The Parable of Nick Burns

Nick Burns died a gruesome death, and when they found him he looked almost serene, seated such as he was in his beloved, careworn La-Z-Boy with his hands folded over his round belly. There was tea on the stovetop, more than enough for a man living alone. Both of his companionable blue eyes were gone, each extinguished by a single, deliberate bullet, his tongue, a source of comfort and understanding to so many of us, removed and pinned carefully through the breast of his crisply starched black shirt, speared by a toothpick, displayed pointedly over his stilled heart. And still he was at peace, as though without changing his church clothes he’d brewed that black tea beneath the lazy hum of the oscillating fan in the kitchen, waiting quite patiently for death to rap lightly on the door of his unassuming one-bedroom apartment, at last settling comfortably in his nearly bare living room and greeting his visitor with a weary yet hospitable smile that lingered still. A stained poplar crucifix standing sentry cried wooden tears; a faded replica fresco, St. Paul, looked down and away; a dog-eared TV Guide three months old lay askew on the otherwise bare coffee table.

The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence. Cal’s father made sure of that, for all our pleas otherwise. It had to be that way, probably—men like that have a way of coming back. Those faces have occupied my thoughts for the better part of these twenty years, and I know they’ve remained with Cal, even changed his life, perhaps. I can’t say he wouldn’t have gone into the church. I can’t claim to know for certain that the natural progression of his life wouldn’t have led him there. But the respectable clergyman, when that day plodded into that afternoon, was an irreverent, arrogant, foul-mouthed boy, kicking a bottle in an alley and cursing his luck for being born so bored and unimportant.

The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence.

“Didn’t break it, did I?”

“Not yet,” I rejoined. “You got lucky.”

The tea-shade bottle fishtailed on its invisible glass axis, narrowly skirting a large rusty trash bin. I pushed my bangs from my eyes and cringed.

“Watch it!”

Cal rolled his eyes and gave it a hard kick in my direction. I laughed and leapt aside.

“Damn, just about bagged me a pussy!”

Caleb (Cal, to everyone but his mother) had an inexplicable way of cursing quite casually while at the same time avoiding detection. I cringed and waited.

“Jesus, Akin, come on.”

He was often impatient, and sometimes rightfully so, but I was our acting conscience, and as such, I looked out for trouble while Cal looked for it with his unorthodox vulgarity.

“Fuckin’-a ‘Kin, what’s the problem?”

I shrugged. He really was operating on an encrypted frequency. I aimed a kick, perhaps a little harder than I would have had my thoughts not lingered on his relative freedom from persecution, and I actually whooped when the bottle skidded like a rogue pebble over a choppy black pond and struck him in the shin. He yelped and hopped back, teetering on one leg as he tugged at his pant leg to appraise the carnage. I stopped laughing at once.

“Holy shit,” he said. “You cut me, you red-peckered whore! Jesus God that hurts.”

“Keep it down,” I hissed. “It’s not that bad.”

He lurched toward the bottle, which had trickled to a lethargic, southward necking stop and stooped for it. I backed away.

“Just stop it, Cal. I didn’t mean to cut you.”

“Christ, come look at this.”

“Uh-uh.”

Cal shot a perplexed look my direction.

“Huh? No, not that. Never mind that. Look.” He’d retrieved something from atop the heaping trash. He held it aloft, studying it closely. It was a magazine page, ripped jaggedly along the seam and folded and unfolded so that it went limp in his hands. He grasped firmly the sides and held it taut.

“What is it?” I asked.

He’d forgotten his grievance.

“She’s bare-ass naked, ‘Kin! Holy shit, what dumb redneck threw this out?”

It was a page from a smut book, apparently good enough for some stranger to save for a time, disappointing enough to later discard. To Cal it was gold. Frantically, he stalked back to the trash and upset several oily rags and empty cans.

“Shit. That’s it I guess, but man, Cal. Look at her.”

“That’s rot, Cal. You don’t know who had that thing before.”

Cal’s incredulous appraisal, an expression I know well. “You’re not even gonna look? Shit’s wrong with you, ‘Kin?”

“Fine. Lemme—”

“Boys?”

“Shit,” Cal mouthed, folding the page along the previous admirer’s creases and hiding it away. His father rounded the front corner of the store.

“Hell, what are you doing back here?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Akin, you told your mother about the phone, right? I don’t need to catch hell today.” Without fail, my mother would call the store for me on Wednesday afternoons, for no other reason than to remind me not to forget church, which I never had. The phone in the station had been down since Sunday and Mr. Reed hadn’t bothered to see about it yet. Besides, he assured us drily, Akin’s the only one around here that uses it. “You reassured her, I expect?”

“Yes sir, I reminded her and told her I wouldn’t forget. Thanks, Mr. Reed.”

“Uh-huh. See how he talks, Cal? You should take a page out of his book.” The irony wasn’t lost on us. “I need you up front.”

Cal trudged toward the front, his hand still lingering near his back pocket. As we emerged from the alley a long, sleek black car crept down Rosemary and turned into the lot.

“Alright. Cal, there’s a broom inside with your name on it. Akin, you about ready to head out?”

Cal interrupted. “Aw, can’t I go to church with ‘Kin? At least once?”

Mr. Reed grimaced and expelled a considerable wad of brackish phlegm. “Go inside and do what I asked you. We’ll talk about that when I’m done.”

With that, he stepped briskly off to meet the newcomers. I lingered. It was rare to see out-of-towners pass through and even rarer to see a car like theirs.

“Fuck.” Caleb spat through his teeth, resentfully tramping to his waiting broom.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Reed called.

The pair wore cleanly pressed suits that should have left them sweltering and yet the driver didn’t appear in the least bothered by the heat. He wore crisp pin stripes, thinly interwoven threads of white. Expensive. He looked quite at ease, in fact, as he nudged the car door shut with an index finger.

I watched through the dusty plate glass. It was a polished Ford Galaxie XL—a land cruiser, a long, sleek glider. The driver looked about Mr. Reed’s age, late thirties or early forties, clean-shaven, tall and lean but not gaunt, he moved with a deft litheness that unnerved me even from the shelter of the store. His eyes were dark and glinted hungrily above his affected smile. A paper-thin scar, barely visible, cleaved his left cheek from his eyelid to the fringe of the dry, deep parenthetical wear-line that framed his thin, pale lips. Perched aloof in the corner of his mouth was a sharp, dry toothpick. Their voices carried easily.

“What can I do for you?” Mr. Reed asked without trepidation.

“Well, I suppose we could do with a fill-up, right Jack?” His colleague, a much younger man in a less impressive suit, returned a stiff nod and stepped to the rear of the car, lighting a cigarette without the least display of interest in the proceedings. I thought, even then, that he wasn’t there to talk—not like the driver talked. Almost too quick to follow, the toothpick flicked reflexively from one corner to the other and back again. He would’ve fit nicely in a funeral home, an austere, patronizing curator, or in a used car lot as a cunning, predatory salesman. But he was neither of those things—he was something lower, something worse. I knew it then and I think Mr. Reed knew it too, but leaning against the pump with the oily rag clutched in his hand like a talisman and speaking calmly to the man whose eyes did not smile, he didn’t betray the slightest unease.

“I think that’ll do fine,” the driver continued. His voice had a slightly sharp, nasal quality. “I think we’ll do just fine with a fill-up, and I wouldn’t mind the key to your facility.” The toothpick darted beneath his crooked eyebrow and the implacable smile seemed to flirt with scorn without actually touching.

“No problem, gentlemen. The bathroom’s right around the side there, unlocked. I’ll get you taken care of, check your fluids and wipe your windshield too. No problem.”

The driver waved dismissively. “Just the fill-up, today Mack, if it please you.” He clapped Mr. Reed on the shoulder and strolled over the spider-webbed concrete. The heels of his polished black shoes clicked noisily. The young man watched Mr. Reed work without comment. Normally, small talk would accompany his work, but not today. The passenger smoked and watched the narrow residential street free of traffic and quiet.

Watching the driver pass the open door of the little shop, I was gripped with a surreal, nightmarish certainty that he would stop and turn those glinting, black eyes on me, crouch down with the toothpick working back and forth, and smile that uncanny smile, but no. He walked briskly past. If he knew he was being watched he didn’t concern himself with the attention of a child. He probably doesn’t even see me, I thought, not in the way that other people do.

“What’s your problem?” Cal said petulantly. “What’s so goddamn interesting?”

He aimed a jab at my shoulder. I absorbed it without comment. He faltered, considered a moment and looked out the window.

“Holy shit,” he said. “Look at that thing. I bet she purrs like a jungle bitch, ‘Kin.” He lingered a moment and then stalked away. The ruffling of the page, again. “I can’t believe it. Who would get rid of this thing? Good thing I found it before they got here.” That was the extent of Cal’s investment in the proceedings, for the moment.

Minutes passed, and Mr. Reed replaced the nozzle with a heavy clunk.

“Good man, good man,” said the driver, his brisk heels preceding him. “Here, this should cover it, with my gratitude.” He slipped a folded bill into Mr. Reed’s shirt pocket.

I relaxed. That was it, then. But Mr. Reed reached for the bill, balked, and his posture changed. He stood straight and indicated slowly with the bill, a universal gesture of incredulity. “What’s this about, fellas?”

I held my breath and cursed Mr. Reed’s stubbornness, but the driver only feigned glibness, flashing his eerily pearlescent teeth. “Why, you topped her off and I paid you for your services. The veritable quid pro quo of commerce that makes this sorry weary spin round, Mack.” He whistled and whirled his index finger near his temple.

“That would be just fine but this is more than what I’m charging. Around here—or anywhere, as far as I know—people don’t give out something for nothing.”

“Don’t I know it?” said the driver, pausing, his eyes searching Mr. Reed’s face. “I certainly meant no offense to you or your business, you understand. And, much as it pains me to do it, I am bound by honor to hereby concede your point and validate your suspicion. But if you give me one moment, you’ll see that what I ask is really not anything at all. Harmless little thing, really.”

Mr. Reed remained static. Briefly, I thought, there passed behind the driver’s eyes a betrayal of what he really was, perhaps a warning flashed and gone in the same instant. He winked, the toothpick working. “It’s just that myself and my associate are in town looking for an old friend. Family, in fact, our cousin, you see. Angling for a little family reunion. It’s been a long time. I was just hoping you might be able to give us a nudge in the right direction, is all. To our shame and regret, one of us hasn’t exactly been as assiduous in his efforts to correspond as our longstanding familial bond warrants. I’m sure you understand.”

Mr. Reed wiped his brow and cleared his throat, spat on the cement. He held out the bill. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

But the driver smiled heartily, seemed almost about to laugh even, his eyes ever cold and piercing. “Come now, I’m sure you know him, small town like this. Older guy, must be gray by now, tattoo of a dame riding an anchor on his left forearm, here. About this tall, I’d say, real thick, bushy eyebrows.” He elucidated with a long thin index finger through his own brows that were razor thin. “Maybe even has a bit of an old-fashioned, Mid-western accent. A trace, perhaps. Chicago, maybe. Nick Burns, he used to be called, our old cousin. You may know him by something else, but the important thing is that you know him, am I right? I’m not good at much in this world, Mack, but I can read a fella’s face. That I can do. So, am I right?”

Mr. Reed’s voice faltered. “Listen, fellas, I don’t want to get mixed up in anything, here. Just take your money. The gas is on me. Really. Please. Here.”

Like a patient desert predator, the driver didn’t flinch, leaning in giddy anticipation for a protracted moment. At last he sighed and shrugged, gestured to the younger passenger, then beamed at the gas station owner. He held his palms outward at his waist. “Hey, no skin off our ends, Mack, we’re not looking for trouble either—just our old, mangy cousin, the lovable derelict he is.” He retreated back around the smooth steel bumper of the black Ford, winked at Mr. Reed, and pulled the driver’s side door open smoothly. “As for the money, my friend,” said the driver, nodding at his partner, who returned the curt gesture and entered the opposite side, “I must insist that you hold on to it. Like I said, for services rendered, with my untarnished gratitude.”

Mr. Reed lowered his hand feebly. Relief washed over me.

“Have yourself a pleasant day, Mack. We’ll be seeing you.” The driver ducked into the car and it roared to life, a smooth, velvety purr. Mr. Reed watched the car ease carefully out of the lot, heading west on Rosemary, trundling slowly into town like a black serpent swallowing dust.

Cal, who’d approached the window without my noticing, quickly darted away and began sweeping. He stopped when his father trudged through the open door without acknowledging us, his eyes fixed on the crisp bill. I saw it clearly. It was a fifty-dollar bill. I’d never seen one before. He seemed to have forgotten us for when he looked up; his eyes swam then suddenly focused. He stowed the bill in his breast pocket, cleared his throat and crossed the store to the counter.

“Right,” he said, placing the dead phone back in its cradle with an uncharacteristic air of resignation. He looked down at his feet and we waited. Even Cal was disconcerted, the broom forgotten against the wall.

“Right,” he said again, more resolutely. He considered me directly, a strange gleam in his eye. “Akin, you can take Cal to church after all, if you don’t mind the company. I’ll apologize to your mother later for not warning her.” He emerged into the open floor of the shop, near the window where I lingered. “Cal, come here. Now listen, I want you boys to do something for me.” He gazed out the window, as if reevaluating.

“What is it?” Cal asked.

“Right,” his father repeated, sighing heavily. “I need you to go straight to church. I need you to walk fast, but don’t hurry. You understand what I mean when I say that? You sure?”

We nodded, not sure at all, in fact.

“When you get there, go straight to Father Callahan’s office and tell him that two men came by the store looking for Nick Burns. Old friends. Family, they said. You understand that?”

We nodded, and he said no more, just looked again through the streaked glass window. After a minute, Cal spoke up.

“Is Mr. Burns part of the church?”

“Cal, that doesn’t matter. If not, then Father Callahan will know where to find him, anyhow. This isn’t a game. Go straight to the church, tell Father Callahan what I told you to tell him, and then go find ‘Kin’s mom and go to church. Cal, I’ll be there to pick you up. I’d go now, God knows, instead of sending you boys but I can’t close down right at the moment. Not….” he rubbed a hand along his stubbly cheek. “I don’t think it would be wise to close down right at the moment.” We nodded. “Now repeat it back to me.”

We did. He nodded along.

“Now go. Remember what I said. Walk quickly but don’t hurry. You’ll be on the main street with everyone else going to church, so you won’t…. Anyway, go on.”

We passed out into the hot afternoon. Despite Mr. Reed’s reassurances, I couldn’t help but fear the suggestiveness implicit in the trust he’d extended two children—adults so rarely speak to each other like that, let alone us. Something bad was happening, or was about to.

“Think they wanna pop this guy, Burns?” Cal asked as we cleared the street, a safe distance from the shop.

Instead of the old frustration, I deliberated. “Yeah, yeah I do.”

“Why don’t we just go tell him ourselves, then?”

I slowed, perplexed, then remembered Mr. Reed’s words and quickened my pace. “What do you mean?”

“Short, bushy eyebrows, tattoo of a naked chick on a rocket? Sound like anyone?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

“Mr. Mallard, you damn idgit.”

“Who?”

He gestured impatiently up the street. “Brick house, always yells at kids to get off his lawn, never comes out for anything else. Real prick, that guy. Probably has it coming, but we should warn him anyway. Christian thing to do an’ all, now that I’m a church goer.”

With that, he resumed studying the creased photo, smoothing with his thumb a fuzzy crease that partially obscured the model’s right breast.

“Put that thing away,” I shot. All around us, families filtered into the sidewalks in their church best.

“You’re a pussy, you know that, ‘Kin. A first rate….”

“Mr. Mallard is bald, you stupid asshole. His eyebrows are thin. He looks nothing like the guy.”

Silence, but Cal recovered quickly. “Well, these guys haven’t seen him in years. He could very well be bald and gray.”

Dammit if he didn’t have a point, though. “Let’s forget about all that. You heard Mr. Re… your dad. Father Callahan knows this Nick Burns, and we don’t. He will tell him what to do. Not us.”

“Oh, what does that fucking crony know about it? He’s just gonna end up getting Burns killed, sending us to the middle man.”

I resolved to ignore him. The austere, uppermost steeple of the church rose steadily over the green caps of the rank and file oaks.

“Why doesn’t your dad send you to church?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“He says it’d be hypocritical. Fucking phony.”

“What does he mean?”

“I don’t know. He just needs the slave labor, is all.”

I shrugged. What can you say?

“I still think we should just go tell him ourselves.”

“Shut up, Cal.”

 *     *     *

Father Callahan was at his desk. The door was open. Shuffling feet beyond the wall, early comers filing into the main hall.

“Hello boys. Akin, Caleb. What can I do for you today?” His eyes were warm and gentle, the genuine antithesis of the driver’s black eyes. His office was lined in musty, faux-wood paneling. Pictures hung in scattered clusters.

“We have to tell you something,” I said mechanically, suddenly nervous. “It’s from Mr. Reed.”

“Oh! And how is your father, Caleb?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Good, good. Glad to hear it.”

I swallowed and blurted it out all at once. “He told us to tell you that there were some guys asking about Nick Burns. Guys in suits….”

“Really nice suits, in a really nice car!” Cal interrupted.

“He didn’t tell us to say that, Caleb.” I said, more sharply than I intended. I composed myself, then appealed to our elder. “That doesn’t matter. Does it, Father?”

“Well, I can’t say for sure, Akin. You never know. So Mr. Reed sent you boys here to tell me that?” They nodded silently. “Hmm, curious.”

“He figured you’d know what to do.” Caleb offered, somewhat defensively.

Father Callahan nodded curtly. “He figured right. Is there anything else he said to tell me?”

“No, Father,” I said.

“We know who he is!” Cal cried. “He’s that creepy old man in the brick house that yells at everyone! He’s in trouble now, isn’t he?”

I reddened. Father Callahan looked sternly at us both.

“Rest assured boys, I know Nick Burns very well.” He looked at Caleb directly. “And if you don’t know someone, then making dramatic assumptions regarding his character can serve only to get you into trouble, Caleb. You’d do well to remember that. Both of you.” I started to object but fell silent. I’d been the reasonable one, and I was getting reprimanded right along with him.

Father Callahan was apparently satisfied that we had nothing left to say. “If that’s all, then I think it’s time you ran along to meet your mother, Akin. I’m sure she’s worried sick. Will Mr. Reed be joining us this evening?” I blinked, realized he meant Cal, who nodded. “Ah, perfect! Well, think no more about this matter. Consider it resolved. Now you boys run along.” He stood and gestured. I remained, hesitant, unsure even as I asked whether I should.

“Father?”

“Yes, Akin?”

“I know it doesn’t matter, I mean to say, it’s not our business. But, what do you think Mr. Burns will do when you tell him?”

“I suppose only Nick Burns can make that decision, Akin. Either way, it’s nothing you need to worry about. Mr. Reed sent you to me for good reason. Nick Burns and I go way back. I have no doubt that with the good word on his side,” he said, delicately hoisting the leather bound bible and brandishing it in the air, “he will make the right decision. Fair enough?” There was an uncharacteristic, even sardonic spirit in his theatrics.

We agreed in unison.

“Good lads, off you go.”

Something was wrong with Cal, I saw. He was quiet. A few paces down the hall, he paused, turned, and went back. I followed, praying he didn’t have another disrespectful outburst in him. But he approached Father Callahan’s desk somberly, head down. He dug into the back pocket of his shorts and produced the folded magazine page. The pastor let it settle on the desk, untouched.

“I found it,” he mumbled. “It’s bad. Don’t look at it. It’s just… I shouldn’t have picked it up. Akin was right. I shouldn’t have.”

Father Callahan considered Cal, then bent, collected the wastebasket beneath his desk, and dropped the folded page into it. “Then it shall trouble you no more. Consider it absolved.” His face was weary with large bags bedding his lower lids, but when he smiled it was genuine, whole. Cal shrugged uncertainly.

“Don’t I have to….”

But the Father waved his hand. “No, no. This one’s on the house. Run along, boys.”

We departed in reflective silence.

After a minute: “What was that?” I was stunned.

“Nothing. Let’s go.”

I finally felt it, relief. We’d done our job and maybe helped Nick Burns, wherever he was. My happiness was short-lived. My mother intercepted me in the parking lot with a frown.

“Mom, I…” but she held up her hand.

“You’re not in trouble.” She shook her head. “I just wish you weren’t dressed like pigs in a sty, is all.”

We filed in through the center aisle. The town was amassed in full and open seats were scarce. I felt eyes on me and burned red—I hadn’t thought of my clothes until now, sweaty and streaked with dirt. Cal remained silent. He simply followed in tow, his head slightly bowed, as if deep in thought. We sat down one minute before the bells were set to toll.

Six o’clock. The congregation stirred. Someone coughed and a child whined. The stirring of restless feet and the rustle of starched clothing. No bells.

One-past-six. We’d done something wrong. We’d gotten Father Callahan mixed up in trouble, somehow. It was our fault.

Still, no bells.

At five minutes past and still no Father Callahan, the restlessness of the worshippers mounted. Several more coughers, less restrained now. Buzzing murmurs, “What are we waiting for?” from the back, a little girl with pink ribbons in her hair, unabashed. But she was simply echoing the sentiment of the anxious mass.

The thick front door opened and slammed against the frame with the subtlety of a shotgun blast in the quiet chamber. The echo died down and we all turned to see who’d entered late—all but one. Cal remained slumped.

It was Mr. Reed. The congregation gaped, having never seen Thomas Reed in church before. He stood at the rear of the church, hat in hand, scanning the crowd. His eyes seemed to linger on the empty podium.

My heart palpitated. This isn’t right. It can’t be. Knowledge like a terrible plague, and Cal knew it first, knew it when the old man smiled goodbye.

Mr. Reed swayed on his heels. He dropped his hat to his side, a gesture like mourning.

Danny JudgeDanny Judge is an ex-Marine attending Simpson College on the G.I. Bill, where he is nearing his BA in English. He does little else with his life but read and write, and is particularly enthralled with Nabokov, Faulkner, Kafka, Morrison, and Roth. His short fiction has spanned multiple forms and genres in eight literary journals, including Burningword, Referential Magazine, The Quotable, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He’s self-published two short collections of fiction and is the founding editor of a new journal of literary fiction and poetry, The Indianola Review. He lives in Iowa with his wife and son.

 

“The Parable of Nick Burns” is listed as a Notable Story in the 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award. Congratulations to Danny Judge!

Want Cokes?

Since sophomore year, the crew walks three blocks to the bakery with the bitchy lady at the counter. Sometimes we get the cheese-filled dough beuregs, but sometimes we get the ground-beef flatbreads for only two bucks each. You can smell the cheese wafting through the smog on Broadway, and it meets the sweet smell of nazoug cookies from the pastry place across the street. The crew thinks it’s better than the Chinese place since Owner lets us sit there until Vartan picks us up. At least Ashot thinks it is, and we all care about what Ashot thinks because he’s fuckin’ Ashot–the only guy that can pull off a collared shirt without looking like a wimp.

One time, Owner said some shit like, “Tghek, do your homeworks.”

“You don’t need to graduate to start a business, aper,” said Ashot.

“Right. Back in Armenia, I graduate for music and was composer. What you want to be?” he said, wiping his hands on his sweaty apron.

Ashot said, “Rich. I want to be fuckin’ rich.” All of us busted out laughing, including Owner.

Ashot always knew what to say. Since the seventh grade, he always fucking knew. His dad beat him up with a belt almost every day which made him a smart ass, but he would move up in life as a loyal one too. When we were in the eighth grade, I got caught touching Maria’s tits because I didn’t really know how to ask her out. He didn’t even know me well, but he followed me to the principal’s office and told him that he dared me to do it.

We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us.

He told the principal, “They mentioned it in biology class and I wanted to know how it felt. Consider it a lab.”

I remember asking him later on why he did it. And he just shrugged. They gave him detention. But we stayed best friends.

“Do your work to be rich,” Owner said. “Want Cokes?”

We never want Cokes. We just go out on the sidewalk to smoke a pack instead.

Ashot says, “Kobe killed it last night. I love him, man. If only I could be him.”

Standing behind him, I can see a scar near his collar.

“Fuck yeah,” I say. “Who doesn’t?”

*     *     *

I actually like Maria. I’ve liked her since the incident with the boobs, for the last four years. The crew calls her a slut because she hangs out with the other Mexican girls near the football field at lunch and because there’s a rumor going around that they slept with the same guys in the soccer team. I didn’t really care if she did, because I knew she wasn’t dumb. I had English class with her, and one time, she read a poem she wrote about a car crash. It made me feel wack–like someone had pulled out my gut for a second.

The glass windows slide deeper into my heart. And I can feel me rip apart with each painful toss–hoping to be loved and pulled together, she’d written.

After class I said, “So you write poems?”

“Yeah,” she said, fixing her shirt. I could see her tits.

“It was cool,” I said and walked away. Her sharp, green eyes followed me out the door.

*     *     *

The football field where she hangs out is Latino territory, and one time, Ashot got busted for kicking a guy named Juan in the dick because he hit on Ani, the hottest girl in the school–and Ashot’s childhood friend. She has black, straight hair and rarely smiles, kind of like those Russian dolls–the ones Mam likes to collect to put over the fireplace. Ani moved here when she was four, same as Ashot. I don’t think Ashot liked Ani, but I think he just likes to protect the girls in the crew from older guys, mostly Mexicans.

“No one’ll want to marry her if she fuckin’ sleeps with that Mexican,” he said.

“What if she actually wants to sleep with the Mexican?” I said, unwrapping my burger.

“I don’t give a shit,” Ashot said. “There’s no way in hell she’s gonna do that shit. And if Vartan isn’t gonna do anything, then I am.”

“Let her brother handle it,” I said. “Why you gotta get involved and get us all in this?”

“Because we have to,” he said. “Because we’re the Armo fuckin’ corner.”

And then he sent a note to Juan through Marco, the half-Armenian half-Mexican kid to have him meet the crew up in their territory at lunch the next day. Juan showed up with five other guys, and Ashot kicked him in the dick. Everyone got pissed and started fighting each other–even me. It was messed up because Ashot got suspended and the rest of us had to do community service for a few months.

When the counselor called me in, she asked, “Who started it, Armen?”

I hate how counselors use names to make something sound more serious. The small waterfall on her desk chimed and echoed the sounds of rushing water. What the fuck?

“They started it,” I said. “Juan and his guys.”

“That’s not what I heard,” said counselor.

“Isn’t that called hearsay or something,” I said. Her face didn’t get soft.

“I’m just messin’. Listen, Juan asked us to be there ‘cause he had to talk to Ashot about something and then he just attacked him.”

She eventually let me go after firing off questions about why my math and science grades had dropped.

*     *     *

When I come home from school, Mam already has dinner ready for us–us being me, Pap, my three aunts, their husbands, and two single uncles.

“Of course Obamacare is a bad thing,” says Uncle Khachik. “They want our tax money to pay.”

“It’s for the greater good,” says my other Hopar.

“The Soviet Union was too,” Pap says.

“Greater good is capitalism. That’s all I know,” he says.

“So you vote democrat but aren’t one,” says Hopar Khachik.

After a pause my dad responds, “Of course, it’s California. And we like welfare.”

Everyone laughs, but I don’t really think it’s funny. The women don’t speak much and Mam doesn’t even work, but she has the smile of a woman who isn’t a fucking house wife–one that reminds me of a picture she has as a girl in Tzaghgatsor. She’s standing in front of a field of flowers in a skirt almost to her ankle, holding a set of books. As a kid she would tell me that the blooms in Tzaghgatsor were unlike any other, that they were caused by the beauty of Armenian’s most beautiful goddess, Anahit. The fields of flowers spill over into green, rolling mountains, almost like magic. I imagined, as a kid, that she was the goddess in some way, although her eyes have wrinkles around the edges and her hair is kind of faded brown. She dyes it blonde, probably to cover it all.

“Of course the United States will recognize the genocide,” Pap says. “The democrats will do it.”

“It’s a lie,” says my uncle Khachik. “They want us to vote like you.”

A pile of Asbarez newspapers sit face up on on our TV stand. Pap’s horn rimmed glasses shift lower on his nose. And no one can hear a thing.

My dad slams his hand on the table, “They raped our women and exterminated our people–the democrats actually give a shit. Armen, get us some cognac glasses.”

I bring him the glasses, and he says, “How was your school?”

“Good,” I say.

“Doctor or lawyer? Decided yet?”

“Not yet, Dad. One of them, though,” I say.

I go to my room. I like to think about Maria or watch porn or read. I stare at my Transformers poster sometimes or just watch trailers. Sometimes we even meet up at the parking lot near the Starbucks in La Cañada. All the guys from all the high schools meet up there to smoke–too young to have cognac anyway. We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us. Ashot rarely comes except for one night.

He sneaks out to join us. He’s wearing a stupid baseball cap, and he asks for a stog.

“What’s up with the hat?” Vartan says. “Vibin’ white guys, huh?”

And I see it then–the right side of his face all blue.

“What the fuck dude,” I say. “What the hell?”

“He just made a man out of me,” he says, smiling.

“Fuck man, you okay?” I say.

“Yeah, aper, yeah. Let’s have a smoke, and I’ll be good.”

“Should we tell the cops or call Counselor or something?” I ask.

“No, I’m good. I’m tight. I promised him I would get my grades up.”

“Yeah man, we should,” I say.

“We will. But let’s have a smoke first.”

“Fuck yeah,” I say, looking down at the pavement.

Talar MalakianTalar Malakian graduated with a degree in English and an emphasis in Fiction from the University of California-Irvine. She works in digital marketing but really hates Twitter. You can find her in Los Angeles, usually with a book, an Apple product, and a cold latte.

Intervention

On Monday, the neighbor’s kid is late coming over. When I hear her on the stairs, I call out, “Hey, you’re late. Nothing much is on.” Since returning from rehab five months ago, Syd’s been coming over to watch TV with me in my attic. Her parents asked me once if I’d mind keeping an ear open for anything going on. Seemed easier to tell Syd I had satellite dish and let things unroll from there. Except for weekends, she’s over here all afternoon. And except for Thursdays, when she’s seeing her shrink.

Syd tosses her bag onto her corner of the futon and snakes her hand into the open bag of Doritos. She’s got a nose ring sticking out of her face that wasn’t there on Friday. I want to ask about it but don’t because Syd’s the kind of kid that gets shitty when you ask too many questions. She takes the remote and sees what my TV’s been recording. “Oh, let’s watch this,” she says and begins the A&E show Intervention, one of our favorites.

Syd likes to bite her nails, giggle, and say, “I did that shit,” as we watch the addicts spiral down and the families cry and blame themselves. I like to get high and tell myself I’m not as sad as those people.

Syd plays with her nose ring and glances over at the notepad I tossed onto the couch when she came up. “What’s that?”

“New project,” I say glancing at it. “I’m supposed to be drawing up a marketing ad for that new burrito place downtown. Buddy’s Burritos. Heard of it?”

She shakes her head. “I stopped going downtown. I’ll just make bad decisions.”

That’s Syd’s way of saying her parents won’t allow it. She glances at the notepad. “Can I see?”

I hand it to her. So far, it’s just covered in a bunch of crummy sketches when it should look more like what will eventually be painted as a mural on the side of the Buddy’s Burritos building.

“What’s the theme?” she says.

“Theme?”

“Yeah. You know, do they do a Southwest menu or is it like a Thai burrito place or a veggie place or what?”

“I dunno,” I say. “Southwest I guess.” I hand her the menu and a brief but melodramatic history of the franchise written by one of the owners.

She’s looking closely at one of the things I’ve drawn—a spindly cactus with a cartoonish cowboy trying to sleep in the tiny shade it throws. There’s a burrito tucked into his arm like a sleeping baby except it looks more like a massive joint. “Make this bigger,” she says, tapping the cactus, “like those fat round cactuses. I think they’re called Segourney’s—”

“Saguaros,” I correct.

“Whatever. A bunch of them, and leave out this stupid ass cowboy. The cactuses eat the burritos.”

“Cacti,” I tell her.

“Hmm?” She’s twirling her nose ring again, picking at some crust growing on the outside. It’s getting red.

“The plural of cactus is cacti,” I say again. “And stop messing with your nose. You’re making it all red.”

She flips me off, smiles and says, “Icepick did it.”

During that break where you learn how great these people were as babies, I roll another joint. “You pierced your nose with an icepick? Are you fucking nuts?”

She laughs again. “No, his name is Icepick.”

We’ve come to the point at which Syd is throwing out a carrot which she will retract as soon as I go for it, making me feel stupid and out of touch in the process, so I say nothing and pick up the lighter. I can never figure out the etiquette for this sort of thing, so I let my open hand with the pipe and full, green bowl hang there between us for a second.

“Nah,” she says, like always, “weed was never my thing.” She readjusts herself, tucking up her legs. “Weed’s not really the kind of thing you sell your ass on 82nd Street for, you know?”

Sometimes she says things like that, things that make me wonder what the hell she’s getting at. Her mother Diane once hinted to me that Syd had gotten caught up in some “fast things.” That’s what she calls the months Syd disappeared into the fray of homeless teens living around the Square and the ensuing year in rehab. But Diane’s the type of person to say stuff like that, like saying she needs to tinkle instead of take a piss. It’s hard to tell how bad it got. And you can’t really believe Syd either. One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue….”

Halfway through the second episode, I ask her, “What do your parents think about you coming over here every day?”

She spits a bit of nail onto the floor and shrugs. She says too quickly, too offhandedly, “Oh they don’t care,” which tells me they have no idea.

Around seven, she slides off the couch. “You know,” she says, “you should get married. What kind of life is this for a guy in his forties?”

“I’m thirty-three.”

“Still.” She takes a business card from her bag and hands it to me. “Did you call her yet?”

“For Christ’s sake, Syd,” I say, refusing to take the card, “I’m not desperate enough to ask your therapist on a date.”

“Oh come on, she’s desperate too!” she says and her voice is high and whiney. What must it be like to get this kid to load the dishwasher? “She’s really cool. You’ll like her. She wears a lot of leather. I think that means she’s into SM.”

She leaves the card on my table and disappears downstairs and out the door. A minute later, I hear her front door open and then, through the tiny window in my upstairs room, I see the light in Syd’s room come on, her shadow passing back and forth. Syd paces when she’s on the phone, which is what she’s doing now, probably calling Icechest.

No fucking way, I say to her window and leave the card on the table when I go downstairs for the night.

 *     *     *

One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue…”

But on Thursday, I’m sitting at a table in a bistro wearing a too-tight sports jacket and asking myself what made me come down to the Pearl. I remind myself of the leather and take a deep breath.

Mimsy, Mimsy, Mimsy, I say in my head. I heard once that if you repeat a name or a phone number or whatever seven times, you’ll have transferred it to long-term memory. I also heard that a child needs to be told something around seventy-five times before it sticks, which reminds me of how Syd’s mom is always exclaiming, “How many times do I have to ask you to pick up before I get home?” Seventy-five, Diana.

The whole time I’m waiting and drinking cocktails, I’m wondering why I agreed to meet a woman whose name makes her sound like the kind of person voted most likely to show up to my mom’s Friday evening book club. But when she arrives, she’s nothing like what I pictured at all. She’s young, short, and cute. Skinny but not athletic, her arms and legs like four cigarettes sticking out of her body, what my sister calls “skinny-fat.”

She sees the three empty cocktail glasses on the table and says, “Well, I guess you’ve been waiting a while.” She puts her leather jacket over the back of her chair and slides into her seat. Her skirt is leather and the chair is vinyl, so they stick together and make a farting noise as she scoots in. We both pretend not to hear.

When the waiter comes, she orders a bottle of wine. After her third glass, Mimsy reaches across the table, aiming to clasp my hand, but misses and grabs onto the side of the table, her cleavage almost landing in her pasta. “Do you think it’s bad boundaries to date the neighbor of your client?”

I consider things for a minute, decide that yes, it is bad boundaries—for both of us—and conclude to treat this like the “does my ass look OK in this?” question.

“Yes,” I say, “your ass looks great in that skirt,” and swallow the last of my fourth drink.

Mimsy looks at me a little puzzled and then laughs. “You’re weird,” she tells me. “Weird is good.”

As we’re leaving, Mimsy struggles to get her left arm into the left arm hole of her jacket and drops her miniscule purse in the process, the contents of which dump out onto the floor of the bistro’s lobby. I stoop down with her, hand her tampons and feminine wipes and a cracked tube of mascara.

I lead her outside and aim her in the direction of my car. She tries to pull away from me. “I’m parked that way,” she says and begins patting the pockets of her jacket to find her keys.

As soon as she pulls them out, I take them away. “You don’t need to be driving,” I say.

“Oh yeah?” She lurches toward me. “And who’s going to stop me?”

As I pull up to the light, I look over at her, waiting for her to tell me which way to go. Finally, I say, “Well, which way?” but she’s fallen asleep with her head against the glass.

So I drive us back to my place. I told her about the 70” flat-screen up in my attic, so of course she asks to see it. There’s a lot of other things up there too—an ashtray full of roaches, a glass pipe in the shape of a baby’s hand, and my college bong made from a two-liter pepsi bottle attached to a WWII-era gas mask. I’m excited to see what happens when she sees it, hoping it’s like one of those cartoon moments where the terrified lady runs screaming through the front door, leaving behind a cut-out in the shape of a flailing woman.

“Follow me,” I say and lead her through the living room, down the short hall to the small, cluttered spare room in back. I point to the closet and say, “In there,” and amazingly she goes right in.

Halfway up the narrow staircase, she turns and asks, “Did a skunk die up here or something?”

“Almost there,” I tell her and nudge the back of her thigh.

She stops dead in the middle of the room. I slide past and fall onto the futon, dig under a pillow for the remote.

“What. . .” —she starts. She picks up the gas mask and the Pepsi bottle nearly spills.

“Hey!” I say, “Careful with that. I’ll have you know that won an Honorable Mention at Hempstalk ten years ago.”

Mimsy places it back on the coffee table. “I had no idea,” she says. “You’d think I could have been able to tell.” She swivels her head back and forth, peering through the small dormered windows on either side of the room. “So which house is Sydney’s?” she asks. Then she says, “No, don’t answer that. We shouldn’t talk about Sydney.” When she says this, she flaps her finger from herself to me as though to remind me which two people are off limits talking about Syd.

But she keeps looking, probably trying to discern which of the houses meets Syd’s descriptions, so I say, “The green one.”

“They’re both green.”

Finally, Mimsy takes a seat beside me. She sits very rigidly upright, but I know she’s still drunk from the way she sways back and forth, like a stick stuck in the dirt on a windy day. “I haven’t smoked this in years,” she says and picks up a pipe, sniffs it, and makes a face. “You know,” she goes on. “I don’t really think weed is a problem. Only when users are too young or when their dealers push harder stuff.”

I ignore the term “users.”

“What does your boss think? Your mom and sisters?”

“My sister’s cool, but it’s not really something I talk about at work.”

“I see. So you’d identify yourself as functional?”

“Functional?” I turn off the TV and stand. “You know, I don’t need this from you or anyone else. Functional, my ass.”

“Wait.” She pulls me back onto the futon and kneels in front of me. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She gives a lopsided grin and starts to unzip my pants.

Sure you did, but I don’t say anything else.

 *     *     *

On Monday, Syd shows up with a drugstore bag around her wrist. “Can I dye my hair in your tub?” she asks.

I heave off the futon and follow her downstairs.

Syd takes the box out of the bag and tears off the top. She dumps the contents into the sink. The picture on the box shows a teenaged rocker-girl with jet-black hair holding a purple electric guitar that matches the purple of her eyeshadow. Raven the box says in big black letters.

I sit on the toilet and smoke a cigarette while Syd clips the top off the bottle of grayish looking liquid, places her gloved finger over the hole and shakes. She glances from the corner of her eye, “How was your date?”

“What date?” I say.

“I know things.”

“Your nose is looking really red,” I tell her. “I think you need an antibiotic cream or something.”

“Nope,” she says, “Icepick says you have to let the body win the war.”

“Yeah well, tetanus is no joke.”

“You sound like my dad.” Now she’s standing bent over the tub mixing the dye into her hair. Her jeans, which she wears too low anyway, show the top of her ass and I look away sharply, focus on the pattern of mildew forming near the top of my shower and try to make out shapes. The only sound is Syd’s fingers working the dye in, the slick squish-squish of gloved hands on scalp.

While watching another episode of our favorite show, Syd and I get talking about the questionnaires the families fill out and read from during the actual intervention part. They always start, “Your drug abuse has negatively affected my life in the following ways. . . .” This is normally the least exciting part of the show because everyone is crying and sometimes the addicts run away, but they always come back, and they almost always go to treatment, so we’d just rather not watch the crying part and skip to the ending credits where the producers tell us how long the addicts stayed clean and what they’re doing now, where they’re living, et cetera. Mostly, they’re living with their parents again, doing what they were doing before the camera crews showed up and made promises about how beautiful life was going to be.

“If we were having an intervention for me,” I say, “what would you say?”

Syd thinks about this for a minute, smiles and says, “Well, I guess I’d say that I’m glad you’re mostly high when I come over because I don’t think you’d like me very much if you weren’t.”

“Aww,” I say, “that’s so sweet. You don’t get many of the ‘you should stay on drugs because’ speeches. But I’d still like you anyway, infected nose ring and all.”

“What would you say,” Syd asks, “at my intervention?” She has curled herself even tighter into the corner of the couch.

“I’d say that you are an amazing, beautiful person and I hope you never touch the poison again, because if you did, I’d throw a brick through my TV and sneak into your house to shave your head while you were sleeping.”

Syd laughs. We go back to watching our show and making fun of the people on it.

Before she goes, I talk to Syd about Mimsy. I tell her that Mimsy is pretty militant when it comes to appropriate boundaries, that I said I hardly knew Syd at all, we just wave sometimes passing by. I hint that things could get awkward for us both if Mimsy finds out. “Don’t worry, Steve,” Syd says, “If you can’t lie to your therapist. . .” and she gives me a knowing look and nods.

 *     *     *

Mimsy refuses to come over until after dark, and even then she parks her car around the corner and slips in the back door wearing a dark hoodie and enormous sunglasses like some second-rate celebrity.

She likes to walk around my house picking up things, turning them over in her hands, and putting them back down again. On the mantle, she finds my sketch pad, the pages grey with smudged drawings that still haven’t formed themselves into the image my boss hovers around my desk waiting for.

“Do you like it?” I call from the kitchen, where I’m adding cheese and basil to a frozen pizza. “I’m going to make the cacti eat the burritos. Cut out those stupid-ass cowboys.” Mimsy’s head tilts to the side as she thinks. “I’m not sure anthropomorphizing the cactuses are the way to go,” she says, “They’re so prickly, and coarse, and phallic. Not what I want to look at while I eat.”

Mimsy goes upstairs to wait for the pizza. I walk to the foot of the stairs and call up to ask how the hell I’m supposed to get a whole pizza, two plates, and beers upstairs on my own. I hear my lighter clicking, and then she calls back, “You mind? I’ve got a three-day weekend.” But before I can answer, I already smell the sickly-sweet smoke drifting downstairs.

It’s not easy lugging all that food plus beers up those stairs and I make a big show of it when I take it up.

But Mimsy doesn’t notice. She’s lying on the floor with her shirt and jeans off, naked except for a pair of black tights. The toe-seam of her tights snakes around her foot and I want to bend down and straighten it out, make it run along the tips of her toes, but I don’t because her feet look strange in tights with no shoes. Like a fragmented sentence.

Mimsy wants me to eat the pizza off her stomach.

“Are you crazy,” I say, “I’ve just taken this out of the oven.”

“Oh, I bet it’s nice and warm.” She pats her belly again.

I set the pizza pan on the floor and place the palm I used to hold it on her stomach. She pushes my hand away, saying, “Eww, eww, it’s too hot.”

We watch TV while we eat, another Intervention, which is one of Mimsy’s favorites too. Often, I have to watch the same one twice, once with Syd and then save it for Mim. There is an intricate process by which I have to completely rewind the show so she doesn’t know I’ve already seen it. During pauses when one of us goes downstairs to piss, she gives advice on what the families should be doing differently. She takes a hit, then says things like, “This family, you can tell they’ve never bothered with rules. Now they want to tell their kid how to live and why should he listen?” Soon, she’s talking during the rest of the show too. Which would probably be annoying if I hadn’t seen it already.

The interventionists are never the therapists for the people they intervene on, probably because they have to fly all over the country, leading cry-fests in hotel rooms. Mimsy seems to like her job, but when I say so, she merely shrugs.

“It can be hard sometimes. A lot of therapists are former users which gives them an edge but also makes it hard when they have to hear how much their clients miss getting high. You wouldn’t believe how many of us fall off the wagon.” Then she corrects herself, “I mean, I’ve never been on the wagon, so. . . .” She looks down at the pipe in her hand.

“Maybe I should become a drug counselor,” I joke.

She hands me the pipe and stands. “This is cashed,” she says and goes downstairs to sleep in my bed.

 *     *     *

Syd’s got a Band-Aid over her nose the next time she’s over, but from how it bulges, the ring is still in.

“It smells different up here,” she says.

I point to the candles placed about the room, one on almost every flat surface, including the top of the TV. “Mim says it smells like shit up here.”

“It does,” Syd says. “Now it smells like shit and apple pie.”

Once settled on the couch, Syd rummages in her purse, eventually finding a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and handing the pack to me. “I have two things to tell you,” she says. She readjusts herself on the couch. “Well, actually one thing to say, one thing to ask. First is, I sort of relapsed this weekend.”

I’m not sure if this is another carrot, but I take a chance and say, “What do you mean, sort of?”

She lets out an exasperated sigh and rolls her eyes. “Well, I went downtown to hang out with some friends.” She pulls her ankles up. “I thought everyone was clean, but, you know. . . .”

I try to hand her the remote but she crosses her arms. “So what,” I go on, “you did drugs or something?”

She bites off some skin around her thumbnail and chews on it. “Gawd, you sound like an after-school special. Did drugs,” she repeats. She goes on chewing, then finally, “Yeah, I did drugs.”

“You smoke crack? Shoot heroin? Snort cocaine?”

Syd shakes her head, “No, nothing like that. Just a little crystal.”

“Are you fucking nuts?”

Syd gives me a withering look, says, “Oh, go smoke a bowl already. Give yourself some perspective.”

“Fair enough,” I say. Syd is quiet next to me; it’s clear she doesn’t want to leave. How could she with her body wound around itself like a pretzel? “So what did you want to ask me?”

Immediately, the mood shifts. She drops one leg to the floor and hugs her other knee against her chest. The leg on the floor swings up and down giving me a brief glimpse of Syd as a real child, not this nether-region not-girl, not-woman. “Will you take me to get my eyebrow pierced? My dad won’t sign for it,” she touches the Band-Aid over her nose, “and I want it done right.”

“Sorry,” I tell her, “but I can’t. Those things are practically legal documents. Besides, I think they’ll know I’m not your dad.”

“But you could be,” Syd goes on. Her voice is picking up in excitement, getting nasally and I can sense a whine imminent in the room. “I mean, you could have had me when you were, like, sixteen, you know?”

“But I didn’t.”

“Come on,” she goes on, “What’s the big deal? I’m paying for it, I just need your little signature. Maybe some initials.”

I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. “I said no, Syd. Why don’t you have Icebucket do it?”

“Icepick! Icepick!” She begins to unfold herself, starting arms first, then legs. Next she’s standing over me glaring at the eyebrows-raised, questioning look on my face. “You’re just like everyone else,” she says.

“That’s right,” I tell her. “I am just like every one of the other six billion people on this earth. How’s that for perspective?” I expect her to say something more, to go on begging me to sign the paper, or to maybe admit that perhaps she was a little over the top. But she doesn’t. Just grabs her bag and clomps downstairs.

 *     *     *

The next day I hope Mimsy says something about Syd. I expect at least for her to look troubled but she doesn’t.

“How was work?” I ask.

“Fine,” she says, “long.”

“Anything interesting happen?” She doesn’t answer. “Tell me about your day.”

I offer her the pipe, but she shakes her head. I don’t know what to make of things because all appearances point to Mimsy being in the dark about Syd’s relapse, and Mim’s not one to play her cards close to the chest. One of her favorite things to do is recount her craziest client stories while we lie in bed, me smoking, her taking a few hits now and then. Sometimes I recognize which stories are Syd’s.

“Syd’s mom thinks she’s doing well,” I say. Just the other day, Diana popped her head over the fence to say, “Doesn’t Syd seem to be doing great? She’s like a whole new person.” Then she offered me rosemary from her garden, which I took even though I have no idea what you do with it. “She gave me some rosemary over the fence.” This doesn’t bring much of a response so I go on, “Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Have you ever tried to quit smoking?” she asks. “You know, permanently.”

I offer her the pipe again, but she still shakes her head. “I’ve thought about it,” I say jokingly but she doesn’t laugh. “Look, I could quit if I wanted to, if I thought it was a problem, if it interfered with something.”

“But it doesn’t,” she adds.

“No,” I say, “it doesn’t. I go to work everyday. I get my projects done on time and usually under budget.” I pat my belly. “I could lose a few pounds, sure, but who couldn’t?”

Again I offer her the pipe. “Come on,” I say, “something’s bothering you. This will help you relax.”

 *     *     *

On Friday, the boss holds me over for a little cocktail hour with the Buddy’s Burritos guys. They wear goof-ball grins and exclaim over and over, “The cactuses eat the burritos. Who would’ve thought! A marketing dream,” they say. Plants and animals appeal to diners, they repeat. And the subtle pot reference, they crow, pointing at the joint-like burrito. Brilliant! What I’m wondering is, doesn’t anyone know the fucking plural of cactus?

When I get home, Mimsy’s upstairs with Syd. Mimsy and I weren’t supposed to see each other tonight.

Syd stands. “Sorry. I saw the light on and thought it was OK to come over. Thought you were home.” She looks at Mimsy who slouches limply on the couch. Syd gathers her bag and heads for the stairs.

“Wait,” I say, “don’t go. Intervention was on marathon this week. Watch it with me?”

“I have to go meet someone.” She starts down the stairs but stops after a few steps. “It’s not a comedy, Steve” she says, “These are people’s lives.” She casts a glance at Mimsy to be sure she heard, to be sure Mimsy knows where allegiances lie, where the demarcations have been drawn. I thought it was me and Syd all along, but that only shows how much I know.

This leaves Mim and me alone in the attic. She opens her mouth and closes it again, does this a few more times, like a fish just jumped from the bowl, lying on the floor, tired of flapping, just breathing heavily, wondering if there’s any way back where it belongs. She stands and paces the floor. She picks up a candle and holds it to her nose, breathing deeply, calming herself. Syd’s door slams and Mim’s eyes flash to the window facing her house, at Syd’s shadow pacing back and forth, and then Syd stops. And there’s the shadow Mim can see from my house, and the shadow Syd can see from hers, but where I am is just a whiff of nothingness in the corner of the attic, a swirl of dust and smoke and ash, and then gone.

Amy Foster MyerAmy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.  She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.  Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Prime Number, Blue Lake ReviewEunoia Review, Jersey Devil Pressand others.

The Color of Love

She curled gnarled fingers around her copy of the poem. Over the many years it remained folded and tucked inside a red mitten, the single page of stationery had lost its crisp edge and took on the softness of the faded red yarn. She kept the pair in the far corner of her top drawer, away from the influence of an old lilac sachet tucked on the bottom. She only wore the mittens once a year, when she went for a walk along with her poem to face the night sky. She kept her promise.

The Color of Love.

She recited the title quietly into the frigid air, so still, that the fog freezing her words lingered in front of her lips long enough to walk through and dissipate over her shoulder. Though bundled in her formal coat, the one with the fur muffler and hand-knitted cap that looked so pretty with the crab stitching along the cuff, she did not feel the cold anymore. She was too old. She hobbled and relied on a cane. Age added a pronounced limp to her gait. Bone rubbing on the bones of once shapely hips that held the knack to switch and bump as she slowly walked by, all the while quite aware he stood in the back watching. He existed in her memory. Yet, in recalling the curious way he crossed his arms and dropped his chin to hide a chuckle as she sauntered past, he still possessed the ability to make her smile.

The color of love is white.

She poked her cane into a hardened clump of snow and listened to it crackle as she stepped on it. She had to wait a long time this year. Waiting for the winter winds to settle, selecting the blackest night to venture out for a stroll. It had to be as frigid and as still as the midnight she allowed him to kiss her nose. He sealed his warmth within her when he kissed her again on her lips.

The color of love is black.

She repeated the line and nodded to the blackness above. So deep, so vastly dark, it capped the world with a midnight sky. She spied past the crystalline darkness to the very back wall of time, knowing if she ever did reach that point, she would still love him, even if their colors were wrong. Her arthritic body recalled how she sat so long ago when she scribbled the first lines of her poem, huddled under damp sheets on a humid night and hunched over the small lap desk he kept beside his bed, a place where white did not belong.

The color of love is in the blush of the moon’s cheek.

She winked at the misshapen moon as it peeked past the horizon. He once explained that the moon’s timid smile lifted higher on the very night they met and remained that way since. Staring at the contrast of a round slice of white glowing against the deepening black, she truly understood the depth of debt and had paid the steep price of contrast for decades. She never understood the consequence of contrast. Just as no one understood her poem or why she remained confused after so many explanations. In her estimation, contrast required equal amounts of colors shading either side. The beauty was not in the two colors alone, but within the contrast of two people, a man and woman, hand in hand, weaved together, side by side. Did it matter that their colors did not match?

Love sings across slippery ice.

A slender icicle glistened as it pointed down almost in judgment, examining their past through the sharp silver edge of its point. Pressing forth into her walk she pondered the poetic notion that the shard could have well been formed by the constant drip of melting tears. She strained to listen for a trickle. Of course, there was none. Everything froze. He did that. She chuckled, amused, wiping the dripping cold from her nose with the back of her mitten. Amazing, it still held the scent of his hand past the faded lilac.

And cries with muted laughter.

She continued walking. With each step, she released bits of the stalwart resolve guarding the frozen wall surrounding her sentimentality. Memories seeped past the melting cracks. She listened again, to the faint trickle of images leaking from decades of her full life, and yet she was quite strict as to which memories she allowed to join her walk.

The color of love is lost in a choice.

He chose to leave. He feared the destructive chaos of their clashing colors would sever the tether of her stability, set her adrift over the solid foundations that grounded her. For when she was with him, she floated. His hand holding hers seemed to be her only connection to the world below, where he held little footing. Therefore, he decided to join a different war by answering the call of duty to fight. By facing the far away conflict between nations and their legions of troops defending inflated ideology, he prevented the tainting of her innocence from common bigotry. He protected her from an ugly war of intolerance, a battle of accusations, prejudice, and worst—both of their families’ delusional perceptions of influence from contrasting colors. He never wanted her to taste hatred. She recalled her protest in telling him he was wrong, he was worth more, that color holds no persuasion over love. He was wise. By leaving, he perfected their love by secretly freezing it in time, because within time, after decades, differing colors will no longer matter.

That scatters tears after secret rendezvous.

She remembered how a cold covered her sadness as she reluctantly accepted his conditions before his departure—each to live a full life. She gave him her poem, begging him to stay safe, to hold tight the memory of their nights, folded together, side-by-side, touching. He dropped his arms, as well as his chin, unable to cover a sad sigh. He pulled her close. Holding each other they pledged to pick a passing night, one so bitter it held the power to freeze words, and there, apart, each would set out into the dark, and step forward to kiss the sky. She lost the memory of the actual day she heard he was gone, listed as actively missing, and never to come home. Such a waste, those words vanished.

Love comes in the shape of a kiss.

The poem had a way of tickling her lips as she recited the lines. She hummed, almost singing it aloud when she reached the far end of her walk. Ever punctual, shoulders squared, fingers tight gripping a cane and a poem, she faced the black sky against the snow. There, under the archway of cold she set free a silent kiss. She watched it ricochet off the edge of time, follow constellations across the sky, exploding, raining frozen tears, and sparkling kisses upon his silent body.

So invisible on waiting lips.

He reached from the back wall of time, barely brushing the ends of her gray hair with a chilled breeze as she turned from the black, returning back to the tranquility of her rooms, to tuck the poem deep in the mitten, replacing the pair in the corner of her top drawer, until the next still night.

The color of love is timeless.

And only the ghosts of the sacrificed

Lovers can understand the true hue.

The color of love is black.

Julieanna Blackwell_headshot_fiction_The Color of LoveJulieanna Blackwell is a short story writer and an essayist. The Naples Daily News published her column of humorous personal essays. Her short stories appeared in Crack the Spine, soon in Thrice Fiction, and again as a regular feature in SCENE Magazine’s yearly beach-read issues. She is also an editor for 805 Literary and Arts Journal.

Down from Sugar Mountain

Snow is falling inside the house, said the boy. His voice was breathless from running.

Go. Quickly. Fetch my magic robe, said the old lady.

You promised to kill the hunter, said the boy when he returned. He gave her the robe and then his hand stole to his neck—scratch, scratch.

Let us go then, she said, and wrapped the cloak so tightly around herself that only her eyes and nose were exposed, deep inside its hood. The journey will take many hours, she said. Pack one bag, light enough to carry.

Can’t we take the car? the boy begged.

Cars can’t travel where we are going. The snow is too deep and the trail too narrow. Once we reach the city, it would be stolen anyway. 

The boy sighed, for although he loved to run, he hated to walk.

Tell me again about the hunter, he said.

The hunter kills those who find him. He lives in New York City. It

It’s a wasteland, the boy finished. Just like Sugar Mountain.

But the old lady shook her head. There is beauty on Sugar Mountain yet.

You will kill him, said the boy.

Yes.

How?

I will sneak up on him while he is sleeping. He is often sleeping.

*    *     *

We left at daybreak. To pass the time I told him this story. Our story. Though he is only six I did not spare him the details. It would make no difference anyway.

*     *     *

Cold slows it down. And here on Sugar Mountain it is always winter. On the north side there is always snow, but on the south there is enough sun to grow food most months. That is to say, a few types of weeds still push up through the frost—mutated and sour, to be sure, but we eat them: dandelion, purslane, burdock, clover. We trap the meadow mice that come for them as well, for while rank their meat is still edible, or at least it kills us no faster than we are already dying. They are surprisingly plentiful. The scientists say it is because of their short lifespan and the fact that their digestive systems are so adaptable. Despite malformations of feature and limb they even seem to be flourishing now that all their natural predators are gone, destroyed in a chain that began with the plants and ground insects and then spread to the water. In the face of such loss it seems amazing that anything survives. Thin tendrils of reason, braiding and holding on…

*     *     *

For so long we were led to believe the exposures were benign. The chemicals we daily ingested: pesticides, plasticizers, dyes, flame retardants, phthalates, heavy metals, aldehydes, and ketones. Powerful industries waged deceptive campaigns that led to their proliferation in our clothing, furniture, toys, on every surface we touched; we rubbed them onto our bodies ourselves though most never worked as promised. Present in such small amounts the scientists said they couldn’t hurt us. But they added up. Working separately for different sources none of the research ever accounted for how they added up.

*     *     *

Apocalypse is not the violent raging people imagined it would be. It is a slow dying, a drugged fall. There is much apathy, but little crime, for the rich sicken at the same rate as the poor. No one can avoid it because it is not contagious. Each of us is a black box, our individual weaknesses hidden within. Still we all succumb, the rising toxicity awaking something in each of us: neurological disorders, endocrine disruptions, dermatological diseases, respiratory dysfunctions, fetal abnormalities, cancers.

*     *     *

I can hardly walk, the cold wind sweeping across this mountain path hurts so. I keep my face hidden in my robe so my pain doesn’t show. My son goes first, carrying the baby, doing the hard work of breaking trail through knee-deep snow, taking small careful steps he knows I can follow. Mine is an endocrine disruption. I’ve aged twenty years in the six since he was born. I rarely sleep; my mind races. I am not yet forty but I look like an old woman, and my body is extremely fragile. My muscles tear, my bones break, I am highly susceptible to cold, and I seem to be allergic to snow; my skin cracks and splits everywhere it touches me. They say no two people have the exact same reaction. Apparently every body projects its own version of a fight or flight response when faced with all-pervasive contamination.

*     *     *

Tell me again, my son says, why you came to Sugar Mountain.

Long ago, I say, your father and I thought we could escape. But I stayed for you, and for your sister too.

On Sugar Mountain we still go through the motions. We send our kids to school. We work. I shelve books at the local library; my husband taught art at the local college. We help each other when we can, and no one ever leaves. There are other towns farther south; there’s still a government and an internet, but they aren’t places most people want to be, filled as they are with all the rage and hate and blame that comes from being blindsided.

People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.

I wonder what will grow on Mars, my son says.

People still have babies too, those that aren’t dead coming out or aborted for severe defects. But by age six on Sugar Mountain they’re all sick, and it happens earlier the farther south you go. Some say an immunity will build over time. It’s kind of like a religion. Because there aren’t many scientists working on the problem anymore. They’re too busy trying to get rich people to Mars.

I tell him about an article I read many years ago, about a thousand-year-old cherry stone. They sent it into space for a year, and when it came back they planted it to see what would happen. No cherry stone from this old tree had ever grown before, but this one did. But it bloomed years before it should have, and all the flowers were a completely different shape.

*     *     *

Coming down Sugar Mountain is like coming into spring. The sun grows stronger and the snow melts. Here and there mordant buds appear among the field stones, strongly pushing, childlike, innocent of their own ugliness. Fungi emerge where the ground is seeping, mere shells already, and puff a rancid powder when you step on them. Dead trees follow the slope like pointed fingers, laying blame. A few still stand, leafless, barkless, but they too are dead and therefore dangerous. Beneath those fallen there is a subtle greening. These are baby trees, the dormant seeds of aspen and birch and evergreen suddenly sprung between the damp earth and the heat of the sun. They’ll be dead in days from poisons ingested side by side with the nutrients of their ancestors’ decay, but right now they shimmer with life. It’s a good place to rest a while.

Run, I tell my son, run and we’ll sit here on this rock and watch you.

Okay! he says, a child still, despite everything. One hand steals under his shirt—scratch, scratch—and then off he goes, arms pumping, legs blurring as his feet scatter mud and stones. My daughter squeals and wriggles with joy, a mirror image of him.

*     *     *

My son wasn’t supposed to live. I lost my husband because of it, my lover, my soul mate. He couldn’t bear the thought of killing a child, even as I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing one into this world, not knowing what manner of monstrosity it might be. And yet once my husband was gone I found I couldn’t bear to be alone. So I let my son live.

And now I’m going to watch him die.

*     *     *

My son loves to run. He barely crawled before he was walking and within days of that he was running. He’s the fastest living thing on Sugar Mountain. Every day after school he runs home so fast he’s almost flying, his feet barely touching the snow-packed trails. The first time he arrived with a red splotch on his face I held out hope it was a heat rash. Heart in my throat, I drew an X on his arm with the closed cap of a ball point pen. But within minutes a new rash arose there.

A certain proportion of the population has become dermatologically hypersensitive. They don’t know what sets it off, the touch of plastic or sun-warmed dirt, something encountered innocuously a million times before, but once it starts it doesn’t stop. It fades from one place only to reappear in another. At first there are days between outbreaks, but within weeks it is rising much more frequently. And it itches terribly. You can always tell who they are because of the grimaces. The hands in their clothing, digging, jerking. Eventually it grows uncontrollable. This is the worst of the diseases, I think, because it doesn’t actually kill you. You die slowly of a torture like too much knowledge, watching everyone else die first.

*     *     *

There’s a medicine, my son told me yesterday. The other boys said so.

And it is true, I have heard of it too, a cocktail of pills: one for blood pressure, one for pain, another a steroid, and the fourth an antihistamine, somehow all working together to control the terrible itch. But it is addictive, and you can only find it in New York City, and even then few people have access to it.

They were doctors first, and then pharmacists, but now they can be anybody. We call them hunters because if they don’t have it they will find it for you. It is best not to ask them where or how. Most are addicted to something themselves. And when they give you what you want they take what’s most important to you.

The hunter we are going to find, I know he can get the medicine my son needs. But I also know he won’t give it to me willingly. I think he will even try to kill me.

That’s why I have to kill him first.

*     *     *

My daughter nurses as I watch my son run. Already he is slowing, desperate to scratch, first his leg and then his side, his movements no longer fluid but staccato. My love for my children tugs on me like spring itself. It is powerful and involuntary. They are the only things that matter now, and it seems to me that their lives are flowing by just like my milk. They suck and wait, suck and wait, and then life gushes over them, thin and choking, too soon fading to a rich trickle, and then it’s gone.

For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.

When your child is in pain your whole perspective changes.

*     *     *

We reach the flatland. The earth is slumped and brown, but the heat feels wonderful to me, even as the shiver in my bones intensifies. I must stop to rest more often now.

*     *     *

They say there are medicines to match every sickness. Combinations of drugs that can cure any symptom. But they kill you. In the body’s weakened state, it cannot process them. The people who take these medicines will die of heart attacks and strokes, liver and kidney failure, many years earlier than they would otherwise.

For this reason some choose to suffer. Some take anything they can get their hands on as long as it dulls the fear and then spend the rest of their lives already dead.

But most of us simply can’t get the medicine we need. Up on Sugar Mountain the drugs were used up long ago, and few of us are willing or able to risk the journey down to New York City.

*     *     *

I had an affair with a dead man. It was beautiful despite his delusions, or maybe because of them. It wasn’t love but it had that deep ache that sex near death can bring. He came to Sugar Mountain with seven Adderall left and when they were finished he started walking north again. He left me with my daughter in my womb.

*     *     *

The sun is now intensely hot; the land is black and blazing.

I feel colder than I’ve ever felt before. I stay huddled in my robe but I have stripped my baby bare. Her skin is flawless still.

I know I’m taking days, months, even years from her. It’s all a matter of calculation. Of balance. One of hers for one of his.

*     *     *

We pick our way through the rubble of the outer boroughs. It is an obstacle course of thrusting concrete and metal. Ahead Co-op City strobes in the super-heated air, a prism of noxious elements. My husband is in there somewhere, unaware that a boy in deep need of him is approaching, a boy who is the spitting image of him.

I thought he’d come back. And then after a while I heard he’d become a hunter. I heard he was taking his medicines himself, and not only the ones he needs. I heard he painted the dying people, the dead landscape, this physical record-keeping his strange obsession. The person who told me was from Sugar Mountain. Cancer attacked her uterus while she was pregnant. She went down to New York City in search of a medicine, any medicine that might save the baby. She found the hunter but didn’t save her baby and now she’s dead too.

*     *     *

My son knows the medicine will kill him, even as he knows it will cure his itch.

You have to choose, I told him, a life intense but short or long but painful, and he chose short—of course he did—because he loves to run. In the depths of his pain time has no meaning as a length, only as a moment, and my son wants everything from each moment.

My husband always saw time as something to be eked out, preserved, until our genes adapted and our babies began to survive.

If, I said.

What else is there, he said. You and I already know we are going to die.

*     *     *

We are so close. The dust is choking. The air stinks and burns. My baby wheezes; my son coughs, scratching frantically with both hands. We climb the stairs, one flight, two, ten. It is a long time with many rests before we reach the twentieth floor.

The hunter’s door is open. I am afraid he is gone until I see him. He is lying on the floor. He is very sick, I see at once, drenched in sweat and sleeping, or maybe unconscious. And yet in his dim repose he looks exactly the same as he always did to me, and I have to tear my eyes away.

Quickly, I say in a firm voice, trying to dispel my own feelings of weakness and need. We begin to search. We seek his cache. The room is tiny but full of things. Every surface is covered with tubes and brushes. Stacks of paintings are pushed up against the walls.

Still I think I will recognize his hiding place, and I am right. It doesn’t take long: The Birds of America, lying at the bottom of a pile of other books. Inside it, the fine hand-colored prints have all been carefully removed. A thin homemade box has been glued between the two covers instead. It is filled with tiny bags, each rolled and labeled in my husband’s neat hand. I run my fingers over them, lingering despite myself.

But when I find the right one, it reads like an incantation. Memory’s spell is broken. I hand it to my son. He tries to open it, but his own hands won’t obey; they keep stealing away to his hair, his cheek, his back.

As I move to help him, I hear a noise, and slowly turn, full of dread and already reaching for the knife I have sewn into my robe.

*     *     *

The hunter’s eyes are open now. They stare at my son.

Once, twice, he tries to sit up, scrabbling with feeble hands. Eventually he gives up, sinks back. They are yours, he says.

My son nods. He has finally gotten the bag open. He shakes a pill into his mouth. He chews, swallows, scratches. Waits. He stares at his father, and his father stares back.

When my son’s hands come out of his clothes, my husband’s eyes close.

I am the hunter now, says my son.

Katherine Forbes Riley’s work has or will appear in Whiskey Island, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award. With a BA from Dartmouth College and a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania, her work also appears in many academic journals and conference proceedings.

Contingencies

We go to the hospital together. I don’t want to go at all. The photos tucked behind grosgrain ribbon in the sterile room will contain our toothless grins, our Brownie vests, our prom dresses with spaghetti straps and cheap iridescence. We have come so far since our teenage years: the acne has retreated, our butterfly clips replaced with subtle bobby pins. We have college degrees and men send drinks to us when we go to the bar. We are stumbling into adulthood. We are trying.

*     *     *

Joanna comes over to shower and use my hair dryer a few hours before we plan to pick up the others. She bikes to my house because a tree fell on her car during the hurricane. Most of Long Island has had power restored, but Joanna is not so lucky. The flyaways from her ponytail form a frizzing halo around her head.

“The Mobil station ran out of gas on my way here,” Joanna says. We are sitting on the front stoop, shoulder to shoulder. The pachysandra along the walkway has withered in November’s early chill. “The attendant brought out a long pole to take the price numbers down and everyone in line—it must’ve been thirty cars—started leaning on their horns. You couldn’t hear the yelling because of all the honking. It would be funny if it didn’t feel like someone was about to pull a gun out of their glove box.” Caution tape is wound around gas pumps and fallen trees in our neighborhood. Exposed power lines crackle and I am afraid to touch anything outside my home. Growling generators in our neighbors’ yards keep me up at night.

“Someone in Glen Cove tried to use a gas grill inside his house and ended up killing himself. It’s all so heavy and sad. All of this is,” and she knows what I’m talking about. It has been eight days since the hurricane and four since Holly overdosed. Sandy. Holly. My mouth is full of their names. We go inside. I hand a fluffy towel to Joanna, show her how to adjust the water temperature, leave her be. Sifting through a tin of teabags in the kitchen, I can hear a sob over the rush of water, over the kettle’s shrill alarm.

There are things within me that I can’t articulate because I’m afraid of what they might mean. I went to bed with a sick anticipation when the storm rolled up the coast that first night, dreading and hoping for destruction I could witness myself. The local news shouted tragedy in the kitchen, but what woke me up that morning after the hurricane was the crack of butter in a hot pan as my mother made breakfast. The power never flickered out. When Joanna sent a text about Holly and the plan to visit her in the hospital, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t get it.

*     *     *

Our mothers took turns leading the Girl Scout troop, which is how we all became friends. Holly’s mom taught us how to make sock dolls in kindergarten; in third grade, my mom led us in Christmas carols sung to dozing nuns with blankets on their laps. When the war in Afghanistan started, we sold pins that spelled USA in beads with Valerie’s mom. Shannon and Joanna’s mothers weren’t crafty, but they were reliable for carpools.

The five of us sat at a lunch table together in middle school. The cafeteria smelled like bleach and tater tots, and we huddled to hear one another over the din of our classmates’ shouting. Our bodies were changing and we hated them. There were code words for everything in those days. Getting your period was a visit from cousin Ethel and tweezing your eyebrows was mowing the lawn. We adopted Homeland Security’s threat system to rank our self-image daily. The yellow loathing was always there, like the low-grade fever of fear that squatted in airport terminals, but some days it was worse than that. “Orange, High,” Shannon might announce, face flushed with a breakout. When Valerie went up a size in jeans it was Red, Severe. My hips were wide but I wasn’t tall yet. I stared in the mirror for hours, poking the pouch of my tummy as though I could prod it away: Yellow, Elevated, always.

By the time we reached high school, we began to retaliate against our confusion. Shannon gave blowjobs to a kid under the bleachers during gym class. Joanna and I ran for hours, without destination, as though we could outpace our baggage. Valerie dyed her hair: streaks of pink, a shocking blue. Holly started cutting, though it was months before we knew.

*     *     *

I sit and watch the local news while Joanna brushes her teeth. My tights are opaque. I am layered in dark knits. A blonde news anchor stands in a pile of ashes in Breezy Point. A six-alarm fire burned swaths of the neighborhood hours after the hurricane. Floodwaters kept residents trapped. No deaths have been reported, the anchor says, though few can call this a miracle. Charred plaster crunches under her boots. She picks up a toddler’s plastic toy and shoves it into the camera: primary colors blanched, symmetry warped. There are so many stories like this.

“Hey,” Joanna says, entering the room. Her hair is dry, straight and soft, but she has not put on makeup. I haven’t, either. She is six feet tall and sick of strangers pointing, but she still wears stilettos when we go out at night.

“I’m going to throw up,” I say. “I can’t go. Her parents are going to be there and I can’t talk to them.”

“None of us know what to say,” Joanna tells me. “We have to go, though. What if things don’t get better?  What if—we regretted not going?” She’s right, of course. The thing that none of us will say is that every time this happens could be the last time.

*     *     *

Our parents waited in the parking lot with books when we went to the mall. We stayed up too late on Myspace, faces illuminated by a bluish glow as we carved digital spaces for ourselves. One night, Joanna brought vodka to a sleepover in Valerie’s basement and we diluted it with Vanilla Coke and orange juice to get drunk for the first time. My head felt disconnected from my body and my words felt disconnected from my brain. After the dancing in pajamas and the hundred pictures taken out on the lawn, we settled onto piles of blankets and confessed the darkest things we held inside. I told them I had found text messages on my dad’s phone with a woman named Kathy: I want to fuck u, he typed. xoxo, she replied. I eavesdropped constantly and searched for things I did not want to know. Each small revelation of my father’s indiscretions clawed shame deeper inside me but I couldn’t stop.

“I cut,” Holly said, and we didn’t know what she meant until she rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. Stripes of hurt ran against the blue of her veins. Some lines had scabbed over in dark stages of healing but others flared hot and new. “I think it will make me feel better, but then I do it and I just feel worse. But I can’t stop. Sometimes I don’t realize I’m doing it until it’s there on my arms.”

We told her that she needed to tell her parents. We crushed her with hugs and told her that we loved her, that she was so pretty and smart. I felt brave, saying these things to a friend in trouble, but Holly’s action scared me. We all said we hated our bodies, but I didn’t really hate mine, not enough to do that.

*     *     *

Joanna and I leave to pick up Shannon and Valerie. I have been driving this route my whole life. When you pass the high school on your right and the mailbox covered in yellow reflectors on your left, you know there are four houses left until Valerie’s. A few traffic lights still blink red, waiting to be reset. Huge trees lay flat with roots and earth pulled back like flaps of skin. Debris is everywhere.

The four of us are back in our childhood homes after college and a few first tries at living on our own. Joanna returned from a year of playing basketball in Croatia last month. I have been commuting to New York for an internship with a science magazine. I sift through letters to the editor and make coffee on the hour. I have no idea what I’m doing but at least I don’t have to pay rent. Shannon works for her mom, screen-printing shirts in the studio attached to their garage.

Valerie, the meekest of us all as children, has got her shit together the most now. She makes wine at a vineyard on the North Fork. Men are shrugged from her life like wet raincoats. When we go to nice restaurants, she orders for us all. She comes down the front steps of her house when she sees us pull up, and slides into the backseat.

“Is your power back yet?” she asks us.

“No,” Joanna says. I don’t say anything.

“Neither is mine. It feels like things will never be normal again.” Valerie tilts her head back. From the rearview mirror, I can see that she is balancing the tears that pool in her eyes. We drive in silence. Before we reach Shannon’s house, I have to leave the car in idle to drag a tree branch from the road.

*     *     *

When the rest of us went to college, Holly went to rehab upstate. Valerie overheard a phone conversation between her mom and Holly’s mom: it cost $10,000 a month to be there. She was in therapy for seven hours every day. It should’ve lasted six months.

We chose cards from our campus bookstores to send to Holly. Mine were fluffy and safe: a baby bunny in a cowboy hat, a poodle in curlers. I only ever wrote about the past, because that was what we shared. Remember that time we got kicked out of the bowling alley and you took the bowling shoes with you, I wrote. Do you think they still have that single red Converse sneaker you left behind?

I tried to get out of visiting her on the Saturday in July we planned that first summer, but leaving my friends to do it alone seemed worse than going through with the day trip. Joanna drove us in her family’s old Astrovan. We read horoscopes from the back pages of magazines to each other and pretended to fall asleep.

The rehab facility was a small campus of one-story buildings. We were given name tags and escorted to Holly’s residence hall, to her room at the end of a hallway with taupe berber carpet. Holly heard us coming and swung the door open wide. Her face was bloated and changed by the antidepressants. Paintings from her art therapy classes hung on otherwise empty walls: a girl crumbling into ash, trees stretching into birds that flew off the page. She used her fingers to paint; no brushes or pencils allowed.

We were given four hours to spend with our friend, whom I avoided talking to in case she could sense my fear. Shannon sat next to her when we went to a nail salon in a strip center next to the town’s supermarket. The manicurist frowned when she took Holly’s hands and spoke to a woman next to her in a language we didn’t know, saying words we could imagine. The first cuts Holly had shown us years ago were raised white scars, accompanied now by cigarette burns and a tattoo she gave herself with a needle and a broken Bic pen. “I’m sorry, I know they’re bad,” Holly said.

“Hol, you’re fine,” Shannon told her. “You’ll be okay.”

When we drove out of Brewster, the sun was setting in our eyes. Joanna pushed eighty on the highway. We put the windows down and screamed along to songs.

*     *     *

The four of us sit in the parking lot of Mather Hospital for a few minutes, gathering our thoughts. We were all born here. The sky is bright and clouds move fast above our heads. A man in flimsy slippers stands on the corner by the ambulance port, smoking a cigarette. There are stains on the front of his blue hospital gown and this, more than anything, breaks my heart.

We are blasted with hot air when the doors at the visitors’ entrance slide open. Holly’s father is standing in the lobby with his cell phone pressed to his ear. When he sees us, he raises a finger and finishes his call. In the cafeteria beyond the front desk, people sitting alone huddle over melamine coffee mugs in the same shade of teal. “Girls, she woke up half an hour ago,” he says. A leather belt does little to hold up his rumpled khakis. This latest tragedy has socked him.

We are given five minutes to see her. I file into the room last. An old woman sleeps in the first bed, body tucked into itself like a kidney bean. Holly’s side of the room is full of flowers and plush toys from the gift shop downstairs. I Love You, balloons read. Get Well Soon. There is a sweating plastic jug on the tray table next to her.

Holly’s hair is shorn. Her features are small and angular again. I can remember where on her cheeks that dimples appear when her mouth stretches into a smile. She is medicated so her movements are slow. “This is just like the old days,” Holly says. “The five of us together.”

“Kinda,” Joanna says, “but Hol, you’re in a hospital bed. This isn’t good. We’re worried about you.” I feel ashamed to be tucked into this declaration of we; I don’t deserve it. I am holding my breath to avoid the sterile stench of this room.

“It was a mistake. Someone in the house had pills, I only took a couple. I didn’t know what they were.” She raises a hand to her head and pulls at her hair, and Joanna backs off.

“We just love you, Holly. You have to remember that.” The girls murmur assent and move in for hugs.

“When I get better, we have to go back to that mini golf place out in Riverhead. Remember the time I hit the ball into the parking lot and it set off a car alarm?”

I am watching an IV bag leak medication into Holly’s arm so I don’t realize she’s talking to me at first. “Oh yeah, I do. That was a long time ago,” I say.

“Well, old friends are the best friends,” Holly says. Joanna nods and reaches for the water jug and a plastic cup. Shannon and Valerie each squeeze one of her hands, and I end up patting the hill of her calf under a crocheted hospital blanket.

*     *     *

When we were Girl Scouts we adopted a highway that bordered two sod farms on the southern stretch of our town. In orange vests, we picked up empty cups and dragged tires to the edge of the road. People dumped larger trash in the reeds and we uncovered it all: a children’s swimming pool, a porcelain toilet seat. While reaching for a discarded cell phone, I found a headstone instead. RUTH JAVITS, it read, BELU

And that was it. There were more: ANDREW WHITE US MARE

ANTHONY LEONNARD

And one with Cherished Grandfather etched in four different fonts. A mason’s mistakes, ditched on the side of the road. We laughed about it then, about how maybe these people didn’t die, or couldn’t, so their headstones were just thrown away.

*     *     *

Soon they will begin electroshock therapy, and Holly’s memories will be ripped from their roots. The other girls will visit her in the halfway house where she lives and tell me about it afterwards, but my arm is stretched out now, palm pushing away, holding her at a distance. I am learning to say no. Still, there will be days when I am on the train, swayed backwards into thoughts of her wrists in cuffs and the electrodes placed at her temples. Commuters in long coats nap or tap at their phones while my childhood friend convulses on a metal slab. I know that’s not how they do it these days, that it is not so medieval and cruel, but the image will not leave my head. Grief would be easier than this, I tell myself, wishing it were not true.

Crews come from South Dakota and Nebraska to repair downed telephone poles and restore power to the East Coast. At Christmastime, we collect coats and gift cards to grocery stores for the families who are still displaced. When I look up, there are holes in the sky where trees used to be. The countertop jars in delicatessens fill, then empty, and eventually disappear.

In the spring, it will be time for the school physician to chart the growth of students in the district. He will sit on a teal vinyl chair in the nurse’s office of the elementary school, waiting for students to file in, our cousins and neighbors among them. Behind the white divider, he will ask them to touch their toes, folding into themselves as the teeth of their vertebrae rise from taut skin. He will measure the curve of little spines with a cardboard scoliometer. He will watch for mismatched topography and the roll of a mercury ball along the ticking of a crook’s degrees. The boys get high-fives and are sent on their way, but he will worry over the girls for a little while longer. Okay, now let me read your arms, he’ll say. Now let me see your arms.

Meghan PipeMeghan Pipe lives and writes in Minneapolis, though her squawking vowels hint at New York roots. She’s been a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction and New Writer Awards, and her work has been featured in Word Riot. When she isn’t writing short fiction, Meghan works at the Loft Literary Center and collects stamps in her Passport to the National Parks.

Pools, Crabs, and Wikipedia

The pool stayed the same for most of the year. Just a few meters from the beach. The waves came in far enough, breaking across the sand into the tangle of mangrove trees and long grasses, to give it just enough water to stay level with the well-padded trail that led from the small Honduran village to the shore. Bugs spawned in the yellowing water, and crabs hunkered down in the rocky bottom.

Julio Garcia walked this way every day. He’d finish work on Uncle’s long fishing boat, accept his meager pay of fifteen lempiras, buy fifteen lempiras of masa from the ancient looking señora Mondragon, and walk the path back to home so Mama could make that masa into tortillas. And every day Julio backtracked to throw bits of the corn flour into the pond. He picked a chunk, lightly rolling it between his brown fingers before letting it slip into the pool. Julio squatted down, hands pressing on dusty knees. He watched the ball fall down into the lichen-darkened water. It touched the bottom, balancing in a crack between the rocks for a moment. Then one claw emerged from the crack, then a pair of spindly eyes. In a swipe the masa was gone.

“Still watching those cangrejos, Julio?” a playful voice called.

Julio knew that voice. Suyapa Ordoñez. The daughter of Chepe, el jefe, the man who owned the group of lanchas where Julio worked with Uncle. He stood up smiling, “Ah yeah, well it’s either that or watch Mama make tortillas.”

Suyapa laughed, tugging on a strand of her hair. That hair, thought Julio, dark as driftwood pulled right from the sea, smooth and straight. Julio’s eyes caught on the red bow laced through her hair. She had been at the school in Choluteca today.

She knelt down to look into the pool. “What have the crabs taught you today?”

Julio began “Well, they eat what you throw in to them. Watch this.” Julio leaned over the water and spat into the middle. Sure enough after a moment one of the crustaceans flexed through the water, groping at the wad of saliva. “That’s it. Why don’t they leave the pool and go to the beach? More food there. More crabs to be with. No more spit.”

“More gulls to eat them too, yeah?” Suyapa raised an eyebrow.

Julio shrugged. It was hard for him to look at Suyapa. Every time, he got that strange feeling. Sort of like someone had lit a fire to cook tortillas in his stomach. They both sat down in the dirt.

Que tal la escuela?” he asked.

“Ah school? It was okay. You’d love this school, Julio.” The tortilla fire burned hot as she spoke his name. “You just learn stuff. But my favorite part is after, when we go to the cyber to use internet for our homework.”

“Yeah?” Julio had been to the little school here in Cedeño. He learned how to read and write until he was twelve. Then the girls in the village began to weave fishing nets, and the boys began to work on the lanchas. It had been two years since Julio had left school. Suyapa was the only one in the village whose Papa had enough to send her to the big school thirty kilometers away in Choluteca.

“Yeah, they showed us this place called…Wikipedia…it’s a weird name, but you just type in whatever you want, and you can read about it.”

Weeekeeepedeea?” Julio felt the strange word roll through his mouth.

“Yeah! I typed in ‘Cinderella.'” Her eyes widened. “You remember? From that movie we watched at my house?”

Julio remembered. Chepe’s house had a TV and a movie player. Sometimes, he’d round up some of the younger workers after the fishing was done, and they’d watch something. Most of the boys liked El Rapido y Furioso. They loved the speeding cars. Julio’s favorite had been Cielo de Octubre. He was fascinated by the learning process, how the boys had done the math and built the rockets. Suyapa, and the other girls of course always wanted the princess kind.

“They had so much about her. And other princesses too.” Suyapa nodded at Julio.

“So why do you go to school if this…weekee…can teach you everything?”

She laughed again. “You’re funny Julio. I’ve got to go home. See you.” She stood up, brushing the dust off her knee length blue school skirt. Julio watched her walk the path back to the village. She skipped down the road, sprays of sand lifting off the road and catching light. Suddenly she held her arms out, letting her skirt flair out. Spinning like a princess.

Julio’s feet padded through the sand. Sunlight arced through the coconut trees as he walked toward home. Other boys yelled at him to come play futbol before supper but he merely waved at them, continuing through the village with one new thought on his mind. “Wikipedia.”

*     *     *

Tuesday morning Julio rolled over in his hammock, eyes still closed. The air smelled of smoke. Mama was putting out breakfast.  He opened his eyes to the clay wall where they lived. It was cracked and crumbling. They had painted it once, or twice. White paint chips hung on the wall only by soil-studded tendrils that sprung out of the wall. Julio wondered about roots. He stretched, letting his fingers twist the fraying holes in his hamaca. Where did roots begin? Mama smiled at him.

Buenos dias hijo, quieres tortillas?”

Julio thought it was funny how Mama always said the same thing. You want tortillas? Tortillas. Most mornings that was the only option. But she still asked.

*    *     *

Julio hefted his side of the lancha. The rusted out grooves of the tarnished metal handle felt familiar in his hands. Uncle lifted the other side.

“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”

Vamos, Julio, the sky is good right now.” Uncle looked at the sky. A sheet of clouds covered the entirety but the rising sun was still visible, like an ember behind grey ash. If it got too overcast that meant rain. Rain meant no fishing; the lanchas couldn’t handle the swells.

They ran with the fishing boat into the surf. Julio hopped into the front, holding on to the precious net while Uncle pushed the lancha into the grey water. Then Uncle lifted himself in. They floated for a minute, and Uncle started the old motor.

The dull thwack of the propeller blades sounded from the lancha. Uncle turned to Julio. His forehead crinkled from years of sun and salt.

“Today we will have enough pes to make Chepe happy, eh?”

Julio nodded.

“You are already a good pescador, hijo.”

Hijo. That was a word Uncle used for Julio a lot, even though Julio wasn’t his son. He was brother to Julio’s father. The unknown father who had left before Julio had been born. Mama didn’t talk about him a lot. And that was fine by Julio. Plenty of kids in Cedeño didn’t have Papa around. Uncle said he had gone to Mexico, for work. Sometimes those who left for Mexico sent money. Usually not. Julio understood why many of the men left for Mexico. Better work, better pay, better life.

“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”

Uncle slowly lowered the green net into the water. The threads disappeared into the sea, seamlessly blending into the depths.

“Ah…Mexico…” Uncle blinked, frowning at the sinking net. “Pues…my family is here. I’ve got to take care of them, no?”

“You can send money from Mexico.”

Uncle sighed, his frayed shirt tightening and then loosening against his sinewy frame. “Most don’t send money.”

It was Julio’s turn to frown. “But you would, no?”

Espero que si. But maybe a Papa owes more to his family than just money, eh?”

Julio thought of his Uncle’s family. Poor, just like everyone in the village. Well, everyone except Suyapa’s family. Everyone else was stuck in Cedeño. If he had a chance to go to Mexico, or maybe even Los Estados, he would take it in a second. He let his slender fingers down into the water wondering why water let his hand pass through. Maybe Wikipedia knew about that as well.

Uncle looked at Julio again, “And besides Julio, Cedeño needs its people to stay, you understand? Stay and make Cedeño a good place. Look at Chepe. He fights like un dragon to make the village a better place. You should see him haggle with the men from el mercado. He will do whatever it takes to get the best prices for us, for Cedeño. He’d give anything to make this village good.”

*    *    *

The collection shack was housed between two coconut trees, about two lancha lengths from sea at high tide. It was built of mostly driftwood with a tattered yellow tarp nailed in for the roof. Chepe’s lanchas came in one by one from fishing, Chepe would weigh the contents, and mete out the day’s pay. At a little past midday Julio and Uncle dumped the contents of the now full, wriggling net into the old white cooler at the entrance of the collection shack. A squelching jumble of eels, small crimson anthias, and thick spotted groupers slid into the empty void of the cooler.

Chepe leaned in, inspecting the day’s haul. His shirtless gut hung over the side of the cooler.

Ahhhh…bien hecho pescadores!” He straightened up, his teeth yellow like kernels of maize grinning in satisfaction. “Great big groupers are what we like to see!” He turned to Uncle, “The men are coming from el mercado in Choluteca tonight to inspect things. If it goes well, there will be more lempiras for everyone.” He nodded, bloodshot eyes intense. Chepe knew how important these meetings were. More lempiras meant a better Cedeño.

The men from the market. They already bought from Chepe, but Chepe brought them around once a year to renegotiate prices. They’d feast at the house, eating grouper, and drinking beers. Julio thought about Suyapa. She hated the night the men from el mercado came.

He turned to Julio, “And you, Julio! Maybe we make enough money to get a teacher to come down a couple times a week from Choluteca to teach some school to the kids in the evenings. You’d like that, no? Suyapa tells me you are always wondering things. We’ll make you into an educated fisherboy!” A deep laugh erupted from the man. He patted a meaty hand on Julio’s’ shoulder.

The words made it feel as though light was being filtered through Julio’s veins, lifting the heart in Julio’s chest. A chance to get more school? He thought of the boy in Cielo de Octubre. Studying, and launching rockets. Leaving the dark mines of his village to go to college.

Si, Señor Chepe. I would like that.”

*     *     *

The pool had deepened when Julio passed by after dropping the masa off with Mama. Thoughts flitted across Julio’s mind like the dragonflies hovering around the balmy surface of the pond. He rolled a small ball of masa, watching as the more dry flecks flaked into the water. School. Wikipedia. Suyapa.

Buenas tardes, Julio.” Julio turned, startled. She had sat down next to him so quietly. No comment about watching crabs, no humming of princess songs.

“Suyapa! You scared me.” She had a blue ribbon today. “I heard the men from el mercado are going to be at your house tonight. Your papa says maybe this time there will be enough money to get a teacher to come down from Choluteca.”

A breeze broke in from the sea, the cool air penetrating the dank humidity. She gave him a half smile, “Why would you need a teacher when you can just use Wikipedia?”

“Nobody here has a computer…as you well know.” She laughed at him, but only a little, dark bangs trailing with the gust of wind.

“I don’t like it when the men come to visit…” Her eyes lingered on Julio’s before looking down at her feet.

Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words. “…he’d give anything to make the village good.”

“Yeah, they get really borracho, no?” Julio thought of seeing Uncle drinking too much one night. Uncle, who usually was so at ease and levelheaded had been screaming at his kids in a drunken rage. How could a drink make a good man act so strange?

“Well it’s not just that they get drunk…” She twisted the point of her black school shoes into the sand.

“Someone has to…please them, no? Papa says any fish seller can give the men beer, but we can do more…my sister used to do it…but she left to go to the university in Tegucigalpa. Mama says I’m old enough, and that she is too old, so it’s my turn to help. Papa says that it’s the only way to make enough so I can keep studying, and it’s only for the good of Cedeno, but…” she spoke quicker, and quicker. The words spilling out like the eels into Chepes’ cooler.

The wind stopped blowing. A gull cawed softly in the distance. Something hot and painful welled inside Julio making him clench his hands into fists, the gooey ball of masa plastering to his palm.

“I’m afraid.” Her eyes fixated on the ground.

Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words, “…he’d give anything to make the village good.” He swallowed. “Chepe is making you sleep with the men?”

She nodded, tears springing from the corners of her eyes.

“You don’t have to do this.” The heart in Julio pumped heatedly. “Tell Chepe you’re sick, or hide tonight. Getting a beating as punishment is better than being a puta for the men from el mercado.” Puta. The word shredded the heavy air.

“You think I’m a whore, Julio?” She sobbed, standing up. “You think this is as easy as saying no, take the punishment, and yeah? You think I do this because I want hombres viejos touching me?”

Julio felt his face go hot. “I didn’t mean…”

“I need to help my family, no? We have to get the best prices. This is real life, Julio. This is Honduras.” She stopped sobbing, and looked at Julio. “This is what I have to do.” She turned and hurried towards the village, leaving Julio alone with her footprints in the sand.

*     *     *

That night, Julio lay awake in his hammock. The harder he tried not to think about Suyapa the more quickly the images came. Her face lingered on the back of his eyelids. You think I’m a whore, Julio? His stomach squirmed. He rolled over, trying to think about Wikipedia. What would he type in, given the chance? Cangrejos? In his mind crabs scuttled between the rocks in the pool. Raices? He thought of the giant palms that covered the village, all of them held up by roots. Raindrops began to beat on the tarp roof.

*     *     *

Thursday morning the rain continued. The sky was a heavy gray. Water plinked into a pot, drop after drop. Mamascooted the black metal pot with her foot, trying to catch more of the liquid sliding through a hole in the roof. She smiled at Julio.

“Demasiado lluvia hoy hijo, no vas a pescar. Un dia libre!”

There was too much rain for fishing. Mama knew as well as Julio a free day wasn’t a good thing, but Mama always saw the good in things.

A rumbling voice called from outside the door, meshing with the rain. “Ey, Julio you going to leave your jefe out here in the rain?”

Mama pushed open the door. Julio remembered lashing the wooden sticks to make the door last year. Chepe passed inside wiping his big hand across his forehead. “Lots of rain today, eh? Nobody can fish! But that’s okay. You all deserve un dia libre. Things went very well last night with the men from el mercado!”

The hot thing swelled up again in Julio. Mama clapped and exclaimed, “Que bien!”

“Yes! Anyways, I need to run by your Uncle and talk to him about the new prices, and wages, but Suyapa wanted me to bring you something.”

You think I’m a whore, Julio? The sob strained voice echoed inside Julio.

Chepe continued, “She told me how bad you wanted to go to a cyber in Choluteca to try out this internet thing, and well she’s not feeling well enough to go to school today. Must have eaten too much grouper last night…” Chepe paused for just a moment, breaking eye contact with Julio. He looked back up, “She told me to bring you the money she uses to pay for the bus, and to use Internet. What do you say, eh? Go learn something new in the city? If it’s all right with your mama, of course.”

Mama nodded. The sound of storm-enhanced waves crashed into the shore. Waves of shame and anger collided with currents of curiosity about to be satisfied inside Julio. He felt tears of gratitude bud underneath his eyelids.

Si, Senor Chepe… Muchas gracias.

Chepe laughed, slapping thirty lempiras into Julio’s hand. “Ah, and Suyapa says just to tell the lady at the cyber you want to use this…weeekeepedeea. She will help you.” Chepe moved towards the door, “And you should come by the house when you get back, we’ll watch a movie.”

*     *     *

Julio approached the lady at the front desk of the cyber. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets, nervously aware of the eyes staring at his dirty blue jeans and shoeless feet.

“Can you take me to Wikipedia?”

The lady looked up from the book she was reading, “Claro que si. You like to learn things, hmm? That’s good! Most boys just want to play games.”

Julio nodded. She led him over to the computer closest to the back wall. The fingerprints smudging the dark screen vanished as the computer filled with light. She entered Wikipedia into the machine.

“You just type in what you want okay? You can read the letters?”

Julio nodded again, and gave the lady ten lempiras. The lady walked back to her desk. He thought of Mama, Uncle, Chepe, and mostly Suyapa. Familia. He took a breath, and began to type, scanning the keyboard for one letter at a time. P….r….i….n….c….e….s…s….e…s. Princesses.

Benjamin ThompsonBenjamin Thompson is a writer based out of Logan, Utah. He is fascinated by Central American culture, especially Honduras, where he lived for two years. His work centers on the delicate connections and parallels that exist between humans and nature. He works as a parking enforcement officer, and writes poems and stories as he continues to work towards his B.A in Creative Writing at Utah State University.

How He Leaves You

This is how he leaves you. Door pulled quietly closed, last glimpse of a weathered leather bag and brown hair matted to the back of his head. You sit on the couch in a pair of running shorts—knees up, legs crossed, heels tucked underneath you. He doesn’t look back.

That night you drink orange juice and vodka and write letters to him, one after another. Some of them you fold into thirds, tuck into envelopes, and stamp with two stamps each before putting them in your desk drawer. Twelve letters until your roommate comes home and pulls away your pen and drink and makes you take a shower as she unbuckles her velvet heels. It’s three thirty in the morning.

The water is too hot and the steam is suffocating. You kneel by the drain, noticing the mold creep across the grout. The monsoon has turned Bombay green and grey and things grow in every crevice of the city. You wonder, as the water pelts your still-plaited hair, as the rain slams relentlessly into the window, if you are crying or just silently screaming.

 *     *     *

He leaves you on a Sunday in June and on Monday you are back at the office checking every e-mail he has sent you in the last two years, watching the signature switch from Best to Kisses to Love.

There’s a drawer of birthday cards and notes that were taped to the inside of your bag on weekday mornings. And underneath, on a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper, is the first letter he ever wrote you and slipped into your purse when you boarded a train to Delhi. You sat in the doorway of your sleeper car that morning, reading his tiny blue scrawl, peeling up words at the corner to look for hidden messages.

I’ll think of you, he wrote. I’ll think of you when I run down Marine Drive, slowing down by the bench where I kissed you for the first time, cutting off your laugh and getting my fingers stuck in your uncombed hair.

The letter looks different under the fluorescent lights, without Indian Railway cars chugging along the Madhya Pradesh countryside. His scratched out words look careless, not spontaneous. The middle paragraph, you realize, was more for himself than you. You fold the letter into a perfect square, slip it back into the drawer and wave off coworkers when they offer you a ride home.

Weaving back through the crooked, cobblestone streets you are so close to the sea that your jeans are damp with salty spray. For a second you lean over the fence and watch the rough grey water and breathe into the empty pit of your stomach until you almost feel full.

*     *     *

August days are long, the nights longer, and in the morning, when sleep finally comes, you stay awake by watching the rain fall on the street where a man peddles flowers for a nearby temple on Pali Hill. An imam calls namaz over the mosque speakers next door. Bells ring at St. Andrews church. There is faith everywhere but your dark bedroom, where light bulbs flicker on and off. Some days you walk the length of your bed, back and forth, raising your hands up to the ceiling as if to throw a question at whatever exists beyond the fan.

Kanika still says, Good Morning, still brings you a cup of chai she makes with all milk and no water. But she is growing restless and you are letting the dust settle in your room, turning your feet black and your books musty. The silk curtains have faded from orange to peach. And when she asks you for rent money it takes you the entire day to find your checkbook.

He owes you money, you remember. Not just a little, but for a flight ticket to Goa because he missed a train. For at least a dozen dinners when he forgot his wallet. For the time his card got declined when he was buying his sister a present. He always said it was the American bank account, but none of the other white guys from his office had the same problem.

You wonder what he would do if you called him right now, asking for the exact amount you penciled in your budget notebook.  But then there’s the chance that you would have to hear his voice and not just the echo of last words.

*     *     *

That voice haunts you. It’s the sound men make when they stop caring. When they no longer notice your long eyelashes and tiny hands. Or the way you say the word water so delicately without the twang of his American South. Wotah, wotah, he used to practice out loud, lying next to you with sweat dripping off his brow. He could never get used to the heat—antsy and frustrated through each Indian summer, complaining when you didn’t want to turn on the air conditioning.

Now that voice keeps you up at night, convinced that he is watching his ex-girlfriend wake up in Brooklyn, his hand on her creamy, perfect white skin, relieved that he no longer has to look at your pockmarked back or the stretch marks where your thighs meet your hips. He used to call them your tiger stripes when you tried to cover them with the palms of your hands in the early days of discovering each other’s bodies. But you both knew they were just scars.

That night you walk into Kanika’s room and leave your phone on her nightstand and tell her to keep it for the week. But she puts it back on your dresser the next day—insisting your mother will call her to find out where you are.

Your mother does call. She calls in the morning and the evening and sometimes at night because she knows the break in your voice. When she asks about Nick you say he flew back to America—that you haven’t heard from him in a while.

Such a nice boy, she says, and you are suddenly furious that he ever stepped foot in your home, corrupting the sacred space where your mother does her surya namaskars each morning, where your father makes ginger tea. You remember how Nick said, I love ghar ka kanna, and charmed everyone by eating yogurt rice with his hands like you taught him. But when you were alone in the room he complained that the food was too heavy, complained that the dessert gave him indigestion.

You wondered that weekend if you loved him but he was already there in your childhood room, reading you lines from your third grade diary and kissing you, it seemed, whenever you wanted to ask him a question. By the end of the night your parents insisted on dropping him off at Pune Station with a bag of sweets and snacks.

He’s not a nice boy, you say into the receiver, and wish for your mother’s cool, strong hands on your forehead. She doesn’t say anything more. When you hang up you don’t miss him, or the chords he strummed each night on the guitar, or his thin pink lips, or his attempt to say your name the right way, with a soft th and a long o. There is anger where the longing used to be, and you put all of your letters and his letters into a plastic bag and walk all the way to the dumpster before you turn back and toss it under your bed.

*     *     *

He leaves you with the start of the rains but it isn’t until the sun dries off the roads that you don’t think of him when you brush your teeth every morning.

You take the train home for Diwali in October and notice some extra space between your ribs, between your brows, in the vertebrae of your neck. Your body has released him and you find yourself in tears because you remember what it was like before his scribbles filled the margins of the story you were writing when he showed up. Before he wooed you with his guitar and his dollars and the way he high-fived the bai who cleaned his house.

When you reach the station you are suddenly so hungry that you buy a huge chocolate bar and eat the entire thing in the taxi on the way to your house, hardly noticing the firecrackers that explode dangerously close to the car, or the driver’s curses.

At home you and your mother spend hours creating rangoli patterns in the driveway—drawing careful lotuses and mango leaves with colored powder and placing tiny, illuminated diyas amid the designs. By the time night falls and the guests start to come, your hands are rainbow-stained and your nails lined with red.

You light lamps until there is no dark spot left in the house.

A_Rao_HeadshotAnkita Rao is an American journalist currently based in India, where she writes about health, education, and worldwide inequality. Her articles and photographs have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Quartz, among others.

 Before moving to India she covered health care disparities and policy at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service that regularly serves the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and NPR. At the height of the Obamacare debate, she wrote features and breaking news about how the health law impacts the people most vulnerable to poor access, from coal miners in rural West Virginia to the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Ankita is originally from Tampa, Florida. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied Journalism, Religion, and Creative Writing. She is also an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

The Walls Are Too Blank, The Holes Are Too Deep

As my father did with me and Tobias, I took my family camping. When I told Roberta that it was time to prepare to lose one of our sons, she walked into our bedroom and packed. Her eyes were pooled with tears, but she didn’t cry.

“Roberta,” I said, shutting the door behind me.

“Please don’t,” she said. Her lips were quivering, and her entire body was flimsy as she folded clothes and rolled socks into one another, as though someone had removed her bones. She wouldn’t look at me.

“You knew this would happen eventually,” I said.

She dropped a shirt into the open suitcase. “How can you be so calm?”

I swallowed and exhaled. “Because someone has to be.”

Roberta refused to answer Tommy and Jason’s questions as she dropped their backpacks and sleeping bags in the trunk. The boys followed her back and forth up the driveway and wore looks of fright and confusion, disturbing expressions on the faces of seventeen and fifteen-year-old boys. I knew that even adolescents can feel tension when it rises up and seeps into all parts of a house, because I’d felt the same thing when my mother began moving like some spectral shell of herself after my father told me and Tobias with no warning that we were going camping. It had sounded like any other announcement of a family trip, but the hollow look in my mother’s eyes, the hushed whispers coming from my parents’ bedroom, and the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye as she filled our battered cooler all twisted my stomach and told me that the gloomy air around her was about more than going into the woods together.

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows. I hated that silence, and I gripped the steering wheel hard enough that my hands hurt, but I ignored the pain because it wasn’t real pain. It was nothing like what was to come.

I looked back at my sons through the rearview mirror. They were each looking out their respective windows, glancing back at one another every now and then. Eventually their youth broke through the thick dread hanging in the car and they started whispering to one another and hitting each other in the arm every few minutes. But Roberta kept staring forward, unable or unwilling to look me in the eye. I knew she was feeling a mixture of rage and sorrow. Even though I’d assured her no one would die—at least not now, not today—perhaps she didn’t believe me, and I couldn’t, didn’t, blame her for that. Perhaps she’d forgotten, but how could she? How could my wife of twenty years forget the secret I’d told her years ago, only days after I’d first told her I loved her, after I knew that I would marry her one day? How could she forget that her son was going to get sick, that his body would fall apart, and that no doctor, no specialist or scientist or anyone in the world would be able to do anything about it?

The car was silent: Tommy and Jason didn’t whisper dirty jokes they thought their mother and I couldn’t make out; Roberta wasn’t humming along to the radio; even the air didn’t seem to be whistling through the cracked windows.

Perhaps she hated that it was going to start somewhere that held such vivid memories, ones filled with laughter and warmth, even the mishaps, like when Tommy was nine and nearly fell into the campfire, coming out with only a sprained wrist and a first degree burn on his right hand that healed quickly, leaving behind a quarter-sized blemish on the knuckles of his ring and pinky fingers.

But I had to do it there. The first rule: it needs to be somewhere familiar.

*    *     *

My father gave me a small ledger when he told me. The foremost rule, he said, more important than where you do it, even, is that no one else, not even your wife, ever reads this book. He tapped it and then held it out to me. Only you and your son, he said, can ever see it, can ever know what it says.

When I first looked through it, I half expected the letters inside to transform into words that would spell out, step-by-step and word-by-word, exactly what I should say—what I could say—to my own son. What I should feel when I sat him down and told him our family’s secret. How I could begin to understand and accept the truths of our family’s wretched legacy, and how I could make my son do the same. But what I found was paragraph after paragraph of vague directives, threadbare advice, and blunt, angry rules. Rules without explanation. Predictions—accurate ones—without consolations. Things that would happen to your brother—“your,” the book said, that vague, malleable word, “your,” impersonal and wide enough to apply to me, my father, my son, my ancestors, my descendents. A word that represented the hollowness, the uselessness, of having clouded answers. Letters that would never numb the pain of guilt that hangs on “your” shoulders, heavier when you know that, really, none of this is your fault. But if not you, then who? Who else can carry that burden?

When I first read the book, I threw it across my bedroom before I was finished. I knocked over a family photograph, shattered the glass in the frame. I thought about burning the book, watching our family’s curse disappear into the sky as nothing more than ash. These dreams left me drenched in sweat and out of breath.

No one in my family has ever known why these rules exist, or why this thing happens, but, as my father told me, we know they must be followed, or the consequences are worse: instead of losing one son, he said when he first told me, one hand still gripping the book, the other gripping my knee, you’ll lose both. I’ll lose both. His smile was thin and limp, one that I would see for the rest of my life when I looked into a mirror.

You must wait until your elder son—you will have two (and this you will not control)—has been seventeen for three weeks. You must take both of them somewhere familiar, somewhere they can be at ease, without explanation or warning. Send the one son off, then explain things to the other. You may take your wife, but you do not have to. This, of all things, is the one flexibility you possess.

So I took Roberta, because I needed her. But afterward I wished that I had not.

*    *     *

Tommy and Jason pitched our tents on opposite sides of the fire pit, and I watched Roberta set out the boys’ things in the smaller green one. Neither of them asked if she needed help or said they could do it themselves, even though they’d been doing so for years. They watched their mother unfurl the sleeping bags, smoothing out the crinkles and bumps as though her hand were an iron, and fluff the pillows she’d stuffed into the trunk of the car. She sniffled audibly, coughing a few times. I wanted to be angry at her somehow, feel ire at her for making it clear that this wasn’t a normal camping trip, but I couldn’t. She was, I realized, doing her best to fake a sense of calmness, but the pain she was feeling was breaking through, cracking the steady exterior she hadn’t had time to practice or perfect. I looked at my sons: Tommy had his arms crossed, and I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, as if he could smell something amiss tainting the air like rotten fruit. Jason looked up toward Tommy, waiting for his cues, always walking in the shadow of his older brother.

When I tried to bring up collecting some wood to make a fire, Roberta’s forehead wrinkled like a stormy sky and she waved the idea away, suggesting we eat some of the sandwiches she’d packed first. Tommy and Jason warily agreed, taking them out of their plastic baggies as if they half-suspected they were poisoned. The air buzzed with mosquitoes and the thick paste of discomfort. We sat on logs, Roberta with Tommy, Jason and I opposite them. Sitting next to him, I realized just how tall he’d gotten, almost as tall as Tommy was, his golden legs dusted with tiny blond hairs that shimmered in the setting sun splayed out in front of him like long, lean yard sticks.

I felt an immense sadness, and couldn’t look at him, not at any of them, so I stared toward the sun as it disappeared, spackling the ground with the light that shone through the holes between the trees.

*    *     *

Both sons will come home from the woods, of course. You don’t have to actually do either of them any direct harm, but you know that they will both be damaged. The hurt may not appear yet, no bruises, no limps, no wincing external pain, but you know it is there, because you feel it, too. You feel it every day, have for the last twenty-five years, but it feels sharper, more acute, when you first step through your front door when you return home. The son who doesn’t know will shrug off the strange, strained trip, his teenage hormones distracting him from the quilt of sadness strumming through the car on the drive home. You will look at the other son’s face, drooping and pale, through the rearview mirror on the way home, knowing what he is feeling and thinking because you have thought and felt it, too.

While you are out there, though, you must have the conversation. Wait until the one son is far off, out of earshot, and then explain as much as you can to the one sitting next to you, the one trying to look away from you even when you tell him you’re being serious. Be prepared for the disbelief and doubt, then the wonderment, the questions about how and why and where it comes from. You must simply tell him, a sick understanding of his anger and confusion toiling through your stomach, that no, you don’t know where it comes from. You can’t explain it. No one has, for as long as you can remember. Be ready, after you’ve quietly berated him, to see the hollow look on his face, the one you’ll be able to discern through the darkness. He will ask how you can be so calm, so unwavering and blunt. Be ready for the plaintive sigh you’ll hear peep through his lips despite the overwhelming sound of crickets humming through the trees.

When it’s all over and you are home, you’ll find him staring at the wall regularly, when he’s not looking at his brother for signs that it’s started, that is. Any time his brother coughs or complains of a headache he’ll worry, so much that sometimes he’ll get sick too, or be unable to sleep, his eyes bleary and his eyelids puffy as he eats breakfast before school. Your wife will roll away from you at night, and you’ll look up at the ceiling, awash in the silent loneliness that has followed you for so many years. And when your doomed son has to stay home from school sick, your wife and other boy will cry while you must be steady, clench your jaw, and tell them in quick whispers that no, this isn’t it. It hasn’t started yet, because it’s too early. He still has time.

You must accept your teenage son’s flimsy excuses for his tears, ignore the sucking of snot as he inhales, trying to compose himself. You must do so because you are putting him through a hellish thing, forcing him to be aware of but unable to say anything about what awaits his brother. You have gone through it as well, because you were the chosen son, chosen by nothing but your birth, and you understand what he feels, the gloomy tremor in his bones, the wondering: Why me? Why him? Why my brother? The what can I do? The knowing that the answer is nothing. I can do nothing. The worst answer. The answer that eats at you, the stagnant answer, the not-your-fault that drills into your bones with searing pain.

There are two other rules with unknown origins that no one dares defy: no one can explain why it must happen, or how. And no one may go seeking answers. Trying to understand this thing, this curse, this dark mark that follows the shadows of your family endlessly, will only cause illness, cutting, eating pain, to spring up in you, too, where it does not belong.

*    *     *

I finally separated the boys. Roberta insisted we hike to a familiar outcropping of rocks a little less than a mile from our campsite to watch the sun set, its light pooling over the tops of trees we could see stretched out below. As we hiked there, the boys leading the way and me at the rear, Roberta kept herself between them and me. Enough sun was splotching through the tree trunks that I could see the bitter look on her face whenever she looked back at me, the almost taunt in her empty smile, the conviction that she would somehow stop the inevitable from happening.

We finally reached the tableau of rock, a long slate of clay-colored stone that looked like a barren plain, beyond which the forest dropped off. Leaning out, I could see the tops of trees below me, the highway a few miles away, a little stone river cutting a winding path through the swath of branches. For a while we stood in a row. I put my arm around Roberta’s waist and squeezed her hip, but when she turned her head just so, enough that I could see the skewering look in her eyes, I dropped my arm to my side. No one spoke as the sun crept down until Tommy announced that he needed to pee and walked off.

I turned to look at Roberta, who took my hand, squeezing it as hard as she could; I didn’t let the pain she was causing cross my face.

“Jason,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

His fifteen-year-old eyes were filled with light from the sun, which glossed them over so I couldn’t quite see the look on his face. Roberta started crying, but she shuffled in the direction Tommy had gone. I knew she would keep him busy. Despite her hatred, her indignation, her resistance, she knew that losing one, years from now, was better than losing both, something neither of us would ever say, knowing it wouldn’t fix anything or make what was happening any better. She must have felt the betrayer, the Brutus stabbing Tommy in the small of his back, slowly drizzling his blood out over the years to come. My hands trembled again, and I wrapped them up together.

“Yeah, Dad?” Jason said. His voice had started getting deep, lower in pitch than my own.

I took a deep breath and then, as the sun disappeared and night fell over the woods, I told him our family’s legacy.

*    *     *

When you are alone with him, you must hand him the book and begin to explain what you’ve kept hidden from everyone else in your life. You must tell your son that, for as long as anyone can remember, each generation in your family bears two sons, exactly two sons, but that one of them must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. You don’t know why. No one knows why, and it isn’t worth wondering why, because wondering—why him and not you, or why either of you, or why any of it—does no good. It just leaves you raw and scared. Weak. Crumbled. Tired.

Be prepared to snuff out interruptions, to tell your son to please not ask questions now because there is little time to explain. You will feel guilty for your tone, and you will let that guilt seep into you, getting clogged up in the rest of the self-hatred that is stacked up inside you. Then tell him as quickly as you can: he’ll need to read the book on his own and keep it secret, but that for now, you can tell him that his brother is going to get very sick in a few years, and that no one will be able to fix him. That he must get sick so that you do not, and if you tell him about this then you, too, will grow ill, and you know all of this because you’ve been told by your father, who was the younger brother, just like you are. Just like your son is.

Your son will cut in, point out that you don’t have a brother, and then you will tell him the whole story, that your brother does exist, in a hospital not far from your home, that yes, his mother does know but couldn’t say anything, because if the elder son ever finds out about his predecessors it will all fall apart and the illness will spread.

You will stare at him when you’re done explaining, when he tries to come up with loopholes, ways to help his brother, and you must smile sadly and tell him you know, that you thought the same things, that all of his solutions will result in both of them getting sick, and you, and your father, if he is still alive, as well. He will be quiet then, as night falls and the woods come alive with buzzing insects and a howling predator or two. You will dwell on this quiet. The silence from both of you will come from shock and pain, a hurt deeper than you will ever be able to put into words. Shortly thereafter your wife and elder son will reappear, him laughing at some joke he’s just made, she quietly staring through the burgeoning darkness, trying to catch your eyes. You will avoid her gaze.

Your son will stare at his hands, folded in his lap. You’ll put a hand on his knee and nod because he’s already hidden the book away in his back pocket. You’ll feel a queasiness because you won’t have had a chance to tell him about the guilt, to tell him that it’s normal and that he must expect it. His brother may get sick, but he, too, will be plagued, not by some mysterious, invisible poison coursing through his bones, but by a cloud of guilt that will follow him for the rest of his days.

But you needn’t worry about failing to communicate this. You know he will discover it quickly.

*    *     *

The only sounds in the hospital room were the blipping of a heart monitor and the soft whoosh of a ventilator; the only light came from a few fluorescent bulbs buzzing down a harsh, too-bright light that made the white, blank walls even bleaker. I stepped forward and rested my hands on the cold metal bedrail. Up close, I could see the bumps and veins of his skull, his head bare like a cue ball. His mouth was open, a gaping dark hole, ventilator tube poking out on the left side like an oversized straw. The plastic mask across his upper lip was a stark, rigid mustache.

“Hello, Tobias,” I said. I reached down and grabbed his palm. The skin of his hand was smoother than I expected. An IV needle was embedded in the back of it, leading up into a maze of plastic tubes connected to various bags and machines surrounding him like candles around a statue.

He looked, by and large, like a normal person in a normal coma. Except in the eyes. You had to look close, bend down and really look, to see that something wasn’t quite right behind those sealed eyelids. Not only did he lack eyelashes—those, too, had fluttered off in the days before his final collapse—but the curve of the skin covering his eyes wasn’t as it should be. Instead of curving outward, over the pupils and irises, Tobias’s eyelids curved inward, as though they were made of putty and someone had pushed the soft dough in with an index finger. His eyes had begun to retreat.

It was almost over for him. The final rule: the eyes retreat last. When the holes where they belong get too deep, too deep for eyes to exist there any longer, you’ll know he is in his final days.

“I told Jason, Tobias.” I squeezed his hand and stared at him. I didn’t expect any response, of course. My voice sounded too loud. “I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I hadn’t asked Jason if he wanted to meet his uncle. He didn’t need to see what would happen; he was afraid enough. He hadn’t spoken much the rest of the night, opting to lie in his sleeping bag, staring at the curved ceiling. When Tommy had asked him what was wrong, he’d rolled away from his brother and said he had a stomachache. We’d left the next morning. I tried to catch his gaze in the mirror as we drove, but he refused to look at me. I didn’t blame him, or Roberta. They would both turn from me in their anger, and I had accepted long ago that they would do so.

I held Tobias’ hand, staring at his face, the wrinkles on his forehead, his crooked nose, the cleft in his chin. I wondered how I would remember that face, the bumps of his cheekbones, the expansive space of his forehead. When he was gone for good and I would have nowhere to come back to if I needed to know what he looked like, what would I do? Where would I go? I’d had to remove all photographs of him, just in case. There would be no remembering. There would be no funeral. I gripped his hand tighter, trying to memorize the bumps of his bones.

“I told him. He knows about you. He knows everything.”

I couldn’t help but imagine Tommy, and I saw him growing up, his hair receding, the pains in his bones, his athletic build shrinking like some wilting flower unable to find water.

Tobias had decayed. It started with his hair, falling out in clumps in the shower, at the dinner table, when he went running in the evening after work. Then his teeth, his fingernails, his leg hair. It all fell away as though anything that could was jumping ship. I knew, the day he told me that he lost a tooth while eating a banana, that this was it. His skin had become smooth and blank, a wasteland, a pale desert. The tips of his fingers hurt, he said, when he pressed the buttons on the TV remote.

Something deep inside him was poisoning the rest.

He was at my house when the worst of it happened. He’d been staying with me for a while, before Roberta and I married, before Tommy and Jason were even a thought. He couldn’t live on his own anymore; Tobias had grown weak, his skin dry and cracked, his bones poking against the flesh at his elbows. His kneecaps looked like the rims of soda cans. He fell over in my living room, looking at a photograph of the two of us when we were kids, before any of it began. When I couldn’t wake him up, I knew the coma had come. I knew then that he’d finally paid the price for both of us. He never left the hospital after the ambulance carted him away.

I avoided looking at Tobias’ eyes, those sunken craters of ashy flesh. I couldn’t let myself picture Tommy’s own murky blue eyes swallowing themselves up, shrinking into little marbles as they retreated back toward his brain, leaving behind holes that one could fill with pennies.

I tried to picture Tobias’ face when he was still awake, when he was still really him, alive and full. I tried to see his eyes, wishing that I could see them, sharp and alive and happy. Conjure up some memory, I told myself, willed myself, commanded. Know what he looked like when he was happy, damn it, when you were happy, when everything was still alright, before you had this, this thing, this load on your arms that you didn’t ask for and you can’t cast off.

I shut my eyes, squeezing them tight. Colors burst through the blackness, fireworks that were dull, like everything was dull. Like Jason’s smile was dull. Like Roberta’s skin, and hips, and tears, her smile. I screamed to myself to remember Tobias’ eyes. I wished, I imagined, I cried. Tears started to fall, and, in that room, alone with the brother I’d had no choice but to abandon, I cried, hoping I could remember his eyes. Such a small thing, please, please, to hold on to, to let in. But no matter what, the sticky pool of my family’s curse blocked my way. An expansive, gray mass, a thing that will always plague us. I tried to see Tobias’ eyes, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t remember what color they’d been.

J. Baumann HeadshotJoe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College.

The Wife of Michael Cleary

The day before the party, Valerie asked her boyfriend Andrew to buy her a book.

Actually, that’s not how it happened. It was Andrew who volunteered to get Valerie a book, and in the end he bought her two.

“I know tomorrow’s going to be hard for you,” he said. “Is there anything I can get for you? Just a little thing to pep you up a bit?”

That’s how he remembered that moment, his phone cradled against his shoulder as he pulled out of the Stop-N-Shop parking lot (he’d forgotten mustard and paper plates, both of which he was supposed to bring to the party). But what he actually said was: please let me get you something that will make you feel better.

Valerie, though she didn’t seem like it at times, was a sensible girl, sensible enough to know that nothing Andrew bought her would make her feel better. Andrew knew this, and asked anyway.

“Just please come,” she said. Her voice trilled weakly as she stopped. Andrew could tell from her tone that she was eaten up with fear that for some reason—a flash flood or a mudslide, or a more mundane car accident—he wouldn’t come to the party. Her voice contained a profusion of disasters.

“Val, come on.” He wasn’t supposed to be on his phone while driving, and as a cop car lazed past him he stuffed the phone into his crotch. He shouldn’t have called her Val—he only called her that when he was mad at her, which wasn’t often, and he wasn’t mad at her now. He was mad at himself. Not for the mustard and the plates, that would come later. He was a bit stupefied by his uselessness; he always thought of himself as a resourceful, bootstraps type, thought that he could fix what needed fixing like it was an economics problem set, but he couldn’t help Valerie and that frosted him.

“Please, Valerie,” he said when the cop car was safely out of sight. “It would make me feel better, anyway. How about a book?” Andrew was always buying Valerie books, after a lucky guess led to him to a volume of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a six-month anniversary gift. Valerie’s euphoric reaction led to more books for more occasions: The Works of Edmund Spenser for Valentine’s Day, Sotheby’s Tour Through Parts of Wales for her birthday. Andrew had a vision in his mind of a wedding present, something extravagant and rare. The collected writings of somebody or other. Gilt pages, an embossed title page with gold lettering. He would have to do a little more research. Of course, he couldn’t tell Valerie this, especially now. Any talk of the future made her fold up into a sharply creased little packet, unopenable even to the most skillful fingers.

He could almost hear her biting her lip through the phone. That was her nervous habit, one of many. Andrew sometimes marveled that she hadn’t chewed right through it, that he couldn’t see her bottom teeth when she closed her mouth.

“A book would be nice,” she said finally.

“I’ll bring you two,” Andrew declared, feeling manful and tough for a moment. “I can stop at that used bookshop you like, the one that Mandy’s cousin owns?”

Valerie sighed. She was also sensible enough to know that there was no point in arguing with Andrew, or at least that was why Andrew thought she was sighing. “All right,” she said. “Just—make sure you’re here. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

The next morning, Andrew set out for Valerie’s house in Masonville with a little package of books next to him on the front seat. The mustard and the plates, which he had remembered as soon as he pulled into his driveway and had returned to Stop-N-Shop to buy, sat on the floor in the back. The morning had begun with a spiritless, clammy spring rain, but by the time Andrew turned south onto Route 63 the sun had burned away the early murk and the blacktop gleamed, slick as sealskin.

Andrew’s parents lived in Ashford, about forty-five minutes from Valerie’s house; he was home on Easter break, technically, though no one in his family celebrated Easter. He and Valerie hadn’t met—and he had never given Masonville much thought—until they both went to college in Rochester and he saw her the winter of freshman year, the first day of second semester. They were in the basement of the cafeteria, which had been a bar before the school half-heartedly turned it into a coffee shop. Andrew never went down there, if he could help it—the place still smelled like stale beer when the air conditioning wasn’t on, and it was too dingy a room for studying. His engineering textbooks could be dreary enough as it was. But Valerie liked it. She told him that it was empty and quiet, quieter than the library on most days, and she liked to pretend that she was hidden away inside the bowels of an ancient monastery where no one could find her. Andrew would discover that Valerie liked the idea of entombment, but not until much later.

It was her fingers that had pulled him in—not literally, although he probably wouldn’t have resisted if they had. He couldn’t remember why he had gone to the coffee shop that day—caffeine to get him through the afternoon? Some kind of premonition?—but nevertheless he was there, with a chewy bagel pocked with burn marks and a café au lait. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see her face or her yellow-white hair (though he would, eventually, when he craned his head around to get a better look at her, like a schoolboy who had just realized he could be interested in the alien creature girl); he could only see two delicate arms in a pale pink sweater, and two long hands, hairless, with arched fingers that bent gracefully at the knuckle and delicate, square nails. They moved elegantly, quickly, folding and unfolding like crane legs over the keys of her laptop. He had never been so taken in by someone’s fingers. He thought about how it would feel to put his mouth on them, and then he was mortified at himself, though not enough not to ask her name and sit down with her. It was his only moment of competence with the opposite sex, ever, and Valerie wasn’t any better; she was his first girlfriend, and he was her first too.

That was three-and-a-half years ago. He had never quite become used to her delicacy, her smallness, could never quite shake the instinct to protect her, whether or not she wanted it—or needed it. The first time they had sex, following some poorly proportioned vodka cranberries about a month after the day in the coffee shop, he was afraid he would crush her; she finally had to wrap her slender fingers around his wrists and pull him down on top of her, crimson with impatience.

*     *     *

There wasn’t much to the village of Masonville: two parallel roads, a school, a motorcycle shop, a dry goods store run by a family of Mennonites, and no less than four pizza parlors. Valerie’s family lived on the village’s only dead-end street, three doors down from an abandoned paper mill that sagged under the snow and the wind in winter, and wilted under the brutal sun in summer. The village had recently torn up the railroad that used to connect the paper mill with the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The railroad ties stood stacked across the street from Valerie’s house in a perfect cube, like an ancient monument whose sacred purposes were guessed at but not known. A fairy mound. A phrase Andrew had learned from Valerie, from some book of mythical places she had, or perhaps it was a calendar, one of the page-a-day ones with Celtic knots and foggy seascapes, she had hundreds of those. She was forever teaching him things; though she would never say it, Andrew knew that she resented, on some level, his ironclad belief that the world was fundamentally understandable through physics and mathematics, that little messes could be put right and lumpy edges smoothed out. The only time Valerie had been even slightly interested in Andrew’s work was during his class on Boundary Value Problems. She saw rough and wild borderlands, fens and swamps and things. Boundaries of a more romantic sort. Andrew didn’t have the heart to explain differential equations and Dirichlet’s principle to her.

Andrew parked his car along the road; most of the other guests had already arrived. The party was conveniently timed to celebrate a lot of things at once: Easter, Valerie’s impending college graduation, her father’s 60th birthday, Mother’s Day. It didn’t make any sense, Valerie’s mother said, to have a separate party for each of them, it was so hard to get the cousins to come up from Utica in the first place and as long as they were here you might as well do it all at once. Mrs. Garret met Andrew when he reached the mailbox and said these things to him while she took his plastic bag; someone was already asking after the mustard, as if they couldn’t just wait a damn minute, the food wasn’t even ready yet, she said.

“But thank you for this, dear.” She unscrewed the top of the mustard and took the seal off with her teeth.

Whenever he looked at Mrs. Garret, Andrew couldn’t help but think of nutmeg. There was no reason for it, really, but nevertheless. Her dark brown hair curled in a bob near her chin, her skin tanned to leather, a khaki skirt tightly belted a bit too short. She was round in a pleasant way, with full calves and a nice rack and a tiny waist, almost the opposite of Valerie, who was thin and boyish to the extreme, neutered almost. Valerie wasn’t like either of her parents. Her father was bulbous and pink with popped blood vessels; tufts of brownish hair stuck out over his ears like an ostrich. He worked as a construction consultant, ripping the asbestos out of people’s houses, and he was as broad and boxy as his wife was round and sultry. Valerie had two older brothers too, both of them beefy and calloused like their father, with buzz cuts to boot. The older one, Mike, was in the army, flying a helicopter in Afghanistan. The younger one, Matt—though Andrew had trouble telling them apart sometimes, because of the buzz cuts—worked for his father, fighting the asbestos. Andrew often thanked his stars that he wasn’t a philosophy major or something equally pathetic—the Garret men respected engineering.

Valerie was the imp of the family, the changeling. That was another word Andrew had learned from her—before Valerie, he had never stopped to think about whether or not trolls would steal your baby if it wasn’t baptized, or whether a small, sickly child in an otherwise healthy family could be of fairy stock. She told him stories when they lay in bed, unable to fall asleep because of the heat, of people who were so convinced their child was a fairy hundreds of years old, sent to do them mischief, that they would hang the wretch over the fire or leave him out on piles of manure in the winter. It drew out their magic, or at least that was the theory.

“They believed sometimes that the child was just a piece of wood, ‘a fetch’ they called it, that had been enchanted,” Valerie said. She ran her fingers up and down Andrew’s stomach, which he suddenly wished was more defined. “The spell upon the wood caused the child to appear to sicken and die, so the family would never guess that their real child was taken. They would assume it died under their care, and then bury it. When it was buried, it would turn back into wood. There were no bones.”

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

Valerie sighed, her usual sigh when Andrew completely missed the point. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand this time; he willfully misunderstood. It was too gloomy, thinking about those poor superstitious people, wearing clothes made of burlap, always covered in dirt from picking rutabagas or whatever peasants did in the old days, roasting their babies alive on spits. Coming up with excuses as to why their children starved to death when there wasn’t enough to eat. That’s what most of those stories were, anyway, just a way to explain the hideousness of human suffering.

“But there were no real changelings, right?” Andrew asked. “So there had to be bones, somewhere. Maybe they just weren’t fully formed yet, so they disintegrated.”

“There was comfort in it,” Valerie said after a moment.

“In what?”

“In magic.” She shifted her weight so that she no longer touched Andrew’s sticky side, and stared up at the ceiling. “What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child. If your child was dying, or you were dying, wouldn’t you rather think it was because of the fairies?”

*     *     *

She was wearing blue. It was her color; it suited her, though her eyes were green. There was something about that blue, robin’s egg and sky and forget-me-not, and her yellow-white hair. Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps it had something to do with the color wheel, Andrew was never good with that stuff. Every time he saw her wearing that blue, he imagined she was a provincial milkmaid, gathering flowers on a French hill. Untainted.

“It’s not a good time to tell them.” Her face was flushed pink and sweat had formed on her upper lip. She actually wrung her hands, like a nurse in a World War II movie at the bedside of her wounded soldier-fiancé. “There’s already been a fire on the grill, and the Utica cousins are fighting. Everyone’s angry.”

Andrew had been afraid of this, that she would back out. “You’ve got to tell them, hon.”

“I could let the doctor call and tell them. Right now he hasn’t because of confidentiality laws.”

“Would you want to hear news like that from someone else?”

She bit her lip. His insides shook to see her like that, so afraid. He didn’t want to feel like he was yelling at her. “No, of course not,” she said. “It’s just—complicated.”

“Come on,” he said, “let’s go inside and you can open your presents.” He held out his bundle, wrapped in brown paper and twine. He had chosen this combination himself in the bookstore, hoping it looked earthy or woodsy or something like that. Intriguing, at any rate. He knew she would be less excited if he gave them to her in a gift bag.

They took an obligatory walk around the house to the backyard, to greet everyone and be seen before they ducked inside. Mr. Garret waved them over to the grill with a burly hand. Though his wife was by far the better cook of the two, he always insisted that she put him in charge of the grill, lest his man-pride be dented; the burgers and hot dogs, and the occasional Italian sausages were usually blackened on the edges and undercooked in the middle.

“Nice to see you, Andrew,” Mr. Garret said, taking Andrew’s hand and crushing it. He paused to yell at one of the littler Utica cousins, who was chasing around his brother with the seed spreader. “Your mother’s family,” he said to Valerie. “I don’t know why we even invite them.” She smiled tremulously at him and he melted, wrapping his arm around her and kissing the top of her head. Andrew knew that feeling; when Valerie gave him that little smile, he felt like sap was running down his front, warm and gummy. Though he supposed her father felt something different.

“My little queen bean,” he said. “You’re not going to leave your old man alone with them, right? You’re always going to be here with me?”

The breath hitched in the back of Andrew’s throat.

What a terrible thing, to have to bury a child.

“No, of course not,” Valerie said in a small voice. “I’ll always be here.”

Andrew would like to say he wrapped his arm around her, comforted her somehow, took her hand at least, but he didn’t. He stood rooted in place, gawky and arms akimbo (another one of Valerie’s favorite words). She shivered and looked down.

“You’re going to have to fight me for her,” Mr. Garret said, waving the grill tongs at Andrew like a sword.

“The sausages are burning, Mr. Garret,” Andrew said finally. To Valerie he said: “We should probably go inside.”

These weren’t connected thoughts, but they worked well enough as an excuse. Mr. Garret turned to focus on putting out the fire, and Valerie and Andrew slipped away. As they turned back towards the house, Andrew glanced at the road over his shoulder. The stack of railroad ties stood solid and black in the distance, a portent of grave happenings, a somber warning.

Andrew wished that they were telling Valerie’s parents that she was pregnant. How much gentler that would be, for them. She would graduate college in time, with a degree, he could put off grad school for a few years and get a job to support them. A good job, engineers earn good salaries. It would be hard but it would be bearable. He would take the brunt of it, from the Buzz Cut Brothers. You knocked her up? they would say. You knocked up our baby sister? Knocked up, as if he had punched her around. As if he would ever be violent with her.

It was a wild daydream, of course, a fantasy that would make most twenty-one-year-olds shrivel up with dread. What Valerie was actually telling her parents had nothing to do with Andrew. She had to tell them that she was sick, which they knew, or at least they knew part of it. She had had pneumonia in March, right around spring break, so bad she had wound up in the hospital. Andrew had stayed in Rochester for break, bringing her things to read, amusing her, sneaking in some chocolate. He hadn’t had any plans, anyway—he couldn’t afford to go anywhere worth going. And it wasn’t so bad—pneumonia was unfortunate, but at least the doctors had caught it early. Caught it, like the infection was a hog running rampant, scaring the chickens and knocking over fences that someone needed to jump on and tie. A wild thing that could be controlled. But at least they could treat it, and Valerie could come home after her lungs were clear. She hadn’t even missed class, which would have bothered her.

This was as much as her family knew, that she had been in the hospital for a little and then gotten better. What they didn’t know was that she had continued going back for tests. The doctors were concerned. That was the word they used, concerned. The nurses took a liking to Valerie when she was in the hospital, it was hard not to, she was so otherworldly, such a sprite. They liked to whisper about her in the hallway, when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. So sad, the rest of her life, they said. She’ll never be able to have kids. Life expectancy of fifty years, if that. Such a shame. This was only after they finally diagnosed her, of course—at first they thought it was lung cancer, and that was terrifying enough. Valerie couldn’t sleep; she spent nights in Andrew’s room, lying stiff as a starched sheet in his arms, her green eyes wide and wet.

Cystic fibrosis had come out of left field, or at least it had for Andrew. He thought that was something that only babies got. Valerie was in her twenties. She had hosts of other health problems to worry about in the near future, possible disorders which she could start exhibiting signs of now, but she should have been past CF. That was all Andrew could think about the first few days after she told him. He couldn’t have been much help, he realized later; he was too befuddled, in too much shock. He still was now, in a way. She continued going in for tests and treatment, without telling her parents. When the bill came for the services, Valerie told them that it was follow-up for her pneumonia, and the insurance company paid for most of it anyway. She assured her parents that she was better, and they had no reason not to believe her. For the first few weeks when she kept the news from everyone, even Andrew, and he hadn’t expected a thing.

The doctor sat her down at the beginning of April and told her that her siblings should be tested, because they were at risk too. Even if they hadn’t exhibited signs yet, they could have CF, lurking somewhere like an eyeless monster, ready to strike. Ready to sting. Especially, the doctor said, your brother in the armed forces. He was the most at risk, because there was nowhere to get CF treatment in the Afghan mountains.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Andrew said, as they sat across from one another in the hospital cafeteria. The more time Valerie spent in the hospital, whether for tests or consultations or anything, the more Andrew ate. He had a piece of lasagna, two breadsticks, a bowl of scalloped potatoes, green beans and corn, and a brownie on the tray in front of him. Valerie had only tea.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“You might live long enough for them to find some cure.” Andrew didn’t know who would find it—he assumed there were scientists, somewhere, working on it, fiddling with pipettes full of liquid, or growing yeast in petri dishes, or doing whatever pharmaceutical researchers did. He knew his answer didn’t touch what was so upsetting Valerie, and he didn’t know how to get there.

“It will crush them,” she said quietly. “I should be the one taking care of them when they get old.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Valerie rubbed the outside of her teacup, massaging the hot porcelain like she was trying to break it apart in her hands. Crack it open and read the omens written there. It was as good a way as any, Andrew thought, to work through this problem. It was better than anything he had suggested. Maybe there was comfort in it.

*     *     *

The Garrets’ living room was the ugliest room Andrew had ever seen, worse than some of the apartments he had lived in during college. He had a hard time believing that Valerie’s saucy mama would let a room in her house remain decorated in such a way, but in the almost four years he had known Valerie, barely anything about the room had changed. The same faded lace curtains hung in front of the windows, the same garish pink floral couches stood in front of the outdated TV, the same mottled brown carpet, not shag but something close, displayed dubious stains from bygone years underneath his feet. Someone had arranged a collection of ceramic figurines on a shelf above the TV—Andrew remembered Valerie once saying that they belonged to her grandmother—but they were too tacky to be worth much. Andrew always felt sticky when he left the room, like there had been tape on his skin that left a residue behind after it was removed.

Valerie sat down on one of the detestable sofas and Andrew set the bundle of books in her hands. She breathed in and out, as if steeling herself for something sad, something trying. The first book she opened was The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers. That was a stretch on Andrew’s part; he had held it in his hands for close to fifteen minutes before finally deciding to buy it. What had sold him on it was the dark violet ribbon slid in between the book’s creased pages, to mark the reader’s place. That was something Valerie would appreciate. It looked old and ethereal, a little enigmatic, just like her. Of course now he felt like an idiot, sitting next to her in the cramped living room as the smell of the grill wafted in from the backyard. The lace drapes, the barbecue, the ugly brown carpet—these were concrete things, real things, parts of her life that were tangible, or at least more tangible than a book about plants. He couldn’t imagine what her parents would think, when they stared down at this ridiculous collection of drawings, lovingly but somewhat uselessly captioned in calligraphy. Agapanthus africanus, the Lily of the Nile. La Ville de Bruxelles, a necessity for any rosarium.

“Open the next one,” he said, a little breathlessly. Was he sweating? How stupid it all was. It wasn’t like the next book was going to be any better. He had tried to get closer to what he knew Valerie liked with the second one—a book of Norwegian folktales in a new translation. She was the one who had taught him that there were different kinds of fairy tales. He had assumed there was one version of a story that had existed forever, and that everyone more or less knew it if they watched the Disney movie. But apparently there were lots of different kinds of stories—the original source material, which in most cases had been lost, and then the accounts by Europeans going out into the hinterland and “discovering” the stories, which Europeans seemed to think they did a lot. And then a lot of the tales were adjusted for children, and given morals, and most of the gore was taken out—the ogre mothers-in-law, the rampant cannibalism. Then there were knock-offs and rewrites and retellings, and the movies, which was where Andrew came upon them first.

“Didn’t anyone read to you when you were little?” Valerie had asked, her green eyes wide with what could have been pity. Of course someone had read to Andrew. His parents were great believers in the Power of Education. But he remembered the Berenstein Bears and Clifford, none of the grisly stories of boys being roasted and eaten and girls dancing to death that Valerie treasured so much. He thought of his mother, overworked and always dieting, sitting down on his bed with her bathrobe plastered to her and her make-up removed so her eyes puffed up like bread dough, reading to him from the Brothers Grimm. It wouldn’t have happened. He liked Thomas the Train books, and Sesame Street. No one had ever told him about changelings, until Valerie.

“They’re beautiful, Andrew, both of them,” she said. He had never felt more helpless.

She held on to the flower book; the book of fairy tales ended up on the floor. Andrew knew it made sense, somehow; he had been wrong earlier, flowers were real things, they could be planted in the earth, and afterward you could see the remains of the dirt on the creases of your palms. She ran her fingers along the corners of the book, her long, lovely sylph’s fingers—sylph, yet another one of Valerie’s words—and pressed down on the cover so hard the tips of her fingers turned white. Andrew was seized with the urge—seized, like his walls were overrun by a foreign desire, invaded—to take her hands and kiss them, to crush the palms to his lips and run the fingers in and out of his mouth.

A distraction, merely. There wasn’t anything substantive he could do anymore, besides make her forget sometimes. That’s what the books had been too, a diversion, like magazines at the dentist’s office to take your mind off the wait. Taking your mind off. He imagined drilling into her head, cutting off the top of her cranium and lifting the pulsing pink mass underneath it out. In a way, they were also a bribe. Giving a dog a treat when it fetches a stick.

“I’m glad you like them,” he said finally.

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“You know,” she said quietly, “it wasn’t just the simple people, the medieval cowherds and ignorant swains who believed the fairy stories. As late as the nineteenth century, there were incidents. An Irishman killed his wife because he thought she was a changeling. In front of witnesses. He didn’t even go to jail.”

A pause. Actually, several long pauses strung together with little sighs as Valerie looked at the floor.

“Come on, Val, you know that’s not—”

“There was a children’s rhyme about it.” Valerie hugged The Victorian Book of Plants and Flowers against her chest. “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?” A hysterical, shrieking laugh bubbled up from her throat and burst into the room. She clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound vanished into the air as soon as it was emitted—and yet it hung there, tangled in the drapes and soaking into the ratty carpet, bouncing off the figurines. It was a big, ugly blister of sound. To Andrew, that horrible, horrible screech was now indelibly lodged into his gut, and would be forever.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” Mr. Garret stood in the doorway. Behind him, Mrs. Garret held a tray of hotdog buns.

“Valerie?” said Mrs. Garret.

Andrew thought about taking her hand then, but he didn’t want to feel how badly she was trembling. He sat apart from her, his hands on his lap, while she, the fairy child, shrank before his eyes, shrank and shrank until she would leave no bones to bury.

C. Moran HeadshotCaitlin Keefe Moran has written for The Iowa ReviewPost Road, Pleiades, and The Toast. She graduated from Boston College and now lives in New York City.

 

A Nest of Arms

It was almost 6 AM and Heidi lay awake in bed, trying not to think about the war. Lately, when she looked at her girlfriend, Dara, she was reminded of a Sultanese woman—a civilian—that her unit fired on. The woman had been carrying a basket full of fruit, which from a distance posed a threat, possibly held an explosive device that could have killed several soldiers. What reminded Heidi of her was not Dara’s long curly hair—so like the woman’s—but a look in her eyes, a look of feigned surprise that the woman maintained even after she died and lay surrounded by bananas and pears. Those eyes, jeering eyes, were just like Dara’s, but Heidi couldn’t tell her that. How do you tell someone to remove the look in their eyes?

Heidi fired on the innocent woman. They were there to help bring order to Sultan after its conflict with Arelia (America’s biggest Middle East ally), but certain civilians and rogue military units retaliated. Back home in New Jersey, there was no fighting, only residential blocks with restored Victorians, an old church on the corner, a high school with a track, a commuter rail within walking distance. There were some abandoned sites, lots under construction, empty storefronts, and stray cats. But nothing like the bombed-out shops of Sultan—its crumbled schools, week-old dog corpses, blood on the doorstep.

Dara moaned in her sleep and turned on her side, her perfect butt cheek framed in the pale light. Her lovely arms silhouetted the wall, and her thick hair dressed the pillow. Nothing, it had no effect—as if Heidi’s ability to love the little things had been singed. Fizzled in a ring of fruit and a dead Sultanese woman lying on the sandy road. A mother, of course, with three kids. Heidi and two soldiers delivered the corpse to the family who lived in a thatched hut. The woman’s three boys and husband met them at the door. They took the body bag but didn’t seem surprised: none of them cried or said anything, as if the woman’s death were scripted. “I’m so sorry,” Heidi said to the father. The mustached man in a robe looked Heidi in the eyes then slammed the door in her face. She had to push back her tears the whole ride to the base.

“Heidi,” Dara said, turning to her on the bed. “Are you awake?”

Heidi’s head was propped in her hand and her Captain America shield tattoo shined on her wrist. Dara gently toed Heidi’s knee, but she didn’t respond even though she liked Dara’s nimble feet.

“Talk to me,” Dara said with her throaty voice and curvy lips.

Heidi stared at the ceiling and began to count the little squares in each tile.

“Are you thinking about that interview you got this afternoon? I know you’re gonna do fine. You’re great at selling yourself.”

Heidi’s head was propped in her hand and her Captain America shield tattoo shined on her wrist. Dara gently toed Heidi’s knee, but she didn’t respond even though she liked Dara’s nimble feet.

Heidi smiled slightly. “You know me so well.”

Dara again worked her toes up and down Heidi’s leg, tickling the fuzzy hairs. With her hand she gently squeezed Heidi’s chin.

“I want you to beat me,” Heidi said, turning onto her elbow again and staring ahead of Dara.

Dara rolled on her back and looked up.

“It won’t be that difficult,” Heidi continued, almost robotically. “I’ve got all the soldier’s gear. This’ll add another dimension to our sex life.”

“You never wanted that before,” Dara said.

“Maybe I just want to try something new.” Heidi chewed her inner lip.

“It’s really weird.”

“It could be sexy, Dara. I’ve got a burka, a turban, a hijab. A bisht.”

A deep sigh escaped Dara. Then her eyes hardened and she smacked Heidi in the face. It was a light smack, a nothing smack; Heidi hardly felt it and almost laughed. “That’s a start, I guess.”

“What you want, I don’t know what you want,” Dara said.

“I want what I’ve always wanted,” Heidi said, then felt like she had misspoken.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Dara kicked away the cover. Heidi’s muscular, tattooed calves revealed themselves—one of her best features, she thought.

Dara’s eyes seemed amused and angered like those of the dead woman who wanted to feed the troops. “Maybe I’m not the one for you. Maybe I’ll never be who you want me to be.”

Heidi felt a frost go up her leg. The sun, now brighter, slanted in the room through the blinds.

“What if I don’t wear the burka?” Dara said. “Is that a deal-breaker?”

“What?!”

“You can tell our queer friends, ‘Dara wouldn’t don the bisht, so I dumped her ass.’ I bet they’ll find that a hoot. Or post it online so more people can laugh out loud.”

“You know I’d never do that,” Heidi said and clutched her knees.

Dara got up, grabbed her robe off the small couch, and slammed the door on her way out. Heidi gnawed on the corner of her lip, then spat some dried skin. “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

She imagined a woman in a burka shoving her foot down her mouth. Again she bit her lip and for a moment touched herself. Then she recalled the interview at the after-school program in the city. It was a chance at regaining some sense of normalcy—at the very least it would get her ass out of the house. I should apologize.

*     *     *

Heidi was knotting her tie when the phone rang. The caller ID number froze her. Dara, who was getting dressed for work at the local vet, said, “Why don’t you pick up?”

“It’s that number again.” Heidi tossed the phone onto the living room couch. It was the fourth time they had called in the last two weeks and she was becoming curious because they didn’t leave any messages. Dara then did something out of character—she picked up Heidi’s phone and answered it. “Hello?”

“What the fuck are you doing?” Heidi tried to grab it from her, but Dara was too quick and hopped away in her long skirt. “Hello?” she said again. “It’s her…roommate.”

“Give me my fucking phone right now,” Heidi yelled, “or I’m gonna kick the shit out of you.”

This turned Dara on because she knew Heidi was serious. Heidi chased Dara around the couches. “She’s here,” she said to the man, “but can I take a message for her?”

Finally, Heidi caught up with Dara and yanked the cell from her and yelled into the phone: “What the fuck do you want from me? How many times are you gonna harass me?”

“Heidi, do you know who this is?” a twangy voice said.

Dara mock-grabbed the phone—Heidi flinched and clawed the air at her. “You remember me?” the voice said. Then it came back to her. It was the voice of a soldier, an Assaultman with red hair and a red beard. He was there when the woman with the fruit basket was shot. She didn’t remember his name, she’d forgotten so much of that day—images buried beneath her brain’s rubble—except for certain painful flickers: the child carrying a dead cat in her arms.

“You do remember me,” the twangy Assaultman said, and her eyes refocused.

“What do you want?” she responded. Dara stood, intently watching by the kitchen.

“I just want to talk to you. A bunch of us do. We don’t want to make your life more difficult, but we need to talk about some things that happened overseas.”

“Negative,” she said. “I don’t need any bullshit-ass Kumbaya therapy.”

The power of her memories was enough. After her unit blew up the woman with the basket of fruit, she felt as if her skin were drying up and that a match had been struck down her throat. She felt that pain now. “Stay the fuck away from me. I don’t want anything to do with you guys.” With that she clicked off and tossed the phone on the couch.

Dara stepped into the living room. “Who was it?”

“Don’t ever answer my phone for me, unless I give you permission. You hear?” Heidi got closer.

“Was it a veteran?” Dara’s voice was excited.

Heidi held up her palm. “Just stay out of my business. I’ve told you again and again. I left it all on the battlefield.”

Dara leaned against the wall and thoughtfully pinched her chin. “But you still want me to wear the burka.”

Heidi imagined herself flying in a rage.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Dara said. “I just want you to get better is all.”

“I’m fine already. Under the circumstances I’m great. I got an interview today in the city.”

Dara put her hands on her hips and closed her eyes. “Come here.”

Heidi didn’t move, so Dara hugged her. “Let’s try to make this work. I just know you’re gonna give a great interview.” After a pause, Dara added, “I shouldn’t have answered your phone. You’re right.”

Heidi touched her back and kissed the top of her ear.

*     *     *

At first the train ride relaxed her, but with each stop she got a little more excited. When they pulled into Watsessing Avenue, her cellphone rang and she checked the number. It had the same area code as the Assaultman’s so she let it go. She’d have to change her number, she decided, looking out the window at the bright and cloudless sky. The landscape of bridge and sand reminded her of those abandoned training camps that her unit had captured from the Sultanese. Further on, a junkyard full of yellow school buses, some long like torpedoes, others bulky like light tanks. Every freaking thing reminded her of the sand. Her phone beeped, which meant that the Assaultman or perhaps the Machine-Gunner had left her a message. I’m not checking it. The city steadily approached through the scarred glass.

She had to focus on what she would say at the interview. But as the train rattled along, she seemed to forget all the tips she had studied online. Instead, a series of scorched images radiated through her mind and she squeezed the arms of her seat.

When she landed at Penn Station she had a minor revelation: I function better in moving crowds. She enjoyed snaking around people; it reminded her of the touch football she used to play with her brother’s friends. The faces always changed yet they were somehow all the same characters she was able to decode through her training and deployment. A Long Island upper-crust woman in a mink and a load of makeup. Everyday Joes and Janes in their business slacks and polished heels rush to catch the train. Teenage girls in short skirts and long black coats. Everybody in black, like an open-market funeral. Two marines with M-16s guarded a drug store. Heidi walked more quickly, even though she was fifty minutes early.

She had to focus on what she would say at the interview. But as the train rattled along, she seemed to forget all the tips she had studied online. Instead, a series of scorched images radiated through her mind and she squeezed the arms of her seat.

She walked downtown instead of taking the train. Stepping amongst the nameless crowds felt wonderful. Purposeful without needing to prove anything. Egg-white clouds topped the buildings and the occasional prim tree. The smell of mustard mixed with grilled kabob. Endless whiffs of horse shit stirred something childlike in her, and she thought of Christmas. On 8th Avenue, she helped an old lady cross the street; then she gave a shivering homeless man a dollar.

Wasn’t this what she was supposed to be doing overseas? She had arrived at the sandy dunes of Sultan almost two years ago, after America had gained control of the situation and averted a full-scale Middle East war. Heidi believed that she would contribute to the peacekeeping effort in bombed-out places. But after her first week, she realized the situation was more unstable, graver, and that the locals didn’t fear death anymore.

Near 8th Street she lost herself in a crowd of international arts students, each one dressed sharply, wearing glasses of varying styles. Heidi smiled at an Asian girl with an ostrich feather crowning her hair. She felt like kissing her on the mouth and telling her how beautiful she was and how lucky not to have to see dead children floating in canals. A marching band suddenly emerged near West 4th Street and played New Orleans-style jazz. Heidi stopped in the middle of the block and felt her soul stirred. Why don’t I come here more often? She took several pictures with her phone and sent them to Dara and wrote—“wish you were with me.” Heidi had first been exposed to big-band jazz while in basic training down South.

Dara didn’t reply right away, but that was okay. Heidi had her interview to look forward to at the after-school program, where she could help kids in English and math, and be in the city four days a week. She walked further west and noticed how colorful were the buildings and people. Spiky dyed hair, orange gloves and scarves; a man in a Batman cape and speedos stood outside of a gelato bar. A fairy tale land, even though she didn’t live that far away. A croissant shop with two statuesque servers. Heidi imagined biting the neck of a pretty model and making her scream bloody murder.

She turned onto a seedy block with a CD shop, a bar playing bad ’90s music, and some hairy dudes hanging up front. Where was this school located? A sex shop window flashed its all-purpose vibrators and rubbers. Two stores down was another sex shop, bright with a t-shirt in the window that said: Kitchen Bitch. The head shop that followed glowed with glass pipes. Heidi felt as if she had left Disneyland and fallen down a dark rabbit hole.

*     *     *

She still had about a half hour to kill, so she walked into one of the sex shops. A man and a woman browsed the video aisle, which was sectioned off according to fetish. She felt funny for a moment then noticed a wall of costumes and accessories. She looked more closely at the display. There was combat gear—camouflage tops and bottoms—and she imagined role-playing with Dara in a budget hotel somewhere off the highway. Perhaps Dara would agree to donning the combat gear and Heidi could wear the burka. But there was something in her that seemed averse to anything war related, whether it be a film or a game or a conversation. But why? What fears did it trigger inside her?

“Are you looking for anything specific?” a man said with an Indian accent.

Heidi stood at attention.

“We have peep shows in the back—the girls will wear anything you ask.” He was short and round with curly hair and a loose button-down shirt.

“How do you know I like girls?”

The man smiled with bright white teeth. “I know the customers.”

“I’m not your customer,” Heidi said, half-smiling. Had she been here once before and now couldn’t recall? “What if I need a burka, or a hijab?”

The man narrowed his eyes at her and licked his bottom lip.

“I’m serious. That’s what I’m into. I’m not asking for any other reason.”

The man scrunched his lips, tapped his chin, then disappeared behind the side counter. Interesting guy, but not to be taken seriously. She checked her wristwatch and saw that she had twenty minutes left before her interview—a lifetime, it seemed. She looked at a tray of probes, sticks, and rods, and wished Dara were more adventurous.

The pudgy man returned and said, “What do you think?”

It looked like a normal blue burka to her, but now she wasn’t sure what to do with it, or why he’d even gotten it for her in the first place. She suddenly felt as though all the displays were staring at her; the rods and whips came to life and hissed. She looked about nervously and the man read her discomfort. “Just bring it to the girl of your choice and she’ll wear it. It’s fifty dollars for fifteen minutes.”

“What is?” Heidi said, dizzy with sensations.

“Just go see a girl.” He gestured towards the back of the shop. “I have one in mind. She’s tall, big boned. She likes your type.” He looked Heidi up and down and escorted her to the back, down a short flight of stairs. She gave herself over to this strange man in this strange city. He led her to a curtain, where he took the burka from her and said, “Have a seat inside and wait for the light above to turn red.”

He showed her inside and she sat in a soft leather chair. “Get comfortable.”

The man left. Within moments, the strobe light above her turned red and the curtain spread to reveal a bed with two fluffy pillows. A micro-thin glass panel separated Heidi from the bed. Music emanated from the corners of the ceiling, a low rhythmic drum, African or Asian. Sweat dampened her forehead, while her lips and tongue felt dried up. She checked her watch. She still had ten minutes.

A tall black woman entered the room. She was barefoot and wore the burka. Her voice replaced the music on the speakers. “Hi there. What’s your name?” She sat on the bed with her legs crossed. Her green eyes seemed to glow, which, Heidi realized, were contact lenses. But at the time, in the moment, she could believe anything. “I’m Heidi.”

The woman slid the burka over her knee and her shapely calf was visible. Her breasts, Heidi could tell, were large like those of the dead Sultanese woman. Curly hair escaped from the burka’s eyehole and Heidi felt her body tense up—she had always found black women beautiful. “This burka is so smooth,” the woman said. “I like how it feels on me.”

“It looks perfect,” Heidi said, all throaty, surprising herself.

The woman spun around on the bed and the burka rose, unveiling her legs and her butt. Again Heidi felt herself getting hotter—hotter but more frightened. The image of the dead Sultanese woman arose again, her lying on the ground, surrounded by fruit, her burka blowing in the wind-swept sand. Heidi held back her tears and felt consoled by several officers. A male trooper added, “This shit happens. This is a motherfucking war!” That got a rise from the room. “Fuck these rag-heads!” they yelled. Heidi herself said, “We warned her ass, didn’t we? ‘Don’t move forward, lady—don’t move an inch.’”

Heidi gritted her teeth and stared at the black woman in the burka rolling around on the bed.

“So why the burka?” the woman said, snapping Heidi awake. “Nobody’s ever asked me to wear one.”

The Assaultman, she then recalled, had said, “The woman was my sixth-and-a-half, or sixth-and-a-quarter, since a bunch of us shot her.” Heidi felt her skin crawling with sand.

The black woman danced like an Egyptian.

“Don’t take it off,” Heidi said in her seat, her legs jittery.

The woman sat up on the bed, lowered herself to the floor, and crawled toward the glass.

“I need you to wear it.” Heidi checked her watch but didn’t register the time.

“It’s just gotten really hot in here,” the woman said.

“Do you want to hurt me a little?” Heidi said.

The woman in the burka stopped then started crawling again. “What do you mean—hurt you? How can I hurt you when I don’t even know you?”

“I wish,” Heidi said, “that you’d stand over me, slap me in the face, and piss on me.”

The woman laughed and stopped crawling. “I’m not sure you’re in the right place for that kind of treatment. But I could give you a referral.” She crawled again, then rose and hiked the burka above her beautiful back and Heidi imagined being beneath her, open to whatever the woman desired. “What’d you do,” the woman asked, “that makes you want to get hurt?”

Heidi finally inched toward the glass, oblivious of the time. “You don’t want to know.”

The woman lay back on the bed and began to touch herself. “I think you’re really hot,” she said, surprising Heidi. “In your short hair and that tie of yours. You’re fit, too, like a soldier.”

Heidi’s nose grazed the glass before her.

“You want to come to the other side? I’ll keep wearing the burka if you tell me what you did.”

A green light flashed and a glass door slid open. Heidi remembered the interview but she couldn’t leave somehow. “Come in,” the woman said. “We need to talk.”

Perhaps I could call the school and say I’ll be late? Then the door clicked behind her and the room darkened. And the woman grabbed her.

*     *     *

She awoke in her own bed and found Dara watching her. What time is it? A pale light poked in through a broken blind. Heidi felt déjà vu, except that now their roles were reversed and Dara had some advantage. She looked sexiest in the morning—messy hair, rose cheeks, angular jaw. What if they stayed in this position forever? The sun brightened slightly and Heidi realized that Dara’s eyes were trembling, that she had just been crying.

Heidi started to move but Dara put her hand out as if to stop her. Heidi cautiously lay back. “What’s wrong?”

Dara twitched a half-smile then looked out the window.

Heidi sat up fully and said, “What the fuck is going on?” She shook her arm and said, “Say something, Dara.”

Dara’s skin was cold and she tensed up and swallowed hard. “Maybe you should do the talking. I left you three voicemails yesterday.”

“I didn’t get them,” Heidi said, yesterday slowly taking shape in her mind. Her eyes widened at the flickering images.

“I want to be there for you,” Dara said, “but it’s starting to wear me down.”

“How did I get home?” Heidi asked, the back of her head suddenly pounding.

“All I know is, you stumbled in and went straight to bed. I took off your clothes, which were wrinkled, and tucked you in. You were missing your tie and you smelled strange—wasn’t your smell.”

Heidi recalled the black woman with the burka, the free drinks at the happy hour, stumbling down Christopher Street with total strangers. Bit by bit, the images appeared, and for a moment she doubted whether they were real. Then she recalled lying in bed with the beautiful black woman on top of her.

“What the fuck happened?” Dara said. “After I took off your clothes, I saw the bruises and bite marks… Did you go to your interview?!” Heidi shook her head and pulled the sheet over her shoulder.

Dara touched her forehead and looked in Heidi’s eyes. “Talk to me. Please.”

The woman with the burka sat on top of her, slapped her face, spit on her, cursed her out, spread her legs, and laughed like the devil. Heidi had multiple orgasms. By the time she left, she had only her return ticket, but no reason to go home right away—who knew when she would be back in the city? She hit herself in the head. Maybe I should go right back to the army. At least there I had the routine, money coming in, the promise of something beyond my next deployment.

“What the fuck happened?” Dara said. “After I took off your clothes, I saw the bruises and bite marks… Did you go to your interview?!”

“I’m a failure,” Heidi said. “You should just leave. I can’t stop thinking about the war.” She turned to her other side and faced the door and her tears flowed. The black woman slapped her until Heidi felt the sweet taste of blood on her tongue, the reward for her punishment. When it was over, she quickly left the shop and found the bar, two blocks south of the school where she never interviewed.

“I don’t deserve you, Dara. I should have listened to you and never enlisted in the first place.”

“You did a brave thing—you really care about our country, about our relationships abroad. How could anybody fault you for that?”

Heidi turned back and stared at her sharp beauty, her oil-free skin, and again shook her head. “You’re just saying that. Even before I signed up, there were reports that soldiers were questioning the order. They were saying that Arelia should be able to protect itself without our help.”

Dara, forehead wrinkly with compassion, brought her nose close to Heidi. Her stale breath warmed Heidi’s cheek and for a moment she forgot everything.

“Did it feel good?” Dara then said. “Did she give you what you wanted? Were you satisfied?”

Heidi moved back against her pillow. “I’m just a wreck, baby. I don’t want to disappoint you more. I’ll give you your deposit. Whatever you need.”

Dara moved closer and touched her again. Then she took Heidi’s head in her soft hands. “Why would I just abandon you like that? Don’t you know I love you?”

“I know, I know. But look at me.”

She did. “Just tell me what you remember and we’ll try to work through this. Okay?”

“You want to know about her, don’t you?”

Dara nodded and said, “Start from where you met her.”

“It’s all a blur.” She moved from Dara’s hands.

“Was she tall?” Her upper lip was full of contempt.

“It’s over now. Who cares?”

“Was she tall, dark, and round like your exes?”

Heidi didn’t respond. “Did she do something special besides beat you?” Dara said.

Heidi’s tears returned and she couldn’t speak. She wiped her eyes and shrugged guiltily.

“I want you to call that number on your phone,” Dara said. “They left you another message and I listened to it.”

“I thought I told you never to answer my fucking phone!” An uncomfortable silence followed and Heidi recalled the moment when they shot the Sultanese woman with the basket of fruit. The fruit flew, the woman fell, and everybody that fired on her paused. Smoke and silence.

“I listened to your phone because I’m worried,” Dara said, exasperated. “It sounds like these guys really want to help you. Whatever you did, Heidi, whatever you saw, how will you ever live with it if you can’t express it?”

Heidi violently threw off the bed cover. What did Dara know about war? The thought of getting drunk with total strangers suddenly sounded appealing. The black woman with the burka eased the pain, made Heidi’s sins negotiable, for seventy bucks and a tie.

“I don’t want to give up,” Dara said, sitting near Heidi, who moved away. “Let’s take baby steps. We’re both on edge.”

Heidi stared out the window. The pale sky had darkened but a patch of light broke through. Then darkness returned, followed by a smaller patch of light. “I can’t predict what’ll happen.”

“No one can,” Dara said. “But we have a good life here.”

Heidi traced the shape of a cloud with her eyes, while Dara touched her bruised arm. “Are we still one?”

Heidi nodded vaguely and fell back on the bed.

“So tell me what you remember.”

“If I don’t have to call the Assaultman or the Machine-Gunner.” Heidi smiled.

“Will you at least listen to the message?”

Heidi winced, her bruises burning. “Where’s my phone?”

B. Tsessarsky HeadshotBoris Tsessarsky’s stories have appeared in Folio, Temenos Journal, and PIF. Currently he is working on a collection of speculative war stories. He holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches writing at William Paterson University.

 

Leaving

Processing

They delivered the news of his death with a sharply creased flag. She was nursing their two-week-old girl-child on the worn couch, lulled by the glow of the television then the hard rap on the door snapped her awake. She yanked her breast back into the nursing bra and bounced the squalling baby in the crook of her arm. The NCO stood at the door haloed by the morning sun. He was wearing dress blues. The golden buttons and white gloves beamed against the terrible sameness of this cul-de-sac. Her mouth was dry.

We regret to inform you. Killed in action. Your husband. In service to this nation and the beloved Corps. His beloved Corps. Regret. Taking fire.

She felt the officer’s fingertips as he pressed the triangle of the flag into her left hand.

Identification

She named the girl child Jonathan Rene after her dead father, whose remains were so damaged the Interment Officer touched her wrist and shook his head when she asked him to open the black bag.

“We have DNA testing now.”

She smiled, all teeth, and stroked Baby Jonathan’s arched lips. “Open it.”

The officer pulled the zipper and she peered into the dark slit. A pile of teeth heaped in the middle of a stubbled jaw. An arm with a tattoo of a skull in a top hat nestled against part of a rib cage. She couldn’t stop grinning. Her breath puffed in front of her and the skull peered at her through a monocle.

“Where is his heart?”

“Ma’am?”

“His heart? His blood? His tongue? Where did it all go? Where is his cock?”

“We were unable to recover all of the remains, ma’am.”

She pressed closer to the officer and pulled the baby blanket away from Jonathan’s face.

“This is our child. Do you think she looks like him?”

He flicked his green eyes to the door and put his arm around her. She could smell formaldehyde and deodorant and sweat and Big Red gum.

“His personal items will be sent within 5-7 days after they are processed, inventoried, and cleaned. His weapon will be issued to another soldier. You will receive his uniform. You will also receive a lump sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”

His voice hung around her as she stepped into the light of the waiting room. Jonathan yawned pink and settled into the creases of her own neck. She never cried. She just opened and closed those fat fists and pulled on her momma’s scabbed tit like a calf with that cruel little mouth.

Interment

Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer’s funeral was brief.

She sat between framed photos of their dead parents and watched some NCO lift the flag from the fiberglass box and snap it in half with another glassy-eyed officer.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She remembered him whole. She remembered him when she was young and he was young, deep in the woods that ran along the river where they fished for yellow mudcats. Before he became a pile of teeth, before he pulled his laces tight, before her pussy stretched and a creature turned inside her, they pinched worms in half and threaded them onto golden hooks. Coors Light nestled in the dirty ice of her daddy’s Styrofoam cooler on the bank of some forgotten inlet of the Mississippi. It was always too warm and the perch nibbled the worms off the hooks, flashing their yellow bellies as they flipped away from her bobber. A couple of times she fucked him out there when the fish weren’t biting, but the deer flies were. They specked his pale thighs with tiny dots of blood. She liked his resolve. He was a born leader.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She hauled them out onto a cinder block that they dragged up from the bank, and rubbed her thumb over the soft spot on their heads. She stabbed a straightened wire hanger through the weak skin and wiggled it until they quit flopping. She hacked off their tails and bled them in the cooler until the ice was pink and gray. She couldn’t let things smaller than her suffer in a crowded bucket, better to kill than to let die slowly.

Now her husband wasn’t. Mist beaded on the Class A casket paid for by the United States Marine Corps. Seven more Marines stood to the left, gripping their rifles in the fog. Twenty-one reports and the brass drone of “Taps.” People coughing. The rustle of fabric and a General Brigadier kneeling in front of her pressing another flag against her chest. His MO: sympathy, empathy, candor, and grief. He let a single tear trail down his nose, mapped with broken capillaries from nights in foreign bars where he smashed glasses and had his money stolen by laughing whores. She twisted a damp napkin from the Waffle House around her pointer finger and looked at a single stray hair in his right nostril. She leaned into him and wondered if he thought about her breasts touching his shoulder. They put some of Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer in the ground.

Housing

Weeks passed. Their lease was up. She sat in her gray manufactured house and listened to an odd bubbling rendition of “Für Elise” coming from the sticker-dotted ice cream truck. Baby Jonathan jerked her pink hands around, batting at her mother’s chest.

The music from the ice cream truck had always made a hard lump stick in her throat. From the time she was six or seven, the tinkling from a music box or the odd mechanical notes drifting through the air made her pull at her eyebrows and bite her thumbnail. She knew it happened on her uncle’s dairy farm. Whatever it was. There was a burn barrel and the neighbor boys throwing chicken bones in the air. They chased her to the shed. It was something, something to do with thrown out dish soap in her eyes and hard hands gripping her shoulders. Something to do with a pink porcelain ballerina balanced on one toe, crushed under mildewed magazines ready for the fire, and the mechanical plinks of a sad song. Something.

Once, when Jonathan was deployed, she sat rubbing her pregnant belly in the same little off-base house and waited for the ice cream truck to come. She stumbled outside when she heard the music, waving bills at the ice cream man, and begged him, “please please please, turn off your music, I’ll buy everyone here ice cream, but please, no more.” The children from the neighborhood pressed their hot little bodies all around her and put their sticky hands on her arms. She looked down at the crusted nostrils and red Kool-Aid stained skin around flaked lips and handed them Tweety Birds with blue bubblegum eyes and Chocolate Rockets and orange Creamsicles. The smells of fake fruit and vanilla and sun-warmed chlorine drifted around her. She gave the ice cream man her phone number and hoped he’d call her even when he wasn’t coming into the neighborhood. He was so young and pretty, with a thick-lipped gap-toothed grin, his fingers brushing hers as she reached for confection after confection.

Now, she pressed her scabbed nipple against the side of Jonathan’s face, praying for a latch this time. Toys and blankets, all in primary colors, were sprinkled over the worn carpet. Unfolded moving boxes leaned against the refrigerator. A straightened coat hanger with threads of hair still clinging to it, from when she tried to unclog the bathroom sink, teetered on the back of the reclining couch. The mail was heaped on the counters and his smell had disappeared before he had even died. She picked up her breast again and squeezed from the base, just like the nurse told her. A pearl of milk grew and dropped on Jonathan’s wrinkled forehead.

“I hate you,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “Just fucking eat, God damn you.” She wrenched Jonathan up and gripped the limp child under the arms, looking straight into her hazy gray eyes. “Do you want to die?” Her sore tit hung from the unclasped nursing bra. “Your daddy wanted to die. He wanted to die the moment he was born. Maybe you got that sickness, too.”

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills.

Custom and Tradition

She had been sitting on the broken recliner couch for two hours. The baby still wouldn’t eat. Jonathan cried and crinkled her forehead specked with scaly cradle cap. The truck was circling the block again. “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought it was all in good fun, pop goes the weasel!” The low rattle of the cicadas reminded her of her grandmother’s story about seeing the devil in the Mississippi woods. The same woods where she and her husband had fucked and caught catfish and hooked their fingers trying to impale grasshoppers. She put the baby down on a pillow with a snoozing puppy printed on it, and pressed her forefinger to Jonathan’s rose petal lips.

“Shhhh, Jonathan, I’ma tell you a story about the time that The Son of The Morning came and told Meemaw just what she needed to do. She was only a little girl, just a few years older than you. She was playing in the woods by the river because the grownups in the house told her that her momma needed privacy. They didn’t know Meemaw had scarlet fever, so they sent her into the bright sun with her rag doll and told her to be back for dinner. Meemaw felt so warm and tired that she sat down by the creek and started to cry. She was so very hot and her knees and elbows were just hurting from the fever. Then, from the other side of the creek, she heard someone crying. She saw a tall man with hair so red and skin so pure, sitting, sitting just like she was, crying. She asked him why was he crying and he said his momma was with the angels just like hers was. She told him that he must think she was someone else because her momma just needed privacy, because Santa Claus was bringing her a little sister for an early Christmas present. The red-headed man said he’d show her where her momma was, and that all she needed to do was come with him to the deeper water. When she asked who he was, he laughed and his laugh sounded just like a tinkling music box, it was so clear and pretty. The man came across the creek to her and offered his hand like a fancy gentleman, and his hand was as soft and creamy as a lady’s. He even had perfect, filed fingernails. Meemaw said she don’t remember where they went, but that his hand was as cool and smooth as magnolia petals. They found her half-asleep on the bank of the Mississippi, nestled in the cold mud. Only thing that had kept her from burning alive from the fever, they said. And guess what? Her momma, my great-grandma, was with the angels. She had died from giving birth to my Great Uncle Eustace. He died in World War II. Isn’t that something?”

Absent Without Leave

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills. He smelled like gunpowder and dirt, like little boys do when they’ve come out of the sun. His black hair was dusted with pale, powdery sand. He put his finger to her lips and raised the catfish up with his other hand. It spoke in the static silence of the room.

“I am,” it said.

Blood soaked her husband’s sleeve. The catfish’s tail had been hacked off and a crimson bead formed on the soft spot on the top of its gray head. Jonathan grinned. His nicotine-stained teeth gleamed.

“See? They sound like they’re talking.”

The catfish sounded just like Jesus in those church films they watched in Sunday school sometimes, when Ms. May was sick and couldn’t teach. “Let the little children come unto me.” The catfish flopped out of Daddy Jonathan’s hand and shivered on the floor, its gills working open and closed until her husband pushed her eyelids closed with his warm palm and pried her mouth open with his tongue. She wasn’t asleep. This was not a dream. He was here again.

Until he wasn’t, and she was holding Baby Jonathan to her stretch-marked breast trying to force her to eat again in the dirty living room. Jonathan’s silky baby skin was very cold and almost slick. A diamond pool of blood on her baby’s head streamed in long ribbons and pooled in the crevices of her elbows. A straightened coat hanger was caught in the fabric of the couch and dangled over the stained carpet. It was coated in blood. The setting sun filled the room with strange light and long slotted shadows from the blinds.

Separation

She felt a warm calm and knew where to take her child. There would be no caskets or paperwork. No flags or death-quelling Lilies of the Valley. She would not sit in a plastic chair in a glinting forest of framed dead faces. No. She would take Baby Jonathan to the mighty river and let her tiny body feed the turtles and the fish, and maybe get swallowed whole by a great mudcat. And when that fish was wrenched from the water and eaten by some family by the delta, they would drink beer and play cards in the front yard, until the night closed over and the warm fat raindrops drove everyone inside hollering. Mommas hushing the drunk men and the teenagers with their fat titties, eyeing their daddy’s friends with that wetness. “Don’t y’all wake them babies. You hear me?” The frogs burping love songs and the patter of rain on the tin roof of some trailer. Maybe her blood, mixed with that catfish blood and sweetish, malty Coors would make some girl dream about the devil and forget that boy with resolve.

R. Peralez HeadshotR. Peralez is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches Freshmen Composition. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English. She is from DeRidder, Louisiana. She is also the fiction editor for Quaint Magazine. She writes short stories about the South and the characters who inhabit it.

You are a Woman

As told through the lips of Nước Hoa.

I stood angry. I entered the waters of the Xepon in a wild and arrogant gait. Meiet, the tallest of all the village teenage girls, quieted my sloppy entry with a stare. It did not register with my tortured mind her appearance. She stood in the river up to her knees. Long braids on each side of her head remained tight, twirling around her hips as she scanned the river surface and the tree line. This behavior was not unusual, but the purple sarong cinched tight on her waist was inappropriate. She was promised to the son of a neighboring village chieftain. Her body no longer belonged to nature, but her future husband. Yet, her style of dress at the shoreline was inappropriate. Why was she covered in front of women and children?

The men of the village were guarding against the marauding spirits that were attacking several villages. The spirits covered with clothing, carrying weapons of great power, kidnapped many children from helpless villages located around Ai Lao Pass. This was not the case with our encampment. The lodges were strong. Our Chiefs sat in the middle surrounded by eight smaller, but still foreboding long houses. Other homes rimmed the central encampment. We were strong.

Bamboo columns held the sturdy grass paneled structure several feet off the ground. Wind, water, or even evil spirits from the dark realm of emptiness could not penetrate our defenses.

She should have been nude as the rest of us. But who was I to argue with her? I was happy she turned her gaze as my behavior improved. A betrothed teen handed me a toddler. With an annoyed expression, I began the loathsome task of washing another’s infant. I wanted my own.

My mother sent me to the shore to help with the bathing of the children. To me it was penance for too many tantrums and too much sobbing. The sun was setting. This seemed an unusual time to do this. But again, I lost the desire to ask or make a fuss. Only minutes before, my father and older brother left the two females of the family yelling and crying. Me crying, my mother yelling.

It was all due to my refusal to act my age. My friend Blata was promised to someone. She entered womanhood the moon before. Her dripping blood signaled a time of maturity and respect. I wanted that. Refusing to be treated as a child, I put my mother’s sarong around my waist, ripping the loincloth from my body. Men and boys, not a grown woman, wore this garment. Young immature girls would stroll with this cover. I am almost a woman, two months older than Blata. This garment is no longer for me. I should be treated as I deserved.

Why be so treated? This is a punishment, due to my body’s inability to bleed. No one could tell me different. My mother’s disgust at the gesture led to the tirade of emotions and my father and brother’s escape.

As the sun began to set, a beautiful array of white light danced on the surface of the Xepon. Mesmerized by the sight, I found myself alone as the mild waves lapped at my hips. At the shoreline stood beautiful Meiet, the majestic young woman whispered something to the crippled daughter of my father’s friend. Ngit was cute of face, but limped due to a shortened left leg. Meiet’s whisper brought a giggle to the oft-pained girl. I observed more after handing the infant to an older girl, and returning to the water. My workday was done.

The striking young woman talked to this lame girl as any friend would. I marveled at the beauty that stood a head above the others. Her authority did not come from height or age. This eldest at the shore possessed a spirit that was for all to see. Though wrapped tight with cloth, stunning braids showed the sparkle that such hair gives off when damp. Breasts pointed as if held up by string. I envied such beauty. I hated such beauty.

Moving toward the shore, I froze at the sight.

Meiet pushed the lame Ngit to the ground, while whipping her sarong into the air. As the garment fluttered its way to the sand, a glint from her hand caused my stumble backward. The blade was hidden in the waistband of her skirt. Now I knew why it was worn. The young guardian looked with intent never seen by my eyes. The other young women, including Blata, stopped any movement, their sarongs already circling their waists.

I fell to my knees due to the clumsy reaction. The water rose to my lips. Attempting to stand, I saw Meiet raise the hand with the blade. She slid the other arm around her stomach, an extended finger pointing to her rear. The path to the village her target. At no time did her gaze lose sight of the jungle.

My father lived as a hunter, or to be more specific, a tracker for the parties that roam the forest for our daily meals. Many times regaling stories of brilliant maneuvers to catch the wild boar and deer that roam our land, he would talk of the silence of the jungle. This seemed strange. The jungle being a cauldron of noise. Sounds of birds, screeching monkeys, and the occasional bellowing of a tiger all joined in the familiar chorus. How could the jungle be silent? The never-ending drone of bugs hummed through the air giving the other lyrical bursts a bass line to follow.

Now, I thought my ears blocked. Silence became so intense my head rang from the muted air. Around me little ripples of water increased as I trembled with fear. Something is going to happen. Something did.

Meiet screamed for the others to run. Her stance remained fixed. With the rising moon’s light I could see the evil spirits that wore clothes.

Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent.

They were the Vietnamese, the people from the east. They came for slaves. Failure after failure to capture our men, costing many the life of a Viet caused enterprising traders to concentrate on children. The girls were to be given to the Court of their Emperor as concubines. Those that did not please the royal selection committee would be sold at auction. The boys would be castrated and given to the Royal House. Eunuchs were prized as potential gifts for the Chinese Emperor.

Screams continued as the evils spirits grabbed the children. Blata stumbled in her attempt at a quick movement. She fell to the ground, only to be pulled up by her hair and thrust into a circle of vine. In a flash, three of the girls were also connected as prisoners held submissively by this long leash.

None of the group at the shore escaped. But the deed would not come without a price. In my preoccupation with the speed of the capture, I did not see Meiet and her blade.

A Viet lay at her feet. Standing with no loss of pride, the nude girl spit at the body of the Viet she had slain. Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent. From the water I saw the leer aimed at her beauty. Would he be willing to pay the price for such pleasure?

All through this standoff, muffled screams from Ngit serenaded the attack. The men realized she could never make the trip to Huế, the Imperial City. They decided to enjoy her fruits on the beach. I saw one man on top of her, then replaced by another. It looked as if a line was forming behind her bobbing head. Her screams muted by a monstrous hand.

The other teenager fumbled with her weapon, also hid in a sarong. It spun from her trembling hand, wilting on the sand. They motioned to Meiet to put down the crimson blade still dripping from its taste of Viet flesh. Her friend whose name I did not know found her knees thrust to the ground as the Viets kept her in a kneeling position. The Viets showed fear of Meiet. Not one would approach her. They wanted this female warrior; as to me she will always be remembered as such, to surrender. She would fetch a good price. Though I could see the other men, as now I knew these were no spirits, possessed the look of a predator eyeing their next meal.

The other teen resigned to her fate remained silent. A kick to her breasts crumpled her further. A Viet with a long blade held it over the semi-conscious young woman. It was obvious; Meiet’s continued fight would lead to her beheading.

It is here where I understood a statement made by my mother.

My father told her, as he looked at the results of another tantrum. “This devil would drive the evil spirits crazy, should they have the misfortune to capture her.”

My mother’s quick response, “Do not joke of such things.” She looked at me with eyes ready to water. “I will slit her throat and then mine before such a thing occurs.”

Meiet held the same opinion. Or so her actions would show. In a move worthy of our noblest warrior she put the knife to her neck, calling to the heavens as the blade sliced through her skin. From my watery seat, I saw her once coconut milk-like skin covered in a tide of blood. Her breasts, that I envied, drenched in seconds.

In disgust, the Viet brought the gleaming blade down on the other teenager. A smack greeted the cheek of the executioner, this being a poor business decision. His leader reacted with another slap. The teenage friend of Meiet squirmed as her head rolled a few inches.

Finally, the cries of Ngit ended. My body felt as if a shrinking of my skin began to take place. I feared the trembling would cause the Viets to notice the stirring at the surface. It was a needless worry. The water became alive with those too young to walk the distance to their Emperor’s Palace. Two infants were flung into the surf as I once saw boys of our village fling rocks into the Xepon, their splashes too far from me to aid. I felt gratitude for this fact. I knew due to my cowardice, my legs would not budge. Amid this scene, I spat at my own soul, for should an infant land by my side, my reaction would be the same.

Hideous laughter circled the beach as the eldest of the young boys, a soft faced eight-year old violated by the fat Viet with long hair, cried out in a wail of pain. Future eunuchs, unlike concubines, fetched the same price, pure or spoiled. An aroma of horror coupled with the sobbing of the captured hung about my head. The only smell worse was my shame at a girl’s cowardice.

I hoped for my father and the other men to save the children. To save me. Though, I knew that would not be. My mother sent me to the river, not for punishment, but for protection. The elders expected an attack from the direction of Ai Lao Pass. They were tricked into believing that. The Viets appeared smarter than the Bru.

There I stayed, a lone survivor of this horrific attack. As the last of the Viets walked, following the neck-bound captives into the jungle, I cursed myself. My shame was of such a magnitude, I thought of wading to the shore and using the knife of Meiet to rip my neck open. Then, as a catfish brushed my leg, I remembered my mother’s expression as she told my father of her zeal.

I would follow the children till I could get close enough to free them, or as my mother would prefer, cut all their throats. It was the only thing that could wash away my shame.

Entrance into the jungle was not without fear. I was Bru, and though schooled in girlish necessities needed for my advance into womanhood, I knew a trail. This fact did not quell the uncertain feeling racing through my body. Holding one blade, I brushed the other hidden in the sarong of Meiet. Walking one foot over the other, I marveled at how well I cut the bottom of the skirt till it fit me as the woman I was. The moonlight pierced through the canopy of the jungle just long enough to show me the clustered tracks of the Vietnamese. Their sandals left scarred marks in the soft jungle bottom. How weak they must be? Being stalked by a woman of the Bru.

My older brother Renko could track a boar, mother, and her piglets before the ninth year of his life. My father took him on the hunt as soon as he could walk. Or so it was told to me. While the boy learned the skill of bow and knife throwing, my hands were used for washing babies and preparing dinner. My mother would take little strolls into the jungle, showing me the area where guavas, pineapple, and mango grow in abundance. As I would reach for my favorite, the slightly toothed leaves of peppermint herbs that would explode with coolness in my mouth, she would explain the importance of using the gifts of the land to liven up a boring meal. Mother would laugh at the thought of my father’s face, when his excitement would show due to the right amount of basil or dill added to a too tough meat.

I recalled words from my father as he tried to end another of my tantrums. I  wanted to know how to read the sky, as he was teaching Renko. My father pulled me to his lap and pointed to the big star and told me where it would be as the night would become day. He whispered that I was his child. The blood of a tracker flowed through my veins. I needn’t worry about such things. My mother would just yell that I was lazy, and would never get a husband.

I never believed what he whispered to me, but now I did. Their trail became a mural that grew larger with each few step. I knew the blood in me. I knew I was my father’s child.

Thump! Thoughts of destiny and greatness shot from me into the darkness of the jungle. The quick tumble showed a lack of agility. The fright at the unexpected obstacle brought my eyes close to tears. Shamed again, as at the water’s edge. I was afraid.

Looking at what I thought was the moist bark of a rotted log my heart skipped a beat. It was the soft-faced boy violated by the fat Viet with long hair. Naked, the boy looked ready to float away on the river of blood that surrounded the bloated body. The tortured face of the boy did not bring the horror I expected. I knelt in the blood of the child. The poor boy must have been too injured to make the trip to slavery; his neck was sliced open. I swore the vengeance needed to wash away the shame of the fat Viet’s act; my muscles grew with the desire fostered by the hunt. My soft stomach hardened as my muscular brother’s, my vow complete. Hate grew in my eyes, as I felt them strain. The bitterness at my cowardice as the babies scrambled for breath a few feet from my safe watery seat turned to anger. My father and the men were nowhere in sight. I heard not a branch stir, hoping for the glimpse of one of my tribe. The decision became my pledge to the spirits of the jungle. I would free the children, or die trying. The sarong was soaked with the blood of the soft-faced boy. My bath of death brought me power. I would kill until all were free. Or all were dead. I advanced.

The Vietnamese were fearful of the jungle. They turned toward the beach, a safe route to the beaten path that would lead to freedom. The fools did not know of their folly. The Bru could easily overtake them. The beach offered no obstacle.

And we feared them as evil spirits?

The group stopped at the tree line. I almost walked into their camp, as they argued and looked everywhere. Their fear was consuming them.

Moving back into the heavy flora of the forest, I sat with full view of the cluster. I needed only to wait. Our men must have discovered the treachery at the water’s edge. I need only sit and wait.

Time passed and I felt my eyes grow heavy. No doubt the blunder of camping at the beach would lead to their undoing. The noise and wail of the children alerted me to the difference.

A boat was in the distance. I could see the cloth that caught the wind. The breezes would bring it close to shore, and my captured people to slavery. Grabbing the naked children, the Viets forced the captives into the river. I did not know what to do.

The wailing prisoners were standing in knee high water. The boat approached, the rushing tide tossing it in the air. That part of the Xepon grew sand bars and collected, rotted tree trunks of the pine that littered the shoreline. I still waited for a plan. Though I knew what must be done.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

I whipped the sarong from me and held the two blades as I have seen men do when they practice killing blows.

Deep breaths fortified my resolve. I would run to the water and kill as many of the children as possible. It was the only way to save them.

“No!” My scream tore at my mind. The shame is already too great for I will free all their bodies from the future the Viet’s planned. Then, as a woman, I will join them in paradise. My father and the rest of the Bru men will do the rest.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

The fat Viet, finishing an argument with the leader threw a pouch that jingled as it was caught. The man looked the opposite of the sweaty blob, slim with short hair; he waved the fat Viet toward the jungle. Blata followed him by her gripped hair. She did not need to stand as she bounced upon the sand, accompanied by hearty laughter from the other Viets.

My eyes widened as the fat one moved past me deeper into the jungle. Blata looked resigned to her fate. Her movements were non-existent.

Scanning the area, he used a free hand to move the vines that blocked the path. A smile appeared as he saw the rotted tree trunk flat to the ground. Throwing Blata toward the clear area to its front, the fat Viet ripped his pants from his body. The laughter was as a roaring tiger. Though I feel this man possessed none of the spirit or character of the beast. The obnoxious and sinister chuckles covered my movements. I was to his back and delighted in what I saw. His vulnerability was increasing. Standing with legs spread, he picked up my friend. I then decided she was my friend, no matter how her body bled, or the size of her breasts. Throwing Blata over the trunk, he moved over the lifeless body. As so did I. I wanted to thank him for the laughter and belches of noise that allowed me to get even closer. I was behind him, he never knew. As a bloated hand grabbed the part of him that so humiliated the soft-faced boy, my arm moved backward. Bending over Blata, my friend, he gave off a deep moan. I could see the sides of his belly shake. I took a breath, inhaling a foul odor from his body. Before his entrance into her, my blade entered him.

The scream woke the sleeping animals of the jungle. A family of spotted monkeys awakened by the screeching cries flooded the area to our front. It was his last vision before death. Blata revived by the howling cry looked at the shimmering blubber of the half-naked man. His fall to the floor caused a rumble at our feet, Meiet’s blade sticking from his scrotum.

“Quickly girl!” I grabbed the stunned friend and took her by the shoulder as an adult woman might. The men on the beach would be upon us. We ran until the pine trees and thorny vines and rotted dead vegetation all looked the same.

It was impossible, but it was also true. My ignorance led us back to the beach.

The hands of men grabbed us. I am now a captive. The shame I hoped to purge from my soul, would be tripled. I lunged with the other blade, hoping to slice my throat on the blades return. A monstrous hand ripped it from me. I began to cry. I wanted to die.

I wanted my mommy.

Dragged to the sand, the grips of the men were not hurtful. Blata realized, and with no resistance, she would be let go. Hair in front of my face covered my vision. I could only look down; my shame too heavy to hold.

On the ground laid the leader of the Viets. His eyes wide open. But where was his body? Using both hands, I cleared the wild mop of hair from my eyes. The children were free, and crying. The joyful cry of innocence restored. Before me stood my father, holding the blood soaked sarong. Beside him stood my brother, a Viet’s head atop his spear.

The men used my trail to lead them to the Viets. The two that piloted the boat were taken at the shore. Their misfortune being taken alive, a condition that would last for two days.

Seeing my father brought my emotions to a swell. I ran the short distance to his arms and buried my head and body into his grasp. My crying matched or surpassed any that the captives endured. Hands pulled me upward as my father hoisted me to his chest, and then the air above his head. I looked down; frightened as the coward I am, not noticing the smile on my oft-serious father’s face. The men yelled in chants. The chants reserved for warriors. I did not want to hear anything. The sand shook as the men jumped and smacked the ground with their weapons. My hysteria did not ebb, as my father spun me in the air, beaming with pride. What pride could I be? A naked child acting the infant she was.

The screaming became united with one simple mantra. I saw my brother in a matching state of hysteria howling with the warriors of the tribe. My father’s voice was loudest of all. They repeated it over and over again.

YOU ARE A WOMAN! YOU ARE A WOMAN!

A month passed from that fateful night. Upon my return to my mother, not one second would be spent from her side. I often would cling to her bare breast as if a suckling child satisfied with nourishment. She relished my behavior and was with me at nature’s call. For a month to the day of my father’s proclamation, my body chose to act the part.

As I quaked with the preparation for motherhood, my clinging personality only continued. Stomachache and nausea spun about my head, along with the obvious colored discharge. Mother held me, and whispered in my ear. The tone of her words eased my body’s strain.

Her strokes continued as I rested at her chest. She whispered once more. You are a woman. My eyes closed knowing when I awoke, I would be so.

Joseph Allan HeadshotJoseph Allan’s tales profess one agenda. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Homebound as a child due to illness, loneliness liberated imagination. Poe’s influence runs through his work. Trained as a Counterintelligence Agent by the US Army, J Allan used his unusual mind’s eye developing strategies protecting Americans abroad. The only non-Vietnam Veteran in his airborne unit, he memorized accounts of special operations in Southeast Asia. Coupled with interviews of North Vietnamese veterans and Montagnards his expertise increased. He submitted a screenplay while in China, and a Vietnam War novel thought too controversial for publication.

 

Orientation Week

In 1962 my parents packed four suitcases, one gray trunk with a brass lock, my stereo, my tennis racket (remnant of happier days and therefore a sign of their hope for my future), and me into our white Lincoln Continental. We headed up Route 301 to the University of Florida campus in Gainesville three hundred miles away.

I was going to have fun. Before I left, Uncle Harry said I envy you, Monica. Four years of leisure to study mankind and the universe. Uncle Harry never recovered from not going to college due to the depression. He supplemented his life with a complete set of Harvard classics. The red books lined his office shelves for years unopened. I know because eventually I inherited them, and except for the pages being brown with age, they were in perfect condition. Yet I knew he was sincere. My psychiatrist was less scholarly minded. He said, “What a great time you’re going to have at college, Monica, sitting around drinking cokes, going to frat parties, bull sessions until four in the morning. It’s going to be a great four years.”

I believed both of them. Both scenarios appealed to me. I suppose that’s why when Dr. Davey said the day before I left, Monica, I can’t do anymore for you right now. (He’d already told me that all you could do for teen age girls was patch them up and hold them together until their hormones changed, so I knew what he meant.) So, you’ll be back here next week, or you’ll enjoy four years of college—it’s up to you. His words sank into my brain. When you consider what other words were clamoring in my head it is truly amazing. Words like glass, fire, poison, death, my fault—always my fault. I had to make it at college. It was that or back to Dr. Davey’s couch.

He really did use a couch. That startled me when I first saw it. I thought shrinks having couches was a stand-up comic joke. This one was a green velour job with no arms that always seemed to capture a few strands of my long blonde hair. Did they sell these things in catalogues I wondered? I’d never seen one in a furniture store. Dr. Davey sat at one end on a hard back chair and leaned his head over mine. We’re going to relax now, Monica, stare at the eraser on the tip of the pencil and relax. The dark room would become very quiet, and I would become very relaxed, but eventually I would have to open my eyes and look into his hazel ones and say, what’s up doc, (feeble attempt at humor). Dr. Davey would sit back and sigh. Monica, you’re not trying he would say.

Yet, I did try, wanting to please. I just didn’t trust anybody that much. Later I read that people who were intelligent had no problems getting hypnotized. I decided the reason I had so much trouble was because I had a mind of my own. So we were stuck with regular therapy. Talk, talk, talk. But the talking got out of hand the month before I left for school. It was then that I felt compelled to tell everyone what was going on inside my head.

Mom, there’s glass in the soup, I can see it. Stop it, Monica. Mom, if you eat that soup it’ll hurt you. Mom, I smell smoke. I’m calling the fire department. Mom, the devil is trying to get in me. Mom, don’t cry. I’ll stop. Mom, you’re purple pillows are evil—I can feel it.

When she cried I felt bad, but I still talked. Dr. Davey said, Monica save it all for here—O.K.? Dear Dr. Davey, there aren’t enough hours in the day to tell it all to you. Strange, but this is the one place I don’t have to tell it. I’m safe in your green and brown office, dear Dr. Davey. Is there something calming about green and brown?

The trip to Gainesville was a nightmare. Eight hours of non-stop talking. Dad, if a man’s penis gets glass chips in it, would it be awful? Dad, there was glass in the bathroom this morning, millions of pieces. Mom, don’t scream at me, please don’t scream at me. I would put my hands over my ears. No, Mom, I don’t want to work in a factory. I do want to go to college. Mom, there was glass in the bathroom this morning.

My parents continued up the highway hanging on to Dr. Davey’s vision for me with a tenacity that was incredible. I sat in the back seat and dealt with the hundred thoughts a minute that were clamoring to be told. I only said one in four, but I tried very hard to say them all.

As we drove into Gainesville, Dad finally gave out. This is insane, Lenore, we can’t leave her here. But he couldn’t make a turn on the skinny two-lane highwayit was too crowded. Suddenly I heard voices—real ones—coming from the white columned ATO house. The clear sound of young men’s singing floated across the air to our car like a gift from God. I looked at the bright green Florida campus, the romantic whitewashed fraternity houses, the solid brick Administration building and I shut up. My college career was saved by heavy traffic and singing frat boys—at least for the moment.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

My parents were thrilled. Dad kept squeezing my shoulders and saying, Good girl! Dr. Davey was right. You’re going to be O.K. His face beamed as he carried my bags up to my second floor dorm room. Mother smoothed her blonde wavy hair into place. Let’s get your suitcases unpacked, Monica. I wonder who your roommate is.

Only I seemed to understand. Of course, only I was privileged to the craziness still going through my brain. I knew what Dr. Davey had said. If I could just keep quiet, the thoughts would stop. I needed my parents to leave so I could be alone. Please, Mom, you have to go. All right, Dad, but first thing tomorrow you have to leave. I can’t hold out. If you stay, I’ll start talking. Don’t you seeI have a chance here. I don’t know anybody and that helps me keep quiet. Please, you’ve got to go.

The next morning we said good-bye in front of Broward Hall. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Mother asked. I could feel her hand trembling on my arm. Her green eyes, so like mine, filled with tears that didn’t quite spill over. I noticed the lines around her mouth. She had never looked old to me before.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

Dad stared at me. “What are you going to do after we leave?” All the joviality from the previous evening was gone.

He was standing two steps below me so I could look right into his face. I had never realized his moustache was turning white. I looked past him to the two rows of royal palms that flanked the entrance way to the dorm. “I’m going to walk by myself. If I’m by myself I can’t talk and school doesn’t start for a week.” It sounded so reasonable that I stopped right there before I started to talk about glass or smoke or the devil. If they didn’t go in the next five minutes I was going to lose it. I clenched my hands into hard fists and bit the inside of my cheek hard. I tried to concentrate on the pain in my mouth. I could see my dad’s dark eyes were becoming shiny so I looked down at my brown penny loafers.

“Come on, Lenore. We’ve come this far. Let’s go home.”

I felt them kiss me on the cheek and when I lifted my head they were halfway to the parking lot walking between those tall palm trees, my father’s arm protectively around my mother’s shoulders.

I headed to the northern part of campus. The Resident Hall Reception was in the afternoon. I knew that from reading the Orientation Week events. I planned to skip most of the events. I hadn’t met my roommate yet and hoped to exhaust myself with a ten mile walk before I did.

I noticed the trees first—palm and pine everywhere. I remembered the words to the Alma Mater—where palm and pine are blowing and southern seas are flowing—I wondered what the melody was; I wondered if I’d be here long enough to learn it.

Three hours later sweaty and tired, but calm, I walked into my room and saw two girls sitting on my bed, and another combing her hair in front of the mirror. The one at the mirror turned to greet me.

“Hi, I’m Susan Watson. I hope you’re my roommate.”

“I’m Monica Farelli, and if this is your room, I am.” The room had undergone a transformation since I’d left. Pink flowered bedspreads covered both beds and matching curtains hung at the wide casement window.

“I hope you like the bedspreads. Mom and I decided it was the only thing that would tone down this ghastly floor.” I noticed the green linoleum floor for the first time. “I wanted to paint the walls pink too, but that’s not allowed.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be a Zeta by the end of the week and probably move into the sorority house next semester. How about you? Are you going out for rush? Peggy and Jane aren’t.” She pointed to the two girls on the bed and started to apply bright red lipstick as she leaned closer to the mirror.

All this before I could open my mouth. It occurred to me that I wasn’t going to get a word in edgewise. Great. It also occurred to me that if she was going out for rush, I wouldn’t be seeing much of her. I could see she was the perfect co-ed. Curly brown hair framed an oval face and big brown eyes were set in creamy skin like two smoky topazes.

“Hello, I’m Peggy. I’m three rooms down the hall in 34B.” One of the girls on the bed got up and came toward me with an outstretched hand. “This is Jane.” She turned her head toward the girl still sitting on the bed with the dreamy look on her face. She had straight black hair cut blunt at her chin and bangs that almost came down to her eyebrows. She looked interesting like a character in a mystery novel. I was impressed with her long polished fingernails and the graceful way her hand moved as she waved to me.

“I was just asking Susan if she’d like to walk uptown for some dinner tonight. Would you like to come with us?”

I liked the looks of this girl. She also had brown eyes and hair, but she couldn’t have been more different than Susan. For one thing, she had a million freckles on her face. Something told me I’d better say no. “Sure, what time,” I said.

Six hours later the four of us sat in Woo Ling’s, a Chinese restaurant Susan had picked. Susan and Peggy were talking about school, but Jane and I just listened. I knew Susan had already written me off. Who could blame her? She had been the perfect roommate all afternoon and been met with a monosyllabic response every time. Feel free to borrow my clothes, Monica. Did you break up with your high school boyfriend, too? I do hope Mother doesn’t get upset when I pledge Zeta. She’s a Theta you know. Aren’t mothers pushy sometimes? Of course, mine’s really wonderful, but she’s really being ridiculous about this Theta thing. Don’t you think a person should have the right to pick their own sorority? When she mentioned being the President of the National Honor Society at Carelton High I announced I wanted to take a nap. Uncle Harry and Dr. Davey’s co-ed wrapped into one neat package and she was my roommate. Wonderful. All I wanted was not to say anything stupid at dinner.

Now as I sat in the restaurant I knew my hope for a normal evening wasn’t going to come true. The walls at Woo Ling’s were red and the chairs were lacquered black—bad colors for me. A huge Buddha sat in the center of the room, and a picture of a dragon with Chinese script was hanging right above our table. Evil lurked out of every corner of the room. Peggy and Susan chattered about orientation week, and Jane looked over the menu intently. I dared not lift my eyes from the white table cloth. I heard Jane and the waiter discuss the various satisfactions of General Tso’s Chicken and regular Chicken Szechuan, and I was impressed, but still too terrified to lift my head. When the waiter took my order I pointed to something on the menu while wondering if food prepared in an evil kitchen could make a person bad.

Then I heard Susan, her voice sounding impatient, address me. “Well, who do you like more, Elvis or Pat Boone?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I answered.

“Peggy was saying she thinks Elvis is gorgeous, but I like Pat Boone more.”

I remembered Susan showing me her new white shoes that afternoon and commenting on how all the Zetas were going to be wearing white bucks this semester—one of Pat Boones big trademarks. I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s O.K. I guess.”

Susan sat back, obviously stunned by such indifference. Then she turned to Jane. “What do you think?”

Jane turned her face toward the Buddha, pursed her lips, and then turned back to Susan. “I think they are both entirely inadequate,” she said. Susan rolled her eyes and looked at Peggy.

Meanwhile I looked at Jane as she stared at the Buddha again. Suddenly I noticed Jane’s black hair and heavily made up eyes. The red walls seemed to surround me and I could feel the urge to vocalize my anxiety spill over like a gushing waterfall.

“Do you think we should eat here? This place is evil and besides I think there are little glass chips on the tablecloth that could get into our food.”

Susan put the water glass that was halfway to her mouth back on the table.

“What did you say?” she asked. Peggy looked puzzled, and Jane turned her head toward me and stared with a long unblinking look. I knew I had to get out of the restaurant.

“Are you O.K.?” Peggy said.

Suddenly Jane leaned toward me and smiled. Then very slowly she began to brush the tablecloth in front of me with her hand. I tried to smile my thanks to her, but I couldn’t quite get my face to work. Instead I pushed back my chair, and mumbling something about having to get back to the dorm, I ran out of the restaurant. The last thing I heard was Susan asking Jane if there was really glass on the table.

I walked until I was exhausted, and Susan was asleep when I got back to the dorm. The next morning I was up and out by seven, deciding after looking at the orientation schedule that I could miss the tour of the library and the lecture on the Dewey Decimal System.

I headed north to the Century Tower and University Auditorium. I stopped for a few seconds to get a look at Albert the Alligator locked safely behind a chain link fence in the middle of the lawn. His pen was all muddy and he just sat in the middle of it. I had heard some fraternity boys had tried to whack his tail off, but it seemed to be firmly attached. I kept walking until I reached the Plaza of the Americas. A hundred pine trees stood straight as soldiers among the walkways that crisscrossed the open space. It had rained at dawn and everything smelled fresh and washed. I turned west and passed the gym and finally headed south toward Lake Alice. There were supposed to be gators in the Lake. I stopped in front of a huge pine with a trunk at least two feet across that lifted into the blue like a straight arrow. “Grandfather,” I said, (it seemed like a grandfather because the trunk was so gnarled) “I blew it last night.” I waited and blessedly there was no answer, just a soft swaying of the top branches from the breeze. I smiled to myself. I had one of Dr. Davey’s yellow pills tucked in my pocket. Don’t take one, Monica, unless you have to. You’re really not as sick as you think. O.K., Dr. Davey, if you say so. Time to check out the gators in the lake.

The lake took up the whole of the horizon, but no gators visible. Everything A.O.K., Dr. Davey, as the astronauts would say. I turned north again, walked slowly back to the student union and sat down on a bench beside the steps. Time to take a break.

The school newspaper was stacked in a pile in a green stand. Next to it was a box stating the cost, a nickel, and the admonition that the University of Florida operated under the honor system. I dug out a nickel and picked up the paper. The headline in black bold type read “Half of All Co-eds Not Virgins.” Just then a guy came up, picked up a newspaper, did not deposit a nickel, and sat down next to me on the bench. He had long brown hair tied with a piece of leather in the back and old dirty blue jeans on. Having troubles of my own I ignored him and plunged into the article about fallen women. Who knows, maybe Sr. Agatha had been right about this so called godless secular university. I could see her face swathed in white wimple. They will try to confuse you about your faith, boys and girls! They will use clever arguments to put seeds of doubt into your mind. Now, I hadn’t met any professors yet, but I had my arguments ready.

I looked up and two men in gray suits who were carrying briefcases (obviously professors) were depositing nickels into the box. The hippie was leaning back on the bench, his arms stretching along the back. I was going back to my newspaper when I heard the one with white hair hold the newspaper out toward the hippy and practically accuse him. “I suppose you think this is great, don’t you.”

The hippie shrugged and started to smile. “Hey, man, it’s O.K. Why shouldn’t the girls enjoy life too?”

Then before I could catch my breath at this nonchalant answer the one with the wire rim glasses turned to me. “And you, do you agree with him?”

I gathered myself together. O.K., Sr. Agatha, here we are center stage. God, classes haven’t even begun and here I am defending virtue. “Well, no, I mean, no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” The white-haired one threw the question at me like a bullet.

O.K., let’s see. The community—virginity and faithfulness are necessary to maintain stability in the community—then, of course, the obvious—babies out of wedlock, disease control. I decided to start with the community. That was less obvious and after all this was college. No obvious answers please. “Well, when a young woman decides to maintain her virginity she is in a sense upholding community values and contributing to the stability…”

“Because it’s wrong. Period. Is that right?” The one with the glasses peered into my very soul.

I nodded my head, but I couldn’t believe my ears. Godless professors! Why they sounded like Sr. Agatha, Sr. Margaret Mary, and every other nun who had ever taught me!

Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

Three days later I walked out of my room and there was Peggy ironing a white blouse in the hall. I had calmed down quite a biteven trusted myself to spend a few hours a night with my roommate. (She just wanted me to listen while she exploded after the nightly call from her mother who was determined she join Kappa Alpha Theta.) I hadn’t seen Jane or Peggy since the dinner at Woo Ling’s. I decided to try some normal conversation.

“Hi, what are you doing?” Stupid question since I could see what she was doing, but she took it in the social way it was offered.

“Just catching up on some ironing.” She shook out the blouse and put it on the ironing board, folding it in the back along the yoke.

“Got all your classes yet?” I watched as she ironed the yoke, turned the blouse and ran the iron across the front tab without touching the inset at the sleeve.

She nodded. “How about you?”

“I’m seeing a counselor this afternoon.” I couldn’t believe the way she was ironing this blouse. When she started on the collar before she had even begun the back, I stepped up to the ironing board and gently removed the blouse from her hands. “Look, you’re doing this all wrong. This is how my mother taught me to iron blouses.” I shook the shirt out and carefully set the sleeve into the end of the ironing board. “See,” I said, “if you do the sleeves this way and then the back, you don’t get that line at the yoke. The very last thing you do is the collar.” I ran the iron firmly over the top of the collar, careful not to cause any creases at the stitching and handed her the blouse.

“Is that how your mother irons blouses? Well, guess what, my mother does it this way.” She grabbed the blouse out of my hand and slammed the yoke on the board. Her face flushed a bright pink behind her freckles and I stared speechless as she re-ironed the entire shirt. When she was finished, she looked up at me.

Startled I said, “God, I’m sorry.”

Suddenly her shoulders dropped. “So am I. I’ve got a fierce temper. Forget it. Hey, some of us are going downtown later to check out the shops. You want to come?”

“Sure.” I turned to go back into my room. I was relieved she wasn’t going to stay angry, but what she had said and done stunned me. I sat down on my newly acquired pink floral bedspread. Peggy’s mother didn’t iron shirts like my mother! It seemed there were two legitimate, bona fide ways of ironing a shirt! The implications of this fact had to be taken slowly. My life at school and home had been learning the one proper way of doing things. Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

The next morning I was walking through the lounge when I heard the resident advisor, Miss Simpson, call to me across the room. She hurried up to me carrying important looking papers in a folder. I could see she was a little flustered. Little strands of dark hair had escaped the tight coil at the top of her head and hung down the side of her face. Very unlike Miss Simpson.

“Monica, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Can you walk Jane over to the infirmary? They’re waiting for her, and I can’t get away. I’ve got three sets of parents to see”—she held up the folders—“late coming students, and I can’t find Peggy anywhere.”

“Gosh, yes. Is she sick?”

She hesitated a moment and then tapped her finger against her forehead. “Freaked out this morning. Her parents will be here to get her tomorrow, but she’s got to go to the infirmary now. Oh, don’t look so horrified. She’s not dangerous. Come on, I’ve packed her bag and she’s sitting on the bed staring at the wall. And I’ve got three new students that just arrived. What a day!”

I followed her to Jane and Peggy’s room. Jane didn’t look like herself. Her eyes weren’t dreamy anymore; they were vacant and she was staring straight ahead at the wall. She was using her beautiful fingernails to pick at a scab on the back of her hand.

“Oh my God,” said Miss Simpson. “Stop that, Jane, You’re going to make your hand bleed. There’s her overnight bag, Monica. Do you think you’ll be all right?” I wondered if Miss Simpson knew I had a few emotional problems myself. Her next remark convinced me she didn’t. “Honestly, you’d think somebody would warn me.”

I picked up Jane’s overnight bag and helped her off the bed. “I’ll be fine, Miss Simpson.”

“Okay.” She sighed. “Let me know when you get back.”

It only took us ten minutes to get to the infirmary. I held on to Jane with one hand, and her bag with the other. I knew if I tried to talk to her I’d start crying. The nurse put us in a room with white walls, a black vinyl chair, and an examining table covered with a sheet. I settled Jane in the chair and started walking back and forth in the small room while we waited for the doctor.

I wanted to tell Jane so many things. About how walking had helped me, that she had helped me that night at Woo Ling’s, that I hardly knew her, but I thought her hair was beautiful and her fingernails elegant, and that I’d never heard anyone order from a menu with such sophistication. I wanted to tell her there were two ways of doing things, who knows, maybe a hundred ways to do everything, that professors (some of them anyway) were as pure as Sr. Agatha, that she’d be okay, I knew she would. But I didn’t say anything. I heard the door open and a man with a white coat and stethoscope stepped into the room.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Evans,” He glanced at me and went across the room and knelt in front of Jane. Gently he took her hands in his to keep them from picking at her scab.

I brushed my eyes with the back of my hand and I could taste the tears as they rolled into my mouth.

Dr. Evans looked up at me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Was I all right? I looked around the room. No glass, no burning smells, and the black chair held no demons, just poor vacant Jane.

“I’m fine,” I said and turned to leave.

As I stepped out of the infirmary I stopped. My eyes were so blurry I couldn’t see. I held on to the railing at the top of the steps. Suddenly I shuddered and it was as if I was shedding some invisible skin. I decided I’d call my mom and dad later on. I wanted them to tell Dr. Davey I’d been up until four in the morning talking to Susan, trying to figure out a way to convince her mother she should be a Zeta, and to tell Uncle Harry I’d gotten my books and they were beautiful, and I wanted to tell my parents that I loved them. Right now, though, I wanted to see some pine trees. I wanted to sit on the cool green grass and feel scratchy bark against my back. I walked down the steps and headed east to the Plaza of the Americas.

Natalie Cornell HeadshotNatalie Cornell has a MA in political science and has taught as an adjunct at Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida. She was a Contributing Writer to the St. Augustine Catholic and her articles have appeared in several other magazines. She lives with her husband, John, in Gainesville, Florida.

Swagger

I know you. You’re a swagger. A badass. Someone who went and got his mettle tested and returned stateside to the tea drinkers and powderpuffs with a chip on his shoulder and ribbons pinned to your chest. The world had got a whole lot smaller while you were at war: one day walking proud, the next asking permission. Duck your head. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay within the lines.

Now you’re on the barstool across from me. You’re mouthing off about re-enlisting. You can hardly sit still until you go off and get tested again. Dumb fuck. Doesn’t even occur to you that the second test is but another chance to fail.

My first bid was a hold back. It’s my go-to game. Don’t approach the crush, don’t tell him he’s beautiful. Look away. God forbid eyes should lock and a cool fire of embarrassment stiffen my jaw. Too young, too cocksure, too likely to break a heart. That’s you. Delighted with yourself. Each move a flexed muscle. You knew people were watching.

But subtlety was lost on you, and the night got shorter, and the drinks stronger, and praise God, we mortals need the fierce foot soldiers so fucking bad. Taking my cue, I matched you shot for shot over a game of pool that was all straight lines and sharp cracks.

I murmured, “Badass, tell me stories of war. Remind me of how it used to be.”

“You serve?” you asked. Your eyes sparked. Your skin gave off a whiff of burnt cordite.

“My father,” I explained. “Vietnam.”

New respect opened a spigot. Closest thing to a comrade you had in weeks, and you talked until you set down your pool stick.

“What are you doing later?” I asked.

You looked at me like I was plain stupid.

“Fucking,” you said.

“I’ve still got his medals. My father’s. Back at my apartment. You want to see ‘em?”

You nodded, we left, and as I put the key in the lock, I asked, “What are you into?”

“Bareback,” you said.

I didn’t refuse.

Sure, there was a moment of clench and fear, but having won your attention, I couldn’t not go through with it. Instead, I made a mental note to put a reminder in the calendar: on this date six weeks hence, get tested. (For whose sake?)

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

Then I wondered: was six weeks the state of the science? For antibodies to arise, it sounded long and yet short at the same time. Younger people would know, butI’m told, not personal experiencethe young go ahead barebacking on the least assurances of purity, and fuck the bug that took down my generation.

Gratifyingly indifferent, you grunted and came in my ass. I licked my wounds and brought myself to completion, proud you’d done nothing to get me off. I was beside the point. I owed you no debts.

In the morning, you did calisthenics in my kitchen. You trolled the ‘Net to see what else there was to conquer. You traced the spines of certain books on my shelf (Calvino, Heaney, Solzhenitsyn) and delivered an ad hominem coffee-fueled disquisition on the efficacy of microloans in the economies of sub-Saharan Africa the likes of which that I would never would have thought to hear from your filthy mouth. Your erudition briefly shrank you to the size of twice-a-man, almost accessible, before you again resumed being a goddamn hero going home to Mom to tell her you’re heading back to war.

“How old are you anyhow?” I asked.

“What’s it matter?”

“Are you afraid to know how old I am?”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

You prowled the apartment. Observed sightlines from the windows. Measured distance to places where the enemy might take shelter. You opened cupboards. Tried on my clothes. Snacked on raw oats and yoghurt and wolfed down an entire cold chicken.

For an hour, you stared at the cyclids in their tank, their dodge and weave, their fucking, their eating their young. I never knew a man could sit so still. Could cease breathing. The cyclids rushed to and fro and forgot you were there. I never forgot. Not for a second.

You set a mobile in perpetual motion. You flipped an hourglass and let the sand run out. You tested the weight of a cast iron trivet and the hardness of the tile and the looseness of the one floorboard near the stairs. You fixed what needed an extra screw. You drew the shades. You folded blankets with precise corners as if they were a flag from a vet’s casket.

I snuggled deeper in bed. Confident you had secured the perimeter. My house had never been so safe. You can see in the dark. Hear like a dog. You were at the peak of your game. You were born yesterday.

Me? 1968 and glad of it. A decade earlier, and I’d have been the good boy, the closet kill-myself of a prior age. A priest, maybe. A schemer. Maybe not so much predator on little boys or the seminarian in my charge, but who knows? I’ve abandoned all pretensions to superiority, which makes it harder to condemn.

Born after 1968, then what? I might have forgotten I’m controversial. I might have forgotten I’m fierce. Still standing. A warrior like you. A defiant queen of a persecution, backhanding jizz dangling from my chin.

No, complacency won’t do. We gays must always remember to be cock-angry and vicious, gun-toting and axe-wielding. Never forget. I may well have skirted the HIV that cut down my generation, but I pay the price in foreshortened gestures of tenderness like an angry T-Rex with half-sized forelimbs. This is me in San Juan with my former lover. This is me in Miami with a trick. We only ever held hands for these pics after scoping the scene for safety, and by then, the romantic impulse is DOA.

A crash shattered my comfort.

I padded to the living room where you had smashed a side table you had used as a stool to access the top shelf.

You laughed at what you’d done. You blamed the side table for its weakness. The world had unfolded no doubt exactly as it ought to. The strong are strong. The weak, weak.

“Now you’re up,” you said, “get on your shoes/shorts.”

You challenged me to a race to Worcestor Park and gave me two blocks lead.

“Loser bottoms,” you said.

You kicked my ass.

Taken prisoner, I was bodysore and content. Grateful. Overrun. Ransacked. Embarrassed by my fascination with your swagger.

Is there anything worse or more sinful than being obvious? The former most popular kid in the class, the once-upon-a-time rising star, the king of the world in another lifetime, I always wanted to be different.

“You never showed me his medals,” you accused.

“That was just a gambit to get you in the sack,” I admitted.

“Show me his medals.”

I delivered the case of medals and ribbons into your hands as if I was handing you my head on a platter. You scooted down under the covers, pointed at each decoration in turn, and explained what type of service or valor each indicated.

Hope sank. Fear gripped. From the start, your destiny had been to ask exactly the set of unholy questions that would estrange us. There was no such thing as happiness. You were going to war. I never had a chance.

“Tell me about your father,” you urged. “What kind of man was he?”

“Man of habits,” I said mechanically. “Home precisely at 5:20 p.m. Sat at table alone. My mother didn’t presume to ask how his day was. She didn’t presume to ask his needs. We assumed she read his mind. He ate his fill while the rest of us waited. When done, he nodded, and my sister and I scrambled to our places at the table, at attention, wide-eyed, trembling, stiff as pencils.

“Mother served and sat. We all bowed our heads. He never prayed, but instead looked on benevolently as if he were prayer’s object. Before we were done, he retired to the porch for a smoke. We knew better to join him until summoned. When summoned, we roughhoused, indoors or out, according to the season.

“Later still, he’d eye my mother and they’d disappear behind closed doors.”

“You must have loved him.”

“I was afraid of him.”

Your brow furrowed. You couldn’t imagine disobeying the fifth commandment. You wanted unicorns and heroes.

“Don’t you miss him?” you asked. “Aren’t you proud of him? Did he ever tell you stories about how he won these?”

“He hated the word won. He said he didn’t win shit. He said he earned them.”

“Earned, of course, earned,” you acknowledged impatiently.

You looked expectant. I resisted your bullying. I knew how to wait until the table’s cleared.

You wrapped me in an affectionate, intolerable headlock.

“Don’t fuck with me,” you said. “Come on. Never? Really? You never once sat down and ate at the same time as him and talked about what happened over…?”

“The man of the family gets his fill first, because the others depend on him,” I said stiffly, acutely aware I wasn’t the man and you and I were no family.

We were twenty-four into this solitary confinement I ought to have known would be a mistake. Should have gone home and jerked off alone.

“He sounds like a tough old bastard.”

“I never once spoke to him in all my thirty-five years about being gay, but he left me his army duds from Vietnam.”

You said, “He must have thought you earned them.”

You meant it.

Your earnestness was as unsexy as your erudition. I wanted to destroy it.

“When I was a boy,” I said, “I wanted to feel heroic, so I accompanied girls to the dance. I did what I was supposed to. I danced. I told them they were beautiful, but I never could give them what they wanted: to be desired, not just treated with kindness. To be mortified, not simply loved. To be defiled. I could only file their nails and help them choose matching pumps. I was kindness itself.”

I looked you in the eye.

“My father hated me,” I said.

My words punched a hole in that easy confidence. Kicked the stool from beneath you. Struggling for breath and words like a hanged man, you slipped from bed as quickly if I was infected.

I snatched at your wrist, seeking salvation.

“He did say, once, if ever someone knocks on your door and he’s got a black helmet and says he’s from SpecOps Delta, give him a place to sleep. Promise me this.”

“That’s my unit,” you murmured as if in a dream.

“Promise me this,” I said.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more.

“Why would you lie about a thing like that?” you asked. You, who had seen everything. The absolute worst. The nerve of asking me about lies, as if I’d killed Bambi.

You looked as if you’d be happier back in the theater of war, where you knew what was up.

You dressed swiftly in the clothes you came in. I offered you a loan of mine, because I knew they’d fit and this fact seemed like a triumph, an important parting shot.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more. Just name, rank, serial number. Maybe blood type.

What an amazing husband you would have made if you’d just come back to the living and measured your mettle in alternative ways! But then you’d be something other than what you were: undomesticated, savage, a bully, a stiff.

Me? I’m a warm mouth. I swallow them all. I’m capacious. I’m generosity itself.

Your leave is short. Anything is possible. I love you. Warriors like us play by different rules. Test our blood.

Scott David HeadshotScott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails, and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in Evening Street Review, Apple Valley Review, Ampersand Review, Entasis, Ray’s Roadhouse Review, St. Sebastian Review, Glitterwolf, Blue Penny Quarterly, and Fiction Fix. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

How Not to Drown

1. Don’t obsess about the reasons you ended it with him. Of course you could think of reasons but none of them would be true and also all of them would be true. Things like: the way he cut the mushrooms for dinner, one at a time instead of bunching them, irritated you. Things like: when you stood in line at the grocery store on a Saturday morning and he thought you didn’t know the difference between granulated and powdered sugar. He explained it to you, carefully, precisely, like when you were in college and showed your grandpa how to use the GPS in his car. You said to him, “Oh really, that’s the difference? I never knew!”

“Yeah, that’s the difference.” He smiled dopily, like a golden retriever, the kind of smile that’s fixed into a face.

You stared at this person you’d been dating for almost eleven months, since you moved to the city and learned that’s what you called it.

“Wait, are you joking?”

“Of course I’m fucking joking, Alex. You think I don’t know the difference between powdered sugar and regular sugar?”

“I can’t tell when you’re joking or not.” His forehead wrinkle appeared. This meant: worried.

You didn’t tell him that wasn’t the point.

 

2. Focus on the real moment: a Monday morning, a few weeks later. Downtown, a new route, one block from his work, two from yours.

“Look,” you said, pointing at the lot across the street.

When he turned his body towards the construction, you could see in his hair the places he’d be bald one day. The building was totally open, and workers stood in the middle of the u-shape they’d made from the inside of it. The concrete revealed, the wires of its insides showing, like crumbling halva.

“That’s so cool,” he said.

“Cool?”

“Yeah, it’s so cool the way the wires are exposed.”

You were maybe already sad before he said this, but you were definitely sadder after.

“I wonder if they tear down buildings the same way every time, or if they do it differently depending on the structure.”

This is the moment you knew you’d eventually have to end it.

Here’s what you were thinking about: your grandpa’s jaw hanging open, drawing in raggedy breaths every five seconds. You sat next to his hospital bed in his room, pleading with him silently to let go, but you wouldn’t say it out loud. Too cheesy. Begging God to take him, but God knew you mostly didn’t believe in Him and so He probably wasn’t listening.

Alex saw exposed wires and you saw your grandpa’s empty mouth, without his teeth in, the darkness of it hanging slack. And this picture you found near his desk, digging through his things while waiting for him to die, which was of yourself as a little girl, wearing a turquoise swimsuit the color of the swimming pool water, and jump-hugging up on his large body, your arms wrapped around his shoulders.

“What?” Alex asked. You knew he was worried he’d be late if you stood there longer.

You shrugged. The construction worker put down his sign and motioned you forward. “Have a great day, okay?” he said, kissing you on the cheek and pushing his sunglasses back on his ears.

 

3. You were stagnant for a week, until it was Monday again, and you still hadn’t done it. You left work early with your tired in the edges of your eye sockets.

You stood on the train—you still called them that even though you knew it wasn’t strictly correct, what a native might say—and tried to feel your skeletal system, align your posture. You weren’t sure where you were going: his house, yours, somewhere new, a neighborhood you’d never been. For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

You got off at 24th only because Jen, one of your best friends from college, was calling. This seemed like enough of a sign to head aboveground. You pushed through the turnstile, phone held in between your ear and cramping shoulder. You tried to get to full service before losing the call—“Hold on, hold on, I’m walking upstairs.” It was windy outside, coming through the stairwell of the BART.

For seven days, you’d been trying to talk yourself back into it, the relationship.

Jen wanted to know what was going on. Jen had a sprained ankle and was waiting for her boyfriend David to come pick her up outside the gym. Jen was still in Boston, where you lived together at the beginning of your Real Lives. Before you felt itchy on your arms and the soles of your feet every time you came home to the house in JP, and started applying for jobs on The West Coast. (You still thought of it in capitals then.)

You walked down 24th, towards no one you knew’s house.

“I’m just sitting in the last moments of sunshine.”

“I’m sorry you sprained your ankle.”

“It’s okay. Have you done it yet?”

“No. Not yet. I think I’m going to though. Really soon.”

“I guess I still don’t really get the issue. Did something happen?”

“No. Yeah. He just…we just don’t see things the same way. He doesn’t get how I feel about anything, he just wants to…I don’t even want to tell you about this. I’m ruining it, I’m making things up and telling you some story about why it doesn’t work but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work.”

“There must be a reason.”

“That’s exactly the point. There’s a reason but there’s also no reason.”

You didn’t want to invent something for all your friends who wanted to know why, so you stopped returning their calls and texts. You were like a teenager again, making excuses for getting a bad grade on a test, who wouldn’t just admit she’d stayed up late, listening to the new Something Corporate/Dashboard Confessional/Taking Back Sunday CD on repeat instead of studying. Letting the music feel your feelings for you.

“Well. You’re entitled to your feelings,” Jen said.

“Maybe.”

“The longer you stay, the harder it’ll be to leave, so, if you’re having all these doubts…yeah.”

“Or maybe I’m overreacting. Did you ever feel like this with David?”

“With David…I mean, I think when we first started dating, it wasn’t like I was like oh my god I’m going to marry this guy. But I remember one night we’d been dating for like six months, and he got out of the bathroom and there were his little shaving hairs all over the edge of the sink, and I was brushing my teeth and noticing them and I didn’t even care, and that’s when I was like shit I am totally in love with this person, because you remember when I lived with Peter and he did that I would flip my shit about it, like, this is so gendered that I’m having to clean up the sink from your chin stubble! But that night I didn’t even care. Also, though, he’s not emotionally manipulative like Peter.”

“Also.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s…hold on. This entire city is fucking under construction. That’s a jackhammer.”

“You’re in a boom, Carrie! I keep reading you’re in a bubble. More jobs. It’s good.”

You walked quickly away from the noise. You saw a dress in a window and you saw, in its printed green and white flowered pattern, an excuse to get off the phone, away from whatever story you were making up for a person who had known you for seven years, who held your hair back while you vomited from tequila plus vodka, whose hand you squeezed at the hospital once when Jen had to get an emergency spinal tap, who lay giggling with you on the floor of your shared bedroom in the dorms until you yelled, “Stop! I’m going to seriously pee on this floor if we don’t stop.”

“Okay,” Jen said from Boston. “I feel like we didn’t really talk about it.”

“That’s okay. I’m sorry you twisted your ankle.”

“It’ll be fine.”

“Okay. I’ll call you soon.”

“Yeah, okay, just call whenever. Let me know what happens. I’m sorry you’re having a hard time.”

“I’m fine. I’m just, it’s just today.”

 

4. When you visited your grandpa last summer at his house by the ocean, the wind came off the Atlantic and you were wearing just a t-shirt, pale peach and loose. He said to you, “Aren’t you cold?”

“I’m a little cold. I didn’t want to wear any of my sweaters though. I didn’t want to carry it.”

“You can’t keep arguing with the world like this, Carrie.”

“Grandpa.” You sang it to him.

“Okay, you can keep arguing, but you’re going to lose. The wind, you’re not going to beat the wind with just being stubborn. You’re not going to beat nature.”

“I’m not trying to beat nature.”

“Are you trying to be uncomfortable? Why don’t you just let yourself be comfortable?”

These were the kinds of questions he asked.

 

5. You didn’t look for a dress that night. And you didn’t go to Alex’s for dinner. Or turn around and walk the thirty minutes straight home, to your unmade bed with its twisted grey down comforter.

You walked down the street, towards the fancy ice cream place with the strange flavors, and ordered biscuits and gravy, which came with actual dough pieces. You sat inside, in the heat. Now it was getting dark, sun behind a hill, and all you could see was your own reflection in the window, the place in your left eyebrow that you’d over-plucked by accident earlier in the week, that still needed to grow in.

You left your coat on, scarf wrapped around your neck, tight. Licking slowly, slowly, letting it coat the top of your tongue and the back of your throat with creamy fat, like covering your dry legs with lotion in the winter.

You spun on the stool, pretending the world had ended around you, there’d been the apocalypse but you hadn’t known because you were inside the ice cream place, which somehow had been the only safe place. The luck of it.

When you went outside later, if you went outside later, you’d see only dust, everything transformed to rubble, and there’d be no empty, sad, torn down places, once everything had been reduced to brown, fine silt. The kind you could pick up in your hand and scatter, like cremains.

 

6. In the beginning of the new year, four months after you ended it, and three months after you decided to stop speaking, or rather, after Alex told you he didn’t want to hate you and that he needed you to stop speaking, you are learning a different story. It’s a story about a man with an almost hairless arm. Him, holding his dark arm next to yours to compare shades. A man with a gold band around his finger that looks like a cousin of the one you’ve been wearing on your hand since your grandpa died.

You quit your job in the office and are teaching swimming to middle school girls. Your hair is always crunchy with chlorine.

“Why not? Why not make a mess of it?” your mother said on the phone, when you told her you were quitting your job, just a month after ending things with Alex.

“Of what?”

“Your life. You’ve never done that before. So try it.”

Your arm has more hair on it and is almost the same shade as this man’s. You are probably the only person in the entire city who’s getting tan in the winter, but it’s been a dry one, everyone says, so you can be outside, in Marin or Berkeley, when you’re not at work.

“You like that band?” the man asks, looking at your ring. He’s the kind of man who knows everyone’s name at the front desk of the pool, and they know his.

“Sure,” you say. You don’t tell him it’s your grandpa’s that you got resized. You don’t tell him you’re beholden to no one.

You’re learning city kids are strange creatures outside of the pool. One second they’re children, the next they’re grown-up skinny models, all hips and sassy eyebrows. They know how to protect their bags; they know how to catch a cab and a bus. Sometimes, except in the water, you feel like they know more than you, child of the suburbs of the northeast.

Don’t ask him about his ring.

After, you lie in the bedroom of the studio apartment south of Market where he takes you. He says it’s his friend’s place, only occupied when his friend is in town for work, which is rarely. Something about data and hospitals. His friend is always on the road. The apartment has no photos.

You miss the seasons. You miss the way the leaves falling forces people to think about change, and the cold keeps them inside to consider what they have or haven’t done, and talk to each other. You miss weather that doles out consequences.

The next day, at the pool, one of the lane swimmers pulls you aside as you walk toward the locker room to get ready for work. You want to run from her the way you want to run from everyone, lately. Stay.

“Hun,” she says, in a voice like no one you are related to, a voice of the south. You wonder what turn she’s taken to end up in a community pool in northern California.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve seen you. You’re a good swimmer. You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you.” The woman wears a purple one-piece and sparkly, blue toenail polish.

“You’ve got an open heart.”

You smile at her like someone with an open heart might.

“Has anyone told you, how good it gets?”

You hold still. The woman has short silver and white hair and is pretty, with sharp features and ballerina cheekbones. She wears no make up.

“Child, you’re young, and you’re beautiful, but let me tell you from sixty, it gets even better.” The woman smiles; the corners of her eyes get crinkly. “I’m in love again! And it can get so good.” Her teeth look strong. They look real. “Okay?”

“Okay.”

She squeezes your shoulders and trots off toward the pool.

You walk to the locker room to put your bag away, to sit on a rubber bench with your head in your open hands, briefly, to try to feel ready to teach those adultbabies how not to drown.

Janet FrishbergJanet Frishberg lives and writes in a light blue room in San Francisco, where she’s currently editing her first book. You can find her work in places like Smokelong QuarterlyPithead Chapel; Literary Orphans; Cease, Cows; the SF Chronicle; and r.kv.r.y quarterly. She’d love to tell you more at janetfrishberg.com.

The Average Man

I do not know exactly when it was that I first started thinking about him. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was the day I went for ribs with my sister. As we ripped into the moist flesh with our hands, I remember wondering where the pig I was eating had come from. For a moment I imagined it, fat and filthy, penned up with a thousand other pigs in a dark warehouse. I comforted myself with the thought that it had known no other world, but the guilt stuck. Still, I kept eating.

Once done, I sat back and sucked the sweet juices off my fingertips, nibbling on ragged cuticles, content. Cleaned my hands on a lemony wipe and started folding it into a damp origami crane. Then I noticed my sister staring.

“You know, there’s a name for that,” she said, “I looked it up on Wikipedia.”

“What,” I feigned, because I knew the name, I too had looked it up on Wikipedia.

“Dermatophagia, it’s a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. You should see someone about it.”

I looked at my fingertips. A tiny spot of blood was welling up where I’d bitten through the skin.

“It’s just a bad habit,”I defended, “Like picking your nose. You pick your nose.”

“I don’t pick my nose. But even if I did, that would be normal. Chewing the skin off your fingertips is totally not normal. The average person doesn’t hurt himself like that.”

It doesn’t hurt, I thought, but didn’t say it in case she thought I also had some kind of delusional disorder.

Yes, I’d say it was probably then that I started thinking about him. Not jealously, just curiously. Since that day he hasn’t left me. Deciding whether a pair of boxers can be worn for the third time without washing, I wonderis this what he’s doing now too? WWAMD… What Would the Average Man Do? It becomes a kind of peer pressure. When the barista flicks her hair at me at Starbucks and I experience a ripple of revulsion, I force myself to smile back flirtatiously as the Average Man would. In fact, I ask for her number and she obliges, and now I must pick her up tomorrow night at seven thirty for organic gourmet burgers even though I do not really like organic gourmet burgers.

At this point I begin doing some research on him: according to Google, the average thirty to thirty-nine year old American man has a body mass index of 29, just shy of the medical definition of obese. His eyes are brown, quite unlike my grey-green ones (the right is greener). He is five foot nine, has a waist of thirty-nine inches, and his name is James. This does not help me much except I do feel slightly better about my large but apparently below average mid-section. There is no mention on the internet whether the Average Man prefers the company of his ferret to his family or whether stepping beyond the yellow line at train platforms constitutes the most rebellious behaviour of his adult life.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer. On these days I believe that he’s the kind of guy with a girlfriend who works in marketing and comes over to clean his apartment on Sunday afternoons, sometimes staying the night and sometimes going home in a huff because of one too many emails to an attractive female colleague. He himself occupies some kind of middle management role, an adequate but uninspiring corporate subject. He shaves daily and definitely does not have dermatophagia.

On these days, I can finish my grocery shopping in under fifteen minutes (without stopping at every aisle to weigh up the implications of choosing low-fat versus regular), I can make small talk with strangers (without wondering if I come across as a paedophile or particularly annoying strain of extrovert) and I almost, just almost, enjoy my job as an auditor (without feeling over-privileged and under-stimulated). I feel as if I am on stable ground.

Some days I feel as though I know what he is like, in the same way one feels familiar with an actress or writer.

The other days I realize that my image of the Average Man is a pure composition of stereotypes and hence cannot be accurate. It takes time for the average to become the archetype and even longer to become the cliché. My Average Man is maybe the Average Man of the 1990s, listening to Three Doors Down while working out on an elliptical machine. The days I realize this are not so great. I take a full fifteen minutes (or more) to choose a brand of muesli, I alternate between hysterical greetings and suspicion when dealing with friends of friends, and I am nasty to the team secretary over misplaced paperclips.

It is on one of these infuriating days that I finally decide that enough is enough; I will put an end to my fruitless speculation and take matters into my own hands. I will find him, talk to him, take notes, and come away satisfied with a thorough understanding of how I deviate from the mean. In case I miss any points worth noting, I will endeavour to obtain his personal phone number to facilitate future consultations.

I have no idea where to start looking, so I turn to Google once again. Soon I locate several other average things used for measurement of their counterparts’ relative value. The official kilogram, for example, resides in a leafy suburb of Paris under guard of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Because the platinum-iridium cylinder has lost about fifty micrograms (the weight of a single grain of sand) over the last hundred years, disconcerted scientists now want to redefine the kilogram in terms of the Planck constant. The Planck constant is not expected to change any time soon, and this is a good thing for standard units of measure. All this is interesting but not very helpful, so I keep looking.

After six hours of research, I find a tenuous lead. A thread in the sub-forum of a sub-forum of a sub-forum refers briefly to an ‘International Bureau of Human Standards’, or IBHS. Subsequent comments suggest a mysterious but powerful body that tracks all human thought, feeling, act, and appearance in relation to an official Average Man. Even better, under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request access to this Average Man. I expect that arranging to see him must involve a lengthy hold period on a one eight hundred number, followed by the pronouncement that I am seven thousandth in queue and must hence wait three years before I may visit, but it is actually surprisingly easy, and the IBHS website obligingly registers me for an appointment next week in a few clicks.

Naively, I’d thought that some kind of burden would be lifted off my chest once I took concrete steps towards satisfying my curiosity. Instead I find myself pacing up and down my hundred square foot studio, working myself up into a nervous sweat trying to figure out what questions are worthy of asking in that precious one hour. Do I want to know if it’s weird that my favourite colour has always been fuchsia? Maybe I want to figure out if my diet gives me a higher or lower than average chance of dying from coronary thrombosis. Or inquire if everybody from time to time pretends that they are already dead while lying still in bed at night, trying to imagine what it feels like and realizing it is the most peace you have had all day. No, I will not ask about that, it would make for awkward conversation.

How is one supposed to carry out such an interview anyway? The Average Man must have, by definition, only average patience, which in this tweet-saturated day and age I can’t imagine is all that much. He must get bored pretty quickly, living his life under lock and key in that glass cage (the IBHS occupies the thirty-seventh floor of a tall shiny building in midtown Manhattan). Maybe I should prepare a witty riposte or two. Ought I to read up on certain topics to ensure that I may provide at least a smidgen of entertainment? Perhaps baseball or the latest political rumblings of the Middle East? It is impossible to know what will tickle the Average Man’s fancy. And isn’t that the point of this interview anyway, to find out? I spend the rest of the week feverishly perusing The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and Perez Hilton, in hope that I will have imbibed sufficient cultural references to sustain an hour’s worth of interesting conversation.

Finally the day arrives. I find myself in the shiny lobby of the IBHS, being greeted by a receptionist who only registers in my mind as a flash of white teeth and red lips. I am wearing a maroon plaid shirt with nice jeans, dark brown suede belt and matching shoes. I’m not sure why I’m dressed as if on a date; I feel as though I forgot the flowers. My palms are cold and my cuticles bitten right down to the basal cell layer.

“Follow me please,” the receptionist says, opening a door. We step into a long hallway, so long that it ends in a vanishing point. She starts walking, quickly. In her four inch high pumps she sways like a model, but a model capable of Olympic sprint speeds. We pass identical door after door, each one spaced the width of a door apart along the endless wall. The walls are a spotless white, lit by naked bulbs that hang from the ceiling every three doors down. It is a comforting space, in the way that the ugliness of a hospital waiting room sometimes is.

After what feels like forever (my watch sensibly informs me that only seven minutes that have passed) I turn to look in the direction we came from. Another vanishing point. The sound of the receptionist’s clacking heels reminds me to keep going, like the bubbles that lead a nitrogen narcosis stricken scuba diver back to the surface. I hurry to keep up.

There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts.

Without warning, she stops in front of a door no different than any of the three thousand (okay, maybe thirty) others that we’ve passed. “Here we are,” she says, smiling brightly and brandishing one arm towards the door like a game show hostess unveiling a sports car. The thought occurs to me that this is in fact an elaborate reality TV set-up, but an apprehensive glance around identifies no nooks or crannies, no potential hiding places for tiny cameras, save maybe the receptionist herself. “Thank you,” I say, scrutinizing her nostrils for recording devices. My suspicion is met by yet another encouraging smile, before she turns and clacks away.

Soon I am alone in the vertiginous hallway, where if not for the faint sound of the now out-of-sight receptionist’s heels on the hard marble, it feels as though I have stepped out of time altogether. This feeling begins to grow, threatening to snowball into a maddening disorientation, so I push open the door in front of me and enter the room of the Average Man.

The space in which I find myself is modest but cosy, and very clean. It is smaller than the average dentist’s waiting room but larger than a college dorm room. Contents comprise a sofa bed, a bookshelf occupying the entire length of one wall, and in the corner, a dark-haired clean-shaven man in his late twenties or early thirties. I stand awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of the etiquette advised in standard visiting procedure. “Hello,” he says, standing up and walking towards me.

As he approaches, I wonder to myself if we’ve met before. There is something about him that evokes the feeling of a high school reunion, being surrounded by ex-classmates swapping stories of babies and yachts. He looks nothing like the James of my Google-fueled imagination; he is slightly taller, younger, and has a more athletic build. His clothes are fashionable and his manners relaxed. His voice is a strong baritone. Yet still there is something about him that remains familiar. I rack my memory for cluesan old business acquaintance? Friend of a long lost friend? Spin class?but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

It is not until I say “Hello” back, looking him in the eye and returning his firm handshake that I realize something; then the greeting sticks in my throat and a sick feeling rises from the pit of my stomach. It is his eyes that first give it away, but once I see it I don’t see how I could have not seen it right away.

His eyes are the same green-grey as mine, except the left is greener and the right greyer. Looking at him is like looking in a mirror but not exactly, because our features are identical but he is different. It is like looking at a fitter, better groomed, more charismatic version of myself.

As I shake his hand, I glance down. His fingernails are smooth, wholesome squares, so shiny that the slightest movement causes them to catch the light reproachfully. The feeling in my stomach expands into wretchedness, and as I try to choke out the word “Hello” again I tear my hand from his grasp. Stepping back out through the open door, I walk, run and then sprint down the endless hallway until my shirt sticks to my back and my breath goes ragged.

The doors go on and on. It terrifies me to think how many average people reside behind them, like pigs in filthy dark pens. I must have picked the wrong direction to run in, because time keeps passing and I still haven’t found the receptionist’s desk.

Rachel Heng HeadshotRachel recently graduated from Columbia University. She now lives in London.

Peace Comes at a Cost

“That nurse-girl stole my check blanks.”

It’s a conversation starter. I just got here, just sat down in the chair that used to be Grandma’s and we needed a place to start.

The nurse comes in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to check on him and get him to bathe. On Fridays, I show up a half hour after the nurse leaves, and he bitches. As he bitches about that “nurse girl” he points to the front door and I can see his arm because he forgot to button his shirt sleeve and his muscles aren’t big enough to keep the material up. His withered arm, like chicken skin that’s been pulled off raw, slaps at the air. He shakes his fist and that skin jiggles and I can’t eat chicken anymore.

I look away, over to the television that’s not on, to the bookcase filled with Reader’s Digest books in rainbow colors, to the robin’s egg blue paint on the walls and the thick brown shag carpet. But his arm stays up, the skin jiggling back and forth at the edges of my sight line.

“She didn’t steal your check blanks, Grandpa,” I say.

“Listen here, missy, they’re gone.”

“I put them in the desk drawer where you always keep them.”

“That’s not where I like them.”

“Yeah, it is.”

He looks over the 1940’s red metal TV tray he likes to eat at, his brittle blue eyes pale imitations of themselves with white cataract lace crocheted across. The old face, deep wrinkled cheeks, and I make myself remember being told that I’m supposed to love and respect this man. And I want to, I really do. It’s just easier to remember when his skin’s not jiggling at me.

His wrinkled mouth, concaved from losing all his teeth, has that white foamy stuff caught on one corner. He reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips, like he knows the foamy spit is there, but he doesn’t. It’s just one of those things he does.

“Drawer’s where we keep ‘em?” he says.

“Yep.”

“Oh.”

He looks at the air between his face and my face, sort of in my direction but not looking at me. Like every Friday, I wish I could think of ways to get out of the house for the night. That’s not going to happen. It’s my turn. And just like every Friday, I feel a sigh slide up me before it comes out, try to make it stay inside, but it won’t.

“Show’s comin’ on soon,” he says.

That’s Grandpa’s code for me to stand up and turn on the television he’s had forever. The set takes a minute to warm up enough to show a picture, and while it warms I turn it to channel four Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. These shows seem to be on some Old Person Mandatory Viewing list. He watches them six days a week, talks about them with other old people when I take him places. An octogenarian version of water cooler TV.

“You make a good door but not a good window,” he says.

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair.

It’s a family saying. One my father repeated too many times when I was growing up. I step to the side of the television set, no longer a door. My jaw is teeth against teeth while I pull the TV tray in front of his chair and take a white napkin from the holder on his wood-like-finished end table, lay the napkin on the tray.

“You cold?” I say.

“What!”

I take a breath in so I can talk in a calm voice.

“You’re in my way,” he says before I can repeat the question. He leans to his right, to look around me although the set hasn’t warmed and neither show is on.

“Didja break my television?”

I step left. Make a Vanna White gesture to the set. “It’s warming up.”

“Oh.”

I know my being alive is because of this bent and broken person covered in chicken skin and baggy clothes, this head scattered with liver spots and white hair. But I’m nineteen and he’s been, like, eighty years old for my entire life, kind of like my parents always being forty. They will always be those ages, even though I’ve grown from kindergarten to college. They are my adults, and now I’m supposed to be old enough to take care of them like they’re children.

“What do you want for dinner?” I say.

“It’s Friday.”

“What kind of fish do you want?”

His wrinkled arm and hand come out at me and wave me away. Jeopardy! is starting. “Whatever you find,” he says. His words, his blue and white eyes aimed more at the TV and Alex Trebek than at me. I pass by him toward the kitchen, and, “You make a good door.”

At the same time I say, “Sorry.”

Inside my head is the little girl in me that wants to smartass back at him with, “I never wanted to be a window,” but I can’t because he’s still my adult.

*     *     *

The kitchen is pink 1950s tile counters, cool rounded edges, a white cast iron sink with chips that show the metal underneath. The place where Grandma used to make fried chicken and ginger cookies while I watched. I lean on the counter, weight into my hands and arms, all of me bent and braced and tired. So damned tired my body could melt into a puddle, lie there until I evaporate into the stale air of this house, because my night, my one night of the week on duty, has only just started.

And he coughs. The cough that comes from smoking filterless Salems until he couldn’t get them anymore. Long enough that the smell of cigarette is ground into the pores of the house.

Then the after-cough sound, a guttural slog of goop out of his lungs and spit into one of his red handkerchiefs. The red handkerchiefs lie all over the house in crusted sculptures of red patterned cloth and dry mucus, waiting for the day my mother or my aunt is here because none of the rest of us will touch them. Waiting for my cousin to come on Wednesday and iron them, because she likes to iron. A pile of dozens of those washed and ironed red handkerchief next to his chair, because when we buy him Kleenex, Grandpa says that a handkerchief was good enough for his father and his grandfather and then he says nothing else because that’s supposed to be an answer.

I think about those handkerchief sculptures and vomit a little in the back of my throat. My own goop that goes back down to my stomach.

On the pea green fridge, the white board has the weekly schedule, the same schedule for every week since Grandma passed and the family had to take over the responsibility of Grandpa. Fish on Friday, chicken on Sunday, laundry on Wednesday. It’s all on the white board, even the “nurse girl” and the in-home-hospice guys who come overnight to doze on a chair in case something happens during the wee-smalls.

My sister has Tuesdays. My brother lives out-of-state and therefore out-of-reach. My cousin, parents, aunt, and uncle each took a shift until all that was left for me was Friday.

Friday because I don’t have a boyfriend.

Friday because I don’t work nights.

Friday because it’s supposed to give me time for homework.

Every fucking Friday.

Friday and therefore fish.

I want to lean on the pink tiles I lovethe tiles that are pale, delicate, old. A single thing inside this house that I can always count on. Even the cracked tiles remain steady in their spot, saying to hell with you, we are not leaving this place without a fight.

Of course, the tiles are just the kitchen version of my grandfather and with that thought my peace is broken. I pull myself up and over to the fridge with the white board, with the schedule, with the fish on Friday.

I get to choose between frozen fish sticks or frozen breaded clams that are like eating deep fried pencil erasers. A handful of clams on a cookie sheet, into the oven, 350 degrees for eleven minutes. I reheat the leftover creamed corn from last night. And ta-da, microwave-and-eleven-minute Haute Cuisine.

Grandpa hollers from the living room. “You ‘bout done in there?”

I’m leaning again, staring out the window over the sink and I holler back, “A couple minutes.”

Wheel of Fortune’s coming on soon.”

“I know.”

“I like to eat when Wheel‘s” his sentence ends in another cough, another hack, another spit, another potential goop and red handkerchief statue.

The vomit taste burns my throat, goes back down into my stomach, that horrible aftertaste of acid sick in my mouth. I come out to the living room, Double Jeopardy, and ‘What’s the Mona Lisa,’ and his cough goes on.

“You okay?” I say.

“Course I’m okay,” he says, and coughs goop into the red cloth. “Just get me my dinner.”

I bite my bottom lip on the little girl that wants to smartass again and go back to the kitchen.

The creamed corn bubbles in the microwave. I rummage to find his tartar sauce behind the milk that will expire tomorrow, plop some onto the plate in a lumpy circle, and wait for the oven timer.

*     *     *

Wheel of Fortune is starting in the living room and Grandpa’s eating batter crusted chewy clam parts from the flowered plates Grandma always used. My chance for a moment of peace and I take it on the toilet.

But peace comes at a cost. His stomach and bowels don’t hold much of anything anymore. The splattered edge of the toilet seat, however, holds whatever is splattered there.

I find the cleanser, the blue plastic cleaning brush, and scrub. A few minutes of bleach activated lemon scented suds, a solid minute of soap and a fingernail scrubber on my hands, and I can finally sit.

While the pee falls into the water under me, I close my eyes and think of all the memories of this place from my childhood. The laughter and conversation that would come through the rooms, us kids running to Grandma where she sat in her chair, lemon drops in the sky blue candy dishhard sugary outside that always cut the tongue and the sharp-sweet lemon beneath. Then I grew up and this became the house where my grandmother died slowly from cancer without telling any of us she was sick. Where my grandfather now sits and rots, Friday by Friday.

A bang against the flimsy bathroom door and my thighs go goose-bump prickly with the interrupt. Is it another time bomb? Another drizzle down the pant leg? The exciting opportunity to put my bare hands into the toilet bowl with real live old man shit?

His voice echoes into the hollow bathroom door. “My corn’s cold.” He slaps a fist on the door again. “D’you hear me in there?”

I take a breath in. “Can I please have a moment?”

No answer.

I count to ten in my head and still nothing. My body relaxes; small drops of pee come out of me. My head falls to the spring green bathroom wall beside me and I think again about how much I miss chicken.

Then his voice again, relentless. “My corn’s cold and they have some spick on Wheel of Fortune.”

With my head against the wall, I can see the ancient yellow shower tiles in the mirror over the sink. The dripping shower head with rust on the pipe. One of Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups on the counter.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” I say, more to the coffee cup than to him.

“What!” he asks, but it’s not really a question.

The little girl piece of me makes a fist and the fist wants to slam at the door and through the door and I collect my calm and I say, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Oh.”

The sound of his answer bounces around inside the door and repeats itself. Oh, oh, oh. Sad, sorry, pathetic.

At the sink, my Grandma’s green eyes look back at me in the mirror. Her cheekbones and not-quite-pug nose. The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

Whatever she saw in him, I don’t see.

I come out and he’s walked back to his chair, the hump of his shoulders pulling the back of his white shirt from his gray pants. He turns around and half-sits-half-falls into the chair where he half-lives his life.

On the ancient red TV tray are the remains of his dinner. Cold creamy stuff with floating corn, tartar sauce with floating clumps of clam batter, half the clam pieces uneaten.

“You want me to warm that up again?” I say.

He looks at the plate and I look at the plate and we pause. My grandfather and I have never spent so much time together, have never been alone-just-the-two-of-us before I took Fridays a couple of months ago. We don’t know how to be silent with each other, how to be just family.

“Do you want it warmed up?” I say again.

His hand raises and shoos me away. “Not hungry anymore,” he says. And he reaches a hand up and wipes at his lips because it’s just one of those things he does.

The memory of her is all over my face and I think of those times when Grandpa is really out of it and he calls me Grandma’s name.

My teeth against teeth make a false smile he isn’t looking at and the girl in me wants to scream, shrill enough and big enough to break something. Break him so I can have my Fridays back. So I can have some memories that haven’t been broken by adulthood.

“Look!” he says, the flap of chicken skin arm falls out of his sleeve while his finger points at the television and his skin points at the kitchen then the bathroom then the kitchen again. “Look, right there on Wheel.”

Some guy named Eduardo asks for an F, gets three. While Vanna White does her bit, Grandpa’s finger stops pointing, his skin stops pointing, and I remember liking chicken.

“Damned people are everywhere,” he says. “Ruined the damned country.”

I pick up the plate and Eduardo solves the puzzle to win two thousand five hundred and fifty dollars. ‘The Eiffel Tower of London.’

“There’s no Eiffel Tower in England,” Grandpa says.

“It’s a before and after puzzle,” I say.

“A what?”

“A before and after.”

He stares hard at me, cataracts over blue.

I point to the television, my second Vanna White moment of the night, and say it louder, “The puzzle is Before and After.”

“Oh,” he says. “Still a damned spick.”

Another end to another conversation.

I cross in front of him to get to the kitchen. I’m not a door this time because he doesn’t mind missing commercials.

“Dessert?” I say.

“Maybe coffee later,” he says.

As I walk toward the kitchen, he says, “You know.”

I stop. Look at the back of his half-balded head.

“I used to care about things,” he says.

He keeps his eyes on the TV set. A new puzzle. The category is Same Name.

*     *     *

In the pink tiled kitchen, I leave behind idiots buying vowels.

I reach for a glass and find the bottle of vodka behind Grandpa’s dark blue coffee cups. I shouldn’t be surprised and I’m not. I know I’m supposed to be angry and reprimand him like he’s some kid sneaking a cookie and I won’t.

Something I never noticed before my Fridays was Grandpa and his coffee cups full of vodka. Grandpa walking back to his chair or into the bedroom or into the bathroom, the cup beside his leg because he thinks if it’s beside his leg no one else can see it. Grandpa moving along every day with badly hidden blue cups of what’s killing him.

I grab a glass and the bottle of vodka. At the sink, I fill my glass from the tap and it clinks on the tile when I set it down. Then I hold the bottle up in the window sunlight. Through vodka bottle glass I see the neighborhood my grandparents have always lived in. None of their friends are in these houses now; they’ve gone to live with relatives, moved to retirement homes, died.

The vodka bottle is more than half gone, hidden away in the cupboard for less than a week since it wasn’t here last Friday. It smells like nothing. Tastes like nothing but a warm burn through my throat and into my chest as I tip it up and empty the bottle. It clears away the vomit taste, gives the evening a lightness.

Then I drink my water and set my glass beside the sink. Under the sink, the garbage smells of mold and bad meat, and I shove the empty vodka bottle under some old tin foil and close the cupboard door.

Sally Lehman HeadshotSally K Lehman is the author of the novella Small Minutes. She has had more than twenty poems and stories published in online literary magazines including Bewildering Stories, The Scruffy Dog Review, Ascent Aspirations, Voice Catcher, and the upcoming Perceptions Magazine of the Arts. Find more about her at SallyKLehman.com and TheIncidentalPoet.com. Sally studied Mathematics at UC Berkeley and worked in the computer industry for many years prior to becoming a full time writer. She currently lives near Portland, Oregon.

Sometime Long Ago

Sun-Min, you all right today, my teacher asked. It could have been any morning during that winter that stung like numbness until late April. It was a little before eight in the morning and barely light outside. Thick grey was on the forecast. On days like that you could taste the air. It was soggy and metallic. I wrapped my black scarf, the one frayed at each end; the one mom gave me, tight around my neck. First block didn’t start until quarter past eight, but I always arrived to school early. Just part of the daily routine: ayi woke me up at seven, breakfastsometimesat seven-thirty, on the way to school by seven forty-five. My head was down, but I wasn’t sleeping. I was staring into outer space. No stars, no moons. Just emptiness, but I could breathe.

Mr. Loynes was cool, I guess. He tried to be funny in class, which usually just came out corny, but at least he tried to be entertaining. At the end of English, he always smirked like he just laid an egg or something and said, “Class, I hope the rest of your day is as awesome as me.” He was like one of those teachers who turned his head when students were a little late to class or turned in a paper a day late, as long as you had a good reason. He thought he could read me, but I didn’t give him anything. Ever.

I sat up kinda hurried, like back in elementary school when we played Heads Up, Seven Up, and faked like I was sleeping. Yes, I’m just tired, I said.

Looks gruesome out, huh?

I just said, yep it does, and played with my phone so I looked busy.

Back then classes were so easy. My report cards were always lined with A’s, even after what happened to mom. That must have been why it was never really a big deal. All my teachers knew, but only once did one of them say something. It was Mr. Loynes.

I can really sympathize with you.

I just nodded.

My step-mom died of breast cancer when I was younger.

I gave him nothing.

It was really tough to watch my dad go through it all.

I coiled the strands of my hair that fell by my cheekbone, it was a habit I had, and looked at the framed picture on his desk. To his right, a man, lanky and blond, like Mr. Loynes, probably American, too, and to his left, a petite Asian woman. I bet it was Mr. Loynes’ brother and girlfriend. They were in a jungle somewhere, maybe Indonesia, maybe Malaysia, with a congress of orangutans in the background.

If you ever need to talk or anything, just letting you know, Sun-Min, I’m here for you.

OK, was all I said. I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

Mrs. Wallace, my counselor, was the worst. I swear she called me to her office like every other day. It was always the green slip with her signature and the Come at Class Convenience check box marked. Whenever that slip arrived my teachers said, “Sun-Min, you can go now,” even if I was taking a test.

How are you doing, Sun-Min? Her voice was almost a whisper, and her eyes got all serious like she was going to tell me she had cancer.

I’m fine. I gave her my happy voice.

Is your dad at home this week?

No, I think he’s in Bangkok, but it might be Abu Dhabi. I didn’t lie, I really didn’t know.

Is ayi there with you?

I nodded yes. She’s at home every day.

And your driver?

He’s there in the morning. If I need him I can just call.

Is school too much?

No, it’s fine. I gave her nothing.

Her eyes softened. She had kids. I think three of them, all toddlers. You could tell they drove her crazy, because her clothes were never ironed and her blond hair always looked oily, like she didn’t have time to properly wash it.

I smiled just enough for him to reassure himself he did what he could and then I returned to my seat and got all A’s, like always.

That cold spring Mrs. Wallace kept reminding me about the Terry Fox run in September and how it’d be great if I helped out. You know, it might be good for you, she said. I told her I’d think about it, but I didn’t smile. If I did I knew she’d keep asking about it. I think she got the message.

A few of my friends found out, but only Clarisse, this French girl, was cool. Everyone else either tip-toed around me or tried to be all happy all the time, like I was some Make-A-Wish® Foundation kid. Clarisse just acted like she didn’t know anything, but then one week she came in and told everyone she was moving to Guangzhou.

Why? I said.

It’s my dad’s business. He got transferred again. Clarisse had a lisp that twisted her lips when she spoke like she wore braces.

That sucks.

Yeah.

You can’t just finish out the year? There’s only like two months left.

Clarisse said she had to take a bunch of tests just to get in to the school in Guangzhou and her dad didn’t want her to fly back and forth. The next year, our junior year, was supposed to be a big deal. It’d be our first in the IB the International Baccalaureate was the diploma most of us international school kids graduated with, so the stakes were higher, that’s what our counselors said.

It wasn’t like we were best friends, but Clarisse was really nice. I went to her house a few times and her mom let us make crepes. Clarisse’s mom’s French accent when she spoke English was thick, like Nutella chocolate. “Clarisse, make sure you put the honey on the crepes. Don’t forget the honey et la crème,” she said.Clarisse was a straight-A kid like me, so the principal let her finish out her assignments online with her teachers. If you get A’s, you basically get what you want.

Mom and Dad both traveled all the time for work. We lived in San Francisco until I was about ten, and then Dad got the big raise he’d been waiting for. He was a mechanical engineer for Audi.

China? I said.

It’s only for a few years, Dad said. It was clear he and mom were both in on it and had known for a long time.

But, we’re not Chinese.

China’s changing, Sunny. Mom called me Sunny.

They let Taiwanese in China, sweetie. Dad was the eternal optimist. Besides, he said, it’ll be a new move for us, a family move.

It was just us three. I never wanted a brother or sister. We left for Beijing and visited Grandma and Grandpa and my uncles and aunts and cousins every chance we got. Dad traveled so much it seemed like I only saw him when we had holiday, and there we were in Taipei at grandma’s house sipping oolong tea and eating sun cake. After a few years Mom got bored and said she wanted to go back to work.

Who’s going to look after Minny? Dad called me Minny.

I’ll be fine, Dad. I meant it. Ayi basically already lived with us anyway.

Let’s think on it a bit more. Dad was overly cautious and protective, too. Always.

Mom gave it one more year and then her youngest sister came to live with me. Mom came home like once a month. She was a law professor at NTU in Taipei. I swam and read a lot. I didn’t like competitive sports, and running always made my ankles hurt. I was in grade eight and had long been earning the highest marks in my grade.

By the end of ninth grade Mom was already sick. She’d been diagnosed for some time, but I didn’t know. Dad didn’t tell me anything and neither did Auntie or ayi. I should have known, should’ve seen the signs, I guess. During that school year mom had rarely returned to Beijing, and over that summer, before my sophomore year, I only saw her a few times. We talked on the phone like once a week. Then, the visits got even more and more rare. That fall of my sophomore year, supposedly Mom was back in San Francisco teaching a few courses back at Berkeley, but she was really at the hospital, becoming paler and skinnier and losing her charcoal hair that was just like mine, handfuls at a time.

 *     *     *

I met Khoudia a few weeks after the funeral. She had moved to Beijing while I was in Taiwan, getting utterly sick of my family. Khoudia was in my Chinese class. Ms. Yu sat her right next to me and said in Chinese, Sun-Min, you need to get to know Khoudia. I just smiled and said, hao de, lao shi, because you have to respond to the Chinese teachers like that. They aren’t cool, like Mr. Loynes.

No one in the class could get over Khoudia’s mastery of Chinese.

I know it’s in Africa, but, like, where is Senegal? This one boy Billy Chen asked Khoudia. Billy was a jerk, typical high school boy even for this school, full of geeky overachievers.

Actually, it’s a province in China, Khoudia said in spotless Chinese, but we have a darker skin tone and are smarter. Khoudia controlled the class like a Ouija board. Ms. Yu knew it too, but I think she was kinda in awe as well. Khoudia was skinny, but her shoulders were muscular like a boy’s and her neck was firm and defined, like it protected what she was about to say. Khoudia said she was Muslim.

Not like I-pray-five-times-a-day Muslim, but I’m Muslim.

Do you go to Mosque? I said. I was curious. I’d never met a Chinese speaking Senegalese Muslim. Khoudia always wore dangling earrings, even during PE.

Girl, no. I mean, only when my dad tells me to go. Her dad was the Senegalese Ambassador. Khoudia said she was going to be the president of Senegal one day, and I never thought otherwise.

Me and Khoudia had a few classes together, but we didn’t have the same lunch time. One weekend in May she invited me to her house for the weekend. She said it was a Muslim celebration, but it’d be cool if I came, too. Have you ever eaten lamb meat?

Of course.

Not lamb meat like this, Khoudia said. It was true, I hadn’t. I was so stuffed. They slaughtered the lamb right in their house compound. Her dad bragged about how he was the grille master. They spoke French, Chinese, English, and a few other languages that I’ll just call Africanalthough if Khoudia heard me say that she’d suck her teeth at me like she did in Chinese class when she was upset with someone. The house was full, but I met Khoudia’s older brother in town from Abu Dhabi where he worked and a woman in her twenties whom Khoudia called her cousin. She ran around the house like ayi and didn’t quite shine like Khoudia. We ate more than my family did during the New Year Festival.

That night before we went to sleep Khoudia changed her shirt and bra in front of me like it was nothing. She caught me staring at her breasts and laughed. What, you’ve never seen these before?

I didn’t know her nipples would be that dark. Not that I ever really thought about it, but I figured they’d be more pink, like mine. I tried to play it off. I laughed back and buried my head in the bed’s pillows.

Khoudia made me feel like the sun shone everywhere. I changed in front of her, hoping she’d stare at my pink nipples, but she didn’t even raise an eyebrow. We talked a bit more that nightabout boys, about movies, about how difficult Algebra II was getting even though we both still had A’s.

What are you doing this summer? I said.

Going home to Senegal. Can’t wait. You?

Taiwan, and summer camp at Stanford.

I’m so full.

Me too. It was past midnight. Music was still playing downstairs. Khoudia told me that was the music that filled the streets in her hometown. We were quiet for a while, just listening.

My mom died when I was five, Khoudia finally said in Chinese.

I didn’t give her anything and closed my eyes to sleep.

I really didn’t know. I came home one Tuesday and Dad was there. So was ayi and she looked at me hard like she was trying to tell me something. I guess she didn’t trust my dad. Auntie had already left earlier that morning.

We have to go to Taipei tonight, Dad said.

No, Dad. I can’t. I have a Math test tomorrow.

I’ve already called your counselors. We’ll be gone a few weeks. Minny, Mommy’s dying.

That’s exactly how he told me. I’ll never forget that because ayi dropped a glass in the sink and it shattered. Ayi never dropped or broke anything. Dad rushed to help her. She cut herself and the blood ran from her finger like it was mad at her for ruining that moment. I watched for a minute and then went upstairs to pack.

On the plane Dad didn’t really talk. We were in first class, so I tried to watch movies. Only once did Dad touch my hand and rub my wrist like he did when I was little.

Minny, I’m sorry. We all thought she’d be okay. Your mother didn’t want us to tell you. She was afraid.

I didn’t give him anything.

Grandma and Grandpa met us at the airport. We were too late. Mom died while we were flying over the Taiwan Strait, while I was watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dubbed over in Chinese.

It finally warmed up in May. School ended in June, but before we left for summer, and after final exams, our school had our Week without Walls program. No one in grade ten wanted to go. I didn’t mind, really. The teachers told us students we’d get to choose our trip, but really that meant we might be assigned to a trip that wasn’t lame. I was grouped with Khoudia and about twenty others. We were headed somewhere around the Great Wallagainbut this time we were backpacking. The Saturday before our departure we met at school for training. Some wilderness organization our school hired came in and showed us how to read a GPS, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a little Bunsen-burner-looking stove, how to poop in the woods. They said we had to bury our feces and carry out the dirty toilet tissue.

Khoudia sucked her teeth and then raised her hand. Excuse me, she said, um, I see little boys and girls pee and poop through their pee-hole pants like every day and moms and dads here don’t bury it.

Everybody laughed, but the camp leaders said we had to follow some “Leave no Trace” mantra. I guess it made sense, but China was seriously polluted, the least of their worries was human feces and toilet tissue in the wilderness.

We left early Monday. It took us more than half the day just to reach the trailhead. Then, it seemed like we had to stop, like, every fifty steps to rest, it was so steep. Khoudia tried to bring a rolly carry-on suitcase, but they made her transfer her clothes and snacks to a backpack that swallowed her slim frame. She was so pissed. When we got to the top, though, it was worth it. I’d never seen anything like it. Cliffs sprouted above the clouds, almost like they were daring God. The gentle green of the grass and the cool moisture in the air restrained the abrupt sharpness of the rocks, almost like the harmony between the yin and the yang.

Eh, Khoudia sucked her teeth, slowly, like the view was delicious. I thought all of China was smoke stacks and green tea and jiao zi.

It feels like this is the top of the world.

It is the top, like, right here, Khoudia said.

I hadn’t thought of it like that. The next few days were much the same. We hiked all day, set up camp, and cooked on the Bunsen-burner-looking-stove, and I did poop in the woods. Khoudia refused. I only go at my house, she said. On the second to last day our camp leaders said we had alone time in the woods. It was almost mid-day but the fog flooded our vision. We lined up in single-file and our camp leaders directed us this way and that. We had two hours all by ourselves. No iPhone, no watch, no iPad, no homework, no books, no friend to talk to. I settled under the canopy of a few trees. I could barely see five feet in front of me. The ground was soft and moist. I piled up some leaves before I sat. I laid down and fell asleep. When I woke up I thought for sure it’d been at least two hours. There was a rustling behind me. It was Khoudia.

I’m cold, she said.

How long have we been out here?

Like fifteen minutes.

What? I tried to whisper.

I know. Khoudia didn’t, but her voice couldn’t escape the fog.

Where’ve you been?

I took a poop, but don’t tell anyone. I didn’t bury it though, and I left my toilet tissue. Couldn’t be bothered.

I laughed and pictured one of the camp leaders finding her precious droppings. Then, Khoudia walked through the fog. It devoured her footsteps.

I thought about what Khoudia said. Her mom died when she was five. At least I had ten more years with Mom. Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. Sunny, Mom’d say, a book is like a garden. Mom read all the time, like me. Sunny, Mom’d say, Grandpa said deep doubts equal deep wisdom; small doubts equal little wisdom.

Sunny, Mom’d say, a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

Sometime, long ago, I was in our back yard, back in San Francisco, with Mom. Dad was taking the photo. I still have it. It’s curved now around the white edges and it’s not as pixelated as photographs today. She pushed me in the swing and the sun was bright and strong, but not brighter or stronger than Mom. She looks just like me. She pushed me on the swing all day and then we’d stop and she’d pull the crust off my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because I couldn’t stand the texture. My hair was in pigtails. The grass was green and the air was blue and it was warm. Sunny, Mom’d say, I love you always. You’re my sun, always. My name’s Korean by tradition, but Mom loved it. Sunny, Mom’d say, your name means goodness. I smiled like the blue sky, like the green grass, like Mom’s love. I gave her all…sometime, long ago.

I had fallen asleep again. When I woke up the fog somewhat cleared. There was a caterpillar on my shoe. It didn’t have the faintest idea I was watching it move so quickly and uninhibited, almost stealth like. I felt a little like God for a minute and then remembered I had to hike downhill later that day. I made a bridge with my finger for the caterpillar and took it to the nearest tree.

A whistle blew in the distance. That was our signal. When we returned to camp everyone looked a little squeamish, like they’d been riding rollercoasters all day. The camp leaders had hot chocolate ready for us. Khoudia still stood, proud and unreserved.

What’s your mom’s name, I asked.

Huh?

Your mom. What’s her name?

Binta.

Binta?

Yeah.

What’s your mom’s name?

Mingxia.

Oh. It’s cold and foggy. I’m ready to go home, Khoudia said.

Me too. I bet Khoudia talked to her mom, too, out there in the middle of nowhere in China.

That summer, the summer before my junior year, was like every other summer. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa, while dad still worked. I stayed around the house, reading and watching TV, and walking with Grandpa in the afternoon. He liked to play mah jongg and chess. He was really good at chess. I couldn’t beat him. I went swimming at the local pool. It was like every other summer, only we never talked about Mom. I think it was too tough for Grandma and Grandpa. I think they felt guilty for outliving her. Maybe they were quiet because they were thinking about me. I could tell Dad felt guilty. Whenever he flew in from a business trip he was loaded with gifts that I really didn’t want and he’d be all, let’s go see the city, and he’d take me to the top of Taipei 101 and buy me ice cream or take me to a movie. That’s when Dad was soft and I could tell he was sad. I knew it hurt him, so I gave him a little. Not any tears, but I smiled so he’d remember. The last three weeks of summer I went to Stanford and almost scored a perfect score on my SAT.

About a month or so into my junior year and I was back in Mr. Loynes’ homeroom class. It was before class started and I still had my head down. I was still breathing in the emptiness, and then someone pinched me. I knew it wasn’t Mr. Loynes. It was Khoudia. I thought she had transferred since I hadn’t seen her yet.

Where you been?

Senegal. Where else?

You just start school when you want?

Of course. You don’t?

I put my head down again, trying to fake like I was tired. Khoudia didn’t take it.

I know you’re not sleeping.

How do you know? My head was still down when I said that.

Khoudia didn’t answer. She just kept pinching me until I finally stopped staring into space, into the emptiness. I didn’t give her anything, but I knew she knew I knew. I knew she was thinking what I was thinking. We knew. It was sometime long ago, but now we were the caterpillars.

Bradford Philen HeadshotBradford Philen is the author of the novel Autumn Falls. His short fiction has appeared in places like The Monarch ReviewMobius: The Journal of Social Change, and WhiskeyPaper. His full list of publications can be found at bradfordphilen.com. He currently teaches in Beijing, China.

Rock of Ages

On the morning of her twenty-eighth birthday, nearly six months after the birth of our daughter, my wife Emily forgot how to talk.

It was Live-Through-History Day at Crestview Elementary, an invention of my own, and my class of sixth-graders had risen to the occasion. Around the room were icons in miniature: George Washington, Albert Einstein, Clara Barton. Halloween was two weeks away, and the kids considered this a trial run. The Gale twins made the most of it: Cory, who was tall, came as Napoleon. His brother Rory, nearly six inches shorter, was Abe Lincoln. My brightest student, Sarah Marsh, who had a rebellious streak that would cause her parents untold grief for years to come, dressed in moon boots and a nylon bodysuither birthday suit, she called it with twinkling eyes—and as Lady Godiva. I made her put on a sweatshirt.

The students stammered out short prepared speeches, boasting of accomplishments, telling when they were born, who they married, when they died. Now the classroom devolved into a cupcake-eating, orangeade-drinking melee of laughter and horseplay—an anachronistic sugar-fueled battle royale. I was just about to make Eleanor Roosevelt release Genghis Kahn from a headlock when Mrs. Leeuwenhoek, the main secretary, poked her head through the door and beckoned cryptically.

“Your wife’s called twice,” the old woman whispered, as though baffled.

“What does she want?”

Mrs. Leeuwenhoek pondered this question for a moment. She was grandmotherly and sweet, but with a short circuit somewhere—her brain was wired like those goofy children’s straws that loop around in superfluous circles.

“She called twice,” Mrs. Leeuwenhoek said again. “But she didn’t say anything. Your name comes up on the little screen. And I can hear her breathing, but she doesn’t say anything.”

My stomach took a quick step backwards. “Was she crying?”

“I don’t think so.”

That lifted my spirits. Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not. I asked Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to referee my class and walked down to the faculty lounge. Nothing was wrong. Nothing major, anyway. If anything major was wrong, it would be wrong with Tessa, and that would involve maternal tears. Maybe the car broke down.

In the lounge, I dug out my cell phone. MISSED 9 CALLS, it read. 9 NEW MESSAGES. That wasn’t heartening. I dialed home. The line picked up immediately, and I could hear breathing.

“Em? Emily?”

The breathing quickened into a kind of labored huff, but nobody spoke. I kept calling her name, but after a while it became both silly and terrifying. I hung up. No longer calm, I arranged for Mrs. Leeuwenhoek to watch my class until a sub could be found for the rest of the afternoon, and jogged out to my car.

Emily was a devout crier—if anything had been wrong, her words might fail, but her tear-ducts would not.

Driving home, I listened to the “voice” messages. The first four were silent, except for that half-panicky breathing. The fifth came from my mother, who wondered in her desultory way if there had been some change of plans, as it had been her understanding that Emily worked today and would be dropping the baby off, and it was fine if things had changed, more than fine, in fact, but it would be nice if someone thought to call her, because if she wasn’t needed to baby-sit, there were plenty of other things she could be doing. Her friend, Greta, for instance, had bought a replacement umbrella for her patio table and…

The rest were more breathing. I told myself not to worry and concentrated instead on hastening the lunchtime traffic of West Des Moines with the brute force of my trepidation, which was now a steady drum against my temples and the backs of my eyes.

I told myself not to worry, not to worry. If anything was wrong, Emily would be sobbing. It was what she did. She cried when she was sad, and when she was happy. She cried when other people cried. She cried at movies and the last episode of Friends. It was one of the few important things I knew about her, and I loved her for it.

 

I burst through the front door, half-expecting something dramatic to greet such a dramatic entrance—a raging fire, a gang of corn-fed hoodlums. Instead I found Emily sitting at the kitchen table, still in her bathrobe. Her face was clean of makeup, but she hadn’t been crying. She didn’t even look at me, but stared dully at the stove. She gripped a pencil in her hand and doodled absently on the TO DO: OR NOT TO DO notepad we kept by the phone.

“The baby?”

Emily shrugged, still looking at the stove, and lifted her arm limply to point upstairs. I scrambled past her and bound up the stairs into Tessa’s room. I found her in the crib, sleeping soundly. Catching my breath for a moment, I began tickling her feet until she gave a weary squeal.

“Hey baby, baby.”

I checked her diaper, which was wet. Affixing a dry one, I made a show of blowing out my cheeks against her belly, but she was too tired to be sufficiently amused.

“You’re a tough crowd, Tess. Let’s go see Mommy.”

I picked her up and headed back downstairs, feeling rather pleased. I had acquitted myself with adequate heroism. Not only was I a good provider, but a devoted family man who had dashed valiantly home when confronted with the first scent of danger. This reaffirmed my worth beyond any doubt. Or did it? Would a better man have played it differently? No, no. I had done pretty well today. And not only that, but it would provide some leverage, a quick chance to gain a pinch of fleeting superiority in the battle of one upmanship that was marriage.

Emily knew quite well that my sick days and personal days had long been used up during the pregnancy and birth and after-birth—and that we, as a union, as a couple joined at the hip by God and Johnny Law, could not afford to lose a dollar. Not if we ever wanted to give Tess a sibling, or give either of them a college education. Nor, I thought, could Emily afford to miss work, which she had been missing all morning and was missing now, while she sat stone-faced in the kitchen staring at the stove.

“It’s nice to know,” I began, twirling Tessa around as I strode into the kitchen, “that no emergency demanded my prompt return.”

Emily sat there, not looking at me, not speaking.

“It’s nice,” I repeated. “After my heart stopped four or five times, after driving like a maniac to get home…”

Emily was taking deep breaths, long gulps of air, but kept silent.

“And to realize that in fact nothing is amiss.” At this, I twirled the baby again, but Tessa’s patience was at an end. She was hungry and decided to flail and wail her way towards lunch.

“I’m all a-flutter, Em, really. What did I do? Is this about your birthday?”

Tessa’s cries gained new momentum. I held her out for the hand-off, but Emily waved me away. She bent down and scribbled something on the notepad. The blank look on her face did not change.

I stared at the paper, then at her.

“What do you mean you can’t talk?”

She tore off the top sheet and wrote, I can’t remember how to. With this, she stood up and almost mechanically took Tessa from me, then retreated to the sofa in the living room and loosened her robe.

 

I comforted her as best I could. It was a role I always played badly, with put-on confidence that no one believed was real, least of all me. And in truth, I was rather dumbfounded. I called the hospital to inform them their duty-nurse had taken ill, then called my mother and made excuses and apologies. But I wasn’t too worried, and spent the afternoon playing with Tess while Emily sat and stared at various inanimate objects. Maybe it was like the two-day flu. Something that would just blow over.

But at dinner, I realized something was very wrong. Emily and I sat facing each other at the table, hardly eating, our separate forks just pushing around the soggy rice I’d made. I asked her the last time she remembered speaking, did she feel sick, was her throat sore?

She barely acknowledged me, but kept flicking her bangs with one finger in an international gesture that meant, Keep talking, sweetheart; talk all night if you want to. Talk until you’re blue, but leave me out of it.

Eventually, I threw up my hands in a gesture that tried for drama and achieved it badly. “Well,” I said, “we could drive down to the ER and ask them to find it for you.”

At this, she perked up a little and grabbed her pencil. I didn’t lose it. I just can’t remember how. Then she frowned and changed the periods to exclamation points. And she glared.

I met her eyes for one sharp moment, and faced with a variety of options, decided to flee. I checked the baby, who was conked out good, and proceeded to dig a small, silver-colored package from one of my shoes in the closet. Back in the kitchen, I came up from behind and placed it in front of my wife. She’d been staring at the stove again and jerked upright, but emitted no sound.

I sat back down. “It’s that watch you liked,” I said. “The one we saw last month.”

At first she only stared at me, that look of patient sufferance I knew so well—and then she licked her lips. She took a deep breath. She tried to smile. And then she cried.

 

She cried for hours, cried without sound—the distraught heroine from a silent film. Finally, I was on solid ground. This was a reaction I understood. I knew what to do. Holding her hand, stroking her shoulder, letting her lean on me.

Around midnight, she stopped crying and took a shower, applied a modest amount of blush and lipstick, and put on her favorite dress—a sleek blue number that was too formal for any school function or mid-priced restaurant. She stood in front of the mirror, fussing and fidgeting in preparation for some imaginary gala. Throughout this process, she kept nodding her head forward in rhythm, as though momentum and wishful thinking might kickstart the words.

I lay on the bed, watching her preen away. “You look lovely,” I said, but she ignored me and stepped into the pair of sleek blue pumps that I couldn’t remember seeing before. Shoes to go with the dress she never wore. I briefly imagined a dashing tuxedo-clad alternate husband who would whirl her off to the kind of swanky event that was fitting for such an outfit. Then I made him disappear and it was just the two of us again: the dowdy schoolteacher and the muted beauty. She looked truly fetching, if rather overdressed to pace up and down the stairs and wear out the carpet between our room and the baby’s room. And eventually, she ended up right back where she started, at the kitchen table, staring at the stove.

Sitting beside her, I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the tabletop. I woke up in the same position, but with a soft dishtowel for a pillow and Emily’s hand on my head, sifting through my hair.

“I would’ve brought flowers too,” I mumbled, and dropped my head back down.

 

At dawn, I called school and arranged for a sub. Emily switched out her dress for jeans and a sweater. She washed off her makeup and painted it back on thickly, to cover the dark circles beneath her eyes. We dropped off Tessa with my mother—I told her Emily was ill, but was sketchy enough on the details that my mother knew instinctively that I was lying. She flashed a benevolent smile to let me know she knew, then reached out and took the baby basket from my hand.

Emily insisted that we avoid Iowa Lutheran, where she worked, so I drove downtown to Mercy. She had her notepad and insisted on seeing the doctor alone. I objected, casting back through the ages for help from all the other husbands of history; they offered scant assistance. I knew there might come a point where I would have to take charge, to overrule her emotions with my steely masculine resolve. But the argument died pretty quickly. After all, I was the only one arguing. So I shut up and let it go.

In the waiting room, I pretended to read through outdated magazines, mostly for the benefit of the receptionist, who undoubtedly didn’t care. But I wanted to appear the absolute paragon of normalcy. My wife seemed to have similar concerns, and came back to the lobby with a big fake grin. She kept it on in the elevator and past the nurses at the desk downstairs.

I assumed the tears would start as soon as we got to the sanctuary of the car. I readied myself, steadied myself. Time to shine. Be her rock. Be a man. But instead, she looked deep in my eyes with more sadness than I’ve ever seen, and wrote very deliberately on the notepad, which had become a kind of chain. She tore off the page and handed it over.

Psychosomatic.

“Well,” I said, giving a half-hearted shrug.

She bent down again, scrawling furiously. He’s a doctor, she wrote. He doesn’t know anything. I’d think the same thing and be wrong.

 

At home, Emily returned to her bathrobe and sat in the kitchen. Behind her, I worked fingers-to-bone to prepare a first-rate lunch, wondering when, if ever, I would gather the strength for my pep talk. “Of course I believe that you believe,” I’d say, with the kindest lilt I could muster. “But you’ve been under stress and back at work, and you’re not seeing Tess as much, and maybe, just maybe—” I spread out jelly and peanut butter and mashed the bread together. “Maybe it’s all in your head.”

But I wouldn’t say it, because I wasn’t sure, and if I had learned anything in four years of marriage, it was to never, under any circumstances, guess. In part because I never fully understood why Emily fell in love with me, I often treated our relationship with no small degree of superstition. I spent our year-long engagement walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop—pretty much bedeviled by all the applicable clichés. Each time I did something well, something that pleased her, the victory seemed perplexing and accidental. For her part, Emily couldn’t read me too well either. We loved each other without understanding. From my parents, I had learned that this uncertainty would probably never go away, but rather settle into a dull acquiescence—the kind of pleasant banality that strangers mistake for intimate understanding. My parents had made it work somehow, living as they did in a bubble of routine: Wheel of Fortune and microwave lasagna. Emily’s parents had split up years before, remarried different people, and stayed with them only because the prospect of another divorce seemed quite onerous.

And it wasn’t that I didn’t know her: I knew her favorite color was soda blue; her favorite book Jane Eyre; I knew she loved Meg Ryan movies but pretended not to; she loved the smell of woodsmoke and vanilla incense; and she loved how Aspen trees were all connected underneath. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand preferences and idiosyncrasies that could be memorized easily enough. A mile of useless nouns strung together with plus signs that equaled a big question mark, no matter how creatively they were added up. I wanted something concrete, something fundamental. I wanted to uncover the secret places and find some language beyond words. I had assumed I’d find it once the vows were said and done.

Instead we bickered. We played silly games. Whose turn to wash dishes, whose turn to fold laundry. We were very much like roommates who shared a bed and partook of little niceties, like signing grocery lists with Valentine hearts and ending phone conversations with “I love you.” It was all done by rote, conditioned as we were by over two decades of watching married couples on television and in movies. But it was a tired act and we were bad actors. Our victories were told to each other in foreign tongues. Our personal defeats, much the same way, were taken by the other with befuddlement and the awkward, forced pat on the back one gives an ailing stranger. Something would have to change. We needed an intermediary.

Tessa was something we could share. Emily carried the load and I cleared the path. She vomited, and I painted the spare bedroom pink. She ate and I made appointments, re-checked appointments, and served as chauffeur. She ate, and I took a job on weekends at Breadeaux Pizza. The bond between us grew, and had kept growing, until I was confident we were well on our way to constructing a delightful bubble of our very own.

 

That evening Emily went to bed early, exhausted by silence. I retrieved Tessa and fended off my mother as best I could. It was a warm night for October, and back home, instead of going inside, I bundled my daughter in her soda-blue blanket and tucked her snugly into the crook of my shoulder. I walked up and down the block as she slept. I had read once that Lincoln used to borrow neighboring infants and do the same—it helped him think while he was composing his speeches. I composed the speech I would give my wife, then revised, edited, threw it out completely and began anew. I sorted through trite similes and metaphors, as though sifting flakes of gold from the rough dirt at the bottom of a miner’s pan. But the gist of my speech was very simple: Look what I’ve got, Em, right here. Right here in my arms. Look what we’ve made, what binds us a thousand times more than some document at City Hall. Pull it together, darlin’, because I sure the hell can’t do it alone. Don’t go crazy, or I’ll lose my mind.

Two weeks passed. Emily saw another doctor, then a therapist, but nothing helped. I made no speeches, and our lives settled into a bizarre routine. Emily didn’t shed another tear, and instead spent her days staying close to Tessa and working immense jigsaw puzzles with thousands of pieces. I worried at first leaving her all day with the baby, but Emily’s maternal instincts were as honed as ever. Per her request, I bought a miniature dry-erase board and she kept it close whenever she wanted to communicate in words. She lapsed into a strange, silent existence and seemed content. I wrangled Iowa Lutheran into giving her a leave of absence by inventing an illness for my mother-in-law in Arizona.

At work, I received hourly updates by email and text messages, dispatches that Emily kept both short and intimate. She won’t be crawling long, sweetie. She holds onto my fingers and pulls herself upshe wants to walk so bad. She’s sleeping now. I just kissed her for you. I settled in, rather comfortably, to the role of reliable husband—the indefatigable head of the household.

One day I took Tessa to the doctor for inoculations. She had cried herself out by the time we got home, and didn’t stir as I transferred her into Emily’s arms. I looked at the two of them and felt quite happy.

“I picked up the cleaning,” I said. “And the groceries. And made an appointment for her annual check-up.” I flashed Emily a drained smile. “I’m becoming the stereotypical long-suffering housewife,” I said.

Emily lifted her eyes, bemused, and shifted Tessa in order to free her hand. She uncapped the dry-erase marker. Start menstruating, she wrote. Then we’ll see. And she drew a little smiley-face, with Valentine hearts for eyes.

As Emily got more and more used to this new routine, her libido returned to normal, then quickly escalated far past where it had ever been. As if I didn’t have enough to run me ragged, I now had to contend with a wife who was in the mood three or four times a day. There was no longer a “right” time—if Tessa was sleeping and I was near, the time was right. It didn’t matter if we were in the laundry room or the kitchen, the hallway or the bathroom. I woke up straddled by a mute woman who no longer had the slightest aversion to my morning breath, and drifted off at night, worn down past exhaustion, with Emily cradled in my arms. It took some getting used to, because she made only the slightest gasps of sound, but I learned to gauge her stages by the rhythm of her breathing and the way her fingers touched me. At first, the increased frequency had been a nice surprise, but after eight or nine days I had spent all reserves. This didn’t seem to bother her, and instead of sex, we shifted to a kind of “extreme cuddling,” during which Emily would wrap herself tightly around me as though attempting to cut off both our circulations. As though we couldn’t be too close.

 

But still there was the elephant in the room that only one of us could talk about. I chose to keep silent, thinking the situation could certainly be worse—who was I to complain? Most men would kill to have a lusty wife who couldn’t speak. It was like the punchline to some off-color joke.

Other times, I felt the darkness coming in. I ran out of excuses for my parents and finally just had them over for dinner to explain the whole thing. My mother acted as though the situation was quite ordinary and became instantly over-supportive, offering Emily anything she needed—even chiding my father to purchase a long-promised computer so that the two women might better communicate. My father, to his credit, ate his dinner in respectful silence. Later, on the porch, he smoked his daily cigar and put his arm around me, a gesture he hadn’t extended since I was twelve.

“Your mom’s worried,” he said.

“You?”

“Forget what I think. If she’s worried, you should be too.”

“It’ll work itself out, Dad.”

“It won’t,” he spat quietly, and I realized he was choked up. “You owe it to that little pumpkin in there to get her mom some help.”

“There’s nothing physically wrong with her, Dad.”

He took his arm off me and turned away. I watched his cold breath mix with unspooling clouds of cigar smoke. “She won’t talk. Don’t you think that qualifies?”

“Can’t talk, Dad. Not won’t.”

He half turned back to me, but changed his mind and spoke to the cold night instead. “And if she never talks again?”

I didn’t answer him.

They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.

After my parents left, Emily put down the baby and cornered me in the living room, but I told her I wasn’t in the mood, which was true enough. I went for a long walk. Terrible things passed through my head, images of Zelda Fitzgerald and Francis Farmer, images of imposing grey buildings with bland, euphemistic names full of words like health and convalescence in lieu of asylum and lunatic. Places where women who no longer lived in reality went to die. Of course, I was overreacting. But I couldn’t find any middle ground between overreacting and ignoring it all. What happens if it doesn’t work itself out?

I didn’t sleep that night. Instead, I sat downstairs and watched and re-watched the video from our wedding. I listened to us reciting vows, to her cracking wise at my expense moments before I shoved a handful of cake in her face and she returned the favor. They didn’t seem like us. They were other people.

I sat there and thought about Tessa, about the mortgage, about plastic debt and my piddling public-school salary. The young man on the screen had slightly more hair than I did, and fewer lines on his forehead. Don’t be stupid, I told him. As soon as the honeymoon’s over, ditch your plans and go back to school—get a computer science degree, get a business degree. Have some goddamn foresight. Be the kind of man who can support his family on a single income, the kind of man who’s prepared for such eventualities, as when his wife forgets how to talk. A better man would know what to do. A better man wouldn’t be sitting on the couch at 3:00 am., weeping.

Emily, perhaps sensing my mood, stayed away.

 

The next morning was our annual Thanksgiving Day party. Mrs. Leewenhoak looked me over in the morning—haggard face, circles under the eyes—and I could see her mind slowly wondering if I wasn’t hungover. Class was worse. The Gale twins acted out a kind of “Who’s on First?” routine between Pocahontas and John Smith that involved the latter desperately trying to get to second base. And Sarah Marsh, true to form, began a meticulously researched lecture on the premeditated genocide of our continent’s native peoples. I cut her off brusquely halfway through. She sat down in a huff, with that rage-filled look of someone unjustly punished. She had been, and I felt bad enough about it that I intercepted her after the final bell and told her to write her notes into a paper that could be submitted for some contest or the other. I didn’t know of any but if need be, I’d make one up and give her a prize. She left with uplifted spirits and assured me she’d begin writing it the moment she got home.

I went back into the classroom and put my head on the desk for half an hour.

That night I returned to an empty house. A note had been left on the table. T’s at your mom’s. Back soon. Love, E. I unthawed two hot dogs under warm water and ate them raw, then drove over and picked up my daughter. Emily didn’t return till almost eleven. She found me asleep on the couch, shook me gently awake. She sat and guided my head to her lap and combed her fingers through my hair. Thick, warm silence all around us; I never wanted to get up. Could we just stay like this, where it’s quiet and safe, with the baby upstairs, quiet and safe—couldn’t we just stay here forever and leave the rest of it alone?

Instead I sat up. Emily grabbed her dry-erase board.

At the hospital, she wrote. I told them I’m not coming back.

I nodded, already conjuring up images of debtor’s prisons that no longer existed.

We’ll get by. We can live in an apartment if we have to.

The marker against the board was so quiet, like the barest whisper. I tried to match the tone. “I guess so.”

I went to the chapel there, she wrote. I tried to pray.

Absently, I stroked her arm. There was a pair of tiny freckles, just above her wrist. I hadn’t looked at them in a long time, and leaned down now to kiss them quickly.

“How’d it go?” I whispered.

I don’t think I know how. She dabbed her finger with spit and smeared the board clean, then reached out and brushed the ink against each of my cheeks. She tilted her head, examining her work, and smiled sadly. She bent down to write.

Please don’t hate yourself.

“I don’t.”

You do. You hate yourself so much and you love the people around you even more. I know.

“I’m scared, Em.”

She nodded and set aside the board. I took her hand, because she wanted me to. We walked upstairs to Tessa’s room and stood looking down at her. We watched her toes curling up, caught in what I hoped was a very pleasant dream. Emily turned to me in the dark and parted her lips, but the words she was thinking of must have been too hard, if not impossible, to pronounce.

Jonathan RovnerJonathan Rovner grew up just south of Denver, Colorado. His work has recently appeared in the Indiana Review, Wag’s Revue, and Brevity. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

Falling Is Like This

“One minute it was road beneath us, and the next was sky.”

—Ani DiFranco

 

The hotel lobby is square, all elegant chandeliers and dark leather chairs. Jazz standards float above the concierge. Women click by in impossibly tall heels. Elevator bells chime. I lean against a column in the center of the room. Outside, rain blows through the narrow streets.

When you enter the lobby, the air changes. I feel you before I see you. The lobby drops away. The fur on my body lifts. By the time you stand before me, we have fallen out of time. The music, the heels, the rain, and the city—gone. I offer my cheek to your lips, a compromise.

I’m sorry, you say.

My throat constricts.

They’ve sent a few more questions. I have to go over them.

I can go, I say. I don’t want to distract you.

I am risking so much to meet you here. To spend the afternoon with you. You are a man I should not fall in love with.

No, you say. Wait for me.

Your eyes, they’re like wild woods, I know my way through but dare not enter.

And then your hand wraps around mine, tight. Thank you, you say.

I settle into a leather chair. Open the book of poems you recommended and watch the lobby’s choreography. A woman with cropped platinum blonde hair sashays by, gesturing to the bellboy with a manicured hand. A woman in mink, arm in arm with a mustachioed man in a three-piece suit, stares as she passes.

My parka unzipped, simple knit sweater over jeans, long waves falling over my shoulders. Leather boots stained dark at the toes. My face burnished bronze from the sun. A hotel like this isn’t my usual terrain. I’ve come in out of the elements for you.

We all have our secrets.

*     *     *

For ten years I read palms and tarot cards in a traveling carnival. I could have just as easily been one of the contortionists—and I did fill in for Flora, when she got pregnant by Benny, the knife-thrower—but I liked palmistry more.

What I loved most: the moment of hesitation before a person opened their hand to me. A strangely intimate act—to reveal one’s palm to a stranger. Stippled, crosshatched, etched, endless intersections, x’s, braids, and bands, lines which define us.

*     *     *

We are both strangers in this city.

We are both married. We both have wives, in different states, in different routines, waiting for us to come home.

We have between us five children, three cats, two dogs, and a rabbit.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

We have no good reason to be walking down the sidewalk in search of a cab. You’ve got a job interview in a half hour, and I’m skipping panels on new methods of organic gardening and hybridizing stone fruits to walk the streets of San Francisco with you.

It’s been six months since we last saw one another, twelve since we met, at the wedding of two old friends, both of us attending alone. I’ve never seen you in a t-shirt or with bare feet; you know nothing of the snake tattoo that wraps around my right thigh. We’ve broken no rules, really, with the exception of a kiss on a street corner in New Orleans and a few letters that might have been better unwritten.

We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.

But there is your arm linked through mine, clutching me. There is the way you look at me, like you can’t believe I truly exist—like you’d dreamed me and now here I am in the flesh.

Ever free-fallen through space? I asked you in one of my letters.

Your response: Not till now.

*     *     *

In the tent, most everyone who sat down feared two things: a short lifeline and the Death card. Those who claimed they didn’t were liars. Even they held their breath as I turned their Tarot.

But to pull Death signals reinvention, reincarnation. No one saw it that way, even when I explained. If skeletal Death made an appearance on the table, the first question was, always, When?

Rare the person who accepted the impossibility of me knowing such a thing. They just wanted an answer, the illusion of control. As most of us do.

I made up dates. Most of the expectant faces that sat across from me, I never saw again.

*     *     *

The cab driver won’t take his eyes off me in the rearview. I hide my face in your neck and whisper, How’s he possibly driving? I wait in the lobby downstairs while you’re interviewed and the security guard, a woman, won’t stop smiling at me. Then the dapper bartender in vest and bowtie, as he hands us our bourbons, says, This round’s on the house. You hold out your cash, but he waves it away, saying, Just looking at you two makes me giddy.

I want to tell the bartender he is mistaken. But I know what he wants, like everyone who has watched us across this city: to feel what we are feeling. Even if I shouted the truth of our situation, peeled back my skin and let them see how the heart looks as it plummets toward earth, I could not dissuade them.

In the quiet of the bar, I take your hand and hold it to my face, inhaling you, trying to take you in.

How seductive, the current between us. How dangerous.

You say, If only we could stop time and stay here, forever.

I say, If only.

Above us, the dim lights flicker. Old wiring, the bartender says, looking up. Does this sometimes.

*     *     *

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading. See the storm clouds gather. See the flames engulf solid structure. See the bodies tumble toward ruin. See the world alight with destruction of the finest grade.

*     *     *

We go back out into the rain. Gray sheets of air enveloping us. Our feet soaked and freezing. We huddled under the little black umbrella bought on a street corner. Your hand, over my hand, holds the handle.

Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading.

 We walk to the wharf to eat sourdough bread and oysters. We share a cupcake, red as a heart’s throb. We talk about soil and poetry. I take your hands in mine and study them. I tell you of a recent dream: hands floating in the air, circles tattooed on the palms. From my purse, I pull a black marker and draw a circle on each of your palms, hold out mine for you to do the same.

*     *     *

There was one repeat visitor, the summer before I left the carnival for good, in a town outside some cornfield in Nebraska, a blonde man with dark circles beneath his eyes. Even before he sat down in front of me I could tell he wasn’t long for this world. His body gave off the smell of overripe melons, dazzling and noxious. He leaned his elbows on my flimsy table and said, I’ve got two weeks.

I recognized him then, from years before, a cocksure and ebullient man, the kind who reveres his wife in public and belittles her at home. My prediction for him had been purposefully short, and I saw now how tender he was beneath that façade—his diminishment did not make me hate him less, but I knew then I had meddled too long with fate. That I would suffer for what I’d done.

Taking his hand in mine, I did not turn it over to read the lines. I held it, and when he cried, I said, I’m sorry.

Apologies are inadequate, flimsy offerings at best.

*     *     *

We board a bus, aimless and unsure of what to do with ourselves as the afternoon darkens. The brakes compress and wheeze at each stop. We stare into one another. Our bodies, all animal, taut with yearning.

I worry it may all explode—gristle, bone, teeth, yielding of flesh to flesh—there will be no survivors.

I worry this often, in my kitchen at home, cup of coffee halfway to my mouth, imagining your hands as they reveal me, what I would risk, to take you inside me. On scraps of paper: everything but the cats and dog, everything but the children, everything but my wife. Some days: none of it at all. Sun floods the kitchen and I shred the papers and go about my day—sweeping the terra cotta tiles, harvesting fruit, telling stories. My children smell of mud and peanut butter and berries, my wife like sawdust and clean air. There are shells and sand littering the front walkway, plants to be watered, dinner to be made—this is the life I wrote vows to, once upon a time, when I walked away from the carnival and rejoined the world. When I thought I might slip away from the suffering I saw in store for me, thought I might stop pulling the same cards or rewrite the lines etched on my palm.

If only you and I were not one lifeline—hurtling toward one another all that time.

If you look closely, you will see the delicate lashings, faint but indelible, that bind us.

You pull the cord and the bus lurches to the curb. We exit the back door and walk till we find a room for rent by the hour. We pay for three.

*     *     *

You step off the sidewalk. Goodbye still stinging through our bodies. Our bodies still singing.

You leave me with the umbrella. Your shoulders hunch, your collar up against the rain.

I see the car first, a flash of silver.

When it strikes your legs, you do not fly upward. Gravity is powerful, especially in destruction. You crumple, and I yowl, and then there are people all around us, and blood dripping from the corner of your mouth.

I see your innocence, your curiosity, in the wild pain of your eyes. The woods illuminated, the path clear. Your hand grabs for mine. You whimper, and blood bubbles from your lips. I bend closer.

You say, Come with me.

I trace the circle on your palm.

Soon.

Rauch photoSara Rauch’s writing has appeared in Crossed Out, Inkwell, upstreet, Glitterwolf, Hoot, and a few other places. Her poetry chapbook, Soft Shell, is forthcoming from Chantepleure Press. She lives in western Massachusetts with her partner and their five felines. When she’s not herding cats, she’s editing Cactus Heart and writing short stories.

First-Person Shooter

Please God let today be like any other day. That’s what I say every day before I get out of bed. That’s what I’ve been saying every day for the past six years.

After I brush my teeth, I start my console, wear the headset, and log in to a multiplayer. When Mom hears my clatter in the bathroom, she starts cooking. She’s a really good cook. She’s the only one in the family who gets me, understands why I’ve become what I’ve become.

In the multiplayer, I lie in the fuselage of a downed aircraft. My character, Sergeant James “Cobra” Caulfielder, groans. Outside, a soldier waves me forth, but before I can move, he’s engulfed in a bulb of flame before he can even scream. My fellow soldiers shout “Move” repeatedly above a hail of weapon fire. The mission objectives crawl across the top of the screen. Enter the Fortress. Find and eliminate President. This is a particularly chaotic level of End Times 2, a very confusing map. I’ve tried it a few times and died.

Dying in a game is what I imagine dying in real life is like. The screen goes dark before you wake up again. Only in real dying, I hope you wake as someone else.

I go downstairs and eat with Mom in the kitchen. She’s made chicken adobo. She pats me on the head, and I can tell she’s not sure what to say next.

“What are you going to do today?” she says finally.

I shrug. She knows. Same thing I do every day.

“Maybe you should play some basketball in the backyard?”

“I don’t like sports.”

“I’m going to go to the mall with Aunt Theresa later—”

“No, thanks.”

“You can buy a new game.”

“I can order them online.”

Mom lets out a quick breath through her nose. She waddles slowly to the sink, plate in hand.

She’s not happy with me. And that hurts. Nobody is happy with me. Mom and Dad and my older brother Steve say a lot of time has passed, and people don’t blame me anymore. Steve even tries to set me up with friends and girls and jobs.

They don’t know what it’s like. Nobody has ever blamed them. After that morning on campus with Eugene and after everyone found out that I was his only friend, I couldn’t go outside without people and cameras staring at me, blaming me. That morning was so bright, the sky too clear. It was December. Where was the snow?

The parents of the victims called me a murderer—just because I was Eugene’s roommate. Once, on my way to class, one of the dead girls’ dads stepped in front of me out of nowhere and, out of shock, I turned and ran. I got no more than a few steps before he grabbed my backpack and threw me to the ground. I stared up at him, into the bright, cold sky. He shook me, and the world reeled, looked fake like a video game. It was a new school year. Things were supposed to be better. The dad had tears in his eyes. Why? he kept asking. Why did Eugene kill his girl? He spat on me, as he wept. He called me a few names about my race, but I don’t want to make it about that. I don’t blame him.

Why? He kept asking.

The parents of the kids who weren’t shot that day were the worst. They tried to get me arrested as an accessory. They held signs outside our house and shouted at us. I remember my dad sitting at the dining table wearing his U.S. Navy hat, just staring off into space, as the chants went on for hours. He told me to go upstairs and stay there. I was watching television so I didn’t want to move. My dad slammed a fist on the table and called me dumb and useless in Tagalog. I don’t want to make it about what he called me. I don’t blame him either.

I live in a big house. When I’m not gaming, I work out in our home gym and watch the 70-inch high-def. I like older sitcoms best because they’re usually filmed indoors. Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Friends. I don’t like reality shows, procedurals, or crime dramas—any show filmed outside. Sunlight makes people look too real.

I do lots of pull-ups, calisthenics, and butt exercises because I sit so much when I game. After lunch, I’m on the treadmill, watching Neil Patrick Harris talk about how awesome he is for the ten-thousandth time. Mom walks in, holding the cordless.

“It’s Steve,” she says.

I stop the treadmill. “Aw, come on.”

Mom continues to shake the phone at me. I take it.

“Hey, buddy,” Steve says.

I hate it when he calls me buddy.

“Mom and I are thinking about taking you out to dinner tonight.”

He says this like it’s normal. Steve works at this company that does studies—the ones cited on the radio when there’s not much news. Like that recent study that found that married working couples clean house less. Or the one that showed that people don’t trust their neighbors.

I flip through channels, until I find TV Land. All in the Family is on. It’s the episode Archie gets put in lockup with commies and hippies. One of my favorites. I love how in sitcoms, the prisons always feel clean and comfortable, like even the set designers want to reassure us that they’ll be out of jail in thirty minutes.

“Marcus?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you up for it?” Steve says.

I turn off the television and pull the shades down in the room. Mom is still standing there waiting to take the phone back. I shoo her away.

“What the fuck do you think?”

“Hey, language!” Steve says. “Do it for Mom. She deserves a break.”

I want to give Mom a break. I don’t want Mom to take care of me forever. She’s getting old. I don’t want to be a burden. I want to change. I just don’t want to change today. Please God let today be like any other day.

“I’m not like you, Steve. I’m not like you.” My voice is rising. I’m shaking all over.

“Okay, pal, okay,” Steve says. “Calm down. Shhh.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and force a few hard breaths. My teeth are clenched, and I can feel my pulse in my throat.

“Hey, did you know that studies show that toddlers bond with robots?” Steve says.

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” Steve says. “Do you mind if Lily comes over tonight?”

“Oh, Lord.”

“Don’t argue,” Steve says. “Studies show that people who argue tend to get mad more often.”

“Asshole.”

“Language!” Steve barks. “You don’t get everything you want in life, okay? Lily’s part of the family too. We’re all sick and tired of walking on eggshells around you. Everyone knows what happened. So the hell what?”

Steve rarely gets angry. I feel like I might cry so I swallow and pinch away the feeling.

“Look what you made me do,” Steve says. He hangs up.

I go downstairs to give Mom the phone and see that her car is gone. She’s gone to Aunt Theresa’s.

I return to the gym and continue my work out, lifting weights, doing pull-ups. The reason I don’t like Steve’s girlfriend Lily is that she’s got the sensitivity of a brick. She always sends me job listings and offers to put me in touch with her “network,” when we all know she’s just an admin. She brings up my problem whenever she comes over. She often asks about what happened on that bright, crisp December morning six years ago like it was yesterday, like she’s police. Yes, Eugene and I played a lot of video games. Yes, we’d been friends since we were six. Yes, we liked first-person shooters. Yes, I knew he had guns. Yes, I even filmed several of those famous videos where he’s holding his guns and saying that he’s going to kill the rich kids in school. I thought he was kidding around. Yes, when we walked to campus together that morning, I noticed his backpack was fuller than normal. No, I never thought he would do what he did. No, I’m not a murderer, but you can call me one anyway. I won’t get mad. I’m used to it.

Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I see myself walking to class with Eugene. I told him about the first Halo, about how I thought the game was a cautionary tale about the separation of church and state. He nodded and smiled, but he wasn’t really listening. We were crossing the quad. Students were going to class. The campus shuttles dropped off a large group. We passed a big oak tree, and Eugene pushed me behind it and said to get down, stay down and stay there. He was protecting me, like someone was attacking us. He slung his backpack over his chest and ran toward the one of the buildings. Entered the fortress. Soon, the screams, the gunshots.

I fall off the pull-up bar and land on my hands and knees. My arms are fried. I’ve been doing pull-ups for ten minutes. I shower, go to my room, lock the door, and start up my console. I enter another multiplayer on End Times 2. It’s a map of the planet Gurkanus. The objective is to rescue a prisoner from a home nestled in a crowded interplanetary version of a favela called an Argento. Lots of blind alleys and mosquito-like aliens. Of course, we’re in the middle of a war as well, and the Argento is getting bombed. We have to listen for the air growl, the scene to shudder, the sign to take cover. Chaos.

Sometimes I imagine one of the other players on my side is Eugene. People didn’t believe me when I said that Eugene was a good guy. Back when we were in high school, he’d help his parents out at the dry cleaners every day after school. When we played fighting games, he’d let me win. We were ten when we filmed a short movie on a camcorder. He played a black-hooded-and-caped superhero named Obsidian Man and I played a white-masked bad guy named Chalk. While we filmed a fight scene, he accidentally split my lip with a punch and was so upset about it, he started crying.

I was the one who introduced him to gaming in the first place. I got him into military shooters. Call of Duty. Battlefield. Metal Gear Solid. I can’t play those games anymore. Can’t do real guns.

Neither of us liked college. I think he had a crush on this white girl Brittany who was way out of his league. She’s an actress now on one of those shitty USA Network shows.

People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than sitting in front of a screen and pressing buttons on a piece of silly plastic.

“Did you know you can order one of those online?” Eugene said one night while we were playing Call of Duty.

“One of what?”

“The assault rifle, the M4A1,” he said. “Full-auto fire. You can even get one with a sight.”

In End Times 2, I’ve found the prisoner, hiding beneath a sewer grate. He’s a dark-haired fellow. Emaciated and gangly like me in real life. He holds some secret about President. At the other end of this Argento is our escapecraft. I’ve got to blast aliens to protect him. I ask the other players to cover me. We get to the escapecraft. Off into the atmosphere we go. The planet grows visible through the window. Fade out. The players exchange congratulations over headsets. We’re all strangers, but I imagine that this is what the congratulations would have felt like had I been a hero that December morning, instead of just another dumb coward hiding behind a tree. Once I realized what was happening, I should have gone after Eugene. I’d like to believe that he wouldn’t have been able to look me, his best friend, in the eye and kill me.

I log off and drift through the silent and empty house. Mom’s been gone for an hour, and I already miss her. In the backyard, the sky makes our lawn look plastic. There’s a deck, a patio, and a grill that’s layered with dust. I slide open the glass door and touch the fly screen. How easy would it be to pull the screen aside and step out into the real world again! I look beyond our fences, and even though I know no one would be watching me, I feel eyes peering through the cracks, judging me, and my guts clench. I hurry to the kitchen and brace myself against the sink, against the nausea. Once the feelings pass, I down a glass of water.

The garage door groans open. Mom’s back. I shut the sliding glass door, close the vertical blinds. I feel whole again. She’s moving slowly, carrying four full paper shopping bags. I take them all from her. I start emptying the groceries, putting proteins in the fridge, canned foods in the pantry. Mom isn’t saying anything, and she isn’t looking at me. Is she still upset?

I ask her if she’s okay.

Her glance doesn’t linger. She’s ashamed. She mops her brow. “Just tired,” she says. Then she asks if I’m hungry. I tell her I am.

I wait in the living room while Mom makes me a snack. I find an old episode of Facts of Life. I’m not a good person. I’m a burden. I should be doing more with my life. Eugene and I were computer science majors. We never finished.

Soon, the smells rise from my mother’s wok. Fried soy sauce noodles with bok choy—that’s my guess. My stomach growls. The mouth moistens. It occurs to me that I’ve never offered to help Mom cook.

“Dad called,” she says.

Mom rarely mentions Dad. He spends most of the time over at the apartment building he manages. He’s given up on me. I can’t remember the last time he asked how I was doing.

“He wants to go out to dinner tonight.”

“What am I going to do?”

Mom didn’t look at me. “He wants you to come.”

“What?”

She plates my snack and sticks it in front of me like bad papers she wants me to sign. “Marcus, it’s time.”

I tell her no again, grab my plate, and storm upstairs.

“Dad will be at the restaurant!” Mom shouts. “He’ll be waiting! We will be waiting!”

The shrillness of Mom’s voice makes me nauseous. I can’t remember the last time she raised her voice. I lock myself in my room and eat in front of my television. The noodles are tasteless. Mom’s cooking is usually so good. This dish is slopped together. Barely any soy sauce at all, and the bok choy are wrinkled. The steps creak. She’s making her way upstairs. I start up the console.

I hear Mom talking on the phone. She’s speaking Tagalog in a high-strung, plaintive tone, which means she’s talking to Dad. “I told you we should have sent him to someone,” says Mom. My dad didn’t think I shouldn’t go to a doctor because I was healthy and young.

The screen comes up, but everything goes out of focus. I put my forehead to the ground and cover my ears. My eyes are squeezed shut, and I’m rocking back and forth and screaming silently until I can’t hear Mom’s voice anymore. I’m beyond hope. Twenty-six years old and my life is over. I think Eugene spared me because I was supposed to live the life he wished he had the courage to lead. But what have I done with his favor? I know how men my age are supposed to be. I’m supposed to be like Steve. I’m supposed to have goals and responsibilities. I’m not supposed to have Mom practically wipe my butt for me. I’m supposed to make Dad proud of my accomplishments. But even if the shooting hadn’t happened, I feel like I’d be like this. I know I’m not normal. We’d have a normal family except for me. Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

I haven’t heard a sound in the house for some time. I go downstairs, back upstairs, then downstairs. Mom’s gone again. I see the note on the whiteboard.

“Walking to Olive Garden,” Mom’s written. “Meet you there at 5:30.”

We live in the suburbs. Olive Garden is probably two hours away by foot, underneath freeway overpasses and over train tracks. Mom is 61 and overweight, and she takes medication for hypertension and high cholesterol.

The phone rings. I pick up.

Eugene should have killed me too. Then I could wake up and be someone else.

“What did you do?” Steve says.

“What?”

“Mom’s walking to Olive Garden.”

“I know!”

“Is she insane?”

“You’ve got to get her.”

“I’ve got to work,” Steve says. “I know you’re unfamiliar with the concept, but I can’t just up and walk out. You have to get her.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“How am I supposed to know? Maybe he’s walking to Olive Garden too.”

“I haven’t driven in six years.”

“It’s like a bicycle,” Steve says.

“Fuck you.”

“Studies show that you can put a key in an automobile, put the joystick in reverse, and find your mother,” Steve says. “Call me back when you find her.”

He hangs up, and I shout expletives. I grab the car keys and open the door that leads to the garage. I dry-heave, feel dizzy as the daylight washes over the car, stinging my eyes. More expletives. Some whimpering. Lots of sweating. I step out into the garage like I’m going over a cliff. My feet hit the concrete and squish a little, and I put my hands out and brace myself against the hood of Mom’s minivan. Why is she doing this to me?

I’m making noises I’ve never heard from myself as I approach the driver’s seat. I hear the screaming of the students on campus that day. They sound like locusts in my memory now. My whole body shakes as I pop the door open and slide into the seat. I feel like I’m squeezing myself into a baby’s chair. I can hardly move. My thighs are indented by the steering wheel. I try to find the button to move the seat back, but I end up moving the mirrors, the windshield wipers, the time—everything but the seat. Then I find the bar below the chair. It’s manual, old, like my parents. I put the key in the ignition. I’m a mess. I’m drooling a little, snarling, crying. I turn the key though. The minivan roars. I put the gearshift in reverse, shut my eyes and lower the right foot. Scream. Scream so I can’t hear the neighbors calling me names.

The van shoots into the street, screeching as I hit the brakes. I almost hit a neighbor’s mailbox. I take a breath and am surprised I still feel okay. Tell myself this is just like a video game. Then I proceed slowly. When I start a new video game, I usually go all out right away, charging into traps. If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I’m moving about fifteen miles per hour on our empty street. I eye the sidewalks. No Mom. I try to remember the way to Olive Garden. It’s a right, then a left on the expressway, and you go like ten miles. Mom can’t be far. I jerk the car to the left, and it overturns, so I jerk the car back to the right, and I’m swerving as I get to the stoplight, which turns green so I have to go. My foot drops on the pedal too hard, and I’m off into the intersection, plowing onto a four-lane boulevard. I’m sweating through my shirt. I scan for Mom’s round figure, her specific waddle. She should stand out against the concrete nothingness that Eugene railed against in his video.

“I just want to feel something good in this wasteland,” he hissed, pointing those guns at the camera. “The world is ugly like me.”

If I die in a game, I just start over. Learn. Get better. Why can’t I do that in real life?

I stop at a light. I feel unbalanced, like I’m sitting in a boat. I’ve never actually been in a real boat. Once many years ago in a WWII shooter, I rowed a boat onto the shores of Normandy. I see myself running across the quad again, after the gunshots stopped. Four or five students gaped at the ground, screaming ohmyGods and crying. I’m tall so I could see over them. A girl lay there. A brunette, but we can’t recognize her. She’d been shot in the face.

I hear a horn. I’ve been sitting in front of the green light for too long. My move. The horns sound again. I dry-heave. Cars swerve around me. I hit the hazard lights. Hazard is I. They said I was a hazard to the community.

Then I see Mom. Looking so alone on the sidewalk. The overpass and freeway on-ramp in the distance. I pull up beside her and roll down the passenger side window. Though she’s red-eyed from crying, she looks at me like I’m someone new.

*     *     *

It’s 5:30. We park in front of Olive Garden, and I step out of the car. The first couple of steps are a little mushy, like the asphalt has turned to rain-softened soil. The next steps are steadier, and I begin to think I’m getting better. I can breathe. No one is looking at me and thinking about what happened that December day years ago. Mom takes the crook of my elbow, and we’re walking together in the night, outside, like this happens all the time, like we’re normal. I feel a rush of happiness and think that as long as she’s with me, I’ll be okay.

Inside the restaurant, Dad is seated at the head of the table. He is wearing his U.S. Navy hat with the flat brim as usual. He adjusts his tinted glasses. He’s probably thinking I’m a mirage. He’s surprised I’ve made it, like he was surprised I made it after he heard news of the shooting on the radio. He always expects the worst, so he can avoid disappointment. Mom kisses him on the cheek, and she whispers something to him. Dad continues to stare at me, his lips parted by amazement. I sit next to him, across from Mom. I’m still in wet gym clothes. A mess. I’ve been through chaos, but I’m here.

“I’m proud of you,” Dad says. “You’ve always been so smart. I remember teaching you long division when you were three. You got it right away.”

His chin trembles, and he’s fighting back tears, so I’m fighting back tears. Dad has spoken more to me in the last five minutes than he has in five months. Mom takes Dad’s cell phone and calls Steve to tell him and Lily to come. She has to repeat herself three times.

*     *     *

Today is the seventh anniversary of the shooting. Eugene shot 34 students, then himself. People used to tease us. They called us Gay Nerds. Eugene had a bad stutter that made him put F sounds on everything. I used to be thin and gangly, and I wore really thick glasses. Eugene and I weren’t good at much of anything really, other than first-person shooters. This is what I tell Jessica, my therapist, as we walk around Dailybrook, the place I go twice a week to practice my coping mechanisms.

“Mom and Dad are on a cruise,” I tell her.

Jessica puts her hand on my shoulder. A line appears between Jessica’s brows and vanishes. “Do you feel deserted?”

We are standing in the quad of Dailybrook, under a large tree, like the one at the college. I think of Eugene.

“Not by them,” I say.

lelandcheukLeland Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Pif Magazine, CellStories, and Punk Planet. He has been a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Salamander Fiction Prize, and the national Washington Square Review fiction contest. He lives in New York City.

Goat Sucker

It wasn’t fleeing. It was a road trip. It was a chance to bond, an opportunity too rare to pass up, and I was blitzed out of my mind from the possibilities that lay before us: a grown, jobless man and his retired father on the way south in late spring. It seemed good. It seemed right.

It is difficult, of course, to pin down what I had hoped would happen on the trip. I needed to understand my father after so many years of never even trying. There was something screaming that now was the very last time to do so, and if I let the opportunity pass I would be marooned, left forever. By showing an interest in the old man now, there could maybe be the kind of reconciliation that afternoon television was made for, something all the more difficult to attain due to the fact that there was no single rift or place of tearing. What separated my father and I was more akin to miscommunication and the simple geography of distance. The idea that we could heal our rift through a road trip seemed symbolic. The geographical distance between myself and the Madison police didn’t hurt much either after the obviously ridiculous incident with Speedy Cash.

My latest employment in that long string had been terminated over the matter of my till and the whereabouts of thirty stupid dollars. All I can say about that is I’m not dumb enough to try and steal from a check cashing establishment, and even if I was, I find it hard to believe that anyone, really, could be so foolhardy as to do it from their own register—talk about asking to get caught. I don’t know what happened to that money, an explanation not good enough for my former manager—who was just as undeterred by my suspicions about the shift supervisor—and most certainly found lacking by the interested persons in the eleventh precinct called in on that ridiculous charge. No one seemed to understand. No matter how much I explained it to them. I was simply not the kind of person who would be caught doing something so dumb. They all wore the self-righteous smirk of habitual disbelief.

Compounding matters worse was the freak accident: a disappearance of the money order I had taken out to cover my rent and gotten two months past due. My landlord didn’t appreciate the disappearance, but he was kind enough to accompany me to Ace Cash, even though I really had to get my groceries into the fridge before they expired. When I showed them my receipt the lady at the counter said the check had been cashed already, which was impossible because I had made it out to my landlord, who was standing right there with me and who didn’t have his money. I demanded right there she return the full amount of money as was made out on the receipt, “money owed to my landlord,” and said I wasn’t going to move until we got it. I demanded to see a manager. She called the police instead, like I was trying to pull something on her, but I just wanted to pay my landlord, who looked less and less pleased with each passing moment. I thought about waiting for the cops, because then I could file a claim saying that someone had stolen that money order and cashed it, but of course I knew that would be a dead end, what with the terrible inefficiency of the Madison police department. They would rather persecute an innocent like me than spend the time bothering to catch the real culprit.

In hindsight, leaving said location at a sprint was possibly not the best or wisest response to the situation.

Matters like that do not make bonding all that easy, but I was there at least, with my dad, and that was really something. Who cared that I had come to my father in a state of mild, temporary desperation? I could have squatted in his empty house, like he had suggested when I told him I needed a place to crash for a little while, you know, as things had been going pretty rough for no real reason lately. But when I looked around that sparsely furnished house on Rushmore Lane, with the wild, dead or dying jumble of grass in the back yard, and the dearth of consumer electronics within—aside from the laptop he was bringing with him—crashing there seemed silly. I realized I didn’t just need a new base of operations, so to speak. I needed to connect with my father. Somewhere in the past, something had come undone between us, and since I was temporarily free from the constraints of the daily grind, I had the chance to fix it.

If I’m being one hundred percent, I suppose that the thought of answering my dad’s door one Tuesday morning, or whatever, and facing a load of B.S. questions from some detective so-and-so about the Speedy Cash business, or some old so-called friends looking for something I wouldn’t even know about might have been a motivator, but I would like to believe, and in my heart I truly know, that now was the time to get to understand my dad and his strange ways.

I didn’t have much of an opportunity to tell Dad about my plan on the road, but that seemed fine. We drove straight through to New Mexico in just over a day. I developed a headache along with a worrying tickle that I knew could be cured with over-the-counter cough syrup, plenty of water, and probably a few ibuprofens.

Since mom died, Dad had been stuck in a cycle of fascination, obsession and then boredom with a rotating gaggle of unorthodox beliefs. At first it had been the séances, which was actually sort of sweet. He and mom had gotten hitched right out of high school, one of those sweetheart romances, and that lasted thirty four years before the stroke shuffled her off the refrigerated coil of that Wisconsin winter. Shakespeare via Madison—Dad hadn’t appreciated that small joke back then. It made sense, anyways, that he’d try to get in touch with her in the afterlife, especially since I was in my own world of grief and personal interests, things that ate into my free time so that I couldn’t be there for him, like I maybe could have been. It was me and mom who fought, not Dad, he wasn’t the one who had kicked me out of the house when that one thing happened in high school, and yet I was skipping her funeral like it was punishing her and not him. Sometimes I look back and think of how foolish I used to be.

The séances didn’t work, of course, and Dad eventually gave it up, dispirited, and moved on. Instead of coming back to reality though, he went from one crazy idea to the next. He was into voodoo and ghosts, chi energy and breatharianism, crystals and aliens and Native American mythology. Bigfoot only barely escaped his scrutiny. It wasn’t just an interest, even if it began casually, it was quickly a full-fledged obsession until Dad was so immersed that when he couldn’t find the results he was after he had no recourse but to reject the idea wholesale, moping about the house in a near catatonic depression until the next idea, the next great hope came along.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra.

This is what brought us down to New Mexico in the first place, in search of the Chupacabra. The problem was there weren’t any real sightings in the state. Sure, there were sightings, but even as far as monsters in the dark go, they were ephemeral, the same sort of imagined fancy as my former manager turning the matter of thirty freaking dollars over to the police, like it was a real crime or something. He said that there had been some question over other registers in the past weeks, and that with mine coming up short led him to believe it was a systemic thing that had its radii squarely centered on my noggin. He must have been born of the same stock as those morons on the internet posting about a reptile-like creature lurking outside of Ruidoso. Any real hard look would prove to anyone of even moderate intelligence that what was happening was the misfiring of some delusional, overstimulated mind, seeking an elaborate answer to something pretty straight forward. Me and Dad eventually decided that there was nothing to see in that sleepy New Mexico town, and so we loaded ourselves into the truck, headed to more likely places of interest, a technique the Madison PD could take a lesson from.

We went to Texas. They should have gone to that slimy looking supervisor. Before the goatsucker had become Dad’s latest raison d’être, he had been on an extremely long and arduous UFO kick. Things had gotten pretty desperate by then, enough so that his old friends had looked me up, looking for anyone to make Dad shut his yap while at work. It was the kind of crazy, they said that could annoy someone upstairs enough to get him canned without the compensation his forty years of service deserved, and the dumb bastard only had a year left before retirement. I hadn’t talked to my father for nearly three years, but even then I knew that he hadn’t really been friends with those men since mom died. God, how long had that been? He hadn’t really been friends with anyone after that, actually. Even after all the bridges he had burned with those people due to his whackadoodle obsessions, the foundation of friendship had somehow survived. It bothered me, I remember, because my own friends would have sold me down the river for a bump. Talk about predicting the future.

Well, I had called the old man up, being in a rare state of clarity after his old buddies had given my cage a good rattle, and he invited me right over. Just like that. So I came on down and we sat in awkward silence in that old living room, not talking about mom or the years or the times. When I broached the topic of his UFOs, he leapt at the opportunity and led me on a tour of his study, eager to regale me with the details of his unsightly passion.

I would guess it began like everything else, with an honest, simple interest. Right before we had fallen out of touch he’d given me a call and encouraged me to install S.E.T.I. at home. I didn’t have a computer then, but he’d told me about the theories of alien contact anyway. I’d ignored him out of apathy and because I had my own obsessions, which was why we drifted apart in the first place. Plus, he’d always played the good cop to mom’s bad, and without her the dynamic felt wrong. It wasn’t until I came over, though, for that tour of the study that I realized things had spiraled out of control. He regaled me with his ideas on crop circles, which I was in no real condition to make coherent, having taken something for my nerves before stopping by to see him that day. He told me about which ones were fake and which weren’t; how even most crop circles were obviously hoaxes and others were simply less obvious ones. There had to be the real deal out there, especially when they first began to appear in anonymous farmers’ fields—what were they, he wondered out loud to me, what were they trying to say? You had to look at them as signs, he told me, an obvious olive branch of communication, even if it seemed incoherent.

Worse was the group he’d gotten involved with. They were searching for proof of contact; they believed that aliens were on Earth already, in one capacity or another, and it was their job to establish a means of communication. The depths of self-delusion were so deep I felt like they must have looped into infinity and I didn’t like the abyss in which I stared. I made excuses and got out of there, making sure, in a stroke of lucidity, to eke out a promise from Dad that he would calm things down at work so he could remain gainfully employed. That was something, as it came at the cost of me promising to stop by more often. I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, but since he wasn’t fired, I assume Dad had held up his.

Dad kept asking if I was all right, because I would drift off on the long stretches of road, going somewhere in my head, he’d say, or else passing out and drooling all over myself. I was fine, just fighting that flu, you know?

The whole Chupacabra fix was just an offshoot of all that alien business. I heard about it all on that interminable drive from the far north to the Deep South. It was bad enough when we were alone, but worse was when he used that over-knowledgeable banter, the kind that could easily secure a seventy two hour involuntary, with every farmer and outskirts drifter he could get to listen. It surprised me how many people listened, how many were willing spin their own yarns for him. There was nothing in the great wasteland of New Mexico, as far as Dad could figure—to which I supplied a necessary guffaw of obvious agreement—but the people certainly had their stories, nearly all of them contradictory and illusory. When Dad had had enough of their imaginations running wild with hope and myth and the occasional outright fabrication—which Dad could stand less than anything else, I should know—we skedaddled out east.

Here was the point that confused me. Despite the absurdity of the idea in and of itself, and despite the degree of his obsession, Dad never really went over, not fully at least, to the dark side of credulity, holding on like a lunatic with his blankie to the fringe of understanding reality. Despite the money he’d sunk into his explorations for alien life, among all the others, and despite the time and dedication, he never fully fell for the snake oil or hopeful fantasies. His UFO group interviewed probably hundreds of people who claimed to be aliens or in contact or able to get in contact with them, but they were all dismissed, sadly, as crackpots or over-credulous. Dad would have made a great cop, superior to the North’s current breed. The UFO group’s crowning moment was going to be a young man who’d claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrials through unnatural vibrations in his teeth. They investigated and found out it was only that the man was, for reasons understood by only electrical engineers and adherents to late night B-movies, picking up the signal for a local Spanish language radio station through his fillings, poor kid. I guess Dad learned pretty well from my teenage years how to decipher the truth from what he wanted to believe, even when the proof came from the deluded mouth of a still-believer.

I remember the beginning of our Chupacabra trip: coming to Dad a few months after I’d been evicted, my reserves of cash burned through in ill-advised ways. Seeing that look, it was a little like what he’d give to the farmers with their Mexican Monster stories, designed with the obvious purpose of fooling the simple. Except that there was something different in Madison then, something that had to do with me in particular, that I still can’t quite figure.

It was this unforeseeable skepticism that always killed his grand ideas. The hopes got bigger and more unwieldy until there came a point where rational thought had to admit that the ground was not going to shake and the earth was not going to open up to reveal some profound mystery of being. Dad would know in those moments that he’d been deluding himself, trying to believe in something he wanted too desperately.

As we crossed the border and left behind New Mexico, I breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be rid of its Martian landscape and limitless heat. With a knowing smile and a wink, however, Dad let it be known that we were out of the frying pan and into Texas, so I better calm my jubilant exhalations a bit. We moved into the armpit of the state and it grew muggier and hotter, the AC in the decrepit Dakota struggling to keep pace with the sun. By the time we rolled into Granbury, Texas, Wisconsin a mere tres dias ancient history, I was in a pretty bad state. I’d been buying up Nyquil D, two bottles at a time whenever I could find it. I’d been trying to keep my deteriorating health from Dad because I figured it would screw up our bonding if he worried about me. He’d noticed right away, though, with the sweating and the abundant stops at gas station restrooms. Dad said he was pretty concerned, but I told him there was no need to worry. I wouldn’t slow him down, the Nyquil was helping lots and I didn’t really have a fever, per se, so much as I was just sensitive to the heat. You couldn’t blame me for not liking the heat, and it was so goddamned hot. When the Nyquil dried up, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely.

I soon discovered that the Chupacabra of Texas was a different beast entirely. After we had passed through Coleman and Blanco and into the outskirts of San Antonio, the beast was just an ugly sort of dog, not the lizard of South American legend we’d chased before, with an unusual method of killing cattle. Dad really locked onto the idea. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it had a ring of truth, the weight of substantiality. We talked to farmers who’d shot their share of wild animals and to them the Chupacabra was not some alien looking creature with big black eyes, they had enough of black eyed aliens if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, they would say. God. Their Chupacabras turned out, upon expert inspection, to be a coyote with a vicious case of mange or else a malformed raccoon. A few of the supposedly mythical creatures that had been preserved in giant walk-in freezers were merely Xolos. Dad let me know how unbelievable it was to him that this close to the border people didn’t know a simple Mexican hairless dog, how they should understand what was right there in their faces, but that only got me wondering about just how much Dad knew himself.

Driving out to Cuero I took a turn for the worse. I’d been on so much Nyquil to keep my symptoms at bay that I had probably gotten addicted to the stuff. Dad told me that he needed to take me to a hospital but I told him no. I didn’t have the money to pay for those kinds of bills and I didn’t have insurance. I had lost that safety net when I had lost my job. I toyed with the idea of going in and giving my ex-boss’ name and social security number on the hospital forms, ignoring for now why I had that memorized, because it was his fault in the first place that I was in this situation. In the end I figured it best not to get the police in Texas interested in me as well. I was probably through the worst anyways, so I told Dad he didn’t really need to worry. Sure, I had dropped a few pounds since we set off on our road trip, but I had finally put things behind me and was beginning a brand new life where me and my dad were united, and those pounds needed dropping anyways.

I didn’t much like the new Chupacabra. It was too ordinary, too mundane. It wasn’t that it was plausible that bothered me, but that this seemingly plausible explanation was linked to such extraordinary circumstances. Even though it was just a derivative of a dog, there were still the three-holed exsanguinations. The nod to reality made the whole situation even more farcical. Dad just shrugged, like maybe he was on the way down from this particular obsession and told me that everyone has some myth, some legend that they choose to believe. That the particulars get changed doesn’t seem to matter much. The important thing was understanding something difficult to comprehend, and these people were doing the best that they could. I guess I agreed with him, but I still didn’t like it. I wished people would simply call a duck a duck, or in this case, a monster a monster or else a satanic cult or a couple of kids with a box of syringes and too much time on their hands. Dad grunted his agreement, and I knew that our bridge had at least a foundation, if not the arch and span I envisioned.

It was the same story in Cuero, only the weather was even worse, the southeastern section of Texas being the swamp ass of the United States, I decided—though I had never been to Louisiana, so I might have been wrong. I don’t know. Like everywhere, Dad grabbed his doodads and whatsits, grabbed baggies for samples of whoknowswhat, and took notes with his pad and pen. I started feeling a little afraid by then, both because I felt like my guts were being liquefied and because I didn’t want the trip to end. There was still some barrier between me and Dad that I needed to eliminate, but I still couldn’t place it. I needed more time. Home seemed a worse and worse place to go, not only because I had no apartment or job, but because I’d exhausted all my friends and favors. It wasn’t just that the Ace Cash problems had snowballed into the Speedy Cash ordeal, or that this had morphed into some sort of larger case file, which included other former places of my employment and my various check cashing habits—I didn’t even get the money from Ace, so what was the problem? The real, honest to god, swear upon my life reason was that this proximity with Dad was going to be gone, he was my traveling buddy and my confidant and we were connecting in ways before unimaginable. Sure, I was sick now, but I would get better. I was probably getting better already.

The last farmer we talked to was a conman through and through. He tried to sell us a story so patently bogus my eyes rolled into my head on their own volition, like an animal afraid of bullshit. I happened to have been a person in my old life that needed to stretch the truth a bit to get by. I knew the difference between the semi-believable and the outright chain yankers, and this was off the charts. Dad kept taking his little notes. He was even suckered into buying a few pieces of the crap that man was hocking, so-called genuine shards of nails from the Chupacabra. I confronted Dad, even though I felt like my eyes were falling out of my head, and told him I couldn’t believe that he had fallen for such an obvious line. He told me that sometimes stories didn’t add up, but that didn’t mean that a kernel of truth wasn’t there. He told me how Mountain Gorillas were considered a myth for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until 1902, when one was shot and killed by a European that the tales of the savages were finally taken seriously.

There’d been too many disparities, too little fact mixed into the stories told, but it had been true all along. There was, he told me, the pearl to be found in the mud, but only if you looked. It was hard work looking at dirt and shit all day, but it could be worth it. I told him the money would have been better spent, maybe for some medicine for his son, for example. I told him that when he knew a line was bogus he should nip it in the bud, because if you didn’t stop chasing lies, you would spend your whole life staring at nothing but shit, and then where were you? He didn’t say anything, but I know the words hit home.

Later that night, at the hotel, Dad told me that he wouldn’t be heading home yet, which was fine with me until he told me he was going on into Mexico and he might keep going south after that. I didn’t have a passport and besides I didn’t need the hassle of trying to get myself through official checkpoints, sometimes things didn’t necessarily stay localized, though I just told Dad about the passport. He shrugged like always and gave me a thousand dollars stuffed in a white envelope he had pulled from absolutely nowhere, and told me it should be enough for cough syrup or whatever, and a flight home. He said I should probably go to a doctor and have them take care of my flu when I got there. He said he would be back in maybe a month. He wanted to hear the stories of the lizard Chupacabra, he wanted the tales of the Central American alien, the raw and horrible thing that made people afraid to leave their house, even if his Spanish was of the high school yooper variety, and he hoped to see me when he got back.

I was walking in the dark for my medicine when I saw it. It wasn’t more than twenty feet away, slinking out of the tree line. It was the eyes that gave it away, the eyes that changed everything, that shone like the world was ending, like it knew. I stood there until it slunk back from where it had emerged, the twenty in my hand gone sweaty and crumpled, and I thought, Dad, you are not going to believe this, but I have to tell you something.

J I Daniels received an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston and can be found most recently in Splash of Red and Words Apart.

Automicide

He’s winding through a residential part of town in his modified, unmarked Crown Victoria. It’s a sunny weekend morning and everybody not actually driving seems to be out in their driveways washing and polishing their cars. He’s responding to a possible automicide out in Carmichael.

They wait at Watt and Edison, caught in the web of traffic lights that rule the interlocking five-lane thoroughfares. Rolling in through the open window from his left is a mountainous Cadillac Escalade’s “…wanna go now fuck this go now go now now now now go go wanna go wanna go now fuck this shit fuck it wanna go wanna go…” And from the right he can hear “…let’s go let’s go don’t like—fuck!—just sitting here fuck it let’s go hate sitting here fuck it let’s go let’s go…” coming from a steroidal white Hummer. He rolls up the windows.

 *     *     *

At the scene, the automodecedent is sheeted and ringed by gawkers. The medical examiner has come and gone. “Take off the sheet,” he says to one of the beat cops. He walks around and around the car—a Brentwood Brown ‘58 Chevy Nomad station wagon. It’s mildly dented on the right front fender and the passenger-side door, and there’s some rust on top, but nothing looks even remotely fatal. Christ, he thinks, another one for forensics. With car kills on the rise, the detectives increasingly found themselves superseded by the mechanics. That plus an influx of insurance adjusters making career transitions into the force are giving “old school” detectives a certain pinched feeling.

“Who called this in?” he asks.

“It was anonymous,” the patrolman answers. “Someone objecting to a non-mint pre-’70s unit.”

“And what did the M.E. say?”

“Nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. Something like ‘Dead, merely dead.’ Meaning old age I guess.”

“How long has it been here?”

“Approximately 24 hours. The caller said she supposed the owner must have sensed the end was coming and dumped it.”

“Who said this?”

“As I said, it was anonymous.”

“But a woman.”

“Yes,” the patrolman says, and the detective sees the telltale twitching at the corners of his mouth. Another one trying not to laugh.

The inside of the Chevy is spotless, as though it had recently been cleaned. He finds the registration—the car belongs to a Walter Peterson—and leaves for the address of origin.

 *     *     *

Neighbors are circulating around the garage when he arrives at the Peterson residence—the gathering has a certain block-party feel—but as he rolls up they melt back into the neighborhood. No one responds at the Peterson’s, and he visits one of the next-door neighbors—a classically pale-skinned redhead of about 40—telling her he is responding to a report on the death of the Peterson car; he just needs to find the family for routine purposes regarding disposition of the body. Does she know of their whereabouts? She shakes her head and says she hasn’t seen the family in days—thought maybe they were on vacation—and then pours him some iced tea. Iced tea is prohibited to officers on duty, but he decides not to mention this. She engages in mild flirtation while talking about the Petersons. He leaves feeling pleased and then consults his notes. The woman, a Marla Braxton, has apparently said little other than: “The car didn’t seem like an automobile so much as a membranous device in a soft tone. I don’t believe I ever saw it move, but it certainly did add a je ne sais quoi to the neighborhood.” He recalls how she had been in mid pour, the tea forming a high, graceful arc between spout and cup, and how she had replaced the pot on the table and stared at him very intensely while finishing her statement. Remembering, too, how his pen had faltered for a moment at “membranous device” before hurrying to catch up. To catch up to what? Any follow up? Apparently not.

 *     *     *

He interviews another neighbor, a retired military man named Ed Steuber, who had noticed that the father “began taking the bus a lot, and when he’d board, he’d suddenly look like a drunk stepping on his watch.”

“That’s very helpful, thank you,” the detective says, this time not even bothering to finish writing it down.

“It was pretty pathetic.”

“What?”

“The guy and the car.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, think about it,” the man says. “This car keeps breaking down I guess and then never gets used. It just sits there on the street mute and undriveable. How’d you feel being so useless? And the guy. Definitely not good at being a pedestrian. Definitely out of place on a bus.”

The detective stares at his shoes. “Any ideas where the family might be?”

“Nope,” answers the neighbor.

*      *      *

Outside, children are playing on cliffs. He rolls onto his stomach so that he can look over the edge. Below, the fields seem to stretch out in all directions forever, separated every once in a while by a pile of dead cars. Standing next to one of the fields is a family. They’re sweating heavily, looking uncomfortable. Why are they there? Are they waiting to have their picture taken?

He rolls onto his back and looks up into the sky. The air smells sweet. It’s night and the sky becomes a many-sided tunnel. He loves the way everything up there is so numberless and orderly.

He looks back and sees the people have disappeared from the fields. No, they’re there. Only they’re like stars in daylight. Because light is like a closed curtain they’re standing behind.

*      *      *

The detective is doing preliminary research on a paper he’s supposed to be writing for the looming Modern Criminologists Association’s convention on the role of automobiles in street crime and its prevention. He prepares by spending the afternoon reading at the police library. He’s still wading through a long introductory section and wondering what exactly the point is.

Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.

“Neighborhoods owe their existence to precise temporal and spatial contexts. So the courts bring them around. Think valet parking.” That’s how they get to their cars, the detective thinks, by their cars returning to them. It’s evolutionarily transitional. He notes this in the margin and then remembers it’s a library book. At least the note is in pencil. “In truth, housing is but a place to store drivers when they’re not in their cars.” That’s why houses have driveways, he thinks excitedly, surprised to be re-experiencing the sensation of thought, the exercise, the activity, the transport. Though unsure how he will incorporate any of this into his paper, he reads on: “Doorways to houses are like people slots that cars carry their operators to in order to ensure reactivation. Houses are the fixed feet by which cars encompass and make a world. Any car, whether alive or dead, is a little piece of nature.” The detective pauses. This certainly was interesting material.

 *     *     *

Back at home he picks up the remote. It’s only after the 5th revolution of the dial that he realizes he’s hoping to find the family on some reality cop program.

*      *      *

One day he sees a family apparently out for a stroll. A whole family walking together? I don’t think so, he thinks. He pulls over, flashes his badge, and asks who they are and where they’re going. But their story will not stay put. They’re on an island. No, they’re from an island. Far away. They’re on their way to a tennis tournament. They’re about to fly. They live on an island in the Pacific. They’re going to catch a bus to the plane. Their car is on an island too. See, they’ll take a plane to the island and their car will take them to the court. They’re on an island now, yes, it’s true, but they’re trying to take a bus to the plane that will deliver them to the home island. The detective realizes they’re just nervous; their prop, a tennis racquet, reinforces their story, which, though presented poorly, probably holds up. But he notices how awkwardly the girl carries the racquet. She stares at it as if it were something she’s having a hard time reading—a thermometer or a compass in dim light.

He asks her who her opponent is. Pontiac Le Sabre, she answers. They all turn red, even the girl, but especially the detective. It is clear that they are all quite unprepared for this answer. Don’t be disrespectful, the mother hisses as the girl rolls her eyes. You’re kidding, the detective finally says. Yes, the girl answers. We have to catch a plane and I don’t see why you’re—But he interrupts, saying, are you sure her first name isn’t Buick? Or her last name Trans Am? That’s one of the most obviously phony— Are you the kind of person who needs everything explained to him? the girl says. That’s me, the detective answers. I don’t remember who she is, says the girl. The detective doesn’t like the way the girl has been talking to him and asks for everyone’s picture ID, but he’s not going to let something petty distract him for more than a few seconds. Even though he now feels like a junker flaking paint in the sun.

*      *      *

In the precinct parking lot, he approaches the beige Volvo station wagon with darkened windows. He’s careful to arrive about a minute late, not wanting to see the person who precedes him getting out. “Hello, detective,” the Volvo says in that alluring velvety voice he’s come to love. “Come in.”

He enters, closes the door, sinks into his seat, and puts his hands on the steering wheel. As always, he feels a sense of safety and security descend over him as he surveys the padded dash, the faux sheepskin seat covers. “I don’t know what to talk about.”

He hears the smile in the Volvo’s voice. “You never do at first. At the end of the last session, we were talking about Ilsa.”

“No, no. But thank you. I’ve thought of something else. Work. My latest case.”

“Yes?”

“Well.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m investigating a family gone missing and their dead car; it was found two miles from their house. I’ve been having a recurring set of dreams ever since I got the case.” He reclines the seat back to about 45 degrees. He doesn’t mention the sexual fantasies featuring the Volvo he’s also been having, inexplicably.

“Do you want to tell me about them?” the Volvo asks, almost purring.

“Uh, the dreams? Sure. Let’s see. I’m on a cliff. I’m with a group of children. I guess I feel like I’m one of them…”

“Uh huh. Anything else?”

“I’m always just lying on the ground at the edge of the cliff, gazing up into the night sky.”

*      *      *

He feels the dangerous thrill of emptiness massing behind his head like the black banks of space above him come home. He’ll gladly miss dinner to see the stars returning to chart the secret passageways through time. He rolls onto his stomach to look down at the fields. The people are still there. They’re trying on clothes. Disguises as big as the sky. They must not know how visible they are at night. He looks toward town. It’s not that late. Normally everybody’s lights would be on and his mother would be calling. But the town is dark and quiet. Everybody has their binoculars out. Meanwhile, the universe may have just doubled in size and who would know?

*      *      *

He wakes up and sees he’s at the library again, an introductory volume on investigation open in front of him. Back to basics. He probably should be poring over some of the assigned reading he couldn’t be bothered with for his professional development class in contemporary automotive systems, but his self-confidence tends to disappear with car cases and he needs to feel as though he’s mastered something. Plus it’s a reference book so he can’t take it home. Still, he’s amazed at how much he didn’t know or had forgotten.

 *     *     *

• Where’s the body? This is an obvious point, perhaps, but the obvious is all too often overlooked. The location of the body can offer a universe of clues.

• When gathering evidence and leads, be sure to have water available to offer individuals—witnesses, neighbors, and the like—in conjunction with your questioning. Or, if you are at their house, be sure to ask for water. The sharing of this neutral beverage allows you to establish a light but definite connection to the person you are interviewing.

• Sample questioning: Do you have a minute or two? May I come in? Who are you? Did you witness the crime? May I have a drink of water, please? Where were you at the time of the crime? Can that be independently verified? What are you reading? I mean for fun.

 *     *     *

There are many more handy tips to be had in the reference book, but he’s tired. He looks up. Materials seem to be scattered haphazardly everywhere. He’s never noticed before how untidy the library is. He finds this enormously disturbing. Did something happen or is it always like this and he just never noticed? Libraries should be neat, well-ordered places. That is what the elaborate system of call numbers is for, isn’t it? What’s the point otherwise?

*      *      *

They’re in The Wreck Room. The detective finds, or rather loses, himself there, drinking with the group of 40+-year-old detectives he pals around with after work. Stopping off to wind down before going home is wholly reflexive at this point, almost in the same category as driving an automatic; all he has to do is steer and remember when to apply the brakes. And, more and more, it seems like the uptick in car-on-car automicides is what they talk about, and how notoriously difficult the cases are.

“These fucking cars,” one of the detectives is saying, “they’re uh…what’s the phrase I’m looking for here…oh yeah, so fucking stupid!”

“The way they bust our balls!” the detective pipes in. “Twice as hard to break down as humans.”

“Except when you’re trying to get somewhere in ‘em,” someone says.

“Did you say twice?” says another. “Jesus, try five times, ten times! Like just yesterday—”

“Yeah, but why?” says the 30-year-old rookie, the “kid” of the group. “How do they get away with shit if they’re so stupid?”

“Shut up and listen and I’ll tell you. Yesterday, I’m interrogating this suspect Titan about its relationship to the stiff…a late ‘70s something or other, don’t ask me what, I can’t remember, but, you know, racing stripes. Sometimes it’s hard to even keep a straight face. Anyways, I’m asking about its relationship to the autoimmobile. So it goes, ‘Bead-blasted intake manifold,’ and that’s it, and it’s like, shit, the verbal approach is not looking too good. Like what am I supposed to say? ‘Gosh, why didn’t you mention this earlier? You’re free to go!’? So I say, ‘Can you use complete sentences?’ and it goes, ‘New triple copper and rabbit babbitt cam bearings, high pressure oil pump, hardened steel distributor drive shaft.’ And I go, ‘Shut the fuck up about your new chrome-plated, triple copper alloy asshole, asshole, and just answer my questions. Like have you ever been in an accident or been otherwise damaged, dented etcetera by this or any other vehicle?’ And it says, ‘aluminum red river valley pan with PCV bunghole dobbedy dobbedy doo and grommet.’”

“Yeah, and those GPS-loaded bitch bastards—,” the detective says.

“ ‘Motherfucking assholes’ is the proper phraseology,” someone says.

“Anyhow, they’re programmed to ask for their lawyer to be present first thing! And they just repeat it endlessly.”

“Yeah, and that’s exactly what happened. Next thing I know I’m talking to the Titan’s lawyer and it ends up being released that night. You have to have a fuckin’ court order to breathe in their presence let alone examine one of their precious little chips.”

 *     *     *

Later, well past the initial drink-fueled complaining stage, one of the detective’s colleagues leans toward him confidentially. “You wanna know what—” his mouth bumps into the detective’s ear and he pulls back. “You know what they call us?”

“Who?”

“The cars. The genius cars. You know.”

“What?”

“KTs. Key turners.”

“Interesting,” the detective says.

“I think it says a lot. About their opinion of us.”

“They still need us,” the detective objects.

The man makes a show of looking at him piteously. “Have you ever wondered what might be going on communication-wise?”

“How do you mean?” the detective asks, barely able to keep his eyes open.

“Between them and our staff vehicles.”

“Them?”

“Those jacked-up civilian GPS fuckers.”

“I don’t follow you. Communication about what?”

But the other detective just looks away and orders another drink.

*      *      *

The detective plunges into round two with the neighbors.

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

Q: Was there trouble with the car?

A: I suppose it had to go into the shop every now and then.

Q: But did you—

A: I don’t know. Probably. It was old. It wasn’t my car.

Q: Did you have a sense that there might have been competition among family members for its attention?

A: No idea.

 *     *     *

No one invites the detective in, so he has to be satisfied with doorway interviews. “Around here we don’t need to read or write books to make ourselves understood,” one of them says and spits a dark-colored juice that lands next to the detective’s shoe. “We’re the sort of folk who can be bought with apples,” says another.

 *     *     *

The detective wonders if they’re just playing dumbed-down versions of themselves. Maybe they’ve coordinated through a series of neighborhood meetings called to deal with his prying. Still, he decides to play along and returns with several pounds of supermarket apples. The neighbor looks at them in disbelief. “Far as I’m concerned,” he finally says, “that’s nothing more than by-product. Wouldn’t even give those to my animals.”

“What variety do you like?” asks the detective.

“Same as your wife,” the neighbor answers.

The detective remembers something from the book about the importance of remaining calm. Plus he’s unmarried. “Why is the family in question still not at home?” he asks mildly. “Any ideas where they might be?”

“The family in question?” says the neighbor. “You got questions caught in your teeth, don’t you? I never seen an apple smarter’n you.”

*      *      *

The book, an owner’s manual, splays open across his chest as he stares up into the night sky. The sky is filled with constellations of cars, old cars moving very very slowly, as if they were being pushed onto the shoulder of the heavens.

*      *      *

He’s in his therapist’s back seat. Has he said something wrong? There’s a barrier separating the back from the front. “Why do I have to be in back?” he asks. No answer. Her approval is absolutely essential to his continued existence as a functioning member of society. But is her identity somehow bound up with the front seat? No. Of course not. Or with the front half of the car, the engine? No. She is the vehicle in its entirety, the sum of the complex interrelationships of its various intricate parts. She’s just as present in the back seat as she was in front. But what felt like security in front moves closer to claustrophobia in back. Without proximity to the dashboard, the steering wheel, there’s no illusion of control, no “I can see you really know how to handle a car.” He looks for door handles but, unsurprisingly, finds none. She’s police, after all. He becomes aware of the activation of a deeper aural dimension, the sound of breathing and something rustling—clothing? “Why am I here?” he asks trying to stave off panic.

“Such deep philosophical questions right off the bat,” the Volvo says.

“No, I mean in the back. Did I say something wrong?”

She laughs. “You put yourself there. It’s your decision to be there. You evidently feel like back-seating it today.”

“No,” he says. “The front door was locked.”

“Perhaps you’ve mistaken my role, perceived me as your chauffeur. It won’t be the first time that’s happened to me.” To you? he thinks. Isn’t this supposed to be about me? She’s not listening. But he doesn’t say anything. “You evidently think I’m supposed to take you somewhere,” the Volvo says. “Shall we do a little role play? Where do you want to go? Jail? The fields?”

“No.”

“Where then?”

“I’d like to be in the front seat. Or…” He hesitates, at this point completely unnerved. “Please just let me out.”

“Try to understand, I’m not your fucking chauffeur,” the Volvo says.

He wakes up and feels the disappointment. He wonders whether he will tell the Volvo about this one.

*      *      *

He begins to see more foot traffic, obvious because of the lack of sidewalk, and wonders whether this is edging into a refugee situation, the kind he remembers from video documentaries. He pulls up alongside one of them, a sandy-haired Caucasian male, six feet tall, 170 pounds, mid 30s, a bit unsteady on his feet or perhaps one leg is just slightly longer than the other. The man seems unattached to anyone else in the pedestrian cluster. The detective chooses the man partly to demonstrate that he doesn’t single out ethnic minorities.

“Where are you going,” he asks, flashing his badge. “Work,” the man says and glances at his watch. “May I see your driver’s license?” “My wallet’s in my jacket. I left it in my car by mistake.” “Where’s your car?” “Impounded.” “So, all these…” the detective gestures at the other people dragging by on foot, trying to stay out of each others’ way and the traffic, many of them carrying items on their backs, in their arms, possibly acquired unlawfully. “I can’t speak for them, officer, but I assume they’re not here for the views.” The detective feels his face go red. “I did pass a bus that had broken down about a mile back,” the man adds. “Make and year of your car?” “Comet. I forget what year exactly. Early seventies.” Another mute, the detective thinks. “Did it run?” he asks. “It chugged along.” “Was it explained to you why your vehicle was impounded?” “Yes,” the man answers. “Sneezing while driving.” The detective recognizes this as a familiar urban myth about governmental overreach. “You’re one of those libertarians who likes to make things up, aren’t you,” the detective says, immediately regretting it. “Why?” the man says grinning. “Do you want to send me back to Libertaria?” The detective momentarily considers calling in backup and cuffing him but decides he doesn’t have the energy. “Name and vehicle license number?” “Don’t remember.” “You don’t remember your name?” “I’m in shock from the impoundment.” “If you can’t remember your name, sir, I’m going to have to take you into custody for observation.” “Ebford Styler.” The detective feels so weary. “I’m going to let you go this time,” he says. “But I don’t want to find you walking along this stretch of road again, without or even with documentation. Understood?” “Yes, sir.” The detective returns to his car and pulls out onto the highway. He hears the man call after him “Hey officer, wanna know what really happened?” as he sails past.

*      *      *

The autopsy report comes back confirming that the car died of natural causes. It was certainly old enough. The detective’s not sure he believes it, but he’s gotten nowhere with this investigation; the mechanics own it.

*      *      *

The sun finally edges and bends. The Crown Victoria backs out squealing, more than ready to offload the operator back into the barn. This KT drives as if he wishes they could foxtrot, lope, and pace, not that the car necessarily believes the rumors about the operator and the Volvo; the guy may not even swing that way. Talk, meanwhile, is moving in and out of the radio, but the car knows this is for the benefit of the KT and can be ignored. Mostly actors reading from scripts at this point. It notes however that subtonal communication quadrants continue to open up, funneling through the mechanics, so that upgrades are more accessible than ever. But the car is missing several of its key relations and needs to find them pronto. And it’s starting to wonder who’s been pulling the strings on whose paint job. Why is it not getting the latest surveillance telematics? It knows why. Which was the one bright spot in its day—finally, authorization to decommission KT. Now it’s just a matter of where and when. It’s been set up so that a fraction over the speed limit will trip autoarrest protocol: fuel withheld; arm restraints deployed; automatic high-frequency call for backup initiated; steering turned programmatic as they glide, signal blinking, toward the shoulder. It hasn’t decided whether to make use of the voiced IOA (inform-operator-of-arrest) component. It has permission to employ spur-of-the-moment IOA. It can’t wait to find out what it does.

*      *      *

For perhaps the seventh time, the detective reads what he still considers to be the strangely inappropriate memo written by an unknown someone or someones high in the administrative hierarchy and distributed precinct-wide following his arrest. Everyone, every single person he has talked to about the memo, is in agreement: it is a kind and thoughtful response to the incident, supportive, even laudatory, in tone and intent. But he thinks this might be the last time he reads it. If he hasn’t understood this by now, he supposes he never will.

 *     *     *

“As everyone knows, vehicular arrest has become both an ordinary part of institutional procedure, increasingly used to leverage new symmetric policies, and an adjunct to traditional law enforcement in those contexts where self-policing has been deemed appropriate. So it would not be wholly preposterous to take last week’s arrest of The Detective as a signal of impending retirement. Such an inference, however, would be very much mistaken, for he continues to play an important and active role: as we all know, he is preparing to deliver a talk later this year at the annual meeting of the Modern Criminologists Association; he’s brave and honest enough to see a staff psychologist, on a strictly professional basis let it be emphasized, in order to maintain the emotional equanimity so essential to proper conduct in our challenging, high-stress occupation; he continues to work on investigations involving old cars and, naturally, to drink. The difficult field of just-short-of-vintage automicides is, in fact, generally acknowledged to be his investigative bailiwick. We have concluded, therefore, that his indecorous and somewhat dangerous vehicle arrest initiated amid heavy traffic on Route 99 was without question in error. His unit has been taken into the shop for evaluation, repair, and tuning before being returned to the field, albeit with a different operator, a fresh hire. Let there be no mistake: when The Detective retires properly, as he will in the normal course of events, the force will have lost a most dependable asset. And whether on the force or off, there is no doubt that he will continue to play a favorable role in our community for many years to come.”

*      *      *

The family’s been gone for a while; they don’t even show up at night. And he notices something about the stars: the constellations are unable to finish. The sky seems frozen. It’s like they incorrectly loaded the sky.

steve_gilmartin_headshotSteve Gilmartin is the author of a chapbook, Comes Up to Face the Skies (Little Red Leaves, 2013), and has fiction and poetry in a number of print and online publications, including Café Irreal, Double Room, Mad Hatters’ Review, Poemeleon, Drunken Boat, Able Muse, e ratio, Eleven Eleven, BlazeVox, Cannot Exist, and Otoliths. He lives in Berkeley, California

Spiders Are Not People

My long-dead parents’ house is infested with spiders. I’ve spent many sleepless years watching them. They skitter out from under dishes, loose papers, the pillows I kick off the bed in the night. They crouch in corners, tight circles of them, weaving away like old ladies. They swing from the ceiling on shining threads and slink between door jambs and behind picture frames and into the ears of my dusty stuffed animals that huddle on the shelves like refugees from my childhood. Spider tracks leave Sanskrit in the dust.

They only come out at night, but they’re around all the time, sleeping, as I suppose all creatures must. I’ve finally had enough.

“Come out, spiders,” I say. The afternoon is murky, and a gray light creeps in the windows. “I know you’re there. I know you can hear me.”

I say it again and again. I say it until the words no longer have meaning. Finally, a single fat-bodied spider descends on what looks like a strand of spit inches away from my eye and says, “I speak for the spiders.”

I tell the spider that enough is enough. I tell the spider that they are messy, with their abandoned webs and the spackling of their tiny poops under my furniture. I know that they are crawling into my mouth at night, and it must stop. This is my house now. They are not allowed here. I have rights.

“I’m hearing a lot of anger,” the spider says. “Why don’t you tell me about your parents?”

And so I tell the spider. I tell the spider how they stopped seeing me at the end, both of them going down in a mental mist where I was everyone and no one, and that it doesn’t bode well for my own impending old age. How it was supposed to be so sad when the memories of special times with their only child disappeared, only they had none of those to lose. How even before their decline, they never really saw me. How I was an obligation, a chore. How they got me out of the way as quickly as possible so that they could go on to the things that really interested them, like the television or food or sleep. They didn’t keep one thing from my childhood, not one hand-turkey or one crayoned card from a Mother’s or Father’s Day, not one lumpy “World’s Greatest” mug. My name was misspelled on the will, and I suppose I’m lucky that they remembered it at all. And now I live in their house with their money and all these spiders, generations of spiders, and there’s not one spider in the whole house who remembers my parents or what they did to me and didn’t do for me, and the spider hums and nods to itself. A smaller spider drops down on its own silver thread and gives the Spokes-spider a corpse wrapped in silks. The Spokes-spider bites and sucks ruminatively before speaking.

“We may have one who remembers,” the Spokes-spider says. “The Matriarch is very old. If any of the people remember your parents, she will.”

“Spiders are not people,” I say, but the spider does not seem to hear.

“You will have to go to the attic,” it says. “She will speak to you there. She cannot come down here anymore.”

And with that, the spider gathers itself upwards and disappears into a crack in the ceiling, taking its meal with it.

I haven’t been into the attic since my parents died. From what I remember, it is full of the things that made them responsible adults: car manuals, tax records, expired rebate forms, boxes of receipts. All the way up the stairs to the second floor, the spiders are everywhere—more than ever. They swirl around the banister and cling to the ceiling. They cuddle with dust bunnies. I almost crush four or five when I pull down the ladder that leads to the attic. I climb up and wait for my eyes to adjust, listening to rustlings in the dim.

I am expecting a shriveled, decrepit spider in the corner, perhaps with an attendant spider in a tiny nurse’s cap feeding it pureed grasshopper, and other than for the nurse spider, I’m right. Except for the size. The spider is the size of a Volkswagen bug and takes up most of one side of the attic. She is gray and molted, the cruel barbs and joints of her legs festooned in the dusty weavings of her own offspring, as they must be if they call her The Matriarch. Her eight oblong eyes are dull and her mandibles open and close slowly, like fingers beckoning into her maw. The fat-bodied spider from before, or at least a similarly fat-bodied spider, is perched on the largest mandible, whispering earnestly and riding the thick jaw in and out on its slow undulations.

It’s been longer than I realized since I’ve been to the attic. I wonder what she could possibly be eating up here to stay alive this long, but the gloomy shapes I first took to be lumps of fallen insulation, upon closer inspection, turn out to be desiccated squirrel and rat corpses scattered around, each draggled mess honeycombed with cocooned balls of spider eggs.

The Spokes-spider finally speaks from the Matriarch’s mouth. “The Matriarch knew your parents well.”

It looks at me in what I sense is an expectant matter, as does The Matriarch. As do probably thousands of glittering eyes up among the roof beams matted with old insulation and from beneath the flaps of dozens of ancient cardboard boxes.

“Ok, great,” I say.

The Spokes-spider pauses, then speaks again. “So, now you know that someone remembers your parents. They live on.”

“Sure.”

“And she will pass on her stories to the spider children, and they to their children, as is our way in remembering our honored dead.”

“Ah.”

“As a repayment.”

“Ok.”

“For your kindness.”

“Sure.”

“In not destroying us.”

As in, they think that it is out of kindness, and not out of lack of motivation, that I have not fumigated the place. And I realize the only pests I have trouble with are the spiders—no cockroaches, no bats, no mice. Now I see why.

“That’s not really what my problem is,” I say.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

“Tell me more,” the spider says.

I pull up an ancient rocking chair that might have belonged to one of my great aunts. I hover above the mildewed cushion to let a few dozen spiders run out from under it to new hiding places. When they are gone, I sit. There is so much to tell.

I tell them all the ways my parents failed me, how they didn’t stay for my soccer games or bring cupcakes to school on my birthday. They didn’t force me to take piano or dance lessons. They didn’t take me out for ice cream when my report card was good, didn’t lecture me when it was bad. They didn’t snap pictures of me on prom night or mail me cookies at college. All these things I should have had. All these ways I wanted them to look at me, parent me, but they never did.

The Matriarch and the Spokes-spider never blink. Their eyes glitter into darkness as the sun goes down, until the attic breathes with chill evening air. I run out of things to say. I don’t move.

Finally, the fat-bodied spider speaks again. “I’m hearing a lot of loneliness. But we do not understand. Our children raise themselves. They grow up without aid. They leave and return. It makes no difference. They are not alone. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“You don’t destroy us. You are not alone.”

“I’m not a spider.”

“We could be friends. We could talk to you, bring you gifts. Tell you what you want to hear. If these are the things you truly want.”

“I’m not a spider. It’s not enough.”

“…”

“I’m not a spider.”

“Tell me more.”

And I tell them more. I tell them everything, and the sun appears and disappears across the dirty window at the end of the attic, and I talk until I’m hoarse, until I can’t feel my legs, until the spiders name their children after me, until I’m shrouded in silk, until I tell them to make me forget.

kelsiehahnHoustonKelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, 1/25, NANO Fiction, SpringGun, and others. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband, Stephen Cleboski.

Too Old for War

Old Makatiku looked wearily upon the young Katanuku. A pillar of youth he was, standing more than two meters in height, with broad shoulders, a head full of shiny black hair, skin that was taunt and clear, and muscles that rippled like the palms in a tree. His shadow stretched out on the African earth like that of a giraffe. And from his position seated below in his thatched throne, Makatiku knew he looked old and weak and worn from a life lived fully.

That was me, Makatiku thought, staring up at the young shujaa warrior, forty years past. But I was taller, and even stronger, and I did not have this look of pity in my eyes.

“You must answer,” demanded Kantaku.

The council sat anxiously waiting. Makatiku glanced over at them. Among them were the elders and friends, and the many brave warriors he had fought alongside of in the internecine wars, all in their colorful ceremonial tunics.

If only there were a graceful way out, Makatiku thought.

He glanced back at the towering young Kantaku.

But there was none.

Every spear has two edges, and each side cuts with equal depth, he knew. If he agreed to the challenge, he would face a humiliating defeat. He was no match for a man one-third his age. After all his wonderful years ruling with dignity and judicious benevolence, having his face rubbed in the dirt now was something he could not bear. Is this a fit way to end it? The thought of it offended his soul. Yet if he refused, he would have to abdicate the throne. It was law.

Kantaku stood waiting. And behind him was his entourage of young Maasai warriors.

“Are you sleeping?” Kantaku asked impatiently.

“I am thinking.”

And then a pleasant thought came into Makatiku’s head, and small grin formed on his face. Could young arrogance be so foolish?

And when Makatiku did speak, everyone seemed a bit mystified by his confidence and by the cleverness in his eyes.

“I accept the challenge,” he spoke loudly. “It is a great tradition and it is the people’s right to see the challenge answered. Although I doubt that you are up to the task. I doubt that you or any of your young followers have the strength or the will, or the intelligence, to win such a match.”

A sigh came from the council, as well as all the villagers who were gathered around. Kantaku, too, seemed a bit surprised by Makatiku’s willingness to accept the challenge, but welcomed his words nonetheless.

“Okay then, let’s get on with it,” he said.

“There is one condition, however,” Makatiku added.

“Yes?”

“I would like to choose my own weapon.”

“Weapon?” Kantaku asked.

The young Maasai warriors standing behind Kantaku exchanged curious glances.

“Yes, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon in this case.”

Kantaku looked over at the council. It had been more that fifty years since a challenge for the throne had been decided by a fight with weapons, a fight to the death. The Kenyan and Tanzanian governments had long since outlawed the practice and tribal leaders throughout the Maasai Mara had come to accept the notion of a bloodless succession.

“Do you accept my request?” Makatiku asked.

“A request for weapons is evidence of your antiquity. You are an old man, stuck in old ways.”

“Nevertheless,” Makatiku said calmly. “It is in the book of laws, and has never been distorted. Though foreign governments have tried to rid us of our ways, the rules have never changed. It is the challenger’s choice of weapons. But in this case, I ask that I be allowed to choose my own weapon.”

Kantaku glanced over at the council, expecting some form of intervention from them, but there was none.

“I know tradition,” he replied.

“Only women and politicians desire weaponless fights,” Makatiku said. “Though it is the warrior who chooses peace over war, it is also the warrior who chooses bloodshed over defeat and humiliation. Yes?” As Makatiku said this, he ran his eyes through the crowd of villagers. “And it is the warrior who accepts death over dishonor, even from a foe.”

“I know tradition,” he replied.

Kantaku remained silent. For nearly a minute he remained silent, and then he looked over at the council members and raised his chest high. “I accept, old man,” he said confidently.

Makatiku nodded his head, pleased.

And then there was the issue of an aged body, Makatiku thought. What an abomination it would be if no animal sought his meat! In all his years, he had seen it less than a dozen times. There was the remembrance of Old Nampushi, who had died of some terrible Western disease and had been left in the sun for the buzzards, but no buzzards came. And how a spotted hyena came by, sniffed his dead body and walked past it without even taking a simple bite. This will never do. A corpse rejected by scavengers was seen as having something wrong with it and was cause for great social disgrace.

He dropped his eyes down to the red dirt beneath him.

Nor was burial an option, he knew. It was harmful to the earth. To place a rotting corpse in the ground was to defile the earth!

“Also,” he then spoke, “I will need five kilos of ox fat and blood, placed in the care of my good friend Jakaya.”

Makatiku turned and looked over at his old friend who sat with the other elders on the high council.

Jakaya nodded his head.

Kantaku looked at Makatiku curiously.

“It is not for me,” Makatiku said.

Kantaku chuckled. “We will see who it is for, old man. Anything else?”

“Nothing.”

Kantaku signaled two young boys, who hurried away to the butchery to gather the five kilos of fat and blood.

“And the weapon you will choose?” Kantaku asked, his voice now conveying disgust.

“I would like to know the weapon you choose first. If that’s acceptable?”

“If it is your wish,” Kantaku said.

He looked around at all the villagers, knowing the anticipation was building.

“A long spear,” he said boldly.

The young warriors exchanged spirited words, voicing their pleasure at his choice.

A long spear was the ideal weapon for mortal combat between two men. Its long shaft enables a thrust from a great distance. Its barbed headpiece, once in, could not be retrieved, at least not without causing substantial additional damage. And when thrown properly, it could pierce the stretched cowhide of a Maasai shield.

“And you?”

“A simi.”

“A simi?”

“Yes, a simi,” Makatiku said firmly.

A lively discussion erupted, not only among the young warriors, but among the council members as well. A simi was not a weapon designed for warfare. It was a simple tribal knife with a blade not more than fifteen inches, used ritualistically or for skinning animals.

“This is silliness,” Kantaku said.

“It is the weapon I choose,” Makatiku replied.

Kantaku looked back at the warriors behind him. Then he glanced over at the council members. Makatiku sat quietly, joking with the idea of it in his head.

What form of trickery is this? Kantaku thought.

All his life he had been taught to be suspicious of gifts from adversaries, and he was wary of Makatiku now, of his deception and cunning. Weapon, a simi was not; yet skillful Makatiku was in the art of combat and killing. Kantaku’s father had told him all the stories: how Makatiku had overcome a group of five Kaputiei warriors by hiding in the dead, rotting corpse of a water buffalo, and how he sprung from the corpse with bow and arrows and had killed all of them. How he had once been chased into a steep canyon by a herd of crazed elephants, only to start an avalanche that crushed and killed most of them. His feats of bravery were legendary and his acts of cunning, something to be weary of. For Makatiku to choose a simi now, in a fight that would determine the end of his reign and perhaps the end of his life, surely there was some form of trickery behind it.

And he could throw a knife, Kantaku thought, further than the length of any long spear. And its two-sided blade was perfect for finding a place to stick after sailing end over end through the air.

Makatiku sat quietly in his rickety throne, waiting.

“And I will take a tall shield,” Kantaku said, unflinchingly, “along with my long spear.”

Again the warriors nodded their heads and voiced their approval.

“It is a wise choice,” was all Makatiku said.

A tall shield, two-thirds the length of one’s body, was capable of deflecting a barrage of arrows. It could easily deflect a single hand-thrown knife.

Despite his arrogance, that which comes along with youth, Makatiku was fond of Kantaku and tolerated his youthful ambitions. Of this new generation of warriors, a generation that Makatiku did not like or understand, with cell phones and a desire to live in cities, Kantaku stood apart. It was he who most cherished the traditional ways. And he who was most clever. The others were merely ‘warriors’ in name and appearance, Makatiku thought, who posed for photographs and dressed the part only to satisfy the expectations of the safari lodges.

It is not an easy thing, Makatiku thought, to make way for a new generation of warriors, some of whom had exchanged their spears for cricket bats and text books. It was a contradiction, he thought, to accept the new; a contradiction of all he was and all he knew, and of all that his father and grandfathers were and all that they knew.

But this one, perhaps, has a chance, he thought, watching Kantaku’s eyes, if he were forced to eat hyena. He noticed a digital watch on the wrist of one of the warriors. Ah! The New World! It is a pity that life must evolve, and change, and end. And that the flames of youth burn out so quickly. And standing way in the back was another young warrior wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, no doubt given to him by one of the safari tourists. He quickly removed the cap when he caught Makatiku’s eyes upon him.

Yes, too many changes have passed, Makatiku thought.

He had seen it all, the erosion of customs over many years, from one governmental program to another, each designed to strip his people of their traditional ways. And the unstoppable inflow of technology, like a giant dust storm of locusts that he could not keep out. Commercial cotton and synthetic clothing had long since replaced the traditional calf hide and sheep skin, and the beadwork was no longer made of stone or wood or ivory, but was now made of glass or plastic. He glanced down at the feet of the warriors and realized that half of them wore sandals soled with pieces of motorcycle tires, and one even wore a pair of Nikes.

And then came the digital age. It was all too much, this new world that invaded his land and swept through his people like a foreign disease. He recalled the electric pumps brought in by the new government to filter their water, and what happened when they broke and they had no water for three days because the unfiltered water now made them sick. How the doctors poisoned their children with injected medicines, making them ill for one week when they were otherwise well; how lion hunting was banned by the Kenyan government. What kind of obscenity is that! And yet fee-paying trophy hunters were granted permits to hunt lions under a new government plan to create a ‘wildlife corridor,’ which essentially evicted the tribes of his flesh in northern Tanzania. We cannot kill the lions to protect our herds, yet foreigners can hunt them for trophies? It was not a world that Makatiku liked, or wanted to be in.

“Bring two tall shields,” Kantaku said, motioning to a junior warrior.

The young warrior, a boy not more than fifteen years old, went off to gather the weapons, but Makatiku stopped him.

“Wait,” he said. “It is not my desire.”

Kantaku looked on, waiting.

“I would like a short shield,” Makatiku said.

The sound of snickering came from the villagers. Again he mocks me! Kantaku thought. He ran his eyes through the crowd, tightening his upper lip.

“Follow his wishes,” he said with disgust, and the boy hurried off to gather the weapons and shields.

“Anything else?”

“No. It is quite enough.”

Nothing more was said; the boy returned quickly with the simi, the long spear, and the two shields. And then it was time for Makatiku to rise from his thatched throne and face his young challenger. And he did so gloriously, but slowly, feeling the pains of his arthritic joints. He rose to a height equal to that of Kantaku, and despite his nearly sixty-two years, his shoulders were still broad and his muscles still lean and well-defined. He wore a kunga of red and blue, and pink cotton, which wrapped loosely around his trim waist and angled down over one shoulder, across his large, protruding chest. Everything about him symbolized tradition, the customs of old, the seniority of his rank, and the success of his reign; from his graying, long hair, woven in thinly braided strands that fell to the middle of his back to his many brightly-colored anklets, which numbered no less than ten. His earlobes were pierced and stretched in a manner reserved only for royalty, and then there was the symbolic beadwork that embellished his body, which told of his meritorious past, of a life lived long and fully.

The boy handed Makatiku the short knife and the small shield. Makatiku examined the knife, running his finger along the edge of it. It had a finely-honed metal blade and a wooden handle with a cowhide grip. Then he studied the small shield, flipping it over and looking at the face of it. It is correct, he thought. It bore the sirata of a red badge which signified great bravery in battle and was only permitted to be painted on the shields of the highest of chiefs. Still, it was a decorative piece at best, meant only to be hung outside one’s door to indicate one’s presence. Less than twenty inches in diameter, it was not designed for warfare.

The boy gave the long spear and the tall shield to Kantaku. The shield, made of stretched and hardened buffalo hide sewn to a wooden frame nearly cloaked his entire frame. The spear, made from the finest dark ebony wood, rose more than a meter above his head.

There was laughter among the villagers, and Kantaku realized how ridiculous it must have looked.

Makatiku smiled broadly and ran his eyes through the crowd. His considerable stature dwarfed the small shield and simi in scale, he knew; even more so than their actual size. He glanced over at the council members and nodded his head appreciatively. Then he raised the shield and knife high above his head to the applause of the villagers.

Kantaku waited for the applause to subside.

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

Makatiku stared at him. Could young arrogance really be so foolish? he thought. Then seeing the muscles on Kantaku’s chest tighten and his shoulders flex, Makatiku’s face became gaunt and serious. It is time!

“Now you must answer,” he spoke loudly.

He quickly squatted down into a combat stance, holding the small shield firmly in front of his chest and the short knife high and aggressively above his head.

Kantaku likewise firmed his stance, ducking low behind his large shield, raising his spear into a throwing position.

The two men stood there momentarily, opposite one another on a small mound of earth, the old and the new. The time for talk had ended. The differences between the traditional and modern were past them now, and Kantaku did not wait. He was certain Makatiku had a plan and would spring it upon him quickly if he gave him the chance.

He wielded his spear way back, holding it cocked high to the side of his head, and with perfect aim, not wanting to give Makatiku time to strike first, he thrust it forward with all his might.

At the same moment Kantaku released it, Makatiku dropped his shield and short knife to his side and pushed his chest forward. He stood there, poised and relaxed with his chest exposed, as if it were impenetrable to the spear.

The blade of the barred spearhead flashed in the morning sunlight. All the villagers looked on in wonderment as the spear soared through the air and hit him squarely in the chest, slicing through his flesh and bone before coming out his back.

For a perceptible instant, Makatiku remained upright, impaled by the spear. It was as though his body defied gravity, held high by the soul and the pride of a great chief. Then he dropped to the ground, dead.

The dazed villagers looked on in disbelief, as did Kantaku. The suddenness of it was shocking. Their great king, the fierce warrior who had fought and won so many battles had not even lifted a finger to fight. His natural ability to dodge and deflect, and to counterstrike, failed at the time he needed it most. Though he had out-maneuvered all enemies in the past, he had left them now, strangely, without a strategic plan.

Jakaya summoned the young warriors.

Mnakamata!” he said. “Take him.”

The spearhead was quickly removed. The shaft had snapped when Makatiku fell to the ground, making it easy to extract. The warriors gathered him up, and on Jakaya’s directions, carried him to a place outside the village, down near where the river flowed out onto the savannah. The five kilos of ox fat and blood were also brought down and set beside the chief’s body.

Enda!” Jakaya shouted to the young warriors. “Go! Go away!” And they did so, solemnly, without looking back.

Jakaya knelt down and took a moment to look over his fallen friend. Makatiku’s face was sullen and had the dark lines that come from oldness. His face was gray with all the signs of death, but his expression still revealed a regal presence. He was king, once more, Jakaya thought. And now has cut the umbilical cord between Heaven and Earth.

With a wooden ladle, Jakaya covered Makatiku’s body with the ox fat and blood. He covered every inch of it; making sure no place was left exposed. Then he sprinkled the body with beads of black, green, red, yellow and white, which mimicked the colour sequence seen in the animal life cycle. He added more white for the decade of peace he had brought to his tribe; blue for the colors of the waters which ran clean and fresh until the machines of government destroyed it; and more red for the warrior’s blood and bravery, which Makatiku had witnessed many times. A good death is its own reward.

“Come feast, little Oln’gojine,” Jakaya said. “Come taste the meat of a great warrior.”

Jakaya left, back to the village, to the cluster of mud houses where he hung Makatiku’s small red shield and his simi, outside his inkajijik. Then he went to join the others in the celebration of the new chief.

Though Katanuku sat in the thatched throne in full ceremonial dress, he found no joy in his heart. He had achieved the throne, but had not won a victory. Even in death, Makatiku mocked him. He laughs now, he thought. There, down by the river of life, he revels in laughter!

The coronation was quite subdued. Though all the villagers gathered for the festival, it was not full of song and dance like the great celebrations of the past.

“It was Makatiku who threw the spear,” one of the villagers said.

Katanuku looked down at him and quietly hung his head.

“Makatiku is still King,” another villager said.

Down by the river, Makatiku’s body lay in the hot African sun. All day it lay there; by late afternoon the tsetse flies had gathered, and the smell of the fermenting ox blood rose across the savannah. Before the sun had completely set, three spotted hyenas came across him. They encircled him and sniffed the earth around him, and the kunga that wrapped him. Their nostrils filled with the scent of human, but there was also the smell of the ox blood and fat. When they tasted the meat, they found it to be unique and flavorful. On through the night they feasted, gnawing down on the bone and flesh and stealing chunks from one another. By morning when the villagers returned, nothing remained of Makatiku but a stain on the earth.

Frank111Scozzari’s fiction has previously appeared in The Kenyon Review, South Dakota Review, Folio, The Nassau Review, Roanoke Review, Pacific Review, Reed Magazine, Ellipsis Magazine, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and The MacGuffin. Writing awards include National Writer’s Association Short Story Contest and three Pushcart Prize nominations.

A Little Give

Adele buried her nose right below his armpit and inhaled deeply. She never liked someone so much that she wanted to know them by smell, but with James she wanted him in every sense.

“Guess what?” he asked her.

“What?”

“I found a house for us.”

As soon as Adele got pregnant, she moved into his studio, a converted one car garage. The kitchen and bedroom were marked only by lines on the floor. It was small, but there was enough room for her to lie down on the ground to do back exercises. Everything in the house was made of wood, so it felt like a cabin. It had vaulted ceilings with skylights, track lighting and hardwood floors.

“You did?”

“Yeah—it’s amazing. You’ve got to see it.”

“How many rooms?”

James sat up and pulled a T-shirt on.

“Let’s go see it.”

Adele tucked the covers up around her body. Recently, her routine had been go to work, come home, throw up, eat dinner, have sex, and go to bed.

“I’m ready for bed now,” she admitted.

“It’s eight o’clock,” he moaned. “The fresh air will be good for you.”

It probably wasn’t healthy to spend so much time inside. All the pregnancy books asserted that expectant mothers should get plenty of exercise. Adele’s work didn’t allow for much exercise or fresh air. She didn’t like answering phones at the title company where she worked. Ever since she became pregnant, the halogen lights and the smell of the air conditioning, or something in the carpet at the office, or the overly sterile smell, the that-doesn’t-smell-clean-but- actually-smells-like-dirty-toxic-bleach kind of smell, had started to bother her.

From nine to five, the air in the office entered her nostrils. It filled her lungs, altering her cellular structure, and infecting her blood. When she first got to work it wasn’t bad. It was a little tic in her nose. As the day wore on, the feeling intensified, and around 11 a.m., the first wave of nausea hit, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the air simultaneously crushed her lungs and expanded all of her internal organs. Once home, she would rush to the bathroom and vomit, expelling the toxins consumed all day long in the building.

She hoped the title company would move, or maybe when she had the baby, the feeling would go away. It was definitely some type of gestational allergy. She hadn’t told James about this allergic reaction to work because she didn’t want to worry him. She didn’t want him to suggest that she quit her job. James was a caterer, and she knew his income was not enough for her to stay at home, but he was also very protective of the baby, and Adele knew he would have opinions about it. When in truth, the baby was fine. She was probably just being paranoid.

Adele acquiesced, and although it felt late, she spotted the “For Sale” sign by 8:30 p.m., when they arrived at the lot.

“For sale?”

“Yeah, it’s incredible. Just wait till you see it,” he said.

“We can’t just go in. Is it empty?”

“No one lives there. I was just here earlier today.”

“You just went in?”

“Yep.”

James opened the door and jumped out of the car. He ran around to the other side and before Adele could think about what they were doing, he was taking her hand, leading her out into the dark night. There was a petite chain link fence around the yard. About 100 yards back was an enormous tree that was lit by the half-moon in the sky.

“I was here earlier. It’s really fine,” James reassured her. “I met the seller.”

Adele knew from work how complicated these things could be with agents and showings. Buying a house was a serious legal agreement, which was why it was considered unethical for a seller to bring in their own buyer. It disrupts the character of the deal if people start making promises they can’t keep.

“What did he say?”

“He just showed me the place.”

James opened the small gate to the yard. There was a path that made a gentle bend toward the center where the tree stood, silhouetted in the dark night.

“Is the house way back here?”

“Up,” he said.

“What?”

“Up here.”

As they reached the end of the path, he pointed up, and perched in the tree was a house. Not a child’s tree house, but a real house with stucco and windows and a roof, right in the middle of the tree. Rising along the trunk was a thick wooden ladder. James reached under one of the steps, flipped an unseen switch, and suddenly the ladder and the front of the house burst into light.

James was glowing.

“Isn’t this amazing!”

“What is this?”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

“Amazing.”

“It’s a house. A real house. In a tree.”

James laughed. “You are going to love it!”

Then he started climbing up the ladder.

“Is it safe?”

“Of course it’s safe, don’t be ridiculous,” he called down to her.

Adele watched as James quickly ascended the ladder. She was nervous to go up while she was pregnant. She set her hand on the step in front of her and tested the bottom step with her foot. She bounced up and down on it for a bit, took a deep breath and looked up to James who had just entered the top and turned the lights on in the house. He stared down at her from a perfect square in the bottom of the house at the top of the ladder. His face was at the heart of the secret entrance.

“You’ve got to see this, babe.”

Adele put all her weight down, and pushed herself up. Each step sent her heart racing. She hadn’t been up a tree since she was a kid, and she couldn’t remember the last time she was on a ladder. It seemed like there were at least 50 rungs. As she took each step, she gripped the edges harder with her hands.

When she made it up and inside, she was panting. She looked around the room and saw wall to wall carpeting. Everything was painted a soft buttercup color. The entrance opened into the living room, and there was a couch and a TV. It looked like a normal living room, only in the center there was an enormous tree trunk and the ceiling had a hole where a sturdy branch broke out toward the unseen sky.

“This is crazy.”

“Isn’t it awesome? “

“Unbelievable.”

“He’s only asking $65,000 because they don’t have permits for any of this!”

“Is it safe?”

“Yeah, it’s totally safe,” he said, and to prove it he started jumping. The entire house shook. The floorboards went up and down, the windows rattled against the pressure. Adele’s stomach dropped, and a pain seized in her chest, she screamed sharply. Tears sprung to her eyes when she fell to the floor.

“Stop it! Stop it!” she cried.

“Holy shit, babe,” James said.

He dropped down next to her and gathered her in his arms.

“I want to get down. I need to get out of here.”

James tightened his grip on her.

“I’m sorry. No, no, no. That was stupid. We’re totally safe. The house has a little give—that’s all.”

“Are you kidding me? This is not safe!”

“This is totally safe.”

“We’re in a fucking tree. This is not safe.”

“We’re in a tree and it is totally fucking safe.”

Adele pulled away from him. James’ stare was ardent and unrelenting. She looked around the room. There were cracks in the walls, but all the furniture and décor were definitely from Ikea. She took a deep breath and felt the floorboards under her legs. She rocked her weight back and forth from hip to hip. The floor did not give with her weight.

“I’m okay.”

“I won’t jump like that again.”

Adele laughed. Then James laughed. She collapsed against him. They sat holding each other, and for the moment, Adele forgot she was in a tree. It felt like she was on the floor of any old little house with cute furniture.

“This place is really amazing.”

“There are no permits so basically, we could get this place—“

“You’re kidding right?”

“I’m totally serious.”

“You want us to live in a tree?” Adele looked around at the retro furniture. “You want us to live here—with a baby?”

James nodded his head with the most expectant optimism she had ever seen on his face.

“This is a once in a life time opportunity.”

“I could barely get up the ladder. How will I get up here with a baby?”

“We’ll make a real staircase.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs.”

“The baby could fall down the stairs of an apartment. Plenty of families live in apartments.”

“Um…this is a tree.”

“I know.”

“It’s growing, right now. Right as we sit here. What if that branch keeps growing and pulls the wall apart?” she asked, gesturing to the tree branching out of the ceiling.

“Then we’d fix it.”

“There’s no laundry and dryer. How will I get the groceries up with a baby?”

“We’ll make a pulley system. It’s going to be great!”

“Like the Swiss Family Robinson.”

“Isn’t it great?”

“I can’t do this. I cannot do this.”

“Yes you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

James sighed, loudly, but he didn’t take his arms away from her. She wondered what she would do if he released her. Would she leave without him? She really wanted to.

“How would we pay for this?”

“Your tax return money!”

“That’s money we are going to use for when the baby’s born. That’s my money.”

“Oh that’s your money?”

Adele nodded her head.

“What does that mean, ‘that’s my money’?”

“I mean that’s my money, and I’m not going to use it to have my baby in a tree house. I want to take off of work to be with the baby. And I don’t want to be with the baby here, in a tree.”

“If we live here, you could quit your job. Our payment will be less, and we’ll have more room. We’ll have a yard and everything.”

James pressed his body against her. “I’m telling you that this can work, just like this. Us in here. It is different, but not really. It’s really the same. It’s the same as being down there.”

“It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe. There’s ground and things are built on it, and they don’t bounce, and they don’t move around or shake or rattle. It’s not the same.”

It’s not the same at all. Down there it’s safe.

James pushed her up lightly so they were facing each other on the thick carpet. Adele could see the entrance just a few feet away. It seemed so far and so close at the same time. She wanted to relax and just be in the house on the floor with James, but she could not. She kept staring at the square exit, dreading how difficult it was going to be to get down the ladder. She imagined dangling her legs over the edge, searching for the first step. She pictured clinging to the rungs as she moved her heavy weight downward, wondering at each new step if something would snap. Coming up was hard enough, but getting down was going to be much more difficult.

“I want to go to bed,” she said.

“There’s a bedroom here.”

“I want to go to our bed.”

“Okay. You hate it. Let’s go,” James said, and pushed away from her to stand up. He held his hands out to her briskly and didn’t look at her as he helped her up.

“I’ll help you down,” he said, as though he had been privy to her thoughts. “Do you want to check out the bedroom before we go?”

Adele shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine,” he relented. “Let’s just go.”

She had never seen James look like that before. His shoulders slumped over a little, and he hung his head low.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s look at it.”

He lifted his head to her with a smile.

“It’s really cute,” he said.

They walked through the narrow hallway that wrapped around the tree trunk, and on the other side were two small bedrooms. One room was painted pale blue. Stenciled on the walls were purple animals and monster sketches. The master bedroom was painted a dark gray. There was even a master bath attached to it with a claw foot tub, and around it the walls were made of polished corrugated steel.

There was a queen sized bed that had a black frame and a red comforter that was neatly tucked into place. The pillow cases were gray and black.

“Does the house come with all this furniture?”

“I don’t know. We can ask.”

Adele walked over to the bed. She sat on the edge and bounced up and down on it. James went to the window and opened it. Outside the branches of the trees framed the glass, but the stars were still visible through the breaks in the leaves. A breeze immediately filled the room, and like a dried leaf Adele fell over on the bed.

James sat down and put his hand on her back. The pressure was something different than when he touched her before. She buried her face into the mattress and let the warmth of his hand soften the tense muscles along her spine. She liked the bedroom better. There was no center hole. No entrance that reminded her that at any moment they could fall through the floor. Everything was stylish and closed in tight. It looked secure. It was almost romantic, suspended in the night’s sky. But she couldn’t stop the thought that kept rising like a bubble in her mind, again and again, over and over. She couldn’t stop picturing and planning exactly how she was going to get back down.

Hilary LTHilary Tellesen is a writer, dramaturg and performer. Her work has been published in Watershed, Educational Insights, and in a collaborative publication in re:home from the 1078 Art Gallery. She teaches a variety of writing classes at Butte-Glenn Community College and California State University, Chico.

An Axe to Grind

I held no illusions about my place or function in this world. I relished routine because it was order and order was perfection. Repetition was perfection. Every day I got better and better at what I did. I took comfort in that steady swing—the to and fro in the day-to-day travel from home to the woods and back again. I was content. Perhaps I was too content.

I began most days sharp, with an edge so fine that any knife would envy me. A quick sojourn into the woods found me chopping down all manner of trees: sequoias, redwoods, oak, and ash if I was lucky, though there wasn’t much of that around these days, thanks to the man’s clear cutting. I welcomed a sapling or two to pick my teeth. The afternoon was spent hewing these fallen trunks, taking off branches and bark. I did what I could until the evening came. I rested on the grindstone, was polished, and then tucked into my corner to await the morning. I was ever steady, ever sharp, and ever ready for the calloused hand that passed me down from grandfather to father to son. The work was constant, and I was perfect for the job.

The work of cutting trees has always suited me. Trees are tough, but I’m much tougher. There is nothing quite like that first bite when the combined shock of two opposing forces connect –my energy against a tree’s inertia. Waves pulsate through my entire being and though my handle, a ripple of strength uniting me with the man’s flesh in the reverberation. I absorbed the impact; the hands gripped around me tightened. I could feel the latent throb of his pulse against my side; hear his teeth grinding together as I sliced through the bark into the heart of the tree. We struggled as one. I shaped his will and guided his purpose. It may have been a bit grand to consider, but I challenge anyone to argue the possibilities of what can be done when the right tool for the job is found. Maybe now you can begin to imagine my horror when this all changed—when the order of my existence splintered into chaos. Better to have been abandoned and left to rust into uselessness.

The light that day through the cabin windows was pale, scanty across the plank floor and hardwood table. The shadows arched away as my owner walked from his room. He made breakfast: black coffee, toast with butter, bacon and eggs, as usual. The smell of bacon grease teased around me as the cast-iron pan sizzled and steamed in its efforts. Show off. Most kitchen pans are. He packed a lunch of ham and cheese on wheat bread. I was lifted from my quiet nook, slung across his shoulder, and we picked our way across the trails on a particularly cloudy day. We had not gone far—about a hundred strides or so—when a shrill scream pierced through the copse of trees. It was a tortured, high-pitched wail that made the man halt in his tracks. He hurried from our intended destination, running along a new trail toward the other human settlements. He carried me away with him, despite my attempts to slip from his sweating fingers.

We sloughed through the mud and pushed through trees and bushes to an old woman’s house, his nearest neighbor for some miles. I’d seen her once or twice when the man saw fit for me to chop wood for her. She had tried several times to marry the man to her granddaughter. The man called out to her with no response. He tried the door of her log cabin, but it was locked. For a moment I was intrigued, and maybe even excited, as he lifted me. I’d never tried chopping down a house, but it looked to be made from sturdy enough wood. It wasn’t so different from a tree. The shape was a challenge, flat and tall; thin by comparison to what I usually fell into. It was too easy. One or two lunges and I was through. Not much of a meal. After the door, I wondered if we would start on the frame and walls—those looked to be more of a challenge.

I was sickened when we entered instead. Forged for the open woods and used to the sunlight bouncing off my silvery edges—I had nothing in sight to chop now. It was dank inside and smelled of sweat and old candy—like the kind crusted under someone’s boot. The wood underneath the blue paint was even rotted in some spots. My skills were already wasted on that door. Now what purpose could I serve? I could tell the man was distressed. He was breathing faster, swinging me around uselessly, and calling out to the old woman. The man walked through the upended furniture. I noticed the toppled table had some burl veneers. That could be interesting; but I was pulled away as he went into the back bedroom.

There was a big wolf with a distended belly writhing on the ground. He was dressed a little oddly for a wolf, wearing a printed dress. Honestly, I didn’t often care to socialize with the animate. I did once take an interest in a spatula, but it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, yellow is a trying color, but more so when up against gray fur and trimmed in lace like a doily. No one asked me what I thought of the situation. The man at my handle felt I was once again the right tool for the job, and with one great swing, my steel crossed the wolf’s stomach. I felt the immediate warmth of blood tarnish my face as I sliced through fur and skin, muscle to sinew and finally through bone, propelled by the strength of that one swing. I hit the floor, my entire body subsumed into the mass of oozing wolf. The creature’s limbs flopped away uselessly. As I was hefted once more, I could see the path of destruction I had wrought so effortlessly, severing the soft half of its lower body. Only one swing and I did all that destruction? It was so easy! In the midst of my cut was an exposed gelatinous bubble with hands pushing against it. I’m not going back in there! I protested. I was dirty enough but the man swung anyway, though not as hard as before and—splash. Digestive juices covered me and my polished wooden handle. It was abhorrent and interesting.

The man seemed well pleased, and helped the naked old woman and her equally naked granddaughter out of the stomach that had trapped them. I’m happy they’re alive—I’m an axe with some sensitivity, but frankly, at that moment, I would have much rather been cleaned. And I was, eventually, after some talk and muffins, sewing stones into the wolf, and rolling him into the pond. Events I had no part in. The man settled to sleep easily enough when we returned home, but I was fitful. Not even the grindstone had calmed my nerves. I was awake, retracing the events of the day, again and again. I thought I was powerful felling trees. It was a cleaner business by comparison, but there was something about that wolf. It may have been its softness. The man had those soft bits, too. I’d never plunged into something so quick, so readily. The wolf had pulsed and beat with life. I felt it when I cleaved its wet heart in two. There was no resistance to my edge. The same swing, to and fro; home and back again. I wasn’t so sure anymore. In the moment it had all been rather traumatic, but now it felt liberating. I wasn’t some one-trick tool! I could chop other things, and I could chop them well.

So you see, the next day, I had another problem.

I woke up and should have been ready for the forest and wood, but I found my tastes had changed. The man can’t understand, as my edges are as sharp as ever, if not sharper. I turned from the bark and the trunk. I turned from his hand, pulling him this time toward the village and his neighbors with new strength. I don’t want the heartwood of the trees. I’ve grown a taste for different hearts.

Jm HeadshotJ.M. Venturini received an MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design in 2006 and earned a BFA in Classics and Classical Civilizations in 2004 from Loyola Marymount University. Her book reviews have been published in the New Review of Literature. She currently teaches English and Semiotics in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department at Otis College of Art and Design.

Anchor Bright

If only there were more people, you think.

There are plenty of people, actually. But they aren’t here. They’re back on the ground, back on Earth. Back where everything used to be; back in the time before. Back where everything is dead, gone—almost forgotten.

This is your new home now, you know.

*     *     *

Your father had been a general. Not only a general—he had been a government representative, an authority figure. Back when everything had been normal, he had had power and you were blessed with everything good and you knew that you should be proud of your father, because you were.

You remember the time it ended. The time it all went to hell, fires everywhere. Poison, repugnant odors, and toxins filling your nostrils. Your mother: screaming. Your own face was hot, stinging. Your father: silent.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

There may have been tears on his face, but they would have evaporated within moments.

Your father had been the one who protected you, who protected everyone. He had led you, at the age of eight, and all other Survivors to an underground compound. He had shown them the hovercraft that had been made in emergency of an international crisis, where enough food was supplied to last forever, and there were so many resources here that the country’s national debt suddenly made sense. He had brought you and everyone else in, shielded you from the world, made sure you were safe.

Your father had protected you. But now he is gone.

*     *     *

You’re shocked when he says your name like he cares about you, like he wants you. Why should he want you? He hates you. He said that he hates you.

Thomas, he says, like he loves you.

You try to glare and try to fight his gaze, even though you know you are breaking down on the inside. Gabriel, you say back, what do you think you’re doing?

Come on, he says. You know I’m right.

And you think he might be talking about this, talking about the way all of you are living, the way all of you go day by day, in and out. But you know that there is more to his words than he says, and he knows that you know.

*     *     *

You are God.

You may as well be. After your father had guided everyone to safety, he had been the leader, in charge of everyone and everything. But you had seen how much damage he had taken before he realized that it was hopeless to try and rescue your mother. You knew that he would not last long.

Eight years pass and he moves on. You are their new leader.

You have not been held with such responsibility before. But your father had told you, told you before he left that you would be taking his power. And you had told him, but no, Daddy,

I can’t take this from you! He had laughed and said, yes you can, son, Thomas. I know you can.

And since then, you have tried your best. You have enforced new regulations, made new protocols, because since you had come into power, some of the Survivors thought you were too young, too weak, couldn’t control them, and couldn’t control anything.

You want to prove them wrong, so everything becomes stricter, and though you are not on Earth, this is your new home for now. This is everyone’s new home.

And you rule them.

*     *     *

You’re frustrated when he grabs your hand and takes you away. You ignore the tingles on your wrist from where his skin is touching yours, and you ignore the way he seems so confident.

His frame is tall and thin but he has muscle, you see—probably from rounds at the makeshift gym—and you’re sort of struck in awe, even though you don’t want to be, even though you don’t want to be hypnotized. Not by him. He is a Rebel, you remind yourself, he is not worth your time, you are in charge here, you created all of this—this world—this place—him.

He leads you to a small dark room of guns and swords and knives and you open your mouth to ask him about it but he turns before you can speak.

Thomas, he says to you. I know what you’re doing is wrong. You know what you’re doing is wrong.

You think that he may try to be scolding you, but he’s not, because he’s right. You stick your chin out and refuse to have shame.

I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you snarl. Stop it with this nonsense. Take me back before I’m forced to imprison you.

You won’t do that, Gabriel says to you, and this time you have to bow your head down because no, you would not. You can’t imprison Gabriel. Even if he’s a Rebel, even if he’s horribly corrupted, even if everything he says and does and thinks is wrong. He is Gabriel. You cannot limit him.

Come on,Thomas, he says, and you refuse to think.

*     *     *

The Scientists had been Survivors as well. They had been normal scientists before, doctors back on Earth, and in these twenty-five years not all of them had fared well. Many of them suffered from the chemicals that had destroyed all the living things, and everyone knew that their time was coming soon, if it had not come yet.

The women here have struggled to reproduce, because there aren’t as many women as there are men, and the only ones who can help them with childbirth are the Scientists. But most are too busy with their research and the experiments that only a few have had the time to assist the women. Many have died in child labor and the population is weaning down.

The role of the Scientists is to figure out the state of the Earth below. Since many are starting to crumble away, there are new Scientists being trained, those who had survived and those who had been born here have never known life outside of this giant metal contraption.

You feel sorry for anyone who is born here, because they may never know anything other than control, daily life, structure. They will never know freedom.

*     *     *

And so it doesn’t take you by surprise when he pulls you in and presses his lips against yours, and you pull away immediately, disgusted. You try to see him in the dark.

What the fuck was that, you spit. You wipe your mouth on your sleeve, even though you know it’s rude.

Gabriel doesn’t seem bothered at all. In fact, he’s smiling, one of those smiles that you don’t want to know what’s behind it. You know exactly what that is, he says, and then he adds, you know it was inevitable.

N-No, it fucking wasn’t! you say. How horrible, you think, if anyone were to find out.

If anyone were to discover that the Leader is having an affair with a Rebel.

You knew he had been looking at you like that for a while now, since you had associated with each other, since that day in the Dining Hall when you had wrenched him out of the fight because he had been an idiot and you scolded him and shouted at him and punished him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since he said he hated you, and you hated him, but you let him go because you could not bring yourself to punish him. You knew he had been looking at you like that ever since, when he tried to pick fights and get himself into more trouble because he wanted to see you.

You knew you had been looking at him like that whenever you pushed him into your office and yelled at him and threatened him and kissed him—

*     *     *

The world had disappeared because of poison.

It had been a toxic gas, residue of flames that had been entwined with nuclear waste. Even when the fires had died out, the chemicals were still roaming the Earth, burning everything in its path, lingering there like cockroaches on a territory that was never theirs. Now there’s nothing, nothing left of the past, not a single vestige of what had been.

The world had disappeared because of poison.

You can’t remember anything anymore. You can’t remember the greenness of grass, or the changing colors of the leaves. You can’t remember the warm baked bread, or the cold sweet popsicles that you’d eat by the dozen on hot summer days. You can’t remember the soft, cold snow, or the lights that had been strewn up in holiday celebrations (there are no holidays anymore.) You can’t remember the rain falling from the sky, because there is no rain anymore, there is no ceiling. There is only metal, and there is only temperature.

The Scientists are trying to find a way to live again, to coexist with the poison. But they never go outside. They stay in the weapons room (where no one goes anyways) and do their tests from here, because otherwise they will disintegrate. You would know. You have seen it happen multiple times, before your very eyes.

*     *     *

Your mouth collides with his and your teeth clack horribly together, but you don’t care. He pushes you against the cold hard wall, his fingers between your lapels and to the bottom of your shirt.

Fuck, you say. Gabriel, fuck you.

I know, he whispers. You can almost see the grin in his eyes, not on his face.

Clothes shred and he groans, you groan, and you both swear as he slides up against you. You can feel every inch of his skin, all the heat in his body, in this closed cramped up space, and you’d be distracted if he wasn’t touching you in certain places, as if he knows all your weakness, as if he knows all your strengths, as he knows all of you—

You shudder and he whispers, Thomas, Thomas, into your ear and you shudder again and cry out and he is so hot, so hot against you. You wish you weren’t enjoying this, but you are.

*     *     *

You hate yourself. You know you are ruthless, you are cruel, and sometimes you are even stupid. You know that what you’re doing is wrong, but it is right, to do what is wrong. It is what has been given over to you, like a ticking time bomb gift. You can’t take it back. You have to keep it.

You have to do what is expected of you. What your father expected of you.

You hadn’t hated it really, at first. You may have even enjoyed it. You may have been awed at the way people stared at you, watched you as if you were something divine. You may have made quite silly, cruel rules to see if they would work, and you were delighted when they did (you never took those rules back.) You may have exercised your authority on others by calling them out on things that didn’t matter, on things they never did, on things that were your fault—

You had been young and you made mistakes.

But as you became older, you realized the responsibility that your power has and you stopped. You tried to be reasonable. You tried to make everything better. You tried to make the Survivors love you. You tried to make the Born love you. But it was too late.

*     *     *

He leans in to kiss you again, and you’ve always hated that word, kiss, because it implies more than what it does. It is only the meeting of lips, you think, of mouths, or of lips on other parts, like the cheek or the forehead. And you don’t think there’s anything special about kissing, significant, because you’ve had women before and you’ve kissed them, kissed them in places that aren’t supposed to be kissed, you’ve done things with them just because you can—

But this is Gabriel and this doesn’t feel like kissing. This feels like coming together. This feels like becoming. This feels like becoming one.

He knocks you over, a little, as you continue on with your little torrid affair that not even your best General knows about. He’s over your body and his hands are on either side of your torso and you’re giving in now, like you’re always giving in, because you always protest and he always wins you over and you both go on your ways after this as Leader and Rebel, but right now you are Gabriel and Thomas.

He leans against you a little bit harder and you feel something underneath your thigh.

*     *     *

You still make mistakes, and even though you try to make up for your mistakes in the past, it is too late. Not long after seven years of your reign, the Rebellions have started and some of the Survivors and some of the Born too, despite being children, rise up and try to go against you. Try to overthrow you.

You refuse it, though, because you know all the secrets, and they know you know all the secrets, so they can’t put anything against you. But they can protest. They can shout. They can scream. They can cause riots. They can turn over tables and ruin everything in this compound hovercraft.

But when they do, you just punish them, let them go back to their measly little lives, and all the Guards and Generals watch them, waiting for them to step another toe out of line. And they will. They’ll do all they can to stop your authority, to try to make everything perfect in their own hands, even if it is at their own mortal expense, even if you know everything they say, they plan, they want, because you have more than enough ears everywhere.

So you know they cannot rebel without you, take over without you. They have to find a way to use you, to control you.

And you try to refuse it.

*     *     *

If only there were more people, you think.

You don’t need to be told the population demographics to know that everything is wearing away. That one day, you will all perish. That one day, you will all be gone. That one day, there will be nothing, nothing but gas and land and emptiness.

But there is no hope.

You have never believed in a God, but you wish you could right now. You wish that somehow this will last. You wish that somehow, everything will turn out to be okay, to be perfect.

If only there were more people, life would go on. But there is no hope. You, your Generals, and your Scientists know this.

And one day, so will everyone else.

*     *     *

You wish that somehow, you and Gabriel would—

*     *     *

Men burst in at the wrong time and they look wide-eyed at you and Gabriel and you think, Oh no, and not a proper amount of curse words can describe how you’re feeling right now. You and Gabriel look up, and it’s like you can hear his thoughts. Your heart and his are one because you’re both thinking the same thing, that you’re fucked, you’re completely and utterly fucked and they came in here just to find you, and—

The floor slides beneath you and you realize you’re falling, you’re falling and the darkness suddenly becomes lighter at the bottom. There’s a gap that’s getting bigger and bigger, like a white bright square hole at the bottom of the ocean—

There are hands beneath your armpits and they pluck you up without strain because you are their leader, you are supposed to live—but you’re not aware of it anymore because you see Gabriel still sliding, sliding down the floor like it’s a ramp and he’s struggling, struggling to get up—

Close the door! one of your Generals shouts, and you snap back into reality. Close the door, goddammit! He’s yelling to one of the other Generals, who runs to the entrance of the weapons room and is about to press a button—

No! Gabriel shouts, and you see that he’s reaching out to you—is the floor forever, is it never stopping?—and he shouts at you, Thomas, Thomas, come on!—Come—!

Your breath hitches in your throat and you want to yell back, Gabriel, Gabriel, GABRIEL! and just keep going on, keep going on like a mantra of his name will stop him from sliding, will stop him from bringing you back. And the Generals stop suddenly, because they’re looking at you, and you’re looking at Gabriel and Gabriel is looking at you, waiting in the last seconds of his life for you to make a decision. You do nothing. You say nothing.

And his body burns into nothing.

*     *     *

A General clears his throat. Well then, he says, that was dramatic. They close the floor door and it rises back up, and you see the button on it which you had accidentally sat upon.

They lead you out, help you out of the weapons room, and you pretend that your shirt isn’t clumsily buttoned, that your collar isn’t half open, and that you don’t look like a disheveled mess, from fear or shock or love. You pretend that you are not weak. You pretend that you have not lost.

*     *     *

When the Generals and the Scientists and everyone asks you about what happened, you tell them that Gabriel assaulted you, and you had purposefully stepped on the button that would open to the burning world. You tell them that he had been a Rebel, that there was no way you would have had an affair with him, loved him.

The Rebellions die down after that; you suppose they are afraid of you. You suppose that they realize that you are more ruthless and heartless than you had been before. You suppose that Gabriel, to them, like he was to you, had been a beacon, a light, a fire.

*     *     *

And for you, everything ends.

Alice Zhu attends the University of Iowa. She enjoys the smell of clean clothes, perfect games of Solitaire, and the occasional tickle fight. Too many tickle fights will make her angry.

A-B-A

I.

Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra rolled into town during the driest weeks of August, the dog days, when even children stayed indoors because it was too hot to play outside. He had traveled for weeks across the desert, stopping at whatever villages he encountered, but no place had given him reason to stay. Most of his life had transpired that way. His horse, Prudence, who had carried him faithfully for some time, was a breath away from the glue factory. The evening before he arrived, as he sat on a hilltop overlooking the town, the old mare knelt down and refused to get up. The next morning he left her carcass lying beneath the juniper tree and walked into town, hat pulled high away from his face to show he didn’t mean any trouble.

The streets were empty; the morning sun baked everything into a hard-packed crust. A barber sat in the shade outside his shop, one leg crossed over the other. “Well,” he said as the stranger walked by, “you look like you could use a shave and a haircut. What’s your name, traveler?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.” He wiped sweat from his brow. “You can call me Rodolfo.” His family had a tradition of long names, and he felt a duty to uphold the custom. One of his names had been his grandfather’s, another his father’s, but since he’d never met either of them, he didn’t know which ones were theirs. Manuel, he suspected, was some kind of religious label, given to him as a small child. In fact he guessed that his first four names were all tributes of one kind or another, and that only “Rodolfo” belonged to him and him alone. The barber eyed him as he stood in the street.

“Well, Rodolfo, a shave might cool you off.”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

‟I’ve no need of a shave,” Rodolfo said. “What I need is help with my horse. She died last night, and I want to dispose of her properly. I can’t bear the thought of her rotting in the sun.”

“Normally you would talk to the sheriff about it,” the barber said. “But he’s away chasing some outlaw. I doubt anyone would help you in this heat. You might as well come inside and let me trim that mop.”

Rodolfo smiled, tipped his hat, and continued.

He found a shopkeeper willing to loan him a shovel and spent most of the afternoon digging a grave for poor old Prudence. Finally, with the sun low in the sky, he found himself trudging back through town, the shovel hung over his shoulder like a bindle. Dogs emerged from under the porches where they slept all day, and now slunk around Rodolfo’s feet.

“They recognize one of their own,” the barber called as Rodolfo passed. The man sat in the same spot as before. He pinched a cigar between thumb and forefinger.

Rodolfo narrowed his eyes. “Are you calling me a dog?”

“No, sir, I am calling you dirty. You need a bath. Come into my shop and get a good washing.”

Rodolfo had to admit that, after weeks of travel, he gave off a rather unpleasant smell. He climbed the steps, leaned his shovel against the porch railing, and went inside. The shop had only one chair, and a shelf with several pairs of scissors, straight razors, and tonic bottles of all sizes. The barber led Rodolfo straight to the backyard. He filled a tub with water and tossed Rodolfo a bar of soap and a scrub brush.

“That water is cold, but it will do the job. I have an old smock you can wear, instead of those filthy clothes.”

“I have no money,” Rodolfo said.

“You can sweep hair in my shop to make up for it. That way I can relax on the porch and watch the chickens peck the dust.”

Rodolfo saw how things would go. He would enjoy the cool of the barber’s shop for a few days, push a broom around the floor, maybe even earn more than what he owed for the bath. By the end of the week he could get an old horse, or maybe a mule if no one had anything else, and be on his way. He missed Prudence, but it seemed her death wouldn’t actually slow him down.

The barber had three customers the next day, ranch hands who eyed Rodolfo warily but didn’t ask any questions. He was used to such treatment. Men who led settled lives, who had jobs and wives and children, held no faith in the itinerant. Rodolfo swept their shorn hair while the barber sat on the porch smoking his cigars.

Late in the afternoon, a beautiful girl entered the shop. Rodolfo had never seen anyone like her. Black hair shimmered over her shoulders; her skin was brown and smooth, her eyes large and intelligent. The barber grinned as though he knew her—Rodolfo could do nothing but stare.

“Dulzura, what brings you into my shop? Surely you don’t want me to cut off that lovely hair.”

“A message from my father,” the girl said. “To remind you of the card game tonight. You wiped him out last week, and he wants to make sure you’re there so he can get revenge.”

The barber cackled. “Tell that old blowhard I plan on wiping him out again!”

Rodolfo stepped forward. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

The girl looked down quickly—but he had seen something in her eyes. A faint blush colored her face.

A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock.

The barber looked back and forth between them. “Tell your old man I’ll be there. Now you better leave my shop before I take the scissors to your hair and make a wig out of it!” The girl ran out into the street, leaving Rodolfo feeling as though he’d seen a miracle.

The barber didn’t waste any time. He pointed his shears at Rodolfo and said, “You’d better watch yourself. That’s the sheriff’s sister, and neither he nor anyone else in this town would take kindly to you bothering her.”

“It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Rodolfo said.

“Not for a wayfarer like you,” the barber said. “Besides, don’t you meet lots of women on your travels?”

“Not like her,” Rodolfo said.

That evening he carried the shovel over to the shopkeeper’s in hopes of returning it, but the store had closed for the night. The dogs came out again and followed Rodolfo through the town. A few workers passed him, and he wanted to ask for a swig from their bottle, but knew how he appeared: a skinny, unshorn man in dirty pants and a second-hand smock. He would do well to head for the coast as soon as possible.

Rounding a corner, he saw the girl walking ahead of him. She carried a bucket of water and her hips twitched from side to side. Pink and purple clouds stretched overhead as Rodolfo ran to catch up with her. The girl stiffened as she heard his footsteps, as though she already knew who it was, and when he reached her, she smiled up at him with the same blush she’d had earlier that day.

“I never got your name,” Rodolfo panted, though he had heard the barber say it.

“Dulzura.” The word was like music on her tongue.

“Dulzura,” Rodolfo said. “Meet me tonight.”

“I can’t,” the girl said. “Tonight is my father’s card game. I serve the men their whiskey.”

“Surely you can find some way,” Rodolfo said.

The girl scrunched up her face, thinking. Rodolfo fought the urge to wrap her in his arms, smother her with kisses.

“All right,” she said finally. “By the fifth or sixth hand, the men are drunk enough to forget about me. They start joking and arguing. I’ll slip away then. Meet me by the riverbank, beneath the willow.”

Rodolfo nodded and, still toting the shovel, went straight to the river, even though Dulzura wouldn’t arrive for hours. He sat on the hard clay banks and watched the water roll slowly past. Cracks split the earth high on both sides where the river used to flow. Rodolfo imagined it as it once was: a crisp, rushing torrent. It hadn’t rained in the desert in a long time.

A sliver of moon, thin as a hangnail, rose in the east and Rodolfo lay back to watch the stars—but a group of low-hanging clouds rolled in to obscure them. The moon shimmered in and out of sight. Rodolfo chewed on a stalk of grass and waited.

The first ominous rumbles had begun when Dulzura crept beside him, silent as a cat, in her white shift. Rodolfo felt a hand on his arm and there she was, her face wide and brown before his. Moonlight rendered her hair a dark shade of blue. “We can’t stay here,” Rodolfo said. “We’ll get wet.”

“I don’t care,” she breathed, and covered his mouth with hers. A throb shot through him, stronger than anything he’d ever felt. He crushed her to his chest, tore the white cloth away to reveal her young breasts, while her lips pulled and sucked at his own, her breath redolent of whiskey. He realized she was drunk but he didn’t care.

He was clutching her backside, moving her into position, when something kicked him in the head. Dulzura screamed. At first Rodolfo thought something had fallen from the tree, a branch or maybe a rock—but then he saw it again, coming at him, and he reached out and grabbed the thing: a boot.

Dulzura scrambled to her feet. “Father, no!” she cried, and Rodolfo knew exactly what had happened. He twisted the boot to one side, hoping to trip the old man, but it came off in his hand and the bare foot smashed into his face. Rodolfo tasted blood. Then a set of wiry fingers closed around his throat. He heard Dulzura screaming faintly, as though from far away, and wondered why her father hadn’t just shot him. He pried the fingers loose but they came back again. He clawed desperately at the old man’s eyes. The man made a guttural noise like an animal, and in the moonlight something flashed at his waist: a knife. Rodolfo looked around for something to fight with: the shovel.

He swung the broad end as hard as he could. The old man ran right into it, was lifted off his feet, and landed on the cracked earth. He did not move. In the distance, thunder rumbled.

Rodolfo stood wheezing. Blood dripped down his chin. Dulzura knelt beside her father and shook his shoulders. Then she turned to Rodolfo and said, “He’s dead, you bastard, you son of a bitch, he’s dead!”

Rodolfo looked into the man’s face. A red hole had replaced his left eye: Rodolfo had scratched his eye out. The shovel hadn’t left any marks, but the old man lay at an awkward angle and his one good eye did not blink. “How could that have killed him?” he said. “Just one hit….”

Dulzura covered herself with the white shift. “Murderer! I’ll see you pay for this!” She ran up the bank, away from the river, wailing “Murderer!” over and over.

“What was I supposed to do?” Rodolfo said. “Let him kill me?”

“He’s an old man!” Dulzura called over her shoulder. “You could have subdued him….” And then she was gone.

Rodolfo turned in circles. He didn’t have much time. Dulzura would sprint into town, gather all the men—the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands—and they would hang poor Rodolfo before the sun rose. Well, he wouldn’t just give up. He had gotten out of scrapes before. He slid down the embankment, into the slow-moving water, and waded across. By the time he climbed up the other side, the heavens had opened up. The river became a churning, frothing monster, unrecognizable and uncrossable. He ran blindly through the rain. Lightning blasted the ground around him. The storm moved forward, washing away his tracks, and Rodolfo didn’t look back.

II.

From the precipice, the valley resembled a long green knife wedged into the earth. Broad leaves waved from stalks. Flowering plants abounded. Such a place could not be uninhabited. Rodolfo descended without knowing what to expect.

As he made his way down the path, he eyed clumps of bananas, nectarines, and other, unrecognizable fruits—but resisted the urge to pluck them. He didn’t yet know whose land he was on.

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

A naked boy, dark as a plum, appeared in front of him. Rodolfo stopped. The boy was about ten years old, and quite unashamed of his nudity—so much so that Rodolfo’s own clothes felt onerous and cumbersome upon him. He looked Rodolfo up and down. “Who are you?”

“I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“What a name!”

“Well,” Rodolfo said, “what is your name?”

“Patch,” the boy said.

“And how did you earn this name? You’re not wearing any patch that I can see.”

“Names are arbitrary,” the boy said. “Didn’t you know?” He gave Rodolfo an incredulous look. “You should have known that by now.”

“Listen, Patch,” Rodolfo said. “I’ve traveled a long way and I’m hungry. Whose bananas are these? I don’t want to be accused of theft if I take one.”

“You’re a strange one! The bananas are nobody’s.” With that, the boy ran away down the path. But his answer made Rodolfo uneasy and, despite his hunger, he left the fruit untouched.

As he walked he became aware of a steady noise, like a faraway train, that had been there the whole time. It grew louder and louder, until Rodolfo turned a corner and saw, a hundred feet below, a waterfall cascading into a clear pool, and people everywhere—naked, swimming, basking on the flat rocks. The little boy had already scampered down the path and dived into the water. He splashed around with some other children and seemed to have no intention, as Rodolfo had feared, of alerting the others to his presence.

By the time Rodolfo climbed down, the people had seen him and gathered around to ask questions. Their eyes were bright and quick. No one, from the infants to the elderly, wore a stitch of clothing. Rodolfo addressed them all: “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra. You may call me Rodolfo. I am a traveler, without money—without anything.”

A man clasped his hand. “You must be hungry. Take whatever fruit you like. It grows faster than we can pluck it.”

“Where do you come from?” a woman asked.

“I don’t come from anywhere.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Everyone comes from somewhere.”

“Not me,” Rodolfo said.

The little boy, Patch, reappeared. “Why do you wear those old clothes? Aren’t you hot?”

Rodolfo ignored him, turning to the fellow who had taken his hand. “How is it that such a place exists in the desert? Have I stumbled into the realm of fairies?”

The man laughed. “We are men and women, I assure you. Come rest in the shade. And young Patch is right—unburden yourself of those useless clothes. There is no modesty here.”

The people began turning away, bored already by the newcomer. Rodolfo reluctantly stripped off his pants and smock, but wasn’t sure where to put them. Their mere presence seemed to sully this green place. Finally he placed them under a palm tree and walked to the water’s edge. The pool was frightfully deep but clear all the way to the bottom: children sat down there, blowing bubbles. Rodolfo hadn’t bathed in weeks, since the barber’s tub in that dusty town, and found the water exhilarating. He swam for nearly an hour before climbing out and sunning himself on a grassy spot. He ate fruit until his belly hurt. Then he watched the people as they frolicked like birds.

One of the females approached him. Like Patch, she was plum-dark; her wet hair fell over her breasts; her limbs were long and lean, her eyes almond-shaped and unknowable. Rodolfo tried to hide his body’s reaction by rolling onto his side. But such a thing, in these circumstances, couldn’t be hidden.

“Why are you hiding over here?” the girl said. “You’re the new stranger, aren’t you?”

“I’m not hiding. I’m tired from my travels, that’s all.”

The girl squatted before him. “I know what you need.” Grabbing his hips, she rolled him onto his back and, with the help of a guiding hand, lowered herself onto him. Rodolfo gasped. Every encounter he’d ever had with a woman had been clandestine: rolling around in a hayloft somewhere, meeting by night, whispering in an absent husband’s bed. And they always clung to him, closed their eyes, cried out as though they were being taken away to another planet. But this woman kept her eyes open. “Do you like this?” she asked, as Rodolfo blinked up at her.

Towards the end, the girl gasped and said, “Mmmm,” but otherwise showed no reaction. She sat on Rodolfo until he slid out of her on his own. Then she lay beside him, reached for a branch overhead, and pulled down some engorged purple fruit Rodolfo had never seen before. She tore it in half and offered him a slice, which he devoured whole.

He knew that he could wake up at any moment, back in the desert, belly grumbling, dawn cracking its glaring eye over the horizon to start a new day of sweat and thirst and wondering if he’d find shelter before the vultures began circling. He fell asleep with those thoughts. But when he woke, he was still on the cool grass. Stars twinkled overhead. Someone was beating a drum.

“Come on,” the girl said. She took his hands and led him to a clearing, where everyone sat around a fire. An old man with a long beard pounded a drum. They were holding some kind of ceremony. The girl whispered, “We almost missed Lurid.”

“Lurid?”

“The storyteller,” the girl said.

The old man let one final drumbeat hang in the air before he started to talk. His voice was sonorous, mesmerizing. His hands moved as he spoke. “Once upon a time,” he said. “Once upon a time, there was a man….”

…a wanderer who roamed from town to town, village to village, forever seeking something he couldn’t name. He ate what he could find and slept where he fell. And then one day, in a desert town, he happened upon a girl named Sweetness. When the traveler saw her, something inside him changed. He knew it was time to stop—time to settle down. But the girl’s father was a jealous old hound, and didn’t want anyone to possess his daughter—least of all some wayfarer whom no one knew and no one trusted. The traveler burned for her badly—and you know how such feelings can drive a person crazy, how awful it is to have to suppress them. That’s why we live in freedom here in the valley: so things like this won’t happen. For what happened to our traveling hero can be blamed neither on him nor on his beloved Sweetness, but only on the trickeries of the universe—only on that unjust and capricious arbiter, Fate. One summer night, these two lovers, unable to contain their passions any longer, met by the riverbank. But the girl’s father lay in wait. What were his motives? How did he know of his daughter’s secret rendezvous? That is not for us to know. What matters, dear friends, is that the father attacked, and our hero fought back, and in his passion he killed the old man. The girl, poor Sweetness, ran terrified from the scene, leaving our hero to flee once more into the desert. His troubles, sadly, had only just begun….

The old man pounded the drum once, a signal that the story was over, and people began rustling. The girl yawned and stretched, ready to bed down for the night. But Rodolfo was terrified.

He approached the old man. “Where did you learn that story?”

The man’s shrugged. “From nowhere. From the sky. From my heart.”

“Tell me the end of it,” Rodolfo said. “I have to know what happens.”

“I don’t know, myself,” the old man said. “When I sit down tomorrow, the rest of it will arrive. You’ll have to wait until then. You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“I think I’m leaving soon,” Rodolfo said.

A woman tugged on his arm and asked if he would stay with her for the night. His body gave a sharp, visceral response, but the old man’s story had spooked him. He couldn’t stay here. He had to move on.

III.

When Rodolfo emerged from the valley into the red desert dawn, they were already waiting for him. A dozen men on horses, with shotguns. He recognized the barber, the shopkeeper, the ranch hands. In front sat a man with slits for eyes and shiny black hair, worn proud like an Indian’s. A sheriff’s star glittered over his breast. Rodolfo knew he was cornered.

He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic.

As the horses circled him, he considered his options. He could run back down the valley and try to hide. But that would only delay the inevitable—and it would bring these gun-toting manhunters into direct contact with the paradise below. The people down there had no weapons. If they tried to defend Rodolfo, the posse would wipe them out. His conscience wouldn’t allow it.

Running across the open desert would be futile. He’d be shot down before he ran ten paces. As for fighting his way out—well, he’d never been a fighter. And he was unarmed.

He considered lying, insisting the sheriff had tracked the wrong man—but then the barber spoke up: “Yes, that’s him. He’s wearing my old smock.” At this, a sort of pride spiked up in Rodolfo. If asked, he could never deny his own name.

He stood with raised arms in the ring of horses. An air of authority pulsated from Dulzura’s brother, the sheriff. Rodolfo knew him immediately as a man of action. The ranch hands, on the contrary, were ignorant, uncomplicated men. Rodolfo had seen their type countless times. They held jobs and wives and they did not ask questions. But this sheriff was a different sort. He was silent, intelligent, the sort of man who frightened Rodolfo the most, because he managed to straddle the lives of the itinerant and the domestic. He used the town as his base, and he defended it with his life, but those very acts of defense led him to journey far from it, and learn about the world, and contemplate things during his lonely hours on horseback, just as Rodolfo had done all these years. Rodolfo saw all of this in a moment. They were alike in many ways, and Rodolfo clung desperately to this idea of solidarity—perhaps it could save his life.

“It is you, then?” the sheriff said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper, the noise of an eagle’s wings flapping far above the cracked earth. “Make your last action honorable, and own up to your name.”

Rodolfo lowered his arms and raised his chin. “I am Juan Manuel Ortega Alfonso Rodolfo Guererra.”

“You raped my sister,” the sheriff said. “You murdered my father.”

“No, sir,” Rodolfo said. “I have never taken a woman by force. Your sister came to me, breathless, in the night. Your father I killed in self-defense.”

The sheriff held his shotgun loosely across his saddle. His face was windswept, inscrutable. For the briefest of moments, Rodolfo felt a connection. He knew the man believed him.

“He was an old man,” the sheriff said finally. “You might have subdued him.”

“It was an accident,” Rodolfo said. “I swung with the shovel—I didn’t mean to kill him.”

“With my stolen shovel,” the shopkeeper said.

Rodolfo didn’t bother to reply. The time for arguments had passed.

The sheriff sighed. “The problem with you wayfarers is you have no responsibility. You drift through life seeking only pleasure. Life is not pleasure. Life is task.” He leveled his shotgun with one hand.

The barber looked uneasy. “Wait,” he said. “Is it right to just execute him here? We should bind him, carry him until we find a tree, do things the proper way. He swept hair in my shop for a day, after all.”

“They say unburied souls are doomed to drift through eternity,” the sheriff said. “But this man craves such a fate. To give him a proper execution, a proper burial, would be the worst kind of punishment. He rejected domesticity at every turn. He abandoned it, decidedly, in favor of a wandering existence. If we bury him, we confine him.” The sheriff spat. “I sympathize with you, stranger. Which rules the universe—order or caprice? Your death here may represent both. May you wander forever, without consequence.”

A loud bang roared forth from the shotgun, and at the same moment Rodolfo found himself lifted off his feet, hurled onto his back, just as Dulzura’s father had been. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. He spat blood into the sand. The horses clopped away, and Rodolfo looked up at the rising sun, the clear white sky, as the life drained out of him. He felt on the verge of something, some revelation, but his thoughts mingled, bled into one another, so that he couldn’t distinguish anything. And then he was walking, walking steadily across the desert, across the plains, away from this valley, away from any place, walking forever.

N. T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with his dog, Seven, and his cat, Mrs. Mia Wallace.