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.