Cover image mural art by Osiris Rain
Editor’s note: The Agenda is serially publishing this novella by local author Eric Linne. This is the final installment, and you can read the previous ones here. Heads up: There is adult language and adult themes. Read about Eric’s other work here.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 7: Maddie plays a new game
I survived that awful Saturday a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Tom helped me up from the stump and soothed my crying jag. Then he took me by the arm and walked me home. We ran into a couple of his friends on the way. Walking their two dogs, on the way to the farmer’s market. They wanted him to stop and talk, but he politely explained that he had something important to do and would meet up with them later. Didn’t mention my condition. Didn’t mention my troubles. Didn’t mention me at all. I was really scared of him at first. Scared and a little freaked out. That he owned this cool, exotic mansion on a gorgeous little side street in the neighborhood that everyone wanted to live in — MillVille. Not sure how he ended up with that place. Just lucky, I guess.
But I digress. That Saturday. That horrible day. I was sick, hungover, sad, tired, scared and a little pissed off. Not sure who I was pissed off at more. Mark, who happened to be married, getting me drunk and dragging me to some sleazy hotel for hotel for sex? And then walking out before I woke up the next day. My friends, several of whom saw how drunk I was that night, but did nothing to intervene? Not that I would have listened to them anyway. I guess mostly I was angry with myself. Angry that I had too much to drink. That I lost control. That I did something really stupid with somebody I barely know. Yeah, I guess I was mostly pissed off at myself. Been like that for a while.
That day, Mr. Tom was like an elegant old Southern gentleman. He took me home and made sure that I ate some plain toast, a little broth and some kind of herbal tea that he makes sometimes. The one with a nutty, fruity, lemony smell. That I imagine an Asian street would smell like. Not that I’ve ever been outside the country. Not even to Mexico or Canada. We didn’t have the money for that kind of stuff. Not in a single parent family in a dinky little Indiana farm town. We were lucky to pay the rent, keep the lights on and have enough food to eat. I’m getting off subject again.
After he made sure that I ate and started to get hydrated, Mr. Tom went upstairs and drew me a bath. A real old fashioned bubble bath that smelled like flowers after a spring rain. He brought me a fancy fluffy robe. One that fit me really well. Don’t ask me where Mr. Tom would get a women’s robe in my size. He’s about six feet two inches tall and weighs maybe a couple hundred? We definitely don’t wear the same size. He led me up the stairs, with a minimum of conversation. I’m sure he could see that I was in no shape for talking. He opened the door to the second floor hall bath and motioned for me to enter. Instead of my normal ziplock bag of toilet supplies, hanging on the side of the bath was an array of fancy stuff. Shampoo and conditioner and bath salts and tiny ornate soaps and a bunch of lotions I’ve never seen before. Before he shut the door behind him, Mr. Tom said, “Take a nice, long, hot bath. Soak as much of the toxins out of your body as you can. Relax your mind for a while. I’ll put a glass of cold water and some Advil next to your bed. After your soak, get some sleep. God knows you look like you need it. We’ll talk later.”
Then I slept. And slept and slept some more. I don’t think I dreamed for the several hours that I was out. Not sure I even moved in bed. When I woke up at 6 p.m., at first I didn’t know where I was. For the second time in about twelve hours. But I slowly looked around and eventually recognized my little third floor apartment. I lay perfectly still in bed and looked up at the powder blue ceiling. Mr. Tom certainly has good taste, if you ask me. All the colors in this house, and there are plenty, are very calming and soothing. Like a place where I feel really comfortable and don’t start thinking about reasons to get up and go to someplace more open. A place where I’m starting to feel more relaxed. I guess a little like the home I’ve always wanted, but never really had. Not blaming my mom or anything. She did the best she could — raising my brother Charlie and me all by herself. But she never had the money or the inclination to make our house somewhere peaceful, somewhere restful, somewhere elegant. Like this place. I don’t think my mom could decorate a place like this house if she won the lottery. I’m not complaining, just saying.
I felt somewhat more like a human being again, so I headed for my dresser and closet. Picked out a clean pair of black jeans and a teal colored T-shirt with fancy lettering, like the writing on a bottle of Coca Cola. A T-shirt that owners of the The Shop gave me one afternoon. To welcome me to the neighborhood. People have been so nice to me around here. Mostly. Then I remembered Mr. Tom’s parting words. About a ‘talk’ that we’d have ‘later’. Well, it’s later now so I might as well get this over with.
Our talk two weeks ago was short and sweet. Mr. Tom, after commenting that he wasn’t my dad and didn’t intend to assume that role, gave me three pieces of advice. First, he said that I should cut down on drinking, maybe only on the weekends and then to watch how much I drink. Check. Second, he said I should find some ways to relax. He suggested yoga or meditation or exercise. He even suggested adult coloring books. Not sure about coloring books but I see where he’s going.
Finally, he said I need to figure out why I’m so angry with myself. And to try to find a way to forgive — myself, that is. I’m not sure where he was going with that one. But I’ll think about it some more. Maybe he sees something that I don’t. It’s happened before.
So for two weeks, I’ve been sober. Not one drink, though I’ve been tempted a few times. I spent my own money to buy a used bike to replace my cool old Schwinn bike that got stolen. From a place that makes free bikes for poor kids, which is pretty cool. I’ve been early to work every single day for two weeks. My boss Alex hasn’t said anything about it, but I’m pretty sure he noticed. I’ve kept my interactions and thus my fights with Beth to a minimum. I just pull my work over next to Ivy’s and we work and talk all day. Or we work and just listen to music. Mostly stuff from a nearby community radio station. The point is, I’m getting my work done. I have lunch most days with Ivy and sometimes a couple of her friends join us. We sit out by the creek, behind the studio and pretend that we’re in a lovely pasture in France. Or England. Or Italy. Pretend we’re eating our scones or croissants or baguettes. Anyway, we keep things light. We imagine our lives in the future. We dream.
It’s Friday. Yaaaay! Ivy has invited me over to her house tonight. To hang out on her front porch with her and a few of her friends to play the new board game. The one everyone is talking about. I think It’s called MillVille Quest or something like that. But everyone just calls it The Game for short. I’ve decided I’m ready to break my non-drinking fast tonight. It’s been two weeks and I’m ready to turn over a new leaf. Pace myself, count my drinks and lay off the hard stuff. Just beer and wine. Pretty sure I can manage that.
So after work, around 7 o’clock, when everybody heads out to have fun in MillVille, I step off the porch of the orange mansion, walk a few steps along Berber Lane to Henderson Street and turn left. Past the funky old water tower, painted like some 1960s hippy icon. I give it a little salute, like I always do. Some crazy notion makes me think that the water tower is responsible for the cool, creative vibe around here. It’s the reason that everybody is so upbeat and engaging. I know it’s crazy, but it’s what I feel. I cross the tracks and immediately wander into the Friday night throng. I pass the young lady selling the best popsicles in the whole world. And the guy with the Hawaiian hot dog cart, with all those crazy sauces. Past the pizza place selling gourmet slices out of their window on 36th and Henderson. Past the small gathering of street artists. Some young, some old, some black, some white. All chatting loosely with the people strolling by and each other. Just passing the time. No hassles, no pressure. Just hangin’ loose.
I push my way through a knot of people window shopping on Henderson. A few tourists (as we call people from other parts of Charlotte). Also a few people I know. I say hi to a couple of people, then poke my head inside the front door of The Publican. Give my best whistle and Kelly looks up. She’s really busy, I can tell from the strain on her face. But she gives me a smile and little air kiss. I blow her a kiss back, wave and move on. Past restaurant after bar after cafe after nightclub after art gallery. It’s the first Friday of the month. The art crawl, so it’s extra busy tonight. Everybody in town wants to be out on the street in MillVille on this gorgeous early fall night. And I’m one of the crowd. Feeling the good vibe, the freedom, the potential, the excitement. It’s the end of another long week. People are ready for fun. There’s an energy in the air here that I’ve never felt anywhere else.
I really like this place. A lot. I know it’s sappy, but that’s how I feel. I turn the corner on 35th Street and the crowd thins out. A guy asks me if he’s allowed to park along here. I feel like a local as I tell him to park anywhere except where there’s a No Parking sign. He seems happy with my response and struggles to parallel park into a too-tight space. Didn’t appreciate it at the time, but Indiana driver’s education taught me two things. First, how to drive in the snow, which I hear people are crazy bad at here. Second, they taught us all how to parallel park. Not sure why they did that in little town of Felton, but I’m glad they did. I can shoehorn a car in anywhere. Not that I have a car to park anymore.
I walk about three blocks and there’s Ivy’s house up on the left. The music is playing, the beers are flowing and a small group of young women and one guy are hanging out. A couple of them wave as I walk up the street. I wave back, happy to have a real community. Feels like the first time ever.
Ivy steps to the edge of the porch and says, “Get up here stranger! We thought maybe you weren’t coming. You got some catchin’ up to do. We’re getting ready to start The Game!”
At the mention of The Game, the group erupts in a big cheer. I make my way up onto the porch and a spot magically materializes. I squeeze in between two women and stare down at the makeshift game board. Somebody hands me a beer and a tall shirtless guy with a dark ponytail says, “Let get this bad boy started!”
Rolled out on the table between the group of friends is sort of a makeshift board game. Like a board game without a board. Where the board would normally be sits a playmat, flexible green and about twice the size of a normal table placemat. Ivy, being the host of the party, explains the rules. Mostly to me because everybody else seems to know how to play and chimes in with additional instructions. She starts, “Ok the main two rules are…”
“Have fun and don’t be an asshole!” shouts the group in unison, pretty much everybody laughing afterward.
Ivy continues, “Right, like they said. The rules are kind of loose. But the goal of the game is to get back home. Home being right here, this porch.” I must look a little confused, because she explains further, “We’re going on a quest. A quest that only the brave can accomplish. And just like Dorothy and little Alice and even great Odysseus, the object of our quest is to…?”
Once again, everyone shouts, “Get back home!”
“Right they are.” says Ivy. “The rest of the rules are pretty simple. We all have player pieces and we all start at home. And hopefully we all end up at home. And where is home?”
First Ivy and then the rest of her friends turn their gazes to me. “Right here?” I mumble, pointing to Ivy’s expansive front porch.
“Ding, ding, ding! We’ve got us a quick learner here. Other than getting home, you just follow whatever the board or cards tell you to do. Easy enough?” I nod my head. Ivy continues, “Just two more rules, and they’re both kind of important and intertwined.” She stares at me intently. I’m listening. “Here they are. One: if the game tells one person to move, we all move…together. And two, we don’t leave anybody behind. Got it?” Once again, Ivy looks straight at me. I hate being the center of attention. And I’ve played board games all my life so I can probably figure it out “Got it?” she repeats.
I drone, “The object is to get home. Where one person goes we all go and we don’t leave anybody behind.”
“Spoken like a true prodigy,” Ivy hoots. I think she had a couple of beers before I came over. “Does everybody have their cash?” Ivy had reminded me this afternoon that I needed to bring at least $20 with me. Since we decided to bring our lunches all week, I had that much saved this week. Stuffed in my right front jeans pocket. With my ID, which I was also instructed to bring. Along with an original game piece. I brought a little crystal with me. One of those little reflecting thingies that can catch light and make a rainbow. One that my enemy turned friend, Kayla, gave to me a few years ago. It’s my personal good luck charm.
“So how do we play this game. The actual rules?” I ask, sheepishly. Seems like everybody else knows.
Ivy replies, “The game is very interactive and self instructing. OK, maybe I’m being a little vague. We each start by putting five bucks in the kitty. Seven of us so thirty-five bucks. You’ll find out why later. My house and my game mat so I’ll be the banker. Don’t worry, your cash is safe with me. We all place our pieces on the board and take turns rolling the dice.” Ivy continues, “When we start to move, and by the way, we will be moving around a bit, I’ll mark where everybody’s piece is on the board.” Ivy waves a washable marker in the air and everybody waves their game piece at her. Lots of rituals. “Like I said earlier, the game is over when we come back home — and home is here. And what are the main rules of the game? Everybody?”
“Have fun and don’t be an asshole. We don’t leave anybody behind,” everybody drones, a mashup of the two sentences.
“Exactly!” says Ivy. So Maddie is the new player — not to mention the new girl in town. So we’ll let her go first. After that, it’s alphabetical order by the last letter of your middle name. Y’all can figure that out. OK, Maddie, piece on the board and let’s go!”
I put my little crystal in the Start square and everybody else follows suit. Ivy hands me a single dice (guess that’s a die) and tells me to keep track of the die when we move. I roll a four and count out the squares. When my piece lands on Willie!, everybody starts chanting, “Drink, drink drink!”
“Hang on guys, this is her first time. You all know the rule…and the alternate rule. So I say we use the alternate rule.” Everybody cheers again. “The Willie! square, and there are a lot of them, is a drinking square. Usually the player who lands on the square takes a drink. But hell, it’s Friday, there’s a full moon and I’m in a good mood. So alternate rule — we all drink!” At that, everybody hoists their beers and takes a swig. Or two.
Next player up is a woman named Rosie. She’s a little older than the rest of us. Has a couple of kids and a little gray at the ends of her wavy hair. She told us earlier that her husband is on kid duty tonight and that she’s looking forward to ‘partying’. She rolls a six and counts out the squares with her piece, a tiny baby rattle. Guessing that it belonged to one of her kids. The square says draw and she pulls a card off the top of the deck, reads it to herself and lets out a sigh. Rosie looks around the group and reads aloud. “Find a cool gift and present it to your favorite firefighter.” Everybody starts to ‘Ooooh and Aaaah.’
Then the long-haired guy with no shirt does a little dance move and says dramatically, “And away we go!”
Chapter 8: Maddie tells a secret
I follow along as the group rushes down the porch steps, turns left and heads toward the center of MillVille. Everybody dodges to one side to avoid a neighbor out walking his dogs on this balmy fall evening. The older of the two dogs, a yellow lab with graying along its muzzle, licks my hand as I pass by. I stop, take a couple of steps back and rub the dog’s ears. She wags her tail in appreciation and her younger companion nuzzles in for some affection. I pat the side of her face too, cooing, “Yes, you are both sweet girls.” The man smiles at me and continues his walk. I turn and run a block and a half, catching the other gamers just before they reach Henderson Street.
At the intersection, all of the partiers huddle up. “I can’t go in there empty handed,” Rosie says, placing her right finger on her cheek and rubbing for a few seconds. “Give me a minute to think.” We all gather around her. After a few seconds, she snorts, “Alone, please? If it’s not too much trouble?”
Ivy turns to me and says, “One of the main rules of the game is that we all stay together. But I guess it’s OK to give her a little space. I’m going to run into Salute for a minute. Maddie, would you make sure to keep Rosie in sight?” I know absolutely nothing about this game, but I nod yes as if I’ve been playing my whole life. Everyone else has wandered a bit down the street and I walk backward toward them keeping my eyes peeled for Rosie.
The others hover over a picture in the window of Pure Life art gallery. It’s a gorgeous ethereal painting of a young woman who appears to be in an ecstatic trance. Pink flower petals rise all around her, emanating from a music box she holds. She seems deep in thought, like she’s dreaming of a long lost lover. Behind her, heavy duty power lines appear threatening — as if they produce a threatening current that could zap away the woman’s music and her memories and her lover. The background of the painting seems to be silver leaf pressed into the canvas. It’s quite remarkable, because it creates the effect of timelessness. You can’t tell if it’s day or night. Like ethereal light that I’ve seen in a dream. I glance down at the name of the painter. It’s the famous guy who works in the end of the warehouse where I work. I need to go down at lunch sometime and look at his work.
I peer up as Ivy trots toward us, a small paper bag in her left hand. She looks at me questioningly and I remember, “Keep an eye on her”. Rosie is not on the corner where we left her. I gaze around frantically. It’s Friday night, so it’s starting to get crowded. Can’t see her across the street. Nowhere in the direction that we just came. Damn it! I had one little job to do. I’m so fucking worthless. I look the opposite direction on our side of the street and there stands Rosie, picking a bouquet of flowers from an enormous lantana bush. We don’t have lantana back in Indiana. So when I see one here, I always stop and check them out. The big ones, you know, the ones that must have been growing for years, look like a flower version of a rainbow. They always inspire me to think of colors for painting. Anyway, how did Rosie get past us on the same side of the street? We must have all been really engrossed in that artwork.
“There she is!” I yell, even though we’re all standing together in a tight knot. Rosie seems more relaxed now. She’s stopped rubbing her cheek. Not saying I’m an expert, but I know a lot of the little tics that stressed people use to try to calm themselves down. Ones they use consciously or unconsciously. I’m no therapist, but I’ve used a few of those coping measures in my life. OK, quite a few of them.
We all hustle down the street toward Rosie. Even though she has her gift, the flowers, she seems a little confused. She turns to the group and says, “I don’t know which one to pick. They are all so damn cute. And I don’t want to offend the others that I don’t…”
“Just pick one of the damn firemen and let’s get on with the game!” says No-Shirt-Guy. In my mind, I’m gonna call him NSG for short. Sort of like the BFG (Big Friendly Giant), but a little more demanding. “Besides,” continues NSG, “we’re all gettin’ a little thirsty over here and we got a lot of stops to make tonight. This ain’t no marriage proposal.”
Ivy rebuts, “Give the lady some time. It’s not an easy choice.” I look over toward the local firehouse and I see what all the fuss is about. Sitting outside the station, just shooting the breeze on some benches, are four young firemen. They look relaxed, confident, tall, muscular and damn, are they all hot! Is that a requirement to get into the fireman’s school these days? Rosie looks down for a couple more seconds and then nods her head. Decision made, she walks slowly up to the group of firemen and stands before them shyly. They stop their conversation, then stare alternately at Rosie, then over to our group, then back to Rosie. I could swear that one of them stared straight at me for a few seconds longer. But I digress.
Rosie steps closer to the group of firemen, bouquet in hand. In unison, they beam up one hundred watt smiles. The second guy from the left stands up from his bench, takes a couple of steps toward Rosie and says, “Can we help you with anything ma’am?”
Rosie’s face turns beet red and she looks down for a second. Then she finds her voice, “We’re playing this game and…”
“Oh, The Game.” the standing fireman says. “We’ve seen a few people walking around here in groups the last couple of days. One of them mentioned a game, but you’re the first…”
“Anyway, these flowers are for you. Just to say thanks for everything you do for us.”
The fireman looks stunned for a second then finds his smile again. As Rosie leans in toward him with the bouquet, he opens his arms. Rosie steps into his embrace and they share a short hug. He whispers something in Rosie’s ear and she blushes again. “OK, guys,” says Ivy, “we’d all like to see this love-fest continued, but we’ve got lots more fun to have and the night ain’t gettin any younger.”
We have a quick roll of the dice for Jean’s turn and she lands on Willie!. Ivy breaks out a growler that she just had filled at Salute and a plastic cup for each of us. We duck into the nearest alley, pour out the beer and drink. When NSG rolls next, it’s Willie! again, so we finish off the growler. We’re all feeling a little loose and the game is starting to get fun.
It’s Ivy’s turn. She lands on a square that says Pick a Card!! And she does. She reads the card aloud. “Buy a kitty beer for the person who looks like they need it the most in a bar across the street from you.” Maddie puts the card back in the bottom of the deck and looks around. “That would be the Hound, across Henderson from here.” She points, everybody nods and we start to walk, then wait for the heavy Friday night traffic to clear. People who bring their cars into MillVille from other neighborhoods sometime drive around for a half hour or so waiting for a parking space to open up. A driver with out-of-state plates sees us waiting and motions us across the street. We grab hands and run for it, waving to the nice guy who gives us all a little honk as we pass.
When we hit the other side, I ask the burning question. “Dumb question, but what’s a kitty beer?”
Tess, who hasn’t said five words all night, pipes up. “It’s beer brewed with kitty litter.” She cracks up at her own joke. Think she may have already been overserved.
The others say ‘Yuck’ and ‘Gross’.
Ivy chimes in: “Remember that we all kicked in five bucks in the beginning? Well, this is your money in action. Plus anything I need to pay to keep us all drinking when somebody lands on Willie! Alright, let’s go. I got a beer to buy for some desperate soul.“
We wander over to the Hound. As usual, it’s packed on Friday night. I see a couple that I know. Painted a kitchen shelf for them a couple of weeks ago. Remember that I suggested distressing the paint. They were a little unsure of that at first. But I think it turned out pretty nice. They give me a little wave. The kind of wave you give when you’re pretty sure that you you know a person from someplace, but you can’t quite remember where. I give them a little smile and wave back. It will come to them — eventually.
Ivy looks the bar over to find the person most in need of a beer. She takes her time about it — walking from one end of the bar to the other, with us in tow like her little ducklings. She even checks the outdoor smoking section, but comes back inside shaking her head. “I just know the right person is in here.” Ivy says confidently. “And damn if she isn’t snuggled up over there in the corner! Bingo!!”
We all crane our heads to get a look at who Ivy has picked. But it’s dark, crowded and really loud in here. So, we all squeeze through the throng and finally form a little circle around the chosen one. Beth. Beth from work. This should be fun!
Beth stares daggers at Ivy, then directs her sullen gaze at me. No ‘hello’. No ‘how are you doing?’ Just her typical annoyed stare. Ivy, however is not distracted. “Look guys, it’s our old friend Beth! Hi Beth!” Beth stares at us, obviously annoyed, taking a gulp out of what appears to be a watered down Diet Coke. “Beth, this is all the guys. Guys, say hi to Beth and her friend…her friend…I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. Hi, I’m Ivy!” Ivy extends her hand to shake, but Beth’s friend leaves her hanging, even more annoyed than Beth for the interruption.
Ivy continues, undeterred. “Hey Beth, I’ve got a surprise for you. See, we’re playing this fun game and it’s my turn and I picked you to get a special prize. Now isn’t that exciting?”
“I know all about your stupid game. And I’m not playing.”
“Beth, you cut me to the quick, child. You haven’t even heard what the prize is! Won’t you accept my…or I should say our generosity?”
Beth replies with a snarl, “I don’t give a damn what your prize is. Get out of here and leave us alone.”
“But it’s something you need. Desperately. More than anything else in the world.”
“I’m warning you, get out of here.”
“Oh crap, guys. Beth is warning me. Wait, are you just warning me or are you warning all of us? Because one of the others here, like your old friend Maddie? You know, Maddie from work? She could give you…”
“If you don’t get the hell out of here right now I’m going to have you thrown out. I know the manager and he’ll…”
“She knows the manager? Crap, guys, Beth knows the manager. Well that’s a horse of another color.” I’ve noticed that Ivy likes to quote The Wizard of OZ. “OK, OK, I get the picture. You are indifferent to our hospitality. In which case, we must bid you adieu, cheerio, adios, and sayonara.” Ivy puts her hands together at her waist and bows deeply to Beth. “I hope you have a wonderful evening and bless your heart! Can’t wait to see you at work on Monday!”
Beth turns away from our group, mutters “Assholes,” to her friend, then noisily slurps the remnants of her drink. Ivy motions and we all head for a small opening at the bar. “What do you say we all share a pitcher of beer, as long as we’re here? For our dear old friend, Beth?” When the beer and glasses arrive, we each fill up, raise our glasses high and repeat after Ivy, “To Beth, the founder of the feast!” We clink glasses noisily and drink.
For the next couple of hours, the game goes on — up and down Henderson, 36th Street and all the little side streets that make up MillVille. The next part of the evening goes something like this:
Suzanne has to convince a stranger to dance with her. She heads to the outdoor patio at The Publican where a band is playing. She goes up to a table of middle-aged suburban couples, whispers in one of the guy’s ears and without hesitation, he gets up and dances the whole next song with her.
Then NSG takes another turn. Didn’t he just have one? Anyway, he has to convince someone that he needs detailed directions to Uptown Charlotte (which is kind of funny because you can see the skyline clearly from this part of town). He finds a little old lady who often sits on a stone wall at the corner of 36th Street and Henderson. She knits and watches the world go by. After a short conversation, the woman smiles up at NSG (who is wearing his tie dyed shirt now) pull out her cell phone and talks to our guy for a few minutes. NSG bends down, gives her a little kiss on the cheek and pats her hand gently. As he returns to us, he says softly, “She’d actually make a good tour guide.” I think I like him better now.
Next up is Tess. Again, she draws the Buy a beer for the person who needs it the most. She decides to head down to Hoist, one of the several breweries in our little corner of the world. She is more successful than Ivy was. Tess sees a guy sitting alone at the bar, his beer nearly empty. We stand back as she talks to him for a minute. Then he talks to her for a while. Then back and forth like that. After a couple of minutes, his beer arrives and he raises his glass in salute to her. Tess points back to our group and smiles apologetically. He raises his glass to all of us and we wave and smile. Just before Tess rejoins us, I see the guy pull out his phone. Tess leans in close to his ear telling him something. He nods his head, types into his phone, then mimics making a phone call. Tess just gave him her number! When she gets back, Ivy chides her: “Oh, you minx. What a lively sense of humor.” Not sure what that means, but we all laugh.
Then it’s Jean’s turn. She draws a tough one. Jean has to convince a guy to buy her a beer. That part isn’t so hard. But the second part of the card is. She then has to convince him to buy all of us a beer. This could be the toughest draw of the night, but Jean seems confident, as she says quietly, “I’m up to this.” We all cheer her bravado. Then follow as she walks us first past The Publican, then makes a right turn past the bandstand, entering a small alley. We hustle through the darkness of the alley, past a collection of trash bins that smell of old beer, leftover food and cigarettes. We walk across a parking lot, up a few steps and enter onto the lively back porch of The Shop. We push our way through a group of smokers who seem to be engaged in a friendly political debate.
Before we enter The Shop, I glance to the side and see a couple rocking in an old fashioned porch swing. It takes me back to a warm night when I was a little kid in Kentucky. Before my brother Charlie was born. My parents let me stay up late to watch the fireworks in the distance. As I sat between them, my dad pushed our swing because my feet didn’t touch the ground. I remember holding both of their hands, my head on my mom’s shoulder, thinking about how happy I was. Right then.
“Hey Maddie,” Ivy grabs my arm and tugs, “get your head out of the clouds and hustle your butt in here. You don’t want to miss the fun.” I look away from the swinging couple and enter the back door of The Shop. By the time I get in there (and I couldn’t have been on that porch for more than two minutes) our group is sitting at the long barnwood table with some guy who has his arm around Jean. Two pitchers sit in front of us, and the guy laughs as he fills the third of a row of beer glasses before him.
Then we have another pitcher. Then another. Then one more. Finally, Ivy looks around the group and starts counting. When she comes to me, she frowns for a minute. Then her frown turns to a smile. “Hey everybody, our ol’ friend Maddie here hasn’t had a turn.” Ivy’s clearly had one too many. “No, no wait a minute. We all get, each of us, we all get her turn. I mean we each get a turn. And by we, I mean all, and by all I mean Maddie. Good old Indiana Maddie. So get over here my old building and loan pal.” I have no idea what that means but I shrug, get out of my seat, a little unsteadily, and walk over to Ivy. She looks up at me and starts to stand, unsteadily, spilling half of her beer on the table. “Jusht skip the board step,” she slurs. “Pick a card, any card.” I wait because there are no cards to pick from. Finally she remembers and pulls the cards out of her back pocket and offers them up to me. I reach into the middle of the deck and pull one out. “That’s…what, cheating?” Ivy says uncertainly, but then waves her hand in my direction. I read the card to myself.
SECRET CARD! DON’T READ ALOUD! Tell your deepest, darkest secret to the person playing the game that you trust the most.
I take the card with me as I walk to the corner of the room to sit and think. Surprisingly, no one seems to notice my absence, as they continue emptying the pitcher. Finally, I get up, walk over to Ivy and help her up. At first she protests, but I put my index finger to my lips and shush her. We walk over to the corner of the room. I put my mouth close to her ear, put my hand over my mouth so only Ivy can hear and whisper.
I stand back and wait. Looking at her face. Ivy seems to sober up quickly. Her hand goes up to her mouth. She stares at me, her face shifts from confusion to shock and then melts to disbelief. Then an expression of fear. Visceral fear. She mouths the word “Really?” and I nod my head.
A tear rolls down Ivy’s cheeks as she stares at me for what feels like ages. Then she looks over at the group and says somberly, “The game is over. We’re all going home.”
Chapter 9: Maddie has a visitor
Right now, I’m walking. They are walking. We are walking. I have no idea where. But I’m pretty sure I know why.
Let me back up. To three days ago. Saturday morning — or maybe it was still Friday night. It was all kind of a blur. After I whispered my secret to Ivy, she called a halt to The Game. Ivy said it was time for us to go home — to her home. All of us. As the rules of The Game state. But I wasn’t ready to go home yet. Not then. Not after that. Not after I let the cat out of the bag. So despite the cajoling and insisting, which turned into begging and pleading, I didn’t go back to Ivy’s house with the rest of her friends. They walked out and I stayed at The Shop. I needed a drink. Just one more. When I went up to the bar to place my order, the server, a pleasant young woman that I see around the neighborhood all the time, stared at me with a serious expression.
“I’ll sell you this beer, Maddie, but then I’m cutting you off,” she said. “After this, it’s time for you to go home.” I was mad about this. I’m a grown-ass woman, thank you. I don’t need anybody telling me when to stop drinking. And I was getting tired of people ordering me to go home. I didn’t say any of this to the bartender. But I gave her a snarky look, ignored her tip jar and spilled a little of my beer on the counter as I walked away. I sat in the corner and downed my beer. Didn’t sip it or savor it, even though it was a craft IPA made right in the neighborhood. I drank it straight off.
Then I looked around the single big room at The Shop. Nobody I knew in there. Nobody to buy me my next drink. Damn it. Took another look around and watched as a young woman left the better part of her beer on one of the smaller tables as she got up to use the restroom. I walked over to her table as quickly and confidently as I could. Grabbed her beer and drank it down in one gulp.
As I turned and took a couple of steps toward my own table, I felt strong hands grabbing both of my upper arms. Looked to my right and saw one of the owners of The Shop gripping my bicep. Turned to the left and her partner had my other arm. The lady on the right, the one with cropped dyed orange hair, pulled me close to her face and said, “Maddie, I’m surprised at you. What in the hell do you think you’re doing? I got half a mind to call the cops. But I don’t really want to deal with this crap so near to closing time.” All this time, she and her silent partner walked me slowly, but firmly toward the back door. Conversations grew hushed as we passed. Every eye in the place followed as I was lead unceremoniously out the back through a group of smokers on the back deck, down the stairs, past the small parking lot to the edge of their property. Up to the stinky dumpsters. Then the women let me go. But the silent partner found her voice. “I don’t want to see you back in our business for a month. You got that, girl?” Damn, she was mad. “And when you do come back, you better be sober…and have an apology ready.” She stared daggers at me. And repeated, “You got that, girl?” I just stood there and stared back. Her voice raised an octave and became louder still. “Do you understand what I’m saying, here?”
I didn’t respond to her question, but took two steps backward. I started to give her a military salute, but then changed it to a heil Hitler salute. The dyed hair owner took a step toward me, anger flashing in her eyes, but then she stopped. When she ordered me to “Get the hell out of here,” I turned and walked away, down the alley that we came through and back out to Henderson street.
The last thing I remembered that night was talking some guy at the Alter Bar into buying me a mixed drink. I don’t remember the drink arriving and I don’t remember drinking it. One of life’s enduring mysteries.
Next thing I remember was waking up around 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. At a strange guy’s apartment. Somewhere in MillVille. The guy, whose name I later learned was Larry, was a balding, heavy-set middle aged guy that I’ve seen working at the neighborhood farmer’s market. I think he raises chickens in his backyard, because he’s known around here as The Egg Man. I was skeptical about whether fresh eggs are better than store bought. But the scrambled eggs that Larry made me that Saturday afternoon, with a little butter and cheese and good bread, were damned tasty. I ate silently as we both waited for Mr. Tom to arrive. To rescue me. Again. This is starting to feel like deja vu. My head throbbed, my throat was parched and I felt a little nauseous. As Larry cleared the plates and carried them to his tiny kitchen he said, “When I was out walking Melly last night, I found you leaning on a light pole, with your legs sticking out in the street. Over on 35th Street near the construction site. It was 3:30 a.m. Don’t you know that’s dangerous? To be out that late? By yourself? On a dark street?”
I nodded my head ‘yes’ to all of those questions. I knew it was dangerous. Scary even. What’s even scarier is that I have no idea how I got there. No idea what happened in the three or so hours before that. No freakin’ idea. Yeah, I know — that’s dangerous.
A few minutes later, Mr. Tom arrived at Larry’s door. They talked in the doorway. Quietly, so I couldn’t hear from the kitchen. Then Mr. Tom walked in, gently took my arm and walked me out. In the doorway, I stopped and turned toward Larry. Unsure of whether my voice would work today or if I would sound like a crow cawing in some dark woods, I turned quickly, gave him a little wave and mouthed the words, “Thank you.” He nodded and gave me a smile. The saddest damn smile I’ve ever seen.
Mr. Tom walked me the few blocks home without speaking. Not…one…word. Opened his massive ornate front door and walked me upstairs. Past the second floor with the fancy bathtub. Up one more flight to my door, which was closed. As I opened it and stepped inside, I turned to Mr. Tom to say thanks. He stood on the landing and shook his head ’no’. “Get some sleep,” is all he said. Then he turned and walked slowly down the stairs, the plush carpet masking his footsteps as he descended. I climbed into bed without taking any clothes off. And fell asleep.
And slept. And woke up two days later. Look at my phone and it’s Monday — 10 a.m. Crap, I’m late for work and I haven’t had a shower for days and my clothes smell like…uugh. I’m gonna get fired for sure this time. I sit up, look around in a panic and see two things on the nightstand next to my bed. The first is a huge glass of water, with fresh ice cubes floating inside. The second is a note, written in Mr. Tom’s precise penmanship, looking the way you’d expect an old-school third grade teacher to write. The note says:
Good morning. I hope you are rested and feeling better. I took the liberty of contacting Alex from your workplace, asking if he might excuse you from work today, due to an illness. I told him that you were recovering and should be back on the job tomorrow. When you are showered and dressed, please meet me in the parlor.
Oh, lord. He’s covered for me with work and now he’s about to chew my ass out good. Guess I deserve it. I swing my legs out of bed and touch the thick rug that decorates my room. A train sounds its horn about a block away. Can’t believe that I slept for two solid days and didn’t hear a train horn once. Guess I slept pretty deeply. I do feel human again. Except that I’m damn near starving. Maybe, Mr. Tom has some breakfast left. I pitch my clothes in the little blue hamper in the closet, take a long shower and even blow dry my hair. No rush to get to work, so why not? I pick out my best jeans (not the paint spattered ones I wear to work) and a cute top I bought in the combo bar/boutique that opened recently down on Henderson. Take a quick look in the mirror. I look a little thinner, but not nearly as haggard as I felt on Saturday morning.
Time to face the music. As I descend to the second floor landing, I hear voices down below. Several voices. Some jumbled, talking over each other. A couple I can pick out, but some that…who the hell is here? I turn the corner to take the last few steps and feel disoriented. Like the confusion you might feel at a surprise birthday party. Where you see a bunch of people that you know, but they all shouldn’t be together at the same time. In the same place. I stop two steps from the landing and look at the group gathered in the room. Mr. Tom calls it a parlor; other people would call it the living room. I look around the room and I still can’t take it all in.
Beside Mr. Tom sit Kelly and Richard, my housemates. They sit with their chairs close together, their knees touching. As I stand on the bottom step, Kelly looks up at me solemnly. Richard gives me a little smile, then looks down. Next to Richard sits Ivy. My buddy from work, and the bearer of my deep dark secret. Next to Ivy sits someone I haven’t seen in almost a year. My old nemesis, turned friend and confidante, Kayla Burbadge. Why the hell would Kayla be here from Indianapolis…unless.
And next to Kayla sits my mom. I did a good job of holding it together until I see my mom. Sitting here in my funky old apartment house in MillVille. Looking older and sadder than when I left her. I try to hold them back, but the tears shoot out of my eyes, my breath coming in wracking sobs. Without a word, Mom gets up, walks to me, wraps her arms around me and I sob into her shoulder. Wracking, heaving sobs that don’t subside for about two minutes. Finally, when my tears stop flowing and my breathing eases, Mom puts her hands on my shoulders, holds me at arm’s length and looks straight into my eyes. In the kindest way that I ever remember her looking. She says in a soft voice, meant only for me, “Maddie honey, I’m here for you. We’re all here. All of us. For you.”
My emotional roller coaster continues as I switch to anger and explode: “What the hell is this? Is this… are you giving me some kind of an intervention? Because I don’t fucking need or want that crap. I’m outta here.”
I take a step toward the staircase and Mr. Tom speaks then, softly and kindly, “Maddie, this is not an intervention. But I did invite these people here. Your friends and family. We all care about you. But we’re not here to browbeat and intimidate you. We’re here to show you we care. We all support you. But we’re not going to sit around in some little circle and go around the room. We’re going to take a walk. Is everybody ready?”
So, I’m walking. They are walking. We are walking. I have no idea where. But I’m pretty sure I know why.
We step off the expansive front porch, turn left, and walk the half block on Berber Lane to Henderson Street in silence. Then Kelly and Richard appear on both sides of me, taking my arms. As usual, Kelly does the talking. “We all need to talk to you about a couple of things. You gotta know that I talk to everybody in service here in MillVille. We all talk. We all know what’s going on. And we all got each others’ backs. You know what I’m sayin’?” I look over at her briefly and nod. “I’m not naming names, but what I’m hearing about you is a little disturbing. Drinking way too much and stealing drinks and hitting on strange men and passing out on the streets is not cool. It’s stupid…and dangerous and…”
“Ok, I get that but…”
“Just let me finish. Please. There’s a lot you don’t know about me and my buddy Richard here.” I glance up at Richard and he smiles down at me. “Richard and me had a lot of problems. I’m not goin’ into details here, but suffice it to say Mr. Tom took us in, helped us get our lives straightened out. And he’s tryin’ to do the same thing for you. But you don’t seem to care about that.”
“I do care, but I…”
“Will you just shut up and listen for once? Please?” I stop talking and nod. “OK, Mr. Tom helped us and he’s trying to help you too. Did you think it was some accident that you got this great apartment in a great neighborhood for such cheap rent?” I shrug. “Hell no, it’s not. Mr. Tom knew who you were and what happened before you moved in here. He helped me and Richard get on our feet and he’s helped other people before us. But you gotta meet him halfway, OK? I’m not telling you how to live your life, but you gotta cut out the stupid stuff like what you did last weekend. Have a little respect for yourself. And you could show Mr. Tom a little gratitude by getting your life together. Capiche?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Don’t fucking guess. Do it. If you can’t handle alcohol then stop drinking. There are people who can help you with that stuff. And don’t think you’re alone in this. Richard and I know what you’re goin’ through. And we’re here to help and support you. You just gotta want to change and then do it.” I feel a soft squeeze on my right bicep. It’s Richard and he’s smiling over at me and nodding.
They let go of my arm and fall back. I walk alone a few steps and then my Indiana friend Kayla walks up and joins me. She gives me a tight side-to-side hug and says, “Hey, sister, it’s good to see you.” I turn to face her and give her a proper hug. The rest of the group stops behind us and gives us space.
“You didn’t need to come down here. Taking off school and all.”
“I didn’t take off school. It’s Columbus Day. No teaching for me today. But I’d be here anyway. For you. So, how are you doin’?” I try not to, but I laugh anyway. In spite of how crappy I treated her in the beginning, Kayla has always tried to get me to see the positive side of things. Hard to believe that a girl who was orphaned and dragged down from Chicago to our little farm town could view anything as positive. But she always did.
“I’m OK,” I reply. “How’s life treating you?”
“No girly, we’re not changing the subject here. I didn’t just ride with your mom nine hours down here to talk about the weather. Here’s all I have to say. I’ve known you for a long time and I know how strong you are. You got out of that toxic relationship with Donnie, got away from all of those people and turned your life around. You’ve become an artist and…”
“Well, not really.”
“Don’t ‘well’ me. You’re an artist. And a talented one. Even if the world doesn’t know it yet. And you had the guts to pull up stakes and move out of Indiana. And you live in a cool house in a great neighborhood.” Kayla gazes around at all the funky shops as we wait for the light to change at 36th and Henderson.”
“I’m beginning to learn that the house and neighborhood may have chosen me.”
“That doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’re here. Right now. Supporting yourself with a great job and…”
“Not that great.”
“Would you shut the hell up and let me sing your praises?” I keep quiet and Kayla continues. “I know that you’ve got a good job and a good place to live and a community all around you and friends. Lots of friends. A bunch of them stopped by your house yesterday to check up on you. While you were sleeping. Yeah, we drove through the night on Saturday to get down here. We’ve been here for about a day and a half. Waiting for you to wake up.”
“You didn’t need to do that.”
“I know I didn’t need to dummy, but I did anyway. That’s what friends do. And I just want you to remember, you have friends back in Indiana too. Like me. If you ever need me, I’m just a phone call away. Or a text or a Facetime or a Skype. You get the picture. Anyway…” Kayla stops walking and we all stop. Right outside The Publican. Kayla spins me around and gives me a long warm hug as she whispers, “I love you, sister. And I’m pulling for you. And I’m there if you need me.”
“Thanks,” I say wiping away the single tear that escaped the corner of my eye. “Love you too.” Kayla rubs the top of my arm a few seconds then pulls away and walks back, joining the others a few feet behind me. Guess I’ve figured out where we are going — The Publican. It’s normally closed on Monday, but Kelly must have gotten us in somehow.
I peer inside and see the person sitting at the end of the long table in the center of the room. He’s facing me. Sees me through the window. With a lot of effort, he raises his thin arm and waves at me.
Oh God. No, no, no.
Chapter 10: Maddie saves the day
As I stare in through the window of The Publican, my heart starts to race and my breathing picks up. Someone grabs my arm — hard, and spins me around. It’s Ivy. She yells into my face, “Why did you tell me that? Fucking lie to me…scare the crap out of me? Out of all of us? Because I told everyone what you said on the way home. And then you ditch us and just go on your merry way? What the hell is wrong with you?” I stare down at the ground, speechless. I’ve never felt so ashamed in my life. Ivy is back in my face, “Answer me!”
I start to mumble something. An excuse…an apology…another lie. I don’t know. Mom gets between Ivy and me. Takes my arm and pulls me away a little. She has a strange look on her face. One I can’t read. Like a combination of surprise, anger and fear. Disconcerting, to say the least. She speaks more softly and kindly than I would have expected, “Maddie honey, when I heard what you said… and when I heard what you did after that, I had to come down here and find out what the hell is going on with you. We all dropped everything, jumped in the car and came down here. Kayla and me and him. For you. We all came down here for you.”
Ivy is still pissed and she gets back in my face, forcing herself between Mom and me. I stand there and let her get it out of her system. I deserve this. Ivy yells, “I still want to know why you told me that? What kind of asshole tells someone that they killed their own brother? Which I can see now is obviously a lie.” Ivy points in through the window at my 17-year-old brother Charlie, sitting by himself at the end of a long table. In his wheelchair. He looks up from the menu he’s been studying, smiles weakly at the group of us staring in. Then he drops the menu, raises his thin arm, and motions us to come inside and join him.
Mom pulls me away from Ivy again and says calmly, “We can’t just leave him in there sitting by himself all day. Let’s go inside, have a nice lunch and talk.” Right then, standing out on North Henderson Street in my adopted town, I love my mom more than I ever have. I need to remember this feeling.
Mr. Tom walks from the back of the group to the restaurant door, pulls it open and says, in his elegant deep voice, “Ladies and gentleman, after you.” We file in quietly and I wait for the others to sit. Mom takes the seat next to Charlie and motions for me to sit opposite her. Ivy, who is clearly still upset, sits on the opposite side as far away from me as she can get. She looks up from her menu and throws me dirty looks from time to time.
Charlie looks over at me and smiles warmly. Takes my hand in his withered one and squeezes as tight as he can. “Hey Sis,“ he says, his voice croaky, “how’s life been treating you?” I put my arm around him, bury my head in his shoulder and cry for a full minute. You can hear a pin drop in the restaurant. Charlie pulls back a bit, looks into my tear-stained face, and says, “It’s gonna be OK. See, I’m OK, you’re OK. No harm done. Except I had to sit in the back seat of that damn car for like 12 hours.” I snort a quick laugh through my tears and a snot bubble blows out my nose. My brother says, “Gross, Maddie! Can you just…take care of that, please?” Mom hands me a tissue and I wipe my eyes and nose. Pull away from Charlie, raise up, grab my chair and sit.
Mom looks over at Kelly and asks, “So this is your place? What’s good here?” The tension breaks, just a hair. We go around the table and order our food. Not much talk. Then it’s back to the topic at hand. Me.
“I just want to know this,” Mom starts. “Just this. Why on earth would you tell somebody that you killed your brother? Why Maddie?”
“I don’t know… I just…”
Mom interrupts, “I know. We all know that the accident has affected you. Deep down. But you gotta get a couple of things straight in your head. First of all, your brother Charlie is very much alive. Right Charlie? Tell her.”
Charlie looks at me and rolls his eyes, “She knows, Mom.”
“I know she knows,” Mom says, no humor intended. “But she’s going around saying she killed you. Why? Why are you saying that Maddie?”
“I only said it once.”
“But why? Why say it at all?”
“I was a little drunk and…”
“Oh, please,” Ivy interjects, “you had a few drinks in a few hours, just like the rest of us and I…”
“Would you please not interrupt me?” Mom says evenly to Ivy. Ivy looks down and nods. Our food arrives and the servers distribute plates around the table. Nobody touches their food. My mom turns her attention back to me. “I still want an answer. Why would you say something so awful? Something so hurtful? So wrong?”
“Because I feel guilty. It’s my fault. Mine. That he’s…broken. That he’s going to be in that chair for the rest of his life and…”
“But honey, that’s silly. None of that is your fault. That other driver ran the stop sign. You saved Charlie’s life.”
I look down at my plate and the tears start to spill out. I’ve never cried so much in one day. I don’t say anything for a while. I can’t.
Charlie looks over at me, reaches out and touches my arm “Tell her.”
“The police said you were a hero. You went back and got Charlie out of that car. Pulled him out and kept him safe until…”
Charlie says a little louder, “Just tell her.”
“It wasn’t your fault. The other car hit you. Charlie could’ve died, but he didn’t. You saved your brother’s life when you…”
“If you don’t tell her right now, I’m going to.” Charlie is the most easy going kid in the world. But I’ve seen him mad a couple of times and he’s pissed off right now. At me.
“Mom, you don’t know what happened.” I let that sink in a minute. “What really happened.”
“What do you mean I don’t know? What don’t I know?”
“It was all my fault because I…I…”
“Maddie wasn’t driving the car that night, Mom,” Charlie says, evenly. Oh crap, here it comes. “I was.”
Mom looks stunned. I can see the wheels spinning in her head. She’s doing the math. “But you were only…only fifteen. Didn’t have your license and…”
I’m sobbing now. “It was my fault. My fault. All of this.” I wave my right arm weakly in Charlie’s direction.
“But why did you? Why would you? I don’t…”
“Because I begged her, Mom,” Charlie says. “For weeks. To take me driving. Let me drive around the neighborhood a little bit. And she said ‘no’. For weeks she said ‘no’. But then…”
“I said ‘yes’. It was early evening…around dinner time and nobody’s out then and there’s never much traffic in Felton anyway. So I said ‘yes’ and then…” I choke up and can’t finish my sentence.
My mother sits across from me and stares. First at me. Then over to Charlie. Then back at me. At last, she just says, “Oh,” and I suddenly notice that nobody’s talking in the restaurant. You could hear a pin drop. Not sure if it’s a coincidence or if they’ve been listening to us. Mom finds her voice and continues.”
“But the rest of it…is it…?”
Charlie says, “It’s true. Maddie got out. Got herself out first. But then came back for me. “Maddie smelled smoke and thought there was gonna be a fire. So she got me out of the seat belt. Pulled me out of the car, got me to a safe place and called 911. We agreed to tell everybody that Maddie was driving. Because she…because we…”
Mom sits quietly for a long time. She’s thinking about the possibilities. The alternatives. If things had been different. If I’d been driving. If I were the one in that wheelchair. Or worse. After what seems like an eternity, Mom gets out of her chair, walks over between Charlie and me. She wraps one arm around Charlie, one arm around me and pulls us both in tightly. She’s got tears in her eyes now and she looks years older than when I first saw her this morning. Mom pulls my head a little closer and whispers into my ear, “I want you to come home with us. It would be better. For your state of mind. And I just…we just…I love you. We miss you.”
I pull away from her grip. Now it’s my turn to look back and forth — between Mom and Charlie. I think for a minute before I speak. “I miss you guys. Love you too. Both of you. But…” Several seconds pass. I can feel my heart beating — hard.
“This is my home now. I’m staying here.”
I haven’t had a drink for four weeks. I go to bed earlier. I get to work on time. I do yoga twice a week. I’m learning to meditate. I’m trying to make my life better. A little bit at a time.
And Mr. Tom hooked me up with a therapist. Somebody he knows who’s worked with a lot of young people. She’s trying to get me to focus on thinking positively. To eliminate the negative thoughts from my mind. This is not easy. I have too many things in my past I’m not proud of. But my therapist, Chris, says that I can’t change the past. I have to accept that it happened, learn from it and move on. Forgive myself. Use what I’ve learned during my time on earth to make myself a better person. Lead a happier life going forward.
I’m trying. I’m really trying. Lord knows, I’m trying.
Yesterday, on Friday afternoon, Alex asked if any of us could work a half day on Saturday to catch up on some extra painting. For furniture that needs to be delivered on Monday. Ivy said she has plans with her friends. Since I wasn’t included in those plans, I can only assume that I’m not back in her friend group yet. I’ve apologized to Ivy. More than once. Tried to explain to her why I still feel responsible for what happened to Charlie. Told her that I don’t know why I said I killed him. I truly don’t understand why I said it, so it’s not surprising that I can’t explain it to Ivy. I’ll keep trying to regain Ivy’s trust. And she’ll come around. Or she won’t. I can only control my own words and deeds. I can’t control how they affect other people. But I miss Ivy, as a friend.
I told Alex that I’d be willing to work Saturday. I’ve got nothing else to do. When I volunteered, I was sure that I’d be the only one working in the paint room. No way would Beth want to spend a half day cooped up alone with a pariah like me. But sometimes people surprise the crap out of you. Just like Beth did. When she said, ‘Sure’ to Alex, she looked down and continued her work. Just like that.
So today, Saturday, it’s just my buddy Beth and me. Not fighting, but barely acknowledging each other’s existence. Both of us doing our work in isolation and relative silence, on opposite sides of the paint room. I let Beth choose the music. Normally she chooses some pop junk that I’m sure is designed to annoy Ivy and me. But today, she tunes in to our local NPR station WFAE. I’m good with that. I need a little bit of catching up on my culture stuff. And political stuff. And general smart people stuff. So that’s OK.
Alex is out with a client and the sales person ran out to grab an early lunch. Beth and I work steadily…quietly…alone in the shop.
It’s just a little after 11 a.m. and I hear a crash from Beth’s corner of the room. The piece she’s working on has fallen to the floor and Beth lays beside it. From across the room, I see Beth looking down at her arm and panting heavily. Her face getting whiter by the second. “I tried…I was working the top. My chair fell and I hit… it hit…my arm!” she cries out. I run over to Beth and stare down, my mouth open in absurd cartoon-like shock. I pull the bookshelf off the left side of Beth’s body and can’t believe what I’m seeing. A four inch long, ragged shard of splintered wood protrudes from Beth’s forearm. And blood is seeping out. No, it’s pulsing out.
“Yeah, I know,” Beth cries. “Help me…please.” I run back to my work station, rummage through my bag, searching for my phone. Pull it out and… damn it! No reception here in the warehouse. Beth croaks from the other side of the room. “Please… drive me to the ER! Now!” Before doing anything, I pull off my long sleeved shirt, press it into Beth’s wounded arm and hold it for a minute. My pale blue shirt turns crimson in a growing blob, but the gushing seems to have slowed. I take Beth’s right hand and place it over my shirt on the wound.
“Keep the pressure on this,” I bark. Beth complies. I put my arm around her waist and walk her, as fast as she’s able, out of the work room, through the gallery to the small parking lot in front of the store. As usual, I rode my bike to work, but Beth drove. “Where’s your key?” I ask and Beth looks down at her right pocket. I fish it out of her tight jeans, unlock the doors and help her in. This will make a mess of her nice clean upholstery. I slam her door, run to the other side and get in. Start the engine and throw gravel as I gun it out of the parking lot. Come to end of our street and stop suddenly.
“Where’s the ER?”
“Across the tracks. Other side of MillVille. Past the grocery.” Beth’s voice sounds weak and thready. I hesitate for a minute, thinking. “You’ve got to drive over,” she says. “Over the tracks.” Now I understand what she wants. Around here, we say ‘the bridge’ or ‘over the tracks’ to indicate which route we want to take back to MillVille. I jerk the wheel left and drive to the stoplight. It’s red and I don’t care. Turn right immediately and get a horn blast and the finger from a driver I cut off. Too bad. Drive as fast as I can to the next light and again turn right on red. Punch the accelerator and hit 50 as I barrel down the industrial wasteland of Craighead Street. Toward Henderson Street and MillVille.
Look down the road and shout, “Damn it!” at what looms ahead. A massive freight train blocks the roadway. And it’s not moving. At all. This is bad. Look in the rearview mirror as I join the line of cars waiting to cross the intersection. Already seven or eight cars right behind me. We’re stuck. In the middle of industrial hell.
Take a quick look over at Beth. She’s white as a sheet. Glance out the window and a young guy rides up on a bike. Stops at my window. Not riding just any bike. My freakin’ stolen bike! The guy pulls up by my open window and starts in. What I call the hustle hassle. “Hey ladies, how you all doin’ today?” He looks me up and down, then his eyes stop at my white t-shirt. He smiles and continues his spiel, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.” His eyes move to Beth and he coos, “And how you doin’ chica? I can….oh Jesus Christ what happened to her?”
“You stole my bike, you scum bag and I’m going to… “ Can’t do this now. I pivot. “She’s hurt… bad and I gotta get her to an ER.”
“OK, OK… gimme a minute.” the guy says. He looks up toward the tracks and back down the long line of cars stacking up behind us on Craighead. Nods to himself and puts his face in the window, dead serious. “OK, you’ll never through here in time. We gotta go back.”
“But I can’t get out and… and… there’s no ER over here and then…”
“Dr. Diaz is workin’ today. I know cuz my friend just seen him.”
“But I can’t get out!”
“The hell you can’t. You follow me.” With that, the guy lets my bike fall to the ground and starts moving down the line of cars behind us barking orders to the drivers. In under a minute, a space opens up behind us. He runs back toward us, grabs the bike and yells, “Turn around, fast! And follow me.” In three turns, I’m out of the line of waiting cars and heading back the way I came on Craighead Street. The bike guy is already halfway to the stoplight. Of course, the light is red. He rides to the center of the intersection and brakes squeal as drivers narrowly avoid plowing into him. He turns his head back and forth, screaming at drivers on both sides on the intersection to let me pass. I see enough an opening and speed through the intersection, turning left onto Tryon.
Within seconds, my bike thief catches up and then passes us. Can’t believe how fast that guy can ride on my old three-speed Schwinn. He yells ahead to the next intersection a half block away, “Flag Man, go red! Go red, bro! Stop the traffic!” Without hesitation, the guy who waves a yellow flag at cars all day, every day on North Tryon Street immediately drops his yellow flag. He pulls a crimson one out of his back pocket, unfurls it and steps into the oncoming side street traffic. The first car into the intersection almost hits Flag Man; but he stands his ground and traffic screeches to a halt. Then Flag Man does an elaborate wave and we start through the intersection. The guy on my bike gives Flag Man a fist bump as he leads us down Tryon Street.
Two blocks further, my old Schwinn swerves to the right into a small strip mall. I spot an African grocery, a popular neighborhood barber shop and a Vietnamese nail salon. At the far right of the line of business is a white door with a small sign that reads: Arturo Diaz, D.O. Medicina Familiar. The guy angles the bike sharply to the right, lays it down to the side of the white door and motions me to the single open parking space in the busy lot. He says, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
As precious seconds tick by, I look over at Beth, who hasn’t uttered a word since we left work. What seems like hours ago. “Are you still with me there, kiddo?”
Beth has a bit of her color back, but she looks much younger and really scared. She says quietly, “I’m OK. Thanks for everything. You didn’t…”
“It’s nothing. You would have done the same thing for me.”
The young guy comes out of the office with a small middle aged man dressed all in white. The man wears a pair of tiny reading glasses, pushed up on his slicked-back, jet-black hair. At his side is an older woman wearing a stiff white dress and one of those old fashioned nursing caps. Like I saw a couple of times when I was a kid back in Indiana. The couple helps Beth out of the car. The nurse supports her injured arm while the doctor wraps Beth’s right arm around her shoulder and helps her toward the door. I start to follow and they simultaneously say, “No, No,“ and motion for me to wait outside.
Inside Beth’s car I wait and wait and wait. I text Alex to let him know what’s going on. Finally bike guy appears, picks up my bike and walks to my window. He leans against the door and sighs. “I translated for your friend. Dr. Diaz, he’s a good guy…good doctor. But his English…” The guy wobbles his hand back and forth. “Now you and me got some talking. About this.” He points to my bike. “See, I didn’t take this bike…your bike. I won it off a couple guys I play cards with sometimes. Where they got it?” He shrugs. “But you say it’s yours…you take it. I don’t need no trouble.” He rolls the bike toward the back of the car and motions for me to open the trunk.
I sigh, pull open the car door and step out. Walk to the back of the car and stick out my hand. “My name’s Madison.” Not sure why I’m being so formal. “Maddie for short.” He looks at my hand for a minute, smiles and shakes my hand gently. Didn’t notice before, but he’s just a kid. Maybe 17 or 18. Charlie’s age.
“I’m Ricardo,“ he says shyly. “but folks around here call me Ricky. So here’s the thing. I don’ want nothin’ to do with no stolen property and I’ll…”
“Ricky,” I interrupt him mid-sentence. I have a habit of doing that. “Don’t worry about it. Keep the bike. You earned it today. What you did and all.”
Ricky smiles and shakes his head. Looks down at the bike, pulls out his bandana and wipes a small bit of mud off the back fender. Looks back up at me, straight in the eye and says, “Maddie, you good people. We need more like you around this town.”
I return his smile, then raise my gaze to take in the spectacular Charlotte skyline, just a couple miles down the busy street. For the first time in months, since I limped over the mountains and into this state from Indiana I have a feeling. A new feeling. A strange feeling. A good feeling. A feeling that I belong.
From the author:
Like many other enterprises that appear to be solitary in nature, writing actually requires a team of dedicated people to be successful. To that end, I’d like to thank the small team that helped me bring my novella MillVille to fruition.
First, I’d like to thank my editing team of Pam Hutson (my wife) and Arthur Linne (my son). Pam and Arthur proved invaluable in helping me to refine, if not perfect my spelling, grammar, punctuation and the content of each MillVille chapter. Without their help, my story would not be the finished product which appeared twice a week in the virtual pages of Axios Charlotte.
This type of publication was new to me for several reasons. It was my first novella and my first entirely online publication. But perhaps the biggest change that I encountered in this exercise was responding to Axios Charlotte’s request that each chapter be accompanied by relevant pictures. While I shot most of the photos myself, I had significant help along the way. I’d like to thank the uncredited photographers whose photos also graced MillVille’s chapters. Specifically, I’d like to thank my son, Mason Linne, whose road photographs perfectly captured Maddie’s descent from the mountains of Western Carolina to the Piedmont region. My niece, Erin Byrne, also helped create a child’s bedroom scene for one of the early chapters. Keeping things in the family, my sister, Christi Bastnagel, offered a beautiful photo of Maddie’s high school friend, Kayla, in front of a red barn. Modelling for the picture was Chisti’s daughter (and my niece), Betsy Bastnagel.
In a similar vein, I would like to thank my friend, the talented local artist Osiris Rain, for allowing me to use his building mural as my cover art. Osiris also contributed the painting of the hopeful flower that follows the final sentence of MillVille.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the team at Axios Charlotte for giving me the opportunity to present my novella to their large audience of daily readers. I realize that my work is a pivot from their usual content and I appreciate their giving me exposure to their core audience. I found them extremely flexible, accommodating, responsive and respectful of my writing. Thanks guys!
Finally, I must thank the most important component of my team, you the readers. Without an audience, there would be no story telling. So on behalf of myself and writers everywhere, we thank you for reading.