Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

aesop’s blues

in the cold white light of
february mornings
in the shadows of obsolete monuments
where we no longer touch

this is the world defined by
indifference and rust

this is a handful of salt held out
to christ while he dies on the cross

a gift without meaning
or offered with nothing but malice

a man walking slowly across
the frozen river and
then gone

sends his love
which is worth nothing at all


John Sweet sends greetings from the rural wastelands of upstate New York. He is a firm believer in writing as catharsis, and in the need to continuously search for an unattainable and constantly evolving absolute truth. His latest collection is Approximate Wilderness (2016 Flutter Press).

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

I check the obits

every once in a while
to make sure I’m not dead.
It can be hard to tell
inside these four walls
in the dark,
hands folded over
an imperceptible heart.

Then there’s the absence of dreams.
Or more like the loss of belief
having one
would mean something.


Sandra Storey is the author of the poetry collection, Every State Has Its Own Light, a finalist for the May Swenson Award, published in 2014 by Word Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in New Millennium Writings, THEMA, and The New York Quarterly, among other journals. Storey was founder, editor and publisher of two bilingual neighborhood newspapers for 20 years. Now she is a monthly columnist for the Jamaica Plain Gazette. She has been a featured reader at many venues in Boston. She is a member of the collaborative workshop Jamaica Pond Poets and co-director of Chapter and Verse Literary Reading Series.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

PROPHECIES

1.

You will discover something you have lost today, though it is not your virginity, or your youth, or the great feeling of satisfaction you once had with your life. Those things are gone forever.

2.

A victory fast approaches you. It is not your victory, but it is coming. Any second now.

3.

The path you are on is thin and treacherous, but leads to many great rewards. If you should come across them, you will find that they distract only for a moment, before you notice that the path keeps going long after, thin and treacherous as ever. “But isn’t this my destination?” you will ask. “What could lie further down the path?” Perhaps greater rewards, perhaps greater obstacles, perhaps nothing but brown dirt brambled with memories of the treasures you have already decided to leave behind.

4.

You are being watched. Who your voyeur is and who sent them and for what reason, I cannot say. The inevitable turn of events can only be harshened by your foreknowledge of the limitless mysteries. Don’t despair. In fact, do the opposite. Smile at all times as though you know a deep secret. Talk kindly to no-one in particular when you have just exited the shower and have yet to wipe the steam from the mirror’s shine. Stop at intervals when you are walking in public. Say “That’s a fine hat you’ve got on,” or “You shouldn’t eat while you work, James. That’s very unprofessional.” Then move on and live your life. Let them watch, the bastards.

5.

The red woman appearing in all your dreams is a blessing in disguise. If there is no red woman, disregard this prophecy, and lock your doors when you go home tonight. She can only be in one place at a time.

6.

Your next lover will appear to you in a reflection at the bottom of a well, somewhere in your hometown. The well is deep and dark, but you will climb down it, as if entranced by a song sung by the heart of the earth. No-one will ever see you again. Not even your lover, face touching yours in that blackness, perfumed of sweat and electricity. Yes, you will say, yes.

7.

I see disaster in your future. A great parting of ways, a killing of lambs, a disturbance of prosperity. You will fall into metaphysical poverty. Three thousand birds will fly into the sky screaming.  There is no rhyme or reason as to why this must happen to you. Only that you have been told that you are unfortunate, and now will go out into the world and break your back ensuring that it is so.

8.

Your future is blurry, but here are the signs: a ship’s wheel, a blue stone, skeins of undyed yarn, the laughter of poor children, a book with no cover, the square iris of a goat, several wild magnolias that have fallen to the earth, your mother’s face from when you were a child, telling you to come back. It does not matter what these mean. Close your eyes and think instead of all the things in the present that you still do not understand.

9.

You will live a long life, but not a happy one. I’m sorry.

10.

Someone close to you will soon tell you something of great importance. You will find this news to be unsurprising, or uninspired, or simply stupid. You will go home after and eat a mediocre dinner. You’ll spend some time on the internet or watching a show you don’t really enjoy but have grown accustomed to seeing. That night you will feel haunted by a thing you cannot name and have trouble sleeping. A voice whispers: “You’re a waste.” It’s your voice. You do this every night. In the morning, you will have completely forgotten what it was that was supposed to be so important.

11.

Your lucky numbers are: seven, fourteen, and two. Your lucky colors are: white, burnt sienna, and aquamarine. Your lucky days are: not today. Your lucky animal is: the cat which keeps appearing in your dreams. Your lucky people are: the next person in line at the grocery check-out, the president of the 52nd richest country in the world, and one of the men who watches you through binoculars. Your lucky dream is: you standing in a gilded temple asking what it means to be so lucky. The cat replies, saying the words “seven, fourteen, and two,” in a voice that sounds suspiciously like your father’s. It then twirls its rotor blades and disappears up through the ceiling.

12.

It is not yet the appointed time for you to discover the truth. You must call the secretary and ask at least five working days in advance. She will put you on hold and play that elevator music that you hate. Smash the phone into the table if you must, but the appointed time comes only once. It is not always worth it.

13.

You will die unexpectedly, in a country far from your home. The people there are kindly and the weather is fine. Lovers kiss in the alleyways and you will hear the sweet singing of a beautiful woman descending from on high. It will be a sunny day, and the sky will be a bright blue like nothing you’ll ever see again.

14.

A mystery will soon present itself to you. You are not smart enough to solve it. Give up.

15.

In a little while, you will have a chance encounter with someone you have not seen for a very long time. You will wave your hand and they will turn their head away as if they have not seen you. You must pretend to scratch your head, or check your phone, or wave to someone behind them. Later on, you will complain about the event on social media, in a general way without mentioning any names, and they will see the post and “like” it.

16.

A person you love will soon break your heart. You will be inconsolable with grief. The days will pass like the long strides of windswept dust over the wasteland. All hours will become eternities in which you will invent a hundred thousand worlds: living and dying and being reborn. Lives in which the past becomes hot and fusible, in which the shattered glass picks itself up in a whorl and recreates its first shape, piece by silvery piece. One day, your suffering will become unbearable and you will smash your fist against a mirror and open your eyes to find, with surprise, the eyes of your new love peering back at you, already having cut you and spilled your blood.

17.

The end of the world will be bright and pitiless. You will watch only for a moment, and then the boiler will whistle. Go back inside and make your coffee, it will be the best you’ve ever had.

18.

You have mistaken an enemy for a friend and a friend for an enemy. They are twins, brothers, and neither will tell you which twin they are. From time to time, you will catch them looking at one another with terrified eyes. They don’t know either, you will think. And they don’t.

19.

In the near future, you will meet a tall, dark stranger. He will be accompanied by a tall, white stranger. Standing in between them will be a stranger who is not tall, nor dark, nor white, and in fact will have no skin at all: purple veins exposed and lidless eyes gazing perpetually forward. “This is a political critique,” the dark stranger will say. “No, it isn’t,” the white stranger will say soon after.

20.

One day, you will, by your powers alone, stare into the future. The future will stare back.


Reno Evangelista lives in Manila, in the Philippines. His work has been published or is to be published in Esquire Philippines, Fast Food Fiction Delivery, and the New Voices anthology of fiction.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

Summer House
Christian Holt

It had been a year of comparison. At Christmas, she wanted to make sure the kids got as many presents as the year before. That their grades were just as good. Now, with the whole Glasser family assembled at the Summer House, Whitney wanted to make sure her kids still caught fireflies after dinner—if she could, she would pluck the little insects from the grass herself, open her hands, and watch as once again her children’s faces broke into smiles of wonder. That was the magic of the Summer House.

But now her brother Kevin was missing and ruining everything.

“Could the ghosts have taken him?” Sam asked, his voice brimming with ghoulish curiosity.

“No, stupid, our ghosts don’t work that way. They’re too boring to kidnap people,” Jane said, not looking up from her fashion magazine.

Sam and Jane were sitting on the porch. Sam’s lingering baby-fat cheeks were lit by the screen while Jane, with her headphones and her too-young-for-it bikini, lay in one of the peeling green deck chairs next to him. She was imitating starlets she’d seen on a tourism ad for Los Angeles her father had mailed her—sunbathing: sunglasses and tanning oil on full display. That’s where Allan was living, where the kids would be flying after the week on the Cape.

“Jane, don’t call your brother ‘stupid.’ And I’m sure your uncle Kevin is just out in town,” Whitney said. The closest town, Orleans, was nothing more than a village. But as a child, just shy of Sam’s age, Whitney had always felt the sleepy place held the entire universe: a candy store, the lighthouse bar strewn with peanut shells that snapped when you stepped on them, and, of course, the row of storefronts threaded with little flags, each flapping as if they were waving to her in their own language. In the thirty plus years Whitney had been visiting the Cape—first as a child and then with her own children—there had never been a need to go further. She had only gone further up once, two years ago, when Sam had begged to see the maritime museum.

Sam used to be obsessed with the dead. He’d follow the spirits throughout every room—from the ‘50s style kitchen to the large glass-paneled dining room to the family room and wing of bedrooms—trying to figure out their source until he’d bump his head into a wall, the little ghost detective so consumed by his work that he didn’t watch where he was going. He was such a precocious child that Whitney indulged him by getting him a library card a few years ago. This was back when the family had the house in Morristown and he’d surprise them at the dinner table sometimes, offering gems like: “In Egypt, they used to serve the recently deceased food and talk to them as if they could talk back.” He was full of macabre trivia like that. No one much felt like eating meatloaf that night. Her ex-husband, Allan, had been hard on him, wondering what kind of kid talked like that. Allan blamed the ghosts too, but when he said the ghosts, he really meant Whitney’s family.

“Is that why he took his toilet kit?” Sam asked.  He was playing on his video game handheld, but routinely surprised her by saying something that demonstrated he was particularly observant. Her little multi-tasker. His favorite game involved navigating a pyramid full of booby traps, the same death knells playing every time he died until she asked him, Dear, can you please put it on mute?

“He did?” Whitney asked. Sam had been forced to bunk with Kevin in the back bunk room where Sam reported his uncle snored like a broken boat engine.

“If he can leave early, can we?” Jane asked, with that dagger twisting of the last vowel—at fourteen, she had newly mastered the trick. She had whined about coming, whined when Whitney could no longer afford figure skating lessons—Jane didn’t even like skating, just liked that her revealing outfits freaked Whitney out—and whined when Sam got to ride shotgun the entire drive up even though Sam was the one who got carsick and Jane spent the entire ride asleep.

“No, Jane, this is a family vacation. I’m sure Kevin will be back soon. It’s lobster dinner night. Everyone loves lobster dinner night.”

Jane chortled.

Whitney stood as if struck. It wasn’t the expression on her daughter’s face, but the tone of dismissiveness that reminded Whitney of the marketing firm, of asking the sales team to quiet down and then seeing their barely contained smiles when they said sure. “I’m going to go see what grandma is up to,” Whitney said.

It was a cloudy, New England summer day, and so thick with humidity that the world felt stuck in itself. Should she tell her daughter to put on some clothes, that Whitney could clearly see the little blue veins on Jane’s not-tanning-whatsoever skin? That her matchstick limbs wouldn’t likely resemble a starlet’s until she’d hit puberty, a subject they’d talked about only very recently? No. Whitney’s approach was the opposite of Allan’s. She encouraged, allowed, experimented. Within reason, of course, and whatever she could afford on an associate marketer’s salary. Some experiments failed—the “no bedtime” experiment had lasted 48 hours and resulted in a phone call from Sam’s 5th grade teacher saying the poor kid was falling asleep in class—but the kids respected her for trying, for really making this family her priority. Whitney’s mother told her she should be dating, but no, haha, she was having too much fun being a parent.

Inside was her brother Don sitting on the couch, his hairy legs like two pine branches plopped on the coffee table. On the other couch sat a ghost version of her mother and a ghost version of her father. Both looked displeased. Their gaze wasn’t on Don, but off to the right to some unseen audience.

“We just don’t understand how you could do such a thing,” said her ghost mother. Like all of the ghosts, she was pale and seemed to blur around the edges like an unfocused photograph.

Whitney felt a flare of memory but held back in responding—what was the point? The Glasser family’s ghosts were not spirits of the dead—both of her parents were alive, her father likely sitting in his chair watching TV in the den and her mother in the kitchen, burning lunch—no, the Glasser clan was haunted by recitals of past events. The ghosts were harmless, incapable of lifting so much as a penny. Other houses on the sound were infested by termites or dry rot but the Glasser Summer House had ghosts.

“This isn’t how we raised you,” said the ghost father.

“How are we on lunch?” Whitney asked Don. Don was Whitney’s older brother, serious in all of the ways Whitney was not. Because she respected her kids, Whitney admitted to them that Don was a bit of a stick in the mud. She couldn’t have hidden that if she tried, no sir! So why not admit it and establish that sense that, hey, just because your mom is an adult, doesn’t mean she can’t laugh at her family too?

Still, Don worked in Philadelphia for a mutual fund and that allowed him certain things that Whitney admired. That new Norditrack Home Exercise Regimen. Juice cleanses. Private school. On Facebook, his wife Alice posted photos of their family trips from all over the world. “Greetings from Vail!” read one post, complete with the family of three posing with goofy faces. “Happy New Year from Rome!” was another, and Whitney’s mother called her and gushed about all of the things the Don Glassers were doing and how much fun it must be. But Whitney always laughed and said Oh but you should see the fun we are having! They weren’t going to Europe, sure, there was the mortgage to pay and her divorce attorney’s fees. But they went to the shore last Memorial Day and Sam won some green fuzzy dice they keep in the family car. So in a small way, they always take the fun with them.

“Ma says to help ourselves,” her brother said, not looking up from his book. It was a book on the stock market, which didn’t really seem fair since Don knew that Whitney couldn’t play the stock market since the magazine closed. There had been a fight last year when she had told Don to stop giving her stock tips at the dinner table.

“Any idea where Kevin is?” Whitney asked.

“Think of how this is impacting the kids,” said her ghost father. Whitney flinched.

“With any luck, driving into the ocean,” Don replied. Don likely thought of Kevin’s absence as a blessing, a way for him to make more rude jokes no one would comment on. No one to challenge him for his claim on the last cob of corn.

The ghost parents disappeared. The ghosts didn’t have a schedule, they’d just meander into their spiritual plane like walking into another room. Lately, Whitney had found the front den, the back bedrooms, the covered porches of the old Glasser family summer home to be overcrowded with ghosts of family memories. It was as if the afterlife had no more room and had simply left the Glasser clan to their own devices in a yellow ranch house with a bent sundial and a back bathroom that always flooded.

 

Whitney found her (living) mother in the kitchen.

“Any sign of Kevin?” her mother asked. She leaned on the chrome-accented kitchen counter. Whitney remembered years when her mother would sit on the counter, kick off her shoes. Now she leaned against it when her cane wasn’t nearby.

“No,” Whitney said. “The kids say he took his toilet kit.”

“Where would he go?” her mother asked. As a child, it was Whitney’s mother who had instilled the magic of the place in her, the sense that all of these people here were parts of a great whole, a blanket you wove together as a family. That when any person was missing, there was a hole that left you cold.

“Who cares?” Don said, entering the kitchen with a glass of brown liquid in his hand.

Whitney held her tongue and instead tried to meet her mother’s gaze. The two Glasser women exchanged a sympathetic look. “I just want to make sure he’s okay,” her mother said. “The roads are narrow and everyone out here drives like a madman.”

“He’s fine, Mom. He’s doing this for attention. This is like the summer of ‘72 all over again,” Don said, and took a long sip from what was Whitney thought was likely whiskey. In the summer of ‘72, Kevin, not more than eight, had hidden for hours during a family game of hide and seek. He had hidden so well—in a suitcase in the main bedroom—that the police had been called. Whitney’s mother was hysterical. The suggestion of peril always loomed over Kevin—he was frequently broke and on the brink of eviction, disappeared for months at a time, survived two car crashes, and yet always made it out okay, as if he was bathed in oil and the world could not grip him fully. Whitney knew that someday Don, who always found life’s to be one tough sled, would write off his brother and be wrong and Kevin wouldn’t be okay. Then the family would never be whole again.

“How are we doing on dinner?” Whitney asked, hoping to change the subject.

Her mother, still not turning from the window, mentioned that someone needed to pick up the lobster and crab. Lobster had been a tradition for generations, but they’d added crab when Don was a child because he had an allergy. Even at birth, Don had been difficult.

Whitney volunteered. She knew that was what they wanted her to do and she was happy to do it, the good daughter, haha, but no it was because she really liked seeing her family relax. She wanted her mother to sit down, talk to Sam about his newfound interest in the Civil War (he’d moved on from the dead, thankfully). And Jane could use some perspective on what it was like to be alive when her mother was Jane’s age. They didn’t have MallRun on their phones or 3-D nail polish parties. Whitney hadn’t had her own opportunity to bond with her grandmother, Mitsy, on account of her stepping in front of the 4:50 to Plymouth in 1948. Whitney would see Mitsy around the house occasionally, always exiting rooms and the only time she ever spoke was to declare loudly “I’m going into town, if anyone needs anything” which were her last words, as far as anyone in the family knew. Still, by all accounts, a sweet woman.

“Ask in town if anyone has seen Kevin,” her mother asked. Whitney hoped she wouldn’t just wait by the kitchen window, looking out at the seashell driveway in case he returned. She hoped that her mother would go outside, sit down, and be the kind of grandmother one day Whitney would be.

 

Maybe someday her kids would look back and think, “Hey, not everyone got to know their great grandfather’s jokes. Or were able to see what games they played during a rainy summer in 1967!”

But no. Last summer, Sam had questions about some of the words that Great Da had been using, and some of them Whitney had to Google and find that yes, they were indeed racial slurs.

Whitney, during her teenage years, had tried to ask the ghosts questions, seeing if this could trigger different memories. But the ghosts were not intelligent entities, but a bunch of home movies put on repeat. This is likely why Sam stopped asking about the apparitions. They could be boring to a ten year-old.

She found Don’s son, whom the family referred to as Junior Don, DJ, or JD, sitting in the sunroom. When he saw her approach, he shuffled the contents of his book. She saw that he folded a magazine underneath the seat cushion.

“I won’t tell,” she said.

Junior Don’s expression was hidden by the dusted clouds of sunlight. She could tell he was trying to read her ability to be a snitch. “I was just taking a break.”

The poor kid had been studying for a standardized test all week. He was only a sophomore, but Don had related a litany of acronyms he was studying for—APs, SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs—that when their mother had asked, benignly, if Don could cut the kid a break and have him enjoy his vacation, Don had exploded that this was prime season for his son’s obligations—training for football, summer program applications, testing—that if they had only listened to him, they would have skipped the annual trip this year, thank you very much, and it was only Whitney’s “nagging” that got them there in the first place. Then the family had sung Whitney’s mother a happy birthday.

“Have you heard anything from your uncle?” she asked Junior Don.

He shook his head. “But Cousin Jack came through a bit then went off somewhere.”

She nodded. Cousin Jack had drowned in the bay twenty years prior. His spirit could usually be seen on the porches, reciting Doors song lyrics and smoking ethereal cigarettes.

But now that she had completed the task she wanted, she lingered. Poor Junior Don hadn’t had a break all week. A tug in her mind came from when her brother had embarrassed her at her twenty-ninth birthday when he had wondered aloud how she would finish journalism school with two kids. She had showed him, of course, but why did she think of this memory now?

“Want to take Sam into town and pick up dinner?” she asked.

“Would Dad let me?”

She threw him the keys. “He will if you’re already gone,” she said.

After the boy left, she allowed herself a moment to rub her face and take stock. Yes, she had one missing brother. One high strung brother. A father somewhere in the back room watching TV, likely slowly dying while robbing his family of the little quality time with him that remained. But they were together at the family summer house, making memories. They’d likely find these memories roaming around the house, like untied kites, in a few years. Then they’d laugh and say, “Hey remember when?”

 

Whitney found that Jane had given up on tanning. Outside on the grass, a scene from an old family volleyball game was playing itself out. The ghosts kept hitting an invisible ball, setting it up for a spike and then looking to see if it would come down. It never did, and the scene would begin again.

She’d give Jane this: even her silly habits didn’t last for too long. The stick-on jewelry phase lasted a few weeks. The wish to be called “Aurora” only a month. Mrs. Johnson and the school nurse both said ADHD. But Whitney had put her foot down and said that was over-diagnosed and this family was loving enough to take care of her.

Jane’s summer reading books remained pristine on her nightstand, and she was instead working on a sailboat jigsaw puzzle next to the form of two ethereal children who placed blurry pieces next to Jane’s real one.

“I thought that puzzle was missing some pieces,” Whitney said.

“Well, there’s not a lot of other things to do here,” Jane said.

Whitney frowned. “Why don’t you get some of that summer reading done?” Whitney asked.

One of the children seemed to being having similar difficulties with his ethereal puzzle. She recognized him as Danny Harrison, Helen’s kid. When was the last time Helen had been up here? 1998 when Helen was seeing that tennis pro from San Diego? Was that before or after her first marriage?

“I’m not that bored,” Jane said.

“Licking birds’ bones, you can see your fortune,” said Danny to an unseen audience. Danny would later make a killing in the financial market before, of course, he was indicted for conspiracy and fraud. He was now in a white collar prison somewhere in Nevada. Sometimes, he called on Whitney’s birthday, which was always nice, even if sometimes he asked her to contact women he knew on the outside who he wanted to visit him.

Whitney wished her eldest had taken after her. But Jane had shown no interest in books and so graduate school—though Whitney never forced her own dreams on her children—was probably not a realistic goal. Jane’s grades were never even promising. Whitney hoped Jane wouldn’t one day have to humor CFOs half her age and worry about quarterly numbers.

Before the divorce, Allan had said Jane would find her place, she’d grow into it. Instead, Jane’s grades had plummeted further while her social life crowded out everything else. After a shouting match, Whitney confiscated her cell phone this week. She didn’t want to be one of those mothers, but she had to put her foot down at some point.

 

Whitney tried to put on a happy face as the sun began to bleed into pastels and there was still no sign of Kevin. Even her mother had given up keeping vigil and settled into cooking. There was nothing to be done. The dinner that Whitney had looked forward to all year would be with one empty seat, one fewer smile and one less person there to create a memory. An unfinished puzzle, Whitney thought, and it occurred to her she might as well throw out that jigsaw puzzle so Jane really would have nothing better to do tomorrow than read.

So the family ate, sans Kevin. By this time, the light had nearly faded, the cicadas had turned up their volume and everyone sat famished. The table vibrated with conversation and the sounds of cracking lobster claws. Even though Alice, Don’s wife, was going on about that terrible ski accident last winter (a story they had heard at least three times), and Kevin was still missing—even Don said he’d go looking for him after dinner with a flashlight if that would help—and her mother was looking at the kitchen expecting him to show up—it was still a family dinner, just like she’d imagined when she suggested this on the phone a few months ago. Oh, they’d said they were busy this summer, that they had already traveled so much (this was from Don), that they wanted to go to summer camp (Jane). But now that they were here, Whitney could feel the old electricity, the feeling from before Allan left, before the newspaper closed, before she took the godforsaken marketing job which paid the bills but only barely, and before Jane tuned her out. Now here Jane was, wearing a nice summer dress and passing the garlic bread. Good girl.

“Whitney!” her father said. She had not realized she was being addressed. He stood in the doorway, his nantucket red pants already stained with butter and sweet corn. He motioned for her to follow. Whitney hesitated to leave her mother to clear the plates, which she knew her mother would do, but it was rare to get an opportunity to talk to her father without the distraction of the television.

“Still a fan of Bloody Marys?” he asked, throwing ice into a long-ago-clouded glass.

She said yes. Of course. She didn’t like to drink in front of the kids; Allan would get short with his son when Sam would follow him around like a puppy after Allan got home from work. The kid just wanted his father to share in his accomplishments! Would it have been so hard to pause making yourself a martini and just say, “Good job, sport, that’s a bang-up job you did beating Call of Duty 4, I bet not every eight year old could beat it!” But no.

“That’s my girl,” her father said, passing her the drink. She let herself indulge in a sip. The drink tasted spicy and heavy on the vodka. Her father bought vodka in cases. The only unkind word he had said all weekend was to her son when he had accidentally dropped a handle as he unloaded the car. That had been a small bump though, and her father was not a stern person, well, not since the stroke. Old grandpa would have been sour all day, she wanted to tell Sam. He used to brood for days and curse if he didn’t have silence while he read his paper. If you went out during a certain time of early evening by the front steps, you could see that old grandpa swear for a full five minutes because of a broken screen door. But now new grandpa is much nicer, don’t you think? She couldn’t say that to Sam, or to anyone, but she kept that knowledge in a secret place, like the lingerie she’d bought for her and Allan’s tenth anniversary. Like the lingerie, she’d likely forget it until it was beyond the point.

“You seem okay with Kevin’s disappearance,” Whitney said.

Her father didn’t answer at first, instead leading her down the hall and out the side door. The granite patio here had never been finished so it just looked like a gathering of stones.

A sunset greeted them; Whitney was tempted to go get the kids and take photos. But her father stirred his glass as if trying to sort through secrets buried at its bottom.

“He’s a grown man,” he said.

“But it’s really rude to mom. It’s her birthday week.”

“So? She’s had eighty of them. She’ll get over it.”

“Dad…” she said. He took a sip from his drink. His eyes fell to his boat shoes. She knew that look. When Milky, her cat, had gone missing one day when she was twelve, her father had that look. Turned out, he had run it over and was trying to find a replacement for her but the shelter was closed on weekends.

“Dad, what do you know?”

“Me? Nothing. Why would you think I knew anything?” His face cracked into a lip-pressed smile.

“Where’s Kevin, Dad?”

The smile fell. He rubbed his eyes and let out a long, haggard breath. Finally he opened his hands as if unveiling a magic trick. “With a woman.”

Whitney rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Why the big secret?”

“She was just driving up to Portland and was only stopping in for a day or two. Kevin isn’t getting any younger, figured I’d help him out.”

“There’s always a woman.”

Her father took a long sip of his drink. “He knows how you and your brother view him. Can’t say I blame him for leaving quietly,” he said.

“Dad, this is family. This is more important.”

“Whitney, listen to yourself. This is important to you. This week was important to you. Most of us have other lives to lead.”

Whitney thought that maybe her father was kidding, but no, he was implying that she, Whitney, did not have a life outside this family. “Dad, I was an editor for years at a prestigious publication and then Allan—”

“I don’t want to go into it. Forget I brought it up.”

“No no, Dad…”

“Don’t tell your mother,” her father said, the bite making him sound more like his pre-stroke self. “She’s in hysterics about ‘having a perfect family gathering’ all the time.” He shook his head. “There’s no such thing. How could you go through this house and not see that?” Whitney thought her father was seeing something through the walls—ghosts of past family fights, of shouting matches and bitter silences. But Whitney saw nothing but the window into the living room with its perfect shutters and white doiled drapes.

“But it’s worth trying,” Whitney said, her grin as broad as the bay.

“If you say so.”

“You don’t think we’re worth it?”

He let out a long breath that he seemed to have been holding for years, since she was a child and first asked her father if he was proud of her. “I think you don’t know there are other things that are.”

 

After the sunset, her father retired to his den. Whitney could tell by the classic rock blaring in the kitchen that Don was doing the dishes, and the relative silence meant that her mother and Alice had taken Jane, Sam, and DJ to get ice cream—another Glasser family tradition. So Whitney wandered around the halls—back by the back bunk rooms where she and Jane shared one room and Kevin and Sam another—through the glass-paneled dining room, by the blue couches of the living room, to the empty kitchen, the porches, to the east wing bedrooms and finally to the top of the stairs to the basement where the sounds of the TV announced that her father was back in his den.

She was looking for ghosts, but their haunting schedules remained elusive to her. Sometimes it was awkward sitting in the living room, trying to play a board game while you watched a ghost version of your mother break down crying because her grandfather didn’t want her marrying a papist. Late at night, you could get spooked when you’d wander into Cousin Jack trying to eat food from the fridge from twenty years ago. More than once, she’d heard the ghosts from different eras would argue with each other without comprehending what the others were saying, like a movie with two different soundtracks. Sometimes they would link up in surprising ways, but most of the time it was incomprehensible rabble.

Now, she wanted the company. Even that was better than right now, with the house’s unnatural hollow cold.

 

After the kids had returned from ice cream, their lips colored green and milky white, the family gathered in the living room. They were able to rouse her father too, as even he couldn’t resist the pull of the family sing along. The afternoon clouds had come in, their moist embrace seeping into everything. They put on sweaters. Jane and Sam sat on either side of Whitney on the couch, their legs tucked into themselves. For once, the annual fire in the fireplace was not met with protests.

Whitney’s father and Don took turns trying to start up the ancient furnace. Pilot light wouldn’t ignite, apparently. Junior Don brought blankets down from the cedar closets. Don brought in chairs for Alice and himself while her mother passed out the music sheets. Whitney had never been much of a singer, but she always enjoyed these moments. The entire family was there. It reminded her of the last number of a Christmas special, when the entire cast and crew finally gathered on stage. Here was mom, and there was mom of ‘67. Even Kevin was here. He still hadn’t returned, but there was a version of him here as if to fill in the gap—and even wearing the same shirt! Perfect. Whitney counted four or five different versions of herself there in the crowd— seated on couches and on the floor, standing and with different haircuts and clothing styles. But despite all the different people, and versions of people, their voices blended together into one. Of course, she never could tell which of those times she’d been merely lip syncing, trying to pass. But here, now, she sang and she found it matched with the rest of the chorus, a song they’d been beating the walls with since forever.

There were the old standards: “American Pie,” which usually her father started and then everyone joined in; then “Take Me Home, Country Roads” where they replaced “West Virginia” with “Our Summer House;” and “Going on a Bear Hunt” which, thanks to the ghosts, still featured Kevin’s jumping form and the reactions of her children, in their younger forms, laughing.

They sang for what felt like hours. Feverish and ecstatic and then, during the finale, slow and wistful.

There were summers past when the fire would blaze and all of the windows would be flung open, casting light and mirth across the sound. On these hot nights, the glasses that held their spiked lemonade and Bloody Marys sweated as generously as the rest of the family. But not this year. A breeze had whipped itself up into a frenzy. Sam had fallen asleep on the couch. Jane was working on a bracelet, one end of string tied to her big toe while she looped the strings back and forth. DJ was trying to ignite interest in a board game. Whitney said she’d be back in a second and went outside to watch the buoys rock with the wind.

“It’s not as bad as all that,” came a voice.

Her breath caught. She recognized the voice, her voice. Whitney saw herself, two years younger, pacing the porch on a cell phone. She wanted to reach out and grab it from her, hang up the phone just a few seconds earlier. Then, Whitney would unwind time further so that she would not meet him for that first drink, not attend that conference and spy him across the table, not fall out of love with Allan, not break up her family.

“They’ll like you,” the ghost said. “I’m crazy about you.” There was a pause that felt even longer, seeing it again. The scene’s volume was not loud enough to hear the phone’s reply.

From where she stood, the ghost of Allan emerged. She shivered as he formed, passed through her and, for a moment, occupied the same space. Then he moved towards the ghost of Whitney. “Who are you talking to?” he said.

She knew what happened next.

So Whitney went back into the house and shut the door. With the wind, she decided, this year the windows had to be closed. She shut them all, putting her weight into the ancient pulley systems and hearing the wood scream on its hinges. But they were sturdy windows, tight. They could protect this family.

Jane’s eyes caught her mother’s in alarm. Did Jane know? It had been a hard year, one full of secrets and half-truths. The stare her daughter gave her now made Whitney certain she had seen through it all.

Whitney asked what the board game was and DJ said it looked like no one was interested.

“Oh but we’ll play, won’t we, Jane?” Whitney asked. She could not hear their responses over the blood in her own ears, the constant drum of her heartbeat. The conversation outside was left out there, where hopefully the ghosts would freeze or be blown away by the wind. They just needed to stop haunting her.

Don put another log on the fire. Whitney’s mother called it a night. Her father followed shortly after. The rest settled into Monopoly. The game ended when they began to stop trading properties, accepting their losses to Alice, who had managed to build hotels early in the game.

The game over, Whitney watched her family—corporeal, real—settle in for the night. Whitney felt Sam began to lean into her, wrapped in a blanket and already nodding off. The ghosts, too, began to shuffle off towards their eternal beds. It was over not with a final shout but rather a small dimming, like the fire going down. She made another attempt at starting up the furnace, but no matter how many times she turned the wheel or clicked the pilot light, the contraption failed to start. She fell asleep, aware of a fuzziness to the air, a sense something had reached a boiling point and could not, however hard she tried, be made to settle again.

 

Whitney didn’t remember falling asleep on the living room couch. She still felt tethered by the cobwebs of dreams. How strange, that memories from last night, Great Da’s words, seemed to echo and then dissipate. She had no feel for the weight of her feet as she walked down the hallway to the dining room. It was like Christmas morning when she was a child; she had never felt so free. The marketing job seemed far away. Jane’s teacher’s stern voicemails and even the troubles with Kevin—what did it matter? There was a warmth here in this house, and it could sustain her.

There was the furnace room and she turned, involuntarily, as if she were on a track, toward the bedrooms. That’s when she saw herself in the very living room she’d left. Strange. She was still under the blanket, but it did not rise and fall. How could she be there if she was walking about?

There was a word for this: Death. But now that she was embodying it, the word seemed somehow lacking. She didn’t feel despair or even a sense of finality. Whatever gave her the capacity to feel angry or sad—that too had been taken from her. But it didn’t feel like a robbery—merely misplacing something you don’t miss, like an errant sock.

With the realization came the instinctual movement toward the back bedrooms, to her children.

“Kids, it’s time for breakfast,” she said. But they did not stir. “Get up, sleepyheads.”

Upon entering the room, Whitney found she couldn’t move any further from the spot she stood. Sam’s face was mere feet from her hand. Jane’s unkempt bed stood just in the corner of her eye. She repeated her commands. They were the only words she could speak, but they did not shake her children awake or open the window to let them breathe.


Christian Holt is currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Gargoyle, 7X7, The Bold Italic, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

Barbie’s Occupation

Problems cannot be solved
at the same level of awareness
that created them.

—Albert Einstein

I

I am sitting in a cold parking garage, in my Fiat waiting for her to warm.  I am on my way home from the university where I teach writing, certain of my techniques in the classroom, from where I have just asked my students to describe in writing a reproduction of my old Barbie doll next to a reproduction of my old Midge.  Such difference in their looks:  Barbie’s face severe with sharp features, thoughtful, even somber, her hair taut in a soft yellow ponytail.  Midge has freckles, almost cherubic cheeks, auburn hair in a flip.  Subtract Midge’s freckles and she might look more like Barbie, but she is younger, kinder maybe, more open.  Barbie’s eyes look beyond me.  She is cool.  She is professional.  She is a woman to be reckoned with.  She is not the slim victim.  She is self-determined.  Not so Midge who looks ready and eager to submit, to be the best friend, not the “someone”.   Embedded in us in contemporary times—what beauty means to power.  If Barbie and Midge were each sitting in a high school cafeteria today and I walked in as a girl new to the environment, I would never sit next to Barbie.

But forget all that.  How much these figures matter to me or to my psyche now that I know so clearly that the toy, the play is the training for adult life.  Forget what I know because I remember what I felt when my first Barbie came to me in a large cardboard box from Macy’s New York.

My mother then worked nine to five, a professional woman and in lieu of lunch one day she went to Macy’s and bought me so much of Barbie and her needs—her professional clothing mostly: straight gray skirts, sweaters, sleeveless blouses, and her play dresses that were more frilly, that did not seem to fit her features as well, and her entertaining lounge wear.  It did not strike me at the time, but my mother bought me Barbie and every outfit that my mother herself might have worn.  This was before Midge was crafted.  It was just Barbie.  Oh, and Ken, but I didn’t get him right away.  He was not one of my mother’s first choices.  I got Barbie.

My mother told me of her largess days before the large box arrived, delivered by a man in brown clothes.  Filled with longing, I waited every minute of the five days for it to arrive.  The box, when it appeared, was half my size.  I was nine.  I dug through it to the bottom, pulling out my bounty.  It was filled with a large gift set:  Barbie and her clothes and more boxes of clothes, each in another box that explained through images a life imagined.  I can still smell the plastic of her body, feel the quality in her clothing, and the coolness of her skin.  I loved all she was.

When I got my first Midge, I was a year or two older.  We were staying in a house in Monticello, New York where my parents rented for a summer an old house on a street just behind Main.  For the first time in a long time my mother was one of those “stay-at-homers” that I longed for and instead of an apartment, we were in a house, a real house, though it was filled with old furniture that didn’t belong to us and we never used the downstairs.  Too dark.  Too dirty.

I loved Midge’s look.  It was, in ways I did not understand then, comforting.  Midge came in a rectangular box, so perfectly fitted to her that it could have been a coffin.  She wore Barbie’s clothes for months.

Back then I didn’t think at all of the unlikely possibility of their friendship.  How one would surely hang with a different crowd, just because.  But I do now.

We worry that the matter of Barbie is only in the unrealistic crafting of her body.  But what of her loves?  Her friendships?  Why don’t we worry for her soul?

I put my Fiat in reverse to back out of the space in the parking garage, my Fiat, small enough for one, small enough that no one can expect me to share the space.  I back out of the space to head home to the cul-de-sac where my large life fits even if I do not.

As the Fiat moves, I notice there is a white minivan in the next space, a minivan like the one I traded in for the Fiat, a minivan, with a bumper sticker with the image of Barbie, not the one I had as a child, but one more contemporary, with a larger forehead and a big toothy smile, covered in pink lipstick.

For a brief moment, my impulse is to laugh at the irony.  Instead, I remember how much like Barbie I still want to be.

II

Caren was a friend before she moved into our small neighborhood.  It may seem like a small thing, but when she and I first met, about two years prior to her move, I assumed her name was spelled with a K, the more reliable Karen spelling.  In that way we see a person and attach a name and the name and body take on meaning for us, my first meeting with her was an ever so slight misread.

We first met when my younger son and her eldest daughter were classmates in second grade, though once when they were in first grade I walked past their house in our old neighborhood (the feeder neighborhood for where we now live in a more upscale aspirational place) and her Breck and Luck saw me and filled the air with the crisp girly pipings of “Are you Jackson’s mother?  Oh, G-d, it’s Jackson’s mother.”  I’m not, nor was I ever, at home with the PTA environs of the suburbs.  I can feign it for a while, but there is something in me that always wants to probe.  To ask for deeper meanings than the suburbs require, so, at times, I am socially awkward.  The cleanliness and order of the beautiful elementary school where both of my boys spent their early years, was crafted of a veneer way too thin.  But Jackson, the younger son, from early on was a star.

So Caren and I when we first met were not “room parents” but we were both of us, in one evening, in the brightly lit classroom of this second grade, seated only two desks apart.  There for open house, the cleanliness and order of all of the art and words were testament to how “well-educated” our children were becoming.  Caren and I seemed to be looking at the folders our children produced during daylight hours with the same bemused skepticism.  I caught her as she flipped just a few seconds too quickly through Breck’s (short for Breckenridge) folder.  She had a warm face, golden brown eyes, almost angular cheeks, dirty-blonde hair that was clearly attended, but crafted to look like she hadn’t touched it.  She smiled when she saw I caught her.  A conspiratorial gesture that I would not forget.  She asked, “Are you Jackson’s mom?” in a way that suggested Jackson’s elevated status in Breck’s world.  And that was it.  That moment.  I was hers.

III

My father put together my Barbie Dream House.  It was a toy made almost exclusively of perforated cardboard, endless pieces that needed to be punched out, the instructions studied carefully as the structure of Barbie’s world took shape through my father’s hand.  First the house itself, a one-room studio with a closet for her clothes and a bookshelf with books in varied colors and a make-up vanity, the walls of which folded in for easy storage after play.  The floor was printed as if tiled with spaces marked out as throw rugs so that Barbie would know where to put her bed, her sofa, her stereo, her records.  And then, of course, after the structure, each of the pieces that comprised Barbie’s interior world, each chair, each item of furniture had too to be folded into existence out of printed cardboard.  When it was complete I wanted it, to bring Barbie to her world, to have her hang her clothes in the closet, sit on her sofa, lounge on her bed, her bed where she slept alone, where her immediate future was hers to decide.

But it was late.  Past dark.  And my father completely enraged by the idea of a toy being crafted of paper that he (the father) had to bring to life left him declaring that I go to bed and play in the morning.  My mother tried to advocate for my desires.  She knew what it meant to want.  But he was louder, stronger.   “Wait until morning,” he said.

I couldn’t.  I only waited until they went to bed and snuck into the foyer where he left it.

No matter what we say about Barbie and her negative impact on the minds of girls, I noted this well—

Barbie lived alone.  Ken’s framed portrait was a part of the setting.  But Barbie’s space was for her.

IV

When we moved from our old neighborhood within walking distance of the one where we live now (the largest house on the cul-de-sac) we had Caren and Lance to dinner.  Actually, we shared many dinners.  My husband Robert and I would go to hers (of course, always with Jackson) and they would come to ours.   Lance and Rob got along.  As if that was relevant.  It wasn’t.  It never occurred to me to think about that.  Rob is a writer and a professor of creative writing.  Lance is a delivery guy, an occasional hunter, a bright man with deep political convictions (some we share).  Caren worked for a tech firm, though I could not say I ever knew what she did there.  We downplayed our differences.  What matter was it?  Caren had, as did I, really good taste.  Though our homes were not crafted of the same mind (she preferred dark wood and MacKenzie Childs and I more urbane, lighter woods) we were comfortable meeting in the middle.  She brought beautiful appetizers, clothed in tasteful hostess gifts—a bowl of green glass filled with lovely chicken dip or at Christmas a dish adorned with ornaments (to be of use later).  I was less skilled at this, so I brought wine.  Wine and good, solid cheeses, arranged on platters with just the right color and, of course, with fruit provided for the eye.  And the longer I knew Caren the more artful she became, and the less I was able to compete.

On one of our first dinners in my new house, we all marveled at the layout:  the open foyer, the open floor plan, the open backyard without fences.  Each of us in this small section of the community could see the children flit from backyard to backyard without borders.  Caren and Lance were hoping to move here someday.  But houses in the cul-de-sac were scarce then, and sold very quickly after appearing on the market.  After wandering through all the rooms that night, we began our indulging.  The children, Jackson and Breck with Luck (who was two years younger) began their play upstairs.  Every once in a while, Luck would come down with “reports”:  Jack and Breck were not letting her have any of the toys, Jack and Breck kicked her out of the room and they were whispering, Jack and Breck were talking too much and ignoring her.  Finally they all came down and put on a show for us, wearing my scarves and high heels (yes, they went through my closet and every other closet looking for props).

We, the grown-ups, cooed, admired how cute they all were, drank and ate and laughed.

We shared stories of bad neighbors in the old ‘hood:  My next door neighbor Caroline who listened to all of my cordless phone conversations on her baby minder or, I suspected, their scanner.  Her husband who I not so kindly called “Huntin’ Camp Jason” once swore at me because my daughter came home too late in a car that needed a muffler and, by the way, an inspection sticker!  Caroline stalked me, wanted to be friends but hated that I taught at a university.  For her, it was out there.  And Jason scared me.  Everything about him scared me:  his thick hands, his fierce square face with the ringing blue eyes, his longish blonde hair.  And, too, his confidence in confiding in me that he taught his tiny Yorkshire Terrier to bark at children of color paralyzed me.  I shared this story in particular with Caren and Lance.  Though I didn’t tell them of my fear, only my disgust—only my judgment.   I didn’t share that once, angry at our distance after the late night phone call, HC Jason told another neighbor that if I were in trouble, lying in a road somewhere, he “wouldn’t pick up that skinny bitch!”  I hated knowing that reference to my body.  They had a son, Danny, whom we all agreed was a brat.  He swore like a sailor we would say and I never trusted him with Jackson.  They were a year apart in age but in the same grade.  Those tendencies could wear off, could taint.

Caren and Lance had their own snoopy neighbor stories, neighbors who breeched the natural borders and, we decided, that is the mark of neighborhoods where class threatens our sense of self.  It was fun sharing our stories.  It was the only way we marked our status as “better” by leaving behind those awful behaviors of neighbors who did not deserve our proximity.

Eventually they left for the evening.  The light on my front porch illuminating us all in our slightly, very slightly drunken state, drunk more on the dance of friendship than on the wine, we said our goodbyes, as the beautiful girls, Breck and Luck and, yes, Caren all followed Lance’s directions to the driveway and into the car.

Jackson and Rob and I waved from the porch and as the car pulled back out of the driveway, Caren called, “Beautiful house!  I love you all!”

When we closed the door behind them, I noticed Jackson’s face.  It was somber, serious.
“Did you have a good time?” I asked.

He waited just a second before answering, “Mom,” he began before that long, deep explanation of his evening.  “Mom,” he paused gathering his will or courage, I couldn’t tell.  “Breck is deeply in love with me…Mom, she’s been in love with me for a very long time.”

V

These are things my Barbie had at the time when I felt most rich with her:  two full patent leather cases of clothing, mostly elegant dresses (Solo in the Spotlight, Enchanted Evening, Golden Splendor) and some date dresses that were more simple, more demure (one came with a tray and little glasses for beverages, another with a basket of flowers).  She had a telephone, loads of shoes, a shoulder bag and many envelope bags, a house, fully furnished, a record player and some records (all of the love songs of the fifties and sixties), a car, outfits to play tennis and go skiing, and, of course, outfits that would take her to work.  She was not a nurse or a stewardess (though I did wish for that outfit as I loved flight bags).  She had a best friend, Midge.  But she didn’t really have Ken.  Then eventually she did.  But his clothes were ugly.  His hair was made of some fuzz that felt like Brillo.  He was never very important to the scripts, not for me, not for any of my friends.  He was the ticket to the prom.  He was the emasculated plastic form, the doll, under-imagined by Mattel, under-utilized in the female imagination.

VI

There was one brutal dinner where we all played the Scrabble game Rob and I bought Caren and Lance for Christmas—endlessly hunting for the right tiles, the words appearing on the board mostly of the three to five letter variety, left the board tightly packed into a small corner, no room for extension.   We ate and played in the kitchen, just off the family room.  Not the dining room.  I thought when Caren opened the gift, there was some hesitation.  The paper still attached to the box, she paused a second.  Then, “thank you…really, thank you.”

I insisted we play after the children opened their gifts.

Of course, I had to buy Barbie dolls for Breck and Luck.  Once I bought a big box of Barbie clothes for the daughters of another friend, but felt stupid when she asked why I bought clothes.

“You know,” she told me, “buying the clothes without the doll is a waste; the cost of the clothes is as much as a fully dressed doll, so I just toss the extra dolls.”

As we moved our tiles onto the cramped board, I waited for an opening for my letters that never came.

That night, we ended early.  Lance’s yawning, signaled the end.

VII

Long before Caren found the house of her dreams in the cul-de-sac, my friend Miss did, a corner house, the former model home that Miss and I discovered because we noticed the couple who owned it were painting the trim.  Joe Centra, one of my favorite neighbors because he was always full of some kind of cheer, told me that the clearest way to determine that an owner is getting ready to sell is the painting of trim.  Miss was driving me home from a trip to the local nursery where we bought our spring plants.  Her minivan was filled with our kids when we saw the couple on ladders.

Miss left me in the car and approached.  She took more than a few seconds, her back to the car, and then came back with her face on fire.  She leaned in, grabbed my arm, “they’re selling!”  Within two days, no sign on the lawn, Miss and her husband, Smitty were moving to the cul-de-sac with their car load of kids.  She would be my neighbor.  First a friend.  Then a neighbor.  And this distinction would linger.

Miss and I came from the same area downstate, our in-laws were friends back home and, thus, we had a different set of requirements as friends.  Miss did not care at all about the aesthetic codes of the neighborhood.  She was too busy.  She simply wanted the house to function.  Like me, she wasn’t particularly enamored with the upstate version of suburban life, all of the gossip and judgment in “have a nice day” and concerns for the children.  Like me, she liked to drink her wine.  But unlike me, she didn’t really care that our city ways marked us as different, not then at least.  Unlike me, she ate what she wanted, didn’t monitor every morsel for how much it would increase her girth.  She was free of that.  And sometimes it showed.

VIII

When Caren finally did find that house of her dreams, it was at the end of the cul-de-sac where her yard backed up to Miss’s and Smitty’s.  There was only one house between them on the corner and in the days before fences it meant three backyards at that end in a shared space.  And how cool it was that Miss had a daughter the same age as Breck?  Miss’s daughter Mary was born three months before Jackson.  Miss and I often went to our OB appointments together.  We thought of Mary and Jackson as forever pals.  Born and attached at the hip, almost literally.  And how cool was it that within a very short time, Miss and Caren became good friends because Breck and Mary in their giddy and deadly serious roles of the early adolescent did, too?

IX

When the house I live in was first built I was a renter from the old neighborhood, and I saw it for the first time on a walk.  It sat slightly elevated from the road on a curve.  A center hall Colonial with six bedrooms and columns flanking the corners of the front porch, it seemed endlessly large.  Each of the eleven front windows had the same white mini blinds.  They were all closed and drew me to wonder about its contents.  I imagined the life I could live here, one much more settled than the ones we lived in the rented three bedroom split just several hundred yards away as the crow flies.  But the crow is not the person and so, for me, this house was a life away.

My whole life was, at that time, a vast shopping trip.  My mother and father were never settled enough to buy us a home, so, unlike our cousins who made the suburban launch, my family stayed in the Bronx, renting and renting until finally my parents’ divorce forced us into a scenario even worse—living as squatter children with my mother’s parents—in a three room apartment that barely housed well enough my grandparents and my Aunt Nadine.  All of my toys were lost in the move—no room for Barbie in Grandma Molly’s apartment.  No room for me, really.  But this is a long ago scar.  Dismissed.

Robert and I and the boys and my daughter who was born when I was only seventeen, lived in a rented house, a three-level split and I lived in wonder about how others afforded mortgages, lawn mowers, and each and all of the accoutrements of the homeowner.  It never occurred to me that they bought less of the world’s trinkets.  Until one day, it did.  One day I just stopped shopping.  This is why:

We found our basement flooded one morning after a horrid storm blacked out power to our area for days—straight line winds, almost a hurricane, the area was decimated.  The insurance company sent a group of capable men to clean out all that was ruined.  Stuff piled on the streets waiting for trash pickup to resume, left me with a clear enough view of all that I had brought as I bought:  on the curbside, wet and covered in dirt and old, ripped papers, a gold sofa, many stuffed toys that the boys hadn’t cared for in a long time, clothes, oh the clothes, and that one thing, that one thing that made all the rest so visible—a carton of first edition copies of Buffalo Soldiers, the novel Robert published only five years prior.  We left them sitting on the floor of our basement near all of the things we had no energy to discard.

I began, only after that, to clean everything unnecessary:  first closets, then cabinets, then credit cards.  We ate less.  Spent less.  We saved money.

And we bought our new home, one that was too large for us, but it was, at the time, the only one on the market.  And though I changed almost every facet of the interior, every facet that left it on the market so long, longer than any other house at the time because of the kunzite-colored carpet throughout every room except the kitchen and bathrooms, the 50s styled countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, the lack of a fireplace, the plastic mini-blinds, the brass light fixtures and, most importantly, the black and gray marble that was the kitchen and master bath floor, it was the one house that I really did not want.  Not at my first interior glance, at least.  The asking price was way too high.  And, of course, that meant I could have it.

The only thing that occasionally bothered me, because we were still in close proximity to the old house, crazy Caroline (the stalker) would walk past the house every day.  Once Jim Centra told me she was peering in the windows when we were away.

X

Miss’s husband Smitty is a tall, dark and (in a New York City kind of way) good-looking, lumbering guy.  I would have found him attractive were he not like a brother to me, the familiarity that erases sexuality.  The guy I counted on, even if he’s more than a bit clueless about the intricacies of suburban relationships.  I called Miss one night shortly after Caren and the one who lived between Caren and Miss moved to the cul de sac.  The one who moved between was named Martha.

“Hey,” Smitty answered in that deep, which-way-did-they-go-boys voice.

“Miss home?”

“No, she’s having wine with the new neighbors, Caren and that woman Martha, I think is her name.  Not sure.“

Do I admit now that I was tweaked?  That I was feeling deliberately left out?  Or is that so very obvious that no one, no one would ever need to say it?  Except Smitty.  And, too, Robert and, too, Lance.

XI

One night in that short in-between, after Caren moved near but not yet Martha, Miss had an early December Christmas cocktail party where many of our neighbors were in attendance:  The Centras, the Morgans, the, the, the: each a couple, each well-suited, part of the wardrobe of our lives.  And somehow, in that way almost perceptible each seemed more performed, or aware that this party, this one, was a performance—of beauty and of power.

On the day of the party I thought about Miss, how she would be cooking and prepping, and thinking of the sating of all of our culinary desires and so I picked up the phone and called Caren.

“Hey, you,” she answered on the first ring.

“What’s up?”

How much trivia did we share before I asked the question that provoked my call?  I don’t remember.  Was there hesitation?  I don’t remember.

“Want to go to Target to buy something for Miss?  Something to hold a dip?  A platter?”

“Ooh, I would love to but I can’t.  I’m not dressed.  Breck may need a ride to a friend’s…I’m sorry.”

When I walked into Target, I got that feeling, from the lights, from the goods, from the music, from the utterly clean smell of a store in early December that says, we too are clean—the world is right.  I pushed a cart to the kitchen wares and as I turned into an aisle, I bumped into the cart of another shopper.  Caren turned to face me, all brightness and good cheer,

“Hi,” she said, as if I hadn’t just spoken to her, as if she hadn’t just told me she could not possibly be where she was now standing.  As if.

So we greeted one another in the aisle and each of us pretended we did not just speak, moments before, on the phone, though that which we elided was visible in Caren’s darting eyes.

We were in the process of sharing whatever empty talk we had when another of my neighbors appeared in the same aisle.  Sarah Morgan.  She looked at Caren, then smiled at me, asked about the boys, looked back at Caren and said, “I have to ask you something if you have a minute?”

Caren answered.  That was both my cue and my excuse to leave.  I pushed my cart forward and turned out of aisle as their heads drew closer to one another.

XII

I arrived early to help Miss prepare.  Because the tower of plates I brought, filled with cheeses and red peppers and beautiful olives was a part of the drama of earlier in the day, I couldn’t share the story with Miss, much as I wanted to and much as I, too, preferred to keep it in, to tease its possible meanings (might there be only one?).  I was in the kitchen, plopping raw shrimp onto a platter, careful to arrange so that it pleased the eye before palate.  The doorbell rang and Miss went to get it.

Caren had her back to me as she entered, her hair glistening, something in her hand.  She handed it to Miss.  As she turned I saw her smile fade, just momentarily, as she saw I was there before her.  But she recovered.  Put her lit smile back on and came to hug me, her fruity perfume a part of her.  The gift she brought for Miss was the same bottle of wine I had given her.  She had added a golden ribbon.

Later, Miss’s house filled with all of our neighbors, when we were all bathed in the warmth of candlelight, the mingling scents of perfumes and colognes and hair products, and the aromas of good, rich foods and, oh so key to a good time, the camaraderie that fills the minds and spirits after alcohol, that feeling that makes one love everyone, particularly their neighbors, more so their friends, I found myself in a conversation about something humorous with Joe Centra, a man of great warmth and greater salesmanship (his trade) who does, indeed, know how to flirt and Lance and Caren, though Lance seemed more interested in his glass of bourbon, than in contributions to the repartee.   It was Caren’s turn to hold the floor and whatever she was saying must have been funny because we all laughed and I was provoked by her story to add an anecdote of my own.  I was mid-sentence when Caren interrupted, threw her head back laughing and, speaking only to Joe Centra, changed the subject entirely.

Joe wasn’t quite as disconnected from the nuances of speech as Robert and Lance and Smitty, so he came to me, put his arm around my waist to keep me engaged, and laughed with Caren.  I smiled at him and wiggled, finally, free.

XIII

About a week later, Martha moved in.  Her house was situated between Miss and Caren.  Her backyard fell literally between the two.  Caren and I went on our almost customary walk, through our new cul-de-sac, and circling through the neighborhood from where we emerged—the land of tract homes built around concentric circles of disappointment.

It was a sunny morning.  In her sunglasses, a triangle of light kept her tentacled to the sun.

Before we made the turn to the old neighborhood, she pondered our new world.  “It’s so nice here.  I love living close to you and Miss.”

“It is nice.”

“What do you think of Martha?” she asked as if it were a real question and not a test.

“I don’t know her well enough.  I’m not sure I’m comfortable with what I do know.”

X1V

Within a month of her move to the cul-de-sac, Martha and Caren began their daily walks.  Each and every day.  I am not an early riser so it really was a surprise when I saw them from my bedroom window where I made it up to 3.7 on the treadmill.  I saw them, their blonde heads bobbing toward and away from one another as they spoke, as if they were unaware they were passing by my house.  Their “every day” ritual was invisible to me at first, but others told me:

My next door neighbor, Gerta:  “Wow, Caren and Martha really love that walk.”

And Angie Centra:  “I saw Caren the other day.  I thought it was you with her, but then I realized your hair is brown.”

And Miss:  “I walk out of my door to the meet the bus with the girls and they’re all talk, talk, talk, but when they see me, they stop.  And Mary is so hurt; Breck never calls her anymore.”

XV

Miss was home one afternoon when her doorbell rang.  To bring warmth into the house, Miss got a dog, and then to hold the dog a fence.  A large white, vinyl fence that Smitty was going to install himself when he came to the conclusion that he did not know how.  So they hired a guy.  A guy who knew how to install large white fences.  To keep dogs in.

For a minute, as she opened the door, Miss almost didn’t recognize my new neighbor, Gabby—she moved in right across the street from me, told me first thing she was a “prayerful person” and I knew to be a bit careful.  She, too, knew Martha.

Miss told me the story as we sat on her back deck, sipping wine as we took in the back of the houses of Caren and Martha, the encroachers.

“I opened the door and there was Gabby,” Miss offered as she choked back a giggle and some of her wine.

“She told me, ‘I love your plastic fence!’” and as she tells me this, Miss chokes a bit on her wine and grabs my arm.

We laughed so hard, Miss and I.  Conspiritorially forever, against conspiracy.  We sat there until the sun set bright red and orange as it fell behind Martha’s immaculate house.  My last thought before I left that night:  they can see everything that happens here.

XVI

In her junior year of high school rumors circulated through the community about Miss’s daughter Mary.  Ugly rumors only within the context of this community understanding—men can chase women, women should be chaste or pretend to succumb to pleasure only when it is coupled with love.  So I won’t repeat the rumors that circulated because I understand and love Mary, her beautiful dark hair and olive skin, her sweet nature, her shyness.  I was like Mary in my adolescent life.  I indulged my pleasures; and I hurt no one.  Neither did Mary.   I heard the whispers from those who cared about her, who knew I was close to Miss who really should know.  And Miss told me, in that way that mothers who are concerned tell of their children’s indiscretions.  There were postings on Facebook, of videos and name-calling, of the boys in the school of a particular social station stomping on an effigy of Mary.  There was pain.  Great pain.  At great cost.  And one of Mary’s greatest sins:  one of the objects of her desire was the son of Caroline and Huntin’ Camp Jason—Danny—whom, we heard, had been discovered hiding in Mary’s closet.

XVII

It was a cold day in late March, snow still a fortress that separated the house from the street.  I was cleaning the fridge, my hands in rubber gloves, my hair in a careless ponytail when the doorbell rang.  I threw a wet rag into the sink and peeled the gloves.  I saw the delivery truck over the mount of dirty snow.

Lance was at the door.  He had a box in hand.  “For you,” he said.

“Thank you.”  I didn’t think to ask why him; this wasn’t his route.

“Hey, I miss you guys,” he said.  All good?”

“Yeah, just busy…how’s Caren?  I’ve been meaning to call.”

JCrew.  My sweater.  I opened the box.  Ran up the stairs to try it on.  I love JCrew.  Need clothes or not, JCrew reminds us what class is all about, and how often we need to refresh.

When I went back down to finish the fridge, to wipe away all the stickiness from the week before, I noticed the empty box and picked it up.  There was some writing by the address.  In pencil Lance wrote:  I miss you guys so much.  What happened?

XVIII

It was only about two years after Caren and Breck and Luck and Lance moved to our cul-de-sac and about a year since we’d done the dinner thing that I went to see Jackson play football at the lush stadium on the grounds of our high school.  Dark had descended but the area was alight with celebrants.  We would play our archrivals and everyone seemed to be in colors, the divisionary colors of the team represented.  Me, too.  Rob, too.

I needed a Diet Coke.  So I got on the long line.  Behind a group of girls, none that I recognized by family, but certainly recognized by brand—long straight hair, some very blonde, some very dark, all of them giddy with the night and the game and the secrets they shared, hands to mouths as they whispered loud enough for all to hear—Mary, Miss’s Mary, my Mary, our Mary—named by them, described by them:  the little slut, the trash, was under the stands with him, and he didn’t care about her, would report back to them after, after, after.

Weeks later, a video was posted online.  Smitty brought it to Rob.  It hurt him to share it.  But someone else had to know.  We had to know.

But I already knew.  Because I was Mary once a long time before.

XIX

Years pass so quickly in beautiful communities such as ours, as the kids grow and those of us who were once the young couples become the staples.  Our houses are always kept bright and, mostly, clean.  And there are still block parties and high school graduations, and we all attend, swear we will see one another more often, once things are just not so busy, once we are not so occupied with our obsessions.

And Caren and I always plan to get together.  Because so much time has passed and, truth is, I miss her.

But for one thing:  whenever I am with her in our neighborhood, whomever it is we run into when we are together—whomever—after the encounter, they are always closed off to me.  Caren, in her quiet way, is always the last stop on a friendship.  The trait gene.

XX

Long after I had stopped thinking that Caren and I could ever be intimate again, long after I had determined that my only real friends in the cul-de-sac were Miss and Smitty, long after that, we had the Centras, Angie and Joe, to dinner.  The children (Jack and their oldest son who was Jack’s friend) were already in college, away from home.  The Centras brought a beautiful platter of cheeses and we sat around my kitchen island almost giddy with wine.  Angie and Joe made a striking couple, polished just enough, Ronnie’s hair soft and dark framed her face, Joe’s olive skin fresh, their colognes mingled in the air, a part of them in the air, the perfect aroma of monogamy.  For a moment, we stopped giggling and began the sharing stories of the boys, of the kids in the neighborhood and how they grew.  I just wanted to know:  of people so reasonable, how could they have remained friends with Caren and Lance and not Miss and Smitty?  How?  How could they not have protected, in the way a community wraps adult arms around children, how could they not have also protected Mary?

I cannot remember the question I asked that produced the answer, the one I already knew so well, but needed to hear again:  Angie, her voice a whisper as if others could hear through my kitchen walls, through the spaces of the yards and fences that marked our homes:

“Mary was out of control.  She was with Danny.  That Danny—Jason and what’s her name? Caroline?  Their son.  Under Mary’s bed.  Under her bed when Miss found her.”

XXI

Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, when I play back the scripts of life in this community, the pains I caused or allowed to occur, the disappointments I will have until I die because of the simplest of choices I made during the course of my life here, sometimes at night when I think, I don’t belong here in this big, beautiful, fully imagined house through a mind or minds not my own, in this small suburb of central New York, on these nights when I think instead of where I do belong, when I think of where I began, alone (though I never lived that way) in a small space, built for one in a large city…sometimes on nights like these I wonder which of us is the trait gene.  Which one of us is most associated with this manicured world?  Which one so key to its function?  Caren?  Miss?  Martha?

Me? 

It could so be me. 

And on nights like this I am convinced it is.  But the thing that I will never understand is that every day I woke up in this house, or in the smaller one before or in the apartments I occupied over time that I wanted only to be happy, that I wanted only to be fulfilled, to fit in, and not on one single day did it ever occur to me that I could be that one who caused anyone else pain.

XXII

It is a sunny day at the end of brutal winter.  I am preparing the three guest rooms for my female friends who will come to visit.  Robert will clear out for the event.  I love these gatherings.  We all do.  No men.  There are five of us.  We used to do dinner once a year.  Then we made it twice—at least twice.

I draw open the closet of the armoire in the guest room that used to be the bedroom of my oldest son James.  This is where I keep the sheets, three hundred thread count in colors coordinated to match each room.  And, too, this is where I keep the Barbies I purchased to remind me of my old one. So many of them housed there.  Each a reproduction of the doll of my childhood.

 

To secure our dinner, I move through Wegmans, a glorious store where produce is arranged by intriguing color and texture.  Every piece selected for its beauty.  There is no damage here.

I am touching peppers, feeling for the firmest.  I bump into a man next to me before I recognize the thick hands, the square face, the chance meeting that I always knew would one day occur.  It’s Jason.  Huntin’ Camp Jason.

For a moment we both freeze and I see in the light of his eyes that he is, as am I, wary.  I am surprised by my feeling of warmth toward him.  We make small talk, as if we always did.

“How’s Danny?” I ask.

“He’s great.  He’s a father.  I’m a grandpa. I have a granddaughter.”

“That’s amazing.”

But then his gaze shifts.  It is more direct.  He needs to tell me:  “We can’t see her.  Her mother won’t let her visit.”

I recognize his grief.  He is suddenly vulnerable.  And I am suddenly so sorry for him.  It’s instinct pure and from a part of me that I feel so rarely.  I put my arms around him and pull him tight to my body.  “I’m so sorry, Jason.”  He puts his arms around me.  I don’t want him to let go, so I push back.

And for longer, much longer than I deserve, I feel human.

 

In the parking lot as I walk back to my car, the stark whiteness of the winter sunlight temporarily blinds me. I think back to the bumper sticker on the minivan in the car parked next to mine in the university garage and the irony of the image of contemporary Barbie’s wide, smiling face in contrast to my old one.  The Barbies (plural, so plural) that I keep housed in the guest room armoire:  Original Barbie in her striped bathing suit and her austere look.  Solo in the Spotlight—Barbie as singer in a tight, sparkling black dress with a microphone in hand, Enchanted Evening—a pink satin gown with a white fur shawl for those evenings out with Ken, though he is only an implication.  Each of them I keep in their original packaging—a reminder of lives I once wanted.  I had one Barbie when I was ten and lots of clothes for her and goods.  Now the bodies of the dolls come dressed, each body a supplicant to her clothes.  For each outfit a new soul.  And the words on the bumper sticker writ so large on the white minivan explain—Barbie Wants to Be Me.


Donna Marsh is a writer of creative nonfiction and she teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University. Her husband is a fiction writer. Her life partner is a Yorkie Bichon. Tired of critiques of what Barbie has done to the contemporary imagination of women’s bodies, she is much more intrigued by what she reveals about the soul.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

Desperate

I hear a lone katydid this October afternoon. In broad daylight, way before his usual sunset debut, he seizes the day. Trying to get lucky, he can’t even wait for nightfall, a teenage insect boy who really, really doesn’t want to die a virgin. Apparently he’s aware that a hard frost is just around the corner and his stridulating days are numbered. It’s now or never. Incorrigibly anthropomorphic, but do you doubt me?


Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Feature: Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

The Leonids

Brushfire tormented and lapping at the hardened mesquite. Smells tender. Haphazard. Like someone’s old shirt left in the bed. The accidental end of winter. And in one woman’s hand, the two whitest bones unknown to men. And her two summer-blushed legs balanced somewhere between Purgatory Road and the Devil’s Backbone. Real places. Almost unbelievable. And several other bodies, all strangers to each other, lined around their parked cars on the top of the ridge. Three in the morning. The Leonids shower. Some people come here looking for ghosts. It’s not just the name. It’s the breathy remarks made by wings of owls. The howl of toads. How the heat fights the cold hillside air in a damp struggle at the back of the neck, moistening the baby hairs.  The gutters of the slopes blacken, hollow out the trees burning with the memory of shape in the constellation light. At this time of night, the terrain is emptied, capable of containing anything. Except meteors, maybe she tells herself. She keeps watching the wrong patch of sky. This could be said to be a way of life significant to her. She can hear the soft stranger’s voices raise with there’s one! But by the time she turns around she can only see the long arc of an arm ending in a pointed finger ending in a space where a moment before was the trail of a meteor. An indication of an indication. Now nothing. But she will stay on. There was a hand on her knee earlier today. There was a lonely cow chewing cud in a field overgrown and neglected.  These two things have something in common. And now, the Leonids.

This is where she was on the day you were born. Your mother has a unique gift: the ability to become somewhere else. For lack of a better word, the closest you could imagine is traveling time. But, it does not require what books and movies might suggest, powders and machines–how grotesque. It only requires that one sees exactly what is in front of them. To be completely honest about it. I am not saying it is easy for you when she’s laying in a circle of faces in a park, a little drunk, talking about Wallace Stevens on a summer night. I mean, when it’s a day that your first tooth fell out. Or when she watches the muddy gulf overtake the sand like a spilled palette. I am not saying it has been fair for you to endure that stillness of her body, hollowed like a shell that you have even gone so far as to put your ear up to in order to hear some voice, some answer. Or even that she shouldn’t have tried a little bit harder to be around on your twelfth birthday instead of seated in an abandoned house, torn fractures of wood digging into the back of the thighs and a warm wind shaking the moss, rippling the levee lost deep in the country. A pair of lips so close that she could whisper and touch them. But she doesn’t. She’d like to live in this house. She would put up a print of Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” instead of a mirror. Perhaps it was even worse for you, sweet sixteen you know, when she returned to that place, only some years later. From the window of her car she saw that the old house had been torn down and she stopped on the side of the road to weep a bit and think about inconceivable time and the theory of ubi sunt. I am not telling you to be consoled. Only patient. It is not an easy weight to bear. That’s why so many of us do not choose it.

She has that look sometimes, you know, when she feels herself slipping through as if she has no mass, no gravity at all. Sometimes she lifts a desperate five fingers in a gesture of farewell. Sometimes she locks herself under pillows to sob about it and to desire for a lived understanding of the word fleeting. But, when she is here, she is more so than the rest of us. You have surely felt it. How the world seems glued to her slightest movement. How a lilt in her lower lip can turn the room upside down. Think of that summer day when you were six and you were both playing in the sprinkler and it felt like it was her, and not the water, raining down all around you, forming rainbows in your eyelashes. Or how she can lift a tilted palm to your cheekbones, cover the rough outline of your jaw, and hold everything still. But, eventually, a shadow will flicker across the back of her eyes. Her muscles will grow weaker. And then, the Leonids.


Andi Boyd currently resides in San Antonio, Texas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University. Her poetry and flash fiction has previously appeared in Gulf Coast, Pembroke Magazine, Narrative Magazine, and Gone Lawn.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

There Go I

Sucking a last breath of office air, Frank pushed open the door and smacked into the city heat. He fixed his gaze on the corner walk light and strode past the ragged man sitting on the sidewalk. He reached the end of the block while loosening his tie, sweating.

The light changed, and he crossed in a business-clad throng, well, except for the old woman shuffling behind a shopping cart. He tried to edge his way around her, to no avail. Why did she have to be out at rush hour? If he could only cross the street, a martini and a cool apartment were a short subway ride away.

If only.

When she finally reached the median, the light changed.

Frank placed himself between the shopping cart and a planter, determined to cross in front of her. Whose idea was it to spend taxpayer money putting flowers on a city median? Like anyone could relax on one of the benches, listening to buses and breathing hot fumes. And yet a man sat, wild-eyed, dirty. Worn. Frank looked deeper. Not old. Decent shape. Clean him up and he could earn a living. And dignity. What was wrong with people?

Shopping cart woman reached beneath a pile of junk and pulled out a bottle of water, which she handed to the seated man. He set down his book and nodded his thanks.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” Frank muttered.

“That’s not in the Bible, you know,” the ragged man said. The light changed, and Frank leapt out in front of shopping cart woman.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged,” she called after him as he ran down the subway steps.

“Crazy people.” Frank dashed onto his train and grabbed a handstrap, staring into nothing, keeping up his guard until he was in his building’s lobby, the world safely on the other side of a door.

Finally home upstairs, he drank the cool air. Changed into a tee shirt and old sweats. Fixed himself a martini. Helping himself.

That’s not in the Bible. The bench man’s utterance niggled at him while he sank into the cold leather couch and flipped through channels.

“Of course it is,” he said. “Where else do people talk about the Lord?”

He stopped flipping when a news story caught his attention. Protesters. Rich kids thinking they’re saving the world. Except Sara had been an activist. She even got him to haul food from farmers markets to food pantries. And it had been fun, riding with her peppy optimism in a rickety pickup loaded with overripe melons. But then came graduation and adulthood.

“Grow up,” he said to the TV.

Judge not.

Why was shopping cart lady still in his head? Surely, she got wherever she was going by now, trudging with a buggy full of junk and handing out water to screwed up people.

That’s not in the Bible.

“Oh yes it is, dammit.” Frank fixed himself another drink and pulled up Netflix. It had been a trying day, and it wasn’t over yet. His ad campaign had flopped. Hard. He was going to have to rescue it before they lost an important client. But first, a movie. A hardworking man deserved a break.

That’s not in the . . .

“Shut up!” He turned up the volume.

By the third drink, he began searching the Bible Grandma Ellen gave him when he graduated. Sermon on the Mount? John?

The movie ended, unnoticed.

Matthew 7:1 yielded the shopping cart lady’s words. Judge not, that ye be not judged. He reread the passage twice, trying to make sense of the old english. Of anything.

It was past midnight. The gin bottle was nearly empty. But it hadn’t been full when he started, had it? The Lord helps those who help themselves.

He closed his eyes, picturing Sunday school. Was the quote displayed on the wall? All he saw was Sara dressed in pretty church clothes while coloring Jesus pictures, her pigtails tied with ribbons. He recalled his feet squeezed into stupid shiny loafers when he wanted to be wearing sneakers and climbing trees with the Jewish neighbor kids.

Jews. Old Testament, that was it. The words of a wrathful God.

Fresh air and a fresh perspective. Frank carried his Bible to a nearby coffee shop. It wasn’t until he ordered a double espresso, that he remembered he was wearing old sweats. No pockets, no wallet.

“I can give you a suspended coffee,” the pretty barista offered. She reminded him of Sara, who had joined Americorps while Frank was in grad school.

“A what?”

“Some people pay extra so needy people can get a cup of coffee even if they can’t pay.” She poured a small coffee and handed it to him with a sweet smile.

“But, but I’m not needy,” he said.

“You’re at a coffeehouse in the middle of the night with only a Bible. Here, really. Take this. It’s okay.”

Mumbling thanks, he added cream and sugar even though he had sworn off sugar, and settled into an armchair beneath a lamp.

Beginning with only darkness, Frank read through Moses leading the Jews from slavery, saw how they created an idol even after the parting of the Red Sea. They witnessed miracles and they still turned away.

He read on. By the time he decided Ezekiel was doing hallucinogens, his eyes burned, unable to focus. Outside the window of the coffeehouse, parked cars grayed in the early dawn. He rose stiffly and walked to the counter.

“Refill?” asked the barista.

He shook his head. “My, my phone is at home. Can you look up something for me? There’s this quote, the Lord helps those who help themselves. I’ve been trying to find it, and I should have just googled –”

She looked past him, to the next customer in line. “Good morning, Dr. Steinberg. Maybe you can answer this gentleman’s question.” She began making a cappuccino without waiting for him to order.

“Add a suspended coffee.” The professor handed the barista his credit card and turned to Frank. “Ancient Greece, son.” With a nod, he turned and carried his cappuccino into the new day.

Frank sat, dazed, while three baristas replaced the overnight one. He watched her leave, weaving her way through the work-clothed men and women pushing through the door. He wanted to go after her, to thank her, but he was afraid. He heard “suspended coffee” added to some of the orders. The few who glanced at him turned away as though they hadn’t seen him.

He knew he should go shower and drag himself to the office. But he needed to find the shopping cart lady. He would let her know he understood now. He was sorry, even if he wasn’t clear what he was sorry for. If only he could think. He picked up his Bible and left the shop.

A bus roared by. Taxi’s honked. The jumble of voices filled his head as he stumbled through the throngs. He saw a man with a Navy tattoo sleeping on the steps of a church, and vowed to buy him breakfast as soon as he had a wallet again. Except there were suspended coffees, from people who instinctively knew what it had taken him all night to learn.

The light changed before he was through crossing the broad boulevard. Exhausted, he sat on one of the benches in the median while traffic crept by, resting his stubbly face in his hands.

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

Frank looked up to see a designer-suited man staring at him from beyond the planter of orange and yellow daisies. “That’s not in the Bible,” he said.

“Of course it is.”

The light changed and the crowd crossed, all except the old woman next to him, the one pushing a shopping cart. She reached beneath her pile of junk and handed Frank a bottle of water.

“It’s a Greek quote,” he continued, twisting off the cap. “Won’t you sit down with me and enjoy these wonderful flowers?”

“Later, dear. There’s a man I need to catch up with.” Without waiting for the light, she pushed her shopping cart out into the morning traffic. The cars parted for her like the Red Sea.

Frank sipped the water and the world grew bright.


Nina Fortmeyer is a pastry chef, enamelist and writer from Nashville, TN, where she lives with her husband, a slightly peculiar dog and a passel of scenic chickens. Her writing has appeared in Nashville Noir, Everyday Fiction, 101 Words, and Origami Journal. She’s a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award and a volunteer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

What Jeannie Needs

The day Jeannie Jameson met Thomas McGrady threatened storms all afternoon. Jeannie walked home from her job at the Sister Sally snack cake factory beneath a darkly clouded, rumbling sky, holding her umbrella at the ready. Despite the threat of rain, she took the longer path that wound along the river instead of walking through town. The town council had constructed the Blue River Trail in the hopes that citizens would pursue outdoor activities like hiking and biking locally instead of driving out to the big state parks. A few joggers and dog walkers used it, but the line of abandoned Nikolai Vodka bottles, Keystone Ice cans, and hypodermic needles pointed to the trail’s main users.

Jeannie’s imagination was good enough that she could wipe the trash from her mind and pretend that the thin line of trees and weeds separating the trail from industrial complexes was a full forest, that the river’s muddy, green water was clear and blue, and that she was Snow White strolling through the woods. The pigeons, starlings, and sparrows picking at the trash became her helpful companions. Upon their arrival at the woodland shed in which they dwelled, the birds would help Jeannie wash the dishes from the day before, make dinner, and tidy the rest of the house before her father—maybe—came home. The sheriff was always on call, and kept his own hours.

Thunder cracked in the distance. Jeannie pulled the Velcro strap off her umbrella, then flexed her fingers, working out the ache from her day at the factory. She’d been working there for three months now, ever since she graduated high school. She thought her body would adjust, but every day she came home with aches in her feet, legs, and back from standing still in front of the production line that brought baked vanilla cupcakes stuffed with vanilla icing down the conveyor belt for her inspection. She had to work quickly, checking each cupcake to make sure it met company standards. Good cupcakes went back on the belt, bad ones got dumped into a large bin behind her. The repetitive motion of lifting and turning the cupcakes left a constant, low-level cramp in both hands.

The birds had fallen silent, and the wind slammed tree branches into each other. Jeannie had paused to watch the trees flail helplessly when a boy in muddy jeans startled her into dropping her umbrella.

“Hi,” the boy said. He was sitting on a fallen log by the river bank. He took a bite out of a red apple. His brown skin stood out against his white t-shirt, smudged with dirt. Jeannie could hear the crunch of the apple between his teeth. He held another apple out to her, eyebrows raised in a question.

Jeannie bent to retrieve her umbrella. “Excuse me.”

The boy laughed. He stood and crossed the distance between them. “I’m Thomas McGrady. You’re Jeannie Jameson.”

He held out his hand, and Jeannie took it without thinking. It felt rough and firm. The scent of apples was on his breath.

“How’d you know my name?” Jeannie took a step back, but the wind pushed against her forward, as if it wanted her to stay close to Thomas McGrady.

“Jeannie, you’re the sheriff’s daughter. Everyone knows who you are. He’s said himself on public television that he’ll shoot any boy or man who comes near you without his permission.” Thomas took another bite of his apple. “And I don’t think he’s kidding.”

Jeannie narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on her umbrella. The trees thrashed. “No,” she said, “I imagine my father isn’t kidding. I don’t think he’d know a joke if it bit him in the butt.” She glanced at the roiling sky, then back at Thomas. “You came near me. Think you’re going to get shot?”

Thomas grinned, and took a step closer to Jeannie. “If there’s any shooting, I’ll be the one doing it.”

Something thrilled deep within Jeannie. This boy was flirting with her, and it was entirely different from when the factory foreman flatly complimented her appearance or tried to get her to laugh at a stupid joke. Thomas McGrady was openly defying her father. The few times she dared to disobey her father he beat her so badly she’d had to stay home from school for a week while her bruises faded and her cuts healed. She carried her fear of him locked in a chest of resentment and fury. Meeting someone who wasn’t afraid of the sheriff made her feel a little braver, a little more dangerous. Jeannie grinned back at Thomas, and before she could process what was happening, he was kissing her, his lips warm against her own, the taste of a fresh, crisp apple traveling across her tongue.

He broke away slowly. “Do you wanna get out of here?”

Jeannie drew a half circle in the gravel, trying to hold back feelings and thoughts that were coming at her too quickly to understand. “What do you mean?”

“Things are a little exposed here.” Thomas grinned.

She stared at him. “I think I know what you’re asking me, but I don’t even know you.”

“Okay,” Thomas said. “What if I meet you here tomorrow after your shift? I’ll walk you home. We can talk.”

“I don’t even know you,” Jeannie whispered.

Thomas kissed her again. It was a slow, measured kiss. He took his time, lingered. When he stepped back, he said, “You do now. Tomorrow. It’s a date, right?” then turned and walked down the path, waving as he left.

Jeannie stood there a moment longer before making her own way home, waiting for the rain that never came.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie spent that night sitting on the couch, staring at her long-dead mother’s Bible, focused on Thomas’s final words and kiss before he’d left her standing alone in that impotent storm.

The Jamesons lived on the outskirts of a mobile home park on the outskirts of town. It still bore Anita Jameson’s soft touches: pastel curtains that matched the beige carpets and accented the ivory walls hung with family portraits and landscapes painted by students at the local community college. Neither Jeannie nor her father had been to church since Anita Jameson’s funeral twelve years ago, but Anita’s Bible, her name stamped in gold leaf on the cover, still sat on the end table by the couch, unopened and untouched.

Jeannie thought she should have been thinking more about the first kiss, because it was her first-ever kiss, and it had come out of nowhere, from a boy she didn’t know. But that one, she thought, was only an introduction. The whole meeting made her want to curl up inside herself, but expand outwards at the same time. She could still feel the echoes of it, tingling all through her mouth, loosening the lid on that box of fears deep within.

But that didn’t mean she knew him, did it? She didn’t know where he lived, or what he did for a living, or even how old he was. Did any of it matter? Was that all she was, Jeannie Jameson the Sister Sally Snack Cake Factory Worker? Of course not. She spent her day there, that’s all. Her mind kept going back to the way his lips felt on her lips, the way he tasted of apples. Something so familiar, the tartness of apples, she’d never thought about it before. She went into the kitchen to see if the refrigerator was hiding any apples.

 

*   *   *

 

After another hand- and back-numbing day at the factory spent trying to ignore the foreman’s lingering glances, Jeannie found Thomas waiting in the same place. He held out an apple out to her, and this time she took it. She thought of Snow White taking the poisoned apple from the evil queen, but decided to be bold. Its meat was yellow-white under shiny red skin, and it tasted like Thomas.

“Where do you get these?” she asked, her mouth still full. “It’s not anywhere close to apple time.”

Thomas laughed. “They’re good, aren’t they? My family grows them in our orchard. This kind, Heavenly Red, stores incredibly well all winter. We have a small orchard down the river a ways.”

Without explicitly agreeing to, they started walking in the direction of Jeannie’s house. Clouds still hung low in the sky, but the wind had died in the night, leaving behind felled branches and a mess of chip wrappers and Styrofoam cups scattered along the trail.

“What brings you up here?” Jeannie asked. She was aware of the distance between their bodies, but unsure if she wanted to close it, or if she wanted Thomas to close it, or if she wanted it to remain open.

Thomas looked at her and grinned. “You.”

Jeannie felt herself blush. The blush more than Thomas’s cheesy pickup line embarrassed her, deepening her blush. She retaliated by giving Thomas a light shove. “I’m serious!”

The grin stayed on his face. “We sell produce and preserves and things like that in town a few times a week.”

A small group of pigeons pecking at an ant-infested piece of bread clucked at their approach and fluttered away.

“Why have I never seen you before?” Jeannie asked.

Thomas cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’ve bought things from us, at the summer farmer’s market.”

Jeannie’s eyes went wide. “No way! I would have recognized you.”

“Sure. Seventh Day Orchard. You buy our peach berry jam all the time.”

Jeannie stopped all together. She put a hand on her mouth. “That’s your orchard?” She loved that peach berry jam, especially over cream cheese on bagels. But she didn’t remember Thomas from the little stand at the farmer’s market held on the fairgrounds at the edge of town. How could she forget the way that grin made her feel off-balance, like she might topple over if she stopped focusing on standing?

Thomas laughed again. “Yes. You buy from my mother. I always do the heavy lifting. We never met face to face before yesterday.”

A spark of irritation flared in Jeannie’s stomach, but then she was laughing too. “You…” She didn’t know what to say, so she made to chase him down. He sensed it and started running a second before she did. Jeannie ran track in high school, though, and her muscles remembered how to sprint. She reveled in the physical sensation of her muscles lengthening and contracting, especially when she caught Thomas a minute later. She grabbed his shirt and pulled, and their legs got tangled up together, and they both went down.

“What are you going to do with me now that you caught me?” Thomas asked, his breath heavy.

“I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Jeannie took a secret delight in the fact that she didn’t sound winded.

Thomas wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her into a kiss. “I think this is always appropriate.”

The sound of heavy footsteps and hard breathing down the trail made Jeannie jump up. “Not when there are other people around, maybe.”

Two joggers in fluorescent yellow jackets huffed past.

The almost discovery sent her heart beating faster than the short sprint had. “I should walk the rest of the way home myself,” Jeannie said. “In case my father’s there.”

Thomas narrowed his eyes. “Okay. I’ll meet you at the same place tomorrow.” He pulled Jeannie in close. “I’ll meet you at the same place every day.”

Jeannie looked up at him. He only had a few inches on her, but it wasn’t his physical height that made her feel so much shorter. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She decided to be bold, for the second time that day, and reached up to kiss him, thinking that now she was the one who must taste like apples.

 

*   *   *

 

The sheriff had not come home for three days. Not since Jeannie met Thomas. Jeannie was glad when her father did not appear those several days, at least at first. Little by little, she grew nervous, wondering when he might be home. His long absence wasn’t entirely unusual. The bad weather had continued, culminating in a terrifying thunder storm the night before. The power had gone out for several hours. There were sure to be accidents, and the sheriff had only five deputies. Or, a big case could have broken. When something like that happened, he often worked around the clock for days.

Anita Jameson had kept a clean house, and Jeannie had learned early that dirt had no place past the welcome mat outside the front door. While Jeannie’s father had no tolerance for dirt in his household, he also had no tolerance for cleaning, so the work fell to Jeannie. Since she’d met Thomas, she hadn’t touched so much as a dish rag. She couldn’t bring herself to. The thought of it made her stomach writhe. Three days’ worth of dishes lay spread out on the counter. Dust collected on the picture frames and window ledges. If her father came home and saw this he would—

The grumbling roar of an approaching motorcycle shook Jeannie from her thoughts. She hoped it would pass by, but it grew louder and then the sound changed to an idle before it cut off with a choking pop. Jeannie counted her heartbeats until the door opened. She heard the thud of heavy work boots hitting the floor and then the soft padding of stocking feet on the carpet. Her father’s big frame appeared in the entryway.

“Jeannie,” he said.

Jeannie didn’t move.

“I won’t be here long. Big drug bust downtown. Thirty good-for-nothings rounded up. Fifty million dollars’ worth of heroin. You believe it?” He moved toward the kitchen. “What’s there to eat?”

Jeannie still didn’t move. She felt as though the fibers of the couch had grown into her skin. “Ravioli. In the fridge,” she said.

Two more strides and he’d be in the kitchen. She held her breath without meaning to.

“Girl.” The word came out soft, almost a question. “Get in here.”

Jeannie moved. She reached the kitchen before he finished speaking.

“Get my dinner, and tell me what you’ve been doing for the past three days while I’ve been working nonstop for your bread and butter.” He sat down at the table, and stared hard at Jeannie. She wondered if that was the same stare he used on criminals, or if he had some harder look she’d never seen. She doubted it.

Jeannie looked away from him. Her fingers trembled as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out the blue Tupperware container of ravioli. She tightened her grip on the container to steady her hand, and thought of Thomas’s lips on her lips, and the endless line of vanilla cupcakes coming toward her on the line, and her mother’s Bible on the table. Jeannie decided to tell a lie.

“I’ve been sick, Daddy.” She moved over to the microwave, keeping her gaze on the Tupperware. “It was real bad for a day or two, and I just got behind on the housework.”

“Did you miss any time at the factory?”

“No, I made it to work.” Jeannie punched in two minutes on the microwave and watched the container rotate behind the glass.

“Good.” Her father paused. The hum of the microwave filled the small kitchen. “You feeling better?”

Jeannie was about to say yes when another brilliant idea came to her. “I mean, I’m all right, I guess, but I had a long day and all and…”

The sheriff grunted. “I don’t need to be getting sick right now. You better get to bed, save your strength for work.”

Jeannie nodded, and left the kitchen without a word, her heart flapping at her successful treachery.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie’s light mood from deceiving her father continued throughout the next day, despite her cramping hands and aching feet, despite the foreman’s usual attempts to flirt with her. She had more patience for the poor man now that she had her meeting with Thomas to look forward to every day. She would humor him.

It was one of the town’s best known secrets that Joseph Belinsky was well connected politically and good friends with the sheriff. Because of that, and because he had begun his courtship attempts the day Jeannie was hired at the factory—the day after she graduated high school—, Jeannie suspected her father’s hand in the whole affair. She didn’t doubt his interest—the way he looked her up and down when he thought she wasn’t looking was real enough—but she wondered why her father had chosen a factory worker nearing thirty for his eighteen-year-old daughter. She supposed she was just another political favor her father was doling out to his friends, nothing more. The thought of it brought the taste of vomit to her mouth.

When Joseph made his rounds, he hung around Jeannie.

“You look good today,” Joseph said.

“Thanks.” Jeannie didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to encourage him, but she didn’t want to be openly hostile, either. She would have to pay for every mean thing she said.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” he leaned against the wall behind Jeannie while she inspected cupcake after cupcake, “and factory work really doesn’t suit you. Look. If you did it this way—” He stepped up and held Jeannie’s wrist at a slightly different angle as she picked up a cupcake. Jeannie resisted the urge to wrench her hands away from his grip.

Joseph was not ugly or repulsive, but Jeannie didn’t like his strength. Everything about Joseph was strong. His facial features, especially his jaw and square nose, his barrel chest and muscular arms, his wide stance and large feet. Even his fingers were thick with sinew. His voice carried across half the factory without amplification. His physical strength carried over into his personality and character, which made him a good boss. He made sure things got done on time, though the workers occasionally accused him of being too harsh. Jeannie thought this was what made him get along with her father so well.

“See?” he said, letting go of her wrists a little too slowly. “You’d increase your productivity that way, but I bet you find this kind of thing boring. I have some connections, you know, I might be able to help you find something else…”

“It’s all right here.” She wanted to ask him what kind of work, exactly, he thought she should do, but she didn’t. “I’ll try to do it the way you showed me.”

Joseph’s face brightened a little. “I can show you again…?”

“I think I got it,” Jeannie said, a little sharply.

Joseph nodded. “You’re a fast learner. That’s what I like about you. Well, one thing I like about you.” He winked, and disappeared down the line.

Jeannie sighed when he was gone, and thought about how different his touch felt from Thomas’s. Neither man was gentle, but Thomas didn’t seem like he had any interest in overpowering. He was rough and wild, yes, but in a way Jeannie found exciting. Maybe Joseph was too ordered.

Jeannie ended her shift feeling irritated and off balance. The day had started cloudy, a continuation of the week’s storms, but the clouds had moved on, wiping the sky clean. The sun shone yellow-white against an intensely blue sky. Jeannie had survived another day at work, had fended off another one of Joseph’s advances. She set off down the trail, her mood rising.

When she saw Thomas waiting for her just off the trail, she felt like she imagined Snow White felt at the end of the movie, when she had her prince and true love, and her happy ending. She felt invincible then. Thomas took her hand without a word and led her to a boulder on the river bank. It was screened from the trail by a copse of yellowed pine trees.

Thomas leaned in to kiss Jeannie, and the look of earnestness on his face transformed into hunger. Jeannie watched him, fascinated. She felt like she was watching this happen to someone else, like she was detached from her body. The first kiss was hesitant, searching. His lips rested on hers, and he opened his eyes, a question forming in the dark spaces between his brown irises. He wanted permission to explore what no one had explored before, not even Jeannie herself. Her breath grew quick and shallow in her lungs.

Jeannie had imagined this moment over and over again, had wanted it, looked forward to it, and now felt herself shrinking away from it. She reminded herself that no one could see them. She reached back for the feeling of invincibility and found it, grounded herself in her body again. She closed her eyes and kissed Thomas back. Her body switched on like the production line at work.

Thomas pulled back for a moment, and Jeannie worried that he was going to stop kissing her, but instead he repositioned himself so that he could wrap one arm around her waist and leave his other hand free to rest at the nape of her neck. Jeannie liked the way his hand felt on her neck, so she moved her own to the same place on his. Thomas kissed her eagerly now, and Jeannie could feel her body speeding up. Thomas’s other hand was on her waist now, his tongue inside her mouth, and Jeannie wanted more. She gripped the back of his neck with more force, pulling him into her.

The sound of a twig snapping on the other side of the yellow pines made Jeannie freeze. She forgot about wanting and needing and production line bodies and could think only of time and her father and whether or not he would be at home, wondering where she was. Thomas kept trying to kiss her, then stopped, confused at her sudden distraction. Jeannie fumbled for her cell phone in her bag. The lock screen display showed the time as 6:37 p.m. She had three missed calls, and had three voice mails. All from her father.

“I have to go home.” She dropped her phone back in her purse. She would think of some lie to tell her father on the way. It had worked once.

Thomas pulled Jeannie back to him. She struggled against his grip, but he held her firmly. “Don’t panic. It’s okay.”

Jeannie stopped struggling. She looked into Thomas’s eyes. “My dad is going to find out about us if I don’t go home right now, and if I don’t come up with a really great story about why I’m so late.”

Thomas met her gaze. “So there’s an us?”

Jeannie was too flustered to respond.

He pulled her in for one more deep kiss.

When he let her go, she said, “I won’t be able to see you for a while.”

Thomas shook his head. “Not acceptable. Do you want to get out of this shithole?”

She studied his face, looking for any hint of a joke. She found none. “Yes.”

“Then meet me tonight, at the pier. Get whatever cash you have and only bring what you need. As little as possible. We won’t have much space. We can buy what we need when we find a place to settle down.”

Jeannie drew a deep breath. “Tonight.”

“Yes. Tonight.”

“What time?”

“Ten o’clock. At the pier.” Thomas squeezed Jeannie’s hands.

She nodded. “I’ll be there.”

Thomas kissed her one last time. Jeannie let her hands slide out from his, and jogged down the trail toward her father’s waiting ire.

 

*   *   *

 

It felt as though someone had draped a blanket of silence over the trailer when Jeannie entered. She tried to take her shoes off quietly, but her shaking hands fumbled them and she wound up tripping over herself and banging into the wall in addition to dropping a shoe onto the floor with a thump. She cursed under her breath, hoping that her father would believe the lie she’d invented on the walk home. Her lungs still burned with the effort of jogging—she had been a sprinter, not a distance runner—but she controlled her breathing lest he think anything was other than it should be.

The silence was so thick, so deafening, she didn’t hear him approach.

“Jeannie.” His anger showed on his red face. He gripped a can of beer in his right hand. She could smell it on his breath as he huffed his rage. “Where the hell you think you been all evening.”

The lie Jeannie had thought out seemed so implausible now, so silly, so impossible, she almost said nothing. But nothing would mean a beating sure as the sun would rise, and she hoped—always, she hoped—to avoid those, so she straightened her spine and opened her mouth to lift the blanket of silence.

“Sorry Daddy.” She clenched her hands together. “You— You know the foreman, down at the factory, Joe? Well, after my shift ended, he asked me if I might want to go out for coffee sometime, and we got to talking…” Jeannie paused. She kept her gaze leveled at the linoleum and imagined Thomas as she spoke of Joe. “Time just got away from us, I guess. I didn’t even look at my phone until I was practically home.” Jeannie glanced up far enough to see that her father’s grip on his Budweiser can had relaxed. She continued while she had his attention, before he could start in on her. “Do you think it would be okay, you know, to get coffee with Joe sometime? He’s a really nice guy. You know him, don’t you?”

Jeannie heard her father gulp his beer. “I do.”

“So can I? Get coffee with him sometime, I mean?” She squeezed her hands together.

“Just because I know a guy doesn’t mean I want him seeing my daughter. Especially when she’s being irresponsible and staying out late.” Another gulp. “Go to your room. I don’t want to see you come out until the morning.”

Jeannie risked looking up at her father’s face. “Daddy, I…”

He scowled and crushed the empty beer can between his hands. “If this boy’s got you acting crazy, I don’t want you seeing him! Now get your ass in that room before I beat it!”

Jeannie ducked her head and rushed past her father to her bedroom. He chucked the empty beer can after her and muttered something about emotional, irrational women. She pushed the door shut behind her and let out a long breath. That had not gone exactly as she’d planned, but it could have gone a lot worse. Perhaps this was best. If he assumed she’d be in her room all night, maybe she could sneak out the window to meet Thomas without him knowing, and then she’d never have to worry about getting beer cans thrown at her again. Yes. Jeannie’s disappointment turned to elation in her stomach, and traveled up her chest and then through the rest of her body until she prickled with excitement and anticipation all over. This could work. It could really work. She could get away from this disaster of a household and disaster of a father, and make a life for herself with someone who wasn’t awful.

Deciding what to bring was easy. She packed a few pairs of clothes, a photo of her mother and herself as a baby that she kept on her nightstand, all the money she had saved up ($467, cash), her high school diploma, and the three-piece set of diamond jewelry she’d inherited from her mother. Jeannie didn’t have any special attachment to the jewelry, but it was worth something, and they might need the money. She certainly couldn’t imagine herself wearing it. Her father had insisted she wear it to her high school graduation, the earrings, tennis bracelet, and matching pendant, and Jeannie had felt utterly ridiculous in her black graduation gown and glinting diamonds. She felt much more comfortable in her jeans and flannel shirts.

Everything fit into Jeannie’s old high school backpack. She wrapped the photo of herself and her mother in one of her shirts and packed it between her clothes. She hid the jewelry in a pencil case with the money and put it in a hidden pocket meant for a wallet. Jeannie would be keeping her wallet in her pocket, clipped to her jeans with a carabiner like she normally did. She set the backpack next to her bed. She would leave her phone, so she set it to factory reset and laid it on the nightstand. Her father paid for it every month, and he was the sheriff, after all. He could use it to track her. Besides, who would she call? She didn’t have any friends. Her father was too controlling, and people were too afraid of him.

Her bedroom looked like the rest of the house, and not like hers at all. The paintings on the walls were landscapes painted by art students from local schools, like the ones in the living room. The only exception was a piece Jeannie had done of her family in an art class in elementary school. It was typical child art, but her mother had it framed and hung it over Jeannie’s bed. Like the rest of the art, Jeannie was so used to seeing it there that she never noticed it. It was visual background noise. She took a close look at all the paintings, thinking that she should feel nostalgia or even fondness for them, but she felt nothing. She could hardly remember painting the one of the three of them together.

Jeannie paced. And paced. The more she watched the clock, the slower time seemed to move. Finally, at 8:28, she couldn’t stand it anymore. It would take her awhile to walk to the pier, anyway. She decided to move. She held her breath and listened to the house. The blanket of silence had descended once more. Her window slid open without a sound, but her screen was not removable. She took her Leatherman tool from its place on her belt and selected a small knife. She sliced along the edges of the screen as quietly as she could. It still made a zipping sound, but she doubted her father could hear it from beyond the closed bedroom door. She slipped her backpack through the hole in the screen, then put herself through, legs first. She pulled the window shut almost all the way behind her, and slipped into the night.

 

*   *   *

 

A heavy gibbous moon lit Jeannie’s walk to the pier. She hunched her shoulders and kept her hands shoved in her jeans pockets, and no one bothered her. No ships sat in the docks tonight, but Jeannie wasn’t surprised. Fewer and fewer companies shipped their goods out via the river, especially with more places moving their factories overseas. Tonight everything seemed quiet and still, except for the river pushing up against the docks with little sloshes. Jeannie picked a lamppost on the sidewalk at the edge of the docks and leaned up against it, thinking that Thomas would be able to find her easily in its dim yellow-orange glow.

Jeannie tried not to check her watch. Instead she paid attention to the night sounds, sounds she’d never noticed before. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted in steady intervals, and crickets sang all around her. She could hear the hum of electricity feeding the street light, and the whooshing of cars passing on nearby streets.

The distant rumble of a motorcycle cut through the other noises, growing louder. Jeannie’s heart quickened. She listened closer, but it didn’t sound like her father’s Harley Davidson. It wasn’t loud enough, and the engine didn’t pop and grumble, it only growled. The sound drowned out the hooting owl and the electricity’s hum as the motorcyclist drove closer to the pier. Jeannie held her breath, anxiety clutching at her throat. Too many people knew who she was. She moved out of the light, hoping the night would hide her. The bike appeared around a corner, and then the sound of the engine changed to a lower pitch as the rider decelerated. Jeannie turned toward the river and looked at the ground to hide her face.

The sound of another motorcycle roared out of the night. Jeannie recognized it instantly as a Harley Davidson. Fear clenched her jaw. Somehow, her father knew. She stood up and turned around in time to hear a gunshot and see the first rider lose control, his bike tipping over and spinning away from him. The rider slid across the pavement and came to rest against the same street light under which Jeannie had been waiting, his clothing torn into ribbons trailing away from his body. Jeannie gasped. It was Thomas, lying still, too still, in the dim orange glow.

Then her father swung his Harley around next to her. He would have knocked her over had he not grabbed her arm. “Get on the bike, Jeannie,” he yelled over the engine’s roar.

“No!” Jeannie screamed back. She tried to run toward Thomas, but her father’s grip on her arm was too strong.

“That son of a bitch just tried to rape you, and wouldn’t listen to a direct order to stand down.” The sheriff waived his Glock service pistol in Thomas’s direction. “Now get on the bike.”

Jeannie looked back at Thomas, and understanding sloshed over her in little waves, like the river beating against the dock. She saw the blood now, seeping slowly around Thomas’s still form. She saw the hole in his chest, illuminated by the street light. She wanted to scream at her father, to beat him with her fists, but she saw, too, the look in his eyes and understood that he’d known all along about her lies. She knew no one would protest her father’s story, even though none of the evidence agreed with it. So she got on the bike, and they peeled away from the pier, the engine noise drowning out Jeannie’s raging thoughts.

 

*   *   *

 

Back at home, Jeannie thought maybe she should cry, but she felt too hollowed and raw, like some giant yellow backhoe had scooped out her guts.

“I told you no girl of mine’s going whoring with some nobody nigger from downriver,” her father yelled at her between furious gulps of beer.

She’d never been able to look at his face when he drank like this—and he only drank like this at home, to protect the town’s pristine image of him as the noble, self-sacrificing sheriff. But Jeannie had always known better. When he poured beer after beer down his throat, his skin turned red and his brow contracted, bits of spittle formed at one corner of his thin lips, his nose seemed to grow longer, his chin more pronounced. Instead of facing that monster image of him, she looked at the gold sheriff’s badge pinned to one of the gray-green uniforms he almost never removed.

He downed another can and kept yelling at her. “If you could just do what I say, I wouldn’t have had to kill the no-good bastard, Jeannie, and you know it’s true, so quit crying.”

Never mind that she wasn’t crying. Never mind that she had done what he said all her life, and it had never been enough. Never mind that he was a drunk and a liar and didn’t deserve to eat dirt.

Something inside Jeannie cracked. She felt heat rise up from her stomach. She looked at the red smudge that was her reflection in the polished five-sided badge emblazoned with the town logo and her father’s name—her name, too—and she thought that her face must be growing as red and angry as his.

That’s when she’d decided she’d had enough. That’s when she reached over and pulled his Glock 9mm from the holster.

 

*   *   *

 

Jeannie stood staring at her father’s body on the floor for a long time. It wasn’t that she was shocked at what she had done, or surprised at how much he had bled, or sickened by the gore. She wanted to remember what he looked like this way, helpless, limp, the color drained from his face. She held on to the gun, feeling its unfamiliar weight in her hands, pulling at arm muscles already tired from the repetitive motion of examining snack cakes on the factory line. She wanted to remember what her father looked like, and what the gun felt like in her hands, so that when he attacked her in her nightmares, in one of his powerful rages, she could call up this image to banish him.

When her arms shook from the effort of holding the gun upright, she finally lowered it, and pulled her gaze away from the thing that had been her father. She walked into the kitchen, and placed the gun on the counter. She pulled on the purple dish washing gloves she had used every day to clean her father’s plates, silverware, and glasses, then took her time removing all traces of her fingerprints with bleach, the way her father had described to her once.

The cops would figure out her father had been killed with his own gun eventually, but she saw no reason to give them a head start, so she took her father’s right hand and wrapped it around the pistol grip a few times. She placed his index finger on the trigger, and then put it back in the holster.

Jeannie took one long last look at the body, then said to it, “I found a way to beat you in the end, you bastard, even if it makes me a monster.”

As she was leaving the house, she passed her mother’s Bible on the coffee table by the couch. A spray of blood marred the cover, partially obscuring Anita’s name. Jeannie took a tissue from the box next to the Bible and wiped the blood away. She thought about taking the Bible with her, but it was heavy, and she didn’t have much space. The book belonged more to the house than to her, anyway. She rested her hand on the cover.

“Mom, I hope you can forgive me. I love you.”

Then she left for the pier, not bothering to lock the door behind her.

 

*     *     *

 

No one had found Thomas’s body by the time Jeannie returned to it. With some difficulty, she propped him upright against the street light and straightened what remained of his leather jacket. The movement caused fresh blood to seep from his mouth and chest wound. It was apple red. She wiped the dirt and blood off his face with her sleeve. She walked over to the motorcycle wreck and checked the bike for damage. Other than an ugly scrape along the left side, nothing important seemed to be broken. She looked through the saddlebags, needing to know what Thomas had planned to take into their new life together. A few changes of clothes, a Colt revolver, a map of the United States with a few towns out West circled in yellow highlighter, and an envelope full of money. Jeannie took the money, the map, and the gun, and left the clothes except for a large sweatshirt with the Seventh Day Orchard logo. When that was done, she went back to his body and sat down.

For a long time, Jeannie sat there holding Thomas’s hand. She listened to the waves sloshing against the dock, and the hum of the street light, and the crunch of tires on broken asphalt in the distance. His hand was cold, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed the feeling of his calloused palm against hers. She closed her eyes and tried to memorize its contours with her fingers, so that she could recall them at any time.

When the threat of tears seemed too great, Jeannie placed both Thomas’s hands in his lap and kissed him one last time. She ran a hand down his cheek, then walked back to what had been his bike. She wondered which of her father’s deputies would find his body, how long it would take. She wondered if they would connect the two murders, if they’d make up some story about Thomas breaking in to the Jameson’s trailer and shooting the sheriff in cold blood, and them catching him down by the pier. She doubted any of the deputies would suspect her, at least at first. It wouldn’t cross their minds that the meek sheriff’s daughter could have gotten caught up with someone with dark skin. Or that anyone with dark skin could be innocent.

She wondered again if her mother would ever be able to forgive her for what she’d done. It didn’t matter a whole lot now, she guessed. She swung a leg over the saddle and started the engine.


Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press and blogs for The Rumpus. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.

Issue No. 17, Summer 2016

Dawn in the Ruins

Brendan’s kingdom was in peril. The castle walls, beleaguered by rain since early morning, would now need fortification. Large drops of rain pierced the invisible veil of warm, heavy moisture that lingered beneath the maple and oak trees on the outskirts of his neighborhood. Sweat and mud saturated his clothes burdening his trek to the castles, but he had to keep going. It was all up to him.

Mom said he could stay outside so long as there was no lightning. Quentin and James had to stay home because their moms were afraid of rain, and neither was brave enough to sneak out on his own.

When he arrived at the boys’ riverside castles, he groaned. Moats had risen around the base of the walls. Green and brown foam rushed downstream in the rapidly rising river. He sloshed through the mud and began inspecting the castles’ damages.

The roof on Quentin’s castle bowed under the weight of collected rainwater, and his sentries had been swept away. Brendan didn’t have time for search and rescue. James’ knights still circled the base of his castle, so Brendan gathered half of them into James’ tower and relocated the others to Quentin’s keep. Normally, Brendan wouldn’t have dared to move the guards inside, but on a day like this, there would be no visits from neighboring kingdoms and no enemy attacks.

A new haul of building materials had been washed to the shore by the storm. It was a mother-lode of wood, cardboard, and metal parts of who knows what. Fetching them would have to wait. There would be no way to climb back up the banks in this weather, and the river was moving so fast. Maybe he was brave, but he wasn’t stupid.

Tomorrow he would collect anything useful with the other boys, and they would repair and expand their castles. A roll of thunder boomed in the distance. Or was it a truck on the highway just downstream from the boys’ kingdom?  Since he couldn’t be sure, he continued his work. Rumbling didn’t count if there was no lightning.

He was about to go searching for sticks to block the castle doors when a bright flash pierced the dark gray clouds. He counted four Mississippi’s before thunder boomed so loud that his castle seemed to vibrate.

He shuddered and bolted out the castle door. Mom was not going to be happy that he’d been out in lightning. He’d better hurry home.

Struggling to dodge the soggy pine branches hanging low over the slippery path, he hurried back to the edge of the woods. Another flash lit all the trees in blinding silver. This time he only counted two Mississippi’s before the thunder.

He ran faster, jumping over tree roots and rocks. The rain fell so hard that he could barely see, and he wondered if this is what it felt like to be a ship lost at sea. His waterlogged shoes anchored his feet and slowed his pace, so he removed them. Warm mud bubbled up between his toes as he approached the tree line border on the edge of the civilized world.

Miss Becky’s bamboo forest marked the end of his trek from the river. She allowed the boys to play in it, but she had decreed that if they ever cut it or hurt any of the bamboo, they’d be banished forever. He couldn’t have that.

Miss Becky’s name was short for Rebekah, but nobody was allowed call her that except for the government. She had eyes the color of the sky and white hair with just a touch of yellow, like caramel ice cream. Miss Becky always had candy or Oreos to share.

Without the shelter of the trees, he felt the full onslaught of the pelting rain. A third bolt of lightning struck somewhere to his right. The ensuing thunder roared with no time to count. He decided to make sure that Miss Becky was safe. Her back porch had a big awning and a swing where he could wait out the storm. Since she was probably scared, he decided to sprint to the porch. More lightning forked across the sky.

Miss Becky was a princess living in a maze of towers and mysterious artifacts. Mom called Miss Becky a hoarder. Old magazines and newspapers with pictures of famous people long dead and places that no longer existed lined her floors and rose in tall spires throughout her house. Toys and clothes piled with containers and books formed columns that ascended to the ceiling. Sometimes she would give him a gift from her collection. Everything in her house had a story describing its worth or importance. She even had some magical things, but she wouldn’t tell him what.

Mom forbid him to go inside. She said that Miss Becky’s house was not safe because the towers might fall on him or a rat might run out and bite him. He wasn’t scared of rats, and towers that old and strong were not going to fall easily. But he would not disobey his mother.

“Do you have any kids?” he had asked Miss Becky once.

“I had three boys a very long time ago, but they turned into birds and flew away,” she said, staring out the window so sadly that he decided not to ask how it had happened.

Perhaps he would ask her about it today, but not until he made sure she was safe. He opened the back door and stuck his head inside, careful not to let his feet cross the threshold. As soon as he called for her, she emerged from behind the nearest tower.

“I wasn’t expecting you today,” she said, one eyebrow lifted. “What are you doing out in this storm? Your mother is probably worried sick.”

“I’m not scared of rain,” he replied stoically drawing up his shoulders and sticking out his chin.

“Of course you’re not,” she nodded. “But still, you shouldn’t be out in this.”

“I wanted to make sure you’re safe.”

“How thoughtful of you. Would you like an Oreo?”

He nodded, and a moment later she joined him on the porch swing with a plate of Oreos. He took two. He carefully separated the first cookie, making sure the white filling stayed intact.

“Did you ever have a husband?” he asked, crunching the chocolate wafer.

“Once I did, but he evolved backwards and became an ape.”

Thunder rumbled again, but it was further away now.

His eyes widened. “How?”

“Well, there is a part of town where lots of apes and other animals live, and he used to like going down there. He’d eat with them and play with them, and eventually he started acting like them. He got hairy all over, and his arms got longer, and he stopped speaking like a man. One day when I came home from work, my husband was gone, and there was only an ape left. So I let him go be with the other animals.”

The first Oreo was gone, and he had just started separating the second one when he asked, “Did that make you sad?”

“Of course! I was very sad to lose my husband, but you can’t stay married to an ape, you know. It isn’t right. But I found him once, much later. I drove to that part of town, and I saw him with all the other animals. He’s much happier now that he lives with his own kind.”

“What part of town has all the animals?”

He had never seen an ape in person before, and a whole neighborhood of animals sounded like fun. The rain plinking off the awning slowed.

“Oh, I can’t tell you that. You’d want to take your mom there, and that’d be very bad.” Miss Becky said, pointing her index finger at him. “They’d hurt her! You must protect her and keep her away from there. Don’t tell her about it either. She’d be unhappy that you won’t let her go. It’s our secret, ok?”

A secret with Miss Becky! The apes could wait. “Ok.”

He munched the last of his cookie in silence as they stared at the bamboo forest. The rain died down to a gentle mist, and the bamboo waved in the steamy breeze.

After several minutes, Miss Becky grinned at him and said, “I have something for you. It’s too magical for me to keep it here anymore. Hold on and I’ll fetch it for you.”

She slowly rose from the swing and shuffled to the door. She disappeared between the treasure columns. After an eternity, she returned, carrying a small silver box no larger than a robin’s egg.

She placed it in his open palm, and he stared down at it, wondering about its magical powers. Tiny pink and yellow flowers covered the lid, and a small latch kept it shut. He immediately tried to open it, but the box was locked.

“You must never open it,” she said gravely. “I keep the key in a little blue bowl on my kitchen counter, but I don’t use it. The box and the key can never be together.”

“What’s in it?”

“The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. Once you open it, you can never forget.”

Confused, he slipped it in his pocket and said the only thing he could think of, “I’ll keep it safe for you.”

“I knew I could count on you,” she smiled. “Now run home. The rain stopped. Your mother is probably looking for you.”

He hopped down from the swing and walked carefully towards the gravel driveway. Muddy gray pools lined the street, and all of Miss Becky’s flowers had bowed over in the rain. He paused at the end of her driveway to study the box again. Holding it up at eye level, he stared into the little keyhole. Then he slid his pinky fingernail in the thin crease that separated the top and bottom. No use. Whatever was in there was locked up too tight to see without opening it. He shoved it back into his pocket. Anyway, Miss Becky had said not to open it.

He was about to turn towards home when he was startled by the phlegm-choked cough of his fiercest enemy. Mr. Gerald lumbered towards him. His tan Postal Service poncho tented over his enormous frame. When he was not wearing the poncho, Mr. Gerald’s mail uniform stretched tight over his bulging belly. His four chins jiggled with every step. He kept a wad of something in his cheek, and every so often he spit a long brown stream into someone’s yard. On the best days, he smelled like bad cheese, but most of the time, he smelled like a dirty bathroom.

Every kid in the neighborhood knew that Mr. Gerald’s sweat was made of acid. When it poured from his arms and legs as he walked the hot neighborhood streets, the boys would dare each other to touch the little puddles before they evaporated. No one ever took up the dare because they knew that if you so much as touched it with the tip of your finger, your whole hand would burn right off.

Brendan knew why Mr. Gerald was so ugly and mean and had acid sweat. Obviously, he was an ogre. When he told this to the neighborhood boys, Quentin and James readily agreed. Several of the other boys shook their heads but were unable to come up with a better explanation for Mr. Gerald’s general foulness.

Brendan, Quentin, and James had done everything they could to stop Mr. Gerald’s daily rounds. Quentin had lined the sidewalk with marbles and rocks. James had filled his mailbox with sticks. But Mr. Gerald kept coming. Their traps only made him angry, and he yelled at them whenever he saw them. And now he was approaching Miss Becky’s house. Brendan was not going to allow him to get anywhere near her.

Posted in front of her mailbox, Brendan faced his enemy. There was no time to make a booby trap, so he just stood there with his arms crossed and his best tough guy face.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Gerald growled.

“I’m keeping Miss Becky safe.”

Mr. Gerald roared with laughter. “From me? Oh yes, you’re doing a fine job! Go home, kid! You’re soaked.”

Brendan shook his head and straightened up, meeting Mr. Gerald’s eyes with an icy stare. Mr. Gerald’s laughter turned into a snarl, and he reached past Brendan to slide Miss Becky’s mail into the box. Then, with an exasperated sigh, Mr. Gerald shook his head and plodded on to the next house.

He watched to make sure the ogre didn’t double back to get to Miss Becky. Once her safety was assured, he continued his victory march home. He had escaped the ogre’s wrath and saved Miss Becky from his evil intentions. The castles were secure, the kingdom was well fortified with GI Joe soldiers, and now he was hungry.

“Stop!” Mom shouted as he entered the house. “Take everything off, and go straight to the bathtub. You’re covered in mud! And where have you been? There was lightning.”

“I’m fine, Mom. I stayed on Miss Becky’s porch until the rain stopped.”

She groaned as he walked naked through the kitchen. Was the groan was directed at him or the muddy clothes he had left by the door? All he knew for sure was that he needed to get past his brother Jacob as quickly as possible.

He passed through the house, concealing the silver box in his fist as he made the perilous journey to the bathroom. He tiptoed quietly past Jacob, who was frozen in front of a video game where everything blows up and everyone gets shot.

Jacob loved nothing more than destroying things other people had built. He must never find out about Brendan’s kingdom by the river or Miss Becky’s bamboo forest. If Jacob turned and saw how vulnerable Brendan was at this moment, it would go very badly for him. Many of the castle guards were Jacob’s GI Joes, which he’d discovered missing this morning.

All that stood between Brendan and safety were ten steps: four past the couch, one to the hall, and five down the hall to the bathroom. He inhaled deeply and took the first step. Halfway there, Jacob saw Brendan’s reflection in the television screen.

“You’re dead,” Jacob shouted.

Brendan sprinted. He made it to the bathroom just in time to twist the lock on the knob and lean against the door. It shuddered against Jacob’s furious blows.

When Jacob started fiddling with the doorknob, Mom shouted, “Jacob, get in here and set the table.”

“I’ll get you later,” Jacob growled, and he stomped off to the kitchen.

Safe at last, Brendan filled the tub, pouring a generous amount of bubble bath into the steaming water. On land, he might be the ruler of a sizeable kingdom by the river, but in the bathtub, he was Poseidon. Rubber ducks and plastic boats despaired beneath his triton, sinking under fragrant bubbly waves. A Lego man clutched for dear life to the side of his foundering boat. Would Poseidon show mercy? He stroked his bubble beard. Yes, Poseidon would be generous today. He lifted the Lego man to the side of the tub.

He had kept his kraken brother out of the bathroom, saved Miss Becky from an ogre, and secured the kingdom by the river, so mercy for the Lego man was the only suitable course. When his fingers wrinkled like raisins and the water stopped steaming, he hopped out and toweled dry. Though Poseidon does not stop his mighty work for the pleas of mere mortals, Mom had already called him to dinner twice.

Once Brendan was in bed, Dad came to the bedroom door, glasses in hand.

“What should I tell you about tonight? Would you like to hear about politics or business news? I can get the Times if you want.”  He pretended to step away to get the paper.

Brendan wrinkled his nose and shouted, “No, please, no! Tell me how Odysseus beats Circe!”

Dad grinned and pulled A Child’s Treasury of Stories from the shelf next to his bed. Even though Brendan had been able to read for years, he still loved to hear Dad’s dramatic readings of his favorite stories. As much as he wanted to know how Odysseus made it home, Brendan fell asleep before Odysseus saw the outline of his native shores.

It was still dark when he woke up. Everyone else was still asleep. The only thing on his mind was the box. How could such a small thing contain the sadness from knowing too much? How could knowing things make you sad? It was sadder not to know things! In fact, it was sad that he couldn’t open the box.

He turned it over and over in his palm. It was strangely heavy for its size, and the keyhole was tiny. There was only one way to solve the mystery, but he would have to be quick.

He crept barefoot through the house, sneakers in hand, careful not to bump into anything. He twisted the doorknob gently, and stepped out onto the patio. The humid morning air clung to him. The street lights were still on. Crickets were still chirping. A few stars were still twinkling in the clear sky. But the eastern horizon was just beginning to lighten when he set out. Stealth was of the utmost importance. He couldn’t risk dogs barking as they smelled him pass, so he took the long way to Miss Becky’s house.

Mom said that Miss Becky’s back door was always unlocked so that emergency crews could get to her if one of the towers fell on her, but he knew better. She kept the door unlocked because she was always ready to welcome visitors, especially him.

He approached Miss Becky’s house through the yard because crunching the driveway gravel might wake her. She didn’t need to know what he was going to do. The silver box began to feel like an anchor in his pocket. Perhaps he shouldn’t do this. It wasn’t too late to pass the house and journey onwards to the kingdom. Miss Becky had warned him after all, but her warning didn’t make sense. He had to see its contents for himself.

The back door didn’t make a sound as he eased it open. The kitchen lights were off. Deep snoring thundered somewhere beyond the shadowy columns. The sun was starting to peek above the horizon, and the room had just enough light for him to see the little blue bowl on the counter.

He tiptoed over and peeked inside. Pennies and nickels mingled with trinkets. A gold watch snaked through the change and candy wrappers. A small skeleton key rested atop a pile in the center of the bowl. He picked it up and held it toward the rising sun. It glowed in the red light. The box seemed to sink lower in his pocket.

The box and the key can never be together rang in his ears. But the memory was hollow compared to the temptation of finding magic.

Without another thought, he extracted it from his pocket and inserted the key. A miniature spring inside it popped, and the lid snapped loose. He pulled the lid back and was shocked at what he saw, which was nothing. Empty! Empty? Was this some sort of cheat? A trick from Miss Becky? It didn’t make sense.

His head began to whirl, and the tilted towers of junk seemed to impose on the kitchen. A familiar choke stopped the distant snoring. Phlegm. Coughing. A man yawned loudly, and bedsprings groaned under a heavy weight.

“Mornin’, Becky,” a deep, gravelly voice said.

Brendan’s heart leapt into his throat. Unmistakable. That voice, which had so often yelled at him and taunted him, here in this sanctuary was a punch in the gut. Not him! Not Mr. Gerald! Miss Becky was supposed to be Brendan’s princess in the towers, but she had taken in an ogre.

“Morning,” she replied sleepily.

It was too much! Just yesterday Brendan had saved her from this awful man, and now here he was waking up with her! Nothing made sense. The mysterious treasure pillars morphed into rubbish heaps, filthy and useless.

He began to feel queasy. The open pill box thudded to the floor.

“What was that?” Miss Becky said through a yawn.

The bed groaned again, and Mr. Gerald said, “I’ll go see.”

Brendan’s mind snapped. He couldn’t see Mr. Gerald in this house. Hearing him was already too much. There was no saving Miss Becky now, and maybe there never had been.

He bolted out the screen door, forgetting it would slam behind him. The only safe place was his castle by the river. He sprinted across the yard, not caring if Mr. Gerald saw him through the kitchen window. That fat man could never move fast enough to catch him.

At the tree line, the stiff bamboo refused to part, and he trampled some of it as he ran, inadvertently banishing himself from Miss Becky’s yard. Mud collected on the bottoms of his sneakers as he tromped down the well-worn path in the woods.

The sunrise was now in full effect. Shafts of light pierced through oak and maple leaves, dappling the path and blinding him to roots and rocks which obstructed his race to the castle. Underbrush and briars scratched his legs. His face became a palette of mud, blood, and tears from using the same hand to wipe his scratches and leaking eyes.

If he could make it to the river, he could climb into the safety of his castle keep. The GI Joe guards were waiting for him. They would protect him, but he needed to hurry. The sound of gurgling water signaled the end of his race. Maybe he wasn’t too late, and all would still be well.

When he finally reached the riverbanks, he shouted and fell to his knees in tears. He was too late. The river was just dirty water flowing over litter and refuse. What once had been a glorious castle was now a mud hovel. His kingdom was nothing more than a wasteland of garbage washed ashore by the polluted river. Quentin and James’ castles were gone as well, replaced by soggy cardboard and rotten plywood heaped all askew and fastened by crooked rusty nails.

The sadness that comes from knowing more than you should. The curse had worked. He was no longer a mighty king, just a muddy kid.

When he arrived back home, his Mom tried to interrogate him about where he’d been, but all of her questions sounded like they came from the other side of the wall. How could he tell her what happened? Where should he even begin?  Finally, she cleaned his face and hands, and allowed him to sit mud-caked at the kitchen table for breakfast.

When he ate, he did not try to sink the banana slices floating among the Cheerios. He stared at the wood grain on the table as he mindlessly moved the spoon to and from the bowl, eating without play. Eventually, Mom dropped the questions and sent him to change clothes.

A few hours later, Quentin and James knocked on the back door, calling his name. They had brown bag lunches, pilfered tools, and a sack of plastic green army men. They were heading to their junk heaps by the dirty riverbanks.

“Come on,” said Quentin. “Our guys need backup. And dragons are coming later, so we gotta build fire-proof roofs.”

“Yeah,” said James. “Plus, there should be new stuff washed up from the storm, and I borrowed my Dad’s tools.”

“You guys go ahead. I’m staying here.”

Brendan started to close the door when Quentin said, “What gives? I know you went yesterday. Why won’t you come with us now?”

“Because I just don’t want to,” he snarled, slamming the door in their faces.

They didn’t deserve that. Maybe he should explain, but what could he say? They were on a journey to an enchanted forest that he could no longer see. Once you open it, you can never forget.

He returned to the living room, where Jacob sat cross-legged on the couch waiting for the console to launch his game. Brendan had returned Jacob’s GI Joes, and to pay for the theft, he took a hard punch in the arm. It was a fair exchange, and Brendan did not fight back, sealing the new peace between them.

He watched the opening credits of the game. Soldiers embedded in an enemy city searched for terrorists and fought rebel insurgents. The game did not allow you to choose an adventure. You must fight, you must destroy enemy hideouts, and you must follow orders given by an invisible commander. There was nothing to risk, nothing delicate to protect, nothing to trust that could betray you without warning. Allies remained allies, and the enemies were clearly marked.

Jacob’s mouth was already agape. A grape soda stood nearby to quench the thirst that ensued after hours of slack-jawed mouth-breathing. He had no cares, nothing to worry about except what to blow up first. Through the back door window, Brendan watched his friends disappear around the bend. He could still catch up to them if he wanted. A gun cocked in the game, and Jacob took his first shot.

“Pass me the other controller. I’ll help you destroy this city,” Brendan said.


Sarah Hogg lives in South Texas and writes fiction. Her work has been published in The Colored Lens and Three Rivers Review.