Category Archives: Fiction

Martin Dolan

Donato’s

The soup is served late, already cool, as if the kitchen staff and waitress have come together, conspired somehow to send you a message. You eat it anyway. You’re stoned and dehydrated—even room temperature minestrone tastes great. Something between your ears and brain is throbbing. Across the room at the hostess stand, you can see a woman gesturing, not-so-subtly, at your table. You take another spoonful of soup, swallow it, force a big smile for anyone watching.

On either side of you, Emily and Jordan are still fighting.

“I never told you I was going with you guys to Jake’s,” says Emily, “not for sure, anyways.” Her words aren’t slurred, but her voice is shrill, which might just be worse. People from the tables around you are looking over now, frowning.

“What do you mean?” says Jordan, exhausted and angry. “What were you planning on doing between now and going out, then?” He takes a swig of his beer—an Italian import whose taste he doesn’t bother to enjoy—and washes it down with a handful of unbuttered bread.

They’ve been fighting for hours now. Emily showed up at your apartment this morning already pissed off, half-explaining her text exchanges with Jordan in between sips of mimosa that she mixed herself. When Jordan got to your place an hour later, the two of them hardly said a word to each other, just glared, until a few drinks each had loosened them up. That had been at the first bar. At 10:30, maybe? It’s nearly six now. They’re still going at it.

Emily pouts and crosses her arms. She’s wearing a green crop top with the bottom half of her boobs hanging out. Her shirt had been full-sized once, an Irish flag printed across its front, until Emily took a pair of kitchen scissors to the lower third of it. More recently, at the last bar you stopped at, she’d spilled half a White Claw down her front, giving what was left of the shirt its current dark, damp color.

At least the pair of shamrock-shaped sunglasses had gotten lost during the Uber ride to dinner.

Jordan, to his credit, is considerably more put together. He’s already, at only twenty-three, showing the prowess of a functional alcoholic twice his age. You’ve never liked Jordanyou’ve sat through enough of Emily’s 3:00 a.m. sobs to fall for his fake-charming bullshit—but you find yourself taking his side in this fight, even if it’s only because his voice is less irritating. Emily is a pushover with the men she dates, and when these boyfriends are inevitably cruel to her, she takes it out on her own friends (usually you). There have been many before Jordan, and you’re sure there will be more after: a constant stream of assholes and burnouts about whom she refuses to take your advice.

Today alone you can point to several times—getting ready in your apartment, talking to friends from school you bumped into downtown—when Emily told anyone nearby that she would, in fact, be at Jake’s in between dinner and going out. You don’t bring this up, though—you don’t want to stir the pot. Not that either of them would listen to you, anyway.

Emily only ever manages to muster the courage to stand up for herself after enough drinks that the coming argument would anything but articulate. And Jordan, without fail, always takes the bait. In that way, at least, they’re perfect for each other.

If you were a fly on the wall, you might even find this argument interesting: so mindless that it’s funny. As you are, though, seated in the center of a sleepy dining room of seventy-somethings, you’re freaking out. You hate drinking—the way it makes your friends insufferable and the men they date somehow worse—but you’re starting to wish you only took one weed gummy instead of two before the bar crawl.

“Don’t give me that shit!” Jordan says, too loud. His voice is big and male. It carries across the room, bounces off the walls and into the ears of everyone in the restaurant. The people who have just been seated look concerned, instinct telling them to worry about the women sitting with the belligerent man. The ones who have been seated for a while, who have already heard Emily’s side of the argument, just shake their heads. Another woman calls a waitress over, holds her hand in front of her lips and whispers something.

You feel like you should do something, give the room a little wave that says, “Don’t worry, this happens all the time.”

And that’s when you realize you can’t, that you haven’t been moving, that you can’t move at all. You’ve been frozen in your chair for who-knows-how-long. Emily and Jordan are still bickering back and forth, repeating the same arguments louder and louder, and more heads are turning, looking at them, looking at you. Your chest is tightening, squeezing around your lungs. Your breath is heavy. Air flows in and, slowly, flows back out. Your skin is crawling, inside and out, but you can’t worry about that now. Ignore the eyes, ignore the sounds, just focus on your breathing. One breath. One, two. Then another. One, two.

You raise one hand up to the table, grab your spoon. Its texture—cold and metal—grounds you for a second, so you focus on that instead of Emily and Jordan, tune out their words. You take another spoonful of soup, then butter some bread; do it like it’s totally natural, like there’s nothing else you should be doing. Anything mindless, anything to occupy your hands while you focus on your breathing. One, two. One, two. One, two. Focus on the sound of your lungs, your heart, not on them.

You know you should be angry or, at the very least, embarrassed—you’ve gotten far more worked up over less in the past—but you can’t muster the emotion. You’re too high. The wandering eyes of the strangers around you, confused and upset, are physically weighing you down. Your shoulders and neck are crawling, heavy yet tender. You try to slink backwards into your chair, try to disappear. Breathe in, breathe out, eyes straight ahead, focused on nothing. Your vision blurs, pleasantly.

“Is everything okay?”

One of the waitresses is leaning over your table. You’re about to speak up, say that no, actually, you’re not, but she’s not talking to you. Her arms are crossed, eyebrows lowered. She’s angry. She’s looking right at Jordan, reading the largeness of his physical presence as a threat.

“We’re fine!” says Emily, and she tries to flash a smile. She’s had about four too many drinks for that; she just looks crazy. Emily’s answer doesn’t satisfy the waitress, but she does stand down a little, thinking at the very least her interference has calmed the argument. Emily shoots Jordan a nasty look, which he returns.

“You know what we could use?” says Jordan, in the particularly pompous voice he saves for waitstaff while he’s drinking, “some more bread.” He shoves the empty basket of bread across the little table, towards the waitress. It slides halfway across the table then stops, tips over. Jordan locks eyes with the waitress. You watch her, gears turning in her head, calculating where this conversation is about to go, deciding this asshole isn’t worth her time.

“Fine,” she says, “but keep it down.” She takes the basket and turns back to the kitchen.

The rest of the restaurant is quiet. No one is watching your table anymore, you can see that much, but the deliberate way they stare at their menus and cellphones is almost worse. You know what they’re thinking. You’re thinking it, too. One, two. One, two. One, two.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” you say, suddenly, and before Emily or Jordan have the chance to respond you’re already standing, walking away. You keep your eyes straight, bob between the few tables still in your way, avoid the waitresses whose conversation stops when they see you. You move slowly, with what you hope passes for nonchalance, but then someone behind you laughs and you’re speeding up. Tucked away to the side of the bar is a dark, unmarked door. You go to it, open it up and step inside in one fluid motion, realize only after the door closes behind you that you’re looking at a urinal, that this is the men’s room.

One, two. One, two. One, two.

The door doesn’t lock, either, which normally wouldn’t be a problem except for that what you really need right now is to be alone, away from Emily and Jordan and the waitresses and everyone else in the restaurant, their arguments and their judgmental eyes. There’s a chipped sink and a dirty mirror. Then, in a tightly packed row, a toilet and two urinals. No stalls separate them. The room is long and narrow, hooking back behind the bar, so small you can touch both walls at once. You hear footsteps on the other side of the door, voices, and your stomach drops.

Your jeans around your ankles, one-ply toilet paper between your ass and the porcelain, right arm outstretched to keep the door closed, you try, and fail, to pee. The bathroom smells like cat litter and cleaning supplies—you can see both in the far corner—and an uncomfortable warmth is steaming up from the toilet bowl. You close your eyes, try to stop pressuring yourself, let your body do its thing. Focus on your breathing, that much you can handle, but that only makes it worse. One, two. One, two. One, two. Except the twos are irregular, offbeat and heavy. Sweat is pooling on the bottoms of your legs.

A minute passes, maybe more. Nothing has happened and, realizing nothing is going to, you get up from the toilet, pull up your pants and buckle your belt. You wash your hands twice, jutting your butt out to keep the door closed. You make the mistake of checking your reflection in the mirror. Your mascara is running, for what has to have been hours, and in all the commotion of dinner, no one bothered to point out the red sauce dotting both of your cheeks. You splash sink water on your face and it helps; despite how you look, you feel almost normal. You can’t stay in the bathroom forever, but for this moment it’s a sanctuary.

Your high is manageable, if not pleasant, but instead of relief you feel, for the first time all day, anger. Anger at Jordan, sure—for his arrogance, the condescending way he talks to Emily and to you—but really, it’s Emily you’re mad at, not him. You’d warned her about Jordan, about all the boys like him, advice she has refused to take seriously except in hindsight. She’d dragged you out to bar crawl even though she knew you wouldn’t have fun, dragged you to this damn restaurant, too. Dragged you into the insanity of their argument—at once about nothing at all and about everything—carried out among strangers, made you an unwilling actor in this public performance of their dysfunction.

And you know tonight, tomorrow, whenever all this blows over, she won’t thank you for your help. Won’t apologize to you, either. She’ll whine a little over FaceTime about how needy Jordan is, then send over photos from a weekend trip with his parents, asking if you think they’re cute. As if you weren’t right there on the front lines with her, caught in their crossfire.

You open the bathroom door to the sound of glass breaking. From where you’re standing you can’t see into the dining room, but you can see the waitstaff’s faces. The younger girls lean over the bar with mouths open. The older waitress, the one who confronted Jordan earlier, just shakes her head, goes back to cleaning.

Your feet are moving, sliding between tables that aren’t bothering to hide their stares anymore. In the center of the dining room, the chair you’d been sitting in is flipped over, legs jutting diagonally into the air. Jordan is leaning back, arms outstretched. His one hand had knocked over the chair, the other wrapped around what used to be a bottle of Peroni. There are shards of glass on the floor.

Across the table, Emily is hissing. “Are you serious, Jordan. Are you fucking serious?”

Jordan’s smirk is cruel. “I forgot my wallet. What am I supposed to do?”

“You didn’t forget shit! You’ve been buying drinks all day.”

“Maybe,” he says, with slurred satisfaction. “Or maybe I’m just sick of paying for all your shit. Maybe I’m sick of your constant attitude.”

“Fuck you!” She throws a combination of cloth napkin and spat-out food towards Jordan’s face. It falls short, hits the table, and he laughs. The room is silent but also buzzing. You stay where you are, at the edge of the dining room. You can’t look away.

Emily doesn’t seem to know what she’s saying anymore. Her words slow, sound weaker by the syllable, and even at a distance, you can see the day—all the alcohol, all the arguing—catch up to her at once. She starts to talk, fumbles her words, ends up with something between a burp and a hiccup. It’s a few seconds before Emily tries to speak again, except this time, her voice is different. Unguarded, vulnerable.

“You’re a real asshole sometimes, Jordan,” Emily says, and then she’s crying. Big, juicy, drunk tears, loud and snotty, darkened with glittery makeup, right in the middle of everyone.

Jordan doesn’t say anything, just stands up from his chair. He doesn’t go to Emily, try to comfort her or apologize. Instead, he fumbles in his pockets, pulls out his wallet, throws a credit card on the table as if that’s enough. He turns his back on Emily, looks for the door and then starts towards it. His shoulder hits yours as he passes—not aggressive, he’s stumbling drunk. He doesn’t bother to close the door behind him when he steps outside. A cool draft blows in from outside. The only sounds left come from Emily, mumbling something unintelligible between snotty tears.

Emily looks up and sees you, really sees you, for the first time all day.

“He’s…he’s…” she tries to say, but can’t finish her sentence, slips back into tears, sloppy and loud, and you know that whatever is still working in her booze-filled brain is expecting you to come to her, hug her, tell her everything is going to be okay. How pathetic she looks. You’re one of the crowd, now; separated and silent, staring at her spectacle with judgmental eyes. You know that Emily believes this is your job: damage control, showing up to clean up her messes, wiping her the tears away. It’s been you in the past, and it will probably be you in the future, too. But not today. Not today.

You take one step back, then another, then another. You imagine that you’re melting into the crowd, away from the commotion, letting the distance between you and Emily grow and grow and grow until you’re out the door. The dark March night is cold on your skin. Across the street, you can see Jordan shivering against a road sign, scrolling through his phone, probably looking for a ride home. He looks up and catches you staring but you don’t turn your eyes away, not this time. The two of you stand like that for a minute, eyes locked, not saying a word. Then, in silent understanding, you turn away from each other, head in opposite directions down the street.

With the two of them behind you, you can finally breathe. The air outside is fresh, clean, and when you exhale it comes to life before your very eyes—condenses into a silver fog and then, slowly, disappears into the nighttime air, fades to black. You focus on these breaths; appreciate, for once, their beauty, their music.

One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two. One, two.


Martin Dolan is a writer from Albany, New York. His fiction has appeared in Barzakh and has won the 2022 Andrew Bergman Award. Find him online at dolanmart.in

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Jessica Marinaro

Nasty Bird

A rain-streaked window was Helen’s only entertainment as of late. She stared out of it when the cheap thrills of midday television started to slow the turning of her cogs just a little too much. You really can only watch so many fluorescent flashing episodes of Wheel of Fortune before starting to feel your brain leak out of your ears.

Helen despised that feeling. So, she took care of herself—she tried to walk everyday, continued to tend her garden even though she disliked it, and forced herself to engage in boring elderly activities such as online chess and puzzles. She did these things not because she had any real zest for life, but because she never wanted to become one of those old women who slowly melted into their couches day by day until they inevitably slopped onto the floor lifeless as soup. At the end of a long day of fighting the battle of time, Helen allowed herself the simple pleasure of staring out the window.

Some people say they find joy in their old age, but she knows they’re full of shit. There’s nothing good about getting old. Except maybe grandchildren.

“It’s important they know their grandma,” her daughter Grace had said the first time she dropped the kids off on her front porch, hovering awkwardly. “Regardless of where we stand.”

Her grandkids—Jamie and Fiona—came over on the weekends, the best days of her life now. They marveled at her garden, even though it was not much to look at. They made messes in places that hadn’t been touched in years. She loved it most when they stood at her elbow as she made simple meals, chattering and licking their lips.

The two came over routinely once or twice a month for a weekend at a time. Her daughter never called to let her know, but it didn’t really matter. She was always home. It was during one of those special weekends when the bird’s existence was made apparent to her.

“Look! Grandma!”

They were in Helen’s expansive backyard. She took care of this land without any help; the grass was a sharp healthy green, tickling her ankles as it was starting to get a little long. The newly planted hydrangeas in her garden were coming in nicely despite the pesky weeds. She didn’t believe in pesticides, at least not when it came to the delicate flowers. The chemicals were so aggressive. The smell of hyacinth carried through the three acres of yard all the way back to the trees that separated her property from wild forest. She was hunched over her garden wondering why she even bothered anymore, while Jamie waited impatiently for birds under the birdfeeder. Fiona, on the other hand, was lying in the grass with a book.

Helen didn’t turn around. She was engrossed in weeds. “What is it?”

“The birds! They’re so cool!” Jamie was excited. He was the younger grandchild, a quick little thing full of light. His exuberant nature never failed to charm—as well as annoy, in some cases—those around him.

“Oh yeah?” she tugged at a rather aggressive root. “What do they look like?”

“Reeeeed Robin,” he squealed. “Yum!”

She could hear him and his sister cracking up, and then a second later, he gasped.

Helen whipped her head around faster than she should have at her age. Luckily, her grandson was fine, but the birds in question were being pecked at by a large blue jay. The robins, which Helen noticed were actually cardinals, scattered away quickly. Jamie sulked.

Helen hobbled over. “Shoo!” she waved the blue jay off. It only sprung away from her touch, narrowly avoiding the swat. She came closer, and then it made its escape.

“Nasty bird!” Fiona said.

Helen halted. The world around her dulled. Nasty Bird. She took an unsteady step back, her body fuzzy at the edges.

His scurvy war pals used to call him many things—Dirty Bird, Old Eagle Eye, Crazy Bastard—but Nasty Bird was the most common. He wore that nickname like a badge of honor. His friends would laugh and jostle him in the way young men hardened by war do.

When the people who called him that were still around, she was young and beautiful, and he was striking. He had the kind of boyish charm that made other women fidgety around him, and Helen suspected that he liked the way she never succumbed to his power. She knew she was lucky to have married a man who admired her ability to stand on her own two feet. However, a war fought on foreign soil can have casualties at home.

Wives of soldiers often know suffering more intimately than people give them credit for. All you have to do is look into the eyes of a woman who has loved a man a world away, and you know what she carries. Helen knew people tended to feel grateful for men like her husband; men like him took on all the most intense rage and pain of the world for themselves. But where does all that rage and pain go? What happens when the angry man you love is not a world away, but sitting at the kitchen table?

They fought frequently after he came back. Her husband had left a lighthearted, progressive man who appreciated her for who she was; he came back another creature entirely.

“You don’t know what it’s like out there!” he yelled.

She pinned him with her eyes. “You’re absolutely right. I don’t, but I know what it’s like here at home, and I worry—”

“I don’t need a silly housewife worrying after me. I survived a war, a battlefield—”

You,” she stepped closer to him, “do not get to speak to me that way!”

“What is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you?

A spark, like a crack of lightning against her face.

At least now she finally had his attention. He scrambled, clearly upset, and fawned after her in the aftermath.

“I’m so sorry Helen.” He pressed a cool washcloth to her face.

“I don’t know what got into me.”

“It was a mistake.”

“It will never happen again.”

“I promise.”

Helen cared for her husband, but even when she was young, she was not naive. She knew how war had killed her friends’ husbands’ souls, and she knew at that moment that it wouldn’t be the last time.

“Grandma, are you okay?”

She blinked her eyes, clearing it all away. They had come back inside a few hours ago, lured by the promise of cold lemonade. As reality swam back into view, she noticed the blue jay from before was back at the feeder. The annoying little thing hopped around contentedly for a while then fell still. It gazed toward her reflection in the window, unmoving. Like it was challenging her. She turned away from the window, smiling at Fiona.

“I’m okay, baby,” she said.

“Okay.” Fiona smiled back. The girl was absolutely lovely; blonde and freckled like her mother. She had a quiet, observant disposition that her brother lacked. It made Helen worry.

“Why don’t we get dinner started? That way we have time for dessert before it gets too late.”

The children cheered in unison, and Helen felt her insides brighten.

After Helen prepared a dinner of her famous Kraft mac ‘n cheese—and more importantly to her grandkids, homemade chocolate chip cookies—everyone settled into the comfort of night. The children were sated by food and the soft drone of the boxy TV in Helen’s bedroom. She was almost asleep herself when she got a call. She got so few; she hovered for a moment in contemplation before answering.

“Hello,” she said tentatively. Best not to wake the kids.

Grace’s voice surprised her: “I assume they’re asleep?”

“They’re asleep,” Helen said.

Grace sighed and something about hearing her voice over the telephone made Helen imagine her as an old woman—her headstrong, corporate lawyer daughter as a graying, wrinkly lady with nothing to look forward to except her own grandkids. It made her sick.

“I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning,” Grace said. “You know I hate leaving them overnight, but work’s a disaster and I can’t leave in good faith. Does nine o’clock sound okay?”

“They can stay as long as you want,” Helen said. After a moment she added, “and you should get some rest.” She tried to sound authoritative, but it came out weak.

Grace didn’t seem fazed. “I’m glad I could finally start leaving them with you,” she said. What Helen knew lingered beneath those words: I’m glad he’s gone. It hovered in her mind.

“I love having them here.”

This transparency surprised her, but maybe this night was one for honesty. Maybe with the shield of a cool blue evening they could make things better.

“’Kay, I’ll be there in the morning.” Grace hung up.

Or maybe not. She could feel her daughter closing herself off before she even heard Grace’s words, and it stung. She laid in the bed for one more quiet moment staring at the chain that hung from her ceiling fan. It swung, and it swung, and it swung. She knew that in her kitchen the curtains swung too—the wind would make it so with its hollow moan. Helen imagined that blue jay might even sleep on a swinging branch. She felt nauseous, seasick from the sway of it all. She wondered if the swinging would ever stop.

The next morning, the very same bird woke her up with the sound of his screeching. In her post-dream state, it sounded like a blaring alarm. She sprung from her spot on the loveseat only to find no emergency. The house was not burning to the ground, and there was no burglar; only a devious blue jay who seemed to cackle at her fear. Still, she needed to check on the kids. In her sudden and panicked awareness, the desire to see them was overwhelming.

She made her way to the bedroom. Although she had spent some time watching a movie with the kids there last night, it had recently become more of a spare room since she could no longer sleep on her back. Jamie slept deeply on the bed right where she left him, his mouth open and drool pooling on the pillow. Fiona was curled on the air mattress with her eyes open. She sat up quickly.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

Helen smoothed her graying hair and let loose a breath. She must look haggard. She despised her body for its inferior mechanisms. At least, she pondered, she’d gotten up at all. She’d trade fitful sleep for the ability to be alert any day.

“Everything is fine, Grandma was just startled.”

“What scared you? Was it a nightmare?”

Her granddaughter’s eyes were wide and light, and though Helen searched for them, she could not see any shadows creeping in. It relaxed her to notice the lack of curve in her granddaughter’s back, the lightness of her shoulders. She was pure, clear joy.

“No, no sweetie. It was that bird again,” she said. “The one that bullied the cardinals away.”

“Oh,” Fiona said, standing up. “Can I help you make breakfast?”

Helen smiled. “Of course.”

They walked to the kitchen together, past the window and the lumpy loveseat where Helen slept. She maneuvered carefully over the tiles.

“Your mother called,” she said, pulling out a pan from a low cupboard, “She said she would be here to pick you kiddos up by 9:00 this morning, but…”

The clock read 10:42 a.m.

Helen squeezed Fiona’s shoulder. “I think work is holding her up.”

“It’s okay.” Without a word, Fiona started grabbing milk, eggs, and measuring cups. “I figured that’s what happened.”

They worked in silence as the morning light softened the hard edges of Helen’s home. Maybe she felt her edges soften a little too.

Of course there were good times, enough of them that Helen would often block out the horrors of her past in favor of focusing on the moments of tenderness. Sometimes, when she leaned uncomfortably into her chair-bed at the end of the day, she’d grasp for these good memories pitifully—if only to find some tiny relief.

The day she returned to most frequently was an early date with her husband. He was all bright smiles and gentlemanly gestures in those days—he held the door for her and pulled out her chair. He took her for a nice dinner, and, like any young kids looking for trouble back then, they went dancing afterwards. His hands were gentle. This was before he was a military man, when he was less fit and more fun. When he laughed easily. When she fell in love with him.

By the end of that night they were sweaty and breathless. A slow song drifted between the crowd, which thinned out as single ladies and solo gents left to get drink refills or make a hasty retreat together. The two of them stayed, and while they danced Helen thought about love.

There were also those nights she spent sitting by his bedside towards the end. Those nights were an altogether different kind of good memory; a less wholesome kind. She remembered them well because she finally had the power. He was the one groveling at her feet for the first time. He was the one asking for forgiveness. She had never been religious but in those months—ones in which she had to feed him, and wash him, and help him stand up—she started to see how some of that Jesus-talk her mother used to spout was sort of true: maybe there was something to be said for loving your enemy. Maybe there was something to be said for turning the other cheek.

Still, she wasn’t a saint. She didn’t forgive him, and she’d never know if that was the right choice or not. An animal might be rotten if it bit the hand that fed it, and her husband was by all accounts a rotten animal; a nasty bird. But he was also human—and that was the reminder that always twisted the knife when she thought about how she denied him his peace in the end.

Helen flipped a pancake, admiring the smooth cooked side. Fiona filled cups with orange juice.

“Go wake up your brother,” she said.

Ever her mother’s daughter, the little girl didn’t object. Soon they were all sitting at the table munching happily; the juice was tangy, the pancakes were warm. Helen glanced out the window from time to time, checking on the bird feeder. The pest hadn’t come back yet, but Helen was strangely paranoid he would. She was already planning ways to be rid of him.

A ring at the doorbell interrupted their peaceful eating.

The children sprang up from their seats. Fiona opened the door without looking through the peephole. They knew it was their mother because nobody else ever came here.

“Mom!” Jamie jumped and hugged her.

“Hey you,” Grace said.

Fiona greeted her mother with a calmer embrace. Grace kissed the top of the child’s head, and they grinned at each other. It struck Helen then that her daughter was a really great mother; that she had something inside her that Helen never did and never would. She wondered where she got that from.

“Go grab your stuff.” The kids scurried off at their mother’s gentle command.

Grace took a few steps into the house but didn’t sit down. “Mom.”

Helen didn’t respond, and the tension was like a third person in the room. She only shook her head. The short conversation last night hadn’t done anything; they would always be like this. Desperate to do anything other than sit like a decrepit old lady at her dining room table, she got up and started piling dishes in the sink.

Fiona and Jamie tumbled back out into the room with their overnight backpacks. They gave their grandmother quick hugs and said goodbye.

As soon as they shut the door behind them, the silence echoed. Helen felt it settle back into all the places that collected dust when the kids weren’t around. There was nothing worse than the dawning hush of a dead house. She felt enormously tired, but she started washing the dishes anyway.

The next day, she decided to get rid of that bird once and for all. It was tormenting her, and it had scared her grandson. It had to go. She had read in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine that blue jays dislike the sound of windchimes, and that they don’t care for safflower seeds; these would be her weapons.

She took a quick ride to the hardware store to gather her arsenal. As usual, the teenager who worked the register took forever, and Helen did little to hide her impatience. As soon as she got home, she devised a plan. She would fill the top of her birdfeeder with all the safflower seeds it could hold and see if that deterred the beast. Though she detested the annoying clanging of chimes, she would put them up if the bird insisted on being a nuisance even after her change in seed. If it persisted after that…

She’d load the twelve-gauge collecting dust in the shed and shoot the damn thing.

Okay, maybe she wouldn’t do that. She wasn’t a very good shot, and she’d never actually had to use a shotgun. She tended to avoid the shed when she could. So many of his things were left there.

Shoving away the thoughts of shooting and killing, Helen gathered her materials and marched to the backyard. She stuck her nose up into the air in defiance and poured the safflower seed into the feeder with a heavy hand. She then stood for a moment, hands on her hips, and looked around to see if any blue jays dared to face her.

They didn’t. Or at least not yet. She suspected that stupid bird would be back soon, but she hoped a taste of that seed would send him away. In the meantime, Helen walked back through her garden and into the lonely house. There was nothing to do now but wait.

It had been three weeks of hoping the blue jay would leave, but the bird just kept coming back.

In the mornings when she usually spent reading or sitting on the back porch, he was there. During the midday when she would throw together a cup of tea and sandwich at her kitchen table, he was there—the bird feeder so glaringly visible from every angle. When she took naps she was snapped awake by his call; when she tried to focus on anything else, her attention was pulled back to him.

Helen supposed it could be karma from a past life; it could certainly be premature karma from this life, as she had done enough harm to warrant such a haunting. It was possible all of that bad juju she had succeeded in tallying up in her current body had filled up in her next life and boiled back over into the now, like a pot she left too long on the stove.

It was just as possible that the Better Homes article she read was straight bullshit.

It was morning. Helen was sitting on her back porch with a coffee and a crossword puzzle, trying not to sulk. The world was dreadful and quiet. She pretended to be engrossed in the puzzle for nobody except her and the wind, when in reality she found herself counting down the days until she’d likely be seeing Jamie and Fiona again. She wasn’t fooling herself, and she doubted she could fool nature.

As she sat and sipped and sank deeper into the hazy yellow day, nature made itself known to her the way it had been for several weeks now: with the screech and chirps of cardinals being harassed by the blue jay.

She glanced up to take in the scene. Once again, two little cardinals innocently picked and prodded at the seed only to be interrupted by the torment of the blue jay. Her eyesight hadn’t gone yet, as she could see from her porch the way the black markings on the bird’s head streaked into a menacing hardened brow. His beak was curved just slightly in a grin as he ripped at the cardinals’ feathers—a grin that only seemed to intensify as they let out their pierced cries for mercy.

That was enough. She curled the puzzle book in her hands, turning it into a viscous club. She pulled herself up from her wicker chair with a sudden ferocity and rushed down the porch steps towards the bird feeder.

The cardinals took flight in fear, but the blue jay held his ground. She saw red as she lunged toward him, harder and meaner than she ever would have if the kids were here. He flittered for a moment but annoyingly circled back to the feeder and let out a loud caw.

She swung.

She swung harder.

On her third attempt to nail the bird, she actually made contact. She whacked it pretty good, and the creature squawked in pain before making its hasty retreat. She then lowered herself to the ground, desperately trying to catch her breath in the wake of her attack. Once her breathing started to even out she noticed there was something tingly about her hands, possibly from clenching them harder than she ever had before. There was also a biting feeling in her lower stomach that threatened tears. She couldn’t place it.

After that, the bird never returned. Helen could sense the fear she was so used to carrying around slowly easing. Before, her life and past had swirled around her head daily; thoughts baiting thoughts, like vultures circling a bloody carcass. Now, she simply went about her life. Everyday it became a little easier.

Today was her anniversary. She had tried desperately to erase this day’s importance in her memory through sheer force of will, but no amount of newfound serenity would ever allow her to forget. She knew she would have to get out of this house and away from the ghosts that loomed around every corner. She would run all of her errands today. Even if she couldn’t really forget today’s significance, the least she could do for herself was pretend.

When she got back to the house, Grace’s car was parked in the driveway. She stared at it for one minute—nearly two—before getting out of the driver’s side of her own car. Was this it? Had she actually lost her mind?

No, but maybe something bad had happened to her grandkids. Why else would the daughter who hated her be here today of all days? The thought had her rushing to the front door, her grocery laden hands shaky.

Inside Fiona and Jamie colored on her dining room table, perfectly content. She sagged with relief as their heads snapped up and they ran to her screaming, “Happy birthday Grandma!”

She hugged the children tightly. Probably too tightly, as her grandson squirmed and slipped away after only a moment. She let go and did a double take when she saw Grace there, actually sitting on the couch.

“I let it slip that it was your birthday,” Grace said. She turned her attention back to the “The kids wouldn’t stop begging me to let them come by.”

Helen was at a loss for words for a moment. Her birthday wasn’t for another two months, and her daughter was nothing if not attentive when it came to important dates. Was this some cruel prank?

She didn’t want to upset the kids or worse—have to deal with the disappointment of losing their presence after being promised it, so she went along. After they ate cake and ice cream, and Fiona and Jamie sang the loveliest Happy Birthday tune Helen had ever heard, their mother corralled them into her car. As Helen sipped a coffee, preparing for the quiet of a childless house, Grace stepped back in.

Grace spoke first. “I slipped a $50 in the card Jamie made for you,” she started, sounding almost professional. “Although as you saw it might be a little sticky from the glitter glue, I told him not to use that crap—”

“It’s not my birthday,” Helen cut her off.

Grace looked bewildered. “What do you mean?”

“My birthday is in September.” Helen took a deep breath. “Today is the day your father and I got married.”

“Oh. Oh my god…”

Grace scrolled through her phone; a calendar app, Helen supposed, and raked her hand through her hair in disbelief. Time seemed frozen as Helen gazed at her lap, and Grace stared at her feet. A table, an ocean, a world between them.

After a moment, Grace collected herself. “Why did you let him stay, Mom?” The words seemed blurted, but Helen noticed how she refused to back down. “You were the strongest person in the world to me, but you let him—” She stopped abruptly. Helen imagined there were some things even her strength couldn’t allow her to say.

“He hurt us,” Helen said, letting the truth spill into the air between them.

Helen couldn’t look at her daughter. She didn’t want to have to face the shadows there, the curve of her back, or the heaviness that rested on her shoulders. Heaviness put there by her own mother. What had she done?

“I’m sorry.” Helen said it without thinking. She knew from personal experience how little ‘I’m sorry’s’ meant.

When she finally looked at her daughter, she noticed how strongly she stood. Immovable.

“I don’t forgive you,” Grace sniffed, hastily wiping a runaway tear. “But I do love you.”

Once again, Helen recognized that biting sensation she had felt after she attacked the blue jay. She could place it now—it was the feeling you have after you’ve hurt somebody. The feeling you have after you’ve hurt yourself. She started to cry, and after years of silence it felt cathartic.

“I don’t forgive me either,” Helen said. She desperately wanted to embrace her daughter, but couldn’t. Instead she wiped her own eyes, took a shuddering breath, and pushed all the broken pieces back into place. “I love you too,” she whispered. She watched her daughter walk out her door.

She sat back down on her couch. Her coffee became cold as she stared out the window, searching for anything but mostly looking for the blue jay. She stayed there until morning light and thought about how gentleness is akin to roughness; how we are born not with wings, but with hands—and that maybe those hands are meant to both hurt and heal the very same.


Jessica Marinaro is a junior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. Her work has previously been published in Iris Magazine, and she is a writer and editor for Geneseo’s chapter of Her Campus. When not at her desk writing, she can be usually found snuggled up with a book, jogging around campus, or jamming to Taylor Swift.

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Bryce Levac

Our House

I put tulips under all the pillows, and then set fire to the house. As the flames thrash around, crawling their way through each room, I sit on the front lawn, watching my perfect little house morph into ash. Before it’s forever ruined, I try to imagine each room, to preserve it in some way. I start with the bedroom. It was of moderate size, containing few items besides my queen-size bed, an old wooden dresser that my parents had passed on to me, and a closet that contained whatever clothes I couldn’t fit in the dresser. The bedsheets used to be pure white, but once she moved in they became red, against my better wishes. Its floor was carpeted, much like the living room downstairs, providing a comfortable enough space to lay down if I was feeling particularly tired. I’d do that pretty often, especially when she wasn’t home. Gazing up at the ceiling, pure white like the sheets that used to cover the bed. The white always brought me a certain calm, affording me an escape from the harsh red, finally allowing me the mental space to think. I wanted to experience that same therapeutic feeling one last time, but at that point I’d already poured the gasoline onto the carpet, causing it to swell and darken.

The bed was my main focus though, ensuring every inch of it was soaked so those horrid red sheets could never be resurrected. The only other addition I made to the now tainted bed were two pink tulips that stuck out from underneath the pillows. I knew she hated them. She made sure that whenever I got them for her, she’d put me down in the same dirt from which they came, but I didn’t care. It was a small act of defiance that really didn’t matter compared to the theater production I was now orchestrating. Each flame was now following the carefully constructed choreography that I had set within each room. So far the performance was more than I could’ve ever hoped for, each flame improvising and adapting to the scene around them. Despite the more than satisfying show, I felt a drop run down my illuminated face.

The living room is next. It was directly to the right when you walked in the door, with the same carpet as the bedroom upstairs, but it never felt quite as well suited for the therapeutic floor sessions that I’d have in the bedroom. The living room provided its own special comforts, however. A decently sized TV was mounted on the wall, allowing me to watch whatever show or movie I was in the mood for. I’d often rewatch the same stuff, though. It brought me a certain relief despite the obvious, predictable nature. The only thing to disturb this repetitious comfort was her condescending gaze telling me how pathetic and worthless I was. I’d experience both the repetitious viewings and judgmental gazes from the leather couch that I’d found at a yard sale. It wasn’t anything special, but it had that homey brown leather look you think of when you first think of a basic leather couch. When I first brought it into the house, I thought about how perfectly it was placed in the middle of the room, how it was always meant to be there. It had traveled unknown miles and lived in an undetermined number of homes in order to finally arrive here, in my perfect little house, in my perfect little living room. To her though, it was an eyesore.

“Why do we even keep that ugly ass thing?” she’d say, with that same, unforgiving gaze that would deplete my confidence.

“Because I like it?”

“Heh.” She’d brush the comment off her shoulder, trying to sound like she’s joking, hiding the true resentment she’s feeling. “And you think that’s a good enough reason?”

I had stared at the couch for a while. It gazed back at me, questioning the reason for my sudden, malicious decision to destroy it and the home which it had inhabited for years now. I didn’t give it an answer. I simply poured the gasoline, allowing it to seep into the couch like loose change. I had wanted to drag it outside, at least give myself a better viewing experience for what was about to happen, but also to salvage at least one thing of mine that had inhabited the house that wasn’t my own body. For this to mean anything, though, it had to burn with the rest of the house. At least it’s fair that way. Everything that was hers is mine and everything that was mine is hers. Now, we are both left with nothing.

I did have something, though. Not the couch; I could never say that was really mine considering how often she plopped herself on it, taking up most of the space, and leaving me barely enough space to sit. No, it was my mug. It was a large, white mug with a slight chip on its rim from when I dropped it in the sink while doing dishes. I remember being terrified that I’d broken it completely, that I couldn’t utilize the last thing I truly owned within that house ever again. But it had endured my error in physical coordination, and I continued to use it every morning and every night. Every time I held it in my hand, I could feel myself loosening up. The calming weight of it in my hand let me know that I still had one thing left for my own. But then one morning, this morning, I went downstairs to claim it again, as I had done every morning before. She was standing there with it in her hands, sipping her morning coffee from it while watching the television in the other room. Her red lipstick stained the white ceramic. It might as well be shattered into a million pieces.

“What?” She asked, finally noticing my gaze.

“Nothing, just thinking about what I want for breakfast.” I hid my contempt. I hid my rage; it’s the only thing I can claim as my own anymore.

Stop. Stop thinking about what you’ve lost. It’s been lost for years now. The second she entered your life and the house in which that life was cultivated, it was no longer yours. You built it from scratch. You chopped the wood. You built it using the materials mother nature provided. You wanted something to call your own. To truly claim it as your own. The couch, the bed, the dresser, hell, even the carpet. All of them made an image. My image. My home. But with her there, how could it be mine anymore? It became ours. It’s hard to even say that it was ours since she came to reject everything that was mine, and I rejected everything that was hers. That places the house itself and everything within it in a constant state of possessive limbo, with no one able to claim anything as his or her own since the other will end up rejecting it regardless. And since one person rejects it, that means we both reject it, since it’s supposed to be our house. At the end of the day, it ends up belonging to no one.

So burning down this house, a house that was once so beautiful and holistic in its vision, was a mercy. It was sick, infected by a vision that was not my own. I let her in. I shared myself with her. Shared my home. She didn’t want any part of it. She just wanted the ideal. The perfect husband who’d conform to her decorative wills. I wanted my house back.

I hear tires squeak to a halt behind me. I shouldn’t have stayed. I should’ve left as soon as I knew the house was going to thoroughly burn, but I needed to be here to see the look on her face. I turn around to see her stepping out of her car. It’s dark out, so it’s hard to make out her face in the blinding headlights. My mind begins to run through all of the different possibilities: Shock, hatred, anger, devastation. I don’t want to face any of them but I know I have to. When the headlights shut off, everything goes dark for a moment until I finally see her face. She’s looking directly at me, her figure outlined by the flame in front of us. It’s that same look of resigned disappointment she always had whenever I walked through the door. We hold our gaze for a while. There’s nothing left to say. Nothing to do to fix what we’ve done to each other. Eventually, she walks over to me, sits on the grass, and watches the show I’ve orchestrated for us. “What happened?” There’s no inquiry in her voice, only blunt force.

“I burned the house down.” I know that’s not what she meant, but it’s the only answer I care to give at the moment.

“You know that’s not what I meant.” She’s utilizing that same, blunt tone to deliver her response.

“You know what happened, so can we please stop treating each other like children?”

Her face remains still. Not twitching or reacting to what I’ve said in any way. It’s as blank as the ceiling, only instead of bringing me comfort, it brings me the same dread as those red sheets. She seems to be focusing on something in particular. Her eyes seem transfixed on a certain point in the house. She’s unnaturally calm as if she’s finally seeing what we were, what we are. On her face, I project a future. One in which we don’t fight over what we own. One in which we don’t try to control each other.

We’ll have kids–three of them. Two boys and a girl. I try to think of what we’ll name them, probably something common like Claire or Benjamin. Maybe we’d even name one of them after our grandparents or something like that. But their names aren’t really what I’m trying to focus on at the moment. I’m just focusing on the idea of them, of our family. When the sun is covered in dark, looming clouds, we’ll all gather on that homey brown couch to watch a movie together. A new one this time, since everyone’s craving something a little exciting and different. And when the sun returns, shining through onto the grass below our feet, we’ll go into the backyard to play catch or some variation of tag. Hell, maybe we’ll even have a dog to play with, just to add an extra layer to our perfect family. Then after an exhausting day of caring for our kids, our house, we’ll take the kids to their bedrooms, put them to bed. One of us will read them a story, while the other watches in pure adoration. It’s a nice idea, having a family. Most importantly though, it would be our family.

But it was never going to happen. We’re not those parents, those people. We never had the capability for such mutual love and possession. All we had were our own selfish desires. We were only just now accepting that about each other. And all it took was for me to burn the house down.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make you happy,” she says, eyes glistening.

It’s the first time in a while she’s been sincere with me, providing a small reminder of why I fell for her in the first place. “Yeah, me too,” I say.


Bryce Levac is a creative writing major with a minor in English. He’s currently in his senior year at SUNY Oswego and plans on graduating in the spring of 2023. Along with writing, his interests include comic books, movies and video games.

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Misty Yarnall

Snapshot

Four electric-blue straps crisscross over my belly button, parting my cleavage, looping around my neck. Thin lace dusts over my nipples. I bought the strappy lingerie for seven dollars online. Spinning in front of the bathroom mirror, I search for the problematic areas, but the straps magically lift and hold my figure in a flattering form. The cheap getup wouldn’t last any woman more than one night, even with the gentlest lover.

Wrapping a gray towel around myself, the bright neon straps web across my bare shoulders. Unlatching the door, I peer around. His roommate across the hall yells at a video game. Tiptoeing, I twist the brass knob and enter. David is distracted by a video on his phone.

I drop the towel.

Eyes caught on mine, he swipes up on the camera app on his phone, positioning it like a weapon in his grip. I’m quick to swat it away. The phone flops over the side of the bed, rolling on the carpet.

Leaning over, he wipes the screen with his sleeve, examining for cracks. He asks me why he can’t take my photo, but all I can think of are horror stories of women losing jobs, remembering girls in high school sending nudes to fake teenage boys on Kik, and the idea of the creepy government officials that may or may not have access to our entire camera rolls. This surprise was meant for David, for this moment. Not to throw in a spank bank with other comparable photos.

He doesn’t understand. I’m supposed to trust him. We turn on a movie instead.

In bed, I toss and turn within his grasp. Elbows nudging his ribs, face nuzzling into the same fold of his neck, my toes wiggling outside of the covers. I want him to remember I’m still here. I want him to take my picture. Want him to not give up so fast on showing me he adores me. His breathing heavies and lessens. A borderline snore sends a pang of disappointment through my backbone. I readjust again. Please don’t fall asleep yet.

I wish David had photographed me from all angles around the apartment. I imagine myself, fingers grazing the full body mirror hanging off the back of the bedroom door. Sitting in the oversized leather chair, his glasses perched on the tip of my nose, leaning in, ready to share a secret. We both knew I already was, if electric blue wasn’t already out of my comfort zone, the straps wrapped around me like duct tape on an old bumper weren’t my typical look. He knew this was hard for me.

The next morning, lines trace my skin where the straps were a little too tight. Next time it wouldn’t be a surprise. I throw away the electric-blue lingerie, wad it in a plastic bag so it won’t be as noticeable in the trash.


Misty Yarnall’s fiction can be found in a handful of literary journals. She has won the Sixth Act Playwriting Competition, the Langlois Award for Short Fiction, and the POV Screenwriting Contest. She is currently working on a novella.

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Matthew Ineman

Waterworks

Wakes are the best part of Lynne’s job. They’re a lot better than the services. Services are where most of the dirty work is done. There’s a lot more crying at a service. Wakes, typically, are far less drab. At least wakes have free food. The hors d’oeuvres at the Weston funeral are the best meal that Lynne’s had since the last wake, and the best she’ll have until the next one. She spoons up cocktail sauce with a shrimp while Marianne, a gray-haired woman with Coke-bottle glasses, asks her how she knows the deceased.

Lynne gives a variation on her usual answer: “We were in the same yacht club.” She’s noticed sailboats are a decorative motif of the house (the miniature on the mantle, the painting in the foyer) and just decided to go with it. Lynne isn’t really too sure what a yacht club even is. She pictures grown men playing with bathtub toys.

“He did love that yacht,” Marianne says.

“Did he ever take you out on her?” Lynne asks. She snags two more bacon-wrapped scallops.

“No,” Marianne says, dissolving into tears.

At all the funerals she’s attended, Lynne has seen people burst out crying over nearly everything. What should’ve been said, what should’ve been done. There’s a lot to learn from the things that trigger mourners tears. This is the second time she’s seen someone cry over the missed opportunity of going out on a yacht. Lynne summons a few tears herself to perform a gesture of sympathy. She asks Marianne if she’s okay as she dabs her own eyes with a handkerchief. Marianne insists she’s fine and accepts a glass of water offered by the deceased’s wife, who sneaks a thumbs up in Lynne’s direction.

To Lynne’s right there is a sweaty man with a red face who is waist-deep into recounting a story about the deceased. His captive audience collectively leans in closer as the man reaches the story’s climax: “So, there we are, me and Frank and our boy Johnny, untied from the pier and finally setting sail. And then, BANG,” he says, slapping his palms together, delivering an acoustic jolt that ripples across the room, “we hit something.”

The Weston home is this huge McMansion that to Lynne looks like the option on a house-hunting show that is $100k above the buyers’ price range and that they end up choosing at the episode’s end. The epilogue would show the new homeowners smiling to the camera three months later and ignoring their crippling debt. Lynne wonders how long it took Frank Weston to pay off his mortgage, or if he went to the grave before being unburdened of his debts. Was it worth it, to own a piece of property where half an acre of lawn separates your home from the neighbors’ homes, which are exactly as picture perfect as your own? She’s heard that Frank made a fortune doing something related to the stock market. He probably had no worries at all.

Lynne excuses herself from ongoing conversations in the living room and makes her way over to the kitchen, hoping this isn’t a dry wake. The kitchen, with its glistening marble countertops and stainless steel appliances, looks like a model from an upscale store. You never really know how dirty your own kitchen is until you see a clean one, Lynne realizes. She doesn’t see any alcohol, but she does smell more of the really good crab cakes baking in the oven. That anticipation alone should hold her over until the end of this thing, she expects.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” whispers a voice from behind Lynne. She jumps. When she turns, she realizes it’s just Michael. She elbows him amicably and calls him an idiot. They haven’t run into each other since the Gregson funeral two weeks ago.

“I didn’t know you would be here,” Lynne says. Her eyes dart back out in the direction of the living room, making sure no one is in eavesdropping range.

“Just got the call this morning,” Michael says. “Damien needed a sub, and I couldn’t say no to the money.”

“What happened to Damien?”

“I don’t know. Said he was going to a funeral.”

“Huh.”

“Anyway, you see our old friend out there?” Michael asks, pointing back out towards the living room, where a woman in her mid-sixties stands by the piano, sobbing. A congregation of consolers has gathered around her.

“Tamara,” Lynne says. She is filled with the particular disdain you feel when you recognize that someone you hate is really good at something you also do.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Michael says.

Frank Weston’s oldest goes and embraces Tamara, lamenting that she never realized how many lives her father had touched.

“Quick, pretend I just said something sad,” Lynne says.

“What? How?”

“I thought you were a good actor.” This seems to do the trick. Michael’s eyes go red as water streams down his face. Lynne grabs him a cocktail napkin and rubs his back, saying that everything will be okay and loss is just a part of life. Then she grabs more of the really good crab cakes.

Lynne rarely cried as a child. Once when she came out of the womb, once when she broke her clavicle falling off her bike at seven years old, and by all accounts, that was it. Some of Lynne’s school teachers and counselors expressed concern to her family about stunted emotional development. Lynne became self-conscious of this and one evening when she was in the third grade, she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror until she could cry on command. The next day she started to show everyone. Lynne’s mastery over her tear ducts became her signature, an intriguing talent often exploited as a party trick. At the age of ten, Lynne was cast in a TV commercial for Champs, a local supermarket chain. “The prices at other supermarkets are so high, they’d make a little girl cry,” the narration announced and the camera cut to Lynne sobbing. The director of the commercial was so taken by her abilities that he nicknamed her “Waterworks,” and would invoke the name whenever he needed her in position or asked if her makeup was ready. The nickname somehow spread to talent agencies, throughout the local acting community, and even to her own family. For years her mother has called her “Waterworks” with glee. “Hey, Waterworks, come help your mother with the Wi-Fi.” And so on.

The Champs commercial played in syndication for five years before the company’s marketing team launched a new campaign that pivoted to an emphasis on health and freshness. The residual checks stopped coming in around the time Lynne finished school, an unfortunate correlation that left her free falling into adulthood. It was only after the fourteenth audition went poorly (and this one for, of all things, regional theater) that Lynne came to realize that there was more to acting than just crying on command, and perhaps it was a vocation she wasn’t cut out for. Then the CEO of Champs died (early heart attack attributed to a poor diet), and suddenly Lynne was receiving a call from a desperate widow asking for the Waterworks girl and offering a gig that would pay handsomely. One thing led to another, and Lynne discovered that perhaps there was a use for her talents after all.

As the final mourners make their way out of the Weston home, Lynne silently hangs back. She hugs the corner of the foyer, waiting her turn to thank the host on the way out. Once the door is closed behind Mr. Turner and his wife of fifty years, Eloise (Lynne exchanged contact information with her, just in case), Mrs. Weston approaches Lynne with a money clip in hand. Not even a wallet, Lynne thinks, a fucking money clip.

“Now, what was it we agreed upon?” Mrs.Weston asks. “Two hundred, was it?”

“My going rate is two twenty-five,” Lynne says. She likes saying it that way, going rate. To be able to say you have a going rate, Lynne thinks, marks some sort of accomplishment in life. She doesn’t feel good about her work often, but getting to say those two words, and mean it, is blissful. “You gotta pay, if you want the best.”

From the coat rack, Tamara scoffs. Lynne hadn’t realized she was still there.

“Of course, you’re the girl from that commercial, aren’t you?” Mrs. Weston says.

Lynne forces a smile, nodding. “Been crying for years.”

“Here,” Mrs. Weston says, counting out three bills. “How about three hundred?”

The apartment smells of the fishery, which means Ma’s home from her shift. She sits on her recliner and, as Lynne comes in, says, “Oh, she’s wearing it again!” The it referring to Lynne’s dress, the one dress she owns, her funeral outfit. It is black and tasteful.

Bernard steps out of the kitchen, wearing the scorched oven mitt. “How much you pull in this time?” It used to be that the first thing he asked about was whose funeral, but after enough anonymous names, it no longer seems to matter. Better to cut right to the chase.

“Three hundred.”

Bernard’s lips form an O-shape, but let out no distinct syllables.

“Wake and service both,” Lynne says.

Ma scoffs. She swivels the recliner away from the game show on television and watches as Lynne stuffs the cash in the top drawer of the bureau, her usual spot. “Three hundred dollars?”

“Yes, Ma.”

“And you still can’t take that thing to the dry cleaner’s?”

Lynne rolls her eyes. “You know I can only afford to once a month.”

“And yet you just made three hundred dollars in one day? You know how many times in my life I made that kind of money from one day of work? I’ll give you a hint, it’s a number that starts with the letter Z.”

Lynne’s mother has never been understanding of her career. It doesn’t matter how often Lynne gives her the same talk. It’s a legitimate profession, Ma. I’m a moirologist. That’s right, there’s even a fancy term for it. People have had this job since ancient Egypt. They even do it in the Bible. In the Bible, Ma.

“First you say I’m not pulling my weight, now you’re on about this? You know I only get, like, one or two of these a week, right?”

“Oh, yeah, two days a week, your life must be so hard. Get a real job.”

Ma turns again to face the television. The woman on the game show is wagering double or nothing on the bonus round. Ma inches forward to the edge of the chair.

“I have a job, Ma,” Lynne says, repeating the same script as always. “A job that really helps people.”

“Rich people.” Ma winces in sympathy and slaps the armrest of the chair as the game show contestant misses her question, something about the top-charting song of 1984. The host consoles her as the money ticker starts flashing zeroes across the board.

Lynne grumbles and glides over to the kitchen, where Bernard is finishing dinner. Meatloaf again. “Can you believe her?”

Bernard shrugs.

“Is this still about Grandma?” It’s been six months since Ma’s mother, their Grandma Doris, died. She had been pushing ninety, and Lynne and Bernard had long been prepared to lose their grandmother. The same couldn’t be said for Ma.

“She says she’ll never forgive you for that.”

“She hasn’t forgiven me since the day we stopped getting the Champs residuals.”

“Have you been to Champs lately? They totally revamped the bakery, so they’ve got this incredible selection of pastries now.”

“Not the point, dumbass,” Lynne says. When Grandma Doris had been on her deathbed and they visited her in the hospital for the last time, told she wouldn’t make it through the night, Lynne didn’t cry. She gave no indication of inner turmoil as she muttered her goodbyes and left as her mother stayed the night. At the funeral she shed no tears. For Lynne, tears were a lie. She couldn’t have lied over her grandmother’s grave. It would have torn apart the fabric of the universe.

“Hey, Ma, supper’s ready!”

“About time,” Ma shouts back, without turning around. “Waterworks, get me a beer, would ya?”

Lynne grabs one for herself as well and carries them over to the table where she plops down in the chair beside her mother. Bernard comes out with the food and sets it down as Lynne realizes she’s not hungry. “Filled up on hors d’oeuvres,” she explains.

“Three hundred dollars and fancy food, huh?” Ma says.

“Give her a break, Ma,” Bernard says, dishing out her plate. “She’s pulling her weight, just like the rest of us.”

“If only we could all pull our weight by throwing fits all day,” Ma says.

“Throwing fits?” Lynne says. “Really, Ma? I’m an actor, you know this.”

“Oh, an actor, of course. I forgot that my daughter is Laurence Olivier. Except when it’s someone in her own family, of course. Then she’s the one who looks like a corpse.”

“You wouldn’t have believed it if I did,” Lynne says, choking on the words of the same tired argument. It wasn’t like Lynne had had a poor relationship with her grandmother. Though they hadn’t exactly been close, either. Birthday cards, holiday visits, out-of-the-blue phone calls. That kind of thing.

“No tears when your father left, either.”

“I was eight,” Lynne says. “And why would I cry for that asshole anyway?”

“I cried,” Ma says. “Seven days and seven nights, I cried. The wailer of Bunker Street, they called me. We didn’t even live on Bunker Street then, that was just how far away they heard me. The whole neighborhood heard me. Where was my three hundred dollars?”

“Ma,” Bernard says. “Food’s getting cold.”

Lynne slouches back, her eyes nearly seeing the back of her head. She sticks her tongue to the roof of her mouth, still faintly tasting the remnant crumbs of those bacon-wrapped scallops. She thinks about the woman Marianne, how Lynne had helped her grieve. At least, she thought she had. “Ma,” Lynne says. “What do I have to do to make this right?”

“Oh, Waterworks,” Ma says. “You shouldn’t care so much what other people think of you. Don’t you actors know that?”

“How did you know Jack?”

“Jack, who?” Lynne says. The man returns a look of crooked eyebrows. Lynne has never been so careless before as to forget the deceased’s name. “Oh, Jack,” she says. “Right, uh, he and I golfed together.” She has noticed golf memorabilia.

“Oh, you golf?” the man says. Lynne nods, doubling down. “Funny, I don’t remember Jack ever mentioning you. Say, what’s your handicap?”

“Uh, eight?” she says. Lynne worries that she’s walked herself into an interrogation. How could she have forgotten the deceased’s name? It’s Jack Hoffman, she reminds herself. It was.

The man’s eyes widen, impressed, and he nods. “Maybe you and I should play sometime.”

“Oh, I haven’t really played since my injury,” Lynne says. “Hip,” she adds, and then excuses herself in the direction of the bathroom. The Hoffman house is awfully similar to the Weston house, and the house before that one. The Hoffman wake doesn’t have much in terms of food, though. Hungry guests make the general mood a lot more somber.

Lynne slips into the bathroom and locks the door behind her. She notices the trash bin by the sink, filled with crumpled tissues. It’s an inadvertently touching memorial to one’s life, Lynne thinks. The residue of one’s brief time on the planet represented by a trash bin of tissues in the downstairs bathroom.

Like most breathing beings on Earth, Lynne has experienced what she would call her own brushes with death. Nothing serious, she knows, just light brushes, but enough to mean something. Last winter she had a gig on the same afternoon as the worst ice storm in a decade. She had borrowed Ma’s Buick that day, which in retrospect was an obvious mistake, as that old hunk of metal has shit brakes. Lynne’s route that day took her to the aptly named Hillside Drive, a steep motherfucker of a thoroughfare that’s a pain in the ass even on a clear day. Despite riding the brakes from the top of the hill, Lynne found herself skidding. Skidding and skidding, and across that thin sheet of ice atop the concrete, she just kept going. Down she went, thinking, well, shit, I guess this is it.

As the car slid down that hill like a 3000-pound metal penguin with no sense of direction, Lynne foresaw the wreckage of a crash, a whole heap of metal against a cracked telephone pole on the side of the road. Like the aftermath of a fight that the telephone pole decisively won. As the paramedics carried away her body, she saw Ma surrounded by cops and she said she hoped that the insurance she paid an arm and a leg for every month didn’t fuck her over when it came to getting a new car. The cop asked her how she could pay an arm and a leg every month, she only has two of each, and Ma said, “Exactly.”

Then Lynne saw her funeral, where she was being laid to rest at the Catholic cemetery. She would’ve preferred a more secular cremation, but she knew it was out of her control now. They were burying her next to Grandma Doris. As the minister spoke the garden variety eulogy, Lynne walked among the attendees of her own funeral, of which there were not many. She was happy to see Michael there, since she had never considered him that close a friend, but when she approached him he said, “Oh, your mother is actually paying me two hundred dollars for this, and it worked with my schedule, so, yeah.”

Then she went over to Ma, who watched her daughter’s burial with a steely gaze, eyes as dry as the Mojave. She will not cry for me, Lynne thought, she knows she owes me no tears. And then, there were the tears, and they spread across Ma’s face like a wildfire. Ma tried to contain herself as she flailed in sorrow and said, “What kind of woman wouldn’t cry at her own daughter’s funeral? What kind of woman would I be?” Lynne reached out and brushed an ethereal hand across Ma’s face and said, “I’m sorry,” but she knew Ma couldn’t hear. She gave her a hug that she knew she wouldn’t be able to feel. Lynne held her close. Ma smelled of the fishery.

The minister finished his words. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, so on and so forth. Lynne backed away toward her own grave as the dirt pounded down on the roof of her new home. She watched as Bernard put his hand on Ma’s back, told her everything would be all right, and no, no one was judging her for her hysterics, it was okay to grieve. Lynne watched the two of them standing there together and knew they would be all right without her.

Then Lynne was back in the Buick, stopped on the right shoulder of Hillside Drive. The brakes must have kicked in as she came to the bottom of the slope. She stopped the engine for a second as she looked around her. There were no headlights in either direction, and for some reason, that induced a deep sigh of relief. She started the car again and drove off.

The funeral that day had been kind of a bummer, she remembered, even as far as funerals go. The ice storm cut the expected attendance at least in half, leaving a relatively sparse group of mourners, several of them fake, and most of the family members already knew who the actors were. It was a tough sit, but the low attendance meant that Lynne got paid a little extra, by a family grateful to feel a little less alone than they otherwise would have been. There had been no trash bin of tissues at that funeral, and now Lynne doesn’t even remember the family’s name, only that they had been one of the nicer ones.

Lynne unlocks the door and walks out of the Hoffmans’ bathroom. She politely apologizes to the woman waiting outside and then walks back into the living room. There she sees Tamara, drawing as much attention to herself as she always does. “Jack was the most beautiful soul,” Tamara says, and she’s cried so much that her eyes are red. She keeps rubbing her face, which Lynne has noticed is kind of her signature. It’s a really nice touch. “He was such a giving man. You never met anyone as generous as Jack,” she says, and she’s drawn an audience of at least a dozen mourners around her, and not one of their eyes is dry.

Lynne gently pushes herself through the small crowd and approaches Tamara. “He really was,” Lynne says, even though she never knew the man. There’s a good chance he was just a rich asshole, but in that moment she really believes what she is saying. Then she throws her arms around Tamara and hugs her tightly, and she realizes she has not hugged someone honestly in a very long time. “He was so wonderful,” she says. She lays her head on Tamara’s shoulder, and, for a moment, feels the weightlessness of a soul who has been forgiven. Cue the waterworks.


Matthew Ineman is a writer from upstate New York. He currently resides in Binghamton, NY, where he is completing a BA in English Literature and creative writing at Binghamton University.

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El J Ayala

Dog Names

When you are zero seconds old, you will be born. You will be thrust into this new life and you will be scared and alone and naked and suddenly very cold. When you are 256 seconds old, you will still be scared but suddenly very warm in a blanket next to someone who looks just like you who is also wrapped in a blanket. A woman will hold you, and a man will hold the one who looks just like you. You will be named Baxter and Teddy. For a long time you will not know which one you are.

When you are four years old, you will have your first memory and it will be of you and your older brother on the swings outside of your Cape Cod-style home. Ranger will push you off of his favorite swing, and you will cry. Mom will kiss your knee where it’s scraped. It will suddenly stop stinging. That night in the twin bed you share with Teddy or Baxter—whichever one you aren’t—he will tell you that he thinks your brother Ranger is mean. You will fall asleep.

When you are six, you will learn you live in New England and you and your brother will ask why you don’t have accents. Your teacher will say that you do and just don’t know it. You will say no, you don’t. Your teacher will explain that everyone has an accent. Then you will wonder why your parents said you live in America when you really live in New England.

When you are seven, you will be teased by the neighborhood bully for having dog names. You will be confused. You are not a dog and that is your name. You will tell him that when you get a dog you can name it after him so that he can have a dog name too. He will push you. You will ask him not to do that. He will do it again. You will cry and go home. You will tell your dad, and he will say that’s the way of the world. You will tell your mom, and she will ask what his name is. You will tell her Sylvester. She will call Sylvester’s family. She will yell at his mother. She will keep bringing up dog names which you won’t understand. You will be angry at her because she doesn’t yell about the pushing. When she hangs up, she will tell you that the Miller family can go fuck themselves. You won’t know what that is but you know it’s bad because it’s what Dad shouts when his team loses—or when he watches the news. She will tell you Sylvester is a cat name anyway.

When you are eight years old, you will have your first crush. She will be in the second grade class that you and your twin brother are in. Her name is Annie. On Valentine’s Day you will give her a Hello Kitty Valentine, and she will call you by your brother’s name when she hugs you. After that, you will think she’s very ugly and you will not like her anymore.

When you are nine, you will sit with your twin on the couch and watch movies when you’re supposed to be asleep. Mom will not notice because she will have already gone to bed. Dad will not care as long as you don’t complain in the morning. He will buy you two his favorite DVDs. You will watch Shawshank Redemption. It will be good. You will not understand it. Your twin will say that he’ll do this every night with you, but by the third night he’s too tired to stay awake through the movie and his snoring will ruin it.

When you are still nine, you will hear your mom cry upstairs at the toilet and curse herself for not getting her tubes tied. You don’t know what she’s talking about, but you don’t ask her. When you do get the courage to go upstairs and ask, she will slam the bedroom door. You will go to Ranger’s room instead and find your twin sitting on Ranger’s bed playing Call of Duty. You will join and forget about your mom.

The next day, your mom will sit all three of you down on the couch, and she will sit next to your father. She will tell you she has great news. You will have another sibling soon and that we should all be excited, and you will have questions, but she won’t answer them. You will ask Ranger later, and he will tell you what you want to know. Suddenly your parents will seem very dirty, and you will lay in bed at night unsure of why you want to know more.

When you are ten, you will get a little brother and he will be named Max. Mikey Piccone will say your family breeds like dogs and that’s why you all have dog names. You will tell him his family acts like white trash and that is why they all have garbage children when they’re sixteen.

Max will have beautiful curly blond hair and it will confuse your family because your dad has black hair. Your friends at school will make fun of it, saying your mom cheated. You will laugh along but secretly you’ll wonder. You will think you shouldn’t love Max if he’s not related to your dad. After all, you love your dad more. But you will be ten and curious. One night, you will creep into your parents room when they are asleep and you will steal your mom’s phone. You will read through her messages. You won’t find anything of note. You feel ashamed. You creep into Max’s room next and kiss his forehead and tell him he has beautiful blond hair. You tell him you love him.

When you are eleven, your dad will find an abandoned kitten behind the barbershop where he works. He will bring it home and you and your family will have your first pet. Your father will jokingly say, “We’re a cat family now!” and your brother will look at him quizzically and point out that your last name is Barker. Ranger will add that you all have dog names. Dad will shush him. Mom will name the cat Sylvester.

When you are twelve, you have the same best friend as your brother. That best friend’s first name will start with a M and his last name with a D, and you will think it’s cool to call him Doc. Doc will not think it’s cool. You won’t stop saying it, though, because it sounds cool and you want other people to think your group is cool. You will notice Doc starts hanging out with your brother more and will start calling you “Teddy’s twin” because he knows it will piss you off. You will tell him your name is Baxter. He will jokingly say it’s a dog name anyway. Teddy will stay quiet, and you will wonder why your own brother chose someone else over you.

You learn about recessive genes that year, and people will stop saying Max isn’t your real brother. You will try to explain this to Max, and he will gurgle along in agreement. You will pat his beautiful blond hair and understand he won’t understand.

When you are thirteen, Teddy will tell you about his crush without mentioning their name. He will tell you they are tall and funny and that they like science and that their eyes are really, really green. You will ask for pictures so you can see if they’re hot. Teddy will tell you it’s a secret and not to tell anyone at all. You will tell Doc and you two will tease Teddy about it. Teddy will stop sitting with you at lunch. You will write him off as being an ass who can’t take a joke. At lunch he will sit with a new crowd and you will notice how he has made a new best friend who is taller than you and funnier than you and who has very, very green eyes and is named George, and you will understand why Teddy wanted to keep it a secret. You will apologize once you turn out the lights and climb into your bunk bed. Teddy will pretend not to hear, but you will see him put his headphones in and blast music before you can say anything else.

When you are fourteen, the summer before high school, you will have your first kiss with Polly Langley from the YMCA summer camp. You will tell Max excitedly after you get home. You know he won’t understand. Max will be a toddler and from his unorganized little mind he will blurt it out at a family dinner. Your family will laugh, and though your cheeks will turn red, you start to laugh too. Your dad will sit on the bed with you that night and tell you about the birds and the bees. Teddy will listen too and smile nervously when you and your dad talk about your crush. Your dad will ask Teddy if he likes any girls. Teddy will say he hasn’t found a good one yet. Your dad will put his hand on Teddy’s shoulder and tell him that the right one will come along. Teddy will nod. Later that night, Teddy will tell you he and George are dating and not to tell anyone at all and this time you actually don’t.

When you are fifteen, you will be on the baseball team with Doc. You won’t be the best, but your coach will say you’re on track for varsity. Your team will call you “Pup” because you have a baby face and a dog name. You don’t mind when they say it. Max will be your biggest fan and will come to all of your games with your parents. Max will become your team’s unofficial mascot, and after games he runs bases with the players. Doc will call you his best friend one night when you are both drunk and you will call him yours.

Teddy will invite George over for a family dinner and introduce him as his boyfriend. Your dad will raise his eyebrows, then sigh and say, “At least I don’t have to worry about you getting anyone pregnant.” After the meal, he will invite you, Teddy, Ranger, and George out onto the porch for beers. You will sip shitty beer under the moonlight until it’s time for your dad to drive George home. You will watch Teddy kiss George goodbye, and you see your dad look away. You will wonder if it’s because he’s gay, or because it’s his son. You will decide it doesn’t matter; Teddy is happy.

When you are sixteen, you will have friends over to get drunk in your basement on your birthday. You will watch Shawshank Redemption. You will chug vodka. You will pretend it doesn’t burn. George and Teddy will cuddle on the couch and you will cuddle Alissa Muchelli, from math class. Doc will fall asleep after his third shot. Soon Teddy will be asleep too, and you will talk to George and Alissa about life. You three will drink more, and you will laugh loudly as you help George to the bathroom. Once you get there, George will start to cry out of the blue and tell you he might be bisexual and ask you to go get Teddy. You will run downstairs, but Teddy is too tired to move. You will run back to the bathroom with the bad news, and George will think you are Teddy and before you can explain, he will kiss you. When you push him off, he will realize and cry harder. You will go downstairs and lose your virginity to Alissa to prove you’re not gay. Alissa will say she loves you, and you’ll nod and fall asleep on top of her.

Teddy will hate you for a month after his break up.

A month later, when you are still sixteen, Alissa will tell you she’s pregnant. Through tears, you tell your parents, and they tell you that you have to decide what to do. They will not help you anymore. You will start to date Alissa. You will take care of her and do what she asks, and you will say, “I love you.” You will not love her. You will, however, love what’s growing inside of her. You will ride your bike to her house after practice and read stories to her growing belly. You brainstorm names and think of what your baby will look like. You will learn it’s a boy. You daydream of playing catch with him and tying his shoes, and you will be excited to be the best dad ever. You will count down the weeks until he is born. You will quit baseball to get a job at CVS and take all the hours you can get. Your grades will start to plummet; soon you’ll skip school altogether. You will work for as many hours as they let you. You will look at apartments online that you could afford in a year or two, and though you will be nervous, you will be excited to be a father.

When you are still sixteen, Alissa will go into labor nine weeks early. You will rush to the hospital with your mother. You will see Alissa’s parents crying, but you won’t see Alissa. You will run into the hospital room and see Alissa holding Matthew. You will realize something isn’t right. Your baby is blue. The umbilical cord got tied around his neck in the womb, and you will realize Matthew didn’t even make it into the world.

When you are still sixteen, you and Alissa break up.

When you are seventeen, you will walk the hallways of school with Teddy and Doc by your side. You won’t talk as much as you used to. You will have a new girlfriend, Patricia, but you won’t love her either. You will watch your grades fall even lower. You will pick up cigarettes. You won’t go out much; instead you spend your days and nights playing video games with Ranger or taking care of Max. Teddy will try to talk to you, but you usually won’t listen. Your therapist will hate you as much as you hate him. You will cry occasionally. In October, George will walk by with his new girlfriend and call Teddy a faggot, and you will punch him so hard his jaw breaks. You will be expelled and get a job doing landscaping with a family friend. Patricia will dump you.

One day, Max will come into your room and tell you he has a present. You will ask what. He will say you have to guess. You will learn it is not a goose or donut or a firetruck, and it will make Max laugh that you guessed those things. He will hold out his present to you. It will be a brand new baseball he saved up his allowance to buy. You will start playing catch again and tying Max’s shoes and being the best brother ever.

When you are still seventeen, you will be on a walk with Max and you will stop to pet a dog. He will have fluffy white fur and he looks like a corgi except his ears don’t stick up. He will be very friendly and lick your hand when you go to pet him. He will make Max smile, and you will kiss his head when you stand up to say goodbye. You will ask the old man with the leash what his dog’s name is. He will tell you the dog’s name is Baxter. You will hear Max laugh, and you thank the old man and suppose that if you have to share your name with a dog, at least it’s a very nice one.

When you are eighteen, Max will get a lung infection. You will take time off from work to sit with him at the hospital while your parents are at their jobs. Max will tell you about how he wants to be a scientist someday, that he likes astronomy the most. He will show you his books about the stars and name them all. Max will be in the hospital for three months and you get in trouble for playing catch inside the hospital room, even though it’s just a Nerf ball. Max will giggle mischievously when the doctors yell at you two. Soon, though, Max will stop wanting to play catch and will instead sleep all day. Soon the infection will grow stronger and spread throughout Max. Soon you will push the blond hair off of his forehead and kiss him goodnight. It will not be a good night. Max will not see the morning.

When you are still eighteen, you will quit cigarettes and exchange them for weed. You will hope your lungs will fill with smoke and you won’t be able to breathe. You hope you will suffocate too. You will get a vasectomy.

When you are nineteen, you will wave Teddy off as he boards a plane to go to college. He will hug you last before he goes and tell you he loves you. You will say it back.

Ranger will take you into work with him at the library and you get a second job there. You will spend a lot of time reading. You will learn a lot, especially about astronomy; you will be able to name all the stars. You read about how stars are born and how, even more fantastically, they die in an explosion. You will learn how black holes are formed and what comets are. You will learn about other planets and galaxies. You start to spend your nights outside staring up. One night you will be there smoking with your girlfriend Jen, and she will ask why you are crying. You explain that Max used to love stars before he passed. He was eight, you tell her, and loved catch and had beautiful blond hair and always made you feel better and that he died a year ago today. She will ask if he was a golden retriever.

You two break up.

When you are twenty, you will go back to school at night to get your GED. Your teacher will tell you that you are really smart and will ask why you dropped out. You say other things came up. You will not mention Matthew.

When you are still twenty, you will look through family photos and wonder why you all have dog names. You will realize that actually you were the only one with a dog name because you don’t have a nickname. You will realize Ranger is a nickname for Randolph and Teddy is short for Theodore and Max was short for Maxwell and that none of those are dog names. You will remember when you asked your mom where your name came from and she told you that it came from your great-grandfather. You will wonder if he ever was told he has a dog name. You will be jealous of your brothers for being able to say that their real name isn’t a dog name when people told them they had dog names.

When you are twenty-one, you will go to a party at Doc’s college and you will drink a lot. You’ll meet a girl there named Ginger, and she’ll ask you if you want to go back to her dorm. You will. Once you’re there she’ll pull out whiskey, and soon after will start looking for condoms. You are adamant that you need one. You will tell her you can never be too careful. You will tell her about STDs and how people can get pregnant even after a vasectomy and you won’t be able to keep it up, and suddenly Ginger will have an idea. She will pull out a baggie of white power and line it up on the desk and snort some through her nose. She will invite you to do the same. You will. It doesn’t help. She will invite you to do some more, saying that it doesn’t always kick in at first, and you will. Suddenly, sex won’t matter to you at all and you will spend the night in hysterics, watching your hands shake.

When you are twenty-two, you will be in an apartment you won’t recognize with a woman you won’t know the name of. She will ask you if you want to smoke up afterward. You will say yes. You will sit on her fire escape, jittery from the lines you did before you came out here. After a few moments, she will ask you what your name is. “Baxter Barker. Yours?” She will take a long hit and pass it to you. “Danielle Adley.” You will watch her eyelids flutter as she thinks and you will realize she has beautiful eyes. Then she will light a cigarette, but choke on the smoke and abruptly start to laugh for what seems like forever. “You ever been told your name makes you sound like a fucking dog?” You will take a long hit too and tell her no, no one has ever mentioned it before. Her eyes will show surprise but you will not see because you will be looking up at the stars instead. You will think they are even more beautiful than her eyes. She will set up a few more lines and you will go back inside. You will not remember anything else that happened that night.

When you are twenty-three, you will wake up in an ambulance somewhere in New York City and you will see paramedics trying to hold you steady even though you can’t feel yourself moving. You will see yourself vomit, though you won’t feel it. You will be so tired it hurts and your muscles will feel like string. You will not remember most of that year. You will remember your parents talking with the doctor outside of the hospital room, and then your memory will jump to a week into rehab when you have group therapy. The doctor will ask what makes you feel happy, and one girl named Emily will say stargazing.

You will be in rehab for six months, and most of them you will spend talking to Emily about the stars. You will show her constellations from the windows and you will be able to name every star. You will tell her about how stars are born, and even more fantastically how they die in an explosion. You will tell her about how black holes are made and what comets are. You will tell her about other planets and galaxies and she will hate it. She will ask you why you must explain everything in the world around you when you could just enjoy it for what it is. You will think she must be right, and you will be quiet and sit and stare up at the stars and not worry about understanding anything.

You will ask her what she’s here for and she will tell you alcohol but you will notice she always covers up her arms even when it’s hot. You will tell your whole family about her on the phone and they will be hesitantly happy for you. Mom will tell you Sylvester has died and you will tell her it’s a miracle he survived so long in a dog family. Mom will not think it is as funny as you do. Teddy will talk to you four times a week. You will tell him about Emily and the program and how well you’ve been doing. Teddy will talk about his new job as a tech monkey at a law firm and tell you about a guy named Brian who works in television in New York. He says they met online. You will congratulate him and he will congratulate you.

About a week before you leave, you will tell Emily you love her so much and that you want to spend the rest of your life with her once you get out of here. You will tell her you’ll wait for her to get out. She will break down in tears and tell you she can’t—she is married and has a daughter back home in Connecticut. She is only there to get better for her. She will tell you she loves you too, but no matter how much she hates her husband, she has to be there for her daughter. You will ask her daughter’s name and she will say it is Jada. You will tell her that’s a beautiful name.

When Doc will pick you up, he will ask about this girl Teddy’s been telling him about. You will tell him everything, and then you will tell him you want to forget it. You will lose contact with her when you leave rehab. You will cry occasionally.

When you are twenty-five, Ranger will marry a girl from back home named Sara and you will all travel to Massachusetts to see the wedding. You will be a groomsman and as you watch the wedding you will imagine how beautiful Emily probably looked on her wedding day. You will shake the idea from your head.

When Teddy is drunk later, he will tell you about how badly he wants kids with Brian and how he’s gonna marry him. You won’t drink much anymore, and you will take the chance to apologize to him for being such a shitty twin. He will ask what you mean and you will apologize for the fact that you told Doc about his crush and for being sent to rehab and for being depressed and for dropping out and for the pregnancy happening and for the pregnancy failing and for falling for a girl you can’t have and for the cocaine and for letting Max die. Teddy will stop you and tell you that you have nothing to apologize for and that none of that was your fault. He will hug you and he will tell you that you are his best friend and you will tell him he is yours.

You will get a job at a planetarium and you will get to tell kids every day about the stars and black holes and comets and other planets and galaxies and they will love it.

When you are twenty-seven, you will be the best man in Teddy’s wedding. He and Brian will look beautiful together and you will joke with them about having children. Teddy will laugh but pull you aside later and will ask you if you know of any women who might be willing to be surrogates. You will say no.

Later in the night, Ranger will come sit next to you and ask you if Teddy had asked for you to find him a surrogate. You will say he mentioned it. Ranger will sigh and say Teddy already asked his wife to be a surrogate but that she wasn’t sure she could give up her child. He will tell you the whole thing is a mess. You will say that at least Teddy won’t get a girl pregnant accidentally and you will laugh and sip shitty beer under the moonlight for the rest of the night while staring at the stars.

When you are still twenty-seven, Ranger will have his first child with Sara. They will christen their son under the name Gerald Barker and you will hate the name but you will thank God it wasn’t a dog name.

When you are twenty-eight, you will get a phone call from a woman in a panic and you will immediately recognize her voice as Emily’s. She will be at the hospital and she will ask you to come meet her. You will speed the forty-five minutes there. You will meet a little girl in the waiting room of the emergency room who looks like Emily. She will introduce herself as Jada. You will ask her what happened. You will ask her where her mommy is. She will shrug and stay silent. You will see Emily walk up and she will hug you and thank you and cry. Her crying will make you cry too. You will ask where her husband is and she will tell you he’s been shot. You will ask by who. She will say she doesn’t know over and over again until the police come for her at the hospital and arrest her. You will drive Jada to the precinct and you will wait for her aunt to come get her. To occupy Jada, you give her a book about stars from your car.

Occasionally, Emily will call you asking for help or money for a lawyer, and you will eventually stop accepting her calls and realize she was not who you thought she was.

When you are twenty-nine, you will date a girl named Jasmine from the gym. You will have a lot in common. She will love baseball as much as you do and you will regale her with stories of your childhood and your brothers and you will tell her about Alissa and Matthew and Max and the cocaine and Emily. You will show her constellations while sitting on the hood of your car and you will be able to name every star. You will tell her about how stars are born, and even more fantastically how they die in an explosion. You will tell her about how black holes are made and what comets are. You will tell her about other planets and galaxies and she will love it. In turn, she will tell you about writing. She will tell you about her favorite stories and be able to retell every single one. She will tell you how characters are born, and even more fantastically how they die in glory. She will tell you about how villains are made and what subplots are. She will tell you about other worlds and universes and you will love it.

She will listen intently to every single word you say and you will listen just as intently to every word she says. She will learn you inside and out, just as you will learn her inside and out. She will make you feel spectacularly alive and you will fall in love with every inch of her being. You will fall in love with every inch of her soul and mind and body and you will suddenly realize how beautiful Jasmine would look in a wedding dress. You will ask her to marry you.

She will say yes and you will get married in a small ceremony with only Teddy, Ranger, your parents, and Doc there for you. It will be one of the happiest days of your life and you will cry when you see that Jasmine looks even more beautiful than you ever could have imagined in a wedding dress. You will kiss her with sticky tears on your face and she will wipe them off and kiss you back.

She will call you her puppy dog, and it will make you the happiest you have ever been.

When you are thirty-one, Jasmine will tell you she wants children with you. You will tell her you want the same thing, but that you had a vasectomy when you were eighteen, and that it’s too late now to reverse it. She will bite her lip and ask if Teddy could donate sperm. She will point out it’s your DNA too, since you’re identical. You will think about it at night and you will hold Jasmine close and wonder what the best thing is.

When you are still thirty-one, Teddy will approach you and Jasmine and ask if Jasmine would be willing to be a surrogate for him and Brian. They explain that they have always wanted a child, a daughter especially, and that they would like to have a surrogate in the family. You and Jasmine will look at each other and you will realize this is the best thing for everyone. The only problem is the matter of who would get the child. They will agree to two pregnancies, where you will get the child from the first pregnancy and they will get the child from the second.

When you are thirty-two, Jasmine will get pregnant through artificial insemination with Baxter or Teddy’s sperm—whichever one isn’t you. You will all eagerly await the first ultrasound and you will learn it is twins and Teddy will be so happy for you two. You will think about what your father said when you were fifteen and you will tell him it looks like Teddy got a girl pregnant after all.

A few months into the pregnancy, you will learn how hard it is for Jasmine. The doctors will recommend terminating the pregnancy but after talking it over with Jasmine, you decide to go through with it. You will explain to Teddy that Jasmine’s body cannot go through this again and you will apologize profusely for letting him down. Teddy will pat your shoulder and thank you for doing everything you could.

At one of the ultrasounds, you will learn it is a boy and a girl. You and Jasmine will rejoice. Secretly you’ve both always wanted a son. One night Jasmine will turn to you and will confide in you that she doesn’t think she could handle two children. She will tell you she is scared, and she will tell you that she made a promise to Teddy to give him a child. She will tell you she thinks you two should realize this is the last shot, and that she wants to give one of the twins to Teddy.

You and Teddy will talk. You will tell him that you want the kids to be close to each other like you and he were as kids. You will tell him that you want them to know they are twins. You will tell him you want him to have a child. He will thank you.

When you are thirty-three, Jasmine will give birth to a boy and a girl with beautiful blond hair and you will love them both so much and you will promise to love them no matter if they get sick or are gay or get pregnant too young or use drugs too often. You will hold them close for a minute before Teddy becomes a father. When you are holding your newborn son, you will ask Teddy what he will name his newborn daughter and he will say Cat, because that is not a dog name. He will ask you what you are naming your newborn son and you will say Max because that is not a dog name either.


El J Ayala is a junior at Purchase College. She enjoys creative writing, knitting scarves, and rewatching Malcolm in the Middle. When she is not at school, she can often be found at home in White Plains, rapping to Will Smith’s biggest singles and curling up with her two cats, Cole and Nadja. She is the first person in her family to have more than thirty tattoos and enjoys fantasizing about people calling her punk.

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Nina Collavo

Pretty Ugly

The day I became ugly was a pleasant afternoon two weeks after my eleventh birthday. I had been biking lazy circles around the block, straining against the limits of the cul de sac I lived on. Over and over, I spun past the brick ranch with dirty lawn furniture, the blue house with white shutters, the slumping red bungalow—the tedious promenade of houses I’d known since childhood. I stopped at the mouth of the road to stretch my legs, still sore from a growth spurt. A yellow house sat at the edge of the cul de sac, and I’d always treated it like a tacit limit, an outpost on the edge of home territory. Country music was drifting somewhere from an open window on the second floor, and its lawn was overgrown with dandelions. They were older now, flowers unfurled into white balls of fluff, seeds ready to travel. I plucked one and blew, watching the puffy grains scatter downhill.

I knew the words to “Ring of Fire” and sang along, my thin voice floating above Johnny Cash’s baritone. I considered the hill before me. Black tar driveways shimmered with sun, the kind of weather when midday stretched long and fat, blooming with possibilities. I kicked off the ground.

Gliding through the music and downhill, I slipped past the boundary of my street, picking up speed. The wind racing around my body made me feel like I was lifting off the ground until I could barely feel the catch of my bike’s wheels on the sidewalk anymore. My hair was whipped into tangles behind me, and I immediately wanted to try again when I reached the bottom. Wild with the thrill of breaking taboo, I sang another chorus as I pushed my bike, spokes clattering.

“I went down, down, down…”

“Hey,” someone called to me.

Two girls were lounging on concrete porch steps just off the sidewalk. They were teenagers, two or three years older than me, wearing camisoles and ripped denim shorts. One of them was weaving tiny braids into her long brown hair, and the other was pushing a Hot Wheels car back and forth with chipped pink nails. They had the angled figures of preteen girls, all knees and elbows, still catching up to their long limbs.

“Can you stop singing that?” the brown-haired girl asked. Her eyes had a flat kind of boredom that went beyond her years. I nodded, awed by their older-girl aura, all the worldly knowledge they’d seen and mastered.

“Your hair is pretty,” I said.

She popped a pink bubble of gum and scraped the gunk off her lips with her teeth. I felt her gaze run over me, a pleasant shiver from tip to toe. She shared a glance with her friend.

“I think you’re pretty too.” She paused, then leaned forward. “Pretty ugly.”

Her voice was serious and regretful, the way a doctor informs you of your sickness. The other girl suppressed a laugh but didn’t look up, crunching her Hot Wheels car over a fat black ant. I couldn’t think of anything I could say. I stood there, waiting for her to admit it was a joke. Ugly wasn’t a word we used on people; ugly was how we described cartoon witches with boils on their noses. The girls shared a grin, another round of giggles.

Then the other girl said, “What, are you dumb, too?”

The girl with braided hair smacked her friend’s arm, rolled her eyes, and patted the step below her: “Sit down.”

I took a hesitant step, expecting her to burst into laughter again.

“Relax,” she said.

I sat on the hot, grainy stone. She angled my shoulders away from her and gathered up my hair, still wild from my bike ride. She wasn’t gentle, but she wasn’t rough either. The quiet rhythm of braiding and the chemical-sweet smell of her bubblegum cast a spell over me. I sat, transfixed, until I felt the braid woven tight into my head. By the time my hair was done, an understanding had settled between the three of us.

“I’m Kelsey,” said the girl who’d braided my hair. She jerked a thumb at the blonde with the Hot Wheels. “She’s Kinsey, call her Kins. You?”

“Catherine,” I said.

“You can be Cat,” Kelsey decided. I noticed she was the only one who got to keep her full name. I wondered if Kelsey and Kinsey ever fought because of their similar names, and thought they probably weren’t pleased to add a Catherine to the mix.

“So, Cat. Can you get me a soda from Benny’s?” Kelsey asked. “None of that diet shit, I’m so fucking sick of it,” she added, her voice going serious again. Her language startled me, but I kept a poker face.

“I don’t have money,” I said, slowly. Kins raised her perfect eyebrows.

“Can you get it?” Kelsey repeated.

Home was around the corner, but I liked the way my new nickname sounded. I liked the heaviness of the braid on my shoulder, the way it felt when I stroked it. It looked smooth but was ridged to the touch; it reminded me of the street cats around town you knew not to mess with. They might let you pet them, but you could always feel their spine under their fur, the reminder of sharpness under the soft.

“Cat?” Kelsey tilted her head. Me, Cat. I could get used to it. I wiped my sweaty palms on my cargo shorts and mounted my bike, nodding.

Having broken the yellow house limit, biking another block to Benny’s didn’t seem so far anymore. Benny’s was a corner store by the church and the car wash, and I wasn’t supposed to go in there because of the flashing signs in the window that said Tobacco and Cold Beer. I dismounted from my bike, kicked pebbles from my foam flip flops, and stood at the door. My throat felt dry no matter how much I swallowed. I stroked the length of my braid once, twice, like a talisman, and twisted the knob.

A string of old sleigh bells tied to the door gave an anemic jingle when I stepped inside. Benny’s looked sleepy on the inside, lined with sagging newspaper racks and coolers humming a dull electric buzz. My heart was pounding so loud that I thought the man at the counter would hear it, but he barely looked up from his phone. I slid a can of Cherry Coke into my hoodie, and shoved my hands into the pocket to disguise its shape. I spent a blank moment in front of the chip display, amazed by the simplicity of the action. The man at the counter gave me a smile when I left, and I smiled back, chilly metal pressing into the pit of my stomach.

I biked away as fast as I could, even though it was uphill and my thighs were burning. I waited to hear the door crashing open and the man yelling up the hill, chasing after me once he discovered what I’d done. I waited for a police car to come tearing around the corner. Nothing happened. When I got back to Kelsey and Kins, I pulled the can from my pocket with a shaky grin.

“See what I mean, Kins? Cat is my kind of girl,” Kelsey said, hooking an arm around my shoulder. I felt my body slump with immediate, powerful relief and hoped it looked cool and unaffected.

“She can hang,” Kins agreed, who’d given up her Hot Wheels for a ballpoint pen, drawing stars in the canvas margins of her sneaker. Kelsey glanced up at the windows of her house, then cracked open the can and took a sip before passing it to Kins. When she passed it to me, I drank, and the bubbles crackled on my tongue. We passed it furtively, the can circling between us, binding us together. I felt elegant sitting with them, watching the way they sipped with their graceful necks, tasting the tackiness of their lip gloss on the metal lip of the can. We emptied the can as the sun emptied from the sky, pink and yellow bursting across the horizon and then draining into the dark. When the can was dry, Kins crushed it under her inky shoe and kicked it into the yard with a hollow click. Kelsey laughed, so I did too.

“Come by tomorrow, Cat,” Kelsey told me, but I would have come even if she hadn’t asked.

I walked my bike home, dazed and buzzing with the last of the caffeine. When I got home, I went right up to my room, and sat down in front of the mirror hung on my closet door. I pulled my shoulders back and tilted up my neck, admiring the sleek coil of braided hair. Then I looked past my hair to the rest. I couldn’t look away; I felt like I was waking from a slow, long dream. I kept looking until I heard steps coming up the staircase.

“Catherine, if your shoes are muddy, take them off outside,” Mom called through my doorway. She was holding a bowl of apple slices and wearing a dull beige turtleneck that blended into her skin. We were Irish and both of us had orange freckles like pellets of fish food on milky water.

“Mom,” I said. I meant to sound irritated, but my voice came out as a drowned thing from the back of my throat. I saw her waver.

“Catie cat.”

She hadn’t called me that since I was a little kid, and it sounded so babyish that my stomach turned.

“What’s wrong?”

I shook my head, turning away from the mirror. I wanted to explain that nothing was wrong, that I made new friends, but I suddenly felt like I was breathing through a wet paper bag.

“Leave me alone,” I said.

Mom took a step backwards, but stopped at the doorway, her face crumpled with compassion and quiet despair. Her face looked so much like mine. I bit down on the inside of my lip.

“Oh, Catie. There are going to be people who say mean things, and you’re going to want to believe them,” she said. Her wet, wide-set eyes shone with sadness, cleaved by a lumpy nose. When her lip wobbled in sympathy, her overbite made her chin disappear into the folds of her neck. A rising wave of disgust seized and choked me.

“Get out!” I yelled, but she didn’t go. She kept looking at me with those damp, weepy eyes. “Are you dumb? I told you to get out.”

She did leave after that. She didn’t take the apple slices with her. They sat on my desk, and I watched them turn brown at the edges. The next day, when Kelsey and Kins asked for another soda, I stole a tube of lip gloss too. It was a hot pink tube printed with flowers, and small enough to fit into the vestigial pockets on my girl-jeans. Every morning after that, I stood in front of the mirror and braided my hair, spinning softness into something stronger. I always put on the lip gloss last. I would squeeze it out in great globs, feel its cool weight like a prayer sitting on my lips.

My routine stabilized after that. I would eat breakfast on my own and bike past the yellow house to sit on Kelsey’s porch. Sometimes Kins had her older brother drop her off at Kelsey’s, and sometimes she walked over, but we were always together, watching the neighborhood pass from our concrete throne. Kelsey pointed out how Mrs. Howard’s matching tracksuits made her look chunky, and when Kins joked about Mr. Jameson’s advancing bald spot, I started to notice it too. Mrs. Rosewood took walks around the block, and when they imitated her lisp, it sent us into hysterics. I liked that Kelsey and Kins were honest about how they didn’t trust adults. I would bring back Cherry Cokes and chips when Kelsey asked, and we’d eat on the porch steps. I paid when I could find the change, but mostly, I didn’t. We braided hair, folded paper fortune tellers, and wiped Dorito dust on our bare knees, but we never went inside until the day it rained.

It’d been a few weeks since I started hanging out with them, and Kins was telling a story about how Ariana Peterson fried her caterpillar eyebrows off with hair bleach. It started to rain, coming down in big, fat droplets. Kins did the obligatory squealing, but Kelsey was quiet, staring up into the clouds. My shirt was getting wet, and I wanted to go inside Kelsey’s house, but I felt bound by politeness until she suggested it first. It took her five minutes to give in, and by that time, her shirt was sticking to her shoulders. Kins was getting twitchy, tapping her foot.

“Let’s go in,” Kelsey finally said. She took the bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos we’d eaten and crumpled it into a tiny ball of foil, cramming it into my back pocket. “Don’t let my mom see this. She’s crazy.”

I’d seen Kelsey’s mom out and about before. She wore long dresses with sandals and my dad called her a granola cruncher, which sounded like an insult. In person, Mrs. Norman was tall, precariously thin, and had pin-curled hair that made me think of actresses in black and white movies. She smelled like flowers, but not the fresh kind; she smelled like flowers printed onto thick, dusty curtains.

“Kelsey,” she fretted when we came inside. “You’re soaked!”

“I don’t mind.”

“Well, some of us have minds,” she said. Mrs. Norman was stunning at a distance, but the closer she got, I could see cracks running through the illusion. Her hair was frayed and split from all the curling, and she had a smudge of coral pink lipstick on her teeth. “What happened to that nice blouse I bought you last weekend? Why don’t you wear that one?”

“It’s too small,” Kelsey said.

“Give it time. It’ll fit.” Her hands flitted over Kelsey’s shoulders, pinching the damp fabric of her sleeves away from her skin. Kelsey held still, but looked distant, miles away from this conversation.

“I already like my clothes,” she said, but it didn’t sound like the Kelsey I knew. It sounded like she was repeating something she’d overheard once.

“Oh, your hair,” She reached out to fuss over her daughter’s hair, and Kelsey swatted the hand away. Mrs. Norman pulled back with a faltering smile, finally acknowledging Kins and me. “Look at you three. Like peas in a pod.”

“Yeah, I love Kins, and Cat’s right next door. We’re going to hang out in the kitchen.” Kelsey was already walking away, and we followed. Briefly, she looked furious, and I worried she might throw something. Then the expression vanished all at once.

“Hey, Cat,” she said thoughtfully, which meant she wanted something. “When it rains, you know how those long creepy worms come out of the dirt?” I nodded.

“Go throw them back. It’s gross having to walk past them,” she said.

“I don’t have an umbrella.”

“It’ll take literally thirty seconds.” She was warning me now, so I shrugged, and walked back towards the front door while Kins poured herself a glass of iced tea.

I cracked the front door open, sticking a hand out into the storm. I glanced back. Kins was still in the kitchen, and Kelsey was standing in front of the living room mirror. She smoothed a hand over her stomach through the fabric of her shirt, from her ribs to her pelvis. Then, she turned to the side and did it again.

I closed the door quietly behind me.

When I was younger, I loved the rain. I would put on a raincoat, stand in the yard, and listen to the crackle of water over my plastic hood. It hadn’t been raining for long, but there were already three worms on the sidewalk, delicate pink curls. I picked up a worm between my fingers and placed it on the flat of my hand. It was shiny and firm against my palm. Worms didn’t have eyes, so I wondered if they had trouble finding friends. One by one, I placed them back into the dirt, next to each other in a row. I thought it would be wonderful if they could find each other– not with eyes, but by feeling the vibrations of the earth around them, discovering the simple company of a body next to their own. Truthfully, I wasn’t disgusted by them. It didn’t seem like a bad way to live.

When I came back inside, I stopped at the living room mirror to reapply my lip gloss. A commercial on the TV was tittering with laughter I didn’t believe, and I overheard Kelsey and Kins talking in the kitchen.

“She never told me that her brother was literally a Greek god. So, now I keep buying those soft pretzels from the mall so I can talk to him.” Kins was complaining about the tenth-grade guy she liked again.

“Ew. Those have, like, 500 calories,” Kelsey said.

“Whatever, I’m over it. He’s hot, but he seems dumb.”

“No, that’s a good thing,” Kelsey said. “I like a dumb boy.” Her voice dropped. “Dumb, and if you can help it, ugly too. The ugly ones go along with anything you want.”

The girls erupted into laughter, and I froze where I stood, listening. They kept talking, and I waited for them to say something about me. I willed them to say something horrible so I could walk in at my full height and watch them shrink in their seats. Instead, they talked about What Not to Wear, the Illuminati, and algebra homework. They told jokes that I wanted to laugh at. I listened until my hair stopped dripping, and they said nothing mean-spirited or kind, not even an acknowledgement. I thought of leaving, but I felt that I might disappear entirely once I stepped off the porch, washed away by the rain. I stepped back into the kitchen and they waved me over.

“Cat, can you take a picture of us?” Kins asked, handing me her phone before I could answer. The two of them assembled, locking arms over shoulders, hands on hips, deep breaths. Kelsey had braces and never smiled with her teeth, so she pursed her lips, pulling her shoulders back and tilting her neck up. I took a few shots, and when Kins asked me to make sure her new sneakers were in the frame, I backed up and took a few more.

“Oh my god,” Kelsey said, after posting the picture. “Come see this picture of Natalie Bryant.” She lifted her phone, showing me a picture of a girl. The camera was angled high and her face was washed out with filters, smooth and pale. It was her thirteenth birthday, the caption said, and she’d smiled for the occasion. “She’s so desperate,” Kins said. They both turned to watch my reaction.

“Desperate,” I agreed. I tasted lip gloss on my tongue, sweet and artificial.

I walked home after the rain stopped, stepping over twitching, vulnerable worms, and didn’t throw them back. When I came inside, Mom didn’t greet me. She was sitting in the brown armchair; her face was turned away from me, lit by the flickering light of the TV. The silence became a sort of living thing that grew and cloaked the room. I wasn’t ready to apologize yet, so I stood behind her and watched. On the screen, eight women were lined up in evening gowns. They all had curled hair and red lips. A man handed them roses until one of the women was left behind. The scorned woman cried delicately into her hands, and even in heartbreak she was beautiful.


Nina Collavo is a senior at Binghamton University. She is a creative writing student with an affinity for weird nature, especially deep-sea creatures and carnivorous plants. When not reading or writing, she contemplates the pros and cons of becoming a feral woman of the woods.

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10.2 | Fiction

Pretty Ugly

Nina Collavo


Waterworks

Matthew Ineman


Snapshot

Misty Yarnall


Dog Names

El J Ayala

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Anna Kubiak

When the Mailman Is Late

Cracks are really just spiders in disguise. They fool everyone except for me, because I see things for what they are. How raindrops are intruders and feelings are illusions, but people learn to love both because they think they have to. I’m not one of those people. Someone has to see the absolute truth in everything.

It’s my gift, my curse, that aching itch in the back of my throat just past my ear that I can never scratch, just swallow again and again and again until it’s smoothed over for the moment. My dad always tries to get me to take the drugs the doctor with the fuzzy hair gave me, but little orange bottles are tyranny and pills are just excuses, so we live in peace in a broken little home where the grass is too long and the old cassette tapes move themselves in the night.

I take breakfast at 5:00 a.m. Square bread with discarded crusts, toasted with no butter. If it’s late then there’s no telling what could happen. Maybe the decaying shingles will fall from the roof one by one, maybe they’ll shatter the windows or hit a pipe, maybe the bathroom will flood or a bedroom, maybe no one will help us, maybe we just won’t wake up one day. The coffee has to be black because what if the milk corrupts the proportions? What if I think I’m drinking caffeine, but really it’s just mostly milk and I’ve been lying to myself? I would never lie to myself. It would be wrong and might cause my organs to fail or my father’s. Or maybe the tree leaning towards the house might decide to fall. No, lying would offset the carefully constructed balance that keeps everything in its place. Lying would cause my whole life to crumble.

I wash the table five times before I eat there. I like the number five; it sounds good rolling off my tongue. It sounds right, like if the rag wipes over the wood five times then the neighbor’s cat won’t climb too high in the tree and worms won’t wiggle their way into my bed. I used to like the sound of four and before that three. It was even one once, but five is better, five almost feels good, but maybe six might be the best.

The plate has to be twisted at a forty-five degree angle and the coffee cup at ninety degrees; as long as it’s that way, there won’t be an earthquake. My feet are firmly on the floor when I take my first bite, so that the car doesn’t break down. I would eat with my father, but he always gets it wrong. Can’t he feel when he’s teetering over a line that can’t be uncrossed? After all, failing is always purposeful because success always feels like luck. I don’t like it when he tries to talk to me. Talking doesn’t create change; it just makes you feel bad for not changing. He doesn’t understand, but I wish he would, because how can you not break something when you don’t understand it?

He takes breakfast in his room. I can’t go near his room. Things are always moving: books on the desk end up on the floor, sheets are never straight, and the door always seems locked, but if you don’t check it once, twice, six times, can you really be sure? He works from home on a little laptop, hunched over all day. I check on him seven times to make sure he’s still there. If he runs, his mess, litter, and pollution will drag me with him, and our house will crumble. There will be nothing to come back to.

“Dad.” I stand with my back to the wall outside his door looking directly at the opposite wall without blinking. The toe of my right foot is pointed east and my left foot is pointed north. The three second delay we agreed on ensues.

“Yes?” he replies, his voice annoyingly hoarse. He should clear his throat or else maybe the little particles will continue to grow until he can’t breathe.

“Clear your throat,” I tell him, though he should know what could happen.

He clears his throat.

“Again,” I tell him.

He does it again. “What do you need?”

“The mailman is late,” I say to the opposite wall.

“Maybe he got stuck in traffic.”

My dad sounds exhausted. I know how he feels; surviving is exhausting, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. “No. He’s always here at 8 a.m.” I talk to the wall again.

“Maybe he took a different route today. I’m sure he’s still coming.” The hoarseness is coming back.

“It’s not supposed to be different. He’s late. I think he’s dead,” I say fervently. There can be no accidents in life. Without the big picture, the little pictures wouldn’t make sense.

“He’s not dead.” My dad sighs.

My dad with his nice enough ways, except for his inability to comprehend what is right in front of his face. “You don’t know that,” I reply. We are past the days when he can comfort me and tell me all the things he knows so that I don’t have to worry about them. I now know the difference between what someone knows and what they think they know.

“You don’t know that he’s dead either,” my dad says with a little more enthusiasm.

“But he’s late,” I explain again.

“Okay so he’s late,” my dad says. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“I want you to call the mail company and tell them that he’s late.” Sometimes speaking to my dad is like speaking to a child.

“Fine, how late is he?” My dad seems to be scratching his head.

I check my watch. “Exactly fifty-nine seconds,” I say, slowly as the numbers keep rattling by.

“Oh, for the love of…” my dad begins.

“No!” I yelp. “You can’t swear.”

“I wasn’t going to swear, I was just going to say…”

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” I seal my hands around my ears. Sometimes the oceans in my mind get loud, tossing worries like waves that wash away all the things I need to make sense.

“Okay, I won’t say anything,” my dad says.

“You can’t swear or else I’ll have to put salt over all the window panes and then that would mess with the ergodynamics of the wood.” I’m starting to ramble a little, but how could he not understand how important this is? I’ve only told him two hundred and forty-one times.

“Okay, okay, you win.” My dad groans. “I have work to do now, so run along.”

“But the mailman’s late,” I tell the opposite wall. “I think he’s dead. Probably popped his tire then got bitten by a snake when he went to fix it.”

“I’ll call the company, if he doesn’t show up, okay?” My dad seems as though he’s trying to soothe me. “It’s not likely that he got bitten by a snake so you can find something else to worry about.”

“It’s more likely than a plane crash. I worry about things that are worth worrying about, like missing mailmen.” I pause. “Because he’s late.”

“Why don’t you go check if he’s here now?” My dad’s fingers begin clicking away again.

“But then I’ll have gone up and down the stairs eight times before 9:42 a.m.” I almost stomp my feet, but then they would be out of place.

“I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes you have to go up and down the stairs more than eight times before 9:42 a.m.” He doesn’t sound like he’s listening anymore.

“No, that’s not right, you have to call the mail company and tell them the mailman died. He’s two minutes late; he’s not coming.” Hyperventilating is just drowning without the water, but he doesn’t seem to know that.

“Alright, I’ll call, but you have to go downstairs, because I have work to do.” Dad doesn’t sound like he’s going to call, but deals are deals. Breaking them is like lying, and lying would cause the house to collapse on itself one brick at a time. Being brave when I’m scared is lying too, but people seem to think that’s okay. My dad wants me gone because he thinks I’m crazy, but I’m not crazy, I’m just careful. For all he knows, I could be saving his life every moment I spend mine seeing things he can’t.

The stairs look warped when I look at them from the top. I cleaned them twice yesterday. I’ll clean them again today, but it isn’t time yet. I should have been reading the newspaper when it arrived two minutes ago like I do every morning except for Sundays when I read the first forty-three pages of the dictionary instead. Every step seems like a warning flag, because after all what are possibilities if not ways things can go wrong. I take the stairs fast to get it over with.

If I believed in curses, I would believe that I cursed myself. Everything was safe and right the way it was. Change can only mean that new factors will throw off the old ones and I can be left to figure everything out all over again.

As I suspected, the mailman isn’t there when I go downstairs. I don’t know what to do with myself. What is the point of a plan if no one else cares how important it is? After reading the newspaper, I usually clean the kitchen, but I can’t clean the kitchen until the newspaper arrives, but that won’t happen until the mailman comes, but he won’t come until Dad calls the company, but Dad won’t call until he wants to, and there’s no telling when that will be. I hope it will be soon, but what is hope really if not confirmation that there is no proof of anything?

I have no choice but to venture onto the front step to get the newspaper as quickly as I can. I feel something like remorse for the events of the morning, but that doesn’t make sense because remorse isn’t sad enough to be depression, and it isn’t guilty enough to be regret, so there doesn’t seem to be a purpose for it inside me. If I step on the crease between the tiles on the step, surely the mirror in the closet of the guest bedroom will shatter and little pieces will lodge themselves into the carpet, and when I go to clean it I’ll cut my hands and knees. If the sun hits the top of my head before 12:17 p.m. then the chimney will clog and suffocate us in our sleep.

“Hello.” A voice catches me by surprise. There is a small child standing in the neighbor’s yard. I dislike small children, because they always have juice stuck to their chins and rude questions spewing from their mouths. I don’t reply. I don’t speak to anyone other than my dad before I’ve read my newspaper, otherwise the ink from the newspaper will leach into my skin while I’m reading it and cause irreversible damage to my nervous system.

“You’re supposed to say hello back,” the boy whines.

I have to respond otherwise he’ll come over to me and that would be far worse. “I don’t speak to anyone before I’ve read my newspaper.” I pause. “It’s bad luck.”

“You’re waiting for it now?” The boy is still coming closer.

“Yes, the mailman is three minutes late,” I reply.

“Okay,” the boy says, and walks towards me. “I’ll wait with you.” He sits down on my front lawn in the grass that’s too long.

I glare at his impertinence. This is ridiculous. All the muscles in my body are rigid. What’s the point of having property lines if no one respects them? What’s the point of having children if they don’t listen to you? Why would anyone be outside before 12:17 p.m.?

But the kid doesn’t say anything, he just sits there watching the road like I am. I don’t like it. Waiting is just disappointment before you realize it’s there, and quiet is really just a blanket that covers the real problem. And yet, nothing bad is happening. So, I sit on the porch until the mailman pulls up with my newspaper exactly seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds late, and I can run back into my house where it’s safe and comfortable and everything makes sense. But I don’t make it inside before the boy calls after me.

“See you tomorrow, then,” and at first I hate him for saying it, because friendship is just sacrifice and suggestions are really demands, yet as I begin to remove the dishes from the cupboard, I think just maybe I will wait for the mailman on the porch tomorrow, because what are obnoxious, annoying children if not expressions of growth and what am I if not someone who sees things for what they are?


Anna Kubiak is currently a student at Genesee Community College with plans to transfer to the University at Buffalo where she will pursue a degree in legal studies with certificates in journalism and creative writing. While attending GCC, she writes for The New Courier newspaper and is the President of the Creative Writing Club. She plans to pursue a career that allows her to connect people through writing.

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Noah Rigby

Seven Steps to Surviving in the Wilderness by Billy Burkins

Step 1: Find Water

When you’re stranded in the woods, the very first thing you have to do is S.T.O.P. Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan, preferably in that order. You don’t technically learn this until you get promoted to the rank of Tenderfoot in Boy Scouts, which I’m still pretty far from reaching, but I read ahead in the manual in my free time, so I know a lot. I honestly think it should be one of the first things they teach you when you join in first grade, along with all of the brotherhood and God stuff, but when you’re small like that Boy Scouts is more of an activity your parents force you to do to get you out of the house. All Troop Leader David has said so far about survival is that if you get separated from the group while out on an adventure, which is the technical term for our outings, you need to stay put. That’s stopping. Think about where you came from, how you got there, and where you went wrong (if you did. You probably did). Next, observe your surroundings and calculate if you’re in any immediate danger. If you’re not, you plan. Plan how to get your troop leader to notice you and what to do if you don’t recognize anything nearby and all that. That’s what you do if you’re a baby and don’t actually know what to do to survive. That’s what to do if you’re lost.

But I’m not lost.

So, when you’re not lost in the woods, and when Charlie T. from Mrs. Barranick’s fifth grade class made it a point to share with everyone how far ahead the rest of the Boy Scouts are compared to you now that promotions are based on merit rather than age, you set out into the woods behind the playground to prove that just because you’re not getting badges as fast as them, it doesn’t mean you’re not a true boy scout. You CAN survive in the wild despite missing troop meetings a lot. But if you get far enough away so that you don’t remember which way you came from, you find water. Water is pretty easy to find in the woods, especially if you get lucky and it rained a couple hours ago and your mom sleeps a lot during the day, so she won’t be looking for you for a while. After walking for about an hour—or maybe a lot longer—in the woods and scoffing at every trail you come across, you hear water up ahead.

Now, just because you hear water, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be drinkable. Usually, it won’t be. And, I know this because Tessa M. dared me to drink from a pothole puddle once, and I got sick for like a week. That’s why I bring a water purifier with me whenever I leave the house. It’s inconvenient most days, and takes up a lot of room in my backpack, but when you’re a survivalist like me, it’s second nature, and it can save your life. If you don’t have a water purifier, running water is still helpful. Animals usually stay close to a stream, which is what you figure out it is when you get closer and narrowly avoid tripping over a branch or something, and animals equal food. I don’t really like hurting animals if I don’t have to, so, best case scenario, I’ll just follow them around and see what they eat. They know edible plants probably more than I do, and I know a lot. Mom says I have a great memory, the best one there is maybe, which is why I was my elementary school’s spelling bee champion in third grade (Charlie beat me in fourth grade, but that doesn’t matter. Someone called him an overachiever once; I don’t remember who.) Anyway, the stream is small and peters out quickly down a cliff some yards away, so you don’t bother investigating because it’s probably a little steep, but water is better than nothing. If you’re smart like me, you should have had some juice before you left the house, so you’re not super thirsty, but you still should sludge through the mud to the stream and set your adventuring backpack down on a rock to get started. The metal clasps on your backpack are always a little hard to open because it’s cheap and you’ve had the same one since second grade, and you probably struggle with them for a second but it’s okay because no one’s looking, before it springs open and you dig your hands into the camouflage pouch. Without even peeking you pull out exactly what you needed—your life straw. It was like a bajillion dollars, which Mom probably couldn’t afford, but luckily Dad, who lives in a different state now, sent it in the mail as a late birthday present. You clasp the bag up and get as close to the water as you can without getting your clothes or shoes wet. I read the instructions on the straw a bunch before, but I never actually used it. You should get it right, though. And when you go to open it, and maybe tug on it a little too hard, you hear a popping sound and the cap rockets off, making a clacking sound as it smacks against a tree and disappears in the grass past the water somewhere. Then the straw cracks. They’re not supposed to crack, you don’t think. They never broke in the videos, so you’re going to be mad for a moment because you’ve been really excited to use it, but hey, stuff happens. You can’t just rely on your tools, no matter how expensive they are—you have to rely on yourself. A true Boy Scout is always prepared, and preparation means knowledge. Since it rained, you can collect droplets from leaves using a baggie you saved from lunch.

Step 2: Build a Shelter

Troop Leader David said that shelter can be made out of nearly anything as long as you insulate it. Caves aren’t a good idea because they’re naturally cold and often home to big creatures. Plus, the draft is super bad if you don’t cover up the hole. That’s why a lot of people look towards sticks and mud when they know what they’re doing (but most people don’t). One of the major reasons why people die in the woods is because they don’t correctly protect themselves from the environment, especially when it’s colder out. It’s the middle of March now and it still snows sometimes. I brought my big coat with me, so I’m fine. Plus, I was always the best one at building shelters in the Cub Scouts before we moved up to Boy Scouts and things got way more complicated than they needed to be and Mom got sicker. I had to take a lot of days off to help her get around the house. Mom said I shouldn’t worry, though, because I could survive off anything if I’m determined enough because I’m really strong. Strongest guy she knows, actually, which is impressive because she knows a lot of people. People come by the house a lot to drop off food when she doesn’t have the energy to cook or to donate some clothes here and there. That’s where I get a lot of my stuff from, so I can go to school and the boys won’t look at me weird because we don’t have a lot. Charlie still looks at me weird, but he’s weird, so it doesn’t count.

For a shelter, all you need to find are some trees about six feet apart. Lodge a log between them that’s like three feet off the ground, get some big sticks and moss, and go from there. If there isn’t any moss—and there isn’t, which is weird—dirt is fine. Mud from the stream-—probably about sixty yards away from where you’re going to build your shelter—will keep the sticks together. I wouldn’t recommend building super close to a stream because the dirt there isn’t super stable, and you need stable ground to build a shelter or else things may start slipping and sliding and you’ll get crushed. Danny with brown hair, who is a year ahead of me in the scouts and has a phone that’s really cool, told me that he saw someone get crushed by a rotting tree after they built their shelter near it and a strong wind came. You wouldn’t want to be just another guy getting whacked by a tree because you’re waiting on a card from your dad that has some money in it for new Boy Scout stuff, so you should push on the trees nearby to make sure they’re stable.

You spend like a whole hour finding suitable sticks for your A-Frame, which is when you lodge that log between trees and then rest sticks against it on either side. I built one before with my troop, even though I mostly helped with the finishing touches since Mom was feeling bad that night and I wanted to make sure she was okay before heading out. Now, you have to break some branches off trees to get sticks long enough and sturdy enough. Make sure to take a lot of breaks while working to prevent your asthma from flaring up and sing a song in your head to entertain yourself. Your hands are only a little sore, and it’s only a little dark and cold outside now, so you work only a little faster, gathering up mud and grass to plaster against the sticks with the oven mitts you threw in your bag. While gathering mud, your foot might slip into the stream, and your shoe and sock might get wet, but you can’t worry about that right now. You have to build your shelter before it gets dark, and you have so much more to do if you’re going to prove Charlie wrong. The look on his face when you tell him you went camping all by yourself is going to be well worth your minor slip-ups. Maybe you’ll even get promoted if you tell Troop Leader David. It’s getting cold quickly though, so maybe you’ll only stay out in the woods for one night instead of two. Your hands will feel a bit raw after scooping mud, but at least your shelter is complete. That’s more than good enough.

Step 3: Collect Food

You’re going to be hungry by now, and you haven’t actually had to collect food by yourself before because you’re eleven and that would be ridiculous. I would usually prioritize building a fire, but it rained earlier in the day, so most of the fire wood is damp and unusable, and you wouldn’t have brought a match or a lighter because that’s cheating (also I don’t know where Mom keeps them), so, food. You’re going to want to walk back to the stream and consider going past it, and begin to step on a rock to head over and see if you can find any edible berries or fungi on the other side since you haven’t had any luck so far, but you don’t want to chance getting any more wet, so you don’t. And then you step forward and cross anyway. A real Boy Scout wouldn’t get scared of some water. No, he’d persevere, and besides, Charlie would totally tell Emma L. from Mr. Otis’ class that you’re a pussy if he were here. Anyone would be embarrassed by that since Emma is the prettiest girl in the fifth grade, which I’d swear my life on. Charlie and I both have a crush on her, which is why I think he’s mean to me sometimes even though he already has a better chance with her than me because he’s in school more and farther ahead in Boy Scouts. He doesn’t take days off to spend time with his mom. I doubt he even knows what cancer is. That’s why people like us are going to have to work hard in the wilderness, so we can show them how good we are. That’s why you go deep in the woods, but not too far from where you left your adventuring backpack: so you can show them that you can survive despite not having the merits or the recognition or the support. Despite being the slacker, you’re really good at surviving.

If you find rotten logs, you’re in luck. When you look up survival stuff at the library in your spare time like I do, you’re going to learn that bugs like hiding where things are rotten, close to the surface, and dark. Most bugs can be eaten raw as long as they don’t have a hard shell, you think—those guys tend to carry parasites that need to be cooked out. As mentioned earlier, firewood isn’t in great supply right now, so beetles and grasshoppers are out of the question. On the brighter side, the more wet the ground is, the more bugs you can find. If you’re like me, you’ve only eaten a couple of bugs before, and mostly on dares during recess when the teacher wasn’t looking. The last time your dad called, you told him how many times you’ve eaten bugs because you thought it was funny. He doesn’t call much anymore, but that’s probably just because he doesn’t like eating bugs. Not that you do, but you’re a survivor. You’ll do what you must.

The first log you come across is going to be prime bug real estate, so you have to dive right in. It’s late. Underneath, you find mostly ants, and they scatter pretty quickly, but you’re determined. You have to break the log open to find the fun stuff—termites. You kick the log open with your sneakers, so you can keep your hands in your pockets for as long as possible, and you see there are plenty of termites to go around. You scoop them quickly into the second baggie you brought, and move onto the next. You’re quick. It’s colder. It’s almost completely dark now, and that’s why you don’t notice how close you’ve gotten to the cliff.

Earlier it was just another landmark, something you barely registered. You were too caught up in the stream.

You’ve never been the best at keeping your balance.

You fall.

Step 4: Stay Warm

It’s late when I wake up. The house smells of hot cocoa and iodine, and Dad is mumbling something to himself in the other room. The floorboards of the apartment creak as he paces back and forth, and it sounds like he’s outside my door. He has always been really restless. That’s a trait I got from him, he said, so he suggested I join Cub Scouts. Get my energy out. Do something useful.

I wonder why he’s anxious so late in the night. He should be asleep. It’s Monday, so he has work in the morning. Mom has an appointment with a new doctor in the afternoon, and they’re going to make her lungs better. He shouldn’t worry. I’ll go back to school when she’s better. We’re going to be fine.

I hear the knob slowly twist and warmth creeps in past the opening door and slips under my blanket. The fireplace is roaring outside. I close my eyes. I don’t like seeing him while he’s anxious. Slippered feet shuffle slowly towards my bed, then past, and the window that I left open clasps firmly shut. It’s hot.

The floor doesn’t creak when he stops by my bed. His clothes whisper faintly together as he sits on the ground.

He’s quiet for so long I begin to think he’s fallen asleep.

“I’m leaving, bud.”

You’re supposed to be asleep. Don’t answer, even though you don’t understand.

“I’m not strong, Billy.” Silence. “You need to be strong for her. You need to help her survive.”

He gets up, the floor creaks, the door closes.

I’m not strong. When I finally get the courage to go after him, he’s gone. Mom’s asleep on the couch.

Step 5: If Injured, Conduct First Aid

It’s late when you wake up. You’re cold. All you can register is the biting of the air on your cheeks and the faint smell of iron. You can’t think of anything. You’re tired.

Then comes the pain.

When you were five, you fell off your bike and broke your arm. You cried for hours because it hurt so much, even though it was closer to a sprain than anything. This is worse.

Your head, my head, is on fire. It feels like fire ants are crawling in your nose and over your eyes and ears. The hot on the back of your head might be blood, must be, because the ground is supposed to be cold. I go to reach to pull my jacket tighter, but my arms don’t move. I try my legs. They don’t move either. Nothing moves.

Don’t panic.

If you panic, you’re dead.

I saw that in a video once.

Think.

First thing you have to do is try everything. Despite the burning of your head and the blurring of your vision you manage to look around. Sort of.

My head doesn’t move with my eyes, but it’s okay, all you need to do is see. It doesn’t look like the fall was that far—I can hear the water draining into a small pool a couple yards away—but it was enough. You don’t know how long you’ve been unconscious, but your mouth is dry and you can smell blood. Blood is common in your house. You know how to deal with blood there. You clean it up. But you can’t move. Your arms and legs and stomach and chest are nothing. Something must be bleeding, though, and you have to patch it up.

Your backpack is a million miles away back at the shelter. You should’ve brought it with you when you went searching for food. Why didn’t I bring it with me? Rule number one is to be prepared.

Even if I had my backpack, it wouldn’t matter, though. I can’t move.

You think about what would happen to your mom if you couldn’t move.

You panic.

Step 6: S.T.O.P.

I stop panicking.

I think about Charlie taunting me during lunch a couple days ago. I think about how we were friends, once, when we first joined up and I was a good scout and had time to study our mottos. We studied the concept of brotherhood a lot. Supporting your fellow man, trusting in each other like you’d trust in a parent or God. Keeping up hope. We were friends. I don’t know when that changed. I miss sleeping over at his house and practicing knots together.

I observe my surroundings. I landed on some dirt, and the forest floor around me is covered in leaves and foliage that I barely recognize. There are a bunch of plants that have medicinal properties, but in the dark I can’t tell the difference between poison and immunity boosters. The trees down here are tall. The sky is dark; I can barely see it through the trees. No signs of any animals or people nearby. I observe myself. I try to. I’m scared. I’ll be fine.

I plan how to get out.

It begins to snow.

I can’t tell if I feel it on my skin.

Step 7:

Your lips are chapped and you don’t know how long you’ve been stranded in the woods. You don’t feel so good. You should have brought a flare. Or a flashlight. Maybe the Band-Aids Mom keeps in the bottom of the medicine cabinet. Band-Aids would stop the bleeding that you’re sure is coming from your head now.

You’re slipping in and out of consciousness and your body is hot, one of the first signs of severe hypothermia.

Kids lost in the woods don’t survive hypothermia.

Maybe you’re not as strong as you thought.

You can’t be.

You’d make it home if you were.

Your mom is going to wake up around seven. She’s an early riser because she sleeps the rest of the day. She’s going to call to wake you up, and of course you’re not going to answer. She’ll shrug it off and force herself to the kitchen to make breakfast. It will take her a while, trudging in her orthopedic slippers and clinging to the walls. She’s weaker by the day, but she’ll get it done because you have to eat. She’ll notice that you’re low on groceries and mentally note that she’ll have to order some more. She’ll make you an omelet because it’s your favorite and she can tell you’ve been having a rough time at school. She’ll pour herself a steaming cup of coffee, breathe it in, and cough it out. She’ll say, “Baby, it’s time to get up.”

It’ll mostly be a whisper, but she’ll say it with a smile. She’s strong. You should be there to hear it.

She’s not going to worry too much that you don’t get out of bed. She knows you stay up late reading a lot of the time. She’ll let you sleep in. You need your rest. She won’t notice you’re missing until lunchtime.

But, for now, she’ll sit on the couch and watch the sunrise through the windows.


Noah Rigby is a senior creative writing major at SUNY Purchase with minors in psychology, theatre performance, and playwriting. When he’s not writing he’s either walking through nature, lounging about, or using the term “vibing” in semi-professional emails. His poetry has been published in Gutter Mag and Chaotic Merge, his fiction in Italics Mine, and he has won multiple awards for his playwriting.

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