5290 Bear Creek
Leah Browning

Saturday, early afternoon. I'm scrubbing the bathtub when the doorbell rings.

It's the mailman, already driving away by the time I get to the door. He's left a package on the step. The print is small, and I have to lean close to read the name on the label.

Mrs. Frank Wittkin, two doors down. Shirley. They bought the house thirty years ago, when it was new.

I walk past the Lius' perfect lawn. Shirley Wittkin answers her door in a pink tank top and pedal pushers. "Oh, good," she says, and pulls me inside by the wrist.

"This is for you," I try, holding out the package, but she waves me into the kitchen. Every surface is covered with platters and trays of hors d'oeuvres. Deviled eggs. Crackers and a thick wedge of brie. Roasted almonds, red grapes, figs grilled and drizzled with honey. Bunches of flowers. A relish tray: olives, mini gherkins, radishes cut into roses. It goes on and on.

"Help yourself," she says. "Frank's in the back yard. He's having trouble getting the barbecue to light."  She touches the back of her head—"I just need a few minutes to finish my hair"—and disappears.

The only things waiting for me at home are a can of Bon Ami, a sponge, and a pair of rubber gloves slumped over the side of the tub. I take a cracker and nibble politely.

Shirley emerges, having fluffed her hair and changed into a dress. She's hauling someone behind her. "Have you met Frank Jr.?"  To him, "This is Lindsay. She lives in the Emersons' house."

She pushes the younger Frank toward me until we shake hands. "He's living with us while he figures out his life," she says, and he winces. "Take her downstairs. Show her your model train."

The track is bigger than their dining room table. In front of us is a desolate town decorated for Christmas. A handful of people are gathered at the station: three children with skates over their shoulders, a man in a winter cap, a woman in a long dress with her hands inside a fur muff. They stand in silence, watching, waiting.

In the backyard, Frank Sr. is barbecuing hamburgers. A pair of gray whippets lie in the shade of the porch.

Shirley sits me in a chair and gives me a tall glass of iced tea. She asks me where I went to college. She asks me how many hours I worked this week. She asks if I have anyone special in my life. No one, really? Such a pretty girl.

I ask, "Where is the restroom?"

I have to walk through Shirley and Frank's bedroom to get to it. Coyly, she says, "Don't worry, they won't watch," and I don't understand until I open the door. The room is full of shelves and shelves of porcelain baby dolls, their skirts starched and their eyes wide and unblinking.

On my way back through the house, I remember the package. I must have set it down at some point, on the counter? The sideboard?

The front door is open and Shirley is standing in the hallway, crying, with one of the whippets on a leash. While I was in the restroom, Frank Jr. took them for a walk. The other whippet ran after a squirrel.

Shirley wipes her eyes. "Will you go look for her?" she asks me. "Please? We need to stay here and wait for all of our guests."

Outside, it is getting dark. She lends me a flashlight. I walk through the empty streets, calling, "Lacey, Lacey," until my voice is hoarse and I can barely remember what I'm looking for.

Leah Browning's fictions have appeared in Bluestem, Corium, Fiction Southeast and many others. Her micro, "Scars," was the first story to appear on this site when it went live, in 2008. She edits The Apple Valley Review.

Read more of her work in the archive.

Art on main page courtesy of Roy Blumenthal.

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