Sunday, October 2, 2011

2011 Honorable Mention: "Anomaly" by Fran Haley

There’s too much whiteness in this room.

A white linen tablecloth shrouds the table. Two white tapers stand guard; in the candlelight Mother’s treasured Lenox china reflects a maddeningly holy glow. Forks are laid with precision on the left, glasses exactly above the tips of knives on the right. I thought I could catch a few precious minutes of hush in here while David and his brood are in the kitchen, oohing, aahing, sampling and plattering the usual traditional fare. I can’t take their bustling or the loud clinking of dishes. No sanctuary for me, not here, not anywhere. Even my knuckles are white from gripping the back of the chair. Muscles contract,my head throbs, I can barely breathe, yet the serene candle flames don’t even flicker.


“Daniel! Here you are.” It’s Mother, coming through the doorway with a tea pitcher in one hand and an ice bucket in the other. Act normal! I take the ice and fill the glasses so she can pour the tea.

Might as well be liquid sugar. Dad couldn’t get enough of it. I recall Thurber’s Princess Lenore, who fell ill from a surfeit of raspberry tarts; it’s a wonder we all haven’t died of sugar surfeit.

In come my nieces, Caitlin and Gracie, with sweet potato and green bean casseroles. Little Nate, age five, is right behind them with the plate of devilled eggs. One is missing. Nate’s cheeks are bulging, his mouth too full to chew; it’s like I’m seeing his father at that age again:

Do you think it’ll snow so we can play on the sled, Daniel?

No, silly, it never snows at Thanksgiving. You gotta wait ‘til after Christmastime for that. Are you still eating? What’s in your mouth?

Debbled egg. I got another one in my pocket for you—here!

The memory is almost warming but evaporates as David, paunchy and balding, strolls in with the enormous browned bird. How many of us does Mother think she’s feeding? We’re three down from previous years.

We go through the motions. We sit, and I feel five pairs of eyes on me. Expectant. It’s time to return thanks and, being the firstborn, the intended bearer of my father’s legacy, I’m normally the one to offer it at our gatherings.

There’s nothing normal about me now.

I feel hands reaching for mine, Nate’s little pudgy ones and David’s too-soft ones which make my insides writhe like spirochetes. How could you, Sabrina? I flinch at my brother’s touch but I manage to sit rock-still even though I want to fling him away and shout God, David, be a man!

They’re waiting. I’m supposed to pray, God’s supposed to hear. Once I was sure he did.

I bow, my eyes not fully closed—I can still see Mother’s Opal Innocence gleaming up at me in derision:

For each new morning with its light,
for rest and shelter of the night,
for health and food,
for love and friends,
for everything Thy goodness sends,

“Amen,” chorus three little voices. Mother smiles at me, misty-eyed. David’s eyebrows are raised. He recognizes Emerson, of course, literary expert that he is. If he’s such a phenomenal professor, why can’t he find another job?

Who am I to talk?

David stands to carve the hulking bird carcass. The senselessness of it all makes me want to hurl my plate Frisbee-fashion through the bay window, but I can’t in front of the kids so I sit and make a conscious effort to unclench my jaw. I stare at the dismemberment of the creature, feeling a kinship with the hollowed-out dead thing at the end of the line, where scavengers await to pick the last of flesh from the bones in this oh-so-civilized setting. I must endure this thlipsis of meaninglessness just a little longer. Survival of the fittest, wouldn’t you say, kindred turkey? Maybe you never had a chance to fly away, you Frankenstein fowl, but I, the true modern Prometheus, do, and it’s all that buoys my soul.

My soul. I suppress a wild urge to laugh. David hacks away at the bird; suddenly, I know why the candle flames don’t flicker when I walk in or out of a room:

I’m already dead.

Will my image soon vanish from the photos Caitlin took with her digital camera?

I pass the potatoes, the cranberry sauce. I chew, swallow. Conversation drifts around me. As long as there are no jarring sounds, I know what they’re saying without really hearing them. White noise..

Jen would still be here, if not for me. Sabrina would be gone with or without me—do American transplants celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia? Do they put kookaburras on spits? Dad’s the only one who earned the right to be gone and he didn’t choose it. I have a choice; unlike Sabrina and Jen, I’m not running from anybody, least of all myself.

I make my own appointments.

Not even the chains I’ve forged can hold me.

“Uncle Dan?” A voice jolts me back. Gracie, standing at my elbow. Little Sabrina. “Are you ready for dessert, Uncle Dan? We made your favorite!”

“Of course, honey,” I hear myself answer. I fake a smile.

Mother is visibly pleased. She’s too thin. She worries too much. She still emanates elegance, although her regal posture is considerably stooped now. She’s the Opal Innocence plate with the fine cracks running through it, the one she sets at her own place so no one else will have to have it.

Why do these things matter?

Gracie goes to the kitchen and promptly returns with a slice of triple chocolate bundt the size of my head. I say, “That’s too big a piece for me, Young Grasshopper.”

The children giggle.

It’s Gracie’s voice but Sabrina’s wide, entreating eyes: “Pleeeease?”

“All right! I give up. You win.”

This cake is too rich; the only saving grace is that the dark chocolate chips cut the overpowering sweetness with a needed shard of bitter.

“So, Daniel,” says my brother, leaning toward me while his offspring help Mother clear the table, “what are your plans?”

I freeze.

“My plans for …?”

“Filing your papers. The sooner you get it done, the quicker you can put it all behind you. It’s the inevitable, you know.”

I relax.

“I’ve taken care of it.”

He’s surprised. “When did you see your attorney? Does Mother know? She hasn’t mentioned it.”

They think I can’t think for myself any more. I ran my own multimillion-dollar business from the time I was twenty-six without their help and I don’t need their help now that it’s gone.

“I went last week and started the process. The office will call when the papers are ready to sign.”

He regards me somewhat dubiously but I continue savoring my cake, stretching it out, making it last.

Endure. Transcend. It won’t be long now.

“Which process, exactly?” he probes.

I take my time chewing, swallowing, chasing the cake with a swig of tea, not nearly so sweet after such decadence.

“Here’s the thing: It’s kind of hard to serve separation papers on a woman when you don’t know where she is. She doesn’t stay in one place very long.”

“How can you file for bankruptcy without her?”

I let a long, heavy pause hang there before I look straight into his eyes. “What about you? Divorce final yet?”

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all.

“Dan.” I can hardly bear the gentleness in his voice, so Motheresque. I’d rather he punched me in the face—hard. C’mon David—let me have it—

I throw a sucker punch: “Any new job prospects?”

“Actually, yes, a couple.…”

Something about going overseas, he’s in demand by Japan, China, and the Arab Emirates. He could teach for a year, leaving the kids with Mother until he gets on his feet and the universities here start hiring again. I could interrupt and ask him—again—why tenure didn’t save him except that I don’t want to hear him drone on, when he stops and sighs:

“I can’t go through with it, though.”

“Go through with what?”

“I can’t leave the kids. No matter how I explain all the reasons I need to do this, it just comes down to my leaving them like Sabrina did. I won’t put them through that.”

“What are you going to do, then?

“I don’t have much choice. The unemployment helps but I have to sell the house. Mother wants us to stay here until something opens up.”

I can’t control myself any longer; I burst out laughing.

David coming to live here.

Poetic justice.

He doesn’t know how to react to my laughter but then again, no one knows how to take me these days.

I wipe my eyes. “Yeah, well, it’s a good thing I added that extra bedroom when I built this place, huh? Mother and Dad said one guest room would be enough but remember how Sabrina said there should be two, for when Jen and I have kids and all the grandchildren want to stay at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house at the same time?”


“No worries, baby brother. Even if bankrupt builders don’t get unemployment like terminated teachers do, I can take care of myself.”

I neglect to say that, until the 5,000 square foot monster beach home I shared with Jen sells—if and when it ever does in this economy—I have eighty-six dollars to my name.

More than what I need to close this last deal.

* * *


Gluttony and tryptophan do me a favor; everyone goes to bed early. When I’m sure they’re all asleep, I slip on my coat with Dad’s keys and a flashlight in the pockets.

I put his old F-150 in gear and push until it’s far enough away to crank.

His shotgun’s in some blankets under the seat.

I drive through the darkness, past streetlights, neighborhoods, on to the highway. What are you driving now that the Range Rover has been repossessed, Jen? You can’t live on your credit cards much longer. Nothing’s left to pay them with. The bills are still coming; for a while I tracked your movements that way..

Go after her, Daniel. She’s in so much pain.

What’s the point, Mother? I’m the one she’s running from.

The last time I headed to Dad’s old cabin at Serendipity Lake, I’d just met you, Jen. Dad took me fishing in an effort to help me gain clarity about the future. He knew I was struggling with my calling in life. Out in the rowboat on the placid water, I asked him: How do I know I’m meant for the ministry, Dad? How did you know?

He thought a minute before answering. I just knew, like I know my own name. I couldn’t do anything else, Daniel— it was meant to be. You have so many gifts, Son— you can do anything you want. As much as I’d like to see you at seminary and ordained, I can’t tell you what to do. That’s between you and God.

That’s what I wanted, Dad. I wanted to be complete like that, like you.

You know I came away determined to follow your pastoral footsteps. That was before the
church told you, after twenty-three years, that they no longer needed your services, that they were ready for a younger man with “more creative ideas.” You stepped down far more graciously than I ever could.

And where were you, DAVID, brother mine, when Dad had his first heart attack the following month? Finishing that almighty doctorate Sabrina was determined you should have. Getting her pregnant. The rest of us weren’t a blip on your radar, were we? My quitting seminary for a full-time job in construction was supposed to be temporary:

Mom says you’ve got your hands full but we could use your help, Dave. I’m slapping beams twenty-four/seven. With Dad’s hospital bills, it’s still tight.

No worries, Dan. I’m going to do my part as soon as I finish this dissertation….

We need your help now, man.

If were you, Danny Boy, I would have started my own company by now.

This from a man who’s never done a day’s manual labor.

Pure spite led me to create my company; the contracts flooded in for several years before the industry tanked and it all dried up overnight.

My personal monsoon.

It wasn’t really the money that mattered. The solitary thing I’m proud of is building that house for Mother and Dad. He lived there a year before his heart gave up.

I haven’t been able to stomach a churchyard since the day we buried him.

It’s uncommonly cold tonight. I’m dimly aware of some advisory on the radio. I reach to turn up the volume when something large darts in front of the truck. I slam on brakes, screeching tires and swerving. A deer, of course; I should have been watching.

Between the moon and the flashlight I find the cabin easily. I carry the blankets and Dad’s shotgun with me. I find the key on his key ring and the old door scrapes open.

A powerful mustiness welcomes me. The flashlight reveals some firewood by the hearth, right where Dad left it on his last visit. The wood is dry; it’ll still burn. In a little bit my fire is crackling and popping sparks up the chimney.

I watch the jumping flames. I know how this will play out. David will swear he saw it coming. Sabrina will think it’s because of some secret torch I carry. Jen, wherever you are, you’ll believe it’s because I lost the business and the money, being convinced that’s where my heart lies. Anything and everything will catch the blame, except the truth:

I’m choosing this because I can.

Mother, you’re the hardest. Don’t blame yourself. You can’t fix this. Focus on David and the kids. I’m trusting you’ll find the path to peace; you always do. I’ve made sure you’re taken care of and when you’re gone, leave the house to David; he’ll be taken care of, too.

What a neat package for you, Dave, as usual. Consider it my atonement.

There’s no atoning for the rest of it.

When can we have a baby, Daniel?

Soon, Jen, soon … I promise.

My sweet, loving girl, if you would listen: You’re right, I’m not the man you married. I didn’t understand until last week, when I was showing the house to the one potential buyer so far. I opened the closet in the bedroom you wanted for a nursery and found it crammed, top to bottom, with new baby things. Little clothes hanging from the racks, price tags still attached. I put you off because, to me, bringing a child into this world is—well, inconceivable. And the helplessness of infants terrifies me. How can I admit that to any sensible person? You’d be an amazing mother. I thought the cars, clothes, the big
house would compensate. I thought you’d eventually give up on the baby—not on me.

I’m so sorry, Jen.

And you don’t know about Sabrina, my Pandora.

She walked out on David right after you left, Jen. Found an apartment and called me to come see her; said we needed to talk.

I never should have gone.

Why hide it now? She was a fire in me from the day David brought her home from college. When she married him, I tried to hate them both. You were the only thing that helped, Jen. You and David never knew how she showed up at my sites, how I had to avoid her.

It only happened that one time, after you were gone.

I was weak. She wasn’t. She meant to have her way.

Daniel, my not loving him isn’t your fault.

You loved him once.

I thought I did, in the beginning. It’s been you for years. Jen’s not coming back, Sugar; you just made me yours, at last.

Are you some kind of spider that devours its own? Jen would’ve thought of the children. Caitlin, Gracie, and Nate deserve better. I’m not serving them up on a platter just to satisfy my pheromones. Understand, Sabrina: This isn’t about David. I don’t love you. I’m already on my own road trip to hell; you just bought your own ticket, honey.

This is why I laughed so hysterically when you said she’d flown one-way to the Land Down Under, Dave.

My brother’s wife. What would my father say?

I can’t tell you what to do. That’s between you and God.

Well, Dad, I think this one’s up to me. If God’s really there, he hasn’t intervened so far; why would he bother now?

The fire is dying and I don’t add wood, because the room is becoming gray with the first traces of dawn.

It’s time.

I take the shotgun and go outside—I’m not going to ruin the cabin. I need to be in the lake so that when I fall, the water will close over me, absolve me, dissolve me. I shall feed the fish for a long, long time, if they don’t die of me first.

The air is biting cold and if I didn’t know better, I’d think it was about to snow.

Do you think it’ll snow so we can play on the sled, Daniel?

No, silly, it never snows at Thanksgiving. You gotta wait ‘til after Christmastime for that.

I walk the old path until the trees thin and water spreads out before me. Serendipity Lake is as smooth and clear as a mirror, reflecting the gray morning. The silence is so deep. What profound stillness; Nature’s holding her breath before the world wakes up.

An unexpected pang: Dad, I miss you desperately.

Something brushes my cheek and I wipe it away. The leaves are not as vivid as I thought they’d be. The colors are muted, darker than I remember. I’d imagined a brilliant blue sky for the occasion, not this milky cloud cover. Something touches my other cheek—a snowflake?

There’s a sound in the distance, faint but familiar.

I listen.

It grows a bit louder.

Dogs. They’re on the trail of a deer, no doubt. Someone got an early start this morning. I expect the sound to fade momentarily, but it grows louder still. The blood’s pounding in my veins — do it, DO IT! — but I won’t have a bunch of well-meaning Good Samaritans finding me and trying to bring me back.

I’ll have to wait until they pass. I’ve waited this long; I can manage a few more minutes.

I don’t want to be seen. I make for the cabin; as I move through the woods, the baying grows closer.

I rest the gun against the wall on the cabin’s front stoop. It’s hard to tell, but I think the dogs are getting nearer; it sounds as if they are headed this way.

In fact, one of them is barreling out of the woods right now.

It’s a small, odd-looking dog. Wait … that’s not a dog; I cannot believe what I’m seeing ….

A bit of a blur, but I think it’s a fawn. At the completely wrong time of year for fawns. I’ve never heard of one being born this late—that’s the point of hunting season; mothers aren’t taking care of their young anymore. But it’s definitely a fawn, terrified, running for its life. It tries to cut away to the right but the dogs are closing in from all sides—I can’t see them yet, but they can’t be very far behind.

The fawn arcs back to the left and streaks straight for the cabin.

It’s going to be trapped.

Without thinking, I step forward. The creature comes skidding to a halt five feet in front of me, realizing that a man and a house are in its way and it can go no further.

It screams, the horrible cry of an animal that knows it’s at the end of the line. It looks at me, quivering violently, and I see the veins throbbing in its neck. A very young fawn; I can see its spots through the snow—snow!—now pouring down like a benediction.

None of this is supposed to be happening.

I have the power to make my own choices; this little deer can’t. It’s deer season, this fawn’s too young, the dogs are too close—it doesn’t have a chance.

It takes a faltering step toward me and I’m frozen, in awe, as the dogs come into the clearing with deafening bays, closing in on the prey.

A kinship and a fury suddenly flood me—who dares destroy this helpless anomaly?

But there’s no more time to think as the fawn crouches and springs, with the last burst of its strength, through the swirling whiteness and into the sanctuary of my open arms.


Fran Haley is an educator with a lifelong passion for reading and writing. She loves symbolism and experimenting with different genres and voice. Her stories are typically born from a single image and fleshed out from there. Fran believes that the experiences of ordinary people make the most extraordinary stories; for example, the first house she remembers living in was a morgue. As for her current home, Fran’s husband and two sons keep it overflowing with laughter. She would like readers to know that her eastern North Carolina roots run deep and that there’s nothing in the world that compares to the taste of a scuppernong grape.