Skip to main content



The Air We Breathe

Part One


February 2009

She wanted to poke out Elvis’s eyes. He stared at her from the corner—the young King, not the old, sweaty, fat one—in his suit of shiny white, clutching a microphone in his wax hand, his molded face frozen in his signature twisted-lip grimace.

Louise had moved him out front because “The King” brought the tourists in. There weren’t any tourists on Dorsett Island, in February, but her mother opened the wax museum every day of the year, except Thanksgiving and their vacation time between Christmas Eve and New Year’s. Even if Uncle Mick hadn’t required it, Louise probably would have done the same. She needed purpose to her days. All the dusting of displays and painting new scenery would be meaningless without the potential of someone coming through the museum doors.

Molly took a pushpin from the counter drawer, tore a page from her notebook, and covered Elvis’s face with it, jabbing the pin into the middle of his forehead. His hair would hide the hole. Maybe now she could finish her history homework.

Tap. Tap. Tap.Her pink eraser bounced up each time she thumped it against the oak counter. She held the sharpened tip between her pointer and thumb, graphite filling her fingerprints. She rolled the pencil along the wood; it limped unevenly because of its six-sided shape, and stopped, quivering before falling still. Molly rubbed her fingertips across a sheet of paper, smears of pencil-lead storm clouds forming on the white.

No one would come in today.

The wheeled stool squawked as she shifted on it. She moved again, perched almost birdlike on the padded seat, feet hooked in the metal bars. Another squawk. The building had all sorts of sounds to it—one big cacophony of air clattering through old pipes, of the television constantly playing in her mother’s office, of shifting floors, and of toilets that didn’t stop running unless Molly remembered to jiggle the handle.

Across the narrow street, Tobias parked in front of Island Pizza & More, his Civic dressed in magnetic signs declaring Free Delivery, the letters floating above a simple sketch of a red lobster holding a slice of pepperoni pizza in his claw. The More indicated typical Maine tourist fare—chowders and seafood salads and fried fish. Neon signs taped in the restaurant window advertised lobster roll platters for $11.99, plus tax.

She walked to the window and watched him through a palm-sized worn patch in the blue F of the window lettering—Lou’s HOUSE OF WAX, with Lou written in script letters and balanced on the corner of the H in HOUSE.

During the summer, tourists came in demanding, “Who’s Lou? Is there really a Lou?” and sometimes her mother would appear from the back and say, “You’re looking at her.” Uncle Mick’s father had been named Lou. When talking to Mick about the caretaker job, her mother had told him her name was Louise. He slapped his dirty denim thigh and said, “Guess it’s meant to be,” and Louise pinched Molly’s upper arm through the sleeve of her winter coat. A warning. Keep your mouth shut.

That had been a long time ago.

As he got out of his car, Tobias looked back at her, and she slipped her hand over her peephole. Moments later, the front entrance opened and he walked through, a cackle of menacing recorded laughter greeting him from the speaker in the corner above the door, angled downward so the sound tumbled atop his head.

“Man, I hate that, even though I know it’s coming.” He tilted a small pizza box at her. “Garlic knots. Frank got the order wrong. Again. Want them?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“You guess? The best garlic knots outside Brooklyn and you only guess you want them. I’m wounded.”

She smiled, head turned away from him, tilted to the floor. The flat brown carpet was littered with little Ts of white, the ridges she plucked off the margin of her spiral-notebook paper. She brushed at them with her toe, trying to move them under the counter, but they stuck, stubborn and thin. “Do you have sauce, too?”

“Molly Fisk,” Tobias said, setting the box on the counter and flipping back the lid, “for you, anything.”

A small container of marinara waited in the corner. She popped off the cover, squeezing too hard, the chunky orange sauce spilling over her fingers. She didn’t want to lick them in front of Tobias. “Napkins?”

“Well, not anything.” He laughed, and Molly smiled for the second time that day. The only times that day.

Something fell from the ceiling into the pizza box, a black speck with legs. She nudged the shelled body over and onto its feet, exposing a tomato-colored back and four inky spots, like the tip of a marker dabbed onto the beetle’s wings.

“I don’t think you should be awake yet,” Molly said, blocking its path with her finger. The beetle hesitated, then crawled onto her skin. She held it up to Tobias.

“Did you ever make a wish on one of these?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Really? When we were kids, my brother and I would find ladybugs and make a wish, and then blow them away home.”

“They’re beetles, actually. Coccinellids. And there are more than five thousand different types.”

“Of beetles?”

“No—ladybugs. There are like three hundred thousand species of beetles.”

“They could take over the world.”

Molly laughed a little. “Possible.”

“How do you know all this bug stuff?”

She wanted to say, my father. “Wikipedia is my friend.”

“You should be an etymologist.”


“I said that, didn’t I?”

“There’s a . . . Yeah. You did.”

Tobias scratched his head under his knitted hat, stripes of green and blue and brown and orange, his near-black hair shaggy to his collar. She had called it black once, and he insisted it was brown. “My mom’s hair, now that’s black,” he’d said. But his eyebrows were definitely black, thick and untamed, as was the little triangle of beard he kept right beneath his lower lip, a patch small enough Molly could have covered it with her thumb. She thought about it sometimes, when she saw him laugh, and she’d feel a jolt in her belly and had to clasp her hands behind her to keep from reaching out to him. Her mother hated his facial hair. “When I see it, I want to lick a Kleenex and scrub it off.”

Molly had once asked him what his little beard was called. “I don’t know,” he said. “I just like it.” So she went to the computer and, after searching various terms, found an ESPN article about speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and his tuft of chin hair. Jazz dab, it was called when trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sported it in the ’50s, or soul patch. Soul patch. That fit Tobias. He wore his soul all over. She felt as if she had none, like one of the wax figures, empty, crumbling.

She remembered the box of tissues in the counter drawer, opened it and wiped her hands. Then she took a garlic knot and broke an end off, dipping the bread in the sauce. Tobias asked, “Can I?” and Molly nodded, saying, “They’re yours.”

He scooped one up and crammed the entire thing into his mouth. “No lunch today.”

“Busy?” Molly asked.

“Came straight to work from class.”

“It’s Wednesday.”

“Had to make up a lab this morning. Total pain,” he said. “But just this last semester and I’m done here.”

He drove an hour each way to the closest community college. To save money, he said, so he could transfer to a real school—somewhere away—leaving his family’s business behind. Leaving her behind.

She thought she loved him; at least she had all the symptoms portrayed in the romance novels Louise read, the boxes of used paperbacks Uncle Mick brought when he visited—more often lately, despite it being the off-season. Yes, she’d skimmed a few of them, picking out the ones with the most clothed cover models, mostly skipping over the racy parts. She had the flutters and the bumbling tongue-tied conversations. She had long talks with him in her mind, forgetting all she’d planned to say when he stood in front of her. She thought about him at night, when she changed into her pajamas in front of the mirror and wished she looked more like the women on those Harlequins.

She couldn’t think about him going. “How is it out there? It looks gray and cold.”

“Gray. Cold. Perfect. Come out to the beach with me.”

She flinched, shrinking into her center, folding up, a magician’s handkerchief stuffed into the cup made by his hand, pushed in by his pointer finger, and then, when he shook his hand open, it had disappeared. That’s what happened when Tobias—anyone—prodded her for more information, for feelings, for something she couldn’t do.

She disappeared.

“I can’t. I’m . . . working.”

“No one is in town, Molly.”

“Not here. Well, yes, here. But also schoolwork.” She nudged the history textbook on the counter. “I graduate in June, too, you know.”

“Ayuh. I know,” Tobias said, and he looked puffed up with more to say, dark eyes full, swirling with thoughts, questions. Molly heard the door open behind her, and he flattened a little. “Maybe another time.”

“Tobias,” Louise said, coming close enough for Molly to smell tuna fish and caution. “Can we help you?”

“Louise,” Tobias said back. “I thought Molly might want a break. You know, take a walk, get some air.”

Her mother looked at her. Neither made a gesture. No blink, no brow wrinkle, no lid flutter. Molly’s thoughts spilled from brain to eye, all crammed up against her cornea. Say no. Say no. Louise had no trouble reading them.

“Molly has things to do. And I’m sure your parents aren’t paying you to stand here all day.”

“That they aren’t,” he said. “Later, Moll.” And he left with the ghoulish laugh following him out the door.

For a moment, she and her mother existed in a vacuum, the emptiness within both of them pouring out, flooding the room. Then Louise coughed. “Shirley’s lost her fingers again,” she said, holding out two small, flesh-colored digits.

“We should just put gloves on her,” Molly said.

“That’s not what I asked.”

“You didn’t ask anything.” Her words flew out, startled and confused hornets, stinging her mother on the way by. Molly had no reason to be angry—she had wanted Tobias sent away—and yet she hadn’t.

Louise folded the fingers back into her fist, her heavy shoulders falling a little more. “I’ll take care of it.”

“No.” Molly held out her hand. “Just give me.”

Louise set the pieces on the counter. “I’ll start dinner,” she said, and went back into the office.

Molly took her repair bucket—butane lighter, sheets and Duplo-sized blocks of beeswax, artist’s brushes, tubes of paint—and hurried through the exhibits to the Shirley Temple figure in the classic-movie room, between James Dean in a black leather jacket and Judy Garland dressed as Dorothy. Shirley was posed in a short plaid dress with white collar and cuffs, chest puffed out, ringlets perfect, and deep dimples near the corners of her mouth. She pointed to herself, hand fisted, thumb toward her chest, like she did in the movie Bright Eyes while singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” Her other arm hung by her side, two nubs where there should have been fingers, like the buds babies have in the womb.

“Oh, Shirley. When will we get you to keep these on?”

When they’d started at the museum, Mick had given them some tips about repairing wax figures, but he’d inherited the place from his father and couldn’t have cared less if the sixty-year-old attraction remained a wax museum or was bulldozed to the ground. He kept the place open only for some spiteful family feud Molly knew nothing about, wanting to lose money.

So Molly and Louise did their best. Her mother searched the Internet for information on wax-figure upkeep but found only news articles about Madame Tussauds’ headless Hitler being sent out for repairs after some tourist decapitated it in Berlin. So instead she purchased books on figure sculpting. They experimented with techniques in the books, heating and carving and shaping wax at the kitchen table, giggling over the deformed faces they produced, the uneven biceps, the misshapen feet. Neither were artists, though Louise had loved art once, long ago. Molly managed the repairs better than her mother could, her own fingers thin and nimble as she worked. And she had something Louise didn’t—a relationship with the wax people.

Each time Molly worked on Shirley’s hand, the fingers became lumpier, more misshapen. Usually she just heated the broken ends of the beeswax with the lighter and squashed them together, holding them until they cooled and stuck. Today, however, she snipped off the heads of sewing pins, wiggled them into the hand, and pushed the fingers onto them. Then she softened a bit of wax between her palms and molded it around the seams. She mixed pink, white, and yellow paint on a pallet and dabbed it on the repairs. It blended well enough.

“There you go, Miss Curly Top,” she said, and went back out to the front counter, flipped open her history book and tried to take notes on Vietnam. She saw movement in the corner of her eye, a flash of white through the worn F, and watched as Tobias pulled away from the curb in his car. He waved as he passed.

She hadn’t tasted air outside the museum or apartment for three years, maybe closer to four. Inhale, exhale—the same dust over and over, the same sad sighs, the scent of tourists, their stories and laughter. Her secrets, her memories, she couldn’t escape them; she breathed them out, they floated around and around the building until she breathed them in somewhere else—snapping photos of visitors in front of the Elvis figure in the lobby, back in her bedroom, the office, the storage closet. And each time they came back to her, the wayward memory flashed bright behind her eyes, only for an instant but with a full-color intensity enough to stop her, whatever she was doing. She’d blink and swallow them down into her lungs quickly, so she wouldn’t cry, or run away to hide. And out they went on the next breath, gone for a while, floating, floating, until she sucked them in again at another unsuspecting moment.

She would go outside today.

Gingerly, she lifted her body off the stool so it wouldn’t squeak and betray her. She crossed to the door, fast, planning to ram her entire body against the metal push bar and break into the street, but she stalled at the glass, stuck, her heart swelling in her chest with each beat, feeling as if any moment it would rip through her ribs, too large to be contained.

There had been another door once. No, no. Don’t think about it. She started trembling, tears salty on her lips.

“Molly?” Her mother stared at her from the office door.

“I can’t,” she told her mother.

Louise went to her, pulled her close and rocked her. “Shh,” she said, stroking Molly’s hair. “I’m sorry, baby girl. It’s okay.” And she hummed a tune from the past—from when they were both different people and nothing had yet gone wrong. Molly desperately wanted the song to comfort her, the way it once had. But it didn’t.



September 2002

When her alarm went off in a crackle of static, Claire hit the snooze button. It burst on again nine minutes later, and she turned it off, stretched under the blankets, a tickle of disconcertion in her sleepy brain. She brushed it away, yawned, jammed her feet into the worn terry-cloth slippers, and shuffled into the bathroom to pee, brush her teeth, and splash cold water on her face. She dressed in yesterday’s jeans and a clean long-sleeved shirt—horizontal stripes of blue and green and gray—and white athletic socks, the kind with the arch support that hugged her feet.

Downstairs, she unwrapped an herbal tea bag, dropped it into a mug of water, and heated it for two minutes in the microwave. She toasted an English muffin, smeared peanut butter on it, and when she reached into the microwave to grab her tea she saw them—Caden and Amelia—flashing behind her eyes—mental ghosts, real ghosts, perhaps—and their faces surprised her so much she dropped her mug; the scalding liquid spilled on her thigh, the cup shattered on the ceramic tile.

“Mmm, oww,” she cried, peeling off her jeans, leaving them to sop up the tea as she ran upstairs to the bathroom and pressed a cold, wet cloth to the welt blooming on her leg. “Shoot, shoot, shoot.”

She didn’t care about the burn. She swiped at her sleeve, exposing the wristwatch Daniel had given her for their third wedding anniversary. Thirty-three minutes. That was how long she’d been awake, how long it took her to remember her children.

At first, in the days immediately following the accident, there wasn’t a minute she was able to shake them from her head, not a second her grief didn’t hang from her neck, choking her, dragging her down so sleep was her only escape. Even in the hazy moments before she woke, she still knew some part of her was missing, some ugly monster was waiting around the corner to pounce as soon as consciousness crept back in, and when it did she remembered her children were dead.

Three years. Three years without them, and now each morning it took a little longer for her babies to come to mind. Yesterday, twenty-nine minutes. The day before, twenty-eight. It wouldn’t be long before she went a day without thinking of them. A week.

What kind of mother was she?

A childless one.

In her clean pants, she went back down the stairs but went through the kitchen to the living room, where the last photo of Caden and Amelia sat on the mantel. Her son, forever nine, with his black hair and dark eyes, his body rigid with all the intensity that was Caden, his arm protectively around his sister. Amelia laughed—she was born laughing, and for six years had filled their home with unbridled joy and wonder and trust—her nose small and flat in her chubby face, her tongue protruding between her teeth, white Brushfield spots flecking her irises.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, stroking the picture, smearing her fingerprints across the glass.

She cleaned up the broken mug, dumped the shards in the trash with the uneaten muffin, stepped into her rubber mud boots—not because of the weather but because they slipped on easily—and in her jacket walked four blocks to the Newsstand, the small periodical and tobacco shop nestled between the barber and a florist on Broadway.

Malachi smiled as she pushed open the door. “Late today, Lady Claire.”

“I spilled my tea on me this morning. Burned the skin off my leg.”

“Glad it’s nothing serious.”

Claire laughed. “Thanks so much.” She folded the New York Times under her arm without looking at the date. She knew it already; it had been creeping up on her since the beginning of the month. Determined not to think about it, she dropped two one-dollar bills into the undergrad’s hand. “How are you doing?”

“It’s all good. Know what I mean? I’m breathing. I got a girl. I’m passing physics. Barely. But D equals diploma. I can do that math, all right. ’Bout the only math I can do.”

“Not so good for physics.”

“Ah. That’s why I’m a psychology major. Tell me, how long does it take you to do one of your puzzles?”

“It depends. My best time is two fifty-seven, but that was a Monday. I haven’t managed a Saturday in under seven minutes yet.”

“You are one determined woman,” Malachi said, pushing two quarters across the glass counter. “I can’t finish one in seven hours.”

“I have a lot more time on my hands to practice,” Claire said. “See you tomorrow.”

“Only if you’re sitting in the dreaded physics.”

“D equals diploma.”

“I hear ya, Lady Claire. I’ll be back in on Thursday.”

She felt calmer with the newspaper against her body, knowing in minutes she’d be home—the puzzle section folded in a tidy rectangle, the side of her hand and pinky bruised with ink as she filled in the small squares. She lived her life in those boxes, the point of her pencil jumping from one to the next, her whole world summed up in concrete solutions.

Safe inside her front hallway, she walked out of her boots, shrugged off her coat, and opened the paper with a shake, the musty newsprint smell fanning her body. She twisted one Ticonderoga pencil in her hair, clutched another in hand, sat at her desk, and set the timer.

She had her own technique, completing the across clues first, until she got stuck, and then she worked the downs.

1. Society newbies. Four letters.


5. Disreputable. Five letters.


11. Earthbound birds. Four letters.


The phone rang, and with the first tone, Claire tried to ignore it. Planned to, moving through two clues before the second tone came, a gentle tweeting from the mobile in her pocket. Daniel’s ring. She’d never changed it, and it still surprised her the rare times he called. Six times, maybe, during the two years they’d been divorced, and only once in the past six months. On Caden’s birthday.

Hesitating, she flipped the newspaper over.

September 4, 2002.

She managed to dig her phone out and flip it open by the fourth ring.

“Claire, it’s Daniel.”

“I know.”

“Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I just . . . I wasn’t sure you’d pick up.”

“I thought about it.”

“I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have called.”

“What do you want, Daniel?”

He swallowed loud enough that she could hear it in the five hundred miles and all the unspoken disappointments between them. “She would have been nine.”

She said nothing.

“Are you still there?” he asked.

“I’m here.”

“I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have called, but I wanted to . . . I mean, I needed to remember her with someone who . . . understands.”

“Lisa not cutting it today?”


“You called me.”

Daniel sighed. “Lisa is fine. Thank you for asking.”

“She’s due in February, right?”

“How did you—?”

“Your mother. We still talk, sometimes.”

“I wanted to tell you. There just didn’t seem like a good way to do it.”

“No, I guess not.”

“I’m sorry.”

She sighed, jabbing the pencil point deep into every O in the newsprint. “You apologize a lot.”

“I can’t imagine I’ll ever be done,” he said. Swallowed again. “Have you been to the, uh, you know—”


“But you are going?”

Forgetting, she’d discovered, was an art. People spent their lives mastering it, using all manner of techniques—prescriptions, delusions, a fifth of, well, any old cheap liquor from the discount warehouse—but she had a certain knack. Give her eighty clues and a pencil, and the world disappeared. Give her thirty-three minutes and her daughter’s birthday . . . “Yes.”

“Could you . . . tell them I love them?”

“Yeah, okay,” she whispered, and hung up.

Claire swept her fingertip beneath her eye, expecting tears but finding none. She flattened the timer into the desk, number side down, and buried it under the newspaper. She changed her clothes, again. This time into a soft cotton dress—plain gray like her favorite rainy-day sweatshirt—and red flowered clogs, because it didn’t seem right to wear jeans or mud boots to the cemetery.

She walked back down the street to the florist and bought three small bouquets of carnations—red and white and yellow, half still closed and wrinkled. She kept her eyes turned down, avoiding the faces of those she passed. Her feet, sweaty with the exertion, slid forward in her shoes, her toes grating against a rough inside seam. She removed her shoes and continued, barefoot, to Saint Victor’s, walking beside the gravel path rather than on it, in the sharp broad-blade grass.

She could have found their stones with her eyes closed—all three of them, gray rectangles with glassy fronts, the unpolished sides gritty with tiny peaks and divots. She rubbed her hand over the middle marker—Amelia’s—the dry skin on her palm catching on the rough marble. Rubbed until she felt heat, then pain. “Oh, my baby,” she said, turning her head up toward the sun. She tried to suck the tears back inside her with a deep sniffle, but they came anyway, and she let them, wiping her cheeks with the cuff of her sleeve.

The cellophane crinkled, and she hugged the carnations to herself as if they were her children, pushing her face into the tops and breathing deep, imagining undertones of cherry ChapStick or Johnson’s No More Tears or gingerbread houses in the floral scent.

Unwrapping the bouquets, she placed a bunch on each grave—first Caden, then Amelia, and then Alexis Rose, her baby born into God’s arms.

No, I put her there.

She sat, and beneath her dress pulled her knees to her chest and tucked the hem under her feet to keep the cold September soil away from them. “Your dad called,” she said. “He couldn’t . . . make it, but he wanted me to tell you he loves you.” How idiotic, trying to protect them from their parents’ divorce. If they could see her and Daniel, they already knew. And if they couldn’t? Well, then it didn’t matter.

She didn’t say anything more but stayed there, finding small words in the larger ones on the headstones, watching ants scurry around the stems of the carnations, exhaling down into her collar, into the tent made by her dress, to stay warm, dozing for a while, head clamped between her knees. Finally, when the white clouds turned pink and flattened along the horizon, she walked home wearing her shoes.

She unwrapped a Healthy Choice ravioli meal and heated it in the microwave. She didn’t cook anymore, hadn’t turned a burner on in months for anything except to make tea. One plate at the table, one serving in the pot . . . All that depressed her. More reminders of her failures. She ate in front of the television, watching a Friends rerun, black plastic tray balanced on her thigh, and when she finished she tossed her trash into the can with the day’s paper, stuffing the wad into the too-full bag. Then she found one of her puzzle books on the bookshelf and filled in boxes with letters until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore.



May 2002

She wore dresses on Saturdays. Every other day it was jeans or leggings or shorts, but Saturdays were special. It was errand day for her father, and he took her with him. They would walk to the bank and post office, would pick up any odds and ends her mother decided she needed, and then he’d take Hanna for ice cream. Stewart’s mint chocolate chip, usually, but on rare occasions she had a chocolate shake instead. Her father always had the shake, with extra malt powder, and he let Hanna have as much as she liked even after she finished her cone.

He’d tried to get her to have something else when the weather turned cold—the convenience store had hot dogs with free meat sauce, and chili, and sometimes chicken noodle soup, which was better than her mother’s but she would never say that aloud—but Hanna stuck with the ice cream, despite her father’s rhyme. “Ice cream on a winter’s day, will pneumonia bring your way.” Or whooping cough. Or brain freeze. Or warts. He substituted a different ailment every time, and Hanna would giggle and order an extra scoop for only fifty cents more.

She wriggled into her favorite polka-dot play dress without undoing the button at the neck, tugging and twisting until her head finally emerged, her fine blond hair alive with static electricity, clinging to her face and dancing in the air around her. Hanna licked her palms and smoothed her hands over it; and the strands settled as Hanna twisted an elastic around them, gathering it all at the nape of her neck. Though Hanna was eleven, her mother still babied her hair, combed it, blow-dried it, and called it corn silk.

She fumbled around the top drawer of her dresser, the one that kept her underpants and socks and half undershirts she pretended were real bras, and found her favorite pair of cotton tights. A rainbow wrapped around each leg from ankle until just above the knee, six thick colored stripes starting with red and ending with purple, skipping indigo completely. That’s what her father told her each time she wore them. “So much for Roy G. Biv.” Hanna didn’t care. She liked stripes even more than polka dots.

“You look like the gypsies dressed you,” her mother told her as she twirled into the kitchen. Susan crammed a handful of spinach into the blender on the counter in front of her, shook in some frozen blueberries.

“Nuh-uh,” Hanna said, slipping on her fat, squishy beach clogs. Bright green. “Where’s Daddy?”

“Here. Here,” her father said.

“Well, let’s go,” Hanna said.

“It’s warm out there. Like summer. You may not want your missing-indigo tights.”

Hanna opened the back door. It was hot. “Okay, hold on a minute.” She peeled off the tights in the downstairs bathroom, leaving them hanging over the shower bar.

Her mother hated that.

“Now I’m ready,” Hanna said, pirouetting back into the kitchen. She grabbed her father’s hand, tugged it. “Come on.”

“So, I’ll see you at Peg’s for lunch?” Susan asked.

“We’ll be there,” Henry said, and before Hanna could get the words past her teeth, he lifted her arm above her head and twirled her down the hall and through the front door. “Let’s make like a bee and buzz off.”


“Sorry, Hanna-Bee. Scientists and funny do not mix.”

The sun shone sharp and white, reflecting off most of the outside surfaces—mailboxes, car hoods, the thick, leathery leaves of her mother’s azaleas. Hanna squinted, the light overwhelming her. Blue eyes were more sensitive than brown—she knew that, but she despised sunglasses. They pinched behind her ears and slid down her sweaty nose, and worse, they made everything around her look dull and dirty. Her mother tried all the time to get her to wear them, saying she should protect her eyes. Susan’s baby blues were bothered by the sun, too, and she walked around with saucer-sized brown lenses dwarfing her thin face whenever she went outdoors.

“Why’s she coming?” Hanna clamped her arms across her chest. She loved her mother, but so did Henry, and Hanna got lost in the shuffle of his attention toward Susan. She wanted her time alone with him.

“We want to talk to you. Together.”

“You talk to me all the time.” She paused and then said, in a puffed, almost teenaged voice, “Together.”

“Don’t get fresh.”

“Sorry,” Hanna mumbled. She kicked a stone off the sidewalk; it fell through the grate in the road. She looked through as she walked over it, but of course couldn’t see the rock down there. All the grays and blacks blended together.


The word bloomed somewhere in the center of her mind—if she concentrated on it, she could see it, a seedling pushing through black dirt, right in the space behind where her nose and forehead met, that heavy space, the one that filled up first when she had a cold and never completely cleared away. She tried to visually stop the intrusion, but the idea grew larger, like watching time-lapse photography; the green plant-word unfurling toward the light, leaves stretching out, reaching, stem thickening, growing tall.

Don’t be stupid. They never fight. Then again, Charlotte Conrad’s parents split last fall, and she said she’d never heard them argue, never ever. Not even when they went into the bedroom for privacy; she knew because she listened at the heating vent that connected their room and hers. “They said they still loved each other but just grew apart, whatever that means,” Charlotte had told her at the school lunch table as she licked a chocolate pudding blob from a plastic spoon.

Hanna didn’t want to ask, but the thought was too large now, and if she didn’t open her mouth the pressure would be too much, so she did and asked, “Are you guys getting divorced?”

Her father looked stunned for a moment, then laughed, his deep snuffle that sounded like the noise huge pigs make when pushing their snouts through the mud. “Of course not. What on earth gave you that idea?”

Shrugging, Hanna said, “What else can’t you tell me without Mom?”

Henry slung his arm around Hanna’s slim shoulder and squeezed her against his side. “It’s good news. Trust me. At least I think it is. No one is dying, leaving, or moving. Or turning into a zombie.”

Hanna giggled. “Okay. I trust you. But, can we still get ice cream after?”

“Oh, fine,” Henry sighed an airy, exaggerated sigh. “If we must.”

They walked through their neighborhood’s sidewalked streets lined with large painted-lady Victorians and early 1880’s brick two-stories and soon entered the area of the city where the houses were smaller, packed tighter together, vehicles parked on the side of the street because most had no driveways. Then the buildings grew into storefronts with three or four floors of apartments above as they approached downtown.

“Bank or post office first?” Henry asked.

“Post office.”

Hanna pushed the button on the crosswalk light and waited for the little white man to pop onto the screen and displace the red hand, and when he did, she grabbed her father’s hand and they walked through the intersection, Hanna tugging slightly and walking more quickly. She had always been afraid of getting stuck in the middle of the road when the light changed, vehicles zooming past her, honking and yelling for her to move out of the way. She knew that wouldn’t happen, had seen drivers wait, both patiently and impatiently, for a straggling pedestrian to get out of the crosswalk. It didn’t matter. The fear didn’t go away.

The Avery Springs post office was an old stone building with marble floors, high ceilings, and rows of metal mailbox doors. The air was naturally cool inside, cooler still if she flattened herself against the wall, which she did as Henry chatted with the clerk and bought a book of stamps. She sucked in a few gulps of water from the fountain, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand to keep the drops on her chin from landing on the front of her dress, but they did anyway. She wanted ice cream now. Her skin, damp before coming inside, now felt tight with dried sweat. She would have washed her face in the fountain if there had been somewhere to dry it—other than her shoulder.

“Ready?” her father asked.

Hanna nodded and he held open the heavy door for her. She slipped outside, into the heat, and complained, “It’s like a million degrees.”


“Dad,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“There’s a vending machine outside of the bank. Let’s hurry there, and I’ll get you a Brisk.”

“How about a Sprite?”

“If you drink a soda now, you’re not having one with lunch.”

“I’ll take the iced tea, then.”

The gorgeous day had brought crowds downtown. People pushed strollers or dragged leashed dogs, couples walked hand in hand, children pressed their faces to the store windows, asking for something displayed inside. College students sat on benches playing their guitars, cases opened and displaying a smattering of change, or they congregated at corners, smoking and kicking hacky sacks to one another. Hanna and her father wove through it all, finally arriving at FSR Bank, in an area of downtown where there were only offices and professional businesses, and on Saturdays the street was nearly empty. He bought her a water, the tiny lighted message declaring Sold Out when she pressed the Lipton Brisk button, and they went inside.

There was a line. Henry stood at the end of it. Hanna fell into a red vinyl chair next to a table with pens and deposit slips stored in the appropriate cubbies. She picked up a stack and flipped the edge with her thumb, like shuffling a deck of cards. Fffft. She did it again, and again, until her father cast a sideways glance at her and she stuffed the papers back into their proper spot.

By the time her father arrived at the teller window, there was only one woman waiting for service, and two men with ball caps and sunglasses sitting in chairs outside one of the banker cubicles. Their glasses were wire-rimmed with brownish-gold lenses, like pilots wore—at least in a couple of movies she’d seen. Her mother would have approved.

Hanna ducked under the red velvet rope and stood next to Henry.

“Hey, Hanna Banana,” the teller said. It was Marie, the nice one with the birthmark on her chin and neck. The odd pink skin caught the corner of her lip, too, causing it to swell so it looked as if half her mouth pouted all on its own, even when she smiled. Marie wore a thick, etched wedding band—it covered nearly to her knuckle—and above that another ring of tiny clustered stones Hanna guessed were diamonds, even though they were more gray than clear. She wondered if there was something wrong with Marie’s husband, too. Did he have a similar stain across his face? A limp? Three fingers on his left hand? She couldn’t imagine some normal person marrying Marie, no matter how nice. Hanna’s mother wouldn’t have married her father if he’d been imperfect. At least, she didn’t think Susan would have.

The gray-haired security guard put his key in the inside lock just as another sunglassed man yanked open the door and, panting, squeezed his obese body through.

“Just made it,” the guard said with a laugh and turned the key. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you out.”

The guy wiped his face on his ribbed shirt cuff, his hair covered in a navy blue bandana. “Thanks.”

Henry chatted with Marie as Hanna watched the last woman customer leave—apparently so had the two guys in the aviator glasses, so it was only her and her father and the fat, sweaty man in the bandana who stood next to the Please Wait Here for the Next Available Teller sign. He shifted around on his big black Nikes, kept snuffling and clearing his throat. Finally, he said, “Excuse me, sir. I’m in a hurry.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” Henry said, tucking his deposit slip into his back pocket. “I’m here going on and you’re waiting. Marie, lovely as ever. See you next week. Sir, she’s all yours.”

With his hand in that place between her shoulder blades, Henry moved Hanna toward the door, and she watched as Bandana Man stepped up to the teller. His hands shook. He slid an envelope under the glass window. As she opened it, Marie’s smile trembled, melted. Her eyes flicked toward the old security guard, who was chatting with Henry about his gout. Hanna didn’t know what gout was, but she knew something was wrong.

“Dad, let’s go.”

“Just a minute, hon.”

“Mom’s waiting.”


“No, no, don’t let me keep you,” the guard said. “I’m old. I can blather about my ailments until Christmas, there’s so many of them.” He fumbled with the key ring at his side, heavy with at least a dozen metal keys, and unhooked it from the clip on his belt. “You folks have a good day now.”

“You too,” Henry said.

The guard, about to stick one of the fat gold keys in the lock, suddenly looked up and noticed Marie. His hand slowly, silently, tucked the ring into his pocket and floated over to rest on the handle of his gun. “Marie, you all right there?”

At that moment the two sunglassed men burst from the restroom, each holding a pistol. The fat one at the teller also pulled out his gun from the waistband of his gray running pants.

“Okay, listen now,” one of the men said. He was tall, bone thin, wore a Boston Red Sox baseball hat, brim rounded into an upside-down U. His voice was thin, too, with a bit of a southern drawl. He pointed his gun at the guard with a steady, unwavering arm. “We don’t want anyone hurt, do we? So you, sir, are going to take your hand off your firearm and put them up where I can see them. All slow like. That’s right.”

The guard did as he said, and the thin man continued, “Now, Marie, how’s that money coming? You have those bags filled?”

Marie didn’t move, and the fat guy at her window shook and sweated, plump drops of perspiration blistering over his face like burns. Dark, wet circles spread from beneath his armpits. His navy bandana was almost black. “Man, this isn’t right. She’s buzzed the cops—I know it. We gotta go.”

“No, Marie didn’t do that, did you? Because you saw what was in that envelope my nervous companion slid across to you just moments ago. Photos of your little girl. Phoebe, isn’t it? Photos of her at her school, in front of your home, at Grandma’s house. So, no, Marie didn’t do anything at all.”

Tears bubbled out of her eyes, catching the corner of her bloated lip, pooling there for several seconds, then spilling over, like spit, down her chin and onto her shiny pink blouse. Her head trembled side to side. “No,” she whispered.

“See. I told you. Marie wasn’t going to do anything stupid. Marie is going to finish filling those bags. Aren’t you, now?”

“Yes.” A hoarse, helpless whisper.

“Well, aren’t we making some mighty fine progress,” the thin man said, chuckling in a way that scared Hanna more than any shouting or gunfire. She cowered against her father, who had his arm tightly around her.

“Now, next order of business. You two fine gentlemen there are going to send that sweet little girl over my way.”

The other man in the aviator glasses—short, compactly built, and wearing a cap from a team Hanna didn’t recognize—whipped his head toward the thin man, so quickly she expected it to twist off and roll across the floor. If the thin man noticed, he didn’t let on. Not even a twitch.

“No,” Henry said, his voice plain and firm.

The thin man chuckled again. “Well, I thought you might say that. No daddy wants to turn his baby over to some . . . miscreant. But, I tell you, there’s much less chance of you deciding to play hero if she’s tucked away right by my side. It won’t be for too long. Just until our lovely Marie completes her assigned task.”

“No,” Henry repeated.

“Now, okay, no need to be snippy. We’ve all been right friendly to you, and I’d hope for the same courtesy back. I promise nothing will happen to this dear angel if you instruct her to march right over to me. However,” the thin man said, “if she’s not here in thirty seconds, someone is going to get hurt.”

“That wasn’t in the plan,” the fat guy said, his gun aimed toward the floor, arm jiggling. “You said no one gets hurt. You said—”

“Enough,” the thin man snapped. “No one will get hurt if ”—he raised an eyebrow—“people start listening.”

The short one looked at his watch. “We need to get out of here.”

Hanna had to pee; she felt the familiar warm tingle, the needling pressure. All her fear had settled in her pelvis. She concentrated on willing the urine back up into her bladder, but the more she thought about it, the worse it felt. She hadn’t wet herself since first grade, and the idea she might humiliate herself in front of these men horrified her. She clamped her fist between her legs.

“Please,” she managed to squeak out.

Her voice must have stirred something in the security guard. As quick as his old arm was able, he moved it from the raised position to his waist, tugging his weapon from the holster.


The guard fell, his body jostling Hanna on its trip to the floor. A fine curl of smoke floated from the barrel of the thin man’s gun. The fat guy swore. “You killed him.”

Hanna felt her father’s body tense behind her. She imagined a panther, ready to pounce, knowing he was about to use the moment of distraction to try to . . . What? Save her? Save them both? She wanted to beg him not to; the gun fired again and Henry crumpled on Hanna’s feet. She couldn’t see his blood, but something warm dripped through the holes in her beach clogs and between her toes.

Fat Guy wretched. “You stupid—”

“Shut your mouth or you’re next,” Thin Man told him. “Get the money, now.” He jerked his head toward Hanna and said to Short One, “Get the girl.”

“This isn’t—”

“Get her,” Thin Man barked.

Without another word, Short One picked up Hanna, her front against his, her chin on his shoulder. She watched her father’s unmoving body as she was carried away, each step bouncing her field of vision, and felt a warm wetness spread between her and her captor’s body that rapidly turned cold as he shoved her in the back seat of the waiting car.

The Air We Breathe
by by Christa Parrish