A Prisoner is Released

Fiction
Alexa Recio de Fitch


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

The Present

She steps inside of a place reminiscent of the Count of Monte Cristo’s solitary confinement prison cell. The concrete walls are bare and grey. The only thing that seems to be missing is the markings on the wall counting the days of his incarceration, as he plots his revenge. She follows along the lonely, tenebrous, arched, cavernous tunnels, past the chair with the two bronze bullets placed on it. In this correctional facility-style atmosphere, as she enters another empty room, it appears to be the end. However, it isn’t. Just as she approaches the windowless wall, another tunnel opening curves into view. Suddenly, she seizes a sculpture of a bronze power tool and smashes it into a woman’s head. Her victim falls over, and her blood trickles onto the cement floor. The killer leans over, inside of this basement of the Sculpture Center, in Long Island City, New York, at Fiona Connor’s Closed for Installation exhibit. As she observes the life leaving the woman’s eyes, she knows that just like the Count of Monte Cristo, she is no longer a prisoner.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

“What are you doing, luce dei miei occhi?” my husband, Marco, says to me. His pet name for me means light of my eyes. He has called me that since the day he proposed, in a gondola, in Venice.

“Reading query letters from writers pitching me their novels,” I answer. I am slumped on the couch, still in my pajamas, with uncombed hair and the scent of coffee on my tongue.

“Good luck!” Marco says, in his Italian accent. He takes me into his arms, gives me a long kiss goodbye, and walks out the door. I smile.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I stare at my laptop, take another sip of my energy drink, and sigh, as I type another follow-up email to Nadia Thompson. I press send and minimize the browser window. On my laptop screen, saved on my desktop, is a Word document with last year’s date. This file is my novel. It’s been sitting there for a full year, and still, Nadia Thompson cannot be bothered to answer my query letter.

I take another deep breath and run my fingers through my hair. Then I slip into the jeans that are on the floor of the apartment I share with three roommates, in Long Island City, Queens. I walk out the door, pass Center Boulevard, and wind up in Gantry State Park. There, right under the willow trees, I sit at one of the picnic tables overlooking the East River and the Manhattan skyline.

A group of women gathers in the picnic table next to mine. They are speaking in my native language, Dutch. I decide not to speak to them, though. They park their strollers and place their babies on a blanket by the shade. I catch myself looking at their babies’ little toes and little eyes. Just then, my thoughts trail to the exam room, at my doctor’s office, after that pregnancy scare. I recall my ex-boyfriend’s face, when my gynecologist tells us that I will never have children. I brush those thoughts aside and try to concentrate on what my therapist has told me—that I do have a child. I have birthed a novel, something I have wanted to do my whole life.

I check my email, on my phone, and there are no new messages. I frown and check again. Still, there’s nothing. Can you imagine checking your email multiple times a day every day for 365 days, hoping for good news, but instead that email never arrives?

There’s a hammock on one of the trees facing the river. I lie on it and search for Nadia Thompson’s website. She works for the Charles Knox Literary Agency. In the “About Us” section of the website, it says that Nadia studied English literature and graduated as Summa Cum Laude, from Cornell. In addition, she has a Literary Arts MFA from Brown University. She worked at Random House and Hachette, before she decided to become a literary agent.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

Again. Again, there’s another email from Hannah Wallace. I shake my head. It’s not like I can go around responding to every single query letter. If more than six weeks have gone by, it clearly means I’m not interested. Why doesn’t she stop pestering me and get the hint?

My boss stops by my cubicle and stares at my laptop.

“Nadia, you haven’t read all of those emails?” she asks. Her eyebrows shoot high above her glasses.

“I promise you I will catch up, Suzanne,” I answer.

“Catch up faster,” Suzanne says.

Before I have a chance to tell her that I’ve been working nights and weekends to read through all of the query letters, she walks away. And just then, fifteen other query letters pop into my mailbox. It’s five p.m. and I haven’t had lunch yet. My stomach grumbles. I open my desk drawer and pull out two menus, one is from a salad place and another is from a burger joint. Even though I know that my bathroom scale says I have gained ten pounds, I tuck away the salad menu back in my drawer.

I grab my cellphone and attempt to order a burger from downstairs, but the man on the other line tells me that the bank has declined my credit card. To top it all off, there’s also an email from my landlord saying I’m late in my rent payment.

Suzanne pops her head into my cubicle again. “Nadia! Have you read the Tom Peters manuscript yet? I need the final edited version by tomorrow!”

As soon as she leaves, I rush into the bathroom and burst into tears.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I check my email again. Still, there’s no answer from that literary agent. I search for my initial email to Nadia, which I sent a year ago. I know that it’s been a year. I know that. However, I also re-read Nadia’s only response to me, after she read my query letter. She said that she loved it and asked me to send her my full manuscript, and I did. Last I checked on her website, it says that no answer doesn’t mean one is rejected, it just means that the line is long. This experience is like going on a date with the man of your dreams, hearing him say that he’s interested in you, and then never hearing from him ever again. However, you can’t let go, you keep hoping every day that that day will be the day when he reaches out to you.

I continue to read Nadia’s profile. I scan through all of the authors that she has helped publish. Then I put away my cellphone. Stop! I think. You need to write something new, you need to move on. I get off the hammock, in Gantry State Park, and I walk toward the East River. I look at the United Nations building and the Chrysler. Should I write a novel that takes place in this park? What would it be about?

Just then, my phone buzzes. I gasp, stop in my tracks, and check my email. However, it is not an answer from Nadia Thompson.

My thoughts trail to when I was working on my novel. It took me nine months to write it, and then, after that, I spent another twelve months editing. I joined several writing critique groups in Manhattan and recruited six of my friends to function as readers.

There were many nights I spent crying in my room, after listening to their negative feedback, and many mornings I spent, working on revisions, after deciding that maybe the feedback was correct after all. Then, I had to spend money to hire a proofreader. The process didn’t end once my manuscript was in perfect condition, though. When that happened, I had to write customized query letters, after selecting and researching the different literary agents for my novel’s genre. Moreover, I had to write a two-page synopsis of my novel. Additionally, I had to pay money, out of my own pocket, to visit events where I could pitch my book to literary agents. Then, I spent months writing to each of the literary agents. After that, the wait began, along with the dozens of unanswered follow up emails.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

I dry my tears, in the bathroom of my office. All I want to do is go home, to my apartment—to Marco. Then I remember that we can’t afford to live in Long Island City anymore—not since he lost his job. Suddenly, I feel the contents of my breakfast coming up. I vomit into the toilet. Is this stress, or am I pregnant? I can’t be pregnant! I can’t support the three of us on the salary of a literary agent!

The phone in my pocket starts buzzing. I look at it and notice ten more query letters in my inbox. I begin to hyperventilate.

 

Hannah Wallace
The Past

I chew on the inside of my cheeks. When will Nadia Thompson respond to me? It’s been a year! My fingers rummage through my purse, and I pull out a cigarette, which I then light. I read her profile on the website, Manuscript Wish List. It says Nadia is interested in literary fiction. I continue to read, and I throw my hands into the sky. Everything she lists—in terms of what she is looking for in a novel—every single little thing, is in my book! Just read it and you’ll see, Nadia Thompson! Just read it!

I blow smoke into the air, and the mothers sitting at the picnic table next to mine, glare at me, so I walk away. Then I find myself pacing. Back and forth, I reach the Pepsi sign on the boardwalk and then head to the binoculars facing the East River. The wind blows my hair into my eyes, and, after I move the strands away, I press my palms over my eyes. Why Nadia Thompson, why?

A text message interrupts my rant. It’s my boyfriend. We’ve been dating for three weeks, and he wants to know if I have plans for tomorrow. As I stare at the idyllic view of the East River, underneath the willow trees, I smile.

 

Nadia Thompson
The Past

Today, I don’t go into the office. Instead, I urinate on a stick and hope for it to be negative. I look at my watch and hold my breath for the longest time. When it’s finally time to check, I notice that it’s positive. Cursing as I remember the figure in our bank account, I leave the bathroom.

Slamming the door, I head out of my apartment. My phone rings. It’s my boss. She probably wants to know why I’m not there. I’ve never missed a day of work in my life. I turn off my phone, and I just walk, with no particular destination in mind. The air in my chest feels constricted, so I press my palm against it and take deep breaths, but that doesn’t work. After walking for half an hour, I find myself close to the Sculpture Center.

That’s when I see them. My eyes blink several times. I have to be sure, so I enter the museum. They take an elevator, and then they’re gone. I press the button for the elevator and take it to the only floor, the basement. There they are, walking ahead. My entire body shivers, even though it’s July, and there is no air-conditioner in this building.

I follow behind and overhear the woman. Her name is Hannah. She is talking about her novel. I remember that plotline. Just then, I recognize her voice. My shoulders become tense. She has called my office multiple times. It’s the same Hannah Wallace who sent me a query letter and has bombarded me with her follow-up emails. He kisses her and calls her, “luce dei miei occhi.” The pet name resounds in my brain, on a loop. I grab my pregnant belly, and my fingers twitch. I look around the empty room, and the first thing I find is a bronze power tool. I seize it and charge toward them. With the power tool, I separate their embrace, and I smash it into her skull. Her chestnut locks tumble onto the cement floor, soaked in blood. My husband accompanies Hannah on the floor, with the same lifeless look on his disfigured head.

pencilAlexa Recio de Fitch is a mystery author. Her debut novel is titled Triggers and will be available soon. Alexa has published stories in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Colombia through Orbis International Literary Journal (featured on the cover), Library Zine! Voices From Across the New York Public Library, and El Heraldo. She worked at Hachette Book Group and McGraw-Hill and holds an English literature degree from the University of Notre Dame. Alexa is from Barranquilla, Colombia and lives in New York City. Twitter: @alexardfitch | Instagram: alexa.reciodefitch | Facebook: AuthorAlexaReciodeFitch Email: alexarecio[at]gmail.com

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I Lost My Job and Now I’m Mowing Lawns?

Fiction
Kyran Lambert


Photo Credit: LancerE/Flickr (CC-by)

When my wife invites me to the kitchen table, a Heineken waits at my place setting. Grave thoughts arrive. As I sit, my wife doesn’t belabor. She makes her ask swift and concise. I process her words. Gratitude for the things she doesn’t say dampens the discomfort of her suggestion.

She isn’t pregnant.

She isn’t having an affair.

She isn’t gauging my interest in a second trip to the adults-only store.

“You want me,” I repeat her exact words, “to go door-to-door to see if the neighbors will pay me to cut their grass?”

She nods, seemingly proud of my comprehension.

“Let me get this straight.” I crack open the beer. “You want me to ask Bill if I can cut his grass?”

“Not just Bill,” she says, “Roger, Kent, The Whiteheads, Murray—”

“But they cut their own grass.”

She anticipates this response and scoots her chair beside mine. She uncaps a blue pen with her mouth and starts doing math on a mortgage statement that happens to be on the lazy Susan.

Something about the scene feels orchestrated. I feel like I will have lines to say rather than decisions to make.

As she writes, I wonder how long she has been preparing for this encounter. On the back of the mortgage statement, she estimates forty neighbors at fifteen dollars per lawn, four cuts per month. Finally, she writes $2,400. My wife doesn’t mention that this used to be my monthly income, but she does extend the tail of the comma to circle the amount.

A month ago, two months since losing my job, we had a similar conversation. That time, a Hostess cupcake waited at my place setting. As I ate the cupcake, she suggested that I ask her brother for financial assistance. When I asked why she hadn’t asked him herself, she told me that she wouldn’t dare, that I was the head of the household and so forth. Her explanation left me willing to ask for help. She managed to make me, a vulnerable man, feel like a regular one.

My brother-in-law is like most brothers-in-law—forty, thin, and successful. He uses words I don’t understand, and I pretend to understand them, and, because of this, he must think I am pretty smart. To an outsider, my brother-in-law is the thinker, and I am the fighter. Sadly, not even this theory stands up as my brother-in-law is a black belt in some version of karate I cannot spell. He is unmarried and nabs girls who are thirty-something but look twenty-five. I’m glad I don’t have a son who will look up to him. My brother-in-law happily gave us the money.

“So,” my wife asks, “what do you think?”

I study the numbers on the envelope. “I don’t know where you’re getting forty lawns from.”

My wife stands to pull out a folded paper from her back pocket. I realize her jeans are almost a decade old. I am lucky she can fit into old jeans. Is she unlucky to be with a man who doesn’t insist she get a new pair?

The note contains the first and last names of our neighbors. I briskly read the list and try to connect the names to people I might have met at our block party or trick-or-treating with the girls. The girls. What will the girls think of Daddy cutting the neighbors’ grass? Do a couple of ten-year-old girls understand that their daddy’s career, or lack thereof, will soon affect them? Was cutting grass even that much different from laying wire for Trent Telecom? At least when I worked at Trent, the stains of my labor were about my uniform and, therefore, seemed to belong to the company. The smears of wet grass will belong to me.

My wife starts explaining the origin of the list, the lengths she went to acquire it. I can see addresses next to each name. There are small descriptions, like this is the house that had the three cats on the roof in ’91. As she speaks, I appreciate the fact that my wife hasn’t reminded me that the grocer disallows her personal checks and that the bills we receive these days are collection notices from out-of-state vendors.

“You’re not saying much.” My wife places her hand on my knee. “This is temporary, and I know you are so much more than this. It’s not our only option, but it’s an option until work comes to town.”

I almost tell her that her idea would be fine—if it were my idea.

Our dog, Travis, barks through the picture window. Travis only barks at the out-of-ordinary. I leave the kitchen table to inspect. I see Bill standing at the end of his driveway across the street.

“What is Travis barking at?” my wife asks.

Bill begins inspecting the irrigation hose beneath one of his rose bushes. “Bill’s fiddling around his drippers.”

Travis wouldn’t have barked if Bill was solely checking his drip system. I, like my dog, sense something spurious.

“I’m going to…” I smile at my wife rather than finish my sentence.

As my patio door slaps shut, Bill rushes to his feet and waves me over. I look back toward my house and see only Travis in the window.

Bill is hard of hearing and always seems to yell rather than speak. “I hear you are looking for work!”

At this, I expect neighbors to rush from their front doors in a coordinated dance, singing, parodying a show tune about neighborly love while rhyming temporary-leaf-raking with auxiliary-wage-making.

I expect to see my plotting wife in the window. Only Travis. “Let me guess—”

“You,” Bill interrupts, “worked for Trent, right?”

I nod.

“My cousin owns an outfit that lays cable for the internet—I don’t have a computer—and, anyway, they need experienced people who worked at Trent. Pay is better. He asked if I knew anyone just a couple days ago, and it hit me that you worked for Trent.”

I feel my brain release a cocktail of joy and disbelief. My skin shimmies. If I were a different man, I’d hug Bill. Instead, I shake his hand and offer to help with his drippers. He tinkers with the timer. The drippers seem to be working fine. When I tell him such, he says the tiny hoses are scared of me.

Bill enters his house to get his cousin’s phone number. When he returns, he hands me a sheet of loose-leaf and warns me that the number belongs to a cellular phone.

I walk back to the house, searching the window. Still Travis.

I hear plates being washed in the kitchen. “Honey.” I move into the kitchen. “You’re not going to believe this.” I wind down my enthusiasm. I take my hat off like men who deliver bad news. I swallow. I am careful not to minimize her role in my discovery.

My wife rips off her dish gloves with a smile. “What?”

“I approached Bill… ready to talk about the lawn idea.”

Her smile turns on like a flashlight. “What happened?”

“Well.” I look between her feet and then to her eyes. “Turns out his cousin owns a communication company very much like Trent.” I hand her the paper with Bill’s cousin’s phone number on it as if the paper outlines guaranteed security. “Bill told me to call today.”

My wife snaps a dishtowel at my rear end. “What are you waiting for?”

I snag the paper out her hand and hold the sides of her face. “I love you.”

“See,” she whispers, half kissing my ear, “I just knew the lawn idea would be temporary.”

I move to the den to make the call. As I dial the number, I wonder if there was anything wrong with Bill’s dripper.

pencil

Kyran Lambert is an emerging writer who holds a BA from Arizona State University. Kyran lives in Phoenix with his wife and two young children. When he isn’t circling the state on sales calls, he is changing diapers. Kyran has recently finished a literary fiction novel. Email: kyran.a.lambert[at]gmail.com

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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

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

Tulips

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Felicia Sanzari Chernesky


Photo Credit: mwms1916/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elle had started saving them the summer Dad died, just before the start of school.

This morning, to celebrate another return to household peace and quiet, she was counting up the cash she’d set aside from emptying her pockets of change at each day’s end. Rolling those coins and turning them in for paper money twice yearly, standing before bank tellers who lately seemed to grow younger with every exchange, was a tradition she’d kept a delicious secret since she was a teenager.

Tucking the bills into one of an ancient pair of rainbow toe socks stuffed in the back of her unruly underwear drawer was half the fun. They never amounted to a figure so big it provoked guilt—but big enough to treat herself to something special that could also go unnoticed. This year Elle was planning to buy bulbs.

Not the common kind packaged in a big colorful bag sold at the local Home Depot, but “rare and unusual” Dutch bulbs purveyed by one of the oldest and most prestigious flower bulb importers in the country, who also happened to run his small storefront two towns away.

These were pedigree-bearing blooms with names like “Black Parrot” and “Kingsblood” and “Tulipa Kolpakowskiana,” whose fantastical size, shape, and hue were nothing short of spectacular. And nothing like the sturdy pink carnation service station bouquets Jay sometimes picked up for $9.99 on his way home from work.

“I hate pink and I hate carnations!” she’d confessed to Mom over the phone after another stressful day managing the wellbeing of Linny and the twins, all under the age of four at the time. “I’d rather he do a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher.”

“Well, I for one would never complain if a man brought home flowers,” Mom had chided, “especially after a hard day’s work as the family breadwinner.”

Grinding her teeth, Elle vowed she’d never confide in Mom again.

Things shifted a little after she and Dad came to live with them, after Dad got too sick to work and they could no longer manage the house or cover their bills. Surely Mom could see for herself that juggling a house, spouse, kids, church, community, and volunteer commitments today wasn’t as easy as it might look. Not to mention navigating the current perpetual strident invasive flood of information without drowning in it! Even packing a school lunch now meant taking a stand on saving the planet—or furthering its destruction. Despite helping Elle with the cooking, Mom took Jay’s side in every household activity that she and Dad were now direct witness to or integrally involved in, from child-rearing to car care. After all, “what man takes in his wife’s parents with such gracious calm?”

In reality, it’s the little things that build you up or break you. Elle had just initiated a step-by-step return to pre-kids career, the plan being to add some welcome funds to the Bank of America account and make a little more head space for herself. The move-in turned life upside-down. Now Elle was responsible for five children, her newest charges proving disruptive and unmanageable. Adding chauffeured library and specialist visits to Scout meetings and acro-ballet lesson runs, appeasing demands for favorite brands and special care items, listening to daily La-Z-Boy diatribes on the fallen state of the union, telling nightly bedtime stories, Elle tried to block out the sound of Fox News blaring from a back room all day long. She’d even become an intruder in her own kitchen! Life came from every direction—and all too much at once. But Elle kept those thoughts, like so many others, tucked away.

Instead she’d grown addicted to acquiring authority status on carefully selected household plans and projects, in this instance planting a bed of tulips that would bloom brilliant and strong each new April.

She’d read every word about selecting and storing the heirloom bulbs on the importer’s website. She had researched bulb size and horticultural zone hardiness, which meant when to plant the bulbs. Even more important to blooming success, however, was preparing the plant site. Never plant bulbs in previously diseased soil! Never use top dressings (compost) and soil additives that are not PH neutral! And above all never cut stems for bouquets! If they are happy where planted and left undisturbed many tulips will bloom year after year. The secret was to create a separate bed, to be replanted yearly, for cutting tulips in bloom.

Off with their heads!

As Dad always proclaimed, knowledge is power. And it was empowering to know what to do, but Elle also knew not to bother talking to Jay about separate beds, planting depth, fertilizer, or fall mulching. If she wanted to see these bulbs she was planning to buy actually sown, this meant a few holes dug where there was room in the front yard, after the mowing and weed-whacking were painstakingly completed, dropping them in—at least make sure they’re planted pointed end up!—topping them with lawn dirt, a healthy dose of H2O from the garden hose, and Que sera, sera.

Elle had learned to accept that that was the way things worked most peaceably at 49 Maple Lane. Most days she felt that for the sake of peace and general prosperity that she had given herself away, piece by piece by piece. But how could she complain? She had made these choices of her own free will. And as Mom often pointed out, few spouses went about their day as cheerfully as levelheaded Jay. The neighborhood loved him. Part of her delight, therefore, was derived from something other than the secrecy of saving coins. It came from educating herself in the things she wanted to know. So what if it was “useless” knowledge. In the long run, she often asked herself, how much of what we have, or know, is essential anyway?

Think about it, she’d argue, in a day and age when we know what the latest duck-lipped debutante eats for dessert—hell, we can even watch her ingesting it—we are gorging ourselves on the information available to us in every platform imaginable. I might as well take the opportunity to learn something that matters, so what does it matter to you if I steal a little time to learn some classical Greek or how, properly, to prepare paella or wallpaper a tiny half-bath?

What does it matter? Elle found herself asking a hundred times a day.

“It doesn’t” seemed to be the answer—as long as it doesn’t

  • cost too much
  • take up too much time
  • conflict with other plans
  • cause the eyebrow raise—

meaning: “Keep it under the radar, Elle.” Which was getting harder and harder to do.

Hence the increasing joy delivered every time Elle was able to keep her secrets truly secret.

Too bad her secrets were so ordinary. Jay wouldn’t blink an eye about the tulips, apart from questioning why she’d go to the trouble and expense—what’d it take, a quarter tank of gas for the trip?—to handpick some finicky bulbs when the Depot has them on sale for $17.99 a bag?

Mom would have agreed with Jay, which only made Elle miss Dad, frequent ally to her “impractical” way of thinking, even more.

Ah, what does it matter? Elle mused. He’s gone now.

But ways and habits linger. Elle thought about how what she kept hidden in the other toe sock started when Dad died, after Elle helped Mom clean out his things from the first-floor rooms she and Jay had converted into a bedroom and living room for them when they moved in. Keeping that secret had been so easy she’d gotten good at it—especially when Mom started getting “frustrated.” Eventually it was the only action Elle took that made her feel powerful. And it had become the only thing that made her feel safe.

Elle recognized the irony of it. Despite her “frumpiness” (Mom’s term), Elle had never been the type of girl to stash sweets. Her only journal was stored on a shelf inside her head. But this was a secret indulgence she knew to be so dangerous it could destroy everything and everyone who cared about her.

Or maybe not.

“For heaven’s sake, you’re not the center of the universe, Elle,” Mom still reminded her, when she could remember.

She could already picture the autumn “discussion” about the bulbs she hadn’t even bought in the worst withering heat of late summer.

“If we keep putting it off it will be too late, Jay. Don’t forget I have to run to Independent Living Manor at 3:00 to check on Mom.”

“All right, Elle. It’s just that I promised Tucker I’d help him work on his shed this weekend. Joanie’s been after him to finish it so he can move all his summer tools and make room for her car and the snow plow in the garage.”

“I understand all that, but you’ve been promising to help me plant those bulbs for over a month. Soon it’ll be Halloween and—”

“I know, but there’s always so much to do and never enough time.”

“You know what, Jay, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Elle, don’t be that way. Do you think we can get it done in an hour? That way I can make everybody happy.”

Just once, Elle sighed, angry months in advance, I wish he wanted to make me happy most. And then she felt rotten. Jay was a great guy. He helped everyone. I made my choices. I have everything I need, she reprimanded herself. What’s wrong with me that I can’t be more grateful?

And content, Elle heard Mom adding.

She was just about to back out of the driveway when her cell rang. It was the school nurse’s office.

“I’m glad I caught you, Mrs. Salter. Linny has a slight fever. Can you come pick her up?”

Elle sighed and cranked up the car’s AC. The best laid plans of mice and mothers of school children…

Once a droopy Linny was buckled up in the back seat, Elle handed her the stainless steel water bottle she’d originally filled for herself.

“I’m tired,” Linny whimpered, “and my tummy hurts.”

Elle put a hand to Linny’s forehead. Definitely warm, but not burning. “I’m sorry you’re feeling icky.”

Linny was prone to fevers—and weeping, as Mom often pointed out. “You really do have to be extra careful with a sensitive child, Elle. Don’t indulge her displays of emotion. She needs to toughen up. Of course, you’ll do what you think best, but that’s the approach Dad and I took with you.”

Elle climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She was about to back up but stopped to study Linny in the rearview mirror as she took a long sip of water, then lay back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She seemed to fall asleep instantly, her lashes fluttering like dark feathers above her rosy cheeks.

Elle’s heart swelled with love for her daughter. And then, at the school exit she decided to turn left instead of right, which would have led them back home. It’s a fifteen-minute drive, Elle reasoned. If she wakes up, I’ll turn the car around.

When she pulled into the bulb importer’s small gravel lot Linny was snoring. Elle parked in the space facing the building’s double French doors, which had been thrown open wide to showcase the array of bins containing flower bulbs in a tempting range of shapes and sizes.

Elle turned off the car and waited. In the rearview mirror she could see that Linny continued to sleep. Elle had never left a child in the car, although many of her friends confessed to running into a shop or back into the house—for just a moment!—with a napping infant or toddler strapped in a car seat. Yes it was a hot day, she could already feel her armpits dampen and sweat bead at her hairline, but Elle intended to be only a few minutes. She had parked so that she could see the car from inside the shop. Plus, the register was on a counter just inside the doors.

She cracked the windows and got out, locking the car with one more backward glance at Linny.

Elle had planned to savor this clandestine excursion, stopping to examine the varieties of bulbs, asking questions of the helpful and informed clerk, choosing her selection with shape and color and hardiness in mind. Instead, like on so many shopping trips, her nagging conscience rushed her through the aisles. Picking out hurried handfuls of bulbs with only the most cursory glance at name—price and varietal details neatly chalked on signs attached to each bin—Elle raced to the register, mumbling yes, thanks, when the clerk asked if she’d found everything she needed.

“Do you have any questions?” he added, handing her change and her bag of bulbs.

Can you tell me how to stop feeling squeezed out of my own life? Elle thought, chirping “No—thanks again!” instead.

Back at the car Linny was awake and sobbing softly. “Where did you go, Mommy? Why aren’t we home?”

“I’m so, so sorry, honey. I just had to pick something up. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. Why don’t you shut your eyes?”

On the road, once she was certain Linny had fallen back asleep, Elle cried until her nose ran.

Selfish, Mom huffed, and didn’t even offer her a tissue.

Linny awoke just as Elle was pulling into the driveway and threw up violently. “Mommy!

“Stay put!” Elle cried, stopping the car. She jumped out and ran to grab the roll of paper towels she kept in the trunk. Throwing open the passenger door she tried to clean and calm Linny, who was covered in pink vomit and wailing.

I hate throwing up!

“I know, Linny, I know. Let’s get you tidied up, and then you can have a bath and climb into bed. How’s that sound?”

“Can I have ginger ale? With two straws?”

“Absolutely.”

Elle dashed back in a sweat to the open trunk, frantically rooting for her stash of yellow ShopRite bags. She needed two—one for the sodden paper towels she’d dropped on the driveway, the other for Linny’s spew-soaked clothes, which Elle would throw in the wash after she’d gotten her daughter settled.

Sweat dripped off Elle’s nose. Despite the heat, she’d just have to worry about cleaning the car thoroughly later. Why are my hands shaking? she kept wondering. Jay was not the type of husband to stress about keeping a car’s interior perfect. He was understanding when it came to the kids. So why can’t I swallow my panic? Elle could not stop thinking about what she had hidden in the other toe sock. Nevertheless, she couldn’t hide the true answer from herself: She didn’t want Jay to find out. She didn’t want Linny to tell her father that her mother had gone to buy flower bulbs instead of taking their sick child straight home. Linny would not have thrown up in the car if you weren’t so self-absorbed—

Stop!” she cried aloud in a voice so harsh it halted the elderly neighbor padding past the house in her tracks.

Oh my goodness! Do you need some help?”

Elle nearly jumped out of her skin. “Oh, Mrs. Blieck. I’m sorry for startling you. My daughter just got sick in the car. I’m trying to clean up the mess.”

At the risk of being rude, Elle ran back to Linny, still slumped and buckled in her seat.

Mrs. Blieck followed after Elle, her cane making gentle but deliberate clicks on the driveway. She stood and watched as Elle struggled to clean the fussing Linny before peeling off her soiled, now stinking shirt and wrapping a weathered beach towel she’d found in the trunk around her shoulders. “You also have twin boys, yes? Ah, I remember those days.” Mrs. Blieck’s accented voice sounded wistful.

You never had a sibling, Elle. I would think you’d be grateful to have three children, Mom added.

Elle could only manage to nod.

Mrs. Blieck studied Elle. “You know, I just had nineteen inches of my colon removed.”

Elle stopped to stare at her, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on my back for several weeks. I was so tired! I admit I felt like giving up. My son had to come from the city to take care of me. But then Dr. Cohen said, ‘Ruth, you need to get up and start taking a little walk. Every day. You have more living to do.’”

Tears made their way down Elle’s burning cheeks.

Mrs. Blieck continued speaking. “And so I realized that he was right. If Hitler didn’t succeed, why let a little sickness stop me?” She turned to address Linny. “Not feeling well?”

Linny smiled shyly. “I just threw up all over.”

“I can see that,” Mrs. Blieck commented. She looked back at Elle. “You know, no one talks much about the Dutch apart from Anne Frank, but that bastard tried to get rid of us, too. We had to hide my husband under the floorboards.”

Elle wiped her eyes.

“And we only had electricity for a few hours every day. We never knew when it was going to go out, or for how long. But the worst of it was that my milk dried up. I had nothing left to feed my babies. Imagine what it was like, listening to them cry from hunger in the dark! There was nothing for anyone to eat. I was so skinny after the war I had to have all my teeth pulled. Every last rotten one.”

Linny was now staring open-mouthed at Mrs. Blieck, who paused to smile at her. “But you know what?” she whispered conspiratorially.

“No,” Linny leaned forward to whisper back. “What?

“We got him,” Mrs. Blieck cackled. “He’s gone, and we survived! And here I am today, Oma Ruth—an old lady with false teeth, minus nineteen inches of my colon. I guess I didn’t need it.”

Elle watched Mrs. Blieck continue on her walk, a tiny steel-plated survivor impeccably dressed in white cardigan, linen slacks, pearls, and sensible shoes. She seemed undeterred by her recent surgery or the dog day August heat. Elle waited, but Mom had nothing to add.

Elle thought repeatedly of Mrs. Blieck after their encounter. She had managed to restore order that day—moving the twins from bus stop through chores and homework, tending to Linny, who vomited three more times, even walking and feeding Millie, taking a cool shower herself, and calling Joanie before Jay returned from work in time for a home-cooked dinner—although it took multiple cleanings to get the stain out of the car’s upholstery.

Jay never complained about the lingering smell.

And now, almost two months later, they were finally planting the pricey Dutch bulbs she had decided to buy rather than bring a queasy Linny straight home from school. It was just Elle and Jay. He had dropped Luke and Noah at soccer practice and it was too early by several hours to pick Linny up from Aliyah’s birthday sleepover, then run to sit with dozing, distant Mom.

Elle considered this her last act of a specific kind of daring—doing it right under Jay’s nose. From now on no more toe sock secrecy. She had already enlisted the kids to help decorate a coin jar. The growing collection would go toward a family outing—based on a private vote—although no one else in house was any good at keeping things to themselves.

She and Jay had decided over morning coffee that he would dig the holes and she would place the bulbs—root-side down so the budding stems would break through the surface of the dirt and bloom in the right direction. Then they would fill the holes together.

“Ready to roll?” he’d asked, kissing her forehead. “I told Tucker I’ll help him finish his shed tomorrow.”

Now, before placing a bulb in a hole, while Jay wasn’t looking Elle would reach into her pocket, pull out a few of the pills she’d been sock-stuffing since Dad died, and drop them into the dirt. She’d forgotten whose household prescriptions were whose, and for what condition, illness, or injury, but she had continuously figured, particularly in her wildest and most desperate moments, what does it matter? As long as once planted and watered the pilfered pills, though varied in shape, size, and color, did their collective job. But Elle understood now that she never needed to stash and plan to swallow them all at once. The only thing left in her pocket was the card listing the date and time of her next visit with the counselor Joanie recommended the day Mrs. Blieck had shown her a way to hang on, move forward. What mattered was that Elle wanted to see the tulips bloom next spring.

And the spring after that.

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Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, published poet, and author of six picture books, five of them rhyming, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! (Albert Whitman, 2015) and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman, 2016). Email: fchernesky[at]gmail.com

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Light-Up Shoes

Beaver’s Pick
CJ Maughan


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

Krista finally found them. Kneeling on the orange department store carpet, she pulled the black shoe box from the shelf and brushed the dust off the top. The lid flapped open and revealed the size eight shoes that she was searching for.

There were ruby gems embedded in the heels and there were pink stripes lapping at the tongue. Stars, rainbows, and sunlight danced along the sides. These images were the solemn promise of Velcroed possibilities. Yes, you can jump higher, run faster, longer, better than all the things. These shoes are made of magic. These shoes will make you magic.

Krista unzipped her windbreaker, tossing it aside, and slipped her feet into the shoes. The lights in the heels flickered as she stood. She wiggled her toes. There was room to grow and room to run. It would require a test, of course, and there was only one way to know their true power.

The fresh rubber squeaked, leaving a black mark where she ground her toe into the white tile of the store aisle for good luck. Heels to the block, knees to the ground, elastic in her veins—she took off.

Pumping her arms as the shoe lights flashed along the whites of the floor. Reflecting through eternity in the long store wall mirror. She saw a glimpse of herself, a blur of lights and a white shirt. Her hair billowing behind her. Her legs strong and quick.

She ran down the walkways and the aisles. She skirted around registers. She darted around strollers and jumped through clothing displays. She spun through jewelry racks and sashayed across the escalator track.

She didn’t see the ruby-lipped, ice-haired girls stepping off the elevator. The shoes were fast; they only knew two speeds: fast and faster. They did not know how to stop once started, but still, she tried.

Krista locked her knees; the ice queens watched, wide-eyed and jagged, but it was too late. Together they entered the realm of confusion, slamming into each other with a force greater than each of their lives. Blackness reigned. Terror threatened. Voices cried out. The ceiling was the floor. The floor was the ceiling.

Krista bravely jumped first to her feet. Her lungs sore, her knees scraped, but her pride intact. “Sorry,” she said, wanting to run away, but schoolyard lessons kept her locked in place.

The less-blonde girl helped the other blonde girl up from the floor. “Jesus Christ, watch where you’re going, kid.” They bent and gathered the impossibly tiny hangers that held the impossibly tiny clothes.

“Are those for your dolls?” Krista asked.

The girls held up the hangers and looked at each other. “They’re bras, kid. Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“God, the dumb kid has never seen a bra before. How old is she you think?

“Eleven?”

“Barely.”

Krista didn’t understand.

The girls looked down at Krista, closely inspecting her white shirt. “Hey kid,” the more-blonde girl said. “You’re giving the boys a free show, you know.”

Krista shifted her feet nervously and the lights danced across the floor once more. And then there was the worst sound of all: laughter.

“Oh my god, I just saw. She’s wearing light-up shoes!”

“They still have the price tag on them!”

“Are you shopping with Mommy today? Maybe if you’re good, she’ll buy you a pretzel.”

“I think I was five the last time I wore those.”

“I know, right? What a baby.”

Krista looked down, surprised by her own feet. The lights flickered as she moved.

“See ya later, little kid,” the girls said. As they swung their hips away, Krista watched the big, bold words they left behind in their wake. She reached and touched each of these words. They were words that she never before thought about. Boys. Too old. Free show. Bra.

But there were also other words. Krista looked around, surprised to realize that she didn’t see them the first time. Embarrassed. Naked. Under-dressed. Unable and undeserving.

Ugly.

Krista crossed her arms across her chest. She didn’t understand why, but she wanted her jacket. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. The lights on the shoes were now a dim glow of their shadowy past.

She passed the tall mirror again and watched herself walk past. Slowly now, a distinct shape took form. Yellow hair that frizzed into a triangle. A stomach that rounded the edges of her jeans and something, two somethings, up top that she hadn’t noticed before.

“There you are,” Mother said. “I turn for one minute and you run off. I’ve been looking everywhere.”

Krista stared at the shoe box on the ground, its lid turned open like the soft pages of a book.

“Take those off,” Mother said, pulling out her cellphone as it rang. “Hello? Yes, I’m still here. Just shopping with Krista. She’s being impossible.” Mother pointed at Krista’s feet. “I’m serious. Take those off. You’re way too old for those. Yes, yes we’ll be home soon. I just need to get her a bra and then we’ll be done. No, her teacher said something. She said the boys in the class…”

Krista didn’t hear the rest. She didn’t need to know. She pulled the shoes off one by one and slowly closed the box on her childhood. The lights from the shoes flickered as she stuffed the box on the shelf. She didn’t bother looking back to watch them stop.

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CJ Maughan is a former chemist who realized she was much better at writing fiction than lab reports. She is oddly fascinated with melancholy and tends to prefer stories that are depressingly beautiful. Her debut novel, Eighteen, won the 2018 League of Utah Writers Golden Quill award for adult fiction. Twitter: @CJ_Maughan Email: hello[at]CJMaughan.com

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The Crow’s Chuckle

Fiction
Sonia Trickey


Photo Credit: Guy Beauchamp/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Interviewer: And finally, your greatest regret?

David Goodwin: Losing a decade’s worth of compositions in my mid-twenties in Cambridge. It was such a fertile time—I was like—I don’t know—the angels were singing to me?

Interviewer: And it was all lost? What happened?

David Goodwin: A girl. Of course. (laughter). I wasn’t as careful with young girls’ feelings as I might have been. She was fragile. Perhaps, I was insensitive. Anyway, she stole my laptop and floppy discs, everything I’d worked on for nearly ten years and she chucked it all in the river.

Interviewer: Gosh—that’s criminal.

David Goodwin: Ha. Maybe. Hard to prove. The formidable feminists at Newnham closed ranks. But in some ways I’m grateful now.

Interviewer: Grateful?

David Goodwin: I suppose it’s driven me forward. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover what I composed—but it’s always on the edges. It’s like I’m haunted by those lost arias.

Interviewer: Well—hell hath no fury. I’m sure she regrets it now as much as the rest of us—

I snap the lid down on my laptop and the sound cuts out.

I don’t regret it at all. If I could have pecked all of the music out of his brain, drawn it out through his ears, the gore of grey matter catching in chunks on the long barbed wires of his genius, I would have done it. If I could have lugged him from his bed, drowned him in the silky waters of the Cam and stowed him under a punt, I would have.

Perhaps going to the David Goodwin Choral Evensong was a mistake.

His success has pursued me for twenty years: he’s always on the BBC, Radio 4, bio-documentaries, Desert Island Discs—and the publicity campaign for this Choral Evensong has been relentless: Music for a secular age; School of Life endorsed; British Humanist Society seal of approval; music is the new religious experience; all proceeds to the Dadaab Refugee complex in Kenya. He’ll receive a knighthood for humanitarian works someday, or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s a national treasure.

I slipped into the shadows at the back of King’s College Chapel just before the Evensong started. He was standing by the altar looking fatter and less sculpted than in his publicity shots. He had the look of someone who is defying middle age by squeezing into a jacket which would have given him panache twenty years earlier. I found my seat, closed my eyes, and took deep meditative breaths, hoping that his music had also gone to seed.

The opening chords of the organ reverberated through the chapel; a hard wave of sound bouldered through the nave sweeping us all into its tumbling kinaesthesia. It wasn’t just his composition: it was the architecture, the acoustic, the archangels, the history; he has the full weight of God backing him up. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak. I couldn’t help it; I was moved.

That pissed me off.

You hope that anger will mellow with age but sometimes it intensifies.

I couldn’t face going home afterwards, so I came here, to my ivory tower.

From my turret window I look down at the young women flying past on their bikes and wonder whether it’s different for them. Do my seminars on challenging heteronormative hyper-masculinity change anything after three cocktails with some chancer in a well-tailored suit?

Sometimes I imagine that I am an avenging angel, amber immolation in my eyes, great feathered wings mantling at my back, but I’m probably more of an old crow: dull feathers, dodging falcons, scrapping with pigeons. I launch myself from my window and flap until I’m hovering above the spires, then I swoop down across thirty years and this is what I see.

Lucy is slipping through cloistered passages. With her long black gown, closely bobbed hair and purposeful stride, she might be the ghost of medieval novice, observing early morning devotions. Elaborate tracery frames her as she flickers across the Bridge of Sighs, momentarily vanishing behind fluted columns then reappearing in each lancet arch. She hesitates, disoriented by the confusion of passages with their uneven paving but then recognises St John’s First Court. Flitting past the neo-Gothic grandeur of the chapel, she arrives breathlessly at the Porter’s Lodge.

The Porter, an ex-military man in his early sixties, dressed in a three-piece suit and tie is seated in post. At this time in the morning, the main gate is locked. Lucy stands before the pane of sliding glass and taps on it even though he can see her and even though he knows what she wants.

The Porter sees a pretty girl, not much older than his daughter’s kid. His eyes sweep over her unbrushed hair, last night’s make-up, then drift down her short black dress to the ladders in her tights. She is draped in a gown and in her hands there is a scarlet snarl of shoes. “For a clever girl,“ he thinks, “she’s not got much sense.”

“Good morning,” chirrups Lucy. “Could you unlock the gate, please?” She stares at him unsmilingly. Eventually, he slides the window shut, carefully unlocks the office door, shambles round to the ancient wooden gate, unlocks it and heaves it open.

“Thank you.”

“You might want to put your shoes on, luv.”

Lucy steps out onto the greasy cobbles of Trinity Street and drops her shoes into the nearest bin.

I’d only worn the shoes on Nina’s encouragement and Nina had only been in my room because I’d closeted myself away for ten hours to wrestle with an essay on Beckett and Brecht. It was the last one for my feminist supervisor at Newnham who I loved almost as much as I loved constructing essays up in my tiny room, wedged into the eaves of the nineteenth-century red brick building. A worn white oak desk had been built into an alcove that spanned the lead paned mansard window. Through the thick, uneven panes of glass, I could look down into the glow of Queen’s ancient library and imagine kinship with the scholars of ages. God, I was reverential.

When Nina knocked on my door at six, she found me tired-eyed, immersed in paper and cross-references.

“Jesus, Luce. We need to be there in an hour.”

She bustled in, retrieved a corkscrew from the bedside table wedged between a cheap blue bra and a library copy of Lacanian Readings of the Oedipus Cycle, uncorked a bottle of Le Piat D’or (“Only the best for us Luce!”) and sloshed it into the two filmy wine glasses that had burrowed their way under my bed.

“Have you eaten anything? Have you showered?”

“I was just about to. It took longer than I thought—“ It dawned on me, as I swallowed a mouthful of the wine, that I’d eaten nothing more than a bowl of cornflakes and an apple that day.

“Get in the shower and I’ll make you some beans on toast. Have you got any cheese?”

“Maybe—just steal some from the fridge—no one’ll mind.”

I trailed down the narrow staircase, my head shimmering with Brecht, Beckett, and half a glass of wine to the ancient bathroom with its enamel tub, speckled brass taps, and cheap electric shower screwed amateurishly into the old tiling. The monastic asperity kept ablutions brisk and soon I was tripping barefoot back up the narrow staircase, in my underwear, wrapped in a scratchy towel.

As soon as I got back to my room, Nina handed me a plate of baked beans on cheese on toast, replenished our glasses and surveyed the thin pickings of my wardrobe, a cigarette in hand.

“What are you going to wear?”

“That black dress from New Look. It’s a bit short but it’s all I’ve got in black. I’ll wear it with some opaques.”

“Shoes?”

“Those?” I always went for my black trainers.

“Oh-la-la. What about these?”

Nina drew out a pair of red velvet strappy heels from the back of the wardrobe.

“Oh, those.” My mother had insisted I buy them for formal dinners. “I can’t really walk in those. I don’t know why I bought them.”

“They’re not for walking in, Luce.”

“I’m not sure…”

“What about David Goodwin?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

I agreed to wear them mainly because Nina had made dinner and brought round wine and because I didn’t want to talk about my crush on David Goodwin who was a post-doc at the time, back from some conservatoire, running the choral ‘collective’ we were both involved in. And we needed to be in King’s College Chapel in less than twenty minutes, and my hair was still wet, and David had a nasty temper.

Shoeless but in tights, Lucy meanders down Trinity Street: a huddle of square oriel windows, roof turrets, scrolled brackets, slate rooves, tiled rooves, buff brick, red brick, mottled brick, ashlar brick, ancient hidden doorways, elaborately tiled entrances and six wall-mounted Richardson candles. Reaching round to the baroque frontage of Gonville and Caius, Trinity Street is quintessential Cambridge, usually filled with undergraduates chattering and dodging jangling bicycles. But now, it is silent.

She rounds Gonville and Caius and makes her way over the biscuit-coloured slabs of Senate House Passage with its tunnelling yellow walls, Tudor roses, and gargoyles. She is retracing her steps from the night before as though she might find the thing she has lost glinting quietly in a shaft of morning light.

When we had wheeled round the corner towards King’s College the previous evening, it had been drizzling. The bulk of the chapel has a primordial thickness, like a demented Old Testament God. We slipped in through the North Entrance where the choir was only just assembling, and fell in line.

The exterior colossus of King’s College chapel belies the hall of light it encases. A regiment of flying buttresses shoulders the magnesium limestone wall forcing the chapel upwards creating a supernal acoustic. Singing in such surroundings is as close as I’ve ever come to God. That evening’s programme had a watery theme, a celebration of the chilly waterways that bound the city. There were Icelandic discords, which shivered through space like spicules of ice; English ballads, still meres of sound pooling in the calm of the chapel; the lucent riff of a negro spiritual, meandering its way past the saints of ages; all building to an arrangement of a Gaelic fishing song. It began with a swell of tenor and soprano voices singing a familiar melody in a robust two-part harmony that recalled simpler times—the shores of home. Then the chorus: alto voices tumbled onto the melody in syncopated arpeggios that split and repaired like the veins of a river valley. Next, a subterranean tremor of basses rumbled in while the soprano voices skated over the top, a creaking sweetness leaving the hollow tenor voices holding the melody. The whole chapel seemed to give itself over to an impossible fragmentation of voices until suddenly we plunged into a swooping two-part harmony that closed the set. Finally, the voices ceased and an echo hung audibly in the air. Then silence.

In the milky light, Lucy looks at a locked wrought iron gate. She removes her gown and shivers in the chill of the early morning. Overwhelmed by nausea she retches into the storm drain but her stomach is empty and all she brings up is thin yellow bile. She soothes her head against the cold Norman masonry and rests for a few moments before standing back up and placing the canvas bag with laptop, floppy discs and camera between the railings. Shaking, she hitches her dress up to her waist and clambers up the gate using the latch and hinges as footholds. She negotiates the row of finials spearheading the top before dropping down inside the boundary of King’s College. She retrieves her bag and gown.

The rising sun is throwing perpendicular stripes across the path where she stands. Lucy resumes her quick walk towards the river. Her feet are beginning to numb and there is a spasming in her stomach which is making her headache worse. Once she arrives at the bridge she leans over the flat balustrade and looks upstream to Clare Bridge, older than the English Civil War. Mist hangs like gossamer over the spangling river. Lucy imagines a swallow diving off the bridge.

Then she draws out the contents from her canvas bag and places them on the balustrade. She pushes one of these objects off the bridge and follows its fall into the water. Globes of light rise to the surface and burst.

We only went back because Nina had forgotten her scarf. It was a gift from her counter-revolutionary Iranian grandmother: a vermillion liquid silk with a burst of ochre exploding in the middle. Sometimes she wore it as a hijab if she was feeling super-Iranian. It was definitely a scarf worth turning back for so we retraced our steps and hurried towards the shadowy entrance.

David Goodwin and his friends were just closing up:

“Forgotten something?” He was less intense than usual.

“My scarf. It was a gift. Can I just run in and get it?”

David was uncharacteristically amiable. He told his friends to go on without him, pushed the heavy door back open, accompanied us through the porch and even found the light switch.

Nina ran over the smooth monochrome tiles, the slap of her feet sounded through the empty chapel, while I stayed with David, awed in the presence of genius. David raked me over with his eyes until he came to rest on my shoes. I felt ridiculously embarrassed, like I needed to explain them, distance myself from their coquettish suggestiveness.

“They’re absurd,” I gabbled. “Nina made me wear them. We were in a rush. Now I can hardly walk.”

“You look lovely,” David said warmly. More absurd than the shoes was how much I basked in his approval. He smiled and looked me directly in the eye:

“Did you enjoy it? The singing?”

“Oh yes. It was amazing. It came together sublimely. Your arrangement, this space—it was astonishing, truly.“

The ease with which he accepted this scattergun praise should have warned me.

“But those trills in the Icelandic piece, bars 90 to 96. They weren’t quite right.”

“I’m sure the audience didn’t mind.”

“Maybe…”

There was a pause while I scrambled for something clever but not too sycophantic. I discarded: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through,” because I didn’t think he’d appreciate irony. Or listen to Tori Amos. Instead I reached for Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything?”

Perfection: he smiled. I was so pleased with my mastery in this game of getting David Goodwin to notice my existence that I indulged a surge of optimistic abandon that characterises burgeoning infatuation. He was divine: tall, dark, intelligent, intense, elusive, and pulsing with musical talent.

Nina was making her way back, scarf in hand and I held his glance, looked meaningfully into his eyes and hoped he remembered my name. He did one better: with a quick glance at my tits and then back to my eyes, he asked, “We’re having a few drinks back in my rooms at John’s. Why don’t you both come along?”

I thought about my essay that was still unfinished and about the Sunday of contemplative study I had planned, and hesitated. Nina took charge. “That sounds lovely.”

*

When I woke up nine hours later I was lying on an unmade up mattress under a scratchy tweed blanket. I was also naked apart from my shoes, shivering and struggling with a headache that cut through my temples right to the back of my head like razor wire. I had no memory of how I had arrived in this room. “I’ve been date raped,” was my first thought. Date rape: an absurd term that had currency during the nineties, a category of date on which you might get raped as opposed to a date where you might find a long-term boyfriend or a date where you might have casual sex. “I must have been date raped.” I’m not sure who I was trying to convince.

The light was streaming in through the small window illuminating the uneven starkness of the white walls. There was a threadbare crimson Persian rug on the floorboards and motes twinkled in the sun stream. Perched on the bottom of the bed were my clothes, folded in a neat pile.

The primness of the folding kicked me into heaving rage. I’d been date raped by some exacting, academic pedant who prided himself on his neatness. I don’t know why that mattered. Perhaps I’d always imagined being raped by a cave man and felt less of a woman for having been overpowered by a cerebral sensitive type.

I sat up and kicked off my shoes. I was also furious with the shoes. They had walked me into this mess.

I pulled on my underwear and my tights and it wasn’t until I was zipping up my dress that I realised I might not have been date raped after all. I didn’t feel as though I’d had sex let alone been raped; presumably I’d be able to tell?

The blankness in my memory was terrifying. I’d arrived at the party, I’d accepted a drink, and then a disorienting emptiness. I needed to leave.

Cautiously opening the door, I peered into the main room. The room, at least, I remembered. Last night, David Goodwin had been transposing Spice Girls hits on the baby grand while swigging from a bottle of Absolut vodka. Now the closed lid was covered in a scattering of glasses, pizza boxes and a sprinkling of white pills. David Goodwin, the musical talent of his generation, was nowhere to be seen.

Despite the horror and bleakness of the moment, in the immediate aftermath my instincts were lucid and destructive. It is the nature of trauma to haunt and amplify. On that morning, in that room, I had not even begun to understand what had been done to me. I still believed in justice and retribution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I looked around for stuff to pillage and loot. I wanted to inflict serious and lasting damage. I found a canvas bag and put his laptop inside. Then I stuffed all the floppy discs I could find in with it. Anything else? There was a camera on the piano. I dimly remembered him having told us about it at a rehearsal the previous week. It was a digital camera from Japan, a gift from an admirer. No one owned digital cameras yet: it was 1998. I picked it up. Before I stuffed it into the bag with the rest of my loot, I wondered whether it might have photos of the night before, something to give me some inkling where memory should be. I flicked it on like Pandora unlocking the box, or maybe like Eve eating the apple.

The first thing I found was five still images of me wearing nothing but my red shoes on a white mattress. They were arty shots, like something that might appear in a trendy magazine. Porn was fashionable again and we were all trying to be cool about it. I was looking at tasteful porn of me wearing shoes that I hated. I looked hot. I flicked further back through the camera. There were more porn photos of more hot girls wearing nothing but shoes. I recognised a couple of them: Christine (emerald green wedges) who had dropped out of the choir at Christmas and Eloise (fuchsia kitten heels) who was now one-night-standing her way through the tenors.

How many women, I wondered had found themselves here, in these rooms, naked under a scratchy blanket? How many of them even knew they had been photographed? How many of them had slunk back to their rooms to try to sleep off the hangover, hand in their essays late and never mention anything to anyone, even themselves? Brush it under the carpet, chalk it up to experience, drop out of choir, become slutty: lipstick feminism.

I turned off the camera and put it in the bag with the laptop and the discs, placed the bag over my shoulder and picked up a voluminous postgraduate gown from the floor which I put on as I left the room.

*

About three days later I was summoned by the Senior Tutor at my college. A rising musical star, David Goodwin of John’s College, was alleging that I had stolen his laptop and sixteen floppy discs. Together, they constituted a decade’s work and study. Luckily the University Library had a hard copy of his thesis but the work on the laptop and the disc were irreplaceable. A tragic loss. The camera was never mentioned.

I denied everything. It came down to his word against mine. Anyone could have taken the laptop. I wasn’t the only person there. I never mentioned the memory loss, the nakedness, the photographs. The porter testified that I had nothing in my hands other than a pair of red shoes when I left through the main gate at 5:38 that morning. The CCTV supported his story and mine. There was a furore. I held my ground.

*

I alight back into my room, old dull feathered crow, and start pecking at the keyboard.

When I showed the 68 photographs of naked girls to my supervisor at Newnham, she counselled against going to the police or the university: “It will damage you more than it will damage him.” She also advised me to give him back his laptop and discs. She was helpful, pragmatic. She’d internalised the patriarchy.

Peck, peck, peck.

So I told her that I’d dropped the laptop and discs into the river and publically denied everything. Everyone loves a crazy woman and a river.

Now all that data fits onto a single memory card, which I slide into my laptop. I open the files and I look at the photographs of me, naked on the bed. Was I ever that smooth? Was that body ever really mine?

I think about the interview I just heard with David on the radio and his sublime choral Evensong. I look at the photographs of twelve girls. naked in their shoes and I wonder where they are now: mothers, CEOs, head teachers, barristers.

Peck, peck, peck.

I do have some power now; I could ruffle some feathers. I attach one of the images to the email I’ve been composing but I hesitate before I press send. Eventually, I save it to drafts and start scrolling through the music files. I open one at random and an aria plays. For a while I lose myself in the arrangement of voices and strings. It is a rough recording, work in process but I can only imagine how it might have sounded, brought to fullness, released and allowed to soar in some domed cathedral.

With the music still playing, I resume my vigil over the street below. It’s later now and fewer people are passing. A young woman looks up, catches sight of me and waves. I wave back.

To my surprise, underneath all the anger, I feel the pull of tenderness, maybe something approaching regret.

And then, deep inside me, something releases and bubbles up uncontrollably. At her perch, the old crow is chuckling.

pencil

Sonia Trickey started writing again in 2018 after attending the Cambridge University creative writing summer programme. Since then she has had short stories accepted for publication by Fictive Dream, Litro and Calyx Arts. She was had a notable entry in the Disquiet short fiction prize. When she’s not writing, she is teaching English in a secondary school in Cambridge. Twitter: @stickytrewart Email: stickytrewart[at]gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized

If These Walls Could Talk

Fiction
Rita Pecos


Photo Credit: teofilo/Flickr (CC-by)

If these walls could talk, they would have a deep, booming voice. They would speak for the house and do his bidding. They would tell you that the name of the house in which they stand is Roak, so named by the first family that lived there. When the father built the house they had six children. The third born, Terry, who was six years old, had asked where they were moving to and the father had said, “To the new O’Rourke house.” Terry had repeated it, “The new Roak house,” and the name stuck, magically linking the father and Roak for all time. Through the years the family grew to 12 children and they filled the house with their lives.

Roak witnessed all family discussions and meals. He quietly observed the family; he watched their daily activities and witnessed their arguments. He even painfully tolerated their abuse of one another. He was long tempered and compassionate. He was sturdy and dusty, yet he smelled of popcorn, bacon, and bizcochitos, with a hint of tobacco and coffee.

Roak stood proudly on the corner of Comanche and Palomas in the high desert of the sunny southwest at the very edge of the city limits. With windows for eyes, Roak watched the children play in the yard, and the mother prepare her family’s meals, which the family shared over long conversations and debates. He had eyes in every room, in every window. He watched the family’s budding sycamore tree grow to towering heights and magnificent width. He could see all the way into the Albuquerque valley from the living room window and he had a lovely view of the Sandia Mountains from his own kitchen eyes.

From the living room he watched many soccer and football games in the park across the street, that is, after the city finally built the park. Prior to that it was all mesa as far as his eyes could see, the only thing north of the house being Old Man Montgomery’s barren land. Often the children would walk westward, out onto the mesa, with a glass jar of water for hydration, pitch a tent and camp out. Roak could see only a speck in the distance to keep track of them, not having access to any pipes reaching out that far at the time. He worried about them, as Old Man Montgomery had been known to shoot at trespassers. It would not be beneath the children to taunt him.

Roak knew the family’s deepest, darkest secrets. He had witnessed their most intimate moments and he was the most trusted confidant, keeping holy all that was told to him in private. When he saw the children break the rules he felt sad, and sometimes mad, but he did not tell the parents. He never broke that trust within the world of humans. But he was the record-keeper for this family and was required to regularly report the goings on to the house council, cataloguing every detail.

There was much love in the house. Roak eagerly waited for the family to return from their frequent summer camping trips so that he could hear the stories of their hapless adventures. Like the year the family went to Hopewell Lake and returned with everything covered in mud. The father had decided to move the campsite to Lower Lagunitas, a tiny New Mexico mountain lake, pond really, set at an elevation of 10,400 feet. The father said the lake was accessible only by navigating a treacherous path that some had the gall to call a road. The father attempted to drive his old 1962 Blue Bird school bus, which he had converted into a camper, up this steep, precarious road. In dry conditions it would have been dubious; just to make things a bit more lively, and because the father attracted a certain kind of luck to his every endeavor, an explosive monsoon deluged the area. The father had one chain and put it on the right rear tire. Most of the family got out to help push the bus, including the myriad of cousins and friends the children had brought along, trying to keep it from sliding over the edge into the deep ravine. This story was told over and over again along with many others.

Roak particularly enjoyed the frequent slide shows the father hosted. All the family would sit in the living room, or on the back porch on cool summer nights, on metal folding chairs, eating popcorn and watching the slides the father lovingly prepared and organized. The family laughed and joked so loudly that Roak could laugh too, “Harumph!” and his noises would not even be noticed.

Roak also enjoyed the family’s Sunday night tradition; after a huge meal of fried chicken or rabbit—the latter of which the father raised himself—mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, and biscuits the family gathered in the living room and watched The Wonderful World of Disney. Roak enjoyed Old Yeller most of all. And no matter how full the family was from their feast, Roak was awestruck at how they still managed to eat mountains of popcorn, an aroma he loved dearly.

Roak rarely interfered with the family, but when he saw a strange man intent on harm darken the door late one night he groaned such a groan as to wake the father. “Katchoom!” he hollered in his deep booming voice. He only slightly bent house rules in that event and the father chased the evil man away. Roak had heard, through his network of pipes and electrical connections and his high standing with the house council, of houses that acted very strangely indeed, scaring and causing harm to families that displeased them, but these were rare instances. Roak disapproved of such behavior. One did not break house rules.

However, Roak opened his connections when Vivian practiced her violin, sharing the lovely sound through his party line of pipes with his neighborhood friends. They listened and hummed along as she played Brahms, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Bach, and they marveled at the progress and improvement she made over the years. He had a special connection with Vivian, the last born. There were rare individuals who could commune with a house. When Vivian was only six years old she walked inside the wall between the boys’ and girls’ bedrooms, which was not six inches wide as one would imagine, but more like a whole other room. She entered through the mirror in the girls’ room, mirrors being the doorway into the world of houses, and spent many hours playing there with her stuffed animals.

He knew the family history he documented would one day be transferred to her and she would tell the story to the world. Being the youngest, she could not know all that transpired before her birth, nor all that happened outside her awareness, but Roak could transmit messages to her through her dreams driving her to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and start writing.

In his reports, Roak admonished two of the younger boys, Dennis and Pat, for smoking pot in their bedroom; they foolishly think they are getting away with something, he dutifully reported, but the father and mother are simply too tired to do anything about this behavior. But, in truth, Roak secretly reveled in this, vicariously enjoying the high like a kite in the breeze.

The family often amused Roak. When Pat was a little boy, the hapless mother could not keep him in shoes. Roak learned that it was not that they could not afford shoes, it was that the incorrigible boy hated to wear them. “Please, get your shoes on,” the mother would holler for the umpteenth time. “You’re going to be late for school!”

“I can’t find them,” Pat would protest.

“Well, did you look for them?” Eventually she would shoe the boy and send him off to school. But occasionally he would get sent home for the egregious indiscretion of being barefooted. “Oh, they must think I’m a terrible mother,” she would cry, “sending you to school with no shoes. Where are your shoes?”

Roak wondered why the mother worried so much about shoes when she clearly had much bigger worries, what with Dennis chasing MaryKay down the hall with a butcher knife, having been pushed to madness by her constant teasing and ridiculing over his inability to read. And MaryKay occasionally using Roak against Theresa, like the time she slammed the bedroom door as Theresa chased her, and caught Theresa’s arm in the door during one of their frequent fights. That was going too far, Roak thought, there is no need to damage my parts, or hers.

One night, Roak watched when Kevin, at 18 years of age, came home drunk. He walked in the door, and scolded Theresa and Vivian for being up so late. He then staggered to his room and closed the door. The girls snickered. Minutes later Kevin came running out in his T-shirt and tighty-whities screaming, “The house is on fire! Get the kids out of the house! The house is on fire!” He ran outside, turned on the water hose and sprayed it into his bedroom through the broken window. He had struck a match on the window to light a cigarette and caught the paper thin curtain on fire. In an attempt to put it out he crashed his hand through the window, and when he pulled it back the shattered window ripped the skin off of his thumb and forefinger like a peeler on an unsuspecting potato.

Kevin ran back into the house, screaming again to get the kids out. Roak trembled in fear. By this time the whole family was awake; the floor was covered in water and Kevin’s blood, and he slipped and fell, weeping and hollering. He had succeeded in putting out the fire and saving the kids and the whole family, and Roak too. But his injury was serious and he never did regain the feeling in the tip of his thumb and forefinger. Roak never took his life for granted having escaped certain death that night.

Roak documented many happy times, before the alcohol took hold of the father. He told of neighbors, family, and friends who often sought the father’s advice. Once, the father, a simple journeyman pipe-fitter, as well as carpenter, welder, and jack-of-all-trades, taught a teenager next door two fundamental principles of fluid mechanics, the hydraulic paradox, and Torricelli’s theorem. While sitting at the humble kitchen table—a fourteen-by-six-foot piece of plywood, laid atop a Formica kitchen table, covered with a modest table cloth and sandwiched by two six-foot-long handmade wooden benches—the father described the complex concepts to the young man and sketched them out on the back of a napkin. The young man later became a civil engineer and occasionally put those principles to use impressing his colleagues, though he always gave full credit to the father. Neighborhood children sought solace at the O’Rourke house, too, knowing they would be welcomed, fed, housed for days if need be if their present circumstances were too unbearable to return to their own homes.

But, as the years wore on, the father increasingly snuck swigs of Jim Beam in the darkness of the garage, numbing his once-sharp intellect and ingenious creativity. During these heartbreaking years, Roak sadly watched as the father sat in his chair at the head of the kitchen table muttering incoherently to himself. Woe to the hapless family member who inadvertently walked into the kitchen at such times. Usually it was the naive mother. The father would pounce on her vulnerability, like a cat on a mouse, telling her she was fat, a lousy cook, or whatever popped into his shriveling mind. He was relentless, unaffected by her tears. Pat would often come to her defense, skirting dangerously, “Dad, why do you have to pick on her so much? She’s doing the best she can. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Roak knew, at least in part, why the father sought solace in the drink. Through their connections, all houses had access to the entire city and more, anywhere there was plumbing or electricity; they could even reach into the yards through water hoses and sprinkler systems to keep tabs on their particular family. Through this system he became aware of information he could not ignore, which sparked many heated arguments with the house council about the Queen of Heavenly Gates Catholic Church. When Vince, second-born child and first-born son, was an altar boy, he was hired to do yard work for the rectory, to help pay for his tuition. The mother and father were very pleased that their family would be honored in this manner, as the Catholic belief was this was a special privilege. When Terry was old enough he joined Vince and assisted with the work. On Terry’s first day, Vince instructed him, “If you ever see Father Purgot coming, I need you to climb this tree, hop the fence, and hightail it outta here.”

“Why?” Terry demanded.

“Just promise me.” Vince grabbed Terry by the collar and yanked his face close. “You run and don’t look back, no matter what! You understand me?” he hollered.

“Okay, okay!” Terry shook lose of Vincent’s grasp. “Geez, you don’t have to get huffy about it.”

“Now show me,” Vince insisted.

“What?”

“Do it!” Vince ordered, “Climb the tree and hop the fence so I can see that you can do it.”

Roak fumed. “Surely exceptions can be made,” he pressed the house council. “This priest must be punished!”

“And what would you have us do?” the house master countered. “You, sir, are not some naive cabin; you know what happens on this continent every day. We cannot interfere. Do you know what would happen if we did?” he queried. “Mayhem, that’s what!” he hollered at Roak, answering his own question. “No, we cannot consent. House rules,” he scolded. Roak shook so violently that he cracked the front walkway of the O’Rourke home in three places.

When Vince was arrested for indecent exposure at fifteen years of age, the father muttered to no one in particular, “Where did I go wrong?” He shook his head. “How did this happen?” Even with his sharp intellect it was beyond his skills to help his son or fathom why Vince started to behave in this way. The father’s only solace was tucked away in a dark corner of the garage in a brown paper bag.

When Terry left for his four-year stint in the army he saw his budding dreams of college and hopes of a successful career through bright blue eyes. He was clean-shaven, good-looking, gifted in math, and sociable. But when he returned, he, too, was changed, having suffered at a minimum a head injury from a car accident while serving. No one believed the accusations Theresa and MaryKay made. Only Roak saw him, now straggly-bearded and cloudy-eyed, staggering down the hall, dripping wax on the floor as he snuck into their bedroom. The next morning the mother would scold, “Who spilled wax all over my floor?”

He had watched this, his first family for 50 years. He had listened to their lectures and arguments, their confessions and problems and he felt helpless, for his help was forbidden. He could only creak or groan, moan or whisper when he wished to exaggerate a point.

When the drink finally caught up with the father, and he writhed in pain and vomited blood, Roak patiently waited and marveled at his ability to give it up for good. In what seemed like a miracle to Roak, the father transformed back into the loving husband and father that Roak fondly remembered and sorely missed. The family enjoyed many more happy and joyful years, but these golden years inevitably came to an end when the father became very ill with a sickness that, even with his fortitude, he could not combat.

The family cared for the father as best they could. His cancer raged. Like a mutant laryngitis it stole his speech, and his ability to eat and swallow. Roak watched the mother and grown children weeping, talking, comforting each other. He wished he could console them, comfort them, warm their hearts. In the throes of his illness the father neglected Roak. Autumn leaves lay on the ground where they fell. Cold air crept in through cracked windows. Broken cupboard doors hung loosely on their hinges. Roak missed the tender touch of the father’s gentle hands. The sons attempted to keep up with the repairs, but it was not the same to Roak.

Roak loved the father; he felt a kinship with him; like Roak, he was the wall all the other walls leaned on. Roak wept when he learned of the father’s impending death, the tears of the house staining the ceiling yellow above the stove. He watched the father as he walked in and out of the other world. Only Roak saw what the father saw, the long dead relatives, the white lights, the dark shadows, and the souls of the dead begging him for help.

One morning, the mother and Vivian were sitting at the kitchen table—now modern, yet simple, but store-bought—drinking coffee when Vivian said the words Roak loved to hear. “I love this old house, Mom.”

Roak beamed with pride; the overhead light glowed a little brighter.

“Me too,” the mother replied.

“Will you stay here?”

Roak waited anxiously for the response; the light grew dim.

“Oh, of course, I couldn’t leave. This is my home. This is where I belong.” Then she continued, “You know, Dad built this house when Joe was born. He built all the houses in this neighborhood.”

Vivian smiled a tender, patient smile. “Yes, this house will stand forever.”

Roak knew that, despite the mother’s intentions, there was a possibility that this family would leave him, and although he would be sad he would not interfere. He remembered the Salases, a family with five boys who lived down the street. On one of the frequent occasions that Mr. Salas beat his wife, the Salas house, known only to the house council as Palo123, did interfere, dropping a large mirror on Mr. Salas’s head. Roak, as general commissioner of the house council, understood why Palo123 did this, but it was against house rules. Roak issued an executive order and Palo123 was without electricity for a week, in spite of the efforts of the power company. Over the years Palo123 became a very dark and unhappy house and never attracted a loving family to shelter. No, Roak would not interfere with the father’s illness. He knew it would be futile to even ask permission.

The family had brought in hospice so the father could be in the presence of his family in his own home. There, they kept him comfortable with the flannel quilt the mother had made for him thirty years before. Roak remembered watching her make it, tediously, carefully matching each seam, lovingly crafting her gift to her husband.

The inevitable day came when the father passed away and Roak was there to watch as always. Roak wept again and this time his tears permanently stained the living room ceiling.

It was a source of pride for Roak that the solemn, yet joyful wake would happen inside of his walls and he glowed with warmth and love. Roak listened intently as Uncle Art told a legendary story about Dad and one of his poorly executed plans. “I loved your dad,” Uncle Art said, “he was a real sweetheart. But he could attract some of the worst luck I have ever seen. We were all going hunting, Uncle Frank, your dad, me, and several others. Your dad, being clever, decided to go early and get a good camping spot, get rested up and enjoy the day before the hunt. I was a little naive in those days and I thought that sounded like a good idea. Well, naturally it rained, and to get to the site, we had to climb a steep, muddy hill. I mean we worked all day to get the vehicle up the hill. We got stuck in the mud several times. Finally, we succeeded and set up camp. We settled in long before dark, and waited for the rest of the group to show up. We were feeling quite smug, and when they got there your dad kind of snickered, ‘They’re never going to get up that hill.’ But when the other group arrived they drove straight up without a snag. The mud had frozen solid.” Roak could not help himself; he let out a laugh, “Harumph!” as he heard this and other stories.

He felt tenderness at this family’s bittersweet grieving, and he felt helpless about the sorrow he sensed in them. He wanted to do something, then a very strange thing happened; the father spoke to him from the beyond.

“Roak, I need a favor,” said the father.

“Of course, anything.”

“Popcorn,” said the father.

The exhausted family sat at the dining room table quietly reminiscing about the father. It was already ten o’clock; it had been a very long day and some of the guests, aunts and uncles, mostly siblings of the father, still sat chatting and drinking coffee. “Quit serving them coffee,” Sheila told Eileen, “these people are never going to leave.” They shared a guilty laugh. Suddenly, they got a whiff of a very familiar scent. Joe mentioned it first.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

“What?”

“Someone’s popping corn,” he told his siblings.

“Yeah, I smell it, too,” Kevin replied. “I’m going to supervise and make sure they’re doing it right.” Kevin popped corn almost as good as the father.

“Mmm, it smells so good,” commented Sheila, and the others agreed.

A few minutes later, Kevin returned. “No one’s popping corn,” he said. “Must be the walls talking.”

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Rita Pecos hosts the monthly Prose Workshop for the Albuquerque Writers’ Workshop (AWW). She has been published in The Gnu, Bus Conversions Magazine, and Natural Harmony and has an MFA in Creative Writing from National University. She writes when she’s not working her day job, taking care of her aging mother, or subletting her spare rooms. Email: rpecos76[at]gmail.com

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The Birthday Buzz

Fiction
Kelly Murashige


Photo Credit: University of Missouri/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The buzzing starts as soon as you take off your headphones, the metal cold beneath the pads of your fingers. You’d keep them on during class if you could; you have them set to only block out the ambient noise, and besides, your chemistry teacher lectures so loudly that you could wear your headphones with full noise cancellation and still hear her. The school administration would never let you, though. For a “progressive” high school, it isn’t all that progressive.

You scuttle into your assigned seat, the one beside your lab partner, Brinn. Of all the lab partners you’ve had, she’s your favorite. When your chemistry teacher declared that you would be her partner, she didn’t make a face or flick her eyes to you with something like disgust or pity. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. It wasn’t a You’re just the person I wanted to be with smile, but it wasn’t a Because I’m more popular than you but I have half your brain cells, I’m going to make you do all the work smile either. It was the kind of smile you’d never seen before.

You liked it.

Other students trickle into the classroom, taking their seats and pulling out their coffee-stained composition books. You don’t drink coffee because it’s too much of a stimulant, but you like the smell. You’d ask if you could take a whiff of everyone’s notebooks if you didn’t know better.

Brinn arrives two minutes before class begins, but for once, it’s not her footsteps that give her away. Mylar balloons, big and pink and blue and purple, hit the sides of the hallway as she approaches. A crown has been placed on her head, and the fake rhinestones glitter under the yellow lights.

“Happy birthday,” someone shouts from his locker thirty feet away. His voice slices through the buzz around you, and you have to keep yourself from visibly wincing. Everyone’s always shouting.

“Thanks,” she calls out to the guy, turning back for a second to wave.

It’s her birthday today. You didn’t know, of course. You don’t speak to her, really, unless it’s to tell her a measurement or ask her about a post-lab discussion question. You tell yourself it’s okay. It’s not like she knows yours either. It’s not like this makes you a bad person.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

You shift in your seat, your fingers freezing from the frigid air of the lab room. It’s Brinn’s birthday today. The buzzing keeps going, even when you put your palms over your ears. You bring your hands back to your lap. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

Brinn enters the room. A few more happy birthday, Brinns burst out from the room like popcorn kernels. She thanks each person who speaks. As she gets closer, you steal a glance at her and find that she’s carrying a bouquet of pink roses. You like roses.

It’s her birthday today.

You should say something.

When you were little, people made a big deal out of birthdays. The richer, popular kids had their moms—young, with curled hair and false eyelashes—bring cupcakes just after lunchtime. You couldn’t ever get yourself to eat one. You felt like everyone would be watching you. Besides, what if you got a sprinkle stuck between your teeth? That’s what happened at the class Christmas party, and you spent the rest of the day knowing that everyone was laughing at you once you turned your back.

High school just made the disparity between popular and unpopular worse. It wasn’t that people bullied you, exactly. It was more that people didn’t realize you were there. You were the one who got hit by stray footballs. You were the one who let birthdays pass without any fanfare, who watched as a popular guy with the same birthday as you got serenaded by his girlfriend.

Brinn’s voice drifts closer. The scent of roses, like sweet but tepid water, grows stronger. It’s her birthday. You should say something. The balloons bump against each other, giggling in the air. You should say something.

She sits down beside you and says hello, as she always does. You wave, as you always do, and your hand catches on the string of a balloon. You untangle yourself so quickly that she doesn’t notice, but your face burns anyway.

It is her birthday.

You should be saying something.

When you spoke in the first grade, people listened. You were shy, so people thought that made whatever you did say more important. When you spoke in the fifth grade, people spaced out. You were most likely saying something nerdy. When you spoke in the eighth grade, people waited for you to mess up because you always messed up when you spoke. That’s what you know is true, even when your parents say it’s all in your mind.

Here you are, in the tenth grade, and people are waiting for you to say something.

“We don’t have much time today,” your chemistry teacher screeches, “so let’s just continue where we left off.”

Students disperse, some wishing Brinn a happy birthday. One has even said it before. He’s just saying it again because maybe she’ll like him more. That’s your theory.

Brinn stands, still smiling, even though you haven’t said anything. She’s waiting for you.

You pause. You stand. There are a thousand words inside you—BrinnhappybirthdaythankyouforbeingtheonlyonewhohaseverunderstoodmeeventhoughitfeelslikenoonedoesbecauseIknowIamweirdandquietandIweartheseheadphonesbecauseeveryoneelseistooloudanditwasneverlikethatbeforebutasIgrewuppeoplegotlouderandIgotquieterandnowwearebothhereandIcannotmakemyselfsayanythingtoyoubutyoustillsmilehowdoyoustillsmilehowcanIbelesslikemeandmorelikeyou—and you think you’re going to cry.

She opens her mouth, and you know she’s going to yell at you. Her lips part, and she asks, “Are you ready?”

She’s still smiling.

You close your eyes for a second, move your headphones to the edge of your desk, and face her, your heart pounding in your ears.

“H-happy birthday,” you whisper.

At first, you think she doesn’t hear you. Then her eyes soften, the cellophane around her roses crinkling.

“Thank you very much,” she says to you, and for a second, the buzzing stops.

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Kelly Murashige is an English major and Political Science minor. She would like to give a very quiet but wholehearted shout-out to all the people who struggle with social anxiety and extreme introversion. Email: kmura7[at]hawaii.edu

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