[Disregard my last note! I think I'm still going to keep posting. Thanks again for the help, my dears. Sarah]
* * *
Jed sat at the kitchen table, fixing a model airplane for Georgie. Sunny ran in, her face the color of a caramel apple, and her toothy smile broke out at the sight of him. One front tooth was missing; the other was half-chunked out, ridged like a mussel frill.
"Jed!" she said, and plopped herself in his lap. He dropped the plane on the table. Sunny's jean overalls hiked up to her ankles. Her skin was pocked with mosquito bites, and stippled with scars.
"Well, hello, filly," he said, looking down at the top of her head. He could see that the strip of scalp, between her golden wings of hair, was burned pink, and her hair smelled like the green edge of a forest, and warm woolen blankets, somehow.
"Jed," she said, putting her arms up around his shoulders, "you're my daddy."
"No, I'm not," he laughed.
"Yes, you are." She rested her face against the collar of his shirt.
"Well, I'm sort of like it." Jed pointed to Mr. Spearman, who was in a corner of the kitchen, twisting a screwdriver into the cabinet door. "That's your daddy."
Mr. Spearman held his body heavily, like a rucksack. His purplish jowls were slung low. But his hand movements were accurate and delicate, and he fixed his eyes at the screw. His black hair looked unbrushed; it stood up in sloppy brambles, in a private way, as if his skull were recently cradled by a pillow. Jed could smell his father, and he was unused to it: the gray scent of cigarettes, a loose leather belt, of the algae of armpits, and a slurry of Old Spice, and it also made him wild with nostalgia.
"No," said Sunny, raising her head and looking at Mr. Spearman. "That's my second daddy," she said, with an impish crinkle to her cheekbones.
"Oh, Sunny," Jed said. He slid her off his lap. "I'm going to Crinley's. Want to come? I just want to buy a mask, and look for things to get for Halloween. You can help me pick them out."
"Or fruit, or nuts. Or maybe even some little toys."
"Yeah, and maybe some marbles. Tops are a great idea. I'll get you a popsicle for helping me, too."
"Are you going to Crinley's?" said Mr. Spearman, with a final wrench.
"Grab me a package of cigarette's, would you," he said, patting at the lodged screw with a fingertip.
"Yeah," Mr. Spearman said. "Please."
"You got it." Jed patted his pockets and pulled out his wallet.
"Take a quarter from the jar," said his father.
"Are we biking or what?" asked Sunny from the kitchen floor. Her knees were scissored up as she slid her bare feet into a pair of scuffed shoes.
"I don't know," Jed said. "What do you want to do?"
"Okay," he said. "But I'm not going to carry you the whole way."
* * *
Jed shrugged Sunny higher up onto his back. "Why do I always end up carrying you?"
"Because you're my horsey," said his sister. She patted the top of Jed's head. "Nice horsey."
He hiked her hard. She squawked.
"Don't buck!" she shrieked.
"I'm just joking," Jed said. "I won't drop you."
She laid her face down against his neck.
"Jed," she said, her cheek feeling like silkweed on his skin, "why do I love you so much?"
"Because you're my sister. That's why." He hefted his hands under her and laced his fingers. "And I'm your brother."
"I love you too much," she said, her voice warm down his collar.
She sighed into his shirt, "If you killed me I would still love you."
Jed paused. There was ecstasy in her voice, and he could feel elevation swelling out of her feather-light chest, like a circus tent unfolding. There was something loose in her tone, something that made him think of wheeling bluebirds and syrupy sunshine, and he heard fear in her tone and superb delight, too. To have it wrapped up in a tender young voice would have surprised him, but he had said those words himself when he was young. He was unnerved, but he said,
"I know that feeling. I understand that kind of love." Then -- "You silly." He gave a soft whack to the sole of her shoe. "I'd never kill you."
"You might if I ate all your bazooka gum."
"You already did eat all of my bazooka gum."
* * *
Autumn erupted into gold and blood, and then just as suddenly, a storm put its knuckles through the trees and pulled fistfuls of its burnished hair away, and Moguncoy was left in a heap of claws and sticks.
Jed rapped on the back door of his neighbor's house, and she called him in.
"This is disheartening," he said to Bernadette, as he tripped into the McLaughlin kitchen, jostling two paper bags in one arm.
"What is?" said Bernadette, turning away from the counter and facing him, wearing a cat mask. The lines skated over her nose and framed her eyes in ebony, and she wore two ardent ear-tips above her clean and shining hair. Jed laughed.
"What?" said Bernadette.
"You're a cat."
"I said I was going to be a cat."
"I know. But you look great. I meant the leaves being down early is sad. Here, I brought some things." He dropped the paper bags. "I brought some nickels, to award the masks we like best." He jangled his pockets. "And I got some tops, a few jacks and marbles, and kazoos and whistles. And my dad gave me popcorn kernels to make popcorn balls."
"Jacinta made cookies this morning and I'm making fudge."
"Have you been cooking this whole time with the mask on?" He settled the bags on the kitchen table.
"No," she shrugged. "I just put it on to see if the elastic needed readjustment. Right before you walked in."
"Where is everyone?"
"At the All Saint's vigil. I'm going tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, me too. Bern, look, this is how you've got to beguile your men," he said, "from now on." He kicked off his shoes. "Cooking like a cat."
"Men don't want to be beguiled by me."
"Yes, they do." He sat down on a chair and deepened his hand into a cut-glass bowl of individually-wrapped caramel candies. "You're an Irish Rita Hayworth."
"Yeah. You're the only one who tells me that."
Bernadette's tone was painted gray and iris-gray. Jed said, "But you know I'm not the only one who thinks it."
"I don't know about that." Bernadette slowly raised the wooden spoon to her mouth, thoughtfully, not licking it. She was looking at something -- maybe the red coocoo clock, across the kitchen. "I'm less sure as time goes on."
Jed pulled apart a candy wrapper and tossed the shimmery foil aside. "You're gorgeous," he said. "We've had this same discussion for years. You're universally appealing to men."
"Why?" he half-choked on the caramel. He laughed and tucked the soft lump into his cheek with his fingers.
"Yes. What is it about me?" Her voice was the same as always: matte and monotone. She turned her face to Jed, the top half of her face covered in the shiny black plastic of the mask. She looked at him with innocence and mildness. On the mask, there were glittering lines of green and gold swirling over her eyebrows, and arabesquing up to her forehead. She jutted her bare chin to the side. Her skin was almost translucent, thin as violet petal. He could see a blue line shot through her pink ear, dark to ruby. He knew there were greenish lines at her temple, too, and her cheek was dusted with natural blush -- pink pollen cresting her high cheekbones. Her hair was damp at the hairline, but only slightly, from leaning over a cooking pot. The rest of Bernadette's hair was golden-red, like a rosé wine, bouncing in brittonic waves down to her shoulders, loose and athletic.
"What is it about you?" Jed looked into her bluet eyes, gazing at him levelly through the dark caves. He said, "Well, I've never been asked to define it before. But I think it's because you have very even features. Almost a perfect symmetry. You have a sweetly-shaped nose. You're laughing! What, don't you think?"
"No, keep going."
"And your coloring is the classical dollish look. But you have a definite bone structure underneath that, and that's what makes you striking, and very Gaelic. That's the appeal, I think. It's delicate, but molded. It's movie-starish."
"Hm." Then she looked off, contemplatively, pressing her lips together, barely touching the gooey spoon to her chin.
Jed said, "I'm not the only one who sees it, either."
She pulled the spoon away. "Who else has said it?"
"You know I've told you this before."
"I forget what you said." Her chin was powder-clean.
"Well, whenever I'd have fellows over and they would see you, they would always ask who you were. They'd say, 'Who is the model?' Or, 'Gee, you have an actress living across the street.'"
"What boys? Which ones?"
"Oh, you know. Like my cousins from out of town. Sammy, David, Dougie, Leroy. I don't think you knew them. But a lot of them."
"Hm. Well, maybe," said Bernadette. "But I had another man reject me last week."
"Oh, Bern." He rested his hand on the table, his fingers stroking the three crinkly sheaths. "Wait, no, I didn't know that. I'm sorry."
"I'm twenty-years old. This is getting frustrating. They want to go on dates with me," she said, "and even kiss me, but not much more than that. Is this on the right temperature?" She turned and dipped her spoon into the pot. "I'm just wondering if this is the right temperature."
"Which one? The Bergman fellow?"
"No. No, this one's name was Daniels." She lifted the spoon into the air and it dripped chocolate: too thin, enervating and shiny.
"Oh, I don't remember him."
"No, I haven't told you about him yet." She adjusted the dial on the stove. "He's from out of town. From Michigan, but doing a business deal and staying with an aunt for a month. I met him in church. We went to the pictures, and then we got cake and cocoa the next week, and then he told me it just wouldn't work. I should take this mask off."
"He said he thought there would be a connection," she peeled the mask upward, sitting it atop her head, pushing her sweaty hair back, "but he ended up not feeling it, and that it would take a miracle to make long distance work."
"He said that?" said Jed, leaning back in his chair and lifting the front legs off the ground. "Wait, no, seriously -- that word? He said a miracle?"
"Yes. And then he asked me my thoughts, so I wrote him a letter."
"Good for you." He dropped the chair back down with a thump. "Because the word miracle is disgusting."
"I told him I took issue with it, too," she said. "It's not that I don't believe in miracles. I do. It's just that it's too strong."
"It's an exaggeration. It's actually offensive."
"And then I told him more of what I thought."
"Of course you did."
"I told him that, if he had thought there would be a connection, he wasn't giving me much of a chance with only two dates."
"How can you know someone in two dates!" said Jed. "The time limit of his trip puts you at such a disadvantage. It can take years to know someone. How many hours have you and I spent talking? How many days?"
"You know what I think," said Bernadette. "This is what I think."
"That people have checklists, and when they date it's like they're shopping from the grocery store."
"That's right. That's so true. We want very specific things."
"Which is alright -- you can have preferences," said Bernadette, "but ultimately, you have to want to fall in love with a human being. Not with a hair color or a religion or a career. He wanted me to share his business aspirations, maybe to move to Kalamazoo. And sure, I would do that if I was in love, but that's not how you start off a date, like a business proposal, and so many people do. They want someone to -- I don't know, be their secretary. Their housekeeper. The mother of their children. Or whatever. But what if I wanted different things? Like, what if I want to open a petting zoo, or start an ice cream shop? What if I convert to Protestantism? What if I don't want to have babies?"
"Do you want to open an ice cream shop, Bern?" he laughed.
"No, I'm just using it as an example. Would he support that, or say, 'See you later; you don't fit in my idea of a life plan'? I mean, maybe he doesn't like ice cream. But people need to put aside themselves. They can't go to someone and ask, 'What can you give me?' They should ask, 'What can I learn about you? How can I get close to you, and know you as a person? How can I help you feel happy?'"
"It should be about intimacy," said Jed, "you're right. But in the spirit of honesty, I have to criticize myself, because I think I have a checklist, too."
"But you know what happens when you have a checklist? The other person won't be real with you," said Bernadette. "I mean, I feel like I was real with him, but --"
"You always are," he interrupted, "but you're right, and I'm just saying this as an addendum. I'm suddenly excited by this thought. I think if we approach someone with a checklist, then that other person will never show you their full self, or at least not naturally and spontaneously. And definitely not fully. Because they're scared they won't check one of your boxes eventually. And then, if you're the one with the checklist, you yourself miss out, in the relationship. You miss the richness and depth that knowing another person can bring to your life."
"That's it," said Bernadette. "That's exactly it."
"Which is the most exciting and fulfilling thing in the world," said Jed, "knowing and being known, and feeling that close to someone. There's nothing else that comes near to it. Alright, there. Wow. We've got it. Bern, you and I are going to write a relationship advice book one day."
She grunted a consenting laugh and slid the lid on the pan. "Heh. Yeah. Maybe. But, anyway, even though I told him all these things -- I wrote him a letter -- I think he probably won't change his decision, and I'm resorted to it."
"Well, I'm sorry about that." He reached for another candy. "But you never know."
Bernadette was suddenly eyeing his reaching arm; he could feel it.
"Jed!" she said.
"You're always telling me about my looks. You know what's good about you?"
"Oh, no," he laughed. In a quick swoop, Jed leaned forward, pulled a mask out of the paper back, and snapped the elastic around his head. He was a wolf. He leaned back in his chair again. He was wearing a black button-down shirt. "Alright, tell me."
"I like your mask," said Bernadette. "And what's good about you is that you've got some good muscles."
"And you're very straight."
"Pretty sure my nose is crooked," he touched his nose over the gray plastic.
"I mean, you have wide shoulders," she said, "and a thick head of hair. And your eyes are a nice color."
Bernadette leaned against the counter, deliberating. As she pressed back, the cabinets flared her skirts out wider. They looked like touchably soft cotton; white with a pattern of flowers, pink and olive. "Hazel," Bernadette said, as if she minted the word. "They're hazel. That's what your eyes are."
"Like a hazel thicket. Like a woodland pool, covered in duckweed. Like a corroded penny. But a vivid one."
Bernadette looked at him, unblinking, her jaw clicking. Jed knew that when she was thinking, her jaw always jutted like a gourd stump. Her lips were perfect, though: a cherry bough, and immobile.
"Or they're just hazel," he said. "And nice."
"That's what they are," said Bernadette.
"Poetic of you," he said.
"No," she said. "They're really nice."
"Bern, you're going to have to learn to speak with more aplomb and oomph to a man," said Jed, rocking himself on his two-legged chair, and doubling his hands over his stomach, above his belt. "What if your future husband wants you to describe his eyes under a moonlit sky? What will you say then?"
"I'll tell him," said Bernadette, "that I like them. That they're a great pair of eyes. What more should he want?" Holding the counter, her wrists creased in battery folds, and a watch gleamed on one wrist. "I'm not going to go calling them -- topazes or firecrackers or something. Or quote some silly Shakespeare. That's dopey."
"You don't like sap."
"That's exactly what it is," said Bernadette. "It's not normal."
"For some people it's how they talk." He bumped the front legs of his chair back onto the floor. "Well, Bern! you're just going to have to find a fellow who is alright with prose."
"And that's the sort of fellow I want," she said. "I don't want a man who needs frills."
"You want plain, good love."
"And that should be enough," she said heatedly, or as heatedly as Bernadette ever got: one or two bubbles popping, in the cream of her voice. Someone who did not know her might not even notice them.
"Gee," said Jed, picking at the elastic band behind his ear, "you sound like you're fighting off dozens of suitors, who are trying to throttle poetry out of you."
"No," she smiled, her spirit letting-down and her voice flattening and becoming smooth again.
"Well. You won't need to worry about any of that, because you're going to end up with someone who wants exactly the sort of love you give." He snapped the elastic band and handed her the glass bowl. "And I think you're right, that there's something good about simply-expressed romance. The strong feelings behind it is what counts."
She took a caramel candy.
"And you know why you also don't have to worry about it?" said Jed, still holding out the glass bowl. "Because I'm going to write your love poetry for you when the time comes."
"You don't have to write anything for me," she glowered at him, opening up the wrapper, and her glower was mild. "He will be alright with being told his eyes are nice." She bit the caramel, and it gooed neatly between her teeth. "Or whatever they are." Her chin circled as she chewed. "Brown. Or blue. Or green. Or orange."
"Keep going," he said.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, a chill invaded the land, and frost sank its fingers deep into the ground, up to the elbows, and the beauty was dire and grave. November caught Jed by the throat with its knuckled austerity and shook him with its feathered beauty.
One late afternoon, he walked through the fence into the front yard of Aggie's home. She was standing on the sagging porch, and before he could say, "Hullo!" she launched herself off the steps.
She was a stone in a slingshot: she pummeled herself into his stomach, and shocked him, and wrapped soft arms around his back, which shocked him even more.
Jed's arms automatically wound around her, too, like a willow fence: arched.
For two seconds the friends paused, and in those moments he mentally detached himself from Aggie, before he could feel anything shiny inside, anything remotely red. Red? No, not even a tinge of pink. His body was successfully cold. She pulled back.
"I just wanted to see what that was like," Aggie said.
"And what was it like?" said Jed, rolling his shoulders in their sockets, up through his jacket.
Aggie's woolen sweater was the color of porridge and over-large, and when she hugged him, her wool had smelled of cottage cheese. He could tell that he liked the scent, in a remote part of his being, and he was wary of this part.
She smiled at him. "I think it was a good way to initiate didactic discourses."
"I'm being facetious, fella. I may be intellectual but not purely."
They started walking through the woods, up the hill to the cow farm. "On that note --" Aggie stretched her arms out either way. "Jed, what are we?"
"I don't know," he said. And his chest suddenly felt expansive. "What are you?"
"It badoozles me every day."
"She says with arms askew --"
"Aire aloof, as if asking the aether for the secret solution --"
"To the equation of her existence," he finished.
"Whew," Aggie said. "Alliteration association."
The air when Aggie was nearby was astringent in his lungs, brooming out his cobwebs. "But, really. What are we?" He reached down and touched the skeletons of oak leaves. He brushed the leaves away rambunctiously; pressed his hand flat into the cold ground.
"We are ourselves."
"We are an abnormality."
"Eh," she scoffed. "I've know normality sometimes."
Mischief glittered. "You've known normality?"
"On a passing acquaintance."
"But you try his presence sometimes?"
"Then he bores the pants off me, and I have to expel him from my life. And in his place I entertain --"
"Frivolity and fancy," said Aggie. "And then no one wants to be my friend."
"What, can they not be around the twins?" he asked.
"Well, they're tumultuous," she kicked up a tuft of leaves, "and stir up trouble."
"No, they remind people too much of their dreams," said Jed. "That's why people stay away. See, you and I haven't left childhood behind us yet. At least not fully. When I was ten I remember standing in front of my bedroom window -- I had this oak outside it that I called my oak -- and looking at it. And I was fuming for some reason. I don't remember the argument I had had with my parents. But I remember suddenly digging my feet into the ground, and held my fists tight, and thought, 'I'm never going to forget. No matter what, I'm never going to forget what it feels like to be me right now.' And I haven't. I think it's one of my greatest accomplishments, actually."
"It is," she said, looking at him, and her voice was stroking velvet. It reminded him of the moment she had drawn her hand down his cheek. "It is one of the best things about you, and it comes out in everything you do and say. In your whole way you look at life."
"People just forget."
"The fantastic phantasms of their youth."
"Or they just forget what it feels like! And that's why we look down on kids, why we ignore their feelings or trample on them. We forget that they're us, and we are them." They walked along, and the sky started to turn a faint squash-color in the dimming gray sky. He picked up a stick and threw it up the hill. "It's a furious and one of the most intense feelings in my gut. Whenever I see a kid put down in some way. I think I'm going to do something about it one day, Aggie."
"I know you will."
"I don't know what, but I want to help. I want to help younger people know their worth, remember their worth. Because we're born knowing it, you know. We're born so innocent and expecting love."
"A tabula rasa."
"Yeah," he said. "Then we realize our will doesn't matter, our preferences don't matter. We're different and misunderstood, and we're expected to conform -- in our houses, in school, in church, in the military. Do you know what can break through that, though? It's the most powerful experience."
"What?" Aggie sprang up a low-slung pine and wound herself upside-down and looked at him, eyes gleaming. Her entire chest, under her plaid of pale blue, seemed to be expanding in expectation, in irises and daffodils -- in spite of the November glaze.
"One adult listening," Jed said. "But I mean, real listening. Not just 'mm-hm's and indulgences, or trying to be a good person. But because they're actually interested -- they really want to know, to know you, to know your opinion. I was listened to by someone like that. His name was Mr. Cherchik. He's passed on now, but I spent a lot of my childhood at his house. His family saved me in many ways. I wish you could have known him."
She hung on the tree branch, softly looking at him.
"I would sit in their kitchen, and Mrs. Cherchik always gave me this brown bread. They made this thick brown bread I never had anywhere else. And she'd put such thick butter on it, and then thick honey, from their own bees. And Mr. Cherchik would sit at the table with me, doing nothing else but eating the same bread, and he would ask me my opinion on something. Like if I saw whatever picture was showing that month. Not just to make conversation, but because he actually wanted to know my opinion on it. And I was twelve. And the magical, crazy thing was that he took my opinion into consideration. If I said I didn't care for it, he'd get this look in his eyes like he was thinking, and he'd ask why, and then we'd have this tumbling talk and it was really intellectual and, I don't know, exciting. And then what clinched it was that he would actually see or not see the picture -- based on what I said!"
"I'm sorry he's no longer here," said Aggie. He glanced at her. Upside-down, her hair tumbled from her head, in thick short waves, each strand rutty and earthy: iron-rust. Slippery-looking, curly horns. "He sounds like he was a good wizard."
"He was a good wizard. He painted, too," said Jed. "He changed my life. I don't know. I loved him a lot."
"You'll give the same thing," said Aggie, changing her grip on the limb. She looked at him, her eyes dark jewels, shooting out lighthouse beams, into his mind and into his future. "You know you will, right? It's so obvious to see. That will be your gift."
"Yeah, maybe." He looked down and dug his toe into the ground. "There isn't really as big a chasm between childhood and adulthood as people think. Or, there is. But it can be crossed. That was what Jesus said, you know."
"Jed!" she said.
"What?" He always became wary when her voice was as full as that. And yet his pulse quickened. He watched the ground closely as his toe nudged deeper into the orange pine needles.
But he knew she was still looking at him. "I want to write down all your words. All of them," said Aggie. "I wish I had one of those Hollywood cameras. If I did, I would film you right now, standing there. Your brown face shining, framed by pine trees. Talking about how to save kids from the jowls of the world. You know, if I had met someone like you years ago, I might not be -- I might not be myself right now."
"But you are yourself," he said with a scuff at the ground, "and you're great."
"No, I could have been better," she said. "Or, not better, but more utterly me -- if I had had a you or a Mr. Cherchik."
"Well, you got me now."
Aggie was still looking at him, upside-down on the pine tree branch, and he was looking at the pine needles, and there was a full moment of silence, and things grew in-between the cracks of that silence: pumpkin vines and richness and maybe Aggie's buried dreams. And he held his breath. And then her words came out in a stream.
"I've been looking for a boy like you since I was a kid," she said, "and I've hurt without knowing someone like you. It got worse in my adult years."
"I don't know," he said, with an attempt at flippancy, "I am learning more about the world of bills and savings accounts, and I am, to my own horror, thinking about what job to have."
"But see, this is just the thing," Aggie swung down to the ground in a ferocious swoop. "But this is where you have it magically right. Jed, you know that you can both think about paying bills, and you know that there is buried treasure in the woods," she said, "illuminated on the backs of birch maps."
He laughed, feeling looser, lighter. "Now I'm grinning so hard I think I'm going to break my face. That's exactly it."
"It is exactly it! And that's me, too. That's why I'm so delighted to have found you, Jed. I'm over the moon. Do you realize it?"
"I do. I do; I feel the same." His hands were still in his pockets. Jed didn't know how they positioned themselves whenever their words were flames on their tongues; he stood solidly, and the girl flitted in his periphery, talking in purple flickers:
"Something in me folded up and crept away years ago," said Aggie. "I didn't have a Mr. Cherchik. I didn't have a you. I wanted both. But no one really wanted to talk with me. I didn't have someone to understand me. I just wanted to have a friend -- to roll in the thistle with, and howl at the moon, and tell secrets in whispered screams and sighs. Someone to talk about anything, beyond the nylon shortages and choosing between the army or navy. But, besides maybe the boy I lost, no one I met could do that. And as I became an adult, the world seemed even more in a famine. No one had what it took to conquer life's central conceits, all the while believing you could --"
"Step into a forest, and find an undiscovered cave."
"Don a daisy chain," she said, "and lord it over lands' lush and loving embrace."
"I'd prefer not to scream."
"No, a whispered scream," said Aggie.
He cupped his hands over his mouth. "Hello," he said in a whispered scream, "we're alive."
Then they swung through the ragged sticks and walked off into the powder-gray sunset.
"Wait, I just have to say," said Jed suddenly, "it would be really painful to roll in thistle."
"Shut up, Mr. Naturalist," said Aggie.
* * *