I used to post first drafts of first chapters here all the time and then I stopped for some reason–I guess I got afraid that I would post something that sucked so badly that you would all decide to never read any real book I wrote ever again. Or something like that.
But hell, if you can’t suck on your blog for free, there is no point to anything, so here are the first two chapters of a thing that is probably not going to be a thing but it was the thing I wrote and it’s sort of started at chick list but I see no way this will not end with jackalopes, which maybe makes it magical realism or something, except possibly it’s part dystopia, except that bit doesn’t matter very much, but hell if I know anymore.
I do not yet know if the character is sympathetic or merely miserable, because being miserable is not enough to make people like you (quite the opposite, in fact.) Whereas I am usually reasonably confident in The Thing I Am Doing, this one is out of my usual range and comfort zone and I am floundering around like a penguin in a life vest.
It has no title, because we have not gotten that far yet.
She picked her new home for no better reason than the dog laid down on the porch.
The dog was an old black lab bitch named Copper, which was a stupid name because there was nothing copper-colored about her. Selena felt guilty when her boyfriend pointed that out, but Copper had already learned her name, so she put a collar on the dog with bright copper tags. Her boyfriend rolled his eyes, but Selena was proud of herself for having set things right again.
The dog never seemed to mind either way.
Selena had ridden out on the train, three days to get there, and she’d been afraid the whole time that somebody’d tell her she couldn’t have dogs. She didn’t know what she’d have done. Copper lay under her seat and let out old-dog moans and sighs, but the rocking of the train seemed to agree with her. She squatted obediently at every stop and shared the sandwiches that Selena passed down to her.
At the second to last stop, the conductor bent down and scratched Copper behind the ears, and Selena was so relieved that she nearly cried.
When she reached her stop, Copper stood up and stretched. Her muzzle was nearly white, but her eyes were clear. She glanced around the train platform and then up at Selena, as if expecting orders.
Quartz Creek was painted on the platform wall, in faded blue paint. The train platform was cinderblock and adobe. It could have been ten years old or two hundred.
There were no gates or turnstiles, no ticket takers. Certainly no taxis.
“I guess we just go,” said Selena. She wrapped the leash around her right hand and gripped her suitcase handle in her right.
The station was nearly deserted. Two men in faded jeans unloaded several boxes from one of the cars, into the back of a battered pickup truck. The conductor went over to them and had them sign a sheet of paper, then he said something and all three men laughed.
Selena stole a glance to make sure that they weren’t laughing at her. They didn’t seem to be.
There was a drinking fountain against one wall. She push the lever and the water came out, lukewarm and tasting of metal. She filled her water bottle and let Copper drink her fill from the little metal dish in her backpack.
There was hardly anything else to the station. Two little shelters with benches, the drinking fountain, and a list of time tables under glass. The stairs down from the platform ran directly to a rutted dirt road.
The town was visible, a long way in the distance. There was a hill behind it, or a mountain. Between town and station stood two or three miles of desert, full of scrubby little bushes and big gray-green saguaro. She did not know the names of most of the plants there. One long, serpentine thing might be ocotillo, but then again, it might not.
The dirt was bone white and the sky was hard blue. It was only mid-morning, but heat was already making long squiggles in the air.
Selena picked up her suitcase and let the dog lead the way.
Behind them, the train let out a long whistle and began to chug away.
The black dog kicked up little puffs of dust as she trotted along. Selena studied the verge of the road. She had expected deserts to be full of sand, but the earth here looked more like dust or talcum powder. The shrubs along the road had grey bark and grew sideways, split, grew sideways again.
There was so much sky that it was hard to think. In the city, there were walls you could put your back against, doors to shut, places to hide. To hide out here, you’d have to crouch down and worm your way under one of the scrubby little bushes. Probably there would be snakes.
Selena wiped her forehead, where beads of sweat were beginning to form. She was very tired. She had not slept well on the train, and she had not expected to have to walk for miles when she got off.
I didn’t think she’d be here to meet me, but I guess I thought she’d be closer. That the town would be closer. I don’t know why I’d think that. Stupid.
They walked perhaps a quarter of a mile, and the battered pickup rumbled up behind them. It stopped by the side of the road.
“Need a ride in?” asked one of the men. He was very old, which was oddly reassuring. “It’s a short drive but a long walk.”
Selena’s first instinct was to refuse. You didn’t take rides from strange men—that was asking for Bad Things to happen.
Then she had to laugh at herself. There were no other people. There was nowhere to hide. If they were planning on kidnapping her, it didn’t matter whether she climbed into the truck or not.
“Thank you,” she said. Was that enough? Probably not—“I’d appreciate that a lot.” There, that should be good. Just enough, not too much.
“Hop in,” said the old man, jerking his thumb toward the back.
The other man was riding in the back. He lowered the tailgate and Copper leapt up. “Hey girl,” he said to the dog, and she thumped her tail twice, then settled at Selena’s feet. “Ma’am,” he added, dipping his head to Selena.
It was too loud in the back of the truck to talk, for which Selena was grateful. She gave the man a quick smile and then looked away, at the desert. Copper was a reassuring weight against her shins.
She wondered if the men knew her aunt. She could ask–but no, she’d already gone over what to say, and she had to say it to the right person. Someone at the post office, or a city clerk at town hall. Someone in authority.
What little she could see of Quartz Creek across the desert made her question whether there was anything so grandiose as a town hall, but she’d worry about that when she got there.
Was the desert beautiful? It would be hard to tell. It was hard and dry, which Selena had expected, and intricate, which she hadn’t. She’d been picturing sand and stone and scouring winds. Not the little bushes fitted all together, with strips of dust in between, not the stacked paddles of prickly pear. It looked like a complicated mosaic with white mortar, or one of those paintings made out of hundreds of dots. If she were far up in the hard blue sky, would the desert resolve into a picture?
The truck rattled and cracked down the dry road, the wheels fitted into the ruts like train tracks. Dust roiled up behind them.
A flurry of fat gray bodies whirred into the air suddenly. Selena jumped, surprised—plump little birds with black topknots and stubby wings.
Are those quail? Really quail?
She supposed that she knew that quail existed somewhere, but she’d never expected to see them. They were a creature out of children’s books, more like stuffed animals than real flesh and feather and bone.
Selena realized that she was grinning foolishly. She darted a glance at the other passenger, and saw him smiling. He said something, but she couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. She shook her head.
He was middle aged, probably the driver’s son. He wore a bandanna over his hair and his skin was deeply tanned. There were thick silver rings on three of his fingers and black rings of grease under the nails.
When the truck slowed, entering the town, and the wind died down, he leaned forward. “What brings you to town?” he asked.
Selena felt the little muscles along the back of her neck go wire tense. It’s a normal question. It’s perfectly normal. You know what to say. You practiced this.
She reached into her chest and the words were there, just as she’d practiced them. “I’m looking for my aunt,” she said. “She lives out here.”
To her intense relief, he nodded, as if this wasn’t strange at all. “Go up to the post office,” he suggested. “It’s right across the street. If you’ve got people here, Miss Jenny will know where they’re at.”
“Thank you,” said Selena, although she had already planned to try the post office. “That’s a great idea.” Compliments were good, though not flattery. She thought she’d done it right. She praised the idea, not him, and not extravagantly. She dropped her hand to Copper’s collar, and the old dog thumped her tail.
The town wasn’t very large, a few dozen houses. They stood wide apart with ditches between them, and small roads arranged like the spokes of a wheel. The buildings were pale adobe, with flat roofs, wide porches, and what looked like whole logs sticking out the sides. It was a very strange look, as if they’d built the rafters too long for the walls. One of the buildings was taller, an old mission style church, with double doors thrown wide.
Most of the houses had solar panels on the roof or the garage, the old, ugly kind, cheap and nearly indestructible. The sort that Selena associated with poverty one step up from corrugated steel siding.
I’ve got twenty-seven dollars to my name. I don’t get to talk to anybody about poverty, I guess.
Did one of the houses belong to her aunt? Was one of those scruffy speckled chickens hers?
Somehow Selena had never thought of her aunt as poor. She has a house! People with houses aren’t poor.
At least…not in the city…
They passed an old garage, a temple to cars where mechanic-priests sat around in their overalls. Chickens scattered along the road as the truck passed, and dogs lay panting in the shade. There were a couple of scruffy pine trees, and some strange trees that Selena didn’t know—one that was all green, even the trunk, with fine slender needles, and one with slick red bark that peeled like a burn.
The truck stopped.
Her companion unhooked the tailgate and jumped out. He reached up a hand to her.
Do I take his hand/you’re not supposed to touch strangers/but he offered first and now it would be rude/no, it’s like a handshake, that’s okay, handshakes are okay—
She took it with, she hoped, no obvious hesitation. His fingers were dry and hard and had calluses like bits of gravel.
He helped her down from the truck and handed down her suitcase. “Thank you,” said Selena.
“No problem. Post office is right over there.”
Selena took a step toward it, then stopped. She was forgetting. She walked up to the cab of the truck and said, carefully, “Thank you for the ride. It was much shorter than walking.”
“Any time,” said the old man. “It’s a long walk.” He lifted a hand in half a wave, and Selena waved back.
She felt a bit giddy as she approached the post office. She’d done it right. She hadn’t practiced it at all, but she hadn’t said anything stupid. It was an unexpected victory.
The post office stood in the center of town. It was the same square adobe style as the rest of the buildings, but there was a metal sign over the door that said “Post Office.” Two of the strange green trees grew out in front, their leaves buzzing with cicadas.
Selena tied Copper’s leash to one of the porch posts and said “Stay.” Copper flopped down with a loud hwuff.
Next to the door was a little wooden sign with letters burned into it that said “Burnt Branch House.”
Selena paused for a moment with her hand on the door. Was that the name of the building? She’d seen named buildings in the city, but mostly they were named for historical figures. Burnt Branch House. Hmm.
She pulled the door open.
It was all tile inside, red clay tiled floor, bright blue tile counter. A line of painted sunflower tiles circled the wall. Even in the dim light, the room glowed.
A stout woman sat behind the counter. She looked up and raised her eyebrows as Selena came in.
“Can I help you?”
Say it. Say it just like you practiced. It’ll be okay.
“I’m sorry to bother you…” Selena reached into her backpack and pulled out the old postcard. The ink had blurred in a couple of places and the stamp was half gone, but the name on the return was clear. Amelia Walker.
There was no street address, just the name of the town, which Selena had thought was odd, until she came to Quartz Creek and saw how small it was.
“I’m looking for my aunt,” she said, and slid the postcard across the tiles.
The woman behind the counter picked it up, flipped it to the back. A line formed between her eyes and she looked up.
Her broad face was sympathetic, and even before she spoke, Selena knew.
No. No. She hasn’t said anything, you’re wrong, she hasn’t said anything so it isn’t real–
“Oh, honey,” said the woman. “I’m sorry. She passed away—only about a year ago. We didn’t know she had any next of kin, or we would’ve tried to get out a letter.”
Selena was aware that she was staring straight ahead. Heat was rising up her face, to her eyes, and when it hit, she was going to burst into tears.
No no she can’t be—I came all this way—I can’t afford a ticket back—I can’t afford to go anywhere—even if I go back, I’ve got no place and I can’t go back to Robert and what if I go back and he sees me—
And then the old anxiety came back and she realized she’d been standing there for much too long and the woman was looking at her.
“Thank you,” she said, in a high, strangled voice. She might have said more, but she knew that it sounded like she was going to cry, and you did not cry in public, that was something you definitely did not do. You might as well wet your pants on the street corner.
She turned away and practically ran out the door.
Copper was waiting there. Copper who was big and solid and made of fur and bone and muscle, Copper who loved her even though she didn’t deserve it. Selena crouched down and put her face in the black lab’s shoulder.
A year ago. A year ago. The phrase beat in her head like a pulse. A year ago.
Oh god, only a year. If she’d found her courage just a little bit sooner, if she’d gone nine years instead of ten, she would have come out and found her aunt alive.
Whether her aunt wanted to see her—whether her aunt had any fond memories of the city or had sent a postcard purely out of loneliness and duty—those were hurdles she could have faced.
Now she couldn’t.
Now she was in the desert a thousand miles away from the city and there was nothing but strangers and heat and dead white dust.
Copper licked her face and wagged her tail, concerned that her human was making upset noises. That was okay. She could wipe dog slobber off her face and nobody would know she was wiping off tears.
The door creaked behind her.
“Oh, honey,” said the post office woman. “I’m sorry.” She sat down on the porch next to Selena, not touching, but close by. “Guess you were hoping for better news.”
Selena had no scripts at all now, and only nodded.
Stupid, stupid, should have thought what you’d do if she was dead or even had moved, didn’t think, didn’t plan…
What she knew, down in her heart of hearts, was that she couldn’t have planned. This had been her last thrash towards self-preservation. She might as well go lie down in the desert now and let the sun bleach her bones.
“I’m sorry,” she croaked. Copper licked her chin again, worried.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” said the post office woman. “We all ought to have somebody to cry when we pass on.”
She held out her hand to Copper, who sniffed it and gave it a vague, meditative lick. The dog was half-sitting, half standing over Selena’s lap. Selena rested her cheek on the warm, furry back and tried to think of nothing at all.
“What’s her name?” asked the woman.
“Copper,” said Selena. Her voice was still shaky, but that was a safe question and a safe answer.
“Good name.” She scratched Copper behind the ears and was rewarded with an enthusiastic tail wag. Copper did not believe in disguising her emotions.
The woman studied the postcard again. “Tell you what. The house is still there, you know. Her house.”
Selena looked at her blankly, one hand hooked under the dog’s collar.
“Nobody’s claimed it,” said the woman. “She’s got no kin around here, and it’s not a big house. No reason you can’t go up and take a look at it.”
Selena had to think for a minute, to put words together. She tried them out in her head a few times, then said “Is that be allowed?”
“Sure,” said the post office woman. “I said it was fine, didn’t I?” She grinned. “I’m the mayor, you know. Also the postmaster, fire marshal, and the chief of police. My name’s Jenny.”
She stuck out a hand.
Selena shook it. Shaking hands is polite.
She didn’t want to babble or dominate the conversation, but surely she could ask one more question. “You’re sure no one will mind if I look?”
“Nobody around to mind,” said Jenny. “Lotta places standing empty these days. Can’t keep people in ‘em. You know how it is.”
Selena didn’t have the least idea how it was, and didn’t know where to start asking.
“You’re next door to Grandma Billy, out past the old well, and then there’s nothing for a mile on. You’ll have to check the old solars, but they should be working well enough to make tea, and you ain’t gonna need heat for a couple of months yet.” She leaned back on her hands. “Give it a look over. If you’re inclined to stay, just come by the post office and let me know, I’ll make you out an address form.”
An address form? For what? Is she suggesting I move in? I can’t do that. Houses are expensive. People with houses are always complaining about it. You can’t buy a house with twenty-seven dollars. Even if they gave it to me, I couldn’t keep it. The roof will fall off and the walls will fall down and I’ll have no money and they’ll hate me for not taking care of it. And it’s stupid anyway, because nobody gives away houses.
“I can’t stay,” said Selena. She had no money and apparently no family either. She’d have to leave, go back, deal with what she found in the city. Running away hadn’t solved anything.
“Up to you,” said Jenny. “Train won’t be back ‘til tomorrow, though, so you might as well walk over and take a look.” She pointed down one of the roads. “’Bout half a mile that way. Grandma Billy’s the one with the blue door, and you’re the one just past it.”
“Thank you,” whispered Selena, her store of words exhausted.
Jenny, the mayor and the postmistress and the fire marshal and the chief of police, smiled at her and said “It’s called Jackrabbit Hole House. You can’t miss it.”
In the end, she went because the alternative was to sit on the post office porch until the sun went down. She had no hope for Jackrabbit Hole House (and what kind of outlandish name was that, anyway?)
Truth was, she had only met her aunt a handful of times, mostly as a teenager. She remembered a thin woman with a seamed face, wearing clothes that were too big for her, as if she was afraid that someone might grab her and she’d have wriggle away. But she had a sharp, cutting sense of humor that delighted the teenage Selena, and over the years, postcards had come from a dozen places. It was only the last few that had been in the same place, as if she had finally been caught at last.
The last postcard was nearly ten years old. It had ended with “I hope you can come out and visit me sometime.”
Selena had been putting all her faith in those ten words.
How am I going to get back to the city?
The train won’t come back until tomorrow. I can’t afford a ticket, but even if I convince them to let me on, where will I sleep tonight?
There were no answers on the post office porch, and if she kept sitting there, Jenny was going to sit with her. Someone who had so many jobs was undoubtedly busy, even in a town as small as Quartz Creek, and Selena had taken enough of her time.
“Straight down that road,” said Jenny, pointing again. “If you don’t see anything you like, come on back. There’s a big lunch up at the church this afternoon, everybody welcome.”
Selena nodded. “Thank you,” she said. That was about all that she could trust herself to say.
People are telling me where I can get free food. Oh god, how much farther can I fall? I had a job, I always had jobs, I never took any handouts…
There really ought to be some kind of card, Selena decided, something you could carry to prove that you weren’t a freeloader. It could say something like “Hard Worker, Temporarily Fallen On Bad Times.” And on the reverse it would say “Not In The Habit Of Mooching.”
Otherwise all it took was one bad run of luck and it didn’t matter how hard you’d worked your whole life, you were down in the gutter with the lunatics and the unlucky and the professionally helpless.
“Definitely a card,” she muttered, as she walked down the bleached road. Then she stopped, because if you talked to yourself, you looked crazy and even though she was crazy, she was still hoping that nobody else would notice.
Jackrabbit Hole House. What a name.
As Selena walked through the middle of town, she could see that it wasn’t the only named house. There were no numbers on any of the buildings, but they all had little plaques. Some of them were set too far back from the road to read, but most of them had big, bold letters, as if the house names were something that people were proud of.
Pocket Gopher House. South Porch House. Tortoise On Its Shell House. House With Its Back To the Desert.
Some of them were self-explanatory—Under The Olive Tree House had a low wing tucked up under gnarled branches, and Three Saguaro House had three tall cactus growing in the front. Others didn’t make any sense at all—the House With Its Back To The Desert was actually backed against the mechanic’s, and It Fell Down House appeared to be in good repair.
No wonder Aunt Amelia’s postcard was simply from Quartz Creek.
Selena passed the church. The plaque beside the door was brass instead of wood. House of Our Lady of the Palo Verdes.
That makes more sense. That’s a church sort of name. You name churches. Houses get numbers, though, not names.
Apparently the people of Quartz Creek disagreed.
The house to the left of the church was Left-of-the-Church House, which made sense, but the house on the right was Bougainvillea House, so not even that was consistent. Selena sighed.
There were only two rings of houses on this side, although Selena could see a few straggling buildings off in either direction. Many of the houses had back gardens fenced with chicken wire, which did nothing to contain the roving chickens. A few were standing empty, with boards up over the windows.
Can’t keep people in ‘em. You know how it is.
She wished she did.
The road curved along the base of the hill that she had seen from the train platform. There were more trees than she had expected, although she couldn’t be sure if they were real trees or just more of the scrubby desert plants, grown unexpectedly tall in the shadow of the hillside. They rose up ten and twelve feet high, so that she and the dog walked together through a strange dry forest.
Scrub, she thought. Brush. I have been using the words all my life and this is what they mean and I had no idea.
Copper meandering along the edge of the road, stopping occasionally to sniff. Selena watched her exploring all the little canine mysteries—why this twig was more interesting than those others, why this patch of ground needed to be peed on, why this rock was much more fascinating than all the other available rocks.
That last question was answered when the rock unfolded long legs and bounded away. Copper jumped back, startled, and the jackrabbit shot into the desert.
The dog gave half-hearted chase–it was running, and that’s what you were supposed to do–but she stopped at the end of the leash.
Selena laughed. It wasn’t much of a laugh, but it was there. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the heel of her hand. “Didn’t expect that, did you?”
Copper looked vaguely offended. Rocks did not run away.
“You’re a city dog, aren’t you, girl?” She scratched behind the ears, in the good spot, and Copper thumped against her leg. “Not used to jackrabbits.”
Not that I am either. Jackrabbit Hole House. Huh.
A house appeared on the left side of the road, around the curve of the hill. It looked old and there were cracks in the adobe. A low stone wall ran alongside the road, and trees crowded over it, dappling the dry earth with shadow.
There was a peacock on the wall.
Copper stopped and stared at it with deep mistrust. So did Selena.
It was definitely a peacock. There was nothing else it could be. It was bright blue and had a tail made for strutting and it was wildly out of place.
Peacocks don’t live in the desert. Peacocks are, like…jungle birds, right?
The misplaced peacock turned its head and said “Ai-yowp! Ai-yowp!”
The door of the old adobe banged open, and a person came out.
The person was a little taller than Selena, wearing a faded cotton skirt and an open leather vest. Silver and turquoise bangles clattered on thick, bony wrists.
“Goddamn bird!” The person charged at the peacock, arms waving. “Git! Go back home! Swear to the lord, I’m gonna go down there and tell Jack to put you in a stew!”
“Ai-yowp!” shrieked the peacock, pacing down the wall toward Selena.
Selena took a deep breath. “Excuse me…”
“Sweet Jesus!” The person reeled back, hand to heart. “Sorry, didn’t see you there. I was yelling at the bird, not you.”
“No, it’s okay. I figured that.” Selena glanced to the adobe, saw it had a blue door. “Um. I’m looking for…uh…Jackrabbit Hole House?”
“Sure, it’s just a little bit up the way. Follow the road. You can almost see it, but there’s trees in the way.” The person stuck out a hand. “I’m Grandma Billy.”
“Selena.” Selena shook. She had shaken a lot of hands today.
“Billy…?” she asked tentatively, searching the face in front of her.
“Grandma,” said Grandma Billy firmly. “Billy was my second husband and I’m too old to change it now.” Selena nodded.
That’s easy, then. Okay.
The peacock, apparently annoyed that it wasn’t the center of attention, shrieked next to Selena’s ear. She jumped away, startled, and Copper let out a warning bark.
“Damn bird, you’re causing nothing but trouble. Go on! Git!” Grandma flapped her skirt at the bird. It stuck its beak in the air and stalked away down the road, back toward town.
“It’s Jack Houndsmith’s bird,” said Grandma. “Mail-ordered some chicks from the city, had all these ideas about breeding better chickens. Half of ‘em didn’t hatch and the other half were peacocks, but he’s never been able to admit he was had.” She glared down the road after the retreating peacock. “Stupid bird comes around and my old rooster looses his damn mind. I tell him he can’t compete with a peacock, but he about kills himself trying.”
“Well, they’re very pretty,” said Selena, carefully. Was that a stupid thing to say? That was probably stupid. Obviously they’re pretty. Damn.
“Sure are,” said Grandma. “Up on the mesa, they call ‘em ‘sun turkeys,’ or so I’m told. Pretty sort of name. Shame about the personality. Can I get you something to drink?”
Fortunately Selena had lots of scripts for this sort of thing. “That would be lovely,” she said, “if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble,” said Grandma. “You must be about parched. This lady too.” She crouched down on her heels, skirt making a broad circle in the dust. Silver chimed as she held out a hand to Copper.
Copper, who knew that she was being approached correctly, perked her ears forward and gave Grandma’s hand an emphatic lick, then thumped her broad skull into the waiting fingers. Grandma petted the lab’s ears gravely.
“She a chicken killer?”
Selena blinked. “I don’t think she’s ever met a chicken.”
“We’ll play it safe, then. Some good dogs out there that can’t be around chickens. Stay out here on the front porch, I’ll be right back.”
She swept through the blue door. Selena wasn’t sure if it was okay to sit down on the porch, even though there were rocking chairs with woven blankets thrown over them.
She leaned against one of the porch pillars instead. Copper, who had no such compunctions, flopped down on the boards.
There was a little wooden plaque next to the door that said “Blue Horned Toad House,” with a little drawing of a lizard under it, painted bright blue.
It was very quiet in the desert. The cicadas were buzzing, but you didn’t notice the sound until they stopped. It didn’t seem like noise as much as a manifestation of the heat, like the ripples coming off the road.
All she could hear was Copper panting and the sounds of Grandma banging around inside the house. A muffled “Ah-yowp!” came from down the road and then was silent.
A bird skittered to the top of a nearby saguaro and looked around. It was brown and had a sharply downcurved beak. It looked annoyed about something.
Grandma shoved the door open with her shoulder and one foot hooked around the edge of the door. She had two jars in one hand and a shallow clay dish of water in the other. Selena jumped to take the dish from her.
“There you go,” said Grandma. “That’s for Copper and this one’s for you.”
The jar was full of tea, something green-tasting and faintly sweet. There was no ice. The glass sweated in the heat, and water rolled over Selena’s fingers as she drank.
“Thank you,” she said. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she’d been. Copper slurped thirstily from the pottery bowl.
“No worries,” said Grandma. “It’s the desert. You get dried out before you know it.”
An awkward silence fell, or perhaps Selena only thought it was awkward. She reached for a script that had served her well–“So what is it you do?”
Grandma snorted. “Do? Well, I get older, mostly. And dig around in the garden and keep chickens. And chase off peacocks.” She fixed Selena with a bright eye over the rim of her jar. “And what do you do?”
“I’m a night manager at a deli.”
The words came out and then stood there in the blazing desert light and looked faintly ridiculous, as out of place as peacocks. Surely it was not possible that the world had both saguaros and all-night delis in it. No one would believe that.
“Was,” said Selena, in an effort to shepherd the lost words away. “Was a manager. I’m not now, I mean.”
“Uh-huh. So what do you want with Jackrabbit Hole House?”
Selena took a large gulp of tea while she sorted through the words in her head. “My aunt used to live there,” she said carefully. “I know she passed away. The post mistress said to come look at it.”
Grandma nodded. “All right, then. If Miss Jenny sent you, I ain’t gonna say no. Your aunt was a friend of mine.”
“I’m sorry,” said Selena. No, that was wrong, shit! “Not, I mean, sorry that she was your friend. Sorry she passed away. For your loss. Because she was your friend.” She could hear herself starting to panic and shoved the rim of the jar into her mouth to stop the flow of words.
“I got the gist,” said Grandma, looking faintly amused. “Didn’t know she had a niece. Would have tried to get a letter out if I did, but Amelia didn’t talk about her family much. Said she had a sister who passed, but that’s all I knew.”
“My mom,” said Selena. Did she had to say anything more? Hopefully not. She didn’t think she had the energy.
Grandma took a sip of tea.
“I haven’t seen her in a long time. I didn’t know. She sent me a postcard–“ The panic was bubbling up again. Selena dug out the postcard and held it out. Her hand was shaking a little.
Grandma took it, flipped it over. After a moment, she smiled. “Sounds like her, all right. She always wrote just like she talked.” She handed the postcard back.
“I should have come sooner,” said Selena hopelessly. “A year–I couldn’t. I should have. I’m sorry.”
Grandma’s face softened, or maybe the hardness had been in Selena’s imagination. “It’s all right. Things show up when they’re needed.”
Not me, thought Selena. I screwed that up, too. I shouldn’t have come out this way. I should have stayed at the post office. What good is looking at a dead woman’s house going to do?
“Jackrabbit Hole House should be fine,” said Grandma. “I made sure everything was cleaned out. Probably got mice in it, and I’d check under the stove for snakes, but the roof is good. Door’s unlocked.”
It had not occurred to Selena until that moment that she might actually go inside the house. She had finished her tea some time ago, but she gripped the jar until the words Ball Canning were imprinted on the pads of her fingers.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Grandma. “It ain’t haunted. Amelia hung around her garden ‘til everything died back for summer, then she went on her way. Nothing there now.” She took a slug of tea. “Well, except the usual run of desert ghosts, I guess. But they’re no bother.”
Selena set the jar down and picked up Copper’s leash. She had no scripts at all for this situation.
“I’ll just go look at the house,” she said. “I wasn’t going to go in. Thank you for the tea.”
“If you change your mind, come on back by,” said Grandma. “I’ve still got the sheets for the bed and a couple of Amelia’s old things. No sense roughing it if you don’t have to.”
“Thank you,” said Selena, who wanted nothing more than to bolt back to town. But the postmistress would still be there–she’d left her suitcase at the post office, for god’s sake–and she was bound to ask what Selena had thought and she had to have something to say.
Grandma Billy saw her to the edge of the road and leaned on the drystone wall. “The funny thing,” she said “is that jackrabbits don’t live in holes.”
“They don’t?” Copper was tugging at the leash and Selena was only half listening.
Grandma sniffed. “Nope. Live in little scrapes. Odd sort of name for a house. When you turn the water on, it’ll spit. Let it run for a few minutes. The pump’s nearly new, but it ain’t been on for awhile.”
Everyone thinks I’m staying. I’m not staying. Why are they talking as if I am? “Thank you for the tea,” she said.
“Glad to do it. You take care.”
She followed the road around the curve of the hill, past the trees, until Grandma Billy was lost from sight.
She came around the corner, and there was the house, tucked up in scruffy green shrubs. An impressively multi-armed saguaro grew directly across the road, and an impressively dead one lay slumped beside it. Another low stone wall, like the one at Grandma Billy’s, ran along the road here, though this one was devoid of peacocks.
It was a small house.
Well, the postmistress said it would be…
It might be two rooms, possibly three. Certainly no more than that. It was tea-colored adobe with two windows in the front, and a wraparound porch that sagged in the middle. Some aggressive vine had eaten two of the porch posts and was making threatening gestures toward a third. There was a rocking chair on the porch that had been cobwebbed into place and glazed in pale white dust.
There was a dirt path up to the house. White stones, like blocky skulls, picked out the edges of…well, you couldn’t call them flowerbeds. Scrub beds, maybe. Whatever the difference was between bare dirt and dirt with gray-green spiky things in it.
This is it. This is where Aunt Amelia lived, until a year ago.
A year ago. A year ago. A year too late.
She set that thought aside, for all the good it did her.
Once upon a time, Selena would have gone up to the house, walked around it, looking in the windows.
Once upon a time, she could talk without worrying about it, and didn’t run every sentence through her head a dozen times first. Once upon a time had come and gone and there were no happily ever afters. She put her hand on the drystone wall.
It was hard under her fingers, the stones rough, the edges sharp. She closed her eyes. She could believe that the peacock and Grandma Billy were part of a dream, but the stone wall was too clearly a real thing. If the wall was real then everything else was real. All right. Not a dream, then. It was all really happening and her aunt was really dead and she was really broke and in a town called Quartz Creek and the dead woman’s house was really in front of her.
If the two windows were eyes, then the left one was half closed into a wink by the rioting vine. The porch sagged into a smile. The desert was enormous and the house was very small, but it looked brave and rather hopeful.
It reminded her of Copper when she was a puppy, deeply convinced that the world was full of kind giants who loved her, and if she only waited long enough, one would come and play.
I am losing my mind. I mean, I already lost it, I know, but now I am getting maudlin and reading things into a falling-down porch. It is probably heat stroke. I should sit down.
If I go up to the house, I could sit down on the porch. I could even open up the door and go inside. It might be cooler in there.
Selena stood by the wall and didn’t move.
It was a nice house. She could see why her aunt might have lived there. But it wasn’t hers.
If I went in, I might start to like it and if I do, somebody will take it away from me. You can’t just walk up and lay claim to a house. That’s not how it works.
She remembered the empty houses in the middle of town, with the boarded up windows. The postmistress told me–she said they can’t keep people in them–but it can’t be like that, not really…
It was too easy, too unearned. You did not get things handed to you.
And yet there was a nagging little grain of hope there. She was the next of kin, wasn’t she? Her mother was dead, thank the merciful gods. If the house was abandoned and nobody wanted it…
It wouldn’t be that way in the city, where everybody lived on top of each other, but maybe out here, in the margins…
Why would anyone want to live out here? It’s hot and weird and there’s hardly anybody here and you can’t go anywhere and the train only comes once a day…
Dear god, she was tired. The hard light was giving her a headache.
Copper got up.
She gave the leash a practiced tug, pulling it out of Selena’s lax fingers, and trotted up the walk to the sagging porch.
The lab ignored her. Three steps up, and she flopped down on the porch–really flopped, not her polite Sphinx-pose while she waited for Selena to finish what she was doing. A full-body, over on her side, legs-stretched-out flop, accompanied by a deep old-dog sigh of contentment.
And that was that.
Selena left the wall. Her feet dragged as she approached the porch. She had no energy left to argue, not even with the dog.
She sat down on the porch and put her head in her hands, and that, more or less, was that.