Nighttime at Tree Level

[fiction]

It’s getting dark and my arms are crawling with goosebumps. My butt is pretty much asleep at this point too, which makes it nearly impossible to get comfortable in this here stupid tree. The branch I’m on is like Mom’s eggshell mattress topper only the eggshells are more like little rocks. Like sitting on the moon, I bet. But there ain’t no moon tonight and ain’t no way I’m climbing down, so I’ll just sit here on this tree-moon-planet until some spaceship takes me away or until Mom can pick me and Erin up tomorrow morning.

The yard at Dad’s house is cluttered with car parts, so it’s kind of like I’m stuck on a prop in a sci-fi junk yard. The wind is sharp and eerie, so it’s the perfect set for my movie. Dad is the villain on his imperial base and I’m here on my own base hiding from his screaming and bad breath. My character’s name is Princess John because this is my movie and I can be whatever I want to be.

The dress I have with me is a uniform, a cape, a banner of rebellion. I think of climbing higher and letting it flutter like a victory flag. A flag that says, You won’t climb up here, you fat baboon. But instead, I use it as a makeshift blanket when the sun fully vanishes from the sky and the air gets deep-space cold. It’s not a great blanket, but it’s something. More like one of those cloth napkins you put on your lap at fancy restaurants, only bigger and pinker. A pretty astronaut-suit that fans out like an umbrella and carries me to different space-age places, yet can easily transform into a leg warmer.

Before it was a leg warmer, it was the cosmic pageant gown I borrowed from Erin. But then big bad wolf saw me fluttering away in the dress, in the room Erin and I sleep in when we have to visit him. I thought the wolf was going to laugh like Erin was, but instead, he picked me up like he does when he’s going to throw me in the air like a rocket ship, and instead of tossing me upward, he dropped me on the floor and ripped the mystic garment over my head.

My character’s name is Princess John because this is my movie and I can be whatever I want to be.

“Get dressed,” he said with his breath, throwing at my chest the shorts and shirt that were in a ball on the floor. Then he stormed out of the room with thumps and bumps and hammer sounds. The magic was gone.

“You better put your boy clothes back on before he comes back,” Erin said.

I gave her a look.

“I told you not to wear my dress,” she sighed.

“You did so tell me to put it on,” I said.

“Well, I was just joking,” she said, now flicking at the screen of her iPad.

When I put on my clothes and the baboon-wolf came back, I grabbed the dress from the floor and teleported to the back yard where I climbed the tree and became Princess John the Magnificent Space Detective.

I guess I am lucky stink-mouth made me change into my Earth-boy clothes. They are warmer than the dress alone. But the dress is more a type of armor than another layer of clothing anyway. More like a shield of honor in this wasteland of car parts and Miller High Life. Of bad breath and divorce.

If I lean a certain way, I can see the TV in the bad man’s dungeon. I know it’s late from the show that’s on and I wish I was back in bed even if I have to share it with Erin. There’s not much else I can do, so I curl into the moon-rock bark and drape the dress over my head like a veil. Princess John on his wedding day.

I sit there leaning and wiggling and trying to get comfortable. After a bit, I start to drift off to sleep. In and out like it is sometimes.

And then I’m startled awake by someone lifting the veil over my head. Like it’s time for the prince to kiss Princess John. Only it’s not a prince and I nearly shake myself off the branch when I see the alien space-baboon of fatherhood. He’s standing on the little ladder he used to use at Mom’s house to hang Christmas lights, only there’s no glow on his face and December is still three years away.

“Let’s go, kid. You made your point,” the alien says, removing the dress from my head and wrapping it around his neck like a scarf.

Wolf-creature-space-breath picks me up with his large alien paws. Easy, like gravity is practically zero. I want to fight as he drags me to his lair, but I know there’s not much I can do. It’s late and I’m tired and so is he. The moon is somewhere in the sky but I can’t see it. All I see is ground as Dad steps over space junk and walks inside the house.

While I’m in the bathroom letting go of everything I had to hold in out there, I can hear Erin throwing a fit when the monster with shoulder hair tells her to put the iPad away. She’s whining like only a sister can whine, but quickly calms down after she sees me back inside and back on planet Earth. She scooches over to make room in the bed.

Wolf-creature-space-breath picks me up with his large alien paws. Easy, like gravity is practically zero.

After we’re settled, Dad stands in the doorway like the baboon he is with his hairy finger perched on the light switch. He gives us a little smile with his dragon teeth.

“Night, Dad,” Erin says all cutesy, as if there wasn’t a yeti standing in the doorway.

“Good night, princess,” Dad says all dad-like.

And then he looks at me with those baboon eyes and I look back at him with mine.

“You too, princess,” he says to me, and Erin starts cracking up. And that makes Dad crack up, which makes me laugh a laugh so deep in my body it might as well be from outer space.

“All right,” he says. “That’s enough.”

When he closes the door, Erin and I are trapped in darkness, but the darkness doesn’t seem as heavy as darkness can sometimes get.

Erin wiggles herself into the mattress, her face toward the wall. I pivot myself the other way and stare at the light leaking in from under the door. It reminds me of a UFO. A UFO waiting to take us away once the wildebeest falls asleep.

When I close my eyes, I can still see the strip of light behind my eyelids. I stare at it and watch it grow brighter each time I squint. After some time, the light dims and I’m lifted high above the trees. The light intensifies again and I am weightless.

 

Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection, Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out (Aldrich Press, 2013), and the children’s picture book, Uma the Umbrella. His work can be found in Maudlin House, The Los Angeles Review, Poet Lore, Sundog Lit, and others.

The Scent of Laila Thorinson

[fiction]

“Who did you pick?” my mom calls from the kitchen where she is chopping, knife against wood. Something sizzles and smells meaty—spam and rice. I wiggle my backpack off and it lands with a thud. I try to sneak off to my room but Mom asks, “Who did you pick for Secret Santa?” Her voice has an edge, as if she’s prying away an opening.

My bad for ever mentioning Secret Santa, a stupid tradition at my school, Longman Preparatory Academy in Los Altos. Mom keeps every one of their pamphlets with the photos of white buildings reminiscent of Southern mansions, redwoods with branches stretching towards the sky like arms in homage. She doesn’t believe me when I complain about the smell—a humid odor of life growing on top of old life, on top of dead things.

Before my time, exchanging presents was this huge ordeal. The super-rich kids swapped concert tickets and video games, while scholarship students like me spent way more than they should have. Ms. Voclain, the principal, put a stop to it. No more exchanging gifts on school grounds. Instead, everyone had to participate in a Secret Santa. A ten-dollar cap. Feel free to make something, bake cookies or wash a car. Parents ate it up.

I enter the kitchen and watch my mom dry her hands on a transparent towel, which she refuses to throw out. She is at ease when she cooks, her face soft and prettyish with a coffee-and-milk complexion. She has a squashy nose, a mat of black hair, and is a bit on the heavy side.  Everyone says I look just like her.

“Laila Thorinsen,” I say.

“Not one of your friends, huh? It will be a chance to get to know someone new. See what she’s like.”

“She’s a rich snob, Mom. Her money is what she’s like. Besides, you just hand the present over. It’s not like you talk to the person.” It’s a fact, but a part of me wishes otherwise.

Laila is legendary, and not just for her huge blue eyes, pouty mouth, and edgy clothes, but because she says cool stuff like, “Being girly isn’t a crime” and “Fashion doesn’t have rules.” And she’s known outside of Longman. She was named one of twenty-under-twenty to watch in the Bay Area, basically for being the kid of Silicon Valley gazillionaires. The California Weekender website displayed a big photo of her in a thousand-dollar blouse, her blonde hair swept back and a bored look on her face. Passing Laila in the hallway is like living next to a famous actor. You want to appear natural and cool with it, but you end up acting like a dork.

My mom eyes me. “I wonder if I should pull you out and put you back into public school.” I half-listen because she never means it. “Jacie, I did want to discuss something.” She directs me to the kitchen table and puts her hands over mine. I feel sandwiched and pull myself free.

“We’re not visiting Grandma Keahi this year,” she says.

“What?” I yell. I’m overreacting and I know it. “I thought you bought the plane tickets in August.”

“We thought the prices would drop but they never did, sweetheart.”

“Can’t Grandma help out?”

“You know she can’t. Things are getting so expensive on the Big Island. She’s barely managing.”

I fling myself out the front door and trip over the faded Aloha mat.

She yells, “Jacinta, come back here!”

I see Jacob waving at me from down the block, where he must have been at a friend’s house, but I ignore him too.

I’m bummed. It’s a social boost, bragging about Christmas in Hawaii like every other Longman kid. But it is more than that. I am sick of being embarrassed.  There is a reason why my school friends have never stepped foot in our apartment.

I get that we’re not rich; I consider us brown and we have to take favors as they come. But no one has offered my mom a job for a few years, even though she works harder than anyone I know. Then there’s my dad, who comes home worn out and smelling like the oily, black grease smeared on his crew shirt. And me. I’ve been handed a huge promise in the form of Longman Prep. All I have to do is act the part and keep my thoughts to myself. Faking it is a slow leak, though. It’s hard not to feel like I’m losing little bits of myself.

A stream of traffic whooshes by like a swift conveyor belt that would slow down only if I were to trip and fall in, messing up the forward movement. The thought of someone in a car recognizing me makes me pull down my hood. Street lamps buzz on and wet, frail leaves slime my heels. My hoodie is warm, but the cold penetrates my uniform khakis and locks around my ankles like cuffs.

I walk past the Shop & Go. Jacob and I used to hang out there on dull summer afternoons. In the toy section, we combed through the cheap plastic cars and dolls. We occasionally found a loose rubber ball or a lone die, and would pocket it.

Another trick was at the library with the old vending machine. We would spot a candy bar ever so slightly askew in the machine coil and pretend to insert change. Then we would find that kindly adult and ask politely for help, saying that the bar didn’t come out. Most times we received coins and candy. We said thank you, tiptoed out until we were a block away and ran, hooting.

I head into Dollar Mart with its rows of canned vegetables, Christmas wrapping, and bottles of bleach. I bet Laila has never stepped into a store like this. I choose the spice aisle and examine a vial of vanilla extract, remembering we ran out about a year ago. I clench the bottle in my hand and saunter away. As I pore over toothbrushes, I slip the bottle into my hoodie pocket and then leisurely walk toward the exit. I feel a tight nervousness in my middle and my right knee buckles a little when I pass through the sliding doors. I make it to the parking lot and clutch my loot in my left fist. When I’m a block away, a surge of relief spreads over me. It’s like a liftoff from everything heavy, everything that weighs me down. I inhale the cold night air until my lungs feel like they could burst.

I head into Dollar Mart with its rows of canned vegetables, Christmas wrapping, and bottles of bleach. I bet Laila has never stepped into a store like this.

I don’t want to go home, and so I watch bus 22 rumble toward me—destination: Palo Alto Paradise Mall. It rattles to a stop and swings open its door. The driver seems annoyed when I pause so I jump aboard. I’m not surprised to find a half-empty bus with drooping passengers. People who ride buses don’t shop at Paradise. They work there.

I’ve never been to Saks Fifth Avenue, but Longman girls talk about the prom dresses, little backless outfits, exposing blocks of perfect skin. The department store smells bright and teasing from the perfume and new clothes. A Laila Thorinson kind of smell. I finger a cashmere turtleneck that seems to melt at my touch. The clerk with sleek hair glances at me for a millisecond and returns to her folding. She makes me want to buy something, just to show her.

Suddenly, I think I hear Laila and my stomach drops. She has a low voice and pauses on I as if she expects everyone to give her a moment to unwrap her thoughts. I follow the voice and it turns out to be a plain college student with her Stanford friends.

Back on the bus. It is 7:39 p.m., no gift, a voicemail rant from my mom, and a text from Jacob saying Mom is taking it out on him and would I just come home. I’m in for it, grounded, no doubt. Two lost hours meant for homework. I want a break from caring. I’m supposed to have a bigger life than this. If only I had been born beautiful, or with an exceptional talent, or the adopted daughter of a US president, I would have fresh dewy skin, cashmere sweaters, and bras that fit. I close my eyes and dream of a thinner version of me in a snappy Longman jacket and people calling my name, Jacie! The automated announcer enunciates my street and I wrench myself awake.

*     *     *

Laila! Greg Myers calls out and sidles up to her in the hallway. He has a hawk-like nose, slightly off-kilter eyes, and stiff, brown, gelled hair. He smells peppery like pot, which could either be neutral or gross. With Greg, it’s gross.

Laila leans into her locker right next to mine. With an aggressive jerk on the handle, she pulls open the door and a pink giftbag spills out. Earrings, bottles of lotion, and lip gloss scatter, and people stop to help her. I grab a package of foil-wrapped bonbons and a pink watch still in its box.

“What is all this crap, Laila?” someone asks.

“Teen Choice Awards sent it. You want that stuff? Keep it. Except for that.” She plucks the watch from my hand and I clutch the chocolate to my chest.

“Thanks,” I say.

“No prob,” she answers. She glances at me and her expression isn’t condescending. It’s like she’s seeing me, not in a good light, necessarily, but not in a dim one either.

“How generous of you, Mrs. Claus,” Greg says and scans me quickly. You’re not one of us, his face seems to say.

He reaches for Laila, but she dodges him and says, “Bite me.” She locks her teeth on a sleek pen, one of those calligraphy ones from Japan. Even with all the high-tech gadgets designed right down the road, Los Altos girls still love pretty pens. I watch Laila and Greg walk away.

*     *     *

I’m not the only person fascinated by her. On the library computer, I find she has a huge Twitter audience and her blog is full of comments. Who are all these people? Probably other high school girls, pimpled and quiet, who study her string of selfies taken in San Francisco, Maui, Los Angeles. I decide to follow her.

“Hey,” says a voice behind me, which makes me jump.

I swivel and find Greg standing there. I edge over in my chair and try to block his view of my computer monitor, but he catches sight of it and exhales a small snort.

“So, I heard you’re Laila’s Secret Santa. Would you be willing to trade?” he asks.

“Who did you get?” I ask.

“Roger.”

“I don’t want Roger, I’m friends with him.” I surprise myself by saying, “Besides I got Laila a gift already. It’s kinda hard for me to return it.”

“Like what, a kit for her period?”

“Um, no,” I say carefully.

“C’mon, I don’t know what to buy another guy.”

“Laila will have great ideas. Ask her.”

“She’s not exactly talking to me. Will you just let me have her?”

“No.” My answer suspends in the air.

“You stalking her or something? Are you obsessed?” he asks.

I scowl my best East San Jose don’t-mess-with-me glare.

“Jesus,” he says and steps back.

I wonder who will leave first; he finally does.

When I push through the heavy library doors and head to Biology, I think I see Principal Voclain watching me from down the hall.

*     *     *

My foot keeps jiggling the next day as I eye the clock. By lunch, I’m in no mood to respond to Roger and Anahita’s chitchat. I tell them I’m kind of out of it and will be skipping Newspaper Club. In my head, I calculate if I have enough bus change to get to Artastic in Palo Alto.

Artastic is a shop that has been around for as long as I can remember. When I arrive, I find it exactly the same—racks of paint tubes, brushes, charcoals, mat boards against the walls. It’s dusty and I sneeze. I wander through the aisles until I reach the specialty pens. The ones I want sit elegantly with the Japanese stroke-lettering on their silver tubes. No sensor tags.

I backtrack, walk from aisle to aisle, and probe for hidden cameras. Nothing. The collar of my old wool coat feels unbearably itchy around my neck. My palms sweat. I’m in a state of alertness, and I can see and hear everything around me. I return to the pens and touch the silkiness of the polished aluminum. I want them and there is no turning back. I won’t leave without them.

I make sure no one is around before selecting the red one. I ease my hand into my pocket and finger the pen until it drops through a hole that feeds into the lining of my coat. Green, blue, gold, and purple follow. I consider taking the orange but I can’t decide. I stop. I walk calmly to the sketchbook section and pretend to browse.

I return to the pens and touch the silkiness of the polished aluminum. I want them and there is no turning back. I won’t leave without them.

“Can I help you?” A clerk startles me. My face is hot and I turn casually. The pens feel bulky as they hang against my thigh. I wonder if they make noise. Is he trying to catch me? I whirl up explanations—a friend gave the pens to me. I bought them in LA. I borrowed this coat.

The clerk’s large brown eyes are friendly and his dreads poke up like fingers. He wears a slim black T-shirt and a badge that says, Hi I’m MITCHELL. His eyes and brows have the same happy arch.

“I was just looking for a sketchbook,” I say, and hold up a small spiral-bound one. My hand trembles. I stammer an explanation about Secret Santa and the ten dollars.

“Secret Santa—nice. You came to the right place. We have a lot of things for under ten bucks.” He shows me the glitter pens, the cute wooden stamp-blocks, the paintbrushes.

“Wow,” I coo, and pick up one item after another. He makes little jokes and when he smiles, his dimples look like quotes. My stomach, which felt like a rock, starts to soften. How can I possibly be admiring him at a time like this? And yet I can’t help it. I know I’ve got to get out of here so I say, “I think just the sketchbook.”

“Cool,” he says, as if not minding the time he spent with me. “You go to Longman, don’t you?” My coat is half-zipped and he must see my vest with the Longman crest over my heart. “I used to know some kids who went there. Sure you’re ready? Need anything else?”

“Um, I’m okay,” I mumble.

At the counter, he scans the notebook. The register bleeps at him. He scans it again and it does the same thing. “Hmm,” he says and frowns. “I think I have to get my manager. Hold on.”

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m kinda in a rush. I can come back.”

“It’ll take a sec.”

He steps through an Employees Only door and I take a deep breath. My head is fuzzy. Why did I throw out that other half of my sandwich at lunch? I rub my forehead. I imagine Mitchell’s shock after he discovers what I did. I should dump the pens in one of the aisles. Hide them in an endcap. Throw them in the bathroom trash.

A balding older man and Mitchell emerge from the office. The man chews on his pen and taps a few keys, before swiping the notebook again. It rings up and I give him cash. The man hands me change and the receipt. Is he studying my face? Will he report me to the police?

I thank them and Mitchell says, “Happy Holidays!”

I wave goodbye and walk toward the exit. I imagine him calling out, “Wait!” It is too late. I can’t turn around.

I’m almost at the security pillars. I can’t see outside; the shop interior is reflected in the dark windows. My heart whomps faster. Another step. A car alarm peals behind the glass. Two more steps. One. And I’m through. The chill air hits my heated face. I stride rapidly for a couple of blocks, and then I jog to the bus stop but the bus rolling by isn’t mine. I turn to see if anyone is following me. The sidewalks are empty. Through my coat, I grasp my prize.

*     *     *

A week later, Voclain announces an all-school assembly. “It’s got to be about Secret Santa,” Roger says. “People are ignoring the ten-dollar limit again.”

Anahita is sure it’s about guidelines, because people are swapping whom they picked. “Kids barter to get the person they want.” She rolls her eyes. The piece of paper with Laila’s name is taped on the inside cover of my English journal. No one has bought me out yet.

Voclain steps onto the stage and begins. “Our administration has recently been informed by Palo Alto Police that one of our students might be involved in a shoplifting incident. The security camera at the store caught a student in a Longman uniform. As we hope you know, we take pride in the ethics of our students and were shocked by this allegation. Rather than keeping this a secret from you all, we thought it would be best to have it out in the open. We are hoping that the student will either come forward or someone will supply us with information. There will be consequences but far lighter if we figure this out among ourselves.”

This cannot be happening. My body grows cold and I shrink in my seat. People gape, open-mouthed, and turn to each other in shock. I can’t absorb what Voclain has to say about honesty and conscience. Afterwards, speculation echoes throughout the auditorium. I head straight for the restroom. Whatever is in my stomach inches its way up and out.

*     *     *

It’s 1:45 p.m., two days later. Voclain’s office smells like leftover lunch and dry-eraser pens. I see the shadow of Voclain’s grey head through the frosted glass of the door. I’m cold and dampness settles under my arms. I think of my mom, her cheek against the phone as she starts to cry. And Jacob’s silent look waiting for me at home. My face lands in my hands and it is hard to breathe.

“Are you friends with Greg Ahern or Laila Thorinson?” Voclain solemnly asks. “Have you ever seen them do anything that doesn’t seem right?”

I’m so taken aback I can’t think of what to say. “No, never,” I stammer.

Voclain puts her hand on my arm and says, “Have you ever seen any expensive items in Laila’s locker? Any drugs?” Voclain shakes her head. “Of course not, dear.”

I’m ushered out and I slowly walk to class. My disappointment surprises me. The drama isn’t even about me, but about Greg, Laila, and whatever it is they do that draws them more attention. I’m a bystander again. A bystander who doesn’t need counselors or anyone asking me if everything is all right.

*     *     *

I wait for her. Laila’s note, wrinkled in my hand, reads: Meet me on the soccer field by the bleachers—12:15. It’s sprinkling, which makes the ground smell earthy, heavy. She is small in her glossy down-coat and black boots that pad on the grass like the feet of a lost animal. Her makeup can’t cover her bewilderment.

“Greg told me it was you. These are… nice,” she says, gingerly pulling the pens from her purse. They line up like five missiles in the palm of her hand. “Where did you get them?” I shrug and say nothing. “Did you order them online?”

“No, I… I got them from this store,” I say.

“Where?” she asks.

“I can’t remember. It’s been a while. I never used them.”

“You didn’t steal them, did you?”

Shock runs through me and I blink. “What makes you think that?” I watch her carefully. She tries to read my face, which I don’t expect.

“Why are you giving these to me?” she presses.

“I thought you’d like them.”

“So, you can’t return them?”

“No.”

“I can’t take these.”

“Why?” My face is flushed.

“I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s not what people are supposed to give each other for Secret Santa. These are too expensive.”

“It’s what I’m giving you.” I can’t meet her eyes. Why was this blowing up in my face?  First Voclain follows me around like the manager at Shop & Go, and now Laila refuses my present.

She takes a breath and says, “I’ll get in trouble. Voclain is monitoring my every move. She asked me to show her exactly what I give and get for Secret Santa. I can’t plop down two hundred dollars’ worth of pens. It’s just another reason for her to try and kick me out.”

“You’re right.” I glance around the field, grab the pens, and shove them deep inside my backpack. “I’ll bring something else tomorrow.”

“Jesus, just forget it. It’ll be too late. I’ll tell her you’re washing my car.”

I feel a small shape in my hoodie pocket. “Here, take this.”

She studies the label. “Vanilla extract?”

“Yeah, it’s less than ten dollars,” I try to joke. She cocks her head. “That and cleaning out your locker at the end of the year. I’ll make a gift certificate.”

“Okay, that’ll work,” she nods. “Can you slip it into my locker by three o’clock?”

I promise I will.

“Did they ever find the shoplifters?” I hear myself ask.

Laila is quiet and I’m sure I’ve given myself away. She says, “They are questioning a couple of freshman guys who were at Saks Fifth that night. Why do you ask?” Her eyes look guarded.

My head bursts with confusion then clarity. Saks Fifth? Not Artastic? “Which guys?” I wonder out loud.

“Look, I don’t know,” she says flatly. She stares at me, probing, waiting. It’s like we both hold a question that can’t be asked. What’s weird, too: close up, Laila smells like anyone else.

“Good luck,” I manage to say.

“Thanks,” she whispers.

*     *     *

That night Jacob walks into my room and holds up the pens. “What are these?”

What’s weird, too: close up, Laila smells like anyone else.

“Why the hell are you digging through my backpack?” I whisper harshly, and he’s taken aback. I never swear at him.

“Mom said to check it for any leftover lunch. You’re lucky it was me and not her.”  He knows how to make me feel guilty. “Are these expensive? Are they from China?”

“Japan.” I handle them like they are breakable. I stare at Jacob’s face. It is losing its babyish roundness and he is starting to smell musty, mushroomy. His solid jaw and intense eyes resemble my dad more every day. My parents have been scheming for Jacob to attend Longman in a few years.

“We’re going to Palo Alto tomorrow,” I announce. “I’ll tell Mom we’re Christmas shopping.”

*     *     *

The next day we take the bus north and Jacob keeps asking, Where are you taking me?  When we walk into Artastic, the balding owner is alone behind the register. He nods and chews his pen.

“I was here a few weeks ago,” I say.

He removes the Bic from his mouth. “Glad to have you back.”

I take a deep breath and pull out the pens. “I stole these. I’m returning them.”

He freezes in shock. He blinks and glances at Jacob, whose eyes are popping out of his head.

“How old are you?” he asks.

“Fourteen,” I say and my voice cracks.

The man examines Jacob again. “This your little brother?”

I nod. “Yes, but he wasn’t with me. He has nothing to do with this.”

Jacob’s mouth hangs open and he stares at me.

“You’ve committed a felony, you know that, don’t you?” the man says. “I could call the police right now and you could have a record.” There is no humor in the set of his mouth, but the corner of his eyes dance. “What the hell am I going to do with you kids? You don’t get it, do you? You just waltz in here and think if you take something, it’s all a game, a bunch of free stuff.” He glares at Jacob. “I have rent and overhead and decent employees to pay. I’m just trying to make a living here. It is people like you who steal that’ll put me out of business.”

He pauses and I look down at the counter; my face burns. He isn’t done. “What’s your home number? Where I can reach your parents? And I want your name and your school.”

My stomach plunges. I had hoped he would stop at a lecture. I slowly take his gnawed Bic and write down my name.

We exit the store and Jacob does something he hasn’t done for a long time—he holds my hand. His hand is slimmer than mine and the warm curl of his fingers makes me want to cry.

He takes a deep breath. “God, that was dumb, Jacie. You better never ever steal again.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I tell him and sniff.

At home, we are quiet and wait for the phone call from the owner. We both pick at our dinners. “What’s the matter with you two?” my mom asks while scraping our plates over the trash. “You getting sick?”

Jacob and I hang out in my room until my dad yells at us to go to bed. Before he leaves, Jacob asks softly, “So why’d you do it?”

“I guess I was trying to impress someone.”

“Was it a guy? Was he worth it?”

“It wasn’t for a guy,” I say. “And she didn’t think she was worth it.”

The phone call never comes.

*     *     *

The New Year arrives and the old year is dismissed, as is Laila. Whispers about the Saks Fifth incident swirl in the hallways. Honesty and conscience, Voclain reminds us.

No one witnesses it, but Laila’s locker is searched, and my present splatters and drips on the tile floor. The first day back, I notice the brown sticky stain. For a while, it smells like a bakery but that gives way to the odor of Pine-Sol and sour sneakers. As I spin my combination, I still tuck in my elbows to make room. And for a long time after, the scent of vanilla, its syrupy sweetness no longer homey but strong and sharp, reminds me of her.

 

Jeune Ji has been a modern dancer, arts administrator, and product marketer in high-tech. She grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, and has lived on both coasts. She writes about life in Silicon Valley, where she resides with her husband and son. Her favorite place has always been the public library.

Photo by Deepa Mallik

Birthday Party

[fiction]

The gravel churns under the wheels of the boxed-up Peugeot, the sound falling behind them into a quiet that exists where cities do not. Abbey checks her hair with her fingers. She’s learned how to turn it in a twist and secure it behind her head, letting chunks fall from the barrette and tickle her neckline. Céleste’s pale face pushes forward over the steering wheel, her bare arms painted with freckles and her invisible lashes blackened with thick layers of mascara.

“Shit,” Céleste says, turning quickly to check between the seats behind her. “I forgot my crown.”

The back seat is piled high with trays of food, tablecloths, blankets, and bundles of candlesticks. The lacey chocolate chip cookies Abbey baked that morning are wrapped in a plate and wedged at a slant in between champagne bottles stacked from the car floor. Céleste’s parents provided the champagne for the party.

“How sad. The birthday girl has no crown,” Céleste says. She is turning twenty-two.

Céleste’s friend from law school, Sébastien, has arranged for her to borrow his parents’ country house for the weekend. The parents, Céleste explains to Abbey, spend every summer weekend and all of August out there.

“His papa is working on an historical novel set in Brittany’s salty meadows, but in November and throughout the winter the house is empty.”

It’s raining when they arrive. The precipitation falls from a sky the color of paper bags, and as they pull up to the house, gray birds shoot from the slick slate roof as if the slate itself takes off in flight.

“We have two hours to get everything set up before the guests arrive,” Céleste says as she backs the car up to the side door.

*     *     *

Last August, Abbey left her suburban New Hampshire town to attend an American high school in France. She would spend nine months living with Céleste’s family—strangers to her, assigned by her study-abroad program—in Rennes, a small city several hours west of Paris.

All fall, she rode the subway to school, first walking past the low-rise apartment buildings where Muslim women pinned wet laundry over their cement balconies, their muted scarves flapping in the fickle breezes. She exited the subway at the botanical gardens and passed by the hundreds of varieties of roses, their dark green petals trembling under the weight of daily falling raindrops, but it was the dirty, perspiring windows of the city greenhouse—the layers and layers of neglected grime—that made Abbey want to run home just before arriving at her school building and rub off the suffocating city filth from her skin.

The high school was housed in an elegant brick building that smelled of mildew and adolescent sweat. Students laughed their way up creaky stairs to alcoved classrooms where they studied Existentialism and Dadaism and pined away for the familiarity of America, waiting for the mail to be delivered and distributed each day by the program secretary, Madame Dalfine. From what Abbey could tell, however, most of the Americans at her new school transitioned easily to the sophistication of French life; and besides, in the US they attended fancy boarding schools and did drugs and had boyfriends and girlfriends. In New Hampshire, Abbey had worked at a small farm stand, had never held a boy’s hand.

At night, Abbey helped her host mother make mayonnaise or salad dressing, or she sliced pieces of baguette over a plastic tablecloth for dinner while, for hours, her host brother chased the chocolate puppy up and down a narrow hallway running from the front door to the small bathroom at the back of the house, saliva flinging sideways from the dog’s droopy lips and splattering on the walls. Abbey’s host father, Roland, spent an hour with her each night looking down past his swollen, pockmarked nose across the pages of her school notebooks, correcting her French spelling with a blueberry-ink plastic fountain pen and taking personal offense over her illegible American handwriting.

Céleste usually came home late from her law school, sharing news with her mother before folding herself deep into the couch cushions in front of the television set to watch classic black-and-white Hollywood movies, from time to time declaring certain actors and actresses “Genius.” Sometimes Abbey would stand under the doorframe in the living room, listening to the dubbed French jumping over the American actors’ lips on the small television, wishing Céleste would talk to her, acknowledge her in some meaningful way.

*     *     *

The main room of the country house is a cave-like space under high ceilings, built with cool, round stones. Abbey and Céleste move a long, thick-legged table—squat and sturdy like a country workhorse, and prairie-bleached—to the side of the room where dinner will be served; twenty guests will fit there, easily. They move the chairs to clear the middle of the room for dancing.

“I’ll set the table,” Abbey says. She unfolds the tablecloths and lays out the mismatched china Céleste has borrowed from multiple friends. The wine glasses ring hollow and squeak between her fingers when she unwraps them from the crate. Céleste sets up the blankets in the bedrooms, and the smell of a moist, impending winter cold creeps up Abbey’s bare legs and under her nose. They are saving the lighting of the fire for when Sébastien gets there; the large stone fireplace stands taller than either of them.

*     *     *

While Abbey’s friends back home rode shotgun in boys’ cars to keg parties after Friday night football games, Abbey hid under the low-hanging eaves of a makeshift guest room listening to the water heater behind the bedroom wall and imagining a world of experiences just beyond her reach…

Abbey’s high school friends were almost hostile toward her decision to spend their junior year abroad. “You’ll miss everything,” they said at the end of the summer. One of her friends had recently started fooling around with a senior soccer player, meeting up with him after summer preseason practices and laying her body across the damp pine needles that carpeted the woods behind the school.

“I lost my underpants out by Edson’s Pond,” the friend confided, and the rest of the girls pulled her into the Friendly’s bathroom, demanding details. “Well,” the friend said, suddenly shy, maybe coy, “I can’t really say more. Not yet.” But Abbey saw the girl’s smile freeze for a second and her eyes darken before her confidence returned. “I’ll tell you soon! I promise! Let me get used to it first.”

This new development seemed to open up an entirely new social landscape for them for the upcoming school year.

“Abbey, you can’t leave us now,” they said. “Ricky Babson’s parents are headed out of town for Labor Day weekend, and Mike Joncey said we were invited over. Ricky’s older brother is setting him up with beer and everything.”

“I can’t believe you’ll be on a plane. To France! You’ll miss the party.”

“And football season.”

“And the Casino Night fundraiser. My mom promised she wouldn’t volunteer this year.”

“And getting your license! When you get back, we’ll have been driving around by ourselves for a year, and you’ll still need to apply for your learner’s permit.”

*     *     *

“Abbey, coucou, you need lipstick. Let me do it.” Céleste has brought her bag to the dining table, and takes out a gold case. She slips the lid off, metallic plastic popping open a faint suction, and she touches Abbey’s bottom lip with a cherry stick smelling of petroleum and elderflowers. Abbey’s chest rises and falls with a shallow breath, the nerves from her lips radiating warmth below her jawline and out to her ears.

She wears a stretchy green top and a pleated wool skirt, no stockings. In the U.S., her friends always said she had the sexiest legs. Her feet slip forward in heels she borrowed from her host mother. The week before, she bought a glass ring from a Tunisian street vendor in the center of town. It is translucent with cuts of red and blue swirling around the interior. At the time, Abbey had felt very French purchasing that ring, but Céleste’s fingers are bare and adorned only with chipping nail polish, and the weight of the glass bauble is distracting.

*     *     *

Céleste ignored Abbey for three months. While Abbey made mayonnaise by beating egg yolks with a fork until they emulsified, Céleste was at the bars with friends. While Abbey swallowed her gag reflex as her host father’s mossy breath spread around her school papers, Céleste watched her favorite movies and then let the front door snap behind her when she headed back out into the late night. While Abbey’s friends back home rode shotgun in boys’ cars to keg parties after Friday night football games, Abbey hid under the low-hanging eaves of a makeshift guest room listening to the water heater behind the bedroom wall and imagining a world of experiences just beyond her reach, in a language she barely spoke.

And then, in November and without warning, Céleste announced to the family her plans for a birthday party in the country. She would invite her friends from law school; Sébastien had just the house for such a celebration. She would cook the food ahead of time and borrow what she needed from friends.

“Abbey, you will need a pair of heels for the party,” she said. And just like that, Abbey saw the door swing open, her life about to start. “Do you know how to make chocolate chip cookies?”

The morning of the party, Abbey baked the cookies without baking soda on papery tinfoil and watched through the oven window as they spread paper-thin to the on-off ticking sound of the gas line. Abbey peeled strips of foil from the backs of molten sugar and chocolate and wondered if Céleste would tell her not to come. But the birthday girl didn’t even look at the cookies when it was time to pack up the car to go.

*     *     *

The party guests arrive all at once: women in short black dresses brimming with silk scarves, men in blue jeans and starched white shirts. They bring into the stone house bottles of wine, chirpy greetings, and a shared sexual bravado. The Christmas lights Céleste and Abbey strung around the room blur under a tobacco haze to dot the air with a magical forest glow. Abbey stands mute amidst the noise, her nose running slightly from the rising body heat filling the room.

A man with deep russet cheekbones and chestnut hair talks with Sébastien by the roaring fire. Sébastien is taller, but the other man swings his hips while he gestures with his cigarette and commands more of the space. Céleste kisses them both on the cheeks and then kisses the man once more on the lips. She takes her time rubbing her lipstick off him. He leans over her, whispering, and Céleste threads her arm through his and leads him to where Abbey is standing alone.

“Abbey, chérie, I would like to introduce you to Paul.” Céleste brushes him gently on the chest. “He would like to try some of your flat cookies.”

Paul takes a long drag from his cigarette and cracks open the corner of his mouth while he looks intently into Abbey’s face. Smoke escapes from his lips in a narrow sheet of white. He is one of those people who make fun through their eyes.

Enchanté, Abbey.”

“When Abbey first moved in with my family, I told her that she looks like the film actress, Deanna Durbin, but she had no idea who I was talking about.” Céleste taps the tip of her own nose. “Deanna Durbin: the American beauty. My God!”

Paul continues to look at Abbey, and Abbey runs a hangnail across the wool pleats in her skirt.

“But Deanna Durbin moved to Paris when her career was over. So perhaps we should consider her French,” Paul says.

Céleste laughs. “Imbécil.”

*     *     *

Paul sits next to Abbey at the long table for dinner.

When Céleste brings out the food, the guests whoop and holler, and the men bang on the uneven wood with their hands. Céleste pats above her flaming Titian hair, as if to adjust the crown she forgets is not there.

Paul and Abbey find a tiny library at the far end of the house, and in it, an entire shelf of erotica.

They pass around shells filled with Coquilles St. Jacques, the buttery breadcrumbs browned over lumps of sweet scallops. People use slices of baguette to wipe their shells clean, and then clink their forks and knives against plates piled high with bright green lettuce glistening in a mustard vinaigrette. The candlelight reflects on the surface of wine in glasses, tiny tilting windows of moonlight at the table in the country house at night.

Abbey tries hard to understand the rapid back-and-forth exchanges over politics and history. A piece of lettuce falls from her fork just as she opens her mouth, and she snatches it from the tablecloth and eats it quickly with her fingers, glancing at Céleste at the head of the table. A woman is swinging her arms over her head, and Céleste claps slowly, her bright red lips parted against pale skin that glows luminescent like the powdery wings of an evening moth. She doesn’t seem to notice Abbey.

Paul snaps across the table at a laughing friend. “Ai, oh! More wine for the American.” He winks at Abbey. “In France, even the children drink wine with dinner.”

Céleste leaves the table and returns with a tray of cheeses.

“To the birthday girl!” someone shouts, and Céleste addresses the guests, “Dis donc. Ce soir, vous m’appelez la Reine.”

There is dancing after dinner. Paul keeps his hand on the small of Abbey’s back and his nose nuzzled in her hair. When he breathes out, dime-sized circles of moist heat disappear into her scalp. The room pulses with techno music and smells like the subway at the end of the day: a bitter body odor that lingers in Abbey’s throat. Empty champagne bottles roll across the floor.

Paul whispers in her ear, “Let’s explore the farmhouse.”

They pass through the small kitchen where two women scrape plates into a plastic garbage can, their voices sharp with gossip. One of the women looks into a spoon and pinches her cheeks, makes an O with her mouth. Paul kisses her from behind on the back of her neck before he hops through the galley like a faun, holding Abbey’s hand. The spoon hits the linoleum.

“Paul! Shit, you made me drop a spoon.”

Paul shields his eyes and lifts Abbey under his other arm to carry her onward. She scrunches her toes to keep her heels from falling off.

“Paul, be nice to that poor girl!”

Abbey covers her mouth to hide her smile, the attention and wine brewing warmly inside her like the coffee smells that fill the kitchen.

Overnight bags have been thrown into each of the small bedrooms. Paul and Abbey find a tiny library at the far end of the house, and in it, an entire shelf of erotica. The din of the party seeps under the door like an echo while they put their heads together and laugh, Abbey’s head spinning in circles. When Paul sits down on the desk, he pulls her between his legs, his jeans heavy with detergent against her bare thighs. He holds a book of erotica to the side and directs his pointy nose into its pages like a professor.

“Oh !” he says, quickly shutting the book with a loud smack. “I don’t know if you’re old enough for this pornography.” And shaking his finger, “You Americans lead sheltered lives.”

His eyes flash amusement, and then, very slowly and holding her gaze, he draws a long line from the base of her neck down her spine to the split in her behind. Scaly goose bumps blossom in waves under her dress. She draws a quick breath.

“On second thought,” he says, smiling, “this is part of your French education, no?” Abbey raises her eyebrows and makes a face she’s never felt before. “Maybe I’d better translate it into English so you don’t miss the good bits.”

The author is Anaïs Nin, someone Abbey’s never heard of, and it is the dirtiest book she has ever read. The words slurp up from the page through his accent and cover her with slowly running liquid metal.

Pierre’s mouth gathered the fresh foam between her legs, but he would not let her reach her pleasure. He teased her.

Must from the books tickles the air. Abbey’s underpants are still twisted from when Paul carried her under his arm, and now one half bites painfully between her cheeks.

He held her legs apart. His hair fell on her belly and caressed her. His left hand reached for one of her breasts.

Paul turns the page. He fingers the edge of Abbey’s sleeve, separates her fingers with his, slides off the glass ring. The ring knocks twice against the surface of the desk where he places it.

 She was completely under the spell of Pierre’s fingers, awaiting pleasure from him. When finally his erect penis touched her soft body, it was as if he had burned her.

Building energy vibrates from down the hall, interrupting their reading, and there are cries of “Un… Deux… Trois!” and then the slow, mournful drag of Bon Anniversaire sung tuneless in the anarchy of merrymakers.

The barrette in Abbey’s hair springs open, and she grabs for the twist.

“No,” she says. She stumbles back and trips out of a heel. “No, they are singing.” She points to the door. “I have the cookies in the kitchen.” Her loose hair falls over her shoulders.

Paul clicks his tongue, shaking Anaïs Nin at her. “We are just getting to the interesting part in our book.”

Abbey stands with one bare foot on the cold floor. The room is not heated, and she starts to shiver. Her glass ring looks like a cube of ice on the desk.

“Céleste will be angry if we don’t sing to her.”

Paul watches her with his mouth open, his tongue curled behind his teeth. Abbey turns her ankle while stepping into the loose heel, takes a further step away from Paul, and her cheeks warm with embarrassment. She feels like a child in dress-up shoes, mistaking a real house for a playhouse.

Paul lets out a slow whistle, drawing circles around the deep sound with his chin. He stands up. “Come on, then. The birthday girl is waiting.”

*     *     *

After the cake and cookies, Céleste offers Abbey a cigarette and holds open the front door. They step outside, and the night breeze folds over them, soft as a blanket but cool like running water. For the moment, the rain has stopped. Music from the party flows in tinny muffles into the darkness.

Abbey has never wanted to be a girl in the pine needles behind the high school with a soccer player. She’s been getting letters from home, other friends taking off their clothes at parties, giving blowjobs in parked cars, puking their guts out on peach schnapps and orange juice, and then making the same mistakes again the next weekend when another kid’s parents go out of town. The giddiness of gratitude her friends show to do the same thing week after week after week mystifies Abbey. She sits with herself—in the US, in France—alone, lonely, restless, disgusted, bored, teased into hopefulness by the faint promise of a world that lies all around her, waiting for her to awaken into something more, someone more.

The Paul in the farmhouse library in France scares her a bit, and yet, he could be her more, he is what she is not waiting for back home. Maybe.

Abbey has never wanted to be a girl in the pine needles behind the high school with a soccer player.

Coucou.” Céleste nudges Abbey’s foot. She points the red tip of her cigarette toward the sky and looks away from Abbey over the dark fields. “You know, when you first arrived, I didn’t like you. You seemed kind of stupid. Besides, it was my parents’ idea to host an American student, not ours.” She swallows a short cough. “They bought that puppy so we wouldn’t resent your coming so much.” Céleste leans her shoulder into Abbey’s. “Now look at us. Drunk on champagne at my birthday party.”

Abbey adjusts her cigarette to hang between her two fingers just like Céleste’s does.

“I’m sorry the cookies were so ugly.”

Céleste laughs through her nose. “Did you see how people ate them? ‘Real American chocolate chip cookies,’ I told everyone.” She drags on her cigarette and exhales. “They tasted like air.” And then she says, “I see that Paul likes you.”

An owl crows like a rooster down the road they drove in on earlier that day. The air stills and the temperature seems to drop, as if, with great speed, someone has built a wall of ice around them.

Céleste grinds her cigarette butt into the gravel and dusts off her hands.

“Watch this. I learned it from a Hollywood magazine.” She leans forward and scoops her breasts out of her bra. In the light of the country house windows, in the crisp fall air, one of Céleste’s nipples flashes tight and pink from her cupped hand. She stands up and shakes back her hair, her breasts spreading at the top of her dress. “Et voilà, maximum cleavage.”

*     *     *

Back inside, Abbey looks for Paul in the party room. The round stone walls draw shadowed hollows in the dying light of used up candles. The long table is littered with dessert plates and rumpled tablecloths. Sweat and coffee and sweet marijuana smoke, and something new to Abbey—the scent of desire and coupling—thicken the air; humidity hangs over the room.

For some time she sits at the table, dizzyingly watching the darkened scenes play out around her like a movie. Two women stagger and trip, arm in arm, their scarves intertwined around their shoulders. A man follows behind them, one fist pumping the air against the techno beat, the other hitched to his belt like a cowboy. Sébastien dances in slow circles with a man in a purple hat whose hands hide in Sébastien’s back pockets.

Someone walks into Abbey’s chair. A pain knocks inside her heavy head.

“Oof!” he grunts. He peers down at Abbey and points. “Who are you? Are you lost?”

“I live with Céleste,” she says.

The man pulls on a thin goatee.

“You are mistaken. It is I who lives with Céleste,” he says. “And you talk funny.”

Abbey crosses her legs and grips the edge of the chair, trying to think of what to say. Maybe he knows where Paul is. She brings her eyes to focus against the nubby texture of her skirt. She speaks into the texture.

“I’m from the United States.”

The man looks over his shoulder, scratches his crotch.

“Where’s the rest of the champagne?”

He walks away without waiting for an answer and disappears down the hallway to the bedrooms.

Paul is not in the big stone room. Couples sit in corners, limbs knotted over limbs. The fire embers glow orange like cats’ eyes at the bottom of the fireplace. Rain begins to tap on the windows.

Abbey puts her fingertips to her throat and feels the buzz of Paul’s accent reading words like pleasure and erect and burn. The buzz moves between her legs. She stands, soberer now, thinking she will find him in the library.

She will kiss him. When the weekend is over, she imagines sitting knee to knee in a café back in the city. He will help her with her French and tell her she’s beautiful, say to everyone she’s got sexy legs. They will discuss politics while walking through the rose garden holding hands. She will write to her friends about her older French boyfriend.

One path to the library is through the kitchen. Abbey stumbles on the step up. She is caught by a sound that reaches her first as isolation, then as a question mark.

A man, his shirt hanging over his bottom, his pants pooled at his feet, stands by the sink with his back to Abbey. His pale legs are washed in the dim green light from the oven clock, legs as stiff as pencils and groomed with soft hair. His breath is barely audible, like a whispered confession that comes rapidly and is without ending. There, on his pinky, is Abbey’s glass ring.

Facing him, a woman leans against the wall. Her hair is the color of carrot juice, and she wears a makeshift crown of pinched and molded tinfoil. Between raspy moans, she laughs in quick licks of air.

Abbey digs her nails into skin just below her pleated skirt, unwilling to make a sound. There is nowhere to go but around the couple or retreat. Céleste opens her eyes. Her cherry lips part, and she winks at Abbey.

She lies down on the hard, cold floor, bunching up her skirt like a pillow, then closes her eyes. She wishes she could sleep for months.

“Paul, coucou,” Céleste whispers, watching Abbey. “You are my birthday present.” Paul moans.

Abbey trains her eyes downward, backs up shakily, returns to the party room. The techno pulses but the only guests around are passed out on the floor. She is all alone, standing in the stone room. The candles have burned out. It’s very late. Céleste’s wink is a slap.

Abbey steps out of her heels. She walks over to the fireplace. The embers still glow, and heat radiates against her bare shins. She crouches down and dangles her host-mother’s shoes over the coals. They tilt precariously on the tips of her fingers.

As she stares into the embers and feels the listing weight of the shoes, Abbey forces away the scene from the kitchen and begins composing a letter to send home to her friends. She’ll address it to all of them, a group letter. Hey guys! I met a man, she’ll write. A law student named Paul. The heat from the embers strips the inside of her nose. During the week, I meet him after school when his classes are done, and we get coffee and talk, and he helps me with my homework. He taught me to like cigarettes.

The letter bores her. She takes one shoe and pushes the toe into the embers, twisting it back and forth. Orange sparks shoot into the air and Abbey leans out of the way. Shifting her weight forward again, she uses the other shoe to scoop hot ash around the sculpted toe, burying the satin vamp. She starts again on the letter.

Guess what?! I met a man. His name is Paul. He has the cutest accent when he speaks English. He’s the best kisser, and he takes me out with his friends and holds my hand.

Abbey lets go of both shoes and twists her hair into a knot. It comes undone right away and falls into her face. The shoe that is already half-buried begins to smoke.

Dear Ladies, I’ve met a man named Paul! He’s very romantic, and things in France are so much more mature than in the U.S. He takes me out to dinner with his friends, and I spend the weekend nights at his house. He lives with his parents because that’s what people do here, even when they are in law school, like Paul. I have to lie to my host family about spending the night out, but Paul’s parents treat me like a grown-up, and it’s just like we have our own apartment when we are alone in his room.

The smoke thickens. Abbey puts a finger in the ash around the edge of the fireplace. The ash there is cool and she touches it to the tip of her tongue.

Bonjour, les amies. I met someone! My host sister, Céleste, introduced us at her really cool birthday party out in the country. He read to me from a book by the famous French author, Anaïs Nin, and he read with the sexiest English accent, and we slow-danced by ourselves while everyone else sang happy birthday and ate cake. He’s such a good kisser. It’s been a few weeks now, and we meet up every afternoon with his friends, and they are so fun, too. Last weekend, he took me away to a hotel. Sex is No Big Deal here, but he still wanted our first time to be special. Céleste helped me make up a lie to her parents about going away on a school trip so that I could be with Paul. Oh, his name is Paul.

Both shoes continue to smolder, and a few transparent flames jump from the ashes and disappear. Abbey takes off her stretchy shirt and drapes it over the shoes and embers. In just seconds, the shirt starts to wiggle and shrink, the green material blackens as it melts into the form of the underlying high heeled shoes. Green flames leap up, grab hold of the two shoes, and they begin to come apart, sending out the smell of burning hair.

Abbey turns away from the fire. She’s in her bra and skirt, which looks stupid. She takes off the skirt and leaves it in a pile on the floor. One of the tablecloths hangs over the end of the long dining table, and Abbey shakes it off—knocking around empty glasses and dirty plates—and wraps it around her body. She lies down on the hard, cold floor, bunching up her skirt like a pillow, then closes her eyes. She wishes she could sleep for months.

Two people walk past her, their sharp heels clicking on the old stones.

“Is that the American?” one asks.

“She’s lost her clothes, poor puppy,” says the other. “Perhaps Céleste should have brought a babysitter.”

Abbey won’t send any letter to her friends. There is nothing to tell them. She wonders why she can’t just start with a kiss. A kiss would be enough for her, she thinks.

Tomorrow, she will help Céleste clean up from the party and they will drive home. Céleste will act like nothing happened, and Abbey will apologize to her host mother for losing her shoes at the party.

 

Author’s note: The Anaïs Nin Trust has given permission to include quotes from Anaïs Nin’s short story, “Runaway.”

 

Milena Nigam is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a 2016 fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in YARNPithead ChapelSliceFull Grown PeopleThe Fourth RiverLunch TicketHippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. Milena is currently an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and is working on a novel set in northwestern France.

Creeping Jenny

[fiction]

To the person who took my GOLDEN CREEPING JENNY PLANT
at 2:13 a.m., I saw you on our lawn! That plant was a memory of
my mother. I can’t bring her back but you can bring back my plant.
We’ll leave the windows unwatched tonight so you can return it
without shame. DO THE RIGHT THING!

That was the sign Mom stuck in the lawn that Sunday morning. I thought she was insane, and told her so. First, there was no way the thief would see that sign. You’d have to be an incredibly incompetent thief to go back to the scene of the crime the next day, after you’ve gotten away with it. Then, of course, even if the thief was stupid enough to do it, that did not mean they would also get uncontrollable pangs of guilt over the death of a total stranger. And on top of all that? “We’ll leave the windows unwatched tonight.” Really? The thief would probably just say thanks for the favor and steal our potted yucca as well.

“Your cynicism chills my heart,” said Mom, straightening up and brushing a few fallen oak leaves from her shoulders.

“Just because you’re an incurable idealist doesn’t mean everyone else is a cynic,” I said. “I’m just being logical.”

We walked up the path to the front door, crunching leaves, weaving our way between ornamental frogs and huge clay flowerpots. The windchimes clinked in a sudden gust.

“Well, Erica, you wait and see,” Mom said, pushing the door open and smiling that maddeningly optimistic smile at me. “You just wait and see.”

*     *     *

What Mom didn’t know was, lately I hadn’t been acting very logical at all. There was this new guy at school, Trevor Wolcott. Most pretentious name imaginable. But he had these bright green eyes that gave me the shivers. And he went by Trev.

“Backwards, it spells vert,” he told me, the first time we spoke. “Green, in French.” We were in lunch detention, just the two of us, it wasn’t a big deal. I had talked back to Mr. Svensson, as usual, because he’d said something racist, this time about the Aztecs; Trev had been late to homeroom four times in a row. It was actually surprising we’d never met at lunch detention before. “Thought you as a plant person might appreciate that,” he added with a smile.

“Yeah, definitely,” I blabbered, like an idiot. I didn’t appreciate it at all. Also, I had never told him I was a plant person. I didn’t consider myself one.

Brief side-note to clarify: my mom’s a garden lunatic. It runs in the family. Let’s just say you have to duck seven hanging bromeliads on your way from the front door to the kitchen. But she’s actually a pretty mediocre gardener. She’s the first to admit it. It’s me who’s always had a way with plants. I did the propagating for her, and the difficult pruning, and got things to grow that she couldn’t. Mom said I had a gift, like her mom, and her mom’s mom, my namesake. Mom would look at our tomato beds, plump red fruit growing in almost full shade, and she’d mutter, “It’s magic. I swear.”

But I couldn’t care less about it. I did it because that way Mom didn’t make me do the dishes. I loved particle physics and playing the electric bass and I was going to be a physicist one day, with a rock band called Collider on the side. And I would live in a studio apartment with a surround-sound stereo system and if I never wanted to eat another tomato in my life then I wouldn’t.

“You have a beautiful collarbone,” said Trev.

I hated him. What gave him the right to talk like that about my collarbone? Especially now, of all times, when I was trapped in lunch detention? And what did my collarbone look like, anyway?

I cast around for some question with which to keep him talking to me. Mrs. Nguyen, our homeroom teacher and the detention supervisor du jour, would be back from her bathroom break any minute. “So why are you always late to school?”

“Homeroom is pointless.”

“Wow, what a rebel.”

“I just don’t like wasting time.”

“You must be very busy.”

“I am.”

“I’m sure.”

“I work half-time at a community garden in a subsidized housing block.”

My face heated up. “Oh.”

“See?” he said, smiling. “You are kind, I knew it.”

“What?”

“You remind me of a girl I was in love with, in a past life. Her name was Erica.”

I stared at him, sure he was making fun of me.

“She was the gentlest, sweetest girl I’ve ever met. She even had compassion for plants, because she could talk to the souls inside of them. She was an earthwitch, of course.”

“Sorry,” I said. “For a moment there I’d thought we were actually having a semi-intelligent conversation.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed you can do things normal people can’t. You’ve probably made cooked seeds grow, haven’t you?”

I pushed my chair back, my hands shaking.

“Where do you think you’re going, Erica?” said Mrs. Nguyen, sauntering back into the classroom.

“Out of here,” I managed, and out I went.

*     *     *

All through breakfast that Sunday I wondered whether Trev had stolen the creeping jenny. He seemed to have a weird thing for plants. And it was obvious he was at least a little bit crazy. I could even see it being some messed-up attempt at flirtation. The way a boy in third grade steals a bracelet or something from the girl he likes.

He seemed to have a weird thing for plants. And it was obvious he was at least a little bit crazy.

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about guys, though. I don’t have siblings. Dad left when I was seven. And I’ve never had close guy friends. All the boys in AP Physics who you might think I’d be friends with hate me because I get all the hardest test questions right. And don’t get me started on the guys who think they’re musicians.

But the fact was, Trev knew things he shouldn’t have known.

“So what do you think?” said Mom, interrupting my thoughts. “Bronze, granite, or bronze mounted on granite?”

I should have known. While I’d been wondering about Trev, Mom had been leafing yet again through the Eternal Glow catalog of gravestones and memorial plaques. The fact that such a thing even existed kind of blew my mind. Especially because I was pretty sure Eternal Glow was also a brand of organic skin products. Mom wanted one of the plaques with a built-in metal flower vase, because she thought Grandma would’ve wanted that. She was supposed to let the cemetery know the exact order by Monday, the end of the one-week “grace period” after the funeral that they were generous enough to provide us.

“Bronze mounted on granite mounted on bronze,” I said. “Just to be safe.”

She looked at me for a moment, then back down at the catalog. “You need to figure out what it means to honor those who came before you.”

Maybe I was a terrible person for it, but I couldn’t care less about Grandma’s grave marker. She was already dead. It’s not like anything we could do would help her anymore. Mostly, I just wanted to go upstairs and play my electric bass and not think about her at all.

“Mom, do you want to play a board game?” I had no idea where that had come from.

“Erica,” she said without looking up, “you can see I’m busy.”

“Yeah, I can,” I said, standing up and shoving my chair back with a clatter, leaving my dirty dishes for her to clean up.

*     *     *

I loved my grandma because she wore enormous hats decorated with flowers. I loved her because she sent me text messages when she couldn’t sleep at night that started with “Dear Precious Erica.” But most of all, I loved her because she believed in a lot of things no one believed in anymore. She believed our imperfect country was still a land of opportunity. She believed there would always be coral reefs on this planet. She believed that each of us has our own destiny and that if you never compromise on your dreams then you’ll reach them. She believed in true love. And she believed in magic. For some reason, Mom’s optimism drove me up a wall, but Grandma’s made me want to run into her arms and hug her forever and soak it all up like sunlight.

She died because she fell off her rocker one too many times—and the sad but funny thing is, I mean it both literally and figuratively. She broke her hip the last time she fell off, and by the time she was transferred from the hospital to a nursing home she was straight-up loony. She thought I was her mother, Erica, who had been dead for seventy years.

The day I met Trev, I visited Grandma in the nursing home after school. She would be dead two days later, although of course I didn’t know that at the time.

“Mother dear, water Jenny,” she told me when I sat down in the chair beside her. The golden creeping jenny on the windowsill was a feisty, fast-growing plant with small, round yellow leaves that spilled over the sides of its clay pot like hair. Grandma had had one just like it in her house as long as I could remember. “She’s been telling me she’s thirsty.”

“Grandma, I’m not your mother,” I said. “I’m your granddaughter. Erica. I’m fifteen.”

“Yes, Mother. Now listen, she needs just a sprinkle. And then open the curtains so she can feel the sun.”

“Grandma, I want to tell you something, stop talking about the creeping jenny.”

“Oh. Oh no. Am I being a nuisance?”

“No, no Grandma, I just—”

“I’m being a nuisance. I knew it.” She looked like she was about to cry.

“Oh my God, Grandma, relax. I just want to tell you about what happened today!”

“Oh yes, tell me, I’m a good listener.” And all of a sudden she was smiling. “Go ahead, Mother dear.”

I almost screamed, but took a deep breath instead. My counselor had taught me that, just take a deep breath, and it’s the biggest cliché in the world but it actually works.

“Grandma,” I said. I pulled my chair closer. “This guy named Trev. He said I reminded him of this girl he was in love with in another life. Her name was Erica.”

“Your name is Erica,” said Grandma.

“Yeah, but it was so weird, he said Erica was an earthwitch or something. Am I—is there such a thing as an earthwitch?”

For a moment, Grandma’s eyes cleared. Something bright and beautiful appeared there, the Grandma I recognized.

“Grandma,” I said suddenly, not letting her answer, “do you remember when I was nine and we were baking chocolate-chip cookies together? And you were telling me about all the guys you used to date, and I was laughing so hard that I spilled the batter into the basil planter on the counter and it got all mixed with the soil but then I tried to scoop it all back into the bowl because I just didn’t know you couldn’t do that? And Mom was telling me no no no, but you just laughed and told me that you loved me because I wasn’t like any girl you’d ever met?”

‘Am I—is there such a thing as an earthwitch?’

I’d tried to say it fast, before she was gone again.

“Yes, precious Erica,” said Grandma with a faint smile, “and the basil in that pot tasted like chocolate ever after.”

My breath caught. Then Grandma turned toward the window, frowning, and that looseness in her eyes came back and she said, “Mother dear, Jenny’s still thirsty.”

*     *     *

I didn’t care what Mom had promised on that sign. Sunday night, as soon as she went to bed, I pushed the blinds of my window open a few inches and sat there in my desk chair with a microwaved mug of coffee. This time, if Trevor Wolcott was outside my bedroom window at two a.m., I was going to know about it.

The garden looked strange at night. All those loud colors turned down to mute. Every growing thing frozen, waiting for the sun to rise again. On the street, the porch light cast hulking hydrangea shadows that shifted ever so slightly in the breeze.

2:13 came and went.

I was starting to wonder if Mom had been right. If the thief could see me through the window and didn’t dare come back. Or if I was actually just sleep-deprived and/or insane and nobody would have ever shown up on our lawn tonight. That plant was gone for good.

At 4:27, I saw movement.

I pressed my face right up against the window. A figure, half-lit by the streetlamps, was moving down the street toward our house. It didn’t look nearly as tall as Trev, but it was hard to tell because it was hunched. It had this stealthy walk, each step slow and deliberate, one arm trailing behind it at a weird angle. That other hand, though—was it clutching something?

The figure crossed the street. Turned onto our yard. And stepped right into the pool of our porch light.

It was a girl. She was probably around my age, maybe younger, with short, curly blonde hair framing a face the shape of a strawberry. A frilly, old-fashioned dark-green dress clung to her stout, almost rectangular body. And she was holding something—a big clay pot. But as far as I could tell, it was empty.

I let the blinds swing back into place and slipped out of my room. I was downstairs and out the front door before I could stop myself.

“Hey, you!” I said, when I’d shut the door behind me. The windchimes tinkled.

“Oh hello, Erica,” said the girl without looking at me. She was bent over, smelling our roses, one arm still stretched out strangely behind her.

I tried to calm my heart down, but couldn’t. All that coffee probably hadn’t helped. I walked down the porch steps.

“How do you know my name?”

She finally straightened up and smiled at me. It was a sweet smile, a child’s smile.

“Oh please. You don’t remember me?”

I was having a hard time focusing. I was fascinated by her eyebrows—yellow and bizarrely bushy.

“I’ve met you before?” I said.

“Of course, silly. I’m Jenny!”

Something started gnawing at my stomach.

“I was very close with your grandma,” said Jenny. “Of course, I sprouted in your great-grandmother’s house, but she died so young. I’ve lived with your grandma most of my life.”

“You… sprouted.”

“Don’t be dim, Erica.”

“You’re playing a joke on me,” I said. I felt nauseous. “You stole our plant and then came back here to freak me out.”

She rolled her eyes. “Come on, Erica, I know you. You aren’t dumb. You don’t really think anyone would steal a potted plant, do you? The person your mother saw in the garden last night was just me, silly, climbing out of my pot!”

My knees weren’t working right. I lowered myself onto the bottom porch step. “I need proof.”

Something softened in her expression. She walked forward and set the pot down beside me. There was no plant inside, just soil, wet and fragrant.

She climbed into the pot.

Her feet vanished into the earth, then her legs, until her waist was level with the top of the pot. She twisted and shuffled her torso downwards, jamming one arm and then the other deep into the soil, wriggling until they vanished as well. Only her neck and head were still above ground. She smiled at me. Then she squeezed her eyes tight, and ducked, and she was gone.

For three or four seconds it was still. Then the breeze came back and the windchimes whispered and I realized I was holding my breath.

The soil burst open. A green stem sprang up, spraying dirt everywhere, and erupted into a cascade of round yellow leaves. When they settled, they were hanging halfway down the sides of the pot.

I let out my breath, but I was still frozen with shock.

And then it happened in reverse.

Stem sinking into the earth, leafy branches slithering back into their point of origin and vanishing one by one—then yellow curls emerging, bushy eyebrows, squeezed-shut eyes, gritted teeth. Arms, chest, legs.

Jenny stepped out of the pot in that same green dress, shook her hair out, and smiled.

“Oh, I love that feeling,” she said, with a shiver of pleasure. “Uprooting yourself.”

“Just—tell me something,” I managed. “Can all plants do that?”

She sat down beside me on the step. “To an extent. Slower-growing plants can usually only switch once in a very long time, and most don’t ever want to. We’re different. Why do you think they call creeping jenny plants ‘aggressive’ and ‘invasive’? We have the itch. The wanderlust gene.”

“But then, why didn’t you escape years ago?”

“Oh, it’s hard, Erica. When you’ve been fed and watered by someone for so many years, it’s hard to manage on your own for very long. Now that your grandmother doesn’t own me anymore and you left me outside, I couldn’t resist trying, but…” She shrugged and looked down. “I’m sorry I scared your mother. I’m back now. It’s okay. I knew this was only a vacation.”

I glanced at her.

“Jenny. Am I an earthwitch?”

She laughed. “What do you think?”

“Like my grandma? And my great-grandma?”

“Yes. But not your mother. Sometimes it skips a generation.”

“So I own you now?”

She frowned, drawing her thick eyebrows together. “Yes, Erica.”

“Then I set you free.”

Her head snapped up. “What?”

“I set you free. You can always come back whenever you feel like it, I’ll water you or give you nutrients, but you should travel. I’ll teach you how to ride the buses and stuff. We’ll go buy you some normal clothes too. And we can go on hikes together, if you want. You’d probably like seeing all the… wild trees.”

She was staring into my eyes, trying to figure out if I was joking.

“You would do that for me?” she whispered.

I shrugged.

“Your grandma would be mad at you, you know,” she said at last. “For setting me free. I’ve been in the family for generations. She could talk to me about her mother. I was the last one alive who knew her mother well.”

“Am I like her? My great-grandma?”

I hadn’t talked to someone like this since Grandma lost her marbles.

Jenny thought again, kicking her feet against the step. “You tell me. She cared for her plants like children. She even cared for the aphids that came to destroy her plants. She couldn’t harm one if she tried. She was all softness.”

“That—doesn’t sound like a good thing,” I said, frowning. But it did match what Trev had told me. “Hey, is reincarnation real?”

“What?” Jenny said. “Not that I know of. But I’m just a plant.”

I smiled. For some reason it felt good, sitting there, me and her. I hadn’t talked to someone like this since Grandma lost her marbles. A faint grey light was peeking out above the houses and a little bit of morning mist left its droplets on my nose.

“I miss her,” I whispered.

“I know,” said Jenny. “Me too.”

*     *     *

I felt weirdly awake during homeroom that morning. Must have been the coffee. Trev sauntered in before the bell. Miracle of miracles. His brown hair was sticking up in the back and his shirt was misbuttoned. I tried not to stare.

“Hey, witch,” he said under his breath as he sat down beside me, one side of his mouth turned up.

“I need to talk to you,” I said.

He nodded.

We stood up and walked toward the door.

“Wait!” Mrs. Nguyen squawked. “Where do you think you’re—”

The door shut before she could finish.

“So,” Trev said as we headed down the hall. “You believe me yet?”

I pushed open a back door of the school, held it for him, then walked out and stood against the brick wall of the alcove. He leaned next to me, his long legs crossed at the ankles.  The pavement was littered with fiery maple leaves blown across from the trees lining the tennis courts.

“What type of plant are you?” I blurted out.

He froze for a second, his eyes wide. Then he grinned.

“You’re blunt. I like that.”

“Well?”

“I’m a hickory,” he said. “Once, I lived in your great-grandmother’s backyard.”

“But you didn’t want to tell me.”

“I was going to eventually. By the way, I heard about your grandma dying. I’m sorry.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I want to show you how you can honor her,” he said. “How you can carry on her legacy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve seen earthwitches before,” he said, lowering his voice. “When I was a sapling, I was owned by one. None of them has the power you have. You should be out there making crops grow faster, making them grow when there’s a drought. You could replenish rainforests. You could feed starving countries.”

“You are wildly exaggerating,” I said, starting to sweat.

“Only a little. You have no idea what your powers might be. You have a gift like that, you can’t waste it.”

“What if I have no interest in plants whatsoever? What if I want to be a physicist?”

He bit his lip, looking out toward the tennis courts. “What if Agassi’s dad hadn’t made him keep practicing tennis, even when he hated it? The sport would’ve lost something precious forever. The whole world would’ve been deprived.” He put his hands on my shoulders. “Don’t you understand, Erica? Some people are chosen for a special destiny. Growing plants is who you are. You can’t run away from it. It’s been in your blood for generations. You may be the last of the earthwitches.”

He leaned in. “And that means, deep inside you, that gentleness, that sweet caring essence—it’s there. I believe in it. I believe in you.”

I looked into his eyes, brilliant green and sincere. Felt that flutter in my chest and that buzz in my fingers. But in the back of my mind, I could see Jenny, her eyes closed, pushing herself up out of that pot.

Trev leaned in even closer, tilting his head, our lips an inch apart.

And I shoved him backwards.

He let out a cry.

“I’m not that Erica,” I said, breathing heavily. “I’m not gentle or sweet.”

He stared at me, shocked.

“I’m not going to spend my life growing plants. No one gets to choose my destiny for me, okay?”

“Erica—”

“So don’t you ever try to tell me who I am.”

The bell rang. Homeroom was over.

“Do you have something to say?” I asked.

He looked at me for another moment—crestfallen, not apologetic. Then he opened the door and was gone.

*     *     *

Physics was my first class of the day, and it was the only one I wouldn’t miss for anything. But I had five minutes until it started.

I knelt on the pavement, my heart still pounding, and picked up the most perfect red-orange maple leaf. Dead.

You were right, Grandma, I thought. About magic, at least.

I traced the leaf’s veins, like a map of an endlessly forking river. I never thought I’d hear myself say the word destiny, either. I smiled hesitantly. I think you would be proud of me.

I stood up. I’m still pretty sure you’re wrong about the coral reefs, though, I thought, squinting toward the trees by the tennis courts. And as for true love—well, fine. I’m skeptical, but I’ll hold off judgment for now.

The fourth tree—that was the one this leaf came from. I had no idea how I knew that, but I did. It was a young one, its trunk still thin. Before I could stop myself, I whispered, “Thank you.”

The tree’s branches bent and creaked as though rocked by their own personal breeze. A few leaves floated downward.

“Is it hard when that happens?” I asked.

It hefted it branches up, then down. A shrug.

“I’m talking to a tree,” I said.

It nodded.

I laughed, feeling a brick come loose from some wall inside me. Every blade of grass around me—I felt it, the softest whisper, a tug against my mind. A tiny thing growing.

Jenny was wrong, I was sure of it now. Grandma wouldn’t be mad at me for setting her free.

I’m an earthwitch, I thought, the word tingling down through my body.

The second bell rang.

And I’m late for physics class.

I dashed back inside, still holding the leaf. Before the door closed behind me, a whoosh of air rushed in, blowing a whirl of leaves into school. Bringing the trees with me.

 

Noah Weisz received his MFA in fiction from the University of Texas at Austin’s New Writers Project. He has been a winner of the F(r)iction short story contest, a special-mention finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing, and was shortlisted for the international Bath Children’s Novel Award. His fiction for young readers has appeared or is forthcoming in YARNStew MagazineDoveTales, and Highlights for Children. Noah currently teaches creative writing and children’s literature as an adjunct at St. Edward’s University and leads after-school writing workshops at two elementary schools. You can learn more at noahweisz.wordpress.com.

Househeld

[fiction]

All the food is kept in the house kitchen. Yon and I, like all the kids but Symboline, aren’t allowed to go there. Symboline, the oldest of us all, brings out bread for children who’ve been nicest to her and flicks crumbs at the others. After she saw our first kiss the other week, she began tsking at us. We tried to be nice to her by shining her shoes and braiding her hair, but after each task, she tsked. Now, when she brings the bread out, she doesn’t even bother hitting us with the crumbs.

Since we started getting no bread, the longest times of the day start at noon when my stomach lights up with hot gnawing. It slows my thinking and pulls me into naps that I hate. Yon doesn’t let on so much that he misses the bread, but he was born in the house, unlike me. I was left here when I turned five. My non-house life taught me to expect food and complain about midday starvation.

If it weren’t for the breakfast and dinner oatmeal Symboline leaves in our assigned wall alcoves, I’d be dead by now. At breakfast one day, I say I’m going to figure out how to have a talk with the adults on the other side of the house, and Yon says that even if I make it through the kitchen to the other side, which I won’t, they’d just ask me to figure things out with Symboline.

“Don’t they care?” I say.

“I’ve never seen an adult on this side, but that’s what Symboline’s for,” he says.

“Does that mean you’ve seen an adult on the other?” I say in wonder.

“Not that either. You know no one ever goes there,” he says.

I imagine beyond the kitchen door. I conjure up a man in an apron who prepares the food for Symboline to carry out. Beyond him, a hallway that leads to the rest of the house, not only hidden from us inside, but also outside. If you walk around to the back of the house, the towering evergreen trees grow thick, and no one dares to push through them.

“Why is Symboline in charge anyway?” I say.

“She’s been here forever,” he says.

“And later, if we just go to the kitchen for more food?” I say, the daily lack of bread making me daring.

“Don’t you remember the boy who never came back?” he says.

“But at least we wouldn’t have to be here anymore,” I say.

“Speaking of, we have to go to work,” he says.

Breakfast over, we head up and grab our bundle of The News, the newspapers we print in the attic at night. About a month ago, we said it would be nice to make something. It was our first close conversation. On a walk soon after, we headed higher and higher in the house, into dusty parts no one bothered with, and found a trove of computer equipment and stacks of paper. We hadn’t used a computer since the one in the rec room died the summer before, but we got it all working in a few days.

In the garage we set the stack of papers in the box in the middle of the unwieldy tandem bicycle. Anyone could use the bike, but we were the ones who got along enough to make it work. Each day we bike to Marty Square to sell our news for a quarter each. We tell Symboline and the others that we give the newspapers away. They don’t care because everyone has to make up some kind of fun in a house with no books but our lesson texts. Though since Symboline told everyone about the kiss, Jerome does rub his index fingers together at us and pretend to gag.

At the park we smell hot meat and peanuts. We lick our lips when someone holds an ice cream cone while giving us a quarter for a newspaper. The headlines are always like today’s: “Alien Elected US President—Again.” We don’t get many repeat customers, though the woman we call our veiled editor has started to bring back copies with marks on them. “I’m a school teacher,” she says through her flowing cloth. Her eyes live in a rectangular panel bordered in bright oranges. “The article on dogs causing all of our pollution was original, but the word ‘pollution’ was spelled three different ways.”

I take the newspaper, and, as with the other times she’s handed us one back, we try to give her a quarter for it. She laughs in delight once again, though this time for a shorter period, and waves away the small money.

“How old are you?”

We don’t answer, and we shake our heads at the offer of lunch.

She tells us to read her comments, to give them to our editor. She’s our one editor, though, and we know she doesn’t mean that. When she’s gone, I read through what she’s written. Sometimes she’s placed a star in a margin and written “Good word choice.” The rest is full of suggestions like “More research needed to aid believability.”

“Maybe today we don’t return to the house,” Yon says. He places a hand on my rumbling stomach.

“Do we have enough money?” I say.

I remember my mother towering over me, my last memory of her. She seemed the size of the sky and I was a feather from a sparrow’s wing.

He shakes his head, so I say, “The adults would find us. And then one of them would stomp on us.” He frowns and nods. A vision of a giant foot squishing me the way my mother’s car once squished a hare fills my thoughts. When Mom and I got out to see what we’d hit, we found two piles of jackrabbit: the outsides, and, a foot away, pounds of insides. I imagine one of the adults lifting a foot to find my outsides compressed. A second later, he sees that his stomping has forced my insides to squirt out and land nearby.

“Gross,” I say.

“What is?” Yon says.

“My brain.” I shake the images away.

I remember my mother towering over me, my last memory of her. She seemed the size of the sky and I was a feather from a sparrow’s wing.

We continue to sell our newspaper, but I can’t concentrate very well. In the morning, the oatmeal felt like it stuck to my stomach’s walls, but it has slid away. “What if I take a fist of our quarters to buy us those hotdogs they talk about?” I say, even though Yon knows as well as I that the house adults can smell all food.

“It’s not just the adults who could tell,” he says. “They’ve taught Symboline to smell any food on us too.”

“When did they do that?” I say.

He scrunches up his nose. “I don’t know, but everyone knows it,” he says.

“I didn’t know,” I say, and he tells me that now I do.

Stomachs still on fire, we pack up the last of the newspapers and return to the house. When no one’s in our long boys’ room, Yon slips the quarters into one of his bedposts, and I burn the leftover paper in the room’s fireplace. We kiss.

Beyond Symboline and Jerome, the kids in the house don’t care that Yon and I kiss, including all the boys who share our room. They only get gaggy at the thought of kissing when it’s for themselves. Every brave attempt at spin the bottle has ended in terrified screams.

And it’s not that we make out in front of anyone. Symboline saw us because she opened our bedroom door when she wasn’t supposed to. Yon says she can do what she wants, which is common knowledge, but it’s also common knowledge that girls aren’t supposed to open boys’ bedroom doors as much as we aren’t supposed to open theirs. Even Matt, who says he was always really a boy and sleeps in our room now, isn’t allowed to open any girls’ doors anymore.

After the quiet of holding each other, we go down to the dining hall and find our dinner oatmeal in our wall alcoves and shovel it down. Afterward, I hold my aching stomach and cry. The other kids finish their bowls and leave us in the dining hall. “Tomorrow, let’s not come back,” Yon says.

“We’ll have enough to leave?” I say.

He says he guesses maybe not but soon. He rubs circles into my back and says it’s time to head to the attic to print the next day’s news.

“We’ll write a story about her,” he says.

“Symboline?”

“No. The veiled editor,” he says, and I agree.

The next day in the park we set up with our printouts. “Do you think she’ll be here today?” I say.

“I hope so,” Yon says, and sure enough, about an hour into selling, the veiled woman, clothes rippling in the wind, walks up to us. I wonder if her eyes were always green. She buys a copy and reads.

“Clever, this,” she says as she taps the headline, “Veiled Avenger Solves Case.”

Her cool tone surprises me. Yon thanks her, and she pulls a loaf of bread from her bag. “Do you want any?” she says.

The bread is in the same red-and-white packaging as the loaves Symboline has at the house. I step back and hide behind Yon. He tells the woman thanks but no thanks, and she apologizes and slides the bread back into her bag.

“We can’t do wheat,” Yon says.

“Oh, okay,” she says, and she says sorry again and walks away.

“Did you see what bread she had?” I say when she’s gone.

“I’m sure that bread is everywhere,” he says.

We sell the rest of the copies in the next two hours—a record for us—and bike home with quarters filling our pockets. At the house, we sneak through to the empty bedroom and Yon fills the bedpost with the quarters.

For a few moments, we have enough without the money.

“Do we have enough yet?” I say.

He shakes his head and pulls me into a hug. In the past weeks he’s gotten taller, so he rests my cheek on his shoulder and squeezes me. For a few moments I forget I’m hungry. For a few moments, we have enough without the money.

The next day as we put our morning bowls and cups in the stacks next to the water jugs on the long table Symboline says we’re not to go to the park with our papers. One of the adults is coming over, and we have to head to the rec room.

In the rec room, Yon and I sit by the stage on two of the many costume boxes donated to the house after a local professional theater shut down. The younger children sometimes put on skits, though I haven’t seen one in months. After all thirty of us kids have gathered, Symboline nods and leaves the room. As one kid yells out that if we’re not good the adult will squash us for sure, the adult walks in. She’s clutching a loaf of bread. She has flowing black clothes on. We can see nothing but her eyes through the cutout in her headpiece. The adult is our veiled editor. After being so nice, how could she be one of the adults who would squash us?

She tells the room that there are reports of two boys in the house who are not following all the rules. She says the two boys go out every day and work, sell things, and horde the earnings. “And they are extremely good friends,” she says. The woman never focuses on anyone, but she doesn’t have to. By the time she says she’d like the issue resolved soon, everyone is staring at Yon and me.

The veiled woman leaves, and bodies stir in the quiet. Everyone stands, unsure of what to do, since the woman didn’t ask anyone to do anything in particular. People start to whisper and point, so Yon and I move for the door. People part at first, but Jerome makes kissing fingers at us and blocks our way. “Kissers,” he says.

“Not for you,” Yon says, and he tries to push past Jerome.

“Give them ten minutes to leave,” Symboline, suddenly standing with us, says.

“You have ten minutes,” Jerome parrots as he lets us pass. No one protests about any of it. No one in the house has great friends—no one but Yon and I have ever tried to be attached, it seems—but now I feel like we’ve been living with strangers.

We leave everyone behind, the buzz of their voices churning after us. I start up the steps, but Yon yanks me back. “No—we go to the garage,” he says.

“But the money,” I say.

“No time. I don’t know what they’ll do to you. We’ll figure something out later. Sneak in or something.”

We bike to the square, the place we know best outside of the house, though our latest edition sits in the attic. The sun flashes on and off of the pavement, blinding us in some moments, guiding us forward in others. At the park, we roll the bike into some trees and find a stone bench.

Sneaking back in for the money will be the last time at the house, but I don’t feel freedom. We don’t have enough sold yet. I smooth my hand over the stone and worry about sleeping. I like my bed and the pillow that stretches just right around my neck. And though I am always hungry, I eat twice a day at the house. Yon pulls me to him and rubs my hands, even though they are not cold. Yon tells me we’ll be okay. I rest for a moment, and when I open my eyes, I smile because Yon’s already smiling at me. But then I focus beyond him and see the veiled woman heading for us.

Yon pulls me up and we skip past the bike-hiding place for the painted sidewalks. We step on face after face. “We left the house like she said to. Why is she here?” I say.

“I don’t know,” Yon huffs.

We bump into a woman pulling a wagon and call out that we’re sorry. She swears at us, but we’re already too far away to respond. I look back to see how fast the veiled woman can move with so much covering, but I don’t see her.

Yon grips my hand and slows us. I can feel his fear. I twist about and find the veiled woman a body length in front of us. “I haven’t run that fast in years,” she says.

“Why are you after us? We left the house like you wanted,” Yon says between breaths.

“Left the house? What do you mean?” she says.

Before either of us can answer, her eyes grow distracted at something behind us. She pulls herself taut and we swivel around. Standing back at the start of the painted sidewalks is another veiled woman. As she gets closer, we see she could be the same woman—with the same fabric, nearly the same bright embroidery.

The first veiled woman says, “What is this?” and the second one tsks and says, “If you don’t show me where the money is, the adults will start hurting the ones who are left.”

I check on the woman behind us. She takes a look at each of us and shakes her head, backs away. She reaches the opposite end of the painted sidewalks and turns out of sight.

“Let’s go after her,” Yon says.

“Can we?” I say.

“No,” the remaining veiled woman says. “After all I’ve done for you, you must return one more time.”

Yon puts an arm around me and walks us past the woman, past the bike, home. I struggle on the way, but Yon holds me tighter and says things will be fine, and what do I have but him?

At the house, she brings us back in front of the househeld, all the kids. Jerome makes his finger-kisses and soon everyone is. “They have agreed to bring the adults their secret money,” our captor says.

“And then they’re done for good,” Jerome says.

“For good,” a girl cries.

“Bring me to the money,” Symboline says from behind us.

I search for the veiled woman, but she is no longer in the room.

We lead Symboline out of the room. Out of earshot of the other kids, she says, “The adults just need the money and then you can go.”

Yon pulls me up the stairs and along to the bedroom. Inside, Symboline says, “But after you left I searched in here.”

Yon settles me on his bed. He kisses me, and Symboline tsks. He unscrews the wooden ball at the top of a bedpost and tosses it next to me on the bed. I roll it around. It’s not hollow. It’s heavy.

Symboline stares down into the hiding place. “The money’s in there?”

I pick up the bedpost topper and test its weight.

“Yes, it’s down in there,” Yon says. “All quarters.”

“I know that,” she says.

Yon yanks a duffel bag out from under the bed. He pulls up on the post and says, “Hold the bag open.” Symboline anchors its mouth wide as he slides the post away from the bed and tips it to rain coins into the bag.

“All this in just under a month?” Symboline says in the most hopeful voice I’ve heard that year. “And you worked together? Imagine how much bread this could buy.”

“No, not all this,” Yon says, and tells her to bring the bag to the other rear post. He repeats the same moves and another stream of quarters joins the first. “That’s what we made in just under a month,” he says. “With your help too, of course. The quarter you used to buy the newspaper is in there too.”

I realize he’s right but keep my surprise to myself. Symboline tightens her slack stance and tosses her hair back. “How did you know?”

“At the park earlier, you sounded like you. I didn’t catch it when you bought the paper, but with the real woman there, it was obvious. And I don’t know how you found such close-matching clothes, but you couldn’t be her: The real woman was nice, didn’t hate us,” Yon says.

“The costume boxes are helpful, and I don’t hate you,” she says. “I made sure you kept getting oatmeal. It’s just that for the kids to survive, things need order.”

“Did the adults tell you that?” Yon says.

“The adults,” she says. “Yeah, they tell me.”

“Why didn’t you just tell us to leave right away?” Yon says.

“It takes a little while to make outcasts, to feed the disquiet that people don’t even know is growing. If the househeld think they’ve kicked you out, they won’t think of leaving too.”

“But why pretend to be the veiled woman?” he says.

“I followed you to the park after you started going out every day. I followed you to see how close you’d gotten. I was shocked to see you were making money—and talking with an outside adult multiple times. Pretending to be her seemed a perfect way to make you stop trusting an outsider.”

I step up on the bedframe and with a wild swing, I slam the bedpost ball against Symboline’s head. She slumps forward, and Yon catches her. “Took you long enough,” he says.

“I wasn’t sure if that’s what you meant,” I say. I’m grateful she’s breathing, and we move her up on the bed. I can’t imagine moving again if she weren’t breathing.

Yon shoulders the bag and says he hadn’t thought it would be so heavy. “It’s enough though, right?” I say, and he says we’ll have to make it be.

“Let’s get back to the park and the bike,” he says. “I didn’t want to risk having it back here and something happening to it.”

We head for the front door, but we find Jerome and ten other kids. They start finger-kissing at us, so we back away and go for the rec room. It has lots of windows—but kids are standing in our way there too.

“Get them,” echoes between the groups.

We reach the stairs again, but going up means fewer ways to get out. Besides, Symboline is that way. Instead, we opt for the dining room and aim for a door that leads to the front hall. Before we reach it, Jerome slams through it. We veer right and find ourselves in front of the kitchen door.

“Kissers,” they say, and they have us. The swinging door behind us might as well be a drop off a cliff.

“At least we’re together,” Yon says, and he pulls me through the door. No one follows, and no one cries out. No one’s invented a sound for what we’ve just done.

No one follows, and no one cries out. No one’s invented a sound for what we’ve just done.

Or for what we see. Grime covers the kitchen. One set of towering metal shelves holds rows of oatmeal silos, though most are missing their tops. Next to the silos, our house bowls rest in stacks. Other shelves hold a few loaves and countless empty bread bags. We look in cabinets and the refrigerator, but we find no other food. On the stove is a large pot crusted with oatmeal. On the wall opposite our entrance, a white door waits.

We squeeze each other’s hands. Yon grips the handle and pulls it open. The excitement of discovering the hallway to the other side of the house, to the adults, quiets away fear. We run into a dim grass-covered room that has trees for walls. We race around a bench and push into a gap in the farthest trees. The bag of coins gets stuck for a moment, but we ease it free. And come to a stone wall. It’s just low enough for us to press ourselves up to look over it. The park we bike to lies out and below. Between Marty Square and us is the slope of the city—yards and houses and streets and stores. We leave the wall and push through the trees in other directions, but we end up in the neighboring yards.

“This whole time it’s just been a backyard,” Yon says, and I feel guilty that I struck Symboline.

We return to the kitchen and ease the door shut. Yon puts the duffel on the closest counter. We look at the scant supplies of food. “What kind of teacher do you think the real veiled woman is?” he says.

“A nice one?” I say.

“Do you think if we sell newspapers in the park again that she’ll buy one?” he says.

I shrug. “That would be nice,” I say.

We read the prices marked on the bags of bread and boxes of oatmeal. We have money to buy plenty more.

“Do you think they’re waiting out there for us?” I say.

“Maybe, but they’ll see we were able to go in and out of the kitchen. But we can say the adults made us like Symboline.”

“Symboline,” he says.

“Our first change could be to get hotdogs,” I say, and Yon hugs me close.

For now, we leave the bag of quarters on the counter. We push the swinging door out to find the house gathered. I catch Jerome’s face, and he mouths a “Wow.” He calls for people to get back, that we’ve done the impossible. When the room is full and silent, Yon kisses me in the doorway and again in the dining hall.

 

Todd Wellman is former fiction editor for cream city review. He received his MA from UW-Milwaukee. His writing has appeared in The James Franco Review, the Indie Next Lists, The Missouri Review blog, and more. He implores all to shop at indie bookstores.

Car 393

[fiction]

Part I

Elsie Wood, Stenographer, Age 19

Late

The sun’s long gone
when I pull on my woolen coat,
set my hat on my head,
dash outside for the trolley,
late,
and I can only hope
I haven’t missed
the car that will get me
to Washington Street on time
to get the next trolley
to get me home
to Roxbury.

My heels clack
down the block
as I struggle to fasten
my fur collar around my neck,
wishing I hadn’t worn
a coat at all today—
though it’s a lovely coat—
because the November night
is surprisingly,
unseasonably warm.

It seems
like a night
to remember.

 

Screech

I hear it, the screech
of the steel wheels careening
down the tracks from the east
coming from City Point,
and sweat beads up
on the back of my neck
as I race for it,
my heels pounding
over the sidewalk.

Blimey,
it’s dark
out here.

The lone headlight
cuts down the street,
lighting the way
like a miner’s headlamp
shining against walls of coal,
the beacon that’ll lead
me home—
and not my real home
back over the ocean in Scotland,
but our third-floor walkup
in Roxbury
so far away
from the soot-choked factories
lining the streets
of South Boston.

 

Gong Clanging

I’m going to make it,
and already I can imagine
arriving home, can taste
the leftover roast and potatoes
from Sunday dinner.

But that’s not all.
If I’m being honest with myself,
I know this trolley is my only chance
for a glimpse of that Italian boy
who always gets on at the next stop.

Gong clanging,
the trolley barrels forward,
slowing just enough to stop for me
and my raised arm,
begging the driver to let me on.

 

Jimmie Macaluso, Laborer, Age 18

The Big Question Mark

I wait for the trolley, my mind drifting
from the never-ending day at the factory

to my still-bubbling euphoria over the Sox
winning the 1916 World Series last night

to the big question mark
in Washington, D.C.—

Will Woodrow Wilson win the White House again,
or will Charles Hughes kick him out?

But when the clang of the bell
sounds around the corner,

my heart perks up at the thought
that she might be aboard already,

that lovely blonde
in the dark blue coat

I’ve not yet worked up the courage
to approach.

 

The Next Trolley

Pressed close with my brother, Biggi,
I throng forward with the crowd

toward the trolley screeching
to a stop in front of us.

The two of us climb
inside the car,

but before the door claps shut
behind me,

a voice echoes through the air,
See you at home!

Our older brother, John,
three back in the crowd,

won’t make it on this car,
raises a hand to wave us on,

steps back to wait
for the next trolley.

I lift my hand in response,
watching his face

pop from the shadows
before we’re whisked away

from East First Street
in a lurching blur.

 

The Girl of My Dreams

We crowd inside, scrambling
for hand straps,

because of course
the benches are full as always

by the time
the trolley reaches our stop,

but I can’t help passing
my gaze over the car,

scanning the men—
because almost all the passengers are men—

for that splash of midnight blue
with a rim of fur around the collar

that tells me the girl
of my dreams is going my way.

 

John Macaluso, Laborer, Age 20

Lucky

Jimmie and Biggi
are lucky enough
to squeeze
onto the trolley.

Maybe tonight, Jimmie
will make his own luck
and finally
speak to that girl.

Me, I’m alone,
even when surrounded by others—
the quiet one, they say,
the listener.

I listen now to the mishmash of languages
washing over me at the trolley stop
(Italian, Polish, accented English, of course),
telling me how far we’ve all come,

reminding me
we’re a nation of immigrants,
happy to have found
our home.

 

A Chill

Though the breeze
is warm,
a chill runs down
my back.

I crane my neck
to the right,
but my brothers’ trolley
is long gone.

 

An Eternity

It feels
like an eternity
until the next trolley
arrives.

An eternity
in which
I consider
my place in this world.

Country,
home,
family—
I’m so lucky to have it all.

 

Lillian Frank, Stenographer, Age 20

Fish Pier

The sweaty, human stench that hits
me in the face when I squeeze
onto the trolley
reminds me of the rotten one
pouring off the open
barrels of slick silver bodies
in the thick, choking air outside my office
at Fish Pier.

The men who pile into the car after me press forward
and one gentleman already on the bench
offers me his seat,
Miss?
but I shake my head, sticking as close
to the door and the snatches of outside air
as I can get.

Somerville—home—is only a few miles
from here, but the potato and meat knishes
waiting for me there
are most decidedly a world
away from here.

 

Around the Car

While my attention remains focused
on each and every tiny whiff of fresh air,
my gaze wanders over the men filling up the trolley
with their might, their muscles, their weight
heavy on their shoulders,
coming to rest on the only other girl in the entire car,
a lovely thing with China-doll cheeks and golden curls,
her good looks commanding the attention
I can’t imagine anyone will ever devote to me.

Some of us share this same space
every day, traveling to work and back home,
breathing in this same stale, stifling air,
in the flickering lights that spark in the darkness,
but the only thing that binds us together
is our will to escape this drudgery
and make something better of ourselves.

 

Easy as Pie

I count the blocks to South Station,
easy as pie, since they go
backwards in the alphabet
from where I get on at D Street
to C, B, and toward the Summer Street bridge.

As the conductor squirms his way through
the car collecting fares,
I dig in my pocketbook for the last nickel
I stashed in my coin purse,
change from my fare this morning.

Meanwhile, the trolley clangs and barrels and lurches
forward with each start and stop,
and it seems that the motorman
is in as much of a hurry as I am
to spring out of this tin can
and walk the last stretch home,
because he’s barely slowing down
to pick up passengers.

 

Part II

Elsie Wood

A Glance

We’re getting closer
to Fort Point Channel,
closer to my stop,
and closer to his.

Gathering courage,
I lift my gaze,
shoot a glance
his way,
where I catch his brown eyes
shining,
his lips
smiling
as he looks right back
at me,
and I can’t stop grinning
at him.

He always travels
with one or two others,
this boy,
and in the months we’ve been taking
this route together,
I’ve heard them call each other
their American names
and once or twice, their Italian ones,
but if he ever lets me,
I’d be happy to call him
Vincenzo instead of Jimmie,
this lovely boy
who might someday reach out
and take my hand in his.

 

My Gold Bracelet

Nervous at my boldness,
I lower my gaze,
fiddle with the clasp
on my gold bracelet,
a gift from my mother
for my eighteenth birthday,
engraved with my initials, EHW.

What’s the E for?

I look up
to find the warm voice
and the intense gaze
of this electrifying boy
directed
at me.

 

This Sweetness

The air turns sweet,
and for a moment, I wonder
if it’s this boy’s breath
filling the air with sugar,
but then I remember
we’re passing
the NECCO Factory
by the channel, and I
drink in the scent,
drink in this sweetness,
drink in his words,
before boldly telling him,
I’m Elsie.
Nice to meet you.

 

Jimmie Macaluso

Our First Conversation

Joy bursts through me—
pure, dazzling joy—

at the musicality of her voice,
the sunshine of her smile,

the sparkle in her eyes,
and already

I am in love
with Elsie.

So in love
I almost forget

to respond,
I’m Jimmie,

and when I do,
my cheeks flame hot,

because I realize
everyone near us in this car

is witness to
our first conversation.

But then, I’m so smitten
I don’t even care.

 

I Hasten

I’d love to see you home
someday, Elsie,

I say, but then, realizing
it might be too forward of me,

I hasten to add,
or around town, or anywhere, really,

and she’s smiling at me, nodding,
telling me, I’d like that,

and I can hardly contain
myself, but then something lurches,

and I’m falling forward
with the car along the track.

 

Suspended

Things are going so fast
it takes me a moment

to realize this is more than love
dragging me forward,

when shouts, screams,
bedlam rise up from the front of the car,

the lights go out,
and the trolley crashes through metal,

barreling forward,
tipping downward,

hanging over the edge
of the bridge, suspended.

 

Lillian Frank

Rolling

Crash!

The trolley bursts
through the metal fence across the rails,
its steel wheels locking, grinding
over the tracks,
white-hot smoke hissing
up from below the car,
while the motorman tries to engage
the brake, thrusting his body
forward,
backward,
forward,
grunting, huffing, yelling,
before his panic-filled voice cries out,
Jump!

I try to get my bearings
among the shadowy buildings lining the street,
but I know we’re nowhere near
the next station, and I don’t recall crossing
the bridge.

The door springs open,
someone shoves me from behind,
sending me out of the trolley,
sprawling to the pavement,
other bodies bounding
out the door after me,
and I’m
rolling,
rolling,
rolling.

 

Into the Drink

Sounds from the trolley continue
grinding, screeching, rumbling,
and finally, the unthinkable—
an incredible splash,
followed by an eerie gurgling.

I’ve stopped rolling over the pavement,
saved by someone’s hand
grabbing the back of my coat,
the only thing
holding me back from the edge
of the bridge,
the only thing
keeping my body
from making the last flip
and following the trolley
into the drink.

 

Dazed

I shake my head,
push myself to my feet,
hold a hand to a sticky gash
on my head.

I gaze around me,
but I only see a handful
of similarly dazed men beside me
on the bridge,
and we hobble to the edge together,
spotting a handful of others
in the inky-black water below—
only a handful.

That trolley was packed full.

Help! we call out
to those running to the scene, Help!
Minutes later,
our voices have already
gone hoarse.

 

Part III

Jimmie

Crushed

Tumbling forward
in a heap of bodies,

some of them already crushed
on the ground, trampled underfoot,

the trolley crashes through the air, flying,
until it smacks into the water with a splash.

Someone screams, Biggi calls, Jimmie!
and Elsie freezes, her eyes big as the sea.

Water covers the car in mere seconds, swallowing everyone
inside, drowning out the sounds from our voices,

amplifying the rush of bubbles escaping
our mouths and rising up to the surface.

 

Dark

Shapes shift around me, struggling
in the chilling water, dark as coal,
while I press my lips together,
trying to figure out how to get

all of us out of this watery wreck,
but there’s no time, so I blindly grab

at the floating, flailing limbs to my right,
wondering if one belongs to Biggi,

until in front of me, I identify
Elsie’s slim wrist,

her bracelet smooth
under my fingertips.

I swim, pulling her toward the side of the car,
where one of the windows must be,

struggle to lift my legs, kick
the window with all my might.

 

Burning for Air

The glass shatters,
but there’s no time to think,

my lungs growing smaller,
my ears filling with pressure.

I give Elsie’s hand a quick squeeze,
before propelling her first

through the window, but her bracelet catches
on the glass, her fingers frantic.

The bracelet slips downward
past my hand, but I have to get it,

and I reach for it once, twice, again,
my head growing heavier,

my lungs burning for air,
until finally

my mouth opens against my will,
filling with salty water from the sea.

 

Elsie

His Strong Hand

My heart
hammers
amidst the panic,
in the darkness,
in this freezing
rush
of water,
but I can tell
the hand
on my wrist
is his
strong hand,
and he means
to save
us both.

 

A Gentle Push

A jerk
of our bodies
among all the struggles
around me,
and he’s guiding me
toward the window,
which he’s managed
to pop free,
but my bracelet catches,
falling
back into the car,
away.

I grasp for it in the water,
but Jimmie
gives me a gentle push,
sending me out of the trolley
into the channel,
and I know he’ll join me
in a moment,
but I can’t tell which way is up,
and I can’t find him
in the rush of bubbles,
and I panic
and gasp
for breath.

 

Nothing but Darkness

No Jimmie,
no air,
nothing but
darkness,
water,
cold,
slicing
through me
like glass.

 

Lillian

Retracted

Trembling, the lot of us stand
at the edge of the bridge,
which we now realize is retracted
to let a boat pass
instead of set in place
for the trolley,
creating a huge gap over the water,
but knowing how this happened
doesn’t help understand why,
and the pale faces around me register
nothing more than the same shock I feel,
as the rowboats and tugboats below
pick up only a handful
of additional survivors.

 

Footsteps

Another trolley clangs up behind us,
coming to a stop behind
gesticulating officials
and a swell of new crowds from Southie,
streaming out to help, gawk, cover
their mouths in horror.

Footsteps pound behind me
from the trolley,
and a young man leans over the edge,
scanning the water,
scanning the amassing crowd,
calling,
Jimmie! Biggi!
sobbing,
My brothers.

 

His Rough Hand

Were you on board? he asks,
his gaze scanning mine in desperation.

I nod, swallow,
unable to speak to this boy
who’s lost everything,
and instead, I reach
for his rough hand
and squeeze it in mine.

 

John

No One Below

We wait,
this girl and I,
even though she tells me
she has no one below.

We share our names,
our sorrow, our guilt
at having escaped
this watery grave.

As she waits
with me, I can see
her heart has also sunk
below the channel.

 

Car 393

Huddled under a blanket,
Lillian says everything
by saying nothing when divers
begin bringing up bodies.

Not until three o’clock in the morning,
when it’s finally empty,
do they hoist
up the trolley.

I break then, sobbing
under the weight of Car 393:
the trolley that crushed
my heart.

 

Gone

Lillian squeezes my hand,
and it’s finally clear
that the slick waters of the channel
have swallowed my brothers whole,

clear that tonight
I’ll have to go home
to tell Mamma
two of her sons are gone,

clear that I’ll have to let go
of Lillian’s hand—
once I can remember
how to breathe.

 

Author’s note: Based on true events from the night of November 7, 1916, this story relies on details provided in the Boston Globe article, “The Tragedy that Boston Forgot,” by Eric Moscowitz, October 29, 2016.

 

Kip Wilson is a YA writer with a PhD in German literature. Her work has been published in the Timeless and Spain from a Backpack anthologies, as well as Black Fox Literary Magazine, Cobblestone, and Faces magazines. Her writing has won several awards, including the 2017 PEN/New England Discovery Award. She’s the poetry editor at YARN. Wilson can also be found on twitter (twitter.com/kiperoo), and on her website, kipwilsonwrites.com.