Only two more months to the end of school, and like a tantalizing forerunner to summer, the fair came to town. Sal saw the carnies setting up rides as the bus crawled by the arena parking lot that Thursday morning. The Sizzler, the Tumbler, the Tilt-a-Whirl. The Ferris Wheel, unlit and seatless, leaning on its crane. Sal imagined it busting loose and rolling off down the highway across the bridge up the hill past the school and on out of town. She knew exactly how it would sound, a hollow steel-on-concrete rumble, louder than the river that ran so smoothly in its banks. She kept her face pressed to the window until the parking lot was out of sight, but the Wheel only raised itself a little closer to vertical.
After school everyone walked past the bus stop, a chain of kids like a clumsy bead necklace, bunches and pairs strolling down, even the cool kids, even the rebels who might plan to get stoned first, but who were still going to ride the rides. Sal, remembering the sideways swoop and crush of the Sizzler, the jangle of rock music and yelling kids, the smells of burnt sugar and hot oil and cigarettes — the expansion of the parking lot into a convoluted world that could go on forever as long as you took the long way around every ride and that only got brighter and louder and hotter as the day fell into evening and evening into night — Sal, remembering all this, stood alone at the bus stop and waited for the bus that would take her past the fair and home.
Her mom was in the kitchen, crushing garlic into a bowl of soya sauce.
“What are we having?” Sal said.
“How was school? Did you do okay on the math test?”
“Sure, I guess.” The test had been last week. “What are we having?”
“Baked chicken. Macey said she might be hungry tonight.”
“Oh.” Sal picked up a garlic clove and peeled the papery skin.
“Wash your hands.”
Sal peeled another clove. “Is she awake?”
“She had a good sleep this afternoon. You might go up and see.”
Sal brushed the garlic papers into the garbage and rinsed her hands, debating whether to mention the fair. Probably she shouldn’t. Probably her mom wouldn’t appreciate the reminder of the passage of time. Anyway, it wasn’t like Sal could go, even if she wanted to. Which she didn’t.
Macey lay propped up on big pillows, her face turned to the window. She looked like a fragile bone doll these days, the flesh under her skin eaten up by fever, and when she lay still Sal always found it hard to believe she would move again. She didn’t stir when Sal opened her door, but she wasn’t asleep. She said, “The Weirdo has another cat.”
“Really?” Sal shut the door and toed off her shoes. The bed had been pushed up close to the big window so Macey could look out over the back yard to the alley and the houses on the other side. Sal climbed up, careful of her sister’s feet, so she could look out too. “Is it hurt?”
“I think it’s maybe pregnant.”
Sal contemplated the gruesome possibilities of kittens in the Weirdo’s hands. She could just see over the high fence to the roofed chicken-wire pens in the Weirdo’s yard. It was impossible to know what was in any of those pens until you saw what the Weirdo took out of one. Cats, raccoons, crows, even a puppy once, taken out of a pen and carried inside and never seen again. Three days ago it had been another raccoon. Macey was keeping a log.
Sal said, “Do you think he’ll wait until the kittens are born?”
Neither knew what the Weirdo did with his captives, but it was hard to think of a possibility that wasn’t horrible. Not when you saw that figure, with its thatched gray hair, lumpy shoulders and white hands as big as baseball gloves, carry some hapless creature into the house with the broken drainpipes and curtained windows. Even cooking and eating seemed too simple, too close to human.
“Sal,” Macey said, “we’ve got to find out.”
“You keep saying that.” Sal picked fuzzies off the bedspread, her mind drifting to the fair’s candy-bright commotion.
“But now I have a plan.”
Sal’s eyes slid to her sister’s face. Despite being twins, they’d never looked that much alike. Now, with Macey gone all skinny and white, her eyes shiny with fever and her hair dull and thin, they hardly seemed to belong to the same species. Sal glared at her own robust health when she brushed her teeth in the mornings, seeing ugliness in the flesh of her face, the color of her skin. Macey’s mind, too, had changed, as if, riding a tide of febrile blood, it had entered a realm that Sal could not even see.
“What kind of plan?” she said warily.
Macey finally moved. She rolled her head on the rainbow pillowcase and gave Sal a glittering look. The late light of afternoon shone on the sweat that beaded her hairline. Not the worst fever, Sal knew. The worst fever baked her sister dry, and sounded like ambulance men rattling their stretcher up the stairs.
The smell of garlicky chicken wafted into the room as Macey gave Sal her instructions.
Friday was garbage day.
There was no way in the world to do it casually. Maybe if she was old enough to drive, and had a car… But no. Sal didn’t think in Ifs. If led to If only Macey wasn’t sick, and even If only Sal’s bone marrow was a match. If never did anybody any good at all.
There was no way to do it casually, so she just did it. She left the house like she was going to school, walked around the block to the front of the Weirdo’s house, lifted the lid of his trash can, hoisted out the sack, dropped the lid, and walked away. She didn’t look at the Weirdo’s windows. If he saw her, he saw her, that was all. She stashed the trash bag, neatly closed with a yellow twist tie, inside the unused garden shed at the side of her house, and then ran, legs and lungs strong from PE, for the bus.
When she got home from school, her parents were in the living room having The Discussion: mortgages, private donor lists, tissue matches, travel costs, hospital fees, time. Time sliced into months, into weeks. Seven weeks to summer holidays. Sal drifted past them to the kitchen, ran cold tap water into a glass, and carried it up the stairs.
Macey hardly seemed to dent her pillows anymore. Her hands lay on the sheet’s hem, her head canted toward the window. Sunlight filtered cool through spring clouds and gauze curtains, the same sunlight that dulled the lights at the parking lot fair. Sal had kept her eyes on her book as the half-empty bus trundled past, but the smells — cigarette, machine, hot dog, caramel — had billowed in the open windows and made her hungry. She stood in the doorway until she was sure Macey was asleep, then drank the cold water in one smooth series of gulps and carried the glass back down. The Discussion continued. Even Sal knew the end result would be the same: wait and see. Months, weeks, days. The fair was in town until Monday. She put the glass in the sink and went out the back door.
The garden shed had been there when they moved into the new house. The small house, was how Sal and Macey spoke of it, as it was actually a lot older than the old house, older and smaller, and with neighbors tucked in all around. The people who had lived here before had kept a square patch of lawn and planted irises and other things Sal didn’t know between the grass and the weathered wooden fence. Sal’s mother had said how nice it would be to have flowers and a “manageable” yard, but Sal noticed she never came out back, and the garden tools and lawn furniture lurked in the back of the shed collecting spiders. Inside was dark and smelled like mold, but Sal lingered a moment, the Weirdo’s trash unacknowledged by her foot. She could almost imagine setting up the lawn chairs inside, hanging the hammock from corner to corner, using one of those collapsible lanterns like they used to have for camping. A tiny house beside the small one. Except Macey could never come in. Sal picked up the trash bag and took it outside.
Look for fur, Macey had said. And bones, and bloody rags, and burnt candles, especially black ones. And incense and chalk.
What Sal shook out onto the shaggy grass was rinsed-out milk cartons, clean dog food cans and cottage cheese containers, and a week’s worth of newspapers. The creepiest item was a toilet paper roll, that she nudged back into the plastic bag with her toe. She didn’t know what to feel about this lack of discovery, but Macey would be disappointed. Or rather, Macey would write another mystery into her log, and then come up with some other assignment for Sal, something a little bit harder, a little bit scarier. She always used to win the contest of dares, back when Sal could dare her to do anything.
As Sal shuffled the Weirdo’s trash back into its bag, she had to admit to herself that, sooner or later, she was going over the fence into the Weirdo’s back yard. She was tempted to get it over with, but that would deprive Macey of her share in the adventure. Sal had to comb the grass with her fingers before she found the yellow twist tie, and then she didn’t know what to do with the Weirdo’s trash. After a moment’s thought, she tossed the bag back in the garden shed and went into the kitchen to wash her hands. Next week she could put the bag in their can for the garbage men to haul away.
Macey was on the IV again when Sal went up after dinner. The drip always made Macey cold, so she had a fluffy blanket wrapped around her arm, a pink one sewn with butterflies that didn’t match the rainbow sheets. Their mom was convinced that bright colors would keep Macey’s spirits up, and even Macey was too kind to tell her she’d rather have something cool and calm, like sand or stone. Against the gaudy stripes, Macey’s face was a dry yellowy white, with patches of red in the hollows of her cheeks. She gave Sal a cross look.
“It’s too dark to look at the evidence now.”
“I already looked.” Sal was not surprised when her sister looked more cross, not less.
“Why didn’t you say so? What did you find?”
Sal told her as accurately as she could remember.
Macey rocked her head on the pillow. “You must have missed something. Did the newspapers have any bits cut out of them?”
Sal hadn’t thought to look. She hesitated, then decided on a simple “No.”
Macey made an old lady tsk of annoyance. “He’s too smart for that. I should have known.” She looked out the window where dusk was fattening into dark.
A light showed through the curtained window of one of the Weirdo’s back rooms. His kitchen, Sal guessed. All the houses in this neighborhood were variations on the one they lived in. She sat waiting for her instructions on the end of Macey’s bed, and it was a while before she realized Macey was asleep. She went on sitting, listening to her sister breathe. Somewhere close, a cat softly meowed.
Saturday mornings Sal would carry the TV into Macey’s room and they’d watch cartoons together, like when they were kids and they’d sneak downstairs while their mom and dad slept in and muffle their laughter in sofa cushions. Not that she had to sneak to do it now. Sometimes their dad would even move the TV for them before heading off to a weekend consultation. But this Saturday the morning nurse told her Macey’d had a bad night and needed peace and quiet, which would drive Macey up the wall unless she was really bad, but you couldn’t argue about things like that with the nurse. So Sal wrestled a lawn chair out of the garden shed and set it up in a patch of sunlight by the back fence where she could keep an eye on the alley at least, and pretend to be doing her homework and getting a suntan at the same time. Macey could look down from her bedroom window and know Sal was on the job.
She was working on another senseless problem about the farmer who didn’t know how big any of his fields were (she imagined a city guy with romantic notions about getting back to the land, and neighbors that laughed at him behind his back) when she heard the unmistakable scuffling and whispers of kids trying to be sneaky. She dropped her pencil in the crack of her textbook and leaned over the arm of her canvas-slung chair to press her face against a crack in the fence.
Three boys, probably about ten years old: too tall to be little, but still children to Sal’s thirteen-year-old eye. They wore T-shirts and premature shorts and were elbowing each other into some daring deed. They stood outside the Weirdo’s tall fence, and Sal felt a hollow open up inside her chest even before the tallest boy shrugged off the other two and with a gesture commanded a hand stirrup for his foot. The next tallest boy lofted him to the top of the fence … there was a thump-scuffle-scrape … and then he was over and out of sight. Like the boys in the alley, Sal waited, breathless, for whatever would come next. The boy might have fallen down a hole for all the noise he made.
Her ribs hurt where the arm of the chair dug into her side. Her neck and shoulder creaked. She tried to shift position without losing her line of sight and the chair almost tipped. She caught herself with her fingertips on the fence and wondered if Macey was awake and watching or if Macey was too sick to care.
Sudden furious meowing, loose rattle of chicken wire, thumps and scrapes, and a bundle fell from the top of the fence — only half in Sal’s view but from the caterwaul she deduced it was a cat wrapped in the tall boy’s shirt. The two boys in the alley scrabbled to keep the animal contained, while the tall boy appeared, shirtless, scratched, and triumphant, at the top of the fence. He swung a leg over and posed for a second before hopping down.
The hollow in Sal’s chest swelled until her breath came short. The cat was meowing, more frantic than angry, now. The boys were laughing. She dropped her books to the grass, got up, and fumbled open the gate.
The boys, in the act of departing, froze.
“Let go of that cat.” Even Sal could hear how lame that sounded.
The shirtless boy looked her over and sneered. “Make us,” he said.
The other two, prisoning the bundled cat between them, looked unsure but excited at the possibilities.
Sal swallowed, and thought of Macey maybe watching. She took two fast steps forward and gave the boy a shove. He wasn’t much shorter than she was, and was all wiry boy muscle under the scratched skin. He shoved back and kicked her hard in the shin. Then it was all stupid and confused, kicking and clutching, and someone’s fist in the back of her shirt, until, in the midst of scuffing feet and angry breathing, came the unmistakable grate of a key turned in a lock.
The fight stopped so suddenly Sal found herself leaning for balance against her adversary. He shrugged her off, and they stood, staring, the four of them, while the Weirdo’s gate creaked partway open on rusted hinges.
The smallest boy dropped the shirt-wrapped cat and bolted.
The cat bolted, too, between the Weirdo’s feet and the fence post, back into his yard.
Then the other boys were running, too, whooping insults to cover their retreat, and Sal was left standing in the alley with the Weirdo peering at her through the cracked-open gate. He had pale defenseless eyes blinking in the shadow of his thatch of hair. One huge hand shook with palsy on the side of the fence. As it registered with Sal that he was as frightened as she was, she heard the mewing of fearful kittens.
She gulped a “Sorry” at him and scurried back into her yard, slamming the gate behind her.
Macey was furious. Furious, though only someone who knew her as well as Sal did would be able to tell. Her hands lay as if abandoned on the covers, and her voice was a thin warble, as if she lacked the strength to control its ups and downs. But she had indeed been awake and watching and she thought Sal had done everything wrong.
“Those boys could have been allies. Why’d you fight?”
“I don’t think they were going to take the cat home and feed her cream,” Sal said.
“It wasn’t even a good fight. You fought like a girl.”
Sal shrugged. Her legs were black with bruises, and she was rather proud of the swelling of her lower lip.
“And now the cat’s back where it started.”
“She went back on her own,” Sal pointed out.
“You said it had kittens. It probably thought it had to protect them.”
“She was more scared of those boys. Way more scared.”
“That’s just because it doesn’t know, yet.”
“What’s in store.”
Sal prodded her swollen lip. “We don’t know what’s in store, either.”
“Yes we do.”
All Macey’s strength seemed to go into those three words. When she closed her glittering eyes, her hands, her whole body, seemed more abandoned than ever. Sal sat on the end of her bed and watched her closely until she was sure her breathing was regular, then dropped her chin into her palm and gazed outside. The morning sun had been swallowed by clouds. It might even rain. She looked down at her math books, still open on the grass by the tipped-over chair, and thought about going down to bring them in. There was no sign of the Weirdo.
“You know,” she said quietly, in case Macey was asleep, “he might just take them out the front door. He might just take them out and let them go.”
Silence for so long she though Macey must be sleeping. But then her sister said, “Doesn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“Brings them in the back. Would take them out the same way.”
Sal had to concede there was a certain logic to this. Silence gathered again, while the clouds closed in tighter, darker. Sal thought of the kids at the fair, wondered how many parents had thought to bring rain gear along.
“I have to go get my books before it rains,” she said.
Macey didn’t say anything. Sal got up and went to the door. She was almost in the hall when she heard her sister’s voice, thin as a thread.
“You’re just scared,” Macey said. “You just don’t want to find out.”
Sal bit her swollen lip and winced. Having seen those fearful, blinking eyes, those shaking hands, she found she had nothing to say. She slipped out and went downstairs to put on her shoes.
That night she cracked her bedroom window open and listened to the rustle of the rain. It followed her in and out of sleep, the same way her parents’ footsteps did as they took turns to check on Macey. Every hour. Then, starting at 1:33 by Sal’s digital alarm clock, every half hour. Then, when the red numbers shone 3:41, they were both up and about. She dimly knew that she did sleep, but it seemed as if she didn’t. It seemed as if she were already wide awake when she heard the ambulance grumble to a stop on the street outside, and the tinny whicker of the radio as the paramedics reported their arrival. She lay still and comfortable while the gurney came rattling up the stairs, while the hallway became full of movement, while the calm professional voices moved into Macey’s room. Then she got up and opened her bedroom door. The bright light made her squint.
She couldn’t see past her parents, but from the crunch-and-rustle sound the paramedics were tucking Macey in with cold packs. They were almost ready to go. She went back in her room and traded her pajamas for sweats and running shoes. The paramedics rolled Macey out and down the hall. Sal and Macey’s parents, already dressed, followed. Sal trailed after. Her dad only noticed her when he turned to close the front door.
“Oh, sweetheart,” he said sadly. “You don’t have to come.”
Sal shrugged. Of course she didn’t have to.
Her mom came over and gave her a one-armed hug. “Macey’s going to be all right. They just need to get the fever down. We’ll call first thing and let you know when she’ll be home.”
Sal didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. The paramedics were lifting Macey into the ambulance. One climbed in with her. The other was hurrying around to the cab when Sal’s dad shut the front door, cutting off her view. The living room window filled with red and blue light, like the lights of a carnival fairway. The ambulance pulled away, followed by her parents’ car, leaving darkness behind.
It was still raining in the morning. Sal waited until her parents had called before she headed out the kitchen door.
Doctor Helleran wants to keep Macey in for a few days, just to make sure… Mom will be home to pick up some things this afternoon… Dad will be home to make dinner… Be sure you finish your homework… Everything’s going to be all right…
The Weirdo’s fence was taller than she was, but she could hook her fingers over the top, just. The rubber toes of her sneakers skidded on the damp wood, so it was by the strength of her arms that she lifted herself over. Her hands ached and stung with splinters, and she dropped quickly, more clumsily than she might have. Cement paving stones were a shock to her feet. At her right hand a cat growled, low and angry, and she started.
The huts were in two rows that faced each other across the small yard, six in each row. They had tin roofs pattering under the last of the rain, and wire fronts, and were otherwise made of plywood and boards, sturdy but not elegant. Sal was surprised at how big they were, four feet to a side and on short legs. She was also surprised at the smell of clean straw that came from the bales tucked under the Weirdo’s eaves. Macey must have seen him cleaning the huts, laying new straw and bundling up the old, but she’d never mentioned it. Sal bent over to peer into the nearest hut and could just make out the mother cat’s black mask glaring from her corner nest. The cat gave another warning snarl.
“It’s okay,” Sal whispered. “Your kittens are safe.”
From me, she added silently, creeping up the row.
Most of the huts seemed empty, though with the heaps of straw it was hard to tell. But the fourth one on the left had an occupant that was more than willing to be seen. Beady eyes in a lone ranger mask, damp twitching nose, and delicate finger-paws hooked through the chicken wire of the door: the raccoon, small enough that Sal could have tucked him under her arm like a nerf football, chittered happily at the sight of company. She hunkered down before the hut, then registered the shaved patch on the creature’s haunch, the coarse stitching, the missing foot. She bit her lip and winced when her tooth hit the sore reminder of yesterday’s tussle.
“Poor little guy.”
The raccoon snuffled at her through three different holes. In his excitement he planted one forepaw in the plastic water dish wired to the front of the hut. With a look of disgust he shook his paw, then settled down to lick it dry, keeping a bright eye on Sal between pink tongue laps.
Sal rocked back on her heels and turned her head to stare over the fence and up at the back of her own house. At the wide dark rectangle of the window to Macey’s room.
“Excuse me,” said a rusty voice, “but you shouldn’t be here.”
Sal rocketed to her feet. For one fleeting instant she’d actually forgotten.
“This is private, you see, private property.”
The Weirdo stood on his back step, the door to his house open behind him. He wore the same navy blue polyester jacket zipped up to his chin, the same gray pants baggy at the knees, the same blinking look of fright. Except this time the fear was mixed with a tenuous look of dignity. Sal felt herself blush.
“I’m sorry,” she said stupidly. “I was just, uh, just” what could she possibly say? “checking to see how the cat was.” She twitched her head and shoulder toward the mother cat’s hut. “From yesterday? I thought those boys, uh, might have…” She ran out of steam though the blood in her ears was hot enough to boil water.
The Weirdo’s blinking slowed to a less frantic tempo. “But you aren’t the defender. Are you?”
“Well, yeah.” Sal shrugged, her hands creeping into the pockets of her jeans. “I mean, I guess.”
“You could have knocked. You see, on the door.”
Sal wasn’t sure if this was reproach or simply information. “Sorry,” she mumbled again.
The Weirdo, unbelievably, smiled. A funny, scrunching quirk of a smile that disappeared his eyes and didn’t reveal any teeth, but a smile nevertheless. “You want to see the kittens.” He stepped down from the back stair and shuffled towards her.
Sal, indoctrinated against the man who offers to show little girls his kitten or puppy or whatever-it-might-be tucked away in the back of his van (just around the corner, the teacher won’t even notice you’re gone), scuttled crab-wise until her shoulder bumped the gate. The Weirdo, with his lumpy shoulders and shaking hands, lowered himself with care to kneel before the mother cat’s hut, apparently blind to Sal’s skittishness. Looking down at his stiff hair, Sal wondered what she was doing here. Wondered, confusingly, if she wouldn’t have preferred to have been run off by some harrowing Freddy-like creature, chased back over the fence and home. But instead of razor blades, his hands had only trimmed yellow nails and a tremor that she was beginning to realize wasn’t fear, or at least not only fear, but some nervous disorder, or possibly even age. The big pale shaking hands reached through the hut’s open front and emerged a moment later with a palmful of squeaking black and white.
“Here. Here.” The Weirdo lifted the kitten towards Sal. “You mustn’t let her get cold, you see.”
Impossible to take the kitten without touching his hand. Impossible not to take the kitten even though the rain had dripped to an end. Almost shivering herself, Sal scooped the tiny beast from his palm (warm and dry) and cupped her under her chin.
Squeak, said the kitten, blindly nuzzling her thumb.
“Hello,” whispered Sal, ruffling the soft fur with her breath.
The Weirdo reached with a rustle of straw to reassure the mother.
What would Macey say to this? Sal wondered. Get out while you can?
Find out where they go.
The kitten was nestled in with her siblings, the wire door shut on their nest, the Weirdo raising himself to his feet.
“My sister,” Sal blurted, then choked.
The Weirdo blinked at her.
“My sister’s in the hospital.” God, how dumb. “She’s sick.” Dumber. “She might die.” Dumbest. Sal could taste the salt reservoir swelling in her throat.
The Weirdo blinked some more. He seemed oddly patient and, despite the hands that still trembled at his sides, as if contact with the animals had soothed his fear. “Your sister. Is she the child who watches?” He glanced over her head at Macey’s window.
Child. Macey would hate that. Sal took a breath. “My sister sees you take the animals in your house, but she doesn’t see you bring them out again.” She took another breath, but there she stuck.
The old man waited.
The rain started to drip again.
Sal shivered. “My sister wonders. Where they go.”
The Weirdo’s blinks beat sad time with the rain. “Your sister is in the hospital?”
“So you came to see.”
Sal nodded again though that wasn’t it at all.
The Weirdo closed his eyes to commune with himself while the rain fell into a steady patter and the raccoon chirruped for attention. The Weirdo drew in a slow breath, let it out quietly, and nodded, before he opened his eyes. “Yes,” he said. “Yes,” and then, “perhaps.” He looked at her doubtfully.
Sal swallowed. “It isn’t anything bad. Is it?”
He blinked, flit, flit, flit. “No. It isn’t anything bad.”
But she would be crazy if she believed him.
Crazy stupid dumb. So Sal told herself as she followed the old man inside.
But Macey would have dared her. Macey had dared her. So she stayed while the Weirdo opened the raccoon’s hut and tucked the little animal against his chest, and closed the door, and led the way into his kitchen.
The room was dim, dusty ’70s-orange curtains half-drawn against the rain or the prying eyes of the neighbor’s children. Every surface was cluttered with such a dense, organic jumble of stuff Sal could hardly make out individual elements. Bags of dog food, screwdrivers, oily rags, cookie jars, coffee cans full of nails. The only bare surface was the wooden table which bore a small first aid kit and a bottle of what looked to be peroxide. The Weirdo sat in the one clear chair and placed the raccoon before him, holding him still while he rummaged in the kit for a cotton ball. Sal stood against the kitchen door, trying not to breathe the Weirdo’s air. It was heavy with smells as jumbled and unrecognizable as the mess, not nasty, but his.
His hands, forever trembling, were surprisingly deft in the dull sepia light. He swabbed the bare patch on the raccoon’s haunch, then reached for tiny scissors. The raccoon curled around his restraining hand like a furry meal bug, sharp teeth nibbling his knuckles, unconcerned by the twitch of the stitches’ removal.
“It isn’t so much that they have to, you see, be healed,” the Weirdo said, “but they have to be unafraid.” He swabbed the points of blood, dropped the cotton ball, looked up at Sal. “It’s important they aren’t afraid.”
The hackles all down Sal’s back rose and prickled beneath her clothes.
The Weirdo stood and lifted the three-legged raccoon against his shoulder. There was a door in the corner by the rattling old fridge. A cupboard, Sal thought, but it opened on a black doorway and narrow stairs going down. The Weirdo started down without looking at Sal. Sal moved after. Macey had always found a way to make her wimp out before, always found the one thing Sal couldn’t bring herself to do, but this time, this dare, she had to see it through.
She had to see it through
The odors were stronger here, compounded by the smell of damp basement and mold dust. It was very dark before Sal’s eyes adjusted, but she refrained from reaching out for a banister or wall. She didn’t want to touch anything here. Groping for the way down — the flight seemed impossibly long — her damp runners squeaked on bare boards, while the old man’s feet padded on the stairs.
The young raccoon peered over his shoulder at her, black-button eyes inexpressibly cheerful and inquisitive.
It’s important they aren’t afraid.
Was Sal afraid? She wasn’t sure. Her skin tingled and the back of her eyes stung, and her heart was beating quick and light, and her hands wanted to crawl up inside her sleeves. But it wasn’t the same feeling as when she heard the ambulance arrive. It was more like when she stepped out on the high platform above the deep pool at the aquatic center and looked down to see the thin hiss of spray that was the only clue to where the surface lay and curled her toes over the edge of damp concrete (knowing that even Macey wouldn’t jump, she hated heights, the one dare Sal would never put to her) and lifted her arms, in her head already flying and ready for the cold.
The basement was warm, filled by a pervasive furnace hum.
The old man groped above his head, a weird gesture that stopped Sal on the bottom step, until his hand found a string and a light came on, a forty-watt bulb that shone on his thatch of hair, the raccoon’s eyes, the claustrophobic clutter all around. The mess of the kitchen was writ large here, rusty bikes and wheelbarrows and garden tools, cardboard boxes stained and warped by damp, glass jars filled with cobwebs and bugs. The dim yellow light was brightest on the ceiling of rough, web-hung joists, dimmest in the narrow passage that disappeared between walls of junk. The Weirdo paused under the bulb, looked at Sal, blinking a little. Sal looked back. His hands cradled the little raccoon.
“It’s a secret, you know, a secret thing.”
Sal swallowed. “I won’t tell.”
“But your sister wants to know?”
Sal was shocked, then remembered she had told him as much. “She’s sick.” As if that explained or excused.
The old man hesitated, nodded. Moved down the passage without looking back.
Sal followed, robot-like, numb, as if she operated her body from a distance, mental thumbs on the remote control.
There was a room at the end of the passage. Or maybe it was just a clear space, defined not by walls but by piled junk. Rocking chair, step-ladder, storm window, bookshelf, doll-house, glass vase, all broken, all smeared with dust and mold and time, locked together like bricks in a wall. They sprang into being when the old man pulled another string, lighting another weak bulb. He shuffled forward and Sal saw, set into the junk wall like it was just another bit of trash, a door. A small door. The size of a door that might admit a cat or a puppy or a crow or a young three-legged raccoon, but nothing larger. Nothing like big enough for a person, even if the person was a kid no bigger than Sal, who was not tall for her age, or Macey, who had become so thin. It was made of bare boards held together by brass screws, and had no proper doorknob, just a pull like on a cupboard or a drawer.
The old man knelt on the rough, damp-stained cement floor with the same care he’d shown outside, gently containing the raccoon that wriggled with excitement. He looked up at Sal, who still stood just inside the room. “You can open it, if you want. Then you’ll see.”
Like a diver in mid-flight, Sal could not back out now. Flying, falling, numb, she walked over, her shoes no longer squeaking, and knelt beside him. Her bruised shins hurt distantly. The pain reminded her of Macey. She had almost forgotten why she was here.
At close quarters, the old man smelled like his house — only sweeter, perfumed by straw and rain.
Sal reached for the little knob, closed finger and thumb, pulled. The door stuck a bit, then jerked and swung open onto a gurgle of running water.
Drains, Sal thought. Storm drain, sewer, something. She cocked her head and looked inside.
The small door opened onto a forest clearing. A stream of rocks and pools burbled almost within arm’s reach of the threshold. Beyond, above, big trees raised a canopy against a blue evening sky. There were stars pale between leaves, birds singing on their nests, grasshoppers fiddling, a draft that smelled of water and earth and green.
“It always opens,” the old man’s rusty voice said, “on the place they’d most like to go. That’s why they can’t be afraid. You see, it’s magic.”
He set the raccoon down, and the young animal skitter-hopped to the threshold, where he paused and sniffed. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he skitter-hopped over and headed down to the stream for a wash, and maybe to poke about for a dinner of frogs. And as he went, his injured leg grew fur, and a paw, and toes and claws, and he was whole.
The old man shut the door. They knelt together side by side before the crooked wall of junk.
Sal cleared her throat. “My sister.”
“I’m sorry,” the old man said. “It’s, you see, it’s such a small door.”
“Yes,” Sal said. “I see.”
Her father came home in time to heat up left-over chicken for dinner. Macey’s fever was down, he said. The bleeding had stopped almost as soon as they were at the hospital. She would be home in a few days. Sally looked pretty tired. Maybe she should go to bed early tonight.
Sal agreed, she was pretty tired.
As the school bus trundled past the arena parking lot on Monday morning, she saw that, early as it was, the carnies had been hard at work for hours. The game stalls and concession stands and rides were nearly all dismantled and loaded into the big rigs that would drive them to the next town. Only the Ferris Wheel still hung, captive, on its axle.
Holly Phillips is an award-winning fantasy writer and editor living in Victoria, BC. Her first short-story collection, In the Palace of Repose has not only received rave reviews, but won Canada’s 2006 Sunburst Award and was nominated for two World Fantasy Awards. Her first novel, The Burning Girl, was released in March 2006. Holly’s next fantasy novel, Engine’s Child, will be published by Del Rey in October 2008.