Chapter 1

Down pouring rain river streamed down the pavement of Route 305. Wind tore through a field, bending the weeds horizontal. The sky was darkening, bringing night early on this November evening.

A green ‘93 Corolla came around the curve with a broken windshield wiper scraping against the glass and a disconnected rubber piece flapping in the rain and a back bumper covered in stickers.

Inside, the Corolla’s dash had layers of cigarette ash and the glove compartment hung open with a gas station hot dog container on it.

The driver and owner of this beauty, Ray, gripped the steering wheel’s red duct taped areas at ten and two. He was a dreamboat with blue eyes, blond hair short enough to comb, but long enough to be messy, and perfect skin. When standing, he was six foot… two inches when he wore his boots, but tonight he went for his green high top Chucks that were as soaked as his denim jacket.

Missy rode shotgun with her hand stuffed down the ripped hole of Ray’s pants. To the jocks and bankers, she was a manic pixie dream girl; her flawless, long brown hair with a blue streak framing her face. She was a rocker chick in a leather jack, Eels tshirt, tight blue jeans, and faded boots.

“I’m not singing,” Freddie said from the backseat.

Missy leaned around her seat to look at him.

“Yes. You are.”

Freddie was Bizarro Ray. He was tall with shaggy black hair and gray eyes, not bad looking, but unlike Ray, he didn’t hit every branch of the attractive tree. He wore a long john under a t-shirt, unripped jeans, and black low top Chucks. Where Ray came from a well-to-do family who were a little confused how Ray’s behavior became so liberal; Freddie tended toward long sleeves to hide old scars and often slipped by his parents as the only living son with two younger sisters.

“Ray back me up, here.”

“You’re singing, Pally.”

“You guys…”

“Band manager has spoken!” Ray yelled and pounded his fist into the roof.

“Jesus, don’t blow the roof off,” Missy said, ducking down.

“I vote we get a new manager that’s not sleeping with the band leader,” Freddie said.

“Motion denied,” Ray said. He kissed Missy’s hand, she put his hand back on the steering wheel.

“Please, pay attention to the road.”

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Missy pulled the sun visor down to flip the mirror up. She went heavy handed on the mascara, then turned to her deep-pocketed purse for lipstick.

Breaking the silence, Ray sang

“And you know nothin lasts forever… nahnahnah hearts can change…”

Freddie joined him for,

“In this November rain!”

“You guys are terrible,” Missy said.

She turned to look at Ray, her open Mulberry lipstick held in her left hand and the cap in her right.

“Shit!” Ray yelled and slammed the breaks, but the wheels skidded on the wet road.

A boom followed by a metallic thud hit the car as the body of a six point buck flipped onto the hood and went full force through the windshield. The buck’s antlers pierced Ray as he pulled at the wheel, but the Corolla’s balding tires did nothing against the road’s slippery texture. The back end was snagged into the loose dirt shoulder and the rest of the car followed.

As the Corolla began falling, Freddie remembered the gravel pit behind them. The gravel pit was usually to their right when driving down the road, but at this very moment it was behind him, about a hundred more feet down the hill.

“Ray!” Freddie screamed.

The car back flipped, landing hard with tires popping.

For minutes, there was only the sound of rain hitting the car’s roof.

The buck’s body was twisted with a broken neck. The windshield had a gaping hole where its antlers tore backwards in the fall.

Missy sat unconscious; her head rolled against the window and blood in her hair.

Freddie stirred in the backseat. A stream of blood came down his forehead. His hands were bruising already.

“Missy?”

Her name came out of his mouth like crumpled paper.

“Miss, you okay?” He opened his eyes this time.

Ray was bad. Ray resembled a zombie in the low-budget horror movies they rented from Movie World; only this was real. The blood on his jacket… the steering wheel… the hood of the car…

“Ray! Shit.”

Freddie pulled the door handle, but the door was jammed. He leaned back, gripping the handle with sprained fingers, and kicked it open.

He scrambled out, falling to his knees from disorientation. He stood up, hanging on the door to open Ray’s. His shoe was caught in the mud and ripped from his foot. When he took a balancing step, he welcomed the cold shock to his system.

“Missy! Missy, wake up! You’re gonna be fine. Somebody help us! Come on, Missy. Wake up!”

Chapter 2

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Warm, orange streetlight glowed through sheer curtains over an open window with loose screen stapled to the frame into Missy’s living room.

The apartment was haphazardly built from the office and storage above the defunct Hinsdale Bar. The dark carpet hid stains from past residents, but also gave a disturbing shadow against the white walls. The front door was new, but the drywall cracked in the summer and a few of the doorways weren’t even.

Old, wooden Pepsi boxes were fastened to the wall shelves displaying paperbacks and dusty hardcovers. Red dairy crates hold a record collection ranging from Elton John to Afghan Whigs to obscure dollar gems and lesser known jazz.

 On the vintage floral design couch, Freddie slept fully dressed down to his mangled black socks. He was five years older than the younger man riding in the back of Ray’s car with several scars since the accident. His foot jerked forward, chest popped up, face tightened in a terrified clench of his teeth. His eyes opened with a gasp of air.

Beside the couch, Missy’s greyhound-shepard, Pepper, stood at attention. Her David Bowie eyes were trained on Freddie as he scrambled off the couch and held tightly to every handhold to the bathroom.

The door slammed. Fingertips scraped the wall; the lightswitch clicked and hard light seeped through the bottom of the door.

Inside, Freddie laid on his side, pants and boxers pulled down to his thigh; blood ran from a fresh cut on his hip next to a mess of past cutting scars; a razorblade sat in his fingertips. His breathing slowed and his lips relaxed so drool spilled to the floor. His eyes focused on the bathtub.

The pink flamingo shower curtain was pulled open. Ray sat with his feet propped on the faucet. He was dressed as he was in the car – Andrew Wood t-shirt, leather jacket, new jeans ripped in the thigh, and green high top Chuck Taylor’s. His face hadn’t aged a day; his hair was the perfect messy length.

     “You were dreaming again, Pally,” Ray said.

     “No shit, Sherlock.”

Freddie reached up to spin a length of toilet paper off the spindle. He wiped his hip and held pressure of the cut.

     “How bad is it?”

     “Not that bad.”

     “How bad was the dream?”

Freddie ignored him.

     “That one again? You okay?”

Freddie threw the bloody toilet paper wad. It sailed through Ray to land in the tub.

     “If I were still alive, I’d be real upset with you for that.”

    “I’m sure you would.”

Freddie pulled gauze and tape from the medicine cabinet. He made quick work a bandage and stuck it on his hip.

    “Think Missy won’t notice how small that roll of gauze has gotten?”

    “She already has, we talked about it.”

    “Gonna go back to sleep? You got a doc appointment tomorrow, you think he won’t notice you didn’t sleep again?”

    “For being daed, you’re on my balls pretty fucking good.”

Pepper whined and scratched the bathroom door.

    “See, even the dog thinks you’re being an asshole,” Freddie said.

    “Me? I think she’s saying you’re being an asshole.”

    “Whatever man, duty calls.”

***

Hinsdale’s Main Street was a ghost town at four a.m. Morning dew began settling over fallen leaves and lawns. The neighborhood was dark except the big brown house two doors down from Missy with a tire swing and empty harness hanging from two full-grown elm trees. The front bushes were covered in fake cobweb; giant pipe-cleaner spiders and sheet ghosts hung from the elm trees; every window displayed a, now vintage, cardboard decoration of a witch, goblin, ghost, and pumpkin.

Pepper pulled the full extension of the hazard orange leash with Freddie puffing a cigarette behind her. Nose to the ground, she sniffed out her pee spot near the road.

The sky lightened around the tips of pine trees. It was the darkest before dawn moment when the darkness cracks under the oncoming sunlight. The stars faded with the blackness to blue; the earliest birds began chirping within the branches.

Pepper finished and stood up, scoping out a prey.

     “Pepper, you ready? Let’s go home,” Freddie said. He tugged the leash, but Pepper tugged back hard enough for him to drop his cigarette. “Damn.” Freddie bent down, grabbed the cigarette with his fingertips as Pepper leapt forward, tearing the leash from Freddie’s hand. “Pepper! Get back here!”

Pepper darted across the street, her white spots and the flopping orange leash were all Freddie could see as she ran into a yard of trees.

Freddie jogged after her. Standing at the edge of trees, he remembered the cigarette and put it out on his shoe.

     “Pepper!”

Freddie clapped his hands.

     “Pepper, come on!” His voice was a hushed, terse tone more than a yell.

Leaves rustled in the dark. Freddie’s eyes began to adjust to this darkness and shapes began to form. For a minute, his brain translated the tree’s texture as a crocodile vortex, then slowly became the hooded figure he’d dreamt of several times since first seeing it in his bedroom doorway when he was seven.

He closed his eyes hard for the colors to appear and reopened them. Only trees were in front of him and Pepper sat at his feet.

Chapter 3

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Daylight had broken behind the overcast sky. The once dark neighborhood was well lit and safe with the most frightening vice still being the empty harness swinging in the breeze next door.

Missy’s porch was dressed for Halloween with sun-faded strings of orange and purple lights tacked along the railing with tiny, plastic pumpkins attached every third bulb. Two pumpkins were on display – one with carved out triangle eyes and a jagged frown; the other had a knife stabbed in it.

Freddie sat in a plastic lawn chair eating cereal next to a weather beaten table with a failed high school ceramics project turned ashtray saving a half smoked cigarette. He’d swapped his jacket for a zip-up hoodie he left unzipped, but wore the hood.

Pepper sat watch at the top of the stairs; her chest pressed against a wooden plank, painted up as Plank from Ed, Edd, and Eddy, serving as a gate.

Freddie finished the last of his bottom shelf brand cinnamon cereal and set the bowl down.

     “Pepper, want some milk?”

Pepper turned around and happily plopped down with the bowl between her paws, lapping up the milk.

The front door opened, Missy stepped out, barefoot in galaxy print leggings and an oversized sweater. Her hair was a grown out bob and purple becoming lavender, her nail polish was chipped, and the bags under her eyes darkened the fire she’d had long ago.

She held an orange owl mug steaming with coffee as she sat down in the empty lawn chair.

    “No wonder she likes you better.”

    “Was I not supposed to give her milk?”

    “It gives her gas and diarrhea.”

    “Sorry.”

    “She sleeps with you, so I’m not too worried about it.”

Freddie lit the half cigarette and put it back on the ash tray. Missy set the coffee mug down and took the cigarette; Freddie picked up the mug.

Missy squinted her eyes looking at the clouds hanging in the sky with slivers of sunlight breaking through. A breeze swept through the trees, knocking straggler leaves loose to flutter to the ground. The yard Pepper got lost in amongst the trees was far more innocent in daylight. The ground looked like a yellow, brown, orange, and red blanket had been rolled out under the trees.

    “You gonna smoke that thing, or let it burn?”

Missy held the cigarette out to him. He slipped his fingers around the filter without touching her hand.

    “You sleep okay?” She asked and took the coffee back.

Freddie let a long drag of smoke go. He watched Pepper take her spot at the gate, turning her attention from left to right, then focusing in something below.

    “Yeah.”

    “Bullshit.”

    “If you don’t believe me, why do you ask?”

    “To see if you’re going to lie to me.”

     “I don’t know why I bother.”

     “I don’t either. You know I’m going to catch you and call you on it. Would you rather I talk behind your back like your family?”

     “Is that too much to ask?”

     “Yes… What’re you doing today?”

     “Going to the cemetery, then working. Why?”

     “Jerry wants to hire another person at the arcade, I told him he should hire you.”

     “So you can be my boss at two jobs? Thanks, but no.”

     “I’m the easiest boss you’ve ever had. You know how many write-ups you should have at the Castle?”

     “The arcade has kids. You want me to work with kids? I’ll put one through the wall.”

     “First, there really aren’t that many kids unless it’s a party. Second, who cares? It’s just that dumb flag store next door, no one will notice the hole.”

     “Let me think on it?”

     “Sure, but make sure you think about it.”

     “Is there more coffee?”

     “Yeah, will you refill my cup?”

Freddie took the mug and went inside.

The wind picked; tree branches rustled together, dry and crackled leaves rattled down the street. A chill swooped through the porch.

Pepper lowered her head, still keeping watch.

Missy pulled her knees to her chest and held her feet. She was aware of her edgy teen magazine good looks, but her feet were her own favorite part of her. She was flat footed with narrow heels and long feet. Her toes were stubby, so she rarely painted them, but in this cold, they were skinny and nearly bloodless. The mole on her inner right foot had been the cause of much unwanted attention when she was a kid. Its size was huge on a six year old’s foot, which led to podiatrists and specialists based on her mother’s worry. Poking and prodding to show it to people until she was old enough to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s, Missy didn’t bare her feet until Ray died. Until then, she didn’t think she was strong enough to be vulnerable.

Now she could walk over glass.

The wind whipped from another direction, blowing her hair around and sending cold spells through her body.

      “Pepper, come on, let’s go inside.”

Pepper looked to the street once more for good measure before following Missy inside.

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***

The funky smell lingering face level in the kitchen could have been blamed on the garbage by the door or the piled up dishes or the rank food left to fend for itself in the fridge. Whatever the source, it went ignored by Freddie stationed at the coffee maker pouring a heap of sugar in his mug.

      “Make you a deal, I’ll give you a ride to your mom’s if you clean the fridge.”

The fridge was old enough to be pale yellow with wood panel door handles. Magnets dating back to an 80’s childhood held photos of Missy, Freddie, and friends from high school and barflies. On the freezer door was a poorly lit, disposable camera shot of Missy and Freddie on a small bar stage. They were younger; Missy’s hair longer and Freddie’s face cleaner, his eyes more innocent. Missy stood at the microphone in a long red evening gown with her arms exposed and catching all the camera flash. Her eyes were closed as her mouth formed to create a sound lost in time. Freddie sat on an amp behind her, his shaggy hair tossed to the side so his eyes stared at Missy.

     “I don’t think that’s where the smell is.”

     “Fine. Find the source of el stinko and I’ll give you a ride.” 

     “For that deal, I’ll walk.”

    “Make sure you take an umbrella.”

Missy began walking toward her room, Pepper at her heels.

     “Hey, Miss.”

     “What?”

     “Can you give me a ride to Doc Stephens?”

Missy turned around. “Find the smell?”

     “I asked for a ride to Doc Stephens, not Ma’s.”

     “Fine. I’ll make you a new deal.”

     “If this involved medication-”

     “No. If you get rid of the smell, you can lie to me all you want and I won’t hassle you.”

     “That’s barely fair, the smell’s probably a dead squirrel in the wall.”

     “Better get a shovel then.”

     “Fine. Deal.”

     “Don’t you want to know the terms if you don’t get rid of the smell?”

     “I’m afraid to ask.”

     “You tell the truth.”

Missy shook her hand out of her sweater sleeve and stuck it out to Freddie. He looked at her tiny hand that once strummed and picked a guitar in the park at night while he and Ray argued over the meaning of “Scentless Apprentice” and took it in his. He felt the calluses were gone from her fingertips.

Freddie stared into Missy’s eyes.

     “If I do find the man with the terrible smell and dispose of him, you have to play your guitar again.”

Missy didn’t falter from his gaze.

     “Deal.”

They shook hands and gently released each other.

     “You got any gloves here?”

     “What’re you? A sissy boy needing gloves to do the dirty job?”

     “Ain’t no sissy, leprechaun.”

Missy walked to her room.

     “Sissy!”

     “Leprechaun!”

Missy’s bedroom slammed shut.

Chapter 4

 Photo by Julie Orlick

Photo by Julie Orlick

A car blew the red light at First and Union, grazing the chipped front end of Missy’s seafoam green Toyota Shadow.

 Missy laid on the horn, stuck her head out the window, and yelled, “Hey! This is a ninety-two Toyota Shadow! How dare you!”

She lit her cigarette, pulled out of the gas station, and swung a left into the hospital parking lot. Her engine rattled past an ambulance at the emergency room entrance. She stared as a paramedic opened the door.

***

     (Five Years Ago)

Under the invasive fluorescent hospital hallway lighting, Missy lay on the gurney she was brought in on. Blood stemming from her hairline dried on her cheek and a cut on her forehead bled through a gauze pad. She’d pulled the oxygen mask off her face so it clung to her throat. Her right hand was in a brace, her left arm stretched over her chest to hold Freddie’s hand.

 Freddie stared down the hallway. He was rooted next to Missy like a dog on a leash. His long john was soaked with rain and mud with splashes of red. His hands were wrapped in bandages and he favored his left leg.

     “Freddie! Look at me!”

 Freddie shook and hyperventilated. His nerves trembled through his desperate squeeze in Missy’s hand.

     “Freddie!”

***

A knock on the Shadow’s trunk, followed by, “Hey, wake up!” knocked Missy from her daydream.

Missy’s hand rested on the open window and her cigarette had burned almost all the way. She looked back to see Angel coming around the passenger side to climb in.

Of everyone they’d gone to high school with, no one expected Angel to be the most stable. She was a wild ginger with red curls and enough freckles to represent the lost souls of the world. Five years ago, she chased pills with a bottle of vodka and fought Freddie every time he tried to get her home safe. She blamed his sainthood on why she took care of him after the accident, through the night terrors, the cutting… but everyone has a breaking point. After working overnight, she pointed to all his faults and broke up with him. When she left, he took a knife from the pile of dirty dishes she yelled at him about and cut five inches of the inside of his arm open.

The passenger door creaked as Angel opened it and tossed her bag on the floor before getting in.

Five years older than the party girl she was, she was beautiful in a mature way. She covered her wrinkles and bags, but there was a story behind her almond brown eyes that was no one’s business that wasn’t there. She’d traded her check-out girl smock for nurse’s scrubs and popped purple grapes instead of stolen Xanax.

     “Thanks for picking me up, this was a shift from hell.”

     “No problem.”

Missy shifted into reverse.

     “Amanda should be ready when we get over there, I told the teachers I’d be by early today. Zach is coming over at seven, which gives me enough time to get home, get Amanda dinner and myself ready while she’s in the bath before Zach gets there.”

Angel digs a cigarette out of her bag, Missy hands her a lighter. She took a long drag and exhaled out the window. She looked at Missy as they passed the parked ambulance.

     “What’s up with you?”

Missy shrugged. “I have to close the restaurant tonight, but I’m probably gonna hit the Press Box after, in case you and Dave want to swing by.”

     “You kids stay up too late. I’m old now.”

     “I’m older than you!”

     “Once you have a kid, you’re automatically your age plus theirs.”

     “Does that work with fucked up friends?”

     “If it did, we’d be a hundred years old now, honey.”

     “True.”

     “Did Freddie do something? Or not do something?”

     “I’m moving to California.”

     “What? How?”

     “Gabby, Ray’s sister. She’s renting a house with a couple rooms and one of then is opening up next month… and she’s down to help me out while I get on my feet out there.”

     “What are you going to do out there? I mean, you’re not an actress, shit you don’t even watch movies.”

     “Hey, I like Pretty in Pink.”

     “Seriously, Miss.”

     “I don’t know, Angel.” Missy stopped short at a red light. “I don’t know.” She looked into the analog dashboard behind the faded steering wheel. “But I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here anymore. I can’t work these stupid jobs anymore. I can’t be here anymore.” Her voice rose with each statement, nearly screaming at the end, her eyes welled and her throat caught an invisible apple she choked down.

     “It’s green.”

Missy looked up. The light was, indeed, green and traffic was moving in the other direction.

     “It’s not you, you know, why I’m going.”

     “I didn’t think it was.”

     “It’s not Freddie either. I just can’t be here. It kills me inside, every time I relive that day.”

The Shadow pulls to the curb in front of a fenced in playground next to a small, brick building.

     “I understand, hun.” Angel touched Missy’s cheek. “I’ll be right back.” She hopped out of the car and ran up the walk to the building.

***

A cookie cutter office space in a single floor office building was where Doctor Stephens, individual and family counselor, held his practice.

A shelf of toys and an easel with drawing paper and markers sat on one side of the room, while the other was a mocha leather couch and coffee table with a half-gone box of tissues.

Doc Stephens was a young early forties when Freddie first came in the door led by the hand of his mother and his little sister just ahead of him. More than a decade of listening to people, Freddie and his family included, salted Doc Stephens’ hair so he no longer looked like a soft, 1989 Keanu Reeves and more like a therapist who’s listened to too many problems.

Freddie sat on the couch. His fingertips played with the zipper on his hoodie to stay focused. Tired hit him while he sat out in the waiting area and he felt a weight in his chest desperate to pull him to bed. He’d sat in silence for five minutes, trying to focus on something long enough to talk about. Five minutes wasn’t record breaking, he’d set his silence record when he was fifteen and he and Doc Stephens only knew each other for two weeks and Freddie was released from his first trip to the psych center. Trust was built through the years; Doc Stephens trusted Freddie to not always tell the truth and Freddie trusted Doc Stephens to know when he lied.

     “How’s Ma?”

     “Ma’s Ma.”

     “What about Claire?”

     “I dunno, I haven’t seen her in a few days. She was all right last I knew.”

     “Missy?”

     “She’s all right. She wants me to get another job working at the arcade.”

     “Do you want to work at the arcade?”

     “I don’t want to work around kids. I hate kids.”

     “You’ve worked with kids before, though.”

     “Yeah, but I quit the same time they were going to fire me.”

     “If you could do anything, money doesn’t matter, what would you do?”

     “This again? Why?”

     “Let me ask you this, Freddie, what are you doing right now? Give me a summary of your life right now.”

Freddie flipped the zipper back and forth.

     “I get it.”

     “I know you get it, but tell me.”

     “I live at Missy’s and work at The Castle. I make popcorn for a living and drink at the Press Box. Is that honest enough?”

     “Now, if you could do anything, what would you do?”

     “Shit, man, I don’t know. I used to want to be a magician.”

     “Not a musician?”

     “I only liked playing when it was me and Missy.”

     “How’s sleep been this week, Freddie?”

     “Fine.”

     “Liar,” Ray said. He sat on the end of the couch nearer to Doc Stephens, staring at Freddie.

Freddie focused his eyes on Doc Stephens with Ray begging for attention in peripheral.

     “Are you okay?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Come on, Pally, you just said you wanted to be a magician. I’ll throw some tissues, it’ll be our parlor trick.”

     “How’re the night terrors?”

     “Not bad. Manageable.”

     “Lies,” Ray whispered.

     “You’ve been staying with Missy for six months?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Do you want to talk about what happened on Ray’s birthday?”

Freddie looked to his side; Ray was gone.

     “Missy was the trainwreck, not me.”

     “We’ve established that before. What happened?”

Freddie stood up. The weight in his chest was pulling him to lie down, to sleep. He walked to the easel and began to draw a tree.

     “She got fucked up and I didn’t want to leave her.”

He added limbs to the tree, bare and skeletal. He drew a sloppy leaf falling toward the ground.

     “That was the night you moved in, right?”

     “Yeah, so?”

     “Freddie, you know what I’m going to say.”

Freddie stretched his arms out so his hoodie sleeves fell over his hands. Only his fingers holding the marker could be seen. He drew a curve beyond the tree to make a hill and a couple slapdash lines for a gate.

     “We decided in the morning it would be best if I stayed with her. I could keep an eye on her, she could keep an eye on me. I’m not sure how we’re ranking as caretakers, but we’re both still alive, so that’s gotta be worth something.”

A digital beep rang in beats of three – beep-beep-beep… beep-beep-beep. Doc Stephens presses the stop button a stop watch he hid in his pocket.

     “Time’s up.”

     “Get some sleep, Freddie. I’ll see you next week.”

Freddie dashed his initial on the bottom of the easel paper – FN.

Chapter 6

Missy woke up hard. Eyes open, breath caught in her chest.

The room was dark and no one else was here.

She contorted her arm behind her to feel the bed, empty but for a tangled sheet she'd ripped off the mattress while she slept.

She heard Ray's voice, clear in her ear.

     "I love you."

She pulled her feet free of the sheets, the dream was intense, but she remembered nothing but his voice.

She stood up and looked around at the shadowed hot mess her room was and said,

     “I love you too.”

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She opened the door to Pepper laying in her doorway, the living room dark, and Freddie asleep on the couch. His mouth was open; drool spilling on a small throw pillow. His breath was slow and even; he wasn’t dreaming and, with luck, he wouldn’t at all tonight.

Missy stood over him, staring hard at the side of his face open to the world. The stubble on his cheek, his loose lips relaxed, eyebrows so dark they looked black at this moment. He was everything Ray wasn’t, but his twin all the same. Ray would call Freddie his little brother; Freddie was too bashful to agree, having lost his older brother before meeting Ray; Missy saw the truth – twins.

She loved Freddie, but would sell him down river to have Ray back… some days; other days she was happy to have a best friend like him.

Pepper trotted past Missy to the front door. She stuck her nose against the small opening in the frame and took in a loud sniff.

Anticipating Pepper’s excitement to bound out the door at whatever wildlife creature might be skulking around their porch, Missy slipped on a pair of well-worn gray moccasins and a jacket from her donation pile.

     “Pepper, come on.”

Missy grabbed her leash and opened the front door. Pepper took off running across the porch and slid into the wooden plank, knocking it down.

     “Shit. Pepper!”

Missy giant stepped over and snagged her collar.

     “Jesus Christ. We need a real gate.”

She clipped the leash on Pepper and they headed down the stairs.

***

 Photo by Poni Melange

Daytime, somewhere in a field away from houses except an abandoned camper to the left. Years of elements have torn this small camper apart. The siding has snapped off from sunny afternoons and the wooden frame has rotted from long winter storms.

Freddie walks barefoot through the weeds. He’s bleeding from sharp roots and sticks. He can’t feel pain, but he can feel the cold mud splatters on his ankles.

Home is the opposite way, but he’s going forward, toward the naked forest of autumnal trees.

This isn't right; his chest was heavy with a panic attack ready to engage.

He looks left at the camper. The window was long ago shattered and the screen flapped in the wind. Inside, a hooded figure shrouded in thick layers stood nonchalantly holding a knife to a boy’s throat in front of him.

Freddie stares at the darkness in the hood, then the boy, but he keeps moving; stepping on a broken branch, the pointed, splintery end stuck in his foot.

The pain was shocking, he tries to lift his foot, but he was too heavy to balance and he fell backwards into the dry weeds.

     “No!” A small voice squeaks.

Freddie straightens up to see beyond the brush back to the camper, but the boy and the hooded figure are gone.

     “Wake up, wake up, wake up,” Freddie yelled

Chapter 7

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Ma’s house was a standard two story with an attic of boxed up memories and two empty bedrooms. It was an old house with dividing doors between the living and dining rooms. The hardwood floors creaked in the winter and sometimes Ma would still catch a glimpse of the old woman whose ghost crept around the bathroom.

Photos of Freddie and his siblings, Claire and Layne, were displayed throughout every room. A couple of their half sister, Deb, could also be seen, though, not as prominently.

Ma’s children were her gift and curse.

Deb was six when Layne killed himself and Freddie had to be sent to the psych unit for the first time. She was seven when Claire began cutting and they discovered Freddie’s night terrors. When she was eight, her dad divorced Ma and sued for sole custody and due to Freddie and Claire’s behavior and the history of drug abuse in the house… he got it.

Ma was sent updated photos of Deb for a while and they stayed in contact over the phone and occasional letters, but nothing so substantial Ma would call it a comfortable mother-daughter relationship.

Even so, Ma was a mother. She cooked nightly so her kitchen smelled amazing and the fridge always packed. Her laundry machines were in constant use between herself, Freddie, and Claire; though Claire did her own whereas Freddie would drop off a garbage bag of stinking clothes and pickup them up fresh and folded.

She only wanted the best for her kids… though she wondered often, where she went wrong.

A simple answer was to blame their father. A handsome drug addict who was abusive when he was loaded and became worse as they got older, Roy Nelson swooned Ma off her feet shortly after high school and knocked her up before their wedding and was gone after six years of marriage. Layne took the brunt of Roy’s anger only once. He’d smacked Layne for leaving his bike out and Ma backed Roy into a corner and told him that if he ever touched her kids again, she’d kill him. Freddie’s memories of his father were dark and what he did remember resembled Layne’s behavior so much, his memories were too blurry to tell the difference.

If their father was to blame, then it was bad blood he’d passed on to them because the environment didn’t explain Claire. She was only two when Roy left, but she had the same gray eyes as the boys.

Bad blood and gray eyes.

That’s the gift Roy Nelson gave his kids.

She loved her children, but sometimes they didn’t feel like hers. Layne was the spitting image to Roy and Claire and Freddie got her brown, nearly black hair, but the rest seemed to come from their father. People were quick to point out that both shared her humanitarian heart and, though, they had been in fights, neither ever aimed to hurt anyone, but themselves.

The teapot whistled high and strong, pressing the lid fully into the air.

Ma snapped back to the reality of sitting alone at the kitchen table. Her fingers had tightened around an empty mug.

Green eyes.

Her closing thought was a reflection of what she’d hoped each of her kids’ eyes would have been.

A clan of dark hair and green eyes; sweet dreams and occasional nightmares; no therapy visits, only family dinners; and grandchildren accompanying her children to dinner, rather than her children, too poor to feed to themselves, coming to dinner.

Ma sighed and poured her tea.