Calliope felt niggles of worry, negative feelings she wasn’t used to and definitely didn’t enjoy. Her only link to the ‘real’ world was her cell phone, and she was staring at the ringing device with dread in her belly. She finally swiped the screen to answer. “Hello?”
“I’m looking for a Ms. Uh, Calleopie? Jones?” The voice was hesitant and stumbled over her name.
“Call-eye-oh-pee. That’s me.”
“Oh good. Ms. Jones?” The uncertainty in the woman’s voice turned confident. “I regret to inform you that your request to lease a unit has been denied.”
Calliope uncrossed her fingers and blew out a breath. She’d been expecting bad news and the confirmation eased her troubled mind. “Right-o, cheerio. Thanks anyhow.”
Calliope clicked the disconnect circle on her phone’s screen and grinned at Mrs. Harper. “Funny how that works, isn’t it? You stress and worry all day, hoping and waiting, dreaming and praying, then you don’t get good news, and – poof – the negative energy floats away.”
Mrs. Harper patted Calliope’s hand reassuringly. “You’ll find your place, I know you will. And like I told you last week, you’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”
Calliope shook her head, her unruly blonde curls bouncing into her face. “Now, now, Mrs. Harper. I’ve already stayed too long.”
Mrs. Harper moved her wheelchair around the table as Calliope stood up. “If I said I wasn’t ready for you to go?”
Calliope leaned over to hug the older woman. “I’d say it’s not like you to lie, Mrs. Harper. You’ve been generous, letting me stay longer than you needed me, but if I stay too long, we’ll become dependent.”
Mrs. Harper nodded sadly. “You came into my life when I was ready to give up on everything. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for me.”
Calliope picked up her backpack, shrugging the straps high on her thin shoulders. “We helped each other. You’ve got my number. As long as my sister keeps paying the bill, you’ll always be able to reach me.”
Calliope knelt to hug the older woman, wiped the tears from her lined face, and kissed her cheek. Without another word, she skipped to the door. With a last wink, she was gone.
Calliope sat on a fallen tree at the lake, throwing stones and skimming them across the glassy surface. Thoughts flittered in and out of her mind, much like Calliope herself flitted through life. Until recently, Calliope had been satisfied to drift like wood in water, from shore to shore. The past few months, Calliope had started to think perhaps she wanted more. To put down roots somewhere, the way her sister had. Maybe not to get married, have kids, but to have an address to go with the phone. She could still be a free spirit, couldn’t she, with a home? Somewhere to go when there wasn’t anywhere else?
She skipped the last smooth pebble across the water’s surface, counting ten ripples before the stone succumbed to gravity and Calliope picked up her buzzing phone. “I actually thought you’d have called earlier.”
“Where are you?” Wilhelmina’s curt tone made Calliope smile.
“At the lake.”
“What lake? Where? You turned off the tracking on your phone.”
Calliope slid her feet into her sandals and stood. She did a half turn, scanning the lush green surroundings, the nature unimpeded by society destruction. “Honestly? I’m not sure. I didn’t turn off the tracking, the service here in the wilderness is sketchy.”
“How long ago did you leave Mrs. Harper’s?”
Calliope frowned. “What time is it?”
“Four days and four hours ago.” Calliope skirted around a large puddle from the rain early that morning. “Give or take a few minutes.”
“Calliope Jones, you were supposed to let me know before you left.” Wilhelmina’s angry outburst made Calliope hold the phone away from her ear. “You didn’t get the unit?”
“Nope. Not meant to be,” Calliope shrugged as she thought of the small storage until she’d tried to rent. Her sister had agreed to pay the rental fees until Calliope could figure out a way to pay for it herself.
Wilhelmina let out an exasperated breath. “You haven’t found someone in need yet, have you?”
Calliope hadn’t found anyone since she’d gotten off the bus on the highway and followed her whims into wilderness. Her cell barely worked, and she still had two fully charged battery packs in her bag. “Nope. Kind of glad, recharging my batteries with Mother Nature — though sleeping under the stars isn’t so much fun when it’s lightning.”
Wilhelmina cleared her throat. “I know you said you were done with helping –”
Calliope frowned. “I never said that. I just said I was taking a little break. Maybe find myself a place where I can leave stuff to come back to.”
“Okay, sorry, I misspoke. I know you’d said you were thinking of setting down roots and that’s why you wanted the storage unit.” Calliope grinned knowing Wilhelmina was choosing her words very carefully. Part of her wondered what Wilhelmina wanted, the other part wanted to hang up and wait for her to try again another day. “Since the, uh, new digs fell through, I, er –”
“Should I hang up now?” Calliope let out a low laugh. “This is hurting you.”
Silence stretched, interrupted only by the call of a loon across the lake. “Will you help me? Please?”
Calliope closed her eyes where she stood, trying to block out the negative feelings her sister’s words created. She owed her sister so much, yet wasn’t capable or repaying the debt.
Calliope’s eyes popped open. “I’ll be there.”
Calliope spotted her sister sitting in her shiny black car before Wilhelmina saw her. She used the extra time to study her favourite person in the world. Her sister’s hair was still dark, but Calliope thought she saw a bit of silver in the sleek strands, or was that a trick of the light? She hadn’t seen her sister in eight years, seven months, and thirteen days.
There was a child’s car seat in the back, but it was empty. So Wilhelmina had come alone. Calliope instinctively knew she wasn’t ready for whatever Wilhelmina wanted.
Calliope tried the door, wasn’t surprised to find it locked. She rapped her knuckles on the glass and was rewarded with the click of locks releasing. As soon as she slid into the car, the locks clicked again. “Hey, Sis.”
“God, you’re filthy.” Wilhelmina’s blue eyes widened in horror. “I’m sorry.”
Calliope waved a hand to waft away the apology. “I cleaned myself up but then no one would stop to give me a drive half the time. The bus driver this afternoon let me ride for free, so that was a bonus.”
“I transferred some money to your account.” Wilhelmina’s hungry eyes stayed glued to Calliope’s face as if feasting. “You could’ve bought a bus ticket from cottage country right to the station.”
“I told you I haven’t been able to get a new bank card since –” Calliope closed her eyes, thought hard. “Before I stayed with Mr. Smythe.”
Wilhelmina’s blue eyes widened, her mouth opened in a comical ‘o’ of surprise. Calliope grinned as she tucked tangled curls behind her ear.
“The people I help sometimes take care of me too, you know.”
Wilhelmina recovered herself, snapping her mouth closed. She went to start the car, realized it was still running, and pulled out of the lot. “The kids are with their father for the night.”
Calliope turned the words over in her head. She didn’t talk to her sister as often as she talked to the kids, but surely her sister or her niece would’ve mentioned if Stephen didn’t live with them anymore? “Right.”
“I was going to take you out to dinner, but –” Wilhelmina cast a sidelong glance at Calliope.
“I’m disgusting.” Calliope beamed, nodding her agreement. “I got rained on two nights in a row at the lake, cleaned off in the lake, washed my clothes, too. Then no one would stop to pick me up, and I got several dust baths from cars driving into the dirt. Oh, and one car hit a puddle and drenched me with muddy spray.”
“You know they do that on purpose, don’t you? Drive on the shoulder to stir up dust?” Wilhelmina kept shooting glances at Calliope.
Calliope shrugged. “Maybe. I choose to believe that they’re swerving to avoid a squirrel or the sun got in their eyes, then I thank the heavens that they missed me. You know, that my guardian angel was looking out for me like always.”
Wilhelmina’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I can’t take you home, the kids and Stephen are having a movie night. Let’s get take-out.”
Calliope shrugged her agreement. She had no appetite, but felt better knowing her sister and Stephen were still married. Being in the city, so close to the ghosts, made her clench in ways that weren’t good for her mind. She watched vaguely familiar buildings and streets pass as they headed out of the downtown core. Calliope and Wilhelmina had lived on these streets as often as they’d lived in the homes of strangers. These streets were what Calliope remembered when other people reminisced about their childhoods, about birthday parties and school trips and family outings.
“Seems a lot more these days.” Calliope hadn’t realised she’d spoken aloud until Wilhelmina tensed beside her. “Never mind.”
“You could’ve been talking about anything — buses, cars, buildings. Yet I knew automatically you were talking about the homeless.” Wilhelmina’s laugh held no mirth. “Just proves that no matter how far from the streets I get, I’m still the homeless girl watching out for her baby sister.”
Calliope studied her sister’s profile, tried to understand the emotions behind the tone. “You sound like you feel guilty or some other silly sad thing.”
Wilhelmina scraped her teeth over her bottom lip. Calliope was amazed the colour hadn’t come off. “I know you said –”
Calliope waited for her sister to regroup, watching the sights as they passed. They were getting on the highway, racing out of the despair and into the money, the hope. Where Wilhelmina had ended up. “Wil?”
“Stephen suggested – I thought…” Wilhelmina glanced helplessly at Calliope. “Will you help Marcus?”
Calliope couldn’t help herself. She started to giggle, then had to clutch her tummy to catch her breath. Giddy relief made the whole thing funnier. “Marcus? Rich and powerful Marcus? Does he need a maid? Because if that’s why I’m here, you can forget it. My housekeeping skills are not my strong suit saying as I’ve never had a house to keep.”
“Are you done?” Wilhelmina tapped her fingers on the steering wheel while Calliope tried to stifle her giggles. They were getting off the highway when Calliope finally swiped her streaming eyes and frowned, confused.
“Let’s order our food, then we’ll sit and talk. Better I explain properly anyhow.”
Calliope put her hand on her sister’s arm. “Just tell me now.”
Wilhelmina turned into a parking lot with a fast food drive thru and got in line behind a pick-up truck. “Marcus isn’t well, Calliope.”
Calliope felt terrible for laughing. “Cancer? No, probably his heart, he’s always been a work-a-holic. Earns money, then stresses it’s not more money.”
“No, he’s physically fine,” Wilhelmina huffed out in a rush. “Your usual?”
“If my usual is a chicken sandwich, then yes. Oh, and iced tea. Now, if it’s not physical, it’s…mental? Surely not Marcus Graham, the high and mighty.” Calliope tucked her wild curls behind her ears while she waited for Wilhelmina to order. Marcus, Stephen’s cousin, was best man at their wedding. Calliope had enjoyed looking at him, but tuned the rest of him out of her psyche. She’d learned at an early age to ignore appearances.
Wilhelmina rolled up her window as she inched the car ahead in line. “Marcus had, er, a bit of a breakdown last year.”
“Surely he can afford the best doctors and meds. Why are you telling me?”
“Because the doctors don’t help, the medicine doesn’t help. He’s just not –” Wilhelmina scraped her lip with her teeth again. She blew out a breath, sighed. “Quite right.”
Calliope snorted. “What, you mean he’s working non stop, buying up and selling things at a frenetic pace? News flash, that’s Marcus. Whether right or wrong, that’s who he is, Wil.”
Wilhelmina shook her head as she opened her window to pay and took the bag of food and their drinks. Calliope juggled the drink tray, annoyed they’d wasted one for two drinks. When Wilhelmina was done, she pulled ahead to a spot next to a table covered by an umbrella. The car reeked of grease, turning Calliope’s stomach. Wilhelmina opened her door. “I hate eating in the car. Let’s go.”
Calliope left her backpack on the floor of the front seat and followed her sister, carrying the drinks. When they sat down, Calliope sniffed and made a face — the stink of the city wasn’t much better than the grease laden air in the car. She took the bottle of hand sanitizer her sister passed her and squirted some on her hands. “My tummy’s already upset, so let’s talk about something else while we eat. How’re the kids?”
Wilhelmina nibbled a fry, her face lit with a huge smile. “Good. Bobby’s toilet training already, and Wendy started school last week.”
“Wendy said she’d already learned everything and didn’t need to go back when we video chatted after her first day.” Calliope sipped her drink. “Figured she probably had with you for her mother. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t know how to read and write, wouldn’t know two plus two is six.”
Wilhelmina slapped Calliope with a wad of napkins. “I can’t take credit for Wendy, she’s just a sponge learning everything everywhere. She reminds me of you that way. You were so inquisitive, and you were reading like her. Just unfortunate for us that you were limited on materials.”
“I dunno, I learned a lot from public bathroom walls.” Calliope bit into her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. She swallowed, wiped the mayo from her cheek, and laughed. “Remember that one at the park by the beach?”
Wilhelmina’s cheeks turned pink. “I was trying to figure out how to get us out of there without the CAS lady seeing, and you come out asking what s-e-x meant, and why the illustration on the wall showed two men playing leap frog.”
Calliope laughed harder and choked on a fry. “That CAS lady was horrified. That’s when they tried to split us up because they had no homes with room for two.”
“We managed to get away though.” Wilhelmina’s blue eyes got shiny with unshed tears. “I should’ve let her take you at least.”
Calliope pushed her food away. “Yeah, you should have. Then you could have stopped trying to take care of me so much and taken care of yourself more.”
Wilhelmina pushed her food away as well. “I made a lot of mistakes, Calli. Ruined your life because of them.”
Calliope fanned her face to dry her own tears. “You saved my life. If you hadn’t brought me with you when you ran away, I’d be dead by now. Become like them, probably worse.”
“You wouldn’t have been like them. You’re nothing like them. You were just a little kid, I should’ve left, called the Children’s Aid Society from the phone booth down in the lobby on my way.”
“Oh yeah, because the CAS would’ve been so much better than where I was.” Calliope rolled her eyes. Deciding the talk had gotten too deep, she pulled her food back and picked up the rest of her sandwich. “Now, tell me if Bobby still sucks his thumb?”
Wilhelmina stared at Calliope for a few seconds, opened her mouth, closed it. Calliope shot her a pleading look. “Of course he does. I threw Wendy’s sucky in the garbage when she was his age, listened to her cry for a week but it was gone. How do you stop a kid from sucking on a part of their own body?”
Calliope swallowed the last of her chicken sandwich, thinking. “Tape it down? I still say let him, but you and Stephen are the parents. If it were up to Auntie Cloppy, I’d sit with him and suck my own.”
Wilhelmina laughed as she popped another fry in her mouth. “The kids want to see you so bad, keep asking when they’re going to meet you in real life.”
Calliope shrugged. “I’m here now.”
Wilhelmina stared at Calliope so long Calliope had to look away. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”
“Calli, I –” Wilhelmina scrunched up the fast food bag with their garbage and got up to toss it in the bin. When she sat down, she turned on the seat to face Calliope fully.
“You don’t want me to meet them. I get it.” Calliope forced a smile she didn’t feel to her face.
“God, you’re so infuriating. I’d have brought you straight home with me if it weren’t for Marcus. Stephen’s worried sick about him. We’ve tried to help him, but he’s just…empty.” Wilhelmina put her hand on Calliope’s arm. “Stephen and I don’t get you, you know that. We love you, but we don’t understand. But you’ve got this…gift? Knack? Calling. Even when we were on the streets, you were only a little girl but you’d find the saddest person in the area, and you’d sit with them as long as you could. At least until they smiled. Old men with booze in their pockets, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, talking to themselves would end up coming out of their haze to talk to you. That’s what you do now, isn’t it?”
Calliope shook her head. “No, not at all. I just travel.”
“And find needy people.”
“I’m the one who’s needy,” Calliope snorted. “Homeless, remember?”
“By choice. You rarely tell me anything, rarely talk to me, but I listen when you’re talking to the kids. Mostly Wendy, because Bobby’s not much into talking yet. You tell her things you wouldn’t bother to tell me. Like how you met Mrs. Harper at the bus station, how she looked so sad.”
Calliope frowned. “I just said I found a friend at the bus station, and I was cheering her up, helping her.”
“Which means she needed you.” Wilhelmina shrugged. “I listen to what you’re not saying as much as what you do say.”
Calliope thought of the older woman. She’d had this desperately sad vibe, and Calliope struck up a conversation with her. Turned out her husband had just died, her kids were too busy to be bothered with her, her grandkids barely knew her. She finally confided in Calliope that she went to the bus station every day, trying to decide whether she should get on one or roll in her chair in front of one. “You’re right, I do have a knack for finding needy people and we use each other.”
“Use each other? What do you get out of it?”
“Food, shelter.” Calliope thought hard. “Some of them give me bus fare when I leave.”
“You’re a liar, but I’ll let it pass. You’ve got a good heart, Calliope. And I need you to reach Marcus. No one else has, and I’m not sure anyone else can.”
Calliope slurped the last of her iced tea, kept slurping the ice. “What if I can’t?”
Wilhelmina snatched the cup out of Calliope’s hand. “Honestly? He’s tried to kill himself. Please, Calliope? We don’t know what else, who else, to try.”
Calliope stood up and brushed some of the dust off her shirt. “I’ve always been a sucker for please.”
“How far the mighty have fallen.” Calliope stared at the two-storey house Wilhelmina parked in front of. “Didn’t he used to live in a McMansion somewhere?”
“This house was part of the breakdown. Sold the big house and bought this one.” Wilhelmina shook her head.
“Still bigger than anything I’ve been in.” Calliope grabbed her backpack. “Are you sure I shouldn’t go wash up somewhere first?”
Wilhelmina reached into the back seat and grabbed her purse. “What, like in the sink at the fast food place? No, you can shower here.”
They got out of the car and Calliope followed her sister up the walk. The fall blooms were being choked out by weeds and the grass needed mowing. Wilhelmina rang the doorbell. The door swung open, and a tall, handsome man stood to the side. He stood like an expressionless statue, no irritation, no curiosity, no disgust at Calliope’s filth.
Calliope gaped at Marcus. This was the man who’d drank too much and hit on Calliope half-heartedly throughout the reception? His eyes were dull, lifeless. He’d lost a lot of weight and his track pants were dangerously close to falling off. “Hey Marcus. Remember me? Calliope? The one who slapped your face at the wedding eight years, seven months, and twenty-two days ago?”
Marcus glanced at her but didn’t react. Wilhelmina was staring at Calliope. “How’d you know that?”
“I left almost a week after the wedding, that was the last time I saw you. I just added the days after the wedding.” Calliope shrugged, her eyes roaming the foyer. Spotlessly clean.
“Can we come in?” Wilhelmina’s worry was palpable. Calliope studied Marcus again.
Marcus closed the door behind them and led them into the house. The furniture in the formal living room was light, and Calliope suspected, very expensive. “Could we sit somewhere there’s dark furniture? Only I’m a bit dirty.”
Marcus’s eyes flicked over Calliope. He shrugged and they followed him into the kitchen. Calliope had the heebie-jeebies. The house was too neat, too organized. Like no one lived there, not even dust mites.
“Can I use the shower?” Calliope decided cleaning up would give Wilhelmina a chance to brief Marcus on the real reason they were there.
Marcus shrugged but still didn’t say a word. Wilhelmina’s concerned gaze never left Marcus as she spoke. “Upstairs, middle door on the left is the main washroom. The bedroom connecting to it should be free if you want to put your bag in there.”
Calliope studied Marcus’s face for any sign of emotion, but he remained blank. She hurried up the wide staircase and found the washroom. There was no soap or shampoo in the shower (there was a separate jacuzzi tub but nothing there, either). Calliope gazed at her reflection and her concern doubled. She looked a mess, worse than some of the homeless she’d known. Marcus hadn’t batted an eye.
She found what she needed under the sink and washed herself and her clothes beneath the hot water, reveling in the luxury. After hanging her clothes to dry on the rack, Calliope forced herself to turn the water off, grabbed the fluffy towel hanging on the shower door, and stepped out onto the mat. She used her comb, wincing at the snags in her curls, as she pulled out clean clothes (Mrs. Harper had washed her entire wardrobe before Calliope left and Calliope hadn’t worn any of them while she was at the lake). She’d have to find a used clothing store and get some new shoes. Her flip flops were not only held together by duct tape and glue, they’d be useless now that summer was almost over.
She opened the door to the bedroom Wilhelmina had told her to use and jumped. “You scared me!”
Wilhelmina put her finger to her lips, went to the door leading to the hall and peered out. Closing it behind her, she approached Calliope. “Well?”
“Are you sure he didn’t kill himself and that’s just an imprint left behind?” Calliope huffed out a breath.
“He’s not getting better.”
“Talk about stating the obvious. What does he do all day? Does he go to work at least?”
“We don’t know. He doesn’t go to work, he’s on leave. He’s pretty much holed himself up in this house, and never comes out. Stephen used to come by every couple of days but he was getting too depressed so we started coming every weekend. The kids hate it, they find him scary.”
“What happened? Level with me.” Calliope threw her bag on the chair under the window.
“We don’t know. He won’t talk to anyone.”
“Girlfriend? Did she dump him?”
“Not that we know of. He wasn’t seeing anyone seriously in –” Wilhelmina scraped her teeth over her lip. “Ever.”
“We’ve got that in common at least. Although I don’t date. He obviously did at one time.” Calliope took her sister’s hands in hers. “I’m not sure I can help him, Wil. Usually I get a vibe, a sense, but it’s like he’s not there.”
Wilhelmina let out a nervous laugh. “You saw him, he’s there.”
“But he’s dead inside. His eyes are lifeless.” Calliope squeezed her hands. “I’m not sure I can help.”
Wilhelmina’s shoulders sagged. “Calliope, please? At least try?”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t try,” Calliope squared her shoulders. “I’m just not promising anything.”
“I made pancakes.” Calliope slid the plate in front of Marcus closer. She might as well have stripped naked and done the jitterbug for all the notice he gave the plate. “Maple syrup or corn syrup? My sister says I’m whackadoodle because I like corn syrup on waffles and pancakes, that it’s a sin that as a Canadian I don’t like maple syrup, but there you have it. Or don’t have it, since you have no corn syrup. But there’s jam.”
Calliope had searched the pantry, the cupboards, when she’d started making breakfast and ended up finding an ancient jar of strawberry jam in the fridge. Now she struggled to open it, found the lid didn’t want to turn. She glanced at Marcus but he stared past her so she got up and put her full force behind the effort. She was rewarded with the lid turning. She opened it, searched for fur, found none. She sniffed – smelled like strawberries. Calliope shrugged, stuck her spoon in and scooped clumps onto her pancakes.
She’d made herself tea because she hadn’t found the coffee. Marcus hadn’t touched his, or the juice she’d put out, nor did he touch the pancakes. “They’re good, I promise. A friend taught me a long time ago.”
They ate – rather, Calliope ate – in silence. She tried not to be rude by staring at him but she still couldn’t get a feel for where he was at mentally. By the time she’d gone to bed the night before, she’d been tempted to cut him just to make sure he bled.
“Your grass needs cutting. You got a lawnmower?” Calliope had used a push mower a couple of times, figured she’d tackle that chore. She needed fresh air, sunshine. Anything but the grey, gloomy atmosphere in the house. “I’ve got to earn my keep.”
Marcus shrugged and Calliope decided to interpret it as a yes. Wilhelmina had lied to Marcus, saying Calliope needed somewhere to stay because their house was cramped because of the kids. Calliope scoffed at the lame excuse for her presence – Wilhelmina knew the holes Calliope had found shelter in.
Calliope finished her food, her tea, and put the dishes on the counter. “Right, well, sorry to interrupt your incessant chatter but I’d better go find the mower.”
Marcus nodded curtly. Calliope went outside to the shed she’d spied from her bedroom window. She was disappointed when she tried the door and found it unlocked – she’d been looking forward to picking the lock. There was a lawnmower like the one Mr. Clark had had – easy peasy, lemony squeezy! Calliope wheeled the mower out of the shed, made several unsuccessful attempts to get it going and was about to give up when she tried once more. The engine engaged, Calliope looked up and winked at Mr. Clark, and pushed the mower towards the front of the house. Someone had cut the grass over the summer – probably Stephen – but not recently. The mower kept bogging with the long grass.
She was just pushing the mower to the side when it died. “Darn.”
“Out of gas?” The male voice startled Calliope and she spun, searching for the source. Instead of Marcus, an older man was watching her from his own yard.
“Either that, or she’s dead.” Calliope grinned.
“You got more?”
Calliope tried to remember if she’d seen a gas can in the shed. “You know something? I don’t know.”
“Hold tight, be back in a jiffy.”
The older man hurried out of sight and Calliope did as she was told. She grinned at the gnomes hiding in strategic places around the man’s yard. When he came back with a jerry can, she pointed at the gnomes. “You’ve got quite the eye for where to put them. I like the one with the fishing rod by your sprinkler.”
“Not me. My wife. Don’t get me started on the fairies she’s hidden everywhere.”
Calliope clapped her hands when she spotted one dangling from a tree. “She looks like she’s flying.”
“Aye, that’s the idea,” the man grunted as he filled the lawnmower’s tank. “That oughtta do it. That’s all I got of mixed fuel.”
Calliope had no idea what mixed fuel was but figured she didn’t need to know. “Well, thanks. I’ll get Marcus to bring over some money.”
“That his name? He’s not much for conversation. Don’t worry about the gas, we’re just happy to see it get mowed. I offered to get my grandson to do his when he does mine, but the guy, Marcus did you say his name was? He didn’t really give a clear answer.” The old man scratched his balding head. “Been here almost a year and I don’t think he’s said two words to my wife or I.”
“You don’t know him well then? Does he have much company?”
“Just a couple with kids come by every weekend. Don’t stay long. Them and delivery people.”
“That’s Stephen, Marcus’s cousin, and Wilhelmina, my sister. I’m staying here for a –” Calliope broke off. She was going to say awhile but the way things were going, she’d be gone within days. “Bit.”
“Well, I’m George, and my wife is Violet. If you need anything, call on us. Unless it’s during the news. We don’t like to be interrupted during the news.” George winked. “That’s when we’re eating. Lunch time, and dinner time.”
“I’m Calliope, and same goes. Except you can drop in during the news, I never watch TV.” Calliope stuck her hand out and shook George’s. “Thanks for helping me out.”
“Only neighbourly.” George scratched his head again. “Maybe you can spark some interest in the lump in there. Doesn’t seem interested in much.”
“That’s the goal.”
It hadn’t taken Calliope long to notice Marcus seemed to like everything in order. She’d taken to moving things around, just to watch Marcus come into the room and put them back. At first, she’d thought OCD, but Marcus didn’t seem to have any other compulsions. So she rearranged every time she entered a room, waited for Marcus to start yelling, cursing, something to show he felt anything at all. So far, he’d just put everything back without a word.
Calliope let her inner slob reign. She left dirty napkins on the table, dirty dishes scattered on the counters. Marcus picked up after her without complaint but Calliope thought she’d seen a flicker of emotion in his eyes. That’s why she stayed, the signs of life beneath the mask. Wilhelmina agreed not to bring the kids around, or Stephen, until Calliope got a read on the man. So Calliope did video chats from the closet upstairs so Wendy couldn’t guess where she was. Wilhelmina had dropped off a huge bag of clothes and some shoes for Calliope, taken her to get a new bank card, but other than that Calliope hadn’t ventured farther than George and Violet’s front porch.
Calliope countered the silence and boredom by Googling on her phone. A search on Marcus Graham revealed less than she already knew. Rather than discouraging her, she challenged herself to learn more about him however she could. She’d taken to searching his bedroom whenever he was sleeping on the sofa downstairs. She’d learned nothing other than he didn’t seem to sleep in the bed (she’d put a piece of thread on the two pillows days ago and it hadn’t moved).
Calliope huffed out an irritated breath when she entered the room for the fifth day in a row. Ears straining for sounds from downstairs, she crept into the ensuite washroom and opened the medicine chest, the last unchecked place. “Now we’re talking.”
The cabinet shelves were lined with bottles. The names on the labels meant nothing to her, so she took pictures and decided to Google them somewhere else. She put the bottles back, closed the cabinet, and crept down the stairs.
Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, she Googled each medicine and the dosage. She felt her concern escalate with each new discovery. She’d stumbled into some heavy stuff. Maximum dosages of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicines, prescriptions to combat side effects from the regimen of drugs. Calliope had never gone to conventional school, at least never for long, but even she knew that he was overmedicated. She studied the pictures again, this time searching for the doctors. There were four different doctors. How many psychiatrists did he have?
Calliope Googled them. One was a family doctor, one a psychiatrist, and two were unspecified, working out of a mental health clinic. Did they know he was taking so many different pills, know about each other?
Marcus shuffled into the kitchen. Calliope smiled up at him as she quickly locked her screen. “Good nap?”
Marcus grunted. Calliope took that as a positive sign. “Can I get you something to eat? Drink?”
“Why were you in my medicine cabinet?” His voice was gruff, almost rusty.
Calliope was so shocked to hear him speak she forgot to lie. “I was snooping.”
Calliope regained her composure. “Why are you on so many different pills? Some of them are hardcore stuff.”
Marcus poured himself a glass of water from the dispenser on the fridge door. Calliope figured he was going to ignore her, go back to pretending she wasn’t there. “Marcus?”
He reached into the small cabinet above the tall fridge, so tall Calliope hadn’t looked in it because she couldn’t reach. He pulled out a handful of bottles. “Those are old. I take these.”
Calliope felt her cheeks warm. Of all the things she’d studied the labels for, the dates hadn’t been one of them. “Right, well, that’s me looking stupid then, isn’t it?”
“Next time you want to know something, ask.” Marcus put the pills back and shut the cabinet doors. He shuffled across the kitchen.
“I’ve tried, you don’t answer.” Calliope whispered the words, but she thought maybe he’d heard because he hesitated before continuing out of the room.
Calliope came back from George and Violet’s with slices of pie for Marcus and herself for dessert. Now she just needed to figure out what to make for dinner. She stopped halfway across the foyer, sniffing. What was that smell?
Every other step she took she inhaled. Garlic? Onions? Yes to both, but what else? She’d left Marcus with an uneaten grilled cheese when she’d gone out to visit a couple of hours before, so it wasn’t residual lunch odours. What was it? She heard the clang of a pot, a muttered curse. Calliope took a deep breath and stepped into the kitchen. What she saw made her freeze in her tracks.
Marcus, wearing a white apron, was stirring something on the stove while waving his hand around like he was trying to flick off a leech. “What are you doing?”
Marcus slammed the spoon on the side of the pot before putting it on the stove. “Burnt my hand.”
Calliope set the pie down and went over to peek in the pot. “What’s that?”
“Homemade spaghetti sauce, or it was until I fell asleep. Think it’s burned beyond repair.”
Calliope picked up the spoon and licked the middle where a bit of dark sauce still stuck. “Yep. Definitely beyond repair.”
Marcus twisted the knob to turn the burner off. “Want to go out for pizza?”
Calliope hated dining out, but Marcus hadn’t left the house since she’d been there. He ordered everything online. “Sounds good.”
Calliope pulled on a sweater under the pretense of changing. She didn’t want to go, dreaded what lay ahead. She played with her phone for a few minutes, saw the battery was low and plugged it in. As she left her room, another thought hit her – some of the meds she’d looked up said not to drive or operate heavy equipment. In the weeks since she’d snooped, she hadn’t been brave enough to check what he still took.
She found Marcus at the door to the garage. He’d showered, put on pants and a sweater – a nice change from the sweat pants and faded t’s. Calliope hid a smile when she realized she was right, he had been regaining weight. At least she’d succeeded at one thing. “You good to drive?”
He nodded and opened the door for her. Calliope’s knowledge of cars could be summed up with a paint palette. “Oh, you’ve got a black car.”
“Yep. I had a red BMW, but I sold it. Now it’s the black Chevy SUV.” A faint smile flashed before his face settled into the dull mask Calliope was used to. “You want to drive?”
Calliope shook her head, her curls springing and bouncing around her face. “Can’t. Never learned how.”
Marcus pulled the hand holding the keys back and swerved to get in on the driver’s side. “Never?”
Calliope opened her door and climbed in. “Never.”
Marcus pressed a button on a remote clipped to the visor and the garage door opened as he started the vehicle. “Is your heart set on pizza?”
Calliope buckled her seatbelt. “Unless you want fish I’m game for anything.”
“You don’t like fish?” Marcus pressed the button as they drove down the driveway.
“I’ve eaten way too much tuna in my life.” Calliope made a face. “Sardines, too.”
Marcus copied her cringe. “I’m not obsessed with fish, but canned fish is nothing like good fish. How about Chinese?”
Calliope thought of the smells wafting out of the Chinese food restaurant near where Wilhelmina and Calliope had once called home. “Never had Chinese but it always smelled so good.”
Marcus stared at her while he waited for a light to change. “You’re serious.”
“Sometimes. But I’m telling the truth when I say I’ve never had Chinese food. Except rice. I’ve eaten a lot of rice. And pasta.” Calliope thought of the shelters, the soup kitchens. “Soup, too.”
“Is that why you nuke me a bowl of soup every day at lunch but never have any yourself?” Marcus changed lanes and signalled to turn at the next street.
Calliope nodded. “I don’t mind homemade soup, sometimes I eat that, but I just can’t do the tinned stuff.”
Marcus pulled into a nearly empty parking lot. “We’re early for the dinner rush. Best time to go. All the food is fresh.”
Calliope studied the sign. “Fire Breathing Dragon? Is it spicy stuff?”
“There’s some spicy stuff, like General Tso chicken, but most isn’t.” Marcus opened his door and got out. Calliope swallowed, took a deep breath, and tried to open the door but her hand refused to pull the handle. Marcus frowned into the car when Calliope didn’t join him and immediately hurried over to the passenger side. “Sorry, I should’ve held the door for you at home, too. Been a long time, I’m out of practice.”
Calliope shook her head, her curls swinging into her face, her eyes. She ran her hand through riotous curls, trying to tame them. “Not that.”
Marcus looked completely bewildered. “Calliope? If you want pizza –”
Calliope willed herself to her feet, forced a smile to her lips. “I’m fine, it’s okay.”
Marcus cast glances at Calliope every couple of steps. Calliope continued to inhale, exhale, her eyes glued to the sign. “You know I’ve got no money, right?”
Marcus grabbed her upper arm. “Is that with this is about? This is my treat, my way of thanking you for…everything.”
Calliope felt her face relax a bit, hoped her smile didn’t look so tight. “I’m just not used to this.”
Marcus held the door for her and Calliope was engulfed in smells and sounds. Memories flooded her; smelling the Chinese food place on hot summer nights in the only home she’d had when she was little. She’d sat at her open window, praying for a breeze, and when one came, it brought the scent of heaven. Her tummy’d rumble, hunger clawing her insides, and then there’d be shouting from within the apartment, sounds of breaking glass and skin-on-skin slaps, and she no longer wanted to feast.
“Calliope? Are you okay?”
Transported to the present, she nodded. “Smells so good.”
They followed a tiny Asian woman to their table for two, near the first long table. The woman nodded her head, smiled kindly, and left.
“Shall we?” Marcus gestured to the long tables.
“What?” Calliope had been about to sit down.
“It’s a buffet. We have to get our own food.” Marcus grinned.
“Seriously?” Calliope felt the nerves leaving her. She wouldn’t have to ask a million questions about what to order, how to order. She could just go to the tables and take what looked good.
“All you can eat, so you can go back as many times as you want.”
Calliope felt her jaw drop. Living a feast of famine existence, she felt like she’d just walked through the pearly gates. Marcus handed her a warm plate from the end of the row, and they slid them along the rail, Calliope eyeing each dish in wonder. She gave herself a bit of everything, even a fried shrimp and a crab leg.
“Our plates are pretty full.” Marcus hadn’t taken a bit of everything, but he’d piled his plate high with lots of a few choices. “Let’s go eat this, then check out the other options.”
Calliope followed him to their table. She set her plate down and waved Marcus off when he made to pull out her chair. “Don’t be silly.”
Calliope’s senses were on overload. Savoury, buttery, creamy, tangy. Each morsel she tried was a whole new experience. “This, what was this again?”
“Lemon chicken.” Marcus grinned as Calliope let out a moan of pleasure. “My favourite.”
“I keep thinking this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten, then I try something else and that’s the best thing ever.” Calliope wiped her mouth and sipped the water that had appeared while they were getting their food.
Their next trip, they went for traditional Canadian food – prime rib, potatoes, gravy, Yorkshire pudding. Calliope added a heaping spoonful of lemon chicken and more shrimp on impulse as they passed.
Calliope was filled to bursting. “No more, no room.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow, the hint of a smile on his lips. “You’re sure? There’s still the dessert table.”
Calliope’s eyes opened wide. “I’ll just come, have a peek.”
Calliope had never experienced such divine treats. She wanted some of everything but only took some of what appealed most. Calliope sat down, undid the button on her jeans as she picked up her fork to try the cheesecake – blueberry first. “This is incredible.”
“You like cheesecake obviously.” Marcus grinned as he bit into a puffed pastry.
“Good thing because I took so much of it. Thanks for splitting the pieces with me.” Calliope waved her fork at Marcus’s plate.
“You really had to twist my arm, but I’m a nice guy, so…”
Calliope grinned. Now that she was full, sleepy and content, she realized the Marcus she was with now was not the Marcus she’d been living with for several weeks – and certainly nothing like the Marcus she’d met at the wedding. “Can I ask you something? When I first came to stay with you, you didn’t seem…”
Marcus’s smile vanished, and he straightened in his seat. “Let’s not right now.”
Calliope studied him for a second before nodding her consent. “You want to know why I hesitated? In the car?”
Marcus relaxed, nodded.
“I was having a panic attack. At least, I think that’s what it was. I’ve only been to a proper restaurant twice, and only with Wilhelmina. She ordered everything for me because she knows what I like.”
Marcus kinked his neck – he’d been about to throw his head back and laugh then seemed to realize Calliope wasn’t joking. “I had no idea.”
Calliope smiled to show him she wasn’t insulted. “I’m not very up on things, you know? My sister gave me a phone years ago, and I didn’t know how to use it. I met a teenage boy at a shelter and he taught me. Then she sent me a smart phone, and I felt so stupid trying to work that. A young mother I met at a bus station taught me the basics. Now I Google everything I don’t know, but Google wasn’t much help when I asked how to eat at a pizza restaurant. I’ve had pizza before, so figured I’d just order something with pepperoni and an iced tea.”
Marcus gestured to the server for the bill when she came to clear away the last of their empty plates. “Then I threw a monkey wrench, brought you here instead.”
Calliope smiled shyly. “I’m glad you did. I always wondered if Chinese food tasted as good as it smelled, now I know.”
Marcus tapped his card on the device the waitress brought and stood. “Let’s get out of here.”
Calliope followed Marcus out of the restaurant, wondering what he thought of her. Marcus opened the car door for her, waited until she was seated before closing the door, then went around to get in the driver’s seat. “I usually like to go for a walk after a big meal. Do you want to go home, go to bed? You look wiped.”
“Like a walk around the block?” Calliope sat up straight in the seat, excited.
“Or the park near my house. There’s a great walking trail there.”
Calliope wriggled in her seat. “I’m in.”
They drove in comfortable silence and he parked in a large lot. “Not many cars tonight.”
Calliope smiled to herself when Marcus seemed disappointed she’d let herself out of the car before he could get to her. “Which way?”
Marcus grabbed her hand as he pointed. “This way.”
They walked along a narrow, paved path. “So many trees! You can’t smell the pollution here, or hear the cars.”
“That’s what I love about this place. Like a whole different world.” Marcus gestured to the trees beside them. “You wouldn’t suspect that there’s a major highway on the other side of those woods. Tell me what makes you look so sad when you talk about smelling Chinese food?”
Caught off guard by the sudden interrogation, Calliope tensed, tried to pull her hand away, but Marcus held tight. She stared up at him, her mind whirling. Finally, she nodded. “I’ll tell you everything if you agree to do the same.”
Marcus tensed beside her as they walked. After a few minutes, he let out a resigned sigh. “Quid pro quo, huh? I guess it’s only fair.”
Calliope didn’t want to admit she wasn’t sure what that meant, but guessed he’d agreed so she expelled a deep breath. “How much about my life have you learned from Wilhelmina?”
Marcus shrugged. “I know your parents are dead, that you didn’t have an easy childhood, but honestly? She doesn’t say much about her past, and Stephen told me that the present is all we need to worry about.”
Calliope nodded. “Figures. I don’t know if my parents are dead, though if Wilhelmina said they are, maybe she found out somehow. They were…not nice people.”
Marcus frowned down at her. “Not nice, how?”
Calliope shrugged. “They drank, a lot. Beat each other, hit us. Wil mostly. There was this Chinese food restaurant across the street and I used to keep my window open, hoping to catch whiffs of the food. I dreamed about the food. Pretended the food bank offerings were dishes I saw people carrying out of the restaurant every night. Whenever I could, I’d salvage an unbroken bottle, take it to the store to get a dime. I was saving my money so I could go there, find out what was so tantalizing about the smells.”
“Why’d you stop saving up?”
Calliope wanted to change the subject, find an interesting tree to distract him, but remembered their deal. “I’d saved up like seven dollars or something, and I asked Wilhelmina if she’d take me there to get something the next day. She said she had some money, too, so we’d both eat like queens. My mother overheard, told my dad, and he whipped us both, took our money. He’d only ever beat me a few times, usually Wilhelmina would do something to make him angrier and he’d beat on her worse. But because stealing his bottles for money was my idea, going to eat at a restaurant was my idea, he beat me worse than ever. Wilhelmina called him names, hit him, but he kept on beating me. Even my mom told him to stop, she’d never done that before. When he pulled his belt off, his pants fell down, and Wilhelmina went nuts. Hit him over the head with a bottle. He fell down, stayed down. Our mom went crazy, crying. Wilhelmina just cleaned me up and slept with me that night. Early the next morning, she woke me and we left.”
Calliope hadn’t realized they’d stopped walking, didn’t realize she was crying, until Marcus wiped her tears. “Where’d you go?”
“Wilhelmina had packed her backpack with clothes for us. We took buses from our city. Said we needed a bigger city to hide in, we ended up here. Every few months, CAS would find us – sometimes the shelters would call them or people would see us panhandling and call. We’d go into a foster home for awhile, but most of them weren’t nice. Whenever they started talking about splitting us up, Wilhelmina would sneak me out and we’d move to a different area of the city.”
Marcus gaped at Calliope. “How old were you?”
“I was seven, Wilhelmina was fifteen when we left.” Calliope shrugged. “Wilhelmina saved my life, my sanity, though I didn’t understand it at the time. She taught me everything she could, and we went to the library a lot so we could both learn. Usually in the winter, to keep warm. In the summer, we snuck into pools and parks, places like that. I only went to school when in a foster home but I think I learned more than most kids. When Wilhelmina was about twenty, she decided to approach one of the shelters we sometimes went to, and they helped her get a place to live, a job. I tried, oh, how I tried to live with her, but I just couldn’t. When I was thirteen, I ran away. She found me, brought me home, said I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, so I stopped going to school. A year after that, she got in trouble because I wasn’t going. By the time I was fifteen, I’d figured out that I wasn’t cut out to live a life like hers. She worked, hard, and hated her job. She wasn’t happy, but she kept going. I thought she was crazy. So what if she could afford to buy a few pieces of clothes brand new, never worn by anyone? The cost was too high. I took off again, this time somewhere she couldn’t find me. I missed her so much but I just didn’t want that life. That’s my story. Now, what’s yours?”
“You were at her wedding. I remember meeting you, hitting on you.” Marcus grinned as if trying to lighten the mood, but Calliope saw sadness in his eyes.
“I’d gotten into the habit of sending Wilhelmina post cards from wherever I was, if I was anywhere for any length of time. She’d drive to the address I said I’d been at, trying to find me. She always missed me by a day or two. I never knew how hard she searched until she got to Mr. Clark’s. I’d stayed with him because he’d been sick and was still weak. He relapsed while I was with him, and I stayed longer. When Wilhelmina showed up, I refused to leave. Mr. Clark needed me. Wilhelmina went and got me a phone, said she’d only leave me alone if I promised to keep it on at all times. Mr. Clark died shortly after; I went to a shelter, a teenage boy there taught me how to use it. She called me one day, asked me to come because she was getting married. I went, stayed a few months, left just after the wedding.”
“Why’d you wait over eight years to see her again?”
Calliope raised an eyebrow. So he had been listening that night. “Because it hurts too much to see her.”
Marcus stared at her in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Calliope shivered as the wind picked up, swirling fallen leaves around their ankles. “Because she’d given up so much for me, done so much for me, and every time I needed her, she’d put me ahead of herself. You have no idea the sacrifices she made for me. What taking care of me cost her. Before we hit the streets, she used to talk about being a lawyer. Because of me, she had to settle for answering phones at a law office.”
Marcus pulled Calliope along, heading back to the car now. “But she met Stephen at the law office. And you know she became a teacher, don’t you?”
Calliope stopped walking. “What?”
“She wouldn’t marry Stephen until she finished her degree, got a job. Made him wait years.” Marcus frowned at Calliope. “You didn’t know?”
Calliope didn’t answer. They walked back to the car at a brisk pace, shivering. The temperature was dropping fast, and neither of them were wearing jackets. When Calliope slid in, Marcus closed the door, and she took the few seconds of silence to decide if she was angry. When Marcus got in, he glanced at her before putting the key in the ignition and cranked a knob next to Calliope’s knee. “Heat. Only takes a second.”
Calliope turned as much as she could on the seat. “Wilhelmina probably didn’t tell me because she felt guilty, which is dumb. I’m happy for her. What kind of teacher is she?”
Marcus reversed out of the spot and started driving. “Little kids. In a low-income area, that’s all I know.”
Resting her cheek on the seat, she smiled. “She’s probably the best teacher they’ve ever had. The kids, and the school. She taught me everything.”
Marcus pulled onto the street Calliope knew his house was on. “I never thought about it before, but after everything you’ve told me I’m going to say I bet you’re right.”
Calliope sighed her pleasure. “Finally. Finally, I can stop feeling bad, like I ruined Wil’s life, ruined her chances of becoming a lawyer someday.”
Marcus laughed as he pushed the button on the visor and pulled into the garage. “She never said she’d ever wanted to be a lawyer, and she calls Stephen’s colleagues stuffed shrits. Says Stephen’s the nicest, most honest, and coolest lawyer in the world, the exception.”
Marcus closed the garage after he shut the car off. Calliope unbuckled and slid out. “She told me that he’s a good guy, helps people write wills.”
Marcus held the door into the house for Calliope. “Yep, boring stuff.”
“Unlike you, who buys stuff high and sells low or something.”
“I dabbled in stocks, yes.” Marcus shook his head as they went into the kitchen.
Calliope plugged the kettle in, eyed the pie. “Worked up an appetite yet? I promised Vi I’d let her know what we thought of her raspberry pie, she tried a new recipe.”
Marcus stared in disbelief. “Seriously?”
Calliope winked at him. “Homeless, remember? I haven’t had many opportunities in life to eat as much as I just did, but being homeless, you learn you can always find room for more if it’s offered, especially treats.”
Marcus grabbed two plates while Calliope made the tea. She didn’t want to push him for answers, but now that he’d finally uncorked the bottle, she thought it best to keep the momentum rather than risk him sinking back into robot mode.
“You drink a lot of tea,” Marcus said, picking up his cup. “You don’t like coffee?”
Calliope shrugged. “I’m not used to having choices, but when given one, I’d choose coffee. You don’t have coffee, so I drink tea. Better than the lake water I was drinking before I came here.”
“I’ve got a Keurig. The little containers in the cupboard are single serve coffees. I’ll show you how to use them in the morning.”
Calliope scooped up a bite of pie, sniffed it, then popped it in her mouth. “This is amazing.”
Marcus grinned at her and copied her, sniffing first. “Not sure why you smell every bite, but I’m fascinated watching you eat every time.”
Calliope swallowed another bite. “Bad habit. I’m so accustomed to sniffing food before I eat to make sure it’s not bad. Which is dumb, because when you’re starving, you usually aren’t picky. Unless it’s definitely rotten. Slightly off doesn’t usually make me sick.”
They finished their pie in silence. When they were done, Calliope got up and took their plates, rinsing them in the sink.
“You can clean up after yourself,” Marcus joked, sarcasm tinging his tone.
Calliope shot him a look over her shoulder. “Always do, except I noticed you kept moving stuff back if I moved it. So I took it one step farther, hoping you’d yell at me, tell me to leave, something to show emotion.”
“I almost did a few times, especially when you overheated the tomato soup and left the mess.”
Calliope sat down again, leaning into the table. “Why didn’t you?”
Marcus shrugged, not making eye contact.
“What did you call it earlier? Quid pro quo or something? Your turn.” Calliope put her hand on his and squeezed.
“It’s getting late and –”
“Nice try. Neither of us gets up to an alarm, so start talking.”
“Wendy’s a spitfire, isn’t she? I hear you talking to her from your closet. Guess you don’t want her to –”
“Marcus, I’ve stripped my soul naked and offered it up in sacrifice. Please?” Calliope uttered the word that was always her own undoing.
Marcus kept his hand in Calliope’s as he stood. “Fine. But let’s go sit in front of the fireplace. Not cold enough to bother with the furnace, but the fire will take the chill out.”
They went into the formal living room, the one she’d only been in once. Marcus flicked a switch, and Calliope watched flames come to life. “Wow.”
“Gas fireplace. Cleaner and easier than a wood one.”
They sat on the two-seat sofa in front of the fake fire. “What do you want to know?”
Calliope thought for a minute, let the questions form clearly in her mind. “I’ve got a million of them, but maybe if you just start talking about what happened last year, you’ll answer them before I ask.”
Marcus stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed his left foot over his right ankle. “Need to go back longer than that. Stephen was like my big brother, since neither of us had siblings. Our mothers are sisters and best friends, so we were always together. Our dads were hard working good guys – both passed away within a year of each other. Stephen and I both ended up in our father’s fields – Stephen as estate lawyer, me as an accountant. I played the stock market, that’s what you were referencing, only it’s buy low, sell high.”
Calliope nodded as she curled her legs under her and faced Marcus fully. “And you made a killing.”
“I did, yes. And I became obsessed with making more, and more, and more.”
“Did you lose it all?” Calliope knew the world was full of money hungry people, and she’d pegged Marcus as one. Being just a hungry person, Calliope tried to understand when Wilhelmina explained Marcus’s life to her, but in the end, she’d summed him up as one of the rich people who didn’t see the hungry, or if they did, looked down on them with disdain. The people who didn’t have a lot to give were the ones who dropped coins into their cups when Calliope and Wilhelmina sat on street corners, rare for the affluent to so much as bless a homeless person when they sneezed.
Marcus shook his head. “My mother used to say I was like Midas, everything I touched turned to gold. The past few years, she stopped saying that, started saying things like when was I going to get married like Stephen, have kids like Stephen. She loves being ‘auntie-grandma’ to Wendy and Bobby, but she wants her time to be Nana.”
Calliope drifted in life, but she’d given up the streets, only stayed in shelters when she was desperate. She’d befriended hundreds of people, learned early that there were times to ask questions and times to listen. She let Marcus gather his thoughts without saying a word.
“I’d answer her with stupid things like ‘when I’ve made enough’, or ‘kids suck the money out of you’. I’d never thought about a family, not really. Figured Stephen could provide that for my mother as well as his.”
Calliope watched Marcus watching the fire. His misery was so palpable she wondered if she were imagining the weight pushing her down with him. Suffocating her.
“Some people ruin their lives with drugs, with drink. But money…stocks can be as addictive, like gambling in reverse. I pushed everyone away, or at least stopped responding to them. Even my mother. I was constantly watching the market, or researching new companies entering the market. The only people I talked to were my small circle of like-minded friends, and most of them were online. I missed out on promotions at work but didn’t care because I already had more money than I’d make in a lifetime working. Then one day, Stephen showed up at my house – my big, fancy house where I had a maid, but lived alone and never socialized. He was furious. My mother might have breast cancer, why wasn’t I there for her?” Marcus glanced at Calliope when she gasped, clutched his hand in hers. “She didn’t, but no one knew yet, they were waiting for the biopsy results. I stood there, in the foyer ten times bigger than the one here, and felt something cold wash over me. Stephen asked me when was the last time I’d spoken to my mother. I couldn’t tell him, so he told me – Christmas. This was in July. Seven and a half months, and I hadn’t talked to my own mother. Did I know Wilhelmina had a little boy four months ago? I stood there, trembling, trying to remember if I’d even known she was pregnant. Did my money keep me warm at night, or did I at least date? And I realized it had been forever since I’d gone on a date, been interested in anyone. He said a whole lot of things that night, some of them mean, some of them ugly, all of them true.”
Calliope sniffed, squeezing his hand. Marcus reached over, touched her cheek, pulled his hand back and showed her the tear. “You’re crying for me? Or for what I did to others?”
“Both,” Calliope whispered, rubbing her face on her shoulder.
“That was the start of…whatever happened to me. At first, I played changed man, out to prove I could be both good son and money man. Mom didn’t have cancer, so I sent her and Stephen’s mom on a cruise to celebrate. That Christmas, I lavished the kids with gifts that my maid bought, swearing they were perfect for an almost one-year-old, and a three-year-old. Took Stephen to hockey games, gave him my tickets when I was tied up – code-speak for didn’t want to go. Then I made a huge gamble, put half of my money in one stock. My circle thought I was nuts, but like my mom used to say, I’m like Midas. I made a killing in less than six months when I sold the stocks weeks before they tanked. Ken, one of the few people from our circle I’d met offline, had become like family. He watched my stocks, my risks, and sometimes copied me. I didn’t know he’d invested shortly after me in the new software company. I made my killing, more than tripling my original investment, and got out. The stocks went up in value a bit more, but I was already researching the next big up=and-coming company. I’d mostly forgotten the software company when it tanked hard and fast. I gloated about getting out when I did, bragged about my instincts because everyone else had still been shouting from the rooftops to invest more. Then I got a call from Ken’s estranged wife. Ken had lost everything, the fool had tried to one-up me and invested all-in. When it tanked, hitting pennies, it killed him. Massive coronary, dead before he hit the floor.”
“You didn’t know, not your fault. I’m so sorry,” Calliope felt the tears burning her cheeks, felt Marcus’s grief and sadness as if they were her own.
“Whatever had washed over me when Stephen had shown up at my door? It washed over me again, suffocating me this time. I went to the doctor, he gave me pills. I couldn’t breathe. More doctors, more pills. You saw the medicine chest, you get the picture. I sold the house, the cars, all except the Jag. Impulsive decisions I didn’t understand. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ken. He’d lost it all, not just money, but family, friends, everyone except the sharks like us. His wife was the last to leave him and I was sure my family was fed up with me, too. One night – rather, one day — I started drinking. The movers were coming the next day to move me here. I went into the garage, sat in the Jag I was trading in the next day, wrote out my thoughts, trying to figure out what was going on in my head, trying to understand. Drank, wrote, drank. Started the car because it was cold, still trying to make sense of what I was feeling, what I was doing. Kept drinking. My thoughts were more jumbled, more confused. I wrote stupid stuff, didn’t write the one thought that answered it all – Ken. I didn’t deserve any of my things. I kept putting nonsense as if my thoughts were wrong. I finished the bottle of whisky but still I sat there. I’d taken my anti-anxiety pills, my anti-depressants, and I was so tired.”
Calliope heard the pain in his voice, the grief. “You didn’t try to kill yourself.”
Marcus shook his head, his face almost expressionless. Calliope was reminded of the robot she’d been living with for weeks. “No. But everyone, including police and ambulance, thought I’d tried. I didn’t bother to correct them, didn’t bother to tell anyone. The movers found me in the garage when they showed up to start packing, called 911, and I was in the hospital for weeks. The doctor that took over my care changed my prescriptions. I came home in a fog. The meds numbed me. I liked them. I didn’t feel, didn’t need to think. In my haze, I let Stephen set up standing orders with grocery deliveries, the bills came out of my accounts automatically, I didn’t need to do anything. The only thing I did was clean.”
Calliope stifled the sobs trying to break free. She held his hand tighter, wiped her eyes on her shoulders. “What changed? You were different tonight. Today – you tried to cook.”
Marcus turned his head to stare at Calliope. She thought he wouldn’t answer her, but he finally sighed. “You.”
Calliope blinked. “What?”
Marcus pulled her until she was sitting across his lap, his arms around her. “I was in this fog, going through motions but not thinking at all, comfortable. Then you show up, disgustingly filthy, and I saw you through the haze. Every time I turned around, you were there. Talking, making a mess, just breathing. Everything was still a fog, but you were like sunshine breaking through the clouds. I stopped taking my meds, slowly. Weaning myself off them. I wasn’t overcome with confused thoughts anymore, instead I was curious – about you, mostly. Annoyed – who was this butterfly flitting around my house making a mess, shoving sandwiches at me? I finally stopped taking my medicine altogether the day after I’d figured out you’d found the old bottles. I didn’t want to scare you off, so I kept quiet, observed. Saw you making friends with my neighbours, heard you talking to Wendy from the closet. As infuriating as it was cleaning up after you, I liked it. Liked having you here. Enjoyed listening to your incessant chatter.”
Calliope tensed when Marcus’s eyes locked on hers, bore into hers like he could see her soul. She thought about jumping up, running away, but his blue eyes kept her pinned. Her pulse sped up, her heart skipped a beat. She’d seen people kiss on the streets, knew the look in their eyes just before they did, and she thought she saw that look in Marcus’s eyes. She put her hand on his shoulder, forced a smile to her lips. “My work here is done.”
Marcus blinked, pulling his head back. “What?”
Calliope got to her feet, tamped the sadness inside down. “Wilhelmina asked me to come. She and Stephen were so worried about you, you know. She asked me to try to reach you.”
Marcus stared at her in disbelief. “I don’t understand.”
Calliope dug deep for strength, deeper still for courage. She started to back slowly from the room. “Marcus, you’re going to be okay. If I stay, you’ll start to need me, and that will defeat the purpose. Get back into the real world, start living again. Stay away from the stock market.”
Calliope reached the hall. “You’re off your meds, you’re talking, feeling, seeing again. You’re stronger than you were when I got here, you’ll get stronger still as you get out there and live your life.”
Marcus got to his feet. “You’re leaving?”
Calliope nodded, willing her heart to stay whole for a few more minutes. “You don’t need me here anymore.”
“I do need you, don’t say I don’t.” Marcus’s tone was bordering on pleading.
“Then I’ve already stayed too long.” Calliope spun on her heel and ran up the stairs. Her bag, always packed and ready, was on the chair. She unplugged her phone, her battery pack, and slipped them into a side pocket. The clothes Wilhelmina had brought for her were folded in the drawers, she’d text her sister when she got wherever she was going to let her know she’d left with what she’d come with. Except the shoes. She’d packed a sturdy pair of running shoes, and would wear the other pair when she left.
Marcus was waiting for her at the front door. She memorized every inch of him as he stood there, waiting. “Now I know why your bag was always packed on the chair.”
Calliope nodded, her hands jamming into her jean pockets. “Can you give George and Violet their plate back? Tell Vi the pie was awesome. Only don’t take it over during the news –lunch or dinner.”
Marcus nodded, cleared his throat. “I’m sorry.”
Calliope faltered as she approached the door. “Why?”
“You’d just scraped yourself raw for me, and I unburdened on you right after. Overwhelmed you. I misread things, thought –” Marcus shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Thought what?” Calliope knew she should just go, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave yet.
“That…” Marcus shrugged, his face becoming a mask. “Nothing.”
Calliope huffed out a breath in exasperation. “Don’t. Don’t do this to me, to yourself.”
“Do what?” A glimmer of something – annoyance? Impatience? – flashed in his eyes.
“Shut up, shut down. You’re off the meds, you’re back in your head. Don’t put the burden on me, make me responsible for keeping you there. I’m not strong enough. For the first time, since you told me about Wilhelmina becoming a teacher, I’m weightless. Let me be free, don’t replace that load with a new one. Tell me what you thought.”
“I thought you felt what I felt. Thought maybe I’d finally found someone who understood me, got me, and still liked me.” Marcus laughed to let her know he was, at least partly, joking about the last bit. Calliope smiled as her heart ached. “I’m sorry if almost kissing you is what scared you off.”
Calliope closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “One final piece I didn’t mention, but since you held up your end of the deal so well, I’ll toss it in as a bonus. I’ve never kissed anyone before. Believe it or not; being on the streets for most of my life, I’ve managed to get to the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having a boyfriend. Lame, huh?”
Marcus’s face split into a wide grin that lit his eyes. “I’m thirty-seven and can’t remember the girlfriends I’ve had. There weren’t many, but they also weren’t memorable. At least not enough to keep me from the stock market.”
Calliope reached up to pat his face. “You’ll find her, the woman who can keep you from losing yourself in money.”
Calliope worried he’d say he already had. She backed away and stuffed her feet into her shoes, not looking at him, not letting him have a chance to speak. “Well, you take care.”
Marcus put his hand on her shoulder, stopping her. “Let me come with you?”
Calliope couldn’t help herself. She giggled. “You, on the streets? The Midas touch guy? You wouldn’t last a night.”
Marcus shrugged. “I could try.”
“No.” Calliope felt the smile slip off her face. “Just like I couldn’t live in structure forever, you couldn’t handle living anyplace forever.”
“Is that what you want? To be homeless forever?”
Calliope thought of the storage unit she’d considered living in. “Not necessarily homeless, but this is all I know. I need to be free, maybe come back someplace of my own now and then, but out there, helping.”
Marcus stared at Calliope until she felt flutters in her tummy. “What would you really want? The one thing that would keep you rooted to one spot?”
Calliope snorted. “What, like if I found a magic lamp and rubbed it, and a genie popped out?”
Marcus considered. “Yep. You’ve got three wishes, but you have to be honest, and you can’t wish for more wishes.”
“That’s easy.” Calliope waved her hands excitedly. “I’d find a place, like where I was before I came here, at the lake but no one was around. Then I’d give the shelters my number, and they could send me sad people, hurting people, needy people, and they could come and stay with me until they got their happy back and knew where they wanted to go, then they could go, find other sad people to send in their place.”
Marcus held up a fist. “One, you want property on a lake. Two, you want to help sad people. What’s the third?”
Calliope locked eyes with Marcus, bit her tongue as she started to say ‘you’. She shrugged, broke eye contact. “I’ll save the third for a rainy day.”
“I thought you’d have said a Chinese food restaurant on the lake.”
Calliope thought Marcus knew what she wanted to say, silently thanked him for letting the moment pass. She snapped her finger. “Maybe not on the lake, but near the lake, a Chinese buffet whenever I wanted. That’s the third wish.”
“Can I kiss you good-bye?” Marcus asked as he held out a jacket for her. “It’s cold out.”
Calliope shrugged out of her backpack, put the coat on, grateful she wouldn’t be cold. That’s the one thing she hated about her life, the winters. She resettled her backpack on her shoulders, still considering his request. Finally, she nodded. Marcus leaned in, dipped his head, and lightly touched his lips to hers. Calliope felt her heart shiver, her toes curl, and finally understood the looks on lovers faces after they’d kissed. She almost wished she’d run out the back door, not had this last minute talk, could head out free and clear never knowing what she was missing. How she longed to curl up in front of a fake fire, talk for hours, sleep, only to wake up and do it all again. She pulled her head back, patted his cheek, and skipped out the door.
Calliope crunched through the dead leaves and shallow snow, her arms laden with wood she’d gathered. She kicked the door of the small cabin. “Mr. Vincent? Mrs. Vincent?”
The door swung open and Calliope hurried in. “I’ve got your wood. You can have a nice fire tonight. I smell snow coming.”
“You can smell snow?”
The deep voice caused Calliope to drop the logs she was stacking near the woodstove. She whirled, stumbled. Marcus was closing the door behind her.
“Where are –? How’d you –? What the –?” Calliope scanned the empty cabin, but the elderly couple she was staying with were nowhere to be seen.
Marcus sat down on the sofa, picked up a half-drank cup of coffee. He’d obviously been there awhile. “The Vincents are outside, playing with the kids. Your sister brought me – she found you with the tracker on your phone. Oh, and I think I’ve just bought this cabin, the whole trailer park, and in case you didn’t know, there’s a Chinese food place out on the highway.”
Calliope flopped on the squashy chair she’d come to think of as hers. “Whoa. Wait, hold up, what?”
“Seems I found a genie in a lamp, and turns out our wishes were the same.” Marcus set his coffee down, got up to kneel in front of Calliope. “Well, I don’t know the first thing about finding sad people, but you found the Vincents and were making them happy. Just seems I was able to do it better than you, because now they can winter in Florida, and come back here every spring to soak up the rays by the lake or the pool without having to do any of the work. The only condition they had was no drugs – you don’t do drugs, do you?”
Calliope glared at Marcus. “No!”
“That’s what I thought. They said they’ve had a rough go lately, seems their campground is a fledgling business since they aren’t as young as they used to be and can’t keep up. I asked them how they felt about sad people, homeless people, and sad, homeless people. They said people can’t be sad in such a pretty place, but they didn’t care if they were sad when they got here. And since I’m letting them live in the trailer for free whenever they’re not in Florida, they figured that made them homeless, too.”
Calliope tried to stand, but Marcus was in her way. “I need to get up.”
“Hang on. I’m not done yet.” Marcus put his hand over Calliope’s.
Calliope stiffened in her seat. “Why are you doing this?”
Marcus squeezed her hand. “Because I can. I’ll still pay the Vincents some money, if this isn’t what you want, because that’s all they really want – the freedom to go south every winter. But I researched the area, the land, before I came here – you’re not the only one good with Google. There’s a few other spots, but I’ll be honest – this one felt right. I trust my instincts.”
Calliope felt her jaw drop. “What if I said I wanted a house downtown? A mansion?”
Marcus shrugged. “If that’s what you want. But I still want to keep this place, too.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
A flicker in his eyes reminded Calliope of the recent past and she regretted her choice of words instantly. “I was, but the doctors couldn’t fix the crazy. You fixed the crazy. Now the only crazy is that I’m crazy in love with you.”
“How do you know?” Calliope whispered, her hands enfolding around his larger ones.
“I know because I’d do anything for you, go anywhere for you. I want this place, but if it’s not what you want, I only ask that we come here sometimes, check on the Vincents, and we’ll go wherever you want to go. I know it’s love because someone from my circle sent me a stock tip and I thanked him, said my good-byes to the group, and left. I told my mother about you. She’s thrilled, by the way, but you should know I’ve never told my mother about any woman in my life before. I am assuming here, but I think you feel something for me too, because Wendy asked me why Auntie Cloppy keeps asking her about Uncle Marcus, and when she can’t tell you, you make her go ask her mother. Plus, my instincts tell me you love me almost as much as I love you.”
Calliope frowned. “Maybe your instincts are wrong.”
Marcus stared at her. “My instincts are always right. Right?”
Calliope shook her head. “I’m sorry, but they might be this time. You see, I think I might love you more.”
Marcus’s face lit into a huge grin. “Oh, and I lied. Your sister brought the kids, and Stephen, I drove myself. I wasn’t sure where you stood on cars, so if you don’t want a vehicle, Wilhelmina will drive the SUV back for me.”
Calliope glared at him. “Would you stop talking and kiss me?”
Marcus laughed for a full ten seconds before he obliged her wishes. Calliope’s heart sighed, filled to bursting, content, finally.