I have a friend who is an excellent liar. She was as sassy as she was spunky, a gorgeous mess of a girl who insisted on doing things her way. There wasn’t a rule in existence that she wouldn’t break, and sometimes fate turned around and gave her a good smack on her backside. She’d stand back up, brush herself off and laugh, then turn around a break another rule. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her, standing behind me with rebellion written on her beautiful face, and a real cigarette held expertly between her long fingers. From my lofty position on a pair of stilts, I couldn’t tell if she’d actually lit it, but the plume of smoke that billowed from her lips was convincing enough. I don’t think she ever noticed me watching her, which is a good thing, because if she did, I’d never have this story to tell.
My uncle Mike traveled all around the world. Dad said he was an investor, but although no one ever told me, I knew the truth. He was a circus clown. I soothed my imagination by convincing myself that he was the highest paid clown to ever work a circus and let it go. Well, until that summer anyway. Uncle Mike came home defeated and jobless, a pair of stilts his only reminder of the life he’d enjoyed. Many changes happened that summer, including my sister befriending this girl.
Mary Jane, Betty said her name was. She moved into town shortly after my uncle did. I didn’t see her much as she kept to herself, daring the outdoors only when my sister made her go. That particular day, however, she needed no prodding. She was already in the field when my sister and I showed up. I’d sneaked out with Uncle Mike’s stilts (and Uncle Mike. It was my dad who didn’t approve) and taking hesitant steps when I saw her. She never turned to see what Betty was looking at, not even when the ambulance came and carted me away. No one else remembers seeing Mary Jane there, either. I’d taken a great fall and gained a concussion. She was a figment of my imagination, they said, but Betty knew better.
“She was there,” Betty whispered in my ear.
She was there when I got out of the hospital, too, though she never took any interest in me, only Betty. She would tell Betty the craziest stories about how she met this or another person long dead and buried. Betty would come home with a shine in her eyes and words on her tongue.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to have tea with Genghis Khan? Or fly the skies with Amelia Earhart? To sit in a booth beside Lincoln and catch a show?” she would say, followed by laughter when everyone’s heads would shake in disbelief. “What if we could talk to Martin Luther King or Christopher Columbus?”
It wasn’t until she started talking about Papaw, dead ten years, that Dad grew concerned.
“Papaw says hi, daddy. He says not to worry about your business. It will grow and the customers will return,” she’d say. It was always something my dad would have never told us and it bothered him that someone else knew.
One day, he decided to investigate.
“Who is Mary Jane, Betty?” he asked her one morning.
“She’s my friend,” she said.
“Where does she live?”
“On the other side of town by the railroad tracks.”
My dad’s eyebrows hunched over, one eye squinted shut, and his finger scraped against his skull.
“On the other side of town by the railroad tracks you say?”
Betty’s head bobbed. “That’s what I said.”
“I don’t remember nobody moving into Warner’s old place. It’s been empty since he died three years ago.”
“Welp, Pop, you’re wrong. She lives there with her mom and grandfather. I visit every day,” she said, sassily, ratting herself out.
My dad swung around so fast I thought he was going to smack her. Not only did he hate the word “Welp” but we both knew the other side of town was off limits. Sarah Anne, the girl next door, wandered over there one day and never came home. They found her body in the stream a short time later. Someone had taken liberties with her that shouldn’t have happened. No one knew why she had gone over there in the first place. Until Mary Jane moved in, there were no children there.
“You will not go over there anymore, young lady, unless it is with an adult.” He grabbed her fiercely. I could see her head bouncing as he shook her. Purple marks on her arms after he released her told a story of their own. He was afraid.
“But Pop, nothing ever happens. The old lady that runs the shoe store always watches.”
My dad’s eyes rolled toward the ceiling. His complexion went through several shades of red before deciding on crimson. “The old lady who runs the shoe store is blind, Betty!”
Betty just blinked in response. She was tighter with Mary Jane than I thought. She’d never risked Dad’s wrath before. Her lips wiggled back and forth as if words were trapped within them, but she said nothing.
“Let’s go have a visit with Mary Jane, then, shall we?” Dad towered over Betty now, his hand outstretched to her. It was not a question. It was a demand. “You can show me the way.”
Dad turned to me. “Are you coming along?”
Another demand, not a question, his tone intimated.
“Sure,” I said. I wanted to see Mary Jane again anyway.
We piled into the old rusted pickup truck Dad only used for town business. He drove down main street, passing all the shops, their various colored signs and advertisements blurring into one as we went. The truck coughed its way over the railroad track and stopped in a haze of smoke in front of a small wooden house. Two dark and dirty windows adorned the front. One of them was missing a shutter, and the remaining one dangled in such a way a slight gust of wind would send it sailing to the ground. The screen door hung crookedly in the doorway. A large piece of mesh matching the shape of the hole was caught on the corner of the stair beneath the door. Dad didn’t waste time. He knocked on the door, waited two seconds before opening it. The space inside was dark. Pinpricks of lights left eerie trails of light from the windows. Dust bunnies danced in the light. The place looked, for all extents and purposes, deserted.
“This is the house Mary Jane lives in?” Dad questioned Betty. She nodded quietly.
“They must not be home right now,” she said softly. Layers of dust called her a liar. No one had lived here in a very long time. Dad swiped a finger across the table.
“I don’t think they’ve ever been here, Betty.” He took her arms in his hands again, mindless of the bruises he’d left behind a short while ago. He looked into her sienna eyes. “Stop lying, Betty. Where did you hear about my business?”
“Mary Jane told me Papaw said it.”
He shook Betty again, rougher this time.
“Tell me the truth!”
“I am! Mary Jane said Papaw told her!”
He started shaking her again, and I stepped in.
“Dad! Stop! I’ve seen her, too!”
He released his grip on Betty. Tears formed in his eyes as she moved away from him, her steps wobbling like a drunkard. “No one lives here unless they are squatters. How would squatters know my business?”
Betty whispered from the dark corner she’d taken refuge in. “Papaw told her.”
“Papaw is dead!” Dad shouted. The small house shook in his rage. “He can’t talk to anyone!”
“But she said—“
“Your friend is a liar, a teller of stories, a master of fables,” dad said, the anger leaving his voice. “She’s given you more imagination than you’ve ever had on your own, but still, I need to find her. I must know how she got my personal information.”
He pulled Betty and me back into the truck and started it up. He turned around and drove back into the town. He had Betty tell anyone who would listen what Mary Jane looked like. No one knew who she was talking about. No one had seen a beautiful girl with long white hair and sultry lips. No one knew any child named Mary Jane.
The last place we stopped was at the old woman’s shoe store. I’d never liked it here because her one milky white eye scared me. She was as nice as a spring morning in May, but I couldn’t shake the eye. I busied myself investigating shoes to avoid looking at her.
“Well, hello, Betty!” the old woman said. No one had introduced us, but she knew.
Betty moved to the old woman and wrapped small her arms around the old woman’s waist. “Hello, Ms. Esther.”
“What brings you here today?”
Dad groans. How could a blind woman know anything about what someone looks like?
“My Pop’s looking for Mary Jane. Have you seen her?”
The old woman smiled. “I did see her, but not today.”
Dad startled. “Do you know where she lives?”
The old woman nodded. “I do. She lives down in the old cemetery behind the Baptist church.”
“Do you…” Dad stopped mid-sentence as her words caught up with him. “In the old cemetery? Oh! You mean her dad is the new caretaker!”
She grabbed his hand. “No, that is not what I mean. I mean she lives in the old cemetery. She’s been dead for twenty-some years.”
Betty stepped forward and tugged on Dad’s hand. Her eyes shone brightly as she spoke, “I told you Papaw told her.”
I gave Eric Storch this prompt: a talking cat, a forgotten room, and a not-quite logical explanation.
I’m also linking this up with Ermiliablog’s Picture It and Write. The prompt is the fabulous picture used in the story above.
I welcome and appreciate your honest feedback. Please share your thoughts on this short story in a comment.
Thanks for stopping in!