Posts tagged ‘fiction’

Ticketed People

By the time Ella Henderson snuck into her two hundred and fifty seventh free movie at the Greensboro AMC, she was almost hoping to get caught. The sneaking wasn’t done out of financial necessity — her paralegal salary was comfortable enough. It was a hobby, the way some people liked to knit, or play racquetball. She had hopes of one day becoming a serious movie critic. The sneaking in would be the perfect story to tell on red carpets, a reminder of rougher, sadder times that she would look back on from her diamond-studded life and laugh. “If only I had known where I’d end up,” she’d say, touching the arm of a handsome young star, “Back when I was your age.” She was thirty-nine.

She had picked up the hobby two years ago, after a telephone conversation with her parents, who were both sixty-eight and somehow much busier than her. The conversation began with Ella telling them about a recurring nightmare she had been having every night for two weeks. In the nightmare, she was lying in a grave while it filled with dirt around her. Her parents, who were retired and spent most of their time in an RV on elaborate road trips, had been entirely unsympathetic.

“It’s not right for a woman to be without a hobby. Especially a childless woman. I’ve always thought so,” her mother said. Her father, who was fixing something on the RV in the background, was not really listening.

Ella sighed in the Walmart aisle. She adjusted her cell phone to put a single apple and a half-pound of chicken in the grocery cart.

“I mean it, Isabella.” said her mother. “You’re thirty-seven. What do you do after work?”

“I don’t know. What does anyone do after work? I cook dinner. Sometimes I watch TV.”

“Did you try that recipe I sent you? The lasagna?” Her father half-shouted. He always talked too loudly on the phone.

“Not yet, Dad.”

“What about racquetball?” Her mother’s voice faded, which meant that Ella had been put on speakerphone.

“Racquetball is for spinsters.”

“Well.” There was an awkward pause. Her mother did not say anything, which was somehow much worse.

“So what else going on in your life?” her father asked. There was a loud crashing sound, presumably from the camper. “Hold that thought, hon. We’ll have to call you back.”

The line went dead in the frozen vegetables aisle. Ella stared at her grocery cart, full of the same items she had bought last week and the week before. It struck her that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had something interesting or important to say. As a child she had been painfully shy, but she had never seen this separation from other people as a point of concern. After all, she had always had her parents, who loved her, and chalked her oddities up to being ‘an old soul.’ But lately, when they talked on the phone, it seemed like her parents didn’t have much time for her. She heard an edge in their voices that hadn’t been there before, and it had begun to occur to her that she was someone to worry about, that there was a faulty part somewhere inside her that she had not known was malfunctioning and didn’t know how to fix.

The bags of frozen peas seemed to stare at her with unblinking faces. Ella pushed her cart faintly toward the checkout line, grabbing a copy of the Greensboro News & Record on her way. Still preoccupied, she flipped to the Culture section, looking for Miller Harrison’s latest review. Miller Harrison was the movie critic for the News & Record. Ella always got the newspaper at the grocery store, and she always flipped to his review first. That week, he had written a column about movie criticism. An illustrious profession, he had written. Full of truly wonderful stories. She remembered again the recurring nightmare, how un-protesting she had been as dirt filled her lungs. Then she had snapped the newspaper shut, stuffed her groceries in the trunk, and driven straight to the movies, where she jumped the velvet rope and watched a children’s movie about animated bunnies.

By the time Ella made it home, the milk had gone bad and she had missed her parents’ second phone call, which made her feel better. She was too wired to sleep. It felt like there was an electric coil nestled in her stomach, snapping with diamond sparks of light. She couldn’t explain why she had snuck in, except that she knew she wouldn’t tell her parents about it, and it made her feel independent and interesting. After that, sneaking into movies became something of a habit. She kept a red, spiral-bound notebook numbering each movie and her opinion on it, and spent hours in her kitchenette, writing out reviews in a steady hand. Maybe sneaking in was a little gimmicky, she thought, but everyone had a gimmick. It would be her way of standing out in the crowd of aspiring critics. She began casually mentioning current movies at work and noticed that the other paralegals stopped by her desk more often, even inviting her for drinks a few times.

By Movie #257, she was on her third notebook. It started the same as any other job. Ella opened the left door to the theatre, because the right door often jammed, and the last thing one wanted to do when sneaking into a movie was wrestle with the door. The entryway held a single ticket booth. A large plane of plexiglass separated the booth from the rest of the empty room, which made the sixteen-year-old inside look vaguely like a work of art in a strange museum, as though someone had painted a bubble of hot pink gum on the Madonna. On the marquee above her, the showings blinked past in tired neon.

The bubblegum girl, Taylor, spent almost all of her time behind the plexiglass checking her texts and staring mournfully out the tinted windows. Ella had chosen the AMC for all her cons because it was staffed by high schoolers, and high schoolers would rather drop dead than notice anyone else. She created disguises anyway — changed her hairstyle, wore sunglasses now and then — but it never mattered. She seemed to have an eerie and borderline unnatural gift for going unnoticed. Once, on the opening night of a new fantasy movie, she had worn an enormous mustard-yellow ball gown from the Goodwill. Half of the sequins were missing, and she almost got caught, but it was worth it. You couldn’t play racquetball in a ball gown.

Ella pretended to read the movie times, even though she had already decided on a sentimental movie about a dog. She was wearing an oversized pair of sunglasses shaped like hearts and a denim dress that almost brushed the floor. She didn’t have to sneak past Taylor, because plenty of people bought tickets in advance online. She always lingered in the front lobby, just in case Taylor looked up from her phone and decided to talk to her. She hadn’t yet, but that was okay. When Ella was a real critic, she’d come in, and Taylor would recognize her and wave her through. “She’s a critic,” Taylor would say to the other people in the lobby, “Got her start right here,” and when the movie was done, Ella would come out and they’d laugh about the old days of disguises and spiral-bound notebooks. Still, she was hoping Taylor might compliment the glasses.

            A sucking noise behind her signaled the front door opening.

            “I’m telling you, Space Raiders is terrible. Let’s see the dog movie.”

            Ella almost opened her mouth to correct the speaker — she had seen Space Raiders last week, and it was pretty good — but when she saw who it was, she let out an inadvertent gasp.

Miller Harrison had just walked into the Greensboro AMC. He looked much older than his picture in the paper. Ella felt slightly faint. Miller reviewed movies at the (much fancier) Cinebarre on the other side of Greensboro. Ella had tried to sneak in there, once and had narrowly avoided getting caught. She leaned casually against the wall of the lobby and used her sunglasses to look at him without looking like she was looking at him.

Miller Harrison was on a date. He was wearing a sport coat. The woman, who was carrying a plain purse, reminded Ella of a kindly elementary school teacher. She felt very warm towards Miller for having age-appropriate taste in women, especially when he could have had anyone in Greensboro.

The truth was that Ella often daydreamed of going to the News & Record after her three-hundredth movie, just to show off what she knew. Everyone would be impressed — she would be hired as a critic on the spot. Miller Harrison would ask her out before the ink was dry on the contract. On their first date, when he asked how she’d seen so many movies, Ella imagined herself confessing it all. He would find her life of petty crime charming and entirely unforgettable. They would fall in love. Her first column would be about sneaking into movies, when she was just starting out and working hard to make it as a critic. When it came out, she’d announce she was donating her first month’s salary to the AMC. She would tell her parents over the phone, when they were deep in some forest in their rinky-dink RV camper, and their life would look small and uninteresting in comparison to hers.

But that was all in the future! She had forty-three movies to go! She didn’t feel ready yet. Besides, no one wanted to hear about someone who had snuck into two hundred fifty-seven movies. No, it would have to be an even three hundred. Still, to see Miller Harrison, here. In her movie theatre. Even through her panic, it was dreamy. Ella looked at Taylor to see if she had noticed the presence of greatness, the glowing star in their midst. Taylor was on her phone. Ella checked her watch. She wanted to stick around to hear what movie they decided on, but the dog movie began in five minutes, so with a sigh, Ella headed into the rear lobby.

The rear lobby was where the movie theatre really began, with a concession stand against the back wall and a humid concentration of processed butter in the air. The actual theaters extended down two dark tunnels, in between which stood the ticket stubber, like an impervious 16-year-old medieval guard. And the most crucial employee to get past. His name was Brian.

Ella rifled through her purse as though searching for her ticket, using the movement to check her watch. No one could get past Brian without a strategy. Ella’s strategies varied. It helped that the movie theatre was usually busy, and that Brian was deeply apathetic towards his job. She often ‘forgot’ things in the movie theatre or passed as a member of a large family. Once, she had said she was the movie critic for the News & Record — just to see how the daydream would sound out loud. That was one of her favorite sneak-ins.

Ella’s most consistent strategy was a child named Maribelle. Maribelle was ten years old. She ran the concession stand. Her father, who owned the movie theatre, didn’t pay her, but she was allowed to eat as much popcorn as she wanted. She was both unhealthy and reasonably unequipped to handle a concession stand, which meant that she could usually be counted on to create distraction. Something went wrong with Maribelle about every two minutes, which gave Ella a minute and thirty seconds to kill. Thankfully, she had a very large purse.

At two minutes on the dot, just as the ticket-stubber was starting to get impatient, Maribelle fell off the stool that allowed her to see above the counter.

“Brian, help!” she wailed. There came the unpleasant sound of popcorn being squished. “Help, or I’ll tell my dad.”

So Brian had to rush behind the counter, which gave Ella just enough time to squeeze in between the rope and a cardboard cutout of Robert De Niro. She walked through the lobby and into the dark cavern of theaters. Nothing to it, nothing at all. She almost wished it had been more difficult. The whole thing had taken six minutes.

As she waited, comfortably squashed into a pleather seat, Ella saw Miller Harrison and the brunette take the seats just in front of her. She leaned forward to listen to their conversation, pretending to tie one of her Velcro-ed shoes.

“Miller, I’m telling you, I’ll cry,” said the woman.

“You would have cried from boredom at Space Raiders,” said Miller Harrison. “Did I tell you I interviewed the actor in this movie?”

“You did.”

“Of course, that was years ago. He was hilarious. I can’t remember — some joke he told. So funny.” He laughed to himself.

“Hmm.” The brunette shifted in her seat.

            Ella’s mouth dropped open. She would have died to hear more about that interview. Miller Harrison had worked for the News & Record for twenty-five years. He had season tickets to the Greensboro Grasshoppers. All this woman could say was Hmm? Ella sat back in her seat, astounded. And her parents thought she was socially inept. This woman was unbelievable. Miller Harrison was a real movie critic. Maybe he hadn’t snuck in, when he was starting out, but still. He was undoubtedly interesting.

            An hour into the movie, the dog was getting sick, and Ella had not paid attention to a single scene. When the brunette, who had been crying steadily for seventeen minutes, got up to go to the bathroom, Ella slipped out of her seat and followed her.

            In the bathroom, the brunette made a beeline for her own reflection in the mirror.

            “Oh, honestly,” she said.

            Ella locked herself in a stall and listened curiously. There was a lot of sniffling, and the heavy thumping of a paper towel dispenser. After exactly a minute and thirty seconds, Ella unlocked the stall and dared a peek at the brunette. She was trying to repair her makeup while still crying heavily. The counter around her was littered with paper towels.

            Ella kept her head down as she washed her hands. She wished that she had the red sunglasses now, so she could stare at the woman in privacy. The woman didn’t notice her.

            “Are you okay?” said Ella.

The woman started, as if she hadn’t known anyone was there. Her eyeliner pencil drew a jagged line across her cheek. “I’m sorry.” She motioned to her face and laughed a little. “I’m seeing that movie about the dog. I don’t know why it made me such a mess.”

            Ella nodded as though this was new information. “Me too,” she offered, after a minute. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had bothered to make small talk with her. She hoped she wasn’t messing anything up.

            “I like your dress,” the woman said without really looking at Ella’s dress. She wet a paper towel and scrubbed it against her cheek. The eyeliner became a large grey circle.

            “Thank you.”

            “I’m Marianne.”

“Ella.”

Marianne scrubbed again at her face. “Come off, come off, come off.” She threw the paper towel onto the sink in a fit of frustration. “I can’t go back in like this. I’m on a date.”

            Ella shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She didn’t wear makeup and felt a slight sense of superiority. “You’re on a date? Do you like him?” The question sounded awkward, like the words were too big for her mouth.

            Marianne sighed and leaned forward into the mirror, until her nose was almost touching her reflection. “Not really, but hey — not like I have a lot of options.”

            Ella didn’t want the date to be going well, but she was still annoyed. “Why don’t you like him?”

            Marianne shrugged. “He’s just — not very interesting.”

            Ella was beginning to feel very hot. This woman could cry her eyes out over two actors on a screen, and she thought Miller was boring? “You’re on a date with Miller Harrison. The movie critic. He’s very interesting.”

            “Only in Greensboro could being a movie critic make you interesting,” said Marianne.

            “Don’t you think you’re being a little judgmental?” said Ella, too loudly.

Marianne looked at her reflection in the mirror, incredulous, as though it was a person she could speak to, a person to whom she could say Are you hearing this? Ella uncrossed her arms uncomfortably. She had not meant to speak so loudly. She was beginning to get a familiar feeling, the feeling that a conversation had gotten away from her. Her chest twinged. There was a code that told you what was alright to say, some unspoken thing Marianne understood and she didn’t.

“Sorry.” Ella said, more to the feeling in her chest than to Marianne.

Marianne fastened the clasp of her purse calmly. She still had a large, grey spot on her cheek, spreading like a bruise. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what your problem is, but I’m having a very bad day, and I want to go back to my seat now, so would you move?” She didn’t look so much like an elementary school teacher anymore. Ella stepped aside, and the woman banged through the doorway.

Ella could see her own reflection, standing in the corner, her face flushed, and she felt the electric coil in her stomach grow hot. It all felt so unfair — that you could be an interesting critic for an interesting paper and some woman with a cheap purse and bad taste in movies could just decide that she didn’t like you? That she could decide your small talk was rude, or forward, for no reason at all except that she probably played racquetball, and had friends, and had somehow figured out the system of the world that seemed to slip from Ella’s fingers at every turn. Ella wheeled around and back towards the theatre.

            In the movie, the dog was only getting sicker, and the theatre seemed to be filled with sniffles. Ella marched up the aisles, the tiny lights making her a way, straight down the row where Miller Harrison and the brunette were sitting stiffly beside each other.

            “She thinks you’re boring, you know,” said Ella.

            The woman’s mouth dropped open. Miller Harrison, who had by now taken off his sport coat, looked at her as though she was a mildly interesting scene in the movie.

            “Uh — what?” He said.

            “She thinks you’re boring.” Ella said, pointing at Marianne. “She told me in the bathroom.”

            “This is ridiculous,” said Marianne. In the shadowed theatre, one could just barely make out the smudge of eyeliner on her cheek. “I don’t — you know what? We’re leaving.” And without another word, she grabbed Miller’s sport coat and barreled down the steps.

            Miller, who was still sitting in his seat, looked, surprised, at Ella, who looked back. Someone shushed in the back of the theatre. He stood up, looking slightly lost. Ella moved into the aisle. Miller looked forlornly at the movie screen, where the dog was taking its last breath. They walked awkwardly down the steps, trying not to walk with one another.

            Outside the theatre, Marianne was tapping her foot in a huff. It was obvious that she had been driven there and wanted very much to leave. When she saw Ella, her eyes bulged.

            “What is wrong with you? Would you just leave me alone?”

            Ella was suddenly very tired. She would have to count this as only half of a movie, which seemed like a waste. Miller Harrison emerged from the theatre, blinking. Without his sport coat, he looked extremely short, but the light seemed to shake him out of his stupor.

            “Do you really think I’m boring?” he asked her.

            Marianne looked slightly embarrassed, as if she had been caught. “I just — I don’t think it’s working out —” She mumbled something about different interests.

            Miller glanced back at the movie theatre, as though he would have liked very much to go back inside. Ella would have liked to go back inside, too. She could be cocooned in the darkness, watching inane people on a screen, and she would be forty-three movies from somewhere, but not there yet. She could insulate herself with other people’s lives, and everything would be interesting and make believe. She hugged her red notebook to her chest.

            “I guess — I guess I can take you home?” Miller said.

            The woman scowled. “Just forget it. I’m calling an Uber. You —” she looked at Ella. “You—” and as if she couldn’t think of anything terrible enough to say, she shook her head, turned on her heel, and left.

            Miller Harrison looked very tired. Now that they were alone, Ella felt nervous and unprepared. The electric coil in her stomach gave a small fizz. She clutched her notebook more tightly. “Y-You look a lot older than your picture in the paper,” she said.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” Miller said.

            “Oh — no.”

            He watched the woman’s back. “What happened?”
            Ella shifted back and forth. “She — she said you were boring. I don’t think you’re boring. I read all your reviews.”

            Miller Harrison wasn’t really listening to her. He was watching Maribelle and Brian, who were far away and seemed to be fighting about the popcorn machine.

            Ella kept pushing. “I’d like to work for the News & Record one day, you know.”

            Miller snorted. “You shouldn’t. It’s terrible. They’re cutting our health insurance in half.”

            “You must like something about it.”

            “Coffee’s free.”

She should have stopped then, sensed the conversation tilting towards disaster. But she felt reckless, and brave. She had a good story to tell, and she had driven Marianne off, and she could see the faintest possibility of her interesting life just beyond her, like light shining around a corner. “You know, I’ve seen two hundred and fifty-six movies here. Well, two hundred fifty-six and a half.”

            Miller started. “Goodness. That’s a lot.”

            “I’m going to be a critic. One day.” She felt like a baby bird stepping towards the edge of its nest. All she had to do was close the deal. She put a hand on his arm and tried her best to bat her eyelashes. “I’ve never even paid for a ticket. I sneak in. Isn’t that terrible?”

            Miller Harrison looked at her as though she were a kernel of popcorn on the sticky theatre floor. “Huh?

            Her smile faded a bit. “It’s funny. My schtick. You know? Like, when I was starting out, I snuck into movies?”

            He backed away. “I’m sorry, are you homeless or something?”

            “What? No, I —”

            “You want money?”

            “No —”

            “Look,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re a fan —”

            “No, that’s not it at all,” Ella felt very out of breath. “It’s —”

            “No cash,” Miller said, holding up his wallet. “Sorry.”

            Ella stopped batting her eyelashes. She felt the electric coil in her stomach growing big and then exploding until stars popped behind her eyes. He was backing away from her now, his shoulders slumped, his suit coat swung limply over his shoulder.

            She didn’t have the words to make him understand that everything had gone wrong, all of it, right from the start, since the day she began having her nightmare, since the conversation with her parents, since the frozen vegetable aisle. She felt as though she was falling down a long tunnel, like she had jumped for the sky and ended up underground.

Suddenly, before she could stop herself, she ran past Miller Harrison, past the popcorn machines, past Maribelle, past all the ticketed people with their happy ticketed lives. She ran all the way to Taylor, sitting like a trophy in her glass booth, set apart from the world. Taylor, who had never talked to her, and had probably never even thought about. All at once, Ella was ripping pages out of her notebook in sections of two, then five, ten. Taylor stared at her with an open mouth, her gum a pink and squishy lump on her tongue.

In the space under the plexiglass she shoved pages into Taylor’s hands, five or six reviews, just like always, it was not enough but it was all she had. She threw the rest in the air, and they flurried like chunks of flattened snow all around them, crumpling and dirtying under her feet. Taylor looked scared, and Ella wanted to ask her if it was because the sun had set, and the tinted windows were filled with heavy darkness, but she couldn’t make her voice heard over all the shouting. Someone was shouting so loudly that the lobby echoed with the heaviness of it, Ella wished they would stop, her hands stung so badly, and she realized she was smacking and smacking them against the plexiglass ticket booth; it was buckling and shaking under her palms, and someone somewhere was yelling — wailing — Look at me, look at me, look at me.


Kayla Rutledge is a graduate student in the MFA program at NC State University. She is the recipient of the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction from NC State and the 2020 Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work is published and forthcoming in 3Elements Review, Gone Lawn, and Peatsmoke.

Just Wait

JUST WAIT

I know what the law says. Plus, the SSO makes me repeat it after her, every Tuesday afternoon, inside her office.

“Let’s say you see your mom, Eva. What do you do now?”

I say:

“Push the alarm.”

Every time, Ms. L gives me a tough-soldier nod. Then she bends over and reaches down to my pantleg, and I have to hold still, because my skin always quarbles[MH1] , and a small part of me wants to kick her in the face. We both look down at my slim silvery ankle bracelet with its secret button.

“Don’t let her see you touch it,” Ms. L. says. Then she fingers the button on the inside of the bracelet. I try not to flinch. “But don’t wait too long,” Ms. L says. “You don’t want the police to think you’re on her side. Right?”

Ms. L always waits until I say, “Right.” If I take too long, she gets annoyed and asks again, and I have to shake myself and say, “Right.”She gives me another good-soldier nod. “Assisting an illegal is illegal.”

Her voice expands when she hits the is, like she’s about to sing.

Ms. L always claimed that Mom would try and grab me when I was walking home from school. Maybe they studied my mom’s habits, like in some first-person detective. Or maybe that’s what all moms do. I was ready for her, more or less. Except when it really did happen, I wasn’t. I was staring into a convenience case on 15th, thinking, What if I gave Neel a packet of gums? Creepy or sweet? Creepy or sweet? A hand grabbed my elbow, and it pulled me sideways so fast I had to hop-hop-turn to stay on my feet. I knew it was Mom, even before she said, “shhh, it’s just me,” and I split into two Evas. One was ready to turn her mom in and save herself. But the other Eva walked fast, turning down an ashy side street, asking: “Where we going?”

#

Now here we were, eating noodles in a Yonghe King, it was some normal mother-daughter Friday afternoon. My mom kept smiling and cocking her head in this weird nervous-flirty way. I wanted her to cut it out. I almost put a hand up to block her face. “What?” I asked her, but she just shook her head and smiled again.

I didn’t smile back. She might be my mother, okay. But we didn’t have to get ridiculous about it.

She rose slightly in her chair and turned to glance at the door, like she was expecting someone. While she was distracted, I reached a hand down my right leg, letting it go past my knee, considering. She knew about the bracelet. The second we got inside the restaurant, she’d pushed me back to the wash-cubes. She’d locked us in together and asked what kind of tracking devices I had. “Nothing implanted? I hope?” Her smile was so intense I couldn’t look at her, and she smelled like…grease and bubblegum? I showed her the secret ankle bracelet, and I thought about pushing the button right then. Ms. L’s voice chanted inside me: Assisting an illegal IS illegal.

Mom sniffed as she squinted at the bracelet. “That’s not so bad. We can worry about that later. First let’s eat.”

She rented us a table for three hours. As each minute passed, I thought I was going to grow up and make a decision. I could call Papa? What would he want me to do? He’d be on shift, so maybe he wouldn’t answer. But he wouldn’t care if I spent an hour or two with Mom, as long as I went home after. As long as I got home.

“How’s your dad?” Mom asked, smiling as darker splotches showed up on her cheeks, as if she had a crush on him. “He say anything about me…?” I flushed, too.

He’s still mad at you, I wanted to say. A stone grew inside my mouth. Every time I even thought about telling her, He doesn’t love you, the stone would get bigger, until it was almost choking me.

“I love you, kitty cat.”

My heart boiled up, and I wanted to tell her to, Stop it! But instead, I don’t know why, I quickwhispered: “Love you too.”

I took another spoon of noodles and watched a group of kids come in. They were older, maybe tenth and eleventh. Eleventh and twelfth. One of the girls looked at me, and my face went red. Stupid me, out with my mommy.

“We’re still waiting for the car that can get us up north,” Mom was saying, as I watched the kids go up and swipe in their order. Two of them were arguing: a tall, beautiful South Asian girl and a younger White kid with acne and too many teeth. Were they boyfriend and girlfriend? If they were, I mean…

“Are you listening?” Mom asked sharply, and I looked at her.

“The car to get north?” I said, not wanting to know. I didn’t want to know about her plans. If you know about an illegal’s plans, that was illegal.

“All right,” Mom said. “But I’m going to need your help. I know you’re a clever girl. Or so your dad tells me.”

I shrugged, because “clever girl” made me sound like a puppy. Sit up, Ev! Roll over! Over at the other table, the beautiful South Asian girl and the White kid with acne were kissing. My shoulders jerked in a startled shiver.

#

“We certainly don’t use the word illegal, and we don’t use the word escaped, either,” Mr. Peter told me. He was a friend of my dad’s. He came over right after my mom left the Detention Zone without permission, or however we’re supposed to say it. Dad had made a face behind Mr. Peter’s back, and I’d had to choke down a giggle. “Your mom served her time, and we absolutely don’t believe in stripping people’s citizenship for nonviolent offens—”

“The point, Pete,” my dad interrupted, making another face at me. This time, I couldn’t help but choke out a laugh, because everything was so scary and funny. It felt like the walls were crashing in on us.

Mr. Peter looked annoyed, but my dad kept staring at him.

“The point is,” Mr. Peter said, “that while the authorities will be looking for your mother, who is currently undocumented, they won’t really dedicate resources to her capture. They’ll be relying on AI, yes. But also people like you, and your dad, and her friends to turn her in.”

“If she starts in on my cooking again, I might be tempted,” my dad said. Mr. Peter gave him a dark look.

“Our individual feelings do not—”

“Yes, yes,” my dad said. “Be a human, Pete. I’m kidding.”

“A human? I might point out that you’re the one insulting a young girl’s mother.”

My dad’s face darkened, and I thought he was going to shout at Pete. But instead he heaved out a huge breath and sat down. “Sorry, Ev.”

I couldn’t look at anyone. My ears hurt. “I don’t care.”

“The school will try to instill a sense of obligation. You’ll probably have to meet with your school support officer, maybe more than once. They might tell you that, by not turning your mother in, you become her de facto accomplice. But that is very contested territory, Eva, even for an adult. You have no obligation to turn your mother in to the police. Do you understand?”

“Although if she gets on your nerves…” My dad made a funny twirling motion with his hand, and a burst of laughter shot out of my mouth. I clamped both hands over it, embarrassed.

“We do want you to tell us,” Mr. Peter said, glaring at my dad as he spoke, “if she gets in contact with you. All right? There are people who can help her, and the momentum is on our side now. We can’t give her any specifics, but—”

“Oh yeh,” Dad said, leaning forward, his hands between his knees. “Don’t leak our whole secret plan, Evvie-Dev.”

I was miserably lost and confused, and I threw my arms around my dad. “Love you,” I said, because I didn’t have other words. Mr. Peter cleared his throat and rearranged his dark-brown glasses over his dark-brown face. “Actually, Eva knows quite a bit. She could compromise us, if it came to that.”

My dad rolled his eyes so long that I thought they might not come back down. Mr. Peter coughed and got out his phone, paging through, saying we had the historic meet-up come Monday. Was dad going to bring me?

Bring her?” Dad said. “I can’t remember the last time I brought Ev somewhere. You’re going to have to ask her if she’s coming.”

“I’m coming,” I said quickly, even though I couldn’t remember which historic meet-up he was talking about, and my stomach flop-flipped.

#

The clock ran out on our meal, and my mom cursed as she picked up her bowl and stepped away from the table. “I’m a little short on dosh[MH2]  right now, kitty-cat, or we could sit for longer.”

A shiver ran through me. “It’s fine,” I said loudly. “I have to be getting home anyway.”

Mom’s eyebrows went up, but only for a second. Then she gave me another flirty smile. It reminded me of something, but I didn’t know what.

“Dad’s expecting me.”

“No,” Mom said, and her voice changed. “Your dad knows you’re with me. It’s fine. Actually, we’re meeting him.”

“Meeting him?”

Mom lifted up her phone and flashed it at me. “He said we should come get him at work.”

“Why would we do that? I always just go home.” My back felt numb and prickly, and I shrugged several times, to get the prickles out.

“I don’t know, kitty-cat,” Mom said, taking my arm and guiding me out toward the door. “But your dad says we should. We can take the bus.”

“But…” Mom couldn’t possibly have access to buses? If she stepped onto a city bus, she’d immediately be reported to the police. Right? That’s what always happened when you played an escapee in a first-person.

“Okay.” I smiled at her, and she smiled back. The South Asian girl had turned to look at us. Her White-acne boyfriend was staring, too. I kept smiling as we walked out of the restaurant, into the ashy night air. I wanted to put on my mask, but then I didn’t. Mom didn’t say anything, which was kind of shocking, since Dad would always make me wear a mask outside. “[MH3] Developing adolescent lungs, blah blah.” But she just walked down the street with her shoulders pulled back, like she didn’t care about anything.

When we got to the bus stop, I felt itchy and scritchy [MH4] and sick to my stomach. Would the bus get pulled over? Would everyone have to wait while the police came to arrest my mom? Would she scream, cry, try to run? Would they make her get down on the ground? Would they kick her, or shoot her, like you sometimes did in a first-person[MH5] ?

I imagined the bus surrounded by police, and my mom refusing to get off. Maybe she’d hold all of us hostage. Would she put a knife to my throat and scream: I’ve got a hostage?

I erased that image.

Maybe she’d stand at the front of the bus, daring anyone to try to get off. They’d bring in a negotiator. They’d say: If you don’t come off, we’ll gas the whole bus. The people on the bus would start shouting at her. She’d shout back. Some burly White guy would stand up and leap at her, pulling her arms behind her back, and dragging her off the bus. She’d bite him, but not badly.

“You have a boyfriend now?” my mom asked, and I blinked and looked at her. I glanced at her phone, which showed a bus three minutes away. I shouldn’t get on. I’d let her get on first, and then I’d walk away.

“A boyfriend?”

“A boyfriend. Or do kids these days not do that anymore? Too much commitment?”

“People still have boyfriends, Mom. Just not me.”

“And why not?”

I felt my voice lift away from me. “Why not? I don’t know, I guess nobody likes me. Maybe I’m not cute enough.” I shrugged a bunch of times, hoping she would shut. up.

“That’s not possible. Of course somebody likes you. Did you even try asking? Or are you waiting for the boy to make the first move?”

“Who said I like boys?”

Mom stared at me, and I looked down the street, where the bus was supposed to be in two minutes.

#

When Mr. Peter left, Dad asked me to sit with him. I knew we were going to have some kind of painful Big Talk. “Do I have to?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“You don’t remember your mom,” he told me, as we sat down at the kitchen table.

“I’ve seen video.” I shrugged.

He winced and rubbed behind his ears. “I mean in person, when she’s…. Your mom is charming, bright, fun. She’s the sort of person who could pop up into your life and say, Let’s go cause trouble, and you might want to do it, to make her happy. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Mom likes to cause trouble? I knew that.”

“I’m saying she’s persuasive. If she asked you to run away with her—”

I threw myself back in the chair and rolled my eyes. “Seriously?”

“She—”

“No WAY. No way, no way, no WAY.”

Dad gave a faint laugh. “She’s magnetic.”

“She’s a magnet, and I’m wood. Okay?”

#

I saw the bus appear at the edge of her phone. People scrambled into line. The bus lumbered around the corner and shot toward us, jerking to a stop at its passenger-point. Whh-hih-shh. Everyone had their phone out. As they walked past, the bus IDed them and slipped cash from their account. I tried to stay behind Mom, but she insisted: “You first, kitty-cat.”I stepped onto the entry point and was fed onto the bus. It acknowledged my phone, and I was trapped. Mom climbed on behind me, holding up her phone, and nudged me to keep going down the aisle.

Nothing happened.

I looked back at her. No sirens went off. The bus door stayed open. I tried to get a look at her screen, but she stepped on the back of my shoe. “What are you doing? Don’t stop in the middle of the aisle, Ev.” When we sat down, I saw her screen for a split second; it was someone else’s name, something that started with Nat—

“Eleven stops,” she said, turning her phone away from me. I smiled. Okay. When we got off, I’d walk away. I’d walk away, call Dad, and he’d come get me. He wasn’t really meeting us. I knew he wasn’t.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Maybe this wasn’t really even my real mom. She looked like the woman I’d seen in videos, but she definitely wasn’t charming. Right? Except, when I looked at her sideways, I felt like… She hunched her shoulders like I hunched mine. Her nose came to the same ugly point. I looked at my phone, swiping through messages. There were a bunch from Dad, and—

She snapped the phone right out of my hand. “I’ll keep this for a minute,” she said. “All right?”

I stared after my phone, which she slipped into her purse. She nudged me. “Up, up,” she said. “This is our stop.”

I trudged my way off, feeling weird and alone without my phone. She’d have to give it back, though, when we got on the next bus. As soon as she handed it to me, I’d turn and run. Never run, people said, because the drones would pick you up. But what if you wanted to be caught?

Outside, I had a hard time breathing. It was flat-out dark now, ashy, and I needed a toilet. My mom scratched the side of her neck. “Next bus is in 38. Until then, how about we do your hair?”

I touched my short hair, wanting to cry.

Mom trained her phone at me, squinting at the screen.

“Are you uploading me? You’re not going to upload me, are you?”

“Why?” She smiled. “Are you paranoid?”

I coughed the heavy ash out of my lungs. “I don’t want my 3D on one of those beauty sites.” I reached for her phone, but she held it away from me.

“Whatever you want, Little Ms. Nervous.”

“Can I have my phone now?”

She looked at me, her head cocked, smiling. “Maybe your problem with boys is the hair, sweetheart. We could fix that.” Mom twirled a finger around a lock of her dyed-chestnut hair.

My eyes stung, and I absolutely hated my dad. YOU THINK THIS IS CHARMING? “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“I am faithful to your father,” Mom said, chin up, her voice stiff. “Why? Does he have a girlfriend?”

There actually was a woman in the underground he was crazy about, Thoraya, but… I wanted to say it.

“Does he have a girlfriend, Evie? Fucking yes or no?”

A boy looked over at me. Then he cut a glance at my mom and rolled his eyes. I swallowed a smile and shrugged. “Hard to say.”

“What’s so hard to say about it? What’s the bitch’s name?”

“She’s not a bitch, actually. But you’ll have to ask him if you want to know more.”

“Eva,” my mom said, her face tightening into a look I’d never seen before.

“Aren’t we going to meet Dad? Can’t you ask him?” I felt like I was on a seesaw, like my feet couldn’t quite touch the ground. “And can I have my phone, please?”

Her face changed. “Don’t.” I didn’t know what she was threatening, but I had to shake off the chills.

“Where are we really going?”

My mom didn’t answer, and her expression shifted again. “Your dad said he and his friends would get me out. He’s been promising me that for the last twelve years.”

“Dad doesn’t have a magic wand. Plus you do realize you committed a crime.”

Mom grabbed my arm so hard my heart stopped. “You prissy little shit. You know, you can just fuck off, if you really think I deserved to lose everything, lose my rights as a citizen, just because…”

The bus came. She went and stood in the line by herself. I didn’t move. She was leaving me again. She’d abandoned me when I was two, and now she was abandoning me at fourteen.

She put a foot onto the entry, and I realized she still had my phone. “Mom!” I hurried up, pushing past a man who told me to wait my turn. I slid up after her, hissing that she had to give back my phone. She kept walking down the aisle. Took a seat next to an elderly Black woman. Behind them, a woman was crying, her face pressed to the window. I stood in the aisle, wobbling, and asked Mom to give back my phone. I was tired and I wanted to go home.

“Can’t your daddy buy another one, Princess?” She didn’t look at me.

“It’s got stuff on it. Please.”

My mom snorted and looked down at her purse, smoothing it with both hands. The bus stopped, and the crying woman got off.

“Take a seat,” my mom said, loudly. “We wouldn’t want you to break the law, Princess.”

“Standing on the bus isn’t a crime,” I hissed at her. “But stealing my phone is. Give it back.”

I was so mad at my dad right then I could’ve punched him in the face. Why had he married her?

She started watching a video on her phone. I kicked at her seat, but she didn’t look up at me. The elderly Black woman did, but she didn’t say anything. Could I report my mom to the police? Or maybe I could steal her purse and run, since she definitely wouldn’t report me? My knees ached, and I stared at a Korean-looking boy my age. He rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand.

The bus jerked to a sudden stop.

#

“What kind of historic meeting?” I’d asked my dad, that night at the kitchen table.

He’d smiled at me. “The last one, we hope. Before we tear down the Fence.”

“Isn’t that what you always say?”

Dad gave a slow shrug. “No.”

I chewed at a sharp, annoying hangnail on my pinkie. “If that’s really true, why didn’t you tell Mom to wait?”

“We’ve been telling her to wait for twelve years.”

I tore off a strip of skin and started to cry.

#

Two police officers stepped onto the bus.

“Routine search,” one of the officers said loudly. “The faster everyone’s off…”

Mom went stiff. She looked terrified and furious. She got to her feet, sat down, got to her feet again. Then she walked toward the exit. I followed. What was she doing? As she passed, she smiled at the male officer, who didn’t look at her. “Routine search,” he was saying as he waved both hands toward the door. “Everyone off.”

Outside, it was colder than before. The ash was making my lungs go tight. For some reason, I stood by my stupid mom. She was obviously freaking out. I could’ve been nicer to her. I mean I knew, intellectually, that nobody deserved to have their citizenship taken, no matter what had happened during the Storm. Nobody deserved to live in a DZ. A siren went off, and everyone in the crowd looked over at the bus.

“What is it?” a man asked, his voice high-pitched and slurred. “What’d they find?”

“Everyone’s ID,” a police officer barked, close behind us. Mom looked as if she was trying to smile, but she couldn’t get it up onto her face. She handed the officer my phone first, still looking around, as if a magic door might open up.

“This your daughter?” the officer asked.

Mom nodded.

“I need to ask what she saw on the bus. Did you see anything unusual, Eva? Or anyone suspicious?”

I stared at him.

“Did you see someone come on with a yellow bag and leave without it?”

I tried to think of something—something to help my mom—but my brain was filled with icy static.

“Your ID, Ma’am,” the officer said.

“I forgot it.”

“Christ, you people.” The officer’s face soured. “Go stand next to Ramirez, then. You’ll have to be in detention until someone comes to get you.”

The officer handed me my phone. My mom went to stand next to an officer and two other shivering women.

“Is your mom always this stupid?” the officer asked.

I didn’t move. I wanted to cry. I wanted to say something that would drive a nail into his soul, that would pain him forever, but I couldn’t think of anything. He moved on to the next person.

I looked over at Mom. She was looking back at me, her lips twitching. She looked so strange and small I started to cry. She waved, and it turned into a shooing motion. Go, she mouthed, and I turned and walked away.

Just wait, I wanted to tell her. The Fence is coming down.

Just wait.

###


M Lynx Qualey is founding editor of the translation-community website ArabLit (www.arablit.org), which won a 2017 London Book Fair prize and has since spawned ArabLit Quarterly magazine. MLQ is also co-host of the popular BULAQ podcast, and she writes regularly for a variety of publications. Her most recent translation is Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands, published by Interlink Books

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.

A Hole in the Wall

There was a hole in the wall. Dad built the place in ’56 and refused to explain it. Even though the gap seemed structurally unsound, I didn’t push the question. Mom placed a vase of sunflowers on the short ledge leaning back into the empty recess. It was illogical. The basement was dark aside from a single window well, so the flowers inevitably wilted.

 

I used to walk downstairs to see the floral arrangement’s state of decay. The blossoms looked like old women smirking in the darkness. I thought it was unusual to see flowers in shadow—the way folded petals formed drooping eyelids and mouths.

 

They would crumple and my mother would sweep them into the hole. She muttered to herself recurrently using the word fool, as she did so. Fragmented words slipped by. I knew she was referring to my father. It wasn’t uncommon.

 

Everyone seemed to agree: his coworkers at the plant, his mother who cursed the writing classes, the neighbors who sent newspaper clippings of haunted houses around Halloween. I didn’t think so though. I didn’t see what was so terrible about being a failed writer.

            ***

I’d leave the lights on in the basement. The bulbs dangled from the ceiling, as if suspended by cobwebs. Younger me thought the dull orange glow would help the petals hold their color. Mom would scold me for wasting electricity, but Dad understood. He never raised his voice.

 

I was his favorite.

 

My brother Ricky said it started when he snuck his high school girlfriend through a bedroom window. “He gave me hell for years. Said I shouldn’t be doing things like that around my baby brother.” Ricky’s ten years older than I am.

 

I never reminded him of Christmas mornings. Those Batman action figures, wool sweaters, and copies of Dad’s favorite novels. You could count the disparity on your fingers and toes.

 

When I graduated college, Dad handed me the keys to a car, not new by any stretch, but still polished and waxed. Dad only handed Ricky fifty bucks and a gruff pat on the back.

 

That was years ago.

 

Sitting in the attorney’s office, I regret the advantages he gave me. Every time I nervously shift in my seat a taut groan escapes the leather beneath my pants. Ricky places a hand upon my shoulder. He doesn’t move around in his chair, calm and assured knowing Dad didn’t leave him much. I should feel the same. Dad didn’t have much to leave. We spent the last of his money on caregivers to stay at the house overnight, prepping his meals, making sure he didn’t stumble on his way to the bathroom. His money ran out. We had to sell the house to pay for assisted living over at Shallow Brooks. He hated those adjustable beds, the droning hum that echoed whenever he accidentally hit the Up bottom.

None of that matters now. It’s been two weeks since Ricky, all his friends from the construction firm, and I wheeled my father’s casket down the aisle at St. Paul’s. The cremation took place the next morning. I kept the gold-plated urn in an oak box on the mantel, not knowing where else to put it. I knew he didn’t want to be buried next to my mother even though they had purchased a headstone before she passed. His name was already on the polished marble, but I couldn’t let him down.

 

Not in the ground, not with her. You’ll see.

 

“And how are you two doing today? Sorry we have to meet on such an occasion.” Dad’s attorney is old, mid-eighties maybe. His suit is new, well pressed, but the ruff of skin hanging over his collar shows the years falling away.

 

“We’re good, just good,” Ricky answers.

 

“We’re doing well, that’s what you mean,” I correct him.

 

Ricky gives me the look. I know it’s not the right time.

 

“As you know, your father left his will in my care several years ago when this all started,” the attorney says. “We’ve had to make a few alterations as of late, with the selling of his personal property.”

 

The two of us nod in unison.

 

For the last week I pictured one of those scenes from the movies, Dad’s face hovering behind the attorney’s head on a flat screen; if you’re seeing this then it means I’m dead…and all that. There’s nothing cinematic about the situation. The document is laid flat across his desk. He didn’t unfurl it with a snap of the wrist; it didn’t roll across the table into my lap. The document is short and to the point.

 

“Richard, may I start with you?” the man asks.

 

“Sure, lay it on me,” Ricky replies.

 

I was hoping he’d call on me to start. The chair continues to mumble beneath my movement. Ricky’s hand is no longer on my shoulder. I fidget with the button on the cuff of my shirt.

 

“Here is the watch your mother gave him when they were first engaged,” the man hands over the tarnished mechanism, gears and hands ticking in time with my heartbeat. “…and the last pair of books left in his possession.”

 

I recognize the creased bindings. Dad’s only pride was his library. He didn’t care if he drove around in some Toyota that was twenty years out of date; as long as his bookshelves sagged he was a happy man. The two were Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque by Edgar Allen Poe and a leather-bound volume of Dracula.

 

 

Dad only wrote Gothic stories. He mastered the language in college but never penned an original idea, always falling into Lovecraft’s footprints or some dark pit Poe once dredged.

 

“He intended to place his bank account in your care, but that has long since been relinquished, I’m sorry to say.” It almost seems like the attorney’s gloating, like there’s a punch line waiting around the corner. At least Dad had the intention to leave Ricky something. More than I expected anyway.

 

“Now, Kenneth, are you ready to hear what he has left in your care?” The sides of his mouth turn up.

 

Why smile?

 

“Yes, go ahead,” I reply.

 

He coughs.

 

“Originally, the house was left in your name, along with the remnants of his estate. That being liquidated, the only thing left on the list is his final request.”

 

I never heard of any last wishes. The burial thing maybe, but that’s it. I figured he was just rambling. I was only humoring his ghost by postponing the burial.

 

“Ok. What did he want?” I ask.

 

“He has requested for you to entomb the urn containing his ashes in a specific hollow located in the basement of his lifetime home.”

 

A jolt of bile climbs my throat.

 

“But we don’t own the house anymore,” I stammer, more than I can help.

 

“This is true and an unfortunate circumstance that comes with life. He penned the request seven years ago; I can’t help that. I am not required to see that it is carried out, just that the heir is notified of the desire and is clear upon its meaning.”

 

He wasn’t rambling after all.

 

I snatch the document from the attorney and quickly read over the scratched-out red lines. His final request sits at the bottom. It’s all there. Where he wants to be buried, the exact number of bricks needed to fill the hole. There’s no arguing with him. The attorney smirks. I grasp the paper and leave with Ricky following in my wake, wrist watch strapped in place, books tucked under his arm.

 

“We’ll figure this out,” he says when we get to the parking lot. “I’m sure we can just ask the people living there. Explain how it’s his last request, you know?”

 

I hate when Ricky tries to use logic.

 

“You honestly think they’re going to let us entomb Dad in their basement?”

 

No. They seemed like an honest blue collar family. Dad was an electrician, mom did something with selling carpets. They had two kids. Not the kind of people who are going to let us bury our father in their basement.

 

“Well, uh…”

 

“No, I’ll figure this out. Why’d he give you the books anyway? You don’t even read,” I say.

 

“Maybe he had hopes,” Ricky replies.

 

I shouldn’t be getting angry at him. I’ve got copies of those two anyway.

 

“You better read those.”

 

“Just bury him with mom. It’s not like he’ll find out.”

 

“You’d do that to Dad? Do you ever think about those years he worked three jobs to pay for us to go to college?”

 

“Of course I…”

 

“He’d do it for us if we asked him.”

 

“Maybe if you asked him.”

 

“Really?” I say, swinging open the door to my Corolla.

 

“Hey, I didn’t mean…Let’s talk about this.”

 

I shut the door. Lock it for good measure. He peers in as if I will crumble under his wide-eyed gaze. I point to his car, make a steering motion with my hands, and nod. He gets the point. We turn in separate directions heading home.

***

 

A week’s gone by and I haven’t spoken to Ricky. I have gone to the library and requested every book they have on brick laying. I’ve reviewed YouTube videos on how to mix mortar. There’s even a section in one of my girlfriend’s Better Homes and Gardens dedicated to masonry. The lumber yard down the road had all the supplies: the trowels, the mixing bucket, the dry powder. When I asked the guy at the gate for twenty-seven bricks, he looked at me as if I was an idiot. “We usually sell them in pallets,” he said. I didn’t offer a reply. It felt like hours passing before the man loped away to retrieve my purchase.

 

Ricky has left several messages on my answering machine. At first they’re apologetic, but he gave up on that. You got to listen to me. It’s breaking and entering. You can’t have something like that on your record. You’re a grown man. His reasons roll on and on, well-meant concerns eventually morphing into pleas, whiny and shrill.

 

I’ll call him when I’m done.

 

I empty the contents of an old duffle-bag Dad bought on one of our family vacations to Nevada. Christmas bulbs and lights roll across my kitchen floor, skittering beneath my table with the light rapping of hollow ornaments skipping over tile. I tidy up for a moment, not wanting to concern my girlfriend who’s been sleeping upstairs since eleven.

 

“Pack quickly,” I tell myself, arranging the assorted bricks in a neat formation within the bag. I forgot what dried clay feels like beneath my fingers; I haven’t touched it since I was a little kid. It’s like sandpaper worn away from constant use. I’ve been in a panic all night; the familiar sensation slows my breathing and gives me time to think. I test the weight of the bag before I put Dad’s urn inside. It’s manageable; bulky, but manageable.

 

I decide to make a detour before I get to our old house.

 

***

I drive to the cemetery where my mother is buried. Her heart shaped headstone comes into view as my headlights pass over a hill; they glint off the polished stone, distracting my already distracted eyes. I’m not used to staying up this late.

 

I’m alone with the ghosts of our town. No one visits the dead at four in the morning.

 

I park and get out. Dad’s cool container rests under my arm. If there is an afterlife, I don’t want Mom looking down and thinking I never do anything for her. Dad’s name is etched next to her own. His birth date is there, but the year of his death is absent.

 

On my knees, I take the trowel and dig a shallow trench a little to the right of where I believe Mom’s casket lies. I spoon a singular clump of my father into the hole with the tip of the trowel; it’s all that will fit inside the mouth of the urn. “Our father who art in heaven…” I recite while I replace the disturbed dirt. I try to mold the disheveled grass back into its original state, but it looks like the hole a raccoon would dig in search of grubs.

 

With my ritual finished, I get into the car, release the e-brake, and back down the narrow path lined with squat stones and reaching spires.

***

I can’t park in front of the house. Not even on the same street. It will look too suspicious at this time in the morning. The sun only slips a few fingers over the tree tops. Five roads down I leave my Corolla resting against the curb. The duffle bag is heavier than I remember and the angular edges of the bricks sway into my legs with each step. I can feel a bruise begin to rise as I turn onto my old street.

 

There is a single light on in the house. It’s in the kitchen. I’m not as focused as I should be nearing my goal. I nearly turn down the driveway when I see a figure bent over picking up the yellow plastic wrappings of the Morning Herald. I freeze.

 

“Uh, hi. Can I help you with something?” the man asks, dark blue bathrobe cinched tight about his waist.

 

“Yes, I was just…” I begin to say.

 

“Isn’t it a little early to be selling home goods,” he cuts me off, looking at my duffle-bag.

 

I look down and notice the emblazoned word Hoover stitched into the fabric. He thinks I’m selling vacuums.

 

“I always start early. You wouldn’t happen to be interested in seeing our new model by any chance?”

 

“No, I don’t think so. My wife just got a new vacuum last year. The thing still works fine, a bit noisy, but what can you do?”

 

“Buy a new one,” I say gesturing to my bag. I’m getting too into my role. He’s convinced. I can stop if I want, leave it at that, and walk away.

 

“Well, what’s the price range looking like?”

 

I make up some ridiculous figure, far too high for any reasonable person to pay for a vacuum. He ponders it, scratching the scruff lining his jaw. He tries to barter. I haggle the price of my nonexistent wares. We come to an impasse. I won’t go any lower, he won’t go any higher.

 

“Do you have a business card I can take back to my wife? We’ll talk it over and see what we can do,” the man says.

 

I fumble my hands in and out of my pockets, an imitation search.

 

“Must have left them back at headquarters,” I say.

 

“Would you mind giving me your name?”

 

“Gordon Brown,” I lie.

 

“Could you come back sometime next week, Gordon? Preferably a little later?”

 

“I’ll add you to the list,” I say, adjusting the strap over my shoulders. We part with a wave and I trudge down the next side road, slowly looping back to where my car is parked. I’ve been careless. You can’t rush things like this, I know that now.

***

 

I’m still ignoring Ricky’s calls. My girlfriend always asks what the messages are about as she sits at the kitchen table, flipping through her magazines. I make up lies, little excuses about a fight we never had. She believes me. She hasn’t commented about the bags under my eyes or the large pad of paper I now spend my nights with. I’ve drawn out the street map, labeled every shady corner.

 

I don’t want to say I’ve been spying on them, but I have. I know the family’s schedule: when they go to work, when they pick their kids up from elementary school. They’re awfully cute; not the kids, no, I’m referring to the parents. They still go on dates every Thursday evening, leaving their two daughters with a babysitter, a high school freshman by the name of Marcy. Don’t ask how I know this; I’m not always proud of my methods. This is the night I will make my deposit. The teenager is clueless. I’ve tossed acorns and rocks at the windows. She doesn’t even stir.

 

“I’m going out to visit Caleb,” I tell my girlfriend.

 

“You should ask him for that plate back. The one we left last time we had dinner over there,” she says without looking up from Better Homes and Gardens.

 

“I will,” I reply.

 

I gently shut the door behind myself, making sure not to knock my bag of bricks into anything resonant or hollow. Thank God it gets dark around five. Seven o’clock seems too early to sneak about, but the night is cloudy and the moon is unnoticeable in the overcast sky.

***

 

Their television flickers in the shutterless windows. I can see the two children, one sitting upon the babysitter’s lap, the other curled up with a pillow pulled to her chest. I can’t make out what they’re watching. I’ve dodged from shadow to shadow all the way to the bulkhead. The lock’s old; the family hasn’t replaced it since we left. I think of when dad used to fumble with his ring of keys to spring the latch. He’d go in through the basement to avoid tracking mud across our carpets. He knew it was my responsibility to sweep.

 

I’ve still got the spare key. I open the doors slowly, remembering their tendency to whine in resistance whenever separated. The stairs are narrow, but I make it down with ease.

 

The light bulbs dangling from the ceiling are bigger than I remember. I resist the urge to pull the chords, washing the room in a bath of light. Like my father’s stories, the room is blanketed in shadow. I’m comfortable, familiar with the setting. I place my bag down before I climb the stairs to the first floor, towel clutched in my hand. I hear footsteps pass the door. They pause for a moment, then scamper back to the TV room. I bend over and force the towel into the crease below the door, making sure it’s snug so no light will escape when the room is illuminated.

 

Click.

 

I can see everything. The lights are new. The old orange gloom once cast is now replaced with a steady brilliant radiance. A tumble of leaves finds its way down the open bulkhead, dancing across the floor like moths blowing in the autumn breeze. I rush to shut it, not wanting a neighbor to notice the disturbance.

 

A few knotted boards lean against the wall where the hole should be. A dark X is spray-painted across the temporary obstruction. I pull the boards apart. No screws hold the planks in place. I lay them gently across the floor, making sure not to make a sound.

 

The wash sink still stands in the corner. I fill my mortar bucket slowly, mixing the fine dust with tap water until the mixture looks the way Better Homes and Gardens said it should.

 

Light seeps into every corner of the room, even those that lie beyond the opening. I’m anxious to see what hides within.

 

I place the bucket next to my pile of bricks. The ledge is too narrow to balance the urn upon.

 

The ceramic material is cool against my arm as I extend my upper body through the opening. I expect emptiness, but staring back at me are the dry, wrinkled faces of a thousand old maids rendered in shadow; their petaled jowls turn up in seedy smiles. I almost scream and drop Dad across the floor, but I hold it down. The faces don’t move; they’re petrified from years of drying in the darkness. Some look more like flowers, others like aunts long past. I almost call their names to see if they’ll acknowledge my presence with a welcoming nod. No, I can’t. I lean my upper body down through the gap in the bricks and nestle Dad amongst the figures, making sure to avoid severing any stems.

 

I reach back and turn off the one light shining directly into the opening. I can’t have them all looking at me as I place the bricks. I feel guilty, like their last chance of sunlight is being snuffed out one rectangular block at a time.

 

I slather the mortar across the bricks, smooth it and secure each piece. I keep thinking they are whispering to me. I can almost recognize voices; deep sonorous pleas mixed with nasally intonations criticizing my handiwork, begging for me to stop. I shrug them off; sleep-deprivation I tell myself. The whole process takes no more than ten minutes; it’s not a very large opening. The noise continues to reverberate from inside the now-closed-off room. Is it getting louder? No, I ignore it. The echoes are inside my head. I replace the boards, shut off the lights, remove the towel, and make it to the stairs leading out of the basement. I turn for one last look and notice I’ve left the duffle bag behind.

 

Jaunting back to where the bag lies, I pick it up and something tumbles to the ground. I nudge it with my foot, then bend to retrieve it. It’s an elderly sunflower, brown and taut, dried to a husk-like exoskeleton. I go to sniff it, to see if any last whiff of sweet scent lingers on its petals. It smells like my mother’s perfume—a smell that hasn’t circulated my memory in years. It jostles recollections. That’s how she smelled at her wake. I can see Dad daubing it around her neck and across her chest before the mourners arrived. He always planned things to be perfect. To recreate in death what was present in life.

 

A horror creeps into my skull, milling about amongst the murmuring cries of the discarded flowers. It comes to me. I remember the last story my father struggled to put down. I brought him tea, decaffeinated green, just as an excuse to read over his shoulder. I can see the words, picture the murderer’s hand as he clasps a woman’s throat from an alley’s shadow, envision the florist’s smile as he sprinkles their ashes over roses and lilies that line his storefront window. My father sprinkled the ashes of his burnt manuscript amongst the hydrangeas on our front lawn the day he gave up writing.

 

His voice urges me to go.

 

I run, letting the bulkhead slam. It doesn’t matter anymore. The scream that has been pressing against the caverns of my throat erupts in time with the metallic clatter. They become one note and goad me forth. Faces of the old women follow me as I sprint to my car, duffle bag flapping awkwardly against my hip. They’re there as I buckle my seatbelt, as I turn down roads, zig in and out of traffic trying to shake them. I park in our driveway, nearly plowing through the garage door. They’re in my house. They nestle down with me as I drag the covers off my girlfriend’s sleeping form. She doesn’t wake. How can she slumber with all those faces peering down at her? I close my eyes and tell myself they will be gone when I wake.

***

 

Calming sleep finds me slowly. When I doze, so do they, petals and eyes never roaming my dreams. Only my father’s face greets me, wordlessly smiling as if he’s looking on something beautiful he’s created, the only original story his hand left behind.

 

______________________________________________

Corey Farrenkopf received his B.A. and M.Ed from Umass Amherst. He works as a stove technician and writes during the evening. His work has been published in Gravel, The Avalon Literary Review, Literary Orphans Journal, and Sleet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or Facebook.

“The Front Seat”

My school bus was Lord of the Flies on wheels, and I was Piggy. Nighttime tears shed the residue of that day’s humiliations. My parents’ variegated forms of “Children are cruel” landed as corroboration rather than sympathy. Their concern quickly sewed into ennui hemmed with frustration. An inveterate eavesdropper, I monitored their conversations from the other side of the door, which was the auditory equivalent of reading someone’s diary. Often, what I overheard was hurtful.

“Well, she’s turned into quite a heifer, so she’s ripe for the poking—no pun intended,” my father once said to my mother. I remember that specifically because I had to look up “pun” in the dictionary. He added that, were the situation all that dire, it would’ve motivated me to lose weight. And, if anything, I had gained weight, which according to him positioned me as an accomplice to the so-called crime. He told my mother they needed to “help me help myself.” Their offensive began by not signing the bus contract for sixth grade. Instead, a cash-hungry French teacher who had arranged a carpool would drive me to school. There I would be safe from pint-size cruelty’s maul and lash.

“This is going to be a better year. I can just feel it,” my mother exclaimed on my first day of sixth grade. Though self-conscious, insecure, and yes, fat, I glommed onto her optimism. Maybe this year would bridge easier terrain, which given those first few anticlimactic weeks seemed warranted.

The French teacher’s Country Squire station wagon resembled a hearse. To this day, I shiver when I see one of those behemoths hulking curbside, dodging extinction. The olive-green hood and fenders on Monsieur Lenoir’s were cavitied with rusty abscesses. Wood flanks hollowed from abuse. Inside, taped-over gashes on worn leather magnified copious bald spots, evincing a hag who had lived too long and seen too much. It was less ominous, however, than the modern, sleek bus where youths preened their callousness.

Had my mother, who was squalor averse, glimpsed the ochre, crusty, holed upholstery in Monsieur Lenoir’s car, I would have been back on that bus faster than my tormentors could say, “You’re not sitting here, fatty.” Her southern upbringing and twang instilled a devotion to etiquette and a reverence for musical accents. Hence, she glamorized all things French. In that language she drawled words too uncouth to say in English. It was de rigeur to yell “Merde” as opposed to “Shit” in profane circumstances. Given her Francophilia, she would have been dismayed to learn that Monsieur Lenoir was, in fact, a French-speaking Haitian, not a native of France.

My contentment proved short lived. The teacher, despite the name of his car, was no squire. Adept at navigating temper minefields, I made sure I was always waiting for him and not vice versa. Monsieur Lenoir often ran late. And when he did his joviality disintegrated into anger. The man’s blue eyes would lose their endearing sparkle that compensated for a pockmarked, jaundiced pallor masking his true ugliness. Still, nothing about this gnomish little monsieur read predator.

At first, this new transportation warded me from evil like an amulet. As the last child picked up, I sat directly behind Monsieur Lenoir, next to a shy fourth grader. She wouldn’t dare tease me even if it crossed her mind. An unspoken hierarchy existed: elders were feared if not exactly respected. My former bus mates, who had feasted on my weaknesses, no longer hungered for me, save an occasional bite. The two new girls I had befriended vouchsafed a certain protection and mercy—at school. Upon arrival, we bedraggled lot of carpooling misfits scattered to our separate classrooms like cockroaches when a light comes on.

Just as things seemed to be gelling, on the third Friday morning Monsieur Lenoir said that he was rearranging us to accommodate a new addition. I was to sit in the front with him, trading places with a skinny geek. A fifth grader’s younger brother was coming up front, too, but given his size I figured he’d sit the middle, leaving my head to rest against another dirty window. I was loath to change seats. In my young mind, this newfound peacefulness—tentative and raw— depended on the status quo.

“But why can’t we stay in the seats we started in?” I asked.

Mon Dieu! Listen, Abbey, don’t you give me no trouble you hear?” His voice cadenced in a chilling whisper through gritted teeth.

The following Monday morning, our driver pulled up to my building ahead of schedule. I was waiting. He stepped into the melee of oncoming traffic to open the front passenger door. As I wedged between the bumper and fender of two parked cars, horns honked impatiently. He waved them off with invectives.

“Jimmy, come out. Abbey, go in the middle,” he ordered.

“He’s smaller, shouldn’t he move to the middle seat?”

“Ugh,” he screamed, “there is no seat belt in the middle, it’s too dangerous for him. What did I tell you about not giving me no trouble? Maybe you want to take the bus again, eh?”

Embarrassment circulated through me like venom. I jerked over to the middle.

Bookended between the teacher and this morsel of a boy, I was acutely aware of my girth; thighs oozed past the seat margins like blood seeps from a dressing. Unnerved, I shook my leg to release tension. In response, Monsieur Lenoir patted then rested his hand on my knee. When the movement ceased he did not retract it. His crab-like hand with clawed fingers encased in nubby dry shells had attached itself. I recoiled, sliding as far toward Jimmy as I could. The crustacean tightened its grip. Then, it began to scuttle up and down my thigh.

“It feels good, eh?”

My heart started to race; my throat constricted. “Not really,” I squeaked rather than affirmed.

Leaning closer to me he cooed, “Don’t you give me no trouble, you hear.”

His warm cigarette-y morning breath assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed and coughed. Droplets of sputum landed like granules of sand. As though it were acid, Monsieur Lenoir’s claw fled to the wheel.

“Eh, what’s the matter with you? You want to cause an accident?” He asked loudly enough to garner the other passengers’ attention. I imagined all heads behind me raised, their eyes boring into the back of mine in tacit condemnation.

Monsieur Lenoir delivered the question as an admonishment. I had been duly chastised. By exorcizing anxiety through my limb and with my coughing fit, I could have caused him to crash. The quavering had beseeched his attention and distracted him and endangered us. If he called my parents I would get in huge trouble. Or worse. It was either Monsieur’s carpool or the bus. I shouted an apology.

Tres bien.” I understood that meant “very good,” though I suspected it wasn’t good enough.

I had intended to preemptively mention the incident to my mother, but I did not. She had begun to greet me at the door with a smile, enjoying the reprieve from snarls and tears that had greeted her most afternoons in previous years. It was a Friday, and at home with the weekend ahead of me, Monsieur Lenoir’s image unthreaded and faded like an old tapestry.

I suppose I enjoyed my mother’s positive feedback, though I couldn’t have qualified it as such back then.

“Well, it’s such a pleasure to see you in a good mood.”

“School has been going okay.”

“I’m so glad to hear it, ma chérie. Come in the kitchen, I made you a healthy snack.”

Healthy was code for low calorie, which deflated me instantly. On the plate were four sticks of celery with a dollop of mustard on the side, lean materials that would build a thinner me. I had squirreled a bag of Peanut M &M’s in my book bag to insulate me from hunger. I could not tell my mother that having scarfed a chocolate donut before leaving school, I wasn’t hungry for crudité.

“Um, thanks, but I have a lot of homework, so…” As I walked out of the kitchen, her voice trailed after me. “Abbey, you’re not eating a thing, yet you don’t appear to be losing weight. It’s a riddle for your father and me.”

Food, my cure and my affliction: instant temporary gratification that kept me fat. My parents pleaded, cajoled, and bribed me to lose weight. They sent me to a diet doctor, where my weight inched up in half pounds. Though lean and fit, my parents nevertheless dieted with me. My father signed himself and me up for ice skating lessons—exercise and togetherness. My mother aligned shopping sprees with weight loss goals. They filled the cookie jar and pantry with junk food to model discipline, resisting it along with me. But in the middle of the night I would tiptoe to the kitchen and dip into every bag and canister, taking a small amount from each to avoid getting caught.

My room was my refuge. The wall-long window looked out to a courtyard between our building and the abutting townhouses. Alternating between lush and bare with the seasons, it was an apt metaphor for my ever-shifting perspective. I daydreamed about the lives lived in the apartment across from ours, where shadows moved behind opaque curtains. Lithe and graceful, I imbued them with a narrative I wished were my own: that of a gentle, loving family. Torment began to dog me at home. The children who’d lost my scent at school had metamorphosed into my hounding father.

His impatience and hand tremors calibrated in proportion to my weight. It was as though he were Narcissus and my heft a river. I reflected as his failure. He said things such as, “Abbey, it’s not just the fat, it’s what the fat broadcasts: ‘I have no discipline’”; “If you weren’t so pretty I wouldn’t bother—svelte won’t help ugly”; or “I am trying to help you because boys do not have to settle for just a pretty face when there are plenty of pretty, thin girls out there.” Some were compliments, others he intended to be constructive. They all torpedoed my confidence.

On a Monday morning at breakfast, a few weeks after school had started, his right hand began quivering uncontrollably. He dropped his mug. The coffee-splattered wallpaper cried tears of brown liquid. Embarrassed, he left to change his clothes. As my mother sponged around me and my pick-up time and Monsieur Lenoir neared, I announced that my stomach hurt. “You just devoured a scrambled egg and two pieces of toast.” She felt my forehead. No fever. She called my father back to the table for verification. The back of his left hand, its ring finger bulbous with matrimonial gold, landed like a punch. “Ouch!” “Nope, cool as a cucumber. Try eating more slowly, or,” he paused, “less.”

Monsieur Lenoir reached past Jimmy and pushed open passenger door. “Get in the middle.” Situated, I focused on constraining myself within the charred leather demarcations. The teacher’s left hand was on the steering wheel. The right, now a clandestine tarantula, sat poised for action. Furry tentacular fingers grazed the top of his pants. They scampered to his groin. Monsieur Lenoir elbowed me as he fondled himself. The low, guttural noises that accompanied his masturbation seemed audible only to me. I looked over at Jimmy who, leaning against the window, head cradled in his right arm, appeared oblivious. Perhaps the thick oversized Fair Isle sweater I wore to hide my protruding belly blocked his view. The noise stopped. I glanced at Monsieur Lenoir. Both hands were on the steering wheel. Clearing his throat, he instructed us to gather our things; we were almost at school.

I went directly to the nurse’s office. A lie had scaled into the truth. The dissonant groans echoing in my ears had tailed into a vertiginous nausea. When it finally subsided boredom descended. Old yearbooks were stocked on the bookshelves of her makeshift clinic.

I flipped through them, idling on photographs of pretty girls. Blithe, toothy grins stenciled vibrant, pearly crescents onto their thin faces atop thinner bodies. With them, handsome jocks had no physical obstacles to hurdle. My father would have been proud to call any one of those girls his daughter.

The crotchety, past-her-prime nurse telephoned my mother hourly. She never answered. I took the late bus home to avoid Monsieur Lenoir, arriving just before our dinnertime: 6:45 p.m., sharp.

No sooner were we seated than the interrogation began. Meals had devolved to Darwinian experiments, for which I was unfit. Survival resided in short answers and averted eye contact. Most nights I changed into a light blue sweatshirt hoping to fade into our dining room walls, which were painted the same color. And each time I did, I was reminded of the exercise’s futility. We formed a triangle at the table, my father at the head and my mother and I on either side. My chair was tall, high-armed, bow legged and stiff, a wooden marshal with a fugitive in custody. In this autarchic justice system there were no fair trials. My father cross-examined me until I perjured myself.

“Abbey, have you gained weight?”

“I, I, I don’t think so.”

“Well, are your clothes tight?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if your clothes are tight?”

“I haven’t noticed. I mean, I guess not.”

“You look heavier to me.”

“What?”

“You say ‘excuse me,’ not ‘what.’ We can’t have people thinking you are being

raised in a barn, though you’re starting to resemble a…never mind.”

Pig.

My teeth clenched. Tears pooled. Sweat leaked.

“Jane, what exactly have you been feeding her in the afternoons?”

Through her tightened jaw, slit eyes, blushing skin, my mother’s expression amalgamated fear, indignation, and restraint. “What we discussed, exactly. And she hasn’t been eating it,” she said, quietly.

“Is that true Abbey?”

“Yes, I mean no, I mean I really haven’t been eating a lot so I don’t know how I could’ve gained weight.”

“Staying away from the cookies and candy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure?”

He didn’t badger a witness unless he had evidence. I should have interpreted it as a signal to yield, but instead I said, “No.” And, just like an unwitting swine, it was as though I marched into the pen; the barn door locked behind me.

“That’s curious to me. Yesterday there were four stacks of twenty cookies, and today there are four stacks of nineteen.”

The night before, after they went to bed, I took one from each stack—to make sure they remained even.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” My voice cracked.

“You know the punishment for lying. I don’t want to hear another word.” Then he tagged on, “And I’m going to weigh you, too.”

I watched him wrest meat from his chicken leg and gnaw on cartilage. Lying was the crime, no time discount for entrapment. Doomed, I berated myself for every sugary sin.

I had gained two pounds. This excited the mathematician in him. My father multiplied by twelve months, then those twenty-four pounds by a varying number of years, to estimate my impending obesity. And to formulate how many lashes, he divided the number on the scale by twelve. He told me to take down my pants and lean over his bed. My bare ass goosebumped with anticipation. I put my head down on their rose-colored, satiny bedspread and wept while he whipped. Afterward, with his belt rebuckled, he migrated to the den to pour himself a scotch. I could hear ice cubes jingling from his shaking hand as I wobbled to my room.

I never thought about it before, but I wonder if he steadied his thrashing hand by gripping the wrist above it with his free one. That would have added momentum and strength.

Later, numbed by the alcohol into his version of remorse, he would apologize. He couldn’t stand that I was being humiliated. He was at his wits’ end having tried everything he could think of to get me to lose weight. He didn’t know how else to get through to me.

I think he lacked the introspection to see that he was simply repeating what his father had done to him.

My mother would come in shortly thereafter to ask if I needed anything: a glass of water, a cold compress, a hug.

I can still taste the sour hatred that curdled on my tongue.

Yes: protection, an ally, a mother. Handcuffed by fear, shackled in subservience, he had withered her. Whenever she ventured an opinion, he retaliated with, “You move your mouth and I’ll talk.” I crimsoned with shame for her. Those power plays were an admission of sorts. Though diminutively thin and short in stature, my mother possessed a shimmering intellect that my father was smart enough to reckon dangerous.

At ten-years-old, I understood on a visceral level that I was tougher and more resilient than my mother. She, too, had been an only child, whose idyllic, sheltered upbringing had ill-prepared her for combat. I was weaned on her husband’s frustration and wrath.

By the next morning my welts had fainted to a scribble of red lines like a crossed out mistake. They would remain tender for days. Fresh from the hot seat in my dining room, I edged into the decrepit station wagon’s middle seat. Monsieur Lenoir whistled as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel the other on his thigh closest to me. I yelped when it leapt to mine. He pinched me quiet. I held my breath as his fingers began crawling toward my vagina. I willed myself mummified. Monsieur Lenoir jimmied my legs apart. He rubbed and chafed. The seam of my corduroys dug into my labia. Both rigid, we were two sticks. I wanted to ignite, smolder to ashes, burrow in the crevices, meld with the rest of the grime and trash. Was Jimmy watching? Would he tell people? In my peripheral vision I noted that his ears were covered with one elbow jutting toward me. If it could speak it would have said, “You have cooties.”

Monsieur Lenoir jerked his hand away, flapping it as though I had scorched him.

Did he think I wanted him to do this? I couldn’t be sure if the other passengers were aware of what was happening to me. They tendered neither subtle allusions nor overt acknowledgements.

Certain Monsieur Lenoir would call my parents, distort the situation, and pin the blame on me, I resolved to tell my mother. She met me at the door clothed in a tea length, bell-sleeved floral print dress, her hair pulled back in a chignon, joviality plastered on her face. At first I balked, worried that the conversation would sully her mood and outfit.

“What’s newsie?” (News+New=Newsie.)

“I got an A on my history paper.”

“That’s the best newsie! See, you do much better without me.”

(My mother had helped me with a biography of Julius Caesar. I got a C+. Apparently, she was unfamiliar with new writing and new math, having been taught the old way.)

She brought me a plate with Granny Smith apple slices, a teaspoon of honey, and my courage. “Mom, I have to talk to you about something very important.”

A big exhalation was followed by, “Should I sit down for this?”

“I want to take the bus again.”

This newsie startled her. “Mais pour quoi?”

Her French catalyzed my reticence into ire. “Because I hate Monsieur Lenoir, that’s why.”

“Is he not a good driver? Do you feel unsafe?”

Her questions were banal and appropriate. I faltered. “He’s gross. His car is gross. I just don’t want to go with him anymore.”

My mother’s equanimity wavered. “I’m sorry Abigail, but this makes no sense to me. Out of the blue you want to go back on the bus? Are you being picked on in that car—because I can talk to…”

“That’s not it,” I interrupted her.

“Excuse me!” my lack of politesse affronted her. I apologized. There were a few beats of silence. I figured she was scrolling through possibilities, weighing whether they would require French translations or threaten her emotional balance. I might have chickened out had she not said, “Why don’t you just tell me the problem, and then we can decide if there’s a solution.” Passivity, her reflex, emboldened me.

It gushed like verbal vomit. “It’s Monsieur Lenoir. The first time he just touched his, you know, private part, but then, I mean now, well twice, he rubbed my, you know, vagina.” I whispered vagina and croaked the rest of the story. Her narrowed moss green eyes converged word by word into a swamp of tears. She plopped down next to me on the banquette. With her arms around me, fingers combing my thick brown hair, she kept repeating that she was sorry. It was the first time I remember feeling that her love for me had density and vitality. Perhaps she feared that my father would mistake affection for coddling, an indication of weakness under his regime.

Thinking back, I don’t ever remember seeing them hold hands.

Rocking in my armchair after confessing, I wondered if secrets weighed anything. Free of mine I felt lighter. There was no movement behind the curtained windows of the apartment across the way, nothing to embellish with narrative. Chilly weather had unleaved the courtyard’s trees. An audience of naked branches with long, sinewy arms were adjoined at the tips as though they were clapping, for me. I heard my father bellow, “Hello.” He expected my mother and me, his sheep, to flock. Having beaten me to the door, she motioned me back to my room. Hearing their bedroom door shut I assumed my regular post, ear affixed to the crack in the frame.

“That is exactly what she told me, and yes, I believe her.” My mother had recited my story almost verbatim.

“Jane, take a good look at your daughter. Why would this guy choose her?”

“That’s exactly why he would choose her, Jerry. He’d think she was an easy mark.”

“Listen, we shouldn’t take things like this lightly, but we can’t accuse the man; it’s her word against his—he could sue us for defamation of character or something.”

“Not if he’s guilty. Child molesting is a crime. Our daughter could be seriously scarred by this; it’s the sort of thing that renders adults incapable of having intimate relationships.”

“Whoa—she’s about thirty pounds and a lot of years away from an ‘intimate relationship.’ In terms of Abbey’s sex life, if that’s what you mean, right now I doubt she’s even a candidate for, what’s the game where they spin the bottle and have to kiss the kid it lands on?”

“Spin the Bottle.”

“You get my point. You remember last Valentine’s Day when the kids on the bus threw black paper hearts at her.”

“You are, can be, as cruel and heartless as those kids.”

“If I recall correctly, you put her in this situation. Had you even met this guy? What did you know about Mr. Lenoir when you entrusted our daughter to him? Nothing, that’s what! I’m heartless and cruel but you’re the one who handed her over to some pedophile who molested her.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I feel terrible? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself!”

“And I’ll tell you something else,” he yelled, “Men like this are not one-time offenders!”

My mouth fell agape. He was almost defending me. But at my mother’s expense. It was always someone else’s fault. He had done his time, scapegoated for his mother’s death, endured my grandfather’s wet-towel whippings as penance.

“I would never intentionally endanger our daughter. I was trying to spare her,” my mother pleaded.

“Well, Jane, you know what they say about the road to hell. You got her into this. You believe her, you handle it.”

The next morning brown sugar and butter accompanied my oatmeal, testaments to parental guilt. No one uttered a word until I broke the silence.

“Um, how am I getting to school today?”

My father said, “Today you go with Mr. Lenoir. But you will not be in the front seat.”

My jaw dropped. Then bravery rocketed through me and out my mouth. “You can’t be serious—you’re making go back in that car?” My nose tingled, a precursor to weeping.

He and my mother locked eyes. My father’s hand went up, his fingers fanned, like a stop sign. “Abigail, we need more than twelve hours to sort this out. I promise you, he will not hurt you anymore.”

It was obvious that a discussion had ensued with Monsieur Lenoir, one that I did not overhear.

I shuffled toward my assailant, a giant marshmallow in my bulky white down jacket. He thumbed in the direction of the backseat. My spongy legs froze in place. Monsieur Lenoir angrily tapped the door. I could not look at him as I tumbled gracelessly into my former seat. The fourth grade girl who wouldn’t dare tease me had replaced me in the front. Staring at the back of her French-braided head I wondered if she would be his next victim. “C’est pas ma problem,” I decided. Morning light glinting through the besmirched window splintered into rainbow prisms that haloed her with dust.

I never forgot what my father said about men like Monsieur Lenoir: they don’t do it just once. I wish I could forget many of the other things he said. I wish his tremors had been guilt instead of Parkinson’s. I wish he had lived long enough to see my thin self. Whether I have a pretty face is subjective, but thinness is a fact with gradations of thinner. While many women gain fifteen pounds during their freshman year of college, I came home one month into mine to bury my father. Weight loss followed.

______________________________________________

V.E. Gottlieb
In 2014, at forty-eight-years-old, I earned my MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program. Prior to that I raised my two children and co-created Pam&Vix, a weekly blog that focused on parenting-related issues. I am currently working on my first novel, The Holders.

“First Confession”

“You are at the age of reason,” Sister said, “ready to understand the mystery of transubstantiation.”  She cued them with her ruler.

“Tran-sub-stan-ti-a-tion,” the children repeated. Angie spoke it softly, enjoying the roominess of the word, its multiple, mysterious syllables that would teach her how to be good.

They were in second grade, preparing for their First Communion. They were seven years old.

It was catechism hour, and Sister Patrick Marie swept up and down the aisles of the classroom, impossibly quiet in her heavy black shoes and voluminous black drapes. She called out questions, and Angie mouthed the words inside the murmurings of the other children.

Who made me?

God made me.

Then Father Mulligan, who had the habit of dropping in without warning, stood at the door and the children scrambled to attention beside their desks and greeted him. But they were not in unison. Their voices were low, their syllables staggered, and everything sounded like scuffling feet. Sister Patrick gave a closed-mouth smile to Father with one side of her face and scowled at the children with the other side. They had failed her in front of Father. Sister signaled for them to atone by reciting more of their catechism, which they delivered in the perfect singsong of their playground chants.

Where is God?

God is everywhere.

Father asked them to pray for John F. Kennedy, who was running for President of the United States. They all obeyed fervently, lifting their brown faces heavenward, since everyone knew that if Nixon became president, he would make them go to school on Saturdays, and that was un-American.

Before Father left, he told them to make room on their chair for their guardian angel, who was always at their side. They all scooted to the edge of their narrow wooden seats as they resumed their lesson. Angie’s thigh and shoulder soon ached from scrunching herself up. She didn’t dare move, though. With Sister Patrick patrolling the aisles and Father Mulligan making surprise visits, her guardian angel taking up part of her desk space, and God everywhere, Angie was surrounded and under watch.

It was the same at home, which was not really their home. They were staying with her grandparents. It was the home their mother, Delia, grew up in along with her sister, Nelda. The two of them had shared a bedroom and fought and told each other secrets. Now the three Rubio sisters shared a room with Nelda, who said and did surprising things. Sometimes, after taking off her bra and before slipping on her nightgown, she would hold one of her breasts in her hand and say, “Want some teta?” And she would laugh a wicked, cackling laugh.

Her son was Little Eddie, even though there seemed to be no Big Eddie from whom to distinguish him. Little Eddie slept in the dining room on a cot now that the Rubios had moved in. Angie’s grandparents snored in their twin beds in the bedroom just off the living room. Angie’s parents slept in the living room on the fold-out couch, which creaked when they tossed and turned. Baby Anthony slept between them. They had left his crib behind in Hawaii.

They had left other things behind in Hawaii. Some toys, most of their comic books, their skates, their plastic pool, a box of clothing, and their hula hoops. And Angie felt like she had left something of herself behind. They had crossed the ocean this time not in the three-day seasick journey by ship, but by plane. The close-up view of clouds and the long drop to earth made Angie think of how much space there would be between their life in Hawaii and their life back here in California.

They were bigger now—Eva was nine, Angie seven, and Letty five—and there was the extra fact of Anthony. It was so crowded in her grandparents’ house. They absorbed each other’s sweat during the day and heard each other breathe at night. The bathroom offered no escape, nor did the porch or backyard. There was always someone else there or waiting their turn. Nelda and their mother sat on the front porch until it was dark and the moths flattened themselves around the porch light. Anthony would sit and babble in his playpen in the living room, soothed by their grandfather’s growls as he argued with the TV and their grandmother crocheted. They watched the Spanish language station, which Delia and Nelda understood, but Angie’s father, Henry, didn’t. He would walk around the block over and over until Delia called out to him to come inside.

Angie and her sisters and Little Eddie did their homework on the dining room table, then played cards—Crazy Eights or Old Maid—and then ran their own bath. The sisters were required to take a bath together to save water. Then Eva ran one for Little Eddie, who was four and still sucked his thumb and ate his snots. The Rubio sisters stayed in the bathroom with him, sometimes lathering and scrubbing him as if he were the family dog.

One evening, instead of taking a walk around the block, Henry got in the car and came back with a small portable TV, which he hooked up in the dining room. Now after dinner each evening, he would watch the news and then Perry Mason or Gunsmoke while the TV in the living room jabbered in Spanish and Delia and Nelda shared movie magazines on the porch. The children crowded at the small kitchen table to do their homework, a move they accepted without protest, as it placed them within arm’s reach of their grandfather’s stash of Vanilla Wafers. Sometimes Angie peeked into the dining room from her perch at the kitchen table to watch her father watching TV. One night she went to sit with him while the news was on.

“Daddy,” she asked, her cheek harboring part of a Vanilla Wafer. “Do you know what transubstantiation is?”

“Ask your mother.”

“I know what it is.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

Angie decided to ask her father a question that he could answer.

“Daddy, what’s the cold war?”

“It’s when people aren’t fighting each other, even though they really want to.”

Gunsmoke had come on and her father raised the volume to drown out the

Spanish-dubbed I Spy on her grandparents’ TV in the adjoining room.

Sister Patrick stood at the front of the classroom, grimmer than usual and with the disconcerting appearance of a tear in one eye, its glisten magnified by her glasses.

“Our beloved Sister Paul Anna has taken ill.”

Some of the girls started crying. Angie felt a pang inside her ribcage, as if a rock had lodged there, and felt her face go hot at the thoughts she had had recently about Sister Paul Anna. Since she had seen Nelda’s breasts, Angie had wondered about her mother’s, even her grandmother’s. At school, she had wondered about the nuns. Did they have them?  But really, it was Sister Paul she had been curious about. Sister Paul with her young, movie-star face that Angie’s mother said was the image of Elizabeth Taylor.

“We must all pray for her,” Sister Patrick said.

As preparation for their First Communion, they practiced daily the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition. They kneeled beside their desks and recited these now. Then Sister Patrick ordered them to close their eyes and say a silent prayer from their hearts.

Angie closed her eyes and imagined Sister Paul in her bed beneath the blanket pulled to her chin, her head and body encased in the big black robes of her habit, her face pale and sweaty. Angie concentrated so hard on the image, she could summon no words of prayer. Sister Patrick ended the silence with a loud amen, and Angie held herself rigid, certain that Sister could read her thoughts or know her lack of prayer.

When they were back in their seats, Sister told them to take out a sheet of paper. “You will each write Sister Paul Anna a heartfelt get-well letter.”

Sister Patrick lay her hand over her heart to demonstrate the expected source of their words. Angie was aware of the children around her putting their own hands to their hearts because they knew that was what Sister expected of them and they were afraid to do otherwise. Angie placed her hand at the top of her ribcage, her fingers hanging off the left side of her collarbone. She felt her heart beat into the corner of her palm.

Angie listened to other people’s conversations a lot, and because she lived in a house with so many people and two TVs, she had a lot of conversations to listen to and, therefore, lots of words and sentences hovering in the spaces of her brain. She was a careful writer, both in forming her letters and her thoughts, even if not all of them were exactly her own.

Dear Sister Paul Anna,

During this time of cold war in the world, you have always been a breath of fresh air. You are the favorite of girls and boys and for those who think young. My faith that you will get well soon keeps me going strong.

Angie reread her words. She didn’t think nuns watched TV so was pretty sure that Sister Paul wouldn’t recognize the slogans from the Pepsi, Slinky, and Sugar Crisp commercials. It was a pretty good letter, she thought, but not special. Sister Patrick was telling them to finish up their letters soon, so Angie wrote quickly.

When you come back, you will have a big surprise.

Sincerely,

Angie Rubio

Angie didn’t know what made her write such a thing. As Sister Patrick collected their letters, Angie wondered what exactly she had meant by that. What surprise could she, Angie, possibly invent?  She watched Sister stack the letters on the corner of her desk and told herself that her letter was just one of many. It was nothing special. She forced a sigh of relief.

The next day when she came in from recess, there was a familiar sheet of paper on her desk. It was her own letter to Sister Paul Anna. For some reason she panicked at the sight of her words that were exposed for all to see. She looked up to see Sister Patrick, who was making a gesture at her, turning her open palm to face down, and finally Angie understood she was meant to flip over the letter. On the back was a letter from Sister Paul.

Dear Angie,

Thank you for such a lovely letter. It cheered me up greatly. I look forward to the day when I can return to the classroom.

Yours,

Sister Paul Anna

No one else had received a letter from Sister Paul. But then probably no one else had promised her a big surprise.

She knew Sister Patrick had read her letter and she knew Sister Patrick had read the response from Sister Paul. It was a terrible thing to know.

It was Delia who had insisted they go to the Catholic school, though Henry argued they couldn’t afford it. “I’m on a seaman’s salary.”

“What’s the alternative?” Delia demanded. “The public school all rowdy with bullies and low-income kids?”

“You think there are no bullies in Catholic school?”

“Bullies are everywhere,” Angie said, amending a line from her catechism.

Delia would not budge. The money they might have spent on renting a house went instead to paying Catholic school tuition for three kids. Anyway, Delia reasoned, Catholic school made more sense now that Angie was to make her First Communion.

But when Angie came home with homework to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, the names of the Apostles, plus learn all her prayers, there was no one to help her. Henry liked to watch the news and Perry Mason, and Delia was always busy rocking Anthony to ease the fussiness to which he had lately become prone. Although happy to be back in California, Delia was nevertheless worried that the transoceanic trip and their new living arrangements had unsettled Anthony.

Angie followed her mother into the bedroom, where she lay Anthony on the bed to change his diaper. Angie thought her mother might have some ideas about what kind of a big surprise a nun might want. She handed her mother a wet cloth, the baby powder, and a fresh diaper. Her mother cooed to Anthony as she wiped and changed him, and Angie did the same. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” they said hopefully.

There were just the plastic pants to slip on, but Nelda was calling Delia to come listen to Doris Day on the radio. “Cantamos con la Doris.”

“I’ll be right back,” her mother told her. “Watch Anthony. Make sure he doesn’t fall off the bed.”

Angie watched her little brother squirm, his arms and legs like fat thrashing worms.

“You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” Angie said again, though this time it didn’t come out as a coo, as sweet encouragement. It sounded mocking, and Anthony started to cry, as if he understood her taunt.

“I’ll be right there, mijo,” her mother called, interrupting for a moment her sing- along to “Que Será, Será.”

Angie decided to deliver Anthony to her mother to save her the trouble of coming back to the bedroom. “Okay, mijo,” she told him as he observed her with wide eyes and a spit bubble at his mouth.

She lifted Anthony off the bed, her arms wrapped around his bottom. She expected his torso to follow the momentum of his butt against her body, but Anthony lurched backward and Angie did a dance with him as she tried to get her balance underneath his arching body. He was trying to launch himself out of her grasp and she knew the only hope she had was to make sure the bed was beneath him when he forced himself out of her arms and became airborne. But she was too late. The thud of his head on the floor stunned him into silence for a long moment during which Angie wondered if she might’ve killed her brother. But then he opened his mouth in a tragic scream. Angie gathered him quickly and practically threw him on the bed, which seemed to mollify him, as his screams petered out to hiccups just as her mother rushed to the bedside. She picked Anthony up and patted his head, his back, his diapered butt, and sent soothing whispers into his neck. She looked at Angie. “Did you let him fall?”

She hesitated. The answer was technically no. She had not let him fall.

“Don’t you lie to me,” her mother warned. “Did you let him fall?”

“No,” Angie said.

Her mother appeared to fume. “I sincerely hope not,” she said, whisking Anthony out of the room.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” They were the words Angie had been practicing in catechism class, words she would say to the priest the first time she stepped inside the confessional. They were to be followed by a recitation of her sins. So far, Angie’s list was short, which worried her. She was sure that much was expected of them in terms of sin. Should she lie about her sins? No, that would be a sin. But then at least she would have something to confess. She was undecided about whether dropping Anthony was a sin.

“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you? Aunt Nelda said as Angie kneeled at the bedside practicing her lines. “Because it’s dark in the confessional, you know.”

In fact, Angie was afraid of the dark, though she seldom had to worry about being alone in it at her grandparents’ house. There were so many of them living there under one roof. Anyway, there were lights constantly turned on as one or another of them made their way to the bathroom for a pee or the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night.

Letty was in Nelda’s bed and Eva was next to Angie. Nelda, as usual, was in her underwear as she sat at her dresser, wiping make-up from her face with cotton balls dipped in baby oil from the same bottle used for Anthony’s butt. When she was finished, she shrugged the straps of her bra off her shoulders and reached around the back to undo the clasp, and said what she always said. “Want some teta?”

They had always shaken their heads, not really knowing what they were being offered. Tonight, though, Letty asked, “What’s teta?”

Nelda laughed. “I’m just teasing.”

Then she explained she used to feed Little Eddie with milk from her breasts.

“Our mother uses bottles,” Angie said.

“Not with me,” Eva said. “I was breastfed.”

“You were not,” Angie said, though she had no way of knowing; she just felt it shouldn’t

be true. But Nelda confirmed it.

“What about me?”

Nelda wagged her finger at her as if she had committed a wrong. “It’s just too much to ask of a woman to do it with more than one child. It makes a saggy bust,” she said, cupping her breasts in her hands, lifting them up and then letting them go. “They wouldn’t look this good if I’d had another baby to feed.”

Angie didn’t like having Nelda wag her finger at her. She didn’t like Nelda reminding her that the confessional was dark. She didn’t like when Nelda would tease and ask them to do the hula just because they’d lived in Hawaii.

Before Hawaii, Angie had not thought to question the absence of a father for Little Eddie, a husband for Aunt Nelda. But now, after Hawaii, now that she was seven, these things occurred to her and she formed her own conclusions. That you didn’t have to be married to have children. That somehow just being a grown-up caused you to have a child. Of course, this conclusion was soundly refuted by Eva. It doesn’t just happen automatically, she snorted. There has to be a kiss. And there’s a seed in the kiss. And the woman swallows it and it grows into a baby in her belly.

Who kissed Aunt Nelda, Angie wanted to know. She said it out loud: “Who kissed you and gave you a baby, Aunt Nelda?

Nelda looked stunned, and her lashes batted wildly. It made them all go silent.

“I’m telling Mama,” Letty said, and she slid from the bed and backed out of the room the way policemen do on TV.

Within seconds, their mother stalked into the room with Letty trailing behind. “What’s going on here?”

“Angie wanted to know who kissed Aunt Nelda and gave her a baby,” Eva said.

Their mother pursed her lips and folded her arms. “Nelda had a husband, but he died. Now no more discussion.”  She looked sternly at Angie, as if she might have been responsible for killing him. But Angie knew her mother was lying.

They needed cheering up. Henry was tired of being a sailor and tired of living in someone else’s house. Delia said to him that at least he wasn’t the mother day-in and day-out to all these kids—at least he got to leave the house to go to work. Nelda was still looking tragic after Angie asked who kissed her. And Angie was still worried about the big surprise she had promised Sister Paul Anna. The grown-ups decided a drive to Marine Land to see the dolphins dance and the seals play polo would make them smile. But they would have to get an early start and miss church.

“But I’m not supposed to miss church when I’m studying for my First Communion,” Angie reminded them.

“Do you want to go to Marine Land or not?” her mother asked.

“On Mondays Sister Patrick makes us stand up and say why we didn’t go to church.”

“Ay, chica, just don’t stand up,” Nelda said.

Angie didn’t want to stand up. But she knew she wouldn’t have a choice. At least she could add not going to church to her list of sins to confess, along with asking Nelda who’d kissed her.

All of them squeezed together in the car, the one that had come back with them from Hawaii. The three grown-ups nudged up against each other in the front with baby Anthony on Delia’s lap, and the sisters jostled for space in the back with Little Eddie, from whose neck Nelda had tied a barf bag. There was no room for a guardian angel anywhere. No one complained about the lack of space, because it was better to be crammed in a car with a destination that wasn’t home than it was to be home, which wasn’t really their home.

They were scarcely out of their own neighborhood when a fiercely loud but mostly minor collision sent them home after all. Angie’s father had pulled to a stop behind another car at the traffic light. When the light turned green, and the car ahead failed to move, Angie’s father honked the horn. “We don’t have all day,” he muttered. The car ahead of them had stalled but its engine was doing its best to grind back to life as Angie and her family fumed impatiently in their cramped seats. The engine finally revived with a roar, but before the family could celebrate, their heads were flung against the dashboard, seatbacks, or each other. Angie ended up on the floor, knees at her chin. Little Eddie was splayed over her, his barf bag trapped beneath him. As Nelda screamed for her son, Angie held her hands up to catch the puke from Little Eddie’s mouth. Angie closed her eyes and waited for rescue, listening to her mother’s low wailing of something vague and garbled, which she slowly recognized as prayer.

The car ahead of them had, after revving its newly recharged engine, thundered into reverse and taken out the front grill of the Rubio car. Once they were all extricated from the dented vehicle, and Angie’s hands hosed off at the corner gas station, they sat on the curb as a police officer asked questions, wrote in his notepad, and talked into his two-way radio, after which they were allowed, bruised and scraped, to climb back into their beaten car with its cracked windshield, buckled hood, and empty headlight sockets, and limp home.

On Monday morning, Sister Patrick stood at the front of the room and asked which of them had failed to attend church on Sunday. Those who stood had to explain what had been more important than God. Angie stood bravely to face the humiliation. She stood partly out of her sense that Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, and God already knew of her absence from church. But partly because she felt a little heroic, and she was disappointed that the bruise on her forehead that had seemed so robustly purple the previous day was already fading.

“We were in a car accident,” Angie said, and she couldn’t help raising her hand to her forehead where the bump was − or used to be.

Sister Patrick frowned. Though it might have been concern, suspicion was also a possibility.

“My mother had stitches,” Angie said.

“Well,” Sister said, “thank God you are all safe.” It was a command.

Angie bowed her head, wanting to thank God instead for saving her from the wrath of Sister Patrick.

During silent reading time, when thirty sets of lips were moving soundlessly—including Angie’s, even as her mind wandered to the problem of inventing a big surprise for Sister Paul Anna—Sister Patrick called Angie to her desk.

Angie, shaky with guilt about her inattention to her reading, made her way slowly to Sister Patrick sitting large as a monument at the front of the room.

“Yes, Sister Patrick?” she whispered, aware that many of the lips in the room had ceased moving.

“Angie,” Sister Patrick said in a low, deep voice, “what is this big surprise you have in store for Sister Paul?”

Angie could not swallow, could not force words from her throat. She shrugged, not quite meeting Sister Patrick’s small gray eyes behind the rimless glasses.

“Do you mean to say that what you wrote is not quite true?”

Angie coughed to test her vocal chords. “I wanted it to be true. I meant for it to be true.”

“You know that’s not the same thing.”

There was a long pause, during which Angie considered running from the room. Some of the other students had stopped pretending to read and were watching the scene before them.

“What made you write such a thing?” Sister Patrick asked.

Angie heard Sister’s voice trying to be kind, but saw that her eyes were not. Angie’s impulse to flee left her. She stood rooted and faced Sister’s unfriendly gaze. “I wanted to make her happy. Because I love her. We love her.”

Angie knew it was wrong to speak for the class and she expected Sister to say so. But all she said was, “That will do. Please sit down now.”

Sister Patrick stood up. “And now for phonics.”

After their phonics lesson—at which the children did poorly, since no one understood what phonics meant – Sister Patrick instructed them all to put their heads face down on their desks, her chalky jowls quivering with displeasure. They did this whenever they played Heads Up 7-Up on rainy days, but today it wasn’t raining.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister Patrick said.

Angie watched little orange blobs float behind her closed eyelids. She could hear the restlessness of the children around her—the chafing of thighs, the skimming of saddle shoes against linoleum, the friction of sweater sleeves against grainy desktops. Angie was about to lift her eyes for a tiny peek when she felt a hand covering her head, guiding it back to its down position, holding it there. Finally, letting go. And the severe whisper of black moving past.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister repeated.  Her voice came from the front of the room again, and it hovered over their bowed heads as she gave her next instruction. “If you hate me, raise your hand.”

There was a moment when the restlessness ceased, like the moment after a door slams and smothers everything to a hush when no one breathes. Then the fidgeting began again – the chafing thighs, shuffling shoes, rasping woolly sweaters – but Angie held herself still, her legs, her arms, especially her arms. It was hot with her face pressed upon her desk. It was hard to breathe. Her head pounded with voices. It’s a sin to hate. It’s a sin to lie. Raise your hand if you hate me. It was a single voice and then it was a chorus and though her eyes were closed and her head down and she could see nothing except tiny orange blots, couldn’t they all see her? Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, God. Angie needed air. She lifted her face, took a deep breath, and raised both hands high in surrender.

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Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript has been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, and Brighthorse prizes in short fiction. “First Confession” is part of her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio.

“Then, Finally, After”

The goal, someone told me, is to make each day different than the one before.

So I heeded the advice and added to my routine that summer half a joint every morning and about a hundred butterscotch candies. For maybe seven months my teeth stung when I ate anything, especially the round ice cubes I liked to chew from the large Cokes at the gas stations.

Why I was able to exist at all, to function in some kind of meaningful way then, finally, after my mother died, was because I was still delivering flowers, and the shop never saw me. All the bouquets would be on the counter in the stockroom, tagged and wrapped. My job was to put them in milk crates, stuff newspaper around them, load them into a pretty un-rusted greenish 1973 Ford Country Sedan, and come back to resupply later, when I was out. Each run, then, took about three hours.

It turns out there was more to my daily responsibilities, but name someone, really, who was going to tell me?

It was fun to spend the morning dealing with that half joint. Maybe fun isn’t the word. Closer to numbing, a kind of two-dimensional thing. The day would turn into only the double yellow and red or green stoplights and some small-town hills and smiling people on doorsteps, or nobody at all, just ring the bell, wait a minute or two and back to the car.

It was 1987, early August. Sometimes I’d smoke the whole thing and the dashboard clock would say 3:15 and I’d wonder if, really, I’d ever have a job like that.

My front passenger was a $65 thing of pink and yellow roses and baby’s breath and I think peonies, and keeping it steady on the floor mat between her legs was Sandersson, two years older, finished with her second year of teacher’s school, home for the summer listening to T. Rex, Aerosmith, learning calligraphy, the bass guitar, reading Kant too much.

It was raining a little. I listened to the tire spray when I wasn’t sure what to say next. I thought about my mother in those washy silences. She wasn’t dead, really, just gone; four states south, no phone number or address. So not dead, but I didn’t see a difference, then.

Sandersson’s younger brother Ryan grew what we smoked in his prep school dorm closet. We were fine all summer and I well into the fall.

How did his dorm attendant not know, or at least have some suspicions?

It doesn’t have to be something new each day, just something different than yesterday: a road you don’t usually drive, order something else for lunch, a slight change to take your mind off her and the new family I imagined she was cooking for at that moment, this moment, every and all moments.

Yeah, ok, I can do that, which meant the cup holder now held M&Ms everyday at 2:00 and my 711 Slushies came with rum and by October three joints might get me to 4:00.

Ten years later, Sandersson would grow up, take a series of principal positions, one even at the school her brother went to that summer. Vanderville? Landerman? Grandville? Something like that, regal enough, with two syllables.

She would also become a man, finally, after what involved an out-of-state hospital, consultations, injections, years of hesitation, waiting rooms, outpatient procedures, every type of therapy. Then, finally, after, she had a new first name, but the same severe jaw and brown eyes with dull gold flecks.

Way before, in college, did her dorm mother know, I wonder, or at least have some suspicions?

I think about those questions now, but at the time, that summer and fall, she was just Sandersson, two years older, and I pretty desperately wanted to sleep with her. But when? Where? We were 18, 20, and the seats were full of all these goddamn flowers.

After she went back to school the passenger was my brother, and we’d hum choruses and share those big bags of pretzel rods, and we’d talk about mom but just enough to make ourselves feel better.

Or he’d be nodding off, glassed over, drifting away from me, you, us, and whatever I’d say would be the exact wrong thing.

Once, driving too fast on snowy roads, I skidded into a snowbank, knocked the fender off and had to pay for it later out of pocket. He never offered to help, seemed unfazed by the incident. And the question I wrestled with, continue to, is: How did I not know, or at least have some suspicions?

There’s no real car accident in this story. Just a conversation. I don’t remember every sentence. We piece things together, we think about before, how we talked, what we wanted, the way we imagine our words probably sounded. But here’s the type of thing Sandersson was on that summer.

“Most things don’t matter unless we make them matter,” she said. “I mean, think about it, right?”

It was all this amateur philosophy then, but it really struck a nice full round kind of 12-string guitar chord when I was so stoned.

“Do these flowers matter?”

“The people who get them assign them meaning,” she said. “They’ve already swept a place clean in their houses, in their hearts, for them to matter.”

“Does this Ford matter?” A Doobie Brothers song started. I switched it off, like, Ok, let’s get some real quiet for a conversation this deep.

“Do you think?”

“I mean, it allows me to deliver these flowers, but that’s it.”

“There you go,” she said. I had no fucking idea what she meant, but remember, these old sedans had lifting armrests, and she was sitting so close her hair would drift in my face on left turns.

Later, after, she’d listen and offer the correct consolations, but then, before, she said, “If you choose to honor the dead, then you just have to commit to that desire, but that’s only if you want to.” She took a long pause, during which I turned the radio back on and right away we got Joe Walsh.

When he was still alive, Sandersson’s dad had “real problems” is how she framed it. He’d just died the previous winter fighting a fire in a textile warehouse the next state up.

She said, harshly, “The dead go away. They live, they die, that’s it.” In my memory, the way I decide now to see it, she’s crying, a perfect little crystalline drop down her sharp left cheek.

This song kept going, verse chorus verse bridge solo another verse.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok, relax,” I told her. “Take it easy. ”I still wanted to sleep with her but she could be so stubborn and unforgiving. And even if I was only two years younger and my mom wasn’t around, I held on to an idea that the world was soft, like a plush padded basket you could sit in and eventually it would fill up with exactly what you needed, if you just waited long enough, sitting.

Cold and persistent and always had to be right. Still though, she’d hook her arm in mine on the walk to the doorsteps, and it would make it so much harder to hold these huge flower arrangements steady, but I never said a thing.

After, almost a decade later, when I started working for Sandersson, she, now he, would listen to the new tragedy, understand, give me paid leave, organize it so different teachers brought over dishes in Tupperware with heating directions for two full weeks. She’d get the faculty to fill my desk with cards.

Each new day something different: unfiltered cigarettes, clove cigarettes, plastic-tipped cigars, driving barefoot, a blue nylon fake fur trapper hat, denim jacket, books on tape.

We never did do anything, Sandersson and I. We kissed I guess, that winter, for a minute against the washing machine at this girl’s party, but that went nowhere. It was the wrong time, the wrong room, the wrong party, the wrong season, dynamic, outfits, music, circumstances, people. She went back after the holiday break and I saw her the way you see people, occasionally.

Sandersson and my mother were both gone and I wanted them back. It was like young love, in a way. One sided. Total longing, unrequited. Or requited but just not in the same way. Or stuck in every gear at once, flying down the road, stoned, seeing everything so fucking clearly. Or bucking, coughing to slow at a yellow light, sputtering out in the suburbs, walking from the gas station with a red canister, chewing on ice cubes, smoking a cigarette like, Fine, let the ash travel into the can, let the whole thing go up.

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Matt Liebowitz earned degrees in Creative Writing from Boston University and Skidmore College, and has studied with Steven Millhauser, Ha Jin, and Martha Cooley. He’s published stories in 236, Crack the Spine, Clare, and Fiction Southeast. Matt teaches middle school English in Encinitas, California.

“First Draft”

To whom it may concern:

I write to recommend Mr. Anthony Mills, an enterprising young man who served our company last summer as an intern in the Accounting Department. As the vice president in charge of said department, I supervised Mr. Mills in his duties and can therefore confirm that his work was above average.

Mr. Mills showed great ambition from his very first day here at Kleckner-Lawson. At first, he was given simple tasks, such as filing forms and restocking supplies. He expressed a desire to experience the full nature of our work, however, so I tasked him with collecting and tallying daily financial reports from our international locations. I found his calculations to be free of errors, a commendable accomplishment for any employee, let alone a college intern.

In addition to his accounting skills, Mr. Mills proved himself to be a gracious and friendly colleague willing to help and support others. He would frequently bring coffee for the entire office, and most nights he worked overtime to ensure that all of the day’s goals were fulfilled. I would typically stay late as well and assign him other jobs as necessary. He never hesitated to accept these assignments and was not afraid to ask questions; these all-too-rare traits were perhaps the main reasons why he was so successful in his internship, and why he was able to provide me with consistent, complete, and satisfying orgasms.

Many interns come and gone in our department, but few leave a lasting impression. Mr. Mills is an exception.

With no other interns have I had such thought-provoking discussions as those Mr. Mills and I shared when we were alone late at night, lying together on my office couch. Topics included his aspirations to become a successful musician, my own experiences at college as a music student, the subsequent years in which I settled into a corporate management position, and the possibility of my quitting and returning to former passions. Mr. Mills was always attentive, consoling me and offering kind words. He served as a stark contrast to my husband, who did not even call to find out what was keeping me so late.

Mr. Mills was extremely astute; he understood my subtle suggestions that we continue our relationship outside of the workplace and acted upon them with tact and precision. We would spend long weekends at his apartment in the West End, eating takeout and watching reality television while smoking marijuana cigarettes. I played my old songs on his guitar. Tony listened with his eyes closed, gently nodding. We discussed venturing outside to see movies, concerts, and other events, but I was fearful of discovery, so we stayed inside lounging together in bed. During these times away from the office, I found Tony to be at his absolute best, going far above and beyond what I had previously experienced from a colleague.

At the end of his internship, Tony returned to college, where he had decided to study accounting. I did not agree with this action. On the morning of our final day, I called him into my office and inquired as to whether his time at Kleckner-Lawson had impacted him as it had me. He said that it had, but in a different manner. He had realized that he did not wish to waste his years pursuing a dream he was unlikely to attain; that while he could have fun in college, it would soon be over and he would have to contend with “the real world”; and that he was ready to grow up and move on. I informed him that he had arrived at the incorrect sum—that, in fact, there was nothing worthwhile in “the real world” and that it was better to remain hopeful. He disagreed in no uncertain terms. When I asked him to lower his voice, he said it was too late for secrets, because the entire office already knew, because he had gone and told them and passed around our notes and showed off certain belongings I had stupidly left in his apartment because I didn’t think he would parade them around like some high school jock. I did not react in a calm manner and he eventually departed.

It was his only lapse as an employee. After leaving, he showed a willingness to correct his errors by not returning, and by not answering when I called and showed up at his apartment at one in the morning. He had a friend receive all enquiries, relaying the message that it was better for us to not meet or speak ever again. Though I did not concur at the time, the following months have allowed me to see the value in his decision, which has enabled us to continue our lives as they had been previous. For what it is worth, my time with Mr. Mills has left me rejuvenated, and, when I am able to ignore the whispers and glances from my colleagues, I am much more productive. There have even been moments when I do not recall Mr. Mills and his brand of cologne, his soft and full lips, the youthful strength of his arms, the sweet naïveté in his face. I was not even thinking of him when he sent me a formal email requesting this letter of recommendation, the ultimate reason for which I did not and will not ask.

I will not.

In summation, Mr. Mills is more than capable of any position for which you may be evaluating him. Should you have any questions, please contact me at the number below at any hour. I frequently work late.

Sincerely,
Emily Stallsman
Vice President
Accounting Department
Kleckner-Lawson

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Justin Muschong is a writer based in Astoria, Queens. He has contributed to Resource Magazine and Alternating Current’s The Spark, and his short stories have appeared in Newtown Literary and Atticus Review. As a screenwriter, his films have earned distinction at several international festivals.