Reflections – Part Two of Two

Whistling air again, Mr. Jones slid himself onto the table, pausing for a moment as his feet came off the floor and his body settled back onto itself.  He sighed, the lines at the corners of his mouth becoming shallower as the muscles beneath relaxed.  Raising his head, he gave Master a smile.

“My knees.”

When no further explanation followed, Master narrowed his eyes slightly and shifted his sight again, this time looking specifically at the stated area.  The murky, brown aura swirled around Mr. Jones like a delicate dust storm.  No area stayed motionless long enough for a visual assessment.  In the seven years he had been professionally clearing energy paths and helping to open chakras he had seen several unusual behaviors in a person’s aura.  This swirling was something new.  He had no reference for it.  His eyes flicked involuntarily toward the small mirrors then back to Mr. Jones.

“Can I lay down now?”

Seeing Mr. Jones’ eyes watching him, Master nodded and held out a hand, palm open.

“May I take your jacket, sir?”

It was a simple request that clients acquiesced to without question.  Mr. Jones was no exception.  Shrugging his shoulders the grubby, tan jacket dropped down his arms, landing in a pile on the table’s soft, blue cushion.  Master tilted his head slightly to one side, surprised at the ease of the man’s movement.  

Plucking up the garment by its collar he turned to hang it on one of the round wooden pegs by the door.  When he turned back his foot froze in mid-step.  In that small, two seconds of time, Mr. Jones had, without a sound, become stretched flat on the table.  His hands were again folded, the fingers laced tightly together and resting on his stomach.

Finishing his step, Master made two more and stood again at the head of the table, behind Mr. Jones’ closed eyes.  Every hair follicle on his body was erect.  He could feel the energy gathering around him.  Unable to help himself, he looked again at the small, reflecting discs hanging so carefully over his windows.  They had been a gift from his mother the day he had opened his doors.

“Evil takes many forms.  These discs only guard against one.”

Showing him how to measure the strings and make the knots, she patiently explained the significance of each one.  He had never moved them from his windows.

Raising his hands he brought them together over Mr. Jones’ forehead, cupping them around the area commonly considered the third eye.  With shifted sight he focused his energy.  The response was immediate.

Mr. Jones opened his eyes and looked up, his blue gaze fixed on Master.  The area of his third eye swirled deeply, the murky brown color of his aura sweeping together into a vortex.

Master’s hands became captives of the storm, trapped in the tidal pull.  His own energy lashed out like a whip, violently looking for something to hold onto and finding nothing.  The vortex opened wide, revealing an iridescent jaw filled with teeth, the upper and lowers showing large, canine-like fangs.

Struggling to pull his hands back, Master felt his wrists bind together.  His personal energy poured out of him into the waiting jaws where it swirled away.  Dizziness swept over him.  His eyes rolled upward as the soft, hazy blackness of unconsciousness mercifully captured him in its waiting arms.

Master awakened alone, curled atop the blue cushion of his work table with his head pillowed on one arm as if he had lain down for a quick nap and fell deeply asleep.  He blinked repeatedly, trying to recall how he had come to be there.  Mr. Jones had been been laying here.  

Mr. Jones!

Memory jerked him upright and his head screamed with pain.  Dizzy, he pressed a palm to his forehead where it hurt the most, the skin over his hands feeling thin and tender.  He squinted at them, studying them through pain filled eyes, then looked at the peg by the door.  

Empty.  

The tan, grubby jacket was gone.

Slowly he sat up.  Every inch of him ached as his weight shifted from one part to the next.  It took both hands pulling at his slacks to get his legs over the edge of the table.  The step is still in place.  Carefully he lowered himself down, wincing as his right foot settled on the step.

Behind the sideboard where he kept his crystals, acupuncture needles, incense and hot rocks, is a full length mirror hung on its side.  He had hung it that way to increase the power of the candles he burned while he worked.  The light was softer, more golden and easier on the eyes.  Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror he is numb with shock.

Black hair, once rich and thick, is now thin, peppered with gray and flat in color.  The skin around his eyes has become creased.  The brown of his irises are now flat and washed out, like he had been drained of his vibrancy.  Knowing what was coming, he shifted his sight to see his aura.

Darkness

Shuffling closer to mirror he peered at his forehead.  An iridescent smear seemed to cover the area of his third eye.  Bracing both hands on the sideboard he leaned in, his tired eyes trying to make sense of it even as his stomach seized with horror.

Bite marks surrounded a gaping, ragged hole where his third eye had been.

Mr. Jones had left and taken Master with him.

Reflections – Part One of Two

“Mr. Jones?”

The man’s shoulders were slumped and rolled forward, his neck appearing bowed under the heavy weight of his own head.  His brown, linen jacket seemed worn and overdue for a wash while his denim jeans looked comfortable, loose enough in the waist at least for him to bend fully forward without stress on his stomach.  Brown work boots covered his feet, the thin, black soles heavily scarred from wear.  

Master thought if he were passing this man sitting like this at a bus stop, he would have judged him to be in his mid fifties.  The streaks of gray through his stylishly cut, light brown hair looked to be the result of age, not stress.  There was a difference.

Looking up, the man’s pale, blue eyes skimmed nervously across Master’s dark brown ones and he nodded.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

Not moving from the sofa, the man looked back at the floor and tightened his hands, the laced fingers clinging together almost like he was resisting an invisible force trying to pull them apart.  

Master held himself motionless. The information form on the clipboard stated that Mr. Jones was thirty-three.  Was it possible?  Could he really be that young, or had he simply made a mistake when he was writing?  Shifting his vision ever so slightly, he was not surprised to see a murky, brown aura surrounding him.  

“Would you like to come with me, Mr. Jones?”  Breathing out slowly, Master used his stomach muscles to fill his lungs.  The surface of his skin tingled with anticipation.  

Slowly pulling his hands apart like they were sticky, Mr. Jones placed his palms on the sofa on either side of his thighs and pressed down, his breath whistling through his sinuses as he strained to stand upright.  His right hand came forward in the air, an attempt to balance himself as his legs and feet became burdened with the weight of his torso.  For a single heartbeat he was frozen in time, every muscle in his body taut with the stress of being between positions.  Then his weight slowly settled forward.  His spine relaxed as his feet found their place.

Letting his breath out again Master pressed one hand flat against the frame of the door behind him.  He hadn’t realized he had been holding his air.  Taking a half-step to the left, he made room for Mr. Jones to slowly pass him by.  The man’s presence felt heavy as it brushed against his own.

“Go ahead and have a seat on the table, Mr. Jones.”  It was a standard request.  

There was a short, mobile step on the floor positioned to assist with the ascent.  Moving slowly toward the step, the arch of his neck deepening as the brown, diagonal pattern of the carpet flowed beneath his feet, Mr. Jones made his way to the step.

“Is the lighting too bright for you, sir?  I see you are squinting.”

“Um, no, it’s not the light, thank you.  The mirrors…”  Pausing at the step, Mr. Jones turned his head away from the row of low hung reflectors strung across the three, frosted window panes.  His face scrunched uncomfortably.

“The discs?”  The back of Master’s neck prickled a warning, his small hairs rising.

“Yes.  They hurt my eyes.”

Each octagonal disc was tied securely to an eyelet screwed into the wooden frame of  the window.  Master could easily snip the strings and remove them, but the rehanging would a project.  Every string was measured to a specific length and tied with a unique knot different from its mates.  In combination, the strings, knots and reflective surfaces worked together to provide a specific form of protection for the work room.

“If you are pleased with our progress today and wish to return, I can make arrangements to cover them for you in the future.”

Sighing deeply, Mr. Jones seemed to wilt inside his clothing like a discouraged flower realizing its water had completely run out.

“No bother,” he muttered and placed a hand on the table while he carefully lifted his right foot onto the step, using his free hand to help by pulling on his pants.  “I get used to things faster than most, I guess.”  A groan pushed between his lips as he leaned onto the step.  His left foot rose a mere inch off the floor before settling back down.

Watching the man move with all the starts and stops of someone twice the age of what was listed on his form, Master stepped a bit closer and held out his muscular forearm for assistance.

Eyes widening slightly at the offer, Mr. Jones stared at Master for a second, his watery eyes searching into the clear, sharp brown ones.  Then he nodded and moved his hand from the table, laying it firmly on Master’s forearm.

Surprise blossomed in Master’s chest at the strength in Mr. Jones’ grip.  The narrow hand wrapped all the way around his radius and ulna, the fingers overlapping as they came together on the other side.  At five feet and eleven inches, Master knew he wasn’t as large as they came, but he wasn’t small and he worked regularly at developing the strength in his forearms and wrists.  Squeezing him tightly, Mr. Jones again leaned onto the step, pushing down hard on his arm as the weight of his body rose onto his right foot.

Stiffening his neck, back and abdominal muscles Master pushed back, forcing his arm upward beneath the choking hand.  Mr. Jones’ left foot came off the floor and settled on the step beside his right.  The weight on Master’s arm remained the same.

“Yes, you are a strong one.”  Giving a powerful squeeze, Mr. Jones released his hold and braced himself against the table with both hands, turning slowly around on the small step.  “Quite strong enough,” he breathed.

The impression on his forearm looked deep enough to bruise.  Master watched his blood rush to fill the dents while his spine rippled in alarm.

Your Destination Is On Your Right

“Turn left onto Oakfield Burns Avenue and continue for four miles.”

The distinctly female voice seemed almost snarky to Jim as he flipped on his turn signal and slowed for the light.  Oakfield Burns Avenue looked like a country road to nowhere.  Even in the fading evening light, he could see the spot up ahead where the asphalt stopped and it was just a dirt and gravel road after that.  After making the turn, he pulled onto the shoulder and shifted into park.

“Maybe I typed the wrong address,” he muttered, picking up his phone and expanding the map screen with his thumb and forefinger.  The streets zoomed up, names and places becoming clearer.  He stared at the map in confusion.  Oakfield Burns came to a dead end at Oakfield Cemetery.

“What the hell?”  

The location icon was on, he could see it at the top of phone’s screen.  What was wrong with the GPS?  He paged back through the screens to the starting point and retyped the address he wanted.  It only took a few seconds for the app to process his location and show him his route.  He pressed the navigate symbol and listened for the instruction.

“Continue on Oakfield Burns Avenue for four miles.”

Gripping the smartphone a little tighter he gritted his teeth as a sudden shiver went through his shoulders.

“This is crazy.”

“Continue on Oakfield Burns Avenue for four miles.  Your destination will be on your right.”

This time he was positive the voice sounded snarky.  Who programmed these things anyway?  He tossed the phone on the passenger seat and pressed on the brake pedal as he shifted into drive.  There was a gas station back about a quarter mile.  Maybe he could buy an actual map?

“Continue on Oakfield Burns Avenue for four miles.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.”  He executed a perfect u-turn into the next lane and accelerated.

“Make a u-turn onto Oakfield Burns Avenue west and continue for four miles.”

“Oh Christ, that’s enough from you!”

Slamming on the brake, he grabbed the phone and exited out of the useless GPS app.  Once the screen was dark, he tossed it back onto the passenger seat, face down.  Grabbing the steering wheel with both hands he let go of the brake and pressed the accelerator again.

“Make a u-turn onto Oakfield Burns Avenue west and continue for four miles, Jim.”  Bitter, demanding and louder than was reasonably possible, the electronic, female voice filled the car.

His foot stamped on the brake pedal in shock as a flurry of goosebumps spread down his arms.  From the corner of his eye he could see the phone still on the seat, face down, just as he had placed it.

“Turn around, Jim.”

Another shivered rolled through him, this time along his spine.  Pressing his lips tightly together he made the u-turn and accelerated along the road, wincing slightly as his back tires skidded coming off the asphalt onto hard packed dirt.

“Continue on Oakfield Burns Avenue for four miles.”

“I know!”

“Your destination will be on your right.”

Holding the steering wheel with both hands as the car rocketed along, spinning gravel and rocks from beneath the tires, he refused to look at his phone the entire four miles.  Cresting a small rise, he saw the Oakfield Cemetery fan out below, the main entry gate directly across the road.

“Your destination is on your right.”

Slowing for the gate, he looked to the right.  A large, broken piece of statuary guarded the entrance.  It looked to be what was left of a once, white, angelic being heralding the way to eternal rest.  He stopped the car, his front bumper barely crossing the invisible threshold.

Pressing the button to roll down the passenger window, he grabbed the phone and hurled it at the statue.  A nasty smile spread over his face as heard the screen break.

“You have arrived at your destination,” he screamed!

Shoving the car into reverse he blasted away from the cemetery.

I Know Your Face!

The sign on the door read: Laundry Thief!  5’ 4”, brown hair, hiding under the stairs.  I know your face!

Um, okay.  The stairs leading to the basement of my apartment building, a.k.a the laundry room, are actually quite open and non-threatening.  Aside from knowing there are twenty-nine of them, I’m not too bothered by the climb.  The picture below is not the actual stairs, but it gives you a good idea of how a saw them.   See all the light?

safeStairs

 Thanks to that sign, written in brown marker, and taped to the inside of the main entry door, I now have to go to the laundromat.  

notSafe

Smashing Pumpkins – Carl

(An excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project.  I have reached the 20k mark.  As others have already stated, there is really no time to spend on crafting a single paragraph to near perfection (in my mind) if I intend to reach the 50k goal by the end of the month.  It is very unnatural for me to write without editing as I go and I’m suffering a bit of over-thinking.  I keep telling myself I can clean it up later, just get the words into the file right now.)

A slender, middle aged woman, wearing a stylish, brown, knit hat and a long, tan, wool coat made her way out of the door with a small boy in tow.  The boy looked to be five or six years old but it was difficult to tell through his outer wear.  His thin blue hoody was zipped all the way up, the hood pulled over his head which was also covered with a knit hat.  A grubby, white scarf wrapped tightly around his face completed the ensemble.  The only thing Carl could see for sure were the eyes, two dark orbs staring blankly out at the street.  With all the autism awareness these days he was prepared to make a snap judgement on the child when the woman snatched his shoulder and proceeded to push him before her into the street, obviously aiming for the bus stop he currently occupied.  The bearing of the woman and directness of her path gave Carl the crazy impression that she was coming specifically to talk to him about the boy.  His mind threw up a panicked scenario.

“Hey mister, you want to buy a boy?  He doesn’t eat much.   He can eat even less if you just don’t give it to him, he’s used to not having much.  Are you interested?  What do you say?  You could have your very own boy!”  

Feeling genuine alarm Carl made himself as still as he could.  Bug instincts, JC would have said.  When people knew something was wrong they tended to get very still, some ancient instinct making them believe if they could avoid detection then whatever the problem was, it would go away.  Hunching forward slightly he lowered his head and stared at the sidewalk as the woman and her boy entered the shelter.  The woman pressed the boy against the Plexiglas wall near the end of the bench.

“Stand there,” she said in a voice that swirled from her mouth like smoke.  Carefully tucking her long coat around her legs she sat down on the opposite end of the bench from Carl.

Continuing to stare downward Carl felt his nerves tightening with every passing second, the adult sized space between him and the woman feeling much too small.  He wanted to tap his toe or bounce his knee.  From the edge of his vision he could see the boy’s sneakers, a pair of off brand shoes that were too worn to have been bought new at his age.  By shoving his eyes far to the sides of their sockets and tilting his chin just a hair he could see the blue hoody was in similar shape.  Compared to the woman and her nice, wool, coat the boy looked like he had been bought on clearance from the local Goodwill.  Carl tightened his jaw and prayed the bus would come soon.

Smashing Pumpkins – Neisha

(A single chapter from somewhere in the beginning of my NaNoWriMo project.   I’ve been pounding on the keyboard, trying to get all my ideas down so I haven’t really put anything in order yet.  For those who are interested, the foreign words are Korean and the definitions can be found here.)

Neisha couldn’t stop  watching the big, round, black and white clock, glancing up from her math paper every few seconds to mark the smallest amount of time that had passed and inhaling so deeply that her nostrils pinched together before bowing her head over the problems again.  At this rate two-thirty was never going to get here.  Pausing in her calculations she slipped a hand into her straight, black hair just behind her left ear and absently separated a strand which she began to twirl around her fingers.  She had made a private vow to stop twisting her hair just that morning as she had noticed it was much thinner on the left now than the right.  She wasn’t just twisting it, she was breaking it off.  The idea of pulling out her own hair was offensive to her.  The problem was, she wasn’t always aware of when she was twisting it.

“Neisha?  Can I assist you with something?”  Mrs. Kanger’s voice, harsh and a bit too deep for a woman caught her by surprise.  

“Huh?”  Blankly Neisha stared at her teacher.

“Don’t you mean, what?”  Mrs. Kanger’s thick, over-penciled eyebrows rose high into her forehead, nearly touching the slightly curved and well bleached widows peak.   

Pulling the strand of hair tightly across her upper lip Neisha tipped her head to one side and forced her eyes to sparkle and dance.  “Huh?”  

Chuck Simmons, who sat to her right, snickered softly into his own math paper.  Neisha didn’t spare him a glance, preferring to not encourage the chunky redhead to take her side, ever. 

“You are not amusing, Neisha.”   Mrs. Kanger’s eyes sharpened to points.   “Finish your math before the bell rings or you will miss your bus and be forced to call your mother for a ride.”

It was an empty threat and Neisha knew it.  Mrs. Kanger would rather lay in a box of spiders than have Nema Kwon come to pick her up because of an unfinished math paper.  Still, she felt it wouldn’t be wise to push things much father.  Mrs. Kanger might be afraid of her mother but there were many ways the jot bab could get back at her.  Releasing her strand of twisted hair she lowered her eyes to her paper and moved her hand like she was going to write something down, at the same time she pressed out a small fart that popped against the metal of her seat like a Fourth of July banger.  She looked up in feigned surprise to see Mrs. Kanger glowering at her.

“Excuse me,” Neisha said politely and bent to her paper.  To her right Chuck snorted laughter onto his stomach and she couldn’t quite stop the corners of her mouth from twitching with a smile.

After the small volley of attitudes, the clock seemed to kick into high speed and suddenly Neisha found herself jamming her books into her bag and getting ready to leave.  The math paper was finished and laying on the top of her desk, each answer correct.  As the final bell of the day rang out Mrs. Kanger stood up from her own desk holding a stack of papers and called for attention.

“Before you leave I need most of you to come get your JOC page.  It’s that time of year again and these papers need to be delivered to your parents as soon as you get home.”  Tapping the stack on its side to square them Mrs. Kanger stepped to the front of her desk.  “As I call your name please come forward.”  Starting with Charles Albright, a.k.a Chuck the snorter, she moved quickly down the list.  Each student rose when their name was called and took the paper from Mrs. Kanger’s hand before heading out the classroom door.  Neisha ignored her teacher and headed for the door, her mind filling with ideas for food and advancing her progress on her current video game.

“Neisha Kwon.”  

Neisha’s head snapped toward the front of the room, her eyes popping in their sockets.  “What?”  

Mrs. Kanger shook a sheet of paper at her.

“But I’m thirteen,” she said.  Her arms felt weak, like french fries after the starch had been soaked out of them.  Her classmates stood stock still, their faces blank with surprise.  Some of them had celebrated her birthday with her and knew she was now, officially, beyond the age requirement of the JOC.  A few of them looked scared.  “I don’t have to enter.”  Mrs. Kanger met her eyes and Neisha got the impression that, despite their earlier clash, her teacher wasn’t any happier about giving her the paper than she was to receive it.  Mrs. Kanger never said a single word about the JOC but her required participation was openly minimal and her instructions to her students was exactly what they needed to be and nothing more.  Her legs moved of their own accord and Neisha found herself reaching for the paper.  “My birthday was in March,” she said softly.  Mrs. Kanger nodded her acknowledgement.

“Go straight home today and give that directly to your mother.”  Mrs. Kanger looked firmly into her eyes.  “Don’t waste time, Neisha.”  The implication was clear.  Neisha nodded and ran for the door.

The combination for her locker skittered from her mind for a minute and she spun the black dial around several times, her eyes vacant, staring emptily at the air slats in the metal door.  Why?  How was it possible?  She was too old now!  Her fingers and eyes moved together in muscle memory and the locker opened without her realizing she had dialed in the correct numbers.  She still couldn’t recall what they were.  Dropping her books onto the bottom shelf Neisha snatcher her blue fleece from its hook and  slammed the door closed.  

The buses were already lined up outside, uncharacteristically prompt on this auspicious day.  Not bothering with farewells she  made her way out the main door and down the short set of steps, not thinking to count them as she went.  There were exactly thirteen of them, the top one being a bit thinner than the others but not really noticeable unless you looked carefully.  Neisha had a rhyme that she liked to hum as she moved up or down the stairs, a rhythmic poem she chanted silently to herself that fit perfectly into the activity of thirteen steps.

Snap the neck, crack a bone, peel the skin, run for home.

This was not something Neisha ever said out loud, knowing instinctively that her peers would not understand and the adults would all make notes.  Nema had warned her repeatedly to keep her inner thoughts and ideas safely in her head.  Never write anything down or confide in anyone.  What you do can be judged by anyone who sees you.  What you think can only be judged by you.  Neisha took this advice to heart and the stepping poem lived only in her mind.

Children poured from the building, the younger students bolting from the doors of the elementary wing and racing for the bus line.  Sixty-three B was her bus number.  Spotting it down the row she made for it quickly.  

Lining up behind the other students that lived on her route she noticed the small, curly haired boy from the apartment complex next to hers.  He was smiling and holding his own copy of the JOC paper in his fist.  She watched him struggle to make his short legs bridge the gap between the sidewalk and the first step onto the bus, her mind shifted into attack mode.  Neisha watched him enter the bus and grin like a little Ddorang at the bus driver, Mrs. Karr, then take a seat close to the front.  Thinking that his pudgy, white, cheeks looked like dough that needed to be punched down before the yeast ran away with it Neisha slid into the seat behind him.  Her day couldn’t get any worse now, she might as well indulge herself a bit.  Settling into her seat she looked up to see Mrs. Karr watching her in the wide rear view mirror, her dark eyes narrowed and suspicious.  Neisha assumed a blank expression and turned her head to stare out the window,  frustration tearing at her stomach.  Softly, in the back of her throat she began humming her poem.

More children loaded onto the bus and fanned out into the seats.  Neisha noted Chuck’s light red head jogging past her window to get to his own bus which went down by the canal.  He was always talking about fishing with his dad and giving graphic descriptions of what cleaning fish was like.  The first time she had asked him if they ate the eyes he had looked at her like she had sprouted a second head.

“Who eats the eyes?  They’re tiny.  Nothing there to fry.”

“Get enough of them and you can have pudding.  See?”  Neisha had laughed and raised her lunchtime cup of tapioca for his inspection.  Chuck glowered at her.

“That’s just tapioca,” he said.  “Those aren’t fish eyes.”

Neisha shrugged and spooned some onto her tongue, giving him a clear view of the mess as she slurped it down her throat.

The bus doors swung closed and Mrs. Karr gave a last look into her rearview before putting the big engine into gear.  Neisha remained still, her head turned away, her eyes focused on the scene outside.  As the bus pulled away from the curb she shifted ever so slightly toward the front of her seat, looking intently at nothing out the window, pretending to keep it in view as they drove away.  By the time the bus turned onto the main road she was sitting right at the edge of her seat, her hand on the tall back of the seat in front of her.

“Do you know what gwishin are?” Neisha whispered to the little boy.  When he didn’t respond she continued as if he had.  “Gwishin are ghosts, spirits of the people who have died.  Sometimes a gwishin doesn’t leave as it should, it hangs around trying to be known to the people it left behind.”  She was talking through the thin crack between the seat and the wall of the bus, her voice measured and quiet.  With her hand on the back of the seat she could feel the boy move as she talked, shifting toward crack.  His voice whispered back to her.

“Do gwishin know they are dead?”

“Sometimes.  And sometimes they think they are still alive and try to do the same things they have always done.”  Neisha smiled as she spoke, feeling her prey within her grasp.  “You can hear them, moaning and whistling around the corners of buildings every time the wind blows.  They are looking for a way in.”  The boy inhaled audibly, his sudden tension as much a sensation to her as if she were touching him.

“Jeffrey, don’t you listen to a thing that girl tells you.”  

Mrs. Karr’s voice cut off further communication but Neisha didn’t mind.  She sat back in her seat smiling.  She had a name to go with the doughy face.

Smashing Pumpkins

Caroline stared blankly at the creased and grubby sheet of paper Jeffrey was pressing into her hand.  A thick strand of brown hair that seemed to have just begun to streak with silver, dropped free of her loosely coiled bun and landed limply against her cheek.  Her hand, still well fleshed but running rampant with small lines closed reflexively on the cold page.  Even without her glasses she had spotted it from the kitchen window while watching for her grandson to get home from school.  He had leapt from the bus like it was any other day but the paper, this paper, was bow-tied tightly in his fist as he raced for the house, smiling over the last words he had exchanged with his friends.  Now she could feel his eyes glued to her face.  Without looking she knew his expression was becoming alarmed, his brown eyes widening and his small, full lipped mouth beginning to sag and tremble.  She needed to pull herself together.  She needed to paste a look on her face that would ease his sudden worry.  Feeling like her skin was made of silicone she pushed her mouth into a smile and, dropping the paper on the counter reached to ruffle his shaggy, slightly sweaty, brown hair with hands that could have been carved from plastic.

“How was school baby?”

“Gramma?  Are you sick?”  With his red hoodie zipped all the way up and the hood barely pushed back Jeffrey’s face looked pale and anxious, framed by tufts of his messed hair.  For just a moment Caroline had the impression that his damp locks formed a pair of horns on his young head and her heart thumped painfully inside her chest.  Immediately she shoved the absurd idea out her mind.  Jeffrey was a normal five year old.  He was a good boy.  There was nothing to worry about.  Reaching out again she smoothed his hair down.

“I’m fine sweetheart.  How was your day?”  Pulling out one of the brown, low backed wooden chairs from the counter she leaned down to lift him, the weight making her back tighten harshly.  Lift with your legs, she thought.  Either he was growing fast or she was losing her strength.  Both thoughts brought sadness into her chest, a feeling that never seemed far away these days.  As he settled into the chair and tried to help her undo his jacket his former concern for her slipped from his mind and he began to prattle about all the things that had happened at school.  Making appropriate sounds of encouragement she hung his jacket on the wooden coat tree by the entrance to the great room, nearly stubbing her toe on the heavy, brown, resin cow she used to fortify the wobbly base and moved into the kitchen to get his sandwich and juice from the refrigerator.  Sliding the plate and drink container across the smooth, well scrubbed counter her eyes drifted toward the paper.  Jeffrey grabbed the sandwich and took a  large bite, never ceasing his now excited chatter.  When the word jack-o-lantern passed his lips followed by a coarsely chewed chunk of tuna fish sandwich Caroline felt her blood drain down her body and pool in her feet.  She pressed both hands flat on the counter to steady herself, and a very bad word wriggled free of her mouth.  Jeffrey froze in mid chew, tuna and bread openly exposed inside his jaws as his eyes locked onto her face, a regretful parody of the look his mother had given her countless times as she had grown up.  Heartbreak punched her in the stomach as she tried to wave away his worry along with the family resemblance.

“I’m sorry Jeffrey.  I shouldn’t say those words.”

“Are you sick gramma?”  Worry spread over his face again as he set down the rest of his sandwich and slumped in his chair.  “Did I do something?”  Caroline took a deep breath and tried to rally herself again.

“Oh no, baby.  You are just fine.”  With a slow exhale she picked up the paper and began to smooth it against the counter, noting the small, nearly perfect fingerprint of dirt Jeffrey had left near the top, right after the formal greeting: Dear Parent or Legal Guardian.  She might as well face the facts, her grandson was going to have a jack-o-lantern in the contest this year whether she read the paper or not.  Trying to pretend otherwise was just going to worry them both.  “I guess we need to go shopping for a pumpkin, huh kiddo?”  Tears prickled behind her eyes as happiness spread across his face.  Caroline lowered her face to stare at the print on the page, hiding her eyes from her grandson.  This paper was actually the second notice, the first one having arrived in the mailbox just after the new year began.  That one had been official, neatly arranged in a full sized envelope a quarter inch thick with all the rules and addendums for this years contest.  She had felt just as sick then, reading through each page while Jeffrey slept unknowing in his room.  To him it would just be a contest, something fun.  The reality of it wouldn’t shake his stability for a few years yet.  This paper today was the catalyst, the blatant reminder that the annual countdown was nearly over and that she had participated simply by having custody of Jeffrey.  She had forty-five days and then her life might change forever, again.

Victory and shame battled in her chest as she felt an alarming amount of gratitude for the fact that her daughter was not able to experience this moment.  Were she alive they would be hugging each other fiercely right now, trying to support each other and vowing they would make it through the next eight years together.  Jeffrey was a good boy.  He would be fine.  Caroline had raised her daughter to responsible adulthood, she would do the same with her grandson.  The jack-o-lanterns were not going to change that.  Her family would thrive.

“Katie says her grandpa has a pumpkin patch in his backyard.  She says he grows all their pumpkins every year.”  Jeffrey’s voice rose with hope.  “Gramma, can we grow pumpkins next year?  Can we grow a patch just for us?”  Pressing her eyes tightly closed Caroline tried to stem the horror that blossomed in her stomach.  He just doesn’t understand yet, she told herself.  Feeling hateful she wondered if Katie’s grandfather poured over the legalese of the Jack-o-lantern document looking for loopholes while he weeded his pumpkin patch?  Maybe he used it for mulch.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jeffrey.”  Forcing her voice to stay steady she raised her head and gave him a smile.  “Pumpkins take up a lot of room.  Our yard is too small for them.”  Too small to grow them to the required size, she thought bitterly.  And what would we do with the extra ones?  Eat them?  Her stomach rebelled at the idea and she turned instinctively toward the sink, pressing a hand to her mouth to quell the queasiness.  Pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin bread.  Pumpkin roll.  Pumpkin cookies and cupcakes.  A litany of foods ran through her mind and nausea pushed upward.  Caroline held onto the edge of the sink with both hands as her stomach heaved and her hair bun gave up the battle, her heavy, brown tresses falling with a thump of finality into the stainless steel basin.  The only words she had read on the paper were the last ones: Failure to comply with any of the above requirements will result in immediate forfeiture of the contest and your child will be surrendered for disposal.  Behind her Jeffrey sniffled.