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Heather, Mays niece, was supposed to be having her hair brushed. Mays mother sat back down from where she had been standing behind Heathers chair. I give up, she said. Heather now stood by the small kitchen table next to her father. She tugged his short sleeve then pulled at his upper arm with both hands. Aunt May wants to go to the fair. Can we go? Andrew nodded slowly and stared through his daughter.
May had arrived two hours before, in time to cook supper. Half an hour later, Andrew walked over from his trailer to his mother-in-laws house. The tiny kitchen still smelled of heated oil and onions. Can we open a window in here? May said.
Open the front door. Havent got the screens on the windows yet, Mays mother told her. She would be waiting for Andrew to take care of that. May made a mental note to do it herself. She lifted her arms out slightly as she stood before the screen door, facing the dark, reentering the isolation of this place where she grew up, the deep quiet of rural Michigan. Then she stood with her back to the night and watched Andrew for some sign of life. Heather got down on all fours, pretending to be a cat, and rubbed up against her fathers leg. He reached down at least, to ruffle her snarled hair. At the end of summer, the girl would start kindergarten, and that could be good, since she would make friends, but if it was like school had been for May, there would be horrible days, too.
It has to be past your bedtime, Heather, May said.
Mays mother sighed hugely. She had gotten a perm recently, one that would last a good long while. Graying curls lay tight to her skull. Will you take her, May? she said. Im beat. This ones a fist full. A lot like you know who.
Andrew rested his left temple on the heel of his hand, his elbow in a ketchup spill. He gazed at his beer can.
May said, Come on, Heather.
The girl ran down the hall. Try to catch me, she said. May followed, the half-glass of beer she drank to be sociable with Andrew adding weight to her legs. She had driven a long distance, coming as soon as she could arrange time away from her job, even though her mother said Andrew and Heather were managing and she expected June to get her head straight and show up any minute. Yet her mother had no good answer when May asked, over the phone, You expect this based on what?
As far as May knew, June had never been gone all night, not even after those fights with Andrew. And this would be night number three. June made threats, but maybe she didnt have a place to run to or anyone to run off with before Phil came along.
When May entered the tiny bedroom, the girl flopped onto the bed. Where are your pajamas? May asked. Dirty clothes on the floor gave off a metallic odor. She would teach Heather to hang things up. And she would show her how to run the washer and the dryer.
The girl began to unbutton her blouse, then gave up and pulled it off over her head. She put on a bright yellow tee shirt, which was too large for her and decorated on the front with a glittery purple design. It had to be an old one of Junes, a thing May could never get into. She glanced down at her chest, larger than her older sisters. May was more substantial in a number of ways.
The girl allowed herself to be covered with the sheet up to her waist. She pushed at the bedspread until it fell to the floor. Are you having fun at Grannys? May asked. Heather shrugged. It was fortunate that she had her own tiny room at her grandmothers house. Unfortunate that Mays mother let Heather run wild. May believed she had arrived here none too soon. It had been obvious at dinner that Granny fed the girl whatever she wanted, chips and Whipped Cream on her pie and a second desert of a chocolate bar. All Heather would drink was sugary pop. May would remind her mother that this worked against her. The girl was twitchy, wriggling and changing position and scratching at mosquito bites even now when she ought to be winding down. May plucked a story book up from the floor, sat on the edge of the bed.
No, the girl said. She clasped her hands over her ears and kicked. May took a blow to the kidney. I want a made-up story, Heather said. I hate the stories in that book. Theyre for babies.
Stop that, May said, and right now or Ill just turn off the light.
The girl lay still. Youre mean, she said.
Have I kicked anyone? May asked. She was making her voice even, not sweet but not unkind. Ill tell you a story, but only if you behave.
Dad isnt behaving, the girl said, grinning.
What do you mean? May asked.
Hes drunk, Heather said. May considered whether she should mention this to Andrew. His daughter could tell.
Well, he wont get a bedtime story tonight, May said.
Heather laughed. Dads a zombie, she said gleefully. She was a pistol like her mother and quick with a come-back, but May believed herself more than a match.
The girl slithered out of bed and picked up a Teddy Bear from the corner. May said, Your dad is having a hard time right now. You know why.
Mom left. Dad said shes as good as dead. I hate her.
A thrill slid up Mays spine. You dont. Youre upset. Your dad is upset too, isnt he? You both have a right to be. What Andrew must have said was, Shes as good as dead to me. Hes angry and hurt, May said. The girl was looking off toward the curtained window. Do you still want a story? May asked.
Yes, tell me one, the girl said, turning her head back. June held her eye until the girl added, please.
All right. Once upon a time. The girl grimaced and rolled her eyes. May stared at her until she stopped. We were digging in the garden, May said.
You and Mom.
Did I say we? I might have been alone that day. When they were kids, though, she and June had been together constantly.
You and Mom were digging a hole, Heather said.
All right. If you say so. May could hear Andrew and her mother talking in the kitchen, their voices low. We were digging away and then we heard your grandmother calling, Where are you? May lowered her own voice. You know how she can be. Dont you go far away, now. Stay where I can see you. Dont go in the road.
The girl snorted. Shes a worry wart. I bet you werent anywhere near the road.
No, May said. She imagined her mother and Andrew were talking about her. Andrew would say he could use all the help he could get, while her mother would say they were doing just fine.
Were you digging for worms? Were you going fishing? The girl sat up in bed.
Lie down, May told her. So after your Granny shouts to us, I call back to the house, Here we are, just past the picker patch. Were not lost. A herd of buffalo didnt trample us. We didnt get eaten by a snake. A big hawk didnt swoop down and grab us up. It was June her mother would call for, June who gave their mother the worries.
The girl laughed loudly. May shushed her and glanced at the partly open door. The girl said, Tell me. Tell me what you were digging for.
A pot of gold. One the leprechauns had buried.
The girl said. Leper cons dont exist.
June would have told her that. Well, maybe not. Maybe it was a pirate, or an old woman who didnt trust the banks. Can I go on now?
Go ahead. The girl waved her small hand.
From up in the pasture, I saw a rainbow arc over the house and end right at the corner of the garden. Thats why I was digging right in that spot for the pot of gold. May had actually done this once, had been that gullible. June had a good laugh over it, their mother joining in.
You found gold in a pot? The girls snickered. Was it a piss pot?
Watch your language, May said. There was a lot here to be undone. Bad language and bad behavior. If May had children of her own now, or a husband, she would not have been able to drop everything. Even now she could not devote herself to Heather completely. For one, she would never give up a good job and expect someone else to support her. She would visit often, though.
The girl rolled side to side. This story is boring.
Stung, May said, All right then. June could be like that, not caring for another persons feelings. May stood up. Ill see you in the morning then. She started for the door.
No, dont go. Finish the story, Heather pleaded.
May turned around, said slowly, You think the story just might get better?
The girls said, Sure, and then, It has to.
May did not smile. Imp, she said. She sat on the bed again. The screen door opened and closed. That would be Andrew leaving, going back to his trailer, and without even saying good night to his daughter. May said, OK, so we dug and dug and just when we were about to give up, a blue dog leaped right out of the hole. She reared back. That sure surprised us.
The girl pressed her head back hard into the pillow. Was it a dead dog? Come alive again? She squirmed, uncovering one leg.
May wondered if Andrew would at least stop by in the morning before he left for work. The bedroom door opened and Mays mother said, How are you two doing in here? You ready to go to sleep now, Miss?
Aunt May is telling me a story, Heather said.
May put her index finger to her lips, hitched the sheet up under the girls chin. Shell be sleepy in a minute. You can go on to bed, Mom. Just leave me a pillow and blanket for the couch.
Her mother looked from Heather to May. Whats this about a dead dog? she asked.
May thought, of course her mother would miss all the signs that June was about to abandon her family, then shed eavesdrop on the one daughter she could trust. The dog in the story is not dead, Mother, May said, although I can see why Heather might ask about that. You want to stay and hear the rest?
The girl now faced the wall at the foot of her bed. What did the dog look like? she asked.
Dump the stuff off that chair and join us, May said, pointing.
No, no, Ill leave you two. Mays mother pressed both hands to the tight curls on her head. Well, good night then.
Tell Granny good night, May said. The girl did.
Is this story all right? May asked the second her mother crossed the threshold and would still be in hearing range, or should I tell a different one?
Finish this one. The girl lifted a clump of her hair, tucked it into her mouth.
May tugged the hair free. All right then. Well, the blue dog came right up to me and I put my hand on his neck and he let me pet him.
Was he a Bluetick Coonhound? Uncle Dan had a Bluetick, but he doesnt any more.
This was a different kind of dog, May said. She had no knowledge of any dog that Dan had owned. He was Andrews younger brother. He made a pass at May once but she discouraged him. More Junes type, now divorced with three kids to support that he didnt live with, plus a new wife. At least the Brenner men looked after their offspring. While June, shed throw away her only child.
What kind, what kind? Heather was chanting.
Oh, he wasnt any particular kind. He was blue, like I said.
What kind of blue? Like Teddys eyes, the girl asked, digging under the covers and pulling out her stuffed toy.
May thought the eyes unusual and wrong, like blue eyes on pictures of Jesus. Darker, May said. She put a finger to her chin. That color Id call sky blue. This was a true blue.
What did you call him?
Blue Boy, May said, Blue for short. I asked him where he came from, but he couldnt say.
Because dogs cant talk, the girl said.
Most dogs dont. This one was special. May noticed a spot of dirt on Heathers cheek. She wetted the sheet corner with spit and rubbed at it.
Heather pulled away. My friend Patty has a dog that can do tricks. He can roll over and fetch a stick. The girls free leg was kicking. May wrapped it in the excess sheet, held the leg tight even though the girl tried to draw it up and out of her grasp.
This one could do a kind of trick. He could answer questions. May added, in a hushed tone, Stop that or the storys over.
The kicking stopped. The girl said, If he cant talk, how can he answer questions?
Only Yes, or No, questions, May said, by tipping his head up and down or side to side.
What did you ask him? The girl shifted positions, bumping Mays hip.
Like I said, I wanted to know where he came from. A blue dog, you have to wonder. Since he couldnt talk, I thought Id name some places and that way narrow the possibilities. You know, like twenty questions. So I asked Blue, Do you come from the ground? On impulse, May shook her head no.
The girl said, Then he was a liar.
May put a finger to her lips. She could hear her mother moving around in the small living room. I asked Blue, Do you come from the sky? She shook her head. The girl rolled her eyes again, something June had begun to do when May was maybe ten and June thirteen. May had become a nuisance to her sister by then, a goody-good, June called her. And she had held onto that opinion, as if being good was a fault.
Pitching her voice high, yet keeping it soft, May said, Do you come from Teddys eyes? She nodded her head up and down.
The girl made a hissing sound through her teeth, then watched her aunt, stone-faced. May had sounded like a fairy tale witch, although she had not meant to frighten Heather. Still, where was Andrew when his daughter wanted a story? Where was June?
May heard no movement in the hallway, yet continued in a sweeter voice, When the blue dog rolled over, what color do you think its bare belly was?
Green, said the girl.
And the bottoms of its paws?
Green. With purple stripes.
Green and purple. Exactly right, May said.
I had a bruise that turned green and purple, the girl said.
If Andrew had knocked June around, then May could maybe understand her leaving. Abuse wasnt likely to figure in, though. At least not inflicted by Andrew. He was like a zombie tonight. Probably had been for some time, Junes flashy ways causing Andrew to lose confidence, making him quieter, shrinking him down.
The dogs belly was bruised, the girl said, because the ground was so hard and it had to dig and crawl up and up before it could get unburied. It didnt come from Teddys eyes. That was a lie. She wriggled a few inches toward the other side of the bed.
Seems like this has turned into your story, May said. So, tell me more.
Nothing more to tell, the girl said.
Nothing else? Pretty boring.
The girls small hand lay over her chest, her fine blonde hair spread across one side of the pillow. A moment before she was acting the little brat, now she seemed about to cry.
This is what happened, May said. We went down to the creek and Blue jumped in. We waited and we waited and he didnt come up .
He drowned? Heather had tears in her eyes.
No, of course not. May reminded herself that Heather was more Andrews girl now than she was Junes. He couldnt drown. He was part fish, and also part bird, so even if someone threw him off a cliff, hed just flap his paws and fly around and then hed land on the ground again.
You didnt say he came out of the water. The girls voice quavered.
Well, he did, it just took a while. Then he shook himself and I got soaked. May feigned a shivery shake.
The girl did not smile. She turned her head away. Self-conscious, May was about to reach down and line up Heathers shoes beside the bed when the girl touched her hand and asked, Did Granny let you keep Blue?
The hand was so warm and so small. Blue did follow me home. But your Granny, it turned out, couldnt see him. May anticipated the next question. Or my sister. Turned out I was the only one.
He was your dog then.
All mine, May said.
So where did he go? The girl might be humoring her, but May did not think so. May was not so grown up that she could not believe in fairy tales.
Nowhere. Hes still around, May said. She was pleased with her inventiveness and with how the story was turning out.
Where is he right now? Heather asked. She turned to look at her Teddy Bear.
May said, He can make himself look like other things. The bears eyes stared at the ceiling. He doesnt hang around with people who dont appreciate him.
Do you know when is Mom is coming back? Heather asked.
I dont know, honey. Nobody told me, May said. And although tempted, very tempted, she did not say, Maybe never.
|Lavina Blossom grew up in rural Michigan. She received her Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing / Poetry from the University of California, Irvine. Her poems have appeared in a number of literary publications, including The California Quarterly, The Paris Review, and the online journal, poemelion. She recently completed her first novel.|