LENNY HAD REACHED THE TOP landing when I found my box of pre-stretched canvases next to Amy’s Gibson acoustic guitar—a gift from Aunt Alexis.
“I used to play up here when I was a little kid,” he said as he stepped aside and let me pass. He followed me to the desk where I unpacked the canvases. “This was my fort, my pirate ship, my galactic spaceship, and even the Temple of Doom mines from Indiana Jones. I had maps and all kinds of drawings taped to the ceiling.”
I sorted my canvases by size while I listened to him talk about his early childhood spent playing in the attic, as though it had happened a long time ago. His friendliness toward me along with his willingness to share his past relaxed me. Plus, his voice was kind and a register or two above baritone, like Daddy’s had been. And he made me laugh when he told me that he had buried treasure in the floor.
“Seriously,” he said. He went to Amy’s side of the room and got on his hands and knees, inspecting the floor. “The new paint has sealed the loose floorboards, but I sometimes stashed my allowance beneath the floor, along with bits of silver and gold my Gumpa gave me.”
“My grandfather,” he explained.
“You hid money, silver and gold up here?”
“And my GI Joes and Hot Wheels cars. Stuff that I didn’t want to lose.” He peered up at me. “Do you have a knife or scissors?”
I fetched an X-Acto knife from my box of art supplies. Lenny carefully took it from me, extracted the blade, and cut at the seams of paint around a board.
“So, this was your house,” I said.
“Gam Gam’s house. My grandparents lived here until Gumpa died. Then Gam Gam moved in with us until she died last year.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“It’s okay. They’re still here in spirit.”
“Do you mean, like, ghosts?”
Lenny laughed. “I meant figuratively. They still live in my memories.” He stopped cutting. “But I have seen my great-grandfather’s ghost. He used to live at the property next door a long time ago.”
“A real ghost?”
Lenny’s grip on the knife tightened. “Well, it could have been a trick of the light, I suppose.” He returned to cutting at the paint.
Great. Red beady eyes and now ghosts.
Lenny used the knife blade to lift the board until he could grasp it with his fingers. He lifted the wood and said, “Voila!”
I tried to peer inside but he blocked my view as he reached inside. The space was deep enough to swallow his entire arm. He grunted and withdrew a book larger than my largest coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.
It looked familiar. Too familiar. Where had I seen it before?
“I forgot I had this,” Lenny said.
“What is it?” I knelt next to the book and looked for a title. There was none, even after Lenny blew away some of the dust, which made me sneeze.
“I found it one day while playing up here. It’s filled with numbers and strange figures, like a secret code.” He pulled a loose page from the book. The page was thick and yellow; someone had written numbers and figures on it with a quill pen. He ran a finger over the page. “The whole book is like this. None of it makes sense, but I thought it was pretty neat.” He set the book and page aside and rummaged inside the floor for more treasure.
I picked up the brittle page. Parts of it crumbled at the edges. The numbers and figures on it shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.
“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry.”
More words formed across the page, which made me dizzy to watch, so I closed my eyes.
“What’d you say?” Lenny asked.
“It’s poetry,” I said, peeking at him while he pulled some toy cars from beneath the floor.
The book revealed more brittle pages with numbers and figures that became words. More poetry. I sat cross-legged, rested the book on my lap, and read while Lenny extracted money, toys, and comic books from his old hiding place.
Ten pages into the book, one poem stood out from the others.
Born from lightning on edges of flame,
She finds herself in the heat of shame;
The last of three born in the city,
She travels far the path of pity.
Her father dead lives in the distance,
Gone from her life of false existence;
Only in truth is she enlightened,
To give her life to the brightened.
There were more poems and just as poorly composed. Not that I was an expert on the topic, but come on, this was obviously juvenile stuff.
Something rolled across the floor and struck against one of my tennis shoes.
I picked up Lenny’s red toy Ferrari. Dizziness and a buzzing sound overwhelmed me.
“Roll that back to me and I’ll show you the Trans Am that won almost all my races,” Lenny said. His voice sounded distant behind the buzzing. “I used to have a track that went all over this room. It was awesome.”
I closed my eyes and waited for the moment to pass. When it did, I opened my eyes and—
The sun had set. Twilight made it difficult to see detail along the side of the road where my car sat. The dark red LeSabre had a flat tire and I knew I’d be late to my son’s birthday party. I had managed to jack up the front of the car and remove two of the five lug nuts holding the tire to its wheel. But the other three wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I wrenched on them. I shook the can of WD-40, sprayed the lug nuts again, then stood from my crouch at the edge of the road and waited for the smelly grease to do its magic.
The flat was on the driver’s side and that meant I had to work partly in the road. No one came on the empty highway; the fields of countryside around me were quiet. I pushed my bangs from my eyes and knelt again next to the tire, resting my knees against a blue plastic tarp I kept in the trunk for emergencies. I brushed away some dirt from my black pantyhose and the hem of my navy blue skirt, and pulled again at a large piece of amber glass from the tire. This time it came out. I replayed in my mind the sound of the beer bottle exploding under the weight of the tire. I hadn’t seen it until the last second before driving over it.
The fading sunlight behind the thicket of trees on the car’s passenger side made me nervous. It wasn’t safe to be outdoors at this time of day. I headed back to the trunk to find the road flares. I had set the spare tire on the ground next to an oversized box wrapped in blue and white HAPPY BIRTHDAY paper near a ditch of still water. Green scum had collected on the water’s stagnant surface and I thought I could make out the mostly submerged bulging eyes of a frog. It made me think of snakes, so I high-stepped my black high heels away from the car. I could hunt and field dress any wildlife, but I couldn’t stand being around snakes.
I thought about trying to call my husband again, but I knew the phone wouldn’t work. So I returned to the gaping trunk and looked inside for the box of flares.
A vehicle approached behind me.
I stood up and looked.
I bent over the flares and heard the vehicle again.
And again, I neither saw nor heard any approaching vehicle.
I chewed a thumbnail. The false nail had broken from my right thumb—a chubby right thumb. All my fingers were chubby. So were my hands and arms … and the rest of me as far as I could see.
I had never been thin. But I had always been pretty. And tonight, I wanted Howard to see I could look sexy. After the birthday party and the kids were in bed, I had a special present for him, which was still in the black plastic bag next to the German chocolate birthday cake on the backseat.
I brushed away a fly that had landed on the breast of my yellow blouse. I had to be careful not to get grease and dirt on my clothes.
Behind me, a dog howled nearby.
Another dog joined in. Then another until there was a chorus of howls coming at me.
I had to hurry. But the giant Rottweiler had found me. It sat on the road’s median for a moment. Then it vanished as an engine roared behind me.
I spun around. A white van came fast over the crest of hill. It was partly off the road and not pulling into the next lane to go around me.
Margga’s revenge came at me and was swift.