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By Lisa C. Taylor
I slip the tiny bird whistle into my carryon bag but Sylvan spots it.
“If my father’s Purple Heart can’t go with us, neither can your stupid whistle. We’re starting fresh, Beth.”
I sneak the whistle into my pocket in the bathroom. It comforts me on days when I’m afraid to answer the door. Sylvan says I need medication, one of those drugs that quiets voices even though I know it’s Aunt Vicky telling me about the trails in Keelen Forest, behind the gas station. Sometimes I see a wild turkey or a doe nibbling at dry grass. Since they built the rails to trails, there’s no worry of poison ivy or ticks. There’s something about wildness I love. Sylvan thinks I’m at a yoga class or drinking coffee with friends I don’t have. Aunt Vicky said he had bad karma and that the universe would teach him a lesson. After the accident she said he’d be haunted the rest of his life and there wasn’t any escaping it.
My backpack has this tiny compartment for glasses or a passport. I could put the whistle there. It’s not a weapon or one of the items you can’t bring on a plane so I won’t need to put it in the plastic bin. When Sylvan takes his shower, I zip it into the tiny pouch. My body relaxes because I know when I land in Ireland, there will be one thing friendly and familiar.
I used to think Sylvan and I were best friends because we’d been through near-death. When they stitched him back together, I thought he’d become more real like the Velveteen Rabbit. Instead the scars looked like frowns all over his face and the ridges on his hands were hard and angry. My scar runs up my left thigh but no one sees it since I wear pants. We had a little house once, a dormered Cape down the street from the city park. The lawyers took it away, told us that everything Sylvan made from hereon out would go to the family of the boy who died.
Sylvan said, “What’s the point of working?” Sylvan said, “We need to blow this place sky high.” Sylvan said, “Let’s go to Ireland.” Aunt Vicky said he couldn’t run away from his responsibilities and the authorities wouldn’t allow it. I didn’t say much, just played with my whistle and walked on the trails while Sylvan went to the office to make money to give away. I knew it was his fault but he’s been paying and paying and he says there’s no more money. Sylvan said, “We may as well just live on the street with the amount they let us keep each month.” Now we live in a one-room apartment with a miniature stove and tiny refrigerator in a not-so-great neighborhood. There’s a dumpster outside so we can’t even open the window on hot days.
When I tried to get a job, Sylvan told me I wasn't employable.
You’re small and you don’t understand things.
I applied anyway—at a daycare, an insurance company in a gray office building, and at the Last Stop Diner. When the diner called me back, I didn’t answer the phone because we’d already decided to use the passports we got three years ago for our trip to Montreal. On a Saturday we drove through up to the border station and they asked questions like how long are you staying and what is your business in Canada? Sylvan told them we were on our honeymoon, which was a half-truth, not a full-blown lie. We had a pretend wedding when we bought the Cape, saying vows we wrote:
I will cook you lasagna with extra cheese on top.
All dinners will be by candlelight.
Sylvan promised not to go looking for me when I disappeared for a few hours as long as I came back before dark. I could tell this was hard for him because he curled his lip and showed his teeth like a German shepherd once did when I crossed her path on the trail. Sylvan gave me a silver ring with a light green stone and a forest green dress with smocking. I hadn’t talked to my mother in two years but I left her a message that I’d gotten married. His name is Sylvan. He sells insurance. She didn’t call back but I’m sure she told Lyndon. Sylvan said brothers are supposed to be protective of their little sisters but Lyndon called me Scrawny and Dumbass. He might live somewhere near a coast or he might not. Maybe he died in a shark attack or an earthquake.
I take out my whistle and think of Aunt Vicky who lived with Aunt Earla all her life. They went to Las Vegas every year and I had Vegas names for them, Violet and Bunny. I gave them a wardrobe they kept in storage, feather boas and sequined dresses. It’s important to have a second life when your first one isn’t going so well.
Aunt Vicky had listened with her whole face turned toward me like the rest of the room was a blur and I was in focus. She made popcorn in a cast iron pot and poured melted butter over it. We’d eat fistfuls or put it in paper bags and take it with us on a walk. Whatever was left, we’d scatter for the birds or ducks by the little pond in back of her apartment. Sylvan said she wasn’t a real aunt because she was my stepfather’s sister. She didn't mind if my hair was sticking up or I forgot the name of a cross street. Aunt Vicky gave me the whistle, and a box that said Bethany in gold block letters. She also took me to see Hairspray. Even though I had met Sylvan by then, she didn’t invite him because she said Wednesday will be our day, Bethany. We’ll dress up and take the train. I wore my forest green dress and Aunt Vicky wore hot pink slacks with matching ballet flats. She bought me a giant pretzel from a one-eyed man with a rolling cart, showed me how to squirt mustard on it but she didn’t tell me about the cancer. Sylvan said that some people don’t like others to feel sorry for them so they keep their troubles a secret. Aunt Earla died a month after Aunt Vicky, and Sylvan said that maybe they couldn’t live without each other. I still have her number stored in my phone but when I call it, a voice says it’s not a working number.
My sister used to call me Breathany because I have asthma and sometimes it’s hard to catch my breath. I don’t know what she calls me now because we don’t talk anymore. Sylvan said families are how we get here and then it’s up to us to make up a life for ourselves. He said his story is mixed up with my story because we have destiny. I wish I had lived with Aunt Vicky so we could have walked on the Freedom Trail. We never finished all the hikes we circled in red on the map but we did sixteen of them including one a couple of weeks ago where we had to stop because Aunt Vicky was weak and couldn't walk anymore. I bought a yellow highlighter and colored over the ones we finished and I drew a sad face on the one we didn’t finish. We made up our own names for them --Dirty Puddle Trail, McDonald’s Litter Trail, Flat Rock Path. My favorite was Stinkhorn Trail where a row of the mushrooms looked like the Army guys in front of the recruiting station. Aunt Vicky said stinkhorns smelled bad if you stepped on them but they were the color of a sunrise. We took something from every trail and gave something back. It’s a way of respecting nature, Aunt Vicky had told me. In my Bethany box, I have flat rocks, dried stalks, pressed flowers and leaves, and a stick shaped like a slingshot. We gave back seeds we carried in our pockets, crumbs or popcorn for the birds or animals, or water from a big bottle we brought if it was one of those seasons without enough rain.
Sylvan bought our plane tickets and I put mine in the Bethany box next to my passport. He gave our dishes to Gillian and Arthur who live next door, told them they could have our pots and pans and toaster too. The rest he carried to the dumpster, old boots and a plastic salad spinner. We took the mugs with faces on them, and forks and spoons. Sylvan went to the library to find a place to rent in a town called Shannon, near the airport. He had about two thousand dollars that he had saved before the lawyers took everything from his bank accounts. He kept it in a metal box with a lock on it and he wouldn’t even show me where he kept the key. Aunt Vicky’s money was in a money belt under my tee shirt.
This will be enough to start over if you need it. Don’t forget to leave something and take something. When I asked her about Las Vegas, she told me about Billy Cronin and Mitch Mitchell, the blackjack table and chocolate martinis rimmed with powdered sugar. We were silly women, Bethie. Silly, silly women. When they won the jackpot, Aunt Vicky already knew about the cancer. You can’t buy time, Bethie but you can buy chances.
I’d already found a town called Tralee that I picked because it sounded like a song. They have a Rose of Tralee festival. It’s eighty-one miles from Shannon airport but they use kilometers in Ireland. There’s a harbor and boats and it’s in a county called Kerry. My rental is on Wild Atlantic Way and I tell Aunt Vicky about it even though she can’t hear me anymore. From the pictures I saw on the library computer, I’ll be able to see the ocean from my kitchen table.
Sylvan said we’re definitely staying in Shannon because it’s convenient and near the airport. Because we’re only pretend married, my bank accounts aren’t mixed up with his and Aunt Vicky told me not to share about the money. A woman needs to be independent, Bethie. When we deposited her winnings, I got a blue plastic card with my name on it to take out money when I wanted a pair of shoes or a grilled cheese at the diner. She showed me how to use an ATM machine with a password I picked because it was her birthday. I pat the wad of cash next to my stomach. Flying was like being in another world, Aunt Vicky told me, kind of like that time we laid on our backs on the moss and looked up at a sky so blue, it made my eyes water.
We didn’t have a car anymore so Sylvan took the bus to work. It stopped down the street and smelled like diesel fuel. He carried a little cloth briefcase stuffed with papers and his laptop, wore a gray suit or blue suit with a yellow shirt or white shirt. Every day except Saturday and Sunday. Sylvan said he liked selling insurance because he was helping people pretend they could protect their future. Sylvan said it didn’t work out for us. Sylvan said insurance is for fools who think that companies are going to pay when something bad happens. He had car insurance but not the million-dollar kind, just the kind most people get. Sylvan said life insurance only pays out when you’re dead so what’s the use of that? Aunt Vicky had life insurance and now it’s in a trust that I can have whenever I want it. Because of Vegas, I don’t need it. Sylvan said that Aunt Vicky was dumb about money because she rented instead of buying and the rent kept going up.
The ring he gave me was a peridot set in sterling silver, not an emerald set in white gold. Aunt Vicky told me that was a sign of how cheap he was, he wouldn’t even spring for a precious stone set in gold even though he had money then. I liked it anyway because green beams bounced off the walls when I was washing dishes.
When the policemen came to the door, I was in the bathroom adjusting my money belt.
What you say can be used against you in a court of law.
From the bathroom window, I saw the officers putting Sylvan in the back seat of the police car. Sylvan wasn’t supposed to go out of the country but those jerks can’t make me stay here and give everything to the dead kid’s family. Aunt Vicky said you can add to the problems of the world or you can subtract from them. She said Sylvan did something very wrong. I was holding her hand and the room smelled like Lysol and balsam from the two sachets I put by her bed so she could pretend she was in the forest.
Before my cab pulled up, I moved the whistle to my pocket though I know I’ll have to put it in the plastic bin. Aunt Vicky told me about taking off my shoes and belt and walking through a door with x-rays that can see if I’ve hidden anything. Money is okay because it doesn’t set off the alarms. I leave my phone on the table along with two month’s rent. Our landlord has kids and they need sneakers and lunch money. My phone vibrates. When it quiets, I delete everything like Sylvan showed me.
I don’t know much about the law but I do know that red lights are for stopping, and the children matter maybe more than adults because they have more years ahead of them. I don’t think I’ll have one. Aunt Vicky lost a child once. She was engaged to the father but she broke it off when the baby got born before it was even a baby. Aunt Earla told her it was nature’s way. Aunt Vicky said she cried so many tears; she needed a bath towel to sop them up. Then she had no more tears and went to Las Vegas to play blackjack and watch the performers in their shiny suits and dresses. But you’ll have a dear baby one day, Bethie. A dear, dear baby that you’ll sing to and love.
In my second life, I will wear a wool cardigan and call it a jumper. I’ll learn to drive because I’m careful and obey signs and lights. Aunt Vicky said that Sylvan was an angry man who didn’t like women. Sylvan said Aunt Vicky needed a real man but I think Aunt Vicky was okay just dreaming about Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cronin. She didn’t want another baby to grow inside her.
The cab isn’t yellow but blue. Gillian and Arthur are at the window watching the driver lift my rolling luggage into the trunk. The cab driver wears a hat so I know he’s a real driver.
“Which airline you flying, Miss?”
We pull in behind the other cabs and shuttles and I pay him out of the money I put in my pocket. A family pushes ahead of me in line, children with small rolling bags. They are laughing, one cuddling a stuffed rabbit and the other clutching a Lego truck.
The seat by the window was supposed to be for Sylvan. I push my backpack under the seat in front of me. There is no one next to me because Sylvan is in a holding cell somewhere or at least that’s what they do on television when they apprehend a criminal. They called his name three times over a loudspeaker. I look out the little window with its pull-down plastic shade. Two men and a woman are loading the luggage into the bottom of the plane. It’s a dirty day, the kind Aunt Vicky called dismal. The sky looks like a puddle. I hope it doesn’t rain because I want to see us lift up into the sky. There are clanks before they announce Flight Attendants prepare for takeoff and Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened and your tray table stowed.
I watch the lifejacket and oxygen mask demonstrations as the engines roar and we roll down the runway. People and trucks begin to look smaller and smaller until I can’t see them at all, and then the cloud wisps and puddle of the sky disappear and there’s nothing but blue—dish detergent blue, bluebell blue. We’re in the blue and it’s on both sides of the plane. I twist off the peridot ring, drop it in the little pocket with magazines and exit instructions, close my eyes. When I open them we’re sailing in clouds and everything is fluffy and fresh. I order a Coke that I don’t have to pay for and unwrap tin foil chicken in a rosy sauce. On a screen in front of me, a tiny plane moves along a curved orange line that ends at a green dot called Ireland.