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Mark Bremerton had been waiting all day to put his feet up, read a bit of John Olsson’s Word Crime, and enjoy some of that Yemeni coffee the postman had delivered. And he was almost there: two Aesop’s Fables, one Goodnight Moon, Three Billy Goats Gruff, one small glass of water, one last trip to the bathroom, and his five-year-old nephew, Paxton, was finally tucked in with his favorite stuffed animal, Floppy Joe.
Mark paused at the door. The earthy aroma of the coffee wafted down the hallway, making his stomach rumble. He sniffed appreciatively, then looked back at his nephew. “No more water tonight, Pax,” he said. “That’s the last set of sheets—“ He stopped. The boy’s eyes were closed. Mark walked back and sat on the edge of the bed. “What is it, Packster?”
“Do you think Mommy can hear me when I talk to her?”
Mark placed his hand on Pax’s head and rubbed the boy’s forehead gently with his thumb. Pax’s eyelids trembled and Mark could see wetness along the tips of his lashes. “I think so,” he said.
“’Cause I can’t find my toe-socks.”
“Toe socks?” Mark asked. “Must take forever to put them all on.”
Paxton opened his eyes and gave Mark a serious look. “Not one for each toe. They’re regular socks with—“ He thought for a moment. “They have toe sleeves,” he said. He pulled away from Mark’s hand. “I’m okay,” he said.
“I know you are,” Mark said. “It was helping me think.” He let his hand settle on top of the blanket and he pursed his lips. “Toe sleeves. Now I get it. What color are they?” A glimmer of a memory sat at the brink of his mind. He looked around the cluttered library that was now serving as his nephew’s bedroom, mentally retracing his steps over the last week.
“You don’t look like you get it,” Paxton said.
“No, I do. Tiny sleeves on the end of the sock. Clear as a bell. Are they blue?” When had he seen them? Monday had been Lainie’s funeral. Wednesday, the author-signing at the store. Thursday, at his sister’s house, packing up Paxton’s belongings…. His eyes lit on a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello. Yes. The socks had been neatly folded, green toe sleeves up, on the shelf behind the strategy game. He’d brought the game, but left the socks.
“They’re blue with green toes,” Paxton said. “You know where they are.” He sat up. “You have your remembry face on.”
Mark breathed in sharply and a flash of ache painted his insides. Pax sounded like his mother. “I’m not sure,” he said, “but I might have an idea.” He stood up and reached over to pat Floppy Joe on the head. “He looks very tired. You two need to get some sleep.” He knew he was being a coward, but God, he was tired.
Paxton’s lower lip slowly jutted out. “I want my toe socks,” he said.
Okay, how did Lainie deal with this? Mark could see a storm brewing in Paxton’s face, could practically smell the rain. A regular temper fit was doable, but the boy’s mother was freshly in the grave—maybe the socks would comfort him. Mark checked his watch. 9:30pm. They’d been bedtiming for an hour and a half.He did not want to go out. Did not want to walk through his sister’s house tonight. Did not want—
A sniffle brought his attention back to Pax, who was rubbing his eyes with his pajama sleeve. “Please, Uncle Mark?”
“All right, let’s go,” Mark said. He could deal with a trip across town better than he could an upset child.
“I’m not a crybaby,” Pax said, throwing back his covers and slipping off the bed.
“No, you’re a trooper,” Mark said. He leaned against the doorway and watched Paxton struggle to put his shoes on over his footed pajamas. It struck him that he could not remember the last time he’d seen Pax laugh.
“Leave the shoes, Pax,” he said.
“But Mom said not to—“ Paxton grunted as he tried to force his foot into his shoe. “Maybe I should just get dressed.”
“No, leave it. Let’s go.”
Pax squinted at him. “Mom said—“
Mark cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’m going to get some coffee, which will take approximately one minute. If you think you can have your shoes on in that time, have at it. But if you want those socks tonight, you’d better be ready.” Mark left the room.
He’d just put the lid on his travel cup when he heard the shuffle of his nephew’s footsteps on the hardwood floor. He switched off the coffee pot and met Pax by the front door. Pax gripped Floppy Joe in one hand and his tennis shoes in the other.
Suppressing a smile, Mark lifted the keys off the keyholder by the door and ushered Pax through. When he turned from locking the door, he saw Pax tiptoeing across the gravel to the Jeep. He sighed and followed him to the car. As he buckled Pax in the back seat, he said, “Clothes get dirty all the time, you know. Then we wash them.”
“But what if they rip?” Pax asked. “Can you sew?”
“Yes,” Mark lied. He shut the door and went around to the driver’s side and got in. He made a mental note to buy more pajamas, then drove to his sister’s house across town.
As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed three things: his aunt’s car in the driveway, the lights were on in the house and on the porch, and there was a For Sale sign on the lawn. Mark cut the engine and shoved open the door and stalked over to the sign. He yanked it up and tossed it to the porch steps. “What the hell,” he muttered.
He glanced around, taking in geraniums drooped over the wide porch railing, their tired flowers barely clinging to the stems. The fiery bougainvillea bushes that climbed up the walls of the white house looked none-the-worse for wear, and the jade plants looked healthy. But the geraniums. Lainie’s favorite flowers. He went to the faucet and turned on the hose and watered everything. The front door creaked open as he was tossing the hose to the middle of the lawn. He turned, and saw his elderly aunt, Regina, standing at the top of the porch steps. She was wearing strappy red sandals, a fluffy yellow dress that probably cost as much as that signed edition of Mark Twain he’d had his eye on, and a wide-brimmed purple straw hat. Her crimson lipstick was smeared across her cheek.
“Fifi. Is everything okay?”
“Marcus?” She held out her hand to him. “You must help me.”
Mark leapt up the stairs and put his arm around her, guiding her over to the porch glider. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m so upset,” she said. She let Mark steady her as she sat down. “Clancy has been missing for two days and I just know that Japanese man ate him.”
Mark rubbed his eyes and gave her a sideways look. “Your neighbor ate your dog? I don’t—“
“Clancy has never run off in his whole life,” Regina said. “Ever. He is loyal and sweet and such a good dog and—“ Her lips trembled.
Mark said, “Okay, look. Pax is out in the car. Let me go get him, and then we’ll talk.” He wheeled around and walked to the car to get Paxton, hoping he hadn’t seen the sign on the lawn. “Hey, buddy, sorry about that. I got busy watering the plants.” He unbuckled him and lifted him into his arms. “Everything’s wet so I’ll carry you, okay?”
Paxton clutched his shoes and Floppy Joe to his chest and held up his arms. Mark bumped the door shut with his hip and carried Pax to the porch, where he set him down.
“Paxton!” Regina held her arms out. “How’s my favorite five-year-old? Come give me a hug.”
Paxton looked up at Mark, who nodded, then he went and stood obediently in her arms, his own hanging limply at his side. Regina rested her cheek on the top of his head, then brushed a light kiss on his hair. “It’s so nice to see you,” she said, and leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes.
Pax gave Mark a quick look out of the corner of his eye, and Mark waved him on. “Go on in to your room, Pax. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Mark picked up the For Sale sign. He stood there and held it up. “Do you know about this?”
Regina laid her hand on her forehead. “I think I have a temperature. I’ll go in and lay on the couch.”
Mark frowned at her. “Fifi, did you put this sign on the lawn?”
Regina shook her head. “It was here when I arrived.” She got up and walked to the door, smoothing her dress. “Come inside?”
Mark followed her inside, setting the sign in the entranceway. “Why would someone put this on the lawn?” He turned to look at Regina, but she had already gone into the living room.
A crack of light shone down the hall from beneath Pax’s bedroom door. Mark flipped on the hall light and gazed at the family photographs: Lainie cradling Pax when he was a month old, her black curly hair a halo, her smile mysterious and content. Another one showed Lainie holding a sprinkler over her head while she danced in the water drops. He’d taken that one a couple years back. Another: Paxton in a tiny black suit and tie, standing stiffly at his mother’s side on the church steps. His father’s funeral. Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly.
Paxton burst out of his room. “I found them!” He held up the pair of bright blue socks.
“Great,” said Mark, sorrow rippling through him. Even now Pax was unsmiling. His face was fierce, triumphant, even, but not a shadow of a smile.
“Is there anything else you want to get while we’re here?” Mark asked. He looked over the pictures, seeking one that showed his nephew smiling. He found one of his own mother. The glass was cracked but the picture was intact. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a white sundress with daisies on the hem, and she had a small kitten draped over her hand. He lifted it off the wall.
“Who’s that?” Pax asked. He craned his neck to see, and Mark showed him the picture.
“This is my mother—your mother’s mother,” he said. “Your grandmother. She died when I was about your age.” He tipped the picture back so he could look at it more closely. “I remember that cat,” he said.
“Mommy says you remember everything.” Pax tilted his head. “Do you really?”
“I remember things I see,” Mark said.
“Then how come you have to read the same stories every night?” Pax gave him a dubious look.
Mark laughed a little. “Because I’m lazy, and I like looking at the pictures. Don’t you?”
Pax nodded and stuck his hand behind his back. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“I remember stuff. I’m not clairvoyant.”
“Clairboyant?” Pax asked. He repeated it softly to himself. “Clairboyant.”
Mark smiled down at him. “With a “v”, clairvoyant. The actual definition is to see clearly, but it means to be able to see things that you can’t see with your eyes. Like to see the future.” He saw Pax’s blank look and added, “To know what’s going to happen tomorrow because you see it in your head.”
Pax nodded. “I see.”
Mark laughed. “Did you just make a joke?”
“No,” Pax said. He said the word again. “Clairvoyant. I like that word. It’s big.”
“It’s a big word,” Mark agreed.
“Mommy talks big to me, too. Talked,” he corrected himself. He turned and shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, fingering his socks. He stopped at the doorway and turned back. “I found this,” he said, holding up what looked like a playing card.
His words didn’t register immediately with Mark. He pinched his nose and shook his head slightly, trying to dislodge the ache. He set the picture down on a small hall table and walked over to Pax, taking the card from him.
“Huh,” he said, turning it over in his hand. A tarot card? It had a picture of a tower on it with people falling off the edge. “All by itself?”
Pax shrugged. “Can we spend the night here?”
Mark leaned through the doorway to look at Pax’s bed. “You don’t have any sheets,” he said, glancing down as Pax moved past him to climb onto his bare bed.
“That’s okay,” Pax said. “I won’t be cold.”
“You can’t sleep on a bed with no sheets. C’mon,” Mark said, stuffing the card into his pocket and holding out his hand. “Let’s get some sheets and make your bed. Or,” he paused. Not sure it was a good idea, but: “would you like to sleep in your mommy’s bed?”
Pax sprang off the bed and ran to his mother’s room.
Guess so, Mark thought, following slowly. He walked into his sister’s room and saw that Pax was already nestled deep under the covers. He tucked the blankets around Pax’s shoulders, then settled in a nearby rocking chair.
He started rocking. “In the great green room…”
Pax fell asleep, and Mark continued to rock, thinking about the book he’d left on the coffee table at home. The best laid plans. Tonight had been the first night he would have had time to read. He glanced over at Pax, noting his slow, easy breathing. Worth it, he decided, and dug into his pocket to bring out the card. Didn’t know Lanie was into tarot, he thought, and yawned. He set the card aside, then got to his feet and stretched.
He went to the living room and found Regina curled up on the couch, asleep. He stood over her for a moment. Why she always insisted her neighbor was out to get her was beyond him. He covered her with a nearby afghan and kissed her forehead. Then he checked to make sure all the doors were locked and turned off all the lights, leaving the hall light on for Pax, and made up Pax’s bed for himself.