After violet lightning struck the tree by our house, oddities started in our family. Levitating coffee cups. Sis would snap her fingers and random objects burst aflame. An entity named Virkiv sometimes spoke through me. Word spread through the nearby town, around the county, farther away from us. Then armed men broke down our door, dragged our family into vans, drove us to a laboratory.
The scientists who study my family tell us that our house is still being examined. As are we. The scientists claim a new house will be given to us after the examinations are finished. But they don’t say when that will be.
Certainly we miss the old house, all the familiar rooms and the memories that happened within them. As well as the land around the house, the field and slice of forest. Now our home is this lab, which has a sad, blank character.
On the first day of school, the teacher asked the elementary school students to say one thing about themselves.
Starting in the front row, each student spoke. Some spoke energetically, some softly. Olivia Murrell’s favorite color: purple, Noah Hillman’s favorite food: pizza, Sofia Valdez’s favorite movie: The Wizard of Oz, Makayla Weber’s favorite food: cake, Dominic Rowley’s favorite color: red, Xavier Carrasco’s favorite baseball team: Los Angeles Dodgers, Ellie Ishida’s favorite holiday: Christmas, Anthony Arborghast’s favorite animal: zebra.
The teacher help up her hand and said, “Let’s take a little break there, please. I have a question. Anthony Aardvark Arborghast, could you tell the class why your parents picked your middle name? I’m very curious.”
Anthony Aardvark Arborghast was a shy boy and his voice was low, but he managed the explanation. “My mom and dad wanted my middle name to be an animal. But they couldn’t agree on which animal. My mom’s favorite animal is the aardvark, and my dad’s favorite is the albatross. They had a contest for who could pick my middle name. They played one round of miniature golf and one round of gin rummy. They worked on the crossword puzzle in a Wednesday edition of the New York Times to see who could get the most answers. They jumped to see who could jump the farthest. They wrote essays about the possible dangers of technology. Three of their friends served as judges to pick the winner of that one. They took a test of real-world math, which included household finances, sales tax, and statistics in news stories. And finally, they made funny faces and funny voices to a friend to see who could make the friend laugh louder. They agreed on a complicated scoring system for all those contests to see who won the whole thing. My mom won.”
Silence in the classroom as the teacher and students took in all of what Anthony Aardvark Arborghast had said. The kids looked around at each other. The kids looked at Anthony Aardvark Arborghast.
The teacher said, “Well, Anthony, I think you have interesting parents.”
“Weird is more like it,” Anthony Aardvark Arborghast said.
Sometimes when my cat looks at me, I wonder if she ever imagines leaping on me and sinking her fangs into my flesh, for although she is a housecat (and a cute one at that), maybe there’s a flicker within her of wildness, a pinch of inheritance passed down through generations from ancestors who lurked in tall grass toward prey, crouching in careful and delicious anticipation, then leaping from their hiding spot and chasing antelope (or other creatures) and tackling one and sinking their fangs into the flesh, because surely that pinch-flicker still remains in my cat, and that opens the possibility of it growing into flames with which the tyger burns bright in the house of the night, burning so bright that my cat attacks me and gets to feast upon fresh meat for once, not food from a can or pouch or bag, and would the headline of my obituary — DIED FROM HOUSECAT ATTACK — cause horror or humor in readers, or a bit of both?
Final toast to the lake. The three of us laugh at memories of contests: swimming, diving, watermelon seed-spitting. Humorous attempts to ease the sadness of losing the family’s lake house. With frail parents and our money spent on raising our own kids, we can’t afford the property. We had a wonderful run, though. Time for another family to create new memories.
Wine gave the illusion of courage, yet Alex’s heart thudded a rapid drumbeat, beads of sweat on his forehead and lower back from the heat of the imagined bonfire around which several dancers frolicked to the rhythm of that rapid drumbeat.
In reality, Alex maneuvered around the other patrons in the bar. He arrived at the lady’s side, then he murmured, “Hi.”
“Hi there,” she replied, louder than him.
A frown on her lovely face, and she said, “Do you mean the ice cream flavor, or that you’ve gone down a difficult path?”
“The former. No, the ladder. No, I don’t mean a tool you can use to climb to second-floor bedroom windows. That’s creepy. I mean the latter. With t’s, not d’s. The second one.”
Thankfully, the lady’s frown eased away. “Do you mean your life in general has been rocky, or that recent events have been rocky?”
“Recent,” Alex said. “Very recent. The path to get to you. I’m not saying the bar’s floor is strewn with rocks. I’m speaking metaphorically.”
One of her eyebrows raised, a gesture that communicated some of the lady’s opinions and ideas. If only Alex could’ve translated the gesture, he would’ve understood her better. However, that was part of the mystery. Which was maddening and enticing at the same time.
She said, “Now that you’ve achieved your destination, do you expect a reward?”
“I already have it.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“You’re talking to me.”
This time she let out a little laugh, and the sound was sweet to his ears. “And what an unusual conversation it is.”
Encouraged, Alex said, “Do you have a taste for rocky road ice cream right now? Or is it just me?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We could try to find an ice cream shop and see if you’re up for it,” he said. “Or we could put it to the side for later. Down the road.”
The same eyebrow raised, along with the corner of her mouth directly underneath it. “You’re original. How about we have a drink, then we’ll go from there.”
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) is deeply suspicious of Ms. Odom’s intentions, with that guarded look on her face and the occasional gleam in her eye that’s quickly covered up to return to dull disinterest, as if the dead fly on the windowsill has actually captured all of her attention.
Ms. Christie (Agatha) is on the case, questioning neighbors to find out whether they’ve seen anything suspicious happening around the Ballard house in the past few weeks (or so). Included in the questioning is the kindly older lady who lives across the street and who has seen many comings and goings at the Ballard household: morning rushes to get into their two cars and drive to day care and office jobs, evening arrivals and rushing to get inside and start dinner preparation, Saturday departures to soccer games and gymnastics classes, and Sunday playing at home, of throwing laughter from the backyard and riding a tricycle and bicycle (with training wheels) on the sidewalk out front.
Sir Doyle (Arthur Conan) is searching high and low for clues, trying to spot something that doesn’t quite fit in this suburban house occupied by two busy parents and two children, which results in a house holding a certain amount of clutter and by this, he wonders if the claimed crime has not really been committed, but instead the blue diamond necklace was simply misplaced: put down and then covered up by stuff, the flotsam and jetsam of a hectic life. But Mrs. Ballard has replied, “No, no. My living room and kitchen may be strewn with toys, but I always put my jewelry away in the same place. And my kids are too short to reach my jewelry box and try to play dress up or pirate.”
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) has noticed that her answers at the beginning of his interrogation were short and to the point, but as the questioning commenced past a half hour, her answers are growing, expanding, as if she is weaving a web that entangles threads of truth and lies–and he steels himself behind the curls of steam rising from his mug of chai tea, noting that Ms. Odom is on her second cup of coffee (with sugar), and he attempts to commit her answers to memory, so as to capture any inconsistencies that may escape her lips.
Ms. Christie (Agatha) sits across the kitchen table from the kindly older lady who lives across the street, with both of them wrapping their fingers around warm mugs of Earl Grey tea, and the kindly lady saying that, while weeding her garden, she has seen an old chocolate brown 4-door sedan (something that stands out a bit in this neighborhood chock full of minivans and SUVs) pull up to the house often, and a young lady would exit the car and approach the house, Mrs. Ballard opening the front door with an excited look and an enthusiastic “Come in, come in!” And, now that she thinks about it, an odd thing happened: the kindly lady saw that very same brown sedan a few weeks ago (or so) pull up one night while the Ballard’s silver minivan was gone and their house was dark (save for a light in their living room). The young lady exited the brown sedan, walked through the side gate toward the backyard, and then more lights were switched on in the house, particularly some on the second floor–where the bedrooms are. But the kindly lady didn’t think much of it, since the young lady in the brown sedan was so enthusiastically received before–therefore, she must be a good friend of the Ballards–and she was probably stopping by to check on the house while the family was away for the evening.
Sir Doyle (Arthur Conan) has found no sign of forced entry–no broken windows or broken locks–and if a burglar (or burglars) stole the necklace, then why didn’t they take all the other jewelry or the 40-inch, flat-screen TV or the iPad on the kitchen counter that was next to the stack of letters and catalogs? Perhaps the thief picked the lock, but the question still arose of why a skilled lockpicker would take the time to pick the lock of this suburban house among all the houses on this suburban street and only lift a blue diamond necklace and not more–even though Mrs. Ballard’s other jewelry probably pales in comparison by value to the missing piece. Sir Doyle notices something askew with a flower pot containing a light purple flowering chrysanthemum that sits on the patio’s two-foot high brick wall–but sitting such that one side of it is very slightly raised. By investigating the cause of this one-side-higher oddity, Sir Doyle discovers a key. This key, feeling electrically important to the case in his white-gloved hand, slips easily into the deadbolt lock on the back door and turns easily to the left, thus enabling the detective to turn the door knob (coated in fingerprinting dust) and open the door.
Mr. Poe (Edgar Allan) listens as Ms. Odom keeps going on and on, fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, in her energetic explanations of how she’d never do such a thing to her friend. But he’s grown weary of her repetition–passionate though it is and not riddled with the inconsistencies he had hoped for–and so he is thankful for the sudden arrival of music, of Mozart’s “Requiem Lacrimosa” softly rising from his smartphone previously sleeping on the cheap table that separates Mr. Poe from Ms. Odom, as if they were playing a card game (but no cards are visible). Mr. Poe holds the phone up to his ear, murmuring, “Yes?” then “Still here” then “I see” and “I see” then finally, “Well done.” The phone is returned to the table. Mr. Poe’s expression has not changed as he says, “Your fingerprints were found on the knob of the Ballard’s back door.” Ms. Odom protests, “Of course! I’ve been there tons of times, so I’m sure my fingerprints are all over the place!” Mr. Poe nods, “Naturally, they would be. But why would they be on the spare key that’s hidden under a flower pot in the backyard patio?” Ms. Odom is momentarily struck, then shifts to anger: “I’ve watched their house while they were away! When they, they were at her parent’s for a week, I watched the house! So, sure, I touched the key. That’s how I got in!” Mr. Poe leans forward, his voice lowering, “Were you watching the house a few weeks ago when the neighbor across the street saw your chocolate brown Toyota sedan pull up to the house and saw you slip into the backyard? The Ballards were away only for the evening, not for over night.” Again, Ms. Odom is struck, but this time she shifts into a bitter smirk instead of deep-frowned anger: “Look. Jessica doesn’t exactly live in a dream world, but she’s got it a lot better than me. Great husband, wonderful kids, lovely house. The necklace she got for her anniversary was too much. I mean, how can Greg afford a necklace like that? It’s just not right. And when Francisco asked me to the opera, I thought of the necklace right away. I’d never been to the opera before, so I wanted to make the right impression. And, I’ve go to say, that necklace looked damn good with my dress.”
I went to my buddy Soka’s place, as he and I like playing card games and board games — seems like most other guys our age (twenties) prefer video games. I like them too, but it’s nice to get away from screens.
We were playing The Castles of Burgundy and munching on chips when Soka went to the bathroom. I was chilly, so I checked the thermostat on the wall.
When Soka came back to the kitchen table, I said, “It’s awfully cold in here.”
“That’s the way I like it,” Soka said.
“But it would be better for the environment if you put the thermostat a little higher. The air conditioning wouldn’t have to work as hard.”
Soka shrugged. “Eh. It wouldn’t make much of a difference.”
“But it would make some difference. You have it at 74 degrees, and putting it to 76 degrees wouldn’t be all that different to you. You probably wouldn’t feel the difference.”
“I guess it’s not that much,” Soka said.
“It’s really not. And if you can handle 76 degrees, surely you could handle 77 degrees. And if you can handle 77 degrees, surely you could handle 78 degrees. And if you can handle 78 degrees, surely you could handle 79 degrees. And if you can handle 79 degrees—”
Soka held up a hand as stop symbol. His eyes were aflame with anger. He said, “Get out of my apartment.”
The tree on the hill had a swing hung by a thick branch that was better than any swing in a playground. Out here, away from suburban streets, the expanse of green grass and blue sky opened up. Squeals and giggles of other kids were fun on playgrounds, but sometimes there was a wish for more solitude.
That wish was true for Ellie, likely due to being in a family of four children. Noise seemed constant at home. Except for nights, when she got out of bed to go to the bathroom and the stillness of the house was startling.
The hill wasn’t as still as that. Wind made the grass sway. Birds flew about. Floating clouds decorated the sky. On the tree’s swing, Ellie felt as if she fit into all that. Completely natural to be here. Nobody questioning why she was lost in daydreaming again or didn’t talk much. A powerful and pleasing feeling to be accepted as she was.
“Avoid the crowds,” he said. “Come to the lake in early morning. Really, really early. Slide the canoe into the water. Quietly paddle out, fling out your fishing line. If the fish don’t bite and the sky is cloudless, the stars will stun you. They’re bright like you’ve never seen before.”
I followed his instructions and caught no fish at all. But then, I barely tried. Once the stars caught my attention, I didn’t care about fish.
Quoby the question mark hopped off his bike and locked it to the bike rack. (Please don’t ask me how the question mark rode the bike, as I don’t know.) Then Quoby, with a large towel hanging from his shoulder, walked the short path over a grass-pocked dune to the beach.
The beach opened wide. The ocean stretched to the far horizon. The waves sang their rumbling song. The salt air smelled delicious.
As Quoby walked on the beach, heading toward the ocean, a group of ampersands met him. The ampersands formed a wall blocking Quoby’s way.
“Hey, bud,” an ampersand said, “I don’t know what you’re thinkin’, comin’ here. You got to know this beach is only for us ampersands.”
“Yeah, mac,” another ampersand said. “Ain’t there a beach just for you guys?”
“There is,” Quoby said. “I’ve been there lots of times. But I wanted to try something different today. What’s the harm in me sitting on your beach?”
“What’s the harm? Ha.” An ampersand flexed his downward slope. “We can’t go mixing ampersands and question marks. That ain’t right.”
“What’s not right about it?” Quoby asked.
“Because it ain’t, that’s why,” the ampersand said.
“Yeah, it’s been this way for years, and it’s working just fine,” another ampersand said.
“But what if we mix it up?” Quoby asked. “What if some of you guys come to our beach, and some of us go to your beach? Wouldn’t that be neat to try something different?”
“Ain’t nothing neat about that.” The ampersand flexed his slope again, this time with a sneer on his face.
“I’ve never seen a question mark this close!”
The grownups looked down at the owner of the new voice. A small ampersand with a light-blue floaty encircling her middle. Water dripped from her, making dark spots on the sand.
“Go back to your family,” an adult ampersand said to the little ampersand.
“But I want to see the question mark!” the young ampersand said. “It’s so funny looking! Hey mister, aren’t you uncomfortable with that big curve on top and that little dot at the bottom?”
“Not at all,” Quoby said. “It’s who I am. I can’t control that, and I like it.”
“I like being an ampersand!” she said.
“Good,” Quoby said. “You should be proud of that. And there’s nothing wrong with being a question mark either.”
“That’s not what Mom and Dad say. They say you people are weird. But not as weird as the dollar signs.”
“You might think we’re weird because we’re different than you,” Quoby said. “There’s nothing wrong with looking different and having different purposes than other people.”
“That’s enough out of you,” an adult ampersand said. “Get back where you came from. You’re causin’ trouble, and we don’t need no trouble in front of the children.”
Quoby scanned the faces of the adult ampersands lined up before him. Also, he noticed the many other ampersands were looking from their places on beach towels and chairs. As if he and the nearby ampersands were on a stage, and an audience watched with keen interest. Quoby figured nothing good would’ve come from him pressing his wish to spend the day on this beach. The nearby ampersands probably would’ve beaten him up. He would’ve limped back to his bike. He would’ve struggled home. The bruises would’ve taken a while to heal.
“I don’t want to trouble you on this fine day,” Quoby said. Then he looked at the young ampersand and said, “You had courage to come over here. I hope you have the courage to ask questions. It’s very good to ask questions about the things around you.”
The young ampersand nodded her head.
As Quoby walked back over the grass-pocked dune, he worried that the ampersands would jump him and beat him up. Thankfully, they didn’t. He unlocked his bike, got on, and pedaled toward the beach populated by question marks. Quoby was disappointed, but he was glad for going to Ampersandy Beach today.