torn. Bumper stickers don’t come off easily, and whoever tried to remove this one gave up rather than leave a papery mess for all to see.

The man wore a lightweight brown coat over a maroon sweater. He rubbed his hands together and then stuffed them into his coat pockets. He didn’t hurry but didn’t dally either.

The girl was already out of the car and halfway across the parking lot. She wore a dark coat and a purple scarf and a whimsical knit cap with matching gloves. Underneath the coat she wore a sweater and two T-shirts, and leggings under her jeans. She wore canvas sneakers, which was a poor choice for this weather, but she had on two pairs of socks. She walked quickly with her head down and her arms across her waist, not looking back to make sure he was following.

Just inside the door, though, she stopped and turned to watch him come. Bundled under yards of cotton and yarn she was an echo of the obedient child she had been not long ago.

“I have to use the bathroom,” she said quietly when he entered, and walked away without waiting for acknowledgment.

“Should I get you the usual?” he asked her, and in reply she shrugged her shoulders.

There was only register open, and the customers in front were to a one very indecisive about their orders. The man studiously read the menu while waiting his turn. From time to time he checked to see if she was coming back. If he was annoyed by the slow service he didn’t let on.

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Sweetwater

Sweetwater

Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.

In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.

Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.

She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.

Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.

And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.

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