Karen’s on her tummy by the edge of the pond, watching Opa feed the koi. They zig and zag under the lily pads in tangles of orange and yellow. The sun’s hot on the back of her neck, and the grass pricks her skin through her bathing suit.
Her Oma sits in a lawn chair, smoking a cigarette, the cubes in her iced tea tinkling when she sips.
‘Tell my fortune, Oma.’
Karen’s palm is dwarfed in the cradle of her grandmother’s wide hand. With the tip of one nail, Oma traces the lifeline, and a tickly feeling runs all the way down Karen’s back.
‘You’ll have a long happy life, with lots of children. And a good man to take care of you.’
It’s what she always says.
‘Will there be horses?’
‘Yes, Schatzi, there’ll be all the horses you could wish for. Now go play while I make lunch.’
Turning cartwheels through the ragged grass, Karen maps her own future. There’ll be a large ranch house with long windows to the floor. She’s already drawn it in an exercise book, one boxy room after another, furnished with pictures cut out of her mother’s magazines – long, low couches, round purple cushions, a glass coffee table. There’ll be four children – two boys and two girls – and a shadowy husband who carries a briefcase and isn’t home much.
Her Oma calls ‘Picnic!’ and Karen runs to the patio to a tuna salad sandwich on a paper plate. The umbrella lays stripes of shadow across the table. A pop as Oma opens a Coke. Karen holds her finger over the neck of the bottle, feeling the straw push up against her finger. Oma shakes out some chips from the big crinkly bag onto her plate. Their crunch against the soft sweetness of the bread is the usual delight in her mouth.
In two years, her father will leave and move to California with a new wife. Her mom will take Karen to live in New Jersey where she’ll work as a secretary in a lawyer’s office. Except for Christmas cards, they’ll mostly lose touch with her father’s parents in Minnesota.
Karen will lose her virginity in 11th grade to a boyfriend who hates to wear condoms, so she’ll sweat bullets every month till her period comes. There’ll be no money for college, so Karen will go work in city government in Newark, first as a typist and later in data entry. She’ll meet a nice man there, Rolf, and they’ll marry, but there’ll be no children, and she’ll come to see there’d never been any need for condoms.
She and Rolf will work hard, saving enough to buy a one-story house on a nice street. There’ll be good times with neighbors, evenings in the yard with beers in the cooler and citronella candles lit, fireflies popping in the trees. Trips to Florida, driving all night, then walking on the beach in St Pete in the setting sun, pelicans skimming just above the waves on their pterodactyl wings. Collecting shells for her mantel at home, the home they’ll lose to foreclosure when Rolf is laid off just exactly as Karen’s mother shows the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
Her mom will fret and pace the confines of their apartment till one day she’ll fall on the cold bathroom tile, the beginning of the end. Then the gun lap, Rolf going first, an aneurysm in the street, then Karen’s own body ossifying limb by limb till she stops even trying to move forward. She’ll spend her last days and nights on the couch, drifting in and out of sleep, watching the birds peck at the empty feeder beyond the living room window till there’s nothing left for her to see.
But on this summer’s afternoon in 1964, there’s just the dandelion-seed air drifted with bees, and her Oma cheering as Opa turns on the sprinkler and Karen runs round and round through the rainbowed spray, laughing like there’s no tomorrow.
FIONA J. MACKINTOSH is a British-American writer living near Washington D.C. who has been widely published in both the US and UK. Her stories have been shortlisted for the 2016 Exeter Story Prize and longlisted for Plymouth University’s 2015 Short Fiction Prize, the 2016 Bristol Short Story Prize, and the 2017 Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, and her flash fictions have won the TSS, Retreat West Monthly, and the Ad Hoc Fiction contests. Fiona is a proud recipient of a 2016 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist’s Award. You can follow her on Twitter @fionajanemack or on her blog Midatlantic.