At age fifteen, Kizzie Bartholomew meets the man responsible for her father's death. Only thing is, he died in the same car crash that turned Kizzie's world upside down. Kizzie spends the next ten years fighting a fear of insanity as visitors from the other side beg for her help in delivering messages to their loved ones. Kizzie’s dual life begins—designer by day, messenger by night.
With her best friend's help, and a homeless man's unexpected friendship, Kizzie begins to accept her extraordinary talent only to discover she is not alone in getting requests from those who have left this world for another. Slowly, Kizzie and her friends begin to unravel the mystery of the visitors even as a different form of communication is revealed—one that terrifies Kizzie to her very core.
Kim Talon is a writer, poet, professional photographer, and long-time blogger, residing in Ontario, Canada. When not at the computer creating, she is found roaming the countryside, camera in hand, with her trusty Labradoodle, Charlie, at her side.
Pepper and Jingo
“I knew you’d come, Cheryl. You couldn’t wait until I was dying, could you?” The woman gasped for breath, coughing deeply for a long minute, clawing at her Shar Pei-wrinkled face with arthritic fingers as if it would help her to catch air.
Kizzie looked above the old woman’s hospital bed to the whiteboard on the wall. Ellen Kitchen. DNR. Mrs. Kitchen didn’t have a clue, but she would soon. Kizzie inched the orange plastic chair closer to the narrow bed. “Mrs. Kitchen,” Kizzie said, “I’m not your daughter-in-law. My name is Keziah Bartholomew.”
“What? Who? I don’t know anyone named Keziah. What are you doing here?” The woman reached for the call button tethered to the bed like a thin beige snake.
Kizzie placed a hand lightly on top of the woman’s. “Not necessary. I only want to talk to you.”
“What about? Life insurance?” The woman cackled, triggering another round of raspy coughs.
Kizzie smiled. Mrs. Kitchen was feisty. “It’s about your son, Mrs. Kitchen. It’s about Mathew.”
“Mathew? How do you know Mathew? He’s been gone for years. And how do you know my daughter-in-law?” The woman peered in Keziah’s direction with faded blue eyes.
“Mathew wanted you to know that he’s waiting for you. He knows you never liked Cheryl, and he says he knows why now. He wishes he would have listened.”
“What are you talking about? How do you know Mathew?”
“It’s complicated, Mrs. Kitchen. I just want you to know—Mathew wanted you to know—that he loves you, and he’s with you every step of the way. You’re not alone.” Kizzie stood. “I’m going to go now. Please believe me. Mathew loves you, and he knows you’re in pain. He says your pain will ease soon and you’ll be at peace.”
“Did Cheryl send you here? Is this some sort of sick joke?” Mrs. Kitchen choked on the last word so it came out sounding like yolk. She reached out and grabbed Kizzie’s hand, clasping it tightly.
“No. I don’t know Cheryl. She didn’t send me. Mathew did.” Who knew a person so close to death could have so much strength? Kizzie’s hand started to pain.
Just as suddenly, the woman dropped Kizzie’s hand and started to weep. “Mathew’s dead. Mathew didn’t send you.”
Kizzie took a business card out of her wallet and tucked it in the woman’s twisted fingers. “He did. I know it sounds crazy, but he did. He wants you to rest. He doesn’t want you to fight anymore. He can’t wait to see you again.”
The woman looked at the card. “I can’t read it without my glasses. Who are you?”
“Keziah Bartholomew. It’s on the card.” Kizzie took the woman’s eyeglasses off the nightstand and gently placed them on her squat nose. Mrs. Kitchen’s magnified eyes were the color of a pale morning sky.
The woman peered at the card. A distinct scent of cinnamon wafted in the air. When she looked up, Keziah Bartholomew was gone.
Nurse Barb Watson found the white card with the embossed black script an hour or so later, crumpled on the bedside stand. She smoothed it out and read, Keziah Bartholomew...Messenger...(705) 638-5789. She put it on top of Mrs. Kitchen’s stack of magazines and leaned over to remove the sleeping woman’s glasses and put them beside the card.
Barb stood by the bed for a moment, nose wrinkling. Why did she smell cinnamon buns? Her tummy gurgled, and she checked her watch. Damn. Another hour and ten before she could take her break. She hoped they had some cinnamon buns in the cafeteria. She hadn’t had one in eons. Barb smiled, a sudden memory of her grandmother coming to mind—in the old kitchen of the farmhouse, the early morning sun slanting through the blinds, creating a prison pattern on the chipped laminate countertops. Barb would drag one of the straight-backed maple kitchen chairs to the counter and stand on the seat to be her grandmother’s helper. She would hold one end of the wooden rolling pin with the faded red handles, and they’d roll out the yeasty dough. Her grandmother would brush melted butter gently across the dough, and Barb would be allowed to sprinkle the cinnamon and brown sugar. Her grandmother would roll the dough and cut it into what Barb used to call pinwheels. She’d be impatient for the dough to finish the final rise and go into the oven, impatient for them to bake so she could help spread them with lashings of the shiny white glaze. Her tummy rumbled again in appreciative memory. The scent of all things pungent and homey in Mrs. Kitchen’s room eclipsed the harsh scent of hospital. Humming lightly under her breath, Barb left Mrs. Kitchen’s room.
Seventeen years earlier, when Kizzie was fifteen, she had her first visit. She didn’t know what else to call it. She told no one—not her mother, not her best friend Aggie, not her dog Pepper. But Pepper knew anyway. Pepper knew most things. Pepper was Kizzie’s keeper of all secrets.
Keith Bartholomew, Kizzie's father, had died in a car crash seven weeks before Kizzie was born. A drunk, driving precariously after a long afternoon of shooting pool and shots of whiskey, crossed the center line. His vehicle cart wheeled over the highway divider and slid right into the path of Keith’s four-door sedan. Neither felt much on impact—one too drunk-numb, the other struck-dumb.
In a period of less than two months, Kizzie’s mother, Elaine, looked death and life squarely in the face. Elaine often told Kizzie that if not for her daughter, she would have slipped into the black—the sort of black that trapped a soul.
Elaine liked to tell the story of Kizzie’s birth. Elaine said the doctor and the nurses remarked upon the strange scent of cinnamon permeating the air when Keziah was born and placed gently upon her chest. Keziah didn’t cry or squirm. She lay on her mother and looked around with an expression of wonder.
“She’s gorgeous,” one of the nurse’s had said, placing a gloved hand on Keziah’s blood-stained head.
Elaine hadn’t been able to talk. She’d only been able to gaze at her daughter in wonder. She said she felt Keith there beside her, drinking in the magic of a new life. Elaine told Kizzie that her father wanted to meet her, to welcome her into the world.
When Kizzie was little, she imagined her father as a ghostly figure, constantly hovering. But that imagery was unsettling. She studied the photographs her mother had around the house and the man in the photo looked too substantial, even though dead, to ever be an apparition.
When Kizzie was older, Elaine explained that Kizzie’s father had been right there in the delivery room, standing at her side. She had felt his hands on her shoulder, felt his kiss on her sweaty forehead. Saw him lean down to kiss the top of Kizzie’s head. “I know people will say I’m crazy. That I was grief-stricken and stressed out from delivering you, but it wasn’t that. He was there.”
“I know, Mama. I know.” Kizzie would hug her mother, hard, and fight tears because even all these years later, her mother was bereft without her husband. Kizzie would get angry then. She would bury the anger, but secretly rail against a world that took a beautiful person in the prime of their life and smashed them to smithereens. It wasn’t fair. But the one thing Kizzie knew young and early was that life isn’t like a game of weights and measures. No one kept track and sometimes the bad tipped the scales.
She heard the voice first. Soft, but undeniable. “Keziah.”
Sitting at her desk, reading over her English Lit paper, the smell of the pork chops her mother was frying for dinner drifted in her open bedroom door, carried around the room by the light spring breeze billowing the sheer curtains at the window
“Keziah!” The voice, a male’s, was insistent this time.
“What?” she said, almost without thinking then shivered. She wished Pepper was with her, but Pepper never left the kitchen once food prep was underway. Her ears strained for a long minute, but there was only silence. She got up and walked over to close the window and tugged the blind down. She went back to her desk, flipped on the desk lamp and sat down, returning to her paper. Picking up her pen, she tapped it lightly, trying to focus.
“It’s Gary. Gary Tilman.”
Kizzie dropped the pen and leapt to her feet. The desk chair teetered and nearly toppled. She turned, looking over at the corner by the bookcase where the voice was coming from. “Get out of here,” she said, voice shaking.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused. I’m sorry for hurting your father, your mother, and most of all for hurting you.”
“You son of a bitch! Where are you?” Kizzie crept toward bookcase, hands clenched.
“Concentrate, Keziah. You’ll see.”
“Leave me alone! Get out of here!” She swung wildly and knocked three books to the ground. “Get the hell out of here now!”
“Please listen. I want you to know it was an accident.”
“An accident? You were drunk, you stupid son of a bitch!” Then she saw him. He was there, but he wasn’t. He was clear, but cloudy. He was real, but not. She could not believe her eyes.
“Kizzie? Everything okay?” her mother’s voice floated up the stairs.
“I dropped some books,” Kizzie managed to call back. How she kept her voice under control while this...thing...was in her room was beyond her.
“Dinner in ten,” her mother said, returning to the kitchen.
Kizzie's knees gave way. She sank to the floor, covering her face with her hands. She started to count. When she got to twenty, she would look. He would be gone...fifteen-sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-nineteen-twenty...she parted her fingers...peered between them...he was still there.
“I wanted to contact you and your mother many times, but I couldn’t. But now I can, and I want you to know I’m sorry. I have to tell you this.”
“I know I’m dreaming and that’s okay. It’s okay to dream strange things,” Kizzie whispered, taking a deep breath. She thought about standing up, but her knees were like putty. They would not support her weight.
“You are not dreaming, Keziah. I’m here.”
She refused to look at...whatever it was. She focused on a spot on the carpet. There was one of Pepper’s wiry gray hairs. It looked like a pigtail in a child’s drawing.
“If I could change that day, I would.”
“Stop talking!” cried Kizzie. “Just stop talking! Leave me alone!”
“I know it’s hard to understand—”
“You think?” She shook her head and continued to focus on the hair on the carpet. Normal things. Solid things.
Pepper raced into the room, barking madly.
“Pepper! Come here, boy!” Kizzie leaned over and scooped the small dog into her arms. Pepper gave her a quick swipe with his little pink tongue and settled in her arms, staring fixedly at the corner of the room where it was. Keziah buried her face in Pepper’s neck, refusing to look at...whatever it was.
“I have to go, Keziah. I have to go now. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Pepper whimpered, and Kizzie kissed his furry head and hugged him tight. “It’s okay, boy. It’s gone. It’s gone.”
For a few weeks, Kizzie could fool herself into thinking she’d suffered some form of delusion. She managed, barely, to tuck it into that place everyone has—where dark memories and scary emotions hung out. If her mother or Aggie noticed something was up, she managed to convince them she’d been having some bad dreams and hadn’t been sleeping well. With the purple smudges beneath her eyes, it was easy to accept the explanation.
But a month later, Kizzie found her sleep was truthfully interrupted. Try as she might to imagine it as a nightmare, she knew it wasn’t. It was real.
A soft, insistent voice. A female voice this time. “Keziah.”
Kizzie stirred in her sleep, mumbled something unintelligible, and rolled over onto her back.
“Keziah,” the voice said, measured and calm.
Reluctantly, Kizzie opened her eyes and tried to adjust to the dimness in the room. The glowing green face of the clock on her nightstand read 3:14. Sighing, rolling onto her side, uncertain what had woken her, she punched her pillow, found a cool spot and prepared to slip back to sleep.
The voice was so close and real, Kizzie’s eyes flew open and she sat up.
“I don’t want to scare you. Or alarm you. I’m not here to hurt you. Please don’t be scared. I need to tell you something. I need your help.”
“Please go away,” Kizzie whispered, trying to remain calm. She didn’t want to wake her mother. How could she rationally explain to her mother that she was having a conversation with something that wasn’t even there? Something that knew her name.
“Please listen. Just for a few minutes. Then I promise I’ll leave you in peace.”
“Who are you? Where are you?”
“I’m here. Can’t you see me?”
Kizzie flopped back onto the bed, grabbed the bed covers and pulled them over her head. “I don’t want to see you.”
“Please. You must help me. Please.”
“No. I don’t have to do anything. I want to go back to sleep. Leave me alone.”
“Please. Just give me a few minutes. I can explain.”
“No. Go away!” Real panic set in. Kizzie was losing her mind. No doubt about it now.
“It’s my daughter. Geneva. She’s very ill. She’ll be passing soon. I know how scared she is. I know she feels guilty about leaving her family. I want to comfort her. You can talk to her for me. You can help her.”
Kizzie started humming. She didn’t even know what tune. She just started humming as softly and strongly as she could. It became a low-toned drone. But it didn’t stop the voice.
“Please. Just for a few minutes.”
Kizzie stopped the humming. “Will you leave me alone then? Will you tell me whatever it is you have to tell me and leave immediately?” It was stuffy under the covers, but Kizzie didn’t dare risk getting out from under them.
“Yes. I will. Immediately.”
“Okay. Tell me.”
“Please look at me when I’m talking to you.”
“I don’t want to.”
“All right. My daughter’s name is Geneva Brant. She’s in the Highland Hospital here in the city. She has cancer of the liver. She is very weak now. She’s fighting it so hard, but it’s time for her to let go. I want you to tell her that there is nothing to be scared of. I want you to tell her that her children will be fine. Bobby and Janie will thrive and grow and live long lives. Her husband will be heartbroken, but he will take good care of them. I want you to tell her that I...her mother...will be there to meet her. Tell her I understand the choices she’s made. That she did what she thought was right at the time. That there is no time to waste worrying about what has gone before. So little time. Will you do that for me?”
“Go to her. Tell her what I’ve told you. Please. You can do this for me.”
“Why? And why would she believe anything I have to say? I don’t know her.” Kizzie lifted a corner of the covers to let fresh air in and took a deep gulp.
“She will know. She will understand. Tell her the red roses are beautiful. Tell her that I know she aborted the baby, but I understand why she did.”
“I can’t tell her that!” Kizzie flung the covers back. “Are you crazy?” She looked toward the window where the voice had been coming from. There stood an older woman. She was neither flesh and bone nor apparition. She was both solid and ethereal. It was so incomprehensible Kizzie’s mind couldn’t ascertain just exactly what it was.
“You must. Please. It will ease her passing.”
“What are you doing here? Who sent you?”
“Do you remember all I’ve told you?”
“Who sent you?”
“I promised I would tell you what I came to say, and I would leave you in peace. So I’m leaving now. Remember—Geneva Brant. Highland Hospital.” The woman vanished.
Kizzie was alone.
In the morning, yawning hugely, and with a headache squeezing her head like a boa constrictor, Kizzie convinced herself she was having very intense dreams. Okay, the asshole drunk had been dreamed when she was wide awake, but there must be some form of dreaming that occurred during the day—and she giggled. Daydreaming. She had daydreamed him and night dreamed the old woman.
At lunchtime, sitting with Aggie in the school cafeteria, Kizzie told her she had to go to the bathroom. Instead, Kizzie headed for the pay phone outside the school office. She flipped through the hanging phonebook to find Highland Hospital’s number. Repeating it under her breath, she inserted the coin and dialed.
She hung up the phone a minute later, her head feeling like it might actually explode. Right there. Right then. Her brain matter would splatter over the ugly green wall tiles and the worn concrete floor. She could already imagine the look of shock on the office staff faces and how Mr. Lupta, the principal, would sigh and tell everyone that dealing with teenagers was really more than a body should have to bear.
The hospital switchboard had confirmed that a Mrs. Geneva Brant was currently in the critical care ward.
Kizzie stood in the empty hallway, cradling her head in her white-knuckled hands, for what seemed like hours.
She wasn’t sure what to do. She wanted to tell Aggie so badly. And her mother. But she was seriously frightened that they would think she was nuts. She could imagine her own reaction if either of them told her the same thing. How could you not think someone was crazy? She wouldn’t blame them for it, but it wouldn’t be helpful. And she needed help.
Kizzie didn’t sleep well that night. She expected the old woman to show up and berate her for not going to the hospital. She coaxed Pepper into sleeping with her. Pepper preferred to spend his nights sleeping in his thickly cushioned basket in the kitchen. It took two hotdogs and a chunk of cheese to convince him that sleeping on Kizzie’s bed was nearly as good.
While the dog slept with breathy little snores, Kizzie laid in bed, eyes wide open, waiting. She was prepared this time. If the old woman showed up, she’d tell her there was no way Kizzie would be allowed to visit a stranger on the critical care ward. So there. Ha.
But no one showed.
When the sun was just beginning to creep up the sky, Kizzie fell into an exhausted sleep.
She groaned when her mother shook her shoulder to wake her. “I don’t feel well,” Kizzie whispered, and her mother believed her.
Elaine left her daughter to sleep and didn’t even chide Kizzie for the fact that Pepper was sprawled on the bed beside her, sharing a corner of her pillow.
Kizzie slept that entire day away. She didn’t even stir when Aggie popped in after school to find out what was going on.
Aggie gave up when Kizzie made a series of grunts and groans in response to questions. “Call me when you wake up,” Aggie said, hoisting her pile of books into her arms off the desk, and leaving Kizzie’s room.
Kizzie slipped back under the welcome blanket of sleep.
It became a compulsion to check the obituaries. Kizzie did it in secret. How could she explain her sudden interest in dead people? But no Geneva Brant was listed.
Every night became a marathon of waiting. She knew eventually the old woman would come back and demand to know why Kizzie hadn’t gone to the hospital. Kizzie grew so bone weary that her mother insisted she see the doctor. This sudden insomnia was troubling. Kizzie knew it would be much more troubling if she told her mother the reason she wasn’t sleeping.
The doctor put it down to stress. The normal stresses of being a teenager. He prescribed more exercise and a solid bedtime routine. Kizzie wanted to ask where the dead people fit into this routine, but she didn’t.
It took a few weeks before she managed to go to sleep within an hour or two of going to bed, instead of spending the night dozing and waking up in a sweat.
When Geneva Brant’s obituary ran in the Saturday paper a month later, Kizzie felt equal measures of guilt and relief. So the old woman wouldn’t be back. Good. Maybe mother and daughter met in heaven and sorted everything out.
That Saturday night Kizzie slept deeply. She woke to the sound of a cardinal singing a joyous song, perched on one of the maple’s knobby branches outside her bedroom window. The bird’s notes were pure and sweet. The bird continued to trill and Kizzie stretched luxuriously.
“Keziah, I understand why you didn’t come and see me.”
Kizzie sat up so quickly, she had a serious head rush. A glowing being, female, dressed in a soft gown of some undistinguishable color, leaned against the wall by the window. Kizzie opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out.
“I know my mother was asking a lot of you. I know that. I understand that.”
Kizzie still couldn’t speak. She was mesmerized by the woman’s glowing face, her sweet blue eyes—the one color Kizzie could clearly see and recognize. Eyes the color of a summer sky.
“I’m Geneva Brant.” The woman continued leaning against the wall and Kizzie was certain her slender form would melt into it. How could a thing be so positively insubstantial and yet so real at the same time?
“I...” Kizzie cleared her throat. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. What will be, will be. I just wanted you to know that if you had come to see me, I would have listened. I would have known you were speaking the truth.”
“They would never have let me in to see you.”
“You never tried, so we’ll never know.”
“I hope you understand how hard it is. I don’t know why this is happening. I really don’t. And I’d really, really like it to stop.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry you feel that way. But the truth is, we never have a choice when we’re chosen.”
“Chosen? By who?” If Kizzie thought of this delicate creature as a dream, she could look into those calm blue eyes...nearly.
“You know, Keziah. Look inside your heart. You know.” The woman straightened up. She smiled and vanished. It was like a door closing.
Kizzie flopped back on the bed. The cardinal was still singing brightly. Cheerfully. But the birdsong didn’t bring the same joy now. It was almost insultingly happy. It was irritating.
Kizzie finally told Aggie. She had to tell someone. If she told her mother, she was pretty sure her mother would have her sitting in a psychiatrist’s office as quickly as you could say nutcase.
“Seriously?” Aggie had listened to everything Kizzie said with wide eyes. Now, after Kizzie finished, Aggie’s face was pale with shock.
“I know. I’m crazy.” Kizzie sipped the soda through the straw and made a loud sucking noise as she encountered the bottom of the glass.
They were at their favorite cafe. It was the one place in town that didn’t automatically run off teenagers. The owner, Joe Metcalfe, didn’t care who his patrons were as long as they paid up and tipped decent. Teens that weren’t fans of behaving or tipping stayed clear of Joe’s. That’s what everyone called it, though the sign over the diner said it was The Met.
Kizzie had spilled every detail, from the first appearance of the bastard who killed her father, to that morning’s visit of Geneva Brant. She tried to explain what the visitors looked like, what they sounded like.
“And this Geneva said that you know? You know why they come?” Aggie’s pale brow wrinkled.
“Yes.” Kizzie pushed her plate aside. She had only managed to nibble at the burger and ate only a handful of the hand-cut fries. Usually she wolfed it all down. Joe made a mean burger and his fries were perfection.
“So?” asked Aggie.
“So do you know?”
“No. Of course not. It’s crazy. I know it is.”
They had been speaking in low voices. Kizzie didn’t want anyone to know. Not that anyone was sitting close to them, but she wouldn’t risk it.
“Okay.” Aggie straightened up and brushed her fringe out her eyes. Her straight, dark, fine hair was always in her face. “There has to be a logical explanation.”
“Logical?” Aggie snorted. “You think?”
“I do. Seriously. I do.”
“You don’t think the logical explanation is that I’m nuts?”
“No! Remember my Aunt Myrna? She used to talk to a crack on her living room wall. She swore it talked back. That was nuts.”
“And me talking to dead people isn’t?”
“No. Not nuts when it’s real. It might be strange and hard to figure out, but it’s not nuts.”
Kizzie started to giggle.
“What?” asked Aggie.
“You are a great friend. If you had come to me and told me this, I’d be calling the guys in the white jackets.”
“You would not!”
“I would so.”
The waitress, Linda, came over to take their plates. “You’re not hungry?” she asked Kizzie. “You hardly ate a thing.” Linda was a fixture at Joe’s. Plump, with frizzy hair dyed an unnatural color of burgundy, her smile was as warm as a summer breeze. But right now the smile was absent. Everyone always tried to guess Linda’s age and would have been shocked to discover she was only thirty-two. Most figured she was closer to fifty.
“Sorry. No, I wasn’t.”
“Something up? You two have had your heads glued together since you got in here.” She placed Kizzie’s plate on top of Aggie’s empty one and swiped at the table with a bleach-smelling cloth.
“Everything’s fine, Linda,” said Aggie.
“Ah. Boy talk. Got it.” Linda smiled and headed to the counter.
“So what are you going to do?” asked Aggie, finishing off the last of her soda and leaning back in her chair.
“What can I do?”
“Well, you have to do something. You have to take control somehow.”
“Aggie, I’m not the one in charge of this weirdness. It’s them, not me.”
“Do you think they’d come if I slept over?”
“I don’t know. Besides, it’s Sunday, and we have school tomorrow. You wouldn’t be allowed to stay.”
Aggie leaned forward. “I don’t want you to flip out, but I think you should tell your mom.”
“Are you nuts?” squealed Kizzie then looked around to see if anyone had noticed. The diner was emptier now the lunch rush was over. The only person who seemed remotely interested in their conversation was the homeless man that everyone called Strings. He was standing outside, close to the window, his long brown eyes following their every move. Kizzie would be the first to admit that Strings scared her. He hardly spoke, and he had a way of looking at you like he knew every single thought you’d ever had. When they made eye contact through the plate glass, she looked away.
“Don’t flip out! Listen. It might help. You know. If you have another visitor you can shout for her to come.”
“Sure. I can see it now. Me, cowering on the bed and my mom yelling at some...some thing in my bedroom. Yeah. Sure.”
“Okay, smartass. Whatcha gonna do?”
“Nothing. Not right now. I don’t think there’s anything I can do.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and Kizzie watched Linda take a paper bag out to Strings. He took the bag, bowed deeply from his thin waist, then grabbed his two string bags of whatever it was he carted around, and disappeared around the corner of the cafe. The bags were the reason for his name and Strings’ nickname had stuck to the point that no one could recall his real name. Kizzie knew he slept down at the railroad station. He was allowed to sleep in one of the outbuildings. Joe’s friend, Marty, was the station master and he had let it be known that Strings wasn’t a problem. Strings was never completely filthy, so Kizzie figured he must be allowed to wash up in the public bathrooms there as well. She tried to imagine what it would be like to carry your whole life in two string bags and failed.
“I gotta go. My parents want me to go with them to visit my grandmother. We’re supposed to leave in twenty minutes.” Aggie dug out a five-dollar bill from her jeans pocket and put it on the table. “I’ll call you when I get home.”
“And try not to worry. We’ll figure something out. Haven’t we always? We’re the queens of figuring crap out.” Aggie was trying hard to make Kizzie smile and was rewarded with a teeny one.
“Yeah. We have. See ya.”
Kizzie sat for a moment, unsure what to do with the rest of the afternoon. She couldn’t face her room and the possibility of another visitor. Her mother had taken Pepper to the dog park with a group of her dog-walking friends and the house would be empty.
Joe came out from the kitchen as Kizzie was paying the check at the cash register.
“What’s up with you? You hardly ate a thing.”
“Sorry, Joe. Nothing to do with the food. I just wasn’t that hungry.”
“You look tired. You okay?”
“Keep the change, Linda.” Kizzie waved the money aside. “I’m okay, Joe. Just not sleeping that well.”
Joe crossed his arms, leaning back against the doorway to the kitchen, peering down his nose at her with squinted eyes. “You’re too young to have that much weighing on your mind.”
Kizzie laughed. “You’d be surprised, Joe. If you only knew!”
“You ever need an ear, you know I’ve got two good ones.”
“Joe’s right—you look tuckered out.” Linda fixed Kizzie with her kind blue eyes. “You know we’re here for you. Anything you need. Anything at all.”
“Thanks, guys. I appreciate it. I’ll get some rest, and I’ll be fine.”
“You take care of yourself, Kizzie.” Joe’s dark eyes were shadowed, but Kizzie knew they were full of genuine concern.
“I will. I promise.”
“And next time you’re in, you’d better clean your plate!” He flashed her a grin. Joe’s entire countenance changed when he smiled. Kizzie wished he did it more often.
She stepped out into a dull April afternoon. The morning sunshine had disappeared, and the sky was the gray of a dove’s belly and just as fat, pushing down. There was an acrid scent in the air. It was the presage of rain.
Kizzie headed down the wide sidewalk toward the river. The pretty stone bridge bisected the town and afforded a picture-postcard view of Mapleton. The leaves were starting to burst on the trees and the blossoms were at their peak. Satin petals floated on the breeze and Kizzie caught a pink crab apple petal and rubbed it between her fingertips. It felt like the fabric her mother had used to make the new cushion covers for the living room accent pillows.
“Pretty,” said a voice behind Kizzie.
She jumped and dropped the petal. It floated, swaying side-to-side, down to the river. Kizzie grabbed the stone railing and closed her eyes. She would not look behind her. It was one thing to have them coming to her in her home, quite another for them to be bold enough to visit her out in such a public place.
“You lost it.” It was a man’s voice. Raspy.
Kizzie didn’t say anything. She squeezed her eyes shut as tight as she could. She nearly groaned with the effort.
“Cat got your tongue?” There was a rich laugh.
“No-o. Just go away. Please. Just go away.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to trouble you.”
Kizzie opened her eyes and turned to see Strings. “Oh...I’m sorry. I thought you were...” But she couldn’t finish. You couldn’t tell someone you thought they were dead.
“You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Kizzie fought a sudden giggle. If only he knew! “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it. A strong wind comes and I bet you blow away just like those pretty petals.”
She could have said the same for him. He was all angles and bones. “I’m not that thin,” she said, a little stung. Her slight frame had always been the bane of her existence. No matter how much she ate, she never gained an ounce. Her mother said she would be grateful for that one day, but Kizzie doubted it. She envied girls with curves.
“No. But you’re not all that built up either.” He hitched his string bags over his shoulders, one on each. “I’m going to feed the squirrels. Wanna come?”
“Oh...yeah...I guess.” She fell into step with him. She hadn’t the heart to refuse him some company. It had to be lonely living the way he did. “You feed the squirrels a lot?”
“Yeah. I like the critters. Most people hate them. But that’s okay. Squirrels have attitude and sass. They know how to get along in a world where they’re not respected.”
“Don’t they have enough to eat? You know...nuts from the trees and that.”
They were over the bridge now, and Strings turned down a narrow path beside the bridge that led down to the riverside. The path would lead them through a field and into the park.
“These are more in the way of treats. Everyone likes a treat now and then.”
She followed him, taking her time because the climb down was steep. “I guess,” she said.
He walked down the slope as agilely as a mountain goat traversed the Rockies. When he got to the bottom of the slope, he turned to watch her come down the rest of the way.
She hoped he wouldn’t hold out his hand to help her because she would be afraid to take it. She didn’t imagine he and soap were good friends—probably not even acquaintances.
“Easy. It’s a bit slick,” he said, watching her sneakers slipping in the dirt.
“I got it. Thanks.”
As they crossed the field, the path widened enough that they could walk side by side. She had to admit Strings smelled just fine. His clothes were shabby, definitely worn, but they were clean enough.
“You’re one of Joe’s friends,” he said.
“Yeah. I like Joe.”
“He’s good people,” Strings agreed. “Your name is Kizzie?”
“Yeah. Short for Keziah.”
“Now that’s a name. If I had a grand name like that, I wouldn’t let folks be calling me Kizzie.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You’re nicer than me. You’re good friends with Agatha Michaels, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. Since grade one when she stole my scarf.”
“I know her father. He’s good people, too.”
“Yeah. He’s great.”
“Now her mother I could do without.”
Kizzie started to laugh. No one liked Vanessa Michaels. Even Aggie admitted her mother was mostly a bitch. “She’s not the nicest person.”
“That’s putting it awful nice. I have words to describe her, but I wouldn’t want to offend a young lady.”
Kizzie laughed again. “It’s okay. I’m not easily offended.”
They entered the park, and Strings headed for a bench beneath a spreading Sugar Maple. The leaves were a thick canopy the particular shade of chartreuse that sang of spring.
He took a seat, and Kizzie sat beside him.
He swung the string bags off his shoulders, dropping them on the ground between his knobby knees. “I got something the squirrels go crazy for.” He dug out a paper bag from one of the string bags. “Once word gets out, we’ll be inundated.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“Peanut brittle.” He opened the paper bag and took out a handful of shattered brittle. “They go nuts for the stuff—no pun intended.” He tossed a handful a few feet in front of them, and like magic a black squirrel scampered down the Sugar Maple’s stout trunk. Gracefully, bounding like a gazelle, the squirrel located the brittle. He helped himself to good-sized chunk and squatted on his haunches to chip away at it.
“He loves it,” Keziah said.
“Yup. It’s nice to get treats now and then.”
“You’re kind to buy the brittle for the squirrels.”
“I get it at that bargain store. In the big bins. People smash it up and I get a good price on the broken bits. If Marion Pike is working, she gives me it for free. Not the others, though.”
“Was she working today?”
“She was. Lucky for the squirrels cuz I just have enough money to buy a bite for supper today.”
Kizzie didn’t know what to say then. She stretched out her legs and leaned back against the wooden back of the bench. Two more squirrels—plump and fluffy gray ones—were coming across the grass. Word was getting out.
“So what grade you in?” Strings asked. He tossed another handful of the brittle as three more squirrels arrived.
“You like school?”
“Most of it. Hate math. But most of it’s okay.”
“I never did cotton to school. It just rubbed me all wrong.”
“Is that why you...you know...live like you do?”
“Partly. I didn’t get much learnin’ past the eighth grade. And then I never did like answering to anyone so jobs were hard to keep.”
“So how do you manage? You know...getting money to eat and stuff.”
Strings tossed another handful of the brittle. There were now eight squirrels, sitting up on their haunches, nibbling happily. “I do the odd turn for people. Help them move things. Clean things they hate cleaning like garages or sheds.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a life, does it?”
Kizzie wanted to say no, it didn’t, but politeness wouldn’t let her.
“It’s okay. I know it. I know I coulda done better. Never wanted much though. Never needed much.”
“Not even a place of your own? You know? Somewhere that’s just for you?”
“Nah. Not one for possessions. What I need, I have in my bags.”
“Makes a life uncomplicated, I guess.”
“Yup. It does.” He crossed his long thin legs and rested his hands on his flat belly.
“Can I ask you something?”
“What’s your name? I mean, I only know you as Strings.”
“Yeah. Most everybody does. I don’t think anyone’s called me by name in decades. Sometimes I forget my name isn’t Strings.”
He looked at her and grinned. He had surprisingly fine teeth. White and even. “Nah. I’m joshin’ ya. My name is Stanley. Stanley Payne.”
“I like it. Do you hate that everyone calls you Strings?”
“No. Not much imagination in a nickname like that, though, is there?” He laughed. He had a lovely rumbly laugh. “But then most people haven’t got a lick of the extraordinary. Not even a little lick.”
“You always struck me as a smart girl.”
“You don’t even know me.”
He laughed again. “You can learn a lot about someone just by lookin’ at ’em.”
“Sure. People speak a lot with their bodies.”
“Oh, yeah. We talked about that in school once. Body language.”
“Yup. Bodies can’t lie. Tongues can. Even a brain can. But a body can’t.”
“You know Agatha’s mother?”
“You look in her eyes when she’s flashing one of her million watt smiles. Nuthin’ reaches those eyes. Not even a lick of light. Her eyes are dark.”
Kizzie thought about Aggie’s mother. Aggie looked a lot like her mother. They both had the frothy dark hair, the pretty dimples when they smiled. But they couldn’t be more different in personality. While Aggie’s heart was as open as a well-loved book, Vanessa Michaels was as closed as a steel vault. “I know what you mean.”
“See? Can’t hide what’s really inside. No matter how pretty the wrapping, a stinkin’ present is still a stinkin’ present.”
Kizzie laughed. “I like that. A stinkin’ present.”
“You know, you smell like cinnamon. Makes me long for one of Miss Bright’s cinnamon buns.”
“You know Miss Bright?”
“She’s so pretty and so nice! I wish I could go into that bakery every single day.”
They watched the squirrels in silence. A companionable sort of silence that didn’t leave Kizzie anxious to fill in the empty space.
One squirrel ventured close to her feet then bounded up and onto the bench beside Strings.
“Hey, fella. How are you?” Strings slowly sat up. “I got your favorite. Just a sec.”
The squirrel crouched, head tilted, waiting.
Kizzie was scared to move.
Strings stretched out one leg and dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a carrot. It was more of a nub of a carrot, but the squirrel took it happily and sat up to nibble between them.
“This is Jingo,” said Strings. “I don’t name them all, but this fella is special.”
“Well, it’s a funny story.” He leaned back and looked up at the tree canopy. “It must have been nearly two years ago now. It was hot. I remember that. I was walking through the park, right under this very tree, and these punk kids started calling me names. Nothing new. I’m used to it. Heard them all. But then one of these punks picks up a rock and throws it at me. I ducked just in time and it hit the trunk of this beautiful tree. I bet if you looked over there, you’d see the chunk it took out.”
“Oh! That’s terrible!”
“Yes. More for the tree than me.” He continued to look up at the leaves. “So I’m minding my business still. Not cat-calling back or nuthin’. Don’t want trouble. Never did. I keep walking and they keep throwing rocks. So I start walking faster. And just as I’m nearly at the field, I hear one of the punks yell. No, that’s not right. More like a scream that would curdle even Miss Bright’s lovely cream.”
“So one of the goofs is running around, clutching his head, and screaming. I stop and watch and then I see that this little guy here, this Jingo, is latched onto the guy’s head. I never saw anything so funny in my life. I nearly fell on the ground, I was laughing so hard.” He started to laugh at the memory, looking at her with shining eyes.
“Jingo did that? For you?”
“I believe he did. You know what?”
“I’ve never seen these punks go through the park without looking up and around like they were being chased by ghouls.”
“Jingo deserves the world’s biggest and best carrot.”
Jingo finished his carrot and bounded away to hunt through the grass for traces of peanut brittle.
“Why did you call him Jingo?”
“It was the name of a dog I used to know. Just a run of the mill junkyard dog, but he had a heart of gold. Jingo’s just like that.”
“The name suits him.”
“It does. Like your name suits you. You know, I’ve got the worst hankering for something with cinnamon. I guess I’ll have to stop at Miss Bright’s for something sugary and sweet in the morning.”
Kizzie dug in her pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “I’d like to contribute to the squirrel snacks. Maybe you could get more carrots or brittle?” She handed him the bill, hoping he wouldn’t be offended.
“Why that’s mighty kind of you, Keziah.” He took the bill and shoved it in his pocket.
“I should be going now. It’s been nice visiting with you, Stanley.”
“Why lookit that. Someone’s calling me by my real name. Wonders never cease.”
“I like it. It suits you.”
“We’ll see each other around, Keziah. You take care and get some rest. Whatever troubles you, I’m certain it’ll get better.”
She got to her feet. “I hope you’re right, Stanley. See you!” She started across to the trail that led through the field and back to the bridge. She turned once and Stanley “Strings” Payne was leaning back on the bench, looking up at the sweeping canopy of bright green leaves.