Authors: Maura Patrick
THE SHELLS OF CHANTICLEER
Copyright © 2012 Maura Patrick
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
They tell us the truth right away. In the breaking dawn of our consciousness they sing it to us sweetly. In our picture books, they illustrate it. We write the truth in big, capital letters when we first learn how to hold a pencil and form letters.
Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.
But, almost as if by design, each and every one of us forgets the truth; delusion descends; the intellect decides that the dream is the reality. For a brief moment in my life, I was one of the lucky ones. I escaped the dream.
Everybody has secrets, but secrets make me crazy. I always want to be in on them but then I am terrible at keeping them. I am much better with promises—nothing life altering—just little promises that I make to myself, such as: “I am not going back to school from spring break all pale and ghostly looking.”
That was going to be a challenge for me, as my end of winter complexion was decidedly chalky. I scrunched my thick brown hair into a ponytail and bent down to tie my Nikes into a tight bow. Chicago winters could be long and brutal, but the sun was shining like summertime that March morning.
A good sign,
It was the first day of spring break and times were tough, no Florida beaches or Mickey and Minnie for me that year. I was reconciled to a stay-cation but I hated the idea of going back to school pale. I didn’t want to resort to getting a spray tan just to blend in with the sun-kissed glow that my luckier classmates would come back wearing; spray tans never fooled anyone.
I swapped my sweats for a pair of shorts, hoping I might get some color on my bare legs from the run and closed the heavy front door behind me as I sprinted down the grey flagstone steps to the street. Saturday, Sunday, Monday, I counted off the days of the week on my fingers as I paced myself. Eight days of precious freedom, counting that day. If it stayed sunny, and I ran every day, I might not look like death when break ended.
I ran straight down to the end of the block where our street joined the main road and then followed that to the Prairie Path. I ran cross country and even though it was a fall sport I intended to keep my mile under seven minutes throughout the year. Unexpectedly, I had plenty of time to run that day. There was a stomach bug going around; our plans to shop at the mall were cancelled.
It had been that darned spring social last Thursday night that had spread the germ. That night the weather was unseasonably warm and it didn’t occur to the faculty to actually turn on the air conditioning in the gym. Two hundred sweating sophomores were jumping up and down to the music, all drinking out of the identical plastic water bottles that had lined the refreshment table. Open the bottle, take a sip, put it down; turn your head for a moment and then turn back. Which bottle was yours? It was hard to remember. Just pick one. It didn’t matter.
Patient Zero played water bottle roulette too, sipping from this bottle and that one, sweating and coughing all night, dispersing his or her hardy virus into the air we inhaled. Thirty-six hours later the virus had gone viral. I got a text from my best friend, Kelly, that read “throwing up.” Then Sophie posted online that she was sick too. Something was going around. I felt fine, however.
As I ran I kept to the side of the path, averting the eyes of oncoming runners, and heeding the shouts of bicyclists on my left. I followed the popular path as it wound about parallel to the street, passing new-money houses and patches of unblossomed buds dotting the late winter woods. The path was well traveled, especially on the weekends, so I relaxed.
A crowded path equaled less chance of being snatched off the street by a creep in a rusted box-van. I worried about that all the time when I ran by myself. At least with people around there would be witnesses to catch the license plate number and make a composite sketch of my abductor for the police. The suburbs were supposed to be safe, but I didn’t feel that way.
Three-quarters of a mile further, the path began to incline and transition into a bridge that crossed high over a busy four-lane road. I could feel my heart rate increasing, but it wasn’t because of the incline. It was because I hated going over the bridge with the cars and the semi-trailers whizzing by underneath. I was convinced that one day I would go berserk and throw myself over the edge and be splattered on the street. I wasn’t naturally self-destructive – quite the contrary – I was a very careful girl, but I imagined my demise anyway, every time. Only after I cleared the bridge and was back on solid ground would my heartbeat stabilize.
A mile into my run I was turning back home when my foot landed funny in a small pothole and my ankle buckled. I stumbled forward, my palms scraping the asphalt and bearing the brunt of the fall; my legs and bottom landing hard in a clump of twigs and dead winter refuse.
A fellow runner saw me fall and shouted, “Hey, are you ok?”
I waved him off.
“I’m fine.” I didn’t like to speak to strangers and I felt more embarrassed than injured. My hands were covered with dirt and red abrasions were welling up. I righted myself and sat up, brushing off the crumbs of leaf and bits of twig that clung to my shorts and thighs.
The sharp end of a fallen branch had pricked my skin just above my ankle. It fell from a singular birch tree that stood nearby, its paper-thin bark peeling like an old onion left out all winter. I looked at the point of entry, just a splinter sticking out and one bubble of blood. I smeared the blood away with my palm and pinched the splinter with my fingernails, but the tip bent off, leaving nothing to grip. No worries, I’d use the tweezers to get it out when I got home.
I stood up and shook myself off and when I realized no harm had been done, started out slowly, and then easily resumed my normal pace. I was a little shaken up, that was all; my legs were sore and I thought my stomach ache was from the impact only. But I was wrong about that.
Once home, my luck had run out and I barely made it to the bathroom before I threw up. The rest of my day was spent crawling back and forth between my rumpled bed and the bathroom. Unfortunately for me, I forgot about the splinter.
Twenty-four hours later, my stomach had settled, but I was nursing a low-grade fever.
This break is just barrels of fun,
I fretted. My dad felt my forehead and cheeks with his hand and then got the thermometer. Once under my tongue it beeped quickly with the results: 101.9 degrees. I felt chilled so I bundled up, donned some long knee socks to keep my feet from cramping, my flannel pajama pants, my softest hoodie. My mom put my pillow down on the brown leather sofa in the great room and tucked my favorite plaid blanket from when I was little around me.
“You need plenty of fluids. Don’t get dehydrated,” my dad ordered me, but I bargained with him instead.
“Okay, I promise I’ll drink lots of liquids, but you know the deal, Dad. You have to stay in the great room with me, the whole night.”
Dad sighed in defeat; I knew I had him. His creepy decorating was the reason why I was afraid to sit alone in our great room, even with everyone home and the television on.
My dad was obsessed with two things: our house, and big game safaris. He built our house about ten years ago, but even though it was brand new it looked old to me, all dark wood and old doors from demolished churches and black wrought-iron light fixtures hanging low – a medieval castle mistakenly plunked down in the middle of a subdivision. Our two-story great room with a wall of plate glass windows and immense stone fireplace was his masterpiece. When the construction was complete, he’d flown off to Africa.
“The house needs finishing touches,” was all he would say.
A month later he came home boasting about his prized catch, a giraffe taken down with one shot in Kenya.
“A reticulated giraffe,” he called it, showing us photographs of himself and his guide in their khaki bush jackets kneeling down next to the carcass of the poor, beautiful animal.
“See how creamy the pelt is between the dark brown markings? Every giraffe has its own unique pattern of spots.”
I was only five years old then; it was hard for me to understand why my dad had killed it, why he thought he could take it just because it was pretty to him.
“This fella was old, on his last leg,” he explained, when he saw tears welling in my eyes. “He was going to die anyway, and soon,” my dad insisted, trying to console me. “It wasn’t a baby, he had a good long life.”
Four months later, I arrived home from school on a grey winter day only to stop dead in my tracks as I passed the great room. There, mounted above our fireplace, was the stuffed neck and head of the giraffe.
I gasped at the unexpectedness of it. The giraffe’s head jutted high in the air, his lips set stiffly over teeth rendered useless, his blank, aged eyes searching for a familiar landscape. It didn’t seem right for his neck to be nailed to our wall, old or not. I thought he should be angry that we did not let him crawl away to take his last breath in a shady spot on his homeland. It wasn’t fair that just because he was beautiful to look at he was alone, far from his family, among strangers, in the suburbs of all places. I imagined he would like to get back at us for his death, to get revenge.
“Ah,” my dad sighed in contentment, gazing at his captured creature. “That is a true work of art. Who would want an oil painting when they could look at God’s handiwork instead?”
“I don’t like him,” I cried.
“Shush, he’ll hear you,” my dad teased.
There was a truckload of dead animal friends delivered that day and the entire haul from the safari ended up scattered around our house. Yet none of the post-living creatures captured my dad’s affection in the same way the giraffe did. I thought it was weird and creepy how much he loved his dead things. He mounted a zebra head right inside the front door; an antelope and tiger stood rigid and watchful in the hall outside our bedrooms.
All the lifeless bodies with their dead open eyes made me afraid to leave my room at night. I ran past them as fast as I could. I was convinced that the giraffe was watching me. I wasn’t sure he wouldn’t resurrect. I imagined being chased through my home by him, cornered, and then eaten alive. I shuddered. My dad just laughed at me.
“Get used to it. He isn’t going to hurt you,” he said. But I had to wonder, considering what happened next.
The infamous, sure-to-go-down-in-family-history, Christmas party happened two days after the giraffe was hung. My dad had christened the giraffe Balthazar in honor of one of the Three Kings of the Orient. I remember that night so well, the fireplace blazing, the smell of fresh balsam mixing with my mom’s favorite caramel-scented candles. I wore a crimson velvet dress and slippery patent leather dress shoes. The curls in my long thick hair required an hour of sitting patiently.
At five o clock, the guests started to arrive. So many adults and no children—I was disappointed. The dining table was brimming with large silver platters of strange foods, a black jelly called caviar, white lumps of pickled herring, a whole cooked salmon that still had its eyes, imported cheeses that smelled bad, dates and figs, something called mincemeat pie although I didn’t see any meat in it…. I eyed it all warily and in the end ate only plain white turkey meat.
A bartender mixed cocktails and gave me a glass tumbler full of maraschino cherries and a paper cup of salted nuts. My brothers walked around the house picking up discarded half-finished cocktails and daring each other and me to finish them. It looked like water so I took a sip, but the taste was horrid and I spat it out.