Understand | by Michael Chin

            They parked on the outskirts of the ghost town, Old Dunberry, a place Mona had told Eleanor was special to her family. So special that they all wound up there for reunions, funeral, weddings.
             “We’re the first to arrive,” Eleanor said, observing the absence of other cars and the way the dust kicked up from beneath the tires of Mona’s Volkswagen as if it were rousing specks of the dead, because no one else had driven into this dirt for hours, maybe days, maybe years.
             “We’re not the first.” Mona threaded an arm through Eleanor’s and grasped her hand. Her skin was smooth and cool to the touch. She smelled of rose petals and cinnamon. “Come on.” 
            Mona wore a striking red dress that felt both too modern and too bright for the dusty desert setting. Eleanor had dressed more conservatively in a plain black dress that covered her shoulders and reached past her knees. She’d learned that even families that professed to be fine with a same-sex couple would have their outliers who weren’t and who’d pick up on any detail they might criticize as evidence this relationship wasn’t up to code. Better to have the most judgmental of the lot think her a prude than a slut.
            Mona carried the envelope with the card for the relatives distant enough she’d had to double check the spelling of the names, and Eleanor certainly couldn’t remember them. Mona’d made out the card from the both of them, though Eleanor had protested that it should be from Mona alone. Let her take the credit. After all, it was her family. Mona disagreed. She said family was an ocean. Trace it back far enough and who could distinguish one sea from another, which drop of water that could be attributed to which storm or condensation from which day’s air. Go back far enough and everybody was intertwined through time and space.
            Eleanor told her she liked that, and Mona said to be prepared because her family talked like that about big ideas and metaphors. They loved stories most of all and Eleanor should think of some to have at the ready. They could be stories from Eleanor’s family, but they could also be stories she’d heard, stories she read, because in the end, who could own a story?
            “I understand,” Eleanor said.

They walked through the threshold together, under the old wooden sign with WELCOME TO OLD DUNBERRY carved into the face of it, supported by a rickety wooden post on either side. Not a soul in sight, Eleanor asked where they’d go first.
             “Feel like a drink?” Mona asked.
             Of course Eleanor did, because though she didn’t drink much, so much of her relationship with Mona had centered on drinking from their first date at a bar to the cocktails Mona mixed in her kitchen to sip while they watched true crime documentaries after dark. Meeting Mona’s family—that was an occasion for drink, for sure, to celebrate, to calm her nerves, to be the better version of herself that Mona and alcohol seemed to extract by equal measures.
             Whereas the welcome sign at the edge of the ghost town had appeared unstable, the bar’s signage—reading Saloon in the plainest of san-serif print—had fallen altogether, on the ground and dusty. They walked right through the door, the whole ghost town open to them to explore, and Eleanor remembered visiting places like this is a child, and being instructed to express wonder at butter churns and printing presses. All of the most boring things. But if Old Dunberry meant something to Mona, it would mean something to Eleanor, too, even if it meant swallowing her disappointment at not having an actual drink to imbibe but rather raising dusty old tumblers to pantomime drinking, a form of play, because she imagined that’s about what she was up against in this relic of a bar that couldn’t possibly have anything potable inside.
             But inside, Eleanor did spot her first soul, seated at the bar. She was a hunch-backed old woman with surprisingly broad shoulders. Mona rushed to her and they embraced and Eleanor thought she might have hugged the old woman a little harder than was safe for a brittle old timer.
             Mona introduced Eleanor as her girlfriend, making no apologies or deflections about it, which felt good. The woman hugged Eleanor, too, firmer than she would have expected, and Mona explained she was her grandmother, Esmerelda.
             “Call me Esme,” she corrected her. Her eyes seemed to glitter a silver-blue. She asked Eleanor if she wanted a drink.
             Esme got off her stool with a bit of effort, shunning Mona’s outstretched hand to help her, and teetered to the far side of the bar, where she found two glass tumblers and a crystalline bottle, refracting rainbows out of light that Eleanor hadn’t noticed shining in the first place. There was whiskey inside and the old woman poured it straight while Eleanor tried to wrap her head around the mechanics of the situation—if Mona’s family brought their own provisions when they visited the ghost town, or worked out an arrangement with the owners when they’d be in town, or if the whole arrangement were illicit, and Esme was simply too old to care about rules and helped herself to what she could find in Old Dunberry on the premise that she’d been coming long enough she’d might as well own the place.
             They sat at a high table on teetering stools. Mona coiled an ankle around Eleanor’s and stroked her skin a couple times before resting, legs knotted up just out of sight. The whiskey was strong, but smooth. A little too easy to imbibe, and though Esme poured her another shot without asking, Eleanor cradled the glass, waiting to sip until the first drink had caught up to her and she could gauge how drunk she was..
             Once an extended exchange of pleasantries was out of the way, Esme got to what Mona had warned her about. “Tell me a story.” 
             And Eleanor had one at the ready. One befitting a ghost town, one she’d read in a magazine sometime before about a company that rented out ghosts to its customers a year at a time. Esme chuckled at the concept. So Eleanor went on, trying to not to be too performative, trying not to sound rehearsed.
             She spoke about a man renting ghosts, always intending to catch up with an old lover, but she was never available to him, until finally she was. But nothing came across like he expected it to when he had her in his home because she felt like he was holding her captive, and all he wanted was to hear her sing.
             Esme turned the bottom of her glass up to down a mighty gulp of her whiskey at the end of the story, then set down the tumbler hard against the table. “A very good story,” she said. “People think that time and death can change how people feel. But time’s all an illusion. It’s all happening at once. Close your eyes tight enough, long enough, and remember a time long ago. You’re there, back in the moment. No wiser, not better for this all this time, time, time.”
             “I understand,” Eleanor said, though she wasn’t sure she understood altogether. But she understood that the story had passed muster and made a good impression. She understood the hand she felt rubbing her shoulder to be Mona’s, and that Mona was impressed with how she’d carried herself, and that meant something. 

Eleanor met the twin brothers at the town bank.  Curtis and Nick took turns adding coins to an old-timey balance scale in what seemed like a competition as to who could make the scale tip all the way down to his side first. Neither of them were Mona’s blood relatives, both married into the family via different cousins. One met his wife at the other’s wedding and it all felt a little incestuous. “But trace it back far enough, and aren’t we all family?” Nick said.
             The truth was that the two of them looked silly, boyish at the scale, giggling at one another as they placed their coins at different speeds and with different degrees of severity, ultimately debating then and there whether one was allowed to throw a coin down and what constituted a throw vs. a lob, and from what height a drop or flip of a coin became a throw. They looked to be men in their twenties, younger than Eleanor and Mona, but not by much. Men who certainly should have outgrown arguments this idiosyncratic, but then Eleanor recalled how old jealousies she’d long come to peace with bubbled back to the surface over Christmas dinner with her sister. The drive to fall back on old habits, on default modes of relationships had to be stronger among twins, and probably among boys who never outgrew games in the first place.
             “You like Old Dunberry so far?” Nick asked. Nick with the moustache. Nick in the black shirt to Curtis’s white. Eleanor imagined the two of them might have coordinated such details to differentiate themselves when they knew they’d be in the same space at the same time, though she also remembered Mona telling her about their trickster side—a propensity to trade baseball caps or t-shirts in their youth for the express purpose of confusing everyone around them as to who was who.
             “It’s nice.” Eleanor stayed noncommittal, because while nice or a nicer answer would have been suitable fodder for Esme or one of Mona’s parents, the brothers might have been poking fun at her. Mona had warned about that, too.
             “A nice place to collect dust,” Curtis said. “Some place to bring a date, Mona. Going to bring her by the American quilting museum next?”
             Mona planted a hand to the small of Eleanor’s back, leaned forward, and rested a thumb on the edge of Nick’s side of the scale, awarding him the victory—tainted as it may be—but more to the point ruining the game for the both of them. They must have expected it, though, because they hardly complained, instead offering their fuller attention as they asked Eleanor where she was from and about her family. Curtis asked if Mona still snored at night and offered a startlingly good impression of what her snore really did sound like—a soft guttural sucking, a wisp of an exhale.
             Nick looked Eleanor straight in the eye to ask her if she had a story to tell them. 
             Eleanor told them a story about a time when all of the dogs had died out from the world. Except one, who showed up, unceremoniously, unassumingly, at the doorstep of a man whose wife had a left him, a man desperate to use the dog to court favor with the daughter they split custody of, but in the back of his mind, more importantly, imagining this dog might bring the family back together.
             “What happened?” Curtis asked.
             “The dog died,” Eleanor said. “The wife remarried.”
             “A real heartbreaker.” Nick smiled and swept all of the coins off his side of the scale, then Curtis’s, in what may have been a haphazard way of cleaning up after their game, or may have been a simple matter of resetting for the next one.
             A girl rushed by, maybe seven or eight years old, in between where the brothers played at the scale and where Eleanor and Mona stood. Eleanor remembered visiting museums as a child. The eternal paradox that they were at once places of wonder for a child to look at mysterious things and wonder at what once was, but also spaces not to run or climb for fear of breaking something ancient or hurting themselves.
             Curtis was on it, though, snatching up the girl by her waist. She giggled, familiar. “Speaking of heartbreakers, here’s one in the making.”
             There was something feral in the girl’s laughter at getting lifted mid-stride.
             Nick winked at her. “Esme, what’d we tell you about running around in here—especially when we have visitors?”
             Esme’s eyes were a bright blue at the edge of silver there in the bank. Her eyes were game for mischief, as hungry for stories as anyone Eleanor was likely to meet that day.
             “I understand,” she said.

Eleanor was feeling hazy when Mona wrapped an arm around her waist and offered her her water canteen. Eleanor apologized, realizing that her fatigue must have shown in her loping, staggering gait, and Mona waved her off saying no mere mortal should try to match Grandma Esme drink for drink. 
             Mona supported Eleanor, locked hip to hip like conjoined sisters. “I should warn you, my aunt is eccentric. Has been ever since the murder.”
             Eleanor had questions of course, but before she could get out the words about the aunt or the murder, there they were upon her. Mona broke off exclaiming Aunt Clarice! and hugging the woman tightly.
             Aunt Clarice didn’t hesitate to hug Eleanor before any introductions. “I’ve missed you,” Clarice said in a way that Eleanor might have read as flirtatious, even seductive under other circumstances than a family function, meeting her niece’s girlfriend.
             “This is the first time you’ve met Eleanor,” Mona said, her voice rigid in the manner of strong-arming a child into saying the right nicety.
             “Of course, of course, of course.” Clarice’s voice diminished on every repetition to the point of whispering the last one. Her body shrank inward, too, like a cat coiling, readying herself to pounce. “How do you like Old Dunberry so far?”
             “It’s quaint.” Eleanor wasn’t sure if that were the right word, if it might sound condescending to a place so important to their family. Wasn’t there something about a place people had ownership over, attachments to—a place they called home? That very particular mix of pride and shame, that sense that they were free to poke fun at it but no one else could dare.
             “Quaint, quaint, quaint.” Clarice smiled. She looked very young, to the point she’d have guessed she were Mona’s sister or cousin. Probably an aunt on a technicality, one of the youngest of the preceding generation, Mona one of the eldest. “I suppose city girls find anything outside the city limits quaint?”
             Eleanor started to explain that she didn’t mean any disrespect, and Mona talked over her to ask about the weather this past year, when another woman arrived quite suddenly and locked Clarice into a tackling embrace. They looked a lot alike. This new arrival wore a long, sleeveless dress, black with a floral print over it.
             The two of them giggled, almost losing their balance. It must have been ages since they’d seen each other, but wasn’t that the spirit of a wedding, to bring family together across distances and time? Clarice closed her eyes tight and gave the woman a squeeze and smelled at her hair. And when she opened her eyes, she asked. “Have you met Esmerelda?”
             “We’ve run into Esme,” Mona said. “Or I should say she’s run into us.”
             “Don’t go shortening my name.” She had a hint of a southern lilt to her voice, maybe put on, or maybe because she’d relocated somewhere southerly and taken it on by degrees. 
             She locked eyes with Eleanor, undeniably a beautiful woman. The word heartbreaker the brothers had used came back to Eleanor’s mind. The kind of woman who’d set sights on who she wanted and pursue them shamelessly, if only because she knew she’d get what she wanted in the end. There was some of that in Mona, too. Mona who’d made the first move on their first date, before Eleanor was certain it was a date, and who’d explained later that she didn’t see any point in subtlety. She wanted everything she had coming to her.
             “It’s Esmerelda,” the woman went on slowly, elongating every syllable. “Savor the flavor.”
             “Take it easy, Grandma, she’s mine.” Mona kissed Eleanor, soft with a little tongue. “Clarice, why don’t you tell Eleanor about the man you killed.”
             Clarice did tell the tale, heavy on facts, light on narrative, about a husband who drank and knocked her around and that was all right enough, except then he knocked around her son from a previous marriage, too, so she rigged a shelf full of paint cans to fall on her husband’s head when he was working in the garage. The state brought her to trial but no one could prove she was responsible.
             “I’m impressed you’d share that all with me,” Eleanor said. “We just met.” She regretted saying it once the words were out because it felt like it would invite a follow up threat about keeping her mouth shut—an insinuation of mistrust that Clarice apparently had not felt up to that moment.
             “It was all a long time ago,” Clarice said.
             The next thing she knew, Eleanor was telling her next story, someplace between distracting from tensions and appeasement, and settling into a groove of telling the stories she knew, the stranger the better because this family enjoyed magic and metaphor. 
             “There was a boy made out of stone whose friend fell in love with a girl made of glass.”
             “Sounds fragile,” Esmerelda said. “I bet she broke.”
             “She did,” Eleanor said. “But I haven’t told you about the boy made of fire yet.”
             Esmerelda and Clarice listened, their eyes were aglow.

“I should explain about Esme,” Mona said.
             “I understand,” Eleanor said. “She explained it from the start. About time.”
             Mona watched her closely. An intense look like the lazy Sunday afternoon in Eleanor’s kitchen when a peach-strawberry pie browned in the oven and the dishes piled up in the sink and Mona hugged her tight and asked her if she’d come to meet her family in Old Dunberry. If she’d come to a wedding.
             Eleanor had understood it was an important question. No space for questions or hesitation if she didn’t want to risk Mona skittering away. Eleanor said yes.
             “You understand,” Mona said.

Eleanor met Mona’s parents. It was the meeting she’d feared most, because in her experience every time she met a significant other’s parents was awkward. But whether they were disinterested in uncomfortable encounters or distracted by the nuptials about to begin they didn’t ask her questions and didn’t insist on a story. Mona’s father was austere, but not unkind. He wore a tuxedo with tails. Mona’s mother was warmer. She said, “Welcome to the family.”
             The wedding took place on a wooden stage at the center of Old Dunberry. There was no covering for the stage—really more of a raised platform—nor the rows of wooden folding chairs set out before it. A perfect faith that rain wouldn’t come, that the sun wouldn’t beat down too hot and bright. Eleanor could imagine this stage’s use in times past. A space for the mayor to make proclamations to all the townsfolk. A spot for public punishment—reprobates in stocks, people hanged. Under those circumstances, the natural elements would only enhance the suffering.
             But that day, the stage was the setting for a wedding, with ropes of pastel flowers, hung in uneven loops. Eleanor found something refreshing in them not being perfectly aligned. She imagined someone from the family had wrangled them, maybe children. A string band played folksy, wordless tunes, the guitar a little out of tune, the stand-up bass player taking liberties with his raucous pizzicato, threatening to drown out the fiddle’s melody.
             Eleanor didn’t get a good look at the groom, only saw that he wore a tuxedo a lot like Mona’s dad, and that his hair was so thoroughly slicked back to look almost plastic. Little Esme was a flower girl, in a dress with flowers a lot like the ones used to decorate the stage, all soft pinks and violets. Squint your eyes and the flowers turned to clouds, to a sunset. 
             The bride was a dead ringer for Mona. She wore a strapless white dress with a flowing, gossamer skirt. When she took the groom’s hand, Mona took Eleanor’s, too, interlacing fingers, giving a squeeze.  
             The ceremony was short, to the point. Just enough to feel like an occasion. The officiant—she looked like old Esme—told a story about a man whose friend was made of stone, who’s love was made of glass.
             Mona held Eleanor’s hand tighter.
             When the groom lifted back the veil for a kiss, all Eleanor could see was Mona’s face. The two of them were on stage. Esme proclaimed they may kiss. The touched noses. Smelling of makeup. A little of lilac. Mona moved in to close the distance between their lips. Eleanor met her tongue with hers, just a touch like slapping five, like a stolen look.
             Esme pronounced them brides.
             At the reception, Eleanor took her turn holding baby Esme. Eleanor had always been good at calming infants, rocking her in her arms, cooing. She told her a story about a woman who knew the answers to every question, about how quickly a gift could become a burden. About how a burden could be overcome, redeemed, made into something new or very old. It was all the same.
             Esme settled.
             The mother took the baby back, thanking Eleanor. Mona took Eleanor by the hand to lead her to the center of the reception—the dance floor in the dirt where the chairs had been lined up for the ceremony. Nick sent Clarice twirling by her fingertips. Curtis dipped the sultriest version of Esme, who led his hand to where her skirt shrank back, to her bare thigh, newly revealed.
             Mona and Eleanor hugged and swayed as the band played a song Eleanor didn’t recognize by name, but recognized as theirs. A song she’d heard a million times, but softer and slower now.
             “Tell me a story,” Mona whispered in her ear.
             Eleanor began to tell her about a world without dogs and a man grieving his marriage. She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I’ve told you this one before.”
             “Every story’s been told,” Mona said. “I’ve heard every one.” She was stunning. Hair curled ever so slightly, face bright, attracting every light in the town square so she shone, radiant in that moment. Or maybe it was the other way around. That she was light enough to illuminate everything around her, the light not drawn to, but projected from her. She did feel hot to the touch. She did smell like summer and flowers and an ocean and forever.
             “The difference is in the telling,” Mona said. “The details you notice. The turn of phrase. Do you understand?”
             Eleanor lifted a hand to brush back Mona’s hair. Any excuse to touch. She started from the beginning again.

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He is the author of three full-length short story collections: You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue from Duck Lake Books, Circus Folk from Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, and most recently The Long Way Home from Cowboy Jamboree Press. Chin won the 2017-2018 Jean Leiby Chapbook Award from The Florida Review and Bayou Magazine’s 2014 James Knudsen Prize for Fiction. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

**This story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2021.