It’s January but it’s still hot and sticky. Florida is like that. Some people like it, but Misty can’t stand it. She is sitting on the swing set and the plastic is burning her thighs. A lot of the parents and kids at the playground are giving her dirty looks, it’s time for her to get up and give a kid a turn, but she just pumps her legs and swings, making a little breeze against her face and neck. She doesn’t want to be here and she thinks that gives her the right to hog the swings. This whole day was Jimmy’s idea so Misty could bond with his kid, but who says she wants to? She’s dating Jimmy, not his kid, right? But she’s smart enough to know guys don’t see it that way.
The kid is cute, Misty will allow. But kids are boring. Misty wants to get drunk. To listen to loud music. To fuck Jimmy. But these activities do not create a wholesome, learning environment for the kid. Misty thought she was doing an adequate job of hiding her boredom and resentment, but clearly she’s not. Jimmy says he thinks she’s being selfish, and she is, but she also just doesn’t like to be around kids. It makes her uncomfortable. It makes her wonder what kind of mother she would’ve made and she doesn’t want to speculate.
Jimmy and the kid are on the merry go round. The kid grips the handles and leans back while Jimmy makes it spin. There are other kids on the contraption and they all spin, laughing, hair flying. The kids blur together and Misty worries for just a moment that one of them will go flying off into the trees and splat themselves to death. She almost walks over and tells Jimmy to take it easy but she stops herself. Pulls out a cigarette instead. What does she care? Eleanor’s not her kid, never will be. Splat away.
“You shouldn’t smoke that here.” A woman in a purple sweat suit, the kind with writing on the butt, points at Misty and her cigarette. The woman is holding a child of indeterminate gender. Its hair is bowlish and its body is shaped like one of those nesting dolls. Misty thinks a little smoke is the least of this kid’s problems but she just says sorry and stubs it out. She doesn’t wait for the woman to point out that she shouldn’t litter and stomps off to stare into the murky lake at the center of the park.
Misty watches a pile of turtles sunning themselves on the shore. They are undisturbed by her presence and seem as if they haven’t moved in months. Several are covered in a neon moss. Ibis pick through the grass and cluster at her feet. They cock their heads, turning their black pin-prick eyes up at her. With their long, thin, curved beaks, they look like living question marks, asking with their whole bodies why, why, why? Misty knows everyone loves to feed these birds, especially kids, and she even has a bag of crumbs in her pocket. She doesn’t feed them, though; she kicks out her foot and sends the flock hopping a few feet away. It is only moments before a kid runs over and starts throwing crackers into the grass. The birds peck, satisfied.
“You shouldn’t kick like that.” It’s the kid, Jimmy’s kid, and she looks indignant. Misty starts to tell the kid to fuck off, she’s not the boss here, but then she sees Jimmy trotting up with that look on his face.
“I wasn’t kicking,” says Misty. “I had a fly on my leg.” She pats the kid on the head for distraction and Jimmy looks relieved when he gets there.
“My two girls having a good time?” he asks.
Misty can see the kid is about to rat on her so she says, “You betcha. We were just talking about the birds. Here. I brought this for you to feed them.” She pulls out the bag of crumbs and hands them to Eleanor. The kid takes them, though still seems skeptical, and joins the other kid. The two of them are neck deep in the flock and Misty thinks about avian flu.
“I think she really likes you,” says Jimmy. Misty can see he doesn’t really believe it, but he’s trying so she plays along.
“She’s a great kid,” she says and then she takes his hand. Jimmy’s hand is warm and the skin is tough, cracked. He works construction. He did the dry wall in her apartment after that mold problem. That’s how they met. Jimmy was real quiet the whole time. He didn’t whistle or listen to music or try to chit chat and Misty liked that. She can’t stand those chit chatty types, always talking about the price of beans or some bullshit. When the work was all done, she invited him into her bedroom and he came. It was that simple. And when it was all over, he kissed her on the neck and went home. Misty liked that too, no fuss, no muss, no strings attached. But that was six months ago and they’ve been seeing each other at least twice a week ever since. She’d even started sleeping over, though she had to sneak out before sunrise because of the kid.
“She’s having a hard time. Her mom’s taken off before, but it’s for good this time. E’s sick about it, but she’s tough. Like you.”
Misty knows he means well, just trying to groom her to fill that empty slot. But he’s got the wrong gal. She’s about ready to ditch them both and never look back when Jimmy’s phone buzzes.
“Shit,” he says. “I’ve got to run. The inspector’s at the job site and Mark’s going ape shit. Can you watch E till I get back?” And then he drops a drive-by kiss on the kid’s head and is in the car before Misty can say fuck no. She could still run, she guesses, but the kid is looking right at her. She creeps over to the picnic tables, kid eyeing her the whole way, and sits down. She looks up at the sky and drums her fingers on the table, thinking this communicated: not going anywhere, but not interested in conversation either. The sound of flapping wings reassures Misty that the kid is back to feeding the birds and will perhaps stay distracted till Jimmy returns.
Misty is pissed. Not because she has to babysit, or not just that. She was starting to like Jimmy. Why did he have to go and fuck it up with this Brady Bunch bullshit? She pulls out another cigarette, but keeps it unlit between her fingers.
“You shouldn’t smoke.”
“No shit, asshole,” Misty says before she can register who she’s talking to. It’s not purple patrol, it’s the kid. “Oh fuck…I mean shoot,” she says. “Sorry.”
The kid doesn’t look too upset. She’s smiling, in fact. Misty sticks the cigarette in her shirt pocket and the kid sits down. “You swear a lot,” she says.
“I know. Family tradition.”
“I don’t have one of those.”
“Boo hoo.” Misty watches the kid for some sort of reaction but the kid barely flinches. Thick-skinned, thinks Misty. She can’t help but respect that. They sit quietly on the bench for a while until Misty notices Eleanor frowning and watching a balding man wearing red cowboy boots as he enters the park.
Misty checks out the boots first, they are so new they shine like patent leather. You don’t see a lot of cowboy boots around here, she thinks. The rest of the man’s outfit doesn’t live up to the footwear. He’s dressed in a grimy white t-shirt and grey sweat pants cut off at the knees. He carries a supermarket tote bag full of yarn over to the far side of the lake where he sits staring into the water. After a minute or two, he pulls out some yarn and starts knitting.
“What the fuck is up with that guy?” Misty wonders aloud.
“That’s Mr. Winesmith. He’s a pervert and serial killer,” Eleanor says.
“What? How do you know that?”
“Everyone knows that.”
Misty watches the pervert-serial killer and thinks, yes, he seems the type. She is a little bit frightened, just looking at him, and also angry—who does he think he is, walking around free and alive like that? This makes him irresistible. Misty gets up and takes a few steps toward him when she feels Eleanor trotting along beside her. “Don’t go over there,” says the kid. “He will murder you and eat your bones.”
“No one eats the bones. Not even giants. And it’s broad daylight.”
“He eats the bones. That’s a fact. And he won’t kill you here. He will drag you back to his lair and wrap you up in wire until you are nice and mushy and then he will murder you and eat your bones. Fact.”
Misty watches Eleanor’s serious face. For the first time, she feels the urge to rest a hand on the girl’s pale cheek but, instead, she stuffs her fist in her pocket.
“That sounds made up. Who’s telling you these stories?”
“Everyone. No one. This is just known information.”
Misty looks back at the pervert. He is knitting, bent at the shoulders, one red-booted foot resting on his knee. He looks soft, like someone’s retarded uncle. She thinks this is probably his angle—he’s just a big man baby who wouldn’t hurt a fly and he’s so far from home and won’t you help me down these steep dark stairs?
“Come on,” says Misty. “We’re going to tell this guy to get lost. It’s our park, not his.” She takes long, hard strides over to the bench, not looking back to see if Eleanor is following. Misty stands with her hands on her hips staring down at the man. Eleanor trots up beside her a moment later and adopts the same posture.
The man doesn’t look up, but his knitting needles do clack together faster and louder. Misty thinks it sounds threatening.
“What are you doing here?” Misty asks.
“Knitting baby booties,” says Mr. Winesmith, without looking up or even pausing.
“That’s disgusting,” says Misty.
“Indeed,” he says then holds up his work, which is undeniably a long winter scarf. The man looks Misty in the eyes and smiles.
“You’re not fooling anyone,” says Eleanor. She moves between Misty and Mr. Winesmith and wags a finger at the scarf. “We know all about you.”
“I’m sure you do,” says Mr. Winesmith as he resumes his knitting.
Misty gently ushers Eleanor back behind her. “Are you even allowed in a park?” she asks.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because…” Misty finds herself suddenly unable to finish the sentence. Are his crimes too gruesome to name even for her? Or is she uncertain of their truth, now that she stands this close to him, watches the precision of his stitches, sees herself reflected in the shine of his new red boots? She doesn’t know and this flood of uncertainty makes her angry and she raises a fist, as if to punch this man in his soft piggy face but, as she does, Eleanor shouts, “Why do you eat the bones? Why the bones?” and then she kicks a great clod of dirt onto the man’s boots.
Mr. Winesmith shakes off the dirt. He looks at Eleanor and smiles a tight-lipped smile, though it seems he has to strain to keep his lips together, as if his teeth were too large for his mouth. It makes him seem both amused and sad. “Come here,” he says at last. “And I’ll show you.”
Eleanor doesn’t move. She just digs her fingers into Misty’s leg. Mr. Winesmith relaxes his mouth a little so that his sticky lips part at the corners like a seam about to burst. Misty thinks that maybe it’s time for the kid to go. Provoking a serial-killer is probably not what Jimmy had in mind when he left Misty in charge.
“Go on. Go back to the playground,” she says. When Eleanor folds her arms in obvious resistance, Misty says, “I just need a minute alone with Mr. Winesmith.” And then she gives Eleanor her best National Security face and Eleanor seems to get it—maybe she doesn’t think “water boarding” exactly, but something like it and though she would clearly prefer to stick around, she gets up and leaves Misty to whatever bad cop business she has in mind.
Misty watches her trudge back to the playground where purple pants is obviously watching Misty and rallying her troops. Misty thinks for a moment that she should just follow Eleanor and wait for Jimmy, but she doesn’t.
“She’s not your daughter,” says Mr. Winesmith. He has returned to his knitting and the needles clack like fingernails against teeth. Misty is surprised and a little insulted. She didn’t think she’d been that obvious, at least not in front of this man.
“That’s not really any of your business,” she says.
“Maybe not,” he says. “What, then, is my business? Obviously not knitting, as you keep disrupting that.” He’s folded his yarn in his lap and is looking patiently up at Misty. She doesn’t have an answer. There is room on the bench beside him, and Misty considers sitting down for a moment, just to think. She doesn’t quite move toward him and she doesn’t quite move away. She just rocks on her feet and tries to imagine what the fuck possessed her to storm over here in the first place.
As she’s considering, a squirrel carrying a dead baby squirrel in its mouth bounds past, another squirrel chasing close behind. The second squirrel catches the first and they tear at each other, swirling like a fur tornado until the first drops the tiny corpse and then they both dash off. Misty has never seen a baby squirrel before and even dead it is as cute as she’d have expected. It lays curled like a fluffy comma, its paws resting beneath its chin. Misty wonders what she’s just seen: a mother defending her young or two predators squabbling over a meal.
“Squirrels,” says Mr. Winesmith. “They look cute enough, but they’re one of those breeds who eat their young. But you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?”
“What’s that even mean?” asks Misty. But she knows. He is one of them. This is all probably a set up by the kid or maybe even Jimmy too. It doesn’t matter what you do or how many times you move, some things follow you. She’s heard it all before, nothing new, nothing she can’t handle. She doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks of her, not Jimmy, not purple pants, and sure as hell not this doughy motherfucker. She is going to leave, get wasted and forget everyone and everything but then Mr. Winesmith scoots over on the bench, pats the seat beside him. What the fuck, she thinks. Why should he think he’s gotten under my skin? She sits down.
“What’s your name,” asks Mindy. “I mean, your first name.”
“Arthur. And you are?”
“I guess. My mother really loved Clint Eastwood.” Misty reaches for the ball of yarn on the bench beside Arthur. She rubs it between her fingers. “People think they know something about you, just because they hear a story from some people. But just because you’ve heard a story, doesn’t mean you know me. People aren’t always how you think they are.”
Arthur picks up the yarn, unwinds it the length of his arm, then hands it to Misty. She watches it in her hands, fuzzy and round like an infant’s skull. Arthur resumes clacking away and says, “Very true. Then again, sometimes they are just as you think they are.”
Misty cradles the yarn in her palm. She thinks again that she should just leave. She feels a tug as Arthur knits away the slack, so she lets the ball spin, feeding him another foot and then another. She watches it wind around his finger, loop over the needle, then disappear into the lengthening scarf. Who knits a scarf in Florida, even in the winter, she wonders. It must be for someone else. He must have friends or family. People he cares about.
“I wasn’t always like this,” she says. “It’s just what happened after.”
“Do you really think so?”
She does, even if it isn’t entirely true. She knows that she meant well, that she used to be just like everyone—hopeful, full of love, full of plans.
“Yes,” she says.
Arthur stops knitting. He looks at Misty with sad, wet eyes. Misty notices his hands, now that they’ve stopped moving, look old. They are wrinkled and spotted and she can see blue veins pulsing beneath the skin. The nails are long and yellow. Crone hands, she thinks. Odd for a man. And his face, except for the yellow teeth even now straining against his lips, seems young, almost fetal with shiny white skin and round purple lids hooding those black eyes. He seems to read her thoughts because he folds his hands beneath his scarf and looks away, focusing on the dead squirrel at their feet.
“You shouldn’t feel bad,” he says. “That is just the way nature works. It’s not evil, that’s our word. It is simply necessary. The nest was probably crowded. Food scarce. The poor creature that did this, well it was just protecting itself. It wasn’t even aware of its actions. Pure instinct. Addition by subtraction. Now it will live to see another winter, breed more pups when the time is right.”
Misty feels her own eyes grow wet and heavy as he talks. It is as if he is stroking her hair with his words, soothing her. She has never felt so sleepy in her life. She looks away from Arthur and back at the dead squirrel. It still looks like it is sleeping. She thinks she can see its ribs rise and fall, but that is only the breeze moving the fur.
She wonders briefly where Jimmy is, where Eleanor is. She thinks it is just as well that it was all fake, just some elaborate prank to get her here, talking to Arthur. No, not a prank, she thinks. An intervention. He must be a therapist or something. Someone who knows how to talk to violent types. Maybe he is a hypnotist because she feels herself lifting out of her body, watching it sway there on the bench, rest a hand on Arthur’s knee for support. She feels herself rise up into the sweaty air until she can see the whole park, see Eleanor standing just a few yards from Misty and Arthur. She can see purple pants collecting her children, her friends and their children, even Eleanor, until they all stand in a cluster like those birds. The mothers, the fathers, the children, they too seem to be asking with their whole bodies why? Why? Why? Misty wants to tell them that it was an accident. That she didn’t know why she got so angry. She could blame her mother, she guesses, but that wouldn’t really be true. She could blame circumstances, certain events, the shock, the trauma, the aftermath, but as she rises higher and higher she realizes why doesn’t even matter. There is no why. There is nothing but sticky January air and water so dead and poison still that it smells like sulfur and then Misty is back in her body, feeling her sweaty palm against the plucked-chicken flesh of Arthur’s knee.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Don’t feel guilty,” he says, laying his hand on hers. “You did the right thing, leaving like you did. That was an excellent start.”
“Start? What else could I have done? There’s no taking back what I did. There’s no going back after that. Is there?”
“No. That’s precisely my point.” He winds his fingers around hers, lifts her hand and folds it between his moist palms. He watches her with his wet eyes, his lips pulled back to reveal chunky white teeth. Misty thinks of the notches of a spine. She thinks of a possum she once saw rotting on the sidewalk, its spine curving up from red, crumpled flesh. “You could finish the job,” he says. “Once and for all.”
Misty looks behind her to the gathering crowd. How long has she been sitting here? It seems darker, much darker. Jimmy is back. He is talking with Eleanor but he keeps looking over at Misty. She can’t really see his face but she doesn’t think he looks angry. Maybe it is just the shadows, but he looks confused. Worried maybe. Why should he be worried? Wasn’t this his idea? Misty can’t really focus on his face or his expression. She can’t focus on anything. She is feeling so tired again. Her hand feels warm in Arthur’s hands. She feels his pulse moving through her palm and into her arm.
“What are you saying?” she asks.
Arthur lifts her hand and presses it to his cheek. His skin is soft and powdery. “I’m saying you should think about the future.” He kisses her hand, his lips sticking to her skin as he pulls away. “What has a woman like you got to offer? Do you really want to corrupt another child?”
Misty looks back at Eleanor. She is standing beside Jimmy. Her face is a gray oval, her expression washed away by the shadows. Misty imagines that Eleanor wouldn’t mind very much if Misty disappeared. The kid would get over it. She’s probably even used to it. There would be another woman for Jimmy, probably several.
Misty sees scissors in Arthur’s bag. She takes them out and squeezes them until her fingers sting. The scissors are thin and sharp, more like a knife. The metal feels cold and soothing. She lets the scissors drop and dangle from her fingertips. She stands up and, as she does, the scissors catch on a thread of yarn, snapping it.
Looking down at the broken thread, Misty remembers her daughter. She remembers taking her to the beach on a stormy day, a hurricane spinning on the horizon and slamming its wild arms against the shore. Her daughter couldn’t have been more than five, but she wasn’t afraid. She laughed as the wind kicked up sand, even as it must have scraped her cheeks raw. Misty remembers picking her daughter up and hoisting her above the waves, dropping her as the waves receded, then tossing her up as they gnashed again at their ankles. Misty remembers the sound of her daughter laughing.
Her daughter is a teenager now. She lives somewhere Misty can’t locate on a map. There are no beaches there. It is cold in the winter. Misty thinks it is a regular place for regular people and she is glad her daughter gets to live there. She thinks of Eleanor living in this steamy town full of weirdos and violent types. The scissors are stiff in Misty’s fist, poised, but then Misty remembers the feeling she’d had, the feeling she wanted to pat Eleanor’s pale cheek. She looks back and sees Eleanor still standing in the shadows, still waiting for Misty’s report. She drops the scissors in Arthur’s lap.
“Not today,” she says.
Arthur lifts the scissors, holds them up. He pinches them between his thumb and forefinger as if they were a pair of spyglasses or a shrimp fork—something fancy people use in movies. “I suppose not,” he says. “But one day.”
Misty pulls out a cigarette and lights up. “Maybe,” she says as she inhales. “But I don’t think so.”
Arthur smiles but says nothing. He drops the scissors into his bag and returns to his knitting. Misty watches the needles slip and dip, the red wool rippling and pooling in his lap like blood.
“You should get going,” says Misty. She jerks her thumb over her shoulder. “I don’t think the PTA wants you here.”
Arthur glances behind him. His expression doesn’t change but his skin shines suddenly as he turns his face into the sunset. In the golden light of the afternoon, Arthur looks almost ordinary. His shiny white skin seems almost pink. Arthur looks back at Misty and gives her a sad smile and shakes his head. Wagging a gnarled finger, he says, “You are a marked woman, my dear. You’ll see.”
Misty looks at the grass, tries to find the baby squirrel. She can still make out its outline, even in the fading light. “Probably,” she says, tossing her cigarette into the water. “But that’s not for you to say.” She doesn’t give Arthur a chance to respond, she just turns and walks over to Jimmy and Eleanor. Purple pants is just behind them and Misty is thinking she will give them all a piece of her mind but when she gets there all she feels is relieved. Jimmy has his hands on Eleanor’s shoulder and Misty lays her hand on his. She leaves it there, waiting for someone to flinch or pull away. When no one does, she moves her hand to Eleanor’s face, cupping her chin in her palm. She holds her like that for a moment; they watch each other until Misty drops her hand and sticks it in her pocket.
Jimmy looks at Misty with a strange expression. Not angry, not happy. Maybe just a little relieved. “Are you OK?” he asks.
“Did he explain about the bones?” asks Eleanor.
“I hope you weren’t encouraging that creature,” adds purple pants, stepping into their circle.
Misty looks back at Arthur. He is knitting again. He looks soft and pale and she can almost see the sweat she knows is beading on his luminous scalp.
“That is a dangerous man,” says Misty, not really in answer to any of their questions. Just an observation, but it is all that purple pants needs to hear. She puts a hand on Misty’s shoulder and squeezes. Her face is gentle now, all is forgiven.
“You are very brave,” she says and then she scurries over to the playground and the parents waiting there. Misty looks down at Eleanor. She wishes she could offer an explanation. Jimmy has a hand on Eleanor’s head, he pulls Misty close with the other. He gives them both a squeeze and then he walks off to join the others.
Misty watches as the mothers all gather. The fathers gather too. Jimmy is with them now. Jimmy is with the crowd and Misty is with Jimmy. The crowd is growing and now Misty is a part of it. Misty looks back at Mr. Winesmith. Mr. Winesmith can’t see what’s coming.
A Pushcart Prize nominee and two-time winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project, Rachel Luria has been a contributor at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and her fiction has been recognized by Glimmer Train as a Top 25 Finalist in their Very Short Fiction contest. Her work has appeared in Saw Palm, Phoebe, Dash Literary Journal, Literary House Review, Yemassee, and others. Rachel Luria is also a co-editor of the recently published anthology Neil Gaiman and Philosophy. In 2006, she earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina and is currently an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Florida Atlantic University.