“Come on! You’ll like it! It’s fun!”
In the five years we had been together, I had heard those words from Tally’s mouth more times than I cared to count. Each time, I had learned the hard way that her version of fun wasn’t at all mine. Like when she convinced me that bungee-jumping would be fun, and so I agreed—only to find out that vomiting while hanging upside down is not on my top ten list of activities I want to repeat.
Then there was the couples cooking classes—“Learn how to make famous Italian specialties”—that she promised would be an unforgettable experience. She was right. It is hard to forget the result of an incredibly sharp de-boning knife coming in contact with the tender skin of your palm that, according to the ER doctor as he merrily stitched away “just missed taking off your pinkie! You’ll have a cool scar though!”
The last one—an eight-hour bike ride followed by a relaxing night in a Victorian inn—should have been as romantic as the brochure had promised. But what Tally hadn’t taken into account (and how could she, given the difference in our physiology?) was the consequence of having a majority of my weight divvied up between my shoulders and my butt for that length of time.
By the time we reached our room, I could barely move my head, thanks to a pinched nerve in my neck, while my “manhood” was feeling the effects of reduced blood flow and refused to rise to the occasion, so to speak.
So I gave her “It’s fun!” statement about as much credence as I would if it was uttered by an IRS agent proposing to review my last ten years’ worth of returns, and just considered what I knew about the activity itself.
Bingo: a simple game played by mostly senior citizens that didn’t involve anything more energetic than marking paper squares with colored daubers—an activity that it couldn’t possibly be life-threatening, unless winning a round brought on a heart attack.
The worst I could get was a paper cut, I reasoned, and besides, Tally looked so cute standing there all excited, wearing her special “I am a Bingo Baby!” sweatshirt and holding her little red and white checked bingo bag filled with markers and God knows what else. And she had even made my favorite supper: lasagna with meat sauce and lots of hot peppers. How could I refuse such a simple request?
Besides, it was the only thing Tally did for fun that didn’t include me, and was, in fact, something she had been playing since she was old enough to know her letters and numbers, thanks to her Gramma Billie, who was a bingo fanatic. (How much of a bingo fanatic was brought home to me when they buried her with her special dauber—a fluorescent purple one—and held her wake not at a restaurant but at her favorite bingo hall.)
Considering that Tally not only sat through every NFL game every year and kept me well supplied with nachos and beer while I watched the tackles, touchdowns and two-point conversions on my far from adequate (in my opinion) 30-inch-screen television, I figured I owed it to her.
The bottom line was that I loved Tally and wanted to make her happy. And because of that, and keeping in mind that she had cut up all those hot peppers with her tender little fingers, I was willing to give it a shot—especially when, right before we left, she showed me the new nightgown she had bought at Lovely Ladies’ Lingerie: black and lacey with ribbon ties.
What thirty-year-old male can resist the promise of sexual favors in return for just playing a simple game for an hour or two?
So, an hour later, I found myself sandwiched between a large old lady, whose bizarre collection of tchotchkes (a paper umbrella with a slightly pineapple-rum smell to it, a misshapen piece of white pottery and a pocket Bible) kept drifting over into the 16-inch section allotted to me, and some young guy who had enough body piercings and tattoos to qualify him for the local motorcycle gang.
Not that I had much of a choice of where to sit. As soon as we entered the church hall (a good forty-five minutes before the night’s activities were due to start), Tally had made a beeline for what she referred to as “her” table—despite the fact that there were plenty of spaces open at the sixty odd tables that filled the room. She took what was clearly her usual seat, across from me and next to an old guy who greeted her with a big hug and kiss on the cheek.
“Hi, Charlie,” she said, kissing him right back, and then waved a hand in my direction. “This is Bobby—”
“Her boyfriend,” I said, emphasizing the last word, just in case she wasn’t going to continue.
Not that I was worried about somebody who was old enough to be my grandfather, and maybe he was just being friendly, but I wasn’t all that crazy about the subsequent attention Charlie gave her. He helped her off with her jacket, complimented her on her hair (which was only pulled back in scrunchy) and told her how great she smelled—a load of crap since Tally never used cologne. I knew that because the big bottles I bought her every Christmas, birthday and Valentine’s Day from the corner drugstore were still sitting unopened on her dresser.
The two of them chatted while Tally opened her bag and set out her lucky pieces: a little plastic elf, a ceramic mouse missing part of its tail and a wind-up rabbit. Then, she lined up her bingo sheets—three cards for each of the ten border colors—and with great precision, taped their edges together. (I, on the other hand, had just one each, which made me feel more than a little inadequate.) Then came her daubers: yellow, green, pink, orange, red, and of course, lavender—“For Gramma Billie,” she explained.
I would have set out mine except that I didn’t have one—something the old guy noticed right away.
“Where’s your markers?” he asked. “You can’t play without them, you know!” as though I was stupid enough to try.
At that, Tally looked up, frowned quickly and then looked back at her own collection. She picked up her orange one first, set it down, and then, after what was clearly much mental debate, reluctantly pushed the yellow dauber across the table to me, with the instructions to “mark your free spots.”
And I did—or tried to, anyway. But I must have pressed the tip down too firmly on the first card’s center square, because somehow the damned dauber slipped from my fingers and skidded across two adjacent squares, leaving behind a yellow smear that rendered that card useless and forced me to spend another 10 bucks for a whole new set. (Apparently you can’t buy just one card but have to purchase them in sets of ten—a point that was made quite clear to me when I handed over a crumpled one dollar bill and the bingo monitor with the attitude of a bookie stood there palm outstretched, waiting for the rest of my cash.)
After making it back to my seat and being much more careful where I put my dauber and with what force (which, in retrospect sounds like what an adolescent male would read in a sex-for-dummies manual), I was ready for the first game.
“The ball will show in the monitor,” Tally said, pointing to the screen, “but remember, if that’s the number you need to win, don’t yell ‘Bingo’ until he actually calls it or it won’t count” which seemed rather nitpicky to me. I mean, if it was the winning number, why not say so right away?
But I nodded my head as though it all made perfect sense.
The caller took his seat, turned on the machine and shouted, “Let’s play bingo! Our first game of the night is single bingo!”
“That’s five across, five down or five diagonally,” Tally whispered, as though I was too stupid to figure it out for myself, I thought with a flash of irritation. I daubed B-3, O-72 and N-38, and then, after a few balls were called that didn’t match any of my squares, I-22 and G-53. At least, that was what I thought he had said, and so I yelled “Bingo!” once he announced the ball.
As it turned out, it was G-52—an error that the caller made public to the entire room by stating “That is not a good bingo,” with a little more emphasis than I thought was necessary, once one of his cohorts verified my mistake.
“Geez, buddy,” muttered the delinquent on my left while the elderly player on my other side contented herself with a sniff of superiority at my stupidity.
“That’s okay, Bobby,” Tally said comfortingly and squeezed my hand with her left one, giving me what comfort she could while simultaneously daubing her final square with her right, which resulted in a horizontal row of orange blobs and a $20 cash award.
I congratulated Tally on her win, crumpled up my card and resolved to do better. After all, if this was all it took to win, surely I could redeem myself! And it would give Tally and me some new, non-horizontal activity to share.
I was doing it for her, I said to myself, although the prospect of winning the choice of the evening’s grand prize —a 70-inch television or a year’s worth of free bingo games for two was certainly an extra incentive.
“Now we move on to the double bingo,” the caller announced, and I stopped daydreaming about which wall would be the best one for that brand-new big screen and hurriedly set out another sheet—and then quickly changed it for the correct one after Mr. Tattoo hissed “the blue border one, not red, stupid.”
I caught Tally’s eye and she smiled at me—the same smile, I realized, that she gave to the pizza delivery guy when he couldn’t figure out in his head how much change he owed her. I grimaced back, resolving to show her that I wasn’t the complete bingo idiot I appeared to be.
I’d win this game, I vowed. And what’s more, I’d win that damned grand prize too! And I’d even let her download her favorite forties tear-jerkers onto it, as long as it didn’t interfere with any of the games I watched.
But while I didn’t call “Bingo” when I shouldn’t have, I missed the chance to say it when I did have it, which was pointed out to me three balls later by the old lady--after she had won, of course.
“You know, you had a double bingo two balls ago,” pointing to the four marked squares—one in each corner—and then diagonal line of colored daubs running from the top of the “B” column to the last one under “O.” “Four corners counts.”
“Oh, sweetie, didn’t I explain that to you?” said Tally, as she whipped out her next set of cards. “I’m sorry. I guess I thought you knew!”
And how would I? I thought to myself a little testily. I’d never played this stupid game before!
“Here,” said the old guy, pushing a paper across the table. “This might help. It lists the types of games and what counts for each.”
I muttered a quick thanks and tried to give myself a crash course in Bingo 101, doing my best to figure out what “picture frame,” “Super T” and “crazy kite” were, which put me two balls behind in the latest game: a postage stamp one. But ultimately, and after whipping my head around repeatedly from the table to the monitor to the display board, I was pretty confident that I had daubed every legitimate square, even if it did make that nerve in my neck start to hurt again and I still wasn’t sure what “postage stamp” meant, let alone if I had one.
Someone else did though—and I couldn’t decide if I was disappointed or relieved when I heard “Bingo!” hollered by a very pregnant lady two tables over. There was a brief delay, while she collected her winnings and, assisted by two seatmates, moaned and groaned her way to the exit, pausing every three minutes to do the “Hoo-hoo-hoo” breathing pattern that anybody who has been part of the birth process (or watched some version of it on television) would recognize as the “Better get to the hospital because that kid is on his way!” stage.
Once that excitement was over, the games resumed: a round of single bingo followed by a double and an X game. Then people started getting up, which I foolishly thought signaled the end of the evening and the beginning— at least from my way of looking at it, remembering the nightie—of something far more enjoyable.
But just as I began dumping my unused sheets into a nearby wastebasket Tally stopped me, explaining, “It’s just break time, Bobby. You know, for bathroom and smoke runs. We still have the rest of the night to go.”
Shit. That meant there was at least 90 more minutes of B-1s and O-70s, not to mention all the numbers in the I, N and G columns, to sit through. But I manned up, restacked my cards and reminded myself of how hard Tally must have worked on dinner. Although in the back of mind I wondered why her manicured nails didn’t show signs of hard labor, where that large foil baking pan had come from and whether it was just my imagination that the lasagna tasted an awful lot like Mama Rosa’s from down the street.
Ninety minutes. I could do that, I told myself—for Tally and our relationship and that black nightgown.
Well, the road to hell and all that—the second half of the evening involved games that challenged my geometric comprehension. There was the Crazy T set, followed by the Large Picture Frame (and of course, right after, the Small Picture Frame), the Flag round, and then the Y, U and F games. There wasn’t a pattern they didn’t use and a game I didn’t lose, although Tally and Charlie had more than their fair share of bingos between them, and even the two on either side of me racked up a win each.
Finally, and not soon enough as far as I was concerned, came the last game of the night: a combination coverall and lightning round. This was for the biggee, the 70-inch television--my 70-inch television, I kept telling myself, picturing it in our living room displaying every tackle and end zone touchdown made by my favorite team.
“Get ready, Bobby!” Tally whispered and then, after a warning from the caller that there was to be “no talking and there’ll be no letters called—only numbers,” the game began.
I did my best to keep up, but unfortunately, it didn’t take long before I was several balls behind, owing to the fact that I had no idea which number was in which row. What made it worse was that the old lady next to me, who was playing twelve cards to my single, was breezing along, smacking her dauber down with undisguised glee on the last one while I was still doing the bingo version of hunt-and-peck on my first card.
And then it happened. I had one spot still undaubed. And so, I noticed, did Tally. In my case, it was B-4 while hers was O-70.
Three more balls, while we both waited, daubers at the ready. And then, there it was—a big beautiful B-4 showing up on the monitor. I marked my spot, and got ready to shout “Bingo!” all the while thinking how jealous my buddies would be when they came over to watch football on that big, beautiful 70-inch screen.
I watched the monitor, where the ball--my ball, as I had come to think of it—was removed and replaced by the next one. I waited for the caller to announce “B-4,” calculated the size of the television versus the capacity of my Datsun’s trunk and then saw the identifying marks on new one: O-70.
It was Tally’s ball, the one she was waiting for.
But even if I hadn’t known it was the one that she needed, her sharp intake of breath and the little beads of sweat on her forehead would have given it away. I opened my mouth, shut it again, and when the kid next to me started saying “Hey, stupid, you’re a —” I jabbed him so hard with my elbow that he fell off his folding chair.
Tally glanced at me and then at my sheet and I just shrugged and smiled at her, indicating in my manly way that my love for her trumped my desire to win. Then the caller said “O-70!” and, after blowing me a little kiss, Tally yelled “Bingo!” making her the single prize winner of the evening, while I sat there, thinking how much I loved her—and football—and hoping that she loved me at least enough to choose the right prize.
And she did—the right prize from her perspective, at least—which is why I’ll be spending the next 12 months in that crowded church hall daubing paper squares with my very own light blue marker.
But it’s not all bad news, since I know that underneath her standard “I am a Bingo Baby!” sweatshirt and jeans, Tally will be wearing an even more special (from my perspective, at least) article of clothing: a red satin teddy, reserved just for the occasion.
Mattie heaved a contented sigh. “There you are.” She smiled to herself.
Another hand-wrapped, homemade chocolate was sitting beside the keyboard on her desk at the library. Unfurling the little pink slip of paper, it revealed a truffle, one that had been rolled in cocoa. For the last ten Mondays in a row, without fail, she had come into work to find a piece of candy waiting for her. Too busy with the morning routine, her coworkers hadn’t a clue as to who brought them in.
The evening before the first chocolate showed up, had been a trying one. Sunday supper consisted of her father puffing out his chest as he lectured her on how she needed to settle down and marry before she went past her expiration date. Mattie had left a couple of hours later, driving home in tears.
The next morning, there it was. A homemade truffle rolled in cocoa. Since then, her Monday’s had been brighter and she had something to look forward to for the next week.
Chocolate never escaped her notice. Mattie was by definition a chocaholic, but she felt no shame. Some people drank, others smoked, and there were folks who did meth. Her drug of choice just happened to be chocolate. Every day she had to consume something chocolatey: candy bars, cake, brownies, cookies, ice cream…she got her chocolate fix wherever she could.
Mattie held the piece of candy beneath her nose and detected the peanut butter center beneath the outer shell. She popped it into her mouth. Closing her eyes, she released an exaggerated groan as the delectable little morsel dissolved on her tongue. Heavenly…
After ten weeks of mystery, she was eager to learn the identity of the one who left these little gifts. Whoever it was, the person knew of her weakness for truffles. Of course, deep down she wanted it to be a secret admirer!
Mattie bit her lip. She knew who she wanted her benefactor to be…a certain Irishman who strutted around Seabury in Donegal Aran sweaters and khakis. As a baker, he knew his way around a kitchen. However, to her knowledge he was not a chocolatier, his shop didn’t sell chocolates, and the man himself hadn’t said more than two words to her since he moved to the area.
Well, whoever her benefactor was, she would not rest until she found him.
There was only one solution. Go to her best friend, Kathy Winters. Kathy worked for her grandmother at The Lunch Box and due to the rapid influx of customers; Kathy knew anything and everything that went on in Seabury. And what she didn’t know, she made up. Her wagging tongue was known far and wide in the county.
The following Monday, after she found the eleventh homemade truffle, Mattie waited in a corner booth until Kathy was on her break before showing her friend her latest gift.
Kathy let out a shrill whistle between her two-front teeth. “Woah, this is amazing!” Her friend shook her head as she flopped down on the other side of the table. “Whoever made this, they were at work on it for hours. It’s fresh too.”
“Really?” Mattie moistened her lips. She knew nothing of cooking....or baking…or whatever making candy was considered. “I mean, it’s just one piece of chocolate.”
“Yeah, but it was from a batch.” Kathy took a closer look and inhaled its sweet aroma. Then she handed the candy back to Mattie. “Making one chocolate at a time doesn’t make sense. Between the measurements, the labor, the effort…There was batch of them, trust me. Even so, you have one. That has to mean something. And that wrapping, that is crazy. I mean, these could be marketed as gourmet candies and you could make a killing.”
Mattie nodded. “Do you have any idea who might have made it? Or would Nanna?”
“I could ask her, but I doubt she’d know. I mean, this is Seabury; most the guys here can’t make a grill cheese let alone a homemade truffle.” Kathy huffed aloud.
Mattie understood, rolling her eyes. The men of Seabury left much to be desired. The single guys who might have been interested in her would have been lost in a kitchen. Reggie Harcourt was easily distracted by shiny objects and would end up gazing at his reflection in a spoon. Dwayne Keith drank too much and would likely start a fire. Of course, there was a chance that her benefactor was a woman. Which would have been thoughtful, but she hoped it was a man.
Unfortunately the only decent man in Seabury didn’t know she was alive.
Silas O’Shea, the proprietor of The Sweetest Thing, barely acknowledged her existence. The few times she greeted him on the street, he mumbled a bland “hello” and ambled on, without giving her a second glance. When he came into the library, he always sought out the senior librarian. The last time he came in, Mattie offered to help him search for a particular book. Throughout the exchange, his expression never altered, remaining stone cold. Then the one time she ventured into his shop because the Chocolate Baby Bundt cake in the window was too mouthwatering to pass by, he practically dove into the back, leaving his associate to assist her.
Having hailed from Ireland, his manners and opinions was different from most in town. His no-nonsense behavior tended to rub people the wrong way. However, every morning on her commute to work, Silas would stop by the lemonade stand run by two little girls and he would purchase a large canteen of lemonade. He always pretended not to have anything smaller than a $5.00 bill in his wallet. The man often treated Joey Brown, an impoverished boy from the wrong side of the tracks, to an ice cream when he was in the neighborhood. Of course those acts of random kindness went unnoticed by the rest of Seabury.
“Hello? Earth to Mattie.” Kathy waved her manicured hand in front of Mattie’s face. “Are you thinking about Silas again?”
Mattie felt her cheeks heat up and silently scolded herself for falling into another Silas-induced trance. “Why do you ask?” she asked.
“The last few times you blanked out like that, Silas was nearby.” Kathy winked impishly and wriggled her eyebrows. “I mean, I’m not into him, but even I have picked up on that wicked sexuality of his.”
Mattie frantically scooted out of the booth, wincing as her bare thighs squeaked as they rubbed against the leather seat. She smoothed out her skirt, snatched up her truffle and said, “Okay, thanks for the help. Talk to you later.”
Before Kathy could razz her further, Mattie dashed out of the diner.
Mattie made a beeline down the sidewalk, her heart tattooing an imprint into her ribcage. Wicked sexuality indeed!
Yes, an unruly crop of hair that she’d love to drag her fingers through. Whisky tinged orbs that softened one second and hardened the next, depending on his moods. And that devil–may-care smile that made her weak at the knees. Crooked teeth should not be considered sexy. Then there was the brogue; such a bur should have been banned in the state of Maine. In a town whose men wore flannel and holey jeans, the Irish baker stood out.
A sharp, damp gale off the coast wove its way through the streets. Goosebumps prickled her bare forearms; she cursed herself for forgetting her coat at the library. If only her head wasn’t always in the clouds, then she wouldn’t be cold now!
Mattie collided into a passerby, snapping her out from another trance. Stepping back, she nearly swallowed her tongue. Clumsy her, she had bumped into Silas O’Shea himself!
“I- I’m s-sorry!” She sputtered.
The Irishman’s lips were parted, his face reddened. His crop of hair feathered against his high cheek bones. “I’m fine. Are you all right?”
Mattie’s mind went blank and all she could do was gape at him. Then she realized that her sweaty palm was empty and she frantically scanned the sidewalk for the piece of candy she had dropped. She spied it rolling towards the toe of the man’s loafer.
Silas bent over, plucked it up and mutely held it out to her.
Mattie shyly accepted it and jammed the chocolate in her skirt pocket. “Thank you. My secret admirer gave that to me.” She bit down on her tongue, regretting that she had blurted out something so juvenile. Especially when it probably wasn’t a secret admirer at all.
Silas remained nonplussed. “Is that so?”
“Yes,” Mattie said. “I mean, I think it’s a secret admirer. Unless it’s laced with poison, then Seabury has a serial killer on its hands.” She forced a whinnied laugh, and then briefly closing her eyes, she mentally kicked herself. “But I know it’s not, because I ate all of the others and I’m not dead!”
“What a relief.” He nodded.
“And I’ll eat this one too.” She added, bewildered as to why she could not stop talking. But the awkward silence that lingered between them had to be filled somehow. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it. Other than it falling on the ground, but the wrapper was still on. So, five second rule, right?”
“Right.” Silas turn his wrist and checked the time on his watch. “Have a good day.” Swiveling around, he strode off.
Mattie sighed. From secret admirer to serial killer. And eating candy off the ground! Smooth, Mattie, real smooth. Silas was obviously not her benefactor. The man had looked at her like she was a train wreck.
She fled to the library where she devoured the white chocolate truffle as she fought tears of mortification. It was a small consolation that the piece of candy contained a dark chocolate center.
On the following Monday, another chocolate appeared on her desk.
Mattie ran her thumb over the gold wrapper and considered throwing it out. She appreciated her benefactor; it was flattering to be thought of. But now she felt like a ridiculous school girl, rather than the grown woman that she was. The treat could no longer be enjoyed knowing that her chocolate benefactor wasn’t Silas.
The door opened and Joey Brown entered.
Mattie lay the candy aside and she straightened in her chair. “Hey, Joey. Can I help you?”
He shook his head. “Just wanted to look around.” The boy grinned, his cheeks smudged. Dirt hovered around him like it did Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. “So Silas O’Shea gave you one too?”
She tilted her head. “What?”
“The chocolate.” Joey pointed at the truffle.
“This came from Silas?” Mattie blinked her astonishment. Picking it up once more, she examined it, as if the candy could somehow confirm it.
“Yeah. Silas makes them now and then. He’s given a couple to me.” Joey cracked a toothy grin. “He must really like you.” The boy said and then headed down to the lower level to the children’s section.
Mattie peeled back the wrapper a degree before closing it back up.
None of this made sense. The gesture was sweet. Yet when Silas had the golden opportunity to admit that he was her benefactor, he said nothing, letting her prattle on like deranged fool. In fact, whenever he was around her, he was aloof.
But he was the only man in Seabury who worked in a kitchen.
Mattie unwrapped the truffle and nibbled on it. An explosion of dark chocolate and cherry cream flooded her taste buds.
Silas has some explaining to do. She decided.
Mattie skipped Sunday dinner with her father, promising she would make it up to him next week. Per Kathy, the chocolates were fresh when Silas delivered them; therefore he likely made them the night before. She had often seen the light on in his shop as she drove past after dinner with her father but assumed Silas was working on his inventory.
She held her breath as she crossed the threshold of his shop, wincing as the bell chimed. Silas wasn’t in front.
Pausing near the first display case, she waited and heard muffled sounds behind the curtain.
Inspecting her reflection in the surveillance mirror on the wall, Mattie gulped. She looked presentable; her golden curls danced on her shoulders when she moved. Her chocolate colored eyes were bright and her complexion was clear. Her sleeveless yellow, 1950s inspired frock had only been worn a couple of times and matched well with her brown pumps.
However Silas was so…quiet. Perhaps she misunderstood his intentions.
What if this is a mistake? She shook her head. No, she had to see this through. Removing her coat, she hung it on the coat rack in the corner. There is no going back now.
Mattie advanced past the curtain and allowed the tantalizing scents to lead her to a large kitchen.
Silas’s back was to her, one arm wrapped around a bowl as he whisked the concoction within. He had shed his sweater, draping it on a chair, and only had a white t-shirt on. Cocoa streaked his forearms and lined his knuckles.
Mattie inhaled, moved a couple steps closer, and slipped her hand beneath his arm, resting it on his chest. She could feel the heat of his wiry frame through the cotton.
Silas went ridged. He dropped the bowl down on the counter and after slowly turning to face her, he made a strangled noise at the back of his throat.
Mattie rose up on her tippy toes and carefully brushed her lips against his. He tasted of chocolate strawberries. She felt herself hauled forward as he dove in, deepening the kiss. For one so reserved, he was brimming with untapped passion.
He broke the kiss and drew back a degree, looking a little skittish. He reminded her of a deer caught in a headlight and she feared that he might try to bolt.
Mattie cupped his cheek, enjoying how the prickle of his five-o’clock shadow tickled her palm. Finding her voice, she asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Nuzzling into her touch, he shook his head. “You made me nervous. I – I never thought you would feel the same. I just wanted you to know that somebody cared.” He admitted.
Mattie licked her lips, loving the flavor he had left on her, and she gave him another peck on the mouth. “So, tonight’s batch is chocolate strawberry?”
“Mmmhmm…” Silas cast a quick glance at the bowl on the counter. “Would you like a proper taste?” He swiped his finger in the mixture and popped in into his mouth, sucking it clean.
Mattie stifled a giggle and kissed him once more, dipping her tongue within. However, this time he took charge of the kiss, sipping on her lower lip, and then he sought out the places in the cave of her mouth that drove her wild, focusing on one spot in particular.
Parting from her once more, he placed a kiss on her temple, along her hairline.
“So, per Joey Brown, you make these? You are a chocolatier too?” She asked and when he nodded, she continued, “May I lend a hand?”
Silas nodded again and moving past her, he grabbed an apron that hung off the peg of the back door. He handed it off to her. “It began as a hobby, but I think I can market them. Expand the business.”
Mattie pulled the apron on and rubbed her palms together, eager to be of use. She was soon up to her elbows in powdery, flyaway cocoa. Her job was to roll the finished truffles in the cocoa and then tuck them into their wrappings.
Peering at him from the corner of her eye, she queried, “Would you have ever had said anything?”
“Probably not.” Silas bashfully shook his head. “Thank God you’re braver than I am.” A faint shadow was cast on the profile of his face. “I’ve liked you for a while. Then one Sunday evening I saw you in your car and you were crying. I hoped that one of these might make you feel better and then leaving them on your desk became a routine.”
Mattie blinked the tears away. Someone had noticed…Silas had noticed. “I had been visiting my father; he is ready for me to be married with children.” She gave a brittle laugh. “He continually asks why I can’t find a nice guy. The holidays are worse; I never have anyone to spend Christmas with.”
Silas didn’t respond and Mattie feared that she had crossed a line. They had only confessed their feelings, perhaps it was too soon to talk of meeting her father and spending the holidays together.
Mattie’s pulse quickened as Silas leaned in, “You don’t have to be alone anymore.” He assured her, capturing her lips once more.
She wasn’t sure what Silas was promising, but she felt happier than she had been in years.
Mattie’s grip on Silas’s elbow tightened as he rapped his knuckles on the front door of her father’s house.
The week she and Silas had spent together had been sweet but it was Sunday and Mattie had promised to make it up to her father for bailing on him the week before. When she had invited Silas for Sunday dinner, she wasn’t certain that he would accept.
But he did and despite his quiet nature, he seemed eager to meet her father.
Silas dipped his head and kissed her quickly. “It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
The door swung back and her father filled the entry way.
Mattie stood a little taller and felt that she could brave anything as long as Silas was by her side.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute looms from its perch on the Wasatch Mountains, just off the freeway and onto Foothill Drive. Although it is a beacon of hope, those who go there are weighed down by chains as heavy as Marley’s.
I was driving there again, the piano-based rock of The Script’s “Nothing” vibrating through the speakers as it soundtracked our way to Salt Lake City. Lily was in the back seat, her toddler feet bobbing up and down, her rose-shaped mouth covered with chocolate chip crumbs. She stopped eating her bunny crackers long enough to join in on her favorite part of the song: “And my mates are all there trying to calm me down, because I’m shouting your name all over town…”
I felt the same need to shout, but I didn’t. I didn’t think God was listening, so I refrained; I believed my voice would travel nowhere and find nothing to fling itself onto except thin air. It would hover in the mist on the horizon, dissipating into faint echoes, lost in some black hole where everything is lost, including time.
Lily and I found ourselves traveling the same route often that spring, listening to the same song, to see my father. When we’d get there, we’d come in (as quietly as a three-year-old would allow) and there he’d be, sometimes awake, most of the time asleep, but looking almost nothing at all like the man he’d been before the tumors had waged war on his brain. Although his hair had turned white, his skin still had a tint of a farmer’s tan, the remnant of his days in the autumn sun when he harvested the last hay of the season. But lying in the hospital bed, tubes like snakes crisscrossing each other down his arms, there was a veil over him, one that shrouded health and middle age. The sharp scent of disinfectant emanated around the room—a smell I’d never associated with him until he was in that bed.
Sometimes when Shawn was home from his trips as an airline pilot he’d come with me instead of Lily. We’d leave her with my mom and go to Salt Lake together on a morbid kind of date. We would clad ourselves in our black leather jackets and take the motorcycle—a chance to ride since Lily wasn’t with us. A perfect time to feel free on the open road. But we’d take Exit 2 off the freeway and have to slow down to 35 MPH, winding our way through traffic and construction to that hospital on the hill.
We went on one of those “dates” after the doctors had opened my father’s skull, taking a piece of the tumor to see what kind of cancer had taken up residence inside his brain. We were all worried it would be the other kind of cancer, the one no one could pronounce, so we always referred to it as “the bad kind.”
When we got to his room that night, I took his hand and stroked it, going over the rough calluses his life as a farmer and cowboy had left behind. His fingers clutched at my hand, softly, but tight as if he were still holding the reins of his horse. As if he were guiding what was going to happen next.
I watched him breathe through tubes and mumble incoherently, the threat of death dangling like a heavy noose above him, ropes thick as the blood that bound us together. He was claustrophobic, and I wondered if he was scared, or even knew that death, with its black arms, was close to snatching him.
He won’t remember that I held his hand that afternoon. He and I were never the father-daughter hand-holding type. I can only remember one other time when I had held his hand, and that was on the night he’d been rushed to the ER after the lesions had been seen on his brain.
In that cramped ER room, he had been lying on the stretcher, strapped down so he wouldn’t try to get up. I had taken his hand in mine because I didn’t know if it would be the last time I’d feel life in it. He kept telling me he’d been bucked off another horse but he’d be all right. He’d asked me how school was going. The tumors had wrapped themselves around his thoughts, twisting them back to the past. He had thought I was still in high school, when the only worries I had were what to wear the next day to school and when I’d see my crush again.
The ER doctor had come in and said that they were going to transfer him to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for “observation.” Of course, they hadn’t said it was cancer then, but I knew better. I knew as I had slumped against the wall that a patient wouldn’t be taken to the best cancer treatment center in the state for any reason except cancer.
As the last notes of The Script faded away, I nosed my crossover-SUV car into one of the compact-car stalls. I got Lily out of her carseat and put her on my hip. I needed her closeness, the smell of chocolate still lingering on her skin and her toddler hands touching my neck. I opened the door to the hospital, straightening my armor. My father had his in the form of doctors and medicine and the strength of my stepmother—I had mine, even though I swear there were times I wanted to lose it. But he needed me in this battle, and even though there were many he had fought alone, this time wouldn’t be one of them.
There were many battles that spring. Some were lost. The aftermath scars are still inscribed into our bones, but we touch them and smile slightly at what they cost. They make us stronger, but not impenetrable. Like chainmail, they can’t protect us completely from the hurts that will pierce through where the armor is weak. We are still fighting this cancer war. But battle by battle, we just might win.
It was cold. Very cold, even for that time of year. Olnuk tossed another knot of wood on the fire and then dove back into his pile of hides. No matter what he did it seemed that some part of his body was exposed to cold air. Right now there was a breeze running up his leg freezing his left buttock. He had no word for buttock of course, he just knew that now his bottom was cold.
He turned the frozen buttock towards the fire. Now he was facing the opening to the small cave, and could hear the wind whistling past the entrance. He was irritated that he was now awake. He usually slept through the coldest parts of the winter, not really hibernating but sleeping so he would not feel the cold and so he’d not have to eat very much. Not eating meant not hunting, and hunting in this weather was an unpleasant chore.
He couldn’t get back to sleep. Looking outside he saw that it was daylight. He couldn’t see the sun, but the glare from the snow proved that it was a bright day. If he had to get up and hunt, then this would be the time. He threw off the hides and reached for his hunting garments: leg coverings that tied up in the front, a hide shirt and another for warmth, and coarse boot-like foot coverings. Growling his discomfort, he grabbed a spear as he crawled through the narrow cave opening into the blinding whiteness outside.
Snow. Cold. Bright. The world smelled glorious, and was full of superlatives. He waited a few moments while his eyes became adapted to the outdoor glare, coming from both above and below. The snow was shallow and icy, and his steps made crunching sounds as he started to walk towards the nearby trees. It would be hard to be stealthy.
Olnuk was used to hunting in a group, but he had done a bad thing, and his clan had sent him on a spirit-quest. He had to be alone for another moon to ponder his error. So, stealth must replace teamwork, and right now that meant he must hide and wait for food to pass or build some kind of trap. He decided to hide and wait. He found some bushes growing beside a tree and dug a hiding place out of the snow between them. He backed into his lair, spear in hand, and waited. Oddly, he was now more comfortable than he had been in his cave. His mind gradually grew fuzzy and he wandered off to sleep again.
A sharp noise brought him quickly alert. Bark. Three man-heights in front of him stood a dog, staring at him. It was just standing there, not angry or aggressive or afraid. Just staring. His spear was still in his hand. He threw it with all of his strength, a hard throw given that it was underhanded and from a kneeling position. It struck the dog just above the top of its sternum and passed deep into its chest. It jumped and gave a screech, and then collapsed.
Olnuk was pleased. He had not been out very long, and the animal would feed him for days. He tied the front legs together with rawhide straps, put the end of the spear through the loop so formed and slung the spear over his shoulder for the trip home. It was a short trip, and he was so happy that he ran most of the way.
When he arrived home he first built up the fire a bit for cooking. Then, using his black stone, he cut the fur and skin from around on back leg and pulled, peeling the skin down to the foot. He cut the skin off, and then disjointed the hip and cut the leg from the carcass. The leg he placed in a hot spot of the fire, and the remainder he lay just outside of the cave entrance in some snow. His people had learned that keeping their meat cool attracted fewer scavengers.
He sat facing the flames, seeing them flicker and watching the haunch cook. In spite of the punishment from his clan, life was good. He was warm; he could smell the meat cooking, and hear the hissing of the fat and the popping and crackling of the fire. He did not hear the small noise behind him. He leaned forward to poke the fire with a stick, and when he straightened up again something smacked him hard on the back of the head. Then he felt nothing.
When he awoke was no longer in the forest, and no longer in the small cave. His head hurt. The smells were confusing. Other people were near, to be sure, and smoke and food. He was hungry. Under these smells were others, more subtle: damp fur, discarded food, and other smells harder to place but familiar. Dog. He smelled dog. Not his dead dog, not his dinner, but a live dog, nearby.
He kept his eyes closed and listened carefully. The wind rustled branches nearby and there was a small fire someplace within hearing. There! Someone spoke. Again. Not the language of his people, but definitely speech. Oh, maker! He was with the others! He was a captive – this was very bad for him. The others did not often tolerate his people. His tribe were chased away and sometimes killed. To be their prisoner was an uncomfortable prospect.
He could not move much at all. He could roll a bit but his hands and feet were tied together, and his feet were fastened to a stake in the ground. He was alive, though, and that was a bit confusing. Why not simply kill him if that was to be his fate, why delay?
Perhaps they would eat him. This dismayed him, and he let out a small groan. He did not wish to be eaten.
He heard someone approaching. He closed his eyes – he could make no sense of what he could see anyway – and hoped that whoever was coming would think he was still asleep. He heard a rustling sound and smelled hides; then WHACK! A great pain in his leg, He jerked, screamed, and opened his eyes. He looked into the face of one of the others. This one was light haired, frail looking but tall. He was holding a stick, which had obviously been used to strike him.
The spindly creature made sounds, but nothing Olnuk could understand. The thing poked him and repeated what he had said. Olnuk growled and bared his teeth. The other raised the stick again, but then lowered it and backed away. He opened a hole in the ‘cave’ with his arm and left. The hole closed behind him.
“One of the Harig folk?”
The taller man was holding a skinned tree branch. The shorter one had curly, darker hair and red lines drawn down his face. The shorter one spoke again. “You wish to continue with this, Ulan? The Harig are bad enemies. They are few but strong. We have some peace with them now.”
The one called Ulan spoke next. “He killed Unoo and I demand payment. There is a debt here.”
“He would have nothing to trade. It would mean his life, because you could never make him a slave. There may be those in the village who would pay the debt simply to avoid a conflict.”
“We would win, Jono. There is no doubt.”
“True, Ulan, but it would cost lives, and more death will not pay your debt, not really.” Jono put his hand on Ulan’s shoulder and looked him earnestly in the eyes. “What is it you want? Another dog? Unoo is gone, but some of her sons and daughters are here. I’m sure you could have your pick.”
“Bah,” Ulan spat. “To the Harig dogs are just a nuisance or food. Unoo was a hunter, a friend and companion. She was my protector. I gave her food from my pot, and she gave me meat from her kills. Do we not have an obligation to protect her too?”
“Of course we have an obligation, but she was not completely one of us. If she had been you daughter, I would not suggest any mercy. But Unoo was not your daughter, she was an animal. A smart and loyal one, a valuable one, but an animal. How far will you go? Some would say that your responsibility was to keep her safe, and you failed. Now she is dead. Should we start a war over it?”
“Your words are hard ones, Jono, and I understand. Please let me think about this. He was alone in a cave. I think he had been ejected, and will not be missed. We have time to consider.” Ulan squatted and poked the fire with his stick. Jono waited for a time, then turned and moved silently away.
There seemed to be no real choice. Jono was correct, any actual retaliation would cause conflict and death. The dog was maybe not worth more human or dog lives, and no lesson would be learned. There seemed to be no path that to – he had no word for what he thought he wanted, only a feeling that something was unfair, that some wrong was going without being resolved. He still angry, but he saw the other side.
He paced back and forth in front of the hide tent holding the captive, HIS tent. A dirty, smelly Harig sleeping in his bed. He wasn’t afraid of the ugly creature, but perhaps the best thing would be to try to forget the whole thing and receive some gratitude from the tribe. Practical gratitude, or course.
After a moment’s pause he listed the flap of his tent and went inside. It was dark, but he knew where things were and he fetched his stone axe from beside the entrance. When his eyes adjusted he saw that the Harig was staring at him, lying immobile and silent on his side. He tried to make soothing noises and approached him slowly, but he knew the creature expected to be attacked and would be dangerous.
Ulan held the axe like a knife and approached the Harig’s feet. With two strokes of the sharp axe he sliced through the hide that bound it to the stake. That freed the Harig’s feet from the stake, but they were still tied together. It was enough freedom to make him struggle with great intensity, gaining a standing position a few times before falling down again.
Ulan watched impassively until his captive was still again. He then approached very slowing and mimed the action of cutting the bindings on his feet, and said what he hoped were comforting things in a calm tone. He sliced through the hide tying the Harig’s feet together and stepped back, expecting another violent response. Instead it sat up and looked at him, and then extended its hands. Ulan brought the axe forward and sliced quickly through the hand bindings as well. Too quickly.
The final stroke of the axe blade was slightly off target, and cut through the hide but also sliced into the Harig’s arm just above the wrist. He screeched and grabbed the wound with his other hand. Blood was flowing. Ulan could see that the wound was a small one, and started to say something comforting, but was struck down by an elbow and then stepped on as the no-longer captive bolted to the tent flap that meant his freedom.
Ulan tried to yell but had no air in his lungs. He struggled to gain his feet and his breath and stumbled out of the tent waving his arms furiously, gasping. A few curious folk were sticking the heads out of their tents. Some of the dogs trotted over, sniffing. One of them caught the blood scent and howled, then raced off into the woods. Others followed. Ulan was still winded, but tried to jog in the same direction.
Olnuk ran through the thick brush away from the others, away from their dogs. He was bleeding, and leaving a trail behind him, he knew. He did not know the direction he should be running, simply away. The vegetation was slowing him down a lot. He hoped it would slow the ones following him too.
Then he heard the dogs closing on him from behind. Two were making barking noises, but could hear others crashing through the bushes. They could run faster and move under the worst of the vegetation. He knew he could not get away, he’d have to fight. He turned and grabbed the largest branch he could find, snapping it off near where it met the trunk and stood facing the direction of his approaching attackers, knees slightly bent and nostrils flaring.
A monster, all black fur and white teeth streaked towards him and leapt into the air at his head. Olnuk swung the branch hard and caught the airborne dog just behind its head, breaking its neck and sending it flying into the trees on his left. The second attacker was close behind, and Olnuk could not recover his pose in time to repel it completely. He tried to strike it on the backswing but struck only a glancing blow, and the dog was able to lock its teeth into his calf and push, knocking him to the ground. He fell on top of the animal, and while it tore at his leg he was able to grab a rear foot and snap it. Thus distracted, the dog released its grip and yelped. Olnuk reached back and seized the dog by the neck, locking it his elbow between his forearm and bicep and squeezing as hard as he could.
As he felt a bone snap two more dogs leapt on him from two different directions. One grabbed his wounded arm, and when he turned his head to see what to do about it the other fastened its teeth on his neck. He heard and saw some of the others, who had been following the dogs, but he was in great pain now and his vision was blurry. He was too weak to stand.
Ulan stood over the dying Harig. He did for it what he would do for any of his friends, or his dogs. He put the point of his spear on the Harig’s chest and forced it through his heart. There was no point in allowing it to suffer any more, and it could not survive the wounds the dogs had inflicted. The end of the spear broke off as he tried to extract it.
Jono ran up behind him. “So, Ulan,” he panted. “You get your revenge.”
“I was trying to set him free. It went badly. If we could speak to them it might be different’.
“I see we have lost two dogs. We should bury them. Here.”
“We should bury the Harig too,” Ulan suggested. “I think he had been banished. If so, his people will never know what happened to him. It will prevent trouble.”
“Agreed. We’ll put them all in the same hole, and hide it. But then we’ll move the village out of their territory. This place was a bad idea from the start.”
Dr. Beverly Rushkoff was at her desk reading a report when there was a tap on her office door. It was open a little, and she could see her graduate student Ben Cook standing there.
“Door’s open, Ben,” she said.
Ben stepped inside. “You called?” he asked. He was smiling, and sat in the chair in front of Beverly’s desk after giving a little head bow.
She looked him over. “You seem pretty happy, today. Cheer me up.”
Ben lost his smile. “I thought you called me to see some of the lab results from the dig,” he said. “what’s up?”
She tossed some of the papers across the desk and he picked them up. “The bones in the grave were about 30 thousand years old. It was a Neanderthal skeleton, we knew that right away. They didn’t always bury their dead, but when they did they sometimes buried them with some basic possessions; you know, a stone tool or something.”
“So why was he buried with two dogs? They were possessions?” Ben was flipping through the report.
“Page three,” she said. He was killed by a European early modern human. There was a spear tip in his chest.”
“Why can’t you say ‘Cro-Magnon’ like other people? Anyway, it looks like this poor guy had a fight with some Cro-Magnons and came up the loser. And his dogs with him. That’s not a good story for us.”
“No, it is not,” Dr. Rushkoff said. “Our theory that the working relationship between European early modern humans and dogs gave them an advantage over the Neanderthals, who ate them and had no such relationship, has been put to a test, and the evidence seems against it.”
“It’s only one find,” Ben said.
“So were the dead sea scrolls. Look, this won’t affect your thesis. The excavation is good, and there’s information that nobody has published, it’s only the narrative that changes. If further sites confirm that Neanderthals worked with dogs you could become famous. If not, then maybe my theory is still accurate, and your work is still excellent.” She sat back and spun her chair so she could look out of the window.
“Let’s start writing this up,” she said. “I’ll start on the data from the lab, and you work up a history of the excavation. Get a draft by Friday and we’ll compare notes over coffee. We’ve got to stick our names on this. It could also be chapter 4. OK?”
“OK.” Ben stood up. She was still staring out of the window when he left her office. As he did, he couldn’t help but think of how large a story could be discovered from fairly slight evidence. He smiled again. Being a scientist really was fun.
Nancy Christie is the author of the fiction collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (2016 Shelf Unbound Competition runner-up), the inspirational book, The Gifts Of Change (available in three foreign languages) and numerous short stories including one shortlisted for Pulp Literature’s 2016 The Raven Short Story Contest.