Frankie switched her phone to silent and threw it on top of the travel duffel her father had given her for graduation five years ago. While she zipped her coat, she paused for a quick look in the mirror hanging over her childhood bed. That’s not my face, she thought.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and a cold front had come through just that morning. She passed her parents in the den and squeezed her dad’s shoulder.
“Going for a walk,” she said quietly. He gave her a half smile and returned his attention to a CSI rerun.
The cold was now dry and windless, the neighborhood as dark as she’d ever seen it. Her childhood streets had been the victim of a series of bad city council decisions, and had been under construction for nearly a year. The street lamps were gone; the lanes had been sheared down to rough red clay and left unpaved, brackish oily runoff collecting in overgrown drainage ditches. Her boots were new, but wouldn’t look that way long. She walked slowly down the street where she’d spent her summers skateboarding and playing baseball with her friends in the neighborhood, where they’d dramatically dodged the occasional neighborhood car as though it were an oncoming train. All those boys, now grown, were probably home again tonight, settled in for the evening with light beer and leftover pie. She didn’t know any of them anymore.
She’d moved to Madison six months before to work at AIDS Services as a volunteer coordinator. There were seventeen people awaiting assignment the Monday after Thanksgiving, and a big Hanukkah event in the works for the second week of December. Frankie had planned, almost single handedly, the No-Thanks celebration—a tofurkey polenta beet and potato potluck. Then, she’d left before the party. She’d told her family that she was only home for a visit, but the truth was that she’d been handed a one-way ticket to home to Peaksville in lieu of her last paycheck.
Frankie’s older sister Linda called home on Wednesday morning and canceled her family’s visit because the baby was puking. Frankie heard the elaborate lie unfolding on the household speakerphone.
“Our house smells like Bigfoot’s backside,” Linda said. “Bob’s starting to feel a little wonky, too. Just a matter of time before we all have it.”
Frankie dropped half a banana into a blender full of frozen strawberries and yogurt. She turned it on, but could still hear strains of her mother’s soothing response to Linda over the noise.
Frankie made it to the bus station just before midnight. She fished fifteen dollars out of her wallet and bought the last ride to Lake Burton. There was only one other person on the bus, and he fired two questions about Obamacare at her before she even sat down. She picked a window seat as far away from him as possible, and watched the Peaksville streetlights get farther and farther apart as the bus climbed into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She turned her overhead reading lamp off so that her reflection in the window wouldn’t stare so.
The bus pulled into the station just past one a.m. Frankie thanked the bus driver, who replied that young men should be home with their mothers on Thanksgiving. She thought about correcting him, but instead just nodded and said she agreed. If he was just concerned for her safety, better that he thought she was a young man than a fully grown woman. She waited until the bus had moved on before starting up the street in its wake.
It was at least ten degrees colder up there near the lake, but Frankie was still pretty cozy in her parka. She pulled her wool cap out and pushed it down over her short blonde hair. There was a hollow ache inside her right ear, originating at a long scar over her right temple. The cold had a way of re-invigorating it, the same way the damp had a way of reminding her elbow of too many high school tennis tournaments.
She’d been thinking this plan through for the past few years, but last holiday, she’d chickened out and gone to get drunk with her sister instead. They’d walked into the Lion’s Head, filled with other Thanksgiving escapees, and ordered Tequila. The next morning they awoke in Frankie’s bedroom, curled together like they were kids again. Frankie wished she could revisit all three hundred sixty-five mornings since and figure out which moment, exactly, had sealed this fate upon her heart.
It was always going to be like this, she thought. It was never going to be any different. There was no panic in those thoughts, no flutter at the top of her stomach. She made her way through the stripped pine brush down by the water and sat down at the foot of a ramshackle old dock. The sky was clear out on the water, and she could see the milky way misted across the tops of the pines at the other side of the lake.
Nobody back home or in Madison knew about Lake Burton, her solo treks across Blue Ridge, but it wasn’t a big secret or anything. She’d camped many times with friends throughout high school and college, and had even been to this abandoned dock to swim a few times.
She pulled her cap down low over her forehead and waded into the water. The lake came swirling down through the tops of her boots, which were waterproof. She would never want to drown, she thought, as the still surface of the lake erupted into tiny ripples that broke up the moon’s reflection. A million moons.
The shivering stopped shortly after she’d found a thick pine and positioned herself at its base. There was only one moon in the sky as she fell asleep, thinking of animals and their winter habits.
Frankie announced she was going for a walk as she passed her parents in their big recliners. They were watching CSI instead of football. A bloody woman, naked save for heels, was twisted into a corner behind some alleyway dumpsters. Two men raised her eyeless head with gloved hands and shared a knowing look. Her dad was already asleep, chin to chest.
The cold was dry and windless, the neighborhood as dark as she’d ever seen it. Her childhood streets had been the victim of a series of bad city council decisions, and so had been under construction for nearly a year. The street lamps were gone; the lanes had been sheared down to rough red clay and left unpaved, brackish oily runoff collecting in overgrown drainage ditches. It was a quiet neighborhood, close to the Junior High, full of retirees who used to be young parents with kids who ran wild in the alleyways and dry creek beds with Frankie. She didn’t care if she never saw those streets again.
Frankie checked her watch. He would be by any minute.
Her father was dying, slowly, of congestive heart failure, having recovered from two major heart attacks and a mild stroke. First his ankles went, and then his heart and brain and now his very presence. He was only half there any time he opened his eyes after a nap. There was a direct two hour flight from Madison to Atlanta. In a swift compact rental, Frankie could be doorstep to doorstep in four hours. This promise to her mother, and weekly phone calls, kept them in a relationship of sorts.
Frankie pulled her cap down low over her forehead as a dark little Prius pulled silently to the curb. She got in and buckled up as he tossed a backpack into her lap.
Though they had several friends in common, Frankie had met Rick about a million times before she started realizing that he was pretty much everywhere she went. “Face blindness,” he said in response to her awkward apology at their final introduction. “Oliver Sacks has it. He couldn’t pick his own wife out of a police lineup.”
“How can you fall in love with someone you don’t recognize?” Frankie wondered. They were standing in line for pulled pork sandwiches at the bowling alley. It was somebody’s birthday.
“What I want to know is who do you picture when you’re wanking if you can’t remember anybody’s face?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be his wife, anyway,” Frankie said. Rick bought Frankie a beer and ordered extra pickles for her sandwich. She remembered him after that.
Rick’s Prius smelled new. He had a jelly jar of homemade Kombucha in the drink holder and offered her a sip. She declined. Her mother’s Thanksgiving dinner was still settling in her stomach, which had become unaccustomed to meat. The long autumn in Madison had thinned her out because there were things to do and people to do them with, and so many of those things involved bikes and boats. She’d wanted to stay there forever.
“It’s better Linda’s not going to try to make it for dinner,” Frankie’s mother had whispered to her that morning at breakfast. “They’re all just passing around that terrible stomach bug. Not a good idea, given your dad’s condition.”
Frankie sighed and tried to spear the yolk of an egg that turned out to be over easy. She looked her mother in the eyes and tried to think of a way to make her life easier, if only for the rest of the day.
“I love you, Mom,” she said, and dropped a piece of toast over the runny yolk.
Frankie didn’t know why her own mother couldn’t tell when Linda was lying. She’d raised the world’s worst liar. Though she would have preferred to see her sister one last time, Frankie couldn’t hold a day off against her. Given their father’s condition and her colicky baby at home, Linda had not been thrilled to hear about Frankie’s decision to move to Madison in May.
“I’m not doing this all by myself,” Linda said on the phone when Frankie had been gone from Peaksville a week.
“Nobody said you had to. I’m adult with a credit card. I can get home with a moment’s notice.”
“Tell me the truth, Francesca,” she continued, lowering her voice, “what are you doing over there? Is it some cult? You can tell me. I don’t judge.”
“It’s not a cult. It’s a nonprofit.”
“Oh.” Linda sounded a little disappointed.
Frankie said, “You should come visit. Bring the baby. You’ll love it here. I’ve never been happier.” She meant it. She missed her nephew, and she wanted to share something good, for once, with her sister.
“Communes are for hippies. They’ll probably try to call the baby Feather or tattoo a spirit animal onto his feet.”
“Two roommates in downtown Madison is hardly a commune.”
“I just miss you.”
“I know. I’ll be back for Thanksgiving.”
“Okay, but don’t tell Dad about any of this Frank business. And for the love of Christ, just let your hair grow a little. You come home with a flat top again and he’ll blow his last stent.”
Rick had offered to take her as far as the state line, and after that, she was going to hitch to a bus station. She’d told him she was going to New York City, though secretly, she’d rather die than fight all those people every day for a scrap of food, a place to live, a shitty job. She pulled her wallet out of her back pocket and replaced her driver’s license and social security card with the ones Rick had put in the bag. Frank Baldwin. Nobody would be searching for Frank Baldwin because he was already dead.
I’ll be in touch, Frankie told him at the Tennessee visitor’s center at two a.m. that morning. His face was unworried and maybe even joyful, patinated by the moontower’s light through raindrops just forming on the windshield. He put his hand on her shoulder and drew her close enough to kiss.
“Keep it in a dry, cool place,” he said. “It’ll last for a year, and then you’re on your own.”
Frankie opened the backpack and withdrew a handful of individually packaged needles and a large bottle of testosterone cypionate. There were a couple of shirts and a pair of jeans in there, too, and all of her savings in cash. She counted it, then handed Rick his money and a letter he’d promised to deliver to her family in a year’s time. She thanked him and got out of the car just as the rain started falling harder.
Thanksgiving Day brought the autumn’s first real cold front. By eleven p.m., the cold was dry and windless, the neighborhood as dark as she’d ever seen it. A few earnest houses were already wrapped in Christmas lights. Frankie tipped her earphones up over the crown of her cap and pulled the brim down over her eyebrows. She drew a pack of cigarettes out of her inside coat pocket and lit one ceremoniously right in front of the Junior High mascot. She sat for a few minutes on the bench beside the six foot beaver and watched a couple of mechanical wire reindeer bob their heads in unison on the lawn across the street. It was so quiet she could hear their motors whirring. A chill shot across her shoulder blades; it was either the cold seeping in through the seams in her jacket or the reindeer moving around with no eyes and no heart. She had a few days to consider her options. She’d only been in Madison six months. She might be able to beg her old job at the Peaksville library back; she could tell everyone she just couldn’t be away from her father while he was in such bad health. It would sound like the right thing to do—not a thing she had to do. If pressed, she could lie and tell people that AIDS Services lost its funding. If pressed, she could lie and tell them there was a bad relationship. If drunk, she might admit that she’d been fired for fucking a client—one she loved, however briefly, but who did not love her back.
Down at the end of Winter Lotus Road there was a red brick ranch-style that had been empty for more than a decade. She had played in the yard with childhood friends, and still had handmade maps of the creek that wound around behind the house and toward the river at the edge of town. She and Michael Phillip Dorsky had dammed tadpoles into a little cove every spring and raised frog armies. They’d built a pine bough raft using the directions on the back of a Boy’s Life magazine and set sail for the river. When it fell apart a half a mile down the creek, he’d cried silently on the bank, his eyes full of anger and deep despair. It was before he learned to hide what he wanted.
Once they got to junior high, he’d only sneak off with her on the weekends when there was nothing better to do. Frankie didn’t mind so much until he started telling everyone at school that they were having sex when all they were doing was building a fort. She confronted him in the courtyard behind the cafeteria and he told her everyone thought she was some kind of dyke.
“You look like a boy,” he said. “People think you’re weird.”
“I’ve always looked like this,” Frankie said.
“People never thought I was weird before,” she insisted. Michael Phillip shook his head like she didn’t know anything about anything.
“I’m doing you a favor,” he insisted. “Trust me.” Then he walked off with her virginity.
Frankie was surprised to see the porch lit up at the house on Winter Lotus Road. A little blue SUV sat in the driveway; basketball hoop had been installed over the garage doors. She paused on the sidewalk, feeling a sadness move through her limbs the way pain radiates from an injury the split second before you see what you did to yourself. She wanted to get closer—she’d planned to walk back there in the dark again to see if some of the trails were still visible—but now someone lived there. Now there was someone home. She saw a shadow moving past the curtains in the kitchen window, and then the light was gone.
Frankie waited for a solid ten minutes on the sidewalk, nervously folding the blade of her pocket knife into its sheath and back out again. The house was asleep, she was sure, so she made her way into the backyard under the cover of the pines down by the water. Then she crossed at the rock bridge they’d nicknamed Golden Gate and ducked under a fallen trunk. The trail was still there. Frankie pulled her keychain LED flashlight out of her pocket, cursing herself for leaving her phone back at the house. The trail was still visible, if a little overgrown. She had just started in the direction of the old fort when she heard a noise behind her.
Frankie loved the trails as a child, but she never went alone at night because she was deadly afraid of Satanic Ritual Sacrifices. At night she blessed her own house, checked every cabinet, and locked every door THREE TIMES (the Lord’s number, the number of the Holy Trinity) to make sure that the ones she loved were safe and secure. There were rampant rumors about a site just behind Walmart full of charred goat bones arranged in patterns of inverted crosses.
One chilly in eighth grade, she’d agreed to meet Michael Phillip for a midnight campfire at the fort. Her parents had had to agree because, as she pointedly argued, they’d let her camp out in his backyard only two weekends before. She darted past the empty house on Winter Lotus Road and waited at the trailhead for a while before venturing forth on her own. Maybe he was already down there, waiting for her in the fort. He said he’d meet her there with the matches and the marshmallows. She’d brought chocolate bars and a few graham crackers stolen from her sister’s lunch stash for the week. Plenty of firewood was already stacked in the fire pit near the fort.
She made it to the fort and turned on the Coleman lamp hanging from the ceiling. It swung in lazy circles above the butcher block table they’d dragged from Michael Phillip’s house three blocks away. She laid out the ingredients and flipped through a MAD magazine while she waited.
Frankie froze. It wasn’t Michael Phillip.
“Frankie? You in there?”
“Is Michael Phillip there?”
Whoever it was laughed. “Uh, no.” The door opened and Frankie was relieved to see Dalton, her lab partner from third period biology, behind it. They’d dissected a pig just the week before, and he’d slipped the little pink brain into the lunchbox of an unsuspecting seventh grader during the passing period. He was a riot.
“Hey! How’d you find this place?” she asked.
“Michael Phillip told me about it.”
“Did you bring the marshmallows or something?” she asked.
Dalton smiled confusedly.
“For the s’mores.” Frankie pointed to the graham crackers and chocolate on the table.
Dalton sat down on one of the stumps in the corner of the fort and rubbed his hands together. “He didn’t say anything about marshmallows.” Dalton reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He offered her one silently, but she shook her head. He nodded and said he liked to wait until after, too.
“After?” Frankie asked. She shouldn’t have, because Dalton’s hands were long and cold and clammy as he pulled her close enough to kiss. His breath was bleachy. She pushed him back and made it out the door, but he caught up with her at the Golden Gate and tackled her as easy as he would one of the calves at the fair. She landed hard on one shoulder and felt it pop, but she managed to bloody his nose with her good elbow as she struggled to right herself beneath his body. Dalton clutched as his nose with one hand and brought a fist-sized rock down hard against her left temple. Frankie’s eyes rolled like marbles in a shoebox and she felt her dinner surge into her throat.
“What is the problem?” he asked, breathlessly, straddling her hips. “Why did you run?” Frankie, half-blind with pain and rage, landed a punch just below his rib cage. It wasn’t as hard as she’d have liked, but Dalton rolled off and lay on his back beside her.
He said he was sorry.
This time, the twigs snapping behind her were not frightening. Frankie was no calf. She’d worked herself into the shape of a fire hydrant, her hands strong as hammers. She could deadlift her own weight and she wasn’t scared of anyone. Someone stepped into the beam of her little flashlight.
Frankie shined the light directly into the woman’s eyes. It was no one she recognized. “Hi,” she replied.
“I saw you waiting on the street,” the woman said.
“I’m sorry. I get this is creepy.”
The woman shielded her eyes with one hand. “It’s cold out here.”
Frankie dropped the beam. “I’ll take off. I was just looking around.”
The woman didn’t move. “You cold?”
Frankie shrugged. “A little. But I’ll walk it off.”
“You want some hot chocolate?”
The house had been restored to a full-on late Seventies split-level splendor. Frankie followed the woman onto the screened back porch and deposited her shoes right next to the door. The golden carpet in the den had tree branch patterns sewn into the shag. It was clean and soft beneath her feet as she hung her coat on a hook by the back porch door. Music was coming from somewhere. Maybe the walls. The den was all over built-in shelves, floor to ceiling books and music.
“I brought this chocolate from Mexico,” the woman said as she handed a mug to Frankie and sat down on the couch. She had the kind of face that telegraphed what her youth had given and what her future would be. Both were beautiful. Kindly. “I only drink it when it’s below freezing outside. That way, I don’t go through it too quickly.”
Frankie removed her hat and ran her fingers through her short hair. The fresh air feathered around her scalp and ears as she leaned back against the arm of the couch. “I always thought this place was empty,” she said, eyeing the books. It would take forever to get through them all.
“It looks that way sometimes,” the woman admitted. “But I’ve been here a while.”
“Do you remember me?” She wanted to ask why the woman had never said anything, why there wasn’t ever any sign of life in the house. Had she been there that night when Dalton forgot the marshmallows.
The woman smiled and took a sip. “I do. You were always dragging something interesting down there. There was a pretty impressive fort at one time, if I remember correctly.”
“Did you find the stash of Pall Malls?” Frankie asked.
The woman only looked at her. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
Frankie had never planned to come back. She looked from the woman’s mug of chocolate to her own strange reflection in the back bay window that opened up to the pine stand down by the creek. Somewhere between the fort and the house, she’d been lost. She’d either never left or she’d never returned, but it didn’t matter much now that there was no place left to go. Beyond the pane of glass it was so quiet and lovely, bare branches dark against a lightening sky. Frankie closed her eyes just briefly, thinking of the winter habits of all the waiting animals.
Jack Kaulfus is the author of the short story collection Tomorrow or Forever (Transgress Press, 2018). Their work has been published in A Cappella Zoo, Heavy Feather Review, Barrelhouse, and Off the Rocks, among other journals.