Fiction by Cheryl L. Cummings

The Thick of It

by Cheryl L. Cummings

The woodpeckers knock about in the brush. We hear them inside. The cottage is small, three bedrooms—one for Copper, one for me, though we sometimes share beds when she is afraid, which is often, and last night. The third room is empty now, save some used bedding and a bargain couple’s new wardrobe.

“I think someone’s at the door,” she says. Her voice is hushed for late afternoon.I say, “No, Cop. It’s the birds.”I sit down in an old rocking chair the man in all our photographs made from wood given to us by the trees. He stands tall and rough, handsome, our father. The chair starts to creak. “The door!”

“It’s just the chair.” And even if it weren’t, it would only be Mrs. Grasier coming inside from loading boxes into the back of her rusted station wagon. Copper and I had filled them with the things we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see given to charity. It took us an hour, or maybe three, to pick and choose. The power had been out when we came back home in a shiny black car wearing shiny black shoes on a Day of Morning, the reverend said. But it was nighttime by then.

At the service, old women cried over us, anointing our foreheads with tears, and apologizing for our lost. How sorry we must feel to be lost.

A man we didn’t know, in wrinkled black tie and silver-rimmed glasses, said that sometimes people just... leave. When Copper started to cry again, he changed his mind, saying that sometimes people come back, too. I smiled at the lie so that he would leave us alone.

#

When we were finished packing by candlelight, Mrs. Grasier was surprised that not much was left. I had taken Copper into her room to help fill her share of boxes and told her our travesty was ours. It was not for the benefit of anyone else. We had claim over our things and would take as much of it as we could.

I left the black dress and shoes I had taken off a moment before but kept the stockings with runs from the ankles up. I had tugged at the nylon during all the singing to let my skin peek through. There was something about the air in the tiny church that spoke to my legs. They shook at times, and they were shaking now. My mother used to say I let my nerves get the best of me, and I suppose she was right, even if I didn’t believe her then.

Mrs. Grasier slept on our couch last night. Today when we woke for lunch, she gave us a bowl of Frosted Flakes using milk housed in the freezer to stay cool. At the table, she told herself aloud that this was the only home besides her own that she had slept in since her marriage forty years ago. It was her first time and our last.

In school, we learned lots of things about dead men who made the world and poems that sound all right and what to do in case of fire. No one teaches you what to do when you are orphaned. I didn’t realize it mattered until right then.

Mrs. Grasier said that we needn’t worry ourselves about her old Vista Cruiser, which looked rough but rode well, brakes and all, that she was a fine driver. Then her eyes dropped to her spoon like maybe she should have kept that part quiet.

#

I get up from the rocking chair and rinse my face with water in the kitchen sink. All the faucets match all the doorknobs and the silverware, which are gold, not silver. I hear Copper open the front door. She stands there, looking into the brush. I go and stand there, too.

Mrs. Grasier sees us from near the liftgate. She is packing boxes like Tetris or desperation. Her wagon is brown and spotted blue with the two right tires missing their hubcaps.

We had seen the wagon pass by our place often, but had never ridden in it. She was a neighbor friend of our parents, just old enough to be one of their parents. With her forehead damp and wrinkling, she turns to wave at us, nearly tipping over with the motion. It is easy to tell with only a glance she holds some extra pounds in her arms and her stomach, despite her wearing long- sleeves. Mrs. Grasier carries her weight like weights.

Copper is six. I ask what she wants to do now that the door is open. In her silence, I know we should run for no reason except my legs are telling me to. So I nudge her. We do.

We run to nowhere, past the trees. We go for a hundred strides, farther out than our father had ever taken us to chop wood for the fireplace or catch rabbits on the weekend. We jump over logs and rocks. We run through weeds. Copper keeps her own, and when I look over my shoulder to see her sprinting behind me, her face is blank. I imagine mine is, too.

#

We share a tree stump for a while. The birds are around us with the thudding of their beaks. Copper catches her breath, with her back limp against my back. She tells me she can’t breathe. I tell her that she can. I tell her she’s done good and that I’m proud of her. She touches the leaves, and I watch for poison ivy. The temperature is dropping, but not enough to go back to the cabin yet.

#

The sun is leaving when we hear Mrs. Grasier call for us. She is shouts, “Girls, come back now!” And, “Can you hear me?” I look at Copper in the dimming light and know that she is not going to call back to Mrs. Grasier. I nod because I won’t either.

The voice goes away. We move again, farther into the brush.

After a long time, when I start to think she must have given up too easily, Mrs. Grasier comes back out, this time with a flashlight she must have found in the garage next to an axe or toolbox. The light comes through the branches and twigs, bright, like she is right there next to them.

Mrs. Grasier calls, her voice frantic and growing close. The sound of it spreads like germs. I pull at Copper’s shoulder, and we crouch down in the thick of the bushes because if we are going to be lost, we should really be lost. Until, of course, we are found.

Mrs. Grasier calls for us. She comes nearer. We do not answer. Instead, we hold our breath until she turns back toward the cottage. When we do breath, we can see it in the air. And this is how I know we are alive.

 

Cheryl L. Cummings lives in Orlando, where she studied Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida. In her spare time, she may be found dawdling at one of several local coffeehouses or off pretending to be a photographer or both. She writes fiction and poetry.