As our third annual issue is born, the world’s oldest forests are burning. As you are reading these stories, now or somewhere long in the future, something else will be happening. Another glacier will calve and die. Another species will tip over the precipice. Another citizen will fall at the hands of his protectors. Something catastrophic. Something that feels like not just an end, but the end. 

The act of reading and writing beauty is not just an artistic act. Not a frivolous pursuit, a carnival ship to carry us out to sea and away from the fires burning everywhere on land. It is a political act. A spiritual act. An existential act. Who knows if our relationship to art will save us? Here is what I know: Our relationship to art reminds us that we are worth saving. 

Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge
Fiction Editor

 

Our third annual issue’s stories force us to see beyond the façade of every day, to read between the lines, to consider the lingering effect of each other’s histories and how these histories shape us and our world. In the face of catastrophe, these sentiments may seem trivial. Yet, the long-burning fires in our politics, in our discourse, and in our communities suggest otherwise. Years ago, I learned of the universal power of kindness as a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in the Santa Cruz region of Bolivia. Large swathes of this beautiful tropical region now burn along with the bordering Amazonia. We need more bold interventions of kindness to overcome these fires and all fires that persist and cause harm. May these stories serve as inspiration for us to witness, to act, to be kind. Thank you to our contributors for sharing their hearts and truths with us.

Eneida P. Alcalde
Associate Fiction Editor

shutter small.png

The Stories

statue-3046503_1920.jpg

The Plague

Ethan Cade Varnado

Lucas was twenty-seven, Catholic, happy, in love, and then he found out he had the disease, and a year later he was twenty-eight.

His faith went first, and it went without any struggle. He had started having doubts the year before, after his childhood neighbor Leslie Sanchez died from a stroke…


aerial-aerial-photography-bay-2382681.jpg

The Mermaid Shore

Fiona Jones

Isla McMorran had met mermaids, or so she said, in among the rocks and seaweed at the back of the island. She only saw them when alone…


sunset-1801728_1920.jpg

A Life Lost

Lindsey Saya

Atop a hill, they lie in a bed of cool grass.

He watches great cloud formations sail across the sky. He imagines them cottony pirate ships, masterless and untamed. He tells her he will be a captain of his own ship one day, that he will discover the wide-eyed wonders of the world and the mysteries they hold…


Malta

Charles Duffie

John Abbey glanced in the rearview mirror. Twelve palm cockatoos watched him like a jury from the backseat. The exotic birds were two feet tall, slate gray and indigo blue, with bright red cheeks and feathered crests. They perched in a long wire kennel, claws knuckled around a stripped branch. The birds turned their heads back and forth, staring at him with one marble eye (What are you doing?) then the other (Where are we going?)…

animal-animal-photography-avian-2562914.jpg

Photo by MKatarina988/iStock / Getty Images

Stumbling into babylon

Chris Kassel

In the ICU, eight bays surround the nurse’s station. Inside each is a waxy tile floor, a sliding glass door and a constellation of portable machines. Fluorescent light makes the equipment glitter and the late-night silence of the unit is leavened with gentle mechanical strumming. The patients are barricaded from one another, but as I follow the squat nurse, I can see through the glass doors, and behind one of them, a young man lies on a hydraulic bed…


Abigail

Andrew Hinshaw

The boy sits in the passenger seat of the pickup and looks through its cracked windshield at the thickening clouds. They’ve gone from white to grey, darkening the dirt road ahead as if night may come early. The boy sits back and sighs, knowing they’ll mean another day stuck inside when he finally gets home. He turns to look through the dusty back window behind his seat...

 

animal-blur-blurred-background-709068.jpg

adult-beautiful-girl-745238.jpg

Alone Together

Emily Collins

The new hire was sexy and mean. When Violet introduced herself, Lara, brand new, had looked at her and said, “I’m twenty-three,” as if she would always be so. “When people tell me I’m too ambitious,” Lara continued, “that only fuels my ambition. Don’t cross me.” It was then Violet had noticed the scar on her neck, thin as a piece of thread…


The motion of bodies

Franz Neumann

The two sat in camping chairs, their necks craned skyward as they searched for satellites. Mia spotted the first one, a steadily drifting pinprick of light miles high and free of the concept of a setting sun. It was probably doing a million things at once—measuring, relaying, spying—but to Mia, the satellite seemed placed in the sky to illustrate a mathematical perfection…

water-740964_1920.jpg

aeroplane-aircraft-aircraft-wing-2652986.jpg

Senowbar Khanom

Azin Neishaboori

It was very dark outside. Nahal leaned her head against the bus’s window and tried to discern the trees on the side of the road in the scant light of the bus’s headlamps. The road stretched through a dark forest, perhaps home to foxes, coyotes, bears or even wolves, creatures maybe less dangerous than some of the men and women on the bus…


Dinner

Kailash Srinivasan

I don’t usually get nervous but I get nervous when my publicist tells me the next city on the promotional tour of my book is Vancouver. My heart beats, beats, beats, makes its own tune. My former wife and I haven’t spoken to each other in years. I have no idea what her life’s like now, how she looks, even. But every time my name appeared in an article, or my book was shortlisted for this or that award, or I was on some panel—those kinds of things—I sent her an email and some post-event photos…

blur-chairs-cutlery-1484516.jpg

abandoned-broken-cabin-428427.jpg

A Childhood Neighbor

Kassandra Montag

It had been eight years since she last saw him. Elsa smiled quickly and looked away and looked back. He looked older. There was something about the way he moved, his body more angular, his gestures more certain. It made her wish she had something in her hands, a cup she could take a drink from, a purse she could open and ruffle through…


There Were Hands

Max Hromek

There were hands.

There were hands on my body. They were your hands. Your hands on a body. Your hands on a back—my back. I think it was my back. My back pressed into the bed.

Your hands were on breasts—my breasts? Lips. I remember lips. Lips on lips. Lips on a neck, on a stomach, on a thigh, on...

cigar-cigarette-close-up-576787.jpg

bar-463476_1920.jpg

If it gets better, it can’t get much worse

Kevin Camp

The first time I went to a gay bar I wanted to see the drag show. I climbed out a bedroom window and walked downhill, pausing at an agreed-upon stop sign where a college boy named James was waiting to pick me up. I was secretly in love with him. He fit all the boxes and categories I’d always wanted in a boyfriend: campy, theatrical, playful, gossipy…


The Lost Place

Kimberly Lawrence Kol

At first it was just fantasies. In a surge of anger, I’d imagine hitting my husband over and over with the small, aluminum bat my father kept at his bedside in his basement apartment in Queens. I’m not sure why that bat came to mind, but whenever I reached some peak of disgust or contempt or whatever that feeling was that our former couples therapist called one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for marriage, it would be there in my hand, ergonomically perfect for smashing over his head…

close-up-cold-cream-2586924.jpg

blurred-background-ceramic-close-up-1637884.jpg

Marsh Lights

Jesse Durovey

Cleo saw the frog while pulling weeds in the garden. It was early summer, the air hot and moist, and wild grass and vining plants threatened to choke Uncle Darrell’s harvest of maize and white clover. Her uncle had brought his spade down to uproot a stubborn explosion of crabgrass, and when Cleo grabbed the clumped dirt and roots to throw it in the wheelbarrow, she saw something moving in the upturned soil…


For the Love of Drones

D. A. Wright

I named it Pete, after my uncle. Is that a weird thing? It kinda feels like a weird thing. My uncle had drowned in a riverboat accident when the waters swelled in a freak thunderstorm that lasted three days and flooded the Mississippi delta and beautiful nowhere of bayou towns from Rosedale to Lake Providence. Motorhomes floating downstream and cars upturned like turtles…

action-aircraft-aviation-442587.jpg

campfire-1031141_1920.jpg

Later

Sarah Terez Rosenblum

“Look at those sexy rollers!”

This is Ryan Jacobson. I’m going to wind up taller than him; my dad’s Lithuanian, Irish and Swedish, and some of those types get fucking tall. In the one photo I have of him, he’s backed up against a moving truck—his head clears the roof almost—and you can see mom’s shadow at his feet…


background-black-bright-220618.jpg

An Act

Amelia wright

This is not a story. This is a conversation; you and I are learning from each other. This is not a story, but if it were a story it would be a story about people we can pretend to be. But this is not a story; it is an act. Give yourself to me. When you show up on my doorstep, a decade has passed since the day I stopped believing in God…


animal-close-up-cobra-106690.jpg

Survival English

Sarah D. Warburton

“We’re the city mouse and the country mouse,” Kate told Adam on their first date, and after their wedding, the country won out. Adam accepted a partnership in a pediatric practice in Ashland and put a down payment on their first house…


angel-watch-sunset-colors-landscape-2043837.jpg

Twilight at Blue Plate

Stacey C. Johnson

SILENCE

The front door is locked again, I am the only one left talking here.

Mama is in a mason jar beside the plant in a coffee can, between the window and the faucet of the sink, and this is the window I am looking through when I catch myself looking toward the doll grave, which rests near the BLM dumpster near the North side of the property…


adult-affection-baby-1888614.jpg

Scenes from a Coerced Sterilization

Amy Olassa

The year is 1976. A State of Emergency arrests the Nation. Fundamental rights suspended. Newspapers and all other media censored, information and news clogged. And in the country’s southernmost State, the Naxal movement is on the rise. Police stations attacked, young men arrested for their political views, tortured, killed. The nature of resistance matches the nature of governance...

 
updated oyster.png

 The Plague

Ethan Cade Varnado

“I saw Jesus on the cross, on a hill called Calvary.
‘Do you hate mankind for what they’ve done to you?’”
—Dick Blakeslee, “Passing Through”


Lucas was twenty-seven, Catholic, happy, in love, and then he found out he had the disease, and a year later he was twenty-eight.

His faith went first, and it went without any struggle. This was the final straw, he admitted to himself, there in the room where he was diagnosed. He had started having doubts the year before, after his childhood neighbor Leslie Sanchez died from a stroke. She was an elderly woman and had been so for as long as he’d known her, and as long as he’d known her, she’d always kept her purse full of butterscotch candy that she would hand out to the neighborhood children. She liked children, or at least she liked him. He always seemed to put a smile on her face when they crossed paths.

But by the time her family found her body, Leslie’s dog had eaten that face. They closed her casket at the funeral, but everyone in town knew why and inside themselves they were all unsettled by it—but no one more than Lucas.  For weeks he couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Leslie’s hidden face. He imagined it was simply a skull for the most part, a Death’s head white as pearl, with only a few hanks of hair and muscle clinging in stripes, pell-mell. A skull, a smiling skull. The thought chilled him, not because he was frightened or disgusted, but because it was a mockery. She’s still smiling, he’d think, everything wrong in the world has happened to her and now she just has to keep smiling about it, smiling forever. She’ll never be happy again and she’ll never stop smiling about it.

He’d managed to banish that smile for a time, but a month before his diagnosis his uncle Henry died in a car crash, and once again Leslie was in his thoughts, smiling at that, as she did at all things. She smiled for a third time when the doctor told Lucas he was sick, and that was all he could take. He decided then and there that God couldn’t exist if death could smile. It was obvious.

Everything else, Lucas lost slowly.

His girlfriend Monica had started as a co-worker, an analyst in the requisitions office, but she’d quickly become more than that—an “every night” kind of thing, Lucas told his buddies. No one was surprised when she moved in with him. They seemed a perfect match: both had been Falcons fans since birth, both of them voted Democrat, both took college Latin, loved the late Coppola, hated late Dylan, ate Korean food twice monthly. They grew up three miles away from each other and had never known it until now. These and other weird magnetisms bound them together.

Monica was svelte and tall, kept her fingernails short and her black hair long enough to drizzle down along her ribs. She claimed to be one quarter Greek and had a murky complexion. Lucas though she looked exotic and hoped she was the one. They dated for close to nineteen months before his diagnosis. She was there when he fainted and hit his head, during an argument they were having, about socks. She was in the ambulance, holding his hand. She was in the room when the doctor told him he was dying. Monica was the only one who cried.

At first, oddly enough, the disease seemed to strengthen their relationship. Monica fawned over him after the diagnosis, became as obliging as a hausfrau; in turn, he felt compelled to decline every offer for help, to scour all his messes clean, take out the trash, be on his best behavior. They put all their fighting aside. Never had they been so attentive to each other’s needs. The sex got amazing.

Neither of them spoke about death or sickness or even acknowledged the disease, except in the depths of the morning when Monica would slide her hand across his chest and whisper, “I’m here for you, whatever you need.” Her breath was hot in his ear.

Nothing changed until the day he shaved his head. Lucas had worn his hair long since high school, and he liked it that way, but he had decided he wanted to get rid of it himself, rather than watch it fall out slowly. So on a cold Saturday evening, while his girlfriend was shopping, he stood before his bathroom mirror and raked an electric razor straight across his scalp, again and again. It was not until he looked like a young Benjamin Franklin that Lucas paused to consider what he was doing. Two thoughts occurred, simultaneously: It’s only hair, it’ll grow back and I’m cutting myself. He finished the shave while staring into the washbasin, trying hard not to think.

When Monica came home that night, late, she screamed. “I thought you were a robber,” she said, after catching her breath. “You look completely different.” She frowned, then smoothed the length of his pate with the palm of her hand and kissed his forehead. Shortly thereafter, Lucas cooked dinner, teriyaki salmon. They each ate it in different rooms.

She didn’t speak to him for the rest of night, except to say, “I wish you had told me you were going to do that” while he was brushing his teeth. He did not respond, nor did he look at himself in the mirror. He stared at the washbasin again, before spitting into it.

The next morning, at breakfast, Monica told him she wanted to start going to his appointments with him. The following Thursday, they attended his first round of the new treatment together.

shutter small.png

Saint Eileithyia of Ctesiphon Hospital was the most prestigious and expensive medical center in the state of Alabama. The facilities were housed throughout several structures, with the primary care taking place in a sleek, twelve-story tower. Many of the walls inside were just giant panes of Plexiglas, which somehow made Lucas feel very clean and very cold.

At Saint Eileithyia, there were just as many nuns as there were doctors. They were attired classically in black and white, and the length of their robes made them seem to glide across the linoleum floor like chess pieces. The first time Lucas came to the hospital, he lost his way in the endless corridors, and one of the nuns—whose face looked like hundred-year-old parchment—approached him and silently pointed her bony arm where he needed to be.

Mostly though, they ignored the patients. They all seemed very busy.

The main waiting room was on the first floor, and it looked taller than all the other rooms, and there was very little furniture inside it, and all the couches looked like they had been made from recycled tires. “This is a cavern,” Monica had said, the first time she saw it, “an industrialized cavern.” They both spent a lot of time there, mostly just pointing at things they found in magazines.

A quarter-mile down from the main complex, there was a little garden grotto with brown-brick walls that Lucas liked to visit between doctors. It was deep December the first time he visited, so the hospital staff had made up for the pots of deathly ferns by surrounding them with red-ribboned poinsettias. The only other living thing was Spanish moss; the only other dead thing, the saint herself. She was gold-plated, dwarf-sized, standing in a brick alcove with the words Salve Sancta Eileithyia, Salvatrix Ctesiphonis, Defensor Fidei Christi! written above her in blue paint. Saint Eileithyia had a smiling face, but her ribcage was showing underneath her toga. She held a staff and a bowl of herbs.

One evening his treatment had been scheduled unusually late, and Monica told him to wait in the grotto while she went to the cafeteria for coffee. It was chilly out, and growing chillier as the sun went down. By the time he reached the grotto, it was almost too dark see the young nun huddled before the alcove, praying. When she rose at his approach, he apologized and offered to go elsewhere.

“That’s hardly necessary,” the nun replied. No older than thirty, she had a tiny, rosy head with a black habit blooming enormously around it, and altogether she looked like a face in a wall. “The sisters had this garden built for everyone to enjoy, although you wouldn’t know that from the condition it’s in. In any case, I think it would be grossly uncharitable of me to shoo you off.”

Lucas thanked her, and they had a little chat.

Eventually, and without provocation, the sister asked, “Do you know the story of Saint Eileithyia?” When he told her he didn’t, her eyes lit up.

“She was martyred by the Assyrians, skinned alive with oyster shells after healing lepers with a sliver of the true cross and a series of tinctures.” She paused and frowned, then smiled again. “I don’t know what it is about that story that makes me want to heal people, but it does. Several of her prescriptions survive, you know. She’s right up there with Galen, as far as ancient medicine goes.”

Lucas told her that no, he did not know that, and the conversation soon became banal again. By the time Monica arrived, it had grown too chilly and dark to remain outside, and so the three of them walked back to the hospital in silence.

shutter small.png

Two months into his treatment, Lucas threw up on Monica while they were making love. It made her stop screaming, strangely enough, and she was very receptive to his apologies.

“It’s okay, I understand.” Very quickly, she slid out from under him. “We both know how sick you are.”

Monica slipped into the bathroom, and while she was cleaning herself, he finished on the sheets. She re-entered just in time to watch the main event.

“Oh. I guess we’re done then,” she said. Lucas thought her voice sounded unusually energetic.

When they got back under the covers together, he tried to think of something to say, something funny, something charming, disarming, but the words got stuck in his throat. He choked. It made Monica roll over to face him.

“Honey, if you’re going to throw up again, I think you should do it in the bathroom.”

He nodded and rose. He was halfway there when she asked, “Do you need me to come with you?” He did not.

Only once he was in the bathroom did he wonder why he’d gone there. Was he simply embarrassed? Or was he trying to run away? And was this as far as he could get?

Suddenly he had to throw up again. He got on his knees and aimed for the toilet and hit the mark, mostly. This time, the attack was longer, and when he was done his throat was pulsing and felt like it’d had a steel rake drug across it. Some of the vomit was red.

After a minute, he felt strong enough to stand. He drank several gulps of water from the sink, and it was good, because it was so cold, if a little metallic. It also hurt a bit going down, but that was good too somehow.

When he lifted his head from the basin, he shrieked. A skull was staring at him from the other side of the mirror. It was wrapped taut in sallow skin, and it had eyes that were full of blood and terror, but it was unmistakably a skull. It was hideous. It was undead.

In an instant, Monica was behind and in front of him. “Are you all right?” she asked.

He wasn’t.

shutter small.png

The next morning, Lucas broke up with Monica over breakfast. She cried when he told her he couldn’t put her through this anymore. Ruddy-faced, she told him she was going to work and that they’d talk more when she got home. But she didn’t come home, and three days later showed up with her brother and a large truck and they moved a lot of her things out. Lucas tried to keep to a different room. He thought he heard them laugh from time to time, though that might just have been the heater kicking in or the walls distorting the sound of their voices.

Once they were gone, he tried to feel bad about what he’d done, but he couldn’t, so he tried to congratulate himself instead. Good job, you. It was all for the best, what you did. What you did, you did it well. When that didn’t work, he decided he’d take a long shower and get ready for his appointment earlier than usual.

On the day that the doctors told Lucas he had survived the disease, it rained. He’d needed to stay overnight while some tests were being run, and they had given him an eighth-floor room all to himself, and it had a wide window with a spectacular view of the grassy lawns. While the MDs babbled, smiled warmly, ignored him, he did not once take his eyes off of that window. All in a span of minutes, it seemed to him, the clear blue sky outside bloated purple and ruptured, flooding the hospital grounds. It made green things grey.

“April showers bring May flowers.” The nun from the grotto said this, after all the doctors left. As Lucas had grown better, they had become closer. Not friends, exactly—there was something preventing that, almost a wall, a moat, some invisible boundary, something uniquely nunnish about her—but she always took the time to chat with him about small matters if she met him in the hall, and she had memorized his name. He had never learned hers, and felt it was too late to ask; Lucas just called her “Sister.”

“I heard the good news,” said Sister, once she was done talking about the rain, “and just wanted to come in and say how happy I am for you.” She loomed above his bedside, as hard as a pillar of black marble.

He let her take his hand. He stood.

“Someone has to be happy.” A smile thinly bridged her wimple. “I kid, of course. This is something a lot of patients go through. You think you’re going to die, and so you make your peace. And then a man in a white lab coat appears—the same man, maybe, who told you you were going to die in the first place—and he says it’s all a ruse, that you’re going to live a long and happy life, meet your great-grandkids. The thought of death departs, but so does the peace you earned in the face of it.”

Lucas didn’t want to admit that she was right, but his eyes must have done it for him, and the Sister’s smile rippled in response. Her eyes shined with hospital light.

“Now, Lucas, now you have to earn your peace in living. It won’t be easy, and it will keep you up at night, and it’ll be just like starting over from birth—yes, that’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been reborn!—but nothing worthwhile was ever earned without struggle and sacrifice. And Lucas, there’s nothing more worthwhile than happiness. As difficult as your life has been thus far, as difficult as it will be, it’s your life, your very life, and it’s in your hands again.”

The sister squeezed his hand so tight that he felt the blood stir hot within it. He started and she released him.

“Don’t let it go.” She was crying softly, but she wore a hungry hyena smile.

Lucas promised her he would not, told her he would search for truth, said that each day he would be kinder than the last. All that Ebenezer Scrooge bullshit. It seemed to satisfy her.

“And whatever happens,” said Sister, leaving, “never forget that I am praying for you, and that God is listening. Never forget that. He’s always near you, inside you. Always listening, speaking, waiting for you to listen. He’s there for you Lucas. Don’t doubt that He healed you. He’s real.”

He nodded and she, her face wet and red, nodded back. After she closed the door, Lucas changed out of his hospital gown and began to gather up his things. He was ready to leave when a bright flash drew his gaze back to the window and the rain. A bolt of lightning had fallen out of the sky and landed on a nearby lawn. The sound it made was titanic, instantaneous. The whole room shook like a maraca.

Suddenly, Lucas was afraid that God was talking to him—and afraid of what He might have to say.

shutter small.png

Lucas intended make his triumphant return to work the following Tuesday, but when he opened the office doors, everyone shouted, “Surprise!” Lucas was surprised all right—but not by the party.

No, he had suspected something along those lines. Of course they would want to welcome him back. Of course there would be yellow cake. This was a foregone conclusion. The whole office was there, wearing their best faces and even better suits, arms lifted high in the air.

No, what surprised him was that Monica wasn’t there. He hadn’t tried to contact her since the day she left, at first just because he was too busy pretending he didn’t want to do it. Then he was on the edge of death, so that settled that. And then, when it looked like he was about to come out of the woods, then he thought it would be awkward. Hey, guess what? I didn’t die after all. Everything’s back to normal. Love me tender.

The party should have put them in the same room, forced them to be cordial to one another, given him a chance to reassess things. Maybe nothing would have come of it, but at least it would have given them a nicer, cleaner ending. What with the yellow cake and all.

But of all the faces he expected to see, hers was the only one missing. Even Janice was here, Janice, the Liaison to the General Manager in Charge of Sales, Janice who only came in on one Thursday out of every month, Janice was here. She rubbed her brittle hands across his scalp, where his hair was just coming back in, and she told him it looked good at that length. Tact was never part of Janice’s skill set.

But her remark was far from the most offensive thing about the party. What was intolerable was having to meet everyone on their own terms. It was a dance, that crowd, and he never got to lead, only got to answer vague compliment with vague compliment. Lucas hugged everyone in the room. Several times, he was kissed. All of it meaningless.

Finally, he had enough. He asked Fergus, the Marketing Development Specialist, where Monica was. The room hushed. Fergus twitched. When he said the words “maternity leave,” Lucas stopped listening entirely.

Lucas skipped work the next day. He did not bother to call in sick. Janice and Fergus, they all would understand.

When he returned the following day, he made a point to be kinder than ever before. He spoke to everyone on the way in, joked with them. It was as though he had never had the disease to begin with.

Monica told him to meet her at her home at 3:30 on Saturday, because she knew that Rodney wouldn’t be home. When Lucas asked her who that was, she said, “Never mind.”  He didn’t press the issue. She had only agreed to this after a week’s worth of spurned calls.  He knew he had worn her down.

The house that Rodney and Monica lived in was a classic American dream home (two stories, lime-green rain gutters), but it was in a part of town that had been hit hard by white flight. They must have got it for cheap. “We’re just renting,” Monica said when Lucas complimented the gutters. She was standing alone in the driveway when he arrived, waiting. Her hair was frizzy, and she had on an oversized T-shirt. The Never Ending Tour was advertised across it, so it must have been Rodney’s.

Monica’s lips cinched. “Let’s not waste time with small-talk. What do you want?”

Lucas told her that he was going to live.

“That isn’t what I asked. What do you want?”

Lucas told her he missed her, and what he wanted was to see how she was doing.

“Lousy,” she said. “I just gave birth to a seven-pound little boy who cries at odd hours. I live on the north side of town. Everything about my life is random now. I’m lousy. What do you want?”

She knew what he wanted.

Lucas wanted to see the baby.

“Well, you can’t. He isn’t yours.” Monica looked down at the driveway, at the silvery concrete pavement. “He isn’t yours.”

There was a silence, for a time, and the time felt long and the silence endless, because neither of them seemed to know how to break it. Eventually, it was a whisper that did it. Monica’s.

“You know, sometimes, when we were sleeping together, I’d dream about you. I’d dream about being near you, touching you, even though you were sleeping next to me the whole time. Once, not too long ago, you were all I ever thought about. I wanted you so badly that even after I had you, I couldn’t stop thinking, dreaming, about being with you. But then, somehow we grew apart. And then, you—”

He told her he was sorry. Told her he was a fool for breaking up with her at such a hectic part of both their lives. He told her he would love and cherish her this time, her and her baby both, hers or his, it didn’t matter. He would be kinder than ever before. He loved her. He broke up with her because he loved her. He wanted her back because he loved her. He was so sorry. He loved her.

She wept.

“And then, you got too fucking sick for me to leave you. I was going to do it, I had been planning it, over and over in my head, trying to get the words right. But they never would have, not after you got sick. So instead I waited, watched you sicken and die. I had to hold your hand on the way to the cemetery plot, Lucas. I didn’t even love you anymore, I was only pretending, but I still had to stay and watch you die. You were never cruel to me until you decided to die.”

There was silence again, and weeping.

Then, the sound of the baby crying inside the house roused them from their quiet.

“Oh,” Monica said, lifting her head up. Her cheeks were rosy. She wiped away their dampness using the folds of her T-shirt. Her eyes said it was time to go.

His eyes agreed with them. 

“I can’t give you what you want, Lucas, whatever that is. But, uh, either way, um,” Monica cleared her throat, “I’m glad you aren’t dead or dying. You’ve got a lot to, uh, live for.”

She shut the door to her house gently when she left him. He didn’t get back into his car until the he heard the baby stop crying. That silence, at least, was a comfort.

Somewhere on the drive home, Lucas decided he wouldn’t be in love with her anymore.

It was spring, and the apartment complex where Lucas was staying always had a terrible mayfly infestation during that season, and Lucas’ unit was no exception. When he arrived home from Monica’s that evening, he was greeted by a swarm.

He ignored them, even though they sparkled salt-and-pepper in the air. They had such short lifespans. Their season could not last much longer; all one had to do was wait, wait for whatever May flowers brought.

So Lucas shook his pants off, sat on his couch in his underwear and shirt, and waited. He had purchased a vanilla milkshake and a box of chicken on the way home, and he consumed the strips inside with lazy precision, the way a housecat picks apart a lizard. He binged TV. Channel-surfing was never his thing—he watched Colbert on occasion, and Top Gear, which was different, which was intentional—but now he needed color and noise, and when one channel went short on that order, there was always another stocked full.

He didn’t check the time until 2:39, while he was in the middle of watching a Southern Baptist preacher explain the Book of Exodus to a football stadium full of people in Busan. The preacher made two fists, boxed with the air. “Then the LORD sent frogs, then lice, then wild beasts, diseases, boils. Then the LORD made it rain down fire and ice.”

The preacher had thick glasses and an effortless comb-over, and Lucas couldn’t stand to look at him. His eyes were straining. It was time to call it a night.

He stood to go to bed, but instead something drew him to the window, to his living room window.  Lucas lived on the first story, but from that window he could see the whole town. There was the water tower across the street, next the fire station, and not far off his childhood home, and Leslie Sanchez’s house, and Monica’s, and the Chattahoochee river, and beyond it the diamond sands of the desert, vast.  Lucas watched the town until the moon set and the sun rose high in a noontime sky, and with it rose three pyramids, spinning out of the desert like masonic tops.

A million miles away, in Busan, the preacher spoke, his English clear. “Then, the Nile ran red with blood.”

Instantaneously, the Chattahoochee shifted cherry-red as gelatin. The desert gleamed. Lucas could feel his heartbeat.

“A plague of locusts came.”

All at once, across the yawning desert, the dunes erupted, spewing grasshoppers, black-winged, black of carapace. They sizzled on the wind, and the wind brought them close and far away at once, wove them through the air like skeins of black yarn.

They were everywhere; they ate the walls of his apartment. They grasped him.

“Not done, God sent a plague of darkness.”

His eyesight dimmed, though whether it was because of God or grasshopper, he did not know. He knew nothing but dark and cold and silence. Even the million tiny legs dancing on his skin went still.

 “The last plague was Death. Death descended nigh on the ancient kingdom, swept across the sands, and murdered all the firstborn sons in the span of one night. In matter of hours, all the heirs to Egypt were lost—”

Alone in the darkness, Lucas thought of Monica’s son, who was not, and never could be his. For five cruel seconds, ten, he thought they were with him—Monica in a toga, clutching the babe to a skeletal breast, letting it suckle—but there was only darkness all around.

“—and their fathers and mothers and even Pharaoh himself, in his monolithic palace, woke with the sun to stare Death in the face, none of them realizing they were looking into the very face of the LORD of hosts.”

Darkness all around, darkness still, but a sun, a white-gold sun came to drive it away and give Lucas eyes to watch the miracle with. He could see; he could breathe. Lucas stared into the sun, darkness swarming around him, and he screamed.

Rising, bubbling up from the center of all that molten light, came a skull.  It was a skull unlike any other, kingly, holy, gilded and glistening and glorious, absolutely glorious, and hideous, hideous in death. It looked at Lucas and smiled, making sure he understood where his life had come from and where it all would go.

Staring into the dazzling face of the LORD, Lucas, at last, understood the truth of the plagues—that they come and they come and they come from on high, where lives a God who always smiles, so pleased is he to be remembered by his children on Earth.

“For the LORD is a vengeful God.”

The darkness departed, and the sun shone brilliant over Chattahoochee and Nile alike.

The preacher was still speaking when he woke up, softer now. “Thus the land of Egypt was scourged, her Pharaoh humbled, brought to heel before God. Let us remember, then, the wrath of the LORD.”

Lucas remembered, in part because of the mayfly that had landed on his arm, and the others that were colonizing what remained of his chicken box. The only light was the dim blue of the television, so it wasn’t clear, but there seemed to be more of them than before. The dark room looked darker because of them. A plague of locusts, he thought. Almost. Not quite.

Still, he did not move, not even to shake the insect off of him, so terrified was he of the plague that was to follow.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Ethan+Cade+Varnado.jpg

Ethan Cade Varnado is a native New Orleanian, living in Richmond, VA. His fiction has previously appeared in failbetter, Vestal Review, and Product. he is the recipient of a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation grant and once appeared on Jeopardy.

 The Mermaid Shore

Fiona Jones

Isla McMorran had met mermaids, or so she said, in among the rocks and seaweed at the back of the island. She only saw them when alone.

“Seals, maybe?” her father wondered. “At a distance, you know, on the rocks?”

“An exceptional imagination?” her mother wondered. “At her age, they don't always know the difference between fantasy and reality.”

They bought her mermaid dolls, a mermaid DVD and a Disney mermaid costume, but Isla showed no interest.

“They're not real,” she explained—gently, so as not to hurt her parents' feelings, and candidly, so as not to muddy the backdrop of her mind, the thin, blue-green thrill of brine lapping against shell-fragment sand behind the island.

The shell-ground sand—lighter than rock grains—shifted easily to wind or wave, sank deep footprints where you ran, and sent bubbles up through your toes where you trod the shallow water at the receding tide. The cliff-bound beaches and inlets at the back of the island, the side farthest away from the small ferryport, held a picture-postcard perfection to the eye: limpid rock-pools, rippled stretches of sandbanked water and high surf beyond. But for most of the year the elements guarded against loud, littering beachgoers with a knifelike wind and a pinching cold in the water. If any mermaids lived here they must have skin of nacre, armored scales and the wild, watchful, unexpectant eyes of night itself.

Isla, an only child, lived less than a mile from the back shore. She helped her farming parents to care for the warm, thick-smelling cattle and the noisy, milling sheep; she ran errands for the two or three holiday-rent cottages; she travelled the two miles to school in a near neighbor’s car or, if necessary, walked. But afterwards, whenever chance released her from more pressing demands, Isla wandered away to her favorite place to watch the moods of an ungentle, semi-Atlantic coast. She could have taken one of the farm dogs with her, but she preferred to go alone, letting the drizzle or sea-spray slowly wash out of mind the noise of people, the daily chafe of shrill schoolmates and strenuously enthusiastic teacher. Often Isla would arrive home again after dark, cold or wet, and her parents eventually forgot to repeat the banal threats of “you'll get lost” and “you'll catch cold,” because she never did.

Isla liked the high tides, when the sea marched slowly in to reclaim its territory. The spring tides, when the water advanced across its previous tidelines to heap clumps of weed up on to land, and smoothed the dry or rain-pitted dunes that merged into heather and grass. Best of all, however, Isla loved the low tides, the low spring tides, when she could advance down the shell-sand, down under the usual tide-zone to undiscovered pieces of beach, to new rock-pools never quite free from the grip of the sea.

Isla had walked down the sand alongside the headland one blustery autumn day at low low tide, and she had seen something a few short meters beyond the end of negotiable wading ground: a cleft in the seaward-facing cliffs, a narrow cove just around a slippery outcropping of high rocks. If the tide would only have receded a little more, she could have braved the wrenching surf to slip around and discover that tiny secret beach invisible from the land and sheltered from the powerful waves by a semi-enclosing wall of cliff-stacks. But the inconsistent tide refused to ebb that low again: for over a year the neap-tide periods widened while the spring tides seemed weaker, shorter every month.

The ferryport shop displayed tide charts. Isla learned to read them—to extrapolate for herself the daily time lag and the lunar cycle, even to find within herself a half-unconscious sense of time and tide position until it seemed as though the days, and not the tides, drifted in and out of synchrony.

“You understand these sea tables?” her father asked, relieved to find Isla taking an interest in science instead of fairy tales. “That's really clever. Maybe you're going to be a sailor.” He downloaded the daily tide readings for her perusal, and communicated to Isla's schoolteacher her newfound abilities.

“Sometimes,” the teacher said, “a highly introverted child can show unusual ability in very specific areas. Isla dear,”—heightening and sugaring her voice—“how is it you always know when high tide will be?”

Isla frowned meditatively. Yes, she could read the tide tables, but by now she knew what they would say ahead of time. “The mermaids showed me,” she replied—quietly, because they would not believe her, but steadily, to keep her hold on the undulatory transparency the sea waves have before they hit shallow water.

“And how did they show you, Isla?”

Isla took a deep breath, softly, as one picks up an empty bivalve so as not to break apart the two mirroring halves. “Their music,” she said finally. “Going up and down.”

“She's definitely her own little person,” the teacher remarked to the father. “But there's nothing wrong with that,” she added hastily.

“Except that she's eleven now.”

“I'm sure some of these things will change when she starts high school. Less time alone, more interaction, you know.”

Isla heard little of this, and cared less. She had already noticed something subtly changing, and she hardly needed the monthly tide charts to confirm a progressive stretching in the scale of the spring tides. How far would the pattern continue, and how low would the lowest tide fall? Give her a clear, free day near the June solstice, after a night or two of rolling south-westerly surf to raise the sand level just those few extra centimeters at the false corner of the headland. And there she would go, like an explorer seizing a weather-window to lay claim to pole or peak.

Unluckily, bad weather and sea-surges spoiled Isla's best options, but she found, at last, a clear summer morning shortly after the end of the school term.

“I'm going out walking,” she told her mother.

“Wear a sunhat, Isla, it's very bright. Oh, and take a water bottle too...”

Isla reached the shore perhaps an hour before low water and paddled at the edge while she waited for the final few meters. Briefly she tried scrambling on the bordering rocks, but the seaweed of deep water, more slippery than ice, allowed no hold. For ten minutes or so she threw handfuls of silt and shell into the water where the path must lie, hoping if possible to shallow out, ever so slightly, the difficult patch between cliffside, rock and deep water. Finally she stepped in, thigh-deep round the corner of rock, into the cove she had glimpsed nearly three years earlier.

The cove widened out more than she had expected, into an almost lagoon-like shallow, shielded from the sea by a farther fold of cliff and rocks. As she splashed up through to ankle-depth, silt gave way to coarse, shell-shatter sand that sank and bubbled under her feet. Upwards of the glowing blue-green water, the gap in the cliffs looked darkish, out of reach of early sun and still wet from the last tide. Isla gazed upwards at the varying strata of mollusk and weed life on the rock walls: green weed, bladderwrack, and far above her head, limpets, bathing there in the brine only a few hours previously. She stood underwater in her imagination, blue-green depths above her and sea life swimming around and past, staring through her, unaware of the brief flicker of her presence among their slower tide-pulse of life.

If Isla could have trodden the pure, unmarked sand without footprints, she would have, but each step sank ankle-deep as she made her way up the small, sloping beach to sit down and gather this rare place into memory.

She must not stay too long. The grotto-like space grew lighter as the sun's rays reached in. The water shallowed still farther—or did it? Of course it did.

Mermaids would beach in here, to rest on the spongy sand, to untangle their storm-tossed hair, to loose into the air the music they had gathered in floorless, roofless halls of deep blue. Isla could see them, if she unfocused her eyes, and some of their notes and rhythms fell almost within her hearing range.

Isla, a land creature after all, had to go back, and had probably left it later than she ought. Sure enough, she stepped into deeper water this time, and a sudden wave, unexpected after the near-stillness inside the secret shore, chucked her against a slippery rock, hitting her head. She did not fall, but saw blackness coming, and retreated, collapsing back on to the sand of her grotto.

shutter small.png

She awoke only when the water lapped up around her, chilling her awake. White water had begun to enter the cove, smoothing back into ripples but breaking again, more lightly, at the water's edge. Isla looked, entered the water, peered again, but saw no chance there. She looked upwards and the rocky cliffs that now hemmed her in, and saw no chance there either: slippery, overhanging in places, they would kill too.

Isla screamed for a while, from the instinct of a child or in the vague hope that one of the dogs might have somehow followed her, or even that an odd tourist might pass above her on the cliff path. But the sea, and its life, and her death, only moved closer under the coming tide.

Isla had seen a beached whale, long dead, caught between rocks, dunes and sandbank when the tide turned and stranded it. The fish at high tide and the birds at low tide pulled at it, feeding off its tragedy, gradually returning its flesh to the elements. For the whale had made a mistake. So had Isla, and the sea now approached to take vengeance.

No, not vengeance, exactly, but Isla felt the raw, blind cruelty of chance and mischance. Life, the conspiracy of earth, air and sea, had calmed and softened its own original elements—slowing water, stabilizing erosion and moderating climate. But life, the culmination of physics and chemistry, must prove itself equal to the challenges of its chosen environment. Or die—to give place to that of better fit, of greater adaptability.

Isla tried to slow her breathing. She could put none of this into words—could only sense it like the circling of elusive, latent-eyed swimmers surrounding her place and time between the tides. The sand had gone underwater now, and she trampled ankle-deep in wavelets against the slippery cliff. If only she could adapt on the spot—grow fins and tail, wings, gills, armor or even claws to scrabble upwards. Humans, so fragile and unwieldy, have little but brains to their advantage. We can swim a little, climb even less, fly not at all, and must forever combine and recalculate our feeble skills—

Isla recalculated. She could not gain enough purchase to grip and climb, but she had one arm in a cleft that would, for the time being, prevent the water sweeping her away. Looking once more upwards, she saw that cracks of one size or another came in plenty—that if she could cling on, one way or another, for a couple of meters as the water rose and bumped her, she would reach a point where she might climb yet farther....

She took her outer shirt off, leaving one arm inside its sleeve but using the length of the garment to hook around any available projection of rock. The water remained cold, but Isla had adapted from an early age to weather and water, and the sunshine that now angled up the inlet gave almost enough comfort. And now remained the long, numb, animal effort at survival—the bird on long migration, the elephant travelling for water, the wolf outrunning starvation, the polar bear swimming for ever-shrinking floes. And time proved itself long indeed, as Isla's climb reached deadlock and she found she must await the next low tide after all.

As the long tide followed its wavering cadence, Isla slowly forgot fear, her sense of the sea’s cruelty. Cruelty implies inequality, and she had demonstrated otherwise. She shared something new with the seaweed, the mermaids, the limpets: she had floated, clung, waited—and lived.

The farm dogs met Isla as soon as she splashed up the open beach that evening. Her mother, following them, took her home in the All-Terrain, and neither parent questioned Isla that night.

In the morning, and forever afterwards, Isla answered calmly and succinctly that she had walked too far, had got lost on an unknown piece of coast, but that mermaids had helped her to find her way home. And, whether because of the bruise on her head or the exhaustion of a long day outdoors, nobody could ever get more from her than that.

 
 
Fiona+Jones.jpg

Fiona Jones is a part-time teacher, a parent and a spare-time writer living in Scotland. Fiona is a 2018 Regular Contributor to Folded Word, and her fiction has appeared in Silver Pen, Bethlehem Roundtable and Longshot Island. The setting of this story is inspired by the islands off the west coast of Scotland—beautiful lonely beaches of bubbling methanous sand, wild Atlantic seascapes, and the intangible sense of ancient mythical creatures.

A Life Lost

Lindsey Saya

 

Atop a hill, they lie in a bed of cool grass.

He watches great cloud formations sail across the sky. He imagines them cottony pirate ships, masterless and untamed. He tells her he will be a captain of his own ship one day, that he will discover the wide-eyed wonders of the world and the mysteries they hold. He tells her if she is good he’ll consider taking her with him. She crinkles her nose and shoots him a glare before she thumps his arm. He rubs his flesh, exaggerating his pain.

“You’re definitely not going now,” he says.

The breeze carries off their guffaws as if to share them with the world. He feels the weight of her head rest against his shoulder. It comforts him. They hold hands, their fingers entangled. One of her fingers stretches out and points at another sailing cloud-ship. She says it’s more of a floating city than a ship. She says she is the queen of that city, the most beautiful queen that has ever existed. She tells him that if he’s good, she’ll let him be her jester. He looks at her as she speaks. He witnesses the gentle contours of her face. Her body rests among the forest of lemony blades that seem to hold her up. She is still talking. About what, he’s not quite sure anymore. He’s too focused on her lips. He notices every detail, every thin groove, their ruddy hue—like a desert sunset. Lovely hills worthy of pilgrimage, he thinks. He reaches over and tenderly wipes away a strand of hair that lolls across her face.

“Are you listening?” she says.

“No.” He smiles.

Thump.

He rubs his arm again.

A wind breathes over them, tousling her brown hair.

The world is a kind place, he thinks, and he is fortunate to live in it.

“Watching cloud-ships and floating cities?”

“Yeah, until we’re old and gray and we hunch over, until our faces are wrinkled and spotted. Until everything on our bodies hangs awkwardly, and we begin to forget things and names and people, but never each other.” She rolls onto her side, propping her head with her hand, gazing at him, threads of brown hair brushing across her tilted grin.             

He looks at her. “You’d get tired of me,” he says as he tucks his hands under his head and resumes peering at the blue infinite above him and the white ships that glide across.

“Would you?” she asks.

He turns his gaze toward her and sits up. In his hand is a yellow wildflower he’s picked. Carefully, he places it just above her ear. “Never.”

Her eyes glimmer in the sun like two chocolate hard-candies.

“You’re going to marry me one day,” he says.

“I am?” she teases, her lips curling into a grin.

“Yes, we’ll get married on this hill, even. And you’ll give me children, and we’ll live on a boat with our two boys—”

“Girls.”

“Boy and girl. And we’ll see the world and have adventures together, forever.”

The sun drifts low now, inching toward dusk’s tired light, a soft caress against their bodies. She plucks a handful of grass and tosses it at him as if it were confetti. She smirks. And in that sinking warmth, in that soft breeze, she brings her body close to him and presses her lips against his. “I love you, Alex,” she says.

The scent of orange blossoms and lilacs rises off of her, tiptoeing into his nostrils. There in that embrace, in that kiss, in that dying light, as he loses himself in those glossy, brown orbs, uncharted planets meant to be explored, he decides he will propose to her, his Elena.

shutter small.png

That night when the moon is high, Alex sits in his car across the street from a pawn shop. It’s an old, grungy pawn shop with barred windows and a steel grate that comes down at closing time. Above the pawn shop’s doors hangs a neon sign that reads OPEN, its violet glow splashing across the street.

Alex sits there, his clammy hands wiping away beads of sweat gathering on his brow. He stares at a bulky revolver lying on the passenger seat. It’s wrapped, half-heartedly, in a blue, oil stained handkerchief. Alex borrowed the gun from Ed, a friend from work, the kind of friend that subscribes to Soldier of Fortune. Alex told Ed he needed the gun for protection. That’s all it took.

The gun lies there as if staring at Alex, making him feel uneasy, the sweat building up on his forehead. He bites his lip and feels dirty thinking of what he’s going to do. He hates what he’s going to do. He also hates buying a single rose on Valentine’s Day for Elena instead of a dozen. He hates not being able to take her to the glitzy, showy restaurants her friends go to. Even though she always kisses him on the cheek and says she doesn’t care. He hates that she is content to ride without shame in his dented-in, sputtering Oldsmobile. He works every day till his feet throb with pain, and still, he can’t afford the ring she deserves, not that she’d care. And that’s why she deserves it, he thinks. He grabs that heavy gun, and tells himself, “For her.” He takes in a deep shuddering breath and reminds himself that the gun isn’t loaded. He vows that when it’s done, he’ll make it up for what he’s going to do.

The clerk smiles wide when Alex enters the pawn shop. That smile melts away when Alex aims the revolver at him. The clerk holds his hands up high. He trembles, sweat escaping the thin strands of hair on his balding head. A finger-smudged display case separates the two men. In it are hundreds of rings: gilded rings, silver rings, diamond rings, rings with jewels of colors that span every hue, ornate and whorled.

Alex points a nervous finger at a modest bouillon circlet. The clerk places it on the countertop. It’s a simple golden band, gleaming warmly like fire. It’s perfect, Alex thinks. This thought distracts him for a moment. The clerk lunges for the gun. They fight and yank, wrestling like wild dogs scrapping over a bone, grunting and exerting every effort in their tensed-up muscles. The gun digs into Alex’s tight grasp, his fingers burning. He feels the gun slipping, the clerk gaining ground, seconds from ripping it away. With the remaining strength left in his body, Alex shoves the clerk, wresting the pistol from his grip.

Bang!

And then it’s over. It happens as fast as it began.

Alex can’t close his eyes, can’t stop looking at the clerk’s slumped body, the way he cries out, and reaches for his spine, where a thick, dark stain soaks through his shirt. Tears carve their path down Alex’s face, his chest swelling with panic.

“It wasn’t supposed to be loaded. It wasn’t supposed to be loaded,” he chants when the authorities arrive.

Alex learns from his public defender that the clerk lives, though he’ll never walk again.

When the trial begins, it takes three days for the jury to find Alex guilty. The clerk and his family ask for the maximum sentence.

Alex can’t look them in the eyes: the clerk slouched in a wheelchair, his wife and young daughter, and the clerk’s father. Alex’s lawyer tells him his judge is lenient. Alex receives a twenty-year sentence. The clerk’s family is outraged. His wife wails out in protest. The father, an older man with white whiskers standing beside the clerk’s wife, hurls threats at Alex, howls at the judge that it isn’t enough. The bailiffs walk Alex out of the courtroom. Before the door closes behind him, he sees Elena sitting alone, her mascara streaming in little wet lines down her flushed cheeks. Her eyes, red-rimmed, seem a thousand miles away.

Alex is twenty years old.

shutter small.png

Alex stands in a large circle of men. In its center is a single guard. They are told to strip.

“Nuts and butts, gentlemen, nuts and butts,” the guard barks.

The floor is cold against his bare feet. Everyone, himself included, turns his naked backs toward the guard. They all bend forward and begin to cough. When he’s done, Alex cups his genitals and stares at the dark concrete floor.

The man next to him is bald with a scraggly white beard. A crow is tattooed across the front of his neck, the black wings stretching ear to ear. The crow-man looks at him with a sick kind of grin.

“First time, huh,” says the red, cracked lips above the crow. His voice is rough as if it’s been dragged across sandpaper. “Don’t worry. You get used to it.”

Used to it. Will he ever get used to it? Alex wonders.

A short, heavy guard carrying a large, brown box walks to the center of the circle joining the other guard. He sets the box on the floor and yanks out bundles of bright orange clothing and flings them to each naked man. Alex reaches for the pile of rags lying at his feet. He hesitates then slides on each garment. His sight lingers on the solid black DOC printed across his shirt and pants. He’s orange from head to toe: shirt, pants, and sandals. He’s given a roll of toilet paper, a piss-yellow bed sheet, and a stiff, black blanket, tattered and neatly folded.

Forty minutes later Alex is marched into a grey building where a hundred hungry eyes burn him up. Faces—with their twisted-up sneers, glowering, scowling, rigid, some hidden behind a smear of black tattoos—all pressed against the scratched plexiglass of their solid-metal cell doors. Their brutal voices flood the building with savagery. They spit out taunts and threats and curses, banging and kicking at their doors. Alex makes eye contact with no one, just keeps on moving, holding his head down until he stops in front of a metal door.

He enters his cell for the first time. His cellmate is a giant, something between a man and a bear, round. The kind of round hiding two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle, the kind of round Alex doesn’t want to upset. The giant introduces himself as Smiley.

“Ever been in?” asks the giant, his words heavy and deep.

Alex looks up and shakes his head no.

“Doin’ time is easy. Just follow the rules. Don’t get into debts. And if anyone steps to you, you bust their fucking head in. Real easy. You’ll be fine,” Smiley reassures. Not once does he smile.

Alex squeezes past Smiley and crawls up the steel ladder onto the top bunk. He stares at each pock-marked cinderblock wall, runs his hand across their dimples. How many hands have dragged across these walls? How many years have they stood? How many souls—desperate and lost—have hoped for these walls to crumble into dust? He thinks of how many years he will hope for the same thing in this sterile-white painted cell, a happy white as if to disguise its true nature, as if to prevent its guests from going insane.

Alex will come to know many long nights. The first, however, is the longest. Eventually, he cries himself to sleep.

He wakes to the sound of a strident voice clamoring through the entire building.

“Chow time, chow time, prepare for chow,” the voice booms on a loudspeaker.

He pulls the cover off his head and sees Smiley. The big man’s imperious eyes have a stranglehold on him.

“Some of us ain’t going home,” Smiley says. “You got yourself a bit of time, lil’ homie, I get it, but only the strong survive in here, and I ain’t talking ‘bout muscles.” Smiley doesn’t say anything for a moment, as if to let his words dominate the room. “I don’t ever want to hear you cry again.”

The metal door cracks open with a loud pop. Smiley doesn’t wait for a response; he just turns and walks away.

Four weeks into his sentence, Alex sees a man get beaten and stabbed to death. It happens in the chow line: two men, death in their eyes, come at him, each holding shanks. His heart bounces inside his chest. Without knowing it, he holds his breath. They’re coming for him. But he’s followed all the rules, kept to himself. Why? Alex thinks he will die, he hears an awful wail that turns into a labored gasp. He’s surprised it’s not his own but the man ahead of him. He realizes it’s the man with the crow tattooed on his neck. Crow-man lies in a heap, his eyes wide open and empty, his face spattered with blood.

None of the other cons react. Alex steps over the corpse as if it were a pile of trash left on the sidewalk. He never asked the crow-man his name. In the end, he guesses, it never really mattered.

Just follow the rules.

Alex writes to Elena every day. His letters are filled with words of longing and heartache and of how much he needs her. Two months crawl by and not a single letter with her name on it arrives.

He is allowed to bathe four times a week, on rec days. He takes long showers, as long as the hot water lasts anyway. He finds a strange kind of solace in all that steam. It’s the one place he can be alone. The hot water drubs against his back, and he thinks, it isn’t supposed to be this way. He’s supposed to be with her on that big green hill, a golden circle around her finger, the wind at their backs, and the whole world ahead of them. His tears coalesce with the water. All evidence of weakness is washed away. In that wet, steamy cloud he begs God for forgiveness and makes promises he can’t keep. Then the water runs cold against his flesh.

He gets her first letter on a Friday. He’s three months in.

 

Dear Alex,

I’m sorry I haven’t written. I just don’t know what to say. It’s no excuse. I know. I miss you so much. I think of you during the nights, when I’m alone in bed, when the moon peeks through the window. Can you see the moon at night? Do you have a window?

Why did you have to do something so stupid?! So selfish! I get so angry with you sometimes. I guess, maybe, that’s why I haven’t written.

Are you okay? Is it ugly in there? Are you safe? Have you made friends?

You asked why I haven’t gone to visit you. I guess I just can’t bring myself to see you in a place like that. I’m sorry. Don’t be angry with me. I’ll write to you every day from now on. I promise.

Alex, I will always be here for you. I love you.

Forever Yours,

Elena

P.S. I’ve sent you a photo. So you’ll never forget me.

 

His eyes clutch onto the tiny image of her, the white sundress she wears, her tan shoulders poking out, a yellow wildflower tucked above her ear. His thumb gently rubs across her face. She is smiling. He catches a brief scent of orange blossoms and lilacs. It is the first and last picture she ever sends.

Shutter.png

Alex is twenty-six and he doesn’t cry anymore.

His knuckles often hurt. They are scarred and gnarled. He lost his first fight, lost his second and third too, but he won his respect. Something he knows holds more value in the joint than anything, more than dope, even. Aching knuckles is a small price to pay. These days, though, he doesn’t lose fights.

His body is lean and muscular. He runs three miles every day. On days when he feels too tired to finish, he sees her waiting for him at the end of the finish line, where she cheers him on, beckoning him in. Just as he arrives—panting away—she disappears, a cruel mirage.

He trains his body relentlessly twice a day. Pull-ups, pushups, squats, dips. Pull-ups, pushups, squats, dips. Every day. Pull-ups. Pushups. Squats. Dips. He thinks of her when he trains. He tells himself it’s for her, tells himself that he has to look perfect, that if he looks good enough, she’ll take him back when he gets out.

He often reflects on his work at a cannery, packing tin cylinders full of green beans ten hours a day. It was long, hard work. Once he’d crushed his hand in one of the automated machines. For weeks his fat, red hand looked like a tumorous mound. He’d cursed his way home that day, vowing to quit. He hated that cannery, the smell of it, the heat of it, the way it wore away at his youth, but the money was decent, and for a high school dropout from a broken home that was all you could hope for. Now, he digs ditches on the prison grounds for twenty-five cents an hour. He barely makes enough money to buy soap and toothpaste. He often misses the cannery.

His only solace is found in a small gravel corner, at the far end of the rec yard, away from the pull-up bars and the sit-up stations and the nodded-out junkies and grouped up tough guys with their bald heads and stony glares. There, in that place, a rosebush grows just inside the chain-link fence that separates the world from the animals inside it. It is a rare sight for the cons, though no one seems to notice. But Alex does. Every spring he waits for its gravid buds to bloom yellow, like canaries freed from some enchanted slumber whose majesty cannot be contained. Some days, when the air is warm and the blossoms full, he feels the softness of those petals and relishes the taste of their scent. He makes a habit of visiting the rosebush in the evenings, when he walks the yard, if only for a few minutes. He doesn’t deserve such rapture, he tells himself.

In autumn, when the world turns yellow and rusted, as Alex watches the last buttery petal—withered and decayed—fall into the wind, he feels a murmur of sadness within himself.

Nothing beautiful ever lasts.

Her letters come every day at first, just like she said they would, always signed: Love you, Elena. And then every day becomes once a week, once a week becomes once a month, once a month becomes once a year. And one day her signature becomes Your friend, Elena. That is how he knows that she has found someone else.

His name is Gavin, a marine. He imagines Gavin tall with blond hair decimated by a crew cut, imagines him handy with tools, knowing his way around a car engine. He’s everything Alex isn’t. But is Gavin as tough? Are his knuckles as strong and tested? Can Gavin run like him? Hurt like him? Suffer like him? Love like him?

He sees her letter lying on his bunk. It’s been five hundred and fifty days, give or take, since the last one.

 

Dear Alex,

How are you? Good I hope. Happy belated birthday by the way! Bet you thought I forgot, huh? I’m sorry I didn’t send a card. You send me one every year … I guess I’m a bad friend.

As for me, I’m doing okay. I’m almost done with nursing school. I really do love it. Right now, mainly, I just poke dummies with needles and take temperatures from sick kids, but I think I might’ve found my calling. I figure if I keep at it I’ll be a doctor in no time. How’s that sound, huh? Sounds just fine to me. Me and the girls from the office went to the best New Year’s Eve party. There was so much glitter and champagne. We all danced like crazy women, twirling and laughing. Abbey got sick, threw-up everywhere. You used to love New Year’s Eve so much.

Can you believe it? I got to see the Pacific! We took a trip over the summer. When the sun sets over the ocean, Alex, it’s so beautiful. Everything goes red, the horizon, the water, the sky. You would have loved it. You would have been at home there. You were going to be a sea captain once, remember? And you, Alex, how do you spend your days?

Till next time.

Your friend,

Elena

 

He thinks on that last question. He finds that he’s no longer looking at the words in the letter but his own hands and the pallid scars twisting across his knuckles. He lets the letter go, tracing each jagged line on his fist, little white veins, coarse against his fingertips.

shutter small.png

Sometimes Alex dreams of the ocean, of sailing across its white swells, where he listens to its crashing breath, its heartbeat. He feels the salty air sweeping across his sunburnt face. His boat is small and rickety, the wood full of moans and groans. He dreams of warm Pacific waters. He dreams of chasing the sun, at dusk, across that blue expanse. He dreams.

Alex is thirty when the riot happens.

It’s summer, and the sun boils high above, a pot of scalding water pouring over the world. The prison grounds are a sea of orange, the cons a swarm of ants ready to envelop and devour. Loudspeakers clamor away, demanding the surrender of every inmate. Sharpshooters position themselves atop the guard towers, their scopes glaring in the sun, searching for a target.

He feels the moment coming as if watching a long fuse dwindling away. Once that fuse is gone: Boom!

He’s not even sure why they’re rioting. Some con says, “It’s so those no-good-pigs know that they can’t treat us like dogs anymore.” They tell each other it’s a fight against cruelty, corruption, oppression, against shitty food, and maybe a way to get better cable channels. On the outside, he’s prepared to raze it all to the ground. On the inside, Alex is laughing; he’s laughing.

Some puny con, bald-headed, holding a lock-in-sock, says, “They’re gonna finally learn that we don’t deserve any of their bullshit. We don’t deserve it.”

Alex is still laughing on the inside when he says, “We’re all guilty, aren’t we?”

Baldy doesn’t seem to get it. “They got it coming.”

And just as all hell breaks loose, Alex thinks, we all got it coming.

The air swells with smoke, war cries, gunfire, and concussion grenades exploding. The inmates are like a wild tribe, their tattoos esoteric etchings, war paint. They wear their ragged shirts across their faces and charge through clouds of mace and tear gas, some of them gagging, choking, spitting so that the veins in their necks rise up. They tear at the fences and set fires to their own beds piled high. They murder and they ravage, setting free the hell that rages in them. It is all unleashed hate, chaos beyond any reasoning. It is a savage display. Everywhere there is flame and smoke and screams of unrepentant violence.

Somewhere in that smoky mass, Alex does his part, wondering what he has become.

There is a guard at his feet, his eyes rolled back. Alex stares at the guard through the gray wisps of smoke, his fists throbbing with pain. He wonders if he’s killed him, wonders why he cares when he’s killed before.

He had killed a man over being too loud.

That angry convict had the words fuck the world tattooed across his forehead, and he didn’t like being told he was loud. Disrespectful, he called it. And that’s why Alex killed him—over respect. That’s why Alex remembers the sticky warmth of blood on his skin, the hot stench of it. That day he hated that dead convict for not backing down, for making Alex do it.

Now Alex wants to yell, wants to wash the red streaks from his hands, wants to kill the man again.

The guard’s eyes twitch open.

Without realizing it, Alex releases the breath he’s been holding and his balled-up fists slacken. He never wanted to be a killer. No one ever does. He hears a gunshot slice through the air. It feels like a punch to the gut. By the time he looks down, a wet, warm stain spreads across his shirt.

He topples over.

The smoke clears enough for him to see a blue sky. A fleet of mountainous clouds, unfettered and wonderful, traversing an open sea. All sound dissipates. All he can hear is the sound of his own slowing, raspy breath. His eyelids feel heavy. He forces them to stay open, forces them to behold sky eternal, floating cities and sailing cloud-ships. He hears her laugh. And, finally, his eyes close.

When he wakes, there are no clouds, just a stone-grey ceiling. He feels a respirator crowding his nostrils, sees a webbing of IVs in his arm. He was almost free from it all.

The bullet tore through his stomach, stopping inches from his spine. He spends five months in the medical ward before he hits the yard again. By that time everything is back to normal. Nothing’s changed. Three officers and four inmates died, and a few buildings burned, but nothing changed. Except, maybe, him. He walks with a slight limp now. He is told he’s lucky to have survived, lucky that he can walk. He thinks of the clerk bleeding out in the pawn shop, wonders if he ever made it out of that wheelchair.

One day, on a whim, he decides to call her.

He sits at the phone bank outside. It’s cold. He can feel winter on his back. His fingers shiver as he dials. Each ring is forever. On the third she accepts.

“Hey,” he says with a softness in his voice he thought he had forgotten.

 “Alex, how are you?”                                                                                    

“Good.”

Alex hears other people laughing. Elena is not alone.

“Elena,” a man says in the background, “it’s your turn.”

“In a sec,” she hollers back.

“You’re busy,” Alex says.

“We have friends over.”

“Oh.”

His thoughts linger on the man’s voice. It’s Gavin.

“Alex, are you okay? Is everything okay?”

He thinks of the man he killed; he thinks of his aching knuckles; he thinks of the fires and the screams of the riot; he thinks of barbed wire fences and long nights; he thinks of apathetic guards with their black combat boots; he thinks of concrete walls and the clerk and his own limp.

“Everything’s okay,” he says.

“Elena, it’s your turn!” Gavin yells again.

“You’d better go,” he says.

“Alex,” she says.

He can hear her shuffling into another room, the voices in the background fading. “Gavin and I … we’re getting married.”

“Oh, congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I think it’s best if you don’t call anymore. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Take care of yourself.”

He waits for her to say something else, anything. All he hears is the phone’s harsh click.

He shouldn’t have called.

shutter small.png

Alex is thirty-five years old and plays chess with Smiley in their cell. He moves a rook across the board when the cell door pops open. In steps a guard, a letter in his hand. Alex recognizes the blue scrawls on the envelope before he reaches for it. Elena. He places the letter on his bunk with care as is if it were fragile, as if it might fall apart before he has a chance to read it. Years have crumbled away since he last heard from her.

He resumes his game, his queen taken by a rook. He loses. With a simple gesture, he tips his plastic king over.

Later, he sits on his bunk, holding the letter in his hands, staring at her blue name for a moment before he rips it open.

           

Dear Alex,

How do you find yourself? Healthy and with high spirits, I hope, as high as they can be, I guess.

You’re wondering why I’m writing to you; I know. I guess I’ve just been thinking about you is all. I have two boys now. Gavin Jr. is four, and Eli is one, so much for girls. They keep me busy, my little monsters.

Gavin and I, we’re … well, things aren’t what I expected they would be. We argue a lot, about money, mainly. You don’t get rich being a nurse, I guess. I thought I’d be a doctor by now, but things didn’t work out. It doesn’t matter anymore. And Gavin, he’s had a tough time adjusting and finding work since coming back from overseas. Sometimes he has nightmares. He wakes the children with his screams. I try to get him to talk, but it just leads to him yelling. I had to take him to the hospital. He put his fist through a window. I wonder if his anger was something he brought back with him, or if it was always there. Sometimes, Alex, I feel so trapped, like my life is a prison.

I’m sorry. I often wonder what you look like now. I imagine you boyish still. Alex, the reason I’m writing is that I want to come to see you. Why now, after all this time? I don’t have an answer. I will be there on the 1st of next month. I will see you then.

Elena

A day after reading Elena’s letter, Alex pays a visit to the con that works in the property unit, a lanky kid. After some haggling, Alex gets his mitts and a new set of prison clothes. It costs him a bag of coffee, the good stuff. He pays another guy a box of crackers to clean his shoes. He places his outfit neatly underneath his mattress the night before. By morning it will be as flat as a sheet of paper.

He wakes up before sunrise. For the first time since he began his stormy voyage, he feels a flutter of excitement. After a hot shower, he shaves. He stares at his reflection in a mirror, wondering when so many crow’s feet took residence underneath his eyes. He examines every wrinkle. He stretches his face, trying to find some semblance of youth, pulling his skin in every direction, as if to set it in place.

He dons his new, carefully creased clothes, bright and orange, slips on his pale white sneakers, and sits on his bed and waits.

Hours float by. Eleven o’clock comes, and still, he waits. Time trundles on; hours trundle on. The hours and time, he knows them well, knows how the hours are like executioners repeating their duty over and over and over and over.

Afternoon comes and goes, and still, he waits. Visitation for the day is over.

That night in a pool of blue moonlight, he lies in bed. After fifteen years of forgetting what it is to weep, he permits a single wet bead to roll across his cheek. Through a sliver of plexiglass, he sees a swollen moon and wonders if she sees it too.

shutter small.png

Like ash in a gust of wind, four years are swept away since the day Elena was supposed to visit him.

In the spring, when the rosebush has started to bloom its yellow bulbs and the bees are buzzing and the bugs are rising up from their caves, he meets the kid.

The kid has one of those faces one can’t help but like, jovial. He’s skinny and freckled, timid at first, but once he gets going he’s got a one-liner for everything.

He likes the kid, admires the kid, who is so full of life, who somehow has managed to deflect the misery of those walls. He almost wishes he could be the kid.

“He’s a rat,” Smiley tells him one day. “You’re close to him.”

Alex knows what that means.

He is thirty-nine years old. A few streaks of gray stain his hair. He’s not as lean anymore, and his limp has gotten worse.

Just follow the rules.

Nineteen years he’s followed the rules. Nineteen years he’s been doing this shit, nineteen years too long.

There’s something about the kid that reminds him of who he used to be, once. A hopefulness.

The kid wants to be an actor. We all want to be something, Alex thinks. But he’s a rat. Maybe the kid didn’t know any better. A mistake. We’ve all made mistakes. We all deserve a chance to make it right, don’t we?

Alex has a year to go. One year and it’s all over.

He knows what will happen if he doesn’t follow through.

That night he has a dream.

She stands on top of a towering green hill. Behind her is a massive azure sky filled with gold-rimmed clouds marching by. She calls to him.

He’s at the base of the hill. She seems so far away. Suddenly, the sky is enveloped by a great shadow. Heaven becomes a storm. The wind whips and roars its terror.

He runs up the hill. His pace quickens, faster and faster as he nears the top. The blades of grass that brush against his feet, suddenly, feel like mud. They become hands, clasping at his ankles. She’s calling … calling. He can’t wrest away. The hill seems to go on forever. He stretches out his hand to her. Grass-tentacles wrap around his wrist, his torso, his legs, his neck; squeezing until he is dragged into the earth, into the dirt, into a grave, and then darkness.

After morning chow, they wait for Alex in his cell, three of them: Smiley, and two other cons that look more like tree trunks with arms and legs.

“He’s gone,” Smiley says without so much as a blink.

“Who?” Alex says.

“You know who,” Smiley says.

“He must’ve caught wind.”

“What did you do?” Smiley’s voice drops, and his words come out sharp.

Alex waited until breakfast when he knew everyone in his cellblock would be in the chow hall. That was when he yanked the kid into the laundry room, a cramped room where the din of dirty clothes washing rumbled and tumbled.

“What do you mean I have to go?” The kid’s eyes trembled.

“They know,” Alex told him.

“Know what?” The kid played dumb, but the crack in his voice gave him away.

“They know and they’re gonna kill you,” Alex said. “Go to the guards. Tell them you don’t feel safe. They’ll put you in protective custody. But you gotta do it now.”

“I’m scared.”

He placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder, something a father might do.

“I used to be too,” he consoled. “Listen, you’re a short timer. You’ll be home soon. Make something of yourself, will ya. Be an actor or something. Just don’t come back here.”

“I won’t.”

Now, Smiley and the other cons take turns stomping and kicking Alex. It takes seconds for his face to swell. His countenance runs scarlet. They shatter femurs and crack ribs. Alex moans out but never screams. Most of the damage is done by Smiley, his old celly, his old mentor. Maybe that’s why he’s still alive. Because he knows he shouldn’t be.

For weeks his jaw is wired shut as he sips his meals with agony through a flimsy straw. He spends most of his last year in prison learning how to walk again. In the mornings, when he looks in the mirror, he barely recognizes his face anymore. It’s not just the pink scar stretching across the side of his head, or his crooked nose, or the way the years have marked him, it’s something else, something he looks for, though he’s not quite sure what, something missing.

On his last day, he visits the rosebush. Their buds have just begun to bloom. He used to think the bush tragic; to live, to die, to live only to die again. Now he knows it is a miraculous thing, to be reborn and find life once more.

Beauty never really dies.

He walks out and hears the prison gates close behind him. His feet feel as heavy as bricks, but he keeps moving. He can almost hear the prison whispering, begging him to look back. But he doesn’t. He’s a free man and there are a million things he can do now, a million things he’s dreamed of doing, of seeing. Yet, as he steps into a strange new world, there’s only a single thing he wants to do.

With the clothes on his back and two hundred dollars to his name he takes a bus to the city, propping his head against the window, feeling the slanting morning light pressing against his face. He takes it all in, the busyness of it all, the new cars honking away, the smell of their exhaust, men and women in business suits sitting in their cars, inching along with traffic, kids waiting at bus stops, teenagers socializing, talking into thin phones he’s never seen before. None of them concerned for each other, all of them oblivious of the madness, the hatred that they’re all capable of. Maybe that’s freedom, he thinks, never having to meet the ugliness inside of us. He watches the world move around him. It’s all a river, fast and churning and unyielding.

The bus drops him off in front of a strip mall, where there is a laundry mat and a liquor store advertising cheap beer. He walks two blocks, smelling the smells of the world, feeling its paved skin under his shoes until he finds himself walking down a residential street, where the houses all look the same with their whitewashed brick walls, uniform, like giant dominoes all lined in a row. The privet shrubs, for the homes that have them, are short and squared, and everywhere the grass is lush and green and freshly cut. It is a quiet place, where dysfunction and chaos are unknown. And then he stops.

Her home is modest with a small green yard and a single citrus tree. A big wheel lies on its side, thrown to the wind after some great adventure.

He hesitates and then his clenched fist knocks against a white door.

The door opens.

Standing there is a young boy, about nine-years-old, thin and round-faced, his eyes the color of almonds. His head, Alex notices, seems too big for his body, his neatly parted hair shifting with each movement as if his body were struggling to balance the weight of his head. The boy looks up and stares warily at Alex, at his pink scar and lumped-up nose.

“Yeah,” the boy says brusquely. His almond-colored eyes wait for an answer.

“Is Elena home?” Alex says, unsure of himself.

Standing there, the door half open, the boy looks over his shoulder and shrieks out, “Mom!”

It’s bright inside that home, soft as if the glow of sunrise lived there. The walls are two-toned, white with purple pastel, like a dessert too picturesque to eat. The hardwood floors are clean and glossy as if they have never been walked on. Just inside the front door, beside the boy’s feet, Alex looks down and notices a row of tennis shoes neatly lined up along the baseboard, the shoes ordered by size, like soldiers standing at attention. Alex looks over the boy into the living room. It’s a snug room with couches that are too big, cartoonish in a way, and brown, the color of coffee. Another little boy with round peach cheeks, who is half the size as the one standing next to Alex, sits cross-legged on one of the sofas, almost sinking in. In his hands is a tiny television with the steady hum of cartoons wafting away from it. A tablet, Alex thinks it’s called.

“What, Gavin?” She steps out from around the corner. She sees him and stops mid-step, her eyes, as brown as ever, go wide, lingering on Alex.

An eternity passes. She stands there, her green medical scrubs hugging her slender frame, the dark flow of her hair cascading along her shoulders. He sees it there in her hazelnut eyes, the glazed shock, something begging to be said.

“Mom?” Gavin sings out as if to wake his mother from some spell.

“Go to your room, honey. Take your brother with you.”

“Come on, ding dong,” Gavin tells the sandy-haired boy that’s watching the little tablet in the living room.

Alex watches the older boy guide the younger one down the hallway and disappear into another room.

Elena takes a few steps forward. Her thin lips move, a mere quiver, but nothing comes out, as if they have forgotten their purpose. All at once her smooth cheeks abandon their golden color, fading into emptiness. A film of moisture glosses over her eyes, her doleful gaze, unblinking.

“Do you, do you want some coffee?” she finally says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Sure.”

They sit across from each other. The sitting room is bright and warm. The morning sun floods in through the windows, filtering through white, sheer curtains. Toys and playthings are strewn about. Photos of the young boys sit on bookshelves near the back wall. There is love in this house. He can feel it. So different from what he’s used to. He wonders if this could’ve been his house in a perhaps-life.

Wisps of heat escape from their mugs until their coffee finally cools. Neither of them takes a sip.

“When did you get out?” she asks.

“Today.”

“Oh.”

“You look good,” he says and looks away. He’s unable to hold her gaze.

“Thank you. You look … you have scars.” Her eyes, with a kind of gentleness, follow along the curves and twists of each jagged marring that stretch from the edge of his left eye down the side of his head, burying themselves behind his ear.

“I do.”

A palpable silence grows between them. They can hear the boys roaring in the other room.

“So those are your boys?”

“They are,” she says with a smile.

“They’re very handsome.” He sets his coffee down and sees a silver framed wedding photo on the coffee table beside him. It’s of her and a tan, brown-haired man—Gavin. He lingers on it.

“I’ve been meaning to put it away,” she says as if it were an apology. “We’re separated.”

“I’m sorry.” He’s not sure if he means it.

“That’s life,” she says, wiping away at a tear that hasn’t fallen yet. Her eyes sink into her coffee. She’s the one that can’t hold the other’s gaze now.

He shifts in his chair. “Listen, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I should leave.”

“It’s probably best,” she says, her eyes still wavering between her coffee and his gaze.

He rises, so does she. He walks away, wondering if she can hear his heart thudding inside of him. Something within him screams, something squeezes his soul.

He doesn’t turn to look at her. He just says it. “Why didn’t you come?”

“What?”

He faces her. “Why didn’t you come? In your letter, you said you were coming, but you never did. Why did you tell me you were coming?”

“I’m sorry, Alex. I couldn’t make it. I just couldn’t. It was complicated. It still is. I didn’t think it would matter.” She takes a step toward him, her hand lifted, as if to touch him, but she stops herself from getting too close as if his pain were a conflagration that might sweep her up in its flames.

“It did matter,” he says, almost a whisper. His heart is a graveyard where those words were buried. “Why did you tell me you were coming?”

“I’m sorry,” she says, her words filling that space between them. That space, only a foot, might as well be the length of the universe.

“I waited that day. I waited for you,” he says. “I waited for you.” His eyes dampen.

She hesitates and then moves to him, placing a warm hand against his cheek.

“I’m sorry,” her voice cracks as she says it, a wet bead gliding along her nose, her grooved flush lips inches from his.

“I waited for you.” His voice is a feather.

Her hand reaches for his, a delicate touch, her soft fingers exploring the hills and valleys of his palms and knuckles. And as he catches the scent of orange blossoms and lilacs, he kisses her, and she kisses him back. Twenty years disappears and all that’s left are two young fools that loved each other once.

“Goodbye,” he whispers.

“Goodbye?” she says, squeezing his hand.

“I came here to say goodbye,” he says. “I never said goodbye.”

“You aren’t staying?”

“No.”

“But—”

“I have to go now,” he says, his scarred-up hand holding hers.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”

He lets her hand go and says:

“You were. You were there.”

But that’s not how it happens. That’s how Alex imagines it happening.        

Instead, he stands across the street under a slender paloverde tree, its yellow blossoms drifting away, stolen by a morning breeze. He welcomes that breeze. It’s hot. His sweat pools at the base of his neck and the small of his back, seeping into his white t-shirt and blue jeans. The breeze, so cool and free, a part of him wishes he could drift away with it too. He watches her open the door, sending her children off to school, two skinny young boys wearing Spider-Man and Captain America t-shirts, their oversized backpacks bouncing about like luggage strapped to their young backs. The taller of the two tosses a baseball up and down, up and down. Alex watches her pull a strand of chocolate brown hair from her lips, watches her skin shine gold in the sun. He watches Gavin come up behind her, holding a mug of coffee as he kisses her on the cheek. He watches Gavin scuttle his boys into their minivan and drive off down that little suburban road.

She glances his way, like you might when you recognize someone but realize it’s no one. He watches her close the door behind her. She isn’t running to him. She isn’t crying tears of joy and happiness and longing like he’s imagined. She isn’t even standing there anymore. He wants to walk up to that door, to bang on it, wants to yell out her name.

Instead, he walks away without looking back.

Instead, he buys an old yellow clunker and drives west till he can smell the salt in the air and see the ocean’s blue skin and the sun bouncing off it, and hear its forever crashing.

Instead, he finds work on a fishing boat.

Instead, he sees red sun after red sun collapse beneath the waves.

Instead, he searches across a blue vastness for something he’s lost.

 
updated oyster.png
 
Lindsey_S.jpg

Lindsey Saya spent the past 15 years incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections. It is there that he discovered the magic and transcendent power of the written word. His fiction and poetry can be found in Iron City Magazine and Poetry Spot at AZCentral.com. Now he resides in Peoria, Arizona, where he continues to work on his craft as a free man.

Lindsey IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

 

 Malta

Charles Duffie


John Abbey glanced in the rearview mirror. Twelve palm cockatoos watched him like a jury from the backseat. The exotic birds were two feet tall, slate gray and indigo blue, with bright red cheeks and feathered crests. They perched in a long wire kennel, claws knuckled around a stripped branch. The birds turned their heads back and forth, staring at him with one marble eye (What are you doing?) then the other (Where are we going?).

“It’s OK,” he said, though he didn’t know who he was reassuring. He had been thinking of Nawal, the way her lips pressed together when she smiled, and so had missed the AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL turnout. Now he was wedged in a ten-lane pileup at the U.S.–Mexico border, sweating in spite of the A/C. He wore his Fish & Wildlife uniform, but at twenty-three, with short blond hair, slender build, and all-American face, he looked like a boy pretending to be a park ranger.

On the passenger seat, a stack of wildlife declaration forms authorized Special Agent John Abbey to transport twelve rare palm cockatoos across the border. The birds had been netted in New Guinea, smuggled on cargo ships to Australia and Columbia, driven through Sonora, Coahuila and Chihuahua, and left in Tijuana. “By the time I ran down the informant’s tip, only twelve of twenty-nine birds were still alive.” John had filled in the forms himself. “They were headed for a dealer in Arizona,” his handwriting claimed. “I’ll escort the birds to Carson Sanctuary in Big Bear for rehabilitation.”

That was all true, except the last line. Tonight he’d escort the birds to Tommy Friar, an animal trafficker in Los Angeles. Each bird fetched $15,000 on the black market. John’s cut would be $90,000 up-front. All he had to do now was get across the border.

shutter small.png

John majored in wildlife ecology at Los Angeles City College. Every Friday he sat at a card table in the quad, a boy-faced activist loaded with handouts and petitions. “Animals are the third most trafficked commodity in the world,” he called, “behind only drugs and arms. Animals cooked as delicacies. Worn as clothing. Mounted as trophies. Ground into medicine and aphrodisiacs. You can stop the violence. All it takes is…”

But his fellow students found the trafficking photos too disturbing: parrots squeezed into water bottle tubes like plastic straight jackets, baby otters drugged and packed in ventilated suitcases like furry socks, adorable pangolins gagged and hidden behind car door panels, matchbook-sized songbirds slowly suffocating in perforated ice chests marked “Human Organ Transplant.” John spent most Fridays alone, holding petitions no one had ten-seconds to sign. He watched their earbud-faces pass, resenting their indifference.

He got placed right out of college with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The job didn’t start until late August, so John offered to help Chandi, an online friend and fellow activist, save birds on Malta. He emptied what was left out of his checking account, spent half of it expediting his passport, and flew to the Mediterranean. Everything he owned fit in one backpack.

Though only seventeen miles across, the island of Malta seemed to contain the whole world: modern cities and ancient towers, busy towns and family farms, hills and fields and woods and beaches. The people were a melting pot of Mediterranean cultures, though John was surprised by the number of British, German, French, and American expatriates. The ocean was visible from almost anywhere, water so blue he felt unfolded by its color and motion. He didn’t know how else to describe it. An epiphany? But of what? He had never been outside the U.S. Maybe that’s all it was. Not an unfolding, but an untethering.

He met Chandi in person for the first time, a short Indian man with Buddy Holly glasses. Chandi agreed to cover expenses in exchange for John’s help. “I budgeted for six weeks,” he said, drumming his belly. “But if we skip some meals, we can make our euros last all summer.”

They drove a white Peugeot into the countryside. “I used to go wherever the birds were,” Chandi said. “But a lot of poaching happens on private property, and those guys carry guns.” He stretched his t-shirt down over his shoulder, revealing a long scar puckering like a seam in his brown skin. “Now,” he laughed, “I stick to public land.”

They sped into the foothills and parked on the edge of a wild citrus field. Chandi showed him how poachers coated branches with tree sap so when migrating birds landed to rest, feathers stuck to the natural glue. They found dozens of collared flycatchers, small white birds with black hoods. A few, struggling to escape, had broken their hollow wings or snapped their toothpick backs, and dangled in front of John, trembling and contorted. Chandi offered only two options for the wounded: a quick twist of the neck or a finger-drop of narcotic touched to their tiny beaks. John always chose the latter.

“It’s a numbers game,” Chandi said, demonstrating how to use a spray bottle of warm water to dissolve the sap and peel the birds from the branches. “Poachers don’t care if they lose forty, fifty percent. They just sap more branches. And for what? So some consumer somewhere can own a bird from somewhere else.”

John had read about this style of poaching, but to witness birds dangling by outstretched wings like tiny crucifixions—he didn’t understand people, the brutality of their endeavors. He himself hadn’t eaten, worn, or owned an animal of any kind since he was fifteen.

shutter small.png

John eased on the brake and edged another car-length closer to the border. He tasted bile in the back of his throat. He hadn’t eaten since meeting Tommy Friar two days ago. But there was nothing to worry about. Cross the border, drive north to L.A., collect the money, return to Malta, start a new life with Nawal. Easy.

He glanced in the mirror. The birds shook their heads, skeptical.

“It’s OK,” he said. If the risk was any smaller it wouldn’t be a risk at all. Federal dollars went to immigration and drugs. Fish & Wildlife’s budget was a bailing bucket in the flood of animal trafficking. He had checked: only one overwhelmed agent was stationed at this border entry, and it was a rotating position. The agent varied by the day. He had even called the office to let them know he’d be passing through. “So?” the woman had said. “I’m drowning down here. Just flash your docs and get out of my way.” He had known she would say that. He had seen it himself, working skeleton crews at the L.A. Harbor. You only checked what you absolutely had to check. The agent would confirm John’s ID, flip through the forms while they commiserated about the plight of animals in a human world, then wave John through.

But if it was that easy, why had he called ahead?

“It’s OK,” he said again, and glanced in the rearview. The birds looked at him with one eye then the other, unconvinced.

shutter small.png

Chandi had rented a corner apartment in Valletta, the capital of Malta. The building dated back to the 1600s, an old temple that had been renovated into living quarters. John stood in the corner of the bedroom: from the tall window on the left, he saw baroque palaces and churches; from the tall window on the right, modernist buildings of steel and glass.

Sleep eluded him that first night. He remembered each bird he couldn’t save, hearing their wings in his own dry breath. Wandering down to the port, he watched a huge freighter glide away in the darkness, lit up like a city abandoning civilization for a nomadic life on the sea. He found a small cove, stripped off shorts and t-shirt, and walked into the water. If only he could wash away the snakeskin of humanity as easily as the day’s sweat. He floated on his back, gazing at the stars. He had always been an outsider, separated from his own species. The power of that feeling scared him, the riptide of loneliness moving beneath it.

Leaving the city each morning, they passed a school and playground that had been converted into a refugee detention center. John watched the brown and black faces pass—men, women, children, staring through chain link.

“It’s a heartbreaker,” Chandi said. “Families from Libya and Somalia, Sudan and Syria, running from some evil at home. Whatever it is, it must be bad. Trying to get to Europe in rafts? Lots of them make it only as far as Malta.”

More refugees gathered at the crossroads, hopping out as cars passed, offering themselves as cheap labor, and even more nested in steel shipping containers near the airport.  

“It’s a small island,” Chandi said. “There are over ten thousand refugees now. No one knows what to do.”

They hiked a coastal ridge above the ocean and found dozens of golden orioles hanging from sticky branches. As he released the birds, John kept glancing down to the sea, tracking the progress of a raft struggling toward shore. Tiny figures signaled for help, colorful robes and scarves vibrant in the sun. The raft tilted, then sank under choppy waves as a rescue boat arrived. From his view on the cliff, it looked like the people had to be pried out of the ocean, their bright clothing sticking to the syrupy water.

The next morning, John surprised himself by volunteering at the Jesuit Refugee Service. With Chandi’s blessing, he divided his hours between the detention center in the morning and the fields in the afternoon. He helped prepare food, inventory Red Cross shipments, stuff pledge envelopes, write letters to charitable foundations. He felt the unfolding continue. For the first time since—he couldn’t remember when—he felt like he belonged somewhere.

One day he noticed a young Syrian woman tending the sick. She wore a white t-shirt, blue jeans and sandals, with a purple hijab over her black hair. He loved how easily she smiled, lips pressing closed the way most people would frown but turning up just slightly at the corners. He assumed she was a physician from Doctors Without Borders or another service organization, working directly with the refugees, touching, talking, listening. John found himself drawn into more direct contact with the people as well, teaching a class in English and improvising games to distract worried children. The kids loved to touch his blond hair and laugh at his green eyes.

After a week of glances and nods and smiles, he asked if he could assist on her rounds. Her name was Nawal Zaitouneh, and she wasn’t a doctor. She was a refugee.

shutter small.png

An old station wagon pulled up on his left. Two brown-faced boys in the backseat waved at the birds. As John powered the windows, heat pushed into the car and the birds responded, clucking and chirping. The boys leaned out their window, faces lit like kids at a zoo.

“Are those parrots?” the older boy asked.

“Palm cockatoos,” John said. “They’re called Goliath cockatoos because they’re so big.”

The smaller boy tapped his lips. “Do they talk?”

John nodded. “They could, but they haven’t been around people long enough.”

Their mother watched from the front passenger seat. John had never seen such black skin. “They’re beautiful,” she said, the word echoing back in her sons’ voices, “Beautiful, beautiful.”

The smaller boy touched the corners of his eyes. “Why are they sad?”

“They’re orphans,” John said. “They were stolen from their home in New Guinea.”

“Are you saving them?” the older boy asked.

John tapped his badge. “That’s my job.”

Compassion tightened the mother’s face. “Did you save them all?”

“No,” John said, not meeting her eyes. “You never save them all.”

The mother nodded. “Then these are the lucky birds,” she said to her sons.

“Lucky birds,” they echoed, “lucky birds.”

“God bless you,” the woman called as the station wagon moved up to an inspection booth. The blessing stuck like the heat to John’s skin. He had grown up in a house saturated with religion. He never connected with any of it, but now that Old Testament view of human nature gave him the word for what he was doing. For him, animal trafficking wasn’t just a crime. He had betrayed his own faith. He was committing a sin.

The car in front pulled away. A border patrol officer waved John forward.

shutter small.png

When they first met, Nawal had already been in detention two months. Educated as a teacher, she spoke Arabic and English and carried a valid passport. Yet she had been fingerprinted like a criminal, could not get a visa, could not work. Having used all her money to travel this far, there was nothing to do but apply for asylum and wait.

“What’ll happen if they send you back?” John asked.

Nawal bowed her head over a plate of rice and beans. All around them, refugees knelt on the tile floor and hunched over elementary school desks, giving thanks. John waited.

Nawal looked up from her prayers and breathed. “I organized many student protests, so they might arrest me. But who can see tomorrow? And you? Are you a student?”

John talked about the poachers. Nawal’s brows bent in pain but her full lips pressed into a smile, as if pulling on one emotion moved the other an equal amount.

“Migrating birds are like refugees,” she said. “You are helping them find their way home. That is an act of prayer.”

“It’s not prayer,” John said. “It’s work.”

Nawal gave him an impatient smile, like she was both charmed and annoyed. “You Americans always separate the two. But Allah created this world as a place of worship, so the earth itself is a mosque. All good work done in a mosque is an act of prayer.”

A week later, Nawal was released from the detention center into a government-run hostel. She was free to come and go as she waited for her asylum request to be reviewed.

Sometimes they packed a lunch and Chandi drove them around Malta. John’s favorite place was the Grand Harbour where the city wall hid all modern buildings from view. The ageless sea on one side, an empire of stone, spires, and cathedrals on the other: he felt he had found a gap in history, an alternate timeline where anything could happen.

To his surprise, Nawal’s favorite place was the Church of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck, a domed building dating from the 1500s. According to legend, the apostle had been stranded on Malta in AD 60, and to honor that event Pope Pius VII had donated the stone block on which the saint had been beheaded in Rome, along with a fragment of Paul’s wrist bone. Both were on display in a chapel where Nawal knelt to pray for refugees.

“You’re a Muslim,” John said. “You can’t pray to Paul. He was a Christian.”

Nawal closed her eyes. “I talk to all the saints.”

Watching her pray, John felt that unfolding again, an opening not to God but to knees on stone, to hands clasped and heads bowed; an opening not to saints but to flesh and blood; not to heaven, but here and now, to his own brief journey in this body, across these lands and these oceans. He closed his eyes and tried to touch that familiar ache, that marrow of loneliness he had lived with his entire life. He could barely feel it; those sharp edges were like braille now.  

Sleep eluded him again. Each night he thought of Nawal, the line of her shoulder, scoop of her neck, tidal motion of her breasts, and that inward curve he imagined just beneath her t-shirt moving down into the well below.

John stood in an asphalt lot where several cars waited in the dusky heat. He counted nineteen border patrol officers. The lone Wildlife agent, a gray man with watery bags under his eyes, flipped through the forms.

Nearby, half a dozen men sat cross-legged, wrists bound with plastic ties, hands cupped in their laps like cracked bowls. The kennel of birds sat on the hood of John’s car.

“These birds are sick,” the agent said. “Look at the eyes. The crusting around the nostrils.”

John hadn’t examined the birds since picking them up. If he had, he realized, he would have noticed their condition. But even now he couldn’t look at them too closely. It was as if their eyes held an opposing magnetic force, pushing his gaze away.

“I’ll take good care of them,” John said. “Big Bear’s only a couple hours away.”

“Can the sanctuary handle twelve new patients?” the agent asked.

“I called them yesterday. They’re waiting for us.”

The agent hesitated. “I better call again. We may need to split these birds up. Give me a few minutes.”

John pushed down the panic in his chest. The sanctuary in Big Bear knew nothing about the birds. A few calls would light a fuse to the forged signatures, arraignment, fines, and prison. He felt Nawal turn a corner in his mind.

As the agent stepped into the office, John looked around, for what he didn’t know. His eyes caught on the men sitting on the hot asphalt. He gave the first man his water bottle. The old man drank with both hands then passed the bottle down the line.

“Problemas?” he said. He could be Nawal’s father: his eyes were the same brown and held a comparable weight of the world.

John nodded and glanced at the tinted office windows. “Big problems.”

The old man shrugged. “Volar.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t—”

The man raised his bound hands, flapping his fingers. “Volar.”

John stood and backed away. Turning, he faced himself in the office windows. He had always been embarrassed by the boyish softness of his face, but now in that dark pane of glass he didn’t see a boy. He saw a refugee.

He pushed the caged birds into the backseat and eased through the immigration inspections, showing his badge. As he drove away, he watched the mirror. Accepting the birds, he had betrayed his faith. Now, running from a Fish & Wildlife agent, he was running from himself.

The birds chirped in the backseat, turning their heads. “It’s OK,” he said.

Ten minutes later, he saw the flashing lights.

John and Nawal spent the morning volunteering at the refugee center, then drove out to a russet field. They found five blue-and-orange rock thrushes caught on a limed branch. John used a spray bottle to free two small birds. He placed one in the cup of Nawal’s hands. 

“I feel its heart,” she said. “It moves so fast.”

“The spray gets them off the branch,” John said. “But sometimes that’s not enough. We need to remove the sap between the feathers too. Their wings are so delicate, you can’t rub the sap off, even with a sponge. It might seem strange, but this works best...”

He gently stretched a wing and put the sap-covered tip in his mouth. Nawal’s startled eyes, bronze in the sun, watched as John held the wing until the sap melted, then repeated the tender action on the other wing. He blew on the feathers and tossed the thrush into the air. He loved how Nawal gave a small gasp as if the bird, in flying away, had plucked a string.

“If you’re scared about parasites or germs,” he said, “it’s OK. Chandi’s been doing this every summer for years.”

“I am not scared,” she said.

He watched her lay the tip of a bird’s wing between her soft lips, gazed into her widening eyes as the sap dissolved in her mouth like honey. She did the same for the other wing, then blew on the feathers and opened her hands. As the thrush fluttered across the sea, John felt the unfolding continue, as if his heart was a map with territories he had never seen before.

“Have you read the Gospel of Thomas?” Nawal said.

John thought back to his Sunday School days. “There’s no Gospel of Thomas.”

Nawal sighed. “You Americans are too exclusive. There are many gospels not in your Bible, but they are still gospel. Thomas says when Jesus was a child, he played by the river and made a bird out of mud. The priests scolded him. He was breaking the law by working on the Sabbath. But Jesus held the mud bird and breathed on it. It became real and flew away.” She touched his hand. “Thank you for this miracle. Today I have broken the law and brought a bird to life.”

He watched Nawal free the last bird, watched as she followed it into the blue sky, turning with the thrush as it banked to the west, turning until they stood face-to-face. When she eased up and kissed him, he tasted tree sap on her tongue.

By July, he knew he was in love but kept the words to himself. They worked in the refugee center each morning and rescued birds each afternoon. They talked about their lives: how poor their parents were, in money and love; how similar their countries were in spite of the outward differences; how she adored God, and how he didn’t think about God at all. The unfolding in his heart accelerated. He felt a peace he never thought possible in the brutal world. The idea of a family now felt like a benefit to the planet rather than a burden.

One evening, sitting on the beach, John asked Nawal to accept his love, to pull off her t-shirt, slip out of her jeans, unfurl her hijab. He offered his body with his heart. Nawal smiled her frowning smile.

“In most ways,” she said, “I am as modern as your American women. But some traditions I keep for myself. We are not married. Therefore I can only give you my heart.”

“I’ll take it,” John said. Nawal laughed.

shutter small.png

John kept pace with the late afternoon traffic. A few miles back, the flashing lights wove steadily closer. He knew they had his car and plates from the border video, but he didn’t think they had spotted him yet. He merged into a lane flowing from the main artery of the 5 to the 805 bypass.

He checked the rearview. No lights followed.

The birds cooed and chirped as if calling his name. “It’s OK,” he said, and tightened his jaw to hold the tears. How could he have done this to them? They were like children. But the plan had been so simple! No paper trail, no phone call to the sanctuary, no documents left behind, no signatures other than the ones he had forged. It should have been automatic.

But now Fish & Wildlife had the false documents. They had John’s name, driver’s license, bank account, social security number. Dedicated men and women were going through his case files, checking each link and connection, tracking him with the same sense of betrayal he himself would have felt. There was nowhere to go in this connected world.

Except to Tommy Friar. Tommy wasn’t in any of John’s files. John had come across the trafficker’s name while confiscating birds in Malibu. Afterwards, he never recorded their meeting. Tommy had John’s money, connections to get him out of the country, maybe even access to fake IDs. Once in Malta, he’d explain everything to Nawal. He had always known she wouldn’t approve, but seeing how much he had sacrificed, she’d love him in spite of his sin.

Freeway lights came on. A few stars appeared. He drove north into the widening dark.

shutter small.png

A week before the money ran out, John spoke to a lawyer at the Jesuit Refugee Service. She warned him that marriage was impossible: first, John and Nawal had only known each other nine weeks; second, Nawal’s situation was the textbook definition of a sanctuary marriage; third, Nawal had registered for asylum in the E.U.

John applied for a work visa but was denied. He asked her to marry him anyway. She said no, citing a fourth reason: John could get into serious legal trouble.

“I love you,” she said. “But sometimes love does not win.”

“What does that mean?” he asked. “How can you—?”

She touched his lips. “We had a summer on an island. Days of love and fear and joy and birds and God. Now our summer is over. We cannot change that. This is the world sometimes. We move on.”

He tried to match her smile. “Is that how a refugee sees her life?”

“Maybe everyone,” she said. “Maybe birds too.”

On his last day, Nawal held out a notebook the size of a deck of cards.

“An account of your good works,” she said.

John opened the book with his thumbs. Each two-page spread documented, in Nawal’s careful handwriting, every species of bird saved on that date. As he turned the pages, the small bedroom filled with Egyptian nightjars and Siberian rubythroats, Calandra larks and Isabelline wheatears, river warblers and black redstarts. Beside each name, Nawal recorded the number saved on that day, and in the bottom right corner she circled the day’s total. On July 5 they had only saved eight birds, but on July 31 they had rescued 291.

“I took the data from Chandi’s notebooks,” Nawal said. “Look at the total on the last page. You saved 3,403 birds this summer. You see? There are three thousand more songs in the world because of you. What more can you ask from God?”

That night, Chandi drove him to the airport. They sat in the parking lot, watching the taillights of planes vanish like starships moving out of orbit. Even now, John’s thoughts ran in tightening circles, like a dog tied to a stake, trying to find a last loophole, until there was nothing left to do but get on the plane.

Each time John checked the rearview mirror, he expected cruiser lights. It was 8 p.m., and the silhouettes of the birds hunched like children in the backseat, pressed shoulder to shoulder. He exited the freeway in San Clemente and took streets the rest of the way. He wasn’t sure, but he thought his car and plates would be easier to spot on the highway.

Tommy Friar lived in the hills above Los Angeles. John followed the narrow curves, breathing harder as if the air thinned with each turn. He parked half a block down and watched Tommy’s Spanish-style mansion.

The birds chirped in the backseat. “It’s OK,” he said.

John locked the car and went around the back of the house. The pool glowed in the center, surrounded by grape trellises. Tommy slept in a recliner, dressed in the same robe, shorts, and gold sandals. At night, the short, bald man looked even more like a drunken monk. John sat down, shook Tommy awake, and explained the situation.

“Why Malta?” Tommy said.

“It’s on the other side of the world.”

“Jail might be easier.”

“It has to be Malta.”

“So,” Tommy said, “you’re not just running from, yeah? You’re running to.” When John didn’t answer, Tommy shrugged. “Sure, I can get you there. I piggy-back on a few cargo ships. That’s my supply line. Those freighters are floating cities. Filled with the trade of the world, legal and illegal. I rent half a storage unit, eight by ten. Air controlled. But I don’t know about a fake ID. I’m not CIA. And the ride will cost your share.”

John looked up. “My share?”

Tommy’s expression didn’t change. “I got to pay people on the ship, they got to pay the captain, he’s got to pay inspection agents. People have morals, yeah? And it’d be wrong not to take advantage of the situation, make a little extra for myself.” Tommy looked steadily at John as if trying to guess his weight. “Or you can turn us in. Way I see it, we both go to jail or you go to Malta as is.”

The yard overlooked Hollywood and downtown L.A., and farther west, Century City and Santa Monica. The cities glowed like space stations, isolated from each other by starry darkness. John thought of how some birds, when caught by a predator, shut down their nervous systems so they wouldn’t feel the pain. He wondered if that’s what was happening now. He couldn’t feel anything except Nawal. She was all he had left.

He drove the car into Tommy’s secluded backyard. As he opened the door, the large birds turned as one, bobbing to see around each other. John reached a finger through the cage. The nearest bird rubbed its beak against his knuckle. He knew it was just instinct, a gesture of self-comfort, but it felt like more.

“It’s OK,” the bird said in John’s own voice. Startled, John stared into its brown eyes.

Behind him, Tommy clapped and said, “Let’s go. You have a boat to catch, yeah?”

The flight from Malta to Los Angeles took fifteen hours and crossed ten time zones. John felt like he was in a foreign country, but only had a week to acclimate before starting his new job with Fish & Wildlife. He was stationed at the port in San Pedro, checking freight ships and ocean liners. As the months passed, he witnessed the kinds of bizarre trafficking stunts he had only read about: a big woman nervously scratching her chest because she had hidden forty-two baby snakes in her padded bra; a tall man with a white splat on his black shoes because he had tied four drugged parrots to his calves; a mother with a teenage daughter who looked a little too pregnant because she hugged a baby rhesus monkey under her clothes. Whenever fellow Wildlife agents arrived with rescued animals, John casually checked IDs and docs then waved them through.

He bought a used car and rented a studio apartment in MacArthur Park. Even when he was working, he felt adrift. He expected to miss Nawal less each day, but the ache compounded. He felt that unfolding continue, painful now, as if a hand ran across his chest, ironing his heart flat. On Sundays, he walked to Grand Central Market. On the way home, he passed a church with a refugee shelter but didn’t volunteer.

In December, a letter found him at the office. It was from Nawal. She had smuggled herself into Italy, but had been stopped in Milan and sent back to her “country of origin,” the country that had documented her as a refugee: Malta. She was again living in the detention center. “They say,” she wrote, “I will be deported to Syria unless I can find a sponsor on the island. Forgive me for sending sad news. But when I despair, I think of God and birds, and that makes me think of you, and I am happy again.”

John barely managed rent, but sent $742, everything he had, to the Jesuit Refugee Service. The funds would be used to hire legal support and build a case against deportation. He pulled extra shifts to earn time-and-a-half. He felt Nawal’s life lay in his hands.

By now four months had passed and he was working the “receiver” end, finding the dealers who resold the animals. The maximum sentence for trafficking was ten years, though the most he had seen involved a husband and wife who were convicted of smuggling rare reptiles. The wife had been a Fish & Wildlife agent. The judge took her badge and three years of her life.

John tracked down dealers, recommended fines, assigned court dates. While confiscating three Saudi Arabian Asir Magpies, the owner gave up Tommy Friar’s name in exchange for a lighter fine. In John’s experience, most dealers had day jobs and only traded exotics on the side. But Tommy Friar lived in a Spanish-style mansion above the city. The backyard looked like a movie set, pool shimmering in the winter sun as if someone had just leapt in. Tommy himself, short and bald, wearing an open robe, silk shorts and gold sandals, looked like a Buddha gone to seed. Nothing John said made a dent in Tommy’s sleepy-eyed serenity.

“I’m telling you,” Tommy said. “if I engaged in such activities, it’d be cash-only. You don’t have receipts, yeah? Just a witness. So it’s word against word.”

“That’s enough to subpoena your financial statements,” John said.

Tommy yawned or sighed, John couldn’t tell which.

“Here’s a hypothetical,” Tommy said. “I got information about a shipment of palm cockatoos. I’m just talking out loud now. These birds are from New Guinea. 15k per, swear to God. Ten, twenty should make it to Tijuana. Now I’m not bribing you, right? I’m offering you the opportunity to save these innocents and get paid for your troubles. I’m not saying I’m the dealer. But if you pick them up in TJ, walk them across the border, then the dealer, whoever he is, will go fifty-fifty. That’s 80-90k to you, maybe more.”

John opened his ticket book. “Is Tommy Friar your legal name?”

“Hold on, slow down,” Tommy said. “These birds will have bad lives. You want that? Small cages. A little sacrifice of your morals, that’s all it costs to save them. Morals grow back, yeah? And 90k won’t do you any harm.”

“Is Tommy Friar your legal name?” John repeated.

Tommy eased the pen from John’s hand. “Your face is tight. Relax. Don’t be afraid. What can go wrong? With animals, almost everything gets through. And you’re legal! You got the badge. You’ll stroll across the border. Everybody gets what they want. Easy.”

The sky rustled. John looked up and saw tall palm trees bending in the wind. Blood seeped into his mouth, tasting sweet as tree sap. He realized he had been biting down on his cheek since Tommy made the offer, trying to staunch the possibilities bleeding into his mind. With $90,000 he could quit his job, return to Malta, set up a grant through the Jesuits to sponsor Nawal, and secure her release from detention. They’d establish a history, work at the refugee center in the morning, rescue birds in the afternoon. The cockatoos would be a sacrifice, but he imagined the thousands of orioles and swallows and shearwaters they could save. It would be a good life, and after a few years they could marry and move anywhere, maybe to California. He could even get his job back at Fish & Wildlife.

“No one will know,” Tommy said. “Swear to God.”

The sky shone blue, the pool sparkled like the Mediterranean. One crime in the name of love and a lifetime to make it right. Nawal would be angry at first but she’d understand. He could almost see her smiling, lips pressed together in a happy frown.

shutter small.png

John sat on a cot in the storage unit. He tried to think, to remember, to find the hope that had driven him here, but all he could do was listen to the hum of the air compressor, count the corrugated ridges in the walls, try to guess what birds had been here by the matted feathers on the steel floor.

When he was released the next morning, the freighter was in open sea. An old man handed him an oil-stained coat. “Forty-two days to Genoa,” the old man said, hair white as paper. “Then a quick boat to Malta.”

The ship was as big as an aircraft carrier, stacked with metal containers the size of semi-trucks. John carried the coat around the ship to the square prow. He stood at the rail, surrounded by blue above and below, split only by a faint horizon line. Wind filled the sleeves of his Fish & Wildlife uniform.

He knelt on the coat, closed his eyes, and prayed to his knees on the deck, to the cold on his skin; prayed to the faces behind the detention wire, to the birds caught on the branches; prayed to the palm cockatoos and to Nawal, and through her to all the saints.

He tried to feel that familiar unfolding, but it was gone.

There was nothing left to unfold.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Charles+Duffie.jpg

Charles Duffie is a writer and designer working in the Los Angeles area. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Prime Number Magazine, Spelk, Meat for Tea, Exposition Review, FlashBack Fiction, Border Crossing, Scribble, and American Fiction by New Rivers Press.

 Stumbling into Babylon

Chris Kassel

In the ICU, eight bays surround the nurse’s station. Inside each is a waxy tile floor, a sliding glass door and a constellation of portable machines. Fluorescent light makes the equipment glitter and the late-night silence of the unit is leavened with gentle mechanical strumming. The patients are barricaded from one another, but as I follow the squat nurse, I can see through the glass doors, and behind one of them, a young man lies on a hydraulic bed. His mouth is agape in a rictus; he appears to be paralyzed and his body is being shifted by an orderly for a sponge-bath. The orderly glances up at a monitor as I pass, then back at the young man, and briefly, for an instant, I see the Pietà.

In another bay lies my wife, intubated and comatose. A trauma physician has spoken to me in the waiting room, his brows knit into a thick hedge, his manner both irritating and intimidating. I wade through his Middle Eastern accent: “CAT scan shows terrible cerebral bleed…”

Terrible bleed; as opposed to…? The prognosis is explained to me with military precision; the doctor is workmanlike in his sympathy. I glance beyond him and through him. He smells of hair tonic and faintly of cigar smoke.

My wife will not survive this hospital trip. I’m told that if she emerges from the coma, it will be in a vegetative state. We have discussed our final wishes, of course—we are of the age. Her will contains a Do Not Resuscitate clause, and after that, she requests that any service not last longer than twenty minutes and with only a single dirge—the melancholy Tiff Merritt song “Traveling Alone.” Given that ours has been a marriage without much music, and given the loneliness inside her—an offshoot of one that exists in me, no doubt—it is a rather passive-aggressive entreaty. I acknowledge the wish, appreciate the song and understand the sentiment: As sapient, doomed beings, we are fundamentally haunted by the unliftable stone.

According to her name badge, the squat nurse is called Libertad. In the last bay, my wife is unfolded beneath antiseptic sheets, scrubbed, pale, perspiring, blue-lipped and unconscious. I move the chair beside her and after a moment of professional puttering, Libertad leaves me alone with my human shell. Dying, my wife has the same inconsequential air about her that some folks have mistaken for aloofness. Perhaps it is—but I remember her in the Longfellow alley behind the gracefully decaying English Revival mansion where we’d each rented separate rooms, a shy and serious student at the nearby university, not yet my lover, but grazing through the overture.  We’d begun to leave packages of food for each other in the home’s communal fridge—Greektown souvlakis for her, and for me, collops her English mother had made.

On the particular night that I’m remembering, we did nothing more than stand together and watch bloated snowflakes filter through elm boughs and sizzle on the lip of a trashcan where a pair of old men as black as polished onyx had a laid in a fire. The bite of burning cardboard bears no resemblance to the comfort smells of a campfire, but as we stood in silence, tossing our Styrofoam coffee cups into the flames, I sensed a new tickle that I identified as falling in love. To this day, the caustic smell of burning trash is linked to intimacy in my mind.

My wife lies nearly still and it’s almost noon. A nerve twitches in her right eyelid. I touch a strand of fine blonde-grey hair at her temple; it’s fragile and damp, but she seems serene. We’d been on bad terms before the catastrophe; this or that, something inconsequential—at first I can’t remember and then I do: She’s bought an antique clock at a flea market on Saturday and it ticks incessantly. I keep stubbornly stopping it mid-tick, and apparently it is difficult to re-set and worth a squabble, so we squabble. For many years we have survived on that level of superficiality.

But in the ICU bay, our fight has gone quiet. Other than the drooping right side of her face—the eyebrow doctor says the bleed is weighing down the left side of her brain—she appears bird-like. She has succumbed to oblivion, the blithe hum of darkness, and her lonely travels are finally winding down. Throughout our decades I haven’t been much of a shoulder to cry on and her fund of justifications has seen her through the dirtiest mangles. It’s about compromise before it’s about love and the hand I hold is limp and indifferent, pliant and grey, without visible veins. I am an umbilical cord to sensation, but there is no trickle of electricity to sap it, no need for it, and sadly, I am reminded of the epiphany and the disaster of our honeymoon week.

She’s spent a portion of that week likewise bedridden, rattling with chills and soaked in sweat—a bad dose of seafood, the local doctor says, since I’d ordered lamb, and I am fine. We’ve taken a train up the coast from Brisbane, debarked in a town with wide streets and houses on stilts where the warehouses are filled with tobacco and bulk sugar, and heavy sweet smells blend with brine blown in from a green, flat and featureless ocean.

I’ve known since our days in the old mansion on Longfellow Street that she is morbidly sensitive to stomach ailments (the souvlaki had been a bust), so we take a room at a beachfront hotel to wait out the illness. Twenty-four hours, the doctor shrugs, perhaps thirty-two. The hotel is beautiful, well-maintained, high-peaked with rafters and a veranda that overlooks a grove of flowering mangos. These details are irrelevant to my new wife, of course, who has begun to make abominable sounds and look at me with such desolation that I feel a little sick myself. By then I have already concluded that we’ve been joined by fate rather than by conspicuous emotion—without the trash fire, we might have gone our individual ways. We are vaguely in love, I suppose, by the standards of our time and our species. Now, there is a signal blinking between us as if across a void; she smells like vomit and travels alone, too isolated to accept my sympathy. This is not how honeymoons are supposed to go. Thus far, she’s been timid and listless about sexual intimacy; no thrashing and no ecstasy. We’ve climbed into bed instead of bounding there. Her carnal apathy is a rumble of distant thunders, but now it’s irony; my passion, absorbed by flesh is now repulsed by it, thwarted by bodily functions.

I sit up with her for a while, but even at its lowest setting the noise of television bothers her and she refuses to be helped to the bathroom. I don’t argue—the only thing I can find on at that hour is a rugby match. I plug my ears when she evacuates and look away when she returns. And when she finally drifts off to sleep at around four in the morning, I do the unforgivable: I abandon her.

There is a delicious sensation of nothingness on the beach in front of the hotel, and as I step into the sand, it occurs to me that I might be the first person on the entire continent to see the sun rise. I am looking for a sunrise, obviously—for the moment, a sea of stars meets the black ocean, forming alliances unknown to me. To an eye raised outdoors on Northern constellations they are great sprinkles of insanity.

I start to run. I run until the world becomes opaque and washed in gentle Degas pastels. Fairy fogs lift and a tentative crescent forms at the seam where the sea meets the sky. I run until all the light that drained away the previous evening fills the world again like a vessel. The sun surges behind a sulfur-colored haze; it froths and combs the sea. Spatial majesty expands, and then, in a delicacy of light on gold, I see a girl on the beach walking toward me—a sight that somehow becomes an anchor to secure me through the rest of my life.

Her image is the reason I’m sharing this story; it’s a face I’ve worked diligently through all the intervening years to forget and remember and perhaps, amorphously, to find. Oddly, there is not much to share about the moment—it’s over so quickly that she might have been a mirage to temper the emptiness. She wears a one-piece dress with her lithe frame sliding near the surface. I can’t remember the color, but her copper hair would have subdued it anyway—it flares and coruscates in slits of new sunlight. I don’t say a word to her, nor she to me. We slide by one another without acknowledgment. There are complicated vibrations nevertheless—I believe that with all my heart. I do not stare. A glance is enough; a glance is all I can take. In it, in her, in her volatility and luminosity, in her primal port of freedom I see something so frightening and beautiful that I nearly fall to my knees. It is like I’ve been struck by something violent.

A slight sound comes from the dress—a rustle that reminds me of a Mexican chime. She moves with the languid electricity of dawn, and I want to glance back over my shoulder, into the rising grey, but I fight the urge: The original sight has burned its brand and I don’t want a faceless one to supplant it. I want to remain in touch with a sensation that surrounds me like an element, a truth more acute than a puking wife alone in a fetid hotel room; I want to use it to bear the weight of my revelation about our past and future, one immutable and the other, I supposed, inevitable.

Throughout my life, whenever that image resurfaces, tainted by time but still iridescent and glazed with the colors of summer, I experience the phenomenon of growing older and younger at the same time.

So that’s it. I leave the beach, scramble through a leafy hollow over roots and decayed windfalls, running my face into gigantic spider webs, finally finding the road and making it back to the pretty hotel. But not to check on my bride, more shame on me: Instead, as restless as I have ever been in my life, I find a man to rent me a Toyota Land Cruiser, and with rudimentary directions from the hotel clerk, I set out on the road and drive until the road wrinkles into eroded hills and I enter a spread of gum trees and blood-colored dirt so dry that looking at it makes me thirsty.

Beyond the hump of Great Dividing Range, eras fade to eons and outstanding space lopes for thousands of miles until the Indian Ocean finally draws a line in the sweltering sand as if to say, enough is enough. Above, the sky is a vast blue lozenge. Around me, alien contours rise from the dust. From a distance they look like Cousin It but when I stop to investigate, they are more Frank Lloyd Wright than Charles Addams. I kick one and find that it’s filled with an intricate labyrinth of chimneys and chambers and a metropolis of scurrying termites. To this day, I regret the impulsive moment that destroyed the architecture of those quiet, graceful lives.

I remain more ambiguous about an intricate labyrinth of other impulsive moments that have had the same effect. To say that the girl on the beach remains with me—the vision of serenity, the tumble of copper hair, the obscure focus—is to understate. I rent the truck to barrel away because otherwise I might have returned to the beach to track her down, even for another glimpse, and I sensed that such a mistake would dwarf the one I had already made at the altar, taking a hand from a naïve and insufferably gentle father.

Beyond the termite mounds, the loneliness is flecked with abandoned shacks, junked cars and rusting machinery. The hotel clerk has warned me about these spreads—million-acre ranches where you’ll die of thirst if your vehicle breaks down. But within an hour I enter landscapes where weeping figs hang over creek beds and small brown children play while herds of foraging goats drink. The road comes to a determined end in a small farming community made up of few shabby breeze-block houses ringed by standing scrub and a wooden church with a green bell-tower and a pile of reddish bricks stacked near the fence.

The town is called Cantelon and a nursery rhyme I hadn’t thought of since I was a child runs through my head: “The King and Queen of Cantelon, how many miles to Babylon?  Eight and eight, and other eight. Will I get there by candle-light…?

At the edge of Cantelon stands an old tin-roofed bush pub whose corrugated sides are pitted from blowing soil. I am very young and this is a time before alcohol’s tug really asserted itself in my life. Even so, the urge is beginning to percolate, and I stop.

The pub is called Rubyjohn; it has the ubiquitous roadhouse quartet of Xs advertising Gold Lager out front. Within, locals sip midday coldies—unshaven old-timers in battered felt hats and clay-stained boots, occasionally punctuating quiet talk with raucous cheers at the rugby match on television. The barman is a thickset fellow with pale blue eyes and wispy hair, and I figure I’ll have to explain what I am doing here, an American out at the far end of the road, but it turns out that the pub is a lay-by for travelers heading out to explore railway and telegraph relics and the prehistoric rock paintings found on the sandstone scarps north of town.

I sit heavily at the bar beside an old black bushman wearing a grey flannel singlet and an Anzac-style hat, and immediately, he rises up and moves to the opposite side. The barman sets me up with a Castlemaine and says, “Never mind our Tom, son. He’s a hatter.”

I shake my head and the barman clucks. “A solitary. Nourished with superiority he is—the abos call him a man of high degree. Won't touch a beer; he lives on North Queensland rum. Otherwise it’s lizards and grubs for our Tom.”

The old bushman says something, but his voice is thick with drink and barely audible: “Janga meenya bomunga.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

The barman says, “Don’t know the talk.”

The bushman repeats, louder, “Can’t stand the smell of white people.”

The response baffles and amuses me to the extent that I send him over a North Queensland rum. Instead of thanking me, he fixes me in a sclerotic gaze which would have quickly grown uncomfortable except that at that moment, a mongrel dog steps through the door followed by a handsome man in fluorescent-yellow sunglasses.

The newcomer is around thirty and in his silvery suit he looks more out of place than I do, but the scruffy men at the tables turn to watch him as he mounts a theatrical stage in the rear by the cedar cupboard and opens a Bible. Solemnly, the barman switches off the television and says, “Fair go, Cloncurry. You have the floor.”

Cloncurry removes his Ray-Bans and as the mongrel dog settles in quietly at his feet, he begins to read from Ecclesiastes—a moving, if no-brainer passage for a preacher. It’s a Bible Top 40, a Roger McGuinn singalong, but despite this I have never before heard the final verse, and these men, after a lifetime of scrubbing out boxwoods and bloodwoods, lap it up: “What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race; He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Across the bar, Tom’s quizzical expression remains on me instead of the preacher; I can’t tell if it is meant as a toxic challenge or a sweep of empathy. He has callouses on his face and is as black as a mussel shell. I think of the alley behind our house on Longfellow, of the garbage fire and my first irrational flushes of romance—then I think of my puking bride and my evanescent vision on the coral sand. Lastly, I think of the fissures we make in our lives and manage to step over until there is no longer time or energy to make any more. Cloncurry expatiates, fluttering the arm that holds the Bible as I’ve seen preachers do on television, making allusions to the presence of Christ’s sacrifice in human suffering—and the dog snores.

“But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

When he is done, the barman switches the television on again, and Cloncurry walks around holding out his grey Izod cap with the dog at his heels; everybody tosses in something except for calloused Tom, who says, without looking away from me, “That dog has dingo in him.”

When it is my turn to ante up, I deposit the change the barman gave me for the rum, and shortly, after Cloncurry fades back into the sweltering afternoon, the bushman rises and returns to his original stool beside me. He says, “Buy me another drink and I will tell you something.”

I buy him that drink because I am that place in life where I’d like to know many things—and maybe, by peering at me for half an hour, he has figured one of them out. Suddenly, though, he won’t look at me at all; he stares at the rugby game. But as soon as he’s downed his rum he says, “She is her.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“She is right here.”

After this, I turn around and return to the pretty hotel, and later, after having sought out A.P. Elkin’s Aboriginal Men of High Degree and learning that solitaries are their culture’s shamans—their mystics—I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one he has said first: “She is right here,” or “She is her.”

I do remember how the nursery rhyme ends though: “If your heels are nimble and your toes are light, you may get to Babylon by candle-light.”

Every wrong done today is an echo of a wrong done yesterday, and very rarely are they connected by anything. We are built of particle moments, and by default, the particles that make up the particles are equally significant. A film is nothing but a set of snapshots; movement is illusion, and those in black-and-white are only a shadow of the truth. My new wife recovers from her bout of food poisoning, and many decades afterward, late one evening, she complains of a sudden headache. I see her standing beneath one of the impressionistic landscapes with which she has decorated our house and note that the bedroom is filled with such touches: The quilted upholstery, the blue brocade curtains, the feng shui colors in the bedding. They’re everywhere, and they are hers, and my touches are scarcely to be found.

In that particular moment I realize for the first time that behind her grey-blonde hair and eyes as shimmery blue as a porcelain doll, age has made her brittle. Through most of these years we’ve been benign proximates, not lovers. Now her expression seems perplexed, but incurious. Distracted. A bead of sweat forms on her upper lip; briefly, she waggles her head as if to clear away cobwebs, then she sinks to the floor. I go to her; I hold her head and our faces are inches apart in an intimacy more intense than any we have shared in a long while. Her breath smells like bitter herbs and it startles me; it is something I don’t remember about her, but it is not unpleasant.

I call 911. Her pulse feels strong, but what do I know? Yes, I tell the dispatcher, she’s breathing, but she’s staring at the ceiling—one of her pupils is as big as a poker chip. Later I discover that that the pupil has lost its nerve supply—the cerebral bleed is on the side that affects motor and speech. She makes a single weird, shrill cry and then closes her eyes. Her right lip droops and releases a trickle of drool; I lift her right arm and it flops back down like a fish. In the moments during which I wait for the paramedics, I lose the substance of her. She drops into darkness and enters a weightless world beyond the sheath of skin and hands, beyond sight and sound.

As she slips under, her face relaxes—the marionette lines that have formed at the crease of her mouth somehow fill in. Briefly, she resembles the girl I knew in the alley, half-lit by burning cardboard, and when the ambulance comes, I notice that the curve of her calf on the gurney, unattached to the rest of her, looks like a child’s.

All the years between now and the moment I first stroked that white calf in my bedroom on Longfellow are a candle flicker. As an attendant suctions her mouth and administers oxygen, telling me that the respiratory center of her brain might be affected, these memories become a falling star. When I was a horny boy, I thought as one, and it was many years—eras to epochs—before I was able to put away such childish things. In the ambulance, stroking her calf a final time, I take a scissors to time and snip out bits. Somehow along the way I have been fleeced by the idea that I’m worth more than this simple comfort and rational contentment. And I am struck with an epiphany: Despite my instance to the contrary, I have been very happy for nearly all my life. I am amazed that the marriage has survived the intensity of my treacheries; that it has withstood the frost and held fast in the face of gales.

On the surface, my adultery has not been particularly sordid. No one-nighters, no booty calls. They were love affairs and not at all light-hearted; some lasted for years. Co-workers, subordinates, superiors, one young Basque woman who I met on a business trip to Madrid and whom I saw whenever I was in Europe. In most ways, of course, love is a far more potent sort of betrayal than lust, but love it has been nonetheless. It has been a subterranean river to sate an implacable thirst. The affairs have been with vital, alert passionate women—none with red hair, if that matters. There have been no real illusions; they all knew I was married, and to some extent, in their world, that was one of my attributes. They could put me down like a book on the nightstand when it suited them. 

It was clearly a persistent searchlight though, and it was never far from my mind where it began. I have mused on that enameled Queensland morning ever since, when the copper-haired girl and I were the first people on a continent to see the sun. Had I turned that morning and sought her company, tried to embrace her or seduce her, to exploit the commonality of a beach at dawn, all things would have unfolded in an alternate universe, and the changes would have been extreme whether she had repulsed me or acquiesced. But, then as now, there was something inviolable and grand in that vision, something in it so mysterious and enthralling that it has served my life—which I do not regret in the least—to do exactly what I did: Not look back.

I was sober that morning, and it was not until later that liquor softened the edges of restraint; my extramarital activities have invariably been fueled by drink, where immediacy becomes the force to overlook moles and birthmarks, the white stripes of scar tissue and common decency. For me, alcohol and adultery have been inseparable. The addiction is similar and the aftermath is as dismal. The impetus itself is common enough: The world outside the tank is bright and wildly beautiful, but staged and ultimately unreal. My narcissism and selfishness recognized this ruse when I was young, but I was old before it finally broke through, although purging people and substances does not purge the yearnings that lie deeper than the river. As a professional, I had the status that allowed—even nurtured—such alcoholism and I had the income to draw women to whom I wasn’t married and to keep them interested after the first heady flushes of libido. I’ve charmed my way out of more DUIs than I can count and into as many beds. And yes, now more than ever, I am aware that the injuries from those encounters will reverberate until we are all beyond remembering.

Like me, my wife has been an academic and professional success—she’s reveled in it and perhaps, just above the chaos, that has been her underground flow. She’s been demure but well-liked among our circle of friends and drinks only occasionally. As far as I know, she has never been unfaithful. Of course, it would ease my restless conscience if she had been, even once, and I suppose she realizes that. But vindictiveness is not her style and she has used her private despair to make herself a deeper thinker, more psychically complex. I’ve used that same void to cheapen myself, to thwart depth and make myself callous through stews of lust and desperation.

Now those years, eras to epochs, are drawing to a close like a gentle cascade of snow. We have dealt with miscarriages but we have a single living child: She lives across the country, and four hours after I begin the vigil in the trauma center room, she arrives, gulping and hiccuping and sobbing. Her face is the color of cooked shrimp; her hug is listless and awkward and contains a shudder of inexplicable contempt. “There’s nothing much we can do for the moment,” I say sadly. “Holding pattern. She’s stable. I’ve been here all night.”

The sound of my own voice is distant, like the trickle of water in a creek behind a roadhouse: “ Would you mind if I went down to the cafeteria for coffee?”

“No,” my daughter says.

“Should I bring you some back? Anything?”

“No,” she answers.

The cafeteria is an oasis of primal comfort in the hospital’s lowest region—amid the savory aromas, people shuck the pain of watching loved ones suffer; pragmatic acquiescence to their own continued survival. I sit for a long time amid the yuccas and ferns and drink black coffee; I watch the straggle of milling faces and try to guess if they are here to turn off ventilators, to bedsit the comatose or to greet a new baby. I think about the children my wife miscarried and wonder which of these strangers they would have become.

Because of her significance, or in spite of it, my mind at last returns to the image of the copper-haired girl in the sand. For the first time ever, I wonder what she looks like now, at this very instant. I wonder if she’s led a happy life, had a fulfilled experience. Have her heels been nimble, her heels light? I wonder if she still travels alone, first to see the sunrise though herself the light, her red hair now brittle and white, thin garment now tattered to threads by the salty wind, her reflective half-smile intact and untroubled or, perhaps, compromised by the squalls and humors we all encounter.  

I’m still sitting there as outside, another night descends; my daughter calls my mobile and says that my wife has passed away. It’s been as peaceful a passing as anyone could wish for: The daughter tells me that my wife’s porcelain blue eyes opened a final time and looked upward at nothing as she whispered a short sentence.

I return to the trauma room to offer her a belated farewell, where a slight dispute arises as to what my wife’s final words have been. Back on duty, Libertad believes she’s heard “I’m here,” but my daughter insists she’s said, “I’m her.”

Of course, it makes no difference: Dear girl, dead girl—she’s been both. And as always, when she’s said so, I’ve been somewhere else.

 
 

Chris Kassel is a Detroit-based author with ten books currently listed by Amazon. He writes one of the most popular wine columns in the world (Chris Kassel's Intoxicology Report) and has written and co-produced documentaries that have won multiple Michigan Emmy Awards.

Abigail

Andrew Hinshaw

                                                              

The boy sits in the passenger seat of the pickup and looks through its cracked windshield at the thickening clouds. They’ve gone from white to grey, darkening the dirt road ahead as if night may come early. The boy sits back and sighs, knowing they’ll mean another day stuck inside when he finally gets home. He turns to look through the dusty back window behind his seat. A bag of bird feed, a bundle of orange twine and silver welding sticks that look like overgrown sparklers rest in the truck’s bed. He turns his attention to the old man, who steers the truck along the narrow road.

What if they get wet? the boy asks.

They’ll be fine, the old man says.

He speaks in a tired grumble as he presses in the car lighter just below the radio and cranks the handle next to his knee, opening the window a crack. He reaches into the pocket of his flannel shirt and plucks out a crumpled cigarette pack, then brings it to his mouth and pulls out a bent cigarette with his lips. The lighter pops out and he lights the cigarette with it. The humid breeze from the cracked window tussles the boy’s hair and he wrinkles his nose from the sharp smoke. The boy reaches for the window handle on his door and cranks it all the way down. He sticks his hand out of the window and swims it up and down through the air.

Don’t, the old man says. It’s a single word and absolute. His face is bronze, cheeks lined, and grey stubble pokes from his jaw. His eyes are shaded underneath the brim of a sweat-stained, green John Deere hat. To the boy, the man looks as though he has never been young.

The boy rolls the window back up and looks through the dirty glass at the green and yellow corn stalks as they pass. That morning, the boy had been roused by the old woman from a troubling dream he could no longer recall. The old woman wore pink curlers in her gray hair and had on a violet nightgown. She reminded him to eat breakfast before he and the old man went into town.

The springs protest with loud clunks as the truck strikes a pothole. The boy slides a few inches along the cloth seat as the truck fishtails. An empty can of WD-40 rolls on the floor mat and bounces off his tennis shoe, then clanks against a rusty trailer hitch. The boy looks to the old man, but the old man is unconcerned; he stares ahead, taking a long drag of his cigarette that makes its front ember glow orange. The old man’s round belly, tightly contained by his tucked in shirt and protruding over his dark blue jeans, jostles as the truck strikes another pothole. He manages the wheel in a lazy way, gripping it with a thick-skinned and freckled fist. With his other hand, he reaches for the polished black gear shifter and pushes it into a lower gear with the half-smoked cigarette wedged in between two fingers. Ash falls to the floor and the truck's engine growls higher and the boy leans forward as the truck slows to a stop.

The dirt road ends, intersecting with the asphalt of a highway road. The dust and dirt, disturbed from their drive, catches up and passes them, making it hard to see the road ahead for a moment. Through the small opening in the window, the old man flicks his spent cigarette into the diminishing dust storm and looks both ways. He wobbles the gear-shifter back and forth before putting it into gear again. The engine groans and the truck moves forward. The boy sees the distant, fading silhouette of mountains, eclipsed by swathes of white sheets of rain falling over hills of wheat and pasture. The ride is smooth now. A distant bolt of lightning flashes like a crack in the sky, but no thunder follows.

Looks like rain again, the boy says.

Yep, the old man says, more grunting the word than saying it as he leans forward over the steering wheel to look up at the blackening clouds.

Flat farmlands and scattered cattle and other cars pass them by. On the boy’s side of the road, a string of sagging barbed wire fencing on uneven posts goes by, the wood weathered grey by time. They approach a small bridge over a dried up creek bed and pass a green sign that reads population one hundred and ten.

As they enter the town, they pass through a stoplight with no power, by a grocery store that looks like a log cabin and holds the name of the owner who works there, and past an abandoned church missing its windows and doors, its top covered with a crumbling liver brown roof. The old man turns the steering wheel and the truck moves to another dirt road, one of the few that snake through the small town on the way home. The familiar jostle returns, this time less profound as the truck slows. Scattered along the route are dirty-soap white buildings and lackluster barns. They pass a monstrous, green tractor pulling a trailer of yellow bales of hay stacked high. The machine’s large, black tires are scuffed and nicked and speckled with clay. The boy is almost as tall as they are.

The furrowed brown bark of tree trunks and branches and bushes appear with their many shades of green leaves. The plant life is so lush from the recent rains it shrouds a home the boy knows lies within but can barely see. In an alcove lies the round, sad shape of the old woman’s steel colored four-door car, sitting atop a square concrete slab of driveway that is at odds with the overgrowth that surrounds it.

The old man stops the truck and pushes the shifter forward before turning the key, killing the engine. The truck rocks once before settling. He lifts the door’s handle and the door swings open and he steps out. The boy does the same on his side, dropping down onto the brown gravel. He walks to the back of the truck and reaches for the tailgate’s handle.

The old man’s massive frame passes the boy. Get that later, he says. It’s lunch.

The boy turns to follow the old man, who walks atop a stepping-stone path that leads to the front deck of the home. With each step, the worn leather of the old man’s shoes bows at the edges, just above their rubber soles. He hunches as he moves, avoiding the foliage. The air smells of pollen, of earth, of rain to come.

The old man arrives at the deck’s maroon, wooden steps, and starts his way up. The boy follows, passing a petrified tree stump with swirls of white and grey. Atop the deck, the old woman greets the old man. Her voice sounds like a bird call, sharp and crooning. There’s something foreign about it that the boy doesn’t understand. She has changed into a blue blouse and white slacks and the curlers are no longer in her hair. Black lines run over thin bags underneath her eyes and onto her red cheeks.

She fell down the stairs and it burst, she says.

You call the vet?

Yes. They keep saying they’ll come but it’s been two hours.

Where is she?

In the backyard. She’s acting crazy.

The old woman’s eyes are glassy and she does not acknowledge the boy. The old man walks past the old woman and opens the white screen door and enters the home. As the screen door swings shut, the old woman covers up her eyes with one hand, as if she doesn’t want to see something.           

The boy asks the old woman what is wrong, but she doesn’t answer.

The screen door opens and the old man walks through, carrying a rifle with a long black barrel and a redwood stock. The boy recalls the old man calling this a thirty-aught-six. The old woman drops her hand to her mouth and begins to wail as she sees the gun. The old man passes the boy, his footfalls heavy as he walks toward the steps that lead back down the deck and into the front yard.

Come with me, he says.

The boy starts to follow but slips. He looks down and sees a streak of thick, red liquid underneath his shoe and looks around on the peeling deck and sees more. Some are small drops and some are larger than his foot. Some are deep red and others crimson. The boy follows the old man down the stairs and under the shroud of green leaves and brown branches. He turns right to walk alongside the front of the house. The boy swallows and shifts his tongue. It keeps sticking to the roof of his mouth.

The boy rounds the corner of the home and sees the old man opening the tall, chain-link gate that leads to the backyard. His eyes briefly land on a rhubarb plant that grows from the ground, its thick, pink stalks standing out in the otherwise green yard. Its large leaves, something that always reminded the boy of elephant ears, have slices and holes punched through them from a hailstorm earlier that week. The plant sits right underneath the window to the boy’s room, a window he often frequents from the other side, staring out into the dark night to listen to the crickets and frogs and rustle of leaves.

Further back is a red barn with white doors, but halfway to it is the old farm dog, a dog the boy has known since she was a pup. She stands just to the left of the old man. Black fur coats her face down to her tail and her underbelly and legs are tan. Speckles of white and grey hair color her spine and the sides of her nose. Her ears are up and pointed, and her dark brown eyes move in a strange way the boy has never seen. She pants and her tongue hangs from her mouth, covered with pink spittle. She rotates her body, bending back as if she were looking behind her and sinks her white teeth into her left hip, where a large cyst used to be. A year ago the vet had said she was too old to operate but had used the word benign, which the boy took as a good thing. This cyst was gone now, replaced with open flesh, and the dog growls as she bites and pulls at red muscle and skin. The fur on her left leg is wet and red and matted, and the boy smells iron in the air.

Why is she doing that? the boy asks.

The old man doesn’t respond. He slowly steps toward the dog, and pulls the silver bolt back on the rifle and then pushes it forward and down with an open hand. The movement is smooth, second nature. He rests a thick finger along the side of the trigger and pulls the stock of the gun into his shoulder and points the barrel downward at the dog.

The dog looks up at him, as if she just realized he was standing there. Her ears drop and she tucks her tail. Her body bunches up. She attempts to flee, staggering away on her three good legs before running into the side of the house. She moves along the yellow siding, using it to stay upright, and leaves a streak of red along the way until she walks into the other side of the gate, where the chain-link fence connects to the house. The old man keeps the gun trained on her, tracking her movements with slow precision and follows, stepping softer than the boy thought possible. The dog stares at the end of the gun and scrambles into the side of the house and fence. She weaves back and forth, but she’s cornered herself.

She knows what the gun is, the old man says. There is a bite to his words and his voice is loud, louder than it needs to be for the boy to understand. You need to distract her.

What do I do? asks the boy.

Call her name. Ask her to come to you.

The boy takes a few steps toward her. She growls and bends back and bites at her open wound again.

Abby, the boy says. His voice cracks and he worries she won’t recognize him, but she stops chewing on her hip and looks in his direction. Now that the boy is closer to her, he sees that she is trembling. The dog’s eyes remain distant, but searching, as if she is honing in on the sound of his voice, rather than what she sees. She takes a cautious limp forward, then another.

The old man steps behind her. Despite his large size, his movements are slow and graceful. He looms over her and points the barrel down at the top of her head.

The boy tries harder to sound like himself, but his voice still sounds wrong. His hands are shaking. He squats, his face level with the dogs.

Abigail, he says.

Her brown eyes connect with his, going from confusion to recognition. Her head and ears drop, the way they do when she hasn’t seen the boy in a while, in anticipation of a head stroking. She whines. It’s a sad, apologetic sound.

The boy starts to tell her it’s okay when his voice is silenced by a sharp crack, like the sound of a bullwhip. The boy jerks and the dog’s eyes roll back and her front legs give out. She hits the ground and rolls to her side. The boy hears the old woman’s voice cry out from within the home, a sound loud enough he can hear it echoing through the hallway and out of the open window.

The old man pulls back on the bolt of the gun, and a brass shell pops out and lands in the grass. White smoke seeps from the rifle’s chamber. He leaves the chamber open and sets the butt of the gun on the ground and leans the barrel against the house. He turns and walks toward the barn.

The boy looks down at the dog. She’s lying still and there’s a small, red hole in the top of her head. One of her back legs is stretched out straight, but the paw on it is curled. The old man comes out of the barn, carrying a rolled-up, grey blanket and a shovel. He unrolls the blanket by jerking it away from his body and lays it atop the grass next to her.

Grab her front legs, he says.

The boy does as he is told. The pads of the dog’s feet feel rough and warm in his hands and he worries he won’t be able to lift her, but before he can try the old man grabs her back legs and drags her onto the blanket. Her head bounces and her tongue dangles from her half-open jaw.

Let go, the old man says.

The boy, not realizing he was still holding onto her legs, lets her go.

The old man grabs his corners of the blanket, with the shovel still in hand. Grab the other end, he says. And lift.

The boy grabs the other ends of the blanket and lifts. The dog is heavy but the boy gets her just above the ground. Her limp body sags in the middle of the blanket as if she lies in a hammock. The old man nods his head toward the other side of the fence and walks around the boy. The boy rotates then follows the old man as he leads the way, walking backward to the other side of the fence into mostly open pasture. The boy is careful as the ground is uneven, threatening to trip him. Underneath the dog’s head, the boy sees a small area where the blanket has darkened red with blood. The dog’s front leg jerks.

She’s twitching, the boy says.

Yeah, the old man agrees as he looks over his shoulder to see where he is walking. That happens, he says.

They arrive at the top of a small hill, where a large rectangle of black soil is fenced off by wooden planks for compost.

Set her down, he tells the boy.

The boy lowers the dog until she is on the ground next to the squared-off area and then releases the corners of the blanket. Using the shovel, the old man starts moving one mound of dirt to another. The dirt is loose and moves easily. The boy watches the dog as the old man digs. A few minutes later, her right leg twitches again. It’s something he’s seen before when she’s sleeping.

Help me put her in, the old man says as he stares down at the shallow grave. A bead of sweat runs down the side of his cheek and under his chin. He reaches down and grabs his ends of the blanket. The boy does the same on his side but his foot catches in a tangle of tallgrass and he stumbles. He catches himself but struggles to lower the dog gently down into the earth. They both let go and she settles. A pink worm makes spirals in the dirt just next to her open left eye.

The boy sucks in a quick breath. It is involuntary and desperate, as if he’d forgotten to breathe. His cheeks are wet and warm and he wipes his face with the back of his hand.

Knock that shit off, the old man says. His face is a grimace and his words are sharp and make the boy flinch.

Sorry, the boy says. He wipes tears from his face but more tears replace them. He clenches his teeth and refuses to look at the old man. Years ago, the dog chased away a vicious stray that cornered him, not far from where she had just been shot. She was so big and powerful then. She was my protector, the boy wants to say. But doesn’t. He knows the old man wouldn’t understand.

The boy stares down at her. She no longer moves and seems so thin and frail. The old man pulls out another cigarette and lights it. He takes a long drag and exhales smoke with the cigarette still in his mouth. He reaches for the shovel and bends over and jams it into a pile of earth. He looks up at the boy, squinting to keep the smoke from his eyes. He is about to throw a mound of dirt atop the dog’s body, but pauses.

Go find a stick to toss in with her, he says.

The boy nods and turns around to walk down the hill toward a large tree with broken branches scattered around its trunk. A few drops of cold rain begin to fall. Thunder rumbles through the clouds above and he looks up at them. They are dark and swollen and seem closer now. Or the boy seems closer to them.

 
updated oyster.png
 
Andrew Hinshaw Headshot .png

Andrew Hinshaw resides in the Midwest due to a series of questionable decisions. Once a DJ and dog food factory lineman, he now works in a field more suited to his background in psychology. He spends his time looking stoic in photos and participating in online workshops (hosted by author and instructor Seth Harwood). First published in The Scarlet Leaf Review, this will be his second published short story.

Andrew IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

 Alone Together

Emily Collins


The new hire was sexy and mean. When Violet introduced herself, Lara, brand new, had looked at her and said, “I’m twenty-three,” as if she would always be so. “When people tell me I’m too ambitious,” Lara continued, “that only fuels my ambition. Don’t cross me.” It was then Violet had noticed the scar on her neck, thin as a piece of thread.

Lara started working at the general store the summer she graduated from NYU. She wore short camisole dresses to work. Her skin was clear and dry. The island heat appeared to swirl above her though she was a little wet behind the knees. The gloss on her lips gathered in hard drops at the corners of her mouth. The faint purple beneath her eyes was speckled with mascara. She showed conditional hospitality, tossing half glances to visitors and co-workers. There was a type of islander and tourist she liked best. She’d greet them with her sweet and oily laughter, then chat with them about products and sometimes New York City. She sat on the counter and crossed her legs.

When she walked, her fingers traced whatever reached towards her. So much reached towards her. That summer the island thrummed with Queen Anne’s Lace and Tiger Lilies, and every soul was smothered with beauty, but Lara couldn’t care less. Yet her face was beautiful. Something furled and unfurled across it. It told the world she was curious about the nature of things but indifferent to passing its tests.

Rain pricked the table from which Violet had been offering samples of brie with rosemary lentil crackers. She’d sampled more food than usual. Tonight Bailey Island would host a conductors’ retreat in an old barn near land’s end. The conductors and musicians arrived by ferry an hour ago. They’d stood still as the ferry approached the island, their black instrument cases like erect shadows behind them. Once on land, the musicians disappeared into the hotel to escape the heat while the conductors scattered about the island to practice. Violet watched two conductors circle the general store parking lot. They moved in graceful turns. One pinched a bygone brie’s toothpick and used it like a miniature baton.

Thunder marbled the air. She packed the food in Tupperware and folded the table cloth and tucked it under her arm. She made her way into the store where Lara was leaning across the counter with a magazine. The air conditioner had made the room chilly. Goosebumps stippled what Violet could see of Lara’s breasts. Her hair smelled of lightning.

“You forgot the table,” Lara said. “It’ll be ruined.”

“It lived a long life,” Violet said.

“What?” Lara said.

“The table. It lived a long life. I don’t know about happy, though.”

“But what will take its place?” Lara said without the least note of humor.

The store was empty but for them and Mavis, who’d worked at the general store long enough to rise above anything. As a child, Violet had thought Mavis’s jowls hung like butcher meat. Now, Violet’s face with its new lines, turned for comfort to the old woman. She did no more than shrug at Violet’s glance, but today that was enough. Mavis, Violet knew, could glean heaviness from even the saddest soul.

“I was joking,” Violet said.

Lara set down her magazine and looked brazenly into Violet’s eyes. “Are you going to the conductors’ retreat tonight?” she said. “It’s open to the locals.”

Already Violet was but another casualty in the collection that had succumbed to Lara’s ambition. She knew this, and liked it, too, though she couldn’t say why. “Enjoy yourself,” she said.

“I’ll save you a seat,” Lara said, her eyes alight with interest.

The cheese and table cloth were heavy in Violet’s arms. “No need,” she said.

She stored the table cloth and cheese and stocked some items and refilled the icebox in the cooler. She said goodbye to Lara for the first time, then clocked out and walked home in the rain.

shutter small.png

When her parents passed away, Violet moved into her childhood home on the island. It was two stories with walls pink as lungs. Returning to it each day after work she felt a sweetness in her belly. She sat down on the couch and closed her eyes. At thirty-eight, Violet didn’t know what was next. She thought an island was the best possible interlude.

Violet had been living in Portland but didn’t connect with city life. She smiled as she remembered the tipping point. It happened at a boutique. She liked to self-medicate with discounts and sales. She’d stood before a mirror bordered with stage lights. A salesgirl had brought her a red trench coat that fit Violet like a vine. She’d admired how the coat gave her a cardinal’s chest and full hips. The coat had shown her that perhaps everything would be All Right, that she had time to reverse a few things and begin again. She believed it until she turned around and noticed something about the coat she had missed. On the back were the words, THE FINISHER sewn in purple thread. She shook the coat off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor. Life no longer pretended to be sane. Why should she?

Violet knew she would leave the city, but she didn’t know when or where. A week later she received a phone call about her parents and the fatal car crash. “Back to Bailey,” she’d whispered to herself.

At home Violet devoted her time to playing music and writing songs. She made videos of herself and posted them online. Recently a commenter had described her music as haunted and melodic. “I don’t condone drug use,” he had written, “but this stuff is like musical meth.”

Violet had soared and for days after that her head bubbled with fantasies of the man moving in with her on the island. She’d bring home samples from work and let him feast on her bare stomach. She’d run her hands through his hair. He’d suck on orange peels until they were strings.

Now Violet decided it was time for the fantasies to end. She didn’t want the fantasy of another. She wanted the swarm of her cells to meet another’s.

She checked her computer for new comments, then stepped to the back of her house, where it faced the sea. She stood barefoot in the grass and watched the horizon. She refused to think about Mr. Musical Meth taking off her clothes, and yet that was where her thoughts strayed. When she tired of staring at the blue stretch of nothing, she played her guitar on the porch. She didn’t sing. Even the playing was too calculated. Her fingers were tired and she was unsure why.

It had been over four years since that fatal car accident, but she thought she heard her father’s steps behind her. These were the moments when she couldn’t do anything at all. Grief swelled within her until she was nothing but this deep organ of love for her parents. She pressed her face against her guitar. She let herself fall apart. Then the sadness dulled and her eyes dried up. She felt like a bug strapped to the shadow of a boot, careless of the shadow’s size.

She looked up to a conductor in her yard. He stood several feet away absently twirling his baton in a white-gloved hand. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen. His suit was wet from the rain. His eyes were a wild green and his voice was like a drooping flower. He apologized for intruding. He was lost, he said, and needed directions to the hotel.

It wasn’t until he was out of sight that he shouted, “You play good, lady.”

The words were gentle like a communion. Life wasn’t very wide and it didn’t last long. Violet would go to the conductors’ retreat. She would drink a glass of port wine then ride her bike to the old barn where Lara would wait for her with eyes full of this world upside down.  

shutter small.png

At night the barn lit up like the pages of a storybook. Rosehip bulbs kissed its sides. The island shrunk and the mass of visitors made things seem warmer than they were. The world felt fragile and contained.

The show had already begun by the time Violet got there. In a shaft of light from the barn’s open door, Lara was smoking against a tree. Violet leaned her bicycle against the barn and walked towards her.

“I hope you have short term memory loss,” Lara said.

“Excuse me?”

Lara held up the program that listed all five pieces of the evening. “Each conductor plays at least one of these songs. Nothing else.”

Lara wore a white halter dress that showed off her scar and the tiny, amber beauty marks that arced across her chest. Her hair was piled in a sleepy hive of sparkly barrettes. Her ears were studded with plastic strawberry earrings so old some of the red had rubbed off. 

“Thanks for saving me a seat,” Violet said, leaning against the tree.

The island was lifted into Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” Violet wished they had chosen something else. Bach tugged at her fringes. She refused to tear up beside Lara.

Lara quit crying after the third Bach. She wiped her cheeks with the end of her dress then smoothed the fabric over her thighs. Her mascara ran sweetly beneath her tears. Her nose squeaked when she sniffed. She looked amused, as if she’d made a private joke about broken records. Violet pretended not to notice.

She lost count of how many conductors played. Pachelbel’s “Cannon in D Major” weaved in and out of the barn. Lara’s profile was wistful. Her knee touched Violet’s. The conductor milked Pachelbel for more than he was worth. Romantics were brave but inconsiderate. When he was through, the audience applauded again, again.

“Let’s go,” Lara whispered.

They walked to the sea and stood barefoot on the rocks. Violet’s skirt billowed in the wind. Lara leapt onto the sand and gathered shells. Her shoulder blades shone in the moonlight. Violet joined Lara and held her shells.

“I hear you play,” Lara said.

“Word gets around.”

“No. I mean, I hear you play. Sometimes I walk by your house and can hear your voice and guitar. Do you ever perform?”

The last time Violet played live was at a waterfront bar in Portland. The heavy lighting had dripped like yolk over everyone’s face. It was distracting. She was better off playing alone.

“No,” Violet said.

“I need a creative outlet. Can you teach me?”

“Torturing me at the store’s not enough for you?”

“I’m sorry,” Laura said with a humility Violet found surprising.

She hadn’t been looking for an apology, but there it was, panting at her feet. Violet breathed it in and was glad.

“When and where?” Violet said.

“Your place after work. Twice a week?”

There was a sadness in Lara Violet couldn’t name, but she felt it everywhere. Lara’s beauty put a fine point on sorrow. With a face like hers, Violet thought, a flicker of grief could ignite another’s heart into flames. 

In the distance there was more applause. Lara bowed. Violet laughed and did the same. When Lara straightened, her smile was gone. Her eyes took in the sky. She told Violet goodnight and left.

Stunned, Violet thought of everything Lara carried, known and unknown. The unknown tongued at her skin, erasing her.

Lara couldn’t play to entertain a child. In Violet’s living room her hand quivered from C to G. Her skin flushed beneath Violet’s guiding hand. When she strummed, the guitar sputtered.

“How do you do this?” Lara asked.

“Practice.”

“Before that. I get scared even before I start. Don’t you get afraid?”

“I’ve found the anxiety goes away the moment you sit down and just do the work.”

“You’re brave.”

Violet had never linked creativity to courage. Maybe courage was behind it all: jotting down the vanishing notes and playing until three in the morning, until the fingers bled. Taming the power and sparing no one in the way.

By her fourth lesson, Lara decided talent was a fancy parlor trick. She continued with the lessons, but they evolved into self-guided tours and questions about photographs on the walls.

One night she arrived stoned. She drank half a pitcher of orange juice and ate all the humus. Violet considered sending her home. Then Lara turned on the radio and swung her hips around the kitchen. She ran her hands through her hair. Violet couldn’t say no.

The next time Violet invited Lara to stay for dinner. They had salad and wine. Lara’s hair was coiled in French braids. She wore a crochet halter top and a denim skirt. Violet pictured the place beneath it bulbous with heat. She went to the bathroom to curse herself in the mirror.

“Don’t you do this,” she said. “Don’t you fucking do this.”

She rinsed her face. Beneath the weight of the towel her eyes flooded with the colors of Lara. And when Violet returned, Lara’s legs moved toward her, certain as an amen.

Upstairs Lara pinned Violet to the bed. Violet removed Lara’s clothes and ran her cunt up and down Lara’s thigh. Lara freed herself and swooped down. Violet brought a pillow to her face. Her voice rang foreign in her body. She didn’t want to release the sound too soon. Lara’s lips were swollen with love. She took the pillow and kissed her like she had nothing to lose. Her hands slid over Violet until they found an opening there, and there. Her fingers were spattered and wrinkling. Violet felt the softness of Lara’s back, her bottom wreathed in sweat. Violet tried to balance love and lust but failed. She straddled Lara, her face to her chest. Their hearts thrashed like waves.

A few hours before dawn, Violet rose to find Lara sitting with her hands in her lap and her legs dangling from the bed. Her eyes were open but unseeing, and from her lips flowed a stream of quiet gibberish. Lara was asleep, Violet knew. When she touched her back, Lara cried out and fell back on the bed with her knees to her chest. Violet put a pillow beneath Lara’s head and covered her with the sheets. She left to pee, then held Lara until the morning.

Sunlight filled the room. Lara’s face in her arms was peaceful, as if she hadn’t moved all night. Outside, the summer kites were like spirals of pleasure. Lara yawned. The sound was full, that of a woman improbably rested. She kissed Violet on the cheek and stepped into the shower. Soon Violet heard the tick of the gas stove and the sigh of its flames.

She found Lara in just a t-shirt, frying eggs. Two cups of coffee waited on the table.

“If you must know,” Lara said, “I remember some things about last night but not all. I get night terrors. Don’t bother asking why. I have no idea.”

“Lara—”

“Don’t diagnose me, Violet. Don’t you ever diagnose me.”

She plopped the eggs on a plate and sat at the table with her coffee. Violet tucked Lara’s hair behind her ear. Lara held Violet’s hand.

“I didn’t mean to snap,” Lara said. “I get sensitive about mental health stuff.”

“I’m sorry you had a bad dream.”

“Can I request you don’t say that every time it happens? Because it’s going to happen again.”

Some nights Lara slept peacefully. Other nights her dreams were like hell entering through the cracks of the floor. They filled the bed with an invisible war. Violet wanted to help but didn’t know how. They drank green smoothies and watched meditation videos. Violet lost sleep. The purple beneath her eyes matched the purple beneath Lara’s. One morning Lara traced the marks with a finger.

“They’re kind of like mental break down hickeys,” she joked. “You’re welcome.”

“Happy to help.”

“It’s what you do,” Lara said.

“What do you mean?”

“Mavis told me about that time on the bridge after her husband died.”

In high school Violet worked as a dishwasher at Morse’s grill. The kitchen window faced the water and the cribstone bridge. One day she saw Mavis walk across the bridge to the halfway point. She rested her hands on the railing and leaned over. Violet panicked. Still aproned, she ran towards the bridge. Violet knew the granite slabs could withstand wind and waves, but what about Mavis who, since the sudden loss of Joel, moved through life as if her insides were packed with clay? She and Mavis locked eyes. Before Mavis could say anything, Violet took Mavis’s hands into her own and said, “What can I do?” even though nothing could be done and nothing else could be said.

Lara wrapped her legs around Violet and held her.

You show up,” Lara said. 

On the anniversary of the death of Violet’s parents, in September, she and Lara had dinner with Mavis. She lived on the east side of the island in a two bedroom house atop the Giant’s Stairs, a jagged formation where mica had left twinkling pictures in the rocks. From the screened porch they watched tourists Bacardi-stung and aloe-smeared descend the trail. The waves drooled spindly creatures into the crook of the reaches.

Mavis cooked salmon stamped with lemon slices, Violet’s favorite. Lara set the table and lit a candle. Violet told stories of her past as it was. Somehow her brain conjured images of moments she’d thought lost. She remembered her parents encouraging her music, the islanders encouraging the child she was, the child she was hopping through doubts, blaming the world without knowing why. She wondered how she loved the world anyway.

Her father had been a pianist. As a child, she once asked him if he loved his piano more than her. He’d scooped her into his arms and said, “Of course not. You’re my girl.”

As Violet talked, Lara focused on the candle’s flame, her eyes gleaming like glass. Her lips trembled and tears slid down her cheeks.

 “What is it?” Violet said.

Lara told Mavis that she was sorry and that she’d love to get together again sometime soon.

“What happened?” Violet said after Lara had walked away.

“Do you want to lose her?” Mavis said.

“Of course not.”

“Then go to her, now.”

She found Lara at the end of a hallway papered with images of clouds and trees.

“I know I lost it a little,” Lara said, “but I’m okay.”

“What happened?”

“Thank you for sharing those things about your family. It was beautiful.”

“Lara,” Violet said. She wanted to say more, but Lara silenced her with a glance. Her face was puffy. She looked at Violet and softened. She told Violet to come closer. Now, a new moment for Violet’s brain: Lara pulling her towards the paper sky, kissing her.

That night in bed Violet brought her finger to Lara’s scar.

“Do they have anything to do with this?”

“Violet. Please.”

“You’ve got to help me out here,” Violet said, though she’d meant something very different. If you leave, I won’t make it.

“Yes,” Lara said after a long pause.

“Yes what?”

“The dreams. They have something to do with this.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Please, love, stop saying that.”

Outside fall cloaked the island. They lit candles that smelled of maple sap and piles of leaves. They made love and roasted pumpkin seeds, then took a bath. Violet sat with her back against the tub and Lara between her legs.

“Sometimes I miss life off the island,” Lara said.

“Like what?”

“Well, New York mostly.”

“Why’d you leave?”

Lara was silent.

“Did you have a hard time finding a job?” Violet asked.

“I was great at finding jobs. I was bad at keeping them.”

“I like you more every day.”

“Don’t you ever tire of being a sample girl? I mean, the name alone is awful.”

“I have my whole life to be called a woman, Lara.”

Lara turned and sat on her knees, her breasts over the water. A soap cone stuck to the side of her head like a party hat. “I’m no girl,” she said to Violet with immutable certainty. “I’m a woman. You know that, right?” Violet thought of Lara curled up in bed, her dreams lost to morning. Sometimes her eyes were heavy and her lips quivered with something awful she couldn’t say. Violet would kiss her, then. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. It was that, after all these years, she was still bad at being herself. “I started looking for jobs,” Lara said. “I don’t want to stop us, you know? But I won’t work at a general store all my life either.”

“Have you found anything?”

“I have an interview next week for some stupid office job in Chelsea.”

“Oh.”

“I know.”

Lara laid her head on Violet’s chest. Before she met Lara, there’d been a cold husk within her. Day by day Lara had carved at this husk until it broke. Now light flowed from its frayed edges. It was scalding.

“People can sense something different in you,” Violet said. “They’re afraid of it.”

“Are you afraid?”

Violet kissed the top of Lara’s head. “No,” she said. “Once, I thought you were a little mean.”

The next week, after Lara left for her interview, Violet wrote new songs. Her fingers leapt and her voice filled the house. Love, she realized, had distracted her from the very thing that had taught her what love was. For two full nights she slept well. For two full nights she hurt.

On the third day, when Violet returned from work, Lara was waiting for her on the porch, a suitcase at her feet. She wore a camel jacket and silk scarf. Her bowler hat was the color of the Russian sage. Her face was flushed, but her smile had been sapped of delight.

“How did it go?”

“Okay, I think.”

Violet’s head throbbed. She said nothing.

“Can you sit with me for a second?” Lara said as she sat down and patted the spot beside her. “There are things I wish I could tell you. I want so badly to tell you.”

In Lara, Violet saw something terrible. The earth rotated in her stomach. Lara beside her was miraculously still. There was a secret in her so blurred, Violet wondered if either of them would ever see it clearly. Lara’s breath wobbled, and her voice was hoarse.

“In the dreams,” she said, “I can’t touch anything. It’s a world without language. The entire dream is a feeling, the kind of feeling there are no words for anyway. A part of me loves you very much. That’s the part of me I want to live by.”

Without mascara, Lara’s lashes were gold. The breeze pinched her cheeks and they glowed. In that moment her body looked enchanted, but her words expressed only this world’s harshness.

“When the love part of me fades—because sometimes it fades and I don’t know why—I’m left wondering how I’ve managed to be with you or anyone else. It’s amazing, you and me alone, together.”

Violet remained still, Lara’s face crystallizing in her mind.

“Truth is,” Lara said, “there’s this thing in me that keeps me from loving as much as I want to. This thing knows me better than anyone else. When I try to push past it, I am sick and frozen and terrified.” 

Violet took Lara in her arms. “That thing you say is inside you,” she said, “I’ve had my whole life, too.”

“You have?”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For saying it first.”

They sipped tea on the couch. Two crystals dangled in the window and scattered rainbows of light across the room.

“I’m very tired,” Lara said. There was a slash of rainbow on her cheek. “Could you play me something while I rest?”

On her guitar, Violet played a wordless lullaby she had never performed. Lara closed her eyes, and Violet stared at Lara’s scar.

“They offered me the job,” Lara said when Violet had finished.

Violet saw the coming days in a flash. Lara would accept the job offer and more suitcases would populate the house. Violet would become a ghost in her own bed. In her mind, the relationship would remain dark and fresh, like a plum bitten into, the juice of it powering her through the days of no touch or sound. She’d imagine Lara on the roof of her apartment, tracing with her hand that riverbed of monstrous hopes, the New York City skyline. She’d imagine Lara swimming back to her. She’d wash ashore bound in lush seaweed.

Several months from now, not in her head but her house, the phone would ring. A young woman’s voice over the rush of midtown traffic would sound in her ear. After a time, the woman would say, doubtfully, “I’m thinking of visiting the island this summer,” and Violet, weightless, would say how ever so lovely that would be.

“Come here,” Violet said, and lay down beside Lara. She pressed her stomach against Violet’s and hooped her arms around Violet’s neck. Violet breathed her in and held her. Their fingers locked. Their skin heated. Violet swore never to lose the fever of them, and she wouldn’t. This heat would cover her body like a tarp until she pulled it back and saw what was there: a woman who loved and was loved, her scars hidden in plain sight like a child at rest, her heart withered in place. Lara squeezed her hand and Violet felt the beginnings of a loss she could live with. Seeing it through would take all her breath. It wouldn’t look so bad.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Emily Collins.png

Emily Collins's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, Coal Hill Review, The Chicago Review of Books, Entropy, The McNeese Review, and others. She lives in Portland, ME. More work can be found at www.emilycollinswriter.com

The Motion of Bodies

Franz Neumann


The two sat in camping chairs, their necks craned skyward as they searched for satellites. Mia spotted the first one, a steadily drifting pinprick of light miles high and free of the concept of a setting sun. It was probably doing a million things at once—measuring, relaying, spying—but to Mia, the satellite seemed placed in the sky to illustrate a mathematical perfection.

“Over the handle of the Big Dipper,” Mia said, pointing, but Dr. Samuelson—he said to call him Rob but she preferred not to—couldn’t spot the satellite at all, even after rubbing his glasses clean on the hem of his flannel shirt.

“Well,” Dr. Samuelson said, looking at Mia now and raising his eyebrows quickly, as though something had been settled, which Mia supposed was true. It was late, the fire was low, and Dr. Samuelson’s tent beckoned.

Mia had never slept with a professor before, nor anyone even near his age. She wasn’t nervous, though. Dr. Samuelson didn’t make her nervous. True, she had thought the other campsites and tents were awfully close when they’d first arrived. But the shared bottle of wine (hers) and the cannabis gummies (Dr. Samuelson’s) had pushed those campsites further into the darkness. If she and Dr. Samuelson made a little noise, so what.

Behind the tent rose forest. In front of her was the firepit, the picnic table, bear locker, Dr. Samuelson’s car, and then a paved campground road which ran parallel to a river whose name she could not remember. Dr. Samuelson said two men had drowned in the river earlier that month saving young kids who had fallen in. But the water here was more like a gentle creek, with a swimming hole that was just deep enough to jump into. She could hear the water through the darkness.

Mia and Dr. Samuelson had arrived around sundown. Every campsite they passed seemed to hold a family with four or five young kids. Mia had remarked that families were getting larger, but Dr. Samuelson had countered with a much more mundane explanation: hotels were too expensive for large families. He said it with a kind of gentleness that she liked. He explained things in class this way too, revealing simple explanations for overthought problems. Whenever he did so, Mia said ta-da in her head as Dr. Samuelson made the world a little more understandable.

In Dr. Samuelson’s seminar, Ecological Psychology—a graduate course that she, only a junior, had wormed her way into—Dr. Samuelson wore sport coats and basketball shoes. When he’d picked her up that morning at the dorms, he was in a faded orange T-shirt, hiking shorts and sandals. His late-model Honda CR-V was packed with camping gear and missing its spare. She’d crammed her new sleeping bag in the back seat beside boxes of term papers still to grade. Mia had no idea where the other three students who had dropped out of the trip would have sat. It made her feel like he’d exclusively asked her.

“And we’re off,” he’d said, starting the car.

He liked to drive with the windows down, as though air conditioning was a bad thing. His blowing hair seemed grayer, his beard shaggier, and his skin folded in ways it didn’t in class. It was the first time Mia had seen his forearms. She felt like she wasn’t spending the weekend with Dr. Samuelson but with Dr. Samuelson’s older, grizzlier (but still handsome) brother.

They were stuck in traffic all morning, but once over The Grapevine it had been pleasant enough: oil fields and almond groves, small towns with water towers and fruit stands, and then the hazy Sierras coming into view through the humidity of the heatwave. Dr. Samuelson played cassettes of African music by artists Mia had never heard of: Joe Mensah, Alex Konadu, The Ogyatanaa Show Band—all of it funky, with organs and two-bar bursts of brass, like chase-scene music from some last-century cop show. The feel of a cassette’s white cogs clasping around the tip of her pinky finger turned her on in a weird, inexplicable way.

“You have a lot of African music for a white guy,” she’d said, and he’d laughed. Mia could make the cassette’s tape peek out in a small bulge at the bottom. There was something sensuous about the shape. “You have any CDs?” she’d asked, when the music became a bit much.

He pointed to a compartment. She opened it. “Jesus.” More African music. The CDs felt briefly futuristic after having played with the ancient cassettes.

Dr. Samuelson started talking to her about the book he was working on that he wanted her to read portions of. The Motion of Bodies, or something like that, about physical, muscular motion being the essential, elemental something something something. The African music made it hard to concentrate on what he was explaining. And, anyway, her mind was on the other motion of bodies. Dr. Samuelson was in his late-fifties, if her extrapolations were correct. The crazy thing was that when they slept together tonight, the age difference would be the equivalent of her sleeping with someone not yet born.

“What are you thinking about?” he’d asked as she stared at the orange groves, thinking of how weird it was to contemplate sleeping with someone not yet born; waiting for them to grow up, mature, find you.

“Oranges,” she said, lying, then not.

He pulled off the road at a fruit stand and bought her a huge bag of oranges, the car still running. While he was out, she turned the music off and was glad he didn’t notice for the rest of the drive. They talked about school again, about politics, about movies. She liked that he was interested in her thoughts and opinions. But after another twenty miles, she wondered if he was really just interested in her generation. That is until—waiting in the line of cars at the gate to the national park—he’d gripped her upper leg, a tight grip, even shaking her leg a little, impressed, he said, with her leg muscles. This is how I’m going to be holding your ass tonight, he might as well have said. She reached over and did the same thing to his leg and caused him to brake, hard.

Now, nearly midnight, it was about to happen. Dr. Samuelson spread out the final embers with the fire-poking stick he seemed unusually pleased with. The flames were like transparent blue tongues: sometimes there, then disappearing, then reappearing, then no more. He held his hands over the fire pit. “Dry heat,” he said, like it was something rare.

Mia wondered what his warm hands would feel like touching her in places other than her upper leg. She imagined he would be tender; anything else seemed against his nature. Then again, she knew that some guys became completely different during sex. But maybe they’d just make out. Either way, it would be interesting.

Still leaning over the fire pit, Dr. Samuelson appeared haggard. She’d thought the wine and gummies had put any of her own reservations to bed, but the disquiet she’d felt when he pulled up in his cluttered car and she saw his mottled forearms, reemerged and squirmed a little. Mia didn’t really care how it went with Dr. Samuelson as long as it: a) satisfied her curiosity, and b) didn’t become something she regretted later. She imagined that a professor in his fifties would be grateful. Their affair might go on for a semester, little notes passed to her after class—“Mia, a word?”—quick fucks in his locked office, maybe. It would be interesting to see the tender underbelly of someone she admired, someone who charmed her, someone she wished were younger.

Dr. Samuelson brushed his teeth right there at the campsite, his headlamp making him look like a cave explorer. He didn’t even turn his back to her. He had brought a headlamp for her, too, and she put it on dutifully after pulling off a few long hairs from the elastic band. She could hear Dr. Samuelson behind her, gargling and then spitting as she walked to the restroom a hundred yards away. The light from her headlamp illuminated thousands of particles of campfire smoke. To Mia, the strong beam of light felt like the ancient Greek notion of sight—or no, more like a superpower. She was walking through a forest fire. She was walking through a volcanic explosion. Unscathed.

The bathroom looked like a tiny dark cottage. Her light fastened on a young man crouched with his back against the wood siding, a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in one hand, a plastic bag in the other. He shielded his face from her bright light.

“Sorry,” she said.

“It’s okay.”

“You okay?”

He shook his head no.

Inside the women’s end of the bathroom, Mia brushed her teeth and then flossed, her headlamp flooding the empty room with a wet light but never quite removing all the darkness scuttling behind her. She sniffed her shirt. It reeked of woodsmoke. She knew that woodsmoke would forever evoke memories of sex with Dr. Samuelson. Just as chlorine and Kahlúa was the scent of virginity lost, her freshman year.

The sick man wasn’t there when she walked out, though she could hear the sounds of his gastrointestinal suffering from the men’s side of the restroom. She walked quickly. She had taken off her underwear and bra in the bathroom to make the coming moment easier and she felt exposed and vulnerable out here in the darkness. None of the other campsites she passed had fires burning anymore or even lanterns on, and the woods that rose behind them spooked her a little with the density of their darkness. But Dr. Samuelson’s orange and gray tent glowed brightly, like the futuristic hatch to some underground complex. There was an inch of wine left in the bottle between their empty camping chairs and she drank it, despite having brushed, then put the empty bottle in the bear locker. She held her hands out over the coals to warm them up. A student of mine with great muscle tone but cold hands—no, that wouldn’t be her.

The tent’s zippers were terrifically loud, even when she tried to open them slowly, and made a sound that leaned more toward flatulence than seduction. Still outside, she turned off her headlamp and pulled it off her head, then unlaced her shoes and left them. She stepped into the orange glow of the tent, kneeled, turned.

Dr. Samuelson was lying in his sleeping bag, though it was opened along one side, waiting for her. The tent’s glow came from the headlamp still on Dr. Samuelson’s head, which threw a bright circle on the ceiling. His eyes were closed but rolling around beneath the lids. His lips parted. He was asleep.

Mia lay down beside him on her sleeping bag, blue, eighty dollars, good to minus ten degrees. It was about seventy degrees now. Dr. Samuelson’s face was softer lying down, but not exactly younger. On the far side of him lay a well-worn book of day hikes. Reading glasses peeked from a case resting on top. A wristwatch sat beside both. She imagined his bedside table at home looked like this.

Mia reached, tentatively. Dr. Samuelson’s warm exhalations passed over the ball of her hand as she squinted against the light of his headlamp. She found the power button and pressed. Darkness. She felt like she’d turned him off, or killed him somehow. He sighed, stirred, and she was relieved. It would be better in the dark, anyway. He would say her name and it would begin. Her first professor. She should get a condom from her backpack. She sat up. Dr. Samuelson began to snore.

Mia unzipped the tent door slowly, then slipped her bare feet into her shoes, leaving the laces untied. She replayed Dr. Samuelson’s flirtations, or what she’d thought were his flirtations: how he always said her name with a kind of delight when she visited him at office hours, that squeeze of her leg—was he perhaps only thinking of how well she’d do as a hiker?, that smile on his face when she’d come down to his car this morning—was it simply because they were getting out of the city? Then again, the drive here had been long and he was probably just tired. Hadn’t he said cannabis was good for putting him to sleep?

Mia craved a shower. It was such an archaic instinct that it felt foolish she had to put up with it, especially as she didn’t feel guilty. Still, she had learned to be attentive to these kinds of primal reactions and what they said. So, okay, she might have made a mistake about Dr. Samuelson. And right now some ancient instinct in her wanted water to wash away the awkwardness of the last ten minutes, even if she was the only one aware of it. Okay, again. Fine.

Mia walked down to the river with the name she couldn’t remember, to the watering hole where large boulders lay upon the granite bedrock, the water sounding exactly the same now as when she’d come down here to explore while Dr. Samuelson had driven off for firewood. People had been swimming then and the spot had been filled with kids and laughter. Now the pool was hers.

Mia undressed and skinny-dipped, the cold unexpected and making her gasp. But then it was bearable, just. There was no wind. She found where the water was deepest and stood on her toes; the surface lapped against the bottom of her jaw. She went under and swam a half-dozen strokes to the other side and climbed out, but it was just as cold out of the water, so she went back in and floated on her back, rubbing the water from her eyes and looking at the way the trees raked the stars. She felt naked in some kind of new way she didn’t have a name for yet, a peaceful way that didn’t lead to something else. In class, Dr. Samuelson had talked about how trees communicate down at the roots, passing sugars along fungal filaments too small to see. She wondered what these trees were saying now, and if they could sense her, floating here.

She saw the glow, like a firefly, out of the corner of her eye. Her feet sank and touched loose pebbles on the granite bottom. “Someone there?” she asked.

“Sorry.” A male voice. The light she’d seen, a cigarette’s end, glowed again.

“How long have you been there?” she asked.

“Sorry.”

She swam to the other side, climbed out beside a large boulder and dressed quickly in her jeans and shirt, even though she was wet.

“Are you decent?” the voice asked, coming closer now, younger sounding. Something about the question stopped her from running up the bank. The wholesomeness of it.

“Yeah,” she said.

The man walked around the edge of the boulder. She could see he wasn’t much: thin, short. More of a boy. Too young to be smoking.

She wrung the water from her hair and felt it flop cold and heavy on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” the boy said again, and squatted not far from her. “I coughed…so you’d know I was here.”

“No you didn’t,” Mia said. She sat down. She could feel the faint heat of day still coming off the granite. “What are you doing out here?” she asked.

“Listening to the water.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen. Fifteen.”

“You sneak out of your parent’s tent?“

“I’m camping with my older brother. He’s sick. He drank the water here. You shouldn’t let any of this water get into your mouth.”

“I didn’t,” Mia said.

“It looked like you did,” the boy said. “Before you started floating on your back. My brother’s had the shits all day.” The boy took another drag on his cigarette. “Your dad seems pretty cool,” he said, after a long silence when only the water spoke. “Most kids don’t laugh at their parents’ jokes. Bet he doesn’t know you like to skinny-dip, though.”

“No,” Mia said, picturing Dr. Samuelson. “He has no idea.”

Had things progressed as she’d imagined, she would have been pulling a condom down over Dr. Samuelson’s unknown vintage—or maybe he needed to take a pill to get hard first and he’d be using that time wisely. She felt a kind of relief to be here instead, sitting on the granite, dark trees above. She would have regretted sleeping with Dr. Samuelson. Not the sex, but how knowing him that way would have taken away the appeal of the unknown about him. No again. Why be kind? The sex would have been awful, an old guy like him. He would have disappointed her. It was bad enough that she had seen him asleep.

Mia fell back on her pretense for coming with Dr. Samuelson to Sequoia: hiking. She kind of wanted to trek to the waterfall he’d mentioned. She wanted to see a marmot. She wanted to marvel at the Sequoiadendron giganteum, biggest wood in the world—and only that, a tree, not a puerile metaphor. She wanted to walk through the forests, around meadows, to revel in the ordinary motion of her body. They wanted the same thing after all, maybe, she and Dr. Samuelson. Still, it might have been interesting.

“There’s a satellite,” the boy said, pointing, but she looked at him instead. His hair was shaggy. There was the tease of a mustache, or maybe it was acne—there was little moon to see by.

“I saw a bunch of them earlier,” Mia said, resting herself gently against the granite for warmth. She looked up at the stars.

“I’m going to study astronomy in college,” the boy said.

“That’s what I thought I’d study, too,” Mia said. “But I got a D on my Calc II midterm and dropped out. I’m studying psychology instead. It’s fuzzier. Another one,” Mia said, pointing.

This satellite was moving much more slowly than the others she’d seen; it seemed almost still. She wondered how many geostationary satellites were up there pretending to be stars. Mia realized that if, hypothetically, she slept with this boy, there would be far less of an age difference than between herself and Dr. Samuelson. By at least a factor of five.

“You have an incredible body,” the boy said.

“Thanks,” Mia said. “You have a nice voice.”

“Thanks.”

They counted twenty satellites between them where they lay, ten feet apart. Then the boy stood up and said good night, literally said ‘good night’, and went to check on his sick brother. Mia lay there and listened to the water and now and again the sound of it kind of stopped each time she began to nod off.

She walked back to the tent. Dr. Samuelson was still asleep. She was briefly naked while she changed out of her damp clothes and into fresh underwear and a shirt, but Dr. Samuelson didn’t wake, despite the swoosh of the nylon tent as she brushed against it. He wore yellow earplugs. She reached over him and picked up his hiking book, then turned on her headlamp and, after browsing for a few minutes, found the entry for the campsite where they were and the name of the water in which she’d briefly swum: The Marble Fork of the Kaweah River. Such a grand name for a little creek. If two people really had drowned in it, she knew it wasn’t here, where the water was kind to all but those who drank from it.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Franz+Neumann.jpg

Franz Jørgen Neumann has published stories in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, Passages North, Fugue, Confrontation, Water~Stone Review, Salon, Chiron Review, North Atlantic Review, Ascent and elsewhere. His previously published fiction can be read at storiesandnovels.com.

Senowbar Khanom

Azin Neishaboori


1.  Half a milligram of Alprazolam

It was very dark outside. Nahal[i] leaned her head against the bus’s window and tried to discern the trees on the side of the road in the scant light of the bus’s headlamps. The road stretched through a dark forest, perhaps home to foxes, coyotes, bears or even wolves, creatures maybe less dangerous than some of the men and women on the bus.

To her dislike, since Nahal had immigrated three years ago to attend graduate school, there were many occasions for her to drift into unsolicited and unencumbered privacy with her thoughts. Nahal imagined that this was a side effect of living in exile, of leaving her familiar world behind, and of saying goodbye to all the things and people she once knew. She thought of the relationship she had with her past surroundings, with the streets, with the trees, with the overpasses on which she had walked every day, with the bus stops, with the taxi cabs, with the uphill roads, with the view outside her window, and even with the polluted air, and how this relationship created undeniable parts of this experience called life. Equally, an indispensable part of this experience came from the individual seemingly insignificant relationships with the people around her in the neighborhood in which she had grown up. Individually, these might have meant little, but collectively they formed a major ingredient of the essence of her identity and a significant part of the first twenty-three years of her existence. Perhaps it was the gateman downstairs, the shopkeeper at the grocery store, the inquisitive neighbor who lived upstairs, the cheerful elementary school kids that chattered in their high-pitched voices at the end of a school day, or the cab drivers and the stories they told that had once collectively given her life the density and the thickness it now lacked. Thus, she sank further into herself, as if to make up for the density of being she had lost. She sank deep in her mind. She descended damp stairwells, and it got deeper and darker, deeper and darker.

Once again, Nahal tried to disengage herself from those thoughts. She was probably hungry. Maybe that was the cause of all those thoughts, she consoled herself. So, she pulled a plastic bag full of Iranian salted pistachios from her purse both of which had come from Iran. Her mother had decided that Nahal could live neither without salted pistachios nor those plastic bags and thus had sent some over with a friend. As it was custom in Iran, before eating the pistachios, Nahal offered some to the lady sitting beside her, a Caucasian woman of about fifty years old who was wearing gold and rectangular-framed glasses, and who had long and undyed hair with strands of white and blonde.

Surprised at Nahal’s offer of pistachios, the lady stared at them for a while before convincing herself to take one, as if out of obligation. She assessed her single pistachio carefully and in distrust, and eventually found it best to hold it in the palm of her hand. She then moved on to assess Nahal with an inquisitive gaze and asked her where she was from.

Nahal did not like that question, as she had sometimes received a cornucopia of strange reactions to her answer, many of which she had faced in her classes at the university. Sometimes it was absolute silence, sometimes heavy glances, sometimes fictitious statements delivered as facts, occasionally hate or rage, and, every once in a while, the worst of them all, pity. She knew them all by heart. Yet, at that late of an hour, on a cold winter night, and on a road in the heart of a dark forest in Pennsylvania, thousands of miles away from home, her heart and her knees did not have the strength to fight back or to challenge the collective wisdom prevalent those days. She did, however, make a mental note to never again offer a snack to people sitting beside her.

“Iran,” Nahal replied.

The lady stared at her with a newfound curiosity. It was as if she had heard the name of a disease and was pondering on how to console the afflicted body that her disease was not that bad and that there might be a cure. In a tone rich in certainty, self-assurance, righteousness, conviction, and a malignant form of benevolence, the lady observed that it was fortunate she had made it here where she no longer had to “live like that.” In a piteous tone she then declared: “Unfortunately, the countries on that side of the world are very tribal, and until that changes, nothing will improve. You guys should start from there.”

The sound of her words reverberated in Nahal’s head. She had heard that sound before. She had heard it from her mother when she spoke of Mahmood Agha,[ii] their gardener, and his family. She had heard it in history books. It was the sound that had echoed in history’s corridors century after century, millennium after millennium. It was the voice of Churchill when he called the people of India rascal strawmen of low caliber. It was the sound of Napoleon’s horse as it galloped on Egypt’s soil. It was the voice of the Dutch farmer who called the unfamiliar men and women of the good earth sons and daughters of the devil and darkness. It was the voice of the old museum guide in Washington who, in describing the art of people of Africa, told the tale of Europeans who brought goods and missionaries to those people along with hope. It was the voice of the victorious team, the team that, in being victorious, had a right not to know many things. For it was, and had always been, the irrevocable and undeniable privilege of the victorious to decide what was insignificant and impertinent, and what was significant and noteworthy.

Nahal turned her head toward the window again and stared out at the darkness. A minute later she heard the lady break open the pistachio and eat it, and at that very moment, felt a hand tap her shoulder from the back.

A soft, unassuming, and vaguely familiar male voice spoke out: “Nahal, is that you? Would you like to sit here?”

Nahal turned to see it was Peter, her tall, African American, broad-shouldered, quiet and reticent neighbor, with black knowing eyes who lived on the upper floor of the same apartment building in the graduate dorm as she did. Nahal’s encounters with Peter had been rather infrequent. She had, on a few occasions, waited outside their building’s secure entrance with him in the cold when they had both forgotten their cards and had been locked out. They had spent those moments mostly in silence. For some reason, however, their silence was not an awkward small-talk-invoking silence, but a confiding, looking-at-the-ocean-together silence, a shared-understanding, one. Peter too was coming back to Philadelphia from Thanksgiving break. She left her seat and moved to the one next to him. Together they stared at the darkness outside, and at the barely visible trees in the light of the bus’s headlamps. The dark forest enveloped them in its safe, loving arms as Nahal and Peter spoke almost in a whisper as if picking up an old ongoing conversation. Their words were young, green, full of vitality, full of philosophy, and full of being.

Next to them on the window, two little winged ant-like insects struggled climbing up and sliding down time after time. Nahal looked at the insects and told Peter of an old memory. When she was very young, she once went to a pet store with her mother, who on those days had set her mind on owning a pet parrot. Nahal was following her mother in the store when her eyes fell on an air-filled plastic bag filled with small locusts. The bag was closed on top by a knot and was resting on a pack of grains, which had given the bag a slanted angle. While this slight slope was an insignificant fact for the rest of the world, for the locusts inside the bag, it had created a philosophical conundrum, as a result of which, the locusts had divided into three groups. The first group remained in the bottom of the bag, the second group continued tirelessly to reach the top despite the slippery slope, and the third group had reached the top only to be blocked by the knot that had closed the bag, sentencing them to an irrefutable annihilation. Looking at them from above, Nahal had felt deeply sorry for the locusts. They were all bound to be fed to the parrots, their fates determined and immutable. But she had felt particularly worse for the second and third group: those who were in a futile effort to reach the top and break free, and those who had reached the top and were trying hopelessly to break through the knot. The experience had moved the young Nahal gravely.

Peter believed that from the three groups, the first one’s experience at the bottom was most pitiful. He thought that knowing one’s predestined doom and having to endure life knowing it was worse than the doom itself, for the one who kept trying could live until the very moment she faced her doom, but the one who knew it all along never truly lived.

Peter told Nahal of a program he had watched about nature in which there was a species of insects shaped like dried leaves. When their males and females met in the big world full of dried leaves, one would mount on top of the other, and from then on, they traveled like that for the rest of their lives. For they seemed to know that if they lost each other in the big world out there, they would never find each other again. Peter joked that those two insects on the window might have taken the bus together in a similar spirit.

Nahal’s heart filled with assurance and serenity. What a deep chasm existed between the world of the front row and the unburdened world of the back row, as deep as the two ends of a black hole in the space-time continuum, as deep as time, and as deep as history.

Peter and Nahal walked back together from the bus station to their apartment building. Everything was covered in heavy snow and the sky looked red. Nahal felt in unison with the universe, her origin and her destination, like a befitting piece of a whole.

Nahal knew that the memory of that night and their conversation would calm her ailing existence for many years to come, that it could soothe her like a glass of wine, like half a milligram of Alprazolam.


[i] Nahal is a name for girls in Farsi. It also means sapling.

[ii] Agha is typically used as a pre-amble or post-amble to an adult man’s name as a sign of respect in an informal context.

shutter small.png

2.  On the phone line

Sitting at her desk facing a pleasant view of the orange trees outside the window in the study of her commodious two-story villa in Nowshahr, Iran,[iii] Senowbar[iv] Khanom[v] wore her reading glasses and examined the month’s income and expense reports on her computer screen. Her reading glasses had thick black frames and even thicker handles, and their presence on Senowbar Khanom’s face filled her with ever more conviction, poise, confidence, and a sense of control. Her cell phone rang as she studied the finance files with a faint smile. She heard Nahal’s feeble and frail voice from the other side of the line, calling from Pennsylvania.

They spoke for a few minutes when a rush of rage took possession of Senowbar Khanom. She held on to her phone tighter as if to get a better grip on life on the other side of the line.

“You traveled all that way for that? Couldn’t you find any other kind of man to marry, Nahal?”

“Any other kind mother?” Nahal said.

“How could you do this to me?”

“When you speak like this Mom, I feel ashamed of being your daughter.”

“You know what? Go ahead. Do as you wish. I am done.”

Senowbar Khanom cut the phone and held her head between her hands. She stayed in that position for a while. Then she rose up and went to the kitchen. She went toward the stove and turned on the burner under the tea kettle. Staring at the blue flames under the kettle, she thought about what was happening in a land thousands of miles away, America, the land that had harbored Nahal. Two teardrops slid down her cheeks.

As she could not see a gap between her realized self and her idealized self, it was difficult for Senowbar Khanom to assess her emotions and opinions from an outsider’s point of view. Nonetheless, consciously or subconsciously, Senowbar Khanom felt no trace of guilt in any particle of her being for how she felt about the young man she had never met. There was no single cell in her body that accused her of racism.

Senowbar Khanom’s feelings toward the supremacy of one “kind” over another, as cold and brutal as they were, were not personal. She held nothing “personal” against one “kind” over another. She did not think she believed in any type of racial supremacy. She was instead what could perhaps be best described as a “triumphant supremacist,”[vi] one who only roots for and sides with the triumphant and victorious. Perhaps Senowbar Khanom would not personally participate in a battle, say, between the people of Rome and Zanzibar. She would, however, follow their battle with objectivity and celebrate with the victors at their victory feast, regardless of how the battle was won, be it a bloodbath or even a genocide. If history determined Romans the victors of this battle for the last several hundred years, Senowbar Khanom saw no reason to second guess this outcome or challenge it.

The subtle difference between triumphant supremacy and racial supremacy may seem insignificant or impertinent to Nahal or Peter. Yet, one might claim that triumphant supremacy is perhaps much more fundamental than racial supremacy. Consider someone who defended the South African Apartheid with all his might for all his life, and yet woke up one day swearing not in the name of Jesus, but in that of Nelson Mandela, only after Mandela won. Consider the Iraqi Chaldean owner of a small grocery store in Michigan who embellished the front of his store with as big of a Jesus statue as his neighbor’s Islamophobia; only that this statue of Jesus, the defender of the marginalized of history, now feebly supplicates: take me as one of your own, take me as one of your own. Could triumphant supremacy underlie their attitudes? Could triumphant supremacy be the reason as to why some vehemently and passionately condemn those already convicted in the judgment of history, yet dismiss as impertinent, negligible, and insignificant the injustice unfolding today, right in front of their eyes, the injustice whose victims could still be saved?

Standing by the victors’ side, sharing their perceived supremacy, how far would one have to walk to join in the enforcement of the supremacists’ order? To take part in the injustice, the lynchings, the bloodbaths? Some would say only a short walk in the woods. And if indeed it would only take a short walk in the woods to become a soldier of supremacy, Senowbar Khanom had already put her boots on.

[iii] Nowshahr is a port city in northern Iran that lies on the southern coast of the Caspian Sea. Due to its beautiful nature and pleasant climate, some Iranians spend their vacations there.

[iv] Senowbar is a name for females in Farsi. The word itself means poplar tree.

[v] Khanom means lady in Farsi. To respect an adult woman in an informal context, one calls her by her name followed by Khanom.

[vi] In the original draft, the author described this quality with an invented term “victorist,” and later decided to revise it to “triumphant supremacist.”

shutter small.png

3.  Senowbar Khanom and success

Senowbar Khanom married when she was very young, about seventeen years old, and was widowed before turning thirty. During her thirteen years of marital life, Senowbar Khanom gave birth to three children: Omid, Elham, and Nahal. Sometimes she blamed what she saw as her children’s inadequacies on their names, all rooted in abstract and melancholy concepts, all out of touch with reality, and all chosen at her late husband’s insistence.

After her husband passed away, Senowbar Khanom rolled up her sleeves and took charge of managing his properties, which consisted of approximately two hundred acres of walnut gardens. Perhaps owing to her competence, or perhaps partially due to the country’s economic situation during the years of war and sanctions, the profit return of these walnut gardens multiplied under Senowbar Khanom’s management. Using the profit, she then bought some residential and commercial properties to rent out. Altogether, at the end of the eight years of war, food rations and national poverty, Senowbar Khanom rose to affluence.

Her financial accomplishments together with raising her three children on her own, convinced Senowbar Khanom of her tenacity, pragmatic discretion, and paramount management skills. In fact, her faith in her abilities became almost like a new faith to her, a life view that, in her words, was founded upon the three pillars of optimism, acumen, and decisiveness. It was a religion that considered the irresolute, the weak, the fragile, the emotional, and those who could not faithfully believe in happy endings undeserving, inferior, and doomed to their well-deserved misfortunes. Hand in hand with success, Senowbar Khanom gradually saw herself belonging to an exclusive group of select individuals who could be best described as the “victors.”

Being a victor did not come without its share of problems for Senowbar Khanom’s life. For example, while feeling like a victor is typically considered a desirable attribute in the prevailing culture, it is at the same time a desirable attribute that one selfishly wishes only for themselves, and at best for their closest family. In other words, to consider oneself a victor one has to view others as failures; a self-professed victor consciously or subconsciously attempts to form a top-down relationship with the rest of society. This necessary condition for holding the status of a victor often makes this attribute unpleasant for many people. While many would like to follow Senowbar Khanom’s example, fewer would be willing to enlist as her disciple.

For these reasons, Senowbar Khanom’s social circle mostly consisted of members of her immediate and extended family who loved her regardless or despite her character, a few other victors like herself, and some women with low self-esteem and high ambitions who wished to buzz around the victors, hoping to become one by association or in consequence. There are people who believe that history is often built by this latter group.

Senowbar Khanom was broad-shouldered and heavily built and had a strong, determined and confident voice. In some respects, these characteristics probably helped in her financial success and her social climb. For if, for example, Senowbar Khanom were a frail and defenseless single mother with three children, there could have been many men tempted to rescue her or act as her guardian. Unfortunately, along with such supportive roles as rescuers and guardians comes the rest of patriarchy: the jealousy, the control, and the suffocating protectiveness. Senowbar Khanom’s strong build and unyielding voice created a citadel around her and her children that barred any such unsolicited attempts at heroism, rescue, and guardianship.

Senowbar Khanom raised her three children with tenacity and fortitude. She was a very strict, confident and authoritarian mother whose firmness bordered on tyranny. Like many other self-confident tyrants of this world, Senowbar Khanom possessed her paramount confidence not just owing to her success in one realm. Her unwavering confidence was equally, if not more so, owing to her ignorance and poor understanding in many other realms.

Senowbar Khanom interfered in the smallest details of each of her three children’s lives and issued a binding decree for each insignificant problem. This prevailed in diverse areas which included, among others, the interpersonal relationship of her children, their relationships with their friends, their choice of friends, their choice of attire, their studies, and even the subjects of their interest or attention.          

To Senowbar Khanom’s disappointment, in contrast to their mother, Omid, Elham, and Nahal grew up to be fragile, thin, melancholy, tender, and emotional individuals. Senowbar Khanom was most disappointed in her son Omid, who was pale and slender, did not eat meat, had zero ambitions, and was always at one of his poetic reveries. For a pragmatic victor like Senowbar Khanom, Omid was the quintessence of all the attributes which she believed a man should be devoid. Omid had studied veterinary medicine at Tehran University and preferred the company of animals to that of humans.

Every once in a while, Senowbar Khanom entered a trance-like state which urged her to “correct” her children and to rescue them out of their inadequacies. In such a state, she woke up to pour a bucket full of admonitions and criticisms over poor Omid’s head. The content of this bucket included prescriptions of optimism and its correlation with success, the names of many people in Omid’s age group or younger around the world who had already drowned in success and social status, Senowbar Khanom’s own achievements, the nobility of her husband’s family, and even a concatenation of half-baked sociological and economic theories. At the end of such interventions, Omid retreated ever more into his shell of despondent reticence, ever less skeptical of his preference for the company of animals to that of humans.

Elham and Nahal were similar to their brother in characteristics and tendencies. Being of a different gender, however, Senowbar Khanom and society had a different perception and judgment of them. They both spoke in a very low voice and looked like beaten cats walking around humbly with their heads bent lest they were challenged. They both had pale and narrow faces, and in many respects reminded Senowbar Khanom of the feeble female characters of western movies who stood on corners and helplessly whispered: “Save me.”

In Senowbar Khanom’s mind, these attributes made her two daughters the epitome of the cliché that traditional virtues expected of women, which she abhorred. But what could she do? They were her own daughters, and like it or not, were her fellow travelers in the arch, and even more fundamentally, constituted part of her identity. Thus, Senowbar Khanom who instinctively had identified her daughters’ characters as hopeless and irremediable, set her mind on changing their image among their relatives and acquaintances, instead of trying to correct them.

After Elham married a very tall and affluent husband whose father was a major shareholder at a big hospital in Tehran, Senowbar Khanom gained a sufficient level of satisfaction with her public image, but there was still Nahal’s image that needed to be addressed.

It had been three years since Nahal left Iran for America to continue her studies at the graduate level. Although Senowbar Khanom missed her very much, she could not help but be proud of Nahal’s academic success and her bright professional future. Wherever she went, Senowbar Khanom spoke of Nahal’s nanotechnology projects. She even spoke of Maria, Nahal’s roommate who was from Spain, and whose father was a professor at the University of Madrid. All of these details added to Senowbar Khanom’s roster of honors. It had seemed that more honors were to come from Nahal until that day Senowbar Khanom spoke to her on the phone about the young man she wanted to marry. Senowbar Khanom did not know how to place nanotechnology, Sharif University, the University of Pennsylvania, and a man in her view incongruous to the rest of their life, in a single image of Nahal, and present it to the public.

Shutter.png

4.  Senowbar Khanom’s journey to America

After ruminating over the situation, Senowbar Khanom decided that it would be best to visit Nahal in America, meet this boy, and take matters into her own hands.

Senowbar Khanom loved traveling, or so she had always believed. In truth, short of her infrequent travels on one of the two main roads between Nowshahr and Tehran, Senowbar Khanom had not traveled much in her fifty-one years. Even her occasional travels between Tehran and Nowshahr were all carried out in utmost dignity, comfort, and convenience. Mahmoud Agha the gardener would pick her up from her house and drop her off at her final destination. It was due to this kind of experience that she had decided she loved traveling. She even hoped to one day go on long journeys around the world and leave the management of her properties to her children.

Alas, the year was 2005, and for Iranian Senowbar Khanom the journey to America was something quite different from her previous experiences. Omid prepared her mother’s documents and accompanied her to Dubai to attend her visa interview at the American Embassy. He helped her practice for all of the questions likely to be asked from her by the consul. Senowbar Khanom prepared for all of the questions diligently, and after a successful interview followed by several months of waiting, she received her visa to the United States of America.

During the months she waited for her visa, Senowbar Khanom prepared for her upcoming trip. She studied the tourist attractions in America and decided to pay a visit to a select few of them, such as Niagara Falls and Yellowstone Park. Other than her concerns for Nahal, her only other source of anxiety on this trip was her poor knowledge of English. To overcome this, she bought herself a book on English for tourists, studied it in her free time every day, and decided to take it on the plane with her for peace of mind.

Finally, the night of her travel date arrived. Omid, Elham and Elham’s husband took her to Tehran’s international airport and stayed with her up to the last point they were permitted. Senowbar Khanom waved goodbye at them excitedly. Her eyes beamed with happiness and poise, and with her head held high, she set out to right what was wrong.

Alas, from the moment she parted with her children, the hardships of traveling began. At the Tehran airport, they asked her to take her shoes off and wear the airport’s slippers. Once she arrived in Dubai, they made her take her shoes off again, offered no slippers, and demanded that she walk barefoot on a floor on which the security guards walked in their boots. Time and time again they requested her to present her documents. Finally, they showed her to a very long line leading to a special security checkpoint for passengers traveling to the USA. There, people had to take out their bags, jackets, phones, and watches and leave them in dusty gray plastic bins for inspection. Senowbar Khanom was displeased with having to put her purse and watch in the same bin as her shoes and worried about parting with her purse during the inspection.

Finally, Senowbar Khanom made it to the head of the security line and presented her papers, upon which a guard suddenly exclaimed: “Female secondary, female secondary![vii] We have a female secondary here!”

Keen to know what kind of creature a female secondary could be, everyone in the line turned their heads curiously toward Senowbar Khanom. Then another guard accosted Senowbar Khanom and led her to an adjacent glass-walled area separate from the regular security path.

In the glass-walled area, they asked Senowbar Khanom to lift her arms and remove her hair clip. Then they inspected her body with a device that looked like an electric baton. Then they inspected her with their hands. None of the security guards knew that Senowbar Khanom thought of herself as a competent, accomplished, and authoritative woman. None knew Senowbar Khanom was a “victor.” Neither did they know or care that Senowbar Khanom had raised her three children all on her own, with tenacity and fortitude, that she had successfully multiplied the profits of her late husband’s walnut gardens, and that when she wore her reading glasses, she felt agency and control over her life and the world. To them, she was merely a curious case of a female secondary.

While she was in that little glass-walled room, Senowbar Khanom looked at the other people and thought of them as “the fortunate ones,” the people that, all things considered, at least were not female secondaries. She felt that the people beyond the glass walls perceived her as someone very different from themselves in an indescribable and unfathomable quality.

When Senowbar Khanom was finally allowed to leave the glass-walled room, her face was soaked in tears. As she removed her watch, shoes, and purse from the gray bins, she noticed a dent on top of one of her shoes and its heel touching her purse. The new fancy and shiny shoes and purse Senowbar Khanom had purchased for her trip to America now appeared dirty and disheveled.

The flight was fourteen hours long. Fortunately, Senowbar Khanom sat next to a window. While the sky was dark or half-dark, she stared out the window and ruminated over what had happened. She felt like a person beaten so hard and felt uncertain how to feel, her emotions vague and obscure. Yet, the one thing she knew was that the treatment she had received was difficult to endure for a person of her age. It was incomprehensible to be stripped of her dignity at fifty-one and the unexpectedness of her experience made it even more difficult to reflect upon.

After fourteen hours of flight, Senowbar Khanom entered US soil where she faced fresh rounds of inspection and interrogation. When she presented her documents to the officer behind a glass window at the security checkpoint, he escorted her to a special room where she was told that her documents would be further examined. He placed her documents in a red folder on a ledge in front of another officer, a Latina woman much younger than herself, and asked her to wait until her name was called.

Senowbar Khanom felt unnerved. She did not know much English and could not really understand the young officer, definitely not well enough to respond to her questions. She kept wringing her hands, her anxiety bringing her to the brink of tears.

In another corner of the room sat a young girl about Nahal’s age who also seemed to have arrived from Iran. Senowbar Khanom looked disapprovingly at her unfashionable and disheveled appearance. The girl rose up and came to sit by Senowbar Khanom. She promised to help her with the impending questions and answers, and upon hearing this, Senowbar Khanom cheered up and embraced the girl dearly. Moments later, Senowbar Khanom was called to appear in front of the officer, and with the help of the young girl cleared all the questions and concerns. As she left the room, Senowbar Khanom did not say much of a goodbye to the girl. She was finally admitted to enter the United States.

In yet another impediment, Senowbar Khanom and her suitcases entered the customs area. After examining Senowbar Khanom’s countenance and passport, the customs officer grew suspicious of her and decided to inspect her luggage in person. He opened her suitcases and rummaged through her clothes, feeling for anything suspicious. He messed up her carefully folded clothes and touched everything, even her underwear. When he found a bag of borage, a bag of currants, and two bags of fried herbs used for Ghormeh Sabzi,[viii] he triumphantly pulled them out and tossed them aside to a corner.

Finally, after a concatenation of encumbrances, Senowbar Khanom entered the passenger arrival area, a large crowded place full of people who, to her, somehow looked insouciant, unburdened, cheerful, colorful, and optimistic. Senowbar Khanom thought maybe this was how people looked when they did not feel like, or were treated like, “female secondaries.”

She nervously scanned people’s faces hoping to find Nahal amongst all the strangers in the unknown land. She felt overwhelmed. How could she ever find Nahal in this chaotic and unfamiliar place? Who would help her if she got lost? Where would she sleep if nobody came to pick her up? She remembered the Iranian girl who helped her at the border security office. Where was she now? Senowbar Khanom’s back hurt. Her hair was disheveled. Her facial muscles felt weary. She felt desolate, disintegrated, decomposed, exposed, and almost broken. At last, she saw Nahal running toward her, alongside a young man. Nahal wore a black dress with big sunflowers printed on the fabric. Her pale, narrow, timid, and friendly face looked like a ray of sunshine. A tide of love overwhelmed Senowbar Khanom, a tide that covered not only Nahal but also the tall lean young man whom she had thought of as the sole source of incongruity in her life. In that foreign sea of the unfamiliar and unknown, he and Nahal emerged as a little island who welcomed her, sheltered her. Senowbar Khanom ran toward them, and when she reached them, hugged Nahal tightly and dearly.

Senowbar Khanom whispered: “I found you.” She then extended her hand and grasped Peter’s as she said: “And you too.”

[vii] In US airport security terminology, female secondary refers to a female passenger perceived as a potential security threat who requires additional security screening. The security guards at special checkpoints for US-bound flights follow more or less similar policies, protocols, and terminologies for identifying potential security threats.

[viii] Ghormeh Sabzi is a popular Iranian dish made with minced beef or lamb, kidney beans and herbs.

shutter small.png

5.  The two sides of a chasm

After several days of therapeutic sleep to overcome jetlag and her injured dignity, one Saturday morning Senowbar Khanom resurrected to her familiar self.

She made tea using the tea kettle and teapot she had sent Nahal and poured some for Nahal, Maria, and herself. Like the old days, Nahal helped her mother set the breakfast table. They all ate breakfast together, with Nahal acting as an interpreter between her mother and Maria. After breakfast, the three of them went to a shopping mall. Shopping reinvigorated Senowbar Khanom’s old sense of control and agency. By the time they returned home, she was once again the victor who professed optimism, acumen, and decisiveness as the three pillars of success to the universe.

Later, around 4 p.m., Peter arrived at their place. Nahal acted anxious, unsure of how to avoid her mother’s disapproval. As Peter entered the room, Nahal recognized a familiar expression on her mother’s face, the calculating frown her mother made when she was drawing a mental two-columned table of “pros and cons,” of “advantages and disadvantages,” of “wins and losses.” Nahal wished she could take herself and all her belongings and live in the “disadvantages” column, in the column of “losses,” the columns that being refuted were forever exempt from her mother’s cold and relentless assessments and reassessments.

Nahal knew a tumult was imminent. She wished there was a way she could preserve the closeness the three of them had felt the moment they united at the airport. However, this Senowbar Khanom sitting before her was not the same disheartened and desolate Senowbar Khanom of the airport. Her mother had regained her prowess, had overcome the injuries and insults she had endured, and had even deemed what she had overcome and endured as triumphs to be added to her roster of accomplishments. Senowbar Khanom once again stood tall as a victor.

During the months that Senowbar Khanom waited for issuance of her visa, Nahal planned for activities that could prevent or reduce tension between her mother and Peter and had decided that walking out in nature and fresh air could help bring them closer together. So, for that particular afternoon, Nahal planned for the three of them to go on a hike on a path not far from where she lived.

It was a beautiful summer day as they walked through the forest. The weather was slightly warm but still pleasant. The lush green trees, the sun, and the wild yellow, blue and purple flowers on both sides of the path exhilarated Senowbar Khanom. Nahal noticed that her mother thus far had not directly addressed Peter for more than two or three sentences. Nahal perceived that her mother intended to deliver an image of Nahal and herself to Peter as a statement, rather than make any attempt to understand him or build a relationship with him. With Senowbar Khanom mostly speaking to her daughter and Peter mostly listening to unfamiliar Farsi words and Nahal’s translations of them, Senowbar Khanom, Nahal, and Peter walked for a while on the trail until a rather wide and deep pit stopped them on the road. Earlier that day it had rained, and some water had collected in the bottom of the pit, around which was muddy and slippery. Not giving it much thought, Nahal jumped over the pit. Peter began to follow her when it occurred to him that Senowbar Khanom might need help to reach the other side. He thus extended his hand toward Senowbar Khanom.

Senowbar Khanom was contemplating how to reach the other side when she noticed Peter’s hand. She hesitated and, for a few seconds that felt like an eternity, stared at Peter’s hand undecided if she should touch it.

Nahal wished that the world would end right then. To her and Peter, Senowbar Khanom’s pause felt as long as the history of injustice, malice, oppression, and bigotry. With it grew a chasm in their hearts, deepening into an abyss, deeper and darker than all the valleys on Earth, and Senowbar Khanom stood on the other side of it.

At last, Senowbar Khanom took Peter’s helping hand, and sensing the imminent eternal abyss in the air, in their eyes, and in their faces, she attempted a smile. None of them, including Senowbar Khanom, knew what that smile really meant, or how genuine it was. Yet, there is something non-negligible about attempts at reconciliation, even the disingenuous ones. First comes affected goodness, then comes goodness. And who is to say that Senowbar Khanom’s attempt, whichever kind it was then, wasn’t a step toward the latter?

 
Oyster.png
 
IMG_3343.jpg

Azin Neishaboori was born and raised in Iran where she attended college. She moved to the US in 2003 to attend Penn State University where she received her PhD in Electrical Engineering. In her writing, she aspires to question the prevalent narrative, and hopes to share an authentic and non-politicized perspective of Iranians and other Middle Easterners with the readers.

Azin IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

 

 Dinner

Kailash Srinivasan



I don’t usually get nervous but I get nervous when my publicist tells me the next city on the promotional tour of my book is Vancouver. My heart beats, beats, beats, makes its own tune. My former wife and I haven’t spoken to each other in years. I have no idea what her life’s like now, how she looks, even. But every time my name appeared in an article, or my book was shortlisted for this or that award, or I was on some panel—those kinds of things—I sent her an email and some post-event photos. There was no reason to, except I wanted to be in the periphery of her life, along the edges of her thoughts. Dick move, like my friend says. I get it. She opened them. I know this because I have an app that tells me if the receiver has seen my email. But she never wrote back.

It’s not even evening and it’s dark already. No one would believe that the sun was out just a minute ago. It’s raining now, slow, still deciding whether or not to cause a full-on kerfuffle. Vancouver’s always PMS-ing, the same friend says. To me, it’s beautiful in an achy, depressing way.

Sitting on a low-back swivel chair, I’ve read a little from my new book, droned into the microphone; I’ve sighed the answers to the same stupid questions— “Is it true that you draw heavily from your life?” “Could anyone become a writer?” I’ve signed copies for a few, devoted enough to stand in a queue. But most of them will toss the book away and never return to it. I have posed for selfies, smiled without wanting to smile. Then I excuse myself and call her. I didn’t think she’d answer. She answers. It’s a bad idea. I do it anyway. I ask her out to dinner.

She’s at the table by the back of the restaurant, by the washrooms. She knows I hate sitting near the washrooms. I wave. She sees me and forks a few fries into her mouth. There’s not a raise of an eyebrow, much less a smile. She still dyes her hair raven-black, I used to call her curl-girl; her skin has more lines; that pinched nose, and my nerves get busy. Her eyes, when they look up, are brown, melancholic, there’s agony in them. And I want to kiss her, look after her. I’d listened to her once tell me about watching her mum leave at night with a bag in hand. She went back to sleep, thinking her mum would return later.  

She drops her fork. When I bend to pick it up she puts her hand up, as though it’s a favor I’ll hold her to later. I take a seat. It’s an upscale place, I don’t want drama.

She points to her plate and says, Hope you don’t mind.

She says, Of course, why would you?

I say, I don’t.

Good.

When we were still together, she’d scream, I’d scream; we’d go sometimes from this realm to a parallel universe; from how I never cleaned the house to how fucked up our marriage was within a few minutes of getting into it. That always amazed me, the leaps from the mundane to the sombre. Sometimes it was about how she thought she was undesirable to me because we didn’t have sex as often; or that if I scrolled through our text exchanges, it was always her who asked after me, whether I had eaten, slept well, and never the other way around; she’d call me a dick, I’d call her a bitch, and we wouldn’t talk for a day before we’d start again.

I ask the waiter to get us a bottle of Merlot, a make we both like.

I have a signed copy of my book with her name on it, I tell her.

I haven’t had a sip of my wine before she gets to it.

She says, Remember, you used to joke about stripping me naked and pushing me out the door for the world to see? You finally did it, eh?

I say, It’s not like that, no one will know it’s you in the book. 

What about my friends, my family? You don’t think they’d know it’s all me? All the things I say?

I was in the city and wanted to—

She says, What did you expect? That I’d jump in your arms? Kiss your feet because you did me a huge favor by calling me?

She has her wine, closes her eyes.

I hear her swallow.  

She says, I was such a fool. To think how besotted I was with you. Fucking besotted. Just wanted to be around you all the time. Anyone will tell you you were a lucky son of a bitch to have me.

She says, You know why I came out here today?

She says, To tell you to stop sending me those fucking emails. I don’t want to know anything about you.

I say, You can just mark them as spam.  

She says, I can, but I am not an asshole, like you.

She says, Remember, how you’d come in from the cold and tuck your fucking freezing toes under my legs? And I never said shit.

She says, How you always took the best pillow for yourself.  

She says, Then you wrote me that shitty poem once. With your blood. I didn’t say anything, because it was your blood. It was a terrible poem.

She says, I told you stick to fiction.

She laughs at this. She lifts the sleeve of my shirt, feels the gash with her nail.

She says, You were different then. In the beginning anyhow. The way you looked at me. Like I’d saved you or something. But once New Yorker accepted that story of yours, your head was hard to find, it had gone way into your ass.

She says, Sometimes I dream about you. In that dream, you’re a stray dog I find on my street. You wag your tail, think you’ve found a home. But we get into my car, and we drive far-far away. When we get there, the place is deserted; crickets and wolves and owls screech into the night and you jump to my side, already loyal, ready to hurt anyone who wants to hurts me. When you’re busy looking for a treat I fling across a bush, I leave you there and drive away. I don’t look back once.

A pretty girl with a nose ring comes up to our table.

I love all your books, she says in that vague sort of way young people of today have.

She says, Your characters feel real, like I know them from somewhere.

She says, You in town a bit? I’d love a drink. Want to give me your number?

Again that same casualness, like getting a drink is nothing, like sex is nothing. Everything is whatever, my friend says.  

I say, I’m out in the a.m.

She says, Give it to me anyway. I’ll call you next time.

I scribble some digits on a tissue and hand it to her.

My ex-wife’s eyes follow the girl right to the door.

I say, That wasn’t my real number.

She says, Why are you telling me this?

She says, It doesn’t bother me anymore. You can sleep with anyone you want.

She says, You could’ve walked out with her right now and I wouldn’t have blinked.

I say, I didn’t mean it like that.

She gives me a look: Pity? Disgust? I can’t tell.

I say, I just wanted her gone.

I say, Anyway, let’s talk about the good times.

She says, Your parents should’ve named you Mr. Sensitive.

She says, I was the one who believed in you when no one gave a shit. No one knew who the fuck you were.

I say, I’ll never forget that.

The couple on the table beside us is whispering to the server; asking her to seat them elsewhere.

My publicist keeps calling. I disconnect the call.

Our server approaches us again with the menu. I wave him off. 

I say, People can hear us.

I say, I don’t want them to be saying things.

She says, You’ve hung me in public like a dirty cloth and you’re worried people would talk about you?

I say, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry.

She says, Damn right.

She says, The thing with memories is that no one can claim the copyrights. They are as much yours as mine, I guess.

She says, You know what’s really sad?

She says, You see me better than I see myself. Things you’ve said about me in the book. She says, I believe those things about me.

I say, You hungry? Should we order something?

She says, I’m alright but you go ahead, order.

I say, It’s okay, I don’t feel like it now.

She says, Whatever. You’re not a baby. Just don’t go die on me. That’ll be on me too.

I say, I won’t.

She says, Don’t be stupid, order something.

She expects me to signal the waiter. When I don’t, when I just sit with my hands in my lap, she says, Why the fuck did you ask me over anyway? What more do you want? I have nothing more to give.

She says, You want my blood? I can give you that.

She says, Don’t think for one second I came because I still think about you.

She says, Don’t think I’ll abandon the life I’ve got now and come running to you each time you’re in town. Those days are over.

She says, What is it this time? Are you depressed again? Can’t shit without having a smoke first? Your book’s not doing well? Whatever the fuck it is, go to someone else, alright?

Alright. 

She says, You never had a problem in that department anyway. Some stupid woman always fell for your bullshit charm. Look at me.

She says, Just leave me out of it. I’m done changing your diapers.

She says, I know you’ll even write about this evening.

She says, You’ll say, she’s still the same old bitch.  

She says, You can’t help it even if you wanted to.

She says, That’s your curse. You’re always thinking about what you can use from your own life.  

She says, You’re a rat. You won’t say shit to my face. You never do. Never did. Like now, I’m running my mouth and you sit there like none of this ever mattered to you. Maybe it didn’t. But you’ll write about it.

I say, I won’t. I want to hear you talk.

She snorts.

She says, You told me once to stop barking.

People are watching us, listening to us. She’s had four glasses of wine.

I say, Do you want more wine?

She says, Damn right.

She says, When you cheated the first time, it killed me. I thought it was my fault. I cried. That’s all I ever did back then. Staring in the mirror and crying.

She says, But I stayed.

We’re about to close, sir. Are you ready to order?

She says, Wine, more wine, and I’ll have this bastard pay for it. Get us something to eat, or Mr. Writer here will starve to death and I’ll read about how it was my fault in his obituary.

The waiter brings another red and spaghetti in tomato sauce.

The kitchen is now closed, sir.

I say, Keep talking, please.

She says, Leave me alone, stop sending me shit, stop reminding me who we were, used to be, could’ve been. I want anonymity. That’s what I want. Can you give me that?

She looks down, shakes her head, as if she can’t bear to remember something.

It’s almost midnight.

We’re closed.

I give him some money. I don’t know how much. He leaves.

She says, You’re paying someone to stay with me?

I say, I want to stay.

The place is empty. The candles are out, except the one on our table. I pick up the fork and scoop some spaghetti.

She says, Eat. If you die now I’ll walk out. I won’t even turn to look.

Then I do something. I reach over and feed her. Just like that. She lets me. I pick up a napkin to wipe the sides of her mouth.

I see her face in the candle light. I pull my chair closer and take her hand. I go on holding her hand. Then I bring it close, let it rest on my cheek. I try to memorize this feeling. 

She says, Fine, guilty. I still wear the ring you gave me. But you can see it’s not on my ring finger, so technically it’s not a crime.

She says, Will you mind if I say something?

She says, Of course you won’t.

She says, Here’s what I want to say.

She says, I have a life, but I don’t know why, every night before I go to bed, I pray for you. Before I even pray for my own kids, my partner, I pray for you.

I peel her hand away from my cheek, hold it at the wrist and bring it back down with force. Her long, tender fingers slap me across my face. I do it again and again before she says, Are you mad?  

She says, It’s all fucking talk. Every woman talks. We need to, else we’d go crazy. Our brains would explode. It makes us feel better. You have a heart. I’ll grant you that. Not the best, but one that beats anyway. You were nice once, so there’s still potential. You don’t say things out loud, but I can tell it’s all there, the heap of it. Women think men are cruel for not speaking their mind. It’s an illness. We talk way too much. That’s an illness, also.

Then here’s what I do next. I slip my hand into my jacket’s pocket and reach for my fountain pen. The only pen I write with – black with a golden band on the cap, the one she gifted me. I lay the pen at her feet.

For a minute she’s still. Then she says, Idiot! What does this even mean? Come on, babe, let’s not be stupid here. It’s just seeing you all of a sudden. Like a beehive. You poke at it and it’s going to come at you. Pick up your pen.

I want you to have it.

This is foolish. If you leave the pen here with me you’ll keep thinking about it. Maybe you’ll stop writing, maybe, you’ll stop thinking about me, too.

She places the pen back into my pocket.

The waiter’s patience is one percent milk. Sir, please.

We walk towards the door.

She says, I can’t remember the last time we spent so much time together: no calls, no deadlines, no distractions.

She says, How does it matter now? Old news, right?

I open the door for her and the cold punches me. I feel like my organs might freeze. I remove my jacket for her, but she says no, but I hear in her voice the reason for this: she knows my balls are not built for cold weather.

We stand there. She has her arms around herself.

She says, It’s all good, okay? Let’s live our lives.

She says, If you write about today, I’d like to know. Send me an email. I’d like that. There are things even you can’t see at the moment, am I right?

Yes, I say, like always.

She says, I’m noticing some good changes here. Is it the wine talking?

I’m joking, she says.

She calls a cab. She looks at me, but when I don’t move a muscle, when I don’t even take my hands out of my pockets, she taps the driver’s shoulder. My heart breaks seeing her go.

I walk down the sidewalk, towards the waterfront. Cars line up either side of the street. There are these long shadows everywhere, trailing me. I can’t seem to get away. I see a hooker in her pink make-up. She lowers her leopard-print top when I come closer. I ask her to hold me.

She says, Fuck off, creep.

I say, I’m alright, don’t worry about me.

I say, When you haven’t done the right thing for so long, it’s hard.

I say, Talk to me, say something bad. I deserve it.

Fuck off.

Thank you.

The fuck’s matter with you? She says.

I don’t know, I say. I don’t know.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Kailash+Srinivasan.jpg

Kailash Srinivasan is a fiction writer living in Vancouver, and has recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. His work has appeared in Bad Nudes, Lunch Ticket, OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, and Them Pretentious Basterds and others. twitter-@kailashwrites

 A Childhood Neighbor

Kassandra Montag



It had been eight years since she last saw him. Elsa smiled quickly and looked away and looked back. He looked older. There was something about the way he moved, his body more angular, his gestures more certain. It made her wish she had something in her hands, a cup she could take a drink from, a purse she could open and ruffle through.

She had dreamt of him several times in the last year, dreams full of images and abrupt shifts, a sort of collage. Nolan chopping wood next to the cabin. She and Nolan swimming in the river. Her sewing a button on his shirt. Or her brother would become Nolan in a dream, or Nolan would be a tree she leaned against while reading. When she dreamed of Nolan making love to her he had no face, and this made her feel more comfortable. He was faceless, but she knew it was him. Normally, he did not stay one thing, and this was comforting as well. In the morning, she sometimes clung to these images and built on them, imagining and daydreaming as she made coffee or got dressed for work.

Of course, she had known that being married wouldn’t erase the past or eliminate attractions to other men, but she hadn’t quite expected how ridiculous her thoughts would remain. She brushed them aside, stretched her mind like a cat, to make it limber for something else, but it huddled back to him, water in a tide pool at each high tide, as though that were the only shape water could take.

He walked in her direction. Elsa glanced away and saw her husband, Cooper, talking with his sister, whose wedding gown had a small purple bloom on the bodice from a stray drop of wine.

“Elsa?”

“Nolan! Hi, hi,” Elsa smiled and extended her hand and he shook it. “Good to see you.”

“And you, I—wasn’t—so, how do you know the bride and groom?” Nolan stuck his hand in his back pocket, his posture relaxed.

“June is my sister-in-law. It’ll be three years this September.” Elsa held up her left hand, the small diamond glinting in the light.

“Congratulations. My mom told me—a few years ago. Sorry I didn’t send a card.”

“No, of course. Thank you.” Elsa smoothed the skirt of her yellow dress with her palms in a swift stroke down.

It was an early March wedding that had taken place in an old barn and the reception had begun immediately after the ceremony. Old-fashioned lanterns hung in the rafters and along the perimeter of the barn, casting an orange glow over the deep maple wood and the white tables and chairs. The barn made Elsa think of the holy family, sheltering from the cold, a rare spot in the cold world surprisingly warm, by artifice or miracle. 

“Do you want a drink?” Nolan asked.

At the drink table, Nolan poured her a glass of wine and she studied his face. His red hair still had the sharp cowlick to the side of his forehead, but he had fewer freckles than before. Out in the sun less, maybe.

“What do you do these days, Nolan? Are you still building—woodworking? Like you used to?”

“Yeah, I actually went up to an Amish woodworking training program in Pennsylvania last year. So yeah—That’s what I do now. Furniture mostly.”

“I’d love to see some of your recent work. Do you have your own business?”

“In a rough way, yeah. Not my own shop, or storefront, I guess you’d say. I build and sell out of my house. I’m working on developing the business end of things right now.”

An older couple on the dance floor performed an intricate swing dance, twisting each other and leaning in sync. Elsa watched them so she wouldn’t look at Nolan’s arms. His shirt was rolled up to the forearm and she kept imagining him sanding down a piece of wood or lifting hay with a pitchfork, the way he used to. She wondered if she was having these feelings now because she was young, only twenty-eight, but could feel herself aging, could hear in her inner ear the years tick by, like an expiration she was slowly approaching.

Though she was married, she felt single. Cooper worked long hours at the law firm where he was a freshly minted attorney, constantly trying to establish himself and compete for a better case. She had begun to realize that she felt more alone than she ever did before she was married.

Elsa’s father greeted Nolan and sat next to them. “Are you still painting?” Nolan asked Elsa’s father.

“Never have had much time for it. I had to repair the roof today. Always something.” There was a pause and Elsa’s father watched the cellist. A woman’s silk scarf rippled as she danced with her partner; it fluttered behind her like a broken wing.

“Elsa, remember when you were seven—the time you and your brother were swimming in the Boyer River and an undercurrent caught you?”

Elsa’s pulse quickened; her neck warmed. Ever since Elsa’s mother had left Elsa’s father, his voice got thick and melancholy unexpectedly. Elsa leaned back in her chair. “You saw me go under from the field and ran in and pulled me out.”

“Time stopped,” he said. “When I was young I wanted every moment to be like that. A pulling you out of the water and being able to remember the shade of the grass, the texture of its crisp, half-dried paper. How can we pay attention when roofs are always leaking?”

Years ago, long before her mother left, Elsa had once heard her father say to her mother: “You want too much from me. I can’t pay attention to you the way you want.”

Elsa took a long drink of wine and glanced at Nolan from the corner of her eye. He was twisting his wine glass from its stem on the table, staring at it with a faraway look.

“But that’s art for you, isn’t it, Elsa?” Elsa’s father asked, gazing at her. “She had a piece accepted at a gallery in Chicago,” he told Nolan.

“Congratulations,” Nolan said. He reached out to squeeze Elsa’s hand but stopping midway and returning to his wine glass. “Which piece?”

“An impressionistic piece in acrylic—of a cabin next to a river.” She suddenly wished she had lied, made something else up. Nolan was looking at her as though a second, invisible eyelid had opened, leaving his eye now really open, staring at her in his irritating way that said, I know you.

“She brought another one for a gift. Elsa you should show him—” her father said, gesturing toward the gift table.

“No—it’s wrapped—”

“In a gift bag,” her father interjected.

“I’d like to see it,” Nolan said.

Elsa swallowed a sigh and stood up. They took the bag from the gift table into the women’s restroom, where the bride and groom wouldn’t see them opening the gift, and Elsa lifted the painting out of the bag. It was an acrylic of the interior of a makeshift shed, with a dirt floor and an open door facing scouring rush, cottonwoods, and a small river. It was in muted colors, similar to Wyeth’s “Master Bedroom.” Elsa cringed looking at her painting; her fear of being derivative rose up in her and made her toes curl.

After she had a mild success—an acceptance into a good gallery, a sale from her website—she had nightmares that night of being trapped in an old house, running down a hallway, opening doors. Each door she opened faced a wall with a painting that had her name on it, but that was clearly done by someone else.  

 “I know it just looks like regionalism—” Elsa said, pulling the painting toward herself to put it back in the bag.

“No,” Nolan said and gently grasped her wrist to still her, without taking his eyes off the painting. “I like it.” Nolan stared at the painting for another minute. “You make it better than I imagined it. I’m jealous.”

“What?”

“To make something imagined look both real and better than real. It’s both that cabin on a summer day and it isn’t—it’s something more. You made it something more.”

Eleven years before, when they were seventeen, Nolan had waited for Elsa in the forest behind her home. Everything was grayscale except his hair, red, against the white snow and black trees in the fog and early daylight. The cottonwoods formed a black shape that represented nothing, but seemed like one thing at one time and another thing at another time.

The sound of Elsa’s footsteps in the snow and the calls of geese on Boyer River filled her ears like slowly blooming flowers. A solitary figure in his gray wool coat, Nolan looked like a stranger isolated among the trees and snow. Behind her, her brother was in the stable, saddling his gray horse for a morning ride. A few aunts, uncles, and cousins had already arrived at the house, gifts in arms, opening the door to the smell of cedar and sugar cookies, baked ham and roasted almonds.

Nolan had taped a note to her bedroom window that read, “meet me in the forest at seven this morning.” It was just like him to leave a note like that, assuming she would see it on the morning he left it. Nolan lived half a mile away, on a corn farm near Elsa’s family’s cattle ranch.

“Sorry,” Elsa said when she reached him. “Have you been waiting long?”

“No.” He took her by the hand and kissed her forehead. The wings of geese darkened the snow with their shadows as they flew overhead. A flood last summer from the Missouri had spread into Boyer River, leaving sediment dusted over the ground and trunks of trees once it had receded.

“Okay, close your eyes,” Nolan said. Nolan unraveled her plaid scarf from her neck and wrapped it around her eyes and led her through the snow, until the geese at the bank of the river grew louder.

When he untied the scarf and leaned into her and whispered, “Merry Christmas,” she saw a wood tree swing, made of red cedar wood, hanging from the branch of an oak tree.

Elsa leaned back into him, wrapped his arm around her waist and bit her lip. She shook her head. “Nolan…” she turned and took his face in her palms and kissed him.

She ran over to the swing and leapt onto it. He followed and sat beside her, the swing large enough for two, the slats of wood thick and varnished, gleaming in the sunlight. The swing faced the river and they watched the birds taking flight and diving low above the water.

Elsa’s mind and body buzzed. She had once been flattered when a boy simply offered to give her a ride home during a snowstorm.

 “I thought it would be a nice place to hang out. For both of us,” Nolan said.

“It’s perfect. How long have you been working on it?” Elsa traced her finger along the grain of the wood.

Nolan shrugged. “Awhile. I was worried you’d find it before I was finished. I know you like riding out here.” Nolan paused. “Working on it made me think of the cabin I’d like to build.”

Elsa glanced at him. “Yeah?”

Nolan nodded.

Over the past year they had talked, lightly at first, but then more seriously, of a cabin in the woods, a place to call their own. In her mind, it seemed like light and warmth in a cold, dark space. Nolan talked about building it, how he had always wanted to build something larger than furniture. Over the months, it became more and more real: they gave it properties and characteristics, considered its placement and its interior. It would face the river, they decided. It would be made of oak and have wood floors and a tin roof. The furniture would be simple and spare: a bed, a table, a few shelves. There would be no electricity or plumbing. There had to be limits to what they could create, and the limits made their imagining more pleasing. 

The cabin was similar to how they had viewed their future when they were young: something they could imagine and consider carefully as to how they would dictate its creation. A sort of object they could hold apart from themselves, something they could accept or reject, like a purchase at a store. At the time, it symbolized raw possibility and made Elsa feel free and expansive. But now it weighed her down, the image of the cabin firmly lodged in her mind, unchanging, casting a real shadow over other thoughts, thoughts on events that had actually happened and had a physical existence.

The band played a ballad, an Irish tune, with deep notes from the cello and the melody led by the harmonica. Nolan asked her to dance and with his hand on the small of her back, led her out to the dance floor. She had wanted to dance with him all night, to feel his hand at her waist, to be in the uncomfortable position of having to look in his face.

Her skin buzzed with a mild burn, her palms slightly damp. She hoped he wouldn’t notice. Looking at Nolan, considering his familiar jaw line, his familiar smell, she wondered if she could ever paint his portrait. The trouble was the difference between seeing and imagining, letting outward vision match the inner vision. In her worst paintings, she had given a subject attributes not natural or real to it.

“You still dance all the time?” he asked.

Elsa frowned. “I used to dance all the time?”

“It seemed that way.” Nolan smiled, and lifted their arms and turned her gently and pulled her back to him.

“Are you seeing anyone?” Elsa asked him.

Nolan shrugged. “Not really.”

For a moment Elsa thought he’d say, “I still think of you.” She wanted him to say it and didn’t want him to. As in her dreams, she remained divided, wanting to still be connected to him, and yet holding back, keeping her distance.

“Your painting made me think of the cabin we always talked about,” he said. Elsa stiffened.

“I’m amazed we talked so much about that cabin for so long,” she said with a laugh. She wondered if now he dismissed the cabin as an extravagant gesture.

He shrugged. “Seemed like a fun idea at the time. I don’t think I would have done it justice though, I think I’m more suited for working on smaller pieces. Pieces that go in houses, not the houses themselves.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s hard to see things from the inside. Several years back I worked with a construction company on houses. I felt out of control, like I was guessing the whole time.”

Her brother, Joe, had once asked her if she was still in touch with Nolan, but his question wasn’t honest; it was sideways, trying to pry open a door with a crowbar.

This was five years ago, when Elsa was home during a break from the art academy. She was hanging out with Joe and his friends at a local bar. Nolan was working as a roofer in a nearby town at the time. Joe and his friends were trading stories of Nolan’s sexual escapades he had bragged about to them: three college girls he had slept with the week before, one-night stands leaving behind their hair extensions, wild parties with quick hookups.

“He’s making it up, the poser,” Joe and his friends agreed. “He’s not getting it as much as he says.” Then they laughed and glanced at Elsa and apologized, as though they had forgotten her presence and hadn’t gotten some pleasure out of talking about it in her presence. She had given them an impassive face and drained her beer. She was fairly certain they had no idea how close she and Nolan were—they likely thought they were just another brief high school couple and two neighbor kids who used to spend a lot of time playing together down by the river, in the weeds, hunting for ducks, or building forts in trees.

The song ended and they walked back to their table. Nolan asked, “What are you thinking about?”

 “About how quickly you changed. That stage you went through…” Elsa said. She was thinking in particular about the time they were walking beside the soybean rows, along a dirt road, carrying fishing poles to a little pond at the end of the lane. It was mid-afternoon during the fall of their senior year of high school, about eight months after he had given her the tree swing. Sweat was building and dripping from her hairline on the usually warm day and she was talking about colleges and art schools, agonizing over her applications. Suddenly, Nolan had turned toward her and sneered, “You’re so banal. All you care about is what other people think.”

It wasn’t the only time he had taken a moment of her vulnerability as an opening for attack, but it was somehow the one she remembered the most. When he was a child he was kindhearted and tender, prone to nightmares and occasional bouts of shyness and anger. During their senior year that part of his personality—flashes of anger and introversion, dramatic mood swings, fake, projected behavior—all heightened, as if a new part of him was hatching.

But maybe it wasn’t his behavior that was fake and heightened. Now, standing here with him after all these years, she felt that same buried personality in him, the parts of him she had wanted to ignore. Nolan made the tree swing by the river, but she made their relationship in her mind. While she mulled over their relationship, she was tinkering with it like an object she could create for her own pleasure.

The band switched to a livelier set and children joined in the dancing, their small shoes flapping against the hardwood floor of the barn. One little girl ran into a large pot of winter jasmine, the flowers shaking from impact, and the little girl started to cry.

 “This sounds like the beginning of an interrogation,” Nolan said.

Elsa was dismayed by how quickly they could fall into the same patterns of argument. Her attacking, him retreating. She desperately wanted to believe they had both grown up.

“I don’t mean it like that. It was just… an odd time. When we lost touch,” said Elsa.

 “You changed too, you know,” he said, looking out at the dancers, his face hard. “All you’d talk about is your work, your future plans. You weren’t present.”

Elsa glared at him. “I wasn’t what you wanted, is what you mean.”

Nolan turned his eyes back to her and his stare chilled her. His anger still spread quickly like an avalanche and covered everything in sight.

“Don’t act like you know me. Don’t act like you ever knew me.”

“You’re right, I don’t know you, Nolan. I don’t care to.” Elsa stood up, almost tripping over the table leg, and walked away from him.

The barn felt warm and the lanterns, which previously seemed to emit a soft glow, now seemed to be humidity lamps, making Elsa feel sticky and dizzy. She needed a cigarette. Elsa grabbed her white wool coat from the coat rack and changed out of her matching yellow heels into her snow boots. A shoe shelf lined the wall next to the door and heavy snow boots all lay inside, resting like sleeping pigeons.

Outside it was not frigid, only chilly. In front of her lay an expanse of snow covering dead grass, with cottonwoods a quarter of a mile away growing along the river.

She walked across the snowy field toward the cottonwoods. Sumac grew closer to the river; it looked violent and ancient, growing red among the white snow and dark brown trunks of dried winter trees. The river was frozen and thin, really more of a stream; perhaps another tributary of the Missouri.

Elsa pulled a cigarette out of her clutch, lit it, and took a drag. She wondered if the river was frozen all the way through, with no undercurrent under the ice still carrying fish, snails, small rocks, along its winding course. That seemed the main difference in rivers—not their colors or their shape, both of which changed each season—but whether they could be stilled during a harsh winter.

Elsa heard footsteps behind her and glanced over her shoulder. Nolan was quiet, staring at her for a moment. She felt self-conscious and had a vision of herself: eyes smudged with eyeliner, long dark hair matted against the trunk she was leaning against, her white wool coat brushed with dirt.

 “You always liked the woods,” he said as he plucked the cigarette from her fingers, took a drag and handed it back. “I’m surprised we ended up in the same city. Didn’t think I’d see you again. I’m glad I did.”

Elsa looked out across the river at cottonwoods on the other side of the bank. Their lean branches were familiar, their way of stretching into the sky, and leaning off to the side just slightly, enough to look burdened and buoyed by hope. She wanted to ask him if he ever thought of a future between them, yet she knew it would be better to abstain. She had the impression she would regret whichever choice she made. Her regret could be built on an illusion, but the choice she made would be real, with real consequences.

“You know, you’re lucky you know what you want and go for it,” Nolan said. “I’ve always envied that about you.”

“How in the world does it seem like I know what I want and have gotten it?”

“Nice husband. Moving forward with your art career. You’ve always wanted both those things.”

“Do you remember that beaver skeleton we found on the bank that summer?”

“Yeah.”

A cormorant swooped low over the river, the last rays of sunlight softening its dark plumage into velvet.

“I still have its teeth in my top dresser drawer.”

Nolan smiled and gestured for her to hand him the cigarette. “Doesn’t surprise me. You always like to keep things. You’re probably a hoarder these days.”

At nine when Elsa saw the beaver skeleton she was shocked by how small and delicate it looked, shrunken like a crescent moon, and she pulled its two front teeth from its skull and was delighted with her find. It somehow seemed romantic and valuable to her. A treasure like anything else that has been threatened and still remains.

“Remember that August when you stole a stalk of my mother’s rhubarb and I chased you to the river?” Nolan asked.

“Yes.”

“When I chased you I stopped and slid between the barbed wires of a farmer’s fence instead of leaping over it. To slow down. I hoped I wouldn’t catch you.”

Elsa snubbed the cigarette against the tree trunk and walked out to the river, startling a few geese into flight.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I want to try and see if the river is frozen all the way through.”

“I don’t think you can tell by standing on it. Elsa—come back. It may not be safe.”

Elsa loved Nolan in a distant way, like loving a place you once went as a child, remembering the sounds, smells, colors, and wishing you could visit it again, but knowing that if you returned to the place, it wouldn’t be the same place. Your memory had changed it, had made it over into something else.

She stepped among the scouring rush and onto the ice. She always had felt clean and clear standing in the middle of a frozen river, as if she could finally get her thoughts aligned. Here, on the ice, framed by the cottonwoods and the geese, she had the feeling that she wouldn’t dream of Nolan again, or if she did, it would be a dream of a person she didn’t recognize.

Nolan stepped out on to the ice behind her and walked toward her.

Elsa saw a deep shadow or some dark form in the ice. She walked several steps toward the opposite bank and saw at her feet a dead deer frozen in the river, turned on its side, the profile of its face defined as a sculpture, its single eye open, its stomach split wide, the red still visible through the ice, intestines, a dark red organ, spilling out, frozen against her stomach like a half-borne child erupting from her womb. Nolan gently took her hand, pulled her a few steps back, walked in front of her and placed his foot over its open eye. A chill fell through her veins, as if Nolan had snuffed the life from it a second time, as if somehow it was possible to be further erased after you had died, as if there was no final erasure, only a sequence of fading.

 
 
Kassandra Montag.jpg

Kassandra Montag grew up in rural Nebraska and now lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature and her award-winning poetry and short fiction has appeared in journals and anthologies, including Midwestern Gothic, Nebraska Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Mystery Weekly Magazine. After the Flood is her first novel.

There Were Hands

Max Hromek

Content Warning: This story includes scenes of sexual coercion.

 

There were hands.

There were hands on my body. They were your hands. Your hands on a body. Your hands on a back—my back. I think it was my back. My back pressed into the bed.

Your hands were on breasts—my breasts? Lips. I remember lips. Lips on lips. Lips on a neck, on a stomach, on a thigh, on—

Hands. Someone’s hands were on your hands. Someone’s hands were clenching sheets.

Shutter.png

The first time I saw you, we were both in sophomore year of high school. What would that make us? Sixteen? Fifteen? I can’t be sure. It was sophomore year of high school, and I saw you. You saw me. We crammed ourselves into a car. There weren’t enough seats, so I sat on your lap. I barely knew you, and I sat on your lap. Your hands were my seatbelt. Each turn the car took, I felt you shift underneath me. I felt your hands holding me tight—squeezing me. Crushing me. I felt your breath on my neck, steady and slow like your heartbeat. Not like my heartbeat. My heart whirred like a fan, hummingbird wings pounding against my chest. I felt your fingers laced together in my lap.

Years later I found you on an app, swiping through faces until the universe showed me you. It made me look at you again like I did when we were sixteen or fifteen. Your face was round, cheeks warm and pink. It was still blotched with adolescence and shone like polished gold. Shaggy hair still framed your face like it did back when I was around to brush it aside. Brush it out of your big brown eyes—the same eyes.

Same hands.

Those hands. I felt those hands again as I stared at the nauseating glow of my phone screen. My stomach twisted in knots. My throat closed. You looked happy. I hated you for that. I hated your perfect crooked smile. I hated how nonchalant you were, lounging on a barstool, glass in hand. Your arms were open, shoulders pulled back. Your legs crossed in that uniquely masculine way. You were so non-threatening. Anyone would give you the benefit of the doubt. We were kids.

Who could blame you?

My hands started to sweat.

Shutter.png

We held hands once. We walked through the woods behind your neighborhood. It was a tiny gravel path, only big enough for two people. Not many people knew about it, I don’t think. The countless times we walked it, I never saw anybody. I never saw anybody but you. I remember one June evening, I wore a bright yellow dress, its light chiffon hem tickled my knees as the breeze blew around us. I remember that dress. You bought it for me. It had a high collar that buttoned in the front right at my throat. It was suffocating.

“You love me,” you said.

That was back when I wore dresses. Back when I wore heels, and when my hair was long. The kinds of things you liked.

You wore a plaid shirt, purple, I think. Yellow and purple are complements, complementary colors. I remember the gravel crunching beneath our feet. I remember the sun setting. Only thin dashes of light could push through the thick summer trees—almost like stars. Stars in the daytime that sparkled on the leaves and the rocks and the grass. I want to imagine that it sparkled in your eyes as you looked at me.

I want to imagine that you looked at me.

We laughed. There was a tiny stream by your house. It wasn’t too small or too big. The crisp water murmured and stammered over the stones. The breeze answered back by rustling the leaves. The crunch of the gravel tried to add to the song, but the melody was only for two—the breeze and the water. I imagined they were in love. No matter how the gravel protested, nothing could come between love.

You and I walked over a bridge. I balanced on the railing like a tightrope walker. I imagined the drop was one hundred feet. I imagined fire below. I needed help to cross, and you held my hand—not clutching. You barely held on, our fingertips grazing each other. Nothing more. I wobbled in my heels, but you knew I could make it. You said I was strong. You said I was brave.

On the other side of the bridge, we stood underneath a giant tree—I think it was oak—and we looked out over the stream. Trees curtained off the houses in the neighborhood. Bugs chased after each other, buzzing with glee. Squirrels shook branches.

I wanted to climb. I wanted to climb the tree and feel every branch in my hands, bark dry and rough and stable. I wanted to push myself up and see the sky. I imagined climbing so far I could touch the clouds. They would be bouncy and light yet coarse like sheep’s wool. The tree would grow before my eyes. Grow into the stratosphere and beyond. If I climbed high enough, I could see the stars, shining for me—only me. I wanted to see the stars. I wanted to feel the cool vacuum of space. I wanted to climb the tree, but I didn’t.

I was wearing a dress. It embarrassed me. A lot of things embarrassed me. You chuckled whenever I blushed. Any small, simple thing could send warm blood rushing into my face, and you would laugh. It was as if two bulbous red apples replaced my cheeks. I would try to hide my face, but you would always find me. You would find me, hold my face in your hands, and kiss it until I blushed even more. My face still stings from where you held me.

“You love me,” you said.

I didn’t climb the tree that day. Instead, we imagined the stream was a giant river. We wondered where it could go. We wondered how many trees we would have to cut down to build a boat and sail away. We talked about the future even though we were children. We talked about marriage and careers. We talked about buying a house.

I wanted kids, but you didn’t.

You wanted to move, but I didn’t.

You said you should probably be a lawyer like your father. I didn’t know what I wanted.

We talked about how we would raise our kids.

I was Catholic. You were Lutheran.

I wanted a church wedding. You wanted to elope.

We didn’t worry. We had plenty of time to figure it out. Plenty of time to plan.

We talked about college.

I would go somewhere close to you, so we could see each other on weekends.

I wouldn’t take too many classes.

I wouldn’t party without you.

We bundled close together even though the air was thick and wet. Your fingers laced with mine. Your face was etched into every stone. Your voice was soft in every passing breeze. When I looked at the sun pushing through the trees, I saw your smile. When I felt the warmth of summer, I felt your hand closed tight around mine. Your sweaty hand closed around my hand.

Your sweaty hand closed around something. Was it my hand? I can’t remember. All I remember is that we made a secret.

I want to believe that’s what it was.

I still have it. I have that secret. It’s pressed into my heart like a dried flower. It’s burned into my mind like a cattle brand. What did you do with our secret?

Did you keep it? Did you take it with you when you left?

Shutter.png

Technology has forced me to remember the exact date I first saw you. I took a picture.

Saturday, March 29th, 2014.

I was sixteen. I still had braces. It looked like I had every piece of scrap metal in America forced into my mouth—a horribly mechanical smile. You had a terrible bowl cut that reminded me of the Beatles back then. Now I try to laugh.

Thursday, April 24th, we went to the mall.

Sunday, July 6th, we went to dinner.

Saturday, September 21st, we went to homecoming.

Saturday, April 18th, we went to prom.

I don’t know the date we broke up.

Shutter.png

On Halloween, you had a party. We dressed up as Sid and Nancy. You loved the Sex Pistols, and the name made me blush. You said it would be fun. You said Sid and Nancy were an iconic couple. You said we had no other choice. You were Sid even though you played the guitar not the bass. Even though you had brown hair, not black. You wore that stupid leather jacket and your stupid black jeans. I used to like how you looked in them.

You made me be Nancy. I didn’t know who she was besides what you told me. You told me she was sexy. You told me she was the powerhouse. I imagined that she was the type to yell and shout when she didn’t get her way. I imagined that if someone hurt her, she’d punch them in the face and walk away laughing. I looked nothing like Nancy.

Your dad told me that I looked like Debbie Harry instead. He cracked open another beer and smiled at me as he shook the foam off his hand. I pulled down on my miniskirt, hoping to hide the fishnet tights you had gotten me. You went to answer the door, so I was left to entertain your father who was quickly becoming as drunk as we were. I stared at his forehead. I didn’t want to look in his eyes, so I stared at his receding hairline—already salt and pepper despite not even hitting fifty. I tried not to think about the eyes scanning me up and down. I tried to be good.

“Debbie Harry,” he said.

It was how I stood. My head cocked in the exact right way, he said, and my lips curled ever so slightly. I didn’t know what this meant.

You came back with a group of your friends, and we all stumbled out the backdoor and into the yard. I didn’t know your friends, mostly boys, and their girlfriends. The girls didn’t talk. They all looked the same, gangly love-struck zombies dressed in miniskirts and tube tops. None of them looked at me. They looked at their boyfriends. Or each other’s boyfriends. When someone told a joke they laughed in unison, squawking on command like exotic birds. I wondered if I was like them.

Someone brought something that smelled like nail polish remover. I didn’t want to try it, but you dared me. I could feel a circle of eyes digging into my skin, burning through me. The girls saw me for the first time and weren’t impressed. I threw my head back and drank it. My throat seized up. I could barely taste anything. I thought the inside of my throat was going to melt off. The girls were chuckling, so I forced myself to swallow. I coughed, trying to alleviate the pain. Nothing. I coughed again, but just produced bubbles of acidic backwash. I could feel tears burning my eyes. You laughed.

“You love me,” you said.

We started a bonfire using the booze as an accelerant. The blaze cast a halo of light around you, your back turned to me. You looked so confident. You looked so comfortable. I tried to look through you like you looked through me. My eyes strained to see past your skin and muscles and bones. I drew a cigarette up to my mouth.

The mouth that drank what you wanted it to.

The mouth that kissed you.

The mouth that spoke the words you wanted to hear and laughed when you commanded.

I stared into the woods, and the darkness filled me. We couldn’t see the stars at your house. I had to imagine they were there. I had to imagine the space dust falling from the sky and lifting me away. I had to imagine a distant planet where there was no Halloween or fathers or girlfriends.

I blew out the smoke. I didn’t start smoking until I met you, but by then I had learned to stop coughing. I learned to hold it long enough to feel it prickle in the back of my throat. I felt the warmth inside my mouth. Warmth I didn’t want to let go, but I learned to let it go. I learned to let things go.

You came up behind me and grabbed at my waist.

“Take a picture,” you said. Someone grabbed your phone from your outstretched hand. They took the picture. I don’t have that one. I wasn’t looking at the phone. You might have posted it on social media somewhere. I couldn’t find it even if I tried. I managed to erase you from my feed. Erase you from my story.

But I still see you every time I drive past your street. Anytime I walk the same sidewalks we walked, I feel your breath on my neck. I feel your eyes on my back.

I feel your hands on my waist.

shutter small.png

I remember being told to find a husband. I was told to get married but don’t spend too much money doing it. My mom bought her wedding dress for $80 at a department store. It was ivory—not pure white—with giant sleeves and a bow on the back, ribbons trailing down to the floor. She got married in a huge church on the nice side of town and then had the reception in a cramped restaurant basement. I was told to have only one bridesmaid. That’s all I needed. I needed a husband and a bridesmaid. Any more than one bridesmaid would be excess. It was tacky. Why would anyone need that many friends? You agreed.

I was told to wait until marriage. I was told that it was going to be magical. It was going to fill me with light and warmth and grace. I would spend my whole life waiting for it. Nothing after it mattered. Marriage was the end, so wait until marriage. You disagreed.

shutter small.png

On Thursday, September 4th we made a paper lantern and broke into an elementary school playground. I have pictures of that. I have a lot of pictures of that. You said it would be fun. You said I shouldn’t worry—it gave me wrinkles on my forehead. I was wearing a gray tank top, and you were wearing a black one. My braces were off by then, but now my teeth were stained yellow from the smoking. Your hair had grown out of the bowl-cut. You said you were going for Kurt Cobain. I agreed that it looked good. I didn’t care one way or another, but you liked it when I said you looked good.

“You love me,” you said.

We hopped the low, chain link fence and ran around the field until our lungs gave out, and we collapsed onto the ground. We kissed until our lips gave out, and we melted into each other’s arms. There, in the damp grass, we lit the lantern. I held it long enough to feel the warmth gently brush my hand. It was warmth like the first time we kissed, your breath hot on my face as you leaned in. I let go. I knew to let go.

We watched the lantern float into the sky. It danced around the clouds as the dim glow of the candle traced its way through the deep blue sky. It was like one sun rising as the other one set. If I couldn’t reach the stars then at least the lantern would. I gave my heart to the lantern to carry into space. I wanted it to carry me away with it. I wanted to dance with the clouds too.

I didn’t realize it then. Of course, I didn’t realize it.

You lit a cigarette. We finished it. We shared in our death, confident of the future.

We lit another one. The lantern was a speck in the sky. We didn’t look at each other. We just sat hand in hand, passing the cigarette between us.

shutter small.png

One of my friends introduced me to you. She had a party, and you were single.

I was sixteen years old. So were you.

I was in my sophomore year of high school. So were you.

I remember you sauntering into the restaurant. You had on a black button-up and black tie, a regular rock star. You were so cool and collected. You knew who you were. You knew what you wanted. You acted so surprised when I liked the same music as you. Of course, I did. I liked anything you wanted me to like. I said anything you wanted me to say. You looked at me with eager eyes.

The same eyes that looked at me months later in the dim light of your room. Your dad had left for the night, winking at you on his way out. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what you had planned. We hurried to your room and fell onto your navy blue comforter. The wooden bedframe let out a soft groan under our weight. You hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on. The evening sun cast a gentle glow through your curtains, tinting the room orange. I asked what you wanted to do. I looked at you, and I blushed.

Your eyes had an insatiable hunger. They wanted to devour me. Those eyes demanded more than I could give. Those eyes held my gaze. They distracted me.

I felt my shirt slide off.

I felt my belt unbuckle.

I felt the cold conditioned air of your room stinging my bare legs.

“You love me,” you said.

Then there were hands. There were hands on my body. It must have been my body. There was no one else in the room. Your hands weren’t on your own body. They were on mine. I knew your face was buried in my neck, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to focus on your breath. I tried to feel the sharp inhales and exhales. I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel it.

All I could do was stare at your hands—hands like lukewarm rubber gloves examining someone’s legs. Were they my legs? They looked like my legs, wide and blotchy. The hands gently ran across them like a mechanic verifying the integrity of an engine. Evaluating the value. Checking for damage. Pale white knees knocked together, and you laughed. Did you laugh or did I? Someone laughed, the hands guided the knees apart. Chapped lips pressed themselves against the skin. A hand slid between the thighs.

My thighs. I recognized the legs as mine. I recognized the hands as yours.

They traveled from my thighs upwards to my stomach and chest. They pulled the breath from my lungs. I looked back at your face. You laughed. I hated your laugh. It burst from your chest—too loud, too sudden. It was deeper than how you spoke as if it came from somewhere else entirely. Somewhere hidden.

“You love me,” you said.

Your hands on a back—my back.

My back pressed into the bed.

An unbelievable weight pinning me down. My hand grasping at the wooden headboard. All I could hear were the squeaks and creaks of the bed. All other sounds slipped away as I stared past your hunched body and up at the blank, white ceiling. I wanted to imagine it was someone, somewhere else making the noise. I wanted to imagine it was someone else’s hands. Someone else’s hands on your hands. Someone else’s hands clenching the sheets. I watched you on top of someone else. She looked like me. I imagined she didn’t. She smiled—she must have. I wish she didn’t. The bed was a mess of limbs, a disgusting beast with four arms and four legs.

Someone’s legs writhing. Someone’s legs pushing.

Someone’s arms locked around someone’s shoulders.

Someone’s head bent down to growl into someone’s ear.

“You love me,” you said.

You assured me it was okay. You looked at me in a way you had never looked at me before. It was me. It was me you were looking at. I wanted to imagine it was reverence. I wanted to imagine it was awe.

You asked me—I can’t deny that you asked me. You asked a hundred times before that moment. You asked every time you kissed me. You asked every time you corrected my opinion. You asked every time you proved me wrong. Every time you looked at me like I was hurting you. Every time I made a mistake. Every time no one was there for me except you.

“Don’t you love me?”

Of course, I said yes.

shutter small.png

I’m running out of ways to forget you.

I put your gifts in a box and stuffed it deep in my closet.

The plastic ring that cost you a quarter. The corsage that cost you more.

Pictures that I used to have framed and hugged to my chest when I missed you.

A hair bow. A necklace. The notes you wrote to me. The promises you made.

Everything tucked away and neatly hidden.

I met other guys. I went to college. I took too many classes. I partied too much. I found a job. I made friends.

My skin burns. My heart stops. My hands sweat. I look into eyes, and I see yours. I listen to voices, and I hear yours. In the darkness, it’s you I feel grabbing my body. It’s your grunts and huffs and puffs. Your lips on my neck. Your weight pinning me down. My back is still pressed into your bed, the wood creaking with every move.

The hands I feel are your hands.

shutter small.png

Years later I saw your dad at a bar. It was the kind of place where feet stick to the vinyl floors, but drinks slide off tables. The neon lights were somehow both blinding and deadly dim. A wispy cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air and burned my eyes. The bartender filled a short glass with ice and syrupy brown liquor, but no matter how cold the drinks were, they still scorched my throat and sat like hot coals in my stomach.

Your dad said I looked good. I cut my hair. He liked it. He offered to buy me a drink. I accepted. His hair was thinner. His gut was bigger. He changed since I last saw him, but he still looked at me like I was Debbie Harry.

He asked how I was doing. I laughed. I laughed like you might have. I wanted him to see how much I’d grown. How happy I was. How much I didn’t need you. I wanted him to go home and think about it. I wanted him to tell you all about it.

“I saw her the other night,” he’ll say over the phone. “She looked good. What happened to her?” After that you’ll think all the way back to high school. Maybe you’ll look at the pictures. You’ll see March 29th and April 19th. You’ll see my braces and your haircut. Maybe you’ll laugh like I try to.

I wonder if you’ll remember the day we broke up by the stream near your house even though there aren’t any pictures. There isn’t much reason to document red eyes and shaking shoulders. Will you remember how we walked all the way out into the woods to cry? The world around us was silent as we sat on the soft grass, staring and waiting. Waiting for someone to talk first. It must have rained the day before because I remember the damp grass gripping at the back of my thighs. I remember studying the dew caught on fallen leaves, a blank connect the dots puzzle—all the answers there if I only took the time to look. Finally, you said something to me. It was my fault. My lack of communication. You quoted a song.

Or maybe it was a book.

Or a movie.

You didn’t use your own words. I wonder if you’ll remember that. I wonder if you’ll remember my smile. How it assured you that you were right. After everything, you were right. I wonder if you’ll remember my hands like I remember yours.

My hands on the sheets. My hands gripping your arms. My hands becoming your hands. Hands on a body. Someone’s body. Who knows whose body? Who cares?  

 
updated oyster.png
 
Headshot.jpg

Max Hromek is a Creative Writing and Theatre student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and is currently an active author and playwright. He has been previously published at his university's literary journal, Bartleby, for his non-fiction essay, "Don't Dream It, Be It." His theatrical work can be seen at the 2019 Charm City Fringe festival.

Max IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

If It Gets Better, It Can’t Get Much Worse

Kevin Camp 


The first time I went to a gay bar I wanted to see the drag show. I climbed out a bedroom window and walked downhill, pausing at an agreed-upon stop sign where a college boy named James was waiting to pick me up. I was secretly in love with him. He fit all the boxes and categories I’d always wanted in a boyfriend: campy, theatrical, playful, gossipy.

It was an effort to stay up until 11 p.m. before the performance began and stay awake until 3 a.m. when the show concluded. We arrived well beforehand. The bartender felt it was necessary to check on me, to make sure what I was getting myself into before I trod one step further. “You know this is an alternative establishment, right?” I nodded that I knew exactly what would follow. But at that point, I didn’t have a clue about what would really befall me.

shutter small.png

As I learned later, I was ratted out by James, who told his parents, who told mine. His penitence was little more than a plea bargain. It was a case of naming me to avoid being sent to one of those gay conversion therapy programs. The news spread fast.

My parents’ homophobia astonished me. I’d thought before that they were level-headed, patient people, pillars of restraint. The reverse was true when it came to my sexual orientation. My dad was furious. Mother cried for two days solid. She had plenty of gay friends, but somehow, I was not allowed to be like them. I think she was afraid that my so-called “lifestyle choice” would make for a life of misery. She saw, in her own fears, me beaten up, blackmailed, mocked, confused. Surely the straight path promised greater happiness. My parents considered sending me to a gay conversion program, too, but they believed in more draconian discipline. It was either shock treatments or one of those military academies, which would have been tortuous. They must have pleaded for help for me from every corner. As for the electroconvulsive therapy, I blame the conservative Christian minister who took charge of my care. My illness was, in his mind, clearly due to demonic possession and he had just the person in mind to cure me spiritually and physically.

His name was Dr. Michael Davies and he still actually thought (this was the early 90s, not the 70s) that electroshock therapy could be effective for this purpose. I’ve had a mistrust of doctors ever since then. The only thing the procedure accomplished was obliterating my short-term memory and concentration. I’ve still not gotten all of it back. But would I really want to remember all of it?

I remember being wheeled into an operating room filled with concerned faces in scrubs. I’ve had surgery since for a variety of other ailments. In those later procedures, like the time I had a medical implant inserted into my body, every doctor or nurse showed themselves to be the portrait of optimism, quiet efficiency, and restraint. Not here. Impaired as I was, I recognized pity and nervousness on the face of the medical professionals performing the procedure. Was this a breach of professionalism and ethics in their behavior towards me? It certainly didn’t make me feel any better.

Ten seconds is all I remember. A blip. Why do I recall that time and none of the others? Was it the first? The third? The fifth? There were many other shock treatments. Eight, if flawed memory serves.

The results of these procedures did not shock the gay out of me.

I was reduced to a zombie for six months. Prior to my full recovery, I didn’t talk, and barely communicated with anyone. But there was some silver lining. I was so mentally disrupted and confused that I didn’t have the ability to worry that the side effects would never go away. That’s the only way to manage such a strong disruption in a person’s whole being. But the homosexual thoughts remained. My parents were disappointed, but took bad counsel and put me through a fresh round of shocks.  

I was seventeen and would never have consented to this procedure if I was a legal adult. The doctor in charge of my case told my parents that I’d gotten in just under the wire. Rebellion would have served me well. I could have outright refused to undergo the shocks, but I had come to believe that there was some sort of malignancy present in myself, a severe problem in dire need of fixing. I had internalized that I had an illness, almost some kind of tumor that needed to be excised from the body.

When I got to college, I decided to come out completely. My timing was fortuitous. I skipped the AIDS epidemic altogether, which was good and bad. The paranoia had almost subsided completely, which lulled queer men my age into perhaps a false sense of security. A generation before me, they were burying people left and right.

You’d think the English department would grant one a degree of cover. Instead, writing workshop exposed me to homophobia in a way I had never directly experienced before. In two years of classwork, I wrote two or three explicitly homosexual poems. As a result of my honesty, a trusted professor and mentor no long felt comfortable sitting next to me while we were revising my latest draft during office hours. He insisted that an arbitrary amount of space be set between us, as if I was a sickness he didn’t want to contract himself. I certainly wasn’t attracted to him and failed to understand why an additional foot of separation made any difference. Another professor insisted on sitting across the table from me during seminar. I’d presented a book summation in class with gay themes and, once again, I was too ashamed to be outraged. I never received an apology from either of them. I was too freshly out of the closet to expect better treatment. Instead, I felt ashamed. Too humiliated to fully internalize my pain, I instead went numb.  

I began to attend the deceptively named Gay/Straight Student Alliance. What it should have been called was Gay People’s Hookup Point. I felt like a piece of meat, stared at lasciviously the minute I entered the room. This might have been an enticing notion to some, but to me it felt like exploitation. We were ostensibly here for support, not to fall in bed with each other. My second time there, an older man with a prominent lazy eye, who wasn’t even a student, tried to pick me up. I let him have his way with me because he was persistent, and persistence was something I understood.

shutter small.png

I remember another night, one where my discomfort was at its highest, many years later. I’m standing in the A-frame of an old house with a ton of character and cob-webs. I have been invited by a co-worker. It’s a party I nearly avoided attending because events like these have a way of getting out of hand. Some voyeuristic party-goers show up with cameras. The building features multiple bedrooms with trundle beds in each room.  

The winter has been a rainy one. The chorus of wet umbrellas have deposited a pool of rain near the baseboards. I’m a little late to the party, but I can already hear the sounds of debauchery alongside a soundtrack of bad club music. I don’t understand the fondness of many for repetitive and loud noise like this. But I have learned that I am excellent company for someone hoping to cater to a fetish.

Usually it doesn’t bother me, being pigeonholed in such a fashion, but I’m feeling decidedly touchy tonight. The usual suspects are there: booze, pot, and large plastic bottles of Gatorade to help us stay hydrated during the orgy. I peek through the goings on in every room. Someone has thoughtfully taped pieces of paper on the wall next to every door, labeling the names of the participants and the acts underway.

The voice of my mother floods my mind.

How could you do something so filthy?

I hear the voice of a homophobic nurse from one of my hospital stays.

Hope you don’t get raped!

I leave before even setting foot in one of the many rooms, much like a fearful child at a sleepover. If I could, I would call for my parents to pick me up and take me to someplace safe and soothing, Instead, I go home to an empty one-bedroom apartment and read until I’m sleepy. And as I do, I reassure myself that I’ve done the right thing. An image comes to mind. It’s me as a boy, hiding underneath a mattress, not wanting to be seen or found.

Sometimes I dream of a man I once knew, a good friend and lover, supremely patient, considerate, and affectionate. He had immigrated from China some years before. His English was impeccable, but his game-playing skills were a little suspect. I mostly picked up the inexperienced ones, because in my mind, I believed that they wouldn’t be as judgmental. I didn’t want anyone who was the take-charge sort. I preferred the more passive ones.

I was his tutor, schooling him in the initial discomforts, the way that it had earlier been done for me. But he was out of touch with his feelings, perhaps doubting himself just has I had. When he drank, he showed a jealous streak. Once he made a point at a party of giving shoulder rubs to everyone who requested, except, of course, me. I could handle that, somehow. I had grown up in toxicity and I gave him free rein. I allowed him to sleep with anyone he wanted, provided he saw me as his primary partner.

Some years ago, I listened to two gay men give a talk. They were both raised by Christian fundamentalist parents and met at some church youth function. There, they became aware of an instant sexual attraction for each other. As time progressed, they’d be intimate together, then fall to their knees in prayer, begging for forgiveness for the unforgivable. This went on for years, until both of them recognized they had to break away from the church and stop living in denial. They were summarily cast aside by their parents and the only world they knew, but despite the challenge involved, they built a new life for themselves. I admired their effort, but wasn’t sure I could do the same. I needed my family and if some sleight-of-hand was required, I’d go along with it. I thought I could live in the straight world, but something always dragged me back. The straight life seemed so easy, if any of the after-school specials to which I was addicted to were roadmaps for success. I bought the propaganda because I wanted what they promised could be mine, if I just worked hard enough.

In time, several people went with me to the gay club, which, after nerves passed, became a home away from home. One of the things that I quickly experienced was having my butt deliberately poked with the end of a pool cue. It wasn’t funny in the least, but on some level it was confirmation that at least someone found me appealing.  

With me today was a lesbian friend, Stephanie, who took to the atmosphere, smoking silently in one dark corner. In time, she became a very popular drag king, but that’s another story altogether. One drag show and she was hooked. Drag became her life. And alongside what would become another lifelong passion, she successfully sniffed out the club’s resident drug dealer just as quickly.

Stephanie was blunt. “Go out there and find yourself a man!” She shoved me into the center of the dance floor. I’m not much of a dancer. I began instead by putting the moves on an older man with a shaved head who was leaning on the back bar. I rubbed his neck sensuously and curled my legs around his legs when seated at a table. I was convinced he was going to be my first bar conquest, and he kept putting off going home with me. Eventually, I gave up. The next time I saw him, he was dancing wildly on the floor, averting his gaze from me.

As a means of friendship, Stephanie got one of the bar’s resident shirtless heartthrobs to give me a lap dance. He was impossibly attractive, a real looker, but why would he be interested in me? I sat on the corner of the stage, too scared to move a muscle. He finished up in no more than two or three minutes before giving me a stiff little hug, scampering off to someplace else. The gesture was well-intentioned, but humiliating.

And then I saw Tess, a woman from one of my classes.

She was just as brusque as Stephanie. What about this place made other people so bold and put me so much out of my comfort zone? The first words out of her mouth came in the form of a question: “Why did you give up women?”

I denied that I ever had, but she was another one of the bisexual skeptics I had to take on from all directions. We had been close some time before, but nothing romantic ever came of it. She didn’t mean it hurtfully. I might have taken some offense if it came from any other source. I suppose she didn’t know better. There was still a mutual attraction present, but now she belonged to someone else.  

“I’m here with my husband. We’ve been members for a while now.” That was a new phenomenon for me—the straights here to take in the spectacle and bust a move. Who else would I encounter in this strange place?

Yes, I did sleep with women, too. Gay men always told me, without fail, that it was great that I was bi, as though that was some desired state they wished they had themselves. I’m afraid it’s not that easy, but I appreciate the commiseration. The most ideal partnership with me, regarding women, was if they were also bisexual. I was the sort of man that women who slept with women made an exception for, which was pleasing to the ego. It was confirmation of who I was, when I felt at odds with just about everything

The drag show finally commenced. One by one the queens danced to their pre-selected music. I was appreciative of the craft and the extra effort it took to be flawless on stage. A drag queen who went by the stage name of Georgina flashed me her backside in the middle of her routine. I certainly hadn’t foreseen something like that. I abandoned my shaved head man and moved on to more promising avenues.

“Georgina likes you,” Stephanie cooed. That much was true. Somewhere around 3:00 in the morning I made my way backstage. I was nervous. The club had no dressing room, so all the Queens had to share the same small bathroom in the back. I asked one of them where Georgina could be located.

She eventually appeared, half her makeup on, half her makeup make off, but with a smile on her face.

“Silly boy.” She mussed up the hair on my head the way parents sometimes do with their children. I appreciated the attention, but was honestly intimidated. I wanted to sleep with her, but I guessed that I was ten years younger than she. She hadn’t minded flashing me earlier in the night. Georgina confirmed for me that age mattered little to her.

“You’re cute. But before this goes anywhere else, you’ll need to talk to my partner.”

Always these caveats. Easy sex was only possible if you were great-looking. Otherwise, it often depended on how far you lowered your standards. I’d engaged in a few of these meaningless and ultimately unsatisfying hook-ups, but now I wanted more. I knew if something definitive emerged, I could probably kiss any relationship with most of my family goodbye. Sometimes, I suppose you have to know when to cut your losses.

 “I usually don’t go for anyone who isn’t old enough to rent a car by themselves. Too much drama,” Georgina continued.

I’d always considered myself fairly responsible, despite my youth. I was the kid who feigned contrition like a master. I could be very persuasive and charming when caught. But Georgina didn’t know any of this. I didn’t even know her real name. Nor did she know mine. Nor did we know each other’s ages, though I’m fairly sure she determined with practiced eye that I wasn’t underage and off-limits.

She stared at the bathroom mirror, removing layers of makeup, one swipe at a time. I observed how much this meant to her, to brave the reaction of the crowd, to go through step after step in a laborious process, to remove body hair in all sorts of out of the way places. Would I do the same? Probably not.

I understand a little what women go through, as I have been privy to some of the crassest, least imaginable pickup lines. One such man, rail thin, showing off his chest to the world, told me that crack makes you want to fuck. He then offered me some. I couldn’t help but laugh, even if it hurt his feelings.

I went to the trouble of contacting Georgina’s partner, to clear the air. He was standing up by the stage, smoking a cigarette.

“Let me guess,” he said, bemusedly. “Georgina wants a clean bill of health and my approval.”

He smiled. “Go on, take her, boy. I could care less.”

I was relieved but suddenly inquisitive. “How long have you been together?”

“Long enough,” he replied, exhaling smoke. He then turned his attention to the show going on in front of him.

Everyone always played so coy in my company. I suppose they were just messing with me, but the result was always confusion on my part. The club catered to a group of people who I rarely observed. It had its own rules, slang, and inside jokes.

I walked back to Georgina, half-scared, half-aroused. By now, he looked like an average man in street clothes. “I take it you passed,” he said coyly.

He grabbed me by the hand, imploring me to follow him. I had no idea where I was going. We hopped into his car and sped away.

“My apartment’s not far away,” Georgina reassured me.

I placed my hand on his knee, only to be playfully rejected.

“We’re not even there yet!” he laughed. “Wait!”

I’m a planner. I like to rehearse in my head what I’m going to do or so before any action takes place. I was thrown into a panic. Spontaneity is not my forte.

We ran up the stairs to the apartment. By now, my head was spinning. But then I recognized, as Georgina threw open the door, that we were not alone. A large and angry dog was ferociously barking at me. I had good reason to be scared. Within ten seconds, the dog tried to take a chunk out of my left calf. It drew blood, and as I was wearing shorts at the time, I didn’t have the protection long pants would have provided.

Georgina was a good nurse, but after the dog biting incident, I lost some of my enthusiasm. I lay down on a nearby couch while the dog was put in time out. But I figured that since I was here, I might as well make the most of it.

And from that point onward, I don’t remember much. Something physical was happening to me in real time, as I lay flat on the bed, staring at the ceiling. When I was a child I made a game of convincing myself that gravity was reversed and that I was on top of the ceiling, peering downward. I was conscious of that much, but the largest part of me felt that I was floating on top of the ceiling, barely aware of what was really happening.

It also reminded me of going to the dentist when I was a boy. The laughing gas produced a similar reaction and the dentist imitated Donald Duck once the nitrous took effect. At first, I could never determine whether the cartoon voice was real or whether I was under the effects of a powerful drug.

I began to believe that I was being filmed. A camcorder was pointed straight down at me, supported by a tripod, balancing on the winding staircase that led to the second level of the house. My memories were fragmented alongside the live action. Where was I now? What was past? What was present?

In the past, I was naked too. I wondered if Georgina was filming me with a similar purpose, as one more conquest, determined to put my behavior up on the internet for the gratification of the anonymous. My image and live action would yet again be part of someone’s collection.

He’d been one of the rough kids who lived four houses down. I remember it was painted in dark green tones. I saw him months later at the ballpark. He smiled at me, as if nothing had ever transpired. I remembered his mustache. Since then, I have hated men with mustaches.

Georgina finished up with me and then suddenly my brain and body were back in sync.

“You were a thousand miles away, honey.” His body hovered over my own, his chest heaving from exertion. I had enjoyed myself to an extent, as much as I ever could.

On the way home, he spoke kindly to me. “The same thing happened to me. It was my grandfather.”

“Was it that obvious?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. Some know what to look for.”

It was a shame he was taken. But in an instant, I knew I’d gained a friend. From then on, I was welcome behind stage with each of the other drag queens. They never minded sharing their problems with me and were sympathetic when I had concerns of my own.

I’ve discovered what being happy is supposed to be. The Queens have become my family and my new home is with them, drag night or not. I think of myself as a success story.

 
 
Kevin+Camp.jpg

Kevin Camp was first published in essay form in a 2010 book entitled Quaker Rising, which included the written works of young adult Quakers across the United States and Canada. A second essay was published in 2012 by Friends Journal. His life story was included in religion writer Mark O. Pinsky's book Amazing Gifts (Alban Institute, 2013). Most notably he was awarded Honorable Mention by New Millennium Writings in 2015. He regularly contributes to the Community section of the metablog Daily Kos. A proud member of the Religious Society of Friends, Camp lives in Hoover, Alabama.

The Lost Place

Kimberly Lawrence Kol 


At first it was just fantasies. In a surge of anger, I’d imagine hitting my husband over and over with the small, aluminum bat my father kept at his bedside in his basement apartment in Queens. I’m not sure why that bat came to mind, but whenever I reached some peak of disgust or contempt or whatever that feeling was that our former couples therapist called one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse for marriage, it would be there in my hand, ergonomically perfect for smashing over his head. I could hear the satisfying ping of contact, feel the vibration through the rubber grip. It was practically weightless.

I had wielded this bat before, of course. When my sister and I spent every other interminable weekend lounging in my father’s waterbed with the mirrored ceiling, my father watching television or endlessly shitting or otherwise puttering around the apartment ignoring us, we’d brandish it at each other as a joke. When my father wasn’t hogging the television we’d sometimes watch the warped six-hour extended play VHS of three bootlegged Disney movies, which he stored in a cabinet alongside Debbie Does Dallas and his other porn because the category of VHS tape somehow subsumed other ones like good for children and not good for children. We were brain dead and irritable by the time we got to Dumbo.

Sometimes we’d go out to dinner where we all stuffed ourselves, desperate for a sensory experience. My father always let us have dessert and more than one soda, but on our way out my sister and I would still take handfuls of mints just to prolong things. When I think of those mints now I just think of hepatitis, and how my own children sometimes won’t even touch the flusher in our house. They sneak flushing it with their feet so I won’t see them and take out on them my anxiety that I’ve transmitted that craziness already, even though when I was their age I used to touch everything and never worry about it, not even after I had worms. The windowsill on my side of my father’s waterbed was thick with layers of lead paint I used to pick at, slipping the flakes between the wall and the pleather edge of the bed.

Those weekends every outing was a victory, even when it was just to go to the store. I liked the hardware store best, fondling the racks of spooled chains, standing in the fertilizer aisle breathing in the terrible smell. My sister liked to rub her fingertips on the sanding disks, to touch the points of the circular saw blades. The plant store was the worst, where my father would examine each and every plant while the humid air made my skin itch. As a gift to my children I try not to drag them on errands if I can help it, and when I can’t, I’m clear with them up front if it’s a quick beeline for something or if I plan to lay eyes on every single object on the shelves. I don’t mind if they’re bored, but that drifty, greyed-out feeling like they’re indefinitely on hold is not something I want for them. Whenever my father got a new plant, he’d bring it home and rearrange the potted jungle he already had, spending hours watering and spritzing and murmuring encouragement.

It’s plants that let me know I have some violence in me. After college a friend mentioned that our apartment needed greenery, it occurred to me that though I did seem like the type to have plants, I really didn’t want them. Invariably I’d be given some random one as a gift, sometimes on Christmas which I don’t even celebrate, as if a fondness for plants and Christmas were universal. Upon receipt I’d immediately set to work depriving it, relieved as the days passed and I could pluck yellowing leaves and brittle stems, bit by bit until the thing was either gone or dead. I’m not sure why I didn’t just politely rehome them, or even put them directly in the garbage, except that it felt too explicit. Instead I’d feel resentful until they died at whatever rate was unique to their species. I didn’t yet understand that I was rivalrous with plants.

Very rarely my father would take us out to Long Island in the late afternoon where we’d wait for him to schmooze with the guys he knew who ran the party boats before heading out with them to catch bluefish. I hated the awkward wait on the dock, the scruffy men who had no children and didn’t know how to talk to little girls, the setting sun in my eyes. But I loved being out on the water, my rod feeding me signals from the depths, the surge of a panicked bluefish through the moon spattered water, the bloody gaff.

The bat, my father said, was there for intruders, but it was made to land fish, to knock them out when they were unruly and close to the boat. I never saw anyone strike a bluefish, and I never saw an intruder, just the stream of male babysitters my father hired who locked themselves in the bathroom with his stack of Penthouse, or who brought girlfriends and put us to bed early, or who otherwise didn’t know what to do with us. Before the bat there was a length of narrow metal pipe, the end wrapped in masking tape, but it was heavy and aesthetically inferior, and I was glad when it was replaced.

It was only once I started fantasizing about my own divorce that it occurred to me my father could have just stayed in our town, picking us up after school or coming to recitals, though I imagine he needed the Whitestone Bridge traffic to blame for how he showed up late to anything important, so late we’d wonder why he came at all. It also occurred to me that he could have opted to wait until the weekends he didn’t have us to go out on dates with the women he met by lying in his New York Magazine personal ad. You’d think the women would understand, given his ad described him as a renaissance man with two daughters at the center of his universe. When I learned in school the definitions of both renaissance and universe, I was pretty surprised.

Before the bat reveries I’d just mouth “I hate you” at the back of my husband’s head, when he was at the sink doing the dishes or getting something from a cabinet. When he went away for business, I’d glory in how well-rested I was without the annoying puh sound he made when he slept, how good the room smelled without the sundry nighttime aromas he emitted. I’d fix the kids breakfast, do their hair and lay out clothes for the little one, prodding them along without losing my cool, remembering to be playful instead of shoving them though their routines, all the while reflecting on what a good job I was doing, that I was doing it all on my own, that my husband served no purpose. It was always disappointing when he came back.

A while ago when my friend got divorced, it was obvious. He was mean, a drinker, he couldn’t do the laundry. She left when she had tried everything else. This made it harder to complain about my husband. I watched them divide things up, settle their kids into their new life, move on. I approved, but it wasn’t for me. Instead I grew interested in disaster. When he was late coming home, at the core of my usual worries about highway accidents was a vein of silver lining. When he coughed in the winter, I bought herbal remedies and imagined chemo. I wasn’t actively wishing him dead, just opening myself up to whatever the universe had to offer.

Even now the main deterrent to getting divorced is how we’d deal with iTunes. The rice cooker, which my father bought us as a combined birthday gift for $350 he didn’t have in order to prove he had it, would be mine. The iron and silver chest that I insisted we lug home from our honeymoon in Morocco, and that I alone polish every seven or eight years when I alone notice it’s tarnished, would be mine. The dogs would stay with the kids, making their sad little commute from one parent to another en masse. But the kids and the dogs and the appliances are discrete and individual. I can draw a neat circle around them, imagine them happily settled in with either of us. It’s the pre-digital photo albums, the kids’ art, the college friends that seem impossible. For better or worse, my entire adult life has been intertwined with my husband, and parsing out what is whose is insurmountable. I can buy another Cuisinart, but I want my life intact. I want the world to close up around him, not to rend in two.

Despite my longings, an aluminum bat isn’t practical. There’s no fishing store near us, and we share an Amazon account. If I were somehow able to procure one, I’d have surprise on my side, but I’d nonetheless lose in hand-to-hand combat. I tend to get flustered and would be easily disarmed, my unseemly intent laid bare, and after that I’d have to endure the interpersonal aftermath. Even if I were physically capable and could keep a level head, the idea of him knowing I’m murdering him doesn’t sit right with me; I want to kill him, not hurt his feelings.

The back way to the town next to the one I grew up in ran through a verdant residential neighborhood with grand and mysterious houses set far back on their lawns. An enormous rock on a grassy mound stood at the center of a five-way intersection, and whenever we approached it my mother would say, “Uh oh.” My sister and I, Greek chorus that we were, would respond with awe, “It’s the lost place.” By the time I learned to drive, thrilled and alone in my car, I’d pass that rock the only way we ever went, mostly forgetting that once there had been options, that once the way had not been so clear. Though I was wistful to know where the other roads led, I never took any of them; the exhilaration that I could drive in any direction eclipsing whether or not I actually would.

Though I’m certain the tangle of chargers at the head of his side of the bed is giving him cancer, the pace is intolerable. Hiring an intermediary feels cheap and unfeminist; I vowed at our wedding to see things through. For years we had a set of blank greeting cards with drawings of various female murderers, and on the back were chirpy blurbs explaining their crimes: one who axed a series of loggers, another who brained her husband with a bowling ball. I used the entire box on birthday wishes and thank you notes, though about my enthusiasm for them my husband seemed lukewarm. When I was young, a woman on our street was rumored to have fed antifreeze to two neighborhood dogs. We were lucky: my dog, a springer spaniel prone to incessant barking, turned up wandering on the far side of the parkway, frantic and panting after her abduction, but unharmed. The animal control man who brought her back explained that antifreeze dripped and dogs lapped; intent was hard to prove. At the time I assumed the woman was crazy, but now I think she just reached her threshold for rambling dogs.

My mother-in-law once asked me what we wanted for Chanukah. I requested an ice cream maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid; she got us an espresso machine. I don’t drink coffee, and my mother-in-law wishes I were smaller. I know this not because I’m unusually paranoid about my body, but because for years she only displayed two photos of me, one from my wedding, when I was underweight after an engagement year wracked with doubt, and the other from a friend’s wedding, when I was standing farther back and slightly downhill from my husband. Eventually I bought the ice cream attachment for myself. The kids want only the creamy flavors, even if the chunks are cookies or crumbly ribbons of fudge. My husband will eat almost anything, and especially likes when I use some liqueur, a splash to add depth to the flavor, to keep it soft and ready to serve.

Regrettably, no one but me likes a cool, green pistachio. Instead I do a dark Rocky Road, testing the recipe and spitting it into the sink. My husband goes wild for it, my children content to eat the smooth vanilla. I know he’ll have another serving before bed, and over the dishes I let the hot water burrow a hole through the vanilla, then push it in chunks down the drain. I tuck my children in, reading them stories with my pulse thundering. I kiss foreheads and shut closet doors. I move nightlights just so. I can hear my husband in the kitchen, the break of the freezer door vacuum, the chime of the spoon against the bowl.

We brush our teeth side by side, and when he’s flossing I see a tiny beige blob land on the mirror. I use a disinfectant wipe to clean it. I wipe the chrome of the faucet until it gleams. There’s the pee-splattered underside of the toilet seat, the rim with his two pubic hairs like springs on the white porcelain. I have the unlucky ability to notice the style and whereabouts of every pubic hair in a bathroom, and after we have a party I can tell which ones are my husband’s and which ones are not. When I used to go to the gym, if someone sneezed I tracked their progress through the equipment as if they were covered in fresh red paint. On airplanes I obsess not about crashes but how the air moves out of strangers’ lungs and into mine. The pubic hairs are the least of my problems.

I lie awake listening to my husband breathe. I can’t make my pillow right, and I cycle through all the relaxation exercises I’ve ever been taught, breathing and focusing and tightening muscles. Someone needs a glass of water, someone else heard a weird noise, and eventually the children are asleep. I step out into the hallway so I can hear their soft, snuffling sounds, and I sit with my back against the wall, my arms around my knees.

When my husband wakes up dying, his breathing raspy and erratic, I flip on the light. He is wild-eyed as he grasps at my hands. In his eyes I see him years ago, when he disappeared into the frozen woods to find our lost dog. It was fourteen years after she arrived as a puppy, so much our child we called her our dogter. The forested hill behind our house is steep, and as I stood calling her beloved name, steeling myself for what was coming, imagining her lost and surrendering in the too-deep snow, my husband appeared. He rose from the woods a superhero, our dogter limp but alive in his arms, and I ran through the ice-crusted snow to cover them both in kisses, my heart as full as it has ever been.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Kimberly+Kol.jpg

Kimberly Lawrence Kol is a psychologist in private practice in Vermont. She lives with two boys, two pitbulls, and a husband who is considerably less relaxed since reading "The Lost Place." Her work has appeared in Prick of the Spindle and The Northville Review.

Marsh Lights

Jesse Durovey

 

Cleo saw the frog while pulling weeds in the garden. It was early summer, the air hot and moist, and wild grass and vining plants threatened to choke Uncle Darrell’s harvest of maize and white clover. Her uncle had brought his spade down to uproot a stubborn explosion of crabgrass, and when Cleo grabbed the clumped dirt and roots to throw it in the wheelbarrow, she saw something moving in the upturned soil. She brushed the dirt aside, revealing a frog with bumpy olive skin, its front legs pawing frantically as if trying to swim away. She scooped the frog into her palm and saw where the shovel blade had severed the frog’s hind legs. The pale, blue-veined sinew gleamed in the afternoon sun.

“What you got there, princess?” Uncle Darrell said. He’d been in a terrible mood—worse than usual—since yesterday when he was attacked by an entire nest of hornets by the fence line, and his face and neck were covered with ugly red welts.

Cleo dropped the frog into the pocket of her sack dress, turned to face him, and stood with her hands clasped behind her back.

“I asked you what you got.” Uncle Darrell grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and wrenched open her small, empty fists.

“I don’t have anything, Sir,” Cleo said, trying to keep her chin from trembling as Darrell’s rough hands chafed her skin.

“All right, then,” Uncle Darrell said. “I shouldn’t have been so rough.” He dropped Cleo’s hands and smoothed the frizzy, brown hair that hung over the girl’s thin shoulders. “Why don’t you get a drink of water and check on your mama. She needs her medicine. And tell that brother of yours to get his ass out here.”

“Yes, Sir,” Cleo said.

Cleo stepped carefully through the garden, her head down but her spine straight. When she rounded the corner of the shotgun house, she lifted her eyes and began to run, her bare feet flashing over the brown earth and dying vines of couch grass.

She ran past the backyard, past the window of her mother’s dim and silent bedroom, vaulting over a broken fencepost and into the woods until her toes squished into the gumbo of mud and rotting leaves; she ran until she reached a stand of white spruce, where she slowed, picking her way carefully over a mat of unsteady moss and vegetation.

She stopped by a large white rock at the base of an ancient cairn. The cairn’s surface was so covered with green moss and mud that it formed a hill, a viewing platform for Cleo to survey the marsh, a stage on which to dance with the loose-branched trees. She often climbed the hill to watch the clouds pass over like churning waves.

Cleo had covered the white rock with a mural of charcoal, berry paste, and crushed flowers—a deer treading softly; a line of ants carrying a salamander; a frog with an indigo butterfly perched on its eyeball—an entire procession of bog creatures. At the top of the rock, Cleo had scribbled furiously with her charcoal, leaving an empty disc to represent a full moon.

Cleo squatted down where water and earth joined, the skirt of her dress wet and dripping with mud. She pulled the wounded frog from her pocket and lifted it up to eye level. She extended her index finger and gently stroked the frog from the tip of its nose to its stumpy, vestigial tail. The frog simply sat there, blinking its protruding eyes when her finger drifted too close.

Cleo scraped away a handful of moss at the water’s edge. Peat, hummus, sulfur, and the smells of rotting plants and animals seeped into her nostrils. She scooped up dirt with her hand and placed the wounded frog into the depression, covering its body back over with mud and slimy black moss.

Cleo sat back and rested her hands on her knees, waiting. It wasn’t the first time she’d found a wounded marsh creature in Uncle Darrell’s garden. Her uncle’s tools were cruel and sharp, cutting through wings, tails, and limbs with no regard for their owners. When Uncle Darrell’s tiller had torn through the nest of a short-billed wren, Cleo picked up the entire nest, the fibrous oval mangled and filled with dead fledglings, and she buried it in the marsh by her sacred white rock. When she returned, the small grave was burst open, wriggling with many-legged invertebrates and insects. At first, Cleo was horrified and took them for grave robbers, but a female wren flew down from a tree, probed the wriggling centipedes with her small beak, and coaxed out three chicks, their gossamer beaks convulsing with hunger. From that moment, Cleo knew the marsh contained a magic, as deep and dark and ancient as the land itself.

As Cleo watched the wounded frog, she heard the wind whisper through the treetops, a low and constant roar. She closed her eyes, felt the breeze tousle her hair. In these moments, she often thought that the bog was trying to communicate with her, speaking mysteries in a language she could not understand. Gooseflesh tingled her arms, and when she opened her eyes, dozens of butterflies and fuzzy moths fluttered about her head and landed on the partially buried frog, their wings flapping lazily. She smiled.

“I’ll be back later,” Cleo said to the frog’s blinking eyes, barely visible through the kaleidoscope of chitinous wings. Then she ran back to the house.

Shutter.png

Cleo walked in the back door to find her brother, Tad, in the kitchen, eating cold oatmeal out of a ceramic bowl and staring at his reflection in the broken television on the counter. She grabbed a small, green apple from the kitchen table and worried at the knobby thing with her teeth.

“You check on Mama?” Tad asked.

“I’m about to,” Cleo said. “Sir wants your help in the garden.”

“Why do you call him that, Cleo?” Tad said.

“He told me to call him Sir.”

“But he’s not here,” Tad said. “Why not call him something he really deserves?”

“Like what?”

Tad dropped his spoon into his bowl with a squish and a clatter. “How about asshole, dickhead, or shit-stain?”

Cleo laughed, covering her mouth with a hand bordered by five crescent-moons of grime. Tad could make her laugh even at his most sullen, a mood that became more persistent as his frame grew, long and lank as the cattails that bordered the marsh. Uncle Darrell took Tad’s growth as a challenge, finding any excuse he could to grab the boy by the nape of his neck and whip him with a hazel switch until Tad’s skin split open. Uncle Darrell’s finest crops were fear and hatred, and Cleo felt his presence in nearly every corner of their little house.

The back door crashed open. “Boy!”

Uncle Darrell stomped into the kitchen, a hazel switch clenched in his fist. “You’re supposed to be weeding that garden. What’s taking you so damn long?”

Cleo backed into the corner, trying not to be seen. Tad gripped the edge of the Formica table, daring to meet their uncle’s frenzied face.

“Cleo just—”

Uncle Darrell’s palm caught Tad on the ear, sending him sprawling backward over his chair and his bowl banging to the floor, oatmeal shooting across the kitchen with arterial force. Cleo wanted to stay and protect her brother, to untangle Uncle Darrell’s vice-like fingers from Tad’s long, dark hair. But Uncle Darrell twisted the boy’s arm behind his back and slammed him against the counter, and Cleo’s willpower crumbled. She sprinted out of the room with her heart beating her betrayal in horrifying rhythm: cow-ward, cow-ward, cow-ward.

In her mother’s bedroom, it was dark and cool, the window covered with an old Army-issued blanket, its edges ragged and moth-eaten. An oscillating metal fan turned sluggishly on top of a squat, cat-pawed dresser. Cleo closed the door, the sounds of flesh-on-flesh, of furniture jostled and joints twisted, fading into background noise. Her mother lay mired in blankness and bedclothes. Cleo sat on the bed and watched her mother sleep in a narrow band of light emanating from the window, remembering her as beautiful once, her hair full and thick as a lion’s mane, her eyes flashing. Now she looked so limp and listless—never speaking, mostly sleeping. Even when her eyes were open, they only seemed to stare into empty space.

Cleo retrieved a brown glass bottle from the top of the dresser. She opened the bottle and immediately grimaced, pinching her nose between thumb and forefinger. The chalky, off-white tablets inside the bottle smelled terrible—harsh and synthetic. Mama’s medicine, which Cleo gave to her every morning after breakfast. Darrell said Mama needed it to stay healthy, since she couldn’t get out of bed on her own, and didn’t Cleo want her mama to stay healthy? She selected a tablet, pushed gently on her mother’s chin, and dropped the pill inside her mouth, where it would dissolve.

Cleo reached out and brushed the hair out of her mother’s eyes. Her mother stirred, her arms and legs shifting beneath the covers, and then she was still. Cleo watched her mother’s chest rise and fall, soothed by the sounds of her breathing, soft and steady as the marsh winds. She slouched down to the floor, to the pallet of blankets she lay on every night. She wished for a magic strong enough to wake her mother, for an enchanted bottle to catch the breeze and fill her mother’s lungs with new life. Her mother’s hand slipped off the edge of the mattress, landing on Cleo’s trembling shoulders. The little girl grabbed her mother’s supple fingers, clutched them to her cheek and cried.

Shutter.png

Later, after Darrell went to sleep, drunk and filthy in the only other bedroom, Cleo crept out of her mother’s room and stepped onto the cold kitchen tile. A choir of crickets and bullfrogs serenaded the swampland. The storm door was latched, and a breeze drifted in through the screen, filling the house with the heavy scent of rain. Out the window, the sky was plum-colored, and the bruised clouds cloaked the flora in dark shadows. Through the distant trees, marsh lights danced like a coterie of witches.

Tad lay by the door on his creaking Army-issue cot, holding a towel filled with melting ice against his eye. “What do you want?” he said.

Cleo sat on the floor beside the cot, resting her chin on the telescoping aluminum frame. “I want a story.”

He sighed. “You’re the one who’s always reading. You should be telling me stories.”

“Nuh-uh. I like the stories about the old days best.”

“Oh, so I’m old now?” he said and poked her shoulder.

“You’re old enough to remember what things used to be like,” Cleo said.

Tad turned to face her. His uninjured eye reflected the light from the back porch, and Cleo saw the small, furry wings of moths mirrored in his watery pupil. “Okay,” he said, “I’ve got a story.”

Cleo laced her hands beneath her chin, settling onto her crisscrossed legs.

“There was once a great temple,” Tad began, “and a beautiful priestess lived there with her children, a boy and a girl.”

“A prince and a princess?” Cleo asked, her shoulders stiffening.

Tad laced his fingers beneath his head and stared at the ceiling. “Of course not. They were acolytes.”

“Alca-whats?”

“They’re like priests-in-training,” Tad said. “’Cause, you see, the priestess’s husband, a kind and powerful priest, died years before—the temple’s enemies tricked him and killed him just after their daughter was born. Before he died, he built a giant moat to—”

“What’s a moat?”

“It’s like a river that goes around a building and keeps out bad guys,” Tad said.

“Can it be a bog instead?”

“Sure, but only if you stop yapping and let me tell the story.”

Cleo put her fingers to her lips, mimed a zipping and locking motion, and threw away the key.

“All right,” Tad said. “Now, where was I? That’s right, the bog.” He cleared his throat. “The priest used magic to turn the land into a bog. He knew that if the family protected the bog, the bog would protect his family. But the priestess’s wicked brother knew that there was magic in the bog. ‘Cause, you see, the priestess loved her children and that’s where the magic came from.”

“The priestess’s brother moved himself into the temple. He couldn’t understand the magic of the bog, and he started digging up the land, looking for it so he could steal it for himself. Everywhere he dug, the bog shrank back, and the land dried up. The creatures—the bugs, frogs, and snakes—attacked him whenever he went into the marsh. But even with all this magic, his spirit poisoned the ground.”

“One day, the wicked brother thought to himself that, since the priestess loved her children so, then they must be the source of the magic. He tried to make the children his slaves, which angered the priestess. She told the wicked brother to leave and never come back, but her brother was crafty, and he poisoned her, stealing her voice and her spirit.”

“The wicked brother rules the temple, now. And, every night, the creatures of the bog sing to the queen, asking her to wake up and chase the evil brother away.” Tad turned toward Cleo, his face a wooden mask in the twilight. “The end.”

Cleo’s mouth gaped open. “But that can’t be the end. What about the acolytes? What about the girl and the boy?”

“They’re on their own now, Cleo,” Tad said and rolled over to face the wall. “Now go to bed before Darrell wakes up.”

Reluctantly, Cleo stood to leave, but the chorus outside beckoned her, and she walked to the storm door, gazing out into the night. The moon was nearly full, but a thin filigree of clouds made its light hazy and dim. Cleo played her fingers over the ratty metal screen, poking idly at a ragged hole in the thin metal grid. She wished that there was more light, or that she possessed the courage to venture out into the night and check on her wounded frog. She glanced back at Tad, burrowed deep in his blankets, and she wished that some of the bog’s magic would seep in through the screen door and fill her brother with hope. She lingered a few moments longer, watching Tad’s chest rise and fall, then she padded back to her mother’s bedroom to sleep.

Shutter.png

Tad had a paper route, which he started every morning before the sun came up. Not many people lived in their little hollow, the houses few and far apart. He would wake up before first light and ride his bike eight miles to the Chronicle’s small office, where he filled his canvas sack with newspapers. Cleo hated to be in the house with only her unspeaking mother and her uncle, the shit-stain, to keep her company.

That morning, after breakfast—always oatmeal or cream of wheat cooked by Cleo—Uncle Darrell asked her to sit on his lap. He was dressed in stained overalls and scuffed work boots, his undershirt grimy with crusted sweat. He pulled Cleo onto his thigh and stroked her hair and told her what a good girl she was. He smelled rancid, like spoiled milk or sour mash, and his sandpaper beard sent a shiver through Cleo’s shoulders when it brushed the downy hairs on the back of her neck. All the while, her heart thundered, and her muscles hummed with a manic energy when Uncle Darrell placed a hand as rough and knurled as a cow’s hoof on her leg. She shut her eyes tight, wondering if this was what the frog felt before her uncle’s shovel sheared off its hind legs.

That was when Tad came through the back door, sweaty and huffing from his bike ride. He eyed Darrell and Cleo, his eyes, one purple and knotted, narrowed into slits.

“I brought home your paper, Cleo,” Tad said, his voice strained and cracking.

Cleo moved to jump to her feet, but Uncle Darrell held her in place for a moment.

“It’s about time you got home,” Uncle Darrell said. “Now get some breakfast, ‘cause I need you to bring some peat back to the house and fertilize the garden.” Then he released Cleo, slurped the last of his coffee and walked out the door.

Cleo walked over to Tad, who stood with one hand clutching his canvas sack. She could see Uncle Darrell in the garden, a tank of insecticide strapped to his back as he walked from row to row, spraying death on the beetles and locusts there. Tad was staring at the big man, his eyes dark and clouded. When Cleo tapped his shoulder, Tad startled, his hands balling into fists.

“Sorry, Cleo,” he said. “What do you need?”

“My newspaper, please,” Cleo said, rocking on her bare heels.

“Oh,” he said, digging a solitary newspaper out of his sack, “here you go.”

Cleo took the paper and began spreading the different sections onto the tabletop. But, out of the corner of her eye, she could still see Tad staring out at Darrell. The look on her brother’s face scared her. He was often surly, but never hateful.

“I’m going to kill him,” Tad said, his voice so quiet that Cleo could barely make out his words beneath the rustling newspaper.

Shutter.png

After she read the paper, Cleo followed Tad into the bog. She knew the bog well, navigating through brush and around standing water with carefree ease—as if she herself were a bog creature. Cleo walked beneath a canopy of willow trees, letting their long hair tickle her ears as she listened to the rattling timbre of the cicadas. When she found Tad, her brother was covered from head to toe in muck, strings of moss and vine tangled in his long black hair. He grappled with the spade, hefting huge chunks of peat into the wheelbarrow.

“Hey, Cleo,” Tad said. “You read your paper?”

Cleo nodded, digging her perpetually naked toes into the slime at her feet, listening to the soft gurgle of mud.

“What’s going on in the world?” Tad asked.

“They found a body in a bog a bit like ours,” Cleo said brightly.

“A body?” Tad said.

“A dead body.”

“I figured as much,” Tad said, a blue vein straining from his temple as he slapped another load of peat into the wheelbarrow.

“The article said that hundreds of years ago, people used to leave offerings to the spirits and dainties that lived in the bog.”

He stopped digging. “Dainties?”

“Yeah, dainties,” she said. “The people would pray to them.”

Tad grinned and speared the shovel into the bog. “I think you mean ‘deities.’ It’s another word that means ‘god.’”

“I know what it means,” she said and stuck her tongue out. “Anyways, they used to leave all sorts of things as offerings to the deities. Sometimes, they’d walk people out into the bogs and they’d hit them over the head and leave them as a sacrifice.” She smiled, pleased with herself.

“You don’t say,” Tad said.

“They said there’s stuff in bogs that keeps the bodies from rotting like they normally would, and it turns their skins all dark and leathery,” Cleo said. “And their bones dissolve so they’re all wiggly.” She shook her arms loosely from the shoulders to demonstrate. Tad grinned, stabbing his shovel into the peat and shaking his arms and legs until Cleo collapsed against a tree in a fit of laughter.

“Be careful,” Tad said. “You spend so much time in this bog that your bones might turn into jelly too.”

Cleo smiled. She wondered what it would be like to live without a skeleton. Would she be able to crawl or would she be stuck somewhere like a deflated balloon? Like her mother? The article hadn’t said how long it took bones to liquify, only that the body they found had likely been there for hundreds of years. She wondered if frog bones would dissolve in the bog and if it would happen faster because their bones were so much smaller.

“My frog!” she cried and ran down the path, heading for the hill that overshadowed her white rock.

At the white rock, she clenched her feet to keep her balance on the quaking ground. A heron startled, hopping on its long legs and flapping its wings until it awkwardly took flight. Cleo fell to her hands and knees, scrabbling in the moss and muck for the small eyes she’d left protruding from the bog.

Nothing.

She kneeled on the ground and closed her eyes. The breeze sang through the dark trees and her tangled hair. Cleo’s heart filled with emotions she didn’t understand, and she spread her arms and felt the wind prickle the soft skin between her fingers. She knew that if she just kept her eyes closed and said the right words, like a magic spell—no, like a prayer—then the marsh would hear her and tell her its secrets, and she would be able to speak with the creatures that called it home.

But Cleo didn’t know any prayers.

Cleo sighed. Then she opened her eyes and saw the largest frog she’d ever seen, sitting proudly on top of her painted rock. Its body was squat and green and as big as a barn cat, its pale belly swollen with water. Cleo put her hands over her mouth, then dropped them, crawling closer.

“Is it you?” she asked. “Are you my frog?”

The frog stomped its front legs, turning to face the crouching girl. Cleo knew the bog was special, that an ancient power dwelled amid the mud and reeds. She believed that her frog would be healed, but she never thought it would turn into this—a king among amphibians. Cleo reached for the frog, clutching it to her chest and watching as its throat expanded and contracted with each breath. She placed the frog gently into the pocket of her sack dress.

shutter small.png

Cleo improvised a basket from the skirt of her dress and filled it with mud and peat, the blinking frog resting in the muck like royalty. She shuffled back to the house, the ground beneath her bare feet quivering like jelly. The sun was setting by the time Cleo caught sight of the shotgun house, and the clouds were as fine and soft as pink lace. She stork-stepped over the broken fence, muck sloshing over her fingers and into the brown grass. Darrell was deeper in the garden, digging by the hazel tree that bordered the fence. He chopped the shovel into the ground again and again.

Cleo slipped through the back door, oblivious to the trail of slime and decaying leaves she left in her wake. She stepped into the darkness of her mother’s room and sat on the bed, her dress cold and wet on her bare legs. Her mother was lying motionless, but her eyes were open and staring at the ceiling.

“Mama,” Cleo said, “I brought something to help. I hope it will help.”

Cleo listened, but she only heard her mother’s soft breathing. She dipped her hand into the muck she carried and spread it on her mother’s brow. Her mother’s head listed on the pillow, which was stained dark from the oil in her hair. Her eyes settled on Cleo, and the thin line of her mouth twitched, her cheek dimpled.

Cleo placed the frog on her mother’s chest. As the frog watched, Cleo began to spread a thick layer of mud over her mother’s cheeks, her neck, and her bare arms and shoulders. She dabbed soft fingers beneath her mother’s eyes, behind her ears, until every inch of her mother’s exposed skin was covered. Tears filled Cleo’s eyes, and she fell to her knees, her filthy hands clasping her mother’s. She didn’t know how much magic the bog possessed—or even if it could reach all the way to their little shack—but she knew that she needed to try.

“Please, Mama,” Cleo said, “please, wake up.”

The door creaked open behind her. “Cleo, did you give your mama her—what the hell?” Uncle Darrell said.

Cleo whirled and scuttled against the dresser, her hands raised in surrender. “I didn’t mean to, Sir! Please—I’m sorry.”

Uncle Darrell grabbed Cleo’s arm, but she pulled away, her bare feet slipping on the soiled wood floor. She grabbed the blanket to keep her balance, but it slipped off the bed and knocked the frog onto the ground. The frog took a hop toward Darrell’s booted feet, and the big man stomped hard. His dull black boot flattened the frog, viscera spattering on the bed, the dresser, and Cleo’s legs.

Cleo screamed.

Uncle Darrell pulled the girl from the house, his hand tangled in her thick hair. She cried out, but he kept pulling her toward the hazel tree that grew along the fence. Cleo knew what would come next—she’d seen it happen to her brother enough times. She would feel the supple limb of a hazel switch—just another tool in Uncle Darrell’s arsenal—tearing into her skin, sowing pain and reaping fear. When they reached the tree, Darrell threw Cleo to the ground and screamed a string of spittle into her face.

“Pick one!”

Cleo sobbed, her vision blurred, but she hung limply to a thick branch of the hazel tree.

“That’s the one?” he said and, when she nodded, he pulled out a pocket knife with a boar-tusk handle and proceeded to slice away the wispy leaves and branches.

A blur of dirt and skin crashed into Darrell from behind. Tad, filthy and shirtless, plowed into Darrell at a full sprint and sent the older man sprawling headfirst over the wooden fence. Tad brushed the filthy hair out of his eyes and helped Cleo to her feet.

“You okay?” Tad said breathlessly, his bare chest covered with a sheen of dirt and sweat.

Cleo nodded, her fingers digging into Tad’s arm.

Darrell scrambled to his feet, cursing and dragging one leg awkwardly in the dirt. The bone-handled knife had stabbed him in the fall and was now protruding from his thigh, a dark red circle spreading on his canvas pants.

Darrell limped toward the children and grabbed the shovel that he’d left leaning against the fence. He took a wild swing, the shovel’s heavy blade missing and gouging into one of the wooden posts. “I’ll fucking kill you!” he shrieked, his eyes red-rimmed and unfocused.

The children ran together, vaulting over the broken fence and into the darkening swamp. The light of the full moon seeped through the trees, dim and disorienting. They fought to see the forest floor in the half-light, tripping over exposed roots and splashing through deep puddles of water. Darrell crashed after them, seemingly unaffected by the knife buried in his leg, his cries vile and animalistic. Cleo could feel his rage sending a tremor through the night air. She looked over her shoulder, trying to gauge if they were outdistancing the crazed man. That brief lapse in attention from her footing was all it took. She didn’t see the tangled cypress root against the shadowy foreground—her foot caught and both children went sprawling in an explosion of mud and leaves. They tumbled into a clearing, the moon’s light covering the marsh in a soft blue glow.

Then Darrell was upon them, his breath wheezy and ragged. Cleo cowered in horror as Uncle Darrell speared his shovel into the ground and straddled Tad’s chest. He punched the boy in the mouth and nose, cutting his knuckles on Tad’s teeth. His fingers tore at Tad’s throat, ignoring the boy’s hopeless struggles.

Cleo sobbed. She had hoped that the bog’s magic would keep them safe, but now she felt helpless and naive. Cleo scrambled backward, splashing through the filthy water. Her palms scraped against rough stone, and she turned to see her sacred white rock glowing in the moonlight, her sketches standing out in sharp contrast. She felt the first swellings of hope. The bog had led her here; she was sure of it.

Cleo walked behind her uncle, pulled the shovel out of the ground and hefted it in both hands. It felt heavy and awkward in her grasp, but she couldn’t let that stop her—Tad needed her. Cleo aimed at Darrell’s head and swung the shovel with all the strength she could muster. It was a clumsy blow, but the sharp, metal blade lacerated the skin at the base of Darrel’s neck. He bellowed like a wounded ox, stumbling in the mud as Tad, now free, sputtered and coughed.

Cleo dropped the shovel and pulled Tad to his feet. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Tad spit out a mouthful of blood and his legs nearly gave out. “I’m not sure,” he said.

Uncle Darrell groaned and reached for the shovel. He rolled to his knees and stood, using the spade as a crutch. His overalls were dirty and torn, and his face was covered in a mask of black blood, his eyes shining like dead stars. In the moon’s eerie light, their uncle didn’t even look human. Tad and Cleo ran, stumbling up the hill which overlooked the white rock. They climbed and climbed, but even at its summit, it wasn’t enough to keep them from Darrell. They pressed together, their feet edging along the cliff, Cleo’s white rock thirty feet below. Darrell, blood trickling from his scalp, stood before them with the shovel hanging loosely from his hands.

Darrell smiled a grim little smile, raised the shovel in both hands and staggered toward the children.

“Close your eyes, Cleo,” Tad said, and they held each other, listening to Darrell’s boots squelching closer. Somewhere nearby, an owl screeched, its call echoing in the coolness. The air felt thick, almost tangible, and Cleo shivered as she felt the first prickles of gooseflesh on her arms.

“I’m scared, Tad.”

“It’s going to be okay, Cleo,” he said, his voice quavering. “I promise.”

“Mama,” Cleo breathed, her fingernails digging into Tad’s arm.

The footsteps stopped, but no shovel sliced the air. Instead, they heard the wind gusting, carrying the sounds of singing, the voices of a million marsh creatures joining together in a chorus.

They opened their eyes.

Darrell’s back was to them, his arms slack, still holding onto the shovel. All around them, the bog was moving, but it wasn’t just the quaking of the peat. No, the ground itself was crawling as frogs, toads, snakes, centipedes, and locusts marched on, the rattle of their barbed legs and membranous wings keeping rhythm like the thunder of war drums. They swarmed up the hill, encircling Darrell in a narrowing lasso of bodies. Dragonflies and blackbirds swooped and volplaned at Darrell’s head, and he tried to swat them away with the shovel.

He retreated from the marsh creatures, backing up to the edge of the cliff. Cleo and Tad huddled on the ground as all manner of insects and amphibians crowded around them, heading straight toward Darrell. The children watched as Darrell stabbed at the ground with his spade, shearing a toad in half, smashing a coil of centipedes into paste. They watched as the bog crept ever upward, encasing Darrell in a cocoon of flesh, mud, and feathers. They watched as he stumbled, lost his footing on the rocky cliff, and fell headfirst onto the white rock below. They watched as his body, limp and heavy as a sandbag, slid off the rock and into the bog, breaking through the surface layer of moss, where earth and water would leech all the hardness and cruelty from his bones.

Cleo and Tad sat in silence, huddled together, as the bog creatures slowly departed, marching back into the depths of the swamp. The full moon cast a soft glow, and a damp breeze blew against Cleo’s hair. In the distance, Cleo thought she heard her mother calling them home.

 
updated oyster.png
 
Jesse_Durovey_Headshot.jpg

Jesse Durovey is a writer, a former soldier, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana, and his work has appeared in riverSedge, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Pecan Grove Review. Jesse lives in western Montana with his wife, Tamara, and their three sons.

Jesse IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

For the Love of Drones

D. a. Wright



I named it Pete, after my uncle. Is that a weird thing? It kinda feels like a weird thing. My uncle had drowned in a riverboat accident when the waters swelled in a freak thunderstorm that lasted three days and flooded the Mississippi delta and beautiful nowhere of bayou towns from Rosedale to Lake Providence. Motorhomes floating downstream and cars upturned like turtles.

People say that’s how we got our alligator problem. I don’t know what to believe anymore.

It was a sentimental gesture. Pete, I called it from that first day opening up the box. The first time I fell in love with a machine. Dropped off with whirring loving grace by a delivery bot from Standard International. The hover-drone stork to my computerized bundle of joy.

The way the winged sentinel watched over me with its cold blue sensors, it felt paternal. It did remind me of Pete.

Everybody else already had a pet drone. I was a latecomer, the neighborhood luddite with the cranky push mower since I can’t stand the smell of gas. I would be out mowing my burnt lawn of straw grass, baking in the heat of another brutal summer day. And up the street would come the Sullivans with their three boys and ZX-500 flying high as a kite. Or the Bartletts with their custom-mod FL-200A racer outfitted with a stroller seat for little Alice. Or nosy Mrs. Parker with her D49-B copter drone spying on the lacy drapes.

Was I jealous? No. I never cared what the neighbors thought of my hermit life. Was I lonely? Yes. Every day waking up in an empty bed of memories. I missed Evelyn. I missed our quiet life together.

I had no friends except for Howard, gone and moved to Denham Springs. He’d call every other day at noon. We’d chat for an hour or so, about the weather or the alligator problem. He’s the one that suggested I buy a drone, after I’d been complaining about yard work and my bad back.

“Or you could adopt one,” he said. “The Air Force deprograms military drones for domestic sale. They’re cheap.”

“That doesn’t exactly sound safe,” I said.

“You are getting old, Martin. Imagine it as a personal helper for the chores.” 

I ordered it on a Saturday morning. It arrived that afternoon. A surprisingly small box. No assembly required. A refurbished YK-3800 with turbo boosters. Dual-core sensors, GPS tracking, 360° flex-rotation gimbal bays, solar auto-recharge. A curiously sleek machine.

I pressed the power button. And, well, nothing happened. I tried again several times. I held the button until my thumb got numb and finally gave up. I left it in its cardboard box in the living room. Styrofoam peanuts and disappointment. A defective gift from the future. I went about my day.

I was cooking an early supper of fried catfish and sautéed greens, listening to the latest news on the radio about a doomsday cult of fishermen terrorizing swamps south of Baton Rouge, when I heard a bang, purr, and whiz. The cardboard box was rattling on the rug like a raccoon in garbage can. Its flaps burst open with a beam of light.

The machine rose from the box like a magic trick. A slow levitation. Its wings shot out full span and oscillated like spinning whisks. Its robot eyes sparked with a pulse of indigo blue. It looked like a metallic dragonfly. And it was alive.

Those eerie blue sensors scanned its immediate surroundings, transforming my living room into an impromptu discotheque. Pinpoint beams roved over my couch, bookshelves of mystery novels and cookbooks, the antique cabinet with the fancy porcelain and Evelyn’s collection of gnome bobbles. The sensors focused and bathed my body in a spectral wash – bald head, bowling shirt, greasy spatula gripped in my fist – as if the machine were studying something important.

I flipped the scorched fish and walked over from the kitchen. The drone zoomed away, looking for a route of escape. I moved onto the living room rug. Two very careful, very cautious steps in its direction. Hello, I said. Eye to eye. Man to machine. And I swear to god, those indigo eyes blinked.

My hand reached out to touch it. The drone tilted on axis and flew into the china cabinet.

What are you going do? Sometimes life hands you a nervous animatronic robot and a living room scattered with broken china. And, well, you just gotta dump the pieces in the trashcan with your ruined supper and move on.

I don’t let these little hiccups in life bother me. Not anymore. Not after the thyroid cancer. Lump low on her throat like a bullfrog, undetectable in the very beginning. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Makes the guilt a little easier to swallow, the heartache a little easier to bury, deep down someplace where when it calls your name at night, it sounds like an echo, not a whisper. I remember the first time I noticed. Sundown on the porch, hard light making silhouettes of the slats, hot rays glancing her neck, that odd bulge glistening there, slick with sweat. Hay fever, allergies, they’d been getting worse with the weather too, that’s all we thought it was. I don’t let these little hiccups bother me anymore. Not after holding her hand as she let go from the prison of her body, unhooked from the ventilator. She wasn’t living. She wasn’t happy. She was holding on for me.

Pete didn’t know any better. Not yet. I spent the weekend reading the YK-3800 owner’s manual with the drone locked in my garage where it wasn’t liable to do much damage besides bang around old paint cans. I fiddled with its presets for domestic tasks. I committed the vocal commands to memory – wake, sleep, lift, descend, spin, fetch, stay. We practiced together. The drone became less frantic and more at ease with its new master.

Once I’d figured out the basics, I let the drone back inside the house. Pete followed me everywhere. Analyzing my movements, mimicking my routines. It was annoying, sure, but I understood from the manual that this was their way of learning how to be good helpers. After all, as a repurposed guardian drone, this was part of Pete’s root function – to observe and defend.

The next morning, I awoke in alarm to a jangling Mexican radio at dawn. Pete was hovering over my bed, salsa music blasting from its speakers. A plump orange clutched in its landing gear claws like a grenade. Its sensors targeted my retina and shot out a focused ray, measuring the dilation of my pupils as I became suddenly alert, suddenly terrified this insane machine was going murder me before breakfast.

The drone twitched. The orange burst in its claws, exploding pulp and juice all over my bedspread.

shutter small.png

Pete was prone to these nervy fits. But I didn’t give up. When I commit to something, I see it through to the end. I’ve always been that way. How many times did she tell me to go? How many times did I refuse? Through every biopsy, every surgery, every chemo session. In and out of the hospital. In and out of remission. Sometimes it’s just trial and error, the doctors said. You better damn well try harder, I told them, this is my wife. Sometimes I’m stubborn, too stubborn. I refused to leave her side, I refused to give up hope. A lot of times I wasn’t helping, I see that now, overcome by a deep anger at her helplessness and mine. I felt like I was failing Evelyn every day. Watching her recede week after week, as if the sinuous plastic tubes were draining her life instead of feeding it. Her long rattled breaths like a salt marsh tide, her frail body vanishing into those thin white sheets. It was worth it, being with her, even during the worst of it.

I spent countless hours programming Pete, flipped on its dome, wings asleep. Those indigo eyes always moving. What an awful word, programming. So inhuman, so strict in its language. It was more intimate than a line of code, a flush of data in 1s and 0s.

It felt good to have a project. It gave me an odd sense of purpose. Something to do, you know, besides fret over horrors in the morning paper. Droughts in California, zombie bees in New Mexico, militia men staked out in the deserts of Texas awaiting an alien invasion or hostile government takeover of their farmland.

We were getting to know each other, learn each other. Minor kinks were to be expected. Misunderstandings between man and machine, like putting my good shoes in the dishwasher, or the laser attack on Ms. Dubois’s cat, or its persistent attempts to have sex with the toaster oven.

And then there was that first evening coming home after work at the processing plant. The total satisfaction I felt when I walked in the front door to find my quiet house so cozy, so clean, so well-loved. The living room tidied, books and curios dusted on the shelves. My kitchen spotless, shining in liberation from its decade-old patina of grease. The broken porcelain had been fetched from the trashcan, fused back together, and arranged in the china cabinet. It felt like home again, for the first time in a long time. I was thankful. I was grateful. I almost cried.

Howard laughed when I told him on the phone.

“It seems you’ve very much taken to your new pet,” he said.

“It’s not a pet… it’s more like a friend,” I told him.

“Well now I’m jealous. I thought I was your only friend,” he joked. “Take care of yourself, Martin. I heard a cold front is brewing new storms off the coast.”

shutter small.png

Pete was an instant celebrity with the neighborhood kids. We would go out for our afternoon stroll around the block and there would be Mr. Petrov and his twins or Mrs. Moore and her pig-tailed girls walking home from school.

The children would marvel at Pete. Its dragonfly wings with neon-green stripes, the way the drone would glide through the air like an ace pilot, performing aerial tricks. They would drop their book bags and chase it down the street with wild glee.

I would shout roll! and Pete would flip three cartwheels overhead, nosedive under my legs, and perch on my shoulder. Do it again, they’d scream. And I would tell Pete to spin! and the drone would twirl so high into the sky I was afraid I’d lose it forever. Moments after its rocket ascent, a rogue black mote would always surface from the deep blue, whipping through the clouds. Pete would spiral down at breakneck speed and spin its wings like a hummingbird while the children clapped.

It always felt like we were on parade. Whenever we crossed paths with another drone, Pete would default to defensive maneuvers. It would start circling the threat, suspicious of any stranger in its air space. Most encounters passed without incident.

One evening, Pete and I were out for a stroll under the pantheon of country stardust when a gunshot thundered off into the silent night.

It was the General, my neighbor. Two houses down in the dilapidated Georgian colonial with chipped clapboard and pillars riddled by termites. He was a former gold-star officer from the war, a widower and recluse like myself. I always felt a certain kinship with the kooky old man.

He sat up in his rocking chair and emptied out dead shells from his shotgun.

“My apologies,” he said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

He pointed the shotgun barrel at his target – a six-foot alligator that had crawled out of the marsh onto his battlefield lawn in search of food.

“They’re getting worse with the heat,” he said. “Pray for rain.”

Pete zoomed a safe boundary distance from the porch and analyzed the old man in the rocker. The General stared back in a squint, his good eye and his bad eye twitching. A cool standoff. The old man’s grip tightened on the shotgun. Pete lost interest. The drone glided over to the dying alligator and began prodding the strange specimen with its metal talons.

“You got one of them bucket of bolts, too, huh?” he said. “Never would have guessed.”

There was twinge of betrayal in his voice. He unwrapped a piece of salt-water taffy and popped it in his mouth. He chewed, slow and serious, working the soft candy over in his jaw.

“It’s helpful,” I said.

“I don’t judge people. A man minds his own,” he said. “I wouldn’t trust it, though. I’ve seen what those things can do in the desert. Mark my word, boy. Machine is machine. Ain’t got no heart.”

shutter small.png

Somewhere in the tangled-up mess of my own heart, I knew what the General said was true. But it felt good to have company.

It’s funny how much I needed this, some sort of companionship to fill the void. The convenience became commonplace, part of my necessity. Pete and I were a team. I grew attached to the need for something constant in my life beyond my wonky knees that ached at the mere thought of rain. Mountains crumble, seas swell, and I had Pete.

We settled into an automated routine. Every morning, Pete would wake me up with a serenade of Cat Steven’s “Morning Has Broken” at 7am, fluttering above my bed. Downstairs, there would be a hot cup of earl grey tea waiting. Fresh squeezed orange juice, scrambled eggs, perfectly browned and buttered toast. Morning paper on the table with a sharpened pencil for the crossword.

Pete would water the plants and dust the living room while I would read the news and eat my breakfast. It was all too familiar, all too fast, almost. That feeling of peace, like when Evelyn and I used to share our mornings together in silence, contemplating the day ahead, as if nothing could go wrong with her by my side. I didn’t know why but I felt the same strange comfort from this misfit drone.

Whenever I’d leave for work, Pete would bound out the front door and circle my car like an angry wasp, knocking against my windshield as I put it in reverse and drove away. In the evening, we would cook dinner together. Pete prepping vegetables while I manned the pans. On weekends, the drone would help out with chores. Tidy the house, mow the straw grass yard, fly the trash to the transfer station.

Sometimes we’d drive out to the southern falls of the Ouachita River. I would sit out on boulders over the white-water rush while Pete would chase warblers and kestrels over the wetlands of the broad river. It was a timeless place, a favorite daytrip spot for Evelyn and I where she’d paint her messy watercolors and I’d fly-fish for perch, or we’d just sit for hours and talk with our bare feet hanging over the rapids like we were children again. She’d kept me young at heart. Now that she was gone, I felt so very old.

There were many quiet nights when Pete and I would sit out under the moonlight on my back porch. We would watch the swampy weeds and cattails swaying in the mud creek woods. We would listen to the marsh breathing, wind sighing, the old wisdom of trees. Alright, so maybe Pete couldn’t hear that part, being a robot and all with no analog for the world’s whimsy, our romance with the past.

Pete was ever present. A being of the future, my loyal guardian, always on lookout, searching the darkness with its indigo blue. And there I was this fossil, this relic of another time, living in my memories.

shutter small.png

Making friends in the neighborhood was easy with Pete. There were invitations to barbeques, cribbage night at the Holloways, the moonshine incident with Mrs. Valdez after too many cups of spiked sweet tea at the neighborhood potluck.

Mrs. Valdez and I were the last ones left at the party, unwinding out on lawn chairs by a leech pond in her backyard. Pete was chasing her German Shepard up and down the rambling picket fence, a mud-staked barrier at the borderline of the woods to keep her dog from wandering off and alligators from slithering in.

She rested her hand on mine. Maybe I did lead her on by not pulling away. But, you know, I felt sorry for her. She’d lost her husband to a heart attack at an early age and never remarried. I had thirty wonderful years with Evelyn. The last five were hell, but even sitting by her side in the hospital, every moment was a gift. Reading her mystery novels until she fell asleep. All those lonely nights watching the rise and fall of her chest. There was no dawn, there was no sun until she would open her eyes in the morning and whisper my name.

Mrs. Valdez glanced over in her chair with a moonstruck gaze. I knew that look, soft and vulnerable, like when I danced with Evelyn on our second date, quarters in the jukebox of a roadhouse in downtown Lake Charles. I don’t remember the song. But I do remember the jackrabbit thump of my heart, stars aligned under those tacky colored lights. Somehow I had the courage to brush the long curls from Evelyn’s face and chance a kiss.

“Do you ever miss being with someone?” Mrs. Valdez asked.

Evelyn wasn’t just someone. She was my everything. But I didn’t tell her this. Mrs. Valdez leaned in closer. I dodged out of the way, reaching for the bottle of peach brandy.

I poured a heavy helping in my cup.

She resettled herself in her lawn chair, “You don’t need anyone, do you Martin? You just need some thing.”

I drank my sweet tea and watched Pete tease her German Shepard, swooping down and soaring high whenever the dog came charging after it.

Howard called around 4 p.m. to warn me about the storm. I’d already heard the news on the radio. Emergency advisories, newscasters drumming up the panic.

I rushed home from the office, driving like a madman through the pouring rain, skidding with misbehaving automated cars on the highway. There were three accidents and a detour caused by a floating herd of cattle in the flooded road. The sad confused faces of those cows flipped on their bellies, drowning in the swelling waters.

Into the darkness, I drove, faster, faster. Thunderclouds loomed like a giant spaceship above the world casting its curses in a storm of lightening and terror.

When I arrived at the house, Pete was nowhere to be seen. His watchman’s post on the roof abandoned, thrashing rain wearing at the shingles. The front door whipped open from the fierce wind. No sign of Pete in the living room. Upstairs, downstairs, in the garage.

I ran outside into the torrent of rain. Boots sunk deep in the muddy lawn, puddles in the straw grass. Cattails swaying in the mud creek woods, cypress shaking in the bowered darkness. I screamed out his name. Fear and the beating heart, mouth full of rain. I searched for Pete everywhere. And then I heard a familiar sound.

Under the porch, somewhere deep behind the latticework. Claw marks in the mud, a huge hole dug out in the straw grass. Something waiting, something with eyes that flashed wide with lightening clashes in the night.

The alligator was so strangely silent, so calm in the thunderstorm. The way it lolled its heavy head, the way it crept sluggish out of that hole. This prehistoric monster with its thick grey scales, rainwater spilling down the chutes of its spiked ridges. A beautiful creature, a deadly creature that snapped its jaws with a low throated growl and swish of its giant tail.

I turned to run. Boots slipping, legs fumbling, falling hard on my hip in the thick mud. The alligator slithered out from under the porch, all six feet of it, and stalked closer. Only a couple yards from a horrific death. I’d read the news reports. I’d seen the gruesome photos in the paper. I was ten seconds from becoming a headline.

Out of the pitch-black night and blinding rain, those indigo eyes flared with a whiplash wind and a high-pitched whir. My hero, my Pete. Copters soaring, zapping bursts of electricity from its claws. The drone zoomed low and latched onto the monster’s snout. The alligator convulsed in shock, thrashed to loosen its grip. Pete wrestled with the alligator, its bloodied metal talons punctured deep in the slippery armor.

The stormy sky lit up. In a flash, it was over. Fireworks and mayday disaster. Pete crash-landed in a fit of sparks on the muddy lawn beside the bleeding monster.

I carried the wreckage to the garage. Its metal shell felt deader than the rusted tools on the shelves. A cradle of nuts and bolts. Burnt wire and toasted circuits. Overheated and waterlogged. The drone unleashed a cough of steam when I unscrewed the panel. Its blue-eyed sensors were on the fritz, flickering at an erratic tempo. I powered it down and wiped out the mechanical underbelly with a rag. I drained out the water and left Pete there.

I worried myself to sleep that night, praying all would be right in the morning. Cleared away like a storm cloud nightmare. Out there in the terrible rain, I swear I could hear the alligator dying on my lawn. I shut my eyes and listened to the last moans of the poor monstrous creature.

I was crushed, grief-stricken in a strange disconnected way. Short-circuited like my dear friend and its gutted wires upturned on my workbench. I’m no engineer. I’m no mechanical genius. But I’ve always been a fast study from the curve balls of life. Like learning how to cook, clean, and dress a bed with someone in it when Evelyn got so weak she couldn’t even lift herself without losing her breath. Like learning the patience and the power of prayer.

Standard International dismissed my desperate plea for help. The automated voice on the other end of the line told me to destroy it. Put the wreckage in burn-safe e-trash receptacle, and incinerate the pieces. Immediately. Do not attempt to reanimate.

I argued, I pleaded, I demanded answers. I threw the phone down and did my own research. Wire schematics, diagnostic tests, factory resets. I soldered, I hoped, I prayed. I buried the alligator out in the swampy cattails.

Three months, I worked on Pete. Three months, I prayed with little progress. Howard called me crazy. The neighbors complained about the racket, the smell of burnt metal. And then miracle beyond miracles. One morning in the garage, a flicker of life, spark of something. I pressed the button. A hum, a motor purr from beyond. A flash of indigo blue, its wings rotating in a slow revival.

Pete rose from the oil-stained concrete floor. It studied me in confusion. We stared at each other for a solid minute. And then the drone flew off into a stack of paint cans.

I can’t describe to you the relief I felt upon its resurrection. Sure, Pete was stunted, his erratic fits more extreme, but they seemed to smooth out as the weeks went by. We fell into a familiar routine. Every morning, our standard alarm. Scrambled eggs and orange juice, clothes pressed, living room tidied. I felt grateful and guilty for having this reanimated robot back in service like nothing had happened. I tried to reprogram Pete and give the drone a rest. I just wanted the company. I didn’t care about the rest of it.

I knew something was wrong. There were plenty of warning signs. The jerk and flutter, that clicking tick in the wing rotation, the pan of cold light, the smell of burning polymer. Egg shells in the omelet, mismatched socks, broken windows from banging around the house at slightest sign of bad weather, the mutilation of my toaster oven. But I ignored it.

We started our afternoon strolls again. It was a way of returning to normalcy. The neighborhood kids kept asking after Pete. I felt ashamed for hiding it like an invalid. An old guilt. Difficult to shake. Pete seemed happy. It had returned to its roost on the roof, started rising with sunshine again. The drone had been acting like its old self. How was I to know?

I still feel like the little brat got what he deserved. That’s not what I told the police, of course. Pete and I had been invited by the Bartletts to Alice’s sixth birthday party, and this snot-nosed kid had swatted the drone with his sticky cake-covered hands. Yes, maybe Pete did overreact when it lifted the toddler by his overalls and flew him screaming a hundred feet into the air, swirling around and down, before releasing him from its claws into the kiddie pool.

That was a scandal. The first of many. There were threats from the neighbors, citations for disturbing the peace. Pete grew more hostile and defensive with each encounter with the outside world. I was proud when Pete torched Mrs. Parker’s spy drone out over our house. She’ll never forgive me for that.

Howard had a few horror stories he was all too willing to share. Stories of drones gone haywire. Owners maimed or killed in their sleep, drones gone rogue in the wilderness, thousands of them haunting the hills of Tennessee. He didn’t know. He didn’t realize how attached I’d gotten. He didn’t realize the heartbreak.

I stopped taking Pete out for walks. I locked the drone in the house during the day and only let Pete out to fly at night, restrained by a cable leash staked in the yard. I still wasn’t ready for the inevitable.

It was well past midnight. I woke in a sweat, disturbed from a dream. My heart was pounding. I could sense a presence in the room, even before I opened my eyes. Pete was silently floating over my bed like a bird of prey, watching me sleep. Its landing gear claws jerked and extended, a surge of electricity between its metal talons. And then it was gone out the door.

I knew what I had to do. And I knew who I had to call for help.

It was raining with a quiet violence outside. A downpour invisible in the dark, soaking my clothes as I approached the rundown colonial and its porch light beacon. The rain masked my tears. I was thankful for this. I couldn’t cry in front of the General. That would be too much.

The doorbell was broken so I rapped on his front door. The General came out in his bathrobe. He was covered in cocoa dust and flour, an apron around his waist. He scolded me for a solid minute with a wooden spoon, saying I’d scared the hell of him and almost ruined his late-night chocolate soufflé. When a man wants dessert, he wants dessert, and there’s nothing strange about that, he insisted. The General softened when he saw the woebegone look on my face. His hand put down the spoon and picked up his shotgun.

“Where is it?” the old man asked.

We made the slow walk back to my house. The instant I opened the garage door, Pete let loose a canon charge of light. The drone hovered over the workbench, unstable and off-kilter.

The General pulled a couple shells from his bathrobe pocket and loaded the shotgun. His good eye aimed through the sights while his bad eye twitched. Pete knocked into my tool chest and wobbled over a heap of scattered paint cans, struggling to regain equilibrium.

The old man lowered the shotgun, “You want to do it?”

The doctors had asked the same question. Evelyn’s cancer had metastasized from her thyroid to her larynx and lungs, before creeping up her spinal cord to the brain stem. She’d been in coma for over a month. Unresponsive except for the hiccup heartbeat of the EKG, that pulse of warmth from her limp hand. They showed me how simple it was, just a flick of the switch would stop the flow of oxygen and release her. The doctors asked me again. No, I told them. I wanted her to come home, that’s what I was thinking. That’s what she’d been asking for months. I wasn’t listening right because I couldn’t hear it, I couldn’t face it. I wanted to keep fighting. I wanted to keep trying. I wanted to fix her. She just wanted to die in peace. I hope she did in the end. I’ll never know.

“Give me the gun,” I said. The General nodded and handed it over.

I leveled the barrel at my dear friend. Pete scanned the old faithful gun, and the eyes that took aim, with a blinding ray of blue light. Confusion, fury. Friend or foe. I cocked the shotgun. Pete thrust forward and revved its engines.

I’m sorry, I told him. Finger crimped on the trigger. Cold steel, nerves gone electric. I swallowed down the lump in my throat. Forgive me, I said and pulled hard.

The explosion was so loud and so powerful it boxed my ears and buckled my legs, falling onto my knees in a cloud of smoke. Buckshot pierced into metal, a crash of shattered glass in the back of the garage. Holey tin cans spilling white primer and blue paint on the cement floor like tributaries of the wetlands.  

The General swore and took the shotgun from my shaking hands. He emptied the chamber and scooped more shells from his bathrobe. But Pete had already escaped, out the broken window and into the night.

The General reloaded and ran out onto my lawn, firing off wildly at winged shadows in the rain.

shutter small.png

Sometimes I visit the unmarked grave out in the straw grass near the swampy cattails where I’d laid the alligator to rest. Sometimes I awake late at night to a phantom flutter of wings outside my bedroom window. Sometimes I wonder what happened to Pete, whether it’s hiding out in the bald cypress of the bayou or roving across the lowland with a pack of wild drones, searching for someplace to call home.

Sometimes it’s best to forget. Sometimes the universe gives you a friend when you need it most. For a time, for a breath on god’s great earth. The hardest part is letting go. Sometimes the only peace in this sinking world is knowing how the heart holds its weight.

 
Oyster update small.png
 
DAWrightprofilepic.jpg

D. A. Wright is a former small-town New England reporter turned speechwriter living upstate with his partner, Charlotte, and a mischievous rabbit named Hazel. His fiction has been supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Tin House Summer Workshop. His stories and articles have appeared in The Offbeat, Popular Science, Apocrypha & Abstractions, NBC News, and the American Journal among others. He can be found via the interwebs at @mythosvsrobot (Twitter) and @mythosvstherobot (Instagram)

Later

Sarah Terez Rosenblum



“Look at those sexy rollers!”

This is Ryan Jacobson. I’m going to wind up taller than him; my dad’s Lithuanian, Irish and Swedish, and some of those types get fucking tall. In the one photo I have of him, he’s backed up against a moving truck—his head clears the roof almost—and you can see mom’s shadow at his feet.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s dad’s the bald turd in those law firm commercials. Direct quote: “If you’ve been injured in a car accident, we’ll make sure you get all the pain and suffering you deserve.” You wanna tell me how no one caught that? Ryan’ll be lucky to hit five foot nine.

Maybe I’ll be behind an oak desk drinking whiskey. Ryan walks in and hands me his resume. And yeah, he’s all classed up in a navy suit and silver cufflinks, but I’ve seen him in his camp shirt and swim trunks. I know his knees point inward like gossiping birds. And maybe I give him the job, and maybe I laugh him off the premises. Depends how the chef made my eggs that morning; some days the yolk comes out too hard.

That’s Later though. Humans are the one species that know about it. The only thing spiders and zebras and iguanas understand is Now.

Ryan might not know about Later. He just told a whole mess of twelve-year-old girls that they’re sexy. He’s a counselor; he should know better, but now he’s whistling and applauding while all of them roll down the hill. Even Rachel acts like she loves it. That’s one point deducted, for sure.

“I’m gonna sit next to Kim tonight at bonfire.” Next to me, Walter’s making one of his lanyards. This one’s purple plastic. He seems really gay sometimes, except he’s obsessed with nailing Kim.

“Ambitious.” I watch Rachel and the other Habima girls brush themselves off and run back up the hill.

“Don’t underestimate me, asshole.”

Kim’s the girl counselor version of Ryan if they were both Sex Robots. All of the guys in Gavri have whacked off to her, probably at the same time. Just like the Habima girls pretend they’re kissing Ryan, when really they’re pressing their lips to the backs of their hands.

“Kim’s not that much taller than me.” Walter secures a knot at one end of his bracelet or keychain or whatever he’s making.

“Sure. Not when you don’t count her hair.”

Rachel’s hair is as jewy as Kim’s, but it’s brown, so she looks less like a lion sucking live wires.

“And so what if I’m younger?” Walter tucks and weaves plastic. “My dad says age is just a number.”

Rachel’s exactly my age, but Walter’s right. This is about levels or leagues. We tried to develop an overall point system last summer, but it was tough to account for all the variables. Take Kim. Right now she’s splayed out tanning on one of the picnic tables. She’s got the top button of her cut-offs open, her blue camp shirt rolled to her ribs. Meanwhile, Walter’s over here wearing glasses he broke the first day we got to Wisconsin, and he doesn’t believe in showers. All that should make Kim off-the-charts-inaccessible, but Walter’s got hair in his pits already, and Kim thinks ponies are baby horses, even though her boobs are the size of God’s head.

“The problem with you and Kim is systemic,” I tell Walter.

“The fuck does that mean?”

“Picture a turtle who wants to bone a dove.”

“Don’t act like your chances are better.” Walter watches me watch Rachel. “She’ll never forgive you for stealing her shit.”

 

“Your turn for the LoveScope.”

This is Hyperactive Chipmunk Girl. She’s not that important. All the camp girls do this thing where they touch forefinger to forefinger, thumb to thumb to make a heart-shaped gap between their hands. I’m just trying to eat sweet and sour chicken without choking, but Chipmunk stands behind me and makes me stare through the hole. I could shake her off, but I’m always on the lookout for a Template; life happens too quickly to process. Like, when Dad picked me up at the airport and we headed straight to Tilamook Falls.

That was last August. Mom said she was “frankly shocked” that he asked me to visit. “Your father loves you,” she said, “but the problem with marrying someone who rises to the occasion is they only know how to respond.” We didn’t even stop at his place to drop off my suitcase. Suddenly, I’m on a misty path and he’s taking my picture. Behind me, this Bilevel Hydroextravaganza, so close I can feel its drool on the back of my head.

Processing is accomplished through memory, which is totally fallible, polluted by other, older memories. They wait like mom says your relatives do—in heaven to greet you, so by the time you’re through the gates, you’ve forgotten whether you liked them when they were alive. And emotions screw with everything. Trying to Experience something when you’re all stuffed with feelings is like riding a bike with a blanket over your head.

I don’t feel shit for Chipmunk, so I can actually Experience her arms around me. The fruity smell of her lip-crap or her hair. I can commit to memory the pressure of her fingertips, how her tiny boobs press my upper back. That’s why she makes a good Template. It doesn’t make me hard, cause I’m discerning, and also as a precautionary measure, I’m already thinking about damp books fully of moldy poetry, and dead things like ferrets and cats.

“Uh-oh,” Chipmunk says. “Guess who’s your destiny!” Through her heart hole, I see Rob, the guy who cleans our toilets. He’s at a corner table eating challah. Rob’s about seventy, and angry he never became a novelist. I can’t remember how I found that out. At camp there are things you just know.

shutter small.png

What I know about Rachel’s stuffed dog is different, because she told me. Last October, right after everything. She felt sorry for me about my dad’s St. Christopher’s medal. I’d found it in my backpack over Colorado, when I was rummaging in the side pocket for a pen. My dad never took it off before that. You can see it in the moving truck picture. It’s the one thing consistent I remember. So, finding the medal in my pack had felt like a promise; dad telling me this time, he’d see me real soon. Then in gym class, they tried to take it away during the flag football unit, after it swung way out and gave this kid Toby Masterson a bloody nose. That’s why I got suspended when I got done punching Coach Jenkins. They couldn’t reach my mom, so Rachel’s dad picked us both up. He didn’t want to make two trips though, so Rachel ended up leaving school early too.

“Why’d you do it?” she asked. In the front seat, her dad talked loud about synergy into his fat car phone. If the guy on the other end wasn’t deaf, he would be soon.

“I needed it near me.”

“I’m like that with Germany.” Rachel pressed her finger into her foggy window.

“The country?”

“Spelled different.”

“I don’t know what we’re talking about.” I didn’t even feel stupid saying it. I hadn’t really known what anyone was talking about since last month when we got the call.

“I’ll show you.” In her garage, Rachel popped open her seatbelt. “Wait here,” she said after I’d followed her into the back hall. Her dad pushed past me, talking now about paradigm shifts. He’s not who I’ll be Later. Even back then, when Rachel’s mom still loved him, he seemed feeble, always making some big splashing fuss about nothing, drowning in the sad pond of his life.

After I got tired of staring at Rachel’s galoshes and counting all her mom’s hiking boots, I wandered into the kitchen and checked the cabinets. I wanted some mixed, salted nuts.

“What are you doing?”

It’s stupid to think so much about one girl’s index finger. But I do. I think about Rachel’s all the time. She tapped me on the shoulder and I turned fast and bumped into it a little. It hurt in a good way when her nail scraped my jaw.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Here.” She held out a stuffed animal.

“Is that a lamb?” I reached for it, but she pulled it to her chest.

“German Shepherd.”

The dog’s nose was made of some kind of black leather padding with the yarny part busting through.

“I need him close to me. Not like I’m OCD about it, but when I was a kid I took him to school, even. Objects mean things, sometimes. They stand in for what you can’t have."

I glanced toward her cabinets.

“I’m showing you because of your necklace.” Rachel said it slow like I might be retarded.

“Do you have any mixed, salted nuts?” I asked, because Jesus Christ, maybe I was.

I obviously shouldn’t have read Rachel’s diary, but girls are impossible to get to know when it’s not summer. In the hall last winter, Rachel’s friends were human-shields, matching bookends. And in the classroom, everything stank of wet wool. I had this one other chance right before Christmas. Rachel was outside the bathroom in the Fine Arts building. I thought her glasses were fogged because that building’s full of the trumpet players’ exhales, but she was sniffling too and wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

I’m: “What’s wrong?”

And she’s: “I didn’t get the part.”

And I’m: “Who did?”

And she’s: “Fucking Wendy.”

And I’m: “Why?”

“Because she’s the right kind of pretty.”

Rachel, nothing here is forever. Later is coming. It’s for people like us who can use our own words when we’re talking, we can spell, and we know things about God and the circulatory system. Ten years from now, Wendy won’t even be my secretary. She’ll be the girl my chauffeur nails with my car.

Except what I really said was, “How’s your dog’s name spelled if it’s not like the country?”

Rachel looked at me like I’d made everything worse and on purpose.  “It took you that long to ask me?” She wiped her nose and straightened her t-shirt. “I’m not telling you everything about me just because you’re sad.”

In homeroom, the next day she stayed tucked between her bookends. One of them caught me staring and said I was creepy, but Walter’s cousin is the kid who shot those two teachers at that Christian school in Virginia, so watching Rachel shower, which I’ve done too, is basically retro. Aren’t you nostalgic right now for all the girls you stalked?

shutter small.png

Walter wears a fucking suit jacket to bonfire.

Wide-lapeled like he pulled it from a time-traveling dumpster. My dad had one similar. I asked mom if people used to get dressed up when they were moving, and she said the fabric smelled like sunlight and mothballs when he carried her across the threshold, and I said how are you defining threshold, and she said never mind. Dad’s also got a scar on his upper lip in the photo. Or the picture might be warped, my mom’s not sure. On the flight out to Oregon last August, I’d made a list of the questions I would ask him, but the trip went too fast, and I asked the wrong ones. I couldn’t even check on the scar thing, cause when dad picked me up he had a beard.

“Every guy out here seems like he’s grown one.” Beside me at Powell’s, he’d faced the book shelves. That’s how we were the whole weekend, me looking up at dad, while he stared at something—a book spine, a hamburger, the coast.

“When did you start it?”

“You don’t start a beard, you just stop shaving.”

I watched him pry a softcover from the case.

“What’s that?”

“Yeats.”

“Who’s he?”

“Dead Irish poet.”

In line to check out, dad said, “I’ll probably shave it. But I feel like I’d need to go somewhere. Then if I came back, it would be less of a shock.”

When I got home, I showed mom how dad got me Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #1, and told her about the dead Irish guy, and she said, “Those are your dad’s priorities in a nutshell. He can’t leave a poetry book behind.” After that, I heard her rattling around in the medicine cabinet. When I was a kid, I used to think Valium was the same thing as volume, cause mom said she took it sometimes to turn her thoughts down.

shutter small.png

“You’re shitting me with that jacket,” I say to Walter while we’re eating dinner.

“Don’t mess with me, asshole.”

“You look like you’re from the seventies.”

“You act like you’re the president, but everyone knows the truth.” Walter douses his half-eaten sandwich with Kool-aid. Maybe he has too many sisters. It says in Rachel’s diary girls do that so they won’t eat.

July 5: Kim taught us to diet by pouring salt or Kool-aid on half of our lunches. I said, but I’m still hungry, and she said “challah doesn’t taste as good as thin.”

In Rachel’s diary her handwriting is different than on the worksheets she lets me copy. Like only in private is it fully itself. There probably should have been a Temporal Pocket between discovering the notebook in her sleeping bag and opening it, big enough to hold some moral qualms. I’m picturing it like in these corduroy pants I’m growing out of. Each morning, before school, I’d load the pockets. Mom called me a magpie. All day, I’d imagine the buttons and guitar pics and my dad’s expired YMCA card all hobnobbing. I’m in math class, banging my snout on some long division, but in my pocket all the charms keep each other company, even though I’m out here all alone.

“Nobody knows anything,” I tell Walter now. I’ve got Rachel’s pillow and her dog in my backpack, and I don’t know what to do about the diary. Maybe I should have left it in the cabin under my bed. All the Ryan stuff Rachel wrote makes me nauseous, or else it’s this mucus-y ice cream. She’s stuck on Ryan when it’s obvious he and Kim are dating, and everyone knows Sex Robots mate for life.

Maybe I’m the pilot of this international airliner. Kim’s a stewardess, and we thunder over the Atlantic. Ryan’s in Elgin working at a used car lot. He drinks soup from a thermos and it dries in the corners of his mouth. In Paris, my hotel has a fruit basket. No shitty pears like in the one from dad’s old college roommate. Also there’s some wine mom called “fancy shmancy,” and this rip-top can of mixed, salted nuts. Every night, Kim knocks on the door of my suite pretending she’s hungry, and then we do a bunch of shit I’m too gentlemanly to explain.

I wonder why I’m not married to Rachel though. Maybe that happens even Later than this.

“Holy shit.”

Kim’s dressed as Madonna. Outside the mess hall, she’s the first thing we see.

“It’s for the lip sync battle,” Kim tells the gaggle of girls who line up to praise her.

“My mom would never let me wear a corset.” A freckled ferret girl touches the hem.

“Kim’s boobs probably have to file property taxes,” I tell Walter. Waste of space, if you ask me.

Walter takes off his jacket and throws it in one of the big garbage bins. “Don’t even talk to me,” he says.

I know how excited Rachel is about the battle, so it’s weird that she’s crying when we get to the theater, which is really just a wooden platform in the middle of a field.

“The show must go on,” Chipmunk tells her. “I can totally do the lead part.” She pulls at her top like she’s always doing. I don’t know if she wants to show more of her flat chest or what.

On the wooden bench next to me, Walter takes out the purple Sharpie he carries.

“Like, if you’re too upset to remember the steps…” Chipmunk hovers behind Rachel.

“I can handle it.” Rachel says.

In her diary, Rachel wrote how everyone thought Chipmunk would get to lip-sync the main part. But then they held auditions and

I opened my mouth around each word like it was all some precious message and concentrated on how much each one mattered to the person who wrote the song. I wasn’t wearing these stupid Velcro sandals. I was barefoot like in a CK1 ad. When I was done, everyone applauded louder than they did for Meghan. Ryan looked at me like he’d finally noticed what I’m always waiting for someone else to see.

“Why’s she crying?” I ask Chipmunk when she drops onto the bench between Walter and me. He’s busy coloring over the purple K on his arm.

“One of the cabins broke in and took a bunch of our stuff and she’s being a child about it.”

“Don’t you care?” I ask.

Chipmunk smears on some lip crap. “Everything I bring to camp is—what’s the word?”

“Expendable?”

Chipmunk pauses like she’s considering. She takes down her pony tall and puts it back up.

Walter caps his pen, finally. “Wanna sit next to me at Bonfire?”

“I’ll have to get back to you,” Chipmunk says.

I never thought it would be me starring in Rachel’s diary, but she wrote a whole thing about Rob the janitor, and a bunch about this kid who had a seizure during Shabbat services, and we have this arts and crafts lady who’s balding—Rachel took up two pages worrying about her.

July 7: Does she like where she lives? It’s gotta be a studio. Last week when we made dream catchers, she played Tori Amos, so I think she has a lot of candles and maybe uses a smudge stick. Is there a man who could love her when she shows so much of her raw, pink scalp?

 Maybe I missed it. Maybe I was right there between dinner last month at her dad’s damp new apartment and all that shit about the lumpy skin she thinks is at the tops of her thighs.  

My dad’s apartment wasn’t depressing. It wasn’t an apartment at all. On my Grandpa’s acres, rich people bought up cottages, and dad kept up the property and the land. Mom had me thinking there’d be patched ceilings and toadstools pushing through the carpeting, but he’d made the trailer streamlined and tidy like a boat. The best part was the sound system; he’d rigged it so he could listen to the radio in every room.

The last morning there, Dad had it tuned to the ship report. I listened through water proof speakers, while I stood in the shower soaping my nuts. This might be gay, but I let the voices wash over me. It hit me like that Gregorian chanting mom listens to; to me those monks are just a bunch of sad mumblers. But in the shower, with dad boiling coffee, the ship report voices sounded like God.

“Why do they broadcast that?” I asked over breakfast. “Why do people who aren’t sailors need to know?”

My dad stirred his cereal.

“The ship report.” The whole visit, I’d been drinking coffee. On the sly, then bolder, ordering it black at the little kiosks that were everywhere, like part of the landscape; like all that rain grew them straight from the ground.

“Dad.” Now I poured myself a mug right in front of him. I guess he thought I was old enough. Mom would have said I’d stunt my growth.

“The ship report? It’s a necessity.” Dad shook out the newspaper. “In Chicagoland you have the traffic updates. The Dan Ryan and the El. Here, people depend on the harbor. We depend on commerce and oil and the tides.”

“Is that why you like it here?”

“Like it?” Dad flipped a page of the paper.

“Don’t you?”

Dad passed me the comic section. I read Marmaduke and Peanuts. I drank coffee till my guts boiled. In two days, school was starting. Tonight I’d be brushing my teeth in our boring blue bathroom, mom yelling at me to floss. After that, who knows when dad would even let me visit? Now was my Temporal Pocket.  Don’t you wish you’d seized every opportunity you had?

At the airport, dad popped the trunk. Our drive had stirred up its contents. The wipers kept swiping while in back he untangled my backpack from bungee cords and rain-gear and a tarp.

“Why are you here if you don’t like it?” I turned to slam the passenger door. One thing I wouldn’t miss was the rain.

“Cause of my father, cause of the land.”

“But grandpa owns property in Chicago too.” I’d already mapped the route to grandpa’s apartment units. If dad lived there, I could make it a few nights a week after school.

“I don’t do so hot in the city.” Dad handed me my backpack.

“That’s why you left?”

“Your mom used to cry herself to sleep next to me. I just figured…” Dad stood for a while looking off somewhere. I was pretty wet by then. Finally, he shook his head like a Gatorade commercial. Drops of water—in the commercial it was sweat—fell from his hair.

“You figured what?” I asked him.

“If I was going to make a woman that damn lonely, I might as well leave her alone.”

The whole flight home I reran the conversation. Here’s where I could have asked did he, per chance, own any unlicensed firearms; there’s where I could have made him promise I could come back next summer, but mom always says dad’s allergic to plans.

shutter small.png

Kim’s on her back on the stage and she’s writhing.

I feel like a grown-up should stop her, but Rob’s the only option, and someone stepped on a peanut butter sandwich, so he’s busy behind the benches cleaning it up. Meanwhile, Kim flips her hair and Madonna sings about making it through the wilderness. Not in those fishnets, my mom would say. Ryan’s ancestry is definitely part Neanderthal. I can’t even look at Walter; I’m giving him privacy to come in his pants. When Kim’s done, Chipmunk and the other backup girl line up behind Rachel. She’s between them, but separate. I’ve seen her wear that exact expression. It’s how she looks when she thinks she’s alone.

shutter small.png

“You have to stand up sometime,” mom said, when I was still in bed a week after Grandpa called. “I’m going to work, aren’t I? The hard thing about time is it doesn’t slow down.”

And I’m: You didn’t even love him.

And mom’s: I’m the one who chose him. I’m the one who watched him change.

Mom didn’t know I took walks when she was working. Front yards in our neighborhood, the grass grew 2.5 inches. Curtains guarded windows. Even the birds sang pre-approved songs. The alleys were different. After dinner, you could hide behind lilac bushes and hear dads roaring when they stepped on Legos, women whispering into phones in their kitchens, girls’ sobs echoing off bathroom tiles.

Maybe I should have told mom I wasn’t actually newly agoraphobic or something. Instead, I just tensed up my back muscles to repel her, but mom’s fingers kept kneading my shoulders. Between my chest and the mattress, the medallion pressed my sternum. Counterfeit currency. Dad buying my silence while he just went further away.

shutter small.png

I’m skipping past how Rachel did in the lip sync contest.

What I care about is Rachel’s face when she sees I’m the one who stole her stuff. Is she relieved or angry? I wish you could separate out emotions—it’s like if you have cancer, and you still get a head-cold; it doesn’t seem right we should have to feel so much at once. I thought this summer would be different. I thought I’d have more than one chest hair, for one thing. I thought I’d read books where there are adventures and the quality of the knots tied in ropes are factors in the outcome. But that was all before dad blew a hole straight through to the back of his head.

So now I’m standing over Rachel—our cabin decided that to win back their shit, the girls have to kneel down and serenade us—and when Rachel sings hitchananti al nafshi, her eyes say things I don’t want to hear.

“I didn’t steal your diary on purpose.” I say when she’s finished begging. Her cabin mates have all headed off to roast marshmallows, but she’s in the grass looking stunned.

One of the really barbaric things about camp is the pranking—like we’re The Lords of the Flies or whoever, and not this disparate band of droopy Jews. At the same time, the pranks are sanctioned; the adults make us do them. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose? It would be one thing if they were meant to get us tougher, but the camp director says they’re for morale.

“It’s a journal.” Rachel picks at the grass.

“What’s the difference?” I don’t like how I’m looming over her. But she’s wrapped her arms around her bony legs now. In her diary she said her mom won’t let her shave.

“I know you’re private,” I tell her. “That’s why I chose you.” I’d figured if she was going to get invaded, it was better by someone she knows.

I crouch and pass her my backpack.

“Did you read it?”

“Your pillow’s a weird material.” I look straight ahead like what’s out there is really important, while Rachel pulls her pillow and Germanie from my pack.

“I asked you a question,” Rachel says.

I’m picturing some distant horizon, but what I really see is Walter. He’s got this screwy expression. Like the time last summer he pissed on Ryan’s bed.

Rachel pokes me with that index finger.

“I just wanted to know more things about you.”

“The things in a journal are private.”

“But those are the things I want to know.”

“The pillowcase is satin.” She’s picking at it, and our shoulders are touching, like we’re watching a movie, only the movie is Ryan. His knees sure do face inward, but his legs are longer, so he gets to Kim before Walter, and slings his arm around her shoulders. But Walter keeps coming, twirling his lanyard like a lasso.

“Rachel,” I ask, “what do you want that you can’t have till Later?”

“Later after bonfire, or later like, ten years?”

Ryan turns Kim’s head like he’s gonna kiss her, same time Walter slides the purple lanyard over Kim’s fingers. Then Kim and Ryan’s Sex Robot mouths start mashing, but Walter keeps inching the purple plastic upward, over Kim’s hand-meat, around her wrist.

“I hate right now, mostly.” Rachel sounds more sad than certain. Like dad’s poem where the best lack conviction. And then there’s a whole thing about falcons, which I don’t think I’ll ever understand.

In Oregon, dad probably didn’t even notice me drinking coffee. The problem with not Experiencing something when it happens is you just keep on Experiencing it after it ends. That’s why I was careful that time watching Rachel. In the shower, she tipped her head back. Slick and domed like a sea lion. From behind the lilac bush in her alley, that was most of what I could see. I’m not some sex pervert. I just thought when she opened her eyes she’d see me. I thought she’d say, Max, when we have a kid, you won’t leave him, no matter if you can’t help how you change.

Now, Rachel’s upper arm presses mine, maybe accidentally. We watch Walter knot the ends of that lanyard. When Kim turns, she’s got one of those mid-air-expressions: Love left over from Ryan; hope for the future, and fear. 

 
Oyster update small.png
 
Sarah Terez Rosenblum.jpg

Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer whose fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in literary magazines such as Third Coast, Underground Voices, Pioneertown, and The Boiler. She has written for publications and sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, XOJane, afterellen.com, Curve Magazine and Pop Matters. She was a 2011 recipient of Carve Magazine's Esoteric Fiction Award and the 2015 first runner up for Midwestern Gothic's Lake Prize, as well as a finalist for Washington Square Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction Award. In addition, she was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a creative coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her debut novel, Herself When She's Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending" by Booklist. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at her website.

An Act

Amelia Wright

                                                              

This is not a story. This is a conversation; you and I are learning from each other. This is not a story, but if it were a story it would be a story about people we can pretend to be. But this is not a story; it is an act. Give yourself to me.

When you show up on my doorstep, a decade has passed since the day I stopped believing in God. When you show up on my doorstep, it won’t be long before I start to believe again. I look into your eyes and see someone gone. Like looking at the ghost of what could have been. In that same second, you are looking past me at a memory you tried to forget.

 

Me: I haven’t seen pale blue eyes like yours since the day my son died; I am stunned into silence, in awe of you;

You: You haven’t seen the cracks in those floorboards in ten years. You are unsettled and frozen; everything has been frozen.

 

We stand and stare at one another, seconds dragging to minutes. The afternoon sun encourages sweat stains and scorched grass. My body is limp, yours firm. The scent of molded wood howls. Finally, you explain that you received mail meant for me, apologizing for being a bother.

The seconds drag on as you wait for a reply. You don’t know it, but my heart pounds in my ears. Discomfort finally strikes you, and you thrust forward the manila envelope in your left hand. You hope that I will take it, free you from staring into the familiar living room beyond that filthy white door. I do not. You feel your palms become clammy and dull.

 

            I am hurting.

            You are young.

 

Stammering with what you perceive as fear, I ask who you are. It is not fear but astonishment; though, of course, you do not yet know this.

You offer your right hand, letting the envelope dangle at your side. You tell me the truth, albeit an abbreviated version: that your name is James and that you live four doors down. The friendly harmlessness you try to inject into your voice comes out stained, more like anxiety’s high-pitched waver.

Though my doors have always been locked and my shades drawn, I look to you as though I may have never laid eyes on another human being in my lifetime, eyes wide and legs shivering.

 

Me: My frame is slim—rounded spine and long fingers. I move like the wind took hold of me. I am visibly broken, lines like cracks in a face that should look young;

You: Your build is stocky—broad shoulders and thick legs. You move with a military rigidity. You are not visibly anything—if there is a spark within you, it has been buried.

 

My eyes wander from your eyebrows down to your knees, back up to your hairline and down and up and down again. Time ticks slowly by, and you notice you have begun to fidget, suddenly uncomfortable under my unwavering stare and uneasy at the scene behind me.

You have two urges: 1) to ask me if I am okay, to offer support and cradle my aching limbs until I can trust again, 2) to run.

 

You do neither.

I do both.

 

I pull you into an embrace tighter than anything you imagined a woman of my stature could muster. You can feel my lungs pressed against you, feel them struggling under the weight of a sob repressed. Stunned into submission, you are silent and still. When I pull away, you notice I have slid the manila envelope out of your hand. I retreat into the house and close the door, without saying a word.

 

Let’s rewind.

 

You are James. You are twenty-six. You live in the dark, carpeted basement of your childhood home in Syracuse. Yes, with your parents.

You moved back here last year after returning from Afghanistan, where you served for three years because you flunked out of your second college and tried to run from your shame. You have never believed in God.

You only ever had two friends (here the term friend refers to people that you give yourself to), Kyle and Sam—but Sam moved away when you were ten, so perhaps it’s more authentic to say that the only person you felt safe with was Kyle. You met him when you were four and moved four doors down from him when you were nine.

You were fifteen when you went to your best friend’s funeral.

When Kyle told you he wanted to die, you were going to save his life. It was a Wednesday, and it was raining. You two were in his basement with the red shag carpet and the ugly wood paneling that made the room itself look like a time machine. You lost so much time in there. The sound of feet on the concrete outside, and the smell of dust and weed clinging to a dingy brown couch, and a video game console. What more could you have asked for?

On that Wednesday, Kyle asked you to leave. He had never asked you that before. You asked what was wrong and, in an instant, confessions fell faster than the rain. They tumbled over his lips and fell on unsuspecting ears and crept into your lungs until neither of you were breathing and silence fell. You watched your reflection waver as lakes infiltrated his eyes and took over his slender frame. All you could do was hold his wiry body close and promise him you wouldn’t let anything happen to him.

You went to his mom, and Kyle went to therapy, and Kyle was prescribed medication, and Kyle said everything was getting better, and Kyle lied because then Kyle took a bottle of oxycodone that was left over from when he tore his ACL.

On the morning Kyle died—January 14, 2008—you were knee-deep in your pants when you heard a distant wail, a deep whine that could have cracked the earth, and paid it no mind. You went to school as usual, drank the same grape soda you always bought from the vending machine for lunch, and dropped your backpack in your living room before running four doors down, like every other Monday, to hot box Kyle’s basement and play Call of Duty.

You knocked, but no one answered. You knocked louder. You turned the doorknob and were surprised to find it locked. You called him, twice, and no one picked up. After a few moments staring dumbfounded at his front door, you trudged home through the snow and did your homework for the first time all year.

You were called downstairs that night by a gentle tone in your mother’s voice. She described distantly a suicide with opioids and withheld the note with no mention of you. You were immobilized, held tight by the cushioned couch; you could have sunk into it and drowned right there and then.

You were told that there was no way you could have known things weren’t getting better. That you did everything you could and it wasn’t your fault you couldn’t save him—there was nothing you could have done. And then your mom told you that Kyle’s mother would hold the funeral that Saturday and that she hoped you would attend. You smoked tobacco, popped benzos that did nothing to ease your physical or psychological pain. You lost track of where and why you were. You turned numb to your limbs, blind to the world beyond your haze.

On the day of his funeral, you hurt like the world hadn’t forgotten you.

Blooming purple flowers were the only sign of life in the drab, windowless viewing room. Eyes pretending to nurture examined you—the stinging smell of formaldehyde thinly veiled by perfume too sickeningly sweet for the occasion.

It was a closed-casket funeral, so you had to imagine. You imagined constricted pupils and blue lips, saliva dripping down his chin, and cold fingertips. You imagined his mother holding his body, limp, in her arms. You could not stop imagining. You could not imagine peace.

When you left his funeral, you were not alone. You walked his mother back to her house: silence. A paneled white door shut in your face and never reopened. Days later, you knocked and heard nothing. Weeks later, you had still been trying, thinking maybe if you could look into the eyes of his mother, there might be a bit of him left for you. Silence rang from the other side. A month later, once again sinking into your couch, you heard from your own mother’s gentle voice that they had moved out while you were at school.

You were knee-deep in blinding white snow watching someone else move into Kyle’s home when you heard a wail, a deep whine that could have shattered the icy roads, and realized it was your own voice.

When you show up on my doorstep, it has been ten years since you’ve seen the inside of that house.

A memory: empty knocks on the grimy door of a haunted home.

 

Let’s go back once more.

 

I am Briana. I am thirty-five. I live in a small, broken house down the road from you that I bought with my ex-husband.

My ex-husband proposed to me because I was already malleable and flimsy and would become any person he wanted me to be. My ex-husband asked for a divorce when he realized he was married to a mirror, not a soul. I got married when I was thirty and divorced when I was thirty-one.

I was twenty-five when I birthed the blue corpse of my son.

When I found out I was pregnant, I wept under the mingling reds and yellows of my church’s stained glass. On my knees, palm pressed to palm, fingers interlaced as if I could squeeze reality away, I muttered under my breath, shaking my head against assent. I asked God why.

Why had He given me this weight, this responsibility?

Why had He done it now, when I was so young and so alone and so afraid of my future and still so in love with my departed past?

In whispers, I begged for it to be untrue. I pleaded with Him: Please don’t let me be a mother.

The night I lost my baby—January 14, 2008—I prayed for the last time.

On a stiff exam table, I felt the cool jelly against my stomach. I had been here four weeks earlier, and they had promised that at my next visit I would be able to see a child’s shape on the ultrasound. I’m having a bit of trouble finding the heartbeat. And so another doctor joined in, a treasure hunt for life. Whispers.

Then there were only fluorescents and letters and numbers, some of which were: twenty-two—how many weeks pregnant I was when I found out my baby would never hear my heartbeat; TORCH— medical shorthand for the series of tests that were performed to find the cause of death; twenty-five—the number of days my baby boy was soulless inside of me before I found out; CMV—cytomegalovirus, the symptomless virus that infected my little boy and took him away.

I was told that there was no way of knowing—nothing I could have done. That a common placental abnormality combined with a surreptitious virus made for a quiet death. And then they told me that they would induce my labor and I would push. They loaded me with drugs that did nothing to ease my physical or psychological pain. I lost track of what was mine and how I was. I turned deaf to the words of the midwife, blind to the world beyond my lids.

A new number: nineteen—the number of hours I was in labor before I was finally able to push, push, that’s it you’re almost there just one more push his rigid form out of my body and into my arms; nineteen—the number of hours that my stillborn son held on to his wailing mother; nineteen—the number of hours that I repeated my little boy and goodbye and I’m so sorry like an echo of myself.

Knees on cold tile, palm pressed to palm, fingers interlaced as if to hold myself together, I rocked back and forth, gently banging my forehead against the side of the hospital mattress. I asked God why, a deep power surging from my center and implicating He who could have saved my son.

When you show up on my doorstep, it has been ten years since I have seen eyes like yours.

A memory: a blue-skinned child with light eyes and rigid body.

 

            Let’s start again.

 

When you show up on my doorstep, several years have already passed since the day God stopped believing in you. But the day my water bill got delivered to your address was the day he gave his faith back.

You, James, interact with me, Briana, for several excruciating minutes of staring in silence, save for twenty-three words and the sound of cicadas ringing in summer’s swelter.

We see each other.

 

A memory: light eyes and a rigid body.

A thought: what would it be like to hold him again?

 

I press my body to yours and hold you like a mother out of practice. When I pull away, I have taken a piece of you with me. When I retreat into my (his) house and shut the door, you want that piece back.

 

A memory: a closed white door to a haunted home.

A thought: what would it be like to breathe inside it once more?

 

You reach out your hand and knock. You expect nothing; you are used to silence on the other side. But the thrill of an answer a few minutes ago has instigated a need for someone to shatter the cracks in the paint, peel open the door, and let you in again. And here I come. I return and usher you inside.

 

I have mist in my eyes and offer you a glass of water.

You pick at the dirt under your nails and accept.

You and I sit apart in the living room. Like a strange forgotten memory.

My body is ensconced in a disintegrating leather chair, yours stiff on an ottoman five feet away. There is no other furniture. There is no air conditioning, and the air inside is stickier than under the blue sky, though a fan whirrs in the corner. The carpet is the same used-to-be-white beige. There’s a discolored stain underneath your foot from the night Kyle tripped on your shoe and spilled Chinese food.

 

Me: You have my son’s eyes.

You: You have my friend’s house.

 

It has been ten years since you walked up the steps to this house and been welcomed inside. Now, you sit in a home rebuilt and begin to believe once more in cure. There is a painting of a vase of flowers on the wall, purple and sweet like the ones at Kyle’s funeral, the last proof you have of his existence.

It has been ten years since I last felt like my body was whole. Now, I find solace in a young man who looks the way I always pictured my son ending up. There is a birthmark on your cheek, not far from the spot that I kissed my dead son over and over before the nurses took his tiny body from my arms.

 

You knock because a piece of you is inside that house.

I answer because you are a piece of me.

 

You will never get that piece back. But you will take scraps of me in exchange. We will give ourselves to one another, bodies and spirits. We will dance in reciprocation, devour one another and offer ourselves. This act is for us.

 

 
updated oyster.png
 
Amelia_Clare_Wright.jpg

Amelia is a recent graduate of Emerson College with a degree in Communications Studies and the intention to pursue an MFA in nonfiction creative writing. She has had work accepted for publication by the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Boston where she is currently working on a memoir about her body.

Amelia IS ONE OF ORP’S EMERGING VOICES IN FICTION.

 Survival English

Sarah D. Warburton



“We’re the city mouse and the country mouse,” Kate told Adam on their first date, and after their wedding, the country won out. Adam accepted a partnership in a pediatric practice in Ashland and put a down payment on their first house.

The neighborhood was newly hewn from undeveloped land at the outskirts of town, the houses all variants of the same master plan. Walking the empty sidewalks, they might have been the only people on Earth. The saplings strapped to wooden props looked sad and stunted, centuries away from growing into an arching canopy of green. Sawdust clogged the gutters and the lawn was a patchwork of imported sod. “It’ll be a great place to start a family,” their realtor, Celia, had said, and Adam had nodded and smiled.

One morning when Kate slid her newspaper out of its plastic wrapping, a dead garter snake came out with it. The pale green body could have been a child’s toy, but it rolled off the kitchen table and hit the floor with an unmistakable sound, a live thing gone dead. She yelped involuntarily and backed away, her heart racing. Could it have crawled into the bag and suffocated? The only snakes she’d seen were in the glass boxes at the zoo, and she wished she wasn’t alone in this silent house.

She called Adam at work, but he was with a patient. “No, no message,” she told the receptionist, whose brisk efficiency she found intimidating. She’d tell the story over dinner, and he’d listen, and make a joke about her paranoia, and everything would seem all right again. She wished she had a job to go to, a reason to leave the house and neighborhood and the dead snake behind. “You don’t have to work if you don’t want to,” Adam had said. “We can afford for you to stay home with the kids.”

“And if I don’t want kids?”

He’d laughed, of course, she wanted kids; they’d already discussed it. He was the youngest of four, and she was an only child. “No one who’s been an only child would ever have an only child,” she’d told him on an early date. They wanted lots of children, a flock, a herd, a brood of children. “You won’t get tired of them?” she asked him.

“If I didn’t love children, I wouldn’t have gone into pediatrics.”

But today he was at work and she had nowhere to go and the snake lay there on its back, the pale curve a soft question against the hardwood floor. She went to the closet for a dustpan, her body a clenched fist, and scooped it up. She carried it out the back door, to the edge of the yard and dumped it over the back fence into the undeveloped land behind.

She couldn’t muster an interest in home design or flower arranging. Adam met a surgeon from the hospital, and she got together with his wife for tennis and again for lunch, but she couldn’t shake the feeling this tanned, groomed woman twice her age had been told to be nice to her. “You know,” she’d told Kate as she dipped the tines of her fork into her vinaigrette, “Once you have children, there are some mommy clubs you can join. I used to take my son to Gymboree. Now he’s at Episcopal.”

And then the realtor, Celia, had called again, ostensibly to offer advice on challenging the tax assessment of their property, and the conversation went on for an hour. Celia revealed herself as the ex-wife of an orthodontist who’d run off to Mexico with his receptionist. “It’s not so much the indignity,” she told Kate, “it’s the unoriginality of it all. At least I got out before we had kids.”

“We have snakes,” Kate told her, “one rolled out of the morning paper.”

“Oh honey,” Celia breathed rough against the hands-free phone. “I still call my Daddy when I see a snake. They scare the bejesus outta me. One of my clients used to hear snakes all over her house. Her husband told her it was the sprinklers going off in the morning or the air conditioning or the leaves of the tree outside their bedroom. He thought she was going crazy. Every single night she’d wake up absolutely petrified. Then they got someone in to blow out their vents and a whole nest of baby black snakes, maybe twenty of them, fell out. They got divorced the next year.”

One day after the next, Kate searched for ways to mark off the empty hours. After the boxes were unpacked and everything organized, she went to the nearest nursery to buy plants for the bare backyard. That project took the better part of August, not the best time for planting, as the man told her, but he gave her a discount on daylilies and knockout roses. She set a trellis at the base of the back porch and planted a butterscotch rose to climb it. She tuned the radio to the college alternative station, cranked the volume to fill up the mute walls, and cleaned the house, washing dishes by hand to make the job last a little longer. “I hear some people are into scrapbooking,” Celia told her, “or maybe you should look into volunteering. I mean, if you don’t want a real job.”

shutter small.png

Kate began to help with an adult ESL program that met one night a week in a classroom at Patrick Henry High. The coordinator, Tom also taught English Literature at the High School. Week after week he led a larger group of ESL students through a workbook of “survival English,” while other volunteers, like Kate, worked one on one with more advanced students.

In her sessions, Kate tutored students from all over the world, like a man who came over from Vietnam on a boat and now worked night shifts at the paper factory. He preferred to read the newspaper in detail with a patient high school girl and a well-thumbed dictionary. Kate also worked with two sisters from El Salvador who quizzed each other from a GRE study guide, while a skinny high school student dozed next to them.

Today Markus from Romania sat waiting for her across from an empty desk. His hair was long, shaggy, like a singer from the eighties, his eyes heavy-lidded with dark circles underneath. She slid into the seat facing him, and he passed her a dense block of paper, the core manual for an exterminator’s exam.

When she started working with him, he had already moved through the third chapter, “Principles of Pest Control,” but they had been stuck on “Special Environmental Concerns” for the whole of September. Some days, he showed no interest, he drifted off, answered incorrectly over and over, watched her mouth. “Do you like to dance?” he asked her. “I want to dance with you.”

“I’m married,” she told him.

 She directed Markus to read aloud from the vocabulary section. Slowly, as if the words were saturated with meaning, he read, “Leaching is the movement of pesticide in water or another liquid downward through the soil.” His mouth twisted in amusement, and she waited to see if he had a question.

Because Kate spoke no Romanian at all, no other language except some near-forgotten high school French, they relied on Markus’s mastery of English for conversation. Little gestures, the way one eyebrow flicked upward at the edge, a slight pulse in the hollow of his cheek, these things were as important as the words on the page, more, when the words meant only a task.

He finished reading the vocabulary section and passed the book over to her. She looked down at the questions, “What is a habitat? What is an endangered species?” She asked him, “Why do you want to be an exterminator?”

This time one corner of his mouth curled like a crooked finger. “That is in the book?”

She shook her head, looking down again.

He ran a hand through his hair, and she could smell his cologne. “I paint houses for my brother.”

“With your brother.” She corrected him automatically.

He jerked his head, “No, for my brother. He is the boss and I am on the ladder. To be an exterminator, I pass the exam and I am the boss.”

She looked down at the book, and asked, “How can you tell if you must take special action to protect the environment?”

While Markus answered, she looked at the paint on his hands, Caribbean blue. What houses could he be painting that color here? All the houses she saw were Colonial colors, creams and burgundy and slate gray.

In her new home, the unbroken pallor of the walls was as sterile as a hospital ward, so she went to a paint store and chose a pale green for the kitchen. She didn’t use a primer, so the first coat soaked into the wall, leaving it patchy and rough. After it dried, she rolled on a second coat, relishing the smooth motion of the roller, the repetitive rise and fall of her arm. She stood on a ladder to tape and paint close to the ceiling, trying not to listen to the echoing silence of the house. When Adam got home that night he said, “I thought you told me you wouldn’t use the ladder unless I was home.”

“I had my phone in my pocket.”

“If you hit your head, it wouldn’t do you any good.”

She didn’t answer, picturing herself lying peacefully on the floor in the noiseless house, the cell phone inches from her outstretched hand.

“I like the color.” He opened the fridge, looked inside. “Maybe you could start on the nursery next.”

“Pink or blue?” she asked.

She didn’t paint the nursery; instead, she bought The Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking and How to Cook Everything. She practiced cracking an egg one-handed, dropped one after another down the garbage disposal.

In the evenings, she sat next to Adam on the sofa, twining her hand with his. She wasn’t taking birth control, but even if she forgot in the heat and rush while they made love, in the first moments after a deep resistance flooded her, and she knew she wasn’t pregnant.

After all, she thought, she’d chosen this. Together they’d poured over the floor plans for this soundless house, talking about the merits of a two-story, an open floor plan, a great room, and a game room, a “playroom” he’d corrected. Now that they were locked into a thirty-year mortgage, she couldn’t let a fear of snakes, a lack of direction throw them off course.

Some nights at ESL there were three students to every volunteer, but more often it seemed the volunteers outnumbered the students.

“I don’t know why they come,” Tom told her one night. “Some people have a strong goal like becoming a nurse or applying for citizenship. Most just seem like they’ve got nothing better to do.”

“How do they get by if they can’t speak English?” Kate couldn’t imagine making your home in a foreign country, where even the cans in the grocery store, the fliers in your mailbox were ciphers.

“Many of them have children who go to public school. They take care of translating. And people tend to sort themselves out into little communities, so they have clusters of people who speak their language.” Tom glanced at the table where a high school girl sat facing the two sisters from El Salvador. From their posture, they might have been interviewing her. “It doesn’t seem to matter. Sooner or later, they all disappear, and others turn up.”

“Just like your high school students,” she offered, but it took him a moment to smile.

The first half hour of class was devoted to a concept, like pronouns, or a task, like getting a driver’s license. The next hour was spent in tutoring. After the break, each student shared something with the class, and then the pairs switched to conversation, operating on the theory that speaking the language was the best way to learn it.

“I want to be a nurse,” one of the El Salvadoran sisters said, and the other whispered something to her in Spanish.

“My son makes pictures,” the man from Vietnam told them. “His teacher sent a note, stop making pictures on the work for school, but I like his pictures.”

“My mother has come here,” Markus told the class, “and now she calls me, my phone goes all the time.” He raised his cell phone, a small steel-colored block. “On the phone, we say more than when I am at home.”

The class laughed.

“My wife, too,” the man from Vietnam said, “all the time.”

“Can you turn it off?” Tom asked.

Markus shrugged. “This is how mothers are. If I turn off the phone, she calls my brother.”

After an early February thaw, the heavens opened and it rained for days filling the house with sound. Once the sun came back out, so did the snakes. “I don’t know what it is about a wet spring,” the mailman told her, “but it’s always good for snakes.”

One climbed the trellis and pressed its pale underbelly to the window of the upstairs bathroom. She shut the blinds. A black snake sunned on the driveway, and she parked on the street so as not to run it over.

“We have a snake problem,” she told Adam.

“It’s not a problem if they’re not in the house,” he answered.

“Why does wet weather bring out the snakes?” she asked Markus, as they read Pesticide Handling Decisions. He could define “residue” and “heat stress” and “drift” just as the manual did, but she couldn’t tell if he knew what they meant.

He shrugged. “In Romania, we have the snake, sarpe de casa, very important snake for eating mice and bugs. Good for the house. To be exterminator in Dobrogea, I just need this snake. He will do the work and I will get paid.”

“People aren’t afraid of snakes?”

He snorted. “People are afraid all the time.”

shutter small.png

For Adam’s birthday, she made a cake from scratch while he sat at the kitchen table, listening to his mother on the phone. Every so often he would say, “yes,” or “of course,” and he watched Kate move from the pantry to the counter to the cabinets.

“I love you, too,” he told the phone and set it down on the table. “Mom wants us to drive down this weekend. Expect some wannabe grandparent pressure.”

“We haven’t been married a year,” she told him, a little more sharply than she’d intended, and then, “and your brother has kids.”

“Granny greed,” he told her, “she’s got a baby problem.”

She picked up an egg from the carton, her hand shaking a little, and brought it against the side of the bowl too hard, crushing shell into the flour. She scooped up the mess in her hand, flung it into the sink at the disposal, and turned, her hand still dripping. “What if I can’t do this?”

“Don’t worry,” Adam stood and came behind her. “I’ll love you anyway, even if you can’t cook.”

The rain came down in sheets day after day, and when she came into class the damp coil of her hair trailed water down her neck. Markus sat in his desk, bent over the book, but he looked up as she slid into her seat.

“More water for your snakes.” He glanced at the window where raindrops slid down in long reflected ribbons of light.

“I haven’t seen any this week.” Against the blackboard, Tom had taped a poster of symbols with everything from a school crossing sign to a medical caduceus.

Markus pointed at the caduceus. “I saw the snakes at the hospital this week. My mother—”

“Your mother …” she prodded, wondering if it was a lack of words or something else that stopped him.

He shook his head and looked down at the book.

“What are we studying tonight?” She took the book from him, accidentally brushing his hand. In the heat of the classroom, he smelled of wet wool and earth, strong, but not unpleasant.

“Proper storage and disposal of pesticides.” The words sounded foreign in his mouth as if somebody else were speaking through him.

“Which means?”

He ran an impatient hand through his hair. “Don’t throw the poison in the river, no?”

She laughed. “I think you’re ready for the test.”

Markus took the book from her and flipped the pages. “I have more chapters. The problem is not the test, but the words. Maybe tonight I ask you the questions and you say the answers. I will be the teacher, no?”

She sat back from the desk, crossed her arms. “What’s your first question?”

She half expected him to ask her about Adam, or her hair, or where she’d grown up, but he flipped to the back of the chapter and asked her, “How should one dispose of a pesticide container?”

Startled, she answered, “I haven’t read that section yet.” He usually read the chapter aloud before she asked him the questions.

He half-closed the book, using a finger to hold his place. “Think. How would you do it?”

“I’d read the label.”

He took his finger out of the book and spread his hands wide. “So. Is the right answer. When are you taking the exam?”

“Really?” She took the book back, flipping through the pages to find the answer.

“Really.” He smiled, but his eyes looked tired. “You should be taking the exterminator exam. You and I have studied the same.”

“But I don’t want to be an exterminator.”

He took the book gently from her hands. “Who knows what you will need to do?”

Markus usually spent the break outside the school, smoking. But today as he left the classroom, she saw him raise his cell phone to his ear. He didn’t come back. She took the handbook with her.

Next week, Markus didn’t appear. Kate worked with a woman from Sudan, whose small daughter sat swinging her legs on a chair in the corner of the classroom. After every few words, the woman raised her head and barked a command to the child. After class, Kate helped Tom straighten the chairs and set the classroom in order. She wanted to ask if he thought Markus would be back, but she didn’t know how.

Instead, she said, “I almost stepped on a snake on the way to my car.”

He gathered up the child’s unused paper and slipped it into his leather briefcase. “You didn’t grow up with snakes?”

She shook her head. “I grew up in the city. All the snakes were in the zoo.”

“Live here long enough and you’ll get a snake story, too. Everyone has one.”

“What’s yours?”

“I don’t remember the first part very well, but my sister tells it all the time. I was about five years old and I was working with my father in the yard. He and Melanie were raking the yard and I was weeding this ivy border he’d planted at the edge of the woods. She says I came up to them and said, ‘There’s a snake in the ivy, Dad, but I just weeded around it.’ He went over and looked, and it was a copperhead. The part I remember is watching from the back porch while he chopped it with a hoe. I’ve never seen him do anything like that before or after.”

“He must have been really scared.” She imagined the child, pressed to the screen of the porch while the hoe rose and fell, the father, his heart racing with what he might have lost.

“A copperhead could kill a child.” He took the poster off the blackboard, rolled it up and snapped a rubber band around it.

The next afternoon she was outside deadheading the daylilies. As she pinched off the withered blossoms, she could see into the naked backyard of the house next door. How long would it be empty, echoing? Kate reached down for the last blossom and felt a prick on her hand. Surprised, she looked down for the thorn and saw the snake, the color of a dried daylily stalk, slipping away.

She spent three days in the hospital, waiting for the swelling in her arm to go back down. She thought a hospital would be quiet, but every time the door opened or closed, she heard a rising hum of voices. Sometimes one word or a phrase would jump out, “he said what?” or “ice” or “next Tuesday,” but most of the time it sounded like the murmur of a foreign language.

In the late afternoon of her second day, she fell asleep under the pale, constant illumination of the fluorescent lights. She dreamed that she slid wordlessly through the deep grass, the scent of damp growth in her nostrils until tremors shook the ground beneath her and something cast a shadow that thrilled her with panicked fear. When she woke, her mouth wide open, Adam sat in the chair next to her, reading a magazine.

He set it down, “That one looked like a doozy.”

Now that she was awake, she could feel the awkwardness of her injured arm. “I dreamed I was a snake.”

“It was only a matter of time.” He scooted his chair closer to the bed. “How did it feel, being a snake?”

“Scary.” She remembered the grass as tall as trees, the sense of something large looming over her.

“Poor little snake.” Adam put his hand on her good hand.

“Poor me.” She turned her hand over so they were holding hands on the thin hospital blanket. “Maybe the snake was afraid, but I got bit. At least a rattlesnake can tell you where it is. This one couldn’t say anything.”

They sat together, listening to the rush and hiss of the hospital around them.

On the third day, Adam let himself into the room. “One of my patients gave me something for you,” he said, “but I’m not sure you’ll want it.”

Kate used the button to make the bed go up. She knew she would be discharged today, she was already dressed, but she wished she could stay longer in this pale, hushed room. “What is it?”

He took his hand out of his pants pocket and held up a plastic bag. “You don’t have to touch it, but she said it would help a snakebite.”

Fascinated, she reached out and took the baggie. Through the cellophane, she could see a crumpled mass with the opacity of fingernails and the fragility of tissue. A frisson of revulsion ran down her spine. “Is this a snakeskin?”

Adam sat in the chair beside her bed. “She says to tie it around your wrist one night, and when you take it off the next morning, snakes will leave you alone.”

“Why?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s some old Eastern European superstition. She’s one of the mothers at the free clinic, and she was there when I got the call about your bite.”

She poked at the skin, imagining it in a knot of crepe around her wrist.

“I don’t expect you to do it.” He leaned forward and reached for the bag. “I just thought you’d find it interesting.”

Her fingers tightened and she drew it towards her. “I’ll keep it.” Maybe the venom would linger in her system; maybe other snakes would always know that she’d been bitten. Maybe she’d always remember the way it felt in her dream to be wordless and helpless and afraid. Maybe she would take the exterminator’s exam, after all.

A nurse knocked on the door, discharge papers in her hand, and Kate slipped the snakeskin into her pocket. She didn’t think she would wear it around her wrist, but she would keep it with her for a while until she found the perfect place to let it go.

 
 
Warburton Author Photo.jpg

Sarah D. Warburton lives in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. For ten years she was the lead writer for the monthly magazine UpClose. She has studied writing with Pam Houston at the Taos Writers Workshop and with Justin Cronin in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Southern Arts Journal and online at Women on Writing. The first chapter of her novel, Once Two Sisters, appeared in the January 2019 issue of Embark Literary Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @SWarburtonWrite or visit her website www.SarahWarburtonAuthor.com

 Twilight at Blue Plate

Stacey C. Johnson



SILENCE

The front door is locked again, I am the only one left talking here.

Mama is in a mason jar beside the plant in a coffee can, between the window and the faucet of the sink, and this is the window I am looking through when I catch myself looking toward the doll grave, which rests near the BLM dumpster near the North side of the property. When you stand there, you can feel the rush of freeway traffic going over the bridge just down the road where the Shell station and the Jack in the Box, and all of the rest is open space and when we used to drive past here on the way to the hospital when it still made sense to use the phrase routine procedure I’d catch myself wondering about the kind of people that would live in such a place. I’d imagine that they must be people on the edge of something, but those were just words for a state I had no better way to describe at the time.

“You need the word,” Mama said, to make it real.

Like flour for bread.

“But the flour isn’t the bread,” she said.

shutter small.png

WORDS

Maybe we feed one another in place of the words we’re still looking for, offering full plates and steaming mouthfuls instead of the explanations we can’t find, for all our missing parts.

“Ima getta place,” Mama used to say.

“Gonna call it Blue Plate,” she said.

“Just good food,” she said, “but real, you know?”

Out here again I am dreaming of hot soup and hearty bread against the chill of winds, and these tumbleweeds before me, rolling like a child’s loose ball across a street.

What I wanted to give you was everything but now here I am at the window again on the desert floor and you’re still a sea creature in a black and white photograph with your underwater heartbeat calling distant as whales.

One day when you find your own hunger scraping against the edges of all you still can’t name, then—

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.

So the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

 Which comes first, I wonder: the story that suddenly burns its way through a long silence, or the moment when you find someone to tell it to?

RECIPES

“You feed them,” Mama used to say, “they stick around.” This regarding men.

It was an alchemy she believed in even after it failed. She said they’d know what they wanted if they knew how to listen to anything, but their blow-up heads were always too full of smoke.

Mama collected idioms like she collected recipes, altering the execution of both and improvising each according to the mood of the moment and what she had on hand. Her favorite expressions were terms of endearment, which she sprinkled as liberally as spices on canned soup, often blending various expressions and languages into one sentence.

“Still, matakia mou,” she said, “my little eyes, even a dreamer has to eat.”

BODIES IN FLIGHT

By the time Mama finally agreed to see the doctor about her headaches, it was too late for chemo. That was when we started touring new age bookstores near the hospital, the kind that smell like Nag Champa and patchouli. We bought books and anything else we could: vitamins, aromatherapy, candles of La Virgen de Guadalupe, and a font of Our Lady of Lourdes. We set up a makeshift sanctuary in the main room, which was the only part large enough for the bed. We had a little boombox from my old bedroom and we could play those CDs that weren’t music at all, but instead sounds of water and birds and whales.

These were supposed to be healing.

“We’ll open when all this is done,” she said.

One time in a waiting room she told me about the time she found me crouched next to a bird in the parking lot of our old apartment in South Los Angeles.

“I said to you there, ‘Don’t touch!’ But you looked up with those big eyes and you said, ‘Mama, he’s hurt.’ I think his wing was broken. I said, babygirl, don’t touch, birds have diseases!”

“But Mama!’ Oh beanpod, your eyes were so big.”

“So we went in, I couldn’t say no, and we wrapped the bird in a towel and tried to get it to eat. I found an eyedropper in the medicine cabinet and we tried to get it to take water. You went and looked for earthworms outside. ‘Look, Mama!’ you said, so excited, ‘I think he’s getting better!’ You made it a nest with leftover raffia from the Christmas gifts. ‘Do you think he’ll fly again, Mama?’ You kept asking.”

“I told you I didn’t know, because he still didn’t look too good to me. But you were so hopeful, you used to come check on it. In the morning once when you were still asleep I was taking out the trash and I saw that its body was limp. I prodded it a little with a chopstick. It didn’t move. So I wrapped the body up and took it out with me to the dumpster … What else could I do? We were in an apartment. We had no land that was ours. We couldn’t bury it.”

“What did you do, though? You saw the empty nest and you said, ‘Mama, he flew!’”

SPACE

After the last man was gone, and the back child support checks came in, when we drove back and forth from the hospital, we’d study the open spaces where you had to wonder how anyone could live.

As Mama saw it, that was perfect.

For one, it’s what we could afford.

“Plus,” she said, “all they got is gas stations and frozen burgers here.”

“There’s still people,” she said, “who want something real.”

“Right there,” and she’d point toward a place below the freeway with nothing around.     

We had left LA years earlier, and we were in Bakersfield then, in an apartment even smaller than the one before it, so it wasn’t like we had a lot to move.

SONGS

At one of our visits to the Nag Champa bookstore, I was putting my nose in the essential oils one by one when I looked and saw Mama on the other side of the shop, swaying under headphones, eyes closed.

I didn’t want to interrupt so I went on smelling: patchouli, lavender, sandalwood, African musk; frankincense, orange blossom, sage, citronella, pine, juniper, rose.

“Here,” she said, “close your eyes,” and what I heard was water rushing and then these repeating echoes of different squeaks. It called to mind a sound I associated with someone blowing through an ancient horn or maybe a conch shell, something I associated with a distant time and place, when a group might still be called together with a signal you could hear across some vast expanse of open space.

“Look,” and she held out the CD so I could see the cover, “it’s whales.”

When Mama stopped talking and drifted still with her eyes closed, the whales sounded over the soft chimes and synthesized notes with these back and forth calls and no words.

We had a pair of rusty folding chairs and when it was cool enough but not cold we’d sit there with the freeway on the South side, rushing through our ears like ocean except for the occasional moan of a large truck braking.

To the East was our new home with the large sign above it. The sign said nothing because we had yet to have the words painted, but we had spoken about it so long in that final year that the words seemed already blocked on its plywood face:

BLUE PLATE. Come. Here. Eat. Rest.

To the North, miles and miles of distance: dust and sage brush, punctuated by the spindly arms of ocotillo curling toward the sky as if to reach for rain. The mountains held the distance against the sky, but to the West it went on and on, into a vague haze that became color at the day’s end.

When she knew she was dying, Mama said, “Don’t try to stay here too long, not alone.”

“Sell,” she said, “and go.”

I nodded and we sat in the room with the curtains half closed and when she couldn’t talk anymore it was just the hush of freeway in the distance, and the whales.

SIGNS

The flying man licked his plate clean and asked for more enchiladas. He cried “Oh” sometimes, moments after the effort of hammering himself into some temporary peace. He’d float for a moment suspended and taut above me, and then give in, collapsing into liquid. I held him inside me, whispering, “Stay.” He used to cry out in his sleep.

“Here,” I would tell him, “eat this.”

“Is this what an omelette is supposed to look like, so soft?”

“Asparagus and goat cheese.”

He seemed to stretch his wings even as he rested.

“Try this. And this.” I only explained when he asked.

The recipes were new to me. I still had to work a bit to act as though beef bourguignon and tomate tarte were the sort of phrases I had grown up taking for granted. These were the nights I dreamed inside recipe books in lieu of sleep. Tripas de leche. Liver and onions. Fried chicken. Baked macaroni and cheese with leeks. Gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce with baked apples and balsamic glaze. Tuesday it might be duck confit; Wednesday, spring rolls with peanut sauce; Thursday, quail pot pie.

He needed food heavy enough to keep him solid, but light-seeming enough to let him think otherwise.

I could make a salami sandwich and he’d make it disappear in two minutes and then look up like he thought he was still eating it and go, “Girl, this sandwich is —”

There’s never the right word, when it matters.

 

At the end, Mama rested in the bed and the only sounds were whale songs and the freeway outside. In the end, she would not eat, but I’d make soup anyway sometimes, to set it on the nightstand, so she could breathe its smell.

DOLLS, MOONS

In the time when the words were starting to leave her, we stood on the floor of the desert beside the grave of dolls and it was space all around. We spent a lot of time in those last months, looking and listening. One night Mama was walking in the yard, and I was shucking corn in the sink and watching her through the window. Halfway between the dumpster and the porch, along the back fence, there was a little swing set and one of those deep wooden boxes where you might put a raised garden. No one had ever removed these. She paused beside it.

“Hey bubbaloo,” she cried out, “come here!”

Inside the raised box, there were row after row of plastic figures, dolls, teddy bears, and various stuffed toys—all neatly arranged, all facing toward the sky. One or two of the dolls had those eyes that closed when you lay them on their backs; the others lay there, facing up. Some looked much more worn than others, suggesting they had been left at different times. A few looked relatively new. We wondered about the source of this graveyard, but it seemed like just another one of those things you couldn’t try to explain, so we took to pulling our folding chairs out there in the evening when it wasn’t too cool or too hot, us beside the dolls and the sky changing as we tried to name the stars against the moons.

Between here and the rising freeway is a Shell station and a Jack in the Box and Mama called this the magic time, when the sky goes from orange to pink to purple to night.

“Look, my eyes,” she would say, “it’s the crack between the worlds.”

Sometimes now I carry her out, and sit with the mason jar on my lap, and I try to name the moons and the stars like she used to, but looking for the right words is like trying to get back inside a dream.

HISTORY

“He loved the food, mija. He just didn’t know how to stay anywhere. I gotta laugh every time I make my mole. I always wanna ask him, ‘You hungry yet, fool? Bet you miss this.’”

Mama sprinkled her acquired language liberally, like putting capers in chunk light tuna, and she’d tend to blend and layer the expressions without worrying about linguistic continuity or excess.

“I don’t regret it, mijn bolleke; before he left I used to sometimes wonder how I was gonna tell him I thought it didn’t seem like he oughta stay anymore. He got mean sometimes; other times he’d just stare at the floor. It was too much. Sure, I wanted someone to hold close, but what could I do? When I felt you for the first time, which was just before he left, I thought, ‘I got you, mon coeur.’

“Oh, little mouse tooth. Part of me wanted to tell him; another part knew it would make it too difficult for him to go and he was one of those men who needed to go.”

When I asked too many questions, she’d stare off and wait.

“We want things a certain way, you know?” she’d offer, “But then, well —

BREAD IN WARTIME

“What do you wanna know?” she said. “In the beginning, there was light and I was a little kitten by my mother’s skirt and it was just like this,” and she moved her right hand as if to trace the smooth contours of gentle waves, “one day running into another, but then—”

Here she moved both hands as if to clap someone to attention, but instead of sounding her palms together she held them slightly apart and then flicked her wrists outward like throwing two handfuls of seeds.

“You are whole inside something once, just there, and then—”

“I don’t have a word for that,” she said.

I waited. Maybe she’d find it, and then I would know.

“You know what I remember, bug? I remember bread—”

“Like magic!” she said, “I would stand beside my mother and the tabletop like here up to my chin and she’d pull over a stool so I could see into the bowl and it was just gloop, sticky, and she used a wooden spoon at first and then her hands with the dough against the counter.”

I tried to picture her like that, on tiptoes at the table.

“Just four ingredients she used when she had them all at once.”

“That’s all you need,” she told me: flour, water, salt, yeast.

“But then, out of the oven you take it and you crack it against your teeth and—oh, the steam in your face—”

“And that’s all, little pet. I remember the bread.”

shutter small.png

MIGRATION

I read and she slept and then she slept most of the time, and the thing about whales is that no matter how hard you try to track them they tend to disappear for stretches of time only to reappear where the researchers don’t expect. The calves whisper to the mothers while migrating, and during these travels the mother will not eat. Instead she will wait as her baby feeds, conserving her energy for the trip.

“It’s how you cook it,” Mama would say.

“Having directions to someone’s house is different,” she would say, “from knowing where you come from.”

I made pasture beef bone broth and kale with carrots to help ease her anemia. I did white bean soup and red lentil dahl to ease her constipation, coconut rice pudding to ease diarrhea, stuffed acorn squash for fatigue, cinnamon ginger tea for nausea, chocolate banana smoothies when it was painful to swallow.

“Here, Mama,” I would say, “try this.”

They don’t know why the calves whisper, but it must be learned.

TERMS OF ENDEARMENT

At breakfast when she was still eating, she wouldn’t stop with just butter on her toast. After she fried the eggs over easy, she’d tilt the pan so that anything still in it would drizzle over a savory layer of salty, garlic-infused oil, to melt against the cold butter in her toast. Usually we had a jar of thick preserves from the discount gourmet rack, and she’d set that on the side just in case any square inches of crust managed to remain dry.

“Here, loverbird,” she’d say, “need some more?”

She blended modified idioms in with the other bits and pieces she managed to collect, but her favorites were terms of endearment.

“Come here, min guldklump—”

“My little golden nugget—”

“Mouse tooth, try this—”

“He meant to stay,” she said once, of my father. “Sure, we talked—kids, a place with a yard, he’d even build a fence. To keep you in, he said, like he was serious. I thought he was the best thing since Wonder Bread, but I learned to take what he said with a pinch of salt.”

Sometimes near the beginning of the month we’d get chorizo from the market to go with our eggs and call ourselves ladies of leisure, and linger over the brunch on our laps by taking it out to the porch to listen to the doves. Other times we’d mix canned tuna and discount capers with Miracle Whip and call it tapas when we placed spoonfuls on crackers. Le Toast Française was how we used day-old bread and it came avec les fraises in summer, and when it was too rainy and cold to walk to the mini-mart in January, we’d sauté onions in a pot and pour in cans of whatever we could find in the back of the cabinet and call it goulash. It was great with toast.

“But when you came, babygirl, we were like two beans in a pod. I strapped you in a little wrap on my chest and took you everywhere: singing, working, out for errands—I had to take you out when we drove to put you in your car seat but when we got there you’d go right back in the sling, right here,” and she placed the flat of her palm over her chest.

“I would catch myself wondering if he would return, you know. I thought, wow, if he could only see you he would never want to be anywhere else. But eventually I learned to accept: That ship has rowed away.”

Instead of photo albums and family, Mama had the echo of bread crust breaking against her teeth and a knack for balancing the bulk sale items from the Food 4 Less with whatever surprises we could find from the discount racks of finer stores.

“Honey-cake horse, you will like this—”

Microbino mio, this is something new!”

The loss of her own history made her hungry to pretend one, even if it was just between us. She kept an oversized dictionary in a stand on her dresser like a holy book. Above this, taped to the mirror, was the single artifact she had from her own childhood, a yellowed photograph of her mother, standing in a dress beneath a tree.

She’d turn to a page in the morning, point at random to the find of the day, and write it down on a tiny paper to keep in her pocket like a grocery list.

“There is magic in words, baby,” she said. Or Mija, or Ducky, or Pea-pod.

“Ah-hah!” she said once, like finding an answer to a long-held provocation. I walked to the stand where she pointed, toothbrush still in my mouth and hair still mussed from last night’s sleep.

I found her beaming at the mirror, index finger on a page.

“Look, baby!”

It was a word I had not heard of before or since except in the whispers inside my own mind. It meant nostalgia for a place that you’ve never been to. It had a hush sound, I think it started with an H.

And sometimes, sides pressed together in bed, she’d tell me the story of the flying man, and I would catch different parts in different tellings, in the space between listening and falling asleep.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered—glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.


We collected the names for moons and stars, and the names of the plants nearby, never sure if we quite got them right.

Until there was no more to say but whale songs and she was no longer taking food and it was fading light and the rush of the freeway in the distance and this tug, and a new sonogram photo tucked between the pages of the dictionary left behind, and me still looking for the words.

NOW AND THEN

At the sink I am washing my hands again and it is ten paces to the box with the dolls and there are the questions that one day might come, and the stirring like a tiny wave behind my navel, barely a whisper, and there was a moment before this one when I dreamed of a child, but that was when he was still here and we did not whisper a future but shouted with delight when we saw the test because he was still working then, and Mama thought he was trouble, but she still said “Hello,” and later she said, “Watch Out, He looks like Someone Else I Once Knew,” and what is the word for the thing that we know cannot happen but we want so much that we shut our eyes and say it aloud?

We said “Baby!” like a spell and even bought bibs at Walmart: I love Mommy in purple and I love Daddy in green, along with cans of baked beans, fish sticks, motor oil, and duct tape. You work with what you have.

“People think they know what they want,” Mama said, “but they don’t know.” That was why we wouldn’t do a menu at Blue Plate. They’d come in, we’d talk, maybe we’d have a questionnaire.  

We were dreaming too fast and when we went for the checkup to hear the heartbeat there was nothing but a shadow on the face of the nurse and no looking up and then there was nothing but waiting for a week and tired hope until the blood came and then it was the cool linoleum against my face and him when he came through the door from work knowing and me in his arms and in the story I do not say aloud, this is the last I can remember of his chest. Then there are beer cans by the garbage in the kitchen, and then there is no work, and then one day there are no longer his shoes.

NIGHTS

After Mama’s funeral, I dreamed with cookbooks open on my chest. Also, I stood on the porch, listening and waiting to hear. I read books until I fell asleep and I made what I dreamed.

When the flying man walked in, the place wasn’t even open yet, and there wasn’t even a sign. I had been simmering onions for about half an hour and then there he was with his shaggy hair and high dark cheekbones under eyes not meant for this world. He wasn’t the kind to stay, that much was clear.

It was albondigas in red chile sauce that night, with sweet jalapeño cornbread, and the reserva from the back. He looked at me close the way that feels like the tug of a string at the base of the spine and he asked, “What do you do?”

I acted like I didn’t notice any tug. “What’s it taste like? I cook. What about you?”

“I fly.”

“Ha!” I said.

He had pictures. He looked like one of those flying squirrels on late-night cable, except no trees. It was rocks all around and a sliver of green valley to the right.

“What’s it like?” I wondered.

He paused for a long time. “Everything slows down,” he said.

“And then what?”

“Then you wait,” he said, “you hang on as long as you can, just try to stay inside the ride.”

Another night I asked, “Hey, danger boy, you ever had sweetbreads?”

“You mean like the dessert?”

“Wait a minute,” I told him.

The pupils of his eyes glowed like freshly stoked charcoal. I watched him as he ate, the way his body rippled as if straining to contain all its life. The fact that he would float away soon was something I was trying to take as a given.

IMAGES

I study the black and white photo of the new life within me, looking like something of the deep sea, and I want something to offer.

I stand by the sink, Mama’s ashes before me against the darkening sky, and my own reflection emerging in the window.

CALL AND RESPONSE

I dry my hands on my apron as the toast pops up and I take my two pieces dry because it’s all I can keep down and I walk across the yard to the dolls and sit.

It isn’t a far stretch to imagine other things: whale call, a child’s laugh, a question.

“How long, Mama?”

Then I hear laughing like a whisper and I know.

Now comes eyelids drooping and the overwhelming need to sink the weight of my head into a pillow.

In the morning, I will make something simple but more substantial than toast. Arroz con pollo, maybe, with extra chiles.

“Heat keeps you awake,” Mama used to say, before she couldn’t take any more spice.

“It burns and the fire makes your eyes water and it’s almost too much.” This is how she warned me when I bit into my first jalapeño while she cooked in the kitchen when she used to sing to help the spices blend.

“But you gotta feel it, turtledove. You gotta stay with it. Then you know.”

“Just wait,” she would say, “it’s coming.”

 

Stir it like a fairy tale then, with a light touch on low heat. It would have an ending that gave the story a sort of roundness, a shape you could hold inside a hand, warm like oatmeal against a morning chill:

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

INVOCATION

Let’s go back, before the forgetting.

Come. Here. Eat. Rest.

“Taste this, my pulse,” and everything we want to say in one mouthful and none of it words, like whales.

“How deep was the river, Mama?”

I will whisper back, “Very deep.”

When I can stand long enough without spinning, I will uncover the sign.

Blue Plate, it will read.

The child not yet breathing will come, with arms and legs and a face no longer resembling a creature of the sea.

LIKE THIS

The child watches a bird leap from the ledge of the porch by the kitchen window where I stand at the sink, water running and Mama in a mason jar on the ledge and now, laughing, “Mama, he flew!”

I dry my hands on this apron and pull this small laughing body against my heart, so close it is hard to tell one set of beats from the other.

What if?” and other questions return, but I hold.

For now, beneath the sky, beside the dolls, we swallow warm mouthfuls from secondhand bowls to weigh our maybes against the tides of wind throwing dust, and as it settles into the creases of my squint, now comes the child, so close but not yet named, twirling a fairy-tale wand, calling like a whisper in the distance:

“Go, Fly, Go!”