Look Before You Cross

— B. Tanner Fogle

The Mitchell house was a flurry of holiday activity. In this family, Thanksgiving was considered the first day of the Christmas season. Because of this mash up of traditions there was plenty to do and it was required that most family members participate.

Agnes Mitchell was the matriarch at age eighty-six and was in charge of the turkey and, more importantly, the pies. These were not your run of the mill, store bought crust and canned fruit filling pies used to put out your cigarette at the end of an evening. These pies were the product of four generations of experimentation and refinement. The result was a crust recipe that elicited such a powerful food boner that most stomachs figuratively crossed their legs in embarrassment. Maude Mitchell was the junior matriarch at forty-one. Because Maude was the daughter-in-law she was given the largely thankless job of preparing “the sides.” However, her cornbread stuffing was praise worthy. Maude grinned and bore the sidekick role but she took secret mental notes on the pie recipe, spying over Agnes’ shoulder.

Jack Mitchell was the patriarch at age eighty-seven. He learned long ago just to stay the hell out of the way. He sat in his old green lounge chair sipping scotch and quietly waited for the Colts (because they will always be from Baltimore, damn it) game to start. He had a face like old wood, stern and full of cracks, but a bushy gray moustache and a perceptive smile softened his features. Kurt Mitchell, also forty-one and married to Maude, spent most of his holiday afternoon dragging moldy boxes of Christmas decorations up from the basement. He was a serious looking man even when wearing a knit cap picturing a ring of snowmen holding hands. Kurt emerged from the basement referring to the load of knickknacks with a barrage of defamatory metaphors.

Tabatha Mitchell was Maude and Kurt’s youngest at sixteen. She was sprawled on the couch occasionally looking up from her phone to scowl. Tweets and Facebook updates chronicled her general disgust with her family, and her forced association with them. Tabatha’s father would eventually scream for her to “get off her ass and help him with these damn boxes.”

Finally, there was Davis Mitchell, age twenty-three, Kurt and Maude’s eldest. He was a recent college graduate, intern at a small law firm in Virginia, and the loser of a recent wrestling match with a Christmas tree. He was still picking pine needles out of his sandy blond hair and comically festive sweater (knitted reindeer frolicking in a meadow). Afterward he began throwing silver tinsel on the tree like a mad Tinkerbelle.

“You’re supposed to put the lights on first dumbass,” said Tabatha from behind a box of plastic snowmen.

“If I do that I’ll have to look at your poxy face with greater clarity,” said Davis. He threw another fist full of tinsel on the tree.

Tabatha dropped the box on the floor, ignoring the sound of shattering glass that followed. “You talk like a grizzled old man,” she said.

“Speaking for grizzled old men,” said Jack swiveling in his chair, “we never used the word ‘poxy.’”

Kurt appeared in the living room with another box. “Nice to know that a fifty thousand dollar education improved your vocabulary,” he said. “Totally worth the money.”

During all the commotion the phone rang. Maude, her Sunday best wrapped in an apron to absorb various food excretions, answered. She placed the phone receiver under her ear, which freed her hands to stir cornbread batter in a mixing bowl.

“Happy Thanksgiving, you got the Mitchells,” she said. “Hey Felisha, you want to talk to him? Davis it’s your girlfriend!” Maude laid the receiver down and returned to the kitchen.

Davis’ hands were caught in a cat’s cradle of tinsel. As he walked he tried shaking off the glittery cobwebs to no avail. He picked up the phone. “What’s up buttercup?” he asked. “How’s Kentucky?” He flicked his hands to get the tinsel to let go.

“I’m not in Kentucky,” said Felisha. “My dad filed a restraining order against my mom and now Thanksgiving is canceled.”

“What happened?”

“My Mom was pretty broken up over the phone. All I know is that there was an argument, a turkey baster got involved and now my dad has to sit on an orthopedic pillow for a month.”

“That’s, wow, that’s pretty weird.”

“Yeah, they’re definitely getting a divorce this time,” she said.

“I’m sorry babe,” said Davis. “Hey, why don’t you come up here? Raven’s Wood is only five hours from Virginia. You’ll make it just in time for dinner and the family would love to see you.”

“I really don’t want to be around a lot people right now.”

“What can I do to help?”

“Well,” she said, “I was hoping you might come here. I’m feeling emotionally vulnerable right now. I’ve been looking at my entire childhood through the hindsight of a broken home and it’s causing incredible mental distress.”

“Of course,” said Davis. “I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“You can’t come now?”

“Well, it’s getting pretty wet out there. There’s supposed to be a hell of a storm on the way…”

“I’ll make it worth your while,” Felisha said.

“…there’s going to be hail and they’re predicting massive wind gusts in two counties…wait, exactly how would you make it worth my while?” Davis stopped playing with the tinsel.

“After you left Tuesday I went shopping with the girls.”

“Uh huh.”

Felisha’s voice lowered. “We went to the costume shop on 4th.”

“I’m listening.”

“You know that Red Riding Hood costume you were drooling over?”

“You mean the one that I said was the ‘perfect representation of post second wave female empowerment’ but you said was a ‘byproduct of a bankrupt culture eager to capitalize on the over sexualization of women?’”

“That’s the one. I bought it.”

“Sweet Jesus.” Davis almost dropped the phone.

Felisha discovered an even deeper, more seductive register. “Would you like to know more?”

“Yes please.”

“It was an after Halloween sale and all that was left were small sizes. I’m seriously spilling out of this thing.” During this call Felisha was laying on her bed dressed in a bathrobe, sweatpants, and a t-shirt that read, “I became a psychology major and all I got was a worthless piece of paper—and this stupid t-shirt.”

“Did I say it would take five hours?” asked Davis. “I’ll be there in four. I was right by the way. I’m about to forsake my mother’s cornbread stuffing, my grandmothers’ apple pie, watching the Colts with my dad and granddad and brave a monsoon, based entirely on you manipulating my base sexual urges. If that’s not female empowerment I don’t know what is.”

“We’ll discuss your misguided interpretation of sexual politics after I’m done rocking your world. Bye!” Davis hung up the phone and then announced, “Sorry everybody, my girlfriend is distraught! I have to go!”

“Go?” asked Kurt. “We just got started.”

Davis yanked the tinsel off his hands like a man possessed. “Trust me dad, if you knew the full situation you would approve.”

“Why does he get to leave?” asked Tabatha.

“Because I’m an adult,” said Davis, “and your face acne frightens small children and puppies.” Tabatha picked up a stuffed Rudolf from a box and threw it at her brother. The fuzzy doll made a squeak noise when it bounced off of Davis’ head.

Davis ran into the kitchen. “Hey, mom…” Before he could get another word out a spoon full of cranberry sauce was shoved in his mouth.

“What does it need?” Asked Maude. “I think your grandmother uses orange zest but she says its fine. I swear if she doesn’t stop being so mysterious about her recipes I’m going to scream.”

Davis swallowed. “Mom, I don’t have time for your pathological inferiority complex about Grandma’s cooking. Have you seen my keys?”

“There on the nook. Where are you going? It’s pouring rain outside.”

Davis ransacked the upright wooden nook that had been the catch all for outgoing and incoming flotsam. He pushed aside stacks of mail, the previous day’s newspaper, and various pairs of gloves until he found his keys. He spun around in a hurry. “Felisha needs…” Another spoon full of food was shoved in his mouth. This time it was apple pie filling administered by his grandmother. Agnes was as silent as a ninja in her own house. She was a slight woman with curly gray hair dressed in a lime green pants suit accented with little pink flowers she sewed herself. She was the type of person that always had a smile, even when confronted by inappropriate language.

“Holy shit, that’s good,” said Davis between chews. “Is that cinnamon?” Maude slapped her foul mouthed son over the head. “Hey, just because I didn’t use an expletive after eating your cranberry sauce doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

“Explain to your grandmother why you’re leaving,” said Maude.

“You’re leaving Davy?” asked Agnes. Davis’ grandmother was the only human being that could call him “Davy” without receiving a disgusted look of murderous wrath.

“Sorry Grandma, Felisha’s alone for the holiday. She needs me.” Davis wondered if there was a special place in hell for people who forsake their elderly grandmothers for the promise of crazy costume sex.

“Well of course you have to go,” said Agnes. “You can’t leave that poor girl by herself.”

Davis gave his grandmother a kiss on the cheek and then repeated the gesture for his mother, keeping a careful watch on her slapping hand. Before he could dash out, Davis’ grandfather walked into the kitchen. Jack was holding a pouch of tobacco and two briar wood pipes. Under his arm was a long red umbrella with a cherry wood handle. “Got time for a pipe kid,” he said. “I’ll walk you out to the porch.” Davis’ sense of haste evaporated a little. Sharing a pipe with his grandfather was a semiannual holiday tradition and Davis felt guilty about missing a couple of years while in college. “Sure, Granddad.”

Jack and Davis exited the pristine white front door onto a covered porch. The rain was steadily coming down in fat drops that sounded like firecrackers when they rapidly hit the driveway. The atmosphere felt heavy and it was too dark for mid-afternoon. As soon as they were outside Davis began impatiently jamming tobacco into his pipe. Jack was more diligent. He was still packing while Davis franticly tried to fire up his pipe with an uncooperative lighter. The smell of the pipe tobacco mixed with the wet weather was a nostalgia gut punch, but Davis’ mind quickly returned to his sexy Grimm’s fairytale. Davis spied his blue Ford Taurus parked across the street on the hilly incline in front of the house. Davis was smoking too fast. He accidentally inhaled causing him to hack and cough. Smirking, Jack watched his grandson from the side of his eye.

“You want to hear the best advice ever recorded by man?” asked Jack.

Davis’ voice was strained by the sudden intake of pipe exhaust. (cough) “Sure.” (cough)

“It has two parts. Prepare yourself for enlightenment. You prepared?”

“Prepared.” (cough, cough)

“Here it is.” Jack removed the red umbrella from his armpit and handed it to Davis. “Always protect yourself from the rain…” Davis took the umbrella, a snort of laughter under his coughing. Jack pointed to Davis’ car. “…and look both ways before you cross the street. You feel enlightened?”

“I’m ready for Nirvana,” Davis said (cough).

“You want to know why that’s the best advice?”

“Basic self-preservation and common sense?”

“Sure,” said Jack, “but more important is that your actions have consequences and they affect the people around you.”

“I understand that you’re making a point,” said Davis, “I’m just not sure why you’re making it now.”

“Do I really need a reason to give advice to my grandson?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Well, now you have the secrets of the universe at your disposal. Go forth and prosper and keep the umbrella. You never know when you might need protection.”

“That reminds me,” said Davis, “I have to stop by the 7-11. Thanks Granddad.” Jack tapped his pipe on the sole of his shoe. When the ashy contents were emptied he foot-swept them off the porch into the damp yard. Turning to walk into house Jack paused to pat Davis on the shoulder. “Love ’ya kid, keep dry.”

Alone on the porch, Davis was tranquil for a moment, puffing on his pipe. He looked over the red umbrella and then undid the nylon strap that kept its retractable prongs tightly compacted. He pushed up the metal clasp, spreading the red canvas like a flower in bloom. Still puffing his pipe, Davis rested the umbrella shaft on his shoulder giving him the appearance of having a giant red halo. It took him all of three seconds of self-reflection before he announced, “What am I still doing here?” He quickly banged out the tobacco from his pipe, placed it next to a potted plant on the porch, and then ran out into the street.

Bradbury Avenue was on a long hill. Being one of the main roads into town, it was heavily travelled by commercial rigs, most of which were so eager to make their Black Friday deliveries that they would travel at law breaking speeds. Unfortunately the Mitchell’s home was built just below the crest of the incline. Most vehicles could be heard (however not in such heavy rain) but not seen until they were over the crest and careening down the hill. Davis saw the semi-truck that hit him, but only for a split second, just long enough to say, “Oh, fuck you.” His body exploded on impact like a water balloon full of cranberry sauce. The force of the hit created a wind updraft that lifted the red umbrella right out of his hand. The truck traveled another two hundred feet gradually trying to slow down.

Davis regained consciousness to the squeal of the truck breaks. He was sitting on the side of the street next to his car. He was not quite himself. He looked relatively the same however his entire body was made out of a white vaporous substance. “Well this answers a whole bunch of philosophical questions,” he said, “except what does my girlfriend look like in a sexy Red Riding Hood costume?” Davis found that even in death the rain was annoying. The water broke up the wisps of smoke that made up his body. He stood up and walked back into the street observing the bloody skid mark that his body had made on the road. A black sedan came over the crest of the hill and flew through Davis dispersing his smoky form into the wind. Only his disembodied head remained. He looked down to the nothingness below his neck and sighed. After a moment the white smoke returned, reconstituting his body.

Returning to the house Davis tried to grab the doorknob but his hand passed through it. Davis sighed again and then stepped through the solid door. He found his grandfather in his favorite chair. His sister was lying on the couch typing on her phone. Kurt, carrying a box of decorations, walked through his son, dispersing his cloudy body like a puff of dust. In the kitchen Davis watched his mother slyly sneaking glimpses over Agnes’ shoulder for pie secrets. No one seemed to be aware of what had happened outside. The rain was loud and there were no screams, no crashes of metal.

Davis sat in one of the kitchen chairs and placed his head in his hands. “The Unofficial Obituary of Davis Mitchell,” he said, though, of course, no one heard him say it. “September 22, 1991 – November 27, 2014: He gave the best family in the world the worst Thanksgiving of their lives.” He felt like crying but the action proved impossible for a ghost. He knew he had to leave before the sirens got close. Davis did not want to see his family in pain. He would rather remember them like this, happy and together. He moved through the house placing a kiss on each of his loved ones. Each one of the Mitchell’s felt a tiny inexplicable shiver of cold on their cheek. For a moment Jack thought that he saw a rough gaseous shape that resembled his grandson.

Outside Davis had absolutely no idea what to do with his afterlife. His mind drifted to a familiar subject. “It would probably only take a couple of days to walk to Virginia. A week tops.” The red umbrella that had been floating on the breeze since the crash dropped out of the sky and landed next to the porch. He walked over to the umbrella and knelt beside it. The rain was just as irritating as before, breaking up his form with each drop. Davis placed his misty hand on the cherry wood handle and was surprised when he could grip it. He stood, raising the umbrella over his head. Just then a radiant light beamed from the sky. The light filled Davis with warmth, comfort, and it seemed to sublimely beckon him to abandon all mortal attachment. He weighed his options.

“Hmm,” he said, “enter the pearly gates or behold my sexy girlfriend in a Red Riding Hood costume? Pearly gates, sexy Red Riding Hood, Pearly gates, sexy Red Riding Hood.” As fast as it appeared, the heavenly light evaporated as if being eclipsed by a bank of clouds. “Shit,” said Davis, “maybe I picked the wrong time to start thinking before I do stuff. Screw it. I’m going to Virginia to ogle my girlfriend.” As he started his journey down the road, Davis tried not to dwell on the creepy aspects of his plan. Instead, he simply said, “I’m sure there are worse reasons to haunt people.”

 


 

Tanner Fogle was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, raised in Maryland, Hawaii, Colorado, and California. He graduated with a B.F.A. in creative writing from Chapman University. He has worked as a writer/reporter, editor, and columnist for both college and professional magazines and newspapers. After turning his torrid affair with creative writing into a monogamous relationship he wrote the independently released novel Confused by Design and the horror/humor novella A Little Evil, published by Black Hill Press. He continues to write bat crap crazy fiction somewhere in Washington state, or, he’s lost in the woods somewhere. We haven’t heard from him in a while and he has a lousy sense of direction. If you see him, please don’t attempt to feed him, just contact local authorities. Seriously, his Mom is very worried.