I watched the house from the time the sour old owners, the ones with the massive credit card debt, had moved out. For a couple of weeks, through the dappled shadows of the maple tree growing between the sidewalk and the street, I monitored the side-stair colonial as realtors and their client toured it, wondering if the inspector caught the foundation trouble in that one corner.
The paths wove through the vignettes like veins, around the koi pond, the stone retaining walls, the avenue of white pebbled and sandstone pavers, and down to the creek, where an arched bridge linked to a small island with a treehouse encircled by hundreds of daisies. Rebecca and Stephen had no ambitious landscaping plans when she’d inherited the estate. But after close inspection, they’d discovered the bones of the existing garden, uncovered its harsh lines and soft curves, and, after three long years, had opened their botanical paradise to the public.
Rebecca believed gardens created themselves. Where trees had grown over time and brought more shade, the plants struggling to prosper beneath were moved. Where seeds were dropped, self-sown, and thrived, they were left. Advertisement brochures referred to their garden as ‘a living work of art’. To her, the garden was a structure to sustain life and was in some ways more important than her own. And while she and Stephen won awards for their landscape designs, and were featured on gardening shows and in magazines, there was one vignette of their garden that visitors were forbidden to enter.
Gran spreads out her knickers on the baking tray.
I hardly dare peek: my mother says it’s a crime to stare at undies, especially those of old people.
But Gran doesn’t care.
Next, she reaches for the string that loops across the kitchen and tugs my undies off it. Laying them carefully beside her own, she slides the tray into the oven.
Gran is weird – but a good sort of weird. She bakes bread in a flowerpot, and grows mustard and cress on wet facecloth. At Christmas, she sends me home-made fudge in a used can of chick peas, with a dollar coin taped to the bottom. The label is amended with black pen to Chuck Pea, her pet name for me. I’ve kept all the cans she has ever sent.
There’s a pop as the gas ignites; Gran beams. “Friendly flames on a freezing morning; what could be better?” As I watch the flames, she stretches across and ruffles my hair. I duck away, though secretly I love the touch of those soft, wrinkled hands. Continue reading
This is what I know to be true about the New Vernon House in Chepachet, Rhode Island.
In 1835, the Vernon family home burnt to the ground, claiming the lives of Constance Vernon, 38, and Matthew Vernon, 7. Thomas Vernon, 45, and his surviving sons, George, 16, and John, 13, buried their loved ones on the property before rebuilding what is now known as the New Vernon House. Upon his father’s death in 1849, George Vernon sold the property, reportedly saying “it was a fine home . . . but haunted to me.” These facts are not in dispute: the tragedy was covered at length in the New-England Telegraph, and digitized articles are now accessible through the Library of Congress. George never again publicly commented on the home, leaving locals and historians to wonder what he meant by the word “haunted.” Did he experience something supernatural there? Or was the house just a painful reminder of the loss of his beloved mother and brother?
Over the years, the New Vernon House has been the subject of speculation and gossip, as well as the scene of several reported ghost sightings and paranormal occurrences. Some say the house smells faintly of smoke, even today. Others swear they’ve seen a woman in black walking the property at night, clutching her chest and calling for help. Separating fact from fiction, rumor from reality has proven difficult. But I’m trying, and here’s why: there’s something else I know to be true about the New Vernon House. It’s the last place my daughter was reportedly seen alive.
Because even his mid-life crisis takes only frugal turns and it would never occur to him to pay extra for shipping, the violin arrives just when he forgets about it. The mailman doesn’t even bother to bring it to the door but leaves it instead with a perfunctory wave just inside the periphery of his front yard.
He has to dig it out from among the ferns and brings it inside while his children and a boy from next door are playing under the canopy of a giant pine tree, which some of his neighbors have been passive-aggressively nudging him to do something about lest it keel over and cause god-knows-what damage. But such are concerns of grown-ups with too much time on their hands. The children are engrossed in their game and don’t even ask him about his strange-shaped parcel.
The last time he touched a violin was when TVs still came with adjustable antennas and telephones had rotary dials. He doesn’t remember what that violin, with which he took lessons with a self-proclaimed maestro named Mr. Kreutzer for five years, cost, but his eBay violin cost just 38 dollars, including shipping. It’s a frightening sum considering that it traveled to his home all the way from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Years ago—it was many lives ago—I worked nights in Manhattan. Some people call that grave shifting or paying dues. Others call it chasing the light.
To stay awake I used to buy coffee at Smilers, the deli on 7th Ave in the Village. Usually around 3 am.
Every night on a crate in front of Smilers sat an old black man. White hair, blind. I think he was mildly autistic. He rocked back and forth endlessly. Like Ray Charles caught in the groove. Next to the crate was a boom box, and a simple handwritten sign: Please. Continue reading
The teeth were too big for Maggie. The wax gums slipped along her molars and stabbed her flesh until she couldn’t bear it and took them out.
“Why’d you go and do that?” Brother Daniel asked. “No one’ll know what you’re s’posed to be.”
“They hurt.” she said, dropping the little rubber fangs into her pillow case candy sack. Her mouth relaxed. She was glad to get the things out. Other than the pain, the foamy spit that stuck inside the rubber fangs moved in and out with each breath and made her feel like the rabid dog that had been on tv last night. But altogether, Dan was right. Without the fangs, her basilisk costume fell into a well of scaly obscurity. Even with the teeth in, she’d had to explain to both Missus Dodson and dim little Craig Elner from next door that she was absolutely not a dragon to go along with her brother’s knight getup.
“I guess it doesn’t matter anyhow. We ought to head back soon.” Daniel fidgeted with his wrist watch. It had been a present for his birthday earlier that month and he had not stopped setting alarms and timing mundane activities – eating cereal, practicing times tables, using the bathroom. Maggie hated it, for it was a traitor and blared out the exact second their nightly hour of television was over. Mother sometimes forgot her rule about the tv and, on those occasions, Maggie could catch another episode of Dateline.
Dan’s watch, on the other hand, never forgot the hour tv rule. Continue reading
Hardly anyone paid much attention to me until my execution. Or, that isn’t entirely true. I had an incredible amount of attention paid to me when I was a baby. But that attention wasn’t any fun at all. I don’t remember it, but I can be pretty sure. It can’t have been much fun to be the damning piece of evidence in my parent’s trial.
A little after I was born, people started wondering how I’d come to be. My parents couldn’t claim that they’d adopted me because they didn’t have any paperwork to prove it. They also couldn’t claim to have given birth to me—they were both men. And so how had they come into possession of such an adorable little baby girl? Had they summoned her out of thin air with a cauldron and some magic stones?
Yes. Yes they had. That’s exactly what they’d done.
For proof, the accusing lawyer showed the court my belly button, or rather my lack of one. I had no belly button, she argued, because I’d never needed an umbilical cord. Or so I’m told. I didn’t have much patience for legal proceedings when I was eight months old. From what I understand I spent most of the trial trying to fit my foot into my mouth. In any case, the jury found the belly button argument convincing enough that my parents were convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death.
It’s not easy growing up knowing that you were the piece of evidence that got your parents executed. Especially when your foster parents remind you of this just about every morning. “Strayala,” they would say, “You should scrub the floor harder. You have much to atone for. Don’t you know that you were the reason your parents were executed?” Even before I was old enough to know what “executed” meant, I didn’t like to hear that. When I finally did find out what the word meant, I liked it even less.
That said, I hear that my parents held themselves a marvelous execution. They were known for throwing the most fun parties. Their execution was no exception. They began planning it on the very day they were convicted. They hired an up-and-coming executionist, had a jazz band play, a few minor celebrities even attended. It was a huge success. The ticket sales from the execution were enough to cover my college tuition.
When it came time to plan my own execution, I tried to make them proud. Nasha and Oliver helped me plan it. They’re less than half my age, Nasha and Oliver, but we still spend all our weekends together. Sometimes the weekdays too. We do witch things together: binding up spells and practicing cantrips and cackling very loud. Though, the cackling has very little to do with us being witches and very much to do with Oliver being hilarious. He can play the trumpet and the accordion at the same time. He bugs his eyes out when he does it and he gets this crazy expression—but I guess you’d have to see it to understand.
Ever since I was small, I’ve always imagined myself somewhere else when I go to sleep. Someplace outdoors, usually, someplace wild, a rainforest or a mountainside or an island off a rocky coast. I’ll be traveling, escaping something maybe, and I’ll have found or made some kind of shelter. Rain or snow or wind will be battering it, but I’ll be warm and protected.
Of course, I knew when I ran away from home that it wouldn’t be like that, and it wasn’t. I slept in a tent pitched under a leaning redwood stump in a canyon north of Mendocino, less than twenty-five miles from home. It was summer, so there was no snow or rain, but every morning and most afternoons there was cold fog that couldn’t be kept out. My feet felt like blocks of wood. Banana slugs clung to the outside of the tent. Spiders found their way into my sleeping bag. I was living on apple juice, peanut butter, and raisin bread.
I spent too much time thinking. About my mother’s suicide, about who should or shouldn’t have done or said what, about how it played out in parallel universes. We’d all seen it coming, my father and my brother and I. She’d been depressed, delusional, obsessive for years. But (as I saw it that summer, anyhow) I was the only one who felt guilty about it, who thought there was something more we could have done. My father seemed fatalistic about it, my brother downright nonchalant. That was what had driven me out of the house, that one last feeble protest I felt I had to make. Continue reading
There was nothing more distressing for Lucas than walking the halls of the hospital. He shuffled his slippers in agonizing slowness while pulling an IV cart by his side as if it were an annoying friend that couldn’t take no for an answer.
He dreamt of being with Diane, walking along the Mesa of Santa Barbara that overlooked the beautiful ocean vista. They loved to lean against the wooden fence at the edge of the cliff and watch the speed boats cut across the Pacific, the hang gliders soaring so effortlessly in the sky, and the surfers balancing on their boards while riding the cresting waves.
Lucas labored alone down the hallway of the Pulmonary Care Unit with two defective lungs, a heart that was barely beating, and an IV cart joined at the hip. Continue reading