NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
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She has been hailed by Michael Chabon as “the most darkly playful voice in American fiction” and by Neil Gaiman as “a national treasure.” Now Kelly Link’s eagerly awaited new collection—her first for adult readers in a decade—proves indelibly that this bewitchingly original writer is among the finest we have.
Link has won an ardent following for her ability, with each new short story, to take readers deeply into an unforgettable, brilliantly constructed fictional universe. The nine exquisite examples in this collection show her in full command of her formidable powers. In “The Summer People,” a young girl in rural North Carolina serves as uneasy caretaker to the mysterious, never-quite-glimpsed visitors who inhabit the cottage behind her house. In “I Can See Right Through You,” a middle-aged movie star makes a disturbing trip to the Florida swamp where his former on- and off-screen love interest is shooting a ghost-hunting reality show. In “The New Boyfriend,” a suburban slumber party takes an unusual turn, and a teenage friendship is tested, when the spoiled birthday girl opens her big present: a life-size animated doll.
Hurricanes, astronauts, evil twins, bootleggers, Ouija boards, iguanas, The Wizard of Oz, superheroes, the Pyramids . . . These are just some of the talismans of an imagination as capacious and as full of wonder as that of any writer today. But as fantastical as these stories can be, they are always grounded by sly humor and an innate generosity of feeling for the frailty—and the hidden strengths—of human beings. In Get in Trouble, this one-of-a-kind talent expands the boundaries of what short fiction can do.
Praise for Get in Trouble
“Ridiculously brilliant . . . These stories make you laugh while staring into the void.”—The Boston Globe
“When it comes to literary magic, Link is the real deal: clever, surprising, affecting, fluid and funny.”—San Francisco Chronicle
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“The Summer People”
Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister. “Fran,” he said, spritzing her like a wilted houseplant. “Fran, honey. Wakey wakey.”
Fran had the flu, except it was more like the flu had Fran. In consequence of this, she’d laid out of school for three days in a row. The previous night, she’d taken four NyQuil caplets and gone to sleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives. Her head was stuffed with boiled wool and snot. Her face was wet with watered-down plant food. “Hold up,” she croaked. “I’m awake!” She began to cough, so hard she had to hold her sides. She sat up.
Her daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble. The sun wasn’t out from behind the mountain yet, but there was a light in the kitchen. There was a suitcase, too, beside the door, and on the table a plate with a mess of eggs. Fran was starving.
Her daddy went on. “I’ll be gone some time. A week or three. Not more. You’ll take care of the summer people while I’m gone. The Robertses come up this weekend. You’ll need to get their groceries tomorrow or next day. Make sure you check the expiration date on the milk when you buy it, and put fresh sheets on all the beds. I’ve left the house schedule on the counter and there should be enough gas in the car to make the rounds.”
“Wait,” Fran said. Every word hurt. “Where are you going?” He sat down on the couch beside her, then pulled something out from under him. He showed her what he held: one of Fran’s old toys, the monkey egg. “Now, you know I don’t like these. I wish you’d put ’em away.”
“There’s lots of stuff I don’t like,” Fran said. “Where you off to?”
“Prayer meeting in Miami. Found it on the Internet,” her daddy said. He shifted on the couch, put a hand against her forehead, so cool and soothing it made her eyes leak. “You don’t feel near so hot right now.”
“I know you need to stay here and look after me,” Fran said. “You’re my daddy.”
“Now, how can I look after you if I’m not right?” he said. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”
Fran didn’t know but she could guess. “You went out last night,” she said. “You were drinking.”
“I’m not talking about last night,” he said. “I’m talking about a lifetime.”
“That is—” Fran said, and then began to cough again. She coughed so long and so hard she saw bright stars. Despite the hurt in her ribs, and despite the truth that every time she managed to suck in a good pocket of air, she coughed it right back out again, the NyQuil made it all seem so peaceful, her daddy might as well have been saying a poem. Her eyelids were closing. Later, when she woke up, maybe he would make her breakfast.
“Any come around, you tell ’em I’m gone on ahead. Ary man tells you he knows the hour or the day, Fran, that man’s a liar or a fool. All a man can do is be ready.”
He patted her on the shoulder, tucked the counterpane up around her ears. When she woke again, it was late afternoon and her daddy was long gone. Her temperature was 102.3. All across her cheeks, the plant mister had left a red, raised rash.
On Friday, Fran went back to school. Breakfast was a spoon of peanut butter and dry cereal. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Her cough scared off the crows when she went down to the county road to catch the school bus.
She dozed through three classes, including calculus, before having such a fit of coughing the teacher sent her off to see the nurse. The nurse, she knew, was liable to call her daddy and send her home. This might have presented a problem, but on the way to the nurse’s station, Fran came upon Ophelia Merck at her locker.
Ophelia Merck had her own car, a Lexus. She and her family had been summer people, except now they lived in their house up at Horse Cove on the lake all year round. Years ago, Fran and Ophelia had spent a summer of afternoons playing with Ophelia’s Barbies while Fran’s father smoked out a wasps’ nest, repainted cedar siding, tore down an old fence. They hadn’t really spoken since then, though once or twice after that summer, Fran’s father brought home paper bags full of Ophelia’s hand-me-downs, some of them still with the price tags.
Fran eventually went through a growth spurt, which put a stop to that; Ophelia was still tiny, even now. And far as Fran could figure, Ophelia hadn’t changed much in most other ways: pretty, shy, spoiled, and easy to boss around. The rumor was her family’d moved full-time to Robbinsville from Lynchburg after a teacher caught Ophelia kissing another girl in the bathroom at a school dance. It was either that or Mr. Merck being up for malpractice, which was the other story, take your pick.
“Ophelia Merck,” Fran said. “I need you to come with me to see Nurse Tannent. She’s going to tell me to go home. I’ll need a ride.”
Ophelia opened her mouth and closed it. She nodded.
Fran’s temperature was back up again, at 102. Tannent even wrote Ophelia a note to go off campus.
“I don’t know where you live,” Ophelia said. They were in the parking lot, Ophelia searching for her keys.
“Take the county road,” Fran said. “129.” Ophelia nodded. “It’s up a ways on Wild Ridge, past the hunting camps.” She lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. “Oh, hell. I forgot. Can you take me by the convenience first? I have to get the Robertses’ house put right.”
“I guess I can do that,” Ophelia said.
At the convenience, Fran picked up milk, eggs, whole-wheat sandwich bread, and cold cuts for the Robertses, Tylenol and more NyQuil for herself, as well as a can of frozen orange juice, microwave burritos, and Pop-Tarts. “On the tab,” she told Andy.
“I hear your pappy got himself into trouble the other night,” Andy said.
“That so,” Fran said. “He went down to Florida yesterday morning. He said he needs to get right with God.”
“God ain’t who your pappy needs to get on his good side,” Andy said.
Fran pressed her hand against her burning eye. “What’s he done?”
“Nothing that can’t be fixed with the application of some greaze and good manners,” Andy said. “You tell him we’ll see to’t when he come back.”
Half the time her daddy got to drinking, Andy and Andy’s cousin Ryan were involved, never mind it was a dry county. Andy kept all kinds of liquor out back in his van for everwho wanted it and knew to ask. The good stuff came from over the county line, in Andrews. The best stuff, though, was the stuff Fran’s daddy made. Everyone said that Fran’s daddy’s brew was too good to be strictly natural. Which was true. When he wasn’t getting right with God, Fran’s daddy got up to all kinds of trouble. Fran’s best guess was that, in this particular situation, he’d promised to supply something that God was not now going to let him deliver. “I’ll tell him you said so.”
Ophelia was looking over the list of ingredients on a candy wrapper, but Fran could tell she was interested. When they got back into the car Fran said, “Just because you’re doing me a favor don’t mean you need to know my business.”
“Okay,” Ophelia said.
“Okay,” Fran said. “Good. Now mebbe you can take me by the Robertses’ place. It’s over on—”
“I know where the Robertses’ house is,” Ophelia said. “My mom played bridge over there all last summer.”
The Robertses hid their spare key under a fake rock just like everybody else. Ophelia stood at the door like she was waiting to be invited in. “Well, come on,” Fran said.
There wasn’t much to be said about the Robertses’ house. There was an abundance of plaid, and everywhere Toby Jugs and statuettes of dogs pointing, setting, or trotting along with birds in their gentle mouths.
Fran made up the smaller bedrooms and did a hasty vacuum downstairs while Ophelia made up the master bedroom and caught the spider that had made a home in the wastebasket. She carried it outside. Fran didn’t quite have the breath to make fun of her for this. They went from room to room, making sure there were working bulbs in the light fixtures and that the cable wasn’t out. Ophelia sang under her breath while they worked. They were both in choir, and Fran found herself evaluating Ophelia’s voice. A soprano, warm and light at the same time, where Fran was an alto and somewhat froggy even when she didn’t have the flu.
“Stop it,” she said out loud, and Ophelia turned and looked at her. “Not you,” Fran said. She ran the tap water in the kitchen sink until it was clear. She coughed for a long time and spat into the drain. It was almost four o’clock. “We’re done here.”
“How do you feel?” Ophelia said.
“Like I’ve been kicked all over,” Fran said.
“I’ll take you home,” Ophelia said. “Is anyone there, in case you start feeling worse?”
Fran didn’t bother answering, but somewhere between the school lockers and the Robertses’ master bedroom, Ophelia seemed to have decided that the ice was broken. She talked about a TV show, about the party neither of them would go to on Saturday night. Fran began to suspect that Ophelia had had friends once, down in Lynchburg. She complained about calculus homework and talked about the sweater she was knitting. She mentioned a girl rock band that she thought Fran might like, even offered to burn her a CD. Several times, she exclaimed as they drove up the county road.
“I’ll never get used to it, to living up here year round,” Ophelia said. “I mean, we haven’t even been here a whole year, but . . . It’s just so beautiful. It’s like another world, you know?”
“Not really,” Fran said. “Never been anywhere else.”
“Oh,” Ophelia said, not quite deflated by this reply. “Well, take it from me. It’s freaking gorgeous here. Everything is so pretty it almost hurts. I love morning, the way everything is all misty. And the trees! And every time the road snakes around a corner, there’s another waterfall. Or a little pasture, and it’s all full of flowers. All the hollers.” Fran could hear the invisible brackets around the word. “It’s like you don’t know what you’ll see, what’s there, until suddenly you’re right in the middle of it all. Are you applying to college anywhere next year? I was thinking about vet school. I don’t think I can take another English class. Large animals. No little dogs or guinea pigs. Maybe I’ll go out to California.”
Fran said, “We’re not the kind of people who go to college.”
“Oh,” Ophelia said. “You’re a lot smarter than me, you know? So I just thought . . .”
“Turn here,” Fran said. “Careful. It’s not paved.”
They went up the dirt road, through the laurel beds, and into the little meadow with the nameless creek. Fran could feel Ophelia suck in a breath, probably trying her hardest not to say something about how beautiful it was. And it was beautiful, Fran knew. You could hardly see the house itself, hidden like a bride behind her veil of climbing vines: virgin’s bower and Japanese honeysuckle, masses of William Baffin and Cherokee roses overgrowing the porch and running up over the sagging roof. Bumblebees, their legs armored in gold, threaded through the meadow grass, almost too weighed down with pollen to fly.
“It’s old,” Fran said. “Needs a new roof. My great-granddaddy ordered it out of the Sears catalog. Men brought it up the side of the mountain in pieces, and all the Cherokee who hadn’t gone away yet came and watched.” She was amazed at herself: next thing she would be asking Ophelia to come for a sleepover.
She opened the car door and heaved herself out, plucked up the poke of groceries. Before she could turn and thank Ophelia for the ride, Ophelia was out of the car as well. “I thought,” Ophelia said uncertainly. “Well, I thought maybe I could use your bathroom?”
“It’s an outhouse,” Fran said, deadpan. Then she relented: “Come on in, then. It’s a regular bathroom. Just not very clean.”
Ophelia didn’t say anything when they came into the kitchen. Fran watched her take it in: the heaped dishes in the sink, the pillow and raggedy quilt on the sagging couch. The piles of dirty laundry beside the efficiency washer in the kitchen. The places where tendrils of vine had found a way inside around the windows. “I guess you might be thinking it’s funny,” she said. “My pa and me make money doing other people’s houses, but we don’t take no real care of our own.”
“I was thinking that somebody ought to be taking care of you,” Ophelia said. “At least while you’re sick.”
Fran gave a little shrug. “I do fine on my own,” she said. “Washroom’s down the hall.”
She took two NyQuil while Ophelia was gone and washed them down with the last swallow or two of ginger ale out of the refrigerator. Flat, but still cool. Then she lay down on the couch and pulled the counterpane up around her face. She huddled into the lumpy cushions. Her legs ached, her face felt hot as fire. Her feet were ice cold.
A minute later Ophelia sat down beside her.
“Ophelia?” Fran said. “I’m grateful for the ride home and for the help at the Robertses’, but I don’t go for girls. So don’t lez out.”
Ophelia said, “I brought you a glass of water. You need to stay hydrated.”
“Mmm,” Fran said.
“You know, your dad told me once that I was going to hell,” Ophelia said. “He was over at our house doing something. Fixing a burst pipe, maybe? I don’t know how he knew. I was eleven. I don’t think I knew, not yet, anyway. He didn’t bring you over to play after he said that, even though I never told my mom.”
“My daddy thinks everyone is going to hell,” Fran said from under the counterpane. “I don’t care where I go, as long as it ain’t here and he’s not there.”
Ophelia didn’t say anything for a minute or two and she didn’t get up to leave, either, so finally Fran poked her head out. Ophelia had a toy in her hand, the monkey egg. She turned it over, and then over again.
“Give here,” Fran said. “I’ll work it.” She wound the filigreed dial and set the egg on the floor. The toy vibrated ferociously. Two pincerlike legs and a scorpion tail made of figured brass shot out of the bottom hemisphere, and the egg wobbled on the legs in one direction and then another, the articulated tail curling and lashing. Portholes on either side of the top hemisphere opened and two arms wriggled out and reached up, rapping at the dome of the egg until that, too, cracked open with a click. A monkey’s head, wearing the egg dome like a hat, popped out. Its mouth opened and closed in ecstatic chatter, red garnet eyes rolling, arms describing wider and wider circles in the air until the clockwork ran down and all of its extremities whipped back into the egg again.
“What in the world?” Ophelia said. She picked up the egg, tracing the joins with a finger.
“It’s just something that’s been in our family,” Fran said. She stuck her arm out of the quilt, grabbed a tissue, and blew her nose for maybe the thousandth time. “We didn’t steal it from no one, that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No,” Ophelia said, and then frowned. “It’s just—I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like a Fabergé egg. It ought to be in a museum.”
There were lots of other toys. The laughing cat and the waltzing elephants; the swan you wound up, who chased the dog. Other toys that Fran hadn’t played with in years. The mermaid who combed garnets out of her own hair. Bawbees for babies, her mother had called them.
“I remember now,” Ophelia said. “When you came and played at my house. You brought a silver minnow. It was smaller than my little finger. We put it in the bathtub, and it swam around and around. You had a little fishing rod, too, and a golden worm that wriggled on the hook. You let me catch the fish, and when I did, it talked. It said it would give me a wish if I let it go.”
“You wished for two pieces of chocolate cake,” Fran said.
“And then my mother made a chocolate cake, didn’t she?” Ophelia said. “So the wish came true. But I could only eat one piece. Maybe I knew she was going to make a cake? Except why would I wish for something that I already knew I was going to get?”
Fran said nothing. She watched Ophelia through slit eyes.
“Do you still have the fish?” Ophelia asked.
Fran said, “Somewhere. The clockwork ran down. It didn’t give wishes no more. I reckon I didn’t mind. It only ever granted little wishes.”
“Ha ha,” Ophelia said. She stood up. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. I’ll come by in the morning to make sure you’re okay.”
“You don’t have to,” Fran said.
“No,” Ophelia said. “I don’t have to. But I will.”
When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves, but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.
Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of that equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.
Fran, dosed on NyQuil, feverish and alone in her great-grandfather’s catalog house, hidden behind walls of roses, dreamed—as she did every night—of escape. She woke every few hours, wishing someone would bring her another glass of water. She sweated through her clothes, and then froze, and then boiled again.
She was still on the couch when Ophelia came back, banging through the screen door. “Good morning!” Ophelia said. “Or maybe I should say good afternoon! It’s noon, anyhow. I brought oranges to make fresh orange juice, and I didn’t know if you liked sausage or bacon so I got you two different kinds of biscuit.”
Fran struggled to sit up.
“Fran,” Ophelia said. She came and stood in front of the sofa, holding a cat-head biscuit in each hand. “You look terrible.” She brushed her knuckles over Fran’s forehead. “You’re burning up! I knew I oughtn’t’ve left you here all by yourself! What should I do? Should I take you down to the emergency?”
“No doctor,” Fran said. “They’ll want to know where my daddy is. Water?”
Ophelia scampered back to the kitchen. “You need antibiotics. Or something. Fran?”
“Here,” Fran said. She lifted a bill off a stack of mail on the floor, pulled out the return envelope. She plucked out three strands of her hair. She put them in the envelope and licked it shut. “Take this up the road where it crosses the drain,” she said. “All the way up.” She coughed. Dry things rattled around down inside her lungs. “When you get to the big house, go round to the back and knock on the door. Tell them I sent you. You won’t see them, but they’ll know you come from me. After you knock, you go in. Go upstairs directly, you mind, and put this envelope under the door. Third door down the hall. You’ll know which. After that, you oughter wait out on the porch. Bring back whatever they give you.”
Ophelia gave her a look that said Fran was delirious. “Just go,” Fran said. “If there ain’t a house, or if there is a house and it ain’t the house I’m telling you ’bout, then come back and I’ll go to the emergency with you. Or if you find the house, and you’re afeared and you can’t do what I asked, come back, and I’ll go with you. But if you do what I tell you, it will be like the minnow.”
“Like the minnow?” Ophelia said. “I don’t understand.”
“You will. Be bold,” Fran said, and did her best to look cheerful. “Like the girls in those ballads. Will you bring me another glass of water afore you go?”
Fran lay on the couch, thinking about what Ophelia would see. From time to time, she raised a curious sort of spyglass—something much more useful than any bawbee—to her eye. Through it she saw first the dirt track, which only seemed to dead-end. Were you to look again, you found your road crossing over the shallow crick, the one climbing the mountain, the drain running away and down. The meadow disappeared again into beds of laurel, then trees hung all over with climbing roses, so that you ascended in drifts of pink and white. A stone wall, tumbled and ruint, and then the big house. The house, dry-stack stone, stained with age like the tumbledown wall, two stories. A slate roof, a long slant porch, carved wooden shutters making all the eyes of the windows blind. Two apple trees, crabbed and old, one laden with fruit and the other bare and silver black. Ophelia found the mossy path between them that wound around to the back door with two words carved over the stone lintel: be bold.
And this is what Fran saw Ophelia do: having knocked on the door, Ophelia hesitated for only a moment, and then she opened it. She called out, “Hello? Fran sent me. She’s ill. Hello?” No one answered.
So Ophelia took a breath and stepped over the threshold and into a dark, crowded hallway with a room on either side and a staircase in front of her. On the flagstone in front of her were carved the words: be bold, be bold. Despite the invitation, Ophelia did not seem tempted to investigate either room, which Fran thought wise of her. The first test a success. You might expect that through one door would be a living room, and you might expect that through the other door would be a kitchen, but you would be wrong. One was the Queen’s Room. The other was what Fran thought of as the War Room.
Fusty stacks of magazines and catalogs and newspapers, encyclopedias and gothic novels leaned against the walls of the hall, making such a narrow alley that even lickle tiny Ophelia turned sideways to make her way. Dolls’ legs and silverware sets and tennis trophies and mason jars and empty matchboxes and false teeth and still chancier things poked out of paper bags and plastic carriers. You might expect that through the doors on either side of the hall there would be more crumbling piles and more odd jumbles, and you would be right. But there were other things, too. At the foot of the stairs was another piece of advice for guests like Ophelia, carved right into the first riser: be bold, be bold, but not too bold.
The owners of the house had been at another one of their frolics, Fran saw. Someone had woven tinsel and ivy and peacock feathers through the banisters. Someone had thumbtacked cut silhouettes and Polaroids and tintypes and magazine pictures on the wall alongside the stairs, layers upon layers upon layers; hundreds and hundreds of eyes watching each time Ophelia set her foot down carefully on the next stair.
Perhaps Ophelia didn’t trust the stairs not to be rotted through. But the stairs were safe. Someone had always taken very good care of this house.
At the top of the stairs, the carpet underfoot was soft, almost spongy. Moss, Fran decided. They’ve redecorated again. That’s going to be the devil to clean up. Here and there were white and red mushrooms in pretty rings upon the moss. More bawbees, too, waiting for someone to come along and play with them. A dinosaur, needing only to be wound up, a plastic dime-store cowboy sitting on its brass-and-copper shoulders. Up near the ceiling, two armored dirigibles, tethered to a light fixture by scarlet ribbons. The cannons on these zeppelins were in working order. They’d chased Fran down the hall more than once. Back home, she’d had to tweeze the tiny lead pellets out of her shin. Today, though, all were on their best behavior.
Ophelia passed one door, two doors, stopped at the third door. Above it, the final warning: be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that thy heart’s blood run cold. Ophelia put her hand on the doorknob, but didn’t try it. Not afeared, but no fool neither, Fran thought. They’ll be pleased. Or will they?
Ophelia knelt down to slide Fran’s envelope under the door. Something else happened, too: something slipped out of Ophelia’s pocket and landed on the carpet of moss.
Back down the hall, Ophelia stopped in front of the first door. She seemed to hear someone or something. Music, perhaps? A voice calling her name? An invitation? Fran’s poor, sore heart was filled with delight. They liked her! Well, of course they did. Who wouldn’t like Ophelia?
She made her way down the stairs, through the towers of clutter and junk. Back onto the porch, where she sat on the porch swing, but didn’t swing. She seemed to be keeping one eye on the house and the other on the little rock garden out back, which ran up against the mountain right quick. There was even a waterfall, and Fran hoped Ophelia appreciated it. There’d never been no such thing before. This one was all for her, all for Ophelia, who’d opined that waterfalls are freaking beautiful.
Up on the porch, Ophelia’s head jerked around, as if she were afraid someone might be sneaking up the back. But there were only carpenter bees, bringing back their satchels of gold, and a woodpecker, drilling for grubs. There was a ground pig in the rumpled grass, and the more Ophelia set and stared, the more she and Fran both saw. A pair of fox kits napping under the laurel. A doe and a fawn teasing runners of bark off young trunks. Even a brown bear, still tufty with last winter’s fur, nosing along the high ridge above the house. While Ophelia sat enspelled on the porch of that dangerous house, Fran curled inward on her couch, waves of heat pouring out of her. Her whole body shook so violently her teeth rattled. Her spyglass fell to the floor. Maybe I am dying, Fran thought, and that is why Ophelia came here.
Fran went in and out of sleep, always listening for the sound of Ophelia coming back down. Perhaps she’d made a mistake, and they wouldn’t send something to help. Perhaps they wouldn’t send Ophelia back at all. Ophelia, with her pretty singing voice, that shyness, that innate kindness. Her curly hair, silvery blond. They liked things that were shiny. They were like magpies that way. In other ways, too.
But here was Ophelia, after all, her eyes enormous, her face lit up like Christmas. “Fran,” she said. “Fran, wake up. I went there. I was bold! Who lives there, Fran?”
“The summer people,” Fran said. “Did they give you anything for me?”
Ophelia set an object upon the counterpane. Like everything the summer people made, it was right pretty. A lipstick-sized vial of pearly glass, an enameled green snake clasped round, its tail the stopper. Fran tugged at the tail, and the serpent uncoiled. A pole ran out the mouth of the bottle, and a silk rag unfurled. Embroidered upon it were the words drink me.
Ophelia watched this, her eyes glazed with too many marvels. “I sat and waited, and there were two little foxes! They came right up to the porch and went to the door and scratched at it until it opened. They trotted right inside! Then they came out again and one came over to me with the bottle in its jaws. It laid down the bottle right at my feet and they went trotting down the steps as easy as you please and into the woods. Fran, it was like a fairy tale.”
“Yes,” Fran said. She put her lips to the mouth of the vial and drank down what was in it. She coughed, wiped her mouth, and licked the back of her hand.
“I mean, people say something is like a fairy tale all the time,” Ophelia said. “And what they mean is somebody falls in love and gets married. Happy ever after. But that house, those foxes, it really is a fairy tale. Who are they? The summer people?”
“That’s what my daddy calls them,” Fran said. “Except when he gets religious, he calls them devils come up to steal his soul. It’s because they supply him with drink. But he weren’t never the one who had to mind after them. That was my mother. And now she’s gone, and it’s only ever me.”
“You take care of them?” Ophelia said. “You mean like the Robertses?”
A feeling of tremendous well-being was washing over Fran. Her feet were warm for the first time in what seemed like days, and her throat felt coated in honey and balm. Even her nose felt less raw and red. “Ophelia?” she said.
“I think I’m going to be much better,” Fran said. “Which is something you done for me. You were brave and a true friend, and I’ll have to think how I can pay you back.”
“I wasn’t—” Ophelia protested. “I mean, I’m glad I did. I’m glad you asked me. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
If you did, you’d be sorry, Fran thought but didn’t say. “Ophelia? I need to sleep. And then, if you want, we can talk. You can even stay here while I sleep. If you want. I don’t care if you’re a lesbian. There are Pop-Tarts on the kitchen counter. And those two biscuits you brung. I like sausage. You can have the one with bacon.”
She fell asleep before Ophelia could say anything else.
The first thing she did when she woke up was run a bath. In the mirror, she took a quick inventory. Her hair was lank and greasy, all witchy knots. There were circles under her eyes, and her tongue, when she stuck it out, was yellow. When she was clean and dressed again, her jeans were loose and she could feel all her bones. “I could eat a whole mess of food,” she told Ophelia. “But a cat-head and a couple of Pop-Tarts will do for a start.”
There was fresh orange juice, and Ophelia had poured it into a stoneware jug. Fran decided not to tell her that her daddy used it as a sometime spittoon.
“Can I ask you some more about them?” Ophelia said. “You know, the summer people?”
“I don’t reckon I can answer every question,” Fran said. “But go on.”
“When I first got there,” Ophelia said, “when I went inside, at first I decided that it must be a shut-in. One of those hoarders. I’ve watched that show, and sometimes they even keep their own poop. And dead cats. It’s just horrible.
“Then it just kept on getting stranger. But I wasn’t ever scared. It felt like there was somebody there, but they were happy to see me.”
“They don’t get much in the way of company,” Fran said.
“Yeah, well, why do they collect all that stuff? Where does it come from?”
“Some of it’s from catalogs. I have to go down to the post office and collect it for them. Sometimes they go away and bring things back. Sometimes they tell me they want something and I get it for them. Mostly it’s stuff from the Salvation Army. Once I had to buy a hunnert pounds of copper piping.”
“Why?” Ophelia said. “I mean, what do they do with it?”
“They make things,” Fran said. “That’s what Ma called them, makers. I don’t know what they do with it all. They give away things. Like the toys. They like children. When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”
“Have you seen them?” Ophelia said.
“Now and then,” Fran said. “Not so often. Not since I was much younger. They’re shy.”
Ophelia was practically bouncing on her chair. “You get to look after them? That’s the best thing ever! Have they always been here?”
Fran hesitated. “I don’t know where they come from. They aren’t always there. Sometimes they’re . . . somewhere else. Ma said she felt sorry for them. She thought maybe they couldn’t go home, that they’d been sent off, like the Cherokee, I guess. They live a lot longer, maybe forever, I don’t know. I expect time works different where they come from. Sometimes they’re gone for years. But they always come back. They’re summer people. That’s just the way it is with summer people.”
“Like how we used to come and go,” Ophelia said. “That’s how you used to think of me. Like that. Now I live here.”
“You can still go away, though,” Fran said, not caring how she sounded. “I can’t. It’s part of the bargain. Whoever takes care of them has to stay here. You can’t leave. They don’t let you.”
“You mean, you can’t leave, ever?”
“No,” Fran said. “Not ever. Ma was stuck here until she had me. And then when I was old enough, I took over. She went away.”
“Where did she go?”
“I’m not the one to answer that,” Fran said. “They gave my ma a tent folds up no bigger than a kerchief. It sets up the size of a two-man tent, but on the inside, it’s teetotally different, a cottage with two brass beds and a chifferobe to hang your things up in, and a table, and windows with glass in them. When you look out one of the windows, you see wherever you are, and when you look out the other window, you see them two apple trees, the ones in front of the house with the moss path between them?”
“Well, my ma used to bring out that tent for me and her when my daddy had been drinking. Then Ma passed the summer people on to me, and on a morning after we spent the night in that tent, I woke up and saw her climb out that window. The one that shouldn’t ought to be there. She disappeared down that path. Mebbe I should’ve followed on after her, but I stayed put.”
“Where did she go?” Ophelia said.
“Well, she ain’t here,” Fran said. “That’s what I know. So I have to stay here in her place. I don’t expect she’ll be back, neither.”
“She shouldn’t have left you behind,” Ophelia said. “That was wrong, Fran.”
“I wish I could get away for just a little while,” Fran said. “Maybe go out to San Francisco and see the Golden Gate Bridge. Stick my toes in the Pacific. I’d like to buy me a guitar and play some of them old ballads on the streets. Just stay a little while, then come back and take up my burden again.”
“I’d sure like to go out to California,” Ophelia said.
They sat in silence for a minute.
“I wish I could help out,” Ophelia said. “You know, with that house and the summer people. You shouldn’t have to do everything, not all of the time.”
“I already owe you,” Fran said, “for helping with the Robertses’ house. For looking in on me when I was ill. For what you did when you went up to fetch me help.”
“I know what it’s like when you’re all alone,” Ophelia said. “When you can’t talk about stuff. And I mean it, Fran. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“I can tell you mean it,” Fran said. “But I don’t think you know what it is you’re saying. If you want, you can go up there again one more time. You did me a favor, and I don’t know how else to pay you back. There’s a bedroom up in that house and if you sleep in it, you see your heart’s desire. I could take you back tonight and show you that room. And anyhow, I think you lost a thing up there.”
“I did?” Ophelia said. “What was it?” She reached down in her pockets. “Oh, hell. My iPod. How did you know?”
Fran shrugged. “Not like anybody up there is going to steal it. Expect they’d be happy to have you back up again. If they didn’t like you, you’d know it already.”