Night

Broker’s Pick
Richard Dinges


Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Flesh and breath,
sweat and oily sheen,
bald head, freed from
hair and gray,
muscles bulge then
fall flat, sag into
flatulence, hips
once were hills
to be explored, now
rounded mysteries
under frayed comforters,
night no longer
an exploration,
now a dark cavern
in which to hide.

pencilRichard Dinges has an MA in literary studies from University of Iowa and manages business systems at an insurance company. Abbey, Pulsar, Rio Grande Review, Studio One, and Common Ground Review most recently accepted his poems for their publications. Email: rdinges[at]outlook.com

Alcaics: on a hashtag

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor


Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

What happened? Who knows? No one can read a mind
scroll back the thoughts like seismograph traces, see
just where the quake struck. We are left here
sifting the wreckage for scraps, for reasons

—some prop that gave way, broke under sudden shock,
brought down the whole house. Then we could make ourselves
safe, make our own house safe: the next quake
won’t pull us down, we’ll be ready for it.

It’s that we’re human. That’s what we do. We make
home, shelter; fire, hearth. Structures to keep us safe.
Crops, pasture, fields hacked out of dark woods;
calendars, numbers against the vast sky

that drifts above us. Patterns of when and why:
verse; music; carved stones. Pictures and glossaries.
Faith, hope and love. Just law and mercy.
Everything keeping us sure of our selves,

each other’s selves. So much we can only take
on trust, and walk as if we believe there’s ground
to bear our weight. We have a place here,
that’s what we say in the frightened, quiet time

we try so hard not ever to give ourselves.
We have a home; if not a place, a tribe.
Kith, kin. Or one heart somewhere for us.
Structures we build on a spinning planet

we need to tell each other we trust in still.
If one looks down, looks over the edge, we might
all fall. We need these explanations
—not why a house tumbled down, but why ours

still stands. That hashtag, something we need to hear:
depression lies, we tell ourselves. Something struck
this house or that; some monster drew this
person or that to their self-destruction.

Sounds like a glib line, telling you what you feel’s
false: silence once more slapped over what you know.
More, though, it’s our own mind we talk down,
begging it, almost, to give us good news

tell us we’re part of a world we think true,
can live in, can think we belong in.
We build the house still, tremulous as the ground is.
Stay, please, we say. Stay. Help us to keep it standing.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj


Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I liked him a lot. Every time I walked into the store, he would greet me with folded hands and politely say, “Namaste, Madam, how have you been?” He would walk me through the latest collection of clothes and make suggestions from time to time. His name, he said, was Nicholas. He had been working as a salesman in the store for about a year. I would tell everyone about his courteous behaviour.

My husband, however, was very dismissive of my admiration for Nicholas. He would try to convince me that Nick, as I would often call him, was simply doing his duty. His chivalry would disappear the day he found a new job. But I rooted for Nick. In fact, I told many of my colleagues that they should visit that store and Nick would help them make an affordable yet sophisticated choice. Nick’s behaviour made me debate with others who, influenced by the present media, concluded that India was no more a country safe for women. As a feminist, I believed in standing up for men too. I argued with them stating that our country still had good and caring men.

I was so determined to prove them wrong that one Monday morning while travelling on a public bus to my office, I began typing on my tablet, a post for a blog. My idea was to raise an alarm against the gender crises in Indian culture as represented by popular mass media. I was citing examples of men like Nick, when I realised that my bus was nearing the stop. I quickly dumped all my stuff into my bag. Before I could step down off the bus, several young men and women came running to get into the bus. I managed to get down. Just when the bus was about to leave, I saw a young man, very familiar, running towards me to catch the bus. He did not recognise me. In a hurry, he dashed against me. I was hurt. I fell down. Everything in my bag rolled out on the road. The young man did not look back.

As I tried to get up and collect my stuff, I realised that the man was none other than Nicholas. He was wearing a blue shirt with an ID card dangling down his neck. Some of the people around helped me get back on my feet. They advised me to sit for a while and drink some water. While I tried to shake off the unexpected jolt in my ordinary day, it struck me that the ID card bore the name, Pawan Kumar. I refused to believe what I experienced. I took my phone and called the store. It was 10 a.m. already; surely they would be in business. I asked them about Nicholas. They said that he had left the store on Friday. And they did not know if his name was Pawan Kumar.

pencilJhilam Chattaraj is currently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She loves to explore the world through literature, culture, and photography, especially bird photography. Her area of interests in literary research includes Diaspora Studies (MPhil) and Popular Indian Culture (PhD). Her academic and creative writings have been published in journals like Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muse IndiaIndian Book ChronicleLanglitEast LitIndialogue FoundationWomen’s Web, Birds.com, and Indian Bird Photographers. Email: c.jhilam1984[at]gmail.com

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

I thought this is the kind of cup someone should want. Not white, but ivory instead, speckled and delicate like an egg, lavender stamped elegantly around the handle. Unwrapped, bubble-wrap tossed next to, not in, the trash, I set it alone on the counter. I lifted it, pleased at the delicate C my fingers shaped, and used my other hand to wipe away forgotten cereal Os.

I tried to be the person who loved this mug: I drank European coffee, and tried Earl Grey tea, too. I told myself to drink from this mug instead of a bottle of dark amber beer or two-buck chuck. When I filled it with powdered cocoa, it almost felt like home. I thought of pine trees and snow storms, missed my mother. In the bright sun of the west coast, I guiltily scrubbed it elegant again.

Sometimes, for weeks, it sat in my cabinet, upside down, and out of mind. Still, it reminded me to read the paper each morning, stay late at work, visit my friends’ terrace parties full of ties and heels. It would be proud of me, sometimes, and sometimes not. My promises were intermittently kept. The cup would probably have forgiven me if I could have just avoided drive-through windows, read that bestseller, turned off prime-time. When I was sick of doing three people’s jobs for the pay of half of one, and I thought I was finally done with it—I remembered the person who owns that mug is not a quitter.

I thought that mug was stronger than it was, as I slid it into the gentle cycle in my dishwasher. I was almost relieved: through Cascade-steam, that mug was ended in powder and pieces.

pencilSherry Welch has an MA in Writing and Publishing from Depaul University and currently resides in her home-town of Chicago. Email: sherrene.welch[at]gmail.com

Into the Dirt

Beaver’s Pick
Matthew Everett


Photo Credit: green kozi/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: green kozi/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I pressed the camera to my face. The Wichita Mountains stood, old and sleeping, on the other side of the lake, smeared across the right half of the sky. The tops were white, even in August, and melted into patches of red and brown and green that slid down the slopes, into the silence of the lake. My other eye squinted as I pulled them into a place where I could see. They huddled in my camera, and I pressed the shutter.

Tiki was nearby, sniffing his way down a line of walnut trees by the road. He flitted from trunk to trunk, pausing, front paw dangling and nostrils pulsing, before trotting on to the next.

I wound the film and looked down at the window. Six pictures left.

I looked around. Little houses dotted the gravel drive, sleeping beneath wide, rustling trees. I started toward the lake, and a few roads over, I came to the docks that Holly and I used to swim under, when it was warm. We’d bubble up in one of the empty boat shelters and let our toes dangle in the water, and imagine that little fish were listening to our garbled voices talking. But none of them were empty today. I looked down the last road and hurried across.

The grass on the other side kissed my bare feet and ironed out the little gravel-shaped dimples on my soles. The dock groaned as I stepped out onto it, and the top of its wooden body was hot and dry and dusty. I turned right and walked toward water, weaving my way between the uneven nails that jutted up from the beams. At the end of the dock, I stopped.

A small boat, flat and aluminum, bobbed in the shade of the shelter arching over it. I put the camera to my face, but through the lens, it looked dull and colorless. I frowned.

Tiki had followed me and was lying down, panting and watching me. The shadow beneath the awning hugged me as I walked into it. I stepped into the boat, and it shifted under my feet. In the steering wheel was a small web, rocking and recently-fled. I bent down and saw a little brown spider huddled beneath the rim. His shoulders were hunched and angry, waiting with smiling eyes for my departure. I pulled my camera back to my face and took a picture.

When I climbed out of the boat, Tiki was standing next to me, looking down into the water. His reflection panted back at him, then broke apart as he leaned down to paw at a passing pair of fish. I clicked my tongue as I walked back up the dock, and he followed me, out into the sun.

At the road, I studied the walnut trees, the way their leaves grew out over the gravel. Houses ran in uneven rows in either direction. Ms. Beverley’s stood nearest to me. On her porch, a chair lay broken on its side, its body covered in a dry, brown mold. I looked up the road, and back down. The dust kicked up in the quiet wind, coating the roofs and the leaves of the walnut trees. Everything was dirt.

It was louder out back. Cicadas spoke across the trees with angry voices, and beyond the bend in the road, a lawnmower rolled in sharp, roaring circles across a dry stretch of grass. I walked toward a row of sunflowers that blinked and sprouted from the dirt behind her house.

 

“I wish you wouldn’t sit back there, Elma. Makes me feel like a damn chauffeur.”

“Watch your mouth,” said Grandma, “There’s a little sunflower in the car.” She ran a hand through the hair on the back of my head, which I didn’t think was quite as yellow as sunflowers.

“Just make sure she doesn’t spill any of that on my seats. I swear to God if she spills that again—”

“Why don’t you be quiet,” she snapped. “Let the girl enjoy her pickles.”

I pulled the camera from my pocket, found two days before, next to Christmas ornaments in her attic.

“Do you think it works?” I asked Grandma, who was still glaring at my father in the rearview mirror.

She tore her eyes away and smiled. “What, sweetheart?”

“Do you think it still works?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s see.” She pulled it from my hands and turned it over. She pointed at a window next to the lens and tapped her brittle nail against it. “Says here there are seven pictures left. You’ll have to finish the roll before we can find out.”

She handed it back to me. I set it on the seat next to me and shoved my hand back into the jar wedged between my legs. I pulled a pickle out and watched it slip from my hands onto the floorboards. My father turned around and saw it lying in a shallow puddle of itself. The truck braked hard.

“God dammit, Maggie,” he said as he unbuckled his seatbelt to swat at my face. “What did I just say?”

 

The sunflowers stared at me. They were just taller than me, and stood in two wide, shallow rows. Black pupils and bright yellow irises that watched me without blinking, like they’d forgotten who I was. I took a picture.

A white truck rolled into the edge of my vision, coming up the road that hugged the west edge of the lake. I clicked my tongue again at Tiki. “Let’s go.” He stood and raced after me, back toward the house.

The white truck was in the driveway when we arrived. A missing tailgate and empty bed. I walked around to the passenger’s side and the window was open. The dashboard was cracking and sun-bleached, and crumpled receipts and little paper straw wrappers lay scattered across the floorboard. Shadows from the branches hanging over the house fell in ripples across a dogeared Bible on the passenger’s seat. It was open to a page with words just big enough to read. I squinted and read the little letters at the top of the page. Proverbs 6:16. I took a picture.

Tiki watched me climb the stairs of the front porch, and paddled off in search of new shade. I pulled open the screen door and went inside.

My father’s voice filled the front room.

“Why don’t you let me do it? Let me take a look.”

“It’s not the accounting, Oliver.” The man was soft-spoken and stood in an apologetic way. His back was facing me. He was three or four steps from the door, and his hands slid into his pockets as he listened to my father’s resurging confusion.

“Well, what the hell is it then?” My father’s shoulders hunched as he spoke.

The man coughed and adjusted his tie. “It’s just that we don’t have any money.” A fist slid out from his pocket, and opened into an insistent palm.

My father scoffed. “I don’t remember the last time anything like this happened. Have people stopped coming? Stopped giving?”

“Well, attendance is down, but that’s only part of it. People just don’t have anything to give.”

My mother walked in from the bedroom beyond the kitchen. “Brother Bryan! I thought I heard someone talking in here!” She tore her eyes from the man and glanced at my father, then back at the man. “Please,” she said after a long moment, “sit a while! Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

“Hello, Laura. It’s good to see you. We missed you Sunday.”

My mother tilted her head to the side and laughed. “Oh, we went up to see some family in Fort Cobb,” she said. “Their youngest was getting baptized. Just a beautiful sermon.” She glanced at the time. After a moment, she added, “Nothing near as good as yours, though. Can I get you some coffee?”

“Thank you, but I’m not staying long.” His smile was gentle and warm, and I watched it float over toward my mother.

She looked at my father and his crossed arms. “Is everything all right?”

“I was just telling Oliver we might have to cancel the pageant next week.”

“Why’s that?” My mother’s voice lilted up.

“The church’s revenue is drying up. I know everyone looks forward to the bazaar and the kids’ choir recital, but all that costs money, and right now we don’t have much of it.” The man looked at his shoes.

I took a few steps forward, out from the hallway and into the living room. I spoke. “Are you going to cancel the choir recital, too?”

The man turned around and noticed me. “Hey, Maggie,” he said. “You’re so tall. You’ll be as big as your sister soon.” His eyes glinted and he forced his face back into a smile. “How are you?”

“Are you going to cancel the recital?” I repeated.

“Well,” he said, running a hand down his cheek that fell back to his side after a moment. It looked like he was holding invisible flowers. “We might have to.”

“Maggie, honey, why don’t you go in your room and play?” My mother was leaning past the man, eyebrows raised.

“It’s okay, Laura.” He squatted in front of me. “Yeah, we might have to cancel it.” He looked at one of my eyes, then the other. “But I think I speak for everyone when I say I hope that doesn’t happen.” He reached out to tuck a piece of my hair behind my ear.

“Really, Bryan, I’m sure if you just let me take a look—”

“I don’t think there’s anything to look at,” said the man, looking at my eyelashes, before standing and turning toward my father. “But if I hear anything else, I’ll give you a call. I just thought I’d tell you while I was in the area. I’m meeting Mae in a little while up in Lawton, though, so I’d better get going.”

My mother pushed herself from the side of the doorway she’d been leaning on. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do.” She ran a hand across her forehead and then straightened her hair. Her mouth was open, and I saw her tongue lying just behind her crooked teeth. Her breaths seemed spaced out.

The man smiled. “Of course.” He turned to my father and extended his hand, which my father shook, forgetting to smile.“See you Sunday,” they said. My father watched him watch my mother.

The man buttoned his jacket and raise his hand into a still wave. “See you, Laura.” He turned toward the door, reaching for the handle. He pulled it open, and August started to seep in. He caught me staring at him. “Goodbye, Maggie,” he said, without blinking. He stepped out into the loneliness of the sun.

Almost before the door shut, my father spoke. “Jesus, Laura. You’ve got to be kidding me.”

My mother didn’t say anything. She picked up a pack of blue Pall Malls resting on the TV cabinet.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” said my father. “Every damn time he comes here, you’re a little schoolgirl, fawning over him.”

My mother walked to the couch and sat on the end farthest from the door. She pulled a cigarette from the pack, which she tossed on the coffee table, and picked up the orange lighter next to it. My father glared. She flicked the lighter three times and breathed in until the cigarette started to glow. She threw the lighter next to the pack.

“Go ahead, just ignore me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I watched her tongue moving below her brain. As her cigarette hand emoted, her other hand crossed her body and hid under her right arm—her cigarette arm—which stood, crooked at the elbow. She was looking out the window.

“Oh, don’t start with your ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ bullshit. Jesus, it’s like you’re in love with him.”

“He’s just a nice man, is all,” she said, blowing a thin stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. Her left arm came out and brushed some hair off her forehead before returning to its hiding place. “Which is more than I can say for you.” She looked at him for the first time.

“You can’t get all starry-eyed every time he waltzes in here. Into my house. Jesus Christ.” His hands were shaking, and he was looking at her. “You can’t.”

My mother looked back out the window, at a place I couldn’t see, but I could see the lake in her eyes. Her fingers shifted as they felt the heat creeping toward them. Her hair was still, and she looked very small. I thought of the way she looked when she used to push Holly on the swings at the park, and the way her cigarette danced on the corner of her turned-down mouth, how slowly it burned. I wondered if we kept her from running away. I pointed my camera at her and took a picture.

My father looked at me. “Maggie, go to your room. I don’t know why you even use that damn thing. It’s just a disposable. Film’s all washed out by now. Probably doesn’t even have any.”

I went outside.

*

When I woke up, I lay in bed for a long while, looking at the ceiling and carving little moons in the back of my hand with my fingernails. A sponged pattern ran in semicircles toward the bedroom door, like waves against the beach. A white-blue light was pouring in from the telephone pole outside. I rolled on my side, then sat, half-up, on my elbow.

“Holly,” I said into the stillness of the room. “Are you awake?” Everything was quiet.

I slid my legs out of bed and walked to the window. A speck of light glinted off Tiki’s collar from the little wooden overhang where he slept. My hands felt empty. I went to the door and pulled it open, slow and careful, and slipped out into the hall.

Grandma’s room was to the right. I pressed an ear to the door and heard a muted snoring that grew as the door swung open. She was sleeping on her back, mouth loud and wide. Her dresser stood against an empty wall and reflected the blue window, scattering it across the floor like sand.

The top drawer creaked as I opened it, but she didn’t move. Inside, a little silver-colored box lay waiting for me, and it sparkled as I pulled it up and turned it over in my hands. Along the edges, engravings wound into each other like vines. I opened the lid, and saw dozens of little jewelries sleeping on top of each other, perfect and unwakeable. I sunk my fingers into them and felt them roll over and hold me.

I pulled each piece out and laid it on the dresser top in neat, even lines. I scanned the rows and looked for something delicate and beautiful. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I took a pair of green and bronze earrings—thin brown chains suspending tiny emeralds that smelled like trees and old metal. I dropped them in my pocket and filled the box up and lowered it back into place. The drawer shut with a soft thud, and I looked at the bed.

Her shadow stood beside her on the wall, holding her in her stillness. After a moment, I went closer, into her shadow, and saw her upper lip crooked into a sort of satisfaction, floating through an unthinking contentment. I could see that she was somewhere else, or almost there, far away from me and Holly and the lake. Far away from her daughter’s cigarette arms, in a place where she didn’t have to worry about hearts that weren’t her own.

I went outside.

The moon was bright and empty. I turned left, then left again, toward the back of the house. Across the yard, I saw the sunflowers shivering, unaware but together in the openness. Their eyes looked up, soaking in the substitute beauty of the moon. I walked toward the woods, toward the little house where Tiki slept. He stood as I got closer, and shook his fur in tight, rapid circles. “Hey, Tiki,” I whispered. He trotted toward me and nuzzled against my leg. I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth, and he followed, sniffing the air as he floated into wakefulness. I watched him blink, several times, slower each than the last. He shook his fur and his collar again.

We went toward Ms. Beverly’s and past it, and walked until the woods were all we could hear. We came to a creek, and I looked back at the way we’d come. Tiki was in front of me. He heard that the leaves weren’t crunching anymore, and stopped to look at me. The moon was coming in harder now, high and bright.

Tiki walked over and sniffed at the cypress tree between us. I looked at my feet and bent down and pushed my fingers into the dirt. It was warm. I pulled up a handful and pressed it to my face and it smelled like rain.

I set the dirt beside me, and started to pull up more handfuls. My shadow held the growing pile until there was a deep hole in the ground, and I heard the earrings stirring in my pocket. They blinked at me as I pulled them out into the openness, fast at first, then slower. The moon came through the tree branches, and fell in broken stripes across the earrings. After a few moments, I tilted my hand and watched them fall, down my palm and across my fingertips, into the earth.

Alone and crumpled up, they looked happy. I scooped some dirt into my hands and poured it on top of them. The heel of my palms pressed the dirt into itself, until it felt firm.

Tiki whined at the darkness. He blinked at me as I stood. We walked with our shadows back toward the house.

*

Impatient rain woke me up.

I turned on my side and saw Holly crouching on the dresser, her hands gripping an imaginary rifle pointed at my face.

“Bang! You’re dead.” She giggled and jumped down. “Bang bang bang.”

“Hi,” I said, wiping my eyes.

“Hi,” she said. “Wanna play?” She tossed the gun aside and walked toward the boxes of Barbies that lined the shelf by the window. She started on the end and went down the line, enumerating, without waiting for my response. “This one’s Holiday Barbie, and this one’s Groovy Barbie, and this one’s Crystal Barbie.” She didn’t pause. I watched her walking down the shelf, pointing her short fingers at each one with a passing obsession. “…and this one’s Loving You Barbie.” She stared at the last one for a long while, smiling, and didn’t look at me. Still smiling, she took a deep breath and held it. She did that a lot, when we were waiting in the checkout at Taft’s or sitting in the car after church, but I never asked her why.

“How do you play with them if you never take them out of the box?”

“Well, I don’t want to break them!” she said, exhaling and tearing her gaze from the dolls. She smiled. “When they’re in the boxes, they’re safe.” Her voice, which was always a little louder than it should have been, was sunny, and sounded like our mother’s. It was young, too, and I looked at the dust that had settled on top of the boxes.

From the living room came a loud and sudden slamming. I heard my father’s footsteps pounding toward the bedroom beyond the kitchen, before returning to the living room. “Where is she?”

“I don’t know.” Grandma’s voice was small next to his.

“You’re lying to me. She doesn’t work today and her car is gone. Where is she?”

“I told you, I don’t know.”

“What did she say when she left?”

“I don’t remember.”

I opened the door and saw Grandma standing, facing him but unmoving. My father yelled more, faster and louder, but I couldn’t understand him. Grandma walked into the kitchen and pulled the phone off the hook. “I’m calling the police,” she said. Her hair was white like the moon.

“You do that. I’ll find her myself.” The front door slammed behind my father. I heard an engine pull out onto the road and speed off.

I went back into my room, where Holly was looking at her boxes and holding her breath. I imagined my mother in someone’s living room. I imagined her smoking, and I saw her tongue dropping her cigarette and her mouth kissing a shadow. I could see the house catching fire and burning for a long time.

The front door slammed again, and I heard Grandma’s car starting up. The gravel cracked under well-worn tires as she backed out and left.

I went into the front room. The rain was louder there, and the house was empty. I went to the kitchen window and looked out into the backyard. The air was thick with rain. My throat felt like hard, like empty mud. I couldn’t see Tiki.

Holly came into the room, skipping, small and unaware. “Maggie, is there any milk?” She stopped in the doorway.

I turned toward her and walked to the fridge. I pulled open the door and peered inside. “No,” I said, “But Momma said she was going to get some more tomorrow.”

The heavy door clanged shut, and the pictures on the fridge fluttered as she nodded and disappeared back into our room, limbs bouncing at her side as she went.

When she was gone, I went back to the window and looked into the rain. I squinted, but I couldn’t see Tiki. I went to the windows in the living room and saw mud streaked out into the road in opposite directions. My camera was lying on the TV cabinet next to my mother’s cigarettes, and I picked it up. There were two pictures left.

I cracked the door open and put my hand in the rain. It was hot. I put my camera in my pocket and walked out into it.

The rain was falling heavy on my shoulders, and the world smelled like trees. I walked to the place where Tiki was sleeping. He didn’t hear me coming, so I said his name once, then again, louder. His tail beat against the dirt and woke him up. He stood and stretched and walked, warm and tired, toward me. We walked farther from the house and turned right, into the trees.

We were loud as we went, stepping through the wet, heavy leaves. Two pictures left. A clearing went past us and dissolved into denser trees. Tiki led the way, and I lost sight of him as he dipped out of view beyond a clump of forest. But I found him, waiting for me near a redbud branch on the ground. It was split by lightning and lay half-clinging to the rest of itself. Tiki hopped across the branch, toward another tree a few yards past it.

I took a necklace and put it here, in May. A turquoise necklace with three little cornstalks on the back of the pendant. Holly used to tell Grandma that it was her favorite, and I put it in the ground, here. I was walking home, but I stopped and went back and dug it up to look at it again. I could remember watching the clumps of dirt fall fast and quiet as my fingers ran down it. I remembered bringing it close to my face, feeling the chain kissing my cheek. It was cold and felt like the moon. I wanted to hold it forever.

In the rain, the tree looked the way I remembered it, except for the branch. I wound my camera and took a picture.

My clothes were sticking to my body now, and I wiped a river of hair clinging to my forehead. My mouth opened to breathe the wet air.

I looked around. Tiki had gone.

I walked toward the redbud, and it stretched up beyond a place that I could see. I looked at the branch. White wood ran, dead, from the trunk into the dirt. I went closer and looked at the ground. A few months. Where was it? I pushed my fingers into my head but I couldn’t remember. Where was it?

The dirt looked at me and didn’t blink, and I started digging. I didn’t know where I was supposed to start. My hands plunged into the ground like the ocean on my ceiling. All there was was nothing, and my hands were wet. Brown-red clung to the underside of my fingernails. Everything smelled like rain.

I stood and walked toward the way that Tiki had gone, up a hill that was steep and wet. I wanted to go home now. I yelled his name, but he didn’t come. I clicked my tongue. All I could hear was the rain. “Tiki?” I yelled.

I ran up the hill. The woods disappeared and turned into wet asphalt that stretched left and right. Wide, shallow yellow lines ran along it. The grass panted beneath my bare feet. “Tiki?”

I saw him in the rainy road, tail up like a flag behind his bouncing body.

I clicked my tongue and yelled his name.

A pair of headlights came rolling through the tree-lined bend, followed close behind by a rain-flecked car, fast and dark and metal. Tiki smelled the pavement. I screamed. The car shook as it went over him, and his fur and his head spun in fast, loose circles.

I ran. Blood poured from a seam in his skull. His breaths were distant and panicked, and his eyes were draining into a place that I couldn’t see. I started to cry.

I tried to remember how he looked when he was little, the night we first found him. The way he looked when we took him inside and when we gave him a bath and when my mother said he could sleep with me if my father didn’t find out. But it wasn’t there. I felt his face falling out of my head. I couldn’t remember, and everything was rain. I looked at him. His blood was running clear against the road.

He couldn’t breathe anymore. I bent down to touch his face. It was wet and hot and I was crying more. I wiped my face and took a picture.

pencilMatthew Everett is a Kentucky native and first-time author that currently resides in Alabama. His unpublished work can be found on his blog.

More

Baker’s Pick
Ryan Dempsey


Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I need to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah that morning from the store. He owned Sam’s Spud Hut close to Ninth Street. His dad Sam gave it to him before he passed and Erik still used the same fryer as when the store opened fifty-three years ago. Resting his elbows on the counter, he looked out over the boardwalk and at the ocean. The boardwalk was full of walkers and bikers, families on rumbling surreys and summer girls in bikinis, all out to get their sun before the forecast storm hit later that day. But it was too early for any of them to want fried potatoes. So he watched and waited for the phone to rumble a response between his arms.

“Rough night last night?” An old man startled Erik. He wore no shirt and had very tan and pickled skin. He was a regular but Erik could never remember his name and just called him Skip. Skip stopped by every morning around ten-thirty to get “the first in the oil” as he liked to say.

“No,” Erik answered as he stood from the counter and yawned. “Just the sitting here and waiting kills me. If I could work all day and keep moving I’d be fine and still have enough energy to nail the wife.” Skip laughed, but Erik knew he wouldn’t be getting anything from Molly; she was angry with him again. He picked at a drop of hardened cheese on the counter. She had no idea what was going on; she had no right to be mad.

He moved to the fryer to fill Skip’s order: double potato curly. The grease bubbled and boiled hot as the phone vibrated on the counter next to him. He wiped his hands on his apron, regarded the white cloth and decided he would order black ones as soon as he could. But that wouldn’t help with the smell. He shouldn’t have to do this; he owned the damn place.

Through the glassless window above the fryer he could see the rest of the boardwalk and the other stores. He remembered being here with his dad and every one of the stores down the wooden walkway was owned by a different family or person. Kites used to own the sky, but now all Erik saw were cranes towering over the tiny shops. One by one the shops he grew up with were being destroyed to make room for the franchised food vendors and T-shirt chains.

He took the fries from the fryer, piled them into a cardboard bucket and handed it to Skip. He remembered his phone. “I have dinner tonight with my family. But we can get together after.

Erik smiled. “I’ll meet you after dinner.”

As he responded, the phone came to life in his hands and he almost dropped it into the hot oil. “Can you come fix the roof before the storm?” It was Molly. It was the third time in almost half a year he had to patch the roof above their bedroom.

He talked to Skip for a while only half-listening before he told him he had to leave but that he’d be back later. He watched Skip waddle off down the boardwalk. Coming out from inside the shop, Erik pulled the crimped sheet of aluminum over the front opening and lowered the sheet of steel he used over the open window above the fryer. He secured each with a padlock and a sign that said, “MAY RETURN THIS EVENING.” He’d had Molly write one up for the evening time as well, for when he closed early: “CLOSED FOR THE NIGHT.”

He wandered a few stores down, through the line of patrons waiting outside Pete’s Potatoes, weaving in and out of the groups of kids and parents that stood in front of Sammie’s Shirts and Shorts to the corner ice cream store, Duke’s. Duke knew his father. Sam, Duke, Pete and Samantha were all friends, starting their businesses around the same time. Duke Sr. was the only one left; all the others had passed their businesses along to their children. Duke’s recently moved to the corner building because he needed more room. There was a line there as well.

“Duke around?” Erik asked the cashier. A few teenage kids buzzed around her.

“I don’t think so,” she said in a Russian accent, turning her head to look for her boss. She wore a white apron, the same color as the ice cream. “I think he is at home. No. He is away on vacation. He only stops in once every few weeks. I can have you talk to the supervisor if you like.”

“No, that’s fine.” Erik looked past her. They had tables and small booths but mostly people waited at the pickup counter. “Geez, it’s not even eleven yet.”

“Duke changed the hours and now we open earlier and longer.”

“Good for him, good for him. Yeah, I’m just leaving for a few hours and I wanted him to keep an eye on the shop.” Erik pointed towards The Spud Hut.

“I will let my supervisor know.”

“Thanks,” he said

She smiled and he wondered if Duke was nailing her.

“I can hardly wait to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah from the top of a ladder that leaned against the vinyl-sided surface of his home. The clouds had started to come across the sky and he could see the line between the morning sunshine and the coming afternoon rain. He dreaded climbing the ladder but the roof needed to be fixed. He was sick of just patching it; he needed a new roof. But in order to actually replace it he needed money and in order to get money he needed to work. “But there’s no time for that,” he said aloud. “All because of those goddamn corporate companies throwing their goddamn money around and taking my goddamn business.” He hoisted himself onto the roof, the shingles warm against his palms.

“Watch your language!” Molly raised her voice from the bottom of the ladder. She was ten years his junior. She held their child who straddled her hip.

“He can walk, you know?” Erik said. He looked at the roof and cursed again at the situation, never at home because he needed to be at the store, at the store all the time because he needed the money. He thought about hiring Skip but he’d probably eat through the entire stock of potatoes. He poked angrily through the shingles with a stiff hand. His son started to cry and he listened as Molly walked away with him into the house.

Erik climbed the roof further so he was at its peak, where he got the best reception, and checked his phone. Nothing from Sarah. She was probably getting ready to go to out. He met Sarah like he always met them: at the store. And he always knew which ones were worth the time. It was never that Molly wasn’t worth it but it probably would have ended much the same way all the others did.

His son screamed.

Erik started on another row of shingles. The leak was probably from a previous search on the roof. Maybe he had disrupted how the sheets sat on top of each other. He knew the futility in searching but he had to keep the rain out before the storm really pulled through. Had the leak been anywhere other than their bedroom he could have let it be. But the drops of water started falling straight into the middle of their bed, creating a division that forced them to far opposite sides of the bed and eventually him to the couch. The thing was, it wasn’t just a leak. “We need a new home altogether!” he yelled at the shingles. And this reminded him again of the boardwalk, his threatened business and money.

“This is all because of them,” he muttered to himself again. He sat on the roof, the breeze from the ocean stronger now with the storm just over head. At first he was proud that he stood up to them, as slowly he felt each store around him becoming another carbon copy of the last one built, except for Duke’s and Sharon’s Sunshine Shop. And Bill’s Bicycle Rental and Amato’s Pizza and the other small shops whose names still blazoned their front signs and archways, shops whose names Erik could not remember.

He would probably have to give in and sell. Probably make a good chunk of change and he could probably buy a new a house, but Erik knew that wasn’t the point. The point was his dad had started the business and built it up to a sustainable form of income. There was a certain pride in that that was no longer there. Apparently his name didn’t mean much anymore. It was all about more. More, more, more. More stores, more patrons and more money.

It began very slowly like most summer storms. He hadn’t realized how windy and dark everything had gotten. First he saw the lightning then heard the thunder. He felt the mist from the rain as it blew in at him. It thudded into the roof like chisels pounding into a wall. It fell like that for maybe a whole minute before any struck him. Then suddenly it became a downpour, churning down the roof and overflowing the gutters. He let it fall on him and it felt good.

His phone vibrated then and he almost dropped it taking it from his pocket.

“You still haven’t fixed it!” His wife stood at the base of the ladder under an umbrella, their child in a diaper beside her.

“Yeah, yeah.” Erik shooed his hand towards his wife’s voice, his hair saturated, clothes soaked through, eyes transfixed on his phone, regarding Sarah’s message.

pencilRyan Dempsey currently resides with his wife and daughter in the Pittsburgh area. Ryan’s fiction is published or forthcoming in such places as The Portland Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Gravel, Drunk Monkeys, and Almost Five Quarterly. Email: ryandempsey82[at]gmail.com

Fat Peanut

Baker’s Pick
Nancy Nau Sullivan


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ann raked through the dresses on the sales rack. A blue dress with a chain link pattern. A Pucci. Pucci’s back.

Most of the good stuff was gone. She remembered when this shop was a wood hut where the islanders—the real islanders—bought cheap beer, cigarettes and salami. Now Pine Avenue was turquoise and pink, with a designer donut shop and shop after shop of this stuff. Her hand dropped down the polyester sleeve of a yellow-and-pink top with swirls from neck to hem. My sister could carry that one off, I couldn’t.

The grizzled old Floridians were gone. The island was peopled with fat rich white northerners who smelled of expensive soap and talked, loudly, about nothing.

The woman standing next to Ann pulled a short white dress off the rack. “I like it but I’d have to iron it,” she said.

“No one irons anything any more. They like to look wrinkled.”

The woman was wrinkled and stylish with shiny blond-grey hair and liquid-blue eyes, so light they almost disappeared into the whites. She had diamonds in her ears the size of cocktail peanuts.

The woman twirled the dress back and forth. She hung it up and then took it out again. “I really like it.” She mostly talked to herself like Ann wasn’t there. The woman seemed to be used to an audience.

Ann decided to be nice. Sometimes she had to make the conscious decision. “A good cut on you. Jag.” It was more of a beach top with breast pockets and pearl buttons. Ann liked it, too. If the woman didn’t want it, well, maybe…

The sun was bright and warm on the porch of the shop where all the sales hung. Forty percent off.

“It’s 87 dollars,” the woman said.

She was a snowbird flown from the cold, landing on this island off the coast of Sarasota. Ann couldn’t place the accent. Boston? Maine?

The woman suddenly dropped the dress to her side, as if reading Ann’s mind. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” Ann said. “Originally.”

“My daughter’s in Indiana. At Butler. She’s there because she’s a professor,” the woman said. As if the daughter needed a legitimate reason to be in Indiana, which by the way, Ann was about to point out, is not Chicago.

Ann let it pass. Snowbirds were one thing, one irritation in life’s island cycle. As soon as the first Easter egg came out of the basket, they would all be gone up north to their lilacs and tulips. Ann couldn’t wait. She wanted the roads and grocery stores and beaches back. But she couldn’t have it all back.

“Where are you from? Can’t quite place the accent,” Ann said.

“Ohio. Hubby’s in cardio.”

“Oh?” Ann felt like a snowball had been stuffed down her back.

“Yes, We just love this island,”

Ohio, maybe Cleveland. Cardiologist.

The Cottage.

Ann had lost their beloved cottage to a cardiologist from Cleveland. He’d swooped in with more money than God and bought it out from under them. Ann’s uncle had been the instrument of destruction. He’d taken the matter to court, and under the laws of partition, he forced the sale of the cottage. He took $840,000 in the deal, making the most of real estate before the Crash of ’08. Ann and her brothers had tried to buy him out, but he wouldn’t have it. He worked on the cardiologist from Cleveland who hung in there with a slew of lawyers, pushing for the deal until it was done. Ann had looked over at her uncle in court, his white, bald head bent and shining, the orb of evil. She could not look Uncle Neil in the eye after that. She didn’t have to because he died. She used her share of the sale—$130,000 of Judas money—to pay off debts. She’d wanted to throw it in the Gulf. It would have made as much sense. But the money was gone, and so was the cottage. To someone like this woman, someone from Cleveland. She remembered the name. Hurley, or Huntley.

The woman took the white dress out again. “I’m going to try it on,” she announced brightly.

The first thing the cardiologist from Cleveland did was tear down the cottage. He built a tan McMansion with orange shutters and a green barrel-tile roof and filigreed balconies, leaded glass coach lamps and Tiffany glass in the front door. Hideous. The cottage had stood on two gulf-front lots, so there was plenty of room for the grand mansión, finished off with its trucked-in Disney-esque garden of hibiscus and palms. They called it The Condo, it was so big, towering over that little house on the corner next door that now was completely cut off from view and sunshine.

Her grandmother found the cottage on a sunny day in 1956. She’d been reading The Bradenton Herald, crinkling the want ads. She tapped the crumpled pages of the newspaper with a pencil. “Ha! Let’s go out there and have a look.” Ann didn’t know what she was talking about, but she was excited. In her six-year-old brain, she knew this had to be something special. “Out there” meant the beach. On the island.

They drove out to Anna Maria Island in her grandfather’s new hunter green Cadillac, the bulbous versión with the pokey little fins. Ann had her bathing suit wadded up under the front seat, just in case. Off they went, her grandfather with the cigar in his mouth and her grandmother with a frill of white hair blowing in the humidity, clacking over the wooden drawbridge, past the tall spindly palms and the mangroves, the Brazilian berries and the Australian pines, out to the white beach and turquoise wáter. Burning pitch wafted from the fireplaces in the new little stucco ranch houses at Key Royale, Sand Dollar Haven, Coquina Corners.

The cottage stood on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on stilts, slightly crooked on the white sand. The logs were interspersed with swaths of white stucco; it was a striped house with a rusty-red shingled roof. The white-framed windows on either side of the faded green door, like two great eyes, saw right into Ann’s soul.

Ann’s grandfather laughed when they pulled up to it and got out. “Liz, the gulf is right up to the house!” She just laughed. She was falling in love, and so was Ann standing next to her, the two of them looking out at the wáter, while Ann held her silky fingers. She squinted up at the sun, yellow, soft, golden sun. She opened her eyes, and the turquoise wáter dazzled her from that minute on. Her grandfather chomped the cigar, paced the short street of crushed shell. He nodded at her grandmother, both of them grinning. She raised the edge of her floral housedress and waded into the foamy surf. Ann flopped into the waves beside her, bathing suit forgotten.

Her grandmother had saved “egg money,” tucked in her rubber stocking. She made the down payment on the cottage and four surrounding lots—most of them underwáter—for $5,000. The seller was glad to get rid of it.

Over the years, they piled in and drove out to the cottage. The beach changed, receding and advancing, until finally they ended up with a football-field-sized playground of sand like white sugar. They jumped into the fierce winter waves and rolled in the sand until they were sugar cookies. They hid in the sea oats and ran out in shrieks of laughter; they buried each other up to their necks, dug for coquinas and made horrible soup with shellfish (from an Old Cortez récipe). They scoured the beach for sand dollars and periwinkles. They watched dolphins and fed lettuce to the manatees and stale bread and cereal to the sea gulls.

All day they were on the beach, and at night, they watched the white edge of the gulf from the window. The wind creaked and sang through the cracks between the logs. Ann went to sleep, listening to the waves that rolled up close to the window, some nights, lapping against the cottage. The splash was thrilling. Her grandfather said the pilings under the cottage went down seventeen feet into the sand, and that they would be safe in the best place on earth.

It was magic, winter after winter, into March for St. Patrick’s Day and Dad’s birthday in the sun and under the moon, until it stopped. The time was gone, but Ann held on to it. It was there in the burning pitch, the musty sea, the sound of gulls. It all brought her back there instantly to the cottage. As long as there was memory, it would always be there.

She stood behind the woman, the blue dress looped over her arm. Ann saw the woman write Hurley on the charge slip. Hurley from Cleveland.

Ann felt the sharp twisting in her soul.

She wanted to strangle the woman, follow her out to her Mercedes, probably, and key the side of its impeccable paint job, maybe even trip the woman on her way out—before she strangled her.

The woman turned. “Well, you have a wonderful day. Enjoy your dress. That is a fabulous color for you.”

Ann’s lips worked as she plastered on the fake smile. She wanted out of there. “You, too. Have a great day, and a safe trip. Back to Cleveland.”

“Cleveland? Why would I go to Cleveland?”

“You said you were from Cleveland.”

“Lord, no. I can’t imagine why I said that. Ohio, yes, Cleveland, never.” The woman juggled the white shopping bag with the Jag dress in it. She shifted her Fendi bag to the other arm. “Didn’t you say you’re from Chicago? No, we’re not from Cleveland. We’re from Chicago. Just like you.”

pencilNancy Nau Sullivan is a Chicago area writer who recently returned from the Peace Corps in Mexico. Prior to service, she taught English, and for many years, was a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Midwest. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University. Amphorae Publishing Group will publish her memoir, The Last Cadillac, in February. Her stories have appeared this year in The Blotter, The Atherton Review, and Akashic Books online. Email: nabns[at]aol.com

Whiteboard

Eileen Gonzalez
Broker’s Pick


There's a new (old) dry erase board in town...
Photo Credit: Zach

January

My first thought when Kelby walked in was he looks normal enough, and I immediately regretted it. Of course he looked—was—normal, and if he was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, I’d have to stop thinking of him as abnormal or weird or non-binary or anything besides Kelby.

Caleb set the suitcases by the door as Kelby, with his hunched shoulders and stormy features, stood there not resembling his perpetually sunny brother in the slightest.

“All right then, Kel, this is my girlfriend Simone. Simone, this is Kelby.”

I smiled and shook his hand and said how nice it was to finally meet him. Just the standard script, but I tried to sound like I meant it. Kelby said nothing, perhaps sensing my reticence, perhaps being an ungrateful brat. Caleb nudged him with an elbow, which only earned him a sharper nudge back.

“Your room is down that hall, first and only door to the right,” I said.

Kelby snapped up the suitcases.

“I’ll help you unpack,” said Caleb.

“No thanks,” said Kelby.

He stepped lighter than his posture would predict, like stomping was beneath his dignity, and disappeared into the guest room.

“Your family’s nice,” I said.

“He isn’t always like this.”

“So you’ve told me.” And told me and told me and told me. As ambivalent as he felt about his parents, Caleb had nothing but unconditional love for his mopey sibling. So when Kelby got tired of fighting his parents over pronouns, Caleb insisted he stay with us. Only after Kelby accepted did he think to ask me.

“He needs a safe place to stay,” he’d said.

“I thought he was supposed to be mad at you for saying gender-fluidity is a load of bull cookies.”

“That was years ago. I’ve been trying to make it up to him since then.”

“And it worked well enough that he agreed to live with us.”

He nodded, shuffling his big-booted feet against the strip of hardwood between the dining room and living room carpets. I opened my laptop.

“I’m not going to un-invite him,” I said. Caleb looked like he wanted to thank me, but I started typing. I hadn’t even opened a window yet, but I needed that conversation to end, so I put on my work face and faked it. When I actually worked instead of pretending to, I maintained social networking sites for several small-to-medium businesses, including the Book Worm, a bookstore in Hartford; Fluffy Friends, a toy store with outlets in New Britain, Southington, and Waterbury; and Angelo’s, a swanky New Haven restaurant. I liked working for Angelo’s best. Their Facebook page was a constant stream of scrumptious photos and recipes even Caleb couldn’t ruin. On Kelby’s first night with us, he made lasagna rolls.

“Lasagna’s his second-favorite food,” Caleb told me. “I’d make his first favorite, but then he’d know for sure I was trying to spoil him.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing?”

“It is according to Kelby.”

Sure enough, Kelby thanked his brother for dinner with a mildly suspicious dip in his brows, though that didn’t stop him from taking seconds. Caleb made valiant attempts to grab his attention as we ate.

“You know, Simone is fluent in Korean. Learning about other languages and cultures is kind of a hobby with you, isn’t it?”

“I prefer Scandinavian languages, but that’s cool.”

“That sounds interesting,” I lied. “How many languages do you know?”

“None real well.”

And that was that. Well, no one could say I didn’t try.

 

February

As a lifelong Connecticut resident, I always feel obligated to tell outsiders that I can count the number of white Christmases I’ve had on one finger. White Groundhog Days, however, are a semi-regular occurrence, and it was on one such February 2nd that Kelby marched into the kitchen, announced they had no definable gender today, and insisted we use they to refer to, well, them. I beat my inner Grammar Nazi into submission as Caleb and I nodded.

The snow had largely melted two days before Valentine’s Day. Last year, we celebrated by going to Gillette Castle, the stately home of a long-dead stage actor whose idea of fun was to put guests in one room and watch them puzzle over the door’s odd locks from upstairs via strategically placed mirrors. I knew Caleb was The One when he said he would have used such a set-up to keep the kids out of his hair.

Kelby didn’t count as a kid, at least not to us; they were a year into college and paid for a good chunk of it by working at a comic book store four days a week. They stayed in their room most of the time too, studying or texting or whatever it was they did. So when they emerged from their self-imposed solitude to make a sandwich, I figured I might as well give cordiality another shot.

“Hey, got any plans for Valentine’s?”

“Study. Play Guitar Hero. Steal some of the super-expensive chocolates Caleb’s out buying for you right now.”

I gasped and smiled at once.

Kelby raised their eyebrows in a parody of surprise. “Was that a secret? Oops.” And if the words weren’t insincere enough, they smirked as they said them, but I laughed along anyway. I mean, c’mon. Chocolate.

“No, but seriously, no plans?” I said. “You’re adorable when you’re not angsting.”

“Yeah, well, no one is interested in having a girlfriend when they go to bed and a whatever when they wake up.”

They didn’t even have the courtesy to look upset about it. At least then I would have known how to react. No, they just smiled like we were talking about spring fashion. I tried to smile back in the vain hope it would banish the burning coal lodged in my chest.

*

The next day, Caleb bought a little whiteboard and hung it on the fridge.

“This’ll make it easy,” he said, holding out a purple marker. “Write your gender here so Simone and I don’t have to worry about screwing up.”

Kelby took the marker and wrote ‘Hello, I Am They’ on the board. It remained that way for most of the month. By the time ‘they’ got replaced by a lime green ‘she,’ the Grammar Nazi was black and blue. He’d get over it. Who listened to Nazis anyway?

 

March

Kelby sat on the couch, fiddling with his dark hair while reading a geography textbook. We never had to nag him (or her or them) about homework, and any time a presentation came up, he could spend hours practicing in front of the square mirror mounted on his bedroom wall. In short, surprisingly studious for a part-time brat. He didn’t even look up when I settled in the recliner beside him.

Work that day consisted of updating the Book Worm’s Twitter feed with news of St. Patrick’s Day savings on any book by or about the Irish. Someone asked if we’d be serving free Guinness. I didn’t dare respond, so my thoughts drifted over the coffee table (was Caleb allergic to coasters?), skimmed the couch (orange floral print seemed like a good idea at the time), and landed on Kelby. Kelby. Caleb and Kelby. Weird combination. I met their parents once, and they didn’t seem the type to go all matchy-matchy with baby names. But Kelby didn’t seem the type to give himself a name that honored his brother, so…

“Is Kelby your original name?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It doesn’t. I was just curious.”

He flipped the page in a manner that suggested I was fortunate he hadn’t flipped me the bird. Awkward, but it didn’t make the Book Worm’s Twitter feed any less stupid, so I grabbed a controller and settled in for some quality video game time.

“If you want quiet, you might want to leave. Mama needs some stress relief.”

I heard him close the book. I assumed he left until suddenly he was right there, watching over my shoulder.

“You want to play too?” I said. “It’s not hard.”

“Sure.”

I handed him a controller and brought up the Create Character screen.

CHOOSE YOUR GENDER

MALE          FEMALE

“I thought you said this wasn’t hard.”

“Sorry, I never really thought about that before.”

“Well, I’m a dude today, so we’ll go with that.”

He named his character Medieval Starlight and dressed him in the most distracting outfits the game provided. I blamed his initial bout of beginner’s luck on the ridiculous reindeer pelt that wiggled its antlers every time the wearer scored a hit. I swore in Korean. Kelby covered a snort with a cough.

“I thought you said you only knew Scandinavian languages,” I said.

He chuckled and shrugged. It was the closest he’d ever come to an apology, but after pounding Medieval Starlight into the ground a few times, I felt more inclined to forgive.

 

April

Sun poured through the bedroom window in direct defiance of trusted proverbs (“April showers” my foot) and my plans to sleep past six o’clock. The glow of my muted cell phone didn’t help.

Caleb didn’t wake as I stretched far, far away from the cozy warm comfort of our bed to grab the cold, cold phone. I just missed a call, apparently. The number belonged to one of my bosses, Michelle, who ran Fluffy Friends with her sister. They were nice enough, but Michelle had to be living in her own private time zone to think anyone appreciated her predawn check-ins.

I left the bedroom, mentally cursing all the way, and hid in the bathroom. Michelle spent at least a minute thanking me for returning her call so promptly before launching into a list of toys she wanted me to plug. Lacking pen and paper, I wrote on the mirror with Kelby’s lipstick.

By the way,” she said, one ruined tube of lipstick and a barely-legible mirror later, “I saw some of your more recent Tweets, the ones plugging the computer games we just got in?”

“Yeah?”

I know Twitter is hardly a bastion of good grammar, but you keep using ‘fun for all ages and genders,’ and that always looks awkward since there’s many ages and only two genders.”

“Actually, some people identify as a third gender or as being both male and female, others shuttle between two or more genders, and still others don’t have any gender at all. I didn’t want to exclude them, so I went with ‘all genders.'”

…”

“Plus it’s easier to fit in the character limit than ‘fun for boys and girls of all ages.'”

Oh, okay. Keep up the good work, Simone.”

Yeesh. Did I ever sound like that?

I felt a little less like boss-punching by the time I joined Caleb and Kelby at breakfast. Kelby wore a plain button-up, jeans, and a face full of make-up. The whiteboard read ‘Tell HER About It.’

“Hey, babe. Hey, Kelby.”

“Hey,” they chorused. They could have been the new Queen with harmonies like that.

Kelby cocked her head. “You okay? You’re making an owl face.”

“Does that mean I’m cute? Owls are cute.”

“No—”

“You are cute, though,” Caleb said.

“—it means you’re annoyed. Owls always look like someone drank all the orange juice and put the carton back in the fridge.”

“Did Caleb do that again?” I said.

“It wasn’t empty!”

“Yeah, you left like a whole teaspoon,” said Kelby.

I left them to bicker in favor of retrieving much-needed coffee. Out the window, two squirrels chased each other across a roof. I superimposed Caleb and Kelby’s squabbling over the scurrying squirrels, biting my lip so as not to interrupt the comedy routine behind me, and forgot all about Michelle until Kelby discovered her poor lipstick.

 

May

“You are not going out dressed like that!”

“I’m not five years old! You don’t get to dress me anymore!”

“Obviously I should! Is this what Mom and Dad let you wear?”

“Why do you think I’m wearing it now?”

Kelby stormed into the living room wearing a metallic black skirt and a ruby top. Nothing looked too tight or too skimpy, but Caleb must have seen it through Big Brother Vision and I knew better than to interfere in a sibling fight for any reason short of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Which, by the way? Never happen in Connecticut.

“Get back here and change!”

“You’re just embarrassed that your brother wants to go out in a dress!”

“That’s not—”

Whatever it wasn’t, Caleb couldn’t say it before Kelby snatched a clam-shaped clutch off the armchair and slammed the door. That didn’t deter Caleb from yelling, “I bought you that clutch!”

“No wonder it’s so ugly!”

I finally let myself laugh, which made Caleb mope like a puppy too short to reach a burger on the counter. He spent a full hour that way, slouching over the couch until he was almost on the floor, pouting at the television, checking the clock every thirty seconds. I was supposed to blog about the wonders of Angelo’s liquid nitrogen chocolate bars, but after the fourth sigh, concentration finally slipped from my grasp.

“Would you rather she didn’t have a social life?”I said.

“No.” His tone suggested a walrus-sized ‘but’ would be forthcoming if I waited long enough. I typed one whole sentence before it came. “I just wish she’d show half as much interest in spending time with us as she does alone or with her friends.”

“Did you want to spend every night with your family when you were in college?”

“Not every night, but I didn’t run away at the mere mention of a night with them, either.”

He returned to sulking and I returned to work. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t sell themselves. Okay, yes they would, but my boss didn’t pay me to state the obvious.

*

Around eleven, Kelby came back sober, dressed and smiling. I went to bed, but Caleb stayed up to hear every detail he could drag from his beaming sister.

 

June

Caleb reached for the scarlet tie draped across his pillow. I smirked into the mirror. He wore a dress shirt and slacks every day, but it never seemed to suit him. He should have been a construction worker or a sailor instead of an accountant. A very handsome accountant, but still.

I half-expected Kelby to barge in and make the snarky comments I withheld, but they had finally given into their parents’ request for a visit while Caleb and I went out for an anniversary dinner at Angelo’s. I tried not to mention the dinner around Kelby. It made them shut down, and asking why just drove them into an hour-long sulk. I remembered their comments at Valentine’s Day and kept my excitement to myself.

“Hey, help me with this, would you?” I waved my hand at the necklace that downright refused to fasten. His fingers brushed warmly against my skin as he did the clasp, promising a night of fond reminiscing and quiet laughter and then the front door slammed.

I froze for only a moment, but it was enough for Caleb to beat me out of the room. By the time I joined him, Kelby was storming by us, eyes glistening and left cheek burning red. Their only response to our concerned inquiries was the slam of their bedroom door and the intermittent sound of sobbing.

*

Caleb and I reheated last night’s macaroni and ate in the living room, just in case Kelby wanted to talk.

*

The sound of my fork scraping up eggs may as well have been the climax of an action movie. Caleb cast frequent, furtive glances at the bathroom door; Kelby had emerged from their room an hour earlier only to vanish into the bathroom and turn on the shower before any greetings could be shared. They’d been in there for forty-five minutes when Caleb finally gave up and left for work without brushing his teeth or a word to his sibling. I promised to text if something happened.

Two minutes later, in a puff of steam, Kelby crept from the bathroom. Their cheek had faded from red to purple.

“Morning,” I said.

“Hi.” They poured a glass of orange juice and took their usual place at the far end of the bar. They drank slowly while quizzing me on the weather and my job and the latest soccer scores. They didn’t say anything about the previous evening. I didn’t ask.

When I finished my own meal I told Kelby to leave the dishes.

“No, I got it,” they said, the only sign they knew of Caleb’s and my spoiled evening.

I texted Caleb of Kelby’s emergence.

How do they look? he texted back.

They LOOK fine…

Damn.

*

Caleb must have gotten Kelby talking at some point because a week later, he whispered to me that Kelby had asked their parents to use the correct pronouns. They received angry resistance and ultimately a slap for their efforts.

He asked me not to tell Kelby that I knew.

“I don’t think they wanted me to tell you, but I figured you deserved it after what happened.”

We never talked about it again, and I certainly never mentioned it to Kelby. The bruise vanished under concealer and rouge along with any lingering hurt. I crushed the temptation to hug them and let them beat me at gender-clueless video games.

 

July

Slate clouds spat at us, though thankfully not enough to interfere with Caleb’s pre-birthday balcony barbecue. My job was to bring in the raw meats and vegetables from the kitchen and dump dirty plates in the sink. Caleb and Kelby’s job was to bicker over how well-done to make the burgers. Siblings were stupid, and so was my ‘let siblings fight in peace’ philosophy.

“Guys, you’re not gonna share the same burger. Just make one the way Caleb likes it, one the way Kelby likes it, and one the way I like it, which is nonexistent because I prefer hot dogs, which I do not see on this grill. Ahem.”

“But he likes to burn his and the smell ruins everything else,” said Kelby.

“It’s my party and I’ll burn burgers if I want to,” said Caleb. Kelby huffed an “Argh, fine” but he smiled as he said it. Caleb made a show of opening the packet of hot dogs and placing them on the grill one by one. I stuck my tongue out and disposed of the hot dog packaging.

Fight resolved. Score one for me.

 

August

I slammed my laptop shut. No more overly peppy tweeting about self-wetting baby dolls today!

Abandoning the laptop on the bed, I went to retrieve Kelby for our weekly video game mini-marathon. I almost felt guilty about planning to stay indoors on such a bright day, but we couldn’t possibly play video games outside. The TV was too heavy for us to drag all the way down to the courtyard.

Kelby’s room contained lacrosse gear, fat books, apples both natural and technical, several Beanie Babies and a stylish black coat, but absolutely no Kelby. Huh. I knew she came home on time…

Before worry could set in, Kelby returned, holding a few envelopes and a bagged newspaper.

“The old guy across the hall said he’s going to visit his grandkids for a week,” she said. “He asked me to pick up his mail while he’s away.”

George Kozlowski. He’d lived in this building since before Caleb and I moved in, and he’d probably still be there after we moved out. He seemed nice enough.

“Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as we do,” I said.

“Please. What am I gonna do, steal his AARP magazine?”

“Hey, they’ve got interesting articles.”

 

September

George came home on Labor Day. Kelby gave him an hour to settle in before gathering the bagful of junk mail and newspapers that had accumulated in his absence. She returned with a smile like summer vacation.

“He said I look just like his granddaughter,” she said, and she glowed for the rest of the day.

 

October

Kelby and I sat by the front door on barstools borrowed from the kitchen. At the sound of small running footsteps, I put on my top hat and Kelby brushed imaginary dust from his long dark dress. Yes, his. After initially resisting the Halloween spirit, he made a last-second decision to dress as Elphaba, even though he had written ‘HEre’s Kelby’ on the board that morning.

“Are you trying to make my head explode?” Caleb joked.

“It’s Halloween,” Kelby said, laughing and stealing the last strip of bacon off my plate. “You’re supposed to dress as something you’re not.”

Me, I dressed as Willy Wonka because then no one would look at me funny if I snuck a chocolate here and there (“I’m getting into character!”). Caleb just threw on a trench coat and called himself the Highlander, the lazy bum.

Caleb watched Ghostbusters while Kelby and I slowly gave away our bowl of Snickers, Almond Joys, and Hershey’s. We’d planned on giving Reese’s as well, but between the three of us, they hadn’t survived the weekend.

A knock at the door. On the other side stood Sara Hardy the pink pony from two floors down. We gushed over her cheap generic costume and gave her an extra candy for being so cute. We did that for everyone who wasn’t a six-foot teenager with a pillow case, but Sara and Sara’s Mom didn’t have to know that.

Ghostbusters ended and Caleb kissed the top of my head before disappearing into our room for the night. Kelby and I manned our posts for another half-hour. A parent or two gave Kelby odd looks, but as far as the little sci-fi villains, princesses, jack-o-lanterns and bumblebees were concerned, anyone who answered the door with candy on Halloween was fine by them.

 

November

After moving straight from my parents’ house to the apartment with Caleb (and later Kelby), being home alone still felt weird. Kelby had stayed late at school to work on a group project about the Hiroshima bombing or something equally cheerful. Caleb had gone to pick up new light bulbs to replace the dead one in the bathroom. The silence bounced around my ear canals until I popped in my earphones and turned on my Get Your Butt to Work playlist. It worked until Caleb returned, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.

“Take a ticket and don’t cut in line, sir.”

“There’s a line?”

“Yes, and this Facebook post is at the front of it. Then my email, then Scarlett Johansson, then you. No, wait. Email, Scarlett Johansson, everyone from Queen, then you.”

“Ouch.”

Caleb settled his chin on my head as I tried to think of tolerable autumn-related puns to plug Angelo’s seasonal dishes. ‘You’ll FALL for our black bean soup!’ ‘Don’t LEAF without trying our cranberry apple salad!’

“Are you trying to stimulate people’s appetites or kill them?”

“And who are you? Shakespeare?” I said, deleting the (admittedly terrible) wordplay. “Like you could do better.”

“For your information, I have a spectacular idea.”

“And it is?”

“Let’s go out. It’s been a while since we did anything.”

“Yeah.” Five months, to be exact. I missed couple time. “We could go antiquing. Because we obviously don’t have enough junk lying around.”

Caleb laughed and agreed and out we went, the wind stinging my ears with a hundred needles as we tread the familiar path to the antiques shop five blocks away. The cramped, cluttered shelves smelled of old cloth and good wood. We squeezed past ornate dining chairs we didn’t need to examine nineteenth-century jewelry boxes we didn’t want, all to the ticking of a grandfather clock that had stood in that same corner for three years now. I looked and hmmed and sneezed and critiqued but mostly I held Caleb’s hand, basking in the tranquility.

 

December

I returned from mailing Christmas cards to find the apartment looking and smelling like the world’s sloppiest bakery. Caleb and Kelby loved Christmas more than you’d expect from people who vigorously toed the line of atheism. We hadn’t even cleared the Thanksgiving dishes when Caleb cranked up the Christmas songs. Kelby dug The Muppet Christmas Carol out of his closet and we watched it that same night, snuggled under the poinsettia-covered quilt Mom bought us several Christmases ago. Sadly, that gusto failed to manifest itself as non-mutant gingerbread men.

“You know I bought cookies like three days ago, right?”

“That was the problem,” said Kelby. “We knew, so we ate them.”

Figures. Still, it was hard to argue with the scent of ginger and molasses and the sound of two very similar laughs warming the kitchen. I shed my coat and purse and leaned against the counter. The cookies looked even uglier up close. Biting their heads off would be a pleasure.

“We were thinking of giving some to our parents, but they’re a little too deformed, I think,” said Caleb.

Kelby pressed a decorative button into a cookie with unusual force. Uh-oh.

“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” he said.

“Come on now,” Caleb said. “You agreed. We spent Thanksgiving here, so now we go home for Christmas.”

“I changed my mind. You’re supposed to have fun at Christmas, not get yelled at for ignoring anyone who uses the wrong pronoun.”

Caleb’s jaw twitched. I dug my fingers into my arm. Let it go, babe. You know you and Kelby will never agree about this. Don’t fight about it right before the holidays.

He exhaled through his nose and said, “You haven’t seen them since summer.”

“That recently?”

Another twitch. Please don’t do this, guys.

“I don’t think one day is too much to ask,” Caleb said.

“It is when it’s Christmas.”

“You agreed!”

“That was just to get out of seeing them at Thanksgiving!”

“Time out!” I said. Their boiling glares flattened into a simmer. “Now look, I know Kelby agreed, but maybe he could go home for Christmas Eve instead and then come spend Christmas with me or his friends.”

Kelby instantly brightened, turning to Caleb for approval.

Caleb threw a glob of green frosting onto a one-legged gingerbread man and smeared it around with a spoon. “Christmas Eve,” Caleb said. Serious. Confirming.

“Yes. Promise.”

“You try to weasel your way out of this one and I withhold your presents.”

Kelby laughed and nodded. The tension melted like snow on a sunny day. I smiled around a bite of deformed, lumpy gingerbread.

“Oh hey, we finished decorating the living room,” Kelby said. “Wanna see?”

I followed Caleb while Kelby skipped ahead, turning off the living room lights so the Christmas lights twinkled in the sudden darkness. The lights were strung from the fan in the middle of the ceiling, looping outward and framing that stupid grandfather clock we bought just to wipe the resigned pout from the shop owner’s face. Red and green garlands draped over bookshelves, and the small tree boasted ornaments shaped like snowflakes and superheroes and silver stars. Beneath the tree sat a modest assortment of ceramic houses nestled among white blankets, with tiny figurines spread about to bring the little town to life. Cheap plastic snowflakes shone like sun-warmed crystal.

“Wow, this is great! It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”

“‘Fairytale of New York,’ maybe,” said Kelby.

Caleb slapped him upside the head and offered to make hot chocolate.

Not being idiots, Kelby and I accepted and waited among the lights, looking around with wide eyes. Kelby turned on the radio at some point. Moments later, I reveled in the warmth of my drink and my family’s love as the first verse of a loosely familiar carol… wait.

“‘The Night Santa Went Crazy? Really?” I said, even as Caleb frowned at the incongruous violence wafting from his innocent stereo.

“It’s one of the only holiday songs I like,” Kelby said with a shrug.

“Guess I shouldn’t have gotten you that Michael Bublé Christmas album then.”

Kelby looked at me, expression wavering between suspicious perplexity and murderous intent. I managed to hold the poker face for three seconds before a giggle slipped free, and Kelby deflated with relief. Caleb took the opportunity to change stations, settling on Johnny Mathis. Kelby rolled his eyes but didn’t change it back, instead reaching for the steaming snowman mug on the coffee table. We all squished into the couch, cocoa in hand, and bickered over the music until sundown.

pencilEileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have previously appeared in The Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese and Helix Magazine. Her first novel, Jury’s Greatest Hits, will be available on the Kindle in December 2014. Email: piedpiper59[at]ymail.com