Lemon Drops


Lemon Drops

By Beth Sherman


When he died, their father had two requests. The first was easy: Visit the gravesite once a month and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Of course, that job would fall to Gail. Their mother had passed away six years earlier and Daniel lived in Los Angeles now. He sent her pictures of fragile-looking palm trees and coffee puffed with foam. As if she couldn’t get a caramel frappuccino on Long Island. It tasted better there, he insisted. They used special beans, imported from Venezuela. “People are fleeing Venezuela,” she reminded him. “There are six million refugees who left to escape violence and hunger. It’s immoral to consume anything made in that country.” But he had already stopped listening.
She and her father visited Daniel twice a year – for his birthday in June, and over a long weekend in August. It was always too hot. They had to go out at seven a.m. and do whatever Daniel had planned before waves of heat began to squeeze them, the air so thick with smog it made her feel like she was about to choke. The streets smelled of urine and everything was overpriced. Daniel minimized these concerns. He worked in video production for an advertising firm and could not be convinced that LA was anything less than a celebrity-dipped slice of heaven.
At the funeral, he muted his cell phone as the rabbi required, but kept glancing at it through the service, which annoyed Gail. “What is so important?” she hissed under her breath. “We’re at Dad’s funeral, for God’s sake.” Saying the words out loud made them real. She couldn’t take her eyes off the plain wooden box on the dais, where her father lay immobile, wearing the grey suit and blue tie he had picked out himself. She couldn’t shake the feeling that his death was an unfunny practical joke he had played on them. He was fond of tricks. When they were little, he made chocolate coins appear magically in the palm of his hand, pulled scarves from top hats, once revealing a hamster cowering inside. They’d named the pet Harry and kept him for years. Their father also used to jump out from behind pieces of furniture and yell “Aha!” as if he were a zealous detective who had just solved the crime of the century. Then he would tickle them till their stomachs hurt. Strange that she would miss something so ridiculous, but she did. 
After they had driven to the cemetery, the rabbi had spoken, and Gail had taken her turn shoveling dirt into the grave, watering the hole with her tears, they went back to her father’s house, a rundown three-bedroom ranch where they had both grown up. Then she called Leah, who was in the middle of a semester abroad in Rome.
“How was it?” Leah asked. “Wait, that’s a stupid question. But was it really terrible? Did a lot of Grandpa’s friends come? I should have been there, right?”
Yes, Gail silently agreed. It was the right thing to do.  Aloud she said, “You already told him goodbye.”
Gail had known Leah wanted to stay in Europe. Her daughter had talked about the funeral like it was an imposition, interrupting a junior year meticulously chronicled on Snapchat, which Gail had accessed despite not having been invited to do so.  
Twirling the phone cord between her fingers, she listened as Leah described her coursework, cafés, a day trip to Verona. Gail was in the kitchen, her favorite room in the house. Everywhere she looked, she saw her younger self. Doing homework at the Formica table, helping her mother season pot roast, giving impromptu performances. She had dreamed of singing in nightclubs, not working as a greeter at the local elementary school, a job she didn’t particularly like. If a crazed gunman entered the building, she’d be the first one killed.
Daniel came in, waving two cream-colored envelopes he had found propped against a vase of artificial flowers on the hall table.
“Get off the phone,” he said impatiently. “We need to go over this.”
“Do you want to talk to Uncle Dan, sweetie?” she asked Leah.
Both her daughter and her brother demurred simultaneously, and as she hung up, she couldn’t help thinking that the person she loved most was the one who now lay under a mound of freshly turned soil.   
Daniel read the will aloud. She’d seen a copy before. The proceeds from the sale of the house and from her father’s meagre savings account at the bank were to be split between them evenly. They were co-executors, although Gail knew she’d have to do all the work herself: getting the testamentary letters, meeting with brokers, selling the ranch, boxing up her father’s clothes and books and driving them to Goodwill, disposing of the furniture, cleaning out the basement, making sure yew bushes were planted at the gravesite, ordering a headstone for the unveiling. The thought of performing these tasks filled her with wobbly fatigue.
Daniel had opened the second envelope and was shaking his head like a dog who had come out of the ocean and was trying to dry off.  
“I can’t believe it. He wants us to go upstate.”
He handed her a piece of lined paper.
Dear Gail & Daniel,
If you are reading this letter, it means I have passed. I want you to know I loved my life and enjoyed having you both. There are two final things I would like you to do. The first is to visit my grave and recite the prayer for the dead once a month. The second concerns a man named Avraham Feldman, who lives at 16 Cortlandt Road in Monsey, New York. There is a box in my closet that I need you to give to him. Please do not unlock it. I know this is a lot to ask, but I trust you will do this one final thing for me.
Your devoted father
On the top shelf of the bedroom closet, tucked behind several sweaters her father no longer wore, was a locked mahogany box. When Daniel shook it, they could hear something rattling around inside.
“I think you should
“No, I’m not doing this alone!” Gail said, surprised to hear herself shouting. “It’s just north of the city. We can get there in about two hours tomorrow and there’ll be plenty of time for you to make your flight on Tuesday.”
“But you can go to the post office and mail the box. Why deliver it in person?”
She fixed him with an icy stare. “Because Dad asked us to.”
“Fine,” he said, throwing up his hands. “Even though this whole thing is a colossal waste of time.”
The shiva started at four. A parade of grey-haired ladies arrived, bearing chicken soup, noodle kugel, lox and bagels, and babka. There was so much food that it couldn’t fit in the refrigerator and Gail had to stack the containers on the kitchen counters, where they teetered precariously like tinfoil towers. Her father was the only widower in the neighborhood. Apparently, he had been a hot commodity. Mrs. Feinblatt had invited him to her weekly bridge game. Mrs. Stern got him to join her book club. Mrs. Fishbein, a particular favorite of Gail’s, lived next door and had been wanting to marry her father for years. 
“Why not do it?” she’d asked him during one of their Sunday night dinners. She didn’t want him to be alone, like she was. Since Howard divorced her and Leah left for college, the silence in her apartment was too loud to bear.
“No one will ever replace your mother,” he’d replied.
She had opened her mouth, then abruptly closed it.
“I know what you’re thinking. But at the end of the day, we cared about each other. Even though it didn’t always look that way.”
An understatement, Gail thought. Her parents’ marriage had been like mixing artichokes and peanut butter. It didn’t taste right, no matter how hungry you were. The fights. The accusations. Many nights, Gail had jammed her pillows over her head to block out her parents’ anger.
“Did he suffer?” Mrs. Feinblatt asked. She was a dumpling of a woman with eyes that looked perpetually startled.
“No,” Leah said automatically.
But she couldn’t be sure. It had started innocuously with a mole on his back that neither of them noticed. Its edges were frayed, like the pictures of an amoeba she’d once viewed under a microscope in high school biology. Dark brown in the center, lighter brown at the rim. Slightly larger than a pencil eraser. Stage IV. Traveling beyond the original tumor to distant areas of the body. The liver. The intestines. Soft muscle tissue. It wasn’t fair.  
“He was a good man,” Mrs. Fishbein said, simultaneously pouring Diet Coke into a plastic cup and dabbing her eyes with a crumpled napkin. “I loved him, Gail. Even back when I was married to Jim and your father was married to Glenda, I felt there was something between us. He always made me smile.”
“I know what you mean.”
She had never met a man who could get her to laugh as heartily and freely as her father did. Was that why all her relationships had ended badly? The bar was set so high, how could anyone meet it?
Daniel had retreated into his childhood bedroom, and she was left to greet the rabbi alone, to set out the low seats for the mourners, to entertain the old ladies, who were vying with one another over who had known her father best. If I had a blue ribbon, Gail thought, I could award the grand prize to one of them, which would wind up on somebody’s mantel, next to a bunch of other tchotchkes.
Growing up, Gail had liked her brother. He was quirky, smart, and interesting. Though she was two years older, they’d shared many of the same friends. She used to confide in him. Not stupid stuff, like who she had a crush on and how she had failed her chemistry midterm. Important things, like whether God existed probably, but they’d always harbor a sliver of doubt and how when she sang it was like a door opening in her mind that led to other, more elusive doors.
Years later, she sat down and wrote him an email.
Dear Daniel,
I don’t know what’s happened to us. Every time we speak on the phone, it’s like I’m on with Aunt Edna and we end up talking about the weather or current events. You sound like you’re pretending. I don’t get it. Did I do something wrong? Did Dad? I want to make things right between us, but I don’t know how.
She’d  saved it in her Draft folder for two days before hitting Delete, when it struck her how lame she sounded, how she’d never be able to tell him what she was really feeling. It wasn’t just that she missed him. She was angry at him, too. For moving three thousand miles away, and acting like she and her father were just people you ran into in a deli, people you barely even knew.
“Who could this Avraham Feldman be?” Daniel said. “An old army buddy? I tried Googling him last night and no one by that name lives around here. I couldn’t find him on Facebook, either.”
She was driving on the Taconic State Parkway Monday morning, grateful that the traffic wasn’t worse. It was a gorgeous spring day. Nothing but blue sky for miles. The trees on both sides of the highway were turning a tender shade of green that lasted maybe a day or two before the more familiar, deeper green set in. Overhead, a hawk circled lazily, drifting on the wind. She had the odd feeling that she and Daniel were going on a vacation, not about to complete a mission. Their family had traveled to the Catskills each summer for years, staying at the Nevele, a now defunct hotel. She remembered those days fondly. The tower, the Olympic-sized pool, waiters bringing seven-course meals. Once she’d met a man there who made art out of toilet paper.
“Why’d you Google Feldman?” she asked.
“To see what his deal is. What he looks like.”
“You were going to ask if we could mail him the box, right?”
“So, if I died and asked you to scatter my ashes on the beach at Montauk Point, you’d throw them into the Pacific because no one would ever know the difference?”
“Nah. I might drive out to Montauk. I like seeing the old lighthouse.”
“Good to know.”
“Come on, Gster. Don’t you think this is weird?”
She stopped needling him so she could concentrate on the road, and also because he’d used his old nickname for her, which he hadn’t done in ages.
“What do you think this is all about?”
“I have no idea.”
“He never said a word to you?”
“No, Dan. He didn’t.”
Her brother fiddled with the Sirius stations, which he’d been doing ever since they left Commack. It drove her crazy, but she decided not to say anything.
“You think maybe this guy and Dad were both in love with Mom or something?” Daniel asked.
“Fighting over Mom? Really?”
“Yeah, you’re right. That’s not it.” 
After she turned off the highway, they drove through a series of small towns. The signs were all in Yiddish. On the streets, men wore heavy black coats, dark trousers, and yarmulkes or black top hats. Women had on long skirts, jackets, and dark flats. Many pushed strollers and were trailed by a gaggle of similarly clad children. The Hasidim. Gail knew they didn’t consider her family Jewish because her father belonged to a Conservative synagogue instead of an Orthodox one. It had seemed religious enough to her, certainly more religious than the Reform temple down the street. Judaism Light, as her father dismissively called it. Now they drove by a temple, a mikvah, several yeshivas, a Walmart, and a kosher grocery store. At an abandoned gas station, a doe and her two fawns were tearing leaves off a tree.
“How much further?”  Daniel asked, just like he used to do when they were younger.
“We’re practically there.”
Using Google Maps, she navigated her way through a neighborhood filled with small capes and ranch houses. After a while, the lots got bigger and so did the buildings. Tear-downs. She saw them all over her neighborhood on Long Island, only none were as huge as this. Cortlandt Road was curvy, lined with maple trees that formed a canopy above the street. She stopped the car in front of Number 16, and they both sat there gawking. The house, made of grey stucco the color of a pigeon’s wings, and accented with darker grey and cream stones, was enormous, situated on several acres of perfectly manicured lawn, dotted with evergreens and azalea bushes that were just about to flower. It had three stories with sloping gables over the windows. Balconies edged with wrought iron. Fairy tale turrets. A wrap-around porch that led to a gazebo.
“Big money,” Daniel said, letting out a low whistle.  
“Well,” Gail replied, “we’d better see what’s what.”
They walked up the wide grey pavers to a double door entranceway, adorned with panels of frosted glass, Gail suddenly wished she had mailed the box, after all. The house intimidated her. Maybe that was the point. 
Pushing her doubts aside, she rang the doorbell.
After about a minute, an elderly woman wearing a long black dress and a brown wig opened the door.
“Yes,” she said cautiously, as if they might be trying to sell her something she never would have ordered.  
“Um, my name is Gail Horowitz and this is my brother, Daniel. Our father used to know your husband. He died three days ago. Our dad, that is, and he asked that we deliver this box to Mr. Feldman personally.”
As Gail paused to catch her breath, she noticed that Mrs. Feldman looked more confused, not less.
“Anyway, I live on Long Island and my brother lives in LA and we’ve come all this way to see Mr. Feldman and give him this box.”
The woman sized them up the same way Gail imagined she would examine a slice of herring in the local appetizing store.
“All right,” she said finally, ushering them inside. “I’m Rivka, Avraham’s wife.”
She led them through room after room, each more sumptuously decorated than the last, past two separate kitchens, a study, a billiard room, and a library. They finally arrived in a great room, furnished with leather sofas, a glass coffee table, and a large Oriental rug. Paintings hung in rows on the walls. Portraits.
Landscapes. Dancers. Gail thought she recognized a Degas. Four children sat on the rug gazing up at a flat screen TV, where a cartoon bear was engaged in a tug of war with a cartoon goat over who would get to keep a jar of honey.
Rivka said something to the children in Yiddish and they scattered like marbles to other rooms in the house.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or tea?” she asked them.
“Tea would be fine,” Gail said.
They sat on one of the sofas. Daniel sprawled against the pillows, Gail perched gingerly on the edge. She had set the mahogany box down on the coffee table, next to a vase of peonies. Out the floor-to-ceiling windows, she could see an L-shaped pool covered with a green tarp, as well as a cabana, a tennis court, a basketball court, and a large sculpture of a dolphin spouting water into a stone fountain.
Rivka came back with the tea, served in porcelain cups with painted roses on the inside, and left the room. The tea tasted of jasmine. Daniel slurped his noisily.
“Stop rolling your eyes,” she whispered to him.
“I’m not.”
“You’re doing it internally and it shows. Stop it.”
“You know, you could reduce the national debt by selling the contents of this house,” he said, picking up a small black marble statue that was on the coffee table and turning it over.
“Put that back.”
Daniel grunted and returned the statue to the table.
“You want to shoot some hoops while we wait?” he asked, gesturing towards the basketball court.
“Behave, okay? We’re guests here.”
He made a tch tch sound, reflecting mock dismay. “You think I ain’t got no manners? What’cha talkin’ ’bout, sis!”
“We need to make a good impression.”
“Maybe you do. I couldn’t care less.”
After that, she ignored him and concentrated on not spilling her tea. About fifteen minutes later, a car pulled up and she heard the front door open and shut.
Avraham Feldman was a tall man, balding, with a gray beard and shoulder-length gray locks of hair in front of each ear. His chin was pointy. He wore round spectacles, though Gail suspected his vision was poor since he squinted frequently, giving him an owlish air.  
Once again, Gail related why they were there.
“You’re Neil Horowitz’s kids? My goodness. We haven’t seen each other in many, many years. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“How did you know each other?” Gail asked.
“We lived next door to one another in Brooklyn for nineteen years. We were best friends. No, more like brothers than friends. I had two brothers already, but I felt closer to Neil than I did to them.”
“When was the last time you spoke to one another?”
Feldman stroked his beard and considered the question. “Must have been more than forty-five years ago. I heard he opened a hardware store. Is that right?”
Gail described the store, how her father knew the names of all his regular customers and enjoyed helping them learn how to fix things, how Home Depot and Lowe’s had put him out of business in the late 1990s.
“He always was good with his hands,” Feldman commented. “Me, I can’t change a light bulb. I went into my father’s jewelry business. The only thing I had to do was look at stones through a magnifying glass.”
“Would you mind opening the box?” Gail asked. “I mean, I’ll understand if you’d rather not, but we’ve driven all this way and we’re curious about why our father asked us to come here.”
“Of course. Not a problem.”
He went into one of the other rooms and came back with a pen knife, which he used to jimmy the lock. There were only three items inside. Feldman took them out one by one and passed each object over for them to inspect. The first was a black and white snapshot of two little boys on the stoop of a brownstone. They wore long pants and long sleeve shirts, and their hair was slicked down like someone had coated it with pomade. Even after so many years, she recognized the merry glint in her father’s eyes, his playful, kind expression.
“That was us. A couple of nudnik yeshiva boys.”
“Dad’s so young there,” Daniel said to Gail.
“I know.”
The second object was a box of old pick-up sticks. They came in a cylindrical red tube. On the front was a drawing of a man holding a stick above his head like he was lifting a barbell. The cardboard on the tube had frayed, the thin, plastic sticks were losing their color.
“Oh, my. We played this game all the time,” Avraham said. “We played so much we got splinters from brushing our hands over the wooden floors.”
“Old school games,” Daniel said.
“Absolutely,” Feldman agreed. “These days, you can’t get my grandkids off the computer.”
Gail tried to put the pieces together. A photograph. Pick up-sticks. What was the significance of these items? She hadn’t a clue.
The third object was a small box of Brach’s lemon drops. Unlike the pick-up sticks, the box looked fairly new, as if it had been purchased recently.
“I haven’t thought about these in years,” Feldman exclaimed. “My mother used to make lemon drops from scratch. She boiled sugar and water and put in some cream of tartar until the candy was hard. Then she added lemon juice. Sometimes they would be sweet and sometimes they would be sour, depending on the batch.”
“Sounds tasty,” Daniel said.
He was holding the box. Slitting the plastic open with his nail, he offered the candy to Feldman. “Want one?”
“No, thanks,” Feldman said quickly.
“Are they trayf?
“Let me see.”
Feldman reached inside his breast pocket and pulled out a second pair of glasses. Squinting, he read what was written on the side of the package.
“No hechsher. I can’t eat these. Why don’t you keep them?”
“Sure thing,” Daniel said, stuffing the box into his back pocket.
“Why did the two of you lose touch?” Gail asked.
Feldman paused. “We had a big argument.”
“About what?”
“Who remembers? I can barely recall what I ate for lunch yesterday.”
“Could you . . . try to remember? It might be important.”
Feldman looked at her as if she had just asked him to swallow a frog.
“Important how?”
“I don’t know. This is a bit of a mystery to us. The box. Coming here. Do you have any idea why our father wanted you to have these things?”
She sized Feldman up. He looked uncomfortable. His smile was so fake, Gail thought it might break.
“You really don’t remember?” Gail prompted.
“I’ve already told you that, miss.”  
It seemed there was nothing more to say. They thanked Feldman again – for what exactly, Gail couldn’t be sure – and he offered his condolences again, and just like that, they were back outside, with the midday spring sunshine peeking through the trees.
“He remembers,” Gail said angrily. “He just doesn’t want to talk about it.”
She felt exhausted, cheated. Her father had kept a secret from her that she couldn’t solve. If she were at school, she would go on a break and sneak a cigarette, but she didn’t want Daniel to know she still smoked.
“We came all this way for nothing,” she said. “I guess you were right,”
“No biggie. ”
“We should have mailed the box, like you wanted to.”
“Forget it, Gail. Who the hell cares?”
“I do.”
“Well, it’s over and done with. Let’s move on, okay? Dad’s dead. And this guy’s not going to give us answers.”
“Fine. Let’s go.”
She marched to the car, with Daniel trailing behind her.
“You know, we’re not that far from the Nevele,” he said. “You want to drive by and take one last look? Save this trip from being a total loss.”
“Yeah. We can probably see some of the buildings from the road.”
She sighed. “Fine. But let’s make it quick. I want to beat rush hour traffic on the way back.”
Gail had watched the movie Dirty Dancing years ago and enjoyed it, but her experience of the Catskills bore no similarity to what the film portrayed. For one thing, she hadn’t been focused on boys at all. The waiters were all seventy years old not a Patrick Swayze among them and the sons of the other guests didn’t interest her either. She liked being out in nature, which was different from the outdoors in her suburban town – greener, cleaner. At night, the sky exploded with stars. Most of all, she was happy to be spending time with her parents away from their regular life. Up here, they fought less. She and Daniel always had the best times playing tetherball, practicing their non-existent golf swings on the putting green, making homemade ice cream in a wooden bucket.  
“Look, they still have the old sign,” Daniel said, pointing to a faded advertisement for the hotel. THE NEVELE, it announced, with the Es making those familiar squiggles that looked like bolts of lightning. Outdoor Ice-Skating Oct. to April. Giant Waikiki pool. And in the upper right-hand corner, a painting of two swells on the links.
“I heard they were going to turn it into a sports complex but the deal fell through,” Gail said. “I can’t believe it’s been vacant all these years.”
“Pull over for a sec,” Daniel said.
She parked on a grassy berm just past the entrance. They peered over at the property, but  couldn’t see much.
“There’s a hole in the fence,” Daniel said, pointing. “Let’s get out and take a look.”
“That’s trespassing.”
“No one’s around. C’mon.”
Reluctantly, she got out of the car and followed him over to the fence, which was about eight feet high, made of chain link. He was right. Something or someone had made a hole in it that a person could fit through.
Daniel went first and she trailed after him, thinking up excuses for when they got caught. We used to vacation here when we were little. We didn’t mean any harm. My brother made me do it. My father just died. Everything is upside down.
They walked around the complex slowly, taking it in. The buildings were in the same place, but they had all deteriorated. She felt like she was looking at a photograph that hadn’t aged well. There was the circular tower, which Gail had once considered the height of elegance, its stone façade now covered in grime, its walls laced with mold. The roof of the Social Hall had caved in and pigeons flew through broken panes of glass, carrying dead pine needles in their beaks for a nest. When she glanced through the window of a former guest room, she saw the floor was strewn with broken plaster, the furniture reduced to rubble.  
They sat by the old pool, which looked like someone had gouged the sides with a knife. The tiles around the edge had fallen off. Waist-high weeds sprouted from the bottom. To the east, rising reproachfully in the distance, were the Shawangunk Mountains. Better known as the Gunks.
“What was that about back there?” Gail said, for what felt like the umpteenth time.
They’d talked it over in the car and hadn’t figured anything out. She was hungry. Her neck hurt from driving. The beauty of the day – cheery sunshine, sparrows warbling in the trees, the solitude of the old hotel grounds – seemed to mock her unhappiness. She looked down at the ruined pool and was glad time had destroyed it.  
“Well, for starters the guy is clearly holding a grudge against Dad,” Daniel replied.
“Yeah, I know. There’s no love lost there. But what was Dad getting at? I mean, the pickup sticks and the photo were innocuous enough. What about the lemon drops?”
“Easy. Dad included them as a ‘screw you’ to his best pal from back in the day. He knew Feldman couldn’t eat the candy, not without a rabbinic seal of approval on the package. A religious Jew can’t touch anything that’s not kosher. It’s just like Dad to pull a stunt like that.”
“What?” Gail said sharply.
“He had a mean side. If he didn’t like something you said or did, he’d find a way to get back at you.”
She felt like she’d been slapped. “That’s not true. Dad was the kindest, most loving man. He’d never do anything spiteful.”
Daniel’s harsh laugh echoed off the tiles of the pool. 
“Sometimes I feel like you and I were raised in different families. You have such a lollipops and roses picture of what went on.”
“No, I don’t,” Gail countered, dismayed to hear herself whining. “You love putting a bad spin on everything. It’s how you justify moving to LA and blowing us off.”
Daniel leaned back and let out a low whistle. “Oh, come on. Dad was sexist. You have to admit that much. If you’d been a boy, he’d have wanted you to take over the hardware store. But since you were his darling girl, you were allowed to do whatever you wanted.”
The blood crept into Gail’s cheeks. “That’s not true.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Then how come I have a shitty job I hate?”
“I don’t know. That’s on you.”
“You spoil everything,” she said. “I’m not going to let you spoil my relationship with Dad.”
“I couldn’t if I wanted to. You’ve totally idealized the man.”
Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out the package of lemon drops. “Feldman didn’t want anything to do with this last ‘gift’ from Dad. But I’m starving.”
Daniel popped one of the candies into his mouth.
“They’re pretty tasty. Want one?”
Before she knew what came over her, she lunged at him and wrested the box away, hurling it into the depths of the pool where it was instantly swallowed by weeds.
“What the hell?” Daniel said.
She was breathing heavily, as if she’d just finished a race. “You shouldn’t have eaten a candy.”
Don’t cry, she told herself. Don’t cry over some stupid candy.
He was staring at her, and she looked away, towards the ruins of the tower. The mountains reared up behind them, as if they were watching, too.
“I didn’t mean anything,” he said softly. “I’ll go get them.”
He stood up and walked to the shallow end where the steps were crumbling to dust. The old metal handrail was still there, and he touched it gingerly, recoiling when he encountered a spider web. The sight of him entering the decaying pool, weeds blocking his way like a moat surrounding a castle, was comical. Laughter spilled from her lips. He tried to part the weeds, but it was futile. They sprang right up again. What lay beneath was impenetrable.
“Do you think there’s poison ivy in here?”
She laughed harder.
After about five minutes he gave up and returned to sit beside her, his legs dangling over the side of the pool.
She braced herself, then asked, “What happened to us?”  
“You know what I mean. We don’t talk anymore. You’re just killing time until you get back to your real life in LA.”
“You know what happened. When Mom died, there was nothing for me here. It was like you and him on one side and me on the other.”
“It wasn’t like that at all,” she said. “You ditched us. You decided to put as much distance between us as possible.”
“I felt like I needed to go somewhere new, where nobody expected anything from me, and I could start over from scratch. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that?”
 “Constantly. But wherever you go, there you are, right?”
She gazed at the sea of weeds, towards the place where she’d thrown the lemon drops. She had a sudden image of the two of them in this very pool, laughing and splashing each other, racing to the deep end and back.
“I want things to be different.” She hadn’t meant to say this out loud, but there it was.
He reached over and slung his arm around her awkwardly, before removing it. “Hey, it’ll be okay.”
He sounded sincere. His eyes, grey and almond-shaped, held a rarely glimpsed earnestness. She was struck by his resemblance to their father.
“Why do you think Dad wanted us to come up here?” she asked again. “Those lemon drops. He knew where the guy lived. He could have mailed them himself.”
Daniel lay back and gazed at the sky. She glanced up, too. The clouds were white and wispy, imprinting a sudden skid mark against the endless expanse of blue. 
“I don’t know. One final F-you to old Feldman.”
“But what’s the point?”
“Another practical joke. One last goose chase.”
They grew quiet again, but it was a companionable silence, lacking reproach.
Daniel was the first to break it. “If we were home right now, we’d be in separate rooms, doing separate stuff. I’d probably be on my laptop, working.”
“And I’d be eating Mrs. Fishbein’s brownies. They’re addictive.”
Clouds drifted over the mountains, bathing the two of them in purple shadow. The grounds still had the same smell: wildflowers, dirt, and pines. She paused to take it in.
“You know what I was thinking about?” he said. ”The summer when I ran away up here, and you came looking for me and decided to come, too.”
 Her mind travelled back: a Bingo game, her parents blaming each other because Daniel was gone, that pinch of anxiety in her throat as she frantically searched for him in the lobby, and behind the dining hall, and in the deep end of the pool. All the secrets they’d exchanged, all the plans they’d made. Sometimes it had felt like they were one person, connected by invisible strings. The relief when she finally found him hiding in the parking lot. Her decision to go anywhere with him, do anything, as long as they were together.  
She’d forgotten that. Now, she remembered. 


Copyright © Beth Sherman 2024 

Beth Sherman has an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in Portland Review , Black Fox Literary Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, Sandy River Review, 100 Word Story, Fictive Dreams, Flash Boulevard, Sou’wester, and elsewhere. She is also a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who has written five mystery novels. She can be found on Twitter at @bsherm36.

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