Missing Pieces - Heather Gudenkauf



LYDIA GAZED ABSENTMINDEDLY outside the kitchen window, the bright May sunshine glinting off the dew-glazed sweet-potato vine that cascaded from the window box just beyond the screen. It was barely seven thirty, and fifteen-year-old Jack and eleven-year-old Amy were already on the bus, making the forty-minute ride to school. Their last day before summer vacation began. She’d have to make a special supper to celebrate the occasion. Waffles topped with strawberries and freshly whipped cream, lemonade garnished with mint snipped from the windowsill herb garden.

Outside, Grey, their pewter-eyed silver Lab, began barking. A relaxed, friendly yapping. Lydia leaned in, scanning the yard for the source of Grey’s excitement. From her vantage point, the farmyard was deserted. John’s truck was still gone and wouldn’t return until after six. The bedsheets that she had forgotten on the clothesline overnight flapped languidly in the mild morning breeze. The gravel road that wound its way up to the main highway was empty, no telltale dust announcing the arrival of a visitor. Someone could have come by way of the old mud road, but few dared to, for fear their tires would become stuck in the mire brought along by the early-summer rain. Lydia cocked her ear toward the window; Grey’s barking was replaced by the impatient clucks from the henhouse, the Sussexes waiting for their breakfast. Lydia sighed. It had been a long, lonely winter and spring and she was finally beginning to feel better after weeks of nausea and dizziness and a fogginess she could not explain. She looked forward to the hot summer ahead, taking the kids to the swimming pool in town, going on picnics, spreading a blanket across the front lawn at dusk and staring up into the navy blue night pinpricked with stars.

She turned from the window, mentally ticking off the items she would need to make the waffles: heavy cream, last summer’s strawberries stored in the cellar freezer. In her periphery a shadow slid darkly behind the sheets fluttering on the clothesline. She paused. Slowly she turned back toward the window, trying to make sense of what she had just seen out of the corner of her eye. The linens swirled lazily with the rising breeze. Nothing there. A trick of light.

She moved toward the cellar with slow, determined strides and stopped in front of the closed door. Normally she avoided the dank, stale cellar and she reluctantly reached for the knob, briefly considering scrapping the dinner of waffles and frozen strawberries. There was leftover meat loaf and mashed potatoes in the refrigerator, a plate of brownies on the counter.

Lydia laughed shakily, slightly embarrassed with her skittishness. She had lived on this farm for fifteen years and had never been afraid. Lonely, yes, but never frightened. With a deep breath she twisted the knob, her fingers fumbling for the light switch. A rush of musty air filled her nose. Over the years she tried to remove the damp, fetid smell by placing bowls of vinegar on the floor, sprinkling baking soda and mothballs into the corners and strategically placing the box fan as far as the extension cord could stretch in order to blow fresh air down from the top of the stairs. Nothing worked. With the naked lightbulb above her head doing little to illuminate her way, Lydia carefully moved down the wooden steps, sliding her hand down the iron handrail. Shelves of small, neatly labeled jars of strawberry, rhubarb and raspberry jams, and quart-and gallon-size glass containers of sweet pickles and chutney preserves lined one wall. In the narrow space beneath the stairs was where they kept the twelve-cubic-foot Coldspot deep freezer. John had bought it for her on their seventh anniversary, and while not the most romantic of gifts, she had to admit it was helpful. Whenever she wanted a pound of ground hamburger or the Iowa chops that John liked, all she had to do was go down to the cellar and retrieve whatever she needed.

With effort she lifted the heavy freezer lid and was met with a blast of cold air. Quickly riffling past the wax-paper-wrapped pork loins and the plastic bags filled with blanched kernels of sweet corn, Lydia plunged her hand into the depths of the freezer in search of what she was looking for: a quart-size package of sliced and sugared strawberries from last summer.

The initial push was the slightest of shoves, a nudge, really. Tentative. Almost a caress. A bird, maybe. A wayward wren or sparrow flying down