Category Archives: Fiction

Greta Flanagan

Kiss to the Fist

Peter had never been this close to a freight before. He had little need to leave his small Virginian town and could only ever catch glimpses of those black rails from up on the hills. They’d looked like a row of ants then, set single file through the valleys. Up close it was a gear-toothed monster, chuffing up steam and screeching something awful as the axle began to spin. He’d never thought he’d see a train up close, let alone that he’d be trying to hop one.

Well, he thought, fist digging into wet grass as he lifted into a runner’s crouch. Times change. Rosie would blow her wig over this.

The train inched forward on the tracks, groaning at the push of its own weight. Peter stole a quick look behind him, at the boorish freight guard down at the caboose who had his back to him. His hand was on the gun at his belt, and he held his broad shoulders high like some stalking wolf.

Peter threw his entire body from the ground, long legs flying through the bushes as he raced for the open car. The weight of his satchel on his back was a hassle he’d underestimated, and the corner of his journal whacked into the small of his back with every stride. He ran neck and neck with the door, hands latching onto the side just as a shout started behind him, muffled by the tracks.

Peter jumped with all his might onto the accelerating train, overcompensating for the weight on his back and tumbling far into the dark car.

He rested on the floor for a beat, gulping down quick breaths. The floor rumbled below him, and while dark and musty, the car was far from quiet—it shuttered and rattled with every shifting cog. Scattered through the car were large wooden crates, held to the floor by their weight. Each had peeling blocky letters. FORD AUTO PARTS, Peter read as he traced the dust off one with his finger.

His knees tightened in protest as he picked himself up, brushing dirt from his pants and shifting his pack off his shoulder; it landed clunkily on the wood. He rolled his shoulders, hand pressed to the space where his journal had decided it wanted to bruise his spine and turned toward the open door.

Outside the world moved in dizzying arrays of green and blue, smudged like his old family photos—where he moved too soon and smeared himself across the page. Still, he could make out that little town on the hill, its image cut by the trees lining the tracks. The church spire stood out along the hill, the only building tall enough to be seen from the valley.

The train lurched under him with a horrible clanking noise. Peter lowered himself back to the floor.

He’d never gone very far from Middleburg. He’d only ever reached about two towns over, when his father had taken him in search of a mechanic. That town was much bigger than his—not a city, not even close, but it had streets lined with automobiles and throngs of people in the marketplaces. That was the most people he’d ever seen in one place, and he’d been enamored.

There was a sweltering heat building under his ribcage, and Peter clawed at his collar. Wytheville wasn’t a city, and he’d still felt lost there. He had no idea how big New York actually was. A hundred times that size, probably. A steel jungle. Peter had never been somewhere where he couldn’t see trees.

He suddenly wasn’t quite sure what he was doing on this train.

But he knew it was better than staying in that forsaken town.

Still, leaving Middleburg felt like cutting off a rotten limb. A necessary amputation, surely, but one that left him with phantom pain all the same. He wondered what his parents would tell Rosie of his absence, or what her classmates had already told her about his situation. Peter hoped she didn’t hate him if she knew, and if she didn’t, well, he hoped she didn’t hate him for leaving. Mostly, he just hoped she’d never step another foot near that church.

He settled himself against one of the dusty crates, grabbing the lip of his satchel and rummaging through its contents. Fruit, water, the wad of bills he had stolen from his father, and at the bottom, his old leather-bound journal. The freight would stop through another town at some point, someplace where he could mail this letter. Rosie deserved a final goodbye from him, and some semblance of an explanation.

Peter flipped through the pages, finding an empty one in the middle. Whatever letter she got from him his parents would surely read, if they didn’t throw it out first. He would just have to be vague if it had any chance of reaching his sister. He tapped his pencil on the page in thought, once, twice, thrice, before starting:

Dear Rosie,

I’m on a train car right now. I hopped right in it and nearly got gunned down. I wish I could tell you all about it in person but you probably shouldn’t be seen with me I wouldn’t want you to get any stupid ideas of your own. You probably don’t get why your big brother just up and left and why everyone’s so mad. Or maybe everyone’s told you already and you want me gone too. I want you to know that I don’t regret a single thing. That town may not forgive me but God will and I know he would never have let me into heaven if I ignored what I’d seen. And I hope that awful place goes to Hell for all their silence I hope you’re safe and okay and don’t trust strangers okay? But also don’t trust the people you’re forced to be near Stay in school and do good and help Dad with his work.

Miss you and Mom and Dad.

Love, From, Sincerely,


Peter dug the graphite of his pencil deep into the paper. The last swoop of the r dark and stilted. He wouldn’t be able to send this—this scrawling, scribbled mess of rage. He dug the tip of his pencil on the paper, over and over, under the page tore from his journal and crumbled on his lap. A useless letter from a useless kid. His eyes burned, and he shoved the meat of his thumb into his mouth to stifle whatever anguished whimper eked through.

The paper wilted pathetically on his thigh. He crumbled it into a ball and tossed it out the train. The wind took it in seconds.

Hours passed in a tumbleweed of cycling emotions, rocking to and fro with the beat of the train. An open field would appear outside the box door, and Peter would feel elated at the freedom, stretching his arms as he watched pastures tumble by with ease. Then, a distant town would pass, and the confidence would blow out of him like that torn-up journal page. By the time the train began losing speed, Peter’s eyes were swollen, and his hand was red and sweltering from his teeth.

The train came to a complete stop, its brakes shrieking under the loud chuff of steam. Underneath the noise, Peter could hear the booming shouts of rail workers and guards alike as they bustled around the docking train. From the open door he could see the busy downtown area, its citizens moving around like mice.

Peter glanced toward his journal. This town would surely have a post office, but he had yet to begin another letter. He moved to grab the cracked leather book when a shrill whistle pierced his ears.

“All right!” a booming voice shouted. “Make your rounds, boys.”

Panic needled Peter’s skin, and his arm erupted in goosebumps. He shook his hands, frantically looking around the cart for a place to hide. If he was caught, it could mean a beating. Worse, though, it could mean being sent back to Middleburg.

He dropped to all fours, crawling through the narrow gaps between the thick boxes until he sat with his shin pressed against the wall of the boxcar, and his back flush against the shipping crate. The train had settled its grumbling, and the fitted space swallowed the outside bustle of the rail workers until he could hear only the roaring of blood in his ears and his rasping breath. He shoved his hand into his mouth again. Quiet, quiet, an older, gruffer voice whispered in his head. Peter squeezed his eyes shut.

“Clear,” a voice sounded, just outside his cart. Peter did not move until he felt the train lurch forward again. He wrenched himself away from the narrow space, heaving in a breath and rubbing at his eyes as he sat at the far end of the boxcar, hidden in the shadows.

That’s when the yelling started.

From the bushes, behind trees, people of all colors and ages made that same mad dash to the tracks as Peter did. They scurried like rats, tossing their packs and bodying the guards in their haste. Shots went off, the loud pat-pat-pat jolting Peter into grabbing his satchel and pressing it against his chest like a shield.

The train was gaining speed now. He heard screams over the creaking of the tracks. Just as he thought they started moving too fast for someone to hop in his car, a knapsack soared into the train car, sliding over the wood until it hit Peter’s boot.

A hand followed it, gripping the metal frame tightly. He could tell that the man was struggling to pull himself in, eyes clenched shut against the wind as he threw himself forward, rolling on the floor until he settled on his back and panted into the air.

Peter was frozen, still clutching his satchel to his chest like a lifeline. The man was filthy, his green jacket covered in mud and his face unshaven and patchy. There was a hole in the fabric over his armpit and sweat stains on his collar.

Eventually, the man rose, groaning as he stretched upwards. “God damn,” he muttered to himself, before turning his head to look for his forgotten knapsack.

The knapsack that lay on Peter’s foot.

“Hey, kid,” the man started, gesturing with a come-hither motion. “Pass me that thing, would ’ya?”

Peter kicked the knapsack across the floor, never taking his eyes off the stranger. It slid about halfway before flopping pathetically a few feet away.

The man groaned, hauling himself off the floor with great effort. “Could’ve just handed it to me, I won’t bite.”

I will, Peter thought. I’ll bite you and claw at your eyes and toss you onto those tracks. The idea came to his mind so quickly that it nearly scared him.

The man pulled water from his back and guzzled it for several seconds, much of the water spilling down his chin. “I’m surprised a kid like you managed to freight-hop this thing. Those damn Bulls are vicious. They don’t hesitate a single second before shooting you down.” He rubbed a hand through uncut blond hair. “Forces everyone to hop a moving train. Dangerous business, the guy just next to me fell. Crushed his damn head like a watermelon.” He slapped his hand together, turning to look Peter in the eye. “Bam, just like that.”

Peter supposed the Bulls were the rail guards. He shrunk back. He knew train-hopping was dangerous. Between the guards and the train itself, it was a recipe for disaster. But he hadn’t realized just how lucky he’d been, living in such a secluded area. The security had been much lower.

Looks like he’d just have to wait until he reached the city to mail that letter. At least he had more time to write it.

The man whipped his pack behind his back before he laid down on it like a pillow. “Anyhow, looks like we’ll be stuck with each other for a while. Name’s Herby, what about you, kid?”

Peter hesitated. Herby hadn’t approached him. He looked like he wasn’t going to at all. A name couldn’t hurt. It didn’t mean anything. “Peter.”

“Nice name,” Herby said, and raised his hand to his mouth, making a fist and kissing it. “You taking this train to the city, Pete?”

Peter blinked, baffled at the motion. He hummed an affirmation distractedly.

“Course you are. Everyone’s going to the city. Including me, that’s where all the jobs are.” Herby stretched his hands above his head as if reaching for the sun. The bones of his elbows popped. “Shouldn’t’ve left. That’s my home turf, good ol’ New York City. Truly a delight she is. Yessir. Went out west to get gold, and struck dirt. Hitching a ride back to my Ma now that the economy is shot.” He kissed his fist again, with a grin.

“What about you, Petey? You’re a little baby-faced to be freight-hopping. You a runaway?”

Shock rippled through Peter, and he tightened his arms around himself. The truth must’ve shown in his eyes because Herby went on.

“What’cha running from?”

His parents, he thought. Their cold denial. His teacher’s whispers. White robes and wooden pews and a golden cross. God, maybe.

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” he said instead, adjusting himself so he wasn’t so hunched up. Too vulnerable looking. He held his chin up. “I’m gonna be a city kid. That’s all that matters now.” I’m gonna be away from that town. And that’s what really matters.

Herby barked a laugh. “Drink to that!” He kissed his fist. “Maybe we’ll end up with the same shitty factory job. Wouldn’t that be great.”

Peter didn’t know about that. But having someone who knew the city close by might be helpful. Herby still hadn’t moved toward him, that was a good sign.

They lapsed into silence, Herby had closed his eyes and fallen into a slumber, his mouth hanging open. Peter stretched out the cramp in his legs. They were passing by a river; he watched its meandering path as the hours passed.

The sky was yellowing when Herby woke up again. He yawned the same way a bear would, with one drawn out bellow, and tilted his head toward the sun. “Look at that beautiful view!” he cheered, bringing his lips to his fist.

Peter furrowed his brow. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what, Petey?”

“That thing with your hand. You keep kissing it.”

“That!” Herby exclaimed, holding up his hand and pointing to it. “Is me showing love to myself, and the lovely world beyond us. You always gotta show some love to yourself in these trying times, kid. Else you’ll go crazy.”

Peter looked down at his right hand, the skin was mottled with short, dimpled scabs that had never quite scarred over. He flexed his thumb. It spasmed.

“Sun’s settin’, which means we’ll be reaching the city soon. We’ll get in after dark. Blessin’ and a curse, the night’s dangerous, but it’ll cover us from the Bulls and make runnin’ easier.”

Peter nodded, his eyes vacant. He didn’t know what he’d do when they got to the city. He had enough money for a room, maybe. But what if they got in so late everything was closed? He mouthed over his thumb with his lips. Would he have to ask Herby for help? Would that be safe?

Herby was laying down again, hands waving in the air. He was muttering something under his breath over and over.

“Pete. Peter. Petey, Pete. Saint Pete,” he was saying to the ceiling.

“What?” Peter asked.

“Nothin’. Just sayin’ your name,” he replied. “Say, your parents Christian? Name you after Saint Peter?”

Peter’s shoulders shot to his jaw, and he crawled back into his collar like an under-zealous turtle. His parents had named him after Saint Peter, and Rosie after Saint Rose. He’d always been proud of this as a kid before he actually learned about who he was in school. Saint Peter was the first Pope, sure, but he was also the one to deny Jesus thrice. Peter had always tried to make up for that when he was younger, always praying, going to confession, and agreeing to extra lessons with Father Dominic.

Fat load of good it did him.

His eyes stung with unshed tears. Herby hadn’t noticed, barreling over his silence with ease.

“Good name to have, Saint Peter.” He nodded to himself and raised his hand again, poised to kiss.

“No, it’s fucking not.”

Herby froze with his hand still in the air. Startled, he turned his head toward Peter. Peter’s head felt hot; it felt like there was so much dust in the room he couldn’t breathe. Embarrassed by his own outburst, he shoved his thumb into his mouth. Bit down until he tasted iron.

Stupid, stupid. Be quiet. Don’t fucking say anything. Don’t tell anyone. It doesn’t do anyone any good.

“Woah, Pete,” Herby began, at a loss. “It’s okay, you’re okay. Take a deep breath for a second.”

Peter shook his head, gasping around the skin in his mouth. Fuck those after-school lessons. Rosie had wanted to follow his example and wanted to start them the following year. Peter choked on a sob and bit down harder. He couldn’t believe he left her there.

Herby sat up but didn’t approach him. That was good. Peter didn’t know what he would do if Herby came near him.

“You can’t be doing that to yourself, Pete. You gotta let go of your hand, there. C’mon now, you’re gonna destroy it, then how are you gonna get a job?” He laughed, a trembling thing. “Huh, kid? No one’s gonna hire a guy with a screwed up joint.”

The gentle threat brought some clarity to Peter’s brain. He unclenched his jaw, his hand a bloodied, red mess. He wiped it on his pants, grimacing at the pain.

They both sat in silence for several beats, the air tense.

Finally, Herby asked, “Do you, uh, wanna talk about that?”

Peter was barely paying attention. He wiggled his thumb, uncaring about the throb. All he could think of was Rosie. Rosie, who was four years younger than him. Rosie, who always followed in his example, even when it pissed him off. Rosie, who he’d left there.

Peter ripped open his satchel, grabbing his pencil and the journal. He flipped past the torn-out page.

Rosie, he started, with sure strokes.

I’m in the city. When I get enough money, I’ll send for you. I’m sorry this is confusing. That place isn’t safe for you. You have to trust in your big brother. I’ll send you my home address when I find a place.

Love you,


He tore out the page, folding it neatly and shoving it into his pocket. The sun had finally set, the full moon illuminating the boxcar and surrounding Herby in a gentle silhouette. He could see the city lights now, twinkling like the stars he couldn’t see anymore.

He shoved his journal back into his bag and tied it closed, throwing it on his back. They’d be stopping soon.

Herby watched him in silent confusion, tracing him with his eyes as Peter approached closer to the open door and sat a few feet away from him. The train rocked on the tracks.

“You can’t be doing that, kid. Be kind to yourself,” Herby said, motioning to Peter’s mauled thumb. “Kiss the fist, remember? You’ll go crazy otherwise, or lose a finger.”

Peter just nodded. “I’ll try.” He really didn’t want to lose a finger, not when he’d just arrived.

The train hadn’t even pulled to a full stop when Herby shot to his feet.

“Gotta jump and make a break for it now, kid. You ready?”

Peter stood up, adjusting his pack, and nodded.

“All right, ready? Now!

They both leaped off the train, and Peter hit the ground running, following Herby blindly away from the tracks. The warehouses were still a mile or two off from the actual city, a steel beacon against the night.

When they reached a safe distance, they slowed to a walk. Trekking in silence. Peter couldn’t help but crane his neck, the buildings were tall—taller than any tree he’d ever seen. They were so cramped, too. He glanced up at Herby, and found himself not wanting the older man to leave him alone in this.

He reached into his pocket, pulling out the letter.

“What’s that, Pete?” Herby asked, panting slightly as they walked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Peter didn’t mind, surprisingly. “A letter. To my little sister,” he said, then hesitated. Herby might leave, if he told him. He supposed that would be the test. If Herby leaves, he’ll just have to survive on his own. He could do that. He would have to.

“I’m gonna get her, when I get a job and a place. I can’t let her stay back home. There was a priest—,” Peter paused, choking on his spit, angry at the tears in his eyes. He pressed his hand into his side. “A priest. He wasn’t—he isn’t a good person. He was touch—touching kids. Me. Touching me. Can’t let that happen to her. Won’t.”

The silence stretched. He chanced a look at Herby. Herby was wide-eyed, staring straight ahead.

“Fuck. Jesus Christ, kid. I’m fucking sorry.”

Something about that, that acceptance made something bitter and vile flood out of him. Relief. He blinked tears away again, brushed them away with his arm. “Thank you,” he muttered.

Herby nodded, and swallowed. “My Ma’s place is too far to walk to tonight. There’ll be a mailbox on the way for you to drop your letter in. We can find a cheap hotel for the night. You okay with that?”

“Yeah,” Peter grunted. “I got some money.”

“Good. And, hey, Pete. We can go job-hunting together, yeah? Help each other out. Sound good?”

Peter smiled, the first time in a while. “Sounds good.”

Herby grinned. “Sweet,” he said. He kissed his fist and gestured widely to the buildings in front of him. “Sweet, sweet New York City!”

Peter laughed. He brought his right hand to his lips, mottled and swollen. He kissed it, following the gesture to the city ahead of him. “Sweet New York City,” he echoed.

Greta Flanagan is a sophomore English creative writing major at SUNY Geneseo. A writer from Oyster Bay, Long Island, she loves writing, drawing, and is on the cross country team.

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Kiely Caulfield


When my sister and I were young, we were convinced our town was full of vampires. I don’t quite remember when we discovered it. Part of me feels like we just woke up one day and knew, just as sure as you know when the sun rises it’s daytime, and when it sets it’s night. It wasn’t a slow realization, or a fast one. Just one of those things that up and happened, one day.

We were in Mom’s car, I think, on the way to school. All four of us crammed into her off-white Toyota Matrix, because Dad’s pickup was in the shop—apparently with ancient, corroded brake discs and in such desperate need of an oil change the dipstick came out looking bloody—and it wouldn’t be ready for another day or so. October hung thick in the air, as it tended to in most rural towns upstate, and that morning we swooped through the dewy mist like we were ghosts in our own right. Dad’s lead foot was helping that along, though.

We breezed right through the stop sign and through the usual empty intersection off River Road—as Dad liked to say, much to our mother’s chagrin, “No cop, no stop”—and took the teetering bend onto Park Avenue perilously fast. Autumn’s chill couldn’t find us there. We moved too quickly to feel her touch, other than the occasional seeping, frigid caress through the chilled glass of the windows. Outside, the fog swirled like fluttering, gauzy curtains.

“Jesus Christ, Sean,” Mom bit out from the passenger seat, her grip on the grab handle so tight all the blood bleached out of her fingers. From my view behind the driver’s seat, it looked almost too white. Frighteningly skeletal, save for her rings.

“Relax,” he said, a navy ball cap tilted to spare a cursory glance at his mirrors before pointing back at the road. “Nobody saw.”

“That’s not the point.”

“You love it when I drive fast.”

“Not with the girls in the car, I don’t,” she shot back, viper-quick, venom simmering just beneath the surface.

Dad snorted, shaking his head. “Sorry.”

In the seat next to me, Veronica was humming to herself, her cheek squished against the glass. She doodled tiny stars into the condensation from her breath with her fingers. Back then her hair was still a little wispy, her youth clinging to her round cheeks and blonde locks, staticky and baby-fine. The condensation from the window plastered a good portion of it to her forehead, which she shoved out of her face, oblivious to the tangles she was making with every fumbled push.

A simmering mix of useless frustration and borderline horror rose up just beneath my skin, an irritation as fraught as a buzzing bee. I couldn’t tell if I was mad at her for not noticing the knots or if I was mad at the knots themselves. I shifted, uncomfortable with the creeping pressure the sight put at the back of my head. It felt like someone had slid their fingers up into my hair—ghost-thin nails coming to razor sharp points, grazing at my scalp—and was very slowly beginning to pull.

It was Veronica who noticed it first. While I was busy thinking myself into a fit about knots and rings and things that looped and tangled and pulled, pulled, pulled, she was looking out at the world. She was an explorer, of sorts—Mom’s cramped Matrix turned into her own steadfast vessel. She was a brave captain, and we were her good-natured, bickering crew. Her periscope was one of frigid tempered glass, the viewport encircled with drippy, wobbly-lined stars, but it wasn’t the tool that made it special. That magic was all her own.

It was hard to hear over the sound of the defrost blasting on the windshield, but as we drove past the pallid, sagging houses on Cohocton Street—each a photocopy of the one previous, each more warped, bent, and bloated than the last—Veronica’s little voice piped up.

“A house is on fire again.”

Sure enough, coming up on the edge of the four-way intersection, nestled right between Cohocton and Canisto, the massive, blackened body of the most recent victim emerged from the morning gloom. Our car slowed to meet the meandering line of rubbernecked drivers at the stop sign, and I took in the blackened, foreboding body. It sat unmoving, ugly and smoldering. The siding had bubbled from the heat, gray lacquer and wood glue weeping through the charred slats in dirty, black puss and staining scabs. Dark soot covered the face of the house in a thick, choking pall. The windows, blown apart from the heat, splattered glittering, broken glass on the dead lawn like tears.

It was the biggest house on the block, chopped up into three different apartments. Three families lived there, not that it mattered now. They didn’t live there anymore. It reminded me a bit of a turtle shell—whole, just without all the meaty bits inside.

I wrinkled my nose, like Mom does when she checks her hair in the mirror. “Where are the firefighters?”

“They already left, Ker,” Mom said over her shoulder.

Veronica and I shared a frown. There was still gray smoke wisping off the open, slack jaws of the shaded porch. I crossed one finger over the other in my lap. “But it’s still on fire.”

“It’s just smokey, that’s all,” Dad reassured, catching my gaze in the rear view mirror. His crow’s feet crinkled in a patient wink. “They wouldn’t leave if it was still on fire, honey.”

“Do you think anyone was hurt?” Veronica asked, leaning sharply against the seat belt as Dad shuffled the car closer and closer to the stop sign.

“I don’t think anyone was home, Ronnie.”

“There’s no yellow stuff this time,” I offered. The last three houses to go up in flames were tied down with so much yellow rope it was like the police were worried the houses would get up and walk away. “Doesn’t that mean no one was hurt?”

“Or they got sick of doing their jobs,” Dad muttered, and Mom smacked him on the arm for it. Clearing his throat, he added on louder, “You’re right, Ker. I’m sure nobody was hurt.” I saw his fingers adjust on the steering wheel, color bleeding back into the white-knuckled grip. “Probably just ran out of tape.”

The smell hit just as we reached the stop sign. Acrid and pungent—some kind of mix between bleach and rotting fruit. It was so strong it made my nose burn, eyes welling up with tears. Clamping my fingers over my nose, I blurted out a nasally sounding, “Yuck!

Veronica giggled at how my voice sounded. She plugged her nose, chirping, “Yuck! Yuck!”

“Smells gross, huh?” Mom said, twisting to smile at the two of us, her nose all scrunched up.

Yuck!” we both cried in unison, and then both dissolved into fits of laughter.

“Stupid bastards,” Dad cursed heatedly under his breath. Mom smacked him on the arm again, hard.

“Fucking—what, Laurie? What?

“Enough,” she hissed, good humor forgotten in a flash. “Not with the girls in the car.”

Veronica kept laughing with her nose plugged, not seeming to have heard. Seeing how serious Mom’s expression was, I stopped.

“What’ll happen to the house now?” I tried to wonder before it could turn into worry.

“They’ll rebuild it,” Mom replied patiently.

“No they won’t,” I said and missed my parents’ stifled sighs as they pulled away from each other. My fingers twisted into a tight-knuckled knot, one over the other over the other again until the skin pinched, flushed bright red. “They haven’t rebuilt any of the others. What will happen?”

“The vampires will move in,” Veronica said.

Dad laughed, too loud for the small car. Mom didn’t laugh. I didn’t either, because I realized she was right.

“Did you remember your dancing shoes, Kerrigan?” Mom shifted gears as we rolled through the intersection, and the house was swallowed by the morning mist.

“How did you know?”

Ever since she said it, the thought of vampires moving into the dead husk of a house wouldn’t leave me alone. It followed me all throughout the school day and into dance class, hanging around in the corner of my senses like that bad, burn-rot smell. Even now, as I laid in bed, I could taste it in my mouth, just under the grainy layer of mint toothpaste I had scrubbed on my teeth not ten minutes earlier. No matter what I did, the thought just wouldn’t go away.

In her twin bed, the lump of Tinkerbell-themed blankets shifted as Veronica turned to face me. “How did I know what?”

“How did you know about the vampires?” I asked, running my tongue over a molar to try and taste toothpaste rather than smoking, rotting fruit. “This morning, you said that vampires would move in. How’d you know?”

“Oh!” The Tinkerbell lump sprang open as Veronica sat up. The nightlight bathed her excited face in a soft yellow glow. “You mean about the nest?”

I sat up, too, frowning. “What nest?”

“The house that got burned up,” she clarified. “It’s not a house anymore.”

My frown deepened. “Why isn’t it a house anymore?”

Veronica looked at me funny. She shook her head, chiding. “Monsters don’t live in houses, Kerri.”

“Well, what about ghosts?”

“Ghosts don’t own the house they’re haunting. They just work there. What aren’t you getting?”

“Fine. It’s a nest,” I relented, and Veronica nodded sagely. “But how do you know?”

“Well it makes sense, doesn’t it?” she reasoned. “Nobody wants to live in a burned house. It’s too much work. And it’s just gonna sit there anyway, so it makes sense that a vampire would move in to make a nest.”

“Are you sure?” I kept sucking my teeth. The fluoride in my mouth kept me from feeling sick. “I think it’s just an empty house, Ronnie.”

“No it isn’t.” Veronica looked appalled. “Don’t you remember? We smelled it this morning!”

I froze. “That’s what that smell was?”

“Yes!” In the dark, my sister’s eyes glowed. “I bet we could find one. I bet there’s one living in there right now.”

My stomach rolled. All I could think about was that empty turtle shell. Only now, it was covered with bugs. Dozens of little legs crawling, wedging themselves into grains and grooves, wriggling and squirming and hungry. Thousands of little sharp teeth, bloody-pink and needle fine. Thousands of black little eyes, watching, waiting for their turn at the feast of rot. Black wood and timber that sloughs off like meat falls off bone. A celebration of decay. A nest. An infestation.

I shook my head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Oh come on,” Veronica groaned. She scowled, then puffed up her chest. “Don’t be a pussy.”

I squinted at her. “You don’t even know what that word means.”

“Yes I do. Jake Carson says it on the school bus all the time.”

“Don’t listen to anything Jake Carson says,” I said, scrunching up my nose. “He doesn’t know how to read.”

“Will you help me look for one or not?”

“Okay! Wait,” I started, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “If we do go—if, Ronnie, you don’t even know what one looks like. How are you gonna know it’s a vampire if we see one?”

Ronnie’s mouth closed with an audible click, and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Buoyed on top of that relief was a smug bit of triumph—if it got her to stop thinking about the house-turned-nest, then I would count it as a win.

Unfortunately, I had no such luck.

“Yellow eyes,” she said, a few minutes later.

I opened my eyes, thoughts cocooned in the halfway space between waking and sleep. “Huh?”

“Yellow eyes,” she repeated, looking grave in the night light. The shadows that traced the round curves of her face made her look more severe than I knew her to be. Like a statue, scorned and righteous, staring down over the top of an ancient grave. “That’s how you tell. Their eyes are yellow.”

Hot, bitter bile rose to the back of my throat. It mixed with the rotting fruit, and on some base, instinctual level, I knew it to be the taste of black, ugly fear.

“Alright,” I relented, swallowing. I resisted the urge to scrub at my arms. “We’ll go tomorrow, after school.”

There was a flutter of movement as Veronica kicked her legs and laid back down, giggles muffled by Tinkerbell’s impish, knowing smile. Eventually the room was quiet once more, save for my sister’s muffled snores.

I lay awake for the rest of the night. Every time I nearly drifted off, a phantom bug crawled up a new part of my body. I kept swatting at them, over and over, until our bedroom was colored pink with the sunrise.

Bike riding was a skill I had picked up long before Veronica even knew how to walk. So it made sense that after school—when our homework was done, and all our laundry was put away because Mom was nice enough to fold it for us—I was the one in charge of transportation for this expedition. Riding my bike down Cohocton Street, Veronica had taken up residence as a koala bear on my back, heels firmly on the foot bars of my wheels with her little grip tight on my shoulders. She peered around the neighborhood above my head, and once again, I had been transformed into a tool for her adventures—this time as both the vehicle and the sidekick.

It was right around dusk by the time we made it to the nest. The October sunset the trees ablaze in shimmering reds and yellows, the leaves scattered like cinders all around us. From above, the hazy sky bathed the neighborhood in a sepia tint.

“Mr. Carroll’s outside,” Veronica observed, and my head swung on a swivel to look.

Across the street from the burnt-out nest was Mr. Carroll’s Wonderland. We called it that because he never took down the big strings of multicolored Christmas lights that decorated the shaded porch. It was the only color on the whole house. The rest was slathered in a cheap, chipping white—from the siding to the shutters to the rickety porch swing Mr. Carroll sat on. Even the chains on the swing were coated in the stuff.

Today, Mr. Carroll looked like a Halloween decoration, slumped on his porch swing. He reminded me of a scarecrow who’d lost his straw. He didn’t move as we started down the block. Dad and Mr. Carroll weren’t very good friends—he said Mr. Carroll was a sleazy mechanic but knew better than to overstep. Mom said that his wife, Mrs. Carroll, was a saint.

“Do you think he sees us?” I asked, eyeing him warily. He hadn’t moved an inch, half leaning over one side of his porch swing.

“Just don’t look at him,” Veronica whispered.

Ducking our heads, we both carefully didn’t look over at Wonderland as we rode down the street. We made it all the way to the intersection, but the stop sign was right in front of his house. I slowly brought the bike to a halt, wincing as my brakes let out an anguished squeeeeeak. Veronica’s grip tightened on my shoulders.

Holding my breath, I chanced a glance at the porch. I couldn’t see over the tall lip of the railing, but I heard the creak of the crusted chains that held up the swing. I craned my neck to get a better view and could just see the top of Mr. Carroll’s askew head when Veronica let out a sharp gasp and shrieked. It was the only warning I got before she launched herself off the back of my bike.

Ronnie!” I yelped, scrambling to catch myself as the bike pitched with her weight, but by then she was already thundering up the paint-chipped steps of the house. I managed to catch myself with a hand on the curb, one of the bike pedals digging into my shin. “What are you—”

“It’s a kitty!” Veronica cried, and when she turned around, I realized there was a small, black kitten squirming in the cradle of her hands. “It was too close to the ledge. Oh, Kerri, it almost fell!”

“Then I’m glad you caught her,” a craggy voice rasped.

Looking up with a jolt, Mr. Carroll loomed over the two of us like an odd, warped shadow. He was a tall man, rail thin, and when he moved it was like a snap bracelet—rigidly still before a startling snap of movement, gangly limbs scrabbling and curling over themselves in a rush to catch up with his own head. His arm jerked out to reach for the kitten, then pulled back just as quickly when Veronica and I flinched. He tried again, slower this time, extending long, shaking fingers. “Give her here.”

The skin on his forearms was loose in places and stretched in others, corded around his bones like taffy. Carefully, Veronica levied the small bundle of black fur into his hand. The second he had a sure grip on it, he pulled it to his chest fast enough for the little thing to mewl in surprise, muffling Veronica’s soft gasp of fear.

“Thank you, thank you,” Mr. Carroll said. His eyes were just a little too wide, and you could see the yellowed whites the whole way around his black irises, like two little beady lights at the front of a train. “I’m glad you caught her. I didn’t see. I don’t know what I’d do if she got hurt.”

“You’re welcome.” Veronica smiled back, but I could see it wavering in the corner. She was being polite, but she clearly didn’t like being so close to Mr. Carroll. I didn’t like her so close either. She took a careful, slow step down the stairs. “What’s her name, Mr. Carroll?”

“Oh, this little one’s Mina.” Mr. Carroll grinned. His smile was nice, teeth talcum white, but even from here, I could tell his breath was bad. He gave the kitten a shake, and the little thing meowed again. Its eyes weren’t even open, I realized. “Hattie just had some kittens yesterday. You ask your dad and Laurie if they want any, will you?”

“We will,” I piped up, and Mr. Carroll’s gaze snapped to me. He looked me all up and down while Veronica was able to reach the bottom of the stairs. “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Carroll.”

What…what are you girls doing out so late?” Two sudden thundering steps later, Mr. Carroll was practically teetering over us from the top of the stairs. In his grip, the kitten wailed. “It’s a school night, ain’t it?”

Veronica looked back at me, and I could see it in her eyes that she wanted to ask. She was close enough to grab at this point. I shook my head, reaching for her wrist, but she was already turning back.

“Do you know anything about vampires, Mr. Carroll?”

Above us, Mr. Carroll paused. His head tilted, and the yellow of his gaze fell in line with the blinking Christmas lights—like his eyeballs were nothing more than bulbs on the line, the string running from one ear out the other. With a faraway look, he murmured, “Did you say vampires?”

“Yes.” Veronica pushed on, sounding braver than I ever could be. “We think the house fires that have been happening are so the vampires can make nests.”

Mr. Carroll stared.

I looked between his face and Veronica’s determined stare, breath caught in my throat. I was the one to break first. “Sorry, Mr. Carroll,” I blurted out. “She was just kidding. We’re actually on our way to…”

I trailed off as a whistling sound reached my ears. At first I didn’t realize where it was coming from until I saw Mr. Carroll’s shoulders shake. The movement reminded me of a puppet on strings, a convulsive dance without any life. Then, like a striking snake, he threw his head back and howled with laughter. Veronica jumped back at the sound, bumping into me and gripping my arm. Together, we watched him laugh until it turned into a wretched-sounding wheeze. The breath caught in his throat, and before we knew it, he was doubled over again in a coughing fit. It passed in a wet glob that Mr. Carroll spat on the porch steps.

He was still laughing when he righted himself, waving at the two of us. “Oh-hoh, sorry, honey. But if that ain’t the funniest thing I ever heard.” He broke off in another fit of breathless laughter. When he looked back, his smile seemed almost too big for his face. “Tell you what. You’re right on the money, sweetheart. There is a vampire in that house.”

“There is?” I asked, setting my bike down on the curb to step forward.

“Sure is.” Mr. Carroll looked all too pleased with himself. He leaned down, bug-eyed in his excitement. “And I’ll tell you a secret.”

“What is it?” Veronica asked, still clinging onto my arm. It was now the portion of the adventure where I acted as the human shield, apparently.

Mr. Carroll motioned for us to come closer. Hesitantly, I took a step up to the first stair, leaning in close to hear.

His breath was hot against my face. He whispered, “He’s got a sweet tooth.”

I blinked in surprise, “He does?”

“Oh yes,” he giggled, high and giddy. Up this close, his breath smelled like rotten eggs. “I even know his favorite treat.”

“What is it?” I pushed, but Mr. Carroll tsked tsked tsked, shaking his head back and forth fast enough to make me dizzy.

“Well I can’t just up and tell you that, now can I?” His gaze cut above our heads. “I s’pose you’ll have to go ask him yourself.”

Across the street, the nest was a dark, hulking shape on the otherwise picturesque corner. Looking at it made my legs feel itchy.

“Go on,” Mr. Carroll said, biting his lip to hold back his laughter. “Get to it, little ladies. Ain’t got all night!”

I lingered too long, watching him smile. Something in his lip twitched, and all of a sudden it was more of a snarl than a grin. I couldn’t tell if it was impatience or something else, but all of a sudden a swelling animosity built up in his face. I was no longer looking at the face of a neighbor, but instead the sharp toothed grin of a predator. A shark in man’s clothing.

“I said, get to it!” he barked, slamming his fist against the rusted, white railing of the stairs.

In a shower of paint chips, the two of us scrambled back down the stairs with a startled yelp. Mr. Carroll kept shouting, “Get to it! get to it!” and slamming his fist over and over until all the paint had fallen away to reveal the red rust of the house, falling like clumps of dried blood onto his pants.

In my fright I hopped on my bike and all but yanked Veronica onto my back. She scrambled for a grip, pulling my hair as she did so. Blood was rushing so fast in my ears that I didn’t even notice. We were up and gone before the pain registered, speeding back down Cohocton Street in a mad dash towards Park Avenue. I biked as fast as I could all the way home, but even then I swear I could still feel him watching us. He was there in every window, every shaded patch of trees. The whole ride home, I saw it.

Two yellow train lights flaring in the dark.

Kiely Caulfield is a junior at the University at Buffalo. She is an English major with a special focus in creative writing, and is minoring in psychology and global gender studies. Kiely is interested in fiction that alludes to something just under the surface, and gets more and more interesting upon a closer look.

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Tess Woitaszek

The Astonishing

Batavia, New York, 2010

The light felt heavy, an early morning burden that made Vivian blink hard. She wished she was still in bed, rather than walking up to the doors of the retreat center. Willis Seminary stood before her, a large building with many small windows and a domed roof. Rows of early spring buds peeked out from the mulch lining the path, which diverged briefly to encircle a large stone cross. Flowers had yet to bloom, and most leaves had not grown back, leaving the light to draw itself, unyielding, through the bare trees and grasses. The retreat began at nine o’clock and wouldn’t end until the afternoon, much to Vivian and her classmates’ dismay. But it was mandatory. If they wanted to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, they had to attend the retreat.

Once inside, Vivian found that most of her classmates had yet to arrive, late risers who begrudged the early start to a Saturday. From across the room, she saw Liz, and that was what mattered. As Vivian began to walk over, relieved and feeling more awake, she saw someone sit down next to her friend. It was Matthew, and a smile broke across Liz’s face. They both started laughing about something.

Matthew was one of the older kids. Sunday school classes were small; three classes from different parishes had combined in order to make their Confirmation. At sixteen years old, Matthew seemed to be everything Vivian wanted for herself. He was confident, knowledgeable, and seemed to know an endless number of other cool and worldly kids. He would come into Sunday school with tales of sneaking into abandoned buildings to party, complete with the names of his abundance of friends.

From the little that Vivian knew, Matthew seemed like an adventurer, always having fun, and so sure of himself. In another two years, she imagined that she’d be the same way. Sixteen would mean no uncertainty about herself, and no doubts over faith, identity, and desires. She’d have everything figured out by then.

“Hey, Vivian!” Liz called, waving her over. Her voice sounded higher and sweeter than usual. Its newfound smoothness seemed malleable, somehow accommodating.

Matthew turned in Vivian’s direction and grinned. She paused, wondering what she’d say to him. She had wanted to tell Liz about last night’s dream, of flying over the school and florist shop and church with wings the color of sunsets. She thought Liz would get a kick out of that, as someone who often dreamt of flying, but never with wings.

But now she couldn’t—Matthew was there. He’d probably find the dream silly and dismiss it with a sixteen-year-old’s sense of what was really important. And maybe Liz wouldn’t care, either. She suddenly seemed older than Vivian, sitting there next to Matthew and laughing along with him.

Mimicking Liz’s radiant smile, Vivian walked over and sat beside her friend. In her head, she briefly imagined forcing her voice upwards and wondered what it would feel like from the inside. She thought of laughing, enough to seem fun and engaged, but not too much. It was important to be collected as well.

“Hey, Vivian,” Matthew said. “Sucks we have to be here so early.”

Vivian did what she had imagined in her head: she leaned back a bit as she laughed, short and casual, and then, in a nicer, sweeter voice, said, “I know, right?”

“Have you guys chosen a saint yet?” Matthew continued. “We have to write that paper soon, right? About who we’re taking as a patron, and why.”

“I’m going to choose St. Paul,” said Liz.

Matthew laughed. “Come on, Liz,” he said. “You don’t really want a man’s name, do you?”

For a brief moment, Vivian saw Liz’s face flash in discomfort. It was the same look she had when a soccer ball hit her in gym class, right in the stomach, and the boy who had kicked it said Get out of my way next time. In that moment, Vivian had glared at him as pointedly as she could, but it had gone unnoticed.

Liz’s face beamed right back into a smile as if it had never wavered at all. Vivian could feel her own grin growing tight.

“No, not really,” Liz said, agreeing with Matthew. “But neither do my parents, so a man’s name it is.”

She and Matthew laughed. That wasn’t what Liz had told Vivian before. St. Paul was the patron of writers, and Liz wanted to be an author one day. Vivian knew that Liz’s parents didn’t care which saint she chose, as long as she made her Confirmation. It was the same with her own parents, and Vivian welcomed it. Church and Sunday school were as much a part of her life as a trip to the grocery store or doing homework. The independence to choose a patron for herself was exciting.

“Have you decided yet?” Liz asked Matthew.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m going with St. Augustine. You know he’s the patron saint of brewers? That means he’s basically the patron of beer.”

Vivian joined in the subsequent laughter, but her hands wrung together in uneasiness. If Matthew asked about her saint, she wouldn’t have anything funny to say.

“How about you, Viv?” Matthew said. No one had ever called her Viv before.

“I think I’m going with St. Christina the Astonishing,” Vivian said. She paused, and Matthew stared back at her blankly.

“Who?” he asked.

Vivian began to laugh, but stopped short. It sounded fake and forced. Could Matthew tell?

“She’s the patron of mental health workers,” Vivian explained. “And I want to go into that field one day. People tell me I’m a good listener, so I think I’d do well.”

“That’s cool,” Matthew said. “What was she like? I’ve never heard of her.”

“Well, she was a bit wild. Kind of like if…” Vivian hesitated, searching for the right words. “The only ones who existed in the world were her and God.”

Before Matthew could respond, the retreat director, a colorfully-dressed woman around the age of Vivian’s parents, walked to the center of the room and began to introduce herself.

“Good morning, everyone! I’m happy to see so many faces here,” she said, her cross-shaped earrings dangling with matched enthusiasm. “I’m Kathy. I’ve been leading retreats at Willis Seminary for a few years now, and I’m excited to help you prepare for your Confirmation.”

After standing for an opening prayer, the class sat down at tables while Kathy handed out paper and pens.

“For this first exercise, you’re going to write down three things you want,” she explained. “It can be anything, but make sure they’re things you really want in life. It could be related to school, relationships, work, sports, and so on.”

Vivian picked up the pen and numbered the page. She was already overwhelmed by the prospect of high school, which would start in less than six months. She considered her anxiety over making new friends, and whether she should join the yearbook club or the writing club, which ran at the same time. Then she wrote:

To do well in high school and get into a good college

To make lots of friends and never be lonely

To get a good job in mental health services

Kathy cleared her throat and began to talk in a softer, more serious voice than before. “Now, consider the things you wrote down. I’m sure you want them very much. But what if God called you in a different direction? Would you be willing to sacrifice the things you want in order to follow Him?”

Across the table, Liz was rereading her list. Matthew was whispering to someone else. He looked back at Vivian and smiled. She felt his bright eyes on her and tried to match the curve of his mouth with her own. The feeling that another pair of eyes were watching grew, and Vivian wondered if they were God’s, or perhaps her own gaze looking from the outside.

Brustem, Belgium, 1181

She was ablaze once again.

Her mind had been struck with fire, and her body soon followed. Howling, she tumbled in and out of the high flames, consumed by the blistering fury of the heat and her own skin.

A man new to the area stood nearby, transfixed in horror. He was training for the priesthood, and to him, this public display of penance was so ferocious that it bordered on demonic. He winced as a shrill cry went up with a flurry of sparks and winced again when the penitent’s dress slipped downwards.

An old woman standing nearby reached out and touched his shoulder.

“Any wounds she gets will disappear,” she said in a reassuring tone. “They always do.”

The trainee listened as the old woman began to recite a prayer. It began quiet and slow, but grew louder and stronger to meet the wails hardening in the air.

On Earth as it is in Heaven…

Christina crept around the back of the millhouse, listening intently. She paused, pushing tangles of hair away from her face, bracing against the late autumn wind. Yes, there were the voices of men once more, and they were drawing closer.

Looking to her right, Christina noticed a tree with good branches for climbing. She dashed over and gripped her way up it wildly, the grime on her bare feet aiding in sturdiness and speed. The rough bark scraped her palms and cut through her clothes, but she continued to climb, compelled by a mix of desperation and determination. She finally settled on a perch high above the ground, and from it the church could be seen, as well as the pastures where she had once worked with her sisters.

“Christina? Is that you?” a voice called. Two men were standing at the base of the tree, looking up at her.

“Of course it is,” said the same man, answering his own question. “Why are you up there?”

Christina peered down, focusing on the speaker. She recognized his bright eyes, the ones that never seemed to blink enough, always taking in all that they could. It was the priest. Beside him stood the trainee, who had witnessed her flame-driven penance earlier. Christina didn’t recognize him, and narrowed her eyes, unable to piece together a distinct face. Was she too high up for treading the unfamiliar? On top of roofs and perched in trees, the world and its people blended into one palmful of dust. It was nothing to her, not when the sky was suddenly so much closer, and so pure.

While still looking at the trainee, Christina called down, “I can’t bear the stench of your sin.”

There was a pause, and then the trainee cried out, astounded.

“That’s the woman who threw herself into the fire!” he exclaimed. She was hard to see, up high and shielded by a clump of browning leaves. Whether her burns had disappeared or not, he was unable to tell.

“She came back from the dead some years ago,” the priest said. “I was there, at her funeral, when she stood up from the casket.”

The trainee stared at the priest, waiting for him to elaborate. When no further explanation was given, he sighed and began to walk away.

“Maybe she’s just mad. When did God command such acts of self-harm?” he said, and disappeared around the millhouse.

There was silence for a few moments. The sun seemed to fizzle out; a cold wind goaded forth a mass of dark clouds, spreading across the sky with the threat of rain and the promise of winter. The priest moved closer to the tree and placed his hand on the trunk.

“A tall one,” he said quietly. Christina was on her way down and could hear him better. “This tree must be quite old. Do you need a ladder? It’s harder coming down than it is going up.”

“No,” said Christina, pausing on a low branch. “Coming down is easy. I feel like I have claws, ready to sink in and steady me. Going up is hard. I don’t have wings, no matter what people say.”

It began to rain, and the lingering leaves of the tree provided little shelter. The millhouse wheel grew louder, as the churning river water was joined by the sheets of rain. Christina lowered herself onto the ground, a chill passing through her body.

“It’s getting colder,” the priest said. “Do you intend to stay outside all winter?”

“I’d rather pray for sinners from a distance,” Christina answered, turning toward the woods.

“Well, before you go,” added the priest, “excuse my companion’s remarks. He’s training for the priesthood. He probably felt disheartened to find his efforts pale against your own fiery dedication.”

Christina paused and looked once more at the bright-eyed priest, whose mouth held the hint of a smile. She nodded and then went on, fading into the misty rain and the last of the dark, shuddering leaves.

“I’m struck by a woman called Christina,” said the trainee to a small group of people. He had joined them as they were gathered around a well, discussing the upcoming winter. The water drawn up was growing colder, causing their breath to cloud the air as they talked. “She must live somewhere, right? Or does she stay in a tree, even when it gets cold?”

A dark-haired man shrugged. “I don’t know what she does. I think she’s mad.”

“Maybe possessed,” said an old man, laughing.

“She could be holy,” suggested a woman. “Or all three. A trinity of strangeness.” She smiled at the trainee. He noticed her teeth. Curving. Dull. Sharp.

“I heard she survives on her own breast milk,” mentioned the dark-haired man.

“But she’s never had a child!” a heavily pregnant woman protested.

“That’s just it!”

The smiling woman leaned in close to the trainee. She was young and smelled like wood shavings and sheep. There was a piece of stray fabric caught in her hair.

“Why do you ask?” she said. “Did you see her during a spiritual ecstasy?”

The trainee nodded, looking at her teeth again. They somehow reminded him of a woman he had known, the one with whom he’d sneak out into the field.

He thought of the priesthood and God, and the relief that traveling and putting distance between him and the once-lover had brought. He thought of fire, and if being consumed by flames was worth it.

Batavia, New York, 2010

Halfway through the retreat, Kathy suggested the class take a break outside.

“We’re going to watch a short video, and I have to get the TV ready. Why don’t you take a little walk around the pond in the meantime?”

Right behind the Seminary was a pond, framed with rippling grass and a few small trees. It was man-made and unnaturally round, but still murky and tinted green. Now and then, the subtle movements of fish gliding below the surface could be seen.

“Hey, is that one dead?” someone asked, pointing to the other side of the pond.

The class wandered over to the area. There, a tree stood with spindly, twisting branches, overlooking a dead fish that had washed up against the springy grass.

“I don’t think Kathy can see us from here,” Matthew said, glancing at the Seminary. He grinned and turned to the group. “I dare someone to throw it into that tree.”

The class laughed, and kids pushed and pointed at each other, trying to convince a friend to follow through with Matthew’s dare. Vivian thought of how bold Liz always was. She could talk to anyone, wasn’t afraid to sing with abandon in front of others, and never hesitated when someone dared her to do something. It seemed like Liz was figuring it all out. She’d be ready for high school, no doubt, and Matthew definitely liked her more. Why wouldn’t he?

Thinking of her list from the first exercise—to make lots of friends and never be lonely—Vivian walked up to the edge of the pond, and the class excitedly moved in closer. The fish glistened. It had probably once been silvery and sparkling, but now it was gray and dull, its dead body softening into the mud. Vivian slipped her hands under it, trying not to make a face of disgust at the smell. As she moved towards the tree, her gaze shifted outside of herself. Levitating above her body, watching her feet march and her hands gingerly hold the fish, she couldn’t help but feel astonished. What was she doing?

As Vivian flipped her burden up towards the tree, a scale sliced across her thumb, jolting her back into her body. The dead fish didn’t come back down. It had been caught in the branches, just out of reach from even the tallest kids.

“Yeah, Viv! That was great,” Matthew said, laughing along with the rest of the class. “Way to bring some life into this boring day.”

Vivian smiled, bending her stinging thumb beneath her other fingers.

“Wow,” Liz said, her face a vision of discomfort. “That was so gross.”

“I know,” agreed Vivian, as the filmy sensation on her fingers seemed to spread. “I need to go wash my hands.”

She parted from the group and walked back into the Seminary, heading to the small bathroom down the hall. As Vivian bent over the sink and turned on the faucet, the door clattered open. Kathy walked in, and stopped short when she saw the thin line of blood running down Vivian’s thumb.

“Are you alright? What happened?” Kathy asked, moving closer.

“I’m fine,” Vivian quickly said. There was no way she could tell Kathy about the fish and risk getting herself and the class in trouble. “I got a paper cut earlier and it started bleeding again.”

Kathy looked both concerned and unconvinced. “When you’re done washing, I have band-aids,” she said, and left to go get them.

Vivian stared at her thumb. She had just lied at a Confirmation retreat. A sin. And would Kathy get ahold of her parents to tell them about the cut?

The water rinsed away the dirty feeling on her hands, but Vivian began to feel uneasy inside, a tangle of guilt and discomfort to be waded through.

Brustem, Belgium, 1181

Dawn was breaking, slowly illuminating the wet and shadowy world. Spiderwebs stretched across blades of grass and between tree branches, trembling gently in the cold. The trainee paced back and forth outside the millhouse, plowing his feet through dozens of webs, kicking up glimmering droplets and sending little insects and arachnids scurrying.

The vision of Christina up in the tree, staring down at him with intent eyes, flashed across the trainee’s mind.

“After God brought her back to this world, she levitated up to the rafters,” the priest had told him. “Everyone leapt up and fled, except for her sister and me. She may seem strange, but Christina is doing what she feels God has called her to do. His miracles shine through her dedication.”

If Christina was as miraculous and monstrously committed as she seemed—and the flames attested to that—then she might know of his previous affair through whatever gifts she had. He couldn’t shake the feeling of her knowing gaze tearing into him. Would Christina tell the priest about his past? Was his life going to unfold differently than he had anticipated?

The trainee recalled the conversation from the night before. Maybe possessed, someone had said. If he pushed that idea far enough, it could be taken seriously. Would it work to his advantage and discredit Christina?

It was around a year ago that Christina had plunged into the icy river running through Brustem, letting the current carry her to the millhouse wheel. She still wasn’t sure what hurt more—freezing waters or licking flames. She now stood near the river, watching the gray water flow. A mist of rain settled over it.

Footsteps sounded up the path. Christina turned, and the priest came to stand beside her.

“Perhaps it’s time that you moderated your service to God,” he said quietly.

“Does he really think I’m possessed?” Christina asked. The trainee had been striking up conversations with people, needling in the prospect that Christina was not holy, but just the opposite.

“I don’t think so, but he’ll be resuming his training elsewhere,” the priest said, blinking a few times. “It’s easy though, to pin possession on you.”

Christina turned back to the water. “I try to do what God wants. I try to be good for Him. But being good is bad sometimes, isn’t it? Depending on who’s watching.”

Thunder cleaved the air, and the rain began to fall harder.

Batavia, New York, 2010

With a final prayer, Kathy dismissed the class from the retreat, assuring them that they were now all able to make their Confirmation. The class filed out, tossing their papers from the first activity into the trash as they left.

As Vivian headed for the door, relieved to finally go home, Matthew came up to her.

“Hey, Viv,” he said. “I’m heading out with some friends tonight. We found this vacant building. There’s a lot of cool old stuff in it. Want to come?”

Vivian’s thumb throbbed. The idea of hanging out with people she didn’t know made her nervous. She pictured herself smiling for new sets of eyes and wondered if it would give her a head start for high school. But either way, she knew her mother wouldn’t let her go. She’d rather spend the night with Liz, anyway.

“I don’t think I can,” Vivian said.

“Oh, okay,” answered Matthew. She couldn’t tell if he looked amused or disappointed. “That’s alright. You’re a good Christian. You got all that saint stuff figured out.”

Then he turned towards some other kids, called “wait up,” and was gone.

Good Christian, good Christian, Vivian replayed in her head. He had called her good, and it made her feel bad. Would she have lied if she was so good?

“Come on, Vivian,” Liz said, joining her. Together they emerged outside. The light seemed brighter than it had just two hours ago, clear and terrible, beautiful and blinding. It astonished Vivian, illuminating the sidewalk before her, tangling with the shadows of the large stone cross and the trees wavering in the wind.

Tess Woitaszek is a senior at SUNY Geneseo, with a major in English. Her focus within creative writing is poetry and short fiction. She plans to pursue library and information sciences with the goal of becoming a librarian.

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Martin Dolan


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

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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


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


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.”


“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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