Safety Measures

In this gentle story by Melissa Ostrom, Malory strives to launch into adulthood and freedom. 

By Melissa Ostrom 

“red sold sign” © Diana Parkhouse https://www.flickr.com/photos/digallagher/4880167882/

North of my house stretched fifteen acres of shagbark hickories and sugar maples and red oaks. The woods were perpetually for sale and though no old-growth forest, had stood untouched for as long as I’d lived near them. That changed in April. I bicycled past the sold sign on my way home from school and before supper that night, told Mom. She already knew about it and wasn’t happy.

“Did you tell Dad?”

Him” She flicked off the faucet and violently shook water out of a head of romaine. “We should have bought that land. I’ve been after him to do that forever. He didn’t listen. He never listens. I’m done talking. You tell him.”

So I did, when he came in to eat.

“Really, Malory?” He stared at me from across the table, the newspaper limp in his left hand, his right worrying his bald crown. “I hate to guess how much it will cost to excavate it. Nothing but rocks, clay, and crowded trees over there. No way it passed the perc test. Tearing down those hardwoods and hauling in a mountain of dirt for the septic?” He shook his head and whistled softly. “I’d say thirty, forty grand at least—just for the excavation.”

“I don’t know why you’re so surprised,” Mom said. She tossed a wooden spoon in the sink then slapped the microwave door closed. “We’re right next door, and twenty-eight years ago, we managed to build a home.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say it was exactly the same, sweetie-pie. We’re closer to the ridge. Look at your garden: that’s a perfect pocket of sandy loam.”

Mom gave me a commiserating glance, a look that said, Men!

Hunching lower in my chair, I tackled my salad and tried to look busy.

With awful solemnity, she marched past the island, a platter of darkly grilled chicken in her hands. The dish came to the table with a thud, and the charred breasts bounced.

He avoided her eyes and opened the newspaper, mumbling something about checking a score. When he buried his head in the sports section, she turned to me.

I focused on my plate. The older I got, the more Mom clung to me. Two years ago, she’d changed my nickname from pumpkin to partner. She used to order me upstairs to make my bed; these days, she sprawled on it when I was trying to read and drilled me: “Why don’t you hang out with friends more, partner? Don’t you have a best friend? No, no, not like Jenna and Renee. You girls just study together. Who? Lisa? That girl from your chess club? No, I mean a really, really good friend. A kindred spirit, a bosom pal.”

Lately, when she got on a roll with the questions, I’d wonder if she wanted me to say, “Why, it’s you, Mom. You’re my bosom pal.” That would probably end the pestering, but holy shit, at what cost? She’d pack our suitcases, find us an apartment, and head off to college with me.

Last weekend: case in point. On Friday, when we returned from the spring concert, she fell across the foot of my bed. With her head propped up on my black flute case, she went on about the “nice looking, tall boy” who played drums in the back of the orchestra. (She meant Ted, a nose picker and butt pincher, who’d rightfully earned the nickname, “Ted Bug,” as in “Don’t let the Ted Bug bite.”) The next day, she waltzed into the bathroom when I was trying to shower, ignored my yelp, sat on the edge of the tub, and delved into some gossip about one of her coworkers. Someone I’d never even met. And then Sunday, when I came in from helping Dad with the yard work, she caught me in a near-headlock, tapped her hip against mine, and squealed, “Hey, partner, let’s party!” It was enough to make me want to run back outside and arm myself with the edger.

Now Mom dropped into her chair at the table and blew a sigh. Dad quickly folded the paper and slipped it to the floor. As he opened his napkin, he tried a conciliatory smile on her. “Tell me about your day.”

She went on and on about the property sale.

I kept my eyes on my plate and ate the chicken. Mom grilled meat with the aim of cooking the bejesus out of harmful bacteria, so each forkful required long periods of chewing. This at least excused me from joining in on the discussion.

But I also thought about the adjacent lot. I passed it often enough on my bike, twice a day during the school year. Since trees thickly surrounded our house, even in the front, I couldn’t have told a person where our wooded acres ended and the next fifteen began. The trees all looked the same: feathery and green in the spring, lush in the summer, blazing in the fall, and snow-covered in the winter.

The prospect of the woods’ fate—strangers halving it and tearing down trees for an ugly, dry lawn and an ugly, new house—gave me one more reason to look forward to going away to college in a year.

 


 

The property’s transformation started immediately. I expected rampaging bulldozers, roaring machines of destruction, the screeching of felled trees. That’s not what I got.

One day, on my ride home from school, I saw a slim, curved opening that cut into the woods. By the end of April, a small clearing appeared. Nothing much happened during the rainy three weeks in May. Then June showed some activity: the digging of the well, a poured concrete foundation. School let out for the summer, but I kept pedaling over every day, mostly just to flee the house and avoid Mom with her “big summer plans”: the girls’ night out, the lunch for two, the shopping day at the outlet mall. In July, the house began to grow. By then the trees were thick with leaves, complicating my roadside view of the construction. I started waiting to investigate until dusk, when the workers called it quits. Then I rode down the driveway undetected and alone—blissfully alone, if I didn’t count the phone in my hoodie pocket regularly dinging with anxious texts from Mom.

“Entrance to the study” © Jesus Rodriguez https://www.flickr.com/photos/jmrodri/7336188386/

The builders had the house half-framed by the end of July. The precisely connected timber let me know, from the outside, something of what the inside would look like. It was a nice design—no crazy dormers or turrets or cupolas. Just graceful beams and planes of timber.

The science behind the intersections, the placement and sizes of the posts and beams, intrigued me. I thought about everything this frame would have to handle: human bodies and furniture, the rolling winds off Lake Ontario, and heavy snowfalls too. I sort of felt for the place. What the feeling was, I couldn’t say exactly. Maybe sympathy or tenderness. Maybe even a little love.

By the middle of August, the frame looked finished, and over dinner one evening, I mentioned I might check it out.

Dad frowned. “Like go in it?”

I nodded.

He put down his newspaper. “That’s trespassing, Malory.”

“And dangerous, partner.” Mom shoved the bowl of mashed potatoes toward me, as if to offer an alternative to my investigating agenda. “You could fall off a ladder and break a leg. Stick with your bike riding. Or if you’re bored, you could dig out your old roller skates. They’re in the basement. Hey! Maybe I’ll look for mine too.”

“Oh. Oh, no. That’s okay.” I hastily dropped my gaze to the serving dish and, wishing I’d kept my plans to myself, spooned potatoes onto my plate. They spread with a splat.

The next day after supper, I rode over for my usual inspection. But I abruptly braked by the edge of the property. Through the stand of trees, I saw bodies—seven, I thought, though they buzzed around the exposed floors too quickly for me to be sure. And they weren’t the team of builders, either. Most of the figures were short enough to be children. They hung out of the spaces framed for windows, climbed ladders, and chased each other through the rooms. Floor boards didn’t even cover the upper joists yet.

A shout of laughter burst through the foliage. The noise struck me as obnoxious. These strangers were taking over the woods I used to explore. And they were stomping in the house I’d watched emerge, timber by timber. It felt like my house. I reasoned these people must be the new owners, but they looked like lawless intruders. Before I realized I shouldn’t, I pushed myself forward on my bike.

The unpaved driveway cut like a jagged wound into the woods. Along its narrow length, muddy pools from the morning’s showers shimmered in the evening light. My bike pitched into these ruts with angry splashes and bounced between the crusty ridges. As I lurched around the last bend to the house, I noticed my elongated shadow, my helmeted head distorted to an alien-like oval, the bicycle tires as enormous as a chariot’s wheels.

The family must have seen or heard me coming. When I braked to a jerky stop, though the children still clung to posts and straddled various beams, a man and a woman waited in the driveway and gazed at me curiously.

“picnic basket” © Jenni Konrad https://www.flickr.com/photos/queen_of_subtle/1508168478/in/photostream/

The man nodded. “Hey.”

They were much younger than my parents, but then most kids’ parents were. Dad was already retired. A thick brown beard covered this stranger’s face. Dark hair curled around his head and whirled across his forehead. Its luxuriousness didn’t fit his thinly muscled arms and legs.

The woman beside him wore a faded sundress in a handkerchief print. Her hair fell in a tawny braid over her shoulder.

I lifted my hand in a belated wave.

The woman smiled. “How’s it going?”

I dropped my hand, squeezed the handlebar, and felt very stupid. “Good. Good, thanks. Thought I’d just stop by…and welcome you to the—” I thought about my road, nothing but woods, fields of feed corn, and three houses—“neighborhood.”

“Thanks,” the man said. The brown eyes behind all of that brown hair were friendly. In three decades, he’d probably look like Santa on a diet. Right now, though, he looked like Jesus.

A towheaded child, five or so, rolled down the grassless septic mound and veered her tumble toward the driveway so that she landed at the woman’s feet. Without glancing at the child, the mother stooped, collected her, and gave the small, muddy back an indifferent pat. “Are you our neighbor then?” she asked me.

“Yes.” I inched my bike back a foot and pointed to the south. “That way. Just thought I’d say hi.”

Before I could take off, the woman called up, “Come on down guys. Meet your neighbor. This is—”

“Malory.”

“Malory,” she repeated loudly.

Young bodies swooped and fell. Including the towhead, there were six. The mother touched heads, one by one, and identified them with names that sounded like those posted above the cabin doors at Stony Stream, the campsite in Pennsylvania where my family used to vacation. Tempest, Haven, Riley Wind, Cubby, Leo, and Sunny ranged in sizes and hair color, from wispy blond to dark brunette, but they still bore a strong resemblance to each other, lanky with soft brown eyes. The oldest one, Sunny, looked to be around my age and was very pretty. Gleaming hair, shining expression—her name fitted her. She watched me closely.

When the woman tapped her own chest, I expected to hear something like Iris or Rainbow. But she introduced herself as Megan then stroked her husband’s arm. “And this is Jeff.”

I gave them an awkward smile. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” She lowered the toddler to the dirt and glanced at the sky. “Twenty more minutes, guys.” While the younger children scrambled off, she smiled at me. “Hope to see you again, Malory.” Then she walked toward the back where two blankets on the upturned earth held strewn plates, cups, and a basket. They must have picnicked there. After raising a hand in parting, the father wandered that way, as well.

Sunny folded her arms over her chest and dug the toe of her dirty sneaker into the muddy driveway. “So you go to Milton High School?”

“Yeah. For one more year.”

“I’ll be a senior next year too.” She tossed her hair—dark but with honey highlights—over her shoulder.

I could see the questions in her face: Is it a good school? Is it big? How are the teachers? Are the people nice there? She didn’t ask them, but I could have answered them anyway.

Instead, I just nodded.

Behind the half-built house, her mother repacked the picnic basket, while her father wadded up the blankets and said something to one of the children trying to climb a hickory on the edge of the woods. I frowned at the grown-ups. What kind of parents moved before their daughter had a chance to finish her last year of high school?

“We’re from the Detroit area.” She said this flatly, as if it explained everything, then swept up a hand to indicate the house. “Dad’s a builder. Want to see our place?”

I hesitated, not sure if she was just being polite, not sure if I should accept, but sure, very sure, I wanted to see the partially built house up close. “Okay.” I glanced over my shoulder, half-expecting my mother to appear, singing out her mix of frantic warnings, breathless scolds, and let-me-do-your-hair-and-makeup-partner. She’d want me home by now. My bicycling made her nervous, especially in the evening.

I reached into my pocket and silenced my phone.

Sunny watched me get off the bike. Her mouth curled when I removed my helmet. “Ready?”

I touched my flattened hair. “Yep.”

The foundation lifted the house a couple feet off the ground. She reached the first floor with a graceful leap. I followed in a clumsy climb. Feeling her gaze, I covered my nervousness by dusting my hands on my shorts and observing, “Your house reminds me of a cathedral.”

She smiled. “That’s because it’s a timber-frame.” She crossed the floor of what I imagined would become a great room and pointed. “Here’s an anchor beam. And see up there—the bracket in the corner? They call that a hammer. It holds up the roof.” She moved to the middle of the room and looked up again. “This diagonal one’s a dragon beam.”

Dragon beam. “Cool.”

I tilted my head to study the steep angles and symmetrical spans of wood. The posts and beams shone golden, and the warm air wrapped me in a piney sharpness I’d happily have breathed forever. Overhead, a hawk soared. Its shadow floated over the crisscrossing timbers, and I dropped my eyes to the floor to follow the dark echo of its circling. The low sun sent a second house frame onto the ground. It made two of Sunny, as well. Standing in the middle of the room, she was gazing up, and her hair, full of light, fell down her back. She reminded me of a priestess, straight out of a good fantasy novel. Her shadow elongated her silhouette, but rather than distorting her oddly, it emphasized her regal look.

She explained the floor plan as she led me under beams, out of the main room to different corners, and around posts. Sometimes one of her brothers or sisters would traipse in her way or make a grab for her hand, and she’d interrupt our meandering to order, “Move it, Riley,” or to say in a kinder tone, “I’ll play with you in a bit, okay?” Jumbled in with her explanation of the layout were more timber-frame lessons and a few shyly asked questions. She established that I didn’t have a car or a boyfriend or siblings, and then said, “Here’s the kitchen area. That’s called a summer beam. Do you play any sports?”

“No. No sports.” Feeling like a failure, I said defensively, “I’m in some clubs, though.” Masterminds, the chess club, Poetry Pals, a book club. But I kept the list to myself. She looked disappointed, so I added, “Sorry.” A moment later, as if to emphasize my limitations, I tripped over an orange extension cord.

She, on the other hand, moved nimbly across the sawdust-covered floor. It didn’t take me long to decide she did play sports, probably very well. She seemed smart too. She certainly knew the parts of a timber-frame house. After explaining the difference between bent girts and connecting girts, she gave a self-conscious laugh. “I don’t mean to blab. This stuff fascinates me. Dad let me help him with the house plans.” She twisted her hair together until it fell in a tight rope over her shoulder. As soon as she released the end, her hair unraveled. “I want to be an architect.”

I nodded slowly. “You’d be good at that.”

She flashed me a smile. “Check out where we’re putting the screened-in porch.” Her siblings flitted between us, but she ignored them and finished giving me the tour. When we stopped at the end of the house opposite the driveway, I gazed once more over the graceful lines and arches. The shadowed web of timbers and the scent of shorn trees dizzied me. I wrapped my arm around a post and found myself stroking it, the smoothness of the wood and the dark eyes along the grain.

She grinned. “Special, isn’t it?”

My face warmed. I stepped away from the post. “Yeah.”

“Want to see where my room’s going?”

I glanced around in confusion. I didn’t think we’d left any territory unidentified.

“Up there.”

Above me, beams marked the second floor. What didn’t mark the second floor was a floor. I swallowed. “There’s no staircase.” Or floor.

“The staircase isn’t in yet. We’ll have to climb the ladder.”

She showed me where the staircase would go. As we stood at the ladder, I only half-listened to her explanation of the planned landing, the banister and backless treads. The parallel joists over my head transfixed me.  I imagined myself fumbling over them on my hands and knees while Sunny skipped ahead of me, agile and confident. Then I pictured myself slipping between the joists and crashing to the first floor.

“Ready?”

I wiped my hands on my shirt. “Okay.”

She flew up the rungs. I trailed her, only aware of the creaks of the ladder and my pounding heart. I looked down and froze. The first floor seemed far away.

What was I trying to prove? I hardly knew this girl. Once school started, she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. She’d make friends with girls like herself. They’d gather here. I’d ride by these fifteen acres and hear them through the woods. The house would no longer share itself with me. It’d be a secret.

“Coming?” The sun ignited her. At a sibling’s shout, she looked past me then flung back her head and laughed, presumably at her brother or sister. Her sudden movement lifted her hair into a filigreed halo.

I took a deep breath, trudged the rest of the way up and then inched onto the board, a makeshift landing by the top of the ladder. As I slowly rose, I steadied myself with a hand on the nearest timber.

I was suspended: neither in a house nor out of one, not flying, of course, but no longer planted on the ground. I exhaled. “Wow.”

“Awesome, isn’t it?”

“Awesome.” It was like a treehouse, with the woods around us, close and deep. A wind coursed through the openings. I breathed in the naked timbers, smelled pine and smelled autumn too. Sure enough, color already touched a few of the trees. “Look at the red in the maple over there.”

“Maple leaves, 2” © Anita https://www.flickr.com/photos/46785534@N06/14934822494/

She leaned forward. “That spot of copper?”

“No, that’s an oak. Look down.”

She dropped her eyes toward the ground. “There?”

I laughed. “No, that’s poison ivy. You can tell. The vine turns scarlet this time of year.”

“You must be good at science.”

I shrugged. “I guess so.” At all of the core subjects, really. Mom expected me to be, so I was. Sometimes it was easier to just do what she wanted—pour over a chemistry textbook even if I’d rather be reading a fantasy, study for a calculus test even if I felt like writing a poem.

Another breeze stirred. The leaves pattered against each other with the sound of rain, and I angled my face into the moving air. When the gust passed, I looked down at the faraway ground then through the sun-ignited trees, then above me, at the steeply pitched rafters, and straight up. The sky was amazing—pure violet. A vibrant sunset really just boiled down to light making a longer path through the atmosphere and scattering the bland blue. But studying it from up here, I could almost believe the rich color was the stuff of magic.

“Is that want you want to be?” Sunny asked behind me. “A scientist?”

I turned. She walked across a beam casually, like she’d learned young to balance herself in precarious situations.

But the beams, themselves, impressed me more than her passage over them. The frame was magnificent, maybe the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. “I’m not sure what I want to be.” I followed her, first in a nervous sidestep then, trusting the sturdiness of the post at my right, more confidently.

The beam under my feet felt firm. I didn’t need to hold on. So I let go. No need to cling to anything.

 


Melissa Ostrom teaches English in rural western New York. Her fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Quarter After Eight, Lunch Ticket, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Her first novel, The Genesee, is forthcoming from Macmillan in the winter of 2018.

 

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  1. Stephanie says:

    I really enjoyed this. The writing is so vivid and beautiful. I wanted to read more of this story. I just have one thing to note: it mentions that there are sic children in all, but seven are named.

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