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The Gift by André le Roux

The Gift by André le Roux

Fiction, Vol. 7.3, Sept. 2013

She stood there, in the dark quiet morning, for nearly half an hour, and started to think that no one would come. There was a buzzer at the gate, but no way of telling whether anyone could hear it or whether it worked. Shivering in her uniform, she held the blanketed bundle she was carrying closer to her chest.

The constable was a short woman; the strain of the jacket over her shoulders suggested strength. Her face was open and plain, her hair short and masculine. She faced a dilapidated iron gate and searched for the outlines of buildings, but had to be satisfied with glimpses of cornices and chimneys through the mist rising from the lake on the periphery of the grounds.

Flanking the gate, two old cypresses swayed in the breeze. From somewhere in the obscurity ahead a muffled clanging of keys grew nearer. She squinted at a dash of movement, increasingly distinct against the backdrop of transitory grays.

“Constable?” enquired the figure; then, as it drew closer, “Another one?”

“I’m afraid so,” she replied, awkwardly conscious of the intrusion of sound in the depth of stillness around them.

Stiff fingers inserted a key into the padlock hanging from the gate, fumbled; then another key and another before the lock clicked, insisting on a sharp pull before snapping open.

Tall and lean, the superintendent juxtaposed with the constable, her long blonde hair resting softly against her shoulders, bearing indentations, visible even at night, left by hair clips and elastics that marked the daily discipline of propriety. The superintendent appeared ill-prepared for the cold; a sweater pulled over her nightgown, she wore slippers, her lower legs exposed. Wearily, she pushed the gate open. “Are you well, Delia?” she asked perfunctorily.

“I’m well,” shrugged the constable, stepping through the open gate. “It’s just a baby, this one,” she said, as the superintendent rewound the chain around the gate and battled to snap the lock shut again.

They turned and walked hurriedly, their breath merging white with the mist.

“I think it’s a boy,” said the constable after a while, feeling weighed down by the stiffness in her joints and the heavy, quiet presence of night and of the other woman.

“There’s a cot at my residence,” stated the superintendent, sensing an obligation to speak. She rubbed her hands together.

Gravel grated in their wake, wet grass squelched, mud clung; they were quiet for a while as a hazy yellow light appeared, beckoning hopefully, guiding them closer to the solidifying form of a small house.

“They left it in this cold?” asked the superintendent rhetorically.

“It seems fine, though. It seemed fine when I found it…even smiled,” she replied. The superintendent reached for the handle of the door to the small house that had seemed so far away, and opened it.

They were drawn into light and warmth. The baby squirmed restlessly in its blankets in the constable’s arms. There was heat in the smoldering residue of a small hearth and they edged closer to it, maintaining an awkward distance between them.

The superintendent reached for the bundle, drew back its blanket and looked down at it abstractedly, studiously, considering cots, costs, capacity and overworked nurses.

The constable, thankful for release from this onerous duty, stood near the hearth, warming herself. She was keen to leave and waited for the slightest indication that the proper time had come for her to do so.

The superintendent gave a nearly indiscernible shrug, a despondent little gesture so subtle it might have subsisted in the soul and not the body. Then, with an old discipline, she turned her mind to things that must be done, to settle the baby down and get some rest.

“It was strange–” the constable mused, but was interrupted.

“–No name,” said the superintendent pointedly.

“It says ‘David’,” the constable ventured, and pointed to the nearly indistinct stitching on the blanket she had noticed earlier, parts of it frayed, parts of it torn. “But it might be the manufacturer,” she added unhelpfully, “or someone else’s blanket.”

The boy seemed settled in the superintendent’s arms. Her face appeared hard and sallow in the weak light. “David will do for now,” she said and left the room.

She returned after a while without the boy, finding the constable battling sleep on a soft chair in the heat next to the hearth. “It’s not hungry,” she said.

“I should go,” was the constable’s reply, fidgeting with her jacket as she got to her feet and moved toward the door. “If you have a spare key for the gate I can drop it off later.”

“You said it was strange,” said the superintendent to an uncomprehending face. “Earlier,” she prompted after a moment’s silence, “you said it was strange.”

“I meant where I found it,” remembered the constable, “in the field, near the river.”

“That’s happened often enough, though–”

“I know,” said the constable. “It was strange because I saw the flowers first…poppies, white poppies in bloom.”

The superintendent sat down, as though finally overcome by the exertion of the evening. “Poppies don’t flower in winter,” she said edgily. “In fact, I don’t think anything grows here in winter, except the orphanage.” There was no humor in her voice, only listless contempt.

“I know that,” snapped the constable, already resolved never to mention the flowers again. “That’s what caught my eye, why I went looking.”

The superintendent pressed a thin, unconvincing smile on her face and nodded extravagantly. Yes, dear, what a nice story, she seemed to say.

The constable left. The superintendent had a small glass of port and returned to a warm, dreamless bed. The boy David, soundless in his cot, stared at the ceiling for a long time.

That morning, as the sun winked meekly on frost-covered grass, the women occupied themselves with the requirements of their lives. They filed reports and completed paperwork on an abandoned boy. There were four other boys named David at the orphanage, the superintendent realized. She heard the boy cry, wrote the constable- that’s why she went into the field. The superintendent took the boy to the babies’ cottage, just after six that morning, wrapped in the same blanket. Countless diapers were changed and bottles fed. He grew and was healthy. He liked looking through the cottage’s big windows, and never cried.

A few months later, as the superintendent made her rounds, taking stock, considering modes of greater economy, she saw him, slightly bigger and with a surprising amount of hair, and she thought of white poppies, but couldn’t remember why.

*

Jenna contemplated the front door of her studio apartment and the attached eviction notice, which she had failed to remove even though it had been there for a month; she was required to be gone in the morning.

She should have been apprehensive, as she had nowhere to go, but she felt content with the recently acquired items in her handbag. She’d have a cup of tea, she decided, take a bath if there was hot water, shoot up and forget–it made tomorrow seem far away.

She unlocked the door quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself. The caretaker lived two floors down; a short fat woman whose name she had forgotten, if she had ever known it. The short fat woman would relish the prospect of the coming morning, thought Jenna darkly; she would love to watch her stuff being thrown out, her humiliation.

Dudley, her dog, waited on the other side of the door. She wasn’t sure what type of dog Dudley was, but he was small, had long, curly caramel and black hair, irregular white spots that always looked dirty, large floppy ears, and paws that pointed outward.

Someone had left him there. She didn’t know who. A few months ago, she had friends over and someone had brought a puppy. They had gotten high, the same someone had forgotten that he or she’d had a puppy, and had not recollected this to date. She found him in the bath, a motionless handful of hair.

She called him Dudley, because her brother’s name had been Dudley, and she missed him. That was after she’d discovered that the dog was not dead; when he squirmed she’d poked him a few times.

He wouldn’t sit up. She’d put him on his feet and he limply fell over. He wouldn’t eat the chicken she’d tried to feed him. She’d dipped her fingers in condensed milk and he started licking it. Then she dripped some water down her fingers and into his throat, which he swallowed with difficulty. In the evening, she’d pressed small pieces of corned beef into the corners of his mouth, which he chewed listlessly, mostly biting her finger. He’d fallen asleep with her finger still in his mouth. The next morning he started stumbling around the apartment, devouring whatever she fed him.

He was just a baby, she thought at the time, too young not to have a mother. So she decided to keep him, thinking it would be good for her to have something to care for, something that might care for her in return.

Once, when she’d been high, she filled the bath, wanting to drown him–she didn’t have food for him and he had whimpered for days. She’d held him over the tub, and he panicked and started kicking in the air. Unaware of any precipitating emotion, she started crying and bathed him for the first time.

It was the same Dudley now sitting at the door, slightly larger, jumping up her legs, barely reaching her knees. Once again she couldn’t remember when last he had eaten. She reminded herself every morning to try and get him something, but she often forgot and ended up facing him, guilt-ridden, especially when she had something to eat herself. She had gotten her fix, but not his. She kneeled and he licked her hands, smelling her bag for food.

“Hey, Duds,” she whispered, “I’m sorry, Duds, I’ll remember tomorrow,” and then remembered that tomorrow she would have nowhere to stay.

Dudley scampered away, attuned to a primal state of nature where the day’s hunt did not always succeed. There was a yellow pillow on the floor where he liked to sleep, underneath the apartment’s only window, opaque with dust.

She closed the door, made certain it was locked, and considered how easy it would be to move if she had somewhere to go.

There was a single foam mattress on the floor, surrounded by socks and underwear. The mattress, abandoned by the previous tenant, had been there when she moved in. She never slept on it. Even Dudley steered clear.

Next to the mattress, a dark green chair, polyurethane spilling from the torn armrests. To be fair, she knew it would be dark green if it was clean, but now it was mostly brown. She slept on this chair, always fully clothed. A neighbor had donated the chair when he moved. He was old and sickly and had to go somewhere to die. When she had tried to clean it, dozens of little cockroaches spilled out of the open armrests and she never finished the job, except to empty a can of pesticide on it and open the window. There were the pillows–the small yellow one on which Dudley slept, and two large turquoise pillows with the image of a samurai embroidered on each, stacked in a corner on the floor next to the kitchen.

The yellow pillow she had taken from home when she was fifteen and had left, after her mother died. She’d had it as long as she’s had a memory of things. She liked to think her mother had given it to her, and this was what she told people, but she had no good reason for believing it.

The two samurai pillows she had bought when she worked at the bar, before she started shooting up and missing shifts. She had no idea why she bought it, except that it had been on sale–it made her think of male adolescents.

Across from the window was the kitchen, or rather, the approximation of a kitchen that the building developer was able to fit into the space. The kitchen had once consisted of a sink with a two-foot long melamine counter. The counter was badly sealed and had drawn moisture. It had pulled loose from the wall some time ago and now lay under the sink.

Her tin kettle, a small gas bottle with a single torch fitting, a teaspoon, a crooked fork, two stained teacups, and a bread knife were stacked in the sink. She had no recollection of buying any of these items, but was happy to have them.

One suitcase, she thought, some clothes, the yellow pillow, Dudley, the tea, the cups, and the kettle. Everything else could stay.

She made a cup of tea, no milk and no sugar–the usual–and set out a cup of water for Dudley. He lifted his head dreamily at the sound of ceramic on the wooden floor and sniffed. He didn’t get up.

She sipped her tea, staring at her handbag, fixated on its content. Within it, a gift, promising a short-lived ignorance of the world from which it had come.

Somewhere nearby a door slammed, startling her. When she turned her gaze away from the door, she was surprised to find herself looking at the heroin, a bit larger than a tic-tac, in the palm of her hand. She had no recollection of taking it out of her bag. But then, next to her on the floor, were the plastic wrapping and the tiny balloon that had contained it.

She found an alcohol swab in her handbag. It was dry, but she decided to use it for whatever good it might do. She performed the ritual like an automaton, sensing the assurance of which she was in short supply.

The spoon, the heroin, a dash of water. Sanity and certainty approached. Dudley was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. Later, he would fall asleep that way. Shivering slightly, she heated the fluid with a lighter, stirred it carefully, and dropped a little ball of cotton wool into the mixture, which swelled triumphantly.

There was a knock at the door, or maybe someone else’s door, which she ignored.

A brand new syringe. He had asked whether she would need one. He seemed happy with her afterward, calm and generous–not edgy and belligerent, with that sense of urgency men often had when she met them. She had said “yes” and “thank you” in a manner her mother would have approved of. Then he had fallen asleep and she took the money he owed her from his wallet. He’d said that she was beautiful, for a junkie.

The knock again! What time was it, she wondered.

She sat back in the chair and lit a cigarette. She smoked slowly, holding the syringe carefully in the other hand. She noticed that her lights were off and remembered, feeling worn and senile, that the power had been cut. How long had it been? She tried to recollect, injecting herself absently.

The knocking again, sounding distant.

It fell, like a warm soft blanket. She closed her eyes, conscious of warm light burning within her, radiating life to her limbs and hope to her soul. The chair became softer, deeper, embraced her. She was safe. The world was good again, as she had always imagined it to be. She fell asleep or was very much awake. At one point, Dudley licked her face and she held him.

She had a strange, fearless dream of falling–falling through clouds that looked like pieces of swollen cotton wool, with the sun behind her, merrily illuminating everything. Then she fell toward the city, but never reached it. It became dark and she was still falling. The moon was next to her and she touched it–it felt cold and hard like glass, jagged and sharp on the edges.

She could hear the knocking again, louder this time, harsh angry voices, and she saw the light within her sink back to the depths from which it had come. She opened her eyes to a changed, cold, familiar world. The sunlight from the window hurt her eyes. Dudley was barking, and cowered in a corner on top of the samurai pillows.

Her legs and stomach were hurting. She wanted to vomit. The clamor on the other side of the door was unbearable. She held her hands over her ears and rocked forward and backward. She tried to get up, but couldn’t.

The knocking stopped, leaving quiet anticipation in its wake. She could hear the short fat woman on the other side of the door, speaking in her guttural, out-of-breath way. Then she heard something drilling into the lock and knew that they were coming, as they always came for her.

For a moment she thought of her father, at her door at night, and how fallible doors were. Dudley jumped on her lap and licked her face. He turned to face the door, quivering with fear, and pressed his body tightly against her.

She didn’t know how she had done it, but by the time the door burst open, she had stuffed her handbag down the front of her pants and was holding Dudley, who was quiet now, under her left arm and the yellow pillow under her right. She thought she would vomit, but didn’t, and she thought her knees would buckle, but they held.

The short black woman entered first, then a man with a beer belly that strained against a sweat-stained shirt. They hurried past her, heading for the living area, rank with excitement, and they failed to notice her, partly obscured in the space behind the carelessly flung-open door.

Dudley barked and the man turned and shouted, but by then she was dashing down the stairs and into a quiet cold street, realizing she didn’t have shoes on, clinging to a struggling Dudley.

And she ran and kept running, as far away as she could, away to start over, or toward another dead end.

*

She sat by her desk every afternoon, in the quiet aftermath following school, after the last door had slammed and shouting and running had given way to the respectable restraint of the teaching staff.

The young teacher was fond of this secluded hush that marked what remained of her working day. At the pace of one that had to fill her time one way or the other, she marked the essays of her eighth grade students.

A cleaner arrived in the doorway, appearing worn and weary, eager to leave as she bobbled back and forth on her heels.

“Not today, Jenna,” the young teacher said.

This reporting and dismissal had become a ritual for the cleaner and the young teacher. The young teacher, once she had dismissed the class, routinely swept the floor and wiped the desks, keen to maintain the sanctity of her afternoons by avoiding company. The cleaner felt compelled to announce herself daily, never assuming that her presence was not required, so that she would not be accused of neglect and risk losing her job. But every so often, her presence couldn’t be denied–windows had to be cleaned and chewable paraphernalia removed from the undersides of desks. On these occasions they rarely spoke, attending pointedly to the respective duties compelling their brief co-existence.

The cleaner nodded, turned, and disappeared.

It was the young teacher’s habit to move her chair from its usual spot between her desk and the blackboard, over to the side of her desk, where she could see the school grounds through a large wooden sash window. The grounds were picturesque, if somewhat unkempt, but she preferred its ill-discipline and spontaneity to the many overly manicured gardens in the vicinity.

The grounds that time of the year were dominated by a lush green. But the young teacher also treasured the fragile yellows and reds of fall, the striking blues and grays of bare trees in winter, the specks of flowery white amid soft leaves in spring. It was the anticipation of change that captivated her, the comforting cyclical nature of it all, the exchange between death and new life. In summer, as she sat there watching, everything seemed hopeful and abundant, and she couldn’t help but internalize this.

From this vantage point, not a single building was visible. Most noticeable were the oak scrub trees, some leaning to the left and others to the right, not a single one growing upright. The trees obscured the five orphanage cottages: one for the babies, one for the younger boys and another for the older boys, and then for the younger girls and the older girls. The white-washed cottages appeared in the fall with the shedding of leaves, were strikingly incised by the cold, gray bark of the oak trees in winter, and disappeared gradually in the new growth of spring.

Irregular patches of grass and exposed red-brown soil led to a large flower bed at the foot of the stretch of oak trees. The flower bed contained, by virtue of someone’s intent, holly and blueberry bushes, low to the ground and resilient. Spurge, by virtue of someone’s neglect, straddled the periphery between flower bed and lawn, surging up against the holly and blueberry. She had watched the blueberry bushes flower, had seen the berries turn from green to purple, and felt somehow a participant in the gradual appearance of black and blue in the branches.

Of particular interest to the young teacher were the gray catbirds, small and shy. She wondered whether anyone else had noticed them. They had appeared in spring–two of them–and found shelter in the thickest and thorniest sections of holly.

She noticed them in the mornings as well, but couldn’t watch them then, having to retain control over the ever-threatening disorder in a classroom full of youngsters. In the late afternoons, however, when the sunlight became gentler, the shadows longer and the school grounds quieter, the catbirds would venture out again and she would watch them.

On this day she noticed, touching her fingertips to her mouth at the realization, that one of the catbirds was dead. It had, for a moment, looked like a rock or a shoe lying on the lawn. But as she looked carefully, she distinguished the delicate tail and gray body curving into a small lifeless head.

She conceived a sense of shock, then recalled a voice of reason saying something her father might have said: it’s just a bird. She continued grading the papers, looking up intermittently, and her thoughts started to drift toward supper and whether she had enough potatoes or should stop at the market.

The boy crossed into her line of sight; he was four, maybe five, years old. She had seen him before. He was not allowed on the school grounds after school; the cottages had playgrounds. He appeared drawn by the knowledge of ripening blueberries, and the young teacher, who had never considered herself much of a disciplinarian, decided to overlook this minor transgression as she had done before.

He was wearing the same corduroy pants she had seen him in before. The pants were rolled up to his ankles, and an ill-fitting navy wool sweater was similarly rolled up at the sleeves. A tuft of hair at the back of his head strained skyward. He had dirty blonde hair or blonde hair that was dirty and he seemed perfectly content, at ease in the solitude he had sought for himself. She wondered whether she would recognize him one day, should he end up in her class.

He kneeled in the garden with his back to her and looked around furtively, conscious of the magnitude of his treasure. She could see the branches of a blueberry bush pulling forward and snapping back as he collected his harvest. He stood up and stuffed his hands into corduroy pockets, depositing his loot for later consumption.

With his hands still bulging in his pockets, he noticed the dead bird and teetered in its direction, his face alight with ambivalence and awe. He gaped at it for a long time, and she considered what a little boy would think of inconsequential death. Then he kneeled, leaned forward, and picked up the bird, cradling it close to his chest. You should go down, the young teacher told herself, the bird is dirty.

Then she saw him lifting the bird to his face and bending his neck over it, as if to kiss it. His body became limp and he slumped forward to the ground. His left foot slid slowly, awkwardly backward.

It happened so quickly she thought he was playing.

She startled into action, “Oh, my God!” she shrieked as she turned and started running, slamming the classroom door open with the flat of a hand, her feet pounding on the school’s polished wooden floors, down a flight of stairs and toward the garden, toward the boy, still lying motionless.

She pressed her hands underneath his armpits and pulled him up. She found the bird fidgeting in his little hands, its feet kicking helplessly in the air as it pecked urgently against his cheek. She gasped, nearly allowing the boy to slip from her hands. His hands fell to his waist and the bird fluttered away.

Then there was a stronger set of arms, one of the gardeners working on the school grounds. He picked the boy up and held him in his arms, the boy’s head resting against his chest.

“Caught a bird?” said the man, sounding impressed.

The young teacher nodded dully, her mind confused in its recollection of things.

“What happened?” asked the man. He inclined his head to the boy’s face to check that he was breathing.

“I don’t know,” whispered the young teacher breathlessly. “He must have fainted.” She stared at the boy. He looked peaceful but pale, as though he was sleeping.

The man lingered for a while, concerned by the young teacher’s look of bewilderment, trying to meet her gaze and pull it back to the here and now.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “The boy fainted, like you said. It happens. He seems to have a bit of a fever, flu maybe. Nothing serious.”

“You sure?” she asked, wringing her hands nervously. She looked at the window where she’d sat, half thinking she might see herself there, having fallen asleep and dreaming.

“These young ones are strong. He’ll be fine,” said the man. “I’ll take him to the infirmary at the orphanage and you can check on him later.”

She nodded. He turned and walked away with the boy motionless in his arms. She stood there for a long time, waiting for the catbirds. After a while, they came. Both of them.

They told her at the infirmary, a few days later, that it had taken two days for the boy’s fever to break, that they didn’t know what he had and that they had been worried, but that he was fine, resting, and that she needn’t worry about him.

*

It annoyed her, the way they made her wait.

“She’ll come,” said the secretary as she closed the office door, “She’s busy. Don’t touch anything.”

And this Jenna did, folding her hands on her lap and shifting incrementally to relieve the pressure from the rigid alder chair to which she had been led.

The room started whispering–her imagination of course, as she had been told countless times before. She did not believe this, though. Quiet spaces, she believed, if one listened, had voices of their own–reverberations from the lives lived within.

She’d been there for twenty-five minutes, observed the grandfather clock to her right. It glared at her from its dedicated corner, proud of its ageless task. Tick-tock, it mocked from beneath its heavy, knotted, wooden brow, sneering at mortality.

A mahogany writing desk faced her; solid and heavy, it seemed to tip-toe on its legs. On its expansive leather surface rested a sharpened pencil, a manila envelope with her name on it, and a table lamp with a cream embroidered bell shade. Behind it leered a chair, the jealous twin of the one she occupied.

She sweated inexplicably; the office felt colder than the pleasant spring outside–the same spring that had prompted her to wear a light cotton dress printed with bright red roses and green foliage. The dress now made her feel juvenile and ill-fittingly colorful in her surroundings.

Her hair was tied back in a chiffon scarf and she touched it reassuringly. She considered her appearance in the mirrored back of a teak cabinet with glass paneled doors, her features broken by shelves of small, liquid-filled glass bottles and porcelain figurine kittens. The kittens yawned, stretched, and looked back at her with jaded eyes. The whispering intensified, like a wave approaching from afar.

Her buttocks felt bruised; she stood and rubbed her upper legs. The door opened and a woman stepped inside.

“Sit, sit,” the woman instructed in a clipped, cold voice. The tapping of high heels silenced the whispers and carried her inside. The room watched intently.

The woman came to a standstill behind the desk next to the chair, placed a hand on the backrest, gazed fixedly at her guest. She had an unmistakable look of disapproval, even scorn, on her face. She stared at her visitor’s shoes, dress, face, and pursed her lips.

Jenna thought that the woman was beautiful. She stood erect and proud, tall and lean with a crisp, pale face and an elegant manner. Her long blonde hair was wrapped tightly around her head in a rather old-fashioned French-style braid. She might have been in her fifties, even sixties, but appeared younger, vital, and luminous, dauntingly alert. She wore a tailored gray flannel suit with a pencil skirt, which made her seem fortified in the growing silence between them. The office embraced the woman as one of its own.

“Jenna, is it?” asked the woman.

Jenna nodded, strained forward, straightened her back.

“I am the superintendent,” the woman said.

Jenna cleared her throat, hesitated.

“Forgive me for being blunt, dear,” said the superintendent, “but I do not believe that anyone but the two of us need be aware of the special circumstances of your employment here.”

“Ma’am?” swallowed Jenna.

“Your conditions of probation, dear,” continued the woman, glancing in the direction of the grandfather clock, “are a matter for which the Board has empathy. They have extended an opportunity for you to work here, but you should know that I did not agree, and that I still do not.” She enunciated slowly, as one would to a child.

The office took its cue. The grandfather clock ticked louder, more ominously; her chair pressed itself against her buttocks, as if to dispel her with discomfort.

“Ma’am,” she croaked, fighting the tremor in her hands only to find it in her throat, “I am grateful for the opportunity. There won’t be any problems–”

“You’ll have to speak up, dear,” interjected the superintendent, turning with an impatient air to face the teak cabinet. “I have difficulty making out what you’re saying.”

“Thank you for the opportunity, ma’am.”

“Yes,” she dismissed with a delicate wave of a wrist. She pulled out the chair behind the desk and sat on the cushioned seat, which made her seem even more looming and commanding.

“I thought we should have a little talk,” she pursued tensely, “before I introduce you to the lovely lady in charge of our maintenance staff.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Jenna, clearly this time. She feared she might sound insolent. To mitigate this, she clasped her hands together on her lap and straightened her back even further, receiving a raised eyebrow for her efforts.

The superintendent appeared to have formulated a mental checklist of the sentiments she felt required to express, and determined to succeed in that task.

“Briefly, I have been the superintendent here for a long time. I also grew up here. This is my home.” She sighed, slowly and heavily. She twirled her fingers for dramatic effect. “I consider myself ultimately responsible for the children here. Do you understand?”

“I do, ma’am.”

“Assuming that your past does not inform your future–which is unlikely in my experience–we shouldn’t have a problem. Should that, however, not be the case, you should know–I will notify the relevant authorities.” She said this in a controlled voice, free of apprehension.

The office felt gleeful.

“I understand, ma’am.” Jenna was unaccustomed to the disdain people had showed her of late. “I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

“You’ll do exactly as you’re told, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ll really have to speak up, dear.”

“Yes, ma’am. I understand.”

“On the same page then?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The grandfather clock struck as if on cue, ringing the tenth hour.

*

A mirror stands in a corner of a basement. The mirror is part of an old vanity dresser and once flaunted art deco lines and shining veneer. The mirror is broken and can no longer see. In the unbroken silence and beneath layers of dust, the mirror retains its memories–things once reflected upon it, now caught within.

The mirror remembers a room. It was a girl’s room. The mirror had once stood in the room and knows nothing else.

The mirror remembers the first day it had seen. The sun shone brightly through a window and there’d been a girl and a woman on a bed. The mirror remembers a cake with eight candles, and that the girl had looked at the mirror and had clapped her hands with joy.

As she stood reflected upon it, year after year, the mirror had known that the girl cherished it.

In those years, the mirror reflected periwinkle curtains, a black linoleum floor, and a coral pink bedspread. There was a cupboard, and a desk with a cork checkerboard surface.

The mirror remembers the first time she sat before it. She’d brushed her hair–shining, walnut brown hair. She had reflected clarity, the uncorrupted confidence of youth, and had seemed vital and radiant. Over her left shoulder, against the wall above the bed, the mirror remembers a poster of a winking Betty Boop, and a single white carnation in a tall glass vase on the desk.

The mirror remembers a night when the moon was full and lit the room. A man stood at the crack of the door. He had been standing there for a long time and the mirror reflected his anxious expression. The mirror couldn’t help but see; it had eyes that would not close.

The mirror remembers that the man had come into the room and closed the door, and that he had gone to the girl in the bed. Afterward, there’d been many nights like that.

The mirror remembers the morning after that night when the moon had been full and the man stood at the door for so long. It remembers the girl brushing her hair with tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. And the mirror remembers that, as it reflected her back onto herself, she had begun to fade.

None of this had meant anything to the mirror; it simply did what mirrors do–it reflected.

The mirror remembers a boy. The boy was older than the girl but they had the same eyes. There was a day when the girl and the woman had wept; they wept that day and into the night and then for many days thereafter. It started the day the girl left the room and came back with a yellow pillow. After that, she had slept on the yellow pillow and the mirror never reflected the boy again.

There is one night that the mirror remembers clearer than any other. The mirror remembers how the man came into the room as he so often had before. But then the woman was there and the mirror reflected waving arms and angry faces. The girl had run to the woman and the man struck the girl with the back of a hand.

The mirror remembers how the girl had fallen down and how she drew her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs. The mirror remembers that she had rocked back and forth until late-morning light had flooded the room. But that had been after the man struck the woman and then struck her again, and the woman had fallen against the desk and hadn’t gotten up.

The mirror remembers how people came for the woman that morning. They took her limp body and there had been blood in her mouth and no light in her eyes. Then the girl stopped rocking and stood up.

The mirror remembers that, when the girl later sought her reflection, she had no face. The mirror had yearned for her eyes but could not find them. The mirror had grown accustomed to her eyes.

The mirror remembers how she started to scream and pulled on the mirror, and how it had fallen over and shattered, and how she had disappeared.

The mirror can no longer see. The mirror still longs for her eyes. It tries to remember.

*

Light fell, blue and gay, through tall windows into the classroom; it shimmered on flecks of dust disturbed by her movements. Whenever she lingered, sat down, relaxed, the chirping of birds and the voices of men working in the gardens carried feebly through the walls. I’m still part of the world, she would think to herself, on the periphery somewhere, safe and alone.

“Can I help?” asked a small voice, breaching the walls of her sanctuary.

She spun around, clutching her chest, and glared at the door from where the voice came, her heart thumping. There stood a boy, hands in the pockets of his taupe pants. His blonde hair was parted neatly and combed over to one side. He wore a brown cotton twill jacket, and as he took his hands out of his pockets, she saw his fingertips reach to peek out of the over-sized sleeves. He was about eight years old, she estimated, and his gray-green eyes appeared unperturbed by her sudden fright and hostile gaze.

She felt angry and cheated of her privacy, but found neither malice nor playfulness in his manner. He waited for an answer. She wasn’t supposed to talk to the children, the superintendent had warned, so she stood there staring, feeling foolish and self-conscious in her worn working overalls, as though she hoped the boy would disappear if she stayed quiet.

But the boy remained unmoved and stared back at her. She swept her long brown hair back over her shoulder, the gesture exposing her long jawline and sallow cheeks, an aquiline nose and gentle, wary eyes.

“Sorry,” said the boy. “I just meant to help.”

“Why?” she blurted. “You can’t help.” There was panic in her voice. “What’s your name, boy?”

“David, ma’am. I’m allowed to play until four; I can do as I please between two and four. I can help if I want to.”

“I’m not playing,” she said huffily, “and I can’t let you help. I’ll get into trouble.”

He raised a suspicious eyebrow. He’d never heard of adults getting into trouble. “If I want to?” he persisted.

“Why would you want to clean?” She was convinced that boys should have better things to do.

“Just to help.”

“Well, you can’t help.” Exasperated, she turned to the desk she’d been busy wiping. “How would it look,” she added bitterly, “if the children helped me clean?”

“I won’t tell.”

“No!”

The boy lingered in her peripheral vision, shifting indecisively on the balls of his feet, looking crestfallen, then turned and left.

*

Two days later, a miserable day, she saw him again. Outside, the wind howled through the treetops, carrying with it fat raindrops that assaulted the windows. She turned a corner into the hallway on the first floor of the school building, pushing a bucket and mop ahead of her on the hardwood floor, and saw him stand there. If not for the fact that his hair and clothes were soaked, she would have thought him an apparition. He seemed to be waiting for her, perhaps hoping not to startle her again. He displayed a broad, white smile and a deferential posture.

Jesus! she wanted to exclaim, for God’s sake, boy! But she restrained herself and came to a standstill, scowling at him, her hands wrapped readily around the handle of the mop, as though she might need to use it as a weapon.

“What do you want?” she grumbled. “I’m working; I don’t have time for nonsense.”

“I’m playing,” he said, smile intact. “I’m allowed to play.”

“You’re not allowed on the school grounds after school, and you know that.”

He shrugged, abandoned his subservient manner, and plunged his hands into his pockets with an air of defiance.

She rubbed her forehead with the back of a hand and pulled her hair back, tying it nervously in a loose knot behind her neck. “Don’t you have friends?” She pushed the bucket forward with a jolt.

The boy strode toward her, casually, his hands behind his back. He seems a nice enough boy, she thought, but felt the trepidation of a girl in the presence of a brother, anticipating some sort of prank. He looked at the bucket, the mop, and back at her as if he had never seen a collection of such remarkable things. His eyes brimmed with curiosity.

“I’ve friends enough,” he said. “I like playing on my own.”

“I’m not playing, though.”

“Why does the water smell like that?” He leaned over, nearly put his entire head into the bucket in an attempt to better consider its murky brown content.

“Vinegar. I’m sure you know vinegar; it’s for the floors, they’re wooden.”

“To clean them?”

“You see I’m cleaning the floors, don’t you?”

“With vinegar?”

“Yes,” she sighed.

He smiled at her.

“There’s nothing for you to do here,” she tried. “You’re wet. Go to the cottage and dry yourself.” She hoped that clear instruction might prompt him into action.

“Can’t go back now. It’s raining worse than when I came.” He pointed toward a window. “I’ll get even wetter…and I’m nearly dry.” He didn’t appear dry at all and started rubbing his hands through his hair, as though a display of his imminent dryness might strengthen his case.

“Boy–” There was a threat in her tone.

“–I can help,” he interjected, reaching toward the bucket with hands that she pushed away.

“You can’t help.”

“I can,” he retorted. “I’ve mopped at the cottages. We’re taught to do things to help out.”

“You may not help. It’s my job; I’ll get into trouble if I let you help.”

He pursed his lips, unconvinced, staring at her pensively. His hands returned to his pockets.

“I can watch?” he proposed, raising an eyebrow.

“Why would you watch someone mop?”

He mulled this over. “I think I’d better stay here while it’s raining, or I might get sick.” He waved a hand toward a window and the irrefutable fact of the conditions outside. “And I can keep you company.”

Jenna scowled, mumbling something about staying out of the way, and something else from which only the words “nuisance” and “mercy” were distinct.

The boy took a few conciliatory steps backward and stood with his back against a wall, facing her. He rubbed his hands together, took them to his mouth and blew on them, then repeated this process a few times to show how undesirable his further exposure to the elements would be.

She took the mop out of the bucket and wrung it violently.

“I’ll stand here,” he said. “I won’t bother you, and I won’t speak if you don’t want me to.”

She shrugged with deliberate animation, planted the mop on the floor, and continued her work, confident that the monotony would soon remove the luster the boy seemed to have credited to her work.

She kept at this for a while–mopping, wringing, changing the water, kneeling to battle stubborn black streaks. She kept an eye on the boy as he followed and, on occasion, forgot he was there.

“There are wild cats near the lake,” he noted when she had finished on the first floor and started making her way down the stairs. “I’ve heard they’ve had babies.” He seemed to be fishing for a response.

Hands resting on her aching lower back, Jenna turned to face him. He stared out of a window, and she followed his gaze to find that it had stopped raining and the light fell soft and clean on a fresh landscape.

“Cats are lovely.” She didn’t like cats.

“I can also do that.” He turned and pointed to a brush on the floor.

“It’s stopped raining.”

“I can help. I want to.”

“I don’t need help,” said Jenna.

“I can keep you company, though, if I want to.”

“I suppose,” she said, heavily.

“I can do as I please in my playtime.” His tone was boastful. “It’s the only time I can do so.”

“I know; you’ve said so before.”

*

“I ran away,” said the boy. He was referring to an incident, just vividly conveyed, with the “big boys.” He seemed out of breath by the time the admission was made, and his forehead bore an intense furrow, amplified by the gloom of the weak light in which he sat.

“Why?” asked Jenna. Her interest was genuine, but she realized that it sounded reproachful. She stood next to him, observing what she could of his troubled face, as she leaned on the handle of a broom pressed against the blue-gray stone of the stairway she’d been sweeping.

“’cause there were four of them, and they were bigger than me, and they said they’ll tie me up with my suspenders and throw me in the lake, and that no one would know or care or bother to look for me since I’m an orphan and they’ll think I ran away, and I didn’t think they were kidding.”

The boy sat in the stairway, elbows propped on his knees, chin resting on his knuckles. At first glance, he appeared playful in his shorts and suspenders; he wore an old yellow and blue cub scouts T-shirt and a tweed cap fitted snugly on his head, but his mood was somber.

“I was scared,” he whispered, staring blankly into the red brick wall in front of him, mortified by the weight of his confession.

I would have run away,” Jenna tried, kindly.

He responded with an irate shrug.

“You told them you’re not afraid of them. That was brave.”

“And then I ran away,” he said. “And you’re a girl–a woman, I mean. But it’s different when a girl runs away.”

In the stillness that intervened, between his unfavorable reflections on himself and her internal scramble for the right thing to say, Jenna swept the stairs, stepped down from the ones she considered clean, reclaimed her leaning position on the broom, and waited for the boy to move down and rejoin her in his introspection, as had been their arrangement for the past hour or so.

“Well, you couldn’t have fought them.” Jenna turned to what she considered an adult position on the matter.

“I might have tried.” Melancholy, he idly poked a finger into a crack in the wall. “Maybe next time I will.” His voice sought conviction. “Then they might leave me alone. They won’t now; they’ll think I’m a coward.”

“You couldn’t have fought them. You can report them,” she fumbled ahead.

“Can’t.”

Staring at the cold stone at her feet, Jenna considered a reply. Everything she thought of sounded pointless and inept in her mind. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know what you should do, then.”

“Don’t worry,” he said to the crack in the wall.

She pursed her lips and looked worried. “Why are they bothering you?”

“The birds,” he said, as if the reply contained all the particulars she might possibly need.

“Birds?”

He lifted his feet a step upward, wrapped his arms around his legs, rested his head on his knees, and lowered his eyebrows into a frown.

“In class the other day, teacher asked me why I’m looking out the window the whole time, and I told her I can hear the birds, and she said that we can all hear the birds but we should be hearing what she’s saying, and we can listen to the birds after school.” He pulled on his left ear, a nervous gesture. “You really want to know?”

It appeared, from the bristles of the broom that splayed flat against the steps as Jenna leaned forward to listen, that she certainly wanted to know, and she confirmed this with an encouraging nod.

He turned his face to the wall, which he seemed to consider less likely to form an adverse opinion of him. “Then I said that I mean I can hear the birds because I can hear what they’re saying, and at first the teacher just looked at me and then she laughed, and then everyone laughed, and she asked me what the birds are saying, but I felt embarrassed and didn’t say, and then she got angry and said that I must stop daydreaming and that I should listen to her.

“I suppose the older boys heard,” he continued, a quiver in his voice, “’cause they called me bird-boy and asked me what the birds are saying, and I told them that I don’t know, and they kept saying, What’s the birds saying, bird-boy?” He turned to her. “They called me bird-boy.” He looked dejected.

Searching her face, he found her eyes darker and sadder than they usually seemed, and the weak light on the stone made her complexion appear grim and unwholesome.

“You upset?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” She smiled uneasily. “I don’t like it that they tease you, that’s all.”

“But I shouldn’t have said that,” he said, “about the birds. I shouldn’t say things like that if I don’t want to be teased.”

Jenna stretched her back and neck, staring at the ceiling; the bristles of the broom straightened with relief.

“What did you mean, though?” she asked. “About the birds?”

He hesitated. “It’s the same for the trees…or the wind, or the wind through the trees, but it’s usually the birds…” He gave her a severe look. “You won’t tell, will you?”

“I won’t tell,” she assured him, laughing. “I’ve got no one to tell except my dog. You won’t mind if I tell my dog, will you? I tell him everything.” This earned her a small laugh.

“Dogs are fine… You’ll think it’s strange, though.”

“I don’t find a lot of things strange.”

“I meant that I hear them,” he said, “and that I understand them…” He swallowed, eyeing her warily.

“How do you mean? We can all hear the birds and the wind in the trees–I can hear some birds right now.”

“I mean that they say things–” His eyes searched her face, expecting a reprimand.  But she only looked back at him with the same black eyes.

“Like they say you’re lonely,” he whispered, “and that you have been for a long time, and that I should come to you because I can make it better.”

Her brow tensed. A flash of shame marked her eyes. “It’s almost four,” she said, “and you have to be back at four.”

“You angry?”

“No,” she said, looking at the broom–something she knew what to do with, “It’s just a very unlikely story, I think, and I’m not lonely and I don’t need you to keep me company or to keep me out of my work–”

“They say you had a brother and you miss him,” he interrupted.

She heard, for a moment, only her heart in her veins and in her ears, pounding.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking terrified.

“They say that?” she exclaimed. “They really say that?”

He stood up, his hands behind his back, and wondered whether he would have to run again.

“And other things,” he replied, “about other people. But I’ve never told anyone. I don’t think I should. It feels wrong to know things about people if they don’t know you know it, or if they don’t want you to know it.” He took a step away from her. “Is it okay if I hear the birds?” he asked mildly, his hands furtively in his pockets.

“I– I don’t know,” Jenna stammered. In an uneasy, quiet interval, the boy took another step back.

“I think you’re okay, though,” she said.

“You won’t tell?”

“No–just Dudley.”

“Dudley?”

“My dog.”

He smiled jadedly.

“It’s four. You’re late.”

“I know. I thought I’d wait.”

“You’ll get into trouble.”

“I wanted to wait till I know they’re back at the cottages,” he said, putting the cap on his head and hooking his thumbs into his suspenders.

“The other boys?”

He looked at a point somewhere over her left shoulder. “Yeah,” he said.

“Tomorrow, then? If you want to and if you can make it, to keep me out of my work.”

“Yeah,” he replied and walked away dejectedly, “tomorrow.”

*

She sat smoking, slowly savoring the cigarette as she stared at the pale blue door of her little room. It was a room that never had visitors and always looked dusty. Its old coat of yellow paint peeled away from dull concrete walls, leaving behind slivers like plastic leaves that lay spread across unsealed wooden floors. The room had a single, boarded-up, broken window.

She thought of nothing in particular, enjoying the sensation of a soft chair and the warmth of a cup of strong tea. Dudley licked the palm of her left hand, which hung limply over the armrest. She giggled and smiled at him.

“Hey, Duds,” she said gently. He rolled over and exposed his belly, inviting her affection, his tail sweeping the floor. “You want to go out tomorrow, Duds?” to which he responded with a conversational little yap.

It had become their routine, on Thursday afternoons and Sunday mornings, to go out for a walk. On Thursday afternoons, the superintendent went to town and did her shopping; on Sunday mornings she went to church. Otherwise omnipotently present, these were the only times that Dudley could escape the confines of the small room–the superintendent did not approve of pets on the grounds, or “strays,” as she called them.

The other staff–more humane, less ascetic, and maybe through some form of protest against the restrictions on their own freedoms–were aware of Dudley’s roaming, but had never shared this knowledge with the superintendent, who seemed to believe that Jenna’s dog had, for the past two years, quietly subsisted in the little room without having seen the light of day.

Lately, the boy had accompanied Dudley. But Dudley had to be back by four on Thursdays, she had warned the boy, and by noon on Sundays. They had a game, him and the boy–wherever they were and whatever they were doing, when it was time to go home, the boy ran and Dudley chased him and they came storming into the room, out of breath and exhausted.

She got up and checked the door, as she often did, four or five times before she went to bed. The door had three locks on it, two of which she had added. When she’d moved in, one lock had made her feel vulnerable.

Lately, what she disliked was the door itself, which had started to appear frail to her. She’d been thinking she should replace it–there was no point in having three good locks on one bad door.

When she’d moved in, the maintenance staff offered to fix the window. She’d told them not to and that she would do it herself. She’d never taken the boards down and never intended to fix the window. Windows were weak, easy to break. She accepted that the room was darker and colder than it needed to be, but she had never liked windows and disapproved of the way they opened private spaces to the outside world.

She had similar feelings toward mirrors. Mirrors always lie, she believed–you cannot trust what they show you. So she always made sure that she washed well, kept her hair clean and trimmed, the same length all round (which she did herself), and she never used make-up–it was just another lie.

Otherwise, the room had its dull walls and wooden floors, the few pieces of furniture she had need of, a bed, chair, writing desk, some odds and ends in a small kitchen and a small television. She considered all these things, taken together, all that was needed for a sufficiently comfortable life.

She lit another cigarette, continued to condemn the door, which seemed feebler and feebler the longer she looked at it, and finished her tea.

“I love you, Duds,” she said distractedly, looking at the cigarette smoke wisping on the quiet air. The smoke struggled to hold on to itself, then faded until there was nothing left.

*

The only thing that mattered to Dudley was that the sun was out. He pressed himself tightly against the wall next to the door, and darted outside the instant it opened. It had been raining intermittently for weeks, and he had missed his previous two walks. He ran to a spot a few feet from the boy and sat down on the grass so that the boy couldn’t pick him up and take him back inside. Wagging his tail, Dudley brimmed with pent-up energy.

The boy never spoke to him, but he always knew what the boy felt. This made the boy different from other people Dudley knew. He understood that the boy was hesitant to go and that he worried it would start raining again.

Dudley hated getting wet and smelled rain approaching in the air, but was happy to see the boy locking the door.  Dudley wanted to run as fast and as far as he could. He wanted to soak up the sun and the air and every other bit of the world. He wanted to go to the lake, the outer limit of what was known to him.

They took their usual route, Dudley running ahead, the boy following. They made their way toward the river that passed the school grounds, then alongside the densely cropped loblolly and sweet bay trees flanking the river.

Walking at a steady pace, the boy caught up with Dudley, who sat smelling the air and catching his breath. The sun blinked fleetingly behind heavy, gathering clouds. The river to their left did not sound like the gurgling little stream they were used to, but thundered heavily and ominously.

Dudley shook his body vigorously, looking expectantly at the boy. Their walk became more leisurely, and Dudley inclined to a multitude of little distractions of sound and smell. He smelled the soil, the grass, the shrubs and trees, then his ears perked up, his body taut as he yapped at sounds beyond the boy’s range of hearing. He ran this way and that way, following scents the boy couldn’t discern, wrapped in a world with dimensions and life that he alone was privy to. Then he ran to the boy and jumped against him before scampering away again. He chased a few birds that took reluctant flight, and picked up a scent that he followed toward the river and to the base of a tree, where he lost it or lost interest.

By the time they reached the lake, the sky was gray, like cold metal. The boy searched for a dry, soft spot, sat down, and gazed at the dark, shimmering water. Dudley roamed about, his tail stiff and upright.

It was not a large lake, but the quiet black-blue surface made the boy think that it had to be deep. Under the threatening sky, the water seemed to contemplate him in return.

To his right, a river ran into the lake, and where river and lake met, the water churned, swelling to the surface. But the water quickly settled into the calm, dark mirror of the lake–in the depths of which the boy imagined strange creatures to live–before it started rippling and rising to spill into the river they had followed there.

The boy had never seen the lake this full. The bay trees that ordinarily stood on the shore, underneath which he liked to sit, had been swallowed by the lake’s expanded circumference. Their branches stroked its surface, making circling ripples on the water as a breeze stirred through them.

Behind him, Dudley crashed through a patch of cattail. He made a rapid look-at-me circle around the boy and hurled himself back into the thicket.

The boy leaned forward and stared at his reflection in the water. He could see the trees behind him and the sky above. The mirror distorted as it started to rain.

They made their way back along the banks of the river, walking beneath the cover of trees. Soon the boy’s shirt and trousers clung to his skin. It wasn’t cold or windy and he didn’t mind the rain. It made him feel indistinct from nature. What he disliked was his feet getting wet in his shoes, and the sloshing sound it made as he walked.

The banks were barren and slippery and the boy walked slowly, considering each step, careful not to slip. Dudley hurried ahead, his nose to the earth. Whenever he lost sight of the boy, he turned and trotted back hurriedly. The water roared past them, seeming to boil with vigor.

Slowly, the sky began to open in lazy cracks of light, giving tentative glimpses of sun through the canopy. Moisture on the overreaching leaves and branches continued thudding down around them. The chatter of chickadees and wrens awoke in the trees, welcoming a fresher, cooler world and the prospect of insects compelled to abandon the saturated soil and reveal themselves as food.

The call of the wrens was a sound the boy had heard so often it had become one of those background noises he only noticed when he tried to. They said nothing else, however, nothing unlike the usual babble of other birds, which he preferred. The chickadees gargled miserably at the approaching intruders.

Boy and dog, diverted by a particularly narrow and slippery stretch of riverbank, turned and broke into a clearing, where the birdsong sounded dull and much more distant than accounted for by the few steps they had taken away from the river.

The boy was familiar with the clearing, didn’t like it, and usually tried to avoid it. The trees on its periphery had a stunted and exasperated feel to them, as though they resented each other for being clumped too closely together. The only available space for growth was upward, and this they did with the vigor of life that had nowhere else to go. They pushed crooked, densely leaved branches sideward in search of space and light that was not claimed by a neighbor.

The boy sensed that the trees hated things that could move. Little sunlight reached the soil, leaving it dull and lifeless, and the trees stood cold in the subterranean mirror of interwoven roots that echoed the clutter of their unhappy upper world. A sense of loathing saturated the air; a community of many, resenting its constituent parts.

It’s a good thing, thought David, that unlike trees we can seek light and space and seize it where we find it. The trees did not like the presence of the boy, but their collective voice was muddled, and even though he could sense the life and resolve in them, he couldn’t hear them.

In kinship, Dudley rubbed against the boy, drew his ears flat against his head, and gave a low growl; he was uninterested in exchanges with trees that did not involve the emptying of his bladder, and was keen to move along.

The boy stood quietly, listening to the swaying of leaves and branches around him. The trees appeared to move incrementally of their own accord, but he knew that this was not the case, and that there was a breeze higher up in the air, which they conveyed along their tall bodies and into their short, stubby limbs. Shadows in the tentative light made him think of people lurking.

He turned from the clearing. There was a field of pickerelweed in soggy soil that he recognized from previous walks, and he made his way slowly through it. He knew that the vegetation gave way, treacherously, unexpectedly, to the banks of the river, but that the banks soon became wider and should be drier and steadier.

He willed Dudley to stay behind him, close on his heels, and the dog obeyed. With the clearing behind them, they heard the birds again and the rushing river somewhere ahead.

The boy didn’t see it–a rapid movement, a brisk flash of life against the green stalks a few feet ahead of them, a mouse startled by their passage. It was a flash that sparked unthinking things in Dudley and compelled him to give chase, to dash ahead, to catch it.

Then–so abruptly that he was still running, paws flailing in the air–the river swallowed him.

Dudley had never swum before but somehow knew how to. Indifferently, the river carried him along as if he were just another piece of debris, a broken-off branch or uprooted plant.

Roots growing into the water from the trees on the banks pressed against him, pushing and pulling, reaching from below and grazing his paws, trying to get a hold on him and pull him down.

He fought to keep his head above water, but had to kick hard to do so and started to feel tired. Every now and then, his head dipped under the surface and he paddled frantically to breach, snorting through his nose to clear his airways. Then, caught in a whirlpool of sorts, the river pulled him all the way down until he felt soft silt underfoot, and he kicked against the riverbed, propelling himself back to the surface. His breath was short and rapid. He tried to swim toward the banks, but the water twirled and twisted against the resistance of land and drew him back into the stream.

For some time he was aware of the boy running alongside him, calling out. His head bobbed underwater a few more times and then he couldn’t see the boy anymore, but heard him faintly through the trees. Where the river became broader and shallower, he felt the riverbed underfoot and thought he would be fine, but a branch floated up from behind and struck him, the riverbed disappeared and the water swept him away.

He couldn’t hear the boy anymore. He felt exhausted and alone. It started raining again. The trees thinned alongside the river and he glimpsed the school building through the trees. Then the building was gone. Above the roar of the water, everything began to seem quiet and distant.

A few feet ahead of him was a tangle of roots exposed by the deluge; a nearby tree leaned forward, on the cusp of falling over, gazing down at its exposed, torn-apart foundation. The river had swept a thick mesh of branches and uprooted plants between the roots, and Dudley knew that the current would take him there and that he might be able to clamber onto the roots and pull himself out of the water.

He clawed at the roots once he reached them, looking for something to hold on to. With aching legs, he struggled to pull himself up, but the torrent drew his lower body underneath the roots. He lost his grip and became submerged, the roots clouding over him. He tried to press his head through the tangle, desperate for air, struggling to swim out against the current.

He was not afraid. It all seemed very simple to him. He felt the water pulsing through his coat, his heart thumping with the vitality of a life nearly at an end. He opened his eyes to a world dull and gray but peaceful. His lungs opened and flooded, cold and heavy.

The boy searched for him for a long time. He ran until his throat felt raw and tasted like iron. He ran all the way to where the river passed the school building and past the partly uprooted tree where the body rested. Then he ran back toward the lake, scanning the surface of the water and calling out, hoping to hear a little yap, until he passed the place near the clearing where the dog had fallen in.

By then he knew it was too late. He walked back toward the school, rubbing balled-up hands against teary eyes. It was getting dark. The water, a bristling, opaque mass, seemed to mock him. He was about to turn away from the river toward the school, when he noticed the tall leaning tree and how the current turned toward and dug underneath it.

With his knees on the muddy riverbank, clutching a strong, lean branch behind him, he leaned forward and tugged at the branches that clung to the roots. The body, when he found it, was perfectly still, offering no resistance to the pulse of the water around it; its unseeing eyes were open.

Carefully, he pulled the body out and walked away from the river. He had stopped weeping. His face appeared ashen in the failing light. He lay the body down and sat next to it.

He heard the birds again. Properly this time, beyond their sunset chattering. And he heard the breeze swaying through the trees, the murmur of the river some distance away; all the voices in the stillness around him spoke as one and said the same things.

I must, thought the boy.

You cannot, it said. It’s not what you came for; it’s too dangerous, it said. It’s been too long and he’s too far away, it said.

I must, thought the boy, and he picked up the body and cradled it in his arms. He closed his eyes and sighed; the sigh reverberated in the soil beneath him, and in the breeze and the river, and the birds were silent.

*

His body felt warm. He opened his eyes to the darkness of night. He smelled the boy and felt the boy’s head against his body.

He remembered the river and the cold water inside him. He remembered the darkness that had come and how he had disappeared. Then the boy, still looking for him, even there.

There was something wrong with the boy. He licked the boy’s face but the boy didn’t move. He pressed his nose against the boy’s cheek and it felt very cold.

He knew that part of the boy had gone away. He was afraid because he could sense that that part had gone very far away and might not find its way back.

He stood up and barked into the darkness, so that the boy might hear and return. But the boy didn’t come.

Dudley knew he had to go home. That he had to run as quickly as he could.

*

There were six beds in the small infirmary near the orphanage. They had thick, painted-white steel frames, which were chipped all over. Jenna sat on one of the two rocking chairs in the ward, staring at the only bed that was occupied. It looked as though the boy was asleep, but he wasn’t.

She asked the doctor who had come that Thursday evening a week ago, whether the boy should go to hospital. The doctor had said that there was nothing wrong with the boy, that he must have fainted, that he would be up and about soon. But he sounded wary.

It had been a week; the boy remained unconscious and Jenna kept her vigil. She had come every evening after work and stayed until she was asked to leave. Except for her and the boy, the ward remained empty. A single nurse kept watch, but hardly appeared and never spoke except to say, “It’s time to go, dear.”

Outside, on the south-facing side of the building, there were three tall white cedar trees in a neat row, casting their shadows into the room. They seemed to her like sentinels keeping watch over the building; especially when the wind came and bent them graspingly over the infirmary and she could hear branches scratching the tiled roof above her.

She watched the boy without really seeing, her hands folded and motionless on her lap, slowly rocking back and forth.

The doctor had come that Monday. She had sat in a corner and watched him speak to a nurse. No one had asked her to leave or had bothered to notice her. The doctor was surprised the boy hadn’t woken up.

Strange, he seems fine, the doctor had said, poking and staring ineptly. It’s like he’s asleep, he had said; he even seems to be dreaming.

Jenna wondered then whether they would have taken the boy to hospital, whether they would have been less casual, if there had been a tearful mother and an anxious father keeping watch and demanding answers.

Then the doctor had come again that Wednesday, and started mumbling the words “a coma or something.” He’d said that he thought the boy would have “snapped out of it by now,” but that, since he hadn’t, arrangements should be made to move him to hospital.

That hadn’t happened. The boy was still there. She didn’t want them to take the boy because it seemed to her that the boy would be alone then. She wouldn’t be able to go to him in the afternoons if he was in hospital.

Jenna hadn’t told the superintendent that the boy had been walking her dog, even though she was sure the superintendent would find out sooner or later. She had said she’d found the boy when she went for a walk.

Dudley had come back alone that evening, barking frantically, scratching at the door. She had found the boy easily. She knew which routes they usually took, and had assumed they’d gone to the lake since Dudley hadn’t been out for so long.

He had looked so peaceful, his body sunken into the long, soft grass as though he’d been taking a nap. But his face was cold when she touched it and when she spoke his name. For a moment, when he hadn’t moved, she’d thought he had died, but then she’d seen his breath, evaporating white and feebly in the wintry air. No matter how much she had shaken him and said his name, he remained motionless. She carried him all the way to the infirmary, her heart cold and fearful in her chest.

No one else had come to the boy during that week. She saw the unasked question on the nurse’s face when she made her daily visits: Why are you here? Why would you care so much?

Jenna rocked back and forth, the chair squeaking beneath her. A breeze breathed calmly through the trees outside. She left when she realized that the ward was black with night. In the dark at least, she could bring herself to imagine that the boy was simply asleep.

*

On a clear, quiet night near the river, on a stretch of lawn adjacent to the school, a breeze stirs in the otherwise perfectly still air.

Wafting on the grass, the breeze fades and, momentarily, appears to have gone. Then, with a breath drawn deeply from the earth, it rises again, grows stronger, and begins to swirl around its center. It becomes the smallest of frail whirlwinds–a plume of moving air, imperceptible but for a slight stirring in the grass as it steps forward.

As though exhausted by this motion, it toils to hold on to the world around it, nearly collapses; then, with a gasp, it pulls upright and, leaning on empty space, saunters toward the school in a slow meandering dance, pulling up loose, fallen leaves in its progress, giving it visible form that it keenly holds onto.

It passes unseen by the dark, dead windows of the school. Nearby, a dog yaps excitedly. It appears to exhale and dissipate, inhale and expand. It draws past the school and past tall, proud trees, through a small garden toward the infirmary, growing denser with dust and leaves. Grasping against the walls of the small building, it battles to sustain itself; crushed against staunch solid matter.

Finally, near an open window, it exhausts itself and dissolves in a whisper. A single yellow leaf drifts into the room and settles on the wooden floor.

*

Jenna is dreaming. In the dream she walks toward the river and finds the boy lying on the grass, as she had found him before. It’s dark in the dream, and she’s surprised to see that she has a shadow. It’s a shadow that is blacker than the darkness around it, and appears heavier than the mere absence of light. The air is quiet but feels sentient. She is drawn to the trees next to the river.

“Hi,” says a wren on a low branch, shaking its feathers.

“Hi,” says Jenna, “Where am I?”

“You’re near the river.”

“I’m dreaming?”

“Yes, but you’re still near the river,” the bird insists, rubbing its beak underneath a wing.

Jenna stares at it absently. “Why am I here?” she asks after a while.

The bird tweaks its head from under the wing and slants it with amusement. “I don’t know. It’s you that came here.”

“I think I’m looking for the boy.”

“He’s around,” says the bird. “He’ll leave soon. You can’t find him, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t know where he is.”

“That’s why I’m looking,” she says tetchily.

“But you don’t know where to look,” the bird replies, nudging its head underneath the other wing.

“What are you?”

“I’m a bird,” says the bird.

“Why do I have a bird in my dream?”

“Well, I’m a bird even when I’m not in a dream,” replies the bird, seemingly offended.

“Of course,” she muses.

“That’s some vile stuff you have there,” the bird says, pointing at her.

“That’s my shadow,” she explains.

The bird makes an amused whistling sound. “That’s not a shadow,” it says.

“What is it, then?”

“You should get rid of that.”

“But what is it?”

“Leave it behind when you get the chance.”

“I’ll leave it here, then.”

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because this is a dream,” says the bird irritably.

“And I’ll leave it here,” she maintains.

The bird shakes its head as one would to a petulant child. “You can’t leave things behind in a dream,” it says. “That’s like trying to leave something behind inside yourself. Can’t be done.”

Jenna purses her lips and considers this. “You said you’re a bird even when you’re not in a dream,” she argues, “so I can leave you behind.”

“But I’m not part of your dream,” answers the bird, impatiently.

“Then what are you?”

The bird sighs. “I’m a bird,” it says.

“I’m leaving,” says an exasperated Jenna. “I have to find the boy.”

But the bird has left already.

She walks back toward the school. The boy’s no longer on the grass where he had been.

She’s tired of the dream. She opens the door to her room and goes to bed, even though she’s there already. She hears Dudley barking at the window.

The shadow’s still there when the dream gives way to vacant sleep.

*

The boy was awake. The first thing he asked the nurse was whether Dudley was fine. She said he was, since she didn’t want to upset the boy, but had no idea who Dudley was. Then he said he was hungry, and she gave him some bread, called the superintendent to share the news, and went to the kitchen to grill sausages and eggs for the boy.

“You had us worried,” said the doctor that afternoon.

“Sorry,” replied the boy.

“What happened?”

“I fainted,” he offered vaguely.

“Well, you’ve been out cold for a week, David,” said the doctor patiently. “I’ve never known anyone to faint and to have stayed fainted for that long.”

The boy shrugged and stared out of a window.

“It’s a mystery, then,” laughed the doctor.

*

The heat fell in an oppressive simmer on the backyard tree house where a boy sought solace.

It was a small, square tree house, enveloped in a leafy old oak tree. The tree house had been built not as much on the thick branches as around them, with branches poking through its floor and skeletal roof, supporting the structure. It seemed as much a part of the tree as the tree seemed a part of it.

Wooden boards, about three feet high, enclosed it. Otherwise, it was open on the sides. Half of the roof structure gaped open; the other half was covered with aluminum sheets. If there was any wind to speak of, the structure would have been cool and breezy. Ordinarily, a rope ladder led the way inside, but it was drawn up and bundled together, lying next to a boy.

The boy was lying face-down on a faded yellow pillow, where he’d been crying and had fallen asleep. There were a couple of coke bottles and a tin sandwich box next to him, all of which were empty. He was wearing a white and blue sailor-type outfit, had thick brown hair, and was barefoot. On the surface, everything seemed set for a day of fun.

The boy was startled by a sound behind him. He jerked awake and upright, turned around, but didn’t get up.

A figure stood by the entrance of the tree house. The boy couldn’t make out who the figure belonged to since the sun shone blindingly from behind it–a featureless silhouette, like an overexposed photograph. He was not afraid. He could see that the figure was smaller than he was, and he was strong for his age.

“How’d you get up here?” he demanded, pushing the pillow up against the wall behind him and leaning back. He felt drowsy from his nap, not in a mood for unannounced neighborhood children.

“I climbed,” a boy’s voice offered, sounding young and timid.

“You lie,” he said. “Can’t get up here without the ladder.”

“Well, I did,” insisted the other boy, with a nervous quiver in his voice.

He leaned forward and squinted at the visitor, bringing the palm of a hand over his eyes. “Who are you?” he snapped. It had occurred to him that his visitor was quite rude, climbing into his tree house without invitation. He was perfectly entitled to be rude in return, he thought.

“David,” replied the visitor. “You?”

“Dudley–” the boy said icily. “What you doing in my tree house?”

“Heard someone cry–”

“No one cried,” he snapped. He folded his arms and frowned severely.

“Well, I thought someone did,” David insisted.

“If I were it’s none of your business, is it?” Dudley bit. “Where you from? I don’t know a David. There’s no Davids around here.”

“I’m new here,” answered David, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, causing the sun to blink alternately from behind his left and right shoulders, blinding the other boy further.

“Where from?”

“Around.”

“Around’s not a place.”

“Here a bit, there a bit,” he clarified.

“You nomadic?” Dudley asked disdainfully.

“I suppose,” said David and sat down. With the sun now behind his visitor’s head, Dudley could still not make out his face, but could see that the other boy had blonde hair.

“That pillow’s dirty,” David observed, pointing.

“It’s not dirty!” exclaimed a mortified Dudley. “It’s been washed just the other day. It’s old. I carry it around a lot. I like it.”

“It looks dirty.”

“Don’t think I like you much,” Dudley concluded with a scowl.

“Don’t worry about it,” said David and stood up. “I must go.”

“Good.” Dudley dismissed him with the wave of a hand. “Don’t come up here again without asking. You can call from below and I’ll lower the ladder if I want to.”

He looked down to rest his eyes from the glare. His head throbbed. When he looked up again, the other boy was gone and the sun didn’t seem as bright anymore. He got up and looked down the entrance of the tree house, but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. He returned to his pillow, where he quickly fell asleep again.

It was nearly dark when he awoke. He had a headache and went home.

*

“It’s for you,” he said, hoisting the cardboard box from his lap and turning toward her, “for your birthday.”

Jenna took the box and placed it between her feet on the black iron steps of the outside fire escape. She stared at it for a while, ambivalent. “Thank you,” she said.

“Open it,” he prompted.

The box wasn’t wrapped and she pulled the cardboard flaps open. She hadn’t realized it was her birthday until the boy had mentioned it. He moved closer and peeked inside, as if he, too, stood to be surprised by its contents.

She removed from the box a gooseneck bed lamp with a cast iron base shaped like a seashell. The boy stared at her, breathlessly. She thought it was beautiful and said so.

“Someone threw it away,” he explained, his eyes searching her face. Musingly, she turned the lamp over. “It was painted green and looked bad,” he pursued, “but I cleaned it.”

“It’s really nice,” she said, twisting the shade. “Thank you, David.” She turned toward him and her eyes seemed sad.

“It’s got some scratches.” He stroked the base of the lamp. “But it’s heavy, so it shouldn’t fall if someone bumps into it–”

“That’s good.”

“And the bulb didn’t work, but I found one and it works perfectly now, except that it gets very warm once it’s been on a while, and you shouldn’t touch it then–”

“It’s perfect,” she said and rubbed his hair playfully. “I don’t have a bed lamp. I’ll use it every night.”

“To keep the darkness away.” He smiled.

The metal underneath them was uncomfortably hot from the scalding summer sun. They were sitting at the back of the school, between the first and ground floors. She lit a cigarette and kept it in her left hand, away from the boy. They sat quietly for a while.

The boy stood up. The iron frame rang a metallic tonk-tonk as he stepped forward to lean on the railing. He looked over the expanse of grass that sloped to the trees in the distance where the river ran. There was not a soul in sight. The lawns showed patches of brown in the protracted heat of the season.

“You know I’m leaving soon,” Jenna said.

He didn’t answer.

She had told him before that she was leaving the school, that it was time for her to move on. She said that she had saved a bit of money and wanted to find work in the city, that she was keen to start over. She told him that she could have left months ago and that nothing kept her there, except him.

He had told her then not to worry, and that he couldn’t come with her in any event, even if she wanted him to and they allowed it.

“I know,” he said, aloof.

“You know I won’t come back.” She choked back tears.

“I’ll make sure you come back,” he said. “You can’t go yet.”

She shook her head despondently, allowing her gaze to drift. The sky, blue and cheerful, remained indifferent to her melancholy. The boy sat down. She looked at him and wondered whether he didn’t understand, didn’t want to understand, or understood too well. She could never tell with him.

“You understand I can’t come back?” she asked tenderly. “It’s too far away.”

“I know you can,” he insisted, his face drawn in determination.

She fidgeted with the lamp. “You’re stubborn for a ten-year-old,” she said.

He nodded, apparently in agreement.

“Dudley will miss you.”

“I’ll miss him too.”

“I might be able to visit, but can’t promise.”

“I don’t think you’ll be able to,” he shrugged.

She wrapped an arm around him and they sat like that for a while.

“I have to get back to work,” she said. “Don’t want to get in trouble before I leave, you know?”

“Smoke another cigarette,” he said, “No one will know.”

*

It was two in the afternoon on a hot and humid Thursday.

Jenna stood in the hallway on the first floor of the school building, her black rubber boots an inch deep in water. There was an empty bucket next to her, a mop clutched in her left hand, and a forlorn look on her face. A water pipe had burst in the boys’ restroom, flooding the hallway.

Mr. Morris, the science teacher, sat in the science lab, ruminating. He’d been grading papers when he had noticed water seeping into the lab. He was leaning back against a chair, its front legs hovering in the air, his feet on his desk. The curtains in the classroom were drawn and the light inside dim, supplied mostly by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He was waiting for the lab to be mopped and dried, unwilling to leave it unattended, anticipating a long, wasted afternoon.

David, unhappily, found himself in the grim surrounds of the study hall. He glanced at the high ceiling and the rows of small wooden desks, feeling like a bee in a hive laboring in the heart of a summer he had little part of. The air felt sterile and studious, thick with concentration, laced with despair. The chairs had hard wooden backs, mercilessly designed to promote wakefulness. A teacher sat on an elevated platform at the front of the hall.

Jenna lingered listlessly in the long, wet hallway. At the other end of the hallway, from an open door, white light gushed toward her. She barely noticed the braided, fabric-insulated power cord draped across the hallway from Ms. Carter’s classroom to the science lab. No one, in fact, had given much attention to the cord in the nearly two months it had been lying there.

Mr. Morris had been livid the day the plug socket in the science lab had stopped working. He had barked at Jenna to find a power cord and bring it to him. As she’d followed him back upstairs, with the cord wrapped over a shoulder, he wondered loudly at the insanity, the lack of good sense, which would install a single plug socket in a science lab, and had stomped insolently as he walked to purge his anger.

Proceeding in this vein, he had burst into the young Ms. Carter’s class, interrupting her mid-sentence, saying, “If you don’t mind,” had marched to the plug socket behind her desk and promptly staked his claim to it, mentioning that, “It’s just for today,” as she had gaped at him wordlessly while he strung the cord through her classroom, past the boys’ restroom, and into the science lab, giving it frequent, impatient jerks when it got stuck, then seethed to his restless class to settle down and dismissed Jenna with the wave of a hand.

Ms. Carter, it transpired, had no need of the plug socket in her classroom. Disregard for the cord extended to the dozens of feet that trampled it daily, especially where it looped over the hallway, in front of the restroom, and in the entrances to Ms. Carter’s classroom and the science lab, where the daily multitude passed. No one noticed how frayed the cord had become or at how many points the insulation had been sheared away, exposing the wiring.

Jenna glowered at the wooden floor, which had become bloated in places. By next week, she thought bitterly, she’d have left and restoring the floors would be someone else’s duty, and what a poor job, her successor would think, had she done.

David sat back and glanced around covertly. The study hall was packed to capacity, desks crammed together so tightly one could barely move between them. He perched his pencil at the top of his slanted desk and watched it roll down, making a crisp, light, musical sound. He caught it before it fell to the floor. He did this a few times, earning frowns and discouraging whispers from the immediate vicinity. Four large doorways gaped on either side of the hall and small, high windows were thrown open, but the air inside felt warm and tired of intermingled breath, making him feel nauseous and trapped.

He sensed a growing disquiet, like static in the air before a thunderstorm, building in the air around him. He strained over his desk, seeking a glimpse of the outside world, confirmation that what he felt had resonance with reality. Warm light washed through the doorway. There was not a cloud in sight.

Mr. Morris, partial to double-breasted suits and colorful paisley ties, always appeared sweaty and rather uncomfortable in summer. With his head drooping sleepily forward, his chin disappeared into the loose folds of skin on his neck. He seemed stunted, a plant in arid soil and perpetual shade. Most of the boys in his classes were taller than him, and he had developed a surly, acidic manner as a general preemptive strategy.

Hearing the approach of Jenna’s industry, he awoke from his slumber, still, somewhat perilously, leaning back in his chair. He pushed his glasses back over the bridge of his nose from where they had started slipping, and pulled a handkerchief from an inside jacket pocket, which he used to dab at pearls of sweat that had formed on his forehead. For a while, he simply stared at his shoes, the handkerchief dangling in his left hand. Then he started fiddling with a pocket watch, flicking it open and closed. He put the pocket watch and handkerchief away and started humming an indistinct tune, pulled at his tie but didn’t loosen it, considered doing some work while he waited, but ended up languidly refolding his hands over his chest.

To Jenna it seemed as if the water level had dropped a bit. She had been mopping for the better part of an hour, occasionally going to the boys’ restroom to empty the bucket. Her back ached but she knew from experience that the pain would go away or she’d get used to it. When the mop slipped from her grip and she bent over to retrieve it from the water, she was relieved for the change of posture.

Mr. Morris heard her stifled grunt at the same time he noticed the light bulb in the science lab start to flicker. In the strange passage of seconds, which felt like a very long time, his eyes fell and settled on the power cord where it appeared from under the door and snaked into the lab. In the same passage of time, it occurred to him how reckless he had been. He wanted to get to his feet, but found himself stricken with fear, blinking at the floor to see how far the water had advanced into the classroom.

A minute passed. Then another. He gingerly placed his feet on the floor, first the one and then the other, remaining seated and clutching the side of the desk with a grimace. The light bulb flashed, waxed and waned. He considered that the woman might be dead and that it was really all his fault. His eyes lingered on the floor for a few more petrified seconds, then he started making his way toward the seemingly innocuous plug socket.

For David the static in the air had finally built to a level where the thunder struck deep within him. He drew shocked gasps as he jumped up, his chair clattering backward, shattering the consecrated silence. The teacher barked an instruction, the import of which he didn’t register. By the time she started shrieking he was running, oblivious to the bruising of his hips and legs as he crashed through the densely packed interior of the hall.

Mr. Morris was looking for a pair of rubber gloves and, having found and fitted some, flipped the switch of the plug socket on the floor, pulled the plug from the socket, and hurled it away from him. He was out of breath. His heart thumped in his chest. Alone in the middle of the classroom, he looked desolate and lost. Streaks of hair, ordinarily plastered back against his scalp, hung limply over his face, revealing the shiny bald back of his head.

With the knuckles of his left hand, flinching, he touched the water near the door. Then he poked at it with his left shoe. Standing on tip-toes, he leaned over the water and pulled the door open, took a deep breath, then ran through the water, past the slumped body in the hallway, and down the stairs to where it was dry.

Only then did he inhale again and turned to look at the woman. Her knees and elbows were drawn toward her chest, a bracing posture; her eyes were open but dull. Remarkably, she still held the handle of the mop. Her long hair, on the side of her head that was not partly submerged, was spread open and floated on the water. Her mouth gaped stiffly. He considered pulling her out of the water but, even though he had never seen a dead body before, knew that he was looking at one and decided not to risk it.

He took the stairs down to a cabinet on the ground floor. With shaking hands, he pulled a bunch of keys from his jacket and fidgeted clumsily. He unlocked and opened the door to a fuse box and flipped everything down. Leaning with open hands pressed against the frame of the cabinet, he whimpered and gasped uncontrollably. Then he turned and hurried through the lobby and down the outside stairs toward the infirmary, his blue paisley tie still perfectly positioned.

David came up the back fire escape to the outside first floor door, which he knew would be open, and ran into the hallway, where he knew he’d find her. He kneeled in the water and sat down next to her, cross-legged, cradling her head in his lap. “Don’t worry,” he said.

Jenna was dreaming. In the dream she walked toward the end of the hallway, to the classroom flooded with summer sun. But when she walked through the door she found herself next to the river and the world was perfectly motionless and quiet. She turned to find that the door had gone.

Then the boy was with her and told her not to worry, as he had often done before. She tried to answer but couldn’t find her voice. The boy stretched his hand toward her and she took it.

“Leave it,” he said, frowning at the darkness lurking in her shadow.

In the dream they started running. They ran hurriedly, with urgency. They rushed through the strange quiet place where she had no voice, where the grass was soft but made no indentations as they passed, where the air was cool and fresh but she didn’t breathe it. They ran all the way back to the school, up the fire escape, and into the hallway, where she saw the sunlit open door again. Only then did the boy let go of her hand.

She sat down. She felt exhausted. Water held her body coldly and she had a stinging pain in her chest. She choked and turned on her back. She was conscious only of pain and of the boy sitting next to her. Then feet thudded in the lobby downstairs. The boy got up, walked to the sunlit room at the end of the hallway and closed the door behind him.

In what felt like in instant, she awoke from the dream in the infirmary, blinking at light that seemed too bright and stung her eyes, flinching at linen that felt harsh against her skin.

The nurse there told her that she’d been there more than a week, and handed her a glass of water.

She didn’t understand. “Where’s David?” was the first thing she thought to ask, the first thing that seemed to matter.

“That boy ran away,” the nurse answered quickly, in an excited, breathless whisper, as if she had expected the question. “The other day,” she said, “he jumped up and ran away, just like that! And no one has seen him since.”

*

The bus came to a standstill in a vermilion twilight. Jenna, appearing half-asleep, struggled down the steps toward the pavement, lugging a worn black duffel bag after her. She had Dudley clutched under her left arm; with tail rigid and snout reaching into the air, he gulped at the unfamiliar surroundings of the city. The bus rumbled off. Summer air shone warm and apricot on her skin.

They lingered at the stop for quite some time. Jenna gazed to her left and to her right and toward the mountains, low and hazy on the far horizon. Very much like Dudley, she appeared like an animal anticipating that daring first step after a long detainment.

She had chosen an apartment from a classified ad, and had sent the deposit and first month’s rent by check in the post. She worried about that now, fearing her first misstep in what she hoped would be a new beginning, that she might find the ad a fraud, the apartment non-existent, her hopes dashed.

The landlord had written that the bus would stop outside a beauty salon–as it had–and that she should follow the road in the direction the bus had come from. He had written that the road would fork and that the building would be right there, smack in the middle of the fork, and that he’d be there, that he always was, waiting with the key.

A woman with a meticulous bouffant hairdo passed near them, grinned with a familiarity that made Jenna squirm, and tried to pat Dudley, who snarled and snapped at her. She scoffed indignantly and hurried away. On the other side of the road, an elderly man leered at them. Somehow this prompted her into action. She turned, dragging the duffel bag after her, hoping it wouldn’t tear. Dudley fidgeted, but unconvincingly so, as though he’d rather stay under her arm but didn’t want her to know it.

It did not take long to find the apartment block, right where she expected it to be, but she was surprised to find something as she had expected, and froze in a nervous stance. It was a four-story, red brick building, triangular, fitting the fork in the road, with large wooden sash windows facing the street on either side of it. Overhead, a tangle of telephone wires and electrical cables crisscrossed from one street to the other.

Somewhere nearby a car braked and hooted irately. She blinked and startled forward. She crossed the road toward the entrance, reprimanding Dudley, who had started to squirm, and awkwardly pulled the bag along.

She found a small brass bell on the counter in the empty lobby and rang it gingerly, scowling at the dimly lit interior. Somewhere behind the counter, behind pigeonholes for post, a door creaked. A man appeared hurriedly, clearly inconvenienced.

The landlord (she assumed, since he hadn’t introduced himself) was a squat, perfectly bald man with a gleaming head, round as a ball, and a generous smile that did not extend to the morbid lines on his face and his sullen eyes. He opened a drawer and rummaged for a key, which he fumbled into her hands. Then he mentioned something about a television program he was watching and didn’t want to miss, if she would excuse him. As he hurried away, he shouted over his shoulder that it’s number 206, but that she would know that already, that she should let him know whether everything’s alright, and (just before the door creaked shut again), that he had turned the geyser on that morning.

She looked around for an elevator that didn’t exist. The duffel bag thumped and clanked clumsily as she pulled it up the stairs. She put Dudley down on the first floor landing and he followed her morosely, showing no interest in wandering from her line of sight into this strange new world.

The stairway and corridors were deserted, but the building felt lively. She had forgotten the hum of a city, the perpetual underlying drone; voices and movement and chattering televisions strained through doors, walls, and ceilings–the beehive surreptitiously abuzz.

Panting, she opened the door to number 206, ushered Dudley inside and dropped the duffel bag. Standing in the middle of the living room with his back straight and tail erect, he sniffed the air suspiciously, critically.

As advertised, the apartment was unfurnished but recently repainted and renovated. The living room sported coral pink walls, the bedroom and bathroom a sunny yellow. There were wooden floors all over; except for the small kitchen, which had a patterned gray linoleum floor, copper highlights in the fixtures and turquoise walls.

She loved it. All of it. She devoted the better part of an hour hovering from room to room, drinking it all in.

In the living room, two large, uncovered windows faced downtown. Car lights flickered lazily on the streets. The vermilion light from a short while ago was fading into a dirty blue dusk. Clouds like feathers, flecks of dusty down, scattered the sky.

On her first night back in the city, in her new, empty apartment, Jenna slept in the living room on the floor underneath an old comforter, with her head on the duffel bag. It took her a long time to fall asleep as she listened to the rumble of the city at night and gazed through the windows. But she felt content and excited, brimming with unfamiliar optimism.

She mulled over the things she wanted to buy the next day, added and subtracted from her savings, made mental furniture placements, moved things here and there, estimated measurements, and scratched items from her list altogether.

When morning broke, it caught her off guard and she tried to remember whether she had slept at all, tried to discern where thoughts and dreams had become distinct. But the sun flushed golden hues across her face, and when she opened her eyes and had to blink at the light, she assumed she had slept, even though she marveled at how the waking world now tallied with her dreams.

She had a bath and bound her hair high up on her head. Unthinkingly, she opened the medicine cabinet so that she couldn’t see the mirror, and brushed her teeth.

When she returned to the living room, Dudley trotted toward her, sniffed her ankles keenly, and gave her the happy, expectant look he had developed to ask for food. She dug into the duffel bag to find two saucers and a can of corned beef, which she opened and scooped out, filling the other saucer with water. Then she sat on the floor against a wall and watched him eat.

There was nothing else to eat in the apartment, and she decided to go to one of the many pavement cafés she had noticed on her way there the previous day.

It was early when she closed the front door and made her way down the stairs. Outside, in the cold, morning-bright streets, she found the cafés closed except for one, where the staff’s lack of enthusiasm suggested that her arrival was premature. She ordered a coffee and waited twenty minutes for it, sitting inert, hands folded on her lap, watching the streets become livelier.

Initially, she saw mostly men, hurrying along in black and gray flannel suits, their hands stuck in their pockets against the morning chill. They looked determinately ahead, sure of where they were going and how to get there, uninterested in anything else.

With her coffee done and a waiter finally asking whether she’d like to order something to eat, she asked for a boiled ham sandwich and an orange juice.

The sun higher, the air warmer, women began to appear, with their proud heels and elegant gloves, swing skirts and pencil skirts, rolled bangs and soft curls, and she touched her hair self-consciously, thinking that the time had come to get a decent hairdo.

She asked the waiter, as she settled her check, where she could find a furniture store. She followed his directions and ended up at a church. A gardener at the church directed her one street down and two blocks to her right.

Jenna had never seen a department store that large before, and spent most of the remainder of the morning strolling and staring, resisting the impulse to make unplanned purchases. Early in the afternoon, she went to a furniture and home ware store with bright overhead lamps and a sneering, unpleasant-looking salesman who seemed to have judged from her appearance that she was unlikely to buy anything. But his attitude became increasingly brisk and gracious when she selected a teak platform bed, chartreuse shag rug, Formica dining table set, pink chenille bedspread, and two sets of cream sheer curtains. She requested delivery before the close of business that day, and paid cash.

As she turned to leave, she saw a double vanity dresser with a mirror–almost like the one she’d had as a girl. The overhead lights gleamed on the mirror’s surface, glinting over the cherry veneer and brushed nickel handles. It was beautiful, and she bought it.

That evening, she sat in her living room on one of the new dining set chairs, smoking and watching the sunset. She sat pensively until nearly all light had drained from the day and a velvet indigo sky glanced back at her. She thought of David and how she missed him. She wondered where he was and whether she’d ever see him again.

The mirror stood boxed and wrapped in a corner next to a window. She got to her feet and lingered in front of it. Then she opened it, tearing at broad strips of masking tape and corrugated cardboard. She gasped, clutched her chest, stood transfixed.

From within the mirror, David looked back at her. In his eyes she saw her own eyes, and she understood that he came from her and that he was part of her; yet something wholly different. And then he waved happily, turned and walked into the deep emptiness behind him until the mirror was empty and reflected nothing but the barren wall behind her.

But when she blinked, she saw only her own reflection, as simply and as clearly as if she’d stood there all along.

She stood like that for a long time. In unchanging artificial light, she met her own gaze and held it.

Bait by Sarah Marshall

Merry-Go-Round by Gabrielle Hovendon

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