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The Devil's Breath


 

The Devil’s Breath

 

            The diablo winds pulled the car so far to the left Frankie had to jam her knee against the steering wheel to keep from veering into the oncoming trucks. They were racing back to the city, trying to beat the firestorm the winds were sure to kick up in wine country.

            “Damned devil’s breath.”

            That had been Frankie’s name for the winds when she and Mary were small. She’d loved the way they made the willows weep and the power lines snap, although Mary had always been afraid. Some things never change. She would always be smoothing Mary’s life. It’s what big sisters did.

            “You don’t have to come. Lola and I can manage.”

            Even with the static on the line, Frankie had heard the tremor in Mary’s voice when she called two hours earlier. She’d thrown candles, diapers and as much food as she could carry into the trunk of her car then headed for Sonoma.

            A slice of moon split the sky as she turned onto the uneven gravel drive that led to Mary’s stone house. It looked like one of those castles in an old fairy tale, with its jagged roof line, crooked chimneys and long leaded windows. The power was already out when she reached the grove of oak trees near the front. Mary was huddling on the far corner of the crumbling veranda, a heavy lantern swaying in her left hand. She set it down and ran to her sister. Frankie struggled to open her car door against the heavy gusts. The hot winds screamed as she thrust the diapers and food bag into Mary’s arms. She’d barely grabbed the candles when the car door blew shut, so hard it sounded like it had come off its hinges. Frankie scooped up the lantern and followed Mary inside.

            A trio of candles flickered atop the wooden table at the far end of the front hall. Thanks to the wind seeping through the cracked window behind the table, the candle flames were mere inches from the billowing velvet drapes.

            “Mary! What are you thinking?”

            Frankie raced to pull the table forward.

            “I wanted to make the house feel warm,” Mary said.

            “It’ll be warm all right when it’s burning to the ground.”

            “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

            Frankie smiled. She adored fixing Mary’s life. It had become a habit that bordered on addiction, especially now that Emma and Chelsea had banned her from their lives. It was so unfair. She’d never scorned her mother, or Mary, when she was a teenager.

            Mary laid the diapers and food on the dining room table. Frankie followed her down the dark hall to the nursery. Lola was lying in her crib, staring up at the ceiling. When Mary was almost to the bed, the phone rang.

            “Frankie do you mind?”

            “Of course not!” Frankie cooed at Lola.

            Mary disappeared into the hall. Frankie reached into the crib. She slid her index finger under Lola’s tiny hand. The baby looked up at her, her green eyes glowing. How had Frankie never noticed the slashes of yellow that ran across her irises?

            “You’re such a good baby. My baby.” A lot of truth in that statement.

            Lola closed her long fingers around Frankie’s long index finger.

            “You know your auntie loves you more than everything.”

            Lola squeezed. Hard.

            “What a grip you have!”

            Frankie didn’t remember Emma or Chelsea having such strength as an infant. She tried to pull her finger back. Lola clutched harder. Frankie felt as if her finger was in a vise. Like the moment when a blood pressure cuff tightened.

            “Lola. Let go.”

            Even in the faint candlelight that shone from the top of Lola’s dresser, Frankie could see her fingertip turning red.

The baby stared. She did not loosen her grip.

            Frankie’s throat filled with acid. This was absurd. She was being held captive by a baby. Lola gave her finger another squeeze. Frankie yelped.

            “Frankie? Everything all right in there?”

            Mary’s heels clattered across the wooden hall floor. The moment she appeared in the doorway of the nursery Lola released her grip. Frankie looked at her hand. The freckle at the base of her knuckle shone. She had no bumps or bruises. She must have exaggerated what happened. Robert was right. She’d been working too hard these past few months. All those deadlines she’d had at work. Filling out the forms and paperwork for all the donors. Tracking where the inseminations were going. Holding the hands of the women who came to the clinic, promising them they would be mothers. Acting as if she actually held the power to make their longings into realities, when the truth was IVF, like so many other medical procedures, was down to luck as much as skill. Of course people didn’t want to hear that, and the director of the clinic forbid such “negative vibes,” so Frankie was forced to keep her knowledge to herself. Or was that only her opinion? She rubbed her eyes.

            “You must be exhausted. I don’t know how you work all those twelve-hour days.” Mary touched Frankie’s shoulder before she reached past her, to Lola.

            The baby cooed when she was lifted from her crib. Mary clutched her to her body and kissed the top of her head.

            “I’m fine.”

            Mary sighed. “Glad to hear someone is.”

            “What’s wrong?”

            “That was Percy.”

            “Is he still in Rome?”

            “Yes. He stayed in the city for an extra night. He was so sure he was going to snag those angel investors. But they didn’t bite.”

            Frankie knew what was supposed to come next. The comforting words she was to offer. Followed by the reach for her checkbook and a promise to cover the outstanding mortgage on the winery, even though it had been an absurd idea from the start. It had been Percy’s dream, giving up the city for a life among the vines. Never mind that he didn’t even know how to choose the right wines for dinner. He was sure he’d be able to make a go of it as a vintner. He was such a romantic, and he took Mary along on all his follies. Ironic, that this very house, with its falling rafters, cracked chimney flues and dozens of code violations would have been known as a folly in earlier times. Today it was just called a sucker’s bet.

            “Come on, let’s eat while she’s quiet.”

Frankie trailed Mary across the hall floor. It dipped to the right. No doubt there was water bubbling from a burst pipe somewhere, or an unknown earthquake fault. Perhaps the subfloor was rotted. With Mary and Percy anything was possible.

In the dining room Frankie pulled the containers of salad she’d grabbed from her own fridge and set them along the sideboard. They were all of Emma and Chelsea’s favorites. The girls would be livid when they discovered the barren shelves after they got home from piano lessons.

            Mary slid into one of the oversized, carved wooden chairs she and Robert had given her and Percy when they bought the winery. She and Robert were forever offering Mary and Percy help in the form of “gifts.” Acting as though they were millionaires, when really it was Percy who’d come from money. His family crest even hung over the fireplace in the great room, an emblem from some British aristocracy back in the 1800s.

            It was no good thinking about Percy now, at least not until he returned from Rome and assessed the damage from the diablo winds. Frankie had heard the vines snap in the storm, breaking the fragile new seedlings that had been planted in the spring. It was only November. Perhaps the last bit of the year would bring some measure of salvation. In the meantime, Frankie retrieved two plates from the sideboard. She spooned out the salads and fetched two drinks while Mary cradled the baby.

            “I’ll hold Lola for you.”

            Mary shook her head. “No, thanks. Please, eat.”

            Frankie speared a fat potato. A trail of olive oil ran across the plate in its wake. “Robert and I can help. With the mortgage. We’ve been looking to invest. He was just saying the other day he’d like to find something with a better return than his standard index fund.”

            “So a crumbling winery run by two people with no knowledge of business and no staff and fallow fields seems like a sound investment? Somehow, Frankie, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t be silly, it’s a great opportunity. You and Percy have such … promise.”

Mary took a deep breath. “I can’t let you go on helping me. We appreciate everything you’ve done. But it’s got to stop. It’s not fair to you.”

Frankie bit down on her fork. Somehow she managed to clip the inside of her lip. A small spurt of blood coated her tongue.

            Mary sat back in her chair. Lola stared at her, the bits of amber in her eyes glowing. “You’ve always had my back. More than even Mom, you’ve been there for me.” Mary reached across the table, laying her small hand atop Frankie’s long fingers. “My first memory is of you, picking me up out of the sand when I’d fallen off my swing at McNichols Park. Do you remember?”

            Did she remember? There was nothing about Mary that Frankie ever forgot. Even now, the day her mother had told her to sit in the big armchair next to the fireplace and put out her arms for her Christmas present, a tiny baby with fuzzy brown hair and blue eyes and a scrunched up face, felt like yesterday.

            “You told me I could use the grown-up swings. That I didn’t need to be afraid, because you’d be there to catch me. You’ve always been there with a net.”

            Frankie’s head felt fuzzy. Mary sounded an awful lot like Robert had last week, when she’d asked him about the pen from that inn in Sausalito. There was no reason he’d have a pen from a place just across the Golden Gate Bridge from their home. He’d insisted the pen wasn’t his, even though she’d found it in the pocket of his raincoat.

            She smiled to herself. Poor Mary was clearly even more exhausted than she was. She didn’t mean what she said. She had no idea how much Frankie had done for her. Like that day in

McNichols Park. Mary had been determined to get back up on the swing. But Frankie had known better. Known Mary would only get hurt, perhaps worse the next time. She’d bundled her up and walked her home, as always keeping Mary on the inner stretch of sidewalk, farthest from the street.

            Or that day at the fertility clinic, when she’d come across Mary’s donation. She’d known immediately what the numbers meant. Mary’s eggs, just like Mary herself, were too fragile. It would be impossible for them to be successfully implanted. Luckily Frankie had sensed this day might come. She’d had her own eggs harvested, stored in the clinic deep freeze, accessible only to her. It had been nothing to swap the labels and the samples. Everyone at the clinic trusted her implicitly. Like that old saying, “no one’s watching the watchers.” It had been so easy that for one second she’d been tempted to tamper with other egg donations. Offer the gift of life, courtesy of her eggs, to some other unfortunate couple. But Mary and Percy might someday want a baby sister or brother for little Lola. She had to be ready. Of course she would never tell Mary. It was just the latest grand gesture for her baby sister.

            “I do appreciate you coming today. But….” Mary took a deep breath.

            Frankie couldn’t bear to hear what Mary had to say next. Besides, it didn’t matter. She would always be there for Mary. Nothing Mary could say would ever change that. Frankie slid her chair away from the table. “I should get back to the city. Emma has an algebra test tomorrow and Chelsea will be no help.”

            Mary nodded. “Chelsea’s not like you,” she said softly.

            Frankie walked over to Mary. She bent down to kiss the baby. Lola looked up at her and exhaled. The hot, dry breath of the devil’s wind warmed Frankie’s face.

            Mary rose. “I’ll walk you to the door.”

            “No. You don’t want Lola near that storm.”

            “You’re right. Thanks for the food. And diapers.”

            Frankie nodded then headed to the front door, once more checking on the candles in the hall. Neither the curtains nor the flames were fluttering. The diablo winds were gone. Frankie opened the door. She strode across the veranda, brushed the debris from the trees off the windshield then pointed the car toward the freeway. With any luck she could surprise Emma and Chelsea with takeout. Perhaps they wouldn’t disappear to their rooms if she set up the TV before she called them to the kitchen.

            The moment Frankie turned onto the highway the sky darkened, until it was the color of lead. Then came the howl. Low and deep, like a keening. Finally, the full ferocity of the devil’s wind bore down. It pushed her car to the yellow double line, toward a row of trucks that had taken advantage of the lull in the weather. Frankie braced her left knee against the steering wheel and tried to tighten her grip. But her index finger, the one Lola had squeezed so hard, refused to close. The devil’s breath bore down, driving Frankie’s car beneath the oncoming tractor trailer.


Therese Gilardi


Therese Gilardi’s poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals, including "Literary Mama," "Onthebus," "MomEgg Review," and "Punchnel's." She is a PAN member of RWA, the Mentorship Program Advisor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective.

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1 Comments

  1. short solid fiction is hard to come by mainly because its takes a real mastery of brevity and vision -- two things normally in conflict. you wrote a true gem.

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