[Thanks for your patience. I'm changing the hair color of both Aggie and Jed, and maybe even how they look, act, move, etc. I wasn't totally in love with them the past few chapters, and some things may change. -- So this is the funny thing about reading something as someone is still in the building stage, haha. Enjoy! -- Sarah]
Under the stars, Jed trapped up the broken steps of the porch and pulled open the front door.
“I brought hot chocolate mix,” he called, jangling a tin-plated thermos.
“Water’s already ready on the stove,” Aggie hooted back from somewhere in the house. “In the pan.”
“You’re amazing,” he shouted back. But it was not hot. He heated it up again.
Jed took the pan and sloshed the water into the thermos. He capped it and shook it. Then he turned to crack open the refrigerator to look for milk. There was nothing in the fridge except for a bag of peas, twisted and tied in a knot.
He turned to open some cabinets. The doors creaked. There was a bag of Wonder Bread and a jar of grape jelly in one cabinet. A box of Wheaties in another. He closed them softly.
“Where the flip are you?”
“My room. I’m trying to shove quilts out the window,” she yelled, “for our stargazing.”
He jolted up the stairs and helped her birth the quilts. Then the two of them slid out the window on their bellies, and he scraped his navel.
Aggie and Jed curled up on the roof top of the porch. Aggie was wrapped in a seal-gray quilt. Jed was in blue. They drank the hot chocolate, watery and thin, passing the thermos between them.
“I think we should come up with a whole new sky,” said Aggie.
“That’s reversing ancient tradition.”
“Help me! Let’s unwind the designs. Pin together new stars. Let’s have geisha and jellyfish and falcons.”
“Because why not. So what if it's ancient. What makes the Greeks more special than you and I? Why aren’t we entitled to do it? I think the Big Dipper is a mermaid, pushing herself up on shore. It is now officially a mermaid.”
“It’s not official.”
“It is if I want it to be.”
“You’re such a rebel,” said Jed.
“People are too afraid to make up their own constellations.”
“Well, actually," said Jed, leaning back on his elbow, "I’ve always felt like Orion looked more like a dancing woman than like a warrior.”
“She’s in a dress,” said Jed, “with a belt. And she’s standing on her head.”
“Then she’s showing her knickers,” said Aggie.
“Embroidered with stars. Well, why not?” Aggie scooted herself closer to Jed, and suddenly her knee was touching his knee. “What’s wrong with knickers.”
Jed was still. Almost frozen. “Nothing. But for all the universe to see.”
Immediately Aggie pulled her knee away. "Oh,” she said. “Oh, I suppose I shouldn't do that."
Jed turned his head away from her. He was looking at clots of crystals webbing over a pine. "Shouldn't do what?"
"I understand, Jed," she said. "Your body tells me."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Honestly."
Aggie twitched. "Didn't you feel my -- well, I suppose if you didn't feel it, I shouldn't mention."
"Oh, I don't mind," he said airily, "I'm very casual about these things."
"Are you? Are you? Good. Because I am, too. Because it shows a certain comfort with each other."
"Yes, it does," he said.
"It doesn't mean anything," she said, "except comfort."
"Exactly. I agree."
There was a silence, and it was thick.
In a sudden movement, Jed solidly shoved himself closer to Aggie, and connected his knee to hers.
"Here now," he said. "Can you find the Pleiades?"
"No," purred Aggie, shrugging her body deeper into her jacket, "but show me where. Jed, I bet you can find it faster than a cardshark culls a deck. I bet you know just where it is."
He pointed. "It's up there. It always looks like Orion is threatening the sisters with his club. But they don't move."
"They’re not afraid. They're singing together," said Aggie.
"Or quarreling. But they’re always there for each other."
"Because the hydrogen of love binds them."
"Because they're stuck," said Jed. "They have no other choice. Laced together permanently until they run out of fuel and explode. What do you want to re-make them as?"
"I don’t know. A cluster of photons, or… I don’t know. Jed, you know what you've got me thinking about a lot about," said Aggie, "is home and family.”
“Yeah?” He rubbed his hand up and down the back of his head. A new haircut had made his skull feel like chopped velvet.
“I used to avoid those two topics like snakes. You've made me re-visit them."
"Do you want kids when you're older?"
Knee against knee. "Only if I had a real winner for their dad," said Aggie. "I wouldn't attempt it otherwise. Scares me to death."
“I think,” Jed said, “I think that you had it rough, growing up.”
“I was a baby lone wolf. My dad tried to parent me, sometimes, but he forgot about me a lot. One time I was in a play. You should’ve seen me. I was Puck, and they actually strung me up on wires in the rafters. I was a sight.”
Jed saw a vision of Aggie's stringy legs, green in their tights, pedaling through the air, kicking out like a frenetic non-polyp. Her torso clad in skeletal leaves. Both her ankles nobbled and exposed.
“No, it was wonderful!”
“Oh. I misinterpreted what you meant.”
“I had the place in stitches. It was the height of my career.”
He could not keep his mind off her bone on his bone. His knee was encased in denim, hers in thick cargo. Aggie’s kneecap was warm, a cattail bulb. “That’s hilarious,” said Jed.
“But then afterwards, all the kids were picked up one by one. Or taken home by those in their family who had seen the play. A teacher had to wait with me for two hours. Then my dad must have noticed I was gone and he remembered where I was and came and got me.”
“Oh, Aggie. That must have been traumatizing. That does something to a kid.”
“Well, some other things my dad did were laughable. One day, I had to go to a dance in high school. I was going with Elmer. And there was a dress code. A white skirt. He forgot about it until the day of, and I had to remind him and cry for it. Then he hunted up a white skirt from my mother’s trunk, and it was old and musty. And when I put it on, it went to my ankles. I would look like a Dust Bowl child. So he got Scotch tape and taped it up to the right length. But that wouldn’t stay, and he only had red thread. So he sewed it with red thread. That’s how I went.”
“In a white skirt, all uneven with red thread,” Jed echoed, feeling something inside him crumple.
“And then we moved around a lot. I don’t even know how long I will stay here. My dad is in some shady business. Started when I was young.”
“Everyone was in shady business in the thirties.”
“Yeah, but they got out of it. I don’t know what my dad does. We go through times when he have gobs of money. I went rooting for something in his drawer one day and found stacks of hundreds under his long underwear. And then sometimes there’s nothing. I don’t know how he’s paying for this house. Our last one was repossessed by the bank. For all I know, no one knows we’re here and maybe we’re on the lam. Maybe this place was abandoned and we’re squatting in it. I don’t actually know.”
They looked up at the night sky, bitter and brilliant. Jed hugged the quilt tighter around his shoulders. It smelled faintly like lavender.
It broke out of him. “Aggie, I feel so sorry for you.”
“What! Why would you?"
She tisked. “No.”
“Your life is so hard and uncertain.”
“Oh, no, Jed, no.”
“It could make me cry.”
“I’ve always shifted for myself.”
“I’m just so sorry!” said Jed.
“No,” she crooned and rocked over towards him.
She reached out, and the crinkle of her sleeve was hypnotic. Aggie’s fingers touched his face.
They started off like butterflies on the bone under his eye and they scooped downward, brushing his inner cheek; they left his skin just as briefly. But the crackling tail of her fingers remained, like a comet’s streak of fire. Jed's lungs were emptied as if something in the center of him had inverted, and his mind was suctioned away. Her fingers left their lighted trail in his dark.
“Please don’t be sorry.” Aggie swung forward again, towards Polaris. “If you have to feel sorry, feel it for the other fellows. The ones who have to go through garbage just for food.” She dug her hands into her pockets. “Or the fellows who are amputees now. But don't feel sorry for me.” Aggie had disconnected her knee from his. “Look at me: I've got hands. I've got limbs. I can walk and I can talk.”
“Your gratitude is astounding.” But he could hardly hear her or keep up with her. “Humbling.”
Jed's cheek was pulsing, and he was hanging back in time, bathing blissfully in the feeling: that cupped shock of silk. The absolute startle of his cells, from a tendril so foreign on his face. He mentally drew Aggie's hand down his cheek again, from his eye to his jawbone, to feel the softness. Lingering in the tingle that had left his hairs standing on end, in a line where her fingers had drawn a zoetic moon.
“What was that,” screeched Aggie.
“That spurting spurt over there.”
“I saw nothing.”
“It was a falling star!”
“No, did I really miss it?”
“You did. I swear it was there. Wait, there was another one!”
“How are you seeing these! Where!” Jed jumped up onto his feet. His quilt trailed behind him and he almost slipped. The roof was mossy and the tiles were loose.
“Jed, don’t fall.”
“I just saw one, too!”
A yellow line needling across the sky.
“This is ours!” cried Aggie.
“It must be a meteor shower!" said Jed. "But I can’t think which one.”
“No, don't say that. Don't think which one. This is the universe putting on a magic show for us. Because we’re the only ones outside right now to see it. On a roof.”
“But what’s today’s date?”
"The tenth of October."
"I don't remember," said Jed. "I don't remember there was supposed to be anything spectacular around this time. I've never noticed it before. Shoot. Is it the Capricorn ones?"
"I wouldn't know."
"It has to be the Dracnoids," he said. "I mean the Draconids. But I've never seen them like this in my life. They don’t do this."
"What is a draconid? I vant to suck your blud?"
"No, I think it’s a dragon. Dragging all the stars down. Swiping them out of the sky with his tail. They're his teeth falling. His silver scales. He's wrecking the sky and himself at the same time," said Jed. "They're his dragon tears."
“Of course this would happen to us,” murmured Aggie, her head back, her throat a white tulip leaf, long and spiraling. "Wyrd."
“It's retribution for what's happened the past few years.”
"Except that --" Aggie brought her head back down. “Well, no. Nevermind."
“No, no. Go ahead, Miss Science. Correct me.”
“A meteor shower is the result of debris released from other showers, actually sometimes from many decades or even centuries ago. It's never recent.”
“Well, there’s more than enough to cry over in the past centuries.”
“Not right now and not tonight.” Aggie ran her fingers over her collar. "Say, Jed. I was thinking of something about you.”
“What is it.”
“That you don't look at me when we talk.”
He scoffed. “I look at you.”
“I do,” said Jed.
“You’re not looking at me right now!”
"You're wrapped in a gray quilt," he said, searching for the dragon, "and you're wearing a yellow plaid shirt. You were just looking up at the sky, and now you're facing me."
"I mean in the eye. You never look at me in the eye."
Jed whipped his head around and stared at her, hard, in the eye. "There."
Aggie returned his gaze softly. To his chagrin, he wavered and broke his eye contact. His lids flushed and he drowned them downwards and he screwed his head away again. "But," he laughed, "my ears are listening."
"Looking at each other is a way of connecting," she said. "It's a way of deepening intimacy. And reading signals, Skippy. It's a normal part of conversation actually." She reached out as if to bap his arm, but stopped.
"Oh, I know you're right. I just feel awkward." He squirmed inside his jacket, wriggled his shoulders. "I don't know why. I don't know."
"That's fine. Then we'll practice. Come on. Look at me and talk to me about something.”
“Just look at me and tell me your name.”
He shifted his body around to her squarely. He looked her in the eye. “My name is Jedidiah Francis Spearman. Aw, no.” He dropped his gaze and laughed. “What. You’re just making that happen. You’re staring too hard. I can’t look.”
“I’ll give you a mirror next time we’re together.”
“Aggie, I saw another one!”
“Over your head, long and blue.”
“Not possible,” said Aggie.
“No, really! Really! It was over there. -- There was another little one!”
“Now you’re making this up. Willfully distracting.”
"Sixty-three in one hour." Aggie poured a thin stream of ice-cold cocoa over the rooftop edge. "And forty-two the next."
"I am going to comb the woods in the morning," said Jed, climbing through the window, "to find the burned-out stars. I wonder what they look like after they fall?"
"Dull and chilly. Soft lumps of pewter," said Aggie. "After you find them --"
"-- and stuff them all in my pockets."
"-- bring them in to me, and we can press them and make star-sauce."
He laughed and squeezed through. "Unparalleled," he said.
Autumn had not shaved off its woolly coat; there was no bite in the air except at night, and the air of the days was as light as champagne. The October sun still skipped in the hills of Moguncoy.
Jed and Sunny were walking down a path in the woods, hand in hand. Sunny’s hand was warm like a penny kept in a shoe.
"Okay, find me a black oak leaf," Jed said. "Also called a pin oak." Sunny took her hand out and crouched down in the underbrush.
"Here," she said.
"And how about a white oak?"
She held up a second leaf: the edges were rounded. It was leathery and sienna-colored, hearted with pistons of green. Regally scalloped.
"That's right!" he said. "Now can you find the trees they fell from? I'll give you a little hint. They'll be close, and the bark is rough and cracked. -- Wow, you're good. That was fast!"
Jed and Sunny gathered leaves to press between crinkly sheets of wax paper: crisp maples and tangerine elms. Sunny's shoes were scuffed at the toes and stained with grass.
When their fingers were full, they left the forest and walked home up the lane.
Passing a neighbor's house, white with baby-blue shutters, Jed heard his name being called, at once both commanding and familial.
"What?" he hollered back. Both he and Sunny had stopped and turned.
The neighbor's daughter was leaning across the garden fence post on one side of the house. She was wearing a dress the color of butternut squash, and held gardening gloves in one hand. Her hands were dirty and she was not smiling, but she had an easy way about her and didn’t need to smile. "Jed!"
“Hey, Bern,” he yodeled.
“You’re coming over for Halloween, right?”
“Where else would I be?”
“Good. Oh, Jed!”
“I was thinking, this year, that we should wear masks.”
She was beautiful, but her words trudged over to him and her tone was hulking. Her lips pouted slightly, and her hair was a glittering flaxen-bronze. Though shorter than Jed, she was a Boudica, freckled and bred like a calla lily. She pressed a glove into her other hand. She was belted in cherry.
“Yeah, of course we should. I’m actually going tomorrow, me and Sunny, to buy some. Want me to grab you one?”
She paused and thought, her jaw clicking back and forth. She was wearing pumpkin-colored lipstick. “No. I have one. It’s a cat.”
“Okay. Well, then maybe I’ll be a mouse or something.”
She shrugged. “Or another cat.” Bern's mouth peeled open, and pink bubblegum filmed between her lips. "You could be another cat." She snapped her mouth shut.
Jed said, “Or another cat.”
“That’s a boring suggestion,” said Sunny.
“Shush,” Jed laughed. “Sunny!”
“I said it quiet-like!”
“I’ll come over at six,” he called across the lane. “See you then, Bern.”
“See you then, Jed.”
He turned away, and she pulled her snowflower body up from the fence.
“Yeah, it wasn’t very creative,” Jed said to Sunny. "You want to press these when we get back?"
But just then, Bernadette's little sister Jacinta came scampering around the corner, whaling batons in the air.
"Susannah," she squeaked. "Susannah!"
Sunny turned to him. "Can you take the leaves home, Jed? I'm sorry."
"No, no. Of course, baby. You go have fun."
Jed continued up the lane, alone, and before he reached his home he saw another woman working in her garden. It was not fenced in, but it was a large patch, bedded with straw.
She was hunched over in a house dress, olive-colored, and about eighty years old. She was raking, and the skin swung from her arms. They slopped from her bones like salmon sides, her muscles still thick. She was Italian and brown as a fisherman.
"Rosie," he serenaded, waving.
"Say -- who said what? Who called me?"
Jed dropped his hands into his pockets and loped across the yard, pushing aside a rusty tomato can in his path.
"Rosie, what in the world are you doing."
"Oh, it's Jed," scratched out the old woman. She looked up at him, but she didn't stop raking.
"It's Jed," he laughed. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing."
"Like a lot of work."
"I'm putting my garden to bed." Rosie's voice rasped. Jed felt that her tone was rough and basic, full of blue bowls, dusty scissors, and cidering fruit. She had birthed eleven children, and fostered four, and her hair was marshy but still black. It fell in strands from her scalp like oil paint, streaked as if with seagull droppings, and curling at the end in a ribboned remembrance.
"What!" said Jed. "Lemme do it for you."
"Aw, no." The rake rumbled over the ground, in thin strokes.
"No, no." He held out his hand, and she stopped raking. "Let me, please," he said, taking the tool. "Oh, man, Rosie, you're so spry. You're stronger than some twenty-year old girls." He sank the rake into the straw and gave a hefty hike, scarfing the swath across the raised beds. The hay smelled clean and sunny.
"I don't feel twenty," said Rosie, digging her thumbs into the small of her back. "You know when my birthday is? It's this Sundee. I'm going be eighty-three years old."
"No. Not possible."
"Not possible? It's true. You want a Coke first? Come in for a Coke."
"If you're going in for a break, I'll go in with you." He set the rake against a wheelbarrow. "And finish this after. You've been out in the sun for a while! Look how much you did."
"Been working since this morning," she said, as they walked towards front porch.
"Gee whiz, Rose. You're a machine."
"Raymond's younger than me. He's seventy-eight," she said, climbing the steps. "I got him as a baby."
There was a soccer ball under the stairs. "I would never guess. You robbed the cradle." Jed scooped up the ball, and on each blank rivet was painted words, some in black paint, some in red. He hefted the ball between his hands and read the lines.
"Rosy is My Princess."
"I Love You."
He spun the ball up in the air and caught it. "Who did this?"
"Oh. That's sumthing Raymond made. He calls me his cookie." The screen door squeaked open.
"That's sweet." He tossed it back under the steps.
Scornfully, "Ray and his sweet words! He's a poet, that's what he is." They went in and the screen door slammed shut. The kitchen was small and smelled like oregano and cigarette smoke. Geranium cuttings crowded the window ledge above the sink; the ledge was full of clods of dirt.
"Where is he?"
"Raymond. He's in the cellar. It's his drinkin' day. I'll call him you're here."
"He has drinking days?" Jed sat down, and the wicker seat squished.
"I give him Tuesday and Friday. Used to be Satterdy, too." She clinked off the top of a glass bottle of Coke, against the counter top.
“It’s cold.” She lumbered to the top of the cellar stairs. She called down in a thin voice, "Ray. Raymond!" It had almost been a whisper. She turned. "Fiddle. He don't hear me. Do you want a bowl of spaghetti?"
"If it's with your sauce."
"Wouldn't be with nothing else."
"Then per favore and gratzie."
Rose clanked the bowl in front of him. She sat down. Her forearm was crooked on the table, like a dry apple stump. "How's your mother?"
"She's good," he said, through a mouthful of spaghetti.
"Elsie's like our daughter."
He swallowed. "I know."
"She don't come to see us no more."
"She's really busy. I know. It's hard."
"I need to bring her more Rosie noodles. That's what you call them."
"That's exactly what we call them," said Jed. "We all love our Rosie noodles."
The old woman looked out the window. Her nose was an aqueduct arch. "It's like you've left. Like your family don't live there no more."
"I know." Jed crunched his thighs around in the chair. He looked out the window, too. "I saw the oak that fell out front. Do you need someone to cut it up?"
"My grandson was going to next month when he visits."
He wiped sauce off the corner of his mouth with the knuckle of his thumb. "I'll do it this weekend. It's going to be cold soon."