Clemie Miller twisted on the vinyl stool behind her lemonade stand. She smoothed the polyester tablecloth festooned with queasy chartreuse flowers. On the table sat a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a pitcher of lukewarm lemonade. Clemie had made an awning using butcher paper, meter sticks, and duct tape. Lemonade $1, it proclaimed.
Her location was bad: the last cul-de-sac before the suburbs melted into lodgepole pines and sagebrush. The sun pulsed, and the vinyl stuck to her bare legs. In her lap lay a rag doll. She whispered to it.
“Why is no one coming, Hana? We squeezed the lemons ourselves. We even made cookies.”
Clemie thrust the little cloth effigy up to her ear. Her eyebrows angled and her lips pursed as if she was listening to a real voice.
“Oh, Hana, what a good idea!”
Clemie peeled herself from the vinyl and rocketed down the driveway to her house.
A breeze worried the edges of the tablecloth. Hana fell to the concrete. The flight of a crow was reflected in her shoe-button eyes.
Scraggy elms lined either side of the street and beyond them one-story ranch houses. The houses were nocturnal; they watched each other with catlike yellow eyes at night, sleeping, curtains draw during the day. Behind the houses were a hundred acres of woods.
A man came huffing up the street, arms pumping like the pistons of a steam engine. He wore a red flannel shirt and kept glancing over his shoulder. A car grumbled down the lane. The man scrambled, pivoted, and seeing the lemonade stand, heaved himself under it, almost knocking over the pitcher. The tablecloth draped to the ground on all sides.
From the telephone wires the crows watched Clemie return. She had a massive rectangle of paper, felt pens in twelve colors, and three Band-Aids because her mother had hidden the tape after the prior week’s varnish-stripping incident. She noticed the tablecloth shift. The wind, Clemie thought.
Clemie wrote “Come Drink Yummy Lemonade” using a different color for each letter. She stuck the sign to her table with the Band-Aids.
Five dollars: that was her goal. At first it had been twenty. Enough money to buy real, grown-up things. But after an eternity of waiting, she had halved it, and now it was halved again. Five dollars. Was that so much to ask?
Under the tablecloth, the man’s fingernails dug into the palms of his hands.
Clemie picked up Hana then took a seat. A police car rumbled up the street. It halted, and an officer with a sweaty red face stepped out.
“Do you want to buy-”
The Flannel Man under the table held his breath.
“Have you seen a man in a red flannel shirt?” the officer interrupted.
“No,” said Clemie.
The officer told Clemie to be careful and tell her mother if she saw anything. He did not buy any lemonade.
“What a rude man,” Clemie said to Hana when he had left. Then she poured herself a Dixie cup of lemonade. It was thin and too sweet. She ran back to the house to fetch more lemons.
As she returned, she stopped in her tracks. A man in a red flannel shirt was crawling out from under the table.
“Hey!” she yelled. “Hey, you!” The Flannel Man froze. As Clemie reached the stand, her voice sweetened. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Do you want to buy some lemonade?”
“I like your ribbons,” said the Flannel Man. “Those are lemons, right?” He didn’t know why he said this.
Clemie beamed. She had made the lemon hairpiece in art class specifically to wear at her lemonade stand.
“Thanks,” she said. “Art’s not my best class.”
“I studied painting in college.”
“My friend Noelle can draw anything she wants. Like a dog or a castle. Or a giant battling a chipmunk.”
He looked at Clemie’s hands, sticky from the sugar she had pinched into the lemonade. Her nails were gnawed short, just like his. “Look,” he said, “I’m just gotta run to my car for a dollar, and then I’ll come back.”
What was he telling her? His words twisted in on themselves, tying him tighter in a lie. She knew he was in trouble, and it was too soon to take off, anyway. The cops were only a few blocks away.
“I think you should stay here for now.” Clemie lifted up a corner of the tablecloth, and the Flannel Man crawled under it like a dog. Cross-legged, his ripped denim revealed a bloody knee. Clemie peeled off a Band-Aid from the sign and gave it to him; he patted it on his knee, just to humor her. God, this is weird, he thought.
“What did you paint in college?” she asked.
“Um, mostly postcard landscapes. Then I switched to lyrical abstraction.”
Having no idea what lyrical abstraction was, Clemie nodded. “Why?”
“I’m sorry. That story’s kind of long.”
“It’s okay. No one’s buying my lemonade anyway.”
“I should really get going.” To where?
“Let’s go to the woods behind the Smiths’ house.” The Smiths were ancient and never went outside, except to church. “You just go under the table, and I’ll lift it.”
The Flannel Man sighed. Clemie picked up the card table. The man, crouching, pushed up from underneath. With Clemie balancing it from above they shuffled up the street – a little girl and a magically moving table – up the block and into the stand of pines.
Sitting on the pine-needle carpet, the Flannel man began his story. “I was in my sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston. I was painting a winter mountain scene. There were supposed to be jagged peaks in the background and a lake and some trees and a snowbank. But I couldn’t get it right. Each brushstroke made it worse.”
He cringed, remembering the mountain’s garish, green tint, the snow smudged with yellow, and the stiff, artificial lines he’d made in the trees with a palate knife.
“Eventually, I got fed up and just began slapping splotches of paint on the canvas. I thought I’d feel like Jackson Pollock, but it just looked like vomit. It depressed me so much I threw the painting out and went to get some Vietnamese food. The noodles were awful. And, what do you know, I got sick as a dog. My roommate said I was delirious all night, and I had this dream I’ll never forget.”
The Flannel Man paused, searching for the right words. “I dreamed I was back in the studio, at my painting. The paint had dried, and I was staring at it, hating it. Then it peeled off the canvas. First came the trees; they fluttered over and landed on my hands. I scraped at them with my fingernails, but they wouldn’t come off. And then it was the snowbank, ripping itself off like a giant scab and adhering to my chest. The lake tore itself apart, the clouds and the hideous mountains, and as I thrashed and writhed, they clung tighter. The canvas fell away and another painting of mine surfaced – a seashore. The paint from that one coated my eyes, my nose, my lips too. I was suffocating under my terrible work. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see.”
He took a deep breath and glanced up at Clemie. He hoped he hadn’t scared her too badly.
“When I woke, the fever had subsided, and the next afternoon I felt good enough to paint again. But I didn’t paint another landscape – I painted my dream, and it was perfect.”
They sat in silence. Clemie liked the way he talked to her. Like she was a big person who deserved to know big things. But she had to pee. “I’m going to my house over there,” she told him. “I’ll be back real soon, so just stay where you are.”
As she left, the table jostled, and the rag doll fell at his feet. A voice encroached the waxy catacombs of his inner ear.
“Look,” said Hana. “I have a proposition.”
He stiffened. “What did you say?”
“I have something I want you to do.” Hana’s voice was muffled by cotton batting.
“But … you’re a doll.”
Hana must have been offended. All anyone ever expected from dolls was to be pretty. No one expected them to have ideas.
The breeze rustled in the tablecloth, casting shadows across Hana’s limp frame. “I want you to make Clemie afraid.”
“Why?” The Flannel Man shifted his weight, trying to distance himself.
“Because she needs to be taught a lesson,” said Hana. “She throws me on the ground, nicks me with thumbtacks when she plays doctor. “Time to get a shot!” she says. I want her to know what it feels like to be completely dependent on the mercy of another being. Put your hands around her neck, and squeeze.”
The man’s reply caught in his throat.
“I’m not asking you to kill her,” said Hana. “Just take over her fate for a moment.”
Like the prison had done to him for ten winters. Taken his life from him. Now that he was out, he swore he’d never go back. But that promise was harder to keep than he expected.
Face in his palms, the Flannel Man shook. “I can’t,” he said. “Once I latch on, I might not let go.” It was true – it had happened before.
Years ago, he had gone to see a piano performance. Afterward, in a Q&A, someone had asked what the pianist’s hands felt like while playing. “Like someone else’s hands,” the pianist had responded. “Like I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to.” As a little boy, the Flannel Man thought that was magical. Now, he knew the damage hands could do.
And then Clemie was back; she breezed in and Hana fell silent.
“Let’s do something,” Clemie said. “I hate sitting here, waiting for someone to come. It’s because I’m still a kid, I know. In three years I’ll be in middle school and can go places.”
She knelt down and picked up Hana by one foot. “Do you think I’m a baby for playing with dolls?”
The Flannel Man thought back to the painted trees, how they jeered with their angular branches and how he loathed them.
“Maybe it’s time Hana took the high road and I took the low road.” Clemie had heard that in a song. She liked saying it.
Hana’s eyes were flat and reflective: twin mirrors. He couldn’t speak with her staring at him.
“Here,” Clemie took his hand and put it around the doll. “You can have her.” Terror spiraled in the Flannel Man’s gut.
“NO,” he said, louder than he’d planned. The crows watched from the telephone wire, and a cheeky red squirrel darted across the street. “I think we have to-”
“Get rid of her?”
“Hmm. Maybe.” He felt mesmerized by the buttons, the opaque smile stitched in pink thread, the limp yarn hair. He couldn’t imagine the things she might tell him to do.
“Do you want to-”
They made a solemn funeral procession through the pines. Hana was changed into her best dress, a pink, Audrey-Hepburnish thing.
Under a copse of trees, they stopped. Clemie stared down at Hana, her childhood helplessness all rolled up in one pitiful bundle of fabric. Clemie remembered the box she had come in, wrapped in red with a grand bow. She thought of all the things they did together: playing school and doctor, acting out movies.
Under her breath, she said the only prayer she knew: Now I lay me down to sleep …
Together, they wrapped Hana in the polyester tablecloth like a mummy. The Flannel Man took out his cigarette lighter; he flicked it with a practiced thumb and held it to the doll. First came the curling recoil of the fabric, then the flames consumed the bundle. Clemie’s eyes watered; she blamed the smoke.
When the flames subsided, all that remained was a pile of ash and a puddle of molten polyester. They walked back to the lemonade stand in silence. Clemie served refreshments: two Dixie cups of lemonade and three cookies each.
“That was a cool story about the painting,” said Clemie. “Do you still make paintings?”
“Not for a couple years,” he said. “But I want to get back to it.”
If he was going to be honest, he wasn’t sure if he deserved freedom. But for the time being, he had it. He would burn all his demons and paint wonderful pictures. He wanted to live like Clemie imagined him living.
When the cookies were gone, he shrugged off the flannel shirt and handed it to her. It was sweaty and smoky. She would keep it for a long time, a souvenir from the first time she’d held someone’s future in her hands. She gave him a lemon hairclip, and then he slipped into the trees and into the unknowable maze of the grown-up world.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.