Moon MasterBy Elyse Erickson
For twenty-three years, Holly had gone quite comfortably through life thinking she was an only child.
She walked up to the porch, humming quietly, trying to shake away the aftereffects of the mind-numbing Philosophy 101 lecture she sat through earlier in the afternoon. The pale yellow siding on the small, old house needed to be replaced. So did three of the four windows facing the street, small cracks were creeping up from the corners, and Holly knew there was lead in the paint. The neighbor’s fat toy poodle was piddling in their narrow garden in front of the sagging porch. The autumn’s frost had already taken care of the few weeds a week ago. Holly and her mother never really had a talent for keeping any sort of plant alive.
“Good boy, Gershwin,” Holly’s neighbor, Randy, called while she unlocked the front door.
She yawned, scratched her freckled cheek, and kicked the door shut as she stepped out of her shoes. Her faded red backpack was tossed into the computer chair. She heard the sounds of her mother getting ready for work, opening and closing her dresser and closet, probably looking for her slacks.
Holly was in the middle of unsnagging her dark red braid from a button on her gray pea-coat when she noticed someone watching her. A small, pale-faced, button-nosed someone, no older than six or seven.
She could not tear her gaze away from his dark, empty-looking eyes. The first thing she thought of was all of the horror movies where the creepy, hollow-eyed child was the root of all Evil. The boy did not blink, he hardly appeared to be breathing. His blond hair needed a good brushing, it was knotted above his eyebrows and stick¬ing out in matted clumps.
“H-hello,” Holly let her coat fall to the floor and sidled away from the boy, eventually pressing her back into the wall by the desk¬top computer as the screen changed from one picture of kittens to another. He said nothing. The kid slowly turned away from her and stared across the dirty room. Blankets were balled up on the old leather couch, and the coffee table was covered with textbooks and papers. The dining table was fairly clean, some mail was sitting beside strawberry scented candles.
“Mom?” Holly called, still inching away from the boy.
Her mother, Jean, creaked through the kitchen and leaned into the narrow doorway. Like her daughter, Jean was plump, but pre¬ferred to call herself curvy and busty and always telling Holly to do the same. “Yeah?”
Jean, busy twisting her hair into a silvering bun, glanced over to the boy.
“Ah, that’s Ethan,” she seemed satisfied with her hair and quick¬ly hitched up her black pants, then bent down to tie her shoes. When she stood up, Holly was still waiting for a more complete answer as she leaned against the wall. “Orson’s son.”
Holly slid to the right slightly, nearly losing her footing. “Dad was here?” She asked stupidly. Orson was only her father in the biological sense, leaving when Jean was about three months pregnant. Holly only knew him from a faded Polaroid folded in the depths of her desk; a tall, barrel-chested man with an out of control beard and narrow eyes.
“He dropped the kid off before I could even say hi,” Jean started to call him a name, but stopped and glanced over to Ethan. She hardly spoke of Orson, Holly knew it was stupid to push the subject. The only thing she ever got out of her mother was that he was a wandering soul and it was a terrible idea to get involved in the first place. She only learned that information because her mother was slightly tipsy after an evening out with friends and in a sharing mood.
“I tried to tell him to wait until you got back from classes,” Jean continued. Holly’s shoulders sagged. She slumped into the computer chair, bumping the mouse with her elbow, causing the desktop screen to pop up. “He told me Ethan was my problem now, then jumped in his minivan and left.” With her chin cupped in her hand, Holly stared at the space be¬tween her and the rickety dining table. She had never even spoken to her dad, not even on the phone. “Honey,” Jean side-stepped through the narrow space between the table and the window and hugged Holly tightly, rocking a little. “I know, it sucks.”
“So we’re keeping him?” Holly asked, her voice shaking a little.
“He’s not a dog, Holly,” Jean snapped, then sighed slowly. She left Holly and walked over to Ethan with a warm smile on her always tired face. “Hey bud,” she patted the top of his head like he was a dog, “I told you that you could watch some television.”
His only reaction was turning his empty stare towards Jean. Hol¬ly shuddered, her mom sighed again and rubbed his shoulder lightly.
The kid hardly moved for a good ten minutes, except to only look over his shoulder a few times before returning to his eerily static posture. Holly was wolfing down a bologna sandwich, sitting at the tall kitchen table. “Could you take him to work with you?” Jean asked as she rushed in and out of the kitchen, searching for her favorite purse. “Kam would fire me if I brought him in with me.”
Holly knew Jean would be perfectly fine with losing her job at Casey’s. Jean hated everything about the place, and ever since she read about the string of gas station robberies on the internet, she kept on telling Holly that Huxley was next. A man was going to burst through the doors with a gun, demanding for all the money and cigarettes. Highway 69 cut through the town, right in front of Casey’s, it would be an easy getaway.
“Sure,” Holly said, finishing her sandwich and wondering when Jean’s “in-between” job that had stretched into over two years would be over.
Working at the local dry cleaners had never been a thrilling job. Holly would dump clothes out of brightly colored bags into the old wire basket, staple paper tags to the clothing, toss the dirty clothing into respective piles, tally up the tickets, and repeat until all of the bags were gone. The only excitement coming in was when she found forgotten money. Like a waitress’ tips, it was where most of her cash was made. When a guest or coworker was present, Holly could chat instead of swear at the clothing for being so damn dirty, crusty, or bloody.
With Ethan sitting at the desk, she still felt utterly alone. He busied himself with a coffee-stained notebook and a rainbow of colors which included three black sharpies, a red pen, and an orange highlighter.
Every day, Holly tried to get the radio to work, it would only fuzz, even if she popped in a CD. The only noises filling the air were the machines and pipes randomly kicking on and rattling. Ethan flinched every time one of the sounds rattled through.
Holly stole a glance at the drawing Ethan was concentrating so hard on while hanging a ruined leather jacket on the rack by the desk (the coat smelled like it had been hit by a healthy shower of vodka and vomit).
He was quite the artist, even with the limited color supply Holly could easily see a night sky full of highlighter orange stars and a white moon over the red and black silhouette of a city. Close to one corner was a boy, stick arms spread wide, and a too-big smile on the almost circle face. He was flying.
“That’s fantastic, Ethan,” Holly said, then pointed to the boy in the corner. “Is that you?”
He was small in comparison to everything else in the drawing.
Finally, some emotion flooded into his features. A cherub smile sparked to life, dimpling his tiny cheeks. He was missing a front tooth. “Yeah,” his voice like a whisper singing. Beautiful and small.
“And he speaks,” Holly said before she could stop herself. She flashed him a kind smile. “I was starting to worry.”
Ethan nodded and returned to his art. Holly stepped over the mass of clothes, back to the wire basket and bags of clothes. He swiveled in the wobbly chair. “My name’s not Ethan,” he said quietly, Holly hardly heard him. “It’s Kite.”
It took a second for Holly to recognize what he had said. “That’s a nice name,” she commented vaguely while turning out the pockets of mud-caked jeans, hoping to find money.
“My mother gave it to me,” Ethan continued, turning in the wobbly chair and kicking his feet.
“Really?” Holly was more focused on adding up the cost of three pairs of jeans and two light starch shirts. “D’you know where you mom is?” If she found out a bit about his mom, they could be reunited.
He gave her a strange look and pointed to the ceiling. Before Holly could figure out a way to gently ask him if she was dead, he said, “She’s the moon.”
Holly and her friend Mari were leaning against the hood of Mari’s beat-up blue Oldsmobile, finishing their gas station lunches. They watched leaves cartwheel over one of the University of South¬ern Ankeny’s (DMACC to anyone other than Holly, Mari, and three other students) parking lots with ten minutes to spare before need¬ing to head to class. Mari, shaking her wrist so her small collection of colorful plastic bracelets click-clacked together, asked if anything interesting happened the other day after classes.
“You have a brother?” Mari asked, tearing her mouth away from her thirty-two ounce blue raspberry slushy and choking a little. Holly wondered if Mari heard her explain how Ethan thought his mom was the moon and how if he wasn’t drawing, he was staring.
“Mm-hmm.” Holly nodded, then took in a deep breath, inhaling the thick smell of burning leaves. Mari teased her dark fly-away hair, making it look as messy as possible, and took a long, rattling drink. “That’s insane.”
“Yeah,” Holly kicked at the pavement and stared over to build¬ing six, where the auditorium was.
“What are you going to do?”
Holly shrugged. “We haven’t figured it out yet, but he’s sleeping on the couch for now.” Ethan seemed to like sleeping on the couch, at least for his first night. He was able to curl up under a window with a good view of the stars.
“You’re not calling anyone, like the police or child services?” Mari fiddled with one of her many necklaces, a red stone pendant.
“Mom doesn’t want to,” Holly said, tracing circles on the hood of Mari’s car. When she suggested the same thing to her mom, Jean became touchy, almost defensive, and told Holly to drop it, she would handle it.
Mari took a long rattling drink, nodding as if she agreed with Jean. “When do I get to meet your little moon brother?” It still felt weird, having a brother, even a half-brother. Holly shrugged, “whenever.”
The weather was getting too cold to stand barefoot outside, but Ethan insisted, even if it was a silent gesture of kicking his shoes off after Holly forced them on his bony feet. He stood. He was very good at remaining absolutely motionless, only the wind stirred his freshly combed hair and too-long sleeves of the red shirt Jean bor¬rowed from the mother of three across the street. Orson left Ethan with only a backpack, a tiny ratty thing stuffed with three day’s worth of grimy, ill-fitting t-shirts. They went into the trash on the first night of Ethan’s stay.
Holly watched him from the porch, leaning against the chipped siding. He had to move sometime. He didn’t even look up to a squir¬rel as it bounced along a branch above him. He seemed just fine the previous day, drawing on any slip of paper Holly would give him.
Eventually, Jean’s pineapple yellow truck chugged to a stop in front of the house. She did not take her eyes off Ethan as she walked by him and stood on the steps beside Holly. “How long has he been like this?” She asked quietly. Holly felt like they were scrutinizing an unfinished piece of art.
She checked the time on her phone. “Two hours.” Jean may have looked concerned, chewing her fingers and ad¬justing the strap of her black leather purse, but she made no move to go disturb the boy, even though the sun would be setting soon. The sky was already turning pink.
“What are we going to do with him?” Holly asked, tapping the siding of the house with her heel. They didn’t have an extra bed, and Holly felt bad just leaving him to sleep on the couch. Even though it had a good view of the sky, it was an uncomfortable, lumpy old thing.
Jean pulled her thumb away from her mouth and snapped her fingers quietly. She sighed painfully and her thumb returned to her mouth. The back of her head rested against the house, her shoulders rolled forward and back, as her thumbs slid into her belt loops. “I guess I could try to track that bastard down,” She said quietly, “Get his email or something, see if he knows where Ethan’s mother is.” If Orson had any sort of digital paper trail on the internet, Jean would be able to find it, she had a mysterious gift with computers that eluded Holly. “But I’m not responsible for anything I say outside of asking about Ethan.”
Holly agreed, “as long as you don’t get arrested.” She wondered how long it had been since Ethan had seen his mother and why in the world she trusted him with Orson. Ethan scratched the back his neck with a quick movement. Finally, signs of life.
“Maybe we should take him to see a doctor,” Holly said slowly, stuffing her hands in the pocket of her blue DMACC sweatshirt. “See if he’s allergic to anything, you know?” Jean thought about it, biting her lip and humming. “No, not yet, I have a feeling that a strange man poking and prodding him would just end badly.”
She may have only been a receptionist at a small dentist’s office before working at Casey’s, but Jean still had plenty of horror stories involving wailing kids on their first visit. “We’d better do it soon though,” Holly said before retrieving Ethan and trying to get him to do something a little more entertaining. Maybe dusting or cleaning the windows, or watching the linoleum peal in the kitchen, just as long as it was warm and inside.
“So he’s a little off.” Mari said, picking up another paint-filled balloon and lobbing it at the whitewashed section of plywood leaned against a tree. Blue splattered across it, then dribbled down to the gray tarp Mari had laid out. “He sounds awesome.”
Holly palmed a red balloon, watching the darker paint swirl inside. Talking about Ethan had become Mari’s new favorite subject, she asked about him every day since he dropped into Holly’s life four days ago. With her job at Ballard Creek Nursing Home, then volun¬teering in the afterschool program at Ames Elementary, Mari had not been able to meet him.
After the whole mother moon situation, Holly learned the only thing he ate was banana, pickle, and strawberry jam sandwiches (with a dab of mayo), and nothing else. He still would not speak to Jean, no matter how much she chatted with him, or what Dr. Seuss book she would read to him, or which Disney movie she would pop in the DVD player. The only things he said to Holly were along the lines of “yes, please” and “thank you.”
And as far as Holly could tell, he hardly slept. He spent most of the hours looking at the night sky through the window.
“I think it’s ready for another one,” Mari said. Holly handed her the red balloon and Mari pitched it at the plywood, hitting it with a satisfying splat. A buff, college-aged boy in a yellow and red football jersey stumbled over Mari’s tarp after chucking a football to a thinner boy in a matching shirt. He nearly knocked the plywood over.
“Sorry!” He called, making sure it was still leaning against the tree before running off. The park they were in was a busy one, it wasn’t the first time someone had stumbled over the tarp. Earlier, a middle-aged jogging man face-planted into the pooling paint, he was up and running again before they could ask if he was alright.
“Can I call him Moon Master?” Mari asked, grabbing a green balloon and balancing it on the top of her hand. She was waiting for the splattered paint to dry a little. She did not click and clatter as much without most of her jewelry on her wrists.
“I think he wants to be called Kite.” Holly took a turn, lobbing an orange balloon. Most of the paint was mixing into a brown in the center of the board. She could not believe Mari had actually con¬vinced her to help with her “paint project.”
“But Moon Master is so much more fitting,” She made a funny little flourish with her free hand every time she said Moon Master. Holly was already sick of it. “Hey, do you think he’d like seeing a farm? Granny loves it when kids visit.”
Before Holly could tell her that having Ethan get out of the house might be a good idea, a boy wearing clothes that would better fit an elephant sauntered over to them for the third time that after¬noon. “Bet you can’t hit me with one of those!” He stood with his arms wide, his bright yellow shirt making a perfect target.
“Ignore him,” Holly warned and grabbed Mari’s arm when she moved to throw a balloon at him. A gang of pre-teens wearing the same sized clothing were walking up behind him. If she ruined his clothing and made him angry, they would be outnumbered.
“Idiot,” Mari growled quietly, “Can you believe I want to spend the rest of my life teaching art to those little bastards? I should go into music, like you, Miss Saxophone Performance Major, no kids to deal with.” She finished in a nasally mocking tone. The boy in the yellow shirt either lost interest or found another person to heckle, he was wandering away.
Holly’s saxophone was collecting dust in its case by her bed. Her plans of attending a school with an actual saxophone performance major were moving at a snail’s pace. “But you at least have a future career.”
Mari waved her comment away and handed Holly another bal¬loon. “Your turn.”
Holly’s out-dated laptop whirred and ticked at the effort of keeping the blank Word document open. She was supposed to be writing a paper over the beginnings of the Vietnam War. The need to clean her saxophone and play a few scales had distracted her when her mother meandered into the room. “How’s Ethan doing?” She asked, stepping over a pile of dirty clothes. A few movie posters were about ready to fall off the water-damaged walls, she pushed one cor¬ner of the cast of Across the Universe against the wall with the pad of her thumb.
Holly pressed a few keys on her tarnished saxophone, the small drum-like thuds echoed through the instrument. “He hasn’t come up here.”
Jean became too calm. She licked her lips several times while rubbing the palm of her hand with her thumb and looking around the room. “Ethan?” She said loudly. “Kite?” No response.
Holly first looked under the bed, finding only Mr. Tubs, her watermelon-shaped cat cleaning himself. It was a small house, after a few glances, they pounded down the stairs. “How could you lose him?” Holly yelled while she checked in the shower.
“I’m a little out of practice, honey.” Jean said calmly as she looked under the sink.
“Isn’t it like riding a bike or something?” Holly was starting to panic after not finding him under any of the tables, or behind the couch. She ran her fingers over her braid and glanced out the window. Through the warping glass, she spotted a certain small boy.
She had never witnessed her mother move so fast. Holly had taken two steps towards the front door when her mother flew by, vaulting the three cement stairs and crunching over the leaf-covered yard. The only thing Holly could do to help was hold the door open as Jean carried a shivering and purple-lipped Ethan back to the house.
He would not answer any of Jean’s questions as to why he was outside. She found him staring skyward, mouth open slightly. Jean left the room in a quiet huff, muttering something about finding the kid some socks. Holly asked the same questions and his answers were all the same “I dunno.”
He didn’t know he was standing barefoot in the front yard, he didn’t know how long he had been out there, he did not know that his lips were purple. Jean returned with a pair of yellow woolen socks and slipped them on his feet.
He pulled something out of his pocket, a smooth white stone. “Mom wanted you to have this.” He said quietly, pushing the rock into Holly’s fingers. Jean was oblivious to the exchange, too busy making sure heat was returned to Ethan’s toes.