Queenie's Gift by Penny Milam
Judge's Choice, 2019 Fiction Contest
Queenie stopped to pick up a cheap pizza on her way home from work. Rascal had called to ask if he could come by and visit, but she knew what that meant. She only heard from her brother when he needed money, so she saw him pretty often. He appeared like a thunderstorm in April, not entirely unexpected but still a force of nature. He was forty to Queenie's fifty-six, and she'd always felt an odd attachment to him, as if he could have been her own son. She remembered when Mama was pregnant with him, Queenie already sixteen and well-versed in how to avoid babies, thinking her mother must be crazy to be pregnant again. She'd carried the balloon of her expectant stomach like the baby was cast in lead. By the way Mama coddled her back when she stepped, Queenie knew she carried a boy. Only a boy would need that much attention, and suck that much strength from his mother, as if he had a right to it. Rascal had come out squalling, right there in the back room of the old family house, making his masculine presence known. If a baby could cuss, Rascal was telling off the world. And he'd been demanding ever since.
One of nine kids, Rascal still managed to imply he was an only child. Blessed by God with pretty golden curls and blue eyes that could charm a snake out of its skin—or a woman out of her clothes—his smile was book-ended by deep dimples that he wielded like weapons on the unsuspecting. Teachers, police officers, parents, they all fell prey to his heavy-handed handsomeness. And even his sisters, not a one of them stupid, couldn't stand against him.
Queenie, the oldest, was the worst. She'd been born with the self-inflicted responsibility to take care of everyone, and Rascal was only too happy to provide opportunity. He had no real job, picking up landscaping work in the summer and odd jobs in the winter like they were change on the ground. He lived, more or less, with Mama and Daddy, sleeping in their government-housing apartment on the couch like a pet, since Sissy wouldn't give him the second bedroom. Of all the kids, she was the only one that could tell him no; a year younger than he, still living at home to care for their parents, she resented his manipulations. His charm wore pretty thin by the time it trickled down to her. More often, Rascal just flitted between his older sisters, using their back bedrooms like motel suites, complete with room service and laundry.
He used Queenie the most. She must seem like a walking, talking ATM to him. She never turned him down when he was in need, be it for a quick payday loan, a roof over his ungrateful head, or a slice of pizza. If she'd had any close friends, they would have told her to cut him off. But since she really only had sisters, trapped in the same entitlement loop as she, it never crossed her mind to refuse.
Today, she'd just finished a ten-hour shift at the retail furniture store where she worked. She'd only made two sales all day, a cheap marked-down end table, and a loveseat. She tried to talk the customers into the matching couch and recliner, but they acted like she was trying to frame them for murder, narrowing their eyes suspiciously and darting hasty glances toward the door. Overall, a sad day without much to recommend it. And then Rascal called, wheedling but cheerful, and she offered to feed him tonight in response to his gentle prodding.
The problem was, she had no extra cash. She didn't get paid for two days, and all the bills had been sent out. She was making do on mac 'n' cheese and Ramen til then. Of course, she couldn't offer that to Rascal. Grown men needed more calories. And Rascal wasn't used to tightening his belt. She stopped at the five-dollar pizza place, crammed between a laundromat and store promising payday loans with no credit check. She began a desperate treasure hunt through her car. Old gum wrappers, a squashed soda bottle, napkins used as Kleenexes, but no cash. She glanced around to check for bystanders, but the parking lot was clear. Queenie whispered a quick demand and flicked her fingers toward the glove box. She felt a little bit of herself escape like a sigh into the air.
Spells took their time. Sometimes, money appeared immediately. Other times, it meandered its way into her grasping hands, not in any hurry, despite her need. And the amount made no difference. A dollar could take a day; she might find a hundred before she's finished speaking the words. She reached toward the glove box, and found nothing but old ketchup packets and her car's registration. Frustrated, she turned on the radio, trying to decide how long she would wait before going home empty-handed. One song, she decided firmly. After that, Rascal would just have to be content with dehydrated noodles and a flavor packet.
At least the song was good. Van Morrison crooned “Brown-Eyed Girl” with the same charm as her brother. Queenie leaned her seat back and settled in for a good listen. She drove an old minivan; there was plenty of room to stretch her legs out, and the steering wheel didn't gouge her stomach. She didn't have any kids, though she looked like an aging soccer mom, but the van came in handy for the number of people she involuntarily seemed to taxi around. As the song ended, she tried the glove box again. She rummaged through the debris, and found a crumpled five-dollar bill stuck to the side of the compartment.
Any other person would assume it was a coincidence, but Queenie knew better. She slipped the five in her pocket, and hauled herself out of the van. She was one of the larger sisters, but while she hated to see her fat fold up like the Michelin man when she sat, it all redistributed nicely when she stood up, almost a magic trick in itself. She looked her age, with her decades-old face and long gray hair, but she still turned heads. There was a kindness about her that radiated.
Just before she reached the restaurant door, she stopped. “Tax,” she remembered in aggravation. She whispered again and gestured minutely in a half-circle at her feet. As she stepped forward, she saw the gleam of coins on the sidewalk. Two quarters frowned at her with George Washington's disapproving face, and she scooped them up in relief. Not a long wait this time, she was glad to see. But even $5.50 was going to cost her later.
She got the steaming box of pizza and headed toward home, noticing on the seat beside her that her cell phone had died again. She was pretty sure she needed to replace the battery, but she didn't have the cash to deal with it right now. She'd just keep praying for another bar to appear on the cracked screen. She rolled the van into the gravel drive of her double-wide and sighed.
The best thing about her mobile home was the view. She’d bought a small piece of hilly land bordering a pasture, and had placed her trailer at the top—no trailer park for her. She might not be able to afford a fancy condo, but no one could beat her gorgeous landscape of pasture land and the hazy blue Smoky Mountains. The trailer was ancient, at least thirty years old. Trailers weren't really meant to last that long, as this one constantly tried to tell her that. The wiring was faulty, the air conditioner needed Freon, the front porch sagged like a sway-backed horse. But it was neat. The yard was mowed, and a line of yellow chrysanthemums bordered the driveway. The front door boasted a merry grapevine wreath in patriotic colors—Memorial Day was next week. Queenie didn't have much in cash, but she had more time than she could spend, and anything that needed elbow grease was her type of chore. She could spend hours weeding the flowers, or cleaning the vinyl siding with bleach. With supplies from the local dollar store, she made countless wreaths for every holiday; all they really took was time and patience. At fifty-six, Queenie had patience in abundance.
She entered the house and tossed the pizza on the orderly table, not even a plastic place mat askew. She dropped off her purse in her bedroom closet; no need to draw attention to what Rascal was going to be pleading for anyway. Maybe he’d visit longer if she made it harder for him to ask for cash.
She saw the blinking light on her answering machine. No voice mail for her—an extra three dollars a month for what her dependable old machine had been doing for years. Besides, she liked the anticipation of seeing the glow of the numbers on the display—look how many times she was needed! Today, there was two. She punched the button, and listened to her sister, Dimple, remind her of Sunday dinner at Mama’s. This wasn't news; they only ate there every Sunday of their lives, but Dimple liked to play town crier. She also reminded Queenie primly that it was Memorial Day, and also her turn to bring a dessert, and wouldn't it be nice if it were something...festive? Queenie wondered idly what she could make with red, white, and blue Jell-O that would feed a few dozen people. And wouldn't cost her more than six dollars.
The second message was Rascal, teasingly reprimanding her for the dead cell. He'd tried to call earlier, he said, but got no answer. He couldn't come over after all. His car, an old '84 Camaro, had given up the ghost on Hwy 26, and he'd had it towed. His buddy, Alf, had picked him up and taken him home, but could she drive him to the mechanic's tomorrow to check out the damage? Queenie knew that he wanted her there when he discussed the bill, hoping she'd help pay for it. She glanced at the quickly-cooling pizza, and thought of its cost with dread. A car was even worse on the wallet, and she didn't know if she had the strength. But Rascal was still chatting away cheerfully on the tape, wooing her into submission like he always did. He told a stupid joke with a bad pun; he knew she'd get a kick out of it. He told her if he hadn't heard from her tonight, he'd look for her at Alf’s tomorrow morning around ten. No concern for her work schedule, no apology. Just a rapid profession of adoration for his favorite sister, and then the impersonal beep of the dead phone.
Queenie digested the turn of events that had made her evening suddenly empty. A dash of movement out of the corner of her eye didn't startle her; she continued to stare dejectedly at the answering machine. But in only a few seconds, the blur whizzed by again, and she sighed. She could try to wait them out, but it never worked. They just hung around until she gave up and looked at them. Her patience was saintly, but theirs was eternal.
She resolutely braced herself, but was relieved to see the dead girl standing with her thumb in her mouth, caught mid-twirl, watching Queenie intently. The ghosts didn't speak; they rarely reacted at all except to follow her around like strays. She didn't even know if they could see or hear her. Some of them seemed to, but others appeared lost in their own worlds. They never did much, beyond give her a start. She knew this one; she'd come to Queenie before. She looked around three years old, and she sucked her thumb. She liked to twirl and make her dress spin.
“You need to go on home now, sweetie,” Queenie told her gently. “It's past your bedtime.” The little girl continued to stare at her, working her thumb like a Popsicle. But then she slowly faded away, a Polaroid developing in reverse. Nothing was left in the space she'd occupied, and Queenie decided she'd have a couple of slices of the wasted pizza and save the rest for the two days until she got her check. She busied herself with finding a plastic plate and paper towel, and grabbed a soda from the fridge. She settled into the couch and flipped on Netflix, absorbing herself in a procedural drama, determined to wipe the image of the little girl from her mind.
Queenie had seen ghosts for years. At first, they'd terrified her. She'd egotistically assumed they were threatening her, or portending her own death. But after fifty years, she'd learned to live with them—excuse the pun. They didn't concern themselves with her, never asked for anything, no begging to solve their suspicious murders, or help them go toward the light. She didn't even see them all the time. Only when she worked a spell. That's why she used her gift so sparingly.
That night, sharing a bed with Button and Dimple, she awoke with a jerk, suddenly aware of a fourth presence in her bedroom that didn't belong. She sat upright, staring at the dark space at the foot of the bed.
As a teen, she’d been drawn to love spells, dark spells, potions, and incantations. She'd read a library book about magic, and Queenie was convinced she had a special connection to the supernatural. Though never spoken out loud, she'd long assumed her mother was a witch. Her younger sisters had shown strange aptitudes toward the eerie, as well. But nothing worked for her. She couldn't make a boy fall in love with her, couldn't talk to animals or move things with her mind. She couldn't even make the ten pounds around her waist disappear. But finally, one day at school, she'd found her talent.
She was fifteen. Her science teacher informed the class they would take a field trip to the local planetarium, and it would only cost each student seven dollars. For Queenie it might as well have been seven thousand. A disabled father on a fixed income with eight mouths to feed and one on the way couldn't shell out cash so his eldest daughter could watch a movie on the ceiling. Queenie didn't have to ask; she already felt ashamed just for wanting to go. Because it wasn't like she planned on being an astronomer. She had no desire to study the universe, or even look beyond her own little earth. She wanted to go on the trip because Teddy Reynolds was going, and maybe she'd get to sit beside him in the dark, leaned back like they were in bed together, watching the cosmos spin over their heads while she imagined kissing him under those same stars. There was no way she could ask Daddy for that money. In a panic, she'd demanded the money from God, citing her stellar behavior with her siblings, offering a subtle promise to become a nun if certain things worked out. And on her way home, she'd found a purse, abandoned on a bus bench. Queenie didn't steal money from it. Like the responsible girl she was, inside the wallet she found the owner's address, which turned out to only be a few blocks away. She carried it to its owner, holding it away from her like a bag of smelly garbage, in case any passersby should think she was claiming it as her own. But she felt an excitement building in her that pushed her along the sidewalk. She wasn't stupid; even without the power of premonition—that belonged to another sister—she could see what was coming. An old woman answered the door, elated at the kindness of strangers and delighted by the sweet girl who'd done such a good deed. She reached into the side pocket of her new-found purse and pulled out a wad of cash. She handed it to Queenie and patted the back of her hand, before shutting the door. Queenie didn't count it until she got on the sidewalk, and the amount didn't even surprise her. Seven dollars. Instead, she dutifully thanked God, reminding him sorrowfully that you can't be a nun if you aren't Catholic. But this money held the promise of more money to come. And she began organizing her dreams in order of cost. A new dress first, and then a car, maybe college, but why bother? God must want her to marry Teddy Reynolds—why else would He provide the means to begin their romance? She floated home with the miracle money clutched in her greedy paw, her eyes shining with the plans of a rich and prosperous future. She didn't tell her family yet. She had plans to provide for them too, but for once, Queenie was putting her own needs first.
That night, sharing a bed with Button and Dimple, she awoke with a jerk, suddenly aware of a fourth presence in her bedroom that didn't belong. She sat upright, staring at the dark space at the foot of the bed.
An old man stared back at her, squinting as if she were far away. He looked benign enough, except for the bloody, gaping hole in his chest. Queenie couldn't even scream. She recognized deep within herself that this wasn't something her sisters would see, if she bothered to shake them awake or yell for help. This was something strange and terrible, and she knew it was connected to her demand for money. She realized now, a little late, that God had definitely not been involved in her recent cash flow. She continued to stare at the man, and he continued to stare at her, not in any way threatening, but terrifying, nonetheless. Finally, after fifteen minutes of a staring contest that neither seemed willing to concede, he just washed away, like morning mist, leaving Queenie cold, shaking, and certain that no money was worth a nocturnal visitor at the foot of her bed. She'd curled up against Button's warm back, shivering.
The next day, the old man's image in her head seemed even less threatening. She blurred the edges until he seemed like a kindly old grandfather with a ketchup stain down his shirt. Maybe he didn't even have anything to do with the money. After eating breakfast and leaving for school, she decided the two events weren't connected. Perhaps one of them had only been a dream. Besides, as she knew from her science class, a viable conclusion couldn't be determined from only one occurrence. So, she thought about a dress she'd seen at JC Penney's. And she demanded $45 from the universe (careful to leave God out this time—no need to get Him involved) and waved her fingers experimentally. Before she even put her hands back in her pockets, she saw a lottery scratcher abandoned on the curb. She picked it up confidently, and scratched the silver backing with her fingernail. Instant Winner! $50.
She stayed awake late that night, while Button snuffled and Dimple snored, watching the foot of her bed, waiting for the visitor that she'd diminished in her mind until he'd become as innocuous as Mr. Rogers. But he never came, and she'd ended up with a headache and sour attitude from lack of sleep. But she was also elated, and she couldn't wait to get to Penney's after school.
She saw the dead woman sitting on the curb, near where she'd found the lotto ticket, as she walked to school in the morning. She was definitely dead because half her head was missing, and no one else seemed disturbed by the view. Queenie halted mid-step, and her sisters left her behind with a roll of their eyes. She'd been cranky all morning, they concurred; let her walk to school alone. But while the sisters abandoned her, the dead woman seemed to be waiting for Queenie. She looked at her with the one eye that remained, and she stood unsteadily. Queenie waited, frozen in place, but the ghost didn't move toward her. She continued to stand, swaying slightly, blood trickling down her arm from her wound.
A friend yelled at Queenie from across the street, and Queenie gripped her determination around herself like a cape. Then she took off running, zooming past the ghost and holding back a shriek of pure horror. But the ghost didn't jump in front of her, or reach for her, or speak to her. Queenie ran straight to school before she dared to look behind her. The ghost stood at the edge of the school grounds, on the sidewalk, watching her intently but coming no nearer. How she'd managed to keep up with Queenie's wild race was unknown, but Queenie didn't care. She fled to her first period class, which had a window overlooking the front lawn of the school. Queenie kept a cagy eye on the sidewalk specter as her teacher took roll, but the ghost just stood there, still watching up to the window, seeming to know exactly where Queenie was. After a half an hour, she fizzled out, like a soda gone flat after sitting open. Queenie decided no dress was worth what she'd just lived through.
That lasted about a week. But the lure of money was strong, and memories more forgiving than reality. Queenie forgot the fear, and the terror, and the blood, just as she did for the majority of the encounters she had. She never remembered them as terrifying as she 'd thought in the moment, and sometimes the money seemed worth the danger. Her resulting life was a series of long months or even years without calling the money to her; then a sudden rush of need would compel her to do it again. She found that the more money she asked for, the longer the window was open into that supernatural world she was usually, blessedly, oblivious to.
The cost of the pizza had opened her up to a brief visit from a small, friendly ghost who'd obeyed her request. Others were not so accommodating. For the down-payment on her trailer, something—so gruesomely ravaged that she couldn't tell if it was male or female—had squatted on her bed like a demonic imp for two days, evidence of its grisly death leaving a bloody trail on her sheets that disappeared when the ghost did. Didn’t matter—she threw the sheets out that same day. Visits like that came with spells for large amounts of money, or spells spurred on by large amounts of desperation. It's what kept her from lining her pockets with cash. Easy money was never really easy. She tried to enjoy the pizza, since she'd already paid for it. No more visitors would come for her tonight. But Rascal was going to ask for more money tomorrow, and she knew she'd say yes, because she'd never learned to say no.
She tried not to wonder what would come see her then.
When Queenie pulled into Alf's yard, she spotted two men with their heads buried under the hood of an ancient El Camino, rusted on the driver side and propped up on cinder blocks. As she pulled the key out of the ignition, both heads appeared, like prairie dogs, and Alf threw her a two-fingered salute before disappearing again. Rascal grinned like she'd just made his day, trotted over to the van and eased in to the passenger seat before she could open her door.
“Hiya, Queenie, let's get going. I need my car.” No thank-you for picking him up, no apology for interrupting her life. If she had a life, Queenie would have been offended. As it stood, she simply gave a long-suffering sigh and backed out of the yard. “Where is it?”
He tossed her directions while rolling the window up and down with the automatic switch. She punched the child-lock button on her side, and the window froze midway. He snorted on a laugh and looked for something else to mess with. If Rascal sat still for more than five minutes, it was a miracle.
“Why didn't Alf fix it for you?”
“You know he's nothin' but a shade-tree mechanic. He said it sounded like the transmission to him, and he don't have the tools to deal with it.”
Transmission sounded expensive, and Queenie gripped the wheel tighter. She hadn't slept very well last night. No other ghosts had visited her, but the promise of them had kept her awake for hours. Imagining the visit to come made her sweat.
The mechanic was only a short way down the road, and he met them at the door of his little shop. Like a doctor delivering bad news, he explained that the surgery didn't go well, and the prognosis wasn't good. The car was definitely on its last legs; Rascal would do better to sell it for parts than the cost to fix it. Rascal wouldn't hear of it; he loved that car and he'd do whatever it took to save it. He never once looked at Queenie, until the cost came up. $2,500, at least. He pulled out his wallet like he actually intended to pay for it himself, but they both knew it was just a show. Cartoon moths might as well have flown out of it. But he gave two credit cards to the mechanic, and said to run them both, and see what was left. The mechanic gave his own long-suffering sigh and disappeared into his shop.
“I don't think I got enough to cover that on my cards, Queenie,” Rascal said. “And I need my car. I don't got no other way to get to work, without asking one of you to take me, and I hate to do that. Besides, I got me a roofing job to get to on Monday in Greeneville. It'll pay pretty good, and I can pay some of it back to you if you can help me out.”
Rascal didn't know about her gift. No one in the family did, though a few may have had suspicions. Rascal only knew that Queenie always managed to bankroll him whenever he needed it. She wanted to believe that if he knew his requests resulted in nightmarish visitations for her, he'd never ask. Queenie looked at her spoiled, beautiful brother and didn't tell him the truth. She was afraid he'd ask anyway.
“I can come up with the rest,” she told him. He grinned and threw an arm around her shoulder. The mechanic reappeared and handed back Rascal's cards. Between the two, they covered seven hundred dollars. That left eighteen hundred, and Rascal gestured toward Queenie. “She's going to take care of it.”
Queenie fished in her pocket book, and quietly mumbled her spell into its darkness. She felt the magnitude of the amount weigh down the words as the spell released. “Will you take a check?”
“You live in town?” The mechanic looked dubious, and she didn't blame him. She tried to appear trustworthy as she opened up the checkbook, and ignore the fact that Rascal looked every inch like his name, and she probably wouldn't trust her either.
She nodded. “And I work at the furniture store on Magnolia Drive.” He finally nodded and she hastily wrote the check before he could think better of it. If he didn't cash it until Monday, that would give the money two days to reach her, and for her to deposit it in the bank. While she fretted over the short time frame, Rascal was complaining about not getting his car back sooner.
“Two weeks. At least.” The mechanic was firm, and unapologetic. “I gotta order the parts. I gotta have time to do the work.”
“I need a car!” Rascal's voice raised a notch, and Queenie shoved him back toward her van. She thanked the mechanic over top of Rascal's tantrum and promised to call at the end of the week to check on the progress. She got back into her van to listen to Rascal complaining as if he had a right to.
“What am I going to do without a car for two weeks? I gotta work!” Queenie chose not to point out that Rascal's work was itinerant at best, and he'd gone much longer, by choice, without a job. She caught him eyeing the minivan, checking out how much gas showed in the tank, already figuring how far it would go without any added resources from himself.
“No.” Queenie was firm this time. “You can't have my car. I need it to get to work, to pay for the mechanic, remember?”
“How 'bout just for the weekend?” he coaxed. “I can bring it back Sunday night, no later than Monday morning, so you can get to work. We can share it.” He appropriated it so easily, as if it were his car to begin with, and he was doing her the favor.
Queenie shook her head. “See if Alf can lend you one. I saw a bunch in his yard.” She knew if he got his hands on it, she wouldn't get her van back until the Camaro was ready. There'd always be an excuse for why he couldn't return it, and he'd never understand why she didn't value his needs more highly than her own.
Rascal huffed out his aggravation. “Maybe.” But Alf would make him pay for gas, would expect it back in perfect condition. Alf couldn't be charmed like Queenie could. Rascal preferred to pay his way through life with easy compliments and smiles, currency he had in abundance. Alf—and the mechanic, for that matter—didn't accept his monetary system. “Thanks for helping me out back there,” he added grudgingly. Queenie noticed there was no mention of the money getting paid back. She only nodded and pulled into Alf's, where Rascal jumped out of the van in record time. He thumped the door as he closed it and threw her a wave before stomping toward Alf, still imbedded in the engine of the El Camino. He'd gotten what he needed out of Queenie, and he'd paid her with a smile and a hug; she could go.
She drove home slowly, trying to avoid the guessing game of what horror would visit within the next few days. Rascal was worth it.
Penny Milam is a native of East Tennessee, living in an old farmhouse in Elizabethton, that faces a field of corn and the breathtaking presence of Roan Mountain. She graduated from East Tennessee State University with a degree in English Education and has taught in local schools for many years.