“The trees look funny,” said Laura North, who was struggling to keep up with her mother as they walked downtown. “Why do they look like that?”
“I told you, baby. It’s fall. They do that every year. They did it last year, and they’ll do it again next year, too. Now please stop asking me that, it’s driving me––”
“Look at the ducks!” Laura said, trying to tear her left hand away from her mother’s. “I never saw so many.”
“That’s nice, sweetie,” Mrs. North said. “Hold on, mommy has to take this.” She released Laura’s hand, removed her glove, and began digging through her black leather purse. Laura looked down at her new purple rainboots and kicked at a pile of fallen leaves. “Stop that,” Mrs. North said, lightly flicking the pink pom pom of her beanie. “You don’t want to scratch your new boots, do you? Hello? Oh, hi honey. We’re downtown right now. Yeah. We’re shopping. I know that but you know she needs new clothes. All the reports say this winter is going to be––Laura! What on earth are you doing?”
Her daughter had trailed a ways behind her. When Mrs. North looked back, Laura was eagerly extending a handful of garden snails. “Look how many!” Laura said. “Many many many.”
“You put those down right now young lady,” Mrs. North said. “Don’t make me ask you a sec––hello? Yeah. she’s playing with the snails again. I don’t know wh––Yes. I know she’s only four but she’s going to get sick if she keeps––”
“Four and a half,” Laura chimed in.
“Anyway, we should be home before you, unless the buses are full again. Why do so many people take transit this time of year? It’s just lovely out and it––okay. I’ll see you later. Love you too.”
Laura had stopped walking and was carefully lowering the snails onto the grass when her mother grabbed her hand and pulled. The remaining snails dropped hard on the pavement. “Mommy!”
“Baby, mommy does not have time for this. I want us to be home in time to make dinner for your father and put you to bed. It’s a school night and we haven’t even got you a coat or anything yet.”
“Look at the trees!”
Mrs. North sighed and looked ahead. She tugged authoritatively at her daughter’s hand. ”What do you say we go and buy you that jacket we saw last weekend. The pink one? You loved it.”
“I wanna green.”
“Oh sweetie,” she said absently. “You don’t mean that. It wouldn’t go with any of your other clothes. Don’t you want to look pretty when you go back to class tomorrow?”
Laura took a deep breath. The snot in her nostrils made a wet, slurping sound as she inhaled. “Jane Applegate’s mommy got her a green.”
“Well, you’re not Jane Applegate, are you? Besides, Jane Applegate’s mommy obviously doesn’t care enough to dress that poor girl properly. You don’t want to look like a boy, do you? Don’t you trust your mommy?”
Laura craned her neck back. It was clear that she was not listening and had not heard a thing that her mother had said. “I wanna see them fly.”
“See who fly?”
“That’s nice, sweetie.”
They walked in silence. Every few steps Laura would open her mouth and heavily expel her breath, giggling as soft clouds formed with each exhale. She wondered where it all went after they disappeared. She imagined that if she did this too much all of her breath would float up and away into the sky to make a rain cloud. She tried to limit the number of strong breaths she took. She didn’t want to ruin the sunny weather for everyone by making it rain.
They stopped walking once they had reached The Hollywood Boutique. Mrs. North took out her phone and checked the time.
“Who’s that man?” Laura asked, but Mrs. North was not listening, or she did not care.
Laura repeated her question.
“That man,” Laura said pointing down the street.
Mrs. North did not look up from the screen. “That’s nice, honey. Leave him alone, okay?” She reached out her free hand to grab the door handle, but it had already opened. Instead of metal, she was met with a shrill, nasally screech.
“Carol! Is that you?”
Startled, Mrs. North looked up from the screen. She knew the voice. “Julie?”
“Oh my god, it’s been so long!” The two women embraced like twins.
“Julie! It must have been five years since we graduated. What are you doing here?”
“Oh my god. That long since graduation?”
“I guess so,” Carol said. “Doesn’t it feel like life just stopped after college?”
“I know what you mean,” Julie said. “Absolutely.” She looked down at Carol’s ungloved hand. “Oh my god! Look at that ring! Don’t tell me. Alex Graham?”
“Oh, no no no. Definitely not. Gosh, I haven’t spoken to him since… since sophomore year. Don’t you remember what happened?”
“Right, right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to––”
“It’s okay. You remember Tony, don’t you?”
“You mean Tony North? That frat boy you’d sneak into the house every weekend? I remember,” Julie said. “Oh my god I can’t believe it.”
“He wasn’t a frat boy, Julie. It was some dental school organization. And would you stop saying that?”
“Delta, Sigma, Xi, whatever. It was a frat whether you like to admit it or not. Stop saying what?”
“Oh come on. You know it bothers me when people throw around ‘god’ so much.”
“That’s right,” Julie said, slapping her forehead with the heel of her palm. “You were the miss Goody-Two-Shoes of the house. I always thought it was weird, though. I don’t think I ever once saw you go to church. I mean, there were about a thousand other girls in the house, but if I remember it right you were either hungover or coming home early in the morning half-naked just about every weekend.”
“You’re right. I never went to church after I left my parents’ house,” Carol said. “It’s a force of habit, I guess. They really drill you with that whole ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ thing in Catholic school. The nuns used to––anyway, it still makes me cringe every time I hear it.”
“I still can’t believe anyone’s parents would actually make them go to church,” Julie said. “It’s child abuse if you ask me. If—god forbid—I ever have a kid I’ll raise it without any religion whatsoever. Let them decide for themselves. I don’t care.”
“I was a child, Julie,” Carol said. “It’s not like I knew any better, or even cared.”
“Still, every Sunday?”
“I don’t know,” Julie said. “The whole thing sounds cultish if you ask me, but okay.” She took her eyes off of Carol for an instant, just long enough to see Laura’s pink pom pom. “Oh! And just who is this?” she said, kneeling down to meet Laura, who was staring vacantly in the opposite direction, her left index finger stuffed in her nose almost up to the second knuckle.
“Laura!” Carol scolded her. “Get that out of there. Do you hear me? Take it out.”
Laura looked back at her mother and Julie. She took one more mindless dig before removing the finger.
“What a pretty name!” Julie said. “Hello! I’m a friend of your mother’s. I just love those boots!”
Laura backed up and tucked her head behind her mother’s legs. She leaned against Carol’s thigh and adjusted so that she was looking down the street again. Suddenly, her mother grabbed her wrist and all but dragged her out front. “Don’t be so rude! That is no way to treat someone you’ve just met. Say ‘hello.’”
“Hello,” Laura said, without turning to face the women.
“I’m so sorry,” Carol said. “I swear she has absolutely no manners. Gets it from her father.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Julie said. “She is just too cute! How old?”
“Four years old,” Carol replied.
“Four years old,” Julie parotted. “I can’t believe it. But that means––”
“Yeah. We found out about a month after graduation. Then we got married. You know, with my parents and his parents they would have killed us both if they knew anything.”
“Listen,” Julie said. “I know it sounds a little crazy, but what do you say we go grab a drink or two? Nothing too wild, I’d just love to catch up with you and hear what you’ve been up to these past five years. Wow, just saying that. I can’t believe it’s been that long!”
“I don’t know.” Carol glanced at the window of the Hollywood Boutique. She could see in the reflection that the sun had begun to set. “Oh, what the hell,” she said. “But just one, you hear me? I’ve got to get home in time to make dinner for Tony. I just got off the phone with him and it sounded like he was having a bit of a rough day.”
“Just one. Promise,” Julie said. She squealed with excitement. “It’s like we’re sisters again! I know just the place, and it’s just right around the corner from here. You still a margarita girl? They make the best––”
“Mojitos,” Carol said.
“I can’t stand tequila. Never could.”
“That’s right. It was Charlotte that loved margaritas. God, she was a hot mess,” Julie said. “I’m not much of a tequila drinker myself, but this bar does everything. They’ve got a mixologist––you know, one of those fancy bartenders?”
“Okay. Just one, remember?”
“I won’t take too much of your time, but it’s my treat, so you owe me at least an hour.”
“Fine. But no more. Let’s go, Laura.”
As the women turned to walk down the street, Laura stood cemented to the corner, her face still cast in the opposite direction. She thrust her arms out to her side and, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, pretended she was walking along a tightrope a mile above a baffled audience. After half a block of continuing like this, she lost her balance and fell over into a mound of pillows and blankets. Confused, she sat up and surveyed her surroundings.
Laura found herself by the street next to a convenience store. She placed her palms flat on the pavement and made believe that she was a stray alley cat. Curiously, she stuck her snout into an empty soft drink cup in front of her, but immediately recoiled when the smell of dirty metal met her nose. Exploring further, she found a thin sheet of cardboard on the sidewalk. The cardboard had shapes and letters all over from top to bottom. She could not read a thing, but she loved the way it looked–the writing was strong and steady, but inviting in its own way. As she studied it, she tried out the different sounds on her tongue; but the only parts she could make out with any accuracy were “please” and “thank you.” When she had finished with this, she turned her attention back to the blankets. Digging around, she found several papers with colorful pictures. One in particular caught her attention, that of a brightly painted boat parked way up on the sand of a beach. She closed her eyes and imagined that the boat were hers, that she were a pirate, an explorer. She wondered what it would be like if she had only the sun and moon and clear skies for company. When Laura opened her eyes again, she was cast in a shadow.
“I see you found where I keep my ship,” a deep voice said.
“Hello,” Laura said. She turned around and saw a man, tall, with a patchy red beard. “What’s your name?”
“Well, aren’t you nice,” the man replied. “My name’s Dave.” He tightened the belt of his bathrobe and knelt down beside her.
“Nice to meet you, Dave.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said. For a moment, his sunken blue eyes roamed over the scene, then stopped on a crack in the sidewalk.
“I like your boat.”
“Do you? I am so happy,” Dave said.
“Does she have a name?”
“Does she have a name,” he repeated. “Now, that is a question worth asking. What’s your name?”
“Laura. With a name like that, you are really going places. I think we’ll call her ‘Laura,’ what do you say?” Dave reached into his pocket and brought out a red marker. “Would you do me the honor?” he asked, offering it to her.
Laura smiled and accepted it. She stared at the picture intently, then, with great care marked the bow of the boat with a disproportionately large ‘L.’ She looked up at Dave and frowned, “I don’t remember the rest.”
“That’s okay,” Dave said. “We can do it together. Let me show you.” He gently grabbed her wrist, and, carefully guiding the hand, spelled out the rest of her name.
“The trees look funny,” she said.
“They really, really do,” Dave replied. “But you wanna know what’s really funny?”
“They never do this. It’s always different. Every day.”
“Cross my heart.”
“Did you see all the ducks?”
“What do you mean?”
“All the ducks in the park!” Laura said, excited. “There were so many, many, many.”
“I didn’t realize,” Dave said. “Tell me about them.”
“They were brown and had long necks and were this tall,” she said, jumping up and down in an animated attempt to illustrate their height.
“Ah! Goose,” Dave said.
“Goose,” Dave said. “You saw geese.”
“Duck duck goose?”
“How many were there?” Dave asked.
She looked up at the sky and tried to remember a number. “Thirteen,” she said. “There were thirteen gooses. Big ones. I wanna see them fly.”
Dave scratched his chin, ruffling the wiry copper hairs of his beard. “That can’t be right,” he said.
“I said that can’t be right.”
“Why not?” Laura asked.
“Well,” he said, frowning. “Because they never go around in odd numbers.”
“Because then they’d be lonely. Maybe,” he said. “Maybe there were fourteen. That sounds right. There must have been fourteen geese. But don’t be so down about it. That last goose,” he added, “well, he must have been off someplace else. Just for a second, though.”
Laura nodded. “Maybe,” she said. “Do you live here?”
“Live here? Oh, no. I’m just passing through. I’m looking for a golden goose. My golden goose.”
Her mouth dropped to the floor. “You have a golden goose?”
“Sure do. He’s about this big,” Dave said, extending his arms as far as he could. “He’s so fat he can’t even fly. He’s run off some place and I just can’t seem to find him anywhere. Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where some golden goose would be hiding, would you?”
Laura was clapping her boots together. “No,” she said. “I like peanuts and popcorn and cotton candy. Did you ever see a circus?”
“A circus?” Dave repeated. “I have a circus of my own right here!”
“Really?” Laura asked.
“Really,” he said. “Just give me one second here.” Dave began rifling through his blankets. “Oh, wait, here we go,” he said, pulling a styrofoam box out from beneath a pillow. “This isn’t a circus, but I bet you it’ll do you one better. Tell me, Laura, have you ever seen a real treasure before?” He opened the box, revealing a pile of old french fries slopped in a light brown sauce.
“Wow,” she said.
“Wow indeed. He picked up a soggy fry and offered it to Laura. “Wanna try?”
She looked at it and imagined the taste. She licked her lips and abruptly looked away, disappointed. “I’m not suposeda take things from strangers,” she said.
Dave looked down at the fry, then up at the girl. “Well, Laura, we’ve been talking all this time, haven’t we? I wouldn’t exactly call us strangers, would you?”
She realized that Dave had a point. She looked down at the food, smiled, and accepted. She stuffed it into her mouth as fast as she could. “What does that say?” she said, pointing to the sign.
“That?” he replied. “That’s just a little letter I wrote telling people about my goose, asking if they’ve seen him anywhere. You wanna see?”
He grabbed the cardboard and passed it to Laura. “Hold on one second,” he said. He wiped the grease of his left hand on his robe and then stuck it deep into his pocket. Immediately it reemerged with a number of colored pens. “I think it needs a little work. Would you mind helping me out?”
He held out the pens for Laura, who chose the dark red. With quiet concentration she began to trace the letters of the sign. When she had finished, she capped the pen and took another, a green, with which she proceeded to fill in the circles and spaces between all the letters.
“You know, I think that’s exactly what it needed,” Dave said. “Thank you, Laura.”
“I’m tired,” Laura said. She threw her arms into the air and allowed gravity to pull her down into the padded pile. “Do you have a picture of him? You should show people a picture, then people will know what to look for.”
Dave lay down beside her, propping his back up with a pillow. “As a matter of fact, I don’t,” he said. He leaned the cardboard sign on his thighs and opened his hand to Laura. “May I?” She placed the green pen in his hand.
Laura turned over onto her stomach, rested her right cheek on crossed wrists, and watched as Dave sketched a crude, cartoonish outline of a goose.
“What do you think?” Dave asked.
“So cute!” she giggled. “I love him.” She reached out a hand. “Let me see!”
Dave handed the sign and pen over to Laura. She looked at the pen, frowned, and tossed it aside before reaching for the others. When she brought her hand back, it held three others bunched in a fist: a black, blue, and a yellow. She arbitrarily scribbled in the space from the base of the neck to the jaw with blue, colored in the face and body with yellow, and with the black she gave the goose what looked like an oversized top hat.
“Are you sure you haven’t seen my goose?” Dave said. “That looks just like him–it’s uncanny.”
Laura bit her bottom lip and smiled. She sat up and planted the sign in front of them and looked up at Dave’s face. The light of the setting sun reflected from a window across the street to coat his face in a bright layer of golden light. Straight faced, his brightened eyes seemed to look through the sign as if it were the only thing standing between him and something everlasting. Laura closed her eyes and rested her head against his leg.
Suddenly, the piercing scream of a woman cut through the scene. “Laura!” Mrs. North was all but sprinting towards the pair, Julie trailing not far behind. “You get away from her!” with both arms, Mrs. North hoisted Laura out of Dave’s lap and tossed the child’s head over her shoulder.
“Mommy!” Laura screamed. “Let go!” She was thrashing her legs, repeatedly kicking at her mother’s torso, but Mrs. North ignored the blows.
“I swear to god,” she said. “If you touched one hair on my baby’s head I’m going to call the cops. I swear on my life I’ll do it.”
“We were only talking, ma’am,” Dave said.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Mrs. North replied. “You’re a goddamn pervert!”
Laura had begun to cry. “Stop, stop, stop,” she sobbed.
“Do you want me to call the police, Carol?” Julie said, holding out her phone.
Mrs. North looked at the sign, then back at Dave. “I swear to god,” she said again. “I wish all of you strung out creeps would just get the hell out of here. If I ever see you talking to my daughter again, if you so much as look, I’ll—let’s go, Julie.” She turned and began walking back in the direction they had come from. Julie glared at Dave, then kicked the cardboard sign over before going to follow.
Over her mother’s shoulder, Laura looked at Dave, the waning sunlight still washed over him, but it had begun to sharpen into a deep, reddening orange. His vacant eyes still cast out ahead.
Mrs. North pressed a flat palm to the nape of Laura’s neck. “Mommy’s got you,” she said into her ear.
“Mommy!” Laura cried. “What about his goose? How will he find him?”