This year's Halloween story. Enjoy! (c) Tracy Dunham, 2015
The Red Jacket
The photo wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do. Lily punched the delete button and sighing, tried to frame the scene with her hands. She didn’t know why it wasn’t working. She should have knocked out this assignment hours ago. Freelancing didn’t pay unless you got the shot the client wanted, and so far, she was earning zilch. Nada. Nothing.
The damned trees insisted on swaying too much, the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds, scuttling all her F stops, and any sense of scale appeared to be an impossible goal. The firm, an agricultural magazine its client, wanted pastoral, calm, and lush for its magazine cover. All Lily was getting was flat, boring, and overshot. Grunting with disgust, she flung her camera in front of her, shut her eyes, and pressed the button. Rapid fire clicks, hundreds of them, responded as she twirled slowly in the middle of the field she’d chosen, praying that at least one of these random shots would be sufficient to earn a paycheck.
The light left her, and as she packed up to head back to her tiny cottage, she glimpsed a flash of red among the browns and sepias of the tree trunks in the nearby forest. Perhaps it was just a stray red leaf, floating to the ground that had caught her eye. Something like a spot of red could help her picture pop, but she didn’t have enough light to get any more shots. She drove home, far enough from the field that she couldn’t hear the hunters going after ducks as if they were the enemy. She hated the sound of gunfire. It reminded her too much of her former career as a stringer for the AP in all the wars she could find.
Parking her old Jeep beside her ramshackle house, she dragged her bag with all her photo equipment into the studio in the backyard. Even though she had a headache from hunger and probably, disappointment, she flicked on the overhead lamp and pulled out her cameras. One by one, she flashed through the pictures on the screens, discarding them even more quickly.
Then she saw it. The very last shot. It possessed that special something she’d been searching for, and without even knowing it, she’d lucked into her money shot. Uploading it onto her computer, she worried about what she needed to fix in order to sell it, when she saw that flash of red. The same brief splotch of color she’d seen just before she packed up to go. Too big and colorful to be anything in nature, she decided the red was a piece of clothing. But why hadn’t it been in the earlier pictures? And where was its owner? Surely the hunters who’d been blasting away in the distance hadn’t left it.
She printed off a copy to keep in the house. Maybe she’d take a look later, after she’d eaten and had some rest. The magazine was closed for the day, anyway, but she shot off an attachment of the picture to the editor who’d hired her, asking if this would work for the cover. Certain of her success, she carried the print out to her house, and setting it on the kitchen counter, studied her fridge for an idea for dinner.
She and food were on a first name basis most of the time, but tonight she couldn’t think of anything tempting to eat. Not that there was much to choose from. In fact, starvation was around the corner if she didn’t get paid by someone very soon. Ignoring the ache that bit at her stomach, Lily fished out a loaf of ancient bread and popped a couple of pieces in the toaster. She’d lived on less food when on assignments in war zones. She’d get by. Adding a cup of tea, she carried the toast and tea over to the worn sofa and coffee table that faced the small picture window.
She studied her view. The back yard was filled with plants she collected in her travels for assignments, back when she was in demand and making enough money to pay cash for this place. Whenever she felt as if she were wasting her time on her so-called career, she’d spend hours in her garden, photographing plant, and in the process, remembering how her camera had captured man’s inhumanity to man in each place she’d taken a speciman. Once upon a time, she’d believed her photos of the horrors of war could work for good, hastening to end a conflict that never should have been. When she’d realized that it seemed death had dogged her all her life, she gave up. Planting reminders of the dead and dying had once given her hope that beauty could rise of ashes. That had been a stupid idea, she learned the hard way. So she gave up and kept the reminders fertilized and pruned, so she’d never forget.
She never had. Love didn’t exist in the black world of violence and senseless death, so she did without love. Just as she could forego food, she didn’t need human affection. Or so she’d thought, back when she was young and life seemed so unfair yet manageable.
Now she wasn’t at all sure she’d taken the right path. None of her best work had done anyone any good, least of all her. Now she was just another cheap hire for third tier magazines. Her choice. Now, it was making her art fit into commercial boxes that sapped her soul and gave her fits. Which, she realized, was why her bank account was always empty these days. She just couldn’t win.
Sipping her tea and playing with toast crumbs, Lily stared at the printout and tried to decide if she wanted to investigate that sudden splotch of red further. Anything was better than ruminating on her dark past and bleak future. If the object was some bit of flotsam left by a hiker, did she really care enough to find it? And if it had been dropped by someone, why hadn’t she seen it in her first hundred photos? Still, who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? That bit of red was just the touch her composition had needed. She couldn’t wait to get an approval tomorrow from the editor, and her check.
That night, Lily dreamed of a floating forest, where trees switched places with one another, and water shifted from the sky to the ground, and a little girl cried behind a maple tree laden with gold and crimson leaves. She couldn’t find the child in her dream to help her because the tree moved every time she got close, and she awoke exhausted. Chalking it up to not having properly eaten the day before, she slugged down some stale cereal and another cup of tea before turning on her computer.
The email from the magazine editor awaited her. Yes, she liked it, but felt it needed to be taken from another angle. Blah, blah, blah, and could Lily get her another picture by this afternoon, early?
The cereal turned somersaults in Lily’s stomach. She’d already checked the weather, and clouds filled the sky and were expected to hang in there for another day or so. “Damnation and hellfire,” Lily cursed, flipping back all the curtains. She didn’t have a hoot in hell of a chance of getting the same great light as she had yesterday. Didn’t the idiot editor know that she’d have to wait until it cleared up?
She had to try. Maybe she could wait out the cloud cover. A few seconds here and there of sun, and she’d be set. Thinking on a positive note, Lily hauled herself and her gear back out. She was now in the category of hired help with equipment. Not an artist, just a person who could do a passable job.
Where and when had she lost her panache? Her flair for the unexpected? Her pride, if the truth be told, in her art. If she was going to be honest, and she figured it was about time she was, she’d lost her edge in the many wars she’d covered for the big magazines. Photographing dead and maimed, sorrow and misery, had sucked the life out of her art, and her. Both were barely hanging in there, and she hated it.
Maybe if she’d had a family, a husband and children, she’d have been able to shed the ugliness her art had recorded. Simple joys had once been basic to her life and creativity. A newly bloomed mum, an inch worm dangling from a rose leaf. Even her garden shots were marred now, blight on a bush, a row of wilted tulips, as if the camera was afraid to record anything pretty or happy. Or she was. Because she knew exactly how much ugliness existed in the world, and it was a limitless supply. She never felt clean anymore, no matter how much she scrubbed her skin and stood under a scalding shower. How could her art express anything but what she felt? When had she chosen death as art and why? What a stupid girl she’d been, back when she believed she was capable of handling any shit life threw at her.
Without realizing she’d been crying, she parked the Jeep where she’d stopped yesterday, and dragged herself and her gear from its rear seat. Trudging back to the edge of the pond, she turned in a slow circle, trying to find an angle the editor would like. She had no idea what she wanted, and it didn’t really matter for the cover of this minor publication. The woman just wanted to jerk Lily’s chain, because she could.
Dragging herself to the edge of the copse, Lily, looked back where she’d stood yesterday, and pulled her camera to her eye. The whirr and click of the lens working as she pressed the button was the only sound. Strange, Lily thought. There should have been geese honking, shotgun echos, wind rustling leaves at this time of the year. She was sure there had been yesterday. Turning to check out the forested area, she didn’t see so much as a single leaf flutter to the ground.
But she did see the red object that had appeared in the last shot of the day. A few feet in front of her, it was draped over a tree stump, as if someone had planned to retrieve it. Without thinking about what she was doing, Lily walked to the stump and picked up the anorak. A woman’s jacket, with pockets and a drawstring waist, a hood, and nary a smudge of dirt or spot. The thing could have been brand new. After checking out the pockets and finding them empty, Lily held it up to her torso.
The size seemed about right, though a bit big. Slipping it on, she gave a little twirl, amazed how it lifted her mood. She could certainly use a new jacket, and even if this one was too bright, she’d wear it. Whoever left it in the woods hadn’t returned in the past twenty-four hours, so she figured it was finders-keepers at this point. Or was it?
The jacket warmed her in a way her sweatshirt hadn’t. Deciding it was an omen, Lily traipsed deeper into the woods, determined to get a few more shots and call it a day, clouds and the editor’s demands notwithstanding. Just as she raised her Nikon to her eye, she was struck by a dizziness that sent her crashing to her knees, camera dropped, both hands pressed to the forest floor for purchase.
She’d never fainted before, not once. Head swirling, she tried to be rational about what had just happened. She hadn’t had much to eat yesterday, of course she was light-headed. She’d been sleeping poorly, taunted by worries over which she had no control. Despite her logic, her stomach roiled, and for a second time, she felt herself falling, this time to her side, her cheek pressed against pine needles and musty, dead leaves. Forcing herself to breathe, she wondered if she was having a heart attack. Every inch of her ached as if she’d been hammered with baseball bats, and her head throbbed with migraine-like pain.
“No,” she whispered, her throat aching, “I won’t die here.” Despite her declaration, she wasn’t so sure she wasn’t passing away. Shouldn’t she be seeing her past flash before her? Look into a bright light or the smiling faces of welcoming dead relatives?
The trees surrounding her swirled like a merry-go-round and staring at them was the wrong thing to do. Shutting her eyes, Lily refused to give up, no matter what the symptoms seemed to be. She would not go gently into Dylan Thomas’ good night.
Then, just as quickly as she’d been stricken, Lily felt all the pain and dizziness stop. Just like that. Amazed, she uncurled her fists from her chest and checked her hands. They seemed to be solid. Glancing down, she was still in the red jacket, and she could wiggle her feet. In fact, there was no lingering pain, no disorientation at all. Rolling to her knees, she pushed herself upright and glanced down to retrieve her Nikon.
The only problem was, there was no camera, no forest, no cloudy October sky. Her boots were standing on the brick path in her back garden, behind her little house, and rose bushes and jasmine bloomed in sunny glory all around her. Nary one of her foreign plants lined the path. She couldn’t be home, she hadn’t driven anywhere after getting dizzy, so was this some kind of crazy cosmic joke? Heaven was her house, but not?
“Hey, hon, where’re the band aids? Fleur has a boo-boo.” A smiling man, dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a sheepish grin, poked his head from the upstairs bathroom window. “No emergency, no arterial blood. A nasty splinter, which I removed with a minimum of tears, thank you very much. I think I’ve got it covered.”
He must have registered the alarm on her face as concern for the unknown Fleur. “Uh, band aids are under the sink. Blue box.” She didn’t know how she pulled that one out of her mind, like some magician’s rabbit and the classic black top hat.
He shouted down a distant “Got it.”
Who the hell was Fleur? And who was he? Maybe if she stayed in the rose garden long enough, she’d get back to the woods where she’d been stricken ill. Before she could run for the garden gate, she stopped cold. It wasn’t there. Her rickety little wooden picket fence had been replaced by a brick wall, covered with climbing roses. Covering her face with her hands, Lily sucked in deep breaths and tried to analyze the panic threatening to take her down for the third and final time. She was drowning in different-ness. None of this made sense, and she didn’t know how it had happened.
“Here’s mommy. I told you she’d be back in a few minutes. Tell mommy how brave you were.” The man with blue eyes wiggled through the small back door, holding a little girl old enough to walk on her own, but who was clinging to him with weepy, identical blue eyes.
“Who are you?” Lily didn’t have time to play games. The longer she was stuck in this fantasy, the longer it would take her to return to her real time. “Look, I know this is an illusion. What do I have to do to get out of it?”
Setting the little girl, about four years old Lily guessed, down, the man hurried to where Lily was backing up towards the brick wall.
“Sweetie, what’s the matter? Are you ill?” Reaching for her, he hesitated as Lily lifted her clenched fists and assumed a fighting stance.
“I’ve been a black belt for years now, don’t come an inch nearer.”
“Black belt? What is this, a joke? You hate violence.” Still, he hung back as if he believed her.
Good thing he did believe her. She’d never taken a defensive class in her life. “Just tell me how I get out of here. I have a life waiting for me.”
“Lily, honey, you’re scaring Fleur. Let me fix you a cup of hot tea.”
“Daddy, why is mommy crazy?” whined the little blue-eyed girl who blended her daddy’s gorgeous eyes with flaxen hair and delicate skin the color of pink satin.
“Good question, Fleur. Maybe mommy can tell us why she’s pretending to be a fruitcake.”
“I hate fruitcake,” Fleur mumbled through the thumb she’d stuck in her mouth.
“Oh great, now she’s thumb-sucking again.” The man rolled his eyes and addressing Fleur, gently removed her hand from her mouth. “You’re a big girl, Fleur sweetie, you don’t need to suck your thumb. Remember, we threw away your pacifier into the river because you’re a big girl now?”
“Being a big girl ain’t what it’s cracked up to be,” muttered Lily. “All I want is out. Just tell me how to get back to my real place and time.” Lily addressed the man, ignoring the big tears slipping down the little girl’s face. “Which definitely isn’t here. I don’t have any idea who you are and why you’re in my house.”
“Lily, it’s me, Aaron, it’s okay, I’ll get you some help. But I swear to God, if you’re making this crazy act up, I will kill you. I mean it. Now make up your mind, are you okay or do I need to call an ambulance?”
Aaron. The name slid into her brain and visited several rooms before it found the correct one. “Aaron Levine?” She couldn’t believe it. The boy she’d loved disappeared in a boating accident when he was seventeen and she sixteen. She’d spent years mourning what could have been, the worst kind of grief.
“Good, we’re getting somewhere. Now tell me, Lily, did you drink anything odd? You know you always try something funky at the Tea Leaf when you go to town. Or did you leave a cup of tea unguarded when you went to the restroom? Could someone have slipped you some drugs in it?” Still holding the little girl behind him, Aaron drew closer to Lily. “Think honey, this is important. You’re not right, and my bet is, it’s pharmacological. You sound like a teenager tripping on a date drug.”
Could he be right? Was she someone else, someone who lived a totally different life than the one she’d had just this morning? Why did she remember all the plants in her garden, every trip abroad where they’d been collected, all the wars she’d covered for top newspapers and magazines, all the times all she’d wanted was to hole up in her little house and never leave again? There could be an answer, but did she really want to hear it?
Fingering the bottom edge of the red jacket to assure herself it was real, Lily glanced into big blue eyes of the little girl, staring at her from behind Aaron’s jeans. One eyebrow crooked over her left eye in a definite triangle, just as one did on Lily’s face. No, it wasn’t possible. She’d remember if she’d had a child. A mother would never forget someone like Fleur, with her thumb in her rosebud mouth and tear-filled eyes swimming with fear such as she’d never known before.
“Show me your boo-boo, Fleur.” Fleur, such an old-fashioned name. Kneeling before Aaron, Lily held out her hands for the little girl. But Fleur was having none of it. Shaking her head, she used both arms to hold onto Aaron’s right leg.
“Lily,” Aaron warned. “If you’re playing games, stop it. You’re being cruel.”
Staring up at him, Lily felt her own eyes fill with tears. “Who am I?”
With one hand on Fleur’s head, he reached for Lily with the other, and quickly scooped her up against his chest. “You’re Lily Levine, you’re my wife and Fleur’s mother, and you teach art to elementary kids at Lewis Elementary. You went into town to buy groceries early this morning, and you’re safe now, you’re home. Back where you belong.”
Being held against his chest felt right. Nodding slightly, Lily took a good look around the garden. She liked the unruly, riotious colors of this garden better than the horrid memories each plant represented in her old one. Why had she planted something from each war-torn country? To remind her of the horrors she’d recorded with her camera?
“I have a question.” She mumbled into his chest. “Is this jacket mine?”
She felt the chuckle against her cheek. “No, honey, it’s mine. You steal it whenever you can get your hands on it. Why don’t you just buy one for yourself?”
How could any of this be happening? “Did you lose it? Or put it down in the woods? And did you know I would find it?”
“ Whoa, darlin’, what’s so important about the jacket?” Stroking her back, he calmed her as one did a skittish colt.
“Nothing,” she mumbled. “But can I keep it?”
“Anything you want, sweetheart. Anything at all, if it means you’re okay. Are you? Okay?”
“I think so.”
Nothing in her old life called to her but her bad memories. Memories of war and disappointment. Memories of a life on the edge of falling off a cliff.
And a memory she’d forgotten, of a boy she’d loved with all her heart and a life that could have been.
The hunters hurried to what they thought was a deer they’d bagged. Sure, they’d jumped the gun on deer season, but not by much. The woman’s sprawled body sent them staggering backwards.
“Damn, Henry, we’re in deep now. How the hell did this happen? I swear, I thought she was a buck.”
“Maybe she’s alive?” Henry knelt beside the woman and felt for the vein in her neck.
“Christ, no. What’re we gonna do?”
“We should call for an ambulance, is what we should do. You willing to take the fall for this?”
“Shit, no. I’m a family man, I got kids to feed.”
“Me too, you dumb ass.” Bobby looked as if he was going to vomit.
Henry grabbed him and dragged him away from the body. “We got to make sure we pick up all our shells. Then we get the hell out of here and never talk about today. Not ever, you hear me? We never hunted this forest.”
“I don’t like it. It’s not right.”
Henry nodded. “I hear ya. But fuck, Bobby, we gotta think about our families.Won’t take long for the weather and the critters to take care of her. Leave her be.”
“I don’t like it,” Bobby repeated.
Henry hitched his shotgun over his shoulder and turned his back. “Don’t have to. We got to take care of our own selves. We can’t go to prison over some stupid bitch.”
“I guess so.” Bobby glared at Lily, her hair spilled over her face, one hand clutching a bunch of dead leaves, one last time. “Stupid bitch. All her own fault.”
“Yeah, that’s right. All her fault.”