The little boy appeared in front of the window during my second week on the job. He paused and glanced up when his father tugged on his hand, and when his eyes lifted to my window he jerked away so quickly his hand slipped from his mitten.
I let the towel drop and stepped back into the shadowed doorway leading out of the display window. The boy flattened his palm on the glass, leaves crumbling beneath his step. I watched the father’s throat move as he swallowed hard, said something to the child and moved toward him.
“Mama,” the boy said. His eyes were whole and huge, darkening to black with tears. The flat hand curled into a fist. My heart stopped, hot and waiting, until he said again, “Mama,” and pressed his forehead to the glass.
“The strangest thing happened today at the store.” I turned and topped off Mae’s coffee, returned the pot to the stove and sat across from her. “This little boy stopped in front of my window and said, ‘Mama.’”
My aunt blew on her coffee, watching me over the rim. Her eyes were filmy behind two distinct smudges on the lenses of her cat eye glasses.
“He was with his father – I guess it was his father. They looked alike. They turned the corner and the little boy was watching the wind toss some leaves around, and suddenly he looked up and saw my display.”
“The new one?”
“The beauty shop one.”
“How’s that going?”
I lifted one shoulder. “They want me to put one of those exercise belt machines in it.”
“I know. I’ve been putting it off for a week, hoping Betty will forget about it.”
Mae snorted and tapped a cigarette from her silver case. “Good luck with that.” She lit up, blew a thin line of smoke at the ceiling. Behind her, out the window, purples leaves shivered in a pink gloaming. Stan would be home soon. “Back to the kid.”
I shook my head. “That’s about it. He got really upset, seemed like, and put his face up against the window. It was like the display made him sad.”
“That display makes me sad, and I haven’t even seen it,” Mae said. She stood, pressed her palms into the small of her back, stretched. “I need to start supper. You eating with us tonight?”
I stood as well, washed out my tea cup and placed it upside down in the drainer. “No, thank you. I think I’ll turn in early.”
“Just as well,” Mae said, and kissed my cheek. “Remember your towel.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, and went upstairs.
My room was on the third floor, which was more of an attic than an inhabitable space. It was deathly hot in the summer, Mae said, but thankfully my arrival turned the leaves, bronzed the trees, and a cool depth settled over Savannah. Stan said he hadn’t seen a cold snap so early in the fall in thirty years; it was as if my presence sped up a season.
Their house on Gaston was rambling but in despair. Entire rooms had been closed off for years, moisture clung like tears to windows and impossible noises livened the night. The house, unfortunately named Heavensgate, had been in my mother’s family for generations. Mae was the only one left who had the patience and breath to claim it.
My nightly ritual took nearly an hour, and when I had shoved my last towel into the crack under the attic door I crawled to my narrow bed and felt beneath it for the cuff. The silver was cold and hurt my wrist, but I closed it as tightly as I could, until the lock caught and my fingertips tingled. Then I lay in the wash of streetlight and waited for sleep to claim me.
The next day I lost my silent battle with Betty: she had Rufus and Dom haul the exercise belt machine up the three stairs and into my display window, where I had just finished securing a towel around a dummy I called Sister.
“I think it would look best in the corner here,” Betty said, pointing. “Angle it so the mannequin’s back is to the window and the crowd can see the belt around her waist.”
Dom turned and wiped a rag over his face. “What crowd?”
“The one that will certainly be here once Celia is finished with this window.” Lipstick bloomed Pretty in Pink across Betty’s two front teeth, but I didn’t bother to point it out. “Isn’t that right, Celia Rose?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. “Sure is.”
“What is this thing, anyway?” Rufus asked, picking up a piece of the belt and dropping it.
“It’s only the latest in weight management and assistance,” Betty said, replacing the belt and positioning herself between the machine and Rufus. “It’s in all the catalogues. You can’t open a lady’s magazine and not see ads for it – and now here it is, right here in our store.” Betty patted her beehive. “Everybody’s going to be rushing on down here to buy one, I’m telling you right now. We’re going to be swamped, isn’t that right, Celia Rose?”
“You come from up North, didn’t you, Celia? Were these just all over the place up there?”
Rufus and I exchanged glances. “I came from Nashville, if you can consider that up North.”
“Well?” Betty’s huge blue eyes blinked, reminding me of the dolls sold down the street at Woolworth’s. “Were they just selling like hotcakes?”
I swallowed and considered my answer, feeling the men’s eyes on me. “I wouldn’t know, ma’am. I didn’t… I didn’t get out much right before I moved here.”
Betty sighed as if I was just the biggest disappointment, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything for very long, and for that I was glad. She flapped her hands at Rufus and Dom, shooing them from my space. “She wouldn’t know anything about the latest in health and weight trends,” she said to the men as they filed down the stairs, “she’s an artist, not a consumer.”
I was staring at the exercise contraption and tapping my tooth, thinking about her words – an artist, I’d never considered myself an artist – when I saw the man and little boy across the street. The man had the collar of his jacket turned up and appeared to be pulling the child along behind him. The boy, however, had different plans.
As I watched, moving toward the glass without realizing, the boy jerked his hand out of his father’s and – without checking – dashed across the street. The father was on the child’s heels in a few quick strides, and although he managed to snatch him up the boy wriggled free. In seconds he was only feet from me, staring up, his mouth open and his palms flat against the glass.
I backed up.
“Mama,” he said, just before the man scooped him up again and cradled the child to his chest.
I shook my head. Around me was nothing but silence and black, a fading falling, until at last I was gone.
Mae sat on the edge of the bed, her face wet and lined. A cigarette smoldered between two knuckles the size of thimbles.
I tried to sit up, but a dazzling fireworks display of pain sliced me into pieces, and I collapsed. Instead, I closed my eyes and asked what happened.
“You fainted at the store,” Mae said. Her tone was flat, blameless. “They found you in the window display after a man and a little boy came in and said they saw it happen.”
Swallowing was impossible, and after a moment I felt Mae curl my fingers around a cool paper cup. “Drink,” she said.
“Who were they?” I asked.
“I imagine they were the father and little boy you told me about last night,” Mae said. I opened my eyes, and she was chewing at a fingernail on her non-cigarette hand. “But you can ask them yourself. They’re here.”
My body tightened, coiled, preparing to strike. “Why are they here.”
Mae glanced at the closed hospital door before looking back at me. The smudges were still on her glasses. “The little boy wouldn’t leave until he talked to you. The father,” she shook her head. “The father’s a mess. All I could get out of him is that the mother left them a few years back. I’m thinking the boy is confused, thinks you’re his mother.” My aunt studied my face for a long moment before reaching out and covering my hand with hers. “I’m so sorry about this, Celia. I really am.”
I shook my head against the pillow, pinpricks of pain in my mind like slivers of a broken mirror. “I can’t do this. I can’t. I fainted when I saw them and we were separated by glass. I thought I was protected. I can’t talk to them, Mae, I can’t do it.”
“You’re going to have to,” she said. “The kid’s pretty insistent.”
The door opened, and the father – the collar of his jacket still turned up, shielding his throat – stood cut in silhouette, a cameo man, a shadow.
“May we come in?”
No, I said, I screamed, but there was no sound. My fingers clutched at the white sheets, grasping.
“Of course,” Mae said, and squeezed my hand before standing. “But why don’t you and Celia talk for a minute, I’ll take Jack for a walk. Get a cold drink.”
The father patted Mae on the arm as she passed, murmured thank you. The door closed behind my aunt.
“Ray,” the man said, putting one hand over his heart. “It’s me, Ray.”
My finger shook as I pointed to the cup of water. In two long strides he was at my side, pushing the cup into my hand. I drank only to postpone the words, drained the glass and handed it back to him. It made a thin, hollow sound when he set it on the bedside table. We watched each other.
“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say,” I said finally. “I think your son is confused.”
Ray glanced over at a chair angled in a corner of the room as if he was considering pulling it over and having a seat, but he remained where he stood. Another pinprick in my mind, and I felt a hot ache in my stomach, as if I might be sick.
He’s afraid of me, I thought. He’s afraid to sit, in case he needs to run.
“I told him you were going to the beauty shop,” Ray said.
He’s not afraid of me. He’s afraid for me. But why?
“Why?” I asked, and the word bounced off the inside of my skull, a hollow echo, a single drop rippling.
“He kept asking.”
I swallowed hard. “Why would he ask about me? I don’t even know you. I just moved here.” I felt as if I stopped talking the hospital walls would break, the water would rush in, I would die in this room attached to a useless bag of saline, I would drown in this room with a stranger. “I’ve only worked at the store for two weeks, I live with my aunt and her husband.”
“I didn’t know what to tell him because I wasn’t sure myself.” Ray shook his head, one hand reaching toward me for a flicker of time before flinching back to his side, where it slipped into his pocket like a chastised child. “It may have been the wrong answer, Katie, but I didn’t know what else to say.”
At that word, that name – Katie – something inside me cracked, it broke, and hot white wet light doubled me over, my knees to my chin, my cheek on the scratchy sheet, curled up and sliced open.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I managed, gasping, gaping like a caught fish. All I could see was white, the sheet, heat blooming in the meat of my lungs, the ache dear god the ache. “I think you should leave. I think you should leave now.”
“But what about Jack?” the man asked. He didn’t seem concerned that I was flailing, floundering, a gasping puddle evaporating before his eyes. “He knows now, he’s seen you. We can’t undo that, Katie.”
“Stop it,” I roared, and the door opened instantly. “Stop calling me that! Stop it, stop it now.”
“Miss,” a nurse was at my side, trying to pry me open, to unfurl my coiled, caught body. “Miss, you need to calm down.”
“I don’t know this man,” I screamed, creaking an arm away from myself long enough to point. “Get him out of this room, I don’t know this man.” The pinpricks split, multiplied, grew and blew into the soft places, the open ones, the untended wounds of my brain. A searing split, and I saw the needle in my arm. “I don’t know this man, get him out of my room.”
More nurses, a man in white at my side. Ray disappeared, and Mae, my darling Mae, my aunt, my life, my blood, my savior, she was here, she wrestled past the white squawking flock, the flapping mass, and I felt her hand on my cheek, wet and hot, and just before the door closed again and the light went out I heard it, I heard it again, it rushed in on a wave of hot white pain, of clean salt foam, I heard it and felt it wash over and cover and cleanse and sear me, I opened my mouth felt it on my tongue, tasted the black curling fear of it, the need the ache the gnawing desperate nothing of the round, tight word before the door closed.
Tomi L. WIley is the Poetry and Short Fiction Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee. She has written and edited for mainstream and private media including Southern Living and Oxford American magazines, edited numerous manuscripts and literary anthologies, procured authors and coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books and am a past President of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She studied poetry in France as part of a program with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a published author and poet. She digs ice cream, goat cheese, red wine and very loud jazz. She is working on her first novel.