QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT

 

A pair of particles can be connected in such a way that measuring a property of one, for example, its direction of spin, will immediately affect the results of measuring the other one

 

WINTER, PRESENT DAY

The funeral was brief, and the congregation that had crowded her living room the previous day was nowhere to be seen. The Conrads spent more time gathering into the car and traveling to the cemetery than they spend at the actual burial. Berta had misplaced her flask, Abigail had burnt the bacon in the microwave, and Mark wasn’t satisfied with his tie selection. After fumbling for quite some time, they abandoned their efforts and drove further out of town to the graveyard and the plots Mitchell and Abigail had been gifted for their wedding by the Aunts. Abigail spent most of the ride condemning August’s choice of clothing, a chunky knit sweater with suede elbow patches and a pair of Apocalypse-friendly combat boots. “Literally the same sorry excuse for an outfit you wore yesterday,” Abigail lamented. August kept her head resting against the window, looking out at the gray, frozen stretch of highway ahead of them, overwhelmed with a sense of singularity that that moment, that scolding, that sweater and that ride and that cold are the past, present, and future in one singular moment, all for which she was ill equipped.

The site was unremarkable, a flat swath of land halfway between Providence and Greensboro that boasted a prefab stone arch at its entrance and one willow tree off to the west side of the lot. Most of the headstones had weathered away, gray stone nubs with farewell bids that, too, had started to disappear. Mitchell’s headstone stood out against the army of weathered rock, his a freshly cut, rigid marble slab marked only with the words, “A beloved, good man.” He would have hated the attention, requested a simple headstone just so they family wouldn’t forget where he was buried, but Abigail insisted. No one brought flowers.

Berta, Abigail, and Mark stood hand-in-hand at the gravesite as the cemetery director read aloud the benediction. “Isaiah 57: 1-2. The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart,” he recited from memory. “The devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace. They rest as they lie in death.” Abigail nodded along with the passage.  August imagined that they have dressed him in his nicest church clothes, that red and navy and green plaid shirt with the bone buttons and a pair of ill-fitting jeans. He’d always called them blue jeans, never just “jeans” or “pants”. Berta dabbed at her eyes, and stepped forward to touch the casket.

August stood in the corner, watching from afar. The pills jiggled together in her coat pocket. There were no tears shed among the group, no show of any sort of emotion at the burial site. The chill in the air kept them fidgeting, the blood flowing to keep their frail frames warm. The cemetery director asked if anyone has any other words they’d like to say. Everyone declined. Mitchell was a taciturn man, and to speak too much at his burial would have been gauche. The director waited a respectable ten seconds before nodding to the groundskeeper to start cranking the casket down into its final resting place. As he began, Abigail about-faced and marched across the browned grass to the car, where she waited for the rest of the family to join her.

August and Mark lingered, watching. He stretched an arm across her shoulders and pulled her in to his side. The cranking was unnecessarily slow, Mitchell’s casket undoubtedly heavy. Mark shook his head. August wanted to stay, to witness the closure, the burial, to say goodbye, but Abigail sat on the horn of the car until they start moving back toward the sedan. The last person to see Mitchell Conrad above ground was the groundskeeper, his shovel scooping the earth back into its rightful place.

 

The Conrads had managed to survive by hiding anything and everything of significance. After the fire, they had become a family of suspicion, of doubt. They’d stopped taking risks, they’d stopped trusting the walls that sheltered them, they stopped trusting each other. From insurance papers and deeds and medical records to family recipes and a prized box of cigarettes, the legend went that they dug holes around the yard like their lives depended on it. And far too often, it had. Generations later, it had become the family joke, these burials, and they all began to deny that such boon existed. They trusted the Lord, the banks, their neighbors, but they had all been guilty of the doubt. Even Aunt Martha had sewn three thousand dollars into the lining of her mattress over the course of her life.

When someone died in Providence, North Carolina, there are a series of tasks, precautions and rites that must be carried out, the funeral being the least important consideration. Though having lived through several deaths in the family – and family was a loose term, they were often third cousins twice-removed no one remembered until they were ushered into a musty church with a black dress, tiny black gloves, and a hat – August had forgotten about the business of death in Providence. So much of the population were free agents, men and women doing odd jobs around each other’s yards for cash or other favors or baked goods. So when someone finally did pass away, die, move on, go into the light, greet the Lord - they had a myriad of euphemisms – the matter of cleaning up the estate was one that involved several community members, some flashlights, and usually a pitcher of iced tea that was lever less than half full at all times. There was the matter of paying off the estate tax, sitting in countless meetings with the estate lawyer, staring at confusing bills and the paperwork and insurance statements that had never made sense even when the dead had been alive. And then there was the stuff.

The first thing that had to be done immediately after having buried Mitchell was to take inventory of the estate, the stuff of life, the junk that had to go somewhere in death. The family removed and overturned drawers, emptied trunks, fanned out comforters and turned the pillows inside out. They begin sorting the stuff into piles: throwaways, giveaways, sales, and keepsakes. The throwaways pile was often the largest of the four, a mountain of bits and baubles and knick-knacks none of them could identify beyond parts of something that Mitchell was fixing, pieces of something that had fallen apart. August watched from the doorway, her brother and mother rooting around the artifacts of her father’s simple life. The room had been dismantled into a series of piles, both Abigail and Mark surrounded with the pieces of someone else’s life. The bed had been covered with neatly folded stacks of flannel shirts, white tees, and corduroy pants she hadn’t seen her father wear in years. Next to that, a pile of baseball caps in various stages of fade and wear, in yellows and greens and burgundies. August had not known Mitchell to wear baseball caps, but she imagined a world in which he collected them from whatever antiques show he had attended: a backlog of memorabilia he thought might have been worth something one day.

 

Mark took on the bedside table, extracting and overturning the shallow drawers. Mitchell, it appeared, has kept handwritten notes, family photos, pocket change, plastic components to something they were unaware even existed, metal washers, loose screws, desiccated ink pens, twenty dollars’ cash. Mitchell was a man who arrived home, emptied his pockets, and crawled into bed. He didn’t read to sleep. He didn’t write to empty his head. He placed his glasses on the night stand, his change in the drawer, turned down the bedspread, and turned out the light. Mitchell Conrad got a solid eight hours of sleep each night, and arose at 5:45 every morning. Even after Abigail had left.  Mark had a stash of notes sitting to his left, a growing stack of sample wood stain blocks to his right. There were receipts and photos and a pocketknife so rusted it wouldn’t open. A mountain of junk for 62 years alive. Mark looked both intrigued and lost and his rummaged through the paper.

Abigail rooted through the closet. In one fell swoop, she tossed the folded stacks of quilts and sheets and flannel onto the floor. “Probably riddled in moth holes,” she muttered, pushing it aside with her foot. Her children ignored her.

Mark unfolded a small piece of yellowed notebook paper that had been buried in the back of Mitchell’s bedside table. On it, illegible handwriting. “Hey Gus, remember that time Dad went to Greensboro for an auction?” He motioned for her to come over and see what he’s found. “We wrote him that note, told him to make sure he brought home burgers from that tiny shack off the highway…” Mark strained to read the handwriting, faded with time. “’Two cheeseburgers, no pickle, extra ketchup. Extra-large fry. Two Cokes.’” Mark ran his thumb over the paper, his voice softening. “I can’t believe this has been here the whole time.”

“He was pretty pissed at you that day,” August reminded her brother, plucking the piece of paper out from his hands. “He was going to auction off the tractor so we could pay mom’s medical bill, and all you wanted was a burger. You were sobbing as he walked out the door, and it wasn’t because he was leaving the house, or we were poor, or you might never see him again. You were just so concerned about that fucking burger.”

Abigail abruptly interrupted them. “Throwaway pile.”

When they had been younger, six and four respectively, Mitchell used to take them to the tobacco auctions every Saturday morning in early fall. He would enter the room, a thermos of warm apple cider tucked under one arm, while he nudged both of his children awake with the other. Rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, they threw on fleece pullovers and jackets, sometimes a scarf. Mitchell would help them with their shoe laces. Quietly, they crawled into the back of the truck, the leather seats still chilly from the night before.  It was still dark outside then, and the siblings usually fell asleep against one another for the duration of the ride. When they awoke, they’d be on the outskirts of Greensboro. The auction house, which really was a glorified warehouse-sized barn, sat on a generously large plot of land that couldn’t grow anything, not even the grass that should have been beneath it. Riddled with gravel and loose rocks and mud, the auction grounds were home to many a truck that would get stuck in the parking lot during the colder, wetter weekends. August and Mark would follow Mitchell into the warehouse, single-file into the building that smelled like caramel and leather and autumn. August carried the cider thermos since she was older, and she was also responsible for holding Mark’s hand whenever they walked around. Mark was prone to wandering back then, and even when he protested, they all knew he couldn’t be trusted to stay out of trouble.

Finally waking up, the siblings would play tag, hide and seek, and their own version of “auction” among the tobacco bales. None of the adults seemed to mind. When they wore themselves out, they’d lay out across the tobacco and speak in a childish language that made no sense to anyone, even them. Sometimes Mark would take a nap. Sometimes August tore off a piece of the dried tobacco and held it up to her face and breathed it in. She didn’t understand how something that smelled so good as a leaf could smell so awful as smoke.

Mark pocketed the note from Mitchell’s drawer when Abigail wasn’t looking, and tapped August on the shoulder. “Check this one out.”

She squatted next to her brother and takes the small slip of paper inscribed with the word, “Index.” She shrugged, unfolding it to discover a series of numbers and letters, undecipherable mathematics and symbols that could have meant anything. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered under her breath. She wondered if this is a clue, a key perhaps, to finding what the early Conrads had buried in the yard.

“What the hell is that?” Mark implored, leaning over her shoulder. August muttered, “No clue.” Mark shrugged it off as a handwritten receipt from one of the crazy guys at the auction house. He returned to digging through paper.

Noble as the task might have seemed, Mark and Abigail weren’t reminiscing, they weren’t working through grief; they were searching for the same thing she was. They’re searching for the money. What they didn’t know, what they would never figure out, was that Conrad fortune wasn’t in his drawers, his bedsheets, his pillows. What August knew was that Mitchell Conrad had spent his adult life searching for that buried treasure, and that it was somewhere in that front yard. Having inherited the house from his father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father, Mitchell too had inherited the map of the grounds. He would have had the only one with clues to where the Conrad family fortune could have been buried.

August excused herself to the basement where she unfolded the gibberish scrap of paper once again. There, she surveyed the room: an extremely organized series of cardboard and plastic boxes branded with anachronous numbers and letters. A universe of its own, every box and corner and cranny an artifact of who they were, how they’d become themselves. 293A, 2101M, 97-96AC. Every row, every box, every facet a different number, a different set of letters. Tossed along the top and the sides of the wall of boxes were broken chairs, three-legged stools, jagged pieces of tables that had been started but never completed. Some pieces have been lacquered, though most are unfinished pine, perilous splinters, first drafts. Dotting the corners of the room were stacks of old magazines, books without front covers, yellowed newspapers from nearly the past five decades.  Everything was covered in a solid coat of dust thick enough to blow.

 

 

Box 8997AJ: Elementary school art projects – finger paints and macaroni art and poorly-written poems in varieties of crayon colors – are tucked away, preserved. August’s hand-written science tests, history homework, a purple plastic protractor nestled among vocabulary tests and Spanish exams. And then there were her own hand-written notes.  

 

Tucked between the pages of an old algebra book, were a series of notes scribbled on colorful sticky notes, ruled notebook paper, discarded worksheets. “Want my PB&J?” one asked in purple ink. “Trade you a pickle,” in blue. A collection of innocuous messages traded back and forth between classes, between tests, between August and the boy next door tumbled out of the book.

“What’s the value of X if N = 1 and Y = the ripped seam in the butt of Mrs. Grover’s pants?”

“X = 10 minutes until we see London, France, and Mrs. G’s underpants”

“So lame.”

 

“Movie later? I can bring popcorn”

“The Godfater. Stat.”

“Cruel Intentions? …Do you even know what ‘stat’ means?”

“I Know What You Did Last Summer? And duh, I’m super smart.”

“…Right, Gus. See you at 3. Bring provisions.”

 

“That shirt looks stupid on you.”

“That face looks stupid on you.”

Jordan Hall: elementary school best friend, middle school crush, first kiss, high school sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend. She was a little disgusted that she’d kept the notes, and a little conflicted with the gurgle of sentiments that starting brewing.

The last time she’d seen him, he’d been standing at the exit of the outdated high school auditorium. August had opted for early high school graduation and early entry into Columbia University, desperate to get as far from Providence as quickly as possible. She and the two other students who were ivy-league bound and heavily plagued by acne scars and scant facial hair were given a small ceremony at 3pm the day after the fall semester finals were graded. Classes having ended, the only people left in the school were frazzled teachers, a few janitorial staff, and the kids who didn’t really have anywhere else better to be. Mitchell had shown up for the ceremony and dragged a reluctant Mark along with him. Abigail had been otherwise occupied, but went to the trouble of purchasing a greeting card with the pre-printed message, “Best wishes on life’s journey.” She hadn’t even signed the card, but did manage to include a check for fifty dollars. August suspected Mitchell had actually picked up the card on the way to the ceremony, but wasn’t going to scrutinize free money. When they’d called her name to accept the diploma, she heard a cough that echoed from the back of the auditorium. There stood Jordan, his back leaning against the door, one part of the front of his button-down shirt stuffed into his pants in a fashion the kids referred to as the “half tuck,” which revealed just enough of his grosgrain belt with the tiny lobsters sewn on to keep him preppy but approachable. That fucking belt. He’d gone on and on about that fucking belt for months, and when he finally bought it, she died a little bit on the inside. They hadn’t spoken in nearly a year by that point, but he had managed to stick around to say goodbye. As she passed him on her way out of the building that afternoon, it had looked like he wanted to say something kind or apologetic, maybe even congratulatory, but she ignored him, tearing off the makeshift cap and gown and tossing them onto the floor behind her. Mark had asked if that had been Jordan and where had he gotten that belt. August simply walked to Mitchell’s truck and waited in the back seat until her father drove them home. She moved to New York the next day.

She’d heard that he’d escaped eventually, too, made it up north like she had to do some important work with something superficial but pop-culturally relevant. That he’d made a ton of money. That he’d been happy. The fact that she could not have imagined any other fate for her errant friend made her roll her eyes every time she thought of it.

She placed the notebooks back into their box and dug on.  

 

Box 979AM: Yellowed insurance papers. Wedding Photos. The newspaper from a Sunday forty years earlier.  A bar receipt. A ceramic hand-painted pot with a brass lid. Two crystal chalices. A wedding program. A torn piece of white silk.

 
 

Box 188CH: Sepia-toned photographs of stock-still humans staring blankly into the distance, their eyes beady and black. A leather-bound bible with a perfect cursive inscription, “For Mary-Lou,” whoever that was. A box of loose pearls. A box of loose emeralds the size of rice grains. An oxidized, engraved ice bucket wrapped in paper.

 
 

Box 208C: Sparse, stuffed mostly with a quilt encapsulated in plastic. Two photographs, one of a child holding a dog. An envelope that had been sealed in wax, opened, stuffed shut again, holding a hand-drawn map.

 

Carefully, August opened the map, the parchment not even a square foot in size. The ink was barely visible in corners, the creases having worn away, the lettering nearly illegible. It took a moment before she recognized the map is of the Conrad property, the line of the woods much closer to the house than where they stood at present. August glanced back to the paper Mark had handed her, the numbers beginning to make sense. Mitchell Conrad was cataloguing areas of the yard, marking off the goods he’d found and the people who had owned them. He was searching for the fortune.

Her heart began to thump against her chest.

While August had been busy mapping the sky, Mitchell had been charting the land surrounding their house. Each, in their own way, forced to decipher the past for a whisper of how to survive their future.  

August placed the map back into its envelope, stuffed it into her shirt pocket, and covered the remaining open boxes. Concealing the map from Abigail and Mark wouldn’t be too difficult, but she couldn’t just start digging around the front yard immediately. She would need a clandestine stock of supplies, unfettered access to the property, and a more sophisticated navigational tool.

A boisterous, “Find any juicy diaries down there, Gusto?” broke the silence. “Or just avoiding Mom?” Mark sauntered down the stairs with his hands in his pockets, his pants just a bit too tight. “There’s a lot of work to get done upstairs, c’mon.”

She touched the breast pocket of her shirt where the envelope was hidden. Mark hadn’t known about the inheritance, and she was not interested in sharing the news with him. “It’s all just too much, you know? I needed a breather. Thought I’d take a walk down memory lane. Or memory mountain, I guess you could call this.”

Mark agreed. “It’s weird. Going through his stuff, it’s weird. Like I think he’s going to come back and yell at me for digging through his bedside table. Ground me or something.”

August brushed the dust off her hands as she stood up. “I’ve gotta get out of here. Get a snack or a drink or something. Is Eugene General still open?”

“Yeah. You know this is still a dry county, though, right? Clear minds, clear hearts, closer to God, or some nonsense.” Mark chuckled as he kicked the box closest to him. “We could use some snacks, though, if you’re headed out. And maybe some toilet paper. That casserole is doing some serious damage to my digestive track.” He rubbed his bloated stomach a few times. “It’s totally weird to see you again, sis. You’re an adult, like an actual adult. When did we grow up?”

Standing directly in front of Mark for the first time since he finally realized puberty, August felt dwarfed by her little brother. When she left, he was made up of an ill-proportioned chub and wiry moustache hair that, from a distance, made it look as though he hadn’t washed his face in weeks. Abigail used to refer to him as Cheese Puff. He was the only family member she liked enough to gift a nickname. He was the kind of little brother who rummaged through her underwear drawer before she got home from school and greeted her friends at the door with her training bra strapped across his face. He stood taller now, still chubby but in the right places, his round baby face and longer hair intact. Someone had introduced the concept of a man bun to him and he had finally figured out how to maneuver a razor enough to carve for himself a short beard.

“I need some cash,” she said quietly. “I, ah, I don’t have anything. Literally.”

Mark enjoyed the exchange and grinned as he thumbed through a healthy collection of twenties. “Remember when you told me cash was so blasé?”

Mitchell would have described his current expression as “a shit-eating grin,” a phrase that just made no sense to August, though she’d stopped trying to decipher southern idiom decades ago.

“How about a hundred?” Mark forked over five bills. “Make sure you pick up some Monster while you’re at it.”

August fought the temptation to ridicule her little brother for his choice in beverage, but realized she was in no place to judge.

“Sugar free or fully loaded?”

“Gus!  What do you take me for? Some pussy?” Mark burst with a hardy laugh. “Sugar coat me, Sis!” August rolled her eyes. “If you happen to find some, you know, spirits… if you just stumble across some, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to bring some back to your brother who just generously forked over a hundo in cash.”  

August fanned the cash back and forth, the bills fresh and crisp. “Whiskey or gin?”

Mark chortled. “Dealer’s choice,” before disappearing back into the house.

The drive to Providence seemed to have gotten longer since she left, a feeling worsened by the absence of any radio stations besides the local AM Gospel channel. Pastor Willis, to her shock, came through the airwaves, reminding listeners that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that was reason enough to attend the annual homecoming on Saturday at State Line Baptist. A live reenactment of the Nativity. Teacakes and coffee to follow.

“Homecoming” at State Line Baptist Church was nothing like the warm nostalgic alumi event its name evoked. Every year, Pastor Willis held a two-hour sermon exalting he Second Coming of Christ. The event, kicked off with a cordial meet and greet with cheese straws and peppermints, would quickly escalate to a display of violent faith and unintelligible utterances. When Pastor Willis had been a more able-bodied man, the theatrics began with strongly-worded condemnations and ended in sweaty, sobbing tales of blood rivers and boils and the righteous ones ascending to heaven in white gowns to be reunited with families. August had always found this concept asinine. Had she been one to believe in religion, and she was not, the last people she’d want to spend eternity with would be her family. The tiny church constructed out of vinyl siding that used moveable, felt-covered partitions to section off rooms, were quickly filled with congregation speaking tongues, writhing on the floors, having a “spiritual” moment. While unable to understand why they felt compelled to behave that way, August had never been perplexed by their confidence. She had never felt that comfortable with herself or her body or her convictions in her life, and for that, she would always be a bit jealous of the State Line Baptist Church congregation.

Now Pastor Willis must have been a cool 95, kept alive through sheer stubbornness and tithes. She imagined he kept quite calm on stage these days, recruiting the dwindling congregation to spew his condemnations for him.

By the time she pulled up to the first stop light she’d seen in what felt like days, she wanted nothing more than to find the underground liquor store that used to operate out of the basement of Eugene General.

The central business district of Providence, North Carolina was a glorified section of earth paved with eight perpendicular streets and incorporated by one of every essential service. Often hailed as the closest town to the last capitol of the Confederacy, it had attracted a significant volume of historical tourism. It had not mattered that the capitol had only stood for one day before the south had fallen, the bragging rights were far more important than the hairy historical details. Most of the businesses downtown still proudly flew a Confederate flag beneath the North Carolina state flag. People often removed their hats whenever they passed it. Each building was a stout two-story establishment made of brick painted in shades of baby blues and yellows. Most of the front doors featured a screen door behind them to keep out the flies during the summer. Downtown Providence had never quite thrived, but during her absence August had expected the area to completely fold. Looking on, however, it was clear that time had been kind to the town and it now boasted artisanal craft shops and trendy dessert hang outs. Lining either side of Main Street was the hardware store that doubled as the casket repository for the funeral parlor, the gelato shop, the independent bookstore, the cigar shop, the kitschy gift shop that sold useless wooden placards announcing an affinity for cats, a level of intoxication, or faith in Jesus Christ. There was a new niche shop for purchasing and building plastic models of everything from fighter jets and space ships to spiders and human eyes. All stood open and bustling, with the exception of the dive bar Dunphey’s, still a shuttered, dark establishment where the windows had been painted shut and the screen door was held on to its frame by only two loose screws. There, she had been young and broke in with the boy who gave her butterflies and tried her first tequila. The rest of Providence was filled with churches, empty multi-family houses, the one local credit union, and, at the end of the eight-block stretch of road, Eugene General, Providence’s one-stop everything shop. She breathed a sigh of relief and parked the car.

As she entered Eugene General, she was met with only a squeak from the screened door and side eye from the cashier. All eyes shifted toward her, the chatter quieting. Among the almond-colored metal shelves, women older than sin, as her father would have called them, gathered in their Sunday best and glaring at her from over their shoulders. Feeling too big for the room, she slinked away to the aisle finding cleaning supplies and several shelves of candy canes. She remembered getting to the goose being easier way back when, but she couldn’t outright ask for it.

She poked her head out from behind one of the aisles. “Excuse me?” she asked, uncertain what exactly to do with her hands. “Um, where are the snacks? And the toilet paper?”

The gaggle of women turned to her aghast that she would dare interrupt them.

Flo, the stocky owner at Eugene General who often rocked a nylon wind suit or a brightly colored sweatshirt with iron-on patches, had always been a bit of a character in Providence. Having never married, seemingly never dated, and seemingly never interested in building family of her own, Flo was a bit of an odd duck that managed to know everything about everyone. August could never imagine her as anyone except a 52-year-old portly woman who wore a fanny pack and always had a haircut that didn’t quite frame her face. That kind of consistency unsettled her.

Flo patted one of the older women on the arm and responded to August with a giant grin. “Sorry, doll, what can I help you with?” Her voice was deep and heavy. “I cain’t quite understand you. Ear’s on the fritz and all.”

There it was, that central North Carolina dialect, at once gullible and garrulous as it was backhanded and condescending, a slow mouth full of unspoken syllables rolling around in the language like it was a – what was that phrase Mitchell used to use? – like a hog in horse shit in July. He had pronounced it “hawg.”

The group of women about-faced and returned to the conversation with Flo. “Well, I will say this. I saw all those god awful lights she put up outside and when she flipped the switch it liked to blow up the whole front yard, it sure did.”

August stepped out from the aisle, equal parts annoyed and embarrassed. “The snacks. They used to be in this aisle. And, well, now they’re not.”

Flo and her cohort laughed. They were all strong, big women with booming voices. “Babydoll, them snacks ain’t been in that aisle since the second Bush was in office.” They continued laughing, returning to their conversation.  

“Let me tell you what she told me. Okay, so, she was fixing to go to Edna’s Diner—”

August interrupted again. “So, sorry, so where are they now? The snacks?”

Flo smirked and half rolled her eyes. Lifting her body up from its perch behind the counter appeared to be an arduous task, and she grunted and she peeled her legs off the chair behind the register. She teetered when she walked, left then right, left then right.  “Darlin’, the store ain’t that big. You could walk around and find it, but since clearly that’s just not the kind a mood you’re in today, let me walk you over there. C’mon, now!”  

August followed Flo, briefly mimicking her cadence. Finally, out of earshot of the gaggle, August carefully asked if there had been any new shipments to Eugene lately. An obvious wink slipped out before she could think better of it.  

Amused, Flo pulled her glasses off her face and leaned away for a moment. She smelled of menthol cigarettes and Irish Spring soap. “Well, look a’here.” She folded her arms across her chest and examined August. “Did Eugene get any new shipments lately? I don’t know, babydoll, what is it you’re hopin’ to find?”

The county had strict liquor laws, and the sheer existence of Eugene’s Cellar was not only illegal, but the source of much hand-wringing among the parents in town and at least fifteen sermons from Pastor Willis. To literally everyone else in the general vicinity, it was the only thing keeping them from driving their tractors and Ford Pickups off the nearby quarry. Back in the 90s, there had been a radical political uprising wherein the townsfolk demanded access to liquor. Bill Painter, the aptly-named handyman whose business was one of the shuttered ones along Main Street, had run for Providence’s version of city council on a ticket that had literally the one issue: repeal the liquor laws and let them reopen the bar. Rumor had it Bill was a silent partner in Dunphey’s Pub, but no one had been able to prove it. In the end, Bill wound up at the polling booth on election day drunk out of his mind, missing his shoes, and proclaiming the victory party would be at his house, which was amply stocked with enough beer and tequila to get the town through the next decade. He very quickly lost the election in a landslide to Pastor Willis, who had decided to expand his influence into the political sphere. The liquor laws, and the bar they ultimately shuttered, remained on lock down.

She hated having to ask. More than that, she hated having to use the code word. “I heard this is where I could find some boutique hand soaps? In the basement?” She tried to read Flo’s reaction, but there was none to be found. “I hear some of them are shaped like dogwood flowers?”

Flo was enjoying this, rocking on her heels and grinning. “Oh! You’re here for the soaps. Yes, we did just get a new shipment in.” She winked.

August felt herself sweat through her shirt. “Oh, great.”

“Fixin’ to get herself drunk, that’s what she’s doin’,” one of the women muttered under her breath.

“Ladies! Take care of the register, I’m taking, what was your name, sweetheart?”

August gave only her first name.

“I’m taking Miss August downstairs to look at our latest collection of bathroom soaps. Be back in a few.”

The basement in Eugene General was lit by two sets of long, fluorescent bulbs set in a caged metallic fixture. The room itself was rather small, most of its space occupied by unopened boxes with sponges, detergents, canned goods. Flo peeled open a box aptly labeled as soaps and set out three bottles: bottom shelf vodka, bottom shelf gin, and bottom shelf bourbon. August forced a grin.

“I don’t touch the stuff myself, but from what I understand, I don’t exactly have the top brass over here.” Flo drummed her fingers on the cardboard box. “Beggars cain’t be choosers, doll. What’ll it be?”

August pulled a few twenties out of her back pocket and sets them in front of Flo. “Whatever I can get for $60.”

She took all three bottles, and Flo tossed in a flask for good measure. “C’aint be too careful,” she warned. “I like to call this my little secret weapon. Yep, this one got me through three Thanksgivings with my cousins. Good knight, they are some kind of awful.” As August reached out to take the flask, Flo added “I’m just gonna fill this one up for you. Looks like you might be needin’ it.”

August thanked her, and trudged back into the unusually cold day to plot her next move.  “Buh-bye! Take care now!” she could hear the gaggle from behind the screened door as she left. Outside, she perched on the steps of the defunct Dunphey’s and cracked open Flo’s flask, which had been filled to the brim with some awful excuse for whisky of undetectable origin – Canada, perhaps? - but it did little to stop August from sipping several times. Her hands started to turn purple with the plummeting temperatures, but she welcomed the chill. It was the only thing making the burn in her throat from Flo’s whiskey a little more tolerable. Above her, covering the front door of Dunphey’s was a large nylon sign declaring, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!” She yanked it down and tossed it aside.

From the end of Main Street, she gazed down at the bustling business district in disbelief. There was so much holiday décor at every turn, a feat no doubt made possible by Stateline Baptist church. Clumsy garlands were strung up against doors and windows, a plastic light-up nativity scene blemished the front lawn of the library. The lone pine tree next to Dunphey’s held white Christmas lights around the bottom few feet of its trunk. Not yet Thanksgiving, and Christian-heavy Providence was already sprinting towards the holiday.

She reached into her bag and opened the plastic lid on Flo’s whiskey. She held it to her lips just as the brown and yellow paint of the county sheriff’s American made four-door sedan flashed its lights as it approached her. Behind it, a tow truck with her rental car whirred its yellow lights. Cursing, she tossed the bottle into the shrubbery next to her. The officer stepped out of his car, adjusting his belt, and sauntered over to politely introduce himself. Seeing the bag from Eugene General, he asked her about the car with the New York plates, how long she’d been trespassing on government-owned property, and how much she’d had to drink on said property before he managed to catch her. Before she could answer, he’d clamped the cuffs around her wrists and escorted her to his car.

As the officer ducked her into the backseat, she spotted the familiar frame of Jordan Hall juggling an over-stuffed Eugene General bag in his arms. Had she just missed him? His hair – still the perfect, slightly too long, carefully floofed dirty blond coif she’d first fallen for – flopped into his eyes. He tilted his head to the left, squinting, and she wondered if he’d noticed her, too. A few apples toppled out of the bag onto the sidewalk, and he let them roll into the rock salt-stained street. Balancing the bag against a car, he lifted up a hand, as if to wave. She wasn’t sure what he was doing back in Providence, but for a brief moment, her heart actually ceased beating. Perhaps he, too, was on the hunt for something more. Perhaps she might be able to help him find it.

 

- - - -

 

WINTER, 1995

 

August Conrad first met Jordan Hall upon their return from Sunday service at Stateline Baptist. She was nine. No one had been particularly shocked or moved or inspired by the service, as they had all been operating on auto pilot for years by that point. It had been a typically raucous service with congregation members shouting in tongues, Berta had been drunk on what she called Breakfast Medicine, and the family was, as usual, not speaking on the ride home. When they reached the house, they were confounded to discovery a young standing on the roof of their two-car garage.

“Who in the name of our Lord Almighty is that?” Abigail leaned forward from the back seat and pointed in the boy’s direction.

Jordan had gone to the trouble of stripping himself to his pink briefs, and he stood with his toes wiggling by the gutters. Strapped to either arm with electrician’s tape was an elaborate structure of cardboard, tin foil, and primary colored feathers.

“Are those wings?” Abigail hid her eyes behind her hand and grunted with shame; it sounded as though she were trying to cough up peanut butter. “Does anyone know who that is?”

Jordan peered down to the car and waved with an awkward, unbendable arm. A feather dislodged and floated into the gutter.

August, though shocked to see a boy her age standing half naked on top of her house in the middle of January, was thrilled to discover there were kids close enough to her house to find it, climb onto it, and make a statement.

“Well, Abigail,” Mitchell began, removing the keys from the ignition and considering carefully the next words that came out of his mouth, “It seems he’s trying to fly.”

“Oo, I wanna see!” Mark leaned forward, squirming while still in his seatbelt between Berta and August. The green and black Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle puffer jacket that fit the winter before was finally too small for him, and he struggled to no avail to turn his body in the interloper’s direction. The car was silent for a moment while Mark grunted, twisting his torso to the left, to the right, and wiggled beneath his seat belt before giving up. “That son of a bitch.”

“Watch your language, Mark,” Berta chimed in, fighting the tipsy giggles.

“Dad says it all the time,” he pouted, desperately trying to cross his arms in front of his chest.

Mitchell let out a nervous laugh and drummed his fingers across the steering wheel. “Well are we just going to leave him up there?”

“I wanna see if he’ll do it!” Mark strained against the seat belt. At 6, he wasn’t quite capable of unhooking it himself. That, and Berta’s plump hips were covering the clasp.

At a loss for words, Abigail exited the car and left the door open behind her. “You deal with this,” she yelled at Mitchell as she marched into the house.

After a few moments alone in the car, wherein Mitchell decided there was no “best way” to approach the matter, he reluctantly confronted the half-naked boy on the roof. “What the hell are you doing?” was the first thing that came out of his mouth, followed immediately by, “Your mother is going to kill you if she finds out about this.”

“Trying to fly,” Jordan answered matter-of-factly. “And my mom’s name is Diana Hall, if you want to try to find her number. I don’t think we’re in the phone book yet? But I don’t really know how that works.”

“Smart ass,” Mitchell muttered under his breath, then back at the boy, “In your underpants, son? You couldn’t have waited until spring? I mean, it’s got to be 20 degrees at most right now. I’m surprised your dick hasn’t fallen off.”

“There’s no time like the present,” Jordan said, “And besides, it’s way cooler if I do it now.” Jordan paused for a second and tried to scratch his balls, but the wings were limiting his movement. He flapped around for a moment or two. “Pun sort of intended.”

August exited the car and walked up next to her father, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Am I supposed to talk you down?” Mitchell asked frankly. “I’m not going to try because you won’t listen anyway, but for the sake of my wife’s temper, I’m just going to put it out there.”

“What’s he doing? Is he flying yet?!” Mark yelled from the car, still struggling against the seat belt.

August mimicked her father’s stance, positing, “I’m just curious how the hell you managed to strap both of those to your arms.”

“Language, August,” Mitchell muttered instinctively.

“Luck,” Jordan shrugged. Another feather floated down. “Creative bending. I rigged up this stick and handle thing with a tape dispenser. It’s a pretty sophisticated piece of machinery.”

Many had labeled Mitchell as a lackluster man and father – from his own father to his brother to his wife. His style of adulting a situation had been laissez-faire at best, and given the display of the boy’s position on the rooftop and the colorful feathers and cardboard taped to his arms, Mitchell finally believed his own children had turned out normal enough. He couldn’t have been that bad at this parenting thing.

Mitchell glanced at August, still standing with her arms crossed. “Well, I tried. You’re up, kiddo.” He returned to the car to retrieve Mark.

August widened her stance as she looked up at the roof. “So, what?  You’re just going to…stand there?”

Jordan had been glancing out at the horizon, and broke his stare to look down August. “No, I mean, I’ll jump off eventually. Nice hat, by the way.”

She ran a hand over the top of the hat, a souvenir from a trip they’d taken to the state capitol with her 3rd grade civics class the year before. It was an acrylic red and blue striped toboggan that didn’t go with anything she wore, but it did a great job of keeping her ears warm. “How did you get up there in the first place? I don’t see a ladder anywhere.”

“Crawled up the drainpipe,” Jordan answered matter-of-factly. “That structure is a lot flimsier than the one at my house. Kind of wobbled a bit when I got onto it, and hey, don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” Jordan tossed his head and glanced back up to the tree line. His hair was quite long, and Jordan’s silhouette could have easily been mistaken for one of a prepubescent girl not unlike August.

“All right. You just look like an ass up there, I want you to know,” August rubbed her hands together for warmth.

“I know.” Jordan shifted his weight.  “I just need a few minutes.”

“Do you actually think you’re going to be able to take flight with those things?”

Jordan struck as much of a superhero pose as he could muster, holding his arms out and broadening his stance. “Only one way to find out.”

August tried not to show that she was rolling her eyes. “Do you at least want a scarf or something? I can bring you some pie? We have lots of pie. They had some pie exchange at church today and, well, there’s too much.”

“What kind of pie?”

“I don’t know, sweet potato probably. There’s got to be blueberry or blackberry or some kind of berry in there. Most definitely pecan, too.”

“Cool.”

The two stood silently for a moment exchanging a stare. August finally broken the silence. “So that’s a yes?”

Jordan nodded. “Definitely.”  

August sauntered into the house and took a survey of the available pies, the freshest on the counter, the older covered in sticky tin foil in the fridge. When she brought him some pie, after a good twenty minutes of choosing among them and figuring out how the microwave worked so she could warm up a piece, she found him sitting with his legs dangling over the gutter. She grabbed the ladder and climbed up to join him. His wings still affixed to his arms, she had to feed him the pie. She asked him where he came from and he told her his family had just moved in a few acres away. They’d built the house from scratch, much like her own great, great, great, super great grandfather had, and he had been exploring the area when he stumbled on to their house. He thought it looked like the right height for testing his wings.

Jordan Hall ultimately launched himself from the roof, where he experienced a brief yet graceful fall, after which he managed to fracture only his pinky finger. The cardboard wings were ruined, of course, but those could be made again. August watched from the roof in amazement, certain that this was a human she needed to keep around for a while. That perhaps someday he might be able to teach her to fly, too.