Categories
2020 Fiction

Anne Carney

BARBIE DEATH STAR

Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.

Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.

She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”

Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.

She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?

Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.

Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.

She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.

She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.

When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.

Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.

There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.

Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.

Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.

When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.

“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.

He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.

Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.

The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.

Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.

Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.

Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.

Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.

The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.

Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.

She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.

Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.

Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.

“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.

“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”

But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.

“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.

“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”

Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.

Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.

The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.

“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”

Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.

The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?

Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.

After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.

“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”

“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”

Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.

“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”

“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”

Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.

“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”

“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.

“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”

“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.

“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”

“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”

The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.

“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?

“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”

“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”

So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.

“What’s that?” asks Joan.

“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”

They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.

“Is this legal?” asks Joan.

“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.

The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.

“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.

“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”

“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”

“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”

Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.

“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”

“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”


Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.

Categories
2020 Fiction

K-Ming Chang

SWALLOWER

We brought the woman our hands to swallow. She stood at the intersection where ghosts were known to knit themselves into gloves, sheathing the hands of drivers and misdirecting them into telephone poles and duplexes and each other. The woman called us her daughters and claimed she could swallow anything if we paid her. In her hands, a baseball cap purpled with sweat and jingling half-full of nickels. One time she was featured in the World Journal, the only street performer to ever make the bottom-right-hand corner of the front page, and tourists drove in from all over the city with dollar bills in their fists and backseats full of things they dared her to swallow. She was tall and so thin her fingers had more knuckles than ours and her veins surfaced like snakes when she swallowed, her mouth unhinging wide enough to cleave open the sun and suck out the squirm of its seed. When she walked, her shadow preceded her into any room, a dark that rotted our teeth to seeds and repainted the walls wherever she went. She spoke in an accent none of us could name, each of her vowels spat to the sidewalk and split like scabs.

One time, one of us brought her a sparrow to swallow, a sparrow that had been living in the wall of our duplex for weeks, along with the rotting carcass of a raccoon and an assembly of squirrels. It was only after we hammered holes in the walls, the way we saw men in nature shows tapping trees for sap, that we freed the sparrows fortressed inside. The woman plucked the sparrow by one wing from our palms, tipped her head back, and balled the bird into her mouth as if it were a document she needed to smuggle through her bowels, and there were rumors of that too, that she was a former spy, that her one and only skill was to swallow evidence of what was stolen.

Her throat was translucent as the core of a pear, incandescent, and we saw the sparrow dive into her belly beak-first, its black wings bound by sound. For months, we heard the bird flying around inside her, carving a sky inside her belly, and when she opened her mouth it was to chirp. We thought maybe the sparrow had mated with whatever else she had eaten, and now there was a family perched inside her. We threw handfuls of birdseed onto the sidewalk and watched her kneel to lick them up, her tongue studded with shells. We took turns being in love with her. First we were in love with the butcher at Ranch 99, the one who could slice a lung thin enough to drape over a lamp. There were rumors that his wife was a knife and that is how he learned to be precise. Even in the way he spoke: he could sharpen any sound narrow-tipped enough to enter any part of your body. Our love for him was a like a tendon, elastic, easily snipped, and sometimes we didn’t love him at all and sometimes we were willing to hang from hooks if it meant he would touch us, treat us with the tenderness of a stampede.

The swallower we loved differently, more from a distance, her face like the surface of a planet, one of those planets with an atmosphere so toxic your skin dissolve on contact. That was until the day we brought her our hands to swallow. For tips, we’d seen her swallow a golf club, a lit candle, a flashlight, a drawerful of socks, a cell-phone, a pen knife, a whole fish, but we had never seen her swallow a fist. We believed our hands would finally defeat the gravity of her belly, and when we lifted them to her, the way we saw illustrated flames reach up to a woman tied to a stake, she gathered our hands as if plucking dandelion heads from the sidewalk and tugged the bouquet to her mouth. That was the day we touched the pit of her, our arms sleeved inside her dark, our fingers combing the carpet at the bottom of her belly, the place where all things return to before they’re reborn. She gagged our hands back up again, pulled us out glistening like roots, and we knew we would never know her. There was an art to swallowing, she said: consumption without destruction. It was an inherited skill, learned from her father who mastered swallowing an entire pistol. He smuggled ammunition past Japanese troops, swallowed gold bars and set off airport metal detectors, shoplifted a live hen in his stomach. When he died years later of pneumonia, she said, tears came out of his ears. He’d been in a coma for three weeks, and to smuggle water into his body, she drilled a straw into the base of his throat and sponged water down it. Hearing is the last thing to go, she said. The last thing the dead know is the sound of our voices, the chorus of hornets in our lungs, and the dead keep listening even after they’re buried. The ears take the longest to decompose, and sometimes they reincarnate into butterflies. This is why it is important to announce ourselves to the dead. To enter every room voice-first, asking our ghosts if we can wear them.

The day she swallowed and regurgitated our hands, the woman sat down on the curb and stretched out her legs, their shadows bright as sails. She said her father never taught her how to swallow because daughters do not inherit, but she learned in a dream how to mimic the sea’s plumbing, how to be a body of water wide enough to drown anything. We reached out our hands as she told this story, all of us hoping to remain in her like a thorn, to make of her skin something holy. Each of us planned to reconvene in our dreams that night, to see if we too might learn to swallow in our sleep, the only place where we did not have bodies, where our legs were the length of our lives. But the woman warned us against dreaming, said that it was possible to get lost inside one, to sever the tether back to your body and be set loose like a sparrow in a house of glass, everywhere a false sky to fly into.

There was a girl she knew once, a girl who got locked out of her body because she wandered off in a dream and did not return. For three weeks she was asleep in her mother’s bed, and each of her sisters had to take turns wiping her ass and flipping her over so that sores would not scuttle all over her body like roaches. It was only later, when we repeated this story to our mothers, that we learned the girl was not asleep for weeks because she wandered off in her dream but because her brother knocked her head against the side of a duplex. We often saw our mothers slapping a fish’s head against a flat stone, the best way to stun it bloodlessly before severing the head, and we wondered if the girl was like that, laid out on the bed so that her vacated head could be cut off cleanly and painlessly. There were ways to wake up, but the woman did not tell us, and she did not tell us how it was possible to maintain a mouth inside a dream, when we ourselves were mouthless in ours, always waking inside of cities didn’t know their own names.

We tried swallowing too, we practiced on doorknobs, our razor blades, on kitchen sponges, on spoons, we tried swallowing our own fists, clouds punctured by our tongues, CDs broken in half, we tried colors, swallowing our shadows, we tried wind, parts of cars, aquariums, live fish, a gerbil, roadkill, we tried knives, fish bones, a leash, a puddle, we swallowed our mothers’ necklaces, earrings that dangled in our throats and lit us from the inside like chandeliers, lightbulbs, a clothes-hanger, a struck match, a flame. But everything cancelled out in our mouths, unstitched into steam, and we always swallowed nothing.

We returned to her and asked how to drown things in our bodies. The way you do it, we said, and she said we had to be gifted the way she was, gifted by ghosts: if you feed a starving dog in this life, she said, the dog will reincarnate and come back to you and save you. She said: My dog lives curled in my belly like smoke. My dog is the dog that returned in this life to bite me – I was just six years old then – and my teeth turned to sweetcream and I vomited out my tongue but when the fever lifted like a flag in a fallen country I was cured and my mouth was the entrance to a freeway. After hearing this, we tried to find a dog in the neighborhood to feed, but none of them were starving. None of them were strays, all were tame, and we couldn’t find a single one to save. One of us finally stole a pitbull out of someone’s side-yard, gnawing the leash with her own teeth, and we starved it over many weeks, feeding it only leaves, nips of our sleeves. Then when the dog was so skinny its breath played its ribs like an accordion, when it was so starved it began to levitate, floating away from its feet, we fed it. Raw patty meat, stolen lung slices, bread-crusts: it ate so much we thought its stomach was a snake’s, the kind that can swallow its prey and digest it over a lifetime, the kind of creature with a hunger elongated across history. Then the dog lifted its head from our palms and rolled its eyes back and died and we cried because now the dog would not return to us in its next life and save us or teach us to swallow. The dog would return only for revenge and bite us and fill our mouths with clouds, and we might as well leash ourselves now, we might as well forfeit our mouths.

When we told the woman what we’d done, how we failed, she laughed and said we were haunted now, that the dog would return as our husbands and we would soon give birth to litters of six at a time. She knew a woman who once gave birth to sextuplets, naming each one after a different month, and halfway through the year she tore her voice and never spoke again. We wore scarves now, trying to protect the tender sides of our necks, until the woman said a ghost would snag the ends of our scarves and suffocate us. We were tired of the woman and her stories and her reincarnations, tired now that we knew we would never as full as her, symphonic with discarded objects, so we swallowed her. It was the Sunday before rain was invented. It was night and the woman looked up at the moon as if she might swallow that too, as if every light was located inside her, every light was another of her lives.

We took her the way we took the dog, by striking her between the eyes with a flashlight, and then we each held a limb and began to swallow and swallow until our mouths met in the middle of her and she was gone, divvied up between us, siphoned into us as smog. Inside us, she took root in our bellies, hinged us to our knees. She was submerged like a radish before it surfaces and is skinned bright as a knuckle, and we waddled now instead of walking, sharing the weight of her, building our breaths into rungs for her to climb out of us, heaving our pregnant bellies, hearing her beg every day to be born breech, the way we all should be, legs-first and running from our lives.


K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and the winner of a 2019 Pushcart Prize in poetry. Her debut novel is forthcoming from One World/Random House in September 2020.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

OF THE NATURAL WORLD

Three hours after Charlie left for college, her parents stood in her blank bedroom, running their hands along the dust on her empty bookshelf.

“What do we do now?” Janie’s voice echoed against the walls.

Rob examined the tiny holes where Charlie’s posters had hung. “I think we’re supposed to take up fly fishing.”

“I don’t know how to fish.”

“We’ll learn.” Rob went to the window, which Charlie had always kept closed, and parted the curtains. Half the house was underground, built into a hill. Charlie’s window had been installed at the mark where underground became above, so the ground lay at the ledge’s level. At first the sun reaching through the window blinded Rob, but then he adjusted. A wolf’s yellow eyes stared back at him.

He called to Janie. She came to the wolf’s eyes. They were used to wildlife. Out on their stretch of twelve wild acres, bought before the area had been developed, they saw all kinds: roadrunners, deer, turkey, coyotes.

The wolf, gray as the carpet, his eyes yellow as though the sun behind him shone right through, pressed his nose against the glass, leaving a smudge mark like the ones their dogs left on the car windows when they brought them on vacations.

“Where are the dogs?” Janie said. She backed away from the window. “Rob, I’m going to find the dogs.”

Rob didn’t budge. Janie called through the house: “Orion, here boy, here Prancer.” Their collars jingled as they bounded from their hiding places. The wolf’s lips curled back, revealing his razor teeth.

“Janie, keep the dogs out of here,” Rob yelled.

“I locked them up.”

Rob hadn’t heard Janie enter the room again. He had read not to make eye contact with certain animals, and not to look away first if you did.

Behind him Janie spoke into a phone: “Yes, we have a wild animal problem here, possibly rabid. Yes, I’ll hold.”

Rob held the gaze for the full half-hour it took for Animal Control to arrive. Not even when the animal controller aimed his tranquilizer at the wolf did Rob look away. The wolf howled and thrashed and fell unconscious in the grass.

The animal controller thanked them for calling. “Many people,” he said, “would’ve taken the wolf out on their own.”

“The only gun we keep’s a BB,” Rob said.

“Must be trusting,” the controller said.

At dinner Rob and Janie recalled the controller’s comment and rolled their eyes. They were used to being thought strange in their Texas town: no guns, no dead things on the walls. There had always been a child in the house, and no material thing they owned was valuable enough to be stolen. Besides, they lived in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t lock their doors at night. They weren’t afraid of people.

But there was one thing they were afraid of. In the empty house they didn’t talk about it, but they feared that Charlie wouldn’t come home again. The first night, as they played Spades on the couch, putting off their troubled sleep, they tried not to stare at their phones.

#

The next morning Rob cooked breakfast as Janie slept, eggs and toast with butter, pecan waffles with cheap maple syrup. Charlie’s favorites. Janie woke to the sugar smell. They ate in silence. Neither of them remembered their dreams anymore, but they had dreamt of their daughter. She was their only child.

They avoided her room. It would be easier once the weekend was over and they busied themselves with work. Rob would return to the grocery, Janie to the local community college where she taught art. The monotony would help. Without it they finished their dinner in front of the TV and then walked as if in a trance to the empty room.

The growl crept in again. “He’s back,” Rob said, though it was impossible; Animal Control wouldn’t have released him from captivity. But when Rob opened the curtains, the wolf’s eyes shone through the solid dark.

“What is going on?” Janie said.

“I don’t know.” He let go of the curtains. “Call Animal Control again.”

Janie retrieved the phone.

“I think there’s more of them,” he said when she returned. “I heard more.”

This time Janie parted the curtains. A dozen wolves stared in, pressed close to each other like an army formation. Against the window, five squeezed close together, five nose prints on the glass.

They called the cops. The operator assured them someone would be out as soon as possible. “Don’t provoke them,” she said. “Don’t go outside.”

Rob and Janie crouched against the far wall. It was hot outside, but their bodies shook. They whispered, afraid the wolves would hear them. The two cop cars pulled into the driveway with the Animal Control van.

Then the blast of a gun sounded, another, another, another, until twelve—Rob counted them—rang out. Rob went to the window. The controller and several policemen dragged the bodies into the back of the van, and when they finally piled the wolves in they called Rob and Janie out.

“Have you been feeding these wolves?”

“Of course not,” Rob said.

“Did you try to keep them, as pets? Have you provoked them? Could you have fed them by mistake?”

“No, officer. I don’t think so.”

“Wolves don’t attack unprovoked,” said the officer. “These wolves don’t look rabid. Rabid wolves are lone wolves. And they don’t look particularly hungry either. I don’t know what you’ve done to make these wolves act like this, but you better cut it out. Cause we aren’t gonna be able to come round every time they’re at your window.”

Rob shrugged. “Thanks for coming out.”

“Controller here says you don’t own a gun?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, you might think of getting one.”

“Thanks. We’ll consider it.”

That night, Rob and Janie barely touched their reheated Chinese food. They were fossils holding onto a lost life. Why had they never gotten a gun? Why weren’t they rushing out to get one now? They wished they wanted to cook, but they had no one to impress.

#

The night sweats came over Rob and Janie as they slept, the dogs stretched at their feet. They rose together and paced the room.

“Let’s open these windows,” Janie said. “I’ve got to get some air.”

She pulled the curtains back and opened the window. The air that rushed into the bedroom burned her hand. Falling back onto the bed, she pulled the clothes from her body and discarded them on the floor.

“So hot,” she said.

“I know.” Rob undressed, fell beside her, touched the skin of her belly, despite the heat.

“We’ll make more,” Janie said. “Not to worry. We’ll make more.”

They pressed together as if all they needed was more sweat to cool the body. They fell into rhythms. The heat blew in. They stared into one another’s eyes, but the closeness reminded them who they had been before Charlie, and Janie turned her face to the window. She screamed.

It wasn’t a wolf but a baby buffalo wedged in the window, mouth open, a creature straight out of Charlie’s history texts—Life on the Plains. Janie pushed Rob off, put her feet on the floor, then her knees. His teeth were blunt, the hair above his eyes raised like two thick brows. He moaned, and Janie recognized the groan as the groan her husband made in his sleep, on his back, when gravity was too heavy for him.

Janie crawled on her knees to the window. The buffalo was frightening, so unexpected, but she wanted to be near it. She placed her hand atop its tongue. Its jaw unhinged with her weight, but the buffalo didn’t move. It groaned again. The bones that once held the jaw in place showed now. The jaw hung unmoving. The buffalo did not blink.

“You’re hurting him.” Rob pulled her hand from the buffalo’s mouth.

“What are you doing?”

The buffalo turned and ran, and Rob darted from window to window, opening the blinds as the buffalo passed. Its jaw flapped against its chest. Wolves followed at its haunches, low to the ground. Janie shut and locked the bedroom window, backed into the bed, and sat as the strange monsters disappeared down the drive. In the distance, the animal emitted one small whimper of death.

“Don’t worry.” Rob stroked her hair, the skin of her naked neck. “It’ll end. Whatever this is will end.”

He had to say something. To say nothing would leave them as helpless as children. If he didn’t know how to fix this, he didn’t know his place in this house anymore. If he couldn’t fix this, there would be no house.

“I know,” Janie said. “I just want to know what’s going on.” Janie’s arm fit right around Rob’s shoulders. She let his head fall on her chest. “We’ll figure this out.”

#

The natural world monsters were familiar. Not only from their appearances on nature world documentaries—Janie housed a hazy recollection of their appearance in her daughter’s morning stories. The nightmares are worse. Charlie unable to sleep for weeks. Every time I close my eyes. An overactive imagination, Rob and Janie told her. Go back to sleep.

The dogs weren’t barking like they usually did when animals appeared in their yard. Rob had nodded off after the creatures had gone. They imagined the carnage, their grass torn from its roots from the weight of chase and catch. When Rob’s breath steadied, Janie crept from the room on her toes. She went outside into the muggy air, dew in the process of forming. The door creaked like in a black-and-white horror flick. Twigs snapped in the distance.

Charlie used to crawl into their bed. They’d wake to her weight pressed between them, her warmth overheating the room, her arms folded at her chest as if she thought they wouldn’t see her if she guarded her body. They’d shake her awake.

“Nightmares,” she’d say in her groggy frog voice. “Can’t I sleep with you?”

When she was younger they’d let her. When she was older they hesitated. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little old?” But they didn’t mean it, and when she would begrudgingly return to her own bed, they would feel a cavity in their chests.

They’d forgotten who they were. When she was born, she became their whole world. The nightmares scared them more than they scared Charlie. They hugged her too tight, They shielded her. They didn’t want to scare her away from the world, but they didn’t want to push her into it either. They wished their daughter could stay with them until she was gray, but they had to let her go. She was smart. She needed a new home. She needed a city in which to fold out of herself. But now, without their daughter, they weren’t parents, not during the long days, not without her there.

In the woods wolves waited. But Charlie had dreamt of other monsters, of skeletons in dark rooms with no doors. In the yard Prancer stood guard, growling. From the woods these skeletons emerged from the trees, half-skin, half-bone, a menagerie of creatures from Charlie’s ABC books. A for alligator, its scaly skin peeling back more and more with each slide forward over the rough dirt. B for the bear struggling on bare bone feet to hold up what was left of its innards, guts hanging in its arms. C for the wildcats with bone-claws protruding from their paws, loping across the yard yet more menacing for their uneven grasp of the soil.

Janie ran toward Prancer, shooed him from the forest. “Go on, get out of here. Inside.” Prancer turned, reluctant, and ran up to the deck. She did not see Orion. What she saw was the monsters. Up close. They were so real, no wonder Charlie could never sleep on her own. What was left of their fur hung rotting from their skeletons, their colored patches silk-shiny.

“Why are you here?” she asked. They were close enough to hear their breath.

They moved in her direction. What else could she say? She didn’t know an incantation to banish nightmares. She couldn’t just wake up. The dream had gone on too long. She grabbed a rock. She hurled it. The bear wobbled closer, raised up so tall it cast a human shadow. The shadow creaked as it came near.

“Run,” Rob called down to her from the patio. “Get away!”

She looked up at her husband and back at the monsters. She wouldn’t run. She threw another rock; it hit the alligator’s skull. Janie turned her back on the monsters. Her husband held the BB gun in both of his hands. He aimed it and shot. The BBs smacked against skin and fur and bone. One bounced off her arm. The sting sent heat through her veins. She sunk to the ground. She couldn’t fight a nightmare.

Worse, she felt she understood them. They looked at her with the same want in their eyes that had been in hers, in her husband’s. They missed Charlie. They tried to go with her, but she didn’t need them anymore. They too didn’t know who they were without their Charlie there.

#

Charlie brought her friend home for the weekend. It had been two weeks since she’d seen her family, though she’d already learned enough about the world to have been gone a year.

“My parents are pretty nice,” she said. What particulars did she want to tell her friend? That they always thought she was something she wasn’t? Naïve? That, though they’d had eighteen years to prepare, she still wasn’t sure they had been ready for life without her?

Charlie pulled into the drive. Charlie walked across the trampled grass to the broken stone pathway to the front door. She paused to examine her mother’s uprooted flowers. The stairs’ wood had cracked on the sides, where the handrails were. Mud tracks led to the door.

“What happened?” Charlie’s friend asked.

“No clue,” Charlie said. She rang the doorbell. The sound echoed through the house like a howl.


Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam‘s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 70 publications such as Fairy Tale Review, Masters Review, and Uncanny as well as in six languages. She was the featured author at LeVar Burton’s Dallas LeVar Reads event. She’s been a finalist for the Nebula Award, placed second for Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize, and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; Syfy turned her story set in the world of the Magicians into an animated short. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth.

Categories
2020 Fiction

L.M. Davenport

BALLAD II

Your own true love, that I’ll have, and more—

But thou shalt never come ashore.”

trad. English folk song

My one true love says the lights on the windmills look like eyeshine, flickering in and out of visible in the half-dark. He says this as we are driving through a forest of them, the only kind of forest we have seen since California. They edge up to the road, cyclopean heads turning slow as poured honey, and over away to the passenger side I can see the power lines they feed in their turning. The lines seem low-slung by comparison. If I could stand under them, I know, I would hear their hum, evaporating static.

“I’d rather think of them like trees,” I tell my one true love. “Then maybe we could find one with a door cut in the bottom for the road, like that redwood on the postcard.” I do not tell my one true love that I prefer this way because trees cannot pull up roots and follow you home, as beasts can.

My one true love takes one hand off the wheel and blindly pats at my shoulder. He ends up around my bicep. I will cut him slack for this, because he has been awake a long time now.

“It got sick, little magpie,” he says. “The Park Service cut it down. The rangers were afraid it would fall on someone, because the wood had gone soft.”

The car shivers between the painted lines, and a semi roars past on the left. My one true love snatches his hand back to the wheel, blinks several times in quick succession. I know those fluttering eyes, that clawed grip. This is the way he looked just before we slid out onto the salt flats, where nothing grew up from the cracked ground to stop the wind. This is the face that comes before the silent tears, and even though it’s close to three-quarters dark, I don’t want to see that.

*

We’re at a rest stop, in the middle of a stretch of interstate where the towns are too small to be viable places of repose. (“No Services,” the exit signs scream as we pass them.) It’s late, or it’s early. The lobby is floored in institutional linoleum, fake-paneled in fake wood. The overheads hum, that sound my mother says dries out your skin.

My one true love is in the bathroom. He is taking a long time, so long I wonder if he’s passed out, shoulders arched back against the toilet tank, hands dangling limp as a puppet’s. Or maybe he is having trouble swallowing the medicine which is keeping him awake.

My one true love does not sleep, because I ask him not to. In sleeping, he might dream of my sister. He might remember that once he courted her, and led her upstairs with her pale hair trailing, in the afternoons when our mother was gone. I stood forgotten at the foot of the stair in those days, crushing whatever small thing he’d brought me as consolation in my fist. His gifts matched our mother’s house, all things from another era—gloves in velvet and satin and kid, cameo rings, hanks of embroidery silk in hues that burned like coals in the darkened hall—but as I held to the newel post with one hand and watched their ascending backs, I wanted only what my sister had. To be held the way a branch holds a bird. To clasp and to be clasped, in a room where the windowpanes turned sun to honey.

I could have stopped it, could have told our mother what they did together. But then I would have lost him, too, because they would have laughed behind their hands and found another place. Somewhere I couldn’t lie on the floorboards of my own bower and watch the thorn-boughs nailed to the ceiling quiver in time with half-heard gasps, as my hand worked between my legs.

Almost always he’d come down to the kitchen, afterwards, while she washed. He made sandwiches, with whatever came first to his hand—apricot cake, pickled onions, calamari—and eat them standing up against the counter. (I was always first to the kitchen in those days, in order to pretend I’d been there all along.) I would have a sandwich already, turning to chalk in my mouth because when he leaned across me for the chili sauce, I’d smell my sister on his skin.

Most days we would talk in low voices, about the ocean that was rising or the forests that were falling. Or he’d fan the prints of his latest photographs like playing cards, saying I could choose one: a carousel horse half-splintered in an alley, a row of dolls with empty eye sockets, an aproned woman proffering a cake while behind her, a blackened field smoked. The light would thin around us, and the sounds that came muffled through the window would change to herald day’s end: a dog calling without expectation of relief, a neighbor watering her garden beds, distant sirens.

“Little magpie,” he would say, smiling and pushing his glasses up with a tapered forefinger, “do you take these to line your nest?”

Towards the end, those last weeks when every moment felt stretched taut as piano wire, I would open my mouth to tell him that name fit too truly, and all the things I had from him lay speared within the briars that coiled above my head by night. But then my sister’s tread would echo down the staircase, and at the sound his face would brighten past bearing. And then they would walk out together, a pair of high-stepping waterbirds off to promenade among their equals.

I would remain, until the kitchen grew dark and I heard the front door open for my mother. Then I would slip upstairs before she could come in and see me silent there. Before she could lay a hand on my own hair falling dark and too fine, to tell me sympathetically that my days of walking handclasped on the pier were surely not far off.

*

It is my turn to drive, again. My one true love slumps glassy-eyed in the passenger seat. He is awake; I have made sure of it. (My hands cupped so tenderly, one that brought the bottle to his open mouth and one that stroked his throat until he swallowed.) We have left the rest stop behind, the uniformed woman at the desk still watching her forensics show, in which figures combed beneath salt-rotted struts to seek a body. We have left another couple in the parking lot smiling and vulpine, a glitter of strange medicine in their stares.

I am about to ask my one true love if he is all right, if he has water—the longer he keeps awake, the less he speaks his needs, decaying slowly into the passive wordlessness of a houseplant—when he says, without inflection: “They are following.”

The hair on my forearms stands up. Nobody knows, I remind myself. Nobody saw. I don’t reply.

He goes on, barely audible: “They are walking, they are coming. They have the harp.”

Still I do not speak, and my one true love lapses back into silence. I press the accelerator closer to the floor, trying to take us further, faster. My one true love is in no condition to drive now, and sooner or later I will have to stop and rest. He is not fully mine, I think despairingly. All the waking in the world will not root her out of him.

*

The last photograph I took from my one true love, he did not mean to offer.

“I’ve had a windfall, little magpie,” he said, laughing as we stood together, backs against the counter. “And more sold means a fine dinner for my darling. Take one, before we go—take five—take them all, soon I’ll have so many we could paper this house in them!”

I wanted to break his smile in half. I couldn’t have him then, couldn’t have his face to hold between my own two hands, but there in front of me were things that could be mine. So I took up the pile of glossed, heavy squares of paper, and began to sift through what he had made.

A man, his face painted into plumage. Cut glass, irises, a silver-dollar moon. A child on stilts whose tips branched into chicken feet, like the witch’s house in the story. Teacups that floated blossoms, from whose centers winked human teeth. A paper dragon, a mirror printed with lipstick rosettes like a squid’s suckers. My sister bare-backed.

My sister bare-backed, bare-everything, face turned away and hair coiled over her shoulder. I knew that bed, I knew the hangings on the wall behind her, I knew the mole just at her waist. (I used to try and prod it when we were small and ran together through the oscillating spray of the lawn sprinkler.) Why could I not be thus gazed upon, thus loved?

He had not yet noticed what I lingered on. He was gazing into the middle distance, grinning foolishly, heedless of the sweat beading on his upper lip despite the air conditioning. I slid the picture of my sister into my other hand and ran upstairs, calling over my shoulder that, for now, I had enough.

*

Fog has descended, clouds lowering until they brush the fields. No stars, no lights or signs, and the lane lines appear as only the barest traces. Ours is the only car on the road, I think, but I have no way of knowing if it is otherwise. Even if we are alone, I am driving too fast. The idea of impending death does not concern me. It feels as if the hands that grip the steering wheel and the foot that presses the accelerator belong to someone else, as if the car were floating, not even above the interstate but through a netherworld in which there is only dark and cloud, and the disembodied shine of the headlights.

My one true love is singing under his breath, something about the green-growing rushes. His voice was sweet before I ground it down with wakefulness, and now it wears on my ears. I do not ask him to stop, because his eyes are shut and so the song is the only thing that tells me he remains awake. The verses drone on, and every so often he interrupts himself, mumbling about the walkers and their harp. This is worse than the singing, and each time he does it I push the pedal down a little more.

It occurs to me that this is all we will ever have, the cloud and the song and the running away. As quickly as the thought appears, I try to banish it, but the old tricks are not working in this quiet, at this speed. What kind of a future did I think we would have, when I took the steps that seemed necessary to allow us one? Wooden floors in the sun, the sound of the ocean on another coast, sweetness untempered by memory? A new photograph, one in which it was my naked back and not my sister’s that shone like witch-light in a dim chamber?

An exit appears as if birthed from the fog, and I let up on the gas to ease along its ramp. The walled curve terminates in one of the ruler-straight highways that carve this part of the country into blocks; I turn left, choosing at random, and speed away into the only darkness heavier than the one that lay over the interstate. If I am thinking anything, it is that I will not permit us to be found.

No future, I muse as the car skims over pavement that cuts a broad aisle through fields of corn that would grow far over my and my one true love’s heads, were we to tread among the stalks. No present, either. In our present are only vacant eyes and the promise of a devouring, of creatures bodied tall and implacable as windmills. They have dextrous hands, and they carry the delicate rotted thing that flickered across the rest-stop lobby television, a harp with which to sing my guilt. To sing my one true love away.

I turn off down a smaller road, and then another. My one true love does not appear to register this change. He only mutters that same garbled tune, his head lolling at an angle that hurts me more than it does him. I pull over close to the towering corn, and shut off the engine. The fog is practically nudging against the windows, and I am filled with an irrational fear that it will creep inside the car, to wrap us in obscurity while we await our judgment. I unbuckle my one true love and pull him unresisting across the console. His head rests under my chin, and still his song runs on, at the very edge of hearing. I cradle him from ribs to crown, and shut my eyes.

Only the past is left. I sink into it like a longed-for bed.

*

The image of my sister held pride of place, in the thorned canopy that draped my bower. How could it not? She, and not my one true love, was the crux of the problem, my supreme obstacle. She was the last thing that I beheld at night, the first thing my gaze struck in the morning. Daily I examined the undulations of my own spine by twisting before a mirror, striving to compare them to hers.

Then came the day when I opened the door and discovered her there in the flesh, head craned back and eyes popping in disgust.

“You’re sick,” she whispered, when she registered the sound of creaking wood and her head snapped down from staring at the ceiling. “This is sick. It’s like some kind of shrine.”

I stood still, mute as a photograph. My blood hummed.

“He felt sorry for you,” my sister spat, her voice growing louder now, “because you’re always there when we are here, always mooning after him as if you were a childling of thirteen, and not almost a woman grown. As if I were the elder, and not you.”

And I remembered all the days, when we had been so small that strangers spoke to us only under our mother’s eye, that she found herself petted and cosseted and presumed the elder, all the doting gazes and unlikely gifts. My sister had always been more beautiful than I, no one would dispute that—but it was not her beauty which made me long to wrap her in briars until she stood more wound than skin. From the day I watched our mother push her, squalling, into the open air, no one could look on my sister and not love her. Even I, even in this moment—I loved her, and it tore at me as I wanted the thorns to tear her flesh.

I let my love show in my face, put my hand out, and spoke soothingly. “Sister,” I said, “let me explain. This isn’t what you think. Walk with me, and I will tell you all about it—”

I did not finish speaking. I did not have to, because my sister was coming towards me, with mistrust and wary sympathy in her face, and stretching out her hand to set in mine. She squeezed my fingers once, saying only: “Let’s go, then. This had better be good.”

She looked back once, at the captured self that hung over the bed. But then she shook her head, as if to put the image and my ownership of it from her mind, and I closed the door behind us.

We took the bus through town to the coast, and did not speak along the way. I could tell from her face that she thought I was preparing lies to feed her, that she was steeling herself against whatever I might have to say when we arrived. But she made no protest.

Nor did she object when we reached the high trail, the one that cut a perilous margin across the cliffs that loomed above the beach. I did not know what I would do until I saw the jutting curve the path made just ahead of us, and understood at last why I had brought her to this place. My heart beat the way it did when I uncovered her photograph from his fistful of prints, the way it did when I saw him for the first time, walking on her arm. I drew breath as if to speak, and when she turned expectantly I whirled and pushed against her shoulders with all my strength.

It was like throwing a rag doll to the floor; she was unprepared and already off-balance when I struck her. She tried to seize my wrists, to pull me over the edge after her, but her fingers found no purchase. Their touch was like the faintest brush of a flame.

I took my time walking to the bottom. There was a slight humming in my ears, but otherwise I felt nothing. I watched my feet scuff over the dry grass and dull pebbles.

My sister was still breathing when I reached her, though she was crushed and snapped. There was blood in her hair, and blood soaking into the wet grit around her, like a halo. She rasped something through collapsed lungs; I crouched by her head to hear better.

“Call someone,” she was saying, “and I’ll give you anything you want. For the rest of our lives, it’ll be how you want it.” She trailed off then, into agonized panting, and did not speak again.

“I’ll have him,” I replied after a moment. “Him and everything else, because you’ll never see the shore.” I lifted her up by the shoulders; her body gave like wet clay under my touch, and I shivered with revulsion. I dragged her into the water, taking her out until my feet could barely touch down on the ragged seafloor, and kissed the top of her head—still miraculously intact—before I let go.

I hauled my own body, which did not feel like mine, back to dry land, and huddled there in my soaked clothes. From far off, she looked like a crumpled swan in the last moments, or a banner torn down and trampled. Then she slid beneath the surface, and I bowed my head to stare again at my shoes, instead of at the sea, that endless yawning throat which had swallowed her down.

Was it any wonder that, when my sister did not come home, I was the first one there to comfort my one true love? That, as the weeks passed and he came to accept—even in his despair—that she had gone, there came a day when he lifted his salt-streaked face from my chest and kissed me on the mouth? That there followed a night, and a morning in which I woke up serene, believing he was my own, and not simply my one?

No, it was no wonder. It was what I had longed for, what I had been forging within myself for all the time he had been my sister’s love. True, he wept often, and spoke of my sister more than I would have liked. And when he woke up in my embrace, he would turn over sleepily and call me by her name.

It was this last thing that pushed me to think of leaving, taking him someplace where memories of her would not linger in the very woodwork. And it brought the idea of keeping him awake to mind, so he would not see her even in his dreams. I told him we would start over, stay awake together and drive until we reached a new home. When we got there, I said, she would be gone. We would be clean.

*

I feel my one true love’s voice die away even as I hold him in the front seat, and know that he is at last descending into sleep, and I have lost. I keep my own eyes closed; he has gone where I will not follow, for I will stay awake until the walkers arrive on stilted legs, to gaze at me with their slow-turning heads. I will refuse to look when they arrive, but I will know them by the sounding of their harp: hair fretted across breastbone, a bright, sodden thing which sings of its own accord. There is a wet rustle outside the window. I hold my breath, the better to hear their footsteps.


L.M. Davenport is a fourth-year MFA student at the University of Alabama. Her work has previously appeared in Quarterly West, Booth, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Dustin M. Hoffman

PIKE’S DEATHBED BLAZES ON

Pike told me, over lunchbreak burritos, how him and his old lady set the bedspread on fire again last night. Second time this month, tenth time this year. I kept a secret tally, marked in orange paint, inside the work trailer’s wall. I expected Pike to die any day. It’s not like I wished him and his old lady dead. It just seemed a matter of inevitability, like painting jobs drying up in winter, like the fact that my back would give out if I kept doing this gig.

Pike licked sour cream off his index finger, which ended at a nub middle knuckle. He never told me that story, how he lost it. Maybe his old lady bit it off. He never shared the stories I wanted, just over and over again how he woke to smoke, thick and black and tarry from the synthetic weave of his comforter. No flames, he claimed. Instead, heat smoldered against their naked bodies. Always naked, of course, because that’s how they lived, naked and smoking, their asses bared for fate.

They were both disgusting specimens. I was reminded of this every day as I witnessed Pike’s crooked teeth, yellow as corn kernels. His hair hung thick with grease, his face pinched into a constant grimace, his whole body an act of twisted compression. And she showed up on site often to visit Pike, to demand he hand over his pack of cigarettes. She’d practice her sport of harassing him while he rolled out walls. Pencil dick, she’d say. Bent-cock motherhumper. Always kissing your boss’s asshole, she’d chant at him, and he’d look strangled, turning purple with shame, but he’d never return an insult.

Every night, they returned home to join their hideous nude bodies in bed, where they’d smoke. Their commitment to doom was unbreakable. Here was love, a promise to burn in your partner’s secondhand fire, while I returned to my pair of cats who mostly hid under the bed.

At work, I’d finish cutting the wall, finish painting the room, fold up the drop cloth, lock up a house transmuted by a fresh skin of blue paint or wheat-yellow or throbbing white. I’d drive my truck away with clean tools, drive right to my beautiful boss proffering a final paycheck, wishing me good luck in life, wishing me better than him and Pike, and then I’d move to better jobs sitting behind glowing screens. Better jobs, better jobs, I’d whisper to myself. In my head, Pike and his girlfriend have married. They keep growing younger, gorgeous and vital. She’s pregnant. Pike’s finger grew back. Their teeth have gone white, their hair silky and full. Their bed blazes, flames flashing every color we ever painted, and every color we never could dream.


Dustin M. Hoffman writes stories about working people. He’s the author of the story collection No Good for Digging and the fiction chapbook Secrets of the Wild (Word West Press). His first book One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist (University of Nebraska Press) won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and his PhD in creative writing from Western Michigan University. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior ReviewAlaska Quarterly ReviewPuerto del SolMasters ReviewWitnessQuarterly WestThe JournalWigleafThe Adroit JournalFaultline, and a bunch of other neat places. He lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing and literature at Winthrop University.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Sarah Mollie Silberman

SURVEY

You have been selected to complete a survey. The purpose of the survey is to gain information about your health and wellness. Your answers are confidential; they are used only for policy research and to better understand the health challenges Americans face today. Participation is voluntary. There is no penalty if you decline to complete it. You can learn more about the survey, and the work of our federal agency, on our website.

*

“Do you have any questions, Mr. Rivers?” says the phone interviewer. She has a warm voice, the voice of someone who uses the word hon a lot.

You ask how long the survey will last.

“About 35 minutes,” she says, “depending on the size of your household.”

You tell her you are the only person in your household.

“About 35 minutes, then,” she says. “Any additional questions?”

35 minutes is not an insignificant amount of time. You could, of course, decline to participate, but the truth is you have little better to do. It is 3:27 pm, and the only things you have done today are work on the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle scattered on the kitchen table and ignore your sister Madeline’s phone calls. She knows you are ignoring her calls; her response is to call at 20 to 40-minute intervals. She also texts various emojis. So far, these have included: the orange angry face, the telephone, and, for reasons that are unclear to you, the pineapple.

You put your phone on speaker and set it on the table, amidst the scattered puzzle pieces. You run your tongue over your teeth, which can best be described as fuzzy. You have not yet brushed them today, and your mouth still tastes like the Coke you drank in lieu of the coffee you ran out of, because who has the wherewithal to go to a store and buy coffee? Truly, you would like to know. You would like to shake their hand. “No additional questions,” you say.

The interviewer starts by asking for basic demographic information.

You tell her: white, non-Hispanic. You tell her your date of birth and confirm your age, which is 27. You are unmarried, without children, and have lived at your current residence for six months or longer. You tell her your occupation (waiter) and that your employer does not currently provide health coverage.

A text message appears on your screen. It is from your sister Madeline: the snail emoji. A minute later: Maybe answer your phone.

“Do you currently have health coverage?” the interviewer asks.

“No.”

“What are the last four digits of your Social Security Number?”

Here, you pause. You wonder if the survey is an elaborate ploy to steal your identity. For one thing, a telephone survey seems odd in the age of the internet. But then, you are not overly troubled by prospect of identity theft. You question the wisdom of anyone who chooses your identity, of the billions of identities, to steal. If you were to steal someone’s identity, you would give it a lot of thought beforehand. You tap a puzzle piece against the table and decide you would steal Tony Danza’s identity. He has a shitload of money and a relatively low profile, which means not a lot of people have thought to steal it.

The interviewer clears her throat. “Sir?”

“Why do you need my Social Security Number?”

“We use it to link your answers to those of other respondents.”

You provide her with the last four digits of your Social Security Number, clicking a puzzle piece into place. To be clear, you are not a puzzle person—you are actually something of a social animal. The puzzle belongs to your mother, who found it in her closet two or three months ago, before she died of pancreatic cancer. The box was still wrapped in plastic when she pulled it from the shelf. “I have no idea why I bought this puzzle,” she said. She was sick then, but not as sick as she was going to be. She still had some meat on her bones. “I never opened it and now it is one of a million things I’ll never do.” It sounds morbid, but your mother was not a morbid person. She was having a low moment, on account of the cancer. In the meantime, you have discovered that assembling the puzzle is the right kind of mindless activity. The wrong kind of mindless activity, such as drinking a glass of water, or brushing your teeth, leaves you feeling inexplicably blank.

“The next few questions are designed to understand your health and access to health care services,” the interviewer says. She asks for your height and weight. She asks how frequently you exercise. “Do you smoke cigarettes?” she asks.

“No,” you say. It is basically true.

She asks if you could walk 100 yards, or the length of a football field, without difficulty. If you could walk 500 yards, or the length of five football fields, without difficulty. If you could walk up to three flights of stairs without difficulty. “Would you characterize your overall physical health as Excellent, Good, Average, or Poor?”

You stand, pick up your phone, and walk athletically to the refrigerator, where three cans of Coke and half a lime remain. You bought the Coke to mix with rum, but you ran out of rum before you ran out of Coke. Is that an indication of Excellent health? Probably not. You take a can from the shelf and crack it open. “I would characterize my health as Good.”

She asks if you have experienced arthritis (no), hypertension (no), asthma, (no), or diabetes (no).

Another text message appears on your screen: Maybe remember I have a key to your apartment, your sister writes.

It’s true: you are someone who loses keys on a regular basis—a trait inherited from your mother—and your sister is not. At one time, it had seemed like a good idea to give Madeline your extra set, but now you see how wrong you were.

“Have you ever postponed medical, dental, or vision care,” the interviewer asks, “because you were concerned about the expense?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen a medical professional within the last twelve months? Including a general practitioner, nurse, nurse’s assistant, urgent care or emergency room physician, specialist, or mental health professional?”

You tell her that, yes, you have.

“And was the purpose of your appointment for routine care,” the interviewer asks, “or to treat a specific problem?”

“In theory,” you say, “it was to treat a specific problem.”

Your sister was the one who scheduled your consultation with the therapist two weeks ago, a month after your mother died. Because you’re wandering around like a bored zombie, she said. She also used the word reeling at some point, though by that time you had pretty much tuned her out. Needless to say, you failed to show up for the consultation. Then Madeline scheduled another appointment, appeared at your door 45 minutes before it started, and escorted you to the office on the bus. The two of you waited in a small room with a (fake) plant, listening to the wall clock tick. You wondered what kind of therapist neglected to invest in a non-ticking wall clock.

She turned out to be younger than you expected, with the dark, unruly hair of someone with mental health issues of her own. She wore earth tones and clogs, and she seemed like someone who would brag about not having a smartphone. What brings you here today? she asked.

My sister, you said, even though you knew perfectly well what she was getting at. You glanced at the poster of Edvard Munch’s The Scream displayed on the wall, which seemed a little on the nose. Then the two of you sat across from each other, waiting for your grief to present itself in a neat little package, but all you were able to summon was contempt for the therapist and her museum gift shop art. And your sister, for dragging you there. Your sister, who had the temerity to schedule a second appointment (or third, if you include the one you skipped). That appointment is today. That is why she is calling. It is why you are avoiding her calls.

“And was the medical bill mailed to your home address?”

“Yes.”

“2201 Ontario Road,” she says, “Apartment 418?”

In the background, you hear a dog barking affably. “Is that your dog?” you ask.

There is a pause. “It is.”

“It’s nice you can work from home. Or can you bring your dog to work?”

The next pause is long enough you wonder if you’ve been disconnected. You glance at your screen; the call is still going. “I work from home sometimes,” the interviewer says. You had pictured her in a drab cubicle. In fact, you had pictured her existing in a drab cubicle, all day and all night. But of course she has a home. People live in homes, unless they are homeless. “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Bernadette.”

You can picture Bernadette: a chocolate lab. Old and stubborn, with mournful eyes. She has a dog bed near a window, where she can bathe in sunlight for hours at a time. It takes a lot to compel Bernadette from her dog bed—an enticing bone, maybe, or the promise of a leisurely walk—in part because the interviewer has gone to great lengths to make it comfortable, lining it with soft blankets and vacuuming it regularly to remove fur and other debris. Probably, if you saw Bernadette’s dog bed, you would be tempted to lie in it yourself.

“How old is Bernadette?” you ask.

“Sir.” There is a hint of edge in the interviewer’s voice. “Let’s return to the survey.”

You take a sip of Coke, the carbonation fizzing in your mouth. “Fine,” you say.

“Now I am going to ask a series of questions about pain,” she says. “How often do you experience pain? Never, rarely, sometimes, a lot, or all the time?”

You tell her sometimes.

She asks if you experience pain in your head, neck, or shoulders (sometimes), or in your back, hips, or knees (sometimes), or in your hands or feet (sometimes).

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from going to your job?”

“No.”

“Is your pain ever so severe it prevents you from seeing your friends or loved ones?”

“That’s a dark question,” you say.

She clears her throat. “The questions are designed to gain information about your health and wellness.”

“You said that already.”

“Would you describe the pain as acute, or general?”

“Both.”

“If possible, can you pick one or the other?”

“I would describe it as acutely generalized pain.”

It takes the interviewer a few extra seconds to record your answer. “And is your pain more severe than your mother’s pain?”

You squeeze the Coke can. It buckles beneath your grip. “What?” you say.

“What?” the interviewer says, alarmed.

“Could you repeat the question?”

“Certainly.” She speaks more slowly, this time. “Is your pain manageable with the use of over-the-counter or prescription medication?”

You snap another puzzle piece into place, not answering. You have assembled maybe three-quarters of the 1,000 pieces, and the image is starting to emerge. It is a view from Park Güell in Barcelona: a curving overlook, a vibrant array of buildings, a piercing blue sky. Barcelona, you think, is another thing your mother never did. But she was a fan of views. Not vistas, necessarily, though she liked those fine, but views that were interesting if not beautiful. For instance, she loved the look of an industrial skyline with a water tower and various earth-polluting smokestacks. When she saw a view she liked, she would grab you by the wrist—she had a strong grip—and she would say, Look, and you would say, I’m looking, and she would say, Look harder. And she would stand there, holding onto your arm with her white-knuckled death grip, until she decided you had looked at it hard enough. That was the kind of person she was.

It hits you suddenly. You experience it as you might a large wooden plank that is placed on top of your body and then pressed down upon, hard. “Oh my god,” you say. “My mother is dead.” The words hang there, ugly and gleaming. You feel a prickling behind your eyes, though you are not yet crying, and when you take a breath, a strangled sound escapes from your mouth. You wonder if the interviewer will mistaken it for a cough. “Sorry,” you say.

“Do you need a second?” the interviewer asks.

“Sorry,” you say, again. You are crying now.

She tells you not to apologize. She tells you to take your time.

It is hard to tell how long you take. You think, for some reason, about the week before last, when you went to the sauna at the Korean spa, and the only other person there was this old, non-Korean man, and when you sat down he looked at you with great sympathy. You look like you could use a good sweat, he said. It was hot in the sauna, obviously. Uncomfortably hot. But it was the kind of discomfort you could settle into, that you could curl up inside of. For a few minutes, at least, the heat of the sauna was the only thing you felt.

You swallow. You breathe in and out. “Okay,” you say to the interviewer. “Let’s continue.”

“Actually,” she says, “I have just one final question. What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

“That’s a strange question,” you say. You look at the picture of Park Güell, which is so bright and colorful, with mosaic tiles and trees and houses that look like something from a storybook, with spires and everything, that it is actually kind of frenzied. Overwhelming, even. You wonder how your mother’s maiden name could possibly be relevant to your health and wellness. You try to recall the listicle you read several months ago about identity theft. What precise information have you already provided to the interviewer? “What agency do you work for, again?”

“Sir?” the interviewer says.

“Your employer,” you say. “Who is it?”

The interviewer is silent.

The call ends the way most things end: without ceremony. It just ends. You do not even hear a click when the interviewer hangs up, since phones no longer click when people hang up. You watch as your phone switches to the home screen. The bright, neatly arranged apps have never looked less enticing. You place your forehead on the table, feeling several of the puzzle pieces adhere to your skin. You imagine the interviewer closing her laptop and calling to Bernadette. You imagine Bernadette rising from her dog bed, guileless, and meandering over, tail wagging.


Sarah Mollie Silberman’s stories have appeared in Booth, CutBank, Juked, Nashville Review, Potomac Review, and Witness. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and lives in Washington, DC. Find her online at www.sarahmolliesilberman.com

Categories
2020 Fiction

McKenzie Zalopany

BUENA VISTA BONDED

“Binch, we are out front open up,” Matty yells in a fake cop voice, while pounding on my front door. My dog Samson makes a motion to get up and thinks better of it. Even he doesn’t approve of her and Seraphina, who I know is close behind Matty.

Last night, Seraphina texted me to say that Matty from two units over, the one who shaves her arms, found the Fountain of Youth but I’m calling bull. For one thing, both girls lie all the time. They’re always pretending to wear designer clothes, but I know for a fact it’s glitz from the flea market. Also, we just learned about the Fountain of Youth in class and two days later they find it? Matty says that because her dad’s name is Leon, she’s a descendant. His first name is Leon. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that’s not how that works. I don’t like them much in real life, but it’s nice to hang outside of school and not act like we’re anything more than Buena Vista Apartments bonded. I’ve got my clique and they have a gaggle of dudes who smoke them out.

I’ve got to give them props too, because they were hanging with me when fat was considered fat not thick. My weight hasn’t changed, but it’s very cool now to be curvy via social media. Plus, we play Barbies together on the D.L. and since we do it together, they can’t say shit.

“You get all your chores done Cinder-belly?” Matty asks letting herself into the apartment. Out of the two, she is the boldest and will probably fulfill my mom’s premonition of, “Being in a bad way come fourteen.” Seraphina acts like she’s grown because she’s the only sixth grader on the pill, but she doesn’t say it’s because of her back-ne. They both are mean like their moms.

I follow behind them because I really am done with my chores and have an hour before my mom comes home.

Shuffling through the parking lot we pass the pool boys who are men who always sit outside with no tee-shirts and no pool. Even though the Fall wind in Florida isn’t much to shiver about they sit there half naked and glistening, while we walk heads down, hands tucked in our hoodie pockets clutching our phones, ready. They don’t say a word, but you don’t need words when eyes are touching each part of our bodies.

I’m used to the hollers, sort of. At eight, a forty-year-old man whispered, “Nice thighs,” when my mom was in the bathroom. He said it all quick and quiet on his way by our table. He scared me and when my mom came back, I didn’t say anything, and she kept asking me what was wrong. After that, it seemed like some sort of switch went off or maybe I was just aware, because I got flagged down by all sorts of dudes who wanted not just my thighs.

I don’t even have my period yet, which scares me, a ticking tongue that’s yet to unhinge. I’ve had boobs since I was eight and an ass before that. What will I look like come my monthly?

They lead me to the little forest that conceals the parking lot to the Winn-Dixie lot. It’s small and gets smaller and smaller each year but if I squint when I’m in the middle I can pretend that I am lost and on some sort of adventure. Scattered around the pine needled flooring there’s old Coors cans, napkins, a milk crate. Mom told me to never go in here ever, never, ever, but I know these woods like the back of my hand, and I can’t imagine they found a fountain here. We head away from the path to the grocery store and toward the really, really, no-no area, which is the back part of the complex that kind of dilapidated into itself and turned into makeshift homes.

As I get older it’s easier to break the invisible boundary lines my mom has set for me.

We stop in front of one those run-off sewers that are scattered around Florida backgrounds. If you squint, it looks like a creek. Matty and Seraphina have never seen a creek, never been as far as Tampa. I wait for them to cross or go around, but they look at me with ta-da faces. Their hair in identical high messy buns, eye shadow in bright green and pink shades.

“Are you guys planning on murdering me here?”

“Don’t be dumb If I was going to kill someone I would like kill them in their home wearing shoes two sizes bigger and gloved the fuck up,” Matty says annoyed, “I’d be like smarter than that guy–what’s his name from that show?”

“O.J.?” I ask.

“Yeah, that dude.”

“I think I’d find some pigs, they eat anything,” Seraphina says without looking up from her phone.

“Well, I’ll kill you both right here, right now, if you’re messing with me. Nothing special about this water,” I tell them and give them my best withering look. The fountain of Youth sounded bougie. White marble, maybe some baby angels crafted on top of a three-tiered circular bowl situation. Not a sewer creek with a plastic bag with a little rose image over the words, Thank You Thank You Thank You.

“Binch, we aren’t messing with you. We found this place to smoke and thought it was gross as fuck, so we started throwing shit in it and well look,” Matty says, bending down and drops a dead branch that had been near her feet into the brackish water. We all stare at the branch and wait.

Nothing happens.

“It takes a second,” Seraphina reassures me. It felt earnest, so I waited.

I know I am in sixth grade, but I wish we were playing Barbies or just chilling in my room. Sometimes at night I cry, because I miss boys touching me from when I was in elementary school P.E. or crisscrossed in class. Their hands did not linger but slammed into my body and left it quick. Tag you’re it.

My phone rings making us all jump. The screen read, MOM.

“Shit, I got to go.”

“Jemma, it will be like two more seconds!” Seraphina beckons after me.

“I’m not waiting around to get grounded for this,” I yell back, fast walking away. When I turn around, they are following me back to our separate doors and the brown branch is a brown branch in the brown water.

My mom isn’t home when I get back, thankfully. Samson greets me at the door, just like my dad would do every day after school. “Tell me three good parts and one bad part of your day,” he would always prompt. My mom named our dog even though I found him. I wanted to name him Costco because we found him at the Costco parking lot, but mom thought Samson was a better name, plus he’s shaggy. I love him mostly because he reminds me a lot of my dad even though my dad died before we found Samson. But they have the same hair and Samson hates loud things and sneezes a lot. I don’t know how much longer I have with him, because like I said, I found him, and he was fully grown when I was seven.

My mom is a talented seamstress and does private bookkeeping on the side. She is obviously tired a lot so when I get home from school, I like to have everything cleaned for her, so she knows I love her. I also feel guilty because she works so hard for me and I don’t really like school, or believe in god, or hang out with girls she approves of. I don’t really want to be anything when I get older except maybe like a social media influencer, which my mom doesn’t really understand but I’ve got around five thousand followers. If I get over 100K I could take my mom around the world, to sponsored hotels and meals and drive around a nice ass car. My mom would wear nice clothes that she wouldn’t have to mend, and she could take my pictures.

If the Fountain of Youth really existed, I’d throw my mom in it. She was pretty, like model pretty, and we could be an internet duo. Samson nips at my hand that’s texting while I’m pretending to pay attention to my mom during dinner. It’s such a thing my dad would’ve done, who always poked at me when I wasn’t giving my full attention.

In the morning, there is a tree branch that is with leaves so green and lush it looked like Spring itself had knocked on the door. The trees above are all brown and dead.

“I fuckin hate this place,” mom says and kicks the branch aside, “can you believe this? We have maintenance guys and yet there’s trash everywhere. Hurry up Jemma, what you are waiting for?”

I take a picture of the branch and send it to Matty and Seraphina:

J: H a h a V funny.

M: u still don’t believe us

S: Lewk like ny trees 2 u???? That was sum green lushness

J: not fallin 4 it

M: girl bye

Seraphina just sends me the middle finger emoji four times.

Reasons my dad also reminds me of Samson: They both sleep a lot. They both aren’t helpful around the house or able to financially contribute. They love every and all types of food. Gets super hyper whenever I get excited about something. Guilts mom into walking around outside. Loves me and mom equally, more than anything.

Matty and Seraphina must not have been too mad because they are playing dolls at my place. Every day I have two hours before my mom comes home. She doesn’t care that I do kid stuff, but I hide my dolls as if I were watching porn or something. We play house with Barbies or fashion show or sometimes make them fuck. When we get bored of that we talk shit about the people in our class or just sit around and take cute pictures of each other, but never of the three of us together. Neither of them has a following but I still try and craft a cute photo. I’m glad they’re no longer trying to talk me into believing in the sewer creek but then Matty asks me if I want to go try again and see for myself.

“Come on you still have forever until your mom gets back and you’ve cleaned the house to the point of hospital grade sanitation.”

“Why are you even still trying with her we should call like Bay News 10 or something? Let everyone know it was us who discovered it.”

“You can’t tell people shit like that,” Matty says, “This is something people will like take too far, watch a movie.”

I consider this, even though I know the fountain isn’t real, Matty has a point.

“If we went what would we put in the water? I know you two want to be older so you aren’t going in yourselves.”

“I just got boobs are you kidding me,” Seraphina asks, “What about Sam.” She points to Samson who has been laying in the corner with one eye open, watching us judgingly as we made Barbie hump another Barbie. Stop being a weirdo, dad.

“Fuck you, I’m not throwing my dog in there.”

“The worst that could happen is he’d get a little dirty and you’d have to give him a bath, no biggie,” Matty says.

“Don’t you want Sam to live longer?” Seraphina asks.

“I don’t even know why we agreed to tell her about it,” Matty says and gets up, “Let’s go.”

They both head for the door and Samson gives me this face my dad gave me, not before he was going to die, or even when he was sick but before we knew about it. He gave me this look when we were at a traffic stop and a car almost hit us and I screamed, Fuck. I was six and my dad turned around not in anger or shock, but he looked like he loved me more than anything else in the world. Like twin souls who had found each other. He laughed and said my thoughts exactly. Samson could be three or could be eighteen for all I knew.

“Okay, okay,” I shout after them, “Samson, come.”

When I told my best friend from school, Alex, that I hadn’t gotten my period, she told everyone. By seventh period everyone knew. I almost slammed her into a locker I was so mad, but then she was all casual and told me that all the boys said that it was hot. My anger turned into fear. Boys thought that was hot. I felt like there was a target on my back. I started getting nudes on the daily. Girls wrote my number in the bathrooms. I was known for fucking even though I’d only been fingered once in a movie theater. And I really didn’t get anything out of the experience except for sheer panic. I kept worrying that he had masturbated earlier and had gotten semen on his finger, the one inside me, and that I would be pregnant even though I couldn’t be pregnant, but I could get my period any day so who knew when I was ovulating.

How can I stop something so inevitable and yet how can I start something that I don’t want to come so boys won’t find it hot?

I left the house so fast I didn’t change into anything less comfortable. In soffe’s, a tank top, and slides my body bounced: belly, boobs, ass, thighs.

I hear the pool boys before I see them.

“This one’s going to break hearts between her thighs.”

“You even realize that mama’?”

“Shut up, she ain’t old enough chill.”

“Why her mouth look like that then?”

My mouth was open, trembling. All my life I walked by the pool boys. It’s me, Jemma? I used to drive my pink motorized car by them. They once cheered me when I rode my bike with no trainers.

“Shut the fuck up,” Matty calls, “Is your mom still washing your shirts or something?” We left them calling us bitches and teases, but they never left their chairs. Seraphina and Matty are calling them little dicked pervs. Samson happily zig zags in front of me. My dad would do the same thing too. Like, he could never be taken anywhere, because he was a big kid who wanted to touch everything. Flea markets were annoying. Fun too. It didn’t make any sense to me when the doctors said he was sick, because he looked like dad or a movie ticket guy who is good at sports. If anyone, I thought it would be my mom who would eat it first. After the diagnosis and even a few months after my dad still zig zagged around. He looked fine, handsome and all touchy kissy with mom. I watch Samson oaf-ing around the parking lot and sometimes licking my hand like, Jemma baby where too?

When we get to the Fountain Sewer, I consider my options, my hands still trembling. The worst that could happen, like Matty had said, was that Samson would be dirty and I’d have to bathe him. What if I went in instead? Each year I’d go in it again and again hitting the reset button. I would really be a social media influencer then. I would never have to worry about my period or worry about getting it. Never in my life had I felt bad for being overweight or full figured. Never in my life have I felt so out of control or unable to grasp the power of womanhood. We all do it though, but maybe I wouldn’t have to.

“What are you weirdly staring?” Seraphina asks.

“She looks like she’s thinking about banging one of the pool boys,” Matty jokes, “Let’s move, mommy will need you home soon.”

The water is a puce brown. There are weeds entwined with Dorito bags and napkins at the edge. The only movement from the water is the little mosquitoes that skim the surface. Samson is still, my dad never liked swimming much. But I did.

I could age back and never have to deal with shit. I could be famous, The Girl Who Doesn’t Age. Does Not Die. But then my mom would have to take care of me forever.

The water gurgles, the smell of pork starch wafts upwards.

Maybe I’ll test Samson first.

I release Samson from his leash, “Sit,” I command. From my bra I take out a dog treat and wave it in front of his face. Matty and Seraphina stop texting and watch us, whispering something but I could care less. Samson is staring at my hand, his hind legs scooching slightly toward me. Dad always gave me his utmost attention. I throw the treat and Samson is in the air for half a second and smacks into the water spraying us in his plight.

“Shit!” Matty yells looking down at her dirt water flaked shirt, “I didn’t think you’d actually do it dumbass.”

Seraphina is laughing, but it is forced and cruel, “Holy fuck, I thought this would be funnier but, aw, look at poor Samson.”

Out from the water he shakes his shaggy mane, more water gets on us. Matty and Seraphina are still playing the game. They pretend to run away from us as if I’m going to chase them, run after them embarrassed and slapping their backs, calling them names but softer names than the pool boys. They can and I can hear their would be giggles in the chase, tag you’re it. In their heads, they see me shamefully presenting Samson to my mom but never explaining what had happened, because we are bonded, and we keep that shit on the D.L.

“Come on Jemma, come on girl we were just playing,” Seraphina said to me.

Samson proudly presents his treat at my feet. Matty and Seraphina bodies are somewhere in this pathetic wood that hides nothing. My phone rings, which gets me on my feet. I know they didn’t film me because we aren’t friends in the real world. They will not post my captured naivety or stupidity. I can see the Winn Dixie and my apartment door and theirs. I can hear the pool boys whooping at them as they emerge out from the trees. But the pool boys had never lost track of our bodies.

My phone rings and rings and rings.


McKenzie Zalopany is a queer writer based out of the Tampa Bay area. She is a MFA student at the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in Cut Bank, Tulane Review, Superstition Review, and has been nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Her work revolves around representing sexuality, disability, and the LGBT+ community.

Categories
2020 Fiction

Hadley Franklin

ISN’T THIS WHAT YOU WANTED?

I’ve never been fast. Not physically, that is. Someone, for who knows what reason, commissioned a videographer to film my preschool class for a full year and edit the footage into a three hour VHS of children just beyond infancy wandering through a scraggly churchyard in puffy winter coats and playing with their velcro shoes at story-time and eating crackers with deliberation, crumbs tumbling onto collars and corduroy laps. And there I am in my own puffy violet coat on an outing to a farm, the camera wobbling between the goats and the children, all bleating and sniffing one another. The group rushes ahead toward the hen house and I lag behind, rounding a red barn corner, dreamy and solemn. The teacher prompts me to run and I stumble forward a few feet, then stop. Why compete, I imagine my smaller self thinking, where I will never excel? Why suffer defeat where I won’t taste victory? I found my strength in story-time, where word by word, I read aloud, a white knit blanket tied around my shoulders as a cape. I learned quickly, I read quickly, my vocabulary sped forward. But I ran, I continue to run, slowly.

I think of this now as I begin my morning jog around the neighborhood. Because I despise every second of this exercise. Every ragged, pink-faced breath, every rhythmic pound of my sneaker against pavement. I hate running in place at stoplights while men stream by in their cars, heads twisted to watch my breasts bounce. I hate the sweat that crawls in dark stains over my belly and back.

I am slogging past the bagel shop with its yeasty odors. I am crossing the bridge that arches over the highway, where cars arrested in traffic shift and shimmer, a metallic tapestry, a single huffing, glinting beast.

I’ve begun these morning runs because of Rick. Not so much because of him, but because of his new girlfriend, whom I met while they held hands in the bar last week. Why is it still so strange to to see his hand around another woman’s? I secretly think he was drawn up and breathed into life for me, so he could offer me love, then heartbreak, then a mellow, tapering friendship that will slowly fade him from reality. He once called me a solipsist and I said, But isn’t everyone really? Deep down? and he said, No, Lexi, they’re not, and looked at me with big, pretty martyr eyes. As a kid, I used to get a shivery sensation that there was someone behind me, someone dangerous. I used to imagine it was another me that was following me, but a bad version, an ugly, twisted version with wild hair and a bludgeoned look to her eyes. It made me afraid then, but no longer. I think maybe she still lives there, trailing my shadow. Maybe we’ve become friends, and at night, we rock each other to sleep.

I am running up the hill between two avenues. No, I’m doing a lunging walk up the hill because actual running is too hard and my calves burn and I’m panting so loud people turn around to watch me struggle. I’m passing this grand, cheesy hall of 1970’s glamour, white brocade and chandeliers, gold spires on the iron gate. I want to lie on a bear skin rug in that hall, my gasping body flush with the dead one below.

The girlfriend is cute. She smiled at me like I might devour her. She is short and slim and has little doll features. She’s the kind of girl guys like to hoist over their shoulders. The kind of girl who memorized rap lyrics in college because she thought it would be funny to repeat them in her little white girl voice.

She is new in his life, and I could tell her things. He got drunk sometimes and woke up in bad places– the bathtub in a shallow of vomit, the stairway mysteriously missing his shoes, a bus station bench with a dog lapping vigorously at the crotch of his jeans. Once, he threw a quarter at our bathroom window and the whole thing shattered. Once, on a bus between Philadelphia and New York, he had food poisoning and shit himself, and since the bus bathroom was out-of-order and locked, he had to sit in his own shit for an hour.

These aren’t stories to dissuade her from dating Rick. I just want to scrub the shine off a little. Is that really so wrong? To ask her to see things honestly?

The sidewalk evens out and trees flap their leaves above me. The concrete is dappled with light and I try only to step in the shadowed bits, as if I could stamp out the sun by accident. Someone driving past shouts, “Hey lady! Wanna fuck?” then laughs and zips away. I could chase down the car. I could shimmy in through the open window, sprawl onto the driver’s lap, peel off my shorts, and when he stares with surprise, I could ask, “Isn’t this what you wanted?”

The new girlfriend made me feel oversized and clumsy. She had a quick, hiccupy laugh. She made me feel slow. So I decided to run, to make my body a machine, fight pain for glory, and so on, like a sports drink commercial. The truth is, I haven’t felt well lately. The truth is, I’ve been churning through life underwater, and all I see is the deep, soundless black of the ocean. The truth is, I wouldn’t want him back, but oh, how I want a hand in a bar to fold over mine.


Hadley Franklin’s work has appeared in NarrativePalimpsestRunaway Parade, and Hanging Loose. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and earned an MFA in fiction from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. She teaches literature and writing at a special education school in New York and lives in Brooklyn.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Katherine Fallon

LANTERNFISH

I didn’t know whether to believe Tara when she told me that her grandmother’s house was haunted. My parents were practical to a fault and never entertained the idea of anything supernatural, including God, which later led people to believe that we were wicked. But Tara’s family was more superstitious, and more faithful, and while I lived in a new home with no history, her family scraped by as truck drivers, waitresses and tailors to keep their old, southern plantation in the family. So many people lived inside the house that I couldn’t keep track of their names, occupations, and relations to one another. There were a lot of children around our age, but none Tara liked and so we avoided them, which was easy enough on that much property and in a house that large.

The house was white, weather-beaten and with a large, leaf-swept porch supported by four equally-spaced, peeling columns. Pecan trees loomed over the house, branches casting a web of shadows like lace across its facade. Periodically, we’d be sent to collect the fallen fruits and Tara’s grandmother would sit in silence in the drawing room, year-round, with her holiday nutcracker, freeing their meat.

The drawing room also housed an impressive library, and Tara and I spent rainy days poring over the pages of a set of encyclopedias there. We learned about wars and plants and cities in Mexico, about heroes and criminals and the beasts of the African plains. Once, we discovered a deep sea fish that could light its own way along the darkness of the ocean floor: a single antenna hung as a lantern before its flat eyes. Its teeth were glass-sharp and nearly as translucent, all out of alignment so that I imagined its bite would leave a chorus of puncture wounds, as though many creatures were responsible for what was caused by one ugly bottom dweller. Gradually, that fish grew larger and larger, more and more monstrous in my mind.

There were smaller buildings along the property, most destroyed by years of neglect, some used as workshops or, as each generation of children in the house grew older, clandestine meeting spots, old towels strewn across the dirt floors as makeshift beds. One building in particular was forbidden to us, and Tara’s older brother, Kevin, claimed somewhat proudly that it had been the slave’s quarters. Peering through the tiny shed’s broken windows, we were initially disappointed by its emptiness, its lack of offering. There was no reason to go inside: no treasure to claim, no cabinets to explore.

Later, when I understood that the building was off-limits primarily because it was so near to collapsing, I felt uncomfortable thinking of its one barren room. I am often tempted to say that I grew up on that sprawling, dilapidated land, too, but it is this fact which stops me: at sixteen, Tara lost her virginity in the forbidden slave quarters, to a boy with a woman’s eyebrows. He managed the closest gas station and spoke with great authority about coffee, which he claimed to sell more of than fuel. By the time Tara told me about his bony hips and the pattern of hair on his belly, we were hardly friends and Kevin had been killed in active duty in the Middle East. Did it hurt, I asked her and she pursed her lips as though disgusted. No, she said. It didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even bleed.

Inside the plantation home, the floors were varnished darkly and lamps fought hard to cast light through the high-ceilinged, wooden-walled rooms. Along the hallways, there were frosted sconces, which once held candles and were never retrofitted for electricity; on the stairs, which wound around the edge of the house and left an open well between stories, there were dusty hurricane lamps proudly displayed on each landing.

Family heirlooms produced their own undeniable hauntings throughout the house. The child who would have been Tara’s oldest uncle was stillborn, and his tiny posthumous footprints, cast in plaster, sat atop a piano no one ever played, in the dining room, where no one ever ate. The family—all of them—preferred the crowded kitchen with its windows and white walls. It always smelled of rendering fat or sugar boiled with fruit.

The kitchen drawers were lined with flowered paper. There was a collection of milk cups that generations had drunk from, and they were foisted upon us at each meal, too, though the milk always appeared too blue inside them. The spoons we ate from were the tiny, soft-rubber-coated spoons of children, and sported tooth marks from too many mouths.

I hated the sensations of eating there. My hand in the hand of someone whose name I couldn’t remember but who belonged, by blood, to my best friend. My mouth coated thickly with lard and saying a blessing I didn’t know, my tongue tripping through the words in a convincing imitation until, finally, I, too, knew the Lord’s Prayer, and my parents raised an eyebrow but kept driving and leaving me there. My teeth scraping against those enamel mugs of tepid milk. Each bite I took so small that I learned to shovel several spoonfuls into my mouth in rapid succession, without chewing, and so never tasted a thing for what it was.

But it wasn’t any of those familial artifacts that most interested Tara. It was the haunting. They named the ghost Jacob, which made him familiar and terrifying. Some of Tara’s relatives claimed to have seen him. Others told stories of sounds, or doors closing, or cold spots in corners. The most common story told was of Jacob’s distaste for Christmas, as he would repeatedly and invisibly sweep all of the carefully arranged holiday decorations from the drawing room mantel.

This sometimes happened when people were in the room, but at times, an aunt or cousin would wander into the room to find shattered ornaments and torn evergreen fronds strewn about the floor. Pinecones, crushed. There were plenty more where that came from, and I felt bad for Jacob, who could never change things despite his violence.

Tara’s grandmother, who wore the same flowered housecoat every day, called Jacob “petulant”—Tara and I looked it up later and mouthed it out to each other, faces close in the eerie green of the bookshelf’s shadow—and kept rearranging the decorations in spite of their increasingly shabby appearance. I love Christmas, her grandmother would say, drawing the I out as though creating several new vowels.I don’t care what Jacob wants. I was more afraid of Tara’s grandmother than I was of Jacob.

There were no bleeding walls. No one fell down stairs or felt pushed toward the licking flame of the stove. The stillborn’s footprints were never meddled with, though the piano was sometimes purported to play, and clumsily.

It wasn’t until Kevin claimed to have seen Jacob standing over him in his bed one night that I began to believe in his powers. According to Kevin, Jacob wore a Confederate soldier’s uniform and appeared to him as a photograph, two-dimensional and faded in color.

Tara, Kevin and I whispered over the kitchen’s plastic tablecloth while one of the aunts tended to rice on the stove. Her shoulders were small and pulled inward as though she were stretching. Her fanny was wide and flat. I watched the distinct line between her two halves waver like heat on pavement as she stirred, and asked Kevin if he knew, having seen him, how Jacob had died.

He had a huge hole in his heart, Kevin said with gravity, without fidgeting, holding my gaze. His eyes were moping and brown, like a hound dog’s, like Tara’s. It was the only feature they had in common.

Was he bleeding? Tara asked, and held my hand beneath the table. She and I could have been siblings more believably than she and Kevin. We were both so nervous and pale. Our hands were even veined similarly, though her fingers were smaller enough that I could not wear her rings, and often worried at her fragility. When we walked to the gas station in the summers, we pretended to be twins, which to us meant buying the same things, sipping out of our straws the same way.

Kevin shook his head. No blood. Just a hole. I could see straight through it to the wall behind.

Got dammit, Tara’s grandmother said as she pushed her way into the kitchen. Jacob’s gone and broken my favorite nutcracker.

Tara and I spent a lot of time in the shed her grandfather used as his car shop before he passed. There were old street signs and license plates stapled to the walls. Tools we didn’t understand and could barely lift lay abandoned on workbenches. The place smelled of cat piss.

Her grandfather had been a collector of old-fashioned oilcans, and we played robot the way that some young girls play dress-up. I stood in the chilly shade of the shed and swung my arm around and around in circles, letting a pathetic squeak issue from my lips.

Tara, whose blonde hair was always pulled back into a tight ponytail with a red ribbon, approached me with an oilcan in each hand. She cooed at me—sounds that weren’t quite words and weren’t quite sympathy—and pretended to lubricate my joints. There, there, she’d say, as I began to unwind from my tight stance and allow for fluidity.

She dipped the thin nozzles of the empty oil cans into each folded part of my skin, each crook between bones. I thrilled at it, making jerking motions to show her that she was right, and mattered. I came to life for her, and I couldn’t keep from giggling as I did.

Robots don’t laugh, she chided me. With no inflection. And I got so tight-lipped she then had to oil me there, too. The cans were dusty and sticky with age, and my lips parted just enough to take them in, place my tongue upon the sickly tang of their tips out of a desperate attempt to keep quiet, which I only knew how to do by keeping busy. Otherwise, I expelled sound like an untied balloon zipping through a silent room.

I mouthed the nozzle of the oilcan, nearly suckled. Tara drew it away quickly, wiped its tip on her white shirt, leaving a smear along its hem. All better, she said, and I worked my jaw like a true hinge, felt a popping as I opened, closed.

Tara never played the robot. On the day that I suggested it for the first and only time, it was close to Christmas, and as cold as southern winters get. Even beneath her coat and scarf, I saw her grow stiff in all the wrong ways. She suggested that we go inside the house to drink some hot chocolate instead.

But Jacob, I said, not even certain I believed in him.

We have to sleep there anyway, Tara snapped with startling authority. Don’t be scared, she said then, softening a little, and put the oilcan’s tip gently behind my newly-pierced ear, which was already throbbing with the heat of pain. I let my chin fall against the can, and swiveled my head back and forth as though dancing to our favorite song.

Tara’s second-floor bedroom was covered with the same paper as the insides of the kitchen drawers. The daybed had a trundle that required one of us to pull from a kneeling position, and once, my fingers were caught in its mechanics as we lifted it into position. My nails were black and blue and it took me weeks to make a fist. My penmanship never quite recovered.

Since then, I stood in the doorway while Tara yanked it out from beneath the lace bed skirt and Kevin hovered in the hallway, watching. He did this often along the days. I could feel him without looking; sometimes I whipped my head over my shoulder to be sure it was just Kevin, human and warm and familiar, and not Jacob.

With the bed, Tara was never careful enough, but I didn’t know how to talk about the pain, so she kept on being careless and I kept letting her. My teeth gritted and the sound mixed with that of the metal frame as it elevated, protesting, beside Tara’s mattress.

The night I asked Tara to be inhuman and she refused, I lay on the thin trundle mattress, feeling the offensive collapsing frame beneath my back, and listened to her untroubled breathing. I looked at the faint lines of the wallpaper in the dark, mere suggestions of geometry, and worried about Jacob. I thought of his open, bloodless heart. I thought of his flatness and blanched transparency. I thought of him as wallpaper and then I thought I saw him there, in the pattern.

I was silent and still, and held my breath. I said his name in my head and prayed, for the first time of my own volition. I asked God to let Jacob rest, and then, because he remained like a paper doll against the wall, I shook Tara’s bony shoulder to wake her. She did not stir. I shook her again and said her name, but nothing. Tara, I hissed at her, and pinched her thigh. Nothing.

My leg wound like a spring and struck out, landed in the small of her back with such direct aim that my heel hurt from the impact. She woke with a scream and before I knew it, the lights were on in our room. One of the aunts stood over us, mouth pursed at the inconvenience of being woken in the night.

What in the name of God? she said and placed her hands on her hips. Tara began to wail and thrash about in her white sheets. My bed rolled a bit away from hers, and I stayed quiet, pressing my lips together again. I told myself, make yourself a machine. I told myself, with no one to oil you into motion. I blinked my eyes in imitation of waking and mouthed, What? and was pleased by how hoarse the word sounded, erupting into the room of my indiscretion.

The next morning, the house was buzzing with news of Jacob’s first cruelty. The shades were drawn and the interior of the plantation was brighter than it ever had been, though it was still dark. Tara walked hunched, like an old woman, and rubbed her back periodically with her hand. Wounded. A survivor. She was fed pancakes by some aunt or another, and I felt guilty that I was, too. I kept each bite in my mouth too long, until it grew soggy and tasteless, and then swallowed dryly, reaching for the blue milk.

She could’ve really been hurt, I said to Kevin when Tara retreated for a nap. My knee throbbed, my heel felt dry.

Oh, she’s all right, he replied and placed a hand on my bare knee in consolation, his thumb moving across my skin like wiping it clean. She’s just—he paused. Dramatic.

I could have really been hurt, too, I heard myself saying before I could think it through. If she hadn’t woke up screaming—

Shhhh, Kevin, the big brother, put a thick finger to my lips, kept me quiet.

Later that day, I woke Tara from her nap with a tender hand upon the cheek. She blinked up at me and seemed relieved. Let’s go exploring, I said, and she sprang up, as though her back had never been hurt.

Where are we going? she asked.

Upstairs, I told her.

The top floor of the house was not a part of our domain. At least two of Tara’s aunts slept in rooms there, but we only knew about the rooms because we heard doors opening and closing. The railing at the top of the stairs had been broken years before and as with the slave shack, the adults were strict about keeping the children of the household safe by refusing them entry. That danger was enough to keep us moored on the lower floors for years, and the previous night’s assumed paranormal activity had driven nearly everyone outdoors for the day: there was shopping to be done; there were shifts to pick up; there were creeks to play in and less dangerous sheds to explore.

The whole point was the newness, the novelty of the third floor. Instead, when we got upstairs to the broken rail, we stood in the darkness on that open precipice, peering down at the place we’d just come from: the familiar foyer, the dull glow of lamps spilling out from hidden corners. That was the place I knew, and it was not. Up there with the bird’s eye view, I understood myself to be a tourist, looking out from the inside. It was here I caught the fear that traveled, clung to me like the stink of a campfire.

We started at the sound of a screen door slapping its wooden frame, hinges vibrating. Kevin’s shadow melted from wall to floor to wall; it was leaner than he was, and longer. He called Tara’s name, waited, called again. Just out of sight, his voice was a man’s voice, and without patience.

Tara stayed still beside me, her breath thick and heavy as someone sleeping. I felt an accordion wheeze in my knees. I wobbled toward the splintered banister, praying against a creak that, mercifully, did not come.

Peering down, I imagined each globe of fading light in the foyer as the lantern above the encyclopedic sea monster’s brow. I envisioned it lurking in every darkened doorway, listening for us, too. So ugly and quiet. So hungry. I hated that fish, but I felt sympathy for it, too: forever behind its own light, and never quite within it.


Katherine Fallon received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, Passages North, Permafrost, Colorado Review, and Foundry, among others. Her chapbook, The Toothmakers’ Daughters, is available through Finishing Line Press. She teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, and shares domestic square footage with two cats and her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses. She and her favorite bread recipe can be found at katherinefallon.com, and she is reachable on Instagram @ghostelephants.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Sarah E. Ruhlen

OPEN WATER

The day was already 85° and muggy A.F. Later in the day it would be 107° and muggy A.F. but Maxine would be down at the beach, disporting herself in the waves like a dead fish. But that would be later, after Grandma Schneider got home from her walk around the high school track with her friend Betty Mosher. Right now Maxine was already sweating in a pink jumpsuit that Grandma Schneider said made her look “like a peach.” Because Maxine was round. Grandma said it was baby fat, but Maxine was 12 and the fat was still there. The jumpsuit rode up Maxine’s behind whenever she stooped to drag the skimmer across the surface of the pool. Her chore. That plus walking the stupid lapdog, and dusting Grandma’s knickknacks, were Maxine’s chores. And also helping Grandma and Grandpa facetime with Maxine’s mom.

Every Tuesday night was supposed to be facetime, with greater or lesser success depending on how late in the evening it was. The later it got, the more often Irene Price, née Schneider, said “hanh?” as if whatever was in her glass made her deaf. The reason Maxine had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa in Jacksonville every summer instead of with her mom in Indiana had something to do, she was told, with Irene’s job, and the school schedule, and Irene’s schedule, but Maxine’s friends all had single moms and they didn’t get shipped off to Jacksonville every summer.

Maxine shook the bugs and leaves out of the skimmer into the trashcan and then took the yardstick to the edge of the pool. Grandpa liked the water level to be exactly 6.5 inches below the pool ledge, a depth he had determined was optimal for the pool machinery. Rather than marring the tiles with a mark, he liked to have the pool measured every day, and for the measurement to be recorded in a little log book that he kept next to the skimmer, where he also recorded the ph and chlorine levels. Maxine sprawled on her belly next to the pool and held the yardstick against the side. 7.25 inches. Maxine did not immediately rise to record the insufficient water level in the log book but stirred the yard stick around in the pool.

“Your chlorine is low,” said a cigarette-and-whiskey voice.

Maxine, who had assumed she was alone and was lost in a daydream about a cute surfer, jumped and dropped the yardstick into the water. She rolled up to sit tailor-wise, a move which drove the pink wedgy even deeper. She lolled over like a pink balloon and straightened out the offending fabric, then sat with her legs straight out in front of her and peered over to the shallow end, where floated a mermaid.

“Huh?” said Maxine.

“Your chlorine. You better shock it or you’re gonna have trouble.” The mermaid took a drag off a Virginia Slim and hooked a finger under the strap of her sea-shell bra, pulling it to a more comfortable spot.

“I don’t do the chlorine,” said Maxine. The mermaid looked bored.

“Are you one of Grandma’s friends?”

“I doubt it. Who’s your grandma?”

“Debbie Schneider. Grandpa is Chuck Schneider?”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“Well you’re in their pool.”

The mermaid finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water.

“Hey I just cleaned that!”

The mermaid rolled her eyes, flipped her tail, and shot through the water like a speed boat. She hove up before Maxine, who scootched back, fast.

“Here’s your butt. And your stick.” The mermaid laid both on the edge of the pool and rested her arms in the little tray that ran around the edge, just below the water level. Her skin sagged at the edges of her mouth and there were wrinkles between her breasts. Her hair, twined about with pearls and sea foam, was more salt than pepper.

“Name’s Trixie,” she rasped. “What’s yours, grandkid of Debbie and Chuck?”

“Maxine Price.” Maxine picked up the cigarette butt and put it into the pocket that pooched out over the already poochy stomach of her jumpsuit. “How come you’re not in the ocean?”

“Hitched a ride on an alligator. How come you’re not at the beach?”

“I can’t go until Grandma gets home.”

Trixie did a little flip and floated on her back. Her tummy was very muscular but it flabbed out at the edges. “Elevator papa, elevator papa, seems like you always wanna go down…” she sang. She did a back flip and zipped up in front of Maxine again, alarmingly.

“Can’t you swim?”

“A little.”

“Scared of sharks?”

“A little.”

The lap dog came yapping out from the kitchen. Grandma must be home. The creature tore up to Maxine, sighted Trixie, backed. Growled. Trixie fixed the dog with a long stare. “What is that?”

“It’s just DiDi. Are you hungry?”

“Yes. DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee,” sang Trixie. Still staring at the dog. DiDi’s eyes lowered, sagged, closed. He fell over in a snooze.

“What’s it like?”

“What?”

“Being a mermaid.”

“Can’t complain. Hours aren’t bad. Good commissions, all the rum you can drink. Why, you wanna be one?” Trixie’s seaweed eyes snapped from the somnolent DiDi to Maxine, with the same stare.

“Not really. Seems kind of soggy.”

Trixie’s face sagged back to normal. She unclipped a turquoise and silver case from her bikini strap, pulled out a Virginia Slim. From the messy, tendrilly pile of hair on top of her head she fished out a turquoise and silver lighter. “You’re not wrong,” she said. “Your grandma wants you.” She jabbed with the cigarette in the direction of the patio. Then, holding the cigarette in the air, she swam under water back to the shallow end.

Grandma came to the patio door and hollered, “Maxine? DiDi! Chuck! Lunch time!”

DiDi snapped awake and yapped back to the house. Maxine followed.

“There’s a mermaid in the pool.” Maxine tried to say this around a half-chewed wad of baloney and white bread and mayo.

“Don’t be silly. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Maxine made an effort and swallowed. “She says the chlorine is low and you should shock it.”

“She’s probably right,” said Grandpa behind his paper. He was allowed to be silly.

“Betty and Carl Mosher want us to look in tomorrow for dinner,” said Grandma. “Their granddaughter is down for a visit. She’s about your age, Maxine.”

“About your age Maxine” meant anything from six to 24 years old, so Maxine didn’t hold out much hope for tomorrow evening.

“That’ll be nice,” said Grandpa.

“Drink your soda and go get on your swimsuit, Maxine,” said Grandma.

Early next morning Maxine was at the pool but Trixie wasn’t there. There were, however, a couple of cigarette butts floating in the water, which Maxine scooped out before Grandpa saw them. Also, the water smelled kind of fishy, but that was Grandpa’s problem. Maxine lolled by the pool and sang “Elevator papa, elevator papa….” The sun filtered through the Florida haze, already sticky. Maxine did not retreat into the air conditioning, which Grandpa kept at 70° because that was comfortable for him. She lolled on a deck chair reading Treasure Island until Grandma called her in for breakfast.

“Go change into that nice sundress I bought you the other day.” Grandma didn’t like Maxine’s favorite outfit, which was cut-offs and a T-shirt, which made Maxine feel cool and grown-up. In her room, Maxine pulled on the sundress, which was printed all over in tropical flowers and made her look like Scooby-Doo’s mystery van. Her hair was hot on the back of her neck so she pulled it up to a messy, tendrilly pile on top of her head. It didn’t look bad. She draped some plastic bead necklaces around the curls and, in lieu of a lighter, stowed a Star Wars figure—Luke Skywalker, in fact—in the center of the mass.

“My, you do look pretty.”

“Do hush, Chuck. She looks like a gypsy. Honey that’s fine to wear for play but you’ll have to take all that out of your hair when we go out. You don’t want people thinking you’re a Mexican.”

Maxine poked around at her scrambled eggs. Grandma hated it when she looked like a Mexican.

DiDi went off like a car alarm at the patio door. Once DiDi got going he wouldn’t shut up until you paid attention, so Maxine got up from the table and scooped him up. Through the sliding door she could just see something green and scaly slipping into the corner of the pool. She put DiDi into his crate, where he continued yipping until she stared into his eyes and sang, “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee.” The dog rested his face on his paw, and sighed a surprisingly deep sigh for such an insignificant creature.

Maxine returned to the table and gobbled down the rest of her eggs. Grandpa folded up his paper. “Time to shock the pool.” He took a long pull of coffee.

Maxine whisked her plate to the sink and rinsed it off. “I better skim it first.” She hurried out to the pool.

Trixie was lounging in the shallow end, filing her nails on an augur shell of unusual length. “I had a little dog,” she sang, “his name was Jack. He got his little tail caught in a crack, all from shakin’ that thing…”

“You better make yourself scarce,” said Maxine, “Grandpa’s about to come dump in a bunch of chlorine.”

“It’s all right. He’ll be a while. Dishwasher hose sprung a leak.”

“How do you know?”

Trixie jerked her chin toward the patio.

Maxine went back to the sliding door and saw Grandma and Grandpa stooping sternly over the dishwasher. Grandma noticed Maxine through the glass and pointed at DiDi’s crate, so Maxine went in and let DiDi out onto the patio. “What’s wrong with the dishwasher?” she asked Grandma.

“Hose is leaking.”

Maxine hurried back out to the pool.

“That’ll hold him an hour or two,” said Trixie. “Nice do.” She pointed with her augur shell at Maxine’s hair.

“Grandma says it makes me look Mexican.”

“Maybe….You know what you look like. You look just like a sweet little Carib I used to know, brown as butter….”

“Are you hungry?”

“It’s ok. Some idiot dropped a container of shortbread at the docks last night and we’ve been stuffing ourselves silly.” She stowed the shell in her hair and yawned.

“We?” said Maxine.

“Oh, everyone. Manatees, shad, wahoo…everyone likes it when they slip up at the docks. Those longshoremen ain’t what they used to be though. All machinery these days. Used to be you could just flash your tits at ‘em and they’d drop their own mother. These days they can’t even see you through all that equipment. Might as well be in Kansas.”

“I mean, are there other mermaids around?”

“Not in my territory there better not be.” Trixie’s eyes fired up green and Maxine backed up a pace.

“How big is your territory?”

“Can’t complain. Plenty big accounts. Working on a big lead right now.” Trixie yawned and flipped her tail. “Better go, Gramps wants you.”

Carl and Betty Mosher’s granddaughter was 13, skinny, crooked teeth. She had some kind of sinus issue that made her snort constantly. She spent most of the evening on Snapchat with some equally miserable friends, but she let Maxine flip through her copies of Seventeen magazine, for which Betty Mosher, not realizing that girls don’t look at magazines anymore, had bought a subscription. Every once in a while Claudia would look over Maxine’s shoulder and say, “Ohhh, I love that shirt,” or “that makes her look like a prosssstitute.” Claudia’s mouth lingered over any unsavory word, such as prosssstitute, gonorrheeeeeea, mensssssstrual cramps, and penissssss. But she was someone to talk to. Not unfriendly. When Claudia suggested they try to talk their grandmas in to taking them shopping, Maxine agreed.

Thus, Monday found Maxine and Claudia boarding the Five Points trolley, leaving their grandmothers in the Avalon district and promising to be back precisely at 3pm.

“Look at that tan guy,” hissed Claudia, pointing out the trolley window at a man who had apparently last peeked into a fashion magazine in 1982. “I bet he’s a molessssssster.” Maxine looked carefully to see what a molester looked like.

“Have to be careful, Jacksonville is full of molesssssssters. I thought your Grandpa was a molessssssster at first but it was just because his socks were loose. Mr. Brummer? This biology teacher at my school? He’s the worst molessssssster in the world but no one will fire him because he’s got dirt on everyone on the school board. He molessssssted this girl, Amber Barnes, but she’s such a ssssslut no one will believe her. She’s got titsssss out to here and she wears these teeny tiny shorts with her assssss hanging out but she puts on leggings underneath so she’s not breaking the dress code….”

At Five Points, disgorged from the trolley, the girls played with rainsticks in a head shop. Then they laughed at the vintage vinyl covers in a used record store. Then they ordered complicated, sugary lattes at the coffee shop. Then they wandered into a bead store.

This enchanting enterprise absorbed them for quite a while. Even Claudia forgot to talk about molesssssters as she tried to decide between a long string of sparkly seed beads and a shorter option involving green and white, her school colors. Maxine designed a strand of black and red beads to give to Trixie. While she waited for the sales lady to affix the clasp she wandered over to Claudia, who was sifting through some carved beads of inordinate beauty and expense. Maxine rummaged through the trays.

“Oh!”

“’smatter?”

“So pretty!” Maxine held up a tiny jade koi fish of breathtaking delicacy and beauty. She turned it in her fingers. The light glinted off its exquisite carved scales and fins.

“You should buy it.”

“Can’t. I already spent all my money.”

Maxine put the lovely thing down. Claudia picked it up. Maxine found she did not like to see Claudia’s clammy fingers on it.

The bell on the shop door rang behind them. Fast as a cat, Claudia shoved the koi bead into Maxine’s pocket.

“Hey!”

“Shut up dumbass. If you say anything I’ll deny it.”

“Miss?”

Maxine nearly wet her pants.

“Miss, your bracelet is ready.” The clerk held out the package. Maxine tried not to let her hands shake as she took it. “Have a nice day,” said the clerk.

“Thank—too—” Claudia hustled her toward the door. They brushed by a tallish woman, the person who had just entered, with hungry green eyes and a mass of salt and pepper hair piled on top of her head, with an augur shell of unusual length stuck in the middle. She winked at Maxine.

“C’mon retard. We’ll be late for the trolley.” Claudia shoved Maxine out the door. The bell jangled like a fire alarm.

All evening the little jade fish rolled around in Maxine’s pocket. She tried to feel guilty about it. Failed. Its mouth formed a perfect fish-kiss “O.”

In the night she got out of bed and snuck down the hall to Grandma’s sewing room. Rummaged until she found a strand of black ribbon. This she threaded through the jade koi and tied around her neck, so that the fish rested on her breastbone. Maxine noticed that her nipples appeared to be pooching out a bit. Tits. That’s all she needed.

“That Claudia sure is a poisonous little eel. Dumb, too. There was a security camera right on top of you two the whole time.” Trixie finished winding the black and red beads into her hair, dove down into the pool, and came up with an antique hand mirror of exactly the type one would expect a mermaid to have. She studied the effect of the beads. “Not bad. Kinda hotch-tcha-tcha, you know? But you,” she left off, dumping the mirror in the water and letting it sink, “you know it only takes one phone call to get you into juvvie. Do you realize the position you’re in?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“You still got the hot fish, don’t you?”

Maxine touched the lump between her nubbins.

“You know they don’t switch those tapes until Wednesday,” said Trixie.

Sometimes Trixie was just as bad as Grandma.

“What’s wrong, don’t want to go to juvvie?” Trixie flipped onto her back and did a couple laps around the pool, singing “I had a little dog, his name was Jack….”

Maxine felt that she did not want to go to juvvie.

“Yeah you’ll never survive there. You’re too much of a girl scout. Too bad someone can’t do something about that….” Trixie lit a Virginia Slim. She made the frown that smokers make when they light up.

“How did you get there?”

“Where?”

“To the bead store?”

“Oh well you know, I can always make it work when I gotta friend who’s in trouble.”

“But how did you get legs?”

“You know I’m very generous when I have a true friend. I’ve gotten people off of worse raps than shoplifting. You know I could sense that you were in a spot yesterday…” Trixie shoved off the side of the pool and did some kind of twirl in the water, holding the cigarette out of the water the whole time. Maxine found that she couldn’t remember. Had Trixie entered the store before or after Claudia stuck the bead in her pocket? Again Trixie was in front of Maxine. Her algae eyes burning. “I can sense you’re in quite a spot today,” she hissed. “One phone call. From someone who knows. They get a phone call, they review the tape, and Maxine Price is on the hook for shoplifting.”

It was 92° in Jacksonville that morning, and muggy A.F. Maxine’s arms broke out in goosebumps.

“Why…” Maxine found her voice wasn’t working properly.

“I need a favor.”

“You…you hungry?”

“Yeah. I’m hungry. I need a favor.”

“What favor?”

“Let DiDi out of the house after dark.”

“Are you kidding? He’ll get et up by an alligator!”

“Possibly.” Trixie’s eyes half lidded. She rubbed her fingers across her lips. “He might possibly get et. He might get gobbled down like a sweet little suckling pig.”

Maxine backed away.

“Used to be a lot easier, you know. Every whaling ship and merchant clipper had a goat or some chickens but these days it’s all prepackaged, frozen patties and canned soup. You ever tried to eat canned soup when you’re swimming in open water? It’s a hungry life out there, krill krill and more krill, lucky if someone drops a saltine overboard…” Trixie was talking to herself by this point because Maxine had backed to the patio and was still backing. Just before Maxine backed around the corner to the sliding door, Trixie refocused her green gaze. “One phone call!” she growled. “You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. I’m hungry A.F.”

That night was Tuesday. Irene Price seemed more than usually hard of hearing. “Don’sha like it in Florda?” she kept saying. “Mebby like to shtay wishyer Gramma n Granpa?”

“You got a new boyfriend, Mom?”

“Hanh?”

“Why can’t I stay with Dad?”

“Maxine!” rebuked Grandma. In Grandma’s opinion, the only thing worse than looking Mexican was asking to stay with Maxine’s dad, whose ancestors had lived in Texas before the advent of the conquistadores. Maxine didn’t know him that well but he seemed nice enough. Better than old people with a mermaid in their pool.

“Mom what’s juvvie?”

“Hanh?”

“Who’s been talking to you about juvvie, child?” said Grandma.

“Um, Claudia.”

“Claudia would,” snorted Grandma “I don’t think that child is very nice.”

“Juffie?” said Irene. “It’s like jail for kids. You goin to juffie? Whadya do, try to sell some oregano?”

“Irene!”

“Hanh?”

In the night Maxine snuck out of bed to the crate where DiDi slept. DiDi woke and snuffled at her, but Maxine sang “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee” and he shut up. He was a revolting little creature, smelly, loud, with a brain too little to do anything but vibrate. He trusted her.

Maxine made herself stop thinking about DiDi trusting her. She eased the crate open and went to the patio door. The moon shone on the sparkles in the concrete. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something that might be a splash at the corner of the pool. Maxine unbolted the patio door. Lifted up as she slid open the glass, to keep it from squeaking. DiDi stood at the screen door, silent. Not yapping at all. She opened the screen. Closed her eyes.


Sarah E. Ruhlen’s poetry has appeared in Slipstream, RHINO, I-70 Review, Coal City Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and the Kansas City Star, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Hobart and Essay Daily’s June 21, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.