Cowabunga Sunset

 

by Ross West

 

JACOB 

I got a resupply pack in the Repair & Maintenance Shop and lugged it out to the floating wooden  dock where we rented kayaks. The ocean air was filled with the lazy calls of sea gulls, and out on  the beach the park’s visitors were having their fun. From the pack I took the electronic controller  and punched in the command. A harbor seal stuck its head out of the water and, with a few kicks of its powerful tail, propelled itself up onto the dock next to me. Another command launched the  seal into its roll-over routine that brought it to a rest propped up on one fin, belly exposed. I  inserted the special wrench and opened the door in the seal’s chest. Out popped the old toaster sized battery pack. I slid in its replacement, snapped the door shut, and punched the DONE button  on the controller. The seal barked, scooted across the dock, and dove back into the water.

When I first started working at the COWABUNGA! water park I thought the seal was about  the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I still did, but recently something else had definitely caught my  eye. I was stationed at Lifeguard Tower Four when I first saw her, wearing a T-shirt and a pair of  gym shorts, walking barefoot on the dry sand. One of her hands held a pair of flipflops, the other  occasionally brushed aside a strand of her long, wavy, chestnut hair. Never had I seen anyone so  beautiful.  

Turned out that she, Mary, had just been hired. A week or so later our shift supervisor  assigned us to pair up later that afternoon doing Special Needs Aquatic Support. I couldn’t  believe my luck and bounced through my morning duties grinning, whistling, and feeling all  kinds of stupid goofy happy. 

If any of this had happened even a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready for it.  Back then, I didn’t do much except play high school water polo and hang out with guys from the  team—guys who had girlfriends and were always telling stories about burning the love light. But  I was shy and super busy with water polo practice and games, school, and two part-time jobs I  worked to help Mom with the bills. The guys used to razz me pretty hard about my lack of  experience in the female department.  

All that changed right after graduation when I got hired at COWABUNGA! On my third day  on the job I met the park’s owner, Greg. When I got off my lifeguarding shift at Tower Four he  was standing there waiting—forty-five or so, shaggy-haired, in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of  dude shorts. 

“Hey man,” he said, “let’s you and me take a walk down the beach.”  

As we wove our way between the kids running in and out of the water, he asked me,  “Why do you think all these people come here?”

I was a little nervous—new to the job, talking to the big boss—and all I could think of  was, “To have fun?”  

“Exactly” he said. “For fun and to get away from the crazy stuff outside the park.  Drought, mass starvation, water wars—half the world’s starting to look like freakin’ Mad Max.  Even in this country, things are getting a little . . . scary. So, it’s important we give our visitors a  vacation from all the doom and gloom. Make sense?” 

“Totally.” Mostly I didn’t pay attention to all the environmental stuff in the news, but  yeah, he was right.  

Greg stopped walking and faced me, dead serious, eye to eye. “You and the rest of the  staff make that vacation happen. You’re the COWABUNGA! vibe.” He talked to me like an adult— very different from any of the bosses and teachers and coaches I’d ever had. “The way I look at  it,” he said, “people are suffering. This place is a hospital, the beach is our medicine, and you, my friend,” he tapped a finger against my chest, “you’re Dr. Feelgood. Can you dig it?” 

It was like he’d knighted me or something, like all of a sudden I had a mission to help  people. I felt ten feet tall, ready for anything. And yes, I could definitely dig it.  

On the afternoon Mary and I were assigned to work together in Aquatic Support, we got  to the parking lot just as the van from the state hospital arrived. The driver, a nurse named Roberto, had brought us one tiny and very shy little girl about five, Jeannie. Earlier on the  telephone Roberto had filled us in about Jeannie—that she had had eleven surgeries and spent  most of her life in the hospital.  

We wheeled her out to the access ramp and got her into the floatation jacket. She was  scared—maybe headed for a meltdown.  

Mary bent in close, stroked Jeanie’s little stick of an arm, and said, “Can I tell you a  secret?”  

With tears about to spill out of her eyes, Jeannie gave a shaky nod. 

“Jacob here is about the best swimmer in the whole wide world. Did you know that?”  Jeannie shook her head. 

“See that island way way out there?” Mary pointed at the man-made atoll we called Gilligan’s Island, a quarter mile offshore. “He can swim all the way out there and back.” Mary  rested her hand on my shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Jacob?” 

“Done it a hundred times,” I said.  

I gave the kid’s cheek a little brush with the backside of my finger, something that used  to help when I babysat my cousins and they needed a little reassurance. It didn’t work any great  miracles with Jeanie, whose fingers were clamped on the arm rests of her chair as we rolled her  down the ramp and eased her into the Aquatic Support swimming area. The water came up  around her and the flotation jacket lifted her out of the wheelchair. Mary and I held her, one on  each side, but even so, Jeannie was panicky, straining her head upward and gulping down breaths  like a hungry baby bird. 

Every time she bobbed down and the water came up close to her mouth, we made sure  she bobbed right back up. After a while she calmed down, enough so she started to notice how  different rules apply in the water—how light she was, how easy it was for her to move her frail  body. She made a few tentative strokes to test things out, tried some variations, and it wasn’t  long before she got pretty good at floating and paddling, an accomplishment she signaled with  open-mouthed glee and a string of excited chirps.

“I’m flying,” she squealed. And she was, flinging herself back and forth between Mary  and me like a giggling little motorboat, spinning around and around, slapping her arms onto the  water to make big splashes.  

She swam and played until Roberto honked the van’s horn and waved his arm.  “I don’t wanna go,” Jeannie cried.  

We rolled her out of the water and got her all bunched up in a towel.  

Don’t. Wanna. Go,” she insisted, pushing her fists into her cheeks. 

“We’ll always be here,” Mary said. 

I took her hand and gave it a squeeze and a little shake. “You can always come back.”  “Promise?” she asked, her face lighting up. 

“Promise,” we said together.  

Roberto got Jeannie and her chair strapped into the van. She bounced happily up and  down, talking to us through the glass, saying words we couldn’t hear. The van turned out of the  parking lot, and she waved and blew us a kiss.  

I waved back. “What a cutie.”  

“Hope we see her again,” Mary said, pulling her hair into a ponytail. 

We just stood there in the parking lot like neither of us wanted to leave.  

Finally, I asked, “So how did you know I’ve been out to Gilligan’s?” 

The corner of her mouth curled up in a sneaky little smile and she aimed her green-green green eyes at me. “I’ve been watching you.”  

I totally froze.

“See you tomorrow,” she said and walked off toward the Operations Center. I couldn’t  take my eyes off of her—the graceful way she moved, her swimmer’s shoulders, how her  ponytail swayed. 

MELINDA 

Greg approached us at CJQ Capital Partners with a rather modest pitch: Six months of profitable  operation constituted proof of concept for his themed water park; now it was time to open a  second park to test out the feasibility of spreading the COWABUNGA! brand by way of the  franchise model. Greg and his CFO walked us through the financials, construction cost estimates,  timelines, projected return on investment, and the rest of their package. The numbers penciled  out and I was intrigued. 

I had my team run our own analyses and rather quickly saw that, like many newcomers to the universe of venture capital, Greg was fixated on growing sunflowers while the market was  crying out for redwoods. His vision of piecemeal expansion through franchising would fail to  fully leverage disruptive impacts and the first-to-market strategic advantage. 

At a second meeting I laid out our counterproposal: Financed by a consortium of  institutional and private investors, we would roll out nine beach parks at or near major coastal  cities around the world—simultaneously inventing and dominating the market. 

When I finished, Greg’s cheeks were wet with tears of joy. I loved his honesty, his  unguarded emotions; at one point he said with complete sincerity, “Hey, I’m not really a money  guy.” As if we hadn’t noticed. 

Far more important than his good heart and clever idea, he possessed the necessary  ingredient of every entrepreneurial success, exquisite timing. This is how my team’s Cultural  Analytics Specialist summed it up in her evaluation: 

The intensifying global emergency of catastrophic climate change (including the  worldwide disappearance of beaches resulting from rising sea levels) is forcing governments to impose unprecedented draconian restrictions, eliminating  freedoms of activity, behavior, expression. Constrained consumers are resentful of these severe austerities. Their compensatory desires thus stimulated, they crave respite and distraction as never before. COWABUNGA! offers the succor of escapism  via an otherwise unattainable resource. 

Simply put, we had ourselves a moneymaker. 

So far, both meetings about the COWABUNGA! proposal had taken place at our Manhattan  office. At these sessions Greg repeatedly implored us to make a site visit, claiming that “all the  spreadsheets in the world won’t tell you half as much about the park as spending an hour on the  beach.” 

We scheduled a visit.  

JACOB 

Nights were super popular at COWABUNGA! We had bonfires and weenie roasts and s’mores, full  moon surfing, romantic walks along the sand. But the day after Mary and I worked together in  Aquatics Support, the park closed early—the staff swept all visitors off the beach and out the  doors even before the Sky-Tron kicked into its sunset routine. A maintenance crew was coming  from the wave machine company to do their quarterly check-up on the hydraulics. My job was to  let them in and make sure they had whatever they might need. 

With the crowd and the staff gone and the crew not yet arrived, I was the only guy in the  whole huge park. Very cool, very peaceful, like being on my own island. I went for a walk on the sand and stopped at one of the cement fire rings that held a pile of ashes and some charred wood  left from last night’s luau. I found it amazing that in the middle of a global climate train wreck we could have open fires on the beach. Outside in the real world just about anything that releases even a puff of greenhouse gas is regulated seventeen different ways by six different branches of  government. Not to mention the scary EcoGuardian vigilante groups that go after “Earth killers” by burning down their businesses, cars, and homes. But Greg wasn’t about to have a beach  without campfires, so he purchased ten times more carbon offsets than were required and ended  up winning a Green Hero award. Smart guy.  

My phone rang. The maintenance crew leader said one of their trucks had broken down  and they’d have to reschedule for another night. Before we even finished the conversation I was already thinking about Mary and working up the courage to ask her if maybe she might want to  come hang out.  

“Oh perfect,” she said when I called, her voice happy and bright and not hesitating for a  second. “I’ll be right over.” 

While I waited, I went into the Control Room, fired up the Sky-Tron controller, and  bumped up the intensity of the sunset routine for the dome that covered COWABUNGA! I paced  around and looked at the clock about five times then went back to the Sky-Tron controller. What  the heck—I cranked all the inputs to the max. 

Mary arrived and we ran to the beach, laid out our towels, and dove in. Soon we were  beyond the breakers, moving in the open water as easy and happy as a couple of otters. I had  jacked up the Sky-Tron settings so much that as the sun dipped toward the horizon the western  half of the dome throbbed in bright neon colors—orange, red, gold, green, and purple. I told her  what I had done. 

“You made us tie-dye sky,” she said, a big grin on her face. She slapped water at me and  dove. I felt her gliding smoothly past my calf.  

We swam back to shore and toweled off in the fading light of the greatest sunset in the  history of the world. I lit a fire while Mary uncorked a bottle of red wine. We sat and drank and  watched the flames and laughed and listened to the crackling fire and the shushing waves and  drank some more and got a little buzzed.  

“Oh my god,” she giggled, looking to the eastern horizon, “What is that?”  The full moon I’d programmed on the Sky-Tron was rising. It wasn’t a normal full  moon—no, this thing was gigantic, twenty, maybe thirty times regular size, with the Man in the  Moon gazing down on us, obviously quite pleased to be setting the mood for what was to come. 

MELINDA 

Greg had fervently insisted CJQ Capital people visit him at COWABUNGA! and here we were,  myself and Lou Moretti, dressed, as our host had recommended, in “beach casual attire.” Perhaps  Greg had feared Lou would show up in his wingtips and I would be in heels. In fact, Lou was  just back from two weeks on a sailboat with his wife and kids and looked almost as tan as Greg. I  was a little pasty (having been working for months on both the COWABUNGA! project and a  leveraged buyout of an Indonesian mining outfit), but I felt fashionably beachy in a batik sarong  I had picked up in Bali.  

Greg first toured us around the park’s headquarters. Everything state-of-the-art, with an  admirably cost-effective structure: staffed and operated largely by low-wage labor supported by  contracted maintenance and engineering services. Every employee seemed competent; morale was high. When we got outside, the waves made a soothing hum and the air smelled of salt. I  took off my sandals, the warm sand felt wonderful on my feet. 

“A mile and a half of beach,” Greg said proudly. “Boogie boarding, snorkeling,  volleyball, pipeline surfing—everything.” He wasn’t overselling one bit; in a quick glance left  and right I saw all he described plus sunbathers, Frisbee tossers, joggers, inner-tubers and  kayakers, body surfers, picnicking families, roaming clumps of teens, and an old couple with  long poles fishing near the jetty.  

Greg swept his arm toward an ultramarine sky streaked with two clouds shaped like white  feathers.  

“Our Sky-Tron dome gives us a completely programmable environment. We can dial up  wispy clouds, a typhoon, or anything in between. The synthetic sun emits infrared heat. Out at  the horizon, you can see a sailboat regatta and, closer in, surfers riding the reef break. All  holograms on the Sky-Tron.” 

Lou, an engineer notoriously hard to impress, emitted an appreciative “Wow.”  “Every afternoon we’ve programmed a pod of gray whales to swim past,” Greg said.  “They put on quite a show—fins, tails, spouts, breeching. Our guests love it.” “But those are real,” Lou said, pointing at a group floating on their surfboards, waiting  for waves while two skillful riders cut up and down the sloped face of a perfectly formed six-foot  curl rolling toward the shore. “Must be one hell of a wave machine.” 

“A mechanical marvel,” Greg said, smiling and shaking his head, as if he could hardly  believe what he had created. “When I was a kid, I spent as much time as I could at a beach a lot  like this one. Never felt more alive, more optimistic.” His face was blissful, but quickly turned  solemn; his tone grew somber. “When I heard about beaches around the world disappearing. I said to myself, hey man, this is a bigass problem. In fifty years or maybe a hundred we’ll get  ocean levels under control and natural beaches will come back. That’s the hope. In the meantime,  my job, my sacred duty, is to keep the flame of the beach vibe alive.” 

A thin gauze separates the visionary from the lunatic. I needed to make sure which side  our future partner was on, so I had to ask, “Why is the beach vibe so important?” “Global warming is just bummer after bummer after bummer. And that’s a soul killer.  The more depressing and dispiriting things get, the more people need a break—a place to have  some fun, to recharge. We’re Homo ludens, man. As a species, we want to—need to—have fun. And we can’t afford to bum out and give up. The stakes are way too high.” He raised his arms  and opened them to take in all that surrounded us. “We need surfers and slackers, parrot heads  and pirates, a place where lovers can rub suntan lotion on each other and lay in the sun, where  kids can chase each other into the surf.” 

He was on a roll and would probably have continued his lilting beach rhapsody but stopped abruptly when something behind Lou captured his attention. He squinted and tilted his  head as if he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the sight. Lou and I turned around and saw a tall white-haired man in a funeral-black suit lumbering across the sand toward us. When he arrived,  he adjusted the hang of his still buttoned coat and asked, “Greg Becker?”  Greg nodded suspiciously. 

“I’m with the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation.” The man reached into  his coat’s breast pocket, withdrew an envelope, and handed it to Greg. “You have thirty days to  cease this facility’s operation.” 

JACOB

Down at the tidepools with a group of kids gathered around me, I talked about the starfish I had in my hand and about how, when one of these amazing creatures loses a leg, it can grow a new  one. The kids thought this was pretty cool and responded with oohs, aahs and a ton of questions. 

I noticed Greg standing off to the side, watching. He had his arms folded across his chest and  didn’t look like his normal cheery self. I tried not to let his presence distract me and passed my  visual aids to the kids—the starfish and a glass jar holding some hermit crabs, limpets, and a  spiny purple sea urchin. I got the kids wading in the pools, touching the muscles, chasing striped  shore crabs, and having their fingers sucked on by sea anemones—to shrieks of joy.  

When we finished up and the kids drifted off at around 2:30, Greg walked up to me. “You were good with them,” he said, close enough that I could smell alcohol on his  breath. There was plenty of red in his light blue eyes, the skin around them was puffy. “Thanks.” I had a bad feeling he was going to bust me for my night with Mary—exactly  one week ago.  

“Let’s have a drink,” he said. 

We chit-chatted as we walked down the beach to his hut, the casual talk made me all the  more certain he was going to let me have it. It would explain why he’d been drinking—he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who liked to dish out discipline. I felt crappy for putting him in an uncomfortable position. Still, if there was a price to pay for being with Mary, I was willing to  take the hit. It had been the best night of my life. 

The hut was on a rise away from where any of our guests would walk. It had a great  view of the ocean and a hammock strung between two palm trees by a covered lanai. On the  outside, the hut was a rickety frame of weathered boards, bamboo, and palm fronds, but inside it  was like a regular modern apartment.

Greg rattled ice into a blender, unscrewed different bottles and splashed in a couple of  jiggers from each one, squeezed a lime over the top, and let it rip. He pushed the button to make  the clattering roar stop, then turned his back to me, getting glasses from the cupboard. Over his  shoulder he said, “I see you and Mary Yeager seem to be hitting it off.” 

My face grew hot. Since our night on the beach, she and I had been spending every spare  minute together, but I hadn’t figured anyone else had noticed, especially not Greg. He came over  and handed me a water glass filled to the brim with the icy margarita. 

“She seems like a real fine young lady,” he said with a wink and a smile. Obviously, I  wasn’t busted. That was a relief. Okay, things were on the upswing. A drink in the middle of the  afternoon with the owner—heck yeah. Beats working. 

Before I’d had more than a few sips of the sweet, strong drink, he was back with the  pitcher, topping off my glass. He dumped the remainder of the slush in his the tumbler he’d  already drained. He tilted back a swallow then returned to the blender and mixed up another  batch. As we drank, I got more comfortable and relaxed. My mind drifted to Mary and the one week anniversary celebration we had planned for after work. Life had never been so great.  I’d been lost in my daydreaming when I noticed that Greg hadn’t said anything for a  while. I looked over at him and saw he was fidgety and kind of agitated. 

“I saw your hammock outside,” I said, thinking he could use some fresh air. “Could I give it a try?” 

He grunted and led the way, his steps a little shaky. The warm breeze carried the sounds  of the waves and of a bunch of kids squealing down at the waterline. I rolled into the hammock and made a big show of rocking back and forth.  

“This is awesome,” I said.  

But he wasn’t listening. He had his arms spread out wide, his glass in one, the pitcher in  the other, thrashing around the lanai, mad, mumbling something about a letter. Then he got  louder and clearer, “—god damn idiots—wrecking everything. Pissy little pissant bureaucrats . . .  addicted to their pissant power.” He scowled, burped, and came over to the hammock and put his  sweaty flushed face close to mine. “Beware the man who knows only one book.” 

He was raging, no question about that, but it wasn’t aimed at me. I figured he just needed  somebody to vent to, so I listened. He ranted on and on about the letter, about people being blind  and stupid, about there being many paths to the top of the mountain. I just swayed in the  hammock and nodded and sipped my drink. Maybe it was the booze, but I found the whole weird  situation kind of amusing. 

Something big was up, yeah, definitely. But as far as I could tell, it wasn’t my problem. In  a couple of hours I’d be with Mary in her bed—next to that, what else could possibly matter? All  was right with my world. No, not just right, all was perfect and radiant and glorious. Just the two  of us, Mary and me. And nothing was going to ever interfere with that—ever. 

DELILAH 

To: Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation 

From: Delilah Mallet-Grimshaw  

Subject: Progress Report, Case No. 1307 

BACKGROUND 

In accordance with the Accuracy in Historical Representations and Communications Act  (8.3.26b), I am reporting progress related to actions taken by my office. 

On April 19 it was reported to this office that a commercial enterprise—COWABUNGA! (hereafter referred to as “the replica beach”)—was operating in violation of numerous provisions  of AHRCA. 

Field investigators were dispatched for initial information gathering. Upon confirmation  that the replica beach promoted and/or portrayed inaccurate historical representations, I formed  an Action Team for further investigation (electronic surveillance warrants obtained). Formal  analysis, assessment, and response preparation activities ensued. 

OBJECTIONABLE REPRESENTATIONS 

Numerous violations of Class 1 restrictions were identified including, but not limited to: • Romanticized and unhistorical representations (as set forth in AHRCA subsection 1.1.4:  “no description of an historical time, place, situation, etc., may be shown/presented inconsistent  with the full and accurate context of the historical dynamics of anthropogenic geodegradation”). • Denial of basic tenets of science-backed consensus on Global Warming mechanisms  and impacts. 

  • 103 specific infractions of the Code of Observance.  

ACTION TAKEN 

Sole proprietor of replica beach, Gregory L. Becker, was served with a Letter of Finding  enumerating violations of the AHRCA and demanding cessation of operations. Letter informed  recipient of how failure to comply would render proprietor subject to the full extent of the Act’s  punitive remedies (17.1–67).

CURRENT STATUS 

Replica beach operations suspended. Historical Reconciliation improvements begun  under auspices of the Office of Cultural and Historical Disambiguation, Office of Narrative  Compliance.  

ANTICIPATED OUTCOME 

Successful removal/remediation of offensive, unhistorical, and dangerous (in terms of  public perception) misrepresentations of significant natural and cultural activity associated with  ecological dynamics/degradation/dysfunction.  

Submitted respectfully, 

Delilah Mallet-Grimshaw 

Assistant Director, Office of Narrative Compliance 

JACOB 

When the government lowered the boom, everything went down the crapper fast. Greg fought  the shutdown order with every ounce of his strength, his lawyers made appeal after appeal—with  zero success. He showed up at the park less and less, and when he did, he mostly spent his time  alone in his hut drinking and smoking weed. 

The government brought in all these Narrative Compliance people to transform the  place—an Artistic Director, Experience Designers, code writers, a crews of construction  workers, and the main man, the Story Czar who had one droopy eye and oversaw the whole  project.  

The Czar was big on living history dioramas. One day we gathered in the Operations  Center, and he told us his vision, which was mostly of schoolkids on field trips having the 

experience of learning about global warming by talking to real (fake) people—a boatful of  climate refugees, island people whose village was half-submerged, a climate scientist in a lab  coat, a UN delegate working on global environmental policies. Could anything be more  stimulating for young minds? Some of the laid-off COWABUNGA! staff got rehired to put on  costumes and be actors in these dioramas—though most were laid off again when the majority of  the living dioramas got replaced by holograms.  

I was among the people who were lucky enough to keep our jobs as COWABUNGA! got reconfigured into the Beach Museum—the BM, as we dubbed it. Even though this  transformation was slow and horrible, like watching a beautiful animal die, I stayed on. What the  hell else was I gonna do? I was a beach bum, that’s all I knew.  

Once the BM was up and running, there was hardly anything going on, just a fraction of  the activity from back in the COWABUNGA! days. Mostly we marched groups of schoolkids  through the museum’s fourteen Info Stations. At each one they’d have to listen to a staff member  or hologram drone through an indoctrination speech filled with bleak and demoralizing facts— another glacier melted, another forest burned, another species gone extinct. The happy squirrely  energy that buzzed in the kids as they got off the bus would be completely drained by Station 3,  replaced by yawns and glassy-eyed stares.  

I had the most seniority of anybody left on the staff, so one of my jobs was to break in the  new hires. This kept me pretty busy as the BM had a hard time keeping people on the payroll. Randall was my latest trainee, a chubby, baby-faced kid who, like almost all of the hires since the swimming requirement had been eliminated, wasn’t half as physically fit as staff  members used to be. I took him to the employee dressing rooms and got him squared away with  a locker and a set of work clothes to match the ones I already had on. 

“Time to costume up,” I said. Randal awkwardly wiggled into his pea-green rubberized  rain suit (with hood) and the knee-high rubber boots. The bosses said this gear was designed to  protect us from contact toxins and environmental pathogens—what it was really good for was  making us sweat like pigs. Once he was suited up, we stood in front of the dressing room  mirror—a couple of Gumbys. 

I unscrewed the cap from a tube of white zinc oxide cream and squeezed a thick gob onto  my finger.  

“Really?” Randall said, narrowing his eyes. 

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s just sunblock with an SPF of like ten thousand.” I applied the  white goo to his nose, cheekbones, and forehead in kind of a starburst pattern. “We could use  regular sunscreen, but the Narrative Control Team decided that this fits better with the E.D.N.’s  section on the resurgent ozone hole and skin cancer.” 

“The E.D.N.?” 

“Environmental Degradation Narrative,” I said, looking in the mirror and dabbing the goo  onto my own face. “That’s our bible, the document that controls everything we do.” I led the way out to the beach, which the E.D.N. had staged with a soiled diaper, cigarette butts, random plastic crap, crude oil and beach tar, dead fish, rotting bird carcasses, and a  condom. Not far offshore, a one-tenth scale cruise ship was anchored in a vast gyre of floating  plastic trash—from a pipe in its stern gushed a waterfall of chunky gray-brown waste.  Randall’s face pinched with repulsion.  

“Right over there used to be our number-one surfing area,” I said, leveling my gaze at the  slack water. 

He squinted to see through the smoke (non-greenhouse) rising from a pile of (simulated) burning tires. “Surfers? Here? Are you kidding?”  

“The wave machine’s still out there—it’s just turned off. The accountants say that saves a  ton of money. And why not? With the E.D.N., the water’s so filthy it would be like surfing in a  toilet.” 

Randall wiped his sweating forehead.  

“Getting a little warm?” 

He nodded.  

“The temperature inside the dome is set at 93 with 95 percent humidity under an always overcast sky. The only break is every day at four when we get a Category I hurricane—the air movers rev up to a godawful howl. Keep your peepers peeled for flying debris.” 

It was a lot for him to take in and he didn’t look too happy. Still, my job was to give him  the skinny, so the skinny he would get. 

“Just down there is something pretty cool,” I said, picking up the pace. We arrived at a  child-sized body lying face down on the sand just at the waterline, wavelets lapping around the  lifeless form. 

“The Experience Designers went through a bunch of different models before they settled  on this one. The first version was too stiff—like a mannequin. Then there were a few that were  kinda loosey-goosey, jiggly like water balloons. Technically this guy is the CMBC-6, for the  sixth version of the Climate Migrant Beach Corpse. We call him Ricky.” 

“My god,” Randall said. “That’s disgusting.” 

“Narrative Compliance says it really hammers home the tragedy. The schoolkids are  totally grossed out, but it’s the only thing in the park they actually pay attention to.”

We trudged back across the sand toward the parking lot where a yellow school bus was  pulling to a stop, the noise of high-spirited kids pouring from its open windows.  Randall fixed his eyes on the bus. “I’m planning to become a teacher,” he said. “The ad  for the job said I’d get to work with kids.” 

My gut tightened as I thought of Jeannie, the little girl in the wheelchair—how I had  promised her we’d always be here for her, how I had broken that promise.  “Kids we got,” I said. “Class field trips make up ninety-six percent of our visitors. That’s  the business model now. Technically we’re still owned by our founder, Greg Becker, but really,  the government subsidizes the whole operation. We don’t make squat on gate receipts anymore.”  Next to the bus, the teachers straightened the wriggling elementary school kids into lines. “What happened to Becker?” Randal asked.  

I wondered about how to reply, even as I recalled being on a midnight beach patrol, my  flashlight beam sweeping onto a very wasted-looking Greg staggering with an empty bottle of  tequila in one hand. He fell to his knees, doubled over, and spewed violently into the sand. “Greg doesn’t come around much anymore,” I said. 

“People come, people go, huh?” Randall said with a stupid laugh, like he’d said  something clever.  

It was just then that we came to Lifeguard Tower One, the place where I’d last seen  Mary. She too had kept her job during the transition to the BM, but it hadn’t taken her long to see  where things were headed. She was smart that way, lots smarter than me. We were standing right  by the Tower in our knee boots and our dorky rubber rain suits when she said she was leaving.  She told me had dreams of finding somewhere that was more like what COWABUNGA! used to be.  “This place is the shits,” she said. “You know that, right?” 

“We could go together,” I blurted. But by the time I said it, I already knew we wouldn’t. There was something about the way she stood, the way she spoke—she’d thought it all out and  decided.  

“I need to do this on my own,” she said, looking out to the horizon. “Do you  understand?” 

I didn’t, but I said I did—like it was the thing I was supposed to say. 

“When I find a good place, I’ll call,” she said, brushing away a tear from my cheek. “Maybe you’ll wanna come be with me.” She gave me the gift of her warmest, twinkliest smile  then took my head in her hands, looked into my eyes for a long time like she wanted to  remember, then kissed me soft and slow.  

“Be brave,” she said.  

She turned and walked down the beach. I watched her get smaller and smaller and then  she was gone.  

It almost killed me. Mary was my whole world. There wasn’t anything without her. I told  myself we’d only be apart for a few days, or at most a couple of weeks. When I didn’t hear from  her, I imagined she was off the grid someplace in Peru or Thailand or maybe New Zealand, doing whatever it was she needed to do. But she would call. I was sure of that, and I still am.  She’ll call and I’ll go to her, wherever she is, anywhere on earth, and everything will be like it  was before. 

 


 

Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.

The Last

by Brittney Corrigan

 

When the northern white rhino shows up, Fin is ready for the rites. The animal’s massive
horn materializes first, followed by small, black eyes and then heavy, three-toed hooves. Fin had been watching the free-standing archway, waiting for the beast to step through the gnarled wooden aperture into the plain of light. Now, she stands before the arch, holding a tall stone pitcher of water. The gray armor of the rhino’s shoulders emerges, then thick, wrinkled flanks, a curl of tail. The rhino is nervous, confused, its eyes wide and wary. But Fin is never afraid of what comes through the arch. She steps toward the rhino, carrying the stone vessel with practiced
ease.

Fin can’t remember ever being anywhere but here. She has always been the receiver, the
celebrant, the caretaker of the beings that come through the arch. Fin is a fulcrum, standing in the middle of the plain of light, the horizon gleaming beyond the arch. And beyond that horizon, the creatures she’s already ushered through call to her, lonely in each other’s company as they wait for her to return. Their voices tug at her, and she aches to go to them. A few decades back she could spend whole days among them, smoothing their feathers and stroking their fur. But new animals come through so often now that Fin can never leave the arch, can scarcely keep up with the rites.

The rhino takes a tentative step forward, lowers its head before Fin. She places a hand on its front horn, then tilts the pitcher over the rhino’s forehead and pours slowly, so the water rivers between its ears and down its face. Fin walks along the length of the great ungulate, pouring water over its back down to its tail, which relaxes as the last of the liquid drips down its leathery skin. The rhino shivers its hide, and its body begins to shimmer. The animal lifts its head toward the sounds coming from beyond the plain’s edge. It looks back for a moment at Fin, who stands quietly, holding the empty pitcher. Then the rhino takes off in a run, charging across the plain of light.

The sorrow that inhabits Fin whenever an animal comes through the arch sometimes feels too heavy to hold. She remembers them all: the Pyrenean ibex with knobby, ringed horns whose back sagged with the ghost-weight of the fallen tree that killed it; the Tasmanian tiger still stinking of zoo as Fin washed its banded fur; the Xerces blue butterfly that landed on Fin’s shoulder, allowed the anointing of its delicate wings. And many centuries before, the flightless dodo, stumbling through the archway, unafraid. All of them burdened with their solitary passings. All of them the last of their kind.

Fin walks a few paces to where a bright turquoise pool glistens on the plain of light. She dips her pitcher, fills it once again to the brim. For some time now, at least three creatures have come through the arch every hour. Insects with colorful bodies, birds with astonishing feathers or feathers muted as stone, frogs no bigger than Fin’s thumbnail. Creatures from the oceans’ depths, floating through the arch in search of the sea. Fin tends to all of them, sends them off across the plain of light.

*****

Fin fills pitcher after pitcher of water as the pace of creatures entering the plain of light
quickens. Sometimes animals from different continents come through the archway together, tangling with confusion and alarm. Fin cannot properly receive them, cannot give them the attention they deserve. She is coaxing a hawksbill turtle from the muscular arms of a mountain gorilla when a bird flies through the arch and continues right over Fin’s head, toward the clamorous horizon. Fin cannot tell what species of bird it was, may never find it again. She worries what will happen when it crests the horizon, unanointed. Fin’s pitcher is empty again. She lifts it with faltering hands.

A cheetah arrives at full sprint, streaking past her in a blur that becomes the plain of light
itself. Fin rushes to refill the pitcher, but the turquoise pool is empty. Fin stands rooted, wrestling with the unfamiliar disquiet that rises through her. The air is crowded with insect noise, squawking, and howls. Her head rings with the sounds of bats and dolphins trying to echolocate across the plain of light. Fin can feel the many species of whales calling to one another beyond the horizon, each in their own beautiful language. Then the plain shudders. Fin loses her balance, falls to the ground beside the arch.

A cascade of creatures streams through the opening, a mass of feathers and fur and
scales. There are so many of them, the ground disappears. The sky becomes a riot of wings. Fin struggles to her feet just as an elephant lumbers through the arch, swinging its trunk sadly from side to side, regarding her with vast, liquid eyes. Fin runs her hands along its flanks, but it shies away from her, turns its head toward the horizon. No animal has ever refused Fin’s comfort, her touch. She reaches for the pitcher, but it lies shattered at her feet. And for the first time in her existence on the plain of light, Fin is afraid.

For many moments, nothing else comes through the arch. All the creatures approach from beyond the horizon and fall silent, watching Fin. She turns her attention again to the archway, for now something else is approaching. Fin steps toward the arch to meet it, and relief washes over her like water. The creature before her is upright, skin smooth and barren except for long hairs sprouting from the slope of its skull. Its eyes are terrified, remorseful, and it hesitates before the creatures on the plain of light. As it passes through the arch, it flounders, and Fin reaches out. She takes its trembling fingers within her empty hands.

 


 

Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Daughters, Breaking, Navigation, and 40 Weeks. Her newest collection, Solastalgia, a collection of poems about climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene Age, is forthcoming from JackLeg Press in 2023. For more information, visit Brittney’s website: http://brittneycorrigan.com/.

Gray

by Nina Semczuk

 

Morning light illuminated the dirt pathways of Forest Park. Birds sang greetings as specks of golden dust seemed to hover between tree trunks. The place felt worlds away from the city. Abby barely noticed. She was pulled inside herself, repeating the conversation she had with her mother the night before. Advice. That’s what she needed before making a decision; that’s what friends were for.  

Turning a corner, she saw them. Rebecca was curved over the stroller, adjusting baby Toby in his seat. Nate stood to the side, stamping his feet. It looked like impatience, until she noticed the flashing sequence that played each time the ground met rubber. She hadn’t realized light-up shoes came in such a small size. A month had passed since Abby had last seen her friend. Now that there were two kids, it was hard. Abby had willingly made the trek from southern Brooklyn to see them.  

“Reb!” Abby called. She trotted toward the trio. Thank god Dave was home working, she thought, a sigh of relief tumbling through her mind. These days, it was rare to catch Rebecca without Dave in tow. Dave was fine. Tolerable. But he reminded her of a cliff. Abby would ask questions—polite ones, deep ones, funny ones—and it was as if she had tossed a bundle over the edge of an abyss. No reactions, no wafting back the conversational birdie.  

“Help Nate find his ball,” Rebecca said. She didn’t look up from Toby’s shoes, where she adjusted the straps. “He tossed it somewhere over there.” A jerk of her head indicated the sloping wooded area. Abby paused. Should she lean in for a quick hug? Just then, Nate started screaming.  

“Abby, please. He’s going to get worked up.” Rebecca tightened Toby’s seat buckle.  

Abby looked at Nate.  “Hi, little guy!” Her voice sounded garish, modulated bright and child friendly.  

“Let’s find your ball,” Abby said, feeling a bit stupid. She started down the side of the path, her eyes scanning left to right, right to left. It had rained a few days ago, and the ground was soft. Her shoes left indents. 

Abby heard Nate whining. She looked over her shoulder. He tugged at Rebecca, who ignored him. Rebecca’s thumbs stamped into her phone, her forearms resting on the stroller.  

Rebecca glanced down the hill and caught Abby’s eyes. 

“Forget it. I’ll just get him a new one,” she called. “Let’s get moving otherwise we’ll miss nap time.”  

“Oh. Alright,” Abby replied. She started up the slope. She felt the sticky black mud cling to her sneakers. She wondered if she’d be able to wash them in the tub without upsetting her roommate. Jen expressed herself by taping index cards to objects. Close the lid when you flushno candles in the living room; stop cooking after 9 p.m. Classic passive aggressiveness, Abby’s friend Victoria had said. Do you ever communicate in person? she had asked. Abby had shaken her head. Somehow emails, index cards, and text messages had become the forum for their relationship. We may have never had more than one conversation in person, Abby had said, but at least she cleans her dishes and takes out the trash.  

But you live with this person. Don’t you want to be friendly?  

She shook her head again. What’s the point? We’ll each replace each other sooner or later, move on, that sort of thing.  

Rebecca was walking down the path. Abby hurried to catch up.  

“Sorry,” said Rebecca. Her lips attempted a smile. “It’s so much harder with two.”  

“Of course.” Abby slung an arm around Rebecca’s shoulders and gave a quick squeeze. “No need to apologize.”  

They walked down the path, Nate wandering in front of them, Toby cooing from his front-row seat. “How is everything?” asked Abby. 

“Oh god. Remember when I said the boys were in a motion sickness phase?”  

Abby nodded. Rebecca continued. Those rear facing car seats were murderous on inner ears, and upholstery. Next, Dave refused to help with the kids in the morning. He needed the mornings to prepare for work. That was rich seeing as his commute was less than two strides—he worked from the dining room table. Then, how Rebecca’s parents were avoiding confirming Memorial Day plans. They always gathered in Central Park for a picnic, why wouldn’t they just stop being difficult for once? Didn’t they know how little time she had these days? 

Abby listened. She nodded or shook her head at the appropriate times. When Nate fell down, she fitted the vee of her hands under his tiny armpits and set him back on his feet. 

The sun had moved overhead by now. The park suddenly was crowded with dogs and their owners. Rebecca stopped talking. Abby glanced over. Rebecca flicked through pictures on her phone.  

“But what about you?” Abby asked.  

Rebecca had craved motherhood. Kids would happen, or she would leave, was what she had said to Dave. Abby remembered that storm in her friend’s relationship. But now her desire manifested had been rough. Rebecca blacked the screen and looked at Abby. Tears threatened the corners of her eyes. “I’m so tired.”  

Abby reached a hand for her shoulder. She nodded again for Rebecca to keep talking. Rebecca continued, her troubles falling over themselves as they exited her mouth.  

Eventually, they came to the train tracks that marked the end of the walk.  

“Your turn,” said Rebecca.  

Abby inhaled. “Well. Last night, my mother called.”  

Just then, Nate tripped. He fell to his hands and knees. He looked up at his mother.  

Rebecca’s face was crumpled in concern. “Baby,” she cried.  

Nate’s face morphed from stunned surprise to distress. He opened his mouth and shrieked. Rebecca scooped him up. She started walking away.  

“He'll quiet if I run him,” she said, starting a light jog. “Push the stroller, would you?” she said over her shoulder. She bounced away. 

Abby placed her hands on the bar and pushed. The wheels remained static. Abby looked up. Rebecca and Nate were yards ahead. 

Abby stared at the stroller. There were tabs on the side. She pressed them. No movement. 

“Rebecca!” she called. “How do I work this?” The park swallowed her words. She craned over the shade to look at Toby. He stared at the distant figure of his mother.  

“Don’t worry, little guy. She didn’t forget you.”  

Toby’s eyes stayed forward, intent on keeping his mother in his frame of sight. Abby bent down to look at the wheel. She prodded it. 

A spandexed runner took pity. “You have to release the lever on the bottom,” said the woman, jogging in place. “I have the same model.” 

“Thanks!” said Abby. The woman’s head stayed forward as she glided off. She was either too focused or too far to hear.  

* 

That evening, Abby found herself shrinking away from the tall man next to her on the subway. The crush of riders had squished her under his armpit. She twisted sideways to avoid touching him, and adjusted the earcups of her headphones. She turned up the volume on the ambient playlist and tried to pull her body into itself. She was almost to Penn Station. 

Her music stopped. A phone call cut through. PAMELA WARIN read the notification banner. Worry bound Abby’s breath. She stuffed it down. An exhale wheezed out. She pressed dismiss. It was too soon. She hadn’t figured out what to say.  

The train slowed to a stop. Abby was carried out of the doors by the collective surge. She wove through the congestion of people to make her way to—she checked her phone again—Shake Shack. Lynn and Robert were near the front of the long, clustered line. 

“Hey guys,” Abby said, maneuvering her way near them.  

Lynn turned. “So sorry! I thought Robert made the reservation at Friedman’s—” 

“But you said you did,” broke in Robert. He turned to Abby. “Sorry. This was the only place with gluten-free stuff for her.”  

Abby looked around. There were ledges to eat on, but no tables, no chairs.  

“No worries!” said Abby. She knew they were busy with renovations for their house in Hudson, and with their careers in finance. She was grateful to spend time with them before they headed upstate to Albany to see Robert’s sister. “I’ve been sitting all day anyway,” she lied. She had learned early to make others comfortable, a reflex she couldn’t suppress.   

Lynn angled her jaw toward Robert. “Well, I haven’t. I worked from my treadmill desk all day.”  

Robert lifted his arms, his two palms facing Lynn.  

Lynn continued. “I was looking forward to having a nice, cozy, seated, chat with our friend.”  

Abby forced a chuckle. “It’ll be fine!” She looked from Robert to Lynn.  

“Can I take your order?”  The cashier stared at the three of them. Lynn stepped forward. 

“Hey, you cut the line,” said a woman behind Abby. Abby bit her lip. She felt a hand tapping her shoulder. She turned. 

“We’ve all been waiting much longer than you.” A stout woman with a cloud of wiry red hair glared at Abby. She adjusted her bag and angled her body. Abby felt slivers of panic start to pierce her insides.   

“I’m sorry, I’m with my friends,” she offered. Her face warmed. The line, zombified with hunger, had awakened to see what would happen. Two teen girls looked up from their phones to watch. One angled her phone in their direction. 

“Well, that doesn’t help me, or anyone else who waited their turn, does it?”  

Abby turned around again, looking for help. Lynn and Robert waved from the side; they had found ledge space. Lynn mouthed “We’ll save you a spot.” Robert took his phone from his jacket.  

“Well?” asked the woman.  

“No fucking cutting,” said one of the teens. 

Abby felt as if she were on a stage, poised to be pelted by tomatoes. She held up her hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She sidestepped around the woman who stood like a blockade in her path.  

“Sure ya are,” the woman said. She stepped up to order, shaking her head at Abby. 

Abby walked to the end of the line. The panic melted into something dark and viscous and sad. A dragging sensation tugged at the base of her skull. Shaking it away, Abby lifted an arm to wave at her friends. Neither Lynn nor Robert noticed, their heads were bent over their phones. The glow illuminated their faces.  

She took a spot in the line that now unfurled into the hall of Penn Station. Was it even worth ordering? By the time she had her food, Lynn and Robert might be done. She waved again; no luck. Abby pulled out her phone. She texted Lynn. Had to get back in line. Lady said I cut. Sorry! Three dots appeared, then a message: No worries! We’ll join you when we finish. So hungry. 

As Abby waited, a mottled ache began to whisper from behind the shutters of her eyes. After twenty minutes, Abby was finally within the footprint of the eatery, but a half dozen people remained in front of her. Lynn and Robert appeared, flanking her. Robert wiped ketchup from his mouth on his coat sleeve. Lynn threaded an arm around Abby’s waist. She squeezed. “I was famished! I feel so much better now.” Lynn released Abby’s waist and reached over Abby’s head to ruffle Robert’s hair. 

“Same,” said Robert, laughing.  

Abby smiled at them. She tried to shove away an uncharitable thought that blurted through her mind. If their positions were swapped, she would have ordered for them, or at least have shared her food. She had traveled from Brooklyn to see them; it wasn’t her fault they screwed up the dinner reservation; she wasn’t allowed to pick where they ate, on account of Lynn’s dietary preferences. Abby swept away the thought. Expecting people to act how you would was a path to unhappiness. That’s what her yoga teacher preached. 

“Excited for Albany?” Abby asked. She wanted to get the small talk over with. The line moved forward. 

“Oh, you know how I feel about Sylvia,” Lynn said. She lifted her eyebrows.  

Robert shot her a look. “You two need to play nice.” 

“I would, if she wouldn’t always ask us for money,” said Lynn. 

“Me,” said Robert. “Not us.” 

“We’re married, so it’s our money, not yours.”  

Robert opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked at Abby. “Enough about us. What about you? Lynn said needed our opinion?” 

Abby grimaced. This wasn’t how she imagined opening the scab that was her relationship with her mother. 

“Yes,” she said. “My mother called the other day and asked me, well... told me—” 

The cashier broke in. “Can I take your order?” Abby’s head toggled from Lynn to Robert.  

“Don’t look at us, honey. We’re stuffed.” Lynn said. “Unless you want a shake?” she asked, looking at Robert.  

“No, the ride will be uncomfortable enough as it is without tempting my lactose intolerance.” He laughed.  

“Your order?” asked the cashier. 

“Go ahead,” said Lynn to Abby. “We’ll leave you to your dinner.” She looked at her phone. “We have to get to the track.” She pecked Abby two inches from her right ear. Robert squeezed her shoulder. “Sorry to eat and run!” They were off with a clatter of rolling luggage wheels. Abby felt something surge within her, threatening to reach the upper limits of her threshold. She lifted her shoulders up, bracing for—something—when the smell of ketchup cut through. The sounds of Penn Station washed over her as she settled back into the footprint of her being.  

* 

Abby shoved the last of the burger into her mouth and stuffed the bag into the overflowing bin on the Franklin Ave stop. Ahead of her on the stairs leaving the station, a pair of friends paused on the steps. One leaned into the other to catch her words. Abby’s heart yawned in envy. She took her phone out of her pocket and called Victoria. She answered after one ring.  

“So sorry to cancel on you!” Victoria said. “Tinder Dan came through and you know how it’s been for me.” 

“Wait what?” asked Abby. “No coffee tomorrow?” At the base of her neck, a buzzing sensation tickled. 

“No, I sent you the text just now. I thought that’s why you called,” said Victoria. 

“I just got off the train. It didn’t come through yet.” 

“You really should get a better phone.” 

“I know, I know,” said Abby. “I wanted to talk to you tonight anyway, instead of tomorrow.” 

“Shit,” said Victoria. “I dropped acetone on the floor. Hold on.” Abby heard her best friend shoo away her orange tabby. 

A few minutes passed. The inner buzzing quieted to a dim hum. 

“Sorry about that,” said Victoria. “What’s up?” 

“My mom called—” 

“Your mom!” cried Victoria. “You heard from her?”  

“Yes, actually, she called to—”
“Hold on, hold on,” Victoria broke in. “It’s my lawyer, I have to answer.” 

“But it’s so late.”  

“I know, that’s why I have to get it,” said Victoria. “Don’t worry. Next time we see each other we’ll chat. I have lots to tell you about Tinder Dan.” 

“And my mom,” started Abby. 

“Yes! Of course,” said Victoria. “Gotta go, love you!” 

Abby turned on Sterling Place. She could see her upstairs neighbor outside the building with her dog, returning from their evening walk. 

Abby trotted forward. “Hold the door,” she called. But Nadia and her dog were already in the building. The door shut. They disappeared up the stairs.  

Abby fit her key in the lock and swung the door open. On the vestibule floor were piles of mail, some marked with muddy footprints. She bent down. In the mess, she found the check she had been waiting for. She opened the mailbox. Nothing for Jen, plenty for Abby. She grabbed the envelopes and headed up to the apartment.  

Inside, on the console table lay a neat stack of Jen’s mail. Faint sounds carried from Jen’s closed door. It was Wicked, again. Jen began singing along. Her evening routine. Abby had bought noise-canceling headphones after Jen refused to turn the volume down, or wear headphones herself. “It's not the same,” she had said. “Besides, I can’t sing with headphones on.” Abby had let it go, because really, was it worth starting a fight with someone who has access to your toothbrush and journal? Tonight was different.   

Abby knocked on the door.  

The singing increased in volume. 

 “Jen, let’s talk.” She raised her voice above the music. 

Abby knocked again. “Jen?”  

The music swelled. Jen launched into Defying Gravity, full volume. 

Abby lifted her arm and reeled back. She had a vision of her fist smashing through the door; her hand grabbing Jen by the throat. She took a deep breath. Her arm fell to the side. The anger flared again, lifting her arm in its wake. She shook herself. Exhaled, and deflated. A bath would help. It would be quiet at the other end of the apartment. Abby could pretend Jen didn’t exist.  

She walked into the bathroom. Her mother’s whining, pleading, grating voice filled her head. She had asked for money, again. A year of silence after the last ask, the subsequent collection calls, letters, hounding. She had returned carting the same old tired words. This is the last time I’ll ask you for anything. What kind of daughter ignores their mother? Who raised you to be so selfish?  

Abby looked at the mirrored vanity. Her face, pale and bland, reflected back at her. Something about it struck her as marred. A hint of her mother in the shape of her eyebrows, the set of her mouth. The pulsing began again. The shores of her being began to rise to her inner ears.  

Without consciously instructing her limbs what to do, Abby knelt and opened the cabinet under the sink. There, in the back corner, huddled two small canisters of paint, leftover from some previous tenant. The super had ignored her request to remove them. But now here they were, waiting.  

She lifted the one with white puddles crusting it closed. A flathead screwdriver was still on the floor from last week. She picked it up. She traced its blunt edge on the lines in her left palm, feeling a trail of metallic ice in its wake. Abby jabbed it under the lip of the can. 

She stood. Her hand snatched a makeup brush. Bending down, she pushed the brush into the paint. She raised the dripping vessel and smeared it across the vanity mirror, blotting over her blinking eyes. 

Abby studied the effect. Then her legs bent and again she was underneath the sink. She picked up the other can and levered off the lid. Inside was dark, a smothering black. It felt welcome. Down plunged the brush. She smeared it across the mirror, where it dripped and mingled with the white, creating a shade of concrete. 

Abby stroked right to left, left to right, working up. Her nose and mouth still reflected back, while the top half of her head was obscured. A wail began. Satisfied with the upper half, Abby painted a broad swath across her nose. The wail faded; the sound feathered. Her breath stifled. Abby’s eyes flicked to the last thing of color in the mirror. Her mouth, open. A wordless beacon of hideous pink.  

Her hand jerked down. She drew one line. Then one more.

 


 

Nina Semczuk's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Coal Hill Review, Sledgehammer Lit, The Line Literary Review, Rougarou Journal, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. She has received support from the NEA and Poets & Writers. Before moving to Brooklyn, she served in the army for five years.

Down By The Water

by Naomie C. Monexe

 

July 27 2019 3:40AM  

Izara woke to the croaking of frogs and the smell of the muggy outdoors in her nose. Her bed was damp with sweat, her legs slick with it too. Frustrated, she slipped out of bed and made her way out to the kitchen. The urge to sleep hadn’t come back to her yet so she figured a drink to cool her off wouldn’t hurt. Her stomach churned as the wood beneath her feet dipped.  

 The house wasn’t that bad but its deterioration was evident.  The white paint wasn’t very white anymore. Outside, the brambles grew wild and unchecked and began to crawl its way up the walls. The surrounding trees drooped against the roof, the thick limbs resting on the shoddy thing.  The damage was worse inside with the sagging wooden floors and the spotty holes in the roof. From the scuttling and scratching noises she heard as well, she figured something had dug its way in and made itself  comfortable.  

Something about being back in her childhood home made her shiver.  Before the house sank to this sorry state, she used to live here. The walls had watched her grow up. How many times had she walked down this hallway? The number climbed into the thousands but still, she felt like a stranger. 

The noise of the outside made its way through the thin walls. The buzz of insects, the ever present frogs, the hooting of owls and the chirping of birds. The noises rattled in her brain, she felt dizzy with it.  God, Izara hated the bayou.  

It wasn’t her choice really. Her mother had called her one night unexpectedly and asked if she wanted to come back home. Her immediate reply was no. 

She was proud of the way she said it firmly, amazed at how she stood up to her mother without giving it a second thought.  The situation, she felt, was a result of her mother’s own stubbornness. When she flitted off to whatever city sold large houses for cheap, she was adamant on not selling the house and dragging along her Izara’s already ailing grandmother. The yearly visits to the Basin began shortly afterwards, always during the summer when the heat could bake the earth. From what she could tell, this year her grandmother’s health took a sharp turn for the worst and left her unable to visit.  

It became easier and easier to say no with this thought in her mind until her mother broke down over the phone. Izara could hear the tears in her choked voice.  

“Izzy, you know if I could go myself, I would. I know how much you hate it over there but I can’t leave your grandma alone.” 

Izzy. She recalled the nickname and how it reflected better times, fonder memories. The memories soured when she realized why her mother was using it now after so long. The no was on the tip of her tongue again but she faltered. The combination of her mother’s tears and the nickname left her without the will to argue.  

Izara sighed, defeated. 

And nowshe was back in the house she despised. A week wasn’t horrible when she thought of it. But seven whole days away from the city, away from the new life she created for herself. Izara was extremely content with the fresh start the city offered her when she first moved out. Its promise of anonymity, her own space to grow, a place to create her own mundane rituals. She was hesitant to give it up even if it was only for a handful of days.  

  This place poisons everything it can get its slimy hands on. Izara thought. But it won’t happen to me again. Not this time.  

She plucked a bottle of water from the fridge and drank it greedily and headed back to her room. The walk back was slow. The sinking wood beneath her feet, the incessant cries of the cicadas, and the oppressive dark had a strange effect on her senses. The way back seemed longer somehow, the dark turning the inches to yards. She placed her hand on the wall, feeling for the light switch and was relieved when she flicked it on. The bulb’s light was weak but sufficient and Izara walked the rest of the way unperturbed. 

Izara wasn’t eager to get back in her bed but it beat out the peeling leather couch. She kicked off her sheets this time and stripped down to her underwear.  

As she lay there in the dark, she laughed incredulously to herself. Once again, she was six and twelve and eighteen trying to bear the heat of the Louisiana summer. Who would’ve thought she’d have to live like this again? With no AC or overhead fan? With no one’s house to stay over when the heat got too much to bear?  

Izara reached over to the crowded nightstand and turned on her phone to check the time. The screen read 3:45 and the laugh quickly died on her lips. Before she could banish it, the image came rushing to her. The handclap game she used to play with her friends, the childish nursery rhyme they squealed as her mother approached them from behind with a faux witch’s laugh and waggling fingers.  

Don’t let Miss Mamba catch you past four! 

She’ll have her snakes reaching for you through the floor! 

Fifteen minutes to four. She’d be asleep by then if she tried hard enough. Like she was a little girl again, Izara counted as high as she could go, measuring the moments with her heartbeats until her eyes slid shut.  

 

July 27, 2019 9:30AM 

Izara woke up several hours later, the sun shining in through the threadbare curtain. Being in her old room lulled her back into old habits again. Before she realized it, her hands moved of their own accord. She began listing tasks to do in the morning one by one.  

Take the sheets off the bed. Take your soiled pajamas. There should be rainwater in the kitchen, put the laundry to soak before you wash. While they soak, take out the trash.  It’s been so long since she’s last visited, she figured, why not throw herself into her chores? It made her feel like she was at home without the fear of reminiscing. In the quiet of the morning, she did the chores that were previously designated for her mother, then her. It was odd with the house so empty now but she relished in the silence.  

By late morning she was over this sinking feeling of being a stranger in her own home. She entered the bathroom with the intent to search for a bucket but she paused as she walked past the dirty mirror.  There was a startled girl staring back at her, vaguely familiar. The face was childish, baby fat still rounding out the contours of her cheeks and head just a bit too large for the neck and thin shoulders. Izara whipped around to see if the girl was behind her and the reflection followed. There was a sudden chill in the air as she leaned over the sink’s edge and peered closer at the mirror.  

For a second, she swore she saw someone else. Now, all that was left was her. She prodded at her own face, eyes inspecting her visage. Beneath the dim light of the bathroom, Izara’s brown skin seemed dull. There wasn’t enough time to get her hair done before she flew out to the Basin so it lay in drab, barely shoulder length twists that made her look awkward. 

She thought back to the face she saw before and her mind drifted. Could that have been her? Or was it someone else? A voice cried out in her mind, tone snide and sarcastic, Impossible.  

Izara moved away from the mirror and left the bathroom without the bucket, suddenly chilled to the bone. 

12:00PM 

She was hanging her sheets to dry when she heard the rumble of a car from all the way down the road.  The house was nestled deep in the Basin, their nearest neighbor a short drive away, about a five minute walk if she was trying to get there quickly and ten minutes if she wanted her clothes to look presentable by the time she got there. Easily Izara slipped into another memory, one that made her smile. Years of memory stitched themselves together before her eyes. Still photos of Izara, that familiar girl and the only son of the Lockwoods who lived nearest to them.  Decades ago they gathered together to hang the sheets or dance in the rain or sit on the porch, Izara, the girl and him sitting in a circle feet kicked up in the air. The Basin wasn’t so bad, she supposed, in the company of her friends.  

How strange it would be to encounter the both of them again in this backyard?  

Very strange considering they’re both gone, whispered the Basin.  

Izara pretended not to hear.  

In the distance,  the slosh and splash of tires through shin deep puddles snapped her out of her heat induced daze. 

She turned to watch the grey SUV churn down the road, the hulking mass of a car just a grey spot in the distance grew closer and closer. As it drove past, she squinted to see who was driving but the windows were tinted too dark. Her first instinct was to wave like her mother did. A friendly face and a smile to greet the passerby.  

Izara, instead, curled her hand into a fist and shrugged, returning to hanging the remainder of her sheets. It didn’t matter much to her whether she greeted anybody in the Basin with a smile anymore.  

By the time she’d finished hanging her sheets, the thought of Nathaniel Lockwood left her mind completely. With a large red bucket tucked under her arm, she marched her way to the back door. Again, the sound of an engine could be heard coming down the road toward her.  

The urge to look was like a child tugging at her hair, adamant that you pay attention to them. Izara took a breath and marched with determination. The house wasn’t very far now.  

Her steps quickened when the car engine shut off.  

Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t look. She repeated this mantra to herself till her hand fumbled for the doorknob.  

“Iz?” The voice called out from behind her.  

It wasn’t the bayou speaking. A real person this time. A person that yanked sharply along the thread she dropped earlier when the car first interrupted her thoughts.  

“Izzy?” Steps advanced toward her till finally, she whipped around, heart in her throat.  

- 

The afternoon passed in a blur of awkward laughter and shy gazes. Nathaniel Lockwood wasn’t gone like she previously assumed. Instead, he urged that it was she who disappeared from the Basin. He spoke of her dwindling presence in the neighborhood till finally, she moved out for college and never looked back. There was a vague loneliness in his voice that matched the look in his eyes.  

Uneasiness coiled tight in the pit of her stomach when his eyes settled on her. Izara felt them take her in and scrutinize her.  Silently she longed to be erased from existence, pink rubber lifting the lines of her figure till she was nothing but dark shavings on the floor.  

Don’t let him stay for too long. He shouldn’t be in this house. It was a mistake inviting him in. These three thoughts circled round in her head like bullets ricocheting off invisible walls. But when she remembered his forlorn speech and his quiet desolation she couldn’t help but want to keep him there for just a moment more.  

You’ll regret this, Izara, whispered the bayou.  

She pressed her lips together and a tiny voice in her mind replied, I know.  

- 

Izara leaned against his car door, head perched against her arms on the lowered window. The crickets had begun to chirp as the sun dipped low in the sky, painting the Basin in a muddled red and orange. From afar she could hear a dog bark then a sharp whistle, the stop and go droning of insects. A chorus of nature’s song surrounded them and soon enough, talk came easy to the pair. Izara reveled in the drawl of Nathaniel’s words, found solace in the way the O’s and U’s left his mouth. Her own mouth wrapped around the letters, slipping into a dialect she could never quite get rid of.  

Overhead, lightning streaked across the sky, the crack of thunder that followed made her jump. The wind began to pick up and she caught sight of the sheets billowing in the growing wind. When she craned her head to look towards them, his eyes followed hers and he offered to help her take them down. Although she did decline, he wouldn’t take no for an answer and together, beneath the darkening sky, they hurried to the backyard.  

As their hands unclipped the sheets and folded them, Nathaniel said hesitantly, “I never thought we’d be back in your yard again folding sheets.” 

Izara shot him a strange look. She could feel where this conversation was going and dreaded it.  

“I never thought I’d see you again,” he whispered, “Especially not after Scilla-” 

Her mouth went dry and panic sunk its claws into her. They spoke together at the same time, Izara with a suggestion to not talk about this anymore and Nathaniel with a question. She froze as the words left his mouth.  

“Why are you here, Izara?” He was expecting a solid answer, she could tell in the way he looked at her with intent, eyes almost forceful, attempting to wheedle the answer from her.  

“I’m here because my mother asked me to be here, Nathaniel. That’s all.” 

He didn’t say a word in reply. He simply cast his eyes downward and allowed his hands to move mechanically.  

They finished bringing in the sheets in silence just as it began to rain. Melancholy was a shawl that draped around her shoulders barely shielding her from the fat droplets of rain. Years and years prior, a shower like this would send kids running home, shoes slapping dully against the waterlogged earth. She missed the sounds of life in the Basin. How she longed for it now to keep her company in this wretched place.  

Izara felt herself sinking low into a dark place, neck deep in dismal reverie. It was a challenge bringing herself to fix the bed then make something to eat. When she finished, she took a quick shower in tepid water and went to bed, not allowing herself to think much too hard about the events of the afternoon.    

 

July 29th, 2019 6:00PM  

It was a quiet evening in the Basin that day.  Izara sat in her mother’s rocking chair where the TV used to be, crocheting needle in hand. It was easy, monotonous work. She enjoyed counting the loops, gazing down at the stitches and back at her template to ensure she was doing it correctly.  

From upstairs came a thump.  

She paused her crocheting to look up towards the ceiling then back down towards the unfinished halter top in her hands. She continued her crocheting again, slowly at first then faster as she caught the rhythm of it once more. Another thump came minutes later in the middle of her counting.  

Izara stopped again, flustered. She’d lost her place.  

A third thump came then fourth. It stopped when she stood up.  

She gazed upwards towards the ceiling, eyes and ears trained to try and figure out which room it was coming from.  

She held her breath. The house did too, the rooms quiet and still once more.  

It was a game of sitting, standing and sitting down again as the thumps continued upstairs. She didn’t have the heart to check but she recognized the incessant rhythm after minutes of hearing it above her head.  

The handclap game was a game every babe in the Basin knew. At crowded bus stops, the rhythm could be heard, the shrieks of glee as the girls gathered to see who could last the longest.  

Miss Mamba’s prowlin’, how long will you last?  

Miss Mamba’s howlin’, better get out there fast! 

The hop forward, then twist as the girls traded partners and slap, slap, slapped their hands against one another’s four times.  

Izara had taken part in these games too. She enjoyed them with her classmates and her mother who had taught it to her. Again, there was a pang in her chest and slowly, she withdrew from the thought before she became entrenched in it. It was easy to get lost like this as July 31st loomed closer, even easier to imagine these sounds now that she was back at home. Everything reminded her of the old days, every move she made riddled with nostalgia. At the edge of her mind lurked the girl from just days before. She seemed to slip right into her memories as if she belonged there. Tiny face twisted into a grin as the moments from so long ago played behind her eyes.  

 

6:05PM 

Red, black, I found it dead! 

Brown, black, I chopped its head! 

The voices echoed clearly in her head now. It couldn’t be, Izara thought. Impossible.  

She scrambled down the hall to where the source of the thumping came from. There were no more girls in the Basin, she thought again. They were dead and gone. There were no more handclap games in the Basin. They’d outgrown it years and years ago.  

One, mamba 

Two, mamba 

Three, mamba 

Four!  

They'll come knockin' at your door!  

There was no logical explanation for these sounds and yet she heard them loud and clear. Izara approached the door to the room at the end of the hallway, the thuping as loud as ever, the voices of children growing in volume. Her palms were sweaty and the doorknob felt cool against her hand. She twisted slowly then shoved it open all at once, prepared to surprise and overcome whoever had snuck in.  

Izara took in the dusty room. There was a twin sized bed shoved in the corner, an empty bookcase and a shabby rug on the floor. Sunlight streamed in through the curtainless windows illuminating the particles in the air.  

If there was nothing there, Izara thought, then what had made the noise?  

Her chest heaved and it became hard for her to breathe.  Children in here, giggling and laughing and playing Miss Mamba. Did she imagine it?  

She couldn’t have.  

Her eyes swept across the room once more and her gaze landed on a picture frame lying face down on the ground. She approached it slowly when she realized the glass had shattered. Izara lifted it from the ground, shaking off the broken glass onto the floor.  

The picture was of her and two others. One she recognized as Nathaniel and the other, the child she saw in the mirror. All three of them were smiling, making silly poses for the camera. In faded blue marker written in a thin, scrawling print, it read: Izzy, Scilla and Nat 06/28/09. 

Scilla. The name made her head begin to throb, like someone tapped at it with an ice pick. Before she knew it she was out of the room. She slammed the door behind her and ran down to the bathroom where she splashed her face with cold water.  

The urge to flee was tempting but she couldn’t. Her mother had sent her in her stead, she couldn’t just leave because she was uncomfortable. What would she tell her in the first place? She was seeing the face of a little girl everywhere? The Basin was making her go mad? It had been a long time since her mother last pitied her and Izara was sure she wouldn’t pity her now.  

She paused to take a deep breath. Three more days, she thought to herself. Then she’d be away from here. A small part of her wondered if she’d make it out of this place unscathed. 

 

July 30th, 2019  

Izara spent the entire day in a stupor. Waking up late in the day set her entire routine askew and she didn’t do much to recover.  Everything outside was grey, she heard thunder and felt the house tremble ever so slightly. Eventually, when she forced herself out of bed, it was like she was drunk. The floor swam before her eyes and she was so disoriented it was hard for her to make it down the stairs and to the kitchen. Even when she had struggled to get herself there, the food she heated up in the microwave made her wrinkle her nose in disgust.  

Izara didn’t know what time it was, nor did she care. She lugged herself to the couch where she spent the remainder of the day falling in and out of dark dreams, one where she heard laughter that did not belong to her, saw faces that stirred up feelings that made her want to weep.  

Thunder rumbled overhead. The sound slipped into her subconscious mind and from it came a dark and fragmented dream. Izara found herself grappling with some kind of beast, slimy like an eel but with scales like a snake. It slithered after her as her unsure feet stumbled through vague surroundings. There was nothing for her to trip on but she fell, crashing hard against the ground. The miry thing was upon her quickly, its tail wrapping around her legs. When it opened its mouth, rows and rows of sharp teeth filled it like a shark’s.  

Izara wanted to scream but she couldn’t. An invisible fist wrapped itself around her lungs and squeezed hard. As she gasped for breath, her eyes caught sight of something- no, someone looming over the shoulder of the beast. It was hard to make them out in the dark but they shuffled closer.  

Izara found her ability to scream then. It was the little girl from the mirror, the photo, the one that prowled in and out of her home and her mind. Their eyes locked and Izara couldn’t believe the sheer amount of pressure against her chest, then this overwhelming dread that overcame everything else.  

With every fibre of  her being, she believed she’d die right then and there, staring into the eyes of that girl. A little girl whose eyes screamed that she knew Izara and that she was determined to make Izara know her as well. 

 

July 31st, 2019 3:50AM 

Izara awoke with a start. Outside it had stopped raining and night had fallen. The house was quiet apart from her ragged breathing. The dream was unsettling, the feeling too real. She felt unsafe in the house now shrouded in shadow. Izara couldn’t stand being here anymore, the thought of sleeping or living trapped within its walls made her want to scream. 

Her head began to pound as she remembered the girl’s face so near and so concrete, eyes so intent on Izara. The flurry of thoughts came quicker than she could keep track and her mind became a living hive buzzing like angry bees.  

One question cut through the noise.  

What was today’s date?  

She scrambled up to her room, staggering up the stairs. She crashed into her bedroom and looked for her phone, hands shaking as she turned it on. The phone lit up and her breath caught in her throat.  

The time read 3:50am, the date July 31st.  

The dream began to make sense and the appearance of the child, too. Ten years ago to the day, something terrible happened in the Basin. Izara forced herself not to remember, and tried so hard to keep the event away. It was so close to 4am too and Izara didn’t want to be awake.  Just as she sat down on her bed, back facing away from the window, a shadow loomed over her and blotted out the faint light of the moon. 

She froze in place. 

From the corner of her eye, she saw a flicker of movement, a back and forth movement that inched closer to her. She forced herself to shut her eyes, breath going ragged once more. This was just a dream. If she sat here long enough she’d wake up. 

Something sidled across the bed and then she felt a cool touch gliding across her hand. Izara had no choice but to turn around and look at what had crawled its way in.  

 A dark, abnormally long finger slid against her knuckles then bile rose in her throat as a smell filled the room. It was dank and rotting, much too similar to the outside.   

Right beside her bed was the curl of a large tail that seemed to wrap fill the room. She didn’t turn all the way around. Instead she hoisted herself up and out of the door, feet taking her down the stairs, through the hallway and out the door. 

 

July 31st, 2019 3:59AM 

 Izara slammed herself against Nathaniel’s door with tremendous force, her fists battering the rotting wood.  

“Nathaniel!” She screamed. The skin on her knuckles split. She saw her own blood stain the offwhite door. Her hand pulled desperately against the doorknob, tugging and rattling on it till she felt it would snap off. The voices from the rotten bayou did little to hide itself, it took great pleasure in her fear, sucking it in and growing stronger as the seconds ticked further and further into 4am.  

She was making enough noise to rouse the entire Basin, she was sure of it but Nathaniel did not appear before her.  

“Nathaniel, please!” She shrieked now as her eyes caught sight of something dark and dripping emerging from the jaws of the Basin.   

She grew horribly impatient, murmuring curses under her breath. It flickered in and out of  her sight but it seemed closer now. Half crawling, half slithering, it dragged itself into the open. Horrified she watched as it rose onto its tail and opened its mouth impossibly wide. Out poured a voice that belonged to nothing she’s ever heard before.  

The voice prowled into her mind, a whisper at first then an ear splitting shriek. She clapped her hands over her ears and once more she felt herself give in to her fate. She’d been in this position once as a child, a little girl attempting to escape a reality she couldn’t quite accept.  

Even if Nathaniel did open the door now, nothing could stop this hungry thing. She felt the snakes slither upwards and around, her body becoming a writhing mass of reptiles. She fell to her knees. Behind her the beast raced forward, drunk on her fear. The long arms tore into the ground and launched it forward.  

It was just then, the door cracked open and a startled Nathaniel appeared in the doorway. When he saw a trembling Izara crouched on the floor, he gasped and grabbed her by the wrist, dragged her inside.  

Izara stumbled inside, into his arms. His bare chest warm against her drenched clothes, she held onto like he was the only real thing on earth. He might as well have been at that point.  

She was surprised when his arms didn’t twine around her waist to pull her in closer.  He didn’t return her warmth. She felt him shaking, like he was seething. Izara pulled away, unshed tears finally streaming down her face.  

“Please Nathaniel, you have to listen to me,” the words that followed streamed out in a muddled mess. There’s something after me. It’s trying to kill me. It wants me dead. Just look outside the window, it’s there. It’s coming. We have to hide before it tries to come after you too.  

Nathaniel’s handsome face was twisted into something so monstrous Izara stumbled backwards. Her breath came rapidly, fear creeping up on her once more as he inched towards her. 

“Do you hear yourself Izara? You’re makin’ enough noise to wake up the entire Basin and tryin’ to tell me it’s because there’s monsters after you?”  

Vexed, she shouted back, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen, Nathaniel! Don’t you dare try and tell me what’s real or not!” 

“You’re losing your mind because of what happened years ago, Izzy!” 

Cracks in the dam of her heart began to form, she felt the walls begin to tremble and quake. She pressed her hands over her ears, unwilling to hear anymore. Her sense of reality was slipping from her grasp but this would send her teetering over the edge. Like a scratched CD, the word no was stuck on her lips. The frantic pace of her heart was in her ears. The beat drowned out Nathaniel. She pressed harder, squeezing her eyes shut as she did so and was unaware of his hands reaching toward her till his fingers wrapped around her wrists and pried her hands away from her ears.  

Like a wounded dog she whimpered. Like a child she cried. His words pierced every part of her till she could drown in her own tears, till her shuddering could move mountains.  

“What happened to Priscilla couldn’t have been your fault, Izara. You have to let it go.” 

Izara cried out at her name. She’d scratched it out of her mind with sharp fingernails, bent on forgetting, intent on erasing her.  

For so long she had pushed it down, away from the forefront of her memory but in one fell swoop she was there again. An apparition who would never let her go, one that stood at her door and the edge of her memory and in her heart. Priscilla. She recalled her sister’s name and her face and then the nightmare turned real. Her drowning, body thrashing and suddenly disappearing in the filthy water.  

The wound was fresh and deep, time only gouging its fingers in deeper and rubbing salt on the already inflamed skin. Izara was unsure how long she cried but Nathaniel sat beside her until she stopped.  

Izara quivered like a fallen leaf. Nathaniel’s quiet voice called her to the present.  

“Izzy,” he said as if he were talking to a child, “You have to finish this. I don’t know how but you gotta.” 

She nodded. She was terrified of her voice now and feared the words that would come out of her mouth. Izara was vaguely aware of what happened next. Nathaniel had left her side and her bare feet took her deep into the basin. The persistent heavy rains had soaked the already wet ground and flooded the ground. Before she knew it, green grass turned into moist earth then moist earth to mud till her feet were covered in water.  

The night, already split in two, fragmented even further as Izara found herself trudging through knee deep water. The moon offered little light as the trees grew denser.  Around her, the bayou cried out. A haunting, inescapable sound. She heard the voice she knew then more, guttural strings of words she could barely understand. Beneath it all, a laugh that dripped with malice.  

 The Basin pushed her forward two steps and then mud circled round her ankles and sucked her back in. The limbs of trees reached for her, roots arched and poised to trip her feet. Again, she stepped into the mouth of the swamp and it attempted to crush her beneath its teeth, grind her flesh down to nothing. Twice she nearly fell in. The third time, she splashed into the water. She couldn’t help but scream when her hands slapped the water then landed on something writhing within its depths. It curled around her wrist and she cried out, louder this time.  

She had to get out of here. She needed to leave. The feeling welled up in her till she was full to bursting. But she couldn’t. The weight of Nathaniel’s words weighed on her soul like nothing she’s ever felt before. Fear seized Izara’s heart and threatened to stamp out its beat but her feet knew the paths her mind had forgotten. With grim determination, she slogged deeper into the Basin.  

 

July 31, 2019 4:51AM 

Ten years had passed and the heart of the Basin  remained at a standstill. The cypress tree and its giant thorns poking out from the water, its jutting limbs like needles. The darkness was like thick molasses. Izara’s breath came in short, little huffs partly because of exhaustion and another part recognition. If she shut her eyes, she could recreate this hollow of the earth in her mind perfectly. If she reached her hand out, she could feel Priscilla’s hand slip into her own, grubby fingers holding tight.  

They’d always played on the edge of this place, dipping their toes into the warm water and screaming as they slapped their hands against the surface, droplets flying and making the placid surface ripple. They would play Miss Mamba for long stretches of time, treating the game like an incantation. It was always their greatest fear that the urban legend would come rising out of the water with her four giant snakes, each adorning a part of her body.  

‘What if one day she does come out? What would we do?’ Priscilla would sometimes ask.  

‘I’m sending you, Scilla-girl, to the snakes!’ Izara would say, then roar with laughter when her sister puffed out her cheeks and crossed her arms firmly across her chest.  

‘It isn’t funny, Izzy!’ She’d cry out, then add, ‘And don’t call me Scilla-girl!’  

The teasing was harmless and the two would return to their fun and games till the sun began to make its steady descent in the western horizon. The summer days unspooled endlessly before them, their youth and vitality crowning the girls as princesses of the season. It was all cut short that steamy day.  

Izara remembered distinctly how hot it was that week. Monday’s temperatures climbed high into the 90s, Tuesday the same, Wednesday even higher. They spent the days sprawled out on the couch, sitting in front of a shitty white fan blowing humid air back at them, drinking cold glasses of ice water. When the fan died, they resorted to fanning themselves with the cover pages of hardback novels and pressing cold packs to their foreheads. The local news projected the heat wave would end that Friday, July 31st.  

They would make a party of it, the girls assumed. From what they overheard, there was supposed to be a snow cone machine. The Lockwoods next door promised to bring it over once the heat broke later in the day, but, hot and bored, the girls couldn’t be bothered with waiting.  

The final day of the wave was brutal. By noon the house was sweltering. No amount of ice or fanning could soothe this relentless heat. Izara could see her sister’s sour mood when they sat on the couch far apart. Izara was the one who whispered the suggestion. A quiet thing that grew more and more tempting as the degrees crawled upwards.  

The heat made them impulsive. Their mother was busy in the kitchen making a chilled fruit salad. The girls watched her back turned and slipped quietly out the back door.  

Sweat poured in rivulets down their backs. The prickly rays of the sun pushed them forward, urging them to go faster. Hand in hand, they clambered through the wetlands to the heart of the Basin where all the water pooled together. One thousand and one times they’d been there but this time, it felt like approaching the banks of an oasis. Without a word they splashed into the water, careful not to let their heads dip below the surface. They were blithe. They’d almost forgotten this feeling of submersion, they reveled in it, swam as if it were their last time.  

The princesses of summer recalled their mother’s warning not to swim in the lake and paid it no mind. Nothing that felt this good should be taboo, they thought. Noon settled into afternoon and then into evening, the dusk wind began to blow and the heat that plagued them all throughout the week began to dissipate. It was then Izara realized the time. She’d called to Priscilla who had swum out further than she, bravery firm in the lines of her face.  

‘Scilla! We have to go! Ma will get mad if we’re not in before the sun goes down!’  

Priscilla swam backwards, arms windmilling in and out of the water as the distance between the banks and her grew, ‘One more minute!’  

‘We’ll come back tomorrow! Get out of the water!’ 

Priscilla made a sound of protest. Izara felt her patience wearing thin with the girl. 

‘I’m going to leave you here with Miss Mamba and her four snakes if you don’t get out right now!’ She did her best to mimic her mother’s tone hoping it would be enough to urge her sister out of the water.  

‘Miss Mamba isn’t even real, you’re just trying to scare me!’  

She stamped her foot on the ground, groaned her sister’s name. ‘Nathaniel’s going to eat all of the snow cones!’ 

Priscilla didn’t respond. 

‘Fine,’ Izara snapped. ‘I’m leaving.’ 

Izara turned, head hanging low, damp clothes clinging to her skin. She would walk a bit past the thickets of trees to scare Priscilla. She’d get out of the water for sure if she thought Izara was actually gone.  

She crouched low and waited for her sister to react. It wasn’t long till she heard the first cries.  

‘Iz-zeeee!’ 

She snickered.  

‘C’mon Iz!’  

From her hiding place, Izara chuckled quietly. She pressed a hand over her mouth in an attempt to stifle the sounds.  

‘Izzy! I know you’re there!’  

Izara had it all planned out in her head, she’d wait a few more moments, get Priscilla real nervous before she’d spring out of the trees, brimming with laughter.  

‘Iz! Okay, I’m sorry I’ll get out of the water.’ 

There was something odd in her voice. Izara could hear a slight tremor. Her brows furrowed, glee turning into concern. She was making enough commotion for Priscilla to hear her now, she trekked back towards the bank of the lake. She heard something else, a splash in the water. Then another. Priscilla’s shout for help was sharp and distinct, shooting towards Izara like an arrow seeking its target. The splashing continued and Izara broke out into a run. She was only past the cypress tree, it shouldn’t be this far. The panic made her lose her sense of direction, everything so familiar turned alien and threatening.   

‘Scilla?’ Izara panted out her name. ‘Priscilla!’ 

When she finally made it to the edge of the lake, Priscilla was thrashing in the water, attempting to keep herself afloat. In horror, Izara watched as her head went beneath the churning waves. She came back up after a few moments but her cries for help were nothing but a wet gurgle as she went under again, this time for seconds longer. 

Izara dove into the lake, swimming faster than she thought capable towards Priscilla. The water weighed her down like lead and she pushed herself further, quicker, desperation evident in her sloppy movements.  

Izara sought out her sister’s flailing arm as her head went under for the third and last time. She tried diving beneath the rippling surface arms stretching to meet Priscilla’s but there was nothing but reeds and inky-black. Priscilla, who had just been there, kicking and clawing at the water to survive, was lost in the heart of the Basin.  

The walk back home was horrible. There was such a trembling in her limbs, she found it impossible to walk without stumbling. Everything afterward was a blur. Priscilla’s body was never found even when the neighborhood scrounged up enough money to hire a diver. There was only guilt and her mother’s wail of anguish to keep her company for the years to come.  Her guilt calcified, turned her heart to stone. Izara moved out for college then her mother followed suit, leaving her home and dead little girl in the deep south. Izara chipped away at the memory of her sister until eventually there was barely anything left. Or so she thought.  

Now, she stood at the edge of this vast body of water, memory fading out into nothing as she found herself back in the heart of the Basin. There was a ripple of movement in the lake. She thought her eyes were playing tricks on her but she saw it again, closer to her now than before.  

The thing that rose from the center of the lake was the monster she’d seen in her dreams, the beast that chased her through the night. It approached her again, eyes narrowed to slits. Izara could see it smile, teeth wickedly sharp.  

I never thought I’d see you again. Like before, the guttural voice glided into her mind.  

Again? Izara wanted to ask but she couldn’t form the words.  

You have nothing you want to say to me? Its eyes narrowed at her again, she saw herself reflected in them.  

What, you don’t recognize me?  

Izara’s mouth fell open, poised to speak but she closed it again quickly. It couldn’t be. It seemed hurt at her reaction.  

“Priscilla?” Izara asked finally.  

At the mention of the name, the outlines of it flickered. It was there and then it wasn’t dark scales melting into the lake and impossible height shrinking. A girl replaced the monster in front of her, brown skin no longer quite brown, curly dark hair braided in two. The girl wore old shorts and a shirt she assumed was pink. Around her wrist, a dull silver charm bracelet. Izara pressed her face to the wet curls, not paying any mind to the smell of dead leaves or the distinct scent of the lake, or how cold the body in her arms was. She cried again, harder than before this time as she felt her sister’s twiggy arms around her, the dig of her stubby fingers in the fabric of her shirt. It was different but it was still Priscilla. Anything was better than the reality she settled for, the one where she’d never get to hold her sister again.  

Priscilla’s voice shook when she talked, “I was so mad at you, Izzy. I never thought I’d be that mad at you for that long ever. And then you stopped coming and then I felt lonely. I missed you and Mama and Nathaniel. I was so sad I never got to have those snow cones or play Miss Mamba with you ever again. I’m sorry I spooked you. I didn’t think you’d come visit me if I didn’t bring you all the way out here myself.” 

Izara pulled away, laughed weakly and offered a meager apology of her own.  

She shrugged in response. “I guess it’s not really your fault. I’d be scared outta my wits if I were you too.” 

The two sat together, Izara on the outer bank and Priscilla, half submerged mere inches away. She was twelve again sitting beside her sister. Scilla explained how she came to be the best she could.  

“Miss Mamba is real, by the way,” she stated matter-of-factly, “I guess she felt bad or something but she’s the reason I could send snakes over to the house and why I looked like that before. She explained it to me but I keep telling her I don’t really get it.” 

Izara blinked in surprise but she didn’t press her for an explanation.  

 “She’s kinda like Mama sometimes, especially when I don’t listen. Don’t tell her I told you this but,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “she’s weird. I saw her eat a gator once but not in nuggets. Like… whole. 

Izara laughed loudly and tears sprang up in her eyes once more. The realization that it was her sister that sat beside her never ceased to surprise her. Izara pressed her warm hand to Priscilla’s cold one and squeezed, a reassurance that she was really there.  

Time stretched. Minutes felt like months, an hour turned into years. The girls spoke in long winded sentences, the sheer amount and thens uttered that night could wrap around the world twice. So many questions from the ever curious Priscilla and endless explanations from Izara. 

She learned from Priscilla that her mother’s yearly visits to the Basin weren’t just for the house’s sake. Her mother would spend hours at the lake on the anniversary of her death, sometimes with flowers or Priscilla’s favorite food. A simple, tiny gesture to honor the girl she lost so long ago.  Izara kept her mother at arm’s length to avoid facing the guilt and blame but the realization dawned on her as the sky began to lighten. It wasn’t just her who suffered. After everything, a mother lost her daughter. A community lost one of their own.  

Priscilla’s eyes lifted to watch and a sad look crossed her face. She looked back to Izara who hadn’t noticed and said, “I gotta go soon, Iz. Mamba’ll get mad I’m out this late.” 

She recalled the line about this in the handclap game. Get to six and then you’re safe. Funny how after all this time the words rang true.  

Suddenly, Priscilla asked, “Can we play one last time? Miss Mamba says she hates the game but she always asks me to say the words.” She stressed the ‘always’ and rolled her eyes, a habit their mother admonished her for.  

“I think she secretly misses when the Basin had lotsa people. This would make her feel a little better.” 

Izara agreed with a quickness, standing up and stretching her stiff arms and legs before turning to Priscilla. It took several starts because Izara had forgotten the words and her body ached in too many places for her to count. When the game began, Izara smiled so hard she felt her cheeks would split. She let Priscilla win and she cried out triumphant, claiming that it was obvious she won as she lived with Miss Mamba now.   

Priscilla then surprised her with a fierce hug and murmured, “You’re so tall.” 

Izara felt moisture gather at the front of her shirt where Priscilla’s face was. She realized suddenly that her sister was crying.  

“I promised Mamba I wouldn’t cry,” she said frustrated, “She knows I’m not a crybaby but-”  

She pulled away suddenly from Izara and began rubbing furiously at her eyes, “But I just missed you.” 

Moments later, she burst into a loud wail, one that echoed throughout the bayou. Izara had seen a dozen sides of Priscilla that night but not this one. Even while she was living, it was rare to see her sister so utterly distraught that she cried like this in front of another. Izara reached her hand toward her to draw her to her chest once more but Priscilla shoved her hands away.  

Through her tears she hiccuped, “I’ll be fine I just-,” she couldn’t finish her sentence as a fresh wave of tears made rivers down her face.  

It took a little while but her crying eventually ceased.  She looked up at Izara half bashful and half smug, “Look I may not be big like you but that’s not even important ‘cause you’re big and you spent all night crying and screaming your head off!” 

She began to run around in the water, arms flailing.  

Ahh, there’s snakes in my house! Ahhhh, I think I’m going crazy!” Priscilla yelled in what Izara guessed to be an exaggerated version of what she looked like all night.  

“It’s not funny, Scilla, you scared me bad!” 

Just like that, her sister was doubled over, clutching her stomach and teasing her. Izara couldn’t bring herself to be upset. It was ironic how ten years ago, it was Izara who had planned to tease her sister for being scared but now, the tables were turned. 

The girls whispered their goodbyes and Izara found herself in tears again. She watched quietly as Priscilla dove into the water and swam further and further away till she disappeared. Izara’s chest ached and this hollow feeling began to nag at her as she turned on her heel and began to walk back to her home.  

The sky was an odd shade of blue and orange as dawn approached her steadily. Izara walked back to her home, feet aching and mind still whirring from the events that occurred mere hours ago. It all blurred together, scenes of terror already morphing into something else. She recalled the clammy feel of Priscilla’s skin, remembered its firmness beneath hers and shook away the fear that she had imagined the entire thing. The jaws of the wetland opened its maw once more and out came Izara, clothes filthy but spirit changed.  

 


 

Naomie C. Monexe is a Haitian-American undergraduate student at the University of Miami pursuing a B.A in Anthropology. She enjoys writing speculative fiction, horror, and gothic romance. She tends to write short stories and flash fictions but hopes to publish a full length novel in the years to come.

The Gnome

      by M. Shaw

         We caught a gnome in our house, in a trap we had set out for the raccoons who kept getting in the basement.

      “He’s adorable!” said Jean, and we put him in a cage. A big, old birdcage, it had belonged to my late grandfather’s parrot, who had finally died the previous year. The little fella didn’t seem to mind. He slept a lot, and then he did these little kicky dances and made all these noises that sounded like words, but weren’t. “Dow-tee hoy biddo! Funger hoo tee hoo!” That sort of thing. It had a pseudo-Irish sound to it, but we didn’t think he was a leprechaun, because of the hat. His was cone-shaped, definitely more the kind of thing you would associate with a gnome than a leprechaun.

        “Do you think he, you know, has intelligence?” I asked Jean after a couple days, while we were watching him in there. He had completely replaced the TV at that point, in terms of how we spent our time.

      “All animals have some degree of intelligence,” said Jean, “so it depends what you mean. Human intelligence? I doubt it. I mean, look at him.”

      “He’s wearing clothes and everything,” I pointed out. It wasn’t complicated clothing, just some baggy trousers and a shirt. It looked a bit like pajamas. And the hat. No shoes.

      “So is Princess Diana,” said Jean. That was the name of our Bichon, who was, after all, wearing a doggy Christmas sweater.

        I still wasn’t sure that they counted as the same thing. We watched him for another five or ten minutes, and then it hit me. “But we didn’t put the clothes on him,” I said.

        “I should make him some little outfits,” said Jean. “On the sewing machine.” I couldn’t tell if she had misinterpreted the point I was making, or if she was ignoring me completely.

         I lost a lot of sleep thinking about this. Was that a good measure of intelligence? To be able to not just wear clothes, but to put them on yourself? Did that mean that, when my parents dressed me, when I was little, I wasn’t fully human? What if I became quadriplegic, or developed some kind of dementia, and couldn’t do it myself anymore?

      We gave the gnome some steamed chicken and carrots, but he showed no interest. We gave him some canned dogfood, and he wasn’t interested in that, either. He seemed to never need to eat or go to the bathroom at all. I asked Jean if we were sure he was really a living creature. The lack of eating or pooping would seem to indicate no. But again, he slept. And when he slept, you could see his torso rise and fall, breathing. And he had a beard, and the beard was grey, suggesting growth and age.

        “I think maybe he’s a filter feeder,” said Jean, cutting out pieces of a sewing pattern. “Like a sea sponge. Or maybe he does photosynthesis.”

        “In the basement?” I asked.

        She shrugged. “I don’t know, Todd, I’m not a scientist. What do you want me to do about it?”

        I didn’t want her to do anything about it, so I said nothing. I was just worried about the definition of life. Honestly, sometimes I worried about whether it applied to me, though I don’t think that had anything to do with the gnome.

        “I’m thinking of naming him Bernie,” she said.

        This caught me off guard, and I still said nothing. She was thinking of naming the gnome? Somehow, I thought, that seemed untoward.

          “How does that sound to you?”

        “What if he already has a name?” I said.

        “Why don’t you ask him?” she chuckled.

          He was asleep when I went downstairs, but I tried anyway. “Hey buddy,” I said, “what’s your name? You got a name?”

          He didn’t wake up, and it occurred to me that he had never directly acknowledged me in any way. In fact, I didn’t get the sense that he was aware of his surroundings at all, except for the cage, which was a physical limitation. But as far as his behavior went, the cage might as well have been in the middle of a corn field. Or on top of a skyscraper. Or in the area with the high crime rate. I might as well have been anybody, to him. Hell, I might as well have been nobody.

          We never saw another gnome. We had an exterminator come out, to figure out how he had gotten in. The exterminator fiddled around the basement with her tools. Wrote some things on a pad with carbon paper. Looked at the gnome.

        “Funny little critter, isn’t he,” she said.

        Have you ever seen one before, we asked.

        “Can’t say I have.” She shook her head. “Can’t say I have. But, what are you gonna do? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things,” she repeated, “have happened.”

        I didn’t think that was true, but she said it with such confidence that I couldn’t disagree. She made some suggestions about the chimney, about caulking and insulation and things like that. She also sprayed some poison, and I still wonder if there are dead gnomes in the walls of the house. We never smelled anything, but maybe they don’t stink when they decay? Maybe they don’t decay? They just lie there, little lifeless rubber dolls?

          The gnome did not seem worried about his comrades.

          One day, Jean called me over. “Todd, look at this!” From the basement.

          I went down there, to find that the gnome was now wearing an outfit she had made
          for him.

          “He didn’t mind me putting them on him,” she said. “Didn’t make a fuss, not even a
            little.”

          He was wearing a black fleece pullover and dungarees. It looked like he was wearing little black sneakers as well, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be baby booties, made entirely out of linen but sewn to look like sneakers. She had taken the hat off and, what do you know, he was completely bald underneath.

          “He’s dressed like you,” she explained.

          “No he’s not,” I said, in a whiny tone of voice that embarrassed me immediately. I didn’t even own a black fleece pullover, which was the worst part, because it still seemed like the kind of thing I would wear, even though I had never actually worn one, as far as I could remember. Or maybe the worst part was the shoes, because I did own black sneakers, but mine were real sneakers. And this was like, these might as well be your sneakers, Todd, even though they weren’t even close, really. I’m not sure how the dungarees could have been the worst part, but maybe they were too.

          He absolutely was dressed like me, is what I’m saying, and I hated it. Not exactly like
          me, but like me.

        “Why did you do this,” I said.

          “It’s cute!” said Jean.

          It was cute, and there was nothing I could do about that.

          I decided to sell the gnome on the internet, secretly. I didn’t take any photos, but a few days after I posted the information about him, a guy came over to take a look while Jean was out with her friends at the roller derby.

        “Wow,” said the guy, watching the gnome dance in his cage. “It does this all the time?”

        “He actually spends a lot of time sleeping,” I said. “But apparently he doesn’t mind if you change his clothes for him.”

          “You ever let him out?”

        “Of his cage?” I said. “No. No, we never have.”

        The guy nodded. Princess Diana, wearing a tiny dog-sized cape with a Wonder Woman symbol, licked at his shins. “If I can ask just a really honest question,” he said, “is it legal to--well, I mean, not legal, but like--okay--I mean, to have a person, well, not a person person, but you--as a pet, or whatever--I--uh--like, is it kosher, you know?”

         “I’m not Jewish,” I admitted.

        He rubbed his temples with both hands. “I’ll give you thirty-nine dollars for it,” he said.

        “Okay.”

        “Well,” he made a wobbly motion with one hand, “thirty-seven.”

        “Okay.”

        “Actually, I’m not interested.”

        “You can have him for nothing,” I said. But the guy had already left. He really had turned on his heel and walked right out of the house, as if he suddenly found the whole thing appalling.

          Jean never found out that I had tried to sell the gnome. She came home from the roller derby and went directly downstairs to visit him, sleeping in his cage. When he first showed up, she and I would usually watch him together, and she would react to what he did by cooing or giggling or adding color commentary. Gradually, though, I had stopped spending much time watching the gnome, and she had transitioned into watching him silently. Like a vigil. But, that’s the way a lot of people watch TV, so I didn’t think it was all that weird.

            I spent weeks mentally destroying myself over why the guy who had initially wanted to buy the gnome became so upset. The gnome wasn’t doing anything wrong, so it must have been me, right? He must have found something repulsive about me. Maybe he noticed that the gnome, who was still wearing the fleece pullover outfit at the time, looked so much like me, which made it seem like I was trying to cast out this little simulacrum of myself. It would be like a kind of suicide, from his perspective. I wanted him to take away a facet of myself.

          The gnome was not a facet of myself, but the guy didn’t know that. And, from an outsider’s perspective, if the gnome and I seemed that similar, wasn’t that what mattered? There was no difference between me and the gnome, because a visitor to our house, who didn’t know me, couldn’t see one. And if that were true, then all the stuff I’d been thinking about, about life, was just wrong. Being able to put clothes on yourself, or have a name, that didn’t matter. It was all about how other people, with no connection to your abilities, thought of you. Which would mean that being intelligent, or being a person, had nothing to do with you. My body and my mind couldn’t be a person; only the idea of me could. Was that what the guy thought? Was that what everyone thought?

            I started watching the gnome with Jean more often, in silent vigil, the way she did. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. If he was a person, in her eyes. If I was.

            She made him a little dinosaur costume, from a children’s Halloween pattern. “It’s October,” she explained. We had found the gnome in July.

            At that moment, I remembered that the guy had also asked whether we ever let the gnome out of his cage. Maybe that was the problem: that we kept him in the cage all the time, never letting him leave.

          When I thought of this, I felt an unexpected stab of resentment. Why should anyone be concerned about whether the gnome was being let out? What about me? Was anyone going to let me out?

          What am I talking about, I thought. Let me out of what?

          “We should take him trick-or-treating,” I said.

        Jean wrinkled her nose. “Jesus, Todd, he’s not our child.”

      This was true, of course, but then, what was he? “Is he, like, a pet?” The guy had used
     that word, after all.

        “I don’t really know,” she admitted. “I guess I have fun with him. He’s entertaining. And he’s harmless. He’s more like a,” she twirled her finger around in the air, “a toy, or something. Well… eh, the attraction is that he’s not dependent on me. That’s really the key piece. A child, or a pet, they need you. You have to do all these things to keep them alive and happy, feed them and clean up after them and whatever else.”

        “What about a husband?” I said.

        She didn’t seem to have heard me. “Whereas he’s basically alive and has a little personality, but he pretty much does his own thing. There’s no responsibility. I can rest.”

      “But you do all these things for him,” I said. “Making clothes. And spending all this time watching him.”

        Jean said nothing. It must not have registered as a contradiction.

      “Is that what you want?” I asked. “Someone you’re not responsible for, at all?”

        She nodded. She didn’t look at me. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

           I could see the gnome, then, as I thought she must have seen him: as an ideal version of me. A person wearing my clothes, and living in her house, but with no needs at all. A harmless me.

          We decided that, instead of taking the gnome trick-or-treating, we would move the cage near the front door, so that trick-or-treating children could see him, dressed as a dinosaur, and be horrified or delighted. There weren’t very many children in our neighborhood, so we usually spent the trick-or-treat time eating candy out of a bowl, watching television and occasionally answering the door, often seeing kids dressed as the very characters we were watching on TV.

          This year was different. Jean sat in a chair, facing the front door, the gnome in the cage by her side. Not eating any of the candy. Just waiting. When the doorbell rang, she would exclaim delight over the children’s costumes, then say, “And look at this!” And look at the gnome. He was almost always asleep, and she seemed no less excited for it.

          “Is that a bird?” one kid asked.

           Weird, said most of them.

         “It’s baby Jesus,” said another one, with a completely neutral facial expression and no trace of emotion.

           Others simply ran away.

            For the first bit of the evening, I stood slightly behind Jean, out of a sense of obligation. I felt it would be disrespectful to do anything else. Eventually, I took a break to feed Princess Diana, which had to be done. After that, nostalgia getting the better of me, I adjourned to the living room and turned on a show I’d been watching. She had no reaction. I looked over at her every so often, but didn’t get up. It didn’t look like she needed anything.

              I wondered if this was how things were going to play out from now on: Jean watching the gnome, inviting herself to be watched, watching the gnome; me, off by myself, watching TV. She with her perfect, harmless version of me, and me doing my best to be as harmless as possible, as much like the gnome as possible. I closed my eyes, using the sound of the TV as background for picturing this as normal. In the vision I made for myself, I was doing my best to disappear, or at least, to become invisible. I could sit here, in front of the TV, all day if I wanted to, and I wouldn’t be bothering Jean, because she would be with the gnome. I imagined myself wearing very large, linen facsimiles of sneakers, imagined what the linen would feel like on my feet all the time. I saw myself sleeping all the time, never needing to eat. I heard myself talk, and I heard what I said mean nothing. And what else is a house, but a very comfortable cage?

                I was asleep, is what was going on by the end. Jean woke me up late, with all the children long since gone home with their candy.

              “Todd,” she said, “it’s time to take Bernie back downstairs.”

              “Okay,” I mumbled, “I’ve got you. I’ll help!” I wondered how long she had sat in front of the door, waiting for another costumed kid to show up, after the last one had left.

              “You fell asleep on the couch,” she said. “Are you okay? How are you doing?”

              “Good,” I said. “Really good.” I stood up, did a couple shallow knee bends, getting ready to carry the cage.



M. Shaw is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop (class of 2019) and an organizer of the Denver Mercury Poetry Slam. Despite the best efforts of some, they STILL live in Arvada, Colorado, where they run the micropress Trouble Department. Their website is mshawesome.com. Their Twitter handle is @shawwillsuffice.

We Didn’t Know They Could That

      by Ryan Pfeffer

     

I had a hurricane outfit, apparently: a blue towel with a hole torn in the  middle that I wore like a poncho, completely naked otherwise. I’d wear it  while watching every hourly update of the storm’s projected track,  rooting for any squiggly line aimed at our roof.

“It was my damn fault,” mom admitted one time, when me, her, and  Sam were having dinner at Rincón De Jalisco. "I told you that  hurricanes were just god blowing all the monsters out of town,” she  laughed, pushing ice around her very green margarita with a plastic  straw. “You were still so scared of the dark back then."

By the time Hurricane Imelda formed, mom had left Redland, and it was  just me and an extremely pregnant Sam. She was about seven months  along but looked more like eleven. It snuck up on us both. She gained  20 pounds in three weeks, and all the sudden I couldn’t look at her  without feeling a kind of nervousness that felt vague and endless.

Sam wanted to stay put for Imelda. She said these things were rarely as  bad as the news made it seem, and she was right. But this was going to  be the last opportunity I’d have to be alone — truly alone — for maybe  the rest of my life. And that didn’t feel selfish at the time. I thought I’d  earned it.

“Why even risk it?” I told her, and went on about the various concerns of  having a pregnant woman in 96 degree heat with no power or safe  drinking water. Sam smelled bullshit, because Sam could always smell  bullshit, but also because she knew she was talking to the same man  who allowed her two glasses of red wine on Saturdays and even a  bimonthly cigarette without putting up the slightest fight.

I told her I’d stay back and watch the place, and she said “fine” in a  voice that meant “fuck off.” But I think some part of her wanted the  same thing as me, just a small break before an endless marathon. I  wish I’d just asked her that. Instead I gave her a big hug, a phony smile,  and the keys to my car. And she gave me a to-do list that was mostly a  form of revenge for making her drive six hours to stay with my mom in  Jacksonville. Baby’s Room was the big one, underlined twice and  circled hard enough to dent the paper.

Sam found some stupid article about how an overwhelming percentage  of Nobel Prize winners say blue is their favorite color. But after five  weeks of deep research, she still couldn’t decide between Eggshell  Ripple or Autumn Dolphin. I was apparently not being thoughtful enough  about these kinds of details. Sam demonstrated that one night by  asking me to choose between two paint swatches and, after I pointed to  the one on the left, revealed it was a Chinese takeout menu, then  proceeded to hit me with it.

She left only a few hours before the storm hit, because Sam’s time  management skills were never the sharpest and those last 20 pounds  didn’t make her quicker. She was supposed to text me her final decision  on the paint when she got to Jacksonville, but that obviously never  happened.

The thing about Imelda is that nobody knew what was coming because  nobody had seen it happen before. We didn’t know they could do that.  We didn’t know that a hurricane could get so big, so fast, and then  just… stay put. Hover there. Like a spaceship trying to abduct an entire  city. We didn’t know that a hurricane could find the exact perfect set of  conditions that would allow it to remain completely still, stretching from  South Beach to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding itself enough warm water to  hold an entire city hostage for months.

I never talked to Sam after she left. Cell service went out just 30  minutes into the storm, and it didn’t come back. Every couple hours or  so I’d turn my phone back on and try to text her. Just little things like  “I’m safe” and “I love you” and, once, a video of me naked in the  backyard waving a golf club over my head along with the message  “EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.” I wanted to make her laugh because I  knew, wherever she was, that she was pissed. I just didn’t know if it was  because I wasn’t out there with her or she wasn’t in here with me.

Four days in and the storm still hadn’t budged an inch. Imelda decided  to stop with her eye directly over us. You could call that luck, I guess,  even though it wasn’t exactly pretty outside. But it was possible to leave  the house without getting shish kebabed by a grapefruit tree, so there’s  that. And soon enough people were jogging and driving to go visit their  friends. It almost felt like a town again, if you could manage to ignore  the world outside the storm, which I learned could.

Ed Tiller drove by one morning with four people and a small mountain of  avocados in the bed of his pickup. He invited me over to try an  experimental batch of wine he’d been working on. Over at Ed’s that  night, about a dozen people squatted around the radio, shushing the  folks who’d already had a little too much avocado wine. At first the  consensus from the meteorologists was that this would be over any  minute now. Hurricanes were like sharks, one of them said. They had to  keep moving or else they died. But the days passed, Imelda just got  stronger, and theories adjusted. Maybe it wasn’t even a hurricane, but  something different, a new kind of weather system. One scientist lady  called it a “permastorm” and suggested it could last for a decade.

Ed ran out of fuel for his generator about a week later and the batteries  in the radio died not long after. Ed’s generator lasted 72 hours longer  than the other generators in town because he convinced Ivan to siphon fuel from the monster truck he was restoring in his front yard. My phone  died around then too, but I sent one last text to Sam. I told her not to  worry about me, that I was doing just fine. And I tried to not think about  how much I meant it.

One night at Ed’s the wine was flowing pretty heavy when all the  sudden Ivan started shouting and pointing at the sky. A silver box the  size of a coffee table was floating down to earth, blinking red lights on  each of its corners. It looked for a second like it was going to hit Ed’s  truck, but missed by a few feet, and landed with a hollow thud. There  was a handle on top of the box next to the words “Pull Here,” so we did,  and the top slid off to reveal an impressive selection of canned beans.

“They could have squashed someone,” Ed said, stacking cans.

“They could have sent beer,” Ivan said, checking the empty box a fourth  time for booze.

After that, the sky drops — I’m not sure who coined the term but it stuck  — started coming about every three days, and kept coming for the next  month. Sometimes you’d find one smashed to pieces in an empty lot  with a crater around it. But most landed safely, full of food, batteries, a  little gasoline, firewood, cell phone chargers, first aid kits, water  purification tablets, toothpaste, toilet paper, playing cards, and socks,  which seemed odd at first but quickly became the most sought-after sky  drop item. One of the boxes had radios too, so I got my own and started  listening in the morning while I stirred instant coffee with a fork.

Imelda was getting less airtime every day, because different things kept  tugging at the country’s attention span: a pop star stabbed on the red  carpet of the Grammys by a crazy fan; the first daughter caught doing  heroin in the White House bathroom; Osceola, beloved horse mascot  for Florida State University, poisoned by a rival UF fan, and collapsed  on the 50-yard line during an important playoff game.

But Imelda was still a daily news story. One morning, NPR interviewed a  scientist who said that if Imelda wasn’t gone by March, things could get  real bad. El Niño was coming, he said, and all that warm water could  hypothetically sustain the storm for another nine to twelve months.

I turned off the radio and tried to imagine it: another year of this life.  Quiet walks and potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, cooked directly on the fire.  Drinking Ed’s wine in the backyard while the sun sets. Falling asleep to  the sound of wind and peeing outside, wherever I wanted. It didn’t scare  the shit out of me, and that’s when I first started to wonder if I was on  the wrong side of these clouds or the right one. And then a year didn’t  quite feel long enough.

The next day I woke up to a knock on the door and there was Ed,  lacquered in a layer of sweat and dead mosquitoes.

“You’re gonna want to come see this,” he said, and waved me into the  truck.

One of the sky drops had a little armored military laptop inside. When  Ed opened it, a video started playing. It was a video of our various loved  ones, hundreds of them, reciting pre-written words of support. It began  with a statement from the president, who said, “We’re going to show this  storm who’s boss,” while nodding solemnly.

The video was nearly over when mom came on screen, eyes all red and  looking like this was her fifth take.

“Hi, baby,” she said. “We love you so much. We’re all thinking about you  every day, and we know you’re going to be alright.”

She kept saying “we,” but there was no Sam. Mom paused to look at  someone off camera, probably signaling her to wrap things up.

“Baby, there should be a letter for you in the box. I need you to read it.  Everything’s going to be fine. I’m here and I’m taking care of it. But read  the letter.”

When the video ended, I found the white envelope with “JOSH” written  across the front in jagged black marker. Definitely mom’s handwriting. I  tore it open, and the words registered in bunches, like my brain was one  of those claws that could only grab one stuffed animal at a time.

“Premature… baby’s okay… named him Josh… complications… bad  infection… medically-induced coma.”

I could see Ed staring at me so I tried to keep a poker face, because I  didn’t want to cause a scene. But then I felt the wine in my stomach all  at once, like a water balloon exploded in there. I stumbled to the kitchen  and Ivan was leaning against the fridge, peeling an orange. I didn’t even  look at him, just went straight to the sink because I couldn’t tell if I was  about to throw up.

“Sick of this palace too?” he said in response to my dry heave. “Me too,  papi. Me too. That’s why I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“What do you mean leaving?” I asked, once I managed to swallow.

“I found more gas. There was a tank at the station everyone missed.  But not Ivan. I got in there with a jackhammer and now I have enough  fuel to run up the Turnpike. They say the wind’s not so bad after Boca.  Annoying, yeah, but it won’t kill you.”

Ivan was an alcoholic, but he was also a pretty competent mechanic.  And the truck in question, which used to go by the name Deadbolt in its  performing day, could run over sedans like they were speed bumps. I’d  seen it with my own eyes at the rodeo three years ago.

“Tomorrow at noon,” Ivan said, heading out the back door on the hunt  for more wine. “I’ll drive by and honk.”

As he swung the door open, I could hear laughter. People were  breaking into the latest batch of avocado wine, which came out like shit  this time. The same fucking Eagles song was playing on the radio. Ed  and his daughter were working on that night’s dinner: more unseasoned  canned beans and freeze-dried packets of buffalo chicken nuggets that  were more rubber than chicken.

I left without saying bye and when I got home, I went straight to the  baby’s room, grabbed the screwdriver on the floor, cracked open  Autumn Dolphin, and stirred the paint. It was an executive decision, but  I just knew Sam was leaning toward Autumn Dolphin. She was just  waiting for me to say it too.

Sam had never been to a hospital. It’s not that she never needed to go  to one. She was covered in scars if you knew where to look, and at  least several of her toes had been broken, judging by their angles. But  she would rather super glue a bagel-related laceration shut than take it  to the professionals. She claimed it was due to a scary movie she  watched at too young an age. She could not remember the name of the  film, only that it had an evil nurse who liked to murder people with a  sharpened tongue depressor.

That’s what really freaked her out about being pregnant — the thought  of spending the night in a “death hotel,” as she called them. I told her  that, if she gave me the word, I’d break her out of there. Me, her, and  the baby. “What are they gonna do?” I said. “Arrest us for stealing our  own baby?” And she laughed and kissed me on the neck.

I’d only finished one wall when I heard the beep outside. There was  Ivan, as promised, with one arm hanging out an open window, dangling

just above the D in the word Deadbolt, which was painted across the  truck in melting green letters.

“Road trip time!” he screamed over the truck’s gurgle.

I had to take a running start to get into the passenger seat. It smelled  like cigarettes and gasoline inside, and I couldn’t hear Ivan over the  sound of the engine. I flashed him a thumbs up and we pulled out, my  house getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror until I couldn’t  tell it apart from the horizon.

When we reached the Turnpike, we were right up against the  Everglades, and I could see for miles since the truck was so tall. It was  just an even buzz cut of sawgrass as far as you could see, but if you  looked up, you could tell where the eye of Imelda ended, and the sky  turned black.

Lightning flashed inside the clouds silently, and I could feel the humidity  getting sucked out of the air. It suddenly occurred to me that there were  no windows in the truck. I looked over at Ivan as he lifted a red cup to  his mouth and swallowed hard.

I really didn’t know where we were going. I never bothered to ask. Ivan  didn’t seem to have any luggage in the car and I noticed that he was  only wearing underwear from the waist down. He looked straight ahead,  at the same clouds I saw, only he didn’t seem to see them at all.

“Stop,” I said, but Ivan didn’t respond. So I said it louder, right in his ear.  And when he still wouldn’t, I unbuckled my seatbelt and dove headfirst  to punch the break myself, which sent Deadbolt into a fishtail that lasted  forever. I scrambled out of the truck and landed on my ass while he was  messing with the shifter. Then Ivan pulled away, middle finger out the  window until Imelda swallowed him up.

Standing there on the shoulder of the Turnpike, I felt my phone buzz in  my pocket. And then again and again. Cell reception must have poked  through the clouds, for a brief moment, because the notifications were  coming in machine gun bursts, one after the other. My pocket kept

shaking for the next ten minutes, and I just stood there crying. When it  finally stopped, I forced myself to look, the way you force yourself to  jump into a cold pool. You just do it without letting yourself think about  how bad it’ll sting. I only read one message, the first one that popped  up, and it was from Sam. All it said was eggshell ripple.

 


Ryan Pfeffer is a writer and journalist living in Miami. He's a native South Floridian
and is currently the editor of The Infatuation Miami, where he writes about food and restaurants. He's covered everything from DJ Khaled to the official Pitbull cruise,
and has written for places like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Vice.

Fair Game

by Brian McVety

 

      “Did you know that hazardous is one of only four words in the common English
language that ends in d-o-u-s?” Thad asked Sarah, as he sipped his beer.

She didn’t say anything, knowing there would be more.

“Isn’t that interesting? Like, of all the ways to make a word, there are only four
that end that way?” He looked at her, smiling, as if impressed with his own genius.

“Is there anything you don’t know?” she chirped.

“I’m sure there is.” A bit of yeast and beer remained in his glass, brown-bodied cells
clinging to the bottom. “I’ll let you know when I find out what.” He gulped it down, then burped loudly.

They sat in the taproom, lingering after their colleagues had left. The first Friday of the month meant Revolvers, a local brewery that had opened last year. Thad had started the gatherings last fall, as a way to bring the school together.

Sarah had been teaching there for a couple of years. She used to work downtown, in an underfunded district that had seen its numbers dwindle for years, until one day the annual pink-slip she found in her mailbox each June actually meant that cuts were taking place instead of just the warning that the budget was thinning once again. She had never wanted to leave, loved the chaos and the kids, but she figured a change to a suburban environment might make her days easier on some level, steadier, more predictable even. She had yet to complain about the parent phone calls, the parent e-mails, the eventual parent meetings. She hadn’t met this kind of support before. There was also the staff, how dedicated everyone seemed to be, to the kids, to each other, to Revolver’s. Everyone, especially Thad, made her feel like she belonged, yet she didn’t know why she felt like she didn’t fit in. She tried to appreciate them, appreciate him. Some days she did more than others.

“Don’t you want to know the other three?”

“Other three what?”

He mockingly shook his head. “Try to keep up, Sarah.”

She feigned annoyance and rolled her eyes. He looked at her with that crooked grin of his. “Tremendous, stupendous, and horrendous. Fitting adjectives, I think.” His grin remained.

“One seems to fit you, for sure. Maybe two.”

“I certainly am tremendous. Maybe stupendous. You’re too kind, babe.”

“Not those two.” She patted him on the head. “Babe.” It was Sarah’s turn to finish
her beer.

“Technically, there’s a zoological term that’s not used often that would make it five.
Apodous. It means without feet. So, I guess I lied to you.”

“Such a jerk.”

“But a loveable one.”

She wondered if he was loveable, had been wondering for a while. He certainly could be a jerk, but he made her laugh, even if it was often at her expense. He was a little older, had been married once, was one of those guys who wouldn’t get better looking as he aged. He was handsome enough, though, for now.

“Should we get another one?” he asked, eyeing her empty glass.

“I’m good.”

“What are you doing later?”

She was at a point in her life when she found that being direct was the most effective approach. She wasn’t sure when this switch had occurred. “Going home. Eventually going to sleep.”

“What a surprise.”

“You saying you don’t sleep?”

“Why sleep when I have my genius to share with the world?”

She knew he was writing a book. He wouldn’t shut up about it. Something about selective breeding in some dystopian universe. He had labeled it a commentary on Margaret Sanger. “It must be exhausting being you.”

“It can be. I might need to distract myself from myself.” He stared at her.
“Want company?”

She debated, knowing that she should say no, that that was the professional thing to do. She knew before it came out of her mouth that it might be a mistake, but she said it anyway.

“Okay.”

He smirked. “Really?”

"Ask again and I’ll change my mind.”

“Do you want me to really stop asking?”

Sarah wasn’t sure. She liked that he liked her. It had been a while since she had been liked. She had dated enough, sometimes seriously, sometimes not. It’s not that she stopped trying. Rather, she had grown content with the way her life was. It was easier in many ways. She hated the way people didn’t understand this. But, it had been a while since she had gotten laid. “Yes, I want you to stop asking.”

The bartender brought over their tab. “My treat?” Thad said.

“I don’t think so,” she said, taking out her wallet, the one with the faces of famous first ladies all over it a student had given her as a gift.

“Such a woman.”

“Not my treat either,” she said, putting down enough money for half the bill. “And you’ve got the tip.”

“Just the tip?” he said, winking at her.

She rolled her eyes and realized how strong the beers had been when she stood up. He put his hand on her lower back and guided her to her car. She knew it shouldn’t go anywhere, couldn’t go anywhere, that she wouldn’t let it go anywhere. But, she had forgotten what it felt like to be wanted, even if for a night.

***

Sarah watched the coffee drip from the old coffee machine, its once-white percolator now a faded brown. She sat down, pulled out of her bag a green pen and a stack of essays, but didn’t have it in her yet. Coffee, albeit mediocre coffee, first.

She usually only ventured to the faculty room before school for her first cup, when no one was in there, but she had been displaced out of her classroom because of state testing. She hated giving up her turf. She heard the door open, just as the Pledge was ending over the intercom.

“Morno!” Thad had two coffees in his hands and placed one next to her, despite the
mug in front of her.

“Morno?”

“No. Morno! There’s a difference.”

“What do you mean there’s a difference?”

He didn’t answer but leaned over her and eyed the pile of essays. She could smell his cologne and nearly coughed. “Social Reform in Post-Colonial England,” he said, reading the title. “We aren’t even close to getting there yet, but I like that idea. Social reform. We need more of it.” He sat down next to her, let his foot find hers under the table. “Like no one even uses this room. And when they do, it’s just a smile and a nod.
Barely even a good morning. Reform, we must.”

She looked at him, pulling her foot away. “Maybe it’s just you, Thad. People never seem to stop talking to me.” She looked back down at her essays. He was looking at her.

“What?”

“You’re cute when you grade.”

She didn’t look at him. “I need to focus.”

He reached into his bag and pulled out his computer, his mouth open as he typed. A moment later, the printer spat out a piece of paper. He grabbed it and posted it to the bulletin board. In bold, black letters, it said MORNO! Below, was a letter:

Dearest Colleagues,

It has come to my attention that Ms. Sarah Trubiano has grown tired of the
constant chatter, pleasantries, communication, niceties, and general forms of
human decency that you have been bombarding her with. If you would, please,
leave her the fuck alone, it would be much appreciated. Thank you
.

Sincerely,
Mr. Thad H. Cheswick.

He sat back down next to her and waited.

“Very funny,” she said.

“I know,” he said, smiling.

“Take it down, please.”

“Maybe.”

“C’mon, Thad.”

“Maybe not.” He sipped his coffee again. “So when am I coming over again?”
She remembered the way he snored, how his pillowcase was drenched with saliva when she changed the sheets, how she couldn’t sleep at all after. She remembered how predictable it all seemed. She didn’t regret it, but she didn’t want to admit that it had happened, either. “I told you when you left. That didn’t happen.”

“But it did happen.”

“No, Thad, it didn’t happen. Didn’t happen and won’t happen again.”

He looked like a puppy, wounded but unable to learn a lesson. She looked down at her the essays, not knowing what to do. He grabbed her hand, clasping hard.

“Please. I mean it.”

He let go when the door opened and Mrs. Naples, their principal, walked in carrying a tray of bagels.

“Morno!” Thad said.

“Morno?” Mrs. Naples replied, placing the bagels on the table.

“No, with an exclamation point. It’s the only way to say it.” Thad looked Sarah, smirking, before addressing Mrs. Naples. “How are you doing today, Chief?”

Mrs. Naples unwrapped the cellophane. “To have teachers like you, how could I not be doing great? Look, bagels, because I do care.” Mrs. Naples and Thad shared a laugh. Thad grabbed a bagel before Mrs. Naples had finished taking off the plastic. “How are you guys?”

“Just planning social reform. Trying to change the world.  You know, make a difference,” Thad said. He put his arm around Sarah in mock unison, giving her shoulder a squeeze before letting go.

“I’m glad to see that people are using their prep time for something productive,” Mrs. Naples said, opening a container of cream cheese. “How are you, Sarah?”

“I’m good.” Sarah felt she should say something more but couldn't. They all looked out at the courtyard. The goose was poking at the ground.

“When do you think they’ll hatch?” Thad finally said.

Sarah had heard from the students how some geese had landed a few days earlier. A pair had built a nest in the corner of the courtyard. Tony, the custodian, had found the eggs when he was cutting the grass. He was bending down to get a closer look when a goose arrived, flapping its wings and viciously hissing, trying to bite as it chased Tony away. He left the lawn mower running, didn’t want to go back out there, before finally bringing it back to the maintenance shed, shoving it in without locking the door. He turned to run back into the school but tripped and fell in a mixture of mud and goose shit.  The geese had been the talk of the school ever since.

“Marni will know,” Thad responded to himself, taking out his phone.

“Isn’t she teaching?” Mrs. Naples asked.

“Good point,” he said, sending the text anyways.

A goose came out from behind the bush, began to searchingly poke at the ground. Thad’s phone buzzed. “About 28 days until they hatch,” he said. “Google told me.”

Mrs. Naples gave a tight smile.

“Has Tony lived down the humiliation? I don’t want to tell you that I have seen the video on Twitter, so I won’t.”

“Tony’s dignity is impenetrable,” Mrs. Naples said, still looking out the window.

Sarah felt Thad’s hand running up her thigh under the table. She pushed it away.

“You never know what to expect in this job,” Mrs. Naples said. “Enjoy the bagels. Spread the word.” Mrs. Naples turned to leave when the bulletin board caught her eye. She pulled the letter down. Sarah felt her face redden.

“Is that why you’re so quiet today?” Mrs. Naples said. Sarah couldn’t tell if she was joking. “Grow up, Thad,” Mrs. Naples said, as she crumpled the letter, tossing it in the recycling bin on her way out, chuckling to herself.

“What the fuck, Thad?” Sarah said when the door was finally closed. She stood up and put her mug in the sink. She started to wash it with her fingers, hoping he would just leave.

“What? Just trying to have a good morning,” he said, shoving too much bagel in his mouth and walking up behind her. “Just like I had a great night,” he whispered, leaning in closer to her ear. He grabbed her butt on the way out, squeezing her hard, before he left.

Sarah stiffened, felt the lingering, as if his hand was still there. She didn’t know what to do. She turned off the water, looked out the window, noticed that the goose had gone. She sat down and looked at her essays. She didn’t make it past the title, before the tears started to fall.

***

Sarah had written and rewritten the email a dozen times. This one felt like the simplest yet.

Dear Mrs. Naples,

I wish I were writing this email under different circumstances, but there is a
matter that I need to discuss with you. Could you please let me know when it
might be a good time to meet with you? I appreciate your support in advance.

Sincerely,
Sarah Trubiano

Sarah saved it to her drafts with the others. She wondered if she should just let it go, if it wasn’t that big of a deal. Thad had even come by to see her later that day, had asked her why the schedule was flip-flopped, even though they both knew that it happened every year during testing time. He acted like nothing had happened. She wanted to confront him then, ask him what he thought gave him the right, but students started to come in. She couldn’t help feeling thankful for their presence. She spent the rest of the week avoiding Thad after that.

She debated starting a new draft, wondered if she should address Mrs. Naples by her first name, when she heard a noise at the window, like someone throwing pebbles. Sarah didn’t see anything but the parking lot at first. She started to walk towards the window when the black and white head shot up and tapped on the window again. Sarah didn’t mean to scream.

After the first pair, more geese had arrived. Initially, they merely meandered, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, over the athletic fields, the walkways, the parking lot. Then they wanted in, the adjacent courtyard classrooms the first targets, followed by reports from the second floor, from the nurse’s office, from the gymnasium. Erin Waterman had even heard tapping on the window in the faculty bathroom. It seemed that any way they could get in was fair game.

Sarah double-checked the lock on the window just to be sure. The goose looked up at her, rapping the pane again, before it started to walk way. She pulled the blind down just as Thad walked into her classroom.

“Someone get killed in here?”

He walked over to the window and lifted the shade. The goose was making its way through the parking lot. It looked back once before heading to the soccer field.

“Someone should do something about them. I heard some students saying they were
going to ask Marni if they could experiment with their own repellents. They wanted
whoever designed the most effective one to get out of the final. I told her she’d win
Teacher of the Year.”

Sarah walked to the whiteboard and started to write her agenda for the next block. He walked to her desk and sat in her chair, putting his feet up next to her computer. “What are you doing this weekend? I’m getting beer, then maybe getting more beer, then probably getting some more beer.”

She kept her back to him. “I’m not sure yet. Might have to watch my sister’s dog.”

“Sounds like a party. I love dogs.”

She was done writing but didn’t turn around.

“So what time should I come over?”

She let her shoulders fall. “No, Thad,” she said to the board.

“What? Don’t like beer all of a sudden? Because I know you couldn’t not like me.”

She finally looked at him. “You can’t do that.”

“Do what?”

She couldn’t tell if he truly didn’t know. “Can’t just act like you didn’t do anything.”

“What did I do?”

“You should at least say you’re sorry.”

“Sorry?” He looked genuinely surprised. “Sorry for what?”

“Are you serious?” She could feel the knot in her stomach tighten. “You can’t just grab
someone’s ass, can’t touch me like that just because you want to.”

He still had his feet on her desk. He crossed his arms behind his head, his armpits a shade darker than the rest of his shirt. “That? You’re pissed about that?”

“Yes, I’m pissed about that.”

“What’s the big deal? It was just a joke.”

She could feel herself growing warmer.

“Look, I was just playing around. I don’t know why it upsets you so much.”

She waited for a “but” that didn’t come. “Well, it did upset me. Does upset me. You’re
lucky I haven’t reported it.”

“Lucky? It was a fucking joke. I thought you’d like it. You liked it the other night.”

“Nobody likes to get their ass grabbed at work.”

“I wouldn’t say nobody does, seems like a broad generalization.”

“Jesus Christ, Thad.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind. Depends on the job, of course. Kind of comes with the territory in some professions.”

She pushed his feet off her desk.

“What? Sarah, I'm just joking.”

“I have to get ready for class.”

He stood up and looked at her, taking a step closer to her. “Tell me when you’re back to being normal,” he said, putting his arm on her shoulder. “It’s more fun for the both of us.”

She pushed him off, just as the students started to file in.

“Mr. Cheswick, have you seen the geese?” a freshman boy asked.

“They’re everywhere,” another girl responded.

“Mrs. W. said one tried to come into the bathroom.”

“They’re so fire.”

“So fire,” Thad said, fist bumping them as they ran to the window. He didn’t look back as he walked out the door.

Sarah opened her computer, found the last draft, and finally hit send.

***

Sitting outside the principal’s office, Sarah felt like a student, wearing the same doe-eyed look she had seen on so many kids before. She didn’t know why she felt like she had done something wrong. The secretaries had gone home, and Tony was vacuuming the carpets. Mrs. Naples’s door was shut. Sarah didn’t know how long she should wait.

The door to Mrs. Naples’s office finally opened.  She had a phone to her ear but waved Sarah in. “I understand, Mrs. Ziplisky. I know,” Mrs. Naples said, nodding her head.
Sarah didn’t know if she should sit at the little table in the corner of the office or at the oversized chairs across from Mrs. Naples’s desk. Sarah wished Mrs. Naples would make the decision for her by sitting down, but she remained standing by the door on the phone.

“No, you’re right. There should be better communication.”

Sarah opted for in front of the desk. She sank into the chair, feeling like she had made the wrong decision.

“Yes. Yes, I’ve heard they are impossible to get rid of, especially after they nest. I will
certainly keep that in mind. Thank you.” Mrs. Naples ended the call and sat opposite Sarah. She didn’t say anything at first as she typed away at her phone.
“They tell you that most of your days will be spent on the phone. But they don’t tell you
that you will be spending hours on the phone dealing with fucking geese complaints. ”

She finally looked up. “Sorry. I don’t mean to swear, but that was the fourth call today.” She finally smiled.

“So. What’s going on?”

Sarah expected the question but didn’t really know how to begin. “It seems the geese are all anyone can talk about.”

Mrs. Naples looked at her. “I know. But what’s going on with you?” She waited.

“Well, something happened.”

“What kind of something?”

“I don’t even know how to describe it.”

“There’s enough to it for you to be meeting with me after school on a Friday. So, Sarah, what’s going on?”

Sarah exhaled. “Thad.”

“Oh. Thad.”

Mrs. Naples glanced down at her phone, before flipping it over. “What about him? Posting more letters in the faculty room?”

“It’s not just the letters. Sometimes, sometimes he just makes me uncomfortable.”

“I think he makes everyone a little uncomfortable. He has that way about him,
doesn’t he?”

“He certainly does.”

“But he does make you laugh.”

Sarah didn’t respond.

“So what did Thad do this time?”

Sarah hesitated. She had a hard time meeting Mrs. Naples’ eyes. “He grabbed me.
Inappropriately grabbed me.”

Mrs. Naples sighed. “Where?”

“In the faculty room.”

“No. Where on your body?”

Sarah felt the lump form in her throat, felt herself growing warmer. “On my backside.”

“Your back?”

She didn’t feel like she should have to say it. “No. My butt.”

Mrs. Naples sighed again. “What kind of grab are we talking about here?

The question caught Sarah off-guard. “Excuse me?”

“A light tap?” Mrs. Naples said, tapping her fingertips on her desk. “Or a grab?” She
gripped the edge of her desk to emphasize, her knuckles turning white.

“Does it matter what kind?”

“It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Context does, though.”

“What do you mean context?”

“Well. It is Thad. And it is you.”

“So?”

Mrs. Naples looked at her, like she shouldn't have to explain herself. “Word gets around, Sarah. Even though it shouldn’t, I know, but word gets around.”

Sarah felt herself flush even more. She knew that schools thrived on gossip, but it was usually about school stuff. She didn’t know what Mrs. Naples had heard. Didn’t think that she could have heard about the two of them, until she realized Thad was incapable of keeping his mouth shut. Half the staff probably knew by now, she realized for the first time. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It doesn’t. Unless it does.”

“What do you mean?”

“You sure you want to do this?”

Sarah wasn’t even sure what she was doing. “Do what? Report sexual harassment?”

Mrs. Naples looked at her like she was speaking with a child. “Listen. I’m not saying what he did was right. It wasn’t. But these situations can be tricky. I’m just trying to make sure. It basically will be a he said-she said situation. And with your history, it gets a little murkier.”

“We don’t have a history.”

Mrs. Naples had a way of smiling without it appearing like a smile when she was trying to figure something out. It made her seem like she was in on a joke that you should be in on, too. Sarah certainly felt as if she didn’t understand the joke.

“Maybe. Maybe not. A matter of perspective. I just want you to think about this. That’s
all. I'm on the side of fairness, and I just don’t want to see you ruined because of this.
Think about it. If you want to go through with this, we’ll go through with it. Let’s not
just rush into something, okay?”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. She felt a burning inside of her.

There was a knock at the door. Mr. Richards didn’t wait to be asked in but poked his head in. His tie was undone. He had the same expressionless face that he kept while on cafeteria duty. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Maria, I just got another call. Apparently, they’re canceling the soccer match on account of the field being such a mess. I guess there is shit everywhere.” He glanced at Sarah. “Excuse my language.”

“Okay. I’ll send something out to parents tonight.” She looked back at Sarah. “Think about it,” Mrs. Naples said, picking up her phone again.

She dialed a number and put the phone to her ear.

Sarah walked out of the room, avoiding Mr. Richards’s eyes. A few teachers were walking out the door, so Sarah put her bag down, pretended to look for her keys, pretended that she didn’t see how they whispered, how they glanced her way, how they smirked.

“Enjoy the weekend!” one of them called, after Sarah accidentally caught her eye. Sarah forced a smile before returning to her bag.

Mr. Richards came up next to her. “Lose something?” he said, straightening papers on the counter that didn’t need to be straightened.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said, before walking slowly out the door, making sure not to
catch up with the others.

***

Sarah spent the weekend trying to make sense of Mrs. Naples’s advice, the words running through her mind on a loop. I’m on the side of fairness. She tried to convince herself that Mrs. Naples was indeed trying to be fair. Maybe it really was nothing. Maybe sleeping with him had complicated things. She didn’t eat much, could only see those words on her eyelids when she tried to sleep. The side of fairness. She remembered the workshop, where the speaker showed a cartoon of three little kids trying to see over a fence, the kids’ heights descending in size. The next picture showed them all getting the same sized box to stand on. Only two of the kids could actually see over the fence. The littlest one still couldn’t. The next slide said, “Fair is not always fair.”

Thad had texted her a few times over the weekend, wondering why she was being this way, why she was so mad. She didn’t respond. She laid in bed when her alarm went off on Monday morning. She had always liked her job, enjoyed showing up each day. The kids always made her laugh, seemed like they wanted to learn, and even when they didn’t, they were usually respectful about it. She could understand why people could grow tired of it, but that notion always seemed so abstract for her. Even on her worst days, there was nothing else she could ever imagine herself doing. But, as Sarah watched the coffee drip in the faculty room, for the first time, she didn’t want to be there. Fairness . Sarah
was starting to see what that actually meant.

She took her coffee and sat back down at the table. She wanted to be back in her room, but there was another week of testing. She took out the essays from her bag, where they had remained all weekend, and started to read. The door opened and she cringed. Marni walked in carrying some mesh netting and a bundle of stakes.

Don’t ask,” she said.

Marni put the materials on the table and poured herself a cup of coffee. She and Sarah had started at the school at the same time, had been placed at the same orientation table, which somehow bonded them, even though they never became particularly close.

“They want me to make sure that nothing happens to the nest. And they want me
to involve the students.”

Sarah had always appreciated how Marni had a way of joking without ever making
a joke.

“I thought they hated the geese and wanted to get rid of them,” Sarah said.

“They do, but they view it as some great learning opportunity or something. Especially for the freshmen. But they also want me to figure out a way to make sure
the geese don’t come back.” Marni took a big gulp of coffee.

“Sounds like a lot.”

“It sure does.” Marni continued to gather her supplies. “By the way. Have you heard
what the kids are saying?”

“Aren’t they always saying lots of things?”

“True. But the kids said that you’re trying to get Thad fired.”

She said it so matter-of-factly that Sarah at first thought she had misheard.

“What?”

“They said they had heard Mr. Cheswick was saying that to a group of kids arguing at
lunch, that he used you as an example apparently, how some teachers also don’t always get along well with other teachers.”

Sarah felt herself turning red.

“They also said that he said you were just mad because you used to date and
now you’re not.”

Sarah couldn’t meet her face.

“Is it true?”

“Seriously?”

“I mean, the kids usually know more than we do.”

Neither of them spoke. Marni refilled her coffee, grabbed the meshing and the stakes, and started to walk to the courtyard.

“Marni, you shouldn’t always believe everything you hear.”

Marni smiled. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply—I just wanted you to know what they’re saying. In case you wanted to do something about it.”

“Thanks.”

Marni looked at her. “He can be an asshole. But people are talking.”

Sarah didn’t say anything.

“Well, if you don’t want to grade, I’ll be outside. Wouldn’t mind some help.”

Sarah sipped her coffee while she watched Marni hammer in the stakes. She couldn’t believe he would do it, yet absolutely knew he would. Teachers were one thing, but not students. And she was the one being told to be fair. She knew she wouldn’t be able to grade. She put her essays in the bag and walked out the door.

A few seniors were at the tables, a couple of others lying in the grass on their phones. Sarah felt like they were watching her, even though they didn’t look up. The weather had started to warm, but she felt herself shiver. She didn’t know how they all seemed so comfortable. Marni was pounding another stake into the ground with a hammer. Sarah didn’t ask what to do, but started to unravel the meshing.

“Did you know that geese sometimes band together when they’re molting?” Marni said, as they worked. “They feel there’s safety in numbers. That could be why they’re here.
They feel that way until, finally, one is able to fly off. But they hate it, hate being grounded. It’s not the way they’re supposed to be.”

Sarah finished unrolling the meshing and started to gather the stakes. “Then why are we doing this?”

“Because once they breed, sometimes it’s hard to get them to leave. The goal is to
make them feel safe, but also uncomfortable. They should only be here a few months
and then they should move on, fly off when they’re ready. They’ll be back though. We’ll
have to do more next spring.”

“Where’s the nest?”

“Over there in the leaves. It’s hard to see it unless you get close. They’re pretty good at hiding things. I’m going to go get some more stakes. I’ll be right back,” Marni said before heading back inside.

Sarah struggled to pull the meshing around a stake, the grass long and wet around her feet. She pulled harder. It didn’t budge, so she pulled hard again. When the meshing slipped out of her hands, she stumbled backwards and heard the crack.

“Shit,” she said, lifting her foot and seeing the broken shell. She couldn’t see what was inside it; she didn’t want to.

She heard the hissing before she realized what was happening. She turned and saw the outstretched wings, the black marble eyes locked on her. She couldn’t tell if it was the mother or the father but knew it didn’t matter. She instinctively took a step backwards, hoping it might just go away. When she heard another crack under her shoe, she knew it wouldn’t. She grabbed one of the metal stakes and held it like a baseball bat. The goose hissed again, then charged, honking as it attacked. Sarah swung wildly, grazing its wing. The goose didn’t seem to notice. She swung again and landed a blow to its body. It came at her again, and Sarah swung as hard as she could, connecting with its head, just as it was about to bite. The goose fell down instantly, gray feathers floating in the air around it. Its breathing shallow, the goose tried to lift its head. Sarah knew she shouldn’t, but she swung down hard, just to be sure. The goose lay prostrate, its black marble eyes still open. Sarah’s chest heaved, the stake shaking in her hands. Sarah turned and saw Marni coming out with the meshing.

“Well that's one way to keep them away,” Marni said, arriving next to her.

Sarah let the stake drop. “I’m sorry—” Sarah said. “I didn’t mean to.”

Marni dropped the meshing and put her arm on Sarah’s shoulder. “I know you didn’t. But let’s get out of here. Its mate is going to be pissed.”

They left the bird and walked back inside, past the students who were recording the whole thing on their phones. Marni sat her down in the faculty room. Sarah’s hands continued to shake. Feathers clung to her hair. She looked out the window, at the students excitedly talking and texting as they made their way to the student doorway. She heard the door open behind her; she didn’t have to look to know who it was.

“I know they wanted to get rid of the geese, but I don’t think they wanted the students to witness murder.” Thad walked by them, taking out his phone as well. “I mean, there is probably a better word than murder. Goose-icide? I feel like I should know such things. Marni, remind me to look it up.”

Sarah could feel her legs shaking under the table, as if they weren’t her own.

“At least nobody took video of it. That would be a shame.” When he turned around, he
was smiling. “Would hate to see anybody’s credibility take a hit over something that shouldn’t be a big deal in the first place. Right, Sarah?”

Sarah started to pull feathers from her hair, before bringing her hands to her face and wiping what she thought was sweat from her forehead. She looked at them, and for the first time, noticed the blood.

“Fuck off, Thad,” Marni said, handing Sarah a wet paper towel. “I’ll let Tony know.
You okay?” Marni asked.

Sarah nodded.

“I never knew you had it in you,” Thad said, after Marni had left. “Wish I had known you could be so feisty.” He took out his phone and started to type.

Sarah wiped her face, the paper towel cool but scratchy on her skin. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she opened them, she saw a goose fly down, land near the lifeless body. It poked around the ground, its beak passing through the leaves. Suddenly, the bird stiffened, like it knew. It looked around, before wildly honking and taking flight.

Mrs. Naples appeared from the student entrance, a few students trailing behind her, pointing to the feathered mess. Mrs. Naples looked at the bird, lifted her foot as if she were going to kick it, before turning around and saying something to the students.
They walked away laughing, and Mrs. Naples headed towards the faculty room.

“Morno!” Thad said.

Mrs. Naples ignored him. “What happened?”

“I stepped on an egg. Then I stepped on another. I didn’t see it. It was an accident.”
Mrs. Naples continued to stare. “I'm sorry. It just started to attack. I didn’t know what
else to do.”

Mrs. Naples sighed, looked at Thad and back to Sarah. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I said to think about what you wanted to do.”

“Do about what?” Thad asked, not looking up from his phone.

Sarah looked at her, knowing that it might be a mistake to say it, but she said
it anyway.

“At least something was done.”

Mrs. Naples opened her mouth as if she were about to speak. Sarah looked from Mrs. Naples back to Thad. He held her gaze before looking way.

“What a mess,” Thad said, shaking his head. “Don’t worry, Boss, Marni’s getting Tony to clean it up.”

Sarah clenched the paper towel in her hand and realized what needed to be done. “No, I’ve got it,” she said, grabbing the trashcan between the two of them.  “It wouldn’t
be fair otherwise.”

Sarah walked back into the courtyard, leaving them both to watch.

 


Brian McVety is a teacher who lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and three daughters. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Old Lady Comedy, Apeiron Review, Blue Lake Review, and New Pop Lit. He can be followed on Twitter @bmcvety.

The Firemonger

by Molly Montgomery

         They say the fires started because of the Firemonger. Depending on which Internet forum you look at, the Firemonger is either a) some sort of fire spirit who, like a fever, is trying to burn out the sources of the world's imbalance (aka humans) b) a chemical weapon dumped in the atmosphere that whips up thunderstorms or c) a cult setting dead trees on fire in various parts of the state to make a profit on disaster relief.

       None of these explanations are remotely correct. It's just climate change, severe drought, and extremely bad luck that has caused the entirety of California to suffocate in smoke for the past year and a half. Still, that doesn't stop me from scrolling through people's posts at four in the morning, reading their crazy theories.

      I'm in my office so I don't wake up my husband, Doug. Mei Li nestles against me, her lips still wet from breastmilk. Lucky her. I can never get back to sleep after giving her breakfast, though every cell in my body screams from fatigue. I can't remember the last time I slept for more than four hours. My eyes itch, my back aches, and if I'm not careful the twinges of pain from my C-section scars will overwhelm me. I have to focus on something else other than the pain, so I hunch over the dim computer screen, whose glow leaves a ghostly trail on my pale skin. If I stare at the screen for long enough, I feel translucent, like I'm not really there.

      I click on the post entitled FOREMONGER SPOTTED? which leads me to my a grainy video of a stand of burning trees. The flames licking the branches curl into what looks like a devilish smile. I snort. What amateurs. My fourteen-year-old niece armed with nothing but a smartphone and a box of matches could create a more convincing video. Not that anyone would ever give matches to children these days. They're illegal, as are gas lighters. Even if you have lighter still, there's no way to buy fluid to refill it. Now you can only use lighters in ventilated phone booths installed next to convenience stores. If you want to smoke a cigarette, you have to stand in there while the smoke unfurls around you, fogging up the windows. Then when you leave it sucks all of the air out of the box, creating a vacuum, so not a single spark or conder can remain. Doug helped program those boxes. I feel proud every time we pass by one of them and see some poor nicotine addict wasting his lungs. My husband made it possible to prevent fires while not infringing on people's freedom to kill themselves slowly. For that, I am grateful. His invention has opened up a life for us that I never even dreamed of as a kid.

      In another post, a meticulous conspiracy theorist has plotted the origin of all wildfires in the past month onto a map. This is quite a feat since there have been more than a thousand, though it is January. The rain should have come by now, but it’s no surprise anymore that it refuses to fall. The person speculates that the ignition points have some sort of pattern to them, that they are all synchronized. He’s written out a bunch of equations— but they are complete nonsense. His theory is absurd, but I can’t blame him. After all, my own research is focused on solving this very problem— modeling fire risk in different areas, so that neighborhoods could be more prepared. That is, if they have the money for it.

      In my last year before I left on maternity leave, I was creating a computer model to try to predict where the next wildfires would strike. I even won an award for my research, but since then more fires broke out and my model was overturned. Someone else, a researcher at Stanford, came up with a better model. I haven’t had time to look at his paper, I’ve been too busy taking care of Mei Li.

      I want to get back to work as soon as possible, and it’s frustrating to not have a set return date. I was planning on telecommuting as soon as I settled into more of a routine with the baby, but that was before the university where I worked and where I stored all my samples burned to a crisp. No one died, thank God, but it will be a while before anyone in my department will be able to get back to their research. Meanwhile, the wildfires keep raging, and research at other universities is surging ahead, while I’m stuck here with my daughter, changing her diapers. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mei Li, but I want to solve the wildfire situation once and for all.

      Mei Li stirs beneath me. She licks her lips and her little pink tongue flicks like a lizard’s. I try to remember why I looked up the Firemonger in the first place. It was a dream I had, from which MeiLi’s cries had woken me. In the dream, I was walking through the forest, holding a can of gasoline. The only light came from the moon. I dug a moat around the roots of a redwood tree and filled it with the viscous liquid. It shined under the moon, lapping against the tree like dark ocean waves. Only when I lit the match did I see the color of the liquid. It was blood.

      The door swings open, and I jerk up in my seat. I had almost fallen asleep. Mei Li starts to wail. Doug peeks in through the doorway.

      “There are you are,” he says, flipping on the light switch. Mei Li continues to bawl, so he picks her up from my lap and bounces her. She settles down. It shouldn’t irk me so much that he can have that effect on her. But it does.

      “The Firemonger?” he asks when he sees my screen. “Really Fei? You don’t really
believe in those conspiracy theories, do you?”

      “They’re entertaining, that’s all.”

      “Right,” he said, and now that Mei Li is calm, he hands her back to me. “Well, I’m off to work. I took a look at the forecast, and the air looks clearer today than it has been in weeks. You and Mei Li should get outside,catch a little sun.”

      “I don’t know,” I say. “Even if the air is better, is it really safe for her lungs?”

      “Her lungs will get stronger from fighting the pollutants,” he said, winking at me.

      I roll my eyes and give him a kiss on the cheek. I lean in and squeeze his hand. Doug doesn’t think about these things, but I do. Inside the fireproof walls of our gated community, we’re safe. But Doug has to travel to the city every day. I wish he could work from home, but he says it wouldn’t look right, since he’s vying for a promotion.

      “I’ll see if I can get this afternoon off,” he says. “We could go to the beach.”

      “It’s January,” I say.

      “Yeah? So?” he says as he grabs his briefcase. “January’s the new July.”

 

      The sky outside is almost blue, just a hint of gray tinges its hue, like we’re looking at the world through the finest wire mesh. The sea breeze has swept through, giving us a respite from the hot, dry heat. Dust swirls in the air, kicked up from the garbage trucks. It’s almost chilly outside, so I bundle up Mei Li in a blanket before placing her in the stroller. As I push Mei Li’s stroller out of the garage, I see the gardener tending to our front lawn. He hooks upour hose to the fifty gallon tank on his truck filled with fresh water. We pay extra for that, but it makes a difference. The plants stay perky and mostly green. Some people think it’s not worth the cost to water the plants, but I disagree. We need the plants to keep us cool, and to keep us cool, they have to be alive.

      I wave at the gardener. Then I realize it’s not the man who usually comes. This man is much older. His scruffy gray beard grows in patches and his dark skin is mottled and sickly looking. As he heaves the hose, he grimaces under its weight.

      “Hello,” I say. “Where’s Rubin?”

      He puts the hose down and sighs. “My son,” he says. “Hospital. Third-degree burns.

      Whole family, children, grandchildren. All burned.”

      I should be shocked to hear these words, but I’m not. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of this happening, nor will it be the last. I don’t watch the news anymore because I’d rather not know just how bad it is out there. It makes me worry too much about Doug and the rest of my family, my five brothers and two sisters and their children, who are out there with no protection. With a pang, I think of how I haven’t called any of my siblings in a while, not even my older sister Ni Ling who I used to talk to every day. It’s hard because they don’t want to talk to someone who lives inside fireproof gates.

      “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say. “Are they going to be all right?”

      “Only the newborn didn’t make it.”

      I clutch the handles of Mei Li’s stroller tighter. “I’m so sorry,” I say again.

      I push the stroller down the street, trying to calm my unbidden thoughts. I hum a little ditty to Mei Li, who is half asleep, blinking silently at me from her cocoon of blankets. I suspect she’s developing slower than normal. She’s a quiet baby. Almost too quiet. The doctor told us not to worry, that some babies are more observers than reactors, and that Mei Li is busy absorbing the world. She might stay like this for a while and then leapfrog ahead, skipping over crawling and going straight to running, speaking full sentences instead of babble. Doug is laid back about parenting. He tells me not to worry, that he was a shy kid and look he’d turned out fine. But things are so much different now. Who knows what the world will look like when Mei Li is an adult? She will need to learn all the skills she can. I can protect her here, but she can’t live her whole life behind a wall.

      Maybe the pollution in the air is affecting her, though we keep her inside most of the time. Just being outside will give her asthma, most likely. But could the smoke from all of these fires burning plastic and industrial building materials cause something worse? Autism? Early diabetes? Brain cancer? I’m not usually one to resort to hysteria. I believe in what the cold, hard data says about risk. But there are too many unknowns these days.

      “Your Daddy is coming home from work early today, so we can all go to the beach together,” I tell her, remembering that the doctor said it helps if I talk her. “That sounds fun doesn’t it? Let’s just hope the water is safe. I checked the forecast this morning and they said the waves are clean enough today for swimming.”

      Mei Li yawns, her little mouth stretching like rubber band.

      “Swimming is just like going in the bath,” I tell her. “Well it’s much, much bigger than a bath. You go out into this place that has water as far as the eye can see. You get to wear your little swimsuit. The one that has monkeys on it? You’ll love it.”

      As I push her down the smooth sidewalk, the sun warms both of us and I start to feel happy. Happier than I’ve felt in a long time. We’ll go to the beach this afternoon, and Mei Li will play in the sand. I’ll be able to lie down on the sand and take a good nap. This thought cheers me up the most.

      Then I start to think of all the chores piling up for me to do when I get home. 1. Pump   2. Give Mei Li her daily dose of vitamins   3. Change her diaper   4. Pack the items for the beach   5. Pay the gardener with our bank app and give him a nice tip. Maybe add a little personalized condolence note at the end. The list never ends and I keep losing track of the items. I’m always forgetting something. Then I start to wonder if I turned off the burner after I made eggs this morning. This is a ridiculous fear. I’m pretty sure the burners turn off by themselves. Still I can’t stop picturing the burners’ flames leaping to the cookbooks on the counter, the fire spreading to the wooden cabinets. Should I turn back, to check if my house is in flames? My breath comes in wheezes. I can’t tell if it’s the air
or if it’s just me.

      “Mommy needs to calm down,” I say to Mei Li, in between coughs. As I clutch my side, my scar starts to twinge again. “Our house is not going to burn down. Mommy is just being silly.”

      I see a vision of the house burning in my mind’s eye. I imagine smoke pouring into the nursery, the smoke alarm ringing. It’s just in my head, but this vision makes me feel more alert than I’ve felt all day long. I think back to the gardener and his family. I wonder if he felt this way when his house went up in flames. Not excited exactly, not thrilled, but wired. Then I remember his newborn grandson died. I look down at Mei Li and feel guilty.

      I hear a car puttering up the street. It’s a strange sound, since the neighborhood usually doesn’t allow cars that aren’t electric. Only visitors drive gas cars. I turn the stroller around and I see a beaten-up blue Volkswagen pulling up at the curb. I recognize it immediately, it’s my sister’s car. She rolls down the window.

      “Fei!” she says. “We were just driving up to your place.”

      My sister is three years older than me, but she had a daughter when she was in her early 20s, who is now in high school. Ni Ling has an exuberant personality that matches her large presence in a room. She was always one of the popular girls, despite being fat. I don’t mean that as an insult. Ni Ling embraces her size. In her youth, she was a plus-size model. Her daughter, Elsie, is built more like me. Skinny and flat-chested, with much paler skin than hermom. She slouches in the passenger seat, her eyes on her phone.

      “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming to visit?” I ask.

      Then I noticed that the backseat of their car is piled high with duffel bags. They must have evacuated.

      “We didn’t have any service on the drive,” Ni Ling said. I don’t believe that for a second. I think she was worried that if she had called, I would have turned her away.

      “Please,” Ni Ling said, “It’s only for just a few days. Our house is away from the epicenter of the fire. It probably won’t burn this time. But we have nowhere else to go.”

      “Of course,” I say. At that moment, Mei Li perks up a little bit and raises her finger at the car. I gasp. She’s pointing to it!

      “Is that little Mei Li?” Ni Ling exclaims.

      “Park my car in front of the garage and I’ll let you in.”

      This is a good sign, I tell myself. Mei Li pointed to the car. Maybe it will be good to have Ni Ling around for a few days. God knows, I could use a break from being the only one taking care of the baby.

      I turn the stroller around and almost run back home, fleeting energy in my heels.

      “Did you see that car, Mei Li?” I ask. “That was your auntie and your cousin in the car. They’re going to stay with us for a few days. Let’s beat them back to the house.”

      I take a shortcut down a walkway between cul de sacs. It’s a good thing we’re going back inside anyway because the wind has changed direction, and ash is drifting down from the sky.

      “No beach today after all,” I tell Mei Li. “But it isn’t so bad because your auntie will play with you.”

      When I get inside, I punch a key to open the air lock on the garage and then I carry Mei Li in my arms and go to greet my sister and niece.

      “My goodness, she is getting so big,” Ni Ling says. My sister has never seen my daughter before in person, so she really has no memory to compare to her current size, but I don’t point that out.

      “I could say the same thing about this one,” I say, patting Elsie lightly on the shoulder. I can practically feel the adolescent angst roiling through her body as she shakes off
my arm.

      “Now Elsie, don’t be rude,” says Ni Ling. “Can I hold her?” I hand Mei Li over to
my sister.

      In her arms, she gurgles. Gurgles! I can’t believe it. “Wow,” my sister says, “She’s
talkative today.” “She doesn’t do that for me,” I say.

      “Oh, don’t worry about it,” Ni Ling says. “She probably just likes seeing new people.”

      I give my sister and niece a tour of the house and then I show them to the guest rooms. I know what Ni Ling must be thinking, though she doesn’t say it out loud. Isn’t this fancy? Who needs these hypoallergenic carpets and filtering systems? She is probably comparing it in her head to the cramped apartment where we grew up, above our parents’ Chinese restaurant, which always smelled like grease. That apartment must be long gone by now, either demolished or burned to the ground. Or maybe she’s thinking of her own house, a quaint, ranch style home out in the countryside with its outdated appliances and no AC. She’s probably wondering if the flames have reached it yet.

      If Ni Ling is worried, she doesn’t mention it. She keeps herself occupied helping me check every single item off my to-do list for the first time since Mei Li was born. She puts Mei Li down for a nap, and then she insists that I rest on the couch while she does
the dishes and makes lunch. Elsie sets up laptop on the kitchen table so she can do
her schoolwork.

      “It’s such a relief to have you here,” I say. “You should have visited sooner.” “

      I would have, if you had invited me,” she says.

      When Doug gets home, I stop him in the driveway before he wonders why there is a
strange, gas-powered car sitting in the usually empty space in our 2-car garage.
I hurriedly explain to him the situation.

      “They have no where else to go,” I say.

      “Really?”

      Doug doesn’t like having guests, especially not my family. He finds my sister overbearing because she’s always giving him advice on ways to be thriftier. Ni Ling doesn’t realize Doug likes to spend the money he has since he can afford to do so. Doug thinks Ni Ling is a cheapskate. He didn’t grow up poor like we did. Sometimes it does feel like a waste to buy such extravagant things, especially when I know people are homeless just outside our neighborhood’s gates. But Doug always says he does enough for “those people” at his work, he doesn’t need to sacrifice for them at home too.

      “It’s only for a short while,” I reassure him, though I can’t be sure that’s true.

 

      For the first week after Ni Ling arrives, I sleep soundly, no longer plagued by strange dreams. My sister has taken it upon herself to be our live-in help, so I now wake to the smell of sizzling bacon and eggs. It’s like when Ni Ling and I were in high school, and she would take care of me and our younger brothers because our parents had to stay at work late. Elsie is as reticent as ever, though I tried to get her to talk about what she likes to do for fun. She just shrugs and says, “stuff you wouldn’t understand.”

      The only time I’ve seen her interested in something other than her phone was when I let her hold Mei Li for a moment while I was folding clothes. Elsie stared right into my daughter’s eyes, like she was searching for some sign of intelligence. I think she was expecting Mei Li to do something, like cry or burp, or flail her arms, but she just sat there, still as a painting, gazing up at her cousin.

      “She’s very young,” I said, almost apologetically. “It’s perfectly normal for her age.”

      “Do you think anyone her age will grow up normal?” Elsie said. “I mean, with everything going on. The ashes give babies brain damage, I heard.”

      “That isn’t true,” I said. “And even if it is, we keep Mei Li safe from the toxins. We only go outside when the air quality is green.”

 

      Their one-week visit stretches to two, then three. Ni Ling’s house survives, but officials in her area advise people not to come back because it is almost inevitable there will be another flare up there in the next few weeks, unless the rain arrives.

      “We’ll just be here until the rain comes," Ni Ling tells me. “It’ll be any day now.”
Ni Ling’s presence is starting to needle Doug.

      “I don’t know how many more nights I can eat Chinese food,” he says to me one night, after we had sex. I want to point out that we had only started having sex again once Ni Ling was around to help me care for Mei Li, but it seems crude to mention it.

      “I’ll ask her to make pasta tomorrow,” I say, as if that solves the problem. The thing is, Ni Ling is starting to get on my nerves too. She is constantly crooning over Mei Li,
petting her and singing to her, never letting me alone with my own daughter. Mei Li loves it, though. Around my sister, she giggles and moves her arms and her legs. Ni Ling even pulled me into the nursery the other day, excited because Mei Li started doing this half-crawl on the floor using one of her elbows to pull herself along. I was so furious in that moment that I wanted to snatch up my baby from the floor and storm outside. But we were in the orange zone that day, and I couldn’t risk it.

      At least I’ve been able to think about work for the first time in months. I have to admit, I like being able to sit alone in my office and not worry about whether Mei Li needs to have her diaper changed.

      I’ve noticed Elsie has started disappearing at night. I saw her leaving one day when I got up to go get a glass of water in the middle of the night. She was strapping on a mask and slipping out the door, sealing the air lock behind her. I didn’t stop her. She’s a teenager after all. You can’t expect a girl her age to stay cooped up in a house with her family forever. I just wish I knew where she was going, who she was meeting up with. Ni Ling doesn’t seem to notice, or care.

      One afternoon, I decide to talk to Ni Ling about her daughter. She has just put down Mei Li for a nap, and gone outside “to get some fresh air.” I wanted to roll my eyes when she said this and point out that the air inside our house was significantly fresher than the air out there ( it was a yellow day— but still! ). After checking that Elsie is deep into her studies— or whatever she does on her computer during the day— I put on a mask and follow my sister outside.

      “Ni Ling—” I start to say, and then I see she is leaning over our empty swimming pool, a match in hand, lighting a cigarette!

      “Don’t start,” she says, when she sees me staring at her, mouth hanging open. “I just have one a day. One. That’s all. And don’t worry, I rinse out my mouth before I go inside. You don’t have to worry about getting any toxins inside your house.”

      “What the hell are you doing?” I hiss. “Do you know how dangerous that is? And illegal! If someone sees you—”

      “Fei, look around you,” Ni Ling says. “The backyard, the walls of your own house, the roof, it’s all perfectly safe. In fact, there’s probably nowhere safer in this entire country to light a match. And it’s just one cigarette.”

      She’s right, and I feel embarrassed by my own panic. My voice catches in my throat, and my body deflates. I slump down onto the edge of the pool, so my feet are dangling. Ni Ling sits next to me. She offers me the cigarette.

      “I really shouldn’t,” I say. “I’m breastfeeding.” My hand absentmindedly rubs my scar.

      “Suit yourself,” Ni Ling says.

      “OK,” I say, changing my mind. “Just one puff.”

      After I take a drag, and let out a contented sigh, I say, “You really shouldn’t have those matches. The outside of the houses are safe here, but not the inside.”

      “And if a fire starts on the inside of a house, even in one of these fancy houses, and it gets big enough, it will spread, just like it would anywhere,” she says, finishing my thought.

      “I know. I read the FPS propaganda too.”

      FPS, Fire Protection Services, is the company Doug works for. They are the ones
who retrofitted our neighborhood to be fireproof.

      “It’s not propaganda,” I say.

      “Listen to yourself,” says Ni Ling. “You’re living in a bubble. You know this can’t last, right? The fires are going to reach you too, someday.”

      After dinner, while Ni Ling is putting Mei Li to sleep, and Doug is watching TV in the bedroom, Elsie appears out of nowhere in the doorway of my office. When I look up and see her, I realize I forgot to talk to Ni Ling about her, I was so distracted. It seems silly now to mention it. I doubt Ni Ling would even care she’s sneaking out.

      “Are you really a famous wildfire scientist?” Elsie asks me.

      I look up from my computer, feeling a little guilty. I haven’t been looking
at my data at all. Instead, I’ve beenmindlessly reading up on conspiracy theories again.

      “I don’t know if I’m famous,” I say. “But my model was one of the most accurate.
That is, until my lab burned down last December.”

      “Do you think the FPS torched it?”

      I frown.

      “I’m sorry?” I say.

      “Well isn’t it obvious?” Elsie said. “Everyone knows FPS is behind most of the fires. That’s how they’re able to raise their stock prices.”

      I had heard this rumor before, but I always dismissed it. There were enough fires from climate change for FPSto profit from without needing to risk starting their own fires and getting sued for it. And why shouldn’t they make a profit on fire safety? There’s a need, and FPS is filling it.

      “And here I thought it was the Firemonger starting the fires,” I said dryly.

      “No, that’s not what the Firemonger stands for at all,” Elsie said. “He doesn’t start fires. He just predicts them.”

      “Oh really?” I ask, my curiosity piqued.

      “If I tell you, you have to keep it a secret,” she says.

      I nod, struck by the serious expression on her little face. She closes the door and sits down at the chair next to my desk.

      “I know the Firemonger.” she says, “He’s real. But he’s not actually setting the fires. He’s more like a prophet. He predicts every fire in advance. He knows where it will start, how long it will burn, everything. That’s why people think he’s an arsonist. But he’s actually just telling the future.”

      “How is that possible? Wouldn’t people use that information to stop the fires?”

      “No,” she says. “Because he only tells people a few hours in advance. It’s not enough time to do anything about it. Plus, his followers don’t care about stopping the fires. They worship fire. They seek it out.”

      “It’s not possible to create a model that accurate,” I say. “Only a network
of supercomputers would be able to handle all those variables.”

      “Maybe he’s just psychic,” she says.

      Part of me wants to laugh out loud, but I hold back. The idea that a person
with supernatural abilities could accomplish with no effort what had been my life’s work makes me feel a bit hysterical. But what if it was a computer model? One more complex and accurate than anything I had ever been able to dream of? I feel a thirst building in my throat.

      “How do you know so much?” I ask. “You’re not going to get into trouble. I promise.

      “I'm just curious. You know that predicting wildfires was— is— my job.”

      “You can’t tell anyone,” she says. “Not my mom. Not even Uncle Doug. Or FPS. Especially not FPS.”

      “I won’t, I promise,” I say. I mean it, too. If I can figure out this Firemonger’s secret,
and replicate it, I would get the credit for his predictions.

      “I joined his followers last month,” she says. “At my initiation, they put this in my
arm.”

      She pulls back her sleeve to reveal a metallic tattoo. It’s a microchip.

      “It allows me to receive his messages on my phone,” she says. “They’re encrypted,
so you can’t read them unless you have the chip. I’ve been going to meet up with other Mongers at night.”

      I am surprised she would confess all of this to me.

      “How have you been gettingout of the neighborhood?”

      “There are others,” she says, shrugging. “I hitch a ride. But there’s a lighting tonight, and no one is around to pick me up.”

      She stares me right in the eye.

      “Will you take me?”

 

      I feel like a teenager myself sneaking out past midnight. Before I meet up with Elsie in the garage as planned, I peek into Mei Li’s room. I’m tempted to stay, to watch her sleep. She looks so peaceful now. But I know she will punctuate the night with her loud crying.
Ni Ling has the baby monitor in her room now. She’ll take good care of her. I stride away before the gravitational pull of motherhood can pull me back in.

      Is this really a good idea? asks the rational, adult part of my brain. Isn’t it dangerous
to drive straight into a potential fire zone?
I have been mulling over Elsie’s theory about the Firemonger for the past few hours, and I can’t help but poke holes in it. If this person is claiming to predict where the next wildfire will strike, couldn’t it just lead to someone setting the fire where it was predicted? That would be the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I asked Elsie about this, she told me I was mistaken.

      “That’s the thing about the Firemonger,” she says. “He makes his followers swear an oath to never start a fire. That’s why we have the microchips too, so he can make sure
we keep our oath. He doesn’t predict arsons. Only accidental fires.”

      “But how would he know if you started a fire or if it was an accident?” I pressed her.

      “You have to see if for yourself to understand,” she said.

      We climb into her mother’s car together. There’s no smoke in the air, and the stars
are crisp and bright. On clear nights, you can see more of them now that most of the city has burned down and the electric grid outside our area has become so unreliable.

      It’s been so long since I left my neighborhood. I have not seen the city in many months. The freeway is still intact— it’s practically indestructible. But you can see the patches of twisted buildings here and there, scattered throughout downtown. We keep driving until we reach the hills. There are bald patches where the vegetation has been wiped clean, like a blank slate. In other areas, the trees and the forest are slowly growing back. Then we head into denser growth, one of the areas that is still untouched.

      I follow the car’s directions as it takes us up steeper, and steeper hills, until finally
we reach an unmarked driveway.

      “Are you sure this is safe?” I ask, for probably the hundredth time that night.

      “The Firemonger won’t direct us to a place in the path of the flames,” she says.
“It would be nice to know where the fire will go after it starts,” I say.

      “He doesn’t tell us that in advance,” she says. “Because someone might profit
from it. He hates FPS— no offense— and he thinks that fire should belong to everyone.
He believes in sharing the information, not to change what will happen, but so we can appreciate what is happening as it unfolds.”

      She sounds like she was quoting some sort of cult text. I wonder how deep this girl
was into this whole thing. I certainly hope Mei Li would never get involved in something like this.

      I follow the winding driveway up to an unmarked house. There are already several people milling in the front yard. We park next to a line of cars, and Elsie gestures for me
to put on my mask.

      “No one is allowed to reveal their identity,” she says. “Just in case.”

      We wait outside with the others in hushed silence. No one says anything at all. As the clock strikes one, the door of the house opens, and we are ushered inside and through a hallway to a living room with a balcony. This one of those old houses in the hills that has been abandoned because of the fire danger. It has a fantastic view though that overlooks the city below. The city is lit up in a strange mosaic, in islands of bright light of neighborhoods like the one where I live next to dark spaces in unprotected areas
where there is still a patchy network of electricity.

      “That direction,” Elsie whispers to me, and she pulls my arm so I face north in unison with the others. She might get in trouble for letting me come with her, she has told me, because I do not have a microchip. If anyone finds out, they’ll kick us out, so I have
to pretend like I am responding to the exact same instructions as they are.

      We are handed binoculars, but when I squint to examine mine, I realize these are no ordinary binoculars. They not only have precise night vision, but they are also linked to a drone that one of the hosts fires up from the balcony railing. It soars off in the direction we are facing, and we all look through the binoculars, a sense of anticipation building.

      I watch, and at first, I don’t see much, just hills. Then I noticed the fast-moving clouds visible on the horizon that seem to have gathered out of nothing. I hold my breath,
and then it hits, the arc of lightning. A limb flashes across the sky, another arcing below. Within a few seconds, a clap of thunder follows, shocking my eardrums.

      “Here we go,” Elsie whispers to me breathlessly, and I barely register the words because my ears are ringing. I’ve seen these dry thunderstorms before. They are one
of the main mechanisms for wildfires starting during the winter. Once they would have carried moisture that would have drenched the fires they started, but now they bring nothing but fury and destruction in their wake.

      Another arc of lightning from the same cloud jolts the sky, but there is no fire visible below. The storm seems to just be warming up. Each strike is more violent than the one before, each thunderclap louder. Then a whooping sound rises from around me, like
a feral war cry. The Mongers are cheering. I see why a second later, when I spot a plume
of dark smoke rising from the hills below.

      What I had found awe-inspiring, even beautiful just seconds before now sent a thrill
of horror rushing down my spine. The hill we are watching, I realize, is just above the free-
way exit we took, only about five miles from my house. I spin my binoculars away from
the smoke, looking to the west, desperately searching for the cluster of light that is my home, my safe neighborhood. I think of Mei Li, sleeping in her bed, and the fire rushing down the hill, enveloping her and my house whole. In that moment, I am terrified, gripped with the vision of the flames spreading down the hill, toppling our fireproof wall
in a tornado, tearing down everything in its path. Doug. Ni Ling. Mei Li. I feel sick
at this thought because by imagining it, a part of me wonders if I am willing it to life.

      “What are you doing?” hisses Elsie in my ear. She grips my arm tightly.

      I hurriedly point my binoculars back towards the smokey hillside, but it doesn’t matter. The clouds have reached us now, and I feel a foreign sensation on my arms. The soft, wet plops of rain battering my skin, first slowly, then harder. Elsie groans, and the others around us sigh, an almost wistful sound. I think I understand now, why they watch
the fires. They feel the same combination of terror and delight. It’s addicting.

      Elsie hands back our binoculars to the host, while I run back to the car to get it started as the rain starts pouring harder. I’m worried that if we don’t get out of there soon,
the streets in these winding hills will wash away, or we’ll be carried away by a mudslide. The first rain of the season is a strong one, a healthy, torrential pour, but it has the potential to turn dangerous since this land is so parched that it has become brittle.

      It’s only when we start driving down the hill, and I’m having trouble seeing out of my windshield despite my wipers that I realize that tears are blurring my vision. I try to hold them back, but they slip down my face anyway. Elsie is slumped in her seat.
She’s too preoccupied in her ownthoughts to notice that I’m crying.

      “Mom and I are going to have to leave now, won’t we?” she asked. “Now that
the rain’s come?”

      “Oh,” I say. After the night’s excitements, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
“I guess so.”

      I think of Mei Li in her bed at home, wailing as Ni Ling gets up to comfort her. With a pang, I realize that I wasn’t there to hear her react to the first sounds of rain pattering
on our roof. The first rain of Mei Li’s life. I let myself dream for a moment of taking her
out into the rain, and letting her play in the puddles, like my brothers and sisters and I once did walking to school on rainy mornings. But then I remember the rain will be acidic, that it won’t be safe for her to play in it. The thought of being left alone with Mei Li in
the house again, after Ni Ling and Elsie leave, feels like drowning.

      I didn’t tell Elsie that before we left the house, when I was getting into the car,
I opened up Ni Ling’s glove box to see what she kept in there. As I fumbled around
in the dark, I found just what I had suspected: a matchbox. I had not used one of those
in years, not since I had to light candles when the power went out in my childhood apartment. Ever since Ni Ling had bought her first car, she always hid her cigarettes
and lighters in it so our parents wouldn’t find them. Now I imagine she puts these matches there to keep them safe from Elsie. She might know better than I do what
her daughter is capable of. Now, as I speed down the highway through the lashing rain,
I reach into my pocket with my free hand and feel for the matches. There’s a dozen in there and though I can’t see them, I can picture their bright round heads, little suns waiting to burn. Better for me to keep them, just in case.

 


Molly Montgomery is a mixed race Chinese American writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches high school English. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has been featured in several literary magazines, including Entropy, X-R-A-Y, Lucent Dreaming, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

The Inheritance

by Marlene Olin

        The first in his family to attend college, Mason Markowitz considered himself a success. A professor of English. Handsome. Fiftyish. Married to an accomplished woman. His kids were nearly grown and his tenure secure.

          But no matter how much he was blessed, a cloud always hovered. He woke every morning and expected the worst. Black skies. Lightning bolts. Reams of pelting rain. He'd open the curtains certain of dread, each sunrise a cosmic test. Like Job, he waited for the earth to cleave.

        And then it did.

        First his mother lost her mind. No, it wasn't dementia. Dementia was something you could grip, something you could wrestle. Instead they called it depression, a kind of PTSD, a misty ghost that haunts the elderly. They've seen it before, they told him. In other Holocaust survivors.  The self-imposed starvation. The hoarding. The past was choking Ruth one memory at a time.

        The problems, of course, were nothing new. Their mother was always different. When the black moods came, she simply hid.  She'd spend days ensconced in her bedroom, too terrified to run to the grocery store or even to drive them to school. At first, there were good times. The episodes few and far between. But as years progressed. the craziness bloomed.

        If life were a stage, his father Yitz was the star. He juggled Ruth's meds, faked her handwriting, took care of both ends of the conversation while she sat mutely by. A regular vaudevillian act, his parents. The puppeteer and his prop.

        Who could have foreseen his death? Yitz prided himself on self-discipline, flaunting his fitness, badgering everyone with details of his diet and exercise. He had no idea how his cellphone worked but could tell you his HDL and glucose levels. But inevitably, inexorably, the curtain falls.

        Was it only a month ago?  An October day just like every other.  Mason's father busied himself with his routine. Lunching at the deli. Nudging the help. Playing backgammon and cards. Then he went to sleep and never woke up. At the age of ninety, a blessing, really.

        Still Mason couldn't wrap his head around it. Somehow he felt robbed.  An orderly progression should have taken place. A diagnosis. An intervention. A plan.

        Instead an incompleteness loomed. Sure a quick death was kind to his father. But where did that leave him?  Instead Mason muddled through his father's funeral.  Only after a week of mourning did reality hit. A mountain full of details had to be tackled, one onerous task at a time.

                                                                                ***

        Yitz's lawyer was nearly as old as Yitz.  Bifocals as thick as a yahrzeit glass. Hands that shook like a compass. Mason doubted Irv Sussman owned a computer. The office was stacked floor to ceiling with files. A massive desk and two chairs. Sussman took one while Mason took the other.

        "I don't need to tell you," said Sussman. " You. You know. Your father was a stubborn man. He should have moved your mother to a nursing home years ago. The transition went smoothly, no?"

        Chalk that up to another disaster. Palmetto Manor was a Miami fixture, the place where Jewish professionals parked their parents. The social workers had pushed it. The doctors insisted. His mother would live in a private apartment with the all the backup she'd need.

        But the move proved catastrophic. Whatever cord tethered to his mother to reality was forever cut. Instead Ruth's mind stayed perpetually airborne, time traveling back to another time and another place.

        "It's like she's back in the camps," said Mason. "Scavenging. I mean she always hoarded. Those little packages of sweetener. Salt and pepper shakers. Entire baskets of rolls. At restaurants, everything went in her purse."

        Sussman nodded. This was a story he heard before.

        "And now?" said Sussman.

        "Now she steals whatever she can find. Usually it's a bag of cough drops. Or a picture frame. But last week it was a watch. She tries to pilfer jewelry all the time."

        Sussman was old enough to know the ins and outs of senior facilities. "And still they keep her?"

        Mason threw up his hands. "We're moving her next week to a Memory Care Unit. Someplace with locks on the doors and eyes on the halls."

        Then suddenly the issue Mason was skirting stood front and center.

        "I need cash, Mr. Sussman. These places cost a fortune. I'm executor of my father's estate, right? I have Power of Attorney. There must be some funds."

        The list was suddenly endless. Money for his mother. Cash for his kids' college. Not to mention his sister. Since his father's death, she had called at least a dozen times
and at least a dozen times Mason refused to answer.

        The air-conditioning hissed and heaved.  Meanwhile Sussman thumbed through a thick stack of papers, licking the tip of his index finger as he worked. "Your father, as you know, didn't believe in savings accounts or the stock market."

        Mason gripped the armrests. "Their house has nothing of value. Green stamp furniture. Green stamp lamps. "

        He remembered the booklets. Sitting at the kitchen table. Filling in the squares.
His sister was three years younger and never stayed between the lines.

        "Aha!" Finally, Sussman found what he was looking for. He thrust out a paper.
"There's a safe deposit box. Here. Your father left a list."

        Mason glanced at his father's handwriting and felt his heart lurch. The mangled English.  The familiar loops and swirls.  He ran his finger over the paper, feeling
the texture, the grooves, the microscopic remnants of his father's touch.

        "Kruggerands. Bullion bars. A five-carat ring." Mason looked up. "This doesn't make sense. My father was a baker." Then he shook the paper in his hand. "How could he possibly own Fort Knox?"

        Sussman sat up a little straighter. Then he ran his long and spindly fingers through what remained of his hair. "Don't judge a book by its cover, Mr. English Professor. Your father wasn't just a baker. He owned bakeries. He was a savvy investor in his own peculiar way."

        "So we're fluid, right? I open the safe deposit box, sell my father's stuff..."

        Sussman held up a finger. "There's one minor problem."

        Mason felt his stomach cramp.

       "Your mother wasn't the only hoarder in the family. Your father. He trusted no one."

        "So what are you saying?" said Mason.

        "I'm saying there's good news and bad. The good news is you're rich. At least rich enough to join a country club, to go to Europe, to take a cruise."  Then Sussman glanced at his watch and sighed. "The bad news is your father liked secrets. I have no idea where this safety deposit box is. There's no key. No instructions. No nothing. Your father's sent you on a treasure hunt, Mason." Then he sat back in his chair, threw his feet on the desk, and chuckled. "The best of luck with that."

                                                                                                ***

        Hours later, Mason found himself in his office. He loved his office. The floor-to-ceiling shelves. The tasteful posters. He felt cocooned in his office, as if he were swaddled by books.  He walked to the outside vestibule where the latest work-study student was handling the phones.

        "I'm not here," said Mason. "No calls. No visits. I may look here but I'm not."

        Then he trudged back, closed the door, and took out his cellphone. Reluctantly, he
dialed his sister's number.

        "Leigh, it's Mason. Give me a call, okay?"

        His baby sister was yet another burden. As hard as Yitz was on Mason, he was the opposite with Leigh. Once when he was in college, Mason wanted to spend spring break in the Bahamas. All his friends at the university planned to go. But Yitz would hear nothing of it. In spite of him, Mason found a way.  He and his best friend chartered a jet, sold two hundred tickets, and with the profits finagled free rides.

        But his daughter was a different story. For Leigh, Yitz emptied his pockets. Nothing was spared. A new nose. A designer wardrobe. Not one but three extravagant weddings. And in the end, what was accomplished? A lifetime spent pinballing from husband to husband and hobby to hobby. Buddhism. Tai chi. Decoupage. Who could keep track?

        The last conversation he had with his sister played like a loop in his head.

        "Dad died last night," he told her. "Mom woke up and found him. She can't believe
he's gone. She thinks he's just taking a nap."

        But he emptied his heart only to be met with silence. Across the lines, miles away in New York City, Mason listened to his sister's soundtrack.  As always, she was restless, opening and closing drawers, the TV blaring in the background, the clink of ice in a glass.  Somewhere deep inside Mason felt an elevator falling and rising, the contents of his stomach working its way up.  The loss of ninety-year-old man was not a tragedy. Yet nothing made Mason lonelier than talking to his sister.

        Then finally, after endless seconds, she spoke.

        "I always thought he'd be here," said Leigh. "To take care of Mom. To take care of everything. You know?"

        Of course, Leigh asked for a plane ticket. And his father would have bought one, no doubt. But when Mason said no, she was shocked. Dumbfounded.  Then she let loose
a string of swearwords that would have made their parents blush.

        To Mason's shock, she never showed up. To her own father's funeral!

        The following days he went through the rituals alone. And as he tiptoed in socks and covered the mirrors and sat on wooden crates, the questions beat like a pulse. Did she even say Kaddish, he wondered? Was a single candle lit?

        When his cellphone rang, he jumped. Leigh's number was on the screen. Mason skipped the niceties and headed straight to the point.

        "I just met with Sussman," said Mason. "Did Dad ever mention a safety deposit box? There must be a key or a receipt."

        "A safety deposit box? she asked. "I had no idea."

        The more Mason thought about his dilemma, the more it overwhelmed him.  When they left the German DP camp in 1948, his parents first moved to Brooklyn.  They didn't move to Miami until years later.

        "Do you have any idea how many banks there are in New York and South Florida?" said Mason. "It's like I'm searching for the Holy Grail. And unless I find some fucking clue, I'll have to contact every single one."

                                                                                        ***

        The idea came to him while writing thank-you notes. Mason was determined to acknowledge every thoughtful gesture people had made on his father's behalf. He was old-fashioned that way. Once again he locked himself in his office. Then he took out his favorite fountain pen, his best card stock paper, and languidly began writing. Every food platter, every five dollar donation to charity, would be accounted for.

Dear Mr. Klein,

        I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude for thinking of me and my family during our time of need. My father spoke about you often. Nobody plays pinochle, like Yutch, he'd say. The tray of rugelach was truly enjoyed. Thank you very, very much...

Dear Mrs. Greenbaum,

  Thank you for your generous contribution to The Bichon Rescue Organization
on behalf of my father. Though I'm allergic to dogs, we all grew up with a sincere appreciation of the satisfaction they brought others...

Dear Trudi and Myles,

  My wife and I so appreciate the tree you planted in memory of Dad. Eretz Israel,
as you know, held a special place in his heart...

        Once again the memories taunted him. His father would send thousands of dollars to The Holy Land. Hadassah hospital.  The Israeli Defense League. And yet they sat year after year on the same plastic covered couches, the rugs ancient, the TV antique.

        And while his father hid bars of bullion, his mother wasted nothing. She'd sit and watch them eat, her mouth chewing with their mouths. Never eating. Always watching. Then hiding in the kitchen later, she'd spoon the last drop in a casserole. Then she'd wash and rewash the plastic wrap normal people threw away.

        Mason was mortified, of course. Not as a child. A child knows nothing. But as a teenager, his eyes were opened. Everything about his parents embarrassed him. He was ashamed of their accent, their clothes, the hand gestures that looped and lassoed the air.

        But when it came to charity, his parents were big shots. Mason could see that now. There was money. There was always money. It just wasn't directed toward him.

        He had combed his parents' house from the ceiling rafters to the spaces behind the kitchen cabinets. Still there was no sign of a safety deposit box. No key. No receipt. Then one day inspiration took hold. He was rummaging through the package the funeral home had sent him. And among the final bills and invoices, was the guest book that stood at the synagogue entrance. There were over a hundred names, many of them not remotely familiar.

        Again, Mason sequestered himself in his office. Then he created a file on his computer and methodically typed each name in. The plan was to search for any
pertinent information.  An address. A phone number. He'd personally thank each
person for attending the service. And then he'd zero in.

        "I'm looking for a Mr. Schwartz. Can I speak to Moishe Schwartz?"

        "You need a divorce?"

        "Is Max Fein at this number?

        "Fein? He used to be fine. But he dropped dead last Tuesday."

        Those whom he was able to reach were invariably deaf. Then one afternoon, after countless tries, with the last of the sun's rays slicing through his blinds, he met success.

        "Herb Kravitz? Is a Herb Kravitz available?"

        "Speaking."

        "My name is Mason Markowitz. I believe you knew my father?"

        "Your father I wasn't crazy about. Your mother I liked."

        The man lived in Boyton Beach, over an hour's drive away. Mason met him on his
turf, a small coffee shop near a strip mall. He looked vaguely familiar, his face like a photograph in a family album.

        A nimbus of frizzy white hair. The face splotched brown and white. The man wore a Lacoste shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. Considering his age, Mason was impressed. Not only was the man upright. He was downright spritely. Herb glanced at his watch.

        "You stole me from my golf game, Mason. What's on your mind?"

        Mason unfolded a crib sheet from his pocket. Then he started with his questions.

        "First," said Mason, "I wanted to thank you for coming to the funeral. Were you close friends with my parents?"

        The man stood up, waved over the waitress, and yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Doris, you need to top my Sanka!  And bring those yellow sweeteners, will you!"

        Herb was either hard of hearing or completely ignoring him. It was hard to tell.

        "Close?  I've known you your whole life. I was at your bris. Your bar mitzvah. Your wedding.  How many times has your sister been married?  I was at those, too. Each
and every one a gift."

        He slurped his steaming coffee in gulps.  Then he stood up, waved his arms wildly,
and beckoned the waitress once more. "I need a bagel with a schmear, Doris.  Scooped and toasted. Don't forget."

        Sitting down, the old man sighed. "I have for you a story. You want a story?"

        Mason leaned forward.

        "Your grandfather and my father were in the fur trade in Vilna. We were wealthy. So wealthy that when the Nazis took over they tipped us off. They were emptying our neighborhood one block at a time. Then one night, a knock at the door."

        Like a thunderclap, the old man rapped his knuckles on the table.

        "Our apartment was next.  We were told to hurry, to shove everything of value into a single suitcase. To stuff our pockets with food. Though it was summer, my mother layered on my clothes. My winter hat. My leather boots. Then they sent my older brother to your grandparent's house with a note. We were to meet at the sewers.

        I still can picture that night. There was a manhole across from the Catholic church. We stood in the shadows and waited.  The moon was full, the steeple of the church reaching to the sky. Finally, a man appeared. If we handed over the suitcase, he'd show us the way.

        Of the twelve people who lived in the sewer, your mother and I were the only children. She was ten, I was five. The water was foul, the smell worse. But being young
has its advantages. I saw everything as an adventure. I could stand upright. The rats became pets. If there was a crumb of bread, I'd give some to my furry friends."

        Mason glanced at the people around him. A room full of strangers were eating, laughing, joking.

        "But Ruth," said Herb. "She wasn't happy. She couldn't sleep. She wouldn't eat. Her mother died in that sewer. And after eight months, when they warned us it wasn't safe, no one knew what to do.

        The plan was to find another hiding place. There was talk of a basement in an employee's home. But the moment they carried me outside, I panicked. Daylight hurt and people frightened me. The honk of cars. The rush of feet.  I wouldn't stop screaming. I was the last person anyone wanted to hide with.

        So in the dead of night, they snuck us out. While the rest of our group made their way to this basement, Ruth and I were sent in the opposite direction. My mother's pearl earrings were her prize possession. She unclipped them from her ears and handed them off. Then we were driven to a farm fifty kilometers away."

        This was all news to Mason. His mother never talked about the war. And Mason was never brave enough to ask.

        "The employee, it turns out, was not to trusted. Later, we learned our families were shot in the pits of Ponary. Meanwhile Ruth and I hid in that farm for the next three years."

        When Mason thought of farms, cows and gingham came to mind. Apple pies
and homemade butter. Christmas in July.

        "There was a old root cellar near the barn." Then Herb clenched his jaw and rapped
on the table hard enough to shake the water glasses. "Not much bigger than this table.
It was cold. Dark. Dank. That's where we hid. Ruth and I. For three long years."

                                                                                        ***

        Frieda Freyling lived with her daughter in Palm Beach.  Both of them had attended the funeral.  Frieda, Mason had been told, suffered a stroke a year earlier. Now she spoke only in Yiddish, the daughter her translator and guide.

        He drove to their home, a lovely Mediterranean house draped with pink bougainvillea. A housekeeper answered the door and ushered him in. The living room was as vast as a hotel lobby. Except for the art on the wall, everything was white.

        A few minutes later, an impeccably dressed older woman wheeled an even older woman into the room. Shayna Wasserman introduced herself. Then her mother bent forward and reached for Mason's hand.

        He stooped to make himself small. And as he was stooping, his head down, his hands on his knees, Frieda ran her fingers over his face. Over and over like she was reading Brail. Then she started crying.

        The daughter pointed to the couch. "Sit. I feel like we're family. There's much to discuss. No?"

        Mason could see that she was used to giving instructions.  A nod to the housekeeper. A finger point to Frieda's aide.

        "My mother knew your father in Warsaw. Did you know that?  When your father died, part of her died, too. She lost her last contact. With her family. Her childhood. Poland."

        The stories were buried but always threatened to surface. Somehow Mason's father
and grandfather survived the ghetto. The trains. The work camp. But Yitz only talked in generalities. Of the details Mason was spared.

        The mother turned and rambled in Yiddish for five minutes. Then Shayna turned back to Mason. "They met in the ghetto. The children ran wild, looking for food, for diversion, for a sliver of normalcy. They played together. Ate together. Prayed together."

        Then again the huddling. Mason looked outside. A huge pool and beyond the pool
the Intracoastal Waterway. The sea was lapping, the sun shining white on the crests.

        "Your father turned thirteen in the ghetto. Instead of a bar mitzvah, they threw a small party."

        This was another thunderclap. Mason had no idea his father was not bar mitzvahed. He waited for this news to percolate, his brain swimming with this extraordinary information. He still remembered the arguments they had when he turned twelve. Mason was steeped in the Beat Poets. He dressed in black and grew his hair over his collar.  And there was nothing he wanted more than to quit Hebrew school.

        They argued and argued but his father insisted. And afterwards, after reading from the Torah in front of two hundred family and friends, there was a lunch to top all lunches. His profile an ice sculpture. His face imprinted in chopped liver. Once again, Mason was mortified.

        Meanwhile, Frieda was playing with the hem of her blouse. She showed Mason the stitches.

        "The mothers sewed all their jewelry into the hems of their clothes," said Shayna. "Rings. Necklaces. Bracelets. And one by one each piece of jewelry was bartered. That day, the day of your father's birthday, your grandmother traded her wedding ring for an orange. They cut the orange into slices and gave a slice to each of the children. My mother made Yitz a birthday card. Someone presented a pair of socks. But the biggest treat of all was that orange."

        Then once again, Frieda began weeping.

        "Some people thought your grandmother was crazy. That she should have saved that ring for a favor or a bribe. But that orange was the most delicious thing my mother ever tasted."

        "A ring for an orange?" said Mason.

        "Looking back, it was the last birthday Yitz would ever spend with his mother.
I suppose she knew that. That orange would be her last gift."

                                                                                        ***

        Six months later it was June, and still Mason was driven. He spent hours on the phone talking to his parents' acquaintances, emailing banks, researching the ins and outs of his father's business. Of course, his family tried to convince Mason to give up the hunt.

        They were at the dinner table. Mason, his wife Miriam, his three teenagers. As usual, he interrogated his children. He asked the kids about their classes and their schoolwork and each diligently complied. It was a remnant from his childhood, he supposed. The nightly inquisitions. The admonitions to work hard and try harder.

        "You see these hands?" his father used to say. Then for the thousandth time he'd hold them out for inspection. Though his father was not a big man, his hands were muscled and callused from kneading bread, from stoking ovens, from lifting heavy sacks.
"At Auschwitz there were two lines. First they put me with the women and children.
But my father drew me by his side. Then they waved me to the left. But my father would have nothing of it."

        "Look at these hands!" he told them. "Are these a child's hands? They're the hands
of a worker! A laborer! These are not a boy's hands!"

        Mason glanced at his fingers. They were soft, white, manicured.  He sipped his tea and nibbled on a cookie, the whole time watching his hands.

        "Mason," said Miriam. "Are you listening? Have you heard a word I've said?"

        Still he stared at his hands.

        When all the dishes were cleared and the children sent to their rooms, Miriam once again spoke.

        "Enough is enough, Mason. We'll make do without your parents' money. We won't be rich but you have a job. I have a job. We'll never be poor."

        Mason looked up. "They're dying. Did you know they're all dying? My father had a little black book. Remember his book?  The one he scribbled addresses and phone numbers in."

        "Mason, that book's what?  Forty, fifty years old?"

        "I've been contacting every person. His friends, his neighbors, his business colleagues. If they're not dying, they're dead. It's a race against the clock."

        Miriam worked in an accounting firm. She knew when things didn't add up.

        "Mason. Your head is not attached to your neck anymore. I need you. Your children need you. It's time to stop."

        He opened and closed his fingers. Then he pictured himself with his grandfather.  Would he be sent left or sent right?

        "Mason," said his wife even louder. She rose up from her seat and stacked the remaining dishes in her arms.  "When this hunt, this quest started, it was all about
a safety deposit box. It's more than that, isn't it? Much much more."

        And that's when he realized that the search wasn't over. That what he was looking for was still out there, begging to be found.

                                                                                        ***

        Of one thing Mason was sure. A piece of the puzzle was still missing. And after sifting through his father's papers, after badgering the accountant, after hounding Sussman daily, Mason was fairly sure that the piece was in Milwaukee.

        It took him weeks to track the man down. But finally he found his father's old business partner. Yitz was nothing but a manual laborer until he hooked up with Morty.  Sure Yitz could bake. And he used only the freshest ingredients. But it was Morty Nussbaum who saw the big picture. Who recognized the cupcake mania before it started. Who insisted on franchising the stores.  He was the one who took AnnaLee Delicious, a mom-and-pop outfit, and made it a household name.

        Now Morty lived in a nursing home in Wisconsin. A widower, he had packed up and moved from New York a decade earlier to be near his daughter.

        "By all means come," said the daughter.  The sigh was audible across the lines. "Morty's body's shut down but his mind still works. He'll appreciate the visit."

        Following the directions on his cellphone, Mason looped the streets until he came
to a red-bricked building. A row of begonias neatly lined the entrance. Inside the lobby, a woman in a smart suit played a baby grand piano. The floor marble. The furniture tasteful.
Things, thought Mason, could be worse.

        Since it was noon, they ushered him to the dining room. Sitting to the side, hidden behind a nest of potted plants, was Morty and his daughter Sue. She looked in her sixties, her gray hair swept elegantly up. The old man was tucked into a wheelchair, a sweater thrown over his shoulders, his hands limp by his sides.

        Before they would talk, a lengthy lunch was served.  Finally, Mason took out his crib sheet. Then he glanced at the questions and crumpled the paper in his hand. "Dad left a safety deposit box," said Mason. "Did he ever mention it? Because I have no idea where
it is."

        The old man nodded. "It'll turn up. I've lived a long time. And eventually, if you live long enough, most secrets, I've learned, come to light."

        Somewhere a clock was ticking. Mason felt his body tense, saw his hand clench, heard his voice boom. And all at once, the months of searching built to a crescendo. "Maybe you don't understand. Dad never bought life insurance. He never anticipated. He never planned. Everything of value is in that box."

        Then the man pursed his lips and scowled. "Everything of value?"

        Suddenly Mason felt a drop in the air pressure. When he looked outside, he saw a hurricane. Flying furniture. A witch atop a broom.

        "My father was so...complicated, " said Mason. "I can't sort him out."   Which Yitz was he supposed to mourn? His father was kind yet cruel. Generous but withholding. A dictator and a clown. Mason loved and hated him both.

        Then all at once the old man started twitching. A spasm started in his fingers and worked its way up.

        "Do you know there was a sister? A baby girl. Before they were herded into the ghetto, your grandparents gave her away. She was beautiful, said Yitz. Blond and blue-eyed. Perfect. They put her in her fanciest dress, combed her beautiful hair, peeled her little fingers from their arms.  Then they passed her over."

        Mason felt all the color drain from his face. "I had no idea. What was her name? Did she have a name?"

        "They called her Anna," said Morty. "Just like the bakery. In her hand was a spoon.
A silver spoon with the date of her birthday engraved."

        Morty started coughing. Was he choking? Mason was sure he was choking.
Still the old man continued.

        "So you see, Mason. Your father had little interest in money. To him, a wallet filled with cash was just a sandbag in a storm. But that spoon?  That spoon haunted him forever. That spoon visited him in his dreams."

                                                                                        ***

        On the plane ride back, Mason fell into a deep sleep. And like a painting on the wall, the still life of his parents' past flashed before him. A pair of pearl earrings. An orange. A spoon.  How could anything else be of any importance? How could anything else compare?

        When he came home, his wife and children were waiting. And in a pile of mail, along with the bills and magazines, was an invoice from a bank. The letter had been forwarded from his parents' address. It had probably been in mail purgatory for weeks.

        Dear Mr. Markowitz,

        "This is to inform you that the yearly rent for your safety deposit box is overdue.
        Please contact us and remit as soon as possible. Your business is our business!

        The folks at Poughkeepsie National."

        Months passed. And it would occur to Mason, when his mother was settled, when his sister was mollified and his parents' house sold, that the quest was far from over. Somewhere, perhaps in Poland, lived an aunt. And who knows?  Perhaps a boatload
of cousins as well. She may or may not be alive. She may or may not know who she
is or whom she belonged to.

        Still Mason swore to find her. At the least, he'd find the spoon.

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. She is the recipient
of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.
Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.

Three on Two

by Stan Lee Werlin

Deep in the third period the ACE line is half-way through its shift and the crowd is unsettled, cranked with nervous tension. Behind his net Alex “Ass” Alessandroni
stops on a dime, a sudden cascade of white ice shavings flying off his skates into
the deadened boards.

The countless pockmarks from skates, sticks, headgear and collisions with heavily padded knees and elbows are barely visible to the crowd stand-ing at their seats and screaming for a goal to tie the game and send it into over-time. The season is nearing an end and the team is on the edge of a third straight year missing the playoffs.  They need to run the table: pull out this game, take the next two, hope the team ahead of them in the standings stumbles and drops a game.

The zealous hometown fans are frustrated, weary, and their raucous catcalls let the players know it even as they root the team on.

Alessandroni is good at tuning everything out. He knows the ice as well as he knows his own body, the distance to each of the two blue-lines, the time it takes to cross the huge neutral zone face-off circle when unimpeded, the angles of approach to the opposing goal-tender 180 feet away at the far end of the rink.

Taking in the positioning of his teammates in their traditional uniforms of yellow-
jacket gold with black accents and the opponents in their hated red and white, his mind instantly calculates the probable geometry of the play setting up in front of him and the fluid ways it is most likely to change depending on what he does and how the players on the ice react. For Alessandroni that kind of vision is mostly instinct. It’s a rare talent, a precious gift that causes others to marvel, and he knows it.

He senses immediately that the other team’s defensemen are cautious, backing into a protective posture. They’re good at holding late game leads. The line they’re up against, though, the center and both wings, they’re aggressive forecheckers known to pressure an attacking team starting out of their own end of the ice to try to force a costly turn-over.

Maybe Alessandroni can induce an error from them. He digs the puck off the netting at the back of the cage where it has come to rest and settles it flat on the ice, caressed in the barely curved blade of his meticulously taped stick. He tapes it only at the heel and in the center of the blade, a superstition he’s followed ever since his first goal in the NHL. His linemates Kevin Cavanaugh and Buzz Evans swoop in from each side of the rink, criss-crossing in front of their goalie to build up their speed. The repetitive sound of their skates cutting into the ice is like the cadence of scythes mowing down a field of hay only faster, much much faster.

It is somehow both graceful and soothing, entirely unlike the violent, chaotic game they play. They both look back at Alessandroni, ready to receive a breakout pass that will start the attack.

**********

Vickie Alessandroni cups her hands under her chin and tilts her face upward in a mega-phone pose. “Let’s go boys!” she yells, “Go! Go! Go! Get up ice!” Next to her, Cassie Evans is fussing with her cell phone camera, ready to take video when the action nears. Cavanaugh’s latest girlfriend Izzy is seated a row behind them, a few seats to their left. The players’ wives and girlfriends and guests are sitting together in the cushiony loge seats at center ice for this game, not high off the ice in the team’s plush suite with the boringly buttoned-down executives staring at computer screens filled with spread-sheets offering mind-numbing advanced hockey analytics:

Corsi, Fenwick, WOWY and more, a slew of elaborate player statistics and sophisticated quantitative performance assessments that would hypnotize even the most rabid of fans.

No, they simply like to be close to their men, on top of the whirlwind action, watching the harsh crunch of bodies colliding as the players chase the puck and deliver bruising body checks and hack at each other with their sticks just softly enough not to draw a penalty. The brief grimaces of pain the women glimpse behind the players’ protective face visors don’t unnerve them so much as energize them. It’s a tough game and their men have to be able to stand up to it, don’t they? The stats don’t measure grit.

Cassie leans toward Vicky and has to shout in her ear to be heard over the rapidly increasing cheers of the crowd. “You think Izzy knows about Casanova?” she asks, nodding her head backward slightly in Izzy’s direction.

Vicky doesn’t know if Cassie uses Cavanaugh’s nickname innocently or to get under her skin. It evokes images of last summer she wants to suppress, and for some reason right now it irritates her.

“What? His fun-loving rep? Sure she does. How could she not?” Vicky pauses. “Oh. You mean about Kevin and you?” she rasps out. “What could she know, unless he told her?” They exchange a lingering private look.

Cassie arches her eyebrows at Vicky. “Not only me,” she replies with a crooked grin.

**********

Alessandroni feints once in each direction before carrying the puck from behind the net and straight up ice directly in front of his goalie. His defensemen settle in safely behind him, prepared to jump into the play if an offensive opening materializes.

His outlet pass goes to Cavanaugh on the left wing midway to their own blue line, a crisp tape to tape laser that Cavanaugh gathers in and cradles easily, the sound on his stick a loud rifle report audible throughout the stadium.

His wings are among the fastest skaters in the league, quicker than their counterparts. He’s counting on them to out-skate the opponents shadowing them and gain the inside position driving through center ice.

Casanova, he thinks, carry it up a few strides and then give it back to me. Their eyes meet for just an instant in a silent exchange that confirms what will happen next.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans have played together for three years as the team’s top line. They know each other’s moves so well that at their best their positioning and passing is as smooth as precision choreography, almost balletic.

Or do we?, Alessandroni thinks as he charges forward. His mind flickers to his wife for a fraction of a second. He knows she’s at center ice, her eyes focused sharply on the play. Casanova, buddy, do I really know your every move, or have you put something over on me? He senses even before he sees Cavanaugh’s stick move that the puck is about to come back to him in a saucer pass through the air a few inches above the ice surface, the rhythm of the play uninterrupted. Concentrate, Alex, he thinks to himself.

**********

“Nothing ever happened Cass!” Vicky whisper-shouts over the crowd noise.

“Bullshit”, Cassie mouths back. “Does Ass know?”

Vicky is rueful. What’s the point in continuing her half-hearted deceit any longer? She as much as admitted it to Cassie months ago. She’s a trusted friend. They each know most of the other’s secrets. “He suspects. He asked me outright just before the first game this year. Of course I denied it. ‘I have to skate with this guy all season, Vick’, he said. I don’t think he believed me. There was this look in his eyes like he was pleading.

I just couldn’t tell him. It was so dumb to do it. I don’t know…that lopsided Kevin smile, the way he tilts his hips at you, maybe all that booze at the beach. Over before the season started.”

“I know,” Cassie said. She turns around to contemplate Izzy who’s waving her arms wildly and shouting “Whoo! Kevin! Skate! Don’t go downsides!”

“He’s sure not bonin’ her because she’s a student of the game, is he?” Cassie laughs. “She’s cute, though. Tight body. I give it a month with him.” Eyes back on the ice. “Here they come.”

**********

Cavanaugh steals a glance at the scoreboard overhead to catch the digital clock count-ing down the remaining game time. More than enough to regroup and get their goalie to the bench for a sixth skater if the play gets broken up. He gauges the distance between the opposing center and Alessandroni and then sends the puck back to him with a soft airborne pass calculated to tempt the opponent into trying to intercept it but keep the puck safely out of reach. They’ve done this a thousand times in practice. As soon as the opponent sees that Cavanaugh will back-pass he takes the bait, drops to a knee and whips his stick down flat on the ice, arcing it toward the puck with a quick sweep check to try to knock the puck off path and away from Alessandroni.

It doesn’t work. Just like that, the puck is back on Alessandroni’s stick and the opposing center is scrambling to get to his feet.  Now fifteen feet behind Alessandroni, he’s lost all skating momentum. He and the crowd and Alessandroni all know he won’t recover to get back into the play. It was exactly the mistake they needed.

In an instant,  a genuine 3-on-2 break looks possible.

Alessandroni is now alone, crossing his own blue line with the puck. Cavanaugh and Evans each accelerate past the opposing wingers, shrugging off their harmless stick checks, establishing the position they need.

A second later, the ACE line is in a classic 3-on-2 formation, Alessandroni at the top
of the triangle, Cavanaugh and Evans bear-ing down on the defensemen skating back-ward toward their own goalie and staying low to the ice in strong athletic posture, ready to dart in any direction.

Yvan Therrieu, their colorful French-Canadian coach, has schooled them for this brilliantly. They’ve watched films of the old Montreal Canadiens teams of the 60’s executing perfect 3-on-2s over and over, seemingly scoring at will. There was
never a team better at this part of the game in the entire history of the National
Hockey League, getting over the blue line, wings tying up the defensemen as they
drove to the net, the drop pass to the wide open center iceman barreling down
the slot and closing in to shoot. Now it’s do or die time. They’ve got to produce.

Alessandroni, Cavanaugh and Evans are skating hard through the neutral zone
at center ice past the player benches as the crowd sees the 3-on-2 develop.

Their second line center Gord Tkachuck shouts encouragement from the bench
as Cavanaugh flies past him on the left wing. “You guys get this one, we’ll get the
game-winner!” The women are invisible in the stands as the play rushes by in a
blur, Izzy jumping up and down with a non-stop “Yah! Yah! Go Kev Go!”, Cassie
taking video, Vicky intent on watching the angles and projecting the way the play
will shape up in the next two make-it-or-break-it seconds.

All three linemates hear the unmistakable full-throated call from Coach Therrieu that marks so many offensive rushes every game: “Vite! Vite!” Quickly, quickly! “Vite! Vite!” Evans knows the play; he’ll get the puck from Alessandroni just as he reaches the
opponents’ blue line.

Everything has to be executed at top speed.

The whole season is riding on the ACE line now. For reasons Evans can’t begin to fathom his mind flashes on their public persona. He’s the quiet one with the low key personality. He hates the spotlight and gives perfunctory, predictable athlete interviews. Skate hard, focus, keep to the game plan, stay positive, they’re a good team but if we play up to our capability we can beat them…Ass is the one who wants the glory, the credit for being a great playmaker, the adoration for scoring flashy high-light reel goals.

Ass the arrogant. He’s chasing the big contract when he becomes a free agent after
the season ends. Chances are high he’ll sign with another team: it’ll be the end of the ACE line.

Casanova is, well…Casanova. Sleeps with the groupies. Takes whatever comes
from flirting with teammates’ women. Flamboyant personality. Gives great stream
of consciousness interviews sitting at his locker after games, interviews that Ass
watches with a mixture of admiration and dark brooding jealousy. The same Ass
who right on cue just head-faked left and fired a perfect pass to Evans flying down
the right wing.

**********

It was Evans who took Coach Therrieu aside months earlier as soon as he heard it from Cassie. He still isn’t sure he should have done it. In some ways it felt like a betrayal of confidence, a soiled revelation. How do you balance that personal uneasiness against the needs of the team, the delicacy of human relationships, the huge sums they get paid to selflessly give their all and become professional scoring machines once they take the ice?

“Are you sure, Cass?” he had asked before seeking out the coach. “From Vicky herself? You’re not just maybe reading too much into harmless flirtation? Vicky can be a real cock-teaser.”

“Casanova told me,” she answered. “Not Vicky. Bragged about it, really. ‘Screwed Ass’s wife at that beach party in June’, he said, ‘Again last month before she said no more. Buzz and I do the heavy work, Ass hogs the puck and gets the glory. Vicky, she’s just payback. He deserves it’. His exact words. So I asked her about it. ‘He’s got a great body’, was all she would say.”

“Why would he boast about it to you? Tryin’ to make you jealous, lookin’ for another
go-round maybe?”

“Buzz, c’mon. Casanova and me, sure, we had our good times before you came along. That’s a thing of the past now, dead and buried, and he knows it. But he still likes to
take me aside once in a while like I’m his confidante, tell me he’s still in play, let me
know what I’m missin’. Great player but can’t help himself. Still just a kid chasin’ tail.
His cross to bear, not yours.”

“No, Cass. On that you’re wrong. We’re all in it. We are definitely all in it.”

Coach Therrieu’s office door is closed when Alessandroni wanders past and spots Casanova in the office with him, shoulders sagging under the weight of a harsh tongue-lashing. “We need you guys to be together in every way this year on the ice and off, n’est-ce pas? You understand? Team chemistry above all! If I have to break up your line there’ll be hell to pay! You want to move in on the girlfriends, that’s your business Casanova. But the wives are off limits. Laissez les femmes seules! Laissez les femmes! Is that clear enough?”

By the time Cavanaugh opens the door and steps out, Ass is gone, pondering what he overheard. There’s a deep scowl on his face that twists the fading rows of stitches on his chin and cheeks into an ugly mask.

**********

Alessandroni’s pass to Evans is another flawless laser timed exquisitely, catching
Evans in stride just as he reaches the offensive blue line. On the left wing, Cavanaugh jukes sideways and drags his rear skate along the blue paint to ensure he does not precede Evans into the zone. The puck has to cross the line completely before any attacking player has entered the offensive zone or the play will be ruled offside and whistled to a stop, and it does. They’ve nailed it.

The geometry of the 3-on-2 is now like a moving human isosceles triangle closing in on the net. Evans’s drop pass to the trailing Alessandroni just inside the blue line is a well-executed thing of beauty that has the fans already rising from their seats. Alessandroni picks up the puck and cruises unimpeded straight down the center of the attacking zone toward the opposing net. His counterpart nine or ten feet behind him backchecks futilely trying to throw him off stride, flailing at Alessandroni with his stick, catching only air. The opponents’ defensemen are helpless, prevented from driving into the slot and closing it off by Cavanaugh and Evans’s dominating size and muscular inside positioning.

The GM, the off-ice coaches, the scouts are all watching from the team’s suite
high above the ice in their state of the art stadium, all concrete and padded comfort,
vast and sterile, nothing like the original arenas and their stiff wooden seats. Those places had personality: Boston Garden with its first and second balconies practically hanging over the ice surface; Chicago Stadium with its analog penalty timers and the throbbing of its impossibly loud pipe organ; the venerated Montreal Forum where the fans attended games in suit and tie. They also had drifting clouds of smoke, obstructed view seats, wretched air conditioning, dim lighting, garbled sound, and sometimes, late in the season, when the playoffs were underway, fog on the ice.

The new generation of execs expects to be pampered: multiple TV feeds, video replay, gourmet food service, in-suite kitchen and bathroom facilities. Welcome to the high tech, high finance worldof contemporary professional sports.

None of that matters right now. They’ve shared the coach’s concern about the fragile chemistry of the ACE line all year. Mostly, the line has held together well. Game in and game out, made strong aggressive plays. Performed better than last season. Leads
the team in scoring. Solid defensively.  The dark undercurrent of difficulties between Alessandroni and Cavanaugh hasn’t surfaced in public. There’s been no media or press speculation. The locker room scuffle early in the season when Evans separated Ass and Casanova was intense but brief. It stayed private, no harm done.

The players refused to talk about it. Still, there’s been a persistent low wattage negative vibe, elusive, nothing anyone chose to put a finger on, just something percolating under the surface that has remained there for months. There’s never been a thought of breaking up the line, let alone a more extreme consideration like trading one of
the players. And now, here it is playing out on the ice below them, the last chance
to keep the season alive,a few seconds squarely in the hands of the ACE line.

Cavanaugh bangs his stick twice on the ice, hard and insistent, the signal he’s open
and wants the puck. Alessandroni has to decide instantly – thread it in to Cavanaugh
for a possible tip-in past the goalie or a deft deke that gives Cavanaugh a completely open net for an easy goal, or keep the puck to unleash an unimpeded slap shot. The pass is the riskier play. No glory for you on this one, Casanova.

Alessandroni cruises in alone from the blue line. Fifty feet. Forty feet.

The opposing goalie leaves his crease, gliding directly toward Alessandroni, squared
up to him. His pads, stick, blocker and catching glove loom ever larger in Alessandroni’s field of vision, creating a wide, imposing profile to cut down the shooting angles in an
effort to give the rapidly approaching shooter nothing to see and aim for, pressuring
him to take a high risk shot at the barely visible corners of the net. Alessandroni, the team’s best sniper, can hit the corners in his sleep. He raises his stick behind him, the blade above head height, threatening a slap shot at 100 miles per hour.

At that speed, the vulcanized rubber puck will be an unstoppable lethal missile cover-
ing the short distance between the shooter and the goalie in just over one-tenth of a second. There is no human reaction time now, just a set of divergent possible results.

The puck could hit the goal-tender, or miss him and rip into the net at the corner of Alessandroni’s choosing for a goal that sets off a wild frenzy of celebration, or fly
wide and smash into the protective glass or boards behind the net. It might strike
the bright red metal crossbar or one of the goalposts and continue into the net for
a goal, or it might carom away from the players harmlessly or drop down into the
tangle of bodies in front of the net where it could deflect in off a leg or arm or skate
for a goal, or skitter off into a corner or be buried under a body to end the play with
the harsh shriek of the referee’s whistle. All of these futures are about to collapse
into one.

Alessandroni winds up to take the shot. It is a violent action, shooting a puck at
this speed toward another human being, fierce, uncompromising, unmerciful.

In a final effort to fuse desire and determination into pure athletic focus, Alessandroni envisions Cavanaugh’s chiseled features on the surface of the puck. With a slight change of direction and lift, too subtle for anyone to see, he could fire the puck at Cavanaugh’s head.

No one can control a slapshot in today’s high speed game, he imagines the comment-ators saying as they replay the video again and again, the shot just went awry. At that short distance, the impact was bone-breaking. The helmet saved his life. Cavanaugh is
a lucky man tonight.
That vision he has of Vicky and Cavanaugh naked together, bed-sheets askew, their skin glistening with sweat, her hand tracing a line down Kevin’s rock hard quadriceps has never left him.

He drives the blade of his stick toward the frozen black disc, meeting it flat and hard slightly in front of his body where the laws of physics pinpoint the exact location of maximum force. In his mind, time slows to a crawl. The decibel level in the stands skyrockets. Eighteen thousand fans are propelling themselves upward from their
seats, leaving their feet, anticipating, their arms prematurely beginning to fly above
their heads in that unmistakable reflex of triumph, the way hockey goals are always celebrated. They are already halfway to a thunderous ovation that will shake the
stadium from floor to ceiling if the ACE line ties the game.

It all happens so quickly. Alessandroni hears the unmistakable harsh thunk of the
puck on metal, a sound so loud it reverberates through the entire arena, rising
above even the cacophony of the screaming fans. The puck deflects downward
off the crossbar, bouncing crazily and spinning on the ice surface in the crease
behind the goalie, rolling perilously close to but not entering the gaping four by
six foot rectangle that is now a wide open net. The puck is a black hole vacuuming
in the attention of everyone who can see it, waiting to be tapped in to the net to
tie the game or to be batted away by the desperate defense.

The fans behind the net are delirious, shouting, pounding on the protective glass. Instantly everyone converges in the goal crease - the defense-men, Cavanaugh,
Evans, the trailing opponent wingers, the goaltender.

The sheer tangle of bodies obscures Alessandroni’s vision of the net as the players wrestle each other to the ice surface in a flailing mass of arms and legs and sticks
and skates. The referee is positioned perfectly a few feet to the side of and slightly behind the cage where he can see the entire play and follow the fate of the shot.

He begins to make a waving motion toward the net with his arms, peering in
to find a glimpse of the puck, looking for a round black edge, ready to signal.

 


Stan Lee Werlin's short stories and poetry have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Review, Sheepshead Review, Prime Number, Glassworks, Futures Trading, Soundings East, Saranac Review, Bacopa Literary Review, Zone 3, Gargoyle, Reunion, The Write Launch, Waymark, Blind Corner, Dark Elements, The Louisville Review and Roanoke Review. His humorous children's poetry has been published in numerous children’s magazines and anthologies. He was a Harvard undergrad and received an MBA from The Wharton School. Stan enjoys competitive singles tennis
and is a lifelong fan of the Boston Bruins. You can follow him on Twitter at @natsnilrew.