Gossamer Page 4

"But I remember it. I could handle an eight-year-old girl, even one who had bad habits. We'd make rules. Not harsh ones. Just some simple rules, about bedtime, and homework, and helping around the house.

"My mother did that. Of course, in those days there were punishments that we wouldn't use now. Sometimes a switching. More often, up to my room, no supper, no reading—

"I suppose these days it would be no TV. I wonder if a little girl would mind too much that we don't have a television, Toby. I suppose I could get a small one but we'd have some strict rules about watching.

"Of course, it would be only for a few weeks. A child can do without television for a few weeks. We'd read a lot, I expect."

The woman glanced down at the dog and smiled. He was sound asleep. "I'm talking to myself. Again."

She took her teacup to the sink and began to wash the few dishes that were there. "Bird feeder needs filling," she said, looking through the window to the place where it hung from a low branch of the gnarled apple tree.

"I could ask the boy to do something like that. It could be one of his chores."

Carefully she dried the cup and saucer and replaced them in the cupboard. She washed the spoon.

"I wonder why they describe him as angry. What does an eight-year-old have to be angry about?"

She folded the linen towel in half and hung it neatly over the handle of the oven door. "Time for our walk, Toby!" The dog lifted his head and then rose eagerly at the sound of the familiar word. He went and stood beside her, waiting for the leash, which she had taken from the hook where it hung.

"His name is John," she told the dog as she leaned down to fasten the leash to his collar. "He's an angry little boy named John, and we must be very patient with him. He'll be here Friday."


In the Heap, Littlest One, half asleep, heard one of the older dream-givers make his way to the place where Thin Elderly was dozing. She could hear them talking softly and perceived that the conversation was about her. "She'll be fine," Thin Elderly replied to a murmured question. "She's clever. It's just her curiosity that interferes. But curiosity's a good thing, actually."

It had been a fairly easy night. Most nights were easy, she found, now that she had gotten the hang of it. They went about, collecting fragments by touching; she was good at that and enjoyed it. And Thin Elderly, now that he was in charge instead of Fastidious, had found untouched places: the dishes, for example. Fastidious had never once touched dishes.

The woman's dishes, which had come to her from her own mother, were filled with important and meaningful fragments. Touching, Littlest could perceive all sorts of things: a child (the woman, probably, though it was hard to tell for certain) sulking, seated alone at a table after everyone else had gone. Refusing to eat something. Carrots, Littlest thought. It was a sweet memory, despite the sulking, because the child's mother, she perceived, had eventually taken the hated carrots away with a smile. With her gentlest touch, Littlest collected the child's petulant sulk, the woman's forgiving smile, a bib with an embroidered rabbit, and even the hand-painted flowers on a small blue plate. It would make a lovely dream, Littlest thought; she could combine it with the kitten she had collected from an old photograph, and perhaps some remembered music that she had found in the piano.


In a somewhat distant place, in another Heap, a drowsy young dream-giver named Strapping was also thinking about dishes he had touched during his evening's mission. Strapping's territory, assigned as a kind of punishment, actually, because he had not been quite attentive enough to his duties, was an apartment on the first floor of a dilapidated house that stood unattractively in a yard thick with weeds and cluttered with discarded, forgotten things. It was not a good assignment, not a location that lent itself to happy dreaming, and he had groaned when he received it. But they told him that he would be promoted out of it after a while if he learned to work diligently and without complaint.

To his surprise, though, he had become oddly fond of the unkempt apartment and its unhappy occupant, a thin, sad woman who lived there alone and lit one cigarette from the end of the previous one. During his night visits he searched for pleasant fragments to touch and had found them, to his own surprise, in a folded sweater, a book left open, a broken seashell on a shelf, a badly framed snapshot of a small boy with a chipped front tooth. He brought those things to her, the memories they held, and gave them to her in dreams. Now and then she smiled in her sleep and he felt that he had done a tiny, invisible good deed.

Strapping had been surprised by the dishes, for he had been taught that dishes are thick with touchable fragments of happiness: pieces of birthday parties, holiday meals, families gathered at tables. But the woman's dishes, unmatched, stacked at random on an open shelf in her shabby, unclean kitchen, held only fragments of regret and sorrow. He found fear there, as well, for although the dishes he touched that night had been whole, they still contained fear fragments that involved smashing and breakage, tears and threats. No good dreams there. It was the stuff of nightmares, and he had finally turned away and left the kitchen, fluttering back to the small living area with its threadbare, filthy rug, the butt-cluttered ashtrays, and the outdated TV Guide on a table ringed with stains. An empty beer bottle stood on the table beside a half-eaten sandwich, but Strapping ignored those things.

He went once again to the painted shelf on the wall, to the seashell displayed there. It was the one object that he enjoyed the most, for touching it brought a breeze shot through with sunshine, the tangy whiff of salt, a child's laughter pealing across the breeze, and cool foam on bare feet sinking into their own outline in gritty sand at the ocean's edge. Collecting all of that at once was weighty. But Strapping was strong. He touched the shell, smoothing his touch around its perimeter, gathering the fragments to bestow the woman once again with the dream she loved and needed most.

This time, when he felt the shell, he felt too the sand-smudged hand of the child who had picked it up. He felt the warm lint-lined pocket of the boy's shorts as he placed the seashell there with others he had collected. Strapping gathered those things for the dream, so many things that he became heavy with them and had to move slowly to the room where the young woman slept.

As he leaned to breathe the dream into her, and felt the fragments—sand, sun, shell, foam, feet, pocket, salt, smile, all of them—begin their slide of transfer, the slide that would culminate in the barely perceptible burst of sparkles, he perceived, and added, the name of the boy. He was John.

Strapping fluttered back to watch her receive the dream. It was the part he enjoyed most, seeing the effect, the smile in the sleep, the happy sigh. It made him aware of how important his work was.

Tonight, upon receiving the dream, the young woman called out in her sleep, using the boy's name. "John!" she cried softly. She turned, her eyelids fluttering, and though Strapping could tell that she was basking in the dream and feeling the long-ago sun-filled day that he had brought back to her through the seashell, he sensed also that it had reminded her of a terrible loss.


He scowled when the woman called him Johnny. She held a paper in her hand, and he could see that his name was on it. His name was also printed in thick letters on a tag that flapped from the handle of his suitcase. JOHN. So why did the woman call him Johnny, a dumb nickname, a wimp name? He began to hate her for it. But he wouldn't let her know. He kept his face frozen, expressionless. He had mastered that. No one knew any of his feelings. He stared at the floor.

The social work lady was going over the paperwork with the woman. The woman would have to sign for him, as if he were a package from UPS—what a joke that was! The last people had signed for him too, and then returned him. Defective merchandise: you could always return that. Didn't fit. Wrong color. Missing parts.

Screw loose. Hah. Maybe that was his defect, the thing that got him sent back.

He had asked for Coke but the woman gave him lemonade. Holding the glass, he wandered into the next room, an ugly room with old-fashioned furniture and framed photographs of grouchy, old-fashioned people wearing stupid clothes. There was a man in a uniform, smiling, and the photo was tinted so the man's lips were pink, like a girl's. It wasn't even a good uniform like a Green Beret's or a Navy Seal's. John would be a Navy Seal if he could, someday. They swam carrying knives, then came to beaches at night and killed enemies there very silently before swimming away again. John wanted to do that.

There was a piano. Ruffled curtains, flowered wallpaper. He hated it all. And where was the television?

"Johnny!" It was the woman. He'd already forgotten her name, and didn't care. He wouldn't be here that long. He didn't need to call her anything. Especially if she kept calling him Johnny, not his name. He would call her Nothing. That would be her name. Hah.

He didn't reply.

He poked a key on the piano, a white one at the far end, and heard the high sound it made.

"Johnny?" she said again, and now she was in the doorway, looking at him. "The lemonade stays in the kitchen. It's just a rule I have, so things don't get spilled on the furniture or the piano."

Rule I have. Rule I have. Fine. He had rules, too. One was don't smile back, even if they smile at you, and she was smiling at him now. She reached for the glass and took it from him.

"Do you like the piano? I took lessons on this very same piano when I was your age. My mother had to nag me to practice, but I'm glad she did."

He poked a key at the other end, and the sound was deep.

"If you like, I could teach you while you're here. I used to give lessons. I still have some old books around."

John shrugged and turned away.

"Have you met Toby?" she asked.

Oh, great. Someone else? One place he'd been had four kids besides him. One kept twisting his arm when no one was looking, then called him crybaby.

Toby was a crybaby name. He looked over then, thinking that, and saw that it was a dog. Not even a real breed, not a rottweiler or pit bull or anything. Just a mutt.

He reached out toward it without thinking, but it backed away. It was scared of him. Good. He liked it when things were scared of him. It gave him power.

"Toby," the woman said to the dog, in a sweet, teasing voice, "be nice. Don't be scared. This is Johnny."

He glared at her. "John," he said fiercely.

"Oh. I'm sorry. Here, John," she said to him, and reached into the pocket of her apron. She gave him a bone-shaped biscuit. "He's not used to boys. It's just been the two of us. But give him that and he'll be your new best friend." Then she turned and took the lemonade glass to the kitchen. The social work lady was at the door, holding her briefcase and preparing the fake goodbye smile she always used when she left him someplace new. He didn't look at her.

He looked at the dog. It stared back at him with big brown eyes. He had not been at a house with a dog before.

John knelt. "Here," he said, and held the biscuit toward Toby. Nervously, tentatively, the dog leaned forward. Its ears were upright, alert, its eyes on John's hand holding the treat.

A pink tongue appeared. Just as the dog was about to take the biscuit, John pulled it away. He laughed harshly, and Toby looked confused.

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