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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer
#134

Medium Unwell



              Elena Hafley’s father was sick and did not seem to be getting better. He stayed in bed day and night and sweated under piles of blankets. Sometimes his face was flushed, sometimes it was cold and waxy white. He hadn’t worked for two weeks, neither at his primary job as an event-planner nor at his secondary job as a medium who pretended to contact the dead for gullible people. Louise Hafley, Elena’s mom, worked at Instant Classic Home Furnishings three evenings a week, but she didn’t make nearly enough to support the family on her own. They were barely hanging on. Their rent was due in less than a week and they were already two months behind.

                Elena was 16 and she’d felt like an only child for the last year and a half since her older sister Estelle had moved out the second she turned 18. Estelle never came back to visit because of some longstanding grudge between her and Louise that Elena didn’t fully understand. Elena kept offering to get a job to help pitch in some money for the household, but her parents refused to let her until school was out for the summer. Elena supposed if things got really bad, her grandparents on her dad’s side might give the family more money, but she knew how much her parents hated accepting her grandparents’ money because it always came with a price, usually in the form of a lecture condemning her father’s work as a phony medium and another lecture condemning her mother’s weight, tattoos, and the time she lied to them about being pregnant with Elena because she didn’t want them to give her a bunch of books about pregnancy to read and then constantly ask her if she’d finished reading them yet like they’d done when she was pregnant with Estelle.

                With no job and an easy second semester schedule, Elena had a fair amount of free time. She spent as much of that free time away from the oppressive, desperate atmosphere in her house as possible, although now that her dad was sick, she had to stay close whenever her mom was at work in case her dad needed anything or took a turn for the worse. But when her mom was at home, Elena liked to borrow her dad’s car to drive around and take pictures of old, decrepit buildings, which she knew was cliché, but she was just getting into photography and it seemed like the place to start. It wasn’t like she was planning on showing the pictures to anyone. Once she’d mastered the art of photographing old, decrepit buildings, she’d move on to having some actual ideas.

                One Friday afternoon, instead of driving straight home after school, Elena drove over to Dalcette to take pictures of some of their decrepit buildings. In her wandering, she ended up at Ovoid Skate, the abandoned roller rink a mile outside of Dalcette’s city limits. Elena had heard rumors that Ovoid Skate’s owner, Mr. Capsig, still lived there, but she saw no vehicles in the overgrown gravel parking lot and though the building had no windows, she could see through the glass front door that there were no lights on inside. Elena parked the car and stepped out into the spring sunshine, her camera hanging from a strap around her neck. The building was essentially a giant, gray pole barn. It didn’t have a lot of character in itself, but its isolation gave it a certain solemn dignity that Elena wanted to capture. She set off around the side of the building, searching for the best angle from which to shoot the roller rink or perhaps a pile of junk that could serve as a subject for another series of photographs. The day was warm and the long, vivid green grass gave the impression of concealing many unseen creatures like trembling, infant rabbits and praying mantises.

                Elena walked around the back corner of Ovoid Skate and stopped in surprise, pressing three fingers to her mouth. There she saw a plank-and-brown-tarp lean-to constructed against the back wall of the building. There were two bikes lying in the shaggy grass just outside the lean-to and inside, a boy and a girl, both of them a little younger than Elena, sat next to each other on cinder blocks and silently read the same book together, each holding half, surrounded by Newsworthy Burger wrappers and an unrolled blue sleeping bag. After a moment, the girl tried to turn the page, but the boy grabbed her wrist. “I’m not ready yet!”

                “It’s taking you forever,” said the girl. “Where are you?” The boy pointed to a spot on his half of the book.

                “That’s all the farther you are?” asked the girl. “I’m more than a page ahead of you! How do you read so slow? Forget it, just take the whole book. I don’t even like it.” She pushed the book toward the boy and slid off of her cinder block, lying on her back in a pose of exasperated boredom and looking up at the angled, tarp roof of the lean-to. The girl had hair dyed black but showing brown at the roots and small glasses. The boy wore dirty white jeans rolled up to just below his knees, a grimy, rumpled black tank top, and a green visor. Neither the boy nor the girl had noticed Elena yet when she finally said, “Hey, what’re you guys doing?”

                The girl sat up halfway, no more than mildly curious, but the boy jolted and toppled backward off of his cinder block before scurrying out of the lean-to on his hands and knees and leaping to his feet. “Who are you? Did my parents send you to find me? How did you find me?” He sounded more eager than angry or demanding.

                “No one sent me,” said Elena. “I just came out here to take some pictures.” She pointed at the camera hanging against her chest. “Are you hiding from your parents?”

                The boy didn’t say anything. He seemed to be carefully formulating a response.

                “Yeah, he’s hiding from his parents,” said the girl in the lean-to. She flopped down onto her back again. “He ran away from home.”

                “Come on, Jenna,” said the boy, turning to glare at her. “No one’s supposed to know.”

                “Well, no one’s supposed to know where you’re hiding either,” said Jenna. “But she knows that.”

                “Why did you run away?” asked Elena. “How old are you?”

                “I’m seventeen,” said the boy.

                “Marty’s fourteen and so am I,” said Jenna. “He ran away ‘cause his parents think he’s a burden ‘cause they’re poor and he doesn’t contribute anything and he complained to his mom about how they hardly ever go out to eat and he says she pretty much told him to his face that he’s the reason they never go out to eat ‘cause if it was just her and his dad then they could afford to go out to eat all the time.”

                “Great, Jenna,” said Marty. “Thanks. Just tell everyone everything.”

                “That’s sad,” said Elena. “My parents are poor too and sometimes I feel like a burden, but they won’t let me get a job until summer, but it’s pretty bad. We’re super poor.”

                “See?” said Jenna. “Her family’s poor and she didn’t run away. And she’s old enough to drive and stuff.”

                “Why did you run away?” asked Elena, directing her question to Jenna.

                “Me? Oh, I didn’t run away. Marty’s just my boyfriend. I’m just visiting even though it’s boring out here and the lean-to sucks and there’s nothing to eat except whatever I buy for him in town.”

                “How long ago did you run away, Marty?” asked Elena. “I haven’t heard anything about it on the news or anything.”

                “You haven’t?” Marty seemed surprised. “I ran away three days ago. Jenna said she hadn’t heard anything either, but I thought she was just saying that to make me give up.” He frowned and scratched the very top of his head.

                “He left a note for his parents to make them feel all guilty,” said Jenna. “He thought they’d panic and everyone would be hunting for him by now.”

                “They probably don’t want to admit to the police and the news what bad parents they’ve been,” said Marty. “They don’t want to have to show everyone the note. They don’t want people to know they made their own son feel like an unwanted burden.”

                “You’re such a baby,” said Jenna. “Who cares? At least at home you’ve got TV and internet and a bed and all that.”

                “Our internet got turned off,” said Marty. “My broke parents couldn’t pay the bill.”

                “Sorry,” said Elena. “I’m sure your parents are upset. They’re probably just hoping you’ll come back home soon. I’m sure they’re worried.”

                “Not worried enough,” said Marty. “How do they know I’m not kidnapped or dead by now? They have no idea if I’m safe or not.  This whole thing is just confirming to me that running away was the right decision.”

                “No, it isn’t,” said Jenna. “We all know the whole point was to put your parents on a guilt trip and that isn’t working. If anything, it’s confirming that running away was the dumb decision.”

                Marty looked at Elena, wounded and confused. “You said you feel like a burden sometimes. What do you think?”

                Elena shrugged. “I think I’d rather live in a house. But I can’t tell you how to feel.”

                “You won’t tell anyone I’m out here, will you?”

                “No,” said Elena. “I won’t. It’s none of my business.”

                “You promise?”

                “Sure, I promise.” She smiled. She liked Marty. And she liked Jenna. They were cute kids. Elena suddenly felt compelled to head home to her parents. Maybe her mom could use some help making dinner. Maybe she could fetch her dad a damp rag for his forehead.

 

                When Elena got home, dinner was already made. Her mom had cooked a pot of boxed macaroni and cheese. Elena spooned some of the macaroni and cheese onto a paper plate and took a can of generic grape pop from the fridge. “How’s dad?” she asked, sitting down at the kitchen table. “Is there something I can do for him? Does he need a damp rag for his forehead?”

                Louise gave her a strange look and sat down across the table from her. She didn’t have a plate. Elena wondered if her mom was going to eat tonight. “What is it?” asked Elena. “Did something happen to dad? Is he getting worse?”

                “What? No.” Louise shook her head. “Well, I don’t know, he might be getting worse. It’s hard to tell. But no, that’s not what we need to talk about.” She paused to slide a napkin across the table toward Elena, to which Elena took some offense since she already had one napkin. Elena’s mother continued. “You know how you’ve been asking for ways that you could help out the family while we’re going through this tough time? Well, an opportunity came up today, and you’re not going to like it, but we could really use your help, Elena.”

                “What is it?” asked Elena. “I’ll do it. I want to contribute. I don’t want to be a burden.”

                “Don’t say that, Elena. You’re not a burden, you’re our daughter. But we are struggling and this is something only you can do.”

                “Just tell me,” said Elena. “I’ll do my best.”

                “We need you to take one of your dad’s medium jobs,” said Louise. “You just have to pretend to talk to a dead person for a client for a few minutes. Your dad’s too sick to do it, so I told the client that you inherited his gift and that you could do it tomorrow. I can tell by your face that you’re not happy and I knew you wouldn’t be, but Elena, darling, we need the money so badly right now. It could be the difference between us being able to stay here and getting evicted.”

                “But I don’t know how,” said Elena. “I want to help, but I don’t know-”

                “It’s not hard,” said Louise. “Your dad is terrible at it and you wouldn’t believe how many repeat clients he has. I’ll show you how. Trust me, you’ll be fine.”

                “But who is it?” asked Elena. “Who’s the client?”

                “It’s a sad story,” said Louise. “It’s a mother from here in Multioak. Her teenage son ran away from home and then he died. I’m guessing she feels guilty about it. Like, maybe if she’d been a better mom, her son would still be alive. Something like that. So all you’ll have to do is tell her that her son says it’s not her fault and she shouldn’t feel guilty. That should be plenty.”

                Elena said nothing for a moment. Then she asked, “Is the son’s name Marty?”

                Louise stared at her. “Elena.” She leaned forward across the table, eyes wide, reaching for Elena’s hand. “Elena, how did you know that? Are you actually psychic? How did you know that?”

                “I’m not psychic,” said Elena. “I met Marty today. He’s not dead. He’s hiding in a lean-to behind Ovoid Skate in Dalcette. I went out there to take pictures and found him and his girlfriend hanging out and eating Newsworthy Burger and arguing. Why does his mom think he’s dead?”

                “I don’t know,” said Louise. “She just told me he was dead. I assumed he ran away years ago.”

                “No,” said Elena. “He ran away, like, three days ago.”

                “This changes everything,” said Louise. “If he’s not dead, there’s no way you can talk to him. And if you can’t talk to him, there’s no way we can charge his mom for your services. We can’t just have you fake it anyway because when he shows up again, his mom will be right back here demanding a refund and telling everyone she knows that we’re phonies.” She sat back in her chair and sighed.

                “Sorry,” said Elena, but she was relieved that she wouldn’t have to pretend to talk to a grieving mother’s dead son. “But if there’s any other way I can help, just let me know. I want to help.”

                “OK,” said Louise. She gazed across the kitchen in the direction of the coffee maker, but she probably wasn’t looking at the coffee maker. She was pondering something. Probably the family’s increasingly grim financial plight. Elena finished her macaroni and cheese and did not, for all her desire to help, feel compelled to help herself to a second helping.

 

 

                The next morning, Elena’s mom woke her up at 8, which was at least three hours earlier than Elena preferred to get up on Saturdays. “I have a plan,” said Louise, standing in the doorway to Elena’s bedroom.

Elena shielded her eyes with her arm. “A plan for what, mom? It’s the weekend, I want to sleep in.”

“You can still meet with the client today,” said Louise. “It’s perfect. She thinks her son’s dead, but you know he’s alive. But you can’t tell her where he is or anything, you’re not that kind of psychic. You just talk to dead people. So, yeah, she pays you to talk to her dead son. Then you sit quietly for a while in deep concentration, you let the suspense build, and then you say, ‘Wow, this is weird, I can’t find him. He must not be dead.’ She’ll be so relieved, she’ll pay us, and then when they find him or he comes home or whatever, your powers will be confirmed! It’s perfect!”

Elena groaned. “Mom, I really don’t want to get mixed up in this. I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong or screw up somehow and then something bad will happen. Like, something really bad.”

“Nothing bad is going to happen, Elena. These people want to believe. And you’ll be telling the truth, in a roundabout way. You’ll be healing a grieving mother’s broken heart!”

“I still don’t get why she thinks he’s dead,” said Elena. “This is so stupid.”

“Mothers are paranoid, sometimes,” said Louise. “We assume the worst. And of course it’s stupid. Peoples’ stupidity is how we make money. Now, the client isn’t coming until this afternoon, so you can sleep some more now if you want to.”

“I want to,” said Elena, but after her mom left, Elena couldn’t sleep. She knew her parents would never tell her she was a burden, but she didn’t want them to think it or feel it for even a second, not even a hint of the idea that she wasn’t pulling her weight, that she wasn’t contributing in a positive way to the family. Whether or not her family contributed in a positive way to the rest of the world was beyond the scope of her concern. One day she’d have enough money to take her whole family out to eat, even her sister. And they’d all say, “You don’t have to treat us, Elena. It’s your money. We don’t want to be a burden.” And then she’d say, “Shut up! Don’t you ever call yourselves a burden! Don’t even think it! You’re my family and you don’t have to do anything for me!” Well, maybe not that harsh.

 

Marty’s mom was named Sybil Leems and she arrived at the Hafley’s house for her session twenty minutes early. She was tall and pale and wore a lavender dress reminiscent of spring incongruously paired with dirty, battered tennis shoes. She wore a bow in her blonde hair like a child. She shook hands with Elena and Louise.

“Do you mind if I sit in?” asked Louise. “It’s just that this is Elena’s first time with a client and she’s a little nervous.”

“I don’t mind,” said Sybil. She looked worn out.

“Please, have a seat on the couch,” said Elena. Her mom had told her it would inspire more confidence in the client if Elena did most of the talking. It would make her seem authoritative.

Sybil sat down on one end of the brown leather couch and Elena sat down across the small living room in a matching chair. Louise sat down on the other end of the couch.

“All right,” said Elena, trying to her best to be a soothing, trustworthy presence. “Now, my mom told me a little bit about what you’re looking for, but I think I should hear it in your own words.” She kept her eyes locked on Sybil despite the strong impulse to glance over at her mother for validation.

“I want to talk to my son,” said Sybil, her voice distant. “He ran away four days ago. At first I thought he’d just show up again, but then two nights ago, I woke up at 2:39 in the morning — I remember the time distinctly — and I just knew he had died. I just had this feeling of absolute certainty that my Marty was gone from the world. My husband tries to tell me that there’s no way I could really know that, but I do. It’s not something I can explain, but I’m sure that you, Elena, with your own special gift, can relate to what I’m talking about.” As she spoke, Sybil’s voice, though still quiet, began to swell with conviction.

Elena didn’t know what to say. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. She wondered if it would seem weird to ask to speak to her mother in the other room.

“Well,” said Elena. “If your son is dead, I’ll certainly be able to contact him for you.”

“He is dead,” said Sybil. “There’s no ‘if.’”

“Well, that’s what we’re about to find out.”

“No,” said Sybil. “I already know that. I need to talk to him now. I need to explain something to him.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Louise spoke up. “Elena will certainly try her best, but we do insist on receiving payment up front. That way thoughts of money aren’t interfering with the process.”

“You know, my husband tried to forbid me from coming here,” said Sybil. “Our money situation is not good right now. Not good at all. I didn’t even tell him the real price. He thinks I’m only paying you thirty and even that much caused a big fight. Eventually he’s going to find out I paid fifty and he’s going to be furious. But it’s worth it for me to have the opportunity to say what I need to say to Marty. I have to know that he’s heard what I have to tell him.” She slipped her right foot out of her shoe and from the shoe extracted a damp, folded fifty-dollar bill. She handed it to Louise and Louise tucked it into her front jeans pocket. Louise looked at Elena and gave her a nod.

“All right,” said Elena, closing her eyes and leaning back in her chair. “I need complete silence and I need you to join me in closing your eyes and concentrating on your son. I need you to imagine your son, Marty Leems, exactly as you last saw him. Envision his clothing, the way he wore his hair, envision the last expression you saw on his face.” She opened her eyes just enough to see if Sybil was following instructions. She was. Her eyes were closed, at least. It was impossible to tell if she was envisioning Marty or not without being a psychic and Elena was in no way psychic. Elena looked at her mother and Louise mouthed the words “keep going.”

“I have arrived,” said Elena, her voice consciously ethereal. She closed her eyes again. “I am among the spirits of the departed.”

“Do you see Marty?” asked Sybil. “Let me talk to him.”

“I do not see him,” said Elena. She thought it might seem more believable if she dragged it out a little, but she really just wanted this to be over.

“He’s there,” said Sybil. “Keep looking.”

Elena was silent for almost a full minute before she said, “No, your son is not here. I’m sure of it. That can only mean that he has not yet died. Otherwise he would be here. And he is not. So…so he isn’t dead.”

“No!” shouted Sybil, springing to her feet.

Startled, Elena opened her eyes and gripped the arms of her chair.

“He is dead!” said Sybil. “He’s there! He’s probably just hiding because he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say! Marty, you listen to me! I know you’re there!”

“This isn’t how it works,” said Louise. She stood up next to Sybil and put her hand on her arm, but Sybil shook her off.

“Marty, wherever you are in there, I want you to know something! We read your little note, your little guilt trip! It didn’t work! Your father and I don’t feel remotely guilty! You brought this on yourself! You didn’t have to be a burden, but you chose to be a burden! How is that our fault? It’s not! You were a burden in life and now you’re a burden in death!”

“He…he doesn’t hear you,” said Elena. She was shocked, scared. She had not anticipated anything like this.

Sybil forged ahead. “I grew up in a poor family too, Marty! My parents were poor! Your grandpa died before you were born, but he was harder on me than we’ve ever been on you! But did I whine? Did I complain? Did I sit around the house doing nothing and still expect everyone to wait on me like royalty? No! I contributed, I sacrificed, I shouldered my share of the load! My family’s life was made easier by my presence, which is something you could never say!”

“He’s not there,” said Elena. “Marty’s not there. He’s not dead. He’s alive!”

“You’re lying,” said Sybil, almost spitting the words. “You’re hiding him. You’re covering for him. You think you’re protecting him from his awful, hateful mother. You don’t know what he was like. You don’t know how he’s dragged our family down.” She turned to face Louise and thrust out her hand. “Give me my money back. I paid to speak to my son and you won’t let me.”

“You paid for a consultation,” said Louise, trying to sound brave. “That’s what you got. You got good news! Marty isn’t dead.”

“You’re wrong,” said Sybil. “I already told you I know he’s dead. Give me my money.” Her voice rose nearly to a shriek.  “Give me my money!”

Louise flinched and dug the fifty-dollar bill back out of her pocket. Sybil snatched it out of her hand.

“Call me when you’re ready to let me talk to my son,” said Sybil. “You have my number.”

When she was gone, Elena and Louise collapsed side by side on the couch.

“That was scary,” said Elena.

“No kidding,” said Louise. “I’d run away too.”

 

As soon as Louise left for work at 3:30, Elena drove her dad’s car back out to Ovoid Skate. She felt guilty leaving her dad unattended, but when she’d checked on him on her way out the door, he’d been sleeping and seemed fine, more or less. In all the hours Elena had spent in the house while her dad was sick, he’d never actually needed her. There wasn’t anything truly useful that Elena could do for him.

Ovoid Skate’s dirt-and-gravel parking lot was damp and the air was humid. Dalcette must have gotten some rain that Multioak hadn’t. The tall, wet grass soaked Elena’s shoes and bare ankles as she walked around to the back side of the building, not bothering to bring her camera this time.

There was no one in the lean-to. Elena scanned the trees and fields behind Ovoid Skate but saw no sign of Marty or Jenna anywhere. The cinder blocks and sleeping bag were still inside the lean-to along with the book, but the Newsworthy Burger wrappers were gone. The bikes were gone too. Elena walked over to the lean-to and ducked inside. The grass in the lean-to was flattened and browning. Elena sat down on one of the cinder blocks and picked up the book. It was a young adult novel set in the near future and that was as far as Elena made it through the description on the back cover before she got bored and tossed it onto the sleeping bag. She looked up at the brown tarp roof of the lean-to and saw bright sunlight piercing through several obvious holes. An average rainfall would certainly soak anyone inside the lean-to. An actual storm would destroy the lean-to. This lean-to, in its current condition, could not be a long-term solution. Still, Elena understood the appeal. As long as you didn’t think too far down the road, as long as you didn’t think about where living in a lean-to behind Ovoid Skate was leading you, Elena could totally see how you might find the idea attractive. Although, the seats weren’t very comfortable.

Elena looked up at the sound of voices as Marty and Jenna pedaled around the corner on their bikes, their wheels bumping and rattling over the uneven ground, laboring through the long grass.  “Hey,” said Elena, ducking out of the lean-to and standing up. “I wasn’t snooping. I just wondered where you were.” She didn’t think looking at the book counted as snooping.

Marty and Jenna coasted to a stop and dumped their bikes in the grass, leaving them to lie however they landed. “We got bored and went for a ride on the back roads,” said Jenna. “Then that got boring, so we came back here.”

“What do you want?” asked Marty. He was wearing the same clothes as the last time Elena had seen him, but now they were dirtier and sweatier. There was a spattering of mud on the left side of his face. He looked uncertain but not hostile. Jenna walked past Elena and lay down on her back inside the lean-to with her legs sticking out the side.

“I just wanted to check in,” said Elena. “See how it was going out here.”

“Why?”

“I’m just curious,” said Elena. “I’ve been thinking about your situation a lot since we met. I wanted to see if you were still here or if you’d gone back home.”

“I’m still here,” said Marty. “But I don’t really know why. I know my parents aren’t even looking for me. I think they’re glad I’m gone. They haven’t even called Jenna to ask if she’s seen me.”

“Nope,” said Jenna.

“Are you going to give up?” asked Elena.

Marty shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like it’s working.”

“It’s not,” said Jenna.

“But what will going home accomplish?” asked Elena. “They’ll just go back to treating you like a burden, making you feel guilty by constantly mentioning all the sacrifices they’re making for you, making you feel like you have to earn your keep even though you’re their son.”

“It just seems pointless out here, though,” said Marty. “And Jenna’s right. It is pretty boring, especially since I finished my book.”

“All right,” said Elena. “All right. But what if your mom, for example, came looking for you and found you? What would you say to her? Like, what if she told you that she thinks you’re a burden and you don’t earn your place in the family? How would you respond?”

                Marty thought for a moment, looking at the ground, fingering his visor. “I guess I’d just point out how this guy at school Alex’s family is poorer than ours and his family goes out to eat all the time.”

                “No,” said Elena. “Not about that. I mean, what would you say about her thinking you’re a burden and stuff?”

                “I guess I’d day that I don’t think wanting to go out to eat sometimes is being a burden when every other family goes out to eat and that’s just normal even when you’re poor.”

                Elena heard Jenna scoff behind her. “OK,” said Elena. “Never mind. Do you happen to know your grandpa’s name?”

                “Which one?” asked Marty. “Why?”

                “Your mom’s dad,” said Elena. “I just know someone who might have known him.”

                Marty looked confused, but he said, “His name was Albert Sallerts.”

                “Hmm,” said Elena. “I guess the person I know didn’t know him. Do you live at 1808 Alpine Drive?”

                “No,” said Marty. “I live at 4404 Learner Street. Why?”

“I saw a cop car at 1808 Alpine,” said Elena. “I thought maybe your parents had finally reported you missing, maybe.” Marty made a face as if he thought the conversation had taken a suspicious turn. “I’d better be going,” said Elena. “You think you’re going to stay out here much longer?”

                “I don’t know,” said Marty. “Do you think I should?”

                “I would at least give it a couple more days,” said Elena. “You never know what could happen. The school will tell the cops you’re gone, maybe. Then they’ll talk to your parents, look at the note, it’ll be on TV. It could still work out. Besides, it’s kind of nice out here, isn’t it? A little boring, yeah, but sort of peaceful.”

                “I guess you’re right,” said Marty.

                “Thanks,” said Jenna. “Great advice, whatever your name is. Really, really wise words.”

               

                Elena drove straight from Ovoid Skate through Dalcette and back to Multioak. 4404 Learner Street was not a nice property. The lawn was patchy and the squat, ranch style house visibly sagged toward the middle. It was in desperate need of a new roof and the screen door was broken off and leaning against the house next to the front door. There was no garage and there were no cars in front of the house, but Elena suspected that the Leemses might be a one-car family and maybe only Marty’s dad was gone, which would be ideal. Elena parked her dad’s car in the driveway and walked up to the front door. As she pressed the doorbell, she could hear it ringing inside the house. It sounded strangled, like it was on its last legs. After a moment, Elena heard footsteps approaching and then the front door swung open and there was Sybil Leems, dressed exactly as she had been at the consultation minus the tennis shoes. Her feet were bare and oddly elegant.

                “You?” said Sybil. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

                “After you left,” said Elena. “A spirit told me to come here. He told me the address. He has something he wants to say to you.”

                Sybil nodded. “So you decided you’d let me speak to Marty after all. You want that money.”

                “It’s not Marty,” said Elena. “Do you know an Albert Sallerts?”

                Sybil’s jaw clenched and her brow furrowed in an expression of pain and surprise. “Albert Sallerts? My dad?”

                “But I need the money up front,” said Elena. “Just like before.”

                “Of course,” said Sybil. “Come in.”

                “No need,” said Elena. “It’s a short message.”

                “Let me get the money,” said Sybil. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go away!”

                “I won’t,” said Elena.

                Sybil disappeared back into the dark house. Elena stood on the front step in the fading evening light and concentrated on the absolute silence in her mind, the complete lack of voices of the dead calling out to her, the total absence of any potential for psychic powers of any kind to blossom within her.

                Sybil returned with the money, probably the same bill from earlier in the day, and handed it to Elena, who shoved it deep into her back pocket. Then Elena closed her eyes and said, “Sybil, this is your father, Albert Sallerts.” She didn’t bother to change the tone of her voice.

                “Yes,” said Sybil, her voice a thin whisper. “What is it, dad? What do you need to tell me?”

                “There’s no easy way to say this,” said Elena. “But you were an immense burden to me and your mother. Our lives were much more difficult because of you. Much more difficult. You know why?”

                “Why?” asked Sybil. Elena’s eyes were still closed, but she could hear in Sybil’s voice that she was crying.

                “Because all children are burdens,” said Elena. “Even you. Especially you.” Elena opened her eyes. “That’s all. He’s gone.”

                Sybil, covering her eyes with both hands, turned and used one elegant foot to close the door in Elena’s face. On the way back to her house, Elena made two stops. One at the hardware store for a new brown tarp and another at the used book store where she bought a stack of young adult novels. Almost all of them were about dystopian futures. All told, she spent just over 35 dollars. She left the tarp and the books in the trunk of her dad’s car. She’d deliver them to Marty in the morning under the pretext of taking more pictures. Photography was the perfect hobby to excuse aimless wandering. It was possible to divert all questions into conversation-killing monologues about quality of light. With the new roof, the books, and a pleasant weather forecast, Elena figured Marty could last another week as long as Jenna kept bringing him food. If Marty’s parents didn’t crack in the next couple of days, maybe Elena could call in an anonymous tip to the police about a missing classmate. She wouldn’t give a location or anything. Just let them know he was gone. Just enough to drum up some interest, some publicity. Just enough to get the machine going.

 

                When Louise got home from work, Elena met her at the door. “Let’s go out to eat, mom. Just you and me. Pad’s Hot Hot Dogs is still open.”

                Louise gave her daughter a sad smile. “Sorry, Elena, you know we can’t afford it.”

                “I’ll treat,” said Elena. “I found almost fifteen dollars in the pocket of a coat I was moving to the attic today. That’s plenty for me and you. Dad’s fine, I just checked on him, he’s sleeping. We’ll only be gone for an hour at most. It’s just been so long since we’ve gone out to eat. Who knows when we’ll get another chance? Please?”

                “OK, OK,” said Louise. “It’s your money.” She laughed. “I guess you can spend it in whatever stupid way you want.” 




Discussion Questions

  • If you don’t have anything nice to say to the dead, should you not say anything to the dead at all?



  • Who is your biggest burden? To whom are you the biggest burden? Out of everyone you know, who is a burden to the most people? Who is a burden to the least people? In conclusion: aren’t people burdensome???



  • If Adam Jr. is the burden of Adam, and Adam III is the burden of Adam Jr., then is the burden of Adam actually the combined total burden of Adam Jr. and Adam III? It’s fine to say “no,” but don’t just shrug and say, “I think it’s more nuanced than that.”



  • What’s the difference between a responsibility and a burden? If you don’t think there’s a difference, then just leave this question blank and I will weep for the condition of your soul.



  • Imagine you’re a fake medium. What are some techniques that you could employ to convince a skeptic that you can talk to the dead? Remember, not all skeptics are smart!



  • List the worthwhile things that a child can actually contribute to a household. Your list can, and should be, short.