Typically, my neighbor’s dogs snarl at me (anyone really), snapping and snarling like I mean to hop over the fence and barbecue them.
This morning they hang back, eyes trained on the low bushes maybe about four feet from where I stand. They can’t see the pale mound of flesh glistening in dawn’s chill, but they can smell it.
Hung-over college kid? Our house is too far from the college campus for that. A drifter? But who’d take the trouble of finding this town to wander through? My mind drifts to a few less savory possibilities: otherwise incapacitated robber, rapist, killer? Future denizen of the neighboring maximum-security prison, perhaps?
Half a million questions ricochet off the walls of my mind, but when I reach the mound they all fall away like ash. Before me lies the next thing to a corpse. Dried blood crusts over several purple bruises. A few strands of matted black hair cling to what might be, beneath all the wreckage, a handsome face. Or, might have been a handsome face.
A slick whisper against dewy, emerald grass, the gate whines across the yard. Maybe my neighbors found the body first and already called the police. Ash-colored suit, slung-low fedora—this man striding across the lawn doesn’t look anything like a cop to me. My lungs swell, ready to scream.
“Olivija,” his voice rasps through the breaking darkness.
I know that voice. But it isn’t until the wind picks up—until I smell him—that I recognize who he is. Raw cedar swirls with heavy sandalwood. I have not seen this man in over a decade. When last I saw him, I stood in line, a sniveling kid watching his coffin get lowered into the ground.
Sweeping past me, he whips off a glove and feels for the man’s pulse, two fingers lingering over a tattoo on the man’s wrist.
“Good,” he straightens. “I can’t have this kid dying on my grounds.”
I have no words.
Eyes still obscured by the shadows of his hat, the man cups my chestnut cheek in a callused palm. “How you’ve grown,” his voice threads between awe and grief.
When he speaks again, his tone has returned to its former calculation. “I need you to take this man into the house, Olivija.” For the first time he wrests his gaze from my face, lets it wander to the top floor of the house behind. Through the layers of wood and brick, he finds her. “Don't tell your mother. Not about any of this. Not yet.”
He’s already half way across the yard to disappear the way he came before I remember to exhale.
“I’ll call you with further instructions. Keep this quiet, my little Olive. Ice cream when I get back? Strawberry.”
The gate groans. An engine growls.
I’m seven again. Haven’t gotten the training wheels off of my bike—blue and yellow, of course. “Ice cream when I get back,” he ruffles tightly wound curls. “Strawberry.”
For a little while I ride after him down the street, ever unable to catch up, not knowing I’d never see him again…until today.
The young man’s body broiling the grass where he lies, the warm tingle against my cheek, the lingering imprint on my shoulder, all tell me this is no hallucination. Take this man into the house, he said.
I remember watching my dad and my grandfather do this every so often. I remember them bringing strangers at varying pit stops between life and death into our house. I remember once or twice hearing my mother yelling behind closed doors, sheets of wood muffling her words. I remember kneeling steeped in darkness with my nose pressed up against the banister, straining to see, to listen. I remember the distinct sense, even then, that I witnessed something that I should not have known.
I haul the stranger into the white, colonial house. Unload him on my bed. No one hears. No one sees. No one notices.
A sudden muscle spasm, I realize, is just my phone vibrating against my thigh. For a moment I stare at the unknown number. “Hello?”
“Where is he now?” my father asks. Ambient noise in the background says he’s driving and fast.
“In my room,” I reply. “With me.” I want to ask what’s going on, but somehow, you’re supposed to be dead just doesn’t have the right ring to it.
“Your mother and sisters, where are they?”
I nudge a stack of books out of my way to pull the velvet gray curtains over the sheer white ones. “Getting ready to leave. Where are you?”
“Get to school. Quickly.”
I blink into the open space. “What?”
“Your mother will get suspicious if she sees your car.”
“I just leave this guy here?”
“Yes. He won’t be on his feet anytime soon.”
“I don’t think he’ll be back on his feet at all if he doesn’t get help right now. Mom can help him…”
“No. You weren’t supposed to… Your mother cannot know that I’m alive. Not yet. When school’s over, come back to the house and wait for my call.” His voice fades, but I hear him say. “Get me a runner.”
“Should I tell them it’s The Alchemist?” Someone else is with him.
“No. Just a chemist…” Click. Silence.
Upstairs, Mom yells for the girls to hurry it up. Eight o’clock. Now I am late for school. Lateness today is negligible. I take one last sweep of the room. Warping wood struggling to inhale, barely, the man’s chest creaks. If he’s dead by the time I get back, that’ll be some real irony for you.
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