“…sounds like his feet ‘re in a cauldron of lye,” said Aunt Belle.
Twilight was coming on fast, daylilies closed up like sentinels going off-duty.
In the flickering shadows, Astreen could’ve been twelve, or twenty, or thirty-five. She put a handful of Modjeskas on the porch table.
“Celebration cake,” Aunt Belle said. “Liberation pie.”
I went to refill the kettle, bring a plate for the sweets.
Punk sticks, tips glowing like a firefly dance, smouldered in a bucket of sand to harry the mosquitoes. The cheer of it anguished my heart.
I wedged myself back against Aunt Belle’s shoulder on the swing settee. We should’ve been settled like every other year, ready to watch the Perseids streak across the sky and me allowed a glass of elderflower wine to greet them.
Soon as the hollering stopped Astreen went to get the car, eased it down the steep drive like it was a soft-pawed live thing. Her bag was here, packed.
She held me tight enough to feel my heart breaking. “It’ll be all right,” she said.
Aunt Belle curved a hand around Astreen’s cheek. “Go on now. Stay ahead of the rain.”
Drops were already pattering on the windshield. Astreen kissed Aunt Belle, got behind the wheel and pulled out. She’d keep the headlights off till she hit the highway. Then she’d just be anyone, going anywhere.
“…conflagration,” Sheriff Loughren said. “Downpour kept it from spreading.” He took the cup of coffee Aunt Belle brought him. “You didn’t hear anything?”
“You know how he gets. Smart to keep out of his business. Want some peach crumble to go with that?”
“Just one body, and the Citation’s missing.” I heard what he didn’t say, too — Why ain’t they the least bit bothered? Pernell’s burnt to a crisp along with everything else inside. “When’d you last see Astreen?”
“Who?” Like he’d asked something of idle inconsequence that she hadn’t quite caught. Aunt Belle smiled, eyes widening a little so you saw the depth of them, pools of blue-green no man could help himself wanting to jump into.
“I’ll put up a fresh pot,” Aunt Belle said. “You tell your men to stop in and have some. Nobody beats my coffee.”
“I’ll do that, Belle,” Sheriff Loughren said, already forgetting he’d asked any questions, good family man fighting off the wave of randy thoughts a handsome full-breasted woman inspires.
Aunt Belle and me made sure that everyone forgot Astreen.
I’d been too smart for myself by half, hunched artistically over the creek like the White Rock Girl and glamouring my reflection in the water.
“You little freak.”
His giggle made me sick.
Too busy amusing myself to be watchful. Now I saw every filthy picture in his head. No way to get past him and run.
I might’ve yelled something. When my head cleared Pernell’s eyes had gone bloodshot and he was moving like he didn’t know where to put his feet.
I wanted to leave him there to break his own neck but that wouldn’t have been right.
It was a mess getting him home, trying to stay out of reach while chivvying him along. We were both exhausted by the time he stumbled up the porch but he had enough left in him for a viper strike.
He was a big guy and I didn’t have the height or the angle to knee him. I twisted and kicked but it was like fighting a brick wall.
Made me so mad I let loose with everything else I had.
Aunt Belle shocked me by laughing.
She and Astreen had both been away at work and rushed home on instinct.
“I say make some lemonade out of it. You got a get-out-of-jail-free card here,” she told Astreen. “Use it while it’s fresh.” She glanced at the sky through the open door. “Weather’ll be with you, too.”
She told me to help grab as much of Astreen’s stuff as we could. Astreen managed to sit Pernell down with a big spiked glass of whiskey and the idiot drank all of it.
How could she’ve loved a guy like that?
“…convinced herself he’d reach his potential someday. He most surely did that.”
With Astreen got away safe, Aunt Belle’d released her own anger and let it cool. She’d rubbed my bruises with arnica and brewed us a pot of ginger and lemon balm tea. I’d stopped shaking and the frozen knot in my stomach untied.
“Guess you’ve accelerated the pace of your education. I should’ve known you’d be an early bloomer.” She ruffled my hair. “Let’s get some sleep. We got some cleanup to do in the morning.”
“Why not just put a choke collar on me, dock my ears and tail?”
I was being a handful and mouthing off partly because I still felt so guilty. Pernell hadn’t known what we were till I’d been dumb enough to show him. I didn’t mind at all him being dead but I missed Astreen.
“Right now you’re no different than a garden hose with the spigot full open, bucking like a snake and wasting water. You see any point in that?”
I spent a few furious days doing really boring stuff like digging up dandelion roots and pulling weeds and dusting every damn thing in the house. Then I stopped glowering at the poor chickens and told Aunt Belle I was ready to start to learn.
“That’s some vintage car you’ve got yourself.”
“The Citation? My cousin’s. Now I can drive, she’s letting me keep it for as long as it holds up.”
We were in Morland’s, picking up milk. Mrs. Morland smiled at the other girl with me.
“She’s my cousin’s, too. Here for the summer.”
Mrs. Morland offered her a couple of Modjeskas. “Ever taste one of these? Be your favorites in no time. What’s your name, honey?”
She put out a shy hand, eyes widened a little, like mine.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)