issue twenty

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(5980 words)
Crystal Lynn Hilbert
5¢ Buys the Future
       The fair opened June 12, 1920. That same day, the Queen of Worms turned seventeen.

She'd never seen a prettier fair. What had been just a mess of hard-packed earth the afternoon before now swam with a sea of red striped tents full of strong-men and milk-jar pyramids. Animal auction callers rang out from the big tent, reaching all the way out to the church with their, "Half-ton-pure-bred-race-sow-breeding-queen," almost matched by the dozens of other callers calling, "Step right up, guess your weight, guess your mama's weight, win a prize, win the toss, win the girl, tickets, tickets, two for a nickel!"

Around the corner from the fat lady's tent, she watched a fire eater drinking from a sullen midget's flask. The Bandy-Legged Man loped along behind her, towering over everybody in his big striped stilts. Jaunty, tinkling tin-sheet music caught her ear and she ended up with a nose full of pretzel and fresh paint smells instead -- sweet green pine and kettle corn, hay and caramel and that dusty sweet, mothballs scent that always followed the fair.

The Queen of Worms -- not yet the Queen of Worms -- stood in the middle of the rush tide of bodies and colors, cacophony sucking at her bones.

"June, com'on! This way," her sister called and took her hand. "I think I saw Billy Thomas."

June started and stumbled into the mess of the crowd after her sister. She stole side-long glances at all the soldiers they passed, a year-and-some back from war, and she thought, those were boys they'd known all their lives. Boys they'd kissed behind the woodsheds and whispered about behind the school and now they just weren't the same boys. Something went strange in their eyes, wriggling and cold all the way down in the bottoms.

"What do we want with Billy Thomas?" June asked. "I thought you and Mason--"

"Me and Mason. I told you there isn't me and anything about Mason. Any case, this is your birthday, Juney!"

"What's that got to do with anything?"

Her baby sister grinned. Just ten months younger, they two could have passed for twins.

"Billy Thomas," May said with great dignity, "was asking after you yesterday."
Laughing, she shook her head and rolled her shoulder to get the words off.

"Well, Billy Thomas never used to have black eyes." She retrieved her hand and smiled, "Let's go ride the wheel, May. Before the line gets too long."

"Aw, you're being too hard on him. He's always had at least one with all those brothers of his. Can't hold that against him."

Looking off at the wheel going round and round, thrusting tiny laughing people way up into the sky, June listened with one ear. They just didn't have paint for that color blue. She wanted to remember it, remember it just like this for always, but she couldn't get all the corners of that color into her head.

"That's not what I meant," she told her sister finally.
May stopped walking and June came up short on the end of her arm, skidding to a halt so dust rolled up over the tops of her brand new black patents. When she turned back, her sister wore her patient face, steady as a saint. June hadn't had more than ten months to save her momma's face, but if she had it, she'd bet May looked like her now.

May tilted her head. "Well, what did you mean?"

And June couldn't explain so she smiled instead, tossed her summer hay hair just for the feel of it.

"I don't know. Come on. If you don't get a move on, we'll be the only two girls in the whole state who've never rode a Ferris wheel!"

Her sister laughed. The matter of Billy Thomas' eyes dropped to the ground like all the fluttery spun-sugar cones dusting up the edges of the tents. Together, they ran off between the crowds of people and tents, sun-headed sprites with matching gingham dresses kissing their knees, and June felt like she could fly.


       A band of laughing boys cluttered up everywhere around them, so bright eyed and pretty with their pressed shirts and starched collars and June didn't know how it happened, but somehow she and May had ended up right smack in the middle of the herd. 

"We need a fair queen!" Petey Craw announced.

"Well, sure. There's got to be a fair queen," another laughed, elbowing him. "There's always a fair queen."

"At harvest," June tried, half laughing. "But it's not near harvest yet."

The second grinned at her, a towheaded farm boy with the prettiest straight teeth. "That's the best part! It doesn't need to be."

She couldn't help smiling back. "Well then, what's the fair queen even there for?" she teased.

"I don't know. Huh. Maybe just to recognize the prettiest girl in the whole fair for all her hard work?"

A bubble of laughter broke like the reservoir in high summer.

"It's just good luck," the first boy announced.

"Yeah, everybody needs some good luck," another boy added, this one with his big brother's way of two-shouldered walking. "I vote for the Farman sisters."

Beside her, May laughed, a whirlwind of humor and beautiful, wind-tangled hair and June hoped people would always see her baby sister just like that -- like the picture of Momma on the bureau -- always smiling and half-turned, like she loved hunting out that next surprise.

"Can't have more than one fair queen," May said.

"Sure we can," the first boy protested.

"Well, she wouldn't be the queen if there were two. You ever hear of more than one queen? I vote June-bug for queen. It's her birthday and everything."

"Her birthday? Well, happy birthday, Miss June!" he said, grinning bigger than his head, with those big, broad shoulders like he could carry the world.

"Queen June," somebody corrected. "How old'd you get today, Queen June?"

She laughed. "Seventeen."

"Seventeen?" Jimmy Roebur gasped and held his heart. "I'll be. A whole seventeen."

June shoved him in the shoulder, feeling like she'd never stop grinning.

"Sure, seventeen. What, just because you turned eighteen and got your uncle's old farm?"

"Well, I am the only one here with land of my own."

Petey Craw laughed and clapped Jimmy on the back.

"Guess that makes you the Fair King!"

June turned to her sister. "Shoot, May. You getting me married off already?"

And she got a few laughs at that, but then Jimmy Roebur's eyes lit up.

"I got an idea. Hold on, everybody. I'll be right back."

He pulled away from the crowd and darted off into the nearest tent. Chickens started up a ruckus. Cages rattled around, guinea hens getting uppity. And then Jimmy came flying back out of the tent with a chair held up above his head, running long legged towards them so smooth and easy like a hunting dog made for moving.

A few beats later, an old man thumped out behind him, fist raised and shouting.

"Sorry, sir. I'll bring it right back. Sorry," Jimmy called out over his shoulder. "It's the Fair Queen's seventeenth birthday!"

He kept running, brought the chair right up to them and they took off running, too. But June looked back. She saw the old man smiling, even though he kept on shouting, laugh lines rolling up at the corners of his eyes and mouth.

But then they rounded a corner and the old man dropped out of sight behind a big yellow tent. Hardly even panting, Jimmy dropped himself and the chair down in front of her, him down on one knee, and said, "M'lady."

"Go on, June-bug." Petey called and laughed. "Sit down."
"Is the chair not to your liking, majesty?"

"Well, of course it's not. There's no gold and things on it."

"Somebody go get some gold."

"I saw some in the magic tent."

"No, it's perfect," June protested, planting herself right down in the middle of somebody's old kitchen chair. "I'm the Fair Queen, not the Queen of England."

So the boys laughed and hoisted her aloft, carried her right through the main thoroughfare, between the tents.

"Make way, make way," somebody started chanting and the rest picked it up. "June Farman, the Fair Queen! Make way for the Fair Queen."

The tops of June's ears went hot with all those eyes on her, but everybody loved a parade. People flaked away from the tents to join them left and right, until she rode on the shoulders of a dozen strong limbed farm boys, a whole procession trailing behind her, everybody singing and laughing and making up tunes just for the occasion. Just for her.

They marched on past the row of funhouse mirrors lined up against the outside of a burnished blue tent and June watched the warped blur of color and happy people.

And then they hit the last mirror in line -- the normal one -- and she stared.

They were all of them -- every last one -- so beautiful. All those pretty, laughing blue-eyed boys who'd be going to war when the next war came, and would come back different, with bits eaten through. All the different colors of all the different people in their Sunday best. And everybody loved a parade, so today, everybody loved her.

And then, on the ground beside her, May reached up to tug on the hem of her blue-checked dress.
"June, look!" she called. "It's Daddy!"

Over the heads of the crowd around her, she saw her father standing long up ahead, smiling like she hadn't seen him smile in a long, long time. He stood up there between the milk-bottle tent and the one for the fat lady, straight up and tall -- not at all hunched up all sore and tired like normal -- tall, like a tree, like she remembered from when she only came up to his hip and even from all the way up here, she could see his eyes glinting, proud of her.

"May, this is the absolute best day," she said and her sister didn't hear, but she nodded anyway because she still understood.

Locked in her perfect moment, surrounded by all shining, brilliant colors and loving faces, June decided whatever happened, she'd keep this forever.


       That night, listening to her father snoring in the next room and May breathing even beside her, June crept out of bed. She slipped into the dress and shoes she'd worn that day, and stole out into the other room. Her mother's coat hung on the rack just as it always did -- sixteen years later, like she might come back any time -- fur and careful cotton looking clean silver in the moonlight.

June pulled the coat down and climbed into it. From the light of the far distant Ferris wheel and the big fat moon in the sky, she could see the bare edges of her reflection in the window. She looked like a caught hunter, the wildness in her face just like her mother's in the photograph on the great big drawer-chest behind her.

Easing the door open as quietly as she very well could, June slipped outside.
She cut through the cornfield, running fast on her toes so her heels wouldn't stick in the mud between the rows. Spider webs brushed her face and stuck on her eyelashes. To every side of her, she heard other living things moving in the cornfield. Low slithering on the ground, rustling leaves -- corn snakes chasing mice, she told herself. She could deal with those.

Only, way off on the side of the field her sister and her had always known was haunted, something a whole lot taller than a snake shoved between the stalks.

"I'm bigger'n you," she called hollow to the rustling corn, voice caught in the wind of her going. "I will put this heel straight through your damn eye. Don't you dare try anything with me."

And so hearing, the ghost in the corn fell back. June pulled on ahead. She made her way to the lights still calling in the distance, the Ferris wheel lit up so gorgeous and big like a brand new moon just waiting to be hauled up into the sky beside the old one.

Then, all of a sudden, June broke out of the corn and across the edges of the flat fallow field, all the way into the grass on the other side before she stopped long enough for the fear to catch up to her.

A gasp clotted up muffled in her throat and she clawed at her face, tearing at the webs and insects -- or whatever they were trying to make new nests in her hair -- and June tore her hair up wild before she finally calmed down and started breathing again.

Standing at the edge of the fields and the lights, June set her eyes on the Ferris wheel and patted her hair back down. Lord, she must look a terror. Nobody'd take her serious with a head like a jungle child. Bobby pins. She needed bobby pins.

It'd been sixteen years since her mother wore this coat, but when she searched down in the deep, fur-lined pockets, she came up with a tiny handful of bobby pins. One rasped a little rusty under her fingertips and another she had to bend back into shape. But at the edge of the field, June felt her hair back into place and found she had just enough.

She took a deep breath and smoothed down her coat, picking off errant greenery that'd gotten stuck onto her. And then, she walked into the fair.

Quite a different sight without the sun to light the corners, June strode down the darkened earth corridors between the tents and felt the eyes watching her from the shadows. No more kettle corn and spun sugar smells, she heard men laughing with cotton in their mouths. To her right, an awful wrenching noise split the air like somebody being tore inside out, and then a great big rush, like a whole bucketful of water hitting the ground.

Music wound all along between the tents, seeming brighter somehow in contrast to the night. But the wrong kind of bright. Bright like the smile you'd give to a boy you didn't want to hurt -- all edges and corners, but no fire there for warmth.

June pulled her mother's coat taut around her shoulders. And she walked.

She ignored the eyes from the shadows until the eyes went away all together, and she made her way to the far corner of the fair, just like she'd done the night before it opened.
The magician's tent rose up like an ogre against one side of his trailer, purple canvas decorated with tarnished golden tassels swinging gingerly in the wind. A line of people leaned up outside the door. Older couples, mostly -- the boys who'd come home the year-and-some before with arms looped over their pretty, sharp-cornered wives. They cuddled up together as they waited, held hands as they walked out, looking like ghosts in both cases. 

June checked her reflection in one of the gewgaws scattered through the allotment to make it look mysterious. Almost, she thought. She needed some color.

One by one, June undid the buttons of her coat to get at the inside breast pocket. There would be an old forgotten lipstick in the top left pocket. A gift from her father to her mother when they were young and had no corners yet.

And just like she'd planned, the tube rolled right under her fingers. On pulling it out, she found the case a little tarnished and the lipstick inside somewhat cracked, but the color looked just right.

June wet the tip of her fingers and rubbed the moisture into the tube. A lovely smooth apple-red came off on her finger. Finding the nearest hanging gewgaw with a flat shine, she dabbed the color onto her lower lip, evened it out with her finger and came away looking like the woman she saw in her head.


Last person in line now, she pocketed the lipstick and waited. Off in the way far distance, the church started banging its bells together again, but June kept waiting until the last sightless couple came out holding hands and leaning as far away from each other as they could.

The magician didn't look like he had the night before. The happy lines that'd pulled the corners of his mouth up like curtains had disappeared. Instead, dark crescents lined the under parts of his eyes, while his hair ruffled up like a wildfire around his ears. Abandoned and forgotten, his velveteen purple top hat lay tipped over on the floor beside the table.

She watched the man all hunched over and cockeyed in his rickety wooden chair, digging through what could have been an old toy chest beside him and he didn't look majestic. He looked just like a boy who wouldn't go to sleep until his momma made him.

She sat down. The magician didn't look up.

"Sorry," he grunted. "Closed."

She smiled.

"That's okay. I'm the last in line."

He looked up then, just like she knew he would. And just like she knew he would, he worked the curtains of his smile up again and the trick went back to lighting up his eyes.

"Beautiful woman like you, I bet you're not last in line very often."

She smiled because he liked that, her red mouth soft and beckoning in the flickering oil lamp of the tent. Behind him, a map of stars glowed unholy, painted perfectly straight on the corrugated metal of the trailer behind him.

"So, what are you looking for on this fine evening, madam? Your future?" he squinted at her and then laughed. "No, no. You have that well under control. Your lover, then? Have you got a man causing you problems?"

June leaned into the bigger chest that made up the magician's table, finding his eyes.

"No lover," she said. And like clockwork, he leaned in too, his eyes dark.

"Oh? What then?"

"I want to be exactly this age, forever."

The heat in his eyes broke. He laughed at her and dropped back, shoulders hitting the chair with a solid-flesh thump. "Sweetheart, you're gorgeous, you really are. But there's more to life than being pretty."

She rolled a shoulder backwards, staring at the man's eyes, looking for that moving thing she saw slithering in the dark corners of the solider boys.

"I know. But I'll always have that," she smiled and slowly, began to unbutton her coat. "I won't always have this."

The magician swallowed, blinking down at her chest. And behind her straight face, June marveled. He wanted to believe she'd come with nothing under her coat. So two inches of bare flesh below the neck, and suddenly he saw everything he wanted to see.

What she made him see.

June smiled and pulled some curtains of her own, hiding the two inches and illusion again.

"Make me stay this way."

He started to talk, choked on his dry tongue and had to start over again with a crooked grin.

"Sweetheart, I'll give you anything you want," he said, cleared his throat and smoothed his hair.

Then suddenly, he grinned, held up a finger and pulled a flat metal disk from his coat. She heard it clink against the fat iron ring on his first finger before she saw it again, dancing over his knuckles.

"This coin… was given to me by a gypsy woman in Athens," he told her, his voice low and throaty. "It appears to people as whatever they want it to be. To her, it was a Greek drachma. Me, I see a gold doubloon. For you…?"

June looked him in the eyes, arched a single brow as the face of a war-chief spun over the tops of his knuckles.

"It's a buffalo nickel."

The magician laughed. He tossed the coin into the air and caught it again in one smooth motion, hiding it again in his palm.

"Then a buffalo nickel is what you need the most. Riches -- but riches that can get you a loaf of bread down at the grocers when you need it. This coin tells a lot about people."

She said nothing and waited. The magician's act fell loose behind the charmer's grin and the ridged line of his shoulders slumped down over the table like a man melting.

"Tell you what," he said. "You call this bet; I'll give you the coin. I call this bet, I win a goodnight kiss from a lovely young woman." 

June felt the world constricting, saw the webbing where the pieces came together.


He laughed again, leaned back.

"Alright, alright. No kiss--"

"No. I call this bet, I win my magic," she said. And then, her eyes a weight in the dark, "I saw what you did last night."

And she had. She'd snuck out to watch the fair set up, her father plow-beat at home and her sister sleeping, and he'd been with a woman outside the trailer. She'd watched him talking in whispers with Mrs. Pettern, whose husband worked the hardware store, pouring two glasses of wine.

She'd never seen wine before, so she'd been staring at the bottle. And she'd seen him pass three fingers over the lip of her glass before he picked it up. When Mrs. Pettern tasted it, her shoulders pulled up straight and the wrinkles left her face. No longer an old, sawdusted woman, she'd looked young -- beautiful again. She'd laughed and smiled and when she leaned in, she dropped all that fine, fancy wine in the dirt and they'd gone into the big circus trailer together, Mrs. Pettern weaving and suddenly drunk.

June had listened as they went inside, hearing their pig-pen noises and watching the trailer shake, thinking it didn't take nothing to stop a body from doing what it wanted. Mrs. Pettern's body just stopped thinking for itself.

And for a second, looking at her, the magician kept smiling his fool's grin. But then he caught on to something in her eyes, read in her face what she'd seen. And like a curtain falling, his face went white.

"Well?" she asked.

His voice was hoarse. "Call it."

"Heads," she said and he threw the coin into the air.

It arched up to the top of the tent, end over end and June watched it go up -- buffalo, buffalo -- and saw her mistake. She squeezed her eyes closed.

It would come down heads. It would come down heads.

Her jaw clenched. Her eyes locked shut. June saw the tent through the back of her eyelids, blazing white with the coin hanging frozen in the air.

It would come down heads, or it would not come down at all.

The coin shot from the air like it'd been slapped down by the hand of god, plummeted straight onto the crate between them and stopped, perfectly still on the cloth.

The scarred Indian chief stared off into the distance, mottled lips downturned but almost smiling.

His hands shaking, the magician reached out and turned the coin.

The Indian chief kept smiling.

All at once, he rocketed back. His chair crashed into the crate beside him, bounced off onto the ground, taking a boxful of gewgaws with it. They rolled like crabapples underfoot as he scrambled away, his back slamming with a clang into the metal wall of his trailer, clawing for the door.

June stood, pushed the crate between them aside.

"I won," she said. "You have to give me the spell now. I won."

The magician stared at her, his eyes black holes in a sea of perfect, terrified white.

"What are you?"

"A Farman. Does it matter? I won." She frowned, reaching for his shoulder, to stop him leaving, to make him sit, to make him see her. "You did it with Mrs. Pettern, so do it again. You promised."

"Don't touch me!" he choked.

Finally wrenching the door open, the man bolted inside, slamming it shut behind him. And June stood in the center of the magician's tent at midnight, listening to the man inside the trailer throw his locks and shove something heavy up against the door -- all to keep her out.

Stooping, she picked up the no-buffalo nickel from where it'd fallen to the ground at her feet. And clenching it tight in her fist, June walked home.


       And June aged. She aged away from the scattering of new cars on the edges of the hard packed dirt, between lines of bored horses and carefully kept buggies and hay carts, and women in loose gingham dresses and men in their pressed linen slacks, and the smell of pigs nasty on sweet new hay, and 5¢ bought a soda pop and 5¢ bought the future.

She aged, terrified of aging. And then one day, standing at the stove, she caught sight of her hands, beginning to cord through with veins and lines and she closed her eyes.

She remembered the coin.

She remembered the fear. She remembered the searing cold through her mother's coat and knowing the cold came from her. She remembered power thrumming hot down her spine like a plucked string. She remembered the wrenching pain of trying to keep a body under control, trying to slow the wrinkles already starting in the corners of her mouth and she'd be gray before twenty-five just like her daddy -- remembered trying to dig her heels into the dirt but her heart just kept beating faster and faster, dragging her forward, time flying like a broken watch against the wall, and--

Abruptly, June knew what to do.

Jaw clenched, June found the wriggling coil of black in the pit of her stomach and jerked it free. Pain swamped her vision, lights going off like fireflies in front of her eyes, like the lights on the Ferris wheel, and she staggered. Her knees slammed hard into the stone-chucked floor. Mist clouded her eyes.
Worms twisted through her fingers. She felt them fighting her, crawling, clutching their way back inside to strangle around her organs, to live there, to kill her with waiting and they would not.

She shoved herself up on the edge of the counter and kept pulling, hand over hand. Writhing shadows swamped the floor. A tinny wail lit the edge of her hearing, consuming all of her hearing until it's just that, just the wordless protest of an ancient creature wrenched from its cave of flesh.

Tiny rows of razor teeth sank into her hands, but her hands had gone too cold to feel it, even when it sank down, down and locked into the bone, she felt only the pressure and grind and she pulled.

She wrenched and she pulled, hand over hand, over and over, until even the final, ribbon-thin tendril fell to the floor with the rest of it, slick and sticky flesh sliding from her palm.

Ten-thousand eyes blinked awake and glowered from the mass, fixed on her and burning with impossible purity of hatred. Collecting its ribbons and rungs, the creature surged from the ground with ten-thousand eyes ablaze.

And June stood there, staring back.

The last cord had been cut. Her fear could fill the kitchen, but it couldn't touch her. June watched it writhe and swim and when she turned to make her way for the cupboards nailed up high on the wall, she just kicked it out of her way as she went. She sorted through the little tins of spices until she found the one marked SALT in her father's careful, black block writing.

Behind her, the mass surged forward.

June swung and flung an arc of salt throughout the room.

Deafening, piteous, the beast wrenched backwards, screaming, twisting on the floor in agony, burning and melting as most of those ten-thousand eyes squinted shut with maddening pain.

June stood in the kitchen, ankle deep in dying fear, and she smiled.

She could see her eyes in the refection of the pot on the stove -- the clearest, perfect blue she'd ever seen on another living person. And on the floor, the monster continued its howl. She could sweep it outside, she thought to herself. But outside critters still had their fear. It'd crawl inside something else, drive it to dying that much faster and keep living on. Never mind, even without the fear to drive it, her body would continue to age and die.

She needed more time. She needed all time.

Humming to herself, June accidentally remembered a song she'd heard at the fair those years ago. She remembered the thundering, clumsy laugh of those pretty, blue-eyed boys with strong shoulders and a stolen chair. She remembered her sister, framed perfect in the sun.

June took a knife from the drain.

Piece by piece, she dissected the writhing, salted mass, and each piece she placed in the pot on the stove. The fear encompassed the room in its entirety, but June knew it would fit, so it did. She boiled the whole of it down until it formed a thick, bitter sludge in the bottom of the pot. This, she poured into the empty milk bottle sitting by the door. Licks of steam groped the inside of the glass gray, sending up a foul smell like no other.

June considered this, added a little milk from the fresh bottle in the ice box, and drank it.

The poison killed her.

Well, some of her.

Bodies, she discovered, really were a whole lot easier to control when they stopped thinking for themselves.

June's hair grew thin and lines hatched and gashed her face into stitched together ribbons. Her father grew old and died. Her sister married for a herd of sunny-headed children. But June had won the bet. She would not relinquish her throne. As old as she grew, the dirt couldn't claim her. The worms that would've wanted her lay long dead in the residue around the edges of an old copper pot. And hardly anything remained of the Fair Queen but the cold, writhing shadow in the bottom of a boy-soldier's eye.

And through time, the Queen of Worms crawled on.


       But for all her unending reach, the Queen of Worms could not find the magician. She followed his trail through the dust bowl towns, over the Northern border and down again, trailing magic nickels down the east coast.

When she finally found him, the day after his heart attack, his corpse didn't make itself especially helpful.

Irritable, the Queen of Worms followed the backwards trail through everywhere they'd already been with her bones growing older, tracking where he'd walked and who he'd loved. Mostly, he had moved through like a ghost. People remembered the cheap fair magician with the devil on his trail. Few remembered the man.

But eventually, because all time comes to an eventually, she found a whisper of him still left in the heart of a mossy bottomed greenhouse of a city. But just that. Just the whisper. A heart, somewhere in the city, still murmuring to itself memories of a black eyed man. And though she haunted the new supermarkets and meandered through the graves of trees, she couldn't find the heart that whispered.

So she stayed.

The town had one library -- an old stone building made to match the tiny, once-functional school house beside it, whitewashed and sullen on the lawn. The Queen of Worms took a job there as an evening librarian.

But at night -- and what a trustworthy old woman she was, knocking on death's door, but still trying to be useful -- they left the building to her to lock up.

A flashlight in one hand, she haunted the basement where their town records mildewed, bullying a body that no longer needed sleep or anything through the aisles of old tree acids and history. Night after night, she drifted through the shelves and boxes, shifting through the oldest birth receipts and property grants until she found it.

A birth certificate, the magician's name following the child's in tight black letters -- heavy weight for such a little boy.

She checked the date of the receipt. Old man now.

But, as it turned out three boxes later, her magician had a grandson.

Just turned seventeen.


       An old, old woman sat with her hands in her lap at the bus stop, smiling an empty kind of smile into space as she watched the brightly colored people walking down the sidewalk. Nobody knew her, but they waved as they went past, just in case she might be somebody's mother.

And the old, old woman always waved back.
Cutting through the back lot of a shopping plaza, a boy jumped the big fence behind the bus stop and plopped down on the bench, enormous headphones blasting something that might have been music or the latest military interrogation. He slumped comfortable on the little wooden bench and reached into his side pocket. It took a lot of reaching since it'd somehow gotten halfway down his leg. But eventually he found a little cardboard pack, slapped it like a new baby and popped a cigarette into his mouth.

The old woman smiled at him as he brought the lighter up to his face. He felt the weight of her eyes on him and it bothered him enough that he shot a glance her way.

"Hey," he mumbled around the cigarette, gave her a nod and went back to trying to get the thing lit.

The old woman nodded back, but didn't say anything until, suddenly, the noise pounding his eardrums cut out unexpectedly. The boy jerked a glance at her, but she couldn't have done anything. Probably just a low battery. He knew the thing was a piece of shit when he bought it. No surprise it couldn't keep a charge.

The old woman kept smiling at him.

"I knew your great granddaddy," she said. "When I was just your age, he made me a promise he never kept."

"Oh yeah?" the kid asked, wondering if maybe he should call somebody to get her back to whatever nursing home she'd wandered away from. Because he didn't know the stories he should have. The ones warning that old ladies were never to be trusted. The ones whispering of boiling worms, tormented and shackled by the soul they'd been meant to keep.

The old woman smiled. She had all her original teeth, white and ever so slightly crooked.

"The bus is running late," she said. "Let me tell you a story."

An hour later, when the bus finally turned the bend, it found a sun-headed girl with an antique kind of beauty, swinging an old woman's cane.

The driver creaked to a stop beside her, opening the doors with a hiss. "You waiting for me?" she called out the doors.

Grinning, the girl turned and tossed her a coin. The driver caught it without meaning to at all, her hand moving out of habit before she could get a word in. "Ma'am, what do you…" she started and trailed off, her eyes catching. Whichever way she turned it, an Indian chief half-smiled back at her. The date on his shoulder read 1903.

"Miss," the driver tried again, but when she looked up, the girl met her eyes like the first rumble of thunder in summer.

"Don't ever let them make you," the girl said.

And then she laughed, slung the cane over her shoulder and swayed up the street, new paisley dress kissing the backs of her knees.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Crystal Lynn Hilbert. All rights reserved.