The Shooting Star
Jude frowned as he turned over in his bed. With great effort, he stood up and walked quietly out of his bedroom to the living room. It had been a few hours since he had gone to bed, but it was one of those nights where his worries kept him from sleeping. His roommate Renée was sleeping on the couch. A show about murder was still playing on the TV. Whenever she couldn’t sleep she’d sit on the couch and watch TV until she passed out. Jude would often wake her up whenever he couldn’t sleep. Sometimes they would stay and talk for a while as he hunted through the kitchen for a snack, and sometimes she’d immediately stumble off to her bedroom. Jude walked over to her and looked over to the kitchen, the time on the oven read 11:52. Almost midnight. He looked back at Renée and decided not to wake her. She’s probably tired of listening to my problems. She had her own issues to worry about.
Renée was going to be moving out in a few months, into her boyfriend’s place. He was going to miss her desperately. He loved having somebody around the apartment, whenever she was gone he felt inconsolably lonely. Jude still sometimes felt empty with her around, or even when they had friends over, but she couldn’t help him with that.
Jude went back into his bedroom and sat down on the corner of his bed, bending over to hold his head in his hands. Jude was desperate for somebody to talk to, but he wasn’t sure who would be awake at this hour. He had to do something, he felt wide awake and knew he wasn't going to fall back asleep anytime soon. He stretched to grab his phone from the nightstand. Scrolling through his contacts, he stopped at Sam.
It had been a few months since they last saw each other before Sam broke up with his long-time girlfriend. They had always talked about driving to the beach at night and looking at the stars there but in the years they had known each other never actually went through with it. Jude put his phone down to wipe his sweaty hands on the sheets before calling Sam. Maybe this would be a good opportunity to finally have That conversation he had been putting off. The phone rang until it went to voicemail. It was a stupid idea, I wouldn’t have told him anyway. A few seconds later he jumped when the phone started to ring.
“Is everything okay?” Sam sounded exhausted but concerned.
“Oh! Yeah, everything is okay.” Jude let a few seconds of silence lapse, his heart pounding. “I was wondering if you… uh, wanted to go to the beach tonight. You know, like we’ve always talked about. Just us.”
“Oh.” Jude took a breath and rubbed his hand against his leg. I bet I sound like a dumbass right now. It was a few seconds before he got a reply. “That sounds like fun, actually. As long as you don’t mind driving us there, I’m still ready to go back to sleep.”
“Of course. I’ll see you soon.” Jude put his head back in his hands and let out a breath. He wasn’t sure if he felt relieved or not that Sam had said yes to his proposal. He sat there for a few minutes. Shit! I still have to get ready. Jude scrambled for his things and walked quietly past Renée to the front door.
Jude and Sam walked down the sandy parking lot to the beach carrying some towels and a cheap six-pack of beer that Sam had been smart enough to bring. They had been in the car for over an hour, Jude wanted someplace far away from the lights of the city. They hadn’t talked much during the ride, it was somewhat awkward seeing him again after a few months. The distance between them wasn’t intentional, at least Jude hoped it wasn’t. He had wanted to give Sam some space after his breakup, but if he was being honest with himself, it was sometimes difficult being around Sam, not knowing if any of his feelings were reciprocated.
They spread the towels out onto the sand and looked at the ocean. Jude looked up, the sky was clear. They were able to see more stars than he expected to. After sitting down he took his shoes off and started running his hands through the sand. This wasn’t going as he imagined it would in his bedroom, in particular, how awkward it was. They both sat down and looked at the ocean in silence for several minutes.
“I’m sorry we haven’t spent time together in a while,” Sam said.
“Yeah, me too.” Jude stretched out onto the towel, laying his back flat upon it. “We used to see each other every day while we were in school.”
“We used to stay up later than this every day too,” Sam said. Jude laughed, and they began reminiscing about college. The anxiety Jude had been feeling melted away as they kept talking and laughing together. It was nice hearing Sam’s voice again, it was soft and gentle, and Jude always enjoyed hearing him speak. After what felt like hours joking and just talking, they settled into a comfortable silence.
“Ah! Did you see that?” Sam asked. A shooting star had flashed overhead for only a second.
Jude had seen it and had made a wish, but he felt stupid for doing so. I wish I’m able to tell Sam how I feel. Jude didn’t know what time it was, but they had to have been there at least a couple of hours. If he didn’t say anything now, he didn’t know if he ever would. They laid there for a few minutes longer in silence, Jude only listening to the waves on the shore and his own pounding heartbeat.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you for a while.” Jude started, then swallowed. His throat felt dry. “But there hasn’t really ever been a good time.” I don’t know if this is a good time either, we still have to drive home together. From the corner of his eye Jude could see Sam looking at him, but Jude focused on the stars above him, trying not to lose his momentum.
“I think I have-” Jude cleared his throat, “I have had feelings for you… for a few years now. I’ve always wanted to tell you… but it never felt like a good time.” Jude took another breath and rubbed his fingers in the sand again to focus. He was a little tipsy from the beer. Sam still hadn’t said anything. “I’m not telling you this because I expect anything to happen, but I just want you to know. I want to start being more honest.” Jude concluded and looked over. Sam was still looking at him, after a few seconds, he turned his head back to the sky.
“That’s a good goal,” Sam told him. “Being more honest.” He adjusted and moved his hand closer to Jude’s, where they were almost touching each other. “I feel like I haven’t been great at that either, including to myself.” Sam rested his fingers on top of Jude’s and started rubbing his thumb against the top of Jude’s hand. “I don’t know exactly what I am,” Sam continued, “but I know I really enjoy spending time with you, Jude. And I’d like to do that more. In… a romantic way or not.” Sam finished awkwardly.
“Yeah,” Jude said, turning to Sam and moving closer. “I think that would be nice. Seeing how it goes… romantically.” Jude folded his hand in Sam’s, giving him a firm grasp. Sam squeezed back as they lay there, both looking at the stars. Jude smiled, things still weren’t perfect but at that moment, it felt like they were.
The Ringing of Bells
The first flakes hit the windshield of the rented car around 10:30 a.m. and were so faint and innocent that no one even thought to notice them.
“We’re going to see Santa Claus!” Mirabel Peterson chirped from her car seat in the back of the station wagon.
“Not quite,” Mr. Peterson said with a chuckle without averting his eyes from the mountain road that curved out ahead from where he drove. “It’s only called the Polar Express, remember? The train runs between Durango and Silverton.”
Christopher Peterson rolled his eyes but turned toward the car window so that his mother wouldn’t catch the expression from where she sat in the passenger seat diagonal to him. “It’s not even anywhere close to Christmas. This is stupid.”
“Language,” Mrs. Peterson called back without turning to face him. Christopher bristled in his seat but settled back with a silent huff, crossing his arms.
“I’m just saying,” Christopher added under his breath. “I don’t understand why we came out here for some dumb train ride. We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“Wrong!” Mr. Peterson trumpeted from the driver’s seat. “We’re in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Do you know what that means, Mirabel?”
Christopher saw his parents exchange amused expressions. “Not quite,” Mr. Peterson said in a voice shaky from laughter. “Christopher, you want to take a shot?”
Spotting a sign out the car window warning drivers to ‘Beware of Avalanches!” Christopher shuddered internally and mumbled, “It means we’re going to die in a rock slide.”
Mr. Peterson shook his head. “Wrong again. Delilah?” He faced his wife briefly before recalling his attention to the road.
“It means adventure!” Mrs. Peterson said in a mock-excited voice that made Christopher cringe.
“Bingo!” And Mr. Peterson slapped a hand enthusiastically against the side of the steering wheel. “We’re on an adventure, kids. You don’t see mountains like these in Phoenix.”
“Adventure!” Mirabel squealed, which made Christopher squeeze his eyes shut, trying to block them all out.
“Yeah,” Christopher said in a muted voice. “Sure, whatever. Mom, can I have the tablet?”
“Eyes on the scenery, honey. Real-life entertainment going on out there.”
Christopher wanted to disagree but knew it was no use. His parents were set on giving their kids an authentic family experience, and there would be no getting out of it. He pinched his lips together tightly, and gazed out the window, half-heartedly taking in the ‘real-life entertainment’ his mother had spoken of.
As much as he hated to admit it, and would never dare say aloud to his parents, the mountains were spectacular to drive through. Looming walls of stone reaching higher than he could see rose out of the ground to the left of the car, while to the right nothing more than a short barrier separated their car from a depthless plunge to oblivion. Beyond the drop-off, however, was a meadow of pine trees whose branches didn’t reach the height at which the Petersons drove up the mountain, and so Christopher was able to see beyond the peaks of the distant forest a great expanse of earth, encompassed by a smattering of small Colorado towns broken up by even more wooded areas.
His dad was right: there certainly weren’t views like that in Phoenix. Not that it made up for the pointless excursion they had all taken off on.
Next to Christopher in the back seat of the car, Mirabel had leaned as far over the plastic rim of her car seat as she was able, pressing her face up against the fogged up glass of the window. She looked like she was trying to find a way to phase through the glass and escape to the other side, and Christopher shook his head at his younger sister, embarrassed in his own way for the innocent wonder that wove through her without question.
The drive was a little over an hour-- or so Mr. Peterson had claimed. As such, they were supposed to reach Silverton just before lunch, which would give them enough time to eat in town and walk around for a while before their festive train was set to depart from the station back toward Durango at 1:00.
Christopher had thought his dad had been joking when he had told them that they would be riding the Polar Express, but then he had used the tablet his parents let him share with his sister to look it up and found the attraction to be real. A train out of childhood fantasies, fashioned to look exactly like the one said to traverse on Christmas Eve all the way out to the North Pole and back, only this one resided exclusively along the mountains of Colorado.
Mirabel still thought it was the real Polar Express, and that it was taking them to that far off land of reindeer and elves. But Mirabel also still believed in Santa, and Christopher didn’t suffer those delusions anymore. He knew it was all a hoax, concocted by parents to trick their kids into being nice throughout the year, and so he knew it was all a load of nonsense.
The car ride up through the mountains seemed to Christopher to drag on endlessly, and he sat silently in the back while listening to his parents discuss in front of him where the best place to take lunch might be. This had gone on for about ten minutes when Mirabel’s eyes widened to the size of discs and she turned to face her brother, an expression of absolute glee on her face. “It’s snowing!” she said in her shrill, excited voice. Christopher scoffed. “Snow in April? I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“It’s not snowing, dear,” Mrs. Peterson added from the front, but no sooner had she said this than Christopher glanced back out his window, squinting against the glare of the sun reflected off the whitened stone of the mountain, and saw that, indeed, a light shower of pearlescent flakes were beginning to cascade down around the Petersons’ station wagon. Mrs. Peterson turned sharply to face her husband. “I thought you said you checked the weather.”
“I did,” Mr. Peterson said as he searched out around him through the front windshield. “Everything looked clear to me.” He offered an uncertain chuckle. “I guess it just goes to show you never know. But don’t worry, it’s not coming down too heavily; I’m sure we’ll be fine. Look, it’s not even sticking.”
Five minutes hadn’t passed, though, before Christopher began to notice that the ebony road around and ahead of their car was starting to take on a frosted sheen, becoming denser and more undeniable by the second. The flakes, too, had become fatter, thicker, and were coming down now in a manner which Christopher suspected would feel like the equivalent of a downpour if it had been rain rather than snow falling around them.
“It’s fine,” Mr. Peterson said almost to himself after another few minutes of driving like this had passed. “I’m sure it will be fine. People drive in snow all the time.” And while this was likely true, Christopher knew it was not true of his father, who had not seen snow since they had visited Virginia three years ago for New Years. That had also been the first and, up until then, the only time either Christopher or Mirabel had seen snow, and the relative winter wonderland taking form around them now had both of the Peterson children glued to their respective windows, sucking in the landscape around them as it transformed into an endless stretch of spotless white. It really did almost look like the North Pole, Christopher thought, and he wondered if even a fake legendary train had the ability to garner up some magic of its own.
“And besides,” Mr. Peterson said in a small voice, almost as an afterthought. “We’re nearly halfway to Silverton. If we turned back now, we’d be driving about the same distance through the snow as if we continue on. And Petersons aren’t quitters, are we?”
“Sure, honey,” Mrs. Peterson said distantly, but Christopher could see the worried crease to her forehead as she stared out at the wall of trees to their right that was steadily becoming more and more difficult to make out through the dense blanket of white that was descending around them. Seeing his mother’s apprehension gave Christopher a beat of his own misgiving, but then it passed as he caught sight of a new vehicle coming into view behind their station wagon.
“What’s that?” Christopher asked, straining his neck to see as far back as he could.
Mr. Peterson squinted into his rearview mirror and then sagged back slightly in his seat with what Christopher took to be relief. “It’s a snowplow,” he said. “It’ll pass us and clear the way.” As he spoke, Mr. Peterson put on his blinker and pulled as far to the side of the road as he could without running into the low metal barrier that wound parallel to the mountain. Christopher watched in open-mouthed awe as the monstrous machine charged past their rented station wagon, shoving aside great mounds of snow as it went, most of which piled up against the side of the mountain to the left of the narrow road.
Mr. Peterson waited for a few minutes before driving on, allowing the snowplow to advance further ahead of them. Christopher could tell that his dad felt more confident driving on the freshly plowed road, even as the snow continued to come down harder and more insistently all around them, sticking to the road with a new ferocity that Christopher attributed to the flakes themselves bidding the Petersons to depart from their mountain, never to return.
“Dave, are you sure this is okay?” Mrs. Peterson asked her husband in a small voice as they continued on up the mountain.
“Absolutely,” Mr. Peterson said, but Christopher could see from his seat behind that his father’s hands were gripping the steering wheel hard enough that Christopher was afraid it would crack underneath his hold. Just then a sign arose, as though from thin air, on the side of the road, its blazing neon words announcing to the Petersons: “Stay Safe! Do not continue on without four-wheel drive or tire chains.”
“Dave,” Mrs. Peterson said in a warning voice, but Mr. Peterson didn’t seem to hear her. He blazed past the sign fast enough to make Christopher’s teeth clatter in his mouth, driving on over the freshly plowed road that had already been covered over again with a new, thick frozen layer.
The snow no longer looked beautiful or mysterious to Christopher. Instead, it was beginning to take on an almost sinister air, especially as he looked out over Mirabel’s head to where he had once been able to see forests and distant towns and was now able to see nothing other than a great white blanket of air. It was like they had driven straight up into the clouds themselves, and Christopher was afraid that they wouldn’t be able to find their way back down to earth.
He had also noticed that as the road had become more densely coated in snow, it had also begun to wind more sharply around the mountain as it reached a zenith, the space between the impenetrable wall on their left and the sharp drop to their right becoming more and more compressed. If another car were to come driving toward them from around an impending corner, Christopher wasn’t certain if they would be able to avoid what seemed to him to be an inevitable collision.
They shouldn’t keep going. This realization struck Christopher with such sudden certainty that it forced him to sit up, pivoting around within the confines of his seatbelt to look at the rest of his family, trying to see if they had come to the same undeniable conclusion that he had -- that they were no longer safe on that mountain.
Next to him, though, Mirabel seemed to be entirely oblivious to any sense of danger around her. Her small face was still encased with an innocent bliss and astonishment that Christopher found himself envying. That she could sit in the same car as him in absolute ignorance of the potential for danger, completely absorbed in the sensational experience, felt to be entirely unfair to Christopher, whose stomach was now twisting with more and more of the dread that he could feel permeating off of his parents from where they sat in front of him, both staring at the disappearing road ahead of them with unblinking eyes.
Christopher opened his mouth -- to say what, he was not quite sure. To ask his parents to turn back? To tell them that something didn’t feel right, that there was a foreboding in the air that warned against continuing on, or tempting their fate higher up the impending mountain? “Dad,” Christopher said in a voice that croaked on the syllable. Then, again, “Dad,” but louder this time, more directed. Still, no response came from the front seat, and Christopher was certain now that his father’s full attention and energy had been placed on the effort of steering the vehicle through the snow, and as such he was blind to all else around him, including the pleading voice of his own son.
And then came a sight that crested Christopher’s blood with more despair than his young soul had yet had to feel. The snowplow was coming back, traveling down the road directly toward the Petersons’ car, not even trying to shove aside the snow around it any longer. Mr. Peterson slowed the station wagon down nearly to a halt, maneuvering it as far to the edge as he could, though Christopher could tell just by glancing out that where that edge existed was no longer very clear. The snowplow traveled past their compact car, brushing against the side for one heart-stopping moment that Christopher swore was going to be enough to send them plummeting over the side that they had to already be too close to. He closed his eyes, not able to watch the plow as it skimmed past them, oblivious to the panic it had caused in the hearts of those in the parallel car. Long after the rumbling of the snowplow had passed, and Christopher had felt the engine of the station wagon kick up as his dad forced it to continue on up the mountain, he kept his eyes sealed shut, convinced that if he couldn’t see the oncoming calamity around them that it couldn’t close in any further.
“Dave,” Christopher heard his mother say in a firmer voice than she had used before. “The plow turned back. Don’t you think that’s a sign that we probably should, too? We’re not going to make it, going up the side of this cliff much further.”
Without opening his eyes, Christopher heard his father speak after a few beats had passed. “Okay,” Mr. Peterson said in a breathy, uncertain voice. “Okay, maybe you’re right. Maybe we should go back.” “Good,” Mrs. Peterson said, and the word was half a sigh.
“Alright,” Mr. Peterson said. “Okay, I can do this.” And Christopher felt as the movement of the car slowed down to a stop, and he understood without looking that his dad was trying to find a way to turn the car around safely without being able to see what he was doing. The car began to turn -- slowly, ever so slowly -- before coming to an abrupt stop again. Christopher could hear his dad panting from his position in the driver’s seat, and he decided it was probably best that he wasn’t watching what was happening.
Again, the car began to pivot, edging it’s way into the other lane, until Mr. Peterson stopped the car once more, and then put it in reverse. Christopher felt the movement of the car as it backed its way into the opposite lane inch by inch.
Then, three things happened at once. First, Christopher felt the car jar to a stop so suddenly and unexpectedly that it forced him to fall back flush against his seat. Second, he heard his mother squeal in a fashion very unlike his mother, in such a loud and high pitch that it forced his eyes open for the first time since the plow had come screeching past their car.
“Dave!”Mrs. Peterson yelled, and Christopher could see why a moment later because, third, a car came emerging through the white, racketing up the road from the direction they had, until very recently, been traveling. Mr. Peterson reacted in a frenzied panic, pushing the car back into drive and throwing them out of the way of the oncoming vehicle as fast as he could. The blare of the other car’s horn sounded as a long, sharp noise that echoed across the side of the white mountain as it roared past the Peterson’s station wagon.
The reverberation of the other car’s horn bounced around inside the Peterson’s car long after the other driver had sped away. Slowly, the panic began to drain out of each of them, and they turned around in their seats to face one another-- offering tense and shaky laughs, glancing out the car windows with wide eyes, relieved and unsteady after what had felt to all of them to have been a very near miss.
“Dad,” Christopher finally managed to say into the silence that descended when the uncertain laughs had petered out.
Mr. Peterson seemed to shake himself, as though awakening from a deep sleep. He glanced up in his rearview mirror, looking back at Christopher. “Yes, son,” he said in a too soft voice.
Christopher swallowed thickly, struggling to keep his breaths even. “Can we go back now?”
“Yes,” Mr. Peterson said in the same quiet tone, nodding to himself. Then, a little louder, “Yes, we can go. Let’s get off this mountain, shall we?” And Christopher felt a great relief swooping through him now that his dad had heard him. Now that they were going back.
Christopher had leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes again in preparation of their descent back down the mountain. When he didn’t feel the car start to move after a few moments, though, he opened his eyes again and glanced questioningly up at his dad in the driver’s seat. There was a look of intense concentration on his dad’s face, laced beneath with an expression that Christopher was not yet prepared to acknowledge. His dad was looking down, toward the pedals at his feet, and it was then that Christopher noticed that while the car was not moving, it was making a peculiar sound.
There was a gentle revving coming from outside, and slowly Christopher came to understand that the sound was being formed from the movement of the car’s wheels -- as they spun uselessly in their carved-out pits in the snow and ice. The Peterson’s station wagon, it would seem, was unmovably lodged in the dense Colorado snow.
Mr. Peterson laughed uncomfortably, then spoke without looking at anyone. “No big deal. We’ll just wait out the storm for a few minutes. It has to die sooner or later, right? Then we can try to push the car out. Or maybe wait for help to come.” The last of these words had come out in a nearly unintelligible mumble that Christopher had to strain his ears to hear, and then wished that he hadn’t. What if no one came, he found himself wondering. Then what?
Before Christopher could sink too far into these thoughts, however, his ears began to pick up on a sound that was taking shape in the rocks above where the car was rooted in place. At first, it sounded to Christopher almost like a thousand chiming bells, ringing in discordance high above their heads, and he strained his neck to look out the window, searching anxiously for the source. A moment later, though, the chiming shifted instead to a series of ear-splitting cracks that bounced against the horizon before shooting back toward the Petersons’ car.
Christopher barely had a moment suck in a single frantic breath before the screeching became unbearable. Though he knew he shouldn’t, Christopher found that he was unable to turn away from the window that he was still looking out of. And so it was that he watched as what at first looked like a great cloud of snow -- and what very soon became apparent was a far greater force-- came crashing down on top of them, and the white expanse that had previously encircled the rented station wagon shattered to a deep, infinite black.
Joyce exhaled quietly, and her swirling clouds of breath hovered for a moment before dissolving into the crisp January air. Her first step forward was hesitant, but she took another, and another. The trees, which were covered in the winter’s first snow, watched as she walked deeper into the forest. Soon her quiet backyard was a quarter-mile behind her, the stillness of the woods embracing her arrival.
The trail was an old friend. Joyce couldn’t remember the last time she had walked to the frozen pond, but the nostalgia grew stronger with each step. She thought of the first time she had tiptoed through winter as a young girl, delighted by the way the snow swallowed the sound of her footsteps. Still, now it blanketed everything in white, bringing the forest to a silence only known in winter months: tree branches were painted with snow, swaying gently as they slept. Dying flowers and leaves were encased in ice. Even the wind quieted its voice, afraid that speaking above a whisper would wake the sleeping world.
When she reached the pond, Joyce paused, letting her eyes trace along its familiar frozen edges. After a moment, she took a breath, ungloved a wrinkled hand, and slipped it into her pocket. The handful of birdseed she had stashed there was cool against her skin, but it soon grew warm to her touch.
Joyce squeezed her fingers into a fist. Turning her eyes toward the quiet, waiting trees, she wondered why she had come.
“Frank, you know that’s going to bring mice into the house.”
Joyce was standing with her hands on her hips, watching her husband of three years pour seeds into two bird feeders he had just brought home. They hung off the deck on new black posts that matched the scarf wrapped around Joyce’s neck.
“Don’t worry about the mice,” Frank replied over his shoulder. He turned to Joyce with a twinkle in his sea-colored eyes, resting an elbow on the railing. “Think about the birds. Think about how many of them will come! And you’ll be able to see them right through the kitchen window. Probably even from the deck if you’re quiet.
Joyce rolled her eyes and laughed softly. “Whatever you say.”
Sure enough, the mice came and made a home in the garage. But Frank didn’t mind. He always kept the shelf stocked with enough birdseed to last through the next month—sometimes even more.
He would start every morning by topping off each of the feeders, and then he would take to a chair he had placed in the far corner of the deck. No matter what the weather was, Frank would watch the birds come and go until their bellies were full and the feeders were nearly empty. For years he did this, never growing tired of it. Watching was a therapy for him.
Joyce watched too—through the window above the kitchen sink. She watched her husband add new feeders to the deck. Replace the old ones. Try new kinds of birdseed. Then she watched as his hair turned gray. As his skin wrinkled around his eyes, which still had a childlike glow even in his final days. And after forty years passed, she watched the feeders start to run dry. Noticed that the birds had stopped coming. Tried not to look for too long at the chair in the corner of the deck, which was now empty.
Joyce watched all this from behind the frosted kitchen window, where the cold could not touch her, no matter how hard it tried.
Why was she here?
It had been four years since he passed, but to Joyce, it felt like a blur. It felt like nothing. And for some reason, today she had awoken with the pressing urge to visit the spot she and Frank used to take walks to every Sunday. So here she was, standing alone, trying to remember those faraway days where time felt unending.
Joyce drew in a slow breath, reached into her pocket, and stretched out her hand. In her bare palm was a small mound of birdseed, and she raised it toward the treetops. Waited.
She felt foolish when nothing happened. The forest remained quiet, as it had all day. She didn’t know why she had expected anything else.
Just when she was about to abandon her statue-like form, a flash of red wings caught her eyes. A bright male cardinal was perched on a bush just a few yards away, eyeing Joyce’s offering curiously. Her hand was trembling, but she tried her best to keep it steady.
It happened in a flash. The cardinal swooped toward her outstretched hand, perched on her thumb for just long enough to take a beakful of seeds, and then disappeared.
Tears came to Joyce’s eyes as she watched the bird fly away. The cold was finally starting to creep along the skin of her ungloved hand, but for once, she didn’t mind. Instead, she smiled, and the silence of the wintered forest smiled back.
The door of the McMansion was hanging open, so we let ourselves in.
The road was a couple of miles long, leading only to this house. There were signs everywhere for Beautiful, custom homes starting in the $200s. The signs held pictures of families with their dogs, playing catch in a fully developed brick neighborhood. The non-neighborhood was almost apocalyptic, big holes having been ripped in the signs, no trees or structures to protect them from the wind and wildlife.
The long, flat driveway was loaded with cars—shitty cars like mine that didn’t belong near this house. I felt immediately uncomfortable, even though the development was not yet filled with people to look at and judge us and ask us sweetly if we were lost. Even though the driveway alone could hold at least ten cars, there were more still parked on the dusty grass on either side of the shiny asphalt. The non-neighborhood developers prematurely indulged so severely. They thought they were rich enough to not have to put rocks in their asphalt. It was like a smear of black cream cheese sitting precariously on the lumpy ground.
The inside was just as ugly as the outside, all beige and white and clean. Even with all the people already crowding the bottom floor, the decor stuck out. Lots of reed diffusers and ambitious white countertops.
Jodi had all but forced me to come to this party. She said it would cheer me up after coming home from my first year of college with an unspeakably bad GPA and being immediately dumped by Jack. When that didn’t work, she whined that I should come to support her boyfriend because his band would be playing. When that didn’t work, she said that Celestine, the party’s host and high school bully of 80% of the girls in our town, had just returned from France looking like a sideshow act with a bleached-white head and armpit hair. Her final attempt was telling me Jack would be there, which I gave into.
As anyone should do when entering a party, Jodi and I made a beeline for the kitchen, which was surprisingly stocked. A variety of snacks and beer. I guess any old person can throw a successful party if they have the cash. Despite my better judgment, I ate as many sausage-dip-loaded tortilla chips as I could while Jodi carefully selected her beer. It was easy for me. I could only drink PBR or anything a normal person would discard and say, “This tastes like piss water.” Anything full-flavored or, God forbid, “robust” would be immediately rejected by my body. I would rather mix myself a drink with whatever white liquor my mom had laying around and whatever juice or Kool-Aid was in the fridge. But an occasional weak beer gave me something to finger at while Jodi made out with her boyfriend at a party, or a blood alcohol boost to allow me to talk to other people when she disappeared on me completely.
When Jodi’s boyfriend, Dillon, found us, I was pretending to drink my beer—tipping it up to my lips and just letting it touch my tongue, then swallowing hard on my spit.Dillon was a guy. Not much else to say about him. His talents included evading alcohol poisoning in a superhuman way and catching his own airborne loogies in his mouth. Jodi subjected me to many verbal fantasies about their wedding someday.
“Hey, babe,” he said before sticking his tongue down Jodi’s throat.
“Hey, Gertie,” he said to me, his lips centimeters from Jodi’s. “Enjoy the show.”
With a band name like Chicken Coop, I was sure I would not.
The “stage” was a makeshift platform made out of wooden pallets with an old rug thrown on top. I hoped there was something between the pallets and the rug to keep feet and equipment from slipping in, but I couldn’t really tell. The show started immediately, with Dillon crying out, “Sugarberry punks, let’s get cooped up!”
The bass started up and everyone in the room started moving. Their heads were whipping back and forth, the liquid sloshing out of their red plastic cups. It could have been a really beautiful sight had the music not been so unbearably awful.
The instruments and voices and all of it together created an enormous cacophony that chewed up the whole room. And don’t get me wrong, I’d heard this done well. There was something to be admired about singing too close to the mic and lacking harmony. To me, punk music had a dirty charm that was intoxicating. I could only guess Dillon and his band were trying to emulate this, but they were doing a bad job.
Dillon was the frontman, looking very pleased with himself. The rest of his band consisted of three young men who I didn’t know the names of and I swear looked identical to him.
I scoffed to myself. Let’s get cooped up. Okay. But Jodi was really into it. Her waist-length hair vibrated with the sound. Her feet hardly touched the floor. The little deposit of fat between her butt and her back, smooshed up by the waistband of her jeans, jiggled with her hops. I only hoped she felt joy from the music, as bad as it was, and not from Dillon.
After Chicken Coop’s set, Jodi and Dillon disappeared into the crowd, likely to catch a quick fuck, which couldn’t possibly end in an orgasm for both of them. Actually, a lot of people started shifting around, going outside, raiding the kitchen, getting in the endless bathroom lines. Most people stood stock still like they were indebted to Celestine somehow and had to stay and watch. I didn’t have anywhere else to be and figured if anything, I could score at least a mild ego boost watching the most popular girl from my high school and her corny band perform.
I wasn’t ready for what I saw when they took the stage.
Celestine looked very much like herself, but the newest edition. Her bleached hair was crimped and teased. She had eyeliner smudged all the way around her eyes and wore a dark lip shade, more like a stain than a stick or gloss, as it dried out her lips. She wore a white top—I think it was meant to be worn as a bustier and not as a shirt, but she could pull it off—short short cut-offs, and tall black boots. As she adjusted the mic stand, I saw that she did in fact have two little round discs of dark armpit hair.
I recognized the drummer as Billie Hill—Hillbillie, we called her in high school. She still had the same linebacker build and thick ankles but now her hair was cut short, almost buzzed.
Two more girls walked up onto the stage, but I had never seen them before. They both took stringed instruments, but I didn’t know right away which was the guitar and which was the bass, or if either one was the bass because I’m an idiot. One girl was one of the three whole Black people in the whole joint, possibly in our whole small town in the Georgia High Country. Her hair was also cut short, but not as short as Billie’s. It stood almost straight up in tight curls and was tossed over to one side, pushed back by a bandana tied around her forehead. She wore tiny cut-offs like Celestine’s, but instead of lingerie up top, she was wearing an oversized black Bikini Kill t-shirt, the front of which was tucked into her shorts.
And then the last girl.
She was short. Short, short, like a kid. Like Shetland pony short. But you couldn’t really tell once she got settled onstage. She stood far enough away from the other girls but close enough to the sitting drummer that it wasn’t obvious, and all the rippage and tightness of her clothing lengthened her limbs.
She wore knee-length shorts that had obviously been cut from pants. They were form-fitting and black, splattered with flecks of dried white paint. Her shirt was a cut-up muscle shirt and I could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath. Brave. The shirt was black and also splattered with paint, the original yellow print—FBI: Female Body Inspector—chipping off. A tiny ball cap, which had to have been made for a child, sat backwards on her head, and when she turned around briefly I could see that it had “Georgetown Tee-Ball Camp” printed on the front. I couldn’t tell much about her hair, except that it was either really short or tucked into the hat.
Shetland Pony Girl fidgeted with her ear for a minute while Celestine adjusted the mic, but no one seemed to notice but me.
“One more yee-haw for Chicken Coop!” Celestine screamed into the crowd. Scattered claps and Woo-hoos. All of Chicken Coop’s biggest fans had already left the room. “Now, for the debut performance of my band, Kitty Council!”
And then she did the most annoying thing. She set up a keyboard. I wished Jodi were here to enjoy this with me. When she started playing, I realized why she had the keyboard, and could not wait for the rest of it to start. She was tackling a classic. This would be deliciously bad.
“Blue jean baby, L.A. lady,” Celestine started into the mic. There were some whoops of recognition from the crowd. I rolled my eyes.
But as she continued, I became hypnotized. Her singing voice was soft, low, with a gentle, crackling fry. The other band members weren’t playing their instruments, but it somehow wasn’t awkward. Billie hung her head and nodded with the beat, while the two string girls swayed just slightly, looking at Celestine’s back.
I always forgot how long “Tiny Dancer” is before the chorus. When it finally came, I was nearly asleep. I had subconsciously begun to rock myself back and forth like the girls on stage. Celestine’s voice filled my head to the brim and spilled out my ears, then filled me right back up again.
“And I said softly … slooooooowly.”
All the other instruments jumped in at once, and Celestine switched her keyboard over to synth mode.
“Hold me closer tiny dance-eh-ehr.”
The beginning of the song had been classic Elton, but this was something else. Something new. I felt my spine vibrate. It was everything I had heard when dragged to house shows like this by Jodi. All the hard sounds were there. But there was something extra. Coke fizz. Butter sizzle. Fingers climbing up my back.
And then I could feel it and knew immediately that Bikini Kill Girl was playing guitar and Shetland Pony Girl was definitely, without a doubt, on bass. She leaned into the instrument, feeling it, loving it, getting life from it.
And then it was over.
“If you want to see more, catch us on our Southeast tour this summer!” Celestine said. “Grab a flier from Billie.”
I took a breath, realizing I was unnecessarily upset that their set had only one song when Chicken Coop, their opener, had played several. Were they creating false scarcity? Did they not know how to play other songs? I wanted to criticize them, but the truth was I would do anything to hear them play more.
I watched Shetland Pony Girl. She took her bass off her body and placed it gingerly into a case.
“Good show,” I said as she walked off stage, but she ignored me. She had to have. The room wasn’t an outright bar brawl like it had been when Dillon’s band wrapped. There was no way she didn’t hear me.
Trying not to be too heartbroken, I walked to the back of the room looking for Jodi. She was at the door on her own, which gave me a sense of relief. She looked annoyed, but I pretended not to notice so I could retrieve the info I needed.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you know anything about the girls in Celestine’s band?”
“Well,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “There’s Billie-”
“I remember Billie from school,” I said quickly, manically.
“Oh-kaaay. Well, the guitarist just joined so I don’t really know her. The bassist is Sawyer. Celestine dated her-”
“Dated her?” Jodi took a step back and I realized I had kind of been in her face.
“Yeah,” Jodi said, obviously wondering why the fuck I cared. “I guess going to France turned Celestine into a bitch and a queer.”
Jodi walked away before I could ask any more questions. I knew she was pissed at me for not asking her what was wrong, where was Dillon, but I wanted to be free from pretending to care about her relationship for just a few minutes. I spotted Sawyer in the crowd.
I saw her nod toward my direction and smile, but I was smart enough to know she wasn’t looking at me. I had been at the center of enough awkward misunderstandings to not even accept as a possibility that she could be looking at me. But once she was a couple feet away and I maneuvered myself in the crowd to let her pass, she didn’t walk around me.
“Hey,” she said. “You’re Jodi’s friend, right?”
I was the most pleased I had ever been to just be “Jodi’s friend.”
I didn’t know what to say. I would normally want anyone who had just ignored me to pay for their infraction, but I didn’t want to end this conversation before it began. So I just blurted, “Gertie.”
“Sorry, am I bothering you?” Despite my best efforts, I must have come off as bitchy.
“No,” I said earnestly, my shoulders falling. “It’s just, I said something to you while you were leaving the stage and you completely ignored me. And don’t try to say you didn’t because I was standing right next to you. I know you heard me.”
A smile cracked Sawyer’s face like she was doing everything she could to keep a neutral expression but it just leapt out. And then she laughed. It started out like a windchime, high and jingly, then got throatier, then disappeared completely, and she heaved breathlessly. She doubled over for just a second, really selling it.
I refused to smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought pretty much everyone knew.”
“That you ignore people?”
She laughed again. “That I’m deaf.”
She turned and pointed at a hearing aid in her ear. “I turn this baby off while performing. Too much feedback. Can’t hear much of anything without it.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Can’t hear a lot of stuff with it, if we’re being honest.” She nudged me.
“Hey, you guyyyys!” Billie came tumbling into our conversation. “Who’s this?” She shouldered Sawyer and nodded toward me. Her face was sweaty and she was panting.
“This is Gertie,” Sawyer said. I thought it best to not bring up to Billie that I had sat behind her in eight different classes throughout high school.
“Well, does she have a flier?” Billie waved a stack of curled, wrinkled paper. Sawyer shook her head and gave Billie a Be my quest gesture.
Billie slapped a flier into my hand, which I didn’t realize had been outstretched. The flier was damp and smelled like beer and socks.
“Sorry,” Billie said, sounding suddenly sincere. “The crowd really did a number on these. I swear they were clean and flat when I brought them in. And I spent a prett-tee penny getting these bad boys Xeroxed.” She tucked her top lip down into her bottom and made a sucking sound. “Welp,” she said, suddenly. “Hope you can make it to a show,” and slapped me on the back.
“Tonight was just a taste,” Sawyer said, raising her eyebrows.
Billie turned around and shouted something into the crowd.
“I’m sorry,” Sawyer said, and she really did seem sorry. “I’ve got to get this one home.”
“Uh—” I said. I wanted to tell her to wait. I wanted to ask how I could reach her. But I couldn’t say any of it out loud.
“I’ll see you around!” Sawyer said to me as Billie dragged her across the party. Somehow, I knew she meant it.
I didn’t realize until I got home that night that I never came across Jack at the party and I hadn’t even noticed.
Heaps of Love
“My daddy had a typewriter back in the day,” my granddad once told me, when I was younger and living with him. “He wasn’t much one for words, but every Sunday night he would sit down and write out a letter for each of us-- me and Jefferson and Leah Rose. They were never long, nothing more than a paragraph or so, and it would mostly just say that he hoped our lives were going alright and that he was keeping us in his prayers. Each letter would be signed at the end ‘Heaps of love, Daddy.’ I didn’t look forward to much in those days, but I always searched the mailbox on Monday morning, hunting for that letter, for the reminder that at least I was in someone’s prayers.”
I remembered this and thought back to it years later when I bought a typewriter of my own second hand from some antique dealer based out of Conover. He told me mine would work like a dream, that I wouldn’t even barely register that it wasn’t some fancy computer I would be typing away at, and that that’s why the price could rival that of some used cars.
Well, the salesman lied. It was an effort to type out every letter of every word, and my hands would come away feeling sore and overused, not to mention spattered in the blackest of inks, mimicking the heart behind many of the words which had poured forth onto the page. Not that I minded too much. If anything, I felt that the extra exertion required to form the words placed an additional level of significance over them, a membrane of intentionality that never existed when I relied solely on the battered laptop my granddad had given me years before for graduating.
It made me wonder at my great grandfather, and if he might have felt the same weight, the same degree of permanence whenever he would type out his weekly letters to each of his children dispersed all throughout the southeast. ‘Heaps of love’ he would say, and I believed it. Your heart had to be filled to the brim to go through the effort of typing up three letters a week that way and paying for the stamps to boot.
I used my typewriter not for love, but for release. It was my outlet for all the thoughts I knew I could never share, could never allow another soul access to. The beauty was in the fact that the words, once typed, weren’t stored anywhere other than the page they were printed on and the mind that had produced them. There was no hard drive or cloud to save them away on, or on which to be found, exposed. Only the paper. And few things on this earth are easier to dispose of than paper.
I was in the process of ridding the world of one such typed out confession on the day that my granddad passed away. There was a page halfway immersed in flames when my mother called, her tears so palpable they were nearly leaking through the speakers of my phone. She said it had been quick, that it had been painless, but listening to the sound of her voice made me feel as though maybe it hadn’t been so painless after all. Not for everyone. But then I wondered if her pain was for my granddad, or for the lack of resolution she had ever gotten with him, and her guilt over that which she would now be forced to carry on through the ages.
It was my mother who had turned my childhood into something other than traditional-- or rather, my mother’s distinct lack. It was because of my mother that I had been with my granddad on the night that he had told me about his daddy’s typewriter, and many nights after that. It was my mother who broke down more than all the rest of us when she realized that she would never get the opportunity to make things right with her father, even when she had finally reached a point of making things right with herself.
It was my mother who, after my granddad was gone, had come back to me, trying to fill the hole he had vacated, not seeing that she only made the chasm wider. She was the reason for all the letters I felt I needed to let out of me, and the darkness that was woven through each of the carefully typed out words that were produced. My granddad was the only thing that had helped to keep the darkness somewhat at bay. But now in his absence, with my mother and her own darkness coming and trying to inch closer, I could feel the lingering edges of residual light from my granddad’s place in my life beginning to falter and fade away like ashes in the wind.
The air had been thick and sultry with sins and regrets on the morning the woman decided she could no longer go on. The child had been shaken awake in the dark hours of the morning, and somehow had found herself in the backseat of their rusted-out four-door as it rumbled up the gravel road that led the way to a small, isolated house, painted a blue that had once been bright but had long since faded to something closer to gray. Bordering the house was a thick foliage of trees that covered the western half of the state, and the trees rustled ominously as the woman drove up beside them. A rough palm grabbed hold of the child’s hand after the car came to a stop, and dragged her across the patchy grass that sprouted up between them and the rickety steps of that small house.
Abrasive knocks on a door soft with mildew, the shuffle of heavy footsteps beyond, a man with graying hair who cracked open his home just enough to see the sun rising on the other side of his trees, with a withered woman and her small child silhouetted by the growing light. The man’s face held all the world’s weight as he took the hand of the child away from the woman, guiding her into the warmth of the house beyond. The woman stood there for only a beat before turning away, brushing a hand once across her face, and then climbing in her car and driving back the way she had come.
The child grew up and forgot with the passing of years that there had ever been a woman in a car with her at the beginning of it all. She forgot the sallow edges of the woman’s face, the brittle rasp of her voice, the haunted sheen in her eyes. She forgot all the days and years and lives that existed in the time before that small, blue house on the edge of the woods.
She forgot about it all until the day a knock sounded on the same moldering door that the child had walked through before she had had the time to grow up. And it was that child that had gone to open the door, only to be confronted with the face of a ghost.
The ghost had smiled, had tried to take a step forward, had reached out her arms. But the child who was no longer a child had backed away, shaking her head, and when the old man came into the room to see who had been at the door, the child hid behind him like a shield against all the world’s evils. The woman’s smile had faltered and stuttered words came out of her mouth instead. Words that the man only shook his head at, his face far stonier than the girl had ever seen it. Then the door was closed again, with the woman trapped on the other side, and the girl and the old man retreated into the safety and warmth within the small home.
The events of that day repeated three more times before the girl left, and each time the woman’s face had changed nearly beyond recognition. It gained more color, more weight, and the smile stretched farther, wider, to the point where the girl looked at it and wondered how it didn’t crack apart. But the eyes grew harder, sadder, more desperate. And every time she came, the door would close back in place moments later, leaving her alone to fight the demons that remained to encircle her.
Inside the safety and warmth of the small blue house, the child had grown up. She had laughed, and she had cried, and she had screamed, and smiled, and slept, and breathed, and lived. She had learned how to brew coffee, and she had caught her first firefly, and she had fallen in love with words, and she had grown from a child into a young woman. And she had lived within the walls of love and protection that had been instituted by the old man who had let her through the front door that morning years before, when she had been left without so much as a suitcase, or a toothbrush, or a happy memory to carry her through the night.
It had been that old man that had been there to remind her that light existed when the nightmares would try to grip her, overtake her, consume her. It had been him who had told her she could do anything, and who had actually believed it. Who understood the darkness that permeated their family, that had begun to spread into her, and who had sat by her side during those times, and had become a beacon for her to follow.
It had all been him. And now he was gone.
The week after my mother called me, I sold my typewriter back to the same man whom I had bought it from-- for half the original price, I might add-- but before I did I wrote out one final confession, addressed to my granddad, signed at the end ‘Heaps of love.’ He was the only person I had ever been certain over my love for, and the only one I would have been able to give the heaps of such that his daddy had given him years before. The words that I found myself painstakingly typing out were maybe the most sincere of anything I had ever used that typewriter for during the short time I had kept it.
I know I would have winked out of existence years ago if it hadn’t been for you, I wrote. I know you are the reason I have continued to be able to glow at all. I have always been like the dusk, always just this side of night, of the dark.
I’ve always been afraid of that darkness, but I’ve always known you would be there to guide me back. But now you’re not.
But I also know that you still are. Because you would never abandon me. I know you’re still here, and I will try to carry that with me, to remember when I had your light beside me.
I cannot promise that I will succeed, and I am afraid, more than anything, that I am destined to fall, to fail, to succumb to all that has dragged me down for years. But for you, for all that you gave me and did for me, I will try. For the rest of my life, I will try.
Once it was typed, I placed the letter in an envelope, addressed it and put a stamp in the upper right corner, then threw it in the fire atop the ashes of all the other confessions I had allowed to transform into smoke and flames, after the manner of a phoenix. I hoped that the words typed out in my letters might one day be reborn, too. That they might make their way back to me eventually, transformed, and made anew.
I hoped that the remainder of the light my granddad had planted in me during the years I had spent under his care would continue to thrive, to maybe one day grow within me. I hoped that the memory of his light would be stronger than the reminder of my mother’s darkness. I hoped that I would one day learn to be as resilient as he had been. And at the end of the day, that’s all that I really had, but at the end of the day was there much else that I would need?
Much else other than hope.
For all we can ever do is hope.
The Friday afternoon sun was making a quick descent on the town of Pearl. The truck’s pedal buzzed on the pad of Azra’s foot; he and the new guy were assigned the dually for the day. Azra hadn’t driven the well-known, and well-hated, truck in months but when he turned the key in the ignition, foot completely compressing the clutch, it coughed to life with a shake Azra realized he’d missed. Both rear fender wells had gaping dents and the hood was rusting in more than one spot, but there was something about the old beast that charmed him. One day, she’d quit running, the pistons would stop punching, the drive shaft would cease to rotate, but not today.
Azra double-parked in the Beautification Department’s lot. No one was around after 4:30 p.m. on a Friday before a long weekend, so he figured using two spaces for the extended bed wouldn’t hurt anyone. Plus, it was nearly 6 o’clock now. The new guy had had a long first week, Azra suspected, so even though he had one more call to wrap up, he decided to send the kid home early.
“Alright, this is your stop,” Azra said and adjusted his sweat-stained cap.
“Is it not both of our stops?” The new guy—what was his name? Allan? Allick?—said.
“Nah, I got one more call, but you go on home and try and relax. I get the first few days can be odd at the new job, but your nerves were wiggin’ me out all day, kid.”
“Yeah, I was worried you’d say that,” the kid—Allan, most probably—started to throw his things in his lunch pail and unbuckle. His head hung a little lower than Azra had remembered when they started the day.
“I’m fuckin’ with ya, kid,” Azra said, even though he was entirely not fucking with the kid. But worried Allan might go home and off himself over the long weekend, Azra felt the need to clear his conscience; even if it required a little white lie.
Allan gave an innocent smirk that Azra thought said, it’s okay, I probably won’t off myself over the long weekend, and clicked the door handle.
“See you Monday,” Allan said and stepped down from the cab.
“Right,” the new guy said. “Labor Day.”
“Labor Day,” Azra affirmed.
The sun was nearly absent now, peaking every once in a while with an orange burst through the trees. Azra guided the truck out of old downtown, past Pearl High where he could see a few headlights in the senior parking lot, and toward Willow Oak Park. The Pearl River cut the park in half, running northeast headed for suburbia where it doubled back before it ran toward the airport and ChemChoice Research and Development Facility in the southwest corner of the county. If you followed the river from beginning to end, it would take you from the southeast corner, up through the center of Pearl, and then down toward the southwest, where ChemChoice could dump whatever they wanted into it without bother from the Feds.
Azra’s final assignment for the day, a dead buck hit head-on by some Pearlanite who likely favored his phone screen over the road, was apparently laying on the shoulder of Hearts Lane somewhere alongside the water. Azra had a pretty good guess of where he would find the deer, but it was only a guess. No matter how long you worked for the Beautification Department, picking up dead animals and trash from various areas of the town all day every day, there was always a bit of surprise when it came to tracking down the exact spot you were hired to clean.
Azra spotted the antlers first. A glimmer of ivory in the thickening darkness. The buck’s jawbone was slightly exposed beneath a bloodied fur line. One leg was knotted in an odd succession of hard twists and wrinkles.
Azra bent down and rested on a knee by the body. He put a hand on the ribs of the animal and was surprised, given the grotesque scene, when he felt a minor compression. Then, after a moment, the ribs rose just barely. The poor bastard was still breathing. Everything around him went silent, and Azra heard the faint wheeze of air passing through a vessel with great difficulty.
“Fuck, I’ll be with you before too long, bud.” Azra closed his eyes as he ran his hands smoothly over the buck’s fur and tried not to picture himself moaning in a hospital gown. The reality he knew was coming if he chickened out over the weekend.
He returned to the cab of the truck and reached up to the rifle rack behind the seats. He retrieved a single shell from the glove box and loaded it. Standing over the dying deer, Azra brought the butt of the rifle to the pocket of his shoulder, aimed the barrel between the buck’s eyes, and pulled the trigger. The boom alarmed the wildlife inhabiting the wood around him and Azra heard creatures scurrying in the wake of the shot. The buck didn’t flinch, it laid still, its eyes giving thanks to Azra for a more merciful transition than it would have otherwise received.
“If only, we could all be so lucky,” Azra said.
Azra clicked the button on his home phone and the robot woman replied that he had one new message. He knew having a home phone was antiquated and he was probably one of the last in Pearl to own one, but he just couldn’t seem to find the time to throw the damn thing out.
“Hey, I really think you need to take some more time to think about this,” the voice of Azra’s sister spoke through the phone speaker. “I know you don’t want to go through che—uh, the treatment, but this isn’t something to play around with, Az. It’s not like being afraid to get a flu shot; mom and dad can’t get you out of it.” Azra leaned against the kitchen counter and waited for the recorded silence to end. “Please, Az. Please just think it over again.”
The message ended and Azra was met with the current silence of his own home. No dog, no cat, he wasn’t one of those people that left the tv running when he wasn’t in the living room. Just quiet. The kind of quiet he moved out to the country to attain. The kind of quiet that would take over everything one day, once all the noise settles and dies.
Azra opened the fridge, retrieved the jug of milk, expected to expire in two days according to the stamp, and took a pull without a single thought of pouring it into a glass. He recapped the jug and headed for the front door.
Outside, the buck was already stinking.
The carcass felt heavier now, Azra’s second time lifting it onto his shoulders. Blood smeared across the top of his shirt on one side and the body tried to slip and slide every other step. But Azra managed to huff the damn thing all the way out the second pasture without a break. He didn’t have any animals so there wasn’t much need for any fencing, something he was thankful for as he lugged the buck out back.
Once he reached the second pasture, he found a perfect little spot in the center of some flowers and weeds blooming up toward the sky. He laid the buck down gently into the plush grass, the more gruesome side to the ground. Its coat, wherever undamaged from the accident, was clean and groomed. Not a bug or flea to be found.
The moon glowed now, down onto the buck and Azra. A spotlight on the evening orchestra of green blades and thin winged creatures surrounding the scene. The bulbs of nameless flowers and tufts of colored weeds. This was a good spot, Azra decided, and almost looked forward to his new place in the world.
The night brought an unforecasted thunderstorm through Pearl’s countryside. Heavy rain bore down on the trees and fields and melted the air into a sticky heat the following morning. Buzzards and crows laughed in the sky during breaks between tearing the buck’s flesh apart.
Azra planned to take the department’s truck back to the shop in the morning but decided it could wait until he ran out for dinner that Saturday evening. He’d simply park the truck out back, hang the key inside, and retrieve his Honda from the front lot. No one would ever know that he’d taken the truck home, a fucking far cry from company policy. No one would ever find out about the buck either. Azra had been with the Beautification Department for as long as he could remember, and as long as anyone else could remember, so his trust ran deep. People would figure he let the new kid off early—“because he’s a sweetheart, of course,” Lonnie in the office would explain—and finished that last call no differently than he had every other carcass call in his career. That was presuming someone asked, which no one would.
As soon as he stepped out onto the back porch Azra could see a turkey vulture pecking down at the buck’s guts. It reminded him of the stabbing pain in his own intestines that had been steadily intensifying since he woke. Steadily intensifying for the better part of the last five years. “I think I have IBS,” he’d said when it first started. No one would say the C-word for years.
“Shit,” Azra breathed and started jogging. “Hey!” he yelled and threw his hands in the air in a shoo-ing motion. The buzzard looked at him briefly before continuing his breakfast. “Hey! Fuck off!” The bird jumped back a few steps as Azra closed in before beating its wings and launching to a nearby tree branch. Nothing had changed, he just needed to wait until Azra inevitably left. Azra's eyes found the buck. Streaks of fresh red painted across its coat and mud splashed up the white of its opened belly. But something else was different, too. Something Azra couldn’t quite understand.
The buck had been hit the day before. Azra issued the killing shot between its soft, black eyes. A matter of fewer than twenty-four hours in total. Yet the buck’s body had deteriorated much faster than it should have. Its hooves had begun to crumble and turn to mud, its antlers were dark gray as opposed to the pristine white from the day before, its stomach had completely deflated. Sure, it had fucking poured overnight, Azra could tell by the way his feet sank into the ground. And yes, the birds had started to get their fill out of the animal, but processes that should have taken weeks if not months had clearly started to take hold upon the carcass.
When he was young, Azra’s mother told him a story of a man whose dying wish was to see his father one last time. “The problem was his father had been dead for decades. But in his desperation,” Azra’s mother said, “the man prayed and prayed. Not the type of prayer you’d normally think either, but something deeper and more personal to the man’s soul. His body and his heart prayed, constantly for days on end without the man having really any knowledge of it. His body and his heart ached and cried to God to see his father just one last time. Sure enough, in his hospital bed, he was awakened by a nurse to hear he had a visitor. His father, dead for years and years,” Azra’s mother told him, “walked into the hospital room as though he’d never left. He sat by his son’s side and held his hand. Neither of them said a single word to the other, and the dying man passed with the ease of a river’s current.”
Acts of God. The story didn’t really mean anything other than that his mother was a religious woman who wanted a religious son, Azra later determined. But still there was something to be said, Azra supposed as he looked down on the decaying buck, for old stories about man’s desperation.
On Sunday Azra slid the single .44 cartridge under his nose and drew in a deep breath before knocking it into the pistol’s cold cylinder. It made a blue click when he pressed it firmly into the slot. Everything but the handle was a dark gray, not dissimilar to the shade of cloud beginning to accumulate above him. The handle was a smooth oak with the initials ABR of his father, and not-so-coincidentally of himself as well etched across one side.
He was given the revolver when his dad passed nearly a decade ago now. He used to keep it in the sock drawer next to a box of shells all through Azra’s childhood. One day when Azra got home from school early his mother was somewhere off on the other side of the neighborhood likely drinking coffee, Bailey’s for creamer, with another mostly unhappy mother trying to get a little happier with every sip, and his father was still hard at work in the Pearl town office. None of Azra’s socks could be found in the clean laundry and the pair on his feet had been soiled from walking home in a torrential spring rain.
He found himself in his parents’ bedroom quickly after checking the laundry baskets in the kitchen. The shit brown, shag carpet—beyond out of date for the late ‘80s—made his damp feet uncomfortable and itchy and he meant to leave the room as quickly as possible. When he pulled the top handle on his father’s dresser, he noticed an obvious resistance. The drawer simply wouldn't pull out further than an inch and a half. Azra yanked on the handle, a bit harder every try until finally, it gave, and he fell on his ass hard enough to elicit a yelp.
Rubbing his tailbone, Azra stood and lifted onto his tiptoes to try and see into the drawer but was displeased to find the extra height still wasn’t enough. He’d get there eventually; the doctor when he was born even said he might get to 6-foot-4 by college. Little did they know he’d never apply for college but instead apply to work a dead-end job for the Pearl Beautification Department cleaning up roadkill and other carcasses.
Little Azra’s hand fumbled blindly in the high drawer and landed on what must have gotten the drawer stuck. He pulled out a red cardboard box with bold white and yellow lettering. He wasn’t much of a reader yet, but he knew numbers.
50.44 Cal it read across the top. Little orange stars lined the edges of the box. Azra opened the lid and examined the contents. He fingered one of the bullets, spinning it around and around in his hand. A smell came from the box like he had never been exposed to before. He brought the bullet close to his nose and sniffed tentatively. Fire and excitement, for had he been older when he made the discovery, he would have detected dread and dull pain in his teeth from the scent.
Azra’s mother walked in and found her son, not even old enough to reach the top drawer, with a bullet pressed against his face. She yelled and yelled in shock of what could’ve happened if she hadn’t shown up and spanked Azra’s already sore ass cheeks.
What could’ve happened.
What would eventually happen no matter how many times it was delayed.
This time, standing over the far too rotted buck, the excitement was completely absent, replaced entirely by dread and a dull pain in his teeth.
Slowly he got down on his knees. Then lay flat on his back next to the corpse. He turned and looked the buck in its muddy, soft eyes, the curling antlers nearly touching his face. Azra knew they would be the final pieces to recycle back into the earth, decaying at nearly the same rate as his own bones would, he supposed.
The pistol’s cylinder clicked back into its natural position, Azra pulled the hammer with both his thumbs. A man’s revolver, the strength it required to bring the hammer back made Azra aware that you had to really want to pull the trigger before the machine would let you.
He wanted to.
He turned his head back to the sky. Full gray overhead, the last dying glimpse of blue peeked in the west.
Azra never would have called himself a pacifist but when the words of everyone around him urged him to fight and fight and fight, retaliating against the disease was the last thing he wanted to do. He stood his ground on the matter too, not a single treatment of chemo. His mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer when he was still in high school. Azra saw every day, the festering rash across his mother’s pail body. The hair follicles giving up first. The baby powder she’d use to calm her screaming skin sprinkled in the shit-shag carpet of his parents’ bedroom. He wouldn’t do it. He’d rather die and find out whatever comes next than live in a constant battle between trying to be happy and being overcome with the reality that his body was tearing itself apart from the inside at an exponential rate. Part of him wanted to fire the round straight into the sky and see if it came back down in the same spot. Let God have the bullet first, He could choose where He wanted to put it back in the earth. Maybe He’d even spare Azra, give him a sign that he was making the wrong choice. That he should fight and never stop until the devil inside him was either eradicated or beat out God’s plan. But then his gut wrenched and he was reminded that for so many people to go through this pain every day, there must not be a God. Or at least one who loved His children.
Azra took another quick scan of the dead buck. Of the hide that had broken down over the past two short days. Of how the body had deflated like a punctured blowup mattress. He looked at what would become of his body. Someone would likely find him before he got too far along. A neighbor, a coworker, or his sister perhaps. But still, even after being laid in the ground, his body would follow the same pattern this buck’s had. It warmed him to know what would become of his remains. How, slowly, his skin and bones and guts would reunite with the soil and he would become a part of something greater. Much better this way than to try and resist the cancer eating away at his intestines and spreading elsewhere.
This was better.
A few crows and a vulture still flew in circles backlit by the darkening sky. They made no sound, only waited. One meal had been exhausted but another would soon be ready. Azra could feel the grass tickling his ankles where his pant leg was riding up. He took in a deep breath and inhaled the air from the patches of flowers and weeds surrounding him and the buck. He listened to the hum of crickets and cicadas in the trees. His fingers brushed over the dirt and leaves that had fallen to the ground. He felt how fragile it all was. This world he would soon give his body to, the balance in it all.
The barrel was chalky on his teeth when he closed his mouth around it. He held the pistol with both hands, one thumb on the trigger. A rogue tear broke away and ran down his temple and then down following the line of his stubbled jaw. His intestines ached and his eyes fluttered shut. He knew it was stupid to be afraid, but he couldn’t help but hesitate holding the barrel down almost to his throat.
Azra drew in a breath through his nostrils as hard as he could, clamped his teeth down on the metal, and squeezed his hand.
The sound snapped through the air like a firecracker and for a moment the crows and the vulture flew away from the man and the buck. But only for a moment.
Call it Falling
When Marilyn gets to the house, the front door is hanging wide open. She frowns. There are no other cars in the driveway, so Esther’s mom must still be out of town. She doesn’t see any shoes on the porch or see any dust hanging over the road that might mean a neighbor had come over. Even the sky is empty of clouds, just a flat and clear blue. Maybe she just left the door open to shoo out a mouse, or something. But Esther always keeps the door locked.
Marilyn’s chest starts to buzz with familiar anxiety. She takes the steps up to the house two at a time, the old wood groaning beneath her boots.
Inside, everything looks normal. Esther’s shoes are lined up neatly next to the door. Marilyn sees a pie on the kitchen counter as she steps lightly by, covered up in plastic wrap to keep it from getting stale. The lights are all off, but Esther likes to leave them that way when it’s bright enough for light to pour in through the open windows. The curtains are ruffling in the breeze now, casting brief shards of bright light against the floor.
Everything’s fine, but Marilyn still has to bite her lip to stop herself from calling out Esther’s name. It’s just so quiet in here. She can’t hear Esther humming to herself as she cleans, can’t hear the birds singing outside, and can’t hear Esther’s footsteps as she comes to greet her with a smile. The silence roars in her ears and she hates that she’s too nervous to break it.
Marilyn creeps further into the house, down the hallway towards Esther’s room. It’s darker in this part of the house, but she can still see the photos on the walls watching her as she walks.
There’s an old, sun-faded one of Esther and her cousins as kids, laughing at something behind the camera. A few of Esther’s school photos, lined up so that Marilyn can watch her grow up in each photo she passes. Her hair gets longer, curlier, and more freckles pop up across her face. There’s a few of Esther and her mom, all after the move, of them in front of a small Christmas tree or at the beach. The last one, hanging the closest to Esther’s door is Marilyn’s own selfish favorite. It’s of the two of them just a couple of years ago when Marilyn came over for board games. Esther’s mom snapped a candid of the two of them arguing over the game, waving their hands around but smiling so wide they could never believe the other was angry. Marilyn smiles at it--the memory gives her a drop of peace against her own sea of nerves.
Esther’s bedroom door is open a crack. She probably forgot Marilyn was gonna come over and took a nap. It’s fine. Marilyn’s just being quiet so she doesn’t accidentally wake her up. She squares her shoulders back and pushes the door open all the way. The hinges groan as she steps inside.
Esther’s room is dark, the curtains pulled shut. But the bare white feet sticking out from behind the end of the bed catch Marilyn’s eye in an instant. All the air in the room drains out. Marilyn takes a step forward, then another, slow like she’s walking through molasses.
Everything’s okay. Maybe she rolled off the bed in her sleep. It’s fine it's fine it's fine--
Marilyn walks around the end of the bed, and then there’s Esther. She’s laying on her back in her pajamas, arms splayed out to either side. Marilyn drops down on her knees next to her, so fast it’s like she’s been shot. She pulls one of Esther’s hands into her own. It’s not--not cold, but not warm, and there’s blood underneath her fingernails--
And she’s not breathing.
Her chest isn’t moving, no matter how long Marilyn stares at it, no matter how loud she begs in her head out loud please, please. She presses shaking fingers against the vein on Esther’s wrist. Nothing. Her own heart is beating so hard it feels like it’s trying to crawl out of her chest.
She has to check Esther’s neck for a pulse, too. She won’t know for sure until she does. But when she leans forward, hand reaching out, she sees the bruises. They’re a dark, ugly inkblot in the center of her throat, lined on either side by irregular shapes--oh god oh god those were fingerprints.
Marilyn chokes down bile as she presses two fingers down against the bruises, searching for a pulse. A minute passes. Nothing beats. Something wet runs down Marilyn’s face, dripping off her chin. A few land on Esther’s shirt and she finds herself mumbling out a nonsensical apology.
She screws her eyes shut for a second, pressing the heels of her hands against them until she sees stars. When she opens them again, nothing’s changed. Esther’s still laying there, eyes open, but staring up at nothing. Marilyn has the half-hysterical thought that this is all just a prank, and Esther’s about to sit up and laugh--
A fly lands on Esther’s shoulder, crawling up towards her head. It doesn’t fly away until Marilyn swats at it with an anguished hand, finally losing herself to an endless stream of no, please no, no no no please--
One hour before the death
It’s too late and too far to be walking home from work. Esther usually wouldn’t, but her mom still has the car, up north visiting family. And then Jean called in sick tonight, so Esther couldn’t get a ride home from her either
It really isn’t that big of a deal, though. She didn’t have to help close, or she would be out here even later. It’s just two miles. One time one of their cooks had his car break down and he had to walk four. Just two miles from the pub to her house. It’s good exercise, a short walk. It’s just...kind of chilly tonight.
Esther looks over her shoulder again, back out at the empty road stretching behind her, half-lit by street lamps as old as her. Still no one. But the feeling of eyes on her back hasn’t gone away.
She tugs her jacket tighter around her shoulders. Then she shoves her hands into her pockets, fingers curling around the pepper spray on her keyring. Soon the asphalt will give way to gravel and dirt and she’ll be close to home. She’s almost to the last streetlight, and then she’ll be out of town for real, just a half-mile to go. And with no streetlights that last half mile will be so dark, with nothing but weak moonlight for her to see anyone trying to creep behind her--
Esther just needs to relax. She’s walked home a few times and it’s always turned out okay. Hell, she walked home the other day (and someone was walking behind her oh god oh god) and she got home fine. If Jean can’t give her a ride tomorrow, maybe she can wrestle Marilyn into staying up late and taking her home. She’d probably say yes. She could even ask Marilyn to let her stay over at her apartment. That’d be nice.
A plastic bag tumbles across the pavement in front of her, blown by the wind, and Esther startles. As her adrenaline races, Esther reminds herself that she’s on a normal walk home, walking at a normal speed and with normal levels of diligence in watching her surroundings. She’s walking against traffic, not that there are any cars to pass her. She’s looking behind her, not that there’s anyone there to follow her.
And the creepy guy was only in for a couple of hours today. And he’s not even--he’s not even creepy, he hasn’t even done anything, and she feels like such an asshole for calling him that in her head anyway. He just...there’s something familiar in the slope of his nose and the look in his dark eyes that puts her on edge.
But he’s not even a bad customer. He drinks his drinks and eats his food and leaves an okay tip. He barely even talks to her, even when things are slow. And he smiles a lot, kind of like he’s in on some kind of joke that she hasn’t heard yet. He’s still pretty normal, though. As fine a customer as any.
But there was the night he walked out the door behind her and whistled aimless tunes to himself as he walked behind her just ten feet back, staying behind her for two blocks until she ducked into the gas station and texted Jean for an emergency ride, too embarrassed to call Marilyn or god forbid her mom--
The light of the last streetlight passes over her and she starts to quicken her pace. Just a little bit farther and she’ll be home and safe behind a locked door, curled up in her bed where she can try to just forget about all the scary things of the world.
Five days before the death
It’s really unfair that Esther likes Marilyn as much as she does. Otherwise, she would’ve yelled at Marilyn for stealing all her food ten fries ago. They’ve been coming to this diner since forever, and Marilyn always insists she doesn’t want fries, then she steals all of Esther’s anyway so she can dip them in her shake.
Twenty years old and Marilyn is dipping stolen fries in a chocolate milkshake like they’re still twelve. Esther can’t help but snort, a probably disgustingly fond smile spreading across her face.
“You’ve got a chocolate ‘stache.”
“Cool. No point wiping it off ‘til the shake’s gone, though. I’d just get another one.”
“You’re gross.” Marilyn sticks her tongue out at her but wipes her face anyway.
“Is work still going okay?” Esther asks.
“The new manager is a complete idiot, but what else is new? I’m not actually sure he knows how to read. Not kidding.” She snatches another fry from Esther’s plate, shrugging when Esther gives her a look. “How’s it going for you?”
“Fine. There’s another creepy guy who’s come in a few times, but tips are better than usual. So it’s alright.”
“Creepy guy?” Marilyn leans forward to look her eyes, serious all at once. She always gets like this when Esther talks about weirdos at the pub. Sometimes she overdoes it, gets a bit smothering, but...it’s nice. Nice to know that she cares as much as she does, and has no problem punching someone’s teeth in to show it.
“Yeah. It isn’t anything like when Jean’s ex kept showing up. I honestly probably shouldn’t even call him creepy, but--he might’ve tried following me out the other night. It was probably a coincidence anyway. And I made sure he wasn’t behind me before I actually went home. You don’t have to worry about it.”
The deeply displeased face Marilyn’s making right now says she is very much worrying about it. Esther can tell she’s probably already considering three different rash solutions to the problem.
“Hey, no, I just said you didn’t have to worry. I’ll ask Jean to drive me home the nights I’m working late. And then once my mom is back I’ll have the car again. It’s no big deal.”
“It is to me.” Marilyn’s frowning for real now. Esther’s stomach sinks. The last thing she wanted to do was ruin the mood. She hasn’t gotten to spend much time with Marilyn lately, both of their schedules clashing. She doesn’t want to waste the little time they have together these days.
“I’m sorry. I know you just wanted to hang out, I wasn’t trying to ruin it by bringing up weirdos from work. We can just forget about it.”
Marilyn leans over the table, pinching her cheek. “You could never ruin anything, Esther.” She takes another sip of her shake. “Though I don’t know if I like the idea of you being out in the middle of--don’t give me that look, I know you’re only a couple of miles from town--middle of nowhere all by yourself. And yes, I know you’re an adult, and you can take care of yourself--”
“But you worry.” Esther grabs Marilyn’s shake, stealing a sip of it before Marilyn can protest. It’s a bit sweet for her taste, but anything to get Marilyn out of being all serious.
“I worry.” Something in Marilyn deflates, face relaxing back into a sheepish smile. “I’d offer to let you stay at my place until your mom gets back if I thought you’d actually take me up on it.”
“I really would this time, but--” “But I live in a dump?” Esther tries to swat at her arm but Marilyn ducks away, already laughing. Her cheeks dimple, and Esther’s heart flutters.
“That’s not what I was gonna say!”
“Sure you weren’t. I’ll get a better one someday, but for now, I’ll just chill with the ghosts and all that asbestos. Alone. Because my best friend is too afraid of my cooties to spend the night.”
“Your apartment is not haunted,” Esther says, refusing to rise to the age-old bait of being too shy to sleep in the same bed as her. At least Marilyn still thinks it’s just because she’s a prude. “Just because you lose your keys every other day doesn’t mean a ghost is hiding them.”
“You can’t prove that.” Marilyn pauses, draining the rest of her milkshake. “Promise you’ll call me if he shows up again? Or for anything. Even if it’s the middle of the night and it’s just the shadows on your wall looking weird.”
“I’ll call you if anything happens. Which it won’t, okay?” Marilyn doesn’t look satisfied, fingers idly picking at the cuff of her jacket. “Same deal goes for you. If your ghosts start giving you trouble, or you can’t sleep, or whatever, you can always call me. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Promise you’ll call? I know you hate when I get all neurotic, but..” Esther pulls Marilyn’s hand away from her when she moves from picking at her sleeve to digging her nails into the tips of her fingers. She rubs circles into Marilyn’s wrist with the pad of her thumb, letting her wind back down.
Two months before the death
Both of them have the weekend off. Marilyn’s week has been hellish, a lot of work shifts, and nothing else, and she’s so tired by the time she gets to Esther’s that she can barely keep her eyes open. Maybe shouldn’t have driven like that. But it’s worth it.
Esther meets her at her car and leads her away from the driveway by one arm, takes them around the house, and sits them down on a blanket in the backyard. Marilyn curls up against her side, drowsily looking up at the clouds with her. Esther quietly mumbles about the shapes she sees up in the sky, playing with the ends of Marilyn’s hair.
Sometimes Marilyn loves her so much it feels like her heart might split.
Two years before the death
They graduate from high school. The ceremony is boring and long, and Esther gets through it by making faces at Marilyn from across the auditorium. Then there’s saying goodbyes to all the people she’s barely talked to since elementary school, and then dealing with her and Marilyn’s moms.
Marilyn’s mom makes Esther feel a bit like a specimen under a microscope, always has. It’s one thing to listen to Marilyn complain about her mom--how she bitches about Marilyn’s new haircut being too short and boyish, how she should dress less like a goddamn punk, how she should want the same things for her life that her mom wants. With Marilyn sprawled out across her bed, hands waving in the air as she gesticulates wildly and angrily--there, her mom feels far away. Someone that Esther feels a prickle of dislike for, for making Marilyn so upset.
It’s a different thing entirely to have her here in front of them, raising an eyebrow any time they break some unwritten rule of hers. Esther understands, all at once, why Marilyn always comes over to her house, and rarely the other way around. She takes her hand off of Marilyn’s arm when she realizes she’s being glared at.
Marilyn’s mom never says she’s proud of her, not at the ceremony or when they go out to dinner after. Esther tries not to be bothered by it, the same way she tamps down the disappointment when Marilyn barely looks at her the rest of the night.
Four years before the death
Esther drags Marilyn by the elbow into the bathroom, away from the chaos of the rest of the school. She uses her free hand to snatch a wad of paper towels, then pushes them against Marilyn’s chest. Marilyn grabs them, pressing them to her bleeding nose. Esther grabs a couple more, running them under the sink. The late bell rings shrill in the hallway. They both ignore it.
“Let me see your hands.”
“I can just go to the nurse, it’s fine--”
“And tell her you were fighting again? Show me your hands.” Esther’s not stupid. She knows the hand holding the towels isn’t just bloody from her nose. Marilyn’s other hand is shoved deep in her jeans pocket. The damage on that one is probably worse.
“C’mon,” she pushes, taking a step closer, “We don’t have long to get out of here before an administrator tracks us down. And I’m not explaining to either of our moms why you got detention again. Or suspended, maybe. You really got into it this time.”
“You heard the kind of shit they were calling you.” Esther suppresses a shudder. Word travels so fast in a school this small. It’s one thing for them to know she’s gay. She doesn’t really care that much what they think about her. But today was the first time Marilyn was there to get caught in the crossfire, for them both to get the same insults thrown in their faces.
It would be one thing if Marilyn had hit that girl just to protect Esther’s honor or whatever. But if she finds the idea of Esther being gay that repulsive--or worse, Marilyn finding the idea of the two of them together to be some huge insult...well. She knows, logically, that Marilyn could never really hate her. But her rabbit-scared heart beats faster all the same.
Esther wrestles all those thoughts as deep down as she can with a violent force of will. Marilyn is here, in front of her, bleeding and in trouble in a shitty high school bathroom, and right now it’s Esther’s job to fix it. Everything else can come later.
Marilyn tenses but doesn’t pull away when Esther’s hand closes around her wrist, gently pulling her hand out of her pocket. Her first two knuckles are split deep, the others not faring much better, the whole hand a mess of smeared blood. Esther wipes it up best she can without prodding it too much. After, she steps back to swing her backpack off her shoulder, rooting around the bottom of it until she feels a few free-floating bandaids.
“These’ll have to do for now.” She tries to stick the band-aids at an angle where the twitchy movements of Marilyn’s fingers won’t upset them. It’s a patchwork job, but she has enough bandaids to cover the worst of her two hands.
It looks like her nose has stopped bleeding in the meantime, the paper towels abandoned for now. Any other scrapes or bruises will have to wait for later. If she can convince Marilyn to come over to hers, which she always can, she can fix her up proper with the first aid kit under the sink. That’s if they don’t get suspended first, at least.
Marilyn’s being quiet, flexing her bandaged fingers and staring down at the bathroom tiles. Her bangs have fallen over one eye, but Marilyn makes no move to fix them. She cut her hair herself, and it looks kind of shitty, but Marilyn’s still cute.
“You didn’t have to do that for me,” Esther tries. No answer. Desperate times, she thinks and reaches a hand out to brush Marilyn’s hair out of her face. That earns her some real eye contact.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Esther continues. “I’m not scared of them. And I hate seeing you fight all the time.” Two lies and a truth, but it’s what feels right to say.
“You absolutely care. If I can do something that’ll make them stop, then I will. I’m good at it, anyway.” Marilyn’s bloody nose and bandaged hands say otherwise.
“Don’t try to bluff to distract me,” Esther pushes on. Marilyn huffs, looking offended, but doesn’t try denying it. “And don’t fight my battles for me. If you’re gonna punch someone, do it to protect yourself. Or at least do it the right way so you don’t mangle your hands.”
“No promises.” She meets Esther’s glare with a lazy smile.
“Wanna get out of here before they realize we hide in the same bathroom every time?”
“I’m not going back to class.”
“Well, we have to go somewhere.”
Marilyn gives her a look. Esther knows what it means, and sighs. They’ve skipped school enough times by now. She guesses one more day can’t hurt.
“My place?” Marilyn smiles. A real one, finally, that lights up her eyes. “Sounds good.”
Seven years before the death
They’re having a sleepover. They put a movie on, but the volume’s on too low to hear because Esther’s mom is asleep. Marilyn doesn’t mind. They’ve both been quiet tonight, anyway. Esther won’t laugh, no matter what Marilyn says. Marilyn’s kind of mad about that, but she isn’t sure at who.
“My dad kind of sucked,” Esther says out of nowhere, gripping a bowl of popcorn tight. Marilyn can barely remember what movie they were even watching. She’s mostly just spent it sneaking little glances at Esther. She’s looked...far away, tonight. Marilyn can’t tell where in her own head she went.
“You don’t have to see him anymore though, right?”
“No.” Esther’s shoulders hunch down a little bit. She pokes at a bunch in the rug with one socked foot. “Not him, or any of his friends.”
“It’s just me and Mom now. She tries her best.”
“Same,” Marilyn says, even though she’s never known her dad to hate for real. And then both of them start laughing. It’s not--it’s not funny, things probably aren’t okay at all, and Esther’s crying a little bit, but it’s easier this way. It’s easier, and when they’re done, slumping against each other breathlessly, Marilyn snakes one arm around Esther’s shoulders and holds onto her tight.
Nine years before the death
Esther and her mom move closer to the town. Marilyn’s excited because she can hang out at Esther’s house now, instead of her always having to come over to Marilyn’s. Esther says she’s glad that the bus ride won’t take an hour and a half anymore, now that she lives further away from nowhere.
Marilyn helps Esther and her mom paint their new mailbox, slapping a small yellow-paint handprint next to theirs.
Eleven years before the death
Marilyn crashes into her on the playground, running from a fourth-grader. They’ve barely rolled to a stop in the grass before Marilyn is pulling her up by the hand, taking off again. She starts to laugh as they run. Esther just stares at her with wide eyes. The fourth-grader yells something at their backs but they’re already gone, dropping to their hands and knees to crawl through the hole in the fence. They run again until they hit the woods.
They settle again on the roots of their favorite tree, both of them breathing heavy. Marilyn is smiling ear to ear. Her white collar is smudged all over with grass stains. “What did you do this time?” Esther hasn’t even known Marilyn that long, but she knows she always gets herself into trouble.
“Look what I got!” Marilyn digs around in her pockets, pulling out something in cupped hands. She lifts one hand to reveal a little plastic frog. It’s green and a little transparent, eyes two glittering rhinestones. It’s pretty; Esther reaches out to run a finger down its back.
“They were going to break it.” Esther isn’t really sure what face Marilyn is making, but she looks serious.
“They didn’t know how to play with it right. They were gonna break it, but then it landed next to me, so I rescued it from them.”
“But they’re older. They’ll get mad, and you’ll be in trouble.” In the forest, with all the trees to hide them from view, Esther isn’t too scared. But they’ll have to go back to the playground eventually, and then there’ll be yelling. And they saw Esther with Marilyn, so they’ll be mad at her too--
“You think too much,” Marilyn says, grinning. That’s the only warning Esther gets before Marilyn’s attacking her sides, tickling her so hard she falls down onto the tree roots, curling into herself and trying to slap Marilyn’s hands away.
Marilyn stops her attack, but she’s still laughing, high and bright. Esther joins in, rolling on her back to look up at the trees above, laughing so hard she feels like she might die.
By the Blackberry Bushes
When all is said and done, I can’t lie and say I’m a neutral party to the story of Billy and Hannah. I know too much, and yet I don’t know nothin’ at all, nothin’ enough to prove anything, either way, I guess.
Before she met him, Hannah had been just another pretty young girl in the town, sweet as honeysuckle but not very bright. She liked to linger ‘round the Taylor General Store with her hair done up but a curl loose to twirl around her finger. She was just a girl, I guess, bored of rural life and wantin’ to be a part o’ something, to love someone. Some people see that as the mark of a loose woman, but honestly, I don’t see no problem with it.
Well, anyhow, they say that one mid-September afternoon Hannah was sittin’ outside with one of her girlfriends, chattin’ up a storm, and it started to pour. Billy was just passin’ by at that moment in a covered cart, and he offered to take Hannah home. The other girl was the Taylor’s girl, so she just crossed the road to her family’s house, and Hannah was left alone with Billy. People saw ‘em go, but ain’t see what happened after, so it’s up to whichever one’s story you believe.
We didn’t hear nothin’ from Billy until the next day, when he pulled up to the general store to talk to his crew, which I was, unfortunately, part of at the time. We was all foolin’ around on our day off from school, playin’ mumble-de-peg and sippin’ brandy Tom stoled from his papa’s stash and Billy comes and he says that he got in a stitch with Hannah, that she was all over him and beggin’ ‘im on her knees for it, and he agreed. Now, we all thought Hannah was a flirt, but we hadn’t knowed she was a whore, and we woulda asked Billy more ‘bout it, but he had his chest all puffed up proud, so we had to cut him down instead, and it ended in such a scuffle that the brandy bottle got broke and we all left poor Tom alone with it, with no explanation to give his papa.
By the next day, I’d already forgotten what the scuffle was about, but when I was walkin’ by the general store, the Taylor girl caught my eye and, being pretty sweet on me, when I followed her outside, she commenced to tell me the whole tale. She told me how Hannah’d been so grateful to Billy for drivin’ her home, but that halfway down the road, in the deep woods, he’d started feelin’ her up, and when she told ‘im to stop he wouldn’t. She said he’d stopped the cart right there and said he wasn’t drivin’ her home for free and if she wouldn’t give ‘im what he wanted then she’d just have to walk the rest of the way in the rain.
Now, by that point, the sun setted, and the Taylor’s girl told me Hannah told her that she was scared she wouldn’t be able to see her way home. So, she said yes cuz’ what else was she s’posed to say? And they got tangled up in the back of the wagon and afterwards he took her home and she laid down and cried and cried, or so the Taylor’s girl said she did.
Well, I can’t lie and say I didn’t feel sorry for her, since she weren’t such a bad girl, just a bit of a pinhead, but I forgot about the whole incident much as anyone else did in the coming weeks. Billy kept braggin’ about it, but we got so sick of it that we started just ignorin’ ‘im, and, soon enough he stopped hangin’ ‘round us. As for Hannah, she became a bit of a recluse. We ain’t never see her out and about, and her parents didn’t come ‘round much neither.
As I said, we forgot all about it, but in the middle of a particularly cold Blackberry Winter I was sittin’ down in a cove by a thicket of blackberry bushes, stuffin’ my face with fresh blackberries, when I spied Hannah walking down the path, sobbin’. Or, to put it bluntly, she was more stumblin’ or waddlin’ about, since it was pretty obvious she was knocked up.
She seemed like she were in pain, so I felt compelled to call out to her, and when she turned to look at me she had these big, scared doe eyes that’d make any man feel compassion, and I can’t lie and say I didn’t felt real sorry for her. Then she tried to run but stumbled and fell on the ground, not risin’.
Worried, I went over to her, and she was just layin’ on the ground, moanin’. Now, I can’t lie and say I didn’t feel scared, like maybe she were cursed or something, but I tried to be brave and I knelt next to her. She says she’s in labor. I says ‘what?’. She says she’s gonna have a baby, and I oughta clear out cuz she don’t want nobody to see.
It seemed wrong to leave the poor girl all alone in such a state, but what was I s’posed to do? I didn’t know how to birth a baby, and I figured she’d have it handled; women knowed what to do.
I done cleared out, runnin’ back home to my parents’ house. I told myself I did the right thing, that she told me to go, and that she’d be fine. But I can’t lie and have to admit that I started feelin’ this gut feelin’ of guilt, that I’d done the wrong thing. So, I put back on my boots and hat and went out to search for Hannah again. I shouldn’t’ve gone back, or should’ve gone back sooner, cuz what I saw I ain’t gonna never be able to stop seeing for the rest of my life.
When I reached the cove, I heard the baby a’cryin’, and I saw Hannah holdin’ ‘im. By the blackberry thicket, there was a stream whose water was pretty deep, and real muddy too, too muddy to really see into it. In the midst of a ‘bout of sobbin’, Hannah took the baby and tossed it in the water, and I heard the sickenin’ splash. I ran away and threw up, feeling sick and shaky. The image of what happened was seered in my mind.
I don’t know why I didn’t tell people ‘bout what I witnessed that day, but I s’pose I was shocked, that I wasn’t even sure it weren’t no dream. And what came next I’m even less sure about.
Almost a month passed before I next saw Hannah, and when I did she was back to her old tricks, lingerin’ by the general store and flirtin’ with every lad she could talk to, ‘sides Billy and me. It made me think even more that what I saw was a dream, but then sometimes I’d look at her when she were alone and she’d get this haunted, forlorn look on her face, the same as the old veterans got when they started talkin’ ‘bout the brethren they lost in the war. I won’t lie and say I was entirely sure what to think anymore, and it ate at me.
Now, like I said, us boys had been avoiding Billy, sick of his talk, but one day he came over to my house, and what was I to do? Throw him out? I didn’t dislike ‘im as much as the other boys did anyhow, so I let ‘im stay and we went out back to skip rocks on the stagnant little pond on my papa’s property.
I was just talkin’ to ‘im ‘bout fishin’, nothing more serious than that, but like I said Billy was a boaster, and he started yammering about Hannah again. Only, this time, he was boastin’ about how her family was gonna make him marry her and support the baby but he hatched this brilliant plan to get out of it; he told Hannah she had to get rid of the baby or they’d both be miserable, so he told her to kill the baby and tell her family it were born dead, then they’d both get off. She resisted the idea, but, he boasted, he convinced her to do it, tellin’ her if she didn’t he’d be the most miserable husband she could ask for.
I can’t lie and say I didn’t feel awful sick to hear that plan, but I told ‘im how smart he was, wantin’ to appease ‘im, and changed the subject. I shoulda asked more questions I think, maybe told him killin’ a baby was a mortal sin, but I didn’t do that. I put the thing outta my mind and didn’t think about it again until Billy was dead and Hannah was crying at my door.
That was nearly a week after we was skippin’ rocks. It happened at night, on a cool June night where the lightnin’ bugs were buzzin’ all around and my little brothers were out tryin’ to catch ‘em. My parents were out visitin’ friends, and I was alone inside the house, sittin’ by the fire and tryin’ to read one of the fancy newspapers my papa always brought home when he visited Raleigh.
There was a frantic knockin’ on my door, and, startled, I got up to get it. Hannah was standin’ at my door, and her face was ashier than the remnants of a bonfire. I won’t lie and say I weren’t moved by her state and I got her a stiff drink of whiskey and sat her down by the fire. Almost without promptin’, she told me the whole tale:
She and Billy had been goin’ for a walk—they’d gotten closer since the whole ordeal and people said they was fixin’ to still get married in a few years, when we were all older—and they happened upon the spot next to the stream and Hannah said they started to hear the sound of a baby cryin’. At first, she thought it was in her head, that it was guilt or somethin’ like that, but Billy said he heard it too, and they both had the willies. Hannah wanted to turn back, but Billy said it was a nice night and they both must be imagining it, or it was the cry of some kind of animal. Before they could take another step, though, they heard it again, and, Hannah swore, they saw a flickering shape rise from the water.
I asked Hannah then if she was sure, if it weren’t just lightnin’ bugs, but she swore it weren’t lightnin’ bugs but a hazy figure. She said she called the name she’d intended to give the baby, which she knew I’d seen her havin’, and the figure made that cryin’ noise again. It rose from the water like a mist and glided towards ‘em.
It began to talk, Hannah told me as she reached out and clutched my arm, in this shrill, unearthly voice that surely was the same as the angel of death. She cried and said she regretted killin’ ‘im, that she loved ‘im and would give anything to have ‘im back. She begged ‘im, or it, I guess, for forgiveness.
At that point, Hannah shuddered, and she seemed to pass out, droppin’ the whiskey glass on the floor. I caught it just before it shattered and laid it on the floor before taking her shoulders and shakin’ ‘em to wake her up. With a start, she jumped up, and she started to weep.
Her story got disjoined by then, muddled by her tears, so I’ll just tell ya the gist: so, she begged the glowin’ figure for forgiveness, gettin’ down on her knees and all that, and, so she claims, it came out from the water towards her, leavin’ a wet trail on the ground behind it. It took Hannah’s arms, and she gave her confession, figurin’ this was the end for her. After all, this were the baby she killed, she thought, and she deserved for it to kill her right back, even though Billy were the one that made her do it. But, instead, the figure rose up and left a wet kiss on her cheek.
Hannah bid me to touch her cheek, and, sure enough, it was wet, but she’d been cryin’ so it weren’t proof of nothin’.
I’d be lyin’ if I said hearin’ the story didn’t raise gooseflesh on my arms, but I tried to stay strong through it, as not to scare her worse. So invested in the story, I’d forgotten that Billy were there in the first place, but then she said he’d run off when the figure came towards her. He was hightailin’ it up the hill, and he weren’t being stealthy about it, breakin’ branches and squelchin’ through the mud and such. In the moment where the figure kissed Hannah’s face, he’d nearly made it all that way up the hill. Hannah said that after the figure pulled back from her, an almost otherworldly peace came over her, like the kinda peace that happens right before you fall asleep. But she weren’t asleep, and she watched in a vague disorientation as the figure turned away from her and raced up the hill towards Billy. He screamed like a girl and tried to get away, but the figure grabbed his ankle and he fell to the ground like a doll, dirt fillin’ his open mouth as the figure dragged him back towards the water. Hannah said he was screamin’ her name, for her to help ‘im, but she felt so at peace that she didn’t feel no desire to move. She just watched as the figure dragged Billy down the hill, watched as he pulled him into the stream. Watched as the figure pushed his head down below the water and held it there until Billy’s thrashing and splashing stilled to nothing.
The figure disappeared, and Hannah broke from her trance, and then she ran straight for my house, since it was the closest by the scene. It wasn’t until hours later after retellin’ the gruesome tale that Hannah pulled herself together enough to go home, and it wasn’t until the next afternoon that I found out they’d come to her door and dragged her down to the jailhouse not long after she returned. She’d been seen walkin’ into the woods with ‘im, and then they’d found his body dead in the stream in the mornin’, so they made the connect and blamed her.Everyone in the town agrees it was murder. It don’t make any sense for it to be anything but murder. When I hear people retell the story again and again, makin’ up fantastical tales about how she killed him and why, I say nothin’. What am I s’posed to say anyway? She was obviously crazy when she came to me. Supernatural stories like that are fables. I ain’t never seen a ghoulish figure comin’ out of a stream, and neither has nobody I know.
But, sometimes, when I walk down by the stream, near the blackberry bushes, I hear this sound, this strange sound that almost sounds like a baby cryin’. I grab my blackberries and run, and the sound goes away, but I can still hear it in my head.
Today, I’ve decided to go down to the jailhouse to visit Hannah. Don’t judge me for goin’, I’m just goin’ because I feel sorry for the mess she’s gotten herself into, and I feel like I’m a part of it, since she came to me and I know about the whole ordeal.
Or, hell. I guess I can’t lie. And I’d be lyin’ if I said there weren’t a part of me… a part of me that thinks it might be true. It might be true, and Billy might’ve deserved what he got.
The wine tasted like dry love.
“Pete, I can’t believe this,” Sabrina said. “I mean really, look at this.” She laughed in astonishment as she took in the night sea and the orchestra of lights in the sky.
“We’ve already been here for the better part of a week,” Peter said.
“I know, I know, but look around! How could you get used to this?”
“You’re right. It’s amazing, I just … I don’t know. Probably the wine making me feel funny is all.”
“C’mon. What is it?” Sabrina groped for Peter’s hand but he recoiled.
“I don’t know,” Peter said, shaking his head. He took another delicate sip of his wine. “You’re happy right?” He was no longer smiling, and his face contorted into an odd grief. The question he seemed to repeat every few months or so always inspired the same argument, only slight variations each time. Part of Sabrina knew that he only asked out of a deep guilt he felt. And somewhere in her own mind she knew what he was guilty of. But that knowledge was buried far below the surface of her consciousness.
“What kind of question is that?” She sighed. “Of course I’m happy. You know that.”
“Yes. Or at least you should.”
“How should I know that?”
“Look where we’re at! For God’s sake, look around!” She shouted and laughed again in a different kind of astonishment. “How could I not be happy here?”
“I don’t know. I thought you would be happy in Pearl—”
“Don’t do that, Pe—”
“I knew you’d be happy in Pearl! But I was wrong! So how am I to know if you’re happy or not?”
“That’s in the past, fuck! Why do you always have to go back to that?”
“BUT I KNOW WHAT IT TOOK FOR US TO GET HERE!” He slammed his closed fist on the tabletop. In the silence that followed, Sabrina realized the world had never felt so quiet. A few members of the crew down on the lower deck raised their eyebrows and silently agreed to take a step inside for a few moments.
“I know what it took for us to get here,” he continued very softly. “And so I don’t know if you’re happy—how you could be happy because eventually the vacation will end and we’ll go back to Pearl.”
For a few seconds, Sabrina didn’t know what to say. She was startled by his outburst, but not scared. No, a little outburst couldn’t scare her anymore. But Peter was right. The vacation would soon be over. And then what? She asked herself. Pearl. Another book.
“You’re right, you’re right.” Peter remained silent and a tear welled in his eye. He was embarrassed, as he always was after an episode. He couldn’t look at her, his eyes were completely captivated by the black horizon beyond the bay. As he stared out, he thought of the glowing buildings behind him on the island and the docks crowded with pristine white boats. Brief ecstasy before inevitable darkness.
“But this boat, this place,” she said, “this is a sign that the work paid off. We can live differently from now on. Whether we leave Pearl as soon as we get home, or we live there until we die, I don’t care! What matters is how we chose to live, not where! And now, we have the means to live however we want!” There was passion in her voice, but the anger had faded.
“The book did well, there’s no denying it,” Peter said, his attention drawn away from the darkness and back to Sabrina., “but not well enough to live on for the rest of our lives. C’mon, you know that, Sabrina.” The tear still sat in the corner of his eye; like it was waiting for the right moment to fall.
“I’m not saying you stop writing. All I’m saying is that this deal is enough to let you write in peace. To let you write at a steady, comfortable pace. I love you. Obviously, I’m happy. And not because of this … a fuckin’ vacation. The boat is great, and the water and the island, but do you really think I would have waited eight years to go on a week-long vacation if I wasn’t happy?”
Sabrina laughed, and her eyes smiled at his. She inched her chair closer to his and wrapped her arms over his broad shoulders. He rested his head on her chest and that single tear squeezed out of his eye.
“Okay,” he said, and they held each other for a while.
“C’mon, we’re here to celebrate, aren't we?” She shrugged Peter’s head off her chest and reached to raise her glass. He mimicked her. “A toast,” she declared. “To the success and longevity of A Time of Quiet, and whatever comes next.” Her eyes smiled at his again, but there was some terror behind them that Peter would never have the perception to pick up.
By this point in their marriage, she knew to toast the work instead of Peter. Though A Time of Quiet was far and away his most successful novel yet—arguably his only successful novel—Peter only liked to give praise to the work, not himself. He never thought writers deserved anything more than a pat on the back. To Peter, it was the characters that deserved the recognition for having the strength to come alive. A writer is just a vessel for a character to breathe through.
As they clinked the crystal glasses another boat passed on the starboard side. It was smaller than the one Peter and Sabrina had rented, and the vacationers on it were clearly that: vacationers. A family dressed in Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts with flip-flops. The presumed father of the ill-dressed gaggle raised his Bud to Peter in a mark of masculine comradery. We may be yacht virgins, but Jesus Christ, Peter thought to himself and laughed inside. Peter didn’t raise his glass in return but instead gave a polite nod, so as not to further the interaction nor ignore the man. In a matter of moments, the neighboring boat was passed.
Sabrina met Peter’s gaze and they both burst into a fit of laughter. A catharsis after the tension from before.
“For a second, I thought we were back in Pearl,” Sabrina said through her giggle.
“Yeah, that might have fit just perfect back home. Who knew Italy has its own prime specimens of the great American beer belly?”
They finished the bottle of chardonnay and another after that, drinking between their regular patterns of laughter. After the alcohol rendered their argument a thing of the past, they made love in their bedroom suite. It was good; better than it had been in a long time Sabrina would recall the following morning. The wine and exhaustion, from both the argument and lovemaking, made sleep easy.
In the morning, Sabrina awoke early.
For the most part, things were good, and Sabrina knew it. She tried to forget the argument from the previous night and focus on the good, though this morning something didn’t feel right. The two had been married eight years and Sabrina had learned Peter’s “atmosphere”—a word her mother liked to use for someone’s vibe, aura—better than she’d ever imagined possible. She knew when even a single molecule of that atmosphere changed. But this time, she couldn’t place what that molecule had changed to or why.
Peter was still in a deep slumber when Sabrina rose from the bed and crept over to the door that led to the bedroom’s private balcony. Before she stepped out she glanced back at Peter. He was curled up in the fetal position far on his side of the bed. Physically, Peter was slightly above average size for a male of 33 years. He was strong, but not bulky. Lean muscle lined his bones and made ornate cuts in all the right places. He stood like a finely molded statue from centuries ago: powerful in appearance with perfect posture; yet Sabrina knew parts of him were crumbling. Physical power surrounding an insecure soul. A sculpted man rolled into a nearly naked ball.
She loved him deeply. She always had since they started dating back when they were both very young and filled to the brim with wild dreams. Two shots in the dark at fantastical careers and lives. The trip to Sardinia was a mark of one of those dreams coming true. Truer than either of them ever thought possible.
Two shots in the dark and one hit a fucking bullseye, she thought, and then immediately tried to refocus on the good, as she stepped out. Sabrina slid the door shut behind her so as not to let the cool draft wake Peter. She loved him, but early mornings were her time to be alone and if she couldn’t find perfect serenity in a place like this, then she couldn’t anywhere in the world. The breeze took a sharp cut off of the morning heat. Sabrina was surprised to find the air in Sardinia felt nearly just as hot as it did in Pearl, where the couple had lived since Peter published his first novel.
His debut book titled Soul Surgery was an investigation into the southern town of Pearl and some of the people who had lived there throughout the mid-1950s. Sabrina was shocked to learn that some world-famous brain surgeon had taken a liking to Pearl and a young boy who lived there. The surgeon spent months in the town performing semi-public lobotomies on patients with the boy as his pupil. When Peter first learned of this he was obsessed with the idea of turning it into a novel. They promptly moved to Pearl, much to Sabrina’s dismay, so he could be “right in the heart of the story,” as he often explained. After the novel debuted they never left. Peter’s obsessive nature with his stories grew; the stories in his head like a drug and the keyboard his syringe. He seemed to believe after he had written and published a second novel that the town was inspiring his ideas. It was as though Pearl was feeding Peter’s addiction.
But Peter wasn’t the only one affected by the obsession. Pearl pumped him full with inspiration and idea, character, motive, and plot. Every once in a while, it was all too much for him to handle alone. Practically foaming at the mouth, Peter’s fizzing passion had to go somewhere. It just so happened that that passion most often materialized in the form of his balled fists. Sabrina would wake with black eyes or a bloody nose, products of his need to squeeze everything he could out of her like the town was squeezing everything out of him. She’d cover any evidence with makeup and try her best not to leave the house until the marks had faded. Then, her brain would dig a hole, bury the memory, and she would fall madly in love with him all over again. Then Pearl would happily hand Peter his next dose of inspiration.
Years after they first moved to Pearl, A Time of Quiet was published and here they were. Maybe the obsession was worth it. Maybe not. Sabrina sighed deeply before heading back into the bedroom to dress and then out to the lower deck to soak her feet for a while.
The morning water was cold and smooth on her feet. The rays of sunlight cast odd shapes through the lightly sloshing water. Sabrina had never been anywhere in which the seafloor could be seen from the surface. Even things meters deep were presented as if they would breach through the top of the water at any moment. Like looking through a translucent blue magnifying glass. I wonder if you could put anything—anyone—down there and see their every little detail. Even the disturbing ones.
Peter’s feet made tiny slaps on the wood as he approached Sabrina. His head was still foggy from waking and the pure outdoor air gave him a minor tinge of pain behind his eyes, but even still he noticed Sabrina’s beauty. Her blonde hair hung over her shoulders like a melting halo and the sun gave her legs a glimmer that made even the water look dull and stale. He kneeled behind her and kissed her cheekbone.
“Good morning,” Peter said.
“You’re up early,” she turned and met his eyes, still crusted with the sandman’s traces.
“It’s nearly 11:00 now.”
“Okay, so it took the biggest book deal practically ever, a tour, and a ridiculously fabulous vacation to get you to wake up before noon, and all of the sudden 11:00 is late?”
He laughed and kissed her cheek again as she spoke.
“I missed you. So I got up! Is that so ridiculous to believe?” His words held an air of sarcasm.
“Oh, gross,” she said and giggled. “No matter what they say of the romances of Italy, let’s not pretend the country has you falling in love with me again.”
“And what if I am?” He raised his eyebrows.
“You are?” Sabrina said, obviously unconvinced.
She laughed hard this time. As revenge for making her blush so, she grabbed a firm hold of his arm and pulled toward the edge of the deck using her low center of gravity to overcome his much heavier weight. Caught off guard, he didn’t put up much of a fight; though he tried. Peter went head-first into the water and the rest of his body followed. He plunged deeper than he should have, only having fallen from a foot or two above the surface. Sabrina sat, still in her position from earlier that morning, and she could see him reflected through the translucent blue.
Like he’s under a magnifying glass. Every little detail.
As soon as the book deal was signed Peter and Sabrina immediately started planning the vacation. A Time of Quiet had gone through seventeen rewrites and Peter made countless revisions to the manuscript, at the suggestion—or command rather—of his editor. Darlene had been Peter’s editor, right hand, and friend since he published his second book. Sabrina didn’t care for the woman at all. Sabrina always had a feeling when Darlene was around that Peter would one day fall in love with her and leave. It wasn’t that Darlene was particularly pretty, or funny, but rather Peter seemed to think she was the key to his success as a writer, like there was no one else in the world that could do her job. Even the thought of dearest Darlene made Sabrina’s stomach start to churn.
The couple settled on Sardinia, Italy, a decently sized island located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was easy enough to find a yacht for rent, captain, cook, and crew included. Some short months following the deal, tour, and various other signings, Peter and Sabrina boarded the massive Delta plane for the 14-hour flight to Munich, a smaller connection flight to Milan, and finally a prop-plane ride over to Sardinia. The prop-plane scared the living hell out of both of them but nevertheless they arrived at their destination safely and made their way to Castelsardo on the northern coast.
The island was beautiful. From the plane, Peter and Sabrina could see the clusters of colorful towns transition into rolling green hills, white beaches, and smooth stone fixtures. No other town on the island had a glow quite like Castelsardo, Charliz, one of Sabrina’s family friends, had said as the once college roommates spoke over the phone. Peter and Sabrina had decided on Sardinia but were still looking for the right spot to dock the rented yacht each night and Charliz, having visited the very same island in high school, claimed to know the perfect place.
“You don’t understand, Sabrina! It’s amazing!” Charliz insisted.
“And how long has it been since your little visit?”
“Okay, yeah, it’s been a while I’ll be the first to admit.”
“Right.” Sabrina said.
“But! I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s a place you’ll never forget. Ri, it’ll change your life.”
“We’ll look into it, but no promises! It’s a pretty big island after all.”
It was Peter’s suggestion to head into town instead of out to sea for the day. They hadn’t been through the heart of the Castelsardo yet and he knew Sabrina was itching to see it. After his involuntary plunge into the clear water, Peter promptly climbed back onto the boat, jovially threatened to throw Sabrina in, and dressed for a sunny day on land.
“What’s with the change?” Sabrina asked as they walked.
“What do you mean, change?”
“You love it out there, on the water, I mean. Why waste a day on land?”
“Well, we only have a day or so left, so I figured we should at least see the place once before we leave,” Peter said. “Plus, Charliz would drown me if I kept you from actually going into town at least once.”
“Too true,” Sabrina said.
They walked along the edge of the dock and slowly the pastel buildings grew. A stone castle loomed over the town on the far side from the docks, giving the place an odd contrast. Popping pinks, yellows, and blues before a strong gray background. Sabrina wondered if the citizens of Castelsardo noticed the fortress each day, or if it began to blend into the scenery over time; as so many things do. Sabrina didn’t think it was something she could ever forget.
As they entered the main hub of the town—a traffic loop centered around a large fountain surrounded by small storefronts, cafes, and restaurants—Peter suggested they grab a bite for a late lunch. Sabrina agreed—her stomach had been growling for the last hour—and the couple settled on one of the fronts in the circle.
Sabrina didn’t speak anything but English but had tried valiantly on the 14 hour flight to learn what Italian she could. She managed to order them lunch, though it mostly involved pointing at various spots on the menu and mumbling neither English nor Italian but some uncanny cross between the two that was unique to Sabrina and Sabrina alone.
After the meal they spent nearly three hours simply wandering the intricate passages and narrow alleys. They were both explorers by heart and Sabrina loved watching Peter’s eyes light up at a new discovery. She was almost more amazed by the sight of him soaking in the city like a sponge than she was by Castelsardo entirely. But there was something about watching him that made her feel like she was having deja vu. When has he acted like this before?
They held hands as they wound through the city, running and laughing in the spring-like haze. Potted flowers and green vines bordered each walkway and stairwell. The paths wrapped and led in confusing directions, but neither Peter nor Sabrina cared where they were going. Eventually their route—or perhaps it was the city itself—shot them out onto the beachfront. Shirtless children kicked soccer balls and galloped into the crystal ocean.
Peter and Sabrina locked eyes in awe.
“Oh my god, Charliz was right.”
“That’s a first.”
“We’ll never forget this place.”
“No, we won’t.”
It was dark when Sabrina woke up. Peter wasn’t in the bed and the door to the bedroom was ajar. “Pete?” she called faintly toward the cracked door. No answer. Again, the sex had been good but again, Sabrina had the feeling that within Peter’s atmosphere something was different. This time something was very different.
Fuck, what time is it? Sabrina wondered as she threw on a t-shirt and a pair of pajama shorts. She tapped her phone screen and saw that it was already 11:37 p.m. How long was I asleep? The couple’s adventures in Castelsardo came to a perfect close around 4 in the afternoon and they came back to the yacht to make love. Sabrina didn’t remember her or Peter falling asleep afterward, but clearly, it happened.
The main room outside the bedroom was empty and silent. Only a few lights were on and the place gave Sabrina a maroon feeling. She moved quickly across the floor and through the sliding glass doors out to the upper deck. Again silence, but here, on the far side of the deck, she found Peter sitting at one of the wooden tables. He was hunched over his laptop, the blue-light illuminating his unblinking eyes. In that moment, Sabrina knew exactly what had changed in Peter’s atmosphere and exactly why she had felt the powerful blow of deja vu earlier that day. He wasn’t merely taking in the sights earlier, he was ingesting the setting of his next story; just as he had when they first arrived in Pearl. Peter was writing—writing. writing. writing.writing—oh my god he’s writing. he’s writing.
Sabrina couldn’t control her breath. It was leaving her rapidly in successive bursts. Her head began to pound and sway and her eyes darted around the deck.
“Pete?” Sabrina said, but she choked on it. Her hand unconsciously went to her cheekbone, which was throbbing for some reason. writing
“Pete—er?” Fuller this time but not quite there yet. he brought it, the laptop, he brought it. he promised he wouldn’t—he’s writing. writing.
Sabrina cleared her throat. It felt like swallowing a used syringe. “Peter, honey. Whatcha doin’ out here?”
“Do you see the stars?” he spat out.
“Do you see them?”
“—Do you!” again spitting. Sabrina looked up. The night sky was completely clear of clouds, but no, there were no visible stars.
“No, I don’t see any stars.”
“Right,” he said. “What do you think’s up with that?”
“Peter, what are you—”
“—DON’T SAY MY NAME AGAIN. Peter, Peter, Peter. Jesus Christ, for the last time it’s the work not the author. The work not the author. The work, the work, THE FUCKING WORK!” Peter slammed his hands on the table next to his computer repeatedly. Over and over and over. BANG! BANG! BANG
writing. your. cheek. maroon. Peach
Sabrina was sweating. She wiped at her brow and tried to focus her eyes between fits of fleeing breath.
“The crew’s gone,” he said, his voice calm now, and scratched his scalp. Flakes of bloodied dandruff snowed onto his shoulder. “All of ‘em.”
“Pe—” she stopped herself, “why is the crew gone?”
“I have an idea—had an idea. I had it. And now I have it. The story. It’s done.” His words came out like time was being fast forwarded.
“I thought of it last night.”
“Yes, after our argument while we were—”
“—okay, you thought of the story last night and after I fell asleep, you wrote the entire thing?” Sabrina didn’t understand. Peter was by no means a slow writer, but how could he have pumped out an entire story in a matter of hours?
“Well, yes for the most part. It’s not entirely finished but it’s pretty much there. Darlene’s going to love it.”
“And where did the crew go?”
“I paid them to leave and come back tomorrow.”
“Why? Uh, why would you do that?
because he had to write. he’s writing
Peter stood from the chair and started slowly toward Sabrina. The glow of the laptop left his face. His complexion darkened save for his eyes, which still wouldn’t blink.
“You wouldn’t believe how much money it takes to get a captain to leave his ship overnight. I practically had to buy the fucking boat.” Sabrina couldn’t move under his medusa gaze. He snatched her wrist. “C’mon. It’s time for you to read it.”
“No, Peter. Baby, I’ll read it tomorrow. Lets go to bed.” She was completely absent of air now. Reserve tank’s empty, baby.
“No,” his mouth laughed but otherwise his face didn’t change. “Tomorrow is so far from now. You’ll read it now.” He nodded enthusiastically. Sabrina’s cheekbone pulsed in pain again, though for seemingly no reason, as he pulled her toward the table on the far side of the deck.
She ripped loose from his grip and screamed at him: “NO!”
And that’s when his fist collided with her cheekbone and opened her perfect skin like splitting a peach. The maroon poured. Such familiarity in habitual pain. Her temple smacked the wood of the deck and a starless darkness fell over her.
he’s writing BANG! he’s writing
A long sleeve t-shirt was balled and shoved deep into Sabrina’s mouth. She choked on it repeatedly and threw up in her mouth. She tried to spit the gag out but quickly realized the sleeves were tied around her head. Somehow she was alive and would stay that way. The gag was just enough to keep her gasping without killing her. Her wrists were duct-taped to the chair she now sat in. She blinked hard and looked around to see she was now on the lower deck facing the sea. The front legs of the chair were set right at the edge of the deck and her feet dangled over the sloshing water. She tried to crane her neck around to see behind her but only noticed one disturbing fact. The boat was no longer in the harbor. On all sides lay an infinite black. She writhed in the binding.
“You're going to read it,” behind her, practically breathing into her eardrum. Her head bobbed in delirium and she tried to scream. But the gag held firm and slowly collected the trickling blood and sweat from her cheek and temple.
Suddenly the chair started leaning forward toward the black water. He’s tipping me. Oh my god, he’s fucking tipping me.
“You will read it.”
Her mind jumped from one thought to another: he’ll tip you over you fucking moron, just read it! Would a wood chair sink? Of course it would, it’s a fucking solid wood chair with you strapped right into the driver’s seat. You’ll die. Drowned out in the middle of nowhere. Out in the middle of the fucking sea. She started nodding her head as hard as she could. The chair stopped tipping.
“So you’ll read it.”
She kept nodding. The t-shirt loosened from around her skull and the gag fell into her lap.
“I’ll read it!” she shouted as soon as her mouth was free.
“Good.” He lifted one side of her chair and on two legs it swung around to face Peter. He placed the laptop on her lap.
“Peter, untie me and I’m happy to read it,” Sabrina said. Tears ran over her split cheek and burned into her gouged flesh.
“Read it,” he demanded.
Married—abused—eight years and this is what it boiled down to. Forced to read a fucking story or drown.
“Why, why now, Peter? Please.”
“You have to read it now. I have to know now.” He leaned close to her. Their noses almost touching. His eyes didn’t blink. “Read. It.” His breath was hot and drunk.
And so, she peered down at the screen, tried to look like she was focusing, and ran her eyes across each line. She wasn’t going to read it. Not for him. The fuck with reading the damn story. How many times would her cheek have to open before they could be completely happy? This was it, for the rest of their lives this was it. The cycle. Celebrate one book and hope the next idea never came. Until suddenly it did and her cheek would open. Eight years. For eight years, since they stumbled upon the southern burg of Pearl, she had shut away her own dreams so she could be an object in the background of his.
Sabrina toed the wood of the deck and flexed her calves. Testing her strength. She could hear the water behind her. The ever-sloshing sea. As good a grave as any she supposed.
When she reached the end of the story, not having read a single word, only intermittently cueing Peter to scroll down, she looked up at him.
“Well? What do you think?” he spread his hands out like an excited child. His fingers were stained red. Her blood, all over his hands. But he hadn’t killed her. Not yet, and not ever. A broken madman living in a crumbling shell.
“What do you mean?” he said and laughed a perverse light cackle.
“The story is shit.”
“No, no, no, you just didn’t get—no,” at first he shook his head in disbelief until he fell to his knees and rocked back and forth and tore at his scalp.
“Just like the rest, the story is shit. I’ll admit you got lucky with the last one, but wow, that was. just. shit.”
“READ IT AGAIN!” he screamed and pounded his fist into the deck. “START OVER!”
“I don’t need to, Pete. It’s awful. I mean, really. It’s just terrible.”
He rose to his feet, still tearing at his hairline, and started toward Sabrina. The perfect moment. She flexed her calves as hard as she could and pushed against the deck with her toes.
The chair tipped quickly backward and gravity took care of the rest. Sabrina and the laptop plunged into the black sea. Peter screamed so hard that his voice broke and the taste of iron filled his mouth.
Peter desperately reached for the computer but it, and his beloved story, were gone. Floating out toward the infinite horizon of darkness.
As Sabrina sank, tethered to the deck chair, she no longer struggled to free herself. Instead, she gulped the saltwater like an elixir. The pain, carried by the water quickly filling her, was nothing to the pain she’d grown so accustomed to over the previous eight years. The pain of bloodied cheeks and pounding concussion headaches. The pain of forgiving him and falling in love again like nothing ever happened. The pain of telling herself it didn’t mean anything. He’s just passionate. He just cares. He just wants the work to be its best.
He just wants to be the best.
No. BANG! BANG! BANG!
Slowly Peter and the boat’s edge faded and there was only darkness. She wondered if he could see her from above the surface, as though looking through a translucent blue magnifying glass.
Her and her every beautiful detail.
The road finally divides into two lanes, and the Toyota Tacoma that’s been riding my tail for the past four miles whips around me. The speed limit is forty-five, but now that no one’s behind me I drop to forty. My fingers tighten around the wheel as I glance at my phone. Nine minutes until I arrive. Maybe I can stretch it to fifteen.
I’ve been driving for four hours, and I am scared as hell for what I am about to do. Sure, I’ve been curious about it since I found out when I was ten. But the fear was stronger. The mystery has stayed in the background for my whole life, and I saw no reason to make it anything but that. A forgotten secret. But once the seed of curiosity is planted, it only grows. Mine took nearly twenty years before it finally reached the surface. Another five before I let my husband Marcus help me find the name, the address.
Six minutes away. I turn right on Abraham Lane, a narrow street that is framed by pear trees in full bloom. They remind me of the house in New Jersey that I grew up in. At the edge of the neighborhood was a pond lined with pear trees, and in the spring the sweet scent drifted through our open kitchen windows. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had spent my childhood in another place, surrounded by different trees and a different home.
Four minutes. I drop to ten below the speed limit, but the road is back to one lane and I don’t want to irritate the elderly man that’s driving behind me. I turn left onto Winona Drive and he stays straight, so I slow down again and let out a long breath.
Two minutes. Marcus had offered to come with me, but this is something I have to do on my own. It’s a piece of myself that has always been missing, but I didn’t realize how much I needed to find it. That curiosity I had pushed away as a little girl had grown over the years, and finally I had followed its call. But even now, as I drive through this quiet neighborhood and past quiet trees that guard the walkways beneath them, as I draw closer to the place I promised myself I would not hide from anymore, I still don’t feel ready.
One minute. I can see the house at the end of the street. It’s small and painted blue, a color that matches both of my parents’ eyes. Not mine. Mine are brown like coffee, like dark oak, like melting chocolate.
You have arrived. My car creeps slowly toward the curb, and I keep my foot planted on the brake pedal for a long minute before shifting into park. I send Marcus a text that I’m there. He responds back almost immediately: “You’re ready. I love you.”
I study the house. The yard is overgrown but charming. Green ivy winds around the base of the mailbox, which is painted the same color as the dark blue shutters. There’s a red car in the driveway. A birdbath by the front porch.
It’s easy to forget when something fades from new to normal. Maybe that would’ve happened if I had grown up here. Maybe he’d have painted the shutters blue when I was eight, but after a week the color would have stopped standing out. Maybe the ivy didn’t start growing until last year, but after a few months, I would’ve forgotten what the mailbox had looked like without it. Maybe there used to be a bird feeder instead of a bath.
But that isn’t what happened. To me, everything here is new. I can’t see the growth, the decay, the way things changed over the years. I am an outsider looking in. Fear has been tangled with my curiosity for my whole life, but for the first time, it is all replaced by peace. I am ready. I get out of my car, walk up the driveway, and step onto the porch. After taking a short breath, I knock.
A man opens the door. He stares at me blankly for a moment, his expression neutral. My heart is pounding.
“Can I help you?” he asks. His voice is deep, but smooth like a jazz singer. His shoulders are broad like mine, and the freckles on his hands match my own. His hair is graying, skin just starting to wrinkle.
I look at his eyes and smile. They are deep and rich. Like coffee. Like dark oak. Like melting chocolate.
The Tragic Case of the Nonexistent Gummy Bears
The culmination of the worst day of my life-- which in all truthfulness resembles, unfortunately, so many other days of my life-- all started as I was heading home from work one day. I had been driving through icy rain that kept freezing up my windshield wipers and pounding angrily against the roof of my car, when this horribly annoying flashing light began to scream at me from my dashboard, telling me that I needed gas RIGHT NOW or else I would forever be stranded. Which is how I wound up at a rundown gas station, standing beneath the awning as I pumped the cheapest of diesels into my temperamental car. I was contemplating the merits of abandoning my car where it was, walking home and trying again the next day, when my eyes strayed past the solitary gas pump that I stood by and caught upon the blazing, pearlescent light that was the convenience store adjacent to the gas station.
Ah yes, I thought. Finally! Something decent in this day. Because where there is a convenience store, there is bound to be a candy section. And where there is a candy section, there will always be gummy bears. A light at the end of the road for me, it seemed-- an incredibly literal light, as the fluorescents attacking my eyes through the store’s windows were the only illumination present anywhere near that gas station. So, unplugging my car from the pump, I made my way up the graffitied path to the beckoning doors of the convenience store.
Completely ignoring the employee slouched over the counter inside, my eyes scanned the signs that labeled the top of each aisle within the cramped store, and halted when they caught on that most magical of words. Candy. I scampered toward those five letters fast enough to leave skid marks in my wake, coming into view of all the glory beyond.
It was immediately clear upon looking at the shelves that the store’s method of organization was ‘take the candy and chuck it where there’s space,’ and so I took my time, searching each and every one of those shelves that were scattered so haphazardly with neon colored plastic bags, filled to the brim with every perfect delicacy known to man.
As I began to reach the end of the aisle, however, a tingling began in the back of my mind. An indication that something was wrong. Pushing my forebodings to the side, I kept searching, my eyes becoming more and more desperate as the shelves came to an end, and still no gummy bears were to be found. Working backwards, I then proceeded to scour the shelves again, taking my time to ensure I didn’t miss a wayward bag of gummy bears. But alas, yet again I completed my perusal, with still no gummy bears to be found.
Despair began to well up within me, starting somewhere near my toes, but settling deep in the gut that should have, by that point, been full to bursting with gummy bears. Before true panic could settle in, I decided to take one final action-- a desperate, frantic move that under normal circumstances I never would have considered. But these were dark times, and they required drastic efforts.
I approached the cashier. He was playing some game on an ancient gameboy, and didn’t seem to notice me in front of him. Close to hyperventilating at this point, I cleared my throat, then flinched when the cashier raised his head. His name tag read Albert, and my eyes lingered on the tag for probably a few seconds longer than necessary before I realized he was staring at me, and so, as one does, I cleared my throat again.
“Sorry,” I said, and my voice cracked, which made me question the purpose behind the double throat clearing. I tried again. “Sorry to disturb you,” I glanced down at his gameboy, then quickly looked back up again. “I was just wondering-- that is, do you have any gummy bears?”
Albert did not respond. I took a deep breath, trying to settle myself. “I was just in your candy aisle,” I pointed behind me, “and I didn’t see any. Just… do you have any in the back?”
Still Albert remained immobile for so long that I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me. I was working up the nerve to repeat myself, when he began to shake his head slowly.
“Don’t know,” he said in a low voice that I had to strain my ears to catch. He jolted his head in the direction of a door behind him. “Can go check, though.”
“Yes,” I said, immediate relief washing over me. “That would be great.”
Albert left, and I stood there by the registers, alone in the store with my thoughts and fears. What if he didn’t find any gummy bears back there? What would I do next? I really didn’t know how much more I could endure that day, and this just might have been the final jenga block in a tower destined to crumble. The tower being my life, I guess. Or at least my day.
A minute or two later Albert came back, a small blue bag in his hands. My heart leapt, soared! Albert had done it! He had found the missing gummy bears, and all that fear, that anxiety had been for nothing. Everything was going to be okay now.
“Sorry,” he said, coming back over to where I still stood. “Don’t think we have any. Found this, though.”
Slowly, so slowly and so tragically, I looked down into his hands and saw, rather than the adorable multi-colored bears that I had so been longing for, a bag full of wriggling gummy bits. Worms. He had brought me a bag of gummy worms.
The horror! The audacity! The very notion that a bag of gummy worms could in any way live up to the most perfect of snacks that is gummy bears.
But then I sighed, and reached out a hand. “How much?” I asked.
The Narrator is a Girl
Her parents had hired me to help her with barn chores. Three times a week I’d drive up the dirt road in my beat-up Ford, where I’d find her waiting against the barn wall. Our worn, leather boots would clump along the floor and announce our arrival, and the animals would peek their shiny eyes through the wooden slats of their stall doors in search of dinner. Clucking chickens pecked at the ground in search of seed, shaking sawdust out of their silky feathers. The pigs nestled beneath straw in search of hidden apple cores, vegetable scraps, and other loose bits of feed that might have fallen out of their bowl. Goats rubbed their heads against the rough wooden walls, scratching and bleating. The animals were the only living creatures that didn’t seem to care about the two of us.
When the chores were done, our eyes would dart between each other and the tiny speck of the farmhouse on the other side of the property, where her parents were reading picture books about Jesus’ miracles and Noah’s ark to her younger siblings. When our gaze met, we’d always silently ask one another if it was worth the risk. And each time, we’d climb the worn wooden ladder to the hayloft.
We’d lie in the straw facing each other, fingers twined in gentle knots. Our space was lit by the light that came through the window with the broken shutters. I liked to lay with my back facing it. She’d poke my shoulder and say it was because I wanted her to get wrinkles from squinting against the light. In reality, I just wanted to see the sunlight shattering across her brown eyes in a shower of warm embers, cozy and familiar. Whenever I sneezed from the barn’s dust, and I always did, her face would crinkle in laughter and those eyes would become a fireworks display. She’d say, “bless you,” and I’d respond with a smile and a hand squeeze.
There were days when we felt brave and desperate, and we’d fall into each other. I’d cradle her face in my hands and press my lips to every inch of her face. Her hands would travel up my shirt and over my chest, exploring every dip and roll with appreciation and love. We’d lie on top of the blanket we put in the loft to shield our bodies from the prick of hay, drinking each other in.
Most of the time we’d just talk, too afraid of being discovered to do much else. But I was just as happy listening to her. We talked about our favorite tea flavors (mine was English breakfast, hers was Earl gray). She talked about the quilting lessons her Aunt Louise was giving her. I’d tell her about the latest nature documentary I’d watched and identify the different spiders that scuttled through the rafters. She’d tell me about the most recent poem she’d written, and if I was lucky, she’d whisper the words in my ear, her voice as rich and sweet and golden as honey. It sent shivers down my spine.
We never talked about Pastor Roger’s sermons, and the fear they struck into our hearts. Neither of us acknowledged how we would avoid each other’s gaze as we sat in pews on opposite ends of the church on Sunday mornings. Pastor Roger would wave his arms frantically and angrily, warning us of the fiery hell that awaited if the congregation didn’t repent their sinful ways and turn our hearts to God. So often, my mind would travel to images of her lying next to me in the hayloft; her slender hands, her stunning curls, her warm, sun-shattered eyes...I just couldn’t comprehend how a god who loves us so much could condemn someone so beautiful.
the day before leaving
“You’re doing it wrong,” Lauren says, peering down over his shoulder at the eggs in the pan. He’s poking them gingerly with a fork, like they’re some dead thing. Doesn’t mean he won’t defend himself over it, though.
“How could I be doing it wrong, how can you scramble anything the wrong way?”
“Just let me do it,” she snorts. She bumps him with her hip, bullying him away from the stovetop. He’s surprised that she gets a laugh out of him. It’s barely anything, more of a big puff of air if he’s honest, but she still grins wide and bright when she hears it.
Tomorrow morning, he is going to die.
Lauren doesn’t know, because she would stop him. And because he loves her, and all of that mess. He’s probably more than a little shitty for not thinking of that reason first. He bites his lip.
He can see it, in his mind’s eye. The poisonous words finally leaving his mouth. The way her face would scrunch up and her lip would wobble. How she’d act like it’s no big deal so she wouldn’t scare him off. The texts he’d see her making out of the corner of his eye to her friends, about how Matt is doing bad again.
It’s going to be even worse than that, when she finds him with his brains blown out. He stares up at the kitchen light. It flickers back. He meant to change the bulb out. It was on his list of things to do, to make things easier for her. He even washed her black dress when he did darks the other day. If she noticed him pulling it out from the back of the closet, she didn’t say anything. She was probably just glad he was doing the laundry for once.
He thinks about dying. Lauren cooks the eggs.
He blinks, and he’s sitting at the bar, scrambled eggs on a paper plate in front of him.
Lauren is handing him the salt shaker. It glints in the light, and he’s seeing the barrel of the gun that he shoved into the bottom of an old shoe box in the closet--
“All that sodium’s gonna get you one of these days,” she says.
“I guess,” he says, because that’s marginally better than I don’t care.
She nudges him with her foot. “Hey, what’s up with you?” Shit.
He swallows. He can’t ruin today, because today is all about trying to make it up to her. He even got up early so she could make breakfast and he could pretend to like scrambled eggs.
“Just tired,” he says, because it’s the kindest truth he can give. “You’re the one who wanted to get up before eleven.”
“You can’t eat breakfast past lunchtime, even on a weekend. It’s just not the same.”
“It’s literally the exact same food no matter when you eat it.”
She rolls her eyes. “We’re gonna fix your sleep schedule one of these days, mark my words.”
He doesn’t answer, just scoops some too-salty eggs into his mouth. Must have not been paying attention when he had the salt shaker. Lauren starts talking about something at work, some drama with one of the new girls. He tries to nod in what feels like the right places. He never comes home with any stories from work. Mostly, he just tries to get them all to leave him alone.
The eggs are like paste in his mouth, thick and uncomfortable. He tastes blood in the back of his throat. Lauren says something with a smile on her face like it was funny, so he forces himself to grin.
He’s still surprised the guy at the store didn’t stop him when he bought the gun. He probably looked shady as fuck, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet, anxiously scrolling through his phone every ten seconds. All the google searches for how to buy and shoot guns probably got him put on some kind of list.
But the guy at the store barely gave him a second glance, just nudged some forms towards him, and went back to whatever else he was doing.
And then he thought Lauren would notice, would ask where he went earlier, would find the receipt or god forbid the gun. He’d felt like it was branded all over his face. Neon ticker tape saying I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to--But she’d just asked what he wanted to do for dinner, and that was the end of that.
He can feel the gun’s presence in the back of the closest every night when they lay down to sleep. Like some awful lodestone dragging his compass needle towards it. He pictures the scene, over and over. He’s never even shot a gun before, but in his dreams he always does it with a steady hand.
It’ll be quick, because anything else is too terrifying, and then there’ll be nothing else.
The day is blurry. He’d been planning on just doing whatever Lauren wanted to do, but that ended up being messing with some fancy bath bombs she got, and even if their tub is too small for it to possibly be relaxing, he lets her have her fun. That means he just ends up with his ass on the couch, some show on half volume that he’s maybe absorbed ten seconds of.
He should call his parents, because that feels like the done thing. He’s been meaning to do it for weeks now. And then he was just going to write them a letter, but that’s kind of dramatic. And a lot of energy. Fuck, he’s tired.
There are all his old models up on the shelves. He hasn’t built one in a while. There’s four or five still in their boxes, collecting dust up in the closet, but he just never got around to opening them. Lauren could probably sell a couple of his finished ones for a little bit of money. Fuck knows funerals aren’t cheap. His stomach gives an uneasy flip, and he settles deeper into the couch cushions.
Lauren comes back after...some amount of time. Thank god.
“How was your bath?”
“Good. I think the bathroom is gonna smell like flowers for months, but the bath bombs looked cool at least.” She shakes her hair out of the towel it was wrapped up in, letting the towel fall across her shoulders.
“Did you eat lunch?” she asks.
“Nah, was waiting for you.” He has no fucking clue what time it is, but at least his lie comes out steady enough. He starts picking at a loose thread on the couch. He’s been steadily wearing a little hole into the cover.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she says, but she’s smiling, so he’s pretty sure he pulled all that off right.
“It was no problem.”
“Oh, by the way, did you pay the rent?” No, he didn’t. He didn’t remember because nothing is going to exist after tomorrow when she leaves for work and he goes to the closet and digs out the shoebox with the shitty gun and--
“Uh, shit--no. I forgot, sorry.”
“We’ve still got a couple days. Could you make a note for it? You know I never remember.”
She’s going to have to move, after he dies. They can barely cover the rent with the both of them, some months. Besides, he’s probably going to get blood and nasty shit all over the place, no matter how careful he is. Sometimes, in Lauren’s crime shows, they have to pixelate half the room before they can show it on TV. And he knows she’d hate staying even after it’s cleaned up. Some stains just don’t come out.
“I’ll put the note on the fridge.” She hums. He turns back to whatever show he was pretending to watch.
He loses time again. There’s vague, half-there memories of lunch, something about a grocery list, about ordering food for dinner, about putting all his concentration into eating more than a few bites.
“Wanna watch a movie?” he asks, because that way he won’t have to think of anything interesting to say.
She picks some foreign movie he thinks she mentioned wanting to watch. The subtitles melt and blur together when he tries to read them, so he just stares at the corner of the TV and lets the sounds wash over him.
He takes one of her hands in his, thumb idly brushing over her fingers. He never married her. If there’s one thing he regrets, it’s that.
They talked about it, sometimes. She liked to come up with stranger and stranger ideas for venues, just to get a laugh out of him, stop him from going too crazy getting lost in all the details of the future. He’s pretty sure he’s agreed to getting married in forests, in trampoline parks, maybe even Everest, he thinks. He would’ve been fine with anywhere if Lauren was there too.
He’s a bad person, for doing this to her. He hopes there’s no heaven, because then there’d be hell.
There’s still a more rational part of his head, one that reminds him he doesn’t have to die. That it’s the worst solution fucking imaginable. Literally doing anything else would be more constructive. He’s going to ruin Lauren’s life. That rational corner in his brain is screaming say it, tell her you want to die, let her stop you. He thinks he’s going to put a bullet through that bit of him if it doesn’t shut up.
Lauren elbows him. The movie is reaching its climax. It’ll end soon, and the credits will roll and he’ll be done. He already feels half like a ghost, drifting up off the couch and zoning out somewhere out among the cracks and bumps in the ceiling.
She’s staring at him. “You still with me? You’re gonna miss the best part.” He can’t keep eye contact with her for more than a couple seconds. This is the last night he’s ever going to live, and he feels like she’ll see right through him if he doesn’t look away. So he wraps an arm around her shoulder, turns back towards the TV, and says--
“Yeah--yeah, I’m still with you.”
“I have vanquished the dragon that so tormented you, my Lady, and I give you this sword, as a token of the vile monster’s defeat.” Robert knelt before Marianne, holding the plastic sword out in his hands. He paused to fix the paper crown that had begun to slip from his head.
“Of course I accept you, kind knight—”
“I’m a prince.”
“Oh, yes right, fair prince.” Marianne took the sword and tapped both of Robert’s shoulders with it. “With this sword thee I… proclaim my knight—”
“Prince! Prince in shining armor.”
“That doesn’t sound quite right.” Robert rose, dusting off his knees. “Should we try it again, from the top?”
“Sure,” Marianne said. She walked across the small hut they’d built the day before out of twigs and branches and used a makeshift broom to brush away pine needles that Robert tracked in from outside. The floor may’ve been dirt, and the hut built on the ground, but Marianne imagined it was stone, and the hut a tower. It would’ve been easier to imagine if her dad agreed to build a treehouse, but he said that the woods behind her and Robert’s backyards wasn’t their property. Marianne didn’t know much about property or mortgages or that stupid stuff parents were always worrying about. Ladies who were captured and hidden away by a malicious dragon didn’t have to worry about that kind of thing anyway.
“Ready to try it again?” Robert asked, squatting at the entrance of the hut. The door wasn’t high enough for him to stand in, not since he’d had a growth spurt that spring. “I think maybe this time I’ll give a ‘hurrah’ so you can know the dragon is dead and be ready to knight me. What do you think?”
Marianne smiled and agreed; Robert always had such good ideas. She wished sometimes that she could be as creative as him, but so long as they were together, her lack of creativity didn’t matter much. She could just play along, be led, like a princess by a prince.
Robert grinned and stepped outside. In a minute, he was shouting, running around the clearing outside the hut yelling and pretending to slay a dragon. The ducks by the pond were quacking as he ran, though they weren’t merely ducks but Robert’s friends and thanes. They were helping him slay the dragon to save Marianne, and in return he’d give them treasure from the dragon’s hoard, which consisted of some stale bread Marianne had taken from her kitchen.
Marianne waited for Robert to save her seated on a wrinkly root that they pretended was a chair. She elegantly draped a pink blanket she pretended was a gown around her and smoothed any creases away.
A long minute passed before, at last, Robert let out the ‘hurrah!’ and passed into the hut. Marianne rose with careful, royal composure, grinning at Robert.
“I have vanquished the dragon that so tormented you, My Lady, and I give you this sword as a token of his defeat.” Robert knelt again, holding out the sword.
“Thank you, my dear prince. You have saved me, and I am in your debt. With this sword I—”
“Marianne!” The voice of Marianne’s father yelling from their back porch interrupted her speech. “Come in for dinner!”
“Coming!” Marianne yelled back. “Sorry, Robert.”
“It’s cool. You go ahead; I can clean up here.”
“Thanks!” Marianne set the blanket on a root and ran back through the woods to her house. She kicked off her sneakers in the foyer, washed her hands in the sink, and sat down at the kitchen table. Mom set a steaming plate of spaghetti in front of her, and Marianne’s stomach grumbled. She was hungry from when Robert and her had been running through the woods earlier, escaping a band of the evil king’s men.
“Did you and Robert have fun outside?” Mom asked. She finished filling everyone’s plates and sat down in her seat at the head of the table. Dad set down his phone, and Beth stopped chewing at her nail.
“Yes!” Marianne told her. She grinned. “Tomorrow Robert said we can put his dad’s canoe in the water and he can save me from pirates.”
Beth snorted, cutting into the spaghetti with a fork and knife. “That’s not very feminist of you. Why don’t you save him from pirates?”
“I don’t know,” Marianne said, frowning. Like Sleeping Beauty’s curse to sleep on her eighteenth birthday, it seemed Beth’s twelfth birthday a month ago had triggered a curse of meanness. “I don’t want to?”
“Yeah because you don’t think for yourself; you let Robert think for you.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“Marianne,” Dad said, “Something came in the mail for you today that I think you’ll be excited about.”
“You remember that math camp you signed up for last month?” Mom asked. She reached over to wipe spaghetti sauce from Beth’s chin, but Beth batted her away.
Marianne did remember that camp. Her math teacher had pulled her aside during recess and told her about this cool opportunity at NC State. It was a math camp for “young math wizzes” that would teach them more advanced math and prepare them to start taking high school math by middle school. When Marianne looked skeptical, her teacher had promised it was also a super fun program with games and dance parties.
Marianne had taken a pamphlet explaining the program’s talking points home to her parents, and they helped her fill out an application, one her father remarked made him feel like he was applying to college again. But once it was done, they sat her down and explained to her they couldn’t afford it unless she got a scholarship, and they wouldn’t know about that for a while. They seemed to think she’d start crying or something, but she was glad when they’d finished talking so she could go upstairs and play with her Barbies. Then Robert had come over, and he’d taken over as Ken, saving her Barbie from an evil sorcerer.
“What about it?” she asked.
“You got the scholarship for girls going into STEM,” Beth said, interrupting mom. “You’re not going to be stuck at home with Mom and Dad this summer.”
Dad rolled his eyes, but Mom ignored Beth’s rudeness, smiling at Marianne. “She’s right. We’ll have to start packing tomorrow.”
“Packing?” Marianne asked, a forkful of spaghetti stopping halfway to her mouth.
“Yes, packing. We may even need to run to the store to get you a bigger suitcase. Would you like that? I’m sure we can find one in hot pink or maybe one with polka-dots. Would you like that?”
Marianne did like to go shopping for things that were pink or polka-dotted, but she didn’t see why she needed a suitcase. “But can’t I fit supplies for camp in my backpack?”
“Oh, no, sweetie, it’s an overnight camp. You’ll need to pack some pajamas and different clothes to wear. And toiletries like toothpaste and a hairbrush.”
“What do you mean overnight camp?” Marianne set down the fork, feeling a little nervous.
“I mean it’s a camp where you stay all day and sleep there at night in the dorms.” Marianne’s mother seemed to sense her alarm, and she put her hand over Marianne’s, squeezing it. “But you’ll come home on the weekends, so we can still do fun things together. I can teach you how to cook, like I promised.”
“But I don’t want to sleep in a dorm! I want to sleep in my bed!”
“It’s okay.” Mom said. “I promise it’ll be fun, like a sleepover every night.”
“And we’ve already accepted, so you have to go,” Dad said, “It’ll get you ahead for college.”
“I think college is getting a bit ahead of ourselves, dear. Marianne can probably finish elementary school before she starts worrying about that.”
“What do you know about college?” Beth asked. “You didn’t even go. You just got married and started popping out babies.”
Mom’s lips pursed, but Marianne didn’t hear her response, lost in the realization that she was going to a summer camp, and not just a summer camp but an overnight camp. That could be fun, couldn’t it? She loved sleepovers. But she’d never slept over for more than a day, and even in the school year it was rare she went a day without playing with Robert. Would the other kids in the program play pirates with her? They would like math, like her—maybe… math pirates? No, that wouldn’t do. She wasn’t creative enough to come up with a game by herself; she needed Robert for that. How would she have fun without Robert’s help?
She worried about that until mom started clearing the plates and told her she and Beth could go watch TV. Then she had to fight with Beth over what channel to watch, a fight she would always inevitably lose, and then before she knew it, it was time for bed and mom tucked her in and promised again they’d go shopping tomorrow.
The next few days passed in a blur of shopping and packing. Robert came by on the morning Marianne was leaving; she hadn’t seen him since she’d found out about the camp, but she knew their parents had talked and his told him about it. It was raining that morning, but Marianne put on her rainboots and polka-dotted rain poncho and met him on the porch.
“You’re leaving?” Robert asked. He stood not under the shelter of the porch but next to it, and rain splashed down on his head. His eyes were sorrowful, and Marianne thought she saw raindrops in them.
“Yeah, to camp. But I’ll be home on the weekends,” Marianne said. “You’ll have to take care of the ducks for me while I’m gone, and the fishes too. Tell them I haven’t abandoned them.”
“I’m not gonna be here on the weekends. Dad’s taking me camping.”
“Oh.” Sadness welled in Marianne’s chest. “Then when are we going to play?”
“I don’t know, Marianne. Do you have to go to camp? I…I don’t want you to go.”
“Mom and dad said I got a scholarship,” Marianne said. “I think that means I have to go.” Robert sighed, and Marianne imagined it to be a sigh like that of an old king, melancholy at the sad state of his kingdom. “Then I don’t know.”
“Oh.” Inside her house, Marianne could hear her father yelling at Beth to hurry up so they could go. She had to leave soon. “I… I gotta go. But I’ll see you… at the end of summer?”
Robert sniffled. “Okay. Bye, Marianne.”
“Farewell,” Marianne corrected. She was trying not to cry too. But it was only a summer, right? They’d see each other in the fall. That seemed long, but it wasn’t forever.
Robert had turned to go, but he paused. He turned. “Farewell.” He turned back around and walked away. Marianne watched him go, standing out on the porch until her dad was yelling for her to hurry up too. Within half an hour, they were in the car, and a half hour after that, mom was kissing her forehead goodbye, dad was patting her shoulder and saying he was proud, and Beth was sitting in the car on her phone. Then they drove away.
Math camp was boring, but they played games sometimes and Marianne sure did learn a lot about math. It turned out to be more complex than she thought, and it seemed like there was always something more to learn about it the next day no matter how much you learned the day before. But, as much as Marianne loved math, it did get boring after a while, and none of the other kids wanted to play pretend with her. When it got dark, and she was tired out from the exercise-related math games they played in the afternoon, she still struggled to fall asleep, missing home, missing her imagination, missing Robert.
By the time camp was over, summer was too. School started on a Tuesday, and on Monday morning Marianne and mom rushed to Target to grab all her school supplies. They stopped at Chick-fil-a for lunch and when they got home, Marianne went upstairs to organize all the supplies on her bedroom floor. It was quiet in the house, since Beth’s middle school had started that day and dad was at work. Mom was downstairs folding laundry, and usually, she put on music, but she’d told Marianne she had a headache, so there was only silence instead.
While she organized the supplies, Marianne thought about math and school and her teachers and class and middle school and high school and college. At the thought of all of it, for the first time in her life, she wanted to take a nap.
Mom didn’t take naps, but dad said they were very therapeutic for him after a long day at work, so, after setting her backpack and supplies neatly next to the wall, Marianne climbed into bed and lay down.
She tried to sleep, but she was restless, and she could hear the sound of people out in the street, talking and laughing. It was the neighborhood boys, she assumed, a group of middle school boys a few years older than her and Robert that were always cruising around the neighborhood on their scooters or bikes yelling about sports or whatever—Marianne had always just ignored them.
But hearing them reminded her that it was a Monday, that Robert would be home too. They could finally see each other, could finally play again! They could play pirates, or knight and dragon, or even Robin Hood and Maid Marian. He’d steal from the rich in the forest and come back to her with his spoils to give to the poor, and she would praise him for it, perhaps even give him her handkerchief as a token. That final game they’d never played, but when watching Robin Hood on one of the movie days at camp, she’d come up with the idea. Maybe it was finally time to play it.
Ideas about school and naps tumbled from Marianne’s head and she tumbled out of bed and onto the floor, giggling. She stood up and went to the closet to find props to bring to Robert. She tried to imagine the scene like Robert said he did when coming up with scenes to play, but the sounds of the neighborhood boys grew louder, and she was distracted by the doorbell ringing.
She heard her mother walk across the floor downstairs and open the door.
“Hello, Robert,” she said, “Are you here for Marianne?”
“Yeah…” Robert said. Marianne smiled, leaping up from the floor and opening her door.
“I’m coming!” She called downstairs. She ran down them and to the front door, where Robert stood, shifting his weight on his feet. Marianne’s mother smiled at them and walked away so they could talk in peace.
“Hey, Robert, I was just thinking that—”
“I don’t have much time,” Robert said. He dug his hands into his pockets. Marianne could see that the knees of his jeans were stained with grass and dirt. “I was just wondering if I could have my nerf gun and pellets back? Kenny and John want to shoot at the ducks by the pond. Maybe it’s buried in my room somewhere, but I’m pretty sure I lent it to you?”
Marianne blinked at him. He’d come for his nerf gun? He was hanging out with Kenny and John, two of the middle school boys? And he wanted to shoot at the ducks? But they’d always said the ducks were their friends! They were knights or other princes or kinsmen. You can’t shoot nerf guns at kinsmen!
“I do have it, I think…” Marianne said, “It’s in the plastic tub in the garage.”
“Cool. I’ll go grab it then,” Robert said.
“But, wait, it’s the last day before school—don’t you want to play?” Marianne asked.
“Rob! Hurry up!” One of the boys called. Marianne looked around Robert to see they were waiting for him on their bikes in the street. Robert’s bike lay next to them. “We don’t got all day!”
“Coming!” Robert called back to them.
“We could invite Kenny and John,” Marianne offered, looking at the carpet below her feet. She didn’t like Kenny and John, but if they were Robert’s friends now…
“Sorry, Marianne,” Robert said, shifting on his feet. “But I don’t think they’d want to. Playing like that… it’s for kids, and they’re too old.”
“Rob! Ducks aren’t going to shoot themselves!”
“I said I’m coming!” Robert shouted. He turned back to look at Marianne. “Gotta go.” He moved to walk away.
“Hey, Robert,” Marianne said. Her voice was strangely small. “Don’t hurt the ducks, okay? They’re our friends.”
“Sorry,” Robert said again. He walked away, to her garage, and Marianne watched through the open door as he ran back out again to the street, holding his nerf gun. He dropped it in the basket of his bike, got on, and rode away down the street with his friends.
Marianne closed the door. She sniffled, and she wiped away a tear, then another. She dragged herself across the foyer and to the stairway.
“Marianne,” her mother called from the kitchen, “Is Robert gone?”
“Yes,” Marianne said. Her voice quavered.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Marianne said. She wiped away the tears again, and she told herself to stop crying. “I’m gonna go take a nap.”
Mama thought I didn’t see her sneak a Marlboro Red on the back porch this Sunday morning, but I did. I watched through my window as she took the first long drag from the cigarette, her shoulders relaxing. Enveloped by the arms of a wooden chair, her blonde unruly curls give way to the morning breeze, and she blows out a breath of smoke. When she’s done, she closes the creaky screen door and brews a pot of coffee. She’d always told me smoking was bad. Her father smoked, she’d said, and died from a heart attack. I suppose death didn’t scare you as bad once you’d seen enough of it.
Today was our first day back at church since my older brother Tommy died.
Her feet warily pad past my door and I hear the sink turn on as she brushes her teeth to mask any trace of her guilt. I make my way to the bathroom and rub my puffy eyes.
“How’d you sleep, hun?” She asks as she does every morning. I mumble a “good” and clip my mess of curly brown hair back in the mirror. Mama’s fixing her face. I hear Daddy groan as he wakes in the other room.
“He’s coming?” I asked. Mama confirmed with a short nod.
Mama and Daddy were expected to come to church sooner or later. Otherwise, people at church would start worrying, and worrying meant gossiping. They’d stopped sending casseroles and sad cards and other well-intentioned gifts, but they’d never stop judging.
So, we pull on our nice clothes, climb into Daddy’s truck, and head to church.
We entered the hallway leading to the sanctuary, and I saw a picture of myself posted on the wall. My hands held a ribbon for winning our local Bible Drill competition a few years back. The smile on my face in the photograph was pure, it was real, but now it made my stomach spin. The girl on that wall was leading a girl’s study group and sang on the worship team. The girl standing in this hallway wanted to get out of this place as fast as she could. I pulled the pin out of the bulletin board and stuck the picture in my pocket. I’m not sure why I did it. I just know that girl shouldn’t be on that wall anymore.
We sunk into a back pew while the choir sang a hymn I’d heard a thousand times before. The fluorescent lighting irritated my tired eyes and I tapped my foot absentmindedly. The air always seemed hot and thin at the same time in here. My eyes wander aimlessly around the room, noting a few whispers and stares from different people.
I wondered why Mama was smoking this morning, but now, seeing all these people again, hearing their whispers, I understood her nerves. I glanced over at my Daddy, watching him.
He thinks I don’t hear him cry when he comes in late and says his prayers, but I do. I’ll lie awake sometimes to hear him talk to that Man. I don’t know why he still prayed— I sure as hell didn’t— but I sort of envied him for being able to. I was too angry. Sometimes, I’d cry with him, though, silently between the paper-thin walls. Our tears filled the nights that were always too quiet. That’s my own sort of prayer, I think.
I caught Ms. Darlene eyeing us from four pews over. Darlene was a deacon’s wife. Daddy used to be a deacon, too. Important position, he’d say. He stopped going to the deacon’s meetings right before Tommy died. Rumors had started going around that Tommy was gay. I think maybe we all knew it, especially God, even before. But then Tommy was hanging with the Miller boy after choir practice, and people started talking. Mainly Ms. Darlene. Boys at school started being real mean to Tommy. One day, we were riding home from school and I asked Tommy what was wrong with them. He was always the best at explaining things so I could understand.
“They think I’m going to hell.” He said plainly, still staring at the road. I could tell he was upset.
“Why?” The statement rattled me. Tommy was the best person I knew. If anyone was getting into heaven, it was him.
“That’s what his parents told him, I guess. You believe what Daddy says, don’t you?”
“Not if he said you were going to hell,” I answered firmly. We sat in silence for a moment, then I asked quietly, “Are you, Tommy? Going to hell, I mean?”
“I don’t know, Lou.” He let out a breath, tired of talking. A few seconds later he mumbled over the radio static, “Sure feels like I’m already there.” He brushed a hand through his brown hair and we continued on toward home.
I always wondered if he knew I heard him.
So, they had a deacon meeting without telling Daddy, deciding whether or not to let Tommy in church. Daddy found out and got real mad, but then he got quiet. That’s always what scared me-- when he got quiet.
He didn’t talk for a week after they found Tommy by the quarry. The church folk and the town folk had whispered about “Tommy’s accident”, but that was bullshit. Tommy killed himself. On purpose. “Tommy Meyers had his demons”, they’d whisper, the judgment dribbling off their tongues like sour apple candy. I didn’t figure they’d ever realize why Tommy wanted to die so bad. Now, a few weeks after Tommy’s death, I was angry and bitter and sad. Daddy seemed just plain sad. Every once in a while, he would have a drink. “Southern Baptists don’t drink”, he used to say. But Mama and I just left him alone in the garage. I’d sit in my bedroom, and hear an old, sad country song hum through the vents. Daddy would sing along off-key, louder after a few more beers. It was always lonely sounding.
So, now Daddy drinks sometimes and Mama has a hidden stash of Marlboros.
The preacher told us to bow our heads, but I didn’t. I stared at the portrait at the front with Jesus hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying. What the hell is the point? I thought. What’s the point of all this suffering, especially when all the bad stuff happens to people like Jesus and Tommy? These people raised Tommy and me. We made friends here. We learned how to ride bikes in the church parking lot. Tommy volunteered week in and week out. I learned to sing here. And as soon as they heard Tommy might love boys, they acted as if they never knew him. I can’t love a God who won’t love Tommy, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to love a church that wouldn’t.
Then, the benediction ended and everyone stood up, beginning to file out. I dreaded this part, because everyone would be hugging and and “how’s your sister”-ing, and I didn’t want to have to talk to any of them. I wanted to leave as fast as I could.
As we walked through the doors, Preacher Bill pulled Daddy aside. “Eddy, can I have a word?” My stomach lurched again as Daddy gave a grim nod and told us to go on to the truck. Mama and I stayed silent as we walked back. It was almost half an hour before Daddy came back. He looked angry, Mama and I knew that much. It seemed like we sat in silence for years.
“I’m not going back.” I blurted. Tears brimming my eyes as I stared at the now-empty parking lot. Daddy shifted gears and turned the car out onto the road. A few moments passed when he broke the crippling silence.
“Neither am I.” Daddy huffed. We both anxiously waited on Mama’s response, but all she did was place her hand softly over Daddy’s hand and whispered, “Let’s go home.” We drove home in silence. Mama and I watched the fields roll-on outside the window, and Daddy’s eyes focused on the road. The radio mumbled the same country tunes Daddy sang from the garage.
The truck trailed into our gravel driveway. “Wanna go fishin’?” Daddy asked. “Sure.” I agreed.
“You two go, I’m going to clean up some here.” My Mama smiled, a twinge of sadness flickered in her eyes. I missed her old smile. She didn’t like to go to the river anymore. Too many memories, I think.
We packed up, Daddy with the poles and the tackle box, and me with two turkey sandwiches and a beer for him. It was past 12, after all. We sauntered down through the woods. My dirty jeans and worn t-shirt were more breathable than my church clothes, and my bare feet welcomed the warm grass beneath them. The sun grinned down at us through the trees that covered the path to the river. Daddy and I sat down on the bank of the river, ate our sandwiches, and he sipped on the beer.
“I should’ve left that church a long time ago.” He stated, looking at the river. I didn’t say anything. “For Tommy, for you and your Mama, for me.” He breathes out.
“Do you still believe in God, Daddy?” I asked, restless with my own thoughts.
“I think so, Lou.” He said hesitantly.
“Is that why you still pray?”
“Guess I’m just a creature of habit.” He shrugged. I sat silent. Almost like he read my mind, he continued, “Church is hard for anybody, I s’pose. But it’s ‘specially hard for us doubtin’, angry, grievin’ people,'' he paused, taking a swig of his drink, “God ain’t always at church for some people.”
A moment passed. The water rushed over the rocks and a group of birds chirped above us. “I don’t know if he’s anywhere.” I confessed, throwing a rock into the river. How could he be after Tommy? After all the shit those folks at church put my family through?
He combed through his gruff beard.
“I wonder about that too,” pausing, then chuckling like he thought of something funny and says, “Sometimes he’s in the garage with me,” I smile, understanding. “He’s always in your Mama’s pretty eyes, or your big-toothed grin. He’s in all my memories of Tommy. But he ain’t always at church. And maybe he ain’t what we think. A lover, a friend’s laugh, fishing on a Sunday with your daughter-- God’s in all the good stuff.” He was fiddling with bait and a hook, the minty smell of his tobacco wafted toward me after his movement.
I nodded. Maybe.
We sat in the sun for hours, catching nothing. I stuck my feet in and let the cool water rush over them while I pondered my Daddy’s thoughts.
“Tommy would’ve had a bite within the first few minutes.” I laughed, thinking of fishing with him on Sunday afternoons.
“Smart as a whip, that boy,” Daddy shook his head and half-smiled at me. He tilted his gaze towards the branches slowly swaying above us. He wiped a tear that had started to trail down his face. My eyes stayed fixed on the water.
I probably wouldn’t ever get answers to all of my questions. I’d always be angry, I figured. We’d always be sad and grieving. And while I always dreaded Sunday mornings, I always yearned for Sunday afternoons.
The Dream Sequencer
Andy poked at his food. More like “food”. It was rehydrated, originally dehydrated to save space and weight. No matter the meal, it all tasted the same. Like nothing. Real food, fresh food, was a luxury. He hadn’t had anything with flavor in a long time.
Even if the food wasn’t shit, he wouldn’t have the stomach to eat it today. He glanced up once again across the cafeteria. Keane was sitting a little ways away, by himself, staring intensely at his laptop. At least, Andy thought his name was Keane. After the first time Andy had seen him he’d awkwardly asked around for his name and information. The little that Andy knew was that Keane worked as a scientist of some sort, one of the researchers. Being an engineer, Andy’s work, living space, and friends had no overlap with Keane’s. Keane always seemed to be working on something important or reading a book on something Andy could never understand. That made Andy even more anxious. A few days ago he had scribbled his contact information on a card, vowing to give it to Keane next time they crossed paths. Now would be a good time to do that. Andy felt the card in his pocket, trying not to get too much sweat on it. Keane ran his hand through his hair and leaned back.
Andy stood up and started walking towards him, then by him, and then past him towards the end of the room. Andy stopped and stood by the wall, wanting to bang his head against it. He wasn’t sure Keane had even noticed him walk by. Fuck. He looked across the room and met eyes with his buddy Dave. Andy had been complaining to him about Keane for weeks, he knew Dave would never stop giving him shit if Andy bowed out once again.
Andy started again walking towards Keane. He stopped by the side of Keane’s table, standing there awkwardly. Keane looked up after a few seconds, obvious anxiety in his eyes as Andy towered over him.
“Um.” Andy started. “Here.” He handed his card with his information over to Keane. Keane took it suspiciously. “In case you want to, uh… grab a drink. Or hang out. Or something, sometime.” Andy gave Keane a tight smile in an attempt to come off as less creepy. He wasn’t sure if it worked. Keane gave a small nod of understanding. “Thank you.” Andy quickly walked away, unsure if he fucked that up or not.
“Hey! Don’t walk so loudly. Technically neither of us should really be here right now.” Keane admonished Andy. It was off hours, 12 hours during the 24 hour cycle where all lights were dimmed and facilities were in low power mode. Few people were walking around at this time, which made every sound feel that much louder. They snuck further down the hallway to a large door. Keane punched in a passcode and scanned his ID badge.
“How did you get access here?” Andy questioned.
“I have temporary access for a project I’m working on.”
“Yeah, you’d never break a rule for me.”
Keane scoffed, “Don’t worry, I’m breaking plenty of rules right now. For you.”
They both entered. It was a large greenhouse connected to a lab. Andy walked slowly inside, taking the entire room in. Plants of all kinds littered the room, full of vegetables, fruits, and greens. It was part of whatever experiments the scientists on board were doing for crop growth under different conditions. Only those working on the crops and people high enough in administration were able to reap the benefits.
“Wow.” Andy whispered. After eating reconstituted and freeze-dried food for the past year, fresh food was a shock. He wished he had actually appreciated good food while he was on Earth.
“Here.” Keane tossed him a perfect looking apple. “We can’t take too much, I don’t need anybody getting suspicious.” Andy rubbed it, trepidatious about taking a bite. Keane walked up to him and rubbed his shoulder. “You always complain about the food here. Though I suppose giving you a taste of something much better won’t help.” Keane smiled and moved closer. “Happy birthday.” Andy smiled back and bit into the apple. The sensation of eating it was nice, but Andy was let down to find that it lacked any flavor, it didn’t taste like any apple he had remembered eating. Not wanting to disappoint Keane, he hugged him closer,
“Thank you. It’s perfect.”
Keane held up a backpack full of food. “Let’s get out of here then, I’ll get whipped if somebody finds out I stole this.”
“Is this going to be our whole relationship? Sneaking around at night?” Keane asked as they walked quickly down a side hallway. Andy had access to shortcuts throughout the ship, built so engineers and technicians like him could get wherever they needed to be, quickly. It was riskier moving through here at off hours, when more people might be doing repairs or routine maintenance, but taking Keane back here wasn’t technically against any rules, at least no rules that Andy knew of.
“Here.” Andy said at the end of the hallway, opening the entrance. Now they were breaking some rules. This part of the ship was reserved for the upper administration, but they would all be asleep at this point. Fortunately, this accessway didn’t have any security restrictions. “Just a little further.” Andy encouraged after Keane gave him a look of exhaustion. After moving down another side hallway, they stopped at another door. It slid open to reveal a small, circular dining room. A majority of the walls and all of the ceiling were clear, giving a wide view to the outside. There was a section with a clear floor too. After standing still for a few moments, Keane walked silently up to the wall and pressed his hand against it. Andy walked up beside him. Countless stars lay beyond the window, the Milky Way among them. There were plenty of areas abroad the ship to view the outside, but none with as wide a viewing area as this. Andy looked down. From where he was standing on the clear floor, it looked like he was going to drift away. Keane moved and wrapped himself around Andy, as if to steady himself, and sighed, leaning on Andy.
“It’s beautiful.” Keane murmured softly. They stayed together a while longer before pulling away and walking back. “I’m going to get some questions about why I’m out so late.”
“Just tell people we were out having illicit sex in the hallway,” Andy replied. Keane scoffed and gave Andy a small shove.
Andy and Keane laid next to each other in the small bed. To save space almost everybody had to sleep in a shared room. Living in a shared room with five others was fine most of time, until you wanted privacy. It had taken a lot of convincing and bribing to make sure Andy would have the room alone for the first part of the evening. Andy rubbed Keane’s shoulder absentmindedly while Keane talked.
“And I - are to you even listening to me?”
“What?” Andy started. He hadn’t particularly been listening. “Of course I was. You were complaining about work.” Keane scoffed.
“You’re a horrible listener.”
“What are you talking about? I was listening just now.” Andy adjusted and pushed himself up in the bed. “And you better not scoff at that. You don’t realize how annoying that is.” Keane turned away and scowled. “What? Do you think I’m too dumb to understand what you do?”
Keane looked hurt. “Don’t be stu—I mean, don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even say anything like that.”
“Don’t worry, I know you think I’m a dumbass.” Andy said, rolling his eyes. Keane shoved his way out of the bed and picked his pants up off the floor. “I am so tired of you acting like I’m some stuck up asshole.” Keane snatched his shirt up off the floor. “You have such a knack for making everything about you.”
“I’m so glad we got to hang out tonight!” Andy yelled as Keane stalked out of the room. Walking back to his bed, he noticed Andy had left his jacket on the floor. Andy kicked it, then climbed back into bed, leaving his back to the rest of the room. He stayed silent the rest of the evening, even after Dave prodded him with a lewd question when he returned.
Jade assisted Andy with putting on his boots. There was an issue with one of the engines that Andy had to perform a spacewalk. It was a minor issue but he was looking forward to some quiet time for himself. “Ah, fuck.” Jade was checking her notifications. “Somehow somebody set a fire while trying to heat some food, will you be okay by yourself?” Andy mumbled an affirmation, and Jade ran off. Andy put on the rest of his suit and strapped in the oxygen tank. Double checking the tether was secure to his harness, Andy went out.
He had never truly gotten used to the feeling of weightlessness. Combined with the pure silence, it never stopped being disorientating. Using the railing, Andy moved his way down to the engine. Usually, there was somebody here for backup, but Andy hadn’t asked anybody to come along. He’d been snapping at everybody after he and Keane had fought.
The repair didn’t take long, nothing he hadn’t done before. Andy turned around and looked into space. Normally he loved staring into the stars, it was much clearer than he’d ever been able to see on Earth. The beauty of the universe never ceased to make him lose his breath. But at that moment, looking into space made him feel small and meaningless. What’s the fucking point.
He grabbed his tether to turn himself around and back towards the ship. He had drifted further out than he had realized. Something about the amount of slack on the tether felt off. He tugged harder. Seeing the other end of the tether float towards him made his heart drop harder than had ever done before. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuckfuck. He suddenly realized he had checked that the tether was secure to his suit, but he had not checked that it was secure to the ship. The one rule nobody ever shut up about during training, and here he was. It was supposed to be a quick maintenance, he hadn’t grabbed any boosters to attach to the suit. The only sound he could hear was his heart pounding. He kicked his feet helplessly. There was a small gleam of hope when he realized he was slowly drifting back towards the ship, but his hope was snuffed out when he realized it wasn’t quite the direction he needed.
After flailing his limbs pointlessly for a few minutes, Andy went still. He pulled out one of his tools from his bag. He threw one behind him, hoping to move back in the right direction. He threw another but felt it hit his oxygen tank. Andy gasped. He turned it around so that the tank was on his stomach and his back was facing the ship. He grabbed a small metal knife from his bag and began hitting the oxygen tank with the handle. The tank was designed to take a lot of abuse, but all he needed was one small break. After a few minutes of pounding, he put his arm down and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes for a few moments before opening them again and looking out. There are worse places to die. Raising his arm once more, he brought down the knife, this time blade-side down.
For a second he felt a rush of disappointment when nothing happened, and then a jolt more powerful than he had ever felt before. He felt exhilaration, then panic about the lack of control he felt over where he was being jettisoned. Suddenly he felt himself slammed into the side of the ship. All the breath left his body. Shaking and gasping for air, his trembling hands moved to adjust the oxygen tank. Just a little further down and he could reach the railings. He yelped as he was flung down the side of the ship, colliding into the railing. For a few breathless seconds, he flailed for a grip on the railing. Time seemed to go in slow motion as he reached for a handhold. Once he got a grip, he adjusted the oxygen tank back and pulled himself tightly against the railing. The force of the air coming out of the tank pushed him against the railing anyway. Immobile, he clung to the railing for a few moments, wanting to cry from relief. The beeping from his oxygen tank brought him back. His O2 levels were getting low. Slowly but surely, he inched along the rail towards the airlock.
When he finally flung himself inside the airlock, he was gasping for breath. His fumbling hands attempted to loosen his helmet before he realized he needed to close the hatch. Trying to muster the energy, he crawled towards the button to close the airlock. It seemed so high up. On his knees, he reached up for the button like a child reaching for something on a high countertop. A weak punch was the best he could do. He immediately collapsed back on the ground once he heard the familiar hissing of the door closing.
Andy rolled to the other side of the bed and moaned. He had spent the past couple days in the medical wing of the ship healing. Every time the doctor came by he insisted he was feeling fine enough to leave, despite most of his body being in pain. He was very lucky to not have broken anything, especially his spine, the doctors kept telling him. He was also very lucky to not have experienced any prolonged periods without oxygen. However, he wasn't lucky enough to have not come away with bruises all over his back from hitting the ship at a high speed. He was out of his mind with boredom but didn’t want to get up and walk around again. It hurt.
Andy closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep when he heard footsteps come closer. It was probably the doctor checking in on him again. The feet stopped by the edge of his bed, he heard a short sigh. “Keane?” Andy said as he opened his eyes. Keane jumped a little. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Good, good…” Keane drummed his hands against the bed railing. There was silence for a few moments. “I heard about what happened, I didn’t realize it was you until somebody told me today.”
“Oh.” Andy replied. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
“I just…” Keane rubbed his hands on his face. “I feel responsible. I feel really bad. I feel like… this happening was my fault.”
“I just wish I had cleared things up between us after the last time we had fought. I just… didn’t realize you were in such a rough place.”
“What… Oh… I mean, I wasn’t trying to…” Andy moved back in the bed so he was sitting up. “It was an accident. I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”
“Oh! Oh… that’s good!” Keane moved forward and looked like he was going to touch Andy on the arm, but decided against it. “I’m glad you didn’t die.” Keane swallowed. “I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if that was the last time we spoke.” Andy looked away.
“I would have, too.” There were a few moments of silence after Keane sat down in the chair next to the bed.
“If it wasn’t intentional… then why was the tether not secure?”
“I forgot to tie it,” Andy admitted. Keane looked at him incredulously, then started laughing. “What? How did you forget?” Andy started laughing too but tried to stop himself due to the pain. “You must’ve had your radio on you, too.”
Andy smiled and looked away. He did have his radio on him, but in the panic, it wasn’t something that he even thought of in the moment. It wasn’t funny at all, he came within an inch of dying, but after the stress and the tension between both of them, laughing was the only thing he felt like doing.
Keane took Andy’s hand and wrapped it in his. Andy stopped laughing once he realized Keane had started crying. “I missed you.” He said softly. Andy squeezed Keane’s hand. “I did too.” Andy swallowed. “I’m sorry.” He blurted out. “I was a complete dickhead… I regretted it so much, but I didn’t know what to say to you. I didn’t think you’d want to speak to me again.” “I’m sorry, too.” Keane replied. Keane his other hand over Andy’s and closed his eyes for a few moments. “I love you.” He said, opening his eyes back up and looking at Andy. “I love you, too,” Andy said. Keane wiped his face with his sleeve. “Is there room in your bed?” Andy smiled and moved to the side and Keane got in beside him. Andy helped Keane tightly, hoping he’d never have to let go.
“Dream Sequencer system, offline.” Andy moaned and covered his eyes as the lid of the Dream Sequencer pod opened. The lights in the room always blinded him when he came out of it. He let out a breath as he got out and started walking around. His limbs were always so stiff, especially considering he usually spent much longer than recommended in the pod. He paced around the small room for a few hours. It helped to stretch his legs and also re-orientate himself. Whenever he got out of the Dream Sequencer it took a while to adjust to reality and remember where he was.
Andy reached down and grabbed a prepackaged box of food from the refrigerator. Not bothering to reheat it, he immediately dove in. He moaned as he started eating, he was always hungry when he woke up again, he also missed being able to taste food. For a second he was worried somebody had heard or seen him ravage his food, but remembered that wouldn’t be a concern. He grabbed a second container to eat. He liked to stuff himself before getting back in the Dream Sequencer since he’d spent so long in it. He could hook himself up to fluids, but he needed to wake up and eat. Walking over to the counter, he checked the date. Only around eight more months left.
Andy walked over to the window on one side and looked out. He always liked to spend some time looking out at the stars. After some time, he walked back across the room and picked up Keane’s jacket he had left on the counter. He pressed it against his face and sighed into it. Andy put it back down gently and climbed back into the pod. Pressing the buttons, he relaxed and leaned back into it. He heard the familiar noises and beeps that it made every time. “Dream Sequencer system, online.”