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HAS IT COME?” The black-irised boy peers at Olive from across the counter.

Olive focuses on the scar between his unbearable eyes. According to the boy, it came from a collision with the end of a drinking straw. She shakes her head no as she considers the little falcate moon amid its galaxy of freckles. She shifts her gaze to his short-peaked costermonger cap. Nobody sells real fish nowadays. Any surviving fish have hidden themselves in the depths of the sea. Wrapped round the boy’s neck is a scarf so frayed and twisted and holey it looks like something Escher might have sketched after eating a bad eel. He’s shrouded in a filthy peacoat of unknown original color. He’s too close to the counter for her to see them, but Olive knows the boy’s pants are bloused into slush-caked boots at least two sizes too large.

The boy sighs. Olive is fond of him, but my God, what eyes for a child. She shrugs and pushes a basket of brightly colored plastic containers from the shelter of her register. Last year the basket held shellacked cork coasters debossed with words like Believe, Contribute, and Exemplify. Customers returned them when mildew bloomed in their depressions. The year before, the basket had overflowed with vaguely cultic charms of polished nickel, welded to key rings whose color was neither nickel nor differentiated enough to be nickel-complementary. Olive could only sell them to drunks and the color-blind. Each winter’s new gimcrack is supposedly engineered to evoke cheer in the face of a spittly frozen drizzle that descends earlier every year to blanch the city and which bears no resemblance to downy white movie snow. It’s more like the expectoration of a tropospheric pneumonia.

The boy follows Olive’s displaced basket with his coal-chip eyes. “Is it?” he asks. “Coming?” Olive hears boot-slush wetly migrating to the floor.

A high-shouldered man with arms wrapped around a cardboard box has taken up a position behind the boy. He glares at Rupert, who slouches in the doorway to Burmiller’s empty office, cradling his phone in his palms. Olive gestures to the man, who edges past the boy and thrusts his box across the counter. “I don’t want it,” he says. The box’s flaps are closed, but the tape that bound them has been razored.

“Did you purchase it from us?”

Impossibly, the man’s shoulders creep higher. His lips cockle into a bitter flower. “How should I know?”

Olive lifts a flap and retrieves a fluted crystal glass nestled in a cylinder of thick tissue paper. It almost shimmers beneath the store’s fluorescent panels. The man groans.

“What is it?” asks the boy, who peers around the man’s elbow.

“I think you drink champagne from it,” says Olive.

The man presses trembling fingers to his temples. “Who drinks champagne?”

“What’s champagne?” asks the boy.

“Exactly,” mumbles Rupert at his phone.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think these are SunMart’s. Did they come with a receipt?”

“How would I know?”

Olive considers every side of the nondescript box. She sifts through its tissued bundles.

“Maybe it’s in there,” whispers the boy.

“It’s not in here.”

“Whatever it is,” says the man, “I don’t want it.”

“There are twelve,” Olive declares. “A dozen crystal flutes.”

“I didn’t ask for crystal. Who celebrates anymore?”

Olive gently pushes the box back across the counter. “It looks like something SuperChoice might sell. They’re one street over.”

The man eyes the box as if perhaps Olive has slipped a snake inside. “I didn’t ask for this.”

Olive has a habit of not talking when there is nothing further to say, which Burmiller tells her is unnerving for customers. She presses her lips together in what she hopes the man will receive as commiseration. He sighs as he repossesses the box. The boy gives him a wide berth. The man pauses at the store’s entrance and shakes his narrow head between its shoulders. “Who invites eleven people to celebrate anything?” Olive mashes together her lips until they’re like strips of boiled chicken. The man backs through the door into the snowy gloaming, and the silhouetting of his gaunt and burdened frame fills Olive with a kind of doom.

The boy resumes his place as Olive busies herself organizing the sacks and twine and tape shelved beneath her counter. He watches with his dark and unblinking eyes. “Is it in there?” he asks playfully. A wistful smile tugs the corner of Olive’s mouth. She noisily shifts wrapping paraphernalia as she scrunches her eyebrows. “Hmm, I don’t see it. Have you checked your pockets?” The boy smiles and thrusts weather-roughened hands into his coat pockets. He tugs out the liners so they hang like empty sacks. Pocket lint drifts downward onto his sodden boots.

“What’d you lose?” asks Rupert, who is searching for a functioning electrical outlet. The boy looks at Olive as if she might name it. Olive pulls the basket of desperately colored containers back toward her register and sets to counting them.

“Inventory’s not till next month, Ollie,” Rupert says.

“It could still come,” says the boy. He stuffs his empty pockets back into place. “It’s not too late.”

“Sure thing, little man,” says Rupert. “We get new merchandise every other Tuesday.”

The boy sighs. He walks to the front door with an old man’s gait, boots squeaking on the floor tiles. When he opens the door, a wave of cold air billows inward and instantly chills the plastic boxes in Olive’s hands.

“Don’t let me catch you trying to get into any more abandoned buildings,” she calls.

Over his shoulder the boy calls back something indiscernible.


Olive walks home. It’s as if some god has cracked open the sky to expose the sun where it rages in its fall. She can’t remember the rhyme about red skies and sailors, but she feels she must have known it, or known someone who knew it. She passes shop windows reflecting the fire of this sundered sky. She passes iron-barred doors, trash bins running over, the long, soot-darkened brick edifice of what was once a factory, or perhaps a dance hall, or somehow both. Crepuscular light presses through the building’s shattered and barred street-level windows, illuminating a dusty parquet floor. She’d once caught the boy trying to squirm through these rusted window bars.

In her flat, the old woman sits in the back bedroom, by a window insulated with translucent plastic. She worries a frayed curtain corner between her fingers and chews the inside of her bottom lip. “Olive.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Come back here so I know you’re alone.”

“Come out here, Mama. Come see the light breaking through the clouds.”

“It’s not safe by the windows.”

“There’s still light.”

“It’s not safe in the light either.” The old woman’s mouth moves like she’s nibbling a tiny seed.

Olive washes her face in the sink. She studies the dusty glasses arrayed on the shelf above. “Do you remember,” she calls, “that rhyme about red skies and sailing?”

The old woman chuckles bitterly. “No one sails anymore.” Her chuckle becomes a hack that sounds like a hatchet being wielded against green wood.

Olive changes from sweater to blouse and takes up her coat.

“What are you doing?” This is more croak than utterance, but Olive understands.


“Where are you going?”

“Just out for a while.”

“You shouldn’t be out.”

“I’ll be fine, Mama.” Olive opens the front door. The cold presses against and past her.

“Bad things happen to girls in the dark. Olive! Bad things!”

“The bad things don’t care where we are, Mama.”

“Don’t leave me alone here! Something may happen!”

Olive pulls closed the door. She walks her crooked and gray-slushed street to the main thoroughfare, where hidden speakers spray cheery pop music. Streetlights loom in their overwatching arches, no longer needed now that the stores stay open all night. Stacked above the permanently brightened shops are apartments lit by glowing digital screens. Knots of people traverse the walks, their footfalls making impatient, squishing sounds in the slurry.

Ahead on the sidewalk, a man wearing headphones and a shabby brown coat stands before a padlocked barrel and rings a red bell. “Giving strengthens us all! Together we are strong! You can make the difference!” He shouts these sentences in the same order, again and again and again. Olive crosses the street.

The sky has plastered over its rents with swatches of purple and black. Olive walks toward a building where a gathering spills its noise onto the street. A boy has invited her. What he wants to do is better than another night in trinket shops, and certainly better than a night with her mother. As she approaches, however, the building sounds like a slaughterhouse. Olive pictures them laughing through rictal mouths, drinking whatever they can lay hold of, shouting into one another’s faces. She cannot breathe.

She turns from the thoroughfare and walks the yellowed streets until she’s confident her mother is asleep, then she returns home. She sleeps beneath layers of blankets and clothes and dreams of sailing not the paled and stinking ocean but the city’s main boulevard, past its asphalt’s end, beyond its desperate light, onto seas of swaying and moonfired grass.


Today the boy sits on the counter beside Olive’s register. The counter is slick and marbled, and when he leans close, he can see his image like a palimpsest. His eyes’ reflection is even more unbearable to Olive than the direct sight of them. He selects a bright greenish plastic box from the basket and asks, “Is this it?”

“Not green enough,” Olive says. Of a fuchsia canister, she says: “Not round enough.” Of a purpled one: “Not deep enough.” The boy’s breath sends blooms of vapor across their plastic surfaces. He fishes deep into the basket and withdraws his hand to dangle a sapphire earring. “Hm,” says Olive. “I guess a customer must have dropped that.” The boy raises the earring until it intersects the invisible line between his darkened, hopeful eyes and Olive’s reluctant ones. She offers an apologetic smile. “Not sparkly enough.”

The boy sighs.

Burmiller pushes through the front door, her cylindrical body wrapped in a thin, fashionable wool jacket. Her thick makeup appears to have hardened and cracked in the cold. The layers of black-dyed curls atop her head lie motionless despite her vigorous trundle.

The boy scrambles off the counter.

Burmiller scurries toward her office, arms around herself. “Hellooooooo, everyone.” She slows as she passes, taking in the boy’s shabby coat, his holey scarf. “Oh,” she says. She hurries into her office and presses a button on her chrome space heater. She whoops with pleasure as it hums to life. The boy watches what he can see of Burmiller through her office doorway. He turns to Olive. “Maybe it’s in there.”


His shoulders rise in conjunction with his eyebrows. Oh well. An old man’s expression. Olive stoops to look through the shelves below her register for something to give him. Something you would give a child. A piece of candy, or a comic book, if they still made those. Something.

“Oh, Ahh-live!” Burmiller’s summons sounds exactly as it would if she and Olive inhabited a sitcom. Nineteen minutes of Store Manager Burmiller and her hapless clerks navigating hilarious miscommunicatory hijinks. Olive stands. The boy is already gone. She walks to Burmiller’s office, en route nudging Rupert, who was pretending to restock the spice shelf before he fell asleep against a crate. She enters Burmiller’s office, sits, and attempts to meet Burmiller’s hungry grin with something resembling a smile. The heater’s wind-tunnel roar chills her.

“Who was that boy?”

“What boy?”

“The one you were talking to at your register. The one who may or may not have been sitting on the counter when I came in.”

“Oh. Just a kid.”

“Was his mother with him?”

“I believe she was. I believe she stepped next door for a pharmacy order.”

“And did she buy anything?”

“No, but she was looking at a micro-speaker.”

Hmph. Very well.” It’s exactly what Sitcom-Burmiller would say to Sitcom-Olive by way of transition. “Now. Olive. I want you to think very carefully about how you feel. About your motivation. About why you come to work every day.”

“I don’t work every day.”

Burmiller’s head bobs impatiently beneath its unflappable curls. She removes a crisp white page from a gray folder and pins it to her desk with her fingertips. Her fingernails are a kind of dark aqua called Necromantic Blue. It has no analog in the natural world. When it was discontinued two years ago, Burmiller bought a case of stubby little bottles at full price before directing Olive to mark down the remainder. With a single twist, Burmiller rotates the page so Olive can read it. Across the top is a row of round cartoon faces that range from ecstatic to gloomy.

“Now. Olive. Consider a typical day here at SunMart.” Her smile becomes like the first cartoon face. “I want you to circle the face that represents your enthusiasm. On a typical day. When you are working, HAHAHA.” Burmiller provides a cold green SunMart pencil.

Olive circles a face that conveys a believable magnitude of enthusiasm, given her position as a sub-forty-hour-per-week salesclerk. Burmiller’s visage is briefly like a store window beneath an overpassing cloud. “Now,” she says, “I want you to consider what motivates you to come to work every…day that you’re on the schedule. Think about factors like money, the camaraderie of your, um—” (here Burmiller glances through her doorway to Rupert, who is struggling to affix orange stickers to the interwoven metal braids of wire baskets on the sale shelf) “—ah, colleagues, or—” (her face brightens) “—contribution to the economy, or pride in a job well done.” She points to a row of icons: a stack of money; employees laughing as they work; the national flag watermarked with a dollar sign; an aproned man beaming over a pyramid of stacked cantaloupes.

“Do I circle one?”

“Yes. The one that represents the motivation you most often feel here.”

Olive circles the cantaloupe-stacker. Burmiller clears her throat. Her space heater sounds like wind blowing through an open window. “Is that one wrong?”

“Now Olive, there are no wrong answers, of course. Pride in a job well done certainly makes us stronger. It’s just that, well, you should be clear about why you want to do a good job.”

Olive mashes together her lips and nods agreeably.

“It may simply be that you personally feel good when you complete a task. Or, perhaps, like many of us, you want to do your part to contribute to the economy. To help raise the tide.”

Olive nods convictedly.

“But ultimately you have to decide how you feel, Olive. What matters to you.” Burmiller stares expectantly at the page between them.

Olive erases the circle around the cantaloupe pyramid and circles the dollar flag.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. What you said makes the choice clearer.”

Burmiller’s smile shifts back to first-position. She holds the evaluation form up to the light as if to verify its authenticity, then tucks it into her folder.

Olive spends the rest of the morning plucking Rupert’s orange stickers and replacing them with aquamarine sales stickers. Rupert sits across from Burmiller at her desk, an incomplete survey page between them, arguing about motivation. He resents her implication that money is an extrinsic and therefore inferior motivator. He argues that money is the only tangible indication of his contribution to the economy. “Money is only external in the sense that seeing well-stacked cantaloupes is external, or a rising GDP,” he says. “Otherwise you may as well ask me to come to work blindfolded.”

Rupert’s logic causes Burmiller’s eyelids to twitch. In a fiercely reasonable tone, she explains that her guidebook clearly labels money as extrinsic. “The guidebook is based on best-in-class industry learnings,” she says. She suggests that his monetary fixation is actually a manifestation of his desire to improve the economy, which is an intrinsic and highly laudable motivation. She tries to reclaim her green pencil, but Rupert snatches away his hand.

“Hearing that the economy went up doesn’t motivate me,” he says. “Earning money does. That’s my proof I helped the economy.”

“So you must see then that your actual motivation, HAHAHA, is improving the economy.” She makes another grab for the pencil.

Rupert holds the pencil above his head. “But I don’t know I’ve improved the economy unless I see the money in my pocket. And that’s what I think about.”

“But that’s extrinsic.”

“The desire for it comes from inside me.”

Burmiller laughs and wrings her hands. She strokes the unfinished form and once again reads to Rupert the definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic. She asks him what she could do to make working at SunMart more internally rewarding for him.

“Pay me more,” he says.

Burmiller’s nervous cackle echoes between the store’s shelves. She explains that wages are determined by an expert-designed scale that assigns weights to labor classification, performance ratings, national needs, work tenure, and other important variables. This puts Rupert in a funk. He relinquishes the pencil. Burmiller goes on to explain that compensation is ultimately tied to national prosperity. She quotes a popular slogan: We each do well when we all do well. Rupert goes home early with a stomachache.

Burmiller finds Olive in the lighting aisle. Burmiller shivers, hugs herself, and runs her palms up and down the sleeves of her silk blouse. “It’s so cold out here. Aren’t you cold, Olive?”

Olive shrugs from where she crouches before the bottom shelf. “I wear layers.”

“Even in summer.”

“My mother says I’m cold-blooded.”

“You’re skin and bones. I’d kill for your figure.” Burmiller stands over Olive and watches her press sale stickers onto dusty lampshades. Burmiller wears open-toed brown sandals with straps that clamp her feet. Her nails are tiny chitinous slivers sunk into swells of toe flesh. They’re painted Necromantic Blue, which Olive speculates must have required a triple-0 brush from the art aisle. Burmiller sighs and thumps the foot of an aisle stand with her heel. “They’re not aligned.”

“How’s that?”

“The aisles are out of alignment with the floor tiles.”

Olive considers the rows of grayed tiles. “You can barely tell.”

“But I can tell.” Burmiller presses her hip against the shelving, which groans in protest. The boy has quietly walked up behind her. He sneezes. Burmiller shrieks, lifts her arms, and prances as if he’s a puddle of something she doesn’t want to step in. “Oh my! Well, HAHAHA, you gave me a fright.”

The boy considers her as he wipes his nose on his coat sleeve.

“So, uh, HAHA, how did you get in?” She waves her hand at the door. “I didn’t hear a chime.”

“He’s a quiet one,” says Olive. The boy smiles at her.

“Ah yes, the counter-sitter. HAHA. Wonderful.” She stoops. “What do you like to buy at SunMart, little boy? Toys? Gum?”

The boy draws his head away and to the side, as if Burmiller has eaten something pungent. Burmiller leans closer. “Or do you shop for your mother? Canned beans? Candies for her coffee table?” Burmiller stands straight and looks about the empty store. “Is your mother, ah, here with you, little boy?”

Olive stands. “All finished.” She offers her arms, whose sleeves are stippled with defunct orange stickers. The boy giggles.

Burmiller squats and stabilizes herself by gripping her thighs. “Really, little boy, where is your mother? Don’t you have school?”

“I think school is out today.”

“Regardless, he’s too young to be alone.” Burmiller reaches for the boy, who backs away. She toddles toward him, hands still in the thigh-brace position. He continues back-stepping. He appears to be leading her down the aisle by an invisible leash.

“I’m sure he’s fine. He comes in all the time.”

“Yes, but what does he buy?” Burmiller waddles faster, as the boy backs toward the door.

“He really is fine. I think he lives nearby.”

“He’s unattended,” Burmiller says. She straightens and reverses course, keeping her arms extended as if she expects the boy to change his mind and rush into her bosom. When her rump finds the counter, she reaches into the basket beside Olive’s register. “See, little boy? Nobody is going to hurt you.” She waggles an oblong orange box. “Would you like this?” Her smile is like none of the options on the survey sheet. Her other hand pads about the counter until it finds the telephone. “We’re just going to make sure you’re safe, okay?”

“I’ll walk him home.”

“Yes, I’m the store manager at SunMart on Broad Street, and it’s not an emergency per se—”

Olive hurries to the boy. “It’s almost my lunch break anyway.” The boy places his small rough hand inside hers.


“Truly, it’s no problem.” The boy pushes open the door with his back, and he and Olive step onto a scraped sidewalk that’s beginning to slick over. Olive leads them down the first side street, then a parallel street, then another side street. Occasionally she glances behind.

“Is that lady following us?”


“You forgot your coat.”

“It’s okay. I’m layered.”

“Do we have to go home?”

“You live close, right?”

The boy gestures in what Olive presumes to be the general direction of his home.

“Is there anyone there to make you lunch?”

“I can make my own lunch.”

Olive looks again over her shoulder.

“Who was she calling? I wasn’t stealing this time.”

Olive steers him through the doorway of a cramped Chinese restaurant, where they’re met with a blast of wet heat and the smell of fish. They sit at the counter, and Olive orders egg drop soups. The boy eats fried noodle crisps while they wait. He holds one in front of his mouth, draws back his lips, and eats it like he’s feeding a branch into a wood-chipper. Olive removes his cap and pushes the hair from his forehead. “You’re warm.” The boy drops his shoulders and lets his coat slide to the floor. “So that’s how your coat got so dirty.”

The boy giggles. He looks about the sparsely populated restaurant. “Do you think it’s somewhere in here?”

Olive arches an eyebrow. “Why, I don’t know.”

The boy points to a red porcelain dragon hanging on the wall, a clock embedded in its belly. “Is that it?”

“Not dragony enough.”

“Is that it?”

“Not lobstery enough.”

“Is this it?”

“Not noodley enough.”

Bathed in this diffused light, Olive sees the boy’s irises are not black but something like purple.

The waitress brings their soup. The boy gathers to himself every bowl of fried noodles within reach. He drops noodles into his soup a handful at a time, pulverizing them with his spoon until his bowl overflows with glistening porridge.

“I don’t know your name. It isn’t right to share a meal with someone and not know his name.”

“Gabriel,” the boy says around a mouthful of gruel. “And yours is Olive.”

“Pleased to meet you, Gabriel.”

“We already met.”

They eat. Olive keeps an eye on the dragon’s belly.



“Do you think it’s come yet?”

“I don’t think so. Not yet.”

“Do you think it will?”

“I want to believe so.”

The boy seems to consider belief in all its magnitude as he ladles another coruscant spoonful into his mouth. “Olive,” he mumbles around his spoon.


“Do you know what it is?”

“Maybe. Sometimes.”

He nods. “Sometimes I think I can say what it is. But…” He furrows his brow and wraps his mouth around another spoonful of golden gruel.

“But naming it would make it less real.”

He nods gravely. He considers the dragon’s smooth red enamel.

“At least you know to look for it,” Olive says.

“Do other people know?”

“Have you asked them?”

He shakes his head. He scrapes his spoon across the bottom of his bowl.

“Why did you ask me?”

He shrugs. “You didn’t look like you knew the answer, but you looked like you might understand the question.”

Olive slides her bowl to him.


“Does anybody take care of you?”

He pulls an errant sticker from her sleeve. “Does anyone take care of you?”


They finish, Olive pays, and they step out into the cold, sharp air. The slush beneath their boots is like chilled gravy. The ubiquitous outdoor music fades to silence, then the Voice clears his throat. In his resonant timbre, he explains that important news is breaking. Olive and Gabriel and the other scattered walkers don’t stop, but they attend: here a teenager snatches a single bud from her ear; across the street a couple ceases their bickering and walks in tense silence; in the alley a young man straightens over the wet gray dumpster into which he’s been leaning. The Voice explains that a new multi-industry survey reveals record citizen commitment to strengthening the economy. The Voice is unsurprised but pleased. He says officials are proud of our national willingness to Work Together and Pull our Nation Forward. He says: This is for you, good people, and a bubbly remix of “Here Comes the Sun” wafts from the speakers. The girl replugs her ear; the couple reassert their grievances with quiet fury; the young man climbs into his dumpster.

Olive reaches for the boy’s hand, but he’s vanished down one of the darkening side streets. She puts her hand in her sweater pocket and finds a fortune cookie. She tears open the cellophane and cracks the cookie in half and then cracks one of the halves in half and puts that in her mouth. She lets the slip of fortune fall to the sidewalk, where it darkens and conforms itself to the mounded slush.


At SunMart, Burmiller stands just inside the doorway and gesticulates with intensity as she speaks to an officer. He writes on a form attached to a small clipboard. When Olive opens the door, the officer considers her, then looks at Burmiller, who nods.

“Olive, where is that boy?”

“The boy? He went home.”

“Do you know his name?” asks the officer.


“Do you know where he lives?”

“Not really.”

“Then how,” asks Burmiller, “do you know he went home? And why didn’t you keep him here?”

“Oh, he told me he knew where he was going. I fed him lunch first.”

The officer regards Olive over his clipboard. “I’m going to need your full name.”

Olive tells him.

“And how long have you worked here?”

“Seven years,” says Burmiller.

“Six, actually.”

Burmiller’s mouth becomes a horizontal line.

The officer asks Olive where the boy might live, how old he is, who his parents are. “Do you think he might be endangered?” he asks.

“No more than the rest of us.”

The officer pauses to consider Olive again. He writes something on his form. “If the boy comes back, I want you to call us. We take these matters seriously.”

Burmiller thanks him for coming and follows him out onto the slickening sidewalk, arms around herself, where she continues to thank him until he is out of sight.

The sky again hangs low, but a crack has emerged above the city, revealing a farther sky that glows like a bed of embers. Olive removes sale stickers wrongly placed by Rupert on bright red, yellow, and blue thonged flip-flops and attaches them to her sleeves. Burmiller sits at her desk beside her blustery heater and systematically plucks pages from file folders, holding up each in turn for scrutiny beneath the fluorescent overheads. Occasionally she leans back and tilts her head to gaze at Olive through her doorway.

When Olive’s sleeves are full, she begins transferring the stickers to bouquets of plastic flowers. “Olive.” Burmiller’s head looms over an adjacent aisle. Olive doesn’t look up from her work. “Yes.”

“That boy. Why do you think he comes in here?”

“Just pondering what to buy, I guess.”

“But he talks to you. I’ve watched the recordings.”

Olive hides her smile from Burmiller. “He’s a chatty little guy.”

“Yes, but what does he talk to you about?”

“Oh, you know. Little boy things. Things he wants to do when he grows up.”

“Do you think you’ll get married one day? Have children?” Burmiller asks as if she believes these are choices. Olive shrugs. Burmiller isn’t married. She’s shown an interest in the regional manager and the pharmacist next door and the oldest of the delivery men.

“They say it’s hard to have children now,” Olive says.

“It wouldn’t be hard for me. I know I could have children.” Burmiller’s voice is like the bright gleaming surface of her space heater. Olive is silent, which she knows is the most hurtful possible response, but she can’t conjure words that will mean anything.

“That boy should be in school. An unguided mind is wasted.”

“I’m sure he goes to school.”

“Why do you think he comes here? Why does he talk to you?”

“I don’t know.”

“We have a responsibility to help him, you know.”

“Help him how?”

“Give him to the proper authorities. People who can inspect his home, assess his family, ensure he’s on track medically and psychologically.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

“There are professionals who handle children like this every day, Olive.”

Olive hides her trembling hands in the folds of her sweater. Her knees ache from stooping, but she doesn’t want to stand and thereby see even more of Burmiller—her desperately dyed hair, her pink and wrinkled chest, silk sleeves tinting her goose-bumped skin, foundation that looks faintly metallic under the fluorescents, those Necromantic Blue nails. “Maybe the best thing we can do,” Olive says, “is let him find his own way.”

“But Olive. Children are the nation’s most valuable resource.” Olive envisions a ™ at the end of Burmiller’s sentence. “This aisle.” The shelving squeaks in response to Burmiller’s slung hip. “If I could move it just a half inch, it would be aligned.” Groans of metal and wood intermingle with Burmiller’s grunts. Her downturned head jounces as she thrusts. Its crown is a bald spot painted Necromantic Blue and encircled with a parapet of fluffed hair. The aisle footer refuses to cede ground to her hip. “Humph!”

“I really don’t think anyone will notice.”

“It’s on my conscience now. Like that boy out there, wandering around doing who knows what. I suppose you think that’s fine too.” Burmiller grips a shelf and strains against the aisle.

Olive stands, untying her apron. “I left something at home.”


“It’ll just take a few minutes.”

“But you have a double tonight.”

“I’ll be back before you know it.” Olive pushes through the door. The biting wind blows Burmiller’s words back into the store. Olive walks quickly, like someone carrying a great weight who must soon drop it. Gray street slush has been pushed to the curbs, where it hardens. The sidewalks have become marbled and slick. Above, shafts of dying daylight crash through cracks in the clouds. Olive doesn’t know why she’s rushing to the brick building with the barred windows and parquet basement floor, and this is itself a kind of proof of urgency.

She comes to the long brick building and stoops to peer between the bars of an arched window. The boy is down there, arms at his sides. He steps from square to square across the parquet floor, like a chess piece practicing its moves.

“Gabriel!” Olive’s call is a forceful whisper.

The boy looks up to where she’s framed in the window. Tears have tumbled down his cheeks and skidded into the grime there. “It’s somewhere here, Olive. If we just turn our heads in time to catch it, or step on the right squares in the right order…” He steps long, then left, then short, then right.

“Gabriel. Did you climb through?” She tries to rattle a window bar, but it proves solid despite its rust. “Show me the way in.”

Gabriel comes to the wall below Olive and gestures for her to follow. They walk in tandem to where the slush has been scooped away from a metal plate embedded in the sidewalk. Olive grips the plate’s recessed handle and lifts it on its hinge. Below is a narrow iron scissor ladder. She treads the wet grates carefully, allowing the plate to lower over her head as she descends. At the bottom she steps from a darkened locular space onto the parquet floor, and Gabriel rushes to her. He presses his wet face into the folds of her sweater. She peels away his cap and kisses his sweaty head.

“It’s here—I know it’s here—but I can’t find it. What’ll we do if we never see it?”

Olive lifts the boy, and he wraps his arms around her shoulders, his legs around her waist. She begins a gentle bouncing meander across the floor, which seems alive with light and shadow. The boy straightens his legs and drops to the floor and, keeping hold of her forearms, stumble-steps with her. Together they find a rhythm of rises and falls. They step in squares and circles; they cut sharp angles and stroll long perambulating promenades. Gabriel lifts his moon-scarred face to the ceiling and laughs. “Olive!” His purpled eyes are aflame. They’re almost more than she can bear.

“Hush, boy. Just dance with me.”

They cut across tiles as if their feet have found grooves worn by the dancers who preceded them. They spin; they whirl in whorls; they bellow as they cavort across the light-bearing floor.

Olive!” Burmiller stoops before a window above. Her face, backlit by the farther sky, is a darkened smudge. “Hold on to that boy!” Burmiller stands with a grunt and tromps down the sidewalk, her footfalls muted at intervals by brick spandrels. At the wall’s end she grunts and, turning and nearly slipping, slops back.

“Stay there!” she shouts as she passes her original window. At the building’s opposite corner she stops, mutters something, then returns to her original perch. She steadies herself against the wall and bends to lay eyes on them. “How do I get in? Olive! How do I get in?”

The boy enters Olive’s embrace and gazes up with her at Burmiller. Olive shrugs. Burmiller retaliates with a mocking shrug of her own. The shift of weight nearly sends her face-first into the window bars. She slaps the bricks above the window. It’s a vain and small sound. “Olive! You got in there! Now tell me how!”

Olive grips the boy more tightly.

Burmiller straightens and tromps through the slush, slapping the bricks with each slip of her shoes. Her heel sends a hollow metallic thong echoing through the passage below the sidewalk plate, but she doesn’t notice. She turns a corner and there is silence, followed by clanging above a distant section of the building’s foundation. Then more silence, then, farther away, the sound of metal thumping brick. This is met with a chunky, voluminous tumble, followed by Burmiller’s shriek of satisfaction. They hear her stomp about somewhere above.

“Olive!” she calls. “Boy! Come here, child!”

The boy, still holding Olive’s wrists, steps back from her. He slides his left foot leftward. Olive arches an eyebrow and slides her right foot rightward.

Above and away from them, Burmiller is clomping. Intermittent crashes and humphs ensue.

Olive and the boy move their feet in tandem.

The noise of Burmiller draws closer. Her footfalls above send plaster dust drifting onto the dancing floor. She shouts “Aha!” and strikes off in a another direction. They chart her path by the trail of falling dust. She goes away from them, farther away. They are dancing again.

Above and away is a tremendous clatter, like a stack of plates being dropped, then silence that lasts a second, and another, and another.

They dance. There is something in Olive’s chest that she doesn’t dare try to name. She knows the word joy can suffice, that joy is a true thing akin to this truer and unnamable presence. This presence more acute than a champagne flute or a bowl of golden gruel or a dragon swallowing time, stronger than cloud or sea or even this light pouring in with more power than should inhabit the dying. It is like joy, yet it can’t be named, shouldn’t be named, should only be inhabited and shared with whomever will dance.



Tony Woodlief’s short fiction has appeared in Image, Ruminate, Dappled Things, and Saint Katherine’s Review. His first novel will be published by Slant Books in 2024. He lives in North Carolina.




Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

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