Justin Overton opened his eyes and squinted at the white glare of morning. Even with the curtains as filters, it was too bright. He threw back the covers and swung his long legs onto the floor, wiggling his toes. They cracked and popped with disuse. Blinking, he thrust out his hands, warming them against the electric heater next to his bed. He figured the weatherman was right. It would be 30 degrees for the day, a chill factor of 20 degrees below that. 6:30 am. The day had the washed-out quality of most winter days in the northwest, a bleak white sky pressing down on a gray-black landscape, void of life and color. Mother banged on his bedroom door. This was her morning habit. Justin could hear her shifting from foot to foot in her old lady house shoes, impatient for him to answer. “Justin! Justin! Get up! You’ll be late for work.” She banged one last time and shuffled down the hall towards her own bedroom. It was a ritual they kept, grown son and aging mother. She would retire to her room until he’d finished dressing for work, then she’d join him in the kitchen for another cup of coffee while he ate his oatmeal and drank a large glass of orange juice. Justin stared out the window, purposefully wasting five extra minutes. He didn’t like to be late, but he needed a moment to clear his head. He’d had terrible dreams all night. Instinctively, Justin reached behind him, beneath the pillows, but withdrew his hand immediately, as if burned. His face wrinkled and he found himself on the verge of tears. Shaking the feeling away, he threw himself out of bed.
“Xena is coming by tonight for dinner with that bratty kid of hers,” Mother said, rinsing out her coffee cup at the kitchen sink. “She thinks I give a shit if she skips one day coming over here with Zero. Fuck!” At the stove, Justin spooned the oatmeal from a pot into a large bowl. He went to the table, ignoring the milk and sugar Mother always sat out for him. As a child, he suffered under small mountains of sugar heaped on his cereal, a confection Mother loved more than life itself. Justin had never liked sweets. Or milk. As an adult, he could decide not to have either on his oatmeal if he wanted. Sitting down, he huddled over his breakfast, a vague attempt to shut out Mother’s aimless chatter. “Sometimes, I wish she would just stay the fuck away. I get tired of the obligatory visits she makes. Like someone’s twisting her fucking arm. I’m no charity case, especially for your sister.” Justin heard her pouring another cup of coffee, heard her spooning sugar into it. He sighed into his oatmeal. 7:45 am. “It’s bad enough that Zero is always over anyway with her hand out. You’d think she lived here. I can’t open my front door without her and her big head being on my front porch. ‘Hi, grandma!’ she says! Ha!”
Though she was ranting, her voice gravelly from cigarettes and sleep, there was a hint of gentleness when his mother spoke of her granddaughter. “Shit, I thought I heard her and Zero last night after I went to bed. Did they come by?”
Justin looked up from his oatmeal briefly. “No.”
Mother sat down across from him, wrinkling her nose. “Shit, they’re over here so goddamn much, must be hearing them in my fucking dreams!”
They sat at the kitchen table together, silent. Justin knew she was looking at him. Mother did that from time to time, her gaze resting on him with unsettling intensity. Her eyes would go squinty, lips curled in a near-smile, a borderline sneer. He didn’t ask her why she looked at him anymore. The last time he did, her answer was none too nice. With Mother, he’d learned over the years, it was best to just listen, never ask questions and most certainly, don’t interrupt.
“You’re a good boy,” she cooed, suddenly, and Justin’s skin jumped up in gooseflesh. He thought of his bed again, of that singular comfort against all that was harsh and uncompromising outside its warm sheets and blankets. 7:49 am. Mother reached over and touched his arm. Justin froze, oatmeal plopping from his spoon back into the bowl he cradled in his hands. The sound was wet and heavy in the dim kitchen. A long moment passed, and then Mother removed her hand. “You better get on to work. You’re gonna be late.” She pushed her chair back and stood up, leaving her cup on the table. Justin looked at it as Mother shuffled out of the room. When he heard her bedroom door shut upstairs, he got up, placed his bowl in the sink, and left the kitchen.
Justin braced himself against the chill in the air. It seeped through his coat, even his thermals. He wasn’t yet an old man, had just entered his thirties, but he could feel the cold in his bones more and more with each successive winter. He passed Mrs. Gruber, the old widow from next door. She was struggling to scrape what seemed like an avalanche of snow from the hood of her car. She sniffed loudly, stopping to honk her red nose into a soggy-looking handkerchief. Mrs. Gruber looked up as Justin passed and waved her small shovel at him wildly. He wasn’t sure if she was motioning him over or just waving hello. Justin waved back but did not stop.
When Justin reached the post office, he busied himself in the break room, filled with other postal workers, drinking coffee, some shifts ending, others beginning. One of the workers, Ted Lowery, offered Justin the rest of his pastry, but Justin declined. He told Ted he didn’t like sweets. “Suit yourself, man,” Ted said, shrugging, and tossed the pastry in the trashcan next to Justin.
The day was busy, uneventful, typical. Justin liked the routine of it. He dry-mopped the floors in between customers, sighing heavily when they scuffed the floors with their hard-soled shoes or slid cardboard boxes across the linoleum. One man, dressed in an expensive camel hair coat, actually spit on the floor after clearing his throat loudly. Justin stared at him as he approached the counter. The man bought one stamp, licked it, placed it on a long slender envelope and handed it to the clerk, Vivian Lee. Vivian took the letter between her forefinger and thumb as if it were dipped in something unpleasant, and smiled insincerely at the man.
“Thank you, sir. Will there be anything else for you today?” she said pleasantly enough. Justin liked Vivian. She was a short Asian woman whose husband and two daughters died in a house-fire three years prior. She’d been working at the post office for nearly twenty years and was always kind to Justin in a gruff, non-verbal way. As the man left the growing line, Vivian cast Justin a sideways glance, a wink implied but not given. Justin nodded to her and began to mop up the man’s spit.
“Hey, Justin.” Justin looked up from his lunch of bologna and cheese. “Hello, Daisy.” Daisy Collins was new at the post office, new in town, and young. Too young to be pregnant, so pregnant that her stomach poked out in front of her as if she’d swallowed the largest watermelon in history. Too young to be married to that jerk Tommy Collins, one of Justin’s childhood nemeses. Tommy did a work stint outside of town earlier that year, working with a logging company somewhere upstate. While there, he met and married Daisy, who moved back to town with Tommy when his job was up and was most certainly paying for that bit of romantic whimsy. She was also too new at the post office to know that Justin was not necessarily an official post office employee. He was the part-time janitor, given the job as a favor to Xena. His sister was dating the postmaster, Jerry Peters. Justin liked Jerry and hoped that he wouldn’t be like the other men his sister dated. Jerry apparently cared for Xena, and took instantly to Zero, though Zero’s feelings about Jerry were still a mystery. Xena had dated plenty of dangerous types since her teens. The most illustrious one was Zero’s father, Malcolm, who was doing a lengthy stint in the penitentiary for drug trafficking and attempted murder. Perhaps Jerry with his neat bow ties would be better to Xena than the rest had been. Justin wanted nothing more than for his sister to be happy. She was by far the most important person in the world to him. Next to Daisy, but he wouldn’t tell her that. Daisy was much too young and pretty for him to admit something like that aloud. She was golden-skinned and wore her hair natural, often in big puffy ponytails on either side of her head, making her look like a much younger girl. He liked her hair in that style. Her ponytails looked like two large black cotton balls on either side of her head. He also liked that she always smiled and she shared lunch with him, when their shifts coincided.
Daisy sat down in the chair beside him, opening her brown paper bag.
Justin pointed at her arm. “What happened?” Daisy grimaced, looking at her forearm. There was a dark purple bruise circling the flesh, reaching around her arm like a wide bracelet. She flapped the arm up and down. “Oh, nothing. Just got out of bed wrong,” she said, dismissively, pulling out a thin sandwich from her bag. She opened the foil encasing it and took a huge, lackluster bite from it. Turning back to his lunch, Justin saw two other postal workers glance their way, two women. Daisy nodded and waved at them. They waved back, one with her bag of chips. Justin heard them murmur something and burst into hysterical laughter. Daisy seemed engrossed in her sandwich and didn’t notice. “I was thinking,” Daisy said, tearing the crust from her sandwich. “I was thinking about taking a trip up north to see my folks. I wondered if you wanted to go with me.” Justin almost choked on the bite of sandwich he’d just taken. “Oh, wow! Are you okay?” she asked, clamping him on the back, laughing, Justin nodded, still coughing. When his throat stopped trying to gag, he looked at her, eyes watering. “What about Tommy? Shouldn’t he go with you?” Daisy blew air between her lips sharply. “Tommy,” she said in a nasty tone uncharacteristic of her. “I don’t care what he does anymore. I’m about as sick of him as I could ever be.” She bit into her sandwich again, covering her mouth as she chewed. “So you wanna go with me?” Justin thought about how he would explain the trip to his mother and Xena. “I better not,” he said, quietly. “Why not? We’d only be gone for a weekend, I promise. I’m asking because you’re the only other person I know in town besides Tommy and his stupid family and none of them will drive me.” She chewed her bite of sandwich slowly, looking across at the two women as they got up and left their table. “I wish I learned how to drive, but I’m afraid to. Don’t know why. Just never had the knack or the desire, I guess.” Justin thought that was the silliest thing, being afraid of driving, but he wouldn’t say that to Daisy. He himself didn’t drive but he knew how, had a driver’s license. His mother didn’t trust him with the car unless she was there beside him, but his sister had let him drive her car several times, to pick up Zero from school, run quick errands for her.
To Justin, it was fitting that driving might scare Daisy. She was a small thing, naïve and trusting; anything might frighten a girl like her. But he felt she could be tough, too. Planning this trip alone to see her family, risking Tommy’s ire, asking someone she barely knew from work to go with her.
As if she knew what he was thinking, Daisy said, “Besides, you’re my friend, my only friend here, really. Who else would I want to go with me?” Justin thought about it. Daisy was friendly, but she had a hard time making friends with the other postal workers. It might have had something to do with a woman who worked with the huge letter sorting machines, Beverly Washington. When Daisy came on at the post office, Vivian told Justin the rumor was that Beverly and Tommy were engaging in carnal activity behind Daisy’s back. Whether it was true or not, Beverly had apparently gotten many of the long-timers on her side, a turn of events Vivian couldn’t understand. To her, Beverly was just a busybody, a slut and, worse, notoriously lazy. Vivian hated lazy people almost as much as she hated rude people. She was nice to Daisy and made a point of being especially nice to her in front of Beverly and her crew. On one occasion as Justin stood outside the break room smoking a cigarette, he heard Vivian call loudly to Daisy, “Come here, girl, and sit beside me. You’re much too pregnant to be sitting alone.” Justin didn’t know why being pregnant made sitting alone worse than being pregnant and sitting with a crowd, but it had the necessary effect on Beverly and her gang. Moments later, they brushed pass him on their way out of the break room. Justin stuck his head inside, just a little, and saw Vivian offering Daisy an apple from her lunch, to which Daisy said, “Thanks, but I’m allergic.” “So, how ‘bout it?” Daisy asked him, looking at him openly. Justin thought again about his mother, then past her to his room, to the sweet lure of his comfortable bed. How he loved the weekends, especially Saturdays. He could sleep in as late as he wanted. Mother didn’t disturb him on the weekends, out of courtesy or just indifference, he didn’t know. She didn’t have much use for him normally, unless it was to make sure he went to work. Mother liked the extra income he offered to pay for being able to stay in his childhood bedroom. It was his safe haven, his cave of comfort. Inside it, he felt insulated against the petty meanness and false sincerity of the outside world.
Saturdays were a welcome respite from that world. Justin was solitary by choice since he was a young boy, and had no real friends, at least none close enough to have over to the house. In any case, Mother was adverse to strangers in and out of her home.
His Saturday mornings were long and quiet, huddled in his room, reading, listening to his mother’s daily rituals, hearing the town wake up sluggishly outside his window. The afternoons would be most likely spent entertaining Zero in the yard, if the weather was good. More and more, he spent Saturdays on his own. Now that Zero was older, she had girlfriends to do things with, which was fine with Justin as he most preferred his solitude.
Even still, he felt a strong tie to the town of his birth, with its magical yet grueling winters, its pleasant and renewing springs. He had lived here his entire life, gone to school with several of the folks who were now running things. He wondered if he could stand to be away from town for longer than a night, much less a whole weekend. “I don’t think so, Daisy,” he said slowly. “I don’t want Tommy mad at me.” “Who cares what Tommy thinks?” Daisy cried suddenly, tossing her half-eaten sandwich on the table. “I’m sick of everyone judging me according to what he does and says! I’m sick of everyone giving me that pitiful ‘poor Daisy’ look while every last one of them are doing everything to make my life miserable! You know that bastard is sleeping around on me? Me! While I’m as big as a house! I can’t believe he would do this to me! He promised he wouldn’t! ‘Never, baby,’ he said! Asshole!” Justin was unprepared for her outburst and sat quietly. He snuck a look at the side of her face. Her profile was uniquely fine to him. Her nose was strangely flat, and her chin was sharp and pointed. Her forehead was flat as well and when facing him, it was broad, smooth and flawless. He liked the way she looked, her clear brown skin, unlined and soft looking. Her unusual features still bore signs of the mischievous young girl she once had been, not many years ago, and Justin liked that about her. Her most distinct quality was looking fresh and unsullied, despite a terrible marriage and an obviously uncomfortable pregnancy. “You aren’t ugly, Daisy. You’re beautiful. All pregnant women are beautiful.” Daisy looked at Justin and then at her unfinished sandwich, lying on the table. “Justin, you’re sweet, but I know that’s not true. I’m breaking out like crazy, my body feels like it’s going to explode, and I’m so nauseous all the time. Just looking at that now,”—she nodded at her sandwich—“makes me wanna yurk.” Justin liked the way she talked sometimes, as if she was making up words on the fly. She’d said “yurk” tons of times in reference to various things that made her nauseous, and as much as Justin longed to use the word himself, he never had the opportunity. “I’m sure while Tommy’s out fucking that Washington bitch, he’s thinking about how beautiful his pregnant pimple-ridden hurling wife is.” Justin was startled that Daisy knew about the Beverly-and-Tommy rumor, but he hid it well. The news alone made him like her more, respect her in a way he hadn’t before. A sweet and agreeable girl, Daisy wasn’t anyone’s fool, to be sure. Musing, Justin saw a picture of her in his head, face buried beneath the rim of the toilet, down on her pretty knees, belly grazing the floor through a pretty, white cotton gown, vomiting violently. Strangely, it wasn’t an off-putting image to him.
“Your skin is fine, Daisy. And Tommy has always been stupid,” he said.
Daisy waved away the compliment and looked at him a long time. Slowly, the smile she’d given him before she sat down, the smile she had for him most days, returned. “Really?” she asked, not because she didn’t believe it, but because she seemed starved for someone to be in her corner for once. “He’s pretty dumb, right?” “Yeah,” Justin said. “It’s a widely known secret that he flunked the third grade twice.” Daisy laughed aloud, trying to cover her mouth. She rocked back in her chair and rolled her eyes up at the ceiling. “How funny! If that’s true, that’s too funny!” Justin didn’t know if it was or not, but he nodded. “Yep, it’s true.”
Justin walked out of the post office’s front glass doors, having clocked out for the day. He looked up at the late afternoon sky, turning a pale orange in the west as the sun went down. The sunset gave a reddish-orange cast to the snow stubbornly clinging to the sidewalks, trees, buildings and streets in heavy frozen mounds. He started homeward, squinting into a dimming sun burned the day away behind a cover of thick gray clouds. “Justin,” Xena called to him, getting out of her ancient blue Oldsmobile. She sounded out of breath. “Hey, Xena,” Justin said. So focused on the sky, he hadn’t noticed her car parked in front of the post office. He stopped to wait for her to catch up to him. Xena was dressed in her office attire and no coat. “Hey, it’s cold out here. Let’s get your coat.” “Oh,” she said, distractedly. “I drove over her as fast as I could…I didn’t want to miss you…” Justin took his sister by the shoulders, frowning. “Xena, are you all right?” “Have you seen Zero?” she asked. “She wasn’t in school today. Her teachers called the house but they didn’t call me at work. Said they didn’t have my number on file. Like I don’t work five minutes away from her school! This goddamn town!” She looked around, expectantly, as if Zero would materialize on the sidewalk beside them. “No, Xena, I haven’t seen her.” “That little hussy! She’s only ten and she’s sneaking out of the house at night! I didn’t think anything of her not being at breakfast this morning. Hell, I’m usually long gone before she goes to school anyway. But she didn’t come home from school, and there was that message from the principal’s office. She never showed up today, Justin!” Xena was shivering from the cold but she didn’t notice it. Her eyes were restlessly scanning the streets around her. “Shit, I don’t know how long she’s been gone. Last night, this morning. I just don’t know.” She burst into tears. Justin took his sister in his arms and held her. “She’ll turn up, Xena. She’s bound to. Maybe she’s at a friend’s house.” “Amanda and Tina, those sisters she hangs out with, said they haven’t seen her since yesterday. If she went anywhere, she’d be there. Or Mother’s.” Zero, Xena’s only daughter, was christened Rachel Michelle but was so nicknamed because it was her first word. No one knew where she picked it up. Practically everyone who knew Zero, especially her grandmother, cherished her. In that adoration, Zero quickly grew into a loving and friendly toddler, and then, subsequently, into a flighty, often surly, insensitive young child, wheedling favors and money from her family and many others about town. Xena, the worse of the group, had spoiled the girl senselessly from birth and was now paying for it. Zero was a non-stop dervish of unruly behavior. Justin thought she might get worse as she raced, high-spirited and sullen, into her teenaged years. Luckily, that was mostly Xena’s cross to bear.
“I’m so worried,” Xena said, wearily. She sounded tired and angry, but mostly tired. “Here I am in the streets looking for that little bitch! Oh, God, where can she be?” She began to cry anew, but silently.
“I’ll help you look for her if you want,” Justin offered. He hated to see Xena upset, hated when she cried. As a young girl, she had always seemed so strong.
As children, Xena bore the brunt of their mother’s anger, a regular occurrence for a single mother of two, living in poverty. And when the other kids beat Justin up and called him a weirdo or retarded, Xena was there, ready to fight for him. Granted, that earned him more beatings and taunting, but Justin never blamed Xena. Now, that they were adults, it seemed all that strength had evaporated from her. Xena was a shadow of her girlhood self, prone to bad relationships and less-than jobs. Justin always feared that she would grow up and leave town, leaving him behind, but she never did. She’d taken up with Malcolm Winters, who she met at the community college, and gotten pregnant with Zero soon after. She dropped out of community college, got a job as a secretary, eventually becoming office manager, at the only dentist office in town. She settled down to focus on raising her new baby. The relationship broke up shortly after Zero arrived, mainly due to Malcolm getting pinched by the cops. Xena met her next boyfriend, Wade “Poo” Mayfield, not long after. He was a thug who also sold drugs and immediately began to beat her. Xena stayed with Wade until undercover DEA agents arrested him during a drug deal.
Edging into her late thirties, Xena always had a difficult time of it, even before the deadbeat boyfriends. Raising a younger brother under the tyranny of an abusive mother was no small feat. Justin wondered if Zero was the defining moment of Xena’s life—the moment she looked long and hard in the mirror at what she was becoming, and felt helpless to change it. As it stood, Xena’s life was no better or worse in the ten years after Zero graced the world with her presence.
And Zero was indeed a cause of continuous maternal reflection. Even Justin, who doted on his niece like everyone else, thought so. His heart ached with dread for her, wherever she was.
Justin repeated his offer. “Come on, let’s go look for her together.”
“No, no, that’s fine. I just wanted to know if you’d seen her. It would make my job of chasing her down a little easier. If she’s there when you get home, tell her to get her narrow ass home immediately. She’s in a lot of trouble.”
“Okay,” Justin said but to empty air. Xena was already up the sidewalk, getting back into her car. Justin watched her drive away, the car slowly creeping up the emptying street as the sun set deeper into the black horizon, burning into the landscape on the other side of town.
When Justin arrived home, Mother was on the living room sofa, watching the news. He stomped the snow and mud from his boots at the door, pulling them off and leaving them in the foyer. “Hurry up and shut that fucking door! You’re letting the heat out!” she called to him. Justin heard the volume of the television go up, as the newscaster reported a ten-car pileup on an interstate highway miles and miles away from them. “Are you hungry? If you’re hungry, I made meat loaf.” Justin hated meat loaf generally, hated his mother’s meat loaf specifically. “Maybe later. I might need to help Xena look for Zero.” “Zero?” Justin heard his mother turn off the television. He started for the stairs and was halfway up them when she came into the foyer. “Where’s she at that somebody’s gotta look for her?” Justin stopped mid-step and turned around. “Xena said somewhere between last night and this evening, she’s gone missing.” Mother guffawed. “Shit, that girl was made to be in the streets. She probably ditched school and holed up with some boy somewhere.” Justin frowned, but at the wall over his mother’s head. “Zero doesn’t have a boyfriend.” Mother stopped laughing, long enough to say, “I didn’t say she had a boyfriend, did I? Besides, how would you know? You’re her uncle. Like she’s gonna tell you!” She laughed again, going back into the living room. A moment later, Justin heard the television turn on. The weatherman was on now, reporting more snow for the coming days.
Justin had the same nightmare that night. He couldn’t remember all of it, only running, running and screaming. He didn’t know what was chasing him, didn’t want to know. He woke in a cool sweat though his electric heater made his bedroom quite warm. He sat up and rubbed his brow, looking out the bedroom window over his bed. The sky was black and starless, making the snow even more desolate and ominous to him, but that was probably the fading nightmare’s hold on him.
Justin’s fingered the edge of his pillow, longing, and then moved away with resolution. He lay back down, glancing at his bedroom door, shut and locked tight. It made him feel more settled, safer. He stared at the night sky out his window. He didn’t let himself think about Zero.
Then the sound of Mother’s restless movements in her room down the hall filtered through his door. His attention honed in on her; the snuffling snores choking into dulled wakefulness, the rustle of bedcovers; her feet thudding on the soft rug next to her bed. Justin’s heart began to race; he hoped he hadn’t woken her with his nightmare. Had he cried out in his sleep? He listened as she opened her bedroom door and scuttled down the hall, her house shoes unusually loud on the hardwood floor. Justin held his breath, his heart pounding in his throat, his head. It seemed she paused briefly in front of his door before moving on, towards the bathroom. It seemed to take her eons to shut the door, and only then did he let out his breath, his chest aching.
Unbidden, Justin remembered a long faded memory. He was only a boy, freshly out of a bath, sobbing as though his heart were breaking, for indeed, it was. “Why?” he asked, a small dark little boy who loved climbing trees and his favorite sleep toy, Mr. Toodles. “Why? Was I bad? Did I do something wrong?” he cried, clutching Mr. Toodles as if the toy would stop his chest from heaving those horrible tears. Mother, younger and beautiful then, stood over him, cheeks flushed and hair awry. She drew her housecoat tighter about her thin body and watched him cry, seeming unsure for one of the first times that Justin could now recall as an adult. She seemed utterly lost, but as a child, Justin didn’t register that. She knelt down close to him, not touching him. “No, honey,” she said, her voice shaky, attempting to be both comforting and firm. “Stop crying. You’re a good boy.” Justin held Mr. Toodles tighter and looked at her face, searching her eyes. “Then why? Why?” It was a whispered wail, his voice nearly swallowed up by his tears. His mother sighed, but he hadn’t heard it, not then. She touched his head, but he hadn’t felt it, not then. Her own eyes welled up in tears that she fought back, knowing it was too late to cry, too late to be sorry. She decided to tell the truth, though, at that time, he hadn’t known it for the truth, unadorned and stark in its simple terrible honesty. He didn’t even hear her when she said it, not then.
“Because mothers get lonely, honey. And sometimes they do things they can’t take back.”
# Justin heard his mother flush and open the bathroom door. This time there was no pause by his bedroom door as she made her way back to her bedroom. He wasn’t aware that he was holding his breath again, until he heard her settle back into bed and his lungs screamed for air. Settling deep into his sheets, he thought that it might be true. Single mothers did get lonely, and perhaps from that desperation, did bad things. And it was understandable that they might not be able to take them back. But even as a child, he knew better than to believe that mothers just kept right on doing those
bad things, no matter whom they hurt.
“I’m leaving Tommy,” Daisy whispered to Justin, as they stood smoking cigarettes behind the post office. He was staring down at the scattering of cigarette butts around their feet, kicking a few here and there.
“I decided that when I go to see my family, I’m not coming back. Fuck him,” Daisy said, taking a long draw on her cigarette. Justin hadn’t known she smoked until today, when she pulled him aside, saying she had something to tell him when he took his afternoon smoke break. He didn’t ask if the cigarettes would hurt the baby because that wasn’t his business. And the way she tentatively handled the cigarette, gingerly dragging in the smoke, looking at it after each exhale, as if it were the cause of all her woes, Justin decided she was either essentially a non-smoker or someone who had quit some time ago.
Daisy gave Justin an open look in the wintry chill. “I know about him and that bitch Beverly. I’m not stupid and he’s not even hiding it. She thinks he’s in love with her but Tommy doesn’t love anyone but himself.” Justin nodded, overwhelmed by the directness of her stare. She was particularly endearing to him today, dressed in an oversized men’s parka, probably Tommy’s, plain emerald green wool dress, black tights and knee-high tan snow boots. Her cheeks were red-tinged from the cold and her eyes watered a steady stream down her cheeks. She kept swiping at them, telling him that she had weak eyes from not wearing her glasses, and now her eyes were sensitive to climate changes, whether indoor or outdoor.
“I’m definitely not crying over that bastard,” she mumbled, brushing at her cheek roughly. “I’m so through with him and his bullshit.”
Justin smoked his cigarette silently. As much as he liked their talks, just liked being with Daisy, he was glad he was almost finished with his break. He was never good with emotional outbursts and situations, having suffered his mother’s tantrums in his youth. He was rendered immobile and mute in the wake of them. Intensity of any kind made him feel uncomfortable and distant in his own head, so he was more or less a quiet man. It seemed safer, less stressful to Justin to stay silent in the face of the storm. Xena once said his silences were live things, thick and looming. It was true he felt things deeply, and was often touched by all sorts of events and people, but found he was unable to express himself so he rarely talked about how he felt, even to Xena. Daisy said, “Oh, I heard that your niece was missing. You have any idea where she could be? She’s awfully young to run away, isn’t she?” Justin was almost happy for the subject change, despite the new subject. “She’s only ten. But there’s nothing, no word, not from Zero or from anyone else about her. No one’s seen her in almost two days, not even her friends or schoolmates. Xena told me the police won’t list her as a missing person until she’s been gone at least 24 hours because she couldn’t tell them exactly when Zero went missing. They’re using the time she reported Zero missing as the start of the 24 hours. We’re looking at another day she’s been gone now. Xena is beside herself.” Daisy squinted up at Justin. “Zero? I thought her name was Rachel?” “Yeah, we call her Zero because it was her first word.” Daisy took another tentative drag from her half-smoked cigarette and let it fall to the ground, stamping it out with her boot. “Cute nickname. I like it.” “She was a handful as a baby. Even more of a handful as a child.” “Now she’s missing,” Daisy said. The statement had a melancholy air and Justin didn’t know why Zero’s being missing would make Daisy upset. Perhaps it wasn’t Zero Daisy was sad about, just the circumstance of a heart yearning for one lost. All the same, Justin felt ice crawl up his spine. Of course, the statement had been unintentionally gloomy, but it made him think bad thoughts. Made him think of the nightmare he couldn’t remember, except he remembered now, just this moment, that Mr. Toodles had been in it. “She’ll turn up,” Daisy said, suddenly bright, staring into the sky. “I believe that. She seems like a smart girl, from what I hear. She’s too young to be running away.” “Zero was happy here. Practically everyone in town spoils her. She wouldn’t run away,” Justin agreed. Daisy looked distracted for a moment, probably wondering if that were true, considering her own plans. Then she nodded, shoving her hands in her coat pockets. “She’s probably got a boyfriend she’s afraid her mother might not approve of.” Justin looked at Daisy, putting out his own cigarette against the building. “You’re the second person who said that.” “Who was the first?” “Her grandmother.” Daisy smiled. “See? There you are.” “Zero doesn’t have a boyfriend. She would tell me.” Daisy squinted through her smile. “You think so?” she asked. Justin thought about it, remembered his mother’s laughter. “Maybe not,” he said. “But we talked about a lot of stuff. I think she would have told me, maybe.” Daisy continued to look at Justin, her smile still sunny but troubled. She touched his shoulder, squeezing it lightly. Justin barely felt it through his own coat. It was like being touched by a ghost. “You know what? I think she would tell you. You’re easy to talk to. You don’t judge people.” “It’s a tough job, judging people. And it doesn’t pay well, either.” Daisy frowned at him, unsure if he was joking, but laughed anyway. “See? That’s why I think you should come with me, when I go see my parents. You’re about the nicest person I’ve met in a long time. And my family will be happy someone was looking after me while I was here.” Justin suddenly felt incredibly sad, burdened. It hadn’t occurred to him that Daisy was probably the only real friend he’d ever had. She’d fit herself neatly into his daily routine at the post office before he knew what was happening, had called him her friend long before he even thought she could be one to him as well. He wasn’t sure he could be considered someone who’d looked after her, but he felt honored that she thought so. It occurred to him now that he would miss her. “I’m sorry you have to leave, Daisy,” he said to her. Daisy grinned, hopefully. “You can always come with me.” Justin let himself look back at her. He found her exquisite, broken heart, broken life and all. Now she was going home, and she could fix all that, start over. He thought back on his own uneventful life and felt he was beyond that kind of optimism. He belonged to the town. Whatever that had meant or represented he didn’t know, but he thought every town was essentially the same, big or small. There were some good people, some bad. Some good things happen, some bad. Children went missing and husbands cheated on their wives elsewhere, too. Wherever Daisy was going back to, Justin was sure that was equally true there as well. But something about her made him unafraid for her. She’d been a loving young girl once, and whatever made her that way had stayed with her, even in this bleak indifferent little town. It was in her smile, and their unlikely friendship. He was relieved Daisy was going back home to a family that worried and cared about her, because her smile, and whatever made it happen, was still in her and would help her and her new baby survive. “No, there’s nothing out there for me. I’m where I belong,” Justin said. Daisy stared at him for a second longer, her momentary hurt tucking itself into a hapless smile that said it was just as well. Justin didn’t like that he’d upset her, but he knew she’d get over the unintended slight, in time.
She shrugged. “I don’t think that’s true, Justin. Not about you at least. But, man, c’mon! I can’t tell you how many movies I heard that line in!” Daisy giggled, poking his shoulder. “If I had a nickel for every time, I’d be a rich woman!”
Xena stood in the foyer, arguing with Mother when Justin arrived home that evening. “Look,” Xena said, exasperated. “As soon as Justin gets here, we’re going out to look for her! What the fuck do you care if we’re out in the cold looking for Zero? She’s out there in the cold, too!” “No, she’s not!” Mother shouted back, as Justin came into the house. “The sooner you get it through that thick-ass skull, the better!” Seeing Justin, Xena waved her mother’s comment away, angrily. Mother shook her head. “Justin just got home from work. He hasn’t even had dinner yet. There’s leftover meat loaf, if you want it, Justin.” “I don’t like meat loaf,” Justin said simply. “What?” Mother said, incredulous. “You’ve always eaten my meat loaf. When you were a boy, you ate it like there was no tomorrow!” “Yeah, you’d eat it too if you’re whacked across the back with a fucking belt!” Xena turned from them, heading into the kitchen. Justin and his mother followed her to the kitchen. They found her bent over, looking in the refrigerator, her backside poking out at them. Xena rose as they entered, holding a casserole dish covered in aluminum foil. “Shit! You haven’t even taken it out of the refrigerator yet! What was he supposed to do, Mom? Eat it cold?” Mother glared at her, her bottom lip shaking. “It doesn’t take more than a second to warm up in the microwave, Xena!” “He’s already told you he doesn’t like meat loaf, Mom. He’s been telling you that for over thirty years!” Without warning, Xena hurled the casserole dish to the floor, the glass shattering in a heavy crash, meat loaf breaking apart in reddish chunks all over the kitchen floor. Justin jumped and Mother screamed next to him. “Xena,” he said, moving toward his sister. “I’ve had it up to here with you, bitch! I have had it! All I ask is a little consideration, a little sympathy, but you are completely empty of any human kindness, aren’t you? I mean, do you have something against me? Or Zero? Or how ‘bout Justin, who you’ve treated like shit from the moment he was born?” Xena hooked her fingers into claws. “You horrible old bitch! I should have killed you when I had the chance!” As she threw herself at Mother, Justin caught his sister under the arms, holding her easily at arm’s length. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Mother cringed back, stumbling toward the foyer. “Xena, please calm down,” he said, as she struggled against him. “Oh, how I hate you!” Xena cried. “I hate you so much for what you’ve done to us! What you’ve done to Justin.” “Now, wait a fucking minute!” Mother shouted back, no longer retreating, drawing herself up, indignant. “You have no right—!” “I have every right,” Xena hissed. “If you weren’t beating the shit out of us, you were treating Justin like he was your fucking lov—!” “Shut up! Shut up! You don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about!” Mother roared back. “I was a child but I wasn’t blind, Mom! You fucking disgust me! I hope you burn in hell along with the animal who’s taken my baby,” Xena said, her voice dead with a hatred he had never heard his sister express.
Justin tried to clear his throat, but it was dry. He felt miles and miles away. He wanted to be miles and miles away.
Xena glared at Mother for a moment longer, pulling from Justin’s grip. She brushed past him, leaving the kitchen. Justin saw Mother cringe back but Xena’s anger seemed spent. “I’m going to look for Zero. Will you come with me, Justin?” Justin didn’t like how tired Xena sounded. And she should have known she didn’t have to ask. “Okay, Xena,” he said. Xena walked past them to the front door, and a moment later Justin heard it open and slam shut.
Justin looked Mother, looking at her directly for the first time in what seemed like a million years. She had once been a beauty, with dark black hair, wavy from the perms she constantly used to relax the natural kink. Now her hair hung in greasy iron-gray clumps, unwashed most days, uncombed and matted from the sleep cap she wore constantly. Her face, once smooth and deep brown, was a network of wrinkles and craggy crevices. Her black eyes, red-rimmed, the corneas yellowed with age, were once sharp with a devious and infectious intelligence. She was his mother and she was old now; shrunken and shrill, unthreatening. And he was older now, no longer afraid, no longer enamored of her. Of course, his love had been tainted throughout the years, became twisted, died and reborn into a distance and indifference that was better than withered love and worse than stymied hate. Mother and son stood staring at each other, the weight of their sins between them, the emptiness of their history surrounding them like a familiar yet never asked for embrace.
Justin suddenly missed Mr. Toodles. Mr. Toodles would have made everything better. It was a terrible thing to be an adult man and still dependent on the comfort of a child’s toy. Yet he still kept Mr. Toodles tucked beneath his bed pillows, ready to grasp, just in case, ready to finger the frayed edges of a stuffed foot or floppy ear.
But Mr. Toodles was gone now; it was the deal he made with himself. Mr. Toodles’ time with Justin was over. Despite such adult resolve, Justin felt like the boy he’d been, frightened and naked, unable to be comforted.
Justin drove Xena about town that night, looking for Zero, and Zero remained stubbornly unfound. It took some convincing, but Justin finally got Xena to give up for the night as midnight crept closer. He drove her home and walked back to his own in the chilly darkness. Justin’s sleep that night was troubled with nightmares. He ran and screamed, screamed and ran. But sometimes it wasn’t always he who ran and screamed. Sometimes, he chased.
A week passed and Zero did not return home. Police were skeptical about the possibility that Zero was kidnapped—there simply wasn’t enough evidence to support it. Zero hung with the rowdier kids at her school, so everyone assumed she had run away for the season and would return when she was ready. Or maybe she wouldn’t. No one got into an uproar about it. Some even took Zero’s disappearance for a child’s prank, a bit of mother-daughter drama. Everyone knew the relationship between Xena and her firstborn was tenuous at best and expected it to become worse as the girl got older. But the underlying truth was that folks just pushed the Overton family problems from their minds and settled in to wait out the worst of the winter’s snows closing in on the small town. Xena has always been on the shallow end of the town’s sympathy pool; no one wanted to give her a break. Maybe that was how small towns worked; once assigned a role, one lived that role forever. But Xena refused to be placated with empty promises to institute a town-wide search for Zero once the first thaw came on. As it was, snow lay like packed white concrete over everything, and there wasn’t enough manpower and resources to manage the type of search needed to look for Zero. The sheriff couldn’t justify getting the state police involved for a girl who, by all opinions of her friends and family, may have left town under her own steam. The case was dead-ended; the sheriff told Xena any search of Zero within the town would surely be a search for a corpse. Temperatures had dropped to 20 below on several nights in a row. There was no way a child, left to her own devices in such weather, could survive the night, much less six of them in a row. Xena couldn’t bring herself to consider the truth of the situation. She chalked up the sheriff’s sober words as outright stonewalling. She contacted the state police herself, faxed the department several pictures of Zero, including one that Justin was particularly fond of—Zero’s fifth grade class picture. In it, his niece sat prettily on a blue velvet pillow, her impish grin hardly disguised by the red bows and white lace. There were promises to post Zero’s picture and give the missing girl as much attention as resources would allow, which, of course, amounted to posting her pictures on a bulletin board with a few dozen other people who went missing or simply disappeared. Xena grew more and more despondent, and her never-ending searches increased. Justin found her completely inconsolable most days. There was a halfhearted attempt to kill herself which scared Justin more than he wanted to admit. He tried to reassure her that Zero may very well turn up alive and well, having hitchhiked to the next town or further, a larger city maybe, and would eventually return home, safe and sound. In her frustration, Xena called him an idiot—didn’t he know what happened to ten year-old girls who hitchhiked? Justin couldn’t understand the contradiction of making so much effort to find her if she truly believed Zero was dead. When he voiced that opinion, Xena’s lips drew into a thin white line and she would say nothing else to him on the subject of her lost daughter.
Justin began to walk two miles out of his way after leaving work to make sure Xena arrived home safely. He showed up at her work on his off days just to say hello. Xena eventually told him to stop bugging her so much, that she was fine and longer considering killing herself. She had a good job, and there was Peter to consider. Zero would turn up soon, dead or alive, and she wanted to be around either way. She said this last in a light agreeable tone, but Justin sensed something else in her voice. Xena was close, very close, to giving up and there wasn’t a thing anyone could do about it.
But she still searched every free moment she got, mostly out of willful defiance of her growing dismay. She harassed Zero’s schoolmates for information regularly, insisting the moment Zero showed up, they were to contact her immediately. She became adept at getting around town in less time than it took anyone else and she found numerous old forgotten back roads.
It was on these back roads that Justin began to walk. A long time had passed since he last walked them, as a teenager. Justin walked the back roads, with the winter wind whistling high in the bare black branches of the trees that lined them, thinking about his sister. And Daisy.
Daisy left town, as promised. Vivian told him she caught a ride out of town with a vacationing college student who went to school upstate, near where her family lived. Justin didn’t get to say goodbye. One moment, she was there, the next, she was gone, and the space she left was massive in Justin’s heart. He missed her in a way he never thought possible and wondered if some part of him was in love with her. He decided if that were true, he never would have let her leave or, for that matter, leave without him. All that was left of Daisy’s presence in her life was her nametag, tacked to the bulletin board in the break room, like a message to anyone, Beverly in particular, who may have liked or disliked her. It’s just as well, her nametag seemed to proclaim, hanging in the cork by long sharp pin. Vivian was unhappy Daisy left, but understood. She confided to Justin that she thought of leaving town, shortly after her husband and daughters died, but she didn’t have the strength to start over elsewhere.
With Daisy gone, Vivian was extra-mean to Beverly, making sneering comments at her in Chinese. Sometimes she would clap her hands when Beverly passed by, as if scolding a misbehaving dog.
Early winter chill deepened into silent, icy cold, and the town slept peacefully under the snow. It was harder to walk for long periods on the windswept back roads Justin liked to travel, but those roads helped him clear his head. He didn’t like to think too hard, as his mind had a way of bringing up dark thoughts, long from forgotten, that threw him with their vividness. His sleep was blissfully dreamless, and he thought walking the back roads into the woods was the reason. He would go home shortly before his mother’s bedtime because it was always better to avoid her, to keep avoiding her. Nothing good could come from talking now. As it was, he planned to move out of his room as soon as the weather let up. One of the mail carriers, a loud man named Benson, mentioned to Justin that he was converting a backyard storage house into a decent living space. He hoped to take on a boarder to earn extra income for his family that coming spring. Benson wondered aloud if Justin might be tired of sucking on his mother’s tit and ready to become a real man with a place of his own. Justin ignored Benson’s insensitive comment and said it sounded like a good idea. The thought of living alone was exhilarating, even if the man offering that freedom was a jerk. And Benson’s wife and young daughter had been nice enough to Justin when they visited the post office previously. The daughter had reminded him of Zero and for a while, it didn’t hurt to make that recollection. On his long walks, Justin let himself think about his niece, gone to some mystery. Feeling more adventurous, he veered more into the woods. Wandering amongst the black trees, he could recall everything.
He didn’t necessarily lie to Mother when he said that Xena and Zero hadn’t been over to the house that night. It was Zero alone. She came banging on the door nearly an hour after Mother had retired, and Justin let her in before she woke Mother up. Zero was in an uproar about a tattoo.
She paced the living room floor like a grown man, her small fists balled and her eyes blazing, just like her mother’s would do. Justin was cowed by such anger in a small girl, and he listened as sympathetically as he could. “I can’t believe her! She’s such a bitch! Always telling me I can’t do something when I know damn well she don’t have a real reason to not let me! She’s hateful!” “Don’t talk that way about your mother, Zero. She disciplines you because she loves you. We all do. We spoil you rotten as it is.” Zero rolled her eyes and flounced down on the sofa. “Yeah, whatever. I want a tattoo. All my friends are getting them. I don’t want to be the loser without one.” “Zero, you’re only ten.” “I’ll be eleven in three months.” “And I don’t think you should get one then, either.” “You’re such an asshole.” Justin wasn’t surprised by her comment, thinking she was being willful. She’d said things like that before, spoken in anger without thought. The result of spoiling her, he thought, but Zero wasn’t finished. “You pretend to be this cool uncle, you pretend to love me, but you don’t. Mom says that you don’t know how to love anyone. That Grandma spoiled you, that she loved you too much.” Justin’s head began to throb, his heart beat loudly in his ears. “Stop this right now, Zero. You’re being nasty because you can’t get your way. I think it’s time I call your mother.” He started for the phone next to the sofa. Zero darted off the sofa and grabbed his arm. She bit him soundly before he knew what happened. Surprisingly, he didn’t cry out, even though it hurt immensely. He looked at her, amazed, hurt. Something about the sneering glee in her eyes kept him from reaching for the phone again. Something so familiar about that self-satisfied look held Justin transfixed, almost paralyzed by the nastiness in the little girl’s eyes. “What did you do?” he asked, quietly, incredulously, his voice sounding far away and wounded. Zero giggled, a high girlish sound. She put her hands on her hips and stood her ground.
“You’re a limp dick! You’re a limp dick! You’re a limp dick!” she hissed, meanly.
It would have been better if she’d shouted it because something in her voice, those whispered words, those words, oh god, something about those whispered words was Justin’s undoing.
Justin strode through knee-deep snow into the tall thin black trees at the edge of the wooded area, just south of the public park. He guessed Zero and her friends never ventured this deep in the woods, probably would be frightened if they couldn’t hear the noise of the town. It was completely still back here, quiet in the snow, a thick blanket of it coating everything, with more on the way. Winter was getting comfortable, ready to stay a while. Justin trudged on. His heart was tight with anticipation. Missing children, abused wives, pointless jobs and hateful mothers—his life was full of those dramas and he was tired. He wanted it to all go away. But what could he do? He was only himself, one man, only Justin Overton. He was a momma’s boy, despite the horribleness of the momma, and that aside, he was a good boy nevertheless. Justin truly believed that. He was a good boy above all. Justin came to a clearing, the dark trees standing in a nearly perfect circle. Xena would love this spot. She could sit cross-legged in the soft grass come springtime, while the leaves around her rustled and the birds sang. He would make a point to visit here often himself, now that he’d found it. Summer and spring would be positively gorgeous, all green, fresh smelling and lush in foliage. Fall would be as well, the gold, red and orange leaves, falling in whirling circles around him. Xena would feel enchanted here, too. Justin wished she could see it. He sat down in the middle of the clearing, near a small mound of dark brown snow-soaked leaves, lightly covered with snow. He leaned against it and looked up at the sky. He stared at the spaces between the trees and thought of seasons changing all around him and the town, without even the barest notice. Seasons pass, hearts are broken and mended as best they can. Children are lost and lovers move away. The seasons keep coming and going, the colorful backdrops of life’s fantastical play, the catalysts and recipients of all of man’s petty dramas, hidden and exposed. Without thinking, Justin began to dig into the mound of leaves. It wasn’t hard, the leaves on top were stiff and frozen, while the ones further down were wet and soggy. He dug a short time then stopped. With a look of both concentration and distracted eagerness, he brought his hand up out of the pile of leaves. In it, he held a limp, wet stuffed toy rabbit with floppy ears, matted fur and frayed stitching. The smile that came across Justin’s face was beatific in its childlike intensity. “Hello, Mr. Toodles. How are you?” he asked, brushing wet leaves from the toy’s body. Justin looked at it a long time, and then cradled it to his wind-chapped face. “I know its cold here, but one day soon, it will be spring. Then it will be warm and sunny.” He kissed the faded pink of the rabbit’s nose before sitting it down on the leaves. He tentatively reached back into the hole he’d made in the leaves. His face was once again a mask of concentration, but the eagerness was gone. He pulled his hand up from the hole, this time with some effort. In it, was the stiff dark arm of a child. A girl child, her wrist wrapped with a bit of red braided yarn. A friendship bracelet, Justin thought they were called. He held the hand, gently, with care. He laced his fingers as best he could between the petrified fingers, then he turned the hand palm up with some effort, gently, and kissed its cold, hardened skin. Justin sat there, holding the hand. He talked some, about Daisy, about Xena, about yet another coming snowstorm. He caressed and cooed to Mr. Toodles with heartbreaking wistfulness. Before long, he placed Mr. Toodles into the lifeless hand and curled the stiff fingers around the toy. He then, with infinite care, tucked the hand and Mr. Toodles back into the hole he made in the leaves. He pushed the leaves he’d dug up back into the hole, packing them down firmly. He stood up, his knees cracking, and turned away from the mound, walking out of the clearing, toward home.
"...written fiction for almost 33 years, garnering creative writing awards throughout my academic years. Notably, winning short story competitions hosted by Byline magazine between 1985 and 1987, which led to having one such story, “Black,” honorably displayed in the rotunda of the Oklahoma State Capitol in 1986. Most recently, I published three poems in the Journal of Ordinary Thought in 2003, a literary magazine based in Chicago, Illinois. I recently worked with Peter Heyrman, Senior Editor of Bear Press in Baltimore, Maryland, who has been a fiction editor of regional magazines, and published work in Harcourt Brace anthologies and Twilight Zone magazine. I am currently plying my craft as a proofreader for an Albuquerque CPA firm."