January Free Fiction: The Dragonfly

January Free Fiction: The Dragonfly

This moody mystery first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Now, it's available to own only through the newsletter. (So go sign up because The Dragonfly will only be here on the blog until the end of January...) 

_________

“Go fish” was the second impulse that flashed through my brain after I received the news. And that’s the impulse I acted on. Not the first one. Not yet.

Now, I sit here on the bank feeling the gentle tug of the line, not caring if the fish is stealing my bait nibble by nibble.

Because my cousin’s dead. And I’m lost. Alone.

A warm breeze blows a strand of hair against my cheek and it sticks there. In the tears. The breeze scoots the container of night crawlers off the top of the tackle box. An overeager fellow slithers and works his way out of the container’s loose black dirt, likely disappointed that his escape route is inch after miserable inch of solid brown earth.

There’s nowhere to go. Nowhere to tunnel when you’re a lowly worm on rock-hard ground. He may as well try to burrow into asphalt.

Three hours of fishing since the news broke, and he’s my last worm. I know if I don’t put him back in the plastic container that he’ll dry up in the sun, his plump segmented body dehydrating to the crispness of uncooked fettuccine.

He might, eventually, make his way past the slender line of plant growth beyond the brown dirt path to the water’s edge where he’ll drown. That’s only if he’s lucky enough to escape the sharp vision of the crow that’s been cawing in the towering oak behind me since I got here.

I could save him for my next cast. Sacrifice him to the hook. But I’m done.

I don’t feel like saving anything today.

The line tugs harder, taking my bobber all the way under and by reflex, honed by years of sitting on this same bank with my cousin, I jerk the rod up and to the left—because she’d always sat on my right—and I miss.

That’s okay.

Today I don’t care.

I slowly crank the reel, click by click, dragging the line closer to the pond’s edge. If you could call this hole in the earth a pond. The water and the occasional fish, likely populated here by bird droppings or some other act of God—definitely not on purpose by man—are the only reasons it qualifies as a pond.

Maisy could throw a rock and it would land on the other side, no problem. She plays—played—softball, so her throwing arm was pretty good. My arm, not so much. My rocks would land about ten feet shy of the other “shore.” We joked about swimming out there and retrieving my misses so they wouldn’t take up much-needed real estate in the pond. Hundreds of rocks over the years likely displaced quite a bit of water.

But we never did. Swim out there. We never left this side of the pond, come to think of it. 

Old Man Sizemore had offered his pond to us whenever we’d want. He treated his pride-and-joy waterhole for algae and stocked it with bass and high-end bluegill of the finest quality. And not even the jock quarterback could throw a rock and hit the opposite bank of the Sizemore pond. But we never took him up on his offer. And his pond, maybe because of all the treatment, had far fewer dragonflies.

I readjust the tension in the fishing line. The red bobber winks at me from the still, murky water in response. We used to fish at Samuel’s pond a couple miles down the road. And though he still begged us and was borderline threatening in his insistence, we declined.

We could never go back there. Back there where Mark had died.

Maisy and I prefer the quiet and seclusion of this place.

Preferred, I mean.

A dragonfly darts from the tip of my pole then out over the water to the tip of my red-and-white bobber. Back and forth he flies. Not a care in the world. Nothing else to do. His wings beat so fast in hover mode that all I can see are the afterimages they leave.

I look to my right and see an afterimage of Maisy. Smiling. Admiring the dragonfly that’d landed on the tip of her pole last week. Was that last week? Or perhaps last month. Maybe it was the same dragonfly.

And now I’m deeply saddened that I don’t know what the lifespan of a dragonfly is.

I thought I knew what the lifespan of a human was. Until today. Today I’m clueless.

The jittery insect darts to the other side of the pond once my line reaches the edge of the water. I swing the pole wide to lift the hook up and out over some cut-down cattails. We’d trimmed them to give us a clearer window to cast.

I reel up the hook and clean off the remnants of the worm and some green plant goop. I let the mess linger on my fingers for a bit, remembering all the times we’d toss the goop into each other’s hair and wipe the residue on our sleeves or backs.

Prissy girls we aren’t. Weren’t, I mean.

I wipe my hand on my cut-off jeans.

I stand and stretch. I haven’t moved since I sat down hours ago. I’m surprised no one’s come looking for me. I guess they all know I needed some space.

Or they don’t care that I’ve been gone. That’s the more likely scenario.

I gather the tackle box and now-empty worm container. The nightcrawler is still bobbing and searching for a way off the path—or under it. I turn my back on him and walk away.

The crow above me in the oak tree caws loudly and swoops from his perch. He’d waited patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for his opportunity to snag a quick snack. I turn briefly.

He lands on the hard, brown dirt where I’d been sitting seconds before.

He tips his head and looks at me with cold black eyes. My worm dangles helplessly out of his beak. But only for a second before it disappears.

I turn my back to the pond. Another afterimage appears, this one directly in front of me. Maisy’s ponytail bobbing. Her pink and purple plaid flannel shirt with the hole in the hem. Her boots—one is untied. Her pole resting on her left shoulder. Her tackle box swinging gently from her right hand. She turns and smiles at me, frozen in time past.

The dragonfly darts in and out and all around Maisy and her pole and tackle, and then toward my face, so close I can hear the whir of his wings. And with that whir, my first instinct after hearing the news—that first urge, the one I’d dismissed a few hours before—burns from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Dig them up…

I smile at Maisy before she disappears. I smile at the dragonfly before he darts away.

I’m still lost. I’m still alone.

But I am not, in this moment, clueless.

***

“She’d hate that,” I say.

“It’s the nicest thing she’s got, Jory.” Mom tugs at the collar of the blue checkered dress.

“That’s the point. It’s nice. She hated that dress. Every dress. Bury her in flannel or a t-shirt. Not that.”

Mom rolls her eyes at me and returns the dress to the closet. She pulls out a violet skirt-and-blouse ensemble. She holds it up high to the light and tugs at the hem of the skirt and says, “Maybe this one.”

I leave the room I’ve shared with my cousin since her parents’ deaths. As long as Mom’s in here, I can’t be.

The living room is no better. Where extended family—if you could call any of them family—sit and cry and reminisce about Maisy. We are the epitome of white trash. She’d scolded me about saying that. Maisy said maybe the rest of them are trash, but she and I were not to think that way. We had potential and hopes and dreams. Us two girls would make it out of this rural county. Away from the drama and tragedy and memories as murky as the pond water and make something of our futures. Together.

“Come, Jory. You must be devastated.” My aunt, Val, the one who couldn’t afford to take both Maisy and Mark in after the car accident, pats the sofa. I sit. She wraps her arm around me, playing with my hair. As if she cares.

Val’s son Andrew got along well with Mark, so after Mark and Maisy’s parents died, Mark went to live with Aunt Val and cousin Andrew. Maisy came to live with us. Our genius family split up the twins for the sake of money. Neither of the kids fully recovered from that loss. The loss of their parents. The loss of the closeness of growing up together. Seeing one another in the hall at school or on some random visit didn’t cut it—not when you’re six years old and your whole world imploded.

That was ten years ago.

“…just can’t believe it. How tragic. How much more can we all take?” Aunt Val sobs. I can’t tell if they’re real sobs or the ones that you must let fly out of obligation when someone “close” to you dies.

I haven’t cried yet. A few stray tears at the pond. Nothing more than that.

Yet.

I close my eyes and remember the days of Maisy and I writing and resting and dreaming under the pond’s oak tree. And listening to the whirring of dragonfly wings. I momentarily transport out of the dingy living room filled with obligatory guests and return to the pond. I hear the mumble of conversation around me, but I’m not here. I’m there. Face to face with the dragonfly. Floating. Hovering.

Dig them up…

I reach out to touch his shimmering wings and—

“What will you do now that you’re the only child in the home?” Someone touches my shoulder and I tumble hard into the living room. Still next to Val. Her arm still around me. I may have to return to the pond for real once Samuel gets here. There’s only so much more I can take. I need retreat. Solitude.

I need my journals. 

I think about the question. What will I do now? As an only child?

The question is rude because I’m not a child. That train, the train of childhood and wide-eyed laughter and innocence, left the station three years ago. The question is ill timed because Maisy died six hours ago. Out of the half dozen people in the room, I don’t know who asked the question. I don’t respond.

I stand, wanting to leave out the front door, but I see Samuel’s car pulling into the gravel drive. Samuel is our family’s poster child for white trash.

Mom shows herself in the doorway of the living room, holding the blue checkered dress. My stomach knots. There’s no end to the madness.

I squeeze past her and retreat to our room.

My room.

No, our room.  Filled with dreams and giggles and trauma and tears. How many afterimages and memories can these pastel pink walls contain before they burst? How many will my mind dredge up before I burst?

I want to slam the bedroom door so hard that the portraits lining the hall crash to the floor, glass shattering in hundreds and thousands of pieces. So hard that the intricate wooden name plates Mark had made for us in his spare time would come unnailed from the wall and topple to the floor. But I turn the knob gently, ease the door closed, and then slowly release the knob. Not drawing attention to myself is more important than letting go of emotion. Especially now that Samuel’s slurred and gravelly voice drowns out all others in the living room.

I slide the bolt chain into its holder. Our doorknob never had a lock. Maisy installed the other one. Used her allowance to go to the hardware store one day after ninth grade. It was a flimsy lock. It wouldn’t keep anyone out. As flimsy as the rickety roller shade we’d jimmy-rigged to our window.

But both gave us peace of mind, somehow.

I turn to the bookshelf and take down an oversized hardback book. Little Women. Maisy was full of excellent ideas, like the lock. And using the oak tree as a sentinel to stand guard over our secrets—all the momentous victories and girlish daydreams.

And those morbid truths that kept Maisy out of one prison, but effectively locked up in another.

This hiding spot, the books, was my idea, though.

I open the cover to reveal the hollowed-out pages and smile. We’d completed this project at the pond. We’d snuck a couple of books out of the garage where Mom stored a gazillion dozen of them. Old ones no one ever read. Musty ones.

We took this one, Little Women, for me and another, Heidi, for Maisy. We dug the guts out of each with one of Mom’s butcher knives. Not an easy task, and we both ended up a bit bloody for the effort. Inside each hollowed-out tome, we hid our current work-in-progress journals. And for good measure, we’d chosen a dozen other random hardbacks to line the bookshelf above our dresser to further mask the “safes.”

We didn’t have real journals. Not store-bought ones. Ours were simply made by folding over sheets of lined notebook paper and stapling the folded edge. We’d quit putting construction paper covers on them long ago, probably about middle school. By then, we knew each other’s handwriting so well, we didn’t need to put our names on them, either.

We buried our finished ones when they’d no longer fit inside the hidden hardback safes. The raggedy, worn pages filled with ink and colored pencil and the occasional chocolate milk ring were tucked safely inside plastic baggies and taped shut against the underground elements. The oak was the safest place we knew to keep our private lives as private as they could be in a family of nosy adults. If you could call any of them adults.

I’d wanted to burn them. Permanently and forever protect our intimate thoughts, but Maisy refused. “We may need to look back on them someday, Jory. You know, just in case,” Maisy’d said on the day we gathered our finished booklets from under our mattresses and hauled them in the blue and white wheeled cooler down to the pond.

Those journals weren’t the first things to take refuge among the strong oak roots. Two other wrapped parcels glared up at us that day, their contents bulging beneath layers and layers of black landscaping plastic.

Maisy and I didn’t speak of the bulges. We’d spoken ourselves out over the incident. Used each other as therapists. Maisy’s actions to defend herself had taken Mark’s life. We filled journals by the dozens. Dark and twisted. We’d dug wider and deeper and let the bulges lie. A single dragonfly supervised our labors, dancing at the tip of Maisy’s wooden shovel handle, darting away over the open water, then back to the handle.

And Maisy’d said it knew.

We knew it was ridiculous, though. Dragonflies can’t know of such things. But with paranoia running bone-deep in both of us, we’d let the delusion ride itself out in some sort of therapeutic comfort.

And after a few months, the dragonflies were all just dragonflies again. Not some harbinger of terror. 

I pull myself from the past and remove the stapled booklet from Little Women. I reread my last entry. Four days ago. The last time Samuel came. Nothing happened during the visit, but he brought up Mark again. Complaining about the woodburning kit Mark had left out at his sister’s house. Complaining about the scraps and piles of wooden art projects that Mark was in the midst of finishing. The projects that tragic day at the pond had halted. The mess is Val’s issue, not Sam’s. It was just his way of digging the knife in deeper.

Of keeping control.

And he always rehashed what happened to Maisy’s twin, and Maisy and I had always marveled at how, even stone cold drunk that Sam could retell this story and not rat Maisy out. He’d come up with a version of the truth. Sam’s ultimate control over both of us, now that I knew what’d really happened. And what we were all capable of.

I’d jotted down angry paragraphs. Maisy’d done the same, I guess.

We knew it was dangerous. Spilling out secrets and darkness onto the pages. Someone could find them. That’s why I’d wanted to burn them when they were filled.

But she didn’t, and now I’m glad.

I reach toward the shelf for Heidi—then I stop myself. That’s her journal. Was her journal. We’d both written that same day about Samuel. I didn’t read hers at the time, nor she mine. It was her brother who’d died. I try—tried—to respect her privacy. Sometimes she’d throw the journal at my head and make me read her words, spilled out onto the paper like tears from her fingertips. Other entries were happy recollections of our times at the pond or school or silent all-nighters spent scrolling through real estate listings in far-away states. Or job listings. She loves—loved—job listings.

I wonder when I’ll stop with the present tense thoughts. It’s only been part of a day, but I wonder when those verbs move into permanent past tense conjugations.

I wonder if they should.

I decide to pull her hardback copy of Heidi off the shelf. I sit on the bed and hold it in my lap. I trace each letter with my finger. H.

Why did this have to happen? E.

I don’t know if I can go on without her. I don’t have siblings. But if I’d been a twin, I would’ve been hers. If twins could ever choose each other, we would’ve chosen one another. I. D. I.

The tears flow freely and a painful sob wells up under my rib cage and I think my heart will explode. I bring the crook of my elbow up to my mouth to stifle the deep wail—I don’t want an audience.

Breathe, Jory. Breathe.

I control my diaphragm. A couple more odd sounds escape from somewhere deep in my throat, but I bring those under submission as well. I wipe tears and snot on my sleeve. When my eyes can focus again, Heidi’s cover looks as though it’s been left in the rain. Tears dot the binding and drip over the spine’s edge. 

I open the cover. Maisy’s delicate handwriting greets me. “You write like a girl,” I’d teased her a while back. Her writing didn’t match her personality. She wasn’t delicate. She’d thrown the ink pen at me. I’d thrown it back and we both laughed.

I pull out the journal and set the hardback on the bed. I thumb through the first few pages. Most of it I’d read already—with her permission. I find the entry from Samuel’s visit a few days ago. I thought it’d be her last scroll in the journal. 

It wasn’t. I see a single entry from yesterday.

Today was a good day at the pond. Jory and I needed a good day after Sam’s drama.

And I see an entry from this morning.

I think I’m in trouble. The dragonfly is back.

Nine simple words. Nine words that I read over and over. Nine words that would make no sense to anyone but Maisy and I.

And maybe to the dragonfly.

I stuff her journal in my back pocket, grab a large, empty duffel from the bottom of my closet and leave the calm of our bedroom, and go down the hall to the back door. On the porch, my heart beating in my head now, I take a shovel from the corner. The short-handled one with the rusty spade head. I dump out a blue plastic milk crate of Maisy’s softballs and gloves. The half-dozen yellow orbs spread over the fake grass-covered floor. I don’t bother gathering them into a pile. I don’t care that someone may trip. I leave down the steps of the porch, careful not to let the old screen door slam behind me.

Samuel had moved outside and stands in the side yard smoking a Camel. He catches sight of me and holds up his beer in a cheer or salute or whatever. I don’t care.

Before today I would’ve choked behind a cool façade of apathy, my heart stopping dead in my chest while I’d try to oblige him with some response. But I turn my back to him. He calls after me, gravel dripping from his words. “Jory, let’s talk.”

I don’t respond. Not today.

I head to the pond for the second time in a few hours, hoping the empty crate and duffel will give me plenty of room. Room to act on that very first impulse that shot through me like lightning when Mom told me Maisy was dead.

The impulse to dig them up.

All of them.

***

The oak greets me, a faithful friend. The sun is higher now, cooking the back of my shirt to my shoulders. The heat weighs on me like lead as I begin to dig and loosen the dirt under the oak. I hear the occasional rustling of branches above me, partly from the ever so slight waft of wind. Partly from the crow. I catch sight of his tail a couple of times, but he’s silent. Probably hoping I’d brought him another easy meal.

I remove about two feet of earth—littered with fallen leaves and rotting acorns—and toss it to the side. Tendrils of new root growth from the tree and nearby vegetation twist around some of the plastic-wrapped packages. Maisy and I were always surprised at how quickly nature takes over after some disruptive act. Like digging.

I kneel by the hole and start removing the plastic-covered journal bundles. I look for the ones in black. Those are the most important and need to be packed first to ensure there’s enough room in my crate and duffel to carry them back to the house. The stack at the rim of the hole is now higher than my kneecaps and starting to tumble toward the tree trunk.

No way they’ll all fit.

Black crumbling plastic juts from under a jumble of other clear bundles. Another one of Maisy’s plans. Wrap the worst days in black. We could find them easily and burn them or avoid them forever, or, well. We didn’t quite know what.

I toss the black packages toward the opposite rim of the hole. Toward the pond.

As I pull out the bundles and toss them to the top, there’s more room for me in the hole. I can almost sit upright and not see the pond now. The dirt all around me muffles the sound and blocks any breeze, but the earth is cool and damp under me as I sit cross-legged near a still-impressive mess of journals.

And two more black bundles.

I look up to see blue sky, cut with crisscrossed limbs and branches. The crow’s rustling has stilled. Oblong leaves hang sleepily, waving to me gently.

Breathe, Jory.

I reach for one of the remaining black bundles. It’s light. Lighter than our journals. Rectangular. I don’t need to open it. The images—not afterimages but real ones, burned onto photograph paper for eternity—have haunted me since the day Mark found them and, in a gallant act of brotherly protectiveness and teenage stupidity, confronted Samuel.

Maisy hadn’t known Mark was at Samuel’s pond. Didn’t know that her twin had decided on that very day to come to her rescue. 

To come to our rescue.

I toss the rectangle to the top with the others. That one I’ll put in the front of the duffel.

I breathe again and reach for the last black bundle. I pull it onto my lap and let it rest. This one’s heavier than the others. Several black layers have crumbled with time and pressure under the dirt. A couple of layers remain. I start to peel away the flaking black skins. Bit by bit, taking time to breathe.

Taking time to respect the quiet here in this hole that Maisy and I dug to protect what was left of childhood and innocence. And to keep her free.

I don’t know how long I pick at the brittle plastic. Flakes of it litter the hole and my lap. I think I hear the crow.

I sit up straight and look up at the sky and branches.

A shadowy silhouette blocks the bright blue. I startle, hands frozen over the heavy weight in my lap. Directly overhead, the crow’s unsettled cries float down into the hole with me. 

Samuel.

He’s unwrapping the rectangle.

I can only catch some of what he’s saying.

“…is this what you were going to use against me? You know Maisy did it. Shot him. She deserved what was coming to her.”

His form staggers, he loses his footing on one of the journal bundles and nearly slips into the hole. As he regains his balance, I stand, still holding the wrapped package. Upright in the pit now, my shoulders are even with the upper rim of dirt. I can see the pond rippling gently behind Samuel. His fingers work faster on the photograph’s black wrapping.

I will my fingers to do the same.

He’s swearing now. He tosses his beer can into the hole with me to get a better grip on the plastic and rips it completely away, tossing it into the hole. He flips through the images, smiling his drunk, crooked smirk and tucks the pictures into his back pocket.

I’m at the last layer of landscape plastic. Thick and heavy and secured with packing tape. My fingers are shaking and sweat from my palms makes the task more difficult.

“She was going to rat me out. Something about, ‘Should’ve done it sooner. I’m a monster. That Mark was all my fault.’” He mimics her voice. Her cadence. He throws his hands to his hips and swings back and forth. Mocking her.

He is a monster. And Mark was all his fault. Maisy may have pulled the trigger, but her aim had been for Sam’s gut, not her brother’s.

“Well, I showed little Miss Maisy a thing or two today now didn’t I?” Sam squares up to me and fumbles with his belt buckle. “No one blackmails me…”

I’m through the last layer. I leave the plastic over the piece. I feel the cold steel of the cylinder and pull back the hammer. The click is muffled by the earthen hole.

He’s got the buckle undone and spits into the hole, missing my torso by an inch.

I rotate the gun inside the plastic. I feel the bumpy wooden handle. I feel the heaviness of the barrel.

He whips the belt from his jeans and tosses it toward the tree trunk. It lands on top of our journals.

I bring the plastic-covered gun even with my chin.

He’s drunk, so the realization of what’s about to happen spreads over his face slowly. Slow enough that my dragonfly has time to hover directly in front of his face in shimmering approval.

When my friend flits away, I aim at its afterimage and pull the trigger.

The shot echoes across the pond and back again.

Samuel’s body slumps over our journals. Over some of the clear ones. Some of the black ones.

The crow squawks above me. Above the ringing in my ears as the echo dies down.

The plastic blew away with the shot, leaving the piece naked in my trembling hands. I turn it over to the familiar image. As familiar as the photos sticking out of Samuel’s back pocket. 

On the wooden stock is a burnt etching of a dragonfly. Crafted with Mark’s expert skill. His initials camouflaged into one wing, Maisy’s in the other.

I don’t trust my legs to get me out of the hole. Someone will be here soon enough. Someone had to have heard…

In the meantime, I kick the beer can out of the way and sit in the earth fortress beneath the oak. I keep the revolver in my lap. The sound disappears. My heartbeat slows.

My breathing slows.

My dragonfly lands on an exposed root near the top of the hole. It’s wings slow. Wings so sheer I can see the blue of the sky behind them as they gently pump up and down.

I can make out every delicate detail. Each segment and line. I imagine I see the twins’ initials tucked in his front wings.

And I wonder what the lifespan of a dragonfly is.