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It was dark inside the car’s trunk. The car had been parked for a long time, more than ten minutes, and Mims still couldn’t remember the trick for opening a trunk from the inside. She kicked hard every twenty seconds or so, her feet tied together like a mermaid tail.
She was sure there was a trick.
A text message alert went off in her back pocket and then another and then nothing.
Eventually the trunk opened. She tried to kick the man who opened it, but once he threw the thick blanket over her head it was hard to know where he was. She was dragged up and out of the trunk and dropped into a tight, deep space. A lid closed. She was inside some kind of plastic box. Mims’s heart beat as fast as the fluttering pages of a flipbook. She found herself wishing for her mother, a thought so odd it snapped her out of panic. This must be someone Teddy hired; he wouldn’t kill her. He was a kind person and had a sweet tooth like a child.
The box dragged and then bumped. There was a ramp of some sort and then three steep steps. With each thwack one of her elbows or a vertebra was scraped raw. The bee stings on her shoulder blade and wrist were swollen so tight they felt like they would split open. Then there was stillness. She could tell the man hadn’t left wherever the box was because she could hear muffled sounds. She felt woozy, and it wasn’t until a few minutes had passed that she realized it was because the floor was rocking. She must be on a boat. Time passed, maybe two minutes or maybe fifteen, and she couldn’t focus on anything useful, just that they might be able to identify her body based on her tattoos.
Teddy Beasley awoke to an email alert buzzing softly against his chest, more like a little electric massager than a cellphone. He sunk deeper into the sofa cushions for a second and then slowly opened his eyes, the neat row of photos on his desk coming into focus first, then the red Frisbee leaning against the back of the bookshelf. He came to realize, gently, that he was in his office at work. The familiar room anticipated his every need, down to the glass of yesterday’s water over on his desk and the ultra–soft angora throw draped over his body. He picked up the phone: “Shipment received. The money is in your account.” Teddy felt a thunk like a brick between his lungs, stifling his ability to breathe.
He flung both the blanket and the brick aside, wide awake now. It was time to get back to work.
Teddy marched into the hallway, saw the bright tumble of Brittany– Lynne’s orange hair rounding the corner, and stepped back into his office before she could see him. After she’d passed, he stepped over the threshold again and down the hall, feeling sticky with dried sweat from the night before. No one could fault him for not wanting to deal with a relationship postmortem conversation right now. He wanted to get through this one day drama–free, move through the choreography of the factory like normal, reset his nerves. Fresh air would help.
The rhythmic clacking of the cherry–pitting machines got louder as he descended the spiral staircase to the factory floor and then quieted again as he exited the building. He took a deep breath and hopped from foot to foot, arms wiggling at his sides. As the tension released from his body he felt ready to start the day as his old happy self. “Let’s sell some cherries!” He sounded to himself like a little league coach encouraging uncoordinated children. He followed up with, “You got this!”
A honeybee zipped by and Teddy clenched his teeth. He’d been trying to pretend that there weren’t more and more of them flitting about the yard each day, but he could see them congregating over by the wall. “You got this,” he said again, more quietly.
New York City had all kinds of wildlife you wouldn’t expect: bats, leeches, coyotes once in Central Park. It was certainly possible honeybees had happened to start visiting the Brooklyn maraschino cherry factory this spring, when they had never come by before. They kept getting into the spent cherry brine as it was dollied between buildings. Because of the increased production post–renovation, and the hold on completing the new waste filtration system, more and more brine needed wheeling to the disposal drains, so that might explain it.
But what it felt like was that the bees had shown up to needle him, intentionally, for all the bad life choices he was making.
He turned back into the building at a different entrance and peeked inside the factory floor for a second time. Even after the renovations the beautiful interior recalled bygone times; the walls were still brick and the floors still smooth concrete. Only the vats and tubs, and the HVAC system above, had the modern look of steel and chrome. He smiled to see people with white coverings on their shoes walking with purpose from place to place—at ease and in control of the machines and the maraschinos.
He took a fortifying, cherry–scented breath, let the door swing closed, and headed off to the weekly management meeting.
Someone had brought chocolate chip cookies. “Wait, are these warm?” he asked.
Teddy had always conflated treats with love, so the brown sugar was a welcome distraction. The operations manager and the CFO stared back at him. Beasley Cherries was a small company, and these three men composed the entire management team. Teddy was the sole owner. “Your loss, I’m eating ten,” Teddy said. He stacked two cookies on a napkin and took his place at the table. “Somebody’s getting a raise.” When he realized Brittany–Lynne must have warmed the cookies he smiled and winced at the same time.
“No one’s getting a raise,” Matt, the CFO, said. He was wearing his “I’m fun” mint polo shirt, but his muscles were already tense. Matt didn’t even know how bad it would be if Teddy hadn’t been secretly paying half the overage invoices himself. To top it off there was a party scheduled next month to celebrate the opening of the unfinished, unfurnished building that was to house their new organic division, but Teddy didn’t remind them of that.
“You gotta spend money to make money,” Jay, the operations manager, retorted in his heavy New Jersey accent. He was built like an old–timey footballer who’d grown thick and jolly with middle age, and Teddy could always count on his optimism.
“We spent all the damn money!” Matt snapped. Jay bristled.
Teddy sat quietly, watching them bicker as he ate his cookies. He bent each cookie in half, observed the chocolate chips pulling apart from their ooey–gooey centers. It was calming for him but also a calculated move to evoke calm by example. It was a trick he’d learned from dealing with his parents.
“Man, I wish I had some milk,” Teddy said at last.
Teddy’s relaxed demeanor finally infected Matt and Jay and they each took sips of water and stopped talking.
“How much money do we need? Just for finishing the drains in the renovated building and running the electric, gas, and water to the new building?” He really did wish he had some milk, and about five more cookies, and that he was lying in bed with a movie and that none of this was real. A melancholy, fearful hardness was calcifying in his stomach now that there was no more food to distract himself from focusing on it. “And then what would we need assuming we stick it out and don’t delay getting the equipment for the organic section?”
He went and got another cookie.
“Twenty–thousand.” Jay pulled at the wet armpits of his shirt. He could be counted on to get pink–faced and sweaty when he argued. “For the second scenario, closer to seventy.”
“I’ve already started some loan paperwork.” Matt set a stack of papers on the table.
Teddy breathed in sharply, inhaling crumbs. “No,” he said between coughs, feeling buffoonish and undignified. “We already have as many loans as we can handle. We’ll do the first scenario. I’ll relinquish my salary for the next two months to make room. Don’t fight me on that, I mean it.” If anyone asked, he’d claim to be living off savings; in reality he’d spent everything. The fear in his stomach thrummed again as the text alert from the morning flashed through his memory.
“Works for me.” Jay leaned back in his chair. “You remind me a lot of old Irving, you know that? Generous to a fault.” Teddy winced at the mention of his grandfather.
“Doesn’t work for me.” Matt picked up the loan application he’d placed in front of them and re–shoved it across the table for emphasis. “It’s gonna be a ghost town for organic cherries. Fucking empty rooms with no equipment! It’s the second scenario or nothing.”
Matt had a point. The longer the new building sat empty the longer it wasn’t generating revenue to start paying for itself. This wasn’t a ‘cut your losses’ situation. They were all in.
“I can get it.” As the words came out, Teddy had to put effort into making eye contact.
There was only one person he could ask for the money, and he wasn’t sure she even had it. Calling her to New York would be like summoning a capricious, potentially dangerous djinn. He closed his eyes, wanting to drop off to sleep until it was all over.
“We’ll have our organic division up and running by the end of summer at the latest,” Teddy said. His voice sounded deep, thick, sweet, and somehow far away from his body. He intentionally eased into a serene, cherubic smile. On the inside he was wishing he could go back to the end of the previous summer and do everything differently. The renovations and the new organic division had been his big idea to honor his grandpa Irving and ensure the family business kept up with the times and flowed smoothly into the stream of the future. If he could get a do–over, he wouldn’t rock the boat, would not change the course of the boat by even a millimeter. He would not so much as put a new coat of paint on the boat, and the maraschino factory would go clanking into the future at the same pace it had always gone.
Her first year in Alaska, Marlow Beasley had won the Tok Ladies’ Amateur Arm Wrestling Competition. She had been embarrassed at winning, not because she thought it was a silly pastime but because it had had the word “ladies” in it. Since then, her reputation for being strong had endured, even if people had forgotten where that reputation had started.
“Not strong enough,” she said quietly. She squinted at the moose, his white breath lingering in swirling circles like cigarette smoke.
It was dark out and the moose was between her and the front door of her cabin but also close enough to her truck that he could charge her before she got the rusty door open. Marlow had lost track of how long they’d been standing this way. She had tried backing up, retracing her steps into the woods and returning later, but the moose was still here, like he was guarding the place. Her nearest neighbor lived seven miles away. Marlow’s feet were sunk into the snow and had gone from burning to unpleasantly numb some time before.
As much as she liked to be flashy, Marlow knew how to be smart and how to be patient. Once a decision was made it was made forever; a shrunk sweater could not be un–shrunk. But at some point you couldn’t wait for events to align, you needed to make things happen. “Fuck it,” she said. She took a crunchy step forward and the moose let out a sharp breath. She took another slow step and then another. The moose swayed his body to the right and then seemed to remember he’d left the kettle on at home and lumbered off to the left and into the trees.
“Asshole!” she called after him. “You couldn’t have done that earlier?”
Marlow dropped the kindling she’d been out gathering next to the potbelly stove without slowing on her way to the bathroom. She turned on the hot water and then sat on the edge of the tub and slowly pulled off her boots. Her toes were black, which she wasn’t expecting. “Or purple. That could be purple,” she said out loud as she lowered her feet into the water. She’d started talking to herself more and more over the last year, but it didn’t worry her. She’d been spending a lot of time alone in the cabin, thinking. Mapping out where she was going to distribute the venison (and eventually caribou and salmon) jerky she’d started experimenting with the previous summer: first gas stations then airport then grocery store.
The phone rang in the other room and she sloshed to answer it without drying her feet. Looked like she’d be speaking to another person after all.
“Hey. It’s Teddy,” a deep but uncertain voice answered. It seemed like he was going to add “your brother,” as if she might have forgotten. “How are you?” She was so surprised to hear from him she forgot her feet were numb and almost fell over when she tried to take a step.
“I’m in excruciating pain, but it’s getting better.” Marlow flopped on the couch and pulled a faded afghan over her legs. It was the ugly kind that comes from parents, though she’d bought this one herself.
“Don’t say it so casually,” he said. “Please. Are you okay?”
“You sound like Ma Beasley right now. My feet just got too cold.” “Oh. You love that kind of rugged nature stuff.”
“Up to a certain point.” There was a long pause.
“I know we haven’t talked in a while, and I’m sorry,” he said. She wasn’t glad to get past the awkward preliminaries and on to important topics. It wouldn’t do any good to slog through the reasons for their estrangement now.
“I haven’t made an effort either, and I’m sorry,” she said. She noticed she was biting her thumb and stopped. But once he’d addressed the issue, Teddy thankfully didn’t dwell on their lack of contact. He asked about her dog (Chomper had died) and the weather and if she remembered the movie Small Soldiers at all; she’d taken him to see it when he was kid. He’d seen it on TV recently and thought of her.
“I was thinking maybe you could uh, come visit New York,” Teddy said next. “Maybe kinda soon.” His joke nervous belied real nervous. “It’s important but I don’t want to talk about it over the phone.”
“Oh.” For a moment she’d thought he’d just called to chat, that he was initiating a relationship between them. It had been a foolish thought. “Is it about the factory? Because I don’t know anything about running the factory.”
“Yeah. I mean sort of. I need your help. Things aren’t right with some of the waste barrels. It might be a bigger problem than that.” His words tumbled out and then slowed again. “Can you please just come?”
Though Marlow was forty–three and Teddy was only twenty–seven, he had inherited the family business when their grandfather died. Over a year ago now. Their parents had died eight months before Grandpa Irving. That Teddy was calling now, when Marlow was trying to launch a business of her own, a different kind of food factory of all things, made her feel defensive. She felt like she’d been caught caring about something she’d publicly said she didn’t care about. It didn’t help that her jerky project was barely out of the prototype phase.
“Why can’t you talk about it over the phone?” When he didn’t answer right away she asked, “Is it actually something very bad?”
“Really Marlow, I need your help in person. With the cherry vats, just that.” His voice moved fast again, not at all like the measured, slightly amused, mellow intonations she remembered from phone encounters of years past. Even at the funerals he’d been calm and self–possessed.
She didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t like he’d said he felt callous negotiating raises with sob–story employees. He hadn’t said the rest of the management team was jockeying for a takeover. He was being secretive about the easiest part of the whole operation—the equipment. You just called the manufacturer or the sales rep!
Had he after all picked up too many bad habits from their mother, for instance believing if you acted pathetic, incompetent, and helpless enough someone would swoop in and save you from even the most minor inconvenience? “Oh, it’s just too high, I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Her mom squawking in the grocery store, panicked, not ten steps from a stepladder and one of those long pincer arms. Like she was talking about making room on a life raft and not reaching for a top–shelf roll of paper towels. Eventually an embarrassed–looking young man had come and got it down for her. Ten– year–old Marlow had been just seconds away from monkey climbing to the top and lobbing the paper towels down at her mother. That would have given her something real to worry about.
“Driving out of Alaska in the winter is like invading Russia in the winter,” Marlow teased.
“May isn’t winter,” Teddy said. Clearly he didn’t understand the difference in seasons between New York and Alaska. “Anyway, just fly.”
“There’s no adventure in flying,” Marlow answered. “If I leave tomorrow I’ll be there in about a week. It’s time for a visit anyway. I’m sure you’re doing a great job with the factory though. I’m sure you are.” There was no question of her saying no to the visit; it would be like finding out your long lost friend was still alive after a shipwreck and then saying, “Nah, I can’t hang out tonight. My favorite show’s on TV.” A phone call out of the blue was not a sign to ignore. It was an opening to be part of a family again. But she needed the week to prepare mentally.
Marlow paced on tingly feet after they hung up and then remembered the kindling and the stove and busied herself with that. They hadn’t said “I love you.” It had a weirdly inappropriate feeling to it, the same as hugging did. The image of him as a snuggly five–year–old made sense, swirl of dark hair like a soft–serve ice cream cone, but she had never known her brother as a grown man. She had no frame of reference for how to interact. It almost felt right to say she’d “met him a few times.”
She’d run off to play at cowboy in New Mexico when he was only five, leaving him alone in Brooklyn with Mom and Dad. Before she left she’d had one last fight with them—she couldn’t quite remember about what. Maybe how Teddy was too old to still be using a sippy cup, even if it was just at bedtime, or maybe they were still pushing him in a stroller. She’d missed him like crazy but it hadn’t stopped her from leaving.
After Teddy adapted to life without her as a buffer between him and their nervous–as–deer parents, he never wanted to admit when he didn’t understand the joke or couldn’t reach the rungs of the jungle gym—he learned early to choose silence over attracting smothering “help.” Teddy had probably never failed at anything while their parents were alive, having always picked the guaranteed win and knowing mom and dad would bail him out if things got hard. That was why he was calling in reinforcements for vats.
Eventually the fire in the woodstove caught. She fed it oxygen. “I should have brought you with me on some of my road trips,” she said aloud. “You could have scraped your knee for once in your life and learned it wasn’t going to kill you.”
But something about that explanation didn’t feel right. Marlow pulled out her beat–up duffel and laid it open on the floor, a little charge going through her at the sight of it. “Hey, old friend,” she said. “We’re finally going to get back on the road.”
As she made a pile of objects to be folded and compressed inside the duffel, she couldn’t avoid thinking it anymore. The most obvious reason for Teddy’s call was the one that made her most uneasy: he wanted to talk in person about what had happened after Grandpa Irving died. He knew he’d never be able to keep her on the phone for it.
It had been a Prince Charles situation all along—no one believed the old man would go while Marlow and Teddy’s parents were still young enough to want to take over the maraschino cherry factory full–time. Mom and Dad lived in Westchester and commuted in a few days per week to fulfill their honorary roles. Irving steered the company. No one expected him to have updated his will after their parents died. He was the type to avoid getting lost in emotion by getting lost in work, but it turned out Irving had taken his daughter’s wishes into account and had updated his will to reflect what the executor had revealed about her plans for the family business. It wasn’t really a surprise that they’d skipped over Marlow; thinking back on it now she didn’t understand why she’d been blindsided. Maybe it was because her parents had always been such meddlers, and she’d been expecting one last attempt on their part to rope her into the maraschino life. Meddling was, after all, their pathological way of showing that they cared.
“It doesn’t matter the motivation behind it, you were bad parents,” she said. “And now it’s too late to correct it.”
There were no do–overs, no second chances. You couldn’t un–throw a baseball, un–jump out of second–story window, or un–over–salt the soup. Your brother growing from a baby into a man and you missing it was another thing that couldn’t be undone. But as pessimistic as she was, his phone call had sparked a hope she didn’t want to fully articulate, as it would be equivalent to speaking the words of a curse out loud just to prove it wasn’t real. As she pulled the zipper closed on the old duffel, she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if she showed up in New York and they jumped right into fixing vats, and then added in some spices and adventures for good measure, and kept the rehashing of old times to a minimum. Maybe Marlow and Teddy could start new from zero, blank slate.
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