I WILL BE THE REFLECTION UNTIL THE END

The Horror Writers Association recently announced the Preliminary Ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards, and my story “I Will Be the Reflection Until the End” (first published in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 4 by Crystal Lake Publishing) is on the long-list for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. With permission from the publisher, you can read the story in its entirety here for a limited time. I hope you enjoy! (Updated: 02/09/18)

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“I Will Be the Reflection Until the End”

by Michael Bailey

 

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, Admiral Guinea

“Life will find a way.” – Michael Crichton, Jurrasic Park

 

My sister used to collect cherry plum pits in her napkin, secretly, under the kitchen table. A strainer full of mixed yellow and red and deep-purple fruits would separate us each spring, with a small bowl next to it to collect the pits—although mine were typically the only ones in there—and a plate beneath the strainer to collect any drips from the rinsed fruit. My sister was coy like that. Her lie had become our lie, and every once in a while she’d throw a pit in the bowl to make it look like we were being honest. She knew I wouldn’t bring it up to Mom, because that meant I could have more if I kept my mouth shut. It was one of the few secrets we kept from Mom in our youth. Call it a sibling bonding moment.

We sat one morning—the day Tari entrusted me with another of her secrets—eyeing each other, neither saying a word as we ate as many of the cherry plums as the years we’d lived up until that point, and then some. Mom’s rule. Any more than your age and you’ll find yourself sick, she used to say, her polite way of not saying diarrhea, a word she despised. We of course both knew what she was talking about because we’d been there, and she’d been there, although neither of us had ever seen our mother eat her age in cherry plums. And of course we ate more than our summed ages, because of the napkin Tari kept under the table. Mom probably knew, but it was a fun thing for kids our age to do, a part of growing up.

Tari was ten, then, and I had recently turned eight, which meant I got an extra one this year. We’d both leaned forward, counting as I tossed in another of my pits. Twenty, and then eighteen again as Tari moved the two extras into her napkin before Mom could count them herself and pretend to be upset. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell, Cubby,” her expression told me.

She’d call me that most times instead of Chicago—the city from which I was named—because that’s where Dad was from and he’d always try to watch a Cubs game whenever one was on, which wasn’t often because they typically “sucked,” as Mom would say, since she was a San Francisco Giants fan. My sister and I had these nicknames for each other, because neither of us much liked our given names. Tari was short for Ontario, the street in The Windy City on which Dad used to work before he moved to California. Sometimes she’d call me Chicago, but only if she were mad; the name sometimes sounding like a swear.

Another pit disappeared under the table. How many Tari had tucked away was a mystery. How many Mom had had was a mystery as well, since she was thirty-eight and was entitled to thirty-eight. By the time the strainer was half empty and Mom said Okay, that’s probably enough, Tari had discretely wadded the napkin into her pocket. We’d had our fill by this point. I knew I had. Then Mom smiled and said, “Well maybe a few more each,” taking one from the bowl herself and tossing another to each of us. And we had to eat them, despite what our stomachs told us. These things were candy. And what child ever denied just one more cherry plum?

I never saw Mom throw any of her pits into the bowl; I half-expected her cheeks to be full of them, tucking them away, like a chipmunk collecting acorns for winter.

Want to pick more after the two of you eat some real breakfast?” she’d asked, meaning something with protein, probably eggs again, or yogurt. We’d picked a strainer’s worth of cherry plums the previous night, but now those were half-gone from the three of us annihilating them one-by-one. Dad would have helped in the cause, but he worked a lot of weekends around this time and was gone before any of us had woken up. I’ll need about twice what you picked yesterday to make jam. How about each of you fill a gallon-size Ziploc: one of you pick yellow, the other red.

Kay, we’d said in unison, and the next thing we knew, we were running through the yard out back with empty plastic bags billowing behind us.

Tales from the Lake, Vol. 4

[ Click the book image to purchase. Tales from the Lake, Vol. 4 is also on the ballot for Superior Achievement in an Anthology. ]

There were cherry plum trees scattered around the property; you just had to find them. The two biggest trees with the always-bigger cherries were on the outskirts of the driveway in the front yard, up by the well, but those were about done because they were always in what Mom called “direct light,” and most of the other trees—although their fruits smaller—were by the creek out back, because water ran most the year;  those fruits had turned from green to a varied spectrum of yellows and reds, and were prime for picking, their branches sagging from both sweet and sour marble-sized balls that helped define our childhood springtime.

When we had first moved to the property, the trees were nonexistent to us, hiding amongst the bay trees and birch and California oaks; not until our first early spring there had they made their presence known, the trees exploding seemingly overnight with either white or pink popcorn-like flower bursts.

I remember one time picking what resembled a cherry from one of the gingko biloba trees—this was late summer, so I should have known—and sinking my teeth into the hard flesh of what I can only describe tasted the way Dad’s socks sometimes smelled. Dad harvested them each year—the gingko fruits, not the socks—and always intended to do something with them. He’d collect them after they’d fall to the ground, and would let nature shrivel them up until they looked like orangey-brown prunes, and then would peel away the rotting flesh to reveal the seeds beneath. They smelled awful. He could never find the time to roast them, as intended, although he always told us how the seeds would split apart like pistachios to the good part—the part you’d panfry in oil and spices. They were supposed to be good for you, for your memory or something, but we never had the chance to try them while living there. Dad did manage to make tea from dried gingko leaves and lemon mint collected from the property, and that was delicious, and we always had a generous supply of bay leaves to put in spaghetti sauces he and Mom made from scratch, but besides what we’d pick from our garden, Tari and I loved collecting fruit that grew naturally around the yard: blackberries, figs—only Mom liked figs—and cherry plums.

In total, there were probably a dozen or so cherry plum trees throughout the property, all wild, native, and that fascinated me. We’d always had a vegetable garden growing up, from as far back as I can remember, but we had done everything by hand, sometimes starting the plants from seedling, sometimes from seed, pulling weeds, trimming them back, endless watering. A lot of hard work went into keeping those plants from simply shriveling up and dying, as they would’ve without any help. Yet these cherry plum trees yielded some of the most delicious fruits we’d harvested, and it took absolutely zero effort on our part, besides collecting them. Every year we looked forward to cherry plum season. The trees were planted there from birds dropping seeds or whatnot, according to Mom, and then, by design, the trees would drop their spoiled fruits to the ground each year to create new life, new trees, their roots pulling water from the ground from rain and the always-running creek. Unlike our ever-dependent garden, the trees took care of themselves.

You ever feel sad, Tari said that day, stopping halfway to the cherry plum trees, taking them? She’d reached into her pocket to pull out the crumpled napkin. She dumped the used pits into her other hand, twenty or more.

What do you mean?

Taking the plums. You ever feel sad taking them?

Do you?

Sometimes. I know they’re just plants, and don’t have feelings, but sometimes I wonder if they do; have feelings, I mean.

Where we stood, when she revealed this to me, there was a dip, a small valley of sorts, which ran from one side of the property to the other. Grass grew greenest there for two reasons: because heavy rainfall in the winter sometimes created a shallow pathway for the water to run so it wouldn’t collect against the house, and because this was where the leech line ran from the house. The ground was softest there compared to all other parts of the yard.

I don’t feel bad, I told her. If we don’t eat them, the birds will, or the bugs. We later learned there were deer and fox and bobcat and skunk and bear, all of which ate the fruits, or so their scat told us. We even had a river otter one year when the February rain—it always seemed to rain the hardest then—was nonstop for a solid week and rose the creek a good three feet, so that it roared to life the following month. You shouldn’t feel bad, I told her.

They’re here for us, I’d always thought.

I know. Sometimes my mind just works that way, though. She tossed a few pits at her feet and buried them into the ground with her toe, threw some toward me, and threw some as far as she could along the “greenline,” as we’d sometimes called it—all one word. Someday maybe these can be trees, she said.

My stomach had ached then, and at first I thought it was from eating twice my age in cherry plums, but later, much later, I realized the pit in my stomach was in fact a feeling of empathy for the pits in the bowl, the ones I’d thrown in the trash.

And then Tari reached into her other pocket and pulled out another handful.

How many did you eat? I’d asked.

Instead of answering, she smiled, knowingly, held out her hand to me, and dumped them into the cup I’d reflexively made with my hands beneath hers. One at a time, I threw the pits along the greenline—the amount adding to our combined age, and then some.

She’d taken them out of the trash; she must have.

From that point onward, pits from the cherry plums I’d eat were never thrown out. We’d collect them each day and made a routine of tossing them along the greenline.

The next spring, we walked the property to look for seedlings, and after not finding any, we changed from tossing to planting, burying them a few inches into the ground with trowels. Over the years there must have been thousands upon thousands planted there, but none had ever sprouted from our efforts. The trees along the creek multiplied plenty, though, on their own.

There were perhaps thirty cherry plum trees spread along the creek banks by the time we’d moved closer to the high school where Tari was accepted. I was in seventh grade at the time and didn’t want to change middle schools, but I wasn’t old enough yet for my opinion to matter. Our new place was closer to Dad’s work, closer to the fields where we’d play soccer and baseball during the sports seasons, closer to just about everything; one of the benefits, I guess, of moving into the city. Sometimes we’d go back to pick blackberries or cherry plums from what we’d always refer to as “the property,” but it was never the same as when we’d lived there.

Every year was the same: more trees along the creek, popping up like matchsticks, and the same tree-less greenline between the creek and the house. I went there again after Tari had gone to college, me and Mom and Dad, the three of us trying to pick final memories from the place.

We rarely saw Tari outside of holidays and birthdays when she’d come home for a few days. Her junior college was an hour away, but she might as well have been out of state, or out of country, for that matter. She’d blossomed into a woman over the years, but unlike the intensely-colored cherry plum trees each spring, she’d not exploded into something wonderful in her early adulthood, but something not so wonderful. She’d somehow imploded, collapsing into herself like a dying star…into a black soul, perhaps. She wasn’t gothic, by any means, but dark, and something about her wasn’t right.

Mom and Dad always said Ontario was an old spirit, linked to the world in ways none of us would ever understand. She reacted differently to certain things, felt more deeply than the rest of us. Connected. She’d learned to avoid the news because all it ever was was bad. Media is a reflection of our wrongdoings in this world, she’d said once, maybe when she was thirteen. Wars crushed her. Poverty and famine kept her rail-thin. When the buildings in New York fell, she fell with them, both metaphorically and literally; we’d watched the plane fly into that second building when both our ages were single digits and she had cried like I’d never seen a person cry before, and she crumbled to the ground in tandem with the buildings. I was too young to understand, but her crying led me to crying.

Years later I’d reflect on the little things about her: the way she’d look after plucking a flower, as if she’d killed something beautiful; the careful way she’d walk, always looking down to make sure she avoided stepping on anything alive; the way she’d thank the plants when we’d take from them; the way she’d always eat everything on her plate, nothing ever going to waste. We’re taking their unborn children, she’d say sometimes, about the plants, so we better make the best of everything they’re giving us. I watched her turn from carnivore to herbivore, from vegetarian to various stages of vegan. Tari was a minimalist, even in childhood. She never had a lot of toys, never asked for—nor desired—anything on birthdays or around Christmastime, and her room was always spotless. Whereas I was the exact opposite.

She said something that morning we’d first thrown cherry plum pits together, something that’s stuck with me my entire life, a phrase that defined my sister in both its simplicity and its complexity: I will be the reflection until the end.

I’m as old now as my parents were then, and I’m still trying to figure out my reflection in this world. She’d figured it out at ten. I’m not even sure Tari knew I’d heard her say those words, because she’d whispered them as cherry plum pits rained over us.

We saw less and less of her while I finished out high school in the country and she moved on to college in the city, while Mom and Dad’s attempts at us seeing her grew more and more prevalent, almost to the point of desperation. Come home we miss you, was a common phrase to hear Mom say over the phone—as if those five words were instead five syllables to a much longer single word—although she only ever talked to Tari’s voicemail. Why does she even have a cell phone if she never uses it, Dad would say sometimes, as a statement, not a question.

It took Tari those first few years of community college to figure out what she wanted to pursue, and she eventually chose art, which wasn’t too surprising. Growing up, she was always into coloring and sculpturing and for the most part creating somethings out of nothings. What was surprising was that she came home at all. We hadn’t seen her for most of the year, although as soon as she’d walked through the door, it was as if she’d never left.

You should be happy, Dad, she’d said before anything else, I’m moving closer to Chicago, meaning The Windy City, not me. Back to your roots. Oh, hey, Cubby! she added, giving me a fragile hug. She felt thinner, if that were possible, and her eyes bore dark circles. She had looked so tired, then. Man, you’ve gotten tall, she’d said, and it was true; I’d grown a good four or five inches those final years in high school.

I had once looked up to Tari, but now she would forever look up to me, a sentiment that is, yes, now both literal and metaphorical.

What’s in Chicago? I think it was Dad who’d said that, which was funny, since he of all people should’ve known.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Tari said, and by the enthusiasm behind her voice, I instantly knew it would be good for her. She needed a drastic change in her life, a change country life couldn’t offer.

Mom had thought the opposite: How are you going to survive in the city? Oh, and hi, by the way. Haven’t seen you in a while. Your birthday present’s in the living room.

You know I’m not big on presents, Tari said, and that was the last of the softer spoken words that afternoon.

Her birthday was September 13th and this return home of hers was for Thanksgiving. She’d left her present, still wrapped, on the living room coffee table after the fight that had quickly ensued. There were a lot of words spoken between her and Mom, and a few supportive words by Dad, but apparently none of these words were important enough to remember now. Tari calmly gathered the rest of her things from the house, walked out the front door, and after some goodbyes, she simply drove off—not in the typical angry storm-off one would expect after such a fight, by any means, but that was Tari; she was never one to raise her voice, not even in argument.

I followed her to her car—a beat-up hatchback of some kind—and hugged her again, longer this time, and a part of me thought she’d break. I didn’t know when I’d see her next: a month, a year, ever again? Her car was already packed, every inch of it. She was apparently on her way to Illinois and this was simply one of her pit stops before going. She started the long drive that same afternoon. Three days later she texted to let me know she got there safely. She’d texted Mom, too, I later found out. Ontario was on her way to become a city girl.

She’d send me some of her photography every once in a while—her primary area of study—and it was good. The images, sent primarily through text, focused on life taking back what it could from the city, or so I soon put together. The first was a picture of an old Presbyterian church, a gothic-looking castle of sorts with thick green Ivy covering nearly the entire stone building. Others included zoomed-in shots of the tops of smaller skyscrapers that she’d apparently taken from taller skyscrapers, roofs adorned with greenery: trees, shrubbery, flower gardens, vegetable gardens. Some of the images were both sad and beautiful: a close-up shot of a pane of glass with the white imprint from a bird that had flown into it; a crack in some section of sidewalk from which a single purple wildflower started to bloom.

Along with her art, she’d randomly send long facts about the city through texts, some in the form of questions: Did you know there are over 6000 homeless in Chicago? But it’s going down, so I guess that’s good. 50 people were shot in the city this weekend, but not me, yearly average of 3 per day. Did you know nearly every sidewalk down the Magnificent Mile is adorned in the fall with beautiful displays of cabbages and kales? There are signs in each box warning the homeless that the plants are sprayed to look nice, so they’re not edible. Wonder what they’ll plant in spring. Probably enough to not feed 6000 homeless. Maybe the decreasing homeless population is from death. The Buckingham Fountains hold 1.5M gallons of undrinkable water. There are so many skyscrapers in Chicago and so tall they create wind. You’d think we’d harvest that energy. There are metal-looking statues of people in a small section of Millennial Park and no one seems to go there. I sat next to a metal man sitting on one of the park benches, for nearly an hour. They look so lonely, these fake people. Did you know the Chicago River used to run the opposite direction? Used to run into Lake Michigan. Civil engineering reversed the flow. Pollution is so bad you can’t eat the fish. Did you know the John Hancock building is made from 5M pounds of aluminum? Remember recycling Dad’s beer cans when we were little. Imagine recycling that building. LOL. The buildings in Chicago are like teeth, cutting the sky, devouring the heavens. The city’s taken the stars and will never give them back. When are you coming to visit? Come see the metal people.

Eventually I did. For high school graduation Mom and Dad got me a roundtrip ticket to Chicago, and enough cash to pay for a taxi to and from the airport, and for food during my stay. They didn’t tell Tari I was going, wanted it to be a surprise. They put me up in a slanted-looking hotel called Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, because it was in “the safe part of the city”—the heart—which apparently surrounds a stretch of Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile. I spent some of the money to go to the top of the John Hancock building, where on the 94th floor you can walk around the perimeter of the building for a 360° view of the city, and part of Lake Michigan, which looks like an ocean. According to the information displays, when I was looking south, I was looking at not only Illinois, but Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This was where Tari had taken that first rooftop photo she’d sent me. She was curious, like me, and had leaned against the glass, in the exact spot I had first leaned against the glass, and nearly straight down was the green rooftop of the smaller skyscraper she’d shot, adorned with grass and trees and potted flowers—a defiance of nature, perhaps from someone who’d moved in from the country, like Tari.

I spent that first day walking Michigan Avenue, both during the day and then again at night, and it was like two different worlds. Tari was right, you can’t see stars from the city—not like back at home where you could sometimes see the white stripe of the Milky Way—but the buildings create their own starlight at night and it’s somewhat magical. It’s a beautiful city. Chicago’s your name, Dad had said, you may as well see what it’s all about. Beautiful, sure, but I could never live there.

Show me the metal people, I texted Tari the next day.

Cubby! she’d texted back, and then a time and an address to something called The Bean. She knew I was in the city because I had sent her my own from-above photo of the rooftop. I later found out The Bean was exactly that—a giant chrome jellybean-looking thing, which was close to the Art Institute. I’d seen it in a movie once, but didn’t know it was in Chicago. It was fall, so the maple trees in Millennial Park were in the middle of turning from yellow to red, like the cherry plums we used to harvest. Against the reflection of The Bean was an obfuscated, bendy reflection of the city at my back, with the trees in the foreground impossibly bending inward. You could walk underneath the thing as well, and see an endless circular reflection of yourself staring up. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how Tari saw the world. She found me there, staring up into the swirl… the two of us staring up.

I can’t believe you’re here, she’d said.

I can’t believe it, either.

We walked around the park for hours, admiring what she probably saw on a daily basis on her way to and from school: fountains hiding within canopies of trees, odd over-sized statues, a pair of green-copper lions, the creepy and mostly empty park of lonely metal people. It was this part of the park that intrigued me most. The statues were life-size, some alone, some staring up into the sky, others just standing there, one holding the hand of a child, and of course I recognized the one sitting on the bench from the photo she’d sent me. I took a selfie with this one, both our heads tilted back, eyes closed.

She showed me the Art Institute and her studio, and then we walked to an exhibition of her work in one of the old churches close to my hotel, the one with the ivy overtaking the stonework. One of her displays included a dozen or so pictures—“Reflections of the City”—taken from placid pools of rainwater collected on the streets. Another of her pieces was a blown-up digitally-enhanced shot I recognized as part of the Magnificent Mile, taken from the center of the street late at night; the city was captured in vibrant color with the tops of the skyscrapers glowing purples and reds and greens, the shops and surrounding buildings exploding in neon and seemingly violent light, headlights and taillights streaking white and crimson along either side, with the plant life in each modified to dull black-and-white, which I guess was the entire point.

Car horns must have been blasting around her when she’d taken the shot. And another was a simple picture of the Chicago River taken at dusk; the river runs through the middle of the city, yet she had somehow captured some sort of wide-angle view of only the water, the city reflected off of its wavy surface like the broad strokes in a Monet painting. She had an eye for capturing light, and I knew she’d spent hours on some, waiting for that perfect moment when the sun peeked between buildings, or fell behind false horizons of the cityscape.

There’s a lot hiding in this city, she’d told me while I was there, but at first I thought she meant beauty and life. She’d seemed as happy as I’d ever seen her, but there was still that darkness behind her eyes, as if she could see things in this world the rest of us couldn’t, like some sort of tear had opened, exposing another layer onto our existence, and she could see everything ugly that had leaked through.

She eventually moved back home, to country-life, but not by choice.

Her last text to me read: I can no longer reflect. Is this the end?

I hadn’t put it together then, but those words scared me, and later scarred me. I had tried texting, calling—this was about a year after I’d visited her—but she’d never replied. I’d thought of calling the Art Institute of Chicago to track her down, but only ever thought of doing it; instead, I’d figured those thoughts on reflection and the end were more of Tari’s typical anti-normality. It wasn’t until a few days later when Mom took the call from Mercy Medical that we’d discovered she’d cut herself, both arms, lengthwise, from palms to elbows. The student she lived with had come home to find her naked in the bathtub, no note or anything, and thought she was dead; campus police determined she wasn’t and called the ambulance.

She’d tried killing herself, what she’d meant by the end.

What if I had stayed with her in Chicago? What if I had continued to call? These questions haunt my mind, even today. There were countless things I could have done, that anyone could have done, but we didn’t.

And this is how we got her back, not by action, but by reaction.

Tari moved home that same week, but as Mom and Dad both knew—and I knew as well—home was a place other than this. Home was not Ontario or Chicago; home was Tari and Cubby and where we grew up, what we always called “the property.”

Somehow the following spring we moved back there, all of us. Mom and Dad didn’t mortgage the place—couldn’t afford it, really—but the owner had owned multiple properties by this point and let us rent the house for as long as we’d need, which turned out to be seven years. It seemed the same as we had left it, the California oaks stretching their limbs to the ground, the smell of bay trees down the driveway, the gentle flow of the creek, which we all knew must have roared the month prior, and the cherry plum trees and their spectacular blossoming.

Tari would never be the same after what she’d done to herself, what she knew she had done to all of us, but something in her expression changed as we were pulling into the driveway. She’d seen something we hadn’t. Tari was first out of the car and yanked on my arm so that I’d go with her, and she seemed so fragile to me, her arms like matchsticks ready to ignite, as skinny as they’d been when she was ten and I was eight, only bandaged now, and I couldn’t help but stare at them. She held my hand, smiling as she led me to the backyard, nearly at a run under the dusk sun, to the greenline, to the hundreds of cherry plum trees that ran along its course.

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