Fran’s daddy woke her up wielding a mister. “Fran,” he said, spritzing her as if she were a houseplant. “Fran, honey. Wakey wakey.”
Fran had the flu, except it was more like the flu had Fran. In consequence of this, she’d laid out of school three days in a row. The previous night, she’d taken four NyQuil caplets and fallen asleep on the couch while a man on the TV threw knives. Her head was stuffed with boiled wool and snot. Her face was wet with watered-down plant food. “Hold up,” she croaked. She began to cough hard.
Her daddy was a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes. The bulk of him augured trouble. There was a light in the kitchen. There was a suitcase beside the door.
Her daddy said, “I’ll be gone some time. A week or three. You take care of the summer people while I’m gone. The Roberts come up next weekend. Make sure you put fresh sheets on all the beds, pick up their groceries. The house schedule’s on the counter.”
“Wait,” Fran said. “Where are you going?” He sat down on the couch beside her, then pulled something out from under him. He showed her what he held; one of Fran’s old toys, the monkey egg. “Now you know I don’t like these. I wish you’d put ’em away.”
“There’s lots of stuff I don’t like,” Fran said. “Where you off to?”
“Prayer meeting in Miami. Found it on the Internet,” her daddy said. He put a hand against her forehead, so cool and soothing it made her eyes leak. “You don’t feel near so hot right now.”
“Who will take care of me?” Fran said. “I’m ill.”
“How can I look after you if I’m not right?” he said. “You don’t know the things I’ve done.”
“You went out drinking last night,” Fran said.
“I’m not talking about last night,” he said. “I’m talking about a lifetime.”
“That is—” Fran said, and then began to cough again. She coughed until she saw bright stars. Despite the hurt in her ribs, the NyQuil made it all seem so peaceful, her daddy might as well have been saying a poem. Her eyelids were closing.
“Any come around, you tell ’em I’m gone on ahead. Any man tells you he knows the hour or the day, Fran, that man’s a liar or a fool. All a man can do is be ready.”
He tucked the counterpane up around her ears. When she woke again, it was late afternoon and her daddy was long gone. All across her cheeks, the plant mister had left a red, raised rash.
On Friday, Fran went back to school. Breakfast was a spoon of peanut butter and dry cereal. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten.
In third period she had such a fit of coughing the teacher sent her off to see the nurse. And on the way, Fran came upon Ophelia Merck at her locker.
Ophelia Merck had her own car, a Lexus. She and her family had been summer people, except now they lived in their house up at Horse Cove all year round. Years ago, Fran and Ophelia had spent a summer playing with Ophelia’s Barbies while Fran’s father smoked out a wasps’ nest, repainted cedar siding, tore down an old fence. They hadn’t really spoken since then, though once or twice after that summer, Fran’s father brought home paper bags full of Ophelia’s hand-me-downs.
Fran eventually went through a growth spurt; Ophelia was still tiny, even now. And far as Fran could figure, Ophelia hadn’t changed much in most other ways: pretty, shy, spoiled, and easy to boss around. The rumor was her family’d moved full-time to Robbinsville from Lynchburg after a teacher caught Ophelia kissing another girl in the bathroom at a school dance.
“Ophelia Merck,” Fran said. “If Nurse Tannent sends me home, I’ll need a ride.”
Ophelia opened her mouth and closed it. She nodded.
Fran’s temperature was 102.
“I don’t know where you live,” Ophelia said, once they were in the car.
“Up a ways on Wild Ridge,” Fran said. “Past the hunting camps.” She lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. “Oh, hell. I forgot. Can you take me by the convenience first? I have to get the Roberts’ house put right.”
“Are you sure?” Ophelia said.
Fran only looked at her.
At the convenience, she picked up the Roberts’ s groceries, more NyQuil for herself, as well as a can of frozen orange juice and Pop-Tarts. “On the tab,” she told Andy.
“Your pappy got himself into trouble other night,” Andy said.
Fran said, “He took off. Said he needs to get right with God.”
“It ain’t God’s good side your pappy needs to get on,” Andy said.
Half the time her daddy got to drinking, Andy and Andy’s cousin Ryan were involved, never mind it was a dry county. Andy kept all kinds of liquor out back in his van for whoever wanted it and knew to ask. The good stuff came from over the county line. The best stuff, though, was the stuff Fran’s daddy made. Everyone said Fran’s daddy’s brew was too good to be strictly natural. Which was true. Fran’s daddy got up to all kinds of trouble. “I’ll tell him you said so.”
Ophelia was looking over ingredients on a candy wrapper, but Fran could tell she was interested. When they got back into the car Fran said, “Just because you’re doing me a favor don’t mean you need to know my business.”
“Okay,” Ophelia said.
“Okay,” Fran said. “Good. The Roberts’ place’s over on—”
“I know where their house is,” Ophelia said.
The Roberts hid their key under a fake rock just like everybody else. Ophelia stood at the door like she was waiting to be invited in. “Well, come on,” Fran said.
Fran made up the smaller bedrooms and did a hasty vacuum downstairs while Ophelia made up the master bedroom and caught the spider that had made a home in the wastebasket. She carried it outside. Fran didn’t quite have the breath to make fun of her for this. They went from room to room. Ophelia sang under her breath all the while. They were both in choir and Ophelia was a soprano, warm and light at the same time, where Fran was an alto and somewhat froggy even when she didn’t have the flu.
Fran coughed, spat into the drain of the kitchen sink, then ran the tap. “We’re done here.”
“You feel okay?”
“Like I’ve been kicked all over.”
“I’ll take you home,” Ophelia said.
Somewhere between the school lockers and the Roberts’ master bedroom, Ophelia seemed to have decided that the ice was broken. She talked about a TV show, about the party neither of them would go to on Saturday night. She complained about calculus. She mentioned a girl rock band that she thought Fran might like.
“I’ll never get used to it, to living up here year round,” Ophelia said. “How pretty it all is, you know?”
“Is that so?” Fran said. “Never been anywhere else.”
“Well, it is,” Ophelia said. “The morning, the way everything is all misty. And the trees! And around every corner, there’s a waterfall. Or a flowery meadow. Are you applying to college anywhere next year? I was thinking vet school. I don’t think I can take another English class. Large animals. No little dogs.”
Fran said, “I’m not the college type.”
“Oh,” Ophelia said. “It’s just, you’re smarter than me. So I just thought … ”
“Turn here,” Fran said.
They went up the dirt road through the laurel beds and into the little meadow with the nameless creek. Fran could feel Ophelia trying her hardest not to say something about how beautiful it was. And it was beautiful, Fran knew. You could hardly see the house itself, hidden like a bride behind her veil of climbing vines: virgin’s bower and Japanese honeysuckle, masses of William Baffin and Cherokee roses overgrowing the porch and running up over the sagging roof. Bumblebees, their legs armored in gold, threaded through the meadow grass, almost too weighed down with pollen to fly.
“It’s old,” Fran said. “My great-granddaddy ordered it out of the Sears catalog. Men brought it up the side of the mountain in pieces.”
She opened the car door and plucked up the poke of groceries. Ophelia got out of the car too. She said, uncertainly, “I thought maybe I could use your bathroom?”
When they came into the kitchen. Fran watched her take it in: the heaped dishes in the sink, the raggedy quilt on the couch. The dirty laundry piled beside the efficiency washer. The places where tendrils of vine had crept inside around the windows. “I guess you might be thinking it’s funny,” she said. “My pa and me make money doing other people’s houses, but we don’t take no real care of our own.”
“I think somebody ought to be taking care of you while you’re sick,” Ophelia said.
“I do fine on my own,” Fran said. “Washroom’s down the hall.”
She swallowed two NyQuil and lay down on the couch. Her feet were ice and the rest of her burning.
A minute later Ophelia sat down beside her. “I brought you water. You need to stay hydrated.”
“Mmm,” Fran said.
“Your dad told me once that I was going to hell,” Ophelia said. “He was over at our house fixing a burst pipe, maybe? I don’t know how he knew. You know. That I was gay. I was eleven. I don’t think I knew.”
“My daddy thinks everyone is going to hell,” Fran said. “I don’t care where I go, as long as it ain’t here and he’s not there.”
Ophelia didn’t get up to leave. When Fran looked, Ophelia had the monkey egg in her hand.
“Give here,” Fran said. “I’ll work it.” She wound the filigreed dial and set the egg on the floor where it vibrated ferociously. Two pincerlike legs and a scorpion tail made of figured brass shot out of the bottom hemisphere, and the egg wobbled in one direction and then another, the articulated tail curling and lashing. Portholes on either side of the top hemisphere opened. Two arms wriggled out and reached up, rapping at the dome of the egg until that, too, cracked open with a click. A monkey’s head, wearing the egg dome like a hat, popped out. Its mouth opened and closed in ecstatic chatter, arms describing wider and wider circles in the air until the clockwork ran down and all of its extremities whipped back into the egg again.
“What in the world?” Ophelia said. She picked up the egg, tracing the joins with a finger.
“It’s just something that’s been in our family,” Fran said. “We didn’t steal it from no one.”
“No,” Ophelia said. “It’s just—it’s like a Fabergé egg. It ought to be in a museum.”
There were other toys. The laughing cat; the swan who chased the dog. The mermaid combing garnets out of her own hair. Bawbees for babies, Fran’s mother had called them.
“I remember,” Ophelia said. “You came and played at my house. You brought a silver minnow smaller than my little finger. We put it in the bathtub, and it swam around and around. You had a little fishing rod and a golden worm that wriggled on the hook. I caught the fish and it said it would give me a wish if I let it go.”
“You wished for two pieces of chocolate cake,” Fran said.
“My mother made a chocolate cake, didn’t she?” Ophelia said. “So the wish came true. But I could only eat one piece. Maybe I knew she was going to make a cake? Except why would I wish for something that I already knew I was going to get?”
Fran said nothing. She watched Ophelia through slit eyes.
“Do you still have it?” Ophelia asked.
Fran said, “The clockwork ran down. It didn’t give wishes no more. I reckon I didn’t mind. It only ever granted little wishes.”
“Ha, ha,” Ophelia said. She stood up. “I’ll come by in the morning to make sure you’re okay.”
“You don’t have to,” Fran said.
“No,” Ophelia said. “I don’t have to. But I will.”
When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once) things that they could do for themselves, but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.
Sometimes they don’t even pay you. That’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, mebbe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing for them, just one more thing; always one more thing after that. You start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. The more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance, Franny. You need to know where you are and what you owe.
Fran, dosed on NyQuil, feverish and alone in her great-grandfather’s catalog house, dreamed—as she did every night—of escape. She woke every few hours, wishing someone would bring her another glass of water. She sweated through her clothes, then froze, then boiled again.
She was still on the couch when Ophelia came back, banging through the screen door. “Good afternoon!” Ophelia said. “Well, it’s noon, anyhow. I didn’t know if you liked sausage or bacon so I got two kinds of biscuit.”
She brushed her knuckles over Fran’s forehead. “You’re burning up! I knew I oughtn’t’ve left you here all by yourself! Shall I take you to the emergency?”
“No doctor,” Fran said. “They’ll want to know where my daddy is. Water?”
Ophelia scampered back to the kitchen. “You need antibiotics. Fran?”
“Here,” Fran said. She lifted a bill off the floor, pulled out the return envelope. She plucked out three strands of her hair and put them in the envelope and licked it shut. “Take this up the road where it crosses the drain,” she said. “All the way up. When you get to the big house, go round to the back and knock on the door. Tell them I sent you. You won’t see them, but they’ll know you come from me. After you knock, go in. Go upstairs directly, you mind, and put this envelope under the door. Third door down the hall. You’ll know which. After that, you oughter wait out on the porch. Bring back whatever they give you.”
Kelly Link was Telluride Horror Show’s 2019 guest author. A writer who has published six short story collections, Link’s most recent, “Get in Trouble,” was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists for fiction in 2016. “The Summer People,” originally appeared in “Get in Trouble” (Random House, 2016). Excerpt courtesy of the author.