My seventeen year old son, Connor, recently won a provincial short story contest with his story, “Flowers for Mrs. Goode.” A second story, “Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight” received an honourable mention in another category. Many people have been asking to read them and so I am reprinting them here with his permission. I will let him know of any feedback you leave. The official announcement can be found here.
Flowers for Mrs. Goode
Edith Goode (Edie if one knew her, Mrs. Goode if one didn’t) was usually up by five AM and prim by six, on principle, but this morning she was neither of these things by noon. Her slumber had been like that of a womb-dweller — drunk as a fetus, spinning drowsily in those tideless darks, amnion wavering like a flag in a slow cast of summer wind: surrender! She thought of this as she sat at her bedroom vanity in the cabbage-rosed nightgown, bare feet on the mint carpet, hurriedly smearing Pond’s on her face: If waking is birth, this is puerperal fever. She laughed falsely at her reflection, the long witchy teeth parading across gums, flaxen Brillopad hair, jowls like a bloodhound, thyroidal eyes. It had been her first time sleeping through an alarm since her childhood tumble with the scarlet fever. This was something of a marvel and a horror to her. It was Mother’s Day, and there was everything to be done.
She’d never been much of a hostess; the most she could ever muster was potato salad, corn chowder, cheese and cherry sandwiches on flattened Wonderbread, and the punchbowl, large and ponderous as a baptismal font, dredged up from the basement every now and again. She knew as she descended the stairs to her kitchen, picks driven through her curlers and the hem of her yellow silk peignoir skittering across the landing, that it would be an afternoon of chaos. The curtains due for a steaming, the floors needed waxing, the rhubarb stalks ready to pick. She had to dust off her dear Reginald’s gun cabinet, and the panoply of old port glasses, left to lie dormant for all but this day, had to be polished. She felt challenged by the afternoon ahead, and thought wistfully of the menthol-camphor bath which awaited her, a point of fixed and conclusive ease, at the end of her night. The bath had become so ritualized that if she concentrated hard enough, she could conjure up the sensation of sitting in it rather viscerally, even as she stood heating a pan of milk on the stove for her Sanka.
These domestic tasks (cleaning out the halltree, whose disjecta membra was now spilling invasively into the rest of the hall, putting the second leaf into the dining room table, sweeping up the dead tendrils of the decades-old Christmas cactus, which had been reared by her father) were only a precursor to the real trouble, the arrival of her family. But by one o’clock, she had already spent most of the afternoon on the phone with her sister Geraldine, pleading with her, as was the case every year, to come. Geraldine — ardently suspicious, with tight, peevish curls and a reedy voice — was afraid of most everything (billiard tables, flea markets, soda crackers, tuberculosis) and had a penchant for staying home whether something was the matter with her or not. She often based entire, life-altering decisions on “an awful strange feeling” about this, that and the other thing. This was incomprehensible in the opinion of Edith, who would sooner flip a coin to make an important decision than follow an instinct into whatever certain, godforsaken, blood-soaked death awaited her. She couldn’t much stand Geraldine.
Today was no different than yesterday, or the day before that; Geraldine was still convinced that something — not readily apparent but omnipresent — was wrong with the world. What fault could Geraldine have possibly found with this day? With the pregnant blue sky, the bobbing cornflowers in the window well, the sweet, kind breeze? Edith pried open the gun cabinet’s stuck door, selected the first shotgun from a row of what once held nine, and vigorously polished the stock of neglected wood with Pine-Sol, pointing the barrel at her slippered feet. To Edith, it didn’t matter what feeling one had, or what window one was looking out of — the world was the world, and it really was as simple as that. Her conversation with Geraldine floated back to her in half-lucid fragments.
If you’re set on being ridiculous, it looks as though I’ll have to stop making excuses for you. Where’s Geraldine? Oh, sick and bedridden with the flu. What about now? She had to take an alka-seltzer and lie down. And now? She couldn’t find a fascinator for the garden party, she’s jumpstarting her car, she has to finish the divinity fudge, the aspic hasn’t set yet, she’s at the church rummage sale, she’s–
Goodness, Edie, there’s no sense in being cruel!
Yes, well I daresay there’s no sense in concerning oneself with silly intimations but we can’t always get what we want can we? I went to great lengths to make you your favourite meal. The one you love so. You beg for it every Mother’s Day and then refuse to show up.
And she’d replaced the receiver with that conclusive thwack one delights in following an argument.
Edith sat in a rattan chair in the screened breezeway between the kitchen hall and the guest bedroom, arms akimbo, looking dissociatively out over Prospect Street, which was pastorally green and bristling in the sunlight. The neighbourhood’s fractal medians and cul-de-sacs had been the same since the thirties, and each moment seemed timed: a sprinkler rasping futilely on a sparkling plot of pavement, stridulation of crickets simmering in erratic, patternless interludes, steam, like a thread of smoke from a blown-out candle, rising from the hood of her powder blue Volkswagen Rabbit.
Edith tamped a Pall Mall on the arm of the chair and lit it with Reginald’s Zippo, which had their twin initials engraved in it beneath a heart, and was the very leaden weight and cool texture of love. It was one of the only things that had remained after the blast — his greens had been burnt to shreds and his skin had looked like blood pudding, she’d heard someone say. The lighter had come home with his body. For weeks after, she’d dreamt of exploding ovens floating in a vacuous black sky.
Edith let out a capricious plume of smoke. Awful bad feeling. Awful bad feeling. At the precipice of her brain, it tapped its dull meaning.
Edith Goode became suddenly aware of a man standing at the screen door, shrouded by the nimbus of the murderously hot day. In his left arm he was cradling a monstrous spray of white roses over which Edith could see nothing but the suggestion of eyes. Edith hated white roses.
In a single beat that converged terribly with the instant the man rang the doorbell, Edith started, remembered the pan of milk on the stove and that she was still in her peignoir, and thought, good god, I’m naked as the babe unborn, and called to where the man’s face might have been.
“Just a moment!”
She crossed into the kitchen, removing the smoking pan from the stovetop, and tied her sash before turning on her heels. The doorbell rang once more.
“Just,” said Edith, under her breath, “a godforsaken moment.”
“Good day,” said the man, as she returned to the breezeway, harried, with a strand of loose hair curled about her forehead.
“Good day,” said Edith.
“I just got somethin’ here for ya’s.”
Edith could hear a wry grin in his voice, and something else, nebulous as an opium dream. Edith knew, with as much certainty as one can garner from the sound of a voice, that the man was not from ‘around here’.
“Flowers. You’ve an anonymous delivery.”
“Anonymous?” said Edith incredulously.
“This isn’t some sort of money making operation is it? I haven’t two pennies to rub together.”
“No, ma’am. I make flower deliveries — not too fitting a occupation for a man like me I s’pose. In any case, seeing as it’s Mother’s Day an’ all, someone saw it fit to get ya’s somethin’.”
“Well,” said Edith, “I’m at a loss for who would do such a thing but, see, I’ve got my hands full at the moment. I appreciate the sentiment.”
“Mind if I come in? I could just set these flowers on the table and be on my way. ‘Sides, I got a handful more houses to get along to still.”
“It won’t take but a moment.”
Edith stared over the man’s shoulder at the empty, arid street.
“I have some family coming over. After all, it is Mother’s Day, like you said.”
“Looks like you’ve got a real grand old table back there and, well, ain’t this a han’some centerpiece for that table? ” said the man.
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“What do you say? They are yours, after all. Someone sent them off for you. Don’t that make you feel special?”
“Well –” said Edith. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm really. As long as it won’t take long. I have a lot to get through before the evening comes. And it always comes faster than one expects.”
“Ain’t that the god’s honest truth,” said the man.
When the door opened, and the distance between them closed, Edith felt a draft like an undertow. A scent of topsoil blew off the man.
The man, appeared large and hunched in Edith’s almost humorously dainty kitchen, with its duck egg walls and Royal Doultons, and he set the flowers down on her breakfast table. She looked up at him. The man must have been around six foot and three or four inches. He was skinny as a rake, however, with big-knuckled hands and a deeply tanned neck.
Edith felt a bristle of girlish excitement at having been given flowers, but feigned irritation, for past experience had invariably taught her that reticence was the best way to hide a feeling. The feeling however, could not always be dressed like a wound, and Edith found herself dredging up gangrened wedding memories — the white tent billowing in jaunty breeze, the wisteria in eloquent, tapered clusters, the festooned wedding cake. The memories, though cracked from the frequency with which she brought them up (like dragging a lake for a body, Edith thought suddenly) gleamed with a preternatural light. But she knew, with a sort of matronly soberness, that things were only beautiful in retrospect.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a drink of water would you?” said the man, blinking bovinely, and Edith realized with some discomfort that she had tumbled into another one of her reveries. The man looked down on her with a grin. His gums were pink and his teeth were Chiclets. His hair was Brylcreamed. She smelled it, gasoline-strong. He was chewing a piece of bubblegum and his jaw cracked as he worked it between his back molars.
“I certainly would,” said Edith, and, turning her back to him, went to the sink. “It’s a mighty hot, day isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. Mighty, mighty hot.”
Edith reached for a tumbler in her cupboard, but miscalculated, and it fell from its place of origin on the shelf, clipped the edge of the countertop, and broke on the floor with an amplified, glassine crash. It was hot, and she really was drunk as a fetus. She heard the ubiquitous crack of the man’s rotating jaw. He knelt beside her and started to collect the shards, his head inches from hers, cocked. It hadn’t been topsoil she smelled, but dirt.
“A little old lady, living all alone?” he said.
She found herself thinking of her curls. She worried that she would sweat them out by the day’s end.
Goodnight Irene, Goodnight
Camille sat on the steps of the general store with a sweating Coke bottle between her bare legs, when the wood-paneled station wagon pulled up. A pair of women got out, followed by a girl who must have been little older than Camille. The two women mounted the steps, looking down upon her as they went, and entered the store. The girl didn’t enter the store, electing instead to sit on the step beneath Camille. Camille turned and watched the two women inside moving about with a graceful economy, starched and hot-pressed, in silent loafers. They looked somewhat wrung-out, making their rounds in the aisles. Bread. Lye. A bag of ice. A cake of soap.
Camille, who’d have shocked a clean needle, was impressed by the spotlessness of the girl, who was presently hiking up her ankle length dress to pick at a run in her stockings. She had long fawn legs, and black hair in a ropelike braid that Camille was decidedly tempted to tug upon. Camille, in her own opinion, one which she chose not to vocalize, was nothing special. Her hair tangled at night, she had wandering eyes that had landed her in trouble more times than she could count, and she spoke with a low, abrasive cadence that was at odds with her stature. The dialect of her features was sort of plain and unsuspecting, southern in nature: scrim of freckles, crooked central incisor, eyebrows glowing against dusty skin. And her character lacked anything much to dote upon.
She had been nine scarcely a week before (strange, how that happens), now allowed to ride her bike alone through neighbourhood’s sameness: sun bleached courts, wide avenues dappled in sultry shadow, the whole world curving about her pivot. She was already bored of this new privilege, had already exhausted the general store, and had spent the small change she had accumulated over last summer, on bottles of Coke. Moreover, there was something sentient and unnerving about the endless flanks of tract housing, the driveways like eternal black desk blotters. The houses gaped.
The black-haired girl glanced up and back at Camille, and something like a recognition passed between them, rising from beneath eiderdown layers of heat. Camille stared at the girl’s ears, which were somehow beautiful, the young cartilage curled into the whorl of a seashell, and she said, in that unafraid way only newly ten-year-old girls can:
“What’s your name?”
There was a swelling moment of emptiness.
“Irene,” said the girl.
And Camille thought Irene. The name had a littoral quality, a seafaring lilt like it belonged to a ship — The Irene — or to a saltwater nymph sitting nude in the tide pools — Eirini. Camille’s scalp prickled at the thought, at the two whip-crack syllables, at Irene, who had already spoken.
“What?” said Camille. “I didn’t hear you.”
“I said, what’s yours,” repeated Irene, in a curt voice.
“Camille,” said Camille, and realized with something resembling disdain that this was in fact her name. She stuck out her hand and the two shared a handshake that was both businesslike and childish and that felt, in some indiscernible way, like a rite, and, how old was Camille?
“Eleven,” Camille lied, trying to judge Irene’s age and fall somewhere within that ballpark. After all, it was age, Camille understood, that bound friends together. Camille showed Irene that she had just shy of 32 teeth.
“You don’t have your wisdom teeth,” said Irene.
“So what. They don’t really make you wise,” said Camille. “Do you have yours?”
Working her middle and index fingers like a dentist’s mouth prop, Irene pulled her cheeks back and bared her teeth garishly. Camille stared into Irene’s mouth.
“Well. I don’t see anything.”
“They must not be through yet. But I can feel them all the same. Sometimes that’s all that matters, don’t you know?”
“How old are you?” asked Camille.
“Twelve. And a half.”
“Where are you from?”
“The country. I’m never usually in town. My family and I don’t get to leave often.”
There was something about this that Camille found distantly troubling, but she didn’t pursue the topic. “And you?” continued Irene, and cracked a single knuckle. Camille tried the same, and when she could not, she said:
“The suburbs. In one of those kit bungalows that the soldiers built when they came home.” She thought of her house, of the carpet like a blood sea and the paneled walls, and about the truth that the whole place smelled horribly of White Shoulders. Irene and Camille both concluded that they had never been to the suburbs and the countryside, respectively.
“What’s the country like?” ventured Camille.
“Hot and boring. Really. I live in a big old farmhouse. It creaks. I share a room with all of my sisters. My brothers sleep in the basement. There’s no air conditioning.”
“How many brothers and sisters have you got?” asked Camille, who began to think that perhaps she was asking more questions than was considered polite.
“Lots. I probably have twenty of them.”
Camille sucked in air. Twenty brothers and sisters? Surely it was a joke, a little jab of the elbow, a wry nod, and Irene was hoping that Camille, at ten years old, 11 if one counted the lie, would believe stupidly and wholeheartedly in a mythology like that. All her life, Camille had been an only child, moving through her house in a listless orbit, never once, it seemed, running into another human being. Camille resolved firmly that she would not believe in such nonsense.
“I shan’t believe it,” said Camille, using the word she thought carried the weight of adultness and decidedness.
“Well,” said Camille. “Well have you got any photographs of them?”
“Now, why would I bring a photo of them wherever I go? We probably wouldn’t even fit within the frame, all of us, if we tried.”
“How can I believe you?”
“You can’t, I suppose.”
“You’ll have to show me in person,” said Camille, and downed the last of her Coke, which had flattened in the sun, and was finally the way she liked to drink it.
The two women came out of the general store with paper bags and asked if Irene was ready. When Irene got up to leave, Camille did as well.
Irene’s mother was called Gretchen, and was the one in the peroxide white housedress with the long pin straight hair, and was the one who was driving the station wagon. The car’s interior smelled of patchouli, and Camille felt alive within it, due partially to the windows — which rolled down by way of hand crank, and allowed the breeze to make its somnolent rounds, tossing Irene’s braid and the pleated hem of her dress, which was folded demurely about her legs — but due mostly, in point of fact, to the notion that she was leaving the neighbourhood without the knowledge or permission of her mother, who would be horrified and likely faint if she gained intelligence of this.
They were on the highway. The sky was a milkbowl, apocalypse blue. The clouds slid back. Irene had been told that she would know the house when she saw it, and somehow, she did. It was like the afterimage of some fever dream. The house was in the true middle of nowhere, white clapboard glaring against cornfields, too conspicuous for the plains. It was as though a Victorian home, an heirloom passed tiresomely down through generations, had been suddenly pried up, foundation and all, from some shrill summer avenue with a name like Wisteria Lane. Its spires were erect in the midday heat, the whole thing settling stiffly on itself. Gretchen parked the station wagon on the gravel drive and its engine ticked hotly, below a swerving crescendo of cicadas.
The drive had been somewhat tense, for in the heat that was laying down its plentiful blows, each one nearer a coup de grâce than the one before it, Irene had seemed to find within herself bravery enough to ask her mother, upon passing a truck stop, if they could get out and buy Dreamsicles. Gretchen had made pointed eye contact with Irene in the rear mirror and said:
“Irene. You know we don’t go eating chemicals like that. What would Willard say if he found out.”
The two women got out of the car and went inside the house, but Camille and Irene sat alone in the back seat for a time. The pastureland was empty: no young, green, coppiced trees, no other houses; the only thing on the horizon was a rangy Aermotor wind pump which was spinning lackadaisically in the distance. Camille’s legs stuck to the hot vinyl seats. She peeled them. Irene explained that these episodes between her and her mother were not at all uncommon.
“She’s obsessed with the natural method,” said Irene, employing facetious air quotations. “They all are.”
Camille thought of these words. They were like pickets hammered together in a makeshift cross. They all.
Irene went on to explain — in an impressively long-winded and expressive way, almost as if she’d been waiting to find just the right person to tell this story to — that a couple of other girls in the house (which was nicknamed ‘Flossie’, after someone long-dead) had gotten in momentous trouble when it was discovered that they’d been hiding Oil of Olay and pulled taffy under their shared bed.
“What happened?” asked Camille.
“They were made to repaint Flossie, as punishment.”
Camille almost gasped at the horror of such an undertaking, especially in the thick of summer. “But that was years ago,” said Irene, averting her eyes.
Camille and Irene got out of the car and stepped into the day. The ceaseless fields surrounding them were ringing and stagnant. Camille’s ears itched. Irene led Camille past a woodshed and into a dooryard through which they entered the drawing room of the house, whose window was propped open with a wedge of plywood. The organza curtains were still.
The room was enclosed in a heat unlike anything Camille had felt. It unsheathed itself and glanced knifelike. Women were sitting in rocking chairs and in arm chairs, and some were standing. A group of three were engaged in clandestine conversation with one another. A fourth was at work with an embroidery hoop, and seemed afraid to lift her head at the sound of Camille and Irene entering.
A boy, who stood out, mainly because he was sitting on an upturned apple crate in the sunlit dust mote which fell obliquely from the window, was shining boots. He was thin, and knock kneed and malleable looking: a pound puppy. He looked up and stared conspicuously at Irene as she surveyed the room: threads of light glancing off armchair, swift, milk-white hands swaddling baby in handmade afghan.
“God, I hate it when he does that,” Irene said to nobody.
“Who?” asked Camille.
“Carvel,” said Irene. “He’s obsessed with me.” She said it just loud enough for him to hear, and appeared gratified by his hurt expression.
The two girls made their way to the back of the room, where there was a kitchen, and Irene examined a shelf lined with murky jars which she explained were tinctures. The heat was dark and viscous as blackstrap molasses — unrelenting — and from it, emerged snatches of conversation between the women that were only vaguely of this world.
“They’d never let us keep the windows open like this. But I say! It just gets to be so hot, one needs to pry them open.”
“Sealed with paint, they were. Gretchen and I had a sorry time with them. It was like they were saying no! no!”
Nervous laughter, like a death knell.
“Only think what they’d say if they saw it. We must close them before they get back.”
Camille had to sit down, for fear of collapsing. She slid back against the cabinet and stared at a plot of skin on Irene’s arm. She couldn’t think.
“Only think!” the women continued.
“Locust swarms!” chimed in another. “Willard especially. Think what he’d say about swarming bugs, and the like. And letting that bad in. He’d have made it a scene, he would.”
“He wants to protect us. They all do.”
“And the plague, moreover,” intoned another, ignoring this remark. “And dust. And children.”
“Children crawling through the windows and stealing.” The women laughed again, first tentatively, and then near uproarious.
“Though, you might suppose that he lived in a time where there were things to steal.”
“Things to steal that were worth stealing.”
There was a silent moment when Camille, eyes closed, felt stared-at, and she heard someone say:
“Who’s your little friend, Irene?”
“She’s Camille,” said Irene.
Irene brought Camille upstairs to the attic which had vaulted ceilings and rough pine floors and which housed several linen-piled cots and was where Irene slept and whose heat was even more evil than the heat of downstairs. Irene lifted a loose panel in the top drawer of an armoire that was shoved into the corner of the room and took out a cigar box. Inside were photos of women scissored from a magazine, chess pieces, bottles of nail polish.
Camille pointed to one woman, with feathered hair, and rouged lips, and laughed.
“Why’s she laying like that?” she said.
“It’s called spread eagle,” said Irene, tossing her eyes. “If anyone knew I had these, I’d be killed.”
“You’d have to paint Flossie,” said Camille, testing the house’s name on her tongue.
“I’d have to do worse than that,” said Irene, shuffling her collection and selecting another woman. “Look at her, isn’t she pretty? I want my hair like that, but mom says we have to keep ours growing.”
“She looks scary. She looks mad,” said Camille, wiping sweat from her forehead with the heel of her hand.
“She’s doing seductive eyes,” said Irene, incredulous. “Don’t you know anything? Do you know what sex is?”
“Yes,” said Camille, though she was quite sure she did not.
“I don’t understand how you couldn’t.”
“Why is that boy the only one in the house?” asked Camille.
“Willard doesn’t have much use for him. He’s sick all the time. Fatigued, they say. Weak too, like a girl. And he’s allergic to everything. Strawberries. Dust. He’s allergic to the dope so he can’t do runs. He’s useless, in a word. And the boys are only looking for someone with a fine constitution,” said Irene. “I don’t know why he’s so in love with me. What does love get you.”
“He seems harmless to me,” said Camille.
“He is. Sometimes I feel like I could make something happen.”
“I don’t know,” said Irene, and closed the cigar box. “Something. Doesn’t matter what.”
When night fell like an anvil on the house, a carbon monoxide breeze came in through the open windows.
“It’s always tense when Willard is here,” said Irene. But the departure of the men and the warm night air had mollified this white-knuckled grip on Flossie, and the women seemed lulled by the anti-rhythms of their daily chores: bobby socks on the line, counters scrubbed raw with lemon juice. The women sat on the Persian carpet in the drawing room, playing Chinese checkers, with oils combed through their hair, dangerously at ease. Gretchen had allowed herself a milk bath, which she made the girls do every Tuesday, said Irene, to keep them young and spry — the way it was supposed to be.
At dinner, they drank electrolyte water and talked about the imminent fall of man. There were fires wiping out miles of forest. Fires and floods, floods and fires. The government was digging footings and pouring concrete into designated marshland to put up care homes for the elderly. Gretchen smiled warmly at Camille from across the table, above which hung a stern and regally watchful portrait of a man with hair past his ears.
“You should visit more often, Camille. Shouldn’t Camille visit more often, Irene?” said Gretchen, fork in hand. Irene nodded reservedly in reply and pushed her chair closer to the table. “Anyway. The boys will be home tonight. They’ll park the pickup in the back pasture in case somebody is looking for the plates. Nobody is looking for the plates, but we’re better taking precautions. We’ll have to clean up before they get back. Close the windows.” A woman nodded solemnly and it was taken up by the woman next to her, and the nod circled the table.
Gretchen was staring at the band of greenish flesh around the ring finger of her right hand; the phosphenes of a marriage. Irene pulled down her dress, and looked at Carvel, who got up from the table.
After dinner, the women reluctantly allowed Irene and Camille a walk down to the river, a venture that they were sure to remind the girls was only possible because Willard and the boys were not yet home. And that they were to return within the hour, and all manner of other warnings and pleadings. And behave. Irene bowed graciously out of the drawing room and into the depthless black of the dooryard. Outside, the world was swollen so tightly seams were ripping, somewhere. The house, from the bottom of the drive, looked deeply asleep, wrought from the ashen tempest of a nuclear fallout — perhaps the one the elderly women had been so ardently predicting at dinner. The sky was pricked.
They walked through the pastures hand-in-hand and Camille felt, suddenly and inexplicably, that she was lucky to have found a friend like Irene. Irene told Camille the story of the house, how Gretchen had come there a decade before, a leggy sweet-sixteen-year-old flunking her math courses, spending long hot summers setting strawberry runners and plowing fields at six dollars an hour. It is such a romantic way to live, Camille decided. They passed the squares of dirt, cordoned off with wooden posts and chicken wire, where those strawberry plants might have been so many years ago, when Flossie was sort of prepubescent and artless as new spring grass, with shag shingles instead of the clapboard that existed today, and when the men thought they would never rescue the barn from the rot that was coursing through its skeleton with septic fervor.
“Should we swim in the pond?” asked Camille.
“No. There’s cow shit in there, and it’s freezing.”
Camille had hoped she’d be rewarded with an enthusiastic agreement, for Irene seemed to love the realm of the dangerous and impulsive, and she was unnerved and slightly embarrassed at having been turned down. They continued through darknesses, heights of whispering grass, the buckwheat that bent to tickle Camille’s bare arms, and crossed the dirt road beneath an arch of arthritic trees, frayed rope ends, down an embankment, where they came to rest at an edge of sorts, some ten feet above the river, in a wild strawberry patch. The water was brown and seething.
Carvel was there chopping wood.
“Hi, Carvel,” said Irene, smiling and polite.
“Hi, Irene,” said Carvel, and brought the axe down in a wide and gruesome arc which connected with the chopping block. Camille stretched her bruised and burr scratched legs in front of her and ripped grass from the ground. At her left, Irene was eating a strawberry from the patch. “Willard better not catch you so far from the house,” Carvel continued, and the axe fell.
“You as well,” said Irene, chewing and boyish. “Who cares if he does. I certainly don’t, and he shouldn’t either.
“You know he’s gonna,” said Carvel, who was concentrating on the wood, and not in the least on Irene.
The three of them were silent.
“Do you like me?” said Irene, suddenly, to both no one in particular and very particularly to Carvel.
“Yes,” said Carvel, and picked up another log.
Irene seemed assuaged by this single syllable for a length of time, and looked intently at her pinky fingernail, its dainty lunule like a wave of heavy cream breaking on a pink-sanded seashore. Camille watched her evaluating herself. She was like clouds, pulled apart cotton. The soft radiance of down on a forearm. A waning light, spread meaninglessly open. They could have swapped lives, if they were both in agreement.
“What would you do to prove it?” asked Irene, in a voice that seemed to pass through this world and the next one, and the one after that.
Camille saw Carvel turn her words thrice in his head, like a stone.
He said, “Anything.”
Camille looked at Carvel and tried, with desperation (as though something depended on her success) to guess his age. He appeared to her characterless as a blank wall, history handed off to an oblivion somewhere beneath this one. Camille decided that she would have to be every age at least once in order to properly judge what age somebody else was.
Irene stood and approached him and, placing her hands on his shoulders with all of the tenderness of someone versed in the mechanics of romance, she kissed him square on the mouth.
Carvel’s eyes widened in mock surprise, and he tried to disengage himself, but Irene held him there for a beat more, while something passed between them. When they broke apart, Carvel’s lips were reddened.
“Irene,” said Carvel. “Why did you –”
Camille had never seen someone her age kiss anyone before, and it had felt like passing a threshold into a paracosm more fully realized than the one from which she had exited. She watched the blood plume in his cheeks (out of a childish embarrassment, she supposed) and, stricken, he sat cow-heavy on the chopping block, and drunkenly tossed the axe aside. It cartwheeled in the air (thrown at the magician’s assistant, in the scant career girl’s outfit, like the one from Irene’s picture). The axe fell with a concussive thud where the yellow grass bled to riverbank.
A declarative tendon bobbed in his neck. Camille noticed, with painful clarity, the perspiration breaching the skin of his forehead, which looked puckered in what could only have been concentration. The silk flower dripping resin dew.
“What do you want, Irene?” said Carvel.
“I thought you hated me.”
“Does anyone hate anyone?”
Carvel put a hand tentatively to his mouth.
“What did you do, Irene?” he said, this time more urgently. And then shouted, “What was in your mouth, Irene?”
Camille thought that it must have been quite the kiss for Carvel to be sweating the way he was. And why might Irene have done it, if Carvel bothered her so? Camille thought then: what is wrong with his face?
“Jesus,” Carvel said, in a voice that faltered beneath an incredible fear, and he stood suddenly and violently, placed one hand to his neck, which was livid and one hand to his stomach.
Camille saw his eyes bulge.
“I can’t breathe.”
He repeated this to some sort of unknowable rhythm: can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe, looked as though he were tearing tendons in an attempt to clear his airways, and then he folded and vomited profusely onto his own bare feet. Camille screamed.
“Irene,” he said, and tried to go to her, stepping forward deliriously, his neck swelling over the collar of his shirt. He gargled uselessly.
Camille stood up.
“Irene,” he said again, and it sounded almost like nothing at all.
A gloriously cruel shaft of moonlight broke through the scudding clouds and illuminated him at the surgically precise moment that he passed out of consciousness and back into it, losing what little balance he had, and taking a doomed half-step back, his foot catching in the slip-knotted root of a nearby tree, falling backwards, arms windmilling, into the water below.
Camille’s eyes rolled in horror, and she fell to her hands and knees and crept to the edge. There was no conclusive snap of bone, no kitschy spray of horror movie blood. The water rushed up and embraced him, and ragged bubbles, incomprehensible last words, rose in his slipstream. The impact rang out like gunshot’s report: a question, an answer, a guillotine falling, and the recoil of it all nearly knocked Camille on her back. She began to cry.
She thought of Irene’s hidden drawer of nail polish. She thought of what Gretchen had said over dinner: humanity needs nature to survive but nature sure as hell doesn’t need humanity. Camille had been perplexed by those words. She thought of how Gretchen might have looked when she’d first arrived at the house, some ten years before. Who had greeted her at the door?
When Camille turned, Irene was already off in the direction of the house, walking languidly, with dropped shoulders, feet impacting the dirt heel first, barely denser than a shadow. The corn stalks swept closed in her wake.