short story    
Kevin Brockmeier

Here is Celia, running like a rabbit through the sunlight, on a day so perfectly pitched between winter and spring that she can feel streamers of warm air in the wind. The grass looks willowy and tender, and she very much wants to take off her shoes and flatten it beneath her feet, but her mom told her that if she went pounding around barefoot outside she might catch something. She is afraid of catching something. When she was six she caught the measles, and when she was five she caught the chicken pox. She stops by the pond and looks into the water, creased by the breeze. There is a cluster of minnows swimming just beneath the surface, and when she tries to touch one they scatter away in a spray of silver Vs. Suddenly she thinks of a new jingle: little silver minnows with their little silver finnows. It is a good day.

She has three favorite toys: her dollhouse, her ring collection, and her stuffed giraffe Franklin, but they are all in her bedroom. Here in the yard there is only her scooter and the top half of a Barbie doll. The bottom half of the Barbie doll was washed away last week during a thunderstorm, when she and her parents had to walk through the house lighting tall white candles with matches as long as magicians' wands. It has been five days since it rained (one, two, three, four, five—she can count as high as one hundred), but the ground is still spongy in places. She leaves a deliberate curve of footprints across the back yard, stretching from the deck to the maple trees. She has known ever since she woke up this morning that something important was going to happen—something enormous—and though she does not yet know what, she can feel herself slowly falling toward it. It is like the dreamlike fall of a diver from a high board. Her fingers and toes are tingling. She does not need her toys.

She can see her dad through the kitchen window, escorting a man and woman past the pantry and the staircase and the wood-burning stove. I am her dad, and when I pass into the living room, she loses sight of me. In the pocket of her dress she finds a red rubber ball that she bought from the gum machine at the grocery store. Once a week her mom gives her a quarter to load into the gum machine, and though she always hopes for a plastic ring to add to her ring collection, usually she ends up cranking out a bracelet or a toy watch or something. She throws the ball as high as she can and it lands on the roof, drumming back down with a wonderful, resiny thumping noise. Then she chases it across the grass and throws it once more, this time so high that it almost hits the chimney. She could listen to the sound it makes again and again, a hundred or a thousand times, but the fifth time she throws it, the ball lodges clunkily in the metal gutter. A great boat of a cloud drifts by. A dog barks across the street.

In one of the elm trees behind the house is a cocoon she has been watching all winter long, and though she has only touched it once or twice, as gently as she could, and with her littlest finger, when she looks for it she discovers that it has already split open. She is afraid to look inside. She can almost picture the body of the butterfly, motionless, folded into a papery kink. But the cocoon, it turns out, is empty, stuffed with a sticky gray floss that comes off on her fingers.

This means that the butterfly has flown away. Either that or been eaten.

She hasn't seen any butterflies swaying through the flowers yet this year, but she believes just the same, or decides to believe, that it has flown away.

Soon she is climbing onto the fragment of stone wall in the side yard of the house. The wall is almost as high as her waist, and she boosts herself onto it effortlessly. She can remember when she was little and had to scrabble to the top using both her hands and all her muscles. Her dad walks by the living room window and winks at her. She is tightrope-walking along the wall, her arms outstretched like wings, and just before he turns away, her hair is caught in the brilliance of the sunlight. He can see every individual thread. In less than a minute, now, the enormous thing she has been expecting all morning will carry her off like a wave. She watches a maple leaf, the last of the winter, go spinning delicately to the ground. She hears a car driving down the road, knuckles of asphalt popping in its wheel wells.

In her head she feels a rising sensation, like a halo of electricity traveling up a ring of conductors.

Three. Two. One.

It is the same day, two hours earlier, and I am looking through the closets and drawers in the house, weeding out items for our annual yard sale. A turtleneck sweater with a rippled weave. A letter opener in the shape of a sword. The yard sale is scheduled for next Saturday, the fourth weekend in March, as it was last year and the year before. We will, as it happens, postpone it this year and never reschedule it, and much later, after everything has changed, I will find a box labeled YARD SALE 1997 in the storage room, filled with all these forgotten objects, but I do not yet know this.

We have just come from the living room into the kitchen when Celia asks, "You're not going to give away the vegetable plates, are you?" She has been following me around the house all morning.

The vegetable plates are a set of eight plastic dishes with drawings of different vegetables on them—potatoes and carrots and the like. They all wear smiles on their faces, and Celia has an odd affection for them, as if they were pets. She has never explained it to me. "Not if you want us to keep them," I tell her. "And we're not giving anything away. We're selling things. It's a yard sale. Like the time we got Franklin, remember?"

And with that she's off, dancing around the room and waving her fingers like a baton: Frank-lin. Meet my Frank-lin. He's a giraffe like you've never seen. She has been doing this ever since she woke up-inventing jingles, one after the other.

"Honey, why don't you go look through your stuff? See if there's anything up there you want to get rid of"

"I looked yesterday and there wasn't any. But okay, Dad." She races upstairs singing a new song, and when she rounds the corner, her voice dissolves away.

I have been Daddy to Celia for more than six years. It was her second word, right after Mommy and right before meatball (mee-bah), and it is only in the last few months that she has taken to calling me Dad. One syllable. Quick as a breath. She says it earnestly, almost primly, with a note of perfect self-command in her voice, and I can see that she is proud to be seven years old. There is never the same sloppy devotion in Dad that there was in Daddy, the same landslide of joy or sadness, but hearing it can still send me skipping forward through the rest of my day. And sometimes-this is my secret, and I keep it even from her-when I lay my hand on her forehead to test for a fever, or when I wake her from one of her cavernous midday naps, I will become Daddy again, for only a few minutes, until she takes possession of herself

Soon I hear her running back downstairs, leaping the last three steps.

"I like all my stuff," she says. "I don't have to give anything away, do I?"

"You don't have to, no," I say, "but I think you could do without-oh, say, your doll house."

"My doll house!" Her mouth opens in a circle-if a bee were to fly out, she could not look more surprised.

"That or your ring collection," I say. "You hardly ever play with those anymore."

She realizes I must be kidding, and she tests a smile. She begins another song, Rings and things the mailman brings, but stops short when she sees Janet.

Janet is my wife, her mother. She stands in the kitchen doorway gathering the tails of her wool muffler into her coat. "I'm off, kids," she says, tucking her clarinet case beneath her arm. On Saturdays she has community orchestra rehearsal, and she doesn't come back until two o'clock.

"It doesn't look that cold outside. Are you sure you want to wrap yourself up like that?"

"It'll be freezing in the Assembly Hall. Trust me. The priest over there likes to run the air conditioner even in January."

"All right," I say. "It's your sauna," and I kiss her goodbye.

She slips her hand into Celia's hair, making a spidery motion with her fingers. "You two take care of each other," she says. And I say, "We always do."

After she leaves, Celia and I return to our inventory of the kitchen, piling our yard sale items into the same cardboard box I will one day find powdered with gray dust in the corner of the storage room. A crock pot with a handle that has come unpinned on one side. A green ceramic salt cellar. An apron reading PLEASE DON'T FEED THE ANIMALS. Celia runs off to to see what cartoons are on television, but comes back less than a minute later with the remote control in her hand. "Nothing but superheroes," she says. "I hate superheroes." Then she sings: They can fly, through the sky, like a big pizza pie.

I have finished sifting through the kitchen cabinets and ask her if she is ready for a break. "An ice cream break?" she says.

"We're out of ice cream, I think, but-"

When I open the freezer door, the cold comes sliding out in a single white sheet. You could almost imagine it dropping to the floor and shattering. I take a twin-pop from the popsicle box and line it up along the edge of the kitchen counter by the crease, knocking it into two halves with the heel of my palm. I give one half to Celia, and she shaves a curl of ice from it with her front teeth. The ice loses color as it lifts from the mass of the popsicle. This is something she likes to do: scrape popsicles down to the stick with her two front teeth. She takes a bite and asks, "So what room's next?"

I can feel the first throbs of a headache coming on, an edgeless few seconds of pain that vanished almost as soon as it appears. Goddamn. I still have the library, the morning room, and the guest room to look through. "Next we go upstairs," I tell her. "We'll probably try the library first, and then-"

She belts out another jingle: Oh, it's the books, books, books, books, books-and my head gives a second twinge. A feather of plaster, as white as a snowflake, falls from the ceiling onto her shoulder. I brush it away.

"Tell you what, honey,"! say. "Why don't you go play outside for a while?"

This time it happens differently. In my imagination it is always the same day-the sky is clear, the wind is fresh, and it happens again-but the details are never quite the same. Celia is running through the yard, chasing a speck of something that is glittering like a cinder in the sunlight. She can't quite see what it is—a housefly?—a dandelion seed? All at once, it rises vertically in the wind and floats away over the roof of the house. She quits the chase. She wants to kick off her shoes and let the grass thread through her toes, feel the thin flexible edges bite ever so softly into her skin, but she does not. Instead she plays with the top half of her Barbie doll (the other half is missing) and throws her ball into the air and pokes at the minnows in the pond.

When she hears the sound of barking in the street, she thinks that it is Todd Paul Taulbee walking his two Irish setters. Todd Paul Taulbee is a friend of her dad's. He likes to fish in the pond behind their house, and he always lets her toss sticks to his dogs, who leap into the air and barrel after them, returning them to her in their slobbery black lips. She hurries into the front yard to pet the dogs and say hello, but as she rounds the corner she sees that it is not Todd Paul Taulbee after all. It is a tall, flat-haired man who stands in the street holding a sausage-shaped dog by the leash and staring at the house next door. His white-brown coat bulges enormously over his thin legs, which makes him look something like a mushroom.

Celia is not supposed to cross the street by herself, so she stops at the curb, calling, "What are you looking at?"

The man swings his head around, and his eyes run slowly down her face. It feels as though someone has cracked an egg over her head. "I'm friends with the girl who lives in that house," he says, pointing. "Do you know if she's home today?"

"You must be thinking of Beth Doyle. She moved away last year with her mom and dad."

"Beth Doyle, that's right." The man tugs on the leash and meets her at the curb, his dog pattering along at his feet.

"Why is your dog shaped like that?" Celia asks.

"That's just the way they come. They're called dachshunds." He stoops down onto his ankles, massaging the dog's skull so that his lips are pulled back over his teeth. "His name's Teeter. You can stroke him if you want to."

When she bends over to pet him, the dog gives a bark and licks the back of her hand. His tongue feels smooth and flat, like wet paper, and his breath smells like glue. "Yuck," she says.

The man laughs-a thin, wheezing sound. "Lick him back. That's what I always do."

She can feel her mouth stretching into a grin. "No, you don't."

"No," he admits, and he winks at her. "I don't." A plastic bag, tangled in the hatching of a free branch, balloons momentarily in the wind. She sees the hazy shape of her dad moving past the arched window of her bedroom, but he does not notice her. "What did you say your name was?" the man asks.


"Celia. Did you know that your tongue is purple, Celia?"

She extends her tongue, crossing her eyes to look at it, but sees only a lens-shaped slice of her own nose. "It must be from the popsicles. Purple is my favorite flavor."

"I'm feeling purple right about now myself," he says, and though she does not understand the joke, she laughs along with him. Her own favorite joke, ever since she was little, is a knock-knock joke: Knock, knock- Who's there?-Banana-Banana who?-Knock, knock-Who's there?-Banana-Banana who?-Knock, knock-Who there?-Orange-Orange who?-Orange you glad I didn't say banana. She likes the way the joke makes a perfect ring, wrapping around on itself again and again, like a pinwheel or a revolving door, but not everyone thinks it is funny. Sometimes she can lead her dad through four or five different bananas before he finally gives up on her.

"That's a wonderful joke," says the man with the sausage-shaped dog. "Did you come up with it all by yourself?"

"I don't think so."

"Well, it's a good joke anyway. Cute as can be."

Celia tries to think of a reply. "My mom says I'm cute as a bunny."

"Cute as a bunny, huh?" He taps her nose, letting his finger rest there for a second. "Wiggle, wiggle," he says, and his hand brushes over her face-first the cheek, then the upper lip. "Is your mom inside right now?"

"She's at rehearsal. My dad's inside, though. Do you want me to go get him?"

"No, no." A van drives down the road, jouncing noisily over a pothole, and pebbles of asphalt go spinning up into the carriage. The man, who has been crouching all this time, so that his enormous coat was draped over the curb, hiding his feet, and his eyes were level with her own, stands and softly takes her hand, "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Celia," he says. "I'll look for you-okay?"

The way he speaks makes it sound like a true question, and so she answers it. "Okay."

"Good." He squeezes her fingers, and she watches him walk up the street. A ripple of cloud passes over the sun, and a lawnmower buzzes from somewhere nearby. She tries to turn a cartwheel on the grass, but the ground is too wet, and she accidentally slides forward onto her elbows. She brushes herself off and then rinses her hands clean in the puddle by the chimney.

She does not see the man again for another half hour, when she feels herself plunging off the fragment of stone wall between the two maple trees. We never find her.

Or maybe there was no man in a white-brown coat, no kidnapper who stole her away. It has been so long, and still we do not know. Sometimes, when I wake in the morning, floating upward through the last misty layers of sleep, I imagine I can see the world as she did that day. I watch her running through the yard in her blue jeans and sweater, kicking at the elm leaves in the grass. She kneels by the pond, her legs tucked beneath her in an X, and reaches for the minnows, and each time she does her reflection crimps and separates on the surface of the water, until she no longer grabs for the minnows at all, just her own reflection, prodding and flicking at it. The tadpoles are easier to catch than the minnows, but they have not yet hatched this year. She pushes herself to her feet and races across the yard.

Her scooter is resting on its side beneath the deck. It is blue and white, with peeling red trim, and she takes its handle, scales her foot on the footboard, and propels herself around the house. The scooter trundles bumpily over all the little hills and troughs in the ground. It is harder to ride in the dirt and grass than it is on the pavement, but she is not allowed to play in the street without her mom or dad looking on. She is not allowed to stay up past nine o'clock, or eat snacks in her bedroom, or take her doll house to school with her. She is not allowed to do anything. She makes only one circle of the house before abandoning her scooter in the puddle behind the chimney, where a police detachment will find it later that evening.

The grass is soft and cushiony, green with rain, and she decides to lie down for a while. She props herself on her elbows and watches the pattern of shadows shift on the stone of the house. She can see her dad through the kitchen window, talking with a man and woman she does not know. I am her dad. The sunlight from the pond shimmers over her body in waves that look like golden wires. Her fingers tweeze a blade of grass into long, narrow threads. My God. When I cross into the living room, the window vanishes behind a wall and I lose sight of her.

The moisture from the grass is soaking through her blue jeans, and she pinches the fabric away from her skin. Then she stands and tromps to the edge of the yard. She winds through the elm trees behind the house, stopping beside her favorite. The cocoon that has been there since November is empty now, slit down the center, like a banana twisted at both its ends, and she can't help but feel disappointed. Once, last fall, she collected all the caterpillars she could find from the school playground, tens and twenties and thirties of them, peeling them off the bushes and dropping them into her lunch sack. On the way home she remembers stopping at a grocery store with her dad. The bag unfurled inside the car, and the caterpillars climbed free. By the time the two of them came back outside, the caterpillars were everywhere: on the seats, the ceiling, the steering wheel. She had to collect them again and release them into the frees behind the house. By the next morning most of them were gone, but she did find one, spinning a pale, tight cocoon in the crutch of this branch. She sees a twitching high in the free and thinks for a moment that it is the butterfly, but it is only the sprig of a leaf.

When the caterpillars escaped inside the car, her dad's face turned pale and smooth and he yelled at her. And this morning he yelled at her just for singing a song about the books in the library. She thinks for the hundredth time that she ought to run away. She could stay with her best friend Kristen Lanzetta, or her other friend Oscar Martin, or she could sleep on the gym mats at school. If she left home and did not come back for five days (she can count as high as one hundred), then her mom and dad would have to be nice to her.

She presses a line of footprints into the ground, which is still spongy from the big storm, stamping every time her foot falls and slowly rolling her weight to make each step sharp and deep. When she has finished, she sits on the fragment of stone wail and lets her eyes follow the trail she has made. She feels like a hunter or a detective, so easily able to trace where she has been. Though she is not supposed to remove her shoes outside, she decides to take them off anyway, burrowing her feet into the cool black dirt. She is not wearing any socks, and she pretends her toes are earthworms. She shivers and laces her shoes back onto her feet. She is afraid of catching something.

As she balances herself atop the stone wall, extending her arms and placing one foot in front of the other like an acrobat, her dad walks past the living room window and looks out at her. He winks at her, but she pretends not to notice him. For no good reason, he sent her outside when he was gathering stuff for the yard sale. A yard sale is when you set tables and boxes up in the front yard and let people take your things away. She likes all her things and wishes that she could keep them, but didn't her dad say that she would have to give her stuffed giraffe away? She feels a prickling heat behind her eyes and blinks a few times to keep from crying.

A maple leaf skates across the tips of the grass.

A dog barks repeatedly across the street.

She can picture her dad opening her bedroom door, spreading his arms wide and telling the man and woman she does not know that they can help themselves, take anything they want, feel free to look around. She leaps from the wall and begins to run.

"Tell you what, Celia," I say. "Why don't you go outside and play?"

It is an hour earlier, and we are finishing our popsicles, biting the last clumps of ice, which have already melted to sleet, from around the center of the stick. She presses hers against the roof of her mouth, and I hear her breath puffing flatly through her nose. This is something else she does: breathe through her nose whenever she chews or swallows. At its loudest, when she has a cold, it reminds me of the sound that air makes escaping from a balloon. "Now?" she asks.

"Just for a little while. Is your sweater in your bedroom? You should probably go put it on."

"0-kay," she says. Two notes. She snaps her popsicle stick in half, drops it in the trash, and ascends the stairs.

I decide to take a Tylenol for my headache and so am in the bathroom when she leaves.

It is another half hour, and I have finished my inspection of both the library and the guest room, when I hear a knock on the front door. Our house is an old one, listed in the State Registry of Historic Places, with a stone fireplace, a winding wooden staircase, and a pantry as large as the kitchen. One Saturday a month I conduct any visitors who come to the door through its rooms, recounting the story of its construction, which I know by heart. Today the visitors are Donald and Joan Pytlik, who are traveling across the region in their minivan to visit all the houses catalogued in the State Department of Recreation and Tourism brochure. It wasn't them.

"We had been wanting to take this trip for twenty years, but there never seemed to be the time," Mrs. Pytlik says, draping her jacket over the coat-frame in the hall.

"So we made the time," Mr. Pytlik says. He shifts his leather belt around his large belly.

They stand by the door, holding hands.

"Your house is certainly beautiful," says Mrs. Pytlik, and Mr. Pytlik says, "It is, it is," and I thank them. Then I lead them into the front room and begin my recitation.

I show them the rounded baseboards and the antique glass table and the fireplace with the ashdarkened hearth. I show them the hatch in the wall that used to lead to the coal cellar. There is a corner of the pantry where the wood is a slightly darker shade of brown, and! tell them how we had to replace a few boards when a mysterious rot began to spread through them in 1995. In the kitchen I show them the wood-burning stove, which has been in place since the house was constructed in the mid-1800's. "But we rarely use it," I say. "After all, we have the fireplace to heat the living room and the gas oven to cook our food." I can see Celia through the kitchen window, playing safely in the back yard. "Not to mention central heating and the microwave," I finish, and I usher the Pytliks into the living room. Beneath the winding staircase, carved from a single giant sycamore, I point to the place where the woodwright incised his name some hundred-and-fifty years ago-Edwin Reasoner. I let them trace it with their fingers. This is how I conduct my tour, every third Saturday of the month.

We are upstairs in the master bedroom when we hear a thump on the roof, followed by a drumming noise which accelerates and comes to a sudden stop. It sounds like a bullet of hail, but the sky is perfectly blue.

"What on earth was that?" Mrs. Pytlik says, her hands on her hips, staring at the ceiling.

"A bird must have dropped something," her husband says.

"Or something dropped a bird," she says.

There is another crack above us, slightly louder this time, and their shoulders give a start.

I can still hear Celia galloping around in the back yard, and I am not concerned. "Nothing to worry about. Now if you'd like to follow me down the hail, I can show you the morning room." We hear the sound three more times before it stops, with a tinny clank.

Later, as I escort the Pytliks back downstairs, the phone begins to ring, and I answer it in the kitchen. It is Janet, on recess from her session with the community orchestra. "They're rehearsing the strings right now," she says. "Listen, I'm going to stop by the grocery store on the way home. Do we need anything?"

"Hamburger buns. And paper towels. And I think Celia just lost her last rubber ball, so-"

"-so whatever I do, don't buy another."


She laughs. "Are you guys okay?"

"We're fine. Celia's playing outside. I'm showing the house to a couple from upstate."

"Oh! I'll let you go then." She blows a kiss into the transmitter-a chirping sound. "Take care," she says.

I return the telephone to its cradle.

The Pytliks are waiting for me in the living room, looking at the photographs framed on the mantelpiece. I step over to the window and stand there for a moment. Celia is tightrope-walking along the fragment of stone wall between the two maple trees. Her arms are open wide, and she steps delicately, the way a leaf falls, from the shadow of the trees into the sunlight. I catch her gaze and wink at her. I want to understand what she is thinking, in this moment just before it happens (though I do not yet know that it will happen). What is she remembering, or noticing, or imagining? What is she watching so intently? It is important to me. Watching her I feel an enormous plummeting sensation in my legs, as if I have missed the last step on a ladder, though it may be that I feel this only in retrospect. I do not know.

Behind me Mrs. Pytlik clears her throat, and! hear the rustle of her skirt shifting on her body. "So where did the stone for the outside walls come from?" she asks. And I turn away.

It goes on happening.

Celia is running through the grass, as fast as she possibly can, and the arms and legs of her shadow are scissoring back and forth beneath her feet. It is almost noon. The way the sunlight flickers inside the branches of the trees reminds her of the flashing siren of an ambulance or a police car, and when she comes kicking to a stop, she gulps in air and blinks her eyes to see if she can duplicate the effect. The house vanishes and reappears, and so does the sky, and so does the ground. At school, during Career Day, a doctor visited her class with an ambulance, a policeman with a police car, and a fireman with a fire truck. They all ran their sirens simultaneously when one of the boys, Oscar Martin, asked them to, and it was so loud that she had to clap her hands over her ears. She climbs onto the deck and looks down at the yard, where the wind is making patterns in the grass-little pleats and ripples. She thinks of another jingle: all of the grass and all of the wind, oh they couldn 't put Huinpty together again.

A plastic bag, the kind you get from the grocery store, is tangled in the twigs of the free beside the chimney, and she can see it rustling every time the breeze shifts. The tree is an elm free, but her mom calls it the Plastic Bag Tree, because every few days another plastic bag will appear there like a tattered blue or white flower. Her dad has to pull them loose with a long hook. He says that it must have something to do with the air currents.

She climbs down from the deck, jumping at the fifth stair from the bottom, and lands with a flat smack of her sneakers. A lawnmower buzzes across the street. The minnows in the pond glitter like silver nickels. There are flags of warm air in the wind. She can tell that spring is almost here. The next holiday on the calendar is Easter, and the last was St. Valentine's Day.

When she boosts herself onto the stone wall, she sees a spider concealing itself in one of the cracks, so thin a brown that it is almost transparent, but she is not frightened of spiders. She sits and pulls her knees to her chin, then tightens her shoelaces. A chip of yellow rock zings away when she knocks her foot against the side of the wall. She rises and spreads her arms and paces along the ledge to the other end, where the wall crumbles into a staircase of dented stones, and then she sits down again. Out of the corner of her eye she sees something moving.

There it is. The butterfly.

It has settled on the border of the very last stone and is swaying gently in the breeze. She watches it close its wings. They fold together, meet in a plane, and then, to her surprise, fold closer still, crossing into one another, so that she cannot see the butterfly at all anymore. It is as though it has simply hidden itself away in the spaces between the air. She wonders if it has melted to nothing like a puff of fog, but then the wings swivel back into sight and it is resting right where it was before. She wipes her eyes and looks more closely. Its antennae give a few twitches. It lifts one of its legs. A moment later she watches it happen all over again: first it is there and then it is gone.

It is like nothing she has ever seen before, and when the butterfly opens its wings again, dipping and tilting its head, she reaches out to take it in her hand.

o henry awards
Bold Type
    Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Brockmeier.