Fiction Archive

“Blue Nothing”

When Coach blew the whistle, along with the rest of the kids, I returned the soccer balls to the rack in the closet, took long gulps from the armory gym’s water fountain, put on my puffy snow jacket, and walked out into the parking lot slowly filling with January snow. I looked for Dad’s lapis-blue Cherokee among the idling cars, heat on full-blast. As always, he wasn’t there. One by one, other kids piled into cars until it was just Derek and me enjoying the sharp wind on our sweaty bodies. Despite the oversized snow jackets (You’ll grow into it, Dad would say), we still wore our shorts and shin guards. Our knees clacked.

“Fuck this, Eliot,” Derek said. “When the fuck are they going to get here? I’m freezing my nuts off.”

I envied how effortlessly he cussed. I hadn’t perfected it. When I swore at the lunch table or during unsupervised gym games, my friends made fun of me—snide remarks (Woah, guys. Don’t mess with Eliot. He’s serious today.) and exaggerated imitations—because I sounded like a kid. Cussing to me was all missed shots and no bicycle-kick goals. Sometimes in bed in the middle of the night I practiced swearing in whispers: damn, shit, bastard.

“I’m sure they’ll get here soon,” I said to fill the silence.

Christmas break dwindled, but school wouldn’t start until Monday. Without classes to complain about, we stood around, uncomfortable with our silence. Derek towered a full foot over me, having already finished his growth spurt. I hadn’t even started mine, and as each month passed, I grew more impatient to close the growing height gap between my twin sister, Emily, and me. The sky purpled.

I asked, “What’d you get for Christmas?”

“A bunch of stupid shit because of Chase-Glazer.” Both our dads lost their jobs when the glass-blowing factory closed down. My dad lucked out and picked up a job delivering bread, but most still lived on diminishing severance. “You?”

“Not much,” I lied. His gaze bore down on me, yet I kept my eyes on the ground and kicked at snow.

“Bullshit. You get two Christmases now. I bet you can’t even fit all your presents in your room.”

I shrugged and sighed. Dad and Mom each spent more money on Emily and me than they had the year before. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to buy love or apologize. “Both got me a Playstation. So I’m going to return one and get an N64.”

“Damn. I wish my parents were divorced.”

Mine weren’t divorced, but I didn’t correct him because I barely understood it—something about a year of “voluntary separation” and “notarized separation agreement” to get a divorce that was “no-fault.” It didn’t matter though because they talked about it as if it were a divorce and it felt like what I imagined divorce felt like: a vague, foolish longing for last year.

Our breath steamed as we pretended to smoke; neither of us could blow rings. The winter breeze no longer felt refreshing. I pulled my hands into my jacket’s sleeves. When headlights appeared at the edge of the lot, I held my breath and hoped to see the boxy Cherokee, but it was a sedan: another night with Coach and me.

Derek said, “Want a ride?”

“Dad’s on his way,” I said, because I wanted it to be true.

Derek shrugged and marched through the snow to his mom’s sedan, leaving dark blacktop footprints in the powder.

Coach stood waiting at the foggy window stroking his thick, ink-black mustache. When I walked in, my skin ached from the warm air. My wet sneakers screeched along the hallway. Coach must have counted the minutes waiting for us stragglers to be picked up. He must have wanted to get home to do whatever widowed, childless science teachers that coach indoor soccer do at night. Yet, without saying anything, he walked to the gym, unlocked the closet, retrieved a soccer ball, and kicked it to me.

#

“Well,” Coach said, checking his watch. “Should we try your father again?”

Outside the window it looked like cooled lava: lumpy, snowy, and dark.

“Okay,” I said. I dribbled the ball over to him, small taps, under control. Using Coach’s blocky cell phone, I left another message on the answering machine. At least Dad wasn’t at home. If he picked up, then I’d know for sure he had forgotten me.

“Maybe we should try your mom.”

“He’ll be here,” I said.

“Let’s call her anyway.”

Dad, if he was here, would’ve said something like, Don’t talk to him about my business. Somehow Dad still believed that the news of the separation hadn’t spread.

“She’s out of town tonight,” I lied, not because Dad would have wanted me to, but because Mom was reconsidering the custody agreement. They’d forgone courts and let Emily and me decide who we would stay with—a gift from Mom to Dad. Emily went with her, but I chose him. Mom wore guilt like a gown and made herself a stranger overnight. I didn’t feel like I knew her anymore. It wasn’t even Mom’s coming out of the closet (I could deal with that), but she now treated me like a glass child liable to shatter at a misplaced word.

I wasn’t fragile or depressed, just nostalgic. If anything, Dad acted like a friend, at times a peer, with all the rawness that entailed: driving ranges, sour sips from his wine, R-Rated action movies, shooting clay pigeons with 20 gauges, carrying me from the Cherokee to my bed when we stayed out too late, helping him from the couch to his bed when he drank too much.

Looking away from me, Coach said, “I could always give you a ride to Gina’s.”

I winced at the name of Mom’s girlfriend. Of course, he knew. Everyone did. We were water cooler topics in places without water coolers—the teacher’s lounge, run down bars, church prayer calls. I never appreciated anonymity before; I wished I could dissolve.

“Can’t you take me home?” I asked.

“Teachers aren’t allowed to anymore,” he said, shaking his head and pursing his lips. Coach grudgingly followed the new policy from the Board of Ed that removed the simple solution. Letting Gina pick me up must have been as far as he was willing to bend the rules.

“Can we wait fifteen more minutes?”

He sighed. “I’ll give him ten, and then….” Coach trailed off struggling to come up with some sort of backup plan. “I’ll call Gina,” he said, as if it were a question.

We passed the ball back and forth on autopilot. My mind drifted: every time Mom picked me up because Dad forgot, every time I missed school because Dad didn’t come home the night before, every time Emily told Mom about Dad’s tipsy flirting with married soccer moms, every time she heard about Dad and me eating grand slams at two in the morning on a school night, Mom strengthened her threats until last week she dropped the ultimatum: one more shot—she’d be looking for an excuse. She’d take him to court (she had the money), and she’d win every time.

#

Ten minutes that felt like two hours later, as Coach returned the soccer ball to the closet, promising to call Gina just as soon as he locked the doors, and I put my coat back on, high beams flooded the parking lot. I tried unsuccessfully to hide my smile. Coach didn’t look relieved. Instead he looked the way he did on the day he reamed out my whole class after discovering our elaborate classroom-wide network for cheating on labs. With eyes narrowed and forehead furrowed in the quiet fury that only teachers know, he followed me outside. The cold made it difficult to breathe.

The passenger window lowered, and Dad’s slow, careful articulation failed to hide a gentle slurring as he said, “Crazy night. I got here as soon as I could.”

“You didn’t try that hard,” Coach said.

I wanted to tell Coach not to give my dad a hard time, but I couldn’t think of how to phrase it in a way that wasn’t combative. All I wanted was to climb into the car and get out of there, but Coach refused to let Dad and me slink away as we usually did. The snow that covered my ankles slowly dissolved into ice water, sogging my socks.

“Trust me. If only you knew.” Dad laughed and fumbled for something between the seats.

“Indulge me.” Coach’s jaw locked into place. His mustache didn’t hide a scowl.

Dad stopped trying to laugh his way free. Barely above a whisper, he said, “Eliot, get in the car.”

I stepped forward as Coach’s hand fell to my shoulder. He didn’t grab or squeeze, yet the dead weight of unfamiliar touch froze me in place. His gaze never left Dad. I imagined myself freezing time—snowflakes hanging still—climbing into Dad’s car, driving off, and unfreezing time when we were home.

“I’ve got time for a story,” Coach said. “Where were you?”

Was Coach not oblivious to Dad’s drinking? Was he stalling to gauge just how far gone he was? Neither spoke; the stillness unnerved me. I stood there letting the cold sting my legs while the heat hummed in the car. Unable to stand it, I tried to pry his fingers away, but Coach’s fingers dug into my skin. Even through the thick padding of my coat, his grip hurt. If I were more like Dad, I’d be able to break free.

“Let go,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s safe to get in a car with him,” he said to me.

Dad lowered his head. The world narrowed. I felt reckless.

“You aren’t going anywhere with this drunk.” Coach pointed a bony finger at Dad. Drunk. The word jarred me. I’d never heard anyone call him that, not even Mom. He never hit anyone, so he couldn’t be an alcoholic. Would that be how a judge saw him if Mom changed the custody agreement?

Coach continued, “I’m calling your mother or grandparents. Anyone. Even Gina.”

I suddenly pictured myself in my old bedroom overhearing Mom’s side of a phone fight with Dad, imagined daily dinners of Gina’s cooking—almost always pasta and store-bought sauce—ad nauseam, and, worst of all, Mom’s over-compensating concern for everything: the way she now always prefaced requests with “if you are up to it….”

I fought dizziness. If I could just escape Coach’s grasp… yet my squirms only tightened the grip like a Chinese finger trap. I bit at his fingers, meaty bites almost breaking the skin, until he let go.

“God damn it,” he said, as his grip softened enough for me to wriggle away and climb into the back door of the Jeep, locking the door behind me. As soon as Dad processed what I was doing, he locked the other doors and rolled up the window.

Coach yanked at the door handle and said, “Get out of the car. Both of you.”

What had come over me? I liked Coach and his class. How could I look him in the eye on Monday? The adrenaline simmered to regret. I fantasized about quitting indoor soccer and dropping out of school to avoid ever having to face Coach again.

Dad cradled a brown-bagged bottle between his legs. He opened his mouth to say something (another apology, maybe an insult), but instead shook his head and exhaled.

Coach pounded at the window, looked at me pleadingly, and, muffled by the glass, said with slow articulation, “Eliot, this is a mistake. It’s okay. Just unlock the door. If you don’t, I’m going to have to call the cops. And if that happens, nothing good will come of this.”

I looked at Dad, and he gave me a timid smile as if to say, Your choice.

I said to Coach, “I’m sorry.” I nodded to Dad. I knew choosing my father was nothing but risks, but as the end loomed, all I wanted was time with Dad, even short minutes as they ran out.

Dad ground the gears into drive, his body shaking, almost quaking. As we drove off, in the mirror Coach shrank as he dialed his phone.

#

Colossal snowflakes caught in wind currents shot over the windshield like stars in a screensaver. Dad wrung the steering wheel with his hands as if the tactile feeling of sticky rubber might calm him.

“I’m really sorry, Eliot. Next time I’ll be there. I won’t even leave. I’ll stay in the car and wait the whole time,” he said, making momentary eye contact. At least for right then he believed it.

How could he think about something that felt so trivial to me? I wondered if he grasped the bigger picture: the impending holding cell, DUI, license suspension, job loss, and court cases. I said, “Dad, we’re in trouble.”

He ignored me and said, “You don’t think I would leave you there on purpose, do you?”

“We’re going to get arrested.” It surprised me to hear me include myself. Could I end up in juvie?

“No one’s getting arrested.”

“Coach called the cops.”

Dad shook his head. He slowed the car down to a crawl on the dark road. He licked his lips and then made a clicking noise with his mouth. I could almost see his mind sluggishly working, considering what was next.

“Do you want me to take you to your mom’s,” he said.

It didn’t matter what I said. By the end of the night I knew I’d be there. “I think so.”

“That’s fair,” he said.

Dad turned from the main road onto a back road that cut through the woods. It wasn’t exactly a shortcut, but at least no one would be on this road this late at night. Snow stuck to the road. There weren’t even parallel black streaks of recent vehicles. A salt truck would come through eventually.

For a long time neither of us spoke. It wasn’t that living with Emily, Gina, and Mom had become any more palatable. Maybe if Dad dropped me off, we could forgo the courts until Dad was more stable.

Dad turned on the radio, flicked from station to station and turned it off. Snow pummeled the earth in moth-sized flakes. He sped up.

“Do you still love me?” he asked.

“What?” I said.

He swallowed hard. “Never mind.”

The digital clock beamed 8:53. It felt much later.

I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but we so rarely talked about it that I couldn’t bring myself to say the word. I said, “Yeah Dad, I do.”

“I don’t feel like anyone loves me anymore. And I can’t stop thinking about if anyone ever did.” His voice wavered, and his grip on the steering wheel looked like it would crush the plastic, foam, and vinyl, making it ooze out of his hands like squeezing a ball of fresh mozzarella.

Everything crept into focus—the mess of it all. Was this sober honesty or drunk neediness? Before, I thought he was emotionless, stoic even, but now he sounded more like Emily on a bad day. If he’d really felt like that, I felt bad for Mom. It must have been so hard not just being married to a man but to someone this insecure.

I said, “I know Emily does. I bet Mom still does too in a way.”

Dad snorted.

I wondered if everything that happened since the separation was secondary to his suppressed question about whether any part of the family, the marriage, was ever real to her. I pitied him and wanted more time. All we had left was fading seconds before an arrest or whatever came next, so I promised myself I’d stay until the end.

“I want to go home tonight. Our home,” I said.

Dad’s grip on the steering wheel loosened. He looked at me wet-eyed. He made an illegal u-turn, swerving, and tires slipping on the snow and ice-greased road.

As we regained speed (five, ten, fifteen over the thirty), I said, “Slow down.” I braced myself for a new patch of black ice, but the Cherokee kept traction.

Full crying, he said, “You know, you mean everything to me, right? I know what people say about me—”

“Slow down, Dad.”

Black and white, darkness and snow slid past us. Black nameless trees crowded the road, as Dad sped away from aloneness, large and small, escaping even if just for the night. Black and white, shadows burst from the tree line, a pack of white-tail deer.

#

My ears rang before I felt any pain. Neck hurt, but my fingers worked. Not broken. Did my blisters pop? Something bloody. Nose? Lip? The seatbelt cut into my shoulder. Car horn jammed on. As I wiped them away, I marveled at the windshield spider-webbed across all four corners: how did it crush but not shatter?

“Dad,” I said as I massaged my neck.

His head hung in an impossible angle as if it could roll off. I thought I saw the forehead bone, leaking blood covered it. He hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt.

I clamored out of the car. Through the passenger-side door, I struggled to drag Dad’s weight to the tree line. Each inch took all I could muster, until finally I had him in the grass. I sat against an oak, but he slid over onto his side.

I thought I would cry but puked instead.

“It’s alright, Dad,” I said. “Everything’s okay.”

Dad lay there, snow falling on his unblinking eyes. Things like this never actually happened. I’d awaken any minute.

The front of the Cherokee was a mess of bent metal and broken glass. Crumbled at the foot of the bumper, the deer was a furry mass of colors in the headlights. The snow dyed green with leaking coolant met with deer blood and turned an awful dark khaki brown.

The deer let out a sickening, throaty yelp. It tried to stand on broken legs and collapsed, bones piercing brown fur. A buck: barely antlered. All that blood from a toddler.

I looked around frantically. “What am I supposed to do?”

Dad said, You’ll have to put it down, Eliot.

It was never the kind of thing Dad would ask of me, still a kid. But it needed to be done. I remembered back when I was a kid, we had a mouse in the walls. I checked the trap in the morning, and I found the mouse alive, back broken. When I told Dad, he said he’d stop the suffering. On the back porch, he crushed the mouse with a brick. Emily watched, but I closed my eyes before he brought down the brick. Afterwards, I locked the door so no one would see me cry.

“How?”

I’m not sure. Look in the car.

Even though I was pretty sure that the car wouldn’t explode (there wasn’t even smoke), I approached cautiously, steering clear of the deer. I ruffled through the back seat. “Did you have a pocket knife or something?” I asked. In the glove compartment I only found pens and the bottle. “There’s nothing here.”

Check the back, Dad said.

I climbed into the backseat. “I don’t see anything.”

The tire iron. The one I broke the window with.

In the darkness I found the cloth loop to lift up the seat cushions. Underneath I found it. The iron felt heavy and rough.

I took it over to Dad and held it out to him. Blood so dark that it looked black haloed his head. I can’t do it for you.

“I can’t either.” I’d never killed anything before. Just thinking about hurting the deer made me want to cry, but I fought it, hard.

It’s in pain.

The rough metal in my hand felt as dense as a black hole. I took small deliberate steps towards the deer—practically a fawn. Up close, I noticed the gruesome details that the night hid: a heap of sinew, fur, muscle, bone, and blood, pools of blood. Wishing it were true, I said to the deer, “It’s okay. It’s going to be fine.”

It blinked big, dark eyes at me. Every breath looked like agony. It tried to rise again on legs snapped like Popsicle sticks but immediately collapsed. It lay on its side looking at me.

As I raised the iron above my head, I felt weak and dizzy. It was as if I were floating somewhere outside all of this, watching myself from a bird’s eye view.

I said, “You’re going to be all right.”

Using every bit of strength I could find, I brought the tire iron down on the fawn’s head with a dull thud. That head looked so delicate, like you could crush it with a hug, but the bar bounced off with sickening reverberations, like hitting a tree with an aluminum bat. The deer thrashed and yelped like a child. I swung again. Again. And again. Every blow took everything I had each time. Slowly cracking the skull, popping an eye out of its socket with a whoosh. It stopped thrashing but still swayed in spasms, until finally the head caved in with the sound of squashing rotten fruit.

I dropped the iron—wet with blood and yellow with something goopy—on the road beside the fawn.

I sat beside Dad. I brushed a layer of snow from his face.

I filled my mouth with snow. “Holy fuck.” I said the words without thinking.

You did the right thing, Dad said.

I didn’t say anything.

Trust me. Right now, that deer is happy alone in the baby blue nothing.

Sitting in the red snow, a haze of headlights built indistinctly on the horizon, darkness fading to light blue above the tree line—any moment some car or other would find me and carnage. The blood spread.


Brendan Stephens is currently in the Creative Writing and Literature PhD program at the University of Houston. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southeast Review, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He is a reader and volunteer for Gulf Coast.

“The Dutch Girl”

The Muslims on our street sang prayers for me.

Everyone on Facebook encouraged me to date her: we were both quirky, and though on different continents, we played Scrabble with slang words—me in English and her—also in English.

The only person, of course, who had doubts, was my therapist, Dr. Samson, who was certain she was a fabrication—she was Muhammad of Tunisia rather than Vivian of Amsterdam.

To begin with, Vivian said she lived in Switzerland, though her office was in England, and that she was from Amsterdam. This seemed an odd transposition of places to accumulate for a paycheck.

“And my lover just died of cancer, so I’m looking for a new one.”

“I’m sorry about your loss.”

“LOL and thanks.”

Between “LOL” and “thanks” I surmised this person might not be who she said she was.

I had already endured, perhaps a decade earlier, a woman of Aryan-Hispanic origins who wrote me from Africa (she was originally from Illinois), where she was staying with her sick mother. Our relationship had tidy moments of S&M via Skype, but got insidious when she mentioned her mother’s terminal illness; this maternal calamity caused irreparable financial damages, and could I please send $2,500?

*

Loneliness in the Bronx can make a dyke swerve to fake lesbians on OkCupid.

“What do you do for a living?” the Dutch girl asked.

“I’m a meteorologist,” I replied, because, like me, weather is organized by chaos, and within its chaos there is its own organization.

This sounded better than my real occupation—word processing in the pharmaceutical department at a Bronx hospital.

“Wow,” she emailed, “that’s cool.”

“Yeah, most of my friends hate me if there’s a blizzard. I’m like—it’s God’s mood swing—not mine.”
“LOL!” she wrote. When you get an “LOL” while dating, it means things are neutrally fine, there is a possibility you will kiss them, and that in your flannel nightgown, lying on flannel sheets, in weather you incorrectly predicted, you are still in the running for the position of “girlfriend.”

When the Dutch girl mentioned she was now living in Madison, Wisconsin, selling laboratory equipment, I was confused.

“Do you think she exists?” I asked my psychiatrist.

“I think you should stick with women who resemble your ex but need plastic surgery.”
Yes, in addition to the Dutch girl, there was, on OkCupid, another girl interested in me. This one resembled a former lover, but her face was asymmetrical. “Plastic surgery girl” lived in Manhattan; had an oil burning stove in Upstate New York; liked art and Afghan food.

“You need someone on the continent,” he advised.

“Vivian lives in Wisconsin.”

“As I said,” he continued, “it wouldn’t hurt to date someone within an hour’s distance.”

The girl with an oil burning stove was Jewish, which was a factor that my dead mother and psychiatrist loved. I, however, was more into the Dutch chick, who was originally from Switzerland, witnessed her girlfriend die of lymphoma in The Netherlands, but was now in Wisconsin.

“You are geographically challenging,” I wrote the Netherlander.

“Coordinates well with you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I’m worldly and you’re weatherly. LOL.”

I didn’t get her humor, but it might have been a translation issue.

Vivian was a single girl with a simple understanding of life who wore a hat to appear androgynous and other times let her curls fall out so she could yell, “godverdomme!”, which was “Godamnit” in Dutch.

Her friends called her “gek,” which, in The Netherlands, means “crazy.”

She liked older women, though it was not clear why.

I found her sweet, charming and inscrutably kind, and the geographical confusion issue, which I had discussed with my shrink, sunk into the background during our flirtatious moments.

“What are you doing now?” Vivian asked.

“Thinking about you.”

“And what are you wearing?” she prodded, as if it were a nuclear secret that the Russians and Americans were already sharing.

“My blanket!” I texted.

She howled back, “that’s sexy!,” with a smiley face.

After viewing porn, I’d circle my brain and kindle the fires with her photo. The one with the hat. It was euphoric.

*

Some people, like my friend Eddie, do “live site, not onsite,” and call their choice “old school,” even if it means, as it did for me, meeting drunk poontang in Jersey City women’s bars. Though sloppy and wobbly, you know what you are taking home. Or at least you think you do.

I’d bring girls home, read them excerpts from Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Sox, endear them to my inferior social skills, and get laid. Seuss and Heineken made a great night of fun, and though it was not cyberspace, the reality was that it was over in 12 hours. At least with cyberspace you can endure a fictitious affair for a week.

“I’m not able to sleep at night,” Vivian via Wisconsin via Amsterdam texted me.

“Oh boy,” I replied, feeling the pangs and intimacies of love through the iPhone, “I wish there was something I could do.”

“There is….”

“What dear? How may I give you greater comfort in the evening?”
I had already checked out the Priceline.com tickets for Madison, Wisconsin, which were slightly cheaper than Amsterdam.

There was a brief pause and then she wrote back.

“Financial.”

I stopped breathing momentarily. I thought this only happened once every ten years via the internet. But it had been ten years.

The Muslim prayers were failing me.

All the support I received on Facebook had been for naught.

“I’m sorry,” I wrote her back quickly, recalling the Illinois Aryan/Hispanic hottie who had solicited money for her dying mother in Africa, “I cannot help.”

I then deleted her profile and text number from all associated sites and devices.

I proceeded to the girl who resembles my ex but needs plastic surgery; who, though also on the internet, was a subway ride away. The problem was, unlike the Dutch girl, the girl who needed plastic surgery waited a week each time she responded.

“I’m not having an affair with a turtle,” I told my psychiatrist.

“No, reptilian love is not what it’s cracked up to be,” he laughed. This must be psychiatric humor.

I said nothing.

“Didn’t you suspect that someone who kept switching continents might not exist?” he asked.
I nodded.

“Good night.” I went for the door.

“Why are you leaving?” he said. “You have ten more minutes.”

“Do you think that ten minutes will transform me?”

I grinned and signed my check.

“Here ya go,” I gave it to him, “I’ll text if anything comes up.”

“Are you sure?” he prodded me. “What about that woman Cindy who wrote you?”

“She puts makeup on cadavers.”

“And?”

“She prefers the dead.”

“Oh,” he murmured from his seat, the place where he deliberated my life, which frequently came from the internet.


Eleanor Levine’s writing has appeared in more than 60 publications, including Fiction, Evergreen Review, Litro, The Toronto Quarterly, Literateur, The Denver Quarterly, SRPR, Wigleaf, The Breakwater Review, Bull (Men’s Fiction), The Forward, and decomP; forthcoming work in Switchback, Artemis, and Willard & Maple. Levine’s poetry collection, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, was published by Unsolicited Press.

Something Like a Life Force

A couple of Fang’s fingertips are all bloody and he’s waving them around saying, “Put your mouth where your money is, put it here, right here!” and we’re telling him he’s not making sense, but none of us really care about his logic because he’s chasing us around the room with those two fingers pointed at us like fat daggers. There are maroon streaks all over the walls and all I can think is Mom’s gonna kill herself if she sees it. Krista is screaming like a trapped rabbit, but no amount of screaming can save her from getting her face painted tonight. Before long Fang’s on her, and she tumbles down, putting her hands up to shield her face. Fang’s laughing, laughing, gasping for air he’s laughing so hard because Krista’s got red lines all over her cheeks and orange blotches in her blonde hair.

“Open up for a taste?” Fang says, but before he can force Krista’s mouth open, Waddle’s on him, tackling him to the yellow carpet.

Waddle shoves something into Fang’s face and says, “Here, here, your meds,” and then I see the little stick of chalk pass like a joint from Waddle’s hand to Fang’s.

Fang says, “You know me,” and then looks at me with a grin as wide as a banana and says, “He went to Jared!” before he backs away, cradling the chalk as carefully as he might an egg.

“You did it,” I say to Waddle and the left side of his face pinches into a satisfied wink.

Krista climbs to her knees and says, “Not soon enough,” and Waddle and I laugh.

I blink away my high, red sparklers creeping into the periphery of my vision, and see out the front window to the three vehicles in the driveway: My rusty Cavalier, Fang’s Corolla, and Waddle’s S-10, where he and Krista slept last night, burrowing into one another in the truck bed. I imagine driving down the dirt road toward the water, accelerating through the Dead End sign, and crashing into the lake. I sink to the bottom and Krista regrets what could have been between us.

Fang’s in the corner of the living room chomping on the chalk and sucking blood off his fingers.

“Sicko,” Krista says, but she’s smiling too and my God I want her so bad. There’s just something about the blood all over her, the disheveled look of her hair all splayed out this way and that, the half-insane smile — lips pursed so tightly they appear bloodless and eyes round as coins — that she shares publicly once in a while, and all I wanna be is the tongue that scrapes her teeth out.

I turn from the window, cross my left leg beneath me on the couch, and stare at her. I want her to know but don’t want to tell her. I just drill my eyes into her eyes and when she looks at me I think, Let me fall into you, half hoping she’ll read my mind.

Waddle helps her to her feet and she brushes off her thighs as if she’s just climbed out of a ditch. Waddle says, “You’re okay,” and she smiles up at him in a not-so-half-insane way this time, like the way you’d look at your new house if someone just built one for no reason except to make you happy.

Fang’s in the corner in all his glory, and I’m on the other side of the room pretending I like being alone. I say, “You gave him too much,” hoping to throw a wrench in Waddle’s game because I really don’t want Waddle and Krista to kiss. I’m not sure I can handle it tonight, not anymore, not since a few nights ago when Waddle asked me if he should tell Krista he loves her and something like a life force ejected out of me and twisted up into the clouds forever. I’d told him to do whatever he wanted and he just sat there with his arms wrapped around his knees nodding his head and looking up at the stars as though he’d seen that chunk of me fly away.

“Too much chalk?” says Waddle.

“Too much powder.”

“Powder,” he says and glances at Fang and shrugs. “No more than yesterday.” He looks back at me and cocks an eyebrow. “You were there. You saw. You helped.”

But Waddle is clearly mistaken because that’s what this weird powder does to you. I mean it fucks with your head and gives you these memories that aren’t even real and floods you with so much confusion you feel like you might drown in it.

I’m off somewhere that feels like a warm spring afternoon and buds are splitting open at the tips of all these branches, until Krista’s voice breaks off the atmosphere and floats down to me. “Hey, listen to me, hey, hey. What’s happening to him? Hey, Fang?”

I say, “What is it?” but I really wanna tell her Fuck Fang, I can’t live without you.

Waddle’s eyes go wide and he points. “His fingers! Jesus, his fingers, what!”

Fang must’ve finished the chalk because it’s gone but there’s a pool of blood the size of his head with two fingers sitting atop it like a couple hot dogs in ketchup. Fang’s unconscious and his mouth is open in a way that says he’s sleeping soundly.

A jolt of fear makes me levitate for a second and I say, “Did he bite them off? How much did we give him?”

“No more than I took. Or you.”

“What about me?” Krista says.

Waddle starts investigating and before long he says, “It doesn’t look like he chewed them off. Probably just fell off.”

“Somehow,” I say.

Krista sinks down to a seated position and leans against the far wall as if she’s trying to push her way through a portal. Looking at her makes me remember going to that Tampa beach with her last year. We were so happy and together we didn’t even know we were in love.

But the memory drips away like wet paint, and I say, “Wait, do you remember the ocean?” and Krista points her blue eyes at me and frowns in a way that makes me feel I’ve spent my whole life being wrong.

Waddle says, “This blood for sure won’t come out.”

“Mom’s gonna hate it.”

Waddle wrinkles his forehead and says, “Why do you still live with your mom?”

“Free rent? Food? Booze?”

“And powder,” Waddle whispers.

Krista says, “Wait, what ocean?” but I can’t answer because before my eyes Fang’s ear slides off his head and lands on the carpet gruesome side up.

“Get away from him!” I say and Waddle snaps his head over to see what I’m talking about and then backs away so quickly he tumbles over his own feet, and as he lands I hear a wet crack, and then Waddle yells out and reaches his right hand around to clutch his left elbow. Red rivulets stream off his arm, painting designs in the carpet that remind me of Jackson Pollock.

“I broke it,” he says and I can tell by the sound of his voice that his teeth are clenched. “Oh God, it’s bad.”

“It’s the powder,” I say. “It’s changing us.”

Krista says, “The bottle’s in the fridge. I hid it in the fridge.” She pulls her knees to her chest and wraps her arms around them. Tears sparkle in her eyes as she stares at Waddle.

I go to her, lean down to hug her, but she leans away from me. I remind her that we grew up together and that it’s okay, but she says, “I grew up in Indiana.” I almost tell her I did too, but then remember that we’re at my mom’s house on the shore of Lake Superior, and that yesterday we found an unlabeled brown beer bottle, its neck cracked near the corked mouth, floating in the swampy part that has cattails, and when we uncorked it there was a note inside and all this green powder that came spilling out like salt. The paper had browned edges and the ink was a little blotchy. The blotches were the bluest thing I’d ever seen, so blue that when Waddle read the note out loud I didn’t pay much attention. Now I remember broken English and something about “they found us,” “this is all the green we have left,” and “spread the news.” Waddle said the note was signed by someone named Vitali and that it was dated April, 1985, which was over seventeen years ago. Waddle also said the guy was stationed on the Slate Islands and I remember thinking No one lives out there.

I’m in a warm springy place again where the dirt is all tilled up around me and vegetable seeds are popping audibly. Then I feel Krista nudge me and she says, “You’re losing the time, you keep snapping off,” and her face is all tear-streaked and gorgeous and it takes all my resolve to keep from putting my hands on her.

She points and says, “Look,” and I do, and I’m filled with a warm, wet revulsion because the yellow carpet is spangled with enormous brown bloodstains, and Fang is just a heap of body parts now—a hand here, a toe there, his nose. There’s an eye and it’s as big as a golf ball and the copper iris is turned up towards the ceiling, and the optic nerve is trailing out like a bright red nightcrawler. There are ribs and flesh and nails and little pelts of hair and shiny bones and all this goo, goo so dark it reminds me of motor oil, and it takes a flash of comprehension to acknowledge that it’s blood, all of it, every last drop drained from Fang’s body. Off to the side, as if out of nowhere, it’s a tooth, a singular pointy tooth, off-white and still moist, with tiny pink flecks of grue on it.

Krista lets out a sound like a miserable hum and she clutches me suddenly. Waddle is unconscious, his mouth open in a perfect circle, and there are pieces of him sliding away, his fingernails all red and cracked and loose at the edges. The broken bone protrudes from his skin, slipping out of an area above his elbow. He is missing fingers, his ears are on the floor beside him, and there is an overripe rotten-fruit smell in the air. Something is burning my eyes and my mouth feels so dry, but Krista is holding me, she’s so warm, so soft, her head against my shoulder, shuddering, and I think, I wanted this so bad.

I’m on the beach out back and I’m dipping my toes in the lake and the air is like freshly baked bread and the water feels cold enough to change the world, and….

Krista is shaking me and saying something about being sorry for not taking any powder and lying about it, and am I listening, wake up, wake up, wake up! I sit forward and my head feels loose, I can feel my bones turning to oatmeal. The end is near but I’m still conscious. Thank you Krista thank you thank you thank you….

My shoes are on and I feel a little bean shaking around in my left one. I rip my shoe off and there’s blood all over my sock. I pull the sock off slowly, like pulling off dead skin, and Krista lets out a little cry that fills me with a despair so crippling I want to set fire to something. My pinky toe comes tumbling out of the sock. It rolls a few inches across the carpet like a marble.

I reach out to Krista, but she backs away, crawling backwards across the floor. I move towards her because I need her. Please don’t leave me alone please don’t. She bangs into the wall and turns her head and closes her eyes and lets out this shriek that might shatter a vase. Then I’m on her, grasping, trying to force my fingers to grip her shirt tighter, but they keep wobbling around like loose teeth. She manages to escape me and the fingers on my right hand scatter across the floor like flower petals. She loves me, she loves me not.

She stands over me sobbing. I want so badly to get to my feet, but I am on my back and wobbly as rubber. Bright sunshine creeps in at the corners of my vision. She is there and she is keeping me here.

She says, “Say something, Shithead, please talk,” and so I work my jaw muscles and even though it feels like my face is melting away like wax and my teeth are jiggling and making odd clicking sounds, I manage to say, “I can’t live without you. I can’t live without you.”

Krista kneels beside me. A tear slips away from her cheek, splashes onto my cheek, and I can feel the impact drilling a hole in my face. I feel very warm and happy. She is on her beach towel and the sun is sparkling off her skin and she’s smiling, smiling, and I can picture her eyes behind those sunglasses, she has such happy eyes, and then I hear her say, “Oh shit. Your mom’s home.”


Paul Anderson earned his MFA in 2015 from University of Arkansas-Monticello. His short story collection, Model Citizens, is available from Wordpool Press. His work has also appeared in Cardinal Sins, Temenos, Gravel, and Reader’s Digest, among others. He has the good fortune to teach at Central Michigan University where he hopes to instill a universal appreciation for the Oxford comma. Paul also entertains dreams of the word “chuckle” being eradicated from the English language.

The Day Mrs. Shotz Shut Down

Mrs. Shotz had been a ninth grade science teacher for thirty-one years, but she hadn’t been a very good one. She taught at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, and each morning at 5:40 AM, when she awoke to the waaaang of her alarm, she threw her feet over the side of the bed, sat upright, ran a hand through her hair, and sought out her slippers with her toes. Her husband, Norton, sat up on his side, and then the two of them cracked joints and stretched aching muscles before standing up to start their day. Mrs. Shotz had never wanted to teach science, because experiments and lectures bored her. What she liked were textbooks, especially ones with the paintings of birds and fish. She would lose herself for hours when studying the illustrations of mandibles, claws, bills, and wings. Her heroes had been men like the Ridgway brothers, John and Robert, who had spent their lives creating pencil and oil illustrations of every known bird species perched on the stems and leaves of exotic plants for the Smithsonian Institute. Vicki Burns, who did not become Mrs. Shotz until her junior year of college when she had married Norton, her biology professor’s graduate assistant, had wanted to be an artist. She had wanted to paint birds and fish and insects with every part as gloriously intact as the pictures she poured over in the publications of the Smithsonian.

But when a science teacher at Wilson went on maternity leave, Mrs. Schotz was hired to finish the semester of ninth grade biology. The semester turned into the remainder of the school year, and when the other teacher didn’t return the next fall, the principal had asked Mrs. Schotz to join them full-time. The next year arrived, then the next, and eventually Mrs. Shotz stopped drawing birds and flowers. She moved her drawing pads to the closet. The paints dried out, were tossed in the trash and never replaced. Years went by and one day Mrs. Shotz realized that a couple of the children in her classes were the offspring of others she had once taught. She could not remember when they had been in her class. Had it been biology? What year? One of them looked so much like her mother, Brenda Guffey, a girl with stringy brown hair and eyes too close together and who she had taught during the early nineties, that Mrs. Schotz was sure Brenda had returned to her class in some cosmic recycling, like something she’d seen on The Twilight Zone. It was in these moments that Mrs. Schotz would forget what she was saying. She would stand at the board, her powdered fingers clenching the chalk, and fall into a dark and quiet place inside her head. When she came to, she would reread the big block words she had written so that she could find her place and resume her long since memorized lecture about hydrostatic pressure or invasive species or mercury pollution in watersheds. Once she had been sure her heart had stopped altogether, for at least a few seconds, but it had happened early in the morning before any students had arrived. The effect had been oddly calming, as if she had been suspended in time and buoyed up in a kind of cloud. Sometimes, when her classes were particularly disruptive, or when she found herself forgetting the lesson, she tried to remember what it felt like, and she would smile a little to herself at the thought.

Disciplining the children had become a bore. If they paid attention, it was a bonus, if they didn’t, she was peculiarly untouched by their apathy, which was often matched by her own. After she’d been teaching fifteen years, a retiring history teacher had given her the Bad Hat, a horrifically stitched instrument of humiliation designed to make the wearer know the shame of bad behavior.

One October day she made Jack Crandall wear the Bad Hat because he kept making barking sounds while she was trying to explain meiosis. She had tried to ignore him, but whenever she said the word “gamete,” he barked like a Chihuahua. “Jack,” she said, pointing to the back of the room, “Go get The Hat.” Having to fetch The Hat made the punishment worse. Jack had to take it to Mrs. Shotz so that she could place it on his head. “Until recess,” she said, snapping her finger at the stool in front of the blackboard. There was no way for Jack not to look silly in the Bad Hat. It even said “Bad Hat” in childish, yellow felt letters across the front, and the crown was covered in a bouquet of natty, silk daisies with painted-on frowny faces that arched over the top and tilted toward everyone looking at you. Jack wore the Bad Hat for nearly an hour that day, and he hated her for it. Mrs. Shotz had made her first true enemy of the year.

Day after day, month after month, Mrs. Shotz dragged in each morning looking tired all the time. She came to school without combing her hair, wearing the same pants suit with food stains down the front, and the students began calling her Mrs. Spots.

When Jack flipped his half-dissected frog onto the floor and the girls screamed, everyone was sure it would mean the Bad Hat. Mrs. Shotz just sighed, pointed at the frog and said, “Pick it up.” She waddled back to her desk, sat down with an exhausted huff, and began eating one of the Little Debbie brownies she kept in the bottom drawer of her desk.

On a Tuesday afternoon in May, only days before school was out for summer, the class grew so loud, she laboriously pulled open a desk drawer, took out an octagon-shaped, hand-made sign, and held it up like a school crossing guard. Be Quiet, it said in red block letters. Everyone stared, waiting for something, but she just sat very still behind her desk with the sign in her hand until the class began tittering. Then their titters turned to laughter, and their laughter turned to shrieks. Mrs. Shotz sat quietly with the sign in her hand until the 3:00 o’clock bell rang and the students got up en mass to run for the door.

When the class met again, Mrs. Shotz placed large sheets of creamy white paper and sets of acrylic paints with two brushes, one thick and one thin, on each desk. On the board hung a full-color, poster-sized drawing of an iris blooming purple and majestic on the center of the paper. Large circles surrounded the center, each containing an enlarged, detailed drawing of a part of the flower: the blossom, the stamen, a leaf, and a cut-away of the stem. Every vein in the leaves, every curve of the petals, the gradation of the purple, everything was clearly and meticulously drawn. In the right hand corner it read Vickie Shotz ’78. The paper was yellowed and curling in the bottom corners as if it had recently been unfurled from a long dormancy.

“Today you will paint the flower parts. Pay special attention to the stamen, the pistol and the. . .” She pointed at the blossom and stared hard. “Paint the flower,” she murmured, and sat down at her desk.

Jack took the thick brush in hand and dipped it into his acrylic paint. Flicking his eyes up at Mrs. Shotz and then back down, he turned his vertical sheet of paper sideways and proceeded to paint a gun. Stretching the image all the way across the paper, he filled the sheet with a sloppily painted black pistol.

Heath, sitting behind him, caught sight of what Jack was painting and asked, laughing, “What is that?”

Jack dipped the thin brush in yellow paint and began lettering Colt 45 in gloppy letters along the barrel.

“Lookit Jack’s picture,” said Heath.

“She said to paint a pistol,” said Jack, and the students around him erupted in laughter. Several girls looked up at Mrs. Shotz, but she didn’t move. Her eyes didn’t blink. She was silent.

Whether it was the laughter that bolstered Jack’s confidence or his unimaginable luck that Mrs. Shotz was not stopping him, Jack reached for his thick brush once more. He never scored higher than a C in any class, so he figured he had little to lose and the esteem of his peers to gain. It was a win/win situation for Jack, a boy whose father would often fill the boy’s pants pockets with shoplifted goods, and if caught, would feign shock at his son’s crime and spank the tar out of Jack while cursing him for being such a bad kid.

Jack was going to paint a hand firing the gun. Fumbling with his brush in the yellow paint, he knocked the set onto the floor, spattering white and red paint on the ankles of Kimberly Gerard.

“Jack, you freaking moron!” said Kimberly, jumping from her seat with paintbrush in hand. “Look at what you did.” All eyes were on Jack and Kimberly. “You got paint all over my legs, you jerkwad!”

All the other students slapped their desks and laughed, then suddenly the noise died down. Everyone’s attention moved to Mrs. Shotz, who sat very still in her chair with her eyes focused on the floor six feet in front of her desk. A few nervous titters ensued, but no one said anything. The students turned to one another and whispered.

Jack was finally the one who spoke. “Mrs. Shotz?” She said nothing and remained still. “Mrs. Shotz?” he said louder. Still nothing, and the students began laughing again. His bravery grew, and he stood up from his desk. “Mrs. Shotz, is there something the matter?” Jack leaned forward and the front of his shirt dipped into the wet paint on his picture.

Kimberly shot out a finger and said, “You moron, you got paint all over yourself. Mrs. Shotz, Jack’s making a mess of everything.”

But Mrs. Shotz sat as still as a mannequin. The class turned to Jack, awaiting what would unfold next. For what seemed a long time the class held its breath, looked at Mrs. Shotz, then back at Jack, who rubbed his hands across his paint smeared t-shirt, uncertain what the moment called for. There was no adolescent precedent for such a scenario. Everyone waited for someone else to know where this was supposed to go, and Jack took the pressure of being the one to navigate this moment for them. He picked up the paint set from the floor, shifted it from one hand to the other, and then without knowing any real course of action, he put it back on his desk and bounded up to Mrs. Shotz.

“Mrs. Shotz?” he said, leaning close to her face. Everyone shuffled in their seats. “Are you sick?” He waved a hand in front of her eyes, but they did not move. She didn’t even blink. The class exploded into giggles and talk. He leaned even closer. “Hey. Heeeeeyyyy!” Jack looked back at the class with a pure and uncertain joy that left him terrified underneath his smile.

Heath ran up next to Jack, punched him in the side, and said, “Tell her to let us go early!”

“Hey,” said Jack, “can we all go home early?” Mrs. Shotz gave no response and the class began screaming with laughter. Jack looked at the class and turned to Mrs. Shotz again. “Hey, Mrs. Shotz, can I eat one of your brownies?”

Heath jumped in. “Yeah, can we all have a brownie?”

“Maybe you can change everybody’s grades,” said a voice from the back. “Get the grade book.”

“Yeah, give everybody an A!” someone else said.

“There’s something wrong with her,” said Kimberly. “She’s passed out or something.”

“She ain’t passed out. She’s wide awake. Ain’t that right, Mrs. Shits,” said Jack.

“She’s like, in a coma or something,” said Kimberly.

Realizing his moment was threatened, Jack sprinted to the back of the room, grabbed the Bad Hat, and ran back to Mrs. Shotz. The class gave a collective “Aahhhhh!” as he placed it on her head. With no reaction from Mrs. Shotz, he gingerly pulled at the edges, afraid to shake her into consciousness. In a few seconds it was securely attached atop her gray curls, and Heath fell to the floor in rapturous giggles. Several students jumped from their seats and took tentative steps towards the desk.

“You are going to get us all into so much trouble,” said Vivian, a thin girl with acne who sat in the row next to the window.

“Yeah, I think maybe she’s dead,” said Kimberly. This possibility brought gasps from a few students.

“Aw, she’s not dead,” said Jack. “You ever seen anybody dead who could sit up in a chair? See?” and he bravely put a hand on her shoulder, patting her. “Mrs. Shotz has just been bad. Haven’t you, Mrs. Shotz?”

“Oh my god,” said Wendy, the girl behind Vivian. “She’s going to kill you when she wakes up.”

“Do you think she’s asleep?” asked Vivian.

“I heard that some people can sleep with their eyes open,” said Wendy.

“Hey,” said Jack, looking around the room. He ran to a filing cabinet and rummaged around in it. The class leaned forward in their desks, speculating about what he would do next. Jack slammed the drawer shut, ran to the back of the room, and poked through the items on a shelf until he found what he wanted. Running back to Mrs. Shotz’s desk, he unfurled a moth eaten French flag, and draped it around her shoulders. Then Jack ran over to the closet to take out something that heretofore had been strictly off limits to every student at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School, Mrs. Shotz’s skeleton. Jack wheeled it next to Mrs. Shotz, lifted a bony hand and placed it on her flag covered shoulder. Several girls squealed with feigned appall at the creepy sight.

Kimberly headed for the door.

“Where are you going?” yelled Jack.

“I’m going to go get help,” she said, reaching for the knob.

Jack leapt from behind the desk and got between her and the door. “Everybody’s going to get into trouble if you go telling,” he said, and several voices yelled in consensus. Kimberly opened the door but Jack pushed it shut. The words came out rapid and high as he pointed back at Mrs. Shotz over Kimberly’s shoulder. “They’ll fire her! Do you want her to get fired? If you go blabbing and somebody sees that she freaked out like this she’ll get fired and it’ll be your fault!”

Kimberly’s mouth fell open and her frightened eyes took in the rest of the class that had gathered around them. “But, she’s not moving,” said Kimberly in a weak voice.

“Maybe she’s just playing a game with us,” said Jack. “And we’re not hurting her. It’s all just joking around. Why have you got to always go making trouble about everything? Every time we have any fun you jump in and try to tell on everybody and ruin everything.”

Jack was so close to her face she could feel his hot breath on her forehead, and all around her were angry faces and threatening words from classmates telling her to Shut the hell up, Quit screwing everything up, and Leave it alone, bitch. Pinching her eyes shut, the tears fell and Kimberly ran back to her seat on the far side of the room. She sat down, holding her arms tightly over her chest. The only other person still seated was Vivian who looked as stricken as she did.

Jack felt that warm trickle of excitement that came when he knew he was doing something dangerous, something the principal might threaten to call his parents over. His father would pretend to be upset in front of the principal and promise to “straighten him out good,” but as soon as they got out the door his dad would just tell him to knock it off and Jack would wait in the truck while his dad stopped at the store for cigarettes and Red Bull.

“Hey, I know,” said Jack, and all eyes were on him once again. He hopped across an empty row of desks and took a brush and paints from his desk. He bent down next to Mrs. Shotz, dipped the tip of his brush into his black paint, and proceeded to paint a Salvadore Dali mustache across her face. The class clamped their hands over their mouths and slapped at one another in hysterical laughter. He put a final flourish on the tips of the mustache, set his brush down, and pulled open the bottom drawer. Three Little Debbie brownies lay next to a juice box. Jack grabbed a brownie and ripped off the plastic. He held it in front of her face and said, “You want a snack, Mrs. Shotz? Mmmm, this brownie sure does look good. Maybe I’d better taste it for you.” He took a bite and put it back in her face. “Now you try. Come on, have a bite, Mrs. Shotz.  You know you’re hungry.” He touched the brownie to her lips. A slight movement of her mouth sent the class scurrying back to their seats. Jack jumped, looking uncertain, until he recovered and pushed it at her one more time to show she hadn’t scared him. Then he quickly put the whole thing in his mouth and chewed the dry bread.

The skeleton’s hand slipped from her shoulder and rattled against its femur. The sound brought another round of squeals and giggles.

“Hey man, it’s almost three o’clock,” said Heath. “What are we going to do?”

“What do you mean, what are we going to do?” said Jack. “Let’s take her clothes off.” The class tittered, some groaned, and then all was silent. A cold sensation settled into Jack’s stomach. He had said the wrong thing. There was no amusement in it. He felt the same burning strangeness of being outside the circle that he had felt on the day Mrs. Shotz had first made him wear the Bad Hat, and his power ebbed, leaving him bitter and jittery. “I was just kidding,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me to see old Mrs. Shits naked.”

“We can’t just leave her here,” said Kimberly. She sat biting her lip with her arms still folded tightly.

Jack could see the mood of the class was turning uncertain.

“It’s time to go,” said Heath. “We’d better get out of here before. . .” He shrugged and pointed at Mrs. Shotz.

Jack picked up the skeleton hand once more and returned it to her shoulder. He looked down at Mrs. Shotz with angry eyes as he pushed the Bad Hat further down on her head. She wobbled, but she did not come back to life. Her hands lay limply on her lap, and he noticed for the first time that she wore a wedding band on her left hand, a small silver band tight on her plump ring finger. It had never occurred to Jack until that moment that Mrs. Shotz might have someone that she went home to everyday. For a second Jack wanted to reach into her lap and touch the ring lightly, but he did not. He stood up and cast his eyes over the entire class. “Nobody can tell, alright? Everybody keep your mouths shut. If anybody tells, we’re all in trouble because everybody was in on it. Got that?” A few heads turned to Kimberly and Vivian who were grabbing their books from under their desks. “You heard me!” he said.

Mrs. Shotz sat, her face pasty white with the black mustache obscenely flowing from one cheek to the other. Her empty eyes still focused on the floor, and the Bad Hat sat absurdly low on her head, forcing a tendril of dull gray hair over one eye. Her lips were parted slightly as if she were about to say something very tenderly. Yet she was still, silent, and absent.

The bell shocked the moment away, and the class scrambled for the door, everyone speaking in hushed voices and looking back at Mrs. Shotz to see if the spell would be broken, if the moment would truly end this way. Jack was left standing alone beside Mrs. Shotz. He grinned at her and walked toward the door, but then the grin fell away and he felt something small and knotted inside that made him want to run back and shake her, but he didn’t dare. His breath caught in his throat as he looked at Mrs. Shotz and around the empty room one last time. Then he slipped out the door backwards and pulled it shut behind him.


Cathy Adams’ second novel, A Body’s Just as Dead is scheduled for release from SFK Press in early 2018. Her debut novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. She is a Pushcart Prize nominated short story writer, and her stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture Journal, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, Southern Pacific Review, and thirty-six other publications from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.

Strays

 

Tonight, I fly down the middle lane of the 5, no Albertson’s trucks or SUVs forcing me to apply the brake. I turn the sharp corner past Dodger Stadium, where the freeway divides, and drive past Commerce Citadel Outlets, an Assyrian-inspired mecca mall. It makes me anxious, the building’s art deco pillars projecting so far above the car dealerships flanking the freeway.

It’s 10 PM, and Beth has just gotten off her shift at the ER. I arrive at her apartment complex and park in a small carport that’s always near empty. I have to be careful of the cats. They slide their skinny bodies into every spare space. When I leave Beth’s later in the night, I’ll have to idle a bit before reversing, give them time to flee from under the engine, the tops of my tires. They’ll let loose desperate pleas when I walk by, but if I get close, give them an encouraging call, they disappear into the night.

Over in Pico Rivera by the riverbed, it’s all dogs. They run up and down the river’s length, keeping a fair distance from residents. Beth and I are sometimes the only joggers they encounter along a particularly forsaken stretch of the San Gabriel. She still works out despite the late night shifts, and on the days I come over and there’s a shred of sun, we’re jogging – always three miles out and three miles back. We’ve run together for years, since we were roommates in college. We pass the dogs, and I worry that my running might incite a predatory instinct within them, but they just stare at us.

I grew up among coyotes and learned to watch for them slinking across my neighborhood streets around sundown. It’s the strays I find so much more unsettling – how they move with purpose, independent and only recently savage.

I like having friends who aren’t in the entertainment industry. Although most aren’t in the industry, but clinging just outside its periphery. I let myself fade into the background at some of these parties. I’m small, like Beth, and I don’t have her presence. At even the most intimate gatherings, I can’t recognize half the people there. Strangers ask what I do, and I say, “I’m a writer,” and the response is always, “What do you write?” I say “fiction,” and it usually ends there.

Last weekend was a barbeque in the shared backyard of a Hollywood bungalow, all concrete and yellowed grass. I met an actress who asked me what I write and quickly followed with a tale of her two suicide attempts. Pills, both times.

Beth told me pills never worked. When she went on runs as an EMT, a pill popper was a low-enough call in urgency for an ambulance to avoid sirens, maybe even stop for a quick snack at the nearest Taco Bell if they were coming off a long shift. She told me you would have to take the pills slowly, not all at once, and even then, the body fights against it the whole time.

I unlatch Beth’s screen door. She stands in the kitchen, clutching a can of Raid and a broom. She hasn’t changed out of her scrubs, and the dull blue swallows her frame.

“There’s a nest of black widows downstairs in the laundry room,” she informs me.

I wasn’t planning on doing my laundry there, so I shrug.

“We have to kill them,” she says. “There are little kids in the complex who play down there. Who knows how long it will be for the landlord to take care of it?”

“We could put up a warning sign,” I suggest.

I don’t like spiders. Apart from when they pose a definitive threat, hanging over my bed, scampering across my flesh, I try to pretend they aren’t there. But I realize their presence in her laundry room must seem like just another challenge to Beth, like a patient with his skull cracked open or a leg twisted the wrong way, dangling in place by only skin. She’s ready to plunge in.

“It won’t take long,” she says. “You don’t have to come with me.”

Beth is always reminding people that she doesn’t need their help. She’s the type who’d rather scale a grocery aisle row than ask someone taller to pull a can of soup off a shelf for her.

I begin to relent under her resolve. It’s true I don’t want a little child to die. A black widow’s bite could likely put down a three-year-old. Or at least one of the stray cats.

I take a can of Raid, promising to spray every arachnid I spot until they meet a watery, burning death. We head outside, past three spotted cats, and down the stairs into the darkness of her laundry cellar.

They cluster in a damp corner near one of the washers, plump black mounds woven into a cocoon of silken menace. They can see us, I am sure. They lie in wait, suspended in time, and I prepare myself for the frantic race that I know is in store.

Beth swings the broom back like a batter stepping up to the plate and turns to me. “You ready?”

I’m not, but I nod.

She kills with a clinical precision, the same concentration she no doubt uses when saving human lives. I flatten against the opposite wall and can only watch.

I think about that actress, lying on cool tile in a tiny bathroom somewhere in Hollywood, regretting what she’s done already, waiting for the ambulance to find her. A drop of taco juice spilling off an EMT’s hand onto her wrist as he listens for her weakening pulse.


Laura Picklesimer is an MFA graduate from Cal State Long Beach. Her work has been featured in Riprap, the Pomona Valley Review, Watermark Journal and the California Current Writers Series. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches English and creative writing.

Human Traffic

When Rupah arrives in London, she is overtaken with gloom. Foreign land again, strange faces, tall people she should appease, an unfamiliar tempo, cold air penetrating her clothes, raindrops running down her thin jacket, a depressing gray light, and the English language that sounds so alien. Only yesterday she was standing in her garden in Sri Lanka, her husband watching her from the entrance to the house, her children hugging her and laughing at the heavy warm rain, her sari soaking it up, dimming its colors and turning it into a thin transparent piece of cloth. But now she takes the tube from Heathrow Airport into London, collapsing into a vacant seat. The exhaustion of a long flight does not obscure her aversion to the cold light, the distressing screeching the train is making, and the stuffy air in the crowded car.

As she knocks on the door at Pembridge Place and hears Mr. Allen’s steps slowly approaching the door, a lump grows in her throat. She puts the suitcase down, unfastens a button of her jacket, removes her gloves, adjusts her scarf, actions done one after the other out of habit, intended to ease distress. Another visit in Sri Lanka is over, another journey home and back again to a foreign land, and now a new count must begin, of days, nights, hours, and minutes until the next trip home. When Mr. Allen opens the door, Rupah wipes her tears and smiles at him. “I was expecting you,” he says kindly, and she follows him into the entrance hall.

She pulls the suitcase up the stairs and into her room. Everything has been left unchanged: the colorful bed cover she bought on her last visit to Sri Lanka, the Indian cushions she found in a shop in London, a table made of heavy dark wood facing the window, a huge closet, two large plants on the windowsill, and on a small chest is her altar to home: a colorful embroidered cloth, at its heart stands a statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, his hands placed on his knees, and his smile illuminated.  Colorful candles surround him, and two vases, now empty, stand behind him. Rupah opens her suitcase and begins to arrange her clothes in the closet, only the long skirt and purple sweater she was wearing for the flight are tossed into the laundry basket. When she is done, she lies on the bed and closes her eyes. The vibrant colors of Sri Lanka gradually fade. The smell of grass after the rain, the tall trees surrounding the village shedding heavy water drops that fall and crash on the water-soaked soil, the yellow-gray sky, the soft clouds, the boisterous laughter of her children, her husband looking at her from the entrance to the house, they all dissolve and lose their vitality and disintegrate in the gloomy room with its heavy furniture and oppressive silence. As she looks at Buddha’s face she thinks his smile is sad, and before she falls asleep she whispers to herself: May everyone be happy, may everyone be free from misery.

In the morning she gets up late, unlike her usual self, from a deep and dreamless sleep. When she wakes up she isn’t sure where she is, but the darkness outside reminds her that she is in Europe. She gets out of bed, washes and gets dressed, combs her long black hair and then gathers it up. It’s too late, she gives up morning meditation and goes down to make breakfast. To her surprise, Mr. Allen is already in the kitchen. “Well, dear, how was your visit home?” he asks. She looks at him and says nothing. He looks a bit unkempt, she thinks. Rupah assists Mr. Allen to take a bath. Every other day she goes to the bathroom with him, he takes off his clothes and sits on a chair in the bathtub. It’s hard for a man his age to stand for so long. She helps him soap and wash his body. The physical intimacy imposed on them causes them to speak in a somewhat alienated manner, in a very practical tone. Every morning he tells her what products she should buy, the medication she should get from the pharmacy, books that should be returned to the library. Rupah listens carefully, sometimes writing it down so as not to forget, giving in to the simple mundane spirit which turns them into partners, two people keeping a regular schedule, which brings tranquility to both of them.

Twelve years ago Rupah left Sri Lanka. Premala was five years old, Sahil five months old. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and now England, she travels by herself, from house to house, from one old person to another. New languages, different streets, both repulsive and tasty food, but old age is one: a withering body, bursting anger, forgetfulness, stench. The first time she travelled was the easiest; she thought she would be back in a couple of months. Kumar came home furious. He had been fired again. He was angry at his boss, fuming how arrogant and vain he was, blaming him for his failure, while Rupah thought that perhaps if he hadn’t been two hours late for work, he wouldn’t have been sacked. Whenever he started a new job, she dreaded the moment he would come back home, bitter and resentful, arguing that he had been wronged, suggesting there were hidden motives, never admitting that the fault was his. When she tried to soothe him and served him food, he tossed it on the floor. There is no other way, she thought, she must find a job abroad. He would never manage to provide for them, and Premala would soon be six years old. Only those who go to private school have a chance for a better life.

At the airport, she held Sahil on her lap. The baby clung to her, sticking his tiny fingernails into her body, leaning his curly head on her neck. When the time came to say goodbye, he wouldn’t let go.  Rupah pulled him away from her body, seeing his tiny mouth wide open and hearing his sobs but saying nothing, she handed him over to her mother, turned around and left without saying goodbye. A couple of months, that’s all, she said to herself on the walkway to the airplane, wiping her tears, straightening her skirt, checking that her handbag was closed, gathering her hair into a ponytail.

The toothless Cypriot woman Rupah cared for had a low, husky voice, she giggled for no reason, and called Rupah “honey.” She had old worn out dresses and a colorful head scarf. In her broken English she inquired why she left her family, and when Rupah told her that her husband was fired she chuckled in a voice resembling a crow’s caw and said, “Ah, good-for-nothing! Shame, a beautiful woman like you, couldn’t you find someone better?” Rupah liked her direct talk, with no pretense. She referred to her late husband as “the useless bum,” and to her only son as “the womanizer.” Time and again she warned Rupah that her husband was trying to get rid of her, maybe he wants to find another woman, probably younger, and begged her to return home.

Every weekend she went to the phone booth next to the post office and called home. Familiar voices emerged from the receiver: her mother came to cook for the children, Premala started private school and said grandma bought her a new backpack, Sahil said “mama, mama.” After five months abroad she asked to talk to Kumar and inquired if he had found a job. The gush of complaints that came from the phone lifted her at once to the small village at the foot of the round hills. “I was sacked, the boss is a liar,” he complained, and Rupah stood there and listened, and for a moment she was glad she was away from the village.

A month later, half a year after she had left, she called early in the morning. Kumar answered the phone, surprised to hear her. Silence fell when she said she was planning to return home. Two girls holding hands passed by the phone booth; a car was blowing its horn in the crowded morning street; pigeons landed on the bench nearby. “They all go,” Kumar’s voice was heard. “What? Who is going where?” she wondered, and he said “All the women.” Perhaps Rupah’s silence made him more talkative: all the women of the village – mothers of small children – left to go abroad, to work outside Sri Lanka. Chand’s wife, Harish’s wife, Mohan’s daughter, they all went away. Only elderly ladies and young girls were left here, he said, and she thought she heard a chuckle. Her spirit traveled from one house to another, from family to family, and she had to admit there was much truth in his claim: the mothers left, leaving the children behind, flying off to remote countries to provide for their families.

Rupah returned to the old woman’s house, ignoring her husky voice that came from the kitchen, and walked straight to her room. She took off the pink blouse and put on a white shirt and sat on the carpet facing the low cabinet, the altar she made for herself with the statue of Buddha. She could feel the pulse in her temples, a headache spreading gradually, becoming an obscure pain in an unfamiliar part of her body. The die is cast, she thought desperately; there is no way back. She had been sentenced to wandering; she would have to live away from her children for years. Premela, Sahil, there is no knowing when she would ever see them again. Her long black hair spread out on her shaking back. She lowered her head and cried bitterly, torn by yearning for her children. Buddha watched her, smiling as always, a breeze made the candle’s flames flicker, a pleasant scent of the purple flowers behind him wafted over the room, and she murmured in tears, “may I be guard for those who need protection; a guide to those on the path.”

In Greece, she cared for an elderly man, tall and heavy, with huge hands, who had a large family. A strange character, a mixture of vulgarity and outstanding generosity. His daughters, who lived nearby, came to see that she was looking after their father properly, each one giving different instructions. One said he should take the medication in the morning, the other said at noon. One prepared food for him, the other throwing it away and making her own dish. At first, Rupah tried to make peace between them, but after a while she let them have their way. Every time one would complain she pointed a finger at her sister. Nikos, now almost ninety years old, used to try and touch her breasts, and when he succeeded, he giggled, as if the attempts of this pretty woman to avoid him were funny. But every couple of weeks, he would draw a pile of fifty dollar bills from under his bed and hand them to her, out of sight of his vigilant daughters.

Asking her about her family and listening to her explanations, how she provides for the family, giving her children a better future, her husband is at home but doesn’t care for the children properly, he inquired: “Do you have friends here?” She was taken by surprise. Yes, of course she knew a couple of foreign workers, women from Sri Lanka and India who worked in the neighborhood. They used to exchange information: where is the best Indian food store, how can you find a doctor, what is the best time to go to the post office. Rupah never saw them as friends but as sort of sisters, sharing a similar destiny. When she remained silent, he said, “You live here, and that’s it. You make sure you have a good life.”

She was overwhelmed. She felt her life was devoted to a single purpose, aimed at nothing but providing for the family. She never thought about whether she was happy, only if what she did benefited her children. The life of wandering was justified only because they went hand in hand with devotion and sacrifice; this prevented further suffering. But suddenly Nikos’s words seem so reasonable, consistent with an irrefutable wisdom. In an instant, unconsciously, passionate fervor was awakened, an urge for happiness and pleasure she thought had been lost forever.

On Sunday, her day off, she got up in the morning and sat facing the mirror. She combed her shiny black her, put on burgundy lipstick, and circled her eyes with eyeliner she had brought from Sri Lanka. She then put on a white dress, becoming to her round figure, drew out of the closet the embroidered purse her mother had bought her, and left the room. When Nikos saw her, she thought she saw a touch of admiration in his eyes. He smiled at her, waved his hand and returned to his room.

She walked in the narrow streets of northern Athens, between dilapidated houses and people sleeping on the sidewalk, looking for an address a friend from Sri Lanka had given her. After about half an hour she found the building, covered with graffiti. Already as she climbed the filthy stairs, careful not to step on broken glass, avoiding a broken step, she heard the chanting. But as the door opened bright light enveloped her, a glimmer of glittering candles, and in front of her was Buddha, illuminated and affectionate. The room was crowded, men and women sat barefoot on the floor, chanting prayers. She took off her shoes, sat with the worshippers and joined the singing. Smiling faces around her, the familiar smell of incense, the long table abundant with food, the colorful fabric covering the walls, Rupah gave in to the joy that filled the room, the smiles and laughter, the pleasant odors, asking people where they came from and telling them about her village. And so, inadvertently, a spirit of home materialized in this room with its small shrine, a captivating warm coziness, breaking another miniature blood vessel that attached Rupah to her family and accelerating her path to liberation. And only as the dancing was finishing and food was gone did she go down the shaky stairs – she suddenly thought of Premala and Sahil. She halted. Panic took over her. She gripped the banister and closed her eyes, shattered by her own contentment, which seemed so treacherous.  She thought she would never see her children again. Leaning her head against the stairs, she whispered may all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illness.

Signora Bosco lived in a town in northern Italy, in a house with a porch facing a view of the valley. Always wearing black, she walked slowly, leaning on a walking stick, smiling at Rupah as she spoke to her in Italian. After every couple of words her face grew grave, she said Gésu Cristo and crossed herself. Every now and then she would use the very few English words she knew, “food,” “bathroom,” “drink,” and then she would go back to Italian. Rupah’s room faced the view, through the window she could see a wide valley and beyond it the surrounding hills. The abundance of greenery, the bright paths, the grazing cows meandering through the meadows, Rupah felt she had been here before. Only the thin sharp light, so different from the yellow-gray sky in Sri Lanka, reminded her she was in a foreign land. There is something transparent about the sky here, she thought. Strange, in Sri Lanka it is heavier.

Every Sunday Rupah went with Signora Bosco to church. Early in the morning Rupah helped her dress up, gently combed her gray hair back and tied it with a black clip, and they walked together to church. The road was slightly uneven, once in a while Rupah had to hold her to stop her from falling, bypassing puddles or stones on the narrow path. Though the church was rather close, they had to walk for more than half an hour. At first, upon entering the church, she was alarmed. The dusty air, light coming from a narrow window in the ceiling, creating a ray piercing the darkness, the intimidating pictures on the walls, the priest walking around with such a grave expression, the statue of Jesus tormented on the Cross, she nearly ran out, leaving the Signora by herself. Also, her silence on the way back was oppressive. She normally chatted constantly, talking to Rupah and ignoring the fact that she did not speak Italian. But on the way back from church she was always mute and introspective. She seemed immersed in contemplation, and now and then her countenance would change. Anger, sigh, sadness, a dismissive hand gesture, Rupah found it strange that the visit to the church made her sad, silenced her chatter and generated an unpleasant inner conversation. It’s a shame she can’t come with me to the temple in Milan, she thought. The simple natural chanting, sitting on the floor with the crowd, knee touching knee, the vibrant colors all around, red, orange, yellow, the flickering candles around Buddha, and the pleasant smell of incense – they would have made the Signora’s prayer pleasant and uninterrupted, without the misery Rupah couldn’t comprehend.

Rupah bought a laptop computer. A friend she met at the temple in Milan managed to buy one for her at a special price. At first all, those keys confused her, but in two weeks she could manage it well. She had heard people talking about Skype, and she wished to call her family in Sri Lanka. She sat facing the laptop, dressed neatly, her hair coiffured and her face made up, waiting impatiently to see her children. An ascending and descending tone, blue color spreading on the screen, stripes moving in circles, and suddenly she could see Premala shouting joyfully, “Come, come quickly, mommy’s here!” Immediately Sahil appeared, and as he saw his mom he started kissing the screen without hesitation and yelling “Mommy, come home, come home, when are you coming?” Her mother stood facing the camera, smiling and waving, as if she saw her daughter sailing away on a ship. Though they only laughed, blew kisses in the air and said almost nothing, when the conversation was over she remained seated almost an hour, facing the laptop. Her children smiling but missing her, her home, the familiar light coming through the window, her mother so thrilled to see her. They were all revived in her spirit, one after the other, bringing her distant home closer, but undermining the comfortable daily routine of the last years. In an instant, broken blood vessels were healed; torn when she left her family, they bled and almost died after years of living by herself.

The Skype conversation became part of her daily routine. Rupah sat facing the laptop, now wearing loungewear, her hair disheveled. At one o’clock, as the Signora took her siesta, Rupah spoke with Premala, Sahil, and her mother. At first, small mundane details filled her with joy: Premala’s school mates, her success at school, she showed Rupah her notebooks. The teacher said she was the best student in her class, and grandma bought her a new dress. She turned around facing the camera, and Rupah laughed and complimented her: a pretty girl with a beautiful dress. Sahil practiced bouncing a ball in front of the computer: ten kicks without missing once. He then tried to impress his mom and jump when the ball was in the air, but fell on the floor, and his mother’s pleasant laughter came from the computer: “Be careful, Sahil, so you don’t get hurt.”

There were also quarrels. Premala wished to tell mom a secret, Sahil wouldn’t leave the room. He pushed Premala, “I want to talk to mommy now,” she pushed him back, and he burst into tears. Her mother came from the kitchen, trying to separate the two. Rupah tried to make peace, but they couldn’t hear her. Finally, she turned off the computer. By tomorrow her mother will make peace between the children, and soon the Signora will wake up, and she needs to help her get out of bed.

The Signora’s son was courting Rupah. A slightly shabby widower, when his children left home he came to live with his aging mother. A man about sixty years old, his hair dyed black and saturated with hair oil. A heavy smoker, his shirt was slightly stained, and he spoke broken English. His small dark eyes moved anxiously from side to side, examining everyone in haste. From the very moment Rupah arrived at the Signora’s home, he smiled at her, offered help time and again, and also inquired: “Doesn’t your husband care you are here alone? Aren’t you lonely? Would you like to have dinner with me? How do you spend your day off?” Rupah smiled bashfully. This attention could have been pleasurable if she hadn’t felt men cannot be trusted. Her mother made her marry Kumar. She was in love with a boy in high school, but her devoted mother thought she had to find someone who would provide for her daughter. For months she paid visits to almost every family in the village, examining young men, wondering who would best suit her daughter. Even though Rupah cried when the date for the wedding had been set, her mother was determined, smiling to herself with confidence that the craze of youth would surely be replaced by a peaceful, comfortable life.

But at the airport, before Rupah left for Cyprus, the mother stood pale and upset, as if she had been found guilty of a crime but someone else was about to be punished for it. Her hand touched her daughter’s arm, perhaps caressing it perhaps grabbing it. And when Rupah forcibly detached Sahil from her body her mother held him tightly, and tears covered her face. From that day, she had almost never spoken to Kumar. Without asking for permission she moved in with them, cooking and cleaning, caring for the children. During the day Kumar sat in the back yard, in the evening he watched TV. His life amounted to hours of staring at the sky, the ceiling, the TV. Her mother got used to the lifestyle of her son-in-law. Only sometimes, late at night, when his friends came to play cards, putting money on the table, she sat on her bed, leaning her head against the wall and closing her eyes, pondering time and again why she had insisted her daughter marry this lazy man. All are nothing but flower in a flowing universe, she said to herself, but still, this bitter drop, biting and excruciating, wouldn’t evaporate.

Six times Rupah visited Sri Lanka. Every two years she traveled to visit home. Her preparation lasted months, she bought presents for her children, her mother, her cousins and their children, and also collected packages for relatives of friends. Yet she always returned in despair. From the moment she was picked up at the airport, in spite of the joy and excitement, the future separation from her children materialized in her mind. Every moment held a seed of departure.

She spent six weeks in the village. First she went home, hugging Premala and Sahil and crying. She then embraced her mother, and finally kissed Kumar on the cheek. She didn’t pretend there was any intimacy between them, and everyone accepted it naturally, without question.  Kumar had changed over the years. The somewhat elegant clothing he used to wear, slacks made of a shiny brown fabric and tight checked shirts, were replaced by visible shabbiness, as if he wished to display the fact that no one is taking care of him. His eyes, once merry, were now empty, and his hair turned gray.  When Rupah stood next to him, she could see his hands were shaking. Even when everyone was at home, he sat in the back yard and smoked, sometimes closing his eyes, sometimes gazing at the tall trees.

Rupah accompanied the children to school, prepared food, played with Sahil, shared Premala’s secrets. A dispossessed mother, for a couple of weeks pretending she was raising her children. Premala showed her where the spices are now, Sahil explained how they rearranged the storeroom, and she smiled at them, embarrassed at being a stranger in her own home. The children ate the food she made, but it was clear they were used to their grandmother’s dishes. When she picked up Sahil from school the teacher asked that the “grandma should call her,” he needs some help with math. Even her mother asked Premala to help her with cooking. Surrounded by joy, warmth, love, yet her foreignness was clear. A woman who, while visiting home, experienced a life that could have been hers. And as she was about to bid farewell, she was horror-struck since she couldn’t escape the notion that in spite of the enormous pain of leaving her family, there was also a slight relief. A stranger both abroad and at home, she closed her eyes facing Buddha and said nothing.

Mr. Allen walks slowly from his bed to the kitchen. His back slightly bent, he leans on his walking stick. Still, there is much dignity about him. The white hair looks like an aura encircling his head, the big brown eyes spritely in spite of the heavy eyelids, the body moving with effort to preserve vitality in spite of old age. Rupah prepares breakfast. She serves porridge and a cup of tea, and sits next to him to have breakfast. “Well, Rupah, you still haven’t told me how the visit to Sri Lanka was,” he says, a small smile spreading over his face, but the eyes are serious. He looks at her intently, awaiting a response. Rupah looks down at her plate, puts more jam on her bread and adds two teaspoons of sugar to her tea.  The sour steam of boiling Sri Lankan tea fills the kitchen. Mr. Allen is waiting, and Rupah sees she needs to reply. “I hope this will be my last visit there,” she says, and immediately sips the scalding tea.

Mr. Allen says nothing. Rupah is also silent, sipping tea and eating bread and jam. Finally, he clears his throat and says, “Do you want to return to Sri Lanka?” “No,” she replies, “I want to bring my children over here and never return there.” Mr. Allen seems shocked, but his furrowed brow indicates that he is not entirely taken by surprise. He makes a small ahem, a sort of short snort, as if he had revealed an unknown truth, but it makes so much sense that it’s no wonder. He eats some porridge, wipes his mouth with a napkin, and asks, “It won’t be easy, you know. Why now?” Rupah nibbles on her bread. She gets up, picks up the plates and places them in the sink, and as she turns toward him, she says, ‘’It’s a distorted life, wrong both for me and for my children. It leads to no joy, tranquility or liberty. A mother should be with her children. I give them money, but not a better future.”

Mr. Allen puts down his cup and looks at her. What a shame that she’s wearing cheap jeans and a shabby sweater, his thinks. When she had the long skirt and the Indian fabric blouse she was so beautiful, the vibrant colors flatter her dark skin and shiny black hair. “It won’t be easy to bring them here, you know,” he says, knowing that Rupah is already thinking how to proceed. “Wouldn’t it be hard for them to fit in here?”

When Rupah turns, he sees her face is full of tears. “Leave everything on the table. I will be back in a minute,” she says. As she climbs up to her room the stairs look blurred and the room obscure. She walks towards the altar, lights the candles and bows three times to the statue of Buddha. Rain is pelting down outside, the sky is dark and somber, but she sees nothing but the glare enveloping Buddha’s face. Light is kindled within her, legions of stars are illuminated, ancient moons move in a predetermined path, she closes her eyes and chants, “May I be well, happy, and peaceful; may my teacher be well, happy and peaceful; may my parents be well, happy and peaceful; may my relatives be well, happy and peaceful; may my friends be well, happy and peaceful; may the indifferent persons be well, happy and peaceful; may all meditators be well, happy and peaceful; may all beings be well, happy and peaceful.”


Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an academic in the Humanities, an author and blogger. After publishing three academic books on cultural interpretation of Nazism (Mephisto in the Third Reich, De Gruyter 2014; Nazi Devil, Magnes Press 2010; The Devil, the Saints and the Church, Peter Lang 2004) she turned to writing fiction. Five Selves, a collection of five novellas, was published by Holland House Books in the UK.

Riding Shotgun

Ralph knew that it wouldn’t last, but he liked how her hair hung blonde to her waist, the bones of her face, all the curves of her. They came together in spouts, at the end of the day, after long talks on the phone about prom and graduation, and all those things that were passing and they never even knew it, and the only logical thing to do was share their bodies, in sunlight, in the heat of their room, the little old fan whirling, the kick of denim at their ankles. Then came a baby, a manifestation of all that, the sex of that little boy on the screen; they were able to trace out his baby profile, trace it out with their fingers, naïve frantic fingers with cheap white gold they had bought from a pawn shop. No one could have told Ralph that it was a shotgun wedding. He loved the bones of her face.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror.

Ralph was back there again, back in that same place where he started, where he knocked his girl up, only that old bed was gone. His mother had replaced it with a futon to save space, and now, now he was taking that space once again, that space de-sexed, the hope to make it the same again hung in the air. He had argued with his wife the day before. His bones and all his flesh ached, his eyeball sockets even felt the weight of her, the legality of wife weighed the pain of it. He had kissed his infant son on his chubby brown cheek, said bye in a sputter, watched him off in the night, then cursed the one who bore him. And as Ralph got ready to go out that first night back, he took that promise, that new promise of sex and dressed up in it, shaving his jet-black stubble in the mirror, he noticed that his mother was watching him from the hallway. She smiled faintly, sweetly called him baby, she said Baby I’m so glad you’re back here with me, even if it’s just for a little while.

Henry was a good neighbor. That was one thing I had been sure of. Henry had come to us in a flicker. We must have been living in this apartment complex for months, going in and out of our little apartment. Mom walking me to school in the hot morning sunshine, in her tight jeans and tank top and her beat-up huarache sandals, and her hair sprayed liked some spider web. I asked her to let me walk to third grade alone, but she refused, said I was her teddy bear, and she would fall apart if something happened to me. She said I was still small enough to pick up and throw in a trunk, so we walked in the sunshine together. Henry came first in flickers. We would see him climbing out of his little white car, or unlocking his mailbox, or pulling sheets from his laundry room. There was always a smile, a how’s it going, how’s it going, a sort of singsong that would only last a few footsteps. Henry has a pretty wife who goes to work taking care of old people. She goes at all different times of day, in a scrub top and pants, in Easter egg and cartoon colors. I used to watch her swish to her car, watch her glide, her kind smile. The lines around her eyes held her hellos in them.

Ralph planned to meet his wife at the beat-up burger spot on Clinton and West, and when he walked in, he saw his little boy there, sitting on the tabletop, chubby brown hand tugging on his mother’s hair and another pulling on a blue straw in a strawberry soda. The little boy looked at him, and he smiled and laughed at him until his girl looked up at him with large brown empty eyes and he remembered she wasn’t his girl anymore. She asked him if he got the papers and he said, yes they had come to him only a few days before, with a knock on the door, a young white man in khaki pants and a polo shirt, that big manila envelope was still sitting on his mother’s kitchen table. He could smell the perfume on her, powdery and sweet, but then it stung when he saw the red half moon on her neck. He wanted to think that it was something else, that red half moon hickey on her neck. His son, dark eyes large, tugged hard on his jacket and then let go.

The first time Ralph gave us a ride, it was chilly out. The wind was whipping us, whipping through my mom’s hair and jacket. It burned, and I thought my mom would fly away. Henry pulled up in his little white car and asked us if we wanted a ride, and I jumped in the front seat without even asking her if it was ok, and she jumped in the back, and it felt good. The heater was on, and the car was clean, and Henry smelled clean as soap, but still smelled like cigarettes. His smell matched my mom’s smell. Clean and smoke at the same time. Except his skin wasn’t white like hers, it was brown like mine, but more like sun-beat leather. He drove us to school, and I jumped out without even saying thank you, my mom yelling bye baby, and I didn’t look back until I was far off, and then I looked back to wave at her, saw her tiny little body, black jacket and jeans, saw her wave at me and climb in the front seat of Henry’s car.

Ralph used to think that his mother was a china doll. He used to think so because of her curly black hair and the way she used to line her eyes dark and because her face was so pale. He used to put his chubby brown arm next to hers and compare the skin of them, and she would smile and laugh and kiss his cheek; she would smile and laugh and look him close in the eyes and smile and blink. And now she wanted to talk with him about the cute girl he had met at the club. She fixed him coffee and breakfast, and they sat in front of the television; the sun up and bright in the window, she laughed, the rasp of her voice, the clang of her coffee cup, all of it hung there in the walls of that little living room. Another knock on the door, another young white man with an envelope, this time asking Ralph to sign his boy away, and he felt his mother’s voice fall off those walls and shatter.

The day we went to buy a Christmas tree, Henry wasn’t home, so we couldn’t get a ride. We picked out a really small tree, and mom paid extra so that the kid at the tree lot could spray it with some frosty glitter spray to look like snow. He gave me a handful of itty-bitty candy canes, and I stuffed them in my pocket. We walked down Clinton Avenue, with the cars roaring by, my mom shook and pulled her hood over her head, walking backward down Clinton, we carried the tree, her hair flying in the wind, a china doll in her black hooded sweatshirt. She flipped off some guy who drove by and stuck his tongue out at her, and I laughed so hard I peed my pants. When we got home, I made a bath, so I could soak, and I lay there in the strawberry shampoo soap, and I traced the lines of our old bathtub, and wondered how long those lines had been there, felt the warmth on my face. I floated. I wrapped a towel around myself and had to open the door because I couldn’t take the steam of my tub, but their steam was a chemical, colorless like water. My mom yelled at me to go to my room. Their steam was heavy and sweet. Sweet chemicals. I lay naked on my bed and pulled my sheets over me. I heard Henry’s laugh tangle up with my mom’s laugh, their highs and lows, they came together, dragged across the hallway. I got up and got dressed in a white t-shirt and sweatpants, went to the living room, switched on the stereo, and started dressing the tree. It was all chemicals. It smelled clean, and it glistened like snow.

Ralph met a cute girl at the nightclub named Nikki. She told him right off that she was taking classes at the community college. She wanted to be a nurse, and he even helped her study with flash cards and helped her color pictures of muscle and bone. He liked the way she laughed. The first night they slept together, he took her to the burger spot on Clinton and West and then he took her home. Her name was Nikki. He asked her not to laugh at his futon, but she did anyway. The futon squeaked with the weight of her body, that metal skeleton, the bones of it taking her into it. Ralph crushed against that girl, her laugh; her kiss crushed against him, and as he lay tangled, done, all he could think of was that red half moon and the tug of his little boy’s hand on his jacket. As he made his way out to take Nikki home, he found his mother in the living room, laying half up, half down on the couch, Cleopatra-style. He introduced Nikki, and she looked up the girl, rolled her eyes, and then began to flip channels.

It made my stomach go when my mom and Henry went in the room. It took hours; it took infinity. I didn’t know why it was so quiet. I would even creep down the hallway as far as I would dare and then step back. I would go outside, sit on the white wall, wait for Henry’s wife to drive up in her cartoon colors, wait for my mom to come out and beg me to come back inside, out of the cold. It cut my face, my ears, my hands, the fade in my hair, the black gravel of the beat-up driveway, the patches of sky. I wanted to taste the sky.

Ralph saw his wife when he happened to be with Nikki. He saw her in another guy’s car, her arm propped up in the window, her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she didn’t even see him with his new girl. He watched them drive off, and Nikki grabbed his hand, and he saw her eyes. He saw her dark hair, the dimple in her face, her eyes large and knowing. She smelled like petals, pink petals and he felt himself crush against her. Nikki smiled at him, and he pulled away and let the car glide.

My mother was a fisted flower. My mother bled; she cried down the hallway, curled on the carpet in a tiny crescent; she bled. I grabbed all the towels I could find and held them between her legs, her tiny legs thin and pale; she shivered; her curly black hair strawberry clean and tangled, clumped in her tiny brown bud mouth, my mom, she bled. One day, she told me what that was, a tiny seed, an almost was. But then, I only felt the warm red on my hands, it seeped through, smelled salty, felt warm.

It was the sunshine. Henry’s car hummed old school, I watched her from my mirror, spelled my name R-A-L-P-H in the bit of window that crept up, a tiny triangle of glass, the trees cut by like blades, cool sunshine, and my mom smiled sweetly, faintly, my china doll in the mirror. At the hospital, they let me stay as late as I could. When my mom woke up, she held her gown in a tight fist so that her white skin would not spill out. She called me to her and held me close. I had eaten everything on her yellow hospital tray. The chocolate, the graham crackers the little juices, the little milks. I realized that I had left nothing for her to eat, and I hunched over her tiny white shoulder blade, and I began to weep.

The day before Ralph got married, Henry knocked on the door and asked him for a jump on his car. Ralph put on his slippers and made his way out, the screen door bumping behind him, found Henry over his little white car; brown skin beat against metal, quick brown hands on clamps, the engine woke up and came alive. Ralph shook Henry’s hand and got two cigarettes, one for him and another for his mother, went inside and lay with his girl on his mother’s polka-dotted couch. He laid his head on her lap, wrapping her dyed yellow strands of hair around his fingers while she flipped channels, the stereo blaring, his mother walking in and out of the apartment with boxes and garbage bags, in tiny shorts and a tank top, her tiny pale frame humming, singing, and then Ralph felt his boy kick from inside his girl, that rounded out part of her; his boy kicked him on his head. His girl laughed clear as a bell, and Ralph laughed, and the TV screen glowed, and his mother was going in and out of the tiny dark.

My mom is chemicals. She twirls around, and smokes that rock, she smokes that shit. My mom puts on the old school station, and she twirls in the mirror, and she listens to “Candy Man” by the Mary Jane Girls, and she lights the tip of her cigarette, and she still smells like smoke and soap. My mom and Henry were like twins, but only for a little while. I still watch his wife and wonder. Once in a while. Watch her swish to her car, while I sit on the wall, with the cold blowing from my mouth, sometimes she smiles and sometimes she doesn’t. Henry always says what’s up to me, though. The other day, we smoked against the wall. He laughed at me and said that my voice was changing. It’s good that my mom got that car, so now we can go anywhere we want to. She’s teaching me to drive, even though I’m only twelve and can’t get a license. Made me sit on last year’s phone book and cussed out every person on the road that gave us a dirty look. But most of the time she drives, and I watch her tiny white hands on the wheel, watch her tiny feet pump the pedal, watch her huarache, the chipped pink polish on her toes, she smiles at me when we get to the light. I smile back with the green light, and she lets the car glide.

Ralph had asked Nikki to meet up at the courthouse, and now he was trying to count out the time it took his ex-wife to get to her car, count out her tiny steps, her blonde hair pulled back severe. They had only caught eyes a few times, her lawyer a small woman too, a small brown woman in a navy blue skirt set. Ralph sat outside the courthouse, sipping the soda he bought from a truck, people walked by like tiny insects; he felt the soda buzz in his throat; he could not figure out why he bought that soda; the outside air chilled him, and his hands played with the aluminum. His fingers crushed that soda can, the same fingers that signed away his only child. His only child he signed away, in black ink, in curvy script, those same fingers he opposed, those same fingers had betrayed him, they crushed that can like a wad of wax. Soon, he thought, soon it would be so cold that you could not see.

He watched the people walking by, lawyers and county workers, vendors selling things from bicycles and cardboard boxes, and that air cut him, and he began to remember the time he stood outside his apartment shivering, waiting for his mother and Henry to drive up, so they could go to Christmas Tree Lane. That night they went, they rolled down all the windows, car after car humming down Van Ness, all those lights on big fancy houses, old houses, those houses glowed with the light, the greens the blues the reds. Ralph would not go unless he could sit up front, the three of them laughed in the cold black night, and Ralph felt he could claw out those lights and put them in his room, hang them in the ceiling sky. Ralph could feel Nikki walk up and he felt himself shiver, like when his mother said that night, let’s go, when he heard Henry’s car come up the driveway, felt its engine humming, she said Let’s go, let’s go, she said, she said, let’s go.

 


Monique Quintana holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno, where she was the president of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association. She is a Squaw Valley Writers Fellow, and was the Senior Associate Fiction Editor of The Normal School literary magazine. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Huizache, Bordersenses, Mount Island Review, Lunch Ticket, Ragazine, Madcap Review, and Heather Press, among others. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of razorhousemagazine.com.

Face

The woman I love comes back from the war with part of her face blown off and a surgery scheduled for Tuesday. I get drunk in a hotel room down the street from where she’ll be medevaced tomorrow, then type the words face and reconstructive and IED into the Google search bar. I vomit nine mini bottles worth of whiskey after the first image loads.

The doctors are elaborately poised. They are unfazed by my wife’s injuries, almost eager in their enthusiasm to build her a custom-made face from her own spare parts. It’s a godsend, one doctor says, that she lost the parts she did and kept the hardest ones to surgically recreate like the nose, eyelids and tongue. I nod fervently, tamp down my desire to reach out and yank those dirty words right out of his throat. I learn quickly that there are degrees of awful when it comes to having shrapnel pilot its way through the softest parts of the body. She’s lucky not to need a whole new face inherited from a whole new person. The doctors nowadays are demigods with robot parts and they are saving everyone. Peel off and suture on, pleat and tuck until the mask makes for a convincing fit. If my wife were here, awake and not in desperate need of leftover parts, she’d be fascinated. We’d be fascinated together.

This is all good, one surgeon says. Yeah, good, I say and the word tastes like broken vows in the full of my mouth. The most impressive medical advancements of the decade and they are born of incinerated bone and evaporated flesh, an angry nation, and the public’s incessant fascination with the catastrophic effects of the IED. This war has turned out medical titans, true pioneers, trailblazers of reconstructive surgery and all it cost was one soldier’s face and then a hundred more. Our son is fifteen and today I decide he will not grow up to do his mother’s job.

Yesterday, in a German hospital, a chemical wash was used to scrape my wife’s face and prepare it for surgery. The likely audio of the event bats itself around my skull, presses in on the cavities behind my eyeballs and pulses with my every breath. I want to hurt someone: the U.S. Military, jihadi extremists, the punks who underappreciate my wife’s job, the political thugs who keep sending her places, the very woman I love who feels a sense of duty I was not built to understand. I’m carrying a photo of her in my pocket but no one asks to see it. There is an enthusiasm that is radiating off the doctors and it is settling around me. I shrug it off but consider it a necessary trait for successful navigation of the inside hollow of my wife’s face. I ask if they need anything from me. I mean my mouth or my eyes, my skin or rapidly beating heart, but they think I mean my consent to which they enthusiastically nod and lead me to a room with HR.

They put my wife under anesthesia for the helicopter transport, and so it’s best if she goes right into surgery. I haven’t seen her for eleven months, and yet I feel a zealous relief over skipping the part where I have to look into the black crushing hole of her face and be grateful more wasn’t taken.

During the surgery, I sit in my rental car and cry far away from the measured eyes of the commanding officer that escorted her stateside.

Afterwards, the gauze and the bandages cradle her face like a tire swing. The new parts of her are bright red and tight like a sunburn or the innermost cut of a beef steak. She’s got slabs of her thigh and calf nestled and hydrated along the planes of her face. Her fibula has been sawed, sanded and perfectly fit to the missing space where her jaw once was. She is the grown-up edition of the erector set, the almost bionic woman, yet still a vet whose face will be kept out of the spotlight and off posters.

Obviously this is a better version than the one right before. Even with the swelling, she looks like a person. She’s still under the anesthetic, but one of her surgeons tells me she did well. I tell him how much she hates to be given credit for things she didn’t do. He suggests instead we give her credit for her brave acts before and with that I can hardly disagree. The doctor walks over to her, closer than I’ve gotten, and peers at the wires holding her jaw shut. He’s already onto the part where she is one day able to speak normally and eat normally and breathe normally, and I’m still on the part where a hazy dust in a desert I’ve never been to is now full of the parts of her I like best.

I still haven’t told our kids.

When he leaves and it’s finally just the two of us, I stare. She looks different. Underneath the hinges and newly sewn on parts, there is an unfamiliarity to the structure of her features. I knew she might lose things in the war. Here we are nearly at the end of it, so I’ve read up on the modern military family and gotten familiar with the side-effects of a spouse returning alive, returning dead, with arms and without. The decade-long PSA on PTSD, the introduction of the prosthetic that allows a soldier to remain on duty, the constant news coverage that keeps even the most removed viewer informed, and not once did I think to prepare myself or my children for the return of a woman who looks remarkably different than the one we sent away.

When she wakes up, we stare at each other. The space between us is wide and deep until she hits the morphine drip and is swept away into whatever dreamland the lionhearted belong.

I am not inclined towards brave acts. I feel no obligation to save all the children instead of just mine. My version of benevolence applies mostly to those within an arm’s reach. I’m ill-suited for martyrdom, and if at the end of my life my kids and wife are the only ones to consider me brave, I’ll have won the big prize.

I fly home a day early and prepare the kids for a mother they sometimes forget. My youngest suggests we take down all the pictures so Mom doesn’t feel like some other mother was here before. Her homecoming is rich with unintentional slights, everyone’s sensitivities high and active. She makes a

cyborg joke but her speech comes out a forced, awful hiss through her wired-shut jaw. I watch my daughter’s face as she realizes things will be exactly as hard as I promised.

At home, my wife starts a regimen geared towards fixing, stabilizing and reintroducing her to a world not filled with improvised explosive devises. More surgeries are scheduled for later dates and I wonder if each one will take her further from the original prototype. I watch her watch herself. She pries with uncertain fingers, traces the foreign dips and planes that don’t match up to memory. For weeks I get phone calls from people I hardly remember. One is confused, thinks she made it out of Afghanistan fine but then got shot in the face or bombed on the interstate. I tell him we still have thousands of troops deployed. He tsks like he doesn’t believe it, and I shout all the things I’ve not been saying into the recess of the dial tone. The mantles are empty and the walls are full of rectangular 8x10s where the paint has not been sun-bleached. The home feels barren and unforgiving; my son has amassed all the removed pictures and is hoarding them underneath his bed.

I think of her face, the one that she’s missing, even though I know I’m not supposed to. So many soldiers return without whole body parts, big chunks of them that cannot be drilled in, glued back, licked and stuck together. I chose to stay home. I chose not to suit up and gun up and protect everything I love. I sent my wife to do it instead, and everyone called us progressive even though their faces said otherwise.

Occasionally, going to and from the bathroom in the dead of night, we pass each other. The light from the hall will catch the slope of her cheek, the angle of her chin, and the difference is just enough to startle me. I’m being intruded upon by an intruder. She is unrecognizable and I think maybe they gave me someone else to take home. Maybe beneath the hints of her, the buried contortions that remind me of her is some long marred, mournful stranger.

Underneath the cool sheets of our bed, she lets me touch her, just barely. With shaky hands I discover the curve of her hip is exactly as I remember it. I interlay the image of the stranger face and the familiar hip so they are right on top of one another. If I wait and am patient, eventually they are bound to fuse.


Jacqueline Smith is a recipient of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Scholarship. Previously her work has appeared in The Writing Disorder and Hypertrophic Literary.

Double You

I decided to make a list of everything I knew about the Jonathans.

 

The one in the cubicle to my left had glasses and a comb-over. The one in the house across the street was a bit younger, with smaller glasses and darker hair.

 

At least, that’s what I thought at first.

 

I was at home one afternoon, a Saturday, reading the newspaper. The Jonathan from work rang my doorbell. I was surprised when I saw who it was. In all these years, it was the first time we had seen each other without our neckties.

 

“Why are you here?” I said. Or I wanted to say. I could remember no pressing engagement.

 

Still, we had to work in close proximity. I didn’t want to make him angry or uncomfortable. So I said, “Why are you here?” in a more welcoming tone than I might have otherwise.

 

“Would you like me to mow your lawn?” he asked. A lawnmower was already at the bottom of my front steps, ready to go. Under the comb-over, he was sweating. “I was in the neighborhood.”

 

I walked just over the threshold and looked down the street in either direction. I’m not sure what I was looking for. A getaway car, perhaps?

 

To imagine where I was, draw two vertical, parallel lines on a piece of paper. The line on the right, the eastern line, should be blue, because it is the river. Use colored pencils if you have them available.

 

Further west is the line on the left, the road. The road leads from the center of this tiny town, where our office is situated, and runs directly north—parallel, as I stated earlier, to the river. (You may wish to draw a star or other marker at the bottom of the road, denoting the city center.)

 

Up to the north, about an inch above the city center and perpendicular to the main road, start drawing several lines, all parallel to each other. Think of a comb, laid on its side, with the teeth heading west. These are the numbered streets.

 

You should start at the bottom with 1st Street and proceed all the way up to 15th. I myself live at 1525 11th Street North. There are similarly numbered streets below the town that make up its southern end. (If you would like to indicate my house on the 11th Street that is north of town, please do so at this time.)

 

We should get back to this work Jonathan, though, the one who was standing on my porch. He lived somewhere south of the city; I was sure of it. He had the rumpled clothes and sad demeanor of someone who belonged on the bottom of a map.

 

“You want to mow my lawn?” I asked. This was not the most bizarre exchange we’d ever had, so I was less incredulous than you might expect.

 

“I thought you might have been sick,” he said. “I mean . . .” He stepped back and gestured at the neighbors’ lawns, lingering for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time with his arm in the direction of the across-the-street Jonathan.

 

Young Jonathan of the dark hair and small glasses just happened to be kneeling outside. If you knew him, you’d know that this was not an unlikely coincidence.

 

He had a trowel and a pair of hedge-clippers nearby, but at this particular moment, he was painstakingly rearranging the formation of his decorative stones using the fingertips of his gardening gloves.

 

Unlike my lawn, which had unruly patches of crabgrass, his lawn was a healthy, luxurious green, newly shorn and shining in the sunlight. I often woke, on Saturday mornings, to the sound of his mower.

 

“If it would make you happy,” I said to the work Jonathan, and went back inside the house. This was how I responded to many of his work requests as well, so he was not unused to my calm and agreeable demeanor.

 

“Obsessed with lawns,” I wrote on my list. I had drawn two columns, the one on the left for the first Jonathan (work Jonathan) and the one on the right for the newer version, who had moved in across the street only one year earlier. I added this comment on both sides of the vertical line separating these two columns.

 

You may have drawn your map of the town on a loose sheet of paper, and that is not a problem. You may continue to work using this method.

 

However, if you decide to make your own copy of my list about the Jonathans, etc., then it may be simpler to collect all of your materials in one place. If you don’t already have one, you might want to consider investing in a good notebook for this purpose.

 

So I added the comment about the lawns to my list, and I went back to the newspaper. As you can imagine, it was difficult to concentrate with the noise of the mower in the background. I finally had to get up and go into the back room to avoid the one Jonathan sweating back and forth past my picture window and the other arranging stones as though his life depended on it.

 

At work on Monday, the cubicle Jonathan came to speak to me. He didn’t mention the weekend. Had I finished my paperwork: that is what he wanted to talk about now.

 

Up close, as he was speaking, I couldn’t help noticing that his teeth protruded a bit from his upper lip, and it was difficult for him to close his mouth all the way. Is there a name for that? I felt certain that a dentist would have a strong, scientific-sounding term for it.

 

(In your notebook, perhaps you should make a list of words. Add “maxillary prognathism” as a starting point for your research.)

It was strange, though, about his teeth. I had never noticed this before.

 

When I got home, Jonathan (neighbor Jonathan) was dragging his trash bin out to the curb. The trash would not be collected for another 12.5 hours by my calculations, but darned if that man wasn’t on top of things.

 

“Howdy!” he said. (Howdy?) “Would you like me to bring out your trash?”

 

Now, I am not as young and virile as I once was. But I am somewhere between the two Jonathans in age, and I’ve kept reasonably fit, if I do say so myself. The bin is on wheels, for goodness’ sake!

 

“I thought there might be something wrong,” he added, seeming to understand that he might have committed a faux pas. “You know, since you stopped mowing your lawn.”

 

The lawn again!

 

I itched to write something down, but I’d already written “obsessed with lawns” in my notebook. That had seemed thorough enough at the time. Now it was just begging for an asterisk or two.

 

Something about this neighbor Jonathan seemed familiar. It was the teeth again. Things balanced out better on his face, but there was a faint similarity.

 

The more I looked around, the more everything seemed out of place.

 

“Whose car is that in your driveway?” I asked suspiciously.

 

Jonathan took a long time turning around and looking. He shrugged. “I have a new roommate.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

He seemed surprised by this. “Well, nice seeing you,” he said.

 

I watched him walk back to his yard. He paused over the flower beds, tucking stray leaves and petals back in order. When he went inside, the yard looked so perfect it might have been made out of plastic.

 

~

 

29 June. 8:03 a.m.

Leaving my house when I saw W.J. leaving the neighbor’s house across the street. (Is it possible that his hair is growing in a little bit? Can balding be reversed?)

 

Work Jonathan: Well, fancy meeting you here! (Awkward laugh.)

Me: Why would I be meeting you?

Jonathan: Wait, no. I didn’t . . . I just meant that we’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other now that I moved in with Jonathan.

Me: What?

Jonathan: We met when I was mowing your lawn.

Me: My lawn?

Jonathan: Maybe we should start carpooling.

 

~

 

All the way to work I replayed this scene in my mind.

 

The Jonathan from work met the gardening Jonathan and struck up a friendship, and now we are all neighbors. This explanation struck me as odd.

 

I sat in the parking lot until I saw the work Jonathan go inside the building. We were both early, so I could afford a few minutes to let him get settled and immersed in his paperwork. When I was sure enough time had elapsed, I could duck inside.

Oblivious as ever, Jonathan seemed unaware that I was avoiding him. Just before lunch, he popped his head into my cubicle.

 

“Would you like a sandwich from the deli? My treat.” He was smiling and I could see those teeth again.

 

Had he had them first, or the other Jonathan? I could no longer remember. They seemed to be morphing into the same person.

 

One of them wanted to buy me a sandwich. One of them wanted to take out his trash far too early. When I got home, they were both standing in the driveway across the street. They stood next to each other, watching as I got out of my car.

 

Hadn’t one of them been taller before? The work one had definitely slimmed down in some way. His little pot belly was almost gone. They both had the same glasses and a faint five-o’clock shadow. It had gotten to a point where I was having trouble telling them apart.

 

I had stopped at the store on the way home, and they penned me in as I was pulling a heavy bag out of the car.

 

They were bantering back and forth, and one said lightly, “You’re the only person who’s ever said that to me.” Their voices had even changed, both deeper and with a more pronounced Minnesota accent.

 

The one that I thought was work Jonathan didn’t have his sad look anymore. I decided to make a note of that when I got inside.

 

“Do you need any help?” the neighbor asked.

 

“I like to do things myself,” I said.

 

As if he hadn’t heard, he said, “We should have you over this weekend.”

 

“That’s a great idea,” his sidekick chimed in.

 

They both looked at me owlishly, their big eyes unblinking behind their glasses.

 

One of them was wearing a necktie that matched my own. “You’re practically a Jonathan,” he said, pointing, and the other one laughed.

 

Startled, I said, “I’m not a Jonathan!”

 

The laughing one sobered up right away. “Of course not,” he amended. He tipped his head to one side, considering. “It’s so strange, though,” he said. “You’ve always reminded me of someone I know.”

 

The other Jonathan nodded. They both studied me as though I were some kind of unusual botanical specimen.

 

“Well, I should get inside,” I said.

 

I shouldered past them and unlocked the front door of my house. I could hear their chitchat behind me, growing fainter as they walked back across the street.

 

When I was safely inside, I set down my bags and locked the door. I peeked through the curtains in my living room. They were still outside, just a couple of nondescript middle-aged men with dark hair and glasses, pulling on their gardening gloves and getting to work.

 

______________________________________________

Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens. Her fourth chapbook is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Chagrin River Review, Fiction Southeast, Toad, 100 Word Story, and Gnarled Oak, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in a limited edition anthology on myth and magic from Sugared Water and Porkbelly Press. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.

Té de Canela (SPRING 2016 FICTION CONTEST WINNER)

Angela studied her tía Lupe’s brown eyes, noticing how the thin lines around them eased outwards like sun rays. The wrinkles above her forehead, which yesterday cracked and dried her withering skin, now soften and brighten her face. And even though her tía’s eyes drowned in tears when she spoke to her comadres, their light enthralled Angela.

 

She had watched her aunt hold court in the dining room most Sundays since she had moved in to live with her and had often wondered why the women gathered there. Angela had always considered the women chismosas and her tía’s house the epicenter of the East L.A’s gossip.

 

But this was the first time Angela had been allowed to sit-in on one of her tía’s sessions and she was beginning to understand the pull her tía had on the women from the neighborhood. Angela had watched them gather there for years, had glimpsed at the gathering group through the window when she played in the front yard with her prima. And then when her mother left her under her tia Lupe’s guardianship, her curiosity for them grew.

 

Angela watched as her tía took the seat at the head of the table, basking in the women’s watchful gaze. Loss suited her, Angela thought.

#

The women were at the table now, her tía’s grand cherry-wood vitrina a backdrop. Inside its wood-frame and glass doors were pieces of the family’s history on display: photographs of baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, church weddings, and a framed obituary. There were leather-bound Bibles that had been acquired over time for various reasons; there were also candles and small statues of saints and other Catholic figurines. On its own shelf was a battery-powered Virgen de Guadalupe with its blinking red, green, and white lights around the virgin’s veil. The lights blinked to the room’s placid tempo, “la calma después de la tormenta,” her tía would have said if she had been herself. The small dining room was darker than usual, perhaps dimmed for the occasion.

 

Angela was perched at the table waiting to hear the end of her tía’s story. But every time a woman arrived and joined them at table, her tía would pause to pour the woman a cup of cinnamon tea. In spite of her grief, her tía was a good host, making each of the women feel noticed, even though the evening was about her.

 

“How old was the girl?” a woman with short puffed-up hair asked.

 

“Gaby? She was 25,” said Lupe.

 

“My age,” Angela said, surprising herself. She wasn’t sure what had prompted her to speak, probably her impatience. She looked down at her cup and noticed flecks of cinnamon sticks floating in the maroon-tinged water. She didn’t know the women very well, in spite of knowing them for several years; their hair had thinned, their waists were larger, but the way they looked at her tía had never changed.

 

“She was so young. Pobresita,” said the woman with the red puffed-up hair.

 

Angela’s tía nodded and finally resumed her story. “There was a brown casket at the center of the room, except it was bright and shimmered like gold. And then I noticed that there were people in the room, some standing near the casket, crying, others talking. A woman dressed in white approached me and told me that the casket was for my son.”

 

Her tía paused.

 

The women gasped and one of them said, “Dios mío,” and crossed herself. The others crossed themselves, too, except Angela and her tía.

 

The women remained silent. The sound of boiling water from the kitchen made its way into the dining room, and because the aroma of cinnamon had permeated the small house they hadn’t noticed that the tea was ready. The sound of laughter of the women’s children playing in the backyard became distinct. Angela wondered if the women were pulled out of the moment. She wondered if their children’s laughter caused them to think about their husbands and about the dinner they had left for them on the stove, and how at the end of the night they would return home, tuck their children in bed, tidy-up their home before going to sleep. She wondered if the women would lay in bed that night and think about her tía.

 

On the window, Angela noticed the blinking of the virgin’s small lights, a reflection. Its steady rhythm kept time, and caused her to feel time inching forward.

 

“I couldn’t see her face,” Lupe said. “I asked her: ‘how do you know that?’” Her eyes and nostrils widening with anger. “She had no answer for me, but I knew with certainty that she was telling me the truth.”

 

“When did you have this dream?” the woman who had arrived last asked, as she leaned backwards to adjust the blanket wrapped around the sleeping baby in her arms; her nieto.

“Mid-September, I think,” Lupe said for the third time that evening.

 

“It was a sign, a warning,” said the woman who had arrived last, her nieto still asleep.

 

“I was afraid for my son. And I tried to tell my husband about it, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my dream. He fears those dreams,” tía Lupe said.

 

Angela wanted to roll her eyes at the women. She didn’t believe in their superstitions or care much for their conclusions about her tía’s dream. If her tía had had such a dream, it was because the family had known for some time that Gaby was sick and that death was her shadow. But Angela couldn’t tell the women this because she didn’t want to be excluded.

 

None of the women understood what Gaby had gone through or knew about the chemo trips or the dreaded doctor visits. Angela had been there, had kept Gaby’s secret. It enraged Angela to hear the women refer to her friend as pobresita. There was nothing poor or pitiful about Gaby.

 

“I think the tea’s ready,” Lupe said, beginning to rise from the chair.

 

“I’ll bring it, tía,” Angela said. Her tía thanked her with a smile and asked her to bring more sugar.

 

Angela pushed her seat away from the table, as far as it would go. She had squeezed into the corner seat, the vitrina behind her and a wall on her left. The women had scooted Angela toward the corner seat when they took their usual places at the table. Two women sat on her right, the one with the puffed-up hair and her tía Lupe’s cousin. They rose to let Angela out, their movements were slow, but their presence thunderous. Standing near them, as she passed them, Angela suddenly felt small and out of place.

 

She walked into the kitchen toward the stove. Angela opened a cupboard and noticed on the highest shelf two clear zip-lock bags filled with cinnamon sticks. The bags were crammed-in next to the dried chiles and hojas de maíz. She took a jar with raw sugar from the first shelf and placed it on the azulejo countertop. Angela realized that her tía had been preparing a lot of cinnamon tea those days.

 

A few months prior, her tía had heard Doctora Isabela on the radio discussing the health benefits of eating calf liver. Her tía tuned in religiously. Some time after that, her tía had convinced Angela to drive her to the nearest Whole Foods, which was an hour north of East L.A., so that she could buy organic calf liver. And now Angela wondered if Doctora Isabela had played a role on the sudden appearance of cinnamon in her tía’s kitchen.

 

After closing the cupboard, Angela walked over to the stove, where the brooding tea kettle sat on a dark stove-grill-top, and she turned off the stove’s only blaze. She picked up the kettle by its handle with her right hand and reached over for the jar of sugar with her left, and walked toward the room where the women sat. She caught strands of fleeting words as she approached the kitchen door. The words were familiar: corrupción, violencia, and presidente Peña Nieto, but as she pushed the door open, the women’s voices hushed. She didn’t understand why every time they talked about México it was a big secret.

 

Angela tensed and feigned a smile. She placed the tea kettle and glass jar on the mantle. In procession, the three women rose from the table to allow Angela to take her seat at the end. The woman with the puffed-up hair, who had never directed a word at Angela, placed her heavy hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. Angela read “pobresita” in her eyes and it made her angry.

 

Tía Lupe refilled every cup on the table and resumed her story. “So, I asked the woman in white: ‘how do you know that?’ And the woman in white said, ‘I just do. And if you want the deaths in your family to stop, you have to give them cinnamon tea.’ And this was back in September when my brother was sick. His high cholesterol had knocked him unconscious at work. He gave us quite the scare.”

 

“But the woman said that the casket was for your son,” a soft-spoken woman said. She sat across from Angela.

 

“I know,” said tía Lupe. “And for months, before Gaby was hospitalized, I was afraid to answer the phone, afraid that it would be a call from a hospital or the police. It wasn’t until the girl was hospitalized that I discovered the true meaning of the dream. But by then it was too late.”

 

“You can’t blame yourself,” the woman with the soft voice said, and the others agreed by nodding. Tears streamed down tía Lupe’s face. The women sat in silence for some time.

 

Angela didn’t understand why none of the women went to comfort her aunt, how they could watch her fall apart like that. She wanted to go to her tía, to hug her and cry with her, but she was in the corner. Eventually, a woman with streaks of silver in her long black hair placed her large hand over Lupe’s freckled hand, making it disappear beneath her squeeze. Their gold bracelets clinking as one hand lulled the other.

 

“If I had known sooner, I could have done something,” tía Lupe said, her chin trembling. “I could have slapped some sense into my son and finally get him to marry Gaby. She wouldn’t have died from a broken heart. He knew she was dying. Why couldn’t he just marry the girl, at least to appease her before death.”

 

Angela held back her tears. Anger continued to stir inside of her. Angela’s cousin, Victor, had been with Gaby for six years. He had left her when Gaby was diagnosed because he hadn’t been able to deal with the news. During remission, the two were back together.

 

Why Gaby had forgiven Victor, Angela couldn’t understand. One day, Gaby had told Angela that she knew that everyone was watching her and that God would want her to lead by example. Instead of being sad, she had decided to be strong. Instead of being angry, she had decided to be joyful. Instead of giving up, she had decided to fight back. And forgiving Victor was what God would have wanted her to do.

 

“No one knows what might have been going through his head,” the woman who had arrived last said, as she rocked the baby in her arms. “I’m sure he suffered too.”

 

“But this will weigh on his conciencia for the rest of his life,” tía Lupe said. The women were pensive.

 

Angela repeated the woman’s words: he suffered too. But how? Her cousin had pretended that everything was okay. The cancer had returned and yet, he continued to take Gaby to dinner on the weekends, and bring her home for the holidays. Shouldn’t Gaby have wanted to be with her own family? The two had spent so much time together those last months that Angela was beginning to feel like she didn’t know Gaby anymore.

#

The front door opened, no one had heard the fumbling of keys. Victor stepped in the room and saw them at the table. He must have forgotten it was Sunday.

 

“Buenas noches,” he said to the women. They replied, some with a nod, others feigned a smile. “I’m sorry. I thought no one was home. The house looked dark from outside.”

 

Angela wondered if Victor suspected that he was the topic of conversation. She looked at his eyes, they looked swollen, and she wondered if had been crying. He didn’t cry at the wake nor the funeral.

 

“Te sirvo té, mijo?” tía Lupe said to her son.

 

“No, thank you,” he said. “I’m going to sleep. Have a good night, señoras.”

 

“Good night, mijo” tía Lupe said.

 

Angela wanted to get up from the table, she wanted to get ready for bed, too. It was still early, but the sun had set several hours ago; it was that time of the year, when it gets dark early.

 

“You know, something similar happened to my husband’s brother,” the woman who had held tía Lupe’s hand said. “His girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, but it was too late to treat it. So my husband’s brother married her, no hesitation.”

 

Angela wondered why the woman had said that. It didn’t make her tía feel better. The women became quiet, Angela saw their jaw muscles tighten, as they pressed their lips. Only their eyes moved to each other’s.

 

“What I mean is that perhaps your son didn’t want to marry her out of pity. If it didn’t come from the heart, that’s what it would have been. Pity,” the woman said.

Some nodded. Angela agreed, but wondered why her cousin had not wanted to marry Gaby. What was he afraid of?

 

“Lupe, maybe she’s right,” said the woman who had arrived late, the baby now stirring in her arms. “You can’t ask someone to make a commitment they’re not ready to make, no matter the circumstances.”

 

Some women agreed, their nods more assured than before.

 

The baby began to cry and the woman who arrived last pulled out a bottle from her bag and fed the baby. Once her nieto had quieted, she continued, “We can’t sit here and pretend to know everything. We can’t change what happened. Whatever happened, it was God’s plan.”

 

“Gaby died with a broken heart. He knew she would die,” tía Lupe said. She raised her gaze from the empty cup in front of her to face the women, her gaze moving from face to face. Angela could see the sincerity in her tía’s eyes. She had loved Gaby.

 

The women began to fuss at the table. The room smelled like cinnamon. Tía Lupe lifted the tea kettle and offered the women refills. Some pushed their cups to be refilled and others shook their heads.

 

The laughter of children had quieted and Angela wondered where they were. She wanted to get up to check on them, but she was stuck. She looked at her cup, at the flecks of cinnamon that had settled at the bottom. Angela picked up her spoon and stirred the tea, slow at first and then faster. She removed the spoon and watched as the cinnamon flecks swirled and swirled and then settled.

 

______________________________________________

Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. She is Senior Managing Editor at The Offing magazine, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Editor at indicia. Her work has appeared in Verdad Magazine and American Mustard. She teaches at Golden West College and East Los Angeles College.

Page 1 of 3