Categories
Fiction Issue III

[COREY DAVIS]

Go Forth, Christian Soldier

The first night, Drew comes home on foot at a quarter past three. Calvin and Madeline Dunn awaken to the sound of their son’s key in the front door, the security alarm chiming its thirty-second warning and then silencing at the competent touch of his fingertips on the keypad. For a split second, Madeline feels a surge of joy, of special pride.  

Unlike the other college-age children of the ladies in her Bible study and her garden club and her walking group, Drew hardly ever visits for anything less than a major holiday, and, even then, he is home for a day of festivities and gone the next, and, even then, he never drops in unannounced, he never surprises his parents. His brother Ben is the same, firmly rooted now in Sacramento, job-secure, married, raising Cal and Madeline’s first grandchild. The Dunn boys are lovers of independence, young men smitten with the lives they have built for themselves with their own two hands. So, for that initial split second, Madeline finds herself brimming with unmitigated delight.  

He drove there straight from Nashville, Drew says as he sits on the edge of the couch in the living room, his head in his hands, his knee bouncing frenetically. He left his car in a field on a backroad outside of town and walked the rest of the way home. He is scared, he says. He is sorry, he says. He tells it in that order: fear, then regret. As his trembling voice forms these words, Madeline sees a sudden vision of the past, of a little boy padding into she and Cal’s dark bedroom, reeling from a nightmare, tearfully penitent for asking once again if he can burrow under the covers between them and know peace.  

“Son, what on earth are you talking about?” Cal asks him, glancing with terror-wide eyes at Madeline. She meets them, feeling as if she is in a strikingly realistic veneer of a dream.

Drew swallows hard. He speaks a name in a whisper, “Hallie.”  

Hallie: his girlfriend coming up on a year now. Madeline has met her twice—once during Family Weekend on campus, once at Thanksgiving brunch in that very house. Hallie: a dark haired girl with slender, balletic limbs and a softly-twanging voice, a pre-law student to Drew’s artistic focuses. They were on a hike or a picnic or a canoeing trip—Madeline suddenly cannot register which her son says it is—in the state park near the university. Something happened. There was a comment, an insult hurled. There was an argument. There was a shove, a glancing blow. There was a struggle. Something happened. Something happened.  

A short while later, Cal and Madeline are leading their son up the attic steps. They are clearing space amongst the storage bins to make a pallet of blankets and pillows for him on the plywood floor.  

“Thank God it’s not summer,” Drew says, chuckling a bit, as he watches them. “Or it’d feel like a furnace up here.” 

An impulse that Madeline doesn’t understand jolts through her, and she suddenly wants to slap him, she wants to strike her child. Instead, her gaze bores into the shadows muddling the corners of the attic. Her gaze bores into the plastic tubs that hold the baby clothes of this boy here and his brother before him. 

“You get some rest now,” Cal says to Drew. “It’s all going to be okay. . . it’ll all be okay.” Madeline does the unthinkable when they return to their bedroom. She grabs her phone and checks the news. She scans for her son’s name. Nothing comes up. Drew isn’t yet a suspect. Hallie hasn’t yet been declared missing. The world is still ignorant of it all. For the rest of the night, she and Cal sit up in bed and stare in silence at the curtains faintly glowing in the moonlight. Then Cal begins to mumble his thoughts to her in a nervous, hungry voice. They have two days, he wagers. Maybe three. Drew said the place where it happened—the place where he left her—was deep into the park, but he hadn’t been sure how deep. When the police find his dorm room empty, the next place they will look is this house, Cal says. That’s why they need to act fast, to plan quickly and thoroughly. Does Madeline remember the cabin Cal’s father left him in the Davis Mountains, near the Mexican border? Does Madeline remember Cal’s old half-junked VW Jetta idling in the lot across town? If he pays his buddy Gary—the mechanic, Madeline, remember?—to work out the engine’s kinks, then it could run good as new again, it could run all the way to Texas and beyond.  

Then Cal whispers, “Where are you going?”  

Madeline doesn’t look at him as she shoves her feet into her slippers and thrusts her arms into her bathrobe sleeves. “Backyard. I need some air.” 

He lurches halfway out of bed. “Let me come with you.” 

“I just need a minute, Cal.”  

The razor edge on her voice makes him falter, and she hears his soft, paranoid call trail down the stairs after her: “Well, come right back in, okay?”  

On her way through the dark stagnant house, Madeline detours into the dining room, swipes one of the cloth napkins from its place setting, and slips it out of its decorative ring. Then she steps out onto the back patio. The cold night air, the wind testing the bare trees, the muffled roar of semis skating the distant freeway—it all accuses. 

I am his mother, she thinks. But is this her plea for mercy or her means of justification? Abruptly, she clamps the napkin over her face and stuffs it in her mouth, wailing. She does not know whose death she is crying for.

The next day exists in a stupor. After only a few hours of transfigured life, there is a routine in place that has already grown mindless: Cal and Madeline bring up food to the attic, they bring up water or coffee or cans of Coke, they bring down the bucket Drew uses as a toilet, they bring it back up empty and freshly cleaned. 
In between these tasks, Madeline can barely move herself to stand from the couch. But Cal cannot bring himself to stay still. He calls Gary, offers him a generous sum to expedite the Jetta fix-up under the guise that he needs it ready before the weekend so he can enter it in a car show. Gary informs him that it will still take at least a day or more to obtain the correct parts. Meanwhile, Cal takes Drew’s cell phone into the garage and smashes it with a hammer. Just to be safe, he smashes Drew’s smartwatch as well. He kicks both compromised devices into a storm drain on his afternoon walk through the neighborhood.  

The thought of action makes Madeline feel lightheaded, so that, when she climbs the attic stairs and sees her boy’s face rise up from his pillow, sees the glare of his glasses and the tousled spikes of his hair, she finds herself almost breathless at his smallness. He is so childlike that it hurts her bones. Then she blinks, and his familiar bedhead resembles a bramble of thorns, the matted fur of a wild animal. All of a sudden, his bright smile is a cave to her, his teeth stalagmites.  

How could he have done this in anger? she thinks. He is so gentle. He is so sensible. Still, despite her confusion, she cannot help but feel relieved. Anger: it was all just an accident, an unforeseen rupture of emotion and control. That’s what he said anyway, the night before: I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to do it, over and over again. And as they held his shaking body on the couch, she and Cal answered: We know, we know. Over and over again, like the response in a litany.  

Anger. A better sin than malice. A better sin than premeditation. But lying? Deception? Is this a better sin than the admission of an unforgivable truth? 

Drew says, “Thank you, Mom,” when she hands him his dinner on a tray. He does not say, “I took Hallie out there to kill her.” He does not say, “I liked killing her.” He does not say, “If you tell the police, I will kill you too,” although an intrusive voice in Madeline’s head reminds her that he could, that any previously inconceivable violence is now freely capable of coming out of his mouth. 

That night, Cal takes a sleeping pill. He offers one to Madeline but she waves him away. “I’m going to ask Drew if he wants one,” he says lowly, as if ashamed, and leaves their bedroom. A few hours later, while he snores beside her, Madeline gets out of bed. She takes the napkin from the dining room table with her again and cups it under her chin on the back patio, as if to catch an impending flood of words or vomit or blood. She thinks of Hallie—her limbs twisted, her hair tangled with mud, the skin of her throat or her chest or her stomach bruised with Drew’s fingerprints—and this makes her stomach lurch. She thinks of Ben, if she should call him in secret, confide in him or confess to him, beg him to come home. But even if she does, she knows that Drew will probably already be gone by the time he arrives. And she and Cal have not yet allowed themselves to voice the underlying truth of Drew’s coming departure: that if he runs and makes it, if he succeeds, they will never see their son again.  

Madeline balls the napkin into her mouth to scream and then immediately stops. There is a light at the fence to her left, not ten feet away from the patio. She almost mistakes it for a firefly, a rogue survivor of the winter out for some night air. Then the light fluctuates tellingly, dimming and intensifying again as it is pursed between wine-red lips. There is a woman smoking a cigarette against the fence, her trench coat arms spread out to either side of her, resting along the top of the white pickets. She’s out there in the dark, but Madeline can see in the faint moonlight that she is tall, rail-thin, and dressed in business-casual attire, as if Madeline’s backyard is simply a resting spot on the woman’s walk home from working late at the office or having a drink with her colleagues at the bar down the street.  

Madeline lowers the napkin from her face, hurries to the light switch by the patio doors, and flicks on the spotlights affixed to the roof at either end of the house. The woman neither winces nor moans at the sudden brightness; she isn’t drunk. Her hair is dark, Madeline can see now, and it’s arranged in a billowy yet disheveled updo. Her eyes have dull purple circles underneath them; she is tired. 

So am I, Madeline thinks, and even smiles a little. Tired women attract tired women. We must be homing devices for each other’s weariness.  

The woman watches Madeline watch her before taking another drag of her cigarette. “You, uh, you pray out here in the dark?” She blows smoke against the sky and shrugs. “Private. Quiet. Seems like a good place to do the deed.” 

Madeline doesn’t tell the woman that she has prayed every single moment of that day, that she prays in her eyelids when she blinks, she breathes in prayers and then breathes them back out in short panicked bursts, she swallows them gummy and tasteless so they can sink like stones in her stomach. Without words and without voice, she asks for things of which she has no comprehension. She asks for things which are not human and which can never be.  

The woman jerks her chin up at the house, at the shingles on the roof. “You know what you’re going to do?” 

Glaring at her, Madeline wrings the napkin with both hands until the very fibers must be crying out for mercy. I will steal the world’s forgiveness and heap it upon his head. I will wash him white as snow myself. I will help him to live. I will let him go.

“Honey, I didn’t ask what you want to do, I asked what you’re going to do.” The woman crosses one ankle over the other, her stylish black trousers rustling. “What you’re really going to do.”  

Before she knows it, Madeline has stepped off the patio and is charging through the dew moist grass toward the woman, clutching the napkin in her fist like the handle of a whip. The woman appears to be unconcerned. All she says is, “I’m not here to cause you pain.”  

It makes Madeline stop. She can feel her heart booming, and she can see her breath vacating rapidly into the cold. There is a chance that she will break down in front of this woman, this stranger. The threads of her composure are threatening to unravel.  

“Go ahead, sin,” the woman says. 

Madeline stares, mouth agape, prayers leaking out. 

“Forsake your child.” The woman takes a drag. “Do it.” The night is terribly silent in her pauses. “Permission granted, if that’s what you need. Sin.”  

Madeline closes her mouth and contorts her face into a snarl. “Get out of my yard,” she says, then stalks back to the patio, turns off the spotlights, and goes inside the house. 

The next evening, Hallie’s picture is on the news. There is live footage: a shady, leaf covered grove; a forest backdrop against which a reporter’s voiceover recounts information; a shot of the entrance to the state park and a mess of police vehicles, like toy cars abandoned by a toddler in a sudden stroke of boredom. 

Up in the attic, Drew’s face fills with fear for the first time since the night he came home. “They found the body,” Cal tells him in a short, gruff voice, and Madeline wonders why he does not say, “Hallie’s body,” or “her body.”

“Then we gotta go now,” Drew says, crouching under the low ceiling, folding up his pallet with a wild urgency.  

Not us, Madeline thinks before she can stop herself. Just you. But, still, it’s been us this whole time, hasn’t it?  

Gary dropped the Jetta off that afternoon, not even three hours before, and Drew leaves for Texas in it under the cover of night. Calvin and Madeline do not stand in the driveway and wave. They do not even watch from the window. They turn off all the lights in the house and sit beside each other on the couch, stock-still, unable to bear even accidentally touching knees. 

“They’ll come tomorrow morning, you know,” Cal says. Madeline supposes he might as well have said, “The world will end tomorrow morning, you know.” 
At seven A.M., they let the police into their home. Outside, the sun is high and burning like ice. A cordon has been erected around their front yard. Officers in uniform idle in their driveway while news vans and media personnel and curious neighbors crowd in the street beyond the police tape.  

Mr. and Mrs. Dunn, do you have any idea where your son Drew might be? 

No, they both agreed to say the night before. They have not seen him. He has not been home since the start of the semester, and they have not received a phone call or text from him since the past weekend.  

Are you both aware of what has happened to Hallie Clemmons?  

Through her own mask of numbness, Madeline hears Cal feign ignorance: “Oh my goodness, no—oh my goodness—are you sure it’s her? I can’t believe this . . . I can’t—wait, you don’t think Drew had anything to do with it, do you?” 

The police ask to search the house, and Cal acquiesces. Every square inch of the attic has been sanitized anyway, purged of any trace of their son. They spent the whole night cleaning and burying and burning, and Madeline is so exhausted that her hands are tremoring, although the police seem to mistake this for shock. 
She remains in the living room while two policemen follow Cal upstairs. A female officer stays behind, and Madeline can feel her hovering nearby. Sunlight trickles in through the curtains, and it looks so beautiful, so heavenly, that she almost forgets to breathe. 

“Mrs. Dunn, you don’t look well,” the female officer says. “Do you need some water?” Blindly, Madeline feels for the officer’s hand, grips it, and pulls her toward the kitchen herself. “Do you have any children?” she wants to ask, but she cannot speak. Please God, are you the mother of anyone? Are you the mother?  

She guides the officer to the back of the kitchen, to the computer desk where the junk mail is piled. There is a map tacked to the wall above it, colorful pins marking vacation spots and road-trip destinations reached. Madeline hears the softened footsteps of her husband and the two policemen wandering the bedroom above. She feels liquid running down her face, so she must be crying.  

The officer says something, but Madeline doesn’t register it. Her unsteady hand traces the veins of the map westward and then down to a browned bruise, an aberration on the smooth topography of the earth. 

She is on her knees now, and she feels the officer’s calloused palm cradle her cheek, and she knows that she is both the servant and the traitor, and she understands that she is not crying, she is bleeding. 

[about]

Corey Davis is a young, emerging writer from Jackson, Mississippi, and an honors graduate of the University of Mississippi, where her fiction work won the Ella Somerville Award and the Evans Harrington Creative Writing Scholarship. Her fiction and poetry have also appeared in Goat’s Milk, MudRoom, Brave Voices, and more.

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[BRIAR RIPLEY PAGE]

HELP! MY BODY IS CHANGING!

A Guide For Young People

What follows is the transcribed text of a crumpled-up pamphlet found caught in a street gutter near Ipswich, Massachusetts. The pamphlet was printed in black and white on cheap paper, using a small, single-spaced serif font. It also contained clip-art illustrations of fish, frogs, mermaids, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It did not list its authors, and its origin could not be traced. Attempts to visit the website alluded to in the pamphlet turned up a 404 error message.


If your family member, friend, doctor, or trusted member of the clergy has handed you this pamphlet, CONGRATULATIONS! That means they have noticed, or you have confided, that your body has begun to undergo some very exciting changes! Though these changes may seem confusing, embarrassing, and even scary at first, we hope to help you embrace them, understand them, and stand tall with pride. Only very special people are lucky enough to have the experience you’re about to embark upon— an experience of COMPLETE TRANSFIGURATION from one form of life into another!
             
Let’s begin with a few frequently asked questions:


01. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?

A combination of genetic and environmental factors have caused your body to begin its transfiguration. The exact gene sequences in play are complex, and still poorly understood. They may be inherited from one or both parents, or, in rarer cases, they may spontaneously arise through mutation. Some recent studies (using the information gathered via programs such as 23 and Me) indicate that up to 2% of the North American population has one or more genetic abnormalities correlated with the transfiguration process. Obviously, the actual instance of transfiguration is far lower: current estimates place it around 0.001%, meaning about one in one hundred thousand individuals will metamorphose at some point in their lives.

However, these individuals aren’t evenly spread out. In some parts of the country (and the world), transfiguration is completely unheard of. On the other side of the spectrum, one small New England fishing town boasts a whopping 38% transfiguration rate!  

 This means it is likely that the genetic abnormalities must be present in specific combinations, and an affected individual exposed to one or more environmental “triggers”, in order for transfiguration to occur. Everything from diet to childhood trauma to in-utero exposure to heavy metals has been proposed as a potential trigger, but the truth is, we don’t yet know why some people with these genes transform while others do not.  

And the larger truth is, it doesn’t matter why it happens.  

There is nothing wrong with you. There is no way to stop you from being what you are. Do not let others’ ignorance persuade you to think of yourself as a tragedy.  


02. WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW? 

Most people begin to change between the ages of 20 and 30. However, the process can begin as young as twelve and as old as fifty! As mentioned in the previous point, no one is sure exactly why it happens, or why the point of onset varies so widely.  

If you’re having trouble processing what this means for your future, or for the life you’ve already built, counseling can be very helpful. A list of highly recommended, affordable professionals in all 50 states can be found on our website (www.friendsofthedeepones.org).  


03. AM I GOING INSANE?  

You probably feel like it! The brain is just another part of the body, and your entire body is undergoing massive shifts in form and function. Most people report some temporary psychological distress: mood swings, bizarre dreams, insomnia or hypersomnia, even mild visual and auditory hallucinations! These will pass.  

You will come out the other side feeling more stable and secure than you’ve ever felt before. Your senses will all be sharp and clear, your mind no longer muddied by human socialization and human prejudices. You will be no more insane than a snail, a shark, a squid, or an albatross.  


04. CAN I REMOVE MY FACIAL SCALES OR COVER THEM WITH COSMETICS SOMEHOW? 

Plucking your scales will cause painful wounds that may become infected, and the scales will grow back anyway. Covering scales with makeup can induce hives and rashes; we don’t recommend it. You cannot hide for long.  


05. WHY DO I LOOK SO DIFFERENT “DOWN THERE”?  

When your transfiguration is complete, you will have a fully developed, fully retractable penis; a likewise retractable ovipositor; internal testicles, a vagina, ovaries, and a uterus. You will be able to perform any sexual/reproductive role with any partner you choose. For protection and streamlining while swimming, your genitals will fold into the sealed pouch between your legs when not aroused. The pouch may look like an abscess or unusually large, inflamed sore in early development; this should not last more than a few months.  


06. DOES THIS MEAN I’M GAY? 

If you want to call yourself gay, sure! If not, don’t worry about it.  

If you’re invested in identifying as exclusively “heterosexual” or “straight”, you’re going to have to let that go. There can be no straightness where there can be no pretense of binary sex, where there is no hierarchy of gender, where everyone is considered an aberrant freak by the untransfigured masses.  


07. WHAT SHOULD I TELL MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY?  
  
Be honest. Tell them you are changing into a new creature. Tell them you are not as once you were. Tell them you are entering into a life of wonder and glory. Tell them they shouldn’t mourn you, or fear for you. Tell them you will still love them, even if you must part ways. Be sympathetic but firm. Tell them you are sorry about their distress, but it is not your problem. Tell them that if they try to stop your transfiguration, or detain you, they will fail. And they will be your friends and family no more. And they will feel the sting of your needle-teeth and venomous spurs.  
  

08. HOW CAN I FIND OTHERS LIKE ME?  

If you’re lucky, you already live in an area with a prominent transfigured community. Find out when and where they hold support groups, community meetings, and swimming competitions. If you’re too nervous to participate at first, just show up and introduce yourself to one or two of the regulars.  

If you’re in a more isolated (or landlocked) area, try our website’s forums and mailing list (www.friendsofthedeepones.org). We can even set you up with a one-on-one “digital mentor”!  


09. IS THERE SOMETHING I CAN DO TO MAKE MYSELF CHANGE FASTER?  

Your enthusiasm is charming, but unfortunately, the transfiguration process cannot be hurried any more than it can be halted. Like human puberty, it proceeds at a different pace for everyone. Be patient. Eventually, you will become the creature you are in your dreams of the deep water.  


10. AM I STILL GOING TO BE “ME” WHEN I’VE CHANGED ALL THE WAY?    

Are you the same person you were when you were a child? If you did not undergo transfiguration, would you be the same person you are right now in ten years? Time alters us all, no matter what. You will have all your memories. You will have many of the same likes, dislikes, and personality traits. If you are very attached to dwelling on land you may even choose to continue with a similar lifestyle, although we do not recommend this.  


11. WILL I LIVE FOREVER?  
  
No living creature is immortal, save arguably certain single-celled organisms. You will still be vulnerable to violence, accidents, some diseases, and the increasing problems of ocean acidification and pollution.  

However, if you avoid all these hazards, you can expect to live a very, very long time.  

 —-  

THE TRANSFIGURATION PROCESS TIMELINE: WHAT CHANGES YOU CAN EXPECT, AND WHEN  

The first signs of incipient transfiguration are sleep disturbances, dreams of the ocean, and an itchy, persistent rash on the face, neck, shoulders, and back that does not respond to topical treatments or antibiotics. Extreme thirst and a distaste for bright light may or may not accompany these symptoms.  

The next stage, which can occur within months or after several years, comprises gradual hair loss, bulging eyes, and a grayish or greenish cast to the skin, especially in areas where the rash is present. At this stage, some cases of transfiguration are misdiagnosed as hyperthyroidism. Once the skin has taken on its gray/green tone, changes usually proceed in the following order:  
  
2 WEEKS-- 2 MONTHS: Development of scales on the face, shoulders, &c. Formation and thickening of webs between fingers/toes. Formation of translucent, retractable membranes over eyes.  
  
2 MONTHS—8 MONTHS: Development of gills on neck. Genital pouch begins to form. Genital growth begins. Loss of typical human teeth. Loss of original eyelids.  
  
6 MONTHS— 2 YEARS: Webs between digits are fully formed. Gills are fully formed and functional. Venomous spurs begin to develop on ankles and wrists. Carnivorous teeth grow in.  
  
1 YEAR— 4 YEARS: Genital reformation complete. Venomous spurs are fully formed and functional. Hair loss complete. Spiny crest on head/back may or may not develop.    

1.5 YEARS— 5 YEARS: Transfiguration complete. Transfigured individual feels strong instinct to take to the sea. Transfigured individual comes home.  

 —-  

HOME
  
The transfigured are amphibious, and can live on land indefinitely. But lingering in the air is bad for the skin, bad for the bones, bad for the heart.  

Typical humans may tolerate the transfigured; they cannot ever understand them. They feel an instinctual revulsion towards those with scales and gills. Few can fully overcome it. Even parents often turn on their children, and siblings on their siblings, and spouses on their spouses. Some are merely rejected, left to complete their metamorphosis without shelter or support. Others are beaten, institutionalized, subjected to barbaric “medical treatments” that do not and can not make them “human again”. Each year, a few are murdered. Cut down before they have a chance to crawl to the water and breathe it in.  

Relocate to a coastal region while you retain the ability to pass as a typical human. Driving a car with fully webbed hands and feet is difficult, and taking a plane or bus in an advanced stage of metamorphosis is risky for obvious reasons. Once you dwell within sight of the ocean, nature will take its course.  

When you have grown into your final form, when dreams and your flesh call you to the ocean with every pulse of blood and every footstep, you should go as quickly as possible. Only suffering waits in the world you’ve known.  

 —-  

YOU WILL BE LOVED  

We can promise you this. We are waiting with our gray-green, shining-scaled arms outstretched. We are waiting for each and every one of you. We see the beauty in your eyes like lemons protruding from too-small sockets, the beauty suffusing clear and painful venom, the beauty of black needles in gum and nailbed. We are legion. Our bone houses, coral houses, garbage and rot houses are all for you. All for us. We’ve made places no primate can reach. We’ve set a table down in the dark, and we are each of us the guest of honor. 

Don’t be afraid. Let the changes fall upon you like a wave upon the shore. Let them sweep you out to the secret places where we wait.

[about]

Briar Ripley Page is the author of Corrupted Vessels, a queer, surreal Southern Gothic novella from swallow::tale press, and Body After Body, a self-published ero-guro dystopian novel. Their shorter work has appeared in places like Moon Park Review, beestung, and the Blood Orange Poetry Tarot. Briar’s online at briarripleypage.xyz.

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[JEN SCHNEIDER]

On Uniformity

How Many / More Coffee / Table for __ / Sharing Charge of __

We were uniformed but not uniform. Black, elastic-waist khakis with white button-down tops. Some waists stretched wider than intended. Others belted and twined. Top buttons always locked. Ties on top. Trademarked socks – cotton with a hint of odor-proof Lycra - on bottom. Restaurant policy. Not only food was plated. Each detail of our being regulated. Nets on hair. Lacquer on nails. Gloss on lips. Image always everything and the proprietors imagined much more for themselves than a 24-hour diner. They envisioned royalty. Breakfast reigned supreme. Eggs Benedict always on the menu. Oversized milkshakes and bottomless cups of freshly brewed coffee. Even as the town shuttered, first due to curfew, later due to economics, the orange neon lights would blink O.P.E.N., beckoning mouths of all makes and models. The establishment depended on us as much as we depended on it. Heck, we all have mouths to feed. And we all need hands to feed them. Clean them, too. Each of us also regulars - most with 2.2 kids, give or take the decimal, and two primary desires - enough cash to buy beer on Fridays and enough in the bank to make rent on Sundays. Despite our conformity to restaurant policy and census trends, we were privy to sharing meals but not much more. Wes tucked our private lives in restaurant issued lockers as soon as our shifts started. None of us ever dreamed of a life driven by menus and daily specials, especially when there was nothing much special about it, yet our days were tallied and clocked by plates and platters. We were on the clock, just like the diner’s recipes. We focused on the regulars. We knew them all by name, but never addressed them as such. Privacy paramount. Sir. Doll. Mam. Hon. We reused salutations at a pace that rivaled the kitchen staffs’ reuse of utensils. The refrigerated pasta salad and coleslaw, too. Sprinkle fresh parsley on top and serve with a smile. Scrub off hardened residue and serve up squeaky clean editions of our best selves. Always. The customers addressed us as mostly Miss, though most of us were or had been married at least once. Some more. Even D, who swore off the institution of marriage, had a small diamond placed on her left ring finger last Christmas. A small bruise on her right shoulder a few weeks later, but none of us talked about that. Like the Thursday special of unknown meat and the contents of salad bar tub 2. We didn’t know who was stealing Coke from the dispenser. Also didn’t know who took the last eclair. It could have been any of us. May have been all of us. Everyone eats. Had we known, they would have been exterminated and terminated - effectively immediately. Like ants in the dishwasher and mice by the garbage. Always one post away from extinction. Facebook posts. Anonymous phone calls. 1-star Yelp reviews. Roaches and poaches, too. We worked for tips, depended on them not unlike the way M depended on N, her husband of forty years, to order. Later cut her meat. And not unlike the way N depended on us after her passing. He’d come in each morning at 7. For the No. 2 - two eggs and toast. Sometimes a side of bacon. M would not approve. And the day’s news. Not unlike the way the men in suits depended on morning coffee - caffeinated, of course - and the way the mothers with toddlers depended on crayons and cartoon placemats. We’d clean messes of all sorts. Coffee. Milk. Chicken noodle soup. Breakups. Despite the paper napkins, most would cry. Our customers were just as much our babies as the platters. Most Mondays, V would come with H and his wedding band. With J and a ringless finger on Thursdays. Bread deliveries. Daily news. TV steamed and streamed over apple pie. Last February, management instituted a pooled tip policy. None of us knew what to make of it. Felt like gambling and we weren’t gamblers. Except B, but he barely worked so none of us would bet on him. Until the day he tipped off cops and they arrested our shift manager for fraud. She had been taking a cut - a hefty slice (what we’d term a double) - of what was legally ours. Law enforcement had filled our booths for years. That day, we felt as if they framed the vinyl seats. The shift manager managed everything. Including us. Everyone eats.

In Blue Button Downs and Khaki Bottoms

We were uniform and uniformed. Navy blue button downs and khaki bottoms. Collars closed. Most bottoms sewn of over-indulgent elastic at the waist and under indulgent cotton at the ankle. Our mandatory white coats both unifying and artificial. We came from as near as two blocks over to as far as two bus lines and a freeway drive away. Shift workers charged with dispensing tiny pills with powers far beyond that of any of us - of anyone. A few wore glasses – tortoise shell, red ovals, double strength readers. Others favored contacts – hard and soft lens. Extra saline always on hand. None of us had 20-20 vision, yet all of us saw much more than we’d ever admit. Our patrons included cheerleaders on birth control and young wives on hormones. We were trained not to ask questions, but reading was second nature. Policy, too. Charged with imparting information on side effects, we walked an invisible line – one that required we balance both affect and effect. We peddled Neosporin for kids with stitches. Cover-up for bruises. Make up far more significant than gender-neutral lifts. We were magicians who made the visible invisible. Sleights of hand everywhere. Kids on Gilenya. Men on speed. Experimental trials, too. All of us more knowing than we’d ever wish to know. Like the 53-year-old male (121 days until his next birthday), with one wife, three kids, and an alcohol induced penchant for Pepto Bismol. Untreated liver disease. Secret stashes of cigarettes. Medically and mentally documented. Typically, customers – we never called them patients, though many tried our patience – would pick up what had already been ordered. None wished to be there. Not new Dads who needed baby diapers. Not old Dads who needed adult diapers. We were schooled in everything baby. Teething tricks, diaper rash balms, Neosporin ointment. Everything old, too. Excessive gas, incontinence, and sleeping aids. Sleep the greatest opponent of all. We were schooled on acne treatments and over treatments. Forced to ID addicts and convicts – pre and post lawful abiding status. Like the 60-year old woman with a still good back who used her dead mother’s name to buy narcotics for back pain. Mostly we waited. For meds and Mondays. Deliveries of Juicy Fruit gum and Diet Snapple. T preferred Peach. B fancied Raspberry. Each of us counted the minutes for our turn to retire. To the breakroom. Plastic bags, paperbacks and paper sacks unzipped and unfolded on the metal table. The wall clock watched us as we listened to Days of Our Lives, The Price is Right, and NPR. M would covet the thermostat. P would covet M. M preferred 68. P, 65. We never knew who would emerge the victor of the day’s war. Not sure any of us cared. We came armed with cardigans and extra Ts. A. favored silk scarves. Blankets and besties under our stark white lab coats. Sized Small to Triple XXX. We were the same. We spent our shifts in service, but service never ceased. Sometimes, on quiet nights, we’d grab a bag of jacks from the toy aisle. Sometimes marbles. Pinky balls would have been fun, but too risky. We knew where the cameras were. Knew they were always on. Controlled by corporate. Our phones a lifeline. Especially for times there was a ruckus at the front. We’d pull down the metal grate – orders – to protect the meds – not us – and dial 9-1-1. We had a special button, a code system between the store’s front and back. Other than the hold-ups and the f-ups, the front of the store got all the love. Unless you count Viagra, which we were responsible for. The front had the Cola and the Russell Stover boxes. Closest to the Hallmark aisle and the Sudoku books. Not to mention the Maybelline and the Cover Girl. Our own uniforms – face and fabric - not gracing any covers. Hair style specifications, too. All hairs tied and tucked. FDA rules, corporate would say. We never could prove it. Only found increasing grey. Proof of purchase reigned. No proof, no refund, we’d say. On repeat. Like the clock’s minute hand. We all had theories - why someone would return a half-used box of condoms; a half-empty bottle of OxyContin; acne cream. None of us really knew, all of us knowing.

[about]

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania. She loves words, warm welcomes, and winter (along with the other three seasons). Poetry is a perfect complement to all of her interests. Poetry is also a perfect sounding board for her many questions. She is a Best of the Net nominee, with stories, poems, and essays published in a wide variety of literary and scholarly journals. She is the author of Invisible Ink (Toho Pub), On Daily Puzzles: (Un)locking Invisibility (forthcoming, Moonstone Press), and Blindfolds, Bruises, and Breakups (forthcoming Atmosphere Press).

Categories
Fiction Issue III

[SUMEDHA SENGUPTA]

Dear Dependant

Nikhil had dozed off while reading an article in the newspaper. He held it spread open with both his hands as if shielding his tired eyes from the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Meera was sitting on the chair next to him, humming a tune in a low voice. The somewhat dissonant tune had sounded familiar to him, but he soon dismissed the idea of finding any sense in it, and he trailed off into the warm arms of afternoon slumber.  

The droning melody eventually dwindled and he started awake as the sudden silence gripped his heart with a sense of impending doom. He felt her heated gaze turn towards him.  

“Nikhil, could you tell me where Nikhil has gone?” she demanded, her eyes wide with earnest concern. The bizarre dichotomy of the sentence was long lost on her, and the heart-wrenching urgency in her voice demanded an answer.  

“You don’t know what you are saying.” his reply was sharp, in the desperate hope that the curt answer would serve as a levee to the floods of her confused imaginations.  

“But you don’t understand, he was supposed to take me home!”  

He had tried and exhausted every answer he could give to that question. Had he tried reminding her that she was talking to Nikhil himself, she would’ve jeeringly insinuated that he was the one descending into senility. On the other hand, if he just lied through his teeth to assure that ‘Nikhil’ was just on his way home, she would simply dismiss him in disbelief.  

In fact the ‘Nikhil’ within the quotations, was the object of his nightmares. 

Nevertheless, he was aware that he needed to tread lightly because Nalini, the woman who usually took care of his wife, was on a holiday. He decided to let the air, heavy with her stinging question and his leaden silence, settle down on his shoulders. And somewhere within him, he hoped that she would forget about the silence too as she had forgotten about most everything else.  

Nikhil had spent fifty years with her. In those years, he never had the chance to witness her round eyes buzzing with curiosity. He had once brought home a second-hand computer because he wanted his wife to use the device for writing stories and maintain her daily logs-something to keep her busy. But far from utilising it, she gave up on the fancy gadget merely days after. The device had since occupied a corner in their bedroom, quietly sitting under a thin film of dust. It had now become the mammoth monster of the room, riddling her mind in the middle of long, dreadful nights. No, she never had a lot of curiosity. In his mind, she would always be content with the clickety clack of the weary old typewriter, and the loud whirring of the ancient sewing machine.  

Yet here he was years later, grappling with the consequences of her unquenchable, gut-wrenching curiosity that now questioned his identity.  

“But where did Nikhil go? He was supposed to be here with me!” She insisted, her rising pitch echoing from the drawing-room walls. There was nothing he could say to make her believe that he was long past the point of playing hide-and-seek.  

He had always been aware of the fact that she was dependent on his protection. Perhaps that was the reason her eyes were accustomed to search for him.  

Amongst them, there was an unspoken rule that she would be the one taking care of the house, and he would be the provider. The hand-drawn line had never been challenged by anyone in fifty years. She had weaved herself into a cocoon of solitude- brewing tea, washing utensils, and keeping the house clean. In return for the neatly starched shirt every morning, and the fish curried to perfection, he diligently sat behind his computer all day at the office and crunched numbers to bring home a wad of cash at the end of each month. That was the only thing he remembered doing in his youth. Except, once in a while, he would take off to the hillside, or the beaches, and she would reluctantly accompany him. He once asked her where she wanted to go, and she simply shrugged in reply. But one thing he had figured out about her was that she preferred the deep ocean to the hills. Perhaps she had always been scared of scaling heights. He could tell because every time they packed their suitcases, she always chose her favourite saris when they were going to the beach. The hills only ever got to witness her in grey and beige.  

She had spent fifty years adjusting to his wishes and whims. Not even for a moment had she wanted to become independent- financially, or otherwise. He always wondered how she could be okay with the idea of being wholly dependant on someone else, but even with all his zestful curiosity, he never attempted to ask. 

He could hear the curses she muttered under her breath. She was currently livid that Nikhil had left without telling her, and she was desperate to go home. 

Home— 

The home they had resided in for half a century, was painted in a bright shade of yellow and the curtains drawn over the windows were moss green, a shade that had reminded Meera of the curtains in her father’s hospital chamber. The armchairs in the living room were dressed in garments she had crocheted, and there used to be a giant vase standing in the corner that was hand-painted by her. The tall shelf standing against the wall was stacked with books that reminded her of the fields in Bangladesh, a few crystal showpieces, and a doll that crashed cymbals when someone wound the key. 

Now the walls were tarnished, and the vase had broken. The floors were unkempt and most of the books had been destroyed by termites. He wondered if that was the reason that it had stopped being ‘home’. If he even dared to ask where ‘home’ to her is today, she would fumble like there was gravel cutting against her tongue. Yet, she wanted to go home.  

He feared that she would wander off into the streets alone searching for ‘home’, and then she would never be able to find her way back without him.  

“I would like some tea” she announced after a while clearing her throat. The sudden calm in her voice made him jump out of his reverie. He folded the newspaper that he had been futilely holding open, and just for a moment, he sat still trying to ascertain that the calm wasn’t a hoax. 

“I would like some tea,” she repeated, “Can you even hear me?” 

In an instant he braced himself to call out for Nalini. The responsibility of brewing the tea had shifted to yet another woman now, no questions asked. A moment passed before he realised that he was the one responsible today. Making tea wasn’t rocket science, he repeated in his mind. 

The small, poorly lit kitchen had always been Meera’s turf. It was as if the aroma of coconut oil braided in her hair, was incorporated into its walls. The steel containers of Masala were lined up in a way that it felt like he was steering through a maze- a labyrinth he could never fully decode.  

He never understood how she had spent most of her life enclosed within this box. But every time her odd experiments of mixing and matching condiments yielded something delicious, her eyes used to light up as if she hadn’t been enclosed at all. As if, she was the most curious being on the planet. 

But just a few months back while she was frying fish, the shawl draped on her had caught on fire. She would not let go of the shawl, no matter how hot it was outside, or how much he pleaded with her. Nikhil vowed to himself to never let her near the flames again. It had almost taken physical force to keep her away from the kitchen. But with time perhaps the disease had taken away her memories of the kitchen as well, just like one day, it will take away her memory of her own reflection in the mirror.  

He fumbled to look for the saucepan in the small cabinet beneath the sink. A large heap of utensils tumbled down, crashing on the floor. He scuffled to put them back together and ended up breaking the plastic handle of the pressure cooker. In midst of all the hullabaloo, he almost missed the sounds of shuffling feet that rushed towards the scene of this ludicrous misadventure.  

She stood there, arms akimbo, utterly confused at witnessing the old man wrestling with a pile of stainless steel.  

“Err, I was just trying to make tea,” he mumbled without looking at her, “Hopeless, I am!” A light of understanding spread over her face, and it almost felt like a distant dream.  

“We keep the saucepan outside, you know,” she said pointing towards the utensil kept upturned on the granite slab. The present tense that she used in her sentence, rang in his ear like an oddity, and he almost wished that it had been true.  

“Seems like you never managed to teach me anything after all, Meera,” a small smile crept on his lips.  

“It’s not my fault, Nikhil”, she muttered under her breath, “You were always quite dependant on me.” 

She helped him gather the cinnamon, milk, and tea leaves, and gently explained the process as if she were teaching a child. And Nikhil carefully clung to every word she uttered. After all, it might have even been the last time he could depend on her. Just one last time, he told himself, and then he would be her ‘home’. 

She stood leaning against the doorframe, quietly looking as he poured milk in the tea. And suddenly, it struck her— 

“But Nikhil, where did Nikhil go?”

[about]

Sumedha Sengupta (She/Her) is a student and writer residing in New Delhi, India. She was the only Asian writer to be shortlisted for the Margaret and Reg Turnill Short Story Prize, 2021. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Twist&Twain, The Livewire, Ayaskala, and more. On a good day, she can be found obsessing over chemical reactions, painting contorted faces, or listening to classical music. One day, she hopes to discover something extraordinary!

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[LARRY SHI]

Sandstorms, Dust Storms / Ghost of Lin Zhi Cun

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[about]

Larry Shi is an avid sixteen year old writer from Fremont, California. When he is not taking spontaneous naps throughout the day, he is constantly thinking of ideas and daydreaming away. He credits his participation in the prestigious California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) as his spark for his writing portfolios. His work has been recognized as a National Gold Medal Winner in the Scholastic Art and Writing National Contest, while his work has also
been published in numerous literary journals and magazines, including the Stanford Anthology for Youth. In his free time, Larry loves to play tennis with his friends and play percussion and the piano.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[JESSICA WANG]

PRAYER

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[about]

Jessica Wang is a sixteen-year old girl from New York. She is the founder of the literary magazine Ice Lolly Review. Her work has been recognized eleven times by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and she is a Scholastic national medalist. She has also won some local writing
contests. Jessica has some work in Skipping Stones, The Telling Room, and The Weight Journal. Her advice is to calm down and to have a Snickers because you’re not you when you’re hungry.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[CHRISTOPHER CASCIO]

Shane

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[about]

Chris Cascio’s fiction, nonfiction, and artwork has appeared in Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Longridge Review, Peregrine Journal, The Southampton Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, Mikrokosmos, Litro USA, and elsewhere. His story, “Outbound,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[KASIMMA]

DEAR PASTOR

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[about]

Kasimma is from Igboland. Her works are published on The Puritan, Kikwetu Journal, Kweli Journal, The Book Smuggler’s Den, Jellyfish Review, Afreecan Read, Orbis Journal, Cacti fur, The Bombay Review, and elsewhere. Kasimma is the author of All Shades of Iberibe to be released fall 2021 by Sandorf Passage Publishers. She has been awarded residencies at Wole Soyinka Foundation, Faberllull, Sinthian Cultural
Center, Ebedi hills, and Study Abroad in Lebanon. She is an alumna of Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop, IWP lines and spaces tour Workshop, and SSDA Flow workshop. She was awarded the Best Young Writer of 2005 by the Association of Nigeria Authors. She holds a BSc degree in Statistics/Economics from University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She was born in Jos, hails from Achina, lives in Abuja, Nigeria.

Categories
Fiction Issue 2

[GT REEDER]

Fly Away, High Away

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[about]

GT is a student at Reed college. They are also a cohost on the Cool Zone Pod podcast. GT has work forthcoming in Blood Knife Magazine.

Categories
Fiction Issue I

[CAMRYN HAMBRICK]

Once Strawberry Season Comes

In a three-star hotel ten miles from the Mall of America, Nathan and I sit on opposite sides of the bed with our backs to each other. I’m wearing lingerie. On the wall in front of me is a pair of square paintings, each with a pale yellow background and a bundle of purple watercolor carnations. I haven’t seen anything less interesting since Katie, our six-year-old daughter, held a hermit crab to the bridge of my nose and said, “Mommy, watch him come out!” only to learn the shell was empty a minute later. Yet I stare at the flowers willingly after my husband tells me to please change. He can’t do it. He begins to cry. 

In college, people joked that Nathan and I might as well dress up as a bird and a bee for Halloween, considering the amount of time we spent together. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it, how we managed a relationship without letting our grades circle the drain. He was a business major, training to become an insurance claims adjuster, while I studied poetry, or, as my father put it, sentenced myself to a lifetime of poverty. Nathan didn’t care. He told me that doing what I loved was brave, that it showed I really cared about the world. He was wrong of course. At that point, I only recycled when a blue bin was within arm’s reach and didn’t know the first thing about global warming—apart from the fact that it was an issue no one had a solution for. Still, I didn’t correct him. I wanted him to believe there was more to me than oversized denim jackets and Ritz crackers in Ziploc bags, so if he thought I made the world a better place by annotating Rita Dove in my free time, then so be it. 

*** 

 College Nathan was different from adult Nathan. College Nathan was handsome—the kind of handsome you spot in the muscle milk section of Target, the kind of handsome that convinces you your fridge is lonesome without a six-pack of chocolate muscle milk when you’ve never tasted a drop of chocolate muscle milk in your life, didn’t realize until thirty seconds before that chocolate muscle milk existed, let alone that Target sold it. 

When I sat across from him in Death in Perspective, a class my mother made me take because A) she paid for my tuition and B) “everyone should know how to write a will,” I swore to myself that I would never talk to him, never embarrass myself by saying something inherently irrelevant in his presence, and I kept that promise until the fifth week of class, when we took a field trip to the local cemetery. 

 “Do you think Margaret went by Marge or Betty?” Nathan asked. I walked over and read the headstone he stood in front of: Margaret B. Conner, beloved wife and mother, 1942-2013.  “Where’d you get Betty from?” I said. 

He rested his arm on my shoulder and pointed at Margaret’s grave. “Her middle name starts with a B, so I figured it has to be Betty. It’s the only acceptable B name.” A few seconds passed before he recognized his mistake. “Well that and Bonnie. Bonnie is your name, right?”  I nodded and asked him to remind me of his.

 “Nathan, after Nathan Sewell, a hockey player from the nineties,” he waved his arm as if brushing something away, “Don’t worry no one knows who he is.” 

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Nathan after Nathan Sewell, the forgotten hockey player.” He smiled and joined me in a handshake. “You too, only-acceptable-B-name Bonnie.”

*** 

 The television flips through slides of hotel amenities—the indoor pool, the fitness center, free wifi, breakfast in the lobby at six. My phone sits beside it on the dresser. I’m tempted to stand up and check it, to see if my mom has posted any new photos of Katie on Facebook, but Nathan paces the floor. He walks from the bathroom door to the blue sofa chair and back, saying words like “tired” and “monotonous,” though I’m not sure what for. I figure it’s too late to start listening now, so, instead, I examine the paintings on the wall and wonder if I watered the kitchen daffodils before I left. When Nathan’s rant hits the time it takes for four slides to fade in and out on the television, the lace of my lingerie begins to prickle against my skin. I itch what Katie calls my “side pillows,” the layers of fat on each side of my stomach, but that only irritates the skin more. If it would have been rude to grab my phone before, it’s plain wrong to change my clothes now, so I place my hands over my hips and lay back in bed, wishing it was my bed, the one at home decorated with blue and yellow hummingbirds, the one that doesn’t feel as stiff as cardboard, the one that is technically our bed, except I’m the only one who sleeps in it. 

Nathan lives in and out of hotels around the country, fixing roofs after tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. With Hurricane Helene, the tsunami off the coast of California, and a handful of tornadoes in Oklahoma, he hasn’t had time to come home this year. Still, every day on the way to school, Katie asks me when he’ll be able to play Mario Kart with her again, and every day I respond, “I don’t know, hon. Daddy’s chasing a storm right now, but he’ll be back before you know it.” I’ve said it so much now, I’ve almost started to believe it. “Are you even listening to me?” 

I sit up. Nathan’s in front of the bathroom, leaning forward with his arms out. “Of course I’m listening, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t understand what happened, why you don’t like me anymore.” 

“For heaven’s sake, Bonnie, I do like you. I just don’t want to sleep with you. Those are two different things and you know it.” 

I shake my head and laugh under my breath. “Then what is it? Me? My muffin top? The way my glasses slide from the bridge to the tip of my nose? Or maybe it’s my thighs, the way they jiggle whenever I move. Tell me, Nathan. Tell me what’s so wrong that you can’t even be with your own wife.” 

“I already told you, I don’t know what it is,” he slumps back down on his side of the bed, “I don’t know anything right now.” 

I clench my jaw and look back at the paintings. The air conditioner cuts on, sending a dense wave of cool air through the room. On the balcony a small bird pecks at cracker crumbs from the night before.

In my sophomore year of college, Nathan and I had our first kiss. I’d gone to lunch with hima few times, but was dating a boy named Jacob, who sometimes sat in my poetry course. One day, while Jacob was buying us M&Ms at a gas station, Nathan pulled up to the pump next to ours. He knocked on the passenger window of Jacob’s Honda Civic, so I rolled it down. “Do you have a ten? I forgot my wallet in the dorm.” 

I handed him a twenty from the console and said I’d pay Jacob back later, to which he thanked me and turned to walk back to his pump, then changed his mind. In the corner of my eye, Jacob stood at the counter, pulling a card from his alligator clip wallet. 

“What is it?” I asked. Nathan looked at his feet and shook his head. “What?” I said again. He leaned into the passenger window and kissed me, softly and quickly, like it was something we did all the time. His hand lingered on my cheek a second before Jacob walked out of the gas station. At the sight of him, Nathan pulled away and returned to his pump without so much as a second glance. The next day, he found me after class and said he didn’t regret anything, said he wanted to do this and would scream it across campus, said I was the only one, the only one for the long haul.

***  

My phone rings from the top of the dresser. When I pick up, I hear my daughter’s voice. “Mommy, guess what?!” 

“What?!” 

Nathan stands up and mouths Katie? so I nod and put her on speaker. 

“I drew a pink butterfly at school today and Ms. Jasmine said it was the prettiest butterfly she’s seen in the whole wide world.” 

“Honey, that’s so great.” 

“I’m proud of you, Katie girl.” 

“Is that you, Daddy? When can we play Mario Kart again?” 

Nathan smiles. “Soon enough, girly, soon enough.” 

We speak a while longer, remind her a few times more of how much we miss her, then say our goodbyes and hang up. When I set my phone back on the counter, I’m surprised by the room’s silence. Nathan must be too because he looks at the indentation on his side of the bed, where he sat just a few minutes ago, then goes to the restroom. At the click of the lock, I twirl in place. Something about talking to Katie made me feel like we can do this, like we can still be parents, like, somehow, we can love each other again. 

I see us now: We’re at the farm down the road picking strawberries. Katie walks in front of us, stopping at each runner, tossing red and greenish white berries into her plastic bucket. I tell her we can make jam later and she squeals, which makes Nathan squeeze my hand twice, our signal for I love you. The sun begins to fall over the horizon, burning a deep coral into the clouds, and we drive home together, the three of us, for the first of many times.

Nathan walks out of the restroom. I want to tell him that we’ll be picking strawberries in no time, that no matter what we do or say in this hotel room, we can still be a family. I plop down at the foot of the bed, about to pat the space next to me when he sits there. 

“Bonnie,” he says, resting his hand on my knee. His touch makes me aware of the lingerie on my body and, again, I’m overwhelmed with a desire to change. “Bonnie, everything is the same.” 

He rolls a yellow thread in between his fingers. Up close, he no longer looks like the man I kissed goodbye at the Atlanta airport, the man who promised the storms would die down, promised he’d only be gone for a month or two. I try to convince myself it’s only the aftermath of his tears, the red and pink splotches on his cheeks, but then I notice the deep wrinkles in his temples, the dark bags under his eyes, the silver patches of stubble across his jawline. I brush the thought away and rest my head on his shoulder. 

“Isn’t it great? I didn’t think it would work out because we haven’t seen each other in so long but everything really is the same, which means life can finally go back to the way it was before you left. I even thought we could try out that strawberry patch down the road from Katie’s daycare to celebrate,” his shoulder tenses, “I mean, when you get back of course. You are coming back, right?” 

The thread whips back and forth, hitting the tip of his thumb with each coil. “Everything can’t go back to the way it was because everything is the same. I go to work and I hate it. I eat powdered eggs and I hate it. I stop at red light after red light and and, Bonnie, I hate it. Every day, every laugh, every sigh is expected. I can’t do it anymore. God, I can’t do it.” I lift my head and pretend not to notice my question went unanswered. “Hon, I don’t know what to tell you,” I itch my right side, “That’s life?” 

He falls back onto the bed. “Life is cotton candy at state festivals and roller skate stickers on Happy Meal toys and drive-in movie theaters so far from home that, by the time you have to drive back, it’s 2 AM and you haven’t felt so exhausted since graduate school, but you’ve got half a bottle of Coke Zero in the cup holder and the love of your life in the passenger seat, so you know it’s all worth it. That’s life. This—whatever this is—” he waves his hand, “is not life.” 

Down the hall, a woman laughs. I lie down next to Nathan and can’t help but wish I didn’t feel the need to be close to him, the need to trace my finger over the hair on his forearm, to inch toward him until our shoulders are touching. I can’t help but wish I didn’t need him as much as he didn’t need me. Still, I find his hand at the base of his stomach and slide my fingers between his, rubbing my thumb across the soft part of his palm. We stay like this for three slides on the television, after which Nathan turns on his side, resting his neck in the crook of his hand. 

“Do you remember the night before your 26th birthday? You said there was no reason to celebrate one year closer to death, so we celebrated your birthday eve instead. The Bi-LO by 7-Eleven was out of peanut butter cookie dough and strawberry cake mix—unsurprisingly, considering that Bi-LO closed its doors a few months later—so we filled our buggy with a quarter-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids, a few peaches, some latte-flavored Oreos, a jug of apple

juice, a package of maple bacon, a can of whipped cream for you, a tub of Cool Whip for me. When we got home, I set it all out on the quilt blanket we used for a table while you showered and put on those kitten pajama pants you used to wear every night. Then we stuffed ourselves 

with calories and talked about things we always knew were real but never thought possible, things like Katie and good-paying jobs and a wooden dining room table, somewhere we could set up Thanksgiving dinner and throw junk mail after a long day. We were so young then, and didn’t know anything about life, how it becomes a routine you’ll pray every night to escape,” he sighs, “I don’t think we can ever get back to that.” 

I smile, partly because I forgot about that night, how times used to be easy and manageable, simple and exciting, partly because I can’t remember the last time we laid in bed together, side by side, and talked about anything. I scoot closer to Nathan’s body, nestle my head in his chest, wrap my arms around his back—careful to make sure he can’t see my tears. “You’re not coming home, are you?” 

He pulls me closer and kisses the top of my head. My heart beats hard against my chest out of fear that any other movement will prompt him to get up from bed, pack his suitcase, return to another life. After a handful of slides pass on the television, the air conditioning cuts off, emptying the room of a quiet rumble I didn’t notice until it was gone.

[about]

Camryn Hambrick is a senior creative writer at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina. She has received a Scholastic Gold Medal for Humor, a Scholastic American Voices Medal, and has work published in The Interlochen Review. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family and her new dog, Bob Ross.