Archives For Fiction & Flash Fiction

“If you’re going hunting, you’ll need something to eat.” Deb gestured to a brown-paper lunch sack sitting on the counter as Robert entered the kitchen. She was in her worn robe and her face looked brutally naked without make-up.

Robert walked past her to the coffee maker.

Jackie was at the small table, papers spread out in front of her. He paused and tousled her hair–stiff from the hairspray she used to coax it into a cloud around her face.

“Daddy!” Her hands flew up.

“Oh! Sorry, material girl.” He ruffled her hair again.

“I don’t know why you’re all done up, if you’re just going to sit there,” Deb said. “Are you going over to the game?”

“It’s not starting for another hour, and yes, I’ll go. I’m just finishing this paper for Mr. B.” Jackie did not look up.

“Mr. B, Mr. B. He’s all I hear about lately. That paper’s not even due until Friday, right?”

“Lay off her Deb.” Robert lowered his voice and poured a cup of coffee. “She’s doing her homework on a Saturday morning. That’s not a bad thing.”

“I don’t know,” Deb replied. “When I was her age, I was out having fun.”

“When I was her age, I was doing just what she’s doing.” Robert took a sip of the lukewarm coffee.

“Yeah, and look where it got you,” Deb said quietly as she turned back to the pan in the sink.

Robert clenched the cup. He looked at Deb’s back and imagined what it would feel like to hurl the cup at her, how the coffee would splatter across the terry cloth. Carefully he put it down on the counter.

“What?” Jackie’s voice was shrill. “Do you want me under the bleachers like Jennie probably is right now? She’ll be pregnant any day–like you were. That’s why Daddy didn’t go to State!”

Jackie’s words pin-balled through the cluttered room until Deb crashed the pan hard in the sink and took a step toward her daughter.

“And do you think I got myself pregnant? Get out of this room if you’re going to talk that way around me.”

“You don’t have to ask me–I’m going!”

Robert heard the scramble of his daughter collecting her papers, but didn’t stay to watch her leave. He went to the fridge, grabbed a six-pack, and strode out to his truck. He drove fast, straight out of town and onto the highway that snaked into the surrounding forest.

After several miles he skidded to a stop on a gravel turn-out, swung from his seat, shouldered the gun, and walked into the trees.

His first strides carried him over a clumpy batter of mud, gravel, scraps of paper, and mangled beer cans. He was so used to this garbage that it was only its lack he noticed as he walked further–ferns filling in the patches between tall evergreens.

Robert had spent his childhood in the woods that grew right up to his small house. The powdered stipple backing the ferns, the slant of pine needles, this was the wallpaper of his mind. If he ever thought about it he would realize it was the sweep and whorls of the forest he saw when he closed his eyes, or in the moments before he fell asleep.

As a boy he hadn’t needed a reason to plunge into the woods. There was nothing else to do. Soil etched the creases of his skin into a permanent map. The singular call of a bird, the sun piercing the constant dusk to illuminate one delicate branch, the loamy smell when he pressed his face into the earth, none of these things were miraculous to him, they simply were.

Adolescence had turned the forest into a parallel land–unseen by adults. Here he had learned to smoke, drink stolen alcohol, and unfold girls into the yielding earth, searching with urgent hands for the warm, deep places that they held, hidden.

Once he had gotten old enough to drink at the Stopping Place, take the girls to a bed, the only real reason left to go into the forest was to hunt. His friends had grown up hunting with their fathers. Robert had not. He grew up with his mother, who had left Pine Village in ‘54, gone to Portland and found a job as a secretary but come back in less than a year­–visibly pregnant. Robert was born a few months later.

“When I told that son of a bitch I was pregnant, he fired me,” she said of her boss.

Robert grew up knowing his father’s name and had gone as far as hitching to Portland to stand in front of the grand white house before he walked down to the Greyhound station, caught a bus to The Dalles, then found a ride back home in a logging rig.

His mother had cared for his Granddad–whose leg had been amputated after being crushed by a log–as well as Robert. Granddad had worked on a logging crew since he was fifteen. Without his leg he sat in his chair and started drinking at noon and all Robert remembered was the scratch of his unshaven cheek and his bitter voice calling out for another beer.

When he and Deb got married he took his grandfather’s old .22 with him. He had shoved it into the back corner of their bedroom closet where it had stayed until yesterday.

“It’s going to be hard to kill yourself with that old thing,” Deb had said when she walked into the kitchen to find him sitting at the table with it laid out in front of him.

“Thought I might go hunting.” He rubbed the cold barrel with a disintegrating chamois cloth.

“Hunting? With that?”

The few times he had been hunting were with Deb’s father­–Red–and her brothers; they always lent him a well-kept 30-06, which felt cumbersome in his grasp, something he tried not to reveal.

“It was good enough for my granddad,” Robert said, looking up to where Deb stood, grocery bag balanced on her hip.

“What did he ever hunt?”

“Dammit Deb, I need something to do!” Robert had banged the can of polish down on the table.

“If you need something to do, you could split the wood laying around out there. The electricity’s going to get shut off if we don’t pay the bill.”

Deb’s voice had been just as hard as his.

Now, as Robert walked away from the gash the road cut through the forest, the sun it allowed gradually fading, he became aware of an absence. Aside from the tread of his boots and the occasional call of a bird, it was very quiet. Even as a boy deep in the trees he had been used to the sounds of the mill: the high-pitched scream of the saws, the groaning protest of ancient timber as it was cleaved down the middle. Now the mill had been shut down, he had lost his job, and it was quieter than he ever remembered–the sudden drum of a woodpecker sounding thunderous.

He spotted the bird’s head feathers: a smudge of rusty red against the rich brown of the trunk. As it flew off he raised the rifle and imagined he traced its path.

He had pictured coming home with something they could eat–something rich and fatty. Now the truth of what the forest held, what his gun could bring down, made him lower it.

This was why Deb had given him that look. She grew up in Pine Village also, raised by her father, with three older brothers; she probably knew more about hunting than he did. She certainly knew that this old gun­–and the puny bullets he had found in a collapsing box in the closet–had been used by his granddad to shoot at beer cans and squirrels. Deb and his sixteen-year-old daughter Jackie weren’t going to eat squirrel, even if he could shoot one.

The last time he had gone hunting with Deb’s dad and brothers­–a couple years earlier–he hadn’t even realized what he smelled was a buck until he saw it; then the heady musk made sense. It was standing in a clearing, the sun gilding its antlers. Robert had stopped between the trees that hemmed the clearing. The animal’s eyes were enormous–liquid brown. The neck that bowed to hold the heavy head seemed to Robert to hold something else as well. Robert shifted, making a small noise, the buck turned its head and looked at him, and then he remembered the gun. He raised it, at the same time knowing there was no way he could shoot this animal, not even for the pride it would give Deb to hang its rack above the couch.

At another noise Robert had looked sideways. Red had been standing ten feet away. His gun was at his shoulder, but he was looking at Robert, and Robert heard the buck spring out of the clearing as the two men met eyes. Red didn’t say anything, but he lowered the gleaming rifle, shook his head, spat, and patted the pocket of his flannel shirt for cigarettes. He didn’t offer Robert one, and he hadn’t been asked to go hunting since then.

“Fuck him,” Robert said–not sure it was at the memory of the buck or the brutal sweep of Red’s forehead–before he continued. He walked steadily for an hour, but there seemed to be no living things beside darting, teasing birds in the whole immense woods.

Hunger and fatigue finally stopped him; he tossed the gun down on a mossy patch and lowered himself beside it with a groan. His legs felt unsuited to what he was asking of them. Until three months ago he had driven through the blank white mornings to the mill–smokestacks stark against the milky sky–and worked all day. He considered his hands. They were strong–swollen and marred with scars. He thought of his grandfather downing trees with a handsaw. Robert’s job had required a kind of strength and endurance, but not the kind his granddad had needed.

He opened his bag. The six-pack sat banded together at the bottom. He remembered the lunch bag that Deb had made: still sitting on the counter.

Easing himself back against a fallen log­–cushy with unimaginably green moss–he cracked a beer and let it stream down his throat. The deep, yeasty ache was so good that he drank the whole can in a few long pulls. He sighed and lobbed the can into the trees, then opened up another.

“Come out you little fuckers!” he yelled at the empty woods and laughed.

Sunlight cracked the canopy high above his head and he shut his eyes and let it touch on his face. His breath deepened. He saw the mill’s high chimneys, smoke indistinguishable from clouds, felt his hands vibrating as he guided a plank towards the eternally rotating blade; he saw Deb’s tired face from the morning, felt the sour tension held silently in his house.

At a muffled noise his eyes snapped open; a rabbit hopped nervously into the clearing. It was all twitch and fluff, and was followed, a few hops behind, by a second. They were silvery grey, with big quick eyes.

Very slowly Robert edged his hand out, grabbed the gun, and in one motion yanked it up, found the first rabbit and pulled the trigger. The tiny muffled whump told him he had hit it. Instinctively he aimed for the second creature–he needed to shoot before it fled­–and only then did he remember that this old gun took just one round at a time. His guts twisted in private mortification.

“Goddamn it!” With clumsy fingers he fumbled in his pocket for another bullet, sure the other rabbit would be gone when he looked up.

But it wasn’t. It was paralyzed, only its eyes darting from side to side.

Robert wondered if it was looking for its partner, then he depressed the trigger. His heart was pounding; the shot cracked the forest wide open.

He had hit both creatures and they lay in the warm seconds before stillness, before their eyes lost their gleam. He reached down and buried his hands in the soft fur. It was so silken, with hot flesh just below, that he groaned.

The tableau waiting for him when he entered the kitchen, the rabbits held firmly by their ears, was almost the same one he had walked out of earlier. Jackie was at the kitchen table, her schoolwork around her, and it was only the change in her appearance–her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing one of his old flannels–that revealed she had gone to the game, returned, and changed.

Deb was planted before the sink again, a clothed and colored-in version of the pallid woman he had left.

Both wife and daughter turned their gaze to him.

He swung the stiffening rabbits up by their ears and let them drop with a meaty thud onto the counter.

“Just like some fancy French restaurant,” he got out before Jackie began shrieking.

“Bunnies, Daddy? You shot bunnies? There’s no way I’m going to eat a bunny!”

“You’ll eat what’s put on your plate until you’re paying for your own food,” said Deb, her voice low and even. “Now clean up that mess and get the table set.”

Jackie looked fiercely at her mother and Robert could see signs of earlier tears marring his daughter’s eyes. She gathered her papers and books loudly, but said nothing as she stomped from the room, and Robert knew that Deb had won the bout that morning.

As soon as Jackie’s bedroom door slammed loud enough to send a tremble through the house, Deb turned to Robert.

“Have you ever eaten rabbit?” She took a few steps toward him. “Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned one?”

She looked to the animals on the counter and he followed her gaze. Atop the worn linoleum, their fur seemed to lave lost its luster, and the angle of their legs made him look away and back up to Deb.

She was glowing now–her skin, her eyes. “Well, have you?”

“Jesus Deb, you know I haven’t.” Robert was aware of the beer he had drunk; it seemed hard to form words, they backed up, unwilling to spill out into the kitchen. He felt too big, swollen, smelling of dirt and beer and his own rank scent.

“Well I have,” she said. “Cleaned them, cooked them. Rabbits. Squirrels. We didn’t have anyone sending us checks from the big city. I’m not going back to that.”

“Every fucking guy in this town is out of work.” Robert reached out and ran his dirty finger over the very ends of the rabbits’ fur. “What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know!” Deb said and he looked up quickly at the tremble in her voice, was surprised to see tears making her eyes bright. “But it’s not dead rabbits.”

He stood for a minute and the air in the room seemed to quaver around him like Deb’s voice and the rabbits’ fur. When he finally spoke he knew his words were as disappointing as the dead animals. “I don’t have to stick around for this.” Again, he turned and left her in the kitchen; climbed into the cab of his truck where the air was calm.

The wavering sunshine had been erased by a low white mist, bringing evening early. Robert switched on his wipers; they spread a film of grime across the windshield. Automatically he drove towards the Stopping Place. The route took him past the mill. It rose up dark against the mist–crenellated and quiet. There had always been activity there, even at night. Lights had shone–illuminating odd angles, steam had swiveled out of the chimneys. Now there was nothing. A chain-link fence had been erected around the whole site, but nothing more had been done.

He drove through the dark until he reached the bar’s feeble neon sign. Red’s truck, pulled up tight against the front, made him hesitate. He looked around the lot, up and down the empty highway then continued to the door.

The air was smoky, stale and reassuring. The was noise: voices, music, the crack of pool balls.

Red turned at the jingle of the bell and watched Robert approach over his thick shoulder.

“You look like shit. What’ve you been doing all day?”

“Hunting.” Robert climbed onto the stool beside Red, then looked to the bartender, Mike.

“No shit!” Red said. “For what?”

Robert met his eyes and smiled slightly. “Rabbit.”

“The fuck you have!” Red’s voice was loud. “Rabbit. You get any?”

“Two,” Robert said. Mike approached and looked at him questioningly.

“Jack.” Robert said, “beer back.” He turned to Red. “Your daughter’s too good to cook them.”

Red and Robert looked at one another for a moment.

“No shit?” Red said. “She always was a picky little bitch.”

It was midnight when Robert stepped out of the bar and the cold, moist air slapped his flushed face. On the dark highway he shut one eye to keep the road in focus, and still the centerline danced in front of him. He flew past the dead mill and the dark houses.

His house was dark as well. He switched on the light and saw the rabbits. They lay just where he had left them; he could tell without touching them they were stiff.

The room smelled like food though; there were two crumpled bags from Dairy Queen on the table. The nearest Dairy Queen was a half hour away.

The brazen scent of fast food hung in the kitchen and Robert was abruptly starving. Saliva flooded his mouth and he realized he had not eaten all day. He plunged his hand into the greasy sack, his fingers reaching for detritus from the meal: a few french-fries, maybe an uneaten crescent of Jackie’s burger, but there was nothing left.

“Goddamn it!”

He snatched up the bag and shook it, but only a spattering of salt fell out.

His anger leapt; she ought to guess he would be hungry! Then he saw the lunch sack hunkered reproachfully on the counter. In an instant it was flying through the air, but he did not look to the mess it left after exploding on the floor.

He did not want to look at the rabbits either, but he would have to. He would have to eat them; he saw that now.

Robert wheeled around and confronted the small bodies. 

Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned it?

He reached down to his belt and fumbled for his pocketknife. The exposed blade gave him the hot-cold thrill it always did.

He cupped the creature in his palm. He would open it this way: down the belly. He nested the tip of the blade in the downy fur between the front legs. His hands were not quite steady. He gripped the handle tightly and pushed, felt skin stretch then finally puncture.

He tugged the knife downwards. Instead of sliding smoothly it snagged and caught like the overused zipper on a child’s parka.

He gritted his teeth and yanked until the rabbit’s entire front had been undone.

The incision was barely visible, hidden in the fine fur. He pulled at the edge of the cut but the pelt did not give way. He pulled harder, but it stayed firmly affixed to the body.

Robert hooked the very tip of the blade under the ragged edge of fur and tried to prise it away.

Between fur and flesh greyish membranes glistened. He jimmied the blade and tried to cut through the layers, but the angle was awkward and the knife slipped uselessly.

“Fuck!”

He tossed the knife aside, inhaled fast, then slid his fingers into the small cave he had carved. All warmth had left the little body. His fingers encountered a viscous substance–something not meant to be touched–and he swallowed bile.

He yanked quick and hard.

The otherworldly hue of the organs and inner workings, packed tight within a dull translucent wrapping, reminded Robert of something: his infant daughter handed to him in the minutes after she was born. He had shrugged the hospital blanket down and been shocked by the indigo tinge of her skin, how thin it seemed­–something from the inside turned out.

He shuddered and unhanded the rabbit.

And then his body moved in a way he did not understand. It threw him forward and something issued from his mouth.

Crying, he realized; he was crying.

He did not know the last time he had cried. Not when Jackie was born, and not since then. He had not cried since that bus ride back home, his forehead hard against the dirty glass.

He put his hands to his mouth to stifle himself; his fingers were slimy. He choked at the sensation, blubbered, his own spit and tears and snot mixing in. He couldn’t seem to stop the guttural noises escaping him.

“Daddy?”

He looked up to Jackie standing in the doorway.

She was in her pajamas; tousled by sleep, but her face a perfectly rendered sketch of horror and pity.

She hesitated. He watched her take in the flayed rabbit, his befouled face and hands.

And still the crying. Even as his daughter watched him his body heaved. He rammed his hands over his mouth, forced the sobs back down his gullet. His frame rebelled–quaked once and then again, but finally stilled.

“The bunny…” His daughter began, her eyes again racing from the rabbit to her father. “Are you ok? Your face.”

In her brown eyes was fear. Like he had not seen since she was a child and was truly scared of monsters she had dreamed up.

Cautiously he pulled his hands from his mouth. They came away stickily, still joined by snotty strands.

The words were there: a history of words crammed into one man. But there was no way to get them out cleanly or accurately. It was impossible he saw with a hot upsurge of anger.

She waited, watching.

“What the hell are you doing up? Get out of here. Get back to bed!”

He might as well have reached out his hand and rearranged her features, collapsed them.

“What are you looking at?” He couldn’t stop himself. “You heard me! Get out of my sight!”

She lingered for only a second. And then she could not turn fast enough to get away from him.

She ran straight into her mother–the fleshy collision forcing a despairing exhalation from each of them.

From over Jackie’s shoulder Robert watched Deb’s sleep-soft eyes take in the carnage he had wrought in the kitchen and he turned his gaze from hers, but he could not keep himself from hearing his daughter begin to cry–scared sobs muffled only by Deb’s bathrobe.

I don’t have to stick around for this. His earlier words echoed through his mind; all he wanted was to leave the bruised air of the room for a third time, to escape the barrage he was certain was about to come.

But when Deb spoke her voice was mild, almost flat. “Rabbits are a bitch to skin.”

Robert looked back at her in surprise and saw his daughter’s head come up as well.

“They are.” Deb said this in the same conversational tone, while she gave Jackie a forceful squeeze, then peeled her off and spun her briskly around. “But they’re good,” she said. “Go wash your hands.” She nodded at Robert who sensed some mute gap of gratitude open within him and walked to the sink.

He heard Deb moving efficiently behind him while he cleaned his hands in water as hot as he could stand, and when he turned back it was to her swiftly sharpening a slim curved knife he did not know they had.

Jackie hovered in the doorway­–her face still stricken–and Robert could almost see the fragile threads that bound her–to her mother, to him, to this house­–shimmer both with attraction and repulsion.

He glanced out the window to his truck, perched and waiting on the drive, but then slid cautiously sideways to stand beside his daughter. He was almost shocked that the air between them allowed him through.

The ease–the unsolicited forgiveness–with which she dissolved against his side when he reached his arm around her shoulders either broke or melted something within his chest.

He pulled her to him and they stood together in the doorway and watched while Deb took the thin blade to the small body and with assurance separated the flesh from the fur.

 

A writer emerging from motherhood, Kathryn Lipari’s short pieces have recently been published in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and elephant. She is a member of Full Frontal Writers’ Collective and smallSalon.com.

Kudzu-covered trees and hills sloped down beside the interstate as the car zipped along toward Atlanta.  Chelsi watched as they dipped into Georgia, then back into Tennessee, and back into Georgia, and she tried to be interested as her mother cooed from the front seat while they crossed Monteagle:  ”Look, honey!  A real mountain!”  It was the same thing Mom had said on numerous family vacations down this road en route to Florida when Chelsi and her sister Marci had been young, and they had smashed their noses against the windows as they rolled down the other side, past trucks grinding their brakes into powder.

But none of it seemed fascinating to Chelsi anymore.  The seven year old girl full of excitement had grown into the thirty-two year old woman with an apartment of her own, and somehow she was still sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car as they zoomed down the interstate toward another hotel room in a relatively unknown city.

She crossed her arms and let the greenery outside blur into a jumble before her eyes.  The real difference this time was that there was no Marci in the back seat with her, kicking her legs back onto the appropriate half of the seat.  No Marci to play the alphabet game with, no Marci to share books with, no Marci to lean on for an afternoon nap.  The emptiness in the back seat was like another person, like the sister she sometimes felt she had now.

Silence descended over the car as they drove through northern Georgia.  Chelsi put her forehead against the glass and stayed there, mile after mile, the car’s movement rocking her shoulders back and forth.  She didn’t know what to say to her mother’s incessant chatter.  Maybe there was nothing to say.

“Look!” Dad shouted, pointing to a billboard.  ”Boiled peanuts!  Next exit!”  He swerved over two lanes to the right, angling the car toward the green highway sign.

Chelsi closed her eyes.  Thanks, Marci, she thought.  Here we go back into the past.

*

Boiled peanuts had been the way Chelsi and Marci had marked vacations throughout their childhood.  Dad had an addiction to the slimy little goobers, and a complete hatred for the kinds they found near their home in Kentucky.  “Boiled in a crock pot,” he would say, and Chelsi had always thought that part of the reason for their yearly trip to Florida was so that they got to traverse three states in the deep South, searching for peanuts that Dad thought were authentic.

Marci thought he was crazy, and said that none of the peanuts anymore were “authentic”; they were all just boiled in somebody’s slow cooker, and what was really wrong with that anyway.  Chelsi never stated her allegiance one way or the other, but secretly she sided with Dad.  A good boiled peanut was a beautiful thing, soft and salty, the wet nut swelled into the strongest essence of itself, and it tasted like a southern summer—like wet earth from the freshest garden—especially when washed down with a cold Coke.

Dad parked the car outside an old-fashioned gas station with two pumps and a large fruit and vegetable stand off to the side.  “Promising,” he said, and he left the car running while he headed for the stand.

Mom rolled down her window.  “See if they’ve got peaches!” she called, and Chelsi slumped down in her seat to hide behind her phone, a teenage version of herself.

This is not real life, she reminded herself.  This is—But she didn’t have any good way to finish that sentence.

*

A damp bag of boiled peanuts knocked her phone out of her hand.  She looked up to see her father waving a second bag before he heaved it over the seat at her.  ”They look good!” he said.  ”One for me, one for you.  Put them in the floorboard over there by the cooler.”

She did as she was told, studying the bags as she tucked them into place, words suddenly easy. This part was an old script.  ”I hope you didn’t pay too much for them,” she said.

His eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror.  ”Are you kidding?  What would be too much?”

“What’s this?”  Mom pulled a little bag of gummy candy from the bag with her peaches.

All the joy went out of Dad’s face, like she had pulled a plug under his chin.  ”I bought them for Hannah,” he said.

Mom put them back on top of the peaches carefully and smoothed the edges of the plastic bag over them.  She turned to the window, her chin trembling in silhouette.

“You know, they’ve got candy back in Kentucky, Dad,” Chelsi said.  ”She’s probably eating some right now.”

“Yes.  Well.”  Dad put both of his hands on the wheel and leaned his head back against the seat and sat there for a long moment, staring out the front windshield while Mom cried off to the side, and Chelsi bit the insides of her cheeks and tried not to throw her head back and scream.  Finally, Dad put the car in reverse and headed for the interstate, and Chelsi put her head back against the window.

She understood why Dad bought that stupid candy, and she really couldn’t hold it against him.  They were never out of his heart, even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.

*

Chelsi slept most of the rest of the way to Atlanta.  She woke as Dad turned into the hotel parking lot and turned off the car.  ”I’ll just go get the keys,” he said.

Heavy Georgia heat immediately seeped through the frame of the car.  ”Lord, it’s hot,” Mom said, fanning her face with her hand.  She ran her hand over her face and sniffed.  ”Sorry.  I just can’t shake these allergies.”  Her voice was thick and nasal, and Chelsi threw open the car door.  ”I’m going to get a luggage cart,” she said, and she bolted for the hotel.

She burst through the lobby doors and waved to her father, who was chatting with the clerk behind the counter.  ”I’ll just get the luggage,” she said.

He nodded.  ”Hang on.  I’m coming,” he said.  He pocketed the thin key cards.  ”Thanks for the tip,” he said to the clerk.

They walked out to the car together, Chelsi lugging the lumbering cart behind them.  It swung back and forth on wobbly wheels, and she had to use two hands to keep it from bumping into parked cars.  ”We’re on the third floor,” he said.  ”I told the clerk how we decided to come to this family reunion late, so we couldn’t get in the same hotel as everyone else.  He gave me directions to a good place for dinner.  We can meet up with all of them tomorrow.”

Chelsi could not imagine another foray in public tonight, pretending to be a normal family.  It would be difficult enough tomorrow.  ”I’m fine with just staying in the hotel room tonight.  We’ve got snacks in the cooler.  I mean, if you and Mom want to go, it’s okay too.  But I’m really fine with staying.”

“You are?”  They stopped by the car, and Dad opened the trunk with a click of his key ring.  ”We’ll ask your mother, of course, but I wouldn’t mind being able to just go to bed early myself.  It was a long day.”

Chelsi glanced in the car, where her mother was still wiping her eyes.  ”I don’t think she’s gonna care, Dad.”

He sighed, his gaze dropping to his shoes as if he was too tired to lift it.  ”No, I don’t guess she will.”

Chelsi piled their luggage onto the cart.  One suitcase on wheels, her duffel bag, and a cooler.  She placed the bags of peanuts on top of the suitcase.  They could have carried all this, but getting a luggage cart helped her feel more like the trip was actually a vacation instead of an ill-conceived venture to take care of her parents when they foolishly decided they wanted to reunite with fifth cousins from Delaware.  The cart’s metal bars made her hands sweat, and she really just wanted to go back to sleep and wake up when this weekend was over.

The room was unusually large and smelled clean.  She threw her bag on the bed closest to the air conditioner and then returned the luggage cart.  When she came back, her mother had already put on a nightgown and was standing in the open door of the bathroom washing her face.  Chelsi pulled a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from her bag and waited for her turn in the bathroom.

“Come eat,” her dad said.

He had opened two Diet Cokes on the desk, and spread paper towels in front of the bags of boiled peanuts.  He tugged the paisley ottoman over to the desk and gestured for her to take the desk chair.

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

“For heaven’s sake, have a peanut,” he said, his face creasing the way it used to when she and Marci fought loudly from the back of the car.  She sank into the chair and tucked her feet up under her.  He nudged the bag toward her.  ”Come on, Chels.  Peanut time.”

She pinched a soft, rough shell until it cracked at the edges, then she dug her nails in and split it apart.  Inside, the nut was as soft as skin, and she rolled it to the back of her teeth, savoring the tender meat.  It tasted like it had been boiled in the ocean, and she closed her eyes as she swallowed.  How long had it been since she’d had one?  She hadn’t known how much she missed them.

Mom turned on the TV and found the Braves game.  ”What is wrong with them?”  Mom complained.  ”How are they already losing?”  She took a banana from the cooler and peeled it as she sat on the bed.

“How’s work, Chelsi?” Dad asked.

“It’s work,” Chelsi said.  ”Busy.  I think we’re going to hire a new associate.  I’ve been working twelve hour days for two weeks.  It just can’t go on this way.”

“Well, hiring someone else shouldn’t be hard,” Dad said.  ”There are always a million lawyers.  You have to take care of your health.”

Chelsi smiled and ate another peanut.  Her parents had been surprised when she’d chosen law as a career, but it fit her like her favorite shoes.  She savored the orderliness of it and the analytical thinking.  She actually liked dictating letters and prepping for depositions, and nothing at the office relaxed her more than a long afternoon of reviewing medical records.  She even liked other lawyers, which was how Marci and her husband Joshua had met; she’d gone to law school with Joshua, and she’d introduced them.

She looked carefully at her father.  He was digging into his peanuts with a look of sheer delight, the lines that sadness had dug around his eyes lightened.  She drank Diet Coke and ate another peanut.  ”I probably should call Joshua,” she said.

Her mother squeezed the remote.  Her father’s eyes grew heavy again, and he struggled to swallow.  Finally he said, “Go ahead.”

She pulled her phone out and thought about going in the hall, but then she’d just have to repeat the conversation for her parents.  ”Anything you want me to tell him?” she asked.

Mom’s eyes were dark and hollow.  ”Let him know we love him.  Tell Hannah we love her.”

Joshua answered on the second ring.  ”I’m finishing Hannah’s dinner,” he said instead of hello.

“What are you having?”

“She’s having mac and cheese.  Um, and chicken.  Somebody from work brought by chicken.”

“Sounds good.  What are you having?”

“I’ll get something after she goes to bed.”

Chelsi bit her lip.  Joshua had been living mostly on beer, whiskey, and salads from the Kroger near work lately, and most of that came after Hannah went to bed.  ”Why don’t you just eat with her?”

“I can’t feed her and eat at the same time.”

“She’s two.  She can probably mostly feed herself.”

“Then I’ll have to just dunk her straight in the tub.”

Chelsi laughed.  ”Everything else okay?”

“Yeah.”  He took a deep breath.  ”You’re in Atlanta, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  I’ll try not to call you at midnight.”

“Just…try to get some food now so you don’t have to later.”  Chelsi glanced at her parents, who were pretending not to listen.  She didn’t want them to know how often Joshua called her, drunk and in tears, in the middle of the night.  He wasn’t eating or sleeping, and he was concentrating all his energy on making sure life was normal for Hannah, although every time she asked for Mommy, he cried in front of her.  ”But call me if you need anything, okay?”

“We probably should have come with you guys like your parents wanted.”  He sighed again.  ”I just didn’t know if I could handle that, you know?”

“It’s mostly old ladies from Louisiana,” Chelsi said, and he laughed.  ”But I understand.”

She hung up the phone and sat back down with Dad.  Slowly, Mom turned the volume on the game back up.  Chelsi hadn’t even noticed that she’d lowered it.  ”Get a peanut, Dad,” she said, and he twisted his lips in a weak smile.

“Do you call him every day?”

“I call him every night.  At dinner.”  She had always called Marci then, on her way home from work.  After the wreck she had found herself dialing Marci’s number without even thinking, and then she had heard the voicemail Joshua hadn’t taken down, and she cried at Marci’s voice.  She called Joshua to fill the void in her day, to keep a connection with her sister.  And then she called him because he was lost without Marci; he was desperately in love with their daughter but had no clue how to be a single parent with his heart buried in the ground.

Dad nodded and slowly ate a peanut.  ”I call him every morning at breakfast before I go and pick up Hannah.”

“I didn’t know you were picking her up in the mornings.”

“It just made things easier for him.”  After Marci’s wreck, Mom and Dad had started keeping Hannah while Joshua worked.  She had beautiful soft brown curls like her mother’s, and looking at her was both painful and healing.  Chelsi ate another peanut.

“Do you think things will ever get better?” Mom asked.

Her face was wet with tears she wasn’t bothering to wipe away.  ”It’s been six months.  Is it ever going to get better?”  She started to sob, her chest heaving, and she bent over until her head almost touched her knees.  Dad sat down beside her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her body to his, crying along with her.  Chelsi sat at the desk with a boiled peanut in her hand.  She put it into her mouth and swallowed without chewing, feeling the weight of her family across her shoulders and across the miles sink down over her body.  The peanut felt harsh down her throat.

Because the answer was no.  She didn’t think it was ever going to get better.

*

She woke to an early morning news show.  Dad was sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to her and the remote in his hand.  His thick hair was damp, and he was already dressed.  Mom stepped out of the bathroom with one towel around her body and another around her hair.  ”Go ahead and get in, sweetheart,” she said.  ”We’ll wait for you.”

“You guys can go ahead and get breakfast.  Really,” she said.  She yawned and stretched.

“No, we’ll wait.  Hurry up.”

Chelsi closed her eyes so they couldn’t see her roll them around.  She preferred to wake up gradually, not be rushed.  But she climbed obediently out of bed and took a fast shower.  She put on a pair of her favorite jeans and a sleeveless top and braided her wet hair, then stepped out of the bathroom.  “Ready.”

“Oh no, you’re not.”  Mom held out a t-shirt identical to the ones she and Dad were wearing.

“Mom.  You’ve got to be kidding.”  The shirt was bright yellow and emblazoned with the words “Jones Family Reunion—Atlanta, Georgia.”  “I came.  I am not wearing the t-shirt too.”

Mom lay the shirt on the bed and crossed her arms.  “You want to look different from everyone else today?”

“Yes, please.”

Mom shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  But if you don’t get let in to the private rooms reserved for us, Dad and I are not going to vouch for you.”

Chelsi groaned.  Dad stood up and stretched, the yellow of the shirt especially pronounced against his dark hair.  Chelsi imagined it would look the same against hers.  “I’ll call the elevator,” he said, and though he didn’t look at her, she could hear the laughter in his voice.

Chelsi put the shirt on and flipped her braid out the back.  She smoothed her hair in the mirror, seeing Marci’s brown eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she smiled.  Marci would have put on the shirt.  Marci would have rocked the shirt.  Marci would have put a happy Hannah in a tiny version and a grudging Joshua in his matching one, and she would have led the reunion through Atlanta today.

Well, Chelsi knew she wasn’t Marci.  But she linked her arm through her mother’s and kissed her cheek.  “If the hotel coffee is bad, we’re googling the nearest Starbucks,” she said.

“Deal,” her mother replied, and kissed her back.

*

They started their day at the World of Coke, with the collected Jones family from six different states.  Chelsi tried to hang out in the back, but her parents called to her from their spots in the front of the line, where they’d already bought her ticket.  They introduced her again and again to old people whose names she’d never remember, but there were a few third cousins who were vaguely familiar, and to her surprise, her cousin Alaya, with whom she’d spent many fun vacations as a child, was there.  The whole group carried an easy hilarity and a fun vibe which she hadn’t expected.

She stuck by her parents through the whole tour, but she lost them as the group shifted outside to head for the aquarium.  Chelsi stuffed the little white bear she bought for Hannah in her bag and then looked around, spotting her parents once again in the front.  Dad was holding a small bag; he’d probably bought the same bear.

Before she could make her way through the crowd, Alaya appeared and linked their arms.  ”I miss Marci at things like this,” Alaya said.

Chelsi blinked at her.  Alaya lived in Georgia and had probably not seen Marci in ten years.  ”You do?”

“Of course!”  Alaya sighed and sniffed and wiped at the corner of her eye.  ”Don’t you remember all those times on Aunt Odessa’s farm?  When we’d chase the cats and ride horses?”

Chelsi nodded cautiously.  They had possibly been to Aunt Odessa’s farm twice, but Marci was older, so maybe she’d been there more.  ”Why does that make you think of Marci?”

Alaya waved her hand in the air.  ”Oh, you know, all the family all around.”  She leaned over until her forehead pressed against Chelsi’s hair.  ”How are you all holding up?”

“We’re okay.”  Chelsi pulled away and tried to remember the last time she had seen Alaya.  They were friends on Facebook, so Chelsi knew way too much about Alaya’s love for her boyfriend and how cute her daughter was, but she really didn’t know much about Alaya herself.  ”How’s Mara?  I saw the pictures you posted.  She’s getting so big.”

Alaya waved her hand again.  ”She’s fine.  I left her with her dad today.  Too much trouble to try to drag her through the aquarium, you know?”

If Hannah had been here today, Chelsi might not have been able to let go of her hand.  She would have loved to have given Hannah this day, to let the little girl see something besides her mother in every picture all over the house.  ”Hm,” she said.

“Can I ask you a question?” Alaya said.  ”No one here really seems to know what exactly happened to Marci.”

Chelsi’s lips felt stiff.  ”It was a car accident.”

“Well, I know that.  But was she driving?”

“Yes.”

“So, like, what happened?  I heard it was a rainy day and she lost control of the car?”

“Yes.”

“But…what happened?”

Chelsi’s throat felt so dry she could have swallowed all the Coke in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.  ”She died is what happened,” she said, and she pulled her arm free and walked away.

Mom and Dad were waiting at the edge of the ticket line.  ”I don’t want to go in,” she said. ”You go without me.”

Mom studied her face.  ”Are you okay?”

“I just don’t feel like looking at fish right now.  I feel kind of sick.”

Mom touched her face, and the coolness of her hands quieted the fire in Chelsi’s heart.  ”Your face feels okay,” Mom said.

“Why don’t we all just skip the aquarium?” Dad said.  ”Tell the truth, I was getting sick of those people anyway.  Family reunion my butt.  No way am I related to even half of them.”

“They all have your nose,” Mom said.

“Ain’t none of them got my brain.”

“Thank God.”

“Guys, seriously, you don’t need to stay with me.  I’d like to be alone for a little while.”

Dad ignored her.  ”Why don’t we three get back in the car and go have an early lunch?  I liked what they were telling me at the hotel about the Varsity.  That sounded like a fine place.”

“I really don’t mind if you go on without me.”

Mom put her arms around Chelsi and her forehead against her daughter’s.  ”We would never, ever do that.”

*

The Varsity was a crowded, intimidating place that seemed to activate Mom’s inner aggressiveness.  She swept through a line and called out all of their orders quickly and loudly, then led the way to a table with her head held high, while Chelsi wanted to cower in a corner.  The place was packed and overwhelming, and she clutched at her purse while Mom tossed her hair and claimed a chair.  “I love this!” Mom said, taking a huge bite of her burger.

Chelsi dipped an onion ring in ketchup.  “Marci would have too,” she said before she thought.

But for once, a cloud didn’t sweep over her mother’s face.  She took a long drink of her soda and smiled.  “But she’d be eating hot dogs and rench fries,” Mom said, “and she would be covering everything in only mustard.”

“She’d be bossing me around,” Dad said, “telling me I ought to be drinking diet soda, and at my age when am I going to start taking care of my weight?”

“She never would have let that woman cut in front of you in line,” Chelsi said.

Mom’s nostrils flared.  “I wouldn’t have let her either, if you two had kept up with me or at least told me what you wanted.”

“She would have let Hannah eat off her plate,” Chelsi said.  “She would have stolen my onion rings to give to Hannah.  She would have held hands with Joshua under the table, and he would have looked relaxed, and he would have laughed.  Hannah would have fallen asleep in her arms.”

Dad rubbed his eyes.  “We all would have been laughing,” he said.  “If Marci was here.”

Chelsi pushed her food away and looked out over the sea of concrete outside, one lonely building after another after another.  She was supposed to be taking care of her parents.  That was the whole reason for coming on this trip, and instead she was falling apart.

Mom handed her a napkin, and she looked at it in confusion.  “For your eyes, sweetheart,” Mom said, and Chelsi put her fingers to her wet cheeks.  She hadn’t even known she was crying.

Mom pulled her chair beside Chelsi’s on the left, and Dad scooted around on the right.  They put their arms around her, and she clung to their looped arms like a lifeline.

*

That afternoon Dad put in a quick call to his cousin Charlie, and they officially abandoned the rest of the family reunion.  Instead, in honor of Marci, who had loved Gone With the Wind, they visited the Margaret Mitchell House in midtown.  The museum was hushed as they walked through the door, as if they were in a funeral parlor.  The tour didn’t start for fifteen minutes, so they surveyed the tiny gift shop, instinctively speaking to each other in whispers.

The docent was a thin man with a hooked nose and a nasal voice.  His wispy hair wouldn’t stay down, and he waved his hands wildly at the end of each sentence, but Chelsi was captivated at his first words.  ”Let me tell you the story of the fascinating woman who once walked these floors.”

Chelsi looked at the pictures of Mitchell over the course of her short life, tracing the cheekbones and following the gaze of the lovely eyes, and it was easy to match the beautiful young woman on the walls with the docent’s description of a woman who wouldn’t think inside any conventional boxes.  It was easier still to picture a tall young woman with a toddler on her hip hovering near the docent, hanging on his every word, raising her finger to ask a question.  Chelsi turned to the place her sister could have been standing, and Marci winked at her, the snappy dark eyes in her angular face sparkling with excitement.  She shoved her free elbow into Chelsi’s ribs.  ”We are in Margaret Mitchell’s house!” she whispered.  She wrapped both arms around Hannah and did an impromptu whirling little dance in the middle of the crowded room.  ”Whee!  Get excited, y’all!”

They moved through Mitchell’s apartment with the rest of the group.  Chelsi sat on the window seat and imagined Mitchell at the typewriter, fingers clicking across the keys, eyes wandering as she rolled her shoulders and thought about her next sentence, and then Chelsi imagined Marci with her high spirits running her hands over the same keys, telling Chelsi to close her eyes and feel the presence that was here.  ”Some people,” the docent said, “are larger than life, and the richness of their lives leave the most fulfilling legacies.”

*

That night, back at the hotel, Mom and Dad went down to the pool to sit in the hot tub, and Chelsi flopped back on her bed and called Joshua.  “Hannah won’t eat,” he said in a strangled whisper.  “She did great last night and now she won’t eat.  What do I do?”

“What are you feeding her?”

“Carrots and pasta.”

Chelsi wrinkled her nose.  “Well, that explains it then,” she said.  “I’m not in the mood for carrots tonight either.”

“That’s not helpful to me.”

“Joshua, she’s a little person.  She has moods and whims like everyone else.  Ease up a little maybe.”  She hesitated, then said it.  “What did Marci do when she didn’t eat?”

He sucked in his breath sharply, then let it out in a rush.  “I don’t know,” he said.  She could hear the swoosh of cushions as he sat down.  “She played a game with her,” he said finally.  “She would make the spoon an airplane.”

“Okay,” Chelsi said.  “So you need to make the spoon an airplane.”

Joshua didn’t answer, and Chelsi bit her lips.  “Oh!  I know,” she said.  “I remember Marci used to see who could eat a food the fastest.”

“I remember,” he said, his voice quiet.

“But you have to make sure she wins,” Chelsi said.  “That’s pretty important.”

Joshua laughed, a short bark.  “I can handle that.”

“When I get home, Hannah can come and spend the night with me and let you get some real sleep.”

“I’d like that.”

“And Joshua—“ Chelsi chewed the inside of her cheek again.  How close was she to overstepping her bounds?  “I have vacation coming up in a month.  Would you like to take Hannah and go to the beach with Mom and Dad and me?  I’m sure I can get them to go.  Don’t you think it would be good for you to get away?”

“I don’t think I can do it, Chels,” he said, and she could hear his voice cracking.  She hoped he wasn’t in the same room as Hannah.  “I don’t think I can ever get away.”

“I don’t think you can either, Joshua,” she said.  “But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I think we’re supposed to take her with us.”

His sobs quieted and his breathing evened.  “I’ll think about it.”

*

When Mom and Dad came back in, towels wrapped around their shoulders, Chelsi had the Braves game on and was opening the leftover boiled peanuts at the desk.  ”Oh, good,” Dad said.  ”I thought we threw those away.”

“I put them in the fridge last night,” Mom said.  She changed in the bathroom and sat down on the edge of her bed to watch the game.  ”We’re winning!” she shouted.

Chelsi bit into a peanut.  It was soft and cold and repulsive, all the taste congealed inside the chilly flesh.  She spit it out into the trash can.  ”That is the grossest thing I’ve ever eaten,” she said.

“Really?”  Dad picked up the bag and examined them, as if he could discover what had gone wrong by staring, his eyes disappointed and his mouth turned down.  ”We can pick up some more tomorrow on the way home, I guess.”

“Marci would have eaten those,” Mom said.

They both turned to look at her.  She had kicked off her shoes and was curled up on the bed, sipping a soda she’d pulled from the fridge.  ”Don’t you remember?  She always just waited until you guys had picked over the hot ones, and I had put the leftover ones into the fridge.  She would steal cool ones as they got colder.  She’s the reason I always put them in the fridge.  Lord knows you guys never ate them.”

“I never knew,” said Dad. He ran his hand over his chin.  ”I never even knew we had leftovers.”

“She ate them fast.  She could put them away.”

“She was crazy then,” Chelsi said.  ”No one in her right mind would eat that crap.”

Her parents swiveled their gazes to her, their jaws dropping.  For a moment Chelsi was horrified with herself.  Then Mom started laughing, and she laughed until she cried.  ”She was crazy.  She was,” Mom said again and again.

Chelsi and Dad sank onto the bed with her.  Dad held Mom’s hand, and Chelsi put her head on Mom’s shoulder.   They settled into a contemplative quiet then, Mom murmuring at the various plays, and they fell asleep like that, all leaning against each other, before the game was over.

Chelsi woke up around 3 a.m., stiff and creaky.  Mom and Dad were leaning their heads against each other, and Dad was snoring softly.  Chelsi tiptoed around the room turning off lights, but when she snapped off the TV, Dad jerked awake with a snort.  ”Wha–?”  He looked at Chelsi and blinked.  ”Sorry, sweetheart.  I must have fallen asleep.”

“It’s time, Dad.”  Chelsi smiled.  ”You could take off your shoes though.”

Dad kicked off his shoes and pulled the covers up over him and Mom.  ”Good night, Chelsi,” he said.

“‘Night, Dad,” she said, slipping beneath her own sheets.

She had thought, at the beginning of the weekend, that this wound would never heal.  But now she could start to see how it might, someday, and somehow that was more painful still.  She closed her eyes and stretched her body in all the extra space the double bed held.  Then she pulled her limbs back to one side of the bed and looked up at the ceiling in the dark.

‘Night, Marci, she thought, and she tried to keep the sound of her own tears from echoing in the quiet room as she cried.

 

 

Bio:

Julie Cox writes from Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and children and teaches high school.

A picture of Nicolas stared back at me. It was pasted onto a poster, next to a display of his book. Seeing it was serendipitous. I had taken the sidewalk route since my usual walk, the park path, was covered with snow. He’s aged. I’m still a decade older than him, although that doesn’t matter as it did then.

I looked at the man in photo and saw the boy he had been, old at seventeen, or so I had convinced myself. He rose a foot above the heads of his classmates, and lacked their scent of the Missouri earth.

I turned from the bookstore window when a man, caved under a hood, and with a scarf wrapped up to his nose, bumped into me and mumbled something. He hurried along with other people who had places to go. The bitter lake wind blew clear to my bones, my glasses had frosted over, and the tips of my fingers had no feeling. I rubbed my gloved hands together and hustled into the bookstore.

Nicolas’s newest book, Heart of America, is long––600 pages. I chuckled to think of him pounding out that many keystrokes about life in the Midwest. He had been wild to leave it for places with exotic ideas and foods. Now, any flavor of ideas are available; the old ones along with the new, for better or worse, and even supermarkets carry frozen Pad Thai. Back then, his curiosity could not be contained in any one place, just as he seemed to outgrow his shirts and shoes before one’s eyes.

He lived in Union during a hasty intersection of our lives. His father had landed a job there selling insurance. The family remained vague to the locals. You would struggle to find someone in Union County that wasn’t provided for by agriculture, its equipment, seed stores, and coffee and egg diner where everyone knew whose kid had dumped a bottle of dish soap and red food dye into the town fountain.

The caption under Nicolas’s picture, on the back book jacket, gives his journalism and literary identity. He lives in London. The dedication is, “For Toshi.”

As I paid for the book, the clerk said, “Come back tonight to have it signed. This is his only Chicago stop, you know. Get here early if you want a seat.” She looked fresh, natural, except for the overly whitened teeth. She’s about the age I was when I knew Nicolas.

I stopped at Starbucks on the way home. The book is filling. After the second chapter, I was ready to surrender my seat to a standing customer who had more than glanced at my empty cappuccino cup.

At home, I opened the book again to the photo on the inside back cover. I could still see the boy who had approached me in the library. Other boys had sheepishly slogged up to the information desk to request help with a report due the following day, on, say, the French Revolution. Nicolas, however, stepped with confidant strides to the desk and requested that the library order Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and Eldrige Clever’s Soul on Ice. I ordered the books, and, later, others Nicolas suggested. Someone complained about the books to the Union Library Board. I was freshly cast in the role of librarian, so they considered it a naïve mistake.
I tackled Heart of America again, until the outside chill seeped into my apartment. I set down the book and started a fire. Well, I flicked a switch so the gas logs flared and I turned up the thermostat. I put on water for tea.

I probed the book for mention of Union, or his experiences there. There were none. In Heart of America, Nicolas took the pulse of the Midwestern area on how it has changed, or not, on cultural and political issues. I read the chapter titled Patriotism. It stirred up dust that was as old as an 8-track tape.

I had followed the commotion to the post office, the only branch of the federal government in the town, and saw Nicolas sitting on the steps. His guitar case propped a poster board that had a peace sign drawn with black marker. He sang an unremarkable rendition of Blowing in the Wind. Jake Johnson, who ran a grain elevator, yelled, “peacenik.” A few others took up the chant. Jake grabbed the poster board and threw it on the sidewalk. Nicolas continued his one man concert, as if the protesters of his protest were not there. A couple of guys stomped on the peace sign. Nicolas adjusted the strings on his guitar.

I knew Nicolas then as the voracious young man in the library. The situation made me uneasy. Without a second thought, I hopped up the steps next to him. “Hey, hey,” I said, a friendly scold. “Let’s all remember that peaceful dissent is a precious right in our country.” Those standing on the sidewalk, most of whom I knew, squinted with confusion. I saw how it looked through their eyes. Roger was serving in Vietnam. Roger and I had married the month before he left for that war. I quietly stepped down and walked away.

The kettle on the stove billowed steam. I set the book on the table, stood, and stretched my back. In the kitchen, the morning dishes were still in the sink. Oatmeal dried in a saucepan. In order to finish as much of the book as I could before Nicolas’ reading that night, I ignored the dishes and took the tea back to the chair next to the fake fire logs.

He guided the reader on the why and how of the current changes spreading through cities and towns, just as he could account for the influences that pulled the oxygen from a tired war all those years ago when we sat in my car. I had offered him a ride after I had passed him one day, sitting against a tree, tossing pebbles to the curb for no obvious reason. He appeared comfortably absent, either ignoring or not noticing the rain. Water dripped from his hair––long for Union standards––over his strong shoulders, and soaked his sandaled feet.

Nicolas was not interested in the drop in the price of soybeans, the McFarland farm foreclosure, or the football team’s loss to Hadley, which ruined an undefeated season that year. He could point out a dozen constellations in the night sky––not just the all-stars that everyone knew––but he didn’t know the names of the students who sat next to him everyday in physics class.

Will he circle back to Union as he travels on his book tour? Coming from England, it seems down the road even though it is still a million miles away. The steepled churches are not the ultra fervent variety, but they preserve a code of morality for the town. There is an unwritten rule of sobriety. Those who don’t follow it keep to themselves except Steve Stuckey who stands on the corner and rants about taxes until he crumbles onto the curb. When the deputy sheriff comes by, he drives him home. It is a tight community, which makes it difficult to keep a secret.

From the list of other books Nicolas has written, he has traveled to the capitols, and the fringes, of Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. His dreams had not been illusionary. Nicolas and I could go on for hours about books, music, places we wanted to see, the kind of stuff that people now share with the world on social media, but back then revealed to someone intimate.
When Roger returned from war, our periods of silence stretched to uncomfortableness. Caught in his own memories, Roger apologized, assuming it was all on his account. We eventually conversed more, but not about what each couldn’t talk about. When Emma was born, she filled the space between us.

There was a determined ringing of my phone, interrupting my reading of Heart of America. It was Emma. She checks on me, as I did her when she was younger. She wanted me to stay inside until the weather heated up. I responded as she used to with my advice; I agreed, while knowing I would ignore it.

One evening, back in Union, with the wind chill down to sub-zero, Nicolas had shown up at my back door. By then it was not a surprise to see him there, but I had not expected him on a night like that. Puffs of fog exhaled with his breath. His teeth chattered like a wind-up toy. I wrapped him in a wool blanket and made cocoa hot enough to melt the marshmallow. It scalded his lips. While it cooled, he talked of places he’d rather be: Rio de Janerio, Bangkok, Cape Town.

When I told him about my dream of going to a Greek island, he sailed the blanket off of him. It buried the cat, but Nicolas didn’t notice. “Let’s go,” he said, swooping me up. “Take off. Travel.” He was forever fastened to unfeasibility.

I laughed and shook my head, even as, for an instant, I flirted with his idea.

“Don’t laugh at me,” he said and let go of me so quickly that I almost tumbled.

“Talking about taking off, as though it was simple,” I said, “I mean, it distorts reality.”

“Do you really think that?”

I raised my arms in the air in a gesture of freedom.” Running away, suddenly liberated!” I dropped my arms. “It ignores the way life really is.”

He looked at me as though I was giving up on life itself, and then he looked off, in that way of his that suggested he saw things no one else could. Just then, I might have been one of those nameless faces next to his desk in his physics class.
I got ready for Nicolas’ reading at the bookstore. I applied lipstick and chose the green scarf that enhanced my eyes. I sighed at my foolishness.

The bookstore clerk had said, “If you want him to write a personal message, print it out ahead of time. But keep it brief. We’ll need to keep the line moving.”

When I retired from the Union Library, the mayor and town council presented me with a crystal recognition award. Engraved on it, under my name, was, The Most Admired Woman in Union. After Roger died, and I moved to Chicago, I stuck the award in the trash. With the need to ‘keep the line moving,’ I would not have time to share that story with Nicolas, although it would give us something with which to communicate a raised eyebrow.

A climbing rose bush trailed the trellis above the back porch swing where we sat that first time the relationship pushed into new territory. He revealed that it bothered him that others did not understand him. He considered the misunderstanding was more on the part of others, but still, it bothered him. Putting my hand on his was intended to comfort, same as I would old Mrs. Bracken when she came into the library with her world of troubles: arthritis, the price of orange juice, and her only daughter’s move to St. Louis.
Emma called again, to see if there was anything I wanted from the grocery store. Seemed fine for her to go out into the polar vortex. I did not need groceries.

The temperature was close to a Chicago record low for the date. Parking near the bookstore required a car with the flexibility of a gymnast. I could walk. It was only a mile. My lungs had burnt cold during my morning walk. I continued self-debating while I caved myself as the man who had bumped me that morning had done. I slid a knit hat over my ears and tied a scarf across my neck and up to my nose, not the green silk scarf, but the gray wool one. When I stepped outside, I pulled the hood of my parka over my head.

My boots crunched on the frosty sidewalk. I pushed forward with my head down, lugging my guilt through the wintry night. The sidewalks were thinned of all but dog walkers. The pets hurried beside their people, without the meander of better days. Starbucks on the block before the bookstore was open. I ordered a coffee and let the steam rise up my nostrils.

I sat in the back row at the bookstore. The unfriendly weather had discouraged the standing room only, out-the-door, and around the corner turn-out that the clerk had predicted. About thirty people were there. Down coats slid onto the backs of chairs. Scarves fell to the floor. There was a murmur when Nicolas, large and lumbering, arrived, and then a hush while he was introduced. The woman who introduced him called him a courageous writer who had collected continents as others collected coins. Nicolas was greeted with generous applause.

He stood, slightly slouched, behind a podium. He looked around, and then above, the audience. A wrinkled shirt peeked out of his sweater. His hair and beard were unkempt, giving the impression that he couldn’t bother sprucing up for people who had spent $29 and many hours on his book. But his tone was polite as he thanked everyone for coming on that frigid night. His accent was far from the Midwest.

Nicolas read for half an hour, skipping to parts of chapters. His eyes left the pages a few times when he shared a statistic that proved a provocative point. The asides teased simple facts from the dense writing. Each time he did that, the audience buzzed in agreement. Nicolas nodded with them. He had found people who understood him.

He took a few questions. One man asked what solutions he had for the bitter division that the cultural changes have had, especially in less urban areas.

“Time changes things,” said Nicolas. “We can’t escape the past, but nor can we reclaim it. Everyone at some time must confront cultural challenges. Adapt, or move on.”
“Not everyone is in a position to move on,” said the questioner, a man who wore a neatly-trimmed goatee and James Joyce glasses.

Nicolas shrugged his shoulders as though that was not his problem. “Then they need to come up with their own solutions.” When his audience did not murmur in mass agreement that time, he held up Heart of America. “My role is to observe and report what is happening. I’m just the miner that digs up the material.” He still wanted to open windows for others.

His speaking time ended, with hands still raised, when the bookstore clerk stepped to the front and announced that the Q&A was over, so that people could get their books signed and go home before the temperature dropped to dangerous levels.

More than half of the the audience formed the book-signing line. I was in the middle. What on earth was I doing there? I had gnawed on it all day and still didn’t know what I would say, or what I was looking for. Absolution? Before I could ponder any further, the woman in line behind me tapped my shoulder and spoke as though we knew each other well. We had never met. She had finished the book late one night and had gotten up the next morning and started reading it again from the beginning. “He’s wonderful,” she said. “I’d follow him across the world.” She laughed. “I do, in his books.” She continued talking at me until I stood unprepared in front of the table set up with a stack of copies of Heart of America, and Nicolas barely glancing up. His face had been baked by those sun-drenched places he’d yearned for. I set my copy of the book on the table, opened to the title page as the bookstore clerk had instructed. I had removed the paper jacket at home, after I spilled tea on it.

“How would you like me to sign it?” he said.

I pushed out a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding. “Oh…to Claire.” I whispered, “Claire DeWayne.”

He looked at me, silver hair that had been burgundy, thick glasses I didn’t need when he knew me, and skin lined by sun and time. He squinted across the room to a bookshelf where the travel section is located, seemingly to find a place for the name. I did not offer him help. When his eyes shifted to the line of people standing with their books to be signed, he shrugged off the effort. His left hand held the pen as he wrote To Claire, and scribbled his signature. He pushed the book toward me. It all took no longer than a minute or two.

Stiffness slipped from my body. “Thank you,” I said, and smiled. “Good luck with the book.”

 

Mary Pat Musick’s short stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Pedestal Magazine, Summerset Review, The MacGuffin, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.

HOW TO GET AMY WILSON TO GO TO PROM WITH ME

1. Have Dad review this plan.

2. Pending outcome of the review, memorize every step of this plan.

3. Circle the calendar for April 7. Write: “At 2:42 p.m., after the fifth period bell, ask out Amy Wilson.” Use a post-it note if the space on the calendar is too small to fill in the whole message. It is important to remind myself of the exact time and date.

4. Monitor Amy Wilson’s dating situation. Ask best friends about her, but not too often. Watch her in the cafeteria, but not too closely. Keep tabs on Jason Merzowski. Amy Wilson must remain single and un-asked-to-prom until 2:42 p.m. on April 7. If she does not, proceed to step 28.
ADDITION FROM DAD: He says I need to “lay groundwork” before the date in question. More explanation may be required.

5. Reconnoiter the premises. Amy Wilson leaves from her fifth period class and stops by her locker for approximately three minutes before going to the front of the school to wait under the Dogwood trees. This is where her father picks her up. Check the area for any possible tripping hazards, bad lighting or noxious odors. Remain vigilant.

6. Initiate a daily exercise regimen. This should include push-ups. Push-ups will make me buff. See Dad for further aid.

7. Attend to grooming needs. Hair should be shampooed and neatly combed. Tooth-brushing must be followed immediately by flossing. Antiperspirant is non-negotiable. Shaving facial hair must be done carefully and well ahead of the day in question, just in case of an embarrassing nick. Extra attention should be paid to trimming and cleaning nails. Also, the threat of acne is real.

8. Save up money to pay for prom. Work odd jobs (lawn-mowing, possibly fence-painting?) for extra cash. Dad has pledged $50 to the cause. Perhaps Gram and Gramps would also donate.

9. Make arrangements and acquire the necessary props. See sub-steps for specific instructions.
9a. Visit Carlson’s Floral. Order one-dozen roses to be picked up on the morning of April 7. Ask them if they can somehow        conceal the roses. Maybe they have some type of bag. Inquire about a return policy, just in case.
9b. Buy chocolates.
ADDITION FROM DAD: He says that a bag of M&Ms will not work. I should try from something in a heart-shaped box, if            possible.
9c. Visit the Teddy Bear Factory in the mall. Inform them that I want a bear that will ask Amy Wilson to prom. I am confident      they will be able to provide me with this.
9d. Visit the SportsPrintz store. Tell them I need one custom-made T-shirt. It must say, “Amy Wilson, will you go to prom          with me?”
9e. Purchase a large poster board, markers and glitter. As artistically as possible, create a sign that says “Amy Wilson, will        you go to prom with me?” Dad has indicated he cannot help with this.

10. Wake early on April 7. Shower and attend to grooming needs (see step 7). Apply cologne.
ADDITION FROM DAD: Not too much cologne.

11. Wear this outfit: lucky boxers, lucky socks, lucky jeans, customized T-shirt, sweater.

12. Pump myself up. Tell myself I’m great. Make handsome-devil faces in the mirror. Play best pump-up music. Do light aerobics to limber up.
ADDITION FROM DAD: He is oddly concerned about my pump-up music. He has suggested something called Kenny Loggins. Some song about danger.

13. Eat a well-rounded breakfast: cereal, milk, banana, orange juice.

14. Pack up necessary props. (See step 9 for details.)

15. Stop by the florist to retrieve roses. Check for quality and quantity. A baker’s dozen is 13, but a florist’s dozen is only 12.

16. Attend school.
ADDITION FROM DAD: Act casual.

17. At the end of fifth period, proceed with props (and concealed roses) to the Dogwood trees. Stand by. If Amy Wilson approaches, go to step 18. If Amy Wilson does not appear, go to step 27.

18. Strike up a conversation with Amy Wilson. For specifics, see sub-steps.
18a. Ask Amy Wilson about the weather. It is important to remain upbeat-and-optimistic if the weather is good, and irritated-        but-charming if the weather is bad. Examples: “It’s so good to be getting some sun today” or “Can you believe this rain?”
18b. Await her response.
18c. Ask Amy Wilson if she’s having a good day. If she is having a good day, proceed to step18d. If she is having a bad            day, see step 27.
18d. Indicate that I am having a good day, even if I’m not.
ADDITION FROM DAD: Subtly hint that I’m hoping the day will get better. He says this will get her “on my side.”
18e. Suggest a slightly more intimate topic of conversation. Maintain casual small talk for at least 45 seconds. See sub-sub-      steps for details.
18e-one: Ask her about a recent match between sports teams. If she is disinterested, move to step 18e-two.
18e-two: Ask her opinion about Mrs. Browning’s recent leave of absence. Suggest I am inclined to believe rumors that                Principal Clark fathered the baby. If she is disinterested, move to step 18e-three.
18e-three: Ask her about the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. If she is disinterested, move to step 18e-four.
18e-four: “Freestyle” based on available materials.
ADDITION FROM DAD: Be aware that this is not my strong suit.
18f. Ask Amy Wilson if she has secured a date to the prom. If I have correctly followed the plan, she will answer “no.” If             she answers yes, move to step 28.

19. Present Amy Wilson with the dozen roses. Ask her if she would like to go the prom with me. If she answers “yes,” proceed to step 24. If she answers “no,” proceed to step 20.

20. Present Amy Wilson with the box of chocolates. Ask her if she would like to go the prom with me. If she answers “yes,” proceed to step 24. If she answers “no,” proceed to step 21.

21. Present Amy Wilson with the customized bear. Invite her to squeeze its paw so that it will ask her to go to prom with me. In a joking manner, clarify that she would go to the prom with me and not the teddy bear. If she answers “yes,” proceed to step 24. If she answers “no,” proceed to step 22.
ADDITION FROM DAD: Tell her that she can bring the bear to prom if she wants. Laugh so she knows that this, too, is a joke.

22. Swiftly remove sweater to reveal customized T-shirt. If necessary, smooth it out so that Amy Wilson can read it. If she answers “yes,” proceed to step 24. If she answers “no,” proceed to step 23.

23. Hold up sign for all to see. Make sure Amy Wilson can clearly make out its question. If she answers “yes,” proceed to step 24. If she answers “no,” proceed to step 25.

24. Exchange phone numbers and email addresses with Amy Wilson. Promise to work out a detailed plan for prom night that includes dinner and more flowers. Hint at a limo ride, but do not promise anything. Assure her that I will rent a tuxedo soon and that it will match her dress. Explain that planning is one of my strengths. Disregard steps 27-28.

25. Thank Amy Wilson for her time and consideration. Move to next step.

26. Say goodbye to Amy Wilson. Walk away. Go anywhere that Amy Wilson isn’t. The plan has yielded a success. Ignore steps 27-28.

27. If I’ve reached this step, this was not a good day to ask Amy Wilson out to prom. Consider repeating steps 10-26, as needed, on a different date. Do not proceed to 28 until repeating earlier steps. Only proceed to step 28 if she has indicated “no” to step 23.

28. If I’ve reached this step, Amy Wilson does not want to go to prom with me. Or possibly she wants to go to prom with me somewhat but has a greater desire to go to prom with someone else (possibly Jason Merzowski).
ADDITION FROM DAD: This is Amy Wilson’s loss.

 

Alex Luft’s fiction has been published in Sequestrum, The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Let’s see. What do I want to eat next?” Liza said to her friend, the man with her in the almost empty pantry.

This friend—Westlake, a newcomer—was silent on the subject, maybe wanting Liza to not feel bad that her only choices were dried lentils, tamarind paste, and canned pears, the tin slightly puffy, surely off. But it was unclear exactly what else there might be, the pantry dark, the night outside boarded up and hidden behind plywood.

“Really? That’s your answer?” Liza picked up the bag of lentils.

Outside of the house, the ritual pounding commenced.

“Let the countdown begin,” Liza said. Westlake looked at his watch he couldn’t see in the dark, even though the only time that mattered these days was day and night. A dark shadow, he hunkered in the corner with the horrible bucket.

Liza slouched down next to him, crunching lentils between her teeth. As she breathed, she tried not to take the musty, locked in smell of the two of them trapped in the small space. But there was no choice. In the side yard, the rumble of bodies, fists against the wall, a humming growl of need as loud as live electricity.

“Okay, okay,” Liza said to Westlake who was lentil whining. “Jeez. I’m not hogging. Here. Have some.”
In the morning, Westlake had taken off, just as he had the day before. Who knew if he’d come back. Likely, someone else would show up. Maybe this time, a woman, someone Liza could talk to about the parts of her body that were changing. But there wasn’t time to sit in the pantry worrying about her next friend. She checked her shirt and pants for loose lentils—picking two out of a sleeve—sipped from her jug of water—only slightly brown—and then stood. Holding her breath, she listened for any sound outside the door. Her heartbeat used to sound like life. Or hope. Now she knew to ignore it. Her ear flat against the door, she waited. She pressed her ear harder against the wood.

But nothing.

Very slowly, she began to unbarricade the pantry door, using screwdriver and crowbar. The day Liza arrived at this house, she went searching for supplies. In the toolshed, the garage, and the basement of this big house, she’d found plywood, metal straps, nails, hammer, sledgehammer, saw. No gun, not even in the dressers or closets upstairs. The family (Ajamu, Tina, and assorted children—Madison, Riley, and Tate—names she knew from their flung mail in the office) had cleared out what they could carry and thought they would need, leaving behind jewelry, books, perfume, lamps. Most of the tools were gone, but Liza found the second-best, the too-heavy, and brought them into the pantry, along with the wood and metal, nails and screws. Then she went through the cupboards—not much left other than a bags of dried pasta—absolutely fine when softened with rain water—and brightly colored sprinkles for cupcakes and sugar cookies, a rapture of sugar.

One, two, three, she pushed open the door, smooth and soft and slow. Her heart was in her ears and fingers, she ready to slam shut the door and throw on the plywood. But the kitchen and the house were empty. She would know if they were here by smell.

There was a bathroom off the kitchen. Two houses before, Liza had learned how to flush a toilet with waste or rain water. The good news was that it was November, and the rain had started early this year (big irony. Drought over). In other great news, there had been big plastic buckets in the garage. If something like this had to happen, at least it happened now, so whoever was left could flush the toilets. What happened downstream in the sewage system was a mystery to Liza, but for now, the toilets gurgled, the water glugging down to where it always had.

After a small bucket brigade, Liza stood still in the kitchen, looking around. Her boobie traps were unmolested. Nothing or no one had walked through the kitchen door last night, but once she unhooked the string, she saw that the front door was ajar.

Maybe that’s how Westlake got out, she thought.

Don’t be silly, Pim said. It’s how I got in.

Liza looked over at this new friend, Pim, small and dark with bright blue eyes and pale skin. Maybe thirty. Maybe less. But about Liza’s age. None of the others had even been women. York, Grealy, Strange, Sherman, Case, Leggatt, and Westlake. They’d shuffled around, barely speaking. Suddenly, this morning, Pim.

“Talkative one,” Liza said.

Pim ignored her, pulling on Liza’s right hand. Let’s go look for food, she said. I’m starving.

“There’s not much food left in this neighborhood,” Liza said. “I’ve been here a couple of weeks already.”

Anyone else? Pim asked. And I mean normal.

“Not anyone I’ve seen,” Liza said. “Or anyone we want to meet.”

We’ll be fine, Pim said. Anyway, you need to eat. It’s important.

Liza had needed to eat for three months straight since this had started, the kind of eating she’d done her whole life, almost unconsciously. Plates of spaghetti Bolognese. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. Flounder sautéed in lemon and butter. Chilled New Zealand sparkling water. A deep, rich chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, preferably vanilla. Oranges, grapes, apples. Steamed string beans finished with olive oil and sprinkled with kosher salt. Marcona almonds. Popcorn. Bagels, cherries, green tea. Everything in a stocked cupboard, fridge, pantry. Food at every city corner, in every local market, in the restaurants that lined the streets like jewels. Plates shining like satisfying galaxies on every wooden table in every house.

Stop torturing yourself, Pim said. The best you can hope for are dried foods.

“Dried is the least of it,” Liza said.

Stop, Pim said, but Liza knew her new friend understood. So much was shriveled now. Things that before had been ripe and full, fresh with water and care, were now dark and brown and desiccated, fluttering carapaces, the ghosts of what once was. Fruits and vegetables. Animals and plants. People, dead and alive.

Come on, Pim said. Get over yourself.

Together, she and Pim walked out the door. At the very beginning, Liza drove a hard bargain with herself. As nosy and curious and perhaps deranged as she was, she promised herself she wouldn’t look too closely at the ground, keeping her gaze ahead of her, letting things blur when needed. This tack had been important in the early days, back when there was a lot more noise at night, screaming and pounding and hours of the awful, unnatural howling she’d gotten used to. Back when in the morning, the results of those nights were in full and gory bloom.

Worse had been the smells, the kind she’d only ever breathed in around garbage cans or dumpsters. Maybe in city alleys, behind clubs, where the drunk came to throw up. Where rats came to die after eating d-Con. Where the cats pissed and screamed. Where people had rough, back-against-the-brick wall sex, throwing their used condoms into corners. All of this in a fetid and terrible pile. But the morning smells during the first weeks had been one hundred times any alley detritus. Atomic, blown up, mutated, almost gaseous, green, and floating around the city like a nightmare Goodyear blimp.

Stop thinking about it, Pim said.

“It’s hard not to,” Liza said. “It was everywhere.”

It still is, Pim said. Just not as obvious. Don’t let down your guard. Hey, what about that house?

Pim—this friend so corporeal with her thin, muscled arms—pointed to a mid-century modern Liza had raided weeks before.

Fine, Pim said, pulling Liza down another street, one that until recently had been blocked by something Liza hadn’t looked at. Much. But now the lump was gone, disappeared, pulled into the shadows by the shadows.

They picked a house toward the middle of the block, a once cheery craftsman style house with a long, wide front porch and a once lush bougainvillea vine that had since crackled into tissue paper leaves and dried stalks that had flicked away in the wind. Back before the incident, the troubles, the thing, the accident, the occurrence, someone would have rocked gently on this charming house’s porch swing on a long summer evening, reading a novel, maybe one about the end of the world everyone had been imagining. Vampires, werewolves, global warming, viruses, earthquakes. She and Kevin had read one about a water world, he laughing and slapping his knee at certain parts. “Manhattan isn’t an island any more. It’s a dot!” And, “Canada! The breadbasket of the world!”

Another they read—was it last spring?—was about time slowing down until everyone’s life loosened and unspun like an old woven rug. Who knows why they and everyone got such a thrill about it all going to hell in a handbasket. Nothing new there. After all, the end was such an old story. There were Nostradamus’ plagues, floods, invasions, droughts, and battles. Ragnarok. The end of the Hindu Kali Yuga. Maitreya’s appearance, followed by the Sermon of the Seven Suns. The Christians’ plot-rich great tribulation. Four horsemen. Lamb of God. Let the games begin. Where were they now, though? Oh, yes. The famine and death part.

Jesus—

“Ha!” Liza snorted. “Jesus indeed!”

Stop it! Yes, it happened, Pim said. Let’s eat.

The craftsman had been picked over, by everyone. Doors broken open, cupboards searched. At one point, someone trudged through with muddy shoes—no, make that feet, the toe marks visible on every print. But it seemed these raids had occurred in early days, back before bags of dried food and dog kibble were seen as last hope, last chance. As with the four housemen, that time had arrived. After she and Pim searched the entire house, they opened up every cupboard in the kitchen.

Yay! Pim said. More lentils!

Liza ignored her and packed up the lentils, dried organic spinach fettucine, popcorn (wow, that would take an hour to eat four kernels), and old peppermint candies. One bottle of clam juice. A small tube of tomato paste. A miracle of a small shriveled apple in the back of the warm fridge. Natural dog treats, five, in the original packaging, a rubber band tied tightly around it. Someone imagined they’d go bad, not imagining the dogs themselves would eventually be food.

You are depressing the hell out of me, Pim said.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Liza said, as they made one last scour of the kitchen.

Really? Pim shot her a dark look and then walked toward the front door.

Liza followed behind her, past the tangled pile of ripped curtains, smashed windows, and tree branches in the living room. Outside, Pim stood staring up at a huge oak. A native. No lack of sprinkler system effecting it. Maybe the natural dry and then rain was helping the massive tree, keeping it from rotting from the inside out. The way it was going, this oak would be alive a lot longer than anything or anyone else. So far, humans had managed to ruin everything. Pim was right. Just a couple of months ago, Liza was driving her car to work, drinking coffee shipped from another hemisphere (spiking it with milk from mistreated cows), and burning hours in front of computer that likely had enslaved countless workers on many continents to make. She would message and phone conference and chat, using services that probably contributed to global warming. All those heated wires, floating satellites, banks of servers. She watered her lawn, turned on her lights, put gas in her car. She might not have started the slide into the current hell she and Pim and all the rest were living through, but she sat on the bleachers and clapped as each new special thing that was invented rolled out. Shiny, slick, and special, all leading to disaster.

Don’t get gloomy now, Pim said. You can’t change anything. Besides, you used to be a vegetarian.

“But not a vegan,” Liza said as they walked back toward the intersection and then the street that would take them back to the safety of the pantry. They’d spent a bit too long in the house. Already, the afternoon sun was arcing down toward the bridges, San Francisco glinting with the only light it could.

You think not eating butter would have helped this? Pim spread her arms, and for a forbidden moment, Liza allowed herself a 360 look at the cars in the middle of the street, the houses tangled with broken shutters and blinds—curtains yanked out of busted frames like detached eyeballs—the power lines bowed like slack jump ropes, and the quiet that was as thick as the fog that rolled in nightly with the pack of ghouls.

Last Halloween, one family down the street from Liza and Kevin decorated their entire front yard and porch, witches and ghosts on every tree limb, a sign above their front door that read Cemetery of Doom. If they only knew what horrors truly lurked at night, the sluggish monsters that really existed.

Not so many of them now, Pim said as they arrived back at the house.

“Why is that?” Liza asked. “What is changing? Where are they going?”

You think I know anything you don’t? Pim asked. Just take yes for an answer. If this keeps up—

Liza rushed inside ahead of her friend, her heart pounding. If this kept up, she thought. If things slowed down. Yes, sure. She’d be free of the night terrors, the panic of sundown. But if this kept up and they all disappeared or died or broke down (whatever it was that happened to them), Liza would be truly, one hundred percent alone, at least for a while. Suffering, pain, and fear was at least company.

Drama Queen, Pim said, as Liza opened the pantry door and stepped in, stocking it with their booty. When she was done, she left Pim behind, walking out into the living room, which she’d boarded up with cardboard and plywood, mostly to keep out raccoons and birds and the critters Kevin used to call “night squirrels,” but which were really rats.

“Look!” he say, pointing to the fence rail next to their patio. Liza would hear more than see the rats bustle home toward their nests, ivy leaves rattling.

But nothing had come into this house since Liza had moved in, at least nothing animal. The first nights, she’d heard the pound and drag of something or someone outside the pantry door. A low guttural howling, like an injured coyote. In the mornings, only clues of the evening parade of ghouls. But outside these boarded up doors and windows were trees and shrubs. A view of the bay. Ships moored forever on the water, full of cargo that would never be delivered.

“Are there any of us left?”

Pim snorted. What do you think? You’re the only one?

“How many then?” Liza asked when Pim sidled up to her.

You could go find out, Pim said. Leave this neighborhood. Just because this is where you were when it started—

“It’s too dangerous,” Liza shouted, turning, wanting to push Pim back where she came from. But Pim had disappeared.

By the time Liza had prepared for the night, closing up the house and locking them both into the pantry, she wasn’t mad at Pim anymore. In fact, they’d eaten some lentils, the apple, and popcorn and half a dog treat together, laughing about the concept of “fiber.” Afterward, with a half cup of collected rain water each, she and Pim hunkered down, waiting for the nightly show to start.

Liza must have fallen asleep for a blip because she was startled by a noise, something loud, just outside, up on the street. After a moment, silence again.

What was that? Pim asked.

“I don’t know,” Liza whispered.

I thought I smelled a fire, Pim said.

Liza shifted on the pad she’d made for herself out of paper shopping bags and a kitchen rug. “No one is stupid enough to burn anything.”

Unless it’s safe enough to, Pim said. Do you have any more popcorn?

Liza shook out a few more kernels, and they each sat there sucking the smooth hard seeds, cracking them open only when soft, carefully grinding them down between their molars. No dentist to run to now. Not for teeth whitening or root canals. Not for broken jagged incisors.

This is pretty horrible, Pim said.

Not the most horrible thing, Liza thought.

Are you ever going to tell me about it? Pim said.

Liza swallowed a kernel. “If I talk about it, it will be real.”

It already is. There’s no going back now.

Liza listened to Pim crunch down on a kernel. She could almost feel the popcorn go down her own throat.

“How am I supposed to do it?” Liza asked. “Now? Shouldn’t I just—“

Really? That’s where you go? Offing yourself? Pim said. That’s harsh.

“What’s harsh?” Liza said, feeling her words punch out into the darkness. “What could possibly be harsher than any part of this?”

Though she knew Pim couldn’t see her, Liza spread her arms wide in the pantry darkness. All of this. How to bear it more than another second? What was the point of all this nightly hiding? What was keeping Liza from opening the front door and inviting it all in, right now? Outside, as if in agreement, something howled.

What would be harsher is living with a choice you wouldn’t have made before, Pim said. You are still the person you were even if the world you lived in is gone.

“You don’t even know me,” Liza said.

But Pim didn’t answer back. Nothing from her dark corner. Liza swallowed her popcorn kernel, wished for another dog treat—tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow—and then settled back against the shopping bags and hoped for sleep.
In the morning, Pim was gone. In the wee hours as the pantry slowly filled with a grainy grayness, Liza waited for Pim to come back. Then, when it seemed clear she would not, Liza hoped for any of the silent men, those who’d nodded and said nothing. But none appeared, and by the time morning light poked in through the plywood and under the door leading to the kitchen, Liza was hungry and alone.

As with all the mornings since that last normal day, Liza walked into the light assuming the worst. But like the days before, the house was empty, unmolested. If she could pretend, Liza could stand in this lovely kitchen with its granite and stainless steel and imagine she’d gone in to the pantry retrieve a jar of marmalade for her hosts, both of whom were preparing her a full breakfast: Eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise and fresh fruit and toast. There Ajamu and Tina were, standing in front of the fancy range and shiny counter, wearing aprons, laughing about the first round of burnt English muffins.

What a waste.

Liza pressed a hand against her stomach. Out in the yard, wind blew the fallen leaves, some swirling across the warm, Tuscany-colored slate, the kind she and Kevin had laid in their own backyard two years ago.

“Smooth enough for a tricycle,” he’d said, looking up, sweat on his brow, his freckled nose shiny, his short red hair in spikes that gleamed in the afternoon sun. “Or six.”

“You wish,” Liza had said, knowing that while she didn’t wish for six children, three might do. Two for sure. They were trying. Had been. And the week before she found herself barricaded inside her neighbor’s garage storeroom with a kid from down the street, she’d known she’d at least have one.

“You’re sick!” the kid—David—cried as they crouched behind the door they’d barricaded with a work table, garden tools, tool boxes, and three coils of garden hose. Even in the darkness, she could see his wide terrified eyes, the glint of panic.

Liza reached out to grab his arm, but instead, she threw up onto the gravel that dotted the dirt floor. All around the house, screams and sirens. The smell of smoke, something made of wire and rubber burning, the smoke acrid and chemical. Overhead, the rush of helicopters and the pu-pu-pu of gunfire. Later, explosions, the kind that in another world, she might have imagined were fireworks after a ball game.

“I’m fine.” She’d wiped her chin with her dress, the one she’d put on to go out to lunch that day. Where was that dress now? Which house had she left it in? Ripped and torn and dirty, the dark blue silk was in shreds by the time she traded it in for some woman’s jeans, a man’s wool shirt, a teenaged boy’s running shoes.

And David. One afternoon, they made it to a house too late, Liza searching for a safe place on her own, finding a big closet in a middle floor bedroom. A lock on the inside.

“David!” she’d called. “David, come down here.”

“I found something!” he cried. “So cool!”

“David! You know what I told you,” Liza yelled, heading toward the staircase.

Then the rustle and sickening thump above on the top floor.

Two nights later, the first of Liza’s friends arrived. York. Like a Peppermint Patty, the kind she’d been trying to think about, craving that first bite, teeth cracking through thin chocolate, tongue tingling with the cool of the peppermint flavor inside.

Liza wiped her face and exhaled. No Ajamu or Tina. No David. No Kevin. Certainly no Peppermint Patty. But she was alive. As far as she knew, so was the baby. She was certain she’d felt a new kind of flutter. Life. Liza had seen the baby once, in a black and white sonogram shot, the thin paper magneted to a fridge in a house that might not even exist anymore, in a world that certainly didn’t. And wouldn’t. Not now.

For a week, Liza collected supplies. By herself, she went out into the neighborhood, searching. String, a first aid kit, cherry sore throat lozenges. And real medicine. Antibiotics of all kinds. Cough syrup. Cold medicine. Codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin. An unopened box of Fig Newtons, a bag of shelled sunflower seeds, a pack of gum, a curl of red vines, a can of pineapple juice. More dog treats. Batteries. A flashlight. Maps in a forgotten car, doors unlocked. An old-school holdout, the woman—Jane Thompson, from the registration—used maps to move around the world instead of GPS. Seeds in garden sheds and junk drawers: green beans, lettuce, nasturtiums, basil. A good pair of hiking boots, thick and rubber soled with plenty of traction but broken in. Socks. A rain poncho. A small tent that folded up into a tight roll. Empty fabric bags for the things she would find along the way.

Every day, she collected, finding a backpack meant for long hiking trips, a large interior and many side pockets. Every night, Liza locked herself into the pantry, alone and vigilant, listening for noises. The first night a couple of howls, but by the seventh night, only rustling, the sound a raccoon or deer might make. No screaming. Nothing human or once human outside the house at all.

Crammed in the pantry with her goods, Liza waited. She thought of Kevin, recreating their last 24 hours together on the old, known earth. He’d left that morning before she’d had time to do more than mumble, “Bye.” Where had it happened to him? On the bridge? In the parking structure? As he pushed into his office at the Embarcadero? Or had he taken BART that day? What had they talked about the night before, besides the baby? Maybe the project manager who sat behind him, the one who messaged him instead of turning around and asking him a question directly. Or the new building in the Mission, the one under construction and now under protest.

“Signs said, ‘Google Out!’” Kevin speared a steamed Romano bean. “Google isn’t even involved.”

Where had he been the moment everything changed for him, his life ending or starting again in a horrible way? In her mind, Liza followed him out of their two-bedroom, one-bath starter home in the Rockridge. There her husband was, in his car, looking back at their bedroom window that faced the street, the shades pulled. Liza had taken the day off to meet a college friend in the hills. They were going to go to lunch and talk about maternity leave strategies. She was going to make a spinach salad for Kevin when he got home. On the weekend, they were going to drive to Monterey and go to the aquarium, despite the unsettling news online about some kind of unrest. Something about Chicago. Or was it New York? Maybe LA. But no one had suspected what was coming. Not Liza. And not Kevin. That morning, he’d known she was in their bedroom, tucked into their bed asleep, their baby floating inside her. At that moment, then, he knew her still.

The eighth morning after Pim left, just as the first streak of gold glinted into the pantry, Liza stepped out. She was dressed in jeans and wool, her boots laced up, full pack on her back. She was heading up over the hills, down into the valley, over the next ridge, and along it. Avoiding large cities and mid-sized towns, she was going to find somewhere warmer and more isolated. A place where she could see in all directions. A place she might be able to grow food. A place she could dig into, literally, and keep herself safe. A place where she could lay out a sheet, take off her pants, and give birth.

Liza adjusted the pack straps, took one last look at the pantry, and walked out of the kitchen, down the front hall, and out the front door into the morning light.

 

Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press in March 2016.  A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming inComposeSalt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.  She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

It seemed I was engulfed by believers in those days. The Italians and the Irish were obsessed with church, religion, and the pope. I think part of it stemmed from their pride in having witnessed the first catholic president.

Nonna called and asked if I would accompany Mrs. Muldoon and her to a Faith Healer that Mrs. Muldoon had heard about on the radio. The woman had allegedly cured a young girl whose cancerous tumors miraculously disappeared and an old arthritic man who could barely walk.

“Does Mrs. Muldoon have cancer?” I asked.

“No. She said she wants to see the woman as a precautionary measure.”

“That’s silly, Nonna.”

“Of course it is. Mrs. Muldoon is crazy, but I can’t refuse to help her. That wouldn’t be nice.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“Oh Molly. She can barely find her way to Broadway to do her food shopping. How’s she gonna manage a trip to downtown Boston? That’s like asking her to travel to Africa.”

I agreed, and one Saturday in May, Nonna and I drove in her Plymouth Fury to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. The day was brilliant. Not a cloud in the sky, bright sun, just a few clumps of dirty snow left over from a freak storm the previous week. There were puddles all over, and small streams ran in the gutters along the street. The temperature was in the low 50′s; water dripped everywhere. A chunk of icicles fell from the railing as we stepped onto the porch. I saw Mrs. Muldoon seated through the sheer curtain in her living room. She reminded me of one of the fortune tellers behind some lacy fabric at Wonderland Amusement Park. She got up when she saw us and opened the door.

“Come in. Come in. But stomp your feet first. Don’t bring any of that wetness in here.”

The house stunk like mold and sour milk. The living room to the right had boxes with clothes and old shoes spilling out. The fancy aluminum Christmas tree was in parts before the fireplace, and the ornaments sat in a pile on her dark brown couch.

“Mary, it smells in here. And what is that mess?” Nonna pointed at the boxes.

“Oh, I’m going to have a garage sale if I get inspired. Or maybe just donate the things to the Salvation Army. I hear they pick up stuff, don’t they?” She led us into the kitchen.

“I don’t know. But what I do know is that the clothes from those boxes smell pretty musty. I’m not sure anyone would want them unless you put the stuff through the laundry.”

On her grey Formica table were several plates with leftover food—bits of toast, old bacon, half-eaten sandwiches. The trash basket to the right of her white porcelain sink was overflowing. Dirty take-out boxes with wire handles had fallen between the sink counter and the basket.

“We gotta get you a maid. What’s going on with you, Mary? Why you let your house become such a pigsty?”

“I’ve been busy, Agnella.”

“Doing what?!” We were standing in front of the sink with hardened Comet in the basin.

“Oh, this and that. Let me grab my coat from the back hall and we’ll get going. Molly, are you excited to be healed?” Her pretty blue eyes sparkled. I thought she must have been very attractive when she was younger. Such fair skin and perfect teeth, or were they dentures?

“I don’t think I need to be healed. I’m healthy, Mrs. Muldoon.”

“Darling, we all could use healing. Ya know it’s not only physical healing,” she said, putting her arms into her red wool coat sleeves. I liked the black fur collar. “It’s spiritual healing as well.”

I was surprised by her peppiness, and frankly, how happy she seemed. She was usually such a bitch. She seemed as excited as my girlfriends before a date.

I was about to say that I didn’t need spiritual healing, but Nonna, as if reading my mind, gave me a look that said, “Keep quiet.” She had spoken with me a few weeks back about perceptions and how important it was for me to develop good interpersonal skills. She said that my directness was admirable, but others might perceive it as rudeness. I was surprised when she quoted Emily Dickinson, a writer I had been reading: “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” She had picked up my poetry book from one of her armchairs in the living room, and opened to one of the dog-eared pages.

It took about 25 minutes to get to Tremont Street in Boston. The healer’s business was on the street floor of a six-story building with a variety of ornate architectural features. At the very top was a mansard roof with dormer windows. The granite exterior was dirty with lines of black and green that had formed when rain pools on the many outcroppings and ledges seeped down the face of the building. The parlor where “Lady Jane” cured people was underneath a printing company squeezed between a luggage store on the left and a jewelry store on the right.

We parked across from the building, along the edge of the Boston Common. I could see a line of desperadoes that extended from the front of the building and around the corner to Court Street. Nonna’s parallel parking was awful and Mary kept screaming that we were going to hit the car behind us. At last we were parked. For a few moments we sat in silence, the three of us taking in the sights around us. Two skid-row old men on a bench, wearing derby hats and unkempt, mismatched suits, shared a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. One of them pointed to something at the top of the building. I followed his finger to a flock of large black crows perched on a ledge underneath an overhang.

The people waiting in line looked pathetic. Mostly old ladies, a few men, some with canes or crutches; a young blonde girl in a wheelchair. It was a motley group, a range of ethnicities, all seemingly poor.

“You sure you want to go, Mary? These people look pitiful. I think they need curing more than any of us.” It was true. We were wearing nice dresses and overcoats. I thought we would be out of place in that crowd.

“Of course I want to go. Remember you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Mrs, Muldoon pushed her door open and pulled herself into a standing position.

“Well all I can say is that this is one hell of a book,” Nonna answered. She and I followed Mrs. Muldoon’s lead, who told us to hold hands.

When we crossed, Nonna cut in front of an Indian couple standing in line, explaining to them that I had leukemia “very bad” and the doctors gave me three months at most. “It’s urgent that we see Lady Jane. You don’t want the poor girl to die, do you? She’s my granddaughter!”

Mrs. Muldoon whispered irritably, “That wasn’t a nice thing to do.”

The Indian woman was beautiful with large very dark eyes; it was hard to discern her pupils from the brownness that surrounded them. She had a red dot between her beautifully shaped arched brows, which I later learned in an Intro to Religion class was called a Bindi or Kumkum, marking a spiritual center or chakra, placed there out of respect for an inner Guru, all of which I thought was bullshit. She wore a purple sari and a pink head scarf. Her short bespectacled husband had a flat nose with large blackheads; tufts of hair sprouted from his nostrils and ears. He wore a blue navy suit. I figured that he met his wife here after work.

They spoke for a few moments in Hindi, then stepped back and nodded for us to move in front. There were grumblings and complaints from those behind the couple.

“Hey, go to the end of a line like the rest of us. What makes you so special, ladies?” an Irish-looking guy with a broad red face and a scully cap said.

Nonna teared up. “My granddaughter is dying.”

The man’s face blanched, and he looked at me with a sad expression. “Sorry, lady. Not a problem.”

I tried to appear sick. I started shaking a little and drooled, not sure what a leukemia patient’s symptoms were. The Indian couple stepped further back. I managed to create a string of saliva that dropped like the thread of a spider’s web hanging off my chin.

We turned forward and Nonna put her arm around me as if trying to keep me from fainting. Mrs. Muldoon looked upward at the gathering of crows, which had increased since I first noticed them.

Nonna followed her gaze. “I hope they don’t shit on us,” she said.

“Oh, but Agnella, it’s good luck. Let them poop if they need to. I’ve got a handkerchief in my purse.” The idea of birds pooping on my head was vile, but I refrained from making a wiseass comment.

Finally we were inside. The healing room, or parlor, or whatever you call it, had metal fold-up chairs along the sidewalls. Some of the armrests were rusty. I thought we would need a tetanus shot if we used them.

Lady Jane sat in a large throne-like chair on a platform at the back of the room. She couldn’t have been more than 27 years old, bleach blond long hair, a pixie face with deep-set shiny green eyes. She was very petite. I was surprised that she wasn’t a much older woman. She wore a tight-fitting black and white dress with a high hemline. She was busty and had long satiny legs that ended in white ballerina slippers with a flower pattern of red gemstones near her toes. Her white string shoelaces were untied.

“Well, she’s not what I expected,” Mrs. Muldoon whispered, and sighed. “She looks like a tart that’s trying to make a few extra bucks before she goes to her other job in the Zone later tonight.”

“What’s the Zone?” I said.

“It’s where all the hookers hang out, just around the corner. Perverts, pimps, drug dealers, and dirty bookstores,” Nonna whispered.

Lady Jane made circular motions with her hands over the head of an old man with a cragged face. Her eyes were closed and she was mumbling.

It was only a moment or two before he yelled “Hallelujah” and threw his crutches towards the chairs on the left side of the room.

“Watchit!” an old blue-haired woman shouted. Her voice was low and she sounded like a man. “You almost hit me.”

When it was our turn, Lady Jane said, “I take it you three are together.” She had a fake British accent with a hint of Georgia twang.

“Yes, we are together.” Mrs. Muldoon sighed, clearly disappointed with Lady Jane.

“What can I do for you?” She looked at each one of us in turn, scrunching her face. I noticed a pimple on her nose.

“Well cure us. Do your mumbo-jumbo so we can get outta here. This place is a dump,” Nonna said, surveying the room. “I think we’re more likely to catch a disease here than be cured. Maybe the bubonic plague. So cure us quick before a rat bites one of our feet.”

“Yes, I know you want to be cured, but first you must tell me what ails you.”

“For Christ’s sake, at our age, everything ails us,” Nonna said, “Where do you want me to start. How ’bout you make my breasts perky like yours?”

Lady Jane pretended to be indignant, then said, “I can’t do anything to help your breasts, lady. I’m not a plastic surgeon.” Her Georgia twang was strong.

“Agnella, you mustn’t talk like that to this woman,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I would like to be cured spiritually, Lady Jane. Forget about my body. That’s too far gone. I want my soul to be cleansed.”
Lady Jane put her hands in a crisscross on Mrs. Muldoon’s heart area, then closed her eyes, while she softly murmured an ostensibly sacred language. I thought I heard what sounded like ‘pussy’ in her gobbledygook. I think Nonna heard it, too, because she gave me a look at that moment and rolled her eyes.

“The masters have told be you are spiritually cured for your trip.”

“Cut the crap! Mary’s not going on any trip.”

“That’s not true, Agnella. I am,” Mrs. Muldoon said excitedly, as if there might be some authenticity to Lady Jane after all.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I’m going home.” Mrs. Muldoon was beaming.

“To your family in Ireland?” Nonna asked.

“Yes, to my family.”

“And how can I cure you, little girl?” Lady Jane said, looking earnestly into my face.

“I don’t know.”

Again she did the crisscross thing with her hands. Again she murmured her sacred prayer. And again I heard a distinct “pussy.”

When she opened her eyes, her face was pale. “What’s your name?”

“Molly.”

“Molly, I hate to tell people things like this.” Now she was speaking completely in her Georgia twang. “But I see gruesome deaths in your future.”

“Let’s get outta here,” Nonna said, clearly upset. She started muttering in Italian.

“You are going to witness several deaths in your lifetime.”

“Who doesn’t witness death? We all die.” Nonna said.

“No, Molly’s situation is different,” Lady Jane said, speaking to Nonna as if I weren’t there. “I take it you are the grandmother.”

“Yes. That’s easy enough to tell. I couldn’t be her mother. Too old and dried up.”

“You are very good to Molly. You mean more to her than her own mother.”

It was eerie how this woman knew that. “Okay,” I said matter-of-factly. “Tell me about these deaths.”

“You have the unlucky fortune of being someone who will either find dead people or be with them when they die, sometimes in violent situations. I guess you might say, ‘You’re an Angel of Death.’ ” And then she started giggling like a little girl. It seemed out of her control, and she curled up in her throne.

The Indian woman behind us whispered something to her husband, and then they rushed out the door. I wonder now if the woman’s inner Guru told her to get the hell out of there.

“Angel of Death! Ffangul’!” Nonna said. She pulled Mary and me out of the line and we followed the couple. Before the door shut, I looked back and saw that Lady Jane was still laughing. She waved to me. I mouthed, “Fuck you,” echoing Nonna’s sentiment.

During the ride home Mrs. Muldoon and Nonna argued over what “Angel of Death” might mean.

“Maybe she’ll be a police officer,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “That’s a nice profession. Protecting the citizens. And all police officers witness death now and again, don’t you think?”

“Are you crazy? No granddaughter of mine is going to be a police officer. I think that broad saw that Molly was gonna be a doctor.” She smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “What do you think she meant, Molly?”

“I think she was just making things up to frighten us. Maybe she spotted someone further down the line who would actually pay, and she was in a hurry to get rid of us.”

“The man on the radio said she doesn’t accept money. Believes she has a calling is what he said she said,” Mrs. Muldoon answered.

“He said, she said? Do you know what Mary’s talking about?” The car swerved as Nonna turned to look at me.

“Lady Jane I mean. . . Watch it, Agnella!”

“I noticed people slipping her bills,” I said.

Nonna zipped through a red light.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You’re going to get us arrested, or killed,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“Don’t worry. We have a cop in the back seat. She’ll use her connections and get us off the hook.”

We all laughed.

As we were passing a section where you could see planes from Logan Airport, Nonna asked Mrs. Muldoon, “When is your flight?”

“What flight?”

“The flight to Ireland. When you go home?”

“Oh . . .” She paused to think a bit. “I’m going the third week of August.” I thought it funny that her pronunciation sounded like “turd.”

“I’ll be sad to see you go, Mary. At least we have you for a few more months though.” She patted Mrs. Muldoon’s shoulder. The car swerved again. “I’m gonna miss you, Mary. But I’m sure you’ll be happier. Everybody needs family. And you got nobody here, right?”

“Nobody.”

I leaned back in the seat and thought how Mrs. Muldoon and I shared something. Sure, I had Nonna, but I still felt very alone. But aren’t we all essentially alone? A psychiatrist told me years later that each human being is limited by his consciousness. All lived realities are filtered through our individual prisms. He said that we die alone as well, no matter how many people are around us at that time. His words reminded me of something the writer Hunter S. Thompson once said: “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of company, we were alone the whole way.”

I didn’t understand Mrs. Muldoon’s obsession with cures. She asked Nonna and I to take her to the ocean on August 15th.

“Why August 15th?” I asked.

“Something about a cure in the water. Evidently it is the feast of the Assumption.”

“What’s that?”

“A day that celebrates the mother of Jesus going to heaven. Mary claims the salt water is supposed to have a cure in it. I guess the ocean becomes one big tub of Epsom salts. I don’t really understand it all, but Mary is adamant about going, and she wants both you and I to take her.”

“Is she sick?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then why does she keep wanting cures?”

“Molly, I don’t know. All I know is she’s a sad, sad woman who never got over her husband dying. And she’s been drinking her own self to death ever since. Maybe she thinks it’s you that needs the cure.” She laughed.

“Why would I need a cure?”

“Because sometimes I think your head’s not screwed on right. Now stop asking so many questions. How the hell am I supposed to know what goes on in Mary’s mind? Maybe she thinks we both have sick souls.”

I laughed. “Nonna, I don’t have a sick soul, and neither do you.”

“You can never be sure. Listen, consider it insurance. If there is something to this whole cure thing, maybe good will come of it. And if there isn’t, so be it. The point is that she asked us to take her. And I refuse to deny an old friend a last request before she travels home to Ireland.”

I agreed to go, and on the appointed day, a Saturday, Nonna and I drove to Mrs. Muldoon’s house. Nonna parked her Blue Fury in front. Mrs. Muldoon was seated in a rusted orange chair on the front porch, one of her last pieces of furniture. Over the past several weeks she had donated most of her possessions to charity, except for a few pieces of furniture in her living room, kitchen, and bedroom.

Her house was on the market, but she was lackadaisical about selling it, leaving it in the hands of a realtor downtown. She said she didn’t really care when or if it got sold, which I found strange. But what did I know about such things? I was a young girl excited about the start of college in a few weeks.

Nonna stopped the engine and honked. Mrs. Muldoon was asleep. She wore what appeared to be a housedress, mostly white, with a spattering of blood-red dots, and hideous black boots.

“What the hell is she wearing?” Nonna got out of the car and walked precariously up the rotting wooden gray steps. I followed and waited at the bottom of the stairs. When she was beside Mrs. Muldoon, she shook her. For a moment, I thought she might be dead.

“Mary! Wake up.”

She woke, a confused look on her face, Her auburn hair was a sweaty mess. The sun highlighted a matted ring of locks that circled her head. She must have been wearing a hat or head scarf earlier.

When she finally awoke, Nonna said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She glanced at Mary’s feet, tsk-tsking at the pair of black rubber boots. “You look foolish in those things. How you gonna get the Blessed Mother’s cure if you don’t get wet?”

“Agnella,” Mary said, rising at last, ”there’s those awful rocks before you get to the sandy part of the beach, and my feet are sore enough. Don’t worry. I’m going to take them off once we settle in a good spot. I may even strip naked. Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold?” She laughed. Nonna did too.

“And where is your bathing suit?”

“Underneath my housedress, of course. You certainly didn’t expect me to sit here like some tool in my swimsuit. What would the neighbors think?”

Nonna helped her down the steps, which creaked and almost seemed to cave in at one point, then helped her into the passenger seat. I got into the back.

“I’m delighted you could come, Molly,” she said, turning around. “It’s a celebration for both of us, a baptism of sorts, as we begin our new lives.” I realized that the red spots on her gown were tiny roses. “You must be looking forward to your studies.”

“Yes, I am. And I’m happy to go with you, Mrs. Muldoon.” I wasn’t. I hated the beach, still do. The hot sun and sand, crowds of people, radios blaring, the smell of baby oil, the jellyfish in the water. I did admire the sharks because of their single-mindedness, the way they hunted for prey. In those days, I imagined one of the annoying boys from my high school getting bitten, but the chances of that happening were slim.

We parked on the beach side across from the Renwod Dining Room, a place Nonna had taken me a few times. Mrs. Muldoon was right about the stones. They did hurt your feet. The beach was packed with people, and it was hard to navigate through the crowd, especially because Mrs. Muldoon was a little tipsy. I realized she had been drinking on the drive over and had to roll the window down. She stunk of sweat and gin. Radios blared, children created sand castles, groups of ladies gossiped, and the sun was so damn hot.

Finally we found a spot to put our blanket and fold-up chairs. Most of the women wore full-piece swimsuits, and many had housedresses like Mary. Three girls about my age ran out of the water as their little brothers splashed them with water from behind. To our right, a man dressed in pants and a shirt, which I could never understand at the beach, fixed the chain on his overturned bicycle. I wished we had an umbrella. I had to use the palm of my hand to shade my eyes from the sun.

When we were settled, I asked Mrs. Muldoon about the cure in the water. She sat between Nonna and me in our spot close to the ocean.

“Well, darling, today is when we celebrate the Blessed Mother’s Assumption into heaven.”

“I don’t understand.”

Nonna rubbed baby oil on her arms, legs, and face, then lay down, uninterested in our conversation.

“What don’t you understand?”

“The Assumption part. What does that mean?”

“Mary was raised into heaven three days after her death.”

“What do you mean raised? She just flew up into the air?” I laughed.

“I think so, Molly. Yes.”

“How is that possible?”

“Darling, you got to have faith.”

“But it doesn’t make sense. How can somebody just fly into the sky? And what’s the connection to a cure in the water? Was she on a boat?”

“I don’t know, Molly. Don’t think too much about it. Just believe it.”

“I don’t believe it. It sounds ridiculous, and I can’t follow the logic.”

Nonna sat up and gave me the eye, warning me not to press the issue. Mrs. Muldoon pulled off her boots, then stood and took off her housedress. Underneath was a stylish black-and-white full-piece swimsuit. I never noticed what a round hard belly she had. She almost looked pregnant. For a second, I imagined she was going to demonstrate the assumption and fly upward.

“Logic has nothing to do with it, darling. I don’t question these things.” She walked into the water. I watched her plod through the waves, then dive into the ocean and swim out a bit.

“Molly, how many times do I have to tell you not to ask so many questions? It’s rude. Most people aren’t like you.” Her eyes followed Mary who was now a ways out. “Most people are lemmings and sheep. You have the good fortune, or maybe the bad fortune,” she smiled at me, “of being a lion in a world of lemmings.” She put her warm hand on my leg. “Who gives a damn if Mary flew into the sky or not? Maybe that’s what people did a few thousand years ago, though I doubt it.”

She turned and looked at the man tending to his bike, then whispered to me, “I wish God would reach down and pull him off the beach. Can’t stand the sound of that spinning peddle and chain, and his hands are a greasy mess.” We both laughed. A woman wearing a white shawl and long white robe walked by. She reminded me of a bride.

“Do you miss your husband, Nonna?”

“Here we go again.” She laughed. “You ask the strangest things.”

“Well, do you?”

“Of course not. Men are a pain in the ass.”

“What about Mr. Scarfone.”

She waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, he’s just a good fuck.”

“Nonna!”

She whacked me playfully with the bag of fruit and rolls she had brought. “Well it’s true. And you should see the size of his cazzone.” She moved her palms apart.

“His calzone?”

“No.” She laughed. “Cazzone,” emphasizing the “z” sound. “Maybe that’s why they call a calzone a calzone. It looks like a penis.”

She lay back down. “Look that up someday in one of your fancy college books.”

“Nonna, I don’t think my college textbooks will have that information.”

“Then what the hell good are they?”

We both laughed. She closed her eyes and patted the blanket to straighten it out.After a while, she fell asleep. Mrs. Muldoon had stopped swimming and stood in the water, like so many of the people. But unlike the others, who were chatting with one another in pairs and groups, Mrs. Muldoon looked towards the horizon. I wondered if she was thinking about her journey home. Seagulls cawed. Children laughed and screamed with delight.

I was sweating, so I went for a walk towards the end of the beach, where it was less crowded. There was a fishing jetty and an area of large rocks. I explored the spaces in between the boulders, looking for a lonely starfish, a shiny stone, or a clam with a secreted pearl. I unearthed small crabs that scampered across the sand. At one point I startled a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose and flew off, then descended over the water where Nonna stood alongside Mrs. Muldoon. The waves glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On the jetty, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon fell, surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake. I ran to help, but laughed, too, at the spectacle—Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon seated on their asses, just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried. I helped lift them, They groaned in between guffaws, complaining that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath their feet. Every time I lifted one of them, another wave splashed over us, and they fell back down, laughing even harder.

Mrs. Muldoon said, “My permanent is all ruined,” while she fussed with her hair.

Nonna said, “Well, it didn’t look so good to begin with, Mary. Consider it a cure.”

Mrs. Muldoon reached for me, “Now pull me up quickly, before the next wave hits.”

I did so, mesmerized by the wet silvery scalp that shown through her auburn hair.

I resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head. At last she rose from the sea.

“You’re an angel,” she said, when she finally stood.

“What about me?” A wave splashed over Nonna. “Maron’! Pull me up, Molly. If I get hit by another wave, I’m gonna curse this water. Thought this was supposed to be a blessing. More like a tidal wave if you ask me.” With that, a wave sprayed all of us, but Mrs. Muldoon and I managed to pull her up.

Later we moved towards the quiet end of the beach. We sat in the shade of a bony cliff, eating panettone (a type of raisin bread), bananas, apples, and cherries drenched in brandy. Nonna also pulled baby-sized jars of Grappa out of her purse. I draped a necklace of dried seaweed upon Mrs. Muldoon, and told her it was my version of a Hawaiian lei, a wreath presented ceremoniously to people who were coming or going.

“In that case, you need one, too,” Mrs. Muldoon said.

“What about me? I could use a good lei,” Nonna said, smirking.

I found two more pieces of seaweed and Mrs. Muldoon hung them on us. Her fingers were icy cold, like those of a corpse. I shuddered as they touched my warm skin.

The three of us made a toast to new beginnings, and we talked about the future until the sun began to set.

We were hungry again when we left the beach later on, so we crossed the street and enjoyed a nice meal at the Renwood Diner. I had the seafood platter and Nonna and Mrs. Muldoon had sea scallops with pancetta, mushrooms, and fresh tomato.

Mrs. Muldoon made a joke about this being our last supper. “Well, it is in a way, don’t you think? I won’t be seeing either of you again after tonight.”

“Of course you will. You’re not leaving until five days from now,” Nonna said, motioning for the check. “I’ll drop by before your flight on Thursday if I don’t see you before then.” The waitress put the bill on the table.

“Let me pay for that,” Mrs. Muldoon said. “I appreciate you girls bringing me to the ocean today. I feel refreshed and healed. And you made me very happy today.”

“Well I’m glad that you feel good, Mary, but I insist on paying.” Nonna took cash out of her purse and placed it on the check. The waitress picked it up.

“I’ll see you one more time, Mrs. Muldoon. Nonna’s driving me to Boston University to speak with a counselor on Thursday. On the way over, we can both say goodbye.”

“That would be nice, Molly.” She smiled at me, then pointed at the faded beige and blue pattern of fish swimming above clamshells and starfish on the ocean floor. “I always loved the fish in this wallpaper. This one here looks like he’s coming right towards us.”

“I wish there were some shark,” I said.

Nonna laughed. “Of course you would.”

“Did you know that a fish is the symbol of Christ?” Mrs. Muldoon said, sipping her last bit of wine.

Nonna spoke while she chewed a roll. “No, I didn’t. Where’d you hear that, Mary?”

“Oh, I don’t recall, Agnella.”

After the waitress returned with Nonna’s change, she put it in her purse, snapped it shut, and stood up. “Well, I’m tired. I don’t know about the both of you. Let’s get outta here.”

We dropped Mrs. Muldoon off and she waved from the front porch before she opened the door. I noticed several trash bags along the gray clapboard wall.

“Wonder what’s in all those bags?” I said, as we drove away.

“Junk. When you get old you accumulate a lot of useless things, Molly. And eventually you become one of them. So live while you can.”

That night I fell asleep as I thought about “useless things” and living “while you can.” I dreamt of seagulls pecking someone’s eyes out, sharks in bloody water, and a singing red fish with white stripes along its sides. Dreams are so strange. I tried to remember the song of the fish, but I couldn’t recall the words. A feeling of emptiness lingered, an emotion I often felt.

Nonna tried to call Mary on Wednesday evening to find out the time of her flight, but the phone service had already been disconnected, so we drove over around 8:00 am on Thursday morning.

“She may have already left.” Nonna pulled the car into Mary’s driveway. “But we might as well see if she’s still here. I forgot to tell you, but when we were in the ladies room at the restaurant, Mary told me she had a present for you. She said that she left it on the table just inside the archway to her living room.”

We got out of the car and walked up the steps. Nonna held her nose. “Those bags smell God awful. Maybe she dumped all the food from her refrigerator into one of them.”

I rang the doorbell. We waited a few moments, then Nonna turned the door knob. When the door opened a horrible smell gushed at us–a combination of shit, vomit, body odor, and rotting fish, stronger than you can imagine, unless you’ve experienced it. I noticed a small purple box on the table as we turned into the living room. A few flies buzzed in the hot, humid air around our heads. Three standing lamps were lit. Nonna bent over and vomited.

I walked towards Mrs. Muldoon’s corpse. She was seated in the purple chair that Nonna hated so much, eyes half open and bulging, swollen tongue protruding. There was an intricate pattern of blood vessels and blisters on her face. She wore the same housedress from our day at the beach. It was smeared with blood and a yellowish fluid that dripped from her nose and mouth. Her face, arms, and legs were bloated; her abdomen was distended. Her skin was green, red, purple, and black. White lines crisscrossed areas of deep red on her calves. There were two shimmering pools of urine on the mahogany floor at each side of the chair, as well as feces on the seat cushion.

I kneeled down and pressed my finger against a dark purple spot above her right ankle; the skin was so cold. The flesh broke and blood trickled slowly down the side of her enlarged foot. I stood up, then crouched to stare into the small slivers of her eyes. The pupils were fixed and dilated. The corners of her eyes were filmy and I thought I saw wetness along the sides of her nose and cheeks. Were they tears or simply the body’s fluids seeping out? I touched her pretty red hair and some it fell to the floor in clumps. A maggot emerged from her flaking scalp.

I heard Nonna still gagging behind me. She kept saying, “We gotta call the police.” Although I found the smell overpowering and coughed a bit, I couldn’t move away. I guess you could say I was mesmerized.

“Molly! What are you doing? Call the cops! I’m too weak to get up.”

I picked up the black-and-white photograph from the t.v. table and examined it: an attractive couple, the young Mrs. Muldoon and her husband, in their wedding attire. Both of them dressed completely in white. He wore a white tuxedo with a bow tie and a wing-tipped collar. On the top of her auburn hair sat a veil with a crest of small white flowers; there was a pearl necklace around her neck. Both smiled above a large bouquet of white roses that obscured parts of their chests. In the dark background, blurred white faces hovered like disembodied heads.

“Molly!”

I turned the photo over. In blue cursive, now faded, Mrs. Muldoon had written “August 15th, 1937. The happiest day of my life.” Next to where the photograph had lain was an empty pill bottle. I pulled it close to read the label “Diazepam, 5 mg. tab. Take one tablet twice a day as needed.”

Nonna had reached the phone. I heard her talking to the police. “Hurry,” she said and hung up.

“What the hell are you doing?” she screamed at me. “Get away from her.”

I turned, accidentally stepping on one of Mrs. Muldoon’s bare feet. The skin cracked and a clear fluid oozed from her big toe. The nail ripped off, falling like an autumn leaf onto the floor.

Then I walked over to the small purple box with my name on it. Inside was a gold necklace with an emerald and diamond cross.

Nonna stared at me. “What is it, Molly?”

“A useless thing.”

 

James Mulhern has published fiction in the Emerson Review, Short Story Magazine, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. One of his stories was selected for publication in The Library’s Best, a collection of best short stories. In September of 2013, he was chosen as a finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction for his story, “Assumptions.” In March of 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a summer fellowship through the English-Speaking Union to study at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. He will participate in writing seminars and continue his work on a novel.

She had set the table. It was her first day home. He said it was best to get back on a routine. What was more routine than laying down dishes, folding napkins, and placing silverware? She had also made dinner. A simple baked chicken, coated in crispy breadcrumb, accompanied by instant mashed potatoes and frozen vegetables. Nothing too complex, nothing that would make it look like she was trying too hard.

Michael would be home soon. He had said he would stay home if she wanted him too, but why? Audrey made sure everything was in its proper place, that everything looked just as it had a few days ago. Nothing to indicate that something had happened.

She heard the familiar hum of the garage door. He was home. She looked in the reflection of the microwave, made sure her hair was in place, and sat on the couch, grabbing a generic fashion magazine to occupy herself. She was flipping pages as he came in.

“Hello,” Michael said. “How was today?”

“Fine,” Audrey replied nonchalantly. Was it really fine?

“That’s good. Mine was busy. Nice to get one’s mind of things, heh?”

“Yes. I’ve made dinner. It’s ready when you are.”

Within minutes, after a simple washing up, the two were sitting at the kitchen table with food on their plates.

After Audrey had nearly finished her chicken in silence, Michael placed his fork down, having cleared his plate, and coughed nervously.

“You know, I was talking to Jack at the office, and the same thing happened to his wife.”

“You mentioned it to Jack?” Audrey asked in mortified shock.

“Yes. It’s good to get these things out in the open, share your experiences,” Michael stumbled.

“I don’t want my things out in the open.”

“It doesn’t hurt to talk.”

“Just how much did you ‘talk’?” Audrey asked angrily.

“It was nothing, really. I had told people. They knew about the baby. It had been four months after all.”

“We both had told people,” she snapped. “It was a mistake. It was too early. It –.”

“None of it,” Michael answered softly, yet firmly. “The doctor had said it was fine. It happens to lots of people.”

“Does it? Does it really, Michael? Three times?”

“We’ve had our troubles, but it will work out. There will be a baby, we’ll try again,” Michael said gently and hopefully.

“I don’t know if I can,” Audrey whispered.

“We can,” Michael emphasized.

“The first time, okay. That’s normal. That’s what everyone’s been through. I could handle that.”

“We got through it – and we can again.”

“The second time, it was for the better. It was still early. The doctor said so. There must have been something wrong for it to happen.”

“Yes,” Michael said, “You see how strong we are?”

“Maybe you, but it’s not the same for me. The first two times it was different. Even to my body, it was different. You don’t know, it’s not your body. The cramps, the blood, but I could just tell myself – it’s like a bad period. That’s what it felt like – and it was early so I could believe the lie.”

“I know it was different for you this time, but who’s to say next time won’t be the charm – the baby meant for us?”

“Michael, dear,” Audrey said with resignation, “the third time is supposed to be the charm. Didn’t we say that exact thing when we found out?”

“Yes, I do remember, but . . .”

“No buts. This time was the charm. It – stayed – longer. Four months, Michael, seventeen weeks, almost half-way there.” Audrey fought the tears that came to her eyes.

“It was probably for the best, you don’t know.”

“We do know. We saw ultrasounds, heard a heartbeat. I felt it move. It was perfect. It’s me.” The tears came freely now.

“No, never say that,” Michael stated, aghast.

“But it’s true. I don’t want to go through that again. The hopes I had, the dreams I dreamed. I was looking at clothes, furniture. We were turning the office into a nursery.”

“Audrey,” Michael said with conviction, “it will be different in a few months – once you feel better.”

“Not this time. I’ll never get over this.”

“I want a child – with you.”

“That’s impossible.”

“I don’t believe that,” Michael said with conviction.

“I have to get used to this emptiness. You must get used to your’s.”

Audrey stood up and took both their plates from the kitchen table. She took them to the kitchen and placed them in the sink. Then she returned to the table, did the same with the silverware, and threw the napkins in the garbage can. She filled the sink with hot soapy water and let them soak. Then, she wet a rag and scrubbed at the kitchen table. Next, she scrubbed at the dishes and silverware in the sink, scrubbed and scrubbed until they could be clean, her tears mixing with the soapy water. Scrubbing hard until the inside of her would also be clean. Never, she thought, never will I do this again.

Michael stood up from the table and looked at Audrey at the kitchen sink. Normally, he would help, but he thought better. Give her space, give her time. Isn’t that what they had said at work? Isn’t that what they all told him? One day they would try again. They would have a baby. He opened his newspaper and read.

An hour later the two went upstairs. In unison, they undressed and sat in the bed, each reading a book, Audrey the latest mystery and Michael a world history. It was the bed where so many dreams, at least three, had begun. They sat, reading, in silence another hour. Another dream would come, Michael thought assured, as he lied down. Another dream dead, Audrey thought, as she turned out the lights.

Melissa Davis is a writer and teacher. She has had work published with journals such as Leaves of Ink, Fiction on the Web, and The Commonline Journal. She can be found online at http://www.melissadavisauthor.com/.

I discovered David was cheating on me a week before the family reunion.  The reunion was a culmination of a year’s worth of Mom and Auntie Pat’s planning and most of our extended family intended on coming.  That included significant others.

After dating David for five years, I’d moved back in with Mom two weeks before the reunion. Now, I’m sitting on an ugly couch with extended family leaking in through the doors and rushing to their upstairs rooms while Mom and Auntie Pat pull their hair out over last minute details, including the newly vacant bed.

“The entire bedding arrangement is thrown off now,” Mom says, as if that were the greatest travesty of my and David’s breakup.  The disarray of her bedroom blueprints was a crowbar in the gears of her mind.

“It’s an extra bed,” I say, pulling at a loose string on the throw blanket.

Her wrinkled face flushes crimson and she rubs a hand through her thinning blonde hair.  “I had this down to a science, Julia, and now I have no excuse for telling Betty there weren’t enough beds.”

“Oh, Betty would have spoiled the whole thing,” Auntie Pat says.  “She wouldn’t have brought a damn thing, and she would’ve drunk every last drop of your Kahlua.”

The two of them chirp like chickadees as they shuffle around the downstairs area, leaving me on the couch.

The screen door screeches open then and the sound of wheels against hardwood floor echoes against the high ceilings of the cabin.  “Guess who made it?” a singsong voice calls.

“Chris!” Mom calls.  Mom and Auntie Pat make to rush to her side but stop short when they notice the tall man beside her.  He hovers nearly a foot over Auntie Chris and has dirty blonde hair that’s just a bit too long for his age, sweeping past his sunken cheek bones and framing his tannish face.  His eyes, dark and probing, rest below heavy, narrow eyebrows.  He dresses nicer than any man Auntie Chris brought back since her messy divorce, with a smooth button-up covering a body that holds the shadows of a muscular form but gradually slimmed with age.  He still looks fit, though, like a runner.  He holds his hands in his pockets and walks with his one bag draped over one shoulder.  There is something oddly handsome about how his thin lips formed a small smirk and his shoulders sloped, relaxed, a stark contrast to the tense, scrunched appearances of my Mom and Auntie Pat.

“You brought a guest,” my Mom says through her teeth.

“I meant to tell you, but things were just so fast.”  For Auntie Chris, things are always “just so fast” since her divorce.  “I didn’t think Matt would want to come but at the last second he offered to join me, saying he couldn’t spare a weekend without me!  It was like a proposal, how serious he got about it!”  She throws her head back and laughs, swatting his arm for added affect.  “And don’t worry your little heart about the bedding arrangement for a second, Maggie.  We’re fine sharing one.  We’re adults, and we’ve both been married-”

“There are no exceptions to our bedding policy,” my Mom says.  “But lucky for you, David cheated on Julia so his bed is open.”

“Thanks, Mom.”  I duck my head and turn from the man.

“Oh, Julia!” Auntie Chris gushes.  She shifts as though she might come to my side, but halts and lingers beside Matt, their arms brushing together.

“Well, at least your bed chart is perfectly balanced now,” I say to Mom.  “Betty can’t feel excluded after all.”  The scratchy fabric burns back of my legs as I rise from the couch.  As I escape up the stairs I wonder if my calves glare red against my pale skin and if they all, including this new man, can see.

Mom and Auntie Pat never stops fluttering around arranging things just so and even long after dinner they were still cleaning up something or adjusting something.  My dad and uncles sit on the porch sipping endless bottles of beer.  Auntie Chris hangs off of her boyfriend Matt most of the night, parading him around the dining and living area for everyone to see.  Her mouth grows with each drink until her voice seems to consume the entire room.  Matt lets her stumbling body dangle off his arm and smiles at each stranger cordially.  Every now and then, one of his chapped hands grazes her slumped back.

I don’t drink much.  When I first dated David, he’d been sober for two years.  Early in the relationship, when I came home with the taste of it on my breath, he never told me to stop drinking with my friends.  I hated the way he shrunk from my kiss though, and how he tensed to my sloppy touch.  I remember the day, almost four years ago, when I took David and my last bottle of moscato to our third-story apartment window.  We watched together as I poured the white wine into the overgrown bush below.  He’d kissed me hard after and never shied away from my lips again.  Even when I found out about her, he still gravitated toward my lips as if searching for some lost piece of me he could consume.

Auntie Chris stumbles toward me through the living room, unleashed from Matt’s grip.  Over her shoulder I see him watching us, hovering by the stairs with a few of my boisterous relatives, a relaxed smile on his thin lips.  I steady Chris as she slurs about Matt, gesturing over to him conspicuously as she speaks.  “You know, he’s the best one I’ve had in a long time!  Better than the last one, for sure!”

I know the last one isn’t my former uncle.  “The plumber?”

“No, that college boy.”  I hadn’t known about that one.  “You know,” she says, leaning in.  I smell whiskey in her breath as it tickles my ear.  “I’ve only dated Matt for a month, but I think I’ll keep my talons in him for a bit longer.”  She throws her head back and roars with laughter.  I reach out to stop her from falling backward.

Matt appears behind her.  He holds onto Chris’ back and his calloused fingers meet my cool ones on her shoulders.  “Is she talking about me?”

I pull back from the warmth of his touch, hiding my hands in my pockets.  “I think it’s bedtime for her.”

“I think you’re right,” he says, winking at me.  With that, he guides her off toward the stairs.  I watch as they wrestle against each other up each wooden step, Chris giggling and clawing at Matt’s shirt the entire way.

Night falls and the day feels like a waste.  It’s as though I sat and watched each second, each particle of sand fall in an hourglass just to discover that that’s all it would ever amount to: a pile of sand.

Matt’s bag is on the lower bunk when I come into our room.  Reluctantly I crawl to the top bunk.  Now if I need to leave for the bathroom in the middle of the night, he’ll watch my legs swing down each step, my entire body exposed before, at last, my face reveals itself.  I pretend I’m asleep when he comes in and ignore the patter of two pairs of feet.

Within twenty minutes the aged bunk is shaking.  I close my eyes and pretend I’m bobbing up and down on a merry-go-round until I hear a low, sultry groan and one of my aunt’s dramatically high-pitched yelps.  I want to place my pillow over my head but don’t want to draw attention to myself.  I realize my consciousness is unlikely to halt their fun but don’t bother putting on the pillow anyway.

Instead I listen to the squelch of wet bodies and the heaving of tight, raspy breaths.  I smell their sweat mixed with the linger of his cigarettes and relax my muscles until my body shakes with the bed.

I’m often asked if I could tell that David was cheating on me.  I couldn’t, of course, but I don’t think there’s always a reason behind it.  He wasn’t unhappy with me.  It wasn’t that.  It never was.

The day before I found out about her, it snowed heavy.  I wore a pair of my favorite black flats and, as the snow collected, their soft fabric absorbed the water and chilled my feet.  Clutching my thin jacket around my shaking shoulders, I complained and attempted to leap over the larger clumps.  I skidded across the damp pavement, and David caught my arm, steadying me.  A pink flush softened his sharp cheekbones and he looked like a boy as he laughed, pulling me to his side.  His blue windbreaker was puffy around his arms, and he felt soft and warm, his body blocking the cool breeze from me.

“Remind me why we decided to walk to the store,” I said, pressing my forehead into the crook of his neck.

I felt his smile against the top of my head.  “Because you have no regard for the weather when you plan for the day but always, always complain about it once you’re outside.”

I continue forward.  “I hate New England.  I can’t believe my mom and aunts decided to hold the reunion in New Hampshire.  Driving up there is going to be hell.”

“I’m driving,” he said.  “Your road rage will give me a heart attack in this weather.”

I shot him a grin over my shoulder.  “You always say that but I haven’t killed you yet, have I?”

Just as he cried out for me to look forward, I slid again, the smooth bottoms of my flats failing to steady my footing.  This time he lifted me right off my feet, knocking the air out of me as I screamed and laughed.  “If I died, who would look out for you?” he said, toting me down the sidewalk.  “You’re too clumsy to do this on your own.”

He’d carried me to the end of the sidewalk and we’d walked the rest of the way hand-in-hand, bickering about the weather and the reunion.

David loved me the whole time.  That wasn’t the problem.  It wasn’t that he lacked anything, being with me.  He didn’t cheat for a reason.  He cheated because he could.

It’s all strangely reminiscent of the first time I caught my father watching soft-core porn.  He did it right on the living room TV in the early evening on a Saturday.  Mom was just down the hall in their room, folding their laundry on their bed.  I was nine and heading back to my room from the kitchen with a glass of juice when I saw the woman on the screen, dressed in damp, pink bikini and bending over the hood of a truck while men in baseball caps and plaid shirts stood around laughing and watching.  Her eyelashes were big and heavy like her breasts, her firm nipples pressing against the damp fabric of her top as she gasped for breath and bent further, exposing the tight stretch of skin on her upper thighs.

My father called me over to him, slapping the leather of the seat beside him on the couch.  I rushed into his arms so I could feel he was still there, still here in my house with me and mom.  He kissed the top of my head and made some sweet comment about my report card.  His eyes flicked up absently to the screen once but that was it.  I sat right in his lap and, looking back, I now understand what the flatness of his pants meant.  He wasn’t even hard, watching it.  He wasn’t watching it because he missed something or needed something.  He nuzzled against my hair I watched the woman expose the crease of her behind and slap it as the men onscreen laughed.  Now I realize he watched it because he could.  Just because he could.

By the time I arrive downstairs the next morning Mom is unfolding clothes over the wooden dining tables and Auntie Pat is clipping the stems off an assortment of flowers.  Spotting me, Mom calls for me to set up lights down at the dock, in case anyone decides to visit the lake after our big dinner.  I accept the rolls of lights, trekking off through the back screen door and onto the porch.

The dock is at the bottom of the bushy slope that stands before the porch.  Between trees and bushes I vanish from the men’s view and find privacy for the first time since my arrival.  I drop the lights on the edge of the dock by the first post.  I head straight to the edge of the dock and kick off my sandals, dipping my foot into the clear yet deep blue water of the lake.  Two geese squawk and cry as they splash about, one chasing the other, their wings splashing against the water’s surface in their struggle.

The smell of cigarette smoke wafts toward me, the same smell from below me last night.  “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Not at all,” I tell Matt.  “But if my Mom or Aunt asks, I’m setting up those lights.”

Matt stands behind me, stripping his faded grey tee from his body.  He reveals the hollow shadows of a former six-pack and the greying tuffs of hair on his chest, stretching up to his collar.  He moves beside me, stretching his leanly muscled arms over his head.  The water trembles beneath the dock.

“Where’s Chris?” I ask, unsure of what else to say.

“Sleeping off her hangover, I’d bet.”  He rubs a hand down his face and I notice he has yet to shave.  “I came down for a swim,” he says, “but it’s lucky you’re here.   I wanted to apologize for last night.”

He knew I was awake.  There is nothing I can respond with, so I ask, “How did you and my Aunt meet?”

“The way everyone does,” he says.  “Right place, right time.  Care to join me?”

I imagine Chris, alone in her bed with her pillow tucked over her head, hiding from the sunlight while Matt exposes himself to it.  “I think I’ll stay dry for now, thanks.”

Our eyes meet and he smiles.  The dock rocks beneath me as he leaps from it, diving his long body through the water.

Mom doesn’t have a moment to sit down during the big dinner.  Even though it’s catered, she finds work for herself.   Dad sits across from me at the table and eats in silence, excepting one coughing fit when a scrap of chicken catches in his throat.  My second-cousin asks how it is living with my parents again even though she knows the answer.  I eat about half my meal and pretend to take a long phone call upstairs.  I burrow under my blankets and listen to the bustle downstairs.  The drunker they get, the louder they get.  I close my eyes and pretend I’m pouring the moscato out the window again.  The memory vanishes before the bottle empties because that David never existed.  He lived inside the white walls of my mind, a human isolated from the world and his own body.

That man doesn’t exist here.

By the time I drag myself back downstairs my family is a swarm of swaying bodies.  Auntie Chris can barely stand; it’s even worse than last night.  Her eyes are swollen and glazed, her cheeks flushed and puffed.  Her lips are slick with salvia and a drop of wine dribbles through the wrinkle in her chin.  She swings her arm as she speaks and smashes her hand into a nearby lamp, sending it crashing to the hardwood floor.

“Did I do that?” she cries.  “Oh, shit.  I didn’t mean to do that.  I just- I talk with my hands…” She runs her hands through her hair, sending the sweaty, blonde strands upright.  “God, did you see that?”

My Mom rushes to her side.  “This is a place we rented, Chris!  You can’t just smash furniture when you see fit.  You need to go to bed, now.”  As if she is Chris’ mother, too.

She ushers Chris up the stairs.  Chris almost falls back as she looks over her shoulder.  “Where’s Matt?  I want Matt to come.”

Matt is at the edge of the stairs.  He sips a bottle of beer but appears sober.  He sighs as he places it on the tabletop beside the broken glass.  Our eyes meet, and he raises his eyebrows as though we are exchanging an inside joke.  Then he drags himself up the stairs.

I don’t hear either of them return and assume Matt is staying with Chris.  The bunk is still and I almost wish he was there to rock me to sleep.  I drift in and out of a light sleep for about two hours before I crawl down the ladder and head downstairs to use the bathroom.

When I reach the edge of the staircase, still lit with Mom’s lights, I see him sitting, alone, on the couch below.  The dim glow from the lights illuminates the scruff on his chin, prickly and rough.  His shirt is unbuttoned at the , and he sits with his thighs parted in from of him.  He holds a half-full glass.  He leans back into the couch.

“Julia,” he says.  His voice is low but seems to echo against the walls, echo through my body in the silence of the night.  He smirks and asks, “Don’t tell me you came looking for me when you saw the bed was empty.”

I hover at the end of the stairs.  “I assumed you were with Chris.”

He shakes his head, his overgrown, light brown hair swaying around his sharp jawline.  “No.  She passed out hours ago.”  He swishes his drink in his glass before taking a deep sip.

“Have you seen her like that before?”

“We’ve dated for just about a month,” he says.  “So yes, of course I have.”

She wasn’t like that before the divorce, I think.  “That’s…a lot.  On you, I’d bet.”

He breathes out a shaky laugh.  “It was fun at first.”  He doesn’t need to say anything more.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I explain.

He lifts his glass.  “Care to join me?”

I nod.  Mom and Auntie Pat cleaned most of the room but a few stray Solo cups litter the floor.  A small, misplaced shard of glass cracks beneath my slipper as I approach him.  I sink into the seat beside him.  The couch seems to embrace me.  I smell cigarettes and his arm brushes against mine as we sit, side by side, and I don’t pull away.  Like the night before, our fingers find each other, my pinky grazing the steep curve of his knuckles.  He breathes in heavily, his chest rising and falling.  The small lights around us cast a glow around the curled hair on the exposed gape of his neck and chest.  His hair is pushed behind his ear, exposing a smooth expanse of tanned neck.

His fingers lift and weave into mine for a moment before he reaches for the bottle of Jack Daniels.  “So, Julia,” he says, his voice smooth and warm and just raspy enough that it both loosens the stiff muscles of my shoulders and sends a tingle deep past my stomach.  “Would you like a drink?”

And I do.  I want to go back in time and lick each drop of wine off of the bush outside my window.  I want David to watch and know I didn’t choose him.  I want to do that before he does it to me.  And now, with Auntie Chris’ boyfriend, I want nothing more than to feel the whiskey burn down my throat until water pinches against my eyelids and I, too, can breathe fire.

“I’m sober almost four years,” I say.  And I float from my body, float from the heated fireplace and the pending sensation of his chest hair scratching against me, float from the clink of the glass and away from the white room in my mind where David left me.


Briana McDonald 
is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She has served as literature editor-in-chief of The Bridge Fine Arts Journal, as literature editor for Aegir Magazine, and will be a reader for the next issue of The Literary Review.

The shadow of the helicopter was visible beneath us, a blurry oval tipped forward and moving over the surface of the New Orleans swamps and waterways. I wasn’t faring well. It had been too long since I slept, and I’d been experiencing the slow passing of time as an undeserved cruelty. Or maybe it was deserved.

I’d signed up for a five week rotation. It wasn’t my first, and I’d been working aboard the Ferdinand for the better part of a year – five weeks on, five weeks off. But the survey was coming to an end, they’d prematurely cancelled our replacements, and the five weeks began to grow. It got longer. First it turned into thirty-nine days. Then the six week mark passed, and then the seventh. We’d been strung along with promises of a return to land that were never fulfilled, and I spent those last three weeks in steady decline.

It was the third of February when the survey came to an end. This happened abruptly. I’d finished my night shift and was bed just after noon. And then I proceeded to lay there, rolling from one side of the bunk to the other, fantasizing about how wonderful it could feel to sleep. There was a viciousness to my insomnia – a voice of paranoia whispering that I was indisputably an asshole, and that the shore-side population had finally figured it out. I knew I’d return to find the world had turned on me and I believed that decision justified.

Then someone pounded on my cabin door. I nearly fell out of bed. “Yeah.”

Drew appeared backlit in the doorway. “They’re done shooting. We have to retrieve the gear.” The survey was over and my job was nearly finished. But there was still work to be done and it would take me all day to do it. But what sleep was I getting anyway?

Twelve more hours passed. Drew, Dori, Amy, Rufino and I spent them coiling, spooling, and labeling cables for shipping. We wrapped laptops in metric yards of cling film so that they might stand up to the elements when left in a wooden crate aboard the deck of a supply ship. We drafted our biweekly environmental impact report, and then the end of project report. We redrafted them, and then we submitted everything to the desk jockeys in Houston.

More than twelve hours passed.

We were informed that the party chief had rescheduled the helicopter: we should expect to depart at eight AM. Great news, objectively, but I began wondering if I’d ever sleep again. I took a break from composing and proofreading reports in order to pack my bags, and launder my work gear.

“They’re going to let you leave,” Alessandra asked.

“And you said that you’d never get off this ship,” Patrick reminded me.

He was joking, but there’d been a point when I imagined dying out there. And eight weeks wasn’t so long, either. Two months without seeing land, without the love of friends and family. But, at a point, the possibility of that two months stretching on forever hadn’t seemed so remote.

The day the internet went out had been bad:

“We’ve been troubleshooting all day,” Drew said. “It’s not the satellite. It’s not the router…”

“Well, isn’t that fucking convenient.” It was an expression of paranoia. We’d been getting jerked around by shore-side vessel managers and suddenly our only means of communication had been taken from us. I indulged fantasies of a week’s worth of radio silence while those fuckers toyed with my fate. They’d reestablish lines only to inform us that the survey was delayed through the Summer. Then – click – they’d cut the wires again. Maybe the fall. Maybe they wouldn’t let me off the boat for a year.

“What if there’s a fucking apocalypse?” I imagined risen corpses eating the flesh of my captors. “What the fuck would we do then?” I sat in the mess hall drinking coffee with four other guys from the instrument room.

Ike laughed. “At least we’d survive.”

“Would we? Would we fucking survive? We’d keep working this survey, mowing the fucking lawn out here, back and forth, over and over, waiting to hear from the Houston office that we’re all clear to move on. Without word from Houston we’d never leave.”

The guys indulged me with their nervous laughter, but they also eyed me, and I told myself to reign it in. That was the beginning of week six.

When Drew approached me the following day to inform me that it’d just been an issue with a power supply, and the whole time the problem had been hiding in plain sight, and the satellite was working fine, I still felt my paranoia justified.

Rufino had it worse. The guy’d already spent four months on the vessel before they began pushing back the departure date. The administrators were less considerate to the Filipino employees: it was taken for granted that the Filipinos possessed something close to super human capabilities – as if they could easily put up with things that crewmembers of other nationalities wouldn’t consider attempting.

“Those guys will stay out here until their visas expire if they’re given the opportunity,” The party chief had told me, echoing the general opinion of the vessel managers who ensured Rufino would see such a fate.

When I asked how he was doing, Rufino responded, “My mind is sand.”

In the time since he’d boarded the ship, Typhoon Haiyan hit Rufino’s Tacloban home and rendered it splinters. His wife survived unharmed and was living with her parents. Their neighbors were all homeless. Then the Bohol Earthquake struck, taking innumerable lives including that of Rufino’s closest friend. It was enough tragedy for one man to endure. It’d all happened back in October. I’d been back home since then, for the month of November.

Then in January, just in order to keep the man on his toes, fate served Rufino another helping of misfortune. His next door neighbors, devastated by the storm, had found themselves facing what they may have experienced as insurmountable destitution. The patriarch murdered his wife, two children, and then took his own life. They were Rufino’s friends.

If I’d been a shade more selfish, I would have resented Rufino’s travails, for his strength served to highlight my weak-mindedness. He suffered more than I did. “I cry at night when I’m alone,” Rufino told me. I tried to keep that in mind.

On Christmas, the galley staff put in overtime and cooked a huge spread for dinner and then again for lunch. A couple of the navigators organized a raffle and BINGO, and whispers of a delayed crew change had yet to begin.

It wasn’t the first Christmas I’d spent offshore, and the same protocols played out on every ship. Folks walked around the vessel, shaking each other’s hands and wishing each other a happy holiday. It was a performance of the most minimal of acknowledgments that something might have been missed. It was an expression of solidarity, if not exactly celebration. The meal was something to look forward to, and then everyone trudged on, that much more determined to get back to their lives and their families.

I’d spent Easters, Forth of Julys, Thanksgivings, Halloweens… The Christian holidays were the ones that everyone seemed to acknowledge. The uniquely American holidays were totally unknown to the majority of an international crew, and I kept my mouth shut about my own Jewish traditions. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists were also noticeably silent, though represented among the Ferdinand’s sixty-three crewmembers.

New Year’s offshore was different, and more traumatic. People managed to be happy on Christmas – happy because it was Christmas. But spending New Year’s on the boat felt like terrible tidings for the three-hundred and sixty-five days to come. Delays had been announced and we were reminded it was our choices that had led us to such a predicament – we couldn’t blame anybody else for where we were.

That evening, the galley staff set out hats and noise makers in the mess hall. As midnight approached, a handful of crewmembers on shift collected this ephemera and migrated to the wheelhouse. It was dark but for the navigation systems – a few lights and monitors. A red glow lent ambience, and I was able to see that twelve of us had congregated there.

I was the only one who counted down to midnight. I screamed the number ten and everyone stared at me. By the time I got to one, it was just a determined whisper, and then I blew my cardboard horn. A few of the other guys blew their horns, too.

I held my arms out and walked toward Amy. She stiffened her arms at her side – a defensive position akin to playing dead – and she averted her face as I approached. “I don’t know what you want.”

“Give me a hug.”

“Okay.”

“Happy New Year’s.” I hugged Amy because she was the human being on the ship with whom I shared my job duties, and because she was my best friend out there. But I also hugged her because she was the only woman out of the dozen of us in the wheelhouse. I felt self-conscious about that fact, and decided that I needed to hug every other crewmember up there lest I be misinterpreted as a creep. And so began a slow round robin of awkward embraces.

“Happy New Year’s,” everyone said.

“Happy New Year’s,” as if hugging were part of some ancient maritime rite.

Then, prompted by a mutual understanding that the holiday had ended, we all walked out of the wheelhouse one by one, and we returned to work.

My five week rotation was coming to a close when I was informed that I wouldn’t be leaving. A delay of only four days, I was told. The passionate, trusting, hoping side of my brain wanted to believe. But the rational side hinted at something else, and I was forced to acknowledge that four days might be put off indefinitely. Ninety-six hours might grow into some monstrous number of hours that would have the power to drive me irreversibly insane.

“I just found out I’m not going to be back on Monday,” I messaged Corinne.

“What? Why?”

“The survey’s delayed, but they cancelled my replacements.”

“How long is this going to last?”

“They tell me four days. It could be longer.”

“How much longer?”

I couldn’t answer.

Corinne messaged me on the day I would have arrived back in California. “I told you that I could wait five weeks, and I have. But now you’re asking me to wait indefinitely. This wasn’t in the bargain.”

I’d made a lot of mistakes in the short time I’d known her. I’d anticipated the five week drain on honeymoon passion, and I’d warned her of the difficulties. Five weeks is a long time, I said, and I’ll only have to go away again. I distanced myself in preparation for a loss that I was used to by that point, and maybe in the process I’d come across as cold and unavailable. I was aware of those mistakes even as I was making them. It was a futile strategy for I found myself loving Corinne regardless.

But I’d also begun to realize other mistakes, ones I continued to make – the diction I chose when discussing the relative merits of meditation and psychiatric therapy, the abrupt way in which I’d broken the news of my delayed return, the eagerness with which I had discussed plans for some hypothetical dinner in San Francisco/day at the museum/trip to Seattle. Each word of communication became a mistake that I could dwell on and dissect, and in each case I came to the conclusion that I was a monster.

“I can sense that you’re losing interest here,” I replied, “and it makes me want to scramble. I want to remind you what a great guy I am, to assure you I’m worth the wait. But there’s the other side of my brain telling me that’d be crazy. I trust that voice because I am a little crazy right now. So what I’m going to say instead is that I recognize how difficult this is. I want to assure you that if you get tired of it, you can tell me. I won’t be happy, but I’ll understand.”

“No, I’m not ready for that yet. Let’s wait and see. We’ll meet when you get home. We’ll see how we feel then.” Corinne was trying to be sweet, trying to be diplomatic, but she was putting me in a limbo that would wear me down. She would grow cold, distant. My rational brain would tell me I’d lost a good woman. But the brain responsible for my fantasy life would spin yarns, narratives lapsing deep into an unknown future and involving Corinne’s life and mine intertwined. The conflict between those brains agonized me, and I found myself wishing that Corinne would cut the umbilical. The way she kept me dangling felt cruel. If there was nothing to look forward to, nothing hanging in the balance, then my decline might not have been so precipitous. But Corinne did not let me down easy and I was savaged by the indecision.

I’d always considered my mental fortitude indelible, but such assumptions are conceived to be tested. I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the exact moment folks began conspiring. I first sensed it in the tone my friends were taking – they wrote with coldness, after long lapses between correspondences. They began using the same verbiage, the same turns of phrase, as if they’d spoken amongst themselves and internalized a tone of distance, of condescension. Maybe they didn’t realize, but their tells were clear to me.

I’d written an ill-advised email to an estranged friend that could have set the ball rolling. Perhaps I posted something unpleasant, advertising my cretinism and alerting everyone to the fact that I’d been horrible all along. Or it could have been some past transgression come to light, leading folks to dig up old skeletons – there were enough of them. I could imagine the snowballing of exhumation, as if my dark places were a burying ground. The tibia of one skeleton might lead to the jaw bone of another, a few teeth in turn revealing vertebrae, and in that awful way the truth of my self could be unfolding before the world.

Every woman I’d known hated me. I’d acted terribly. I thought of the words I’d spoken: at times unkind or dismissive, and at other times bereft of boundaries. I’d promised love more than once. Five years’ worth of mistakes. Then I regressed further, back into the drinking and fighting days. It brought physical agony to recall. I’d unnecessarily hurt men. I’d been a liar and a thief. I adopted a disingenuous air of tolerance, and in the next breath slandered everyone I knew. I bad mouthed my partner, complained of her tyranny. Some of those old acquaintances had chosen her in the separation – most of them, really. Maybe they’d decided to start kicking that corpse. Lord knows it was repulsive enough to command attention – even after five years of decrepitude.

What would it would be like to face my old friends – all the people who knew me and had deigned to love me? They’d gone and I would be alone forever, and that was nobody else’s fault. It had just been a matter of time. I’d known all along, and the rest of the world was bound to find out.

Having worked through the night and spent the daylight hours wrapping up the project, with those first footsteps on land impending, I would be able to sleep finally. The insomnia would pass as the conditions for unrest had been lifted. That was the conclusion I’d come to after having been awake for thirty six hours, after too many consecutive restless nights grinding my teeth and lamenting my fate.

I mounted the bunk, lay on two pillows that I’d abused into slabs of cardboard, and I let the fear in. It wasn’t unlike my drinking days, except that back then the stupidity, the meanness, the blackouts all served to rationalize my fear. I would wake up from those mornings beset, awaiting the repercussions due me. Sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed without a drink. But that feeling had left me. The terror was gone.

I’d been out there too long – an eight week devolution – and now I was being told to face the world and I was trying to muster the courage to do such a thing. But I’d come to understand what awaited me. Maybe conditions will prevent the helicopter from landing, I assured myself, because just one more day, one good sleep, and I’d be okay.

 

Ben Leib spent twelve years as a waiter, a student (both undergraduate and graduate), and an alcoholic intravenous drug user. He now happily works at sea five weeks out of every ten. You can check out his publication history at benleib.com.

Val lives in the city of her aspirations, and barely within her means. She occupies the third floor of a three-family triple-decker built around the turn of the century–gloomy-brown and rickety, but not without its charms: sloping wooden floors, high ceilings, impotent gas jets poking up here and there in closets, behind doors. Efficient worker housing it was, and is, though Val and the other tenants are college-educated and would probably consider themselves professionals. Regina and Clay, on the first floor, are a newly married couple without children. Regina does catering part-time and temps to make ends meet. Clay works out of their apartment on his computer, doing something that Val doesn’t understand though Clay has explained it to her several times.

Mira and Richard, on the second floor, were a couple too until the week before Christmas, when Richard moved out. Richard was, is, a pilot for a small airline that Val had not heard of. When he lived here he was gone most of the time, and Val thinks of him as picture she noticed on the couple’s coffee table once, when she borrowed eggs from Mira: bare-chested Richard with a cigar clamped in his grin at a table spread with cards, blurred palm leaves in the background. Val’s rare encounters with him suggested that he was no such character–he was tall, yet shy and stooped, with white-blond hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, as if he’d been blanched in milk.

“Hey,” he’d say, looking at her with baffled, frightened eyes when they happened to meet on the stairs. Seeing him was like seeing a ghost, a shade. Now he’s gone.

As for Mira, there is more to tell. Now, as Val clomps up the stairs in her snow-crusted boots, she dreads the possibility of Mira’s door flying open. But it doesn’t this time. Evenings, when Val hears footfalls in the outside hall, an animal instinct freezes her until she knows that it is or isn’t Mira, who needs more than to borrow a stick of butter or a couple of eggs. If only it were a matter of food, Val would open her kitchen to her neighbor, let her devour the leftover chicken, the wrapped-up cheese nubs in the fridge door, all the canned goods she could eat.

 

Val’s sister, Patricia, lives in East Winds, a new and expensive suburb not two hours from the old and now-unfashionable suburb where the two of them grew up. Patricia and her husband, David, occupy a Turkey red colonial on the bulb end of a cul-de-sac, the intentional dead end being just one feature of Patricia’s life that feeds Val’s smugness. That Val is aware of her self-satisfaction, that she wishes to be ashamed of it, is of no use.

Val is also aware that she may be jealous of her sister, at least in part. Though two years younger, Patricia already has her own home, savings, and a comfortable existence, and soon she and David will have babies. For years, Val told herself (and sometimes others) that things came easily to Patricia because she never let much trouble her—she’d never been a “deep thinker.” More and more, though, Val suspects she’s been unfair to her sister. Truthfully, Patricia is shrewd and canny and knows exactly what to do and what not to bother with, avoiding, it seems, much of the friction and drag of life. Even in high school she seemed so certain of things. “That’s bullshit,” she would say, and it would be true. Patricia, unlike Val, never swore out of teenage insecurity, a desire show off.

It is unlikely that Patricia is troubled by the absurdity of living on Topsail Court, miles and miles from any body of water larger than a pond, but the two of them do not discuss it. Summers when Val visits Patricia, they take their “sister time,” as David calls it, on the back deck and regard each other with what feels to Val like wary admiration. Val tries not to stare at Patricia, whose beauty has adjusted itself to this time and place, become more subdued–her clothing now neutral, beige and cream, her makeup minimal. She smokes in her same tough way, though, puffing a straight jet out of the side of her mouth, and sits in an attitude–knees hugged to her body, heels turned out–that makes Val feel that they are kids again, just lounging on a rich friend’s redwood deck.

Sometimes, at such moments, Val looks out for little “help me” messages that Patricia might be transmitting, perhaps without even being aware of it. Then again, this could just be Val’s wobbly assumption (growing more wobbly with time) that no one can truly be satisfied with a settled life. This past summer, Val made a small attempt to coax Patricia out.

“You seem happy here, Patty.” It was a question, really.

“Sure.” Patricia tapped an ash and smiled faintly, looked down at her russet-painted toes. “It’s a good place for kids, for my garden. And the people seem nice, the ones we’ve met, anyway.”

She didn’t sound thrilled, but it occurred to Val that her tone might have been an attempt to protect her older sister, keep her from feeling inferior or behind. Val looked out on Patricia’s terraced garden, which, like Patricia herself, seemed full of muted, earthbound enthusiasm. In the late-afternoon breeze, the poppies and cosmos nodded and shimmered against soil dark as coffee grounds, rich and well-tended.

“You wouldn’t like it here, though, Val. It’s not exciting, not a place for a free spirit.”

Free spirit is the way Val’s family has described her for years, and she is never sure what they mean, though she knows they are trying to be kind. Often it seems that they are proud of her, truly proud, which Val finds puzzling and touching, especially since she’s been in the city for almost ten years. She’s no longer young–really young. Soon, her long series of jobs, the fact that she is always on the administrative margins of something interesting (the year of that summer, she was an art gallery go-fer with a vague yet impressive title) will be seen not as a quest but as a sign of chronic instability. Soon, the contrast between her shabby-hip wardrobe and brightly lipsticked mouth will no longer appear funky but–but what? What is this next stage that she is moving into? Certainly, it is nothing she is planning or summoning. She is not building a career or house. She is not making her womb lush with meat, milk, and multivitamins.

Just for a second, Val pictured herself in East Winds, next door to Patricia. She could not conjure a husband or a child, just herself, sitting with a cup of coffee in her eat-in kitchen of pickled oak, looking out the window at the new landscaping.

Then, in her vision, he was running past in his Santa Claus suit, kicking up the fresh mulch, his face flushed from booze and exertion.

“Fritz LaPierre!” She announced the name as it dawned on her.

Patricia looked at Val blankly, then remembered. “Oh, that bastard. What does he have to do with anything?”

Val couldn’t answer her, not then.

 

* * *

Mira of the Second Floor. She is intelligent and resourceful–no doubt about that. She edits unfathomable articles on international economics for a university journal. Val knows the articles are unfathomable because she picked up a copy of the journal once, out of curiosity. It was full of mathematical formulas and symbols, printed computer dreams. Yet, Val must admit, it’s not a job that she would have imagined for Mira, who has the look and manner of a college student, though she is thirty-three, a year older than Val. Mira is meekly pretty, with a fragile collarbone that shows over the scoop necks of her pastel sweaters. She is given to looking at Val, at everyone, through long dark bangs that she tucks behind her ears, then lets fall forward again.

Even before Richard left, Val was more friendly with Mira than with anyone else in the building. With Mira, she’d broken the loose promise to herself not to socialize with fellow tenants–a promise she’d kept well for nearly all of her renting life, mostly because there was little pressure for her to do otherwise. For years, in this building and others, she’d smelled strangers’ cooking, heard their fights and lovemaking, grown accustomed to their signature grunts, coos, laughs, and shoe-drops, yet learned little else about them. Val would see one of them in passing and think, Yes, this is probably the one who clears his throat precisely three times each morning; he’s the right size for such a sound. But the two of them might or might not exchange words, as if they both understood it was too risky–too risky to become familiar with a stranger you lived with in murky, chance intimacy, like blood cells.

Mira and Val, though, had caught each other at a mutually vulnerable time; that’s the only way Val can explain it to herself. One Friday night when both of them were alone and had no special plans–a night when Richard was gone, but not for good–Mira borrowed butter for banana bread. Then, an hour later, she was back at Val’s door with the freshly baked bread and a $70 bottle of cognac she’d won in the Economic Policy Review raffle.

“I’ve been wanting to crack this baby for months,” she said, “but I can’t bear the thought of drinking alone.”

So Mira came in and stayed. They filled and refilled their glasses, at one point making grand, arm-swinging toasts to supply, then demand. They ate all but one crust of the bread, which Val honestly believed to be the most delicious she’d ever had. Sometime past midnight they found themselves in Val’s kitchen making a cheese sandwich—a monument to a second-grade cheese sandwich of Val’s that Chris Peterman had stuffed into her snow boot sometime between the first bell and lunch.

“It’s more than just the cheese sandwich, Val. You were violated.” Mira’s brown eyes shone with drunken gravity. “You have to find Peterman and his shoes. Where does he live?”

“Eight-hundred miles away. In Ohio, still–I think.”

“Oh.”

In her mind’s eye, Val flew over the frozen hills of western Massachusetts, across Upstate New York, down the seemingly endless stretch of Pennsylvania until she was hovering over, then inside, the Peterman home–the Chris Peterman home. In the living room he was eating a grilled cheese with tomato, chewing slowly, unaccompanied by television or other Petermans. Though not long past thirty, he had the kind of face that you could never imagine as having belonged to a child. His nose was spreading slowly yet markedly like a feat of geology; his lips had become thin and slightly pursed, as if from some accumulated bitterness in his mouth. Still he’d made a life for himself. He had such moments of peace from his wife and children, even in his own home. He had his grilled cheese.

“What’s he doing these days?” Mira’s face was earnest, expectant, and Val realized that the two of them lived in entirely separate worlds of probability and chance. She wondered what it would have been like if she–like Mira–now lived not ten miles from where she’d grown up, if running into Chris Peterman, then Chris and his wife, and then Chris and his wife and kids, were a constant possibility, like a car accident.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since grade school. He might be in jail, or dead.”

“Hmmmm.”

The two of them stared at the cheese sandwich on the counter between them–not the cheap-cheese-on-white of Val’s childhood, but good provolone on whole wheat from the co-op–and Val couldn’t remember if they’d planned ritual mutilation or just to eat it. Neither option appealed to her now. She was tired, and drunk, and hunger was as remote to her as if she’d never felt it.

Val nodded toward the sandwich. “Would you like it?”

Mira shook her head. She was staring not at the sandwich but through it, her eyes wide and watery. Her lip twitched, then her nose, and she clamped both hands over her face, dropped her elbows to the counter, and started crying–the silent, shoulder-shaking kind of crying. Her bangs shimmered like a curtain in front of her face.

“Mira?” Val hesitated then moved to Mira’s side, slung an arm awkwardly across her bony shoulders. “Mira, what’s wrong?”

Mira raised one hand as if to say I’m okay. It’s all right, and Val slowly removed her arm. “I’ll get you a few Kleenex.”

When Val returned to the bathroom–with toilet paper, as it turned out, because she was always out of tissue (another subtle refusal to grow up)–Mira was leaning back against the counter, arms crossed under her breasts. Her face, though blotched and puffy from the tears, was composed, and she tried a smile.

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t be sorry, it’s okay.” Val handed her the toilet paper. “Is it something you want to talk about?”

“Maybe.” Mira shrugged then let out a teary laugh, blew her nose. “Not really. Not tonight, thanks. I think–”

Val waited.

“I think I just had a little too much to drink and it’s making me maudlin.” She blew again, dabbed her eyes. “And all this talk about cheese sandwiches–”

They laughed together and Val felt a warmth and relief that she knew had only partly to do with the cognac. She was grateful that they had found each other and, yes, that Mira was in this house. As Val escorted Mira to the door, she stopped, on impulse, in front of a little stand in which she kept all sorts of junk: receipts and ticket stubs from dates, what was left of a miniature screwdriver set, crumbles of headache-making incense that someone had given her, long ago. She had made herself remember the little yellow envelope in the top drawer, the one containing the spare keys that (she admits now) she’d been saving for a man–the man, or at least the next man. Val retrieved them quickly and held them out to Mira.

“Would you mind hanging on to these keys of mine–just in case?”

Mira stared at the keys then took them, smiling. “Sure, I know the feeling. Just in case you get locked out.”

Val nodded. “And just in case you hear furniture breaking up here, that sort of thing.” She’d meant it as a joke, but Mira’s smile faded and she looked uncertainly at they keys in her hand.

“Just kidding. Sorry.”

Mira gave Val a quick kiss on the cheek, picked up her half-empty cognac bottle, and turned to the door. Then she turned back.

“You know, I should give you a set of my keys, too, with Richard being gone so much.”

“Sure.”

When Mira was halfway down the first flight, Val called to her, wanting to thank her for having come up. But when Mira turned and Val saw that she was crying again, she felt the need to do something more, make some offering or promise.

“Mira, if you ever need to talk, if you need anything, you know where I am.”

“Thanks,” Mira said, her voice breaking a little. “Thanks, neighbor.”

 

In jail or dead. These are two of the more dramatic fates imagined for those who once menaced us, then dropped out of our lives. The threat could have been anything, great or small: a cheese sandwich stuffed into a snow boot, or a knife to the ribs.

Jail, death, or both have probably been imagined for Fritz LaPierre, but not by Val, who still sees him–though she tries to be skeptical, to chip at the milky patina of childhood memories–as Santa Claus. She’d bypassed belief in a “real” Santa early on, and readily accepted disguised Mr. LaPierre over the heartless, rickety-lapped frauds at the shopping center, the ones who took sullen cigarette breaks behind Penney’s (she’d seen them and been appalled). Mr. LaPierre did have a heart for playing Santa, and it did not disconcert Val to see the carpet-back underside of his beard, or to know that beneath his red felt pants were stringy-muscled legs that, in summer, turned brown as jerky. Christmas eves just after nightfall, greasy dinner smells still hanging in the air of the Durant home, still lingering in the heavy brocade curtains, he’d show up cheery and real as you could want, rapping at the storm door. Ho-ho-HO!

His last Christmas visit before he fled Shady Acres was much like all of the others. Val’s mother, as in past years, had taken the time to fix her hair and dab on a little lipstick, and her father had put Nat King Cole’s Christmas record on the stereo and started mixing drinks in the special glasses, the “Daddy glasses” always kept out of easy reach in the highest kitchen cabinet.

In a whirl of cold air and greetings, Mr. LaPierre was inside, bringing the smoky, wintry smells in with him on his red-and-white suit. He laid a pillowcase full of rattling things on the sofa and whisked his gloved hands together.

“Now here are the two best girls in Shady Acres. Do you know how I know?”

Val and Patricia giggled and waited, knowing he’d always thought out good answers to his own questions.

“This one,” he tapped Patricia on the nose, “watered the flower beds like a fairy, always filling the water can when she could have used that demon hose, mind you, Urania.” He checked the look on their mother’s face and she smiled on her cue, not quite genuinely. “She never broke a stem or scattered a petal. She’ll need a little garden soon, something of her own.”

Patricia looked over her shoulder at her parents, and her father said, “We’ll see about that, Santa.”

“And this one.” Val always thought she would pee from excitement when it was her turn, for he always had some bit of truth for her, something to be considered seriously. He crouched down so she could see the frazzled little veins around the blue of his eyes, in the tip of his nose. “This one is terribly restless and bored, even at such a young age, wandering the yard like a zombie. She should probably be taken to the jungles of Borneo. Or to Paris. Or at least to that horrible Disney World if that’s all you can manage–and if you can keep her from being accosted by those costumed barbarians. Dreadful!”

A rashlike flush broke out across Mr. LaPierre’s cheeks, and a gleam of perspiration showed along his upper lip where the Santa mustache drooped. Though it made Val slightly uneasy, she stared into his eyes until she saw only the match tip reflections of her own pale head, as if two miniatures of herself were peering out from within him, trapped yet patient.

Mr. LaPierre lowered his baby-powdered brows, grunted, and gave a snapping little nod of satisfaction. “Her mind and soul are hungry, my dear Troy and Urania.” He rolled up his eyes to fix Val’s dad and then Val’s mom with a grim expression. “See what you can do about it. Hmmm?”

Val didn’t dare turn her head for she knew even then that her parents would not look pleased or proud. They would be thinking about the leaks in the impractical flat roof, about the “death rattle” in the Dodge’s engine that would mean a vacation not even at Disney World but at an amusement park hotel on a polluted lake a half-day’s drive away. Val loved the place, even so.

Val’s dad cleared his throat. “Well, Santa, there are the girls’ college educations to think of. Urania and I have to take the long view here.” He passed a clinking drink over the girls’ heads to Mr. LaPierre, who stretched down his beard to sip it. Despite his care, some of the brown liquid dribbled and beaded on the white fuzz.

“Ahh, good bourbon, Troy. That’s fine, thank you.” He rose and bent to crack his knees, being careful not to spill his drink. “Well, I’ll say nothing more than that education is not just a matter of a university. We’re all so tired and stunted by the time we get to college–at least I was–that our minds are mere puddings. We plod like horses. But children are not horses, Troy. They do not plod. They have not learned to give up and take the deadly official view of things. Don’t let your little girls become plodders, like me, friends. That’s all I ask.”

In a minute, Val’s mom was in and out of the kitchen with a basket of Charlie Chips and Shirley Temples for Val and Patricia. The drinks were lovely, tinged pink from the maraschino cherries that bobbed at the bottom, and served in the special Daddy glasses.

“Careful, girls.”

Taking her drink, Val felt burdened yet important, as if she were being asked to hold adulthood itself, heavy yet fragile, in her greasy little hand.

Soon Val and Patricia were done unwrapping the presents from Mr. LaPierre’s pillow case and they thanked him politely, as they’d been told to do so, though the excitement of his visit passed as soon as he was done telling his little truths. Always the gifts were plastic doodads–an ugly doll with stand-up hair and crazy eyes, a sliding-letter puzzle the size of a child’s palm–that were lost or broken within the week. But some combination of the pathetic toys and Mr. LaPierre’s kindness always made Val feel close to tears, though she never cried, not then.

Soon after, Mr. LaPierre tipped back the last of his drink, adjusted the elastic of his beard, and rose with his rattling pillow case.

“I’m off! Goodbye, dears.” He bowed to Val and to Patricia. “Troy, Urania.” He bowed once again and headed for the door, with Mr. and Mrs. Durant trailing behind. “My work’s cut out. The children of Shady Acres, of Helsinki, of Sri Lanka, must have their Christmas. Ho-ho-HO!”

 

Later, as she and Patricia watched television, Val heard her parents in the kitchen. Their voices, low and disapproving, stitched in and out of the gunshots of the cop show.

 then why did you give him a drink when he was already–? …  Oh, Urania …  next year … not good for the girls to see … next year  …

But there wasn’t to be a next year. Fritz LaPierre was gone by the Fourth of July, and Val would remember long afterward how hard she’d tried to summon sadness for Mrs. LaPierre, who spent the rest of that summer, or so it seemed, huddled on her back patio with the women of the neighborhood. Behind them loomed Mr. LaPierre’s pride, the split-level “modern” house, dark and ugly as bad fate and cursed in secret by other residents of  Shady Acres. To them, it was a blight on the uniform, red-brick optimism of the neighborhood.

The grown LaPierre girls, Fawn and Marjorie, came home without their husbands and led their tottering mother back into the house, one on each arm, when her wailing became alarming, when it risked frightening the children who watched from their swings and sandboxes. Children like Patricia and Val, who in fact were fascinated. Evenings after supper, the women reconvened at the LaPierre’s round patio table, their faces underlit by the citronella candle and the occasional flame of a cigarette lighter. When they could, Val and Patricia crouched by the lilac bush, listening, until their father called them in for baths. They fished for words, for secrets, in the burble of whispers that rose and fell together.

…  wherever he is, that rotten son of a bitch will get his due, I just know it … wouldn’t blame you if you burned his clothes in a bonfire … Wait, wait—he didn’t take his clothes? … Can you pass those olives, please? … Mmmmmm. Delicious!

One night, Urania came home from the LaPierre patio with eyes as wide as a sleepwalker’s and sat down hard in the kitchen, by Val’s father. Val watched them from the darkness outside the kitchen door.

“That bastard’s fled the country,” Urania said.

“To where?” Troy asked.

“God only knows.”

Why? That was Val’s question, but she didn’t get to ask it, because just then her mother spied her in the shadows.

“Back to bed, young lady,” she said. “Now.”

 

In those days when Val still believed in believing in God, she would pray for forgiveness for Mr. LaPierre and ask forgiveness, too, for her own best wishes for him, wherever he was. Though he’d left in the heat of summer, she imagined him running away, running hard, in his Santa suit–an ingenious way to flee under cover of strangeness, under the magical protection of Christmas, where he was given booze up and down the street and the world brimmed with good will and possibility.

Val knew that Mr. LaPierre had left his wife, and that this was a terrible thing. But Val also knew that she herself would never had lasted an astonishing thirty-two years with Mrs. LaPierre. (That summer, all of Shady Acres came to know and quote the precise length of the LaPierre marriage.) And in time she gave up her guilt about Mrs. LaPierre. A TV detective show began with the scales of justice, held by a beautiful woman in a sheet. In one pan, Val placed Mrs. LaPierre yelling children out of her yard. In the other pan, she placed Mr. LaPierre with his plastic gifts and magic words, and bam, right away, his pan landed so he could climb out and run, calling praises and thanks over the sack slung across his shoulder.

“Bless you, my dear. Lovely!”

***

Val traces Richard’s leaving to a door-slam that sent ripples through her eggnog. At the time, she turned down “The Christmas Fiddlers,” listened, heard nothing more, and went back to draping wooden cranberries over her two-foot tree. And she would have forgotten the slam if Mira had not told her, later, that it happened on the very night Richard left.

“You’re taking all the oxygen from this apartment.” Those had been Mira’s words to Richard, and she’d helped him pack his bags.

Since learning this from Mira, Val imagines that she actually saw Richard’s face, petulant yet bloodless as ever, the very second he pulled the door shut behind him. It is a false memory, but her one memory of him that is tied to any sense of force or emotion.

Richard left at the start of winter, when night fell early and the pings of texts to Val’s phone felt like intrusions, when she shied away from making plans and seeing friends. It was, still is, a winter when she prepares heavy meals for herself with potatoes, butter, cheese, and cream and by nine o’clock is huddled under her sod-thick duvet with a book she will never finish. Soon after she plummets into sleep.

Unless Mira calls or knocks, that is. Then Val will invite her up, in, unconditionally. First, this is only to indulge her curiosity about Mira’s strange relationship with Richard, the details of which may or may not be fiction. On his long trips away, Richard, according to Mira, dated a beauty from a Brazilian reality-TV show. He’d suggested an orgy with members of his flight crew and gotten takers. Finally, when Mira asked him to leave, he waved one lover’s keepsake undies in her face, as if to give proof that he was desirable and she a fool.

Val recalls the picture of grinning Richard on the coffee table and imagines, with difficulty, the possibilities.

“Of course, I loved him once,” Mira says, “although you can see how the relationship became intolerable. And, truth be told, he was getting in the way.”

What Richard is “in the way” of, Val learns, is Mira’s desire to be alone for a while. She has enough money to quit her job and spend time thinking about next steps, what she should do with her life, which is nowhere, Mira emphasizes. She exaggerates this word to mock it, as if it is a joke. When Mira puts her face in her hands and cries, Val cannot shake the illusion that she is watching herself, a thin young woman with dark hair crying now that she has reached some baffling yet inevitable place in life, in the world. Touching Mira’s arm, Val feels her own fragility and cannot summon sympathy. Nevertheless, she pats Mira, chanting words of comfort. Like the neighbors—among them, Val’s mother—who gathered around Gail LaPierre all those years ago.

 

Mira no longer bothers to put on shoes or slippers to make the trip between their apartments, so now Val often hears nothing before the knock. And Mira has started leaving little things of hers behind–a hair band, a sweater, lip balm. After all, boundaries–walls, floors, doors–are only as sturdy as convention.

One evening, Mira brings up a photo album—a relic of her youth and of the time before personal pictures existed mostly on phones. Val finds herself surprised by the images withn it: young Mira in a green velvet riding habit, on horseback; Mira with siblings in front of a huge stone fireplace at Christmas time; a modern building, churchlike and white, set in a stand of ghostly beech trees. Beneath it, the legend “Country house, November 1992.” Further in the album are pictures of a tanned Mira in Rome, of a moody-browed Mira on the Israeli coast, of a napping Mira, her head resting on some woman’s fleshy arm, French advertisements in the background.

Mira is mostly silent as they turn the pages of photographs, as if she wants to say, without words, This is where I come from. I want you to know.

Val looks at her and wonders if she is different from having seen the world, from dozing on the Paris Metro, with French lapping over her like words from a dream.

 

That night, Val does not sleep soundly. She is awake to hear the turn and click of the key in the door, then the creaking of footsteps across the floor.

“It’s me, Val. Don’t be afraid.”

Val doesn’t answer or get up. She waits, and soon feels a draft at her back as Mira lifts the duvet, then crawls in, presses her cold bare feet to Val’s calves, circles her arms around her waist. Soon Mira is in deep, untroubled sleep. For hours, it seems, Val listens to her breathing.

*  *  *

Borneo. There must have been something about that place that Mr. LaPierre found appropriate for Val–perhaps because it simply sounded so exotic, so unimaginable. But a few times after his last visit, Val had sat with the encyclopedia’s map and description of Borneo and did not feel anything more than the dull thrill that usually accompanied peeping into the gilt-edged World Book.

An Island nation in Indonesia. Steamy jungles. Orangutans. Religion: predominantly Muslim.

Seeing the Indonesian islands and the strange names written across them–Sumatra, Celebes, Kuala Lumpur–Val found it easier to imagine what she would lose than what she would gain. No cop shows, no Santa Claus, no Shirley Temples, no Charlie Chips. What would replace them? With the World Book, she could conjure only dense, dripping trees, orange apes, a map-blue sea. Nothing to stir her. She decided to take Borneo merely as a gist of Mr. LaPierre’s message. Distance, difference. Escape, my dear!

If he’d confused his own desires with hers, it mattered little. Neither one of them was meant to last in Shady Acres, but what kind of place were they meant for?

When at last on the night of Mira’s invasion Val drifts off to sleep, she imagines the triple-decker as a great ship roaming free in the sky, a grand if shabby craft of which she is the guiding conscience, searching for a place to land. She soars over wildnernesses and the grids of other cities, over the dead-end circuitry of suburbs, and dismisses them all. There is certain to be a place for her, though, and she’ll know it when she sees it. A place whose landscape is not numbing to the eye and soul, and where, evenings, one is tempted toward the porch, away from the lonely innards of one’s house. One is drawn toward the brilliant dimming sky and the presence of others on their own porches, their faces indistinct but clearly upturned with interest and goodwill, reflecting the fading light like planets.

 

Beth Castrodale worked for many years as an editor in academic publishing before leaving to devote herself to writing fiction. Recently, she completed a literary novel, In This Ground, an excerpt from which was a short-list finalist for a 2014 William Faulkner Wisdom Award. Additionally, she has written several short stories, her most recent works appearing in Printer’s Devil Review and The Writing Disorder.She also recommends small-press books on my website, SmallPressPicks.com.