Low Limb High
by Tom Underhill
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Oh, Uncle Cliff says hi.” Caroline said it as if she and her mother had been talking continuously for hours, rather than sitting in silence through the news and much of Entertainment Tonight.
“He picked you up from school again?”
Her mother shook her head. “That man... but you never could fault his heart.”
The quiet resumed, and Caroline went back to searching for an opening.
“What’s bothering you, Honey? You’ve been so out of it lately, and I can’t remember the last time you sat and watched TV with me...”
Caroline looked over just in time to catch the tail end of the glance that’d preceded the question; her mother’s focus was back on the television again, for who knew how long. “Who gave Dad his watch?”
Frowning, her mother started to turn back towards Caroline before checking the motion. The tiny tennis scar just above her graying temple darkened slightly, as it often did during a mood shift. “You’re really fixated on that ghastly thing now, aren’t you?”
Caroline said nothing, regretting the way she’d just blurted the question out after days of agonizing over the right approach.
Rolling her eyes, her mother changed the channel to CNN. “Uncle Cliff did, actually.”
“But...” Caroline pursed her lips before continuing. “Didn’t they... hate each other?”
Her mother began drumming the remote with manicured fingers in the center of the compass shape created by the channel and volume buttons. “They never hated each other.” Glancing over and back again, her mother switched to Fox News. “Did your brother tell you that?”
“No... I just sorta... thought everyone knew.”
“Well, everyone was wrong then.” Crossing her legs, her mother started surfing rapidly, resting on each new station for no more than two seconds before moving on. “They didn’t hate each other... They just never really grew up in some ways.”
“But why did he give Dad the watch?”
“What is so goddamned fascinating about that hideous, broken piece of junk? Do you even remember what it looked like?” Studying Caroline for a moment as her free fingers groped for the Martini glass on the end table, her mother eventually looked away with a shrug and a sip. “I’m sorry... Although it’s actually appropriate; Cliff was apologizing for something when he gave the watch to your Dad. But it’s been so long now, I can’t remember why... Except that your father wanted that watch ever since Grandpa first showed it to them, and it killed him when it was left to your Uncle... It meant a lot to him to have it.”
Nodding slowly, Caroline got up to leave, passing the Times as she did so. “Thanks.”
Caroline trudged upstairs, wondering if she’d ever outgrow flushing when she lied; her mother certainly hadn’t.
* * *
The box was still where it’d landed, top side up a few feet from Sire’s Seat. Its contents were jumbled but intact; her delayed spasm of panic after the scene reset had done remarkably little damage. Everything was lightly coated with dust, a testament to how truly filthy the attic was... And a sign that there’d been no further movement since the night before.
Caroline hesitated, the hastily crafted figurine of Uncle Cliff dangling from her grasp. She was fairly certain that the watch was the catalyst, that she’d probably have to manipulate it again, pick it up, touch it in some way... But maybe nothing more needed to be done than adding another character. Maybe she could get away with just posing things...
As carefully as she could manage, Caroline knelt down, righted the fallen props, and positioned her father and uncle a few inches apart, steeling herself to wait until the little models looked stable enough to stand on their own before whipping her hand back. The two representations rocked slightly, upset by her hasty withdrawal... But nothing else moved.
Caroline slumped backwards and exhaled heavily. She’d only given her uncle’s figurine two of the four hours she’d spent on her dad’s, but the end product was still vaguely recognizable; the minor dip in quality probably didn’t have much to do with the failure in animation. She needed to get over herself... Just get over herself and handle the damn watch.
Swearing steadily, Caroline scooped up the time piece in her left hand and almost immediately dropped it when the skin of her forefinger began to sink into the small dent on the back. Readjusting her hold, she looked determinedly at the watch’s motionless hands, impossibly advanced to 4:17 pm... Five minutes ahead. Squeezing her lips tight to block off the obscenities, she twisted the time back to 4:12, and with a supreme effort, placed rather than dropped the timepiece in the diorama’s corner.
Her hand cleared the box’s confines at the same instant the watch winked from sight, as if both were crowded out by the pair of resonant, booming little voices that began to fill the diorama.
* * *
“Hey, Uncle Cliff?” Caroline spoke louder this time, hating to repeat herself but needing more volume to overcome the old Toyota’s radio.
She swallowed, and asked the latest question to ricochet around her mind all through school. “Why did you give my dad the watch?”
Her uncle stopped humming along to Paul Simon and darted a look at her before refocusing on traffic. “You mean Granddad’s old watch?”
“Yeah...” Inserting him into the scene last night had revealed disappointingly little: his only words had been “How are you?”; his only actions, offering the watch and leaving.
Uncle Cliff chewed on the side of his cheek, waiting another two intersections before replying. “It was... time for him to have it. He deserved it more than I did... Why do you ask? Did you hear from him?”
“No...” Caroline turned to stare out the window. His greeting of the night before had been charged with the same shame, and she suddenly found it hard to study her uncle’s face like she’d meant to. “Just wondering... Mom mentioned it the other day.”
“What did she say about it?”
“Just that you gave it to him.”
He chewed again until the light changed. “Alright, then.”
* * *
Shaking off her indecision, Caroline removed her father’s figurine from the box and set it aside, leaving her uncle’s representation alone with the watch. As she’d expected, nothing happened, but she still paused to reweigh the potential consequences of pushing further.
The straps of her backpack were starting to chafe her shoulders, rubbing skin made sweaty by her aggressive climb of the oak tree; upon clambering into her room, she’d stopped only to touch the Low Limb High mark on her way into the hall, up to the attic, and onto Sire’s Seat.
Her hunch had happened just as Uncle Cliff pulled into the driveway, and she’d felt compelled to act on it immediately, singlemindedly... Until she actually stood before the little theater again, struck by the counter doubt of whether or not she really wanted to know. If whatever scene she was somehow meant to see next would really be worth viewing.
Frozen in the dust, her eyes idled over Ethan’s shelves... And her resolve returned.
Gritting her teeth as she reached both hands down to the watch, Caroline held it fast in her left while she wound with her right. The tiny black arms rotated through a full twelve hour cycle with no effect... but she was still in the scene.
Pursing her lips, Caroline began making incremental advances, removing her hands every time the minute marker edged a notch further. The strain of holding the position made her shoulder and neck muscles ache, but she refused to stop and put the box on her lap, or even take off her backpack. Stopping for anything meant starting again, and she already knew how hard that was...
At 3:42 pm, her uncle came to life. The rhythm of wind, withdraw, and re-enter had become so ingrained that Caroline nearly put her hands back in the box, stopping just short as she saw Uncle Cliff plunge both of his into tiny pockets. She noted without much surprise that the watch had vanished... Although more unexpectedly so had all the diorama’s furniture, painted walls, and everything else related to her old living room.
Swallowing, Caroline pulled her arms all the way back and wrapped them tightly around her ribs.
“Sharon, I know you’re unhappy... But we can’t do this. It’s not...” His voice trailed off as a vertical indentation appeared over his lips, as if an invisible finger were pressing against them. Pulling one hand out of its pocket, he began to move it in a warding motion that was quickly met by some unseen obstacle.
Slowly, the arm glided back until it hung limp at his side, and his other hand began to rise like a puppet’s out of the other pocket. Fingers emerged loosely clutching the watch, a slender gold chain dangling from the tiny hoop on its base.
Caroline’s breathing doubled in time and force as her uncle’s digits let go one by one, until the watch hovered unsupported just below his waist. After a moment of stasis, the timepiece began levitating away, arching up and then settling back down as the chain spread into a slightly crooked oval.
“Sharon...” Her uncle murmured something else to the tiny clock floating barely a centimeter away from him, but Caroline couldn’t hear it over the pounding in her temples.
The watch rushed forwards without warning, crushing against her uncle’s chest as his arms closed in a circle and he fell backwards. His descent halted halfway to the floor, and he lay horizontally in the air, hands caressing the emptiness as his mouth began to open and close hungrily.
Caroline screamed and slapped the writhing figure, sending it skittering around the diorama. But her uncle’s momentum dissipated quickly, leaving him spinning lazily on his side, still kneading and massaging the space just in from of him while the watch rubbed back and forth along his sternum. The back of his shirt came un-tucked, started to slide upwards, and Caroline reached in with both hands, grabbed her uncle, and twisted.
She flung his now lifeless, plastic torso into the farthest corner of the attic, hurled his lower half at the opposite window, and ran downstairs, hot tears blurring her descent.
* * *
The model of her mother had actually been the easiest to construct. Maybe seeing her daily, however briefly, had helped this form flow the smoothest, sculpted it closest to the pretty original in spite of Caroline’s secret wishes.
Maddeningly, Ethan’s had been the hardest, a representation she wanted to be perfect, but which kept moving further away from her memories the more she labored. In the end, though, she didn’t think it mattered. They were infused with her intent, and that’d been enough so far...
Not that it hadn’t taken a ton of work. Her mother had come home the night before and found Caroline’s room locked and silent. One order of Don’s sesame chicken was still in the fridge; Caroline had only left to use the bathroom and empty her trash. In the morning, her mother had prompted her briefly and halfheartedly before calling in another illness excuse.
At 10:30 a.m., Caroline had forced herself out of bed and reached for the phone: Uncle Cliff picked up on the third ring. Still alive, and still in one piece. Her breath had caught, and she’d hung up without saying anything. After a few more minutes of staring at the ceiling, she’d turned and hurled the crystal unicorn he’d given her two Christmases ago against the door. Shortly after 11:00, she’d swept up the pieces and begun modeling. Convinced that she was ready, but still hoping Ethan would show her how...
Fetching the diorama from the attic, she held it at arm’s length the entire trip down the stairs, even when the turn at the bottom made it almost impossible to do so. After removing all the pieces of miniature furniture from the scene — including the few that hadn’t been damaged the night before — Caroline took a moment to mull over the order in which wanted to proceed. But when she sensed her resistance swelling with the inactivity, she ended her internal debate and grabbed the two models closest at hand: Dad and Ethan.
Caroline ground her teeth harder than she would’ve thought possible as she wound the watch minute by minute, pulled back, waited, wound again, over and over. Until it happened: her father instructing a distraught Ethan that he was now the man of the house, that he had to look after his little sister as well as himself.
And then the watch changed hands, relinquished so impersonally that Caroline cried out and looked away. She turned back in time to see the scene end, witness Ethan chasing after their father as he walked through the diorama’s wall and disappeared.
The front door creaked opened; her mother was home early. “Sweetie, I came to check up on you. How are you feeling?” The words sounded sincere, but they came from the living room, where the television had just been switched on.
Caroline felt her eyes flaring, found herself running downstairs without a clear idea of what she intended.
* * *
“Why did Dad leave?”
Her mother looked away from the news, the first time her gaze had shifted in twenty minutes. “I wondered why you sat down here with me for so long, that ‘I have a question look’ burning up your face the whole time.”
Caroline’s stare remained steady.
“And Heaven knows why you’ve been digging up all this ancient history... But as you already know, it was a matter of fidelity. Or rather your father’s lack of it.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t the other way around?”
The sudden smack of mother’s hand on daughter’s cheek reverberated through the room, coinciding exactly with a cut to commercial so that for a split second, there was nothing but the legacy of family violence echoing through the air.
“I...” Her mother took another breath, the scar on her temple flashed crimson, and the justifications came tumbling out. “How dare you make such insinuations, you ungrateful little bitch! Damn you... Damn you! My daughter! My own daughter-”
“And Uncle Cliff’s?”
The hand only just pulled up short. “Caroline, so help me, I won’t lose another child...”
Caroline scrambled off the couch and to the base of the staircase, whirling around as her foot hit the first step. The handprint on her cheek was almost an angry a red as her mother’s scar. “Ethan found out, didn’t he? And so did Dad, and that’s why they left, because you’re a whore, a lying slut, and they couldn’t stand it-” A sharp sob cut her off, and she struggled to suppress the others welling up behind it.
Her mother was looking down at her feet now, hand still extended in a striking position but hanging limply at her side. “Your father strayed first...”
“Liar!” The accusation burst out atop a wave of weeping, and Caroline stumbled back up to her room.
* * *
“I saw you.” Her brother’s tiny arm inched up until it protruded at an accusing angle.
“Saw me? Saw me where, Ethan?”
“I saw you.” His voice wavered briefly as the miniscule eyes began to glisten.
“Ethan, honey, what’s the matter?” Setting down an absent paper, her little mother stood and walked forwards.
“Stay away from me!” Ethan recoiled from his mother’s presence, whipping his arm back to hug himself tight.
“I saw you with him, you whore!”
Her mother sagged backwards a step before regaining her balance. She opened her mouth to voice a denial, but the words clogged, and nothing came out.
Ethan was crying. “Dad knew, didn’t he?... That’s why he left... Why he’s gone...”
“Whose son am I?” His voice was suddenly steady, soft yet hard.
Her mother was struck mute again.
“Whose son am I!?” Ethan hurled the watch at his mother, flinging it out of his pocket and into the air in one powerful motion.
The tiny clock struck her mother in the forehead before bouncing to the floor, visibly dented on the back side from one of the two impacts.
“Caroline-” A louder voice started and then stopped behind her.
“Whose son am I?” Ethan shrieked into the silence.
Her mother put a hand to her dripping brow and said nothing. As Ethan turned away, the scene reset, the figures went back to their starting positions, and the infinitesimal spots of blood that had spattered the base of the box vanished.
Caroline turned at last to look at the doorway, where her mother stood petrified in a giant imitation of her miniature’s pose from seconds earlier. Locking eyes, Caroline only had to stare for a few moments before she forced her elder’s gaze down. “I saw you.”
Her mother’s head hung, her body drooped, and she slumped to the floor.
Caroline’s own sobs returned, and she nearly collapsed next to her broken parent before steadying herself against the desk. Fumbling for the watch, she hefted it in one hand, looked back towards her mother... And found she lacked the strength.
Turning back one more time to reach for a pen, Caroline staggered towards the door. Her mother seemed not to notice the watch as it was set in her lap, seemed incapable of anything but mourning where she lay. Caroline observed for a few seconds more before standing up and lowering Ethan’s mark four inches, which, as far as she could tell, put it even with the top of her head.
And then she was in the hallway, flinging away the pen as she ran up the stairs for one last embrace.
Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill