Marigolds

By Gregory J. Wolos


Sol knelt at the edge of his garden contemplating the grub that lay on his palm, so plump he could pop it in his mouth; it would burst against his palate like a grape. He tossed it aside. What would his mother, gone for decades, have thought of that? Ma hated “vermin”—anything smaller than a cat. Rodents and bugs terrified her, but the invisible attack of “germs” did her in. In her last years she withdrew to her bed, distrusting her own flesh. The visiting nurse removed Mama’s gauze mask before reporting that she had passed “peacefully.”

Sol would never eat a grub, but imagined the flick of his tongue, the warm, soft marble rolling in his mouth. Look how the senses were linked to his memory—a grub craving brought back his mother. But if a bug were so stimulating, what about his marigolds? The flowers’ golden heads bordered his garden, and Sol patted the half dozen in reach, then sniffed his fingers. The sweet scent, his gardening magazine said, kept out pests. In the pictures, the bloom burst like anti-aircraft fire: and for a moment he floated off to the other plot he’d surrounded with marigolds. Sol’s mother rested safe, he hoped, from contamination. Beside her tombstone was another, his daughter Emily’s. Hadn’t he been headed here since the first imagined lick?



Sol bent to the nearest marigold and inhaled deeply.



Ten springs past their oaks had been invaded by tent caterpillars. They spilled from their lacy nests, to Emily’s delight. Before her death, she’d had a final bloom. She flushed with each heartbeat, it seemed to Sol. Her dark eyes were huge, her lips too red, her smile too wide. She begged Sol to gather the caterpillars as they crawled hungrily up her arms. “No leaves here,” she said as they reached her fingers, and Sol looked away.

“Hey Daddy,” she called. Emily shimmered through his wet lashes. Sitting cross-legged beneath an oak, she wore a caterpillar under nose. She shut her eyes as it drooped over her lips. Her lids were purple. Her black hair hung to the grass when she tilted her face to the sun. “Heil Hitler!” she said, saluting stiffly. Sol’s grin hurt his cheeks. The caterpillar reared and dropped into her lap.



“Damned cutworms,” Sol muttered from his knees. His wife stood on the other side of the garden. She hugged herself against the morning cool. Had it really been ten years—ten gardens? “Half the lettuce’ll be gone before it’s ready to pick. Don’t we qualify for a government subsidy if we don’t grow anything? Maybe we can just raise grubs and sell them as house pets.” But he was still thinking of the cemetery plot ringed by marigolds and the pair of tombstones they guarded.

Lena wouldn’t have left the house unless she had something to tell him. She wasn’t exactly agoraphobic. She preferred the house, was all. She looked out of place wincing in the sun. She lifted a hand to shade her eyes, but Sol pictured her as he always saw her: bent over the stove or kitchen sink or the dinner table, listening to details of his day at the bank, or watching television, its changing light reflected in her glasses.

Dutifully, she’d accompanied Sol to the cemetery for a few months after Emily’s burial, but never left the car. If they’d discussed the end of her visits, Sol couldn’t remember. Mourning was personal. The plot was where he expressed his devotion. Lena must have found her own way to grieve.

Lena’s eyes were hidden by the shadow of her hand. “The boy is coming this afternoon,” she said, and smiled.



*******


An hour later, after showering, Sol paused with a sock in his hand. The boy—Jeffrey. Lena’s enthusiasm had made it impossible to forget, but he was unprepared nevertheless. It had started with a Lifetime movie. He’d fallen asleep with his book on his chest. Lena woke him. She picked up his book and marked his page, speaking quickly with a rhythm he hadn’t heard in a long time. A foster child? Such a foreign idea. Why had he agreed? Had Lena’s excitement exhausted him? It seemed too unreal.

And now Jeffrey was a fact. Sol scooped his toes into his second sock. His toenails needed a trim. Badly. If he were barefoot at the beach he could hide them in the sand, but he’d be embarrassed for Lena to see them in this condition. Lately his feet seemed far away. His toenail rasped the fabric. Was this age? Was it starting from his feet, as if he’d abandoned himself to the earth, and would it rise cell by cell up his legs, through his stomach and chest, his arms, all becoming as remote as his toes, until his humiliated head refused to acknowledge the rest of his body? Funny thought.

Jeffrey. Sol remembered Ms. Sokol from the Department of Social Services. Behind thick glasses, long lashes fanned her blue eyes. He scratched his shin—flakes of dead skin sifted onto his sock. So dry rot had begun—he thought of his mother and her terror, and then of his daughter, dripping with caterpillars as she grasped at bits of life.

“The danger lies,” Ms. Sokol had said, “in growing too close to a foster child. That would be misleading and unfair to him. The responsibility of the foster parent is to provide an appropriate and natural home environment. Often the child is awaiting adoption. In many cases, as with Jeffrey, the child’s home situation has become untenable, and the courts have ordered that he or she be removed from that environment. What’s important to remember is that yours will be a transitional, not a permanent, home for the child. So what you’re really being asked to do is provide a nurturing situation without establishing an overwhelming emotional bond.” She had taken off her glasses, which Sol was shocked to see had reduced the size of the eyes that now flooded her face. You could drown in them! “Frankly, Mr. and Mrs. Warren, this ideal is almost impossible to achieve. One would think that a nurturing home environment would be based on love, wouldn’t one?”

They nodded. Ms. Sokol replaced the glasses, stemming the tide. “The successful foster parent finds an appropriate balance. We at D.S.S. hope that every experience will be a happy one. Thus, the lengthy and somewhat painstaking procedures involved in ascertaining that the foster situation will meet certain standards—” She shed the glasses again, and they spread like the wings of a butterfly; it threatened to fly from Ms. Sokol’s face into Sol’s, and he lifted his arm to swat it away.

“Yes,” she asked, “question?” He really hadn’t one, but while Sol watched her resettle the glasses and tuck the wings away with her little finger, he asked if she thought his wife and he were qualified. “ Highly qualified,” she said. “I have the highest hopes for you.”

Qualified? Lena squeezed his fingers. To do what? Withhold love—that’s what Ms. Sokol had said, hadn’t she? Or were they to love and not show it? He patted his wife’s hand. They had agreed that he would stay in the background. He had his job and his gardens. This show would be hers.

So a strange child would be living in their house: a business arrangement, like the loans Sol approved at the bank. An applicant’s numbers couldn’t lie. He trusted Ms. Sokol’s paperwork. No “overwhelming bond” would interfere with the healthy distance he meant to keep. Lena’s agenda would be less relevant than the memory of a winter’s storm he might have while weeding in his garden.



*******


But when Lena opened the front door, Sol’s palms were damp, and he rubbed them together. He would present a dry hand to shake. Ms. Sokol, masked in sunglasses, stood alone. Couldn’t Sol hear wings beating against the black lenses? Did blue powder sift onto her cheeks?

“Jeffrey’s in your backyard. I sent him back to take a look.” She lowered her voice. “A nice yard is a new experience for him. I’m sure it will do him good!”

“Oh—we have a vegetable garden,” Lena said. “Maybe he can help you out, Sol?”

The women stared at him. He felt trapped. “Sure,” he said. They waited while he shuffled off. “Why don’t I go round back and give him a little welcome. . .”



Scarecrow, Sol thought at first sight of the boy standing beside his garden. Sol had slid along the shadow of his house and looked at the boy’s back. He wore new jeans and an oversized black T-shirt. His thin arms and neck were pale, and his hair stuck up like dark straw. Sol let his heart go out to the kid—he needed some fresh air. Was he big enough for a thirteen year old?

Then the boy raised his sneakered foot over the marigolds and brushed it across a row of lettuce. Flushed out of the shadows, Sol saw the kid flick something into the garden. He turned to Sol as if he knew him, and had known he was behind him, pursed his lips and blew a streak of smoke toward his new foster dad. Sol met his gaze, then both of them looked at the garden.

“These are mostly vegetables,” Sol said without introducing himself. “We’ll have them for dinner.” Should he mention the cigarette? The phrase on the tip of his tongue was “private property.”

“I hate vegetables,” the boy said in a harsh falsetto. A cartoon voice, but Sol stumbled as he took another step forward. Their eyes pushed away from each other, like magnets of the same pole. There’d have to be some ground rules, Sol thought.

“Why would anybody want to mess around with all these fucking bugs?” The boy flapped his arms, like he was catching his balance. “You got stinking bugs all over the goddamned place.”



“It’s been so long since we’ve had children here,” Lena whispered. Jeffrey was in the den watching TV. Sol waited at the kitchen table while his wife made a sandwich, poured a glass of milk, placed two, and then a third cookie on a silver tray he hadn’t seen in years. “It’s his first day—I don’t think a little extra treat will spoil him. Sol shrugged. He hadn’t told his shimmering wife about the smoking or swearing. Maybe the kid was nervous. Maybe that was all. Maybe he would act differently with Lena. Who knew? But better to let her discover on her own what they’d welcomed into their house. Overwhelming emotional bond? If that was foster parenting’s gravest danger, he stood on pretty safe ground.

Lena left with the lunch, as excited as a schoolgirl greeting her first date.

“I’ll be in the garden,” Sol called.

Lena stopped short. “You won’t come get to know Jeffrey?”

This is not TV. I’m no actor. This is no show. It’s my house. “The boy’s got food and television. If he wants to help me in the garden when he’s done, send him out.” Ask him for a cigarette, Sol thought.

“He’s got food and television and me.” Lena said, and floated off.

TV music blared from the den, louder than Sol had ever heard it. An unfamiliar show—a cartoon? The sound changed to guns and shouting, then to ballroom music, then to grinding, screams, then an old pop tune shortened for a car commercial. . .



*******


The marigolds had failed. A large pest had invaded the garden. Plants had been uprooted. Sol found the damage at the plot’s center while searching for Jeffrey’s cigarette butt. Now he squatted over some young beans, patting the cool soil back over their roots. They would survive if the pest didn’t return. He would sprinkle pepper along the rows and stick mothballs into the earth like poisonous seeds to deter the vandal.

And Sol’s other plot? If the marigolds were impotent, then a tulip or lily might fall as easily as a bean stalk. Why not seek the brightest flowers if your goal is to ravage? He blamed himself for his misplaced faith. The thing he imagined was nearly the size of a cat, lumbering on rodent legs through the marigolds, hair plastered as if it had swum through an oil slick. It crawled with mole eyes over his mother’s heart and stopped at Emily’s stone, lifting its snout to sniff her flowers.



Sol found himself on all fours. His hand crushed a pepper plant. The air smelled like baked earth, and he was short of breath. He’d gone hatless at midday, a serious mistake. He licked his lips and looked toward the house, feeling he was being watched. But Lena wasn’t at the kitchen window. He searched the other windows, one by one, first floor, then second, den and bathrooms, bedrooms, until he forgot what he was searching for. He sat back, his focus lost. Then he caught Lena’s head in the last second floor room, Emily’s room, which was odd, because she never went in there. Neither of them did. It had been emptied of their daughter’s personals by silent mutual agreement within weeks after her death. Now it was a guest room. No leering teddy bears, no pink ribbons, no motherless dolls. There was nothing threatening in the room, but no one went in. So why now, Sol wondered. Would she want to visit the gravesite, too?

Then Sol realized that the head belonged to Jeffrey. He’d forgotten his foster child. Why hadn’t Lena put him in the other guestroom? He cringed at the thought of the stranger wrapped in sheets on his daughter’s bed. But Sol waved. If the boy had nothing to do but spy on him, Sol would meet the challenge. Coward, he thought, when his wave went unreturned. Of course it might have been the back of the boy’s head he saw. Maybe Sol was the furthest thing from Jeffrey’s thoughts.



“The room is larger,” Lena said. “The closet is empty, so Jeff has plenty of space for his things.” She seemed to slip away, then squinted at him.

“Your eyes look strained, dear. It’s too hot today, isn’t it? Didn’t you wear your hat?”

Sol had nothing to say. Lena had her own expectations. Cigarettes, foul language—what she’d learn about the boy she’d learn. Really, had there been anything so serious? Nothing criminal in the boy’s record. Some property damage, one dismissed shoplifting episode. If he really thought the boy a threat, he’d tell his wife, wouldn’t he? What he needed now was a glass of something cold.

“You rest and I’ll go up to Jeffrey,” Lena said.



*******


The cemetery plot was untouched. Flowers blossomed beneath Emily’s headstone. But for how long? Sol’s loss of faith in the marigolds had made his trip to the gravesite difficult. He worried for a week about what he might find—scattered petals, withered stems, desiccated roots clawing at the sky: he saw this devastation in spite of the fact that nothing was disturbed. Didn’t the marigolds alert the invader that something valuable lay beyond them? They were an inducement, not a protection. Sol had half a mind to uproot the marigolds himself.

What portions of routine, love, and dread had drawn him to the cemetery? As he was leaving, Lena had stopped him at the door, and it felt like rescue. Maybe she did want to join him. Maybe there was an emergency that would keep him home.

“I asked Jeff if he wanted to go for ride with you,” she said. “Just to give him a change of scenery. I thought maybe you could stop for a hamburger on the way back. You two should be spending more time together.”

Sol froze: the boy alone with him in the car; standing beside him at the grave; across a table chewing. “—but he chose to say home,” Lena had said.



Sol hadn’t exchanged a word with the boy since the first afternoon.

“You talk to him, don’t you Lena?” Sol asked. He sank into his recliner. Nothing on television held his interest. “I think he’s afraid of me.”

“Oh, I don’t think so.” Lena lay her knitting aside. When had she last knitted? “Why should he be afraid of us, after the kind of life he’s had to live?”

“But you talk to him,” Sol said. “What’s he say?”

Lena blushed as she smiled. She picked up the knitting. “Nothing at all, really—sometimes it’s not even like talking—it’s more like we’re whispering together, but not really words—” Then she giggled. “He swears, you know,” she said. “It’s his background, what else could we expect? But—I imagine that I cuss right along with him!” She kept her eyes on the points of her busy needles.

“You swear together?” Sol felt he’d been stripped of a weapon that was now being used against him. “So we’re encouraging profanity? What will social services think? I just wish he’d look me in the eye. He won’t do it. It’s unmanly. And if I’m not looking at him, I feel his eyes on me. It makes me feel like showering. I need a shower.” Sol wrung his hands and rubbed them together as if dissolving sanitizer.



*******


A month of the summer passed.

“Why doesn’t he have any friends?” Sol asked. “He’s been here for weeks, and I haven’t seen another kid in the yard!”

“He doesn’t know anybody. It’s the summer—children are away at camp or on vacation with their families. We’re all he has until school starts.

Sol pushed his plate away. Lately his appetite had deserted him. He’d always loved eating his own vegetables. “He doesn’t go outside. He’s pale as a leper.” Across the table were a full plate and an empty seat. “And what does he eat? He’s got a filthy mouth that he doesn’t fill. What’ll they think if they get him back starved?” Can’t we give him back, Sol was thinking.

“Shh—he’ll hear you,” Lena said. Sol watched her eat. Her appetite was another new thing. For years she’d only picked at her meals. But here she was, spreading butter on a roll and pushing it through the gravy. Okay, so she had a cause and had rejoined the living. Good. But shouldn’t he remind her about becoming too attached? She was setting herself up for a disappointment.

“He won’t hear a thing. He’s up in his room again. Does he spend all day in there? He does, doesn’t he?”

Lena chewed and swallowed. “He’s secure there. But now he roams, too.”

“‘Roams’?”

Lena’s potted window plants blocked Sol’s view of his garden and mocked him with their health. He had given up on his plot. “For the year,” he said, blaming the heat, his work schedule, even his age. After dinner and on weekends he reclined—in front of the TV or in bed. He’d ignored the cemetery, too, the first time because of a steady rain. After that, without an excuse. He pretended he’d sacrificed his garden to save the cemetery plot—an offering, but he knew the invader would be encouraged by his defenselessness rather than appeased. He’d abandoned both his mother and his child.

“‘Roams’?” Sol repeated. He could see the boy gliding through rooms, pausing to fumble through drawers and closets. “Where does he ‘roam’?”

“You know, around the house,” Lena said. “It makes him feel like he belongs, I think.” When, Sol wondered, had Lena grown so plump? He hadn’t noticed her breasts in years, but there they were, buoying up her crossed arms. “Soon,” she said, “He’ll realize that he needs us.”

“I don’t want him to need us!” But Lena had left the table, humming, like mothers on old sitcoms. Had he actually spoken?



*******


Sol wore gloves when he finally visited his garden. Lena had insisted on fresh vegetables for Jeffrey even though he wouldn’t eat them. The plot was severely neglected, but not otherwise disturbed: weeds, rot, and stunted growth couldn’t be blamed on a vandal. But the lack of damage didn’t mean it didn’t visit nightly to assert its claim, lording over the territory as if it were Sol in his recliner. Its shit would cover everything. Sol picked through brown and shriveled vegetables, bitterly aware that only the marigolds flourished. Returning with nothing but contaminated hands and a shrug for Lena, Sol sat in front of the television. He would try to remember to wash up before dinner.



As for the cemetery, Sol regretted that Mama would also be repulsed by the interloper. But it was too painful to think that he’d allowed the creature dominion over his daughter. Pushing the thought into the shadows exhausted him, and he sat and did nothing.



The bank president suggested Sol’s leave of absence. He had vacation time coming, no? He might have his health checked, that would be a good idea. He could relax, enjoy his gardening, recharge his batteries, spend time with Lena and the new boy. Had Sol been losing weight? Really, that checkup was in order.

So Sol took the time off. Work was serving people with demands, forms, figures, the glow of computer monitors. Dragging his arm across document after document, his signature an effort. Why bother? Who would miss him? Lena rose before him for the first time in their marriage. Bed forever? Why not. He would ignore his wife’s suggestion of “a nice family trip somewhere with Jeffrey.”



*******


Sol’s car keys were missing. He lay in bed staring at the square of blue sky the window framed. The color was so pure he wanted to fill it with thoughts of Emily, but he hadn’t the strength to pull her from the shadows. The blue was the blue of eyes. It was the blue of the wings Ms. Sokol’s glasses trapped. She had brought Jeffrey. The flying thing she’d hidden now clung to the edge of the roof, and its giant wing covered his window. It really wasn’t the sky at all.

But it couldn’t be too late. He knew where to find his daughter. He’d clean out the weeds, clip the grass, replace dead flowers, and remove all evidence of an intruder. Sol climbed out of bed. The carpet pricked the soles of his feet. Opening dresser drawers and his closet left him panting. But when he nearly fainted and saw stars, he glimpsed Emily among them, and he shuffled forward with determination.

Then he couldn’t find his keys. He checked the usual places: the hook by the back door; the mail basket on the table in the foyer. He dug around the cushion of his recliner and turned out the pockets of the pants he’d worn for the last two weeks, when he bothered dressing. He circled the house, checked the same places over and over, began to swear, “Dammit,” a tic or incantation. But soon the word was just a sound, and both meaning and feeling disappeared like a pair of turtles slipping from a log into dark water.

He passed by Jeffrey. The boy stood in front of a closet in the unused guest room, his hands clasped behind him as if they’d been cuffed. When his eyes met Sol’s, a smile opened like a wound. “Not in here” he said.

Sol moved on. His failure calmed him. He was trying, but he was the victim of fate, and surely he could be excused. Absolved. Forgiven. When Lena offered her keys, bringing to Sol’s attention “how big a help Jeffrey had been,” Sol declined.

“I need mine.” He dropped into his recliner. “I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else.” He closed his eyes. He was blameless. But the boy’s face rose before him like a scarred moon. “That boy’s into everything now, isn’t he?” he heard himself sigh.

“Yes,” Lena said. “He’s right at home here.”



*******


Lena was folding laundry, piling it on the bed beside her husband. “Would you like some breakfast?” she asked. “Do they still call it breakfast when it’s afternoon?”

Sol thought it over. He wasn’t hungry—the opposite, really. The thought of food made him sick. If he said nothing, maybe Lena would leave. But then maybe she’d bring him something on her own, something that would turn his stomach . . .

“Oh my goodness—Sol?”

She wasn’t leaving. Sol’s bones felt like cold lead.

“Sol, look at this—” Lena stood at his dresser. The top drawer was open. A black sock hung from her hand. “Look at this—” She was staring into the open end of the sock. She shook it, and it jingled. “It’s your keys! Here—” She tossed the loaded sock at Sol. It landed by his side like a little sack of gold. His keys slid half out. He stared at them. His veins carried ice to his heart. Lena bent over him and shook out the sock.

“Look at all that,” she said. “When did you do that?” She laughed. “And why? What else have you got there?”

“Have I got?” Sol covered the pile with his hand, protecting it, then peeked under his fingers and saw the keys, red ceramic earrings, a silver chain, and a wedding band.

“Those are my earrings,” Lena said. And the wedding band was Mama’s. She’d worn it on a string after arthritis had swollen her knuckles. The string was missing. The silver chain he’d chosen himself for Emily’s tenth birthday. She’d worn it on special occasions. Why was it here? Sol stirred through keys and jewelry with his stained fingers. His black nails curled like talons.

“It was the boy,” he said, and when he heard himself, he knew it was true. “Him and his roaming.” He slapped at the pile. “This is a crow’s collection—shiny things. He’s a thief!”

“Don’t be silly,” Lena said. “They only accused him of shoplifting a candy bar. But after that’s when his mother’s boyfriend beat him, ‘trying to teach him some discipline.’ Thank God he’s with us.” Her crossed arms rose and fell with her breasts when she sighed. She smiled. “And what in the world would he want with one of your socks?” She left Sol with the glittering things he was afraid to touch.



*******


Night fell and Lena joined Sol in their bed. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if the two children could have known each other?” she asked.

“What? What?” Half listening, Sol didn’t understand at first.

“I think Jeffrey’s smoking in his bedroom,” she said.

Both statements were outrageous. “Dammit!” Sol muttered, and wriggled onto his elbow. “He’s doing what in Emily’s room?

“It’s Jeff’s room, dear.” Lena’s statement was like a great stone Sol couldn’t lift. “I should have mentioned the health risk. It was a teachable moment. It’s a little thing when you think about his background. I should at least bring him an ashtray.”

The stone Sol couldn’t lift pressed him into the mattress. “It’s unhealthy,” he said.

“Maybe you should talk to him about it some time. You could tell him we’re concerned. He admires you so much.”

Admired. Of course. Sol had made himself easy to admire. It was the respect due the defeated. In the space he’d vacated, why not erect a statue to the “nobly vanquished”? Raise it next to his daughter’s grave, where the marigolds could mock him.

“I’ll talk to him now.” It was the voice of a Sol from the past, and the act of ventriloquism that made it seem his own gave Sol courage. “Why not? He’s not asleep—the light’s never off in there.” Was he dreaming? He’d tossed off his sheets and risen, cast off the impossible weight and stood at the door. Lena seemed to have shrunken under her blankets.

“Maybe he keeps it on because he’s afraid—I’m sure he’s asleep,” she said.

“What does he do all day that would tire him out? Roam? How much energy does it take to pilfer our personal things? We’ve got to tolerate smoking?” Sol rose like a balloon on a taut string. He didn’t feel his legs. “It’s all turned inside out,” he said. “I can fix that.” And he moved into the hallway.

There was a slash of light under Emily’s door. A long time ago, when it had been her door, Sol had hesitated, afraid to knock. What if she didn’t answer? But she’d be reading, of course, no matter how exhausted, refusing to lose a moment left her to sleep.

Now Sol knocked. No response. He knocked again, then opened the door and passed inside. The bright light disoriented him, and he felt himself dip. But there was the boy on the bed, brushing at the sheets with the back of a hand. He wore yellow pajamas. He looked at Sol but didn’t speak.

“Jeffrey—” Sol’s pajamas were decorated with little crowns. Maybe he should have worn his robe. The room smelled like stale smoke. He reminded himself whose bed this child was in. “Excuse me—I saw your light on, so I thought I might as well—” He cleared his throat, and the boy might have murmured something he didn’t catch. It might have been “asshole.”

Sol still floated. He wanted to sink, but couldn’t. Jeffrey’s tongue darted in and out like he was sampling Sol’s unease.

“Okay—okay, then. What I’ve got to say is, well, if you’re smoking in this room, I’m going to have to forbid it. You know,” he said, “it’s not just that we don’t like smoking in the house—even though we don’t—or that we think you’re too young—which you are. It’s not even the fact that it’s been proven, medically substantiated, that cigarette smoking will kill you—” The boy was staring at Sol’s hand, and Sol looked at it himself. His nails curled like claws. He shifted his hands behind his back and scratched himself clasping his fingers. He might either rise or sag.

“In the past, smoking, swearing, maybe that was part of your world. But not in here.” The boy rubbed his upper lip with his middle finger.

“This used to be my daughter’s room,” Sol said. “Did Lena tell you? She died, you know. When she was about your age she passed away right there, right in that bed you’re lying on.” Sol longed to sit on the bed. Could he put his arm around this boy, comfort him, draw comfort from him? “Emily,” Sol said. He reached toward Jeffrey. If they could shake hands, make a pact to start over. If Sol could just touch him . . .

“Jesus!” The boy slapped his hand, and Sol pulled it back. “Keep your dirty hands off me!” It was the voice of something cornered. “Don’t touch me, ever. You think I don’t know what you want?” He recoiled with round eyes and a frightened half-smile. “What’d she, kill herself? What’d you do to her? Stay away, I swear to God! Lena—” he called. “Lena!”

Sol sank to the floor—or just above it, because he felt nothing beneath him. “You’re stealing from me, you little bastard,” he whispered.

“She warned me—” Sol heard. “She told me to watch out—Lena!”



Sol felt her in the room. She helped him to his feet, whispered something to Jeffrey, and guided her husband back to their bed. She tucked the comforter under his chin. He was panting— how awful he smelled. Lena kissed his forehead. There were so many vile things.

“Shh, dear,” Lena soothed. Her voice was as sweet as flowers. “You’ve got to let her go, Sol,” she whispered. “Let her go.”

And he knew he would never leave his bed. A shower of petals covered him. A last golden blossom hung over his head like mistletoe. Was that why Lena had kissed him? Then the blossom dropped, and he shut his eyes but saw it anyway, a dislodged star streaking deeper and deeper into the dark, until, a prick of light, it disappeared.

 

Gregory Wolos lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. This fall and winter his stories have appeared in elimae, Tertulia Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Pif Magazine, Blood Orange Review, Forge Journal, and Used Furniture Review. He also has stories forthcoming in Underground Voices and Rose & Thorn Journal. Recently, his short fiction has been recognized as a Finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award for a book length collection. His story “Interstate Nocturne” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editor of Tertulia Magazine.

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