Fiction has always been a part of general-interest magazines, and for good reason. We believe that everyone has a story—and we believe that good storytellers, whether telling factual accounts or fiction, are vital. We are excited to share this collection of fiction from Birmingham authors, the result of B-Published, our first-ever fiction contest. We received some great entries in our three divisions (student, college, and adult) and the three winning short stories are published on the following pages.
We received great help in creating and managing this contest from our sponsors, The Altamont School and Samford University. Each of our winners will receive a cash prize. And be on the lookout for information about a special reading that will be held to honor the winners and their work.
By Adelaide Kimberly
My Uncle Eddy was a hoarder and had been since his junior year of college. I knew this because he always wore his letterman jacket with “junior” scratched into the leather during second breakfast. But only during second breakfast. During first breakfast he wore pink seersucker overalls that were too tight around the middle and purple Nike Jordan’s.
Eddy’s what I like to call a High Class Hoarder, or HCH, because his collections are beyond the typical newspapers or assorted trash. His collections included, but are not limited to, 1,362 different coffee mugs, 45 Kermit the Frog hand puppets, 588 phone cords, 4,095 pictures of Teddy Roosevelt, and 677 space bars. Uncle Eddy’s property was so extensive that he built a barn twenty years ago to store all his goods. When I was younger, he would take me on tours of his warehouse, taking time to point out each different item and explaining where he bought it.
“Ya see that?” He would whisper, pointing a wobbling finger at a lamp or a mailbox. “Bought that there fifteen years ago. Yessir, got it from the prettiest gurl I ever did lay eyes on.” Funnily enough, most of the items in his barn were purchased from the prettiest girl Uncle Eddy ever laid eyes on.
Hours later, when the tours were over, I would stagger out of the musty room trying to remember the difference between a saddle designed in Texas or in Mexico and the exact number of dried onions he had hanging from the ceiling.
For as much skill as Uncle Eddy possessed as a HCH, his abilities as an engineer were lacking. That’s why he called us at 3:21 in the morning, waking my whole family to report that the ceiling had caved in, crushing his precious stockpiles. Sobbing, he begged us to rush to his house and help him scavenge from the ruins.
“S’all gone. All gone,” he bawled as the family listened on the other end of the phone line. It had taken us almost twenty minutes to understand what happened and twenty more for us to pack up the car. Uncle Eddy lived over five hours away in Alberta, Virginia but his tone of distress summoned each of us from our warm beds and into the Suburban.
“I don’t wanna go,” my little brother Johnathan whined the entire duration of the drive. “Uncle Eddy is a whack job.”
I personally agreed. All of our other aunts and uncles turned out fine, but not Uncle Eddy. He never married and spent most of his days mowing his lawn on one of his eight lawn mowers and dusting his things. I wasn’t quite sure how he lived; Uncle Eddy didn’t have a job. A few years ago I asked my mom how Eddy survived with no income. She gave me a very sour look before mumbling something about “welfare” and the “damn Krebs Cycle.” It was certain that Uncle Eddy was weird, but Jonathan’s complaints were to no avail. My mom was determined to help out her brother and there was nothing we could do about it.
We arrived at 9:05 to find Uncle Eddy pacing nervously in his weedy front lawn. He brushed his hair behind his ears every few seconds, pronouncing his center part and causing his silver curls lump behind his ears. His overalls had a large brown stain on the front and he was wearing crocs instead of his Nikes. This was bad.
As we all tumbled out of the car, attempting to wipe sleep from our eyes, Uncle Eddy burst into fresh sobs.
“Y’all came. Oh my lord y’all came.” Big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks and onto the ground, watering the dandelions. “I called ‘enryetta an Georgie but they didn’ answer. I can’ believe y’all came.” My mom attempted to sweep Uncle Eddy into a hug, but he wouldn’t stop his pacing. Possibly concerned that another one of us might attempt to touch him, he led us around his cinderblock house to reveal the wreckage.
Even though I wasn’t a big fan of the barn, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Uncle Eddy. If ever a roof was to collapse in a dramatic way, this one would win first prize. The wood was warped and seemed to shoot up into the sky and plummet down into the ground, forming mountains and valleys of shingles and plywood. There was no way Eddy’s hanging onion collection had made it.
To make it worse, Uncle Eddy had hung a hasty banner in front of the barn from an old basketball goal and a hockey stick. It billowed feebly in an attempt to hide the scene. Painted in orange onto a large sheet, the banner read:
“Edward Krebs Presents the Grand Scavenger Hunt”
Scavenger hunt? Somehow I knew that if Uncle Eddy was involved, I knew this would not be the typical children’s game. Frowning, I wrapped an arm around Johnathan’s shoulders and awaited Uncle Eddy’s verdict. My family watched in silence as he dashed into the house and back out, carrying four stacks of paper as thick as a donut box held together with a rubber band around the middle.
“Erybdy take one,” he sobbed, dropping the papers onto the ground. My frown increased as I stooped to pick up the hefty package. I glanced at the writing and began to read.
Inventory of the Krebs Museum
Biology Textbooks 37
Phone Cases 361
Jimi Hendrix Posters 15
The list went on and on. This was insane. There was no way we would be able to find all of this.
“All righty, y’all get to searchin,” Uncle Eddy mumbled, wiping tears from his face. I cast my Uncle a long glance before shuffling towards the barn, praying the roof didn’t crush me.
We entered the barn through a gaping hole, ducking under several, splintered pieces of wood. The inside was dark and musty and reeked strongly of garlic and onion; I saw Jonathan pinch the bridge of his nose out of the corner of my eye. Dust clouded the air, making the piles of junk appear like mountains shrouded in fog.
We began work immediately, grabbing the first items that we saw and carrying them back out into the light. As the sun rose the air grew hot and dry and sweat poured down my back. I lifted bikes and boxes, maracas and markers, door handles and dog collars out of the wreckage and into Uncle Eddy’s back lawn. He paced the grass anxiously, occasionally letting out a small whimper when he saw one of his items returned. My mother and father began sorting the goods, counting pieces and checking them off Uncle Eddy’s inventory list – or what I had started calling the novel.
After only a few hours, Jonathan scraped his knee on the stand of a life-sized Barbie Doll and so I was left alone to recover Uncle Eddy’s trash. I began to dig deeper and deeper into the barn, sometimes crawling on the ground where the ceiling was low in order to gather new things and return them to their anxious owner. Blisters formed on my hands but I kept going, ignoring the dirt that caked my skin and the sweat that dripped in my eyes. Stupid Uncle Eddy with his stupid barn I thought over and over again, occasionally rephrasing to use more violent language when I was carrying a particularly heavy object. All the while Uncle Eddy could be heard shouting and sobbing as I hunted through his barn.
It was nearing three in the afternoon when I came across the forbidden cabinet. It sagged against the wall; the bottom drawer had come completely out. Little puffs of dust stirred under my feet as I moved across the floor. On all of my tours in the warehouse Uncle Eddy had never told me what was held in this cabinet. I had asked once what the drawers contained, but my Uncle pretended as if he never heard anything and so I never asked again.
Crouching on the ground in front of the metal cabinet, I peered through the gloom into the drawer to see manila folders lined up neatly. Without hesitation, I wiped the sweat off my grimy hands and pulled a folder out at random.
Flipping open the folder, I gently lifted the contents out. The first was a grainy, black and white picture bearing the figure of a smiling young woman. She was oddly dressed in long overalls and a letterman’s jacket, standing in front of a stack of three traffic lights. The next picture held the same woman in the same clothes, this time with several silver candelabras at her feet. Each picture contained the same girl, her face alight with a broad smile and her blonde hair cascading down in waves.
The last picture was especially grainy. I pulled it close to my face and peered at it for several moments in the gloom. A young man accompanied the woman in this picture, wearing the letterman’s jacket. The both beamed and lifted several bags of hanging onions in each fist. Behind them, painted on the wall was a sign reading:
The Elizabeth Krebs Museum
Slowly, I placed the pictures in the folder and tucked everything back in the drawer. Sitting against the wall, I felt dust tickle my throat and I began to cough. I choked and heaved, wiping at my eyes as if I would be able to rub away the foolish smile of the girl and her museum.
by Jeffery Dingler
Well, Fred… it’s just me and you. After all these years, just me—and you. Oh, they gave you a great sendoff. You would have been proud—took you around all of town. Held your body three weeks (much longer than they should have). Displayed it at the Civil Rights Institute, at Sixteenth Baptist across the street, and finally had the service at your old church, Bethel Baptist: “Here, today, is Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth,” they said, “…the General, the hero, the undisputed mastermind of the Birmingham civil rights movement. From his pulpit in Collegeville, to the jails cells of Birmingham, to the spitting dog-ugly face of Bull Connor, himself, Reverend Fred emanated energy that ignited a community to stand together in non-violent protest of the laws of segregation.” Three weeks they held you and talked about you. Well…. hahah, I guess so many people took so much time getting the viewing in that they forgot the burial was today! I’m looking around—there’s not a soul in sight save your widow, all perfumed up, in a black shimmering pantsuit with a celestial amount of sequins and beads outlining the jacket, myself from Cincinnati in an all charcoal suit with gray tie, the preacher, and the guy that clicks the little silver button that puts you down in your grave-hole. I don’t mind it though. I’m glad. I think you would’ve liked it; I think you would’ve laughed. It’s just you, Fred Shuttlesworth, me, and the almost clear gray-blue sky.
It’s a shame you can’t say anything right now; I gotta say you picked one sorry day for a funeral. Every person within a 20 mile radius must be hightailing down to the beach right now. Even the birds are wrapped in songs of their own youth. It makes me sad to hear them. I look up and the sun above me is a rose-colored smile. A rose-colored smile all over your face, shining warm benediction. And all of the sudden I think: “Buck up. Things aren’t so bad…” I remember the first time I saw that smile. I remember it well. I close my eyes. “Think back, Marv,” I tell myself. My world goes dark. Then I hear noises—peoples’ shouts. I reopen my eyes to the steel-lined crucible skies of that old Iron Town. I reopen them to the morning of May 20, 1961: the loud, raucous, steamy bus station downtown… I was there beside him, just minutes before he was going to get on that fatal Freedom bus heading to New Orleans (that’s what the passengers called it, a Freedom bus—as if they were gonna ride their butts all the way to Freedom). I don’t know what I was thinking then; I must’ve been lost in one of my famous spells of doubt…
“Look up, Marv,” you said. “Cheer up!”
I looked up, “Hmm?”
“Come on now—what are you, drunk? We gotta get moving. I know what you’re thinking. Same thing you’re always thinking… Nothing’s gonna happen. If something’s gonna happen then we got the Lord on our side.”
Fred possessed one of the loudest, proudest voices I ever heard. And most days it was a comfort, but this morning it felt more like an alarm. There was a crowd, some two or three hundred, surrounding us. An ugly crowd, as they like to say, chanting, spewing every awful, poisonous, spiteful thing they could think of to intimidate a few negroes from riding on a bus down to New Orleans.
“Fred, I just don’t know about this. I know you gotta take your risks, but is this really calculated?”
“Ooh, it’s calculated, alright… from some angles, anyways.”
He didn’t respond.
“Fred! This isn’t a joke—this could get you killed.”
“I know that! But it could also set us free.”
“You getting killed isn’t going to change anything.”
He grumbled. “Now you know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You gotta have faith, Marv. Nothing gets done without faith.”
“…If you say so…. You go be the brave nigger then.”
He laughed. That contemptuous, down-looking laugh he had. Then some Coke bottles were hurled at the Freedom bus, smashing against the front tires. Glass everywhere. Someone shouted, “Go back home, commie niggers!” When this happened Fred stopped laughing.
“See what you gotta endure for peace?”
I didn’t respond.
“Yeah… looks like it’s time for me to be getting a get-on.”
“Here’s your jacket.”
“Thanks.” He took it. “I got enough money?”
“You got enough. Are all your bags onboard?”
“Yeah, they should be.”
“Just remember—be cool. And watch your temper! You got your ‘What-white-people?’ face on?”
“What white people?” he said and then grinned a big grin.
His ‘what-white-people?’ face was what he called his unflappability in tight or bad situations. This was one of them. Before he left we moved in to hug. It was at that moment—I didn’t see him approaching—that Police Chief Jamie Moore stepped in between us, literally stomped his way over with three long steps of his steel-toed stride, and before I could even say anything this tall, crewcut white man was leaning over the small and vulnerable Fred Shuttlesworth.
“Morning, Mr. Moore,” Fred said and kept his grin.
Jamie Moore looked around as if taking in the air of the crowd. “Friend, why don’t you go home. I don’t wanna arrest you,” he said.
“You heard what I said.”
Fred remained calm. He reached into his pocket and showed Jamie Moore his ticket to Montgomery.
“He’s got his ticket,” I said. “He ain’t done anything, Mr. Moore—”
“—I wasn’t talking to you, now was I?” I clammed up and he turned back around. “Freddie Lee… I’m ordering you to go home.”
“Home. Home? I am home; I live in Birmingham.”
“You gonna call me an ‘Outside agitator’?”
“Fred, I’ve got orders from Bull…”
“Mr. Moore, I’m getting on this here bus. I’m gonna ride it down to New Orleans. If that’s a problem, then you gonna have to arrest me.”
And, undeterred by history, that’s exactly what Jamie Moore did. He arrested Shuttlesworth in front of those people waiting for him on the bus, his flock, they could see it through the windows, in front of all those hot angry white folk dancing around the bus terminal like they were dancing around a burning pyre.
I followed Fred to the police car, yelling the whole way: “Don’t worry. This won’t stand. God ole mercy, this won’t stand! We’ll have you out by tonight, you’ll see.” But Fred didn’t look worried. He looked cool, like a perfectly prepared marble statue going to his gallery. But I knew; I knew the police would try to work Fred over while they had him. I was worried they might even try and kill him this time, while they had him up in their jail cell, under their rules. “I’m making a call to Lawyer Shores right now. Don’t you worry, Fred,” and then—I don’t know why I said it, some divine intervention—“I’m gonna be the one to pick you up at jail. I’m gonna be there—”
And that’s when the police door slammed shut in front of me and I saw my own ugly expression superimposed over Fred’s, which was—as far as I could tell—insouciant, if not tired.
The crowd forced me back toward the bus. Fred turned his head around to me, but he wasn’t mouthing anything; he was praying. The police chief was clearing the throngs in front of his vehicle, cussing them vituperatively. Slowly, against the crowd’s volition, the car made headway, inch by idling inch. I could see a rain of shattered glass and Coke bottles fall on that police car, followed by an under-roar of boos, as it pulled out of sight down 4th Avenue North. And the whole time Fred was just looking out that window, as if he was watching a calm summer’s meadow instead of an angry mob that wanted to slit his throat, that placid rose-colored smile spread across his face like a bright sun in a benighted city.
That was the first time I saw it….
That entire night I couldn’t sit still for longer than a minute and a half. At dinner I got news of what happened to the Freedom bus Fred had tried to board. The police detachment from Birmingham that was supposed to escort the Freedom bus all the way to the Mississippi border suddenly abandoned their charge a few miles outside the city limits of Montgomery. At the bus station there was a large mob waiting for the Freedom Riders. Concealed under their jackets were chains and clubs and knives—it had all been coordinated. What followed was an absolute horror scene: riders being forcibly dragged out of the bus and brained in the street. Blood and broken bottles. There were even rumors that one of the riders had died on his way to the hospital afterwards. What this meant, well… I was still trying to force myself to swallow, but that pill just wouldn’t go down. Doubt. What were they going to do to Fred Shuttlesworth? I kept looking out my bare windows, toward the demonic red iron stacks of Iron Town. That sacrificial flesh-red glow… The city was a Noir that fed on smog and false compromise, and I kept imagining how they were gonna kill Fred that night—the many ways they could do it. I imagined them beating him with police clubs and big heavy foundry chains. I imagined them locking him in the deepest darkest cell in Birmingham, taunting him and calling him nigger, and telling him he couldn’t pray or sing, so he slept. And, finally, I imagined he had a dream—a dream of these just echoes from the South rising up, covering the whole world like a strong vine, choking out the injustices, and making of the world one full-throated voice. And as a part of this voice, you could see anything, feel anything, be anywhere at any one moment and still be in your particulate world, locked in an old rotting jail cell or out on the street free as your word!
When I awoke from dreams I didn’t know I had slipped into, I was still standing at my window, looking out at the reddening skyline. It was morning. The phone was ringing off the hook. I walked over to the kitchen and answered it. It was Lawyer Shores. He sounded hot and drained, as if he, too, had been having the same dream. He told me to be ready to pick “him” up at the Birmingham jail at 7:00. “Arthur, is he alright?” I asked. “Welll…” he hesitated, “he’s alright as far as I know. But let me know how he looks when he comes out,” and he hung up.
On the car ride over I must have been praying like I was driving. “Awww Lord… don’t make me a coward… dammit, not here—not now…. and don’t let me get killed none, either! …You hear me?”
At the jailhouse, I had to wait twenty minutes for Fred in a tightly enclosed office with blinding all white wallpaper and large mirrors on two of the walls. The secretary in front of me just kept picking away at her typewriter, occasionally pausing to stare at me. I tipped my hat, grinned, and said: “Morning, Ma’am,” but she didn’t deign to reply.
When they finally brought Fred out he was barely walking—that same rose-colored smile from earlier, a little sallow, a little saddened but still there, still proud. They had beaten him—I was certain of that by the bruises on his face and the one swollen eye. They’d kicked him and spit on him and cussed him and called him every bad thing they could think of and probably even threatened his life. But he was still there. He had spent a night in hell and come out smiling.
“Come on, Fred. Let’s go home…”
He came into my arms, a slight limp in his left leg, and we started toward the front door. “How’re the riders,” Fred asked, as if he already knew. “We’ll talk about it later…” But before we could make it to the exit, the Man himself, Bull Connor, loud-stomped out from the back and told Fred to stop. We froze. He told Fred to turn around. Fred let go of my grip and turned around. He told Fred to look at him. Fred did. There Bull Connor stood, gun at his hip, holster unbuttoned. He studied the smile on Fred’s otherwise tired face—his own expression just as worn. “Why are you smiling, Nigger?” he finally asked after a long standoff.
“….I’m smiling because I love you,” Fred said, “and that’s all there is to say…” And nobody questioned it, not even Bull Connor. When we turned our backs to them again there was nothing but silence.
On our way home I didn’t put the car above 20 mph. God knows what I thought… My heart rate was still soaring. But Fred was quiet as a bee gathering honey.
“Sooo,” I finally spoke up to break the silence that had entombed us, “you love Safety Commissioner Bull Connor—s’that right, Fred?”
He was staring out the window. His thoughts cruising through the brown bottle strewn streets of downtown.
“What are you doing?”
“Yes? Yes what?”
“The answer to your question is yes. I love everyone.”
“Is that so—”
“—If Bull Connor hadn’t a pulled me in last night I would’ve went to Montgomery for sure, and been killed by that crowd. They were waiting on me, Marv… Bull Connor saved my life. He doesn’t even know it.”
“Well wasn’t that nice of him. We oughta send him a Thank You card.”
“God says to love everyone, even thy enemies.”
“Huuh… You had to think about that after you said it to Bull?”
“Well, God didn’t say a damn thing about liking him.”
I looked over at Fred, the smile parting his face, and he laughed as if he had caught me in some kind of bizarre cosmic joke. I laughed too, the hardest I think I’ve ever laughed in my life. Almost crashed the car into a post office box, to be truthful, because I couldn’t get a hold of myself. For all the golden visions in the world I didn’t want that laughter to end—not even for a moment…. How did you know, Fred? How did you always bring humor to the bleakest situations? How did you skip out of the iron blind jaws of death and laugh about it later?
I took Fred home where my wife made us fresh coffee and some homemade biscuits. That morning on my porch, in front of a large huckleberry bush, we enjoyed our coffee and contemplative silence where there was no State or Prison to watch us. It was like they didn’t exist, like nothing at all had happened to Fred. He had left the world, for one night only, and then come back, and nothing about the world had changed. It kept spinning; the huckleberry bush kept blooming. But…. things do change. The laughter does eventually fade, and when it does I look ahead to here—the future—to the four of us around your lonely gravesite. Your smile melts back into the sun shining above my head, burning my thinned scalp. We turned old. Your widow is beside me now, clutching my hand, delicately dabbing each tear she squeezes out with a prim white handkerchief. Where did you go, Fred….? Many men had tried to kill you, but you eluded them all. You died an old man in your bed. “…an old man in his bed,” he says. Who says it? I don’t even know. But the last words are spoken. The mortician clicks the little silver button and you start to rattle down into your hole. Oh Fred—I’ve lost my faith so many times since then. I’ve lost my faith more times than I’ve brushed my teeth. I never told you because I knew you would be disappointed. It’s the leap that frightens me. How does one leap, yet still have faith? It’s a paradox….. But—but then I think of what you told me once. You told me, “Don’t take yourself so seriously, Marv. There’s nothing more divine than a sense of humor…” I look back up—the sun shines. I think of your smile, the rose-colored one, piece it back together through all the mess and keep it in my mind’s eye. And I find I have faith again. I have faith that all those clubs and chains and weapons that beat you, that beat us all, have long since rusted, become old and turned back to earth. I have faith that every generation is born with a new set of smiles.
by Thomas Goldsmith
“So I move my things into someone else’s house, and live there for free?” Hannah asked.
“Yes, until it sells,” Ashley, the agent, responded. “You just have to keep it looking nice and be out when an agent has a showing. Houses sell faster when they look lived in. Warm, comfortable, homey. That’s what home managers do, make a house…feel like a home.” She tilted her head and smiled. Hannah guessed Ashley was in her early twenties, that this was her first job out of college.
Most of Hannah’s belongings had been in storage since her husband, Peter, died three years ago. Her two boys had left her the way that children do, little by little. Jobs in other cities, wives, children. When they did visit, memories cluttered her mind and, despite every effort not to, she would spend too long in her room alone. The kids’ last visit was just before she sold the house. Home for Hannah now was a small apartment in Midtown near the Georgia Tech campus. She had a little money, a little more after Peter’s life insurance settlement, and could have moved away but stayed because she knew the city. She liked watching students from her window, imagining where they had come from, who their parents were. And, she liked the noise. It reminded her of having children in the house.
“You just can’t get too comfortable. Once the house sells, and they do sell, you have a week or so to move to a new property, but we take care of that for you. I have one manager who has been with us for eight years and lived in 22 houses. For the right person, this can be a great way to live.”
Hannah thanked Ashley and took the Home Management Brokerage Agency packet with her to the diner by her apartment. The brochure was filled with pictures of a happy family gathered in the living room for movie night, grilling on the deck, celebrating a birthday party at a picnic table in the backyard. There was also a series of pictures with an older woman. She was reading in a cozy chair, playing cards with girlfriends, hugging a child on a sun-speckled patio. Later that night, Hannah began to look around her apartment, at the sad little gas range, the chipped bathroom tiles, the still bare walls and uncurtained windows. She called Ashley the next morning.
Hannah’s assigned home was north of Atlanta in Dunwoody. It reminded her of the old house. Two stories, light red brick, grass so thick and spongey it felt like pound cake. Also like the old house, a massive magnolia tree stood between it and the neighbor’s house, hundreds of slick green and brown leaves blanketing the yard around it. While the movers finished their breakfast in the moving truck, Hannah opened the front door to the house and stepped inside. Its cool emptiness washed over her, and the voices of her children echoed down the hallways of her memory.
“I’m James, your home stager,” said a voice behind her. A young man in a tight blue polo shirt tucked in to skinny jeans stood on the stoop with his hand extended.
“Hannah Greene. Nice to meet you, James.” She watched sunlight flashing in his spikey hair, glinting like a tiny bayonetted army on the march.
Hannah sat on the lawn watching her possessions file past. Rugs, chairs, tables, the occasional painting. Mid-morning the family portrait drifted by in James’s arms. She met the gaze of her younger self, with the woman surrounded by her family, the woman who had yet to lose a spouse to cancer and children who drift away. She thanked God she would never have to do it again, but asked Him to help fill the emptiness as surely as James filled the house in front of her.
James finished his work and told her not to move anything. The moving truck backed slowly out of the driveway, bobbing softly over the gutter. It rumbled down the street and she was left alone in the front yard, in the silence of a midday, midweek suburb. She strolled up the walk and went inside, the brass knocker clanking behind her as she closed the door. James had used most of her old furniture, and things were similar but not quite the same, like two tigers side by side – sofas on different rugs, upstairs paintings downstairs, bathroom mirrors in hallways, bookshelf books on tables. That evening, lying in her old bed watching television, she received a text from Ashley on her company flip phone. “showing tomorrow 9 am.” She had been in the house only half a day, but pulled the covers off to straighten up.
She became accustomed to short notice, and found a dog park nearby that became a favorite place to walk during showings. She also spent time with her next door neighbor, Robin Crenshaw. Robin and her husband, Jim, had three boys, the youngest now in kindergarten, so while Jim was at work and the boys at school, Robin fluttered about the house in workout gear tidying up between visits from the cleaning service that came twice a week. Hannah would crackle her way across the magnolia leaves to Robin’s front door, usually hearing the blaring television before ringing the bell. They would drink coffee and, depending on their moods, watch either The Price is Right or The Bold and the Beautiful. This morning, however, it was Hannah’s doorbell that rang unexpectedly as she was on her knees cleaning the tub. Removing her yellow rubber gloves, Hannah pulled her phone out of her pocket but there was no message. She went to the living room and peeked around a curtain. There on the stoop stood a slender, handsome young woman in a delicate but dirty summer dress. She also wore a large backpack and carried a pajama-clad baby on her hip. Letting the curtain fall back, Hannah left her gloves on a side table and opened the door.
“Can I help you?” Hannah asked.
For a moment the young woman did not reply, she and her baby staring at Hannah. The child was quiet and beautiful, red hair, green eyes, an air of peace and melancholy about him. The woman looked past Hannah into the house. Her blonde hair was cut short, curling around her earlobes. She had the thin, resigned look of someone old before her time.
“Are you here to look at the house?” Hannah asked. The young woman stared dreamily and did not answer. Hannah thought she was on pills. The Crenshaw’s sprinkler heads clicked to life next door and the spell was broken.
“Yes, thanks,” she replied finally in a half whisper.
“I’m not an agent, but you’re welcome to look around. Is your agent on the way?”
Again the young woman did not answer. Hannah stepped aside to let her in. She moved slowly through the downstairs rooms like a Sunday afternoon museum goer. Occasionally, she switched the still silent baby from one hip to the other while making her way to the sliding glass doors at the back of the house. Hannah watched them silhouetted in the morning sun.
“It’s the same but different,” the young woman said.
“I used to live here.”
“Oh. Well. Welcome back,” Hannah said.
“I left a few years ago when I got pregnant.”
The young woman turned to face Hannah, the baby now asleep on her shoulder. Hannah did not remember seeing a car out front, and it seemed likely to her that this young family had nowhere to go. Hannah’s skin began to prickle.
“Did you buy the house from Miles and Virginia Thornton?” the young woman asked.
“No, it’s still for sale. I’m just the home manager.”
“The home manager. Someone who lives in a house while it’s for sale. I was hired by the real estate company. I think the current owners are the Boyds.”
The young woman nodded and rubbed the baby’s back. Not wanting to spook her away, Hannah resisted the urge to ask about her past. After another few moments of standing together in the hushed living room, Hannah’s curiosity overwhelmed her.
“How did you get here, dear?” Hannah asked.
“I should probably leave,” she responded quickly, seeming to expect the question.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Hannah said holding up her hands. “How about something to eat before you go?”
The young woman deliberated for a moment then walked over to the sofa. She placed the sleeping baby on his stomach and moved a few pillows beside him so he wouldn’t roll. Hannah noticed the scuffed, dirty soles of the footy pajamas and wanted to wash them.
“You take good care of him,” Hannah said. The young woman offered a crooked smiled and sat down at the kitchen table, sloughing her backpack to the floor.
“I try. His name is Wendell,” she said.
“What is your name?” Hannah asked.
“My name is Hannah and I have kids, too. I know how difficult it can be.”
“Do they live here?”
“No, no they don’t. They are grown and have their own kids.” Hannah turned to open the fridge. “Is a turkey sandwich okay?”
“Sure. Thanks. So how long have you been here?”
“About a month. It was strange at first, but I am getting used to the idea of living in other people’s houses.”
“Yeah,” Beatrice said. “I know what you mean.”
After eating, Hannah gave a knit blanket to Beatrice who settled in next to Wendell and they slept. Hannah watched from the kitchen, sunlight flickering over them like flame. Like nothing she had ever known before, she knew they were now hers to care for, overdue gifts from a world that had forgotten her. They would live with her until Beatrice found her parents or the baby’s father or whatever it was she was looking for and Hannah would be thankful for the time, however brief it may be, that they would have together.
Hannah was sure there were things she would need for the baby, but it had been so long since hers had been in diapers. She slipped out of the house to visit Robin, to ask for advice and to see if there was a forgotten box of baby clothes in the attic. Robin’s advice was to call the police. After being convinced otherwise, Robin led Hannah to the attic. She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a box of clothes toward the front corner near one of the dormers. Their progress was a bit slow, carefully following the thin sides of 2x4s across the insulated floor. Eventually they reached the sunny, plywood covered area near the window where several boxes sat in gently falling dust.
“There it is,” Robin said pointing to a cardboard box with “Surprise!” written across the top in bright red marker. Hannah noticed how like a tree house it was up in the attic, with the outstretched arms of the magnolia tree hugging the corner of the house. She watched the breeze move through the branches, heard the clacking of the thick leaves. She could see bits and pieces of her yard and the street in front of her house as they moved. It was difficult to tell, but she thought she saw a car in front of the house. She reached for her telephone, but her pocket was empty. She could see the small black phone buzzing sideways on the kitchen counter. She looked again toward the street, but could see nothing through the now still leaves.
Once down the stairs, Hannah was able to manage the box by herself and crunched back toward the house seeing no car out front. Putting the box down next to the front door, she noticed it was slightly open and looked again toward the street. Turning back, she pushed the door open to reveal an empty living room. She walked slowly over to where they had just been sleeping and held an open hand to the cushion like a tracker feeling the remnants of an abandoned campfire. The blanket lay folded over the arm of the sofa, and Hannah brought it to her face. It smelled sweaty and dusty, like kids in the summer. She placed it back on the sofa and went to the table by the front window for her yellow gloves. Back on her knees, Hannah set to work cleaning the tub, waiting for the next unexpected visitors to arrive on her doorstep.