Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

— Virginia Woolf

Ollie

by Elizabeth Genovise

He’d jump in front of a train for her, and yet most of the world would see Lyla as worthless.

A woman a few feet away shot him a look, unnerved, and Harmon felt his face burning. But he stood there a long time, looking.

IT BEGAN ONE WEEKEND in November when Harmon’s sister and her kids came to spend the night at the house. Harmon and Willa liked playing host and hostess to bubbly Lyla and her children; they had been doing it since they were first married. On this particular weekend, Lyla had taken the kids downtown and bought them some new toys. She was a cashier at a pharmacy and it was payday. Knowing Harmon would pick up her utility bill when it came to it, Lyla had blown the whole check on the kids, and they came to the house with bags full of games and stuffed animals. One of those stuffed animals was Ollie.

 

Ollie was a two-foot-tall Emperor penguin with a sturdy base, floppy wings, and bright black eyes that peered out shyly from a ruffle of black and yellow cotton feathers. He was cheaply made and when Harmon saw the price tag he shook his head, setting Lyla off: “Don’t be so critical, Harm. The kids love him.” This didn’t seem to be entirely true, though; six-year-old Blake dropped the toy on the floor the moment Harmon mentioned lunch, and Crystal, who was four, was completely engrossed in the battered Strawberry Shortcake doll she always had with her. Willa, for her part, didn’t notice the bird until the next day when everyone had left. She found him near the living room couch where Crystal had slept.

 

“We’ll get it back to the kids when they come next,” she said, shrugging, and propped the bird on one end of the sofa.

 

But later that night, when she and Harmon were curled up in front of the television, Willa said she had a stomachache. On impulse, she pulled the stuffed bird onto her lap and squeezed him against her middle. She fell asleep on Harmon like that. The following night, she took him to bed with them. Harmon picked Ollie up and had him cock his head at Willa as though asking a question.

 

“Yes?” she said, hoisting herself up on an elbow.

 

Ollie pointed to Willa, then pointed out the window, then cocked his head again.

 

“Am I going away from you? No, honey,” Willa said, and took Ollie in her arms. Over the bird, she kissed Harmon deeply. That night, and every night after, they went to sleep this way.

 

They were not your typical childless couple. When, at thirty, they’d learned of Willa’s endometriosis, neither had been particularly upset. Harmon had raised his sister Lyla since their parents went to prison for running cons in Florida. It had been hard work. Lyla had their parents’ wild streak and she’d had two children by two disappearing fathers by the time she was twenty-one. Willa also had raised a sibling, her brother Corbin, after their parents died. Corbin was an addict from the age of sixteen. During their time living together, Corbin had stolen from her, destroyed most of her relationships, and made her into something she was not by nature: a submissive, soft-spoken woman who tiptoed around conversations in fear of both her brother’s temper and his inevitable relapse. Their relationship depended upon Willa’s ability to convince Corbin that he was a great man, even when he disgusted her. One day, when Corbin was twenty-four and had relapsed, Willa broke down and let him have it. He punished her by vanishing that very night. Not a word or any trace of his whereabouts since. Harmon still woke sometimes to find Willa crying quietly in the dark. For all she knew her brother was lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Every night as she fought for sleep, she would complain to Harmon that her heart raced uncontrollably. She said it was so fast that she was afraid of it.

 

After hearing her infertility diagnosed, Willa waited until the doctor respectfully left the room, and then she said to Harmon, “The truth is, I’m grateful. Because I couldn’t do it again. That would be the sick humor of the universe—I’d have this beautiful baby and he’d just grow up to be Corbin.”

 

Silently, Harmon agreed. There’d been times he’d wanted to kill Corbin. What held Harmon back was an awareness of how similar his own sacrifices for Lyla had been. He’d jump in front of a train for her, and yet most of the world would see Lyla as worthless. White trash, his own aunt had called her.

 

By thirty-seven they had moved long past the idea of having a family of their own. They were for the most part successful, had fulfilling lives. Harmon ran a small cabinetry business in Knoxville and Willa wrote and took photographs for several travel magazines based in the Smoky Mountains. They had a nice house tucked into a pretty cove in Sevierville, filled with Harmon’s woodworking and Willa’s framed photographs. They had friends. There was no reason to read anything into what was happening with Ollie.

 

 

 

IT WAS NOT SOMETHING they talked explicitly about, but they both fell into a habit of lying by omission whenever one of the kids asked about Ollie. It happened several times. Lyla would drop them off for the day or she’d come for dinner, and one of the kids would remember the penguin and ask if they’d found him. Harmon played dumb, the oblivious man of the house, as though stuffed animals were something he couldn’t see even if they were there, the way he always struggled to find the deli ham in the fridge when it was right in front of him. Willa would stall: “Um, you know, I’m not sure. What does he look like again? Could be in the study. I’ll have a look for you, sweetie. Would you like to make double-chocolate cookies?” And the kids would get distracted. Months went by in this fashion.

 

Neither felt guilty. Ollie had become part of the home. He sat next to Willa’s reading chair in the big burl bowl Harmon had carved out, keeping her company as she worked on articles. He was often perched at the breakfast table when they ate. And both Willa and Harmon had taken to setting up Ollie scenes for each other: Willa would come home from the store to find Ollie standing sheepishly among spilled cornflakes next to the cereal cabinet, or Harmon would get back from work to find Ollie at the computer, wearing spectacles, a stack of books at his side. Once, they caught him rummaging through Willa’s underwear drawer, a pair of lacy blue panties hanging guiltily from one wing. Both pretended not to know who had set him up there and they gave him a stern lecture, their lips quivering with checked laughter.

 

They made videos of him with a digital camera, Harmon making Ollie dance, holding him by the scruff of his neck. The penguins’ moves were a bewildering cross between hip-hop and ballroom. When winter was in full force Willa found a red puppy sweater that fit Ollie perfectly, along with a pair of baby mittens. One night, Harmon found in his desk drawer a wooden pen shaped like a baseball bat. They put a ball cap on Ollie and had him practice hitting, Harmon pitching balls of crumpled-up computer paper from a foot away as Willa guided Ollie’s wing.

 

They were frankly enjoying themselves, discovering a playfulness in their relationship they hadn’t known was there.

 

They started to go out more. They went to a Tennessee Smokies minor league baseball game and ate too many hot dogs. They hiked trails in the National Park in March, the mountains still glimmering blue with iced pines. They explored a bird watching sanctuary called Seven Islands—a prairie just twenty minutes away that they’d somehow never visited. In April, the trails were vibrant with wildflowers, and the French Broad River murmured as they walked. They noticed a tiny wooded trail veering toward the water and they took it, hand-in-hand. At the shoals, they discovered a young couple skinny-dipping. Instead of freezing in shocked silence, they burst into laughter and went tearing back through the woods, still holding hands. Their laughter in these months was like the prairie, something that surprised them by having been there all along, so easily within reach.

 

In the past, there were nights that would shatter suddenly, the way glass does at the smallest pressure when it is already fragmented in some place no one has noticed before. Willa would see something on TV or hear a snatch of a radio program that made her think of Corbin, and then she’d retreat, balling herself up under the blankets. Or Harmon would get a 911 call from Lyla, drunk at a bar and needing a ride home, or huddling in front of a convenience store after some guy she’d slept with had hit her. Now, such nights were becoming rare. They would stay up eating snacks and planning the weekend’s activities, usually with Ollie presiding over the conversation. Sometimes he even had his own crackers and cheese on a tiny saucer. Or else they watched late-night movies over popcorn, something they had never done. During the years when normal couples were living together and eating popcorn over movies, they were each living with a sibling, spending the AM hours pacing the floors, waiting to hear the front door creak open.

 

Once, they made a mistake and watched a documentary on Emperor penguins. “Ollie will love it,” Willa insisted. It was a beautiful film but there were scenes neither Harmon nor Willa could watch without tearing up. Harmon had to get up for a glass of water when a baby died in the snow, its mother nudging its brittle bones with her beak as if trying to resuscitate it. Willa was all right during that part, but had lost it earlier on, when a single male penguin got separated from the group and was filmed marching alone through the endless Antarctic ice field. Waddling hopelessly toward nothingness. She’d sat there holding her chin high and swallowing hard, blinking furiously, until the camera panned out. Tightly she said, “Couldn’t they have helped him? Whoever was filming?”

 

“They can’t do that, Willa,” Harmon said, squeezing her hand. Her other arm was practically strangling Ollie. “They have to let Nature take its course.”

 

“That’s easy for you to say.”

 

Surprised, he turned to face her. “What does that mean?”

 

“You still have Lyla. She’s still in your life. You can’t understand it.”

 

He almost argued with her and thought better of it. They spent the rest of the evening in silence, Harmon snapping off the bedside lamp as soon as the film ended.

 

But this night was an exception. For the most part, Willa was beginning to fall asleep with ease, Ollie’s soft bulk filling the small space between her chest and Harmon’s. They looked forward to their weekends and worked their jobs with renewed enthusiasm. They didn’t talk about any of this, but they both had the same thought: that somehow, it was all connected to Ollie. And if they were happier, how could it be unhealthy in any way?

 

 

 

AS TIME WORE ON, though, they started to question their sanity.

 

There was the night when Willa was sitting up in their bed with her laptop, reading about the Emperor penguins at SeaWorld in California. She was seething over the fact that the penguins had been taken out of their environment, “just so arrogant jerks can take their stupid photographs,” but when she read on, her face changed, registering grief, an expression that instantly took Harmon back to the night her brother had vanished.

 

“Listen to this, Harmon. Oh, God.” She had a hand at her cheek. “‘Emperor penguins are incredibly powerful creatures. It took a party of six men to tackle and capture one bird. The penguin knocked over his assailants and fought them for nearly an hour.’” Her eyes on Harmon were enormous. “I can’t—I’m sick just imagining this. God. Can you think of anything more horrific? That poor bird, fighting all those men—those—cowards. Those fucking selfish cowards. They’ll ferment in hell for it if there’s any excuse for a God out there.”

 

His wife’s profanity startled Harmon. He suspected that even in the worst years with Corbin, Willa had never used words like that with her brother. He said, “Maybe there’s some benefit to it. Studying the birds. Might learn how to help if there’s ever a disease or a change in their environment or something.”

 

“Jesus, Harmon, were you watching that documentary with me or what? Life is an art form for those penguins. Everything they do happens right when it’s supposed to. It’s in their spirits to survive. There’s no excuse for kidnapping them. Separating them from their families. My God. It’s sickening.” And she opened up Word on her computer and began composing a vicious letter to SeaWorld, a letter she would print out and send the next morning.

 

It was as though all the injustices she had ever encountered were wrapped up in that one act, and strangely, Harmon caught himself feeling the same way. At work, he told his partner Jay about it, and was incensed when Jay wasn’t properly angered. The man simply lit a cigarette and said, “Sucks.” Harmon indignantly repeated this remark to Willa at dinner. Allies again, they berated SeaWorld over their stir-fry.

 

Then there was the night they left the house in a hurry, late for a reservation at an Italian restaurant downtown. Ten minutes into their meal, Harmon stopped, fork midair, and said, “I think we left Ollie lying on the porch swing. From when we were reading.”

 

“On the swing?”

 

“Yeah. That’s what I’m picturing.”

 

“Oh, geez. Poor Ollie.”

 

They resumed eating for perhaps another five minutes. Harmon kept glancing out the window beside their table; there were storm clouds gathering behind the mountains. Willa was thinking about the bratty kids who lived next door, who’d ripped up her tulips last spring. Once, she’d seen one of the boys sitting in his backyard, tearing the heads off his sister’s Barbie dolls.

 

“Maybe we should skip dessert,” she said.

 

“I don’t have room for it anyway.”

 

But the worst came in July, when they met some friends for a movie near the mall. The four of them had arrived ten minutes early and they sat in the half-dark chatting as they waited for the previews to come on. Jonathan and Alison had a two-year-old at home with a sitter, and at one point Alison said, “Heck, I wonder if I should call home before the movie starts. Just to make sure everything’s okay. Lily gets into trouble so easy, it’s like she’s got a magnet for it in her body somewhere.”

 

“Oh, we know,” Willa said, natural as anything. “Ollie’s the exact same way.”

 

There was a silence with all manner of things going on in it.

 

Finally Jonathan said, “Who? Did you say, ‘Ollie’?”

 

“It’s a nickname we have,” Harmon said, glad for the darkness; he could feel that his face was red. “For my niece, Crystal. She’s just four and into all kinds of trouble.”

 

Alison laughed. “How do you get from Crystal to Ollie?”

 

But the previews were starting, and she and Jonathan settled back into their seats. Harmon reached for Willa’s hand. Her skin was hot. Very quietly, into her ear, he said, “I think this might be getting out of control.”

 

 

 

THEY MIGHT HAVE HAD a fight about it that night but they didn’t, both too frightened of traversing the territory. They fell asleep in the big bed with Ollie tucked between them like always, and in the morning, Willa woke Harmon by poking his head with Ollie’s wing.

 

But then, as though she knew something, Harmon’s sister called the following Sunday. Harmon took the call while Willa unloaded groceries in the kitchen.

 

“Hey, Ly,” he said. “What’s up? You want a break from the kids today?”

 

“No, Harm, actually, I’ve got a question. It’s stupid, and I meant to ask you guys the last time we were over, but I keep forgetting. Do you still have the kids’ penguin lying around? They left it there, like, ages ago. I know I’ve asked before but we always forget about it. Anyway, they’ve been on me about it again because they saw some dumb movie about penguins and now they’re obsessed. I’m gonna have to buy them a new one if you can’t find the thing.”

 

Harmon looked over at Willa, who was tranquilly stacking cans of tomato sauce in the cabinet. He said, “I’ll have to look around and see if we have him. If he’s here, we’ll find him.”

 

“Him?” Lyla was laughing. “It’s a toy, Harm.”

 

“I’ll look for it and get back to you.”

 

“Oh, and Harm?” There was a change in her voice, a sudden tension. Harmon felt his spine straightening in a way it hadn’t in months.

 

“What is it, Ly?”

 

“I was wondering if we could all come over for dinner tonight. I have something to tell you, some news. I can’t wait. I want us all to be there.”

 

Harmon swallowed and said, “Of course. I’ll tell Willa. Come at say six?”

 

“That’s perfect. I’ll see you.”

 

“Okay, kiddo. See you.” He hung up and looked at Willa. “Something’s up,” he said. “She said she’s got news and wants to tell us over dinner. I’m sorry about the short notice. You were going to make pizza anyway, right? Could you pop in two instead of one?”

 

“What was that about—you’ll look around to see if we have him?” Willa’s voice was guarded, her eyes narrowed.

 

Harmon dithered, opening the fridge so he wouldn’t have to look at her. “The kids asked about Ollie again after they saw some penguin movie. She wants me to find him or else she’s going to have to get them another one.”

 

When he doesn’t hear anything behind him, he turns. Willa is standing there hugging a paper bag swollen with groceries. “We’re not giving him back,” she said. “There is no way. Those kids have a million toys. They don’t need him.”

 

“Willa, we can’t keep lying about this. He’s theirs. He always was.”

 

“When have we lied?”

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

Willa shrugged. “That’s not the same as lying. But even if it is. I’m not giving him up.” Her eyes were wet now under the kitchen light and she was gripping the bag more tightly, her nails making tiny tears in the paper. “I refuse, Harmon.”

 

“Maybe this is a weird kind of blessing,” he said, trying another tack. “An easy out, her asking for him back like this. I mean, honestly Willa, this is getting weird, don’t you think? Look at us. Getting upset at dinner because we left him outside? Talking about him in front of people like he’s our baby? Doesn’t that strike you as, you know, insane?”

 

She was fighting tears now. “Are you calling me insane? Is that what this is—like it’s all me?”

 

“No, honey, I think we’re both—”

 

“Because there are different kinds of crazy, you know. Some people do things that look strange to the rest of the world, but it might be exactly what they need to feel normal. Do you understand? And is it so terrible, so selfish to have this? This stuffed bird? For myself?” She was beginning to stammer. “Is it, would you really say that it’s nuts, to have something for myself that I want this badly?”

 

“Honey.” He stepped toward her and reached out for the grocery bag. But she slammed it down on the kitchen island and stormed past him, leaving him alone.

 

“You’re being completely unreasonable,” he called after his wife, but there was no answer.

 

 

 

HE DROVE DOWNTOWN and maneuvered the car into a parking garage near Market Square. His plan was to walk until he’d calmed down, until things fell into perspective. With his hands deep in his pockets he crossed the Square, passing musicians camped out on the sidewalk and a line of people waiting to get into a popular Mexican restaurant. He walked to Mast General Store and was pleased to find it open. Inside, he felt comforted: the place smelled like chocolate and new clothes and shoes. He grabbed a white paper bag and started picking his way through the big barrels of treats lined up in the back, filling the bag with licorice and nonpareils and kisses. It was a reflex left over from back when he and Willa were dating, when he’d come to her bearing candy.

 

He noticed a wall of old-fashioned toys, and immediately thought of his niece and nephew. He had a paddleball set and a wooden train whistle in his hand when he spotted the penguin.

 

It should have occurred to him that this was where his nephew got Ollie. Lyla had said they’d all been downtown that day and there weren’t any other toy stores in the area Harmon knew of. Still, it shocked him, as though he’d spotted his own child walking around with some strange family. He reached up and took the penguin down from his shelf, sending a neighboring polar bear tumbling to the floor.

 

“Sorry,” he muttered to no one, bending to retrieve the bear. He replaced it and then stood there holding the penguin up in front of him. The second shock was realizing how shabby their Ollie was in comparison with this one. Threads hanging off his chin. Ragged wings and a scrappy belly from all the nights Willa fell asleep holding him. His neck a little thin from Harmon holding it by the scruff whenever he made Ollie dance or cock his head at Willa.

 

“You’re not Ollie,” he said accusingly to the stuffed animal. A woman a few feet away shot him a look, unnerved, and Harmon felt his face burning. But he stood there a long time, looking.

 

 

 

HIS SISTER’S FORD WAS parked out front when Harmon got home. Blake and Crystal were in Harmon’s study, playing some computer game; he could hear the little modulated beeps and yelps as soon as he entered the front hallway. He went into the bedroom first and took off his shoes. Ollie was still nestled in his burl bowl by Willa’s reading chair.

 

When he entered the kitchen, his sister was lounging at the table like a cat, her legs up on another chair, as Willa cut up peppers and onions for her homemade pizza. Lyla was wearing an electric pink dress that hugged her curves, and Harmon wished she’d put on a sweater.

 

“There’s my big brother,” Lyla sang out. “I was worried you got lost or something. Willa said you’d gone out.”

 

“Yeah.” Harmon pulled out a chair and sat down. He tried to catch Willa’s eye but she was concentrating fiercely on the task at hand. Her face was noticeably blotched from crying.

 

“I love pizza. It’s like you guys read my mind. Tonight we’re celebrating,” Lyla went on.

 

“Celebrating what? Come on, just say it.” Harmon felt his stomach turn over again at the thought that his sister might be pregnant with a third child. “You know I hate secrets.”

 

“Nope, you gotta wait til dinner. The kids want to tell you about it, too.” Lyla giggled. Her hair was in a long braid and her face was still as full and flushed as it had been when she was ten, in spite of her tumultuous life, giving birth to two children. Something about her eyes made Harmon think she might be drinking again. He felt a familiar pang: would she ever be grown up, spoken for, safe?

 

Willa slid the finished pizzas into the oven and wiped off the counter. “There,” she said with finality. She looked at Harmon. “Would you help me get some things out of the basement? I was going to bake a quick pie with the preserves. Since it’s Lyla’s favorite dessert.”

 

“Sure.” He heaved himself to his feet and ruffled his sister’s hair as he passed her. He followed Willa down the basement steps and watched as she pulled the light chain in front of their pantry shelves. For a moment she scanned the jars, her hand at her mouth. The one she chose glowed faintly with cherries in sweet juice.

 

Looking at the jar in her hand, she said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. You were right. It’s—it’s not healthy. I know why I do it, too. It’s right out of some college psychology textbook.” She swallowed. “I put Ollie in his bowl so the kids would see him. They haven’t asked about him yet, but I’m sure one of them will remember before they leave. So, he’s there.”

 

“I closed the bedroom door,” Harmon said gently. “They don’t have to see him. They might not even think of him. Little kids are like that. They get caught up in something new so fast. They’re in my study going hog-wild over some dumb computer game right now.”

 

His wife looked defeated, sadder than he had ever seen her. The lines of her face seemed deeper than he remembered. She said, “It’s funny, I’d tell you the opposite—that’s not how they are at all. When they want to protect some little thing of theirs, they’re ferocious as lions. They’ll ask about him all right, now that it’s really in their heads. You’ll see.”

 

And she was walking ahead of him, trudging up the stairs as though the jar of cherry preserves weighed a hundred pounds.

 

At dinner, Blake and Crystal were like two wild animals, spilling the Coke Lyla insisted Harmon give them, and pegging each other with pieces of pepperoni. Blake refused to pick up his food and instead bent his head low to eat it directly off his plate. Harmon was horrified. The urge to lecture Lyla, even at the risk of starting a fight, tingled up and down his arms. He was tense in his chair, glancing occasionally at Willa, who kept her eyes on her food.

 

After her third slice of pizza, Lyla stretched her arms and said, “Well, kids, I think it’s time. Are we ready to tell Uncle Harmon our big news?”

 

Crystal bounced in her seat and wagged her tongue at her mother. Blake chanted, “Do it, do it!”

 

“We,” Lyla began, dragging out the syllable, “are moving!”

 

Harmon froze.

 

“I’m getting married,” Lyla continued. “His name is Gage. He’s in the Air Force and we met when he was on furlough. We got engaged two weeks ago and we’re moving to the base with the kids. Can you believe it?”

 

“Where? Where is the base?” Harmon heard the tremble in his voice and he crossed his arms.

 

“Texas. We’re moving to Texas! I’ve never even left Tennessee.” She was practically jumping in her seat, her hair dancing on her shoulders. “Who would’ve thought?”

 

“This man—Gage? How long have you known him?”

 

“Oh, Harmon, don’t start. Long enough. He’s a good guy. He loves the kids. And he has a career. Even you couldn’t find a problem with that.”

 

Harmon pressed on, “How old is he? Has he been married before?”

 

“Christ, Harm. He’s twenty-seven. Never been married. Okay?”

 

Willa rose from the table and began collecting plates. “That’s wonderful, Lyla. How exciting for you, and for the kids, too.”

 

Lyla beamed. “Thank you. I knew you’d be happy for us.”

 

Harmon ignored them both. “Where’s your goddamned ring? I don’t see a ring on your finger. What kind of man proposes without a ring?”

 

“We’re going to pick it out together,” Lyla said, letting out a dramatic sigh. “The proposal was kind of spontaneous.” She giggled again. “He put a cherry stem around my finger and made this tiny knot. He pulled the thing right out of my drink and made it into a ring.”

 

Harmon felt a little ill and the idea of his wife’s pie no longer appealed to him. To Willa, he said, “Maybe skip the pie? I think everyone’s too full.”

 

“You’re right,” Willa agreed. Too easily, he thought. That look of defeat hadn’t faded from her face. “Some other time. Speaking of that,” and she turned to Lyla, “when will you be here again, honey? How often can you visit?”

 

Harmon gripped the edge of the table. It hadn’t even hit him yet that his sister would be hundreds of miles away and probably never come home to visit.

 

“Oh, Christmas, for sure,” Lyla said, “I’ll do my best. But I’ll be at the base with the kids. They’ll be in school there. Can’t just take off whenever.”

 

“Of course.” Willa started stacking the dirty dishes in the sink. “We understand. But we’re going to miss you.”

 

“Oh, I know,” Lyla began, but Willa cut her off, leaning over the kitchen island to address her: “You are going to have to make an effort, though, you understand? For your brother. He will visit you and call you and write you, but you have to meet him halfway. You have to do that. It’s terribly important. Promise me.”

 

For a moment Lyla sat there, blinking. Startled. Then she said, “I will. I promise.”

 

And just when Harmon didn’t think he could hold onto himself a moment longer, Crystal snapped her head up as if remembering something and said, “We want Ollie. We have to pack all our stuff and we want Ollie.”

 

 

 

HARMON WENT INTO THE bedroom and came back out carrying the stuffed penguin. Crystal and Blake, inordinately excited, leaped out of their chairs for the bird and immediately began fighting over him. Lyla watched, smiling. From behind the kitchen island, Willa squinted, her eyebrows furrowed. She said, “Harmon?” but nobody heard her. Not even Harmon, who stood there with his arms crossed as the children wrestled with their toy.

 

“Now they can finish packing,” he said, his voice quaking just perceptibly.

 

“Thanks, Harm,” Lyla said. She stood up and shouldered her purse. “We’d better get going. We’ve just started boxing things in the apartment. I’ve got a week before we roll out.”

 

“A week,” Harmon repeated. A cold, hollow ache opened suddenly behind his ribs, knocking the breath out of him.

 

“I’d love it if you helped.”

 

“Of course. Call me tomorrow, tell me when it’s a good time to come by.”

 

“Great.” Lyla was already shuffling her children toward the front door. “Call me.”

 

“Drive safe,” Harmon called after her as she let herself out. Blake was carrying his penguin over his shoulder, and the black eyes winked under the porch light as the little procession made its way down the steps.

 

Harmon waited to close the door until his sister had driven away. Then he turned back to his wife, but Willa was no longer in the kitchen.

 

He found her in their bedroom, kneeling on the floor beside the burl bowl, holding Ollie against her chest.

 

“They wouldn’t’ve even recognized him, was my thinking,” Harmon said from the doorframe. “We wore him out pretty good. I saw that new one downtown. He wasn’t at all the same bird.”

 

“Of course he wasn’t,” Willa said softly. Her eyes were closed and her chin rested atop Ollie’s threadbare head. Harmon knelt down across from her and scooted close. He wrapped his arms around her, encircling them both. He swore that he could feel heat and heartbeat between them.

 

 

They were not your typical childless couple.

As time wore on, though, they started to question their sanity.

ELIZABETH GENOVISE’s stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Pembroke Magazine, Cimarron Review, and many other journals. She has published two collections of short fiction, and also just had a story selected for a 2016 O. Henry Prize.

 

The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote

© 2016 The Indianola Review