I stole Lazarus from my sister Heidi. At least, that’s what I’d always told myself. Not that she’d have been able to keep him – she lost her mind at the start of her sophomore year of college, not long after Lazarus claimed me as his own and disappeared.
I idolized her when I was a child. My worship turned to envy when I became a teenager, though. She was everything I would never be: blonde, petite, and charming. She was homecoming queen in her senior year of high school, and she snagged Lazarus almost as soon as he arrived in town. I was tall and gangly, embarrassed by my own shadow. Every time Lazarus smiled at me, I looked behind me to see what he was looking at.
When they first started dating, it seemed like she had him tied around her little finger – just like every boyfriend she’d ever had. Gradually, though, the balance of power shifted. She became anxious to please him and fretful when he didn’t call. At the time, it seemed like justice for all the times she’d been the uncatchable beauty.
I always assumed that Lazarus had broken up with her before he claimed me. After all, she hadn’t been upset when he announced he was leaving. Even though she’d started trying to kill herself just a few weeks later, my adolescent brain hadn’t put the two events – his leaving and her slashing – together. I guess I hadn’t wanted to.
Mom suspected there was a connection, though. The night Lazarus came back, she said as much to me. I was nineteen by then and working in a pet shop. I came home one night and found Lazarus sitting in the living room with my father. I knew I smelled strongly of the disinfectant we used in the puppy cages and my hair, which I carefully plaited each morning in order to keep the puppies from chewing on it, had come lose of its restraints. The magnetic, hypnotic pull of Lazarus’s eyes made it impossible for me to notice anything else about him as my dad boomed, “Look who showed up at the dealership today! Lazarus Dale, back from his ‘round-the-world tour!”
“It’s good to see you, Ava. You’re looking lovely,” he said with a smile that could melt iron.
“I, uh, need to take a quick shower,” I said and ran up the stairs, forgetting any ladylike impulse I may have had. I’d fantasized about this moment for nearly five years. In my dreams, he came back and climbed up a conveniently placed ladder to my room, knelt over my bed, and kissed me awake like Sleeping Beauty. Or he’d be waiting in the park where he’d first touched me and he’d say, I’ve come back for you, Ava. I could never forget you. Or he’d knock on the door one day and say, Ava, I love you. Come away with me now. Leave these people behind – I’m your only family now. I never imagined I’d come home and find him chatting amiably with my despicable father and waiting for my weak-willed mother to serve him dinner. I unbraided my hair and ran a brush through it; it looked fine. Dropping my dirty clothes on the floor, I washed myself off with a wet cloth, then sprayed some White Shoulders over my body to hide any residual puppy smells.
Throwing my robe around me, I scurried to my bedroom and found a nice blouse and a skirt to wear. As soon as I had them on, though, I knew they were wrong for the occasion. I pulled an old t-shirt out of my dresser drawer and found a pair of jeans I’d stolen out of my brother Tim’s room after he entered the service.
From downstairs, I heard my mom say, “Dinner is ready.” I walked calmly down the stairs and helped my mom bring the food to the table. She’d made a roast, and Lazarus made a big deal of how wonderful it tasted.
“I haven’t had food this good since I left,” he said warmly.
“Well, that’s nice to hear, Lazarus,” Mom responded. She seemed a little cooler toward him than she had been all those years ago, but it could have been my imagination. Mom was like a completely different person in most respects anyway, so it was hard to know what made her attitude change.
“So, Lazarus my boy, I suppose you’re here to get your job back at the dealership,” my father boomed. “Well, you needn’t worry – there will always be a place for you at Gordon Ford.”
Lazarus smiled and said, “Thank you, Jim. I appreciate that.”
Dad looked surprised. I don’t think Lazarus had ever called him by his first name before.
“Actually, though, I’ve got an idea I think you might be interested in partnering with me on.”
“Really?” Dad took a bite of food.
“Yes, sir. I’ve found a way to teach that skill you found most valuable in me – the skill of listening to people.”
Dad’s eyebrow cocked and he said, “I’d like to hear more about that, son.”
“I’ll come by the office tomorrow and tell you all about it. Would two or three o’clock be a better time for you?”
“Wonderful. I look forward to discussing the opportunity with you fully tomorrow.”
When dinner was over, I cleared the table and began washing the dishes. Mom and Dad had gotten into the habit of watching television together in the living room after dinner, but tonight she came into the kitchen with me instead.
“What do you think of Lazarus?” she asked me.
“I’ve always liked him well enough,” I said casually.
“Do you think he had something to do with Heidi’s…” – she hesitated for a moment before settling on a word – “breakdown?”
I remembered the night it happened, my sister Julie had suggested Lazarus was to blame. I didn’t believe it when she said it, and I still couldn’t. “No. She didn’t seem upset when he announced he was leaving. I think they’d broken up already.”
Mom was watching me, as if looking for some glimmer of doubt in my eyes. Finally, she said, “I’ll finish up here. I think Lazarus is on the porch. Why don’t you go talk to him?”
I held down the thrill I felt at the thought of being alone with him and said, “Are you sure? It’s my job, you know.”
She smiled at me and said, “You’re a good girl, Ava. Go on.”
I walked out into the cool night breeze and found Dale sitting in the same chair I’d found him in five years earlier. His eyes were closed when I first looked at him. He opened them slowly, an impish grin curling his lips as he did so. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, standing up and wrapping my arm around his the way he did when I was an awkward little girl.
We walked silently to the park, where he sat down with his back against what I’d come to think of as “our tree.” He patted the ground next to him and I sat down, too.
We stared out at the world in front of our tree instead of looking at each other. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “You belong to me, don’t you?”
I nodded. Then, realizing he couldn’t see me, I found my voice and said, “Yes.”
“You are meant to be my partner in this life, Ava. The Keeper showed you to me when I was still a child. I was told to wait for you. Have you ripened, Ava?”
He had his wrists balanced on his kneecaps, and he was using them to emphasize his words. His long white fingers seemed to glow like Mom’s porcelain dishes in the moonlight and I watched, enchanted, as they twitched and pointed and spread wide apart. I’d never heard of anyone called the Keeper before, but I was sure I owed my future happiness to that person. I wanted to feel his hands against my flesh; I wanted to press his fingers into my most secret places. “Yes,” I said.
He reached for my hand and said, “You are my wife and I am your husband, two halves of the same whole. Together we are going to spread a new gospel – the true ways of this world.”
I barely heard him – the blood thrummed through my body, remembering his touch. He could have told me he was Lucifer himself and it wouldn’t have mattered.
He went to see my father the next day about the seminars he was proposing. Dad talked about the plan at dinner that night as if they were the best idea he’d ever heard.
“I tell you what, Doris, that boy is brilliant!” he said as he dished himself some peas. “He says that the trick to really hearing people is to learn to recognize what he calls ‘you-text.’ He says most of what we would consider subtext in a conversation is really this ‘you-text’: stuff we layer on top of other people’s words due to our bad life experiences. Brilliant!”
“That’s interesting,” Mom said, pursing her lips.
“He’s come up with what he’s calling an introductory seminar to help people learn to recognize their own ‘you-texts.’ He’s got an idea that he’ll be able to charge fifty dollars to anyone who wants to take the seminar. After that, if someone wants personal guidance in clearing away their ‘you-texts,’ he’s going to give personal consultations at the cost of fifty dollars an hour.”
“Jim! Who would pay such a fee?”
“Anyone who wants to have a more successful life! Unsuccessful salesman, unhappy couples, doctors, lawyers…everyone! It’s a home run!”
I was amazed that Lazarus had succeeded in selling this idea to my father, but I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, he’d watched the handsome, charming young man sell car after car off his lot just a few years earlier.
“He just needs some money to get started, and he’s asked me to get in on the ground floor. He just needs a few thousand—”
“Yes, Doris. Just a few thousand dollars to rent the hall and advertise the seminar.”
“You’re going to just trust this young man with thousands of dollars?”
“It’s not like we don’t know him! He dated Heidi, for God’s sake.”
“And look what happened to her,” Mom answered.
“That wasn’t Lazarus’s fault. He wasn’t even here—”
“You’re right. He wasn’t here.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” he said, focusing on the food in front of him. After a few moments, Mom pushed her plate away and disappeared upstairs.
Dad sighed heavily and said, “What do you think, Ava?”
“I trust him,” I answered simply.
More than fifteen years later, I was starting to think Mom had been right.