Jake’s body swung from the Gunnarsen’s sycamore until well into the evening. The oxygen mask hung from his neck stained with spit, its loose tip dangling into the sweltering breeze. Nobody was comforted by the solidity of his shadow, falling shimmering across the arid afternoon. We stood around it, blinking the sweat off our eyelids. A toddler shuffled into it for some relief from the heat and stood swaying, gazing upwards. Someone snatched the child back into the folds of the small crowd. Its wail made us wince.
The particular detail of the oxygen mask alarmed us most. We had ever seen him use one. The kids were already on an expedition to find the lost tank, surely having rolled off into a rain gutter, when they were promptly ordered back home. A couple of people resumed the search, but came back shaking their heads.
Becca’s hand paused on my shoulder, then pointed to the house behind the tree. The older Gunnarsen girl, Sylvia, was standing by the upstairs window, watching. I’d never seen her with her hair drawn up before. She reminded me of a plucked bird of prey. Even from this distance she was all angles and hollows.
“Look at her waiting,” Becca said, her warm, sticky hand on my shoulder again.
Jake was cut down, clumsily lowered onto the ground through the stifled curses of men wobbling on garden ladders. We took a step back as one. In the amber light his hair was the same shade of ginger as when we were small. The stubble around his swollen mouth shone golden. I was always jealous of his smooth, nondescript features, so soft and feminine despite his sturdy athletic build.
The ambulance sat quiet underneath the massive sycamore, as if embarrassed for its lateness. Medics were bent over the body, their latex-clad hands each pressing a different spot on Jake. One hand was over his eyes, covering them as if the sky was something indecent. I liked the contrast of the white car and the bright blue gloves against the undulating pale greens of the scenery. I would paint this as soon as my new oils arrived, I decided. Jake’s shape would be dim, dissolving into the parched grass. You wouldn’t even be sure he was really there without the thin white gleam, made with the finest brush, indicating the oxygen mask.
The door to the Gunnarsen house was left open. On the front step sat the middle sister, Erika, sobbing in the arms of her mother. Erika was in that paint-spattered Rocky Horror t-shirt she always wore in art class. Months in and still not showing. Girls whispered that they would kill for her flat tummy. We saw her clutch her stomach and retch on the flower bed.
“Pity about the baby,” said Becca. “Growing up without a daddy.”
Sylvia was still watching from the upstairs window. Perhaps she had never moved. Only her head was slightly tilted, following the body’s descent.
“Jake would be a crap father,” Becca went on, low enough for only me to hear. I wiped the sweat from my lip. She leaned in. “Remember the day he beat Cole black and blue?”
I shook my head although I did remember, I just wanted to keep Becca’s words out.
Through the corner of my eye I saw some of the kids inching back to the forbidden scene. They seemed unimpressed with the sight. One was already yawning and rubbing its eyes.
“Though Cole did say Sylvia had a stick up her ass.” Becca sucked her teeth, shrugging.
Erika kept vomiting and was carried off indoors. Our eyes turned to the gaunt figure in the window. Sylvia’s paleness shone through the gloom like the evening star. Even now in late summer, with school nothing more than a quiescent threat, her illness kept her cooped up inside on a strict regime of lung-strengthening exercises.
Any other girl in her place and we might have pitied her. But it was impossible to pity Sylvia: she radiated the unrelenting, destructive power of lava. At her birthday party someone had made drunken fun of her fit of laborious coughing, and she’d thrown a full can of Coke at him without batting an eye. The boy had needed stitches. I recalled staggering into the hallway afterwards and finding her sitting on the floor, working her oxygen tank. Her face was blurry, almost smiling under the plastic, eyes closed, dark eyebrows arched and chin up.
And then I realized.
“Oh,” I said, took a sharp breath and shivered.
Becca was glancing around, listing Jake’s friends and enemies. A jumbled string of names of no consequence. The small crowd was now full of holes as everyone began to wander back home, absentmindedly considering dinner.
I contemplated the tree. It rose and rose and expanded, a disheveled giant of twisted, peeling limbs, making our gated community seem puny: little model houses, little model lives. The bark was mottled in a pleasant scale of greys and greens. The climbing rope was still hanging limp from Jake’s expert knot. The pale-edged leaves that had been dislodged by the commotion were falling softly on the body, and a medic was brushing them off.
The stretcher was rolled into the ambulance, its doors grated shut and it drove off. No joy in the sound or touch of metal, I thought. Unattractive in this hot, earthy evening, when dust and remnants of poplar fluff clung to our lips and lashes.
Again the urge to paint overcame me. No, oils wouldn’t do. It would have to be watercolors. Vague and mute, diluted into near nonexistence, brushed broadly until the paper warped and our figures distorted.
The upstairs window was empty and the door to the house was shut. The voices trailed off. I caught snippets of funeral talk. Inwardly I agreed; a sycamore wood casket would be lovely. A good, solid way to travel. Maybe Jake’s parents would order one on their way back.
Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece. She’s a winner of Queen’s Ferry Press The Best Small Fictions 2016, and her work has appeared in several literary journals including (b)OINK, Corium, WhiskeyPaper, The Letters Page, Atticus Review, and Wigleaf.