Monthly Archives: November 2016

Imago

Leigh dropped her boutique bags as soon as she walked in the door. Grey sweatpants lay crumpled unflatteringly in the entryway, barring her path. Leigh puckered her mouth, collagen clumping up like grapes.

“Ashley!” she called. The empty house absorbed her yell. “Ashley Deborah Johnson, are these your pants?”

No answer. Leigh huffed and kicked off her heels. The high from that morning’s shopping spree was rapidly dissipating. She decided to wait to unpack her haul. This must be dealt with.

Leigh stalked through the halls. Ashley wasn’t in her room, the gym, the kitchen, the dining nook, the pool room, the rec room, the parlor, the library, or the first-floor den.

She found Ashley in the second den, the one that overlooked the hills. Ashley lay in a disagreeable lump, sprawled sideways and upside-down on the white sectional couch. Her hair, only a shade or two off Leigh’s own honey blonde, was dark with grease. Her face was a constellation of acne and apathy.

Leigh situated herself between the television and her stepdaughter, arms crossed. Ashley grunted, a most unladylike sound.

“And just what do you think you’re doing, leaving your dirty clothes in the entryway?”

“Who cares? We got maids, don’t we?” Ashley brought a chip up to her mouth, a show of coordination that made Leigh’s eyes cross.

“That doesn’t mean you get to be a pig. What if daddy or I had guests? That would have been humiliating!”

Ashley didn’t react. Her glazed stare didn’t waver, as if she was staring through Leigh. Leigh tried a different approach.

“Honey,” she said, bending over, “you’d be such a pretty girl if you just took care of yourself. Why don’t you hit the gym with me? Or we could have a spa weekend? Just the girls?”

Ashley said, “girls?” and started laughing so hard she sneezed chip remnants out her nose. A few specks of mucus-laden saliva landed on Leigh’s dress. She fled to sponge it off.

 

“I mean, she’s just a slob,” Leigh said in bed that night.

Maxwell grunted. He was reading a John Grisham book on his half of the bed. Leigh tried to arrange herself more decorously.

“She could do so much if she’d just try,” she prodded, “a word or two from her father might set her on that path.”

Ah.” Maxwell scratched beneath his reading glasses. “This is between you girls. I don’t need to get in the way.”

Leigh swallowed a frustrated scream. “But she’s your daughter. All she does is lay there like a lump.”

“And? Her mom was the same way when she was her age. Grew up to be a real beauty, too. You’ll see. She’ll blossom into a lovely young woman in no time”

Leigh was nettled. “Well I took care of myself at that age. And look who’s married to you now.”

Max laughed indulgently and patted her on the head. Then he snuffed the reading lamp and rolled over on his side to sleep. Leigh swallowed her sleeping pill and donned her eye mask resentfully.

It’s not like she wasn’t aware of the dynamic at play here. There were only ten years between Leigh and her stepdaughter, thirty between Leigh and her husband. What hurt the most was that there was no one to complain to. Lena had never forgiven her for getting to Max first. Mom would just lecture on “never marry someone’s leftovers,” like she wasn’t on husband number four. Her physical trainer was sympathetic but professionally distant.

Marrying Max had been a trade-off, she knew that going in. Gone was her social life. In return she supposedly got every comfort known to man. Her honeymoon had lasted a year, for god’s sake! Max had seemed happy with the transaction, but lately his eye had begun looking past her, much like Ashley did.

Leigh began exercising compulsively, going on special diets. She dropped five pounds and could fit back into the dress she’d worn when she first saw Max. Max barely looked up from the computer at her impromptu fashion show.

Leigh pouted down the hall, considering a candy bar. As she passed her wardrobe room, she saw Ashley holding one of her dresses. Ashley, scrubbing her face all over Leigh’s white Christian Dior shift, leaving oil spots all over the fabric. Leigh let out a shriek and grabbed at the dress. Ashley held on to her end. They both heard the rip.

Leigh gasped and dropped the fabric. “Ashley! What do you think you’re doing, young lady?”

Ashley put on an ugly scowl. She dropped her half.

“Do you know how much that cost?”

“Dunno. How much did daddy pay for it?”

Leigh’s cheeks reddened like she’d been slapped. “How dare you!”

She moved to grab the girl’s arm. Ashley dropped to the floor, flailing her limbs, screaming like a toddler. Leigh ran to get Max. Max shrugged her off.

“This is between you two girls,” he said, glasses perched on his bald pate.

Leigh marched furiously back to the wardrobe. Ashley was gone. Leigh found her in the kitchen, dipping Leigh’s box of diet bars in peanut butter and scarfing them down. Peanut butter stuck to her face in oily clumps like some kind of skin growth. Leigh retched a little but reached for the box. Ashley threw them and ran.

 

Leigh was stuck. Ashley just became more and more beastly with every passing day while her father took a very laissez-faire approach to parenting. Leigh had no leverage. What ultimatum could she issue? She knew how the divorce went for Max’s first wife, it was why Ashley lived with them and not her mother. Withhold sex? Max hadn’t touched her in weeks, confining affection to a few condescending head-pats. Punish Ashley? That was a joke. Anything Leigh took away, Ashley could get from her father in a single visit. The urge to scream at Max was rising every day. Screaming at Ashley got you nowhere, the girl had a set of lungs like bagpipes.

Ashley pigged out and let her hygiene go. She gained little bulges of fat and her face was always shiny with oils. Leigh became too disgusted to even look at her. It was like the girl was going ugly just to spite her!

 

The day before the company formal. Leigh put on a gold shift. It was nearly identical to one his wife had worn to the same occasion, nearly fifteen years ago, but four sizes smaller. She wanted everyone to know who made the right choice. She’d even left off the bra. Leigh was admiring her shape in the mirror when she heard it.

Ashley must come along. It didn’t matter how she pled with Max, nor Ashley’s preference for staying home with the television. Ashley was going to the dinner. And whose responsibility was it to make sure that went off? Not her father, surely.

Leigh tracked the sound through the house. She found Ashley laying in the hall outside her room, squalling like an infant. Her chubby limbs kicked and flailed, her pockmarked face flushed so her pimples disappeared. A dark mood washed over Leigh.

She crouched, putting pressure on Ashley’s arms. “Get up, young lady. Right goddamn now.”

Ashley shrieked and reared back, throwing Leigh off. The action hiked her shirt up off her stomach.

There was a split forming in the skin.

Leigh gaped at it. The split widened.

She hammered on the office door. “Honey! Come out now! There’s something wrong with Ashley!”

“In a minute.”

“No, not a minute, now! She needs to get to a hospital!”

Max opened the door an inch. He looked over at his daughter.

“Oh,” he said in a completely unhurried voice, “I’ll be out in a second.”

The door shut. Leigh pounded on it.

Ashley split right down the middle, screaming. Leigh ran to her and tried holding the rip closed with her hands.

“Oh sweetie, no, don’t move, you’ll make the hole bigger, oh honey, oh sweetheart.” she babbled endless platitudes as the rip traveled wider than her hands, opening a neat pink seam all the way to Ashley’s chin.

Her face split.

Leigh fell back to a sit, scooting away from the scene with her heels.

Ashley’s body opened and a woman stepped out. The woman was a dead ringer for Max’s first wife, but twenty, thirty, a thousand years younger. Her hair was a honey-gold and her skin flawless. Gold lamé dripped fluidlike from her body as she stood, solidifying into a form-fitting dress. She wore gold spike heels and there were diamond studs in her ears. She did not look down at Leigh as she toed the remnants of Ashley’s body away.

The slam of a door alerted Leigh. Max emerged from his office, buttoning cuff links.

“Ready to go, dear?” he asked.

The impossible beautiful woman that had split from Ashley’s body glided over to him and took his proffered arm.

“Wait,” Leigh croaked, “wait, wait, wait.”

They did not wait. The woman at Max’s arm tossed her hair and they left Leigh in the darkened hall.

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Red Moss

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Grine stepped off the path and through ferns that grew taller than he did.

Moss abounded in this part of the forest. There was the jewel-green carpet moss that was good for stopping bleeding, there was the feathery trailing moss that was good for packing a baby’s diaper, there was star moss that was good to eat when you had nothing else, and there was lichen that wasn’t a moss at all but two different things forming a union.

But no red moss.

The herbal woman had been very emphatic. Red moss.

His mother lay on her side, pale as the moon, dark rings around her eyes. She needed red moss to help her.

Grine kept an eye out as he wandered off path. The forest was damp with rain, so anything that wasn’t mouldy brown stood out. He saw a flash of red—the throat of a bird.

He had no picture to guide him. He supposed he would know a red moss when he saw it.

Unless, of course, the word “red” was just a name. Like the fruit that was called Blacknut even though it was violet with white flesh when matured.

Grine found a stream and stuck his mouth in it. It tasted of earth. Grine would never be lost in the forest, because he knew to listen for water. Water always fed the river, and people lived by the river.

He found a stand of dead moss on a lightning-struck tree. The mammoth fir was bigger than any other tree in the area. It was like finding the bones of a giant.

He pried some of the dry moss up with his little test-knife. It was only good for pricking baked tubers to check for doneness, it was so small and dull. His knife ceremony was years away. Mother had promised him a fine, sharp blade when the time came. He had to provide for  the two of them.

The moss was not any shade of red, but an ochre brown. Grine sniffed it and tossed it away.

When his stomach growled he looked for the plants that held green leaves like flags over a bulging rhizome. His mother had shown him how to find things to eat in the trees, how to separate good plants from poison lookalikes. The leaves formed a tasteless mash in his mouth and were gone long before his hunger pangs. Grine had brought a quarter of her last pie for morale’s sake. The berry syrup tasted acrid. He rolled it around his mouth.

He did not know how to cook for himself yet. He could bake tubers without burning them, but he was wary of fire. He hadn’t been brave enough to spit meat or roast bread on the coals. Mother had promised to show him when he aged out of his timidness.

Grine heard the crack of a branch and made himself small. A dun shape moved through the trees. Grine had an acorn whistle to scare away wolves, but it would only draw a bear’s attention.

The shape drew closer, and Grine buried his head in the pine needles he lay upon.

The crunch of footsteps stopped.

“Get up, boy, if you’re living.”

Grine raised his head.

It was a hunter. Ald, who hunted with no dog or companion despite missing one of his arms.

Grine rose to all fours and accepted the hand held out for him. Ald was a tall, stocky man with a hand that swallowed Grine’s own.

“All alone, all the way out here?” Ald’s gaze was probing. “What fancy is this?”

Grine found his tongue. “No fancy. My mother—I need to get medicine for her. The red moss.”

Ald’s face set in a thoughtful frown. He shouldered his hunting spear and sat on a felled log.

He gestured to the seat next to him. “Next to me. I’ve got something to tell you.”

Grine obeyed.

“The red moss—boy, it’s not what you think. No moss in the forest grows red on its own. Red moss is a hunter’s term. When you’ve blooded an animal, it drips on the moss and lets you track the beast. It means good luck and sustenance.” Ald shifted a bit. “What she’s telling you, boy, is that your mother cannot be saved. The red moss is death. By finding it, she’d hope you’d understand.”

After a moment he said kindly, “here, take my cloth. Wipe your eyes.”

Ald had to shift his skinning blade to take the cloth from his belt. Grine followed it through swollen eyed, the polished gleam of metal.

“I wish I had better words for you,” Ald said, “I was young when my own father passed. I had to brave the test of manhood on my own. It was slow going. And after that, when I realized that I would hunt only for myself, coming home to an empty hut until the day I married, I nearly gave up. But I must tell you that it will pass. The sorrow will leach out over time and—”

Ald opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no sound came out. He turned wide eyes to where Grine had buried the skinning knife in his side. Grine pulled it out, and Ald fell.

Grine knew to strike fast, Ald was still tall and fit, and he peppered the hunter with the blade.

Ald lay on his side, wheezing like a felled deer. Grine took the knife and dribbled the blood on the dry moss, going back for more several times. Then, without wiping the knife clean, he levered up a good amount and put it in his berry bag.

Ald breathed erratically, gazing up at nothing. Grine left him there, following his trail of broken branches back to the path. He hadn’t needed to follow a stream after all.

Mother lay on her side near the hearth of banked coals, still asleep, still ill. Grine fetched her mortar and poured water in it, setting a small piece of moss within just as he’d seen her do a thousand times. He ground it down to a thick slurry and then, holding her mouth open with one thumb, he fed the red medicine to his mother.

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The Edge of Sleep

Naomi’s client tonight was a businessman. Naomi dressed for work in a button-up white blouse and black linen slacks. She might have been an office girl in his building and he wouldn’t shoot her a second glance.

Naomi turned down the bed: its thick, white coverlet, the sheets that were washed in-between every client, the plump down pillows. Her client removed his jacket and tie, unbuttoning his sleeves at the wrist. Some clients brought their own sleepwear. Some stripped to their undergarments, though no farther than that.

Naomi drew back the covers and the man settled into bed. He was quite stout and his gestures in undressing were almost forceful, but he still drifted into the white of the bedding like a child.

Naomi quickly slipped into the other side of the bed and lay face-to-face with the client, matching breaths until he fell asleep.

 

“It’s not as if you’re a call girl, now is it?” her boss, Takahata grunted. “It’s not as if you have to dirty your hands to make money.”

He forked over that night’s stack of cash.

No. There was no physical touching, nothing sexual of any kind. But the intimacy of the job felt…obscene somehow.

“I fell asleep again,” she said, looking down at her shoes. She brought it up with increasing frequency, hoping Takahata would get sick of her lack of discipline.

But instead he just scratched his chin. “As long as you’re there with them, it doesn’t really matter. You sure complain a lot about a job that requires nothing of you.”

Naomi took her pay and left without comment.

The job required nothing. Was that true?

More and more, Naomi considered quitting the job. To hell with her apartment, to hell with the steep rental prices in the city. She could live in all-night internet cafes like her friend Chiwako, showering at the gym and subsisting on instant noodles.

….but no. That would leave Kurotsugumi out in the cold, wouldn’t it? No matter how resolved, she could not abandon her cat, who came winding in-between her legs as soon as she stepped in the door. Kurotsugumi was her only family in the city.

Naomi began brewing the first of what would be many cups of coffee throughout the day. The job had done something insidious to her sleep cycle. Now, even on days when she didn’t work, she was constantly tired. The strain of attempting to stay awake all night crept into her body. Even the brightest of days had soft, blurred edges as if she was only partly present in the waking world.

 

“Of course you’re tired,” her friend Fumi said, “you’re not just prostituting your body. You’re prostituting your mind as well.”

Fumi worked at a bar. Naomi loved her for her bluntness. Thus, she was the only friend who knew anything about Naomi’s real profession.

“I know,” Naomi confessed, “it doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re lying across from a person all night, mixing your breath with theirs, it’s a terrible weight to take on.”

Naomi poured her a shot of apricot liqueur. “Most people don’t even realize what an effort it is, do they? To go with someone all the way to the edge of sleep.”

Naomi disliked that phrase. It sounded terrible and final as “edge of the world.” The edge of anything was not a suitable place to live. And yet here she was.

Fumi tossed her close-cropped hair behind an ear. “Of course,” she said mischievously, “if you quit, I won’t get to tell all my friends that I know a baku.”

Naomi swallowed. There was a vague, frightening familiarity to that phrase. “Baku?”

“You know? The dream-eating tapir.”

Naomi repressed a shudder. “That’s not me. I don’t eat people’s dreams.”

“But you absorb something negative from them, don’t you?” Fumi’s gaze pierced right through her. “If you sleep next to someone you know, it gets normalized. You get used to one another’s energy. But a different person every night? Must be like a fish collecting small amounts of mercury with every mouthful.”

Naomi felt sick. But also, that it must be true. Even at the bar, with its neon lighting and sharp, angular furniture she felt insubstantial.

Going out with friends later that same evening, Naomi pondered what it would truly cost to quit. The cost of living in the city was certainly high, but could she work around it?

Naomi chewed over that phrase. Cost of living. Like people were composed of bits and pieces that cost X amount. To maintain a healthy leg, you must make so-and-so money. And what if you default on your payments? Did they repossess your body and sell it for parts?

Naomi laughed a little at the image. Then she looked over to the bridge, where the tent city was.

…no. That was what happened when the cost of living exceeded your means. You became invisible.

So what would need to happen for Naomi to become invisible? First she’d have to lose her job, then her flat, then she’d probably have to start prostitution…Naomi imagined the path of her life then, like a pachinko ball bouncing on a series of lower and lower pegs until settling into a slot at the bottom. And what would that slot be for her?

Her friend Nobu grabbed her scarf and jerked her to the left. “Naomi-chan? You were about to walk into that telephone pole.”

Naomi started. She had been drifting again. She yawned.

“Your job working you too hard?”

“Yeah. I’m thinking about quitting,” Naomi said.

“What, is the art gallery keeping you up late?” Chise joked.

Naomi blinked and went silent. All she wanted was to confess, for someone to give her that shot of courage that would let her quit. Instead she walked on as if she were a normal young career woman, each step sinking deeper and deeper in the snow.

 

“This next guy is another businessman,” Takahata said, “he came recommended.”

“I’ll try to stay awake this time.”

Takahata shrugged.

Naomi was beginning to suspect that staying awake, though part of the job description, was not actually what was required. That Takahata’s casual nature was just a smokescreen for his real motivation.

The businessman had an angry, pockmarked face. He was probably a patron of regular prostitutes as well, taking out his frustration on their bodies. A man like that had an aura like a bad odor.

Naomi tried to keep her manner crisp and professional, stressing that there would be no sexual contact. She wanted to trust Takahata’s vetting process, but could not rely on anything the man said.

Once in bed, she concentrated anywhere but her client’s ugly face. She focused on his breathing, trying to sync them up. It was a meditative exercise. She imagined she could see his breath, his sleep-energy flowing out from his nose, a violet against the snow white of the covers.

Naomi did not fall asleep. She wandered through the man’s slumber, imagining his journey. Perhaps he took a walk he took in everyday waking life. Across a bridge, through a business park. Naomi ambled through that thought, imagining his path. Here was a little landscaped area, with hexagonal sculptures and creeping moss trained to grow like a forest. Here was a bike path that ambled along the seaside.

It was almost an accident that Naomi looked up and saw it.

The black shape in front of her was only vaguely shaped like a tapir. It had no features, no, it was more like a living shadow, a hole in the world that looked onto somewhere much worse. Its color was the color of nightmares, a black that showed violet on your eyelids. Its movements were epileptic.

Naomi froze. She was suddenly aware of herself, of how she stood vulnerable on this plane and yet sprawled out on the bed. Was there a path quickly back to her body?

The thing vibrated like tv static. And then, even without a face, she wasn’t at all sure how, but somehow the thing looked right at her!

Naomi gasped as if surfacing from a cold lake. She pushed out of the covers and scooted until her back was against the wall, wrapping her arms around her knees.

Her client lay asleep, no visible change on his face. Would he notice if she never went back to bed?

Naomi spent the night sitting on the floor. When the alarm went off, she was already waiting with his suit jacket. The man did not seem very rested and grumbled through his morning preparations. Naomi did not care. She was filled with sudden revulsion for people who went for work like hers. People who walked around with dirt clinging to their souls, people who sought to wipe it off on someone else.

 

“I can’t do this anymore.”

Takahata barely nodded, marking off a receipt. He probably went through girls like most people go through socks.

“I can’t force you to stay, but there is one qualification.”

Takahata looked at her, setting a fat stack of cash on his desk. It was a generous amount.

“This is your severance. If you want it, you have to spend a night with me.”

“With you? How? You mean…in that bed?”

Takahata nodded, gaze suddenly sharp. She was right, his casual demeanor was a put-on. He knew exactly what he was asking.

Naomi looked at her last payment blearily. The client had complained and gotten a bit knocked off his price. It was only enough to last a week at most. How quickly could she find a job?

Takahata’s eyes were dark. They held a tinge of violet, only there when she squeezed her eyelids closed.

Naomi stared back, not blinking “…okay.”

 

Takahata did not undress. He did not even kick off his shoes before getting into bed. She found that, of all things, very obscene. Takahata was very obscene, the more she thought about it. What dirt did his soul have clinging to it?

Naomi got into bed ramrod-straight, holding her body carefully away from Takahata’s. The man’s gaze was like a deep ravine, something that threatened to suck her in.

Naomi matched their breaths. Takahata had an odd breathing pattern: two rapid inhales, then a long exhale. Naomi adjusted her own breathing, trying to influence his. Gradually, Takahata’s eyes drooped.

Naomi imagined she could see his sleep-breath, a deep, hateful black-violet pluming from his nostrils. She imagined its smell, something chemical and citrus-y, sharp and oddly sweet.

She plugged his nose.

Takahata’s mouth immediately began blowing out air, but it was colorless. Naomi waited.

Takahata’s face flushed violet. His eyes danced behind closed lids. Naomi kept the seal on his nose airtight.

Now his face began to swell. Takahata’s cheeks blew up, his eyes bulged,his nose expanded under her hand.

But he didn’t wake.

Soon Takahata’s breaths began to taper off. His face darkened until it was almost black.

He exhaled and never took another breath.

Naomi removed herself from the bed. She slipped on her coat and shoes. The money she tucked into her clutch purse.

Now wide awake and on the edge of nothing, Naomi left.

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Ends

“For some people, Halloween is a holiday. For others, it’s a way of life.”

Leonard wasn’t looking at Kyra or the box that held her dead cat. He was looking down the hill to the street where Marybeth was strolling along with her new friends, decked out in a dress that looked like a black wedding cake.

Kyra didn’t reply, she was still digging the hole. She only had a hand trowel to do it. Toonces had been a big cat towards the end of his life.

The shoebox that held her cat’s body was tied giftwrap-style with twine. Leonard had done that. Leonard had also said he’d show up with a flatnose shovel and help her dig the hole, but he hadn’t done that. He stamped his feet against the cold and looked after Marybeth.

“Are you going to her party later? Could you get me an invite?”

Kyra used the measuring of the hole as an excuse to not answer right away. It was wide and long enough, but was too shallow.

“We’re not really hanging out much anymore,” she said when enough time had passed.

“Oh really? Thought you two were tight.” Leonard looked at her for the first time since Marybeth hove into view. Kyra bent so that her hair hid her face.

“That was the beginning of the year,” she said carefully, “she’s made new friends. A lot of them.”

The earth mounded over Toonces’ box. Leonard lifted his boot to stomp it flat. Kyra winced.

“Toonces was a good cat,” she said by way of services, “I always had to hide him right around this time of year. My dad said people hate black cats. They think they’re the devil. He wasn’t all black anyway. He had that white spot on his chest.”

Leonard finished stomping and scraped his boot sideways to get rid of the dirt. “You have a headstone?”

Kyra held up a chunk of feldspar. “I didn’t paint it or anything. I don’t want to attract attention. You’re not supposed to bury pets, you’re supposed to have them cremated.”

“Too bad, you could’ve done some cool things with the ashes.” Leonard was looking down at the street. “You sure you don’t want to mark it?”

“I’ll remember the shape.” Kyra crossed her arms. She wanted to flick or hit Leonard so he’d look at her, just so he’d stop drifting his attention away.

“You going out tonight?”

“Dunno.” Kyra thought of the black dress she’d been working on since July, identical to the one currently occupying Marybeth Andrews’ person. “Aren’t we getting old for Halloween?”

Leonard didn’t deny it, like she hoped. He did a single-shoulder shrug and left after more forced small talk.

Kyra crouched by the grave. Toonces had not made a very big impact with his passing. She remembered coming home from trick-or-treating, feeling his body wind between her legs, his cold, curious nose pricking her ankle.

She looked away from the street.

Where the hill ran into farmland, she spied a bit of movement. Old man Deakins was in the pumpkin patch, among the withered vines. The pumpkins had long since been harvested, set out on hay bales or clustered together by the tin shed that served as a produce market. Kyra watched as he took a funny little sideways step, kicking loose dirt over a vine. There was someone else dealing with the dregs of the season.

Kyra rose from her crouch.

“Hi, Mr. Deakins!” She called to him from the white fence that separated his farm from the empty land parcels that were carved from the neighboring farm.

Deakins looked up. His hair and mustache were still brown, but there was such an air of ancient-ness to his demeanor that they all reflexively called him “old man.”

“Well hey there, sweetie pie.” Kyra would have bet dollars to donuts that he didn’t know her name. That was fine. At least he was talking to her and not at her.

“Boy that sure looks tedious.” Kyra nodded at the pumpkin vines. Her voice sounded fake, even to her ears.

“Ah, no job that’s worth doin’ is boring to me.” Deakins went back to his procedure. Step-step-scrape. “Some folk burn the fields.” Step-step-scrape. “I like to give back to the earth.”

“Oh.” And because she needed to tell this to someone, anyone, she said, “I buried my cat today.”

Deakins nodded. “Oh boy. I remember putting my first cat down.” Step-step-scrape. “Called him Pudditat. Helluva mouser.” Step-step-scrape. “Fell afoul of a neighbor dog. Not a year goes by I don’t think of him, actually.” Step-step-scrape. “Buried plenty of cats, but none like him.”

“I got him when my mom—when I started living with my dad.” It was nice, commiserating like this. Even when it was with someone so far out of her social phylum he might as well have gills. “He was going downhill for a while, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Deakins shook his head. “Nope. I hear yah.” Step-step-scrape.

Kyra watched his peculiar dance for a moment to build up her courage.

“Do you feel—disappointed?” she blurted out.

Deakins stopped what he was doing to squint at her.

“I mean, I used to love Halloween. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s like, well, um, everything leading up to it just really psyches you up for it and then the day comes and it’s like—I don’t know,” she rambled, heart hammering. She had never said this out loud before and Deakins’ face lacked any clues as to what he thought of it.

Deakins cocked his head and looked at her. One boot heel sat on a vine that curled as if beseeching for escape from the soil.

“Sure,” he said, “think I do.”

Deakins beckoned her off the fence. Despite their rapport, she was shy about approaching him.

Deakins gestured to the farm. “You see my farm? I’ve got these fields.  Some I’ve got crops going year round. I take out the alfalfa, and suddenly it’s time for the safflower. But then there’s some I only plant but once a year. Like this one.” He kicked his heel into the brown earth. “I don’t make much on the pumpkins. Matter of fact I think I lose a little each year. But the feeling when those orange bastards come out, when the little ones come up with their faces all lit up—boy!” Deakins chuckled. “No feeling like it.”

“But when it’s all barren, like this?”

Deakins looked out over the field, scanning to and fro. “There’s a pang, I won’t lie. That’s why I’m out here. Got to give the boys a sendoff.”

“Doesn’t it make you sad?”

“Sure—a bit. But proud.” Deakins smiled, face creasing like a leather wallet. “You wanna see somethin’?”

He crouched to the ground, beckoning. Kyra came as close as she dared.

“You gotta realize every end is a beginning. I clear the wheat, the clover goes in. I butcher the cows, I feed a family. I plant the pumpkins—”

Deakins’ gnarled hands unearthed the stem of the pumpkin and dug deeper. It took a moment for Kyra to make out the stump that the vines projected from. Even then, she took a moment to process if she was truly seeing this, a purple twist of scarf around a neck. Deakins continued scraping the earth away, uncovering a vest, a jacket, a headless body with vines spewing from the throat.

Kyra did not scream. She backed away, vocal chords stilled by shock. Deakins smiled proudly, as if displaying a trophy.

“See, sweetie pie? Everything gets buried, eventually.”

Kyra ran, vaulting the fence in one go. She kept up a gallop past Toonces’ grave, already birthing a green sprout. Deakins called, his voice chasing up the hill after her:

“Come back in November—butternut squash’ll be ready!”

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