Clara Greenwold could hear noises coming from the basement. Her mother had gone down there a while ago to get hamburger for their dinner from the freezer. Clara walked into the kitchen, tentatively placing a hand on the partially open basement door and looking down into the deep, inky depths of the steep, narrow stairwell.
“Mama?” she called, her four year old voice high-pitched and unsure. “Are you comin’ back up?”
“Yeah, honey,” Stephanie Greenwold called back through the gloom. And then, “Clara, come down here for a minute. I want to show you something.”
The child felt panicked butterflies battering her ribcage at the request. She chewed uncertainly on a finger, then, never removing the digit, placed one foot on the naked wood top stair. The sole of her tennis show thudded dully. Her hand never left the rail that slid alongside the stairs, her saucered eyes trying desperately to adjust to the darkness that was quickly engulfing her. “Mama?” she called out again, needing the reassurance that her mother was really there at the end of the dark tunnel.
“I’m here, sweetie.”
As Clara moved further into the basement, she felt the thickness in her belly, as she always did when heading down into the darkness. She always hated it when her mother would ask her to go downstairs for anything. She didn’t understand why her sister – older by three years – was never asked to go.
Finally, the dim light from the naked bulb that hung in the unfinished space came into view. Clara hit the cement floor of the basement, and scurried over to where her mother knelt. As long as the girl could remember, there had always been a large wooden box against the far wall. Her mother called it a hope chest. Clara wasn’t sure what that was, but never went near it. Whenever she did, she got a funny feeling in her tummy.
“What are you doing, Mama?” Clara asked, copying her mother’s kneeling position on the floor. It occurred to the young girl just how much smaller she was than the woman who was her mama.
“I’m looking through some of grandma and grandpa’s things, sweetie,” Stephanie said absently, looking into the depths of the cedar hope chest. The chest had belonged to her mother, who’d had it since she was a small girl, growing up in rural Colorado in the 1930s and 1940s. When she’d married in her late teens, it had changed from holding the dreams of a young girl to the memories of a young bride.
“How did they die again, Mama?” Clara picked up a small Indian girl doll. The clothing and moccasins were elegant in their colorful beads and ribbon work.
“I’ve told you this story a hundred times, Clara,” Stephanie smiled, leaning over and kissing the top of her youngest daughter’s head. “They were killed in a car accident when I was just a little older than you are now.”
“Oh,” the girl said, as though hearing the details for the very first time. She put the doll aside and picked up a long violin bow.
“Oh! No, Clara, don’t touch that.” Stephanie took the bow away from the child, and placed lovingly beside the violin in the opened black, velvet-lined case. She snapped the aged case shut and moved it out of a questing four-year olds reach. “My mother used to play for us when we were little,” Stephanie remembered. She sighed, sifting through some clothing.
Clara’s wide, violet eyes fell upon something else. She reached both hands in and came out with a strange object. It was cloth that had been clinched inside a round, wooden frame, the cloth stretched taut across it’s face. On the stretched part of the cloth, a design of flowers and a bird had been done in needlepoint, the bird not completed. All across one entire side of the cloth was something that was a brownish color, making the material stiff.
A small, curious finger reached out and touched the hardened brownish stuff, and the girl gasped. She felt the butterflies from moments before turn into screeching eagles, battering the insides of her entire body. She began to sweat, her head throbbing with the pounding of every heartbeat. She felt a sense of dread wash over her. Fear clenched her guts, followed by a deep sorrow and regret.
Stephanie gasped in shock as her daughter burst into hysterical tears, dropping the needlepoint to the floor, and plowing up the stairs at a dead run.
Clara ran to her bedroom, throwing herself on the pretty white and green canopy bed that she’d just started sleeping in the previous spring. She couldn’t hold back the hot tears as they streamed down her face and onto the pink comforter, along with dribbles from her nose.
“Clara!” Stephanie, out of breath and filled with fear, nearly bypassed her daughter’s open bedroom door in her haste to get to the girl. “What is it, honey?” She hurried over to the bed, sitting beside her sobbing daughter. “What happened?”
Clara allowed herself to be cuddled by her mother, grabbing onto the older woman as if for her very life. “She was so sad!” she cried, the emotions still coursing through her like an electric shock
“Who?” Stephanie ran her fingers through soft, brown hair, kissing the top of Clara’s head.
Stephanie stopped dead, a chill trickling through her body. “Your Grandma Greenwold?” Clara shook her head. “Honey, my mom is dead. She’s not sad anymore.”
Clara wiped her nose with her arm, leaving a slime trail behind. She looked up at her mother with big, sad eyes and nodded. “She told me she was.”
Stephanie felt herself go cold, and she shook her head, getting to her feet. “That’s not funny, Clara, and I don’t want to hear you talk that way about your Grandma Holdridge again. Do you understand?”
“I’m going to get you a Kleenex for your nose.”
The girl watched her mother leave her bedroom, a sinking feeling replacing the battering wings of the eagles.
Clara had to admit: up close and personal, butterflies had the strangest faces. Quite ugly, in fact. She gasped as the winged insect took to flight, off the girl’s finger, where it had landed a few moments before. Violet eyes watched it go until it was out of sight.
“So, what do you wanna do now?” Jason Rugby asked, sitting cross-legged on Clara’s back lawn, picking at a scab on his knee. He winced as the roughened patch peeled back, revealing a less-than-healed scrape.
Clara sighed and flung herself back on the lawn, hands cupping the back of her head. She looked up at the blue, July sky. Fat, white clouds drifted by, forming and reforming into crazy patterns. Her father, Max had told her it was called matrixing, where the mind would try and make sense and patterns out of just about anything. Including clouds. If that were true, then she was matrixing a rabbit hopping towards the Seller’s place.
“What? Oh. Sorry. I don’t know. I could get some money from my mom and would ride down to the store. Get a slurpy.”
Jason laid down next to his best friend, head slightly cocked to the side as he tried to make out what the cloud above him was turning into. “Lotsa clouds today.”
“My mom said we’re in for a summer storm.”
“That sucks. I’ll have to go home early, then.”
They lay in silence for a long minute, listening to the summer day. School had let out a month ago, and the friends were already bored, running out of ideas to fill their days.
Jason and his father had moved into the house at the end of the cul-de-sac the previous Christmas, and Clara had been drawn to the boy. She’d promptly taken over in showing him around Mason Elementary School, and they’d become inseparable. This was their first summer together, and Clara was excited to spend it with him.
“Kids! Lunch!” Stephanie called from the opened sliding glass door, stepping out onto the small patio.
“Mom?” Clara called, lifting her head just enough to see her mother. “Can me and Jason ride down to the store after we eat?”
Stephanie studied her daughter for a moment, hand on hip. “Are you going to be careful this time?” she asked, raising a pale eyebrow at the girl. “I don’t need another call from Mr. Struthers again, telling me how he nearly ended up in the ditch to avoid hitting you because you weren’t paying attention.”
“Mom! That was like, months ago!” Clara sat up, indignant at the memory.
“It doesn’t matter if it was three years ago, Clara. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Jason glanced back and forth between mother and daughter. He’d heard the entire story at school the following day, hearing how upset the old man had gotten, actually getting to of his car to yell at Clara.
‘Yes, Mom. I promise,” Clara said, rolling her eyes.
“You don’t make faces at me, and I’ll think about it,” Stephanie warned, heading back inside, effectively ending negotiations.
“Your mom’s strict,” Jason whispered, his friend nodding. “My dad lets me do whatever I want.”
“That’s ‘cause he’s never home,” Clara grumbled, getting to her feet. “Come on before she changes her mind.”
Clara sat on the seat of her blue and white Huffy dirt bike, a foot resting on one of the pedals. She rested the large blue, white and red slurpy cup on her raised knee. The neighborhood convenience store was bustling as the noon hour passed. The local workers had come out to gas up, or grab a quick lunch at the Wendy’s on the opposite end of the convenience store parking lot.
“This is so good,” Jason murmured around the straw, the other end creating a tunnel of juice in his cherry slurpy. He sucked greedily, then pulling quickly away from the drink. “Ah! Brain freeze!”
Clara giggled at her friend. He did that every time, and never seemed to learn. She watched as he set the cup down on the lid of a nearby trash can, then grabbed his head. As if that’ll do you any good, you goof, she thought, rolling her eyes.
She glanced across the parking lot, sucking slowly at her drink when she noticed someone standing near the corner of the fast food place, near the busy street beyond. He wore blue jeans, a white t-shirt and high-topped tennis shoes. He was looking right at her. Clara felt her stomach grow tight, a wave of nausea brushing through her. She couldn’t take her eyes off the man, who looked to be in his 20s. He smiled at her, then walked away, headed toward the street. She glanced further up the street, noting that a red truck was headed right for him. The man didn’t slow, or even seem to notice.
Clara’s heart began to pound, a sense of urgency gripping her. She took a step forward, about to cry out a warning, when the man faded into the warm afternoon. She started, blinking several times – still no one. The red truck blew by.
“Hey, you okay?” Jason asked, looking from his friend to the restaurant and back again. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“I did,” Clara muttered, then turned back to her cold treat.
Soon the pair were on their way back towards their neighborhood, racing each other with their sudden burst of energy from the sugar-filled slurpy. Clara jumped the curb, her Huffy taking to the air in an impressive arc before she landed on the street, her tires and pedaling feet never missing a beat. Jason was right behind her, trying to accomplish the same trick, but instead nearly falling head first into Sylvia Tanner’s prized rose bushes. He cursed softly then hurried after his friend.
The dinner table was quiet, only the scraping of forks across plate to grade on Clara’s nerves. Her parents sat on either side of her, her older sister, Kerri across from her. She glanced up at the –pre-teen, only to be nailed to the spot with a glare. To say Clara and Kerri were close would be a complete lie.
Clara was a smaller girl with the build of a bean pole, while Kerri was bigger – in every way – and used that size to her advantage. At least once a week Clara found herself stuff in the trash can outside, or some possession of her ripped out of her hands by the bully she lived with.
Clara’s gaze drifted away from the brown trying to intimidate her, and turned to her father, instead. Max was Clara’s hero. He worked long, hard hours working for a trash pick-up company. He left before dawn, and sometimes got home after dark, usually carrying some sort of “treasure” he’d found during his daily rounds. Stephanie never saw his finds the same way, and more often than not the item found its way back in the trash.
Max Greenwold was a handsome man with Clara’s same brown hair – unlike Kerri and Stephanie’s dark blonde. He had sparkling blue eyes and a dimpled smile. He looked older than his 28 years, but Clara figured that was from his long days. It was important to him that Stephanie stay home with their daughters, so he put in upwards of fifty to sixty hours a week. Clara adored her father.
“How was your day, sweetpea?” he asked, sipping from his milk.
“Good. I managed to jump higher on my bike than Jason. He wasn’t thrilled.” Clara played with her mashed potatoes with her fork.
“Don’t play with your food, Clara. Eat it,” Stephanie said absently, scooping up the last of her peas with a spoon. It was a nightly game to try and get the youngest Greenwold to eat.
“I bet Jason didn’t like that. Maybe he’ll get you tomorrow.”
“Dad! Whose side are you on?”
Max grinned. “Yours, sweetpea.”
Clara glanced around the table at her family, chewing on her lower lip. “Did you know there was a guy who died on Rigby Road?”
Even the silence seemed to screech to a halt. Three pairs of eyes were on her – one blue, two brown.
“What?” Max asked, setting his fork down.
“You’re such a freak,” Kerri muttered, turning back to her dinner.
“I said, there is a guy who died on Rigby Road.” Clara looked at both her parents, her courage beginning to wane, especially as she took in the look of disapproval from her mother. “By Wendy’s. I think he was hit by a car or something…” her voice trailed off.
“Kerri, how did your first day go, babysitting Ross and Jenny’s girls?” Stephanie asked, not even bothering to hide her discomfort with Clara’s words.
Clara felt her heart drop as did her head. She looked at her plate, no longer hungry. Anger mixed with fear topped by hurt began to fill her eyes.
“You can tell me about it later, sweetpea,” Max said softly, patting the girl’s leg under the table.
Clara looked up at him briefly before nodding and looking back at her plate.
The room was dark, only the light shining in from the streetlight at the corner – one house down – broke through the gloom. Clara lay on her bed, one hand tucked behind her head, the other resting casually across her stomach. She connected the glow-in-the-dark stars that her mother had allowed her to put on the ceiling a couple years before. They’d made constellations as well as silly designs. She smiled as she picked out her name, literally written in the stars.
Summer was almost over. It had gone so quickly. It seemed just yesterday her and Jason were wasting a day, trying to figure out what to do with their time. Jason and his father had headed out to North Dakota to see Jason’s grandparents. They had already been gone for a week, though it felt more like a year.
The day before Stephanie had taken Clara and Kerri to shop for school clothes. Clara was proud to say that she’d grown two inches over the summer. That was happy news. She wondered if she was finally taller than her friend, Michelle. Michelle and her family had left for the entire summer, so they wouldn’t see each other until the first day of school, in a week and a half.
Clara’s thoughts stopped as she felt a strange wave her in stomach. She took a deep breath, then looked away from the ceiling. Her eyes were drawn to the corner between her window and the closed closet door. She swallowed, as the shadows were thick as ever.
“Is somebody there?” she whispered, barely audible. There was no noise, no movement. Nothing. Just the nausea in her stomach, and she knew what that meant. The room was quiet, but she was still drawn to that corner.
Clara took another deep breath, then pushed the sheet off her body, sliding her legs off the side of the bed, feet hitting the carpet beneath. She stared, her breathing beginning to get heavier. She could feel her palms sweating, and rubbed them on the bedding. She fought the urge to call for her father, knowing that she’d have to deal with this herself.
“Is there-“ she gasped, muffling a soft cry when she saw movement. A shadow – quick and dark – seemed to scamper from the corner to the closet, and disappear. “I can do this,” she whispered to herself, closing her eyes for a moment and taking several breaths.
Clara pushed off the bed, her hands trembling as she took a slow step toward the closet. Her heart was pounding so loud she was worried she’d wake her parents and sister. Another step. Her scalp began to itch as it, too began to sweat. She was truly frightened.
She reached a hand out, her fingers grasping the handle of her closet door before, with one last punch of courage, she pulled it open. Clothing hanging on hangers swayed gently from the sudden exposure, but nothing else seemed amiss. Clara looked inside, pushing shirts and pants aside, only to see the white wall of the back of the closet.
Clara let out a breath, a hand gripping her chest. “This sucks,” she muttered, closing the closet door and hurrying back to her bed, where she pulled the sheet up over her head.
Weeks later, Clara was in the kitchen, preparing lunch for herself on a Sunday afternoon. Her parents were out, leaving Kerri to watch her younger sister. The older girl was in her room, reading one of the books in her endless Stephen King collection.
Clara licked the knife clean of grape jelly, then tossed it into the dishwasher. She grabbed her plate and cold can of Coke, and headed toward the round kitchen table for four that was tucked into a nook in the kitchen, near the sliding glass doors.
Plate and can set down, she pulled out a chair, ready to sit when something caught her attention. She had no idea what it was, but she found herself standing in front of the sliding glass door, looking out into the backyard. Their street backed up to an open field, a distant stream and trees beyond the open space. Her gaze fell upon their six foot privacy fence.
Barely rising above it was a face. Clara couldn’t take her eyes off it, riveted to the spot. She felt a strange mixture of fear and power surge through her. She couldn’t get a set fix on the face’s features, almost as though they were blurred somehow.
The face was attached to a figure, which began to climb the backside of the fence. Clara’s gaze moved to the support boards to the fence that were on her side, leaving the side the figure climbed smooth, nothing to hold on to. She felt her heartbeat quicken, the pulse in her throat throbbing.
Clara wanted nothing more than to slam the door shut and close the vertical blinds. She wanted to sit down and enjoy her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Coke.
“Go away,” she whispered. She sensed the face was smiling at her. Grinning, evil. “Please. Just go away.” Clara suddenly felt something charge through her, making her stand taller, and she found herself taking a step towards the sliding glass door. She met the blurred gaze of the figure. “You will not touch me,” she said, her voice strong, filled with a conviction she didn’t understand. She felt as though someone were talking through her. “Leave this place. Now!”
“Who are you talking to?”
Clara whipped around, seeing Kerri standing just inside the kitchen, looking at the younger girl with a mixture of irritation and unease.
“No one.” Clara felt ashamed as she stepped away from the door, slamming it shut. A quick glance out into the backyard proved that the figure was gone. “No one,” she said again, sitting down to eat her lunch.
“God, this is so disgusting,” Clara muttered, finishing her business, then washing her hands with soap and water. She grabbed the little toilet paper-wrapped bundle, and headed out to the garage, where the big trash can was kept. She and Kerri were not allowed to leave used sanitary products in the house trash, which Clara thought was crap. Their mother had a partial hysterectomy after Clara was born, so hadn’t had a period in thirteen years. She had forgotten what it was like to scurry outside in arctic temperatures just to toss a used tampon.
Her bare feet pounded down the three short garage stairs, dumped her package, then scurried back up into the warm house. It was late October, and temperatures had begun to sink into the low depths of cold. Their first snow was predicted for the following night.
“Hey, freak, help me clear the table,” Kerri said as Clara passed by the dining room door.
“Kerri, don’t call your sister names!” their dad called from the family room, where he was taking in the news.
Clara stuck her tongue out at her sister, glad her father had stepped in for her. The older girl glared and continued to do her job.
The girls had what was officially called the Work Chart, but the Greenwold sisters secretly called the Slave Chart. They had assigned duties that had to be completed before bed – before homework, even – every night. This week Kerri had dishes duty while Clara had to vacuum and clean the bathroom the girls shared.
“Sorry,” Clara said sweetly. “Not my job. So says the Work Chart.” She chuckled as she heard Kerri outright growl at her. The teen continued into the family room, plopping down next to Max. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Hey, sweetpea. Just more bad news.” Max Greenwold sighed, watching Tom Brokaw explain about a failing economy and vicious attacks in foreign lands.
“Sounds interesting. I guess. Why aren’t you watching TGIF?”
“Uhh…” Max looked at his daughter in confusion.
“Thank God It’s Friday. All the good shows are on. Family Matters. Mr. Belvedere... Ring a bell?”
“Not exactly, Clara. This is the first night I’ve been home before nine this month. I’m watching the news.”
“Okay.” Clara sighed, knowing from his tone that she wasn’t going to win this battle with her father. The family room television being the only one in the house, she was either stuck watching Tom Brokaw, or she would have to entertain herself in another way. She was about to choose “another way” when a story came on the news about a young mother who had been missing for nearly a month. Speculation was that she’d run away with an old boyfriend.
Clara watched the images and listened to the details of the case, riveted. Deep in her mind, she heard a voice. It was almost like her own thought, but not, somehow. She’s dead. The little baby, too.
Max glanced over at his youngest, noting the look of pure concentration on her face. “What’s wrong, sweetpea?”
“She’s dead. The woman. She didn’t run off with the guy. Her baby, too,” Clara said, and it was only after she uttered the words that she realized she’d even spoken.
“What? Who? That lady?” Max pointed to the screen, which was changing from a picture of the young woman back to Tom Brokaw. Clara nodded. “How do you know that?”
Clara realized what she’d said, and realized it was wrong. “Nothing! Never mind, Dad, I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.”
“Wait, no.” Max turned in his seat so he was facing the girl, his gaze focused only on her. “How do you know that, Clara?”
Clara felt awkward under his close scrutiny, and though she loved and trusted her father above anyone else – except maybe Jason – she knew she couldn’t fully trust him with this. “Dad, please just forget I said anything.” She looked down at her hands, which fidgeted in her lap.
Instead of answering, Max got up from the couch and left the room, leaving his daughter to breathe in a sigh of relief. It was short-lived, however, as he returned within moments. He held a deck of playing cards.
“Honey, I want to try something. Okay?”
Clara nodded, uneasy. She eyed the cards, which he’d removed from the box, and had begun to shuffle in large, hard-worked hands.
“Okay. Here we go.” Max had had his suspicions about Clara for years, and wanted to prove something to himself – and to her – that night. He shuffled the deck to his liking, then set them down on his thigh, face down. Plucking the top card in his fingertips, he looked at it, sure to keep it so Clara couldn’t see the face. “What is this card, Clara?” he asked, his voice quiet. Stephanie wasn’t home tonight, having gone to help a neighbor bake for the woman’s daughter’s upcoming wedding, so they were safe. He just hoped if Kerri came into the room, she’d keep her mouth shut.
Clara took a deep breath and looked at the card, noting the picture on the back: a half-naked woman grinning rakishly. She grinned, blushing slightly as she looked away. She pushed the image out of her mind, and tried to concentrate on what her father was asking her to do. Closing her eyes, she pushed open her mind, trying to stare into the deep black void she saw there. A void that she knew would open up and show her things. Images, voices, and information. All she had to do was listen.
“It’s the ace of spades,” she said quietly, still seeing the bold card before her mind’s eye.
Max knew what the card was, but he couldn’t help but look at it again. He was amazed when he spotted the large, proud black ace. “Okay. This one?” He didn’t react, not wanting to frighten the girl. Holding up another card, he studied the thirteen year old.
Clara saw the card form. “Two of hearts,” she said, not even bothering to open her eyes.
“And this?” Max was trying to keep the excitement out of his voice as he held up a third card.
“Nine of diamonds.”
Max’s grin was a mile wide. He decided to try something. Grabbing the box the cards had come in, he tipped it until a card slid into his palm. He held it up. “This?”
Clara’s brow creased as she tried to get a feel for the new card. Nothing would come to her mind. Eyes still closed, she reached out and took it, holding it sandwiched between her palms. She’d found that it was easier to pick up on an object’s energy if she touched it. She concentrated, waiting for the images to come. Her eyes opened, a smirk on her lips. “Very funny, Dad.” She handed the card back to him, the face of it facing him. “It’s one of the jokers.”
“Yes!” Max took the card, the colorful image of a man juggling while riding a unicycle grinning at him. He grabbed the girl in his excitement, hugging her tight.
Clara took in the affection and approval like a starving man dying for food.
“What’s all the excitement about?” Kerri asked, stepping into the room, drying her hands on a dishtowel.
“Kerri! Come here, watch this.”
Stephanie Greenwold dried the last pan. Personally, she thought her friend was nuts for volunteering to bake all the goods for her daughter’s wedding, but each to their own. Stephanie swore that in another life she had been a baker or chef. She loved to cook, and was pretty damn good at it.
“Is that the last of it?” Paula Abbott asked, looking around her kitchen, hands on hips.
“Yep. We’ve got it all.” Stephanie sighed, tired from the long day. She was just glad her girls were older now, and at 16, Kerri could easily watch Clara. “I better get home, though.
“Okay. Thank you so much for your help.” Paula gave her friend a quick hug, then walked her to the door. “You guys are still coming Saturday, right?”
“After all this baking,” Stephanie said, indicating the pilled containers of baked goods. “You bet your ass we’ll be there!”
Paula was still chuckling as she closed the locked the door behind the other younger woman.
Stephanie walked across the street, slightly irritated to see every light on in her house. Extra electricity cost money they didn’t have. She wished Max would back her up on some of these things. He was just as wasteful as the girls, though. Undoubtedly, he’s where they got it.
Letting herself into the house, Stephanie turned off lights as she went, noting that the kitchen wasn’t finished yet, and it was nearly nine-thirty! They’d eaten at seven. She heard laughter and clapping from the family room, and curious, went to check it out.
“That’s amazing!” Kerri laughed, shaking her head in stunned shock. Her little sister had just found out what Kerri’s boyfriend, Ryan’s favorite color was, what he ate for breakfast, and where his parents bought his car, just from holding the letterman jacket he’d given to Kerri. “How do you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Clara grinned, handing the heavy jacket back to her sister. “Things just come to me.”
“Try these.” Max had bundled the playing cards back into their box, and handed it to Clara just as Stephanie made her presence known.
Clara took the cards in her hand, but before she could fully concentrate on what she was seeing, she looked up to meet the hardened gaze of her mother. She felt panicky butterflies begin to fly around, and her heart sink. She knew it was time to head back into the closet.
“Hey,” Max said, trying to sound as nonchalant as he could. Kerri gathered up her boyfriend’s letterman, sheepishly heading upstairs with it to put it away. “How was the baking?”
“It was good.” Stephanie took in the room. “What’s going on here? Why didn’t Kerri finish with the dishes?”
“Aw, Honey, we were just having some fun. No biggie.”
Stephanie felt a pang of panic and fear niggle at her gut, but swallowed it down. There was no reason to make a fuss over things. “Kerri,” she said, as the older girl came back down the stairs. “Please finish the dishes. Clara, finish up your homework. I know you have that big report due Wednesday. I doubt you want homework over the weekend.”
“Okay.” Silently, Clara headed up the stairs, deck of cards still in her hand. She wanted to look at the pictures.
Max couldn’t meet his wife’s eyes as he turned his attention to the muted television. He grabbed the remote, turning the sound back on, and continued watching his program.
Stephanie sat beside him in silence until Kerri finished up with the dishes, then reported she was heading over to her friend, Kathy’s house for the night. Stephanie glanced over at her husband, and could tell he was angry at her. She chewed on her bottom lip before taking a deep breath and speaking her mind.
“What were you doing, Max? Why are you encouraging this?”
“I’m not encouraging anything, Steph.” He met her gaze. “The girl has a gift. Why do you refuse to see that?”
“Because it’s not a healthy one. It’ll cause her pain and fear in the end, Max, and you know that.”
“No, I don’t know that. And you don’t, either. She’s not you, Stephanie. She’s not you, living with an aunt and uncle who didn’t want you in the first place, and called everything you did evil. She has a mother and a father who love her, who support her – at least should support her,” he said, eyeing his wife, “and who has a right to be who she is. It’s not fair what you’re doing, and it’s not right.”
Stephanie lowered her voice, not wanting to chance Clara hearing. “Max, I know what she’s capable of. What she sees, and what she can do. It can be very dark, and I will not encourage that in my house. In our house, with our family. We’ve got Kerri to think about, too.”
“Steph,” Max said, taking on his wife’s lower tone, “she did nothing tonight but a few cool parlor tricks. It’s not like the kid was about to start vomiting pea soup with her head spinning.”
“It’s all connected, Max. You don’t know the kinds of dark forces that can come trough with her fun ‘parlor tricks’. It all comes from the same place. The same source.”
“Well,” Max said, pushing to his feet and clicking off the TV with the remote. “I’m not going to damn her. But, I am going to bed. Good night, Stephanie.”
Clara sat on her bed, the deck of cards tossed to the comforter beside her, forgotten. Though she was slightly nervous about what her mom would say, she couldn’t help but think back to the surprising turn of the evening and smile. For the first time she was able to use her abilities in front of her family, without them calling her names or rolling their eyes, or flat out changing the subject altogether.
It had felt wonderful! She felt exhilarated, validated, and completely happy. Even Kerri – who thought she was a waste of human space – had been impressed. What Clara hadn’t told her sister and father was that she had seen much, much more when holding Ryan’s jacket. Clara’s grin widened: great blackmail material.
Clara reached out blindly until she felt the cool cardboard box the deck of cards were wrapped in, and grabbed it. She held it up, looking at the woman on the front of the box. She couldn’t help but wonder where her father had gotten the cards, and why she’d never seen them before. The half-naked woman looked like a pin-up girl from the 1940s – blonde hair, voluptuous curves.
“Dad, you devil,” she grinned, enjoying the view. She held the cards between her palms, concentrating on what she felt and what images were brought to mind. She relaxed, allowing her mind to once more reach out, feeling the energy that was left upon the cards by their owner.
Clara sensed her father’s energy, could almost smell his cologne. A quick flicker of an image raced across her mind – his smile. She saw the dimples winking before they vanished. Clara’s breathing hitched a bit as she felt a warm blush flow through her, and for a moment she felt embarrassed, as though she had inadvertently stumbled across a memory between her parents that she really did not want to see. But then occurred to her that it wasn’t her mother’s energy she felt at all.
Dark hair. Long, dark hair.
Stephanie Greenwold had medium-length blonde hair.
Carla’s eyes flew open, the cards tumbling from her fingers. She sat up, staring at them with wide eyes. She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a knock at her door. Taking a deep breath, she called out an invite to enter. The door opened, her father’s head peeking around it.
“Hey, sweetpea. You still up?”
“Uh, yeah, Dad. It’s barely ten.”
“True.” Max opened the door wide enough to step through and moved to the side off Clara’s bed. She was unable to look him in the eye as the truth of what she’d seen from his cards hit her. Dad’s been with another woman. “I just wanted to stop by and say goodnight. And to thank you.”
She looked at him, surprised. “Thank me? For what?”
“For sharing that with me tonight. Definitely more entertaining than Tom Brokaw.”
Clara couldn’t help but smile at that. “Yeah, but not as entertaining as TGIF.”
“I don’t know about that.” Max sat on the edge of her bed, his youngest scooting over to make room. “But I do appreciate it. I know your mom can be difficult about this stuff, and I know she doesn’t understand it.” He met her gaze, his blue eyes filled with love and caring. “I don’t understand it, either, really, but I do understand that it’s a part of you. You don’t have to hide it from me. Okay?”
She nodded, nearly moved to tears. “Thank you.” She sat up fully and gave him a big hug, staying in his arms and resting her cheek on his shoulder. “Dad?”
“Hmm?” Max asked, relishing the feel of the daughter that he knew in his heart would always be his favorite, no matter how wrong it was to choose between the two.
“Are you and mom okay? Like, doing okay?”
Max felt his blood run cold. He pulled back, concern in his eyes and studied Clara for a moment. “Yeah, we’re fine. Why?”
Clara smiled, not wanting him to feel bad, or to worry. “No reason. Just wondering, is all.” She reached around herself and grabbed the cards, holding them out to him. “Here are your cards.”
“Thanks.” He tucked them into the pocket in his shirt then looked deeply into the girl’s eyes. “You always had the most beautiful eyes, Clara. Your grandma used to say you had eyes the color Elizabeth Taylor’s. She was a huge fan.”
“Of my eyes or of Liz Taylor?”
Max chuckled. “Both. I think you got such a different shade because it matches you. What you see.”
“I see a lot, Dad,” Clara said softly, looking him in the eye.
Max had to look away. He wasn’t sure if guilt was eating at him, or the intensity of Clara’s stare was making him uncomfortable. “I know you do.” He gave her a quick kiss on top of the head then got to his feet. “I’m beat. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, too, sweetpea.” With a final smile and wave, Max was gone, leaving his daughter to wonder at life.
Clara heard the warning too late as the soccer ball sailed through the air into the stands, smacking her dead center in the back of the head. She fell face-first, barely having the clarity to land on her hands and knees on the hard cement of the high school stadium.
“Ah, shit, Clara! You okay?” Jason hurried over to his friend, squatting beside her.
“Jason, I think the sky is falling,” she muttered, sitting back on her knees and bringing a hand to the throbbing goose egg that was already forming on the back of her head. She looked at her fingers, relieved to see there was no blood.
“Oh my god! Are you okay?”
Clara looked up to see who was speaking to her, but instead what she saw was the face of an angel. She stood next to the speaker, her blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Green eyes surveyed the scene, then landed on Clara.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked again.
Clara realized there was a tall African American girl standing next to the blonde, who was looking at Clara with deep brown, concerned eyes.
“I think so,” Clara said, falling back onto her butt. The world seemed to get a little fuzzy around the edges as she teetered on the edge of consciousness.
Stephanie and Kerri Greenwold ran down the hospital corridor, the younger still dressed in her soccer practice outfit. Since she’d borrowed her mother’s car that day, she had left the high school fields as soon as Clara had been loaded into the ambulance, and had run home to gather their mother and take them to St. Mary’s.
The woman at the ER counter was less than helpful, but then Kerri spotted fellow teammates, Tanisha and Abby, as well as Clara’s friend Jason.
“Over here, Mom.” Kerri led the shaken mother over to the friends who sat quietly together, though Jason looked about as uncomfortable as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Stephanie was relieved to see her younger daughter’s friend, knowing he’d know what happened. “Jason!” She hurried over to the boy, sitting next to him while Kerri joined her friends. “What happened?”
“A missile – otherwise known as a well kicked soccer ball – hit her in the head. She passed out on us,” he explained calmly.
Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief, flopping back in the chair. “Is she alright?”
Jason shrugged. “Guess so.”
“I am so sorry,” Tanisha said to Kerri, her eyes filling with tears. “I didn’t mean to hit her.”
“I know. It’s okay.” Kerri squeezed the frightened girl’s hand in understanding and support.
Clara looked around, not sure where she was. She found herself in a strange place, not really inside, but not exactly outside, either. The air around her was light with a golden, rose hued tint to it. Looking around, she could see nothing around her. No objects, no furniture, scenery. Nothing.
Voices. She tried to figure out which direction they were coming from. A woman. No, two women, but she sensed a man, too.
“I think it’s time. I’m going to take her to the next level,” one woman said, her voice soft and pleasing to the ear.
“I think that’s wise. A good plan,” said the other, her voice a bit deeper, words somewhat clipped.
Clara walked toward where she thought the voices came from, realizing there was a wall there. She almost had the feeling that she wasn’t supposed to be hearing those words, or wasn’t supposed to be where she was, though she had no idea where she was. Footfalls. Clara froze, listening as someone approached her.
Crap! She tried to find a place to hide, not wanting to be found lurking and listening. She stopped again, becoming aware of her body.
Clara felt torn, lying on the hospital gurney in the ER, well aware of her body lying there, her head pounding where it had been hit by the soccer ball. Even so, she was very well aware of the other place, with its golden rose hue. She could still hear the footfalls, yet she could hear the nurse moving around in her little curtained off cubicle.
What the heck?
Clara became aware that the person – one of the women, she suspected – was about to round the corner and show herself from behind the wall. She glanced down to the floor, noting the beginning of a foot.
“Welcome back, Clara. You gave us quite a scare.”
Clara blinked several times, disoriented, her stomach feeling slightly nauseas. She glanced to her right and saw the nurse standing next to her bed, smiling down at her, even as she scribbled something down onto a chart.
“Do you know where you’re at?”
“Not really,” Clara muttered, bringing a hand up to rub at her eyes. “The ER.”
“Good. How many fingers am I holding up?” the nurse asked, holding up three fingers.
“Excellent.” The older woman smiled then pushed the curtain aside for her to pass. “The doctor will be with you in a sec,” then she was gone.
Clara lifted her head to look around her, but regretted it immediately. She groaned, lying it back down on the thin, paper-covered pillow. “Ow.”
As she lay there, she thought back to what she’d just experienced. Somehow she felt like she either should know where she’d been, or did know where she was. She could see it all very clearly: the space she’d been in, the voices she’d heard. The feel of the environment, and she also knew that she hadn’t been dreaming. Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard her mother’s voice getting closer.
The curtain spread open as Stephanie made her way into the cubicle, followed by a worried-looking Kerri.
“They said you were awake,” Stephanie said, leaning down and kissing her daughter’s forehead then taking her hand. Kerri took up residence on the opposite side of the gurney. “How are you, sweetie?”
“I’ll live. I think. Head hurts pretty bad, though.”
“Yeah, you got hit pretty hard,” Kerri said. “Tanisha is here. She feels terrible.”
“Eh. I got a hard head,” Clara tried to dismiss, even though she felt like she wanted to puke.
“The nurse said she thinks you’ve got a concussion.” Stephanie peered into her daughter’s violet eyes, judging one against the other. “Your pupils are dilated.”
“She probably does, then,” Kerri assessed, also looking into her sister’s eyes.
Their speculations were cut short when the curtain was once again moved aside as the doctor entered. He smiled and greeted everyone before turning his attention to the patient lying in the middle of the bed.
Clara endured his attention, her mother doing her best to hold her hand the entire time. She found out she would live, though Stephanie was instructed to keep Clara in bed for the rest of the day, and to keep an eye on her, waking her every hour to ensure no damage was done from the concussion.
Armed with a prescription for a good pain medication, Clara was released from the care of St. Mary’s ER.
The entire group sat at Dairy Queen, Tanisha insisting on buying Clara ice cream as a peace offering. Clara sat across from Kerri and Tanisha’s friend and fellow teammate, Abby Jensen. The blonde had barely said two words during their entire visit, instead concentrating on picking at her Oreo Blizzard. Once in awhile she’d glance up, her green gaze catching Clara’s shy smile. The girl obviously had something on her mind.
Before Clara could censor her thoughts, her mouth opened and she spoke, the words soft. “I know you’re worried, but your grandma will be fine.”
Abby’s head flew up, her eyes wide. “What?”
“She’ll pull through the surgery just fine.”
“How did you know about that?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing.
Silence filled the table for a moment as everyone stared a Clara. She felt herself shrink, wanting to fit inside her Peanut Buster Parfait cup.
“Ignore her, Abby. She’s a freak,” Kerri said.
Clara glared over at her sister, hurt and embarrassed. How could Kerri sit there so smug, calling her names when she’d enjoyed Clara’s gifts more than once to get answers or clarification on things? It stung.
“We all ready to go, here?” Stephanie asked brightly.
Clara dumped her half-eaten treat, following the group out to the parking lot, Jason walking beside her.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “Kerri’s the freak, not you.”
Clara nodded, less than convinced. She had shared some of her abilities with her best friend over the past year, as they’d developed more and more. He knew how her family was about them – well, her mother, anyway – and he never judged her or called her down.
“Thanks, Jason.” He rammed his shoulder playfully into his, eliciting a small smile.
Very few knew the fact that Clara was quickly coming the realization of. She liked girls. She’d kept it to herself, not even telling Jason about it. Girls occupied her thoughts day and night. She would listen to Jason extolling the virtues of “this hot chick,” or “that hot chick” and wonder why she couldn’t extol away with him.
What was wrong with her? Why so much… different. Clara felt like she carried a big burden in her young life, then in the same instant, thought she was being quite melodramatic. The hardest part of the whole thing was she had no one to talk to. About either thing!
Sometime – at the risk of her own life – she’d sneak into Kerri’s room and snag one of her romance novels. While under the cover of darkness, Clara would read the stories by moonlight, skipping over the boring parts so she could have the book done in a night and returned to Kerri’s room. Her older sister thus far was none the wiser. The thing was, when she’d look at the covers of the cheesy Harlequin novels, she would take in the pictures of the half-naked women with huge, feasting eyes. She’d take in their heaving breasts, bodice of their dressed usually torn open, or they were so busy that their garments seemed to strain at the seams. Never once would she spare a glance for the handsome pirate or rogue who was essentially molesting them.
Instead what she’d do was finish the book, return it to a sleep Kerri’s room, then head back to her own bed, lie there and stare up at her ceiling. She’d replay the steamiest scenes in her mind’s eye, replacing the gallant hero with herself. Then, somehow it made sense that she’d lust after the buxom beauty. If she could transform herself into the pirate, or the scoundrel trying to take over the beauty’s family land. Or, even if she saw herself as the sweet, caring Sheriff in a town full of bad guys, who finally wins the hand of the new veterinarian in town, her own feelings could make more sense to her. That is, until the light of day made her hide in the corners of the locker room at school, her back intentionally to her classmates so she wouldn’t feel awkward or embarrassed.
Clara felt very alone in a world of fourteen year old girls who seemed to know who they were, for the most part. Seemed to know where they fit in their families, in school, and even in their after school activities. It seemed the only two people in Clara’s world who halfway understood her – or tried – was Jason and her father.
Max. Clara sighed, sitting alone in a park on a swing. She absently twisted the swing to and fro, resting her head against a hand that gripped the thick chain. She had pushed out of her mind what she’d discovered the year before, while holding his deck of cards. She’d never said anything, had never touched the cards again, even though she knew where he kept them – out in his workshop in the garage.
Why would he do something so awful to his family? To his wife? She thought of her mother, was able to see her smile in her mind’s eye. She knew that Stephanie Greenwold wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with: she could be narrow minded, stubborn, and certainly a forceful clean freak, but when it boiled down to it, Stephanie loved her family. She loved her daughters, and she loved her husband. She was big-hearted. So why was Clara’s father cheating with another woman?
He had started coming home from work later and later. He’d always been a hard worker, working long days. But he’d never taken clothes with him to change into. He said it was because he was tired of smelling like a trash heap, and didn’t want the car to smell, either.
Clara knew better. She thought her mother did, too. She would see the look on Stephanie’s face when she glanced at the clock, and the time would get later and later. Her lips would purse, and the little crinkle of anxiety would form between her brows.
“He’ll be home soon,” she’d say, almost as if to convince herself. “I just know it.”
It was getting late, so Clara jumped off the swing and picked up her ten speed fro where she’d laid it on the ground. She looked around the park, marveling at the beautiful colors in the sky as the sun began to set. She knew without glancing at her watch that it was nearly seven-thirty. Would her father beat her home?
Clara used the sprayer to clean out the sink, then wiped down the counters and kitchen table. It was her week on dish duty. She noticed the garbage sitting in the corner of the room, and groaned inwardly. It was her father’s job to take it out, but he wasn’t home yet, and she knew her mother would make her do it, anyway.
The neighborhood was well dark by time she heaved the Hefty sack over her shoulder and headed outside. The garbage cans were out by the curb, as garbage day was the following morning. She held her breath as she lifted the can lid, then tossed the bag inside, slamming the plastic lid back down into place.
She started back up the driveway to the house when she stopped, perking her ears to listen. There it was again… Clara whirled around, looking to see if Jason was hiding somewhere, whispering her name. His house was darkened, as it should have been, considering him and his dad were in North Dakota with Jason’s grandparents.
“What? Who’s there?” She felt a chill run down the length of her spine, settling in the pit of her stomach, which began to flow with slight nausea.
Beginning to really feel frightened, Clara turned back towards the house, intending to run full speed ahead. She stopped dead in her tracks. Standing off in shadows, near the gate that led to the backyard, a woman stood, looking at her. Clara felt her heart clench, and her legs grow weak.
I won’t hurt you, Clara.
The woman was beautiful, with dark hair – nearly black – that just barely reached her shoulders. It was all one length, the bangs pulled back away from her face. Her eyes were dark, the skin seemingly smooth and somewhat pale. She held no malice in her gaze, but Clara still felt an acute need to run.
Not willing to stay for a second longer, Clara barely touched the ground as she ran for the front door, her heart pounding painfully in her chest, every hair on her body standing on end. It was only when she had the front door safely closed and locked behind her that she was able to take a full breath.
“You okay?” Kerri asked, passing on her way toward the staircase. Clara couldn’t speak, so merely nodded. Kerri shrugged, figuring it was just another moment of weirdness from her sister, and continued on her way.
It was after eleven, and Clara still waiting on the stairs. Stephanie and Kerri had gone up to bed more than an hour before, but Clara knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. Not until he was home. She sat with her knees spread, her hands dangling between them, her father’s deck of cards in her hands. She shuffled and re-shuffled, trying to keep her hands busy and her mind blank.
Finally, the familiar sound of her father’s car pulling into the drive. The engine cut out, a door opened then slammed shut, and finally, his key in the front door lock. The door swung open, and a slightly disheveled Max stepped through. He looked very surprised to see his youngest waiting for him.
“Hey, sweetpea,” he smiled, heading up towards her. “What are you still doing up? Don’t you have a test tomorrow, or something?”
“That’s kind of hard when we’re on summer break, Dad,” she said dryly, not willing to latch on to his lame attempt at a joke. She stopped shuffling the cards and fanned them out, offering one to him. “Pick one.”
Max looked slightly annoyed, as he was tired, but humored Clara and studied the cards before picking on, just to the left of the center of the semi-circle of cards. He knew the drill, so pressed the face of the card against his leg so Clara couldn’t sneak a peek.
“My guess is you drew the Queen of Hearts,” Clara drawled, unable to find any satisfaction in her father’s shock as he looked at his card. “Or should I say, Queen of broken Hearts?” She was tired of seeing the pain in her mother’s eyes, and the humiliation and embarrassment Clara, herself felt every time she saw her parents together. Why pretend?
“What?” Max asked, handing the card back.
“You wanna know what card I think you should have drawn instead?” Clara asked, ignoring her father’s confusion.
“What’s that?” he asked, unsure how to take his daughter’s low, quiet tone. It seemed very unlike her.
“Not a heart, not a diamond, not a spade or a club. You should have drawn from the suit they forgot to add to the deck. You should have drawn the Jack of Assholes card.”
Max was taken aback, mouth falling open. “Who do you think you are, Clara? Talking to me that way. What did I do?”
Clara once again ignored his words, and handed him the deck of cards for a second time. “Do the right thing, Dad,” she said softly, standing from the step. “Win back my respect.” She turned to head upstairs, “and mom’s.” With that, she headed down the upstairs hall to her bedroom, closing the door softly behind her.
Careful what you wish for. Those words kept going round and round in Clara’s head. Careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. She sat on the porch swing, watching as box after box was carried out of the house, and set in the bed of her father’s truck.
It had been two weeks since Clara had confronted her father on the stairs. They had avoided each other for a few days after that, but then by the following weekend, she had come home to find her parents sitting at the dining room table, a wad of used tissues lying on the table between them.
As Clara watched her mother carrying one last box out to the waiting truck, she knew that the woman wanted nothing more than to break down and beg Max to stay. Ultimately, as much as Stephanie might be hurting right now, Clara knew she’d been hurting a hell of a lot more knowing that her husband was unhappy, and that unhappiness had driven him to stray.
Kerri hurried out of the house, down to her father, nearly knocking him over with her exuberant hug. Clara watched, almost feeling detached as the scene unfolded. She could tell Kerri was crying, and their father was doing his best to try and soothe her. He gently pushed Kerri into the care of her mother’s awaiting arms, Max’s gaze finding Clara’s.
Clara could feel herself grow cold as he made his way up to where she sat, legs curled up against her chest. She wanted to pretend she didn’t see him, but knew that would only buy her a couple moments before she had to face him.
“Hey,” he said, his voice quiet. Clara looked up at him, but said nothing. He sat on the swing beside her, the chair wobbling crazily for a moment at his added weight. “I know you’re mad at me, and I understand that.” He paused, studying his beloved Clara’s face, trying to get her to meet his gaze. When she wouldn’t, he continued. “I’m really sorry, sweetpea. I know it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you right now, but I promise – someday it will.”
Clara said nothing, biting her tongue so hard it nearly burst. She was trying to keep her emotions in, not wanting to cry in front of him, even though what she wanted most was for her daddy to hold her and tell her everything would be okay.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?” Max asked, his voice catching slightly.
Clara looked over at him, her face reddening as she tried to hold in her heartbreak. “Goodbye.”
Max bit his lower lip, able to feel the hurt washing off his daughter in waves. He knew better than to push her, so simply nodded and pushed up from the swing. “take care, Clara. I love you.”
Clara forced her lips to stay closed, as she felt he didn’t deserve to know she loved him, too. She watched as he walked away from her, heading towards his truck. The image began to wash away as her tears finally fell.
Dinner was a somber affair as Clara picked at her food. Stephanie had been softly crying off and on all day, and Kerri tried to ignore it all, her nose stuck in one of her books.
Clara chased her carrots around her plate before dunking them in her mashed potatoes. Meatloaf, carrots and mashed potatoes – with tons of butter – was her favorite dish of her mother’s, and the one she’d requested for that night, yet she couldn’t make herself eat it. She gave a surreptitious glance over to her father’s empty chair, then quickly looked away again. Was all of this her fault? Maybe if she hadn’t said anything to him. If she hadn’t given him an ultimatum. Would he still be there? Late, but at least he’d be there. Right?
“Can I be excused?” she asked softly, glancing up at her mother. Stephanie never took her eyes off her own barely-touched plate, simply nodded. Clara carried her plate to the kitchen, dumping the remains into the trash, and placed the plate in the sink.
Clara was glad to get away from the doom and gloom that had permeated her childhood home. Her father had been gone for an entire day, and his absence was felt acutely. Flopping down on her bed, Clara stared up at the ceiling, covered in shadows as the sun fell to end another day. Clara’s only solace was that Jason and his dad would be heading home the following morning. She needed him.
The road is long, the pavement beginning to come to life as the day begins. Mile after mile, the dotted white lines blurring into a fuzzy line between the lanes. Content with a newly-eaten fast food breakfast in his belly, he looks out the passenger window, watching the scenery as it flies by.
“Can I change the radio station, Dad?” he asks, tired of listening to his father’s favored country music.
“Sure, Jay. Go for it. Just none of that rap crap. ‘Cause remember –“
“I know, I know. You can’t have C-R-A-P without R-A-P.”
“You got it.”
He fiddled with the radio knob, getting a whole lot of static. “I think we’re between areas where I can get a signal.”
“Alright. Put in a tape.”
He unbuckled his seatbelt, twisting his body so he could reach between the bucket seats of the Buick, and grab the cassette tape holder – a black, plastic case that held twenty – and dragged it onto his lap as he got re-settled in the front seat.
“Buckle up, kid.”
“Yeah, hang on. I’m trying to find that Ozzy Osborne tape.”
A loud POP rocked the early morning, the car suddenly jerking violently to the left as the shredded tire tossed pieces of rubber out onto the highway. He tried to hold onto the wheel, but the car was out of his control, and sliding along sideways.
The crash of glass.
Clara bolted awake, her eyes wide, sweat soaking her t-shirt to her chest. She was gasping for breath as she looked around her bedroom. She tried to calm herself when memory came back to her, and she saw the dream all over again.
“Jason!” she gasped, throwing the sheet off her and hitting the floor at nearly a dead run. She pounded down the stairs, tripping over a throw rug placed at the bottom. She hissed at the rug burn on her knees, but was immediately up and running again.
Stephanie nearly jumped out of her skin, dumping coffee from the cup that had been raised halfway to her mouth in the process. “Clara! Slow down! Where’s the fire?”
“Where’s the phone?” Clara hurried over to where the cordless phone was usually kept. Not there. She turned, frantically looking around the kitchen. “Where’s the phone?”
“What’s wrong, Clara? You’re scaring me.” Stephanie put her coffee cup down, and was about to get out of her seat in concern.
“Jason. I gotta call Jason,” Clara said absently, hurrying out of the room to check the family room.
“Wait! Why?” Stephanie followed Clara’s panicked trail. “Honey, do you have any idea what time of the morning it is?”
Clara glanced at the Grandfather clock standing in the corner of the dining room. “Yeah, it’s four-ten,” she said resuming her search.
“Exactly. You’re not calling Jason in the middle of the night.”
“But, I have to!” the girl cried, turning on her mother. “I have to warn him.”
“I just… dam it! Where’s the phone?!”
“I think Kerri had it last.” Stephanie put a hand on Clara’s arm, stopping her from jetting back up the stairs. “Clara, stop. Stop right now.” She waited until she had the girl’s attention. “Now, like a human being, tell me what’s going on.”
Clara took several deep breaths, then looked at her mother, trying to keep her irritation in check. “I had a dream. Their tire blew, and Jason wasn’t wearing his seatbelt because he hates country music. I have to warn him!”
Stephanie blinked several times, trying to figure out what her daughter was talking about. “Honey, it was just a dream. A bad dream, but a dream. Okay?”
“No, Mom. I need to call him. I have to warn them.” Clara tried to get past her again, but Stephanie tightened her hold.
“Clara, stop! You had a nightmare, and you need to calm down. You’re going to scare the hell out of Jason and his dad, calling them this early to tell him about a bad dream.”
“And what if the dream is true? What if it was real?”
“It wasn’t, honey.” Stephanie brushed a strand of brown hair out of Clara’s eyes. “It’s been a bad couple of days, sweetie, and you’re tired. I don’t think any of us have had a good night’s sleep in a week. Obviously, I’m up at four in the morning.”
Clara sighed, calmed. Her mother was probably right, although she still had a sick feeling in her stomach. “Can I call him when I get up?”
“Yeah, sweetie. You can call him then.” Stephanie placed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “Go to bed, Clara. Get some rest.”
The phone rang for the fourth time, Clara’s impatient foot tapping along with the irritating shrillness. “Come on,” she muttered. “Answer, already.” She glanced at the torn piece of paper Jason had given her before he left, his grandparents’ number scrawled on it. She checked the number for the third time as she hadn’t gotten an answer yet. She’d been trying for the past hour. “Damn.”
Clara clicked the power button on the cordless and tossed the handset to the couch. Kerri, who was sprawled out on the loveseat reading, glanced over at her.
“Maybe they took Jason and his dad to breakfast before they left or something,” Kerri offered during a rare time of actually trying to be helpful.
Clara glanced at her, a tiny amount of relief flooding into her, as what her sister said actually made sense. “Maybe.” She glanced at the clock to see that it was ten o’clock their time, noon where Jason was. “You’d think they’d be back by now, though. The grandparents. Jason and his dad have a long drive ahead of them. Wouldn’t you think they’d be gone by now?”
Kerri shrugged. “Who knows, Clara. Maybe the grandparents had stuff to do after they left. Did you leave a message?”
“No. I think they’re the only people left on the planet who don’t have an answering machine.”
“Oh. That sucks.” With those last brilliant words of observation, Kerri turned back to her reading.
Clara rolled her eyes and left the room. She couldn’t shake the unease of her dream, but knew there was nothing she could do about it, so went in search of her mother. It wasn’t long before she found her, sitting at the kitchen table, the newspaper spread out before her. She held a red ink pen in one hand, the other wrapped around the handle of a mug of coffee.
“What are you doing?” Clara asked, plopping down in a chair across from her mother.
“Looking for a job,” Stephanie said absently, bringing the pen to a midway point on the page and drawing a quick red circle around a squared off ad.
“Why?” Clara felt a sudden surge of panic rush through her. In all her fourteen years, her mother had never worked. She’d always been there when they’d left for school in the morning, and then when they’d returned at night. At one time the girl had thought it might be kind of cool to have that time alone after school, like a lot of her friends did, but now, faced with it, she wasn’t so sure.
Stephanie looked up at her daughter. She looked about as awful as she felt: hair hanging around her face in unwashed strands. Her eyes were puffy and red, the skin of her face pale and tight from too many nights of crying. As was typical for her when stressed, she’d lost her appetite, so her t-shirt hung on her shoulder blades, almost as though it had been draped over a chair.
“Because we need money, Clara,” she said, a tad more harshly than she’d intended. Immediately she felt bad. She dropped the pen and reached across the table to cover her youngest’s hand with her own. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. “Your dad has always been the bread winner, honey, but now he’s gone.”
“You know he’s not going to let us go under,” Clara pointed out, trying to sound every bit the wise adult that she was not.
Stephanie shrugged. “So he says, but these situations can get nasty. I don’t want you girls to think badly of your dad, but you just never know. I’d rather play it safe than sorry. Besides,” she said with a heavy, coffee-scented sigh, “I think it’s best for me to get out of this house.” She ran a hand through her hair, grimacing at the oily feel.
“Probably best,” Clara agreed. An idea hit her. She pushed back from the table, the chair screeching against the tile. Grabbing her mother’s coffee cup, she took it over to the sink, dumping the cold contents and rinsing it out. She then gathered up the newspaper, ignoring her mother’s protests. “Come on, Mom.” She grabbed Stephanie’s hand, tugging her out of the chair. “Go get showered and dressed. “We’re going out.”
Stephanie got to her feet, but pulled her hand away. “Sweetie, that’s sweet, but we can’t. I need to conserve-“
“Conserve money, yes I know.” Clara grinned devilishly. “Good thing I still have the birthday money from Grandma, huh?”
The Russett Mall was busy, as was to be expected during summer break. Typically not one for shopping, Clara knew her mother was. Her mother rarely was able to buy herself anything nice: they usually didn’t have the money, and there were far too few occasions for Stephanie to dress up. Usually when Max came home from work, she was in a pair of shorts or jogging pants that she’d been in all day. Maintaining a house didn’t require dress up clothes.
“Oh! Look at that one!” Clara exclaimed, pointing at a sword that was in a window display in a shop called Sharp, Pointy Things. Stephanie stepped up beside her daughter, the straw of her Orange Julius pressed between her lips. “Wow.”
“Honey, what in the world would you do with a sword?”
Clara shrugged. “I don’t know, but wow…” Her gaze drank in the sight of the polished steel, her mouth nearly leaking drool at the thought of holding something like that in her hands. “Some day, though. I’ll have me one.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will. In your own place,” Stephanie emphasized, earning a rueful grin from her daughter. They walked on down the main hall of the mall complex. “You’ll have those things hanging all over your walls, and then some idiot will decide to break into your house, and run screaming into the night.”
Clara laughed. “Yeah, either that or I’ll be totally screwed!”
They checked out a few more display windows before deciding to take a rest and sit on a bench near a potted plant. Clara played with her drink for a moment, her mother people watching.
“What do you think happened/”
Stephanie glanced at her daughter, brows creased in question. “With what?”
“You and dad.” Clara looked into her mother’s eyes for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to decide how much she should divulge. “I know about the other woman.”
Stephanie’s eyes opened wide in surprise, then filled with pain. “How? I know you guys are close, but… Did he tell you?”
Clara shook her head.
“Then, how do you know about that?”
“I’m going to tell you, but you can’t get all weird on me. Okay?” When she had her mother’s nod of consent, Clara continued. “That night you came home and found us all in the family room, Kerri and dad were testing my abilities.”
“Right. I remember.”
“Well, he gave me a deck of cards that night. That’s how we started it. He was holding up a card to see if I’d know what it was, and all that. Well, after you broke it up, I went upstairs to my room, still holding the cards,” she explained. “Mom, I get…. Well, when I hold things, sometimes I can pick up memories from them. Like, read their energy.”
When Clara didn’t continue, Stephanie pressed. “And you felt something?” At Clara’s nod, Stephanie turned away. “I see. Clara, that was almost a year ago. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Clara couldn’t stand to see the hurt in her mother’s eyes. She wanted to plead for her mother to understand. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, Mom, guess what dad’s doing’. I couldn’t say anything. For one, I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to believe it. For two…” her voice trailed off.
Stephanie held back her tears, the wounds still so fresh. She nodded in understanding, giving Clara a one-armed hug and placing a kiss on the side of her head. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
Clara felt her heart needing to purge itself, the emotions beginning to really rise to the surface. “This is my fault, Mom.”
“What? How do you mean?”
“About two weeks ago, I confronted him.” Clara wiped angrily at the tears that had begun to fall. She felt stupid, having already seen some kids from her school wandering through the shops.
“About his affair?”
Clara nodded. “I called him an asshole.”
Stephanie tried to hide her slight amusement at her brave little girl, instead giving her a full hug. “Oh, honey,” she cooed. “It’s not your fault. You dad has his own demons to battle, and the majority of them deal with me. Not you girls.” She rocked the crying girl, running a hand through her thick, brown hair. “Don’t take this burden on, Clara. Please don’t. Your father loves you more than anything.”
“Maybe if I hadn’t said anything. Or maybe-“
“Stop it!” Stephanie pulled away, cupping her daughter’s face between her palms. And looking into her eyes. “Stop it, Clara. There is nothing you could have done. Nothing you did wrong. Okay? Do you understand me?”
Clara nodded, sniffling like a child. Stephanie reached into her purse to pull out an ever-present packet of tissues, and handed the girl one.
“Come on. Let’s get you to the bathroom so you can wash your face, and let’s go see that movie. It starts in twenty minutes.”
Clara nodded, and opted to go to the restroom alone. She found one near the food court, and pushed the heavy door open, stepping inside the large, somewhat odorous space.
She gave the room a casual glance, noting the five stalls – all of which were empty – to the right, and a counter that ran along the left-hand wall, sinks spaced intermittently, separated by wall-mounted soap dispensers. The far wall held two hand dryers.
She headed further into the room, walking toward the furthest stall.
“That one’s broken.”
Clara jumped as the voice practically whispered in her ear, the source behind her. She whirled around to see a grinning girl behind her. She looked a bit older than Clara, her long hair dyed black. Dark makeup made her dark eyes seem to disappear. Her lips were a slash of red lipstick, her face pale. She wore the uniform of one of the fast food restaurants in the food court, her nametag clipped just above her left breast: Erica.
“Oh. Thanks.” Clara moved away from the girl, ducking into one of the other four stalls. She wasn’t entirely sure the girl was real until she heard her step into her own stall, pants unbutton and unzipped, and then the familiar tinkle of bathroom business.
No matter how much Clara had been wanting to see the movie she and her mother sat watching, she couldn’t stay focused. Jason kept creeping into her mind, as well as images from her dream the night before. She felt uneasy and slightly agitated. She glanced at her watch for the fourth time, groaning when she realized that only six and a half minutes had gone by since she’d checked it last.
“See? I told you he’d come back to her,” Stephanie whispered, completely unaware of her daughter’s anxiety.
Clara nodded absently, not a clue what her mother was talking about.
An hour and a half later, Clara and Stephanie were making their way up the driveway, their few purchases in hand, when Kerri burst out of the front door. Her eyes were red from crying. Clara felt her heart begin to pound as her older sister made her way over to her.
“What happened?” Clara whispered, barely able to speak over the lump that had begun to form in her throat.