Table of Contents
The sunset chaser
Linda Mae is obsessed with sunsets. She’s a sunset collector, if you will. When she talks about sunsets, her face crinkles up into one big smile. Her eyes glow bright and blue. She’s so very alive when sharing her sunset stories. Sparkling, shimmering with pure love for nature’s light show.
Sunsetting, as defined by Linda Mae, means “chasing the exact moment when those final rays of sunlight drip down — when the sun elegantly pours itself on the horizon.”
We, the townspeople, are well aware of Linda Mae’s sunsetting obsession; it’s an essential part of understanding who she is. But sunsetting is not all she does, by any means. Linda Mae is a very, very busy woman. She knits with one group of friends every Tuesday and hosts a marathon of “The Golden Girls” with another group every Thursday. She somehow makes time to form personal connections with just about everyone in our small town.
It’s also well known that Linda Mae is a gardening magician. She’s a natural at the patient process of tending to plants. You can tell by her sandpaper hands: rough and worn-in from decades of adventuring, yet perfectly steady when packing dirt mounds for saplings.
She is a core pillar of the small community we live in. To some, she’s the sweet, elderly flower lady, dropping off pots of home-grown roses painted vibrant reds or deep purples. She shares her abundant garden with our local shops; each little boutique or bookstore is dotted with Linda Mae’s flowers. In our town, she is universally loved. Her laugh is the color of honey and the feeling of a tropical summer breeze.
People also know Linda Mae through our local elementary school, where she’s a beloved guest teacher. She’s skilled at guiding restless little kids through hours of planting. There’s one photo of her: face all lit up in a wide display of joy as a little boy holds a carrot he grew with her help. The school printed this photo on a large poster for all the kids to sign. She has it up in the front walkway of her house. We love our Linda Mae.
As far as we know, she never married or had children; she’s in a long-term, committed relationship with the sun. When it comes to kids, helping raise mini-gardeners through her teachings brings youthful energy to her life. She lives alone, but she is not lonely. In fact, Linda Mae is quite a popular old woman. Her presence is a warm cup of coffee on a cool, foggy morning.
She’s a close family friend to many, generously offering invitations for people to come chat over tea and homemade biscuits. She has a rotating schedule with the families in her neighborhood. Her house is rarely empty. Every other Saturday, she hosts dinner parties where she serves her famous mint juleps — with fresh sprigs of mint plucked straight from her garden, of course. Linda Mae herself always smells of fresh mint and a hint of jasmine. She brings flowers, food, knowledge and smiles to the people of our town.
Everyone in the town knows about Linda Mae’s sunsetting. It’s woven into all conversations with her. In the summer, the young ones run over to her light blue house, dropping messy watercolor paintings of sunsets on her doorstep, paint still dripping, faces full of popsicle stains, giggles ringing in the air as they run away. She keeps every painting taped to her fridge, the photos piling up over time into a bright collage.
On December 3rd each year, the town baker makes a beautiful three-layered vanilla cake, the sides dusted with colorful sprinkles, the top featuring a sunset frosted in loopy swirls of color. The whole town joins together on the square, singing Linda Mae into another year of life, another year of sunset chasing. She lets the young ones blow out her tower of birthday candles. We celebrate our Linda Mae: eye-crinkled gardening teacher, sunset-loving town icon.
We adore her. The local coffee shop’s sign reads “WE LOVE LINDA MAE.” She is the town treasure. You can spot her anywhere in town, always in the middle of an audience, everyone eager to hear her stories. She enchants us with tales of her sunsetting adventures. Fred’s Sandwich Shop has a special, The Linda Mae, with all her favorite ingredients. The high schoolers started an Instagram account for her: “Linda Mae’s Fits.” I saw at least ten kids dress as her for Halloween last year. She is truly our town celebrity.
I’ve personally known Linda Mae for almost 22 years now, though I’d heard about her from the moment I moved to our cozy little town. I met her through our black labrador puppies, Clay and Danny. We became fast friends, bonded after realizing our puppies were brothers. From then on, we walked them together every morning, trading stories for hours and watching our dogs grow older and whiter as the years passed.
Linda Mae takes on various roles in our town. To me, she’s a mother figure bringing kind hugs, a close friend I trust more than anyone, a wise mentor who’s shaped my life. I value her opinion above anyone else’s. Perhaps it seems strange to consider this woman my best friend when she’s over 40 years older, but she is seriously a miracle in my life.
When talking with her, Linda Mae makes the complications of life seem so simple. Her calming energy diffuses all my negative feelings. She makes me feel important, valued, worthy of her time on our daily walks. We watch our dogs play and unload the details of life to each other. Her wisdom guides my every decision. Her advice is my scripture. I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without Linda Mae.
Clay and Danny are long gone now. I walk my new dog — a curly-haired Stella — and Linda Mae joins us on long, lazy strolls. Over years of our walking chats, I’ve heard many, many sunset stories. I eat them up, living for her delicious details. Her stories are decadent and exciting. She never tells me the same one twice; each day, she recounts a new adventure. Some include ambitious travels from when she was younger and more mobile. She used to travel the world, marking sunsetting spots along her journeys.
Her stories from these wild adventures include a vivid red sunset over the Taj Mahal and a smudged, pink one in Paris, complete with a picnic of rosé and strawberries. I can so clearly picture young Linda Mae, bounding up snowy mountains or over rocky seaside cliffs, Polaroid camera in hand, racing to catch the sun’s final moment.
In more recent years, her sunsetting occurs closer to home. Even on our walks, Linda Mae has trouble making it up slightly steep hills. Her days of chasing sunsets overseas are over, but her stories haven’t lost their wonder. Now, she focuses more on the way each sunset made her feel, rather than narrating her ambitious treks. Her whole face glows under the warm fire of each sunset story. I hope one day to feel a glimpse of what Linda Mae feels about sunsets.
Over years of stories, I’ve come to realize that Linda Mae takes her sunsetting seriously. She sings, dances, jumps, shouts, erupts in chaotic movement as the sun makes its nightly journey across our sky. The colors flow through her, the sunset lives inside her. It fills her up, up, up, until she’s bursting, exploding with beauty and wonder. Her movements are the sunset.
Of course, I’ve only ever heard of these wild ceremonies. Linda Mae never lets anyone accompany her along her nightly journey. She’s a solo sunset-chaser. She doesn’t want potential distractions interrupting her favorite activity, I suppose. When I first started walking with Linda Mae, I used to ask if I could tag along during her sunsetting. She would become mysterious, quiet and private about her sunset locations. I learned to stop asking; her stories are vibrant enough to the point that it feels like I’m right there with her, anyways.
Linda Mae has a photo wall in her cute blue house dedicated to her beloved sunsets. This tall white wall resides in her living room. It features the allotted singular photo she captures per sunset. On her Polaroid camera reserved for the sun’s setting, she tucks the sun into bed, the sweet shutting of her camera lens sending a kiss, a soft “shhh.” Just one photo. Any more would tear her attention away from the sun’s graceful descent. Then she returns to her watching ritual, dancing to the tune of painted sunlight.
I asked her once, which was her favorite. We’d just returned from our daily walk with Stella. There we sat, sipping lemon ginger tea, resting on her comfy, denim-colored couch. Linda Mae had her eyes closed, papery hands wrapped around a mug of tea, bringing small sips to her lips, sealed in a peaceful smile.
I was staring up at her giant wall of sunset Polaroids, each in a small, simple white frame. When I asked her to name a favorite, she shook her head softly. Her lips stayed smiling. She told me “you can’t possibly choose a favorite angel.” This isn’t a metaphor. Linda Mae full-heartedly believes sunsets are angels. She talks about this often, how all sunsets were once people who floated from this mundane world up to the sky. These angels are now twirling around, playing and dancing together, occasionally coming down to visit the horizon and peek at our little human lives. On these visits, they trail beautiful streaks of color for us to admire.
We all worship Linda Mae while she’s storytelling. Her stories of these angels bring a chorus of tears from the surrounding townspeople. On her 76th birthday, as we gathered to sing around her beautiful cake, a shy high-school boy stepped forward. He wore a lacrosse jersey, deep brown eyes hiding behind a messy mop of curls. He presented Linda Mae with a handmade ornament. It was a precious glass angel, with tissue paper wings fluttering and waving behind it. Linda Mae’s reaction is one of my most favorite memories. She was so touched, the gift left her completely at a loss for words, which is very, very rare for Linda Mae.
We watched as she placed the angel figure on the ground and bent slowly, pressing a kiss on its tiny glass head. The whole town was silent, even the little kids. I felt connected to everyone through our shared love of Linda Mae. She truly brings our town together. She herself is an angel walking among us.
One cloudy April morning, we lost our angel. Our sweet Linda Mae passed away in her sleep. The town’s heart broke.
There was a tangible, heavy sadness in the air as I walked Stella, alone for the first time. We arrived at the small coffee shop. The sign outside read: “we’ll miss you, Linda Mae.” The barista greeted me with puffy eyes. I headed back home, coffee in hand, and found myself drawn to Linda Mae’s home. Pots of tulips and roses and daisies sat like confetti on her doorstep.
As I opened the bright blue door, a gentle breeze flowed through her house. It blew a photo off the low, curved table in her living room. How odd. All her other sunset photos lay secured in their spot on her massive wall… I bent to pick the Polaroid up. I wondered why this one wasn’t tucked safely away in a frame, like the others. Then, I noticed handwriting scrawled on the back of the photo, so tiny I almost missed it.
Just this once, it’s your turn to watch the sunset. Promise I’ll put on a show for you, my love.
My head spun. It was Linda Mae’s handwriting. What did this mean? Who was this meant for? I walked to her wall, picked up the lowest-hanging frame, turned it over to find a note in someone else’s handwriting. This note wasn’t written by Linda Mae. I picked up another. This wasn’t her handwriting, either. Nor were any of the other notes on the hundreds of photos — except the one which had blown off her desk.
As I continued to read the notes in order, a story unfolded before me. I couldn’t believe it. One frame after another, I plucked the hidden notes off her wall. I spent hours reading through them, eventually reaching the very first note. I had to climb the tall, sturdy ladder Linda Mae had used to expand her sunset collection.
I turned that first photo over, slightly crinkled and faded under its white frame, from 50-some years ago. I read the first note. The story finally made sense. It was a secret story, one which Linda Mae had kept hidden for decades.
This small note read: Dear sunrise chaser, I found your spot when I came to watch the sunset. It’s meant to be! I’m taking your picture and here, we can do an exchange. Tomorrow, I’ll be at: 42.2810° N, 83.7257° W … come meet me! Until then, xox
I could imagine it so clearly: Linda Mae journeying to a spot one night to watch the sunrise, leaving a note for herself, something simple like “sunrise number 1.” She leaves the note with intentions to return and document the sunrise every day. Except upon returning the next night, she finds her photo gone. In its place, she finds a sunset photo and a tiny note written on its back.
She can’t help herself — she will chase after this sunset-watcher. Day after day, sunset after sunrise. Anywhere, even across the world. They will communicate via an exchange of photos. A note from Linda Mae, naming the next location. A return note from her friend, coordinates and loving words scrawled on the back. The coordinates lead them to nearby locations, but over time, they chase each other to new cities, new countries. On each note, there were sometimes simple coordinates, sometimes a poem or love note, always a “xox” at the end. Never did there seem to be a reunion in person.
Through my detective work of the photos, I’ve come to realize Linda Mae was never obsessed with sunsets at all. It was sunrises she’d documented all along. She’d always been devoted to watching the sky morph into one vivid color after another, but in the mornings instead. All those stories she’d told me over the years, her exotic travels across the world, they’d all happened. But she’d flipped them, telling me and the rest of our town her sunset-chaser stories. It was an ode to her dear friend, whom she’d traded photos and loving words with for decades. None of the photos on this wall were even hers. Linda Mae’s photo wall actually held hundreds of tiny love letters.
All this time, I’d thought she’d been sunsetting across the world. In reality, she was a part of something much different. A unique love story of sorts. They had been leaving Polaroids like a bread crumb trail, leading each other around the world. Some notes mentioned plane or train times; these sun-chasers had followed each other by any means necessary. They’d adapted their lives so they could chase each other and the sun anywhere.
It came time for Linda Mae’s funeral, for which she had very specific directions. She wanted to be buried at sunset, of course. Surrounded by our town, all those who adored her.
I arrived at her funeral location. Glancing around, I saw groups of familiar faces. There was one woman who stood out. Long, wavy black hair and orange glasses making her green eyes pop. I’d never seen her before. I noticed she was clutching something tightly in her left hand. I squinted, realizing it was a Polaroid with a little note. It looked like the exact same handwriting as the hundreds of notes I’d read earlier that day.
I approached her. Her big green eyes landed on me, an unspoken understanding in the space between us. I handed her Linda Mae’s final Polaroid. “I believe this is for you.” She smiled at me, eyes gleaming with tears that matched mine. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“No,” I replied, “you don’t know how much you meant to Linda Mae. You gave her life purpose. Thank you. Please, never stop chasing the sun. For her.”
She nodded, blinking sparkling tears down her face. Each tear was a small reflection of the vibrant sunset unfolding before us. I was overwhelmed by their love at that moment. I sensed Linda Mae in our interactions, in our exchange of Polaroids, in the soft tears rolling down our cheeks.
Linda Mae worshipped the sun; it was everything to her. Now I know why. Each photo was a prized possession to her because it was a promise, another day with her special friend, sharing the wonders of the universe. Just them and the sun, forever.
I stood next to Linda Mae’s beloved sunset-chaser as we watched the sun sink lower, flashing brilliant colors our way as it went. Of course, Linda Mae was putting on a dazzling display, waving her town goodbye in style. We stood together in silence, watching our Linda Mae transform into the angel she’d always dreamed of becoming.
She was the most extraordinary sunset.
As the sunset faded dramatically into its final colors, I pulled out Linda Mae’s Polaroid camera. I snapped one photo. Just one. I took a pen out of my pocket, scrawled a quick note. The crowd started filing out and I followed, leaving my photo perched on the hilltop.
“Dear whoever finds this, I’m watching the sunset every night, starting with this one. xox”
Statement columnist Natalie Bricker can be reached at email@example.com.
How to not pay rent
It was a 1999 Toyota 4Runner — painted black and carefully decorated with scratches that revealed its original silver shade. Last Saturday, it got a massage. Tall, bristled columns whirled around and brushed up against the thin layer of metal that was its body. The car was naked, vulnerable, and it was waiting to be lubed up and rubbed down. Sponges snapped out of the ceiling and lathered the car with a continuous circular motion until the dark chamber that the car was gliding through looked like Christmas, and the soap was snow. Then, it was time to rinse the foam from its oily surface, so the hoses were erected from the floor and began to squirt a white goo onto the body of the vehicle.
Arlo and Jessie stood behind the tall glass window as they watched their child receive its first bath. Arlo’s eyes quickly diverted from the car and settled on Jessie. Despite having been with her for seven years since they graduated high school, he managed to find something that made her seem more beautiful each time he would look at her pale, round face. This time he marveled at her freckles, light in complexion and abundant across her nose and forehead. She was twirling one of her five earrings that ornamented her right ear, occasionally tightening the ponytail that sat on top of her head. Her lips turned upward as she admired the dramatic car wash. Impatient and hungry as she often was, Jessie walked over to the vending machine for a bag of Ruffles, but she was stopped short by Arlo. He grabbed her from behind and slid his fingers into the front pockets of her jeans.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I need a snack. It’s been a whole thirty minutes.” Jessie turned around, widened her hazel eyes and reached both hands up to place them on Arlo’s broad shoulders.
“Alright, grab me a granola bar while you’re over there.” He slid four one-dollar bills into her back pocket as she walked away.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Arlo and Jessie took the car for more than a spin. There were four hints in their newly washed Toyota that indicated the trip was to be longer than their routine drive to the bowling alley at 3:30 p.m. The first was the full tank of gasoline, that, if shaken, would not make a sound. Next was the chaos of the trunk, loaded not with suitcases or bags, but piles of clothing and what looked like more than four pairs of tennis shoes. The clothes were stacked in a Tower of Pisa-like diagonal, as if the drivers were expecting to scream “Jenga!” when the car jolted to a stop and the cloth came tumbling over. The third hint of a long journey was the amount of food — the bags of Ruffles, along with the packs of Ring Dings that sat atop the large packs of water and party pack of Diet Coke. There was a cooler behind the driver seat filled with disposable foods, and cans of beans shoved into the side doors. Lastly were the blankets, the pillows, the portable fan, the mini DVD player and the foam mat that covered the middle seat.
“You ready?” Arlo asked as he reached over and nudged Jessie’s shoulders.
Jessie turned her head toward the house. She thought about the small patch of grass behind the back door that they once laid towels on while gazing at the stars. They smoked a joint that night, laughing at anything and everything as they shoveled Doritos into their mouths. That was the only time they were able to enjoy that grass. She thought about all the other days, the ones when she could barely make it to the bedroom, exhausted from hours of work and hours of fighting with the landlord to keep living in their home.
The car pulled away, cruising along the smooth surface that bordered Sebago Lake. They never thought their house could appear tinier than it already did, but their home shrunk to the size of a pea as they watched it disappear through their rearview windows. The Maine sky was dark, but still light enough for the headlights to be pointless. The air was cool, but not cool enough for Jessie to match her oversized jeans with a sweater. She sat in the passenger seat twirling one of her right studs around in her ear.
As Arlo drove, he squinted, one eye partially blocked off by his curly brown hair. With the risk of conversation slowing them down, Arlo reached his hand over to the stereo and pressed on the power, hoping that music might make the wheels spin faster. A startling static blasted from the speakers, sending both Jessie and Arlo a few inches out of their seats, causing their heads to pound, their shoulders to stiffen and their hearts to race. Jessie quickly leaned over to the volume dial and spun it down. She clicked the arrows sending the radio to the next station, and then the next, and the next, until The Black Keys rang through the car at an appropriate level. The vibrations of “Lonely By” sent Arlo’s size-12 foot immediately toward the gas pedal. At 100 miles per hour, the couple moved forward into the abyss. Jessie’s hand found Arlo’s over the stick shift.
To them, the car was a mansion. Their new address was the empty parking lot a mile east of the gas station that sat three hours away from their previous home. While the average eye might see a mid-sized vehicle, their minds turned the four rubber wheels into a basement where Arlo could host elaborate parties and make drinks for his only guest. When it came time to eat, Jessie was in the kitchen preparing their favorite meal that dabbled in the world’s finest cultures: Cup Noodles with a Bud Light and a side of bagged plantain chips. When they were lucky, Jessie brought home leftovers from Applebees, where she worked. They’d indulge in platters of onion rings, mozzarella sticks and chocolate cake.
“Good even to my ghostly confessor,” Jessie would recite from their favorite scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” as she passed the burning cigarette to Arlo. Cigarettes, they decided, were the best form of light when they wanted to forget their reality.
Binge-watching Seinfeld and Full House was an activity for the living room — a room so unique in its striking similarity to the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and foyer. Arlo would lie across the middle seat and Jessie would take his shape with ease, curling up alongside him with her head on his chest. When Arlo had a long day working at the gas station, the episode would be interrupted by a deep snore. When their legs intertwined, the ground beneath them sank and the roof above them disappeared. They were exactly where they wanted to be. “This is all we have, but this is all we need,” Arlo told Jessie.
The master bedroom proved to be the most extravagant quarter of their home. At around 10 each night, Arlo would magically convert the living room into a plush, king-size bed surrounded by the finest of drapery and softest of pillows. On nights when Jessie stumbled home, Arlo would open the trunk and quietly set her down on the mattress, softly pressing his lips against her cheek and combing her straight brown hair behind her ear.
After a night of dancing at Captain Dingley’s Pub, he caressed her and swung her against the back of the car, holding her waist and proceeding to slide his hand up her skirt. He kissed her neck and then her breast and then her chapped lips Right when the moment felt right, he realized that the bed was yet to be made.
“I gotta fix up the back seat,” he whispered into her ear.
But by the time the living room was converted into the bedroom, Jessie remembered their fight about their future from dinner and pulled up her salmon-colored panties as she stormed away from the car.
“Is this what we want?” Jessie quietly asked as they sat at the Applebees counter after Jessie’s shift.
“Jess, remember that time you tried to convince me that everything happens for a reason? Well, consider me convinced. We hated that house. We hated our lives, we were forced into jobs that gave us five minutes at most to lay together at night before we passed out.”
“But we had a bed. We had a front door!”
“We were choosing the house over each other.”
“What? I hate when you say things like that. We didn’t choose to move out. I hate pretending all the time! This isn’t a dream, Arlo. When I take four more sips of my milkshake and my straw hits the bottom of the glass, we are headed back to our home on wheels. And then what? Stop calling it a fucking living room. Stop asking me to meet you in the bedroom. Just face it! I don’t know what I want, but I do know one thing: I’m done playing dress up.”
“No. I’m walking home. You’ll find me in the front seat. ”
“Jess, I wish that I could give you more. I wish it was different.”
“I’m sorry” was the phrase that seemed to dominate their pillow talk. But when those terribly long nights turned into day, Arlo could not keep his hands off of Jessie and Jessie could not take her eyes off of Arlo.
One particularly warm Thursday evening, Arlo held out his hand and revealed a small white pill.
“The fuck is that?” Jessie asked with her mouth full of Pringles.
“You know Henry? His wife is the one who gives us drinks at the pub. Turns out he’s more than a cable guy. He’s a drug dealer too.”
Without another word, Jessie popped one of the two pills into her mouth and chased it down with the last drop of orange juice in the first bottle she could find; soon after, she began to scream. Arlo laughed and followed her lead, swallowing the second pill. They walked for miles along the lake and through niches created by the tall, dark trees. When they stopped, they danced and sang and yelled. As the sky got darker, they became higher and louder and happier. Soon they were naked and wet, and then Jessie was in Arlo’s t-shirt and he was in her dress. They laughed and spun and danced some more, and then they slept.
Four weeks later, Jessie promised Arlo an oreo milkshake. She left the bike basket empty, hopeful that it would be filled with doggy bags on her way home from work. She pedaled her usual route, which took around 25 minutes each way. Her regret for skipping breakfast that morning and dinner the night before grew until she became so lightheaded that she forgot how to move her feet. As she turned the corner on the second mile, her hands began to shake and her knees gave out. Jessie lay unconscious in the tall grass.
According to Arlo, she was sick. She had a terrible virus, and she had to remain in bed for as many days as it took to recover. He found somebody to cover her shifts at the restaurant and worked extra hard on his own. But Arlo still found time to care for Jessie, telling her stories of his unfortunate childhood and massaging her feet. Most mornings, she would vomit out the window. “After all these years you still get carsick?” he joked. But she didn’t laugh. Her mouth was far too dry and her face too stiff.
“Where would we keep it? What would we feed it? How would we raise it? I don’t want to. We can’t.” Tears began to fall out of Jessie’s dark tired eyes and down her smooth cheeks.
“No, Arlo. You don’t get it, do you? This isn’t a decision we have to make! You’re doing it again. Pretending. Pretending that a car is a place to raise a child. Pretending that we chose this life. I wake up in the morning and I convince myself that the smell of exhausted leather is the smell of vanilla roast. When I close my book at night, I convince myself that I’m putting it on my nightstand, not on the dirty floor. But I cannot, and will not, be able to convince myself that it is right to raise a child in this filthy vehicle that has not been washed in a year.”
They named him Cooper. His skin was tinted gold with a hint of yellow and carefully decorated with freckles. Covered in blood and white goo, he was wiped down and held gently. He was naked for a while, but soon the doctor wrapped him up in a clean white blanket and clipped a bracelet onto his dainty ankle. Then it was time to meet his parents, so Jessie stretched out her arms and handed Cooper to the couple that stood next to her bed. “Thank you.”
They never thought their home could appear smaller than it already did. They returned to the empty car with empty stomachs and empty arms. Arlo looked over at Jessie. Her hair was untouched, sagging below her neck in a messy bun, and her skin was ashen, seemingly washing away her freckles. His eyes quickly diverted from Jessie and settled on the car. Unwashed, and a terrible excuse for a home.
Statement Managing Editor Samantha Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first time I saw her, she was wearing a yellow sundress, sitting in the grass outside Mason Hall during a thunderstorm. She was staring up at the sky, the reflection of the clouds in her dark eyes. She let the rain fall over her, acting as if it wasn’t even there. Her dress was unmuddied and dry, despite the wet grass all around her. Not a single droplet of rain clung to her long dark waves of hair. It was late April: an exam day. No one was paying attention to a girl in the grass. No one said a word to her.
Frankly, I thought I’d imagined her. A stress-induced hallucination during my second-to-last semester of college and nothing more. I never expected to see her again, less than a week later, walking along the opposite side of the street as I passed the Central Campus Transit Center on my way home from a friend’s apartment. I’d drank more than a little wine that evening, trying to forget the semester that nearly killed me. Her eyes met mine and she squinted — like she recognized me as well. I blinked, and she was gone again. It must have been my alcohol-addled mind.
I was at a used bookstore on Liberty Street the next time I saw her. I go to bookstores whenever I need a walk or to destress. Something about being surrounded by stories comforts me. But when I saw the girl in the yellow sundress and her flurry of windblown brown curls leafing through the poetry section, I willed myself to stay rooted in place. She looked towards me, met my gaze and smiled. I was unable to look away as she placed the book she’d been looking at back on the shelf, and crossed the room to meet me.
She said nothing at all as she cocked her head at me, a curious glint in her eyes, as if she’d never seen anything like me before.
Between one moment and the next, she was gone. The only evidence that she’d ever been there was the sound of the bookstore door swinging shut.
I was searching for last-minute internships, stealing the wifi at the South U Starbucks and slowly drinking my weight in espresso, when she sat down across from me. I looked up. This close, I could see the gold-flecked eyeshadow she wore, and the glitter on her cheekbones. She looked like she was dripping gold in the bright June afternoon light.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
She said nothing as she grabbed my hand, a glassy look in her dark hazel eyes. She traced a shape over my hand before dropping my hand and pulling away. Her gaze met mine once again, this time filled with panic. I watched her leave. I watched as something coppery dripped from her fingers but never hit the floor.
I wouldn’t notice the shimmering gold powder left behind on my hand until later.
Convincing myself that the girl in the yellow sundress was just some random and unimportant encounter was less difficult than I thought it would be. In the weeks that followed, I did not see her; and if I didn’t see her, I didn’t think about her. Or at least that was what I tried to tell myself.
Even though the powder she’d left on my hand never seemed to wash away, I did not think about her. Even though every time I saw a yellow dress my heart would leap in my chest, I tried not to think about her. Even though every time I shut my eyes I saw the glint of her eyes and the silhouette of her flowing dress, I told myself I wasn’t thinking about her.
Every once and a while, a flash of something bright and shimmery would catch my eye, but it was usually the sun’s reflection off a building or a passing person’s watch or a newly washed car. I stopped dipping into my eyeshadow pallets, the glittery shades too reminiscent of a phantom of a woman. I did not go to another bookstore, did not pick up a book of poetry, could hardly walk through the Diag without feeling a bone-deep dread. On the days it rained, which it often did this time of year, I did not leave my apartment.
It was the height of summer, and I found myself going to the Kerrytown farmer’s market for some strawberries. It was a particularly crowded day; adults, students, children and pets all gathered under the tents. The sound of voices all blurred into one, like a cacophonous static.
I passed rows of fresh flowers and summer vegetables before I found the apple vendor I was looking for and I grabbed a pint. Was it even apples I had come to buy? I couldn’t remember. I looked up to pay anyway, and I met the eyes of a girl in a sunhat and a yellow dress. She looked back, but this time, the girl in the yellow sundress did not smile at me. She only stared at my outstretched hand brandishing the four single bills. She opened her mouth as if to finally speak, but the only thing that came out was a river of liquid gold.
I stared for a moment, too horrified to look away, before finally stepping back. My foot hit something slippery, and I staggered, my heart shooting to my throat. I looked down to see my shoes covered in something silver and shining.
I turned around to see that the entire market had stilled. Everyone had gone silent despite their gaping mouths.
They were all dripping silver.
Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.
The old man’s truck appeared in the parking lot of a supply store just a quarter of an hour after the sun had come up. Through thick glasses, the store manager, Kent, watched as the truck found its way into an empty spot. When the headlights were finally extinguished, a frail and graying figure ambled out of the front seat of the vehicle and started for the door. Annoyed that the first customer of the day had arrived, Kent put away the sport fishing magazine he had been reading. He took a seat behind the checkout counter and opened a desktop file filled with order forms. His clients spanned most of the neighboring counties on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, from small-time farmers and fishermen to some of the larger industrial chicken farms.
But the order forms had to wait, for soon enough the bells on the front door chimed and the old man walked right up to the counter.
“Hey there,” Kent said. “How are you doing?” Except the fact that your wife ain’t around anymore, he thought to himself. The word had spread through the county in dribs and drabs: it reached Kent only a few weeks after the event. This was the first he had seen of the old man since he and his wife had come in February to buy several sacks of fertilizer for their vegetable garden. Lettuce, carrots, peppers, eggplant and radishes, not to mention the range of herbs she had mentioned proudly to Kent during her ten-some years of rushing in and out of that store. Kent had never seen the garden for himself, but thinking of it filled him with a quaint feeling, like the kind he used to have with his own mom when she would have him cut carrots for the family supper. He wondered how all those plants were faring now.
“Oh, I’m doing good,” the old man replied with a smile. A short silence passed between them. Kent thought he should say something about Helen.
“And my condolences for your wife, Bill. We’ll all miss her a lot, believe you me,” he offered. That seemed to spark something of a sad twinge in the old man’s breast.
“So, you heard,” he surmised. “Then you must have also heard that I’m now taking care of her pride and joy?”
“Yes, of course. That must be why you’re here.”
“Exactly,” the old man said, shaking his head. “Specifically, I have got to deal with these damn rabbits. The pests! They’re eating everything: the lettuce, the basil, the peppers…. It never seemed to be a problem for Helen.”
“That’s because she had the right rabbit repellent,” Kent said.
“Oh, yeah? What are we talking about?”
“I’m technically not allowed to sell the stuff.”
“But you sold it to my wife,” the old man replied. “Is it illegal?”
Not illegal, Kent explained, but the shop’s license expired some time ago. The “stuff” was liquid blood product drawn from the European rabbit. Regular blood meal, he said, is a scam. The meal that you can buy from the big hardware stores is made of dried cow blood; if you want the good stuff from bona-fide rabbits, you have to pay top dollar.
The old man listened carefully to this sales speech, perplexed. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that his wife used to come in here every few months and load up on rabbit blood. After they had retired from their jobs, both in the federal government, they had come to the Eastern Shore to live a more modest life. Part of this modesty, in her view, was giving up red meat, pork and most dishes involving chicken and fish. Better for the environment and more cost effective, she argued. To their surprise it wasn’t long before their steak dinners were a thing of the past. This blood business, then, was certainly out of the ordinary.
“How much?” the old man asked.
“Three hundred for a pint. Cash.”
“I don’t have that kind of money on me.”
“That was Helen’s usual order.”
“That doesn’t matter,” the old man insisted, furrowing his brow. “Why would this stuff be so expensive anyway?”
“It’s an investment,” Kent explained. “That one pint would last your wife a whole year.”
The old man thought it over for a moment.
“How about if I bought less? Let’s see here.” The old man grappled with his wallet, thick with credit cards and rewards slips from different stores. He palmed the cash and counted it in front of the cashier: one hundred and twenty-six dollars.
“A pint is the lowest I can go,” Kent said. I could special order a one hundred milliliter bag, if you’re interested.”
“No, no. That’s fine. The whole thing doesn’t sit too good with me anyway.”
“Well, hold on. I got a deal for you,” Kent interrupted. “If you put down one-twenty today you can go home with the pint. All I ask is that you make three more payments of eighty bucks over the next three months. Think of it as a layaway.” The old man knew this didn’t add up, but he was tired, and all he wanted was to take care of the rabbit problem.
“That’s more than the original three hundred,” the old man pointed out. “How is that fair?”
“It’s no small favor I’m doing here,” Kent replied. “Gotta factor in the considerable risk I’m taking on you, since you’re new to the game.”
The old man nodded. He stripped off six dollars from the money in his palm and handed the rest over the counter. When Kent came back from the storeroom in the back, he was holding a Styrofoam container with a detachable top. The bag was inside, and Kent instructed the old man to inspect the bag for himself to see that everything was in order. The old man picked up the bag, weighing it in his hands; he was surprised by how cold it was.
“You have to keep it refrigerated if you’re not going to use it right away,” Kent said. “The shelf life is only about a month, so the sooner you spread it around the better. You’re gonna want to let the blood drip through the soil; not too much in one area, or else you’ll be wasting it.” As the bag lay limp in his hand he inspected the color—most of the liquid was dark red, almost black. The hue cheered up in a rose color around the edges in small bubbles. A light froth had collected around the bottom of the plastic interior. The bag also had a small plastic spigot attached to a short tube. Placed on the front was a label with the product specifications: Rabbit whole blood product, Dutch rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), Male, Origin: United States, shelf life approx. 30 days, 16 oz, CUSTOM PACKAGED. Everything seemed to be in order.
Back in his garden, the old man hunched over rows upon rows of raised garden beds. He slowly dripped the contents of the bag over them, letting the sweat collecting on his forehead intermingle in the soil with the rose-red blood. Now that he had opened the bag, a faint metallic scent wafted up from his fingertips to his nostrils. And as the bag emptied, all he could think about were the long afternoons his wife would spend tending to the garden. On Sundays, he would take the newspaper out onto the porch while she would slip on a pair of gloves and get to work. Had he ever watched her spread blood over the earth? In the weeks leading up to her passing, she was too sick to come out into the garden. Still, the rabbits must have been deterred from the last batch. But now it was August, and through wind and rain the blood from before had lost its potency.
Blood has been spilled here. For that reason, the garden was as much a place of mourning for the animals as it was for him. It was only natural for them to come and visit after the soil had turned over, after time had worked itself into the land. The old man remembered fondly a trip he had taken with his father when he was still young, about to finish grade school. They saw the battlefield at Gettysburg that weekend, where the blood of around fifty-thousand men had soaked through the same grass that he and his father trampled upon. Though all he could remember now were the miles of wooden fencing, replica cannons and white-marble monuments and memorials that covered a marsh of blood, dirt and flesh.
After washing his hands in the kitchen sink, the old man retired for a long nap in his dark bedroom. When he awoke it was already near sundown, and the whole world was bathed in shades of pink and gold. He made a pot of coffee, as was his custom, and brought it out onto the porch along with a couple of sugar cubes to accompany him while he read the newspaper. Stirring the sugar into the mug, he noted that the rabbits had gone to the other end of the rusted wire fence that bounded it. The old man let out a short chuckle; they were, it seemed to him, visibly annoyed that this morbid ritual had continued.
Everything was in order. As the hot coffee wisped into the humid air and the late summer mosquitoes zipped around his head, he knew that, from now on, every day would be like this. Until his final hour, he would find himself here on the porch surveying what they had created. All he could do now was tend to the garden the best he could, staying the hand of time that threatened to envelop paradise.
The old man’s mood of calm acceptance persisted until, out of the corner of his eye, he witnessed a fox dart from behind the fence toward the two rabbits that had been peacefully chewing on grass. The rabbits turned their heads and bounded away at full clip, but the fox slithered toward them filled with sly confidence, graceful and sure in its violence. One of the rabbits got away in time, but the other found its soft underbelly pierced by a sharpened set of canine teeth. Crying out, the victim attempted to scamper away, only to find itself further enmeshed in the clutches of the beast.
“Hey!” the old man cried from his rocking chair. Dragging the rabbit along, the fox turned to stare at him. Their eyes met for only a moment before the fox ran away into the bushes, leaving the twitching, but very nearly dead, rabbit behind.
The old man walked over to the animal. It was no longer suffering, but the flow of blood that the fox had opened was now staining the grass and seeping into the soil. There was no smell yet, but the old man knew it was only a matter of time before the remains would start to fester in the summer heat.
He went back inside to fetch a trash bag. Using the gloves his wife had left behind, he lifted the deceased rabbit and placed it inside, tying the bag tightly at the opening. Dark red blood began to collect at the bottom. There must be a quarter of a pint down there, the old man thought to himself.
Statement Deputy Editor Alexander Satola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Happy Retirement!” screams the messily painted banner on the library wall, adorned with juvenile drawings of bright red balloons and pale pink hearts. A circle of small, colorful childrens’ chairs with legs mere inches above the musty carpeted floor lay vacant, waiting for the committee to take their seats. The childrens’ literature section of the public library, located conveniently in the basement of the local fire department’s headquarters, is dimly lit with cheap fluorescent bulbs.
A door covered in decade-old advertisements for childrens’ book clubs that never ran and library-hosted birthday parties nobody dared to pursue opens for an array of beat-up, dirty stuffed animals to waddle through. A Beanie Baby penguin named Happy that is missing an eye; a golden brown teddy bear named Fluffy after its now-faded and lint-filled fur; a distorted Winnie the Pooh doll that has seemingly been torn almost to shreds by its owner. The gang took their seats next to their diverse assortment of fellow stuffed friends, full of nostalgic longing.
Happy stood up to give his opening remarks for the very last time. Their children had all turned 18, officially graduating from the comforting chains of childhood. In Happy’s eyes, this community no longer needed to exist because the animals were no longer needed. Their children were moving on, and it was the end of almost two decades of joyful bonding and lively discussion within the stuffed animal community of North Starlight, Pennsylvania. Daisy is ready to say goodbye.
“Welcome to our final annual meeting,” Happy said mournfully. “You have done such wonderful work for each of your children, and they will remember their time with you forever. No matter how old they grow to be, their experiences exploring the world with you will never be forgotten. You will always be their special friends.”
A small, hot-pink poodle named Sparkles let out a sob. Daisy tried her best not to roll her beady plastic eyes into the back of her head.
“Tonight is not only a time to reminisce on the wonderful experiences you have had with your child, but to also appreciate where they are headed next,” Happy explained. “You have worked long and hard to make sure your children never felt alone, and this is your chance to tell us how wonderful they have turned out to be.”
Daisy thought that Ivy grew up to be a wonderful girl, but she also knew that every other animal in this room felt the same way about their children. Every child is special, she thinks, so what makes mine any more special than the next?
“Winnie, would you like to share your thoughts with us?” Happy asked. The shredded doll mustered the strength to respond with a light nod.
“Well, I love my Annie, and boy, she used to love me. One time, back when she was maybe four or so, she left me under a storeroom mattress at Sleepy’s. I was so scared. There were bugs crawling everywhere and customers making dents in the mattress above my head. Annie and her grandma came back to find me. Annie was crying. She gave me the biggest hug and told me she would never forget about me again. I think about that hug a lot; the warm embrace of a child who feels like you are the only thing in the world that truly understands their complex feelings. I loved being that comfort for her, and I loved knowing how much she valued me,” Winnie said, looking down at his worn out mustard-yellow feet that barely grazed the tattered carpet.
“Since she got older, she stopped taking me everywhere,” he continued. “I slept in her bed next to her until she was ten, and then she gave me up completely. First I was left on her bedroom floor, and eventually I got moved to the attic along with the fancy dinner plates that her parents have never touched. It’s like I’ve turned to dust. Now she’s going off to college all the way in California. I am really proud of her, because she is so special to me and so smart. When she goes to college I won’t even be in her room anymore. I won’t hear all of her FaceTimes with her friends or hugging her mom goodnight. I won’t get to watch her get into medical school like she said she wants to. I won’t be a part of her life anymore,” Winnie choked, holding back his miniature tears.
“Thank you for sharing those feelings with us, Winnie,” Happy said softly. Happy had a child of his own, and it seemed that Winnie’s words had hit a little too close to home. Happy’s bright purple chair rocked back and forth as he attempted to remain calm.
“I can go next,” said Fluffy, who belonged to Aidan, a boy who lived on the outskirts of town. “Aidan isn’t going anywhere, it seems. His mom and him got into a big fight a while ago, about how he didn’t try hard enough in school even though he says he does try hard but finds it really difficult. When he was little, he always hugged me after a long day at school. I guess it was never his thing. He was good at so many other things though; in kindergarten, he was the star of the class play, and I watched him perform on opening night. His mom always saw his singing and acting as a hobby, but I still think he is too talented for that. He’s more interesting than his grades, you know, and a lot of kids aren’t like that. He didn’t receive enough scholarship to go anywhere far away because of his grades, I guess, so he isn’t leaving me just yet. But I sort of wish he was.”
Their last comment drew the animals’ attention. Since they had each met their children, their jobs had been simple: to love and comfort them until they grew into adulthood. For the first time, this little community was left without a common goal, and some were handling it a bit better than others.
“How could you ever want your child to go away?” Happy asked, raising his voice with each word. “I would do anything, anything to start over and see Lena meet me for the first time, and play with me every day, and snuggle with me every night. You’re lucky. Your job isn’t over yet.”
“I guess I’m just ready to move on,” said Fluffy. “I spent my whole life locked in a small bedroom filled with Cheez-It crumbs and dirty laundry.”
Daisy, who almost never participated in these sorts of emotional conversations, perked up at the idea of being allowed to move on from her life with Ivy. She loved her, no doubt, but part of her was excited to see what would come next. Ivy was admitted to Northwestern; she opened the acceptance letter at her desk, where Daisy had a perfect view to watch the magic happen. Once a teddy bear in a Northwestern shirt joined her on Ivy’s bed, Daisy figured the next stage of their lives grew near.
“I kind of see where he’s coming from,” she announced. “Don’t you all want to explore the world a little, beyond the rooms of your kids and whatever restaurants and stores they took you to over a decade ago? Aren’t you tired of being confined to a bedroom at almost all hours of the day? You have the chance to live a life of your own now, without the restriction of a child to take care of. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in the heart of the city on a cart selling me for just two dollars. I saw hundreds of thousands of people walk through those streets, living their lives and exploring the real world. Don’t you think we deserve that too?”
The room fell silent. A large poster of Peter Rabbit above a rickety old bookshelf stared down at the animals as they squirmed in their seats. Daisy was nervous that the one time she’d spoken up had been a waste, and Happy would politely ask her to leave the library right away.
“I suppose I’d like to see Stars Hollow,” said Sparkles, who had stopped crying by now. “It’s this very nice little town. I’ve seen it in a show Max used to watch.”
“There you go, see? You don’t need Max to do that. Now that you’re not obligated to sit in his room and be there for him, you can go anywhere you want. And Max would want you to do what makes you happy,” Daisy explained.
The meeting droned on, and Daisy stayed quiet as Baba the orange lamb and Meowy the furry cat told the stories of their 18 years in the arms of the children they love most. She knew she would miss Ivy, more than anything, but there was something curiously beautiful about no longer being confined to a twin bed with Finding Nemo sheets.
Maybe she’d try to find some of the other animals she once shared that old street cart with. Maybe she’d travel the world and come back to the library to tell the tale.
Maybe she’d begin to feel like more than an assistant to the child who had long outgrown her: a child whom she, too, had outgrown.
Statement correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at email@example.com.