by Sydney McDonald
Daisy Ailby’s sixth birthday comes just as summer deliquesces into fall, with green bleeding red and orange around the edges and days crumbling away earlier and earlier. Every day for two weeks leading up to her birthday, Daisy says that the only thing she wants in the whole world is to go to the Adront County Fair. The morning after she first says it, Eleanor finds a sheet of notebook paper titled ‘Mom’s Shoping List’ taped to the refrigerator door. It’s colour-coded in marker and smells like the cotton candy body mist Daisy carries around to feel grown-up. Eleanor is not buying her daughter a ‘chiken’ or a ‘rench’ for her birthday, but she does get her Scrabble, Bananagrams, and a ticket to the Adront County Fair.
Adront County is four hours away from Ekrin, and Daisy only knows it exists because her father told her about how he used to go to the fair with his family when he was little. He made the mistake of describing it as a “magical place” and neither Eleanor nor David have heard about anything else since. Eleanor bought three tickets – one each for her, David, and Daisy – but David gets called into work just as they’re about to leave.
“It’s an emergency,” he says, “Lenny’s wife just went into labour, and they’ll fire him if he calls off again without a cover.” David is an auto mechanic, even though he’d always dreamed of being a medical attorney. Lenny is his best friend (“Drinking buddy, Eleanor! We’re not school boys anymore.”) and he’d covered David’s shift when Eleanor was in labour.
Daisy sulks the first half hour of the drive. Eleanor plays Daisy’s favourite song, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” on repeat, making silly faces at her daughter as she sings. Eventually, Daisy joins in and her father’s absence is forgotten.
When Eleanor and Daisy actually arrive at the highly anticipated Adront County Fair, Eleanor is immediately concerned about how the rest of the day will go. There doesn’t appear to be anything at all “magical” about it. It’s more or less the exact same as the Montgomery Carnival they go to every year. The Adront County Fair just has a few more farm animals and a lot more dust.
And then Daisy sees the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. It’s shaped like a hot dog and the kid selling hot dogs beside it is wearing a matching hot dog hat. Daisy rips her funnel-cake-sticky fingers out of Eleanor’s grasp and sprints towards him as fast as her short, little legs will carry her. By the time Eleanor catches up, her daughter is talking a mile a minute at the hot dog kid, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. Eleanor grabs her daughter’s sticky hand, smiles apologetically at the poor hot dog kid. She asks Daisy if she’d actually like to buy anything from the hot dog stand, but her daughter prattles on about how one day she’s going to grow up to drive the hot dog car and sell hot dogs at the Adront County Fair – and every fair in the whole world, probably. Eleanor says Daisy’s name and swings their joined hands a bit, but Daisy doesn’t pause in her impassioned speech, doesn’t even glance Eleanor’s way. The hot dog kid is staring somewhere over Daisy’s head, not looking at Eleanor either. It makes something in Eleanor’s throat feel tight, to feel like such a ghost standing next to her own child in a crowd of other people.
Daisy makes Eleanor take her to the Wienermobile three times before they leave. She never wants to buy anything; she just seems to like looking at it. When they get home, Daisy tells her father that he was right about how special the Adront County Fair is. “A magical place,” she says, parroting his own words back to him over and over. The hot dog car is all she talks about for weeks. David gets her a puppy for Christmas that year. Or, well, he stumbles upon a puppy on his way home one evening and refuses to get rid of it. They already have a dog, but Echo has always been mostly David’s. Eleanor finds something unsettling about the way Echo skulks in the underbrush around the house, watching her from a distance instead of at her heels, like a dog should. The hot dog thing is weird though, and David is hoping the newest addition to the family will give Daisy something more normal to focus on. It takes her all of five seconds to proudly christen the puppy Sir Oscar Mayer.
“It’s a Halloween decoration.”
“It’s not. When have you ever seen a decoration like that?”
“Up on Montgomery. Haven’t you ever driven by the old money houses on a holiday?”
“That’s a half hour away! How would one of the Montgomery decorations end up all the way in Ekrin? Besides, it’s July. No one is out putting up their Halloween decorations in July, David.”
“I didn’t say they were putting them up, did I? It was probably just the Sullivan boys getting drunk by the creek again. I bet they had it out there to scare their girlfriends and just didn’t pick it back up. You know how kids from those families are.” Of course she does. David had been a kid from one of those families once, back before his father had all but disowned him for dropping out of law school.
“It has bugs, David! And it’s…oozing. Plastic doesn’t ooze like that.”
“Oh, who the hell knows what it’s made of. Those boys dropped it in the creek and now it’s all waterlogged. Anything would have a few bugs after that.”
David nudges at the arm with the scuffed toe of his work boot. It’s bloated and discoloured, coated in a grey slime like someone has dipped it in a pot of melted wax. It has a hand attached to it, but no elbow. A tarnished wedding band shaped like two entwined vines cinches in its ring finger. Its engagement ring is gone and its nails are torn. Two of them – the ones that should be sitting on the index and middle finger – are missing entirely. There’s a small fleck of what might be red nail polish on its little finger. In the fading, late evening light, the arm bleeds almost black.
The whole porch smells like a godforsaken mix of mothballs and rotting cabbage. It is not a Halloween decoration. Daisy’s floppy-eared, saggy-faced mutt, Oscar, is grinning at Eleanor – full of pride for the wonderful gift he’s dragged up all the way from the creek to bestow upon his beloved humans. Eleanor wishes David would have left him on the side of the road, curled up against his mother’s cold belly. Echo flits about in the trees to the left of the porch; her brindled fur nearly indistinguishable from the shadows, snapping twigs and swaying undergrowth giving her away.
“It’s just a decoration. Just kids being kids, but I’ll toss it into the Johnson’s pig yard when I’m driving in to work tomorrow morning, if it’ll make you feel better. Those bastards’ll eat anything – even shitty Halloween decorations.”
“Daisy will be home soon. Whatever it is or isn’t, she doesn’t need to see it.” The entwined vines of the wedding band catch a feeble ray of sun. It’s really quite a pretty ring, if she ignores the creek muck and blood. Eleanor imagines that beneath all the bloating and grey, the arm has delicate, feminine bones. The owner of that pretty wedding band wore bright red nail polish and bright red lipstick with dark, elegant dresses. She had a whole body once and a whole life, and all she has left to show for it is a tarnished ring and a detached arm, dragged out of a creek by a dog named for the Wienermobile. And now Eleanor’s husband wants to throw her arm into a pig pen like it’s nothing more than a tomato that sat on the windowsill for a few days too long. Soft, pulpy flesh in thin, bruised skin. No use for it now; may as well toss it to the pigs. “Maybe we should call the police. Just to be sure.”
“And then what? It’s not real, but even if it were that’d be a stupid move. If this thing were real, it’d be the third time a body – or part of one, anyway – ended up on our land. Do you remember the last time, with that damned handkerchief? The questions they asked? Do you want to get us arrested, Eleanor?” Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern. Last spring, the Sullivan boys and their friends had been drinking in the woods by the creek. They’d found a cotton handkerchief with little cowboy hats and lassos printed on it. Wrapped inside the cowboy hat and lasso handkerchief, they’d found three human toes and part of a nose. Two years before that, a group of men hunting illegally on the Ailby’s land found a woman’s body tucked up against the side of the creek, her jaw blown clean off from a shotgun fired at close range. She, at least, had been deemed a suicide, despite the missing shotgun and abrasions around her wrists.
“I just – ” beneath the arm’s waxy grey, there are little abrasions on the woman’s knuckles. Like she’d been throwing punches before she died. Eleanor just wants to know what her name had been.
“You just what?” There’s a birthmark in the shape of Germany over Eleanor’s left hand. Her nails are polish free and filed short. She wears her rings on a gold necklace tucked under her shirt so it doesn’t get dirty while she’s doing work around the house. If it were her arm brought up from a creek and dropped on another family’s porch, what kind of person would they think she had been?
“I don’t know.”
Daisy knows about the arm. She was supposed to be at a sleepover at her friend Sarah’s house, but Sarah had gotten sick and her family had wanted Daisy to be picked up and taken home. No one answered their calls, so they finally just dropped her off themselves. Daisy had gotten home just as David was trying to nudge the arm into a plastic grocery bag with his boot.
The next morning, sitting at the kitchen table as Eleanor cooks her an omelette for breakfast, she is convinced that they’ve hidden the arm somewhere in the house. Eleanor had to put a padlock on the crawlspace to keep Daisy from crawling around in the spiderwebs in search of the damned thing. She’d tried using potato chips to bribe Oscar into showing her where it went, but had given up when he gave her nothing but drool-covered toes for her efforts. The only reason Daisy is at the table at all instead of trying to search the attic is because even when she stands on top of a box on top of a chair to reach it, she isn’t strong enough to pull down the ladder.
“Can I take the arm to show-and-tell?” School doesn’t start for over a month, but Daisy is already planning out all of her show-and-tells. Last year, Levi Hurley had brought an eight-ball of coke to her class for the show-and-tell prompt ‘What makes your parents happy?’. The police had been called; the kids were sent home thoroughly elated by all the drama. Daisy has been trying to dethrone Levi Hurley for the title of Show-and-Tell King ever since. Daisy is very vocally determined that this is her year. Eleanor sincerely hopes that it is not.
“It was just an old Halloween decoration that Oscar dragged up from the creek. Your dad already threw it away. It’s all gone, Daisy.”
“Can I take the dogs down to the creek to look for another?”
“Aren’t you and Lilian going to the pool today?” Eleanor places her omelette on the table. “You better hurry up and eat, so we aren’t late. What if they forget to wait for you?”
David is late coming home that night. So late that Eleanor starts to wonder if he’s coming home at all. Maybe his car broke down on the main road, still too far into the forest to walk anywhere but home, but far enough away that anything could happen. Their driveway alone is long – almost a mile of dirt road and rugged wilderness.
David walks in the front door. He’s a serial door slammer, but he shuts it softly today. He says, “My dad died. John gave me the call. Heart attack, he said.”
Eleanor says, “I’m so sorry,” because that’s just what you’re supposed to say when your husband’s dad dies, isn’t it? Even when it isn’t really true. And maybe that’s what she’s really apologising for – that she doesn’t mean it.
“I’m not. He was a mean, old bastard. Fifty years from now – hell, maybe sooner – when John and I are cold and dead, no one will even remember his name.” David’s hands are steady and his eyes are dry. His father just died. Daisy never met her grandfather and now she never will. Decades from now, the man’s name will be lost and it’ll be like he never existed at all. “I’m going back to Elfield for a few weeks to help John sort out all the old man’s affairs and whatnot. It’ll just be for a few weeks. You’ll be okay here while I’m gone, right, Eleanor?”
“Of course, take as long as you need.” The Ailby’s driveway and long and winding, and all it leads to is another, slightly broader, long and winding dirt road. That road goes on for miles and miles through trees and mountains and it has a hundred other long and winding dirt roads, just like their driveway, branching off from it. It’s just a few weeks. What if on his way back, David forgets that their driveway is the only one with red poppy flowers and he takes the wrong long and winding road, and he just drives and drives and drives without ever making it back home?
Eleanor’s mother died when she was twelve. It had been sudden, unexpected. She was supposed to pick Eleanor up from tennis practice. She never did. Eleanor’s father had burned every picture he had of her the same night. Her eyes had been blue, but the mortician’s son – a gangly, sombre boy in Eleanor’s grade – told her at the wake that her mother’s eyes had flattened and wrinkled like deflated grapes and turned brown with death. Eleanor doesn’t remember the smell of her hair or the shape of her nose.
Oscar has a possum. Its neck is tilted too far to the left and its chest bleeds crimson like the trees on Daisy’s sixth birthday. Oscar drops it proudly on the welcome mat, right where he’d dropped the arm a week prior. ‘Home Sweet Home’ it says, beneath a series of black-bristle paw prints. Last week, it had said ‘Welcome to our nest’ above a line of sparrows. The stench of mothballs and rotting cabbage clung to it so doggedly that Eleanor had finally thrown the poor thing away. The possum grins at her with its too tilted neck and vacant, glassy eyes as it drips all over her new welcome mat. ‘Home Sweet Home’ is about to meet the same fate as ‘Welcome to our nest.’ Maybe she won’t replace it this time.
Oscar is slow and lazy and sort of dumb. Eleanor had watched Daisy sneak him a bit of sausage at breakfast that morning. Oscar flopped down right on top of it and then snuffled about in desperate confusion, searching for his treat. Daisy eventually had to roll him onto his side and retrieve it for him. Oscar doesn’t find things, and he definitely doesn’t kill them. Echo watches Eleanor from the edge of the treeline, her fur blending to the shade until she’s just a set of shiny, dark eyes.
Daisy must see Eleanor standing on the porch and staring motionless at the forest, because she slips outside beside her mother to see what’s happening. Daisy sees the possum and Eleanor is a ghost. Intangible, a faint whisper between the leaves on a windy day. She tries to grab for her daughter as Daisy kneels down to investigate the dead possum, but she must miss because Daisy is on the ground, face level with the possum’s to look it in the eyes.
“Show-and-tell,” Daisy whispers as Eleanor tells her to get up and get back.
Daisy reaches out and runs two fingers – her index and her middle – down the possum’s flank, dark with Oscar’s slobber and something sort of grey and waxy. “Don’t touch that! You don’t know what kind of diseases that thing had before it died, Daisy – it could have been rabid, for all we know!” Eleanor grabs her daughter’s hand and the girl finally looks at her.
“That’s not true,” Daisy says. “Possums don’t get rabies because their body temperature is so cold. Mr. Ellis said so. And it’s definitely too cold to get rabies now. I wish I were too cold to ever get sick.”
“Don’t say things like that, Daisy.” Eleanor pulls her back inside and makes her scrub her hands under the kitchen sink until the skin is red. After Daisy has gone to bed, Eleanor sneaks back outside to kick the possum into a plastic grocery bag. Oscar belatedly notices what she’s doing and tries to snap at the bag, offended that she’s taking his prize away from him. Unlike David, she doesn’t drive by the Johnson’s pig yard on a daily basis, so she heads into woods and dumps the limp corpse into the creek. A few times, she thinks she hears twigs snapping, but she can’t find Echo between the trees. When she gets back to the house, the kitchen smells like mothballs and cabbage.
Levi Hurley is on his third set of foster parents since the show-and-tell incident. Daisy wants to go visit him even though she doesn’t really like Levi. Eleanor knows Daisy just wants to snoop around his house for the next big show-and-tell disaster, but Eleanor has taught Levi in class before. He’s a good kid. Quiet and generally unproblematic, but a bit lonely. It will do him good to think he has a friend. She hopes it will do Daisy good to see what happens when you’re the Show-and-Tell King, being shuffled about from family to family. So, Eleanor agrees to let her go. Levi’s current foster parents, Edith and Richard Conley, live next door to Sarah. Daisy had been red-faced, foot-stomping furious when she found out she would be right by her friend’s house without getting to see her, so Eleanor had called and set up an impromptu sleepover for the girls. Daisy will walk over to Sarah’s house after dinner with the Hurleys, and then she’ll be dropped off at the Ailby’s tomorrow afternoon.
The Conleys live on Cherry Street, where the houses are so close together you can reach out the window of one and brush your fingers against the brick of another. It’s exposed and cramped. Eleanor has never understood the appeal of living in town. Not until she’s walking down the halls of her empty, quiet house and realising that she’s all alone. David is in Elfield; Daisy is on Cherry Street; the dogs ran into the woods and wouldn’t come back no matter how many times she called. If she were to disappear right now – walk right through the walls and into the trees, all the way down to the creek – no one would even notice.
Eleanor makes breakfast in the morning because she’d forgotten that David is gone and Daisy is still at Sarah’s house. She should be used to it by now – Daisy spends more time away from her than not – but she isn’t. It makes her ribs feel hollowed out. The sausage is already in the pan, though, and the pancake batter is mixed, so she keeps cooking.
The dogs had been waiting for her on the porch when she woke up. Oscar is sitting by the kitchen table, watching Eleanor with his wide, empty eyes. Dead possum eyes, she thinks, like there’s nothing at all going on behind those floppy ears. His tongue lolls out of his mouth, drool dripping onto the freshly mopped linoleum floor in ropy strings. His paws are still caked in dried mud from where he’d been splashing through the creek at some point last night. Something soft brushes Eleanor’s legs and she jumps. Echo tilts her head at Eleanor as she slips by, her paws soft and clean against the tiles.
Smoke billows from her sausage pan and Eleanor quickly switches the heat off, cursing under her breath at herself. She’s opening the windows to clear the air in the house when it occurs to her that the fire alarm hadn’t gone off. The batteries must have died. Maybe there’d never been any smoke at all.
David usually takes the dogs on a walk up the driveway and back down every morning at 8am. He isn’t around to do it now, so Daisy has been taking them. Eleanor is hoping they’ll forget about their regularly scheduled walk, just for one day, but Echo and Oscar both start scratching at the front door at 8 on the dot, so Eleanor sighs and grabs their leashes.
The Ailby Family Cemetery is half a mile from the house. It veers off the road via a footpath that’s nearly indiscernible from the thick undergrowth and dark, empty spaces between the trees. Echo tugs her towards it and Eleanor lets her. Some of the gravestones are so old and eroded that the names have washed away, leaving nothing but crumbled, grey rock to commemorate entire unknown lives. Eleanor’s mother is buried here, and her grandmother. One day, she will be, too. Dozens of grey slabs guarding empty graves, all exactly the same.
Eleanor’s mother stands over her grave, her indistinct, memory-aged face tilted towards Eleanor. Her eyes are flat and wrinkled like deflated grapes. They’re dried-scab brown instead of the cornflower blue Eleanor grew up with. She wears her wedding rings on a gold chain around her neck instead of on her finger because she had worked the flower gardens by the porch every evening and hadn’t wanted her rings to tarnish. Her skin bleeds into the forest – fuzzy and absent of any sharp lines. She’s singing, but her words are garbled and thick, sound waves through summer molasses. Eleanor can’t remember her voice. Echo pushes her wet nose against Eleanor’s palm.
Eleanor read an article once about how during the Black Death, people died so quickly and so often that they didn’t even get individual graves. Families would carve their loved ones’ names on church walls to keep their memories alive, to keep some small part of them bound to the world. Hundreds of years later and the names are still there – Cateryn, Jane, Amee Maddyngley – but nothing else. There’s no one left to remember them or mourn the loss of three little girls buried somewhere in an unmarked grave.
Last week, Eleanor and Daisy had gone to church, and the elderly woman in the pew in front of them said her sister was dying. Large-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, she said. Her sister is old and frail and there’s nothing anyone can do for her now. She asked them all to pray for her sister to have a quick and painless passing. Eleanor wonders if anyone prayed for the girl whose arm David threw to the pigs. Is anyone looking for her? Is anyone carving her name on church walls?
When Daisy gets home, Eleanor is sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, looking through an old photo album she’d dragged down from the attic. It’s the one from the green chest shoved against the very back wall, with brown-spotted pages and a faint scent of mothballs. She’d dug it out once before as a child. She’d never met anyone in it. No one, not even her grandmother, had any stories to tell about the people frozen on its pages, so she’d spent the day making up stories for them. She doesn’t remember her made-up stories now. Each photo has the date printed below it in neat, concise print. A little boy lying in bed in a pressed suit, June 21, 1854. A woman cradling an infant with its head lolled to the left, August 4, 1856. No one had thought to write the subjects’ names.
“Those people are dead.”
“Well, yes. These are very old pictures.”
“No, I mean. Like, even in the pictures, they’re probably dead. Levi’s new dad told him that a long time ago, probably before even you were born – ”
“Thank you, Daisy.”
“ – pictures used to take a really long time to take. So, if you were getting your picture taken, you had to sit really, really still for a really long time. But no one wants to do that, so no one really got their picture taken until after they died. Then you could just prop them up and they’d stay super still until the picture was done.”
Eleanor looks down at the old album of nameless faces – people whose ugly moles and favourite foods have been forgotten by time – and thinks about empty graves, the waxy, bloated arm, and dead-possum eyes. By the stove, her mother sings a garbled lullaby and sways gently with her own mushy music. There’s a woman in the photo album who looks a lot like Eleanor, with her same nose and lips. The same Germany-shaped birthmark rests over her left hand. It looks like someone had tried to write a name in red ink under the photograph, but water damage has smeared it out. Not even the date has been spared by time, the neat, concise print bleeding red around the edges like the trees on Daisy’s sixth birthday.
Sydney McDonald grew up in Bridgeport, West Virginia. She is a senior, majoring in biochemistry and minoring in English. After completing her undergraduate degree, she is pursuing a PhD in chemical oceanography at the University of Connecticut. She has loved reading and creative writing since she was in elementary school (her skills have improved since then, fortunately), and has found that it provides a wonderful complement to her STEM courses. McDonald’s story “The Second Death” won first place in The Vandalia’s 2022 Art & Literature contest.