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The Picnic


by Janice D. Soderling


The Montreal Review, December 2010




The whole afternoon an Indian summer brilliance had gleamed and glistened. Now black clouds were massing on the horizon. "It's getting chilly," Nora said, looking up from her book. "But today was the best picnic weather since mid-summer. Oops, you guys take it easy," she cried, spilling her coffee as the three older children, whooping and laughing, ran right across the picnic cloth, chased by little Luke puffing along on his short, fat legs.

"Totally perfect." Zena's mother grabbed Luke in mid-stride. "Sit down, young man. You are all sweaty." She shouted, "Hey, kids, put on your sweaters."

Nora slipped the book into her handbag and waved to the children. "That goes for all of you," she called and began stacking the plastic mugs and plates. "We might as well head for home, Sarah. The kids can play indoors at our house for a while."

"No," the children shrieked, running in circles around the red-and-white checkered cloth. "No, we don't want to go home. We are staying here all night." Luke bounced up and down on his mother's lap, trying to break loose, stretching out his arms toward his sister, "Zena."

"Zena, will you please stop rolling in those leaves," her mother said. "You're ruining your birthday sweater. Give us some peace and quiet?"

"We're leaving in twenty minutes, kids," Nora warned. "I need a volunteer to take this to the car." She held up a plastic bag with chicken bones and apple cores and empty bottles. Jeremy grabbed it as he swooped by and the children went running toward the Dawson car parked in the long drive of the deserted house.

"And don't go into the house," Zena's mother yelled after them. "There are ghosts in there." The children ran in zigzags, making ghost noises and flapping their arms.

"Did you notice the front window was broken?" Nora asked.

"One wet winter and the house will go to rack and ruin."

"They left the furniture. Everything. The garden must have been lovely. Sarah, those clouds are rolling in fast."

Jeremy was in the first grade, but Zena could count too, and by the time he'd got to fourteen, she was inside the kitchen, scurrying across the broken linoleum, looking around quickly, giggling as the door clicked shut, cutting off Jeremy's voice after "seven...". She knew what came next, ".teen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty", all the way to ready or not, here I come.

It was dark inside. And quiet. Her new sweater was scratchy, but there was no room to take it off.

"Oh, look," said Nora, "Lukey has gone to sleep."

"Darn. If I wake him now he will be whiney until bedtime."

"He'll go back to sleep once you start driving. We ought to leave now."

It began to drizzle before Jeremy had counted to ten, while Zena and Judy were still looking for a place to hide. The rising wind whipped the hollyhocks as Judy crawled past the trellis and under the porch. The air was completely wind-still when Jeremy got to thirty, then the fat drops began to fall, splat, splat, splat on the yellow and orange leaves. Zena did not hear them smacking like bullets, or Nora yelling, "Jeremy, Judy, Zena, shake a leg. Let's move it, you guys," as she tossed a jumbled armload into the back seat of her car.

Judy crawled out and went running toward the Dawson car. Zena's mother was hurrying around gathering up the scattered belongings. By the time she located Luke's teddy bear, face down in the old grape arbor, and stowed everything in her car-Luke's stroller and his five plastic trucks and a bulldozer, Zena's hula hoop, the blankets and the soaked picnic basket which probably was completely ruined-the rain was beating down.

Luke kicked and screamed when Zena's mother plopped him into his safety seat, just as Nora braked her car on the gravel road and yelled into the wind through the half-open car window.

Zena's mother waved without looking up, holding the struggling little boy firmly with her other hand. Nora drove off, grinding the gravel.

"Nothing to cry about, baby. This is to keep you safe." Zena's mother secured the buckles and ran around the car to slip behind the wheel. She stroked his wet hair, comforting him until he stopped sobbing. "Hey, some kinda weather, huh, Lukey," she said, starting the engine. "That's what I call rain."

Luke bucked against his harness and said, "Zena."

"Zena rode home with the Dawsons, baby."

"Zena", Luke said again. "Zena."

"Zena went to play with Jeremy and Judy," she told him. "Hold still now, while I wipe your nose. We'd better move too, baby, and get you into some dry clothes."

Zena was tired of waiting to be found. And she had a cramp in her left leg. She didn't hear the car start. She didn't hear it pull away. There was a soft buzzing in her ears, like distant flies. Why didn't anyone come looking? She decided she would sneak out and run to home base, shouting Free!  That would surprise Jeremy, all right. She smiled and put out her hand to open the door.



Janice D. Soderling grew up in the United States, but lives in Sweden. Her fiction, poetry and translations appeared in literary magazines such as The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Event, Windsor Review, The Pedestal, Literary Bohemian, and Horizon Review.


Illustrations: Family Flying Kite (2006, oil on canvas, 66 x 42) and Portrait as Saint Casilde (2009, oil on canvas, 46 x 32) by Haley Hasler

"Through the seemingly private world of self-portraiture and autobiographical narrative, I hope to present a compelling fictive world, without dictating a precise narrative or relying on a static symbolism... Painting impels me to cross the border freely between the universe of things and the universe of the imagination. The former involves an urgent encounter between the eye and the exterior world, while the latter contains the interior universe of memory, history, narrative, and desire. "

-- Haley Hasler

Haley Hasler's works can be purchased at Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116

Hasler's website: www.haleyhasler.com


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