Charlie M. Broderick
June sat on the kitchen table with her feet flat on a chair’s seat and took a deep breath. She would have sat on the bed, but these were not thoughts she wanted anywhere near her pillow. A chair itself was far too ordinary a place to sort this out. Even if she straddled it backwards or lazed sideways—one arm over the backrest, she could not have these thoughts mixed in with her ordinary. Since sitting on the floor was one step away from giving up hope altogether, the kitchen table, then, had to do.
This was the best vantage point in her studio. From here she could just make out the top of the adjacent building, a shoe store that sold loafers when shoes were still called that, but had since been parceled out into three new sections: one for an instant tax return chain, one for a hair salon aptly named Curl Up & Dye, which wafted up the scent of perm six days out of the week (Mondays Dee closed the shop to go to the picture shows with her niece), and a pawn shop with a steady influx of car stereos and designer handbags and a Casio keyboard as king of the cracked window display. The roof had taken on a chalky white appearance from layers of pigeon poop. The summer had draughted, giving the sun a chance to bake the shit in good.
She was painting when the thought came. She knew from the dulling of her vision, how shapes shadowed on their rims, that she would not have much time before the thought would be fully formed. To see her paintings—watercolor landscapes of fantasy worlds done in burning tones—one would never imagine the true nature of her attacks.
She had been given a diagnosis for the thoughts, the way other people got a diagnosis for their pain. Her doctor, white coated and thin as a sapling, told her things could be worse—she could be a genius. There’d be no pressure to devise an entirely new branch of economics or create a renewable energy source. With this diagnosis, people would think she’d done well in life if she stayed off public aid. He encouraged her to keep painting and handed her a pair of earplugs, just in case voices accompanied the thoughts. She wore them in the tub when she submerged herself for long spells while devising underwater cities. Later, she received a hospital bill that included the earplugs. They cost as much as a professional toaster. Sometimes when she put them in her ears she imagined herself as a piece of bread cooking between their waxy forms. The thoughts weren’t very far away those times.
Her day started off normal enough. She woke from a dream in which she was a beetle that couldn’t right itself, legs wompie in the air. In the dream, she touched the space where her heart had been and found nothing there. This was no surprise. She had read Kafka the night before. The shadows of the ceiling fan above her bed that spun like the hands of a clock reminded her of her humanness, so she took her coffee standing up in front of her easel, rushed to prove to herself just how un-bug like she was.
She’d have to remember the pigeon excrement the next time she created a cloud city. For now, she closed her eyes and began count, trying to imagine the shape of each number as it passed her lips. A man walked across her kitchen and stopped in front of the window, blocking the mid-day sun with the bulk of his body. June didn’t want him to see her in her pajamas, but there was no time for a robe. She could not remember if she locked her door the night before. This was the type of neighborhood where strangers entered homes without permission. Because of this, she could not be sure he was only a thought.
If seen on the street in the proper context, the man would appear harmless in his board shorts and flip-flops, handsome even, with his thick black hair and Elvis-esq features. He smelled of pizza and whiskey. For this, she dubbed him Friday. She’d been warned against interacting with her thoughts when they manifested this way and warned against isolation as well—yet this did not derail her hermit hood and only added to her attachments of what was not real to others. If she were born in another era, Friday would be a ghost, and she, gifted.
“I don’t mean to scare you. I’m in a bit of a pinch.” His apologetic smile was a few teeth short.
June closed her eyes certain worms would come crawling out of those holes. There’d been times when a worm crawling across a sidewalk could suddenly burrow into the flesh of her forearms. After she told this to a white coat, he asked why she thought a worm would do such a thing. To this she replied that it wanted to dance with her veins. The white coat then doubled her medication. With her eyes closed, she began to tap in a diagonal line across her body the way she’d been taught to activate other parts of her brain. Although, she couldn’t imagine how it needed more stimuli in times like this.
Friday backed up and sat on the windowsill. “I need a place to flop for a day or two. Week max.”
June’s thoughts rarely asked much of her these days. Generally they stopped in to tell her how terrible her painting was and how she was a slump that would never amount to anything. If she mentioned it in therapy, she’d be redirected to a memory of a heartless art professor she once had, which made her wonder if that different era wasn’t all that off the mark with the ghost stuff.
“I can sleep in your tub. Don’t even need a pillow. Towel works.”
She continued to count aloud. This was one of her stronger days. Determined not to let Friday interfere with her life, she slid off the table and took up her brush once again. The painting needed more green, the type found in key lime pie.
“You’re good at that, you know?”
She knew she was good enough to sell her work, but never tried. She and her therapist worked out an arrangement where she gave him paintings in lieu of cash. She’d tell him the number of hours it took to create the image and he would grant her that many hours of therapy in return. On a few occasions, he told her the paintings were worth more than her said hours and padded her with five or six more. She had a similar arrangement with the mom and pop grocer down the block. Only instead of paintings, she gave them sketches of paintings and listened to the owners’ complaints of one another, sometimes for two hours at a time. There were over forty years of marital woes for her to sort through with them. In the end, they’d grant her permission to make off with her week’s groceries. It was a good system because she never took more than what she needed, and they never made her feel those needs were overpriced.
“You need a flower there,” he said, pointing to the left corner of her painting, “or a Rottweiler in the middle of the whole thing. You know, to throw people off.” She set down her paintbrush.
“One. Two. Three…”
“Okay. I get it. You don’t want to talk shop,” he said, holding up his hands and backing away. “It’s just that everyone loves animals—”
“The oldies down at the 5th avenue farmer’s market would buy a grip of those things if you stick a turtle on them.”
“Six. Seven. Eight.”
“So do you mind if I stay awhile? I realize how strange this seems since we don’t know each other directly.”
When a particular thought showed no sign of going away, June was supposed to do something to distract herself. She pulled on a hoodie and a pair of jeans then set out for a long walk. A change of scenery occasionally made it easier to deal with such thoughts. She took her phone with her, incase she’d be forced to talk directly to Friday in public. The times when she’d forgotten her phone were the worst because people around her grew nervous or concerned or alarmed, and this in turn, frightened her, causing the thoughts to become menacing. Thankfully, Friday didn’t follow her downstairs.
Dee was locking up the hair salon when June passed. “How ya doing, Junie?”
June liked Dee, partly because she wore a different wig everyday. Her choice at the moment was an apricot beehive paired with olive green nail polish.
June shrugged. “Closing early?”
“No one on the books till two. Thought I’d take an early lunch. Why don’t ya come with?” She linked her arm into June’s without waiting for an answer. “It’s beef commercial day. Twenty percent off for seniors.”
June allowed herself to be dragged along for the next five blocks while Dee told her all about the men who played bocce ball in the park.
“You’ve never seen better legs, June, I’m tellin’ you. Cross my heart, he could pass for a twenty-year-old. Not a spider vein in sight.”
June flinched at the word spider. It was a triggering word for her, but so was applesauce, snake, mouse, ant, fly, water bottle, roach, hell hound—don’t ask. Everyday there seemed to be a new trigger word. She was supposed to ignore them. Move on. Make like she hadn’t heard it, but it always showed on her face. A string of too many trigger words in too short a time span could really throw her off. She accidently saw an exterminator commercial last spring that sent her to the ER. No one in the place could convince her that there wasn’t a wasp nest in her chest. The ordeal stumped her therapist, too. When he asked her how she thought the wasps could survive in there, she blew up at him. Her chest was a goddamn resort for wasps, filled with air, and water, and darkness, and her pulpy heart. They were eating her heart! But why you, why would the wasps pick you over all the people in the world, questioned her therapist. And this was what brought her down, the way he could play at her low self-esteem. Why would the wasps pick her? She was a slump.
Her medication was tripled.
She touched her chest and remembered her morning dream. Dee held the door to the diner open for her. June found a booth in the back and quickly started tearing at the paper placemat to keep her mind occupied, counting the shreds as she went. The waiter arrived with water. Dee gave their order.
“Two beef commercials, extra gravy, and I mean extra, heavy baby, load it on, and two milks.”
June sat up in the booth and cranked her head left and right. How fresh was this beef?
Dee raised an eyebrow at the waiter. “Put some pep in your step, junior. We ain’t got all day.” Dee turned to June who seemed more twitchy than usual. “Junie, you want them to go? We can eat them back at my place in the massage chairs.”
“No. Here is fine.”
June averted her eyes and tapped on her chest to prevent herself from crying. Nothing embarrassed her more than looking like she wasn’t in control of her emotions. There was no cow in the diner. She’d eaten beef a million times before and nothing ever happened to her. She was with Dee. She was safe. She’d make herself sit through this lunch. She would not change her order. She would not cry. One. Two. Three. Four. Dee was going on about the men in the park again. Five. Six. Seven. She would have a nice lunch and enjoy herself. Eight. Nine. Ten. The mooing subsided to a soft bray, like a contented calf. June took a sip of water and eased into the booth, actually laughing by the end of Dee’s telling of her sordid Tuesday night date.
“Hand to God, Junie, it was this big.”
The waiter came then with the beef platters and set one in front of each of them. June waited for the cow sound as she stared down at the brown mush on her plate. The other diners were talking and forks and knives were clinking on plates, but the cow noise had vanished. Guiltily June stuck her knife into the meat, which slid in soundlessly.
“Good job with the gravy, but you forgot our milks. How am I supposed to swallow the taters without some lube?”
The waiter squirmed and walked briskly away. June laughed again.
“Whaaa?” Dee asked. “Blame my dentures not my libido.”
June took a couple bites and watched Dee through the steam of the hot beef, acting out her next story with flourishing hand gestures. There was a man in June’s building, third floor, who had a kitten fetish.
“He stuffs the poor little pusses in his skivvies. Imagine that, Junie. I’m telling you, hair dressers, we hear it all.”
The waiter returned with the milks. He set one down in front of each of them. June forced a smile and nod in Dee’s direction.
“MMMMMMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. MMMMMOOOOOOOOO. MMMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”
Dee picked up her glass. Its whiteness had been replaced by red; what was milk only a moment ago was now blood.
“No,” June cried and slapped the glass away from Dee’s lips. Blood splashed on Dee’s face and ran down the front of her shirt, dripping onto her lunch. The glass shattered on the floor, and June had to look away, all of it too much like a crime scene.
“Junie!” Dee wiped her face with napkins from a metal dispenser. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
“No, no,” was all June could manage. She glanced down at her drink and saw that it was a perfectly normal glass of milk, white as could be. She looked back to Dee, who now shoved a wad of paper between her breasts. All of it, she saw, was not blood, but milk. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Her doctors never had an answer as to why or how her thoughts could come and go this way, sometimes taking up residency in her for years and other times brief seconds. There were a lot of things they didn’t have answers to.
Others in the diner were staring, and didn’t care to stop, not even when the waiter came over to sweep up the shards and mop the milk. June started to shake. They were talking about her. She could feel it. They knew about her. How she once told her depressed cousin life wasn’t worth living and then didn’t visit him in the hospital when he thought she’d been right. They were on to her, and they knew where she lived. One. Two. Three. Let them know. Four. Five. Six. Everyone has something, her therapist said, something they’re ashamed of. Seven. Eight. We’re figuring it out together. You’re not so special, June, for them to care. Nine. Ten.
“We can take these to go,” Dee told the waiter.
“No,” June said, “No. I want to eat here.”
Dee lifted an eyebrow. “You sure? We can take it back, no problem.”
June lifted the fork to her mouth and took a bite to prove how sure she was.
“Okay, then,” Dee said, picking up her knife. She turned to the waiter. “Since we’re staying, why don’t you grab us two slices of key lime pie for dessert?”
June froze. They could read her thoughts. Dee was making fun of her for her bad paintings…or was she saying June didn’t work hard enough…didn’t get the painting done this morning and took a walk instead. Dee sent Friday as a test, a test to see if she could finish because they wanted her paintings. They were going to use her paintings to torment prisoners, all the people they locked away for not being able to paint good enough. Those people were going to die because of her, because she didn’t think life was worth living, because she didn’t get to the key lime green in time before the test.
June slid out of the booth and bolted across the diner into the street. They were going to follow her. There was nowhere to go because they knew her thoughts. Knew where she would run, where she would hide. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. It didn’t matter how fast she ran. Thirteen. Fourteen. They’d be waiting for her. Fifteen.
June once spent a week hiding out at a junkyard, holed up in the back of a wrecked Chevy. Luckily, it rained earlier and she was able to drink water that pooled in an old tire. She found a pack of mints and a candy bar miraculously preserved in the glove box. Of all the cars, her doctors mused; she’d found the only one with food. Like her neighbors, the universe seemed to want to take care of her, too.
June didn’t stop running until she reached the door to her studio, which proved she wasn’t completely broken yet. Some part of her brain had taken up resistance to the madness. She cried when she saw they weren’t there, waiting. Why had she left the studio in the first place? Why couldn’t she stay in here forever? She climbed atop her table and paced back and forth, hair grazing the ceiling. She had to stay inside, no matter what. She paced until her legs grew weak, and that last part of her mind urged her to make it to the bathroom where she could take some pills to make it all slow and bring the sleep. Because what she needed was to sleep, to take a hot shower and sleep. If they were going to take her, she should be clean and rested.
She climbed down from the table and made it to the bathroom. Here, she did not bother with the light, as some from a street lamp—had she really paced until it grew dark?—streamed in from the shower window. The pills were bright against her palm, blue and pink and yellow and purple. The seven she’d been prescribed daily, plus two more for emergency situations. For sleep. She drank from the faucet, and then reached for the shower, hot as it could go.
June gasped and fell backwards onto the toilet. Friday scrambled out of the tub and flopped onto the tile floor. June pulled her legs to her chest, not wanting any part of her near him.
“That’s a helluva way to wake a man. Shesh. Now I know how a lobster feels.” Friday pulled himself up by the sink edge. “I’m gonna stick my head in the freezer while you finish your shower.”
Friday shut the door behind him and June was left shaking on the toilet. She felt her mind trying to add more to the interaction, but the thoughts slipped away before she could grab on to them. Her mind was blank, aware only of the light streaming in through the window broken by the steam. The medication was working. She knew without looking in the mirror her eyes were deadened, her lips sagged, a small cost for being able to take a shower in peace.
After, she toweled and fumbled with the buttons on her pajamas. She would sleep, and wake up exhausted, and sleep again, no less than fifteen hours tomorrow, but she wouldn’t be terrified.
Friday sat at the table, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle when she woke up. He is only a mirror of my current state, she told herself. The day after an increase in medication felt like what it was to be drunk, too drunk, only there was no room spinning, no nausea. He is not real. He cannot hurt me.
Friday perked up when he saw her. “I never seen nobody sleep like that. I thought you were dead. You’ve been out for almost twenty-two hours. I didn’t want to leave you. I thought you might have, you know, took too much.” Friday’s voice lowered here. He hadn’t more than two fingers left in his bottle.
June found her hoodie and sweatshirt from the day before and pulled them on. Getting up was the last thing she wanted to do, but she knew she must. She drank a glass of water before pulling a chair up to her easel. She didn’t have the strength to stand and paint.
She stared at the painting; colors smeared abstractly across the surface of the canvas. What were they going to be? The version of herself who confidently placed these blobs was gone. She sat there for a full hour, holding her brush in her lap never once reaching for a color. Friday mumbled to himself on and off.
“I thought it was me, kid. Thought I scared you into taking too many of those pills.” His bottle was now empty. He staggered next to her and sat on the floor at her side. “You gotta eat something. There’s nothing in your fridge or cabinets.”
June once bought a sympathy card she mistook for a wedding card, and damn if she couldn't wait for someone to die so she could use it. She didn’t like it tucked inside her correspondence box. It was like passing a cemetery each time she got a postage stamp. Friday, harmless as the card, annoyed her just the same. But he was right; she needed food.
“I’ll take the walk with you if you’re too scared to go alone. Dee told me what happened. We don’t have to pass her shop if you don’t want to.”
Dee. June had the foggy feeling she should be embarrassed about something, but could not remember what. She set her paintbrush down and put on her shoes. She and Friday dragged their feet to the grocer, adding two blocks to their route to avoid Dee’s shop. Once there, Friday opted to stay outside so he could smoke.
Inside, she didn’t know what to do, so she stood, staring mutely at the narrow aisles packed with colorful boxes. The overheads were dim. Kept people from noticing the dust on bottom shelf products. Piñatas were displayed in the windows. Sun faded with fronts several shades lighter than their backs. How could you want to hit a thing like that? June thought of a unicorn with a rainbow tail.
“Are you looking for my parents, mija? They’re at church.”
Estella had Gabriel’s eyes and Carmen’s soft voice. June kept her eyes fixed on Estella’s perfectly manicured toes, unable to look up at her face.
She handed June a basket. “I’ll tell them you were here.”
June wandered to the produce. Her appetite peaked at the sight of the apples stacked neatly into a pyramid and the carrots bundled with rubber bands. She placed two apples, a bundle of carrots, a jar of peanut butter, and a loaf of wheat bread in her basket then took it to the counter for Estella to bag. Feeling better at the prospect of food, June chanced a glance up at Estella who smiled at her warmly.
“You should come for dinner sometime.” Estella’s gold hoop earrings swayed when she spoke. “If mom knew you were only eating sandwiches, she’d say ten Hail Mary’s and make you a plate of tostadas in back before she would let you leave.”
June smiled. Carmen and Gabriel had invited her to dinner on numerous occasions, but June always passed. She never did well in unfamiliar surroundings. Her smile faded when large black rings swelled up around Estella’s eyes, and her nose began to twist oddly, dripping blood onto the counter. June took a step back and closed her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Estella sensed June was fighting with something. “No te preocupes. June, it’s just me.”
By the time Estella got the words out, her face had become swollen and bruised, and her teeth chipped and shattered. June took the groceries and hurried out.
“Va estar bien, June, va estar bien,” Estella called after her.
Friday snuffed his cigarette out when June passed. He hurried behind her, not daring to say a word until they reached her block. By then, June couldn’t control her sobbing. How much more medication did she need to take? She could barely stay awake as it was.
She hadn’t always been like this. Her childhood was average, filled with routine school days and childhood crushes. Her mother did jigsaws with her late into the evenings. Her father worked across town, so June would be in bed most nights before he made it home. She started painting young when her grandmother noticed how realistic her renderings of their cat, Mr. Meow were. It wasn’t until her third semester in college that June started seeing things others couldn’t. There were no answers, only theories of brain lesions and depleted gray matter. Her parents were sat down, without June, and told the worst, so they could be prepared.
“Hey wait up, June, drunks aren’t good runners.” Friday teetered behind her, wheezing on the stairs.
June climbed atop her table and sat cross-legged in its center. She pulled a carrot from the bag and ate it with her eyes closed. Friday made it to her sink where he wretched for twenty minutes then slumped to the floor, leaving the water running. June couldn’t ignore him any longer.
“What do you want from me?”
“I’d feel bad asking you for anything more than your tub. What’s going on with you, kid?”
June shook her head and bit into another carrot. A thought being concerned with her was a first. “I see stuff.”
“I see stuff, too. Hell, everyone with eyes sees stuff.” Friday, in all his wisdom, slumped down further into the fetal position. “That why you busted Dee’s glass?”
“It was blood. I couldn’t let her drink blood.”
Friday groaned. “And Estella?”
“Broken face. Everything wrong about it.”
“Do you got aspirin or antacids around here?”
Friday didn’t let her finish. “Nobody likes bugs, kid, nobody.” He pulled a pair of sunglasses out from his shirt pocket and put them on.
“I know why you’re here, Friday. You’re a reflection of my mental state at the moment and soon you will become violent and abusive because you are the part of myself that does not accept my condition.”
He laughed so hard he had to get up and retch in the sink again. When he finished, he splashed his face with water and took a seat at the table, face down. His forearms muffled his voice, but June had no trouble making out what he had to say. “Get that from your quack?”
She had been warned about this type of thought, one that tried to pit her against people in her life whom she knew and had already established trust relationships with.
“I don’t know where you got Friday from,” he continued, “but the name’s Ronnie.”
June unscrewed the cap to the peanut butter and ate a glob of it with her fingers. “One. Two. Three.” Ronnie didn’t bother her as much as his smell.
“Don’t start that abacus shit again. Ever think maybe these visions or whatever you’re having aren’t about you? Other people got problems, too.”
What she could not ignore she was supposed to challenge. “Is that so, Ronnie? And pray tell what are you suffering from?”
“If you got to know, I owe some guys some cash for a deal that was mostly on the up and up, ball bearings—but that’s a whole other story. I only need your tub a day or two more. I’m trying to figure out how to get the money from my brother, Donnie.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?”
“You don’t know my brother. He’s a real a-hole. I know he’s squelching money out of his company on the side, so he has enough to cover me. I can’t approach him directly because of the restraining order. Got a parole officer that really believes in me. Hot little number, but we’re not gonna talk about her rump. Listen, I can’t go back to the can.”
“Let me guess, you want me to talk to your brother for you?”
Ronnie lifted his head. “That’s the most sense you’ve made since I met you.”
“What about my problems?”
“When I got a problem with someone, I bring it to that person. Old neighborhood code. So, tell Dee about the blood and tell Estella ‘bout her ugly face.”
“I’m calling my therapist.”
“What’s with the middle man? Do it yourself. That’s how I got screwed up with the money in the first place.”
“Is that right? And yet you want me to be your middle man for your brother.”
Ronnie laughed. “You’re a smart kid. Got talent, too, but you’re wasting it being all kooked up in your noggin.”
“We’ll see what my therapist thinks,” June said, reaching for her phone.
Of all her thoughts, Ronnie was the nicest—drunk, toothless, with more chest hair than a black bear, but decent. Her therapist picked up on the third ring. June explained the events of the past two days and what coping skills she employed. He was impressed with her insights. He believed the presence of Ronnie showed a major breakthrough in her self-esteem. He urged her to be cautious to remember that Ronnie was not real—there were telltale signs from her story. She needed to ask herself why a perfect stranger would ask to sleep in her tub? Normal people knock on the door before entering a home to ask a favor of a stranger, and Ronnie just let himself in. Also, he stayed outside to smoke and therefore had no interaction with Estella.
Her therapist thought it was healthy for her to tell Estella and Dee what had happened. That urge he believed was monumental. She was learning to be open with her fears and trusting of others. She must remember, however, that her problems—not those of others—were what she needed to be concerned with now. She was warned not to do anything else Ronnie asked of her without first checking back in. When she broached the topic of Ronnie’s brother, her therapist thought that would be a good thing to bring up in session, which was promptly booked for nine a.m. the next morning. In the meantime, she was not to talk to strangers if urged by Ronnie, and she should call back immediately if he became menacing or wanted her to threaten or harm someone.
By the time June hung up, Ronnie was passed out. This she took to be a good sign. With any luck, when she finished talking to Dee and Estella he’d be gone altogether and she could get back to her painting. If she sat long enough in front of the easel, the blobs were bound to become something.
Dee had just finished setting a woman’s hair in small pink rollers when June walked into the salon.
“It always happens that way, doesn’t it?” Dee was saying to the woman, “Now get your tuckus under the dryer.”
June hesitated by the door, uncertain if this was a good thing to bring up at the salon. She didn’t want everyone to overhear what she had to say to Dee. She was about to walk back out, but Dee stopped her.
“Junie, I got your beef in the back. I saved it for you.” Dee parted the rows of purple plastic hanging beads that separated the front of her shop from the back and came back out with a Styrofoam box. “You want me to heat it up?”
June shook her head. “Dee,” she started.
Dee waved her hand at June and gave her the box. “Don’t apologize. That was the most excitement I had all week. How ya feeling? Everything okay?”
“I’m good. I wanted, well, I thought I should tell you what happened.” June glanced nervously at the woman under the dryer.
The woman waved a bony hand at June.
Dee rolled her eyes. “Go on, Junie. She ain’t gonna hear a thing. Even if she weren’t under there she’s deaf as they come.” She turned to the woman, “Ain’t that right you old dusty crotch?”
The woman nodded and smiled back, waving once more at June.
June poked at the leftover box. “I thought your glass of milk was a glass of blood.” June spurted out. “That’s why I slapped it out of your hands. And the pie scared me because I wanted to use green in my painting, but hadn’t gotten around to it.”
Dee gave June a big hug, crumpling the leftovers between them. “It’s probably a good thing you knocked that glass outta my hand, Junie. Milk gives me the squishes,” she said, pointing to her behind. “But I can’t help having a glass now and then, usually before my colonoscopies. Isn’t that right, raisin tits?”
The old woman smiled and nodded again.
“I don’t know how she gets around, this one,” Dee said, thumbing at the woman, “think she’d be hit by a car by now. Heaven forbid.”
The bells on the shop’s door tinkled then, and a plump woman, wearing a floral patterned moo-moo walked in. She pulled off her headscarf and sat in Dee’s chair.
June caught her breath and tried to ignore the cow coincidence.
“Ooooooh, Dee, I got to tell you what I heard on the way here. You know the grocer’s, girl down the block? She done wrecked herself driving her parent’s car. Got in a head on with the ice cream man. Can you believe that?”
June’s first instinct was to run. Her second was to link Dee’s comment with this woman’s news. Her brain cranked in her head, but like a motor that won’t turn over, it didn’t start. June would have to treat the situation as if it were real. One. Two. Three.
“Is she okay?” June asked, nervously poking more holes in her container.
“Yeah, child. She good. Saved by her seat belt, the air bag, and our Lord and Savior. Parent’s car is totaled. They said her nose might be broke, but shoot it could have been a whole lot worse. And you know what?” the woman said, leaning forward in her chair, “those dang kids down the block, they took half that poor man’s stock o’ ice cream before the police got there. That’s a shame. Worst of the story if you ask me. They my kids, they not be able to taste that ice cream I’d slap them so hard.”
“But Estella is okay?” June asked.
“That her name? So fars I know she fine but for the broken nose.”
“Junie, I told you, us hairdressers, we hear it all before the newspapers.”
“I’ve got to go,” June said and gave a wave in Dee’s direction.
During the climb up her steps to her studio, June began to wonder if Estella’s accident was her fault. If she had warned Estella about her broken nose, would that have kept her from driving that day? By the time June got to her studio, she began to fear that maybe the thought was sent to her remotely via Dee and her therapist to see how well she’d respond to treatment—to see how she managed stress.
She set the takeout box next to Ronnie’s head and nudged him with her foot. He lifted his shades and squinted at her with one eye. June needed to talk to someone about what had just happened, but since she feared her therapist might be part of the conspiracy, the only person left to confide in was Ronnie.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, pushing the box away.
“Can we talk?”
“Sure. Come find me in ten hours. My head will feel less like a flushing toilet then.”
“No. Now,” June demanded. “Or you’ll have to leave.”
Ronnie groaned and rolled to his back.
June launched into her story, her suspicions, her guilt, and her fear. Ronnie didn’t say anything when she finished. June peered down at him to see if he was still awake.
“Get me a glass of water, kid. And get yourself one while you’re at it, too.”
June ran the tap for two waters, set one down at his head, and drank the other in one long gulp. Ronnie reached for the glass, but paused halfway. The effort seemed to take too much of his strength. Finally he spoke.
“Lactose intolerant! How’d you think your quack would explain that?”
“Aren’t I the one who’s the quack, Ronnie?” June asked.
“You heard Dee. She told you milk upsets her bowels. You must have sensed that, but you were uneasy from the start, so maybe your signals got crossed, you know instead of seeing her drink a glass of crap you were so scared it was blood. And all that with Estella, no one’s after you kid. They’re after me. What happened to her isn’t your fault. They probably saw me outside her store and went in asking questions. When she didn’t have answers, I bet they wanted to send me a message. You do have a gift there, with seeing her face. Something like that would scare me half to death. And you, kid, you came home and ate some carrots.”
“I feel like I should have warned Estella, about what I saw, but I was ashamed.” June started crying again, this time not even bothering to hold back.
“It’s me who got Estella caught up in this. Not you.” He rolled over and crawled across the room to where his whisky bottle lay. Bone dry. But that didn’t stop him from tipping it upside down and licking at the rim.
June’s sobs evolved into hyperventilation. She visualized a long encompassing stretch of blue with white patches carved out. As she imagined this, she let her eyes roll across the edges of the white, and thought of the missing blue like a puzzle piece to be found somewhere outside her mind.
“They’re gonna kill me if I don’t get them that money tonight.” Ronnie mumbled to himself.
“I can talk to your brother for you,” June offered. She had collected herself enough to be concerned for Ronnie. He sounded more right than anything her therapist had ever told her.
“You’re too much of a mess to be of any help,” he said, “no offense.”
June wiped the last of her tears with her hoodie sleeve. “I am not. Tell me where your brother is and how much you need from him. Maybe I’ll get a vision or something that will help convince him.”
“A better man would say no, but I’m too scared to die.”
Ronnie spent the next half hour prepping June for her meeting with his brother, Donald. Ronnie needed the cash to be placed in the last washer next to the bathroom at Suds laundromat, a half mile from her apartment. She’d then have to use the payphone to call a number he had her memorize. A runner would respond to pick up the money, but she’d have to stay there to keep an eye on it until they came. The runner would be wearing a plumber’s uniform. Ronnie made her repeat the plan to her several times until he was sure she had it down.
“Donald works late every night. If his secretary is still there and tries stopping you, just push her out of the way. Won’t be too hard. She eats less than you,” Ronnie added.
June nodded at this and left for the bus stop where she would catch a ride downtown. She ran the whole way there—down her stairs and through alleys in case someone was following her. When the bus pulled up, she stepped into its fluorescent convenience store like lighting, wishing Ronnie had told her something personal about Donald. For the remainder of the ride, she tried to picture Ronnie as a child, maybe pudgier with the same pompadour, only fuller. She thought of him in the summer, with freckles, kind even to the kid no one liked. Unless, and she knew this more likely to be true, Ronnie was the kid no one liked.
The bus deposited June across the street from Donald’s office building. She pushed past the revolving door to find a security officer posted at the desk in front of the elevator bank. Ronnie hadn’t warned her about this detail. June zipped to the stairs, expecting to lie about her presence if caught. The officer hadn’t noticed as his attentions were on a spiral notebook in his lap.
June caught an elevator from the second floor. The hall leading to the office was dim and carpeted in a paisley pattern better suited for a thrift store tie. The secretary must have gone home because June was able to open the office door unhindered. Donald sat behind a modern steel desk surrounded on all sides by floor to ceiling windows. She gave a start when she saw him. Ronnie had neglected another bit of information—he and Donald were identical twins.
Donald looked up from his desk and waved her away, “No need to clean this room tonight,” he said, mistaking her for the janitorial staff.
Because he looked so much like Ronnie, she found it easy to talk to him. “Your brother needs help.”
Donald didn’t look up from his work. “I don’t have a brother.”
“You do,” she started. The lights of the city distracted her. She pictured the holes of wasp nests filled in with light. Her chest hummed.
Donald pressed a button on his phone. “Security. I need an escort. Some wacko made their way into my office.” He hit the button again and turned to June. “They’ll be up here in two minutes,” he warned, “if I were you, I’d fly before they get here.”
Fly. Wasp. One. Two. “But you do, you have a brother. His name is Ronnie. He’s in trouble.”
Donald ignored her. “One minute and forty seconds to go, miss.”
“Donnie, listen, he’s your brother. They’ll kill him. He needs some money. It’s not so much for a guy like you.”
“One minute and ten seconds.”
“They already hurt my friend. Got her in car crash. They’re serious. Donnie,” her voice rose to the octave before hysteria, “don’t ignore me—”
“Fifty seconds.” He flipped a sheet of paper he had been reading and started on another, making it clear how unimportant June was to him.
June’s vision grew shadowy as she stepped closer to his desk. “You used to make a fort out of your bunk beds, removing the slats and slanting the top mattress down, angled against the bed frame and the wall. You used to read him your comics in there when your mom’s friends came over. They weren’t always so nice. Ronnie promised not to touch the pages, but he wanted to, Donnie…” The security guard arrived, but June kept on, yelling over his request to leave, “And later, when you shared the sofa bed, you used to stick your arm into the hole where the mattress and backrest met and pull his hair. He didn’t tell on you even when you told him a vampire lived in the closet and you scratched at the bedside table, pretending it was clawing its way out. He took the heat the time you broke the shower bar from swinging on it…”
The guard pushed her to the door, but she wrestled him, yelling at the top of her lungs.
“You were the one who told him it was basically fine to pee in public pools…”
“I don’t have a brother,” Donnie yelled back, slamming the office door behind her.
She crumpled to the floor. “He needs you,” she said, sobbing.
The guard dragged her to the elevator and slammed down on the door close button. June felt her stomach drop as they descended to the first floor. The guard bent to help her up.
“I ain’t gotta call the cops if you leave on your own.”
“Sorry,” she said, feeling at her chest. The elevator opened, and she let him escort her to the revolving door.
June sat on the steps outside the building for a long while, going over the exchange with Donald in her mind. All those things came to her as memories, sure as her own childhood. She hated this part the most, resigning to more plausible explanations. Perhaps she invented a childhood for Ronnie and Donnie because some part of her still felt young and vulnerable, and she targeted the CEO of a major corporation because she wanted to be heard, because she was stressed about Estella’s accident. She could create any narration she wanted—anything—so long as it wasn’t that Ronnie was real and the new explanation helped her work on a problem in her life. She was a master at changing her mind. Ronnie was a hallucination.
She had been wrong about the wasps all along.
The bus’s boxy form appeared down the block. June pulled up her hood and crossed the street, already welcoming the bumps and sway of the ride. She found a seat in the back and talked aloud to herself the whole way home, so she wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone. Mostly her utterances were a jumble of nonsense words mixed in with trigger words, an exercise her therapist wanted her to try. Exposure therapy.
The night was graying to day by the time she got home. Were she not as tired, she might have heard voices and the shuffling of heavy feet in her studio. Exhaustion had deafened her, but as she shut the door behind her and saw three large men in blue plumbers’ outfits, standing over Ronnie, what was left of Ronnie, she wished it had blinded her as well.
Ronnie’s legs twisted in dramatic angles, like the gnarled roots of a very old tree. His trunk slumped against the white wall where the rest of him splattered out in alizarin crimson, like leaves and buds. Parts of his brains and scalp, now fragmented and tiny, were nuts clinging to the limbs, hidden between leaves, ready to fall off and sprout new growth.
In that split second, June decided her mind had given her a gift, inspiration for a painting her therapist would give her no less than thirty hours of service for. She didn’t see one of the men raise his gun. She saw where she would add more cardinal feather scarlet to the scene. Perhaps make the trunk sunset magenta ribbed with black like night setting in. She didn’t see him aim and pull the trigger. The roots would twist out of taxicab yellow grass, dry but not yet dead. Yes. It was a wonderful reality. She didn’t feel the bullet after it pierced her chest; the wasps had built an impenetrable fortress around her heart.
“Tree in Winter” was previously published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2015, with all proceeds benefiting NAMI-MN (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). www.redbirdchapbooks.com/TreeInWinter.
Charlie M. Broderick graduated from Hamline University with an MFA in creative writing. She is looking for agent representation for a commercial upper age YA / NA saga. Her portfolio includes literary short stories, commercial screenplays, CNF essays, and commercial novels. More of her writings appear in Revolver, Fiction Depot, and her blog - thatgirlwhoreadsbooks.com. She is available for questions and comments on Twitter @CM_Broderick.