Cartlon. Surname Avers. He’d been 76 when it happened, though he would’ve turned 78 in May. He worked for Samsung, then Skywalker Sound, had a brief stint at Google, and finally settled at LifeMedia, where he stayed for eight years before he kicked it. Had a big house on the edge of the forest reserve. From LifeMedia’s map program, it looked like a towering McMansion with two or three acres of long grass, dotted with trees.
"This is the place," Joey said when Jeanette pulled into the drive.
Joey had seen thick oaks and bristly crabgrass. She’d smelled the sun tea and oil on Carlton’s hands. In her dream, there were birds in the sky, and hunting dogs in the neighboring yards, hounds with loose ears and faces that did better in big yards than in cities. There were branches dripping with honeysuckle and crab apple blossoms.
She recognized a boat lulling back and forth in a shallow backyard pond, which Joey had spied in the corner of her mind’s eye when Cartlon dropped to the ground, convulsing, in her memory. Seeing it now, vomit and blood seemed to slosh up Cartlon/Joey’s throat.
Death was death was death. It didn’t matter that this death didn’t belong to her.
Andrea answered the door, barefoot in an apron, her hair tumbling down. When Jeanette had called her a few hours prior, she’d been unfazed.
“You girls are plenty welcome here,” she’d said.
Now with them standing in her doorway she seemed no more put out. Flour dusted her milky skin and the lap of her apron. She led Jeanette by hand into the sunroom.
Andrea kept Carlton on the windowsill, too. It was a remarkably bright day. Freshly-fallen snow was kicking extra light up from the ground. Carlton’s pyramidal BrightBox was illuminated by the sun but cast none of its own light.
"Hello again, Carlton," Jeanette said as she eased into a high-backed chair.
"Hi there," Joey said. Then she messaged Carlton. <We need to talk, man. Just us.>
He didn’t respond to either of them.
"Oh, Carly, come on now, why can’t you be cordial?" Andrea said. She brushed flour from her face and looked to Jeanette. "I swear, he’s so morose these days. Maybe you two can tease a word out of him."
Jeanette pondered his box, Joey cradled in her arms. “Does he…ever talk?”
"Oh sure, sure. He always was the stoic type. Strong and silent, you know." Andrea’s eyes narrowed. "But now he’s impossible."
Jeanette said, “but when does he talk? Has anything else been bothering him that you know of?”
Andrea studied the ceiling, pulling her thoughts together.
“We don’t mean to be talking about you as if you’re not here,” Joey said.
“Oh no,” Jeanette cut in, “Definitely not. Maybe you can tell us what’s troubling you.”
"Mouth like molasses," Carlton said. He spoke in thick, throaty manner that was hard to parse. His Box gave off a dim spark.
Jeanette straightened. “Oh, you too? Are you having motor— motor control problems?”
"Nuh uh. Just can’t. Mouth. All…stuck up. Shit."
"He doesn’t have any physical sensations, dear," Andrea said carefully.
"Well ma’am, that’s what they told me and my sister, but she—well, she can totally feel things.”
"Oh honey!" Andrea said, throwing up her birdlike hands. "It’s impossible for him, though. When he had the stroke it ate all those parts up."
"Ah. Okay then.”
"Yup, it was a real shame. Say, would you like some tea? Maybe a Coke Nano? I think I have some Mountain Dew Thrust, from when our grandkids were over…"
"I’m fine,” Jeanette said stiffly. “Thank you though."
Andrea sat. Her fingers fidgeted across the hem of her apron and found their way into her front pockets. Her gaze darted from the kitchen to the sun room and back, floating over potted plants and baking ingredients left on the counter, no detail ignored. It reminded Jeanette of their father, who couldn’t sit through a whole movie without getting up to empty the dishwasher or run a fresh load of laundry.
Years of constant domestic maintenance had made it impossible for him to fully relax; he was always at work, even at home. It was saddest when those efforts were no longer needed, when the house was empty, the children grown. Jeanette imagined the woman baking all day, chatting amiably to a dead man who didn’t speak back.
"How are the grandkids?" Joey said.
Andrea seemed flustered. “Well. Doing great! We just got some new photos from school. That’s Henry, he’s the oldest. He’s going to a new boarding school…Smart like a whip, that one; we’re so proud. Aren’t we Carly?”
She tilted her head to Carlton.
"Oh, how sweet," Jeanette said, looking.
Joey cut in, “My my my, look how much little Moira’s grown. Spitting image of her father. And Tad’s little apple cheeks. What a squishy little fella, look at ‘em.”
Jeanette patted her sister and pulled her close, saying, “Uh, sorry. Joey, maybe you should give it a rest.”
The old woman’s eyes crinkled. They looked watery, but then old people’s eyes always seemed to Jeanette to be on the verge of leaking tears. “You’ve been doing a lot of research on us, I see.”
"I don’t. Know them." Carlton said.
Jeanette looked over. “Your own grandchildren?”
He fizzled with faint light. “Strangers,” he said.
Andrea leaned forward and spoke into Joey’s Box. “It seems you think my husband can help you. Obviously, you know who he is.”
Jeanette looked down.
"I don’t know," she said. "My sister just told me we needed to come here…"
"He’s no use anyway," said Andrea. She rose and brushed crumbs from the table into an open palm. "He can barely remember our children’s names. Let alone our grandchildren. His work?— forget it! Can’t remember a whit of it, not any better than he can our honeymoon."
Jeanette read the woman for signs of bitterness or hurt, but found none. Some people were so matter-of-fact about loss. Like their father had been. Like Joey, even. It seemed impossible to Jeanette that a person could carry grief so easily and still be human.
"You went to an Akron Astros game," Joey said suddenly, flooding the room with blue light. " Your honeymoon, I mean. It was $5.75 a ticket, $4 for two hot dogs and some orange sodas."
"Sodas?" Jeanette said. Joey had always said ‘pop’. Andrea pursed her lips and waited.
"It was a gorgeous day," Joey continued, "they were playing the Toledo Tornadoes. They lost. You drove all day to get there— you eloped in a courthouse in Mansfield, I think? Your dress was lace, Andrea, and it was lovely-"
"Until the grass stains got all over it," the old woman added.
"Still…pretty," Carlton said. A sliver of yellow light buzzed across his surface. "Go. Keep."
"When you moved here,” Joey continued, “it was for the forest reserve. It reminds me of the woods in Mansfield, where we grew up. I could do a mean hillbilly stomp back in the day, let me tell you."
Joey’s voice was dropping, growing huskier.
"It’s too bad we didn’t get to raise the kids out here. The grandkids love visiting, but gosh damn it, they don’t come see us enough. No time. Their damn parents got no time."
Andrea shook her head. “No, certainly not.”
Jeanette whispered, “What’s going on?”
"Woods aside, you’re the first…and last thing I remember, Andrie," Joey said.
The woman made a small squeaking noise and took Jeanette’s hand from the box.
"Tell us more," she said, kneeling at Joey’s surface. Joey’s light darkened and covered the full surface of her box.
"I was writing a letter to Moira, for a package at her summer camp. Nobody uses mail anymore, but she didn’t have internet out there…I was looking at the letters and trying to get them perfect; my cursive is so rusty…"
Carlton’s light flickered and went out.
"And it got hot in my throat and neck, and these big specks of dust flew into my eyes— and I realized— I wasn’t writing the proper words. Not the words I meant, you see. Andrea, you were in the garden and I went over to ask for help, and then it all came rising up. The ground just socked me in the face-"
Andrea reached for the Box. “Sweetheart, I when you fell over I just took off running-“
"And that’s nearly the last thing I saw. Except you at the hospital," Joey said in her new, gravely voice.
Andrea marveled at this. “You were alive in the hospital?”
"Just…moment," Carlton said, his box sputtering yellow.
Joey said, “And I can feel it. The mud on my face, the blood in my throat, running from my mouth, your hand, with the missing fingernail running through my hair-“
Jeanette looked over and confirmed that Andrea was missing a fingernail. The woman looked completely open, marveling at every little revelation. Jeanette felt uneasy, invisible.
"But you couldn’t move," Andrea whispered. She turned to her husband’s Box. "We tried to set you up as fast as we could, but your brain hemorrhaged up top, and you couldn’t move-"
"Or speak?" Jeanette guessed.
<Finally she gets it,> Lily said.<Good job, you really played old girl like a fiddle.>
But Joey wasn’t listening. She wasn’t there.