Corpus Christine

There hadn’t been a first time — not that she could remember.

The bones, it seemed, had always occupied the shady space between the trees, and she had always walked the adjacent trail. In the winter she needed a cane. In the spring her legs were pale and shaky. By summer it was two brisk trips a day. She never lingered. All the same, she was sure they were female. She was sure they were human — or had been.

***

Her return to work prompted a daylong cupcake party. Between hugs there were gag gifts. Between gag gifts there were musings from thirtysomething executives on the preciousness of life. It was all very nice. She tried to blow up a whoopee cushion and was ordered to pace herself. She broke away to sort the mail and was sent home at three.

The second day, it took ten minutes to catch up on six months’ worth of gossip. She considered chiming in, telling them about her walks, the woods — everything. But Marnie was still breaking down every time their eyes met, and Diane still spoke to her as if she were an imbecile. To mention it now, in light of all that had happened, seemed a little grim.

***

A few weeks later, they swarmed.

“Where have you been?” asked Marnie.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Diane.

She crossed her eyes. “How much time do you have?”

“Not funny,” said Diane.

Marnie shook her head. “So inconsiderate.”

“What are you talking about?”

“One minute we’re sitting here,” said Diane, “and Marnie’s telling us how her granddaughter — .”

“No, it was my grandson,” said Marnie.

“Oh, was it?” said Diane. “Okay, Marnie is telling us how her grandson is allergic — .”

“No, that’s your grandson,” said Marnie.

“Anyway, you were nowhere to be found,” said Diane. “And one of Marnie’s grandkids sat on a bee.”

She smirked. “Yet I’m the one with a pain in my butt.”

Marnie pointed at her. “Don’t get smart.”

“For crying out loud.” She held up a bag of yogurt-covered raisins. “I went to the vending machine.”

“Well,” said Diane, “we were afraid your nose was bleeding or something.”

“Or you had to throw up,” said Marnie.

I’m peachy,” she said, pointing a thumb at her chest. “But what’s the story with your grandson?”

“He’s fine,” said Marnie. “He’s joining the marines right after graduation.”

“That’s not the point,” said Diane. “You just traipsed off. We were scared to death.”

They stared at her.

She shrugged. “Fine. I’m sorry.”

They started to shuffle back to their desks.

“But I should let you know,” she said.

They stopped.

“I do have to tinkle.”

Their eyes, she could tell, followed her all the way down the hall to the restroom.

***

She invested in top-of-the-line, ultra-lightweight sneakers. She walked more, earlier, longer, later. For a time, she even spent her lunch hours circling the office park. That was short-lived. Without the usual landmarks, she felt aimless, her legs heavy.

When she showed up in the lunchroom again, Marnie and Diane had lifted their prohibition on diet soda. They were not eager to discuss their reasoning. After some half-hearted protesting, they let her pick up the tab for dessert — but then wrapped their cookies in napkins and tucked them in their purses for later.

***

That fall, when the invitation for her 30-year high school reunion came, she filled out the RSVP card immediately. A month or so later, just before the early registration discount was due to expire, she mailed it. In the interim, she bought a dress that was much too expensive.

She’d scarcely set foot inside the auditorium when Dale Yoder mistook her for Mrs. Littlejohn, a social studies teacher who’d retired the year they graduated. She shrugged it off. Dale himself bore more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, and his companion for the evening was, it seemed, a cockatiel.

Moments later, however, she was tearing up at the reception table. Her name tag read:

HELLO, I WAS CHRISTINE SMITH

Bud Nix and Hazel Mobley — the reunion committee — were very sweet. They explained it was simply a way to accommodate the women’s more-familiar maiden names. They’d have used one of the extra men’s tags had they known she’d never married.

“I’m the only spinster in the entire class?” asked Christine.

“I love your dress,” said Hazel. “Don’t you, Bud?”

“I think you’re the only one,” said Bud.

Teddy Listache, ’84 alumnus and Christine’s on-again-off-again flame of roughly fifteen years, had recently wed for the third time. Long after she’d finished her two complimentary drinks, and paid cash for a few more, Christine lingered at the bar to watch wife number three go through the buffet line. There were no surprises. She was buxom, buck-toothed, averse to vegetables.

There were no surprises where Teddy was concerned, either. He ate with his hands and took great pains to avoid eye contact. This time, he’d been the one to end it. He’d said he was afraid of contracting her illness and passing it on to his bride-to-be. Christine had been too sick to object. Ovarian cancer was, among other things, hard to explain.

***

She asked Martin Gidnitz, the boy with whom she’d shared her first kiss, to join her for “a trip down memory lane.” They strolled through the cafeteria, past their old lockers and into the band room. She pinned him against the blackboard.

“Dang. You kiss way better than high school, Marty,” she said.

“Thanks,” said Martin.

“Course my mouth is way more relaxed now — cuz of drinking.”

“Wanna go back out, get some coffee or something?”

Her eyes narrowed. “That’s awful gentlemanish — ” She yawned “ — for a guy who’s got his hand on my butt.”

“Heh. Good point. Still — .”

She stepped back, spun around, arms extended. “Don’t I seem skinny now, Marty?”

“You look great. But really, we should probably — .”

“Uh oh,” said Christine.

Martin steadied her. “What’s wrong?”

“I whizzed around too fast. Got dizzy.”

“Here,” said Martin. “Sit down.”

She slid down the wall until she found the floor. Once there, she placed her hands atop her head, closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. Then vomited all over Martin’s shoes.

***

Happy Days was a bleary, soft-edged kaleidoscope. Richie and Malph leaned across the booth at Arnold’s to whisper, and it looked for all the world like they were sharing an infinite kiss. She woke up wetting her gurney.

“Sorry, we probably gave you too many fluids,” said the nurse. “I like your dress, though.”

“Why am I still here?” asked Christine.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you a new gurney, a gown.”

“Don’t bother. I have a DNR.”

“A DNR?” said the nurse. “That doesn’t really apply to, like, laundry and so forth.”

“They told me this was just precautionative,” said Christine.

“I’m sure it is.”

“Then why’s it taking so long?”

“Please be patient, ma’am. We’ve gotten two separate MVAs, and some guy jumped off the science building at the community college — all since my shift started.”

“Jumped?” said Christine. “If he wants to be dead, why should he get to go first?”

“In case he wakes up and feels differently, I guess,” said the nurse.

“You think he’s gonna wake up?”

“Mmm. Probably not.”

“For crying out loud,” said Christine, rubbing her temples.

The nurse squinted. “I feel like I’ve seen you before.”

“I’ve been here forever. You told me the TV was loud enough, remember?”

The nurse flipped through Christine’s chart. “Why would you have a DNR?”

“From before. I knew if I ever got to leave some knucklehead would just kill me in a car crash on the way home.”

The nurse wrote something in the chart, closed it. “I’ve heard of that happening,” she said. “On the way here, too.”

“Huh.” said Christine. “I never even thought of that.”

***

Midway through a winter morning walk, she screamed. She tried to scream. She squeaked. In the distance, a black lab lay gnawing a long leg bone.

Leaves crunched beneath her feet. A twig snapped. A knee popped. Fists flashed in and out of her vision. She was running. She was gnashing her teeth and making a beeline for the dog.

Bone in mouth, he raised himself slowly, haunches together, then one front leg at a time. He sniffed around for a few seconds, found his spot and started digging.

Christine thrust her neck forward. Frozen breath streamed from her nostrils.

From all directions, a girl’s voice echoed. “Gordon!”

The dog jerked its nose skyward and scanned the horizon, ears pricked. At 9 o’clock it spotted Christine and cocked its head.

Christine skidded to a halt.

Gordon!”

Their eyes met for a long moment. A bead of sweat dropped from the tip of Christine’s nose.

Gordon, come!”

The dog — Gordon, presumably — gave a half-hearted werph, lifted his leg and peed.

“Hey! Git!” said Christine, and charged forward.

She felt fast. She felt light. She felt too light. She wondered if a kick from her unsubstantial shoes would do any damage at all to such a large, piggish animal.

Here, Gordon!” It was closer, clearer.

Gordon lay back down and resumed chewing.

Christine slowed to a jog, walked to within a few feet of him, rested her hands on her knees. “Knock it…off.”

His tail gave a single, limp flop. Spread tightly around him were several other bones — part of a pelvis, a hand, a skull. There were more than she’d imagined. They were smaller than she’d imagined.

I said come, you asshole!”

“Hear that?” said Christine. “You’re a bad dog.”

Gordon rolled over on his back, whined expectantly.

“Oh, please,” said Christine. “Get real.”

Gordon!” It was right on top of them now.

“Fine.” She patted his belly a few times with one hand while picking up the skull with the other. “Now kiss my butt.” With that, she turned and ran for a nearby stand of bushes, her first step landing deliberately on his tail.

He yowled.

Gordon?

She found a full, leafy spot close to the ground, fell to her knees and shoved the skull inside.

When the voice called again, she went to meet it.

***

The girl pointed to the phone tucked beneath her ear.

“Excuse me,” said Christine. “But your — .”

The girl held up a finger, kept talking. “Well, I didn’t think I ever had. I just didn’t know it was called that.”

“Excuse me, but your — .”

I don’t know,” said the girl, turning her back to Christine. “Some lady.”

Christine cupped a hand on either side of her mouth, bellowed. “I SAW YOUR DOG.”

“Let me call you in a — . Hello? Hello? Hello?” With each “Hello?” the girl looked skyward and jogged a few paces, as if she were trying to avoid a falling object.

“Yeah, it’s tough to make calls out here,” said Christine.

The girl gave a final, plaintive “Hello?”, stuffed the phone in her pants pocket and trudged back. “So where is he?”

Christine pointed vaguely into the distance. “Over there. He’s, uh — .”

“Retarded?”

Christine nodded. “Very possibly. But for now let’s just say ‘absorbed’.”

“Oh, god,” said the girl. “He’s eating shit, isn’t he?” She removed a plastic bag from her jacket. “He’s a disgusting shit-eater.”

“Not exactly,” said Christine. “But I wouldn’t go over there if you can help it. I was thinking if you have, like, a treat or something, I might be able to lure him back for you.”

The girl’s phone buzzed. She pulled it out, started tapping with a thumb. “Oh my god. That’d be amazing.”

“Not a problem,” said Christine.

With her free hand, the girl fished a dog biscuit from her jacket, started to hand it to Christine, pulled it back. “Wait,” she said. “Are you on your period?”

“Am I — ? Me?”

“He’ll attack you. I can’t even get near him sometimes.”

“Well,” said Christine. “That sounds like a personal — .”

“Nevermind,” said the girl. “Here he comes.”

***

She’d had dozens of scans, all without incident. But she could feel the blood filling her esophagus, was certain it would start to spill out of her mouth at any moment.

That’s just the contrast — the dye,” said the voice from the intercom. “It’ll pass.

“No,” said Christine. “I’ll drown.”

They pulled her out, let her sit up.

“We can give you a sedative,” said the technician. “Just to take the edge off.”

“I forgot something important last time.”

“It’s very mild,” said the technician.

“That’s what they said last time.”

Last time, the hospital chaplain had listened just long enough to clean his glasses before suggesting the edge be taken off. She was delirious, he’d said, talking in circles — not to mention squeezing the hell out of his hand.

When she’d come to, she could remember pleading with the nurse to summon him to her room. She could remember knowing that he, of all people, would want to be let in on the mystery that had been revealed to her.

She could remember nothing of the mystery itself.

After the scan, she was relieved to find that she at least remembered the chaplain. He offered a friendly wave from behind the counter as she exited through the gift shop.

***

She was fairly certain her dishwashing liquid had featured in a commercial with crude-soaked ducklings. At the very least, the label said it was “MILD!” Once the water in the sink was lukewarm, she added a squirt, agitated, and lapped a few handfuls over the skull.

There was still no word. Multiple specialists had to be consulted, apparently, at least one of whom was spending an Easter holiday in Thailand. She would know the moment the results were in, they’d told her. In the meantime, she should simply try to live her life — and quit calling.

After several minutes of gentle washing, there was no discernable change. She picked up the phone. Diane and her husband, Dennis, favored western decor in their home, which was chockablock with wagon wheels, lassos and bovine skulls.

“I’ve been thinking about taking a page out of your interior design book — doing a rugged but tasteful kinda deal in here,” said Christine. “How do you keep those things white, though?”

“You’d have to ask Dennis,” said Diane. “He killed them.”

“Dennis killed them? The cows?”

“I can’t prove it, but I’m on to him,” said Diane. “That said, don’t be surprised if I’m next.”

***

The conference room window overlooked the parking lot. A sheriff’s cruiser straddled two disabled spaces, a shirtless man asleep in the back seat.

The deputy sipped his coffee, set it on the table. “Any questions?”

Christine looked up from the folder. “I don’t understand what most of this means.”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s highly technical.”

Over the deputy’s shoulder, through the window, the shirtless man yawned and scratched his ear with the chain between his handcuffs.

Christine scanned the page with a finger. “Oh, okay. It says ‘Adult female’ right here.”

“Yes,” said the deputy. “That’s based on an examination of the pelvic region — even in the case of a skeleton.”

“Wait. Does this mean she died seventy-five to two-hundred years ago?”

“Approximately.”

“Geez,” said Christine, flipping a few pages ahead. “That’s — . That’s, uh — .”

“Honestly,” said the deputy, “the rest is fungal information — molecular jargon and whatnot.”

“Oh, she was tall,” said Christine.

The deputy stood, picked his hat up off the table. “Like I said, Sheriff wanted me to bring you a copy since you — you know, since you’ve shown so much interest.”

“But will we ever…know? I mean, who, what, why, etcetera?”

“Obviously the chronology is a major obstacle,” he said. “But in the event that anything else comes up, the information’s in the system.”

“So that’s it?”

“The only other avenue to explore would be forensic artwork. A sketch based on the skull, in other words. But, as you know, we have no skull.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, from a resource standpoint, we have to prioritize active threats.”

“Like him?” said Christine, nodding towards the parking lot.

The man had huffed a few heavy breaths onto the back passenger window and was writing “FUCK PIGS” in the fog.

“He’s a recidivist,” said the deputy. “Whatever happened to this woman is no longer a danger.”

“Really?” said Christine. “What if it was cancer?”

He thought for a second. “Based on my experience, it’s unlikely she died of cancer.”

“Maybe there was no one to take care of her,” said Christine. “Maybe she was delirious and wandered into the woods, got lost.”

“She was in a shallow grave.”

“Yes, but — . Well. Yes. Yes,” said Christine, nodding, looking at the floor, wringing her hands. “Yes. Well, I guess it’s just easier to think it happened that way. You know, rather than the alternative.”

“Frankly,” said the deputy, putting on his hat. “The alternative doesn’t exactly sound like a picnic, either.”

***

The women in the yearbook photos, mugshots and severe-angle Polaroids were all “Missing” — and all otherwise unremarkable. Yet Christine devoted the bulk of her time on jaynedoe.org to flagging comments.“Too bad nice tits” appeared beneath a black-and-white wedding portrait of Edith Sanger, last seen March 1967. “Runt cunt” referenced a Bobby Sox trading card featuring Preeti Bringhi, 8, of Abilene.

Even the haunted, rambling faces in the artist’s renderings of the “Unidentified” spawned remarks faster than she could have them taken down. “Why do all these bitches have the same name?” showed up in response to a sketch of Jayne Doe 198801.

In between, she enquired on any remotely plausible match. Replies were rare. Follow-ups led nowhere.

She’d created her own “Unidentified” post, spending the better part of an afternoon retyping the sheriff’s report nearly word-for-word. Without an image, however, it attracted no attention — save from those who objected to Gordon being characterized as “fat.”

***

The Top Hat Motel had changed hands. Before they could even undress, the man who’d checked them in stopped by to ensure they weren’t harboring any unpaid-for guests.

“Just us,” said Teddy. “Unless you wanna come in, slick.”

The man’s eyes lingered on Christine through the open door.

What?” she said.

Afterwards, she flipped channels. He blew smoke at the ceiling.

“There’s no smoking in here,” she said.

“It’s like a hundred degrees outside.”

She came to the news and stopped, gestured with the remote. “Did you hear about the thing at the college?

“Nope.”

She shook her head. “They’ll tell you when they found the girl, where they found her, exactly what happened to her. They even show those, like, blurred-out pictures. But they never say what she was studying.”

He scratched his stomach. “You looked different at the reunion.”

“Yeah? Better?”

“No.”

“Skinnier?”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

She started to flip again. “You know, I saw an entire show about a five-thousand year-old man,” she said. “They figured out his last meal.”

He dropped his cigarette in a glass of water on the bedside table. “Yak, right?” he said. “I saw it, too.”

Later, after he’d fallen asleep, she watched an infomercial. An NBA Hall-of-Famer, a man whose name sounded vaguely familiar, was hawking a DVD collection of “Classic College Matchups.” Between fond reminiscences of his own school days and surprise visits from former teammates, there were highlights of the classic matchups in question. At first, they were indistinguishable. Players scored. Announcers yelled. Crowds went wild. After a couple of hours, after she’d seen the whole thing a few times through, she decided they fell into three rough categories: comebacks, underdogs and otherwise uneventful games that featured stars-to-be.

When she finally turned off the TV, it was after midnight. She’d been cancer-free for a year.

***

It was a space Christine had seen many times in movies: Old people played checkers, watched TV, crocheted. Very old people sat in stationary wheelchairs, staring out of windows, flanked by immigrants in scrubs.

“Marnie hasn’t been here once,” said Diane, by way of greeting.

Christine took a seat beside her on a small sofa. “Marnie moved, remember? She retired.”

“She’s in Arizona,” said Diane. “She’s not dead.”

“Well, someone’s awfully full of beans today,” said Christine, grinning. “You’ve gotta tell me what they’re feeding you.”

Diane shrugged. “Beans, mostly.”

“Stop,” said Christine, play-swatting Diane’s arm. “I mean it. You seem very…sharp. What’ve you been doing with yourself? What’re your days like?”

“Oh, very exciting. I eat. I sleep. I take pills. I take naps. I do memory exercises. Once in a while I walk around the garden.”

“Well, that sounds nice,” said Christine, “especially now that the leaves are turning. Of course, that means it’s getting chilly, too. It’s a tradeoff, I suppose.”

“Oh, and I try to avoid being murdered by Dennis. That keeps me on my toes.”

Christine dropped her head, closed her eyes, sighed.

“When I walk, I take one of the nurses — just in case here’s out there, waiting.”

“No one’s out there,” said Christine. “No one wants to hurt you.”

“Not just hurt,” said Diane.

Christine tsked. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“I am not.”

“Besides,” said Christine, gesturing out the window, “if he is out there, it’s only because he loves you, because he wants to check up on you, to make sure you’re okay.”

Diane looked out the window. “If he is?” She looked at Christine. “Does that mean you think — ?”

“No, no, no,” said Christine. “I just — .”

“Because sometimes I’m sure I see him.”

“No, no, no.” Christine took hold of Diane’s hands, tried to quiet the trembling. “I’m sorry. I just meant hypothetically. He’s not out there. No way.”

Diane looked back out the window, shook her head, withdrew her hands. “You don’t get it.”

“What don’t I get?”

Diane just kept shaking her head, opening her mouth to speak — only to close it again without making a sound.

“Yes? Diane?”

Diane said nothing. Gradually, she stopped shaking her head, stopped blinking, stopped breathing. She was perfectly still.

“Diane? Diane?”

“Yes, yes,” said Diane, snapping back to life. “Keep your shirt on.” She fished a piece of hard candy from her sweater pocket, took her time unwrapping it, popped it in her mouth. “So, you never told me. Whatever happened with your skulls?”

Christine looked around, hunched over, whispered. “What?”

“Wait. Didn’t — ?” Diane cocked her head, squinted. “Now hold on,” she said, pointing at Christine. “I’m sure you called me, a while back now, before I moved, and asked about — .”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” said Christine. “Of course, I remember.”

Diane closed her eyes, exhaled. “Don’t do that.”

“Sorry,” said Christine.

“They’re white enough for you, are they?”

“I wash them once a week.”

“Oh.” said Diane. “That’s sad.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“What else did you get — to go with them?”

“Else?” said Christine. “Nothing.”

Nothing?”

“I mean, is it totally necessary?”

“Well, if there’s no wheels or ropes or rifles, there’s no motif,” said Diane. “And without a motif, all you’ve got, really, is a bunch of skulls.”

***

Christine spoke slowly, often stopping mid-sentence to ask her new coworker “Do you understand?” Nonetheless, Lyudmila completed all of Marnie’s weekly duties on her first day. Within a month, she’d taken on Diane’s job too — and still always managed to finish up long before lunchtime. Within two months, she’d proven herself not only more industrious than her predecessors, but more empathetic as well.

She squealed with laughter when Christine described the homeliness of Marnie’s grandchildren; spat on the floor when Christine told her that Teddy had severed ties yet again; wept when Christine detailed the side effects of chemotherapy.

“Now, you’re sure you understand?” Christine asked one afternoon, just after she’d shared a long, halting account of her relationship with the skull.

“Yes,” said Lyudmila. “And I wish you will stop to asking me that.”

Not long after, Christine added a new Halloween decoration to the collection on her desk. Lyudmila, flitting about the mailroom, attempting as usual to do three things at once, could not avert her eyes. Only after she’d stapled her thumb for the second time did she finally approach.

“Christy,” she said. “Is her?”

“Yes,” said Christine. “Is that…okay?”

“Okay, okay” said Lyudmila, patting Christine on the back. “But she need to move at night.”

“Sorry?”

“Puts her in your desk so she don’t get broke,” said Lyudmila, pointing at the large drawer where Christine kept her purse.

“Why would she get broken?”

“My cousin is the cleaner lady,” said Lyudmila. “She nice, but she have shits for her brain.”

***

In the month or so since Christine’s last visit to jaynedoe.org, she’d received 147 new messages — all from a single sender. The final three had come in ten-minute intervals:

Please respond, as I have reason to believe this is my sister Dora.

– Lionel Winter

Please respond, as I believe this is my sister Dora.

– Lionel Winter

Please respond; this is my sister Dora.

– Lionel Winter

She told Lyudmila to go to lunch without her and started from the beginning.

The significance of the genealogy was not immediately clear. Dates were sporadic, surnames rare. Only after a century or so did the first biographical asides begin to appear: “Killed by ox.” “First brewer in village.”Harelip” showed up more than once. When she tried to skip ahead a few generations, she landed in the middle of an extended commentary on beekeeping. When she tried to go back, she got wrapped up in the story of someone named Hilde and the contents of her hope chest. By the time a Dora made the scene, Lyudmila was leaving for the evening.

“You needs something before I go?” she said.

“No,” said Christine. “Not unless you can tell me what fish scissors are.”

***

Christine had just finished taping the box when Lyudmila flicked the light switch.

“Morning, Lyudmila.”

Wha — ?” Lyudmila spun around, sploshed coffee on her pants.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Christine.

“Christy?” She set the coffee on her desk, took off her sweater. “What you are doing in the dark?”

“I was just leaving, actually.”

“What? You didn’t never goes home?”

“Not yet.”

“Oh, no.” Lyudmila wrung her hands, rushed over to Christine’s desk. “Is you stroking?”

“Stroking? Come on.”

She jabbed her finger at Christine’s chair. “You was sitting right there — .”

“I’m fine. I was just reading.”

“You was crying.”

“I was not.”

“Oh, Christy. You has a strange — . I can say aura?”

Christine gathered her purse, her coat, the box. “I’d prefer you didn’t.”

“Where is you going?”

Christine stopped in the doorway. “I’ll be back in a few days. You’ll be fine.”

“You wants me to say you is sick?”

Christine shrugged. “If they ask.”

***

The vinyl hoarked every time Christine tried to reposition herself in the giant booth — and every time, Lionel wheezed “I beg your pardon?” through his oxygen mask.

“No, no. It was the seat — again,” said Christine, squinting.

“Are you…ill at ease?”

“It’s just — . The sun’s right over your shoulder.”

Lionel cupped a hand behind his ear. “The sun, you say?”

She slid down until her eyes were nearly at table level.

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, no. Nothing,” said Christine. “That’s better.”

Lionel’s hands shook. He unfolded a paper napkin, tucked it in his collar. “Was I saying something?”

“Let’s see…” said Christine. “Amputation?”

“Last month,” said Lionel. “Left leg to the knee.”

“Oh, no.”

He rested his hands on the table, fork and knife upright, ready. “Did I already thank you?”

“You did,” said Christine. “But it’s not necessary. The thought of her sitting in some box in the coroner’s office — ”

Lionel eyed the box at his side.

“ — or, on some shelf, I mean. I just couldn’t — .”

“Better watch out for this one,” said the waitress, winking at Christine. She set their plates down, poured half a carafe of syrup over Lionel’s pancakes and walked away.

“I think she likes you,” said Christine.

Lionel picked up the syrup, added another dash. “They’re taking a couple of my right toes next week.”

“Small ones, at least?”

“I don’t travel well,” he said, cutting his pancakes into quarters, eighths. “Thank you for coming — and so quickly.”

“I’m happy you found me.”

“Time is — .” He shook his head, sighed. “Well. You know.”

“I do know.”

He continued cutting — sixteenths, thirtyseconds. “Come again?”

Christine leaned forward, spoke up. “I said I do know. That time is — whatever you were going to say. Scarce?”

He pulled his mask away, let it hiss against his adam’s apple. “You said a mouthful.”

“It makes you grateful, at least.”

He took a bite, looked at the box again. “Or desperate.”

“Didn’t you tell me she wanted to see the Grand Canyon?”

“Yes,” said Lionel, chewing. “She did a painting at Camp Wampanoag. We were thirteen.”

“Well,” said Christine, “that’s practically the next state over from me.”

He nodded, looked up from his pancakes. Syrup streaked his chin.“Do you know what your name means?”

Christine dabbed at him with her napkin. “Yes.”

“You know, my ninth great-grandmother was a Christine,” he said. “Sadly, she was burned at the stake.”

“That is sad.”

He started to dig in his shirt pocket. “Would you like to see a picture of my sister?”

“You already gave it to me, remember?” Christine pulled it from her purse, held it out for him to see.

“Yes, yes.” He pointed at it. “You see, it’s black and white, but you can still tell — .”

“I know,” said Christine. She flipped it around, studied it. “She had red hair.”

“Just like a donkey,” said Lionel. “I always thought so, anyway.”

***

Christine had just decided on a small artificial fir when she heard the voice.

It takes a few tries if you wanna be totally sure.” The girl was waiting for her tree at the flocking station. She was still on the phone — but had a different dog in tow.

Christine approached. “Merry Christmas.”

The girl’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “Ohhh,” she said, and hung up.

“Who’s your friend?” asked Christine, bending down to pat the dog.

“Margaret.”

“Pomeranian?”

“I think.”

“Where’s — ?”

“Hey,” said the girl, tugging at the drawstring on her sweatshirt. “Did you ever, like, hear anything? I mean, did they ever find out who it was?”

“They didn’t, no,” said Christine. “But I — .”

“I’ve been having nightmares basically ever since.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I get lost in the woods.”

“Like Goldilocks,” said Christine.

“Plus one of the sheriffs is stalking me.”

“Oh,” said Christine. “That’s scary.”

“It sucks.”

Christine placed her hand on the girl’s shoulder. “But they’re just dreams. They’ll pass.”

“No, that part’s real,” said the girl, fiddling with her phone. “He got my number off the report, I guess.”

“Oh.”

“He texts me these really — . These pictures.” She flicked her thumb up the screen. “I’ll show you.”

“Wait,” said Christine. “Where’s Gordon?”

“He ran off.”

“Oh, no. When?”

“A few months ago. He joined up with this, like, bunch of strays that runs around the woods by my house.”

“Around here?”

“I spot him sometimes,” said the girl, still scrolling. “And I know he notices me. But he doesn’t come when I call him. He’s completely wild now.”

“Wild?”

“Okay, here’s one.” The girl shoved the phone in Christine’s face. “See?”

Christine glanced, recoiled, pushed the girl’s hand away. “Jesus Christ.”

“Right?” said the girl, looking down at the screen, shaking her head. “It’s like, why would he even think that’d turn me on?”

***

For her fiftieth birthday, Christine treated herself to a top-tier membership on a fifty-plus dating site. As part of the Platinum Package, she was entitled to a consultation with a Certified Profile-Writing Professional, and a few days later, she received a call from a very friendly, very high-energy young man. He walked her through his process, told her to be herself, warned her not to overthink, and dove into a long list of questions. They moved quickly through the practical (did she smoke?) to the profound (did she believe in the soul?) to the playful (did she believe in celebrity soul mates?). Eventually, they ventured into the aesthetic (was she slim, curvy or full-figured?), and finally, tattoos.

“No, no,” Christine chuckled. “I don’t have any.”

“Well,” said the young man, “if you were to get one, what would it be?”

“Gosh,” said Christine. “I really don’t know.”

“Christine?” said said the young man, playfully drawing out her name. “Remember what I said? The first thing thing that pops into your mind is usually the best thing. Your very first instinct is — .”

“My name,” said Christine.

“Your name?”

“And where I was born. And my birthday.”

“Huh.” The young man was silent for several seconds. “I can’t say why, exactly, but I kind of worry about what type of man that might attract.”

“Well, that’s not why I’d get it.”

“Still, most people just say ‘dragon’ or something. Tell you what, let’s try again. Remember, the first thing that comes — .”

“Dragons don’t exist,” said Christine. “I do.”