Twin Lakes

Fiction
Scott Chiusano


Photo Credit: Don Graham/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Joyce had already committed to buying the Red Bow Special for herself. Since she’d hit the fork at Kerley’s Corner and taken the right for the diner instead of the requisite left, she’d known. And then in the parking lot when she took the keys from the ignition of the Camry and the gravel dust had billowed up from under the hood like the crescendoing growl in her stomach, she was even more sure. It was what she was supposed to do. Still, she couldn’t be blamed for the certain measure of shock that registered within her when she saw it listed on the encyclopedia-sized menu (which she had conveniently stood upright on the table on three edges, like a science board, so as to hide her face behind it) for $8.99. $8.99!

There were few constants in Joyce’s childhood, though she couldn’t have had the worst of it, think of Wyatt the poor kid, but the Red Bow Special, for $5.99 and $5.99 only, had been one of them. Joyce did some quick math in her head. It was fifteen years since she’d last been here, so maybe, actually, the price increase of three dollars shouldn’t come as such a surprise, being just about right in line with the inflation rate. She thought that might be a good Do Now prompt for her seventh graders when she got back on Monday; they usually became interested by talk of food, but then they’d only want to know why she didn’t bring them any pancakes.

Joyce peered over the top of the menu. She had a straight shot view past the red leather stools at the counter and into the kitchen, where Chet was hunkered over the grill, bacon grease probably oozing into his slimy, ogreish pores. God, she sounded like such a child. Which shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Something about this place that made her revert back to the girl in pigtails and taped-up floaties. Chet started to turn from the grill and Joyce sunk lower behind the menu.

One of the waitresses came over to her table and Joyce was forced to sit up. At least she didn’t recognize any of the girls in their red striped blouses, low-cut. Chet had disappeared somewhere deeper into the kitchen.

“Can I help you, dear? Something to drink?”

On second thought, maybe Joyce did know her. Something about the ginger hair, recently curled, but it couldn’t be Liz. Liz would be what, 33 now, 34? More head math, 18 plus 15, carry the 1, Jesus, this was supposed to be a weekend off. But the waitress was older than that, slightly wrinkled, what 33- slash 34-year-old said dear, and not quite as pretty as Liz either. It had usually taken more than one kick under the table to get her brother to stop ogling Liz while she rattled off the specials. Joyce remembered him once requesting that Chet add more daily specials to the menu. Maximize the time Liz would be leaning over their booth with one button undone, pad in her left hand.

“Dear, to drink?”

Joyce realized now she was the one ogling.

“Sorry, yeah, um, a chocolate milk. No, an iced coffee, please.”

The waitress smiled or smirked. “From around here?” she said.

“Not exactly. Familiar with the area, though.”

“Pretty this time of year, isn’t it?”

“Little warm.”

Joyce knew what she was doing, knew how proud they were in Elizaville, especially about the weather. Don’t chat casually about rain in the forecast, unless you were talking to Ronnie, who owned the eighties jukebox roller rink and made a living on the assumption that it would, in fact, rain twice a week in Elizaville without fail. You just didn’t mention it. And you never, for any reason, complained about the temperature, because you couldn’t change it so what was the point?

So just as Joyce expected, the waitress let out an annoyed exhale. Pleasantries cut off.

“What’ll you be having?” Not even a dear.

“I’ll take the Red Bow Special,” Joyce said.

“Pancakes or french toast?”

“Pancakes.”

“Sausage or bacon?”

“Sausage. No, bacon.”

“Eggs scrambled or fried?”

“Scrambled.”

“White or wheat?”

“You have sourdough?”

“White or wheat?”

“Wheat.”

“Hashbrowns ok?”

“You know what, let me just get two eggs over easy and a half a grapefruit,” Joyce said.

The waitress—Joyce squinted for her nametag but couldn’t quite make it out—it was either Margie or Midge, aggressively crossed out what she’d written until the paper ripped through the middle. She tore it off, stuck it in the front pocket of her apron, scribbled something on the next piece.

“Be a few minutes,” she said over her shoulder and walked to the kitchen, slapped the paper on the order queue. Chet came to the window to inspect it and Joyce disappeared behind the menu again.

She knew it was silly, a fruitless effort, she’d have to interact with him at some point, or at least confront the memories. That much had been clear as soon as she agreed to make this trip, after having avoided it for fifteen years. Joyce hated driving on the Taconic, the relentless winding of the parkway made her nauseous and the speed traps were brutal, begrudging troopers always able to tell which cars were coming from the city. Then there was the image always in the back of her head of Mom’s totaled car, passenger side bumper ripped entirely off, even the steel guardrail had taken a dent, phone call to dad going to voicemail, Chet coming to pick them up, the way mom folded into him, his right hand on her thigh the rest of the ride up. So yes, Joyce told herself, it was that fear of the Taconic that had kept her away for so long.

The waitress had slid into a booth across from an older man in a Bills cap, must have been a regular, because there never were irregulars at this diner. Joyce knew they were talking about her from the way Margie or Midge would jerk her head over her shoulder with little subtlety. Every so often the Bills fan would smile and sip his coffee. Outsiders were an easy conversation topic in Elizaville.

A bell rang and the waitress got up, picked up a plate from behind the counter and brought it to Joyce’s table.

“N’joy,” she said.

Joyce’s heart double-dutched for a moment. Was the waitress lying about not recognizing her? How did she know her name? But then she realized she’d misheard, she must’ve just been saying enjoy, not Joyce. Just another reason to hate her name, the way it sounded exactly like a word, but wasn’t actually one, in fact didn’t really have any meaning at all. My pride and Joyce, Mom used to say whenever she did something decent as a kid, like tie her shoes the proper way instead of bunny ears, and god she’d grown to despise all that, because why not just name her Joy then? It felt like her mom thought she’d made a mistake with the name, was forever trying to amend it. Like she wished Joyce could be someone else. To Dad she was just JL, her initials, it was music when he called her that.

The eggs were a little runny, but Joyce didn’t care, she hadn’t even had a snack on the three-hour drive up, not that there was anywhere she could’ve stopped on the Taconic. Joyce wondered now how none of them had ever gotten tired of the food here, because as far as diner food went it was nothing special. You could pop into basically anyplace in the city and get a better stack of pancakes. But every Sunday morning for three months of every summer for twelve years, this was where she ate, all the campers piling in at nine a.m. sharp, girls in the booths on the right side, boys on the opposite end, one booth left open for Mom and Dad. It was one of only two times per week the boys and girls were all allowed in the same room together.

When she was fourteen, Joyce remembered, Savannah Hemming had snuck a fifth of Captain Morgan from her dad’s liquor cabinet into her duffel bag and kept it hidden away until the last Saturday of camp, two days before pickup, when she’d passed it around to everyone in B-bunk. Savannah—of all the uppers she was notoriously the most developed (the boys called it something else)—must have been taking longer swigs because they had to drag her out of bed the next morning to make it to the diner in time, and she was so pale it looked like she’d spent the entire summer locked in B-bunk. At breakfast, Joyce had to prop Savannah’s head up to keep Mom and Dad from getting suspicious, and when Liz took their order, Savannah asked for an omelet.

“What would you like on it, sweetie.”

“Nothing. Just an omelet,” Savannah said.

“No cheese,” Liz said.

“Nothing.”

“Why not just order scrambled eggs then?” Joyce said after Liz left.

“I wanted an omelet.”

“Well it’s not gonna be an omelet.”

“Can you stop screaming at me please?” Savannah said and Joyce caught her just before her lolling head landed on the tip of the salt shaker. When the “omelet” came, just a flat crescent moon of egg, Savannah took one look at it and sprinted to the bathroom. Dad was enjoying his Red Bow Special too much to notice, and Mom was somewhere in the kitchen lending extra hands or other body parts come to think of it, so nobody ever saw or heard Savannah Hemming puking up Captain Morgan in the diner bathroom, Joyce holding her hair back and thanking God Savannah hadn’t touched her eggs.

After wiping her plate clean and slurping up the last bit of juice from the grapefruit, Joyce signaled for the check. She felt a little bad for throwing Margie or Midge for a loop with her order earlier, so she left a nice tip. Twenty-five percent. No sign of Chet.

Outside the diner, a flock of geese had gathered at the edge of the lake. On the opposite bank she could just make out the dock at girl’s side, the slide, the lifeguard chair. She stared for a while, heard low voices on the lake, some splashing around in the water though nobody was there at all, wondered if she was making a mistake, got in the car and reversed out of the diner parking lot, made a left for Camp Twin Lakes, watched the geese scatter while the engine coughed up dust.

*

The sign for Twin Lakes was crawling with ivy, which was how Joyce knew summer hadn’t really started yet. Her dad used to wait until the last day before campers arrived to cut the vines away, because they grew so fast and by the third week they were back again. Visiting parents would complain about missing the turnoff sometimes because they couldn’t see the sign, and Dad would have to trudge out with the clippers and hack away, always knowing they’d regrow, like the tail of a snake. She wondered if Mom did it now, or Chet, or maybe it never got done at all. But Joyce was on autopilot, the sign could’ve been buried in the ground and she would’ve known where to turn, even after all this time.

Joyce stopped the car across from the big house, facing the rolling green of the driving range. The yard markers were brown with rust, the 50 still bent from when her brother had rammed it with a golf cart, five Miller Lights-deep trying to keep up with the older counselors. With the engine idling, Joyce looked out the rearview mirror and could see Wyatt in the oversized rocking chair on the porch, sitting duck-duck-goose-style swaying with the music from his headphones. She took a moment to gather herself, put the car in park, shut it off, got out, thirty years old and headed in reverse.

Even though he had the earbuds in, Joyce could hear Wyatt’s music as she walked up the steps to the porch. The Barney theme song. She knew the pains Mom went through to get him to stop, to listen to Timberlake or Britney or other crap a normal 15-year-old would like. What did it matter? He’d never be into the same things as other kids his age, hard as Mom tried, blocking Barney videos from his YouTube and hiding Joyce’s old Boxcar kids collection in the basement of the canteen because all he ever did was rip the covers off, carry them around ketchup stained, never reading the insides.

“Hey bud, what’s up? You listening to music?”

He stared blankly out at the driving range, his finger on the pause button of the iPod mini. He pressed. Then rewound. I love you. You love me. Pressed play again. We’re a happy. Rewound. I love you. You love me. It was dizzying, or the hearing equivalent of dizzying. She wondered what he was searching for.

“Wyatt? You remember me?” She hadn’t seen him since Christmas time two years ago, when Mom took him into the city to see the Lloyd and Taylor windows. Chet hadn’t made the trip so Joyce joined them, held Wyatt’s hand awkwardly while he watched the fake snow fall in the display, one finger pressed to the glass.

“Joyce,” he said without looking at her.

She was impressed even by that.

Wyatt was nodding but it seemed more to the music than in answer to her question. She knew swimming was one thing he would do, unless you pushed too hard. She thought it would be a good thing to take him down to the lake at some point, good for who she wasn’t sure, but since she was here.

“Know where your mom is?” Like talking about someone else’s mother.

He pointed out past the tennis courts to the pavilion.

“Thanks bud,” she made to tussle his hair but he yelped and pulled back. “Maybe we’ll go swimming later.”

Joyce headed for the pavilion to find her mom, following the driving path instead of cutting across the green, got to the Please Honk sign and panicked. She remembered the stories about Wyatt wandering off—there was nothing to stop him from leaving camp—how one time Chet had found him seated on the side of Route 9 picking grass, cars screaming past. She whipped around but he was still there swaying with apparent content, and only then did Joyce notice the rope around his wrist double-knotted to the leg of the rocking chair.

There was a leak in the pavilion, and Joyce found her mom on her knees squinting up at the ceiling like it was the Sistine Chapel, trying to find the precise spot to place a bucket to catch the intermittent drops.

“Bad rain last night?”

“May in Elizaville.” Mom stood and wrapped her in a bony embrace. “What else is new?”

She held Joyce at arm’s length, inspecting.

“You look good sweetheart.” She patted Joyce’s bun, then tugged at it.

“Mom,” she pushed her hand away and held the bun in place, re-wrapped her hair tie tighter. “Seriously?”

“I just wish you’d leave it down all the time. Cover that face of yours some.”

“Have you lost weight? You look like a stick.” Taking the high road was not Joyce’s specialty, though when her mom slunk wounded back to the bucket she instantly regretted it. That’s how it worked. Take all the punches, never deliver them, and when she did, feel lower than dirt.

“I’m glad you were able to make it up.”

“Yeah.” Joyce crouched next to the bucket, felt a drop hit her forehead. “You know how much I love coming back.”

“This is your childhood, Joyce. Place has given you so much. It wouldn’t have killed you to come visit. I mean it’s been how long since you’ve been here?”

“You know how long it’s been.”

Her mom searched for somewhere to rest her eyes that wasn’t on Joyce, landed on the hoop over her shoulder.

“I have to find a way to fix this damn leak before week one. It’s landing smack in the middle of the paint. Begging for a sprained ankle.” Something about the watermark forming around the bucket made Joyce profoundly depressed. Her brother’s tears splashing on the blacktop, her chin resting on his shoulder.

“Have Chet do something about it.”

“He’s so busy. Trying to keep up with that IHOP on I-9. You know it’s drawing a lot of the rest stoppers.”

“Not surprised. Eggs were a little runny.”

“You were there?” Her mom clawed at the neck of her pullover, sports bra flashing underneath. Joyce didn’t feel like recounting her covert breakfast operation.

“How’s Wyatt?” she said.

“Wyatt’s Wyatt. There’s good days and bad.”

“Still biting?”

“It’s been better. Latest specialist told us to try a gluten-free diet. Supposed to stunt the tantrums. So we’re doing that. Or I am. And Wyatt obviously. The no bread is what kills me. It’s hard on Chet.”

“Yes, poor Chet.”

“That’s his only child, Joyce. I love Wyatt but I’ve got you. And your brother. You have to understand. Being you’re around kids every day and all.”

“So was the leash your idea or his? Or maybe handcuffs would be a better description.”

“Joyce, please.” She grabbed a towel and bent over to pointlessly scrub the spreading watermark. “You’re upsetting me.”

“God forbid.”

“You know how he runs off. What am I supposed to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Bring him with you when you go to boys’ side? Let him sit here?”

“It’s not so easy. He fights me. He’s getting too big for me to be dragging him around unwillingly. And I’m getting too weak.”

“He’s autistic, Ma. This isn’t a fucking zoo.”

She stood slowly, dropped the towel, rubbed some feeling back into her knees and thighs. “I need a walk. I’ll be down by the lake.”

Joyce watched her go, wondered why she seemed unsteady on her feet. Chose not to follow.

There was a basketball stuck under the bleachers, and she reached far to roll it out. At one time Joyce was the best shooter on girls’ side, consistently winning the three-point contest during color wars. It was only worth half a point to their overall score. But still. The boys were usually impressed. She stood at the top of the key, formed the L-shape of her elbow naturally. Like riding a bike. Let the ball go. It was short, nicked the front rim, bounced twice and knocked over the bucket.

After a few more shots she found her stroke again; it had always been there, dormant just below the surface like bubbling lava. Swish. She pulled off her I.S. 278 hoodie, tossed it to the baseline. Swish. 2-of-3. 3-of-5. 5-of-12. Nearly fifty percent. Starting to break a sweat now. Her bun came undone, curly hair spilling down her back. Spin the ball out past the arc. Miss. Long rebound, right back to her. Swish. More stains on the blacktop, these from sweat. Maybe Mom was right. This place a part of her and her of it, something missing long ago buried within this court these grounds the lake that sprawling expanse of field. Swish. Grass burnt at the edges. Campfire charcoal smell soaked into wool Twin Lakes sweater. Miss. Miss. Sticky white marshmallow remains on twig tips Dad is leaving your mother’s pregnant miss miss miss 8-of-15 8-of-18 percentage dropping lake water rising tears on the blacktop miss. Miss.

Joyce fell to the ground in exhaustion, leaned back on her elbows, wiped away the necklace of sweat. A swim in the lake would be bliss, she thought.

*

On the dock her mom lay on her back, toes dipped in the water. Her shirt was tied around her waist and Joyce could see the sharp outline of her ribs. Maybe she’d been too callous. How could she know what it was like to raise such a severely autistic kid, fifteen years old, mental capacity of a four-year-old? Back when she was living with her dad in Sheepshead Bay, he’d called it karma what happened to Wyatt. Joyce sided with her father on most everything but that she thought was borderline cruel. Wasn’t the kid’s fault. Wasn’t anybody’s fault, really, though Mom and Chet swore it was the vaccine, the crippling 108-degree fever, fear they might lose him. Science be damned. God’s fault maybe. Joyce didn’t invest much in God, even after years of Dad bringing her to St. Mark’s on Sundays. Confirmation. Smokescreen confessionals. Bishop exiled for keeping altar boys late after mass. Cardboard host. Whatever.

A school of minnows was gathered in the water around Mom’s feet. Joyce sat down beside her on the dock, peeled off the sweaty T-shirt, dipped her own toes in the lake, frigid after the rains.

“Careful, they’ll nibble on you, remember?” her mom said. “How you used to hate that as a kid.”

Joyce felt the tickle of scales and yanked her feet out of the water, sending the fish scrambling for cover. “Yeah. Slimy creeps. I still hate ’em.”

“Get over yourself,” her mother laugh-coughed.

There was no movement on the lake, the waterfront residentials across the way eerily desolate. But she could hear the echo of playful shouts coming from somewhere, the sound of splashing, like before at the diner. Joyce wagged her head to the side, as though trying to knock water loose from her ear.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, yeah.” She must have looked insane. “Feel like taking the canoe out?”

“Not sure I could pull my weight. Feeling a little achy.”

“Come on. Doesn’t look like you have much weight to pull these days.”

Her mother sat up and pulled her knees into her chest.

“OK fine. How about a pedal boat?”

“Pedal boats are gone. Chet sold them last summer.”

“What the fuck did he do that for?”

“Joyce.”

“Well. What for?”

“We only had one hundred registered last summer. Seventy-five boys. Every year it drops more, especially the girls. They’re just not coming.”

“Jesus, we had 250 my last year.”

“It’s not the same. Kids want different things. Competitive spirit, camaraderie, they could care less about that stuff. Chet says it’s the social media, but you know that’s everybody’s excuse for everything. I chalk it up to bad parenting.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Anyway, we needed to pay the groundskeepers. Needed serious re-sodding after the crazy amount of rain last spring. So Chet… so we sold the boats. Kids barely ever took them out. Paint was chipped and the insides were rusting.”

“Well it wouldn’t kill you to make some renovations around here, actually. Can’t really expect these Gen-Y kids to have the same interests. I mean come on, the pavilion still has Larry Bird posters up.”

“It’s not so easy. With that mathematical mind of yours, you should take a look at the books.”

“Better you than me.”

The minnows were back, dark eyes unblinking below the surface. Joyce felt like she was being watched. Couldn’t they just leave her alone?

“You should know, Joyce. I’m sick.”

“Yeah, I can tell. You’ve been hacking away since I got here. Allergic to me or something?”

“Like I have cancer. That kind of sick.”

Again, the voices on the lake. Clearer now, and Joyce could make out the game they were playing. The call and response. Maaarco. A more timid Polo, then a quiet splash, someone hiding underwater. Maaarco. A brief silence, then the Polo voice, this time squealing. She must really be losing it. Joyce whacked herself on the side of the head. Snap out of it.

“My god, Joyce, I didn’t mean to upset you. You’ll give yourself a concussion.”

“No. Sorry. I’m good. Did you say cancer?”

“Lung. Starting chemo next month.”

“Camp starts next month.”

“I’m aware.” She turned and Joyce saw her mother for the first time. The skin stretched taut against her cheekbones like a tent flap to keep out the draft. “That’s why I hoped you’d take over.”

Joyce laughed. A laugh that came from deep within her belly and sent the geese on shore scattering into the air. Laughed the way her students did when somebody let one rip in class. Laughed and laughed and laughed to drown out her dying mother and the voices on the lake, laughed to silence the demons urging her to say I hate this place, I’ll burn it to the motherfucking ground.

“I’ve gotta go check on Wyatt.” Anything to get away from a maniacal daughter. Joyce couldn’t blame her.

“Wait, Ma, I’ll come with.”

She had to hustle to keep up, for someone with cancer her mom could still move, staying a few steps ahead through the wooded path from the lakefront to the big house. When she finally caught up, Joyce took her mother’s hand from behind and they emerged from the shelter of trees into the blinding sunlight. They approached the porch and her mother yanked her hand away and screamed so Joyce thought well she deserved this didn’t she, laughing at a cancer patient, it was only a matter of time and then she saw the empty rocking chair, the gnawed through rope swinging in the breeze like an abandoned noose.

*

They split up to search for him which, as Joyce sprinted through the woods, she thought maybe wasn’t the best idea, to leave her mother alone in this state. But it had happened too fast, she had jumped into the golf cart and taken off, telling Joyce to take the lake path to boys’ side and circle back, cover every inch of the grounds while she canvassed Route 19. Joyce passed the arts-and-crafts shed, the canteen, the pavilion with the roof still dripping, her heart pounding like the last minutes of a five-on-five, game 21, score 20-all. She tried to ditch the image of his mangled body on the side of the highway, shattered iPhone screen but the song still rising from the headphones. Like one of those god-awful musical cards that won’t shut off even when you close it. I love you. You love me. Wyyyyyyyatt, she hollered as she ran. Wyyyyyyyyyatt. The screams echoed in the woods. Maaaaaaarco. Maaaaaarco. Fuck fuck fuck. Wyyyyyyyyatt. Her eyes were blurring; she couldn’t tell from tears or sweat. She should’ve known better than to come back here, should’ve known something bad was bound to happen. In that sick part of her brain, that expectation was exactly why she’d come back, like rubber-necking a three-car fire on the highway she couldn’t look away from her family’s mania. Joyce hadn’t anticipated literally everything going wrong, though, Murphy’s Law or something, but it was this chaos in her life she’d been missing. It drew her back in. She envisioned Wyatt’s funeral, hovering above the scene, looking down at his loose-leaf white corpse in the casket done up to hide the horrid scars from the accident, the people coming up to her to give sympathy, her mother in a headscarf hiding her bald head sobbing into Chet’s shoulder, covered by a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt, the church bells ringing outside. I love you. You love me. Wouldn’t it be nice, to have people feel sorry for her?

Wyatt was sitting at the entrance to the Sunset Trail when she found him, his feet hanging off the cliff that overlooked all forty acres of camp, high above the lake. He was rocking back and forth as though he were still sitting on the porch. Joyce’s spent legs folded like a cheap beach chair and she lay back next to him.

“Trying to give everyone heart attacks, aren’t you?”

He kept swaying, looking out at the horizon. She reached to push him away from the edge. Teacher instincts. Or sister. Wyatt yelped.

“All right, all right,” she said. “It’s cool. Long as you’re not planning on going over. Not that I’d blame you, with what you’ve got going on.”

“Look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I get it, this is a cool spot, I used to come here too. Quiet. Mount Blushmore we called it, because everyone would make out up here and the girls would climb down with cherry cheeks.”

“Yeah, I know, it was stupid. I did have my first kiss up here. And only. Of camp, you rascal. I know what you were thinking. Trent Dormund. Nickname Doormat because he got walked all over in boys’ side basketball tournaments. He had this mole right on the bridge of his nose, like a third eye. But I thought he was kind of cute. Right there, my back against the tree, wish I still had the scratch marks from the bark to show you. I hope you believe me anyway.”

Joyce remembered her mom was still frantically searching for Wyatt. She took out her phone. ‘Found him on Blushmore. Not a scratch.’ She pressed send, watched the green bar get two thirds of the way and then stop. Never was good service up here, but it would go through eventually.

“Doormat had braces and I didn’t. His bands were red, white, and blue, for Fourth of July. Everyone told me kissing a metalface sucks but it wasn’t that bad actually. Better than some.”

It was soothing, talking to someone who didn’t talk back, who maybe wasn’t even listening. What rough secrets she could unload on him. She followed Wyatt’s gaze. Heard the voices again. Maaaaarco. Polo. Thrashing in the water to follow the sound. Maaaaaarco. Polo. Hand on the shoulder. Gotcha. That meaty hand, gripping her closer. Scent of burnt grease. Cigarettes. Loose fingers traveling south, minnows nipping at toes, bathing suit waistband pulled apart cold water rushing in then the sausage fingers. Pain.

Joyce reached her hand down to her lap, felt the buzz of her phone. ‘Be right there. L M

“Ok fine, you got me. I don’t like lying to you, Wyatt. Doormat wasn’t my only camp kiss. Just the only one I wanted. I probably shouldn’t tell you much more than that. You wouldn’t want to know, right?”

Still he had barely moved during their conversation. One-sided as it was, Joyce wanted to believe it was a conversation. Who else could she talk to?

“Hey Wyatt, are you happy? You know, like content?”

What a mood killer she was. Asking a question like that of a kid who barely knew his own name. Was anybody happy? She looked at Wyatt. Hint of a smile there? He was actually singing now, it had been so long since she’d heard his voice. I love you. You love me. We’re a happy. I love you. She hoped he was talking to her. He carried the tune with ease, fifteen years of repetition. Fast forward, rewind. Same thing over and over again. The words, the meaning, the way his voice cracked, like Doormat’s had when he’d sat with his arm around her and told her she was pretty. Nothing ever changed here.

In the distance she heard the rumbling motor of the golf cart, headlights foxtrotting in shadows through the trees. Joyce stood, the phone sliding off her lap. She put her hand on Wyatt’s shoulder and he did not flinch. She could see the girls’ side dock from here, geese gathered now where she had sat and cackled at her dying mother’s request to take over Twin Lakes. She’d be expecting an answer now. Joyce remembered when she and her friends would climb up on the lifeguard chair and do cannonballs off it to see who could make the biggest splash. She never won. Always found herself unfurling at the last second, going in with her legs straight like a pencil and sinking to the bottom, feeling the sand in between her toes just for a moment before coming up for air. The sun was setting and soon it would be hidden beyond the lake, which was shivering slightly in the breeze. Maybe this was home, Joyce thought. She took her hand off Wyatt’s shoulder, brushed the back of it against his pimpled cheek, and jumped.

pencil

Scott Chiusano is a writer/editor, formerly ink-stained at the New York Daily News, and not yet completely scarred by the journalism industry. Email: schiusano7[at]gmail.com

House Parties

Flash
Zoe Konstantinou


Photo Credit: Jin’s Diary 87/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I

— His friend once gave me whiskey ginger. That was the first time I tried it. He was glad I drank and poured me more. When he rolled me cigarettes, he would give me their very end to lick.

[leaving the party going to the concert hall]

We were sitting on a sofa. Waiting for my friend. Once the tubes there broke and the toilets flooded. That’s what his friend told me. He fought with his girlfriend cause he danced with my friend. I was dancing seated on the sofa. Felt slightly awkward but couldn’t stand still. He said he loved it that I danced so much.

— “It’s quality music.”

I was slightly drunk. We never paid to get in there. We sneaked through the backdoor.

 

II

His ex was there—silver glitter on her cheeks. Stunning. His friend must have seen her too. She was wearing a reddish jacket. Long like an Andean mantle. It could have been my imagination.

[leaving the concert hall]

The only time we were the three of us, was when we slept at his friend’s place. I saw him in the kitchen. I had no idea he lived there. They got their grades from the finals. His friend was complaining, he was mostly listening, and I was trying to smoke as much as I could while I struggled to finish my coffee.

pencil

Zoe holds a masters in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Athens. She is passionate about Latin America and her favourite author is Roberto Bolaño. Her work has appeared in The Selkie and Litro Magazine. Email: zina_kon[at]hotmail.com

The Cream at the Top of the Milk

Flash
Anita Goveas


Photo Credit: Nav in ATL/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Susan’s mum excelled at inventing treats, marrow sucked from chicken bones, the skin off the kheer, the cream off the top of the gold-topped milk bottles. Her dad had the biggest piece of chicken or fish-fry, and Susan and her older brother Xavier competed for the treat, reciting times tables, making up spelling tests, declaiming Bible verses. Joking, laughing, shouting. They were one school year apart, so Susan helped with maths and Xavier helped with spelling. Their mother inconspicuously ensured no one got too many treats in a week or a month, endless calculations in her head. But the competition made the prize sweeter, made everyone content.

When Xavier went away and Susan was sent to stay with Aunty Seraphina, he came back thinner and shaven-headed and otherwise the same but their mother was different. She made his favourite cardamom-scented milky kheer pudding every day, and cream from the gold-topped bottles went straight in his new Spiderman glass. It was if he always won. Susan wanted to yell she was disappearing, but no one raised their voice for any reason now, everything happened in whispers. Their father never let go of his rosary.

Xavier spent more time in their bedroom, stopped going to school. Susan heard him sloshing at night, full of stolen cream. On her walk home from school, she dragged her bag through clingy mud, stepped in all the murky puddles. No one noticed. She worked at her spellings, stayed up at night to memorise them while Xavier’s dairy-soaked breath rattled in his throat. The day she won the Year 4 prize, her mother waited for her in the kitchen. Take this glass of milk to your brother, please. Susan threw the blue-and-red glass in the sink. It didn’t smash the way she’d hoped but the cream splashed her mother’s face and her own wrist. It tasted warm and slightly rancid.

Baccha, Mother said, her face streaked, tracks running down to her dripping chin. It’s come to the surface now but it’s so little and precious and we can’t save it. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

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Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in X-Ray lit, Flash Frontier and Bending Genres. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Her debut flash collection is forthcoming from Reflex Press, and links to her stories at Coffee and Paneer. Email: anitagoveas[at]hotmail.com

A Trojan Gift

Flash
Dini Armstrong


Photo Credit: Marco Catini/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The entire shelf is full of them. Has been for months. Pristine, untouched, snow-white ice skates, laced up all the way; immaculate bows like piped icing on a Christmas cake. The sharp metal blades hidden under plastic protectors.

“Can I touch one?” My voice is so quiet I have to repeat the impossible wish three times before the shop assistant notices me.

“Are you here with your mummy and daddy?” She eyes me up and down, takes in my dirty coat, the woolen tights, holes at the knees.

I know she can smell me. The kids at school tell me I smell. A lot.

Out there, on the ice, I can fly. I am fast, I can jump over branches sticking out, nothing trips me up. Not like all the others, better than them. I can stay there until the floodlights come on. Later even. Every day, until the ice melts.

I take off one of my grubby mittens and reveal the roll of cash I’ve been clutching under the wool.

“My uncle gave me the money so I can buy a pair. Is it enough?” That much is true. I make my eyes big and innocent.

The shop assistant smells of perfume. Her hair is twisted up at the back like the ladies in Hitchcock movies, the ones I am not supposed to see yet.

“What size are you, sweetheart?”

I am not sure, so I check the number under my wellies. It’s a one.

She hands me a pair.

The white leather smells brand-new, the skin of a dead animal, maybe a unicorn. I don’t ask for change, just leave her standing there, shouting something after me, I don’t know what. I am out of the door before she can get to me; I am fast.

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Dini Armstrong, now Scottish, has worked in journalism and psychology. She is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing and has published short stories and flash fiction. Her pithy style got her into trouble from age six, when, after writing a particularly seditious piece about a vengeful cat with explosives, she had to promise never to write again. She lied. Twitter: @ArmstrongDini | Facebook: @GermanScotsAuthor | Email: dianaarmstrong[at]yahoo.com

Old Poet

Poetry
Timothy Pilgrim


Photo Credit: Francis Mariani/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I find it in The New Yorker now
easier to yawn about nothing poems—

self-obsessed men, depression, sanity
on the run, priests preying on nuns.

Phallic prayer naked, life, spread wide
for redemption, full-bosomed end.

So little depends on anything
when limp metaphors droop and bend.

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Timothy Pilgrim, a Pacific Northwest poet and Pushcart Prize nominee in 2018, has several hundred acceptances from journals like Seattle Review, Third Wednesday, Windsor Review, Mad Swirl, Sleet, San Pedro River Review, Santa Anna River Review, Toasted Cheese and Hobart. He is author of Mapping Water (Flying Trout Press, 2016). Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Erren Kelly


Photo Credit: Nerissa’s Ring/Flickr (CC-by)

Esther

doesn’t have to save her people
from death and tyranny anymore
she just serves them coffee in
a little coffeehouse in Brookline

her heart no longer makes
King Xerxes go cuckoo
she shares it with the
brothers and sisters of
Brookline

to look into her eyes
is to see god’s love
at work
she is a vessel,
carrying his goodness
a transmitter for his
joy

Esther doesn’t fight her battles
in the scriptures anymore
she conquers apathy and
hate in a little coffeehouse in
Brookline

 

George

he stands on the corner asking for change
and yet he sings about change
the change only comes when we stop
finding our courage in bottles of
feeling sorry for ourselves
and in doing drugs of excuses.
he sat at the table
talking about change
asking others for change, mainly.
he never liked the green chairs in the front
always in the back
the orange chairs in front, always
he was always about dirty jokes
and solitaire and street wisdom
’cause everyone who came into the
soup kitchen had their own journey
just like he did, and he always said
good morning, and dared anyone
to stop him. sometimes, he gave the other
transients change
and it’s hard to stand on our own
when systems try to keep us down
when the haves get more and have-nots
find more ways to play the victim
but he always said he chose his life
even so, we all deserve the best

I walked to the T earlier
thought I saw him in his baseball cap, turned
off to the side, dispensing wisdom
while shamelessly asking for change…

does anybody have any change?

we could all use a change…

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Erren Kelly is a two-time Pushcart-nominated poet from Boston. He has been writing for 28 years and has over 300 publications in print and online in such publications as Hiram Poetry Review, Mudfish, Poetry Magazine (online), Ceremony, Cacti Fur, Bitterzoet, Cactus Heart, Similar Peaks, Gloom Cupboard, Poetry Salzburg and other publications. His most recent publication was in Black Heart Literary Journal; he has also been published in anthologies such as Fertile Ground and Beyond The Frontier. His work can also been seen on YouTube under the “Gallery Cabaret” links. He is also the author of the book Disturbing The Peace on Night Ballet Press. Email: errenkelly76[at]yahoo.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Garrett Harriman


Photo Credit: Greenstone Girl/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The Spider Poem Remembered

It had short lines
throughout,
only two or three stanzas
plus that extra bit
at the end.*

The spider was a pilot
then Quetzalcoatl
and the flies in its web “debris.”
An asphyxiation
of alliteration followed—
an anaerobic inch-and-a-half.

I remember looking
up the word spinnerets, too.
Grafting it oh so
strategically (like you do).

The final thought was offset:
no reason.

*(In the white right of here, nearly top
of the page: Perfection!
wrote the teacher, his blue
and damning praise.)

 

Knife

When Jesus broke bread,
did he pray
for a knife?
It would’ve made
things easier
to measure and spread,
pass from left
to right.

Instead
he pigeoned it,
brother pecking brother
round that table
for a night—
but all fed,
surely,
all fed.

 

Looking Like I Want to Jump Off a Bridge, I Find Myself On a Bridge

It hadn’t crossed my mind mid-crossing
and although it’s fine bridge-jumping weather
the plummet from this one
above an icy winter bank
(more geology than water at this point,
the skeletal musings of spring
barely high enough to break a fall)
would only snap an ankle or two, a wrist maybe,
soak my all-season hiking boots to their dusty rims,
and that’d be it.

I’d look up from that kids’ table
of failed suicide attempts, ass-planted, heels-deep,
into the bored, morbidly disappointed eyes
of the passing man who asked me
just before,
“You’re not gonna jump now, are you?”

How could I answer him? To anyone?
And what anemic imagination must he think an offing takes?
There’d be nothing to do—not really
besides waddle to shore and shrug my shoulders,
pull some line about featherweight pocket stones
and puff my Chaplin cheeks
as if I’d just missed the bus
and must now—with much sheep—await another,
presumably the last,
the bright idea of stepping in front of it
merrily whizzing by my head.
Hell, I can hear my voice apologizing.

And over there, not too much later,
in silhouette beside a two-log fire—my woolen socks
draped along a wooden chair back,
drip-drip-dripping for tomorrow.

 

How to Read a Birthday Card
For Kailey

Be young and crowd-shy,
harangued by a mother.

Come into your voice
like a mouse sniffing traps.

Your audience is a blind man?
Speak closer.

If nearly blind,
remember to linger on words.

Let the biggest card
buffer your blushes.

And the fold you wrote?
Read last like you planned.

That’s expected, sweet one.
Expected most of all.

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Born and living in Colorado, Garrett Ray Harriman loves writing, playing saxophone, and learning languages. His poetry is published or forthcoming in Kestrel, Chrysanthemum, Atlas Poetica, and Naugatuck River Review. Lifting Smoke, Falling Mist, his first tanka-only poetry collection, also vagabonds online, and may someday find its published home. Feel free to follow his sporadic Twitter @Inadversent. Email: harrimangr[at]gmail.com

Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire
by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire by Darren C. Demaree

I spent the summer months reading Darren Demaree’s recent collection of poems, Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire (Harpoon Books, 2019). One or two poems a day with my morning coffee in the quiet space of my kitchen. Abstract, evocative, organic and ethereal, Demaree’s poetry is primed with familiar images of family and home from the bathtub to the backyard, in a range of the spoken and unspoken words between husband and wife. The collection echoes an existentialism, a sobriety, and a quiet, soulful longing that moved me.

Emily as The First Question
Is a Blood Question

Gathered to the rivering, I asked Emily
to sit in the summer dark, alone with me,
the parts of me that were her enemy.

& in a field that held no crop, no rising
roots, she sat silently, listening to the water
flow away from us, the gravity of the land.

like the future escaping & like there is no cliff,
only the waving arms that have left.
I had three words, a question I thought

could save us from joining the escaping
light, joining the puff of dust that rises
with the hard landing, I should have asked

her to quit drinking with me, so I could stand
to kiss her without hating her a little bit
each time she came home buzzed. Already

aware that only the water can carry you to
the bottom of the framing I asked Emily,
whispered towards the land, are you scared?

The poems are a hodgepodge of this one idea. This one subject. This Emily personified. Emily who flows through the poet’s world like a force from nature lifting the poet up, up, and up, but also binding him to the earth evocatively in secular and divine comparisons to nature and the inner workings of the human heart.

Emily as Thousands of
Colliding Butterflies

Not a bee, so close
to the ground, so nested

in the one, colored hive,

my love is a lunatic

with wings, a dynamo
in reds, in oranges,

no yellow.
From a blue
sky filled
with nothing

my love has taken
to darkening the sun

with the purest collision

of thundering color

& on impact,
the falling
of some wing.

Follow the grasses,
You will step on the parts

of her she had no need of.

Several poems remind me a little of the Romantic sonnets. This one seemed to begin before the first line. Well-turned words that Demaree uses to hint of something more. Perhaps something only Emily knows. I love that.

Emily as A Pin of Light

Yet women
are the moon,
elbowed.

cast in dark
as the context
for our light?

No. It is dark
all of the time.

Emily has spiked

the world
for me.

The fruit
of such air

breeds stars.

Another motif I’ve talked about before when reviewing Demaree’s collections is the visual aspect. Demaree uses white space expertly creating vertical and horizontal forms as he pairs words and phrases or stands them alone on the page sometimes in repetition in an elegant and very visual feast of letters, words, and punctuation. A few of the poems are also curiously populated with people’s names. Real people, not imagined:

Emily as Written by
William Elliot Whitmore.

Emily as I explained to Her Who the
Photographer Kevin Carter Was.

Emily as A One-Act Play
Written by Ted Brengle.

—Yes. I googled all of them. Then I wondered…

Having read several of Demaree’s collections, I’ve become familiar with his style and subject genres. He often writes about Ohio and quite often his poems seem almost duplicitous as they are layered line by line in inferential meaning. I placed a star in the margins and puzzled over this next one.

Emily as A Leveling of Ground

Across the snow,
the sea change of Ohio,
the axe splits wood

as an empty threat
to the whole world,
but then again, hands

can motion the life
right out of this thing.
Personally involved

in the end of the world,
what the living do;
is command the rags

& muscles to be easy
with pleasure,
to take the blanket

& pull it over all heads,
to kick legs
like a ornery child,

a knowing child
with a flat surface
to give in to an eyelid

I found Emily
that means I am ready
for the rest of you

to close your eyes as well.

This one stood out. The imagery is gorgeous and filled with lovely symmetry. I wrote one word in the margins: WOW!

Emily as A Book of Endings

For Leslie Harrison

I chose Emily, because I knew
that if she chose me
I could prepare for death

In a way made my desperation
to keep living something tangible.
Now, with each child we have

I am cemented in the panic
of living. Now, since she
keeps choosing me

every morning, I am able
to taunt mortality in a way
that will leave claw marks

in the fields of Ohio.
How glorious it will be
to be dragged from the living

& scream one name, to spit
one name at my weakening
grip, to expect the strength

to return to me just like
the thousands of other times
I’ve used her name to live longer.

Again, and again, I looked for hidden meaning and mindset in Darren Demaree’s poems, but often come out on the other side of that perspective thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t be thinking quite so hard. A familiar reminder to myself. The poems are like the bubbling brook that appears mysteriously each spring and early fall in my backyard, flowing around the bordering pines and birch trees on its way to the river a short distance through woods. Should I be poking around the forest to find the source? Or rather should I just enjoy the sound of the running water from my kitchen window knowing that it will most likely be gone the next time I look? I think the latter. Poems are meant to be spoken. Poems are magical in that organic sense. And I learn something new about poetry and about myself when I read Demaree’s poems. I like that. Always have. So, somewhere midway through the collection, I stopped mining the words to find out who or what is Emily. It seems Emily is everything and everywhere. An omnipresence in the poet’s world. Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants the Fire is a tribute to this human idea of a divinity, a quiet grace that exists in all of us taking form in a person, in nature, or in the abstract. Pointing true north. A joy for the poet to tribute. A joy for the reader to behold, as well.

*

Darren C. Demaree is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently Emily as Sometimes the Forest Wants Fire (June 2019, Harpoon Books). He is recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children. Twitter: @d_c_demaree

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Empty Mirror

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Mirage Lin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Gripping the phone tight between sweaty fingers, I close my eyes, breathe in the heavy air and say, ‘Thank you for letting me know.’ My voice sounds thin and tinny.

The voice reassures me that he will be in touch again soon. He reels off the digits of his direct extension along with a helpline number. ‘In case you need to talk to anyone.’

It’s a while before I realise that I am still clinging to the phone, the dial tone buzzing in my ear. I try to picture the person belonging to the voice, wonder what he is doing, now he has ticked off this awkward task from his list.

I stand and stretch and head to the bathroom where I splash cold water over my face then stare into the chipped enamel sink. Slowly I raise my eyes and turn, catching the mirror only obliquely, passing a glance at the image which is never quite what I expect.

In the kitchen, I half trip over the curling lino. Sun streams through the glass; it bounces off metallic surfaces, blinding me and threatening to turn the strain behind my eyes into a full-blown headache. For weeks the heat has built with no relief, mirroring my inner tension, as if I’ve been half-expecting something to happen.

I make a cup of coffee, splash in some milk, then cradle the mug between my palms, warming my hands, which seem to have retained a sensory memory of that time outside time, those clock-stopped days.

I gear myself to call my parents, wishing I could postpone, knowing that nothing could excuse a delay of any kind. Relief battles with frustration when the answerphone kicks in. I cannot blurt out my message, so instead I stall: ‘I’ve got some news. Please ring me back.’ I picture them listening and knowing instantly, the way that I did.

Good news or bad? Dad always asks that. It is hard to say.

This all happened long ago and I have pressing things to do, working from home no excuse for slacking. I return to my home office and sit in front of my laptop and manage to spill my gone-cold coffee. I try to re-immerse myself in the figures which fill my screen, grounding myself in the present, filling the crevices of my brain with facts, trying to force out the voice pounding in my ears.

Your sister has been found.

That morning…

The shriek of the alarm sliced through my thumping head. Emma groaned. It would have been so easy to curl up and drift back down; I was determined not to. I rolled towards the kitchenette. Emma was doing her best to feign sleep and I nudged her with my foot. ‘Come on Ems. Rise and shine.’

She opened her eyes. Her face seemed to mirror my own, looking every bit as crap as I felt. ‘What time is it?’ she asked, the same question every morning.

‘Time to get up.’ My same-old reply.

‘We only just got to bed.’

We’d crashed on the pull-out sofabed four hours ago; it seemed better not to spell that out. ‘We need to get there early.’ Rising with the sun was worth it—surely—to enjoy the early morning quiet on the slopes. ‘This is our last chance.’ We’d been travelling for several weeks now. Time had slipped past and we’d arrived at our next to final day.

Released from exams, the two of us had one last summer of freedom ahead of being shackled to the confines of office life. Friends were heading for salt-white beaches. Lazing in the heat and avoiding sunburn held no appeal. ‘What about skiing?’ I’d said.

‘Skiing? In summer?’ Emma replied.

‘Sure. There are plenty of places where you can do that. It’s just a question of going up high enough.’

As usual she was willing to follow my lead.

We plotted a train route, joining the dots between major European cities, stopping off at smaller places with hiking trails in between, but the highlight of the trip—literally—was Zermatt, the traffic-free town in the shadow of the Matterhorn, with ski lifts whizzing you from the alpine flowering meadows up to the glacier, snow covered twelve months a year.

Emma was unenthused about my insistence on up-with-the-lark starts. ‘Aren’t we supposed to be relaxing and enjoying ourselves?’ she said.

‘Come on. We can nap this afternoon. It’s never the same once the hordes get going.’ Plus the ski lifts closed at two, before the snow turned wet and heavy. I scooped generous measures of coffee into the pot, added water and put it on the stove. I started pulling on yesterday’s clothes, postponing till later the daily battle with the shower which cycled through from scalding hot to ice-cube cold. Emma finally stirred herself, giving in; she looked nine-tenths asleep as she took two steps to the bathroom, moving more slothfully than was necessary, a token protest. The rich aroma of coffee filled the apartment, promising wide-eyed alertness.

Outside, the air was sharp enough to cut lungs. I anticipated the usual progression whereby we experienced the four seasons in a single day. The ice of early morning would give way to two hours of a perfect spring, the sun warm on skin, the snow soft, exertion building up a sweat with fleecy layers needing to be discarded; later back at base the heat would build, the thin air strengthening the sunlight, so even though the temperatures were significantly lower than Geneva, we’d risk our fair skin burning if we weren’t careful; then though the evening would remain light, the warmth of the day faded quickly and it would feel more like autumn.

Freshly risen sun reflected off newly smoothed snow up above and dazzled my eyes. A brisk ten-minute walk would bring us to the lifts. My leg muscles were stiff from the accumulation of our daily exertions, first on the slopes and later on the dance floor. They’d soon loosen up. Neither of us had much to say, and we didn’t force it, content in our individual silences.

Approaching the chairs, we appended ourselves to a group of dour-faced people in luminously bright clothes, all speaking rapid German.

‘No Joel.’ Emma said it for me.

I shrugged, trying to deny the inner letdown.

It was from Joel that I’d taken this idea of early starts. Our first evening here, he happened to be seated on a table next to ours in the cheapest eatery. Instantly, I had him sussed: young and single-minded, carelessly conscious of his athletic beauty, his sun-tinted unkempt hair and sun-kissed skin, wearing the right casual gear in a vibrant array of matching colour, a cool Aussie accent.

‘New Zealand actually,’ he corrected me. ‘Lots of people get that wrong. Don’t worry about it.’

‘I wasn’t planning to.’

We slipped easily into casual conversation, with Joel keen to provide the insider tips for ski runs, eating places and nightlife, acting as if his hanging out here for several weeks made him some kind of expert. And though his easy chat could have been flirtatious, I knew it wasn’t, that I would never be his type.

He wasn’t my type either.

The following morning, I ensured we were at the chairlifts early. Sure enough, he was in place ahead of us and I hoped he didn’t imagine us being there was due to anything but the promise of clear slopes. He greeted me and Emma with a lazy ‘Hey,’ which I flipped back, feeling the rising flush, hating myself for the way he seemed to make me feel about fifteen.

‘What’re your plans?’ he asked.

This became the pattern. We’d exchange our itineraries and his always sounded vastly more thrilling. Emma and I had built up intermittent experience from childhood holidays, and we got up to speed on blue runs then progressed onto the reds. As the days went by, I was keen to go for black, wanting to press further, faster, pushing ourselves to our limits; Emma remained cautious. Each morning, Joel managed to convey how ordinary our ambitions were, in the nicest, yet most condescending way. He found the graded slopes too prescribed, too overused, too restrictive. Turned out he had skied all over the world and almost always headed off-piste. Not always harder, but certainly more satisfying, he said, his smile self-deprecating, seeming to imply the option was open to us too, if only we shared his spirit of adventure. Nothing like the pure expanse of the unknown. Even here, a popular area, often he could ski for hours and hardly see anyone. Just him alone in the mountains beneath the sky.

‘Awesome,’ he said, and I smiled tightly and mimicked the word sneeringly in my head. And just as he was getting into his swing, the chairlifts would come to life with a heavy clunk. He’d barely finish his sentence before turning, intent on claiming his place, focusing on what lay ahead, rather than lingering in timewaster chit-chat.

Out of sight, and Emma and I would disappear from his thoughts, while my mind still hummed with thoughts of him. And though the mornings passed well enough, I felt frustrated by the tameness of our chosen slopes, by the accrual of the middle-aged along with their precocious kids, all of them churning the snow up into criss-cross ruts. Today, I needed one last glorious morning to fix in memory, to help me through the dullness that was to come as I returned to England to embark on my fast-track civil service career.

Waiting in line, my mood was beginning to dip, exhaustion refusing to be shrugged off. I’d expected to see Joel and finally win some small measure of his respect. Instead, I had nothing but a conjured-up image of his supple limbs intertwined with those of the dark-haired woman I’d seen him with last night.

Not that it was any business of mine.

And not that I needed to see him. I had his ideas committed to memory, the most straightforward of the off-piste routes. No more difficult than many of the official ones. His claim echoed in my head.

This was our final chance.

The weather forecast was pinned up at the entrance to the ski lift: clouds bringing heavy snow were due to blow in from the West. Difficult to believe with the sky currently pale blue and clear, just as it had been all week. ‘Not looking good,’ Emma said.

I cut in fast. ‘Fine for now though. We’ll knock off early for lunch.’

It was almost time and I was muscle tense, waiting for the squeak and clank of well-oiled machinery, the passing moments before an officious Swiss official would open the gate barrier and bark at us and let us through. The group ahead took the first cable-cars. Close behind them, Emma and I moved forward towards the moving seats, choreographing things to settle ourselves and our paraphernalia of poles and skis and bags before the bars descended and locked us in, ensuring we could not slip out as we soared high above the soft cushion of white below, heading ever higher up into the mountains. I loved this. The stomach-drop moment of that initial swooshing upwards. The repeating stomach lurches whenever we bumped over one of the tall towers holding the whole thing up. I never fully acclimatised to the precarious feel of our high-flown transit, but that was part of the experience, the glorious aliveness which inhabited my body, fear mingling with exhilaration. Emma closed her eyes and tightened her fingers around the bar for the entire trip. She never managed to relax into it, or learned to enjoy the hammering of her heart.

The bars started to lift as we reached our destination and we jumped off. The Germans were still faffing around. I headed away from them and Emma tagged on behind.

I explained the route for the tenth time with Emma frowning at me; she never did have much of a sense of direction, choosing to rely on me, rather than putting the effort in herself.

‘And you’re sure you know what you’re doing?’ she asked.

‘Wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t.’ I tried to exude certainty, because confidence is a mind-trick, act it out and it’s there. ‘Just follow me.’

I adjusted my ski boots and checked the fastenings. I lowered my visor, positioned myself and then pushed away.

Images from the previous night kept flashing. Emma and me, dopey from afternoon snoozing, dressing for the evening in floaty cotton, taking turns in front of the cracked mirror as we applied make-up, intent on improving the canvas of youthful skin. Heading out to a cheap eatery and filling up on sizzling rösti washed down with wine. Moving onwards to a club, the hangout for youthful travelling types, and I’d never have admitted it to anyone, but part of me was on the lookout for Joel.

As always, he seemed surrounded by an adoring host of women. His fan club.

He came over, asked about our day, told us about his. Time slid by as we drank and laughed. Emma sipped the same beer for some kind of forever. Mid-evening and Joel drifted off, disappearing into the throng, and I allowed myself to coast with the crowd and anyone watching me would have figured that I was having amazing fun. But as I tripped the light fantastic out on the floor, unleashing an alcohol-fuelled lack of inhibition, inventing feverish dance moves amidst the swirl of coloured lights, despondency was taking hold. I caught passing glimpses as Joel paired up with a wispy looking girl with long dark hair and olive skin, the photo negative to my fairness, and though it was nothing to me, not really, somehow I minded. And the discontent lingered as we headed out into the snow that morning. I had no reason to believe that Joel would care, or even know about today, but I wanted to prove myself to him in the face of his casual dismissal, my mind forming the misconnection: I had lost out romantically; I was not going to miss out on adventure.

Slowly my mind cleared, unwelcome thoughts swallowed by the close-to-perfection scene. Unblemished white sparkling in soft early light. The thrill of the steep but manageable slope. My skill with the poles which had gained fluidity in the ten days we’d been here. I wouldn’t get far ahead, but I longed to immerse myself in the utter aloneness of the wild. To absorb myself in the pure tranquillity of the moment. A presentness untainted by past disappointments or future worries.

I assumed that Emma was close behind.

I felt the faintest pick up of the wind; a trickle of soft flakes melted on my lips and swirled in front of my eyes. Not enough to worry about. I heard nothing but the rustle of my clothes, the whish of skis slipping along the crust of snow, the whisper of my out-breath. Slowly the flakes built in size, in density, in churning momentum, building to form an encompassing cloud, casting a strange ethereal light, heightening my awareness of self, of existing within a time-stopped moment, a perfect harmonious dance of near-weightless body, mind and landscape.

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped and looked behind me for Emma. How long I waited, my serenity turning to an irritated disguise for fear. How long before I pierced the silence to call her name, listening to the rustle of wind in trees and no reply, before I started to walk clumsily up the slope. How long before I began to panic. Before I realised how alone and helpless I was. Before the weather closed in deeper and I could barely see the back of my gloves. Before I decided the best, the only thing I could do was carry on down and get help, my mind frantically constructing a scenario in which she must either have overtaken me, or turned round and taken the chairlift. She’d be waiting anxiously for me at the bottom, of course she would, and over a boozy lunch somewhere warm, we would turn the events to anecdote, an amusing tale to retell our friends.

 

The screen full of figures glows at me, the data failing to order itself and divulge its meaning, my mind struggling to make sense of the story, those crucial aspects that I have always kept secret.

My sister died in a skiing accident. It is so long since I have seen the need to tell anyone this. She got lost in a suddenly descending snowstorm which forced the two of us apart, in an area where snow sometimes formed a thin layer over deep crevasses in the glacier. Her body remained unfound. None of this version of events—the version I told the police, the journalists, our parents, various therapists and the people I have met and tried to be close to since—is untrue, in the same way that a mirror neither hides nor reveals things fully. I tell people of the hot-cold panic of waiting, those unreal days of searching, of my struggle to describe the route we had taken, everything blurring as if seen through a blizzard.

‘Your sister has been found,’ the man on the phone said and for one heart-soar second I pictured her alive. ‘Some skiers discovered her body where the glacier has melted.’ Perfectly preserved, perfectly frozen, stuck in time. And needing someone to make arrangements for repatriation and burial.

‘Can I see her?’ I asked.

‘Think it over. But yes, of course, if you want to.’

Time passes and outside the sun burns ever hotter, burning through the glass, scorching my skin. My screen has put itself to sleep. The phone rings, startling me from reverie and perhaps it is my parents, or possibly some journalist has got hold of the story. I make a move towards the phone and I catch my reflection in the blackened screen and imagine staring into a frozen mirror. Staring at the clock-stopped face which will stare back, the image of the self that was lost to me twenty years ago. The face of my much-loved twin. Youthful. Hopeful. Light still dancing in her eyes.

pencil

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted by the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter Magazine. She started her career as a theoretical physicist before moving into economics and policy advice. She and her husband live in Welwyn Garden City, UK. Twitter: @Sarah_mm_Evans

Dirty Secrets Make for Orderly Lives

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amberdawn Collier


Photo Credit: Ruin Raider/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

There was a gentle buzz as the phone screen lit up, but Bebe didn’t spare it a glance. She continued methodically shaving the onion into paper thin slices. Her husband looked over from his pile of haphazardly diced pepper.

“You know, there are filters for spam texts,” Dominic laughed. “Unless you want to check out prices for roof replacements in Ohio.”

The knife slipped across onion into flesh. “Ah!” Bebe hissed, dropping the blade and heading over to the sink.

“Are you ok?” He grabbed the little first aid box from the junk drawer.

She nodded. “It’s nothing, just a tiny cut.”

He frowned as he handed her the antibiotic ointment. “How many times have I said that you don’t need to cut the onion so fine? We aren’t cooking for Iron Chef, Bebe.”

“I like to follow the recipe instructions exactly, Dom, unlike you. Those diced peppers are a tragedy,” she muttered, her hand shaking slightly as she took the bandage.

He kissed the end of her nose. “I know you like doing everything perfectly. But you don’t have to try so hard; I already think you’re the best.”

“You’re sweet,” She rested her chin on his shoulder, but her gaze was focused on her phone. “You’re still re-doing the peppers, though.”

“What do you want?” Bebe’s voice was a whisper though she was a good twenty yards from her house.

The voice on the other end of the line snorted. “Well, hello, to you, too, sister.”

Bebe exhaled impatiently. “Cece, I don’t have time for games. I still have the kids’ lunches to pack, and I need to get at least five hours of sleep to function at work tomorrow.”

“Ouch! So, just because I’m not a control freak who plans out her life down to the second, I should have to take care of this by myself?” she asked angrily.

“I don’t even know what this is yet,” Bebe looked down at the daylilies, frowning. Gardening was not her favorite pastime, but everyone else in the neighborhood had lilies, and she didn’t like to stand out. She began furiously plucking off the dead blossoms. “What is going on?”

Cece didn’t reply. Bebe waited, bending to pull an emerging dandelion, grimacing at the dirt that gathered under her classic French tips. The silence stretched, and dread settled in her limbs. She sat down on the grass. “Well?”

“You need to come home. As soon as you can. Plan to stay least ten days,” Cece’s words came out rapidly, tripping over one another in a garbled mess that only a sister could decipher.

“Does that mean—” Bebe began.

“Yes,” Cece cut the question off. “Look, I’ve got to go, and so do you. Just get there by Wednesday.”

“Fine,” Bebe replied, though the call had already disconnected. Chaos was creeping towards the edges of her carefully cultivated life. A wave of dizziness enveloped her, and she fell back on her manicured lawn, breathing in the humid Washington air creeping out of the woods bordering her backyard. It was an old, dark smell, too wild for her to enjoy. She rose, smoothing out both the creases in her pants and the panic in her chest before heading back to the kitchen.

“Sylvie, you need to clean your room before you watch any cartoons,” Bebe lifted her eyes from the laundry pile.

“Mom!” Sylvie pouted. “I just cleaned my room yesterday! What about Josh? His room is a bigger mess!”

“Then he can clean his room, too,” Bebe leaned over and took her son’s Nintendo Switch out of his hands. “I want your rooms in order before I leave tomorrow.”

“Nice throwing me under the bus, Sylvie,” he snapped. “Mom, seriously, you think our rooms are filthy if we have one sock on the floor.”

She ignored his comment and gave him a stack of neatly folded shirts. “It wouldn’t hurt either of you to have a little less screen time. Take a break and put these away.”

Josh started to pull the clothes from her hands, but she tugged back. “Not like that, Josh! I just folded them. You’re wrinkling them all over again.”

“Just because you’re going to a lame technology detox retreat in the woods doesn’t mean we should have to suffer, too,” Sylvie groaned. “I want to watch Netflix.”

Dominic entered from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “Breakfast is ready, guys. Laundry and clean rooms can wait. Let’s have a good last day together. No bickering.”

“Then tell Mom not to be a psycho about our rooms,” Josh grumbled.

Bebe flinched. “Having an organized living space creates an organized mind.”

The kids both rolled their eyes as they went toward the dining room. Dominic caught her arm.

“Don’t be upset. No kid likes to clean their room or put away laundry. It’s nothing personal, sweetie. They love you; they’re just grumpy that they’re going to be stuck with lame ol’ Dad for two weeks.”

She tried to shake the hurt. “What’s so awful about wanting a nice, orderly home?”

“Nothing,” he reassured her. “And trust me, a week from now, when Josh can’t find his tablet, Sylvie has lost her third pair of soccer pads, and they’ve been eating peanut butter and jelly for lunch instead of your gourmet fare, they will be begging me to fly to Maine and hike three hours to your wilderness retreat to get you.”

Bebe pulled back, looking up with worry on her face. “Will you be all right without me, really?”

“Not all right, but we’ll survive,” Dominic grinned, cupping her cheeks and kissing them both. With the air of man defusing a bomb, he eased the shirts from her grip and set them neatly on the coffee table.

He put an arm around her waist and led her to the dining room, pulling out her chair. “Seriously, hon, I think it’s a good idea. You haven’t had a vacation in forever. Though, I have to say the whole wilderness, no technology is a surprise. Are you sure you want to go to the middle of the woods and commune with nature in the middle of summer? You spray yourself down with repellent to walk to the mailbox.”

Bebe smiled tightly. “It wasn’t my first choice, either, but apparently my friend Vivian from college swears by it for ultimate relaxation. Honestly, it isn’t exactly roughing it. The place has plumbing and central air. It will be a good opportunity to re-connect. And being away from phones and computers and television for two weeks won’t kill me.”

“Mosquitoes might though,” Sylvie snarked as she poked at her food. “They carry Ebola or something.”

“Or ticks,” Josh added, his mouth full of oatmeal. “You could get that citrus disease.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bebe replied automatically, though her face blanched of its color. “And it’s Lyme Disease with a ‘y,’ not an ‘i.’”

“Stop harassing your mother, you two.” Dominic put his hand over hers and squeezed. “Don’t worry. I already put three kinds of bug spray in your luggage.”

 

Sunny’s Diner had seen better days. The majority of its business had shifted three miles west to the travel plaza just off the newer and much better paved four-lane highway. Most of the remaining customers were older locals who preferred the winding two-lane country road, plain black coffee with no fancy flavors, and the crispy hash browns of John, the fry cook of thirty-five years.

Bebe parked her rental car and took a steadying breath. She stared at the peeling yellow paint on the bricks. The smiling sun logo was missing an eye. How like this tiny town, she thought, to be half-blind.

“Bebe Carter!” a booming voice greeted her the instant she walked through the door. “We never thought we’d see you again!”

She pasted a friendly, non-committal smile on her face. “Miss Maryanne,” she murmured, nodding her head respectfully at the waitress, noting that all the heads in the diner had turned her way.

“Table for one?” the older woman looked toward the parking lot. “No one with you? No husband?” her eyes locked onto the golden band on Bebe’s left hand.

“My husband couldn’t get time away from work,” Bebe answered. “But Cece is meeting me.”

“Heaven have mercy!” Maryanne’s grin faltered as she placed two laminated menus on the tan Formica table. “I was real sorry to hear about your mama.”

“Thank you,” she replied quietly.

“Hmm,” Maryanne hummed as she poured two steaming cups of coffee. She placed them on the table, along with a small ramekin of milk. “You still take cream, right?”

Bebe nodded. “Yes, thanks.”

Maryanne leaned down, her yellow uniform smelling of homemade buttermilk biscuits and bacon grease. She put an arm around Bebe’s shoulders, not noticing how she tensed at the touch. “I know she was a hard woman to love, but she was still your mama. It’s ok to cry.”

Bile and angry words rose in Bebe’s throat, but she was saved from exposing her bitterness by Cece’s entrance, grand as always. Her younger sister threw open the door, sending the bell above into a frenzy of jingling. Cece was wearing ripped acid-wash jean shorts, scuffed army boots, and a paint-stained Alice in Chains T-shirt. For a disorienting moment, Bebe worried she had traveled back in time to high school.

“Good Lord, child,” Maryanne had rushed over to Cece, crushing her to her chest. “You didn’t clean up at all in twenty years.” She ran a finger over the dried blue splotch on Cece’s shoulder. “Still messin’ around with paint? Didn’t you ever grow up, girl?”

“Cece is a successful muralist. Her work earns her an excellent living,” Bebe felt compelled to come to her defense, though she had made similar comments about her sister’s appearance.

Cece winked at Maryanne. “Hear that? I have Bebe’s seal of approval. I clearly must have grown up, because she is a serious adult.”

Maryanne’s broad bosom heaved with laughter. “Too grown up for blueberry pancakes and sausage links?”

“Never!” Cece sat down. “Give Bebe the same.”

“No, I don’t eat gluten,” Bebe called out, louder than she’d intended. Everyone turned to stare at her again. “Fine. A small stack,” she mumbled, her fingers tracing an ancient crack in the table top.

After Maryanne had entered the kitchen, she turned to her sister. “This was a horrible place to meet.”

“What? You weren’t feeling nostalgic?” Cece took the milk, pouring the whole container into her cup.

“Hey! Some of that was for me,” she protested.

Cece shrugged. “Too bad, so sad, my Bad Bitch,” she taunted.

“You know I hate that nickname,” Bebe grimaced.

“With a name like Bebe, I couldn’t not give you an awesome nickname, sis. You’re just jealous you never came up with a good one for Cece, because you don’t have any imagination, just like our mother.”

That stung, and she was suddenly twelve again. “I do so, you… Cackling Chicken!”

Cece made a choking sound and slapped the table. “Oh my god! How long were you holding on to that one? It was even lamer than I imagined!”

“I was wrong, you didn’t grow up at all,” Bebe used her napkin to wipe up the few drops of milk that dripped from the ramekin, then began the futile task of scrubbing at a stain worn deeply into the table’s surface.

You were wrong?” Cece said in a tone of faux shock, her eyebrows arching toward her hairline. “I should have recorded that.”

Bebe’s temples began to throb. She wrapped her hands around the mug to keep herself from cleaning the entire table. “How long will this take?”

A serious expression settled on Cece’s face. It looked out of place. “Apparently, she pre-planned her funeral years ago, right after Dad died. So, most of that is handled. She has a plot next to his, and they’ll have everything ready for the burial tomorrow. I put a notice in the paper yesterday.”

“How many people do you think will come?” She put her spoon in her black coffee, stirring vigorously and aimlessly all at once.

“Hard to tell,” Cece chewed her lower lip. “On one hand, our mother alienated just about everyone in town at some point in her life. On the other, she was the main source of entertainment before streaming video.”

“So, you think the only people who will come are gossips and the ones who want to spit on her grave?” She tried to make a mental count and gave up.

Cece’s laugh was a mix of camaraderie and mockery. “I know—that’s half the town, right?”

To Bebe’s relief, the turnout was closer to twenty people. The guess about their motivations was spot-on, though. A dozen or so were faces she recognized from long-standing feuds with her mother, while the remaining mourners included the local conspiracy theorist and a woman who papered her study with obituary notices.

Bebe had never loved her sister more than when Cece announced loudly that there would be no reception after the burial. Bebe didn’t even mind the normally unbearable looks of judgment from those assembled. Cece put an arm around her, and she leaned in without hesitation, grateful to use the body language of grief to convince others to leave her alone. They stood side by side as if frozen in the summer heat, silently staring at the open grave as the cheapest coffin was lowered slowly into a cleanly cut rectangle. Time passed, all the cars pulled away, and finally, a backhoe began to fill in large clumps of earth.

“I forgot to throw in my rose,” her voice broke as she glanced down at the flower in her hand. All its thorns were gone, and putting a flower without defenses on her mother’s grave seemed cruel.

“Me too, except I didn’t forget,” Cece tugged on her sleeve, moving her a few steps over. “Dad would appreciate the flowers.” She bent down and placed the roses on the slate gray tombstone.

“Do we have to go there?” Bebe asked quietly. “Can’t we just pay someone to burn it down?”

Cece laughed bitterly. “I’m seriously impressed that you suggested that, but if she had been worth going to prison for, I would have poisoned her vodka twenty years ago.” She glanced over and grinned. “Speaking of vodka, I stopped at the liquor store. Want to go back to our crappy motel and get plastered?”

“No,” Bebe said tiredly. “Between the red eye flight and the time change, I just want to go back and sleep.”

“Fine, but stop by my room in the morning for an Irish coffee—I think you’ll need a shot of something before heading out.”

Bebe settled for the motel lobby coffee, which was foul and terribly weak. She wasn’t sure how anyone could make what was basically water taste burnt, but the Good Rest Inn had managed the feat. An inquiry about the room cleaning and linen replacement schedule had revealed that those services were only provided every other day, for the good of the environment. Fighting back nausea at the thought that the room she’d slept in hadn’t actually been properly sanitized, she sat down in the tiny breakfast nook and forced down a dry serving of corn flakes because there was no milk. Cece came in a few minutes later, holding a large silver thermos. Her face was mostly covered by large, reflective aviator sunglasses. She was wearing old, stained clothes, a red bandana over her hair, and a grumpy expression.

“Here,” she held out another bandana. “You are definitely going to want to cover that three-hundred-dollar blow-out.”

“It was only one hundred,” Bebe replied defensively. “And I was going to my mother’s funeral. I needed to—”

“Look perfect?” Cece cut her off. “I’m well aware of your compulsive need for projecting a perfect image. You’re going to regret wearing that perfect little yoga outfit, though. I have a feeling you’ve never actually sweat in it before. Come on, we need all the daylight we can get.”

During the short drive from the motel, Bebe tried to prepare herself. Nothing worked, though, and her chest filled with a deep ache as Cece turned beside a clump of poison oak that obscured all of the mailbox save the little rusted red flag. The winding drive was more purple coneflowers and goldenrod than gravel, and even the light sound of long grass brushing against the side of the Jeep was torturous to Bebe’s already frayed nerves. Cece steered toward a pile of wood and stone that had once been a stand-alone garage and parked.

Bebe stared in horror through the windshield at the structure. As unlivable as it had been during their childhood, this was worse. Part of the roof was sagging dangerously, and a mantle of ivy, moss, and algae had covered most of the siding. A front step was missing, as were several porch supports. “Are you sure this place hasn’t been condemned?”

“The county inspector was terrified of our mother, just like everyone else. I think she threatened to set him on fire once.” Cece pulled a large sack from the back of her Jeep. “Look, no local company will come to clean while there are biohazardous materials inside. We just need to deal with a few areas, and then we can make plans for other people to clean and fix up the rest. Then we can sell it and never worry about it again.”

“Is it really worth fixing?” Bebe asked doubtfully. She watched Cece reach back again and pull out a large blade. “Is that a machete?”

“Yep,” Cece replied. “Don’t give me that dirty look. I’m not going to hack you to pieces. The police trampled down a few spots, but we still need to cut a path. Unless you want to wade through a sea of weeds and a million chiggers to get to the front door.”

“What’s left of the front door,” Bebe could see from fifty feet away that the main door was missing a quarter panel in the lower left corner and tilting at an odd angle. She tried to disregard the mention of chiggers, but her fingernails began to spontaneously scratch at her arms.

Cece handed her a bucket with a roll of heavy trash bags, cleaning spray, paper towels, a packet of latex gloves, and a giant pump container of hand sanitizer. “You’ll need this. Follow me.”

“Wait!” Bebe grabbed a can of bug repellent out of her purse and sprayed it all over her body, then offered it to her sister, who took it without hesitation.

“Do you have a spray to protect against a breakout of childhood trauma?” Cece joked, but neither woman laughed.

Even though Cece thought she had no imagination, Bebe’s brain was excellent at self-harm, and by the time they had reached the front door, it already had convinced her that she was covered by thousands of tiny bugs despite the spray. She fidgeted nervously as Cece set down her things and lifted the door sideways.

“It was off the hinges?” Bebe asked. “Why?”

Cece groaned at the weight of the door, and Bebe rushed to help her. They propped it against the siding, waiting to see how far into the moss it slipped. “The police took it off when they came out to do the welfare check.”

“How long was she—” Bebe swallowed, taking the latex gloves out of the bucket and pulling them on with a snap.

“The coroner’s report said a few weeks,” Cece reached down and put a pair on as well, then stepped through into the dark hallway. “You’d better get your phone out and use the flashlight.”

Bebe hovered at the threshold. “I didn’t bring my phone.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bring your phone? Who doesn’t carry their phone these days?” Cece griped.

“I told Dominic I was on a technology detox retreat in Maine. I’m supposed to not have a phone,” she confessed, waiting for her sister’s scoffing censure.

But Cece only turned on her own flashlight app. “Just stay near me,” she muttered.

Bebe still hesitated, unable to force her feet into the house. Fear was spreading upwards from the soles of her feet, burrowing into her skin like chiggers, releasing the toxins of a thousand bad memories.

Cece’s hand snaked out, grabbing her and pulling her forward. “Don’t give her any more power, Bad Bitch. She’s dead.”

“It still smells like,” Bebe gasped as she stumbled against her sister, breathing through her mouth, not wanting to complete her thought.

“I know. We should’ve brought Vick’s and face masks,” Cece shone the light forward, revealing the precariously towering stacks of newspapers, cardboard, clothing, empty food containers, plastic bags, and other miscellaneous junk cemented together with cobwebs and twenty-five years of dust, grime, and cigarette smoke. “Do you remember the way through to the living room?”

Bebe closed her eyes against both the acrid smell and the memories rushing toward her. “Straight until the Dennis the Menace doll with the missing arm. Turn right, then left at the baby gate covered in broken Christmas lights. Don’t forget to duck by the stack of Good Housekeeping—there’s always a spider web there.”

“Yes, exactly,” Cece nodded, her voice low and shaky. She coughed, then continued, her normal sarcastic tone back in full-force, “Who could forget Dennis? That little shit has given me a lifetime of nightmares.”

They walked slowly through the winding path, turning sideways at times, crouching at others. Bebe had always compared going through her mother’s house with playing a giant game of Twister in which it was entirely possible to break a leg or worse with the wrong step. The last time she had been here, the day she’d packed her bag for college ten states away, she’d cut herself on a broken ceramic Precious Moments angel figurine, the jagged edge of its praying hands catching her thigh as she’d hurried past to the waiting cab. At the school health clinic, she’d gotten a booster for her tetanus shot, but her clumsy attempt to use butterfly tape to close the wound had resulted in a raised, silvery scar. When Dom had run his gentle fingers over it, she told him she’d gotten it by slipping against an open locker after swimming in the college pool, the first of many lies she had told him.

In the living room, the light was a little better. The windows had curtains, but they were in tatters, and the piles of debris hadn’t made it fully up to the top of the casement. There were only two spaces cleared. One was in front of the hulking television set purchased in 1990 where about forty grimy cigarette cartons balanced like filthy Jenga blocks. The other was a small area around the dry-rotted recliner, heaped with blankets, a stack of empty popcorn canisters depicting happy Boy Scout faces propping up the broken left armrest. The blankets were soaked in a black, slimy sludge that made Bebe think of a toxic oil spill. It smelled terrible; the stench intensified with the heat.

“Is that where she was when they found her?” She looked away quickly.

Cece nodded in reply, putting down her bucket and pocketing her phone. She opened one of the heavy-duty trash bags and handed it to Bebe. “Hold this steady.”

Her sister had always been the brave one, Bebe knew, but the amount of fortitude needed for this job seemed impossible. Cece grabbed the top blanket, folding the edges inward to lift it. Her arms strained, and she grunted. “God, that’s heavy.”

She dropped the bundle into the bag, and Bebe clutched at the plastic as it slipped out of fingers from the weight. A blend of fetid cigarette ash and death rose to her nostrils and she gagged, her burned coffee water emptying into the trash bag.

Cece snorted. “You just threw up on Mom.”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her gloved hand, Bebe lifted her chin defiantly. “And I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Excellent,” she hefted the next blanket. “That’s the attitude we need to get through this.”

 

As soon as they got back to the motel, Bebe took the bucket of cleaning supplies into her room and scrubbed every surface, including the walls. She stripped the bedding and took her rental car down to the local laundromat, which was across the road from the liquor store. Generally, her limit was two glasses of white wine, but today was exceptional in every awful way. The clerk raised his eyebrows at the five bottles.

“Having a party?” he scanned the items.

“A pity party,” she answered with uncharacteristic honesty. He was a stranger she would never see again, and she had to tell at least one person the truth or her moral compass might rot away completely.

Unfazed, he bagged her purchases. “Right on. You might want to add some solo cups for easy clean up.”

She retrieved the clean linens and stopped by a gas station to get air fresheners. It was beginning to concern her that she would never stop smelling her mother’s liquid remains. After hanging the cardboard pine trees from the wall lamps and doorknobs, she remade the bed and took a scalding shower, using up her entire bottle of peach-scented exfoliating scrub. Her skin felt raw, but marginally cleaner. The clothes she had worn earlier went into one of the black trash bags.

There was no chance of her trusting the water quality of the motel’s ice maker, so she mixed herself a room-temperature margarita. She was sipping on her third when there was a knock on her door. Cece came in, her shoulders hunched, her eyes downcast. Bebe was reminded of how her little sister had once made a secret path between their rooms, a tunnel too low and dark for their mother to notice, their own little battle trench in the world war that was their home.

“I saw a roach in my room,” her voice was hardly audible. She glanced around. “All your cleaning probably scared it out of hiding.”

Bebe handed her the cup she was holding. “You can sleep here. I made margaritas.”

Cece took a deep drink. “Thanks.”

By the time the bottle of mixer was gone, and they had started on straight shots, the normal, abrasive Cece had returned. “I thought I was the bad child. I still can’t believe you told everyone at college that our mother was dead.”

“I was just so sick of people asking if I was going home for the Thanksgiving break. It came out, and then I couldn’t take it back.” Her words came out in a belligerent slur, then dipped into a mournful sound. “I promised myself I would never step foot in that house again.”

“Yeah,” Cece threw her head back to take another shot. Her bleary eyes met Bebe’s accusingly. “You left me behind in that shit show for two years alone.”

There was nothing she had done that pained Bebe more. Tears immediately began to stream down her face. “I know,” she leaned toward Cece, her body flopping sideways as she tried to hug her. “I’m so sorry, my little Cackling Chicken.”

“Whatever,” Cece said gruffly, but she moved into the hug. “Pain makes for good art.”

“Then you are definitely a world-class muralist,” Bebe murmured, her face hidden in her sister’s hair. It smelled like the overly floral motel shampoo, with an underlayer of ever-present turpentine.

“Did you tell them I was dead, too?” Cece asked in a whisper, her own cheeks wet now.

She shook her head so hard the room began to spin. “No. I put up every piece of art you sent me. Dominic and the kids are always asking when you will come out to visit, but I know you’re really busy.”

“How old are they now, your kids?” Cece wiped at her face with her T-shirt.

“Sylvie’s twelve, and Josh is ten,” Bebe answered, grabbing a tissue to blow her nose. “They’re good kids.”

“You dodged a bullet for them by never subjecting them to our mother,” Cece grinned, then added, “I bet you make them clean their rooms every day.”

Bebe opened her mouth to protest, but Cece raised a hand. “I’m joking. Well, like forty percent joking.” The smile left her face, her voice beginning to waver again. “I don’t doubt at all that you are a great mother, Bad Bitch. You were a great mother to me, even when you were just a kid.”

Bebe began to cry harder, her shoulders shaking. “No, I wasn’t. I didn’t take good enough care of you—I left you behind.”

“Hey!” Cece grabbed her by the shoulders. “You mastered the art of making macaroni and cheese on a camping grill when you were seven. You cleaned my clothes in the creek, even in the winter. You stole baby wipes and washed my hair so I wouldn’t smell bad at school.”

“I should have taken you with me,” Bebe sobbed, snot mixing with her tears.

“No. You had a chance to get out, a scholarship; you had to take it. I got my chance, too, just a little later,” Cece murmured, handing her another tissue. “And I’m going to visit this Thanksgiving, on the condition that you don’t make me clean my room while I’m there.”

Bebe’s laughter was a wet sound, but happy. “How about you have to make your bed, but I’ll do your laundry?”

“Deal,” She lifted her glass in a toast. “Here’s to the death of mom and the rebirth of our sisterhood.”

“Here’s to Bad Bitch and Cackling Chicken,” Bebe smiled, bumping her cup. “May their reinvented past clear the way for a brighter future.”

pencil

Amberdawn Collier is an adjunct professor of English at Ohio University. She earned an M.A. in English Education at City College, CUNY. She loves story-telling in all its forms and enjoys the challenge of writing prompt-driven stories that push her creativity in new directions. Email: acollier00[at]gmail.com