On the morning of her eighty-third birthday, Miss Minette sat in her rocking chair and looked at things. The sun had been up for a few hours over the east-facing porch. Sweat dripped underneath her black satin dress and pooled between her breasts. Her ribcage, slightly misshapen by corsets in her youth, felt sticky and moist. Even her scalp was hot underneath a black lace cap. Minette reached toward the nearby table and picked up her paper fan with a white-gloved hand. She spread it expertly and fanned herself, still looking at the street before her.
On this morning, a great deal of things required looking at. Minette turned her head slowly from left to right. In the garden a rabbit was eating the rosebushes she hadn’t yet planted. The house kitty-corner had a new porch, built of a shiny material she couldn’t identify. On the porch sat a dachshund, shivering in freezing rain. Next door a young couple rushed towards a strange vehicle in the street. It looked like a Model-T, which Minette had seen in a catalog, but was shiny and apple-red.
The girl was in a delicate state—the sort that usually meant confinement. But Minette was used to people behaving oddly. As she watched, the couple hurried toward the vehicle. The woman—a pretty blond girl, with short hair like a man’s—wore a blue gemstone-studded jacket and glaringly pink pants. She stumbled against the dark-moustached man. Her knees buckled as she clutched her stomach. The man held her arm and supported her, soundlessly urging her forward. Minette focused on the woman’s belly. Wait a bit, child, she thought. Not yet. It’s not your time yet.
After a moment, the girl straightened and looked calmer. She smiled at the man and squeezed his hand. Minette looked at their clasped hands, something unnamable shifting inside her. The man opened the passenger door and closed it once the girl settled in. He ran to the drivers’ side and the vehicle sped away. Minette fanned herself. It was good that he cared for the girl so much, she thought—very good, that she had him for her husband. And good that this baby would grow up on her street where she could watch him.
Minette looked at the shivering puppy next. A young Negro boy with purple hair appeared in the doorway. He took the dog inside, which pleased Minette. She turned her attention to the roses, but it was too late—the rabbit had eaten the lowest blossoms. Too many things happened each day for her to see them all. Perhaps another day she would be able to watch the roses. Or perhaps she would never plant them at all, knowing what would happen.
The day’s heat burned against her face. The fan moved hot air across her skin, barely cooling her. She scanned the street slowly, careful not to miss anything she needed to look at. She saved the house directly across the street for last. Sometimes he was there, and sometimes not. Today he wasn’t. Minette guessed it was because she was looking for him. When she wasn’t trying, she would see him looking back from the upper window, with his unkempt beard and old-fashioned hat—the anomaly. Tom. He was the only part of this street that she couldn’t change.
When Martha arrived, she said, “Laws, Miss Minette, sittin’ on the porch in this heat!”
Martha was a plump, good-natured woman who was widowed and happy about it. Her hemlines stayed just above her ankles, in a compromise between tradition and wartime shortages. She came over twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, to bring food for Minette and check up on her. The Ladies’ Aid Society prided itself on caring for orphans and the elderly. The home-made goodies were supposed to offer relief from spinsterhood’s plain foods, but Minette stretched them all week so that she didn’t need to send for groceries. Lord knew how long her dwindling funds might need to last.
Minette liked Martha. Her visit was one of the few things that would draw Minette’s attention away from watching her street. Martha talked a lot, but she was interesting—and Minette’s only companion. Minette wasn’t good at conversation. Even in her younger days, she’d been shy. Being jilted twice at the altar only drove her further into herself.
“Afternoon, Martha,” said Minette. “How are you? Any news of Charles?”
“Not a word,” said Martha, “but s’only been three weeks. He’s gone a month with no writin’ to his mother.” She smiled tautly.
Martha’s boy was in France fighting the Hun. Minette couldn’t see that far. She said, “He’ll write soon.”
Minette hoped so too. “You must miss him,” she said, smoothing her heavy skirts and petticoats. Her pearl necklace was slick with moisture. Inside her buttoned boots and black stockings, her toes were wet. She wiggled her feet inside her shoes, trying to aerate them. Her ankles burned with the exertion.
“Aren’t you meltin’, Miss Minette? It’s hotter’n anything. I’ll make you an iced tea. How sweet do you take it?”
“Very, please. Thank you.” Minette caught sight of a girl struggling to climb an oak tree. The tree was one Minette had planted herself in the front yard six years ago. It was a sapling for Minette, but a sprawling monster for the child.
“No, thank you.” Minette watched the child—clothed like a boy, as so many were in the coming days. The girl wore dark blue pants, a purple sleeveless shirt, and strange pink shoes that reflected the light on one side. Her red braids were full of twigs and leaves. She clung to a high-up branch, looking determined. She reached for a distant branch. Minette watched her carefully, focusing her attention on—
“May I use one a’these blue glasses with the magnolias?”
“Yes, of course,” Minette said, turning just a bit so Martha could hear her.
The girl slipped from the branch and dangled. Minette watched her intently. After a minute, the girl found strength and lifted herself to safety. She clung there for a moment, her body pressed against the rough bark, then reached for a different branch. Minette smiled. The girl was brave. She would conquer the tree.
“I swear, Miss Minette, I don’t know what you look at all day,” said Martha. She set two glasses of iced tea on the table, one with lemon. “This street is so quiet. Not even any kids playing out there.”
“There will be,” said Minette softly.
“Well, I spose so. Lots of little lovebirds in their nests. A new couple just bought that house over the way, down by the crossroads. The one that used to be the Filberts’.”
“It’ll be nice to have young people. There haven’t been any here since I was a little girl.”
“That’s so, Miss Minette—born here, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Minette said, sipping her tea. It was almost as sweet as she liked it. The cold glass felt wonderful against the pain in her fingers. “My grandfather was a French storekeeper. He worked his whole life to buy this house for his son as a wedding gift.”
“My family’s from Dahlonega, just come here a few years ago—but you know that, don’t you. You must’ve seen so much in eighty-three years. Do you get lost in mem’ries sometimes, Miss Minette? Thinking about the way it used to be?”
“Sometimes,” she said. More often she got lost thinking about the way things would become.
“You must know all the history here. Who married who, who died when.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Who was cheatin’, or lyin’, or anything. I bet you know all that.”
“Not really,” Minette said, the words triggering an unhappy memory. “Lately the only news I get is from you.” She fingered the pearls at her neck. Her mother had given them to her for her fortieth birthday, when it was clear that neither Frank nor Geoffrey would be back for her. She glanced at the abandoned house across the street. In the upper window she saw him: an old man, with a rough beard and dark eyes, watching her. In a moment he was gone again.
“Oh, Miss Minette—we should get you a newspaper or somethin’. I’ll talk to the Society.”
Minette looked at the empty window. Tom had died before she was born. She didn’t know why this piece of the past was visible. “I’d like that.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Martha took the empty glasses away. Minette rocked slowly, enjoying the cypress-scented breeze. She heard Martha bustling about the kitchen. Martha called, “I’ve made a ham sandwich for you, Miss Minette. I’ll bring it out, then I’ll be headin’ home.”
Minette nibbled on her sandwich as Martha walked away. When she was done eating, she sat and rocked, looking at things. A trio of butterflies rose from Mrs. Cooper’s heliotropes and fluttered away. A pair of children fought over marbles, but she encouraged them to resolve it peacefully.
Soon she dozed off. She dreamed of herself as a young belle, bright with suitors. She stood in two churches at the same time, dressed in both her wedding dresses. In her dream, everyone watched her standing alone. Their stares burned through her, masking thoughts that no one spoke. She ran but her dresses tripped her up. She tumbled to the floor. People kept staring. Their eyes withered her into a wrinkled old lady, fallen on her knees in the back of the church. When she woke, she was alone, and it was dark.
Minette’s mother had died muttering nonsense in an old but healthy body, leaving the house to her spinster daughter. Minette had always feared going the same way someday, with no siblings or children to care for her, but her mind was as sharp as ever. Instead she was losing her body. Her fingers betrayed her first, with sharp pain by the time she was fifty. The tightness moved through her arms until she couldn’t hold small objects. She gave up quilting at seventy. The fire progressed through her body until any movement became painful. Walking to the outhouse and back was the worst part of her day.
As she shuffled toward her chair, she thought her ankles would ignite. She sank onto the oak seat, letting her petticoats cushion her bony backside. Today was hotter than the past two days—nearly as hot as Tuesday again. The afternoon smelled like magnolias and hyacinth. A fly buzzed across her vision. She blinked a few times and looked around, slowly, from left to right.
Her hearing had never been great, but her eyesight remained perfect. She saw an unfamiliar young couple holding hands as they walked past her house. The man wore a dark brown wool suit and scuffed shoes. The woman wore a blue gown with a black bodice, a large white-plumed hat, and an engagement ring larger than either of Minette’s had been. Minette could hear them talking, which is how she knew they belonged in her time. Perhaps they were that new couple Martha had mentioned.
As they passed her chair, the man glanced her way. Minette met his gaze and kept rocking. He glared at her, and she smiled serenely. The man dropped the woman’s hand. They spoke in angry whispers that Minette couldn’t quite hear. The couple crossed the street and leaned against the tree. She watched them argue, willing all her concentration in their direction. The moment of change was hard to explain. Sometimes it was quick, like lighting a candle. Other times she was slow to look at things properly—she needed to really see them. The couple kept talking, and Minette watched. After a few minutes, the man smiled and kissed the woman. They took each other’s hands again. Minette rocked, pleased that she’d made a difference.
When she glanced at the house across the street, she saw Tom watching her. She could never describe the expression on his face. Longing, perhaps, or sorrow. No one had lived in the house for years. But she’d heard stories of Tom, the crazy old man who’d died before she was born. Everyone in town knew about him. He’d built that whole house alone when he was seventy—for a bride no one ever saw. When he died, he left the house nearly finished, with a brand-new wooden porch like Minette’s. Now time had decayed the porch and half-rotted the stairs. People said the place was cursed, so no one would buy it. When Minette looked at the house, sometimes she saw an empty lot filled with metal chunks and crumpled paper. Or she saw the house as it once was, with Tom inside. Like now.
Tentatively, she lifted a hand in greeting. Her silk glove slipped along her palm as she extended her fingers. But he was gone already, vanished back into the past. As the young couple walked away, it occurred to Minette that there might be others like her, watching the street and keeping it safe. She glanced up at the window again, where Tom had been. Did anyone she saw ever see her back? Just for a moment?
The thought kept her occupied most of the morning. Someday, when she passed on—maybe someone else would watch this street for her. It was a comforting thought. A series of watchers, linked like her pearls across time. Yes. Tom, next to her—and someone else before, and yet another after. Minette smiled.
When Martha arrived, she brought fresh peaches, a tin of sardines, and egg salad. She chattered as she put the salad into a blue dish and brought it out to the porch. “The Society hasn’t met yet, but Mrs. Smythe over on Mason Street said she’d have her youngest bring over yesterday’s paper each day, so’s you can get news.”
“Bless you, Martha.”
“Aw, twarn’t nothing. Glad to help.”
“I saw a new young couple,” Minette said. “Walking by here.”
“Oh? The Hendersons, maybe. Was she tall and sour-faced?”
“No, she was very short, and he as well.”
“Oh. Dark-haired, both of them? Him with a big nose like a rooster?”
“Yes. They were arguing.”
“Winnie Harrington and that Warner man. Jacob. She lives down on Chisholm. Musta been walking up this way.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He comes from bad blood. Jacob came from Charleston and don’t have family connections here. I think he’s a drifter. Her pa’s forbid the marriage but I think Winnie’s got her own mind about it. She’s a Harrington and I don’t have to tell you what that means.”
She didn’t. Minette remembered the Harrington boys from forty years ago. Harringtons were strong-minded, that was sure—men and women both. “Stephen’s daughter, must be,” she said.
“Of course. Didn’t you know, Miss Minette? She’s full on fifteen now.”
“I remember when she was born,” said Minette, “but I thought she was a little girl still.”
Martha looked at her. Finally she said, “I guess you get awful lonely.”
“It’s not so bad,” said Minette. Her left hand twitched. She looked at Martha and saw her—really saw her—no longer sitting in the chair. No matter how Minette looked at her, Martha wasn’t there. Alarmed, Minette sat up straight, ignoring her back pain. Would Martha die soon? Before next Tuesday?
Martha said, “So you don’t know they’re tearin’ down the old mansion cross the street.”
“No,” said Minette, still distracted by what she couldn’t see in Martha’s chair. “Tearing it down?”
“Yep. Whole thing. Say it’s a hazard to the neighborhood boys. They’ll go inside. Fall and break their necks. Hmmph. I say boys are boys and they’ll climb trees and break their necks that way too. But the town council’s set on it. Say no one’ll buy it, so it may as well go.”
“I suppose,” said Minette. “Martha—” She paused. She wanted to say I’m scared. Don’t leave me, Martha. Please don’t leave me alone again.
“Can you find something for me?” she blurted out. “Town history. Two names. Geoffrey King and Frank Middleman. What happened to them when they left?”
Martha’s face grew solemn. “Frank was your fiancé, wasn’t he. Mrs. Smythe told me the story.”
“So was Geoffrey, five years earlier. I want to know where they went.”
“Please, Martha. I want to know what happened.”
Martha said, “I know about Frank. He went to Dahlonega when he left here. I was a little girl then.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He stopped in Atlanta first and brought a… woman with him. Face painted like a flare. She laughed too loud. My ma wouldn’t let me look at her. Three days later they found her dead. He’d run off.”
“What?” Minette’s fan stopped fluttering. Frank’s face appeared in her memory, with his bright blue eyes and playful smile.
“No one told you, Miss Minette? Lawd. Maybe I shouldn’ta.”
“No one ever told me,” Minette said, flipping her fan shut and open again. Her wrists burned. She remembered her mother consoling her after the broken wedding. She’d asked around about Frank, to see if anyone knew where he’d gone. No one had. But they must have. They had to have known.
“I’m sorry, Miss Minette. I—I’m so sorry. I shouldn’ta told you, maybe.”
Minette didn’t answer. After a moment, Martha said hesitantly, “I’ll ask about Geoffrey.” When she left, Minette was rocking silently, looking up at the window where Tom watched her. She wondered if he was changing her life. Fixing her. If so, he was doing a rotten job of it.
By Sunday, it was cooler and cloudy. That night, a storm washed a fresh smell into the gardens and walkways. Miss Minette watched the rain from her porch, encouraging the water to run towards the flowerbeds where it was most needed. She napped for a while, then woke to a twilight drizzle.
Across the way, Tom was still absent. Minette thought about him building the porch for the bride who’d never shown up. He was supposed to have made a lot of money with some mines he owned. People called him crazy, but they probably called her that too. He must have been lonely, with that big house and no one to share it. Minette understood that feeling. Maybe that was a requirement for watching people: you had to be lonely. It was nice to think that she might not have suffered in vain. Still, if Tom was watching her the way she watched these other people—he really could have done a better job with her life. He could have given her a husband, for one thing. And the children she’d always longed for.
On Monday, the rain settled into overcast skies. On Tuesday, it rained again, but gently. Martha came over with an umbrella for herself and a basket for Minette. After chattering about the weather, she busied herself in the kitchen and came back with a small platter of blueberry tarts. Instead of sitting down, she leaned in the doorway. “Mrs. Willowby made ’em for you,” she said. “I’d sit and chat, but I can’t stay today. Got to organize the raffle for the Society. Money’s goin’ to the boys on the front.”
Minette didn’t much like blueberries, but she appreciated the thought. She glanced at Martha’s empty chair, wondering why she still couldn’t see Martha in it. “Please send my regards to Mrs. Willowby,” she said. “Her little boy—a man now, must be?”
“Done been married seven years now,” said Martha, resting her head against the oak doorframe. “To the Carver girl—Lillian. They live down on Mason Street. She’s expectin’.”
Minette sighed. “I lose so much track of time,” she said. “I forget when it all happens.”
“Winnie Harrington eloped with that man. Living here in town still. Her father’s angry but didn’t throw them out. Says Jacob better treat his daughter right, is all.”
Minette smiled. Secretly she envied Winnie’s courage. “I think they love each other,” she said.
“Time’ll tell. And my boy wrote. He’s doing fine. Weather’s sunny and the trench’s not so bad.” Martha kept her voice casual, but Minette heard her relief.
“Good, good—and of Geoffrey?”
Martha frowned. “Miss Minette… it’s the past, you know.”
“Over’n done with. You’re here now, and going strong.”
“Tell me, Martha.”
Martha sighed and shifted on her feet. “I heard from Mrs. Willowby, who heard from Mrs. Tate, who heard from her son in Birmingham… well, I heard Geoffrey shot himself. September 1859.”
Minette’s hand twitched on the table.
Martha hurried on. “Gambling debts, they say.”
“He was always passionate,” said Minette, closing her eyes to grieve. Frank had been a hurried attempt to save herself from spinsterhood, but Geoffrey she had loved. He’d broken her heart when he left. It never quite mended.
“He died penniless, Miss Minette.”
“I could have saved him.”
Martha shook her head. “Uh-uh, Miss Minette. My cousin Joseph’s one a’them gambling types. There’s no cure for ’em. They’ll bet anything they got.”
“If I’d been there…” She remembered him courting her shy nineteen-year-old self. She’d loved his madcap ways, his antics, his wildness. He wanted to elope, but she insisted on the wedding. A full wedding—and he hadn’t shown. All her life, she’d blamed herself for that. If she’d just eloped, maybe he’d be here with her now, sitting in Martha’s chair.
“You were better off not marryin’ him, you know.”
“Pardon me, Miss Minette, but you know I speak my mind. You were lucky to escape. Just think, you’d be destitute too. He’d a’gambled your house, and your pearls, and everything!”
Minette saw Martha’s point. “I could’ve changed him,” she said stubbornly. “He wouldn’t have been that way.”
“Leopard won’t change its spots, Miss Minette.”
“Well, it’s all in the past now,” she said, looking away. “It’s done and gone, as you say. I have a future to look at.”
“I think you got a guardian angel,” said Martha sincerely. “I do. This is a lucky street. Nothing bad happens here.”
“I think you’re right,” said Minette. Her gaze wandered to Tom, alone in his window. He smiled at her, his eyes gentle, and she felt compassion for him. Maybe she couldn’t bring him his bride, but he couldn’t fix her up either.
On Wednesday morning, Miss Minette watched strangely-dressed children play hide-and-go-seek. She spared one child from injury and helped a little boy find a clever hiding place. The other children looked for a long time without finding him until he reappeared. Minette was surprised to see the children jeering at him. Maybe the hiding spot she’d given him was too good. The children chased the boy around the corner.
Troubled, Minette looked at an older couple walking down the tree-lined street, arguing soundlessly about something. The man’s back was to her, but the woman looked vaguely familiar. With a start, she realized this was a much-older Winnie Harrington—now Winnie Warner. Curious, Minette studied her face. Winnie looked tired. Her body was stretched out from childbirth, and her gray hair was poorly styled underneath her hat. Jacob had gained nearly a hundred pounds and walked with a limp. Neither of them looked at each other. A dark-haired teenaged girl trailed behind them, her face nearly as tired as her mother’s.
Winnie stumbled on something and caught herself. Jacob glared at her. They exchanged sharp words—not more than two sentences—and kept walking. Their daughter acted like nothing had happened at all. Minette saw echoes of their previous argument, dulled by time and familiarity. Her heart ached to see them together like this. What had gone wrong?
Minette thought about them, long after they’d passed by and the rain began falling. It troubled her that they seemed so unhappy. If only they lived on her street, she could change them. She could help them get along again. She wondered if she’d convinced Winnie to elope in the first place. Maybe if she hadn’t watched them on her street, they would have broken their engagement. Winnie might have found someone else. There were so many things she couldn’t see.
She glanced at Tom’s window. He was watching her, watching him. “We aren’t very good at this, are we,” she said out loud, knowing he couldn’t hear her. His expression didn’t change. He gazed at her, shifting slightly every few minutes. Minette wondered if she could feel herself being looked at. She closed her eyes, focusing within herself. She thought about Martha’s news of Frank and of Geoffrey. She would have been miserable, she knew. As unhappy as Winnie, or maybe anyone else. It was hard to reconcile that understanding with her loneliness.
Everything in her life had brought her to this point. Each choice she’d made—or hadn’t—put her here, watching her street. She opened her eyes. The street looked fresh in the rain, like a different place. “Or maybe we are,” she said. Tom kept smiling. Minette figured he understood.
Minette rocked on her porch through the evening, looking at the tree where she’d seen the Warners fighting. The tree would grow large. Lightning would take a branch, and the tree would tilt to the right. The tree would fall one day, and block the street for the whole afternoon. Houses would rise, and fall; the street would be torn up one day and put back down.
She couldn’t always watch. He was a watcher before her. Was there one to follow? She had no way of knowing. Her string of pearls had a clasp where it connected back to itself. Maybe the watchers were many, or maybe they were only two. Tom had watched her for years, and she had watched him—both doing their best, like anyone would.
She must make a decision. Yes. She makes it.
Across the street, he beckons. Miss Minette stands up. Her body burns with pain, spurring her movement. She clings to the porch railing and stumbles forward. She won’t need her chair anymore, nor will Martha sit next to her. There’s light ahead of her, and Tom. He smiles.
Slowly she makes her way off the porch onto her front walk. She hasn’t stepped on it in five years. Rain pours from the sky and soaks her lace cap. The uneven stones rock her feet like an unsteady ocean. She follows the path, her skirts heavy with water. Each step adds more weight; each step becomes easier. He is watching her, changing her. Youth returns to her joints, stretch returns to her muscles. She looks up to his window, her lined face radiant in the rain.
Minette crosses the paved street as it turns to dirt underfoot. The air smells like new earth. She walks up the stairs to his porch. The century-old wooden steps repair themselves under her feet. The porch returns to the freshness of 1803. Minette places her left hand on the house’s door. She glances at her ringless finger and smiles. She pushes the door open and goes inside.
For the next hundred years, and the hundred before that, people live on this street. They climb trees, keep dogs, drink iced tea, and fight with lovers. They are born or dying, get married or get jilted. Life moves like anywhere else, here on the luckiest street in Georgia.
Originally published in Realms of Fantasy (Oct. 2008).
Copyright © 2008 by Vylar Kaftan. All rights reserved.