Seating himself at the rickety foldout table across from the motorhome kitchenette, Former Coroner Ron flipped the switch of the overhead lamp sending a muted amber glow over the tabletop. Resting the old accordion file on its side, he contemplated its ragged edges and scarred surface; scribbled notes in faded blue ballpoint, coffee stains, smudges of motor oil soaked up from the trunk of his abandoned Mazda. Out of all the belongings he hastily gathered upon abandoning his car in the Big Box store parking lot, this file was the one he feared he could not live without.
The accordion file had been his constant companion for years. In hindsight, he would have preferred a dog.
Depressing the file’s metal clasp, he turned back the cover’s fold, revealing a brace of swollen manila folders. Delicately lifting out the folders, he opened one after another, spreading their contents over the table’s scarred Formica surface; sheets of typewritten coroner’s reports bearing his own signature, faded Xeroxed diagrams of generic human shapes with scribbled notes in the margins and borders and, lastly, the black and white photographs.
He gently brushed aside the crinkled and dog-eared sheets one after another, until he came to the morgue shot of Dawn Cromwell. It was a hotly lit close up of her pale face. Eyes closed, lips pursed and gray. Former Coroner Ron stared at the face in the photograph. The face that had sunk his heart with sadness and aggravation each time he’d looked upon it. He stared at the picture as he’d so often done and, for the first time since he’d extracted the ashtray from his old Mazda dashboard via repeated blows of his clenched fist, began to weep. Tears rolled down his face and spattered over the glossy photo.
The little dead girl was no longer a little dead girl and for the first time, this World of Hurt had a tiny spark of hope.
While the last tear Former Coroner Ron would shed in this life slid down his jowl, the battered motorhome crossed the border from Idaho into Oregon.
Writ in Silver
Rusty left Carri and Dawn spooning in a vague question mark upon his bed and took up a seat on his sofa but not before he’d wrapped the little shrew carcass in a paper towel and set it inside his refrigerator.
The corner of the sofa was still warm from the owl women’s body heat. Sitting in the gloom of the front room, Rusty realized this was the first moment he’d had to himself since the arrival of these two magical people. Magical? Yes–magical in the literal and the figurative. For all the fearful things these two had brought into his reality, they’d also brought him something new and undreamed of–an unknown level of joy.
The warm and gentle feelings he had for the two was something he’d never experienced before. It was fearsome and it was marvelous, too. The closest he’d ever come to this kind of delicate and delicious fear barely held a candle to this. He’d been 16. Her name was Cheryl Singer and she was a cheerleader.
Tall and blond with bright blue eyes, Cheryl was a year ahead of Rusty in school and shared only one class with him. Though he held no affection for sports, he held a great deal for Cheryl and for the whole of his high school sophomore year never missed a basketball game. He’d sit high in the bleacher back row pretending to be interested in the game, but secretly watching Cheryl as she and her squad-mates scampered and leapt through their cheers.
Cheryl’s school locker was just across the hall from Rusty’s, and each morning he’d arrive to see her prim and trim and surrounded by a gaggle her friends. For ball games and pep rallies she could always be found in her flounced pleated skirt of gold and blue, the snug sweater bearing the embroidered school logo of a leaping panther and pom-poms of yarn adorning the laces of her crisp white sneakers.
Rusty never had a conversation with Cheryl. Not one word. The notion of simply making eye contact with her was deeply daunting but he listened for her and every so often caught snippets of her conversations from across the hall or down the row of desks. Rusty held on to every word he could.
One afternoon while standing at his locker exchanging his History of Western Civilization text for that of Basics in Psychology, Rusty’s ears caught an atonal chord in the tune of Cheryl’s voice. Looking over his shoulder, Rusty saw Cheryl’s head tucked in close to that of her best friend, Patricia. Rusty knew instantly Cheryl was in distress. Her pale face was flushed with a hot pinkness and her eyes were sore and swollen looking.
“I did study. I did…” he heard Cheryl whisper through a sob.
“What grade did you get?” asked Patricia.
“Mr. Anderson gave me a B+,” said Cheryl. “That’s going to screw up my entire GPA. If I don’t keep a 3.0 I won’t be able to stay on the squad.”
“Anderson’s a bastard,” Patricia muttered. “But I don’t think a B+ is going to drop your percentage that low. Honey, you’re a straight-A student and that’s all anybody’s really going to care about.”
“It’s his frikking essay questions,” Cheryl cried. “I never know what to say. God, I’m such a loser.”
“No, Cheryl, you’re not a loser…”
At that moment the class bell rang and the sound of Cheryl and Patricia’s conversation was overrun by the crash of locker doors and hurried voices, but all Rusty heard was the last word as it rushed from Cheryl’s mouth.
That word became his nemesis for the whole of the day and he would fixate on it until school let out. It was not until the school bus dropped him at the bottom of his long gravel drive that he’d formulated a means to conquer it.
The following day was Saturday. Rusty rose early and grabbed his bankcard from where it slept in its cardboard sleeve deep in his sock drawer. Sliding behind the wheel of his old pick up, he drove into Salem, the nearest thing to a metropolis that portion of the Willamette Valley had to offer, and withdrew a sizable amount of cash from his savings account.
Next he made his way to the Mall and the first jewelers he came across. Under the bright peach light Rusty peered through the glass case at the assembly of charm bracelets laid out on the deep red velour. He picked one of sterling silver, a delicate chain linked to a thin and unmarked plate. The sterling silver chain cost him $35.00. The engraving cost him an additional $12, two dollars per letter. He returned for the bracelet the following weekend.
After driving home from the Mall, Rusty spent the rest of the evening experiencing a quiet level of agony he’d never felt before. He sat on the edge of his bed and gently turned the tiny silver thing over and over in his palm until his eyes grew droopy and it was time for bed.
Sitting in class, Rusty could feel the tiny bracelet in the bottom of his pocket. It bore the weight of a thousand bricks. He opted to wait until school was out to make his move. Time crept as slow as the slide of a glacier. When the final bell rang he returned his books to his locker, assembled his homework, and went to the Boy’s Restroom and took a seat in one of the stalls. After twenty minutes, he reached into his pocket and retrieved the thin bracelet and a nearly two-foot length of inch-wide velvet ribbon he’d swiped from his mother’s sewing kit.
Carefully threading the soft ribbon through a link in the bracelet chain he tied the end in a bold little knot, shoved all back into his pocket and made for the door.
The corridor without was quiet. From down the hall he could hear the swing choir doing their best to master a very complicated four-part arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on My Mind. The tune became his soundtrack as he padded quietly over the polished floors to Cheryl’s locker.
His hands sweating, he pulled free the bracelet and ribbon and slid it through the lower most slat on the locker door. Carefully he played the red ribbon through his fingers until there was little more than a foot left. Rusty could hear it gently clinking as it repelled down the interior of the metal door.
Doubling the remaining length of ribbon into a loop about the metal span between the slats, Rusty tied it into another tight little knot and poked the excess ribbon into the locker’s darkness so only a tiny sash of read appeared against the gray metal. Glancing about and noting all was clear, he left the bracelet, so lovingly conceived and delivered, hanging safely within the darkness of Cheryl’s locker.
Arriving at school the next morning, he hovered with his nose just behind his opened locker door, listening.
Cheryl and her cadre were timely creatures and he didn’t have long to wait to hear her locker clang open. The seconds it took for her to notice the red ribbon dangling from inside the metal door were yet another level of agony. The next few seconds that it took for her to compute the reason why the ribbon hung taut was because something dangled from its lower reaches was even worse. The hallway quickly filled with the ambient sounds of arriving students and the exchange between Cheryl and Patricia, Candy and Maria became muddied. What he did hear was:
“What does it say?”
“It says ‘Winner!'” he heard Cheryl say, “…I don’t get it.”
“Did one of you guys leave this?” asked Patricia.
“No…” came a murmured reply.
“Looks like you have a secret admirer,” Patricia said, almost stony.
“Great…” said Cheryl and the word fell to the floor of Rusty’s heart like a stone.
From its conception to execution, the deployment of the charm bracelet took nearly two weeks, all derived from a single self-deprecating word uttered by the object of Rusty’s greatest desire. It was a word to which he’d given far more power than even the person who’d uttered it. Notwithstanding the fact that Cheryl had not a single notion Rusty was so terribly smitten with her.
With his nose deep in his locker and that last, hollow word ringing in his ear, Rusty felt something he’d never anticipated feeling; he felt like a fool–a fool of his own making.
He turned and looked at Cheryl as she passed. She drifted by without seeing him. He felt a sting of sadness but blamed her for nothing. He’d planned this all out so well, save for the final beat.
“What did you think was going to happen, Jerk?” he thought to himself. “There was going to be a chorus of angels, she’d clutch the thing to her chest and come bouncing into your arms?”
He closed his locker door and wandered off to class.
Cheryl kept the bracelet, and didn’t look at it for years. Explaining its origin would be too problematic. She assumed it had come from any number of moon-faced boys who eyed her during class or at ballgames. She didn’t know what she’d say to any one of them if they came forward and confessed. She thought sure she’d find herself without words if they did and was terribly embarrassed to be the subject of such covert affection.
Eventually the bracelet found its way to the bottom of her jewelry box where it remained, bright and shiny without a hint of tarnish, for over a decade. The bracelet surfaced following her divorce from her husband, Brandon, as she organized a garage sale. She put it on and admired how it dangled from her wrist and the light caught on its angles. For the first time since her husband had confessed to fucking his secretary, she felt almost herself again.
She called Patricia who was herself staring down the barrel of an inevitable separation and who, also, was heaping personal detritus into the center of her living room intent on purging said crap at the same garage sale.
Patricia had no recollection of the bracelet.
“It’s funny,” said Cheryl, “I put it on and I felt this, I don’t know, warmth? I felt strong. I felt like, I don’t know, like everything is going to be okay.”
“Maybe it really is charmed,” Patricia muttered around her second Camel of the morning.
“Maybe,” said Cheryl.
The Winner Bracelet, as it ultimately came to be called, was the only possession her eldest daughter Monica asked for upon Cheryl’s death of ovarian cancer thirty years later. A cancer she miraculously fended off for nearly a decade. After her passing, Monica wore the bracelet daily, feeling its strange warmth and strength. She swore it was her mother’s spirit easing her through the pain of her loss. When Monica’s daughter lost her first child to a miscarriage, she clipped the bracelet to the young woman’s wrist. It eased her through the loss.
The Winner Bracelet became a prized heirloom. It remained in the family and never tarnished.
And Rusty, within a year of sinking the charm bracelet into Cheryl’s locker had all but forgotten how terribly smitten he once was of the blond girl and how very sweet she looked in her cheerleader’s skirt. Dropping out of school and working full time at the garage kept him busy, as did his music. Girls ceased to be such and] immediate distraction.
Rusty never knew the power he’d etched into a cheap little charm bracelet and neither did the widening circle of people it touched, but the power was there and it lasted lifetimes.
Yawning until his eyes watered, Rusty propped up some cushions on the arm of the sofa and caught the faint scent of Dawn and Carri both. For a second longer he thought of Cheryl and the delicate and delicious fear she’d brought into his life and he smiled to himself.
Pretty girl, he thought, but not as pretty as his owl woman. Owl Wife — a voice in the back of his mind corrected before he drifted off to sleep.
As Rusty’s body succumbed to those fitful twitches encountered on the borders of sleep he found himself in the parking lot of a sprawling, one-story complex. Looking into the dark glass of the entryway, he knew it was a dream. He also knew the building all too well; it was the nursing home where Granny died and it was the last place on Earth he’d ever want to find himself.
Passing through the automatic sliding doors the antiseptic smell mingled with human waste and sadness descended on him like a cloud. He passed the day room and caught glimpses of the vague, elderly shapes clustered over dining tables and hunched over in wheelchairs but their shapes were foggy and indistinct. He wasn’t here to see them.
Reaching the end of the short corridor, Rusty saw the door to Granny’s room standing open. He knew it well. For nearly four months he’d come to visit her in this place every day he could. Riding his bike from home, he’d sling Granny’s old guitar across his back and pedal the six miles up from the south end of the Little Gray Town to the nursing home where it sat just catty-corner from the bowling alley and directly across the street from the high school.
Granny was too young to be dying in this place. Age wasn’t killing Granny so fast as the rare and persistent infection eating away at her lungs. The doctors said it was a fungus, something she may have contracted long, long ago that sat patiently waiting for her to grow older and her immune system to be depleted enough by time to go to work. The infection was thickening the mucus in her lungs, contracting the tiny tubes made for breathing so that Granny was slowly suffocating. The doctors said it was most likely a fungus found in bird droppings. As a young woman, Granny lived in a cottage that used to be a huge coop on a chicken farm. Hard to believe, but the doctors said the roots of infection might go that far back.
Granny didn’t have long so they set her up in the convalescent home in town rather than a hospital, so she could be nearer to her family. They propped her up on pillows, hooked her to a steady flow of oxygen and waited for the inevitable.
But this was a dream, Rusty told himself. Granny was gone, long gone and her pain was over. Granny’s pain was over, but for Rusty it was to start all over again. He stopped before entering the room and swung Granny’s guitar around into his 14-year old hands. It was as lovingly worn and battered as he’d remembered.
Rusty entered the room as he always did, a bright and bold smile on his face as though nothing in the world was amiss and his beloved Granny wasn’t to be found flat on her back with a tube in her nose and wires crisscrossing her bedding.
Talking was hard for Granny. She’d speak in gasping whispers. She had her good days and bad. The bad were becoming more common. Rusty didn’t want Granny to talk, he just wanted to sit and play for her.
“That’s better medicine than any doctor could give me,” she’d say.
Granny’s eyes were closed when Rusty sat down beside her, but he felt her stir as soon as he settled the guitar on his lap.
“So good to see you Rustysaurus,” she said. “But we don’t have much time.”
“You don’t need to talk, Granny,” he said.
“Yes, I do. You have a big test coming up and I want to give you the answers but I can’t,” she whispered. She closed her eyes and feebly took a sip of air. “That would be cheating…and to cheat at this game would be the end of everything.” Her cheeks had become hallow and her skin as pale as sand, but when she opened her eyes they sparkled with that electrical intensity Rusty remembered so well.
Rusty opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off, “Now, you let me talk Rusty. I’m going to talk and then you’re going to play for me and then you’re going to be on your way–;you hear me?”
And Rusty simply nodded and smiled. The young man inside the 14-year old boy missed his Granny, in particular he missed her saber tongue and the way she could slash with one phrase and caress with the next.
“Things come in threes, Rusty. Faith, Hope and Charity. Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” again Granny struggled to take in a breath. “Three is a power number but it’s uneven and unpredictable. This thing you need to do, the people you love that need protecting, you’re going to put it in action with the use of three things. They won’t be so obvious what they are…”
Granny’s voice slid off into a ragged whisper and her eyes slowly closed. “But you’ll know them when you see them. Three things, Rustysaurus.”
Rusty watched as Granny’s chest made a shallow but staccato rise and fall. After a few moments he decided she was done talking. He reached over and took her hand. Without opening her eyes, Granny gave his hand a squeeze. They sat that way for longer than Rusty could say. When he felt her grip slacken, he returned his hands to the guitar and began to play the one song he knew she’d want to hear. He played Streets of Laredo and it was perfect.
When morning broke above the little bungalow, Rusty got up and made himself some coffee in the battered old Mr. Coffee. The machine was good for about two and a half cups. He poured himself a cup and left some in the glass pot for Carri. He had no clue whether she liked coffee but he thought it very likely.
Slinging his guitar across his back and coffee cup in hand, Rusty pushed through the door and into the backyard. The crumpled screen door still sat sideways against the old gray fence, just the far side of the makeshift barbecue pit. It was a crude thing, a three-foot bowl with some old bricks positioned round the lip supporting an old and corroded metal grill.
Rusty moved barefoot through the grass wet with morning dew to the shallow depression in the earth. Hovering over the little pit, he poked the grill with his bare foot and took a sip of his coffee. He’d not contemplated the benefits of a fire pit in his backyard, but now with all this company about maybe they could do some grilling once things calmed down. Rusty stopped himself and reviewed that last thought.
When things calmed down? What would the world look like, then, when things calmed down? Would this world still even be?
He shook his head and smiled and contemplated the creamy brown stuff in his cup.
He’d made this coffee his usual way, with some milk and two too many spoonfuls of sugar. It tasted wonderful, sweet and hot on this fresh morning. Taking another sip, he thought of Granny’s old guitar and once more wondered whatever had become of it. He’d forgotten how very much he liked the feel of it in his hands.
On the opposite side of the house, just up the street and high in the old black walnut tree the Razor Baby blinked awake in the dappled light and looked down upon the little house. It could smell the owl women within and its gaze was so piercing it could nearly see through the eaves to where they slept.