by Joanna Rose
The ceiling fixture is a chandelier of four square glass shades. The switch at the wall has two small round buttons with mother-of-pearl faces. On is the top button. Off the bottom. On. Off.
There is gray wallpaper with feathers, the feathers painted on, she runs her fingertips over the wallpaper and she can feel them.
The room is empty, and the house is empty. The late summer afternoon outside is full of falling down though, the cottonwood trees along the creek the only things doing anything except her, in the house, turning the light on and off.
There is blood and heartbeat, synapses firing and probably some dark business going on deeper in her body but other than that nothing. No memory. No anger. She thinks,
I could give a shit.
It is a little spark of humor that dies quickly.
If she takes a step there would be no sound.
Her brother said to just wait.
Be patient. Be a patient.
The day is the color of patience, the sky white and the grass is brown and, out by the road, heat waves hang in the air as if to catch the falling down of the cottonwoods.
She wears faded blue jeans and a white shirt that is also faded. The seams are thin and the buttons have yellowed. One button has been replaced and that button is whiter than the rest. That button catches at the corner of her eye. The sleeves and cuffs are so soft they will not stay rolled up but keep falling down, below her fingertips, and she patiently folds them up to her elbows. It gives her something to do while she waits. It keeps her from flying off.
White fades to soft.
The day fades to sharp. The sun moves lower in the white sky.
When the car turns up the road, her body feels it first. Gravel pops under the tires, the car going slow, a flicker of annoyance there and gone, like noticing that one button is brighter.
The car stops. The engine quits. A cloud of pink dust drifts past the window.
He doesn’t believe in ghosts. He is on his own in the world of money and inheritances with strings attached.
The car door squeaks open and is slammed gently shut. Only he can slam a door gently, and only he is afraid of such delicate situations as having to ask would she please stop wearing their father’s clothes, and would she please sign this or that, and was she still taking those lovely little orange pills.
No, no and no.
He carries a bottle of dark liquor in one hand.
He can’t see her. He is the kind of person who watches the ground as he walks, even on a city sidewalk he will watch his steps. When he finally does look up he stumbles, over nothing, and then he looks back with an accusatory glance.
If he believed in ghosts, the ghosts wouldn’t let those little bumps lie in wait that way.
Some people make things hard on themselves.
The bourbon will be sweet and expensive. Once he brought her Jack Daniels Black Label and a sweating cold bottle of Coke. He got the furniture that time. Once he brought her Maker’s Mark with red sealing wax dripping down the bottle. There went her share of the life insurance. Once he brought a thermos jug of hot bourbon coffee, sweet and lovely and really really foolish of her, caffeine and whisky and sugar and a lot of each. She kissed him on his rough cheek and he left with their great-grandfather’s gold pocket watch.
She has since learned about tea, chamomile and mint, or licorice, or valerian. She likes to hold onto it, the hot cup between her hands like a small personal sun, the scented steam a small personal ghost. When the tea grows cool, she sets the cup aside.
When she speaks, it is in clear single syllables with properly defined edges.
When she walks, she watches the world as she passes through, and the ground beneath her feet behaves itself.
He stops at the doorway and looks in. The low sun shines through the caramel colored bourbon in the bottle, onto the white paint of the doorframe. He steps in, and the small caramel colored moment of light whispers to the doorsill, and he stumbles into the hall.
She waits in the doorway of the kitchen and doesn’t breathe, because as long as she doesn’t breath she is invisible and even though this trick is only good for about thirty seconds it gets him every time.
When she finally takes that first deep breath, he stumbles again.
He begins to speak, she can tell, because he is moving his lips, and he is probably speaking to her, since as far as he knows she is the only one here.
A cricket starts up outside and his moving lips fall into sync with it, so she pays careful attention because the world will tell you what you need to know if you are attentive.
He walks past her, and outside a robin lets loose a brilliant tremolo and then the cricket is silenced.
They think she is crazy, which may in fact be true, but she is not stupid. She rolls her sleeves up to her elbows. He sets the bourbon on the counter. She turns on the flame under the tea kettle. He eyes the white shirt, glowing now in the twilight, loose and wide like wings.
Joanna Rose is the author of the novel Little Miss Strange, and has recently completed a second novel and started a third. There is an essay collection about writing with kids, and a collection of short stories with no real plots, alas. Her work has been in ZYZZYVA, FourAndTwenty, High Desert Journal, Bellingham Review, Story Magazine, Artisan Journal of Craft, Marco Polo Quarterly, Windfall and Northern Lights. She shows up in The Oregonian as a regular book reviewer and as a contributor to the Poet’s Corner. She and her teaching partner Stevan Allred host the weekly Pinewood Table critique group, and they have weekend workshops too, but they are techno-feebs, and you have to go to Pinewood Table’s FB page to find out about them.