Fiction by Jessica Barksdale
My niece clutches the kitchen doorjamb, her brown eyes wide. Her face is streaked — mud, dirt, ash. Her thin hair is flyaway, thin, uncombed. “There’s monsters in the bushes.”
I put a plate in the dishwasher, wipe my hands. She’s a dark child, full of nightmares. I wish I weren’t taking care of her. “What bushes?”
“The shiny ones. At the bottom of the backyard.”
“The agapanthus.” I snap the door shut, plates rattling. “There are monsters in the agapanthus.”
Deena nods. She’s so slight, so tiny, I see her swallow articulated in her throat. I’m not sure what a seven-year old should weigh, but it’s got to be more than this, her arms like reeds, knees like tangerines, eyes that take in the entire world.
“Come on,” I say, holding out my hand, dried and chapped from so much hand-washing. “I’ll show you the monsters.”
The monsters rattle the agapanthus, moaning and growling like something from a sci-fi movie. In the cheesy film, the small things would spring out, covered in fur or scales but certainly with enormous teeth, biting one of the supporting cast. Deena shudders at my side as the tuberous mounds shake, the growls roaring to a crescendo.
Deena grabs my pants. I imagine her on a ship, the stowaway clinging to the sail during a sudden squall.
“Puppies,” I say. And just then, Marcel and Lulu pop out, Lulu first, and she tears off to the far side of the yard, Marcel at her heels. They are smaller than the noises they make but fast and very happy.
“Puppies?” Deena gasps.
“More fur tornado than monsters. My friend calls them a furnado,” I say, but Deena, rapt, walks toward the puppies wrestling in the far corner of the yard. I follow. Her sad sneakers are flat and worn. A tag sticks up from her small T-shirt.
“I didn’t know you had puppies,” she said as she crouches down, her hand hovering over Lulu’s head.
“I didn’t know I had you,” I want to say but don’t. Instead, I say, “Twelve weeks old. Got them almost half a month ago.”
“Are they nice?”
“They have sharp teeth. But they don’t bite hard.”
Lulu stops her tussle, pants, looks at Deena, and then moves into Deena’s cupped palm. Lulu licks her, snuggles against Deena’s stick body, and then reaches up and licks her face. If Lulu were a cat, she’d be purring.
That’s when Deena finally cries.
I don’t know how to make food kids like. Mostly, I make what I want, and no one but me likes to live on bowls of fruit and yogurt. Or vegetables and hummus. Smoothies made of brown bananas, rice milk, and ice cubes. Everything served cold. So I tried to remember something my mother used to make us, her repertoire Midwest and bland. I settled on mac and cheese. And carrots. I know kids like carrots, the kind that don’t look like roots but severed thumbs. For dessert, I bought some popsicles, but the minute I left the store, I remembered you can make your own. With orange juice and such.
The fork is enormous in Deena’s hand. There’s a snail’s trail streak of snot on her right cheek, but I don’t say anything. She’s not paying attention to her meal but to the puppies and my adult dogs, all slumped like sacks at her bare feet. That’s how I used to sit at the dinner table. After my mother died, no one was there to make us wash before meals. We were raised by ourselves and neighbors. By wolves, my older sister Mara used to say, Mara who escaped the wolves. But maybe that’s why I like dogs so much. They remind me of home.
“They have long tongues,” Deena says, chewing. She’s missing a couple of bottom teeth, and I hope that’s normal.
“The better to lick you with.” I glance to see if she gets the reference, but she keeps eating.
“Are they the babies of your other dogs?”
I chew the slightly too al dente macaroni and then swallow. “No, I got Rocky and Bullwinkle a while back. But they’re all real pound pups. Saw them advertised in the paper and went and got them.”
Deena blinks and then nods. “You’ve got a lot of dogs.”
My friends have said the same thing, most telling me I’m becoming the crazy dog lady. They threatened to stage an intervention.
“A puppy is like two dogs,” I say to Deena. “So that means I don’t have four — ”
“Six!” Deena cries out.
“That’s right,” I say, oddly proud. “For about a year that’s what it will feel like around here. Six dogs.”
Deena watches me, and I can see her calculating how her time and this new dog time will mesh. She chews her food and then says, “You can buy six leashes and six bowls.”
“And six beds,” I say. “We can have a doggie bunk bed.”
“A doggie hotel!”
She looks as if she will say something else, ready to add more detail to our doggie world. But then she catches her breath, almost sinking down onto her chair, shrinking back to her true shape. Then it’s my turn to cry. Or at least feel like it. Only seven, and she knows how not to believe in hope.
My younger sister Lynn, Deena’s mother, is the pretty one. The youngest by ten years and spun of gold and bright blue and long leanness, she came wired for excitement. None of us three older siblings liked her much. She was the last evidence of our parents’ connection, something we’d given up on years before she was born. But after my father disappeared and before our mother died, Lynn was the designated favorite, given all the treats we’d been trying to discover for years. By the time I left for college, I’d decided Lynn would either be a stripper or a dentist. All those big white teeth.
Deena clacks her fork against her bowl, spearing a raft of macaroni. After every two bites or so, she leans down to pat one of the dogs, Rocky licking her hand and wrist. I idly wonder about worms and other parasites but then decide to ignore the thought because the attention makes her smile. Besides, by the time the symptoms of either appear, Deena will likely be somewhere else.
“My mom never let us have a dog. Said they were too — something. Something that ends with a y.”
“Hmmm,” I say, thinking of Lynn “Y” words. Sexy, crazy, naughty, scary. Lynn took her time getting to neither dentistry nor sex work. Instead, she became the girl next to one powerful man after another. Well, if the married president of a lawn mower company or owner of a string of auto-body shops counts as power. Which one ended up Deena’s father, I never knew. But at some point just shy of forty, she got pregnant. Of course, she was the best-looking pregnant woman ever. Glowing, lush-haired, still slim-hipped, she carried Deena as if born to breed, like one of those native women who pushed out her baby over a dirt-floored hut and then headed back to the harvest. It was just plain irritating.
My other siblings and I strung together rosaries of questions, all starting with What, How, Why, Where. Lynn never answered a one of them, disappearing sometime in her third-trimester and sending only yearly shots of her baby girl.
“Can I have some more?” she asks. My heart flickers as I scoop out a mound of mac and cheese.
“What next?” Sal asks me.
“Don’t know. Some lawyer will tell me, I’m sure.”
I slump against my headboard, staring out into the hallway and the half-open door of the guest room where Deena sleeps. When I was little, I thought every night was a horror show. Something was bound to get me. Monster, ghoul, vampire, devil.
I’m just waiting for her scream.
“I guess I can’t come over for a while.”
I sigh. It’s possible Deena is an answer to my prayers. Sal and I have needed to break up for months. She wants to travel the world, and I just want to stay home. She turns up the heater, and I’m in favor of blowing out the pilot light. Etc. On and on. Who knows what she would think of Deena.
“Let her settle in,” I say. “Give her time before we tell her that the wombat she’s living with is not only a wombat but an old grizzled lesbian.”
“You’re hardly grizzled.” Sal laughs. “Well, maybe in some places.”
“She’s been through too much,” I say. “All she needs is more oddness.”
“Nothing gay is odd in California, you know. Deena’s got to know that, too.”
“She’s not happy,” I say.
“Why isn’t she with your brother? The one with the kids.”
“Hardly kids. They’re in college.”
“But still,” Sal says. “There’s got to be a bicycle or a ball hanging around. A twin bed.”
“Oh,” I say, standing up. “She’s calling for me. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“An — ”
But I hang up. The house is silent, except for the hum of the furnace, set at 68 degrees.
“Marcel and Bullwinkle fight a lot,” Deena says. Today it looks as though Deena’s been playing with someone’s lipstick, something I haven’t worn any of since 1976. Back then, it was called lipgloss.
“It’s a male thing. They’re establishing who’s boss.”
“Who is the boss?” Deena bites down on another strawberry and watches Marcel mount Bullwinkle’s left leg.
“That, we don’t know yet.” I hand Deena a napkin.
“I think Marcel.” She watches them play. “He’s smart. He knows when you’re going to feed them before anybody.”
“He hears me thinking about dog kibble.”
“He hears you think about walking to the kitchen.”
I laugh. “He is smart, then.”
Deena puts down her bowl of berries and wanders out onto the lawn where the dogs tussle. I’ve heard a lot of things in my life, too, and none of them very good. I’d like to unhear a few dozen for sure. The way a foot in a shoe on a floor trying not to make a sound sounds. I know the way a hand on a blanket sounds. I know the way cries-that-aren’t-yet-cries sound. No one should hear things that aren’t hearable.
All at once, I hear the things Lynn must have heard. The whack of air right by her head. The crack of skull on the tile. Breath leaves my body; air leaves the backyard.
“Maybe Lulu’s the boss,” Deena cries. “She’s smart, too. And she’s the cutest.”
Like Lynn, I think. It’s the cute ones that go first.
The social worker is a stereotype, though why we call things that are true and real a type, I don’t know. She’s soft and formless, and her glasses rest on the bridge of her nose. Her gray hair is bonafide grizzled, but full, a messy halo. Her bag could be Mary Poppins’, a carpetbag full of magic. Except, of course, she’s here on business. My brother Tom picked up Deena for a park and ice cream afternoon, and I’m left to answer the questions.
“She was brought here two nights ago.” Mrs. Beadle reads from her notes. “A friend of the mother’s dropped her off?”
I nod. “It was late. I was half asleep. Didn’t ask what I should have.”
“The next morning is when you found out.” Mrs. Beadle peers up over her glasses. “That’s when you got the call.”
I look down at my feet in their sensible gardening shoes, one shoelace puppy-shredded. The night after Deena arrived, I’d spent a few hours disgusted with Lynn for her this and that, her wastrelness, her incapacity, her inability to see that her shine had dimmed. Couldn’t she grow up and take care of her child? I thought every bad thing I could and lined up some more to mull over in the morning. Then I’d paced the floor, emailed my siblings and Sal, worried about how I could keep the child alive.
“Right,” I say. “The police. A neighbor called it in.”
“It happened the night before,” Mrs. Beadle says gently. “And the friend who dropped off Deena?”
I nod. “That’s the one. At least, they think so. It’s ongoing.”
Mrs. Beadle shakes her head as she writes. “Does Deena know?”
“No,” I say.
She looks at me, bites her lip, shrugs. “You’ve got to tell her soon. Otherwise, she’ll be upset about the wrong things.”
Hadn’t I known this my entire life? I’m the poster girl for being upset about the wrong things, Who Else Can I Blame my cri de couer.
“I was just waiting . . .”
“She’ll blame her mother for this.”
And why not? Isn’t it Lynn’s fault, all of it? She put herself right in the middle of bad and stayed there. That friend of hers, the one at my doorstep with Deena in the middle of the night. I could see why Lynn hitched her star to his. I can’t totally fault her. Even as I stood there in my terrible bathrobe, bleary-eyed, and foul-breathed, I saw his smile. The way he cocked his head. The tattoo on his bicep.
“Worse, she’ll blame herself.” Mrs. Beadle rummages in her bag. She pulls out pamphlets and papers. “There are support groups.”
“There’s not going to be time for support.” Whatever help Deena needs will come from the place she lands. Here? I can be popsicles and puppies.
Mrs. Beadle looks up, her black eyes intense over her eyeglasses. “You are going to keep her with you?” She leans forward, close enough I can see the soft dark hair on her upper lip. She smells like gingersnaps, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, the one who charmed with sweets.
“I — ”
“After what she’s been through?” Mrs. Beadle flips through the file, thicker than I’d ever imagined it could be. Seven years old!
“I’m not cut out for this.”
She rolls her eyes. “No one’s specifically cut out for this. Who could be? Not a pattern anyone wants to repeat. Middle of the night and all with no warning. But she’s your niece. She needs something known right now.”
“But later — ”
“One day at a time,” Mrs. Beadle says, handing over the information. “Make that one minute at a time. Or less, if need be. Just do it.”
Tom’s wife brought over real food, and tonight, Deena and I dine on lasagna. As she scoops up cheese and sauce, I study her head. She doesn’t remind me of Lynn much, not with her sparse hair and plaintive features. That was one thing Lynn never was. Deena never complained. Not when we were eating lentils for weeks or her shoes fell apart. No, Lynn found a way to get invited to live with the Robinsons down the street. We’d see her through the window eating chicken drumsticks and drinking Coke, just like she’d been put into the wrong family the first time. Found at last. She even convinced them to send food to us, leftovers and junk food we ate in a tear.
“When’s my mom coming?” Deena’s fork clatters to the table. Rocky whines, the puppies stir.
I look down at my plate, a massacre of red, a swirl of blobby cheese. “When did you last see your mom?”
“I already told the men that.” Deena’s voice is dime hard.
“Maybe so, but I didn’t hear.”
She sighs, her thin shoulders touching the back of her chair. She’s sitting on an old phonebook and Shakespeare’s collected plays. Her eyes are caverns I could get lost in, the way in frightening, the way out impossible.
“She put me to bed. Then Bobby woke me up.”
“How did he seem?”
For a second, she looks right at me and then shrugs.
“You didn’t see anything . . . her again that night?”
Deena shakes her head and then leans down to pet one creature or another. One time when I was parking near the ATM, I noticed a big white truck in the space next to me, red and black words spelling out “Crime Scene Cleanup.” I waited in my car for a while, just to get a gander at the person who would perform the listed services: Homicide, Suicide, and Accidental Death Remediation: Cleaning, disinfecting, and removal of all contaminated items to restore the scene to a safe, non-biohazardous state.
Whoever did those kinds of things never showed up. But I had the picture. I got it. The brain matter on the wall. The pools of blood. The trail the dying person left as she clawed her way to the backdoor, trying to get to her car, forgetting about her child even as she died. Then the body, lifeless, stiffening, fingers permanently clutching the carpet.
The puppies growl and tumble. Deena smiles.
“Ice cream?” I ask.
My parents were young and stupid when they got together, and stupid stuck. Here I am, a mostly retired physical therapist, working one or two days a week at the local convalescent facility. Stroke patients. Surgery rehab. I live in Oakland as quietly as I work. No permanent relationship to my name other than four dogs and a handful of family. We keep our distance, circle the holidays as if they will explode on contact. Then we sit in chairs as if dressed in those bomb suits, immobile, muffled, hot as hell.
What else? Oh, Sal in the corner, still waiting. Deena asleep in her bed, only a few years away from the acting-out that has to happen sometime. Memories, too. Guilt, boatloads of that. And monsters, still, at night, in the closet, under the bed. The old monsters I brought with me from my childhood. Now they live in the agapanthus with Deena’s.
There’s a summer school program with a reading focus. Testing. Counseling. A tutor. Tom’s wife arranges play dates when I have to work. My friends bring over toys. Deena has her first physical. I go to support meetings and learn about “Talking about Violence” and “Talking about Death.” I hear stories that remind me of my own. And Deena’s. I come home and make things that are hot. Chicken coated in flour and baked in the oven. Boiled green beans from a neighbor’s garden. Sticky potatoes riddled with lumps but full of butter.
I break up with Sal, who is surprisingly calm. Later, I hear she’d already found another girlfriend and was hoping to let me down easy. Win/win, as my mother used to say.
The puppies grow; the days lengthen. Deena and I sit outside on the bench after planting nasturtium seeds. Wisps of fog roll in from San Francisco.
Marcel and Lulu race their superhighway through the agapanthus, but they’ve grown — gaining a pound a week — and their fighting seems real, though so far, no bloodshed. Rocky and Bullwinkle lie on the grass, waiting for calm. Deena has gained weight, too, though she still looks like she might fly away on a stiff wind.
“Your mother,” I begin. “The night you came here.”
“I heard it.” Deena stares out at the agapanthus. “She screamed.”
“What did you do?” I breathe out.
“I waited. There were other noises. And then Bobby came and got me. He put a blindfold on me. Told me it was a game. Hide from Mommy. He put me in his car, and we drove away.”
Something tears at my throat, and I cough. “Did he tell you what happened?”
“He said my mom didn’t love him. Or me. He said he knew how to make things better. That he was going to take me where I’d be safer.”
I only met Bobby the once, at the door. There he was, half murderer, half savior. “Do you feel safe here?”
“Could you live here?”
Deena is silent, her eyes trained on the puppies’ path. A figure-eight, an X, a back and forth. Around and through, over and under, their growl and whine and moan rising and falling. We can see their every move and lunge and parry, no hiding spots left, the agapanthus thinned and ruined, flattened to the earth.
The 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this piece as a finalist for the 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. This piece was previously published in Lunch Ticket.