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fiction

Take Your Shot by Briana Wipf

Take Your Shot | Briana Wipf

The rims after the Fourth of July started to fade from lush green to dull silvery brown, having run out of the winter and spring water stores and now parched by the dryness of summer. Alan liked to whip around corners of the gravel road built on the edge of the rims without braking, regardless of how fast he was driving his truck, a silver 1999 Dodge Ram. As he did so, Maddie reached for the oh-shit handle above the window and watched the concave arc of the rims come into view as Alan steered the truck around the curve. 

“Big baby!” he laughed. He always said something when she grabbed the handle or sped up.

They were shooting gophers today. It was July seventh, a bit late in the season, but they had come upon a few coteries and done well, taking turns shooting out of the Dodge’s windows with Alan’s twenty-two, which spit shell casings out onto the dash with taut pops, setting them up for their roll toward the windshield.  

The rims north of town are visual evidence of the Two Medicine Formation, which runs east of the Rocky Mountain Front and formed during the Cretaceous period. 

That’s what Mr. Fredrickson, Maddie’s earth science teacher, taught them sophomore year. He only called on the pretty girls who tanned and wore eyeliner. Maddie hadn’t been one of them.

Gopher shooting was probably the one thing Alan never criticized Maddie about. Everything else – her family, her hair, her boobs, her job, her love of watching Frasier reruns, her clothes – he picked at. Her family was oilfield trash, her hair was too long and stringy, her boobs were too small, her job was boring, Frasier was boring, and her clothes looked like they came from Goodwill (sometimes they did). 

As if Alan would know anything; he had had the same buzzed haircut since high school, ten years ago. He occasionally bought expensive tequila that he drank out of those orange plastic cups with rounded rims that he got after his grandma died. In fact, most of his furniture came out of his dead grandma’s house, and she had last decorated around 1981. 

Alan worked at the bulk fuel plant in town. He had lasted a semester in college in Havre but passed only one class because he didn’t show up for his finals. Then he drifted around, did some custom cutting, and got thrown in jail in Oklahoma after a bar fight. He still couldn’t go into Canada because of that. Not that he’d take Maddie to Lethbridge for a weekend anyway; he didn’t invite Maddie anywhere. He bought her dinner once two years ago. 

“We can go look at the Harrisons’,” Alan said, his voice elevated slightly so he could be heard over the rattling of the truck. “Joe and me were up there a couple weeks ago and just murdered them.”

Joe was Alan’s cousin who would visit every few months. When they were together, Maddie couldn’t even get a text message back. Sometimes, they went to Billings for long weekends, and Maddie knew he was cheating on her down there. 

“You two have quite the bromance,” Maddie had said once.

Alan immediately bristled. “I ain’t no fag.”

That’s usually how he was. He voted for Obama, he said just so he could say the n-word and be able to argue he wasn’t racist (Maddie had never actually heard him say the word; he even said “n-word” when explaining himself). This time around he was planning on voting for Romney, reasoning he had given the “black community” enough of a chance to run things.

Maddie was three years younger than Alan. She hadn’t given him any thought when they were in school, and it wasn’t until she had moved back home after finishing a paralegal program that she got to know him. They were both playing in a Monday-night pool league that winter. The first time their teams played against each other, they flirted, and Alan got Final Jeopardy, playing on one of the screens in the bar. Alan could be funny and he was smart in a hard-knock way. And goddamn was the sex ever good.

Maddie hadn’t planned on coming back home; she’d hoped to major in history or English and then go to law school, but when her dad went on disability after he hurt his back, the family couldn’t help her with tuition anymore. So she moved home and tried to save money and figure out what to do next. She lived with her grandma, who had dementia and couldn’t live alone.

That was four years ago. Maddie had assumed Grandma Barb would soon need care that Maddie couldn’t give her, and she’d have to go to the nursing home. But Grandma Barb’s decline plateaued, and she had become so docile that she could be left in the house during the day. She just continually checked the mail. Twice a day – when she found a newspaper in the morning and a packet of political mailers and sweepstakes entries in the afternoon – she hit her jackpot.

The road on the Harrisons’ place was a two-track easement used by farmers and oilfield producers. The truck bounced over ruts a foot deep. Someone had bajaed their way down the road the last time it rained, molding the crusted dirt into little mountain ranges. 

“Jesus,” Alan said as they bucked over the road. Maddie held tight to the oh-shit handle.

Finally, they came to a stop. A pumpjack and tank battery stood about 200 feet away, but other than that, the hilltop where they parked was nothing but last fall’s cut grain, short and spiky like Alan’s hair.

“I gotta pee, and no faggy music while I’m gone,” he said, referring to “Another One Bites the Dust,” which was playing low on the radio. He punctuated the statement by turning off the ignition with a flourish.

“Whatever,” Maddie said as she rolled down the window: you couldn’t leave a vehicle running this time of year for fear of starting a fire, and the truck’s A/C didn’t work anymore, anyway. She sighed, annoyed at herself for not calling Alan out on his comment, but she was so tired of it. She was tired of everything.

The Great Plains are the nation’s breadbasket, its fertile soil providing wheat and corn to a growing nation

Or at least that’s what had stuck with Maddie from fifth-grade social studies class. She reached for the Skittles she had bought earlier, along with a pack of condoms, at the gas station. The checker was a guy she had gone to school with; he used to sit next to her in that fifth-grade class and flip his top eyelids inside out when he got bored. Today, he had embarrassedly asked her if she wanted a bag, but she declined and stuffed the Skittles and condoms in her purse. Alan wouldn’t buy condoms. He would wear them, reluctantly.

Alan opened the driver’s door but got interrupted by a text message. He took his phone out of his pocket, flipped up the screen, and used his square thumb to tap the number pad. Alan refused to get a smartphone out of paranoia about privacy or something. He didn’t even have Facebook. 

“You want to go for a walk?” he asked after finishing his text and returning his phone to his pocket. He grabbed the gun and propped up against the middle seat. 

Maddie opened the door and slid out of the truck, but she just wanted to go home. She knew how this afternoon would wind up, anyway. They’d shoot some more gophers, fool around in the back of the truck, and Alan would take her back to town and drop her off at her grandma’s house. Then she wouldn’t hear from him for a day or so until he texted her asking for photos.

At first, Maddie didn’t mind. It was exciting, and no one else had ever asked for anything like that, certainly not in college, where she made plenty of friends and dated a few guys, but nothing that lasted longer than a month. And it was nice to be wanted. But after a while, she got tired of Alan’s growing demands. If she said no, sometimes he’d give her the silent treatment for days. So she’d snap a pic and get it over with. 

“You see that?” Alan said, stopping and pointing to a mound with about six gophers crawling around it. He raised the scope to his eye and took a shot. The bullet sent up a puff of dust about fifteen feet from his target, and the gophers disappeared. 

“Did you do something to this scope?” 

“No,” Maddie said. “You just suck today.”

He repeated her in a high, sing-song voice, “You just suck today.”

Maddie almost hated him. She wanted out; she’d wanted out for a year. But there was no one else, not around here. And those photos. 

Alan took three more shots before he hit a gopher in the head, sending the animal’s body into death convulsions. 

“Can I?” Maddie said as he reloaded, reaching toward the gun.

“No, you’ll talk shit if you do,” he said, clearly offended by her earlier comment. 

Maddie rolled her eyes and sat on a sandstone jutting out of the grass. She checked her phone but only had two bars and no text messages. Alan took a few shots, growing more and more frustrated. 

“It’s shooting to the right,” he said at one point.

Maddie mouthed “Whatever,” but he wasn’t looking at her.

“If you’re going to pout, I’ll just take your ass home,” he said.

“Fine, I’m getting hungry anyway.”

“Well don’t have a huge burger like you did yesterday,” he said. “I don’t like fat asses.”

Maddie got up and started toward the truck. “I’ll eat what I want.” 

She got into the truck but left the door open so some air could circulate. Alan followed a couple minutes later, jumping into the driver’s seat without turning her way. He wore oblong sporty sunglasses that wrapped around the side of his head, so Maddie couldn’t tell if he was glancing at her from behind the dark lenses. 

Alan started the truck and put it into gear. “Good thing I got them pictures for later since you’re being a brat.”

Maddie knew what that meant. It wasn’t just that he’d use them now that they wouldn’t be hooking up today. He brought them up whenever he was annoyed. 

They drove down the easement without talking, and when they got to the smoother county road, he hit the gas, driving far faster than Maddie was comfortable with. She started to reach for the oh-shit handle but stopped herself, afraid it might make him drive faster. She glanced at the speedometer and saw he was driving over 50. The tires kicked up gravel that popped against the bottom of the truck. The road now angled downhill and started curving along the rim. As they whipped around the curve, Maddie became aware that Alan wasn’t braking. 

“Alan!” she shouted, glancing out the window at the hill, about a forty-foot drop before the land leveled out. 

But Alan didn’t respond; the truck had left the road and dropped downward. He swore as the truck started rolling. His body hit Maddie’s hard, pushing her toward the door, but her seatbelt had locked up already. And then as the truck kept rolling, Maddie was aware of Alan’s body dropping to the ceiling of the cab before being thrown back to the driver’s seat. Another full revolution, repeating the pattern, throwing Alan’s body like a pinball before the truck came to a rest, right-side up.

Maddie sat, dazed. Her right arm ached like it had been punched, but other than that, she couldn’t feel any pain. Her stomach felt twisted, and she thought for a moment she would vomit. She was aware of the roof of the truck crunched down near the top of her head. The intact windshield was a network of webs and cracks, impossible to see out of.

“Alan?” she said. He was lying on the middle seat, bent sideways at the waist. 

He didn’t respond. 

“Alan? Are you ok?” Maddie asked, yelling now.

She put her hand on the side of his head, aware suddenly that his face was bloody and his nose likely smashed. She found a pulse on his neck. 

“Okay,” she said to herself and reached across Alan’s body to take the key out of the ignition. She forced the door open and pulled her phone out of her pocket. No bars. Alan had a different carrier, so she dug around in the front seat to find his phone. He didn’t have any bars either. 

“Okay,” she repeated. “Okay, okay.”

She would need to run up the hill and hope for coverage. She took a few steps upward, then stopped. Alan’s phone was still in her hand. 

She turned back to the truck and opened the toolbox installed in the bed under the rear window. It wasn’t locked; it hardly ever was, but there usually wasn’t much in there, just a few screwdrivers and a monkey wrench. She took the wrench, opened the scratched tailgate, and put the phone on it. 

“Alan?” she called, but there was no answer.

Maddie swung the wrench as hard as she could, slamming it down on the phone, shattering its screen. She hit it again. And again, over and over. She started screaming, swearing at the top of her lungs. The phone resisted the beating at first, but after a few more swings, the shattered screen went dark, splitting in two at the hinge. She kept swinging; she didn’t notice her aching right arm or the metallic banging on the tailgate. 

At last, Maddie stopped. The phone was in two pieces. 

“Alan?” she called. Nothing.

She ran up to the truck and checked on him again. There was still a pulse. He must have hit his head hard enough to knock him out. Maddie ran back to the phone and wondered for the first time how to explain its demolition. But she didn’t have to. She spotted a pumpjack and tank battery about a quarter mile away and took off running toward it, running as fast as she could over the rough, dry prairie. 

This area of Montana weathered the Great Depression better than many others, its economy buoyed by the recent discovery of oil

Maddie had written a paper about the local oil industry in a history class in college.

At the tank battery, she climbed the grated steel steps to the thief hatch at the top of the tank, opened it, and dropped the two pieces of phone in the brown, fetid crude oil inside. 

That was it. Maddie’s chest felt light. She exhaled.

She returned to the truck, her ponytail sticking to her neck and her t-shirt wet with sweat. 

“Alan?” 

Nothing.

Maddie ran up the hill, picking her way past rocks and gopher holes, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, and reached the road, sweating and out of breath. She dialed 911 on her phone. It rang twice.

“Hello? I’m out on Rim Road. We’ve been in an accident. We need an ambulance.”

About the Author:

Briana Wipf is at work on her doctoral degree and studies medieval literature and digital humanities. Before going to graduate school, she worked in Montana as a journalist. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Blood Pudding, Montana Mouthful, Change Seven, Drunk Monkeys, and others. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., with her husband, Jesse, and their dog, Roger Daltrey.

Categories
fiction

Let It Burn by Noelle Nori

Let It Burn | Noelle Nori

I cross one leg over the other, my right foot twitching like the broken minute hand of a clock. The pain will last until Wednesday, I remind myself. And that’s okay. It will burn, but let it burn. I should be taking off my coat, stretching, acclimating my muscles. Instead I huddle further into my big blue parka, keep shaking my foot to an inaudible beat.  

“First time?” 

I glance up. A perky looking twenty-something in a high ponytail is hanging up her coat, pulling one leg up behind her to stretch out a lean quad.

“No,” I say. 

Ponytail raises her eyebrows, looks at my dancing foot. 

“First time in a long time,” I amend. She nods like she understands. But she doesn’t.

I heave myself off the chair and lean against the doorframe of the waiting area as a trickle of sweaty women emerge from Studio C. There is a line of students in the hallway waiting to get in, and I take a spot behind Ponytail. Inside the studio I shed my coat, fold it into a puffy pile on the bench at the front of the room. I take off my shoes and socks and place them under the bench. The cool-down music is still humming out of the speakers, Jason Mraz telling us to “Love Someone.”

The other women and I gather our torture devices: squishy ball, Pilates ring, handled band, Versa Loop. I select two-pound weights (I’d been up to three pounds before I stopped coming) and pull a mat off the back barre. Ponytail is in my spot: middle row, right side of the room. For a minute, I consider asking if she would mind moving. But she looks all settled in, sitting with her legs outstretched, folding her torso over them. I glance around the room and head for the back left corner. 

“Good to see you, Liz,” Marla says. 

Marla is the instructor and owner of Artists in Motion, and I’m surprised she remembers me. It’s been nearly a year. I smile at her as she walks to the sound system to change the music, relieved she hasn’t stopped to make small talk. I hadn’t thought to prepare for what’s new, how have you been, what kept you away? If I’d thought about the possibility of having to answer friendly questions, I might not have come. Marla cranks the volume, and Jason Mraz’s croon is replaced by Jessie J thumping out instructions to “Do It like a Dude.”

Warm up begins. It’s always the same, and my body remembers what to do. Legs zip up, feet turn out. We snap them in. Out, then in. Just warming up the feet. Next, big wide second position. Push off with the working leg. Eight on each side. We’ve barely started, and I can already feel the heat spreading across my chest, already see my winter-white skin turning pink in the mirror.

Plank work is next. I get down on the mat and push myself up on my hands. We’re supposed to keep our eyes on the floor, but I tuck in my chin, look under me where the skin around my middle sags, my Lycra-woven top no match for gravity. My stomach that still looks pregnant, at least to me. Greg swears he cannot see it, as if this will make me feel better. As if anything could make me feel better. 

“Breathe, ladies. In through the nose, out through the mouth.” 

I puff out short breaths. My back and stomach are on fire, and I have to let my knees drop to the mat. It should be easy, just holding a position. A lot of things should be easy but aren’t. I hoist myself back up on my hands as Marla counts down: five, four, three, two, one. Sighs all around as we sink into child’s pose. 

Why it’s called “child’s pose” is beyond me. I’ve never seen a child make this pose, at least not naturally, not without inducement from a yoga instructor, like that time I accidentally walked into the wrong class at Yoga For All. Maybe because it’s supposed to be easy, as in “so easy a child can do it.” Maybe I should be posing like this all the time, summoning the childbearing gods. Maybe that’s what they did in the pregnancy yoga class I suddenly got an email for after I hadn’t taken a class there in years. Scary stuff, how companies know everything. No privacy anymore. Who wants to raise a child in this, I think as I exhale, my breath syncopating with the breath of the other women around me.

Shoulders are next. I follow Marla’s movements in the mirror, nice and long. “Soft,” she likes to remind us. “Soft.” Soft as…as a baby’s bottom. Such a funny expression. This is soft like…like a lullaby. Gentle. Be gentle with yourself, Liz.

“Almost there, 16 pulses. This is where it counts.” 

This is where it burns. I should have gone for the one-pounders, the “baby weights.” God, does everything have to be about babies? I can’t escape it, even in here, and I set my jaw. So much for soft and gentle. My arms quiver. Does that count as a pulse? That’s what my doctor said that day. “I’m sorry Liz, there’s no pulse.” She’d meant to say “heartbeat,” of course, but she’d said pulse.

We drop the weights and stretch. When I first started coming to class, the goal was to get those wedding arms that every Pinterest board seems obsessed with, to look good in my bikini on our honeymoon. While I like sports, I’m no natural athlete. I know all about the dangers of the modern sedentary lifestyle, but the truth is, I hate the gym. I hate the way the whole place smells like rubber: rubberized floor, rubber on the treadmills, rubber ends on the weights. I hate the sight of the bulky guys in the mirror, the ones who – it is so obvious – do not get that large without chemical assistance, muscles piled on top of muscles and neck veins bulging. And I hate the sounds. The clanging and clattering of machines, the grunting. One September night five years ago, I found a Groupon for a three-class pass for this studio. Nine months later, I’d reshaped my body. Butt stood up perky like it was saying hello, even after I crushed it all day sitting at work. My posture improved. I could carry six grocery bags from my car into my apartment building and up six floors without wanting to kill myself. All this from one class a week. Slow and steady. Consistent. I hadn’t even changed my eating habits. I tried to sprinkle in other workouts when I could – Zumba, an occasional extra evening class – but these were sporadic. No, Saturday mornings at 9:30 I could commit to, and I told myself that if I did only that, it was enough. The rest would take care of itself. And it did.

We cycle through the rest of our arm routine (biceps and triceps with the handled band) and then move to the barre. We always begin with pliés. Marla walks around the room, checking form. When she gets to me, she kicks a foot underneath my heel to take it a notch higher. “You should be shaking right now,” she says as we move into our third set, and I am. Sweat is pouring off me, pooling in places that make it look like I am peeing myself. We pulse it out, burn it out. Just when I think my legs might buckle beneath me, we’re done.

People who’ve never taken barre are surprised at just how intense it is. After all, no one is running around the room or throwing down twenty pound weights. I once dragged my friend Dee with me. Dee regularly runs marathons. Halfway through class, I saw her brunette head duck out the door, and when class let out, I had a text from her saying she was “alternately sitting in a bathtub of ice and lying down with the heating pad.” I remember being surprised, not because I didn’t think the class was hard, but because Dee had always been in better shape than I was. Plus, she was tough in a way I couldn’t compete with. 26.2 miles requires a mental fortitude I can’t even imagine. Later, she told me that she hurt for a week in places she didn’t know existed. But now I know a week is nothing. Try six months. 

We are standing on our left legs now, right legs extended out behind us, arms resting lightly on the barre, unless you are like me and leaning a quarter of your body weight against it. I’ve never liked this exercise. I have a hard time keeping my hips square. I try to focus on the muscle just under my right butt cheek as I slowly raise and lower my right leg to the ground, but I’m already burning. My pelvis twists, and Marla comes over and adjusts me so that my right hip faces the floor once again. I try to take my mind off how much it hurts. I picture what the bone must look like, a round knob, and mentally draw a smiley face on it. Say hi to the floor, Mr. Knob. We start the second set, and I pretend they are two lovers in love, Mr. Knob who cannot take his eyes off Mr. Floor. Through my labored breathing, I chuckle. This is a recently acquired habit, this naming of inanimate objects, and I’m not very creative with it. They are always mister whatever-they-are. It started out of sheer terror, looking at the needle full of egg-churning hormones Greg held in his hand. Hello, Mr. Needle, I’d said, not knowing what to say, and Greg and I had laughed.

“Sixteen pulses, and you’re done!” 

Marla says this to encourage us, to make us keep going, but I know what is coming. I bring my right leg down for a few beats, gearing up for a little thing she calls “bonus Saturday.” I am not wrong. I take a breath and start again. That’s all Greg and I seem to do lately, start again. I thought it would have worked by now. And I guess, technically it did work, this last time. I got pregnant. But getting pregnant doesn’t count as success. I mean, it’s better than not getting pregnant, but it’s like getting possession in a football game. You still have to go all the way downfield.

We finish the bonus set, and I cross my right ankle over my left knee to sit back into a figure four stretch. The second leg always hurts worse than the first one, and I don’t know how I will make it through. I need something to focus on – anything, anything other than the pain. I get into position and decide that after class, I am going to go to TJ Maxx and reward myself with a new workout top, one not so Lycra-y, one that doesn’t outline my there-but-no-longer-there bump. Maybe the cool, free-flowing kind like Marla is wearing now where the top is stitched to the bra in only a few places so it’s all wrappy and drapey and pretty like a dancer’s. Marla has had four kids. Nope, that’s the wrong thing to think about. Think about something else, quickly. Think how this pain will be worth it, how your butt will look so good in a couple months. Ahh, yes, that’s it. Pulse it out. Let it burn.

We stretch the left side, and calves are next. For some reason, I am really good at relevés. We start with our feet turned out, calf muscles just kissing each other, and rise up on both legs. I make sure to extend my arches; that’s what gives you such a pretty, curvy silhouette back there, like the kind Betty Grable had in her pin-up photos with the seamed stockings. Maybe I should buy myself a pair of those, too.

When we pulse, the movements are tiny but effective. I lower my heels a quarter inch, then push back up, remembering the last class I took before I stopped coming last year. We’d done a bonus round, and my legs burned until the following Friday, the calf muscles doubling in size as though I were flexing when I was just sitting. They went back down, of course, and the pain went away, but I was putting myself through enough pain with the IVF, and I decided I didn’t need any more, even if it could make you look good in seamed stockings.

We switch to single legs, and I point my right toes behind me, pull the arch in to cut across my left calf. Marla asked me once if I’d been a dancer. No, I’d said. Not unless you counted classes at the Y when I was ten years old. At Marla’s studio, they offer toddler classes. Apparently it is never too early to start.

We move into the last set, feet together, and I think of what the specialist said, that we should have started sooner. Those were the first words out of her mouth when we sat down. Hi. Nice to meet you. You should have started sooner. I grit my teeth and push up, lengthening my arches until flames ripple down the backs of my calves. I had found myself wanting to explain, to apologize: I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t meet Greg until I was thirty-two, sorry we dated for two years and were engaged for one, sorry we had the foolish idea to embrace a “whatever happens, happens” mentality after the wedding, sorry if I ever even once that first year felt the tiniest bit relieved when I saw that monthly red splotch in my underwear, sorry that I went back to not thinking about it the second year, sorry that we wasted another twelve months trying on our own before coming to see you, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. And when Marla yells, “Bonus Saturday!” I’m not annoyed, not at all, I’m raring to go, and Marla must sense this because she comes over and drops a foam block next to me so I hop on, line up my toes, the same movement only now I have greater range of motion, can give my heels farther to go, give my muscles a deeper workout.

By the end of the round I am shaking, quivering, calf muscles spasming. I straighten one leg behind me and lunge as far as I can while keeping my back heel on the ground, then I switch sides. Marla hasn’t called out the next position yet so I stretch both sides again, then reach for my water, trying to regain my breath. When I glance around though, I see that it’s not a respite granted out of the goodness of her heart. A small cluster of women have gathered around Ponytail, who is doubled over near the barre on the other side of the room, her blonde hair nearly brushing the floor. 

“I’m okay,” she calls to Marla, who has started to walk over. Then she says, sounding slightly embarrassed, “That time,” and heads nod in sympathy. One woman hobbles to the front of the room, digs in her purse, and brandishes an Advil bottle. 

“Has she eaten?” another one asks. “She shouldn’t take it on an empty stomach.” Ponytail’s ponytail bobs in affirmation, sweeping the floor, and Advil hobbles back with her bottle. 

“I’m sorry,” Ponytail says as Advil shakes out two tablets into Ponytail’s palm. “It came on all of a sudden.” 

“Should you keep going?” Has-She-Eaten asks, and I recognize her as Bonnie, the fit little grandmother who can do crunches for days.

“I’ll be okay. I can push through,” Ponytail says as she retakes her place.

We resume. The incident must have sobered Marla because she takes it easy on us: no more bonus sets. We finish our exercises at the barre, and then it’s time to lie down on our mats. Mr. Right Ankle, meet Mr. Left Kneecap, and with that I push up, pelvis lifting off the ground. Up and down, working that left hamstring gets a little boring after a while, and I need to keep my mind off the ache building in my leg, so I turn my head on the mat and flick my eyes around the room. There is Ponytail huffing away, locks splayed out above her head like bristles of a broom. Every once in a while she stops, hugs her knees to her chest. I try to think back to the moment when my period went from being an inconvenient afterthought like Ponytail’s to that thing we planned our lives around. Marla counts down the final set, tells us to stretch.

I switch legs, begin making introductions to the opposite sides of my anatomy. Two years ago. That was it. Standing in Target a week after our second anniversary, reaching for my usual box of 36-count Tampax and finding myself thinking, Wow, that seems like a lot. And then, with a smile, Maybe I won’t need them soon. Coming home to Greg mowing the lawn, baseball cap turned backwards, sweat glistening off his exposed arms. Deciding in the middle of the front yard that instead of letting whatever happen or not, we were going to make it happen. 

We were focused, goal-oriented. Finishing with a kiss and a high-five. Of course we could make it happen. But when a year went by and I was still buying Tampax (although I had downsized to the 16-count), we went to the doctor, who referred us to that specialist. Tests, tests, tests. First him, then me. The good news was, nothing was really wrong, at least outside of our ages. The bad news was, if something were actually wrong, there might have been something we could do about it. Something easier – and maybe less expensive – than what we were doing now. An operation, supplements. Something. 

I sigh and stretch out my right hamstring. Inner thighs are next, and I place the Pilates ring between my knees. This is a deceptively hard exercise. It’s easy to just bring your knees together, but the movement needs to come from the muscle. I focus on trying to make the foam handles touch. 

Marla takes us up to double-time, and my legs shake as I try to keep up. “Pulse, pulse, pulse, pulse!” she shouts. “16 more, and we’re done!” Then, “I lied, 32 more!”  

I groan and let my knees fall apart, resting a minute. When there are eight more left, I pick up again. I can do eight more. I can see the finish line.

We are almost done now. All we have left is core work, then we cool down. Marla calls out a modification “if you’re pregnant or have lower back pain.” I’ve seen women who are pregnant take this class before, but today no one is, at least not that I can tell, and I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting them, even when they aren’t showing per se. Marla must see me struggling because she calls out another modification, “if you have weak abdominals.” Yep, that’s me. I’m not overweight, despite the fact that I haven’t worked out in months, despite the – I can’t rightfully call it baby weight, let’s say hormonal weight – but I have so little ab strength it’s astounding even to me, and after a minute, I decide to just sit this one out. I put one hand on the small curve of my lower stomach and breathe, my lungs hollowing out the way my belly did six months ago. Oh god, don’t think about that; don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry. But one tear escapes, rolls down my cheek to mingle with the beads of sweat, and it’s a strange relief to just lie here and let it. Everyone has their eyes glued up to the ceiling, crunching away. 

The music changes, slows, becomes soft and comforting, like the hug we give ourselves as we pull our knees in toward our chests. I could stay in this position forever. 

But it’s time to move. We sit up and splay our legs apart. I can’t get mine very far from each other, the tightness like an elastic band pulled back with nowhere to go. We stretch to each side, then bring our legs back together and slowly rise up, clapping for ourselves and each other. 

On rubbery legs I make my way over to the bench. There is a line of women in the hallway, waiting for the adult ballet class to begin. I slowly put on socks and shoes, my big blue parka, as Jason Mraz reminds us to “Love Someone.” I’ll be sore until Wednesday, possibly all week. But that’s okay; the burn will pass; it’ll get easier, and when it does, I’ll be glad I pushed through.

I hold the door for Ponytail on my way out. 

“See you next week,” I say.

About the Author:

Noelle Nori’s fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine and The Write Launch. She was longlisted for The Masters Review 2021 Novel Excerpt contest and has also received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train Press. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.

Categories
fiction

The Children by Adeline Lovell

The Children | Adeline Lovell

Caroline’s sister calls her, which is immediately concerning. Usually, their relationship is relegated to texting once every few weeks and a cheap dinner out during Caroline’s annual visit home. Caroline almost lets it ring, then realizes if she is calling like this it might be an emergency so she picks up. 

“Brittany?” she says, realizing a moment later that she sounds cold in her surprise. “Everything okay?” 

“Hey, Caro,” says Brittany. “Yeah, of course everything’s okay. I’m in the city, though.” “In New York?” 

“Uh, yeah.” 

“Why?” Caroline flinches, ashamed of herself. She cannot help it. 

“I just thought I’d come down for the weekend.” Her voice is airy and nonchalant, but Caroline does not miss the thrum of disappointment. For a moment she truly and completely despises herself. “Are you… are you doing anything tonight?” 

“Um,” Caroline says, delaying. “I was gonna have dinner with Hannah. But… but we’d love for you to come, if you wanted to.” Even she is aware of the flimsiness in the offer, the lack of enthusiasm that must sound hateful. Christ, what is wrong with her? “Please, come. We’d love to see you.” 

“Okay,” says Brittany, a little more chipper. “Sure. Thanks. Where were you guys gonna go?” 

“We’ll come to you,” says Caroline quickly, not wanting to bring Brittany to her neighborhood, to restaurants where she knows the staff, and into their home where they have cash

and valuables. And besides, she wouldn’t know how to use the subway, so she’d take a Lyft and then ask Caroline to cover for it. “Where are you?” 

“Um,” Brittany says. “In Manhattan. Near Bleecker Street? Hang on, I’ll drop my location.” 

Caroline waits, gritting her teeth against her impatience. She’s seeing her therapist the day after tomorrow, and they will no doubt discuss this whole night in extreme detail, and Dr. Turner will make her feel less guilty about being such a bitch, instead calling it boundary setting or something. 

The pin comes through. Brittany is indeed near Bleecker Street. 

“Okay,” says Caroline. “Wanna meet at Washington Square Park?” 

“Sure,” says Brittany. “Where’s that?” 

“Check your map,” Caroline says. Then, gentler, “See you soon. I’m happy you’re here.” — 

She calls Hannah after that. “Hey, babe,” she says when Hannah picks up. “Um. Brittany just called me and told me she’s in town.” 

“Oh,” Hannah says. “Okay. We should probably see her, right?” 

“You don’t have to,” Caroline tells her. “But, um, I should.” 

“No, I’ll do whatever. Should we invite her over?” 

“No, no. I told her we’d meet her for dinner at Washington Square Park.” “Sure. I’ll make us a reservation somewhere there.” 

Flooded with relief, Caroline says, “Okay. Fuck. God, she sprung this on me so fast.” 

“It’s alright, honey,” says Hannah. “It’s just dinner.” Even after being married to her for four years, Caroline cannot tell if Hannah’s tolerance for her in-laws is real or faked for

Caroline’s benefit. Hannah is one of the warmest people Caroline has ever known, but everyone has their limits. 

“Maybe it’ll be nice.” 

That, Caroline knows is a lie, but she is appreciative. Hannah, at least, will dilute some of the acidity. 

“Thanks, babe,” she says. “Text me where.” 

“Will do. Love you.” 

“You, too. Hey, feeling okay?” 

“Yep! Totally. I’ll see you tonight.” 

— 

They meet up in the park. She sees Brittany right away, sitting on a bench, watching a busker perform with wide eyes. Brittany always manages to look out of place, her body perched unnaturally, like she thinks she’s being scouted for a model agency for women who look their age with the exception of teenage crooked teeth and a smattering of chin acne. 

God, you’re mean, Caroline tells herself. She feels particularly awful when Brittany sees her and looks delighted. She leaps to her feet and waves, the movements exaggerated. Caroline lifts a hand. When Brittany reaches her, Caroline is surprised by how tightly Brittany hugs her. It makes something twist in her chest, hard and fast. 

Brittany looks good, as far as good can go for anyone in her family. She has let her hair go brown again, the awful, juvenile bleach-blonde look finally retired, and she has gained a little weight, but she looks healthier than the addict-skinny she had been. 

“I’m so happy to see you,” Brittany says. As they’re walking, she links her arm with Caroline’s, and Caroline makes an active effort not to pull away. She just hates forced affection, is all, and they’re a little old to be walking around like that. 

“Me, too,” Caroline says. “I can’t believe you’re here, did you drive?”

“Nah. Took the Greyhound. It was long as shit, but it only cost, like, forty, round-trip.” Caroline is about to ask when her return bus is when Brittany spots Hannah and gives her the same exaggerated wave like they are all much closer than they really are. 

Hannah picked a nice Mexican restaurant, and it is a relief to sit down and busy themselves with the extensive menu. Brittany drinks two mojitos, which Caroline has to tell herself not to judge. She’s twenty-seven years old and, anyway, it’s not like the politics of letting someone else, even her sister, buy her dinner is really something she expects Brittany to understand. And, she supposes, you can be in recovery from drug addiction and still drink. But actually, she has no idea. 

She should know; she’d seen a bit of Brittany’s most recent decline into drugs. It was thirteen months ago, the last time she’d been home. As she’d gotten further upstate, the leaves around her car began to turn the colors of an enormous, harmless blaze. She drove a little over the speed limit, oranges and reds pressing her in, and a little mass of anxiety began to calcify in her stomach as she drew closer. When she was ten minutes from her neighborhood she’d pulled over and bawled. Her dread was not without reason. Brittany was living at home with their mom, but Caroline didn’t know who to worry about more. Her father and Brittany were the gentlest ones in the family. He tolerated her vulnerabilities more than anyone else and in return, she tried to resist her tendencies toward self-destructiveness. Caroline usually relegated her visits home to once a year, but her father had been dead for three months and Becca had called her, half-begging her to come home for a few days and convince Brittany to go back to rehab. 

“If you come,” Becca, her oldest sister, had said, “she’ll know it’s serious.” Caroline heard the bitterness, the quiet implication that she only made herself present for emergencies. She almost suggested a

formal intervention, but she realized they would probably have to get her brother involved for that and that was the last thing anyone needed, especially Brittany. 

When she arrived home, only her mom was there. Caroline had told her she was coming, and when she’d opened their permanently unlocked front door and stepped into the living room, she hadn’t even stood up. 

“Hey,” her mom said. “Nice of you to come.” 

“Mom,” said Caroline. She pinched the bridge of her nose until the aggravation ebbed. “I was worried about you all.” 

“I’ll bet,” her mother replied. Then, a little softer, she added, “Well, the one you should be most worried about isn’t even here. Maybe you can pick her up.” 

“Where is she?” Caroline asked. 

“She’s been at a friend’s since last night. That skinny young man who took Becca to prom, with the neck tattoo, I think. They’ve been spending time together.” “I’ll go get her,” Caroline said. Relieved, shamefully, for the excuse not to stay in this small, small house a second longer. The smell of cheap cat litter was making her nauseous, and the chair her dad used to read the paper in sat discolored and mocking. 

She called Becca for the guy’s address and drove the ten minutes to get there. The house was a squat, one-story building with an American flag hanging over the front window. She knocked and got no answer, then let herself in. 

She was immediately dizzy with a sense of extreme pariahdom, like walking into a high school party full of people who hated her. The air was vile with all sorts of degrading human activity, and she could hear, faintly, something playing on a TV. She followed the sound to

find a small, dark room full of people in all states of intoxication, an episode of Breaking Bad unwatched on the television. 

“Caro!” Brittany shrilled. Caroline had to wait a moment for her eyes to adjust before she saw her sister. She was lying on a threadbare couch, her legs thrown over the arm, her head resting on the lap of a man who was so high he looked comatose. “Sit down!” 

“No thanks,” said Caroline shortly. “I came to get you, Brittany. C’mon.” 

Someone behind her snickered, and Caroline turned. A man lay there, topless, his leer shameless. She became aware that this was not only a disgusting room, but a dangerous one, and the desire to get herself and Brittany out of there angled towards desperation. 

“I’m good,” said Brittany. She patted the couch lightly to make her point. 

“I need your help with something,” Caroline snapped. Her patience was non-existent. She felt a humiliating little quiver in her hands. 

“C’mon, Brittany. We have to go.” 

Brittany laughed, the sound high and mean. “I should probably go, guys,” she said to no one in particular. “Caro’s never in town. Can’t let her fancy writer friends think she’d give us white trash the time of day.” 

“Now,” Caroline said, her face and voice impassive. Brittany began to drag herself up, one limb at a time. 

“Your sister’s hot,” said a man sitting on the floor, who could not have been younger than thirty. Caroline could not be bothered to even scoff at him. 

“She’s gay,” Brittany told him, and there were a few whistles and jeers from the men. 

The faint sense of a threat rang through Caroline again, and she snapped, “We’re going.” As she turned away, Brittany stumbling along with her, a bout of hysterical laughter rose from the remaining group.

Caroline didn’t speak in the car. Not because she was worried she would scream, although she was, but because there was a slight tremor all throughout her body and she didn’t trust herself to drive well while shouting at her sister. She bit the inside of her cheek to prevent herself from glaring at all of Brittany’s dramatic movements from the passenger seat, the way she was rolling her head back like an imitation of an actress in a porno. She reached towards the radio, and Caroline caught a flash of track marks up her arms. When she turned it on, Xanadu filled the car, and Brittany giggled and closed her eyes, swaying a little. 

“Fucking turn it off,” Caroline said. She kept her eyes on the road while Brittany looked her over, then silenced the music. 

“Why are you so mad at me?” Brittany asked, her voice high and whiny. 

“Is that a real question?” She swallowed against the bitterness in her voice. Reasoning with Brittany right then would have been like reasoning with an exhausted toddler. 

“I didn’t ask you to come,” Brittany said.

 She looked freakishly thin, Caroline thought, the pale streetlights deepening the bags under her eyes. 

“You’re such a fucking control freak. How can Hannah stand you?” When Caroline didn’t respond, she added, “You think you’re gonna stop me from doing what I’m gonna do?” 

They had reached the house; Caroline turned the car off, and darkness fell over them save for a small white rectangle from their living room window. 

“If you’re gonna kill yourself on drugs,” she said, “do it. But mom will kill herself, and Becca will blame herself, and I’ll never fucking recover because my baby sister will overdose in a house full of illiterate pieces of shit when we all tried to fucking help her. So as long as you make peace with that, I’m not going to drive five hours and pick you up from places like that anymore.”

Brittany unbuckled herself and slunk out of the passenger seat and into her room where Caroline was sure, she drugged herself up again. Caroline stuck around another thirty-six hours. She grocery-shopped for her mom and bought dinner for Becca and her husband and hired a cleaning lady to come to the house the next week after she left. When she left, Brittany was not there to say goodbye. She arrived home late, said hello to her wife, and made herself a gin and tonic. 

“You think she’s gonna get herself together?” Hannah asked when Caroline joined her in the living room. 

She sank beside Hannah on the couch and took a long sip of her drink. “I can’t help everyone,” she finally said weakly. 

You don’t help anyone, she thought and threw back another swig. 

Two days later, Becca called Caroline to tell her Brittany had checked herself into rehab. 

“I guess whatever you said to her helped,” Becca told her, almost reluctantly. Then she said, “Um, her insurance doesn’t—” 

“I got it,” Caroline said, “I’ll write the check.” It was a relief, actually, to be asked for money that time. It was the one thing she knew she could provide. 

Brittany looks mostly okay, Caroline decides, throughout dinner. The three of them sit in a booth, Caroline and Hannah on one side. Occasionally, Hannah will brush her foot against Caroline’s calf. 

Caroline uses their time together to gain some insight into her family. Brittany is the only one of them who will not answer these questions with quips about how she should be more involved with them. “I talked to Mom a few days ago,” Caroline starts, her voice light. “She didn’t sound so good.”

Brittany momentarily stops trying to bend her paper straw into something functional. “God, yeah. She’s… yeah. If you even bring Dad up, she just—” Brittany brings her hand up and mimes tears pouring down her face. Their father has been dead for a year and a half, and their mother has taken it hard. “Becca does a lot of the cooking for her, and I do grocery shopping, and I know you’ve been sending money, so thanks. And so does Martin.” 

Caroline rolls her eyes. “How’s our dear brother?” 

“A pain in my fucking ass. Excuse me,” Brittany says hastily to Hannah as if Hannah will be inexplicably offended by bad language. Hannah smiles indulgently. “He’s fucking always calling me and Becca and telling us that we’re not taking good care of Mom, that we should do more for her. You know what he did? He bought her a fucking iPhone eleven. A seventy-two-year-old woman. Like that’s what she needs.” She scoffs, but her eyes glitter with real hate. Caroline feels for her. 

“I’m sorry you’re dealing with that,” Caroline tells her. Hannah nods in agreement, her face appropriately sympathetic. 

“Have you heard from him?” Brittany asks her. 

“Not for a while,” Caroline replies. 

The last interaction she’d had with him had been a long, convoluted text telling her what an awful daughter and sister she was. It had been sent at four in the morning and included sentences like I hope the Brooklyn key parties were worth missing the last few years of your dad’s life and It’s insane on so many levels that they’re keeping you in the will. Caroline had never even heard anyone use the phrase ‘key party’ until that text. 

“Has he been saying what a bad daughter I am?”

Brittany shrugs, which Caroline interprets as a yes. “I gotta pee,” she says suddenly. Caroline looks at the empty glasses, the bottoms clotted with wet mint, and is unsurprised. “Breaking the seal,” Brittany giggles. She stands, steadying herself with the table. 

“No one has said ‘breaking the seal’ since sophomore year of college,” Caroline says to Hannah, once Brittany is out of earshot. Hannah gives her hand a squeeze. 

“Babe,” she says, “I might head home. My back is fucking killing me.” 

For the first time all evening, Caroline really looks at her wife, and realizes she is a little wan.

“Oh, god, of course,” Caroline says. “Everything—everything’s okay, right?” She touches Hannah’s stomach gently. Under her cable knit sweater, the little swell is invisible. 

“Yeah, nothing feels unusual. I’m just beat.” 

Caroline nods, kisses her, and says, “I don’t think I’ll be long.” 

Brittany returns, a little steadier on her feet, sliding back into the booth with surprising grace. 

“Hannah’s gotta go,” Caroline tells her. She tries, momentarily, to find a way to leave with her, but she cannot construct a justification for leaving Brittany alone in the West Village, two mojitos in. 

“I’ve got an early day tomorrow,” Hannah says, apologetic. “Brittany, it was so lovely to see you. I’m so happy we did this.” 

When Caroline had introduced Hannah to her family, all they could talk about, even more than her being a woman, was her being British. She watches Brittany grin at the apparent inherent sophistication in everything she says as Hannah hugs her briefly. 

“Thanks for dinner.” Brittany gestures to the remains of the meal. “See you soon.”

Perhaps, thinks Caroline, she is reading too much into it. People say ‘see you soon’ even when they have no plans to see each other soon or at any point. If she expected to crash with them, she would have said, ‘see you tonight.’ 

It’s not that they don’t have the room, or like Brittany is a particularly egregious houseguest. It’s just that Caroline pictures the whole rest of the night with her sister, and breakfast tomorrow, and helping her find her way to Port Authority, and feels instantly exhausted. The labor of it seems so extreme that she almost cannot imagine herself having completed it, the day rolling by without her sister there. She does not know how she made it so long, living at home. Everything seems less bearable on the other side of it. 

Caroline pays right after Hannah departs. Brittany thanks her again. Caroline had not been drinking in solidarity with Hannah, but she really wishes she had let her wife bear the misery of a sober evening out with her in-law alone. Caroline could have had one drink, she thinks regrettably. Even the placebo effect of alcohol would have calmed her a little. She does not know why this feels so unbearable, her sister’s presence and nowhere to go, the music and chatter in the restaurant suddenly assaultive. 

“Dessert?” Brittany says. “There’s gotta be ice cream around here, right?” “Sure,” says Caroline. 

It is still early spring, and ice cream at this time of night isn’t entirely enjoyable. But they buy it from a place right next to the park and sit on the steps of the NYU law library, looking out at Washington Square Park. When their knees bump, it’s uncomfortable, like sitting beside a stranger on an airplane and having to pull away before continuing to invade their space.

Brittany doesn’t talk while she eats, and Caroline realizes Brittany has driven almost all of the conversation so far. She clears her throat and says, “So, how’s work?” Work, for Brittany, is a Goodwill sandwiched between a closed sex store and a smoothie joint. 

Brittany does not answer right away. She circles her spoon around the rim of the cup, gathers her cookies and cream, and licks it off in a way that almost looks sexual. Caroline cringes. 

Flatly, Brittany says, “So you’re really not gonna ask me why I’m here, huh?” Vague shame flushes Caroline. “What?” 

“Obviously I didn’t take a fucking Greyhound six hours to go to M and M world.” Caroline laughs weakly, but Brittany isn’t smiling. “Well, how was I supposed to know?” Caroline says, annoyed. 

Brittany scowls. “Right, why would you even consider anything I’m doing.” 

“Britt,” says Caroline, hurt even though she can’t begrudge her sister the reaction. “Okay. So, why are you here?” 

She scoops another spoonful of ice cream, the same complete circle around the bowl. She does not lift it to her mouth. “I got an abortion this morning.” 

“Oh,” says Caroline. Indifferent, overdoing the nonchalance, like she’d been told Brittany got a new sweater. “Oh,” she says again. “Um. How are you feeling?” 

She shrugs. “Like fucking shit. But I took Advil and that helped.” She makes an unattractive puckering noise with her tongue that Caroline tries not to flinch at. “You know they told me to go home and rest. But I wanted to see you.” 

Caroline, unsure what else to do, squeezes her sister’s shoulder. She wishes she were not so cold, she wishes she could pull Brittany into her arms without flinching. Brittany has always

seemed so vulnerable in a way that only the youngest child can, and Caroline has had to fight against her repulsion at it. She was always a terrible protector of her sister and the shame of that overwhelms her in a way it hasn’t in a long time. 

When Caroline was twenty-one and Brittany was seventeen, Brittany had a boyfriend named Jimmy. Caroline had been home from college, sulking. She hated coming home, but the lease for the apartment near campus that she was renting with friends did not start for a week. 

Her family already detested her enough for having left them to go to a college so far away, an Ivy League at that, full of rich kids studying things like philosophy and art history who would become Caroline’s good friends. 

Her parents and siblings were all rooting for her to fail, at least a little bit. It would have humbled her: Caro, who has always thought she was better than everyone around her, leaving to study English, changing her name to Caroline. The prodigal daughter returned. She didn’t even mind. She held onto that, especially at the beginning, when she was neck-deep in her fear of everyone else at Yale knowing just by looking at her that she’d once lived in a trailer and had never been on a plane and had aborted the quarterback’s baby weeks before he was declared brain dead in a drunk driving accident, a pretty standard occurrence in her town. So she thought about the other almost-success stories turned into cautionary tales, the gym teacher who had once looked like she might make it to the Olympics for skiing before flunking out of her scholarship and the Target general manager who had moved out to Silicon Valley to start a business with people he met online only to have a nervous breakdown and move back in with his mom. She thought of her sister Becca, three years older than she was and married to the most boring man in the world, pregnant with his baby and still working twelve-hour shifts as a waitress, and her brother, selling insurance over the phone, his anger that this was his life glittering off of him. She thought of her father, who worked for a moving company and hardly spoke, carrying the quiet disappointment of his life so heavily that he started to stoop at age forty, and her mother, coming home from her lunch lady job to read paperback romance novels and heat up meatloaf for children who barely acknowledged her. She revered these people. She thought of them all the time. They all thought she had betrayed them, that she was cold and elitist and cruel, so she leaned into that, she held them up as examples for the worst possible outcomes and it worked. The revulsion that grew around her like a cocoon protected her as she moved forward. She started essays the day they were assigned and got a job working nights in the library so she had an excuse not to party and put all the money she made immediately into savings. She was about to be a senior and graduate with honors and, if the internship she had this summer went the way she hoped and hired her, move to New York to work at a publishing house. 

The mutual disgust between her and her family had folded on itself into something enormous and quivering with a life of its own, pushing in between them even when a conversation with the potential to be pleasant began. “Can I help with dinner?” Caroline would ask, and her mother would say, “Oh, my cooking isn’t too trashy for you?” and Caroline would leave the room. Becca would say, “Caro, let’s go out now that you can get into bars,” and Caroline would have to grit her teeth against unmitigated disgust at the thought of going out and watching her sister get trashed while her husband laughed at her and guys she went to high school with leered at her while nursing their activism. No one could stand to have her home and she couldn’t stand to be there. 

But that week, she was. Her mother was making passive-aggressive comments about leaving, how she would be gone again next week, and all they had in the way of sustenance that adhered to her vegetarianism was Triscuits, American cheese, vanilla Oreos, and Rolling Rocks.

Brittany was still a kid and had not yet grown into the resentment her older siblings and parents harbored. Caroline hoped that perhaps she would be able to go to college and get out of there too. Definitely not Yale with her grades, probably not anywhere too competitive, but the state schools weren’t bad—she could become a teacher, maybe even a nurse or a paralegal if she worked hard. Caroline wanted this for Brittany, but not badly enough that she could put energy into convincing her. She had gotten this far by putting herself first. She could not dedicate anything to her family without risking being swallowed by them, chewed up in the manner that they all did to one another. They lived too close to each other; it was like being in an airless cell with someone, recycling the same air until they were being sustained only on toxic gasps. She would not be discarded by them in this shithole town to make minimum wage and drive into Syracuse if she wanted to meet other gay women. 

“Caro,” Brittany said, materializing in the kitchen, where Caroline was debating making a grilled cheese. She was startled out of her bitterness. “Come get a Mcflurry with me.” Because the options were that or listening to Fox News from the living room, she had. Brittany had gotten her license since the last time Caroline had been home, and it felt strange to sit next to her sister in the passenger seat. Brittany was playing The Dixie Chicks. Caroline watched familiar storefronts roll by, greyer and sadder than they’d seemed when she lived here. Half of them had been shuttered since she’d last visited. The car rose over a small hill; they were getting to the obligatory small-town stretch of corporate stores. She used to find them kind of dazzling, a clean, predictable world of neon lights, a dome of every object and food and service anyone could need from birth to death, improbably pretty when the sunset turned the sky to a creamsicle color and bright, familiar signs burned underneath the blaze. It depressed her this time.

Brittany drove past Mcdonald’s, and Caroline said, “You missed it.” Brittany didn’t say anything. “Britt,” Caroline said, annoyed, “are you paying attention?” 

“I gotta go to CVS first,” said Brittany. 

“Okay,” Caroline said, “what for?” 

Brittany turned into the parking lot, a little haphazardly: the car had a momentary suspension in what felt like an arc. Caroline held the dashboard. 

“Caro,” said Brittany, once she’d parked, “can I borrow thirty bucks?” 

“What? Why?” 

Brittany checked her appearance in the rearview mirror and applied chapstick. “Morning-after pill.” 

What?” said Caroline, briefly slipping into the prudishness of an old maid. “Are you kidding me?” 

Brittany rolled her eyes. “No. Please?” 

“Brittany,” Caroline said tartly. “Jesus, you have to use protection.” 

“I know, I know. Can we talk about this after? I do want those McFlurries.” Caroline retrieved thirty bucks from her wallet, handed them over, and watched her baby sister flounce inside. She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose until Brittany returned, plastic bag in hand. 

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll get your milkshake.” Caroline nodded dumbly. Brittany opened the pink box, popped the pill out of its foil, and downed it with a final slug of an old can of root beer that was sitting in her car, getting flat and warm. Caroline thought how much packaging those brands wasted for one fucking pill.

“Alright,” Brittany said like she had just finished a particularly inconvenient chore. “Flurries.” 

Caroline ended up paying for those too. They sat in Brittany’s car, the sky turning the clementine color that made Caroline want to cry, inexplicably, the storefronts threaded in gold. It could almost look pretty here. They ate in silence for a few minutes. 

“You do need to use protection,” said Caroline finally. She sounded so old. “Jimmy won’t.” Brittany shrugged. 

“What do you mean he won’t? Like it doesn’t fucking feel good?” She huffed out a sneer. 

Brittany shook her head. “Not that.” She smirked like she was holding onto a juicy, slightly amusing piece of information and debating whether to share it. “Alright. He wants me to get pregnant.” 

Caroline gave Brittany a humorless snort. 

“I’m dead fucking serious,” Brittany said. “He wants my baby.” She smiled and raised her eyebrows just a bit, like, can you believe someone is so crazy for me? 

Caroline had the momentary sensation of being held under cold water. “What?” “He thinks if I get pregnant, I’ll have to marry him.” 

Dread coiled in Caroline’s chest. “So—So—you tell him to wear a condom, he says he doesn’t want to, and you guys laugh and have unprotected sex?” 

“Pretty much,” Brittany said. “He kisses my stomach after, can you believe that?” Caroline closed her eyes. Vertigo was closing in on her. “How long has this been going on?” 

“‘Bout two months.” Brittany studied her and clocked, apparently for the first time, the blatant horror on her face. “It’s no big deal, Caro. Really. Normally I just steal the pills, but I figured you wouldn’t approve of that. I’m not gonna get knocked up.”

“Brittany,” Caroline said. “That’s rape.” 

Brittany let out a little snort of air. “It’s not. I like having sex with him.” She smirked again. 

Caroline, her voice splintering at its edges, said, “If he’s trying to get you pregnant against your will, and refusing to wear a condom, that actually is rape.” 

Brittany gave her a long, pitying look. “Caro,” she said, “Jimmy isn’t, like, abusing me. He wouldn’t have the balls. The reason he does that is ‘cause I’m out of his league and he knows it. Believe me, he’s a sweet guy.” Caroline was taken aback by the condescension in her voice. 

“I’ll kill him,” she said, hearing the melodrama in her voice. Everything, through her rage, was tinged white on the edges. 

“Oh, my god. It’s not a big deal. I’d never have brought it up if I knew you were gonna freak out about it.” Caroline felt out of control; she wanted to howl. “Nevermind. Drop it. Forget I said anything.” 

Caroline had told Martin. Together, they’d waited for fucking Jimmy after his lacrosse practice, kicked the shit out of him, and Martin had said, “If you ever get near my sister again I’ll have you in jail where you’ll be the one getting knocked up.” Not his smoothest, but Caroline appreciated the sentiment, and it got across. They had driven home together in Martin’s car and stopped at the Seven-Eleven along the way to pick up sodas. 

“You think he’ll leave her alone?” Martin asked her, as he pulled in front of their parent’s house to drop her off. 

“Yeah,” Caroline said. “Thanks for doing that with me.”

“Thanks for telling me.” They smiled at each other, uncomfortable, and then she stepped out of the car. It was the closest she’d ever felt to her brother, and the last time she would feel that way. 

Now, Brittany looks smaller than she had at seventeen, her edges sanded down, as vulnerable as she has ever been with Caroline. Caroline wishes they were somewhere else. The steps of a law school building seem so trite for this conversation, and not private enough. In a thirty-foot radius from where they sit, homeless men are asleep on the benches, 17-year-olds blow smoke rings, holding blunts with acrylic nails, and a young couple on an early date sits at the fountain, facing each other shyly. 

“Who’s was it?” Caroline asks her quietly. 

Brittany examines her nails. They are short and unpainted. “I’ve been seeing this guy. His name’s Aaron. He teaches history.” She snorts, self-deprecating, or maybe mocking towards Aaron for the appalling crime of teaching history. 

“Did he know?” 

“No. God, no. He’s too—he’s really nice, you know? He’s like, the first nice guy I’ve ever gone out with. He’s annoying about it sometimes. I told him my favorite show was This is Us, and on our next date he told me he’d started watching it.” Brittany shakes her head. Caroline thinks that sounds very nice and normal. “I was like, ‘you don’t have to be me.’”

“You said that?” Caroline says, startled. 

“Yeah.” 

They look at each other and burst out laughing, uninhibited. Caroline is wiping tears from her eyes by the time she manages, “Brittany, god, you’re harsh.”

Brittany grins. “I know, I know. But like, I could tell he wants us to like, send each other good morning texts and go to bed and breakfasts and all that crap. And like, I don’t know. Sure, that’d be nice, but we have nothing in common.” 

Caroline grimaces. They both go quiet while a group of young drunk people pass them, shrieking with laughter like no inside joke has ever possibly been as funny as theirs. “Wait,” Caroline says, “how come you came all the way down for the… to do it? The laws are the same up there, right?” 

“I know, like, at least two girls who work at the Planned Parenthood up there,” Brittany says. “I didn’t need that.” 

Caroline nods, unsurprised. She has never missed that at home, the incestuousness of tiny towns, the way she could not turn anywhere without being assaulted by the gossip of others. 

“Um, and honestly, I kind of wanted to talk to you.” Brittany presses her palms together as she says this. “I, uh—people are weird about this shit, you know? I mean, obviously.” 

“Yeah,” says Caroline. “I got an abortion my senior year of high school,” she says. She’s going for empathy, but it feels stilted and forced. It’s like she’s telling her they saw the same movie last week. 

Brittany says, “I wondered if you were gonna tell me that.” 

A cold thrum passes through her. “You knew?” 

“I found the paperwork in your dresser drawer a couple months after you left to go to college. Dumb to leave that, by the way.” 

“Huh,” says Caroline. She remembers not knowing if she would need to hold onto that for medical records, and not wanting to bring it to Yale, where she was certain she would not only be a hick but a slut if anyone found out.

“Yeah.” She pauses. “Do you regret it?” 

“I don’t even think about it,” Caroline tells her truthfully. She had not even really thought about it then, certainly hadn’t grieved over it. It had been the baby of a boy who she hadn’t even liked. He wasn’t her boyfriend. They had sex at one of the only parties Caroline had ever been to in high school, and she can remember how badly it hurt, that she had pulled his hair so she didn’t scream. She didn’t even know yet that she didn’t want sex with any man, she just thought it was supposed to be clean pain, like the way exercise ached but felt good in the end. They didn’t make eye contact in school the next day. It literally had not crossed her mind to tell him she was pregnant until the Planned Parenthood lady asked her about the father. 

Six weeks later, he wrapped his car around a telephone pole driving home drunk after a party. Everyone whispered about it in school, more intrigued than devastated: he was a being kept alive by machines but he was a vegetable. When his family pulled the plug on him, Caroline signed the big banner that her school put up in the hallway and hardly ever thought about him again. When abortion comes up, in conversations with her lefty Brooklyn friends or in tweets from angry young women she respects, she almost never thinks of it as something that applies to her, although of course, it actually applies more to her than most. 

“Hannah’s pregnant,” Caroline says. “We’re having a baby.” She tells Brittany this, she reasons, because six months from now, Hannah will give birth and Brittany will wonder why Caroline left out this important detail on a night they spent talking about pregnancies. 

Brittany snaps her head up. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, wow.” Then she bursts into tears. 

“I’m sorry,” Caroline says, bewildered. “I didn’t—sorry.” She flushes, disgusted with herself. She feels close to tears too. She is respected, people send her their manuscripts and beg

her to tell them how to improve their language, and right now she cannot say anything that does not pour gasoline on this flammable situation. 

Brittany shakes her head. She sniffles loudly, and drags the back of her hand under her eyes. It’s like watching a little kid cry. Caroline fights improbable annoyance. She takes her sister’s hand, winces at the moisture. 

“It’s gonna be okay, Brittany,” she says, the words sounding flimsy. Brittany nods, her face screwed up in grief. “Here, why don’t you come back to Brooklyn with me and spend the night?” Even as she’s talking, she finds herself mentally begging Brittany to decline. She’s exhausted. 

“Okay,” says Brittany, hiccupping. Caroline puts her hand between Brittany’s shoulder blades. They both sit still. 

— 

Caroline hopes, in spite of herself, that when she wakes in the morning Brittany will be gone, will maybe have washed the mugs of tea left in the sink the previous night. When she gets downstairs, Brittany has not even woken yet. 

She looks around her beautiful kitchen, light pouring in in buttery streaks, a vase of wildflowers sitting on the kitchen island. She is filled with inexplicable longing for her own life. She wants to distill it, drink it when she forgets her fortune, the fortune she made. Upstairs, her perfect wife is asleep in their large, soft bed. Their baby is the size of a plum. The one she aborted was only a few weeks smaller than the one she and Hannah have now, but she cannot muster any emotion for it beyond a collection of cells, a procedure as impersonal as a root canal. She is grateful to whatever it is in her that allows that, her own emotional stuntedness, perhaps.

Brittany’s presence in her home, in the light of day, feels oppressive, a wine stain on a cashmere sweater. She winces at this reaction, but she cannot banish it. She wants her life to herself again. She is so unspeakably angry at her sister for showing up here in her life full of pleasures and making her think about unwanted pregnancies and siblings who resent her and a mother she never calls. An ache swells behind her eyes. 

Caroline is making coffee and steeping in her anger when Brittany emerges. She looks like a teenager stumbling out of bed at noon. “Hey,” she says, and Caroline says, “Hi.” “Coffee?” Caroline adds, after a moment. Brittany nods. 

Brittany piles hers with cream and sugar. Caroline adds almond milk to hers. They sit across from each other, quiet. 

“Thanks for last night,” Brittany finally says. “Sorry I freaked out.” 

This thaws Caroline some. She says, “Yeah, ‘course.” 

Brittany takes a swig of coffee. Caroline remembers to ask how she feels. “Okay,” she says, “better.” 

“Good.” 

Brittany watches her, her face full of expectation. Caroline busies herself with the dishes in the sink. “My bus ticket is for today at two. From Port something.” 

“Oh,” says Caroline, hoping the relief does not show through. “Okay. You know how to get to Port Authority? No, you don’t, sorry. It’s pretty easy from here.” 

“Cool,” says Brittany. 

“It was really nice to see you,” Caroline says. She feels like this morning will never end, like the hour will keep stretching itself forth and she will never have her kitchen to herself again. Her sister, her whole family, are their own fucking planets, bringing a gravitational field into

every space and dragging her, flailing, into it. She feels so ashamed, like the morning after a one night stand, wanting to shower and file away the evening in a far, strange corner of her memory. “Yeah,” Brittany says. “Maybe I’ll come back? After New Years, or something?” 

“Yeah,” says Caroline. “Maybe, yeah.”

About the Author:

Addie Lovell is from Brooklyn, New York. She’s currently a junior at Smith College, where she is majoring in English and the Study of Women and Gender. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review. This is her second published piece.

Categories
fiction

Waiting for Things to Die by Emile Estrada

Waiting for Things to Die | Emile Estrada

Don Miguel’s white Buick spat smoke down the highway westward from Caracas on a Friday afternoon. Doña Soledad sat in the passenger seat shielding herself from the sun with her hands and young Rafael sat between them picking at a scab on his knee. The boy’s father sat in the back smoking menthol cigarettes with the windows rolled halfway down.

“Thanks for the ride, Don Miguel,” said Doña Soledad. “We’ll pay you on Sunday.”

“That’d be fine,” said the driver while he adjusted the rearview mirror to look at the man sitting in the back. “How’s Don Atanasio doing?”

“We shouldn’t talk about that now,” she interrupted.

“Mother, the boy needs to know,” said the tall, thin man from the backseat.

“Know what, dad?” asked Rafael turning around.

“There’s nothing to know, Rafi,” said Doña Soledad.

“You can’t coddle him forever,” said the boy’s father.

“If you want to raise your kid, take him to live with you,” she said. The man looked away and tossed his cigarette out the window.

“Is everything okay?” asked Rafael.

“Everything is fine,” replied the old woman.

“How come we haven’t gone to see grandpa in a while?” asked Rafael.

“It costs too much to have Don Miguel drive us every weekend,” said Rafael’s father.

“We used to go all the time. It’s been months since I’ve seen him.”

“You’ll see him today,” said Doña Soledad.

“Dad, if you keep my allowance, can we see Grandpa more often?”

“Ask your grandma.”

“Can we, grandma?”

“You’ll see him today,” she said in the kind of tone that ends a conversation.

Rafael kept picking at the scab on his knee until it came off. Blood dripped down his shin and he wiped it with the inside of his shorts, then he covered his knee with his right hand. He knew if his grandmother saw the blood she would make a big deal out of it. Old women have a way of doing that. The young boy looked ahead and saw they were driving behind a large blue truck. Ten minutes went by and they were still driving behind it.

“Don Miguel,” said Rafael turning to the driver, “I’ll give you ten cents if you pass the car in front.”

“You already owe me eighty cents.” 

“I’m good for it, I swear.”

Don Miguel passed the blue truck in front and drove over the hills, and Caracas vanished behind its curtain of smog until the road gave way to a warm green country. Grandpa Atanasio lived in Santa Lucia, a small township in the Venezuelan countryside, where his shabby cabin plastered in cracked stucco had stood for decades. Two hours after passing the blue truck, the car took a right turn on a dirt road among dark cedar trees that soon opened into the yellow clearing where Grandpa Atanasio lived. He sat by the front door of his cabin on a wicker chair and a metal cane rested against his thigh. Rafael jumped over his grandmother and out the car and ran to his grandfather before Don Miguel had even stopped. The old man had his left arm in a cast and bandages wrapped around the sides of his bald head.

“Grandpa Atanasio, Grandpa Atanasio,” the boy jumped on the old man’s lap and they embraced. “What happened?”

“I’m alright, kid. It’s nothing,” said the old man.

“It sure don’t look like nothing. Does it hurt?”

“Not at all.”

“Rafael,” said the boy’s father, “Come say goodbye to Don Miguel.”

Rafael ran to shake Don Miguel’s hand who handed the boy a handkerchief to wipe the blood off his hand. With a smile, the driver reminded Rafael that he now owed ninety cents for passing cars on the road to Santa Lucia. Rafael smiled back and reassured him that he would pay later. Rafael’s father and Doña Soledad approached Grandpa Atanasio. The two men kissed each other on the cheek, and Don Miguel drove away in a cloud of yellow dirt.

“I’ll get dinner started,” said Doña Soledad and went into the cabin.

“There’s a fresh chicken in the sink,” shouted the old man through the door.

“Did you clean it?” asked Rafael’s dad.

“Just killed it moments ago but couldn’t clean it. Hand hurts too much.”

“What happened?”

“It’s nothing, I lost my balance last Monday.”

“The neighbor girl called me. She said she drove you to the hospital on Wednesday night.”

“She came over to borrow something and found me.”

“She found you two days later? Why didn’t you go to their house?”

“The car hasn’t worked in months.”

“You need a phone in the house. You shouldn’t even be living all the way out here on your own.”

“It’s fine. You worry too much,” said the old man.

Rafael approached the two men and asked, “What happened Grandpa?”

“I fell.”

“Rafael, go play,” said his father.

“But I want to know what happened!”

“Go, now!”

Rafael put his head down and ran past the wooden outhouse and then past the rusted Chevy truck at the back of the property to where Grandpa Atanasio grew plantains on a small clearing and kept a henhouse, where the palm trees were planted so closely together that they always kept the dirt cool and dark. He washed his hands in the well and then spent the rest of the day chasing chickens through the palms. Doña Soledad watched Rafael from the kitchen window as she soaked the chicken in a plastic bucket filled with cold water and plucked the feathers off the carcass. 

“He’s in no condition to be living on his own,” Rafael heard his grandmother say from the kitchen.

“I can’t take him with me,” the boy’s father replied. “I don’t have any space for him.”

When she was done plucking the bird, she sliced it open at the abdomen with a dull curved blade, pulled the innards, and threw them to the side of the sink. The old man sat outside on the wicker chair chewing tobacco and, spitting into an old tin can of coffee, he smiled whenever Rafael ran by chasing after a frightened hen.

That night, Doña Soledad removed Atanasio’s dressings off his temple and cleaned the wound and the stitches with mercurochrome. She then washed Rafael in a tin bathtub and wrapped the boy’s knee tightly in a thick white bandage, so tight that the boy’s leg itched and ached, and once he was clean, the family sat in the small living room of the cabin to eat dinner. Before they ate, Doña Soledad cut the meat on Rafael and on Grandpa Atanasio’s plates. The old woman said a quick prayer and nobody spoke again until after the meal was over. Rafael noticed how thin the skin on Grandpa Atanasio’s face was as he counted the stitches on the old man’s head. 

“Grandpa, did we eat one of your chickens tonight?” the young boy asked.

“We did,” said the old man.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to kill your own chickens.”

“You’re not,” said Doña Soledad.

“She was old and stopped laying eggs weeks ago. There was nothing left for her to do,” said Grandpa Atanasio.

“Do you have to kill the chickens when they get old?”

“When they get too old or too sick.”

“Are any of your chickens sick, grandpa?”

“One of them is.”

“Are you going to kill it too?”

“Tomorrow.”

“Do you have to?”

“It’s better this way.”

That night, Grandpa Atanasio slept on the leather couch in the living room and Rafael’s dad slept on a thick wool blanket on the floor. Doña Soledad and Rafael shared the bedroom, its walls covered in old photographs, most of them black and white. Above the bed there was a photograph of a man in white robes and a large white hat, one of a soldier in handcuffs, and another of a large group of people around Grandpa Atanasio when he still had a full head of hair and a thick black mustache. A large stack of damp newspapers sat in the corner of the bedroom and on top there were two golden medals, one of which was shaped like a camera.

Rafael looked at the group photo from the bed and asked, “Grandma, was Grandpa Atanasio famous?”

“He was well known.”

“What’s the difference?”

“He worked with lots of famous people. You see that picture of the man in the white robe? That’s Jean Paul II. He was the pope a long time ago. When he came to visit Venezuela, your grandfather was hired to take pictures for the newspapers.”

“Why is that army man being arrested?”

“He was a colonel when the army tried to overthrow the government. Your grandfather took that picture when they arrested the man.”

“Does he take pictures for all the newspapers?”

“Not anymore, he’s retired.”

“What’s retired mean?”

“He’s too old to work.”

“Do the people in the picture ever come to visit Grandpa?”

“That picture is very old.” The old woman paused for a moment before speaking again. “They’re not really around anymore.”

“Are they dead?”

“What’s with all the silly questions tonight, Rafi? Go to sleep; you have plenty of homework to finish tomorrow.”

Rafael and Doña Soledad sat at the dinner table all morning working on his homework and, early in the afternoon after he had finished and had eaten his lunch, Rafael ran out the front door to go chase the chickens again. Out on the back lot, by the farthest of the plantain trees, were two black birds, as large as the boy, and their faces were naked and red and they bickered and squawked with each other, and Rafael, down on his knees, looked at them from afar. 

The birds fought and danced around in a circle until a large white bird flew down and the two black birds made room for him, and the white bird perched itself onto the carcass of a large brown hen and picked at the body with its dull golden beak and gored the dead creature while the black birds watched on. After it had its fill of the carnage, the white bird flew away and the other two swarmed what little remained of the carcass and pulled at it with their bloodied beaks and they squawked and bickered some more. The rest of the chickens roamed around the henhouse, pecking at the ground and clucking quietly, indifferent to the frenzy around them. 

Rafael ran back into the house and cried and grabbed his father by the belt and dragged him to the kitchen. He pointed through the glassless window at the birds and his father rushed back into the living room.

“Dad, do you still have your air rifle?” said Rafael’s father.

“What’s going on?” said the old man.

“There’s vultures out back. One of the chickens is probably dead.”

“What’s a vulture?” asked Rafael.

“The gun is in the cupboard,” said the old man.

“I’ll go deal with them,” said the boy’s father.

“Are you going to kill them?” said Rafael tugging at his father’s shirt.

“Let go, Rafael!”

“Are you going to kill them?” the boy insisted.

“It’s a BB gun. It won’t kill them. It’ll just scare them away.”

Rafael’s father grabbed the rifle from the kitchen cupboard and pumped it a few times before walking out of the cabin. Rafael climbed onto the kitchen sink and sat on the windowsill that faced the back of the property and his father came into view. Rafael had stopped crying and then Doña Soledad grabbed the boy by the shoulders, took him into the living room and sat him on the couch where she proceeded to redress the dirty bandages on the boy’s knee. Rafael heard the clicking of the gun outside and the birds cried and their wings fluttered until all sound vanished. 

That night Rafael could not fall asleep. He kept trying to scratch the scab underneath the bandages, but he knew if he tried too hard the bed would shake and his grandmother would wake up and redress his knee again. After Rafael’s grandmother had finally gone to sleep, his father dragged him out of bed, making sure to make as little sound as possible, and they sat outside under the crescent moon. The wind blew hard and the two of them heard the branches of the plantain trees sway back and forth. Rafael’s father sat on the wicker chair with a bottle of beer and the boy sat cross-legged by his father’s feet.

“How are you feeling?” Rafael’s father asked.

“My leg itches,” the boy said.

“You know what I meant.”

“I’m fine,” said Rafael.

“It’s alright to feel scared sometimes.”

“I wasn’t scared by nothing.”

“Vultures can be vicious.”

“They killed one of grandpa’s chickens,” said Rafael rubbing his eyes.

“They don’t kill anything. They wait for things to die.”

“Grandpa said one of his chickens was sick.”

“It probably died all on its own.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes. The boy’s father sipped his beer slowly and stared at the crescent moon as the clouds thinned, which allowed the moonlight to brighten the yellow clearing where Don Atanasio lived, and Rafael looked up at the sky and counted the stars but lost count after a short while.

 “Is something wrong with grandpa?”

“Here,” the man said and handed Rafael the bottle. “Have a drink.”

The boy shook his head, afraid of what his grandmother might say, but his father insisted, so Rafael wet his lips with beer and handed the bottle back to his father. The man smiled and finished the beer. He put his hand on the boy’s head and Rafael turned around to look at his father.

“Your grandfather is old, Rafael. He’s going to be staying with you and your grandmother for a while.”

“Is grandpa sick?”

“Not really. He’s just old. You see, when people get old, they can’t take good care of themselves anymore, so it’s up to us to take care of them.”

“Grandpa is dying, like all of his friends in the photograph, isn’t he? I asked Grandma about it last night, but she wouldn’t say anything.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“How come?”

“Everybody dies sometime.”

“Will I die too?” Rafael said after a brief pause.

“One day you will. So will your grandpa. So will I.”

“Are you going to be the one to put grandpa down?”

“What do you mean?” asked the boy’s father.

“I heard what he said about putting the chickens down.”

“No, we don’t put people down. We take care of them for as long as we have to.”

“I get it. It’s just for chickens,” said the boy with a sad smile.

“Just for the chickens.”

“Do you know how long will we have to look after him for?”

“No.”

“I hope grandpa gets to live for a long time.”

“Me too, Rafael.”

Young Rafael stood up and sat on his father’s lap and asked, “Dad, does it hurt when you die?”

“Aren’t you full of questions tonight?”

“I just want to know.”

“I don’t know, son, I don’t think so. I guess it depends on how you die.”

Rafael’s father walked the boy back to the bedroom and tucked him in next to his grandmother who hadn’t noticed his absence. Rafael knew Don Miguel would be coming back for them soon after sunrise and the boy closed his eyes very hard but could not fall asleep. The white of the moonlight lit the bedroom through a crack in the ceiling and he sat up on the bed to take the bandages off his knee. He looked at all the old photographs in the room and the damp newspapers in the corner, his grandmother quietly snoring on her side. The chickens were quiet that sleepless night, but the wind made the swaying trees sound like the fluttering of wings and Rafael wondered how long it would take for the vultures to come for everyone he knew.

About the Author:

Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Estrada immigrated to the U.S. due to the deteriorating political landscape of his native country. He studied philosophy at San Jose State University and currently resides in the state of Arizona.

Categories
fiction

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor by JJ Smith

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor | JJ Smith

“Now, I’d like you to know this isn’t something I’d normally do. Jan either, for that matter,” he said to the lawyer. He had been taught the value of self-sufficiency. Never a time to ruminate. No need to gab someone’s ear off. Definitely no need to call a lawyer. “The thing of it is, we aren’t getting what we expected from the VA, and we’re living on a fixed income. Jan and I, that is.”

He heard clacking across the phone line. “Just a second, sir. What did you say your name was?”

“Richard Broster.”

“And was it you or your wife that was exposed to Roundup?”

“It was my wife.”

“Ok.” More clacking from the lawyer’s end. “Are you currently represented by another attorney?”

“No, that’s what I was trying to mention earlier. We’re a bit out of sorts when it comes to things of this nature,” Richard said. He was quiet for a moment and looked at the light-up green buttons on the telephone. He wrapped the laminate coiled wire around his index finger. “We’ve never really been ones to ask for anything if we could help it. We just like to chew on it if we can. But we have co-pays and such,” Richard trailed off. “We’re only month to month right now.”

“I understand, Mr. Broster. Did you say you’re currently represented by another attorney?”

“No. Not currently.”

“Ok. Great.” More clacking and a sip of something. 

“Let me get some contact information from you just in case we get disconnected.”

Richard gave what he could. 

“No email, no cell phone for you? Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is. The kids broke Jan down, so she has one. They’re too much for me. The cell phones, not the kids. I humped a PRC Portable Receiver in Vietnam, and I’ve never wanted anyone to get ahold of me ever since.” Richard laughed to himself. The lawyer didn’t laugh back. No one in the house did either for that matter. He uncurled his finger from the wire. 

“Great. I understand one of you was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma?” The lawyer asked.

“Well, actually, my wife was diagnosed with what I believe is called a multiple myeloma.”

The lawyer made a sound. “Just give me a second, Mr. Broster.”

“You can call me Richard, young man.”

“Just a second, Richard.”

For a moment he just sat there on his sofa listening to the birds wake up and looking around at Jan’s paperbacks. He’d never much cared for romances, especially the ones that had real people on the covers and not artwork. He thought maybe he’d go to Target after this and get her another one. Anything to keep her out of that garden. Jan said that there was no use getting mad at the garden, especially because she wasn’t mad at him, and there wasn’t even really a person to be mad at so much as a-

“Mr. Broster?”

“Yes?”

“So, we’re not sure they’re accepting cases pertaining to MM. I can still take your information if you’d like.”

“You don’t know if your own firm is accepting cases?”

“Well, we aren’t actually handling the class action lawsuit-”

Richard grabbed the telephone base and walked into the sunroom. He tried to ignore the Menard’s smell of peat moss and limestone. Old tarps. Freshly potted basil. “What was that, young man?”

“I said we are just doing intakes for the firm, and then we send them cases if the criteria are met. We can still finish the intake if you’d like.”

“You know, I tried to make Jan a garden inside. She’s always had a real green thumb. I don’t think she’s taking to it, though.” Richard looked at his feet. A bag of Miracle Gro had spilled over the blue tarp onto the slate tile by the door. It was the pink kind, the Bloom Booster. He’d have to get the dustpan out later. He didn’t want Jan to trip, not that it was particularly easy to trip on potting soil, but Jan’s meds listed dizziness as a side effect.

“Mr. Broster, when were you, your wife, rather, exposed to Roundup?”

“It was Jan. In the garden most likely.” With the Roundup, he thought to himself. The boys had always loved Clue. Jan happily tolerated it, saying he looked like a fatter Colonel Mustard. Richard plunked down in his rocker and looked at the basil. 

“And when were you first exposed to Roundup? Excuse me-” 

“Well in July, I used to sit under the sprinklers on my father’s farm and let the Roundup cool me off. We didn’t know-”

“Pardon me, sir. When was your wife first exposed to Roundup?”

“That would have been the summer of 2004.”

“And you said she was exposed to it in her garden?”
“That’s correct.” Inside, he thought he heard Jan’s footsteps. Used to be he could hear the creak of the mattress when she got up, but she’d lost so much weight he couldn’t hear much of anything. 

“How long was the exposure?”

“Well, I suppose it was two to three days a week every summer for about eight years. Give or take a week in May.”

“Ok, great. Just a few more questions.”

Fingers playing with the chord again, Richard stood and looked around. He decided the garden was as garden-like as he could make it. Not the best, but at least the sun wouldn’t beat down on her so much. He walked back inside through the family room and into the kitchen to wait for Jan. He clutched the phone between his ear and poured Jan a bowl of bran flakes with oat milk. Bad for the soul, good for the roughage, the doctor had said. 

“Was Jan ever in the military?”

“Just me.” Richard sat at the kitchen table. It seemed now that his mornings weren’t much besides sitting in one room, growing restless, relocating to sit and kill time in another. Jan got up later and later each day. 

“Has Jan been exposed to any other chemicals, radiation, or does Jan have a family history of cancer?”

“No, sir. None of that. That is, a heart attack a few years ago but nothing else.” Just a husband with a hatred of weeds and an affinity for Roundup. He bit his lip and pushed the thought away. No need in this house for a weak husband. Be Cary Grant, Richard thought.

“Has Jan ever used tobacco products?”

“Definitely not. Not even before the boys.”

“Does Jan have HIV or AIDS?”

Richard opened his eyes wide. “Excuse me?”

“It’s a question we ask everyone.” 

What kind of lawyer is this? Richard thought to himself. “We’ve been married for 52 years.”

The lawyer clacked on his keyboard, filling Richard with an irrational sense of indignance. Then the lawyer said, “I will write down no. Has a doctor ever told you that the cancer could be related to Roundup?”

Over the line, Richard could make out some hushed tones. Words covered by a hand over the receiver. “No. Doctor Lusteen has been awfully mum about the whole situation. That’s another thing I was hoping to speak to someone about. Mostly it was just tests at first, but no real answers. Then he had a different woman, an oncologist, come in and look at Jan. And then the diagnosis. Is that normal, young man? For a doctor to be cagey like that?”

“I’m not exactly sure.” The lawyer sounded distracted. “I just have a couple more questions…” But the man’s voice was drowned out by the soft pitter-patter shuffle of Jan’s footsteps as she walked into the kitchen. She smiled at him. She smiled at him with the same loose, prematurely grey hair that she’d had when she saw him home from Vietnam back to this very house, with eyes that had never been anything but forthcoming, no secrets, nothing but awakeness for him and the boys. When she smiled at him like that, well there was nothing much to do but pay her attention.

“I made you some breakfast.” 

Jan smiled and raised a finger to her lips. Then made a hang loose gesture to him. No, a telephone symbol. He smiled. 

“Mr. Broster?” The lawyer repeated. 

“Sorry about that, young man. What were you saying?” 

“I asked if you had ever personally purchased Roundup.”
“That is correct. I have.” Richard looked at Jan by the fridge. The mini quilts that the boys had made at Camp Kiffawac hung there. She smiled at him again and walked out. “Jan, the cereal-” but Jan raised a finger to her lips. 

She mouthed a word to him. “Gardening.” She shuffled into the hallway, hands on her hips, shoulders forward. 

“Do you have proof of use or purchase?” The lawyer asked in the tinny, landline buzz. 

“Nothing on paper, I don’t think.”

“So no receipts of any kind?”

“No, I mostly use cash if I can help it.” He wondered if the sunroom garden provided enough cover for Jan. Too much sun could shine through the windows, and he knew she’d have to avoid any extra radiation, solar or otherwise, if the treatments were going to take. 

“Do you still have the containers of Roundup?” Was this young man getting frustrated with him?

“No. I threw them all out when I learned what I did. I mean, well, maybe I have one? I don’t go into the garage much anymore.” He looked around at all the places they had cooked together. Where they’d hung perfect, terrible crayon drawings. The cabinets where they kept the art supplies next to the cat treats. Richard wondered if the boys were ever going to have boys of their own. 

“Mr. Broster, I just spoke to-”

“Young man, I actually have a few more details.” With a drop in his heart, it suddenly seemed very important that this young man didn’t put Richard on hold again. “It wasn’t as if Jan was just using it for the weeds in the garden. I would actually spray it on parts of what she’d grow, and she’d spend hours sitting in it. So it wasn’t really Jan’s fault.” 

“It’s not anyone’s fault, Mr. Broster.”

“I’m the one that sprayed it.” Again, Richard had the urge to explain himself. Not to ask for a handout but just to let the lawyer know that Jan hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t need consolation, no one ever gave John Wayne consolation. But John Wayne always played a bachelor. 

More muffled talking from the other line. 

“And we have no grudge against Monsanto, for that matter. We understand that mistakes happen. We don’t want anyone to go to prison or anything like that.”

“Of course not. Mr. Broster-”

“Jan’s so damn anemic that she can’t even get up to watch the TV sometimes, you know?” Richard laughed a little, a quiet, unfunny laugh. 

“I imagine it’s very difficult. I just spoke to an associate of mine, and we aren’t sure that this case fits the necessary prerequisites.”

“How’s that?”

“We likely won’t be able to refer your case. Roundup has only been linked scientifically to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s no discernible grounds at this point to pursue a case with a plaintiff diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”

“Young man, Jan sat in Roundup for years.”

“I’m not saying that there’s no connection. I’m just saying that there’s no grounds at this point. Additionally, these personal injury cases are often complicated when the injured party themself does not use the product. Does that make sense?”

Richard realized his fist was clenched. He unclenched it, reclenched  it after he felt the trembles coming back. Sure, it made sense. “You’re a lawyer, son. Isn’t there something you can do?”

“Oh, I’m not a lawyer, Mr. Broster. I’m a legal assistant.”

“You don’t think there’s anything you can do?” Richard leaned back in his chair and looked at the bowl of cereal and the boys’ little quilts.

Richard was fairly sure the man sighed, like he was about to do something he’d regret. “Mr. Broster, I can look a little more into it. If I learn anything helpful someone will reach out to you this afternoon. Is there anything else I can do for you right now?”

“Um. No, son. That’s all right. Thank you much.” Richard hung up the phone with a hollow clack. He stood and brought the cereal out to the sunroom. Maybe he could get Jan to eat a few bites before it got too soggy. 

It was hot in the sun/garden room. But no Jan. Just the smell of peat and the soil he still had to pick up. Bowl in hand, Richard walked outside to the back of the house. 

“Hey, Dick,” Jan said. She was in her overalls sitting in the garden. It was sunny out. She was smiling. 

“You think you can eat a little bit?” he asked. 

“Not quite hungry yet.” Jan pulled a weed and then another. With the tenderness of a mother who had yet to be a grandmother, soft hands with no trembles, Jan removed a marigold from its plastic home and placed it in a small divot. “I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”

“That’s fine, Jan,” Richard said. His face felt warm. He told himself it was going to be a hot one. 

“How’d it go with the lawyer?” she asked. 

“They said they were going to think about it.”

“Is everything ok?”

“Everything’s fine, Jan. I’m just thinking about the store later. I have to get you something, that’s all.”

She leaned back from the Marigold. It looked safe in the ground, like it had been born there. “Say, Dick, you think you could help me with something?”

He brightened. “Yes, of course. What do you need?”

“Do you think you could help me bring some of the supplies out here?” She smiled. Bright white teeth. Real teeth, not veneers or dentures. 

He debrightened. “Are you sure you don’t want to try a little gardening in there?” He knew this was silly, made sillier still by the bowl of soggy roughage in his hand. “The doctor said you shouldn’t be getting too much extra radiation.”

“You have any uranium buried out here?” Jan winked this part. 

Richard knew he’d concede then. There was nothing he could do against a wink and a smile like that. “Will you wear a sun hat at least?”

“Ok. As long as you go up and get it. I need all the energy I can for this here.”

Richard went back inside and left the cereal on the kitchen table. Upstairs he grabbed a sunhat without too many holes and a little purple band around the base. He didn’t grab her favorite, a flopsy number with a ring of plastic flowers. That one had too many holes. 

He was panting by the time he got back out to the garden, and the sun was hotter, but Jan just sat there, Marigolds in a perfect little row. He dropped the hat on her head. 

“Better?” She asked. 

“Better.”

“I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”

“Fine by me.”

“You’d have to water them when they come back, and I don’t want to tie you into anything you aren’t ready for.”
“You should’ve told me that 52 years ago.”

They smiled. It was all ok. 

“Do you think you could go get me the angelonias from inside? They say angelonia on the sticker.”

He did. He brought out the little plastic cartons and watched her plant them. 

“I think these’ll grow up first, so I’m putting them in the back. That way they won’t cast too much shade on their sisters.”

She finished with the angelonias and he brought her out the pimpernels and azaleas and the geraniums. He watched as she put the geraniums on either side of the main patch. She said that she was putting them there to frame the rest. To put them right in the middle would ruin the scene, but on the edges, she could look from start to finish. In front of the angelonias, she planted the rows of pimpernels and azaleas, digging the trowel down and packing the dirt over. She packed it harder than he thought necessary, but he wasn’t the one with the green thumb. 

“You want to try one?” She asked. 

He stood there sweating. Flower toting was hard work. “I think I’d rather watch the master at work.”

“Well, the master needs her verbena and her begonias.”

He saw her squinting when she said this. It made him anxious to see her on the ground like that. Had any of the Roundup he’d sprayed over the years infected the grass? And the squinting. It was too bright out. Too much sun. Her blood couldn’t take much more of this. He thought about telling her this but didn’t. He brought the verbena and begonias. He was sweating up a storm. 

She put the verbena outside the azaleas and put the begonias on the outside rows. “If these things grow like they should, we’ll have bumblebees and Monarchs here all summer. It’ll be alive. More alive than it already is. Which is plenty.”

“You trying to get us bee stung?” He asked more crossly than he should’ve, a fake laugh in his voice. 

“Bees bring life with them. They make a garden wake up in the morning.”  

That was just like Jan, to not let things bother her. How many terrible movies had they watched that Jan could stomach because of a performance or because the director did charity work. “I don’t know,” she said as Richard complained, “I liked it. The sets were really nice.” Jan was always capable of controlling what she gave her energy to.

Inside, he heard the telephone ring and forgot about the flowers he was supposed to grab. He went inside past the decluttered green room and answered the phone. “Broster residence, Richard speaking.”

“Mr. Broster?” It was the young man from the law firm. 

“You have any updates for me?” Richard didn’t want to hope. John Wayne never hoped, he took action. 

“I do actually. So, I called Davis and Brock, the firm we refer these types of cases to, and I actually have some good news.”

“Yes, young man?”

“So they’ve just started accepting cases for MM related to potential Roundup exposures.” The boy sounded excited. He was proud of himself. 

“Is that right?”

“It is. Obviously it’s no guarantee of acceptance or payout or anything like that, but it’s better news than before. Would you like me to refer your information to them?”

“That would be great, young man. Thank you much.”

The legal assistant took a little more information from Richard, and quickly as he could, Richard left the house for the garden. 

He saw Jan there, a carton of pale blue flowers at her feet. 

“Jan,” he said, “you’re not going to believe this.”

A look of concern crossed her face. “Is everything ok?”

“It is. It’s great. The firm Davis and Brock are accepting cases of MM pertaining to Roundup exposures. This could take care of so much for us. The bills mostly, but other stuff too. Hell, if they settle we could even take a vacation.” Somewhere shady. Without too much sun. The northwest maybe. 

She smiled, but it didn’t have any feeling in it. “Did you grab the flowers, Richard?”

Richard breathed away his excitement. “Aren’t you excited?”

“I am. I’m excited for all you’ve done for me today.” She pushed back the sun hat with dirt-spotted hands. She squinted as she did so. 

Richard wiped away more sweat. He didn’t know what else to do. The sun seemed so damn bright. 

“You know, Jan, you really could use a pair of sunglasses. Let me go grab some for you.” He turned to go inside.

“Richard, stop.” There was finality in her voice. 

“Jan, you need to start taking care of yourself. You see how bright it is out here? All sorts of radiation comes from the sun. And you didn’t even eat your breakfast today. You won’t be-”

“Richard.” She inhaled through her nose. Deeply. “Stop.”

“Why? I can’t just stand here and wait, Jan.” Anger rose in his voice. 

“Then don’t wait. Do two things for me. Ok, Richard?”

He swallowed and nodded his head. 

She paused for a second and stared at him, like she was reading something on the back of his skull. “Will you quit your goddamn fussing and come plant some flowers with me?”

What could he say to that but yes? The grass was warm and dry and he felt the sun beat on his head. 

“Here,” she said, handing him the trowel. “Dig down about six inches.”

He scooped out the earth and set it to the side. The ground was yielding and moist, rejuvenated after winter.

“Take this.” She passed him one of the pale blue flowers. “Put it in the hole. Make sure you press the rest of the dirt on top of it. That’s right. Make sure you tamp it down nicely.” 

He looked at his little flower, perked up out of the ground. 

“You’re good to me, Richard. But I am 82 years old, and you just don’t know when to pipe down.”

He looked at her. She was smiling again. “What are these ones called?” he asked.

“These are scorpion grass. They’re the forget-me-nots.”

He looked down at the flowers, the clusters of periwinkle blue. They rounded at the edge, like little saucers. As he looked closer, Richard realized that a ring of yellow filled each and every center, yellow that bled to white and then blue, almost indiscernible to a casual watcher. Flecks of dirt covered some of the clusters, and Richard felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch one of the petals, to remove the earth that covered up the soft, natural blue. He worried that if he touched the petals he might mar them in some way, bend or twist their concave form. He lowered his head and tried to blow the dirt off. They bent underneath his sputtering breath, the stems so limber, the crowns of flowers so unapologetically alive. 

Winter Star by Andrew Jordan

About the Author:

JJ Smith is a graduate assistant who is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As a lad, he was primarily concerned with video games and raising havoc in the house. In time, that shifted towards becoming a professional writer and his game obsession has transformed into a chess obsession. Smith considers Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, and Carmen Maria Machado to be masters of the form.

Categories
fiction

6-fiction

Issue #6 ~ Winter 2022
Fiction

John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor

“Now, I’d like you to know this isn’t something I’d normally do. Jan either, for that matter,” he said to the lawyer. He had been taught the value of self-sufficiency. Never a time to ruminate. No need to gab someone’s ear off. Definitely no need to call a lawyer. “The thing of it is, we aren’t getting what we expected from the VA, and we’re living on a fixed income. Jan and I, that is.”

He heard clacking across the phone line. “Just a second, sir. What did you say your name was?”

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Categories
fiction

Winter Generation by John Rudoy

Winter Generation | John Rudoy

On a Friday in January, Grandpa slipped on the ice outside the Morse Red Line stop. He had told us himself how dangerous that sidewalk was. The snow piled on the elevated track, and the drainpipe was clogged, so when it melted and refroze with the alternating glare of the winter sun and the chill of the lake winds, great icicles bulged and stretched nearly halfway to the ground and a pane of mirror-smooth ice spread itself over the pavement below. Grandpa took my sister Deb and me to see it, and we regarded it like a museum exhibit. We missed a train just standing there tracing the shape and the shine.  Grandpa showed us this not with anger or frustration or any sense that he wanted the situation addressed. It was merely a phenomenon of interest. He pointed it out as one points out a cardinal perched outside your window.

But now he had slipped on that ice: misjudged it or forgotten it was there. He had hit his head, and now he was in the hospital.

They pulled us out of class and we waited in the office until Mom came in and got us. Dad was in the driver’s seat, sweating in his blue parka. Its hood was crushed up against the head rest and the fake fur lining creeped back over his head like a poorly made toupee. His skin was jaundice yellow in the slanted rays of the afternoon and his black mustache crumpled and twitched. We crawled into the back seat.

“What was he even doing, taking the el? He can’t afford a cab?” dad said, as he pulled away. “I had to cancel the whole afternoon of patients. The whole afternoon,” he continued, inching down Clark Street in a rage. 

“It really put Peggy out to have to find a sub for me in the middle of the day,” mom said, quietly, testing how much of her own annoyance, dad would accept. He was in an accepting mood. “Pain in the ass,” he nodded at her. “Pain in the ass.”

Dad parked in a physician space in the hospital garage, looking at his wife sideways from hooded eyes as he got out of the car, reconnaissance to see if she would say anything about this slight contortion of the rules; the physician space was for not visitors, not even if they happened to be physicians. She might have said something, usually. At the time, I was surprised she didn’t, but now, remembering it, dad’s shoulders were already dropping. The taut fighting stance was giving way to the despair of losing his last parent, and mom must have seen it, and she let him get away with his trespass.

Grandpa never opened his eyes. When we got to his floor, the doctor pulled dad to the corner by the nurses’ station and they stayed there a while, heads bowed, angled toward the wall, dad nodding every once in a while. He nodded too enthusiastically, to let the doctor know he understood, remind him that he was an MD too, that he was a professional even in this windy spray of January pain. 

I had spent the car ride downtown happy to be out of school, watching Clark Street shed the low, gray, stained-awning shops, brown-brick bungalows, and parking lots for the neon bars and theaters, the red-brick townhouses, and finally the towers that, from the car, you couldn’t even see the tops of. I had imagined making fun of grandpa the way he made fun of me, punching him in the shoulder for slipping on that ice, him punching me back. I had imagined him singing the Shabbat prayer in the hospital room, in his voice that sounded like the rustling of branches, the creaking of bending trunks, the rush of leaves in some wild forest.

But Grandpa never opened his eyes. I stood next to his bed that Friday, watching his mustache, too still under his failing breath, staring at the scar along his jawline, wanting to touch it, like he sometimes let me touch it, but not sure I should. So, I stood next to his bed with my arms lifted slightly, like I was getting ready to flap my arms and fly away.

Mom only took a couple days off when grandpa died. Dad followed the traditions at first; he covered the mirrors, he sheared the bottom off one of his old ties at the service, and he sat shiva for a couple of days with grandpa’s friends from shul. But then he stopped, said he had to go to work. He had grown up with the rules, the rules guided him like currents in the air, but he knew enough to weave through them, make the right excuses so that the old men nodded, argued a bit, but then left, and left him alone.

The border crossing was a little over a mile away, up a steep crest in this wide dirt road through the forest, and then down a gentle slope until the guard post, where there might be a bored teenager, or a sleeping old man, or a handsome lieutenant, banished to the frontier to smoke and brush his mustache with his fingers. The old man, they could roll by. The handsome lieutenant would frown at their papers and shake his head and pull at his cigarette and accept a bribe. The bored teenager, he might start shooting. 

Jacob’s father motioned to the cart driver, who nodded and stopped. The driver jumped down first and lifted his hand to help Jacob’s father and mother step off the cart, then he lifted Jacob by his armpits and set him down, placing his raw-rubbed hands briefly, gently on the boy’s cheeks. His thick index finger tapped the scar along Jacob’s jaw line. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed in Ukrainian. “It’s okay,” Jacob responded, in Yiddish. The man shrugged, smiled, mounted the cart and was gone. 

They walked a quarter mile down through the forest to the north bank of the Prut River. They stood for a moment, listening: thin pine trunks creaked in the wind, branches shuffled and rustled, but no human sounds intruded. They turned and walked down the river, until the night began to fall. In the darkness, Jacob’s father led them back up out of the river valley until they could see the lights of Chernovitsi ahead and to their right. They had overshot it a bit, but they were across: out of Ukraine and into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city lights felt sharp against Jacob’s eyes, like thorns. He felt his scar, running his pinky along the raised skin down his jawline. “Almost there,” his father said. And they walked on into the city.

Dad sat outside the light, arms crossed at the kitchen table, occasionally unfolding himself to rub his jawline, mirroring grandpa’s old tic, or to turn the page of his newspaper, though I do not know how he could read anything in the dark. 

Mom had lit the candles and sung the prayers, tore off the pieces of challah and let us have the few drops of wine. We stopped doing this for a while after grandpa died, but Deb and I kept asking and finally dad said okay and stopped on the way home to buy the challah and dug in the pantry, swearing, to find the box of candles. But when darkness fell and three stars bloomed above the skyline, he shook his head, “you can do it,” he said, and opened his newspaper.

I thought I had remembered what it was like: the mass of gold light against the dark, the songs filled with dust and amber, the special heat of the wine. But this time I saw not the light but the dark pushing against it, the shadows of the kitchen chairs over mom’s shoulder. With every pause, I heard the creaking of the streetlights in the late winter wind. The wilderness whipped around us, and our little candles, our meek voices could not keep it from cutting into our backs.

The coast up here, out east, was sheared off by a fleeing glacier not so long ago in geological time. It is sharp and crisp and new, not yet worn by the generational crash of the sea.

 I’m walking the kids around the tide pools and dad is standing up on the dry rock, watching us and rubbing his chin, running a finger along his jawline. I’m watching him do that when Jake slips and lands elbow-first on the rocks. He doesn’t cry, but Evie does, still not quite able to separate her older brother’s pain from her own. 

“You okay?” I say, surveying his face, which is red with sun and salt and embarrassment. 

“Yeah,” Jake says, tightly, holding his elbow and trying to pretend he is not holding his elbow. He seems fine. He will be fine. His mother may or may not be angry with me, depending on whether there is any broken skin.

I sit down on the kelp-slicked rocks next to him, and Evie sits on my lap. The ocean stretches out east for what could be forever, if I didn’t know better. There is a sea anemone in the tide pool nearest to us, sucking what it can from its temporarily circumscribed universe, waiting for the return of the ocean and its abundance.  

I say to Evie, who is still crying, that it is okay, but she is unconvinced, staring at Jacob’s face, which is, through a screen of inexpert stoicism, still broadcasting distress. So, I distract them with the story of the lion’s mane jellyfish, a massive creature of the northern waters that can grow up to six feet wide, with tentacles trailing dozens of feet behind. Their sting is deadly, even, sometimes, to creatures as big as humans. Evie has stopped crying, Jake’s hand is looser around his elbow, and the everyday pain of a slip and fall is fading in the glare of lurking sea monsters. 

But, and this is the part I find most interesting, but where I know I will lose them, the lion’s mane can only survive in the relative warmth and calm of the summer. As the arctic currents clog with ice, the jellyfish release their spawn and die. The larvae drift to the sea floor, anchor themselves, and expand, just barely, to little half inch stubs, huddled against the winter sea. They never get bigger. These children of the great crimson lion’s mane are immobile and unremarkable. The winter generation lives merely to survive and, as summer approaches they release buds that float up, up, and in just a few short weeks spin themselves into those fearsome floating poisoned-tipped behemoths while the winter spawn wither, having seen nothing but the same dark sphere of ocean for their whole existence.

Jake has lost interest, as I knew he would, and is up, walking back to dad, and Evie is staring at some terns diving into the shallows just offshore. “Okay, let’s go back and see grandpa,” I say to her, standing up, slipping on the seaweed and plunging my knee into the tidepool. Evie starts to cry again, and we decide to crawl back to dry land on all fours.

Dad is smiling at me, so broad I can see his teeth. “Evie is scared, dad!” I yell from all fours. “I’m not scared!” Evie yells at me, and now my father is openly laughing, the big comic book “ha ha ha’s” that are too evenly spaced to be completely spontaneous but too slathered in mirth to be completely forced. “Ha ha,” I deadpan back, pulling myself up onto the dry rocks where dad is standing. I bend back down to lift Evie up as well.

Evie runs away as soon as I put her down and stands, back to us, a few feet behind dad, sulking.

“So, this is around where the pilgrims landed?” Dad says to me, and it takes me a few seconds to realize he’s serious. He has started doing this now, affecting basic ignorance of common American folklore, though he was born here, grew up here, went through the same public schools as all the kids who learned this stuff like a lost book of the Bible. He does the same thing, though, when Jake sees someone with a yarmulke, or tzitzit, or spies a mezuzah on a doorframe and asks him what it means. He shrugs. Changes the subject, refuses to tie himself to any history broader than his own lifespan.

I stare at him for a bit before I reply, “Yeah dad, somewhere around here.”

“This is not what it’s supposed to say.” Jacob pushed the ketubah, the marriage contract, back across the table. “It’s pretty, but this is not what it’s supposed to say.”

His son pulled toward his chest, rubbing his jawline, which the boy always did when he was annoyed with his father. Jacob found himself rubbing his own jawline, feeling the old scar, somehow more prominent now that when it was fresh decades ago. He dropped his hand. “Also, it’s supposed to be in Aramaic, not Hebrew.”

“She is not going to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic, dad, and I don’t want her to sign a traditional ketubah in Aramaic.”

“Well good,” Jacob said, and he was rubbing his scar again, “Because she isn’t supposed to sign it at all. Just the man. Just you are supposed to sign it.”

“It’s the 20th century dad, and we live in America. I’m not going to force her to accept something written by fanatics in a desert thousands of years ago that makes her my property.”

“That’s not what it does,” and Jacob was out of his chair now. But he had to pause; the spill of words in his throat were Yiddish, not English, and he had to translate them, one by one, “And who cares what it says!” He was shouting.

His son was out of his chair too, hands in the air, “Everyone! Why wouldn’t someone care what it says!”

Jacob sat back down, tired. “It’s just who we are,” he said. “It’s just to say, ‘we are still here.’ That’s all it really means.”

“If that’s all it means,” his son said, “It’s not worth having at all.”

Jacob ran his pinky along his scar, let it drop to his neck, where he felt his pulse, still there.

****

Now that dad was retired, we got him to come out to the coast for a long vacation, to stay with us at the cottage we rent each summer. Deb came out too. So now we are all in one place, for the first time since mom’s funeral.

Back at the cottage, dad has spread piles of envelopes and papers and brochures bristling with post it notes over the white kitchen table and I’m leaning over them while Deb stands behind me, trying not to fall asleep while he explains what each document means, who we have to call, what we have to do, to make sure we get the money that’s coming to us when he dies.  I don’t know how much dad has. He’s stashed it all in a honeycomb of accounts for tax purposes, ostensibly, but really as a hobby, now that mom is gone.

 “Just write it down,” I told him once, a few years ago, but I learned not to say that again. This is how he bonds with us, planning the financial implications of his death. I know now not to try to take that away.

I can’t end the conversation, so I interrupt, change the subtopic, though I stick with the overarching theme of death. “You’ve never said what you want done with—you know—what kind of ceremony you want.”

He looks at me the way I looked at him when he asked about the pilgrims’ landing site. “Just set me on fire and be done with it,” he says, and turns back to a chain of post-its chronicling the evolving constituents of some retirement fund or another.

“Is that allowed?” I ask, but dad just rolls his eyes. “I’m not sure there is anything in this one anymore,” he says, tapping the last post-it.

Mom wasn’t cremated. A rabbi spoke at her service, but dad didn’t cover any of the mirrors, didn’t sit shiva, only wore a yarmulke when someone handed him one. Dad did tear his coat, standing there at the graveside; he pulled a button loose and rent a seam, but he said it was an accident, that he’d just forgotten to unbutton the coat when he tried to open it to get some breeze on that unseasonably warm November day.

Dad pushes the post-its aside and begins searching through the pile for the next trove of scrawled account numbers, passwords, phone numbers.

“What’s that?” Deb asks, pointing to a large envelope, dark matte blue with glossy white trim.

“What’s what?” Dad replies, not looking up. But dad knows what she is pointing at, and Deb knows what it is, and I know what it is. “That,” says Deb, jabbing her fingers at the envelope. 

“I’m not sure why it’s even here,” he says, trying to slide it back under the other papers, but Deb takes it, opens the envelope and pulls out the thick parchment. Mom and dad used to keep this in the closet in a wooden box with diplomas and old letters, our birth certificates and a gold letter open shaped like a rapier with a ruby-colored globe on the hilt that they bought on their honeymoon. I would sneak in once a month or so and open the wooden box, pull the paper from its blue envelope and look at the Hebrew script, which whispered woody sounds without meanings. I would trace the vines and leaves and clusters of grapes illuminating the borders, and I would look at mom’s signature, and dad’s signature, marveling, the way children do, that these were written by my parents, but versions so much younger, versions before me. Only after I was off to college did I find out Deb used to do the same thing.

Dad is standing up, trying to pull this paper out of Deb’s hands, but she is up on a chair holding it out of his reach. “You’re going to rip! Dad, you’re going to rip it!” He has his hand curled around the back of her knee and for a vertiginous second I think he is going to pull her down on top of him and kill them both, but he lets go. “Who cares if I rip it!” and that tea-soaked accent of grandpa’s is in there, laced in the rage somehow.

Deb climbs down from the chair. “I care if you rip it,” she says, but she hands it back to him, and he sits back down, tucks it into its envelope in silence. 

“I fought with grandpa over this,” he says, holding the envelope up, staring at it like he is reviewing one of his investment documents. The accent is still there, hiding among the words. “He wanted it more traditional. The customary words, in Aramaic, no space for your mother to sign.”

“And you won?” Deb asks.

“Yes, I won,” dad says, lifting the envelope and letting it drop back down onto the table. “Or mom wouldn’t have agreed to marry me, and you wouldn’t exist.” I smile, expecting him to smile, but he does not. He looks at us now, “So much wouldn’t exist, if we did things the way dad—the way grandpa wanted.” He puts the ketubah under the pile of papers, rearranged the stacks of paper, and says, his voice again Midwest clean, clothesline fresh. “Now let’s keeping going through what I’ve saved for you.”

Jacob stood on the deck every day and watched, rubbing his bayonet scar, even when, as was the case most days, there was nothing to see. Once the shadowed coasts of Northern Europe rolled below the horizon, it was simple gray sea until America rose, weeks later, blue and gold and green. Seeing it there, still distant, he remembered only a feeling like walking from an overcrowded house into the still and frosted air of autumn, a lightness pulling at his skin. Gone from one continent, not yet in another.

About the Author:

John Rudoy is a scientist and writer interested in migration, tradition, and assimilation and what these broad concepts really mean for the individuals who go through them. His writing has appeared in publications as varied as Science Magazine and the Maine Underground Writer’s Anthology.  He lives with his family in Portland, Maine.

Categories
fiction

The Shapiros by Michael Wesner

The Shapiros | Michael Wesner

I was halfway through a Maury rerun when the kids started yelling about dolphins. It was almost noon on the Fourth of July, and I was drinking coffee from my Garfield mug in front of the new sixty-inch Smart TV that I’d bought with ex-husband, Carlo’s, child support. The piece of shit. Even though our children were well into their twenties, some legal mistake with the paperwork kept the son of a bitch sending me money each year. He called my cell every once in a while to ask me to do something about it, but I stopped answering after I bought the TV. My ass hadn’t felt this comfortable in years, and I had just settled into the loveseat in a position that didn’t hurt my hemorrhoids when I heard the kids hollering out back. 

“Mom, come quick!” Jessica yelled. 

“Hold on a minute!” My eyes were glued to Maury. “I gotta find out who gave this baby cocaine!” 

“It’s dolphins!” Craig said. “Right near the house!” 

“Ho-lee shit!” I launched myself up from the loveseat, spilling coffee onto the shag rug and burning my thigh, but I didn’t care. It was the best holiday of the year. For the first time in too long, my kids were back home. 

I burst through the screen door and scurried through the backyard to meet them on the seawall. The lawn was mostly sand and dirt these days, with small patches of grass and weeds struggling to grow like the tufts of beard that checkered Craig’s face. I had to take my time stepping over a few planks of wood, leftovers that had been rotting out back ever since I’d removed Carlo’s dock. He’d bought it way back when we were still married, and it quickly became a splintery eyesore on the water, almost as faulty as our marriage. The view of the bay was the only thing that made this shithole worth it now that the new housing development across the water blocked my sunset. I joined my kids on the cracked concrete seawall and peered out into the calm blue waves. “Are you sure you saw dolphins?” 

“Sure as I saw my eyelids this morning,” Craig said. 

“What the hell did you just say to me?” 

“It’s a saying.” 

“It’s a shit saying,” I said. 

“People say it.” 

“Look!” Jessica pointed at the water. Sure enough, shiny grey blobs appeared no farther than a stone’s throw from the seawall, swimming closer and closer. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said. “Look at those sons of bitches go!” 

“They’re coming right towards us!” Jessica said. 

Water sprayed from their blowholes, making a pfft sound like a person pretending to be an elephant. Craig laughed to himself. “Sounds like you, Mom, when Dad calls your cell.” “Do not mention your father right now, Craig Shapiro. This moment is magical.” And it was. Despite the fact that my kids were grown and living on their own, they came back on the Fourth to spend time with their old, lonely mother. I might not have had all the money in the world, but I knew that this was truly important. 

The dolphins went under again and we waited a minute. I pulled out my Winstons and lit my second to last cigarette. Craig asked to bum the other but I rejected him. I told him too much smoke and the dolphins wouldn’t come up again. Maury still blared on the television inside —something about a pharmaceutical scientist and psychosis in children. The studio audience ooed and awed while we stared at the rolling waves. 

“There they are again!” Jessica yelled. 

The little rubbery blobs floated even closer this time. There must’ve been a hell of a school of fish in front of the yard. That, or Craig poured bacon grease over the seawall again. “The dolphins are almost close enough to touch,” he said, and with that came an idea. “Craig, go get the ladder out the garage,” I said. 

“What for?” he asked. 

I smoked my cigarette and watched the dolphins. “Remember that time you guys wanted to go to Discovery Cove?” 

Jess looked over at Craig with that fussy look she always gets, but Craig was staring back at me. “When we were, like, twelve?” he said. 

I nodded and sucked my Winston. Carlo and I had been at each other’s throats ever since we’d said I do in that Chinese buffet they’d converted into a church. Our fighting peaked when the kids were in middle school, and I finally asked for a divorce while he sipped Budweiser on his dock. The commotion took a toll on the kids. I wanted to cheer them up with Discovery Cove tickets but couldn’t foot the bill after paying the lawyer. Now that they were grown and home, this could be my time to finally shine as a mother. 

“Mom, what are you thinking?” Jessica asked. 

I blew a cloud of smoke and the wind caught it. The dolphins pffted again. “You kids are gonna swim with the dolphins like you always wanted,” I said. 

Craig cheered, then leapt over a plank and ran around the house like a good boy. Jessica pouted at me. Her bright orange hair glimmered in the sunlight, flowing with the wind just like my cig smoke. I’m still not sure where her red headedness came from, but it sure as hell wasn’t me. Her Daddy was bald when I met him, and I don’t believe I slept with any other man around that time, though I won’t put my hand on the good book and swear about anything from that marriage. Most of those memories have escaped me. Anyway, Jessica looked beautiful next to the water. 

“You want us to swim with these dolphins?” she said. 

“Yeah, I do.” 

“Right now?” 

“Well, you couldn’t when we tried ten years ago, could you? Shit, you might as well now.” 

“Mom, I don’t think this is a very good idea.” 

“Quiet now,” I sucked the cigarette in. “Here comes your brother.” 

Craig came bounding around the house like a wild boar, swinging the extension ladder back and forth. He very nearly tripped over a mound of dirt that would’ve sent him straight over the seawall. But no, he’d gotten more coordinated since that incident at the Vincetti’s wedding years ago. Oh, sweet Craig. We had to scrub champagne out of the rent-a-tux for two weeks straight before the place would take it back. 

He handed me the ladder and Jess gave me that fussy look again, the kind she gave me as a baby before she’d shit herself. I stuck the cigarette back in my mouth and dropped the foot of the ladder into the water. It was just so good to have the kids home. 

The ladder touched the bottom without having to extend it. The dolphins circled the bay about a dozen feet from the yard. Craig went in first, and I figured that if that lanky mess of limbs had no problem then I could just dive in too. I descended the ladder so quickly I damn near choked on my Winston. Jessica warned me to be careful, that I didn’t know what was at the bottom, but I told her I did too, that her father’s Ford Fiesta had been down there ever since I drove it through the yard and over the seawall after the divorce. I was joking, of course — I had pushed it off the dock at John’s Pass in ‘99 — but the kids didn’t find that funny. They had their father’s sense of humor. I laughed all the way down the ladder and into the water, then swam five feet out into the bay where sweet Craig was now trying to pet the dolphins. I shouted back at Jessica that there was nothing out there that could get me, that this wasn’t my first rodeo, and floated out into the bay, laughing until I choked on my own cigarette and something sharper than a rusted Ford sliced open the bottom of my foot. 

“God help me!” I yelled. “I’m dying!” 

It felt like a paper cut, if paper was thicker than a 2×4. The saltwater burned my wound something fierce. I screamed and kicked, but it felt like the water was going to tear my skin and muscle straight from the bone like wrapping paper from a Christmas present. I treaded water with one leg until my hemorrhoids started burning and I got a Charlie horse in my non-cut foot. My body started sinking. I spit out the cigarette and saw dumb Craig floating away without me, then turned to look up at my beautiful daughter standing on the seawall. How pretty she looked with her red hair flowing in the wind… she should be my final image, not that curly haired fool chasing after dolphins. 

“My time has come!” I shouted. 

“What the hell did you do?” Jessica said. 

“The Lord has come to take me!” 

“I told you this would happen.” 

“Don’t give any of my shit to your father!” I flapped my frail bat wings in the water as hard as I could, but I was still going down. Jess crossed her arms and made that shitting face again. “At least make it look like you tried to help me!” I said. 

The cut throbbed. I tried to lift my legs up to float on my back, but my toes barely touched the surface. My front half went under for a moment, and I couldn’t see nothing save for my life flashing before me like in one of those Hallmark movies. There was Leroy, my dead betta fish, flowing down the toilet after he jumped out the bowl in third grade. I saw Carlo and that ugly blonde goatee he wore when he asked me out at the Veteran’s Day dance at Gutter Guards Bowling. Then pregnancy number one, pregnancy number two, and finally the divorce lawyer’s beige suit, blazer collars popped above his fancy gold chain, a jungle of hair on his knuckles. I saw a cloud of pelicans flying up and away from the water as a red Ford Fiesta sank deeper and deeper into Boca Ciega Bay, until Carlo’s Buccaneers license plate was completely submerged by murky blues and greens and fish in between. Now I sank deeper and deeper like the Fiesta before me, finally on my way to where the pipes lead, to see my beloved Leroy again. 

But then I thought: Fuck that fish, I had shit to do on this Earth. My Independence Day party was tonight. The kids were gonna meet the guys from the bar, and I was gonna use Carlo’s child support to buy a turkey. An Independence turkey. I had to live to taste my Independence turkey! 

“Jesus H. God, Jessica,” I shouted. “Help your poor dying mother for God’s sake!”

“Would you just stand up?” she said. 

Delusional girl! I was going in circles now, struggling to keep my head above water. Neighbors across the bay were coming out from their waterfront mansions to stare. I wasn’t even sure where Craig had gone. He could’ve been abducted by the dolphins for all I knew. “Mom, just put your feet down and stand!” Jess said. 

“Don’t test me, Jessica.” I swallowed rust-flavored water. “So help me God, if you don’t get in here right now to help the woman who gave you life — ” 

“It’s, like, five feet deep!” she said. 

I put my non-aching foot down slowly, where it met soft clay. It took my weight, and I stood still for a moment with my head above the waves to catch my breath. I wiped water from my mouth and blew my nose into the bay. My girl was brilliant. 

“Jessica, throw me a damn cigarette,” I said. 

“No,” she said. 

“Whatever cut my foot is still out here. I need my smokes to defend myself.” “I think I touched a dolphin!” Craig shouted in the distance. 

“Shut up, boy!” I said. “Where were you when your mother was out here dying!” The Boormans were watching. Across from our little one-story home was their three-story sunset-blocking behemoth — a monument to everything wrong with waterfront real estate. The couple stood out on their dock next to their sailboat, a large thing labelled Lemon Squeezy. They wore matching short shorts and sipped on lemonades. 

“Can I help you?” I shouted. “Having fun over there?” 

The wife shook her head and the husband wrapped his arm around her. He was wearing a button-down sweater. It was 90 degrees. 

We hadn’t gotten along since someone called the sheriff’s office with a false tip about terrorist activity happening in their mansion. I was at the Vincetti’s wedding that night but they still blamed me. You push a Ford Fiesta into the ocean one time and suddenly you’re a bomb threat faker. 

“Show’s over, there’s no more!” I said. 

They both looked away from me, heads turned in opposite directions like the eyes of a nervous chameleon. I started up the ladder on one leg and plopped onto the seawall with my bleeding foot up in the air. Jessica went into the house to grab the first aid kit. The seawall looked like one of those teen slasher movies I took Craig to see when he was little. Where was Craig? I turned and saw my lanky son floating down the deep end of the bay as if nothing had happened. Where had he learned to swim so good? 

The Boormans resumed watching from their dock as Jessica uncapped a bottle of disinfectant. I lit my last Winston, which helped a little. Then I slipped the Boormans the bird, which helped a lot. Jess tore a strip of gauze and dabbed a rag with alcohol. I sucked my cigarette and listened to the end of the Maury episode from inside: “You left our two-year-old son in a 7/11 bathroom overnight?” The Boormans averted their eyes as Jess applied the cold, stinging gel to my foot. I turned my face to God and screamed like a banshee. Blood splattered onto the seawall. The television crowd cheered. 

*** 

By the time the afternoon rolled around, my foot still looked like something out of a Vietnam movie. Jessica insisted that I cancel on the Independence turkey and settle for drinks with her and Craig instead. I was bummed, but I was willing to compromise as long as the kids stayed. The fellas I invited from the bar understood. Most of them were veterans with war injuries themselves, so they empathized when I called and told the story. I flat out refused to see the doctor Jess recommended. There wasn’t the money for it after I bought the TV, and I figured that after two full decades of mending Craig’s skateboarding injuries, the least I could do was heal a gashed foot. Besides, I still had some painkillers left over from the car accident in ‘04. They weren’t prescribed to me then and they weren’t prescribed to me now, but why the hell not? A girl’s gotta party on the Fourth of July. 

Crevon came over while the kids were out getting groceries. He was my pot dealer, occasionally my mechanic, and sold fireworks during the summer months. I asked him to come drop off some M-80s but he stayed to help me with a letter I was writing to the Social Security Administration. I had applied for disability on account of my hemorrhoids, but Uncle Sam had had the nerve to reject me without explanation. Crevon had worked for the IRS in the ‘90s, and he said it made him an expert on the SSA by association. 

“If you’ve worked for one government office, you’ve worked for all of ‘em,” he said. “Shit, I’m just about as good as an FBI agent.” 

I offered him a Miller if he could convince them that rectal inflammation had stopped me from gainful employment. He set the M-80s down on a dirt mound in the backyard and got to writing. A couple hours passed before my kids showed up for the festivities. Jessica came first with a bottle of wine and a quiche. Craig came in a little later with a six-pack of Shiner and, coincidentally, a quiche. I asked ‘em what the hell they thought they were doing bringing French food to a party celebrating America. 

“Quiche is French?” Craig said. “I bought it at Walmart.” 

Crevon cracked open a beer and told us that quiches weren’t French, they were an English pastry with a French name. I asked him where the hell he learned that, and he said he read about it in some book. Crevon was like that sometimes, always reading and then bragging about reading. 

“English, French, what’s the difference?” I said. “I just want something American for a day celebrating America. Like hot wings. Or pizza.” 

“Pizza isn’t American either,” Jess said. “It’s Italian.” 

“Actually, the delivery pizza we eat here is American,” Crevon said. 

“Well, not originally.” 

“Yes, originally.” Apparently, he’d read in some book that delivery pizza was different from the way it was cooked in Italy. “There’s Domino’s in Rome that serve American pizza, which is different from the pizza that a real Italian joint would serve.” 

“Have you ever been to a Domino’s in Rome?” Jessica asked. 

“No, I read about it.” 

“Is that all you do all day? Get high and read books, and then talk about the books you’ve read?” 

“No,” Crevon said. “I also sell fireworks during the summer months.” 

Jessica and Crevon hadn’t gotten along since he’d started selling me pot after the divorce. He was the one who got me those painkillers. Now that he was writing me a letter to the SSA, I invited him to stay for the family festivities even if we weren’t cooking turkey. He accepted and spent most of the evening arguing about books and pot with Jess. 

I lit a few glass candles and lined them up on the seawall after sunset, a nice touch to distract from the bloodstains. We filled a cooler with Shiner and set it down on the mound of dirt in the middle of the yard, right next to the M-80s. Then I hauled some chairs out from the garage and unfolded them on the edge of the seawall. It was a struggle and a half doing all that with my busted foot, but I did what I could. The yard might’ve been full of old planks and dying grass, but shit did it all look pretty once the candles were lit. The fireworks were beginning on the other end of town, and we could see ‘em great over the water even if the Boorman’s skyscraper was in view. I sank into one of the yard chairs, determined not to let them get to me. I opened a beer, propped up my crippled foot on the seawall, and leaned back. “Well, ain’t this the life?” I said. 

Craig and Crevon agreed, but Jess was miserable. She couldn’t find an opener for her wine in the kitchen and had to settle for a bottle of Shiner. Even in the dark, I could tell she was making that shitty face. I wasn’t about to let her ruin my night after she cancelled my Independence turkey, so I did what any smart mother would do and blew smoke up her ass to the party’s guest. 

“Y’know, Crevon,” I said. “Jess just started a fancy job down in Sarasota.” “Well, no shit,” he said. 

“Yes shit. She’s playing guitar for the profoundly handicapped.” 

“It’s called musical therapy, Mom,” she said. “And they’re not profoundly anything. They’re autistic.” 

“Potato, potato.” 

“It’s poe-tah—” she paused. “Never mind.” 

“I used to play a little acoustic back in my day,” Crevon said. 

“Is that so?” I asked. 

“I had chops like you ain’t never seen. I could do Allman Brothers, Creedence, Zeppelin. Do the profoundly handicapped like Zeppelin?” 

There was a big pause while Crevon sipped his beer. I figured Jessica must’ve been thinking ‘bout climbing down the rusted ladder and floating away into the bay. I tried my best to grow my kids up with thick skins, but Jessica could be a little sensitive. Still, I was proud of her for the job. (And for drinking Shiner, even if she gagged on every sip.) I knew that it was tough on her and her brother to grow up in this wreck, with divorced parents who sank cars and fought. After they graduated high school and left the nest, I thought they might never fly back. But here we were: candles reflecting on the water, stars twinkling above, celebrating the greatest holiday God ever invented. As a family. Jessica forced down some beer and cleared her throat. “My students do like Led Zeppelin.” 

“Good,” Crevon said. “What’re you doing these days, Craig boy?” 

“Craig’s still at the Wendy’s in Seminole,” I said. 

“I can speak for myself,” Craig said. “I’m still at the Wendy’s in Seminole.” It was good to see Craig speak up for himself. That was the second time tonight. Earlier, Crevon lit a joint and passed it back and forth with me a little bit, and Craig had asked for a hit. I said no, of course, since I had to keep my motherly attitude, but it was good to see Craig putting his foot down and asking. After some time, he even steered the conversation in his own direction, and began to tell the story about the dolphins. I could’ve easily jumped in and made it about me, but something about watching Craig control an audience stopped me. He stood up and showed Crevon the ladder, then walked down the seawall to point out where the dolphins were. Right after he told the part about me slicing my foot, Craig tripped on a crack in the seawall. He stumbled a minute before regaining his balance, but punted one of the candles across the yard on accident. It zoomed past Crevon’s head, nearly taking a chunk of his ear with it, then bounced off the lid of the cooler and landed in the dirt. Craig apologized and we all had a good laugh about it. I even caught Jessica giggling into her beer before the candle rolled over and lit the M-80s. 

“Good God!” I shouted. Six quarter sticks of dynamite exploded all at once. The yard lit up with white light and dark smoke. The noise scared me out of my chair and into a fire anthill. Craig screamed and leapt over the seawall, straight into the bay. Crevon and Jessica both ducked into their chairs and shouted at me to do something, but I couldn’t on account of the fire ants. One bit me right on the ass cheek, and I stood up so fast that for a second I thought my foot gash re-opened. 

The bangs and pops died down as quick as they had started, but the smoke was getting worse. Crevon rolled out of his chair and onto the lawn, then went prone like a sniper in the trenches of my yard. I stepped over him and limped to the cooler to fan the dark smoke away with my arms. Luckily, the M-80s had been far enough away that nobody was hurt, but my poor yard was decimated. A few planks of wood had caught fire and some sand around the cooler had just about turned to glass. It looked like napalm had rained down on the yard. Felt like it too. 

Jessica coughed up a storm as the smoke loomed over the bay. She knocked her chair over, then sprinted across the yard and into the house, shouting about a fire extinguisher in between hacking sounds. I opened my mouth to remind her I didn’t have one, but then figured I’d let her catch her breath while she found out herself. I grabbed another Shiner from the cooler — thank God the M-80s hadn’t claimed the beer — and then hobbled my way back to my chair. A very crossfaded Crevon picked himself up off the dirt and stepped onto the seawall, then unzipped the fly of his cargo shorts. He put his right hand on his heart and began singing the national anthem as he unleashed a steady stream into the bay. 

I cracked my beer open with my tooth. About fifteen feet out from the ladder, Craig was floating log-like where the dolphins had been swimming this afternoon. 

“You good, son?” I yelled. Craig gave me a thumbs up as he floated south. “You comin’ back soon?” He shook his head no and continued drifting, either avoiding the smoke or still looking for dolphins. He was a big boy now. I trusted him. 

“And the home for the brave,” Crevon sang. He pumped his fist in the air in celebration, then zipped his fly and used a burning plank of wood to light a second joint. Jessica sprinted through the smoke with a miniature extinguisher and sprayed the lawn. Apparently, she kept one in her car. Crevon and I got shitty off his joint while she finished extinguishing the yard. I must’ve gotten higher than God because suddenly an hour had passed and the doorbell was ringing. When I answered it, I was greeted by Craig at the front step, sopping wet with the Pinellas County sheriff behind him. This was the same guy that had handled my sinking of Carlo’s Ford, and the incident when the Boormans were investigated for domestic terrorism. His name was Ted. We went way back. 

“Two things, Sherry,” he said at the door. “One, I want to be the first to tell you that your boy’s got a lean body, good enough for the force. Strong swimmer, he is. Really ought to think about applying.” 

Craig waddled into the living room, dripping water on the shag rug. 

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s high praise coming from you.” 

“Second, I’m here to give you a citation for possession and use of illegal fireworks.” “You have no proof.” 

Ted pulled out his cell phone and played a video. It showed the whole incident: the candle flying, Craig jumping, Jessica extinguishing, Crevon singing. The video had been filmed from the other side of the bay. Those damned Boormans… 

Ted handed me a slip of paper with a fine for a grand on it. Even if I got the disability checks for my hemorrhoids, I’d have a hard time paying this one. 

“You wanna stop in for a beer?” I said. “Maybe work this thing out the old-fashioned way?” 

“I’m on duty,” he said. 

“Come on, Ted. It’s the Fourth. This is for your country.” 

“Tonight, I’m handing out citations for my country.” 

“I didn’t want to have to do this.” I held the slip of paper out in front of him and tore it to pieces. I wasn’t gonna let a fine ruin my favorite day of the year — the first day in a long time I could sit back and celebrate freedom with my kids. Freedom from terror and freedom from Carlo. Freedom to set off fireworks in peace. The tiny shreds of citation fell like dead leaves onto my doormat. Ted looked down at the ground and sighed. 

“We’ll mail you another one on Monday,” he said. With that, he closed my own front door on me from outside. In the backyard, Crevon was asleep in the lawn chair and Jessica had gathered her things to leave. I almost tripped on another candle as I stepped onto the seawall. I shook my fist into the night and screamed across the bay. 

“Damn you, Boormans!” I said. “How dare you!” 

It was dark as hell out, and the couple were just faint black outlines but I could see ‘em. They got up from their chairs and moved inside, but that wouldn’t stop me. Crevon’s snoring was louder than the M-80s, but I still heard Craig’s wet shoes squishing with each step as he came outside to join us. Jess hugged him goodbye, and soon enough I heard her car door slam out front. I screamed at the Boormans some more for driving away my daughter, though I doubted very much that the black outlines inside the McMansion could hear me. Who cared? I was high as hell, a teensy bit drunk, with a throbbing foot and horrible hemorrhoids. I screamed at their house about the citation, about the fake bomb threat, and about the dolphins. I threatened them to call the Sheriff’s Office again and complain about my noise. But mostly I just screamed so that they’d know that, even if they had ruined my night, they would never ruin my family. I’d had fun with my kids regardless of them, and I would continue to have fun with my kids until either Carlo’s child support dried up or the Good Lord sent me six feet under. 

Why? Because I had faith that Jess would come back. I had faith that Craig, for every time he floated off, would swim back to me. And I had faith that despite all obstacles, I would make us the family that we couldn’t have been before. We would swim with every dolphin, light every firework, and eat every quiche that the divorce wouldn’t let us. Nothing could shake my faith in that. Not Ted, not Carlo, and certainly not those damned Boormans. So, I screamed plenty loud so that each and every one of them could hear. God himself and the Founding Fathers heard my promise that Independence Day. 

Then some fireworks popped off near Treasure Island and Crevon woke. We smoked another joint and I stopped screaming. I even let Craig have one whole hit.

About the Author:

Michael Wesner holds a BA from Eckerd College, where he studied Creative Writing with a particular emphasis on the use of humor in literature. His previous work has been featured in The Eckerd Review and Gower Street Press. Originally from the outskirts of Philadelphia, he currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, FL.

Categories
fiction

Inspection Checklist by Koree Schueler

The 2021 Prize Winner in Fiction selected by Kate Gale

Inspection Checklist | Koree Schueler

Name: Kami Shultz Kami- Kameron Mason. Which name do you want? 

Property Number: 618

Please fill out this form based on the condition of rental at the time of move in and return it to our office. 

Living Room

Carpet: 

New condition. It smells like the deer hide rugs that my dad keeps rolled up in the closet under his stairs, but it is too new and too clean for this apartment. It clearly does not belong here. There isn’t even a drop of dust on it yet. I set the baby down on the white carpet and she crawls along the floor yanking up at it as if it were white grass. I watch my baby pull and tug at the carpet and hope – for a moment – that she will take a chunk of the freshly laid carpet up. Just a small piece. The carpet looks too perfect in this apartment with its scratched paint and haunted air. Yes, the air is haunted. You can tell by one breath with the doors shut that there is something lingering here. If you can get past the stale smell of Marijuana from the neighbors, you can feel the spirits, breathe them in and let them play around in your lungs before you expel them from your nostrils in a sharp sigh. It is haunted. But the carpet is not and for that reason I cannot trust it. It does not belong here. It can be ripped up and thrown in the garbage at the first sign of damage. It can be replaced. I do not trust the carpet. 

Walls and ceiling: 

Wood paneling? It’s bad enough that the ceiling is popcorn and my entry way is a staircase that leads down into a dark hobbit hole of an apartment, but now I have to spend the next two years in a prison of wood panels. Two walls in the living room are painted white but from the empty cans hidden in the crawl space, I assume you ran out of paint and decided to call that well enough. I set up my couch to face the unpainted wall so that it did not feel forgotten. If I turn my back to it for too long, I can hear it ask, “Do you not have time for me either? What did I do?” So now I face that ugly brown wall as I eat my meals and type at the computer. We keep each other company in the stillness of time. 

Doors: 

The doors function like doors. Open and close. The doors can open but they can also close. This space was never meant to be an apartment, so the doors are too close together. If you try to open two doors at one time, they will fight each other for the space. Each thinking that it is their right to exist in that spot but both receiving damage in the impact. Chips in the wood are evidence of these domestic disputes. The bright side of this? These doors do not slam like my old ones used to. Here there is only me, the baby, and the cat. The baby is just learning how doors works, she will have a few years before the slamming begins. As for the cat, she prefers running into walls and pulling at the carpet with her claws. She doesn’t trust the carpet either. 

Carbon Monoxide Alarm/ fire alarm: 

They are all there. Blinking that red eye of light to remind me that they are working and checking the quality of my air every day. They do not check for ghosts though. I do not need an alarm for that. Even when I feel my throat growing tight, at least I know that it is not due to smoke or carbon monoxide poisoning. I am just “processing my failed marriage”. As I am told is healthy to do by my counselor. That’s reassuring, Thanks. The red-eye lights watch me unpack boxes; they are there to keep me safe, but they feel more like watchdogs. 

I have decided to remove the alarms from my house, is this a risk? Absolutely, but at least the next time my chest swells and my breathing is short, I can consider the possibility that there is smoke somewhere in the house or invisible gasses wrapping themselves up in my lungs. 

Windows and screens: 

The eyes watch me from the windows. No, I have not seen these eyes, but I know they are there and I know what you are thinking. She is crazy, and yes you are also probably right, but as I sit alone on my couch, waiting to be served with divorce papers, I can feel the eyes on me. They are there, watching me care for the baby. Watching me sift through the cat’s litter like a child digging up sand. They do not trust me to function as I did before. To shield myself from them, I have taped blank paper to the glass windows creating a membrane between me and the eyes. They can still see my silhouette but not the defined details of me. 

Kitchen

It is less of a kitchen and more of a living room extension that has been supplied with some kitchen appliances that most likely outdate the dinosaurs. 

Countertops: 

They are marked with cuts, reminders that this is a temporary engagement. I will be nothing more than a few cuts on a countertop to the next tenant. 

Cabinets: 

The baby pulls on the drawers and slams them shut as I prepare sustenance for myself. She is starting to slam things earlier than I expected. The finalizing sound send her into hysterics. Laughing as she pulls the next cabinet open and prepares to close it as hard as her little body can manage. 

“Dada” she screams as the door smacks into place. Her giggles cause my lungs to seize and I check to make sure the carbon monoxide alarm is still absent from its place on the wall. My cat watches from the stairs, cleaning its claws. 

The baby continues to open and shut the drawers and her giggles transform into an imitated anger and she slams the next drawer. 

“Sut up bith” The baby tests out these new syllables and then falls on her butt, face red and smiling as the cat watches from the stairs, ready to pounce. I place the baby back in her bed with a cookie to keep her from saying more, thankful that the eyes can’t see exactly what I handed the baby. The cat returns to cleaning between her toes. 

Stove/ Oven:

The stove is a monster. Old and yellow, the oven’s large mouth pours smoke out if you try to cook anything in it. Before I disposed of the smoke alarms they would wail every time I preheated the old beast. Now I stick to things that can be cooked in the microwave or, better yet, pulled straight from the fridge.

Sink: 

The sink is invisible under the dirty dishes that have accumulated there. I let them sit, not because I don’t like washing my dishes, but because I don’t want to see my face reflected back at me.

Fridge:

Someone has gutted the inside of the fridge. The shelves and edges are missing, except for one shelf that is sporting a suspicious crack in the middle. I fear that it will not be able to support more than a half-gallon of milk; that will be fine, since there are only two of us now and I don’t drink milk. But I still worry about that shelf as it sags more every time that I open the door. The plastic looks to be made of rubber as it dips lower, but never breaks. I assume that it is unbreakable. I stack things on it to test this. I bought a whole ham, not because I like ham, but so that I can see if it will finally break the one shelf that is left standing. I want to watch it break in half. I will prove that even the most flexible of objects can snap. I drop the whole ham on the shelf, and it lets out a surprised squeak and bends ominously, bouncing a little as it adjusts to the weight of the new resident on its back. The satisfying sound of the shelf breaking never comes. Still, I sit in front of the open refrigerator. The only light comes from the bulb in the fridge. I sit there letting the cold hit my face as I observe the sagging shelf, taking mental notes. I sit there. Like that. The cat sits next to me. Watching. When I moved here my therapist pushed me to adopt a cat. “A clean slate”. But the cat seems to have her own baggage. We sit together on the floor, watching the shelf bounce. The only light is still the one in the refrigerator. 

Laundry Room 

There is not a laundry room in this complex. You really should have a couple versions of this generic form so that those without laundry rooms are not reminded that there is something that they lack. 

Bathroom 

Windows:

Seriously? There are no windows in this bathroom. Did you even look at this apartment before renting it out? 

Lights: 

The light is fluorescent, and it flickers. A nice change from the sunlight that filters through the paper on my windows in other rooms. There are no other lights in the bathroom. I breathe in the flickering of this one that reminds me of the horror movies that we used to watch, all tangled up together on the couch. In a house that belonged to us. Not this home that I have retreated to now. I smile as the light flashes. The mirror reflects my smile between flickers of light. The baby shrieks from the bathtub. 

Bathtub: 

The bathtub is blue. Not in a retro-blue kind of way. But in a stained, science experiment gone terribly wrong kind of way. My fingers are red from the scrubbing. I guess magic erasers do not work on everything. I throw out the mangled sponge and start to run a bath. Bubbles cover up the blue splotches that have infected the surface of my tub. The best I can hope for is for the color to fade over time. The blue reminds me of the time I spilled sprinkles on my dad’s deer hide rug. They looked like a rash. That night, after I went to bed, my dad threw the sprinkle rash rug in the trash. He knew I would be upset. He always said I looked like Bambi when I cried. I still can’t help to think that deer died to be discarded. 

 The baby is sleeping at her dad’s house, so I sip from my wine glass as the water rushes into the tub like a manmade waterfall. The eyes would not want me drinking with the baby at home. My phone appears in my hand and I appreciate the stable light that is radiating from it. I lay in the tub as my fingers flick through pictures of men. Swipe left. The cat jumps onto the side of the tub and sticks her paw into the water. Shocked by the sudden wetness, she runs to the closet and lays on top of the towels. Swipe left. No. Ew. Swipe. That’s just a picture of a rock. Swipe right. 

I shut the flow of water off with my toes as I mindlessly shuffle through the “hot singles in my area” trying to distract myself from the fact that my skin is touching the blue stained bathtub. Faces blur as I swipe past eyes and shining teeth, none of the pictures seem to take full shape and I stopped reading the words after the second picture. 

The cat hisses at me from the other side of the room. None of the pictures have screamed soulmate to me and the water has turned cold. I suck down the last of my glass and pour another as I wrap a yellow towel around me. Water seeps into the dry towel, creating an outline of me. I go to my own profile on the app and change my bio to: Wanna see my blue bathtub?

Sink: 

The sink is shaped like a shell. A seashell, like the ones you find on the beach. This seems out of place in this apartment, but it is old and worn and I can tell it is haunted too. The pipes are exposed and run down into the ground like blood vessels carrying fluids through the house. Creating circulation. 

Mirror: 

The corner of the mirror is shattered, not to the point of unuseability, but the previous resident is definitely going to have a rough seven years. As a kid, my mother told me my eyes were too big for my face, so now I peer into the mirror and highlight my “too big eyes” with eyeliner and brush yellow eyeshadow over the lids to bring all attention to this feature. Shattered in the broken part of the mirror I have fifteen eyes instead of the two that I actually possess giving me the appearance of a deer that spent her whole life drinking from a toxic water supply. 

Bedroom 1

Floors: 

My bare skin pressed against the new carpet. I can feel it becoming more haunted with time, but I still hate it as the small fibers scratch at my skin. I roll to my side to look at the guy lying next to me on the floor, I study his face, but even now the features do not stick in my brain. They slide off of my memory like raindrops. 

“You’re unforgettable” he says as he turns to look at me with his eyes. These eyes inside my house that do not belong to the cat. Or the baby. They are open windows. It feels nice to have another soul in the house; for a few moments though I wonder what the eyes in the window think of this new silhouette in the house. They would frown on my playdate. 

“My house is haunted,” I say towards the ceiling. The man laughs as I watch the cat’s bright yellow eyes peer out from under my bed. I wish I could fit under there with her.

“It’s ok, I’ve dated a Goth before,” I hate the way his lips curl into a smile at this. We met two hours ago. He knows nothing.

“The ghosts are coming,” I stand up and shove his boxers towards him, the fox print looking up at me. He barely has time to get them on as I push him out into the hallway and turn the deadbolt, a barrier between me and his open-window eyes. 

 I curl up in the nest of my bed. The cat cautiously crawls out from under the bed, sinking her claws into the carpet where the man had lain. As I watch her, I can still feel the places on my back where the floor rubbed against me. 

Windows:

Yep. There are windows in this room too. You keep asking for this form back, but how can I fill it out quickly if you expect so much information? 

Closet:

There is a hole in my closet. I can feel the anger that caused it even though I was not here to witness the action. At night I sit in the dark. The ghosts stay away from the closets. They don’t want to be labeled as stereotypes. And I secretly think they are afraid of the hole. I cannot see anything behind it and I am convinced that it leads to a different dimension. A dimension where ghosts don’t exist. Where I am still married. And all of the bathtubs are stained white. I take my wedding ring off of my finger and drop it in the hole. Maybe one day someone in the other dimension will have a use for it. 

Miscellaneous:

There is a loose cable hanging from the ceiling. The baby screams every time she sees it. It is kind of unsettling as it swings back and forth by itself. I don’t know who thought it would be smart to run a cable through the ceiling, but I don’t watch TV, so I just lay in bed and watch it swing. Sometimes I wonder what the cord would feel like on my skin. Cold I imagine. 

Bedroom 2 

Windows

The features of this room are all the same, as if it were copy and pasted. You would know this if you actually spent time in this apartment. Do I really have to keep filling out this form? 

Ok, there’s a window in here too, the eyes like this window the best. 

I have put plants on the windowsill. All of them have turned brown from the lack of sunlight. The baby and the cat sit on the floor and take turns batting at the shriveled leaves. The baby is corrupting the cat with her mischief. I move the baby away from the window and place her in her crib. I shake a yellow toy shaped like a fish in front of her face. I hope the eyes notice that I can play with the baby too. Thankfully they can’t see the tears rolling down the baby’s face. The cat nudges my elbow and I scratch her between the ears, allowing the baby to self soothe. 

Carpet 

The baby likes to roll on this carpet. I think it reminds her of grass. She ignores me when I tell her that it is haunted. Maybe when she is older, she will start to feel how scratchy the carpet really is. At least the cat understands- she is reluctant to come in this room. 

Closet

The closet in here does not have a hole. 

Doors 

It’s a door. Like every door it has hinges that hold it in place even when gravity wants to push it down. 

Ceiling

I lay on the floor. Waiting for the baby to fall asleep. She wants me near her, but I can’t stand her sweaty skin against mine, so I lay on the floor next to her crib and look at the ceiling. This ceiling is popcorn too, but it has bits of glitter in it so that when cars on the street drive by you can see a quick glimpse of false stars. I image this draws the ghosts in, they get to momentarily forget that they are dead and will not be able to see the stars again, so they anticipate the moment when the ceiling reflects light before the room falls dark again. I feel sandwiched between the sparkling ceiling and the not haunted carpet. The cat is standing right outside the door, waiting for me. Her eyes make me feel like I am looking into the fridge at that yellow lightbulb hovering over the shelf that won’t break. 

About the Author:

Koree was born and raised in Kearney, Ne. She is currently pursuing her MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She is also working as a graduate assistant at UNK.  Her previous work has been featured in her university‘s literary magazine The Carillon. She draws inspiration from the overlooked aspects of everyday life, such as a rental inspection form.

Categories
fiction

Everything in the Middle by Alexa Koch

Everything in the Middle | Alexa Koch

The rings around the bathtub won’t come out. Hard water stains, the broker had told me when I blanched at the sight of them. Should come out with some scrubbing and bleach. Hard water stains, the landlord told me when I called to tell him the tub was impossible to clean. I’ve scrubbed, bleached, and soaked. I’ve called a professional cleaning service. I’ve broken down and begged Dillon to move. He tells me that the time and money I’ve spent is unhealthy, but I can’t get over the discolored lines that don’t quite make a geometrically accurate rectangle. When I watch the dirty water swirl down the drain, I imagine the greyish rings going with it. But they never do. 

I climb into the empty tub. It’s breathing around me, the whole porcelain thing inhaling and exhaling, the rings expanding and shrinking. Something that is supposed to be me is reflected in the silver-toned faucet. Neon suds swell at the drain in foamy swirls of pink and purple and yellow. Now blue, green, orange. I’m hyperventilating. I’m okay. It would all be better if I… Maybe I could… Don’t look at it. One fish, two fish, red fish, blue….  

The hour is late and I can’t sleep and the fan drones on. I sit down at my desk because it faces a window, am annoyed by the clutter: a pile of books, a coffee mug full of pens, miscellaneous receipts, a ceramic pumpkin that I put out last September, a half-empty prescription bottle. 

I hear Dillon’s voice in my head, see him shake the orange canister at me. Are you even taking these? When I first started on the little white pills I had sudden urges, what I’d eventually learn is an uncommon side effect on the grocery list of possibilities that the pharmacist stapled to my prescription bag and that I threw in the trash without reading. 

I still have the urges sometimes. Deep in one particularly unexplainable mindset, I once found myself, on the bus ride home, wanting to curl up under the bank of seats across from me and let the filthy floor streak my jeans with dirt. I wanted people to stare. I craved the feeling of cold metal against my skin and the whispers of the other commuters. I wanted to ruin my clothes. I wanted someone else to feel even a fraction of my discomfort. 

A more common urge was the need to break things, an impulse to smash a vase of dried flowers, to drop a glass lamp, or to hurl dinner plates at the wall. I never acted on it, but the desire was strong and lingered. If…

I stand up and sweep everything but the pumpkin off my desk onto the floor in a motion so sudden it shocks me. Lots of noises at once. The rustle of papers, plastic and ceramic bouncing off the wood floor, pens rolling in different directions, the thud of paperbacks and hardcovers, some landing open, spines facing up. 

I stand above the mess I’ve created, hands shaking, eyes scanning. Nothing is broken. I didn’t so much as chip the mug. 

I’ll have to clean this up before Dillon gets back from Canada. 

I walk over to the couch to lie down, hoping the change from the bed will help, but I can’t sleep. It’s late. Or early, depending on how you want to look at it. The fan drones on. I clamp my hands over my ears, squeeze my eyes shut, and imagine a shiny white bathtub, the satisfaction of scrubbing it to a gleam myself. 

Fish don’t live in this kind of water on first look, but the nutrient-rich cold depths keep them swimming back. Flounder, pollock, herring, and shad are year-round residents; tuna, mackerel, bass, and bluefish serve as summer tourists. The water is dark and uninviting. I walk to the end of the dock where a father and son are fishing. The kid is yelling excitedly— “Dad, dad!”— that he hooked something. Dad leans his own pole against the wooden railing and runs over as the boy reels and reels. Eventually, his catch breaches the surface. A clump of seaweed dangles from the hook, the red and white bobber swinging.

The kid is speechless, shocked, his mouth hanging open. The father laughs.

“Hmm, should we broil or fry this one? I’m thinking lightly breaded with lots of lemon.”

“Ewww! Can I try again, Dad?”

Dad grabs for the line, but it slips through his fingers, the seaweed swinging and wetting both of them with the cold bay water. The boy squeals with delight (“It’s cold!”), and Dad tries again, this time catching the thin, nearly invisible nylon line. I turn away as he unhooks the seaweed and tosses it back into the water. 

I used to fish with my dad. The jack we’d catch were most active in the evenings, so that’s when we’d go sit on the concrete sea wall at the end of the street, my legs dangling above the water, jelly sandals safe on the grass behind us. The thought of piercing a wriggling beige worm and watching the hook come through the other side was always too much, and I wished desperately that the tackle kit’s rubber invertebrates, with their brightly colored feathers and bobs, would entice the fish— all I needed was a nibble to hook one— but they never did. So I’d inhale the salt of the brackish lake water that I couldn’t really see below me and wait for my father to hand me the pole with its skewered worm.

My phone vibrates in my pocket and I ignore it. Instead, I take a sip of my Vietnamese coffee— delicious… I’m glad I finally decided to try one of these— and walk back in the direction of Lincoln Park. I consider a potato doughnut from the place on Exchange because an old-fashioned doughnut sounds great and I’m feeling nostalgic.

I pass one of many pottery shops, one of many breweries, one of many seafood restaurants touting lobster rolls. I pass a man shooting up in an alleyway and a man selling used books alongside a “name your price” sign. I scan his selection, the only one I recognize a tattered copy of a Stephen King novel I’ve never read. I hand over the few bills I have for a volume titled Red Rising. I like the simplicity of the cover, a red wing set against black. 

Settling in on a sun-warmed park bench, I open to the first chapter to find a handwritten list on the blank page across from Pierce Brown’s first page of prose.  

I skim the bulleted points, what appear to be events paired with dates. Some of the events are momentous, milestones even, others insignificant to anyone but the writer. First real job, 5/20/09. First apartment, 9/1/09. First promotion, first date with John, first pet, the list goes on. I’m surprised to find that it’s pretty long and has a right-pointing arrow suggesting more. I turn the page but there is nothing written there. I flip to the end of the book, where the entire last page and back cover are filled by some stranger’s life. The last bullet is dated 2016.

I grimace at the thought of taking a pen to a novel— chaotic evil— and flip back to the front.

He’d given me just two options that morning, Shirt A and Shirt B. Shirt A was a purple and white checkered one and Shirt B was the same, but blue and green. I should have picked Shirt B. I really hate that shirt! I shook my head, facepalmed my forehead. We should shop for you this weekend! 

I smiled at him, expectant.

Huh? What…? No. No. God, Bree, how did this— Dillon gestured to the blue Honda, my knuckles rapping its hood over and over— happen? Why did you do this?

I didn’t mean to, I countered, the syllables coming out as one long, strange word. Ididntmeanto. He’d nearly caught me in the act. It was petty, he’d said after. What the fuck? he’d demanded at once. I had laughed too loudly and asked why it mattered. How quickly my words came, how inappropriate my responses, how rash my actions— none of it within my control. 

How does this just happen? 

I shrugged exaggeratedly. 

Does it matter? The spot is mine, right?

The cavernous garage was silent, the only noise the hissing of two freshly slashed tires, one on each side of the car that I would regularly find in the assigned parking spot that costs me $75 every month. Management had done nothing after countless complaints. I balanced on the balls of my feet, waiting for whatever it was Dillon was going to do. 

I left more than one note on the windshield, I reminded him. Have you ever done this? Like a forsaken lover in a shitty country song. We’re just missing a banging screen door. And a six-pack. I guess it’s not like a shitty country song?

He gave me a strange look, a combination of bewilderment and concern, before his features set in a more familiar way. Let’s not stand here and wait for someone to walk by. And give me that. He took the knife from my hand and tucked it carefully into his bag before asking, with staged nonchalance, if I was still taking the meds.

If you don’t stop asking me about the fucking meds….

He put up his hands in surrender. We’ll pretend this never happened then, he said. And we did. I purged our apartment two days later to the sound of The Doors, throwing things out, heaping clothing into piles for donation, sorting things to list for sale online. He came home to a downsized wardrobe (goodbye, purple-and-white), no coffee maker, and stuff everywhere, while I bartered with a pawn store clerk over the value of a necklace that I found at the back of my jewelry box. 

I knew that he was leaving for Quebec that afternoon and we wouldn’t cross paths before he had to go to the airport. I let my phone die and didn’t charge it for three days, so I don’t know if he called. The rest of that week takes up space in my mind as excess of everything but sleep: too much spending, too much cleaning, too much idealizing. All of it ultimately out of my hands, too slippery to hold, a fish on dry ground, without me realizing. Both of us left gasping for breath. 

I think, now, that the silence between Dillon and me is too thick. I can taste it. Lemons, fractionally sweet, not enough to save us from all the sour, not enough sugar to ease the pucker. I like lemons.

“Hi. Can I pay for these?”

I hear the voice but continue typing rapidly on the keyboard.

The customer shifts, probably uncomfortable, waiting for me to acknowledge her. I make a note on a sticky pad with a flourish before clicking the pen a half-dozen times. 

“Sure thing.” 

The woman pushes a small pile of books across the counter towards me. 

“This is a good one,” I say approvingly, scanning the one on top. “This one, though…”— I hold up a small blue paperback— “is so bad. So boring. I met the author once. He was boring, too.” 

She gives me an uneasy smile and taps her debit card on the counter, the thin plastic making an irritating click-clack sound. 

“Can you not do that?” I look pointedly at her pink-painted fingernails. 

She stops tapping and replaces the card in her wallet as I finish ringing up her selections. She doesn’t make eye contact when I hand her the bag, mumbling a “you, too” when I wish her a good day.

I return to the computer, to the spreadsheet created to help organize the new inventory. I can barely focus, the familiar abbreviations for genres and publishers meaningless to me. I feel, overwhelmingly, that I’ve lost something. It’s not working, reads the sticky note, the black ink of my loopy handwriting the barest contrast against fluorescent blue. I trace the words with the pen, bolding the letters. It’s not working. 

I tap my fingers against the steering wheel as I wait in the arrivals area at PWM. I’m idling at the front end of the pick-up line, away from most of the other cars, wondering how much time I have before one of the officers yells at me to move. Dillon’s flight only just now landed, but I check my rearview mirror every few seconds, expecting to see his lime green hard-topped suitcase that I hate and he loves roll through the sliding automatic doors. Eventually, he appears on the sidewalk. Then behind the car. Then next to the car. Then in the car. 

He drops a small, paper-wrapped object into my lap. 

I pick it up, glancing at my sideview mirror. The lone officer is concerned with a minivan stalling traffic as a traveler stuffs their baggage into the backseat. I unwrap the gift, the paper crinkling. It’s a snow globe, the nicer kind with a glass sphere and a ceramic base. A miniature skyline and the letters Q-U-E-B-E-C in blue block letters forever under water. I flip the globe upside down and set it on the dashboard as the tiny flecks of white flutter around the cityscape. 

“See any moose?”

He doesn’t hear or he simply ignores me, focused instead on finding something in his backpack. I rejoin the flow of cars, eager to get away from the airport. Dillon holds up a second paper-wrapped object, this one a small rectangle, and says something about the next red light. 

We’re just a couple of miles from the freeway, so another 25 minutes will pass before I can open it. 

“How was the trip?”

“You know.”

I don’t. 

A pause.

“Is this how it’s going to be?”

I wait. He doesn’t answer. 

“Is it? Just weird silence?”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

He puts the wrapped item in the center console, where it goes untouched red light after red light.

The first day of August I sit down at my window-facing desk and make a list. It begins as a gratitude list, a “grounding technique” I read about in a magazine in the optometry office last week, but it twists and turns as I go, shifting to pet peeves, to people I used to know, to subjects I didn’t like in school, to favorite foods. I stop only when I run out of space on the notebook page, every line and margin filled. I’ve authored a page of words that tell no story.

I consider the impressive list in Red Rising, the list-maker’s choice to collect her firsts in one place, a place she might forget that she’d put them. A place that no longer belongs to her. Why firsts? What good does such a chronology do?

I flip to a blank page, thinking I’ll fill the lines with my own firsts. 

First day of life, 5/24/87.

I scratch the words out. I don’t think that one counts. Too broad. Too contingent. My mind races through the years, scanning for some significant inaugural moment or event, and comes up with nothing. It feels like I can never pull things from my subconscious when I want them. 

The wrapped gift from Canada sits on the corner of the desk next to the snow globe. The snowflakes are still, a few suspended at the top where the water doesn’t quite meet the glass. I notice now the silver sparkles mixed with the white flecks. 

I pick up the gift, about half an inch thick, contemplate its weight. I don’t care enough to open it. Why did he buy it at all? He often travels for work and rarely brings home any sort of souvenir or trinket. Aside from a Chicago postcard on the fridge and an airline credit card in his wallet, there is no tangible evidence of his frequent travels. 

I once asked him why he never brings anything “fun” home from the places he visits, and he made a face that told me all I needed to know. Why would I?  “Inappreciable kitsch,” I imagined him following up with. 

I rip the paper off of the mystery gift, hoping it will give me a hint, a clue that will help me begin the list. 

A deck of cards, shrink-wrapped in thin plastic, a second layer of protection for something most would not consider fragile. The seal is easily broken with a fingernail. I cut the deck. Each card has a different image on the back, the suit side the same as any other deck. I attempt one of the fancy shuffling techniques I insisted on teaching myself as a kid, but the cards are too stiff in their newness and fly out of my hands, pictures of forest and city and moose and beavers raining onto the floor. 

I bend down and corral the cards the best I can, shifting them so they all point the right direction, not bothering to flip them to face up. The card on top is a long, greenish fish with a snout-like mouth. A pike. Its shiny black eyes look out from the card’s one-dimensional world, and I look back.

I go to the museum on my day off because it’s one of the only places I can wander for long in the sheeting late summer rain. My favorite piece of art in the entire building is a lamp. One of those Tiffany-style ones with a mushroom-like stained-glass dome of red, yellow, and green. It is always lit in its case, a warm glow I can’t feel, an unseen cord connecting it to its power source. I dreamt once that I’d broken the lamp, the glass case gone, the gallery unlocked and vacant. I had picked it up and dropped it, my dream form materializing somewhere else I don’t remember before it hit the concrete floor. 

There is one other person in this wing, and I watch her watch a painting from my bench by the lamp. The expression on her face is bizarre, something like wonder and grief, were these two emotions to exist together. The painting is something I’ve seen many times, but something that I could not describe to someone else. The truth is that I don’t know what is there on the canvas. 

I’ve seen it many times but haven’t looked at it. Now, I do look. It’s a jay, bright blue, alone. It’s a photograph, not a painting. The background of the photo is a black and green blur, a forest or bush or tree. The woman lifts her hand as though she is going to touch the frame but thinks better of it and replaces it by her side. She stands for a moment more before turning away, in search of something. Her eyes alight on the only seating in the room, my bench that is big enough for three or four. I look down before she realizes I’ve been staring.

Peripherally, I see her sit at the opposite end and cross her legs in an unusual way, crossed at the knee, right foot hooked behind left ankle. 

“That’s a great book,” she says, pointing to my bag. The unusual expression on her face has gone away. I’ve taken to carrying Red Rising around, though I imagine I will never read past the first chapter. “Have you read the series?”

I shake my head but say nothing, probably an impolite response. For a second, I consider showing her the list, telling her about how I feel compelled to bring its unseen writer, the author who penciled herself in with dates, with me, to offer her new firsts. That I like the idea that we might experience some things together, for the first time, however irrational and impossible, despite not knowing if she still exists somewhere. That I wonder if she made a list of lasts, too. If she reached an end, or if her end, like mine, is yet to come. 

Beyond first birthdays and anniversaries, it seems like most people care more about the stuff in the middle, all the in between, so I maintain the silence. I think about asking the woman about the jay in the photograph, to seem nicer, but I don’t. She’s looking at the lamp, her glasses reflecting its light. 

I wonder if she would agree that maybe the firsts are what mean something because they allow for the existence of seconds. In the bigger scheme of things, maybe seconds matter more.

We sit there, connected by nothing.

With all the windows closed, I exhale towards the ceiling. The smoke hangs in a cloud near the window, and I wonder what it would look like if it could make patterns on the glass. 

I click the pen and open the notebook to a middle page. I’m trying again to write a list. This time, I’m starting with lasts. 

Cards. 

Snow globe.

Both a goodbye. Not an immediate one, but an eventual, inevitable one. I can’t find it in me to care. 

Pull, exhale. 

Grandma’s service. 

College graduation. 

Thirtieth birthday.

The cards sit on the coffee table, the glassy black eyes of the pike somewhere in the stack. Nothing to see within it. I shuffle the deck and deal myself two hands. It’s impossible for me to lose.

About the Author:

Alexa Koch is an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she runs The Watermark Journal. Her thesis project will culminate in a short novel of literary fiction that challenges the conventions of narrative and the thoughts that create the human psyche. She lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

https://alexakoch.com/