By Steve Carr
Joe pushed the screen door open with his wheelchair footrests and wheeled out onto the porch. With creaking hinges, the door slowly closed behind him as he stopped at the porch railing. The edges of the lightweight quilt around his shoulders flapped in the cold wind. He pulled it tight around him, clasping it with one hand at the neck to stop the flow of frigid air from getting into his pajama top. The blue wool blanket that lay across his legs barely kept them warm. His feet in wool socks and red flannel slippers fared only slightly better. He settled back in the chair, noticing the wispy clouds of air he created with every exhaled breath.
The porch was illuminated by bright yellow moonlight , as was the snow-covered yard, but the fields and foothills beyond that were shrouded in hues of light blue. Other than light snow flurries that swirled in the air, the night sky was calm and clear. Joe gazed up at the stars and briefly thought about making a wish on the brightest one but decided against it. He had stopped believing in making wishes. He looked up and watched the sign with the words “Turbell’s Rehabilitation Home” painted in black on it that hung from the porch gutter swing back and forth on squeaking chains.
The sound of a cracking tree limb in the oak tree that stood alongside the house diverted his attention to it. Six inches of snow had fallen in a short period of time. It piled on the bare branches, causing even the largest ones to bow a little. The moonlight on the tree’s trunk made the bark take on different shapes: etchings of birds and ornately carved masks with vacant eyes. Another sound, the howling of a coyote far off in the wintry landscape, made him turn his head back to beyond the yard. He let his imagination wander, and in the shadows between the hills he saw four-legged beasts with two heads, flapping their wings, preparing for flight, and nymphs and satyrs frolicking in the snow.
“You’ll catch your death of cold.”
Startled, Joe quickly turned his head to the top of the wheelchair ramp. A woman dressed in a ball gown made of pure white fur that reached from below her chin to the floor stood there. Her hands were gloved in dark brown leather. The porcelain smooth skin of her face was bright pink; her cheeks even brighter. Across her eyes was a mask made from orange and red Autumn leaves sprinkled with flecks of frozen, glistening dew. A strap tied below her chin held a large wide brimmed hat on her head. Feathers of all types stuck out; those from swans, geese, peacocks, robins, sparrows, and many more. Through the almond-shaped holes in the mask, the woman fixed her violet eyes on him and gazed at him appraisingly.
“Who are you?” Joe stammered.
“I’ve come to take care of you,” she said. Her voice was like the sound of wind chimes.
Joe relaxed, just a little. “Ha!” he said. “In that get-up? You don’t look like any nurse I’ve ever seen.” He pulled the quilt tighter around him. “Mrs. Turbell said nothing about a nurse coming here.”
The woman stepped onto the porch. Snowflakes tinkled as they fell from her dress. “I’m not a nurse,” she said.
“Then how are you going to take care of me?” he asked.
She stepped closer to him. The sweet, pure fragrance of a forest stream wafted from her. “What is it you would most like in the world?”
He quickly glanced down at his legs and then back at her. “You don’t look like a magic genie either,” he said. “C’mon, what’s this all about? How did you get out here in the middle of nowhere without a car?” He cupped his hands and blew breath into them. His teeth chattered.
“Travel takes many forms,” she said. She took the mask from her face and placed it across his eyes. “Let me show you.”
Joe felt himself rising gently into the air. He looked down and saw his wheelchair below. He felt blood and strength coursing through his dangling legs. Suddenly cradled in a warm wind, he was carried beyond the yard and slowly drifted high over the snowscape . Below him, bright green dragons playfully wrestled in the snow drifts, elves raced sleds down the hills, and wearing skates made of moonbeams, fairies did circles, half circles and figure eights on the ice-covered ponds.
Then suddenly, he was back on the porch.
“How did you do that?” he asked in an awed whisper. He placed his fingers on the mask. “Is this some kind of masquerade trick?”
“It’s time you went back inside,” she said. “You still have things to do.”
“First, answer my questions.”
She removed a glove and touched his forehead with her fingertips. “A mask is not to hide behind, but see through,” she said.
Joe instantly fell into a deep sleep.
It took a moment before Joe’s blurry vision cleared enough for him to recognize that it was Mrs. Turbell who was leaning over his bed. She had her face inches from his. Her eyes were bloodshot, her cheeks blotchy, and her breath smelled of gin.
She rocked back on her calloused heels. “So, you’re not going to die on me after all,” she said coldly.
Joe looked up and recognized the pattern of cracks in the ceiling in his bedroom. They resembled butterflies and dragonflies. The aroma of camphor hung in the air and irritated his nostrils. He raised his head from his pillow and looked around his bedroom. He was surprised to see that the dull, gray curtains still covered the window, the painted white dresser was against the wall as always, and his small bookcase stacked with paperback novels stood where it always stood, by the door. An air humidifier sitting on a small table in a corner whirred loudly. His wheelchair sat at the end of the bed. He laid his head back and ran his tongue around his parched lips.
Raspily, he asked, “Is it time to get up?” His mouth was dry and his throat ached, slightly.
Mrs. Turbell put her hands on her broad hips and cocked her head first to one side and then the other. She glared at him with one of her eyes closed. “After two days of being asleep, don’t you think it’s about time you got up?”
“Two days?” he said, astonished. He watched a dragonfly flit across the ceiling.
She smoothed the wrinkles in her stained, pale yellow apron. “I tried to wake you when I found you sitting in the living room and the front door wide open,” she said. “Lord knows what you were doing there in the middle of the night, but you were sound asleep. I had to have the others help me get you back into your bed.” She grabbed his wheelchair and positioned it next to his bed. “I was afraid you had fallen into some kind of coma. I have enough to do without being your nurse.”
“What about the woman with the feather hat?” he asked. “She said she would take care of me.”
She cackled. “That musta been some dream. You talked about her in your sleep ever since we put you to bed.”
“It wasn’t a dream,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “Can you get yourself into your wheelchair?”
He thought about his body, the heaviness of it, the lack of feeling from the waist down. There was no pain. There never was. The motorcycle accident had mangled his nerves as well as his spine. Of all the things he missed, the simple act of walking barefoot through a meadow was what he missed most. “Yes,” he answered.
Mrs. Turbell walked to the door and stood there for a moment. She shook her head, flicking a strand of hair from her face. “Everyone has had breakfast but I can fix you some oats.” She left the room.
He listened to her bare feet thumping on the hardwood floor as she walked down the hallway.
Before sitting up to transfer into his wheelchair, he looked up at the ceiling and watched a kaleidoscope of butterflies fly to the wall with the window, and then disappear behind the curtain. He heard the window raise, a blast of cold air made the curtains billow out and filled the room, and then the window closed.
Using his spoon, Joe pushed at the lumpy, sticky oatmeal in his bowl, creating a formation that resembled a castle. For several moments he stared at that gargoyles formed by the clumped oats that clung to the castle walls before smashing the castle into the rest of the oats. He sat alone in the kitchen and listened to the rhythmic ticking of the clock that hung on the wall above the refrigerator and to the accompanying pinging of the dripping sink faucet. From where he sat, he could see through the window above the sink the pale-gray clouds in the dull-blue sky. A flock of Canadian geese flying in V formation came into view, broke into pairs and trios that flew in choreographed circles, spirals, twirls and spins, like ballet dancers in flight, and then reformed into the V and disappeared from sight.
Mrs. Turbell came into the kitchen carrying a broom. She glanced at Joe’s half-full bowl of oatmeal. “Oats cost money,” she said with a sneer. “You’d think after being asleep for so long you’d be famished.”
Joe stabbed his spoon into the oatmeal. It stood upright, its handle sticking up like the sorcerer’s sword embedded in stone. “I have things on my mind,” he said.
She swept the dirt off the top of her bare feet, opened the utility closet, threw the broom in, and then shut the door. “What things?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said.
She grabbed the hand grips on his wheelchair and wheeled him back from the table. “I understand one thing. You men better start doing your share of cleaning around here or I’m going to start throwing you out on your ears, right into the snow.”
“Would that be such a bad thing for us?” he said.
She wheeled him out of the kitchen, down the hallway past the doors leading to the two downstairs bedrooms, and past the stairs leading to the second floor, until they reached the open doorway to what was called the crafts room. It had once been used as a sun room. One wall was lined with large windows, most of them concealed by drab floral-print curtains. Shelves on one wall held a few board games, several Mason jars with paint brushes that had lost most of their bristles, a few plastic bottles half-filled with poster paint, a bottle of glue, and a small tin can with silver glitter. In the middle of the room Turk and Dennis were sitting at the card table, hunched over a jigsaw puzzle.
“Guess who’s back from the dead?” Mrs. Turbell said.
Turk and Dennis looked up and smiled weakly.
Dennis gave a halfhearted wave, exposing from beneath his shirt sleeve a white bandage around his left wrist. Aged twenty-three and the youngest of the three men, his eyes had the look of age beyond the others; they were haunted eyes, ringed by dark circles. The bangs of his tangled blond hair hung down in a disorderly fashion over his forehead as if he had forgotten to comb it. “Welcome back, sleepyhead,” he said. “We thought you were going to leave us.”
Turk returned to the puzzle. He pushed a puzzle piece across the surface of the puzzle and locked it into place. “It’s been quiet around here,” he said.
“The television isn’t working again,” Dennis added.
Mrs. Turbell wheeled Joe to the table. “I’ll leave you boys to your fun,” she said. She turned and left, leaving the scent of alcohol in her wake.
As soon as she was gone, Joe leaned over the puzzle, and in a hushed tone, said, “I did leave you. It was only a few minutes, but I flew above an amazing wonderland out in the countryside.”
Turk let out a short burst of laughter, as if expelling something that had caught in his throat. The scarred flesh on his face quickly turned red, as red as the fire that had burned it, and then returned to its normal pale pink hue. “Did you get into Mrs. Turbell’s gin?”
“No, seriously,” Joe said. “I went out onto the porch the other night and met this woman dressed all in white and wearing a mask. She put her mask on me and I . . .”
Turk suddenly pushed his chair back and stood up. “You and your damned imagination,” he said, glaring at Joe. “All of that happened in your head.” He stormed out of the room.
Dennis laid his hand softly on Joe’s arm. “If you say you saw a woman in white, I believe you, Joe,” he said.
Joe wheeled around the table to the shelves. He piled in his lap the paints, brushes, glue and glitter and then placed them on top of the puzzle. “Get scissors, paper, string, and anything we can decorate masks with,” Joe said.
Dennis looked at him quizzically. “Masks?”
Joe opened a jar of red poster paint. “I have a hunch,” he answered.
“Quiet, or we’ll wake up Mrs. Turbell,” Joe warned, his voice hushed. Turk and Dennis stood behind him, each grasping a hand grip on Joe’s wheelchair.
The front door was open and cold air blew in through the closed screen door. The edges of the doilies under Mrs. Turbell’s knick-knacks and tchotchkes that cluttered every available table surface fluttered, sounding like whisperings of pixies uttered from a distance.
“This is a bunch of foolishness,” Turk said. The cold was making the scarred skin on his chest and back ache, something that kept him indoors most of the time from October to May. He looked at Dennis. “And you look like a deranged fish with that mask on.”
Dennis put his hand to his mask. He ran his fingertips over the scales he had fashioned from pieces of cardboard he had cut up, painted different colors, covered with glitter, and glued to a piece of blue construction paper that had been in the bottom of his sock drawer. Through the perfectly round eyeholes he glared at Turk. “At least I made a mask,” he said petulantly.
“I have a face that looks like a horror mask. Why do I need another one?” Turk snarled.
Dennis glanced at the screen door, at the dark blue landscape beyond the moonlit yard. “You heard him, Joe says there’s a wonderland out there.” He nervously bit into his lower lip. “Anything has to be better than staying here, right? We can’t stay here forever.”
“It’s here or nowhere,” Turk said. “None of us have anywhere else to go.”
“If you guys are going to stand there and bicker all night, I’ll wheel myself out,” Joe said as he put his hands on the wheels and began to roll them.
Dennis clutched onto the hand grip. He suddenly felt as if he would throw up. Beads of sweat popped up above his upper lip and he felt the blood rushing from his face.
“What’s wrong with you?” Turk asked Dennis. “You look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I can’t do it, Joe,” Dennis said. “What if that woman doesn’t show up, or there is no wonderland? I can’t take another disappointment.” He pulled off his mask and tossed it into Joe’s lap. “I’ll see you guys in the morning.” He turned and ran up the steps to his bedroom.
Joe turned his head and looked at Turk. “You coming?”
Turk shook his head. “You know how cold weather affects me,” he said.
“This isn’t about the cold, it’s about your fear of being seen, even if it’s by a woman you claim doesn’t exist,” Joe said.
Turk’s eyes suddenly filled with rage. He wrapped his hand around Joe’s throat and pressed his burnt-off finger stubs into Joe’s flesh. “What do you know about it? You don’t live in my skin. I’m a walking freak show.” His shoulders shook, his arm trembled. Frightened by his own anger, he let loose of Joe’s neck and stood motionless, watching the fringe on a curtain being tousled by the breeze.
Joe coughed, took in several gulps of air, and quickly wheeled himself to the screen door and went out. Wearing an Army field jacket that he borrowed from Turk, the frigid wind lashed at his face, but his upper body was warm. He wheeled to the porch railing and gazed out at the hills. Snowcapped shrubs looked like gnomes plodding through the drifts. Suddenly, with the moonlight glinting on her white gown, the woman in white appeared like a gently floating bird at the edge of the yard.
“She really exists!” Turk exclaimed from the other side of the screen door.
“I told you so,” Joe said. “Come on out.”
Turk walked out onto the porch and stood by Joe. “Will she mind if I don’t have a mask?”
“The masks were my idea, not hers,” Joe said. He handed him Dennis’s. “I don’t think it matters whose mask you wear. I think they only give us the ability to see what we want to see.”
Turk put the mask on his face. “How do you know that?”
Joe unzipped his jacket and took his mask out of his coat. “Remember when you were a kid and you wore Halloween masks? The world became a scarier place after you put them on, right? Other than decorations and costumes, nothing around you had really changed, but everything looked different, spookier, more frightening, because you wanted to see the world around you that way. This may work the same way, with a little help from that woman.”
She now hovered in the air a few feet from the porch, her hand outstretched. Silently she mouthed, “Come.”
Turk looked out at the wintry landscape. “Oh my God,” he cried out.
“What is it?” Joe asked, following Turk’s gaze.
“Don’t you see it, see her? There on that hilltop is a castle. A young woman wearing glass slippers is standing on the stairs and she’s reaching out to me. Can’t you hear the music?” Turk said. He began to softly hum and sway back and forth. “She wants to dance with me.”
Joe searched the hilltops and thought he saw winged horses flying over them but saw no castle. He then looked back at Turk. “Turk, your skin. It’s healed!”
Turk slowly rose in the air. He held his hand out to the woman who grasped his fingertips. Together they floated just beyond the porch railing.
“You can come now too,” she said to Joe with her other hand held out to him.
Joe shoved his mask back into his jacket. “Not yet,” he said.
Hand-in-hand, Turk and the woman flew into the blue shadows beyond the yard and disappeared.
“He won’t get far in this cold and snow,” Mrs. Turbell said, her speech slurred. She then gulped down a large drink of gin from a bottle. “Tonight, I’m putting a padlock on the front door so neither of you nitwits can even get as far as the porch.” She took another drink and then staggered away from the crafts room door. The sound of her bare feet stomping down the hallway toward her bedroom reverberated throughout the downstairs.
“Did he really fly away with that woman in white?” Dennis asked as he leaned across the puzzle.
Joe nodded. “Yep, he had the biggest smile on his face you ever saw.”
“Where do you think he went?”
“To the castle he saw. He’s probably married already.”
Dennis laughed out loud and then stopped abruptly. “That could be me in that castle right now,” he said. “It was my mask he was wearing.”
“Do you want to live in a castle?” Joe asked.
Dennis leaned back. “Not really,” he said. He made a halfhearted attempt to brush his hair from his forehead. “There’s no paint or glitter or stuff lying around to make any more masks. What’ll I do if she comes back?”
“Are you going to chicken out again if she does?” Joe asked.
Dennis picked at the bandage around his wrist. “I’ve always been a chicken. I always think I’m going to do something and then I end up doing it only part way because I’m afraid what will happen if I finish.” He held up his wrist. “This makes the sixth time I’ve intended to kill myself but ended up with bad scratches.”
“Maybe down deep you don’t really want to die,” Joe said.
“Maybe not, but it feels like I do.” Dennis got up from his chair and went to the windows. He stared out at the glistening snow bathed in afternoon sunlight. “I’m going to miss Turk,” he said.
“Me too,” Joe said. “I need to confess that I didn’t think any of this was real, that maybe I was imagining it, until I saw Turk fly away.”
The rest of the afternoon and evening, the two men worked on the puzzle. Mrs. Turbell remained in her room most of the time, coming out only to heat up a can of soup for dinner. When the full brightness of the moon shone on the house, Joe and Dennis pulled the curtains back from the crafts room windows.
Joe saw a rabbit wearing a top hat hop across the snow just beyond the yard, being chased by a girl in a blue gingham dress.
Dennis put the mask on
“Look!” Dennis called out excitedly
The woman in white stood in the yard. She glowed in the moonlight. “Come,” she mouthed and held out her arms.
“Don’t be afraid this time, Dennis,” Joe said. “I’m right here with you.” He took his mask that he had kept hidden in the folds of his lap blanket and gave it to Dennis. “Think of this as a special pair of eyeglasses.”
Dennis gazed at the mask adorned with pieces of painted tissue paper folded to look like flowers and sprinkled with glitter. He put on the mask just as a window opened. The room quickly filled with cold, damp air.
“Do you see it? Do you see it, Joe?” Dennis called out. “The rainbows. The unicorns. The thatched-roof houses along the stream. The people, they look so happy. Do you see it, do you see them, Joe?”
Floating, the woman neared the window and held out her hands. “Come with me,” she said softly.
Dennis rose from the floor and drifted out the window.
“I don’t have a mask to see where I’m going,” Joe said as he began to float out of his chair.
She reached for hers. “If you need these to reach your . . .”
“Oh no you don’t,” Mrs. Turbell shrieked as she ran into the room and slammed the window closed. “I’m not letting all of you leave me here alone.”
Joe fell back into his wheelchair. His last glimpse out the window before Mrs. Turbell yanked the curtains closed was of Dennis and the woman disappearing in the blue darkness beyond the yard.
Lying in his bed, Joe stared at the ceiling through the two holes he had poked into a napkin and laid across his eyes. Hummingbirds circled honeysuckle blooms and lily pads floated across a pond, but it wasn’t a wonderland. He lowered the napkin and looked at his wheelchair across the room where Mrs. Turbell had put it to keep him from getting out of bed. It had been three nights since Dennis had flown off. Joe turned his head and gazed at the gray curtain that covered the window and saw in it a field of stars. He singled out a star and whispered aloud, “I wish I could go to wonderland.”
The window opened. A gust of wind made the curtain billow out into the room. The woman in white stood floating in the air outside and peered in at him, a compassionate smile on her face. “Are you ready to go?” she asked.
He sat up. “Yes, but I’ll need to use your mask again so I can see where I want to go.”
“You can go where your heart wants to take you without the mask,” she said, “but if the mask helps you see the way, then it is yours.”
In that instant her mask appeared on Joe’s face. Staring out at the pale light that bathed the hills he saw leprechauns dancing in a meadow of four-leaf clovers and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. “I want to go where wishes come true,” he said. “I want to live in a wonderland.”
Then he disappeared.
Holding the broom, Mrs. Turbell leaned against the porch railing. The aroma of the gin she had spilled on her apron hung around her like a fog. She looked out at the snow and blinked hard several times, trying to clear her blurry vision. She thought she saw a yellow brick road leading to an emerald city.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/ He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977