Teri stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray of her Lincoln Town Car. A spring torrent slapped the windshield, and the slick highway glistened under her high-beams. She flipped on her blinker and turned down the dirt road to her summer home.
Her mind was, as always, on the gardening to-dos. This year, her theme was Van Gogh, in purple, orange and blue; she had to unwrap the cedars; sweep the garden path; oil the backhoe … the list was endless.
Halfway down her drive, beyond the line of the burlap-wrapped cedars, a fire blazed. Flames dared to dance within inches of her arbour’s roof. Her wooden swing seemed to be the fire’s primary source of fuel; adding insult to injury, particle board leaned against the arbour’s side, forming a crude shelter.
“Goddamn it,” she muttered, stopping the car.
A man crawled out of the lean-to and walked over to stand in the glare of her headlights. Teri squinted, but sheets of rain obscured his features and plastered his uneven bangs to his forehead. From beneath his tattered jacket hung a pink nightgown, its little hearts and stars soaked and muddied. Pilfered, no doubt, from some unsuspecting granny’s clothesline.
It could be Johnny, but Teri couldn’t be sure.
Once, some thirty years ago, Teri had hit a deer. The carcass of the small doe had jammed, with tidy precision, into the grill of her Jeep Cherokee. She’d suffered only minor whiplash; the Cherokee had taken the worst of it. Maybe if she floored it, she thought, but no, if she did manage to hit him, she wouldn’t be able to stop without also mowing her cedars down. And she liked her cedars.
The man scurried out of the driveway, back towards the fire.
Teri’s jaw tightened. It was her brother, Johnny. Who else could it be? For a moment, she felt the full weight of her fifty-five years. She closed her eyes, found herself, opened them, and drove on to the house.
With her cigarettes in hand, she hurried to the door. Inside, she switched on the lights in the kitchen and took in the glorious gleaming of her granite countertops and state-of-the-art appliances. Sliding off her heels, she padded across the hardwood and left her dripping coat on the back of a chair. The house smelled like pine, so her cleaning lady must have made it out today. There would be groceries then—fixings for Johnny’s sandwich.
With a heavy sigh, she lit up and pondered her situation, tapping her cigarette in the kitchen ashtray. She’d seen her share of hobos, not just Johnny. They wandered up from the rail crossing behind her house. Though seldom were they more than a nuisance, none had ever started a fire before. Or built a lean-to. That’s why it just had to be Johnny, and not some random vagrant. No, she was sure this was Johnny coming home to roost. That is if he knew where he was this time. Not to mention his odd state of dress. It was crazy.
Teri drew a deep haul off her smoke. She found that her toes were flexing, her lip twitching. She took a breath, stilled herself.
Whether it was a “family curse,” as she’d heard the locals whisper or just bad luck, mental illness had spared her, striking poor Johnny instead. She’d watched as the illness had taken more and more of her little brother. Now, he was no more than an empty shell, endlessly roaming, taking on the identity of anyone he happened to encounter.
Teri butted out her cigarette and headed to the fridge, pulling out mustard, margarine, and two pounds of shaved pastrami.
Sandwich assembled, neatly quartered, and cellophane-wrapped onto a paper plate; Teri lit a cigarette. She crossed to the front closet. Smoke stung her eyes and filled her nose as she held her cigarette between her teeth. She pulled on a worn yellow raincoat and matching rubber boots. Plate in hand, she opened the door. A drop of rain blew in, extinguishing her cigarette with a hiss. She stepped off the porch, rain pounded, fighting to knock the plate from her grip.
“Hello?” Teri called, as she stepped into the yard. The wind whipped the words from her mouth. “Hello!” she cried louder, coming upon the lean-to. “Johnny? I brought your favourite!”
She peered inside, but it was empty. The smell of ripe body odour hit her, and she tossed the plate in and backed away. “Johnny! There’ll be a sandwich on the porch in the morning, just like always!” She eyed the fire. It had died down; her swing reduced to a quiet smoulder. “Goodnight, Johnny,” Teri muttered.