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Gossamer(7)
Author: Lois Lowry

Strapping had been surprised by the dishes, for he had been taught that dishes are thick with touchable fragments of happiness: pieces of birthday parties, holiday meals, families gathered at tables. But the woman's dishes, unmatched, stacked at random on an open shelf in her shabby, unclean kitchen, held only fragments of regret and sorrow. He found fear there, as well, for although the dishes he touched that night had been whole, they still contained fear fragments that involved smashing and breakage, tears and threats. No good dreams there. It was the stuff of nightmares, and he had finally turned away and left the kitchen, fluttering back to the small living area with its threadbare, filthy rug, the butt-cluttered ashtrays, and the outdated TV Guide on a table ringed with stains. An empty beer bottle stood on the table beside a half-eaten sandwich, but Strapping ignored those things.

He went once again to the painted shelf on the wall, to the seashell displayed there. It was the one object that he enjoyed the most, for touching it brought a breeze shot through with sunshine, the tangy whiff of salt, a child's laughter pealing across the breeze, and cool foam on bare feet sinking into their own outline in gritty sand at the ocean's edge. Collecting all of that at once was weighty. But Strapping was strong. He touched the shell, smoothing his touch around its perimeter, gathering the fragments to bestow the woman once again with the dream she loved and needed most.

This time, when he felt the shell, he felt too the sand-smudged hand of the child who had picked it up. He felt the warm lint-lined pocket of the boy's shorts as he placed the seashell there with others he had collected. Strapping gathered those things for the dream, so many things that he became heavy with them and had to move slowly to the room where the young woman slept.

As he leaned to breathe the dream into her, and felt the fragments—sand, sun, shell, foam, feet, pocket, salt, smile, all of them—begin their slide of transfer, the slide that would culminate in the barely perceptible burst of sparkles, he perceived, and added, the name of the boy. He was John.

Strapping fluttered back to watch her receive the dream. It was the part he enjoyed most, seeing the effect, the smile in the sleep, the happy sigh. It made him aware of how important his work was.

Tonight, upon receiving the dream, the young woman called out in her sleep, using the boy's name. "John!" she cried softly. She turned, her eyelids fluttering, and though Strapping could tell that she was basking in the dream and feeling the long-ago sun-filled day that he had brought back to her through the seashell, he sensed also that it had reminded her of a terrible loss.

10

He scowled when the woman called him Johnny. She held a paper in her hand, and he could see that his name was on it. His name was also printed in thick letters on a tag that flapped from the handle of his suitcase. JOHN. So why did the woman call him Johnny, a dumb nickname, a wimp name? He began to hate her for it. But he wouldn't let her know. He kept his face frozen, expressionless. He had mastered that. No one knew any of his feelings. He stared at the floor.

The social work lady was going over the paperwork with the woman. The woman would have to sign for him, as if he were a package from UPS—what a joke that was! The last people had signed for him too, and then returned him. Defective merchandise: you could always return that. Didn't fit. Wrong color. Missing parts.

Screw loose. Hah. Maybe that was his defect, the thing that got him sent back.

He had asked for Coke but the woman gave him lemonade. Holding the glass, he wandered into the next room, an ugly room with old-fashioned furniture and framed photographs of grouchy, old-fashioned people wearing stupid clothes. There was a man in a uniform, smiling, and the photo was tinted so the man's lips were pink, like a girl's. It wasn't even a good uniform like a Green Beret's or a Navy Seal's. John would be a Navy Seal if he could, someday. They swam carrying knives, then came to beaches at night and killed enemies there very silently before swimming away again. John wanted to do that.

There was a piano. Ruffled curtains, flowered wallpaper. He hated it all. And where was the television?

"Johnny!" It was the woman. He'd already forgotten her name, and didn't care. He wouldn't be here that long. He didn't need to call her anything. Especially if she kept calling him Johnny, not his name. He would call her Nothing. That would be her name. Hah.

He didn't reply.

He poked a key on the piano, a white one at the far end, and heard the high sound it made.

"Johnny?" she said again, and now she was in the doorway, looking at him. "The lemonade stays in the kitchen. It's just a rule I have, so things don't get spilled on the furniture or the piano."

Rule I have. Rule I have. Fine. He had rules, too. One was don't smile back, even if they smile at you, and she was smiling at him now. She reached for the glass and took it from him.

"Do you like the piano? I took lessons on this very same piano when I was your age. My mother had to nag me to practice, but I'm glad she did."

He poked a key at the other end, and the sound was deep.

"If you like, I could teach you while you're here. I used to give lessons. I still have some old books around."

John shrugged and turned away.

"Have you met Toby?" she asked.

Oh, great. Someone else? One place he'd been had four kids besides him. One kept twisting his arm when no one was looking, then called him crybaby.

Toby was a crybaby name. He looked over then, thinking that, and saw that it was a dog. Not even a real breed, not a rottweiler or pit bull or anything. Just a mutt.

He reached out toward it without thinking, but it backed away. It was scared of him. Good. He liked it when things were scared of him. It gave him power.

"Toby," the woman said to the dog, in a sweet, teasing voice, "be nice. Don't be scared. This is Johnny."

He glared at her. "John," he said fiercely.

"Oh. I'm sorry. Here, John," she said to him, and reached into the pocket of her apron. She gave him a bone-shaped biscuit. "He's not used to boys. It's just been the two of us. But give him that and he'll be your new best friend." Then she turned and took the lemonade glass to the kitchen. The social work lady was at the door, holding her briefcase and preparing the fake goodbye smile she always used when she left him someplace new. He didn't look at her.

He looked at the dog. It stared back at him with big brown eyes. He had not been at a house with a dog before.

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