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The caramel-coated leaves scrambled down the broken sidewalks, like suburban tumbleweeds. On occasion, a low-flying zephyr would swoop down and snatch one up, carrying it back up into the sky until it was caught in the sinuous branches of one of the old, barren maples that stood nearby. The trees were nearly as old as the houses themselves, stucco and wood creations that hid behind crumbling facades of brick. The last dredges of a sunset lit up the browns and reds and yellows that plastered the hundred-year-old houses. They were the dying embers of the day, the twilit coals left over from a noonday bonfire.
On any other autumn evening as deliciously eerie as this, I would have climbed a tree with Sherie, and watched the last bits of sunshine sink back below the horizon. But I was alone.
I sat outside reading, on the white swing that hung so precariously on our front porch. There was a weather stained pillow behind my back, grey and red. My mind couldn’t focus on my book, and after a few minutes, I gave up trying to pay attention. I picked up my bookmark, a well-worn and carefully creased ticket stub from the Shakespearian Festival the previous summer. Macbeth. Sherie had drawn a little puppy on it, sitting in an unfortunate puddle. “OUT DAMNED SPOT!” was scrawled across the top. Sherie loved to write on everything, from ticket stubs and notebooks to her worn out tennis shoes. When I first met her, I thought it all looked a little messy.
“Everything we have today is made somewhere else by somebody else.” she told me. “If you want anything to belong to you, you have to make it all your own. That’s why I write on it.”
I set the bookmark between the yellowed pages and closed the book.
The front room was empty when I came in, but I could hear laughter from the other end of the house. When I got to the kitchen, the laughter stopped. Everyone else had already sat down at the table. There was some half-eaten meatloaf, and a couple slices of bread on the table. A few greasy green beans and carrots sat in the bottom of Mom’s finest china. I realized, with a jolt, that it was Lucy’s birthday. Mom only gets the china out for a birthday, or Christmas, or sometimes Easter, if dad’s around. Mom stood up rather suddenly. She opened her mouth for a moment and then paused. She shut her mouth, and her eyes went to her feet. Then abruptly, Lucy said,
“We thought you were with Sherie still, so you know, we just got started... There’s still some meatloaf, if you know... you want it.” She sort of died off at the end, and gave me a little shrug. I hate meatloaf.
“Happy Birthday.” I said.
Mom hurried over to the cupboard and got another plate and cup out. She gave me a little half-smile with her mouth as she passed, but her eyes were still looking at her feet.
“So where is Sherie today? Usually you two eat with her father, right?” Dad asked. That was a bit of an overstatement. Alex usually forgot about things like cooking, so we would go out to eat. Or sometimes, we would get out a jar of peanut butter and some ham, and make sandwiches. At first I had thought they were disgusting, but I grew to love them.
“Sherie’s been gone for a week. They finished the trial last term. Her mom has full custody now. She’s going to finish up the semester at Woodsridge, and then she’ll go to North Carolina.”
“Oh. That’s... too bad.” Dad said, somewhat slowly.
“Yeah. I guess so.” I replied dispassionately.
Mom pulled up a chair for me, and I sat down. She sat down, and pushed the green beans toward me.
“There’s still plenty left, if you want it. I know meatloaf’s not your thing, but you might like the green beans, if you try them.” I shrugged, and stabbed a bean with my fork. It was cold and slimy, the fibers slipped between my teeth.
“I’m not that hungry, honestly.” I said. I gave the plate a little push towards the center of the table. For a moment everyone sat there, watching the food grow cold. Then Mom got up again and walked around to the sink. She started washing the dishes. Everyone else started clearing the table, and I wandered out into the autumn wind once more.
The sun was below the horizon now, although there was still a faint glow behind the clouds. The eastern sky was dark, ebony painted over with purple and midnight blue. Sitting back down on the swing, I started to wonder about Alex. His only semblance of organization had come from Sherie, and she was the only girl I knew who purposely crumpled all of her homework assignments into paper balls before handing them in. I almost laughed out loud picturing how the apartment would look today. Smiling, I saw empty Chinese food cartons and french fries strewn across the kitchen counter over a tablecloth of bills, newspapers, rejected manuscripts, and old notebooks. But then my grin vanished. Without the child support money, those rejected manuscripts and bills would pile up ever higher. High enough to push Alex out of the apartment. With a sigh I stood up and wandered back inside.
The kitchen table was all cleared, my mom hovering over a loud, frothing sink full of dirty dishes. Everyone else had gone upstairs, I could hear the beginnings of a movie in the family room. When I sat back down at the table, my elbows pressed up against the damp, plastic red and white table cloth, mom looked up at me for a minute. The sink grew a little quieter.
“Sherie’s dad, Alex... Doesn’t he write newspaper articles or something?” she asked.
“He wrote for the Herald, until they stopped printing. He’s trying to publish one of his books now.”
“Can’t you, you know, self-publish? Over the internet or something?” she asked. She wanted to be a part of the conversation, a part of me and my life with the lost girl.
“You can’t make good money doing that, not really. He’s tried a few times, but...”
I trailed off.
“Sherie and I want to be writers too someday.” I said it with an air of casual contention, as if daring her to say that I too would never find any money in writing. To my surprise, she turned the sink off all the way now, lifting a final dish out of the sink and placing it on the rack. She flashed another half smile, although it seemed a little more full this time.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be an actress. I had terrible stage fright, but I was so determined to be in the movies, with all of those famous people on TV.”
“So what happened?” The words just jumped off my tongue before I could hold them. Her smile faded just a little, turning from a half-full grin to a half-empty kind of wanly thing.
“Didn’t make the first cut of the musical. I never ended up going to college, getting that theater degree. Met your dad, and my plans changed, I suppose. Still I...”
She looked down at the pot she was drying.
“I guess sometimes plans have to change.” I spoke carefully. Without hesitation she replied,
“Yes. They do.”