Category Archives: Fiction

Joseph Sigurdson

Savior

“Sorry we didn’t catch anything,” said Frank. “Usually I catch at least something in that spot.”

“I saw a huge one jump out of the water,” said Anthony.

“Yeah they’re always jumping.”

They were out fishing that afternoon and headed back in the rural dusk, down long, long roads. Frank had just started letting his little cousin sit in the front seat. It went unsaid that Anthony wouldn’t tell his mom. His feet hardly touched the floor when he sat up straight. They were atop a hill and could see road and land for a far stretch. Maybe a half-mile ahead, in the middle of the road, lay what looked like a rock.

“What is that?” said Anthony.

Frank focused on it for the whole stretch, and it wasn’t until he was just a few yards from it that he realized that rock was a snapping turtle. Slowly driving past, the thing pathetically lunged at his car. Frank caught a glimpse of its cracked and bloody shell.

“What was that?” said Anthony.

“I think it was a snapping turtle,” said Frank.

“What is a snapping turtle doing in the road?” he asked gigglingly.

“I don’t know.”

Frank pulled over.

“What is it?” said Anthony.

Frank looked out the rear window. The turtle was still lying there in the road. “I think it got hit by a car.”

“Is it dead?”

“No, it jumped at us when we got close.”

“Oh.”

“I think we gotta kill it.”

Anthony unbuckled, got on his knees, and looked out the rear window. “Why should we kill it?”

“‘Cause it’s humane. It’s the right thing to do.”

“Oh.”

Frank backed the car all the way down again. There was no one else on the road. No homes. The turtle didn’t move when he got out and stared at it. He could tell it was alive. Had that indescribable gaze and make of the living. When he approached, it shifted its head and opened its beak-like maw. Its shell had a four-way break and leaked black blood down toward its belly and the pavement, drying, working like glue. Anthony came and stood behind Frank. “How are you gonna kill it?”

“I don’t know yet.” He had an idea though. Just wasn’t sure how well it’d work. He went to the back seat and took the pocket knife from the fishing gear.

Anthony watched him. “You’re gonna stab it?”

“It’s all I got.”

Anthony walked up to the turtle. It opened its mouth again and hissed.

“Get away from it,” said Frank.

“I think it’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. It can’t even move.”

“I think it’s all right.”

“Get away from it.”

“You’re gonna kill it?”

“It’s suffering, Anthony.”

“It’s still alive.”

“Get away from it.”

Frank circled around then slowly approached it from behind, knife in hand. The thing hissed and viciously whipped its head back and forth trying to face him. It peeled itself from its blood soaked bed and managed to rotate a little. Frank just stepped behind it again. He lowered his knife hand toward its neck and the turtle struck at him like a snake. Anthony watched from behind the car. There was no way he could grab hold of it and slit its throat, he figured. He positioned himself, made ready and took a quick jab at the thing. It only nicked its head and now, more desperate than ever, the turtle flopped backward and jumped right at him. Frank stepped away. He was shaking.

“Did you get it?” Anthony called.

Frank breathed. “I can’t,” he called back. “I can’t get it.” Maybe he could find a rock and bash the thing. Maybe he could run it over. That might break his bumper, though. He didn’t know.

Far down the road a car approached. Frank stepped onto the grass. “Watch out Anthony, a car’s coming.” A pickup-truck, barreling from afar. He cherished the truck, a solid excuse to do nothing but wait. It grew closer and closer, no change in pace. None at all. “He’s not stopping,” Frank said to himself. Closer, closer. The turtle lay there, panting, oblivious, or perhaps just ready. The truck was upon them, blasting the thing into a fleshy, shell-scattered muddle. The truck slammed on the brakes and left a short streak of gutted innards. Anthony’s blank and youthful face stared at the gorey ruin from across the road.

From the truck came an old man. He approached slowly, squinting at the crushed turtle. “You all right?” he asked as he neared Frank. “What’d I hit?”

“It was a turtle.”

“Mm.” He scratched his head. “Must’ve crawled up from that crick there.” He stood, contemplating. “What are you doing? Wasn’t yours was it?” he asked Frank.

“No, I was trying to kill it. Somebody’d already hit it.”

“Mm. I figure it was for the best then.”

Anthony was behind the car. The old man looked from the crushed corpse to Frank. “You all right?”

“Yeah.”

“All right then.” He scratched his head. “Take care.” He went back to his truck, drove off.

In the car Anthony was silent. Frank drove no more than the speed limit. “I’m sorry you saw that.”

“He ran it right over. It exploded.”

“Yeah. That man shouldn’t be driving.”

“Why not?”

“He didn’t even see it. We saw that thing from like half a mile away. Could’ve been a person. I don’t know. I don’t think he even noticed you were there.”

“Why would a person be laying in the road?”

“I mean, they probably wouldn’t. That’s not the point.”

“He did the right thing?”

“What?”

“He killed it, you said that was the right thing.”

“Oh. I suppose. He shouldn’t be driving though if he truly didn’t see that.”

“You couldn’t do it.”

“What?”

“Kill it.”

“I could have, I just didn’t want the thing to bite me. I don’t know. I couldn’t get ahold of it.”

“He did the dirty work.”

“Where’d you get that from?”

“I don’t know.”

They barely spoke the rest of the way. Frank saw that brief image of the exploding turtle over and over. He saw that old man’s squint, the roaring truck, the open road. He couldn’t have done it.


Joseph Sigurdson is a prose poet from Buffalo, New York. He currently attends SUNY Oswego as a creative writing major. He has recently completed his debut collection of poetry, and has been published in Great Lake Review.

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Allison Giese

Lila in the Window

Potato was eating again.

It was the third time she’d eaten all morning, which wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the cracked plastic mug Lila used to dole out the food had scraped the bottom of the bag several hours earlier. She guessed she could ask for another one, but Mr. Johnny had said that money was tight. He was a plumber for a small company, and business hadn’t been too good lately.

Potato abandoned her dish and sashayed over to Lila on the bed. She chirped, jumped up, and nuzzled her head against Lila’s bowl of noodles.

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said. “You big piggy. Why are you so hungry?”

Potato meowed and burrowed harder. Lila pulled out one thin ramen noodle and put it on the napkin.

“Missy, we’re gonna have to put you on a diet soon,” Lila said, but Potato didn’t look like she’d gained weight; in fact, she looked thinner than normal. The excess skin on her belly sagged beneath her and made her waddle.

Lila turned on the TV. Cable went in and out; Mr. Johnny had borrowed some from the neighbors, but still the connection was poor at best. The TV only received one channel—a rerun channel for old sitcoms—and the channel changing button had been plastered over with tape. It was almost 2:00 p.m. Friends would be on soon. Until now, the TV hissed and spat an episode of Roseanne she’d already seen a million times before. The sound only projected from one side of the TV. She turned it down, lay back on her bed, and counted the ceiling tiles—all 171 of them—and shut her eyes. She could smell the brackish humidity that had come from making lunch, and the thin, mildewy hush that clung to the sheets on her sofa bed. She liked the way her brain would whirr, quietly and noiselessly, when she sat very still. She liked to pretend that she was a computer.

Potato hopped up onto her stomach and lapped at the salty water left in the lunch bowl on her bedside table. “Oh, that’s bad for kitties,” Lila said. She grabbed the bowl and let the water wash down the large chipped sink. Smears of inky black paint remained crusted onto the porcelain, and as much as she’d tried to clean it, she could still feel the dry streaks against her nails. Potato meowed in protest. “What? It is bad for you,” she said. She couldn’t be sure where she’d learned that fact, or if she’d just made it up. The cat rubbed against her legs and left a fine coating of soft black and white hairs.

The waiting was always the worst. She hated these afternoons to herself, cooped up in the house. She guessed she could do laundry to have something clean to wear, but he always hated it when her dresses and sweaters dangled from the line at the edge of the room. Besides, she was almost out of detergent. Sometimes she mixed it with the dish soap, but she was almost out of that, too. She looked at Potato, who was as bored as she was, as she tried to paw at the coarse towels that covered the window. The cat’s high, chirpy cry reminded her of when she’d first gotten her.

It had been maybe three weeks at that point. Items in the room were still new; the sofa bed had been fully washed and didn’t yet creak, the sink was pure white, the linoleum tiles on the floor had yet to bloat up and wrinkle at the edges. She had not yet earned the TV. She would sit and, with thin, plastic bristles snapped off the long-handled broom, try to pick the lock on the door. There were boards on the windows that daylight couldn’t bleed through. Her clothes were not yet stained. Her hair still had some of the red in it, sprayed in with an aerosol can for the football game at her school three weeks earlier. He’d approached her, behind the bleachers at the stadium, told her she’d dropped her phone. Lila hadn’t owned a phone. Then strong hands on her arms, the chloroform, darkness.

For those frantic days she would sit, breaking bristle after bristle in the huge, stainless padlock. There was a key code, too, she knew, which she heard beeping as he came and went. Other than the faint rumble of the pickup truck pulling into the garage next door, it was her only warning he was coming.

When Lila heard the beeping, she immediately sprang away from the door and sat on the bed, nursing her pounding heart. She tried to remember the feeling of her mother’s lips on her forehead that last day when she’d left for the eighth-grade pep rally. Her mother always wore a particular pinky, cool lipstick. Her lips had felt like paper on her face.

When he came in, he carried a battered cardboard box; she figured it was the food, the ration of noodles. Mr. Johnny set it onto the small card table.

“Don’t you want to know what’s in the box?” he asked her.

Lila never knew what to say when he asked these questions. The slightest comment could send him into a rage, or prompt an inexplicable tenderness. When she’d first asked for rags to bleed onto during her period, he’d hit her and cut the power for two days; when she timidly answered his question about her favorite candy, he brought it the next afternoon.

“Not very curious, are you?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Isn’t it food?”

“No, no, not at all.” He reached deep into the box with his grease-stained hands and cradled a tiny, black and white kitten, which was more fluff than anything else. “Neighbor’s tabby had a litter in the barn. They were giving ‘em away.” He cradled it in his arms.

The kitten seemed unreal as it stirred in Mr. Johnny’s grip.

“I figure you might like something to take care of—other ‘n me.” He offered her the kitten, and when she didn’t take it, put it into her lap. It squirmed and licked her palm. “See? It likes you already.”

Because Mr. Johnny’s eyes were soft and expectant, Lila petted the kitten. Its fur was as soft as her grandmother’s old long hair, and tears welled in her eyes. It had the same face too, the same gold eyes. “When are you taking her away?” she asked.

“Silly girl, she’s not going anywhere,” Mr. Johnny said. He reached into the box and took out a makeshift litter box.

In her lap, the kitten purred. It was so tiny; she felt she would hurt it if she petted it too hard.

“Come on, what do you say?”

The gold eyes stared up at her, squinty and sleepy. She wondered, if she burrowed her face into the thick fluff of fur, if she would fall back in time to those afternoons in her grandmother’s barn, hiding behind boxes and looking through ancient bridal magazines. “Your time will come,” her grandmother had said. “Hopefully not for quite some time. But it will.”

Mr. Johnny seized her hair and pulled. “I said, what do you say?”

“Thank you,” she said. The kitten scurried off her lap and under her bed, where she wouldn’t emerge for the better part of two days.

The familiar logo of Friends popped up on the TV, and though the volume was poor, she sang along with it absently: “No one told you life was gonna be this way.” Potato liked it when she clapped. Lila picked up the toy she’d fashioned out of a cooking spoon and a strand of yarn from an old sweater. Potato’s bottom swayed as she watched the spoon dangle back and forth.

“How late do you think he’ll be?” she asked the cat. “Yesterday, it was a half hour. Only a half hour, he said.”

Potato said nothing. She pounced on the string and batted at it. Lila tugged it away and looked at the light coming through the towel over the window, tinted pink. She could almost see the daylight through the bleach spots. She wished he would just fix the window already, even if it meant the boards again. With the plastic and towel it could still get pretty cold in here, though it had been better since Mr. Johnny showed her how to heat up rocks and put them in the bed.

She watched the TV as Joey tried unsuccessfully to hit on another pretty woman. She should wash her hair. She had shampoo, but she didn’t like the way it smelled like peaches. Mr. Johnny brought peaches sometimes in cans. When he ate, the thick syrup would get caught in his beard where it dried. Sometimes, it would still be there days later.

Potato rolled onto her back and then trotted over to the litter box. Lila fixated on the TV and pulled frayed threads from the bottom of her skirt. It was getting worn and tight on her. She exhaled. She’d been growing; she could feel it painfully in every joint of her body. Mr. Johnny didn’t hesitate to tell her that maybe she could eat a little less. He said this as he drank down the cans of fruit, one after the other, in quick succession.

Maybe he would finally bring her that next book from the library. She’d been reading the Little House on the Prairie series, and while it had been dull in the beginning, it was getting interesting now that Laura was getting older. Lila tried to imagine bumping around in the back of a wagon through the West, building a home, hunting to live, with nobody around for miles. The sky a big blue bowl.

Potato kicked dirty litter all over the kitchenette. “Hey, you clean that up!” Lila said to her, but as usual the cat plopped down and started grooming herself. Lila got up, shambled to find the broom, and swept the mess onto a piece of newspaper. She heard the neighbor’s dog barking—a loud BOOF, BOOF almost too low for her to hear. Lila had never seen these dogs; the neighbor was pretty far away, up toward the top of the hill she could barely see from the corner of her window. Sometimes, she thought they were bulldogs, other times huskies, or perhaps golden retrievers. She had a picture book of the different breeds of dogs, but the illustrations were all painted. She decided she wasn’t a dog person and picked up Potato. The cat kicked at her. “Come on, you’re bored, too, you big mush.”

Together they watched a few more episodes. Sometimes Lila liked when they ran in order. Other times she hated it because then she knew exactly what would happen next, and then what was the point of watching? If she were lucky, an episode from late in the show’s run would come on. She hadn’t memorized those yet.

By five it had gotten dark, and she turned on the one lamp in the room. At least in the low light, Mr. Johnny couldn’t see the mess. She tried to keep the space clean, but it was so small, and sometimes she ended up crowding everything into the corner and throwing a sheet over it, so she didn’t have to look at it. She was hungry; Mr. Johnny had said he was going to bring her dinner and groceries. She figured he must have gotten stuck in line at the store or in traffic, as he frequently complained, though she couldn’t see how traffic could be terrible around here in the middle of nowhere.

He came a little after eight, startling her from the doze she’d fallen into. A plastic grocery bag flopped onto the bed.

“What happened?” she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She tried not to sound irritated.

“Boss made me stay late. I took off Christmas, so I couldn’t say no.” He sat at the table. “Coffee?”

“I didn’t make any.”

“Why not?” He rubbed at his beard, which had flecks of white paint in it. His overalls were covered in splotches, too. She tried not to pay too much attention to the muddy footprints he’d dragged in.

“Sorry, I fell asleep.”

Mr. Johnny sighed. “What else do I keep you around for?” He went over to the small pot and started fixing it. Lila looked into the bag of groceries—more ramen packets, a box of cereal, one quart of milk, and a roll of paper towels.

“Is the rest in your truck?” she asked, and blushed at his expression.

“Is that not enough?”

“It’s just… I’m almost out of cat food—”

“Well, Jesus. You could have told me.”

“I did,” she said sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

Mr. Johnny shook his head. The coffee pot gurgled. He always made it so strong, saying he liked it “like mud,” and that was how it smelled. It also made her nauseous.

“I was…,” she continued. She bit her lip. “I was hoping that, maybe if you’d brought some chicken, or something, I could have made us a real nice dinner—”

“Shit, Lila, do you know how much meat costs?” He poured a cup and used some of the fresh milk. He sat at the table, at the one good chair.

She crossed silently into the kitchen and put up a pot of water to boil. She looked at the flavors of ramen he’d brought: chicken, pork, shrimp. He never brought beef. Beef was her favorite. “How was your day?” she asked gently.

“You remember that prick Angelo?” he said, and then continued without a response. “Well, the asshole shows up drunk as all hell, can barely walk straight, swaggers right into the bathroom where I’m working, all up to the elbows in god-knows-what…”

She half-listened, nodding, and “uh-huh”-ing in the right places, as she made her dinner. She was hungry enough to eat the whole thing, but split it in half and brought part of it to Mr. Johnny. “This the shrimp one?” he asked.

“Yes. Yes, um…” The question died on her tongue.

“Good. I like that one.” He sipped at the soup. She perched on the other broken chair and saw Potato peep her head from under the bed.

“I finished that book,” she said timidly. “The one about Laura?”

He grunted and kept eating.

“I think she’s getting married in the next one. I would really like to read it.”

“I’ll get it if I have time. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to the library before it closes.” He dabbed at his beard with her napkin.

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

He shrugged. “Those damn dogs,” he said, and gestured at the window.

“I like them. I think they’re nice.”

“I wish they would shut them up. One of these days, I’m going to complain.”

“If you want to,” she said. She pushed her fork through her noodles.

“I will. Why is it that a man can’t sit in his house in the peace and quiet?”

She took a sip from her tepid glass of water. The smell of the coffee had made her lose her appetite. “…Are they huskies?” She asked.

He looked at the TV, which was now spitting reruns of Family Matters. “Hell if I know. I’ve never seen ‘em. I love this one,” he said.

“I’ve just wondered. I thought you might know.”

Mr. Johnny said nothing and watched as Urkel activated his time machine.

“Do you think that maybe some time you could put on the game channel?” she asked. Her heart pounded. “The… this one’s very nice, but sometimes I like a change. Potato and I play along, you know.”

“You don’t like this one? I changed it just for you.” His face was starting to turn red, and she faltered.

“I… I know, and it’s really nice here now with the TV. Thank you.” She sighed.

He drummed his fingers on the table.

“I was thinking,” she said. “You know, it’s going to be New Year’s soon. There’ll probably be a sale. If you can get maybe… some chicken… I can make fried cutlets like my mama taught me.”

He looked at her, and she flinched. “Like who taught you?”

“Nobody. Nobody taught me.”

He relaxed.

“I just figure you must get tired of eating noodles every night,” Lila said. She always felt the need to keep talking when he was here, to entertain him. “It’s pretty boring. I know I can do better because you gave me that cookbook.”

“I figured it’d amuse you,” he said. He smiled. He needed to floss.

“It does,” she lied. She rarely had enough ingredients to try any of the recipes. “I can give you a list, maybe, and you can get some stuff and I’ll make us a real nice dinner.”

“I’d love to see you cook,” he said. “All right.”

She smiled.

The cat darted out from under the bed and dashed to the food bowl. “Again, kitty?” she asked her. Potato glared, wide eyed, at Mr. Johnny, before coming to rest at Lila’s side. “She’s hungry.”

“So, feed her.”

“I thought you’d be bringing me some food.”

He laughed a little. “Damn list’s gonna be a mile long.”

She tensed. But he seemed amused rather than angry. She could see it in the easy way he leaned back in the chair. She took his empty bowl and offered the water to Potato, who hissed.

“I don’t know how you stand that mangy thing,” he said. “Always so nasty. She used to be so cute, but then she grew up. Shame how that happens.” He looked meaningfully at her zit-stained face.

She laughed awkwardly despite a painful blush. “She fills up space.”

Mr. Johnny went over to the sofa bed and sat down. She brushed a greasy strand of hair out of her face and sat down next to him. She tried not to flinch at his filthy fingers when they touched her shoulder.

For fifteen minutes she pretended to watch the new show on TV. Mr. Johnny seemed engrossed, but his hand steadily slid down her terrycloth dress to fondle her nipple. She started shaking. She’d wondered when—she’d been lucky the past few days.

It was easier not to resist; sitting there, or lying there, and in fact to smile and even seem to enjoy herself. She got more that way; he said yes to her questions more easily.

When it was over and he had fallen asleep, she went over to the towel draped over the window. The room smelled like sweat, and her thighs ached. She lifted the edge of the towel and peeked through the window.

The moon was full in the sky, partially obscured by clouds. She tried to think of the last time she had seen it, but couldn’t. The light reflected off the snow on the ground, and she shivered in her thin dress. Above the fence there wasn’t much to see, just trees. There never had been much outside this window.

In the distance, the dogs began to howl. The sound made her heart hurt, and she wished she could join in, but instead a few thin tears snaked down her face.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Johnny snapped behind her.

“I’m sorry—I just wanted to see the moon.”

He grabbed her by the hair. “Someone could have seen you,” he said. “Someone could take you from me. Do you want that?” He shook her.

Pain radiated through her body. She couldn’t speak.

“Do you?” he said again.

“No,” she sobbed.

“I didn’t think so.” He yanked his clothing back on. “The cat has worms,” he said, grabbing Potato by the back of the neck. He slammed the door behind him, leaving her in silence.


Allison Giese is a senior at SUNY New Paltz, where she is completing a degree in creative writing. She hopes to become a novelist and video game writer.

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Jamison Murcott

Centre Island Bay

It is early, the sun brushing the tip of the horizon, the town still slumbering in their hazy homes. Down the beach, there is an AA meeting, the group’s beach chairs firmly planted in the sand. The wind carries the sound of their hands clapping together to me. I gaze at them through the sunlight as I sit in my own beach chair, feeling the heat blanket my skin.

I often wonder about the stories they tell. Every Saturday morning, I find them at the far end of the beach, gripping their Styrofoam cups of coffee, and I think that one day I will walk over there. One day, I will sit in their circle and listen to their tales and memories. But not this time.

This time I am staring at them from a distance, hoping that if I listen hard enough, I will catch bits of their conversation on the breeze. I am perched just outside of the lifeguard room, a garage for the maintenance crew, with a golf cart to the left and a grimy picnic bench to the right.

The land wraps around the bay so that the tide pulls the water westward, following the contour of the shore before letting out into the Long Island Sound in the north. It is small and forgotten, a rocky little beach that faces the vast fields and looming mansions of the gated community across the water. It is often empty, save for the elderly couples and young families who sometimes remember the calmness of the bay. The water is never very deep, the depth only about eight feet during high tide. I shift in my beach chair and look back over at the meeting. Maybe they are forgotten too.

I look out over the water, the voices of the clammers resonating from their boats. The water is still, almost solid, as though it is only a picture of the bay. I listen to the clammers for just a moment longer, hearing the bellowing voice of the captain. Then I am in the garage, standing in front of a whirring fan.

There is the scent of sweat and sunblock. A familiar smell. Gabe is lying on a cot in the corner of the room, the metal legs bending under his weight. He is snoring slightly, his body shuddering as he breathes and moans. “Have a little too much fun last night?” Ryder asks from the table, where he and Zach are playing cards. Gabe just moans again and rolls over on the cot. “Drunk bastard,” Ryder says under his breath, and he and Zach chuckle. Then they are silent, focusing on their game as they throw cards onto other cards. There is the occasional cursing under their breath when one of them gains the advantage, but other than that, it is just the whirring of the fan and the sound of the cards hitting the table.

This is my world. Or part of it. But sometimes, most of the time, it feels like my whole world. This little beach, this tiled room, it closes in on you, engulfs you. And the people and places outside of this beach seem so far away, so unreal and dreamlike. As though it was all part of a different life, a different world.

I am on the stand when everybody else gets to the beach. First there is Monica, headphones in, lip-gloss perfect. She breezes into the room, drawing discreet stares from the guys. Then there is Leo, zipping up on his moped. He leans it against the side of the garage and slings his backpack over one shoulder, sauntering into the room. Addison arrives last, her car screeching to a halt, slamming the door shut with her foot as she grips her coffees in her hands.

The picnic bench trembles under Addison’s body as she squeezes herself between Monica and Zach. There is the awkward exchange of:

“What’s up?”

“Nothing, you?”

“Good actually, last night I went out and—”

“Oh, that’s cool.”

From the stand, I can hear the conversation stall, then die. There is the collective exhale of exasperation, the uncomfortable shifting in seats and the slow, but certain, exiting of the room. Without hesitation, they solemnly shuffle towards the stand, steadily gripping the painted wooden planks and pulling themselves up the tower. Leo slumps onto the bench next to me and Monica and Ryder stand on the platform slightly below us, all looking up at me with tired eyes.

As though born of slush and grime, Addison reeks of ignorant comments and tasteless jokes. Her skin secretes an odor, which could only be described as self-entitlement. Her hair is dark and greasy, her beady eyes unwavering in their stare; her nose rests on her face like a beak, always pointing at whomever she is judging. Sometimes I watch her shift in her seat or slightly adjust her shorts so the fat of her thighs spreads in the most flattering way. I study the way her lips twitch when she is preparing to interrupt someone or how she tugs at her limp hair when somebody teases her. I know that beneath the grotesque smell of knock-off perfume and clinical beauty creams, there is a sad understanding that this is her life. At the good old age of twenty-four, Addison has settled into the mundane lifestyle of tiny accomplishments and average goals. It doesn’t matter that she lives at home or that her parents fund her life, or that she believes that the world should hand her its most beautiful attainments. For Addison, life will forever be a summer job that pays well but dies when the weather changes.

Ryder’s whistling reaches the room before he does. Swinging the lanyard of his keys, he whistles the tune to some nameless country song and aimlessly strolls into the garage. He places his hands on my bare shoulders, slowly rubbing my tanned skin as he leans in close and breathes in my ear. “’Sup?”

I shrug him off me, and he steps aside, smiling as he takes the seat next to me on the bench. “Ryder, don’t touch me. It’s too hot to be touching people.” I dramatically wave my hands to fan my face, then return to reading my book. Ryder reaches over and pulls the book from my hands, closing it and putting it aside.

“It’s never too hot if I touch you in the right places.” He winks at me and smirks.

I stare at him with pursed lips, unimpressed by his joke. “Ha ha,” I say, reaching out to grab my book. “Funny. Now go away.” Without giving me the book, Ryder stands and steps back.

“No,” he says, walking around the table. “Let’s play cards.” He places my book out of reach and pulls out a deck of cards, already shuffling them before I can answer. I roll my eyes and nod, knowing that he won’t leave me alone until I agree to play. Ryder focuses on the shuffling; I see his brows furrow and his forehead crease as his fingers maneuver the cards. Without pause, Ryder deals me my hand and wordlessly begins playing.

Outside of this beach, Ryder and I were strangers. Are strangers. Passing each other in the crowded halls of our high school, I am just a nameless face, simply a body he bumps into without apologizing. Here, we play cards and tell stupid stories about our friends, but once we wash the sand off our skin and change out of our lifeguard uniforms, it is as though the other one does not exist. When he slings his arm around his girlfriend and gets drunk at bonfires, when he sets off fireworks with his friends and runs from the cops, I am not real. I look at him now, studying the birthmarks on his arms, the way his blonde hair falls over his eyes, how his pouting lips are chapped from dehydration. I look at him now so I can remember him when I leave.

The boy that exists on Facebook and Instagram, who tweets nasty things to people he doesn’t like, who sends snapchats of guns and cigars; he is not the same boy that sits across from me now, smiling at the cards he’s dealt himself. When Ryder leaves the beach, he leaves part of himself with it. As do I. As do all of us.

With careful footsteps, I walk out into the water, Zach gliding past me on the surfboard with Monica struggling to balance at the front. The glittering water cools my skin as I walk farther out, Ryder and Leo besides me. Perched on the stand is Addison, staring down at us as we retreat to the bay, stranding her on the empty beach.

When the water tickles my waist, I submerge myself completely, feeling the molecules of the water part for my body as I swim below the surface. I come up for air, letting the sweet summer fill my lungs, and swim towards the surfboard. Tommy, our boss, doesn’t mind when we go swimming, he likes to think we’re practicing for our lifeguard drills. The current of the water pulls us out of the swimming area until we are drifting in the middle of the bay, the occasional wave methodically rocking us as we rest our heads on the board and our legs dangle beneath us.

Under the water, Leo’s leg brushes against mine. He looks at me through his sunglasses, the hint of a smile curling the corners of his lips. I hold his stare for a second before I am thrust underwater. I feel thick fingers grip my shoulders as they propel me downward, the water filling my mouth before I get the chance to hold my breath. The hands push me down until I reach the bottom, brown muck squishing between my toes. The pressure from above subsides as I am released. I crouch under the water, grabbing a handful of mud before my legs push against the ground and I glide back up to the surface.

I come up gasping for air, the salt water burning my lungs. The sounds of the surface world come back to me as I catch my breath: the rippling water lapping against the surfboard, the ringing bell of a buoy somewhere across the water, Zach’s laughter as he throws back his head and opens his mouth, the sound shaking his limbs before escaping his body.

“What’s the matter, Lila?” Zach says between his laughter. “Can’t handle a little fun?”

It’s a game we like to play, called Deep Sea Diver. You push somebody down, down until they reach the bottom. And if one person cannot push someone all the way down, a second person joins in so that you have two people pushing you instead of one. It’s fun when you know to hold your breath, not so much when you almost drown.

Still coughing, I reach over to Zach and smash my palm onto the top of his head, the muck from below spreading over his hair and oozing down onto his face. Zach’s laughter immediately halts, a faint echo softly bounces off the water then quickly floats away. Zach’s face contorts with disgust—eyes squeezed shut, lips puckered and nostrils flared—as he wipes the mud away with the back of his hand.

“Pretty funny, huh?” I spit at him once my lungs are void of water. Zach glares at me then ducks under the water, running his fingers through his tangled curls to wash the mud out of his pale blonde hair.

From the mouth of the garage, Gabe sticks his fingers between his lips and whistles, the high-pitched sound filling the bay. We all turn to look as Gabe sticks his hand in the air, gesturing for our return. “Squirt! Ryder! Let’s go!” He calls from the shore. Like eager pets, Zach and Ryder race towards the beach.

The boys emerge from the water, wet hair stuck to their cheeks and dripping bathing suits clinging to their thighs. They rush into the garage to grab their towels and sandals then hurry off to the parking lot, where Gabe has already lit a joint, the wispy smoke of marijuana escaping out a cracked window. I watch as Ryder throws himself into the front passenger seat, sucking on the joint like it is candy. Zach climbs into the back of the car and Gabe is driving away before the door is even closed.

At 5’11”, Gabe is 240 pounds of beer and sausage links. He was a high school football player who didn’t know what kind of fish he was until he went to college, where the only way he could make himself feel bigger was by filling his chest with smoke. Zach and Ryder idolize Gabe’s blatant unwillingness to look any further into the future than his plans for that weekend, but laugh at the mediocrity of his life as if their same actions will have different results. The three of them take their lunch break together, disappearing for an hour, then slowly returning with glassy eyes and big stomachs. The rest of us exchange glances, but no one ever mentions the scent that lurks on their clothes.

“Monica,” Leo, the three of us still floating on the surfboard, says, “switch sits with me. Please.”

“And sit with Addison for half an hour? Yeah, I don’t think so,” she says without hesitation.

“Oh, come on, you know how long she stays up there. I’d rather just sit in silence for two hours than deal with her for even fifteen minutes.” Leo pauses, waiting for Monica to comply. She doesn’t. “Don’t make me pull the ‘boss’ card.”

Monica and I both laugh at this. “Please, Leo, you get an extra two dollars an hour. You don’t have any real power.” I say.

“Hey, I make the sitting schedule, so technically I have the power to make you sit with Addison all day long,” he replies.

“Well, maybe if you had taken the early shift instead of the late shift and had actually made the sitting schedule today, that would be true. But that’s just not the case here, is it?” Monica says decisively. Leo huffs and pushes off the board, swimming towards the beach.

There is a pause as we watch him splash his way to shore. Then Monica turns to me, saying, “He looks at you a lot.”

“Excuse me?”

“Haven’t you noticed? He’s always looking at you.”

“Oh. No, I guess I haven’t.” I have.

“I don’t think it’s like a creepy kind of staring. He’s just…into you.” Monica waits for me to say something. I just shrug, my blushing cheeks easily mistaken for too much sun and too little sunblock. “Would you, you know, get with him?” Monica asks, leaning into my answer.

I glance back towards the beach, where Leo is now slouched on the lifeguard stand next to Addison. And he is looking at me, I swear, he is looking at me. “So you would?!” Monica concludes, noting the slight curl of my lips as I hold his gaze from across the water.

“No. No,” I say. “I mean, probably not. I haven’t really thought about it,” I lie.

“Sure, okay,” Monica says, thinking for a moment. “You can do better, anyway.”

“Yeah, totally,” I say, quietly, still thinking about Leo’s leg brushing mine under the water.

Monica quietly eats her spring salad as she thumbs her way through a fashion magazine. I look over my book at her as she pauses to run her finger over the image of something she likes. Next to the magazine is her phone, which constantly buzzes with text messages. Addison sits across from Monica, her curious eyes falling on the open pages of the magazine.

Gasping dramatically, Addison snatches the magazine from Monica’s hands and brings it up to her face, staring at the model on the paper. “Oh my god,” she says excitedly, dragging out her words. “I love Victoria Beckham. She’s honestly just the best,” Addison squeals as she crinkles the magazine in her grip before giving it back to Monica. “I just love her.”

“Addison,” Monica says as she smooths the magazine, “that’s not even Victoria Beckham.”

“Sure it is,” Addison says.

“No… Look,” Monica holds out the magazine to show us the model, a tall brunette that most certainly is not Victoria Beckham.

“Oh, would you look at that. My bad.” Addison shrugs her shoulders. Monica rolls her eyes and goes back to flipping through the magazine.

“Monica, have you heard anything new about Zach and Vinny?” I ask from my beach chair.

“Oh yeah, did they ever have, like, a confrontation?” Addison adds.

Monica looks over at Addison slowly then turns to me before she speaks. “Well, I only know what Ryder told me. You know about the whole cheating thing, right?”

“Yeah,” I reply, “Vinny hooked up with Priscilla.”

“Vinny is Zach’s friend. And Zach is dating Priscilla. And Vinny works at the beach on the other side of the street,” Addison says as though we don’t already know this.

“Yes, thank you, Addison, for clarifying,” Monica says. “So apparently Vinny finally met up with Zach yesterday, which is why Zach was late for work. And Zach beat the shit out of Vinny, like, no mercy, and he had to go to the hospital.”

“Is anything going to happen to Zach? Isn’t Vinny’s dad, like, a lawyer or something?”

“Yeah, I think he has his own law firm. I think Vinny’s pressing charges. I mean, if you ask me, I think it’s stupid, like, you did a shitty thing, so deal with it. Don’t go running to your mommy and daddy.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Addison interjects. “Cheating with someone isn’t illegal. Jumping someone is.”

I nod my head slowly, enjoying every little word that comes out of Monica’s mouth. I crave these stories, the insane “no way” kind of stories that you can’t believe actually happened. Monica tells me what she knows, a quick run down of the cheating, the fight, the aftermath, dragged out by Addison’s persistent side comments.

I crawl out of my beach chair and walk out of the garage, squinting my eyes as I scan the beach. To the left of the lifeguard stand is a young family, their sand toys scattered and half buried, Styrofoam boogie boards left just at the water’s edge. The mother and father corral their three children, all still in swim diapers, and plant them on sandy towels, wiping their hands before giving them sandwiches.

The sand crunches and shifts under my feet as I walk to the tower. Leo is stretched out on the wide seat of the stand, his limbs sprawled out and eagerly absorbing the sun. He sits up straighter and makes room for me on the bench. We sit in silence for a moment, taking in the shrieking laughter of the kids as they gobble up their lunch.

“So, when you gonna ask Addison out?” I ask, poking him in his side. He squirms away from my touch and swats at my hand.

“Ew, don’t say things like that.”

“What? Afraid she’s too good for you?” I tease, smiling as his face grows red.

He scoffs, sitting up even straighter. “Please, she’s not good for anything.” As if on cue, Addison’s shrill voice rings throughout the garage, pinging off the cement walls and finding its way to the stand, where goosebumps prickle my skin. We turn to look at the garage, then glance at each other, shuddering simultaneously.

“Thank God she won’t be here next year,” I say to him, relishing the idea of an Addison-free summer.

“Doesn’t make a difference to me, I won’t be here anyway,” Leo says.

“Good thing too, you’re becoming too old to be a lifeguard. You’re so frail,” I say jokingly.

“Please, this is only your second year here. Once you’ve been here for five or six years like me and Gabe, you’ll get it. This job becomes tiresome.”

“What could be so tiresome about hanging out at a beach all day?”

“Trust me, you’ll see. It’s all fun and games right now, but once you’re done with college, like me… It’s time to move on.” I smile sadly and look over at the small family, the kids now strapped into their life vests and floating in the water.

Leo sighs deeply, the salty air filling his chest before he slowly exhales, his body seemingly collapsing in on itself. Before he breathes in, I count his exposed ribs, thinly covered by tan skin. Leo’s the type of guy who could eat fast food every day for the rest of his life and not put on a single pound. The drawstring to his bathing suit desperately clings to his hips as he ties it tightly, but I pretend not to notice the excess fabric scrunched around his waist. Instead, I notice the gentle curl of his lips. Instead, I notice his sunburnt cheeks and his calloused hands, and I smell his fading cologne mixed with sunblock. Instead of his bony torso and his lanky limbs, I notice that he is looking at me, through his sunglasses, and he is looking at my lips, just like I am looking at his.

“What are you looking at?” he asks, playfully. I hold his stare for just a moment longer, trying to see past the dark shades of his glasses.

“Nothing,” I say, smiling as I turn away. Leo is finite. He is not like Ryder or Monica, who lead opposite, glamorous lives. There is no secret persona, no mask, no mystery or enigma or charade. He is what he seems to be. I take comfort in knowing that my Leo is the Leo, that when he leaves this beach, he takes all of himself. He doesn’t leave pieces behind with the sunblock and whistles, he doesn’t lose himself when he loses the uniform to the washing machine. The Leo that clasps his hands at church, the Leo that bumps into me at the grocery store, he will have the same eyes that look at me now, he will have the same silvery voice that now fills my ears. He is real. And he is next to me. And all of him is next to me, every atom, every face, every voice, it is all right here, right on this tower.

I catch myself staring at him again, smiling at the beauty that is his simplicity. “You got something to say?” he says jokingly, but I just smile and shake my head slowly, knowing that the things I want to say are not meant to be heard on the stand.

We sit in silence together, feeling the sun beat down on our skin as we watch the small family eventually pack up their things and leave. Inside the garage, Gabe’s low voice calls out the time: 4:00 p.m.

“Time to go?” Leo asks without looking at me.

“Yeah…” I reply.

“Well, see you tomorrow.”

I get up slowly. Carefully climbing down the ladder, I look up at him just one more time. The sunlight frames his face. He waves his hand at me and I wave back, then wordlessly turn and walk to the garage.

The five-minute car ride home is peaceful. Transformative. I buckle my seatbelt, roll down the windows, and play the radio. The running wind courses throughout my car and washes the beach from my skin, pulling away the scent of sunblock and salt water. By the time I pull into my driveway, it is as though the bathing suit that hugs my body is the only thing that has followed me home from the beach.

Walking up to the front door, some faces become blurry as others come into focus. Names that I didn’t remember at lunch time fill my head when I sit down for dinner. Jokes and stories that made me laugh as I lounged in the sun no longer make sense to me once I fall into my bed at night.

My mother hugs me when I walk in the door, her shirt stained with the tomato sauce that is now simmering on the stove. She holds my face in her hands, stroking my dark skin and asking me if I put sunblock on throughout the day. I nod but don’t really remember.

“How was your day?” she asks, but when I start to answer, my mind draws a blank.

The pieces of stories that I have don’t taste right in my mouth so, instead, I say, “Nothing.”

“Nothing? You’re telling me that you spent the entire day at the beach and yet you don’t have a single story to tell?”

I shrug. “What do you want me to say? Nobody ever goes to the beach; there’s not much to do when there isn’t anyone to guard.”

She sighs. “Well, what about those kids you work with? What are they up to?”

I think back to the card game with Ryder, to Zach playing Deep Sea Diver, and to sitting on the stand with Leo. But when I look at my mother and open my mouth to speak, I know she wouldn’t understand. The reputations we have earned in this small town don’t match up with the people I spend my day with. The names she associates with certain adjectives are also the names that find ways to keep us all entertained during the long days at the empty beach. Neither she nor my friends can comprehend the complexity of the beach, the complexity of each individual lifeguard who sits on that tower and watches over the water.

So when my mother asks about my day, there is nothing to say, no tale to tell. Those stories belong to a different me, from a different world, made up of a rocky beach and a tiled garage.


Jamison Murcott is a sophomore at Purchase College and is working towards a BA in creative writing. She has never published a work of fiction before. Native to Long Island, NY, she spends her summers working at the beach and then spends all that money on egg sandwiches and iced coffee.

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Caroline DeLuca

Child Protection

Across state lines. The words glared at Ramona, and sprung up to pounce and handcuff her. She was too quick, though: she crumpled up the social services packet that had been hiding amongst her T-shirts, and chucked it. Those words had nothing to do with her. She wasn’t taking Joey; she was taking care of him. Like a mother should. She took a breath and folded another shirt into the duffel bag. Then she stilled, the hairs on her arm awake to the wispy exhale of the packet unfurling against the walls of the wastebasket. Maybe she should take the papers. Better than leaving them here for anyone to discover after she was gone. She tiptoed over and pinched the packet out of the trash. The words leapt out at her again—across state lines—and she flipped the pages away from her. She flattened the packet and crammed it deep in the belly of the bag, underneath her clothing and the couple things of Joey’s that were here, and not at the Bensons’. She planted her hands on top of the clothes and pressed down hard, creating more breathing room for her belongings and less for that accusation on the page.

A tinny version of an Erykah Badu song erupted from somewhere. Ramona scrambled for her purse, grabbed her phone and checked the tiny screen. Aisha.

“Hey, girl,” Ramona said. She sat down on the mattress. Stripped, it felt waxy.

“Hey. I only have a few minutes, but I just wanted to check you know how to get to the house, once you get off the bus. You have the directions, right?”

“Yeah. Walk east to North Charles, then take the 3 to 28th street, right?”

“Right. 340 East 28th. The one with the blue porch and the plastic flamingos. You saw the pictures. You can’t miss it.”

“That porch does seem pretty unmissable,” Ramona said. The porch was really what had convinced her this new chapter was possible and necessary. Sure, the fact that it was Aisha, and a house of sober, responsible adults in the other rooms helped, as did the cheap rent and raised minimum wage in Maryland—practically double Philly’s. The cozy look of those overstuffed armchairs, the improbable robin’s egg blue of the posts, and the silliness of that flamingo family cemented the deal. Did Joey have anything in his life right now that was purely silly? Purely sweet? Deborah Benson, his foster mother, had never once laughed in front of Ramona, and her smiles were all Splenda. From what Joey said, the pack of kids running around the house sounded half feral. Ramona would give Joey goofiness again. Give him safety. Love.

“I’ll get Anderson to set up the air mattress for Joey in your room,” Aisha said.

“Thanks,” Ramona said. “I really appreciate it. And I can’t wait to meet him!”

“Yeah, it’s been too long,” Aisha said. “I’m just so glad you’re coming, and that the custody hearing went well. You must be thrilled to pieces to have Joey back!”

Ramona glanced down. A crack in the linoleum had gradually zigzagged into a delicate web, over the course of these months. Ramona wasn’t going to stick around for the whole floor to cave in.

She and Aisha always told it to each other straight, but she had to think of Joey. She pictured them sitting on that porch, cocooned in blankets and drinking hot cocoa with cayenne, while the sun sank somewhere beyond their concern. Her throat constricted.

“Yeah, you have no idea,” she said. “I don’t even know what to do with myself.”

Soon, they’d be in Baltimore. They’d lie low for a little, and then it wouldn’t matter anymore; it’d be just like she had won back custody, all official. It had been too long: thirteen months of visits only every other week, in neutral places. And now, this six-month delay on the reunification hearing! It made no sense. She had clawed out over a year of sobriety (well, with one lightning flash of a slip-up, but just one), she had a job at the Gap, and a secure public housing unit…she’d even taken that parenting course. What did they want, her left leg? A letter from the president? Ramona couldn’t just throw her hands in the air and leave this up to the fates of bureaucracy. Joey needed her.

“You’re awful quiet,” Aisha said. “Are you feeling nervous?”

“Yeah, a little,” Ramona said. “I’ve never even been to Baltimore. I’m excited, but there’s a lot to figure out. Getting a job, getting Joey in school…”

“Oh, I’ll help you out with all that. And everywhere will be hiring for the holidays; you should have no problem. I was going to save this for when you got here, but I actually know about an office job I might be able to get you an interview for.”

“Oh, Aisha, that’d be amazing. You’re too good.”

“Well, we’ve gotta have each other’s backs. You kept me sane back in rehab.”

“I’d say you kept me sane, too, but I don’t think anybody could’ve back then.” Ramona said. Aisha laughed. “You’ve done it since, though. Better than a sponsor.”

“Oh, honey. Yeah, you were some hell on wheels. A nice hell, though! Look, I’ve gotta go, but keep me posted about the bus, okay? Bye!”

Ramona hung up, and resumed folding clothes into the bag. Would Joey remember Aisha? She’d last visited when he was only four, just a few months before they’d lost the apartment and moved into Tyler’s. Ramona had been sober that time for two weeks, and even speaking was like swimming through swamp mud. Leaving, Aisha had squeezed her and said, “I think this’ll be the time you make it stick!” But Ramona only lasted another month. It took losing Joey for her to stay sober. From the moment she woke up in the hospital and he was gone, she was rabid for him, volcanic; her pores plugged with seething magma. Once out of rehab (this time in-patient), she focused every cell into leaping through any hoop social services suggested.

But nothing was enough. She saw that now. Despite everything, Joey’s social worker still brought up the needle on Tyler’s floor from her first visit, a year and a half ago. The needle wasn’t even Ramona’s, or Tyler’s. It must have been one of Tyler’s roommate’s customers, leaving shit behind. God, she would never have even brought Joey there if she could’ve afforded the rent on their lease renewal. She had made it nice for him, though. The room Joey slept in might have been tiny, but it was a sanctuary. All clean light and fluffy stuffed animals and Christmas tree smell. Christmas tree smell because she’d bought eight of those dangling air fresheners meant for cars. The whole rest of the building reeked of all manner of fumes, but her boy’s room smelled like Christmas, like the only needles lying around were pine.

The Bensons would never do something like that for Joey, Ramona thought, tucking his favorite racecar in the bag. And they didn’t really know him, or the warning signs for magma rising. They weren’t teaching him how to stand up to bullies, or when it was right to help someone in a mess, or better to run away and get help. They were just plain weird. They spoke in tongues! Joey told her so during his most recent visit. It wasn’t like Ramona dragged him to confession every week, but that didn’t mean she wanted him getting mixed up with possession and speaking in tongues. A god that slithered into your soul, and swam around until your head rolled back and your body bucked, and poured out ropes of sound, ecstatic and gelatinous—that wasn’t a god she wanted. No more out of body. No more lightning.

She pulled the sides of the bag together until the teeth of the zipper clenched. A siren seared through the static of traffic outside. Her head snapped up.

Kidnapping, hissed the papers from the belly of the bag.

Rescue, she corrected. Necessary. She yanked the zipper closed.

Ramona stood outside by Joey’s school playground now, the grainy strap of the duffel bag digging into her palm. She’d taken extra care to remain unobtrusive. She painted herself beige. She blurred her presence. A huge Goodwill sweater bagged over her blouse, and her brown hair tucked beneath an Orioles cap.

Joey wasn’t outside yet. It was 3:27 p.m. He got out at 3:30 p.m. She glanced around and saw a security guard. He nodded at her. She nodded back. He nodded again. She nodded back. He nodded yet again. How many nods did he need? Who was going to keep this from going on forever? Did he have a tic? Would he be more likely to remember her if she ignored him or if she kept nodding into infinity? She wished she didn’t have the duffel with her. She wished she had a car.

Maybe the view of the monkey bars could save her. Ramona did the thing where she became a painting. This time she became a painting of a woman gazing at a playground. She’d had a several-month stint as a security guard at an art museum a few years ago: Each week they rotated to a different room, a week in each different room, with just a few paintings to stare at. She thought she’d crawl out of her head. Instead she crawled into the paintings. Once she moved to the Modernist wing, though, it got to be too much. She was becoming splotches and nightmares. Zigzags, splatters, and twentieth-century shell shock. Even humming didn’t help; the music escaped her control, and thinned into screeching violins. That was when she started bringing gin in a Poland Spring water bottle. One day she got weepy though, and her breath smelled, and that was the end of that. Vodka would have been safer, but a particularly sour night in high school had ruined the stuff for her.

Nowadays she kept to the Impressionists. Let her be blurry when she needed to be. Blurry, and prettily pastoral harmless. It worked: the security guard was looking the other way. Dude needs a hobby. Or meds. Then again, all he had to look at was the playground. If she weren’t hiding, she’d have gone over and shot the breeze with him.

Joey burst from the gym doors in a clump of kids, one organism with many wriggling legs. Two kids were flashing Pokémon cards. Joey and a boy were arguing, “uh-huh!” and “nuh-uh!” He sprung onto the jungle gym and scrambled up to crouch atop the plastic monkey bars.

“See?” he yelled down to his friend.

Ramona shook her head and knew she was doing right. She had to get him back now, away now, while he was still young and elastic. They were both like this, scrambling higher and quicker on dares—or not even on dares: Ramona and Joey were walking dares, dares and desperation and away, away, away. She had to divert his route before the ground got to know his name. All her potential energy for disaster was coiled, and ready to spring from his DNA. Only Ramona, reformed, could feed him the antidote.

They would get on the bus and become fresh, become possible. They would have to lay low for a couple weeks, use cash, work off the books—but she would get a job and get him in school. She would learn to cook with fresh vegetables instead of canned. She could teach Joey, make it fun: ingredients in a potion. He should learn too. They would play in the little yard, and eat on the blue porch. She could make life a humming, solid thing for him. She could do that now. After this getaway.

“Joey!”

Ramona whirled around.

Deborah Benson walked towards her. “Ramona?” Shit. How? Why? Joey took the bus home. Could she have guessed this?

“Mommy?” Joey called. Did he see her, or—Ramona’s organs knocked around inside—was he calling Deborah Mommy? She clamped her jaw shut. She tried to become a painting, casual, beige—no, not beige. Now was the time for straw hats, for smiles all around, blue umbrellas on the beach. She looked up and aimed some sunshine at Joey. She brought him into the painting too.

“Hey, buddy!” she said. He waved, and she winced. “Use both hands!” He made a face, brought his waving hand back to the bar, and kept climbing. She used to make fun of hyper-vigilant parents. But during the few days in the shelter, the months at Tyler’s, and all the time apart, a pulsing dread had hatched in her chest; a dread with tentacles that squeezed her lungs and reached outward to protect Joey.

Deborah was approaching from behind, so she probably had already seen the duffel. She turned and stepped in front of it, just in case. Shit, why was Deborah here?

“Joey, come down!” Deborah yelled and then asked Ramona, “What are you doing here?” Joey groaned but inched his feet down. It was always harder coming down.

“I needed to see Joey.”

The duffel practically shouted, across state lines. Ramona smiled, smiled, smiled.

“But you can’t, you don’t have a visit scheduled today.”

Oh, please, Deborah, tell me more about everything I can’t do. Ramona prepared possible excuses for the duffel bag: picked it up for a friend, carrying groceries, just came from the Y, work uniform…

“I really need to talk to him. There’s been a…I need to tell him some bad news.”

“So sorry to hear that,” Deborah said. “You know how this goes, though. You have your scheduled visits, and we don’t want him confused. Stability, you know.”

Joey finally had both feet back on the ground. He picked up his backpack and began running over to them. Ramona wanted to say, Stability? I’m his mother. She knew, though, that this most bedrock of boulders, this floor of her world, carried no weight here. Christ, the blinders on these people. Forward march, no looking around or back, no wiggle room for blurry reality. Ramona tried to imagine Deborah speaking in tongues, blurting holy nonsense, body spasmodic in spiritual ecstasy. She couldn’t. Deborah was like one of the people at the County Assistance offices, either sneering or so wrapped up in red tape they’d lost their claims to red blood.

“It’s an emergency.” She tried saying please, but she couldn’t do it.

Joey was there, and automatically she crouched and spread her arms, and he dove in, thank God: he was hers, no matter what Deborah said. She closed her eyes for a moment.

“Hi, Aunt Debbie,” Joey said, his face still buried in her shoulder.

Damn it, she would say please if she had to. She stood up, clutching Joey’s hand.

“Debbie, it’s my mother,” she murmured, softening her face until she was a mourner: one of those Greek paintings, or maybe a Jackie O portrait. “I’ve really got to tell Joey. I just need to take him out for ice cream or something so we can talk about this.”

“What do you have to tell me?” Joey piped up. “What about ice cream?”

“Joey,” Deborah warned.

“Hang on a sec, buddy,” Ramona said.

“What’s in the bag?” Deborah asked.

Ramona resisted snapping her fingers as the last pieces of this lie clicked into place. “Some clothes for the trip home. I just wanted to see Joey before I head there, in a couple hours. You know, have to settle some affairs…”

“Oh dear,” Deborah said, but her face didn’t move at all. Maybe she had Botox? Was that what she was spending the foster parent allowance on? Or was she just a robot?

Ramona tried to think in Deborah-speak, system-speak. “You know, I’ve got real respect for the stand-up job you’re doing here, all the rules you keep track of, everything you’re doing to take care of Joey. We all want the best for him. I know it’s hard. I know you’re just trying to do what’s right. Just…two hours, ice cream at Sonny’s. I want to talk, give him time to process. Stability through these…bad circumstances.” Ramona hoped that last part wasn’t too much, throwing “stability” back at her.

“Are we getting ice cream?” Joey said. “Because I don’t like pistachio anymore, did I tell you that? I want cotton candy flavor.”

“Hang on, Joey,” Ramona said, still watching Deborah, whose lips were pursed.

Ramona went for broke. “Please,” she said. “Debbie…”

It paid off. Deborah blew air out from the side of her mouth. Definitely a smoker.

“I don’t like this,” Deborah said. “You should have called. But this once. Okay? I’ve got to get my son to the dentist. I’ll pick Joey up at Sonny’s when we’re done.”

“Thank you,” Ramona said. “I appreciate it. I can drop him back off at the house if that’s easier. Not a problem.” Cleaning, cavities… How long did they have? The bus wasn’t until 4:45 p.m., and they still had to take the city bus to the transit hub.

“I’ll pick him up at Sonny’s when we’re done,” Deborah repeated. She narrowed her eyes. “See you then.” She walked toward the older kids. No parting words or reassurance to Joey. What did Deborah do when Joey got hurt playing, or upset trying to do math homework? Did she make up good dreams for him at bedtime? Did her face ever move? Was anyone caring for him this whole time, or just coldly doling out the basics?

Well, Deborah could melt in hell. The important thing was, Ramona was getting them gone. They’d bought time.

“Okay, buddy, hurry for ice cream time!”

“Why hurry?” Joey asked.

“Why hurry?” Ramona repeated. Tell him now? Better wait until they were truly safe. He talked too much, that was always his problem. Like her. “So we have plenty of time to eat all the cotton candy ice cream they have!”

“I can eat more than you.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Can you eat fifty gallons of ice cream?”

“I can!”

She pulled him to the bus stop. Ten minutes until the next one. Why was everything so far apart? Who planned the layout of this city, and how shitfaced had they been? Should she take a cab to the station? No, that costs too much, and wouldn’t make the Bolt Bus leave any faster, which was the real hurdle. They needed to be away, STAT.

Joey asked, “What do you need to tell me?”

“Don’t worry about it. Uh, what toppings do you like? Grasshoppers? Worms?”

“No! Sprinkles and chocolate syrup, and gummy bears, and…and M&Ms…”

A few minutes later, the bus wheezed up to where they stood. They boarded, and Ramona managed to resist knocking the driver out of the seat and whisking them straight to Baltimore.

At the transit hub, Ramona raced to the man in the orange Bolt Bus vest, Joey in tow.

“Two standby tickets, please,” she said, digging out her wallet.

“Nope, nope, nope,” the man said, swinging his head back and forth.

“What?”

“What are we doing?” Joey asked. “I thought we—”

“Hang on, Joey, I just have to talk to this man for a minute.” She turned back to him. “What do you mean, nope?” Saying it out loud felt ridiculous. Who even said nope?

“There’s only one left,” he said.

“He can sit on my lap, he’s a little boy. We won’t be any trouble.”

“I am not little,” Joey interrupted. “Where are we going?”

“Joey, hang on.” When he was born, Ramona swore never to spank Joey the way her mother had spanked her. There were moments when her hand twitched, though.

“No kids on laps,” the man said.

“Is that official policy? We’ve really got to make this bus. I mean—I’m sure you know best, but is there any way?” It occurred to her that this might have gone smoother if she were beiger and less wild-eyed, if she weren’t wearing the giant sweater and Phillies cap, made a prettier painting or slinkier words. Maybe that ship had just sailed, though. The years of playing along for leering landlords and managers, and the couple months of pretending for Tyler had beaten the eyelash batting out of her. She was exhausted from all that survival. She wanted to be done. She wanted to be safe.

“It’s official, all right,” the man said. “One’a youse on, or both’a youse off.”

She blinked. Groceries, clothes, came from the Y…answers for the wrong crisis. Gin and tonic, please. No. She wished there were someone to talk to, that she could sit on the hospital courtyard picnic table with Aisha and smoke, vent, hash this out. A cigarette, at least. She stabbed her palm with ragged fingernails. Christ! Focus. Could she send Joey on the bus, have Aisha meet him at the station, and get on the next one? No. She couldn’t. What if someone took him? She wasn’t letting him out of her sight again.

“Where are we going?” Joey whined.

“Okay. When’s the next bus to Baltimore?” Ramona asked.

“7:30 p.m.” He looked at her. “’Scuse me, I’ve got to help the next person.”

“Okay. Okay,” she said, not moving.

“Mommy…”

“Okay,” she said. She pulled Joey away, walking backwards a few steps.

What could she do? The other bus lines to Baltimore were more expensive, and she didn’t know if they had earlier times. 7:30 p.m. They had to be gone before Deborah got back; they couldn’t just hide out here and wait. Why hadn’t she told her the name of an ice cream place across town? Why had she said one that was actually here? It made sense at the time. She should have bought the tickets in advance. Why hadn’t she done that? Right, she couldn’t; then it would be on her credit card, and if the social worker called the cops, they would know right away.

Did she know anyone with a car? Well, Tyler. The thought was like rotten cabbage. But maybe this was too big not to try it all; maybe she could play dead inside, waste into a pastel silhouette, just for today, and plead for one last thing. It might work. But no, he would take control of the plan; he wouldn’t want to take them to Baltimore. He would come up with a plan for them to stay in Philly, or hide away somewhere, together. No. She couldn’t risk it. She would go to the Greyhound window and hope.

“Mommy,” Joey yelled. He’d been calling her. Shit.

“Yeah, buddy, what? I’m sorry.”

“What are we doing? Why aren’t we at Sonny’s? You’re ignoring me, and Aunt Debbie is coming soon and we haven’t even gotten ice cream.”

She stroked his hair. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. We’ll get ice cream soon. I’m just trying to figure something out, okay? I need a few minutes to think.”

He ducked away. His voice rose in pitch. “Are we going somewhere? Why were you trying to get us seats on that bus?”

“Listen, Joey, I know you’re confused. I’ll explain everything soon. But you gotta give me just a few minutes. Just a few minutes of the quiet game so I can think. I’m figuring things out for us, for you, my special buddy, right? Just come with me.”

She started walking inside. Joey’s face was bubbling up to an eruption, his mouth a fault line. He held his hand out of reach, but he followed. Better to be inside, anyway. She scanned the area. No Deborah. Wait, was that cop looking at them? They needed to be away. No trace, no late buses, no run-ins before they were out of state.

The worst-case scenarios tumbled out of the duffel bag; sirens screamed in Ramona’s head. What if this didn’t work? If she were caught? Could she go to jail? Joey was her son, though. At the very least, he’d get taken back to Deborah, or someone else. Maybe someone worse. Some people in rehab had horror stories about the foster system. Some friends growing up, too—not good homes. And forget six months. If she got caught now, they’d never give her a reunification hearing. But were they ever going to as it was? If she couldn’t get him back by playing it straight, maybe there was nothing to lose. But what if they got caught? Would they cancel her visits, even? It just made no sense; she was his mother. He was her son. He needed her.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she jumped. How’s it going? ETA? Aisha.

She stared at the screen, thumb frozen. What was she doing to Aisha? Ramona knew how cases went for poor kids, and was banking on the cops—if they even got involved—losing interest after a few weeks. But what if it didn’t work that way? Aisha would be so disappointed in her—and could maybe get in trouble, too. Aisha had stood by her these past five years, even though Ramona kept hitting ditches on the recovery path while Aisha walked on upright. Aisha worked so hard for her piece of solid ground.

So had Ramona.

She closed her eyes. What if she went to jail? This was a pretty bad purgatory, these twice-a-month visits, this answering to everyone and getting told to roll over and beg for slivers of hope. But forever apart, no hope left, jail…that would be sheer hell. That would be no life. People in rehab had stories about jail, too. And what if Joey got sent to someone worse? Deborah seemed soulless, and those kids ran wild, but so far, no one was hurting Joey. They were feeding him. He had a roof. Ramona hadn’t let herself consider all of this so as to hurtle forward with this plan, but she couldn’t stop now. What if he got sent to someone worse? What if Ramona’s attempt to get him back stuck Joey with someone who screamed or hit or worse—the chest of a boy in group therapy flashed through her mind, as he lifted his shirt to show white, puckered burn scars, Oh Jesus…she couldn’t do this.

She couldn’t play with those kinds of cards. She needed him back, but she needed him safe more.

Ramona looked up from her phone at Joey. There was no Joey to look at. Her head swiveled to scour every corner of the corridor.

“Joey!” she yelled, not seeing him. The duffel slammed into her calf again and again as she ran. “JOEY!” Had he made a break for the ice cream? That must be it.

She burst into Sonny’s Ice Cream Parlor, strands of hair sticking to her neck. It wasn’t very busy. She ducked to be sure he wasn’t under a table. He wasn’t. Ramona stood paralyzed for a moment. She looked around a second time.

“You seen a little boy? Six years old? Brown hair?”

The cashier blinked at her, chewing gum. “What?”

“A boy!” Ramona yelled. “Have you seen a boy?” The cashier shrugged. “Dumbass,” she hissed, and turned tail.

Would he go back outside? The bathroom? If he was lost somewhere, or hiding, or climbing… He loved toy trains. What if he got on a train and it pulled away? Would he? He would probably go outside first. How far could he have gotten already while she was looking in Sonny’s?

She was through the door, her pores welcoming a gust of cold air. She blinked. Her feet had kept running, her body kept carrying her through all these panicked machinations. “JOEY!”

He was there, standing so small by the curb where the bus employee had been. The strides to reach him felt slow, as though sloshing through soup or subconscious. Ramona’s muscles seemed to melt. She sunk to the ground and yanked him into her arms. Her mouth was moving in strange shapes. A gush of something more than air but less than words was trembling its way out of her, but she didn’t know what, and didn’t care. Her stomach hurt and the muscles around her jaw jumped.

“Mommy? What are you saying? I’m sorry. Mommy?”

A low, animal howl came from her. Knots of syllablesfrom thank God and why would you and my babyunsnarled and rushed out from her throat in ropes of garbled keening. Her chest bucked in dry sobs and her elbow buckled under the weight of the duffel. But she couldn’t let go of Joey: he was hers, he was here. She had them locked in a strange dance, in a possession, in a fervid love-fear—dissolved to clanging atoms, skinned to its most primal translation.

“Mommy?” His voice was sliding back in time. Five-year-old Joey, visiting in the hospital after they’d pumped her stomach. She needed to get it together. She needed to be okay for him. Clutching his shoulder still, she pulled back and drew in a ragged breath.

“I’m so sorry, buddy,” she said. “It’s okay. I was just so scared.”

“At first I was mad,” he said. “But then I came out here to fix it by myself.”

“To fix it by yourself?” Her body was still shaking. She knelt, and let go of the duffel bag.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was gonna convince somebody on the bus to give us their seat. But then they were gone already.”

“You were gonna—but you didn’t even know what was going on. You didn’t know where we were going.” Ramona realized she was speaking in the past tense. They really weren’t going. A gust of air unspooled from her lungs, and finally she was still.

“I don’t care,” Joey whispered.

She closed her eyes, and pulled him close again, her soul swimming in him.

“Listen,” she said, after a few minutes. “Do you feel safe with Aunt Debbie? Are she and the other kids treating you okay?” She asked this every visit.

“Yeah,” Joey said. “It’s okay.”

“Okay,” Ramona said. “Well, we’ve got to get you back, then. Ice cream then home.” She eased herself up.

“Not home home, though,” Joey said. “Right?”

“No,” Ramona said. “Not yet.”

“I want to go with you,” Joey said. He swiped at his eye with the back of his hand.

“I’m so sorry, buddy. I love you so much. Today was a bad thing. I’m so sorry. I almost broke the rules, and we’ve got to keep quiet about that. We’ve gotta follow the rules really good so that one day you can come home with me. Can we do that?”

Joey nodded. They began walking back inside, to Sonny’s. A painting of a mother taking her son out to ice cream. But blotchy faces, a gutted mother. She wanted to pick him up and carry him, but he was too big and probably wouldn’t let her besides. She settled for holding his hand, which he probably wouldn’t let her do anymore either, soon.

“MOM!” He yelled. “What? What?” Had they blown it? Was Deborah back already? What?

“It’s a Pikachu balloon! Up on the gate! Can you reach it?”

She knew before turning that no matter where this balloon was, she would find a way to get it. The ribbon was tangled in the gate against the wall of a side corridor, the end of the ribbon about twelve feet up. Ramona looked up. In the whole of the hall, there were seven or eight balloons slouched against the thirty-foot ceiling above. They walked over, and she set the duffel bag down. She breathed deep.

“Stay right here,” she said. “I mean it.”

Joey nodded. She hooked her foot through a space in the gate, and then balanced the other on a nail, grabbing at the first rail. She hauled herself up, legs dangling for a moment before kicking against the slippery bars with enough friction to push off, and onto the rail. She was crouched on the rail, now. She looked slowly behind her. Joey was still there, and no one was looking. She reached up for the next bar, and with the other hand seized the balloon’s ribbon.

“Mommy,” Joey said.

“Yes?” She asked without turning, scared to lose her balance.
“Use both hands.”

Ramona thought: No painting of this could exist. Slowly, she made her way down.


Caroline DeLuca lives in Brooklyn, NY and is pursuing her MFA at Stony Brook Southampton while working as a freelance editor. She has taught creative writing workshops at Stony Brook University, the New York Memory Center, UVA Young Writers Workshop, United Community Corporation, and Gaudenzia Substance Abuse Recovery Home, among other places. Her writing appears, or will soon appear, in publications including Shelia-Na-Gig, Snapdragon Journal, sirsee, Thesongis, Rat’s Ass Review, Local Nomad, Seven Deadly Sins, Accelerate Education, Greek Fire, and on her website, carolinedeluca.com.

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Filed under Fiction

Juliana Schicho

Red Oak

There was something living beneath the timbre of his mother’s voice. Simon wondered if she knew. She always seemed mystic to him, like the mind readers you see in movies.

“Eat your breakfast,” his mother Jess said, sighing. Her strong jaw was slightly clenched, a usual feature of her face. Simon was not good at reading faces, and he fidgeted in his chair under the gaze of her amber eyes. She sat down across from him. “Did you skip your extra class yesterday?”

He said nothing, and instead moved the food around on his plate in short, timid motions.

“You know you have to go, Simon,” Jess said, quiet but stern. “You can’t fail math this year, it’s a very important class. The teachers are there to help you.”

“I wanted more leaves.” He spoke quietly.

Jess didn’t get mad. She almost never did. Instead, she stood up and patted the top of his head, slightly pushing down his dense ringlets of hair.

Yesterday Simon had enjoyed his afternoon in the woods, as he always did. He liked the clear air and crunching leaves. He liked the soft dirt under his feet. Sometimes, if he was daring, he’d dip a hand in the frigid river, letting the clear water slip through his palms. The cold would chill his hand until it was numb, and he’d remove it, sitting back down on the shallow bank. The river was fairly wide, but not large or filled with rapids. The banks were shallow, but the river was fast and made gurgling noises like an upset stomach or an engine trying its hardest to start. He spent hours collecting leaves to press in old heavy books—outdated encyclopedias and unused dictionaries on dusty bookshelves in his home were filled with remnants from the autumns before. It helped him forget about school, even though the dense woods were right down the street from the building.

His father entered the kitchen with a smile on his face. He was a short man with a crown of wiry salt-and-pepper hair.

“Come on, get to the bus stop! Omar, you too,” he called down the hallway of their small ranch home.

His older brother emerged from his room, yawning. Simon saw his father put an arm around Omar, whispering something to him about Simon and to look out for him, okay? Together, the two brothers left on the faded school bus.

The school hallways were narrow and old with musty scents, tiny lockers, and several students wearing hand-me-downs of camouflage and otherwise. Dirt caked into the worn tile floors as students tracked it in with their sneakers—another mark of a rural public school. The students brushed by Simon, shouldering their way through the crowd and each other. In his classes, the sounds of the teachers speaking and the hum of the fluorescent lights buzzed in his ears, causing the lessons to pass over him as he fidgeted in his seat with distraction and unease. As the day ended, he drew near his locker. A scruffy, pale boy approached him.

“Hey, kid.” the boy said. He was taller than Simon, like most people in the school.

Simon didn’t make eye contact, and instead focused on opening his locker.

“I said hey. Are you stupid or something?” The boy laughed, and a group of boys behind him chuckled along. “Is that why you go to the special class after school?”

Simon opened his locker with trembling hands. He wanted the boy to go away. He wondered where Omar was, as they usually met up before going to the bus.

“Good job, dumbass, you opened your locker.” The boy reached for the rusted seafoam locker door. “See if you can get it open again.” He slammed the door shut, metal slamming down on Simon’s hand.

He yelped in pain. The bully looked at his victim and opened his mouth as if to speak, but before he could say anything further, the bell signaling the end of the day rang. Simon scrambled for his things and ran for the door. He sprinted past the waiting buses, their white exhaust bitter in the cold air.

He thought he heard someone call “Simon” from behind him as he ran, but he didn’t stop. As he got to the woods, a park with a dirt path through it, he ran away from the trail and through the skeleton-bare trees. His feet pounded over both stone and soft ground as they carried him further toward his destination, a small clearing he often visited in the forest. As Simon grew nearer, he slowed down, his heart hammering in his chest. The ground in the forest here was more soft soil than rocks. Simon sat down to catch his breath. His eyes stung with tears. The cold air wrapped itself around his ankles, grabbing his legs through his thin socks. He heard footsteps approaching him rapidly from behind, but was too upset to pay them any attention.

“Simon,” a voice huffed. Simon looked up and saw his older brother standing above him, his dark skin shining with sweat despite the cold weather. Omar’s feet were planted firmly on the ground and his brow was furrowed. Simon didn’t reply, but instead buried his head in his knees, pulled up tight against him.

Omar sat down next to him and put a lanky arm around his younger brother’s shoulder. After a pause, he suggested, “Come on, let’s go find those leaves. What color are we looking for today?”

“Red. Dark red,” Simon answered, sniffling and rubbing his hand, which was still sore.

The two slowly stood up. Together, Simon and Omar searched for leaves fitting the description. Simon was very picky about which leaves he allowed in his books, but Omar was patient. He never hurried Simon, and instead of shouting at him to hurry up, he sat down with him and looked for leaves to meet his brother’s standards. Simon sat down on the cold forest floor, sifting through individual leaves with the scrutiny of a diamond inspector. Breath rose from his mouth in a pale gray that reminded him of ghosts.

“Simon, how about these?” Omar asked him from behind.

Simon turned and was greeted with a head full of leaves that his brother threw at him. The older boy laughed and began to run, his younger brother chasing him. Simon was not well-coordinated and he watched Omar run circles around him, faint autumn sunlight creating light patches on his walnut skin. Finally, he slowed down and allowed Simon to catch him. The two laughed and fell over onto the dirt, some of it clinging to their jackets.

“You caught me, you caught me,” Omar laughed. “You win.”

It was then Simon saw it. By the bank of the river was a tall red oak tree, some of its leaves still attached. They were deep crimson, and Simon was transfixed. Omar caught on, following his gaze and slowing his laugh.

“That’s it,” Simon said quietly, walking over to it. The leaves were too high for him to reach, however, and they emptied into the clear river below, ruining the chance of finding one on the ground. “I can’t get one.”

Simon’s face contorted into furrowed brows and a frown, and Omar strode over to the tree. “It’s not that tall. I can climb it.”

Simon looked at him hopefully, but said nothing. His brown eyes were wide as he nodded.

Omar’s lanky frame was stronger than it looked, and he clambered onto the tree with ease. He reached toward the red leaves, setting his face and sticking out his tongue slightly in concentration. Simon stood at the base of the tree, wringing his hands in anticipation. It was something he always did when excited or nervous. He huddled a bit further inside his coat, eager to see the leaves up close and imagining what they would look like once pressed and dried. The river carried in cold air and swept by Simon in a slight whisper.

Then, over the bubbling and spitting of the fast-moving water came a cracking sound. Omar’s hand retreated and Simon couldn’t see his face, but he knew by the way Omar clung to the branch that he was scared. Simon’s feet shifted nervously in place and he felt a roiling in his stomach as his face grew hot with fear. His brother seemed so far and high up that he didn’t know what to do.

“Omar,” he said quietly, wringing his hands with anxiety now instead of excitement. He heard his brother produce something like an answer but before he could finish, there was another snap. The branch gave way into the water below, carrying his brother with it.

Simon’s heart skipped several beats and a wave of panic crashed over him. He jumped to the edge of the water, and stood on the slanted shallow bank, watching to see if Omar had emerged from below, but he saw only but his distorted reflection. The river moved wildly on as if nothing had happened.

“Omar!” He cried, his voice cracking. His shoes were wet and cold as he stood on the cusp of the river. Water bounced from the fast river in droplets on his porous sneakers, and moisture from the ground below him steeped through the rubber soles. Downstream, he thought he heard a “Simon”; he thought he heard crying.

He exited the water and sprinted downstream, but the water was too fast and he was too slow. The boy tripped over a rock and fell, cutting through his jeans and creating a gash in his knee. He tried to get up to run again, but his leg gave way and he fell to the forest floor. Bits of dried leaves and dirt stuck themselves to his knee, and he gripped it tighter, feeling the heat of the injury, soon matched by the heat of his tears. The water was too loud, and he shifted his hands to his ears, standing up. Simon began to sprint back the way he and his brother had come, back toward the school and the street and home. It felt as if someone had shoved a stone into his lungs, and he gasped with panic and effort.

He remembered screaming the whole way back. He remembered his father dropping a porcelain plate and running outside. Later, his mother on the phone, voice wavering but strong. He remembered lights and lights and lights.

It had been two weeks and twelve neighbor-given casseroles since her oldest son drowned in the Paulinskill River. She never thought it could happen, especially somewhere she let her kids play almost every day after school. A dog found Omar an hour after it happened, and the animal’s owner tried CPR three times, to no avail. Local newspapers called it a tragedy that an intelligent boy of thirteen years would die. They spoke as if it never happened to anyone. She thought this would make her feel guilty, but she felt nothing—like someone had vacuumed out everything inside of her and she was just a ribcage with skin. The funeral had been a dream—none of it felt tangible, none of it real. Jess absentmindedly cracked her knuckles at her desk. Years as a database manager had left her with carpal tunnel syndrome, which got worse since her son passed. Some days she could barely open her hands flat, leaving them slightly clawed instead. Numbers flew in front of her, but she barely registered them as she typed line after line of data.

“Aren’t you done for the day, Jess?” her boss, an older woman, asked tentatively. “We’re all done. You should get some rest.”

“No,” Jess answered, distantly. “I’d rather finish up here first. I’ll see you Friday.”

She ended her work an hour after the others and went home. Her husband’s minivan was in the driveway, and she felt some of her loneliness lift. Inside, she was greeted by the clinging scent of pasta primavera, her husband’s signature dish. Jess smiled and silently gave him a peck on the cheek. His eyes were tired, but he grinned back.

“He’s in his room,” Ken said with a sigh. “Still not eating much.”

Jess sighed heavily. “Jesus, he’s only ten. Can you imagine? Ten years old. And having to see…” She trailed off, looking down at the tile of their kitchen.

“No,” Ken said, scooping pasta onto a plate. Steam fogged up his glasses, and he took them off, clearing them of the water droplets. “I really can’t. You need to talk to him, Jess. He still won’t listen to me. It sounds silly, but I wish Omar could talk to him about this. He was always the one to get through to him.”

Jess didn’t respond; instead she nodded thinly and exited the kitchen, walking down the hall.

Her two sons—her only son—lived down the hall in a room across from where his brother’s once was. She hadn’t cleaned out Omar’s things yet, even though a well-intentioned neighbor told Jess it’s best to get it cleaned up early. His old door was always open a crack. She hadn’t gone in except for when she needed a picture for the funeral. He had the best copy of his school portrait in his room. Jess was afraid to open the door fully, in case it let out a ghost. She knew it was ridiculous, but the room always seemed colder than the others. It hurt.

She shook her head slightly to break her stare away from the old door. Jess’s neck was stiff, her eyes strained from the constant glare of her computer screen. Slowly, she knocked on her youngest son’s door. She heard a shuffling of feet before Simon answered. His eyes were puffy, and he looked at the floor. He was always looking at the floor, even before all this happened.

“Simon, honey, you have to eat,” Jess nearly whispered. She was greeted with the usual silence. “Are you feeling okay?” She knew that was a dumb question, but with Simon she rarely received an answer anyway.

His skin, normally a rich umber like the leaves he used to collect, seemed bloodless—his eyes glazed over as if hypnotized. Jess thought it was like having another ghost in the house. She held onto him but never received a hug back. She tried not to blame him for what happened, to convince herself that it was just a twist of fate, but every time she looked in her son’s eyes, she saw something that was missing, something stolen from her.

Dinner was still, as it had been for the last few weeks. They sat closer together now but it made the gap at the table feel larger. The spaghetti was warm and it sat in Jess’s stomach like a rock. Bedtime was so quiet she could hardly put herself to bed. Her ears buzzed in the silence like a swarm of hornets, and she tossed and turned until morning.

The next day, she went into the small kitchen with its cold tiles and found it empty. Jess walked down to the other end of the haunted hallway and knocked on her son’s door. There was no answer.

“Simon,” she yawned, rubbing the back of her neck with an aching hand. “It’s time to get up for school. I’ll make you breakfast.” She received the usual stillness in return. “I’m coming in.”

Her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room and found nothing. Simon wasn’t in his bed. Jess’s heart leapt into her throat so quickly, she thought she would choke. Her palms sweat as she rushed to each room in the house, looking for her son. She still found nothing. She hated this house now—it seemed to laugh at her as she searched. Ken was doing IT work for the local high school, and had been called in early to set up the new operating system, and wouldn’t be back for several hours. Jess set her jaw and threw on a thick beige coat over her bony shoulders and thin pajamas. Snatching a hat off her cluttered kitchen counter, she bounded out the front door, like a child late for school.

Her old Saturn station wagon groaned to life and she gripped the frigid wheel, backing out of her driveway. The radio played soft static but she didn’t bother to turn it off. Her stop wasn’t far.

The woods had always intimidated Jess this time of year because its grayness that seemed to swallow up every bit of color. Ever since they moved to this rural town seven years ago, her children had loved the woods, but she never understood why. She should have listened to her gut feeling about the forest. She shut off her car and jogged into the woods, being careful to scan the trees around her for the sight of her boy’s red winter coat. A few minutes in, she couldn’t see her car anymore, and she was beginning to worry that she’d lost her way. But then, Jess heard the river. It made her heart beat faster than it already was from her jogging. A small figure in a red coat huddled in a clearing to her right. Immediately, she felt a huge weight lift from her shoulders. Jess approached her son quietly. He didn’t look up.

“Have a bad dream?” she asked. She saw the mess of tiny curls on his head bob up and down in the manner of a young child. She took the hat from on top of her head and bent down to put it on her son’s, sitting by him in the process.

The river ran like an unanswered phone, each splash of water slowing her heart a little more. Jess’s hands froze in the cold, and she rubbed them together to try and make warmth. The sight of the river had made her numb. It moved with a clear intensity that she knew she could never match again.

“That’s the tree?” she asked, pointing to the skeletal figure of the trunk. None of the leaves were left. Jess had never actually been to the site of where her son had died, afraid there wouldn’t be anything to mark his passing.

Simon nodded, not looking up. He just seemed to know where she was pointing. Jess wanted him to make eye contact with her. She wanted an “I’m sorry,” even though it wasn’t his fault. She almost wanted to strike him. Instead, she put her left arm around him, bringing him closer to her in the frigid air. Jess thought the tears on her face would freeze, but they didn’t. Then, Simon reached his cold hand up to her face and wiped a tear away. Jess didn’t smile, but her chest swelled with a brew of both compassion and sadness, and the tears poured out faster. She clasped his hand and held it in her own. The two huddled together, bare trees around them closing in. Below them, leaves rotted into the ground.


Juliana Schicho is a senior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. Her poetry has been featured in Runestone Journal as well as Geneseo’s MiNT Magazine. She often writes about crime scenes or the ocean—sometimes both. This is her first fiction publication.

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Sarah Steil

Steadying

Your mother at twenty-one, a baby constantly at her hip, discovers a love she has not found with anyone before. Years before you are born, she raises your older sister, Annie, above her head, wants to tuck the baby’s laughter into her hands, hold it in her palms. Your mother stays at home in a house too large with her first husband, a man you will never meet. She doesn’t yet know that he sleeps with his secretary on the weekends, or that in less than a year she will be pregnant again and filing for divorce.

You watch her before you are born, before everything breaks apart: your mother emerald-eyed, laughing. Your mother, waking in the middle of the night to a crying child, hand cupping the baby’s head like she might float away. Your mother, happy.

And now you picture her in a little over a year, two small children at her hips, meeting your father outside a gas station. You picture him, a mechanic, with eyes too large and too close together, bending toward your mother, leering at your sisters.

Your mother at twenty-three, with two babies and no husband, smiles at the softness of this man’s voice, blushes when he calls her beautiful.

You watch this broken woman and think, Run.

Five months after your mother meets your father, and three months before she is pregnant with you, she moves into his small city apartment with your sisters. She leads your older sister by the hand, feels herself sinking when she admires the tiny living room, the dirty bathroom with a broken faucet.

But, oh, your mother in an upswing! She doesn’t yet have a name for what causes her these weeks of happiness and what leaves her in fetal position in her bedroom for weeks after.

Now, her mind pulses joy, shouts of possibility with this man she doesn’t know. “Isn’t this nice?” she asks your sisters. “You guys can play all day in Mommy’s room.”

Her pregnancy with you is a solar eclipse: she falls into sadness that causes her to lay on the living room couch all day—unmoving, empty—while your father works. One day before she has told him about you, your father comes home and stands over her. “So where’s dinner?”

Your mother can’t explain how her heart has slowed, how she wishes she could disappear into the fabric of the carpet and never resurface. She spends her days gazing at your sister, Megan, breathing in the scent of her, pressing her nose to the baby’s silk skin and thinking: what’s wrong with me?

She looks up at your father with her arm draped under her head, “Go make yourself something.”

You try to picture your father, his clenched jaw, balled fists, and your memory erases the irises from his eyes. When he stares down at your mother now, you think he does so with pupils that swallow the whites of his eyes. “I work all day just for you to lay on my couch and eat my food and tell me to make something?”

Your mother smiles curtly, scoops Megan from the carpet, and walks into the kitchen. “Here,” she says, tossing white bread onto a stained counter, grabbing peanut butter from the cabinet. “You can make a sandwich.”

“I’m not making shit,” your father says. “I buy the food and you make it. That’s how this works.”

With the baby pressed to her side with her right arm, your mother pushes the bread into your father’s chest with her left. “You can make a sandwich.”

This is the first time your father hits your mother. He pushes her backward, and she falls against the counter. The baby’s cheek splits against the granite edge.

Wild-eyed, your mother tries to steady herself. Megan shrieks in her arms, but your mother stills, and her vision blurs, and for a moment she can’t hear your father yelling, “Now, look what you did.”

You wonder if this is the moment she knew she would leave, if this is when something broke within her. And yet, you see her face redden, words pooling in her mouth like bile, and know she will not leave your father for another ten years.

Why does she stay? Even then, you know the answer: you. Even as the anger blisters her skin, she feels the seed of you within her body, realizes that without him she will be a single mother to three small children with nowhere to go.

In a few weeks, the euphoria pulls her back in: while your father works, your mother buys things for his apartment, decorates, plays on a dirty carpet with your sisters. While your father works, your mother’s high will convince her that this is the life she wants, needs: a life with her children, and your father who gives them to her. While your father works, your mother prepares for a life with you.

And then, in a few months, you are born, hands already curled into fists and ready to swing. Your mother will fall in love again, with the angry baby with the mess of hair, the child that lacks her beauty: you will be plain, dark haired, and dark eyed. But in her arms, you laugh with your mother, kick your pudgy feet, and she will think, this is why I stay.

One year before your mother leaves your father, she drinks for the first time. While your father works, your mother paces about her bedroom with shaking hands, stares at your siblings and wonders where she should go. She has a bruise from last night, from where he grabbed her across her waist. It runs along the base of her bottom rib. She runs her fingers around the purpled skin, presses just enough so that she can feel a tinge of pain, and lets go.

Your mother sits at the edge of the bed, hears the bickering of her children in the next room. When she thinks about leaving, her heart swells in her throat, prevents her from breathing. You sit next to her as you both listen to the nine-year-old version of you in the next room, to your siblings. You want to tell her she needs to leave your father, but you know she can’t hear you.

She finds your sister, Annie, in the next room, now eleven years old, and tells her to watch the rest of you. She’ll be right back, she says.

With your father’s car, your mother drives half a mile to a local liquor store, parks around the corner. You want to lock the doors, you want to reach across her body and hold her in place. Though she can’t feel you, you long to close her hands within your own, to stand in front of the store doors and block her entry. You want to tell her, go home.

When your mother exits the store with a small bottle of vodka in a brown paper bag, she looks around nervously and stuffs it into her bag. She gets in the car and waits for her breathing to slow. She drives home, her heart oozing through her ribs, her head ringing. Your mother wonders why she feels guilty for an act she hasn’t committed yet. She tells herself that she just needs to take a second for herself, to relax, but still she can’t shake a feeling of wrongdoing. You wonder if you could tell her about all the years to come, about all the things she will lose, if she wouldn’t pour the bottle down the gutter and break the glass.

In the driveway, your mother stares at the bottle in her lap, breaks the seal and brings it to her nose. She sips from it, purses her lips and shakes her head, and thinks, I deserve this. And then she feels her body slow, warm. She has forgotten what it’s like to be calm. She finishes the bottle with her keys still in the ignition.

In the final year before your father leaves, your mother stuffs bottles of vodka under her bed, waits until he works, then finishes one and passes out on the couch. She hopes she will wake to a life without him, to a life where she no longer needs to decide what she wants.

One Monday evening, while you and your siblings wait in the back of the car, she meets a man outside of a liquor store. This man brushes your mother’s arm with his own, whispers in her ear, pays for her bottle. “I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful around here before,” he says, and your mother feels the swelling, the longing, her need to be needed.

In the final year before your father leaves, your mother leaves you and your siblings at home, stays at this man’s apartment, and returns home before your father knows she’s gone.

At ten years old, this is the start of an anger that you will harbor for years, the spark of a fire you will feed until it consumes you whole. Ten-year-old you bristles at your mother’s absence. For years you will think, what better way to leave one man than to jump into the arms of another?

But the you watching her now wonders if your mother meets this new man and sees escape, if she knows she can’t be alone with three small children and no money. You wonder if this is the only way she knows how to leave. You wonder if she thinks this man will be different.

You wonder when your mother asks this man to live with her a week after your father leaves if she sees him as survival. You wonder when he hits her for the first time, if she looks at her children and her empty bank account and closes her mouth. You wonder if all of those years you hated your mother for not leaving him, if she hated you just as much for making her stay.

When you are thirteen, your mother sits in a therapist’s office, palms pressed together. She wants to tell someone how she can sleep for an entire day and still feel tired, how some days she wants to melt into the walls or disappear behind the shower curtain. How she will spend weeks in fetal position on the living room floor, a bottle in her hand, and then fill suddenly with happiness, with gratitude for her life.

You sit next to your mother and listen to the way she hurts, want her to know you’re next to her even though you know you’re not.

The therapist, an older woman with graying hair, listens to your mother speak, nods her head. When your mother quiets, this woman asks your mother if she’s ever heard of bipolar disorder.

Stomach acid rises in your mother’s throat, and you watch her body stiffen. “No,” she says. “I’m not sick. I’m just tired.”

You don’t know if she hears these words and feels like she’s falling or like she’s finally being caught.

After forty-five minutes, your mother makes another appointment that she will miss. The words manic depression and illness break against her skull, and your mother will drive home and drink until she can’t remember them anymore.

When you are sixteen, your mother crawls into your room, kneels before your bed, clasps her hands in prayer. “You know what I used to call you as a baby? A bull. You were so tough. You would fall over again and again and never cry,” she whispers.

Next to your bedside, your mother is so tiny, so sunken. You imagine her as a ghost: skin drooping around crumbling bones, body caving in. Her entire body, concave, skeletal, except her stomach, which alcohol has stretched outward, convex and stubborn.

“One time I left you outside in the car while I took in the groceries, and it was so, so hot out. And I came back out for you, and you were as red as a tomato, but you still had that serious little pout on.”

Some part of you knows that your mother’s shaking hands ache for your own, but you smell the vodka on her breath, and anger turns you to stone. “I think you should go to bed.”

You wouldn’t know that she was crying if it weren’t for one small, shaky breath, and her grief ignites you.

“I swear to God I will never drink again,” she says, and you train your eyes on the fault lines of the ceiling. Some part of you still longs for a fight, wishes to corner her and yell, to pull the bottles from every spot she has tried to hide them. But now you only pity this wispy old woman with the beer belly, and you turn away from her.

“I think you should go to bed.”

Your mother lingers at your bedside, and you know she waits for you to turn toward her, to close her tired hands within your own. You know that when she leaves your room she will finish whatever bottle she started. You know she hopes that you will stop her.

You wait with your back toward her, listening for the soft shuffling of her bare feet on the carpeting, the hush of her leaving you.

At sixteen, you wake to your mother’s red hair, her figure bending toward you, “Wake up, we gotta go.”

On a summer morning before birds have awoken, you press your face into a pillow. “What time is it?”

“Seven. Up, up, up! You can’t sleep all day.”

Beside you, your dog looks up to you groggily, rests his head back down. You knead his ear in your palm, blink sleep from your eyes, “Okay, okay. I’m up.”

You slide your feet into torn flip-flops, stay in pajama shorts. The dog lies against your pillow as if to mock you, and you stick your tongue at him and mumble, “You can lay there now but I’m taking that spot back.”

In the car with your mother, you press your temple to the warmth of the window, to the sun filtering through the glass, while she drives to local garage sales. You gaze at old furniture, at boxes of oxidized jewelry, at torn paperbacks, and yards full of broken baby toys. Your mother buys a lamp with a torn shade, a silver ring with a missing stone, a cedar cuckoo clock. She picks through these treasures and whispers to you, “Isn’t this nice? Isn’t this pretty?” like it’s a secret only the two of you can share.

On her good days, in her good weeks, you can pretend your mother has always been sober, that her happiness isn’t a temporary one. She will drive around and buy things she doesn’t need. On these days, she will charge up her credit cards at malls and boutiques, purchasing clothes she’ll forget she owns, jewelry she will lose. But you ignore your unease, her giddiness, because she has chosen to spend her good day with you, because you will relive these hours again and again when she is drunk and crawling into your room.

This is how it begins: at eighteen, you spend one of your last nights at home before you leave for college. You lock your door, and though you hear your mother on the other side, you turn toward the wall.

In the middle of the night, you realize that when you leave, your mother will be alone for the very first time. This is the guilt that pushes you to your feet, that leads you to your mother’s bedroom.

When you open her door, you smell it: the bite of liquor, the sting of vodka. You hear her shuffling inside the bathroom, and when you press your ear to the door you hear the soft ache of her crying. You debate walking in or walking away. You know that your mother is drunk on the other side of the door. You want to hate her and push her away, but you also know you can’t, you won’t.

When you open your mother’s bathroom door, you find her hands pressed together between her thighs, blood drying against her forearm. “What happened?”

“I hurt myself,” she says, and you pull on her arms until you see lines clawed into the pale insides of her wrists.

“What did you do? Why would you do this?” you yell at her, your heart at the back of your tongue. Your mother starts crying, apologizing, and you see her suddenly as a scared child, a woman who will lose her life over losing you.

You grab a towel, wet it in the sink and dab at her wrists, wipe away the blood. “Hey, look. You see this? It’s not that deep, okay? You’re okay.” Your mother sobs deeply, uncontrollably. Your synapses fire in your brain, and every muscle tells you move, now, but you still with fear. “Hey, look at me. How much did you drink?”

The room spins around you. Your mother doesn’t answer, and you want to shake her until she does, then go back into your room and keep the door locked until the sun rises. Your vision blurs, but you place your arm on your mother’s shoulder, and you hear yourself say, “Come on, we have to go,” even though you don’t know where there is to go.

You wrap a towel around your mother’s wrists and lead her outside to the car door. You help her into the passenger seat, reach across her body, and buckle her in. You repeat, “You’re okay, you’re okay,” and you drive her to the hospital.

Your mother spends eight days in a psychiatric hospital, and when you pick her up she shows you a prescription for lithium.

She starts to cry on the way home. “Do you hate me?” she asks.

You pull the car over on the side of the road, and stare ahead, grip the steering wheel. “I don’t hate you.”

“You’re leaving me,” she says, her freckled hands shaking.

“Where do you think I’m going?”

“You want to forget I exist.”

You focus on her green eyes, feel your heart swell. “I love you. I just don’t understand you sometimes.”

“I’m gonna get better,” she says, hand resting on your thigh. “I’m not gonna drink anymore. But you can’t leave me.”

You see the fear in your mother’s eyes, and realize that she thinks when you go to school you will never come back. And though some part of you wants to escape, there’s another part of you that sees this small, scared woman and wants to cry with her. You enclose her hands in your own. “I’m not leaving. I’m going to school, but you know I’m not leaving you.” And though you don’t know if your mother really will get better, if she will stop drinking, you feel her fear and know that she wants to. You hug her, steady her body against your own as she cries.

“You can’t leave me,” you say. “You can’t scare me like that. You can’t hurt yourself like that.”

When your mother quiets, you sit in silence with your head against the seat. “How the fuck did we get here?” you say.

And when your mother begins to tell you her story, you hold onto her arm and listen.


Sarah Steil is a junior English (creative writing) and pre-vet major at SUNY Geneseo. She loves spending time with her five crazy siblings and four crazy dogs.

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5.2 | Fiction


Child Protection
Caroline DeLuca


Steadying
Sarah Steil


Red Oak
Juliana Schicho


Centre Island Bay
Jamison Murcott

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Margot Hughes

Character Reference

“Jeremy’s in trouble,” my mother began.

Oh god, I thought to myself. What did he do this time?

This had become a routine—Jeremy Barber was always up to something, getting in trouble for minor things, whether it was getting suspended from school for stupid pranks or being busted by local cops for smoking a joint. He wasn’t a bad person, he just liked to push it, see how much he could get away with. Maybe this stemmed from being a bored only child and wanting to stir things up. Maybe he was trying to see how far he could push his parents to be anything less than accepting and supportive. They always took Jeremy’s side, always said he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” They never questioned whether he was the one in the wrong. But the tightness in the wrinkle of my mom’s eye told me something was different this time. This time, it was serious.

Mom told me she had just gotten off the phone with Jeremy’s dad, Paul. He and my mom had been best friends since high school. They grew up together in a small town in North Carolina and saw each other every day until Mom married my father and they moved to Westchester, New York to raise Eric and me. Paul married his college sweetheart, Edith, and they had a son: Jeremy. They stayed in North Carolina and lived in a nice town on the water.

When I was a kid, my parents bought a beach house right down the road from the Barbers. We spent every summer there since I was five. Over the course of those summers, Jeremy got to be like my second brother. We had fun together and he was always there for me. But despite his being two years older than me—he was twenty-three now—he was careless, made stupid jokes, and constantly bragged about his many “conquests.” He and Eric hung out a lot, though they didn’t seem to talk much—they mostly played video games and got high. My parents sold the beach house last year when my college tuition made money tight.

“Jeremy’s being accused of sexual assault.”

She couldn’t look me in the eyes as she said it. I was genuinely shocked. Sure, Jeremy got in trouble a lot, but just because he wouldn’t take life seriously. Nothing he did ever hurt anyone else.

“Apparently he and some ex-girlfriend of his were at a party a couple months ago,” she explained. “They were both drinking and ended up sleeping together—without her consent, she claims.”

She emphasized that word, as if mocking its significance. I couldn’t picture it. I mean, I heard about these situations all the time, but this was someone I knew. Someone who was my friend—practically family.

“It’s just horrible,” my mother cried, “the things some girls will do for attention. She could ruin the poor boy’s life just for the sake of getting back at her ex-boyfriend.”

Jeremy did date a lot of girls and they usually didn’t end things on good terms. I knew his breakups were always messy and the girls often overlapped, so maybe this was some crazy ex-girlfriend seeking revenge. Maybe they hooked up when they were drunk, but that didn’t mean he raped her. Jeremy wouldn’t do that. Would he?

“They need us now more than ever, sweetie,” my mother continued, “they asked if you could write a little something for their case. It would really help them a lot.”

I paused. I didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“You know, a letter describing Jeremy’s character to show that he’s a good person and would never do this.”

A character reference. She wanted me to write a character reference for Jeremy’s case.

“Yeah, I guess I could do that.” I didn’t fully understand what I was agreeing to. “Is Eric gonna write one too?”

She gave me a look as though I should’ve understood that without having to ask. “It has a lot more weight coming from … a girl.”

Of course it did. This was a sexual assault case. No one cares about Jeremy’s guy friends; they wanted to know what other women thought of him and how he treated them. I nodded. My mother kissed me on the forehead, added that they needed the letter within the next three days, and left my bedroom.

I didn’t think that Jeremy did it. But I only knew Jeremy for eight weeks out of every year, and I hadn’t seen him in over a year now. Truth be told, Jeremy and I only talk over Facebook message every once in a while to catch up on school and general stuff. How well did I really know him?

Dinner that night revolved around the news. Both of my parents kept saying things like, “Jeremy couldn’t hurt a fly,” and “this girl is absolutely insane.” Eric was pretty quiet, but that wasn’t anything new. We weren’t close, so I could never tell what he was thinking. I just sat there, nodding in agreement, playing all the drama out in my head like a bad teen movie.

The last summer my family spent at the beach house was over a year ago. I hung out with Jeremy a lot and crashed his and Eric’s bonding, even though Eric didn’t want me there. On one of the last nights, the three of us had plans to go out to a bar—Jeremy knew the bartender so he was going to sneak me in. But when Eric and I swung by Jeremy’s house to pick him up, he didn’t come out or answer any of our texts or phone calls, so we decided to just go in and get him.

As we walked down the hallway toward Jeremy’s bedroom, I heard faint cries and yelling in the distance. Eric and I looked at each other, both puzzled, and stopped. I couldn’t make out the words but it didn’t sound good.

Suddenly the door flew open and a girl came running out. Even with her face shiny with tears, I saw she was pretty and felt a stubborn stab of jealousy. She rushed past us and left, Jeremy following shortly after. His eyes were steely, but he got flustered when he noticed us.

“What a drama queen,” he scoffed, trying to shake it off, “girls, huh?”

I smiled back at him uncomfortably and asked what happened, but he just said this girl he was hooking up with got upset. Eric jumped in before I could ask more.

“You ready, man?”

“Yeah,” he looked relieved and grabbed his jacket. “Let’s get outta here.”

As I stared at the blinking cursor on my screen and thought about that girl, her red crying face, and my qualification to write the character reference, my mother came into my bedroom.

“How’s it coming, honey? Did you get a lot of good stuff down?” She asked cheerfully, as though this was something fun for me to do. She sat down on the edge of my bed and stroked my hand encouragingly.

“Yeah, I’m working on it,” I scanned her eyes for hints of doubt, “But I keep thinking … Do you think you can ever really know someone?”

My mother’s smile turned tight. “What do you mean?”

“I mean … do you think you can ever really know what someone is capable of?”

“What are you saying, sweetie?”

“Well, how do we know for sure Jeremy’s innocent? I mean, what if he really did it?”

“That’s ridiculous, Lucy.” She jerked her hand away from me. “Of course, he didn’t do it. You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not saying I think he did it, but I’m supposed to write this letter to get him out of trouble and to prove that girl is a liar. It’s a big responsibility, and you don’t seem to care whether Jeremy actually sexually assaulted her or not.”

“Lucy.” She looked sickened by me and yanked her body up. “I’ve known Paul all my life. He’s a good person and he raised his son right. Jeremy is a sweet boy; he could never do something like this. His reputation, his future—his whole life depends on this, Lucy, as does his parents’. They’re counting on you, and you better follow through.”

She walked out and shut the door behind her. I’d never seen my mother get so defensive. I sat for a moment, thinking of the irony of her questioning my integrity more than Jeremy’s.

I was thirteen years old when I started to hate the way I looked. It was a time when girls around me grew boobs that made their waists look tiny enough to wrap your hands around and started looking more like women. Every girl grew taller, wore makeup, and got a boyfriend—every girl but me. I’d always been a late bloomer. I looked much younger than the other girls in my grade, and I hated myself for it. I was short, had a round, protruding stomach—a result of being what my parents liked to call a “good eater”—and my chest was flat. I had crooked teeth that were too big for my thin lips, and I had never kissed a boy.

The first day of that summer, Eric, Jeremy, and I went to the beach together. After we settled on a good spot and laid down our towels and beach bags, we got ready to swim together in the ocean. As I undressed and started to put on sunscreen, I noticed Eric staring at me with disgust.

“You may wanna cool it with the sweets, Luce,” he said, laughing at me and gawking at my stomach.

My face got hot. There was so much wrong with me. In this moment, all the things I thought about my body were confirmed—other people saw me as ugly as I saw myself. Tears started to fill my ashamed eyes.

“What, you gonna cry about it or something?”

“Hey, cut it out, man,” Jeremy said to him, calmly at first.

My face got even hotter—it felt like it was on fire—and sand clung to my hands, sticky with sweat. Eric just laughed harder.

“I said stop it, Eric, Jesus!”

I’d never heard Jeremy raise his voice or snap like that before. Eric laughed, mumbled “whatever,” and walked away toward the ocean. I grabbed my baggy T-shirt and pulled it over my head to cover my awkward body. My face shook, holding back the tears.

“Hey,” Jeremy looked me in the eye, “you know you’re beautiful, right?”

Nobody but my parents had said that to me. I smiled back through my tears.

“Come on,” he said, reaching for my hand.

I knew I wasn’t beautiful, but with Jeremy’s hand in mine and the waves before us, I felt for a moment that I was.

After dinner, I returned to my bedroom and opened up a new Word document on my laptop titled “Jeremy.”

Jeremy is a kind person, I wrote. He’s been a good friend to me for practically all our lives, as our parents are very close. He’s like a big brother to me.

Is this even how you’re supposed to write these things? I was twenty-one years old. How the hell was I supposed to know how to write a character reference? I let the underside of my laptop burn my skin for a few more minutes as I stared at that taunting blinking line on the document, and then decided to get some sleep.

Eric and Jeremy loved to get high together, and since I was younger, I kind of got left out of that part of their world. But the summer I was sixteen, I got tired of feeling excluded. So even though I wasn’t invited, I went to Eric’s bedroom to join them.

“Hey guys,” I forced confidence, “what are you up to?”

Eric looked at me like I was stupid as he passed his joint to Jeremy.

“Want to join us?” Jeremy said as he sucked the smoke deep into his lungs.

I had never smoked before, and until this moment was never planning to. But Eric’s patronizing eyes burned through me.

“Sure.”

I sat down and they passed it to me. I breathed in deeply and my lungs felt like they filled with powder. My throat felt raw. I coughed uncontrollably, and the boys both laughed at my inexperience. Jeremy handed me a glass of water, and even though it hurt, I kept smoking. I didn’t want to be the “loser little sister” anymore.

“I’m kinda hungry,” Jeremy said after a while, “you guys wanna make some nachos or something?”

Eric nodded and we got up.

We wolfed down plate after plate of nachos before I realized what I was doing. Time seemed to slow down, and I was suddenly intensely aware of my body. I could feel the fat from the cheese slither through my intestines and the chips latch onto my hips.

Eric looked back at me with his lifeless red eyes and giggled, “Damn, Luce, you really went in on those.”

I felt dizzy. My insides turned to ice. I had lost over twenty pounds since freshman year and maintained it. I was eating, exercising, staying healthy.

My paranoid thoughts raced, and I couldn’t get Eric’s words out of my head. Jeremy was too intent on his nachos to notice my discomfort. Eric was wrong. I was five-foot-four and a hundred pounds. I wasn’t fat anymore. I kept repeating this in my head over and over, but the room was spinning. I needed to get rid of all that food.

I slipped off to the bathroom, stuck my finger down my throat and gagged. I tried to muffle my crying but I couldn’t help it—it happened every time I threw up. I heard footsteps outside the bathroom as I coughed up the remaining lumps and spat phlegm into the toilet.

“Lucy?” It was Jeremy.

I didn’t answer but he slowly pushed the door open. He peeked his head in and saw my red, tearful face and my hands wiping my mouth.

“Lucy, what are you doing?” He came in and shut the door with an urgent look in his eyes. I couldn’t face them. I just looked down. He knew what was going on.

He wrapped his arms around me and I couldn’t hold in my pain anymore. I was sick of my brother hating me, sick of his teasing. I was sick of my body—of hating my body and not being able to stop. He pulled me into his arms and rubbed my back as I cried.

“It’s okay, Lucy. It’s gonna be okay.”

Jeremy has always been there for me. He’s supported me in some of my toughest times and always picks me up when I’m down. He’s a genuinely caring—

I believed what I was writing, but something kept popping into my head: this mysterious girl accusing Jeremy of rape. Why was she doing this? I didn’t want to believe it, but could she be telling the truth?

I thought of my best friend from high school, Carey. We’d gone away to different colleges, but she called me crying one morning our freshman year saying she did something stupid.

“I woke up next to him naked, and I didn’t even know who he was,” I heard between cries muffled by the phone, “I don’t remember thinking I would hook up with him. I don’t even remember meeting him.”

He told her that she’d been into it. He felt bad in the morning because he said he didn’t realize she was too drunk—as far as he knew, the feelings were mutual.

Was this the same thing? Carey didn’t remember consenting, but the guy claimed she did. Did it count even though she was wasted? If Jeremy didn’t think he was doing anything wrong in the moment, did that make him innocent?

I didn’t know what to think anymore, so I turned to Eric. It was a last resort, but I thought he might give me some insight since he knew Jeremy just as well as I did, if not better.

Going into Eric’s bedroom always felt like crashing a secret clubhouse where sisters weren’t allowed. Eric was laying down on his bed playing video games. After some empty small talk, I spat it out:

“Do you think Jeremy did it, Eric?”

Eric stopped his game and looked at me. “I don’t know, Luce. I don’t think he would, I really don’t. He’s a good guy, but who knows.”

“What do you mean?”

“Guys are different with girls than they are with their friends. No matter how nice someone is, you never know how they can be with that stuff—what they can do.”

I let out a deep sigh and ran my tense hands through my hair. I was glad Eric was being honest, but this wasn’t helping my uncertainty.

“But,” Eric continued, “does it really matter?”

“What?”

“Does it matter to you if he did it or not?”

“Of course it does!” I was taken aback. “If I write this letter and Jeremy’s really guilty, then I’m proving this girl a fraud and letting him get away with it. But if I don’t do it and he’s really innocent, his whole life will get ruined because of me.”

“You’re overthinking this, Luce.”

That night, I recollected all the memories I had with Jeremy. There were good memories. Lots of them. He snuck me into my first bar. He taught me how to play poker. He helped me through my body image issues and showed me the self-worth I couldn’t see. He always answered my messages right away and checked in regularly to see how I was doing. He truly cared about me, and I cared about him, too.

I finished the letter that night and printed out a draft before sending it. I wrote about Jeremy’s character, my relationship with him, and what I knew. When I handed my mother the draft in the morning, she read it through, nodding.

“Good girl,” she said when she was done.

And I hoped I was.


Margot Hughes is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. She studies English (creative writing) and will graduate this December. She is from Sleepy Hollow, NY, where she writes stories and essays and tries to avoid running into headless horsemen.

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Rachel Britton

Bare

There was a splash in the dark. The black water burst into life. Supple and milky forms displaced the malleable liquid, taking up space that was not theirs to take. Calloused toes on the wooden boards. Surrendering to splinters. Quinn saw them in the film of moonlight, their skin reflecting its whiteness, bobbing above the surface. She flinched as the spray dotted her face, and a whelp ballooned from her mouth as though the water seared through her flesh.

Someone was bounding up behind her, shaking the dock under their bone-heavy weight. It was Nessie. She was halfway done stripping away her college sweater, her amber stomach baring, shadowed by the arms raised above her head. The stud in her navel glimmered like the moon wavering on the water.

At first she found herself staring, but when Nessie unhooked her bra, Quinn turned away and slapped her hands over her eyes.

“Oh, God!” Her voice shot up through octaves, as if a stereo dial had been turned up. A lone siren, Krista, cheered and Quinn heard another splash. There was laughter. She suddenly felt left out; what had she missed? Peeking out from between her fingers, she found herself alone on the dock. She took a step forward and her foot became tangled in a pair of denim shorts, still warm. The previous wearer certainly was no longer so warm.

“It’s so cold!” A voice, probably Nessie, cackled. It echoed across the water, seemingly hollow as it filled the abandoned boats tied to their moorings and called back to the loon that cried out in the distance. Teeth chattered like dragonfly wings.

Quinn held her arms close to her body and leaned her chin against her fists. Even from up on the dock, it was chilly.

Nessie called out from somewhere in the murk, “Come in, Quinn! It’s nice!”

Krista chimed in agreement. “The water’s great! It’s so liberating!”

This time, she wasn’t going to fall for it. Quinn had learned a few things since the girls tricked her into watching The Shining. “It isn’t scary at all,” Nessie had said. “It’s about Jack Nicholson and his family that gets to stay in this fancy hotel all by themselves in the winter.” Yeah, okay.

Well, maybe she was being unfair. Nessie could also drink six shots of tequila and not feel a thing, and had once tried to convince Quinn that she wouldn’t get drunk. But there was no way she would fall for that nonsense a second time. Krista wouldn’t get another chance to grab her leg and make her think that it was a creepy ghost girl or a lake monster like she had the previous summer. Tonight, Quinn would stick up for herself.

Pressed against her wrists, her small breasts asserted their presence. Frankly, though, a rather unimpressive one. She looked down, contemplating, and her thighs seemed to inflate. As though she had quite literally soaked up the sun while swimming earlier in the day. She could probably fit both Nessie and Krista’s legs inside her own. That’s stupid, she thought. I’m being stupid. Even she knew that she was small.

Giggling jingled like bells on the water and coaxed her in its warm and throaty transformation beneath the dock.

Despite her shielding hands, she had seen Krista naked. She hadn’t been quite ready for that. The gravity of Krista’s C cup breasts and her post-dinner bulging stomach. Her long legs and rounded rear. Quinn couldn’t bring herself to even think the word buttocks. It felt profane.

A hand gripped onto the edge of the dock. With one thrust, Nessie’s face jolted up into sight. Her dark hair hung in straggles at her cheeks, sticking to the skin and framing its shape. Her mascara was running; perhaps she had forgotten about it. But, Quinn thought, she probably didn’t even care. It was like an ink-spill dripping down paper.

Now hanging onto the edge of the dock by her elbows, Nessie rested her head in her arms. “Come on, Quinn. It’s really nice. You’ll regret it if you don’t,” she murmured.

Quinn shook her head. “Nope. I definitely won’t.”

“How often do you get the chance to do this, though?” Nessie groaned. Lifting one of her arms, she gestured out to the open water, the infinity of the dark. It stretched endlessly and melted up into the stars.

“It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to do,” Quinn retorted, averting her eyes in case she accidentally caught another glimpse of her friend’s bare body. Instead, she focused on the red light blinking on the dock across the lake; she felt like Gatsby. They’d read the novel last year in English class and she had daydreamed about that light at the end of the dock calling out to her. But where was her Daisy? And more importantly, who?

A distant voice shouted, “Get in the water!” It took her a moment to hone in on the iceberg shape bobbing up and down beside the speedboat they had earlier tethered more than a hundred feet out. She could barely make out Krista’s face in the dark, tucked under the Lake Placid baseball cap she insisted on wearing. Echoing across the water came the sounds of her palm-slap splashes. The spray didn’t reach them at the dock, but Quinn and Nessie shared a knowing glance; Krista was pretending to be a mermaid. She was probably flailing around, her legs flexed firmly together, using her core to wiggle her way through the water.

The summer Quinn’s parents took her to Cape May, the tide had been coming in hard, the undertow sweeping grown men off their feet. The sea claimed her victims, if only for a short while. Or at least until the lifeguards were able to haul a water-logged nose-dripping shut-eyed sputtering boy back to shore and ascertain that the greatest harm was a sand-burn on his elbow. The sun was hot on Quinn’s scalp, burning the hairline that divided her left and right brain. She waded into the water, toes first, and allowed herself time to grow accustomed to the cold; meanwhile, watching the gulls streak across the sky, cawing and circling rainbow umbrellas for unwillingly given pretzels.

She hadn’t eaten all morning. Her stomach growled, but she refused to oblige it. After all, it was her first time wearing a two-piece. Her mother had taken her to a local department store after her complaints of, I’m not six anymore, Mom. I’m thirteen. I’m old enough to wear a bikini. To her father’s dismay, her mother had admitted that she had a point. They had spent three hours combing the racks—she remembered the metallic whoosh of the hangers on the poles—and getting lost in sequined bodices and ruffled skorts. Flimsy pinks. Navy stripes. Tops meant to hold far more than she could give, and subsequent gaps. Finally, her mother had unearthed a simple white ensemble between the lumpy sweaters and distressed jeans on the clearance rack. Bright orange signs: 50% off all items. By some stroke of fate, her mother thought to toss it over the door of the dressing room, whose floor had become a toxic neon wasteland of ill-fitting suits. Begrudgingly, Quinn had slipped it over her head, not expecting the feelings that were to transpire as she had gazed at her reflection in the floor-length mirror. That was it. She was ready.

She had been so excited to show off to the other beachgoers. Like a movie, she had expected the toned and tanned lifeguards to turn their heads and stare, slack-jawed, as she glowed in the sunlight. Boys would be starstruck. Girls would shoot envious glares and, not watching where they were going, fall into some kid’s sandcastle moat.

Standing at the edge of the sea, she felt triumphant. She imagined that she looked just like a young Marilyn Monroe. Proud, she popped a hip and puffed out her chest, her hands resting firmly on her hipbones.

She fingered the hem of her sweatshirt.

If she didn’t do it, then what? She’d be the uncool one. Not only stupid, but uncool. She hated the sensation of being left out; that was why she had followed them down to the dock in the first place, why she hadn’t sprinted back up into the closed-door shelter of the house when Krista started to strip. It was clear for weeks that Nessie had begun to give up on her. Even before they got to the lake house, Nessie hadn’t had really anything to say to her; the words were always saved for Krista. Since her two friends had joined cross country without her, Quinn hadn’t seen them much. She would be sitting in the library, poring over her biology textbook, and they would pass by, arm in arm, in their team shirts, not remotely aware of her presence. Most of the time, even when they all were together, she felt like a third wheel, an eavesdropper.

Nessie was starting to create space between herself and the dock, making circles with her arms in the water and submerging the back of her head, letting her dark hair fan out behind her. Maybe she was just trying to stay warm. But to Quinn, it felt like abandonment. And Krista? Krista was spinning around in circles as fast as she could out by the speedboat; Quinn could hear her splash and giggle. But she couldn’t see much further than an arm’s length away.

That day in Cape May, she’d been gazing out at the wave-crests, how they sparkled under the sunlight and reflected silver into the sky, paying no attention to the body-surfers or the toddler chasing the gulls in the wet sand. She hadn’t noticed the wolf pack patrolling the shoreline either, some in aviators, too cool to look anyone in the eye. A boy at the front, though, looked straight at her. Smiling, she had batted her eyelashes. It was a good thing she bought waterproof mascara instead of regular. She imagined her lashes long, black, and beautiful. That she felt them dusting her cheeks they were so long.

His eyes fell to her midriff and he snorted, “Put it away!” His groupies laughed and that stupid grin blotted out the sun and stripped her of her budding confidence. “Disgusting,” he muttered to the boy nearest to him. Now red-faced, Quinn folded in on herself, enveloping her bare stomach with her arms, her neck craning down to throw her gaze into the broken shells at her feet. It wasn’t even that he was that good-looking, because he wasn’t. He had that sort of sneering face you never forget after it has tainted you. But he had seemed fairly popular. The sheer size of his group told her that. And as they had passed by, chuckling, he’d greeted some other girls by name. He’d then turned the pack in a sharp 180 and followed the girls down the shoreline. He was just an asshole, she had tried to tell herself.

But that hadn’t stopped her from crying into a lumpy hotel pillow that night.

She was getting angry, her face flushing with either fury or the chill. And then she couldn’t take it anymore. Fuck them. With one swift huff, muttering under her breath, she threw the shirt up over her head. In the coolness of the night, she paused and let the darkness slip into the gap between her bra and chest; it buried itself in her breastbone. She unclasped her bra with a struggle. She was so anxious, her hands fumbled behind her back. After a moment, it dropped to the ground with a thud. All that A cup padding.

“Yes!” Nessie exclaimed, drawing out the vowel so that it rang in the air, bouncing off of the mosquitoes.

The loon called back, though none of them paid it any mind.

Hearing this, Krista must have turned, and began hooting and splashing out in the dark. She probably jerked her body around too quickly, Quinn noted, because a whisper of “shit, my hat” hung faintly in the humidity.

Once she stepped out of her shorts and they lay in a clump at her feet, she stood for a moment, breathless. Her arms had instinctively risen to censor her breasts. It felt like a breach of contract to expose them. Why did this feel so wrong? They’re just boobs, she thought, looking down at what lay pressed beneath her wrists.

“Damn, Quinn!” Krista was laughing. But Quinn could hear the chill on her tongue. If she waited too long, the girls would get too cold and abandon the adventure. Then what? She wouldn’t have done it. She’d have missed out again.

Nessie backed away from the dock, her lungs constricting, and murmured, “You got this, Quinn. You’re gonna love it.”

Nessie’s words ringing in her head, Quinn took one deep inhale and felt it inflate her stomach. She noticed the muscles expand. Her arms fell to her sides, bouncing off of her hipbones. Then she swept them up over her head and propelled herself off the dock. As her body sliced through the still water, she heard the vibrations of the girls cheering. She broke out in a smile. Quickly, though, she squeezed her lips shut as her lungs filled with algae-crusted lakewater.

Rising to the surface, she felt free and also swaddled. No elastic tight around her waist or underwire digging into her flesh. Water flowed boundless into all of the cracks and crevices of her skin, the clefts in her body always untouched by light or air. Water—cold and bracing.

She looked down at her milky thighs and memorized the way they became marbled in the dark, the way the moon mirrored and liquidized platinum on her wetted shoulders. Her freckles seemed to have disappeared; perhaps they dove out into the darkness. The hinges of her fingers closed around the stilled current, which escaped as she tightened her grasp. For the first time in years, she let her stomach hang untaut.

Her face turned up to bask in the moonbeams, ears submerged. The world silenced.

The still water made her feel immense. The boundaries of her body disintegrated and fused with the liquid molecules, dark and stretching far to the tree-dotted shoreline across the lake where the Gatsby light flickered and downstream under the village bridge. The water wasn’t freezing, as she had feared. She was awake, alive.

Suddenly, a shout a couple docks over. A call and response. It was a tangle of male voices, deep and impulsive. The beauty of the night shattered in an instant as everything became illuminated by a bright pit of flames. The light flecked the water and stretched across the deep expanse.

Quinn let out a squeak, held her arms against her chest, and let herself sink into the shield of the lake. The surface reflected the light, making what lay beneath it invisible to the group of boys hollering into the embers.

Realizing that she had been holding her breath, Quinn exhaled. How would they get back out, now, unseen?

Krista had begun to swim toward the boys and their fire. “Hi!” She shouted, waving her arms above her head. Did she think they could really see her? Quinn wondered. They called back a greeting, among the sound of rattling cans and plastic bags. Their discombobulated jumbling and poorly disguised whispers sliced through the air: definitely not the smooth type. Krista called back to them, “Are you guys roasting marshmallows?”

Quinn wanted to disappear. This was bad. This was stupid. What if these boys were drunk already, or in a gang, or rapists? It wasn’t like she and her friends had weapons to protect themselves out in the lake. Like, what, a stick? Shine a cell phone flashlight in their eyes? Krista was naked, for crying out loud!

“Krista, stop!” She hissed. But she was drowned out by a chorus of “nah” and “no” and low chuckles that skipped across the water like flat and jagged rocks.

It was just a bit too long before the boys realized their fatal mistake; Krista was already making her way back toward the dock when they screeched, “Unless you want us to.”

Nessie snorted, “Not even in your dreams.” At this, probably too quiet for them to even hear it, Quinn snickered. She watched Krista float on her back, her rounded stomach arched toward the moon, filled with the s’mores they’d made earlier. Nessie grumbled, “Perverts.”

Quinn hadn’t been in the water long, but now her bones felt the cold. The water seeping into her skin was solidifying into a thin ice. Instinctively, she bobbed closer toward Krista, whose thick and muscular limbs were spread wide. It seemed as though she was trying to take up as much room as she possibly could. “Krista, how are you not freezing?” The words bounced off her uncontrollably chattering teeth.

“You’re cold because you’re tiny, Quinn. I’ve got more,” Krista gestured to her torso, circling the water about with her arms. “You know, more matter.”

Nessie seemed to appear out of nowhere, wading up to them. “You’re not fat, Krista, god,” she breathed, exasperated.

Throwing her head back, Krista raised her voice. “I never said that. All I said was I stay warm ‘cause I’ve got more body, more insulation, that’s all.”

Krista was right. There was something beautiful in the roundness of her face, as though her cheeks were full of life, spiritedness brought out by the sugar in the marshmallows, directed out at them through her large, bright eyes.

Quinn wished the boys would vanish, be swept away in a sudden fantastic tidal wave, their crude fire extinguished to allow the shadows to pool and protect her.

But, of course, the boys were still there. They were talking, their voices piercing the quiet of the nightwater.

“We’re gonna come over!” One shouted.

Cupping her hands around her mouth like a megaphone, Krista yelled back, “You better not!”

The other boys seemed to rally around their leader and began to whoop and holler. “Let’s go!” It seemed that they were about to make their way over. Quinn felt herself panicking. Shallow breath in deep water. Shit. She couldn’t decide between hurrying back to the dock and running off with her clothes or swimming further out until nobody could reach her. To dissolve into the night, what bliss.

Nessie’s voice, for a moment, took on the depth of her heavy-set, feast-preparing mother as she declared, “This is a private party. Sorry, kids.”

Quinn wasn’t convinced that this would prevent the drunken boys from invading their dock. And yet, the offenders quieted for a moment. She could no longer hear their laughter or chatter. All that was left was the splash Krista made with her feet and the empty whistling of the loon. The water dashed against the legs of the dock, running up over the rocks on the shore and falling down in between the cracks; a piece of lake-kelp tossed across a boulder, stranded. Quinn could imagine it slowly drying up like a maple leaf in October.

Nessie was shivering now, too, her teeth audibly crashing into one another; Quinn sunk her ears beneath the water so she couldn’t hear it anymore. Damn, it was cold. Her skin bubbled into goosebumps. Holding her fingers up to her eyes, she found only prunes: sunken, salted, and dried.

“I think I’m gonna get out. I love you guys, but I don’t want to run into any boys like this,” Nessie mumbled, kissing the water. As she waded toward the dock, an arm shot out between them.

Krista came barreling past them, reaching for the metal ladder. “’Scuse me! I’m not dealing with any fucking boys right now!” In one thrust, she rose out of the water up into the air, heavy with waterweight.

She fumbled on the dock for her clothes, her body perceptibly dripping onto everything. Meanwhile, Nessie laughed at Quinn’s hiding her eyes behind a curtain of scraggly-wet hair.

Although the fire still burned in the boys’ pit, she couldn’t discern the silhouettes of their bodies, the profiles of what she assumed were their pockmarked faces. They could be anywhere. They could be hiding in the bushes at the top of the dock just between the rocks and the kayaks, camouflaged in peat. They could have climbed up the trees and were waiting to ambush. They could even be swimming in her direction at that very moment, silent as sharks. There was no justification she could find in herself to climb out of the water. She had gotten herself in; but now, there was the issue of getting out.

“Come on, Quinn!” In that short moment, she found that Nessie had already pulled herself out of the water and grabbed a handful of clothing from the dock. She was curled over it, shivering, and glancing back at the shore where Krista’s shape was pounding up toward the shelter of the house. “Before those guys come!”

Quinn began to paddle toward the dock as if there were actually a lake monster behind her. With each stroke she breathed, “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“Quinn, I can hear them,” Nessie hissed as Quinn grabbed onto the metal ladder. “I think they’re walking through the trees.” Quinn froze with one foot on the ladder to listen. Yes, Nessie was right. Their attempted whispers were carrying across the water, feet crunching on old leaves and fallen sticks. As fast as she had ever moved, cracking the layer of ice around her lungs, she heaved herself out of the water, scooped up her clothes, and began to run with Nessie up the dock and toward the house. Two naked girls sprinting in the dark, water dripping silver from their bodies in the moonlight. The closer to the house they got, the safer Quinn felt. Warm in the glow of the porch light on her face. As the door slammed behind them, numb-cold feet on carpet, they stopped. Somewhere deeper inside, they could hear Krista cackling.

Eyes still full of moonwater, they looked at each other. And laughed. They were safe now, together.


Rachel Britton is a junior English (creative writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. When she isn’t in the theater, she can be found reading with a nice, hot cup of tea. Her work appeared in Gandy Dancer 4.2.

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5.1 | Fiction


I Don’t Buy It
Jason Birkelbach


Bare
Rachel Britton


Character Reference
Margot Hughes

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