Category Archives: Fiction

Misty Yarnall

Snapshot

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

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

I drop the towel.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Matthew Ineman

Waterworks

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

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

“He did love that yacht,” Marianne says.

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

“No,” Marianne says, dissolving into tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened to Damien?”

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

“Huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What? How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Three hundred.”

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

“Wake and service both,” Lynne says.

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

“Yes, Ma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernard shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Ma, supper’s ready!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No tears when your father left, either.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you know Jack?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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El J Ayala

Dog Names

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You two break up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Nina Collavo

Pretty Ugly

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

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

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

“I went down, down, down…”

“Hey,” someone called to me.

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

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

“Your hair is pretty,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Relax,” she said.

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

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

“Catherine,” I said.

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

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

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

“Can you get it?” Kelsey repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Catie cat.”

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

“What’s wrong?”

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

“Leave me alone,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t mind.”

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

“It’s too small,” Kelsey said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t have an umbrella.”

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

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

I closed the door quietly behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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10.2 | Fiction

Pretty Ugly

Nina Collavo


Waterworks

Matthew Ineman


Snapshot

Misty Yarnall


Dog Names

El J Ayala

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Anna Kubiak

When the Mailman Is Late

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He clears his throat.

“Again,” I tell him.

He does it again. “What do you need?”

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

“Maybe he got stuck in traffic.”

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

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

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

“He’s not dead.” My dad sighs.

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

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

“But he’s late,” I explain again.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, for the love of…” my dad begins.

“No!” I yelp. “You can’t swear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Noah Rigby

Seven Steps to Surviving in the Wilderness by Billy Burkins

Step 1: Find Water

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

But I’m not lost.

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

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

Step 2: Build a Shelter

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

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

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

Step 3: Collect Food

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

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

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

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

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

You fall.

Step 4: Stay Warm

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m leaving, bud.”

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

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

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

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

Step 5: If Injured, Conduct First Aid

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

Then comes the pain.

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

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

Don’t panic.

If you panic, you’re dead.

I saw that in a video once.

Think.

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

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

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

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

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

You panic.

Step 6: S.T.O.P.

I stop panicking.

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

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

I plan how to get out.

It begins to snow.

I can’t tell if I feel it on my skin.

Step 7:

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

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

Kids lost in the woods don’t survive hypothermia.

Maybe you’re not as strong as you thought.

You can’t be.

You’d make it home if you were.

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

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

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

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


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

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Julia Grunes

Secondhand

I. Somewhat Nadia

I am Nadia today. Well, mostly Nadia. She is beginning to wear off. The smell of her citrus perfume is already fading, and I breathe it in while I still can. I wish that I could always be Nadia. Nadia doesn’t hesitate when someone asks her a question; Nadia laughs so so easily, and smiles at people she doesn’t even know. Nadia is a faded name written in black pen on the tag inside a colorblocked denim jacket. The jacket is pink, white, and gray, and there’s a red stain on the inside against the white that I think must be wine. Maybe that’s why she got rid of it. If it was blood, she probably would have thrown it away.

But Nadia is beginning to wear off. I wore her for picture day and everyone noticed me. They said that I should wear her more often. They like who I am when I’m Nadia. I like who I am when I’m Nadia, too. I’m wearing her today while I’m at work. I work at Pale Moon Vintage on the weekends, and that’s how I got the jacket. Nadia dropped it off, alone. She’s come in before, but it had always been with one or two of her friends. College friends. She’s a college student.

The bell on the door rings and I straighten up. Mrs. L. doesn’t like when her employees have bad posture while customers are in the store, so I always make sure to pull my shoulders back when the bell rings. I’m behind the register, so whoever walks in will see me immediately. The girl who walks in smiles at me, as she comes through the doorway. I smile back. I begin to idly sketch the outline of a face on a rejected receipt. It isn’t a drawing of her. This girl is the type of person that you forget as soon as you look away from her; her brown hair is straight and somewhat greasy, and her clothes envelop her with their slouching hugeness.

She’s probably a college student. Most people who come in here are. Mrs. L. always says  the only reason she’s still in business is because of the students. Her shop is fifteen minutes away from the liberal arts college and when they’re on break, barely anyone comes to the store.

“Hi, welcome to Pale Moon! Is there anything that I can help you with?”

“No thanks, I’m—I guess I’m just looking,” the girl says, giving me a small smile before quickly walking over to the cluttered racks of clothes to the left of me. She’s definitely a college student. From what I’ve seen, liberal arts students always seem to be “just looking” for something. Or at least they want me to think that. And this girl is no different. She has that same faraway look in her eyes that they all have; it looks as if she’s thinking about something that she thinks is important like the weight of existence or the possibility that life is a simulation, or maybe just her GPA.

I would never wear anything that used to be hers. I tried a few times with people like her when I first started working at Pale Moon, but when I put on their clothes they were far too heavy and spiraling and desperate. After that I became more careful about who I wore. I never want to be them.

Nadia is a college student too, but she’s different from the other ones who come in here. Everything is easy for her: her laugh, her movements, her voice. She isn’t trapped in her own mind. I’d hoped for ages that she would sell something instead of just buying. Every time she came in, she bought something—some piece of clothing that she would caress, her fingers examining the fabric for imperfections. Even if it wasn’t in perfect condition, she would usually still get it. I do the same thing.

If it wasn’t clothes, she would still look through the assorted sunglasses, rusted necklaces, and other worthless trinkets that Mrs. L. has amassed. When Nadia sold us her jacket, she bought a tiny bronze heart that opens and closes with a matching tiny key for three dollars and ninety-five cents.

I saw it happen. She was in a hurry, I think. But something about the bronze heart caught her eye and she stopped and picked it up, smiling slightly as she opened and closed it a couple of times. She grinned when she noticed me watching, then laughed quietly, and placed the heart on the counter. I don’t think that even she knew quite why she wanted it. Maybe its smallness attracted her to it; maybe it was the fact that it had been lying, dejected, next to a somewhat cross-eyed plastic bust of a woman with ivory skin, cropped black hair, and red lips, topped off with blue sunglasses shaped like triangles. Maybe Nadia couldn’t bear to see it left there all by itself.

“Excuse me?”

I look up and a forgettable face is floating directly in front of me. I need to stop getting distracted. Mrs. L. has already caught me twice, and she doesn’t like having to catch people.

“I just wanted to buy this,” she says, shyly sliding a nondescript blue sweater onto the counter. The sweater looks almost exactly like the one she is wearing. I wonder if her closet is just a dark mass of fabric, each item congealing to the next so that you can’t tell where one ends and another begins. I smile at her, taking the sweater in one hand and shoving the receipt I was drawing on into my jacket pocket with the other.

“That’ll be $11.95.” She pays with cash. “Also, if you’re interested, we have a raffle for a $25 gift card.” I gesture toward the mason jar with raffle tickets next to the register and drop her change into her hand.

“Oh, uh…yeah! I guess I’ll do that.”

I give her a raffle ticket, showing her where to write her address and phone number. Her handwriting is small and neat. Nadia entered the raffle too. She seemed so excited about it and about the little bronze heart, even though she was in a hurry. I could still smell the bright lemon of her perfume for a few moments after she left.

I wish I knew why that heart caught Nadia’s eye. Even now, when I am her, I don’t know what she was thinking at that exact moment. If I knew that, maybe I could be completely Nadia and not just somewhat Nadia or almost Nadia. I wouldn’t need her clothes or her perfume to make me her. She wouldn’t wear off in a week or so. I don’t want her to wear off. But for now, I am mostly Nadia, and for now that is mostly enough. The smell of her citrus perfume is fading, but I breathe it in while I still can.

II. Real Nadia

Real Nadia is running down the stairs. She is going to be late for something; she can’t find her perfume, and she is sure that her housemate Kaylie was using it the day before. Kaylie says that she wasn’t though, and now Nadia will have to leave without it. She hates doing that, because I don’t think she really feels like herself when she doesn’t have it on. But she’s leaving anyway, deciding not to push it any further with Kaylie. There’s a very small possibility that she’ll make it on time if she leaves now.

She has gathered all of her things and is rushing out the door, pausing only to yell a quick goodbye. I don’t know how long it will be until Kaylie and Zoe–Nadia’s other housemate–will be gone too. Kaylie is still in pajamas in the living room. I can’t see Zoe, but I assume that she’s still sleeping. Nadia is starting her car now, and she backs out of the driveway, her tires bouncing slightly as she runs over the curb in her hurry to leave the white and red paint-chipped house behind.

The walls of the red and white house are thin, and I wonder if it stays warm in the winter. But that doesn’t matter so much now; today it’s hot so they have all their windows cracked open. Hopefully Kaylie and Zoe have somewhere to be soon. I have work at 2:00 p.m. and even though it’s only 9:24 a.m., I’d rather not be sitting here all day. There’s also the possibility that they don’t have anywhere to be and that would mean waiting here again all for nothing.

I move slightly in my seat, gripping more tightly onto the branch in front of me. The sun is beating down on my skin through the foliage, and I’m suddenly glad that my mom forced me to put sunscreen on this morning. I told her that I was hanging out with Lily today; she was happy since I haven’t hung out with Lily for a really long time. To be fair, I haven’t hung out with anyone for a really long time.

I told her that I was meeting Lily at the strip mall that has Pale Moon and a few other stores. It’s only a fifteen minute walk from my house and I always walk there for work, so my mom wasn’t nervous about me getting there. Nadia’s house is a thirty minute walk, so it isn’t that much further. My mom won’t ask any questions or check up on me because she’s just so glad that I’m supposedly talking to Lily again.

Lily was my best friend in elementary school and she stayed my best friend until eighth grade. I don’t think that she purposely stopped talking to me, but it just seemed like she was busy all the time. I asked her to hang out a couple of times in the beginning of eighth grade, but she was always either at tennis practice or had a lot of work to do. And she never asked me to do anything, so I stopped asking. Lily wouldn’t have stopped being friends with Nadia. No one would ever want to stop being friends with Nadia.

Now, Lily and I smile at each other in the hallway, but that’s about the extent of it. And my mom doesn’t understand that just because we were best friends it doesn’t mean that we even talk in high school. Things have changed, obviously. It isn’t like before when Lily and I were united against everyone else and made fun of the girls who dyed their hair blond and wore clothes from Hollister. We had always talked about working at Pale Moon together, but by the time we were both old enough, only I applied.

I applied in the summer before ninth grade, and I’ve been working there for a little over a year now. A few other employees have quit while I’ve been there, since they say that Mrs. L. is hard to work with. She does expect a lot, but I think that she just wants people to care about the clothes that she sells. She always says that I understand the clothes just like she does; she’s the one who told me about how clothing retains a part of the person who once wore it, that it holds onto a piece of their soul.

Other people say that Mrs. L. is crazy and old, that she never stops talking. I think that I’m the only one who listens. Mrs. L. likes when clothes become hers when they used to be someone else’s. I never want the clothes to become mine. So, I don’t really feel the exact same way about that. And I think—

I jolt forward as I hear a quick rustling, and then a white and gray bird lands on a branch directly next to me. I slowly turn my head toward it, and its beady eyes fix on mine, unmoving. Its eyes are black with a ring of yellow around them. I take a shaky breath and try my best not to move. If I shoo it away, someone might see a sudden movement from this tree and check if there’s anything strange in it. I take another breath. The bird is small, but up close, its beak looks sharp, and I hope that it isn’t thinking of poking my eyes out. Is that a thing that birds do? It opens its mouth and my heart almost beats out of my chest, but it just lets out a strange, grating cry and then becomes silent again.

It turns its head away from mine and just continues to sit, shifting its feet every so often. Looking at it again, the bird’s body is all soft lines and feathers, completely opposite to its beak, but I avoid thinking about that. I almost wish that I had brought my sketchbook, or even just a piece of paper. I reach into my pocket where I still have the receipt half-filled with the featureless face, but I don’t have a pencil. I tear my eyes away from the bird and realize that the two cars in front aren’t there anymore. Kaylie and Zoe must have left while I was distracted. I start to let go of the branch in front of me, but the bird cries out again as soon as I do. It sounds kind of familiar now that I hear it again.

I look at it and it gazes back at me for the second time; I have the distinct feeling that I am being reproved. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care about  what a bird thinks of me. I begin again with the process of carefully climbing down the tree, and as I swing my leg to the side, the bird unfurls its wings. After some more quick rustling, it’s gone. Good. I make it to the bottom of the tree safely, but not without cutting my left hand on the trunk. My hand is all scraped up now and there’s blood, but I was careful not to make any noise.

I got blood on the sleeve of Nadia’s jacket and I hope that it’ll wash out. It doesn’t matter so much to me now though. The jacket is barely her anymore, and I’ll have something new of hers soon. Then I’ll be able to figure her out. I won’t need her clothes anymore to stop her from wearing off. It’ll probably be some old shirt that she won’t even miss. I open the gate at the side of the house, making sure that no one is around.

It is 10:47 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the streets are empty. The only place where that makes sense is a college town. There is a window on the side of the house which has a busted screen. They need to get it replaced; bugs must keep getting in. Since the window is open, it’s easy to pull away the screen and to push myself through, head first.

I’m in the house again. I cringe slightly at the smell of vanilla air fresheners and beer that hits me as soon as I walk in. I doubt that Nadia chose vanilla. It seems far too heavy for her. I walk up the stairs, and the smell grows a bit more bearable as I get closer to Nadia’s room. I stop in front of her door. She has her name written in colorful, bouncing letters on a white sheet of paper that is held up with scotch tape. I smile at the simple loudness of it.

I open the door.

III. Two Nadias

On her desk, there is a framed picture of Nadia in the jacket with a few other friends. In it, she is laughing at something, and her curly brown hair is falling over half of her face. The jacket  complements her olive skin perfectly. It will never look as good on me as it did on her. I look down at my own ghost white skin and frown. Maybe that’s part of the problem. My skin will never look like hers, just a pale imitation. And my hair looks so washed out and dead; I tried to curl it, but after an hour it just fell back into its usual dull straightness.

The walls in her room are covered with pictures strung up with fairy lights and her blanket is blue and white tie dye. One of her pillows is on the floor. She didn’t have time to make the bed this morning. I consider making it for her, but I think she would probably notice that. I walk over to the nightstand next to her bed and sitting on it is a silver domed alarm clock, pink heart sunglasses, tangled bracelets, a little bronze heart with a key, and a tiny silver ring with a glossy green serpent on it. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have something other than clothing too.

I pick up the ring with my unhurt hand and hold it closer to my face, examining the way that the silver meshes with the snake, trapping it in a pretty cage. Its mouth is open and I’m not able to tell if it is screaming for help or merely showing off its formidable fangs and tongue. It doesn’t look helpless though; it looks as if it’s incapable of fear. I wonder how the serpent came to be caught in the silver. It almost looks as if it has–

“Umm…hello?”

My heart drops into my stomach, and I shove the hand with Nadia’s ring into my pocket. There’s a crinkling noise as my fingers make contact with the crumpled receipt. I can feel my heart crawling up my throat as I slowly turn around, already knowing who must be behind me. Nadia. Her eyebrows are stitched upwards in a look of confusion, and she is holding three textbooks. She doesn’t seem angry that I’m here.

“Did Kaylie or Zoe let you in? This is my room, not one of theirs. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” She smiles at me and walks into the room, dropping the three textbooks onto her bed. I look down. The book on the top of the pile is blue and green and says Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. I know that I should say yes, but instead I just look back up at her, my hands beginning to shake. She is wearing black bike shorts with an oversized orange and yellow T-shirt that has a bleary-eyed sun on it. Her smile begins to fade.

“I”– My mind is blank and I have forgotten her question and my left hand is really starting to hurt.

“Are you…did they let you in?” This time her voice is less sure and she backs away from me slightly. “Wait, that’s my jacket! Well, not my jacket anymore, I guess, I sold it to”– She looks intently at my face and her eyes narrow in suspicion. “Wait, you–you’re that girl who works at–what are you doing here? How do you know I live here?” I open my mouth but no words come out. “What are you doing here?” she repeats, slowing her voice down as if she thinks that I don’t understand what she’s saying.

“I just”–My voice cracks, and I pause as I hear how weak I sound. I squeeze her ring and then desperately hope that she doesn’t notice.

“Just what? Did you follow me home one day or something?”

The words are slow-acting venom. My whole body begins to shake. “No, I didn’t follow you,” I say. “You wrote your address down for–for the Pale Moon raffle.”

“What? Like that’s so much be–why are you here?” Her voice shakes on her final word.

“I just want to be y–like you. And, if I have your clothes”–

“You want my clothes?”

“Yes!” I almost shout it. She understands.

“You’re trying to steal my stuff?”

“No! Well, I just need”–

“You know, you could have just asked me where I got something from. I would’ve happily told you. But you can’t just steal” —

“No, please, you don’t understand. I need your–I have your jacket but–but it’s wearing off, and if I could have one more thing I would”–

“What?”

What can I say to help her understand? “I thought that I could change my skin but I know”–

“Your skin? What–what’s wrong with you? Are you high?”

“No, I–”

“You need help,” she says, shaking her head slightly. “Get out of my house.”

I curl my fingers even more tightly around Nadia’s ring, my bleeding hand beginning to drip onto her floor. Her mouth is open, and she stares at the blood on the ground, her eyes wide. I don’t think that she noticed my hand before.

“Nadia, I”–

“If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to–I’m going to call the police.”

“Okay, I’ll leave. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.” I can feel my throat tighten and I look down. I want so badly for her to understand, but I can’t get arrested. My parents would kill me. I look back up at Nadia. She doesn’t look angry. Not that she looks happy, either. Her eyebrows are furrowed, her jaw tense. I try to make eye contact with her but she avoids it, turning her head away. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. I turn my head away too. I walk out of the room as she gestures toward the door. She follows behind me as I walk down the stairs, keeping at least a five feet between us. I reach the front door of the house, and I hear her footsteps stop.

“Don’t come back,” she says. The finality in her voice makes me wince. “Or I will get the police involved.”

I turn around, my heart trailing at my feet, and look back at her. She averts her eyes again. For a second, I think that maybe she feels guilty. But as I wrap my bleeding hand around the cuff of her jacket, I think I understand. Nadia’s eyes aren’t guilty. They aren’t apologetic. They aren’t beginning to understand. Nadia just pities me.

“You should fix the screens on the windows,” I say.

“What?” I can tell that she heard me.

“That’s how I got in,” I explain. The jacket feels rough and itchy now, and I have a sudden urge to rip it off, to throw it to the ground. As I put my hand on the doorknob and open the door, the serpent ring falls out of my hand and hits the ground with a tinny scream. I don’t look back at the red and white house. I don’t look back at her. A squeaky gate mimics a gray and white bird. I leave.

IV. Not Nadia

I’m lying on the floor in my room, the sun streaming from the window onto my ghost skin. My dad calls from downstairs that dinner is ready. I don’t answer. I burrow myself deeper into her jacket. My jacket. My dad calls again, louder this time, “Sophie, dinner’s ready!” I don’t answer. I’m repulsed by my very being, by that look on her face, by bronze hearts, by birdsong. I’m not at all Nadia anymore. I sprayed her citrus perfume all over my body but it sits, heavy, on my skin as if it knows that it doesn’t belong there. I can’t be her. I can never be her. I will go to work tomorrow and maybe someone else will come into the store and they will be even better than her. Maybe they won’t wear off. No. I won’t let them wear off.

 


Julia Grunes  is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo, studying English (creative writing) and psychology. When she isn’t writing, she’s likely enjoying the fresh air, singing with friends, or falling off her longboard!

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Nick Pattilio

A Perfect Day for Caiman Hunting

The sun was blistering by midafternoon. It was the kind of day you would beg us to drive down to Galveston to play on the beach, then stop for ice cream at Bob’s on the way home. I haven’t been to Galveston in almost fifteen years now. I parked the truck on the muddy path right beside the lake. I got my catch pole and ice chest out of the bed of the pickup and started walking down to the lake. I passed the patch of bright pink lotus flowers that you used to run to as we were walking to the lake; the same ones you would cut and bring home to your mom after our day was through. My cap started to slip off the back of my head and my Ray-Bans down my nose; my neck was already drenched in sweat, my skin already beginning to turn red. I made it to the edge of the lake and readied my catcher.

The caiman were all strolling along the pebble and sand deposits where the water met land, unsuspecting and unquestioning. I snuck up behind one, slipped the loop around his neck, and snagged him. He started to squirm; he was definitely a fighter. I wrangled with him to get him in the ice chest, and finally I was successful.

Hours passed. I waited for more to come out of the lake, ready to snatch them. After my tenth catch, I decided to pack up and head back up to the truck. Right about then, is when you would start to whine and complain of boredom, ready to let your imagination run rampant elsewhere. I chuckled as I thought of you lighting up when I said it was time to go home; running up the hill, back passed the flowers, jumping up and down on the narrow dirt path, eager to get back in the truck. I gathered my pole, the ice chest, and our lawn chairs. I still put yours out. The drive home was always my favorite part. You sat beside me in the truck, wiped out from a day in the sun, slouching peacefully against your seatbelt as we cruised along the long stretch of highway that would take us back to our front door. The sun would start to sink, leaving behind  brilliant tangerine and lavender hues in the sky while a staticky Glen Campbell sang to us through the radio. The drive feels long, now. They don’t play too much Glen Campbell anymore. Next to me, the passenger seat is empty.

I stopped along the causeway in my usual spot. I broke out the old cardboard sign that you helped me write out years ago. This was your favorite part of the day, if I remember correctly. We were just about to be home, but we first had to say farewell to all of our catches and send them off on their way to their new homes. Afterwards, you would beg for pizza, just about every night, and I would be able to hold you off until right before we got home, when we passed Pizza Palace in the shopping center on the corner before our street. I was able to get rid of all but one of the reptiles today. I was packing up, when a gentleman pulled next to me and offered me $80 for the caiman. I couldn’t believe it. Before I could tell him I only charged $45, he stabbed four holes into the lid of his own ice chest and sped back down the road. I tossed the sign in the back of the truck and started home. When I walked in the door, I could smell garlic coming from the kitchen.

“Hello, dear,” your mother called out to me from the kitchen. “Dinner will be on the table in just a minute.”

“I‘ll be right in,” I called back. “Just going to wash up.”

We sat down at the table, three settings out.

“How was it today?” she asked. “It sure was a hot one.”

“It was nice. Perfect day. Caught ten of ‘em.” I could only offer punctuated answers in between the huge bites of the pasta: I was starved.

“Ten? That’s gotta be at least $400.”

“Almost five. Some guy stopped to buy the very last one—gave me eighty for it. He didn’t stick around long enough for me to tell him I only charge forty-five.”

“Well, he must have been in some hurry then. Almost five, you said?”

“Mhm,” I responded, in between my chomping.

“That’s lovely,” she told me.

She smiled, but I could still see the hurt in her eyes. It never gets easier.

After cake and coffee, your mother heads to bed. I step into the office and sit down at the desk. I write out my weekly check to Dr. Roberts and Clearwater Medical Group. You loved Dr. Roberts. Every time we left his office, you said how much he made you feel better. He always offered you a lollipop on our way out. I remember you always went for the red ones. Dr. Roberts is moving along in his research now. “Any day now,” he says. Fifteen hundred for this week. I place the check in an envelope, seal it, and turn out the lamp.

As I walk up the hallway, past your room, I listen for the creaks in the floorboards, the same creaks I would hear on Christmas morning or when you would sneak out to the kitchen for a midnight snack. I miss waking up in the night to the sound of the creaks in the hallway. It never gets easier.

 


Nick Pattilio  is a junior choral music education student at SUNY Fredonia. He is also the President of the Teacher Education Club and a campus tour guide. When he is not studying music or writing, Nick enjoys going on walks around campus and is on a quest this year to listen to a new album every week.

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