Fort Starlight

By Claudia Zuluaga

Engine Books
September 2013


The morning sun comes in through the window, and as it begins to warm the skin on her cheek, Ida is awakened by a knock on the door. She rubs her eyes and squints; there is no car visible through the window, and the knock was so soft. Maybe she dreamed it. She turns over, curls up and falls back asleep, dreaming about walking across a fishpond, frozen in winter, with goldfish trapped under the ice. Their fins and tails are still, but their gills are still moving. When she opens her eyes again, she sees children, sitting on the floor by the window. Two boys—a dark fat one and a light-haired skinny one—sit next to each other, dirty bare feet splayed out in front of them.

"Are you real?" she mutters.

"Yup," says the fat boy, wiggling the toes on one of his feet. "I'm real"

Ida jumps up and wraps the sheet tight around her bare body, wondering if they had seen her naked.

The boys aren't watching her with much interest; it is more like they were patiently waiting for her to wake up. The skinny one holds a long, crumpled strip of toilet paper under his nose. He wears nothing but a blue t-shirt.

"He got a bloody nose," the fat one says. He is older by a few years. They both look younger than ten.

"One second," Ida groans. She takes her clothes from the floor and brings them into the bathroom, where she rubs her eyes. She closes the door, shutting out the boys, the light of day. She holds her shorts out and lifts her leg, feeling for the leg hole with her foot. She misjudges, staggering, and grabs at the sink to keep from falling. She has to be dreaming still.

"Do you like pancakes?" She hears the voice through the crack of the bathroom door. One of them is down there on the floor. The shadow of little fingers moves across the strip of light.

"Jesus, can you leave me alone a minute?" she says, smacking the door for emphasis. "I don't even know what's going on. I'm not even awake yet." She pulls up the shorts and zips them, yanks her t-shirt over her head and pushes through the opening.

And then she remembers why she is there in the house again. She puts her fingers to her eyes and feels the lids, swollen and fat as earthworms from her crying the night before, something she hasn't done since she was a little kid.

She opens the door and the smaller boy scrambles back to his feet. He stares at her, his bottom lip drooping, showing his lower front baby teeth. Tiny. His fingernails are caked in blood.

"What are you doing here?"

He smiles and it unnerves her.

"Why aren't you wearing underwear?"

He shrugs. Dried blood covers the inside of his right forearm. She goes to the living room and says, to the older one, "Did you punch him, or something?" And her voice sounds indignant to her, as though she is involved, as though these boys are real and matter to her.

The fat one looks back at her. "Nope. He was picking it and then his nose was just bleeding and bleeding. Maybe it stopped. Donnie, did it stop?"

The little one opens up the crumpled toilet paper to inspect it. He searches for a clean, white spot on the tissue, compresses it and pushes it up his nostril, then pulls it back out. No fresh blood.

"I think it stopped," he says.

She says to the fat one, "What are you two doing here?"

He stares back at her like she is supposed to know that already.

"We wanted to talk to you," says the little one.

"You don't just walk into someone's house," she says. "How did you know I was here?"

"I seen you across there yesterday when I went outside," the fat one says. "I got eagle eyes. I can see all the way to the end of the sky."

"We both got bit," says the little one. He sticks out his foot and shows pink welts. "Fire ants."

"Who are you kids?"

"We're Carter and Donnie. That one's Donnie," the fat one says, gesturing toward the skinny, half-naked boy standing next to him. Their clothes are filthy; the fat one, especially, smells like rotten fruit and dirty laundry.

She remembers the note from her teacher that came home with her in fifth or sixth grade, when the water had been off for several months.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Overdorff,

This letter is to bring to your attention some hygiene issues related to your daughter. Weekly baths, at a minimum, are necessary for the comfort of your daughter. Good hygiene also creates comfort for her classmates and teacher.

She remembers her mother melting snow in a saucepan, remembers a rough and humiliating going over with the still-cold water, a rag, and orange dishwashing liquid. She remembers crying out of shame, her mother scrubbing at her harder as she cried. It was her fault. She was gross. The kids thought so and her teacher thought so, and even her mother, just as dirty, thought so. She stood there in the kitchen, naked, worried her brother or father would walk in and see her body, shameful, her breasts beginning to bud.

"We're hungry," Donnie says. "We walked here because we want something to eat."

"Don't you have food at home?"

"Nope," says Carter, and stares at his thumbnail, the tip of which is bruised blue-black.

"Not anymore," says Donnie, his voice high and squeaky. He hops from one bare foot to the other.

"Well," she snaps. "Time for your parents to go grocery shopping."

"They're not gonna go grocery shopping."

"Does your mother know you went out by yourselves?"

"Nope," says Carter, pushing thick brown hair away from his eyes. "She's asleep," squeaks Donnie.

"What about your father?"

"He's asleep, too," Donnie squeaks again, and his face looks so pretty, with his pink lips, blue eyes, a tiny nose at the very center of his face. A little boy doll. His prettiness is annoying.

"You have to go. You have to go." She walks to the front door and opens it, points at the outside. "I didn't invite you in here."

"We can't go," Carter shrugs. "We're too hungry to walk the whole way back without having some food first."

"Okay," she says, raising her hands in surrender. "I'll give you a snack. First, though, you need to go into the bathroom and wash your hands. You guys look pretty...dirty."

"Yeah, we'll go clean up. We'll take a bath," says Donnie.

"Are you kidding? You're not taking a bath here."

"We can take it together," says Donnie. He walks over and takes

Ida's hand in his. Ida shakes herself loose. "No bath," she says.

"I don't want to take a bath with him cause he got worms."

"Shut up!" says Donnie.

"He does. Little white ones."

Donnie starts to cry. He shuts his eyes tight and snot drips out of his nostrils.

"Quit crying," says Carter. "I'm going first. I don't want worm water."

"Jesus," Ida shouts. "Calm down. Go ahead. Take a bath one at a time. I don't care. Just do it fast."

She walks into the bathroom, pulls the metal rod that plugged the tub, and runs the water.

"Then can we have pancakes?" says Donnie.

"Pancakes. Are you serious? A snack, and you'll get what I have. And as soon as you eat, you have to leave. Got it?"

On the counter, she has a full bag of barbecue potato chips, a partly-eaten package of cream-filled cookies, a lemon. She also has packets of white sugar she took from the diner in Erne City so that she'd have them on the bus.

The bus she isn't on.

"Just so you know," Ida says, not looking at either of them. "It's bad manners to walk into someone's house. It's called trespassing. If you were older, you would definitely go to jail."

"We knocked," Carter says. "You didn't open it like you're supposed to do. But we could see you in here through the window. Didn't you know you're our neighbor?" He skulks off to the bathroom. After a moment, she hears him splashing in the water.

She calls, "If you keep doing that kind of thing, you'll end up in jail someday."

Donnie sits on the floor, staring at her. He says, "I don't want to go to jail."

She almost says, Not you. Him.

Donnie is Carter's opposite: thin and angelic, his beauty and goodness shining through the grime. His knees are drawn up to his chest, little bones pushing against the fabric of his t-shirt. She has to turn away. She goes to the kitchen window and looks out at the morning; it is already impossibly hot.

One of them coughs. She doesn't know which. She is angry at herself for being mean. Usually she is good with kids. She used to babysit in high school and all the kids would beg her to come back.

She softens her voice. "Where did you kids come from?"

Donnie walks toward the window and points left.

"Over there."

She sees nothing where he points. The ground doesn't dip or rise anywhere. She can't imagine where the boys have come from.

"I don't see any houses over there," she says.

Carter comes out, dressed again in his dirty clothes, his hair damp. It is Donnie's turn in the bath, and while he splashes around, Carter walks around the empty rooms of her house. He doesn't look at her or talk to her; she can hear him talking to himself, but instead of listening to what he is saying, she opens the chips and the cookies and puts portions of both on paper towels. She squeezes lemons and empties sugar into her two glasses. No matter how long she lets it run, the cold tap water is only lukewarm; the sugar sits, un-dissolved, at the bottom of the glasses. When she squeezes the lemons, several seeds fall in and float to the bottom. The sight of them annoys her, but she doesn't bother trying to get them out.

"I want that one," says Carter, pointing to one of the glasses.

"That one is for me," she says, just because. "You two can share the other one."

When Donnie comes back in, the three of them sit on the floor. The boys take alternating sips. They eat the chips quickly, and then the cookies. They want more, and she makes them another glass with the lemon she's already squeezed, the two last sugar packets she has. She eats potato chips and drinks her glass of lemonade. Her mouth is a mishmash of tartness and salty starch.

"Hurry up," she says.

She takes the last sip and crunches the un-dissolved sugar, watching their jaws moving.

"I'm done!" shouts Donnie. "Let's go play outside in the yard!" He wipes his hands on his t-shirt, leaving oily stripes down the front.

"Not a chance," says Ida. "No playing. You have to go home. Right now."

"We don't want to go home," says Carter. "We want to stay here and play outside. You don't have to play with us. We don't want to play with you anyway."

"Go to your own house. It's the same outside of your house and outside of mine. What difference does it make?"

"It's better here."

"Sorry. You've got to go home now. That was the agreement." She slips on her tennis shoes and opens the door.

"Go," she says.

"We don't want to go home," says Carter, his voice gruff.

"Have you seen a orange cat?" says Donnie. "Ours ran away."

"I'm not getting into any more talking about this," she says to Carter. "You're leaving. I need to be alone. Let's go. I'll even walk you." "You don't have to walk us," Carter scowls. "We can walk ourselves."

Donnie stands in front of her, his blue eyes sad and wide. It hurts to look at him. "If you see a orange cat," he says, "ask him if his name is Speedy!"

They leave. Carter pulls the door shut behind him.

She stands for a while at the window, staring out as they walk away, their heads down, their arms swinging. Ida watches until she can't see them anymore. She cleans up the sugar crystals, the lemon pulp, and the crumbs, using only water and the back of her hand. When she finishes, when all the evidence of them is gone, she looks out the window at the black streets and yellow-green grass of the fields.

Empty and dead. It is nothing like Aster's landscape, where there is a thickness, a texture everywhere. When you look up, you see trees, tall and majestic. Even the ones at the bottom of Door Hill.

There was a neighbor there, Mrs. Glack, an old widow, whom she and her brother Robert used to visit when they were in middle school. Mrs. Glack must have felt sorry for them, because she made them a full meal every time, and never told them they should come less often. Sometimes the meals were as simple as boiled hot dogs on white bread, a bowl of sliced apples. At other times, while they sat in her living room, looking at the Hummel collection, and the black and white pictures of the man and three boys in lederhosen, she broiled pork chops and boiled and mashed potatoes. Sometimes, there was strudel for dessert, but if not, she served them toasted white bread topped with the tart, seedy jam she made from the raspberries that grew in her own backyard. Always, there was some old-world pageantry involved. Cups with saucers, pats of butter on delicate plates.

Once, while Mrs. Glack was cooking for them, Robert stole three dollars out of her wallet, the only time he'd ever stolen anything. The next morning, he put the three dollars, loose, into her mailbox.

Ida especially liked one particular Hummel—a kerchiefed, rosy-cheeked girl pulling a white puppy by the tail—and stuck it into the back waistband of her pants. All through that meal, it poked into her spine. Mrs. Glack died a few months later, and when Ida found out about it, she threw the Hummel into the woods. She couldn't throw far, though, and for several months, saw the red, white, brown, and blue of the Hummel peeking out of the trees. She was grateful when the first snow finally came and covered it up.

In the dark bathroom, she splashes her face with water.

Ida's real future figured out where she went and came here to reassert itself. There is no new life. There is no new self. No victory. Yesterday, when everything about her life felt perfect, she took a taxi back from Erne City and walked into the Sunshine Settler Savings Bank. A bus was departing from Erne City in two hours, and she planned to take the taxi back to meet it.
The teller's first words were, "I'm sorry." The manager was called over; a telephone call was made. The teller and the manager whispered to each other. She stood still, pinching the inside of her arm.

There was no money. The account had been emptied on Saturday morning at the branch in Miami. First thing that morning, right when the branch opened at eight a.m. It seemed she'd been given a bad check. Maybe it was a mistake. The teller advised her to go out the door and to the Echo office and clear it up with Ken. Maybe he'd meant to write it from a different account, since he had more than one. Or maybe he'd forgotten to deposit a check that would have covered it.

She ran down the plaza to look, but there was nothing there but the two desks. The drawers were pulled open on one of them, and she could see that there was nothing inside.

She went back to the customer service desk at the bank. They would investigate it, the teller said, but she shouldn't get too worried yet. Maybe Mr. Cantwell would make a big deposit that day. They would re-deposit this check; perhaps it would go through overnight.

"No," she said, "He's not coming back. The office is empty."

"I don't know what to say."The teller smiled sympathetically.

The manager didn't smile. "If a new deposit isn't made in the next few days, we have to start a formal investigation. We'll keep you updated."

There was no place for her to go but the house. The shelter of that house was all that she had, that almost-finished rectangle, its back corner bright blue plastic.

At Karr's, she bought some junk food, a bottle of seltzer and a package of light bulbs.

"Paper or plastic?" said the cashier.

Ida didn't answer. She wasn't listening. The cashier put her things in a plastic bag.

Money was too tight for another cab. She had to walk. Her bag weighed heavily on the right side of her body. A sedan stopped after she'd gone a couple of miles, and an elderly man called out, gently, from the driver side window, asking if she wanted a ride. She said yes and got in, directing the man all the way to the house, not even asking him if it was out of the way. The man talked the whole time: his daughter was driving down from Jacksonville that night; she was getting a divorce, and even though he mostly believed that every single divorce was a shame, this one was really a good thing because the guy was a lousy sonofabitch.

Tears streamed down her face.

"You okay, honey?" he asked.

She shook her head and held her hand up: please don't ask.

"I didn't know you was crying till I looked at you. You wasn't making any noise."
What she noticed as they got close was the way the razed lots sat across from wild fields, the way the smell of damp vegetation mixed with the chemical smell of the asphalt. And there was the house, a rectangular box with a sad cement step, the blue tarp brightening its side.

Ida got out of the car and closed the door quietly behind her. She would have done anything to be back in her apartment in Aster, a short walk from the house on Door Hill, back in that life that had recently seemed so shitty.

She'd spent all that money. It was like she'd done this to herself on purpose. She sat down on the concrete floor of the house and thought about when she was a sophomore in high school and decided that she was going to change herself: she would work hard and see if she could be different, do well. All she had wanted to know was whether or not it was possible. She listened in class and took notes and studied and rewrote and pulled straight A's the whole semester. And though it was easy at first, it was too hard to sustain. It was easy to fall back into reading magazines instead, into closing her eyes and thinking about other things. Over the long Christmas break, she lost her momentum and came back as a fuck-up again. Even worse than before, and none of her teachers mentioned it or asked her what happened.

A few hours after the boys leave, she hears a car's engine idling in front of the house. When the knock comes, she doesn't get up to answer the door. It can only be something bad. Like the parents of those boys. They probably went home and said that they were at some lady's house. Some lady who bathed them and fed them and yelled at them.

Ida will not answer it. She doesn't look out of the window. She stretches out on the cool floor of the living room. The backs of her legs and arms heat the concrete up quickly, and she moves a few inches over, onto cooler territory. She hears more knocking, but she doesn't move from her place or even look up. She hears a shuffling of feet outside, scraping on the concrete stoop. Another knock. Harder. An official sort of knock.

Ida inhales, exhales, and closes her eyes.

There is a tap at the window. When she looks up, she sees someone peering at her through it: a tall man in a police uniform. Sunglasses, glossy dark curls, thick hands shielding against the glare.

"Shit," she whispers.

"Ma'am?" he says. "Could you open the door, please?" A southern accent.

She stands up. Outside, she sees two cars, one a police cruiser, one a red sedan, idling on the street. Both are crowded with people. She opens the door.

"What?" She is out of breath, her heart going crazy.

"We're looking for a missing little boy. It's over a week that he's been gone and we could use all the help we can get."

"How many boys?" she says.

"Just one."

He hands her a flyer with a picture on it of a boy with dark blond hair, sitting in front of a birthday cake. The lit candles give his face a golden glow. A black Labrador retriever sits by his side, its tongue out and its eyes on the cake.

"Mitchell Healy. He's twelve, almost thirteen. He was wearing cut-off jeans and a white t-shirt. He has a black bicycle with chrome handlebars."

"I definitely haven't seen him."

"Mind if I take a look around?"

"I'm not from here. I don't even know anyone here."

"If you wouldn't mind." He steps closer.

She opens the door wide enough for him to come in. She steps outside when he goes in, and sees the people out in the cars; she feels their eyes on her.

He comes back out.

"Didn't know anyone lived in this particular house. You got furniture coming?"

She shakes her head. Even that slight movement makes her perspire. She wants him to leave so that she can stretch out on the concrete some more.

"Doesn't seem all that comfortable."

"It sure isn't," she says, but then is ashamed. Someone's child is missing.

"We've got room for one more. We'll drive out by the woods and pair off."

For a moment, she considers squeezing into the car full of elbows and shoulders, riding off to search through hot swamp grass. Being a part of something other than these walls, this tarp.

Out in the street, the people in the cars still watch her, as though they are anxious to hear what she has to say.

She shakes her head. "I really don't know this place," she says. "And I haven't seen that little boy."

When they drive off, she goes back inside and sits on the cool concrete, listening to herself breathing, to the house breathing. The house's breath sounds raspy, greedy, as though it isn't getting enough oxygen. And she is here in its belly, watching it try to stay alive, breath by breath. She should have gone to help. She waits like this, glowering, until it gets dark, and then she takes off her clothes, spreads out the cushions and stretches out to try to get some sleep.

She remembers that she bought light bulbs, and she fishes around for them in the dark. Ida climbs into the kitchen sink and stands up to screw one of them into the fixture in the ceiling. When she gets down and flips the switch, the light comes on, white and unreal. Naked, she only feels more vulnerable, and so she turns it off. There is nothing for her to see inside this house but her own body, the bare walls. All she has accomplished is that she can now be seen by everything that might be watching from outside.

Ida sleeps terribly that night, waking, over and over, to the noises around her. She hears a strange scratching, and runs to the kitchen to throw on the light. The sound turns out to be a skinny green lizard, making its way across her pile of plastic Karr's bags.