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Chris Cleary

Free to a Good Home

It was the kind of rain that people do not hear, that seemed to merely pat the leaves and coat them in the forlorn darkness. Tires plashed intermittently, their cars passing her by, east and west on Maple. On the porch of her parents’ Craftsman where she sat staring into a meaningless book, humidity had halted all—as with her life, a cage without bars. But she swore to herself the year after next she would take Maple or another of these gridded streets out of Middletown and begin a task long overdue.

She had just returned from the public library, where she had checked out an atlas of ornithology. She felt a certain connection. Owlet was the pet name her father had bestowed upon her, sounding just close enough to Alice to make it cute. (Better than her childhood nickname of Allie, which was a street that never went anywhere). But she sometimes wondered if Owlet also wasn’t some inside joke, some hidden criticism of her reticence. She had always thought of owls masking themselves in the branches, never doing anything but perching there watching things, watching others do. But what else were they supposed to be? Wise? Wise old owl. No, she was not that. Nocturnal? No, she was bothered by the dark. Birds of prey? No, she would never dare to explode out of her quiet world and seize upon anything. She shut the book, abandoning it on the porch chair, and went inside.

She was bored of being bored, by herself, with her parents at work in the restaurant, and Fiona over in Swarthmore, and nothing for her to do but count the raindrops dripping from the rhododendrons out front. Well, at least there was a choral field trip coming up in the next couple of weeks when they would sing that patriotic medley at the Presshall House. That would break things up. As long as Cory didn’t try to impress her with his silly magic tricks as he sat behind her in the baritone section. Having thought of the song, she heard the alto part jouncing along in her head, and soon she found herself wandering lost about the house, involuntarily giving a voice to the tune.

She knew she couldn’t sing. It all sounded like hoots and hisses, nothing beautiful or graceful about it, certainly nothing like Fi, who always got the lead in the musical because she had perfect pitch and could act as well, finding a voice for anything others wanted to hear, but her dad had suggested she take chorus too, something to add to the high school experience besides the Rosebaron basketball team, which she had joined not because she particularly enjoyed running up and down the court but because she had that Houghton height (too tall—Fi was the perfect height) and because basketball was respected among her peers, and so she knew it would be a sort of bolthole for someone dangerously close to being a geek or a nerd. Some of the kids swore the two were different, but the distinction didn’t matter.

Her singing trailed off pitifully. Heck, no one was home. What if she gave it her all? She had never done that before, even in rehearsal with everyone else around her to drown her out if she dared to rise above a whisper. She seized a flashlight that had been left on the hallway table, held it as if it were a microphone, and, starting at the top of the song, belted the melody. At first it sounded strange, her own little voice by itself, but after a while, maybe it was not so bad. She couldn’t tell. And then, as she hopped about, the cap came off and the batteries fell out and bruised the top of her foot. Well, she had deserved it. That was not what her parents had bought it for.

She replaced the batteries and tested the flashlight, but the beam was dim. She searched the drawer of the hallway table for a new pack but didn’t find any. She searched the closets, the kitchen, nearly the entire house, but no success. She thought she had seen a flashlight on her parents’ dresser in the bedroom. Maybe her dad had stowed some away in one of its drawers.

Her search through socks and T-shirts led her to buried treasure, archives and artifacts dating from 1980, the year of her dad’s graduation from Rosebaron, and from 1985, her mom’s from Appleman down in West Virginia. Her parents’ past was a land she had never explored without their knowledge, and intrigued, she began to dig and sift. In the bottom drawer she discovered a photo album of their life before her, before Fi, before their marriage, back in San Francisco in the early ‘90s.

She opened the album to a random page. She spotted a photo of a young woman in her early 20’s, her blonde hair frozen in the midswirl of dancing. She had to look at her face twice. She thought at first it was Fi, she was so young and pretty. A black minidress with long, lacy sleeves. Silver pentagram pendant. Black lipstick. Heavy eyeliner. Others behind her in costume as well. A Halloween party. OMG! Her mom just might’ve been a Goth at one time, giving the finger to anyone who told her what to do or what to think, for Mom was like that, liked a good argument, but who it was deep down she was bumping up against she had no idea, for they never had been to West Virginia, never even mentioned any of Mom’s original family other than that one time Dad quietly remarked that they were her mother’s family now, and the figure of the Goth-Mom dancing in her imagination sparked and linked itself to the Stephen King books she was always reading, the living room’s ornate candleholders that looked as if they came from Frankenstein’s castle, and the time she let Fi stay up late to watch The Exorcist with her, that was when Fi was, what, in 8th grade, and she had been roused from restless sleep when the argument ensued and crept down the hall to hear Dad, back late as usual from the restaurant, almost hysterical, report that Fi was still awake and crying, afraid to fall asleep and dream that her head would spin round and spew green vomit, and Mom, up off the couch and stepping forward to meet the challenge, claimed she saw no problem with it, hell, Fi even enjoyed it, which sounded kind of true, for when she had spied on them earlier, Fi actually seemed excited by the privilege of watching something for adults, but now, as she sneaked back past her room, Fi was drying her tears and told her to get back to bed with such urgency that she ran and slammed the door shut, and this seemed to be the first in a series of incidents as Fi made her way through high school, and when her folks got into it every so often, with Dad demanding to know why his wife always felt she was in a competition with his daughter, she quickly learned to fly away, being the prudent owlet she was, because she was never one of the three involved, and made one more tick in her diary’s running tab as prisoners count the days until parole, locking and stashing the diary behind her set of Nancy Drew, not that they would ever search her room for anything suspicious because they knew she was the good girl.

Another photo. They were at a carnival on a pier, Dad standing behind Mom with his arms encircling her. Again Mom looked exactly like Fi, but made to seem even younger than she was by the stuffed animal she hugged, a large panda bear with a blue bowtie. She stared at the image, maniacally twirling a strand of her hair until she became conscious of that habit of hers she knew annoyed others. There were clues hidden in that photograph as well that might lead to something that made sense, if she could only…well, Mr. Coyne had just taught them about comparative anatomy, so she carefully worked backward from a single impression to reconstruct the greater story, as if the photo were just one page in a flipbook, and running her thumb across its edges revealed not only the outward action of its yesterdays and tomorrows but also the unseen story within, and there it was in their postures and expressions that a key aspect of their relationship became clear, that Dad had been attracted and driven by a need to protect, and Mom, at least in part, a need to be protected, and that made sense, it certainly did, as revelations continually burst in chain reaction, made perfect sense why Dad had always pampered Fi, who looked so much like Mom, pampered her from the times he took her food shopping so he could detour to the Dairy Queen for a treat, to the day he bought her a car for her commute to Swarthmore, there was the context she had been searching for, so no wonder then that Fi always scurried to the door to greet Grandpa and Grandma and Aunt Becca, and with a greedy grin and feet firmly planted to deny them entrance until they paid love’s toll (Fi’s fee, Dad punned), and as Fi began to accept it as a code to live by and rely upon its power, no wonder then that Mom recognized the overthrow and resented it, resented the heck out of it, and never suggesting Dad step back and look at it with clear eyes, she defied Fi’s ego in bizarre and jealous ways, thwarting it at every turn, which made the spotlight on Fi burn all the brighter, and very little illumination left for her. Oh well, Paris also had only one apple to give, and he sure as heck didn’t even consider Athena.

She restored all her discoveries to their rightful places, making sure to erase any signs of her investigation. She thought that she might steal the batteries from some item in Fi’s bedroom, though she was not quite sure what that would be. Her bedroom was still crammed with her possessions, so she was sure she could find something she could commandeer. She noticed a doll on one of the shelves, something Fi had fallen in love with years ago, a plump harlequin named Mr. Bugglesputz, whom she could make dance and pirouette to the music emanating from within its stuffing. She grabbed the doll by its neck and was about to harvest its batteries when she thought she heard it cry inside her head, “Wait! Turn me back over! Listen to me!”

Well, that was weird. She righted the doll and set it on the bed. Again it silently communicated with her.

“Your eyes are not limited to today. Your ears hear echoes long gone. You’re using them even now.”

Well, what in the world did that mean?

“We’re in this together. Knowledge is power. Seize her secrets.” And then its arm, cocked upwards across its chest, fell by force of gravity (or something more) and pointed across the bedroom at a corner of the rug. She looked in that direction, then back to the doll, which she was sure was orchestrating some gross deceit. It cost her nothing—there was nobody there to make fun of her—so she lifted the corner of the rug. Digging deeper, she found a cardboard sign, wrestled it out, and read the message upon it. It was something Mom had written the afternoon they had returned from biking downtown.

When was that? About a year after the Exorcist incident. She was 11 and so Fi would have been 15, and they had been riding their bikes on the Maple Street sidewalk when Mom left the porch for just a second, and Fi pedaled over to her and asked if she wanted to see something neat, and of course she did but had no idea what, especially when Fi told her to follow and drove off down Maple into downtown, and no matter how much she called after her, Fi didn’t stop until they got to the middle school and had to wait for the green light to cross First, and she warned Fi that she was going to get them in trouble, but they were almost there, just a little ways more, so she kept following, she may as well having come this far, until having walked their bikes across First, then past the distributors, across Butcher, and past the post office, they had to wait for the green light again at Delaware, a much more dangerous intersection, but Fi laughed and shook her blonde ringlets and insisted there was nothing dangerous if she stuck close by her side, and once they crossed, she told her to get back on, for they were pretty safe biking across Chandler and taking a right onto Hemmings, which was residential, wasn’t it, just like back at home, and she began to feel adventurous, and honored too in a way, for Fi, who knew what it was to dare, had deigned to take her along as they rode south to Olive, from which she could see her church on the right back towards town, but Fi told her they were going thisaway, down to the cul-de-sac, and they left their bikes by the bushes at the edge of the woods, and though she was scared by what might lurk within, Fi claimed that Dad had come here all the time when he was young, and so she trailed her through the trees, along the remnants of a path, past the litter of beer bottles and soda cans, past a rock spiking up five feet from the ground, and eventually to a fence of barbed wire blocking their way onto what Fi called Rhino Rock, this was the secret, and Fi held the strands of barbed wire open so she could squeeze through, and the surface of the rock was flat and broad and canopied by the tall trees that surrounded them, an oasis from the downtown summer sun, and a draft like a cool, wet tongue creeping upon her from the rock’s far side, and wait till you see this, be careful now, said Fi, taking her by the hand and leading her to the Rhino’s horn, the part of the rock projecting from the edge that looked out over the Chasm Primeval, that’s what Dad called it, and it seemed miles and miles down to the oozy marsh and the hideous skunk cabbage and the giant fronds like elephants’ ears, and if they could find a path to take them down, it sure would be neat to have a look, but oh no, it was too frightening because of the dinosaurs she swore were there, and Fi laughed at her, called her scaredy cat, but maybe she was right, she wasn’t eager herself to meet the lizards and snakes that were waiting behind rocks to jump at them any moment (Boo!), and that wasn’t funny, Fi, don’t be so mean, so Fi apologized and took her hand and led her back to their bikes and back through downtown and back to the house.

Where Mom was waiting. It was more horrible than the imaginary dinosaurs of the Chasm, what happened then between Mom and Fi. To her credit, Fi took all the blame, claiming she had to coax her into the adventure. But how was she to learn if she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere? She had her best interests at heart. Her mother argued it wasn’t safe for young girls to be off by themselves in this day and age, cited statistics of child abductions. She too had her best interests at heart. They both could have made strong cases, but the way the debate deteriorated into screaming and storming and throwing magazines made her cower in the corner, as if she had ceased to exist as each of them gave into self-indulgent frenzy. In the end, Fi marched off and banished herself to her room.

When her father came home it started all over again. After her mother had discussed the incident with him, he went to talk to Fi. Her ear pressed to the bedroom door, she heard Fi begin the account calmly but then break down in tears. Despite his yearning to protect, Fi’s will (or his weakness before it) was stronger. He quietly promised her he would consult her mother about her decision to ground her for a month as long as she swore she would never do anything like that again. Her father returned to the living room to argue on behalf of Fi. There was more shouting, and she made one more tick mark in her diary.

After the house was quiet once again, with Fi still in her room and her father having left the house to walk his frustration out around the block, she crept up to her mother to ask if finally everything was all right. She was at the table in the dining room with a magic marker and a large piece of cardboard from which she had attached a string, as if she were ready to hang it as a picture.

“Mommy, what are you writing?”

“A message to your sister.”

Her mother then took the sign out to the garage, hung it from the handlebars of Fi’s bike, and wheeled the bike out to the front curb.

Mr. Bugglesputz looked at her quizzically from behind the diamonds of his mask. He was asking her why Fiona had kept that cardboard sign for six years, burying it beneath the rug of her bedroom where nobody, save an inquisitive owlet such as herself, would ever seize upon it and reveal it to the light of day. Its existence was unknown to the world at large, yet it had happened, and Fi wanted to remember forever this lesson learned in life’s school of war.

She took the sign out to the garage and was prepared to stuff it into the trashcan, but something forced her to read it once more. The large letters of black magic marker spoke to her as well. She dragged a lawn chair onto the driveway and into the imprisonment of the rain where she would sit waiting for her parents to return. The string was still attached, so she draped the sign about her neck, the sign that read FREE TO A GOOD HOME.

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