Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Year(s) (01/20/11)
By Ann Grover
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Gail eased out of the car. The air smelled of moldering leaves, the tang of apples, damp soil. And smoke. Silvery wisps crept along the ground, and Gail followed the pungent haze.
She always liked making fires.
Laura didn’t look up from the fire when Gail approached, but continued to heap leaves with her pitchfork. Tiny fingers of flame burst from the mound, and smoke writhed in the frosty air.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I thought you should know . . .”
“I’ve already heard.”
“It’s time, Laura. It’s been silly of us . . .”
Laura looked up from the leaves, her eyes flashing, voice seething.
“Silly of us? You were the one who stole my man and kept him for yourself. Laughed at me. Mocked me.” Laura stabbed at the leaves. Sparks swirled, stinging their eyes, and they squinted, shrouded in ash.
“I didn’t keep him for myself. He married Susan, remember? Anyway, now he’s gone. I thought you should know.”
“So now I won’t ever have him, is that what you came to tell me? So you can rub my face in it? Again? It was over long ago, Gail.”
Laura stirred the fire again, scooping up more leaves. Something rustled the yellowing undergrowth beyond the matted grass, a cat or squirrel, causing the downy heads of fireweed to tremble and sway. Overhead, crows argued and the sun stared.
“We were children. It meant nothing.” Gail said softly. She surveyed Laura, then, taking in the thin gray hair pulled back into an elastic band, the gaunt cheeks, and the flat place under Laura’s shirt. Oh, please, God. She suddenly felt the heat from Laura’s melting flesh pressing against her face.
“I’m parched. Care to invite me in for a cup of tea?”
“Suit yourself.” Laura leaned the fork against the shed and wiped her hands on her faded jeans.
As they went up the porch stairs together, Gail paused, glimpsing the place in the concrete walkway where they’d each pressed their hands, side by side, into smooth, wet cement. Such a long time ago.
“Clear yourself a spot,” Laura instructed as she set the kettle to boil. Gail shifted oily work gloves and farm magazines to another chair, ignoring the layers of dust and cat hair, the sticky spots on the table. Frowning, Laura examined the contents of a cookie tin and tipped it into the trash. She rinsed two stained teacups in the sink.
“Still working at the store?” she asked.
“Yes, keeping books.”
“You’ve been there . . . how long?”
“Since Brian started kindergarten. He’s 22 now. In college.”
“Oh,” Laura said flatly. “That’s nice.” She set the teapot on the table. There was a chip on the spout, and Gail looked away. And saw the flyspecked window, faded curtains, worn linoleum, and grimy woodwork. She cleared her throat.
“It’s been . . .”
“. . .a long time.”
“We were young and foolish. Cruel.”
“We’re not kids anymore.”
“I should hope not.” Laura stirred the tea, and the hot liquid dribbled over the wounded china as she poured. “Sugar? I don’t have any cream.”
“No sugar. Black is fine.”
The ancient yellowed refrigerator muttered while they drank.
“Did you ever . . .?”
“How is . . .?”
They laughed, then, nervously and clumsily, as if wandering along paths grown over, foreign and unfamiliar.
“I really am sorry,” Gail attempted again.
“I know. Me, too.”
“Life is short.” Gail glanced at Laura’s lopsided shirt front again. And wondered who Laura might have claimed as Next of Kin on the hospital forms. Probably not me. She winced.
“Very short.” Laura whispered.
Maybe there was still time to unravel the tangle they’d allowed, pruning and cutting away, down to the quick, discarding the aged debris.
“I must go. Thanks for tea.”
In the yard, the fire had consumed itself, leaving a ring of damp leaves around an ashen heart.
“Come again.” Laura’s voice was fringed with longing.
“I will. It’s been . . .”
“. . .far too long.”
“Yes. Well, I’m off.”
She backed down the lane, then, intent on keeping the car straight, yet reluctant to slip her eyes away from Laura’s frail and fading figure.
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