Tribute: “StickyFeetTM” by Kit Reed
Kit Reed came into our lives two years ago, when F(r)iction was in its infancy. As a new—and very strange—publication, we were desperate for established authors to take a chance on us. We reached out to Scott O’Connor, one of our contributing editors, and asked if he could recommend any well-known writers who might have something a little weird up their sleeves.
Without hesitation, he sent us to Kit Reed.
And I’m so very glad he did. Within days, Kit sent us the weirdest thing we’ve ever published, a short story called “StickyFeetTM.” My first interaction with the story was watching Senior Editor, Leah Scott, read it beside me, her laughter ringing through our coffee shop. “Dani…this is…” More laughter. “I don’t know what it is…but it’s brilliant.”
Our entire team fell in love with that story and the zany and brilliant woman who wrote it. Kit and I worked on “StickyFeetTM” through a few drafts, and the process remains one of my favorite experiences as an editor.
Kit epitomizes everything we’d dreamed of championing with our journal, everything we hoped literature could be. She was fearless. She was stubborn. She was utterly delightful and warm and passionate. She also had the strongest opinions about syntax and formatting I had ever encountered—I spent hours trying to convince her to spell OK as “okay” (like most battles Kit waged, she emerged victorious).
Since that first story, Kit has always been there, shooting us quick emails about ideas she had for our journal. Sending other authors our way. Spending lazy afternoons pitching me comic stories and chatting about new books we loved.
In a time when most people thought we were crazy to make F(r)iction, Kit never ceased to be overwhelmingly supportive. But, more than that, she was always full-heartedly aflame with excitement. Even at the age of eighty-five, she wasn’t done being a trailblazer, and she sure as hell was going to make sure we kept up with her.
Yesterday, the literary community lost a beacon of innovation. From everyone over at F(r)iction and Tethered by Letters, our thoughts are with Kit’s family, with all the amazing people she’s touched. She will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.
It has been my honor to know Kit Reed, to work with her exceptional writing, to soak up her never-ending passion.
In tribute to this miraculous woman, we’ve republished “StickyFeetTM” for free, here online. If you find yourself missing her voice as much as I do, take a read. Remember the brilliant, zany, kind woman she’ll always be to us.
Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction
Pearl Dagnall doesn’t need somebody to love, and she’d tell you—if she ever talked to people offline—but interfacing is a problem for her. She has a limited tolerance for people in general, which is why she telecommutes. She has zero interest in romance with any of Facebook’s fabulous fifty-eight genders, and that’s the tip of the iceberg she has become. Friends, lovers, cars, clothes, furniture are just objects to Pearl. She doesn’t want anybody or anything at all.
It doesn’t account for the four-alarm phobia that keeps her indoors, but it explains a lot.
Gramma blames Pearl’s mother Roxana, that flighty girl, and yes, Gramma is watching from wherever she is now. One sunny April, poor old Sophia Dagnall’s daughter Roxy hooked up with some handsome, dirty boy and took off for L.A.; she didn’t even leave a note. That November she breezed back in, “Oh hi, Ma,” and set the fancy woven basket on a chair. Souvenir of Los Angeles, Gramma thought, until she saw little pink feet waving in the air. Slicker than a stork, that tramp dropped off her new baby and flew away.
She left her mother with a six-pack of Enfamil and a batch of Pampers to see her through; outside, some brand new boy with a broken muffler gunned his motor, rmmm rmmm RMMM, and heedless Roxy took off for wherever they went; she never calls, she doesn’t write, the little featherhead has terminal A.D.D.
No problem, Gramma and baby fell in love at first sight. What was that something-something of great price? Oh, right! Gramma named Roxy’s little castoff Pearl—lovely child! The baby took to her, and their first few years together were sweet. Calm. No upsets or arguments, nothing in the wind that would ruffle the child’s pretty hair.
Then Roxy dropped in.
Gramma’s daughter the stranger sat in their living room and squinted at the sweet child she’d pooped out as if by accident. If Gramma had hopes for a warm reunion and instant three-generation bonding, they flew out the window like panicked geese.
“Well.” The jangling stranger in Gramma’s tiny living room touched her mountain of maroon curls and smiled, sort of. “Want a kiss?”
Pearl filled up with things she couldn’t say.
Gramma moved Roxy to the door. Before she closed it she explained, “All she wants is to be left alone.”
Gramma thought brownies would make up for what happened, but there wasn’t enough chocolate in the world, so she gave Pearl her Christmas present six months early, anything to see her smile. The sweet little laptop jump-started Pearl’s career in computer engineering.
Until the thing with the parrot.
Pearl forgave her, but there are still nights when she wakes up screaming. The day they rolled Gramma’s flailing treasure onto a gurney and out of Trevor Hartsdale’s house, Sophia Dagnall moaned. “I thought it would be so nice!”
Pearl knows her Gramma meant well, but she was only six years old!
On her sixth birthday, Gramma breezed into the bedroom with Pearl’s favorite red apple dress and a new pair of Mary Janes. She practically sang! “Happy birthday, sweetheart. Your party is at Trevor’s house!”
This gave Pearl a bad feeling. “I don’t want to go out.”
“It’s your party!”
“I don’t want one. I want just us, with cake.”
Gramma’s voice got all smiley. “Uncle Trevor made his special cake.”
Pearl looked up from her keyboard. “Who?”
“He makes the best raisin cake!!” Gramma smiled and smiled, which made Pearl cross and anxious. Then she put three quarts of strawberries and three cans of Reddi-Wip in her California Indian basket—the child never knew why she called it “Pearlie’s basket”—and they got in the car. Gramma’s voice boiled up and bubbled over. “You’re going to love his house.”
Probably Gramma was starved for company, Pearl realizes now that the old darling is gone, and she grieves. Hard on anybody, living with reclusive old me. Back then he and Gramma would have been dating, and if she’d approved, he’d be her step-grandfather now. The two of them would be hanging out at Gramma’s house this very minute, because research proves that married people live longer, for better or for worse. Living alone as she does, she’s Googled it more than once.
So—Pearl’s heart falters because all she has left now is the cross-stitched sampler that Gramma made to look like the ones grandmothers made back in early America—so if the parrot hadn’t happened, Gramma would still be around.
Her breath catches. Riding along in the ambulance after Pearl’s Assault by Parrot, worse than a dog bite in so many ways, Gramma squeezed her hand, whispering, “Oh, sweetheart, I will make this up to you!”
Poor lady spent the rest of her life in this world on the project, because it really was her fault.
She stretched a great big canvas on an easel in the living room and spent months sketching the design she would cross-stitch to calm Pearl’s heart, and the longer she brooded, the more intricate it became. She drew corner devices of entwined vines and sprouting hearts like rosebuds. She worked hardest on the legend, framing it in a network of vines and rosebud hearts that unfurled like an illuminated scroll on a background of creamy white. Her sampler blossomed into a tapestry.
She would take more than a hundred thousand tiny stitches, understanding before the child did that she’d be all grown up and starting her own life before it was done. The empty future made Gramma tremble, but Pearl didn’t have to know.
She finished the week before Pearl graduated with high honors and landed her first job. Her project had blossomed into a work of art. She gave the framer a rich canvas the size of a small throw rug, with detailed instructions for a hand-turned ebony frame, spare no expense.
“Take your time,” she added, because Pearl was still picking out furniture for her first apartment, a little condo across town. “Take your time.”
The tapestry came to Pearl’s new place by FedEx the day after Gramma died. She’d checked the No Signature Requested box, because Pearl hated, hated things that made you have to interface with people you don’t know. Like knowing that when you open your front door you’re supposed to smile and pretend that you and the delivery person are friends until he finally goes away.
Pearl loved Gramma, and the sampler made it clear that in addition to loving her more, her grandmother totally got Pearl. Here in Pearl’s living room is the sum of her hopes, gorgeously presented. All Pearl Dagnall ever really wanted in life and can’t seem to find is:
Peace of Mind
Well, that and something to obliterate the constant reminder of disorder and early sorrow.
I was only six! That awful thing! Pearl can’t bring herself to say the word. Even thinking about that thing, all those things, thousands and millions of those things makes her break out in hives. And what is she so afraid of?
It was her birthday, but this not-really-her Uncle Trevor kidnapped it. He and Gramma trapped her inside that great big awful house. It was too big and too dark and it smelled funny. Besides, there was this rustling thing going on somewhere just out of sight, like invisible fingers creeping up the back of her neck.
She was too polite to say, I want to go home.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart.” Although they weren’t really related, Uncle Trevor gave Gramma the nicest hug before he bent down and kissed Pearl’s hand. He was trying to be nice, but he twinkled too hard. Still, with the white goatee and his bald spot, he looked like the wizard in a fairy story. Pearl tried; she did. She told herself, This isn’t so bad.
Then he said, “We’re having sandwiches and my raisin cake. Your Grammy just loves my special raisin cake.” Simper, simper. “Birdy does too.”
Pearl looked all around and all around, but it was only the three of them in the living room. Her jaw seized up. “Who?”
Gramma wasn’t scared; she twinkled too. “You’ll see.”
Then he went down the dark hall to the kitchen and after a long time he came back with poppers and paper party hats; Grammy was smiling, smiling when she put hers on. Pearl never liked things she didn’t know about, so she slipped hers behind the sofa cushion so he wouldn’t know.
With a ringmaster’s flair, he swept them into the great big dark dining room. “Now, meet my little girl.”
The thing was in a curly metal cage hanging from a curly stand. It looked OK. It wasn’t very big.
He almost bowed to it! “Pearly, meet Miss Birdy. Birdy, this is Miss Pearl.”
It was a little green parrot—from Colombia, this Uncle Trevor said, because he wanted to impress his girlfriend’s daughter—yes, Gramma pretended Pearl was hers and only hers. No woman wants her new man to think she’s old.
From here the thing looked harmless, although it had that judgmental birdy stare. It huff-huffed on its perch between the overloaded china closet and the dark green velvet curtains and Pearl almost, almost forgot it was there. After all, the cage.
“Oh Trevor, she’s so cute.” Gramma coached her. “Isn’t she cute, Pearl?” Nudge. Something was expected. “Isn’t she cute?”
Beady eyes, the thing had. Beady black eyes! Pearl didn’t know why it made her feel so bad. She managed, “Nuh-huh,” because it could have gone either way.
“They live forever, you know. Once you have one, she’s yours for life.” The old man’s face broke into a jigsaw puzzle that could have been a smile. No. It was a sparkle. “And Birdy’s last owner was a very old and beautiful, very famous Colombian water witch.”
“What’s a water witch?” But they weren’t listening. They were too busy sparkling back and forth at each other.
“It’s a wonderful story.”
“Oh,” Gramma said, following their host to the long, long table. Their places were set on either side of Uncle Trevor’s sort-of throne: finger sandwiches and baby carrots, and in a cut glass pitcher, what looked like lemonade. He showed Gramma to the chair on his left that was, she whispered to her grandchild, “the place of honor,” for reasons she explained later, but Pearl would be beyond explanations by then.
“I was on my way back from Machu Picchu, when…”
Would you please not pet her arm like that?
Gramma tilted her head, smiling. “I can’t wait to hear!”
He picked Pearl up and plopped her into the chair on his right. Meanwhile, that thing was hopping around inside its cage. He took a deep breath and, like the emcee of a very great TV show, he began. “Well…”
Pearl has no memory of the story or the finger sandwiches they ate and very little of what happened between “Well…” and the disaster, which drove everything out of her mind to make room for the terror that swooped down on her that afternoon and gripped her heart in its claws, the terror that clutches her to this day.
Well, she does remember one part. It was revolting. How could she even pretend to forget? Smiley Trevor, the Uncle who was not to be, took his listeners on such a long ride up the Orinoco that his listeners froze, Gramma rapt and Pearl taut and apprehensive as he droned on. Facts, she supposes, but all she heard was blarg, blarg, blarg.
Her anxiety. What if there’s a quiz?
Thank God he finished. “And now, the cake!”
Gramma nudged her as he shuttled their empty plates into the pantry. “Well, what do you think?”
Dry swallows. “Nuh-huh.”
Then it happened. Just like in horror stories she would rather die than have to hear. It happened. On his way to the kitchen, Trevor flicked the latch on the cage. When he came back with his famous raisin cake, this Birdy thing hopped off its perch and onto its master’s shoulder, riding to the table—to the table—in state. He air-kissed it.
Trevor: “Sweet girl.”
Gramma nudged. “Isn’t she cute?”
Pearl couldn’t even. “Nnn.”
“And now for the main event!” Trevor shrugged Birdy off and it flapped in midair. Close. So very close. Pearl shuddered. Trevor clucked. “Now, you behave yourself while I cut the cake.”
It landed on his water goblet—Wow, that was close—and fixed its black eyes on Pearl, at least Pearl thought it did. It was looking everywhere at once. She minded her manners and swallowed that shriek. Neither of the old people knew. They were intent on call-me-uncle Trevor’s management of his lovely cake. Rum butter sauce. Fat raisins like candy, waiting to be mined.
OK, Pearl thought. OK OK OK Oh Kayyyy… It might be OK. Cake. As long as that Birdy thing stays put. “Thanks, it was very good, Mr.” Then we go home, and never come over again and never, ever invite him back.
It sat on the edge of his goblet, regarding her. No. It was eyeing the cake. Then, my God! Never-my-uncle Trevor picked a plump raisin out of the top of the loaf and popped it into his mouth.
The trouble was, old Trevor didn’t swallow the sticky thing, he just mouthed off the crumbs, rolling it over and over in his spit. For that awful thing, she realized, because the next thing he did was a sort of a cluck-cluck-pooch that put the raisin halfway in, halfway out of his wet lips. Pearl did what she could. Pursed lips, she told herself over and over. Those are pursed lips.
Then he made a fist and that thing hopped onto his knuckles and I had to watch while it ate half of the saliva raisin right out of his wet pink mouth and pecked the crumbs off his fat wet lips while he swallowed the rest!
“Gramma, I have to go to the…”
“I said, not now!”
It might have been all right, all that regurgitating and feeding, if Birdy had left it at that, but Uncle Trevor was on a roll, murmuring to Gramma so sweet and low that Pearl couldn’t make out what he said, although looking back, she would always remember what he meant. He was done with feeding and Birdy flew off somewhere so at least there was that, and then, and then!
The weight landed on her head, malevolent and swift as death. When she tried to shake it off, it seized onto her unprotected scalp and its claws dug in. My God, my God!
Pearl did what you’d do. She screamed, never mind what.
It made Gramma yell, “Language!” but Pearl was beyond all that; Birdy was going to kill her and peck out her eyeballs and peck its way into her skull through the eye socket and peck away her living brain until it ran out of her ears!
In the end, Trevor called 911 and 911 sent a lady from Animal Control, along with four paramedics in an ambulance, which is how many it took to calm her down. In case you thought Birdy wasn’t dangerous, the lady from Animal Control put on goggles and a hat before she detached the thing from Pearl’s bleeding scalp. And gloves. Canvas gloves with long rubber cuffs she had, and never mind that not-my-uncle kept saying, “She’s harmless, she’s harmless.” Animal Control popped Birdy into a neat little cage and put that cage into the back of that truck and took Birdy away. To hell, Pearl hoped. To hell.
She saw it all from the stretcher right before they gave her the shot. Getting over it took weeks. Wrong. She never got over it. Of course Gramma took her to regular appointments with various shrinks from that day until she finished Junior College, which, winter and summer, meant Gramma drove her to the campus every morning rain or shine, producing Pearl’s slicker and rain hat with matching umbrella so it was safe to get out of the car.
Pearl was a frequent flier on magic carpets in the offices of more than a dozen of them. She went to therapists because Gramma wouldn’t give up on her. That was the only good thing that came out of Gramma’s death; Pearl went to therapists because Gramma couldn’t give up on her.
She doesn’t have to see anybody now except her accountant and her bosses at DataDomineers.com; win-win! When she leaves her place for the semiannual board meeting or a séance with Melvin, she wears a veiled crash helmet from her building to the essential closed car and when she goes into the office she pays the driver to wait in front until she comes out again. Yes, it’s expensive, but Pearl makes good money.
And the rest? Why leave the comfort and safety of home? Online, Pearl can get whatever she wants, everything from tonight’s dinner to the glam outfit she’d wear if she ever met a guy. She has needs, but satisfaction is out there where she can’t go, and the rest? Point and click and everything she wants arrives prepaid, No Signature Required. She doesn’t even have to use the phone. She doesn’t like talking to people, but after she moved in here she did explain the veiled crash helmet to the other tenants: “Brain injury.”
Which her phobia is, just an invisible one, eternally hollowing her out from the inside.
Pearl’s place is perfect for her: sweet little foyer, where she keeps her protective gear, pocket kitchen and bath in the long wall opposite the beautiful plate glass window in the central room. She’s done everything in beiges and shades of white, furnished in bleached wood with vanilla upholstery, and cream wall-to-wall carpeting that will stay cream because nobody comes here; she sees to that. The whites are all background for the vivid splash of Gramma’s tapestry, with its intricate vines and beautiful rosebuds and the legend worked in vivid variations of red. It hangs above her work station in its fine ebony frame, celebrating:
Peace of Mind
There’s a nice little balcony at the end of her studio apartment, too, so she can watch the seasons change without having to open the big front window above the convertible sofa or the sliding door, which she keeps locked.
For Pearl, it’s satori. Well, close. Except for missing Gramma, who promised to come to visit and would have, if she hadn’t died (she’d phone ahead so Pearl would know to buzz her in; they even had a special knock to obviate rude surprises). Except for the no-Gramma, life is safe and silent and on a scale of one to ten, Pearl tells herself it’s as good as it’s going to get, and everything’s fine.
Until she wakes up to a disruption on her balcony, the sudden whir of sound and movement of living things. Winged intruders, separated only by the thin wall and the plate glass window from the head of the sofa-bed where she sleeps. Them! This close to the spot where I lay my head! She has to put on her crash helmet before she’ll get to her knees and peer out through the blinds. Terrible. There are…There are…Things. Things out there on my window ledge.
Pigeons on her window ledge, puffing up their feathers and making pigeon noises as they peck at whatever blows in on the autumn wind. Berries, she supposes. Dead bugs. Raisins, softened by her own…Don’t go there. Pigeons foraging, dozens of them. Her entrails clench. There is a rustle and a flutter as another squadron lands. She draws the shade but she can hear them gathering, massed pigeons getting louder and louder. Foraging, she tells herself, but the rest comes in: They’ll eat anything, dead or alive. Like flying rats.
A familiar shudder runs through her.
Death by flying rats.
She retreats to her work station, the last safe place on earth. She opens a new window where birds never come, and searches preventives. Netting, expensive and never foolproof. Who would hang it, anyway? Me? No way! Encasing the balcony in plate glass. It would take heavy equipment. Work crews. Strangers tromping through my house.
All the solutions involve home invasions by workers with their tool kits and heavy boots. Boot tracks in her cream wall-to-wall carpet, mindless conversation, the clank of pliers and lunch boxes, MP3 players and…Their music. Another shudder. Pharrell and Taylor Swift.
It’s so much safer to consult her dear best friend that she’s never met, and although she has many in the virtual world, this one is special. She and Leo type to each other because PhobicsFirehouse.com is built on privacy. No given names, no images, no exchanges via IM or video call or Skype. She counts on charismatic Leo the Nameless at Phobics’ Firehouse for so many things. In cyberspace, she and Leo talk undistracted by physical details. They’re two great minds colliding, pure egos stroking each other with nothing physical getting in the way.
Pearl discovered the site in a long dark night of the soul. She logged on to deal with her phobia and Leo was the first friend she made; he told her his, and the conversation began. Now that they’ve gotten to know each other, they talk and talk even when they have no symptoms to talk about. It’s good for you, they remind each other on those long nights, just knowing that somebody out there feels your pain.
By this time, she and Leo have exchanged personal details, starting with last names. They’ve shared descriptions: age and body type, and moved on to loves, hates, and personal passions. His for Freudian psychiatry, and hers: code. They’ve exchanged everything but the telling selfie, because the new best friend that you can’t see is much, much more glamorous than the few you actually know, and Pearl?
She will always be lovely in Leo’s mind. He won’t have to adjust to this damn pudding face of mine, my clothes-rack shoulders and skinny arms. Their love is safe from disillusion and early sorrow, and if they linger in this state forever, fine. They find love in the ether because she’s trapped by her phobia, and he can’t go out.
Pearl lays it out for him. After the ten plagues of Egypt, up to and including the death of first-borns, come the pigeons. The eleventh plague. They remind each other of their limitations and she throws herself on his mercy. Her keyboard crackles as she types:
“How can I get these things off my porch without letting workers tramp through my house?”
They’ve hung together in space for so long that she tells him everything, because, shy as he is (“If we were in the same place I know I could talk to you, but I wouldn’t be able to look at you.”), in all things fear-related, Leo is her Lionheart. “Oh, sweetie,” he typed the first time she told him about That Thing’s claws closing on her young scalp and again, when she described her séances with a dozen shrinks. “You’re so-sooo much stronger than you think.”
Tonight he types, “Girl, hire somebody! You’re too strong to knuckle under to a batch of birds.”
“Not strong enough to let people in.”
God bless him, he doesn’t say, “Not even me?” Which, oddly, might have worked this time because in all these months typing to each other, they have become close. He says, “Well, here’s a product that might help.” He sends her the link.
She reads: StickyFeet™ entraps your bird; its cries warn off all comers.
She thinks about it, she does! Then she types, “But I’d have to go outside to paint it on the cement! That’s even worse than letting just anybody come in.” Part of her is thinking, Oh Leo, offer. All you have to do is offer. But Leo is an agoraphobe. Shortstopping his usual confession, she types, “And I can’t have that. I’m afraid of them.”
“People?” He pauses. Then, “Tell me you’re not afraid of people.”
Hastily, she corrects. “People I don’t know.”
They are moving toward something. “Like me?”
“Not you, Leo, you’re always welcome in my home. We’re best friends!”
More dead air. Leo is thinking. Finally he types, “I know a guy.”
“He’ll get rid of the pigeons?”
“Better. He’ll get rid of your phobia.”
Pearl does not type, “But you still have yours,” not even with a question mark. She waits.
More dead air. They are both thinking now.
After too long Leo types. “He won’t come to you.”
“So he hasn’t…”
“No.” Poor darling, you can’t go out.
Slower keystrokes. “You have to go out. Otherwise, he won’t take you on.”
Then when I’m cured, I’ll… She does not type, Come to you. She taps out, “No prob. Crash helmet, slicker, beekeeper’s veil. Closed car. I can get there, no prob!”
“Good. No. Great.”
Pearl’s driver lets her out under the porte-cochère of a glistening office tower. She has one hard moment, getting to the door, but once she gets inside, it’s all fine.
She doesn’t like people, but she’s not afraid of them. And she knows this doctor, or she thinks she does. Given her firm appointment for an office visit after this probationary period, they’ve been working together for three weeks. Via email exchanges, she laid it all out for him: the trauma, the fears, the fucking pigeons proliferating outside her fortress of calm. Nice man, he turned her mails around hourly, offering short-term solutions and working with her on survival tactics to keep her going until it was time for her to come in. Today, the treatments begin.
The doctor’s receptionist buzzes the office and waves her to the bank of elevators on her right. Her ride to the 48th floor is so smooth that it’s almost fun. The plaque next to the pebbled glass door reads T.C. Hartsdale, PhD. Phobiologist. The receptionist eyes Pearl’s battle gear and waves her toward the coat rack. She takes off the helmet, the veils, the slicker and, naked and unafraid in her best khaki safari gear and Italian leather boots, she turns to the boy at the desk.
He hits a buzzer. “The doctor will see you now.”
Nothing to fear now but fear itself. She grits her teeth and goes in. The doctor swivels his chair, so his back’s to her.
For effect, Pearl supposes. Meh.
Without turning he says, “I will only need to see you once, but when you go home you’ll have a list of required equipment as well as my detailed instructions. We will continue via email and if it’s urgent, we can Skype. I will talk you through the process, no matter how long it takes. We can exchange your daily progress reports for my notes and further instructions until you’re…” he borrows a term from Scientology. “Clear.”
“As in, when our mission is completed.”
Mission. “You mean, search and destroy?” She sees a gun turret on her balcony, bringing down her enemies in mid-flight. He knows!
“When my work here is done.”
He sounds so sympathetic, so rational, so… familiar.
The chair turns slowly, giving Pearl plenty of time to take it in, get a grip, do what’s needed. “Ms. Dagnall.”
“You!” So warm, so sympathetic, so him. Unchanged, apparently since the first day of her seventh year. Gramma’s lost love Trevor Whatever, here. She wheels, poised for flight.
She waits. “But!”
“Sweetheart, I’m so sorry for all the grief that Birdy caused, but you have to confront this phobia head-on. Surround yourself with that which you most fear and you will defeat it. Trust me.”
It is disturbing. “How?”
“By transforming it.” Long, rhetorical pause. Deep breath. Powerful explosion of words: “Then you will find Peace of Mind!”
The legend. In capital letters. A parallel life unfurls like a tapestry, Gramma, Trevor, happy together, safe in her imagination: they went on seeing each other after all. With an effort, she pulls herself back to real life. “Gramma told you, didn’t she?”
“It doesn’t matter who told me, Ms. Dagnall. I know, and I know that once you defeat your phobia your life will change. Now listen, and listen carefully.” Gramma’s sweetheart is magnetic, drawing Pearl in so skillfully that by the end of that long afternoon she understands what she has to do and, more important, she believes. This is so perfect. She has things to do. Simple steps. The right equipment. He has laid out a seductively orchestrated, definitive order of events. Perfect for Pearl’s sharp, orderly mind.
Do X right and of course you can make Y happen. Work for as long as it takes to assemble the elements and you will get Z. Trevor produces a crisp, orderly list and a sample bottle of the world’s most powerful anxiety-assuager which, he promises, always does the trick. Never-my-uncle Trevor is so sane and so helpful that in the end Pearl forgives him for that botched birthday party; she almost forgives him for Birdy, please God, tell me that thing is in its grave.
Nice man, really, too bad he and Grammy didn’t get together. No. Wait. They did, at least they did before the parrot thing. Too bad about how that came down, really; too bad about the masticated raisin that parrot and master shared on that awful day, too bad about that thing landing in my hair. The flashback starts her trembling. Maybe she can forgive him by the time she’s emptied this bottle of pills.
“You can do this,” he tells her, the general marshalling his troops. With some effort, he gets out of the chair and in cautious baby-steps, comes to hold the door for her as she leaves. At the end Pearl offers an arm to steady him. Are you all right? He twinkles a little bit as he hands her an envelope. “Here, Ms. Dagnall, take this. And when you’re a fully recovered phobic, when we both know you’re fully recovered, drop it in the mail and I’ll bury it for you.”
It’s an engraved note card with matching envelope, postage prepaid. The card features the Trevor-whatever family crest in gold, with five words in careful calligraphy centered below the emblem. By instinct or by accident or because he was with Gramma when she designed it, and Pearl will never know which, he’s aped the font in Gramma’s treasured tapestry:
No longer afraid of birds
On the way down to her car, she studies the to-do list. She can order most of the equipment: Grain, for bait. Carpenter’s spatula. Rubber gloves. A small power compressor. A dehydration unit the size of a dormitory pocket fridge. Builders’ cement. If she has to go out to score the rest, she’ll have the driver take her to Ace Hardware and keep the motor running while she shops for the rest. After all, she has protective gear. And the last thing she’ll need? At least—and Trevor’s note admits that the estimate is optimistic—a year’s supply of StickyFeet™. So in spite of the bad beginning, she and Trevor are allies now.
At least she won’t have to do this alone.
It’s sweet, really, how closely they are in touch. Emails while she scored what she needed and set to work installing the small machinery. Material for her little foyer; he sends her a link and the mail-order lumber yard delivers everything she needs to frame the walls she will raise; quick-drying silicone putty to keep the bricks in place. By this time, she and Trevor have taken to texting: faster, more immediate. She can send screenshots as the work goes on.
P: Good grief, Trevor, how long is this going to take?
T: Not as long as you think.
After initial Skype sessions, in which he goes over the steps with her and stands by while she dons protective gear and smears the balcony with a gallon of StickyFeet™, followed by the one in which he rejoices with her, “I told you they would come!” After the first reaping and after the Skype session in which she completes the next step to his satisfaction and lays the first row of bricks, he says proudly, “Brilliant, sweetheart. Well done! Now, next time you think you need me, just text.”
Squinting, she asks, “Are you all right?”
In the seconds before he disconnected, she could swear she saw his outlines blur.
As though he knew what she was thinking, he texted: AOK. Everything is AOK.
So Pearl proceeded on faith, clearing the mess off her balcony and sowing grain on the next batch of goo she spread to lure the next batch of pigeons, and they came in swarms, landing on her terrace in thicker and thicker droves, deader than doornails thanks to the secret ingredient she mixed in with the grain, and all the while she texted reports and Trevor texted responses.
P: So Trevor, look. My finished, very first wall!
T: I told you the compressor would work wonders. Were you afraid?
P: Why should I be scared? By the time I go out to harvest, they’re all stone dead.
T: Then my work here is almost done.
P: Dude, it’s gonna take me a year.
T: Worth it?
P: Well worth it. You OK?
It’s a long, tiresome process that involves hours of work, but the thing about pigeons is they’ll go anywhere for a good feed, never mind that it’s the last meal they will eat. Trevor is ever upbeat, ever encouraging, and in the absence of Trevor’s face-to-face online talks, she and Leo have advanced from typing to Skyping—she keeps her video on, but she honors his need for incoming, but no video going out. Meanwhile, she moves on methodically, framing up the last wall and the doorframe that separates the foyer from the rest of her apartment, building by day, coding by night. And in between activities, she and Leo the Nameless Skype, and they Skype. Their conversations get warmer and warmer. Finally she ventures:
“If you’re hideous or disfigured or something, I don’t care. I only care about what’s inside your head, OK?”
He chokes, but only a little bit. “It isn’t that. It’s. OK, the agoraphobia? If you want to know the truth, having to watch other people look at me pretty much creeps me out.”
Long pause. She says, “Even me?”
There is the unbearably long sound of Leo thinking. After a time he says with an effort, “I don’t think so.” Then he says, “No. Not you.”
Pearl doesn’t just beam. Her face is aglow. “I’m so glad!”
Then she waits. After another unbearably long, silent time, she hears him draw an unsteady, deep breath. It all comes out in a rush. “OK.”
And there he is on her screen. Pearl’s reclusive, mysterious Leo the Nameless, the agoraphobic hermit, is a clean-shaven, perfectly ordinary-looking guy, a handsome one to her way of thinking; she can’t stop herself! “You’re adorable!”
The broad, never-ending grin that fills her screen makes her want to rush out just as she is, uncovered and unprotected and find an Uber driver to take her to Leo, wherever he is, especially after he blurts, “So are you!”
Her heart rushes out to him. “Tell me where you live and I’ll come over.”
So bright and happy; he looks so happy and bright. He leaps at the possibility. “Really?”
They are finishing this conversation in the foyer: Pearl Dagnall, framed by neat ranks of her home-made bricks.
“Absolutely,” she says, counting pigeons as she speaks. Pause. “As soon as I finish this fourth wall.”
“Hurry, girl. You have to get here before I lose my nerve.”
“I will!” Pearl pans her phone so he can admire her work, and makes an uneducated guess about how long it will take her to finish the job. “It all depends on the material,” she tells him. If she works around the clock, she can do this in three more reapings. “I love you, Leo, but it all depends on the supply.”
Like a good coach, he prods. “Then get off the line and get to it, I love you too much to wait.”
Thrilled, Pearl becomes a machine, an automaton speeding up the process, collecting her materials and creating bricks as fast as she can load and unload the compressor. No time to Skype Leo now, but Leo understands; in fact she’s been too busy to text Trevor. She’ll text him when she can send a photo of the finished walls, but when she’s two days from the finish line, although she’s reluctant to leave the apartment unprotected, she goes down to the lobby with Trevor’s embossed note card in its stamped addressed envelope and pops it into the mail.
On the last day she spent trapped by her phobia, she walks into the foyer lined with block upon block of compressed pigeons shellacked to a high gloss and sealed in place with silicone putty, and she laughs and laughs. And determined to colonize the new territory, she unpacks and positions a clever little brass coat rack that she commanded from Everything.com a few days before she reached the finish line. Next, she’ll reupholster Gramma’s pretty little teakwood chair. But of course she has to share the news and she makes a quick video-call to Leo:
“Free at last. I cracked my phobia. As soon as I can get Uber here, I’m on my way!” Then Pearl spreads her arms in her tiny hallway and whirls; she can’t help it. Spinning, she laughs until she’s gasping for air, and when the doorbell rings, she’s too happy to fuss with the peephole or stop to question. She throws the door wide and takes the carton from the messenger, laughing. “Thanks!”
She elbows the door shut just as he says, “There’s a note.”
Trevor! “Thanks.” She tucks it in her jeans and shuts the door before she realizes that the carton the kid just handed off to her contains a living thing. She drops it with a screech.
The sides of the carton fly apart and its contents land on her carpet claws first as she backs out of the enclosure. She manages not to scream. It will be a minute before she can speak.
Did that thing just go “Ha-ha?” Birdy takes its post on the coatrack and settles in for the long haul.
Pearl draws herself up. The hallway lined with bricks of desiccated pigeons demolished her phobia. Right? OK, I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.
And there’s a car waiting for her out front.
Pearl can’t bear to tell Leo, so with trembling fingers, she texts him, dropping the phone more than once in fumbled attempts:
P: Darling, emergency. Can’t come.
L: You have to, we can get married and I’ll take care of you.
P: I love you too, but oh, Leo! That parrot’s in the foyer and it’s the only way out! If you love me, Leo, come over and get rid of this thing.
Pearl knows he’s still there, but he hasn’t typed a word.
P: You can stay inside with me forever. Or I’ll move in with you. I love you to death, Leo, and I’ll always take care of you.
He’s thinking, Pearl. Try again.
P: If you’ll do this for me.
Trembling, she endures a long, long wait before Leo texts her back, and this is the last exchange they will ever have because: phobics.
L: I love you too much to lie to you. I want to be with you, dearest, but I don’t go out.
P: Trevor fixed me.
Well, except for the parrot.
P: I’ll make Trevor come to you.
She is typing to dead air.
When Pearl feels strong enough, and it will be a long time before she feels strong enough, she will open Trevor’s note. It’s handwritten, in a deteriorating script that ends with a scrawled diagonal so that the rest of the message slides off the page into the unknown.
Dear girl, I’m so very happy to receive your card. You’re cured! The last cure I can undertake, my dear, as by the time you put that card into the mail, I will be with your loving grandmother in the hereafter. I’ve delegated my assistant Gabrielle to continue where I leave off, so at a certain point she will continue to work with you via texts, although you don’t need to know.
But know this. You have always been, and will remain, very, very close to my heart. I know you are a very good person, Pearl, I knew it when you were a child, and now that your grandmother and I have left the planet, you’re the only person I can trust with the most precious treasure, the joy of my life. I know you will enjoy my best friend Birdy, dear Pearl. And I can promise you that, as Birdy has at least another fifty years left in her, for as long as you take good care of her, my girl Birdy will take care of you.
Herewith, my trust, given with much love. I wish you all the best. Be happy together; enjoy each other. Welcome your new best friend. She’s yours for life!
Editor’s note: The PDF for this story is available below, taken straight from the pages of F(r)iction #4.
Sticky Feet, Fr4