Categories
2019 Fiction

Claire Robbins

TWO STARS, BURNING SUN

Shay and I drove North to Muskegeon for Sweatfest. Shay’s burned CD, titled Motivational Mamas in sharpie, played over twice during the drive. We were going to see If He Dies He Dies, Lorelei, and The Nain Rouge. For Shay, it was about the music and also a bassist she had a crush on, a beefy man who played in If He Dies He Dies. For me, it was about drinking rum and coke on the drive up and slam dancing buzzed. It was also about Shay, who let me kiss her when we were drinking and paraded me around like a poorly trained puppy.

Shay sipped her rum and coke slowly. She was the driver and had to keep a little sober for the ride home, but I could drink my brains out all night. We had gone through the McDonalds drive-through for a large coke, half of which Shay dumped out in the parking lot. We left the empty half pint of Captain Morgan’s on the pavement. This was our routine. We might ask the beefy man to buy us more liquor once we got to Sweatfest, or Shay might befriend boys with beer.

I had recently pierced my eyebrow on the night of my eighteenth birthday. Shay had gone along, she had turned eighteen almost a full year before, and had pierced her belly button a few months earlier. Don’t get too many facial piercings, Shay had warned. She didn’t want me to end up like Tackle-Box, someone we knew from going to shows.

You look hardcore, Shay said, taking her eyes from the road for just a beat too long, jerking the steering wheel straight when she finally put her eyes back on the road. I was wearing the usual, a thrift store D.A.R.E. tee-shirt, black jeans cut off at the knee, and a pair of work boots. I glared at Shay.

What do you mean?

Your hair, asshole, it looks sexy. Shay reached over and grabbed a handful of my hair, which sent shivers down my spine. I had thought about cutting my hair, to look less like a girl, but I loved it when people touched my hair.

You look sexy too, babe. Shay was wearing ripped fishnets, and a lacy dress that was sold as lingerie.

Oh these? She said, running the fingers of one hand over her cleavage. These are for Alex.

Alex was the beefy man. Shay was always doing this to me, teasing because she knew I would do anything for her, but if I ever wanted to go farther than kissing, she would tell me that we were just friends, and that I was too good of a friend to lose.

Sweatfest was held in the conference room of a seedy motel. It was a three-day festival, but we were only up for the night because Shay had to work the following day at noon restocking shelves at the grocery store. I was working for a house cleaning company, but didn’t have to go in until Monday. Shay and I had moved into a two-bedroom apartment together as soon as we graduated from high school, while I was still seventeen. My mom didn’t mind, the move just meant I was one less person for her to keep track of.

Shay pulled her Dodge Avenger into the parking lot of the motel. We’re here, we’re here. She took a long pull of the rum and coke; it was just about gone. I felt warm. Love radiated from my body, or maybe it was sex. I couldn’t tell the difference. We opened the car doors and I pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes, which Shay had convinced me to start buying and I had given in, even though they were more expensive than the Marlboro reds I used to smoke. I lit Shay’s cigarette, and then my own. The Lucky Strikes did taste good, so good after the rum and coke. I leaned my body against the car, and Shay put her arm around my shoulder. I figured I would hold off kissing her until she got a little more drunk, but I wanted to right then, in the parking lot.

Ready to go in? Shay asked, dropping her cigarette butt onto the asphalt. She picked up her purse from the driver’s seat and watched me take two more drags.

Can I hold your hand? I wasn’t slurring my words yet, I didn’t think, but I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the day, with the anticipation of dancing and drinking the rest of the day. It was strange feeling buzzed in the sunshine, I thought; it was still only mid-afternoon. Shay looked at me.

Don’t get too worked up, Cam, we’ve got the whole night together. But she took my hand, and we walked past boys in mohawks, clustered around the front doors, smoking cigarettes and joints. The boys looked at Shay’s cleavage, they looked at the steel toes on my boots, and I looked at the knives tucked into their pockets and hanging on their beltloops. I wondered if they’d hit me as hard as I wanted once I started dancing.

We walked into the conference room. There were cigarette butts ground into the carpet and empty red cups and beer cans from the night before. A band was setting up on stage, tangled cords crisscrossed, and a thin boy carrying a snare drum almost tripped. Other kids were standing in groups and the excitement was a heavy skin hanging over everyone. Alex stood at one end of the room, with a can of beer and the guys from The Nain Rouge. Shay pointed in their direction just as I spotted them. I wished the music would start.

Alex looks so good in those jeans.

I looked down at my own pants. I look good in my jeans. I tried to thrust my right hip to the side. Shay rolled her eyes at me and walked over to Alex, wrapped her arms around him. When they pulled apart, Alex looked her up and down. Alex was twenty-eight and had a fiancé. Maybe she was there, I hoped. I stood rooted to the carpet until someone put a Ramones CD on, and then I let my hair fall over my face as I shook my head slowly to the music.

Cam’s being an asshole, I told myself in Shay’s voice over and over in my head, until Shay walked back over and pulled me by my hand to where Alex and the guys stood. They all looked at the tangle of un brushed hair partially covering my face, they looked at my boots.

Hey man, The Nain Rouge’s drummer reached out to slap my shoulder.

Cammie, right? Alex asked even though I had spent at least a dozen drunken nights trying to maneuver my body between his and Shay’s bodies. He should have known my name.

Cam, actually, I glared at Alex.

Right, he said too slowly, smiling and shaking his head at Shay. Maybe their plan was to get me so drunk I passed out in a corner. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, they felt like planets orbiting around my torso. I shoved them into my pockets, then pulled out a lighter and my pack of cigarettes.

Can we smoke in here? I asked Shay.

I’m going to, Shay answered, pulling a Lucky Strike out of my pack. I held up the lighter to light the smoke in her mouth, but she moved her head to the side and took the lighter out of my hands, lighting her own cigarette before passing the lighter back to me. I lit my cigarette and let it dangle out of the corner of my mouth for a few puffs, lifting my face up to the fluorescent lights. I shook my hair back so it wouldn’t catch fire.

I met Shay at bible camp, which was the cheapest sleepaway camp my mother could find but Shay’s family really believed. The camp was called HEARTTS, which stood for Heavenly Ever After Retreat To The Savior, an acronym that didn’t make sense even to fifth graders. Nothing about camp made sense to me except for Shay, who at eleven already painted her fingernails black and had breasts. I had not eaten much all summer because I didn’t want to start my period and I didn’t want to grow breasts, a strategy that only worked for so long.

It was an all-girls camp, which I later told myself was the reason Shay had befriended me—I was the closest person to a boy she could find, and she was desperate for a boyfriend. She let me hold her hand underwater during swimming hole time, and share a table with her at mealtimes. I would put a small amount of food on my plate and watch Shay eat her fill. We had chapel before dinner, a two-hour session during which I would pray that god not give me a period. At the end of chapel, the speaker would invite us forward to the front of the room to receive the holy spirit.

Slowly one or two campers would walk up and kneel in the front of the chapel, arms reaching up as if to catch whatever god dumped on them, well, I didn’t want anything god had for me.

The Nain Rouge’s drummer tossed me a can of beer. I caught it, considered it in my hands for a second before cracking the tab and passing the can to Shay. She smiled at me and took a long drink. I looked to the drummer, who tossed another can my way. I opened my beer and poured the sweet liquid into my mouth. The band that had been setting up began their set. I didn’t recognize them, and they weren’t great, but I shook my head slowly to their music.

I felt Shay’s heat radiating next to me. I wanted to grab her hand, lean in towards her body. I wanted to dance slowly with her, but she was looking at Alex, whose fiancé had stayed home from Sweatfest. She had been in a bad mood Alex said, winking at Shay.

The unrecognizable band played out their set and my joints loosened up from another beer. The person I was inside seemed to peer out from under my hair. I felt better drunk, like who I actually was joined up with the sensations of my body. If He Dies He Dies moved their drums onto the stage. The unrecognizable band unplugged their amps.

If He Dies He Dies opened with Feels Like the First Time. The bass shook my spine. The other kids in the room moved closer to the stage and I could see from their energy that it was only a moment before they began pushing. I turned to Shay, thinking that maybe I could kiss her before I moved up closer to the stage. She stood looking up at Alex, his hand moving along the neck of his bass. It was just energy coursing through my body, or alcohol.

I wasn’t angry as I pushed my body closer to the stage and began wheeling my arms. I could become a part of the crowd, which began to circle. The Nain Rouge’s drummer had followed me up and was slamming his shoulders into other dancers, who pushed back with their arms. The only rule in the pit was to lift people back up to their feet if they fell, because falling would be a type of death under the weight of the crowd.

On the last night of camp, I had accepted the pastor’s call to come up to the altar. About half of the campers were already kneeling in front of the room, arms out-stretched, mouthing prayers or repeating the same words over and over in a kind of ecstasy. Halleluiah—halle—halleluiah, they stuttered before the spirit entered them and strange sounds pulled out of their throats.

Shay was on her back, speaking in tongues. I knelt down next to her and tried praying inside my head. Lord, show me the way. Next to me a counselor knelt down, placing her hand on my back, Lord Jesus, heavenly father, pour your blessings on Cammie, fill her body with your spirit. I pushed my fingers into the carpet, creating ten impressions in its surface. The words, her body, ran through my head over and over, and then my face was in the carpet and words were coming out of my mouth. I was scared but I knew, even as the words left my mouth, that I was faking. I knew that god hadn’t entered me, wouldn’t ever enter someone as mixed up and hungry as me. The counselor seemed to know I was faking too, she gave me a stern look before moving on to another camper.

The thing about slam dancing is that once you get into the circle, it’s hard to pull away from the motion. I was so close to the other bodies, their movements propelling me around and around. I kept moving my legs long past the point of exhaustion. And then the set ended and the dancing slowed and I was able to pull back.

I sat against the wall, smoking. Shay slumped down next to me, took the cigarette that I held out to her, even let me light it for her. She exhaled and leaned her head onto my shoulder.

Where’s lover boy? I asked.

He went into the band room.

Are they doing lines?

Yeah, I think. He wouldn’t let me go in with him. Fuck his ass. Shay reached up and moved the tangle of sweaty hair out of my face. Lover boy, she said, giggling. A power coursed through my body, and I grabbed Shay’s hand.

Do you remember camp? I asked.

Yeah, I remember you got the holy spirit.

So did you, Shay.

No, I didn’t, Cam. I just wanted attention. I was faking.

I leaned over and kissed Shay soft on the lips. She pressed into the kiss and pressed into me, whispering, but I couldn’t hear what she said because a wall of music pushed over the room.


Claire Robbins serves as the guest creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.

Categories
2019 Fiction

Mehdi M. Kashani

SISTERS AND LISTS

When I was dating Ariana, I never asked if she had any siblings, so it was quite natural to mistake her for her twin sister long after we’d broken up. As a way of correcting me, she introduced herself: Becky. I told Becky how seeing her brought back memories of her sister and, in return, she patted my shoulder. That gesture of sudden intimacy propelled me to invite her for a coffee, which led to a dinner, then another meal, and before I knew it I woke up with her in my arms. Ariana had left me a roster of all the things she didn’t like about me, which she thought was the takeaway from our relationship, though she didn’t give me a chance to address her concerns. With Becky, I tried to be Ariana’s ideal boyfriend. I bought Becky flowers, opened the doors for her and was gentle in bed. None of this left an impression on Becky as she dumped me, magnanimously leaving me with a list of what I wasn’t. A few months passed, where I mulled over her comments until I met Celine and found the sisters were triplets. I’m not who you think I am, she said when she saw my confusion. With Celine it took some time to break the ice, but when it happened it was hard to define boundaries. Unlike her sisters, she wanted me involved (her word) in every aspect of her life and she in mine. It was hard to keep up. After a few failures at involving her in my micro decisions—barhopping with friends without her, for example—she made a macro decision without my input and called it off. As part of the healing process, I went on vacation and was surprised to see Celine—or Becky, or Ariana—in the flight attendant outfit hovering over me. She asked whether I liked chicken or pasta and my eyes bulged open. Whoever you think I am, she said, I’m her sister. Then, she repeated her chicken-pasta question, and, in response, I asked for her name. Diane was fun and charming and didn’t take life as seriously as her sisters did which meant she didn’t mind sleeping with guys on her cross-continental trips. I played it cool for a while until I couldn’t. By that point, I was convinced that Ariana must have other sisters, that if Diane ever left me—which she did because I didn’t respect her freedom—I wouldn’t end up alone. So, running into Erica was nothing unexpected, neither was meeting Franny and Gina and Helen and Irene and Jane and Karen and Leila and Monica and Natalie and Olin and Penny and Quinn and Renee and Sonya and Tanya and Ursula and Veronica and Willa and Xena and Yuko and Zoey. They breezed in and out, leaving traces in my heart and a scrap of paper in my pocket brimming with their likes and dislikes.

When I see Ariana, I recognize her immediately. She’s aged, no doubt. She moves slower and dark lines sit around her mouth, crow’s feet under her eyes. She’s also shrunk in size as if she’s shed away part of herself with the years. I have no difficulty deciding that she’s Ariana, thanks to her sisters who’ve helped me to stumble through the trapeze of time. Myself, I’ve changed too. I introduce myself and keep talking for a while until her eyes shine with recognition. I remember you, she says. You never told me you have sisters, I say. Because I don’t is her answer. I smile as I crunch a jumble of papers in my pocket, twenty-six lists of nice-to-bes and not-so-nice-to-bes. Got time for a walk, I ask. She nods, bringing out the smile I’ve grown so familiar with. I throw my arm around the small of her back, tossing the crumpled papers away with my other hand.


Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in Passages North, The Rumpus, Catapult, The Malahat Review, Wigleaf, Four Way Review, The Walrus, Bellevue Literary Review, among others. He has work forthcoming in Emrys Journal (for which he won 2019 Sue Lile Inman Fiction Award), The Fiddlehead and The Minnesota Review. To learn more about him, visit his website.

Categories
Fiction

Jackie Chhieng

SABRINA NGUYEN AT THE 7-ELEVEN ON LOMBARD

Sabrina stands in front of the fridge a little too long. Her grandmother’s curling ear follicles twitch beneath the weight of its hum.

“Bibi, you wasting electricity. Close door.”

She does so slowly, savoring the exhaling wisp of frigid air as it shuts.

Sabrina’s grandmother is watching television in the living room, molded into a cracked burgundy chair. She bends down to grab a vase by her ankle and brings it close to her mouth, dribbling brown sludge from her lips down into its opening. The dip hits the bottom with a wet slap. She puts it down and slides another pinch of tobacco between her lip and gums.

On the screen Bob Barker guides a young woman to a multicolored wheel, beckoning her to spin. The pleasant beeps of the wheel gradually puts Sabrina’s grandmother to sleep.

She moves without hesitation, kneeling behind the backside of her grandmother’s chair, she reaches beneath and fishes out a blue Royal Dansk cookie tin. Popping the lid open, Sabrina snatches a five dollar bill and immediately slides the tin back to its hiding spot.

Slinking away, Sabrina shoves her flip flops on before she leaves the house.

Her mother’s car isn’t in the driveway. Fluid stains on concrete leave spectral traces of presence.

Fires in the Gorge belched great heaps of smoke onto the city. A red sun hovers in the mid-evening haze, imbuing everything with a dull pink glow. Everything has a sharp and pinching taste to it now. Nobody in the city has had a clean breath in weeks.

Sabrina’s flip-flops smack up and down the street. She’s nearly out the block when someone hails her from a nearby stoop. It’s her grandmother’s friend, an old man with an eyepatch. The one that leers at Sabrina’s legs whenever he thinks she isn’t looking.

“Bibi. Where’s grandma,” he asks in Vietnamese.

“Sleeping,” Sabrina says in English.

“Okay okay. Where’s mama?”

She shrugs.

“Okay okay. Where you going?”

“To the store.”

“What store, Bibi?”

“7-Eleven.”

“Okay okay. Come here, Bibi, come here.”

Reluctantly, Sabrina approaches the old man. A thick, herbal scent seeps from his body, a sort of fermentation that could have been alcohol or just the ointment he rubbed for his aching bones. Up close, Sabrina sees how calloused and dark his skin is. It reminds her of her grandmother’s chair.

The old man with the eyepatch buries his root-like fingers into his shirt, producing a crinkled up wad of dirty bills. He pushes them into the pocket of her denim shorts. She feels his fingers loiter on her thigh for just a second too long before he draws them out.

“Bring Uncle beer. Like this.” He holds up an empty bottle of Heineken beside him.

She opens her mouth to say something but catches herself mid breath. The old pervert either forgot Sabrina’s age or didn’t care. She smiles all the same.

“Yes Uncle,” she says in Vietnamese this time. “Uncle, can I have a cigarette?”

A glazed look emits from the old pervert’s unsheathed eye. It dawns on him a second later what Sabrina is asking. He reaches for the mint-green pack of Newports besides him and hands her a cigarette. Sabrina tucks it behind her ear. 

“Don’t tell grandma,” he says, and smiles with a broken grin.

Sabrina thinks she can feel his empty socket winking from behind the patch.

With a newfound unease she retreats to the bottom of the stairs and makes her way out of the neighborhood, past lawns thick with dead grass and strewn with toys, past harried hounds desperate to keep her at bay, past glittering brown glass shards sprinkled across concrete until she finally reaches Lombard Street.

~

Sabrina Nguyen is eighteen years old. She dropped out of high school at sixteen and agreed to started taking care of her grandmother to avoid being kicked out of the house. Her mother works graveyard shifts at a meat processing plant in Hillsboro. Sabrina never sees her but she always leaves phantom remnants of her presence—a freezer stocked with frozen pizzas, clean laundry for Sabrina and her younger brother, an ashtray in the living room brimming with cigarette butts.

All the fingernails on Sabrina’s left hand are permanently black, a side effect of subungual hematoma from when her father smashed her fingers with a hammer after she was caught stealing his wallet. The day after, Sabrina’s father moved out. Her uncle Tuan stayed with them for a few months after that. He kept a gun on his drawer and always talked about killing Sabrina’s dad if he ever saw him. Uncle Tuan was imprisoned on a felony charge a few years ago after he brutalized a TriMet cop that asked him for his ticket. Sabrina wore a splint on each of her busted fingers for about two months. She specifically remembers the bone of her middle finger pushing out of the skin, as a moth from a cocoon.

A few months ago Sabrina overheard a conversation her grandmother was having on the phone with a distant aunt in Thủ Dầu Một. Apparently her father had moved to Texas with a woman he’d been having an affair with. They had two kids together and ran a coffee shop in Dublin. Now and again, Sabrina still drops things from her left hand that she has trouble gripping.

Sabrina doesn’t have friends. She spent most days sitting on the couch watching TV with her grandmother. Together they’d watch game shows from morning till night: The Price is Right, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal, and Jeopardy. In the milky luminescence of the TV’s cathode rays, Sabrina and her grandmother would talk about how they’d have been better contestants and what they’d do with their winnings.

Most evenings Sabrina prepared a frozen pizza for her and her brother. She’d knock on his door to let him know dinner would be ready soon. In the corner of her eye she’d glance at the door at the end of the hallway—the one that belonged to her mother. It was never open. The barest gap peeks from the bottom, like an eyelid just cracked. Sabrina watched the door every night, then afterwards sat in the darkness of her room listening until her mother woke up and left for work.

~

Sabrina is smoking outside the 7-Eleven on Lombard.

She reaches into her pockets and pulls out the cash the old pervert gave her. Vietnamese banknotes. About six-thousand đồng, a little over a twenty-five cents. She pushes them back into her shorts and flicks the cigarette butt into the parking lot.

She walks into the 7-Eleven. The lights inside are dim. The air is cold and artificial, breathing in and out of ceiling ducts and recycling itself deep within the store’s organs. In here, everything is given an opportunity to push their life-span beyond its natural limits, from the chicken tenders dreaming beneath the warming lights to the Polish dogs splitting themselves apart on the rollers.

With the five-dollars she stole from her grandmother Sabrina combs the shelves for cheap snacks, counting the total up as she goes. Two beef sticks, a bag of sour gummies, a can of sweet tea, some chapstick, and finally, a slice of pepperoni pizza adhered to wax paper by thick globules of burnt, melted cheese.

“The pizza’s free,” the cashier says as she pries it off with her tongs. “It’s uh, been here awhile.”

She sorts Sabrina’s things into a paper bag and sets it aside. Propping herself on her elbows, she leans in close to speak.

“You come here a lot, huh?”

She’s about Sabrina’s age. Eighteen, maybe nineteen. A black hijab pleasantly frames her round face, the muted color of the fabric contrasts with the pink flush of her cheeks.

“Sometimes.”

“Yeah. I recognize you. You’re always buying junk food. Do you really think you should be eating all this stuff?”

Sabrina borrows a breath, holding it tightly beneath her chest. She debates taking the bag and simply walking away.

“I don’t know how to cook,” she says finally.

“Hum,” the girl says. “That’s fair. Me neither. My father cooks all the meals in our house. What’s the deal with your hand?” She reaches for Sabrina’s fingers and snatches them up, dangling each finger in her hands like it was a large crab.

“They’re all black on the end, and crooked too. Is that paint? No, it’s underneath the nails as well. Someone run it over?”

“Something like that.”

Sabrina likes the way her hand is being held. It imbibes a feeling of vulnerability without the weight of anxiety that normally accompanies it. She watches as the girl pushes her fingers apart and closes them with curiosity. The cashier gently puts her hand to rest back onto the countertop.

“Say, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“When you walked in here, did you feel something change deep inside you? Do you feel different? Were you the same person coming into this store as the one outside it?”

“Um—”

“Sometimes I think this store is a gateway to another universe. The front doors are the portal. You know how each planet has a different gravitational pull, so how much you weigh fluctuates from planet to planet? That’s how I feel about this store. I feel like there’s some cosmic change that’s completely distinct from the world outside. But, the change is deeper, it’s less tangible then say, one’s weight. Something inside me has changed shapes in here.”

She balls up her fist and holds it to her navel.

“Anyway, that’s just how I feel. Maybe you don’t, maybe the hundreds of people coming in buying cigarettes or booze don’t feel that way. Does the 7-11 on Lombard street exist on a universe all its own? I don’t know. It’s just how I feel,” she says again.

~

When Sabrina was younger she dreamed of playing an instrument.

Her father played the guitar. His was tall and black, gilded across the sides. After a night of drinking, Sabrina often heard him on the porch strumming as one of his friends sang old provincial folk songs. He loved Phạm Duy, and played his music late into the evening, much to the chagrin of their neighbors.

Uncle Tuan could play the piano. There used to be a Hailun in the living room. He only played for two people, his girlfriend and Sabrina’s grandmother. When Tuan went to prison, he told Sabrina’s mom to sell it to help pay for rent. Her brother was in his school orchestra. Sabrina remembers seeing him so quiet and demure in his chair, flute resting atop his knees. The old pervert had a viola. Her grandmother said that now and again he’d take the train down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and busk for beer money.

None of the women in her family played music.

She held an instrument once, a guitar that belonged to her grandfather, Baba’s husband. No sooner did she she bring it up to her chest did she feel a violent needling on her beaten hand. Sabrina dropped the guitar to the floor, its sonal moan emptied into the pit of the room. She abandoned the notion, and elected never to revisit the issue again.

Sabrina wonders what her father is doing now. She has never been to Texas. In her head, she pictures an unending plain flattened by dust. Her father sits in the only building for miles, playing his guitar in between sips of coffee. His wife and children sit on the stoop, listening to him play.

The old pervert wasn’t on the stoop when Sabrina walked back. His pack of Newports sits on the top step. Sabrina rushes up to grab them, leaving the trash from her snacks on his porch.

A dim and colorless night is coming soon. Her mother’s car is still gone.

Her grandmother is sleeping in her chair. An infomercial for a dog stroller hums in the background. She slips her sandals off by the door.

Sabrina retrieves the đồng from her pocket. Unfurling the dirty bills, she gently bends down to grab the tin beneath her grandmother’s chair. She places the money inside and pushes it back.

“Bibi,” her grandmother murmurs.

“Yes, Baba,” she answers, frozen behind her.

“You make dinner?”

“Not yet. I’m going to.”

“Good, good. Put Wheel on for Baba.”

Slowly, Sabrina gets to her feet. She picks up the remote and flips the channel. Vanna White is on the screen, illuminating squares with the touch of her hand. Sabrina’s grandmother shuffles in her chair, a smile creeps across her tobacco-stained lips as she closes her eyes again.

“Bibi, grab box from Baba chair. Take ten dollars.”

“What for?”

“For you. You good girl. Baba want to give.”

Again, Sabrina finds herself perched beneath her grandmother’s chair. She removes the money from the tin. For a moment she holds the ten dollars in her hands, then places it back.

“Thank you, Baba.”

No answer save for a few hoarse wheezes rising from the belly of the chair. She’d fallen asleep again. A stillness reaches over the room.

Things were different when Sabrina’s father lived here. Their house exerted the tempers of an uneasy treaty, held aloft by the looming threat of her father’s rage.

Sabrina holds up her hand to examine, folding the fingers in and out of her palm. With her unblackened hand she traces a line from the top of each tendril down to her wrist.

He’d grabbed her by that same wrist, his own thickly calloused fingers rooted so tightly that no amount of kicking or punching could force their release. Sabrina’s father dragged her into the kitchen. In the web of snot and tears that amassed upon her face she pleaded for him to stop.

She watched him as he reached for a cutting board and slammed it on the counter, then as he yanked drawer after drawer open looking for his cleaver. He never found it, and settled on the hammer instead.

Sabrina walks into the kitchen. Nothing really changed here. Her mother threw out the hammer and the cutting board, both of which were stained with Sabrina’s blood when the bone had punctured skin.

She removes a pizza from the freezer and puts it on the counter, then sets the oven to ding when it finishes preheating.

She knocks on her brother’s door to tell him dinner will be ready soon. He doesn’t answer. Palming the door open, she sees him poring over his desk, a pair of headphones over his head obscures her presence. He’d cried when his father left. Sabrina never resented him for it, but she often wondered why he felt that way. Sabrina closes the door, now again in an empty hallway.

At the end of the it is her mother’s room. A pink glow peaks beneath the gap. Sabrina slowly pushes herself closer and closer to the door. Something within her begins to feel light and weightless. She leans her body against the frame. It feels like nothing, her body now devoid of substance, a phantom anatomy.

The more force she puts through her fingers, the emptier she feels. Sabrina feels her body lose its tangibility. She feels herself merging with the door. No, she’s phasing through the door, shifting past the its physical form and into her mother’s room. The glow seethes from the other side, permeating Sabrina’s skin.

Her eyes are closed. She feels the bathing pink wash over her. Sabrina kneels. Something instinctual has burrowed inside her. It tells her the time to open her eyes hasn’t come yet, but to wait patiently, and that it should be here soon. She wonders if this is what it means to change shapes.

Perhaps this was her mother’s room, perhaps this was another world. She would never know until she opened her eyes. The thought keeps them clamped shut. In her head, she imagines the abstract of what this room would look like, mining the far veins of her memory for what she remembers.

Sabrina has been in this room only once before, after her father broke her hand.

She pictures it as it was then: a queen-sized bed with an array of comforters and blankets her mother purchased from the flea market, a dresser with a vanity, the surface of which was littered with jewelry she never wore, there was a Buddha in the corner, sitting sentinel over a congregation of incense stumps. The scent of jasmine and menthols mixed into a potion here.

Her mother sat her down upon the bed to examine the warped remains of her hand. She held it up, crushed and shrunken like the corpse of a freshly stomped spider. Leaning close, she whispered something in Sabrina’s ear.

Sabrina doesn’t remember what her mother said.

The oven dings. She opens her eyes. The pink has swept the room away. There is nothing in here. The vanity, her mother’s jewelry, the Buddha in the corner, all of it is gone, as if her mother and any trace of her had vanished into nothingness. In place of the things her mother had there was now just a flat futon mattress on the ground, a pile of clothes in the corner, and the ashtray which used to be on the vanity.

Sabrina licks her lips and nods her head.

“Yeah. Yeah,” she says to the unadorned walls.

Sabrina stands up and returns to the kitchen. She places the pizza into the oven and sets another timer for when it has finished cooking. Producing the pack of cigarettes from the old pervert, she steps outside onto the porch. The concrete has cooled somewhat now. All that’s left now is the hazy glow of smoke and starlight. She holds a cigarette in her left hand, and lights it with her right.

She thinks about the girl at the 7-Eleven, now at home waiting for her father to finish dinner. She has her elbows propped up on the table, telling him about her day and about meeting Sabrina. A dimness aches in the night. Far and away, she can hear the sounds of Vietnamese folk songs chasing dust across the plains of Texas.


Jackie Chhieng lives and writes in the Treasure Valley. They’re lactose intolerant and share a room with a red-tailed boa named Sylvia. Some of their writing can be found in Foglifter Journal, Thin Air Magazine, and Ouroboro.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Alex Ebel

CLOSE TO HIM

Brady modeled in his underwear. Flexing alone in his bedroom mirror, he contorted himself into the eighteen signature poses required of competitive bodybuilders. He’d release a deep breath at the end of each pose, naming the next out loud to himself before sucking in another gust of air. Bodybuilders give wild, toothy grins when they hit their marks on stage. Brady had yet to master this, his face swelling instead into a constipated purple grimace. Digging his toes into the carpet, feet turned slightly outward, he sucked his navel into his spine and bent forward. He made fists and curled them up to his sternum. Crab pose, BAM.

He propped his phone against a stack of magazines on his desk and flicked the camera awake. Brady led himself backwards after tapping the record button, standing between the camera and the door on which his mirror hung, his back reflected behind him.

“This is for you, Tiffany,” he said as he began to run his palms over his shaved chest and down his stomach, sloppily working his underwear down to his ankles. He whispered to the camera, to Tiffany, telling her how hot she was making him, though in truth, Brady was more aroused by his own dwarfed image in the camera. He practiced a few of the more sensual poses he knew. Poses he’d seen men make the week before in the conference room of a Howard Johnson, where he and Jason, his boss at Vitamin Village, had attended the Birmingham Area Bodybuilding and Yoga Symposium for Health Instruction and Training, or as it was quietly known around town, BABYSHIT.

He liked to imagine himself in the future, his body trained to a level suitable for competition, posing before a line of judges below him, writing notes in their legal pads and nodding approvingly to one another. The kid’s got amazing glutes, he imagined someone saying as he strutted across the stage.

Brady’s knees began to shake, he winced. Oh fuck yeah, Tiffany, he whispered. The rapping of this mother’s knuckles came quickly at the door before she turned the knob and tried to push her way into his bedroom.

“Brady, your chicken is boiled!” she called cheerfully as the door swung open. The hanging mirror approached Brady quickly from behind before bouncing off his back.

“Get out!” He shouted, snatching up his underwear.

Jan didn’t need to guess what she had interrupted. She had seen the magazines sprawled open, scattered across his floor. Tan, shirtless men in skin tight underwear on every page, flexing, gazing into the camera with an alarming intensity. Men possessing the kinds of stares she imagined seeing behind plexiglass partitions in prisons. My poor son, she thought, my poor, secretive, repressed, gay son. Embarrassed on his behalf, she pressed a loving hand against his closed door, murmuring gently, “your chicken is boiled.”

Brady didn’t go downstairs until he heard his mother’s bedroom door shut. He sat alone in the kitchen, reading articles about macronutrient ratios and ketosis while he spooned dry brown rice into his mouth. His daily carbohydrate allowance, 30 percent of his total caloric intake. He bit into the pilled white chicken breast and swallowed without breathing so he wouldn’t have to taste it. Clenching his fists as he chewed, he watched the tendons in his forearms undulate like legs moving under a blanket. He didn’t like how deeply his veins were buried beneath his skin. I could be more vascular, he thought, standing up from the table. He emptied the container of rice into the trash, he felt bloated.

*

A hard-boiled egg sagged in Brady’s shirt pocket the next morning as he drove to Vitamin Village. A plastic tray of cold cuts, his school lunch, rested in the seat beside him. Jason would already be at work, he arrived hours before the shop opened to lift weights in the back room. He liked to get a good pump, as he called it, first thing in the morning, so the fabric of his Village polo would hug his chest and biceps a little more snugly. He told Brady it motivated customers, or at the very least, it intimidated them into believing they needed every powder and pill Jason recommended. Brady could hear music playing from the sidewalk outside, the Sorry, We’re Closed sign still hung from its hook, vibrating against the glass door with the rhythm of Jason’s soundtrack.

The bell above the door rang as Brady let himself in. Jason emerged from the back room, shirtless and panting, pumped, a white towel draped over his shoulders like a derby winner’s garland.

“What are you doing here so early?” Jason asked.

“I needed some more pre-workout,” Brady said, taking the egg out of his pocket and cracking it on the counter next to the cash register. “And maybe a different protein powder,” he added, “the stuff I’m using has too much sugar I think. I’m looking for something non-dairy, I’m bloated.” He pulled a stamp-sized salt packet from his pocket and sprinkled it over the peeled egg.

“It could be the protein powder,” Jason said. “But that salt isn’t helping either.” He took the egg from Brady’s hand and wiped it off with his towel before taking a bite.

“Come on, man,” Brady said as he took half his egg back. “I’m already having trouble getting enough protein as it is.”

“Maybe your problem isn’t ingestion,” Jason said, a look of sage wisdom in his eyes. “Maybe it’s absorption.”

“What?”

“I’ve been doing some research online,” he said. “According to certain forums, your body only absorbs about 20 percent of the protein you ingest when you swallow it, but some people suggest there’s a way of of bumping that number up to more than 80 percent.”

“Some kind of new supplement or something?”

“No, they say it’s not so much what you’re supplementing with, but how you’re getting it in your body. These guys have been taking all of their stuff as suppositories.”

“What does that mean?” Brady asked.

“It means they’re sticking supplements up their asses.”

*

Jan sat at her kitchen table and wandered through Youtube in search of new “It Gets Better” videos. Over the last few months, she’d slowly been working on a playlist, one she would inevitably send Brady a link to after he came out to her. She had been working on a game plan, imagining the whole teary-eyed scene for hours on end. Brady’s tears, not hers, she would be strong for her son. She would show him that he had nothing to be ashamed of. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she would say as she reached across the table for her weeping son’s hand, “I accept you,” or possibly “to me, you are perfect.” She had yet to decide on the final phrasing, but the pressure was on, she knew how important a parent’s reaction to their gay child’s big reveal really was. Say the wrong thing, and you’re cut out of their lives forever.

Often, in the midst of one of her imaginary speeches, she would mouth the words as she recited them in her head. The phrases rising out of her in loops repeatedly, endlessly, like a catchy theme song or a radio jingle, her mouth and tongue silently practicing the shapes they would make.

A kettle howled on the stove and Jan stood to retrieve it. She poured boiling water over a mound of instant coffee flakes that swirled and dissolved at the bottom of her mug. She sat back down at her laptop and added another video to her playlist, this one from the cast of Glee. Despite her attempts at steering him towards the show, her son had never watched it, or even shown an interest in it for that matter. Such a shame, she often thought, so many valuable lessons. It wasn’t uncommon for thoughts to cross her mind involving her son and the children she saw on television. She imagined his days in school to be as vibrant and lively as they were onscreen, and for that matter, just as socially volatile. Less singing was involved, obviously the show couldn’t be entirely accurate.

“It’s going to happen soon,” Jan said into her bluetooth later that afternoon as she drove to Jamba Juice. “I can tell, he’s going to do it soon.”

“How are you so sure?” Her sister asked. “I still don’t understand how you can be so positive he’s gay, let alone how you can tell he’s going to talk to you about it.”

“Maternal instinct,” Jan said. She pictured her son’s empty bedroom, just as she had explored it earlier that morning. The coppery, nearly naked men in those magazines, the smell of sweat, the unexplainable appearance of a multitude of hand towels. She felt there was something under the surface, some emotional trauma bubbling up inside of him every night when he closed himself up in his room away from her. He was growing distant, spending more time out of the house, going down to his job at the supplement shop hours before he needed to be at work, and staying late for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint. Why else would he monitor his diet so diligently? What seventeen year old boy buys self-tanning lotion? Gay. He had to be gay. And if he wasn’t ready to admit it, she was going to be sure he knew that when he was, she would be the picture of acceptance. “A mother just knows,” she said.

Jan was waiting for Brady at the kitchen table when he arrived home from school. Two styrofoam cups sweat on paper napkins beside her open laptop. Surprised, Jan snapped her computer shut when she saw her son.

“Hi Angel,” she said. “I got you a smoothie. Do you want to sit down with me and catch up? It’s been a little while since we’ve had a nice talk.”

“I can’t right now mom,” Brady said. “I have to get to the gym before it gets too crowded and all the squat racks are taken.”

“What about just a quick chat? At least drink your smoothie with me?” She lifted the cup from the table and tried to hand it to him. He waved it away.

“I can’t mom, that has too much sugar.”

“But it’s your favorite, come on,” she pleaded, his self-loathing must have been more severe than she thought. “Razzmatazz!”

Brady carried his backpack upstairs to his bedroom, where he gathered his clothes for the gym, his shoes, his headphones, and finally his supplements. He went into the bathroom.

That morning Jason offered to special order the same products the men online used as suppositories, but also suggested that filling empty capsules with powdered supplements would have a similar effect. Brady ordered a case of 500 empty gel caps online, and would make do with improvisation until they arrived.

He stripped in the bathroom and looked up an article he’d found in third period. It was about celebrities on cleanses taking coffee enemas each morning as a way to jump-start their detoxification rituals.Brady shook a bottle of neon green liquid taken from work that morning. Even with his discount, it had been overpriced. Primal Rage the label read. The stylized image of a preposterously muscular caveman clutching a spear sprinted across the bottle. Exxxtreme Lime Flavor! Power-packed with paleo friendly, dairy-free protein. Enhanced with exclusive energizing pre-workout enzyme formula!

Brady unscrewed the cap as his mother crept up the carpeted stairs and waited at the end of the hall, listening for signs of distress. Brady didn’t yet have the supplies the article suggested he use, but the neck of the bottle itself was slender. Cautiously, he squatted down, exhaling deeply as he carefully tried to insert it into himself, to no avail.

He stood and covered the lip of the bottle with hand lotion, then lay on his side, his mother’s plush bath mat below him. He did a little more research on his phone, guilt on his face as he searched different combinations of words. It might seem like the wrong thing to do, one forum advised, but if you push out, if you bear down on the object, it’ll slide in easier. Brady tried to picture himself growing larger; outgrowing his clothes, outgrowing Birmingham, outgrowing his life. He would find one of the hyper-tan, ripple-bodied women he’d seen photographed beside some of the men in his magazines. He saw himself storming down a beach beside a faceless model, the two of them pounding craters in the sand with their sinewy legs, flexing and grunting for each other in the exotic grapefruit haze of the Carribean sunset.

Green liquid spilled onto the bath mat as the bottle made its second approach. Brady pushed, and as the bottleneck slipped inside him, he let out a moan of discomfort.

Oh, my god, Jan thought as she stood outside the bathroom door. He’s hurting himself.

Brady took deep breaths as he climbed to his feet, steadying his weight against the sink, holding the bottle in place. He bent forward, touching his toes in an attempt to make gravity aid the liquid’s drainage into his lower intestine. He waited to feel the energetic rush of the drink’s primal power. He reddened as his face and neck filled with blood. He waited, bent at the waist.

“Brady?” Jan called cautiously from outside the bathroom door. Her hand jiggled the knob. “Brady, are you okay in there?” Her son snapped up, his vision blurred. White specks drifted and multiplied across his line of vision, the room grew dark, his heartbeat pounded in his temples. He lurched forward to block the door, and in doing so his bare foot slid across the tile, still slick with extreme lime flavor.

Jan heard the heavy thud of her little boy, a fully grown man, hitting the ground. She heard the sound of glass shattering.

“God doesn’t make mistakes!” she screamed, slamming her body into the bathroom door, harder and harder, until it hurled open. She found her son unconscious, naked on his side, covered in liquid the color of antifreeze. She saw no blood, only shards of a broken bottle glittering across the tile floor between the two of them. Brady stirred, and began to slowly collect himself on the floor. It was then that Jan noticed the neck of the bottle, spiked shards of glass, emerging from her son like a light bulb broken in its socket. Brady felt it still inside him, panicked, and began to sob like a child startled by a popping balloon.

Jan rushed frantically through the glass and collapsed on the floor, pulling her crying son into her lap. She felt then as though she could leave herself, a bodiless spectre, floating above the mess, viewing it from some place beyond the room.

Soothing him, combing through his damp tangles of hair with the fingers of her free hand, she reached down to retrieve the ring of glass from inside Brady’s limp body. It came out in one piece, followed by a quiet sputtering of murky green liquid. She continued rocking him gently, tears of relief in her eyes. It felt good to be close to him again. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I know. It’s okay.”


Alex Ebel is a queer writer currently living in Boston, where he received his MFA at Emerson College. His work is featured or forthcoming in The Southampton Review, The Maine Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, American Chordata, and Hello Mr., among other publications.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Raina K. Puels

GREEN ETERNITY

I never thought I’d work with dead bodies. When I went through beauty school, I pictured working in a salon with big windows and lots of gossip. I thought I’d sweep floors until I could afford to rent my own chair. Then the fancy cemetery opened. Fancy isn’t the right word. Different, yes. Expensive, definitely. People from all over the country pay to have their corpses shipped to our town, Penn Hills, Pennsylvania to be buried at Green Eternity. Before that Penn Hills was only known for coal. Then we got famous for having the first ever natural burial ground: no caskets, no pesticides, no chemicals, no headstones. Only acres of wildflower fields.

Green Eternity pays good money to the half of the town who work as gardeners, pest management, gravediggers, publicists, gift shop workers, morticians, ministers, and refrigeration experts. Then there’s me. The cemetery recruited me from beauty school to cut their clients’ hair, trim their nails, shave their faces. Hair grows even after you’re dead. Well, not exactly. When you die, your body gets all dehydrated, so it shrivels and more hair becomes visible.

It used to make me feel weird that I groomed people who couldn’t tell me how they wanted to look. But I got used to it. I had to if I wanted to keep my salary. With a dad who got crushed in a collapsed shaft the summer before I left for college, and a mom who died of a heart attack from diabetes, I was the only person who could take care of me.

Before I worked at Green Eternity, I could barely pay my bills, on account of having spent all of my dad’s life insurance on two years at Penn State—his dream for me. But one night of partying at the wrong fraternity house and I couldn’t stay there. When I saw the brothers in my classes and in the dining halls, all I could do was shiver. So I moved back to Penn Hills and enrolled in beauty school. It was a practical way to make money. Except that I had to pay my tuition and buy scissors, rollers, makeup brushes, blow dryers, combs, cleaning solution—the works. And then, flipping through catalogues for classes, I would see things I needed. Like a fast-heating straightener to tame the unruly waves coming out of my head, a heat-resistant mat to lay it on so I wouldn’t burn my trailer down, and miracle repair cream for the damage it would do to my hair. The only way I could afford it all was with credit cards, so that’s what I did. Taking a job with a good salary would help keep the creditors off my back. So that’s how I ended up working with dead people in a windowless basement.

At least I had Deb, my only friend at Green Eternity. She was the only female gravedigger and could make a grave in half an hour, twice as fast as the guys. She got into construction young; she had to make money after her parents disowned her after she burned all of her church dresses on the front lawn and chopped off her waist-length hair. She still wears it short. We met at my beauty school when she came in to get a cheap cut. After we bonded over being orphans, we became friends who watched three or four movies in a row and ate bags of chips and frozen pizzas and pints of ice cream and candy bars and finished those off with Kahlua milkshakes and brandy. Then she started dieting, so we stopping seeing each other outside of her monthly hair appointments. It also could have something to do with the fact that she would always put her arm around me and I’d fold into her, but as soon as she tried to do more, I’d freeze and make excuses to leave. But ever since we started working together, we were friendly again.

She almost died from laughing when I told her about a body I prepared last week. The guy was 40, one of those big shot financial guys in New York City who had a soft spot for the country. After he made more money than god, he planned to retire young and move somewhere without any asphalt, or so his sister said during his service. But then he had Chinese takeout one too many times and his arteries couldn’t handle it. That’s how he ended up on my table. He was pretty okay-looking: blue eyes, high cheekbones, pretty pink lips. Except that he had an awful, scraggly beard. I needed to get rid of it. I took my straight razor and zip, nip, clip—it was gone. He went from a five to a seven, just like that.

Then I noticed Charly, the assistant director, watching me from the stairs—she never came all the way down. She was a dumpy woman who never wore makeup or brushed her hair, all because she was too busy taking care of her geriatric mother and reporting to Green Eternity’s real director, who lived in New York City. When she saw my shave job, she gasped and put her hand on her chest like I had been the one that killed him:

“Temperance, did you consult his sheet?”

“I looked at it, but I didn’t read it. Didn’t need to. I knew how he’d look the best.”

“His sister specifically requested that we leave his face alone. It’s all in the notes. He’s had that beard for twenty years. It was a slice of the countryside he had with him every day in the city. He’s having an open-casket funeral in two days. If he doesn’t have a beard by then, you won’t have a job,” she said and mounted the stairs back to her fifth-floor office that gets more natural light in one day than I see in a week.

By “open-casket” she meant that the lid wouldn’t have been put on his cardboard box. At Green Eternity, our clients pay top dollar for a “casket” that biodegrades into a million pieces as fast as possible. They’re not afraid of maggots devouring their flesh or earthworms crawling through their eye sockets. The thought of that kills me—it’s my rationale for being cremated. Then I can bypass the whole decomposition thing and have my ashes thrown into the ocean. I can only imagine how vast and blue it its. The only body of water I’ve spent time around is the Allegheny River that winds through Penn Hills. Only a fool would swim in its murky, strange-smelling waters. Not even fish will touch it. It’s nothing like an ocean full of majestic creatures. I’ve seen TV shows about whales as big as three school busses and dolphins that sing. I’d rather have bits of me explode out of their blowholes than be chomped on by creepy crawlies with too many legs—or no legs at all.

Before the financial guy could meet this fate, I had to figure out a way to bring his beard back to life. That got me thinking about using some of his other hair to replace what I’d chopped. I took the cover off of his lower half and shuttered. Then I did what I had to do: I shaved him bald and found some super glue.

I spent the next couple hours dabbing bits of glue as small as pores onto this guy’s face and sticking his pubes to it. When I was done, all of the shiny bits of glue were hidden and the guy looked like he had a real beard. In fact, my beard was more aesthetically pleasing than his original one: it didn’t climb toward his eyes or scraggle down his neck. I ranked him a six.

I used to date a six—a quiet guy named Barry with a lot more going on in his noggin than you would ever think judging by his droopy eyes and the way he shuffled his feet. When we started going out, he was sick all the time; his lungs were so damaged from the mines that black came out each time he coughed. It was miserable to watch. Then, his mama found out she was dying because her tits were rotting off—his words, not mine. He had the option of leaving the mines to take care of her. None of his older brothers wanted to hold her hand while she watched Jeopardy, go to church with her, or to upkeep her garden. So I pushed him to do it. Hard. I thought that seeing the sunshine and breathing fresh air might heal him. And it did. After caring for his mama for a month, his cough went away.

Every summer morning, Barry went out to tend her garden. She said she made her own tropical oasis, because she never made it down to Florida. Her garden was the only splotch of color in the whole “mobile home community.” All the trailers were splotched with brown, their white paint having been too hard to keep up with. The whole park was covered in gravel, so at any time a family could plop down a new unit without having to worry about it sinking into the grass.

Barry’s mama pilfered dirt and flowers from the side of the highway and plopped them down outside of her bedroom window. Each year, the black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and orange lilies came back. She taught Barry how to deadhead the lilies. At first he felt bad. Why would you cut the heads off of flowers? But then he saw that the lilies liked it. The more he chopped, the fatter and more orange the blossoms were. He practically skipped out to the garden every morning and sometimes even found himself telling the purple coneflowers to stop being so selfish and to leave room for the lilies.

But after a few more months of spending time with his mother all day, his eyes got dull and he barely spoke. Our relationship fizzled. He stopped asking me how I was doing and chose to cuddle with the remote rather than with me. When I told him things weren’t working between us, he nodded and left, without ever meeting my eyes. It made me mad that he didn’t try to fight for me. I would’ve tried real hard to keep me in my life if I were him—especially because I’m an eight point five.

The summer his mama was on her last legs was my first month of work at Green Eternity, not long after Barry and I broke up. He walked down to my basement and looked at his scuffed, brown boots. His wavy hair fell into his eyes and stuck up toward the heavens—it looked like he hadn’t touched it since we split. I already knew what he was going to ask, but I decided to pull it out of him anyway, on account of the fact I was still bitter that he picked Duck Dynasty over touching me.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Well, my mama’s dying and I, uh, she wants…but…but, we can’t afford it,” Barry said, looking down.

“What do you want?” I asked again, tapping my foot.

“Wild flowers and, uh…” Barry bit his cuticles. “We can’t afford a normal burial, so, uh…”

I took a long, deep breath. When I expelled the last dregs of air in my lungs, he still hadn’t spoken. I couldn’t wait for him any longer: “If you want me to risk my job and help you bury your mother at Green Eternity then there better be something in it for me.”

“Tempy, I’m sorry. My mama’s got a mean streak…I couldn’t cook her cornbread right, read her the bible right, or even drive right. And she let me know it. Every day. After a while, I started to believe it. So, uh, I didn’t think I could do you right either. Now that she’s so sick that she can’t talk, I’m starting to feel a whole lot better.”

My shoulders slumped. Oh shit.

“I’m sorry. I had no idea she was so nasty. No one from this town can afford to be buried here anyway, so we might as well make a heist out of it.”

Barry looked up at me. He almost smiled. “Two fifty for you and two fifty for Deb?”

I nodded. Barry wrapped his arms around me: gasoline, clean linens, and wet earth. His smell didn’t make me giddy the way it used to, but it still felt good. Then, Barry pulled away.

“There’s something else I wanted to ask… After my mama goes, the last place I’d like to be is underground—even though all my brothers are there—and I, uh… Are there any open gardener positions?”

“I’ll talk to Charly. But she doesn’t like me.”

“Really? I thought women always did,” Barry said and looked up at me. Then he turned and climbed back up the stairs three at a time.

Later that day, during lunch, I walked toward the flower fields, sneezing from all the pollen. They were bursting with daisies, purple asters, and firewheels. From afar, I loved looking at Green Eternity’s grounds. But up close was another story. I couldn’t stand the feeling of bumblebees bumping my legs, the needy sound of crickets, or the way my ergonomic clogs flicked up mud that caked to the backs of my legs. Unfortunately, I had to brave it to find Deb.

She was on her lunch break on the opposite side of the field from the other guys. She sat in her dirty, yellow backhoe and picked at a salad. I hoisted myself into the machine and sat on the cracked leather. I looked at her round face and admired how clean it was. She never had to worry about scrubbing off eyeliner, or getting mascara stuck in her contacts like I did. Ever since I moved back to Penn Hills, I haven’t left the house without black lines around my eyes and red on my lips.

“That doesn’t look like much fun,” I said, motioning toward her lunch.

“I’ve been trying this diet: no carbs, no sugar, no alcohol. If I can stick with it for a few more weeks, it’s supposed to make all my cravings go away,” she said, and put a piece of lettuce into her mouth.

“Then I guess I shouldn’t have brought this for you,” I said, taking peanut butter cups out of my pocket—her favorite.

She eyed the candy and reached her hand out. I flinched it away.

“First, I have a proposition for you,” I said.

“Is it sex?” She looked at me and batted her stubby lashes.

“No, but you’d make two fifty for digging a grave after hours.”

“Whose grave?”

“Barry’s mama’s.”

“You want me to risk my job to bury your ex-boyfriend’s mom?” Deb picked up her fork, looked at the candy in my hand, then put her fork down. “I guess I could use the extra cash. The queer youth shelter in Pittsburgh always needs help… Now gimme those cups.”

I handed them over. She ripped the packaging with her teeth, peeled back the wrapper, and popped the whole cup into her mouth. She closed her eyes and moaned. It didn’t matter if she was in a gas station, sitting on a bench on the side of the street, or on the bus—if she liked what was in her mouth, she moaned. When she opened her eyes and saw that I was staring at her, she smiled.

“I missed watching that,” I said and climbed out of the backhoe.

The next morning, on my way into Green Eternity, I saw Charly leaving. The bags under her eyes looked like they could explode with ink at any moment.

“My mom fell again last night. I need to get home and change her bandages. Make sure to read all of the notes I left with the bodies. Please. Your last few haircuts have been sloppy, so you better fix that, too,” she said and disappeared outside.

“A-plus for encouragement,” I said and went into my basement.

The first person on my table was an old woman with firetruck-red hair and tattoos peeking out from the white sheet over her body, which definitely was not the 600-thread count she was used to. I recognized her immediately from the tabloids. She was a fashion designer-activist who spoke out against fur and leather. Her shtick were garments made from sustainable bamboo colored with dyes made from lichens. I bet she didn’t want to pollute the earth in a traditional cemetery. I also bet that she had no idea about the many years of toxins from the mines that had leached into the soil all over Penn Hills.

When I pulled her sheet down, I saw an ornate phoenix curve from under one breast, down her side, and around to her back. On her thigh, a topless mermaid posed underwater, hair flowing behind her. I wanted to be her. I wanted to be free to swim wherever I pleased and be uninhibited by everything happening above the surface. I stripped off my sweaty gloves. Before I could type tropical vacation into Google, my phone rang. It was Barry. His mama hadn’t woken up to see her flowers.

That night, the peepers went crazy with their songs like they knew something exciting was about to happen. When I got to Barry’s, he smelled like whiskey. His mama was still in her bed right where she died. Her lips and fingertips were blue. There was a puddle of vomit on the floor from when Barry must’ve realized she was gone. I wrapped her up in a sheet. He only came into the room when I called for him. I picked up her feet. He flinched before taking her head. She was much lighter than I expected. She made a smack when she hit the bed of his rusty truck.

When he couldn’t get the key into the ignition, I traded seats with him.

It was dark, but the big moon shed its silver light over us. Even though I wore long pants and bug spray, I kept slapping mosquitoes as we walked through the fields. When we got to the plot, we laid the body down on the long edge of the grave. The grass and flowers were so tall that Barry’s mama disappeared. Deb got out of the backhoe and stood with us in front of the hole. It was twelve feet deep, two times deep as regulation so she could put a client on top in the morning and no one would know there was someone underneath.

Barry swayed to the left, then overcorrected and swayed to the right. “I know you guys wanna kiss each other. Why won’t ya just do it?”

Barry turned and looked at us. I was great at buying things on Amazon I didn’t need like a shower curtain with a tropical underwater scene and neon fish, but I’d always been too afraid of following that impulse. I felt Deb’s warmth next to mine and wanted to grab her hand, but we both stayed silent and forward-facing.

Then Barry shrugged and said, “It’s time for a prayer.”

“Religious mumbo jumbo’s not for me,” Deb said. “I’ma go sit in the backhoe. Wave to me when it’s time.”

I stayed with Barry and watched Deb walk away. Her jeans fit real nice.

“God bless this earth where my mother lies. Let it forgive her bad breath and her ill temper and the way she used to beat us. I’m supposed to be sad, but, uh, really, I’m glad. Hey that rhymed,” Barry said and started to laugh.

He laughed until his body shook and he was speaking in tongues; the sounds coming out of him were half animal and half god. His face was all twisted and red and his cheeks were wet and his arms flailed. He gave a mighty roar from the back of his throat and bent his knee and shot out his foot and sent his mama flying into the hole like a soccer ball. Her body made a soft plop when it landed at the bottom. Then he waved like a maniac at Deb. The backhoe grumbled before its long appendage scooped up dirt from the large pile next to the grave and released it over the hole. Barry stood dangerously close to the edge as he watched his mama disappear. My hand made circles on his back, but he didn’t feel them.

On the way back to the parking lot, Deb and I linked our arms with Barry’s to keep him upright. He was catatonic when we loaded him into the back of Deb’s jalopy. Then we walked around to the front. Piles of wrappers littered the passenger seat. It smelled like chocolate. Even though it was dark, I knew Deb turned red before she pushed the candy carcasses to the floor. Her face looked soft in the moonlight. She was normally a seven, but right now she looked like a nine. I put my hand on her thigh:

“Will you teach me how to swim?”


​​Raina K. Puels is the Nonfiction Editor for Redivider. She leaves a trail of glitter, cat hair, and small purple objects everywhere she goes. You can read her in The Rumpus, PANK, The American Literary Review, and many other places. See her full list of pubs: rainakpuels.com Tweet her: @rainakpuels.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Sarah Van Bonn

MOJAVE

She wasn’t very good at roller-skating, but it didn’t matter. It was so hot outside you had only a few early-morning minutes to check on the garden’s thirsty carrots before running back in to the air conditioning.

Her aunt claimed to feel earthquakes, several times a day even, but she herself never felt them. Whenever she thought to check, she found the ground steady.

Entering the dim cold of the rink was like putting a jar over a candle flame until it ran out of breath and snuffed itself out. Every day without fail, the loudspeaker announced, “Grab your sweetheart, it’s time for our couples’ skate!” and she’d make her way off the floor to sit at a sticky booth until her exile was over.

There was routine to the variation. Girls-only skate, boys-only skate, couples skate, backward skate, free skate. When the whole loop had run its course, she would unlace and head outside, the heat a wall and the light a knife-blade as soon as she opened the door.

Soon, it was the Fourth of July and they sat on a blanket with another family from church, eating ice cream and watching the dog shake every time a firework worked fire. Jonathan was two years older and Janice three years younger than her, just too young to be friends with. But it was fun to smile back at Jonathan’s smiles and even laugh at some of his jokes.

When the ice-filled soda found its way through her, she headed to the bathroom on her own, feeling grown-up. She was wiping her just-washed hands on the side of her dress when she heard a soft bleat from behind her: “Can you help me?” She looked around to see a shocking mountain range of pale flesh, trembling hands attached to it somewhere, clutching an outstretched assembly of garments. “Please help me,” it said.

She saw the mess then, soaking through the fabric gathered in the mostly-naked woman’s hands. It was smooth and liquid and a light, even brown. She’d never seen anything like it in her own toilet, and there didn’t seem to be an odor, but still, no doubt what it was.

“I just lose control,” said the woman. “It’s from my medication.” A looming shadow; someone else entered the bathroom. An adult was there—did it mean she could go?

She edged out of the bathroom’s doorless doorway, just a hole filled with empty night air, but still somehow a boundary.

The air was big above her but the ground was close, and when she tried to find the way back, she couldn’t distinguish one family from the next, each on a dusty plaid blanket, identical unreadable faces turned toward the sky.

At church, she was never invited to take Communion. A small part of her wanted to, had always wanted to. Back home, she’d gone with Grandma to the Catholic church but stopped just shy of the age of First Communion. She’d always envied the pew parade. But there was a price behind those wafers. She felt it lurking.

This church wasn’t Catholic. It didn’t seem to be distinctly anything else, though it was definitely rigidly something.

“But how do you know God is real?” she’d asked her aunt from the kitchen table as her aunt cooked dinner.

“I can hear Him. You just have to believe and then you’ll feel Him in your heart. Ask Him, just ask Him to talk to you.”

Obviously, she’d tried that. She’d lie in the bedroom alternately trying to feel earthquakes or to hear God, but either way met a wall of stillness. Was there really nothing? Or was she just ill-equipped to detect it?

Jonathan wrote her a letter about how beautiful she looked in her blue dress, and how much he wanted to kiss her. She’d always wanted a boy to want to kiss her, but now that one actually did, she felt only mild nausea, like she’d managed to make a big mistake somewhere without noticing what it was.

She couldn’t look at Jonathan at church the next week, and from then on, the boys stood in clumps and whispered whenever she entered a room. At the skating rink, they began to cut in front of her, block her way, point and snicker from across the shiny wood circle.

“Jonathan says you want to do things with him,” said his sister Janice, dipping brittle chips into neon cheese, as they waited out a boys-skate. “But he doesn’t want to because you’re dirty.” It wasn’t clear whose side Janice was on.

One day, her aunt drove the minivan not to the skating rink but to the house of some neighbors with a pool, where she could swim with a group of neighborhood/church girls. It was unclear where the boundaries lay between “neighborhood people” and “church people”; everyone in one group seemed to be in the other too.

The older brother in the family has cancer and this is why his head is hairless, an adult at church had informed her, though she hadn’t asked.

Since she’d come to the desert, greater and greater streams of hair had begun to wind themselves around her fingers every time she shampooed. Maybe I have cancer too, she thought. She passed the bald brother on her way to the pool. He didn’t seem sad, the way she imagined a cancer-haver would.

Would you even be able to notice an earthquake in here? she wondered, staring at her distorted limbs through the pale water. When the spider floated belly-up next to her elbow, body big as an apple, she cried out, “Oh my God!” She remembered what her aunt had said about black widows, how they spun uneven, ugly webs, how only the females were venomous.

The bald brother’s younger sister, who was older, still, than her, whipped wet hair around and fixed her with a sour look. “Don’t say the Lord’s name in vain.”

All the girls’ eyes were on her suddenly, as many eyes as the dead spider had, and with that same stony glare. She looked away, back at the bloated body, wished to be as buoyed and indifferent as it was. One of its eight hairy legs reached out, sent a ripple toward her.

An earthquake? No. The world was still, still.

The other girls had already moved on. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. She noticed how often they said it to each other, laughing and splashing as they swam in wide arcs around her, heading to the other side.


Sarah Van Bonn is a British-American writer currently based in Berlin. Her work can be found in/on The Southampton Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, WNPR, The Rumpus, LUMINA, South Asia Journal, Prism International, and elsewhere. Read more at sarahvanbonn.com

Categories
2018 Fiction

Janet Dale

AFTER MOON

 

He’s probably already drooling on his pillow, Heather thought as she backed her car out of the compact parking space. The sky was dull, as if a jar of purple-black ink had tumbled off a celestial desk and crashed spilling its contents. The further she drove away from Michael’s apartment complex, the higher the moon peaked over the pine tops; casting an eerie glow.

“I’m just so over the moon,” Heather said to the empty passenger’s seat. Wait. Her words reminded her of a favorite actress’s first movie—the one where a young girl falls in love with a wrong boy during a sultry Southern summer. What was it called? Something moon.

“Blue moon?” No.

She had read somewhere earlier in the week this was going to be the brightest moon of the year or decade. She couldn’t remember which, and she didn’t care. They were over, and she wanted the world to match her mood; dark and sad, not shiny and bright.

And what were they exactly? Boyfriend/girlfriend? No. Friends? Once upon a time, yes. But now she cared more about his life (the one she wasn’t in) than he did about hers (the one he wasn’t in). Michael only texted when he wanted her, and lately that was often.

“Howling at the moon?” No.

Merging onto the highway, Heather thought about how long they had known each other. Four or five years? She thought about what they went through together when their relationship was easy to define; a colleague had been diagnosed with and had subsequently died from brain cancer. The shared loss gave them a comfortable silence to sit in together. Conversations only began to change after she was promoted and moved two hours away.

This was the fourth time in six months she had driven to see him. It was also the fourth time she left not satisfied, giving the 126-mile trip back to her house the opposite feeling of the trip to his apartment.

“Goodnight, moon.” No.

If one of her close friends had been in the same situation and had come to her for advice, she knew exactly what she’d say: Stop. No. He’s not worth your time. When was the last time he came to see you? When was the last time you, you know, came?

“Fuck you, moon.” Please.

The first exit sign she noticed, prompted her to glance at the gas gauge with its needle hovering near E. She would have to stop soon, no way around it. Tonight’s trip hadn’t been planned like those in the past. It had begun with an especially naughty texting session which somehow convinced her to ignore the work she needed to finish before Monday morning.

“Irresponsible, moon.”

Heather scanned the radio for distraction. A laid-back song helped until the chorus kicked in: “It’s such a fine and natural sight, everybody’s dancin’ in the moonlight.” On another station a flamboyant preacher’s voice chided, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh…” Silence would have to do.

“Dammit,” she muttered, passing another well-lit exit.

A red warning light flashed and she knew she’d have to settle for whatever was at the next exit. What time is it? She had purposely stashed her phone in the back seat so she wasn’t tempted to text him. The clock on the radio glowed 3:04, but she couldn’t remember if she had changed it the previous weekend for Daylight Saving Time.

Veering off the dark off-ramp, she didn’t see any structure, let alone a gas station. When she came to a stop, she reached back for her phone to see 2:07. She asked her phone which way to the nearest gas station and then held her breath as she turned left.

Approximately 3.7 miles later, she pulled into the sleepy gas station. When she stepped to the back of her car, she saw the pump was old-fashioned with numbers that spun on a wheel to indicate price and gallons. Never having seen one in person, the pump fascinated her. She went inside the attached convenience store to prepay, and a bored-looking teenager behind the register was shocked to see her. He put down his phone, pushed his hair out of his eyes.

Heather handed him a twenty-dollar bill, and pointed toward her car. “I was worried you might be closed.”

There was no response, but he began punching buttons on the register.

She searched for small talk to fill the silence, “Have you seen the moon tonight?”

He finally looked up at her and managed a tight smile, “I heard about that, but haven’t really paid too much attention it.”

“It’s not that special,” Heather lied.

While filling her tank, she heard a loud continuous thumping. Looking around, she saw an army of insects hurling themselves against the large front window of the store, attracted to the artificial light. The sound of their exoskeletons crushing against the glass made her shutter. As soon as the pump stopped, she hurried back into her car.

Heather reversed directions and when she reached the highway, she tried the radio again. The slow strains of a single piano crackled through the speakers, and she relented, resting both hands on the wheel. The song was sad and slow, matching the way she felt. It wasn’t until her vision became blurry she realized tears were streaming down her cheeks. When she reached up to wipe them away, she could still smell his skin on her fingertips. There was a pause and the piano sped up; Heather felt like she was flying down the highway.

Several beats after the piano finally came to a halt, a male voice began explaining: “That was Annie Fischer’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, Opus 27, No. 2…”

“Oh, Annie, perfection.”

The male voice continued: “Recorded at the end of 1958, this piece is commonly referred to as the Moonlight Sonata making it perfect for tonight.”

With a flourish, she turned off the radio for bringing up the moon again. Then she realized it had been travelling alongside her the entire trip, and she was disappointed knowing she would associate this night with this beautiful moon.

“The man in the moon!” Heather shouted, startling herself as she remembered the name of the movie.

Fifteen minutes later, she took another exit, and when she came to the familiar Stop sign, she reached back and grabbed her phone. Heather sent Michael a text to let him know she had made it safely, and without waiting for a response she blocked his number. She tossed her phone back into the back seat and turned the wheel in the direction of her house.


Although she claims Memphis as home, Janet Dale lives in southeast Georgia where she teaches first year writing at Georgia Southern University and is always reading something (including submissions for Nightjar Review). Her work has appeared in Hobart, Zone 3, Pine Hills Review, Really System, and others.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Will Hearn

MAN FOR SALE

I started talking to grass two weeks after Dad’s heart stopped. I hadn’t lost my mind or thought it would help the grass grow, but Dad had talked to the Zoysia, especially as he grew older, and the more I took the positions he’d taken in his final days, the more I became an awkward version of him.

“You’re doing alright,” I said and wiggled my toes in the grass.

For hours he’d stood there in his dirty robe, water dribbling from the hose in his hand, mumbling encouragement. That grass was an island in a sea of hardy invasives, clinging to its territory, guarding it like an underdog country in a border battle.

“Don’t give up,” I said, looking down at it.

The Zoysia hadn’t impressed anyone by spreading, but it had impressed me with one thing: it outlived Dad. And though I’d never believed it before, I thought it might need encouragement to go on living, the way everyone did now and then.

“Who are you talking to?” Gloria said. She was the teenage Jackson daughter, and the only one in the family I would end up liking.

Even though Dad’s body had been dropped in a hole at the cemetery in town, it seemed he was actually buried here, still mumbling encouragement from below the dirt and beneath the shade of the oak trees. I’d guessed that he followed us home from the funeral. As if things weren’t hard enough.

He had given direct, however obscure, instructions in his will: the estate was to be left to Gerald and I. And because Gerald was too busy and I was a pushover, it was my responsibility to sell what I was beginning to believe was actually our Dad to the strangers.

Like I said, I wasn’t losing my mind. But I wasn’t quite myself either.

“My brother and I lived out here during the summers,” I said, ignoring Gloria’s question and waving my arm like a magician at the landscape around me. Gloria’s younger brothers did not look up from their phones.

At that time, I figured the two boys’ hearts were the ones I needed to win. Since Gerald was pushing me to sell as fast as possible, and because I’d always been one to take the longer, harder route to success, I ignored Gloria.

I tried for Mrs. Jackson instead. She had been walking around with her bleach-bright smile all morning listening to her husband’s visions of demolition and ostentatious construction.

“Doesn’t the lawn look fine, Mrs. Jackson?,” I said, gesturing to the Zoysia.

She looked at it and nodded. The rest of the lawn was a disaster, just overgrown weeds, but if you just looked at the Zoysia, it truly was fine.

“Could I,” Gloria cut in, looking from me to her Mom, “have pool parties and invite friends over?”

Mrs. Jackson beamed. “Oh, of course, honey. You could have all of your friends over.”

I looked around. “But, there’s no pool here.”

“Not yet,” a voice drifted down from the garage. Mr. Jackson high stepped towards us, pinching his khakis at his hips, watching his loafers and talking excitedly. “But it’s number one on the list.”

I surprised myself when I spit in the grass, like Dad at a church barbecue. He never wanted anyone thinking he was impressed, and a good spit seemed to express all the complexities of his distaste with none of the labor of speaking.

“There’s a pond, you know,” I said. I wiped my mouth and pointed past Gloria. “We swam in it all summer.”

Gloria was horrified. “Aren’t there—things in there?”

“Of course. Fish, frogs, turtles, even—” I paused, hoping to see the eye color of the boys, “—snakes.”

The oldest boy raised an eyebrow but didn’t look up.

A soft moan escaped Gloria’s mouth, and she turned to walk uphill, putting as much space between her and the pond as possible. Mr. and Mrs. Jackson smiled painfully at me.

“We never had trouble with the snakes,” I said.

I spit in the grass again.

                                                                             *

“Maybe you could come down and help,” I said. “It’s weird without you and Dad.”

Gerald snorted into the phone. “You mean it’s weird not hearing all his hacks and spits and groans and farts? Aggh, Uggh, Huhh, Waaap.

Urrph, Grrrk, Wuumph,” I said.

Gerald laughed and said, “I miss the old man.”

“Seriously,” I said. “It’s weird.”

“I’m tied up with the car wash right now, Bill,” he said.

“I thought it ran itself? That’s why you bought—”

“Out of office work,” he interrupted. “Besides, aren’t the Jones’s about to close?”

“The Jacksons,” I said. “Maybe. I just—”

“What,” he said. “They low-balling?”

I should have said yes. Capitalization was hard-wired in Gerald like it had been in Dad, and it pleased me to think of him going red-faced berserk on the Jackson boys, scaring them from their virtual worlds. Reality, hot and heavy, in the form of Gerald.

“Their offer was disappointingly high, actually.”

“What? Would you prefer we give it away?” Gerald asked.

“No,” I said and opened the curtains in my childhood bedroom. “But do you remember how simply we lived? We were always short on money.”

“Our poor childhood doesn’t make your point, I don’t think.”

“What I mean is, I feel like we’re selling everything Dad worked for just so we’ll have some extra money. Surely he didn’t—”

“A better life,” Gerald said. “That’s why he worked.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Just sell the place, Bill,” he said. “Dad would be glad to see a couple of boys grow up there.”

I adjusted the blinds to let more sunlight in and squinted. The yard outside was a canvas of highlighted organelles and dark blurs. There were shapes whose identity I knew—the old wheelbarrow, a collection of Rhododendrons, the pond—but their details were lost in a glittering gauze. I looked harder, and my cheeks felt tight against my eyes.

“They don’t know how to grow up here,” I said, trying to blink away the blurriness. “The other day they experienced less of the outdoors than I thought humanly possible while actually standing outside. They just don’t want it.” (Haha-somehow both funny and sad)

“It’s a new generation,” Gerald said. “Just—”

“I couldn’t even get them to walk down to the pond,” I said, pacing the floor.

“That’s not—”

“They’re going to put a pool in,” I said.

“What?”

“They’ll dig up the Zoysia. They’ll—”

“Bill!”

We were quiet.

“Just sell it.”

                                                                             *

I sat at the kitchen table in my underwear when the Jackson’s white SUV peeked over the crest of the asphalt driveway, like the end of an eclipse. Behind on my work and with a new sensation of two stones rubbing between my lower vertebrae, I groaned.

Dad’s house was being methodically disassembled, as if I might find a letter saying it was okay to sell his home. I looked through the dozens of photo albums on the bookshelf and scanned sci-fi novels, hoping he’d left a note or marked a passage that would tell me something. I even listened to the old lock-box Gerald and I used to steal from. I pressed my ear to it and dropped a few coins in, but the ringing of copper was empty. At least I’d paid him back.

His bedroom smelled like him. Milk, which he drank at night, and cigar smoke—scents of his little indulgences, reminders of his routines. The way his beard scratched my neck when I hugged him, or the sparse, buzzed hair like that of a baby otter I once petted. In his last ten years he’d quit getting dressed except for the old robe that hung on his door. I suggested we bury him in it. Gerald didn’t like that.

When I was seventeen Dad had joked about my shoulders, that I must’ve gotten my build from the milkman. I began holding myself straighter. What power. A few words carried enough weight to forever change my posture, like an injury, or a promise of love.

I’d gotten no smaller, so it was surprising the robe fit. I searched the pockets for a note, but there was only a flaky, used tissue. I put it back and smoothed the pocket over. Straightening my shoulders and sighing, I went to greet the Jacksons.

Mr. Jackson stood in the driveway shading the sun with one hand.

“Sorry we’re a little early,” he said. “We had some ideas.” He did his own magician’s wave.

“Three hours early,” I said, squinting at him over my coffee cup.

“Yes, well,” he said.

I coughed and something loosened in my throat, a warm piece of phlegm that stuck against my vocal chords giving me a fit.

“Agggh!” I said. “Grrrrk.”

“Good,” Mr. Jackson raised his voice over my hacking sounds, “Sounds great.”

Back inside and at the front window, I thought of taking the garden hose and standing in the yard. With the dirty robe wrapped around me I’d talk. “Please,” I’d beg. “Just grow.”

If the Zoysia could win, I could sell. Or maybe I’d know I couldn’t sell because Dad had finally spoken, like the Burning Bush. The Zoysia, however, wasn’t winning, or burning, or speaking in any way. I didn’t have the energy to look for miracles, so I turned away from the window.

I knelt on the kitchen floor with the contents of the pantry. Cans of tomatoes from the 90’s, crackers hard as plywood, and out-of-production cereals. How had he gotten so old? How had I missed the signs that he was declining? What else had I missed?

Lessons I could never get back.

Thoughts lost with the time I didn’t spent with him.

When I drug myself back to the garage the family stood around Dad’s workbench. Peering over their shoulders I saw a plan view of the property. The boys were paying attention, and I saw their eyes. Green and Blue.

“Plans,” I said. “It looks like—” I fought my new habit of spitting, and pointed to a red square near the pond. “What’s this?”

“Our gaming space,” the youngest boy explained.

“For video game playing?”

The boy looked at his older brother.

“Virtual reality, mostly,” the older one said.

“When I was your age,” I said, “the whole world was our space. Our virtual reality was here,” I tapped my temple, “and it was unlimited.

The boys looked at me for a moment, and then turned away. “We’d have to have our own internet connection, of course, Dad. The load would be too much to share with the main house.”

“Of course,” Mr. Jackson agreed.

I felt very tired.

                                                                             *

“Remember when Dad finally got cable?” I asked.

Gerald laughed. “Yeah and we watched all of those stupid sci-fi shows.”

It was quiet except for me digging in the kitchen drawer. I loved those shows.

“Gerald, they’re going to destroy this place,” I said. “They want to turn it into an amusement park.”

I found a box of cigars and removed one, smelling it.

“Isn’t that what the place was to us? If Dad could’ve afforded it, we’d have had all sorts of stuff.”

“What if,” I said, lighting the cigar, “Dad didn’t want us to sell? What if—”

“Are you smoking?”

I squinted through the smoke and spoke around the cigar. “Wha’ i’ I sell and regre’ i’?”

“Bill,” he said, “try showing them what it is you love about the place. Show them the pond, show them the dog cages, the garden, and Dad’s record player. Maybe they’ll start to understand, and maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Is that what I’m supposed to be doing,” I asked, “just making myself feel better?”

“You can try,” he said.

Gerald always had a way of convincing me, and I felt my doubts blur.

“Okay,” I said. “But I wish you’d come help.”

And I really did.

                                                                             *

The four of us stood in a circle beneath the slow-growing water oak that marked our heights over the years. The youngest boy, Tim, touched the marks and smiled. There was one below him.

“I’m tall,” he said.

“Alright,” I said to the group, “on the count of three, we’ll go. You find something interesting and bring it back. Last person back has to go first, explaining why his thing is best. Then we vote.”

“What is this game even called?” Gloria said.

“Mine’s best,” I said.

They were silent.

“Isn’t it, like, not fair,” Gloria said, “because you’re biggest?”

“I’ll give a ten second head start then.”

This was reasonable to everyone.

“One, two—”

“Wait!”

John, the oldest boy, began to take his loafers off. “I don’t want to get them dirty.”

“Great idea,” I said. We all removed our shoes.

“One, two, three!

Being barefoot mutated them, and as they erupted in a downhill sprint, they were children again. No more devices. No more adolescent angst. Gloria’s hair danced behind her, and the boys screamed in delight, bounding through the tall grass.

They disappeared behind the pine trees, and I strolled down after them with my hands clasped. Gerald might have been right. Dad would be glad. I listened to their giggling fade, and then it was just me and the oak leaves that danced in the treetops, the faraway crows cawing at one another, and the warm sunlight. I was living an old life, one I no longer had rights to, and I felt alright.

I’d allowed myself the dangerous luxury of faith, bathing my worries in the hope of things working out. I’d begun to believe. For the first time since Dad died, I was relieved, like I could breathe and see again. Then, someone screamed.

As I arrived at the pond, tasting the cigar from the night before, heaving, I found Gloria making an awful, air-slicing wail. John, who was only marginally closer to the pond, looked towards the water like it were a volcano, simultaneously plugging one ear with his finger. Young Tim squatted at the water’s edge with one finger submerged.

“Timothy, no!” She screamed. “There are snakes!

“Gloria,” I said when she inhaled. “Stop scream—”

“AHH!She said.

Tim removed his finger and looked at me.

“There are snakes,” I said, “but they’re just as afraid of you as—”

“AHH!”

John stepped behind his sister. “This isn’t fun.”

I’d had enough. I tore my shirt over my head and threw it at Gloria who stopped her screaming long enough to catch it.

“What—” she said.

I took two steps and leapt. Tim’s curious eyes followed me, and I bellowed, “Cannonball!”

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Like swallowing a capsule I was filled with memories, and they slid through me as the warm water passed over my body. Summers spent swimming and playing, conversations of adolescent understanding, beers stolen from Dad and shared between Gerald and I, and even my first kiss over on the levee. All of it was here, and the feeling was too big and too fleeting to comprehend. It was warm, and it was brief, cut short by a new feeling—a sharp pain in the meat of my leg.

I rose from the water screaming, to find Gloria already there, a pitch above me. We were an off-key choir trying to sing over one another, and we might have gone on that way for some time if John hadn’t pointed and shouted, “Cool!”

Sticking from my calf was a piece of aluminum the size of my thumb. Gloria, somehow, screamed louder. And Tim just dipped his finger in the water again.

                                                                             *

“It wasn’t that deep,” I confided, “it just scared me.”

“What was it, though?” Gerald asked.

“Probably trash Dad threw out. Maybe part of the old jon-boat.” He’d been in the early stages of dementia and wouldn’t have remembered. Over the previous winter when his electricity shut off, I asked if he paid the electric bill. He just told me about the ice storm of ‘93.

“I was there for it, Dad,” I’d told him. “But did you pay last month’s bill?”

Gerald broke into my memory. “I guess they didn’t get in and swim with you.”

I looked down at the bandage on my leg. “Very funny, Gerald. It’s your fault, really.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t scare the buyers away.”

“Thanks for caring.”

The television was playing lowly, the bright images of exploding ships and lasers reflecting off of the dull wood floor and walls. “It seemed to somehow encourage them,” I said. “They’re just going to fill the pond in and make another parking area.”

“Jesus,” Gerald muttered.

I felt encouraged. “For the kids and their friends,” I said. “They want their own little home down there. Where we grew up fishing and playing and climbing trees, they’re going to park their stupid cars and play video games and eventually do drugs—”

“Come on,” he said. “We did plenty.”

“Yeah—”

“We weren’t there for the bass and fresh air.”

“No, but—” I stopped. A man dressed in a cheaply made costume had just burst through a portal. He shot at a two headed creature whose heads were screaming in unison. Like Gloria and I.

“I’m equally afraid of selling,” I said. “What if we sell and start to forget about Dad. What will we have left of him? How will we remember him? His home was his world.”

Little James, Gerald’s infant, cried in the background of the phone line.

“Dad’s value was never in the things he gave us, it was in the time he spent with us. And he knew that. Everyone did.”

“But how do I know that now?”

“Bill, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go.” He paused, moving closer to James’s wails. “You already do know. You’ve just got to get it through your head that nothing changed just because he died.”

He hung up, leaving me with the two headed monster and the flashing special effects of some poorly designed future.

                                                                             *

On Wednesday I remembered it was Wednesday because it was the third day in a row I hadn’t done any work. The family was outside making plans, and I was inside brooding. Gloria came in, bored and looked at the mess in the living room.

I lay on the couch throwing and catching a signed baseball of Dad’s, and I was feeling rather sorry for myself.

“Are you keeping these?”

At her feet lay dozens of records.

“Depends,” I said looking at the albums around her. “You interested?”

“Maybe.”

“Those were my dad’s,” I said. “He taught me what rock and roll meant.”

She was quiet.

“Everything seemed to have a story attached to it—the time he rolled his truck into the ditch in front of his parent’s house (almost made it home!), a fox he killed and sold to a bartender, a girl he loved, a job he hated, what my grandparents thought of the devil’s music.”

Gloria laughed and picked up a pair of Zeppelin albums.

“These are cool,” she said.

“Give me five for the pair,” I said, tossing the ball too far and missing it. It thudded next to her.

She frowned at the baseball. “Eight for all four,” she said and looked down at Neil Young and The Doobie Brothers.

“Ten,” I said, rolling over and looking at her, “and I’ll throw in that Steve Miller.”

“Deal,” she said.

Unexpectedly, and for the first time that week, I felt accomplished. “How about some lunch,” I said, standing. “I think we’ve got some tomatoes in the garden.”

She stood with the stack of records in her arms.

“Got any hot sauce?”

“You bet.”

“Deal,” she said, smiling.

Her teeth were bright like her mother’s.

In the garden we brushed against the tomato plants who released their pungent fragrance and whose tiny hairs tickled our bare flesh. Gloria helped me pick the ripest tomatoes.

                                                                             *

After lunch she asked about photographs. I told her stories of Gerald and I catching fish, the springwater pool in town we visited on Saturdays, and the Memphis Zoo, where I once petted an otter. It was easy to remember these things, and I found I was eager for her to ask more questions.

I was unlatching a chest of forgotten treasures. I told stories, and together we examined their value with a magnifying glass.

“You kill any of those?” She gestured at the mounted deer heads.

“My Dad,” I said.

“How much?”

I looked at her. “You want—”

“The antlers,” she finished.

I looked at the wise deer, the dust on his black, glass eyes, and the bleached antlers reaching for the ceiling. I supposed he wouldn’t miss his rack.

“My Dad killed that one over on Mr. Greenley’s property. Biggest buck of his life,” I said. “That was the same year his brother died.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

I shrugged. “It was well before my time, but I was always sorry too. He didn’t talk about it much, but he didn’t have to. Gerald and I never forgot.”

Dad had wept bitterly the only time he told us the story of his brother getting cancer. He’d been eighteen years old. They were the first tears I ever saw on his face, running onto his beard like water on grease, not mixing as much as floating there. Afterwards, Gerald and I went to sit in the Zoysia and stare at each other. Who would die first?

“Twenty bucks,” Gloria said, picking her teeth with a toothpick. “Final offer.”

“You didn’t let me counter offer,” I said.

She hesitated, but then stamped her foot. “Final.”

It was a deal.

We continued through the house. I told stories, and Gloria named prices. Touching his things and telling his stories, I knew Dad was near. I stopped at the coin lock box and put a nickel in. Details I hadn’t thought about since my childhood were being whispered through his belongings. Everything seemed new again. Gloria made a list of her new possessions on an old, unpaid, and certainly forgotten parking ticket.

“You sure know a lot of his stories,” she said. “I don’t know any of my Dad’s.”

“His stories were gold, for the most part,” I said.

“Does that mean some were silver?”

I laughed. “I guess so. Maybe the ones I forgot. They were probably gold when he told them, though.”

She was already turned away, heading to the staircase. I took the stairs one at a time, as my left knee had begun to hurt. Dad’s left had given him trouble. “He told stories as often as we’d listen,” I went on. “I wish I’d listened more.”

Gloria walked patiently behind me, even holding onto my elbow as we made the final turn in the staircase. Back in the garage with the other Jacksons, she pumped my hand.

“Go ahead,” she chirped, “make him an offer. I just stocked my bedroom for less than a hundred bucks.”

The boys looked up. Mr. Jackson raised a finger to speak and stopped, and we all decided to be quiet. A breeze shook the oaks that shaded the driveway, and a few fallen leaves scooted into the garage with us, whispering like little ice skaters on the concrete. I leaned against the door knob to take pressure off my knee and smiled.

I felt better than I had all week.

                                                                             *

“You’re selling Dad’s stuff?”

“I didn’t think you’d mind,” I said, taking a sip of milk.

“You’re the sentimentalist,” Gerald said.

I looked at the tally of cash on the yellowing notebook paper. The numbers meant nothing, just black curves and cuts across the blue guidelines, the money only a dull whir beneath Dad’s voice telling stories that day.

“It’s all or none. The stuff doesn’t really mean anything. You were right. I feel better.”

“I said show them what you liked about the place, not sell all of Dad’s belongings.”

“I didn’t think you minded?”

“I don’t.”

I stood in my underwear, barefoot, with the phone pinched between my cheek and shoulder. I gestured through the dark room. “It’s like mailing a goodbye letter after his ship already set sail. It’ll catch up to him, eventually.”

“What is? What does that even mean?”

The milk was cold on my lips. Behind Gerald’s voice I heard James cry.

“Need to go?”

“Not yet,” he said, sighing. “Not just yet.”

I caressed the curves of the wooden bedpost and opened the curtains. The moon was bright enough to make the room a shade of blue, and the tall grass was illuminated in brushed highlights. My vision had worsened further and everything was soft and quiet.

“Do you remember—when Dad set those quail loose on the property so we could hunt them with dogs?”

Gerald chuckled. “You nearly shot one of the Pointers.”

“Aim fast,” I said.

“Shoot slow,” he finished.

I opened Dad’s bedside drawer and found a pair of wool socks. I sat on the bed and unfolded them. “How about when we tipped the boat over that one night?”

Gerald laughed again. “You screamed like a child.”

“I was six,” I said. “You were caught under the boat. I literally thought you were dying.”

“Dad made us wear life vests for six months,” he said, still laughing.

“Still trusted us out there, though.”

“He wanted us to learn how to take care of ourselves, no matter what.”

“I suppose we did.”

“I suppose.”

I shuffled my feet along the concrete into the bathroom and flipped the light switch on.

“Jesus,” I said.

“What is it?” Gerald sounded interested, like maybe I’d found the life vests.

The mirror had a jagged, black crevice that stretched the length of it. In the distorted reflection, I saw Dad’s bulbous belly, whitie-tighties, and bald head shining in the vanity light.

“Nothing, I guess.” I rubbed my stomach and set the glass of milk down. I peered at my reflection, at the bags under my eyes. “Just starting to feel a little—”

I stretched the skin around my eyes with one finger.

“Listen, Bill,” he said, “I thought maybe I’d drive down. It’s only a few hours, and it seems like you could use some help before the closing.”

I frowned. Were those liver spots?

“I’m fine.” I fingered the loose skin on my neck. “It shouldn’t take but another week.”

“At the most,” he said.

I looked at my new crows feet. “Right,” I said and smiled. My teeth were yellow, and I ran my tongue over them. I blinked, trying one last time to clear my vision.

“Well, just let me know,” he said. “The carwash doesn’t take much running. I really don’t have much going on.”

In the background I heard the familiar sound of his wife’s voice.

“That’s nice of you, brother. Now go kiss James, and tell him good night for me.”

“It’s eight thirty, Bill. Tell me you’re not going to bed.”

I limped to the bed and patted it. My body ached, and I wanted to lie down. When I pulled the covers back, a new smell came free. It was unlike the others, but certainly routine, something along the lines of firewood and baby powder. Dad’s dust rose in the moonlight, and I moved my hand through it like water.

“Goodnight, Gerald. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Not too early, old man,” he said. “Seriously, though, not before—”

I hung up and set the phone on the bedside table. There, in the blue light of the country night, lay a hunting magazine. In the bottom corner a white square had our home address, and the edges of the pages were worn. I eased into bed. The room was cool on my lungs.

I let the magazine fall open to a dog-eared page. A pencil ran in the space under the words, like a punch in the night, right in my gut and up through my throat. An underlined passage:

“… stewardship of the land starts at home, with the way we show up for our families and friends, and how we interact with whatever piece of land, no matter how small, God has given us…”

If the air could hold memories, then by breathing I recounted them. I felt close to him. His belongings were strewn across the abandoned house, some tagged for new ownership, some destined for landfills. The pond was filled with unremembered trash, and the Zoysia probably would not win. But I still knew my father and his stories.

The ceiling fan softly thumped the air, the house breathing around me. A chill snuck into my blood, and I brought the comforter to my chin.

I closed my eyes, the magazine pages fluttering beside me.


Will Hearn grew up in Mississippi and is now living in Orange Beach, Alabama. His fiction has appeared in Literally Stories, Visitant Literature, Everyday Fiction and soon forthcoming in Louisiana Literature. He is a full-time firefighter and story writer. He’s on Instagram and Twitter @will__hearn.

Categories
2018 Fiction

Tennessee Hill

ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND

I watch the Murphy twins, ring leaders of our kid-circus, terrorize the marina. They throw lit tobacco wads like cherry bombs in fishing nets, onto nearby decks. I think about asking to cut their hair much shorter than it is. I know one of them would answer by pulling a red-threaded needle through my palm like they did to the boy in middle school Home Ec who asked why they both had the same middle name. I imagine they’d sew into my skin, we don’t go lower than this.

But I know that isn’t true.

At my twelfth birthday party, just after their parents started roaming downtown in formal attire, not panhandling, just strolling, and people dubbed them The Murphy Freakshow, I launched myself into the deep end of my swimming pool and both boys plunged in after me. At the bottom, we felt around the decorative rocks, had a lungless screaming contest. Never did we consider kissing like most newly twelve year olds do. Our kid-circus cohorts leaned over the surface, searching for two identical bodies and my gangly ghost.

That party had been the catalyst. The Murphy boys noticed Carrie would jump off anything and land on her ballet-broken-in feet. Rich had an affinity with fire complimented by a sobering stealth. My older brother Jer could bend himself ten ways to Sunday. The neighbor girl Kennedy was ungirlishly broad, waywardly strong, and I had the ability to hold my breath for acres.

Above all, none of our parents watched us.

Not when I catapulted into the water. Not when the boys followed. Not when we charred part of the family cat with a cake candle. Not when we snuck out through the gate. Not even when the constable ushered us home after we’d tried to burn our names with stolen brands into all the trunks at the Christmas tree farm.

Lionel Murphy took the hot iron to his tailbone, silent as his skin cooked, staring into Carrie’s auburn hair like it was a spinning eye trick. His twin brother Micah wrestled the brand from Lionel, stabbing himself in the struggle. I was disinfecting the hole with pool water wrung out of my hair when I felt the town constable’s flashlight on my neck. As the towering man reached for the iron, Micah pressed it to the skin of his tailbone, too.

Their gift to me had been my name stamped on a dog tag dangling from dense thread the texture of twisted together corn stalks, but the metal was gold, truly gold—I made Jer bite into it to check—and that night I hung it above my bed like a dreamcatcher. Then I started telling people the Murphys weren’t freaks, they were independently wealthy, and they weren’t strange, they just had different kinds of fun. But people didn’t listen, so I joined the freakshow and turned it into a full fledged ruckus.

It took a few weeks for us to get on as friends. Jer tried to assert himself as the leader because he was oldest but the Murphys politely dominated his efforts. When Jer suggested we climb the Magnolia trees and throw peeled oranges at cars, or that we break into the consignment shop and build a scarecrow out of old scarves, we’d get halfway there and end up at the firework stand with poppers up our sleeves. Then, we were in the middle of town flopping like witches on fire as the tiny rocks exploded inside our clothes. It was always for the better and eventually, Jer stopped trying. The plainest thing was that the twins liked me best. Even when Carrie and Kennedy grew into their bodies quicker, wore makeup and bras and miniskirts sooner, the boys walked at my side, rode their bikes to my house first. I was the only one who never got them mixed up. Our mischief was an undercurrent of the town’s turning. We didn’t tag boxcars or leave notes in houses we broke into, but everybody knew, if only because we hung out with the Murphy twins. We only got caught once.

We hadn’t known they clipped the wings of the ducks in the park, so after many valiant efforts, Rich caught one. We snuck it to the roof of the library to throw it out over the edge, just to see something take off mid-air. It dropped so heavily, so quickly, there was nothing we could do. If we’d known, we’d have been at the bottom with a bed sheet or basket. Maybe we wouldn’t have thrown it at all. The feathers didn’t billow up like in movies, just stuck with the blood and guts to the cobbles.

We didn’t bother fleeing. The seven of us stayed on the roof, tried to talk each other out of throwing up and crying. The constable was there minutes later, drove us home without the radio on so we could really think about it. And we did. I don’t think we ever stopped thinking about it.

Today was supposed to be the Murphy twins’ birthday party. Our basement was prepared with streamers, pizza rolls, and a collection of beers we’d gradually stolen from our dads. Jer drove us to the pier and we paid the sybil who reads palms. She is the mom of a guy we go to school with, Craig, and she sat knowingly, even without looking at our skins or into our eyes, at a grandiose velvet-veiled table. A mulberry colored scarf hid her lightning-white curls, bracelet-sized hoop earrings held my gaze at the nape of her neck where the silver grazed. She was the youngest of all the high school moms and the only one with white hair. Of course, Craig didn’t got around telling everybody that his mom was a swindler on the docks. That they lived in the loft apartment above the crab shack. Or that even when we teased him into lying, Craig truly believe the things his mother predicted. The way she sometimes cried at school functions, staring into the abyss of our youthfully distracted energies as we danced and bobbed for apples at festivals. Once, she grabbed Melrose Carter by the wrist at our middle school field day and begged her not to climb any trees, even if someone dared her, even if her kite was stuck. She did anyway and slipped into a coma weeks later. The only person Melrose told of the prediction was Craig, in a violated swirl of fear. He told her parents in the hospital lobby as he sobbed into Mrs. Crater’s skirt, who was too stunned to pat his back. She simply walked up to Craig’s mother lingering by the door and slapped her clean across the face. They moved to the docks after that and Craig pretty much stopped talking. To everyone.

Carrie had said since it was their seventeenth birthday, we had to do something wild. She wanted to trespass or steal like Jer’s birthday last year when we took the cross-shredded papers from the credit union and bombed the high school principal’s front yard. People came to school saying they’d seen the principal and her husband vacuuming the grass. We were on a reeling thrill for days.

When I suggested we get palm readings, Rich got hellbent on the idea, patting his jean pocket of loose change until everybody agreed.

Micah moved to sit at her velvet table as Lionel grabbed his collar, yanked him away. “I was born first.” This was the first time either of them had mentioned birth order. It was surprising. I think we all assumed they just came into existence, of any vessel but their mother, at the exact same time.

The sybil traced the ridges of Lionel’s upright palm and looked frantically between the identical faces. She reached out for Micah and compared them. Her lips pursed as she dragged her talons around their skin. “Your heart lines, your head lines are both the same, but your life lines…” She gummed an elaborately fake accent that definitely fooled tourists, landing the vowels hard. “One of you will die before your next shared year.”

“What?” Lionel yelled, tugging away.

“Your birthday,” Carrie whispered behind him.

He yelled over his shoulder, “I know.”

Micah’s hand was still limp in the sybil’s grasp. I reached out and pushed her off, held his wrist as if protecting the pulse. His breath was heavy and perfectly strident with Lionel’s. He stared into my face like there was an answer somewhere there. I looked to the sybil, a drawn-on beauty mark by her lip, fake eyelashes fanning her cold eyes. I grabbed for one of the gigantic earrings but missed. Rich flipped the table and pulled down a tapestry clipped to the wall. Micah broke away from me and ran across the dock toward the water. Lionel followed.

I looked at her with disgust and betrayal, sure it went against every sybil code of conduct to openly predict a death. Then I remembered Melrose and decided she must hate beautiful people. Melrose had golden hair, silver-blue eyes. The twins were stunning, insultingly symmetrical and reflected the sun in such a way that they always glowed, even in Maryland winters. As we left, Rich spat on her rug and called her a lying bitch.

Now we are on the dock a few feet behind. Kennedy says softly, “I knew it was a bad idea to go out before the party.”

“I’ll beat the hell out of Craig and his trashy mother.” Jer says with arms crossed, white-knuckled.

I shudder against heavy wind. “It’s not Craig’s fault his mother is trashy.” “It’s Craig’s fault his trashy mother wants the boys to feel like they’re going to die.”

She had never done to them what she did to Melrose, but the sybil always regarded both boys with sharp eyes. Even in primary school, she did not let Craig attend their birthday parties and snapped in his face like a dog if she caught him trading baseball cards with the twins in the pickup line. She chunked a crystal highball glass at a wall just above the twins’ heads at a Christmas mixer and yelled as she was being forcefully escorted out, the boys picking glass from their hair, that she did it to banish bad luck. That it swarmed them as foggy crowns. I thought she sensed trouble, which they emitted like an odor, but now I feel that it was something deeper. A severance with some almighty thread was lost on both boys. I think this offended her. Or scared her. Or both.

Now we’re watching Micah hang his head over the water on all fours. Lionel stands above and they look like a stack of shelves, perfectly mimicking just feet apart. Carrie limbos between, wondering if she should comfort Lionel or let him be. The worst part was that the sybil didn’t even have to say it would be Lionel who’d die first. We knew.

Last summer behind the consignment shop he’d started kissing Carrie. Then, he started driving her around in his Jeep like he was her boyfriend; cutting across busy lanes, running yellows, running reds, as if he had the right to put her life at risk. It never mattered if Carrie loved him because she let him think she did. She’s polite that way. Though, once she told me she’d kissed Micah thinking it was Lionel and to her immediate shame, both boys tasted the same. I tried not to wonder why Lionel picked her and when I did, I tried not to hate her for it. Even harder, I tried not to expect Micah to pick me.

After some dry heaves, Micah finally vomits. Jer yells a joke about fish food but nobody laughs. “Let’s go to the basement, there’s a bucket of beer.” Kennedy slips Jer’s car keys from his hand and flips them between her fingers.

“Let’s go to the bottom of the marina,” Micah says. “There’s a begging shrine of broken glass.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Yeah?”

There’s a breeze-blown pause and I can feel Rich wondering how deep could he dive with an open flame. Lionel is about to reach for Carrie. She would let him. Jer wants his car keys back but Kennedy still clutches them. Yeah.

I pull my sweater off, step out of my boots. Rich takes a tin of tobacco and lighter from his jean pocket. In a blink, we’re stripped to the underwire. I look around and see that ours are the only warm bodies on this dock. Lionel and Rich wad loose tobacco, wrap it in rolling papers, light quickly and throw as far as they can. Carrie, Kennedy, and Jer bob in the cold water. I am still standing, half-naked, wishing I was older than the Murphy twins so maybe I could be the one to die first. My parents would miss me but only for a little bit. The Murphy’s parents would cease to exist, would freeze like pin-stuck butterflies wherever they hovered.

“Take it off,” Kennedy whoops from the water and I do. Micah stands next to me and in an uncomfortable instant, we have both realized we are grown. In this vulnerability we are very warmly harmonic. I think of the photograph I saw in a museum of a naked man and woman standing on the roof of a car, holding each other, the division of their bodies blurred. It was not romantic. This feels like it might be romantic.

Jer bets he can swim out to the dissolving tobacco bombs, drink the water and get a buzz. Kennedy untangles Carrie’s damp curls. As if I’ve passed my reflection in a hall mirror, I realize with a shudder that if anybody on earth looks like me, it’s Carrie. Still, nobody watches me and Micah. His hand is on my exposed hipbone and I feel his face, young with stubble. Neither he or Lionel look like their father, thankfully. They inherited their freckles from nothing but the sun. “What’s your middle name?” I ask him.

“Churchman.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Saint.”

Micah and Lionel Saint Murphy, I think. “We could go back to my place.”

“Are your parents home?” He squeezes his lips together to encourage fleeting circulation.

“Of course.”

“We’d have to cut through Main Street,” he says.

We both know that their mother is circling the fountain downtown with a pet-cluster of amber pinned to her lapel. Their father stands in the square, holding an umbrella over a bronzed couple kissing even though it doesn’t rain. The Murphy Freakshow. Even when this cruel nickname became true, when our kid-circus lead by the twins started to trespass, steal, and blaze, nobody thought to regret. To think of most prophecies and how they fulfill themselves.

I feel around Micah’s ribs for the old branding hole. “The pool water didn’t help,” he says, remembering. He looks to his brother, sees the small forest fire in his hand. “Maybe Lionel killed himself years ago and it’s just taking this long for him to die.”

“I’d believe that but we’re too young to think that way.” I say.

“If we’re not too young to die, we’re not too young to think about it.” He wraps his arms around me. My hands find the brand at the base of his spine identical to the mark on Lionel. The skin is rumpled like a sheet with pockets and hard edges. As if in slow motion, Micah leans us off the dock and into the water. We surface as quickly as we land and start to kiss.

The bronzed couple from downtown are the only ones watching.

Not really. The bitch sybil is watching out her window. My parents are in the living room, watching TV and kind-of watching. Carrie decides to love Lionel before he dies. Rich is inflamed. Jer moves to kiss Kennedy to feel something. Micah inhales one of my deepest breaths, “They’re probably watching.”

“I was born here but Jer wasn’t,” I say. Micah breaks his paddling rhythm to touch my shoulder. He says, “You two are so different.”

I can’t say the same to him.

I see Lionel, holding his palm to a flame. I know he’s trying to burn away the death trajectory. I try to mean what I ask, “What if we sunk to the bottom and became relics?” His hair is so long, I want to cut it. I think about swimming down to find the sharpest bottle shard because his waves are too long and there’s just too much of him. I think the same of Lionel and then try not to do that anymore.

“Only if we sink as anything but wishing coins.”

“Why? Then Rich would swim for miles to get us.”

He smiles with all of his teeth like a true believer in something. A wolfish howl echoes from downtown and the sybil moves away from her window. Mr. Murphy still holds the couple’s umbrella but cups his mouth with one hand, calling to his sons. Just before pulling me under, Micah pulls me closer. “Because then we’d always feel like we owed somebody an answer.”

Then we are underneath. And the freak-show veil is torn.

Tobacco wads crater and sink. Kennedy’s shoulders bolster and Carrie kicks her broken feet. Rich is about to ignite the elastic of his underwear while Jer searches for his car keys, worried that they’re wet. This is our final act.

Nobody is watching.

I have been holding my breath for so long, I start to notice the oxygen absence. Micah’s eyes are opened and glossy. He has let go of my body, floats away and I have stopped thinking about reaching out to touch him because this is not romantic. Small, bursting thoughts ring in my ears as I look at Micah, and he looks back at me with Lionel’s eyes. Every time I have looked at him, I remember, and in every memory, it was never just one boy looking back.

Now, his skin is gaunt and he recognizes the expression on my face, that I am unraveling the longest string of revealing memories as he sinks further away. Moments before his body feigns empty, a familiar rock breaks the surface. Through algae film I can’t tell if it’s Lionel sinking after Micah or Micah divinely multiplied and saving himself, if they’ve ever been separate or if this is the truest trick, finalized in the foggiest water. All I can feel is the vibrant family crest they consecrated the night of my twelfth birthday, deciding in all quickness to become a fraternity of two, double-headed leader to a secret kid-circus where their twinhood was the most intriguing sideshow.

I have gone as deeply as it goes and my back is to the marina floor. Looking up, I see the romantic thing I’d been feeling; Lionel realizes with a static tug that Micah will not, will never return, so he runs pruning fingers through his own hair and locks both arms around his brother. Lionel cups a hand by his mouth and howls to their father hoping the desperate wounding will make its way downtown. The echo shocks my featherweight body.

I try to figure out what any of this has been. Have these boys ever loved anybody but the part of themselves living in the other? My chest throbs a warning pulse and I push off the ground, cutting every heart-head-life line in my hand. Before I break the surface, I look at the Murphy twins and they have become something indivisible, so whole that their identical faces look like an illusion. I snap out of a consuming bewitchment and see that this was always the mind-game. Years of being different people beyond the glaring sameness— the uniqueness of one was just repressed inside the other. Two boys living from opposite ends of a Chinese finger-trap, rooted in a shared center.

I want to say to them, “Good one. You really got me.” I want to sew their hands together and lament, you were always going lower than this. I emerge from the water newly foolish. With my first breath, I howl to their father, to the bitch sybil, to Carrie and Kennedy, Jer and Rich who are looking at me, panicked. I howl until Jer pulls me out of the water and my back is on the splintered dock while they ask me where the boys went, when they’ll come up.


Tennessee Hill is an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University. She was a finalist for the 2017 Dan Veach Younger Poets Prize and has work in Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, Sandy River Review, and Kaaterskill Basin.
Categories
2018 Fiction

Jen Corrigan

BURST

When they look back, they will remember it like this.

They will remember the dusky light, the road slicing through the trees. The wife will remember the hawk perched atop the speed limit sign. The husband will remember the opossum carcass on the shoulder, its insides split out of its outsides, ripe fruit bursting in the sun.

The evening is their last ditch attempt to love one another. The wife wears lacy red panties under her skirt. The husband pays for dinner at Red Lobster.

They say oysters are an aphrodisiac, he says, raising one eyebrow. The wife laughs and touches his hand. Every motion hurts, as if their love was a muscle they no longer used.
The wife looks down at the gray flesh in her oysters, the hills and valleys of the interior. She traces the cochlea-like whorls, imagines the creatures as ears.

They try to fill the car with words. The wife pitches a remember when, and the husband returns oh yes, and, as if rebuilding their marriage was improv, which, the wife supposes, it is. Love is just making things up as you go.

When the wife unzips the husband’s trousers, he moans, and the sound turns them both off. But the wife takes the husband’s limp penis and rolls it between her fingers until the flesh hardens. His penis spits out a teardrop of precum onto her hand. She resists the urge to wipe it on his boxers.

The wife puts the husband’s penis in her mouth and bobs her head up and down. He takes one hand off the wheel and places it on her skull, pushing her head down. She hates this, and she has told him that once before. You say you want me to be in charge, but you just can’t let go of control. They fought. She stopped giving blow jobs.

When the husband gasps, the woman thinks it’s because he’s about to come, and she tightens her lips until they burn from the pressure. Then there is the keening of the tires across the pavement, the whump against the hood, the crack of the windshield spidering out.

The wife sits up. What happened? she asks. What happened?

He doesn’t reply, just drives. His face is a blank kabuki mask, his body motionless except for the delicate tilting of the wheel, the adjustment of the pedals.

It isn’t until they pull into the dingy dark of their garage that the husband tells her.

The wife remembers when she was a child, when she and her brother would climb on the roof and drop things onto the driveway: chipped coffee mugs missing handles, already broken electronics, old fruit swollen with juices. She thought of the time they dropped a watermelon, how its flesh burst out, staining the pavement pink.

We need to go back, the wife says. We need to call 911.

The husband nods, but doesn’t switch the car back on. Neither reaches for their cell phone. They sit until it’s too late to change their decision.

They spend the night in the car with the seats reclined. The wife thinks about Stephen King, how he recovered and wrote Dreamcatcher with paper and a fountain pen. She never finished reading the book. She hated the movie.

The next several days, they don’t leave the house. The husband scans the paper each morning. The wife flips through the news channels.

After two weeks, the husband goes into the garage and scrubs the dried blood off the car, makes an appointment at the body shop. Hit a damn deer, he mutters into the receiver. They’re everywhere this year.

One night as they lay next to each other in bed, the wife says, I blame myself. She tells him I prayed for something to keep us together.

The husband kisses her and gently pushes her onto her back. They make love in silence.

As weeks, months, then years pass, both are surprised at how they’ve learned to forget. Time stretches further and further without the memory surfacing, and they catch themselves laughing. They are joyful even though they don’t deserve it. The wife wonders if, when they die, they will be forgotten. The man wonders if people can live outside of memory.

The wife never gives the husband a blow job again, and he never asks for one. When they look back, they remember the way the trees flashed past, the relaxed sleepiness of full bellies and soft conversation. They rewrite the memory in their heads, imagine it as passion. Together, they construct the fantasy, the wife opening her mouth, starving, the husband winding his fingers in her hair, their bodies singing together as if their very cells are about to burst.


A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, Jen Corrigan’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Tishman Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a prose editor and book reviewer for Alternating Current Press. Visit her at www.jen-corrigan.com.