Everybody agreed that Nana Coldharp, well up in her eighties now, was at last clearly too old to manage the family Thanksgiving get-together anymore, so this year her late-in-life daughter Hibiscus, known as Biscuit, was to be in charge. Biscuit was the youngest of the Coldharps by more than twenty years, and there weren’t likely to be any more of them, since her brother David still hadn’t married—and, considering that he was now fifty and seldom left the house, he didn’t seem likely to. Everybody called him Shortstack. The family, living and dead, was mostly Hoffmans now, since Biscuit’s older sister Judith had married Hanky Hoffman in 1982. He had died fifteen years ago, but Biscuit still hadn’t warmed to him.
At 4 PM on Thanksgiving afternoon she had put on an apron and tied her chestnut hair back in a ponytail and was preparing the accommodation water for certain of the expected guests. Under the sink was a board that swung up, and from the recess underneath she carefully lifted out the original bottle and unlooped the ribbon that held the glass stopper in place.
She poured half of it into a saucepan, restoppered the bottle and set it back where she’d got it, then filled the saucepan with water from the tap. It would warm gradually on an unlit burner as the turkey was finishing up in the oven.
While it worked at changing the ordinary water, she crossed the stone tile floor and looked out the window and down the long dirt driveway, streaked now with the shadows of a descending line of bearded palm trees. No guests yet, though six crystal prisms were hung on strings at the dining room’s western window.
The house was a big old three-story neo-Victorian at the top of a hill in Moscone, an unincorporated little town only an hour east of Los Angeles by mapbooks but much farther away in demeanor. Grandpa Coldharp had built the house in the 1920s, and two generations of Coldharps had labored to keep the place from collapsing in the years since.
The kitchen was warm, and smelled of the roasting turkey and the bacon strips she’d laid over it for basting, and Biscuit walked out into the cooler living room and stood by the fireplace, where a couple of logs had been laid ready on the grate. The one-drop rhythm of reggae music was faintly audible from Shortstack’s room down the hall, and she could hear Nana thumping around upstairs.
Through the screen door at the far end of the room now came the whirring rattle of a Volkswagen laboring up the driveway in too high a gear. That would be Amelia and her two kids, Jasper and Jackalyn. Biscuit sighed and lifted from the mantel the glass box with Grandpa Coldharp’s oracular penny in it. It was an Indian head penny, minted in 1909, and when the box was shaken the penny bounced around inside but always came up heads; the family tradition was that you could ask it any question, as long as the answer was yes.
“Will this dinner turn out the way it should?” she asked in a whisper.
She shook the box, and when the penny stopped rattling around, it had come up heads for yes.
Biscuit put the box back on the mantel and returned to the kitchen. A couple of big pasta pots, already nearly filled with tap water, had been set on the Formica counter, and now she lifted the saucepan from the stove and carefully poured the contents into the pasta pots. The saucepan was completely dry afterward, and she clanked it away into a cupboard beside the sink.
From the living room came the bang of the screen door and fast thumping on the carpet, and then ten-year-old Jasper was in the kitchen, pulling open the stove door and reaching in to break off a piece of the crisp bacon on the turkey.
Biscuit grabbed the back of the boy’s T-shirt and yanked him away. “You go wait in the living room,” she told him.
He shook his head. “I’m liable to upset Jackalyn.” Jackalyn was thirteen, and things tended to break and fly around when she became agitated. “She’s already in a bad temper because of her parakeet—Mom’s hair got all tied up in knots on the drive here.” He looked around the kitchen. “Does Uncle Shortstack still have his gun?”
“None of your business.” Biscuit closed the oven door. “And don’t upset me, either.” She was sixteen years older than Jasper, but was often intimidated by him.
The boy dragged a stool to the counter and stood on it, and a moment later he had fetched a coffee cup down from a cupboard and dipped it into one of the pots of accommodation water.
“Pea brain!” exclaimed Biscuit, slapping his hand so that he let go of the cup. “You don’t drink that! You want to look like your grandfather’s radiator that time?” Jasper just stared at her blankly, for in fact he hadn’t even been born yet when Hanky Hoffman had blown a radiator hose in the driveway one Christmas morning and all the water had come gushing out of the bottom of the car.
“Never mind,” Biscuit went on, “look, it’s not ordinary water.” She reached into the pot and fished out the coffee cup, and when she raised her arm out of the water her hand was dry and the cuff of her shirt was loose and undarkened. “And the cup’s dry too.”
Jasper’s eyes were wide, and he immediately tore a paper towel off a roll on the counter and dipped the sheet into the liquid; and when he lifted it out, it was still bright and dry.
“That’s what goes in the fishbowls?” he said.
“They’re not fishbowls tonight, and get out of here. If you’ve got to upset your sister, see that you don’t do it in the dining room.” We don’t need the Haviland china plates broken, she thought.
As he slouched out of the kitchen, she stirred the accommodation water with one finger; it was like stirring very fine fluffy sand, and her finger was dry and uncooling when she pulled her hand back. At least we know the seed water worked, she thought. And now we’ll once again have a fresh batch to top up the original bottle with.
The bottle, replenished with newly extended substance every year at Thanksgiving, had reputedly been in the Coldharp family since the sixteenth or seventeenth century, and the story was that the original quantity of otherworldly water had been wrung from Dante Alighieri’s cloak after he returned from his comedy.
Biscuit could hear Jasper in the living room complaining to his mother about her, and then Amelia telling him, “Be quiet or I’ll give you something to be quiet about!”
A moment later Amelia stepped into the kitchen, carrying a Saran Wrap-covered pot of mashed potatoes and shaking her head. “You slapped him?”
“No. Pulled him away from the stove by his shirt, and then—oh yes, I did, I slapped his hand. He wanted to drink some of that.” She nodded toward the pasta pots.
Amelia nodded and set her pot on the stove. To Biscuit she always looked as if she had just got out of bed in spite of having a bad cold—her nose and eyes looked as if she’d been rubbing them, and her lips seemed stretched to cover her prominent teeth. And today her thin blonde hair did look as if someone had been tying it in knots. As always, she was wearing a sweater that hung down to her knees.
“I wish you’d let him,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to watch that damned TV if he spent the evening in the bathroom.”
The TV set in the living room was analog, and when broadcasting switched to digital in 2009, Shortstack had taken the aerial antenna down from the roof and sunk it into the ground in the yard. Now the TV worked, but only got grotesque black-and-white cartoons with characters nobody ever heard of.
Biscuit shrugged. “It’s just for one night a year.”
“But he dreams about it for months after.” Amelia looked at the two big pots on the counter. “We should get the accommodations out; the sun’s going down. Oh—does Shortstack still have his gun?”
“Your son asked me that. Why?”
“Jackalyn’s parakeet starved to death, and she won’t admit it—she insists it’s just real sick, and she wants your brother to put it out of its misery.”
Biscuit opened her mouth, closed it, and then said, “Its nonexistent misery. With a .44 magnum.”
“Whatever it is. Better than beating the thing with a shovel. Let’s get the accommodations.”
The door to the garage was on the other side of the stove, and Biscuit crossed to it and pulled it open. Six boxes were stacked on the cement floor by her Chevy Blazer, and Amelia opened one and lifted out a two-gallon fishbowl on her spread-fingered hand.
“Heavy,” she said.
“Ten bucks each on Amazon,” said Biscuit, hoisting another box. “But you remember a couple of the cheap ones broke last year when . . . everybody got too excited.”
“You mean Jackalyn. She’s better now.” Amelia touched her tangled hair with her free hand. “Mostly.”
Biscuit nodded dubiously and stepped back into the kitchen.
Amelia hefted the fishbowl in both hands and followed her. “Oof,” she said, adjusting her grip. “Where are all the cats? I’d think the smell would have ’em all in here.”
“Out in the yard, on the roof. They’ll be back in tomorrow, but they’re scared of the accommodation water.” Biscuit set her box on the floor, lifted out the fishbowl and slid it onto the counter beside the big pots. “Sometimes I think the cats are smarter than we are.”
She dipped the fishbowl into the strange water and lifted it out full. “Jasper!” she called. “Jackalyn!”
Jasper came running in and Biscuit handed the bowl to him. “Put this on the dining room table, and do not play with it,” she said firmly, and when he had shuffled out of the kitchen she went to the garage to fetch another box as Amelia was handing her filled bowl to young Jackalyn.
Biscuit heard Amelia say, “Oh, that’s nice, that’s mature. I just hope somebody spits in your accommodation one day, young lady.”
They had finally got all six of the fishbowls filled and arranged at various places on the long dining room table, and Biscuit had shed her apron and was uncorking the last of four bottles of Zinfandel wine, when she heard a car pull up outside; it roared in neutral for a moment, and then went silent.
“That’ll be Judith,” Biscuit said. She set down the bottle and hurried through the living room to the front door. Peering through the screen, she saw her older sister, Amelia’s mother, unfolding her lean frame from a middle-aged Honda and looking closely at Amelia’s Volkswagen. She must have known that it was her daughter’s car, but Judith had had a Volkswagen of her own stolen years ago, and, on the assumption that the thieves had changed the look of the car, had ever since viewed every Volkswagen with suspicion.
Biscuit was dismayed to see that Judith was now opening the trunk of her car and lifting out a foil-covered casserole dish, even though Biscuit had called her earlier and told her not to bother. Looking over her shoulder, back into the living room, she called, “Everybody remember the napkin routine!”
Various voices from the dining room acknowledged her.
Shortstack was just now shambling into the living room from the hall, his gray hair slicked down and, even from across the room, smelling sharply of Vitalis. He was wearing shorts and buttoning a long-sleeve shirt. “One day,” he said, pausing to yawn, “I’m going to actually eat one of Judith’s casseroles.”
“Better you should drink the accommodation water,” said Biscuit. “Jackalyn wants you to shoot her parakeet with your magnum, by the way.”
“Good, good. You noticed a cushion missing from the back porch sofa? I cut it up and made a silencer with the foam rubber. Nobody’ll hear a thing.”
Biscuit shook her head tiredly. “That’s swell. Judith!” she added then, for her burdened older sister had kicked open the screen door. “We’ve already got the accommodations set out, and the turkey should be ready any minute.”
“Excuse me for not being here to help,” snapped Judith. “I had a colitis attack.”
Shortstack nodded. “I daresay. When is Nana likely to—”
“People arriving!” came a nervous call from young Jasper.
Biscuit left Judith to take her casserole to the kitchen and hurried into the dining room.
The prisms hanging at the western window were revolving on their strings, casting spots of colored light across the walls and over the tense faces of Amelia and her two children, and the water in the fishbowls was glowing pink. As Biscuit watched, grimacing faces formed in the bowls, and she tried to identify them.
There was Uncle Scuttle, who Amelia refused to sit next to because he had wrecked her Barbie town when she was eight; and across the table two emerging faces were recognizable as Judith’s husband Hanky and his sister Anemone.
Down the table a face was rapidly opening and closing its mouth in another of the fishbowls, and Biscuit guessed it was her father, John, called Papa by everyone. He had died only three years ago, at the age of eighty-seven, and even though he had been increasingly vague during his last years, it was still disturbing for her to see him like this. She walked slowly down the room, hesitated, and then set her cell phone on the tablecloth next to him, marking her seat.
By the window a gray face with enormous eyes coagulated into view in another fishbowl, and even from the far end of the room Biscuit recognized Grandpa Coldharp. He had died more than a decade before she was born, and though everybody said he had been a fine man, his ghost was able and inclined to remotely goose and pinch women, and Biscuit was glad she’d be seated far away from him. She saw that Amelia apparently felt the same way, for she had set her purse on a chair at this end of the table.
“Jackalyn too,” said Biscuit. “We don’t need that.”
Amelia nodded, her closed lips looking tighter than usual. “Old beast.”
“I cast a horoscope today,” announced Judith from the living room doorway, her narrow hands twisting the front of her long black dress. “The stars are all in an uproar.”
“They’ll have to wait,” said Biscuit, hurrying back to the kitchen to turn on the microwave oven. She punched in two minutes, which ought to be enough time to reheat the rolls and gravy, and then she pulled open the oven door.
Shortstack wandered into the kitchen then, and he obligingly lifted the wide aluminum pan with the turkey in it onto a table against the wall. He opened his mouth, but whatever he intended to say was forgotten when a loud metallic clattering echoed from down the hall.
Nana’s stair-traverse wheelchair platform was evidently misbehaving. Biscuit ran down the hall to the base of the stairs just in time to see the platform clank to an abrupt halt at the bottom of its track, throwing her mother forward against the restraining bar. The whole apparatus shook for a few seconds, then fell still.
“Don’t tell me,” gasped the old woman, “they’re here, aren’t they?” When Biscuit nodded, her mother went on, “All of them together radiate—over-amp the damn motor.”
Shortstack had followed Biscuit down the hall, and he wrestled the restraining bar up as Biscuit pulled the wheelchair forward.
“Your father too?” growled Nana. “Tell him to leave the silverware alone.”
Biscuit nodded, and rolled her eyes at Shortstack as she got behind the wheelchair and began pushing it down the hall. Their father had liked to demonstrate his psychokinetic ability to bend spoons without touching them, though to be fair he had not done it since his death.
Shortstack veered off to the kitchen to bring in the turkey as Biscuit wheeled her mother straight down the hall into the dining room. Young Jackalyn was agitated, muttering to herself about the absence of ice-cream this year, and Biscuit warily eyed the plates on the table, ready to hustle the girl out of the room if they started rattling.
Judith was still standing in the doorway. “The stars indicate that we won’t all be here next year,” she said, speaking more loudly, for Jasper had turned on the TV in the living room behind her.
The surfaces of several of the accommodation bowls vibrated into conflicting rings, producing faint voices that said, “What, what?”
“I said we won’t all be here next year!” said Judith, more loudly still.
Amelia had fetched the rolls and set them on the table, and Judith told her, “Not by my chair, please! I’m gluten intolerant.”
“What, what?” piped a couple of the ghosts, and another answered, “She says she’s hootin’ and hollerin’.”
“My illnesses,” Judith went on determinedly, “make me wonder if it’s me whose chair will be empty. But we’re all together tonight. I—”
“She sure is,” agreed another of the ghosts. “Who are these people?”
Shortstack had found a platter to slide the turkey onto, and now he shuffled in and clanked it down on the table.
“I pray for you every night,” Nana told Judith. “You should pray.”
“I say affirmations,” Judith told her.
“Half of ’em are Asians!” exclaimed another of the ghosts.
Biscuit had heard some of Judith’s affirmations, on occasions when her older sister had spent the night at the house—I am overflowing with joy, and I live in balance and harmony—and Biscuit was tempted to suggest one or two new ones for her.
She pushed her mother’s wheelchair to a place on the other side of Papa Coldharp’s fishbowl.
“Oh,” said Nana, glancing up and down the table, “not my good napkins!”
Judith was looking elsewhere, so Biscuit gave her mother a sympathetic look, then said, “I’ll go get Jasper,” and stepped away.
The lights hadn’t been turned on in the living room, and Jasper was sitting only a yard from the television screen, his face white in the glow.
Biscuit paused to look at the screen. Awkwardly drawn figures with exaggerated heads and triangular bodies that diminished down to tiny feet waved and moved their heads repetitively; the only sounds, at the moment, anyway, were grunts and an occasional giggle.
Behind her, Judith strode into the kitchen, her footsteps sounding angry.
“Jasper,” Biscuit said, “come on, we’re going to start eating.”
The boy looked up at her; his mouth sagged open and a giggle exactly like the one from the television shook out of it.
“Stop it!” she said, louder than she had meant to, and she barely stopped her raised hand from slapping him.
He laughed in his normal voice then, and said, “Aunt Biscuit’s scared of the cartoons!”
“Get in there,” she said, bending down to shake his arm. He got to his feet, still laughing at her, and she pushed him ahead of her into the dining room. Judith was right behind them, and when Biscuit crossed to her place beside Papa Coldharp’s fishbowl she saw that Judith was carrying the casserole she’d brought.
Beside Biscuit, Papa Coldharp’s bowl vibrated softly, and she heard his voice say, “Hi, Biscus.” It had been his jocular greeting to her for years, before he had forgotten everything.
Surprised at this evidence of alertness, she turned to blink at his fishbowl. “Hi, Dad,” she said.
Shortstack had hacked the turkey into uneven pieces with a butter knife. Amelia had brought in her bowl of mashed potatoes, and she helped herself to a big spoonful and passed the bowl to Jackalyn, who pushed it across the table toward Biscuit without taking any.
“What was the yelling in there?” Amelia asked Biscuit.
“Aunt Biscuit’s scared of the cartoons!” said Jasper again, then popped a whole roll into his mouth and made grunting noises.
“I wish you wouldn’t watch that junk,” Amelia said to him, and Nana shook her head in stern agreement.
“Moron dreams of buried people,” she said. “David should shoot that TV set.”
Shortstack raised a glass of wine. “Right after I shoot a parakeet, Ma!”
Biscuit glanced anxiously at Jackalyn—the girl was frowning at Shortstack, but the dishes were still motionless.
Amelia and Shortstack and Nana had served themselves spoonfuls of Judith’s casserole, and Biscuit gave each of them a meaningful glance as she took a serving of it herself and then ostentatiously unfolded her napkin and laid it in her lap. She sighed, remembering her mother’s exclamation: not my good napkins!
“Ulna’s not here!” said her mother then, staring at a fishbowl on the other side of the table from her; its accommodation water was clear, with no face in it. Ulna was her younger sister, who had died six years ago at the age of sixty-eight.
“And the sun’s down,” noted Judith. “She’s not coming.”
Biscuit bit her lip and reached across her father’s fishbowl to touch her mother’s hand in condolence. Sometimes the relatives just stopped being able to come back, and there wasn’t really any consolation in the customary statement that the person had moved on.
“She’s moved on,” spoke the water in her father’s fishbowl.
Uncle Scuttle’s fishbowl jittered wordlessly, and Shortstack got up and crossed to the telephone. When he had returned to his seat and sat down, he leaned back and closed his eyes, his right hand holding a pen over the message pad. After a few seconds his hand began moving, dragging the pen over the pad, though he still had his head against the back of his chair and his eyes were still closed. Uncle Scuttle’s bowl went on churning.
“Are you going to put my parakeet out of its misery,” said Jackalyn in a low voice, “or shoot the TV?”
Without moving or opening his eyes, Shortstack said, “We’ll dispatch your bird right after dinner, sweetie. I made a silencer for the gun, it’ll be very quiet.”
Jackalyn’s fist was white on her fork. Biscuit guessed that she didn’t like being called sweetie.
Judith was frowning down the table at the girl, and Biscuit saw Nana sigh and then surreptitiously slide half of her serving of the casserole off her plate and into her lap. Aromatherapy was one of Judith’s enthusiasms, and she was so devoted to it that she used the aromatic oils in her cooking, which, Shortstack had once observed, was like cooking with transmission fluid. Biscuit had taught her relatives how to make noise with cutlery and then, when Judith wasn’t looking, slide half of whatever she had cooked into the napkins on their laps, and presently do it again with the other half. Later on they could ball up the napkins and one by one make some excuse to leave the table briefly, and step outside and toss the napkins onto the roof. Every year Shortstack had to climb up on a ladder and take them down.
“So what does my brother say?” Nana asked Shortstack. Uncle Scuttle had been mute since his death, never having got the trick of vibrating the water surface like a speaker diaphragm, and could only communicate by way of Shortstack’s automatic writing.
Shortstack lowered his head and opened his eyes. “Uh . . . make a shrine for Ulna,” he read off the pad. “Forgive and forget, bygones be bygones.”
Amelia scowled down the table at Scuttle’s fishbowl, and Biscuit knew she was remembering how Scuttle, Nana’s younger brother, had wrecked her Barbie town more than a quarter of a century ago and to this day had never apologized.
Judith too was now looking toward Uncle Scuttle’s fishbowl, possibly holding a grudge about the Barbie town debacle on her daughter’s behalf, so Biscuit slid half of her own serving of the casserole off her plate onto her lap. Immediately the fishbowl of Judith’s husband, Hanky, began vibrating.
“Hibiscus!” came his frail voice, “what do you—what do you think you’re—Judy, she—”
Judith’s head whipped around. “What did you do?”
“I—spilled some food,” Biscuit said, “is all.”
“Judith,” began Nana, “Don’t—” but Jasper interrupted her.
“They all do it!” the boy said. “They all dump your casserole into their napkins!”
Judith shoved Amelia’s shoulder back and peered at the napkin on her lap.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I—” Amelia began, but Judith silenced her with a wave.
“Don’t try to apologize unless you’ve got a lot of time,” she said. She looked past her daughter at Jackalyn. “Has your brat done it too?” Turning her glare back on Amelia, she added, “Where did you get that Volkswagen?”
“Don’t call me a brat,” said Jackalyn in a dangerously low growl.
Judith swung her attention to Jackalyn again, and she pointed at the scraps of casserole that had not yet gone into the girl’s napkin. “You will eat that, young lady.”
“I won’t,” said Jackalyn.
“Judith,” said Biscuit hastily, “it was my fault, I told—”
Judith didn’t look away from Amelia’s daughter. “Do I have to pry your mouth open and shove it in, like I used to with your mother? Eat it!”
“I won’t!” repeated Jackalyn, and with a loud crack her plate sprang into several pieces that spun across the table, knocking over a couple of wine glasses.
Biscuit jumped, but it was because she had felt a sudden cold pressure slide up her ribs, under her shirt. Across from her, Amelia had squeaked at the same moment and now looked away from her embattled mother and daughter to glare down the table.
“Touch me again,” she yelled at Grandpa Coldharp’s fishbowl, “and I’ll pour you down the toilet!” The water in Uncle Scuttle’s bowl was jittering again, and Amelia picked up a roll and tossed it at him. “And when are you going to apologize for wrecking my Barbie town?”
Hanky, not having followed developments, was still repeating in his birdlike voice, “Hibiscus, what do you think you’re doing? Hibiscus, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Shut up,” Biscuit yelled at him, “you . . . you dead busybody!”
Jackalyn covered her face with both hands. “Everybody shut up!” she yelled.
And with a staccato series of cracks and thuds, all the plates on the table broke, the bowl of mashed potatoes split and spilled its contents, and the ragged turkey rose spinning from the platter and fell heavily onto the tablecloth, knocking over two more wineglasses and one of the bottles. Red wine began glugging out of the neck. With the pop of an exploding lightbulb the illumination in the room diminished by half.
Beside Biscuit, the surface of the water in her father’s fishbowl was high concentric rings. “Stop, stop!” piped her father’s voice, overriding Hanky’s broken-record droning. “Dad, Judy—ah—”
He seemed to sneeze, and Biscuit jumped again as all the silverware on the table leaped into the air in twisted shapes. Nana just sighed and flicked her husband’s fishbowl with her fingers. From down the hall came the noise of her stair-traversing wheelchair platform banging to the top of its track and down and back up again.
Hanky was still monotonously asking Biscuit what she was doing, and Jackalyn had pushed her chair back and fled from the room in tears, closely followed by her brother; but now she had returned and was standing in the living room doorway, holding a shoe box and glaring at Shortstack.
“You put my parakeet out of its misery now,” she said loudly.
Shortstack looked up and down the devastated half-lit table, then smiled at the girl. “Dinner does seem to be over.” He pushed his chair back, lifted his balled-up napkin from his lap and got to his feet. “I’ll meet you out back.”
“Oh God,” said Biscuit. She balled up her own napkin, but since Judith was glaring at her, she just dropped it on the floor under the table. “May I be excused?” she asked the room at large, and, getting no answer except a somewhat anxious wave from her mother and the repeating question from Hanky’s fishbowl, hurried down the hall to pull the plug on the stair-traversing wheelchair platform motor.
The platform had come entirely free of its track and was canted against the wall across the hall from the stairs, and several framed pictures lay on the floor with their glass broken. Biscuit stepped over the platform and unplugged the smoking motor.
Shortstack came up the hall behind her and pulled open his bedroom door. “My napkin’s on the roof,” he said, looking at her empty hands.
“Mine’s under the table.” Biscuit stepped into the doorway and said, “Jackalyn’s bird is dead already.”
Shortstack’s tiny room had one window facing out onto the backyard slope, but he had long ago boarded it up to make room for more bookshelves. The Murphy bed he had built for himself was folded into the wall, and he was just straightening up from a chest he kept beside his old white-painted desk.
“Oh,” he said. “Then I won’t need this.”
He was holding what looked like an oversized metal megaphone, but when she looked at it more closely she saw that it was a broad foot-and-a-half-long cone wrapped in aluminum foil, with the walnut grip of a pistol sticking out at the narrow end.
“What the hell,” she said.
“It’s my .44,” he told her, “but the big extension is a silencer. My own design. Usually you can’t silence revolvers, since there’s a gap where noise comes out between the cylinder and the barrel, but the foam rubber from the sofa covers everything.”
He bent to put it back, but Biscuit said, “No, you still need to shoot the bird. She let it starve, is what happened, so she’s pretending it’s still alive, but sick.”
Shortstack blinked, then nodded. “Right. Okay. I can participate in her delusion.”
“Wonderful.” Biscuit sank into a chair by the door. “Some Thanksgiving dinner, huh?”
“Shorter than usual, but memorable,” he agreed. “What did Scuttle do to Amelia’s Barbie town? In fact, what was her Barbie town?”
“Oh—do you remember that desert tortoise we used to have? Smudge?”
“Sure. Big as a truck tire.”
“Well, Amelia—this was in '93—Amelia was eight and I was two, and she had set up a little village with all her Barbie and Ken and Skipper dolls, with toy cars, and houses with little kitchens and closets full of doll clothes, you know, and one afternoon Uncle Scuttle was drunk, wandering around in the yard, and he saw Smudge and took it in his head that it would be nice for Smudge to visit Barbie town.” She leaned back against the wall and stared at the ceiling. “So he held Smudge upright and walked him over across the grass to the Barbie colony—but just as Smudge got there, maybe because Scuttle tilted him ninety degrees, Smudge started pissing. Like a firehose. It wiped out Barbie town, bodies flying everywhere, cars turning over . . . I had bad dreams about it. Amelia has never got over it. We had to wear latex gloves to bury all the Barbies and Kens and Skippers.”
“Really!” Shortstack stepped past her into the hall, carrying his gun. “I’d have been twenty-six—same age you are now, I believe. How did I miss all this?”
“I don’t know. Weren’t you and Judith all astronomical then?”
Shortstack preceded her down the hall toward the dining room, and he nodded and looked back. “Sleep all day, watch the stars all night. And then Judy decided they were alive or something.”
“Hard to tell what is and isn’t sometimes.”
She followed him out onto the back porch and down the steps to the yard, shivering in the early evening breeze and wishing she’d grabbed a sweater.
Jackalyn was crouched on the grass a few yards in front of her, and in the yellow glow from the back porch light her taut, tear-streaked face hung over the opened shoe box and, nearby, a pale lump with two twiglike feet.
“That your bird?” Shortstack asked her.
The girl looked up at him and nodded.
“You can fill a shot glass for him at dinner next year,” Shortstack said, not unsympathetically.
He set his feet widely and lowered the barrel, holding the grip firmly in both hands. With one thumb he pulled back the hammer, and there seemed to be a lot of solid clicks as it went back to full cock.
He pointed the wide cone down at the lifeless parakeet, though Biscuit didn’t see how he could aim, and for several seconds the wind in the mesquite trees was the only sound. Then he sighed, and Biscuit saw his trigger finger tighten.
But, no doubt due to some error in his acoustical calculations, instead of muting the explosion of the gunshot, his foam-and-foil apparatus monstrously magnified the sound. A wall of compressed air punched Biscuit off her feet and she sat down on the grass; she could hear nothing over the ringing in her ears, but she saw Jackalyn spring away, and Shortstack had dropped the encumbered gun, which was now on fire. Bits of foil and foam rubber spun in the air, and where the dead parakeet had lain was a wide, raised hole in the lawn. Biscuit turned toward the house and saw that all the windows on this side were now missing their glass.
It’s a mercy, she thought, that the nearest neighbor is half a mile away.
She was still staring at the house when Amelia and Judith came running out onto the porch, their mouths working, and Biscuit waved to show them that no one was hurt; but the two women came hurrying down the steps, still visibly speaking and now gesturing back toward the house.
Biscuit got shakily to her feet, pointing a finger at her left ear and shaking her head; and she waved toward the house and raised her eyebrows.
Amelia grabbed her elbow and pulled her in that direction. Biscuit couldn’t hear her own footsteps on the boards as she was marched up the steps and across the porch. She looked back over her shoulder and, before she was hurried through the dining room, saw Jackalyn laughing at Shortstack, who was stamping on his flaming gun.
Amelia tugged her into the dim living room, where Biscuit saw that Jasper was again sitting cross-legged in front of the television. She glanced at the screen, where several of the same, or similar, sketchy figures moved their limbs mechanically. The cartoon mouths changed shape, but she couldn’t hear if they were producing words now or just giggling and grunting as before.
Amelia bent down and shook her son’s shoulder. The boy spared her a glance devoid of recognition and quickly looked back to the screen. Amelia turned to Biscuit, her mouth opening and closing with obvious urgency; then, seeing that Biscuit couldn’t hear her, she crouched and touched the screen, her trembling finger following one of the cartoon figures.
Biscuit peered bewilderedly at the figure, which was gesticulating more than the couple of others. Unlike the others, it seemed to be “looking at the camera”—addressing the viewers.
Amelia pointed at her distracted son and then again at the cartoon figure, nodding wide-eyed at Biscuit as if to ask if she understood; as if pleading that she understand.
The arms of the sketchy character on the screen were now bent so that its squiggle hands were at the sides of its oval head, and it was rocking back and forth—in distress, Biscuit thought.
Again Amelia pointed at her son and then at the cartoon character.
Suddenly the ringing in Biscuit’s ears seemed louder, and her chest felt hollow and terribly cold. She reared back away from the television, pressing her fist against her open mouth.
She nodded at Amelia to show that she understood at last, and then she pushed past Judith and rushed back through the dining room—catching a glimpse of her alarmed mother still at the table—and leaped clear over the back steps. The ringing in her ears had abated enough so that she heard her shoes hit the grass.
Jackalyn was crouched over the ripped-up hole in the dirt, flicking at it, apparently hoping to find some fragment of her parakeet that she might bury, and Shortstack had gingerly picked up his gun and was tossing it from hand to hand. It appeared to be just a smoking bundle of exploded foil and blackened foam rubber.
“Shortstack!” Biscuit yelled, but he didn’t look up. She stepped forward and waved her hand in front of his face, and when he turned to her she pointed across the yard and beckoned.
She had to wave in that direction again, with a frown and exaggerated nod, before he shrugged and followed her.
A cable hung from the roof-peak of the house to the dirt by the back fence, where Shortstack had buried the detached aerial television antenna, and Biscuit mimed shooting a gun at the spot where it entered the soil. This end of the yard was only dimly lit by the porch light, and Shortstack shook his head uncomprehendingly, so with both hands Biscuit pointed an imaginary gun at the cable and then jerked them up as if in recoil.
“Shoot the cable!” she shouted.
He raised his eyebrows and nodded, then tilted his head as if to ask if she were sure. She nodded, emphatically.
Shortstack held up a hand, then crouched and laid the gun on the grass so that he could firmly set one shoe on it. He dragged the gun out, scraping it against the sole of his shoe, and most of the mess of foam rubber and foil came off.
He straightened up, cocking the revolver and then pulling the trigger while his thumb let the hammer down gently; satisfied that the mechanism still worked, he gave Biscuit a puzzled half-smile and then cocked the gun again and aimed it at the point where the cable entered the dirt.
“Fingers in your ears!” he said loudly, and when Biscuit had hurriedly complied, he pulled the trigger. Biscuit heard the report as no more than a solid but muffled thump, but this time there was a blinding flare as flame leaped a yard out of the muzzle and burst from the gap between the cylinder and the barrel.
Unable to see past the smear of retinal glare in her vision, Biscuit took her fingers out of her ears and waved her arms out in front of herself until her hand brushed against the cable. It swung freely, no longer moored to the dirt.
She gave her brother a thumbs-up, then turned and hurried back into the house, her eyes raised so that she could see where she was going by peripheral vision. This time she heard her feet hit the boards of the steps and the porch, and she heard her mother call from her wheelchair, “Will someone tell me what’s going on?” as she ran past the table and into the living room.
“In a minute, Mom!” she called back.
Her vision had cleared enough to see that the television screen showed only snow now, and she didn’t hear any voices from the speaker. She blinked around the darkened room—Judith, she saw, was standing by the front door, her wide eyes glittering in the television screen’s glow; and Amelia was sitting on the floor cradling Jasper, who was sobbing.
Biscuit crouched beside them, and was able to hear Amelia saying, “You’re okay now. Never mind. You’re okay.”
Jasper hitchingly caught his breath and said, “They pulled me in! Mom! I—didn’t know how to get out!” He noticed Biscuit then, and said gruffly, “What’re you looking at?”
Amelia looked up at Biscuit and said, “You did something?”
“Shortstack shot the TV cable,” said Biscuit, still panting.
“Trying to find pieces of her parakeet.”
“I think it’s time we called it a night,” she said.
“Glad you could come,” said Biscuit emptily.
“Thanks for having us,” replied Amelia in the same tone.
Judith pushed away from the door and walked unsteadily toward the dining room. “I need to get my casserole dish.”
“I’m sorry about . . . that,” Biscuit called after her, but her sister just waved without looking back.
“Maybe we should all have just eaten the damn stuff,” said Amelia quietly as she got to her feet and helped her son stand up.
“I don’t think it would have helped much,” said Biscuit, straightening up, “to have us all vomiting, in addition to everything else.”
“I suppose not, on the whole. Come on, Jasper, let’s fetch your demented sister.” She took hold of his shoulder and led him out of the living room into the somewhat brighter dining room.
Biscuit sighed and twisted the television’s on-off knob till it clicked, and the screen’s glow shrank to a bright dot that slowly faded. She turned and peered at the shadowed objects on the mantel till she identified the glass box with Grandpa Coldharp’s oracular penny in it, and after a moment’s hesitation she took it down and carried it with her into the dining room, where Judith had picked up her dish and stepped wordlessly past her. A few seconds later the front door slammed.
Biscuit sat down at her place and set the glass box in front of her on the tablecloth. Some sounds like throat-clearing came from the fishbowls, but none of them ventured to comment.
Biscuit’s mother was looking at her with raised eyebrows, and her father’s accommodation water stirred uneasily.
Biscuit saw that her wine glass was one of the few that had not been spilled, and she picked it up. “Shortstack shot Jackalyn’s dead bird,” she said, “and Jasper got possessed by the cartoons in the TV, but Shortstack shot out the cable and Jasper came back.” She tipped up the glass and drained it. From outside came the sound of Judith’s Honda starting and shifting into gear.
“I’m glad of that,” said her mother. “Don’t let him hook the TV up again.” She looked around at the broken windows and dishes and the spilled food and wine. “Another rout.”
Biscuit shrugged and nodded.
Amelia came in from the backyard, herding Jasper and Jackalyn in front of her. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Nana,” she said, and after a nod to Biscuit she pushed her children on through the living room.
After a few seconds of silence, Biscuit gave her mother a cautious glance and said, “I’m sure Shortstack can carry you up and down the stairs till we get the machine working again.”
“It’s wrecked?” her mother asked, and Biscuit nodded glumly. Between them, Papa Coldharp’s fishbowl stirred, and rings formed on the surface of the accommodation water. Biscuit saw that a crumb of stuffing from the abused turkey was floating in it.
The front door closed again, and shortly Biscuit heard the whir of the Volkswagen engine.
“Odd kids she’s got,” she observed.
Her mother shook her head. “God help us, every one.”
Shortstack shambled in from the back porch, picking bits of blackened rubber from the barrel of his .44. He sat down and nodded to his mother and sister and his father’s fishbowl.
“Good,” came her father’s frail voice from the water, “to have spent some—time with you all again.”
“Yes,” said Biscuit, and “Likewise,” said Shortstack, and their mother closed her eyes and nodded.
“I believe,” the water in the fishbowl went on, “it’s time now, to—go gentle!—into that good night. Not rage, rage.”
Her father had always liked Dylan Thomas’ poetry. “You really think?” asked Biscuit. Shortstack had paused in prying at a black blob on the muzzle of his revolver.
“Dump us all,” her father’s voice said. “The—original bottle too.”
Biscuit looked across his fishbowl at her mother. The old woman’s eyes were still closed, but she nodded and reached out to touch her husband’s fishbowl. “Go gentle, dear,” she whispered.
Biscuit picked up the glass box and shook it, and as always the penny came up heads, for yes.
Her mother leaned over to look at it, then sat back and nodded again. “It’ll be strange to have only a few people at Thanksgiving.”
“They’re enough,” said Biscuit.
There’s always some elderly relative at family gatherings who misbehaves or says the wrong thing—before long it’ll be me, if it isn’t already—and it could only be worse if they still attended after their deaths.
In the first sentence of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He didn’t comment on haunted families, and I figured that such families would be uniquely weird—with domestic difficulties only exacerbated by the necessities of dealing with eccentric family members both living and dead.
This is as close as I’ll probably ever get to writing a James Thurber story like “The Night the Bed Fell on Father”—“The Night Shortstack Killed Amelia’s Parakeet.”
Copyright © 2017 Tim Powers
“Sufficient Unto the Day” appears here for the first time ever. The story will also be part of Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Short Stories of Tim Powers, out from Baen Books in November. Tim Powers’ latest novel, Alternate Routes, will appear August 2018 from Baen Books. New editions of his books Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather will also be out in 2018 from Baen. Powers won the World Fantasy Award twice for his critically acclaimed novels Last Call and Declare. Declare also received the International Horror Guild Award. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was based on his novel On Stranger Tides. His book The Anubis Gates won the Philip K. Dick award and is considered a modern classic and a progenitor of the Steampunk genre. Powers grew up in Southern California and studied English at Cal State Fullerton, where he met frequent collaborator James Blaylock and science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who became a friend and mentor. Powers is a practicing Catholic who claims “stories are more effective, and more truly represent the writer’s actual convictions, when they manifest themselves without the writer’s conscious assistance. I concern myself with my plots, but I let my subconscious worry about my themes.” Powers still resides in Southern California with his wife, Serena.