Tag Archives: Sarah Steil

Sarah Steil


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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A Brief Reflection

Posted by Kyle Frink, Poetry reader for issue 4.2

Now that the final publishing of Gandy Dancer 4.2 is coming to a close, I wanted to take the opportunity to find out a little about the published authors’ thoughts and feelings. I had the privilege of asking a couple questions to authors currently published in Gandy Dancer. Mainly concerned with how it felt to be published, I asked Sarah Steil ’17, and Sarah Simon ’17 (both from Geneseo) about their first reactions to being published and to reflect on their writing process. I found the responses differ a widely between each person. Sarah Steil said of being published, “I mean it’s really exciting, right? Like that means a group of people read something I wrote and thought it was meaningful in some way.” However, Sarah feels like now that her piece is out in the world, she doesn’t have another chance to fix or change it. “It’s exciting to see your name in print, but you never get feedback for it so I just hope someone reads it.” Knowing Sarah personally, it is quite plain to see how hard on herself she can be. While Sarah’s story, “Flickering,” is fiction, she prefers to write nonfiction. “I feel like writing nonfiction is more satisfying, because when I finish a piece it’s exciting because it’s done, but also satisfying because I’ve figured something out through writing it.” Sarah uses nonfiction to put the complex and ever-changing puzzle pieces of her life together in a way she can understand.

We had a very interesting piece of poetry come through our submissions list, one that at first caused wrinkled brows and took some time to discuss. This poetry submission included images as well as a sporadic change in format. Sarah Simon’s “Cingulum” was accepted into the latest edition, providing a unique perspective on depression. She says “‘Cingulum,’ the poem I submitted, is personal. It discusses and plays with the idea of clinical depression. The imagery and literal images (photos are part of it) expound on these ideas, which often halt me my in my tracks yet keep me going. If that poem was chosen, maybe it stopped someone for a little while too, and in a way that makes you realize that you must keep going.” Sarah Simon looks forward to the Gandy Dancer launch part on May 11th at 9:00 AM in the College Union Hunt Room. “I was so pumped to hear about getting published; I know the editors really consider submissions… I’m planning on reading my poem there. I hope to have a similar effect on the audience at the launch party, using my voice and material.”

We are delighted and very satisfied with the finished product and are looking forward to the launch party to debut the 4.2 edition!


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Sarah Steil


Her hands trace figure eights on her lower stomach, and at three and a half months pregnant, she fantasizes about a baby with small, tightening fists. On a lazy Sunday morning, Adam is still asleep beside her, and Olivia places her palm to her skin, as though she can feel the baby’s heart beating, a reassurance and a promise: I am here, I am here, I am here.

In her bones she knows she’ll be the mother of girls: she pictures a child with long, wavy hair that mirrors her own, and dark, confident eyes that could fell her at the knees.

She can envision a life where it’s just the two of them: the baby at her hip, chubby and mewling, hands curious and knotting themselves in her hair.

In little more than three months, she has found a love that she has not felt for anything or anyone before—an instinctual, heady kind of love, immense and consuming.

Beside her, Adam shifts, and she watches him for a moment. She wonders if the baby will have his eyes, lighter than her own, or his tall, skinny frame. She loves Adam as the person who has given her this small being that grows within her, who will raise this new life with her.

He grumbles, “I can feel you staring at me,” before opening his eyes and resting a hand on her belly. “I should shave,” he sighs, pulling her closer to him and burying his prickly beard into her neck. She laughs and moves to push him away, but he holds onto her and nuzzles his chin against her skin.

She shoves him. “We should get out of bed before it’s time to go to bed again.”

He turns his forehead into the pillow. “Soon we’ll have a screaming kid and you’ll regret saying that.”

She smiles. “What do you mean, soon? I already have you.” He laces his arms around her waist, but she moves to unbuckle them, and asks, “Why don’t you ask me to marry you?”

He speaks into her upper back, “Good question. Will you marry me?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “Are you crazy? Of course not.”

This is a running joke; they are the children of divorce. They believe they have discovered a formula for love that their parents couldn’t master, as if not being married would make losing one another simple.

Baloo, their English Bulldog, jumps with a thud onto the bed, and Olivia twirls her finger in his fur. He’d been a gift from Adam, a year after her graduation. She’d found her first job as a veterinary technician, shortly after they moved in together in a small city apartment. Adam had lifted the puppy up to her and said, “He’s all yours, Doctor.”

Now, she rests her head on Adam’s shoulder and Adam pats her knee. “Okay,” he says, “time for breakfast.”

Adam takes off work for her ultrasound that week, grips her hand as they wait. The technician offers small talk as she applies gel to Olivia’s stomach, and Olivia attempts to absorb it, but giddiness rises in her lungs, distracts her.

“And right there,” the technician finally says, with one pinky pointed at the screen, “is the baby’s heart beat.”

There’s a pulsing, gray and white, and somewhere amongst these things, Olivia can see this small organ pumping, small but persistent. It flickers like wings flapping, and she wonders how such a tiny thing could have such force. She nods and feels herself swelling.

“Do you want to hear it?” the technician asks Olivia, and she looks to Adam and nods. The sound closes in on them like a stampede, like a drum beating underwater.

“She’s so strong,” Adam says to her, and she wants to save his words, squeeze them into her palm and carry them with her—a gift. Against the baby’s heartbeat, she steadies her own. When she leaves with Adam, she will think only of that powerful beating.

Later that week, Olivia stretches across a tearing leather couch in their small living room, her feet in Adam’s lap. Her fingers circumnavigate the globe of her stomach.

Adam’s fingertips brush against her calves as he stares at the television screen across from them. “You know, when I was young and I’d get a paper cut or whatever, I’d show my dad my finger and he’d go, ‘This looks pretty serious, Adam. I think we’re gonna have to take off your whole hand.’”

She smiles at him, places one arm lazily behind her head, lets the other drift from the couch to rest on Baloo’s head.

He continues, “I hope I’m like that with our kid. You know, like I’ll know how to make him laugh.”

“The earlier we can traumatize our kid, the better,” she jokes.

He shakes his head. “That’s what I mean. Like he knew what would upset me and what would make me laugh. I wanna be able to do that.”

She admires the seriousness in his eyes, his intent, and smiles. “I think you will.”

He nods quietly, his face calm, and when he turns to the television screen she watches his face, picturing him with a crying toddler at his hip, a smile on his face.

She comes home late from work one night when she is five months pregnant, scrubs dirtied. When she places her keys on the table, she finds Adam boiling water on the stove.

“How was work?” he asks, turning to her.

She considers him for a moment before answering. His eyes point downward, so that they’re at a slight angle, sloped like they might melt from his face. His eyes have always made him seem sad, even when he’s smiling, and when they started dating a few years earlier she would tease him about this feature.

They’d met at a bar the night of her college graduation. She had drunkenly laughed, “Your face looks so sad,” while pointing to her own face, now contorted in a sorrowful expression, “like this.”

He smiled but didn’t respond, and she shook her head in frustration, “Oh, man, I’m sorry. That was like really rude of me. I’m really drunk, I’m sorry. Do you go here? I mean, the school. Did you just graduate?” she focused on him, eyes wide.

He stared down at his feet. “Uh, yeah, I majored in produce science. ”

She laughed and turned her head. “Sounds intense.”

He shook his head. “No, I, uh, I dropped out? My sophomore year,” he grimaced. “I work at a grocery store. I’m a manager, so you could say I’m going places.” She nodded, serious, and he stammered, “I don’t even know why I’m here. Mark, my friend, made me come out and I don’t even drink. I’m rambling, I’m sorry.”

She watched him, smiled at his blushing. She knew she made him nervous, and liked the softness of his voice, the calmness of his features.

Now, she laces her finger through the key chain loop and spins it around, “Someone brought in this stray from the side of the highway,” she sighs, head shaking. “She must’ve just had puppies and was all torn up and lactating…I’ve never seen a dog look so sad.”

Adam twists his lips to one side of his face. “Well, we should keep her then. Baloo could use a girlfriend.”

“Oh, no. The last thing she would want or need is a boyfriend. Especially one as dopey as Baloo,” she says, clapping her hands. “Isn’t that right, Baloo? C’mere.” Leaning over the dog and scratching him behind the ear, she watches as Adam empties a box of dry pasta in the pot, and says, “Oh! Look what I bought, I gotta show you.”

She brandishes two small white mittens from her bag and walks over to the stove. “So, how cute are these? She’ll be here February-ish, and I keep picturing her hands in the cold…” She kneads the mittens in her palm.

He looks at them and smiles at her. “Very nice. And gender neutral! I see you’ve accepted it may not be a girl.”

She sticks out her tongue. “No, I just liked the color.” She taps at her temple with an index finger. “She’s a girl. A woman just knows these things.”

He raises his eyebrows and turns to the pot. “Whatever you say.”

She balls the mittens into her scrubs pocket and looks to the dog, who stares up at her. “Who do you think is right, Baloo?” When the dog wiggles his body under her gaze, she nods. “Yeah, I thought so.”

Adam shakes his head at Baloo and says, “Okay, she can be a girl. But promise you won’t find out without me next week?”

When Adam first told her he couldn’t get off work for her next ultrasound appointment, she had bristled against him. But after a week of his apologies she’d grown excited to be alone with the baby, to see her heart, hear it. “I promise.”

The next Monday, the ultrasound technician, a younger woman with light brown eyes and platinum blonde hair, applies cool gel to her stomach and asks in a high pitched voice, “Are we trying to learn baby’s gender today?”

Olivia dislikes how this woman speaks in a singsong tone, as if addressing a toddler. “Yes. I mean, I think I already know. But Adam, uh, my partner, he wants you to write if she’s a boy or girl on a piece of paper, so we can find out together later.”

She wonders if she’s said too much, as the technician seems to have stopped paying attention to her, and she waits for a response that doesn’t come.

The technician glides the probe around her belly in wider and wider circles, pursing her lips and squinting her eyes at the screen.

Olivia, watching the stiffening face of the woman next to her, half jokes, “Well, she’s gotta be in there somewhere, right?”

The technician offers her a small smile but avoids her eyes. “Can you excuse me for just one second?” She leaves Olivia alone in the room with her heart racing, confused. Somehow the air in the room feels tighter, and she waits for this bubble of time to burst and the technician to show her that flicker of life again, that small beating.

The doctor enters the room with her fine hair pinned tightly back, brown eyes blank. Olivia searches her face for some warning of what’s happening, some smile that will loosen the air in the room and make it easier to breathe. The doctor travels the same winding loops that have already been traced on her stomach, and shakes her head at the monitor screen so slightly Olivia wonders if she imagined it. Exchanging a look with the technician behind her, the doctor sighs and her eyes meet Olivia’s.

“We’re not detecting a fetal heart rate.”

Olivia’s head has condensed inward and through the ringing in her ears the doctor’s words enter messy, disordered. In the spinning room everything slows—she locks her eyes onto the doctor’s face. She can’t understand the swelling in her chest, this sense of foreboding. Olivia shakes her head. “I don’t—”

The doctor speaks calmly, with the finality of someone who is used to delivering bad news. “There’s no heartbeat,” she says, pausing, head shaking. “I’m sorry.”

Olivia doesn’t breathe for a minute, and she thinks that the doctor is discussing her own heart, paused in its churning. Some part of her knows they’re discussing the baby, and she wants to tell them that this doesn’t make sense, because she had seen it and heard it beating herself, only a few weeks earlier.

Her lungs refuse to inflate but somehow her voice whispers, “It was just there.”

The doctor nods, smiles sadly. “I know. Sometimes these things happen, and we don’t know why.”

She thinks the doctor is speaking to her, but distantly, far away in a place she used to be. Loss charges through her body, and she trembles as she tries to hide her face. Her stomach is hollowing. She feels herself halving.

The doctor is telling her that she will have to come back and they will induce labor, and she wants to tell them they can’t, that it’s too early, that at twenty weeks the baby wouldn’t survive. She wants to tell them they’ve made a mistake, that she feels the life within her, and that she has never felt so sure of anything in her life. She’s still here, she wants to say, I saw her heart myself.

She loses what the doctor says to her, the sorrow in the eyes of the technician. Everything feels slower, sticky, and when she enters the waiting room again, she wonders if the other women can smell the loss on her. For a moment she thinks she can see them pulling away from her, retracting—whales moving out to sea before the storm hits.

Her hands shake as she calls Adam’s number, and when she hears his voice on the line, her throat ignites. “Please come get me. I need you to come get me.”

He tends to her like a baby bird pushed from its nest too soon. When they leave the doctor’s office, he guides her to their car, leads her to the passenger seat, buckles her in. They drive in silence and she presses her cheek to the cool window, lightly knocking her temple on the glass again and again. He rests his hand on her thigh, but she starts and pulls away.

Once Adam parks the car in the street outside their apartment, he reaches for her hands. “Olivia.”

Her face collapses, and she turns to him finally, folding in on herself, pulling her knees closer. The crying chops up her words, makes it hard for her to breathe or speak. “I feel like I did this,” she heaves, patting at her chest with her open hand. “I feel like this is my fault.”

“You know that’s not true,” he says, closing her hands within his.

“I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this.” Her face reddens, blisters. “I shouldn’t have to do this.”

He leaves the car, opens the passenger side door, helps her out of her seat. He leads her across the street, up the stairs, into their apartment, into their bedroom. He braces her body against his as she cries. He pulls her to him when she struggles to breathe. He waits until the shaking stops, until she’s fallen asleep in the empty belly of their silence.

At work a few days later, Olivia runs her hands along her stomach as she stands next to Caroline, her closest friend, a veterinarian at the hospital who was hired at the same time. She laces her fingers through the cage of a sedated cat, and when Caroline speaks, she starts.

Caroline, a heavier woman with thick red curls of hair, often confides in Olivia about her husband and her brood of children. She was the first person Olivia told about the pregnancy, only a couple weeks after she had found out. Olivia wants to tell her about the baby, about carrying two stilled hearts within her body, but when Caroline asks if she’s okay, the words stick to the sides of her throat. She nods. “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

The next week, she dresses herself, stares in the mirror early on a Monday morning. She notices the creases around her mouth, feels removed from her body, her suddenly aged face, fuller from the pregnancy. Her hair, fine and dark, falls down her back in waves, and her eyes wander unfocused. She tells herself, “I’m going to have my baby today.” She places her hand to her womb, closes her eyes, and pictures the baby kicking.

Adam drives her to the hospital in a now familiar silence, hand to her knee, smiling weakly. He turns on the radio, but she reaches over and gently turns it back off.

At the hospital, they give her a pill to help induce labor, wash out her insides. Contractions rip through her abdomen, steadily rise in intensity until she thinks she will break open, and then die down again.

She cries during the first hour and Adam holds her hand through the current. As time passes, she closes her eyes and waits for when the pain grips her so tightly that she thinks her heart stops.

The doctor, the same woman with the tight ponytail, encourages her through the pain. Dr. Karen, Olivia thinks to herself, remembering the woman’s name now. Karen Tutunik.

The doctor checks in on her between hours, but at the very end, she waits with her. When the pain has receded for the last time, Dr. Karen asks, “Do you want to meet him?”

Olivia stares at her blankly for a moment. The doctor seems to sense her confusion and confirms with a small smile. “It’s a boy.”

Olivia turns to Adam with wide eyes, sure that the doctor has misspoken, but she nods.

And then, suddenly, there he is: tiny, still, the skin of his belly translucent, his insides dark. They wrap his body in a small cloth, and he’s so small Olivia can fit him in the palms of her hands. “Hi, baby,” Olivia says to him, Adam leaning over her.

The doctor tells them to let her know when she should come back for him, and as she walks from the room, adds softly, “You should name him.”

They speak to the baby in the hospital room for a few hours. They name him Luca. Olivia lightly touches her finger to the baby’s hands, his toes. She blinks for a moment and thinks she sees him breathing, but the baby is so still, so small, Olivia knows this can’t be true. She remembers listening to his heart beating only a few weeks earlier, and tries to picture this sound within his chest. She closes her eyes and imagines her life with her baby, her son.

When they leave the hospital, they leave with a small box. They leave with pictures of him, his small footprints in ink on paper. When they leave, they leave without their son.

That night, Olivia places her hand to her empty womb, aching for her son like a phantom limb. She will have to tell people that she lost the baby, and she considers the insufficiency of the word lost—as if her son is hiding, waiting to be found; as if he slipped away when Olivia’s back was turned. The word doesn’t convey the feeling that she’s been broken open and picked clean, her insides raw and bare.

She thinks the word implies blame—and in this way it may be fitting, because doesn’t she feel like she failed somehow? Doesn’t she feel guilt?

She holds Luca’s white mittens, tries to slip them over her fingers. Her thumb runs along the smooth stitching on the inside. She imagines kissing the mittens, the warmth of the baby’s fists rising through the stiches, and longs for the pressure of his hands within hers.

When Adam touches her, she recoils, lost, thinking of the baby between them.

“Why are you shutting me out?” he asks after a month of her pulling away from him, inching to the edge of the bed.

She wants to tell him that she’s sorry, that she doesn’t want to feel like this, that she doesn’t know where she stopped and this part of her life began. She wants to tell him that she thinks of Luca’s small, curled hands at night long after he has fallen asleep, that she wonders what his voice would sound like. She wants to tell him that she can imagine his hands within the mittens. She hopes that he wasn’t cold, even for a second.

She wants to tell him that she has never felt a love so strong as when she held that baby in her arms and imagined him in a high chair, laughing, eating Cheerios. That when she is alone, she pictures Luca at her hip, his baby belly round and fat.

Her grief is dense, settling to the distal areas of her body like acid, eating through her skin. She wonders if she is allowed to call herself a mother to a child she will never know.

Now, she thinks of work, of the stray dog, scarred and growling at anyone who goes near her. She wonders if the dog searched for her pups, wonders if she still feels just as hollow, just as rotted out.

Her own words swell but her mouth doesn’t open and she shakes her head at him and turns away.

One month later, Adam reaches for her when they are in bed together. Initially, sleeping with him had helped her fall in love with him—he is patient, yielding with her body. He kisses her, and she kisses him back for a moment, but sours at his body on hers and quietly pushes him off of her.

He sits at the edge of the bed, head in his hands. “You know, I lost a baby, too.”

She curls away from him, places a pillow to her stomach. “You weren’t there.”

He stares at his feet for a moment and shakes his head. “I wasn’t there for what?”

Olivia drags her hand down her scalp, feels her throat tightening. “You weren’t there when they told me. I was alone.”

His eyes focus on hers. “About the baby? You’re gonna punish me for the rest of my life because I missed the appointment? What do you want me to do?”

She hears his voice rising and turns from him, placing a hand to her chest, wanting to slow her racing heart, resting her other hand against her eyes. She tries to speak, but her throat won’t open, and she shakes her head and whispers, “I don’t want to feel like this.”

Adam leaves the bed to kneel before her and says quietly, “I don’t want to feel like this either. I’ve lost him and now I’m losing you.”

She shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He holds her against him and she feels herself being absorbed into his warmth and steadiness.

At work a week later, Olivia laces her arm around the neck of a German shepherd, holding her steady as Caroline places a stethoscope to the dog’s chest. “Okay, she’s all good,” Caroline says, and when Olivia doesn’t look at her right away she places a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Olivia nods, smiling. “Yeah, just thinking.”

Two months ago, when Olivia finally told Caroline about the baby, the words had forced themselves from her mouth, sour and angry. When Olivia told her of the loss, they’d sat with their knees touching, Olivia’s face bowed while Caroline’s hands reached to steady her.

Now, Caroline tells her, “You know, when I was younger my grandpa would always say, ‘you can’t dry in the same place you swam.’ You should get out. Go on a trip with Adam or something.”

Olivia laughs. “I’m definitely tired of swimming.”

Caroline’s mouth straightens. “I’m serious, Olivia. Even if it’s just for a day.”

Olivia nods. “Okay, okay.”

When Olivia comes home to Adam, who has already made her dinner, she says, “We should go somewhere. Anywhere in the world.”

He smiles, and with a fullness in his voice, he says, “Okay. I’m ready.”

When he turns to the stove, she admires the furrow in his brow, watches him, her companion in grief. She still feels the water in her lungs, but she nods at him, smiles, and helps him set the table.

<< Frontierland 
Love is Lemons >>


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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Sarah Steil


Picture a large open pond, man-made and frozen in February. The pond my mother’s husband carved into the earth of my backyard, after tearing down our childhood swing set with a chainsaw. Criminal to have such an open body of water, exposed, waiting for things like this.

Picture Bandit, our old Boston terrier, on his twelfth birthday, shuffling through the snow, peering through the ice of the pond, searching for the fish at the bottom.

Picture my little brother, Ollie, at the screen door leading to the backyard, calling the dogs in from the yard. Picture him hearing splashes in the back pond, thinking of the fish, and growing angrier when the dogs don’t come. What’s taking them so long?

Picture Bandit, focused, placing his paws, his weight, on the frozen section of the pond, leaning forward, falling through. His black legs churn against white snow, his nostrils flare, searching for air. He kicks one last time, and this last splash will replay in Ollie’s mind for years: Why didn’t I go out there?

Picture Ollie, frustrated, stuffing his feet into cold boots, trudging through the snow, calling the dog’s name, “Bandit! Bandit, come!” Looking for him, confused, and then finding him on his stomach, wet, cold, eyes still.

Picture me, miserable and enraged, searching for a fight, fists swinging but missing contact, accusing my mother: “We never should’ve had that fucking pond.”

Picture my mother, tired, shaking her solemn head: “It’s not the pond. It’s the dogs who go near the pond.”

At six years old, I spent a great deal of time on my living room couch watching Emergency Vets on television. My mother ran after my younger siblings and my father was never home, and the man in glasses on screen filled entire months. The show featured an old veterinarian with white hair and a mustache greeting sick and disgruntled dogs, cats, lizards, and birds. I marveled at this man’s healing, how at the beginning of the half hour episode a wounded dog would stagger in with a bleeding leg, and by the end he would be healed, saved, running, and happy. Even then, when I was too young to understand my own desire to be saved, the concept of saving someone else overwhelmed me. My mother, tending to six frenetic children by herself, refused to get a dog, and thus I never asked throughout my hours spent inside watching the show.

One day, my mother sat me down in the kitchen with all five of my siblings. We didn’t have enough chairs for all of us, so the younger, more fidgety children got seats, while my older sisters had to stand. My mother, a beauty, possessed physical traits I craved, attributes that defined her in a crowd. While most of my siblings were brown-haired and brown-eyed, my mother was redheaded and hazel-eyed, but always tired. While I wiggled on a creaking wooden chair, she folded her arms and addressed the six of us. “Listen,” she sighed, “We’re not getting a dog. We can’t afford one and we don’t have time for one. I’m sorry.” My older sisters, twelve and fifteen, threw up their arms in exasperation, denied the one item on each of their Christmas lists for another year.

I, however, had never considered owning a dog. I watched them on television, spellbound, but the idea of living with one seemed completely foreign, impossible.

But a few months after I turned seven, and after a few bouts of particularly nasty fights between my parents, my mother caved. My mother, possibly trying to compensate for my father’s absence, or finally being convinced by my older sisters, walked into the kitchen one morning with a small black puppy in a blanket. While my siblings screamed, I stood back, confused, insisting he was a stuffed animal. My mother told us to sit in a circle with our legs out and feet touching, forming a misshapen star, and placed the puppy between us. Our arms reached and grappled and inevitably one of us would cry out, “Mom, it’s my turn!” when another had been holding him too long. We watched him like he was made of ice, fragile, as though if we turned around he would melt, disappear from our lives.

Even my father, who actively avoided my siblings and me on the rare occasions he was home and not fighting with my mother, seemed taken by our new friend. My mother and father had struck a deal: the dog stays but my father got to pick the name. He named him after a cartoon he watched when he was a kid, The Adventures of Jonny Quest, and I began to view Bandit as a gift from both my mother and father.

A month or so later when I’m home from college, Ollie and I sit around the kitchen table together, and he stands to get food from the fridge. At fifteen, he is three and a half years my junior, and I see myself mirrored in the roundness of his cheeks, his freckles, his timidness. Standing across the room in baggy clothes, he scans the contents of the fridge, slouching forward. When I ask questions I don’t look up at him, instead I stare down at my hands. “How was Bandit when you found him?”

Ollie stands in the light of the fridge and stops when he hears me. “What?”

“How was Bandit when you found him? That day.”

One hand rests on the door of the fridge, the other remains at his side. I take furtive glances at his pensive face, as he focuses and pictures himself in the snow again. “On his stomach. With his head sticking out of the water.”

“Were his eyes open?”

“Yeah. But when I came back out with Jesse his head was under the water.”

I am entering this information into the database of my memory, editing the image I had of him floating on his side. Now, when I spend hours picturing him in the water, he will be on his stomach.

He tells me about trying to get our brother Jesse to come outside with him, not being able to find the words. How Jesse, on his bed in his underwear, had refused. “It made me so mad,” he tells me. “I kept calling, ‘Jesse, come here, Jesse, come here, Jesse, come here,’ and he kept asking what I wanted.”

He tells me how finally they had walked out silently together in a blanket of snow, how he had led Jesse to the pond, to Bandit, unspeaking, crying silently.

“What did you do when you found him together?”

“We called you.”

This is where my memory cuts in, when a phone call from Jesse at 11:18 on a Tuesday morning had confused me so greatly that I stared at my phone for a few seconds before answering. Why would he be calling me?

There was a beat of silence before I answered, standing outside a college biology classroom, and my heart knew before his mouth could form the words: Someone’s dead.

And then Jesse’s voice, slow, choppy, wet, over the phone: “Bandit’s in the pond.”

And my own confusion: “Can you get him out? What’s he doing?”

In the summer when I was little, my mother drove us to Massachusetts to visit my older sisters’ aunt on their father’s side. She wasn’t my aunt, technically, but we grew up calling her by the name. Aunt Mary Barbara lived on a farm with a huge pond in her backyard. She would give my siblings and me nets to catch the frogs in the pond. We would wade out into mucky water and she would warn us of the snapping turtles.

One day, I went too far out into the slime water and had tipped over, mud filling my pants and shoes, my feet sucked into sludge. My siblings laughed on the grass, and my mother hosed me down in Aunt Mary Barbara’s large driveway as I cried.

On the way home, my mother and my siblings sang in unison: “The day Sarah fell into the pond. No, she wasn’t fond, of falling in the pond, the day Sarah fell into the pond.”

When Ollie tells me about finding Bandit, he’s eating chips at the table and I have that song running through my head. The day Bandit fell into the pond.

My questions form slowly as I approach issues I have obsessed over, as I pretend I am not putting Ollie on trial.

“And you heard something outside when he fell?”


“And you thought it was the fish?”


I am sitting in the chair, eyes on my feet. “It was quick?”

He thinks for a moment, chewing, shakes his head. “No. I didn’t want to tell anyone. But it was a long time. I heard it and went inside and went back outside and still heard it. Like, over five minutes.”

Bile runs up my throat and I feel a seed planting, a resentment growing, questions I can’t ask brewing. How did you not know? Didn’t you know the fish aren’t even out when it’s that cold? Why didn’t you walk out and check? How did you not know?

Ollie changes the subject and I answer absentmindedly as my head swirls, imagining Bandit clawing on the side of the pond for so long, his legs churning with adrenaline, ice shocking his nose and throat. I picture Ollie sitting inside, hearing loud splashing and struggling, in the warmth of the house as the dog choked outside.

My head cuts in. It wasn’t his fault. But my heart, wounded, beats faster and I’m afraid if I look up at him he will see the disappointment on my face.

“Well, it wasn’t your fault,” I sigh, feigning calmness, assuredness.

“We never should’ve had the fucking pond,” he says. “It’s just a death trap waiting there.”

I nod.

My memory relies upon his information, descriptions. He tells me how our mother’s husband had come outside, stood before the pond, pulled the dog from the water, and stuffed him into a garbage bag. How he tossed the garbage bag on the curb, how the molecules of water that had killed Bandit had leaked out of the plastic. “I told you to keep the dogs away from the fucking pond,” her husband yelled. My mother conceded: “I know, I know. I’m sorry.”

Bandit was the first of many dogs, as my mother realized that her pain over her fighting with my father could be soothed somewhat by being needed by someone else. A month after Bandit entered the kitchen doorway, my mother returned with Cricket, a small, frantic Boston terrier.

“They’ll be friends,” my mother told us, holding Cricket up like an offering to Bandit, who nosed her intently. My mother flushed, scared, had locked my father out of the house the night before, and was now actively ignoring our ringing phone. She invested herself in our new dog, babied her, carried her around the house, and brought her to the grocery store.

When my father finally left us a few years later, I told the dogs first. “He’s not coming back, guys,” I mumbled, staring at the two of them on the kitchen floor, searching for understanding. My father’s leaving was otherwise secret information, and I shut out any friends I used to have when the idea of explaining everything got too hard. I mentioned it casually, years later when I was sixteen, to my friends in high school when they asked about my five dogs. One of them asked if I’d always had a lot of pets, and I answered distractedly, “No, I only got the first two a few years before my parents got divorced. So, what? Maybe nine years ago?” They looked uncomfortably back at me, and I realized I had shared private information. I tried to change the subject when my friends insisted I’d never told them that my parents were divorced before.

When I was young, I didn’t want to be known as the girl whose father left, whose mother couldn’t support her children alone. So I didn’t make friends. I didn’t talk about myself and didn’t invite people over, and instead, I spent my time inside, confiding in Bandit.

Sometimes I dream of him, walking near that pond, his nose to the ground, ears erect. I see him looking for fish, placing his toes on the ice before realizing the mistake he has made. I picture him hearing Ollie’s calling, his lungs filling with ice water, hoping someone will come for him. Sinking to the bottom.

But in my dream, I’m the one standing by the door, and when I hear his body hit water I know. I’ll run barefooted into the snow and jump into the pond, and my lungs will fill and my feet will mash into cold sludge, but I’ll pull him from the water. Bandit will be cold, but I’ll pound on his chest, and his heart will beat for me again.

When I wake again, I remember I didn’t come for him. He was not pulled from the water. He sank to the bottom, heart cold, when his legs became exhausted with the weight of keeping him afloat. He sinks, and I sink with him.

I’m at college hours away and still I feel the blame nesting around my shoulders. Why didn’t I know? I placed miles between my family and me, and thought about how it would feel good to leave my life behind. I realized, soon after, that miles are a technicality, and no matter how far away I get, I’m still sitting in my childhood living room. I will be hours away from home in a classroom and I’m still in the bedroom I share with my older sister, fighting with my mother. I’m nineteen years old, and somehow still twelve years old, and I’m asking myself, Why didn’t I know? Why wasn’t I there?

Bandit was the fourth dog we lost in only a couple years, and it was beginning to feel as though we couldn’t be trusted with anyone or anything. The losses kept coming. We lost Leo, our bumbling bullmastiff, when he fell down the stairs to the backyard and broke his spine. We lost Todd, our young Chihuahua, when he ran out into the street the night before my senior prom. We lost Fatty, our chubby French bulldog, when my mother got drunk and accused us of loving the dogs more than her, and dropped her off at a shelter while we were at school. I felt as though bringing dogs into my house was sounding a death toll, that my hands were stained with blood, that I could no longer be trusted with anything. That when I wanted kids one day my body would smell the loss on me, gasp at my maroon hands, and stop me. “Are you sure you can handle this? You’ve already lost so much.” I ask myself, what can I be trusted with? I see my dogs now and feel the fear rising in my gut whenever I leave the room, knowing the loss is coming, one day. Knowing the feeling of failing someone who had so much faith in you. Wanting to apologize for a loss we haven’t even suffered yet. I feel it—a backbeat, a humming, a pulsing—knowing that the losses and sadness and failing are part of me now and will return soon enough.

I am sitting on the living room couch next to my sister Sam, watching the news halfheartedly, as my dachshund, Bruno, stretches across my lap in sleep. On the television before us a newscaster smiles, and a picture of a small black lab in uniformed arms appears in the left hand corner of the screen. I am kneading Bruno’s ear in my distracted palm as the woman tells us about the “lucky Labrador” who fell through the ice in the pond in the backyard of a four-year-old girl. The girl told her parents, who called the police, who went in after the drowning dog and pulled him out from under the ice. He must have been swimming four or five minutes before anyone found him, the woman tells us. Must have been at least another ten minutes before he was saved from the water.

Beside me, Sam mumbles, “A four-year-old has enough brain power to go out when she hears splashing.”

I wonder how long Bandit had held on before succumbing to frozen water, and when I feel the anger rise, my mind runs on repeat: it’s not his fault.

While my father worked, my mother stayed at home, frazzled trying to keep up with the six of us. When I was eleven, my father left, and the new men came, then the money stopped, and the drinking started. My mother continued to bring dogs into the house, as she replaced my father with another bitter man, as she struggled in her new relationship, and with her drinking. The dogs came and went at such a rapid pace that when my mother told her friends that we lost another, they gasped, “You really wouldn’t be good with grandkids, huh?”

Cricket, Leo, and Fatty have all come and gone. When my mother found the small, broken body of our Chihuahua, Todd, in the street, I felt extinguished. I’d let him out in the backyard and he slipped under the fence. When I saw his tiny, unmoving body lying on our porch, I asked my sister, Sam, if he was okay. She cried heavily and shook her head. “His neck feels like sand.”

When I reentered my house, Bandit charged up to me, and I wanted to push him away, tell him what I’d done. “I’m so sorry, Buddy.” I sat against the cabinets in my kitchen crying, but Bandit didn’t leave my side. He sniffed at my face. I wanted to ask him to forgive me, but I knew I couldn’t.

My mother bought a young, similar looking Chihuahua before Todd’s blood had been cleared from the street, and while a new puppy tumbled around our house, I stared at the small stain in the street and saw it as a warning.

At twelve, I hadn’t yet forged the bonds with my siblings that saved me from drowning. It was a few years before my siblings and I confided in one another in that way, and I’d cut out any friends I might have had. So when the depression came and it felt as though I had to fight with my lungs to keep them expanding, I spent my time outside with Bandit in the sun. I didn’t need to tell him the ways in which I hurt, or missed my parents, but I thought he understood, and we sat outside for hours on the old porch swing.

Caring for Bandit kept me afloat—I needed to feed him, take him out. He whined anxiously when I’d laid in my bed so long that I wondered if my skin had developed sores.

I rocked us back and forth on the porch swing, one hand resting on his side, on the reassuring constant of his breathing. When the heat burned our skin, we moved to the shade, and when the wind began to chill our bones we searched for the sun again. We seemed to spend years on that stained swing, and only when the sky blackened did I enter the house again, Bandit following close behind.

I was sixteen, and my mother had gotten drunk and passed out on the couch on my birthday. I went to bed that night without waking her to remind her. I laid in bed, eyes opened to darkness, my sister, Sam, sleeping in the bed across from me. I wanted to cry, reverse the day, to stop getting older without my own permission and without anyone else noticing.

I heard a scraping at the door, and I quietly slipped from under the sheets to open it and found Bandit looking up at me. He had a slight underbite and in the light from the open door I saw he was biting his tongue, cocking his head as I stared down at him.

“Hey, Buddy.” I sighed and leaned down to scratch him behind the ear.

He walked in, sniffing around the floor, searching for a soft spot to lie. I knelt next to him.

“I think she forgot this year,” I said, stroking his side.

He pressed his head into my hand, and I rested my forehead against his.

“I know you didn’t, though.” I pulled a blanket off my bed and laid it on the floor next to me. “This is pretty soft,” I whispered, patting the fabric.

Bandit smelled the blanket, pawed at it, circled and circled until he’sdmade it into his own bed, and slept in a tight spiral.

I laid in bed, watching his rising and falling silhouette in the shadows on the wall.

Bandit’s tenth birthday felt historic, like a victory we didn’t deserve. My siblings and I baked a cake, as Bandit and the new additions barked at our feet. I knelt beside him as he sat by the kitchen heater. It was February, and the dogs crowded around the heating vent in the kitchen, and we struggled not to trip over them. I hugged Bandit tightly and his sticky, slimy tongue rolled along my cheek. “Ugh, Bandit!” I sighed, rubbing the spit from my cheek. But he stood in excitement, his entire body wriggling, waiting for food or to play.

We had four other dogs by then, and though Bandit was not very old, we imagined he’d speak with a shaky drawl if he were human. We imagined who he would be, how he would walk and sound. And though we made jokes about his age, he seemed like a pillar, immortal. I was only seventeen, but I told my siblings Bandit was walking me down the aisle, that he would meet my children and grandchildren.

“The one we got right, huh?” Ollie mused from across the table, eating icing off a spoon.

I stand in the backyard over the pond, listening to how quiet it is, seeing flashes of orange fish hidden in the muck in the bottom. It must be at least eight feet across and four feet deep, but it feels bottomless, like quicksand pulling us under. My mother has blocked off the wrought iron gate to the pond with a dog crate, a burning reminder of what was lost along the way. Perhaps she intends the crate as a warning to the other dogs, as a marker to remind us what we’ve done and lost.

The dogs still get past the dog crate and the broken fence, however. Now, while I stand over still water and try to see Bandit clawing his way out, Bruno stands next to me, waiting.

Bruno, my dachshund, is prone to severe separation anxiety and back problems. He led Ollie to the pond when Bandit fell, barking in the grass on the side. I like to think Bruno was calling out to Bandit, that he was encouraging him, telling him one of us would find him. But I don’t know how much of this a dog can convey or understand.

Bruno follows me throughout the house, sleeps in my bed, howls and whines and paces when I leave him.

Standing next to him, I realize how hard it is to love someone, how much it hurts to care for someone and worry endlessly. How sometimes I wish I had never met any of them, because then I wouldn’t hurt so badly. How difficult it is to grow up with someone only for him to leave you behind. How loving someone is trusting him not to hurt you. And how, by design, we can never fulfill that promise.

I have nightmares of the ways in which I will fail Bruno, realizing that the being I shared my life with, whom I thought of as unchanging and undying, left me just as the others did. Realizing that I failed him just as I did the others.

I carry Bruno down stairs, watch him when he enters the backyard, take him for walks, and clutch him against my body when a car passes. When I wake in the morning to his body curled against mine, I rest my hand on his chest to check that he’s still breathing, that he didn’t leave me in the night. I wonder who needs whom more.

I want to say that while I stood over that pond and imagined myself falling in beside Bandit, that I was freed from my anger, my disappointment. That while my head knew my brother and I were innocent all along, my heart had finally caught up to speed and forgiven the two of us. That no one could’ve known, that I couldn’t have been there. But my self-reassurances are newborn deer—they rise, stumble, and fall. My sadness is a hardened kernel in the gut, and I will not stop dreaming of saving him.

Bruno looks up to me, and I’m once again filled with both sadness and appreciation. My love for Bruno sits upon my chest like a weight, a clock ticking, a premonition whispering: you will fail.

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. She would love to be friends with Edgar Sawtelle of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, because he’s also a lover of all canines and they could swap some stories.

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Sarah Steil


She’s so still I don’t notice her until I’m tripping over her. My mother is passed out on our living room floor, her pants around her ankles, the colorful fabric petunias of the carpet soaked beneath her. “Oh, fuck,” I mumble, poking her with an exposed toe as the dogs come over to investigate. “Mom,” I whisper, leaning over her, shaking her, “you’ve got to get up.”

The TV is on and flashing images color her body. Her thin, strawberry blonde hair is splayed out underneath her head, and her lips are slightly parted. Her breathing makes a clucking sound and quickens as her confused hazel eyes open. She is slow to wake, and as she lifts her small, waterlogged body from the floor, a knock on the door interrupts us. Peering through the window that looks out to the porch, I focus on two women in uniform waiting impatiently.

Suddenly, I am running upstairs and my siblings are emerging from their respective rooms as I open the door to the room I share with Alex. Lucas is behind me, bleary-eyed, half-awake, asking, “What is it? What’s up?” Christina, always listening, is silent and watching us. Alex slowly pulls earbuds from her ears, as I explain, “Child Protective Services is here and mom’s dead in the living room.”

“Again? What the fuck do they think has changed in a month?” Alex gets up from her bed, and Christina, Lucas, and I bound down the stairs. My mother kneels before the TV with a butter knife in one hand, my 130-pound bullmastiff’s collar in the other. Leo, bumbling, wags his tail as I approach, clueless as always as my mother slurs, “I gotta take his tail off. It’s gotta come off.”

I am coaxing my mother, slowly, into giving me the dulled knife as Christina coos Leo’s name and slowly leads him into the next room. As I am getting my mother’s fingers to uncurl, Alex is pushing past me, grabbing at my mother with force. The knocks on the door are getting louder. Alex hisses, “Getthefuckup” in one quick word. When my mother refuses, Alex pulls harder and my mother whines like a small child with an even smaller lexicon. “Ouch! That hurts!”

Alex half-pulls, half-drags my mother into the basement. Lucas leads the dogs into the den. Christina drags a chair over the soaked section of the carpet. I open the front door and smile.


One year later, Lucas walks into the kitchen with his hand draped across his forehead. “It’s so hot in here I think I’m going through menopause.” I get excited when he walks into the room, where we will sit for hours laughing, while I pour, and promptly forget about, a cup of tea. Lucas has my face, brown eyes, freckles, and the slightest cleft chin. Always walking on the tip of his toes, he will bound into the room twirling the back of his short curly hair into a cyclone, never completely on flat feet. He pulls the string to the ceiling fan, which hums above us, and sits at one of the falling apart, dog-chewed wooden chairs around the kitchen table.

The kitchen has become the epicenter of our house, and since our two oldest sisters moved out, my three other siblings and I spend most of our time there together.

Lucas stares at me as I place trays of cookie dough into the oven. “What are you making?”

I turn to him, tray in hand. “Cocaine.”

He purses his lips, nods, impressed. “Awesome. I just was thinking I’d give cocaine a try.”

I am closing the oven door, shooing away the dogs trying to nose their way in. “You know I would kill you,” I say, picking up my needy dachshund, Bruno, as he paws at my side.

Lucas twists his lips to one side of his face and thinks for a moment, his hands moving about wildly in front of him, punctuating his inner monologue. “There’s this kid in my geometry class and I like him, and he knows I like him, and he’s such a fucking douchebag.” He whines into his hand, bringing his forehead to the table. “Why do boys fucking suck?”

My back leans against the oven door, Bruno sleeping in my arms. “Why do you need to date someone? You’re fifteen. Get a job or something.”

“First of all, you bitch, you were dating someone at fifteen. Second of all, you bitch, I love you, and I’m going to go to college and have sex with as many boys as I want. And third of all, if I didn’t look like a fucking nematode, I would be doing that already.” He claws the skin on his face. “I’m so fucking desperate, I would let anyone use me.”

Lucas has the curse of constantly-feeling-like-shit-about-oneself that has been inherited by all five of my siblings. He will taunt me by talking like this, worrying me, because he knows it upsets me.

I roll my head back in exasperation. “Okay, first of all, you do not look like a nematode. We have the same face, so if you’re a nematode, I’m a nematode. Also, please don’t do stupid shit with boys. Boys are evil.” I pause, trying to keep up with everything he’s said. “Also, you bitch, you always mock me for saying shit about myself but you’re ten times worse.”

I fight with Lucas rarely. Most of the time I am laughing red-faced at something he said, unable to keep up with his fast-paced humor. I’ve seen him get really angry only once before, years earlier, when Alex threw out the V word: our father’s name. “You’ve got such a shitty temper, Lucas.” Alex, the Queen of Comeback, smiled with a venomous tongue. “Just like Vinny.” Comparing someone to Vinny was the hydrogen bomb of arguments, and Lucas, wounded, sputtered curses like a broken engine, eyes wide. While the curses flew, some viscous mess like, fuckingbitchshitheadasshole, Alex merely stood and smiled. “Thanks for proving my point.”

Out of anyone that harbors resentment toward my mother, Lucas is most unforgiving. Often, in a room full of my siblings, we will debate our parents like political issues. “Who do you blame more?”

I, unequivocally, answer Vinny. Lucas is flabbergasted. “You always make excuses for Mom’s shit. Bailing is better,” he raises one finger, “than marrying a shithead,” and another finger, “and ruining our financial aid,” and another, “and being a general shithead.”

I sense, though Lucas will not admit this, that he resents her for being disappointed in him. Discovering my brother’s sexuality destroyed my mother, who then spread the news like a gossip tabloid. “My son is gay. Gay,” my mother would sob dramatically into the phone to random, distant relatives. She seemed to sadistically take pride in the news, as if it were another reason to feel sorry for herself. “On top of everything I have to deal with in my life,” my mother would say, somberly shaking her head, “now I have a gay son.”

Suddenly outed to cousins twice-removed, to friends of friends, and worst of all, to my mother’s husband, Lucas cut off my mother. “I feel like a fucking joke.”

Now, Lucas twirls his hair and looks up as Chris walks into our kitchen. “Hey, Princess. How was your nap?”

Chris, groggy, ignores him. “What are you making?”

“Cocaine,” Lucas answers, smiling.


Chris, with short dirty blonde hair that he’s constantly brushing behind his ears, is often spoken over by the rest of us, and will sit with a dog in his lap and listen. He has cut his hair short since coming out to us the summer before, and bristles when my mother and her husband refer to him by his birth name or use female pronouns. Chris, sweet and timid, will giggle with the rest of us, interjecting randomly, mocking us and feeding the dogs from the table.

Chris’s quietness unnerved me for a long time when I didn’t quite understand it and associated silence with distance.

Finn, our Australian Shepherd and Chris’s companion, wanders up to his lap, investigating for food. “Hey, baby Finn,” he coos, petting him. I sing to Finn, high and off-pitched, “Oh Finn the Chin, Chin the Finn.” Chris joins in with me, and Finn stands between us, twisting back and forth as Chris laughs.

It seems impossible to me now, to look at this smiling person and see him in a hospital gown. When I think of him then, ashamed with himself and too afraid to tell my mother he wasn’t a girl, I want to raise a vindictive finger to my mother and say, “Who’s fault is this? A bigot’s and her husband’s.”

Christina, my sweet baby I could never figure out. Christina who told her teachers she slept with a knife under her pillow. Christina who wanted to hurt herself so badly, crying with matted hair as we played a supervised game of Go Fish.

We were allowed two hours of visiting time, and we brought heavy, messy Italian food to see her. In one of the aisles of the Children’s Psychiatric Unit a woman in uniform told us where to find her, how long we could stay, what we could bring in with us. I felt protective over Christina, and when I saw her, crying, unshowered, scared, small, asking us to please stay longer, I wanted to weep. Christina-who-was-never-really-Christina resented her name and her body, too scared to tell my worlds-away mother. Christina, who told the teachers she didn’t want to be around anymore. These people, Christina and Chris, seem separated by entire lifetimes. Sometimes I wonder if my mother would rather have had her daughter die with the secret imbedded within her, than have her son live.

Out of anyone who harbors resentment against my mother, Chris is the most forgiving.

Chris, now fourteen, doesn’t think about this past often, doesn’t let my mother’s doubts bother him. When my mother wants to come into his room, crying, “I have lost a daughter,” he will simply close the door.

Chris, my companion, who wants to watch movies with me and walk to the supermarket late at night to get cookie dough, who guards my dogs protectively, who laughs at my dumb jokes, who tells me first when the kids at school tease him.

He will elbow me and whisper, “Should we tell Mom I’m not dead or let her figure that out later?”

Christina, crying as my drunken mother pushed her away. At thirteen, Christina begged my mother to leave her abusive husband, asked, “Don’t you love us more than him? Why are you choosing him?” Christina, who promised her forgiveness the very same night.

Chris will ask for a cookie while Lucas will just take one. He groans. “Mr. Roland called me Christina in front of the whole class.” He drags out the double s in class, letting it drift away slowly. “It was so embarrassing. Now he just calls me C cause he’s too awkward to say my name.”

“Did you correct him?”

Lucas, with chocolate across his fingers and face, chimes in, “Tell him to learn your name, or you’re going to sue him and his family for generations.”

Chris sighs and leans down to place his forehead against Finn’s. “No, I just stared at him awkwardly, and he stared at me awkwardly.” He grimaces, looks away as Finn scurries over to Alex walking in, who slowly removes her earbuds and comes over to the stove to examine the trays of cookies.

She appraises them like a paleontologist uncovering fossil bones, stroking her chin and pursing her lips. Finally, a verdict is reached: “You should’ve left them in longer.”

Lucas, from across the table, mumbles, “That’s what she said,” to which Chris responds with an obligatory, “Heyo,” and a high-five. Alex dismisses them. I am directly between Alex and Lucas in age, eighteen months younger than one, eighteen months older than the other. I am currently seventeen to Alex’s eighteen, though I am still a senior in high school and she is a freshman in college.


For the entirety of this first year of college, Alex will tell us about the wonders of independence, about her friends, classes, professors, grades. At the end of the year, when she transfers, she will tell me she had been miserable the whole time.

Alex, beautiful Alexandra, whose body is that of a crushed baby bird, whose collarbones form a basin for rain. Cat-like, she will pull up her shirt and stretch, stretch, stretch, encouraging her skin to roll along a timid ribcage.

Alex, out of anyone that harbors resentment toward my mother, is most direct with her anger. And yet somehow she grants my mother’s opinions the most weight, will allow my mother’s insults to dig into her skin like parasitic worms that attach to her spine and feed.

Alexandra, who had an eating disorder in high school, continues to shrink during her first year of college. Every time she comes home my mother will gush and beam, congratulate her on the weight loss, comment on how much more beautiful she gets by the day. My mother knew of my sister’s sickness in high school, yet comments on her beauty during that first year of college extensively.

The year before, as her waist thinned, my mother looked down at me and sighed, “When did you get so much bigger than her?” I wanted to ask, “When did she get so much smaller than me?” I dragged my hand across my stomach, twisted extra fat in my hands, watched the way her stomach curved inward.

When she vomits into grocery bags and hides them in the closet so my mother will not see, I try to force myself to leer over the lip of our plastic toilet bowl, willing my insides to unfold. But I’m too scared.

When my mother places her hands on Alex’s hips, and smiles, “Who knew you had such a beautiful body?” I want to place my hands around my mother’s neck and shake until I hear bones crack.

In high school, we’re clothes shopping before school starts, and in the changing room next to me Alex peels jeans on and off. My mother will retrieve the pants she flings over the changing room door, toss them over mine with a hurried, “Try these on.” I refuse, and my mother insists, insists, insists, her voice raising with my objections. Flush-faced, I finally pull open the door and stammer, “I’m not going to try them on because they’re not going to fit.” My mother replies, “If they fit your sister why shouldn’t they fit you?” I run cheese-doodle orange fingertips across my stomach and wonder the same thing.

To blame my sister’s eating disorder on my mother would be unfair, but to deny it would also be unfair. When my mother is sober, and oozing over Alex’s skeletal body, Alex smiles and beams. I wonder if Alex’s aggression toward our mother when she is drunk is a realization of the hold she has on Alex’s body, her perception of beauty. I wonder if, when Alex stops herself from eating, she hates that she wants my mother to see her as beautiful, to sigh contentedly, “Oh, Alex, you have such a nice body.”

My mother’s first realization that Alex had a problem arose in a mall changing room when we were in high school. Alex, at five-foot-five, and a little less than 95 pounds, was too small for any of the clothing the store sold. I whispered to my mother outside the door, “Don’t you think it’s strange that she’s too small for everything here? Don’t you think that’s a problem?”

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