Medium 9781574412017

What Are You Afraid Of?

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Powerful and haunting, the ten stories of this debut collection imagine a world where dreams and reality merge, often with dangerous consequences. Michael Hyde explores the relationships between illusion and reality, delusion and clarity, as his characters come to realize that the revelations they wholeheartedly pursue are often not the ones that await them and will move them. A teenage girl obsessed with the death of a classmate hopes to become the killer's next victim, a wayward graveyard attendant punishes the dead for his punishments in life, and a ghostly vision in a garden shed offers a catalyst for one woman's change. "Michael Hyde's stories are strangely satisfying and satisfyingly strange. They combine the gothic sensibility of Flannery O'Connor and the restrained prose of Raymond Carver. These are tales of love-in-extremis. They should be taken as a tonic before bedtime, to stir up our dreams and awaken our compassion."--Sharon Oard Warner, judge, author of Learning to Dance and Deep in the Heart

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her hollywood

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2

what are you afraid of ?

and I’d just come home from school and there Mom was bawling her eyes out. Her make-up wasn’t smeared so I figured she hadn’t been crying long. “Always the pretty ones that die,” she was saying over and over, and she didn’t have to say anything else because I know she was thinking I was safe as could be. Plain Jane she liked to call me, teasing me to hear me shout that my name was Constance, Connie, not stupid Jane. She got a big kick out of it and laughed like it was the joke of the century. Even when she’d let me sit down beside her at the vanity she’d start comparing our faces, hers with mine, and she’d always throw in “You can thank your father for that nose.” The way she said it I knew I didn’t need to be thanking anybody.

When Mom was crying about Mary Alice, Wade and I tried to give her a hug because that’s what I thought she was expecting but she pushed us out of the way and started walking around the kitchen—her head bent a little bit to the side—moving like a statue would move if it could. I don’t need to tell you that my mother was an actress at the community theater. She taught me and Wade from the very start about drama, which she said translated into English as meaning “larger than life.” Thanks to her,

 

people’s choice

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what are you afraid of ?

that ran into the space left vacant. She drew the sheet up between her legs, thought of birth, her gaze fixed on the ceiling. Then she heard footsteps, in the kitchen below, the door shutting, the creaking of the stairs. Graham stood in the doorway to the bedroom—a solid figure against the moonlight that illuminated the hallway behind him.

“It’s a miracle,” he said, calm and deep, not moving. Enid pulled on her robe and followed him downstairs. She questioned him only with glances, knowing that Graham, when serious, would decide when it was time for him to speak. “Seeing is believing,” is all that he said. Enid pushed her feet into a pair of barn boots and hurried after him. He had already gone back outside.

In the barn, the back stall beyond the salt lick was lit by a kerosene lamp hung from the rafters. The wet smell of night mixed with the miasma of damp straw and animal waste. Graham was leaning forward over the bottom half of the split door, his hands pushed down against the rotting boards. Enid pulled back the hair from her eyes to get a better look.

 

the clay is vile

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the clay is vile

39

Someone must live in the house. What to make of the Victory Garden in the front yard? Normal people would condemn such a thing to the back of their properties, the unsightly tangle of binder-twine and posted seed-packets proclaiming tomatoes

“tomatoes” hidden from view. John recognizes pepper plants, stalks of sweet corn at least two feet in height. Aluminum pie plates clatter, strung up to discourage birds.

Maybe it’s because he runs so early that he doesn’t see anyone here, that there’s no one, ever, to connect to this house. Of course there are stories, wisps of tales relating madness and hard luck.

Due to the house’s desperate state, due to its current look of abuse and misuse, it can be nothing else but haunted. For most people, the house is fortunately far enough from town, a horrible thought that’s only entertained in passing, a wrong turn down the wrong road. No car or truck or motorcycle has ever taken up the space of the driveway as far as John knows. There are no comings and goings, other than sighs that come directly from the house. John hears them: old air caught and sweeping through rooms. He imagines ghosts on top of ghosts, packed and compressed until all individual spirits have given way to, combine to form, one large powerful mass.

 

what is now proved was once only imagined

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what are you afraid of ?

Lost in a tide of whiskey sours and feeling all of her forty-four years, she remembered: she’d left the water on.

A dog barked nearby, so many of them around, sometimes breaking their chains and quietly terrorizing the neighborhood, ripping open trash set out for morning pick-up, spilling garbage.

Nobody needed to see what she was throwing away. It was like being touched when you didn’t want to be touched. But what was worse? The dogs chained and barking all night long so she couldn’t sleep or the dogs running free and silent and ripping open

Hefty bags?

Along the length of hose, the holes she’d punched with the icepick spit out small fountains. The petunias and scarlet sage— that normally looked up at her open-mouthed and expectant like the children she tended weekdays—were heavy-headed, bowing down. From the wisteria, burdened white blossoms had fallen and lay in an incomplete circle around its twisted trunk. With all the water in the air, this dew and the humidity, the scents of so many flowers were caught and held captive, mixing one on the other, putrid and nauseating, so she couldn’t be sure which it was—the smell or the burning in her stomach—that made her whip quickly at her waist and vomit, just missing the marigolds.

 

miracle-gro

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what are you afraid of ?

playing at the piano when no one else was around. He worked the cemetery as if it were his own, something he could memorize and that made complete sense.

With the concoction of Miracle-Gro, Peet walked among the headstones, the row closest to the highway, and stopped when he came to a rose-marble marker. BERTRAM CHASE, it read. A picture of a deer’s head was etched beside the name. Peet put down the bucket and imagined his former dentist there, lying beneath him. The afternoon Peet remembered most was when he and his father had gone into Bertram’s office—Peet recalled being about ten—and Bertram’s breath had smelled like medicine or a whiskey. “You’re going to be a mush mouth for sure,” Bertram had said. “I can read it in your teeth.” The words had been a curse.

Every time Peet went to the dentist now—the new one, Dr.

Milkin—he would lie back in the dentist chair that felt more like a medieval torture trap than anything, and he’d have to endure that horrible drill as it rammed and rammed and rammed into teeth and gums, leaving him a mouth full of blood. No matter what he did—he brushed twice each morning, twice each night— his mouth was filled with rot. Had Bertram kept quiet, Peet might’ve been looking in the mirror every morning at a set of perfect ivories, not a mouth filled with snaggled teeth and stains and a decay he could not exactly see but knew was there. Peet tipped the bucket so a portion of the Miracle-Gro splashed across the grass of Bertram’s grave and waited while the water seeped into the ground. Then Peet smiled and spit and hurried back four rows, over seven plots to ELAINE MENSCH.

 

hydra

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what are you afraid of ?

He detected a whisper—faint, rushing at him and confused. The sound seemed to correspond to a pattern the individual fibers were playing against the window glass, a systematic tangling and unraveling, and he was certain he was on the verge of figuring that out.

“We’re busy,” said Henry. “Can’t you see that?” He turned to his mother, then to his younger brother who sat rigid-still in front of the television, tapping the control pad of his Sega Genesis.

“Your aunt and uncle are here,” his mother said. “Help them unload. They drove all the way from Erie.”

“There’s not enough room for them in this house.”

“We only need a few adjustments,” his mother answered.

“Please help them.”

Outside, Uncle Dale and Aunt Shirley stood to the side of their Pontiac, figuring the best way to lower their possessions from the car roof without everything falling on top of them.

Uncle Dale circled the car a few times, spit once at the tires, and rubbed his forehead; Aunt Shirley held the Twins like plump flour sacks in her arms; and Little Alexander, the three-year-old, was clamped at Aunt Shirley’s pantleg, staring as if there were nothing behind his eyes to process what he was seeing. Henry couldn’t resist making a horrible face that sent Little Alexander burying his head into his mother’s rear.

 

everything valuable and portable

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what are you afraid of ?

listened as Joan read to them, turning the pages. The book began with a brief biography of the Virgin Mary and ended, on page thirty-four, with that of St. Boniface. Each page was devoted to an individual saint, some the children already knew of and others with histories more obscure. Each saint’s description was accompanied by a picture, drawn large and painted in brilliant colors.

After each morning’s reading, the children decided which saint they’d choose to play that day.

All the children wanted to be St. Dorothy of Montau, a peasant who’d given birth to nine children and was the patron saint of young brides, difficult marriages, widows, those who’d lost infants to death. She prayed with her arms spread wide, in imitation of

Christ on the cross, and died when her heart burst, unable to contain all of God’s wondrous love. The accompanying artwork depicted St. Dorothy as a young, beautiful woman with golden hair. At the center of her green tunic was a red heart, from which streamed light, stars, and small swirls of rainbows, beaming out all around her. Joan and William argued over who got to be St.

 

what are you afraid of?

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what are you afraid of?

131

“Sure I did.” He was going to be a father now, he kept telling himself. Her health and happiness should be his prime concern.

They stopped for gas in Sinking Springs. The radio said to expect freezing cold. Storefronts were iced over, looked condemned; it was Sunday. Thanksgiving decorations still hung from mailboxes.

“Get me some coffee?” Claire asked, heading for the restroom at the side of the station. She looked like a flightless cherub, her cheeks fattened, the wisps of her hair brought up into a loose bun on her head. The baby was due in three months. What was said about pregnant women being beautiful Hartley had never trusted until now, until Claire. “Decaf. Cream, no sugar.”

“Anything else? We have a ways to go.”

“Nothing now. We’ll stop later on.”

Hartley hated stopping later on. One stop. One start. Why make the drive longer? “Sure you don’t want anything else?”

“No thanks. I’m sure I’ll need to go again anyway.”

Hartley pumped the gas, then got Claire her coffee. The slow-faced boy behind the counter was watching cartoons on a small black and white TV. “You’ll all need to pay for using the bathroom,” the kid said. He pointed to a sign BATHROOM 25¢ and nodded like an idiot. Hartley paid the quarter.

 

second-hand

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what are you afraid of ?

Next we find Mom’s tops and blouses. My sister holds a few against her chest, to see if anything might be her size. “We should get rid of it all,” I say.

“You’re right.”

I can’t picture my sister wanting to wear any of Mom’s clothes anyway. My mother’s things were never new, always used, bought second-hand from thrift shops and yard sales or passed on to her by our more well-to-do neighbors. With Mom, every penny went for me and Sue, for college, for us to have nice things. She’d always believed spending money on clothing, on herself, was a waste.

Sue and I tackle the third and fourth drawers: jeans and slacks, still neatly pressed. I fold out a pair of green corduroys. For a moment, my sister and I stare, as if we’re expecting the empty legs to suddenly fill and dance like they did, drunk or sober, at St.

Patrick’s Day parties, spinning Mom around the room, making everyone laugh.

“This isn’t going to take as much time as I thought,” my sister says. She fingers the raspberry birthmark above her left eyebrow, her comfort spot, something Mom managed to trick Sue into believing made her more special and more beautiful than all the other girls in her kindergarten class. “If we get this done quick, maybe it won’t hurt as much.”

 

life among the bulrushes

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life among the bulrushes

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Jones. If any of the caterpillars manage to escape—perhaps by a gust of wind or bad aim that sends it far from the fire—Daniel will let those go. If Mrs. Peale interrupts in the middle of this judgment as she often does, Daniel will also let the caterpillars go.

He’s convinced moments such as these, small and unexpected triumphs, are moments of truth, intervention, and faith, designed elsewhere by powers he could only hope to challenge.

This time, the one named Patrick is blessed enough to miss the fire completely. Jenny Jones, however, isn’t as fortunate but drags herself somehow from the flames. Daniel watches the two survivors crawl slowly off, moving away from the heat. He licks his fingers before killing the fire with dripping-wet handfuls of pond clay.

Inside the house, Mrs. Peale is preparing for the trip to

Ocean City, shoving clean and dirty clothes into duffel bags. She’s packed the styrofoam cooler with grape soda pop and Budweiser.

When Daniel comes into the living room, holding the empty

 

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