by Amanda Blaine
1724 words

Carmen tried to focus on the feel of the sunlight on her face rather than the stiff cold of her fingers.

She knew she would be warmer if she got up and walked, or went up to her apartment and got her long winter coat (her friends here called it her “Vermont coat”—funny how Northwesterners just lumped all the Northeast states together—Pennsylvania was nothing like Vermont), but if she went up there she would probably not make it back out. Now that the coffee and the exhilaration had worn off, she just wanted to crawl into her flannel sheets with a hot water bottle tucked against her belly and escape into sleep, and escape this tight feeling in her chest. She didn’t want to have to decide anything right now. 

But it was her rule for herself that if the sun happened to come out during the daylight hours this time of year, no matter what she felt like, she had to go outside. She had learned that the hard way after a lonely, angry, and rainy first winter, when she had made it to Seattle on fumes straight from the New Mexico. It had taken months to pull out of that dark depression. Now that she was further north and in a sleepier town, the drop everything rule was even more important.

So she looped her scarf around her head to cover her ears and closed her eyes, face pointed toward the sun, leaning back against the back of the bench.

“Rawrrrrr!!!!!” she twitched and opened her eyes, dream-distorted images of shame poles and late 1800s petticoats slipping out of her attention. Some of the children who lived in her building were just arriving home from school, and they were playing in the courtyard by the bench where she was sitting. 

“How come your class got to go to the museum, and we didn’t?”

“Because little kids like you would have been scared! There were real wolves and we had to escape an earthquake!”

At the mention of the museum, and especially wolves at the museum, her body straightened. Which family was this kid from? Did she know his name? Part of ending things with Jeff was her bitterness at not having a family of her own. And part of the consuming desire to get back at Professor McNair was how her life had been waylaid by his destruction of her career; she had wasted years in cycles of depression and shame. It was because of that calamity that she ended up in dead-end relationships with men who wouldn’t marry her, like Jeff. Now she might never have a family. That might be why it was so hard to maintain connections with the kids around here. She felt both a draw and a bitterness and couldn’t manage to be consistent. They mostly ignored her at this point, except at Halloween.

Juniper? Was that his name? No, some other kind of tree or hippie name. Hickory? No that wasn’t a local tree…Cedar. That made more sense.

“Hey, Cedar, did you go on a field trip today?”

The words caught on the way out of her throat; her voice was scratchy and weak from the long night. He didn’t turn toward her. She stood up and went closer. “Hey Cedar!”

The girl was shrieking and running, and the boy was snarling and stalking her through the grass. They didn’t notice her.

“Stop it!! I’ll tell mom!!!” he chased her a little longer, then as she started crying, he straightened up and said, “fine, you don’t have to tell on me, instead we can both be the wolf cubs, and we can be stalking all the kids.”

She paused and just listened. There were wolf cubs at the museum, too? And was the stuffed wolf really just out in the open, in the exhibit all, for all to see? She laughed to herself. That seemed too obvious. 

She felt a shiver, and a knot formed in her throat. Ugh. Now she REALLY needed to decide what to do. If finding that fortune was actually in reach, did she want to go for it?

It had been so satisfying to move forward the plan with Andrew and feel a sense of movement and agency in her life that had been missing since…certainly since arriving in the Northwest. That was more than fifteen years ago. To see how he took her authority for granted, and not because he wanted something from her in the way all the other men did. As her cousin, he had the same tie to that family farm in Pennsylvania—and the same motivation to address what had happened—as she did. That was what had finally given her the oomph to end things with Jeff (though not quite enough to just tell the truth, and instead lie and say she was with someone new).

But it had seemed abstract, and it seemed the only option, and it had such a poetic beauty—the connection to Pennsylvania, and the original Josiah Walker coming from Pennsylvania too, and the revenge for the smear campaign by McNair… 

Now she was feeling something unfamiliar, or at least something she hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. She felt torn between the two paths ahead of her. Her dive back into her historian-self last night, and the irresistible draw to keep discovering what was true, had been, well, almost joyful. How strange that the man who had taken this away from her was now the one to bring it back into her life. 

How could she reconcile that with the many years of rage? How could she betray herself by feeling a sense of companionship with that man? He had destroyed her life, and she wanted to him to feel her power now. But how did that fit with the old man of last night who could hardly walk without a cane? Her chest felt tight and she just wanted it to be simple again.

The kids were now crouched in the bushes and snarling, then whispering, then talking loudly. The cubs had transformed into humans. 

“No way!” the girl was saying.

“Yeah, and then the round ceiling thing cracked and practically fell on top of us, and even though it was raining out it was sunny in there!”

“No fair! Can my class go see it next?”

Strange. She knew they were playing, but these details didn’t make sense. Did the dome actually crack? And what did that mean about it being sunny in there? The electrical system was old and no one, not even a child, would mistake the 1990s institutional lighting for the sun. She gave up trying to talk to the boy. She sat back down on the bench. Andrew was going to call at some point in the early evening, and she had no idea what she was gonna do with all this, whether she even wanted to tell him about the wolf, and how she felt about Archie/Dr. McNair…now she was spinning again. She found herself checking her phone, hoping something would break the looping thoughts and the tension in her chest. 

No new texts. She opened her email, even though she knew there was no email that was gonna get her out of this.

There was nothing personal, just useless lists and promotions. She absently dragged her thumb down to refresh, like scratching an itch. A new email popped in from “Daily Inspo”, something she hadn’t read in ages and probably signed up for in one of her “come to Jesus” self-help kicks. The subject, though, caught her attention: “What’s the Most Powerful Antidote to Shame?”

She snickered. Finding out the mystery of a 150 year old Tlingit Shame Pole? 

She opened the email. “‘If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive’ says Dr. Brene Brown. Click here to learn what happens when people confront their shame head-on, and why empathy is the most powerful antidote there is.”

There was a video of a blonde woman. She clicked. 

She watched for a few seconds, then stood up abruptly. She didn’t like the thought that had just intruded in her mind, and she tried to ignore it. She walked toward the door to the building. I should just take a nap. The sunlight was gone and while it wasn’t dark yet, she noticed her toes were almost numb. 

As she climbed into bed, dreading the impending monotone ring of her burner phone, she tried not to think about shame and…Shame. Namely, that they were the same thing. She had never connected her research topic—Shame Poles of the Tlingit people—with the shame in her own people, non-practicing descendants of Pennsylvania Dutch. In fact, she’d never thought of herself as having a people. She didn’t know what it was about those papers she and McNair had looked through last night. Maybe now that she’d had a whole adulthood, and could relate to the losses and heartbreak in the testimonies, in the emotionless wills that hinted at ruptures between parents and children, she realized that her own story was not outside history or context. She felt such a raw, unbearable feeling in her chest. She didn’t like it. Clutching the warm sack of the hot water bottle, she finally slackened into sleep.

For what must have been just a few minutes. Now the phone was ringing. She felt a rush of irritation as she came to consciousness, then a spike of fear as she remembered what was happening. It must be Andrew. She wasn’t ready. What would she say to him? If she didn’t answer, he’d probably get worried and come knock on the door. She’d have to figure something out quickly. She flicked on the light, blinked, and looked around at the walls, searching for some kind of guidance or hint. There was nothing really notable—it was still all oriented toward impressing Jeff, meaningless, contextless, expensive. She needed more time. She’d have to figure something out. “Hi Andrew,” she said, “what did you find out?”

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