Following Joey

We weren’t supposed to be out after the streetlight came on. But here we were, my older brother and I, walking down the street to the corner store. Joey was supposed to walk me back home after getting me from my best friend Kayla’s house, but he had other plans.

“I just have to meet with Rob real quick,” he told me. “The streetlight only been on for a second. Mama won’t trip.”

Mama was old school. We had phones but she still went by the streetlight to give us a curfew because that’s how she grew up. I thought I was old enough to walk home by myself. It was the first time Mama let me hang out at Kayla’s—after I begged her for a million months—and she made Joey walk me there and back. She had two jobs and was always at work so she couldn’t take me. But as hard as Mama worked, she couldn’t afford to get Joey a car.

“She’s gonna kill us, Joey,” I said. Mama was as mean as a bull when we ignored her rules, and Joey knew it, but he always chose to do whatever he wanted. Since he claimed to be the “man of the house,” I decided it wasn’t worth the fuss. We’d be home soon and he’d explain the situation to Mama.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it.

Joey walked me by my wrist, his head whipping left and right to check his surroundings. Screen doors hung off hinges and bricks were missing from fronts of houses. Residents sat on their porches, smoking a joint or enjoying a beer. Their children played curb ball in the middle of the narrow street until a car came, or until their parents cussed them out and told them to come play in the yard—what little yard they did have. A small tree in front of the neighborhood church was surrounded by teddy bears, flowers, and balloons to mourn a black male in the neighborhood who was murdered by an officer a week ago. I remembered the story from the news.

“Why you gotta meet him right this minute?” I asked, wiping sweat from the summer’s heat off my forehead.

Guys older than me in tank tops and sagging jeans stood at the end of the block on the corner, yelling about sports or betting money in dice games. Everyone seemed to know each other, laughing as they leaned over the dice, picking up cash from the sidewalk as quickly as it was thrown down. This neighborhood was only two blocks away from our house, but it was different. I was used to greener yards that were mowed and neighbors who were too busy to hang out on the porch. But this place was beautiful in its own way, because our neighborhood didn’t have this type of community. Mama wouldn’t see it that way if she knew we were staying around here though, especially after dark.

“Just stay close to me,” Joey said, gripping my wrist and pulling me. I rolled my eyes. Joey thought because I was only fourteen I didn’t have the right to demand answers. I wasn’t “grown enough,” he always said. But he was only four years older than me.

Joey got on my nerves every time he told me that, but I knew there was a bit of truth to it. Our dad left us when I was twelve. Mama wouldn’t tell us why and neither did he. I came home from school one day to see Mama sitting at the dining table crying, Joey rubbing her back. Her soft, plump hands covered her face.

What’s wrong? I mouthed to Joey.

Dad left, he mouthed back.

I squinted and cocked my head at him. Why? I didn’t want to ask Mama, so I kissed her hands and went upstairs to my room, throwing myself on the bed. I stared at the ceiling and cried for hours, wondering what we did for Dad to leave us. Joey came in my room that evening and said Dad packed his clothes, took the rent money, and left while Mama was at work. He told me it wasn’t our fault. I didn’t believe him. Joey said we had to make Mama’s life easier from then on. Because we were all she had.

Since then, Joey did everything to provide for us. If Mama was short on rent, Joey came up with it. If I needed school supplies or new clothes, Joey figured it out. If I needed to talk about the annoying boys at school or the girls who didn’t do anything but gossip, I could go to him for advice and laughs. And of course, he also gave me fake big brother threats like: “You better not be worried about these lil’ knucklehead boys or I’ll rough ‘em up.” Aside from Kayla, he was my best friend. I owed him a lot. But I owed Mama just as much.

We walked past that group of guys and they sized me up. Their eyes were glued to my chest like they were watching a Superbowl. Mama said I developed quicker than other girls my age. Boys at school called me “thick” because of my large thighs and wide hips. I hated it.

“Hey lil’ mama,” one of them said as his coarse hands reached for mine. I snatched my hand away. Joey pulled me closer. He stared at them with a clenched jaw, eyebrows meeting in anger, and mumbled, “Hurry up, JaCie.” I could tell they were much older than him, and we both knew his chances of winning a fight with them were slim. Joey had the build of a boy my age. We blamed it on my skinny dad.

“If you didn’t have me out past the street light, I bet you no one would be grabbing for me,” I challenged, rolling my neck. The older men were out of earshot.

“Now you and I both know that’s a lie,” he chuckled. “This neighborhood is bad in broad daylight.”

“So why the heck you got me out here after the streetlight?” I punched him lightly in his arm. He rubbed the cursive tattoo on his bicep, which read: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

“JaCie, chill out man. I got business to handle.”

I was ready to go home. I had been ready since I left Kayla’s. But Mama would have a fit if I went home without Joey. And I wasn’t trying to get him in trouble.

After walking up another block, we arrived at the corner store. It sat in front of a Popeye’s, with only an alley separating them. The red Mini Mart sign atop the store glowed in the darkness. The store was small with “WE ACCEPT EBT” signs plastered on its glass walls, along with other taped-on flyers. People leaned on the store’s glass or chatted in a circle. A cop car slowed down as it approached the store, then turned the corner to check out another street. I figured the cop was just doing his rounds.

“Shit, the police out tonight,” Joey said under his breath.

“Can I at least tell Mama we’ll be late?”

“What? No. Do this for me, just this once.”

“I got that New Drake,” a man announced as we approached the door, walking toward us. He opened his large, black CD case and pointed to the disc.

“I’m alright,” I said and waved him off. I didn’t know people still listened to CDs anyways.

“There go Rob right there.” Joey spotted him leaning on the glass further away from the entrance. Joey never told me what he did when he met with his “friends” but I wasn’t dumb. No matter how young he thought I was.

“Wassup, boy,” Rob said, shaking up with Joey.

“Wassup,” Joey replied with an upward head nod.

“Who’s this? Your girl?” Rob looked me up and down. He smoked a Black & Mild Cigar. I waved the grape-scented smoke out of my face and crossed my arms over my chest.

“Oh. This is just my little sis, JaCie,” Joey said. I didn’t know whether to wave, so I opted for silence.

Rob nodded and let out more smoke from his cigar. He had the darkest skin I’d ever seen and a silky goatee. He looked older than Joey. He wore a permanent frown and his eyes were hard, like he didn’t have a smile left to give.

“So, what’s up? Let’s talk without your sister around.” Rob gestured toward the alley.

Joey glanced back at me, forehead wrinkled and eyebrows raised.

“She’s only 14. I can’t leave her out—,” he started.

“I said let’s go talk in private.”

Rob walked away and put out his cigar. He slipped his hands in his pockets. Joey combed his dreads with his fingers and his light brown skin turned rosy.

“Stay right here. Do not move, JaCie. I mean it,” Joey stressed. He followed Rob into the alley. I joined the others against the glass and pulled my iPhone 5 out of my back pocket. Three texts and eight missed calls from Mama.

8:59 p.m. I’m worried about y’all. Answer the phone

9:01 p.m. You two should have been home by now

9:05 p.m. CALL ME ASAP! I MEAN IT JACIE

I didn’t click on the text thread so she wouldn’t know I read them.

“Mama” came across my screen again. I let it ring until she hung up. Knowing her, she’d call again. But what would I say if I answered? Guilt rushed through my body. I hated ignoring her just for Joey to do dumb stuff. Mama had been through enough with us.

And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

There was the time when I told Mama I was spending the night at my old best friend’s house when really, we had snuck to a party thrown by high schoolers. Our ride wouldn’t answer the phone once the party got shut down, so we had to call Mama instead. There was the time Joey got suspended from school for fighting—actually, there were a bunch of times that happened. And there were plenty of times Mama had to leave work midday or leave her bed at night because of us. We were supposed to be making her life easier.

“Come on, Joey,” I mumbled. I tapped my foot and my eyes darted around as I waited.

Men were gathered outside as if hanging at the corner store was a rite of passage to live here. And maybe it was a rite of passage for them, but I felt like the new Barbie on the shelves everyone gawked over.

“Man, chill out!” Joey yelled. His voice squeaked like one of the boys at my school. That’s how Joey got when he was nervous.

I walked toward the alley, heart thumping in my chest loud enough to bury the rest of the noise on the street. I stood at the corner of the store and strained to hear their conversation. Mama started calling and against my better judgement, I ignored her.

“Rob, why you acting like I don’t keep my word?” Joey’s voice shook.

“Shut up,” Rob said through clenched teeth. “You supposed to have my money. You know who you playin’ with?”

“I told you I’ll have it. Just give me a few days.”

“I already gave you a few days!”

Mama called again. I put the phone in my pocket and let it vibrate. What looked like the same cop approached the corner store and slowed down near the alley. He rolled down his passenger window to look at Joey and Rob, then pulled into the parking lot. Men who previously stood against the store window scattered as if they had plans to leave anyways. I didn’t budge but white cops always made me nervous.

The officer got out and adjusted his hat. He walked past the store entrance, walking by the men who were leaving, and headed in my direction. He nodded at me, but I stared back with furrowed brows. The officer gripped the gun in his holster so tight his hands were red like blood. My stomach felt hollow as I realized the danger Joey could be in if the officer approached them.

“What’s going on?” the officer asked as he approached Rob and Joey. I inched closer to the edge of the building to see what the cop would do next. His hand was still on his gun.

“Nothing, just chatting,” said Rob.

“Chatting, huh? Let me see your IDs.”

“Don’t you have to have a reason to ask for our IDs?” Rob asked.

“You two standing in the alley arguing is reason enough. IDs,” the officer reinforced.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news.

Rob and Joey dug in their pockets and handed the officer their IDs. The officer examined Rob’s then handed it back to him. He brought Joey’s ID to eye level and peered over the edge to look at him.

“You’re only eighteen. What are you doing out here?”

“I’m grown.”

Wrong answer, Joey. Wrong freakin’ answer.

“Grown,” the officer scoffed, shoving the ID back in Joey’s hand. “I asked what you were doing out here. I didn’t want a smart aleck remark.”

Joey glanced at Rob, hoping he’d offer the officer an explanation. Rob looked in the other direction.

“I told you, we were just chatting.”

“Well if you were just chatting, smart ass, empty your pockets for me.”

Joey stood still.

“I said empty your pockets. Both of you!”

Rob emptied his pockets, setting a 2-pack of Strawberry Swisher Sweets, a lighter, a wad of cash, and his Galaxy S5 on the ground. The officer turned to Joey.

“Your turn, boy,” the officer urged.

Joey stuffed his hands in his pockets but didn’t move afterward and didn’t say a word.

“Joey, just do it!” I yelled, walking to the front of the alley. The lights from Popeye’s drive-through shone into the alley. A dumpster sat against the wall of the corner store, with broken-down boxes leaning against it.

“JaCie, back up. Okay? I don’t want you to get hurt,” Joey turned and said. He turned his body back to the officer and the officer had his gun aimed at Joey’s chest. Joey put his trembling hands up in surrender. I had never seen a gun, in person at least. It was small but the metal gleamed in the dark. Sweat glistened on the back of Joey’s neck and his upper body heaved with every quick breath he took.

“Little girl, listen to him. Get back,” the officer demanded. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what move to make. So, I stood there, feet planted to the cracked sidewalk like they were cemented in.

“Empty your damn pockets,” the officer said, gun still trained on Joey. Rob watched. If Joey emptied his pockets, he’d probably go to jail. If Joey didn’t empty his pockets, he’d probably get shot. And from the looks of it, he was too scared to move. I knew the officer was ready to shoot Joey. He was black. He was in an alley. And he seemed to be up to no good.

If I didn’t move, this time it would be Joey on the news. He’d be one of those hashtags on Twitter but instead the tweets would say #JoeyGreene #BlackLivesMatter. It would be my fault for not protecting my big brother after the countless times he’d protected me and made sure I didn’t need for anything. Maybe if I just directed the officer’s attention toward me, Joey could get rid of whatever was in his pockets and we could go home.

I bolted toward them. My crossbody bag smacked against my hip and my kinky hair blew away from my face. The olive oil from my curls leaked down my face and neck. A bead of sweat crept to my eyebrow. My sandals slapped the ground and my mouth was wide open but I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know if it was because I was running or because I was scared but I kept going and my chest heaved and my heart pounded and tears stung my eyes. Even when I tried to blink my tears away and my wet eyelashes brushed against my skin, I kept my eyes on Joey. Even when I took the back of my hand and wiped underneath my eye, I kept my eyes on Joey. His body jerked like he wanted to stop me. I couldn’t let him out of my sight. I knew I wasn’t as quick as a bullet could be but I had to distract the officer before he decided that Joey’s life wasn’t valuable. Because it was. To me and to Mama.

I ignored the constant vibrating of my phone from Mama’s call. I ignored the many eyes that begged me to stop running toward the officer. I tuned out Joey’s yells to get back. I didn’t hear the officer shout “Freeze!” I didn’t see him turn the gun toward me instead. I didn’t hear the click clack of the officer cocking his gun. And I didn’t hear the bang the gun released when the officer pulled the trigger. Then, I collapsed, one foot from Joey.

 

Arriel Vinson is an Indiana native who writes about being young, black, and in search of freedom. She is an MFA fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and received a BA in journalism from Indiana University. Her poetry has been published in [PANK] Magazine and also won third place prize in LUMINA Journal, judged by Donika Kelly. She has had essays/articles published in Blavity,HuffPost, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Reece T Williams

Twelve Stories of Aleppo

12.

Two boys barely in their teens who want to be untethered, to fire a gun and become men in place of their missing fathers, climb the stairs to the apartment tower’s rooftop where lies hidden under a scorched plate of sheet metal is an old rifle, abandoned by a man now gone—dead, jailed, or married and fat. They place it on the crumbled concrete ledge overlooking the half of Aleppo that lies flat and empty, an ancient neighborhood seemingly eroded like sand castles on the shores of Lake Assad. The boys take turns shooting at targets on the desolate street below. They start with the inanimate: a defiant traffic sign standing among the remains of what was once a busy street corner, the black skeletons of bombed out cars thrown about as if heaved by giants, a faded face on an old election poster hanging on a pockmarked wall.

A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn.

 Inevitably the prosaic builds toward bloodshed as the boys graduate to moving bodies, hopelessly firing at the white dot of a plane crossing the pale blue sky, then placing crosshairs on a frail stray dog crossing the street below and blowing up dust in its wake as it races to the sanctuary behind the booted feet of a group of men. The boy with his finger on the trigger fires a stray bullet and motivates them to dance. The men answer back with a fireball that shrieks through the air toward the boys and those under their feet, feet still growing into the footsteps of their fathers.

11.

A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn. Every night at six on the dot she used to assume this position with friends in a nearby studio but clothed under the eyes of a merciless instructor. Now she is alone in the city, where the heat is only slightly less suffocating than the fog of loneliness. Even the vantage points from which to spy her nakedness through the open windows are gone, reduced to dust and hollowed shells. But she wishes the entire city, the entire country, could see her now, for she is going to break the record. She closes her eyes and lets her imagination take her to a new theater, not of war but of performing arts. She stands on the polished stage of the Damascus Opera House under a spotlight of sunbeams shining through cracked glass. The battered living room walls unfurl into an audience of well-dressed men and women reclining in cushioned chairs. She takes a deep breath of stagnant air then begins to spin on one pointed foot. Though malnourished and weak, she dances; in the face of death, she fouettes. Sweat begins to sparkle on her wispy frame. She spins and spins, faster and faster, the pain rising with every turn—eighty, ninety, one hundred! The audience explodes in thunderous applause; she exhales. The applause turns deafening; she gasps.

10.

She is woken by crackling gunfire and a bittersweet thought: Mother will die today. It was in a vivid dream, the feelings of which freshly reverberate through her body. She was crossing a deserted street when something drew her attention to an open window above. Standing at the window was a painted glass woman with the thick brows of her mother. Suddenly she fell like a glass pushed off a counter top and shattered into a million pieces. The impact was so heavy, the glass shards blew into her face and tickled her skin with the gentle caress of a lover saying goodbye. She pushes herself up and looks over at her mother, who lies on the other side of the bed still sleeping. Perhaps it was not a vision, but a dreamy enactment of a subconscious wish. Her mother tosses and turns and moans as gun blasts echo outside. “Idiots,” she softly hisses. “Don’t they know some of us are trying to sleep.” Though she wanted to say “grieve.” She strokes her mother’s face to soothe her, her fingers gliding around hollowed eyes and cheeks on caramel-colored skin fading to a dull gray. Her mother’s breath cackles like television static. She will die, if not today, soon. The silent monitor next to the bed stringed with dry IV bags is a testament to that. She can prepare to leave now, to flee north, to wake on a hard metal bed with strangers traversing a bumpy road under quiet stars. She sits and swings her legs over the bed, but as soon as she places a toe on the floor her mother sighs in the same mellifluous pitch as she did to catch her breath after a fit of laughter. It sends a wave of guilt crashing into her, and she falls back upon the bed as if plunging into a pool of water, drowning in solitude. Then a shadow fills the room and they both sink deeper into the mattress.

9.

“The floor is hot lava,” the boy shouts as he jumps atop the end table while his sister runs across the sofa to the armrest. The room transforms into a volcanic wasteland. The furniture turns an oily black and hard. From their obsidian perches, the siblings survey the oozing, orange fiery river that moments before had been a worn hardwood floor. They laugh at their tormentor, for once they can see it and evade its reach. The girl crouches as she gathers the courage, drawing on the repressed energy from forever being told what not to do, to take the biggest leap, a five-foot gap to the solitary armchair-shaped island rising in the open lake of fire. Before she can jump, her brother springs to her side and places his hand firmly on her right shoulder. He’s been told to protect her, to keep her from treacherous situations. But to her surprise, he reaches down and locks his hand with hers and then crouches down, too. They launch themselves into the thick, gaseous air and release heartful, excited cries. Halfway across, above a neatly carved rectangular stone sprouting ash trays, the sky opens and thrusts them down into a sudden cascade of lava.

8.

The man on the floor curses his toes. He begs forgiveness, then starts over. The verses of the Quran roll off his white, chapped lips. It’s a marvel he can still feel his toes at all, lying in prostration all day on the floor of his dilapidated apartment, cutting off the circulation in his legs. Pale and thin, his bones protrude through the skin, resembling a desert carcass. His friends and family refer to him as a pile of grief decorated in soiled clothes. The first few days after the tragedy, they brought food, but the parade of well-wishers stopped as the dishes collected on the kitchen counter, cold, spoiled, and untouched. Food could not be wasted on a man who chooses not to partake in the ritual of survival. They thought his grief was so heavy he couldn’t even rise to his feet, unaware that it is he who is applying the pressure, interrupting his perpetual prayer only for the all-powerful thirst for water and the need to use the toilet. Now, after fourteen days of fasting and prayer, he’s betrayed by twitching terminal digits. He tries to swallow but his mouth is as dry as the wind blowing through the shattered windows. He feels a sharp pain in his stomach and yet a euphoric dizziness. Rising from the floor, the figures of his wife and five children appear in a gentle white glow. Reality itself seems to be tearing at the seams. It’s finally happening, he thinks, his devotion is being rewarded. His family is coming home. Every fiber left in his withered body twitches with the desire to stand and embrace their ghostly bodies, but he does not want to lose them again. He forces himself to remain still, to pray faster, his lips moving in a fervid pitch. Even as his mind violently spins. Even as he stumbles over the verses. Even as the fire in his joints flare. Even as the children above pound on the floor. Even as they tumble down atop him in a crash.

7.

Seven stories above an idling windowless van, a family scrambles to pack their belongings. The children finish first and obediently stand by the door, each clutching small backpacks stuffed with clothes and toys. All they’ve been told is that they are going on a journey to a place with quiet skies and endless sweets. Their mother and father shuffle from room to room, hastily chanting “no” back and forth. They step into the spare bedroom that serves as the father’s prized library, shelf after shelf of books on epistemology and ethics, thick and worn, the ones that taught him and the ones he used to teach his pupils. He begins to weep. “All of them,” he says. “No! How could we carry them?” their mother says. “Come, we need only you,” she pleads as she pulls at his sleeve. “But, they are me,” he says. The driver of the waiting van honks wildly, ending the debate. “Hurry!” the father says. He plucks one weighty tome off a shelf and drops it into the small unsuspecting hands of the youngest child, who nearly topples over. In panicked movements, their mother and father grab anything in sight and put as much of it as they can into large canvas bags and their outstretched arms. The family lurches toward the door, burdened by their life’s possessions and the building pressure of their surroundings and of vanishing time. “It’s all so heavy,” one child says. So heavy they do not leave Aleppo.

6.

Apartment 6A tells a dark mystery. You push open the door hanging off a hinge and enter. The first thing you notice is the smell. In the tiny kitchen to your left, the refrigerator is wide open, stocked with rotten food. The apartment is silent, not even the low hum of electricity is present. You walk around the counter into the hallway and find the apartment turned upside down. The furniture is smashed, and the floor is riddled with clothes and broken glass. Now you follow the dark trail on the floor leading into the master bedroom.

Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation.

It’s difficult to see in here. The only light in the room is that which outlines the edges of the window shades. Yet, you make out five black blots with thick clumps descending in height along the far wall—six feet, five feet, four feet, three feet, three feet. You peel back the shades to let the light in. Then you look again and realize the colorful splashes are dried blood and brain matter. There are no bodies, except for the nameless faces in picture frames on the dresser against the opposite wall. You can search for clues of who died and why, but you won’t find a satisfying answer. You can stand in any place in history and ask for eternity, “What happened here?” You stay too long in 6A, and the mystery consumes you.

5.

Newlyweds embrace on the floor behind pinned sheets secluding their corner of the bedroom. Though privacy for the two young lovers is only a thin plane of cloth, it does not stop them. Wedded in ceasefire, they now consummate as the sounds of war ring out again. They gently roll and grasp and thrust and the echo of gunfire does not stop them. The coarse carpet is rough on their skin, leaving cherry red marks, but that does not stop them. His overgrown beard chaffs her mouth, but she does not stop kissing him. She thinks of the boy he once was, hesitant to ask girls at parties to dance. On the dance floor, his delicate touch made her feel as if she was dancing with a ghost. But that shyness does not stop him now. Pain for once feels good. Lost in the excitement and nervousness of the first time and the hope for a child, the grim world beyond the sheets does not stop them. Their heavy breathing aligns like a sweet asthmatic duet. They reach climax and shake in ecstasy and the whole world shakes with them. Then everything stops.

4.

In apartment 4B, an elegy populates on a green-lit screen:

Brother I don’t think we’ll make it

I can’t speak if they hear me they will take my phone or my life

I wanted to hear your voice one last time to say good bye to thank you for trying

            What is the matter brother, where are you now?

Huddled on the beach, tired and cold waiting for the sun to set so we may flee in the night

I don’t think the sea will hold us

I thought we paid dearly for better

            Brother, don’t despair, don’t lose hope

            For now, the road to freedom will just have to be crossed on anything that can float

I’m sorry if you’ve wasted our fortune on me

            The price is worth it for the hope of us all

            I will follow you soon, brother

Stay home

We are treated like animals

            You are brave and strong, you can make it

They are beating people for more money now, women and children

Send the last payment now in case they come for me

            I will

Here they come send the money now and save me

            Hold on I hear gunfire

Send help now brother

Brother

???!

3.

Two sisters turned widows drink hibiscus tea. After days of forced conversation, they share a comfortable silence. The first since they were teens. Before the oldest sister ran away with a bad man. Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation. Before she unexpectedly appeared at her younger sister’s door, both now old and alone. They catch each other stealing glances, then exchange smiles and divert their eyes, wanting to preserve the moment, to keep it like a framed photo in their minds. The younger sister opens her mouth to speak but quickly closes it. The ember of ire still burning inside impels her to lunge for the paring knife on the table. She reaches for it and lets her hand hesitate above the plastic hilt, but then eagerly grasps for her sister’s chaffed, worn fingers. They lock hands and reassuringly shake them for a few, long exaggerated seconds, as if actors on the soap operas they religiously watched after school, waiting for the credits to roll and the director to call “cut.” The sisters lean into each other and embrace. The tea cups rattle on saucers like the jubilant applause of a porcelain studio audience. Then they fall into each other’s arms forever.

2.

When the body is worked to bone, it forgets. The body of a man coated in dust forgets to shower. The heavy, bearded man forgets to remove his soiled clothes and battered white helmet. He submissively topples onto his bed as if executed. The sounds of silence long forgotten, phantom phone calls and ambulance sirens ring in his ears. He has forgotten he lives alone, because the dead won’t let him forget them. He pulls the bedsheet over his head to hide. Exhaustion finally overcomes him. He drifts away to sleep, but he’s forgotten how to dream. He only has nightmares where he forgets to stop working. In this one, a shadowy figure trapped atop a mound of rubble cries for help. It calls out in a voice he’ll never forget, the voice of his daughter. He scrambles up the broken concrete blocks toward her. But the mound starts to rise higher and higher, taking her away like an unforgiving manmade swell. He loses his footing and tumbles down to the ground. When he picks himself up, bombs start to fall around him like raindrops. He tries to flee but he’s forgotten how to run. His legs just move in place. The circle of a shadow over him grows bigger and a howl from above comes nearer. He is hit and the real cellphone rings and sirens can’t wake the body.

1.

Class is in session in the confines of a bunker-like room in the basement. The yellow glow of bare light bulbs illuminates a young music teacher trying to save the world. She claps at a swift tempo. CLAP. Small young boys and girls sit on the cold, bare floor and clap along. CLAP. CLAP. Mothers and guardians loom behind them CLAP. They sing songs in Arabic CLAP and Kurdish CLAP and Circassian CLAP. Songs from Damascus CLAP and Hama CLAP and Homs CLAP. The teacher strikes with the cleaver of music CLAP to open a crevice CLAP in their minds CLAP, so they may understand one another CLAP. On the strike of hands CLAP the lights cut out, casting them in darkness. A thunderous ROAR fills the room, as if a train is approaching ROAR. The children start to SCREAM. SCREAM. ROAR. The ground and walls tremble, then crumble. ROAR. The screams of children die SCREAM in the wave of thunder ROAR. CRASH. SILENCE. A moment passes, then the survivors wake, and sounds begin to register in their conscious. The clink of concrete shards bouncing CLINK CLINK down the tower’s remains. Moans and cries OHH arise from somewhere in this dark cavern created by someone above. The young music teacher opens her eyes to find all is black. She cannot move OHH. Suddenly, a sliver of light appears in the darkness, flickering like a star. SCRATCH. SCRATCH. As her vision refocuses, she realizes it’s not a celestial object SCRATCH. She is looking up, toward the surface SCRATCH. What she sees are hands, tiny hands digging through a crack SCRATCH. The light of the sun breaks through, and the tiny hands shine as if they are the source emanating the light, a light that leads the way out SCRATCH. The future is in tiny hands of light SCRATCH. The teacher feels the lightness of hope and a cool breeze on her face as if she were standing before an open window. SCRATCH. SCRATH. The breeze grows heavier now, as if she is a bird in flight. She hears the wind rush in WHOOSH.

 

Jacob Schroeder is a writer living in a town close enough to Detroit to tell people while traveling that he’s from Detroit. A graduate of Michigan State University, he funds his nightly writing habit as a communications executive. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, FLASH magazine, The Rumpus, Maudlin House, and Across the Margin, among other publications. His story, “In the Land in Between,” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize by Rum Punch Press.

Бабий Яр [Babiy Yar]

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions. My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions. He flips one right side up, slips two thick square tabs into the hollow slots they’re meant to go inside.

Flanigan’s Family Furniture in Jamaica, Queens, has started using these, and that’s where she got the idea. My mother. Except now, our store has more than theirs. We place the TVs on low tables anchoring pastel chintz sofa sets and blue and white striped loveseats in square formations around them.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

We’re creating more of a home atmosphere, my father says. I fold the cardboard along its dotted lines, keep slipping the tabs inside the right slots, which turn them into boxes. My father flips one right side up and starts to tell me about how my uncle Anatoly once trained himself to swim for fifteen hours underwater, trying to leave Russia for Turkey during WWII.

“Lots of people tried,” he tells me, “but they all got caught.”

I ask what happened when he swam the ocean, but my father clarifies that uncle Anatoly trained; he did not try.

“But he did once receive a posted letter from the only man to have made it.” My father sits at his desk now, a desk which is for sale.

We are Vaserman’s in Brighton Beach, edging up along the technicolored Coney Island peninsula, the only store which carries oak in four different shades. I’m only five inches shorter than my father who, at six foot three, ducks under the doorway leading to the back office then up the stairs to the second-floor apartment of our two-story flat— the same stairs where he descends from to work each day.

My mother stands behind the cash register with a bottle of lemon Pledge, spraying the Formica countertop in kinetic circles and telling me I should join the boys’ swim team at my school, and that I, like uncle Anatoly, have the build to swim an ocean.

“Swimming is in your blood,” she tells me.

“Uncle Anatoly is just a story you tell me when you want me to do something,” I say.

My mother throws her arms up, breathes in just as the doorbell chimes and a customer opens the door.

I finish the last television on my own and place it inside a black-lacquered media center, returning to sit in our storefront window at a white, tulip-based table I’ve covered with People magazines, going back to my homework. It’s supposed to be a report on a current event, one we’ve chosen on our own.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

I think that this gives me one year to figure out something, something revolutionary to do, but time feels like it’s pressing down on me and I don’t even know how to play guitar.

The customer moves methodically around the store, runs her hands along the tops of sectional sofas, the edges of overstuffed chairs but doesn’t stop to sit on a single one.

My mother asks if there is anything in particular the woman is looking for, but the woman only sighs and says no, not really.

“Анатолий просто история. Я не плавание.”

[“Anatoly is just a story. I’m not swimming,”] I tell them, and the woman looks up at me.

I know she wants to know what I’ve said, but my mother takes her attention by telling her that the sofa the woman is standing in front of folds out to become a sofa bed.

I see the woman nods her head as though she likes this but she does not smile; this woman does not seem to smile much. I notice where I would expect there to be lines on her face from years of smiling that there aren’t many. It’s the same thing I’ve thought about my mother, how she could have more smile lines. I believe that the two of them could probably be great friends. They could meet up, neither smile at each other’s stories, taking solemn sips of chamomile tea. But maybe the lady drinks coffee, and my mother wouldn’t approve. Caffeine is a drug. It’s a real drug, she’s told me. In which case if the lady drank coffee, they’d have a falling out, and their friendship would be over before it started.

Hannah. She drinks coffee and smiles a lot, long red hair almost down to her waist. Sometimes it’s braided and other times it’s wild, spinning around with her as she does, and she’s always turning around to someone, some friend calling her name. I’ve heard she smokes marijuana. She’s my age, but she already has lines around her mouth. I smile when I see her, when I think she’s looking my way— she probably thinks I smile too much.

The woman leaves without buying anything.

*    *     *

At dinner, after saying the Bracha Rishona, my mother waits a second before she begins to tear off a piece of bread then stops, “Your uncle Anatoly, he wrote about a secret war, a war before the war in Babiy Yar, before the United States became involved.”

“We’ve not told you everything,” my father says, looking down at his white wine.

But this night, they do. My father tells me the number at the Nuremberg trials was 100,000, but in some accounts, this fluctuates up to 150,000. Then he says it wasn’t just my mother’s ancestors, but his also, who were not Jewish. They were there also.

“They were taken to that same ravine with its twisted trees growing up through all that erosion,” he tells me, “under the same gray sky.”

“стоп.”

[“Stop,”] I say, getting up to leave the table but my father holds my wrist gently, and I sit back down.

He tells me what he says is true.

“We’ll never know,” he tells me, “everything.”

My mother gets up and returns with two Aspirin. I suppose she is trying to help how it aches as my understanding slips away. Or, at least, the order of what I had understood becoming more distant and the pain of no longer being able to organize the force of it all with any sense of clarity. But, if maybe my blood was thinner tonight, it could help in some way, or is it the idea that I could take something to ease this that helps her? I swallow two, as I take a flower from the faux-marble vase on the table. It’s a white rose my mother bought from a woman who sells flowers, pacing up and down Avenue X, her cart piled with bouquets. As I listen, I start to pluck petals off, one by one, letting them fall to the floor. My mother asks me to stop. I pull another petal. It falls to the carpet. They send me with my plate to my room.

*    *     *

But I can’t eat.

I put on my headphones, slipping in the tape where I’ve recorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” off of the radio to my boombox. I listen to it, and when it’s over, I rewind the tape, and I listen to it again, each time turning the volume up half a notch until I can’t stand it any louder. I write about the Runaways and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts until 3 a.m.

*     *    *

March 22nd, 1982:

On top of the stack of everyone else’s, I set my report down on Mrs. Morrow’s desk in the morning. By noon she’s called my parents and scheduled a conference at 8 p.m. this evening after the shop closes. She gives me a pink slip that allows me to stay in the library until the meeting.

After school I fall asleep at a library table with my head down on a book someone has left out about wild horses, hoping to dream about one but instead, in my sleep, I’m walking down the long hallway to Algebra 2. I see Hannah. She holds what I think is a joint loosely between two fingers, smoke wrapping around her in coiled twists of gray until she seems to fade inside the plumes of her own making. I walk closer to her, reach out into her mist but the hall turns a corner then, and she is gone. Under my feet, the gold-flecked tile falls away to dirt, and I am standing in a ravine, looking down at the earth eroding beneath my feet.

I look up at trees that seem to grow at impossible angles, root systems showing through earth that hasn’t been there for them, not in the way it was supposed to be. I look up to watch tree branches spreading out towards a dark sky, building, sparked with violet.

Wind pours through this valley aqueously, bringing down the trees’ red autumn leaves. They float up instead of falling down. I reach up to touch them. But each time I do, I only feel the veins of each leaf slip through against my fingers, and I can’t sense anything but the unbelievable softness of the air encapsulating me under a sky that now presses down on this place with a holding storm that will not break.

I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

I don’t wake up until a cafeteria woman, who has been sent to deliver me dinner, sets a tray down on the table. She takes everything off of it and lines it all up in front of me because she says the kitchen is clean, closing, and she has to bring the tray back.

It’s a sub sandwich and chips with my choice of milk. She’s brought me two, whole and two percent.

She leaves, and I take a drink of whole and then the two percent, trying to tell the difference but I can’t. I shut my eyes and picture wild horses running through the ravine, a black and white spotted and an Arabian, pure white.

*     *    *

I sit in front of my teacher in silence. I watch the clock tick from 7:57 to 7:58 p.m. until I hear the hinges of the classroom door grate against each other and look back to see my parents walking towards us.

“Mr. Vaserman, Mrs. Vaserman,” she stands, gesturing for them to have a seat. My mother greets her, but my father says nothing.

Mrs. Morrow unclips one of her pearl earrings and then clips it back on, adjusts her shoulder pads, brushes lint away from the black and white houndstooth fabric of her jacket, smooths a pleat of her matching-print, ruched, knee-length skirt. I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

“The assignment was to write 500 words on a current event. Your son wrote 3,500— I haven’t even been able to count it all yet— maybe 4,000 words on Joan Jett and her song “I Love Rock N’ Roll” running as the top hit for seven weeks. Alexei is not following instructions. This essay is a completely inappropriate length.”

“He is Russian, and he has an electric typewriter,” my mother replies. “What do you expect?”

Mrs. Morrow shakes her head and says she understands that my mother is referring to a Russian tradition involving the long form novel, laughs lightly and in a way that I know as fake, then begins to warn my mother about ethnic stereotyping before interrupting herself—

“And do you believe it is at all an appropriate current event for an academic setting such as this?”

She seems to look at me, and so I answer yes. My mother shrugs. My father looks out the window to his left at a seagull which has landed on the ledge of the windowsill with a crust of bread between its beak. It stares in at us.

“Come on, Chekhov,” my father says to me then, and my mother stands, taking my hand.

We leave the room, and my teacher says nothing, only the sound of her shuffling papers back into her drawer playing on behind us.

*     *    *

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

The BMT Brighton Line is crowded and halts to a stop on the way home. They announce there’s been a signal switching issue and they are working as quickly as they can to fix this. A chorus of complaints fills the train, and I see a glisten of sweat building across my mother’s forehead. A man offers her his seat, but she refuses to take it. I watch her grip the subway pole, her red nails stacked against each other so that they begin to chip along their sides. My father takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs her forehead.

It is midnight before we arrive back on our street and I see it before they do. The broken glass, shattered, littering the street, catching the orange streetlight and spinning it so it refracts in fragments. It’s our storefront, smashed-in.

All my father says is that he would have dropped the bars down had he known we would we would be returning so late, that the subway would break down. My mother sighs and nearly pretends not to notice until she sees the television sets.

*     *    *

The police dust for fingerprints, but don’t find any and say whoever it was must have been wearing gloves. They say it’s retribution. The vandals thought the TVs were real and that’s why they broke-in.

“When they weren’t,” the older of the two officers shrugs, drawing a swastika in the air with his gloved finger. The other looks down at our floor, waxed hardwood, and complements the grain.

The swastikas are in red marker, one that came from behind the front counter, across the cardboard face of each television where an imagined scene from Family Ties or Soul Train should be. There they are, more than symbols. We can’t even say. Maybe the officer can’t even say. That’s why he’s taken to the air. That’s why he has to use space to say it because he can’t. He can’t say anything.

When she sees they used her marker, this is when my mother begins to cry.

I trace the symbol the with my finger, but my father pushes my hand away.

“Что делаешь?”

[“What are you doing?”] he asks me.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I tell him.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I say, beginning to unfold the box, pulling out the tabs to make it into a sheet of cardboard again, like it was before.

My father picks one up, steps on it, crushing the cardboard in on itself. I do the same, and soon all we have is flattened cardboard that we carry to the dumpster in the alley behind our building.

The lid slams.

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

An officer comes down from upstairs, announcing the door to our apartment is still locked and remains undamaged.

I ask the officer what makes him sure whoever broke-in thought the TVs were real, how is he sure that they didn’t know the TVs were fake? He tells me, “Logic.”

I say that hate isn’t logical and he says that’s not what he’s saying. I notice his cheeks turning pink, sweat building on his brow. He’s young, maybe twenty-five. He doesn’t wear gloves and now presses his hands together, as if to pray. He says he’s not saying that hate is logical. I tell him OK, as long as on that, we agree.

“We agree, Alexei,” he tells me, his hands fall limply to his sides, as though he’s been lifting something heavy.

The drawer of the cash register was pried open, but the day’s take had been moved to a safe in our apartment, upstairs.

When the officers have finished what they have come to do, my father drops the bars over where the glass is supposed to be and says, “In the morning—” but stops his sentence there.

We know what he means. In the morning he’ll call the insurance, the claims adjustor, the glass shop. They’ll be out.

My mother retreats to the back of the shop, walking more slowly, I can tell, her steps more cautious on the stairs as though the glass blew through the room and shards could still be circling, eddying in the air.

A light rain has started, and now my father is lifting up a tarp to nail behind the bars, refusing my help.

“Идти в кровать. Пойте себе колыбельную.”

[“Go to bed. Sing yourself a lullaby,”] he tells me.

I don’t say anything, knowing he’s angry, but not at me. I walk toward the stairs singing, softly: “тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom.”]

“тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom,”] my father sings back, his voice beginning to lift.

He strikes a nail, pinning the tarp to the window frame.

*     *    *

Now I’m standing on the green-shag carpeting of our upstairs hallway, in front of my bedroom door as I see her there down the hall— looking at herself in the bathroom mirror though she has not turned on the light.

She uses a Q-tip to remove her mascara, gently wiping away its stain. She unclasps her necklace from around the starched collar of her shirt, presses it between her fingers and hangs its sterling chain on the knob of her medicine cabinet.

“Mom,” I say, walking down the hallway, stepping into the half-open door.

“Yes,” she says, running the cold water. She splashes her face, now less flushed from crying. She pats her skin with a white washcloth.

She looks up at me. Behind her, through the bathroom window, I can see the moon over our city, a million lights going on and off at every hour in the distance, like an ocean without a pattern, without a current, each wave under a different force of wind.

I reach out and touch her necklace, David’s star hanging from a sterling silver chain. I look out the window at the sky for a star or constellation, even though I know that we can’t see them, not here, not in this city.

“I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war,” I tell her.

She is silent, hanging up the washcloth; she turns toward me.

“Начните сегодня.”

[“Start tonight,”] she tells me.

I can see by the edge of streetlight coming in through the window, just barely eclipsing her face with soft orange in this incredible darkness, that she is smiling.

“я буду.”

[“I will,”] I say.

And I do, retreating back down the hallways, shutting the door to my room, pulling a stack of plain, white paper up from my unlined drawer.

I roll the dial on my Smith Corona, setting it to on, motor humming:

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions.

I pause, feeling the beat of electric current reverberating against my fingertips; I begin again:

My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions.

Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in TIMBER, and her playwriting on Manneqüin Haüs. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Growing up, Jordan attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio several times. Jordan received a BA in creative writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University, where she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel.

Chile, Wood Smoke, Masa

What I miss most is the smell of my hometown. The mix of chile guaco, wood smoke, and masa seared into every cell of my body. On hot August days I miss the torrential afternoon storms of the wet season. Sometimes in my dreams I hear the click-click of beetle wings and see the steep hills covered in ten different shades of green banana leaves. Other recollections are this immersing but not ones I want to remember, however. Not very often now, but I still have pesadillas of my country that wake me drenched in fear. And it is this mixta, of yearning and that which I long to forget, that holds me captive to the place of my birth.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles.

I know I will never visit again. There is nothing left for me there and I am forever tied to this place, the city of the angels. It is true that no matter how long I am here, part of me always feels alien. I have no papers. They call me illegal. A name that makes one afraid to live here, work here, have a family here. Except it’s better than what we left behind. I’ve been through worse. Much worse. I had no choice then. I don’t really have a choice now.

I won’t leave because of the woman beside me, and because of my son who lies here at Calvary Cemetery. Today is the anniversary of his death. His two best friends, his mother, and I journey here for a small reunion. Perhaps the last.

These two boys have grown into young men. Chris in a lean, athletic body, short brown hair and wide smiling eyes; Raul with black curly hair, studious look, so tall and broad he towers over the rest of us. Seeing them is painful. What would my son look like, what would he be doing with his life at this age? It is a small consolation that they too remember him. I hope not a once-in-a-while memory but the carry-with-you kind; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

Angela wears her Sunday best: a black cotton skirt that flows around her ankles and a white top she embroidered with traditional Salvadoran flowers. She clutches my hand, startled at the rustle of birds in the bougainvillea that adorn the entrance. I don’t think she’ll ever get used to coming here, though the way is familiar. Straight to the second left, then up the hill to the first marker and across the grass to the fourth grave.

Benjamin Javier Castillo Sanchez, 1999- 2014.

The boys started the annual tradition that one of them brings tequila. We don’t question how they get it. Raul pulls a small bottle out of his jean jacket and opens it. Standing in a semi-circle, we toast Benjamin, each taking a drink and passing it on.

One shot gives my wife a jolt. Her eyes brighten and her shoulders straighten. There I glimpse the woman I fell in love with, who mothered my son. The past years without him have worn her down so I don’t even know who I sleep next to every night. We sit on the grass, Angela watching the boys intently. She is starved for her son and for this short time they become the one she lost.

There are las cruces everywhere. On the tops of headstones, engraved in them, all shapes, sizes, and styles. Reminds me of the one in the hospital chapel. The light wood pews, rose-colored walls, and slender stained windows were a silent sanctuary against the busy, clinical world we lived in once Ben was diagnosed.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love.

First there is silence, but only seconds. Then the boys tell the stories we’ve all heard a dozen times before. The day they met at the playground when they were six or seven, each racing to be the first up the jungle gym. They don’t really remember but have heard the story so many times from their mothers it is as if they do. Chris laughs over the suits they hated wearing for their First Communion and Raul reminds us of the school performances they had to do. Of course Angela and I were so proud to see Ben up on stage, but he was tímido. Smart, but shy. He loved the science fair projects they had to do. I never understood much what they were about, but I loved the light on Ben’s face when he got the prize. The boys argue over who won the mission project contest in fourth grade, and so on.

These stories are like the song of the Motmot bird, sweet to the ear but quick to fade as it flies away.

Raul gives us a play by play of the goals Ben made, each pass or kick that saved the championship game. I tease them about the girls mentioned over the years, Blanca, Iris, Jenny, though we met not one.

We walk back the almost six blocks to the tiny place we rent. They call it a housing project in el barrio de East LA. It is crowded and noisy on the street, but when you walk the path to the back, it quiets down to Azteca America and K-Love. To own a house is called the American dream. But my 10-hour workdays as a gardener and my wife’s sewing job will never get us there. It was all for Ben, anyway. So now, what would it be for?

Chris and Raul are ready to say good-bye.

“I found this. I want you to have it.” Chris pulls his wallet from his back pocket. He hands over a photograph of three laughing boys looking at the camera, their chests bare, their cut-offs ragged, a garden hose at their feet. “I printed it for you. I know you don’t have many pictures, so…” he shrugs, handing it to me.

“We, ah, won’t be able to come next year.” There is apology in Raul’s voice. “Chris is going to Cal Poly and I’m moving with my family to San Jose.”

I’ve heard of Cal Poly, la Universidad, from one of my nieces, and San Jose is far north, so I was right. This is the last time we will see these boys. My wife nods, tries to smile, but can’t. She hugs one, then the other, “Dios te bendiga,” she whispers. I shake their hands. Say nothing.

Little by little, the rest of my wife’s family shows up with tamales, arroz, frijoles, plantanos fritos, horchata and cold cerveza in a big plastic tub. We sit in folding chairs in the courtyard and everyone eats with gusto. Someone puts on Celia Cruz but pretty soon Selena is coming out of one of the kid’s Galaxy phones. There is teasing and laughter, children running in and out of the apartment yelling, playing hide and seek and tag.

This is the time I miss him most, when I can barely swallow food or take part in conversation. Two beers in, I just watch and listen. Most of my nieces and nephews will never know their cousin Benjamin. He was the first-born, so only the older teenagers, busy with texting and tossing good-natured insults back and forth, have memories of him.

My wife is surrounded by her sisters and sisters-in-law, who’ve kept up a steady stream of gossip and news about cousins, aunts, and uncles, even the latest on J. Lo. They’ve all made a life here because of Angela. She is their center.

I imagine Benjamin standing next to me. Fuerte y guapo like he was on his fourteenth birthday. An ordinary kid, but to us full of promise. Angela and I kept him close, sheltered him from hardships as much as possible. The kind we’d grown up with. We wanted a different life for him.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat.

I was six when la policia took my father one Sunday on the way to church. Gun shots that night had us shaking in nauseating fear. A few days later we found his body in a ditch near our house. It broke my mother. At fourteen, I hid daily from Barrio 18 gang members knowing if I was caught, I’d end up either like my father or worse, being one of them. At fifteen, with my mother’s blessing, I walked the 1800 kilometers from my home in San Salvador to Mexico City. By the time I arrived, the soles of my shoes had worn to nothing and I was skin and bones. Small jobs took me months to earn my way from there to Tijuana. Finally, the day came when I climbed into the trunk of el coyote’s old blue Chevy and waited, boxes and blankets piled on top of me, to cross la frontera.

Angela came at an even younger age with four younger sisters and brothers, sneaking under barbed wire, trudging thirsty, starving, across el desierto. They had nada when they finally made it to Los Angeles, taken in by an aunt.

I was nineteen, learning the language, picking up work wherever I could, when we met at the bus stop at Soto and Wabash. I looked into her deep brown eyes, at her shy smile and that was that. It was a struggle to start a new life together in this country, with little money and only floor space for our wedding bed. I got lucky and found full-time work. Then Ben came along. We were so happy to have him that we didn’t realize Angela’s hemorrhaging and other complications at his birth meant she couldn’t have any more children. So we consoled ourselves with him. He was all we needed.

As inevitably happens, this day ends in a storm of images from those last five months with him that I cannot stop. I returned home from work one evening and found nobody home. No music playing, no simmering pot on the stove, just silence and an emptiness that shouted bad news. Benjamin’s persistent cough and headaches, and unbeknownst to us, his increasingly frequent weak spells had come to the attention of one of his teachers. A trip to the nurse’s office, una llamada, and Angela and Ben found themselves at County Hospital.

We had so much hope. We were told his chances of beating the leukemia were good. It buoyed us, kept us afloat. But it was tested as we watched Benjamin’s body transform from athletic to gaunt to swollen in a matter of weeks. We never gave up hope, right to the very end. But as I looked at Ben’s body the morning he slipped away, I saw my father’s again, bloody and torn, and my wife’s cries were as my mother’s. My faith fled that day too, never to return.

Twilight has come. I have been lost in my thoughts too long. The music ends abruptly and clean up begins. The women clear the remaining dishes, the adults direct the kids to pick up the trash and the men take down the tables and fold the chairs. Everyone comes to say goodbye. We are engulfed in the warm embraces only family can give.

We watch Angela’s favorite telenovela. When it is over, I check that we are locked up for the night. I pause in the hallway outside the small room that was Ben’s. The light casts a sliver of illumination across the bed, desk, and bookcase. We left a few of his things on the top shelf. A soccer ball, a couple of awards from school, a framed picture of Ben, Angela, and me when he was nine or ten. I step in and close my eyes. Listen. The darkness holds the boys’ laughter, Mario Brothers’ game music, creaking floors, the clanking of the furnace on rare cold days, and bits of conversations. All of them, Angela and Ben.

Mijo, it’s time for school!
All right, I’m coming!

Did you finish your homework?
Yeah. Well… almost.

Try some caldo; it’ll make you feel better.
Just sit with me, Mami, okay?

Buenos Noches, papito. Sleep well.
Te amo, Mami.

The words of his life are mezclado in my head. With the muted voice of the TV and the dark of night moving onward, I try to think of advice or comfort I gave him but cannot. Sadness and anger lie sleeping, but always there. Denial, guilt. These I know well.

I reach for the picture on the top shelf and look down only to discover I am still holding the one Raul gave us hours ago, completely crumpled. I smooth it out, set the two photographs side by side.

Angela calls for me. But it is Ben’s voice in my ear.

Papi, tell me again how you met mami.

Aren’t you tired of hearing it?

Nunca papi, nunca.

The bus stop story was Ben’s favorite. At the end, he would always say,

You loved her the way you loved me, from the first moment, right?

And I would say,

Papito, you were squinting, stretching, making little noises, but you settled right down when the nurse put you in my arms.

This once-in-a-while memory closes my throat.

Then I can breathe again, his words gone.

I am here. He is not.

Except he is.

He is my carry-with-you; like chile, wood smoke, and masa.

I lay the photograph on the desk for Angela to find. I close the door and head to bed.

 

Michele Wolfe calls Echo Park in Los Angeles, California, home. The city and people, art and culture, are her inspiration for writing. Her debut novel, The Three Graces, published in 2014, is a contemporary fantasy that blends the history of the statue of the goddesses at Hearst Castle with a modern-day coming of age story. Her memoir piece “View from a Park Bench” was published in “LA Affairs” in the LA Times in 2016. Her short stories include “The Wednesday Student” and “72 hours.” Michele is currently working on her next novel.

The Payphone

A man wearing a navy paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses pedaled his bike to the corner, stepped over his seat, and coasted on one foot to the bike rack at the side of the liquor store. He slotted his front wheel in the rack, strode four steps over to the unsheltered public payphone, lifted the handset, inserted a quarter, dialed the number to his daughter on the east end of town, and waited. He needed to call her Tuesday, today, to see if his cheque had arrived. His watch said 4:42 p.m.

No dial tone started, nothing, until he heard an automated woman’s voice say in her cold, impersonal way, “Credit twenty-five cents. Please deposit twenty-five cents.”

Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper.

The man forgot that the phone company raised the price by one-hundred percent, to fifty cents. He patted his pants pockets, checked his jacket, checked the sidewalk, even checked the pouch attached to his bicycle, and couldn’t find a quarter. He couldn’t find two dimes and a nickel. He couldn’t find anything. There was no one around for several blocks to ask for change.

“Fuck sakes!” the man cursed. He slammed the phone against the liquor store’s brick wall, breaking the earpiece off. He dropped the receiver and biked away.

*    *     *

A person in a black hoodie emerged from the alley, hood up, carrying a plastic grocery bag and wearing scuffed up sneakers. Their shadow was cast across the sidewalk by the amber light of the streetlamp. They walked with purpose, more purpose than most people tend to walk with in midday, and this was midnight. The person stayed close to the building, did a double-take of the cross traffic, pulled a can of aerosol out of the grocery bag, and spray-painted a stencil of the mayor’s face with Spock ears on the east side, west side, bottom side, and top side of the payphone that sat next to the liquor store. Below each face, he stenciled Gentrify and Prosper. Before the last of the particles of paint had settled like dew, the person was around the corner and halfway up the block.

*    *     *

A young professional in a pantsuit walked towards a downtown traffic light. For the first time in many passes by on her way to work, she noticed a payphone near the crosswalk and wondered if it had always been there. It must’ve always been there, she thought, they don’t put new ones in. She then wondered when the last time she used a payphone was. High school, maybe. Traffic whirred past, a bus mirror nearly hit a waiting pedestrian. She felt her phone buzz in her purse, pulled it out, texted, omg, prolly gonna barf at work today, lol??to someone named Sheri, and put her phone back in her purse. A man sitting on a walker next to the liquor store entrance was asking for spare change. Sheri’s friend turned her head and the WALK signal appeared.

*    *     *

A young mom parked her baby’s stroller against the brick wall of the building, picked up the receiver, dropped in two quarters, took a deep breath, and dialed the number to her mother. She took the dirty diaper from the back of the stroller, looked for a garbage can, and when there was none around, set it on top of the phone box. The dial tone hummed four separate tones. Each sound was a breath where she hoped that her own mother would answer the phone, and not Gene. Please, not Gene.

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet.

“Hello,” her mom answered the phone.

“Mom, it’s Kyla.”

“You should know better than to call here, girl. Are you in town? When’d you get here?”

“Mom, I need to get my stuff,” Kyla sobbed.

“Well you should’ve thought’ve that before you stole my $500 and skipped town!”

“Mom, I can explain. It’s Gene, he—”

“Ha! Yeah sure, Gene took it. Heard that before. I’ma send him down there to get my grandbaby back. Treena should be with me. You’re downtown aren’t you? You’re downtown. Hell, he’ll find you in ten minutes, and you can bet your skinny little—” Kyla pressed the phone’s lever with her free hand, righted baby Treena’s bottle in her tiny mouth, let go of the lever, inserted more change, pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, and dialed the number on it.

“Hello?” an irritable woman’s voice answered, TV loud in the background.

“Hi, I’m calling about the basement suite.”

“Are you working? This apartment is for people who are working only,” the woman said, and then coughed.

“I’m a mom, my baby is only six months. But I’ll be looking for a job soon.”

“Oh, I’ve rented to your kind before. And you know what I got for it? A trashed basement, a buncha visits from the police, and a trip to the rentalsman. Never again.” And the woman hung up.

Kyla pressed the phone’s lever one last time, inserted her last two quarters, and dialed another number.

“Can I get a cab to the mall downtown. Coachman Motel. For Kyla.” She grabbed the stroller, left the receiver dangling from its metal cord, and got her baby as far away as possible from where Gene was going to be.

*    *     *

A tubby twelve-year-old boy and his orange-haired friend skipped out on third period social studies to go to the mall for burgers with money the redhead took out of his dad’s wallet. They hadn’t skipped social studies all year; it was boring, all about the history of the RCMP and how they helped an inspired Sir John A. Macdonald found the nation. Today was a good day to skip; the class was going to the library, so the teacher wouldn’t even notice.

“Hey Tim, check this out!” the tubby boy said to his friend. He picked up the receiver and dialed 9-1-1 on the payphone next to the liquor store in the shadows of the tall downtown buildings. He immediately hung up the phone with his finger and continued to talk to no one.

“I need a firetruck to the downtown area because Tim here’s a firecrotch!” He hung up the phone and the boys laughed and felt invincible until the payphone rang. The tubby kid froze and almost shit. Tim answered the phone.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

 “Uh, sorry, wrong number,” he said in the most adult voice he could muster.

“If this is not an emergency, we’d like to remind you that fraudulently calling Emergency Response is a chargeable offence in section—” Tim hung up the phone as slowly and quietly as he possibly could and they sprinted through the red-light intersection to take cover in the mall food court.

*    *     *

“Hey sis, it’s Lester!” Lester wheezed, putting his calling card back in his wallet, and taking a seat on his walker. “No, no, I’m not drinking. Just calling to say hello. How’s everything going down there? Oh yeah. Haha. That sounds about right. Did you find a man yet? Haha, I know, I know, you gave up on men twenty years ago. Me? No, I haven’t found a man neither, haha. No. No. I’m good. I’m great. I just got a place to live and a few workers come around to help me clean up. Just last week! Yeah, it’s a nice place, real beautiful, you should see it. Got a bathroom, stove, TV. Joey said he’ll visit once a week. He’s a good brother. Brought me a pizza yesterday. You know, I remember in 1972, Joey said, ‘Brother, come eat with me’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that thing?’—It was the first time I saw pizza.

“What’s that? Kyla? No, haven’t seen her ‘round the city. When’d she leave town? Oh ok. I’ll tell her to call if I see ‘er.

“Can you drink the water down there yet? Still gotta boil, eh? Well if you ever need water, they don’t charge me for it in my new apartment. Come fill up your truck.

“Ok, sis. Alright. Ok. I’ll be going here for supper. I should be getting a phone in my place soon. Love you too. Say hi to John and his boys. Bye.” Lester hung up the receiver, got up from his walker, and rolled his way eastwards for supper.

*    *     *

The payphone rang as a woman in a sari walked past. She waited at the traffic light and the phone continued to ring. It rang and rang and the traffic light stayed red. Eventually, thinking it might be an emergency, she walked over to pick it up.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Is Kyla there? Kyla, is that you?” The woman in the sari didn’t move and didn’t breathe.

“Kyla, your auntie just called and they’re looking for you too. Gene’s coming to find you. He’s the one who told me you took the money, so don’t even—” The woman in the sari silently hung up the phone and scanned the block nervously. She tip-toed across the street with her bus pass clenched in her right hand.

*    *     *

A jazzy-looking man walked by in a pair of cowboy boots, crisp rodeo-cut jeans, button-up shirt, and slicked-back hair. He noticed the phone was broken, but he pushed the lever down and released it. The phone read Tues Apr 07 17:13.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm.

A balding man younger than thirty parked a bullet-silver car on the street. He looked up in the direction of a new establishment on the corner. It was a previously dilapidated building that had sat empty for a decade, now refurbished and turned into one of those new olde style pubs. It was located across the street from the liquor store and next to that old Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai/Szechwan restaurant called Steve’s Saigon. The pub attracted a downtown business crowd by advertising a Happy Hour with cheap draught on Tuesdays. The balding man was meeting a friend for a cheap draught. It was Tuesday. Crossing the street, the balding man locked the car with a remote and it beeped. He pushed the button again and the car beeped again. He didn’t usually drink on what he thought was an up-and-coming side of downtown.

He looked across the street as he pocketed his keys and saw an old man he didn’t know, Lester, sitting on his walker in the middle of an empty lot. On the lot was a sign that said CITY PROPERTY NO PARKING. The balding man thought Lester might get a ticket, and then laughed. He saw Lester tip over in his walker and fall straight to the ground. The balding man stood still, watched for a while to see if Lester would right himself. There was no movement. The balding man went to his pocket to grab his phone and realized it was at home next to the toilet. He looked around, saw a payphone and walked to it. He went to grab the receiver to call an ambulance, but the area around the phone smelled something like urine, there was a dirty diaper on top of the unit, spray paint on the receiver, and the earpiece was shattered. He looked around, saw a couple holding hands walking towards the empty lot, and figured they would make the necessary call. He crossed the street and headed to the new establishment. His friend, outside smoking a cigarette, greeted him, “Hey Blaine!” Blaine and his friend entered the establishment and ordered a cheap draught.

*    *     *

A pasty-faced man in a fur-collared denim jacket strutted out of the liquor store and around the corner, stuffing a wad of bills in his back pocket, a brown paper bag with swishing contents under his arm. He checked the payphone. The earpiece was busted so she couldn’t have called from here, he thought, and he headed towards her ex-boyfriend’s place a few blocks east where she probably called from. There was a police cruiser pulled up to the empty lot just east of the liquor store, with two cops heaving Lester into the back, so the man hid his pasty-face behind the collar of his denim jacket and skulked away in the other direction, towards the mall.

*    *     *

The sun rose on a quiet downtown, edging over the buildings to shine light on the corner of the liquor store and the payphone on its south side. A white service van pulled up next to the curb and put on its hazard lights. A man opened the back doors, rooted around in a few tool kits, and made his way to the damaged payphone, number IA-5291. The man dismantled the outer casing with a socket set and flathead screwdriver. He used a power drill to unbolt it from the concrete sidewalk.

The man in the paisley bandana and wire-frame glasses came up on his bicycle again.

“You finally fixing this damn thing?” he asked.

“Nope. Taking it down,” the serviceman said. “It’s been severely damaged six times this year already, so I was told to remove it. They just don’t get used enough to justify repairs.” The man in the bandana cursed audibly, got on his bike and pedaled to the mall where the next closest payphone was. He had found his dime and three nickels.

The serviceman unhooked the phone line at the bottom of the stand and capped the hole in the concrete with an iron cap stamped with the company’s logo. He lifted the phone box into the back of his service van, grabbed his phone from his pocket, marked the job as complete on the company’s work-order phone application, got in the van, and drove to the mall to collect quarters.

 

Nicholas Olson is the author of A Love Hat Relationship, a photobook of collectable prairie hats; and a series of illustrated zines with accompanying audiobook narrations. More can be found at ballsofrice.com. He lives in Treaty 4 Territory.

Hunter and Pray

I don’t know why I’m here with Emery, other than I am drunkish and sad. She’s ignoring my questions, hiding behind a screen. I ask her, “What are we?” She looks at me and says, “I’d tell you if I knew.”

She’s tumbled in bed sheets, hair reaching over the plateau of pillow. The tendrils look like little fingers, grabbing rock instead of falling to their deaths. Her eyes shift from her phone to me. “What are you staring at?”

Nothing, I tell her, which is mostly the truth, because there is nothing to be found between us now. Nothing but sweltering heat, the sad tuft of air coming from her fan.

I sat on the lip of her mattress, my feet not quite reaching the floor. Her arm fell to her side, the wrist skin brushing against my hip. “So… are we back together or not?”

She groaned. “It’s eight in the goddamn morning.” Her chest puffed like a pillow. “I don’t want to talk about this now.”

“Why not?”

Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips.

She has nothing to say to that. We sit in silence for a while, the only noise coming from the wild birds in the backyard who I wished to god would pull me away on their wings. When Emery called me yesterday, I thought it was to talk after our public breakup in the upper school courtyard. We’d had the whole night together but didn’t do more than kiss. Well, kiss and drink since her aunt was working overnight and wasn’t a big fan of liquor locks.

I reach for the bottle now, whose bottom only offered me a small bit of liquid with backwash. More booze could cure a hangover, so I’d been told, probably by Emery. I slosh the last of it down, my back hunching into the burn as it slid down my throat.

Emery reaches her hand upright, presses it into the line of my spine. “You shouldn’t be drinking.”

“I shouldn’t do lots of things.”

Her warmth slips down like a carcass sliding to the ground. She tosses her body from the bed—stretches, reveals her tummy—and lumbers into the bathroom to wipe me from her lips. It takes a while before I can stand up, stomach the sight of the toothbrush in her mouth. When I walk to the bathroom, she’s changed out of her…nothing, and into comfortable clothes, angling her hair, taking a selfie in the mirror. I imagine the view from inside the fish eye, getting to see her with a closeness not fueled by booze—in her father’s Marines t-shirt, flanked by curling irons and hair brushes, the bedroom revealing itself like a blue thigh between the doorway’s slit. At the center, she is still there. Behind the picture, there is a girl. She glitters and she glows, whether or not she knows.

She snaps the picture and turns around. “Goddamn it, stop staring at me!”

I avert my eyes and stare at the carpet and, damn the booze, I know I’m about to cry. Her feet stomp across the carpet, hands aggressively cup my cheeks. She stares but says nothing, even when the tears start to slip. She kisses them into place, like I’m a target and her spit is the bullseye.

Her hand slides up my ribs, handling my torso like a sack of flour. She marinates me in affection and damn it, I give in. Of course I do. I love this girl.

I wait for her to say it back. She does not.

The front door opens and shuts across the house, a loud pair of keys makes contact with a table. “Emery,” a voice calls. “Emery Meroche, I brought breakfast.”

She walks out of the room. I follow before she tells me to stop.

I take inventory of her house like a prey would its hunter, taking in the familiar scenes of Emery: the school portraits hastily hung up; two folded American flags by pictures of her parents; the couch, an ugly plaid, where she sits to watch TV or get yelled at. My shoes by the door next to her knapsack and flip flops.

As we round to the kitchen, I know her aunt knows I’m there because the first thing she does is chide me for not leaving my sneakers on the porch.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Meroche.”

She lets me off with a disinterested, “Hm.” Handing Emery a bag dripping in grease, they share a look. The kind that says “what is that girl doing in my house,” and is met with a regretful, “I don’t know.”

I linger by the front door while Emery fixes her plate and Ms. Meroche stares. Eventually, she asks, “Tell me, how is your mother doing?”

I know what she’s really asking, but don’t take the bait. “My mother’s fine.”

She raises a brow. “Really?”

“Would she have any reason not to be?”

Emery tenses in the corner, neck stiff like teeth biting into gum. I’ve laid a trap of my own, one that won’t be taken, and I’ll be chewed out for. It’s worth it, just a little, to see such a grown woman squirm.

Ms. Meroche eventually lets me off with a wave. “I just don’t want you bringing all that in my house.”

I know she knows, somehow. She’s talking about me like I’m drugs or murder, but the hate in her voice is dismissive because she can’t decide what matters more, love for her niece or hate for people like me.

With a crooked finger, Emery leads me away before I can prod. She leads me to the back porch, past their broken barbecue grill and towards the woods.

“What the fuck was that?” she asks.

I sit beside her. “What was what?”

“Cut it out, you know exactly what I mean.”

“She started it.”

Emery grunts, takes an aggressive bite out of an egg sandwich. “She doesn’t understand these things. I barely do and—”

I picked at a half blown out dandelion. “Why do you always defend her?”

“Not everyone’s family is like yours.” Her face was red now, from the heat or her frustration, maybe both. “She’s all I have left now. I don’t want you to do anything to make her mad.”

I gnaw on the stem, let the fuzz consume my tongue. “How would she feel if she knew you were the one who kissed me first?”

Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.

Emery doesn’t talk to me after that, and I take in her backyard with its endless grass leading into trees, the skeleton of a wooden play set, and the shed that I know is full of guns. Emery hunts for sport sometimes. I hate it, taking innocent lives. She says it’s her cooldown activity and besides, it’s not hurting anybody.

She hastily hands me her plate when she’s done, tells me to take it back into the house. As we stand up, I try to tell her I love her again.

“Alright,” she says. “I know.”

She shoos me away.

When I go back inside, her aunt is leaning on the sink. She was watching us out the window, while we were sitting and talking. I’m heard before I’m seen, and I’m told, “I’m not stupid, you know.”

I set the plate on the counter. “I never said you were, ma’am.”

Her words were curt and short. “This isn’t a game.”

I couldn’t tell her I felt like game, another carcass in their stupid little shed.

Ms. Meroche looks at me and sees the bad stuff, but I notice that she won’t look back at Emery, even when she’s loading a gun and letting testing shots loose in the woods.

Suddenly, I feel brave. “I love Emery, you know.”

Her brows raise together. “I’m sure you do.”

She doesn’t mean it. She thinks this is a joke, but to be fair, I know Emery thinks so too.

I leave the kitchen and the house, follow Emery into the woods, trying not to tremble at the weight of the rifle in her hands. Placing my hand on her shoulder, I try to give her cheek a kiss.

She shoves me away. “My aunt’s watching us, you know.”

“Yeah, so.”

“Cecily, if you think she’ll take kindly to two girls kissing, you’ve got another thing coming.”

I stumbled backwards again as she cocks the gun at a bird, taking more steps away from me until I can barely see her. She weaponized my intimacy, loaded its barrel with bullets—thick, fat tubes of metal-like little lipstick bottles. But we both know, there was nothing red on the inside. On the outside, maybe, when she was done with the likes of me.

It takes three shots for the bird to fall, and another to be sure it’s dead. My thighs quiver as I walk to help her, but she doesn’t know if she wants to eat the bird or leave it. My lips have nothing else to say to her as she hands me the gun.

I hold it, catch my breath, and pray.

She decides to leave the bird and walks away.

 

Anastasia Jill (Anna Keeler) is a queer poet and fiction writer living in the Southern United States. She is a current editor for the Smaeralit Anthology. Her work has been published or is upcoming with Poets.org, FIVE:2:ONE, Ambit Magazine, apt, Into the Void Magazine, 2River, and more.

Phone Voice

You will oversleep, wake up disoriented in a too-quiet house. At first, you will only remember the dream, that scraping feeling of trying to scream but not making any sound. You will try to drag the details into your conscious brain, but they will evaporate as you become aware of the mattress springs pressing into your back, your cold toes where you kicked off the comforter, your stiff left knee. You will slip your feet into your green fuzzy slippers, wrap yourself in the thick fleece robe you found marked down at TJ Maxx last spring. You will draw a few long breaths, tell yourself to calm down, it was only a dream. But you won’t be able to shake that feeling.

Before you have your coffee or wash your face, you will pause at the closed door to your nephew’s room. You will rap your knuckles on the wood door; the sound will jackhammer through the house until the silence swallows it. There will be no answer.

You will turn the doorknob, push the door open an inch, two inches. You will peer bit by bit into the empty room. You will hope he’s at school but know that it’s just as likely he’s skipping again. His room will be a mess, as usual, and you will take comfort in the piles of dirty t-shirts and socks, the empty bag of Doritos, the Mountain Dew bottles, the comic books strewn across the floor.

You will almost close his door. You will almost keep moving, but you won’t. You will hover in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob. Your dream will return in physical sensations—chest tightening, breath quickening, palms growing damp—and nudge you into his room.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will spot the corner of a slim black notebook poking from beneath his pillow. It may as well be a black hole the way it pulls you into it. You will sink onto his rumpled bed and hold the notebook in your hands, which will tremble a little, the way they did nearly seventeen years ago when your sister let you hold him for the first time and you had no idea what to do, how to protect him. When you thought she had figured things out, that the tiny bundled creature you held had changed her.

You will open it to a dog-eared page in the middle. Once you know he’s safe, you will stop reading, put it back where you found it, move on with your day. This is your job now, you’ll tell yourself. You need to know what he’s up to, where he goes when he’s not at school. His handwriting will stretch across the page in spider webs of black ink. You will read. And read.

You will wonder if you are back in the dream.

Eventually, you will close the journal and place it carefully on his pillow. You will walk around his room, stepping carefully over the teenage debris. Once. Twice. You will search for Bunny Bear, the stuffed teddy bear with inexplicable bunny ears you sewed back on years ago when he accidentally cut them off. The one stuffed animal left over from his mother’s. Your sister was never much of a seamstress. You will not find Bunny Bear.

You will read the journal a second time. You will decide you owe him that much. You will not sit on his bed this time; you will read standing, one hand clamped over your mouth. After the second time, your stomach will twist and your throat will burn, but you will not vomit. Not yet.

You will open his closet and stare at the hard black guitar case. You have never heard him play guitar. The gold metal clasps will chill your fingertips, but your hands will not shake. When you see the gun, you will know what you must do.

You will walk to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea with lemon so your voice won’t crack when you call 911. You will use the old land line, because your cheek sometimes hits buttons on your iPhone and this is not the time to accidentally start playing YouTube videos. You will dial 911. You will sip your tea and it will turn to acid in your throat.

The operator will answer in a tired voice, although it is still morning and she couldn’t be more than a few hours into her shift. “911, what’s your emergency?”

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control. You’re not someone they can mess with. You will imagine the operator sipping cold coffee from a lipstick-stained styrofoam cup, sick of fielding calls from toddlers with distracted parents and senile old people who can’t remember that their caregivers aren’t murderers. Your phone voice will wake her up. It’s a teacher voice, a go-ahead-and-try-me voice, a tough-love-chocolate-covered-firecracker voice. Your phone voice will make her pay attention.

With this voice, you will tell her about your nephew’s notebook. You will not hesitate to claim him as your nephew, although you will ache somewhere deep inside when you say his name. You will tell her that he is planning a school shooting, that he has a large black gun hidden in a guitar case in his closet. Your phone voice will begin to splinter and you will have to pause, close your eyes, think of Bunny Bear, take a gulp of tea and let it burn your throat. The 911 operator will ask for your address. She will tell you she is sending an officer to your house.

You will thank her, hang up the phone, and vomit into the sink. Then you will brush your teeth, wash your face, tie your hair back into a neat ponytail at the base of your skull. You will not want to relinquish the comfort of your robe, but you will make yourself hang it in your bedroom closet. You will pull on your black wool sweater, the one your sister hated because she thought it made you look pale and too serious, and some sensible slacks, ones with no wrinkles or missing buttons.

You will put on your phone voice, the one you use with telemarketers and doctors’ offices to let them know you’re in control.

You will not just sit and wait. You will walk through the kitchen, living room, bathroom. You will open linen closets and cupboards, peek under couches and chairs. You will wonder where else he has hidden weapons. You will make your bed, put away the folded laundry in the plastic white basket in the corner. You will pause in the doorway to your nephew’s room, but you won’t go back in. Not until the police arrive. You will pace the short, dark hallway until you can’t stand it anymore, then you will open all the curtains in the house, let daylight come screaming in. You will not hide from the old man next door or that nosy woman across the street. Let them gossip. Let them see the police. Let them say what they will. Let them see you do the right thing for once.

When the doorbell rings, you will invite the police in. You will thank them for coming, in your phone voice, even though you are not on the phone. You will not smile. You will not stare at the guns in their holsters or the ice in their eyes. You will keep your hands and voice steady as you lead them to his room. You will offer them tea, coffee, water, but they will say no, thank you. They will only be interested in the evidence.

They will take the journal. The younger one will whistle, long and low, when he sees the gun, which they will also take. They will take your nephew, too, later, straight from school. They will question you, and you will do your best to answer, until finally your voice will fail. They will shake your hand and call you a hero, tell the newspapers that you saved a school full of children. Without your voice, you won’t tell anyone that you didn’t do it for those children. You won’t tell anyone that since you couldn’t save your sister, you had to save her son. To save him, at least, from becoming a murderer.

 

Lindsay Rutherford lives and writes in Edmonds, WA. She is a student at the Writers Studio, has an MA in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Doctorate of physical therapy from Temple University. When she is not writing or chasing after her two children, she works as a physical therapist at a local hospital. Her work has appeared in Medical Literary Messenger, Poplorish, and WA129+.

Cannonball

I was twenty-three and working as a caregiver to three autistic women in a house on Decatur Street. Jackie, Hazel, and Marcella had lived in institutions their whole lives, before the agency I worked for helped them get out and set up a life. None of them were verbal and they needed round-the-clock support. I did the early shift, which started at seven and left me with most of the heavy lifting: bath routines, meals, doctors’ appointments. I had two days of training and the pay was six-fifty an hour.

My first day, I walked in to find Marcella smearing the walls of her bedroom with shit. I thought I might puke, but the woman orienting me didn’t flinch. She went and got a bucket of soapy water and some rags and told me to get busy. Marcella was forty-three but had the skinny body of a twelve-year-old. She spent most of her time walking around the house naked on tiptoe. She made low groaning sounds in the back of her throat as she walked and slapped her thigh bloody when she was agitated. A large part of my work with Marcella was helping her keep clothes on. When we had to go to the doctor, I draped a robe around her to walk out to my truck, but she was always nude by the time I got around to the driver’s side. I had to carry a special letter from the doctor in case we got pulled over.

 

This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks.

Jackie was sweet. In addition to being autistic, she had a rare degenerative disease, which meant she was dying, but slowly. Her muscles were so constricted that she couldn’t put her arms down or move her legs when she wanted to. She couldn’t get out of bed on her own and I was afraid of dropping her when I moved her. She had enormous, brown saucer eyes with long lashes that blinked slowly. The hardest thing about working with Jackie was knowing she was suffering and not being able to do anything about it. She liked to paint. On nice days I’d roll her wheelchair out onto the back porch and set up her easel facing the garden. She didn’t have a lot of fine motor control, but her paintings were abstract and whimsical and filled with yellow.

Hazel was fifty-eight and healthy, as far as we knew. She had wiry grey hair that curled around her ears and ruddy cheeks. She loved stuffed animals; her favorite was a lamb with brown felt hooves. She sat in an armchair by the window, mumbling to it and kissing it, rubbing her head rhythmically side-to-side on the flowery fabric. The staff had already patched up the chair several times in that spot. When she wanted something to eat or drink, she’d come into the kitchen and pull any random bag out of the freezer—peas, strawberries, a turkey burger. I knew the thing she pulled out wasn’t what she really wanted, but it was the closest thing to communication we had. She shook her head and made a cave with her mouth like she was yelling and swatted my arm with her flat, paddle hand. It looked violent but it was more like affection.

This was in Olympia in 1999, when the town was a lesbian paradise. I lived with my friends Maxine and Katie in a little craftsman on Mulberry Street with a tire swing in the backyard. Our friends were a band of non-deodorant wearing, unshaved, feminist punks. None of us had any money, so we ate and drank communally and spent the weekends crammed into tiny clubs, sweaty and braless, listening to Alison Wolfe scream “Bat Girl” and “Are you a Lady?”

Max and Katie were a few years older than me and had been a couple forever. They had the kind of relationship we all wanted but thought we’d never find: happy and like they were each other’s family. Katie had fine blond hair cropped short and wore thick square glasses that magnified her blue eyes. She worked in a daycare center and loved to bake. She’d grown up Mormon and was disowned by her family when she came out. Max was an aspiring mechanic, working days in a parts store and nights in our garage. She was teaching herself to take apart old Subarus and put them back together. She rolled her own cigarettes and had dark circles around her eyes that made her look tougher than she was.

I’d never had a girlfriend. My junior year of high school there was a girl who sat in front of me in homeroom and sometimes she asked me for a ride. When I dropped her off, we’d sit in my car smoking cigarettes and touching each other’s hands and arms, like the way you put a baby to sleep. One time she kissed me on the mouth as she was getting out of the car. After that she didn’t ask me for a ride anymore.

Six months into working at Decatur Street, I came in to find the woman I was relieving doing CPR on Hazel. We called 911, passing the phone back and forth while we pumped and breathed into her, but she was gone. We called her family but only the paramedics came. After they pronounced her dead, we showed them her power of attorney documents so they’d let us keep her. They said we had twenty-four hours. We laid her out in bed wearing a blue nightgown with her stuffed animals lying around her. For the rest of the day former staffers and people from the agency came to pay respects. Someone brought a big white candle and lit it. I made a pot of soup.

The night of the funeral I got drunk on margaritas at the Spar Bar and tried to drive home without my headlights on. The officer who pulled me over offered me a choice: let him drive me home or pass a Breathalyzer. When we arrived Max and Katie and Dom were on the porch drinking cans of beer under the light buzzing with moths. When they saw me get out of the patrol car they bolted down the steps and were on the sidewalk next to me.

“Anna, are you okay?” Max said, her slicked hair falling into her eye. We had a rudimentary mistrust of cops.

“We tried to bring her back,” I said, slurring. “Fuck. I’m so drunk.” I started to cry.

“Your friend got lucky,” said the officer. “Anybody else would’ve taken her in.”

They helped me inside and Katie ran me a bath. I’d had a crush on Dom for months and was ashamed for her to see me that way. She was a short, stout butch who worked on a mussel farm and drove a red Jeep. She had kind brown eyes and a lady tattoo on her left bicep.

“Do I look gross?” I asked Katie in the bathroom, remembering the ancient Goodwill dress I was wearing for the funeral.

The next morning I woke up with a gnarly hangover and called in sick. I never wanted to go back to Decatur Street. The shock of Hazel’s death, Jackie’s looming death, was too much. What did it mean that two of them would die on my watch? I was so young—it felt like a tragedy. Around noon my boss called to check on me. I told her it was the flu. Katie left coffee and banana bread for me on the counter with a note, “Have a sweet day sweet pea!”

On Saturday we got up early and went to the farmer’s market, all of us sleepy from a show the night before. The guitarist’s name was Radio Sloane and I spent the whole show obsessing about how cute she was. I’d been hoping to see Dom there, but she never came. When I saw her standing in front of the apple stand at the farmer’s market, my stomach flipped.

“Hey you,” I said, tapping her on the shoulder, wanting to sound casual.

“Anna!” she said. “Hey, how’s things?”

“The other night. I’m sorry you had to see that.” I felt my neck get hot. “I’m all right.” We were standing too close but I didn’t want to back up and risk her taking it wrong.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry about that woman you helped.”

“Good apples here,” I said, gesturing. I needed something to do with my hands.

“Best Winesaps,” she said. “They’re my favorite.”

“For sure, crisp and not too sweet. Braeburn too.” I was talking too loudly.

“I wonder if Katie’s been here,” she said. “Her pies.”

“They’re amazing, right? She should start a pie store.”

We talked about our jobs. I didn’t know what a person did on a mussel farm.

“Do you like it?” I said.

“It’s a job. I like spending the whole day out on the water.” Her voice cracked a couple of times. I was glad to not be the only nervous one. “Most of the time it’s fine. Sometimes it’s fucking cold.” She told me about her rubber pants and how she spent most of her time on her knees hanging off the side of the boat. “My back’s pretty messed up.”

The sun was starting to push through the morning grey and all the colors were getting sharper. A bluegrass musician was setting up on a little stage. Max came toward us with something steaming on a paper plate.

“Tamale?” She looked behind her. “I lost Katie. I think she’s buying all the rhubarb in Washington.” We each took one and the three of us stood there, unraveling cornhusks, shoving the warm mealy things into our mouths.

In the car on the way home I decided to be brave and ask about Dom’s love life. She and Max used to work at the mussel farm together before Max started working on cars.

“Do you know if Dom has a girlfriend?” I said.

“Last girl she had was Maddy, but that ended six months ago,” Max said.

“Who’s Maddy?” I said. “I mean…what was she like?”

“She’s not dead,” she laughed. “Do you mean was she femme? Like you?”

“I don’t know, I guess. Does she have a type?” My neck was hot again.

“You’re not not her type, if that’s what you’re asking.” She turned to look at Katie, to figure out if she should go on. “Dom’s good people,” she said. “But she’s been funny lately—quiet or something. Don’t get your feelings hurt if she’s being distant.”  The next few weeks at work were depressing. I’d gotten used to seeing Hazel through the picture window when I pulled up in the morning, kissing her lamb. It always had crumbs from whatever she was eating on its muzzle. It seemed like the thing that had been balancing out the dread of my days at work was gone. Marcella’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Jackie’s bath, brushing of teeth, dressing routine, breakfast. Clean-up. Laundry. Make and change doctor’s appointments. Fill-out staff updates about each woman’s day. Help Marcella relax on the couch with TV or music. Support Jackie to paint, or just be comfortable in her room.

My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them.

I started smoking again. I spent all my free time on the porch thinking about how hard Marcella and Jackie’s lives were. I knew their circumstances were better than they could have been, but still it didn’t seem like enough. I was angry with their families for never coming to see them. My life felt hard too. I thought about my family in Ohio and how I’d never be able to come out to them. I thought about how much I wanted a girlfriend.

During Marcella’s sloppy, frustrated bath routine I tried to talk to her about Hazel—how much I missed her—but it just made her extra agitated. I was naïve. I had no idea how Marcella felt about Hazel. Working with people who couldn’t tell me anything was hard—I knew they could understand me, but I wanted to know what they were thinking and feeling. My time with Jackie felt extra loaded; she’d been sick for a long time and knew she was dying, but now it seemed like death was in the house, waiting for her. I kept Hazel’s door closed and walked quickly by it. I started lighting incense and candles in Jackie’s room and hung a few of her paintings on the wall.

A few weeks later I went to the Spar for happy hour. The bartender was the same guy who’d been there the night of Hazel’s funeral. When he asked me how I was, I welled up and bent over to fake tie my shoe.

“Bloody Marys are on special tonight,” he said, recovering for both of us. “Two for one.”

I recognized a few of the faces at the bar. The regulars were low-maintenance and loyal: loggers after work, Evergreen students counting out change for dollar shots. One guy spent his days hunting rare mushrooms in the state forest. He was smelly and damp and had dirt circles on the knees of his jeans. He claimed the mushrooms were chanterelles, but they looked like napalmed ears.

“Who’s playing?” I said to the man sitting next to me. He was old and had on a worn-out flannel shirt. He was looking at the TV mounted in the corner of the wood-paneled room.

“Broncos and Seahawks,” he said. “I don’t care too much about it, but when it’s on…”

“It’s hard not to look.” He reminded me of my grandfather. “Seattle any good this year?” I knew nothing of football other than what I’d overheard Max and Dom say when they were drinking beer.

“They’re not too bad.” He was taking small sips of a light beer that looked already warm. His hands were leathery and brown, the tips of his fingers rough. “That linebacker. Kennedy. He’s fun to watch.”

I ordered another drink. He was nursing his and eating thin pretzels out of a wicker bowl the bartender had set in front of us.

“You driving?” he asked, after I ordered my third.

“No sir,” I said. He turned and looked me in the eye for the first and only time. “I learned my lesson.”

I’d parked my truck in the camera store’s parking lot across the street so I could leave it overnight if I needed to. Outside, I turned left and headed up the hill on foot. It was only twelve blocks home but steep. About halfway, I felt headlights on my back. Someone was slowing down and flashing. I turned around and saw Dom’s Jeep. She drove past me and pulled over onto the shoulder. When I reached the passenger side, I saw Max was in the front seat. I got in the back; a woman I didn’t know slid over to make room for me.

Max turned around, “Anna!” she screamed—the music was loud, “You wanna come on an adventure with us?” I felt disoriented but a little more sober after the walk.

“Wood chip pile,” Dom said, turning down the radio. “They just dumped it on the east side of the inlet out by Priest Point Park.”

“It’s supposed to be three stories high!” Max was yelling, moving to the music.

“Should be pretty awesome,” Dom said. “This is Tristan.” She threw a thumb back to indicate the woman sitting next to me.

Tristan put a hand out for me to shake. “We’re gonna climb it.” She was lanky and had a bleached buzz-cut and wore a blue bandana tied around her neck western style.

“And then jump and let it catch us,” said Max, “And then do that over and over until we can’t do it anymore.” They were high.

Dom drove on up the hill passing our street and then across the bridge that connected one side of town to the other. Someone lit cigarettes and passed them around. The air coming in the windows was fresh against my face. We passed houses on the north side of town that butted right up against the cold, clear waters of the inlet. In late summer you could sit in people’s backyards and watch the salmon run.

“Now where?” Dom asked. We were at a four-way stop just before the park.

“Keep going straight,” Max said.

“Is this legal?” said Tristan. “Not that I care.” The narrow dirt road off East Bay Drive looked like it was for service trucks. At the end were gigantic mounds of rock and other stuff I couldn’t make out.

“Right here,” Max said. “Cut the lights.” Dom parked parallel to the fence. It was really dark, but once we got out we could see better. The moon was nearly full. Two hundred yards on the other side of a tall chain link fence we saw the wood chip pile. The wind smelled like fresh-cut pine.

“Damn,” said Max. “It’s at least three stories.”

“Yee-haw!” Tristan grabbed the fence and started to climb.

“I don’t like heights, you guys.” We all busted out laughing but I was having second thoughts. “What if there’s dogs?”

The fence was pretty easy to get over, although when I dropped to the other side I twisted my ankle. No dogs came after us and no alarms went off.

“Lookey what I’ve got,” Max said, pulling a flask out of her inside jacket pocket. We each took a pull of the whiskey. “Now we’re ready,” she said.

The three of them took off, hiking to the top of the mountain of wood chips in about thirty seconds, whooping and hollering like children, digging their boots into the shifting surface beneath them, falling forward, using their hands to help them climb up. It looked like they were mountain climbing on quicksand.

“Come on Anna, what’s the hold-up?” Max turned around and saw that I was still standing at the bottom.

“CANNONBALL!” Dom yelled, jumping as far as she could from the top of the pile and letting it catch her and sliding the rest of the way down like she was on a water slide. “Woo-hoo!” She came over to where I was standing. “Come on, we’ll go together.” I put my hands down and started to climb. The wood was damp and soft like moss, but I didn’t like the movement under my feet. It was like the earth falling away. Dom was climbing slower to stay beside me. “Keep your weight in front of your body,” she said, “And try to get some speed up. If you stay still it’ll pull you down.” I tried to focus on what she was telling me, but I couldn’t go any faster. Max and Tristan were synchronizing their first jump together.

“On the count of three,” Tristan shouted. “One…Two…” They were on the other side but I could feel the pile shift when they landed. At the bottom they turned around and ran right back up. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

“Go ahead,” I said to Dom. “I’m gonna take my time.” She didn’t want to embarrass me, so she went on, joining the others who were now starting to one-up each other, adding extravagant moves to their jumps.

“Do a flip,” Max screamed as Dom revved up for her next go.

I watched them tumble, fall, laugh and climb. Their bodies knew how to do something mine couldn’t figure out. Maybe it was their boyishness. I wasn’t very girly, but I wasn’t like them. I missed Katie’s softness. She would have stayed at the bottom with me. I stood still for so long I’d sunk nearly all the way back down, so I decided to smoke and watch. The way the wood chips stayed in constant motion was mesmerizing. I couldn’t figure out how the whole thing was still as tall as it was, considering all the commotion.

“All right,” I yelled, loud enough to get their attention. “All three of you, Pete Rose, on my count.” They snapped to and dove on three, gliding on their bellies all the way down. They laughed and looked up at me, mewling and crawling like babies toward my feet.

“Very cute,” I said.

Max stood and caught her breath. “Just come up with us. You don’t have to jump.” She took one of my hands and Dom took the other. Tristan got behind.

I fluttered my lips and threw the butt away. In just a few seconds we were up higher than I’d been able to get on my own. We were leaning so far forward I thought I’d fall on my face. My boots sank deeper with every step. It seemed like we’d stopped making progress, but I could feel Tristan behind me, her hands on my legs, bracing them. We were all huffing and puffing. Suddenly I was scared.

“No, don’t stop,” said Dom, “You can do it.” She and Max were pulling me now, my arms stretched out and up toward the sky.

“I feel sick,” I said, still climbing.

“It’s all right,” said Max. “We got you.” I didn’t want to keep going, but I didn’t want to look weak either. I felt them all around me. A few feet from the top the wind hit my face.

“Just a little more,” Tristan said.

I took three more giant steps, my legs shaking, and then someone patted my back and I felt my eyes welling up.

“Fuck yeah,” Max cried. They high-fived each other and me but I was stopped by the view. We could see the whole of Olympia in shades of darkness and twinkling lights. The moon was shining off the river below us like a spotlight; Mount Rainier stood in silhouette to the south.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?” I said.

“We were too busy being jackasses,” said Tristan.

“Now you can smoke,” said Max.

We sat and passed the flask, listening to the quiet. My heart felt full with love for Max, and that extended to Dom, in spite of my crush, and even to Tristan, who I didn’t really know. I wanted the feeling to last. We called each other chosen family. It was our way of taking power back from our birth families and giving it to the people who loved us for who we were.

“What’s that?” Tristan said, pointing to the shore across the river. It was a small dark mass lying on the sand a few feet from the water.

“Seal pup,” Max said. “Looks like it’s been dead a while.”

“Oh man, I love seals,” Tristan said, taking a swig and passing me the whiskey.

“Their moms abandon them sometimes,” Max went on. “Nobody knows why. They just stop feeding them and they starve.” We were quiet for what felt like a long time.

Suddenly, Dom stood up. “Guys. I need to say something.” She ran her hands through the sides of her hair and tried to catch her breath. The warm feeling I had in my belly tightened. Max and Tristan nodded. I tipped up the flask. I felt like I was getting ready to hear something that wasn’t meant for me.

“I think I’m going to transition.” She took a deep breath and pushed the words out, leaving her mouth open to exhale. “I’ve decided.”

I swallowed hard. I knew what she was talking about, but the reality of it didn’t sink in.

“Um—that’s amazing,” said Max, breaking the silence. “I mean I’m really happy for you.”

“Jesus, I think I’m gonna puke,” said Dom, wiping tears off with her shoulder.

“No, you’re not,” said Max, hugging her. “Come here. You’re all right.”

“You know I got your back,” said Tristan, giving Dom a fist bump and a loud pat on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”

It was my turn to say something. I wanted to sound authentic and I knew if I opened my mouth it would sound stupid. So instead I just turned and threw my arms around Dom’s neck. We’d never hugged before. I couldn’t tell if the trembling was coming from her or me.

“Thank you,” she said. Our eyes met for a split second and I saw how relieved she was.

The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.

“Log roll ya’ll to the bottom,” Tristan said, finally. Max followed her down but Dom stayed behind. When she offered me the crook of her arm I took it. We stepped down slowly and together, one foot at a time, and I wasn’t scared anymore.

 

The stars had gotten sharper since we arrived. We tried to find planets and constellations and show them to each other. Then we were all just looking up.

The next day at work was the hardest since Hazel’s death. Marcella seemed especially upset through her bath routine. I was hung-over and clumsy. After minutes of frantic splashing and slapping her face, Marcella jumped up and got out of the tub. I knew to let her walk it off: down the hall, through the kitchen, a right at the living room, repeat—even though she was dripping wet and the kitchen floor was linoleum.

Then, when I was giving Jackie her bath, the thing I’d been most afraid of for months happened. As I was transferring her to the bathtub chair from her wheelchair she slipped from my grip. Her stiff, emaciated body fell sideways away from me, toward the handicap bar and the hard, beige tile. Everything in my body responded. I threw myself under her torso to stop the distance she could fall, but her shoulder banged hard into the tile and her feet and legs got twisted and shoved against the opposite side of the tub. I had one knee on the floor of the wet tub with my head and shoulder smashed into Jackie’s belly and chest, holding her up. Her long, wet hair clung to my face. My breath shook. After a few seconds, after the motion stopped and I gathered my courage, I moved my hands to her waist so I could pull my face back and look at hers. She had her, “it’s all the same to me” expression. A wry smile that meant, “I’m still here.” I knew she had to be scared and really uncomfortable—she hit the wall pretty hard—but at least we weren’t on the floor and she wasn’t bleeding or knocked out.

“God Jackie, I’m so sorry.” I was out of breath. “I’m such a klutz. Please forgive me.” I needed her to respond, to tell me it was okay. I got her back into the wheelchair and back to her room, talking to her the whole way, stopping every few steps to make sure her eyes and mannerisms looked normal. I transferred her back into bed, dressed her in a fresh nightgown and tucked her under the covers.

“Maybe a nap?” I said, changing the blinds to make the light in the room more pleasing for her. I lit some incense. Before I left the room, I went over to check her one last time. I squatted down and looked into her big eyes. “I’m so sorry Jackie,” I said. I’d never felt sorrier. She took her hand out from under the covers and laid it gently on my cheek.

The rest of the day felt like a deep exhale. I had to fill out a report about the fall. Marcella had a big lunch and let me put the classical station on in her room. I made coffee and smoked cigarettes on the porch. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I felt grateful for Jackie—like she was teaching me something I understood but couldn’t put into language. I felt a confidence solidify in my body that made me feel strong. My recent confusions seemed frivolous and far away, even though I knew they’d be back. I thought about how I got to the top of the wood chip pile the night before. I thought about Dom. I tried to plant the understanding I was having deep in my mind so that I could refer back to it.

An hour before my shift ended I got a call from my boss. She said the agency was helping a new client transition and that she might be a good fit for Decatur Street.

“You mean Hazel’s room?” I said.

“That’s right,” she said. She asked me to prepare the space, discard whatever made sense, keep things we might need.

“What’s her name?” I said.

Hazel’s room was just the way we left it after the burial people came to get her. The dark blue sheets on her bed were rumpled and the blinds were drawn, letting only a small amount of light in. The wallpaper and the carpet looked dingy and it smelled stale. I stood in the middle of the room, remembering the morning we tried to revive her. It seemed like a lot had changed since then. A small prayer fell out of my mouth. “Rest in peace, Hazel.”

I threw open the windows and the blinds, letting in as much fresh air and sunlight as I could. I went through the dresser and put most of what was in it into a bag for Goodwill. I sprinkled lavender smelling powder on the carpet and vacuumed. I stripped the bed and put the sheets in the garbage bin outside, then beat the dust out of the small mattress. Hazel’s stuffed animals were the hardest to deal with. They seemed to know her better than the rest of us. If I’d had a holy bonfire I would have sent them off that way. The shaggy brown bear I posted on top of the refrigerator for the staff—a sentinel—and a reminder of Hazel’s zeal and humor. The lamb with the dirty muzzle I slipped into my backpack.

 

Joliange Wright is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work has previously appeared in Consequence Magazine and will soon appear in Midwestern Gothic. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a PhD student at the University of Southern California in creative writing and literature.