It took a while for Dave to become fully awake. He drifted in and out of sleep, going back and forth between the worlds of incoherent dreams and consciousness, until at last he opened his eyes and stared at the hairline crack across the ceiling. The crack looked longer than it had been when he went to sleep. Small tendrils that he was certain were not there before branched out from it in the pale blue paint. The ceiling looked like sky about to break in two along a fault line. Dave gripped tightly onto the sheets under his sweating body, afraid he would be sucked through the crack and propelled into outer space. The tip of a tree branch scratching against the window pane drew his attention toward it. He loosened his grip and slowly sat up. His clothes and shoes were in a bundle on the covers at the foot of the bed.
Marcus came into the room. “Did you sleep okay?” he asked as he poured water into a glass sitting on a stand next to the bed. Chunks of ice splashed into the water as Marcus further tilted the metal pitcher.
“I slept too hard,” Dave said. “I have a slight headache.”
He wrapped his hand around the glass enjoying the sensation of coolness on the flesh of his palm and fingers.
Marcus went to the window. “It’s a windy morning. The trees are swaying.”
Dave lifted the glass to his lips and licked a chunk of ice with the tip of his tongue.
Marcus turned away from the window and began unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ll rub your temples. It’ll help your head feel better.”
“I’d like that,” Dave said. He drank the water, nearly emptying the glass of water, then placed it back on the stand causing the remaining ice to make a tinkling sound.
Glue stuck to Ginger’s fingertips as she laid a small green ceramic tile on the round board. She leaned back in her chair and closed one eye, hoping it would help her see the pattern of the tiles differently. She didn’t like what she had created, but it was too late to change it. The tabletop was almost completed. She opened her eye as she rubbed her fingertips together, feeling the glue hardening like an extra layer of skin. When the whistle to the kettle on the stove in the kitchen sounded she swiveled about on the chair, put her hands on the walker and raised herself to a standing position. Carefully placing one bare foot after the other she gripped tightly onto the rubber hand grips on the walker and left the sun room.
Holding onto the walker with one hand she turned the burner off beneath the kettle and poured boiling water into a bright green porcelain cup holding a tea bag. The aroma of black tea wafted up with the dissipating cloud of steam. Hooking a finger through the handle of the cup she raised it to her lips and blew across the top of the liquid. The fragrance of the tea was mixed with that of the glue. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant combination. She took a small sip.
Marcus came into the kitchen. “You should be sitting down to have your tea,” he said.
“I couldn’t figure out how to get the cup of tea to the table while holding onto the walker,” she said. “Is Dave up?”
“Yes, he’s getting dressed,” Marcus said. He carried the cup of tea to the table and put it down on a straw place mat.
“Thank you,” Ginger said as she turned from the stove and shuffled to the table and sat down and pushed the walker aside.
“I think I heard it raining most of the night,” she said.
Marcus went to the window above the sink and stared out. The bare earth between the rows of sprouting tomato plants was dry. The shadows of the branches of the tall oak tree danced across the garden. “I think it was the wind in the trees you heard.”
“I was certain it was rain,” she said, then took a long sip of tea. “I think today I would like to go to the cemetery.”
“A ride in the country would be nice,” Marcus said.
Sitting at his desk in the den, Dave flipped the page of the book. He ran his hand across the plate of John Singer Sargent’s “Breakfast in the Loggia.” He longed for the warmth of the sunlight shining between the white columns. Even the shadows of the leaves painted on the canvas seemed warm. He lifted his hand, a little surprised that it felt no different than before. Opening the top drawer he searched among the papers and receipts until he found the pair of scissors. He closed the drawer then carefully cut the plate from the book. He folded the plate and slipped it into the waist band of his pants, then got up and put the book on the shelf with the other large volumes of other artists’ works.
Marcus aimed the nozzle at the car and released the grip, letting the spray wash over the hood. Goosebumps rose on his black skin as water bounced off the metal and onto his bare chest. As he watched rivulets run down the body of the car a large puddle formed around his bare feet. He wriggled his toes, feeling the coolness of the forming mud ooze between them. It took him back to when he was a small boy and did the very same thing. An unexplainable sadness came over him and he stepped out of the puddle and sprayed off his feet and turned off the water.
Dave came up behind him and slipped his arms around his torso and laid his head against his back.
“Your grandmother wants to go to the cemetery,” Marcus said.
Dave glanced at the oak trees that lined the driveway. Branches and leaves quivered in the constant breeze. “It might be a bit too windy.”
“It’ll be okay,” Marcus said.
Dave put his hand on Marcus’ back, comparing the whiteness of his skin to Marcus’. “Then I leave our fate in your hands.”
Oak and maple leaves blew across the narrow two lane road.
“My parents harvested maple trees for the sap when I was just a very young child,” Ginger said. The round peppermint candy in her mouth clanked against her false teeth as she swirled it around with her tongue. “I don’t remember seeing it done. It was so long ago. I have the vaguest recall of being very upset that the trees were drilled into. I thought sap was the same thing as blood.” She spit a small remaining piece of the candy into a wadded tissue then rolled down the car window and tossed it out then rolled the window back up. “Funny, how children think, isn’t it?”
Dave leaned forward from the back seat, inserting his head between the two seats and stared through the windshield. “Nothing ever changes on this road.”
“You wouldn’t want condoms built on it,” Ginger said.
Dave laughed out loud. “You mean condominiums, Grandma.”
Marcus put his foot on the brake pedal and brought the car slowly to a standstill just before reaching the railroad tracks.
“Trains don’t use these tracks any more,” Dave said.
“Marcus is very smart to stop anyway,” Ginger said. “Better safe than sorry.”
“Actually I wanted to take a minute and have a look at the mountain,” Marcus said. “From here it looks as if you went fast enough on this road you would crash right into it.”
Ginger sneezed and then said “what a strange idea, Marcus.” She opened her black patent leather purse and took out a tissue and dabbed her nose.
“It’s a morbid idea,” Dave said, collapsing against the back of his seat.
“It’s just an observation,” Marcus said, putting his foot down hard on the gas pedal causing the car to lurch forward.
As the tires rattled over the tracks and the car bumped up and down Ginger grabbed onto Marcus’ arm. “I just want to visit my husband’s grave today, not stay there permanently.”
“Sorry,” Marcus said, slowing the car.
The cemetery had no sign on the short gravel road leading to its black iron gate. It could be easily bypassed without being noticed. The few gravestones and statuary were surrounded by a small fence lined on the outside by angel oak trees. Thick with bright green leaves, the large lower branches hung over the fence and touched the ground. Marcus got out of the car and unlatched the gate and swung it open, then got back in the car.
As he drove into the cemetery Ginger said “those trees always reminded me of spiders trying to crawl in here.”
“Maybe they’re spiders trying to crawl out,” Dave said pushing the back door open before Marcus had brought the car to a full stop. When the car stopped, Dave leapt out of the car and ran to the nearest tree.
Marcus got out and opened the trunk and pulled out the walker. He opened the car door and placed the walker on the gravel, then helped Ginger stand.
Her hands grasping tightly onto the hand grips, she walked a few feet then stopped in front of a large square piece of dingy marble. She turned around and sat down on it and brushed dirt and dead leaves from a small brass plaque and without looking at what was inscribed on it read aloud “John David McRoe. Husband. Father. Free from these mortal coils.”
“Are you okay?” Marcus said.
“He had what he wanted written on his marker even before he died,” Ginger said. “I didn’t realize while he was alive that he thought of me and his family as a coil.”
Dave stretched out on his back on a tree branch, placing his hands behind his head. He watched the sunlight sparkle through the tremorous foliage and resisted the urge to smooth aside his wind tousled hair. Lowering one leg alongside the branch he swung his foot back and forth. He grasped onto the rough tree bark and held on tight. Closing his eyes he imagined himself floating between the tentacle-like branches and being carried upward into the jet stream. He didn’t intend to fall asleep, but awoke a few minutes later, startled and gasping for air.
“Marcus!” He cried out in a whisper.
Thomas Sandbury’s gravestone was the most elaborate one in the cemetery. A miniature mausoleum sat on pristine white marble carved in the shape of a scroll, with both ends of the scroll wrapped around ornately carved tree limbs. There were fresh bird droppings on the scroll. He had died in 1972 but his grave alone among those in the cemetery had been well maintained. A patch of bright green grass lay in front of the gravestone like a new piece of lush carpet. Marcus knelt and ran his hand across the tips of the grass and wondered how every blade had been cut to the same height.
Dave appeared, casting a shadow on the gravestone. “You should come sit in the tree with me.”
“No thanks,” Marcus said, standing. “Trees bring bad memories.”
“What bad memories?” Dave asked.
“Not my memories exactly,” Marcus said. “Memories of pictures I’ve seen of men hanging by nooses from the branches.”
Dave kicked at the grass on Thomas Sandbury’s grave. “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’re safe and free.”
“Am I?” Marcus said.
On the way home Marcus slowed the car to a stop just before reaching the train tracks.
As a train went by Dave said “I was certain trains didn’t use these tracks anymore.”
At twilight the sun room was filled with pastel light. Ginger had a shoebox filled with hundreds of tile pieces on her lap. She sorted through the colors, occasionally picking a tile out and holding it up and examining it, then putting it back. At her elbow on a wicker table a cloud of steam from a cup of tea spiraled upward. When a large branch from one of the oak trees crashed onto the lawn she barely reacted. Looking out at it through the blue tinted glass in the large windows she said “John used to climb up in the trees and cut the dead branches out. Nature does it just as well.”
“Do you miss your husband?” Marcus asked from the white wicker chair on the other side of the table.
“I always felt safe with him around,” she said. “You make me feel the same way.”
Marcus flipped another page in the book of paintings. A large square section had been cut out of the middle of the page. Only the title of the plate remained. Tree With Crows by David Caspar Friedrich. He closed the book. “I can’t stay here forever,” he said.
“No, I guess not,” she said. “When Dave brought you home last spring after you two completed college I knew you wouldn’t stay.”
Marcus stood up and put the book under his arm. “I’ll go put this book back on the shelf. Do you want me to get you another cup of tea?”
“No thank you John, I mean Marcus,” she said.
Dave sat on the edge of the bed and removed his shoes and socks and sat them on the covers at the foot of the bed. He stood up and removed his clothes and then rolled them into a bundle and placed them on the bed, then put the shoes and socks on top. He laid down on the bed feeling the heat emanating from Marcus’ naked body. In the light of the pale moon he couldn’t see the crack in the ceiling, but he felt it looming there, waiting to pull him into it and shoot him out wherever the other side was. Before he closed his eyes he watched the flickering shadows of the trees dancing on the hundreds of plates that he had tacked on the walls.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had short stories published in Double Feature, Tigershark Magazine, The Wagon Magazine, CultureCult Magazine, Fictive Dream, Bento Box, Ricky’s Back Yard, Visitant Literary Journal, The Drunken Llama, Sick Lit Magazine, Literally Stories, Noise Medium, Door is a Jar, Viewfinder, The Spotty Mirror and in the Dystopia/Utopia Anthology by Flame Tree Publishing, the 100 Voices Volume II anthology by Centum Press, the Winter’s Grasp anthology by Fantasia Divinity Magazine and the Neighbors anthology by Zimbell House Publishing, among others. He has stories scheduled for publication in the Unbound III – Broken Chains anthology by daowen publications, the Waiting For a Kiss anthology by Fantasia Divinity Magazine, Centum Press 100 Tails Anthology and 67 Anthology and Grivante Press Anthology: MASHED: The Culinary Delights of Erotic Horror. His plays have been produced in several states including Arizona, Missouri and Ohio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.