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“Red Maples” by Paul Ilechko

A crimson mist, shading to pinkish-brown, burnished the tips of the red maple trees, but otherwise it was still late winter drab as Andrew pulled into the development. The only other splash of color to be seen was the bright gold of a few straggling forsythia bushes, forlornly scattered along the edge of the woods that marked the property line - the border where the new development’s grandiose houses, almost mansion-like in their blocky immensity, squatting like giant toads on their two acre lots, backed onto the more modest housing that lined the through-road. As he drove past the Garretts’ house, he could see a figure peering out of the window. It would be old Mr. Garrett, the father of Jessica. Doctor Garrett – Jessica – was a lovely woman, a pediatric surgeon who had never married, had no children of her own. Her father, however, was an oddball. He never left the house, as far as Andrew could tell, but could frequently be seen staring out. It was not clear what, if anything, he was watching or waiting for. There was definitely something a little disturbing about him.

Andrew turned into his driveway, and pushed the button that opened the leftmost garage door. It was a three-car garage, but a third of it was full of the kids’ junk – bicycles, sporting equipment and so on – as well as his gardening tools. The door to that section was never opened. The other two bays were used by Andrew and his wife to park their vehicles. What would happen when Mike, his eldest, got a car, he didn’t know. That was coming up soon; he didn’t like to think about it. The idea of his children being old enough to drive was not something that he was ready to accept. He was almost fifty, and wasn’t ready to accept that either.

He parked inside, and walked back to the garage door, gazing out into his yard. It was a warm day for the end of March, even though it had been raining for the last three days. He looked at his garden in distaste. They had spent thousands of dollars, and this was what they had to show for it? Of course, he couldn’t blame the landscapers; they had done a good job, exactly what their plans had shown. The problem was the rawness that was inherent in a new development. It had been carved out of former farmland a mere five years ago, land that had gone badly to seed. The trees that surrounded the little neighborhood on all sides were mature, but the ones planted by the builders, and by the new owners, were just saplings, and looked much scrawnier bare than they did when full of summer leaves. The lawns were struggling still, weedy and thin in the clay soil of the region, and a dirty straw color at this time of year. Some of his neighbors still had bright orange stakes lining their driveways, although it was unlikely that there would be any more heavy snow. Another three weeks or so and everything would look different – the grass would be green, especially with all this rain; the pear, cherry and magnolia trees would be taking their turns to blossom, and daffodils would be blooming in the edges. Spring – his favorite season, something to look forward to. ‘Time to get the bicycles serviced,’ he thought to himself.

“She’s going to be fine,” said Jessica. “She’s feeling a bit groggy still from the anesthesia, and she’s going to be in a little pain when that passes. I’m writing you a prescription for something a little stronger than the over the counter medication that you already have, but don’t give her more than she needs, and please not more than three times a day. I will want to see you here again for a checkup in a week, so make an appointment at the desk on your way out. Someone will be calling you tomorrow to make sure that she’s doing well, and there are no problems with the incision. I don’t think that there will be, it was a nice clean cut and everything looks as good as it can be.”

“Thank you, Dr. Garrett,” said Mrs. Lee. “Have a happy Easter.”

Jessica was stunned. She hadn’t even realized – it had crept up on her unawares. Yes, it was this weekend. She’d been so busy the last two weeks. Dr. Foster had disappeared for his annual trip to Hawaii, leaving her and Bob Gatti to cope by themselves. In order to keep up with the appointments the schedule was compressed, leaving her feeling harried and stressed out by the end of the day. Then, of course, once she did get home she had to deal with her father.

She stood up, tucked her elbows into her sides, and pushed her shoulders back, leaning hard to stretch out her spine. She walked over to the window. It was still raining, just like it had been all week. Thick, heavy cumulonimbus clouds marched past, darkening the sky. The lights had been on in every room of the little surgery all day. There was a soft tap at the door, and Jessica turned.

“Last patient of the day, Jess. Mr. Warren is with Bobby in room two for his checkup.”

“Thanks, Lizzie.” Jessica sighed briefly to herself, then ambled out into the corridor, stopping to pick up the chart.

“Sushila,” called Mrs. Sivachandran, “what are you doing? I called you ten minutes ago and still you are not coming down, what is wrong with you, girl?”

“I’m just finishing this chapter. It’s very exciting, Count Olaf has caught Violet, and Klaus has to rescue her.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about, child, but I need you immediately.”

Sushila groaned, put down her book, and clomped noisily downstairs. “What is it?” she asked in an exasperated voice, expertly copied from the one that her mother frequently used with her and her two elder siblings.

“I don’t have any honey, I need you to go and see if you can borrow some. Try the Ryans, or maybe the Wangs. Put on your boots and hat, otherwise you’ll get soaked. I don’t want you catching a cold, and spoiling everything for your sister’s birthday party.”

“I’m sure that Lakshmi will find a way to spoil her own birthday,” murmured Sushila.

“Don’t be so mean, child. Now go, hurry.”

Sushila stepped out of the front door. The houses here were so far apart, it was such a long walk to visit anyone else. She loved it when they visited family in India, where everyone lived so close together, piled up all higgledy-piggledy on top of each other. All the women chatted, and shopped together, and drank tea, and the children played their intense foreign games in the streets and alleys. How she missed that life when they returned home.

She trudged down the sidewalk to the driveway and walked out to the street. She would try the Ryans first, they were right next door. Mr Ryan answered the door. “Hello, Sushila. Have you come for Agnes? She isn’t home from school yet.”

“No, my mother sent me. Do you have any honey? She’s cooking and she needs some.”

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t buy it. Susan - Mrs. Ryan - is allergic to it. Perhaps the Wangs might have some, or the Ashburys.”

Sushila walked back down to the street. She didn’t want to walk all the way around to the Ashburys’ house in this rain, and she wasn’t talking to Lily Wang after what happened at school yesterday. She looked directly across the street at the beige stucco house. Maybe the Garretts would have some. Dr. Garrett was nice, even if her father was a little creepy. She headed up the driveway, stopping to splash in a large puddle.

Mr. Garrett was watching the rain, as he had been watching it for three days now. He was pleased with the rain; it was a sign, a sign that the Lord was finally making his move. “And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth,” he muttered to himself.

He knew that the earth was as corrupt now as it had ever been, even to the time of Noah. His daughter, Jessica, had taught him how to use the computer. She had shown him a program called ‘Google’ that let him find information. He had used it to search for proof, and had found it in vast quantities. Jessica had been upset. Somehow the computer had told her what he had looked at – he didn’t understand how that was possible, it was only a box of plastic and metal – and she accused him of viewing pornography. He wanted to explain to her that he didn’t do it for pleasure, that he only did it for confirmation of the fact that mankind was sinking into sin and despair, but how do you talk to your own daughter about such things? He kept quiet.

He didn’t use the computer anymore; she had changed something, and now it asked him if he had forgotten his password. He didn’t really know what that meant, but it didn’t matter. He called the computer Jezebel, that ‘which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication.’ He would have liked to destroy it. He regarded it as an agent of Babylon, one that ‘made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication’, but not yet, not yet. The time would come, and he felt that it was going to be very soon. In his bones he knew, and the rain only confirmed it for him.

There were other signs that this was the end of times. He had begun to see animals and birds in pairs. ‘Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.’ They were not coming to him yet, not exactly, but he was seeing them. He had seen two white tailed deer, two squirrels, two groundhogs. He had even seen two foxes together, something that he had never seen in all his years living in the area. This very morning a pair of crows had landed on his roof and then, cawing, had flown down to perch on his neighbor Ryan’s trash container. Later, two blue jays had flown from the woods and perched in the young red maple trees in front of this house -- his daughter’s house.

In Revelations it is written ‘Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.’ Mr. Garrett had read this many times, and had come to the conclusion that the second coming would be ushered in by another storm, like in the time of Noah. He believed that he would be saved, and this house would, metaphorically speaking, be his ark. He was ready to meet his savior.

He looked out of the window again, and saw a young girl coming up the driveway, through the rain. She was dark skinned, and was wearing a yellow slicker and a baseball cap, with big rubber boots on her feet. He wondered where the boy was; there should be two of them. The girl rang the bell. After hesitating for a minute, he went to the door, and opened it.

“Come in out of the rain, my dear,” said Mr. Garrett. “Where is the boy?”

“What boy? Do you mean my brother? He isn’t home from school yet.”

“No … never mind, come in, come in. It’s good that you are here.”

“Do you have any honey? My mother needs it, but she forgot to buy any from the store.”

“Honey? I don’t know, let me check. My daughter does all the shopping, you know. I don’t go out very often. Come and sit down while I look. Would you like something to drink? I’m sure that we have juice.”

“Do you have any Coke?” asked Sushila.

“No, I don’t think so … do you like Sprite?”

“That’s fine, thank you.”

Lily Wang was sitting in her bedroom, pretending to do homework. She was bored. Usually Sushila would come over after school, but today they were not talking. This was because of the stupid thing that happened yesterday at lunch time, that argument about who was supposed to get the last seat at Giselle and Amanda’s table. They don’t even like those girls; it’s all just about status. Lily understands that, and hates herself for wanting to be in with the cool crowd. Middle School is so hard. It seems to be different in High School - at least that’s what her brother says. Not that boys know anything, but Sushila’s sister, Lakshmi, says the same thing. She hopes that it’s true, although it’s hard to imagine girls like Giselle Cappelletti or Amanda Spenser ever changing.

She had seen Sushila go over to the Garretts’ house. That was odd, nobody ever visited them, and as Dr. Garrett had no children there didn’t seem to be any reason at all for Sushila to be there. She hadn’t seen her leave, but then, she hadn’t been watching all that closely. It was curious the way that the Garretts had planted those two trees right in front of their house, almost as though they wanted to hide behind them. Most people in the development were proud of their houses, and used elaborate walkways and plantings to set them off, make them look even more impressive. She looked at the reddish-brown spatterings among the tips of the branches; whether they were leaves or flowers she couldn’t say. The reminded her of the stains from her first period. That had been disturbing, but at the same time she was pleased that she had started; she knew that Sushila hadn’t yet, and it made her feel a little superior to her friend. She turned back to her school books with a sigh.

When the phone rang, Andrew was preparing dinner. He turned down the heat under the skillet and picked it up. It was Mrs. Sivachandran. Yes, Sushila had been over; no, he didn’t know for sure where she had gone next, but he thought it was probably to the Wangs.

“Who was that on the phone,” called Susan from upstairs. She had just got home with the children, and was changing into her sweats.

“Divya Sivachandran,” replied Andrew. “She doesn’t seem to know where Sushila is. I told you, she stopped by here looking for honey, about twenty minutes ago.”

“She’s probably playing with Lily. You know what those two are like.”

“Right, that’s what I thought too.”

“How much longer until dinner is ready?”

“Another ten, fifteen minutes.”

“Great, I’m starving.”

Sushila was getting sleepy. Mr. Garrett was going on and on about something, but she’d pretty much stopped listening to him. It was something to do with his religion. It had all started when she’d let on that she was in a hurry to get home and get back to her book. He’d asked her if she had ever read the Bible, and she’d told him that no, they were Hindus; it wasn’t a book that they read. He’d started going on about Jesus Christ, and she’d had to admit that she really didn’t know anything about him. He’d asked her something about God, and she’d told him that they had lots of gods – Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesh the elephant god, Hanuman the monkey god and so on. Mr. Garrett had started on about how there could only be one God, and he’d begun reading to her from his bible. After that he got to talking about the rain, and how God was coming down to earth again soon and would destroy the unbelievers and the evil-doers and purify the world with flood and fire. He really was strange, but she didn’t feel at all threatened by him; he seemed to be completely harmless. She tucked her feet up under her on the sofa, and closed her eyes.

Jessica was finally leaving work. She was later than had she planned to be, and now she was worried about her father. It was unlikely that he had fixed himself anything to eat. If it wasn’t for him, she would have picked up some takeout on the way home – Chinese, perhaps, or maybe a curry. But Dad wouldn’t eat that stuff, so she was stuck having to go home and prepare dinner, no matter how tired she was. Her freezer was stuffed with the burgers and pizzas that made up his diet. She loved him, but dealing with him was becoming such a chore. It would really be better if he were willing to go and live in a home, somewhere where they had the time and energy and training to deal with people in his condition.

The basic tasks of living seemed to be getting more and more difficult for him. He was often confused, and responded to any attempt at conversation by quoting the bible. Quite how he reconciled his religious tendencies with his recent interest in pornography was a mystery, and one that she had little desire to dig into. She had discovered that particular fetish when she started to get pop-ups in her browser. After a little scouring around she had found the history function. She had been shocked at the things that her father had been looking for, but when she tried to confront him, he had refused to say anything, so she had added the password without telling him. He hadn’t asked her about it, and presumably he knew why she had done it.

She thought back to the time when her mother was still alive. Back then, her father had been a heavy drinker. Well, more than that, he’d been an alcoholic, although no one said so at the time. He worked as a salesman, and as soon as he got home, he would pour himself a drink. That would be the first of many. Her parents were always fighting in those days. In truth, her father had been abusive. Primarily this was expressed verbally, but sometimes her mother got knocked about. Not that her father ever deliberately hit her, but he was a big, heavy man when he was younger, and clumsy when drunk. He would push her in his frustration, or bump into her accidentally, and she would end up on the floor, sometimes banging her head on the furniture. Jessica remembered being about ten years old, hiding in her bedroom and crying, wishing her big brother would come home from the university.

After his wife died from cancer, her father had completely changed. He’d joined AA and gone stone cold sober. Jessica didn’t expect it to stick, but it had. This was right after she had finished medical school and started her first internship. The sober part was good, but the old man had also got into religion in a big way. Over the next few years, he seemed to sink ever deeper into a hazy world of his own, where nothing could reach him except for the words of his bible. He’d stopped working, living off the insurance proceeds from his wife’s death. Gradually he’d left his house less and less. He didn’t clean up, he hardly ate anything. He didn’t pay his bills, so his utilities were cut off.

Jessica had seen how badly things were deteriorating, and had realized that she had to do something. By this time, she had joined the practice and was making good money. She bought this new house and made him move in with her, so that she could keep an eye on him – at a minimum she could make sure that he was clean, and ate at least one good meal a day. The former big man was now all skin and bones – he probably weighed less than she did.

Mrs. Sivachandran was frantic. There was still no sign of Sushila. She had called all the likely neighbors, but no one else had seen her, other than Andrew Ryan. The child had been gone now for almost an hour. She had tried to contact Gopal, but he was not available, he was in the operating room. Her husband was an anesthesiologist, and could hardly be interrupted mid-operation. She had taken out the car and driven around the development and the surrounding areas, and had sent Lakshmi and Arindam out to search on foot. She’d tried to call Sushila’s cellphone, but it was upstairs in the girl’s bedroom, she heard it playing the familiar fragment of song. There was nothing to do but call the police. They arrived quickly, two cars with flashing lights parking in the street in front of her house.

Mr. Garrett woke up with a start. It was almost dark in the house. He heard voices coming from the family room. He staggered over there, and found the TV on. He picked up the remote from the coffee table where it always sat, and clicked the set off. As he walked away it came back on again. He turned back, and stood watching the screen. Was this some kind of sign? It was some type of talk show. He didn’t understand what the people were raving about, as they yelled at each other and gesticulated wildly. He shook his head and turned it off again. He paused for a few minutes, but it didn’t come back on this time.

Then he remembered the girl. Had she turned the TV on? He walked back to the living room. She was there, asleep on the couch. For a minute he thought to wake her, but she looked so peaceful. All that was missing was the boy. He jerked in anguish – what if the boy had come while he was asleep? Well, it was too late now to worry about that. As he stood there, hesitating, Sushila opened her eyes and looked at him.

“Where am I?” she muttered, hoarsely.

“Everything is all right,” said Mr. Garrett. “You just fell asleep. You can leave whenever you want.”

“OK.” She closed her eyes and went back to sleep. Mr. Garrett stood looking at her for a minute, disconcerted. Something niggled in the back of his mind. Should he have sent her home? But why? Wasn’t there a reason why she had turned up here, right now? He hurried into his study, turning on the desk lamp and picking up his bible. ‘And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.’

Yes, it was clear that the child was a sign. Perhaps there was only to be the one? But no, there had to be two, otherwise nothing made sense. Not with all this rain. The boy would come, he was confident of it. God would not let him down. He saw lights flashing out of the study window. He walked over and looked out. Police cars – two of them, parking almost directly across from him. Strange. What could this mean? It didn’t really matter; when it all came down to it, they were just as much doomed to destruction as everyone else, and all of their lights and sirens would make not an iota of difference when the time was right.

Lily Wang saw the police lights, and came downstairs. She was hungry anyway. There was no one in the kitchen – she’d seen her mother and father out in the street, talking to Mrs. Sivachandran and the officers. She grabbed a box of cookies and extracted three of them, cramming them guiltily into her mouth and eating quickly. Her mother hated for her to eat before dinner, but it looked like dinner would be late today. She walked into the family room and turned on the big flat screen TV that her father had finally bought, after all of her endless nagging. It had been totally unfair when Sushila had one and she didn’t. She heard the front door open and close again. Her father walked into the room. “Have you finished your homework, Lily?” he asked.

“Almost, Daddy.”

“What is the rule about TV before finishing homework?”

“Don’t be so unfair,” she burst out, exasperated. “I needed a break, and anyway, I’m hungry. Why is mommy not cooking dinner? What’s going on with the police, why is she out there with Mrs. Sivachandran?”

“Sushila is missing; they are here to help look for her.”

“Sushila? But I saw her, not long ago; she went into the Garrett’s house.”

He father stared. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, I saw her out of my bedroom window.”

“Come on, you need to tell the police exactly what you saw.” He took her by the hand and they went out into the street.

Jessica turned onto Viburnum Road; she would finally be home in a couple of minutes. She had needed to stop in at the big supermarket on the way home, and it had been even more crowded than usual. Now it was almost dark. The good news was that the days were definitely getting longer – even a week ago it would have been pitch black by this time. She veered towards the edge of the narrow road to avoid an oncoming SUV that was hogging the center line. ‘Idiot,’ she thought to herself.

When the doorbell rang, Mr. Garrett thought for sure that it must be the boy this time. As a result, he was highly disappointed to open the door to three police officers, one of them a woman.

“Good evening, sir,” began the first officer. “We are looking for Sushila Sivachandran and have reason to believe that she may have visited your house this evening. Can you confirm that for us?”

“The boy,” said Mr. Garrett. “Where is the boy? Is he lost?”

“What boy, sir? It’s a girl that we’re looking for.”

“Yes, yes, I know about the girl, but where’s the boy?”

“Have you seen the girl, sir?”

“Jesus said suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to step aside.”

The two male officers eased Mr. Garrett out of the way, and the policewoman slipped past him.

“She’s here, she seems to be unconscious.”

“Right. Turn around, you.”

Mr. Garrett looked blankly at the officers. The taller one spun him around and quickly placed a pair of handcuffs on his wrists. They led him outside. The rain was still falling, but very lightly, not much more than a gentle mist. Mr. Garrett looked up into the cloudy darkness. He started to intone: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

“Alright, that’s enough of that.” The taller officer pushed him roughly in the back as they walked down the path towards the driveway. “Fucking hypocrite, babbling on about God while you’re abusing young girls. Just wait till we get you inside and they find out what you did. You’re going to be sorry.”

Jessica saw the flashing lights the instant she turned the corner. She stopped by the curb at the end of her drive and got out of the car. Two police cars were there, and an officer was talking to Divya and Carol Wang. As she stood, hesitating for an instant, an ambulance came tearing round the corner from Viburnum, alarm blaring, and stopped next to the police cars. Several white coated paramedics and EMTs jumped out and were pointed by the officer to her house. Jessica’s heart dropped. Something must have happened to her father. She hurried up the driveway after them, but before she reached the house he appeared around the corner, accompanied by two officers. He looked blankly at her.

“Dad, are you alright?”

“Of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female.”

“Be quiet, you” said one of the policemen. That was when Jessica realized that her father was handcuffed.

“What’s going on?” she said, but the officers had moved on and refused to look at her. She continued around the corner, just in time to see Sushila come out of the house, with a policewoman holding her hand. The emergency technicians were hovering around, trying to look necessary. The policewoman handed the girl over to the paramedic and walked over to Jessica.

“Karen. What happened?”

“Hello, Dr. Garrett. We don’t know yet. The girl was reported missing. We found her on your sofa, either asleep or unconscious. She seems to be OK, there’s no obvious sign of trauma. We won’t know what happened until we get her to the hospital.”

“My God!”

Jessica stood at the corner of the garage. She watched as her father was pushed into the back of one of the police cars and driven off. She saw Sushila hug her mother, and then the two of them were ushered into the ambulance, which also left. The other neighbors walked back towards their homes. Jessica went indoors. She sat in her study and looked at the computer. Was that what started it? Was it the pictures, the pornography, was that what turned the old man’s head? But surely not to the point where he would try to abuse a young girl?

She called her brother, the lawyer. He had cut all ties with his father many years ago, back when their mother died, but he agreed to go over to the police station.

“Call me when you know anything, OK?”

“Ok Jess. But, you know, I’m doing this for you. He’s only getting what he’s had coming to him for thirty years.”

“Don’t say that, Steve. We don’t know anything about what really happened yet.”

Jessica walked up to the front door, opened it, and stepped outside. It had turned chilly, and she shivered. It was no longer raining, and it seemed like it was going to be a clear night; there were already stars visible between the diminishing cloud cover. She could make out Orion, and what looked like the handle of the Big Dipper. Across the street, the lights were on in the Sivachandrans’ home, although most of their house was obscured from where she stood by the maples growing in her front yard. She sighed, and turned back toward the house. She suddenly felt hungry.

“Jessica, are you OK?”

She turned. Andrew appeared out of the shadows between the slender trees. “We were worried about you. I’m sure that it’s all been a misunderstanding.”

“It doesn’t really matter, Andrew. He’s not coming back here.”

“What do you mean? Sushila is fine; she didn’t want to get into the ambulance. She told her mother that she just fell asleep.”

“No Andrew, you don’t understand. I don’t want him back here. I’m tired, I’m just so tired. I’m thirty-seven years old, you know? Don’t I deserve a life of my own? It’s not too late, is it? Andrew, is it?”

“No, Jessica. It’s not too late.” He watched her as she stood there, her feet shuffling slightly as her body twisted and stretched, almost as if she were straining towards the light. There were tears in her eyes, and a look on her face that seemed to be somewhere between horror and desperation. He wanted to say something more, but knew that whatever he said would be the wrong thing. He felt a sudden urge to hold her close to him, and took half a step in her direction before he paused, frozen in place.

“I have to go now.” She turned and ran into the house. Andrew watched for a few minutes, then walked back through the trees and across the darkening lawn towards his own home, where his wife and children waited for him.

Paul Ilechko is a British/American writer. Born in South Yorkshire, he now lives with his partner in Lambertville, NJ. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including The Night Heron Barks, Louisiana Literature, Iron Horse Literary Review, Sleet Magazine, and The Inflectionist Review. His first album, "Meeting Points", was released in 2021.

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