His Baby Bird of the Day

…if your killer is the nicest person you know, it is time to move away…

On my very last day--this day Turner Hadden is coming to kill me (but he doesn't know it yet)--I can’t concentrate on yeah-I’m-about-to-die because I am (weirdly) remembering the day Jesus appeared at my window and pressed my purple feet into his armpit. But of course nobody but me believes in this. But I know what I saw. I. DID. NOT. MAKE. HIM. UP.

Anyway, this day I am supposed to be out on the street, working, but Cheyenne’s “Frontier Days” are over, summer is over, and it is cold out and rainy rainy, with leaves in ice crystals pressed to the window, and so there are not that many cowboys in town anyway, or the college boys who pretend to be, and the main point is that I have this bad sore throat so I sneak back into my orange fuzzy bed. No way can I be honest and walk to the door and say something like, "Hey, Lou, listen, I have this terrible sore throat, so I'm going to bed. Night night.”

Ha. Ha.

I will get hit anyway. So I have nothing to lose by hiding. Except for the killing by Turner (but, of course, neither of us knows about that yet).

So I leave when Lou shoves me out the door, even put on mascara and those stupid little stockings he makes me wear. But I hide under the concrete stairwell (I have never done anything this scary and brave in my life, but my throat hurts so bad, my fever soaks my clothes, so I am desperate), and when he leaves the building, I sneak back upstairs and into bed. In two weeks I will be seventeen. I deserve to sleep in when I'm this sick, and I know it.

Trish, my best friend and roommate, slips back in, too, but just long enough to make me some hot tea. “I’ll bring you half my weekend's take, Hope,” she says, "when I come back on Monday." She has brought me her soft chenille robe, which I wrap up in and slide under the covers. “What Lou don’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Aw, Trish,” I moan, but I am too tired to argue, and really, I am glad, and she brings me the tea, kisses my forehead and leaves. She calls the tea “camellia tea,” but I don't like it, even if it is made of flowers, even if it is good for a sore throat. So after she leaves, I put it down on the floor and I get out of bed and stand at the window, watching the rain.

Rain in winter is odd in Wyoming. We favor snow and ice. That should have been an omen, but I missed it.

* *

I drift into a feverish sleep, the kind of red heat bubble you slip in and out of when you're really so sick that it almost feels nice. When I float awake again, I hear the door downstairs open and click shut softly.

Someone is sneaking in.

Someone who shouldn't be here.

I hold my breath, suddenly wide awake.

I am afraid.

Then I smell the lemons. I sit up. It is Trish. She is standing at the foot of my bed, holding up the brown bag, heavy with The Enemy Fruit (as we call it). I smile weakly.

"There," she says. "He's got 'em now. This is what you tell him you've been doing all day. You tell him you went all over town to get the stupid lemons."

"Trish," I say. I have tears in my eyes.

We smile a moment till the scent overtakes us.

We can't stand the smell of the lemons. We know what they're for.

She wrinkles her cold red nose and blinks her snowy, made-up lashes. "I'll just get them out of here."

"Thanks," I call as she disappears into the kitchen. The door to the hallway opens and she is gone. "Go to sleep!" she calls back from the stairwell.

And so I do.

* *

There's a grocery store painted a dark, chipped green at the corner of Logan and First, and another on the way to Lincoln Highway. It takes three grocery stores at least to keep Lou supplied in lemons this time of year.

The greengrocer guys there know me.

"Little girl," the Italian guy teases me, "what do you do every day with all those lemons?"

I smile enticingly, but I don't say a word. He puts them aside just for me, and I smile, but inside, ohhhhh, I shudder.

No one should witness the fate of these lemons.

I feel like a killer just buying them.

* *

But back to Jesus. The Vision or whatever, but I know the truth: He was real.

Nobody starts out like this.

Nobody says, “I would rather be a whore than a cheerleader or a typist.”

But at the edges of the world, you keep just wandering long enough, you get to this curb where you can see the seam lines. You see the scary lack of anything at all that lies at the Edge of the World. You see where you are going on your own, and that the world can just run out.

The edge of the world. It is there. I have seen it. The gray reflection of myself, alone and floating, reflected in the empty television screen, a bag of chips in my lap at the YMCA when the little light in the middle goes off. And behind my reflection in the blank TV screen stands a man who is staring.

That is a bad place to be.

* * *

When my mama’s water burst, she lay down on a cot and said, “Place your bets!” It was my grandmother who told me the story, and it was probably more the kind of thing she would say than my mother would have. But what do I know? Anyway, the other women in her cell block predicted when I would be born. Only they moved her out of the infirmary when complications set in, and then they had to move her to the real hospital in a nearby small town, and so the bets were off, the winners denied credit, and I was denied even the glamour of getting to say, “I was born in a prison.” Though technically, I should have been able to say that.

I know. It’s disappointing.

So I was handed over tohermother, who was as big a mess, so I didn’t ever really know her very well either except for a few memories of sleeping in the back seat of a car a lot while my grandmother was working in the front seat. I carry an impression of being rocked to sleep on shock absorbers, to the quick, rhythmic swishes of fabric and skin and soft dollar bills in the front seat, a picture of the back floor of the car beneath me sprinkled with broken graham crackers, eyed with quick hunger from my bed in the back seat, then ruined with a slosh of whiskey at my reaching.

Then came the snow cave.

Then came Jesus with His big red hands, and the clink of a spoon in a jar of sugar.

The clink of that spoon is what did it. I fell in love.

* *

When I hear Lou come home, I step up against the side of the dresser, next to the bedroom door, where he can't quite see me, and I keep very, very quiet.

The bedroom door, which opens onto the living room, is wide open so he could have looked in, but I am lucky. The rosy lamp by my bed is not on, which it could have been since the rain outside makes the room so dark.

Here is my joke about Lou.

Well, it would be a joke except it's true. It's just his life. But it is a joke. He just don't know it.

We have to call Lou “Lou Grant” all the time on account of Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, these oldreruns on TV.His real name is Hubey. Lou wants to be Lou Grant because he says Lou Grant is tough. “Nobody gets around Lou Grant,” he says. “I’m the Lou Grant around here.”

But that shows what Lou don’t see. The real Lou Grant is good. He’s like Jesus, the one who grabbed my feet. The real Lou Grant would never hit Mary if she got sick and couldn’t work. He would let Mary wear warm clothes, real clothes, not costumes. Lou Grant is tough, but he is kind, and that’s what makes him so handsome. Our Lou is too stupid to see that. Lou is no Lou Grant. In fact, on purpose, like a secret joke to myself, I never call Lou “Lou Grant”—just “Lou.” He is too stupid to notice.

So Lou comes in now and I am scared, trapped behind the bedroom door, but then I get this great idea. I pull off Trish's chenille robe, even though the room is cold, and the plaster wall behind me is wet, and I have nothing underneath it, and I throw it in a big ball onto the edge of the bed. I stand there shivering then, and the plaster walls on each side of me are not only cold but damp and moldy smelling against all my bare skin, but in case you think I am crazy, I have done this to myself for a good reason. Now, I figure, if Lou comes in and catches me hiding, I can say that I didn't know if it was him or a burglar, and that I was naked and so I hid.

Shivering from cold is better than shivering on account of Lou himself.

But then comes the man who will kill both Lou and me.

It is then I decide: I am not going to wait for Jesus to show up again. I do not expect him. Not any more. I know by now I will probably not live beyond twenty, which seems pretty old right now, but when a girl understands that, she makes rules.

And one of my rules is this: I refuse to be shot naked.

Of course, I only just now, as it is happening, realize this has been one of my rules all along.

* *

There is a Beautiful Place in my life.

Someone coming upstairs to kill me cannot take this Beautiful Place away.

And it was real.

And it is.

And it starts with this wall of snow over my head.

I woke up one morning in a smooth, glass cave of snow, covering all the car windows. My grandmother was not there anymore. Alone in her car, and it was snowing and snowing, with no hole to show me there was still an outside world. I was really little, so I thought everyone was gone away, the whole world, just gone, and there was only the snow and the inside of this car, all walled in white.

My hands and feet were very cold, and clouds came out of my mouth. I put my fingers in my mouth, and the heat of that made me moan as my fingers thawed. But there was nothing I could think to do for my feet but cry. I didn't want to take my fingers out of my mouth to hold them.

She didn’t come back, and she didn’t come back, and it got colder and colder, till finally not even my mouth could keep my fingers warm anymore.

I whimpered quietly, afraid to make noise, afraid to move.

Then—a terrible ruckus.

A terrible thundering as a small squirrel jumped onto the roof. It lost its footing on the slippery slope of the back window and slid down the glass, the soft, new snow falling away and revealing to me a long pale strip of sky and black, icy tree branches, the edge of a roof of a building in the sudden stripe of white-bright sky. Stunned, the squirrel and I eyed each other in surprise. Then he ran off and I cried loudly, desperate, full of a terrible hope and a terrible fear all at the same time. The world was apparently still out there.

I screamed like that until, finally, some people walking by heard and stopped and looked down through the narrow strip of sky the squirrel had opened. I stood up on the seat and screamed louder at them through the groove in the snow wall, the hot tears turning instantly cold on my cheeks. Different faces kept peeking down, all of them strangers, all of them alarmed, calling in to me, gesturing, rocking and thumping against the car, surrounding and moving all around it, brushing off the snow, and shaking all the doors, which scared me more, and I screamed.

Finally, a policeman broke a window in front, reached in for a door handle, and pulled me out. I never saw my grandmother again.

But I do recall that policeman’s face, the face of the man who rescued me. He lifted me from the snow cave and carried me, wrapping me inside his coat, singing softly in a soothing voice, and he carried me in to where it was warm. Next to the police station was a little white frame house and two children lay in the snow, laughing, their arms spread wide and flapping.

“Snow angels,” he said. And I believed Him.

He set me on a high counter, and he rubbed me with towels, putting my icy feet under his arms or in the crook of his elbows, and in the big, warm palms of His hands.

Nearby was a coffee pot, packets of creamer and used wooden stir sticks made a clot of the dusty creamer all over the counter. But in the middle of it all was a mason jar half full of sugar. I stared at that, and my tummy growled. The policeman—my Policeman—heard that and looked at me. And with one hand he reached, dipped a spoon into the sugar jar, then placed it in my mouth. As the sweet, cool mound of crystals melted and crunched in the cradle of my tongue, making my eyes fill with tears, he smiled and dropped the spoon with a clink into the bottom of the sugar jar.

“This girl needs a sandwich and a big cup of cocoa.”

“Get her a box of raisins,” a typist yelled out, and a rookie grabbed his coat and set out running.

“Get this girl some bananas!” Jesus called. He smiled at me.

He loved me. Jesus loved me. While we waited for the sandwiches, waited out the bananas, he dipped the spoon in the sugar jar one more time, then let me make it go clink in the bottom of the empty jar, sugar crystals breaking like a thin crust of ice.

After that, I was at this children’s home for a few years, a couple of foster homes that did not work out, and another children’s home for wild teens. But at each place, they were so overworked you had to be bad just to get some attention, and then it was not all that rewarding. In between my being bad, they would put me in my room with a plastic cup of milk, my supper brought on a plastic tray, so I could try to eat meat loaf with a plastic, bendy fork.

But it was quiet that way. After the storms that came from inside me, it was such a relief, locked in my room with my government-issued teddy bear (no button eyes—just stitches, so we couldn’t swallow them), and my plastic cup of milk. It was peaceful, and there, away from all the noise of other children, I would sit on the bed with my bear and my milk, turn my back on the gray metal door with its little grilled window into the hallway, and stare out at the trees through the chicken-wired windows. Oak trees against a bare, blue sky. They looked so normal it hurt.

I don’t remember if it was lots of winter days or just one, or if they all have got blended together into just the one moment on my bed, looking out at icy black barren branches, and I remember a man who broke a window. Who broke through a glassy snow cave and pulled me out, warmed my foot in his armpit and turned me loose.

That means something. That doesn’t happen every day.

Who does that?

That day on the bed, I figured it out.

It was the REAL Jesus.

Jesus breaks windows and pulls little girls out of frozen cars. Jesus warms our feet in his armpit, then turns us back loose to try it again.

I fell in love with that policeman by the time I was thirteen. He was the only one who ever touched me like that. I used to dream I would find him—

Jesus the cop.

He Who Holds My Feet in His Armpit.

“Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I The LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.” That’s Leviticus 20:26. One of my foster mothers taught me the Bible till she slapped me too hard when I kept insisting that the verse about how "God set me on a high rock" was true and it had happened to me, that it was all about me.

"He set me on a high rock and fed me sugar out of a jar," I said.

We had been at this all day, so she slapped me so hard I had a red fan across my cheek. I told on her and was removed. Sometimes I wished I hadn’t told—she wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me.

At first I waited a long time for Him to come find me.

But now I have fallen far far away from all the Jesuses.

No Jesus ever walks this street.

"You made him up," one social worker said when I tried to describe the policeman.

"I think he would want me to live with him," I pleaded across her desk, "if he only just knew where I was."

She had her hand on the phone book, which gave me hope--she was going to look for him for me! But instead she said, "You want to go to worse places than this, they are in here, right in this book, just keep on acting up. Jesus is not a cop, Hope. Go to art therapy. YOU. MADE. HIM. UP."

I wished I could strangle her right then.

But I didn't have it in me anyway. When she said those last four words, some kind of energy, something really necessary for life, drained right out of me, sank into the floor right there. I left whatever it was right there in her office forever.

But every winter my fingers freeze and my feet get so cold that they hurt.

And that's when I get a little faith back, it turns out.

But I won't know this for four more years.

* *

And now, from behind the bedroom door, I hear a fast heavy pounding up the stairs and when I hear Lou gasp, I know this is someone really bad, and That Someone hits the top step and pushes his way in, pushes even Lou aside. I listen and know right away: Turner Hadden has come.

But actually, maybe this is better because I am pretty sure I won't get hit now, because I can say I was afraid Turner might see me naked so I hid. Lou will like that because he don't like anything of his given away for free, and a peek is an opportunity for cash flow in Lou's eyes. So I lean my head back against the wall and close my eyes and wait. The wall is wet and cold.

Turner says, "Lou, I want my money.”

When Lou doesn’t say anything (he is scared, I know), Turner says quietly like Lou is his child, “You do remember this, Lou? This is something you are aware of? Let me see your eyes…” (He is probably looking in Lou’s eyes for signs he is high.) “…You spend it already? Shoot my money right up your arm?"

"No, no. I have it." I can tell by Lou's voice that Turner has him by the chin. "I'll pay you now." I peek through a crack in the door, shivering.

Lou pulls free and dumps a bag of stuff he got from making a run last night. I am too dizzy to stay interested.

Oh, my head.

I squat and put my burning forehead on my arms and rock a little side to side, trying to sleep this way until Turner goes home and Lou hits me and then I can go back to bed. I squat like that a long time, naked and rocking and listening, squatting over my heels.

I wish I hadn’t thrown Trish’s robe on the bed. This is taking too long. I’m freezing.

"See?" Lou says. “Anything you want."

When they get quiet, it makes me nervous, so I rally my strength and I peek again through the open door's hinges. Turner is sitting on the couch, leaning over, looking at all the stuff Lou has spread on the floor. Lou is running his hands through all the stuff, waving things up into Turner's face, sometimes two handfuls at a time, making a sale.

All of a sudden, Turner's eyes light on something small in a separate pile. "Hey,” he says. “What's that? What the hell did you do, Lou?”

Lou freezes. Turner picks up a necklace and then opens a little locket. He sees something, and he snaps the locket shut and puts it in his pocket. He leans forward and pats Lou on the cheek and says gently, "Don't you know any better? You know what this is, right? Why’d you go there? What are you up to now?"

The kind look on his face--

The soft voice--

The gentle way he pats Lou’s face--

These are scary because he doesn't mean them.

"Lou," he says quietly. He raises the little necklace up in front of Lou's face and swings it slowly back and forth. I see Lou go blank.

Turner takes out a pistol then, and if I were not so sick I might panic and run screaming out of there. Instead, it merely scares me, distracts me from my fevery misery. He holds the gun up close to Lou's face, without exactly aiming it at him, and waits. "Say you’re sorry, Lou." He speaks softly, like he’s being patient with a little kid. When Lou lifts his face to say he’s sorry, Turner hits him up side of the head, just once, and Lou falls forward, hitting his face hard on the coffee table.

Lou is out like a light. I think to myself, "He is dead, and so am I."

And now here I am naked on the cold floor.

On the other side of an open door is a man with a gun—

--who I've never known very well and

--who has never seen me naked.

I am still sick, but I have the presence of mind to think, well, maybe I better stand up now, so I do, and I move over and huddle now against the two walls in the corner, behind the dresser. I look at Trish’s robe thrown on the bed and I wish I wish I wish I could reach it without him seeing or hearing me. But I know I better not chance it, so I push my shivering back into the cold plaster, hoping to disappear, hoping he will disappear too. The fact that I have spied on him is enough for him to kill me. If I’m tempted to think there will be mercy, I just look at the living room rug. Lou has blood spreading on the floor around his ear, and he's not moving. To keep very quiet, to keep from screaming, I hug myself and chew a nail. I wait.

I stand very still. I can't see Turner now, huddled up like I am in this corner. But I can see his shadow stretch in here across the foot of my bed. He stands up over Lou and bows his head down. Then he bends over and picks up some stuff and puts it in his pockets. When he stands back up, I watch his shadow, waiting for him to leave. But he doesn't. Instead of sinking away toward the door, his shadow moves higher up the bed, and pretty soon I can see him in my room, the side of his face nearest me in shadow, as he stands there, looking at my bed. Then he leans over and picks up Trish's bathrobe with both hands, bunches it up like a pillow, turns straight around, and walks right up to me. He stands very close, his face a perfect blank. He knew I was there all along. His gun is tucked into his belt, but he holds the bunched-up robe in front of him, and I understand he is going to suffocate me with it.

"Go ahead!" I burst. I am angry and scared and I am shaking so hard my voice sounds like I'm on one of those vibrating motel beds. "Shoot me. Smother me. I don't care. Just let me get under the covers first. I'm cold, damn it, and I’m sick, and you guys come over here and I’m just—I’m cold!"

And here's the part I will never forget. He doesn't look at me, I mean look down at my bare skin. He looks right in my face, and as I burst out like this, something in his eyes changes and he decides to grant my request. He holds Trish's robe up, drops it open, nodding for me to step into it. I obey, and it is warm already from his hands, and I close my eyes and when I turn my back on him to put my other arm in the sleeve, I stay that way, waiting for the gun to hit me up one side of the head like it did Lou. But instead he puts his warm hands on my shoulders. They are not big hands. He is slender and only a couple of inches taller than me. I see this as he turns me around with those warm hands, heating me up through the chenille. My throat hurts.

He ties the robe for me and takes my elbow and leads me back to the bed. Yes, I am still afraid, and in that other way now. But he just lowers me into the bed and then pulls the robe down over my legs. I have heard of this before. That Turner sometimes grants last requests.

So this is how my death begins:

Turner says, "Your feet are like ice. Where's your socks?"

I think about this and then I remember. I don't own socks. Lou only buys me stockings, black ones, thin like gauze, and little high heels, no matter how cold it is, even like 20 degrees. I say I don't own any socks and this suddenly makes me so sad. I roll my head across the pillow and cry, not thinking maybe it will annoy the guy with the gun. All I think is, he is laying me out on my death bed, at my last request, to execute me, and I will die with blue ice feet. I think about thick warm socks I had when I was a kid. Red woolly knee socks in winter and thick dark green tights with Santa Clauses on the ankles. And rough white bobby socks I wore with tennis shoes, and I am so sad. I am mad that here I am sick and about to be killed, and I have no socks. Not one pair. That old me, that little girl in the socks, she was richer than me.

This seems like a terrible outrage, and I suppress a sob, rocking my head across the pillow. I have forgotten all about Turner till I open my eyes and see him standing there watching me, the gun dangling from his hand.

"How old are you?"

I stop crying. I don't say anything. Lou has taught me not to answer that question. Not till my eighteenth birthday, anyway. He says they will put me in jail, not him. He will tell them I lied about it to him.

Turner leaves the room and when he comes back he has two handfuls of socks from Lou's drawers. All kinds. Most of them are ugly, slick silk socks, but there are others too. Gold toe socks, thick and white with strong elastic cuffs. There is even a pair with Santa Clauses on them. We both see this, and I smile at Turner and wait. I hope, oh I hope, he will smile back. If we share a joke, it will make me harder to kill. But he avoids this, knows better, is practiced at it, and my hope begins to fade.

I begin to hate him for choosing me for one of his last-request recipients. It is as if it makes him think he can redeem himself. Well, it won’t. I will die deliberately unforgiving, and he will burn for it later.

* *

One day, I almost cried, my feet were so cold they hurt. This was after Lou took me to work for him. Lou got tired of my crying over the pain in my feet, so he dumped me at the free clinic. There, a doctor told me the most hopeful thing in the world.

“You have fewer active blood vessels in your feet,” he said, “the circulation is poor. Did you come close to freezing them at one time?"

I looked up at him fast. "What?"

"Ever have frost bite?”

My breathing caught. “What do you think?” I said. “Do you think I did?”

“Well,” he said, “if you can’t remember, I think you must have, maybe when you were small?”

I almost shrieked!

Now coldness comforts me. It reminds me—-the Snow Cave must have happened, after all. He must have happened. He was real and he was out there. Cold feet are my only hope for the rest of the world.

* *

Turner selects all the good, thick new socks. He knocks the silk ones off the bed, knocks away the worn ones. He sits down next to me on the bed. He turns on the little rosy bedside lamp against the dark of the icy rain outside, and then, with a cigarette, one of Lou's, hanging out of the corner of his mouth, and me wiping my wet face with the back of my hand, Turner puts my feet in his lap and he puts a gold toe sock on each one. This makes me catch up my breath, we both hear it and he looks at me quickly, then looks away. He rubs my foot slowly, presses it into his side, under his elbow, to warm it. Then he pulls on a pair of striped socks over the gold toes, then another pair, and another. He tucks one foot into his warm armpit while he takes a puff of his cigarette and then blows the smoke into my other foot, through the sock.

It is so warm, I have to close my eyes.

He likes this, sees it by not looking when I look, and his eyes crinkle in the corners as he draws in more smoke and blows it out at the ceiling and smiles. Then he puts my feet under the covers and pulls the blankets up to my chin. We are both aware of the gun, which he has set down, momentarily, on the bedspread. As he is tucking the covers up all around my face, one eye on his gun, his toe hits the chipped cup of Trish's cold tea I have left on the floor. He looks down. "What's this?" he says.

"I don't care for camellia," I say.

"Camellia?" He speaks out of one side of his mouth, the side not smoking.

"Camellia tea," I say.

He sniffs the tea and then chuckles softly. "Camomile," he says.

He picks up the gun from the bedspread, being discreet about it, not trying to scare me unnecessarily.

"So. What do you like?" he says.

And now I think very hard.

I get it.

I understand that he is turning into a john now. He has granted my last request and now I am to grant him one. I am to begin by saying something that will excite him or get my head shot off. So I lick my lips and my fever makes me suddenly tired and I open my mouth and hear it saying, in a dead voice, something I think he might like. The words taste bad in my throat, but they ring even uglier in my ears when I see, regretfully, that I have annoyed him.

"No," he says. "To drink. What do you like to drink for a cold? You want orange juice? Maybe he's got some in the fridge."

"No," I grimace.

"Ah. Sore throat. My daddy had a drink for that. Lou got any lemons here?"

Oh wow. The lemons!

He stares at me. "Lou have any lemons?"


Well, you'd think he would know this.

Pushers for women and kids always have lemons. It's a good way to help the squeamish first-timer try out the needle, injecting a lemon first before putting it under her own skin. He also sticks it in lemons for the ones who don't like to shoot themselves up. Tells them he's cleaning the needle, sanitizing it. The smell of the lemon soothes them and they calm down. One of the few smart things Lou's ever come up with. So I say, "Yeah, he's got lemons." And Turner disappears.

Next thing I know he is banging around in the kitchen. I think of escaping, sure, but what are my chances? The kitchen is by the apartment door, and I am dizzy with this sickness. I lay in the bed, dozing in and out with the fever. My feet are warm and I realize, as I move my legs around under the sheets, how much I have missed thick, warm socks. I wonder, was I wearing socks the day Lou took me in? And if I was, what did he do with them? These are the luxurious thoughts that can finally come when you’re dying.

When Turner comes back he has a mug with something steaming in it, and in the other hand he has a saucepan with more stuff steaming out of it. I see that the gun is tucked into the waist of his jeans. He has not decided he is done with it. He sets the pan and the mug on the floor, and I try to see what's in them, but he lifts me up under my arms and fluffs pillows and I pray I will die right now. When did someone ever do this for me? I realize, of course, that it is the fever talking, but for a moment I am happy. Then I realize that time has passed and I am still leaning against his shoulder, and he has been telling me to do something and I have not been listening.

"What?" I say.

"Lean back. You can lean back now."

I realize I have been leaning against his shoulder still, although he has long finished fluffing my pillows. So I lean back and smile a little, embarrassed, but he does not smile back, cuts his eyes away before they ever quite meet mine, and so I become serious faced, polite. On my guard again.

I hate him.

Abject kindness before killing is the cruelest form of torture.

He has turned for the mug now, the gun tucked close in his belt, and as he turns back toward me, his eyes on the hot liquid, moving carefully to not spill it, I have an urge to hit his arm and splash him. Then his fun, his playing house, will be over, and he will just kill me and go. But of course I do not move.

"Hot lemon juice with just a little whiskey and lots and lots of sugar," he says and he guides it to me, still watching the mug. I sip it and ohhhhhhh myyyyyyy.


It is the best food I have ever had in my mouth.

"My old man used to make it with honey simmered into the whiskey, or rum, but this is almost as good. Plain old sugar will do."

"Mmm," I say. I cannot open my eyes. I am busy concentrating on the taste it has left in my mouth, on the heat it has sent down my throat and into my chest. I stop and think: my feet are warm.

* *

Maybe it’s the fever, maybe it’s sheer terror, but I get this funny memory:

There was a fingernail stuck in a wooden fence board at this old house I lived in once with some guys, right after I ran away from my last foster home. I used to look over the fence and talk to the woman who lived there. One day the guy she lived with beat her in their back yard so hard that, clutching at things to get away from him, she left that fingernail in the wood fence when he slammed her up against the boards. He did this, and she limped back into the house.

Then, right afterwards, I stood shaking, trying to smoke a cigarette, and watching out the kitchen window while he spent the next half hour helping a baby bird get back into its nest, his hands soft and delicate on the baby bird.

* *

He gives me another sip, a big drink this time. He sits there on the edge of the bed feeding hot lemonade, like his old man used to make for him, to a little whore he hardly knows. He seems eager for me to finish it, so I do, to be polite, to be cooperative. It is what I am trained to do, to not sip at my leisure.

When I open my eyes, Turner is smiling a little, reaching for the pan to refill the mug. The look on his face is not mean. It hurts me to look at this not-mean face all of a sudden and I lean to look into the pan. My heart beats a little faster. There is enough still for one more mug. The rest of my life swirls in the bottom of Lou Grant's saucepan. Turner feeds me the second mug, and I can't stand how intently he watches me drink, with his non-mean smile. He is enjoying himself without meanness. He is enjoying me with kindness.

I think to myselfI am Turner Hadden's baby bird of the day.

The question is, what happened to that baby bird after? I try to think.

I can't look at him anymore. He feeds me a third mug, and I think this is it. I try to take back control of my life—and my death—by gripping the mug for myself, wrapping my fingers over his hands, to wrestle it away from him, to make him mad and get this over with, one quick bullet before I wish for more things. But he smiles at this too, thinking I am just wanting the lemonade so bad. He lets me keep my fingers there, misinterpreting my pull, as he feeds me the last drink.

When I am finished, he sets the mug on the floor and stands.

I know what comes next, but I am not wildly afraid anymore. The heat of the drink and the effects of the whiskey have finally made me sleepy, and I have trouble keeping my eyes open. This will make for a merciful death. I close my eyes and when I open them, aware of some movement, Turner is taping a piece of paper to the wall over my head: my execution is to be a lesson to someone. He drops something tickly and heavy into my hand—coins, I think. A sick joke. I am too sleepy with fever to look, but I rub my thumb over it and I know. It is not money.

Turner backs out of the room, watching me, the gun in his hand now, dangling at his side, waiting. I nod. I go to sleep ahead of the bullet. It is a mercy.

* *

When I woke up Turner was gone.

So was my sore throat. So was everything I had thought I knew about my life. Including the fact that I was not dead—not yet. That was the major thing changed.

First I stretched and yawned. My body no longer ached, and the sun was even shining outside the window. The rain was gone. The next thing I noticed was the strange sensation of socks on my feet. This is something you definitely notice if you are not someone who has had the luxury of sleeping in thick socks, or even owning a pair for several years. And when I felt the socks, everything came rushing back in on me. I sat up quick with a gasp. Then I held my breath and listened for Turner. Was he sitting somewhere with the gun, watching? I thought the deal was that he would wait and shoot me in my sleep. I mean, he didn’t promise me that, but that was the way things were headed before. All the hot lemonade that, combined with fever, made me drowsy. Him taping his message over my head, then stepping back, his hand on his gun as I drifted off to sleep. We even nodded. There was a sort of agreement in that gesture.

And now I was awake and had to be afraid of him, afraid of being killed, all over again. Did he think this was funny? If he had sat back to wait till I woke up, then he was even more evil than people said.

I did nothing but sit up in that bed, a pillow in my arms, for a long time. Moving just my eyes. Waiting.

I waited through the sounds of a whole day. I waited till my bladder was about to bust. I waited so long I thought my spine would probably crack whenever I finally let it move. I waited till I was so miserable with fear and the need to pee that I didn’t care, once again, about being killed just as long as I could get to a bathroom.

I guess a smarter person would have just wet the bed and waited Turner out on the off chance of surviving, but I had known for too many years that, in this job and with these bosses, I would not live to be more than twenty-five. At that point you decide to set a whole different list of rules for yourself, and one of mine was, I will not die in a bed unclean. I will not die in my own pee. Sometimes you do not even know what your own rules for dying are until you are thrust into the moment.

It was a relief anyway. It gave me some relief to get up out of that bed and walk into Turner’s sadistic trap. It gave me back some control of my own death, and that took at least some of the fear out of it.

“If you don’t want me coming out there, then you might as well shoot now because I will not stay put anymore, Turner Hadden!” I called out. I did not say it in a belligerent way, like I was daring him. I just said it as fact.

I added, “I would like to pee first, if that’s okay. . .”

He did not say anything, but I heard him chuckle from out in the kitchen, heard a chair pull back like somebody standing. This shocked me. I knew he was a killer. I knew he was real cold. But to laugh at such a pathetic, hopeless last request lowered even a killer like Turner Hadden to new depths. Was he so twisted that he had treated me like the baby bird, put me to sleep with a lifting of his gun and a promise for a mercy killing just to sit here with a dead man in the living room to wait for me to wake up just so he could terrorize me all over again and this time laugh at me?

I was angry now and glad for it. It would make things easier.

I hitched up the sleep-loosened waist of Trish’s robe, tied it tighter around me and stormed into the living room. I saw the dark shape of him as he rose up from behind the door and put a pillowcase over my head. He held my hands together behind my back and pushed me into the bathroom.

As he shut me in, I pulled off the pillowcase, sat myself down to tinkle real quick, and listened while he pushed a few things around out there.

Then it dawned on me about why he’d used the pillowcase. As it was coming down over my face, the last thing I’d seen was a puddle of dried blood in the carpet.

Lou’s body was gone.

This bathroom door does not lock.

We took Lou’s car.

When it was dark, Turner drove me out to some little farm with it. I was still in Trish’s robe. When we got to the farm house, Turner took my elbow before I could jump out and run. He guided me up the farmhouse steps. Inside he turned on a light and sat me down in a kitchen chair.

“Hope,” he said, standing over me. "That your name? Hope?"

I didn't move.

He leaned down, hands on his knees so his face was even with mine. "Your name's Hope?"

With his face close to mine, I had to speak. I swallowed. "Yes," I said. I got the courage to glance sideways at him. His face looked nice.

“Hope, you’re not interested in dying yet, are you.”

“No,” I said.

“Good. That’s what I thought. Now. Your boss, he’d been a problem for way too long. It was going to end bad for me with Lou. We don’t have much time to talk about that, except to say that it does not have to be bad for you too.

“Now--” but then he stopped and saw what I was doing.

I was shaking all over, and even though I tried to be calm, and even though I had never even liked Lou at all, not even one little bit, every part of my body was shaking, was out of my control. I grabbed my knees, and I was making these big gasps. Turner waited a second, and then he said, “You okay? We don’t have much time here. Can you listen?”

I nodded wildly, but I couldn’t stop, and my own big gasps were scaring me. I had never acted like this before. Turner got me a glass of water and I spilled it, I was shaking so hard, but he steadied my hand, and I got some down, but mostly it spilled all over us.

“Okay,” he said. “All right. All right. All right. Here—" and then he grabbed a paper bag off the counter and opened it and told me to hold it over my mouth and nose.

“Breathe,” he said. I did. Pretty soon it helped me slow down. I started to cry, but I took deep breaths and tamped that back down too. My breathing slowed to normal.

“You okay now?” he said. “Can you listen now?
“Yes,” I whispered. Then he sat down across from me at the kitchen table and said, “Back there with Lou, things got a little out of control, and I can't have you telling anybody what you saw. You say anything, I will have to come after you too. You got that?”

I nodded.

“You’re a nice kid, and smart too. You shouldn’t be here. What the hell he thought he was doing with a kid…Hope, if you can just leave town, and stay away for good, not talk to anybody from Cheyenne ever again, then I’m thinking I can maybe just let you go. But what do you think about keeping quiet and just walking away. No good-byes. Are you a girl who can do that?”

I said yes, thank you. I knew I could do it too. I knew I could just leave because there was nobody here nice to me but Trish, the lemon guy, and one errand boy. And if they thought I was dead, well then, that was better than really being dead. And because of my life with Lou, I had never been allowed time to get close to even them. And Turner Hadden, who had started to kill me once already, had practically been nicer than anybody in my life, with the lemonade, the hot smoke, and Lou Grant’s gold toe socks. And if that was true, if your killer is the nicest person you know in town, it is time to move anyway.

He gave me a couple of grocery bags stuffed with some of my clothes he must have took up off the floor, so I took them into the bathroom and got dressed—not one slinky skirt or top, hallelujah, just a bag of blue jeans, some long-sleeved shirts that smelled like Tide, and a soft, gray, hooded sweatshirt.

I felt so clean and new that I paused and took enough time in the bathroom to brush my hair up into a ponytail. Like an actual girl and not one of Lou's girls. A real girl. In a pony tail.

When I came back out, he’d made instant coffee. He handed me a plastic cupful, plus an envelope with Lou’s car keys and a shoe box full of cash.

“Hey,” he said.

I looked up at him and waited.

“You still got my locket?”

I nodded. It’s what he had dropped in my hand before, just as I fell asleep. I put it on the table. I watched him. When he did not reach to take it, I gently opened it (being handed money and a sweatshirt—a good old, plain old sweatshirt that smelled of Tide— and wearing a pony tail had made me feel bold and hopeful). There was a pretty Latina woman and a little boy inside the locket. I smiled and pushed it at him.

“No,” he said. “Keep it. They live in Tucson. Maybe you should run away to there, that’s all. Go to Tucson or some place. She works at this café, the Santa Rita. Clean work, good work. You should go do something like that. Tucson, Florida, Nebraska, someplace like that. There's enough money in there for that.”

We sat quiet at the kitchen table. There were cranes waking up somewhere out by a pond that was just now starting to show up as glossy black in the mowed-down field, and then some meadowlarks. It was still dark, but the sky was more purplish than black by this time. I looked at that pond, the last bits of frost already melting on it under the first sun's rays, and only the white cranes in the pre-dawn making light on the frost show up, and I wondered if that was a place he’d had in mind to put me. Maybe he still did…

I could not drink that coffee. I wondered if he would really let me go or if he was just relaxing me, still trying to figure it out. And poison is not how I want to go. Lou’s way had been quicker.

Time to test this out.

Move it forward. End my suspense.

“Well,” I said, reaching for Lou’s keys. I tried to sound calm. “Should I get going?”

I almost could not believe it when he didn’t stop me. I wondered if I should say thank you, but that seemed a little premature, so instead, I just put the shoe box full of money in the grocery bag with my things, glancing at him the whole time, waiting for his arm to shoot out and stop me—but it didn’t and I walked out the kitchen door. I looked back from the open car door. The screen door was tapping shut and a yellow rectangle of kitchen light spread across the dirt yard to the car.

In my hurry, I'd left the door wide open, and Turner didn't get up to shut it. He just sat at the table. He did not look out after me, but sat drinking his instant coffee. Then, whether it was for my sake or not, I don’t know, but he leaned back in his chair, pulled his gun from his waist—my heart pounded and my arms flung out, flapping like a snow angel’s—and he set it on the table, gave it a small push, so that it tapped up against a jar of sugar. I nodded and started to climb in the car when I heard it again and remembered something. Something from a long time ago. I looked back toward that open kitchen door, wanted to hear it one more time. Did he know? Did he understand? Had he been there? Was it him?

Maybe so. Maybe so, because miracle of miracles, I heard it again.

I heard the sound of a spoon clink in the bottom of a jar of sugar.

* *

So now I drive south on this highway. And nothing happens. Nothing grows in the rearview mirror but the sunrise. I stop for some real coffee and a truck-stop banana. (“Get this girl some bananas!” Jesus had said. And so I do.) I drive all night. I drive all day.

As I drive across the border into Arizona, I get my second Vision ever.

I see myself becoming a real waitress who goes to college at night, carrying trays of beers and sandwiches, smiling and leaning over people sitting at those fancy outdoor cafes with the umbrellas over the tables with the names of fancy wines printed on them. I picture myself recommending hot lemonade, even though it is Tucson in the summer, and they will drink it and they will thank me for having suggested it, for having brought it to them.

I picture all kinds of people, but especially the women. I will feed them the first sip, because they won't believe how good it is without my help with that first sip. And then they will close their eyes in the goodness of it, and when they open their eyes they call me sister and they will love me. I will set on each table a jar of sugar, dropping in a spoon.

In this Vision, which I believe in, I find Jesus again.

He is always popping up with socks, and redeeming hot lemons for new and better purposes, working all bad lemons to the good. And sometimes I dream He will show up as the real Lou Grant, the actor, retired in Arizona, and that he will be strong, he will be kind, and all the women will smile at me when he brings me hot lemonade.

About the Author

Linda Wendling

Linda Wendling,a medical writer in Fort Myers, Florida, earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she became a member of the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. Her stories have appeared in many periodicals, as well in the anthologies The Norton Anthology of Microfiction(1997), New Stories from the South (2001) and Peculiar Pilgrims: Stories from the Left Hand of God (2007). In 1999 she won the Heartland Fiction Prize and in 2005 she was guest writer for the Chrysostom Society. In 2004-2005 she held a Milton Fellowship at the Milton Center of Seattle Pacific University. Her novel-in-progress is Inappropriate Babies. Linda’s memoir “Cosmonaut Girl Lost in Outer Space” appears in the Winter 2009 issue of Rhubarbmagazine.