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Christine Boyka Kluge
Susan Yergler Woodring is a writer in North Carolina. Susan Yergler Woodring

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A Short Story from "Springtime on Mars"

July-August , 2008

Springtime on Mars

I had only caught glimpses of Elise Stanley before that long ago cold spring morning when she stepped out of the crowd and into the circle of bystanders. She and her son Timothy, who was in the seventh grade with me, had just moved into the house at the end of the street, the last one before the railroad tracks. It was an old neighborhood with small brick houses shaded by giant oak trees. The trees’ roots grew up against the sidewalk, leaving the concrete crumpled and broken in places, and during the winter, the tangled branches blocked the sun so that the snow, when it came, was slow to melt. Sometimes in the evenings, just before dinner, I I watched her pass our house on her way home from her job at an attorney’s office on the south end of the street. She walked in high heels, moving briskly down the sidewalk with a detached air about her that I admired. “She’s divorced, Paige,” Aunt Martha, my mother’s sister told me. She raised her eyebrows significantly. “And she frequents the Blue Tavern, over in Kernersville.” I was twelve then and didn’t fully understand the real and imagined dangers my aunt, who considered herself more worldly than my somewhat provincial parents, was trying to warn me of. To me, Elise was already a sort of miracle, her walking down the slick, uneven sidewalk like it was nothing, not even looking down to watch her feet step over the ice.

Nathan Price, the boy to receive Elise Stanley’s special kindness, was a sad case even before the accident. His father was a chemist at the insecticides plant near Burlington and his mother was a reclusive housewife who paid one of the Croswell boys to do her grocery shopping. She sent Nathan to school with cans of sardines and packets of crackers in his bag lunch; for dessert, he popped the lid off a mini-can of mandarin oranges. He ate by himself because he smelled. It wasn’t just the sardine oil on his fingers, but also a sort of alkaline funk in his greasy hair, and a damp, mildewed scent on his catalogue-ordered golf shirts. Nathan was skinny, too, and he was smart in a dumb way, annoying the teachers with endless questions as to the precise location of Greenland, and whether or not our founding fathers would have insisted on free speech if they’d known about MTV. Nobody touched Nathan, not even bumping into him in the crowded hallways, not even to push him or sucker-punch him in the kickball line. The teachers also kept their distance, careful not to graze his shoulder when they leaned over his math problems. Nathan was worse than an outcast; he was a disease we were all doomed to catch.

He didn’t try to talk to the other kids at school. His father dropped him off at the Friday night football games and Nathan sat close to the band section, then left before the last quarter was over. I never heard of him calling anyone on the phone; he didn’t even go to church. The only time he tried to fit in was at our bus stop in the mornings. I think he felt safer in our small group:  just me, the new kid Timothy, and my best friend Carla Phillips. At least, Carla was still my best friend; I wasn’t sure if I was hers anymore. We had ended up in different homerooms this year and Carla had been making other friends, leaving me out more and more. Lately, she had started going to the mall on Saturday afternoons with Samantha King, a girl who everyone knew had started kissing boys in the woods beyond the railroad tracks when we were still in the fifth grade. Carla and I didn’t talk on the phone in the evenings as we used to, and sometimes the twenty minutes we spent waiting for the bus together in the mornings was the only time we spoke all day. I was quiet by nature, though, and Timothy kept to himself, playing with green alien figurines in the grass, not seeming to notice or care how childish he looked. Occasionally, he glanced up to explain to us the terrific gravitational pull Jupiter demonstrated, keeping its sixteen moons in orbit, or how some scientists believed the universe was a breathing entity, slowly expanding, the planets and stars pushing out against each other until cosmic forces shifted and they would begin to draw close to each other again. “It’s like this,” Timothy said, demonstrating with his hands, cupping them close together then slowly separating them, fingers opening as his hands moved apart. It was hard to believe Timothy was the son of glamorous Elise.

Carla was the focus of Nathan’s attention. On the morning of the accident, she sat on top of her school books with a compact mirror balanced on her knees while she applied mascara. She was not allowed to leave her house with make-up on. I was not yet interested in such things, but Aunt Martha, who was still single at thirty-five, didn’t believe me. There was a womanly balance she was trying to press upon me—something between being too plain like my mother and being too garish like Elise Stanley. Aunt Martha passed me tubes of lip gloss on the sly and bragged to her friends that I was twelve going on twenty-three.

Nathan stood watching Carla, his hands in his jeans pockets. “You look good,” he said, and she rolled her eyes. He turned to me. “Doesn’t she?” he asked. I mumbled some word of agreement and caught Carla’s eye. Timothy sat a ways back, burying a plastic green Martian in fallen cherry tree blossoms. The morning smelled of cold, and of toothpaste.

Nathan said, “I can walk on my hands.”

We were used to such claims. He also said he could hold a lit match and recite “The Gettysburg Address” before the flame burned his fingers. He could read Braille; he could juggle. His father had bought him a car, a Volvo, before he could even walk. We never told him we didn’t believe him, though it seemed to go without saying. Mostly, we did our best to ignore Nathan Price, wishing for the bus to hurry around the bend.

I didn’t even glance his way. I asked Carla, “Did you study for the science test?”

Carla shrugged, not answering me, and screwed the top on her mascara. She zipped up her make-up bag and cocked her head, giving Nathan a lopsided squint. “I don’t believe you,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as she measured him up. “You can barely walk on your feet, you moron.”

I stared at Carla. Even now, I’m not sure why she challenged him except that her father had just lost his job at the same insecticides plant where Nathan’s father worked. This was the mid-eighties, when everything was a boom except in our town where the main businesses had been dwindling away. The bank and the department stores were gone; the plastics factory had closed down the year before. Now, the insecticides company had opened another plant overseas and slowly, layoff by layoff, our own plant was fading away. But we weren’t thinking about these things that morning at the bus stop—Carla only knew her daddy had lost his job and Nathan’s daddy hadn’t.

“Do it,” she said. “Walk on your hands.”

Nathan didn’t look like he was about to do anything. His face went pale and his eyes widened, bright with fear. I wanted Carla to leave him alone, but I didn’t tell her to. Stepping back a little, I glanced at Timothy who had looked up from his toy to watch. I could see his alien more clearly now, a bulb-shaped green head attached to an impossibly small body, spindly arms and legs at its sides. The figure lay on the ground, Timothy’s hand resting on it.

“There are some,” he told us, “who believe spiders are alien life forms.”

I suppose he meant to distract Nathan and Carla, but neither of them seemed to be listening. They were eyeing each other. Nathan gave Carla a grim little nod, deciding something. Dropping his backpack, he lifted his arms and began rotating them slowly backwards in sweeping circles, limbering up. He glanced once more at Carla before he leaned over, placing his hands on the asphalt. With a small grunt, he hefted his legs off the ground. His squeaky-white sneakers sprang to the air and then, just as quickly, they fell back again.

“I knew it,” Carla said. “Maybe now you’ll shut up for a change.”

She folded her arms across her chest and watched for the bus. I searched her face to see if she had softened at all, if she would be difficult today, stubbornly quiet as she sometimes was these days. The morning was especially quiet and still, too cool for May, and it felt like spring would never come. Few cars passed us that morning, and it seemed we stood there longer than we ever had. I studied Carla’s profile, wondering if she would give me that tired look across the lunch table later today, the look that told me she couldn’t believe we were still friends. Nathan was standing in the road with his face flushed, frustrated because Carla had turned away. Timothy returned to his Martian. The bus was late.

“They crashed to earth on a meteorite billions of years ago. That explains our irrational fear of spiders. It’s primal,” Timothy explained, marching his alien through the grass.

The sun rose into the clearing across the way and I had to squint to see Nathan get on all fours again, kicking his legs up and balancing. He wavered a bit, then held steady, taking a few quick steps into the road. Hands on the asphalt, feet in the air, that horrible JCPenney shirt slipping down around his neck, the white skin of his stomach exposed to the cool air, he went. He was doing it. He moved in quick, jerking motions, the blood deep red in his face, his arms so skinny I half-expected them to break in two under the weight of his body. Though I didn’t dare glimpse in Carla’s direction, I felt the three of us taking in this sight, the phenomena of Nathan Price moving across the street on his hands, his arms shaking with the effort.

“Okay, okay,” Carla huffed. She shoved her hands into her jeans pockets. “You did it. Now get out of the road, you stupid shit.”

Nathan righted himself for a moment, shot us a grin, and got down on all fours again. He sprung his legs into the air.

“You’re a dumb ass,” Carla told him and went back to watching for the bus.

Nathan was halfway across the far side of the street when it finally arrived. It lumbered around the corner faster than usual, braking late, then coming between us and the sun just over the clearing. Even as the bus struck his body, I didn’t understand what was happening. Here was Nathan in the last second of his handstand before he pitched over, the bus lurching to a stop over him. He lay half under the bus, half out, his body flat against the street.

The sky was bright and still and it seemed nothing bad had happened, that nothing bad could have happened. No one spoke; for a moment, nothing changed.

The bus driver was Davis Croswell, a senior at the high school. He wasn’t the same Croswell boy who did Mrs. Price’s grocery shopping for her—that was Joey—but all of the Croswell boys were alike in two ways:  they were the first takers when it came to odd jobs, and they each had the easy draw and unhurried mannerisms of country boys. He swung out of the bus to check what he had hit; then, seeing, he stood motionless, his big hands hanging empty at his sides. The kids on the bus were rowdy as always, talking loudly and jumping in their seats. Some of them hung their heads out the windows to see what was going on, and one yelled, “What’d you hit, Davis?” Davis didn’t answer them. He’d left the door open, and a few of the kids followed him off the bus. They were laughing at first, happy to be on the street on a Tuesday morning, not yet at school. Then they saw what had happened, smiles falling off their faces. Their eyes moved from the road to Davis to us, the bystanders. We were each frozen and silent, except Carla, who drew in big gasps of air and hugged her arms to her chest. Davis glanced up, catching my eye. For a moment, I was afraid he was going to ask me what to do.

“Is it him?” he asked. “Is that the Price kid?”

He didn’t appear to be asking anyone in particular. He leaned over, clutching his sides as if he was going to be sick to his stomach, but he regained control of himself after a second and tapped one of the boys standing close to him.

 “You,” he said, “go call an ambulance.” He pointed to the Phillips’s house behind us, and the boy took off across the lawn. “Nathan?” Davis squatted next to the bus. “Nathan?”

I wanted to tell someone to move him. He seemed vulnerable lying there, only his legs and his feet showing, and I had a crazy thought that if we didn’t move him, he would get hit again. Most of the other kids were off the bus now, standing in a semi-circle around the front of it, watching. One boy said, “He’s crying.” He bent down to peer under the bus. “He’s crying,” the boy said again. “He’s awake and crying.” Another boy said, “His whole body is broken.” One of them whispered, “Is he dead?”

I looked back at Carla, her arms wrapped tightly around her. Timothy was up now, and I saw him slip something into his pocket, that green alien. He turned, as if he could feel me looking at him, but I shifted before our eyes could meet, before the knowledge of what had happened could pass between us. The cold air slipped in through my jacket collar. There was the smell of burnt diesel, the bus hovering. Davis Croswell stood with his hands on his hips, closing his eyes, then opening them, shaking his head and mumbling to himself so low we couldn’t hear him.

After a moment, I became aware of some of the neighbors coming up behind us, everyone keeping quiet, only whispers and rustlings of hands in jacket pockets. Mrs. Croswell held her two youngest boys at her sides, her fingers over their eyes though they peeped through, each clamoring for her to pick him up. Mrs. Phillips, Carla’s mother, came carrying a cordless telephone. She pressed close to Carla and rubbed her daughter’s shoulder. She was crying, whispering, but Carla did nothing but stand there, her breathing finally easing off a little, slowing down. Mr. Phillips was there, wearing a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. He kept himself a few feet away from his wife and daughter and asked an old man from the street over if he knew what had happened, if anyone had witnessed it. He kept looking at Carla as he spoke, and I knew he had guessed what had happened, and who had seen it. Others stopped their cars, strangers who knew nothing of our neighborhood, who didn’t know Nathan Price or any of the rest of us, those who wished they’d taken a different route to work that morning. Mrs. Whitmire appeared on her porch in her robe, holding her hand to her mouth. Some of the men talked about moving the bus. They rubbed their chins and shrugged. Mrs. Croswell touched my arm. “Has anyone told Helen?” she asked. Helen was Mrs. Price’s first name.

I didn’t notice Elise right away, her slipping out of the crowd and into the circle. It was different to see her like this, in full light, the sun picking out red streaks in her dark hair. She wore black high heels and a purple suit, the skirt so short and so tight, she had to pull it up almost to around her waist and crawl on her elbows to get to Nathan. The semi-circle was silent, watching her disappear beneath the bus. Most were incredulous, not understanding what Elise Stanley was doing there, crawling on the asphalt, wondering if she was going to cause any trouble. I think there were those of us who expected her to perform CPR or some other life-saving measure, and we held our breaths for a miracle. I kept waiting for something supernatural to happen, for Nathan himself to crawl out from under the bus and shrug at us, embarrassed to have caused such a scene. I shivered in my denim jacket, the air chilled and bright. After a moment, there was a hand on my shoulder and my whispered name, “Paige.” I knew without turning to see that it was my mother. She squeezed my shoulders, and together, we waited.

The men finally organized a means of moving the bus. Davis Croswell climbed back inside the driver’s seat and shifted into neutral while the men gathered at the front and on the sides, grunting and pushing; one of the older men squatted and watched the tires move, telling Davis how to steer. Once the bus was rolled back, sunlight filled up that space and we saw Elise lying next to Nathan, who was splayed out on the street, his head twisted to one side. Elise’s face was close to his and she was talking to him, too softly for any of us to hear. He was conscious, though fading, fresh tears on his cheeks, his eyes unblinking. She kissed his face and cried while Nathan’s blood seeped into her blouse, her hands, and even, in the decades it took the ambulance to arrive, into her hair. She stroked his shoulder. I felt pulled away, watching her. Her tears wet his face.

The emergency workers moved Nathan’s body to a stretcher, and from there, to the ambulance. Elise picked herself up and stumbled away, her face expressionless and pale beneath her make-up. She stood in the grass, apart from the rest of us, and no one, not even Timothy, went to her.

Helen Price arrived just as the ambulance was pulling away. I later learned that Mrs. Croswell had first rung her doorbell, then knocked and banged at her door, and finally had gone around the side of the house, peering through windows, still pulling along her two little boys. She came in through an unlocked door at the back and found Mrs. Price in the basement, folding towels.

Mrs. Whitmire took her in her Buick, and together, they followed the ambulance around the bend, towards the highway. We watched them go; then my mother wordlessly steered me back to our house. She guided me to the upstairs bathroom where she undressed me as water filled the tub. She helped me in, then began to soap my arms. My limbs were heavy, achy, and I was grateful for my mother’s hand beneath the washcloth, for her fingers on my scalp, for the warmth of the water. She rinsed my hair with a plastic cup from the kitchen and helped me into my robe, then led me back down the stairs to the couch in the living room where we spent the rest of the morning watching talk shows.

Near lunchtime, Aunt Martha arrived, coming in through the back door, breathless from news of the accident. She rushed into the room, then stopped, seeing me and my mother there on the couch, the chatter from the television only noise. Her eyes slid over to my mother’s then back to mine.

“You all right?” She stepped toward us. “Paige? Are you all right?”

I didn’t answer, and she stood back as if she wasn’t sure she should come forward, as if she suddenly was awkward in our house, a place she ate dinner at more nights than in her own apartment downtown. The phone rang, my mother jumping to answer it in the kitchen, and now my aunt came to me, reaching for my hand. I could hear my mother speaking quietly from the other room but I couldn’t make out the words for the voices coming from the television set. Martha gripped my hand and though my face was turned away, I felt her eyes on me, searching.

After a few moments, my mother returned to the couch, clicking off the television on her way. Martha rose, stepping away, and my mother took her spot next to me, her hands folded in her lap. My mother was a musician, a pianist. Her fingers were long and white, and they always seemed to be doing something purposeful, something beautiful, even when they were folded quietly in her lap. She cleared her throat, sighed.

“I have some bad news.” She hesitated. With the TV off, the house seemed more than silent, like time stopped. The sunlight fell in slats on the carpet through the windows. I watched my mother twist her wedding ring around her finger. Martha remained quiet, though I knew she was listening. “Nathan’s heart failed before they could get him to surgery,” my mother said. She touched my hand, leaning close.

I nodded but said nothing. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my aunt give my mother a small, grim smile before she stepped back into the hallway, then out the door.

Later, I told my mother, “It was Carla’s fault.” The afternoon was drawing dark, just before my father was due home from work. My voice was gravelly from not talking. “She dared him to walk across the road on his hands. She egged him on. She made him do it.”

My mother watched me for a moment before she shook her head. “No, Paige,” she said. “That’s not right. You know it isn’t right. There’s no reason this happened.” She left me then, hurrying to the kitchen where I glimpsed her standing by the counter with her face dropped into her hands. She returned to me with wet eyes and sat very close. She was determined to get me through this.

“I know why this happened,” I whispered, and she pretended not to hear me.

The next evening I went with my parents to the visitation at the funeral home. People came out in great numbers and formed a long line from the closed casket where Mr. and Mrs. Price shook hands and smiled dimly at the guests. There was an unbreakable hush in the crowded room, the adults standing stiffly in their slacks and button-downs, the kids hanging close, and it wasn’t just because there’d been a death or because it had been a young, tragic death. We stood in the plush room, our shoes sinking into the carpet, and watched the door. Everybody was waiting for the same thing, but Elise never came.

Many of my classmates were crying though I don’t think any of us truly understood why we cried, all of us experiencing a vague sort of guilt, an uncomfortable feeling that we didn’t belong here, grieving Nathan Price, and yet, we couldn’t stay away. There was something particular about me and Carla, the only eyewitnesses besides Timothy, and I caught the other kids sneaking quick glances at me, jerking their eyes away when I met their gaze. Already, a rumor had started that Carla had pushed Nathan into the street. I didn’t hear anyone wondering if it was me, or if I had any part in it, and I felt both relieved and ashamed. We kept close to our parents, all of us acting much younger and much older than we actually were. I tried to talk to Carla afterwards, but she left quickly, following her parents into the parking lot. I don’t think she’d said a word to anyone.

When we returned to school, the other kids rarely talked to us, and when they did, it was about curiously un-adolescent concerns:  the wet weather, the likelihood of everyone getting sick, the new parking deck at the shopping mall in Greensboro. Carla kept to herself, walking alone to classes, eating lunch at one of the single desks by the windows. Those desks were meant to be a place of punishment, but Carla ate there willingly and the teachers didn’t ask her to move. Samantha King sometimes walked past to return her lunch tray, but I never saw the two speak, never saw Carla glance her way. I made small attempts at restoring our friendship, slipping notes into Carla’s locker, waiting for her after class and hoping she would stop to talk, or at least say hello, maybe smile. She mostly ignored me and I finally let her slip away. We passed the last few weeks of school moving in our different spheres, away from each other, away from the other kids. In the summer, Carla’s father got a job at a pharmaceutical company in Maryland and she moved away. When school started again in September, I was alone.

During our eighth grade year, Timothy was in my math class. He sat in the front row and drew pictures out of his science book using a box of colored pencils he kept hidden under his math book. Remembering his talk of Jupiter and spiders and the expanding universe, I was curious about what he was drawing. Maybe they were illustrations of the five-chambered heart of the earthworm or the icy rings of Saturn. I spent weeks just watching him draw, thinking of what we had seen, about his mother and what she had done for Nathan Price. There was a for sale sign now in the Prices’ front yard—they would soon be moving, same as Carla and her parents. My father had accepted a principalship at an elementary school in Virginia, and we too would be leaving Pilot after Christmas, though my aunt planned to stay, to keep her apartment downtown. I watched Timothy draw and thought of how, in a few months, he would be the only witness remaining, the only one who had seen Nathan Price walking across the street on his hands. The insecticides plant had just announced it was closing at the end of the year; soon, everything would be changed.

 One morning, I was early to class and found Timothy alone at his desk with his colored pencils. As I moved past him to my seat, I paused to examine his paper. He’d sketched a large red sphere with pale purple lines set in a shaky grid pattern. Blurs of blue and gray were smudged across the center.

“Springtime on Mars,” he told me. “It’s the best time to photograph the planet. See,” he pointed to the smudges, “Martian canyons.”

“Yes,” I said, pretending to know. I wanted Timothy to think I was smart, though I wasn’t sure why. I imagined him riding the bus home in the afternoons and walking up the street to his house at the end of our street. I saw the house, pictured him inside, sketching scenes from outer space at the kitchen table while Elise cooked at the stove in her stocking feet, her shoes abandoned at the door. My aunt didn’t talk about Elise Stanley after the accident; people watched her for a while, falling silent when she walked past them at the A&P, not meeting her eyes in the line at the post office. Sometimes, the other kids talked about the dead boy from Pilot, and about Davis Croswell who was the bus driver that day, even about Larry Phillips who helped push the bus away. They never said Elise Stanley’s name, though, and they never talked about what she had done.

“It’s nice,” I told him, keeping my voice low. Some of the other kids had drifted into the room and they sat sideways at their desks, watching me, unused to hearing me speak.

I began to move towards my seat, then changed my mind. I leaned down and whispered, “Do you ever think about it? Does your mother?”

He laid his pencil on his desk and squinted up at me. It had only been a little over five months since the accident, but he seemed much older to me. His freckles had faded somewhat and his hair was more rust than red these days. Though Timothy seemed to be caught up in his own world most of the time, I knew he had friends. He had fallen into a group of boys who pierced their ears with safety pins and cut class to smoke pot behind the ball field after lunch. Timothy kept his hair shorter than the rest and he didn’t wear ripped jeans, but he sat with them at lunch and rattled the chain-link fence with the others at football games. He kept himself a little apart from them, and I knew that he had that in him, a manner of separateness. I thought we were alike in that way—him, me, Elise, and even Nathan. I looked down at Timothy’s Mars and hoped he would see this, that in his answer to my question, he would offer me the connection.

“It’s like this,” he said after a moment’s pause. He tapped his pencil to one of the perfect lines on the planet’s surface. “You see this?” he asked. “For years, people imagined they saw canals dug into the planet’s surface. They called these canals proof of life. They worried what intelligent life on Mars might mean to us earthlings, to our safety. But, it was nothing. An optical illusion, a cosmic misprint. There’s no life. There’s nothing.” He traced his finger over the lines. Timothy closed his notebook and began to slide his colored pencils back into their case. He glanced quickly around the room at the other kids sitting down at their desks, laughing and talking, unzipping their backpacks, taking books out. The bell rang.
“That’s all there ever is,” he said, “just fear.”

The teacher had come in now, and I found my seat in the back of the classroom. I felt the other kids staring at me, curious. Some looked away; others kept their gazes even, slack-jawed, contemptuous. I opened my notebook and began to copy the problems from the board, my face sticky with tears I didn’t try to stop.

In the years since, I have returned to Pilot only once, to attend Aunt Martha’s wedding last summer. Aunt Martha, well into her fifties now, wore a pale blue dress and carried calla lilies, their stems tied together with a satin ribbon. At the reception, she joked to me that she had considered going barefoot on the grass behind the church since it was July, not a breath of wind that wasn’t stifled and damp. She winked at her new husband, a mechanical engineer from Raleigh, and he raised his glass of champagne in response. I thought of my own husband, my John, back at home, and I wondered if he had given the girls their baths yet, if they were already tucked into bed and he was sitting up in his easy chair with a newspaper closed in his lap, his mind drifted to other things. We were having trouble in our marriage and he had encouraged me to take some extra time on my trip to think things through. He said I had turned into a ghost, floating along with no firm conviction that I belonged in my life. John believes in owning yourself the same way you own a car or a house, by the act of possessing.

After seeing the newlyweds off, I kissed my parents good-bye and went for a drive in our old neighborhood. The sky was just losing light and the heavy boughs of oak trees along the sides of the road appeared purple. The sidewalks were empty, and I imagined all the people curled up in the houses, different in my memory only in their diminished size—I could now fit each of them into the palm of my hand. I drove past our old house. The paint was faded and the shrubs were overgrown and straggly. Further down the street, the clearing by our old bus stop was thick with kudzu grown over tree stumps and across the grass. Here, the sun had filled up the asphalt when the bus was pushed away, the spot where Nathan Price lay, Elise Stanley hovered over him. I slowed the car, but I didn’t stop, knowing this was exactly the sort of thing John had in mind that I might ponder over, a childhood tragedy I should revisit, one I had never told him about. Yet, it was here that I learned the very opposite of what John would have me believe. Nathan Price’s death had only taught me that existence was made of flimsy stuff, of a cold spring morning wind, of weak sunlight. I rolled the car window down and breathed deep, the air full of failing sunlight and thick oak branches. Then, I moved on.

I came to Elise Stanley’s house and parked on the opposite side of the street. My elbow propped on the open window, I took in this house that was always dark, even during the day. I knew nothing of Timothy or Elise since my family moved away, but I was certain that if Elise had left Pilot, Aunt Martha would have told me. The house was quiet and still, one light shining from inside, a circle of trees gathered around it. I could see little, only a bit of the roof, a corner of the window.

My eyes became accustomed to the dark and I made out two shapes sitting on the front steps. Likely, Timothy, in his thirties now, had moved away, at least out of his mother’s house. He could have drifted off to any corner of the globe. The figures I made out might have been Elise and a man, practically a stranger to her if the rumors Aunt Martha used to tell held any truth. The shadows leaned into each other, and I could hear them talking though I couldn’t distinguish the words. I thought of going to them, of finally speaking with Elise, and I went so far as to open my car door and step out. I turned to the house, and one of them stood. Elise Stanley. Her features were obscured by the shadows of the trees in the scant light, but I saw her black hair, the outline of her body, her legs. She and her companion had stopped talking, and she was looking at me, raising her arm to gesture something like hello, or come on over. At the tips of her fingers, there was a parting in the tree boughs, and a dusky, clean sky showed itself, a star there shining, just getting started in the first glimpse of night. I lifted my arm to wave back at her, remembering how she had whispered to Nathan as he lay in the street, and now I knew what she had said. I knew it because I had said the same things to my own children, whispering to them in their instances of greatest fear, them arising from a nightmare or from a simple fear of darkness, of the bleakness of things unseen. Elise had hushed that boy, holding his hurts for her own, same as any of us have done with our own children. She had completed her task—she had loved Nathan Price.

I slid back into the car, started it up, and left her there on her front steps, peering out at the street.

About the Writer

Susan Yergler Woodring is the author of a collection of stories, Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008), and one novel, The Traveling Disease (Main Street Rag, 2007). She is the winner of the 2006 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction Award and the 2006 Isotope Editor’s Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in Surreal South, Slower Traffic Keep Right, Yemassee, Quick Fiction, turnrow, Passages North, Ballyhoo Stories, The William and Mary Review, and Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. Susan currently lives in North Carolina with her children and her husband.

To learn more about Susan and her work, visit

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