Her son Jonah noticed gray pellets of scat on the roofline leading up to a displaced board under a soffit and suddenly all the midnight rummaging sounds in the attic above Julia’s bedroom returned to her, an aural tilt-shift of something she had been trying to forget.
“Probably a squirrel,” said Jonah.
Julia had met Jonah’s father, a man who liked the sea and the Bible, on a flight to Dubai early in her career. She had brushed her fingers against his hand when she served him drinks, as was her way with attractive passengers; the contact enabled an interchange of positive ions to keep her lovely and cheerful.
“Put on your ski mask to transform your energy and climb up into the attic,” Julia told her son.
“I don’t need a disguise to investigate.”
Julia and Jonah’s father were married until the twenty years together convinced him he was too old to be with a woman his own age.
Near the end, when Julia ask if he wanted her anymore, he would take her by the neck with a warm hand and lead her upstairs, whispering, “You have no idea.”
What she’d had no idea of was that he had also been taking another woman by the neck.
Jonah performed a feat of levitation and shimmied through a closet’s ceiling square.
“The funk is awful and all of the insulation on the south side of the house is shredded,” he shouted.
The raccoon hadn’t asked permission to bring things into Julia’s attic from the neighbor’s uncovered trash. He had done as he pleased. Yogurt containers and chicken bones, a filigreed hand mirror, a purple scarf.
In the Atlanta airport Julia practiced her smile in a bathroom mirror while Jonah appraised her of the situation via cell.
“The remediation guy says racoons are symbols of generosity and adaptability.”
“Exactly what a trickster and master of disguise wants you to think.”
“It’s going to cost five thousand dollars to trap it and clean up.”
Julia tapped her pinky finger on the mirror and outlined her lips on the cool surface. She found ways to make her eyes twinkle.
Authentic smiles go all the way up to the side of the face—the eyes noticeably squint or nearly close as when laughing. The little tug at the sides of the mouth without eye wrinkles indicate a liar. If you’re paying attention you can tell who’s telling you the truth.
Whenever they were on the same flight crew, Julia never let Paige forget she was her little cupcake. Paige’s throat was walnut-colored, her cheeks pore-less like a perfect pancake, the kind Julia had not once successfully produced for Jonah on a Sunday morning when he was a boy.
Seniority gave Julia the pilots and first class, but she hurried through drink cart service to assist Paige. To a thirtyish bro she confided, “At this end of the plane you’re lucky to have a little kumquat instead of an old hag like me.”
At the end of the flight Julia gave the usual litany about preparing for landing. Paige beamed innocently down the aisle and Julia wondered if the animal trap had been set.
She had not told Jonah about the nights the raccoon had made his offerings to her, how small gifts emerged through the slots of the air vent near the ceiling of her bedroom. One night, Julia pulled at a dangling thread of red yarn and gasped when she found it taut. She tugged harder and the raccoon let it loose, and it came to her like something dark and funny, blood red, a memory of pleasure. Kneeling on the floor, she looped the endlessly unspooling yarn over her index finger, crocheting knots, and in this way, she was praying on her knees again as a child, suffocating in the church incense, the slate floor slippery under the heels of her dress shoes.
“You have brought so much joy to this flight crew,” Julie faltered, off-script, her authentic smile at risk. The raccoon husband could stay. She could learn to steal what she needed, wrap thick red braids around her wrists, around necks.
Kate Gehan’s debut short story collection, The Girl and The Fox Pirate, was published by Mojave River Press in 2018. Her writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, and Cheap Pop, among others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her work at kategehan.com.