Small Dr. Pepper by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue

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Through the tinny, staticky speaker came the single order, “Small Dr. Pepper.”

When I repeated it back, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would get in a line that reached all the way to the street for just one small DP? Must be one thirsty dude, I thought. Spotted him in my rectangular drive-thru mirror, some skinny punk on his little rinky-dink 90cc Suzuki, who for some reason had to end his day with Texas’ own carbonated prune juice.

I hadn’t much time to cogitate on it. As the only employee at the Jack-in-the-Box on Edgebrook Drive, I was too busy running my butt off–chucking frozen patties from the freezer to the grill, shaking fries and rings out of hot grease, stuffing crackling hot tacos with their American cheese and damp lettuce fixings, popping tops on a gazillion carbonated beverages, taking orders, getting money. In short: doing every damn thing because I was it, the sole employee at Jack-in-the-Box #233. 

It was Sunday before Labor Day and my manager Max had only scheduled me, one person after 10, not figuring that a whole crowd would be out having a great time on a Sunday night because of the holiday, and then all of them end up getting munchies and craving at exactly the same moment some of Jack’s greasy, fattening fare.

“Twenty-six cents,” I announced to my DP-loving customer as he puttered up to the window.

“Forget about it,” he said.

“Huh?” I studied how his tinted visor hid his face. At 11 o’clock at night? What the hell?

Then he said, like he’d been practicing the phrase all day, “I want all your money.”

“Huh?” I repeated.

“I-said-I-want-all-your-money,” he repeated extra specially slow, as if as a baby who had been dropped on the head.

“Are you serious?” I finally managed to get out. Then my voice cracked, betraying me, interrupting the Robert Stack bass I’d been cultivating, to replace it with the worst voice ever for a teenage boy, a Jerry Lewis falsetto. “This some kind of joke?”

“Dead serious,” he said, making his voice sound deeper to contrast with mine, while at the same time putting his left hand into his coat pocket, like he was packing heat and was more than ready to use it.

I slowly backed away from the window. It’s not that I had a plan exactly. Sure, beaucoups of thoughts were caroming around my cerebral cortex at that particular moment. A big old butcher knife to cut onions was near the sink in the back. Or, maybe, I could scrounge around for one of those cups we had for the brave few who could stomach Jack coffee. Then if I found one, I could fill it up with some boiling grease, and throw it at him, but all I could think to do was to keep backing up, till I ended up next to the milkshake machine, a good 12 feet from the motorcycle want-to-be robber.

“Hey, man, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Motorcycle Guy said, tons of pseudo-empathy oozing.

“Huh?” I repeated. By this time, he must’ve thought he was talking to a future rocket scientist.

“Look, it ain’t your money, is it? It’s Jack’s money, right, and hell, dont’cha think Jack has planned ahead and has insurance in case of robbery?”

I leaned against the milk shake machine and chewed on this interesting factoid. “Hmm, guess you might have something there.”

“You bet, hoss. Believe me, the money in that register─no matter how much it is─ain’t worth risking your young life over. And, you know, these things happen fairly often these days. Some think it’s because we’ve banned prayers in school, while others believe it’s because we’re living in the end times. Not a theory I personally ascribe to, but I think the biblical evidence is, let us say, somewhat intriguing.”

So, I was being robbed on the Sunday before Labor Day by a motorcycle riding fundamentalist. What was next? After the robbery, were we going to bow our heads in prayer?

After checking the register, I realized I had a bigger problem than a Jesus Freak who wasn’t clear on the eighth commandment. Max our manager had drilled into us that we were neve to have more than $50 in the register after 10p.m. Now because of the rush, I had at minimum 10 times that, so yours truly was now stuffing at least $500 in cash into a Jack sack for a Jesus-freak stick-up man.

Making it up as I went along, I decided to put all the loose coins and even some coin rolls in the bag. After that I pounded those coins into the bottom of the sack, thinking that maybe, just maybe, the bag would burst open as the motorcycle robber’s mass times velocity would equal─oh, something. Least-wise, I was hoping.

Then as I handed him the Jack bag crammed full of cash and coins, I, much to my eternal shame, reverted into a total Jack-in-the-Box automaton, “Thank you. Have a nice day. Come back,” I droned.

Mr. Robber didn’t respond with “you’re welcome,” or even bust a gut laughing, as he had the perfect right to. He just grabbed the Jack bag and sped off. 

I tried to get a look at his license plate, but wouldn’t you know, he’d tied a rag to cover it. The next car in line cruised to the window with a car packed full of hungry young dudes,all with cheeks dotted with infected zits and long greasy hair. I shouted over their 8-track stereo blastingout Eric Burdon singing Cisco Kid was a friend of mine, “Sorry man, I’m closed. I just got robbed!”

“Shit, let’s go get him,” shouted the driver. Then he peeled out of the drive-thru, fishtailing when he hit the street. He sped down Edgebrook, chasing after the fundamentalist motorcycle robber.

***

The first thing out of my manager’s mouth was, “Let me guess, some bro from the Fifth Ward paid us a little visit tonight so he could supplement his monthly welfare check, right?” He was busy opening the safe, getting enough change and bills into the cash register so I could reopen.

“No, Max, I hate to disappoint you, and while I didn’t see much of his skin, I saw enough to know he was definitely a member of the Caucasian persuasion. Can’t say whether he was supplementing his welfare check or not. I was kinda busy, so I forgot to ask.”

“Did he have a gun?”

“Well.”

“Well, what?”

“I don’t know, Max.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? What are you saying? You’d give money to anyone who’d ask for it? Jack, I’d like a Jumbo Jack extra cheese with all your cash. And you’d respond, Do you want a large fry or apple pie with that?”

Sometimes, well, most of the time, Max was a smart ass, which usually endeared him to his employees, smart ass teenagers, in the main. But tonight he was a little worse than usual. I guess getting him up out of bed with the Mrs. at midnight had really spoiled his day.

“Listen, Max, maybe, he had a gun, acted like he did any ways, like he had something in his coat pocket, but I didn’t ask him to show it to me. I didn’t say, Excuse me, Mr. Robber Dude, I need to see your gun and how big it is before I can give you any money. My manager said so‘ Then risk getting my ass shot for Jack.”

“Yeah, well, I guess, maybe, you did right,” Max responded absently as he was counting out money for the register. He was trying to sound positive, but I could tell his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

“So I presume you told the cops all you told me?” Max asked.

“Yeah, and I gave them a good description of the bike, too. Hope they find that skinny bastard.”

“Me, too. And I hope they get all that cash back.” Max whistled, showing me he’d already figured out how much cash I handed out.

I felt my face getting hot. I wanted to jump in, defend myself, but I didn’t a clue one what to say.

“So you want to stay till 3,” Max fortuitously changing the subject, “like you were scheduled or do you want to go home? I remember the first time I got robbed, and I know it can wipe your ass out, so whatever you want to do is fine by me.”

“I’ll stay, Max. It’s okay. I want to clean up.”

He nodded. He stood there with his back to me, his big body slouching over the cash register, a thick sheen of sweat on the back of his fat neck, his wide shoulders sagging.

A powerful pang of sorrow hit me. Poor guy. He looked so exhausted, so totally put upon.

Then it occurred to me that the way he was standing would make a great statue, like Rodin’s The Thinker, we’d been studying about in my Western Civ class. Except Max would represent something different, not philosophy or great learning, more like the total futility of managing a bunch of teenagers at a Jack-in-the-Box.

***

Jesse poured the clear liquid out of the pint bottle. It spread a yard-wide puddle on the bright

orange tiles. Then nonchalantly he lit a match and flicked it on the spill. Immediately it flamed, a bright blue fire in the middle of Jack’s dining area. Then just as quickly the flame went out.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, imagine if it’s this flammable, hell, flammable as gas, what it’s doing to our insides right now?”

I nodded thoughtfully.

“So you want more vodka in your Coke?”

“Hell, yeah.”

He poured some in both our cups. Then took a toke of his Marlboro and flicked the ashes onto the gold color cheap-ass ashtrays emblazoned with the Jack logo. Normally, when we got bored, we used them as Frisbees.

“So you got robbed? Cool.”

“Yeah, I guess. Hadn’t thought so till you mentioned it, but I guess it is pretty cool. I didn’t think so at the time, though. Also, I’m kinda worried. I think Max might fire me. I had way too much cash in the register.”

Jesse squinted at me through his usual-half-closed, stoner lids. “Listen, don’t worry about Max. Sure, he fired my ass for coming to work stoned once, but I always thought Max was pretty fair as Jack managers go. And, anyway, the extra cash you had in the till is his fault when you think about it. Who was the idiot that only scheduled one person after 10 on the Sunday before Labor Day? Did he really think nobody was going to be going out?”

“I guess you’re right,” I said, more than a bit relieved, but maybe it was the vodka finally

kicking in.

“Well, I’ll tell you, life sure is shit sometimes.”

“Yep,” I nonchalantly answered, trying to sound as grown-up as possible. “Tell me about it.”

“People die. Bad things happen. Sometimes Jack-in-the-Boxes gets robbed. Hell, my old man ran off last year, and since then my mom spends most of her time drinking when she isn’t hitting on any guy with 2 legs and a dick. Shit, I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it.”

“Really?” I checking out Jesse’s face, pinched with anger. I’d never heard him speak of any of that before. “Man, that sucks.”

“Gotcha!” Jesse chuckled. “I just made all that shit up. It ain’t true. None of it.”

“Oh, shit. That’s almost as bad as being told ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary and believing it.”

“Man, you should’ve seen your face.

After that, Jesse and I sat in silence, sipping our Cokes with dashes of vodka, the fluorescent lights abuzz over our heads. We looked out at the mostly dark 2 a.m. Edgebrook Drive. Our neighborhood’s main drag, our teenage fastfood heaven, was now quiet and almost totally deserted.

What a night. I had worked my ass off, got robbed by some fundamentalist punk on a dinky Suzuki, got yelled at by my racist boss, and now the vodka was beginning to erode any edge the past few hours had slapped on me. Maybe this was life boiled down to its essence? If that’s what it was, it didn’t seem too bad. I’d had my doubts before, but just maybe this life thing was something I could manage.

Maybe?

“Hey man, you want me to light the vodka again?”

“Sure, Jesse. Why the hell not?”

East of Durango by Harrison Kim

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“You know, I could drive out in the desert here, and put a bullet through your head,” says the stocky, brown shirted man who claims he’s a Mexican Federale. “No one would ever find you.”

I’m riding with him through the warm January desert, a hundred kilometres east of Durango, Mexico.

This morning, I woke up in my camping place behind some high sage with the hard clay under me. On top of my sleeping bag I felt a slithering. A long moving weight. I stayed still. To move, to startle, could mean that creature coming into the bag. I convinced myself it was something else. Perhaps a sleepy non venomous king snake. And the sliding thing went away. 

I backed out of the bag and stood watching the rising sun. Nothing round but low brush and dusty ground. If that was a rattlesnake, any panic moves would have encouraged a bite. Believing that it was something benign calmed me, changed the situation. I stayed in control, unscathed.

I needed to move. Sun too bright, circling birds overhead. I hiked along the nearby railway track, thoughts drifting as I moved along a long straight stretch above a creek bank.

Will I wake up one day to find myself back at home in Canada? I wondered. Only if this was a dream. 

I made a choice to leave my old life behind. Now it was always the desert. I stared down at the tracks and the ties. Behind me, I heard wheels screech along the steel line. Three workers drove up on a railway speeder. 

“Need a ride?” A rough whiskered guy wearing a tattered straw hat held out a cola. 

“Sure,” I said, and his crew drove me along to a crossroad.

“You shouldn’t walk on the tracks,” he said. “There’s nothing to eat or drink for thirty kilometres. Take the road here.”

 I followed his direction, hitchhiking at the few vehicles passing. Then the Federale picked me up. Some kind of officer. Wide nose, soft, thin hands, deep brown neck.

He turned and said, “Do you speak Castilian?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, actually.” 

His spoke with a high-class accent, easy to understand. He reached back and prodded my packsack while driving with his other hand. “What are you doing up here?” 

I eyed his gun, in a black holster attached to a wide black belt, poking into his side.

He gestured to the hills. “There’s nothing up here,” he said. “Why would a young man such as yourself come to see nothing?”

Black chest hair pushed out of the top of his clean brown shirt. His voice was very articulate, calm. He must have been in his early forties. Nothing shiny on his uniform, like medals or stars. I had to believe he was who he appeared to be.

Anyone can behave like someone they’re not. It depends if he or she is real about it. Then that person can assimilate into someone new.

In Mexico, I was not my usual self. I spoke another language. That alone sent me to a different zone. The whole thought process was different en español. And with the low brown hills, the villages with their crumbling brick buildings, the woman who crossed herself as I sidled by her door, put my mind in a dream. That’s where I wanted to be. Dreaming, and forgetting, and changing what I believed.

The day before, outside a few square brick huts, a boy followed me. A skinny, sallow faced teen with a torn green shirt and ragged pants, asking the same question as the Federale. “What are you doing up here?”

“Just checking out the scenery,” I told him then, and the Federale today. 

And they both replied, “There’s no scenery here. Nothing to see.”

They’re right. I’m here for the nothing. I came to experience, in a place where all seems illusion and mirage, to find a change to bring me out of emptiness. 

I attended a University back in Canada, and had directed myself into a place where my union with a woman became the only meaning, the only reason I existed. Studies became a long second next to the physical connection with Gillian. To touch her, to bond. I created exclusive singularity with my own imagination. 

Once it became real, I couldn’t think my way out of it. I needed to spend all my time with her. Without this connection I had no reason to be. For two months I existed in paradise, for a man of 22, in a heaven sex love dream.

But after the New Year, Gillian presented me with a somber lecture, “You act too serious. Too intense. Too clingy. You’re always calling me, always round the apartment, paying attention. You’re always wondering where I am. What I’m doing.”

She wanted freedom, she wanted to have fun. I boxed her in, she needed a break. “Just a break,” she pleaded. 

I waited outside her door, watched her as she went to class. Sat behind her in the student lounge. Walked behind her down the University concourse, pacing around and around the block where she lived. 

Two choices arrived.

One: to reappear each day as a pitiful stalker, every moment possessed by the places Gillian and I knew─the memories of what we did together. The more she pushed me away, the more I insisted on closer. Each day I was rejected. 

Two: to run away from everything. The conclusion came easy. I couldn’t stand living another day in my stalker persona. I stopped attending school, threw some clothes in my pack, jumped on the bus to Mexico. I studied for a degree in Spanish literature, and I was fluent in the language. Maybe Mexico would give me an escape, relief from obsession.

I spent long days staring out the bus window at passing trees and towns, nowhere to get out, because to get out meant to think again. The technicolor land screened by as I sped south, away from the frozen Canadian winter.

I called Gillian in California andshe told me, “You’re acting out. You’re selfish and sick. You scare me. You say you love me but you only love yourself. If you loved me, you’d come back. You’re manipulating me with guilt. Please, if you love me, give me what I want.”

What she wanted was to be left alone, so what I wanted could not be. “I’m trying to do what you asked, to disappear,” I told her. “I won’t call again.”

I imagined relating all this to the Federale, telling him that his strange offer to shoot me was welcome. The moment would be over fast. No more pressure, no more awakenings. No one would know of my death. I’d vanish forever. I pictured the Federale burying me under the hard desert ground. 

Would that bring satisfaction? After the shot, would I wake up again back home? Back in time, before I met Gillian, back in my parent’s place? 

I overheard my Mom saying, “He’s always wandering, will he ever settle down?” and my Dad crying in the bed, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” 

Or would I be resurrected, born again to start everything once more? And when the time came to meet Gillian again, would I have learned my lesson, and turn away?

“The power of a brand-new dream,” I repeated to myself, over and over. 

“I don’t believe you are a tourist,” said the Federale. He drove by some tall trees, over a bridge, below it a dried-up riverbed. “You must have some kind of secret.”

At a crossroads, he stopped and raised himself right over the seat, opened my packsack and looked in. “Tell me. What are you doing up here? The real reason.” He sat back, turned off a side road. The vehicle lurched over some ruts.

“Where are we going?” I asked. It was becoming a bit more real, this vanishing into the desert.

“Like I said,” the man’s voice grew stronger. “You could disappear. And no one will know.”

I glanced across at the Federale. He was totally correct. I made it here by impulse. Told no one. My parents still thought I was attending classes. To my professors, I was only another missing number. Gillian… I imagined her sleepless, shocked by all that I was doing because of her. Or more likely, and what I perceived from that California phone call, living free and getting on with her life.

“You’re like a child,” she said then. “You always have to be with me, like I’m your Mommy.”

I recalled our wild life. At first she seemed insatiable, a wicked teacher. Before her, I’d never even kissed anyone. We were one. She was not my Mommy.

But now I asked myself “What’s with all this drama? Am I doing it for real, or acting it out? And is there a difference?”

I glanced out the car window at the low, black trees and wondered, “What is my purpose here?”

The hills looked real. The Federale looked real, eagle eyes scanning the road ahead, maybe figuring out where to plant me. A bit too much reality. I smelled car exhaust, caught a glimpse of the dust blowing behind us. I checked my hands, they trembled. I breathed harder, felt my thoughts burning. The inside of the car began to tilt. I needed to calm down. Or I’d be dead.

I concentrated, picturing the Federale as my friend. I imagined his name was Mendez and he was familiar with my imaginary Uncle who lived in Durango. My hypothetical Uncle Joel, the Mennonite. There were many Mennonites farming in the area. I saw them in Durango market itself. Blonde, tall, and bearded, delivering produce early in the morning.

I volunteered myself as the director of this scene. I directed myself along the railway tracks, through the hills, and into the Federale’s vehicle. From here, I could direct myself to be killed and left in the desert. It was very much within my power. Just leap from the car when the man slowed for a corner, and pretend to run. He’d shoot me then, as I stumbled through the dust. 

There was only a short distance to go now, to whatever place my mind chose. I began to talk to the Federale. He could decide what to do after that. 

“I’m here because my girlfriend broke up with me,” I told him. “I wanted to go somewhere to take my mind off her. I’m staying with my uncle in Durango. He’s well known in the Mennonite community. He knows I’m up here.”

“Mendez” regarded me from the corners of his eyes, as if to say “How do I know that’s true?” but after a long pause he nodded. “That’s a long way to travel for a woman.” He slowed the car and we bounced over some more bumps.

“Do you speak low German?” he asked. “That’s the Mennonite tongue.”

“Not really,” I told him. “I’m not religious actually. But my Uncle is. We sort of split apart when he moved down here a few years ago. But we’re back to being friendly now.”

“Why did you lie before?” Mendez asked.

“It wasn’t a lie. I’m a photographer. I like to take bird pictures, and there are many birds up here, the turkey vulture, the raven and magpie.” This was true. I’m a big fan of all animals. They can’t hurt you like people. Many are photogenic.

“We’re just about at the Corrales railway station,” he said. “I want you to board the next train. It comes in four hours.” He turned. 

I noticed a small tattoo on the back of his neck. Some kind of eagle. 

“It is dangerous country up here for a gringo.”

“Yes” I nodded quite a few times. “You are totally correct.”

He turned the wheel round a large puddle and smiled, revealing his big wide white toothed mouth. He threw his head back and laughed. “Did I scare you before?”

 “Yes. You scared me. I was very scared, actually.”

He leaned forward again. “You will find other women. But not around here. You should’ve stayed in Durango. I know some places…”

Ahead the road dropped down to another river and on the other side a small village. My confidence rose. I chatted in the guise of my new Mennonite family persona, telling Mendez about romance, hopelessness, needing an escape, and busing it all the way from Canada. 

He kept driving silently. After a while he turned his head and said, “You better be absolutely sure there’s no marijuana in that pack.”

“I’m absolutely certain,” I said. “Marijuana makes me paranoid; I don’t touch the stuff.”  

The Federale motored up to a small building at the side of the tracks. He opened his window. I caught a whiff of sage.

“Get out of here,” he said. “And don’t return. It’s not safe. There are very bad people in this area.”

“Yes, sir,” I pulled my pack out. “Thanks for the ride down.”

He shrugged, one hand on the wheel. “When I come back tonight, I want you gone.” He raised his hand, half a wave. “I’m trying to help you, gringo.”

As I walked towards the tracks, he pulled away. I stood in the shade of the tiny station. A slight breeze blew across the platform, rustling a paper cup. The sun drifted imperceptibly around the pure blue sky. I moved myself to new shade as the shadows turned. 

After a couple of hours, a girl approached the station. Oval faced, long black hair, dressed in tight blue pants, a shiny white blouse, dust on her grey running shoes. She carried a heavy burlap bag, and when she saw me, she waved with her other hand.

“Hey, what’s in there?” I asked

“It’s an iguana.” She lifted the bag higher. “I’m taking it to my house for supper.”

“Can I see?”

“If you like.” She walked over and opened the bag. I looked in. Indeed, a grey reptile lay blinking there. Swarthy fellow with a string around its jaws. It appeared claustrophobic, eyes gazing up at me. Its feet tried to grasp the bottom of the bag.

“Can I buy him off you?” I asked.

“Are you going to eat it?” The girl grinned and tied the burlap closed. She mimed eating a slab of meat, hands up around her pretty mouth.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m a vegetarian”

“Well,” said the girl, “You’ll have to give me double what I paid for it. My parents will be angry if I sell for less than a good profit.”

“Okay. I’ll pay whatever you ask. Just cut the string from around his mouth.”

“Okay. That’ll be two hundred. But he bites.”

“No deal unless his jaws are free.”

“Okay. You are very brave.” She smiled again. 

I handed over the money in 50-peso increments. The girl pulled a knife out of her jacket, crouched down, and opened the bag. She reached in, pulling out the iguana to snip the string. Then she quickly shoved it back in and tied the bag shut. I could see the iguana bumping around inside. The girl stood up, waved the fifty-peso bills at me, “adios,” and jogged down the railway tracks, stuffing the money in her tight pants pockets.

After a while, I carefully turned the bag sideways and very quickly untied the loop knotted string. The iguana poked its head out, looked both ways. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, then walked around the train platform. It turned to face me. Then it walked away. 

The platform had a view across the tracks to the sage and stunted pines beyond. The iguana stopped, stared at the desert. I watched it peer over the platform edge, where the wood jutted out. It hopped off the platform. Its grey scaled tail followed last, as it disappeared into the sage.

I waited another hour for the train, hopped on and rode all the way to Durango. I stood between the train cars. They shook and jostled along the tracks, and I watched the desert hills roll by. I didn’t think of Gillian more than once, and that, only in passing. I was alive, and free, and that was enough.

Image of a Mother by Yash Seyedbagheri

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I lay out cards with images. Try to match them.

I need two mothers.

Two apples. Two squirrels.

I can’t find either of the mothers with the sly smiles, tender pride in their eyes.

I keep those cards close at night. We love you, Nicky, the mothers whisper. We truly love you.

The mothers have been with me since I was ten. They listened to me, question why people lie. Leave.

I find two houses, two fathers. Ransack closets, sofas.

Have these mothers left? Was I too inquisitive? Did they also find me sensitive?

I lose the other cards.

What’s next?

Drowning by Marie McCloskey

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I stumbled to the porch swing cradling a bottle of pinot noir. The wind blew a salty kiss on my face but stung my pride. I sacrificed everything.

A lone seagull perched on the fence post. It mocked me.

“Go!” I threw my glass at it and brought the bottle to my lips. I grumbled at my life of working to appease clean cut American corporations waiting for me to become a stereotype. Even when following their rules, I still wasn’t good enough. I will never be what they want.

I stared at the sparkle of ripples shimmering under the surf. I glared at the rolling waves, but softened at the tug of the Gulf calling to me.

An urge to reach the cool rush compelled me to jump up and rip off my flower print sundress. I tossed the light fabric onto the sand and jogged toward the cleansing roar. Regaining a spark of my childhood self, I met the current with a giggle.

It had been years since I escaped to the beach. My parents took me every year as a child, but I worked myself boring trying to “climb the ladder.”

I kicked out into the water, arms chopping through the waves. A splash of energy renewed my smile at the memories. They can’t stop me.

I turned onto my back to tread water. The air danced with seagulls. I spread my arms and legs out straight and relaxed floating. Images of swimming until land became a memory flooded my mind. I longed to let the water carry me forever.

The memory of my father washed over me with hope. He could swim all day and never grew tired. His job as a swim coach fit him but never suited me. I preferred the pulsing rhythm of natural bodies of water, hated the confines of indoor pools.

Fresh spray coated my skin, healed inner wounds that numbed the unfairness of life. My anger washed away and my father’s thick accent rattled in my ears like a dream, “Don’t let them change you. Don’t let them take away who you are, Mija.

I shifted forward, sinking underwater for a moment. When I resurfaced, I rubbed my eyes and kicked hard.

“Mine-Mine-Mine.” A gull dipped low.

My eye-lashes grew heavy.

“Mine…”

The calls reminded me that I belonged to myself.

“Mine…”

The sound shook me.

“Mine…”

I would have what I earned.

I swam to the beach with a new goal. It was so easy. All I had to do was run up the sand.

Granules stuck to my feet like spilled sugar. I bounded up the porch steps, grabbed my towel, and wrapped it around my body. The warm breeze offered new strength. I wrung out my hair and grabbed my phone off the wicker table sitting beside the classic porch swing. I clutched it tight, drew my arm back and threw it into the shallows. And that was when I became my own boss.

Marie McCloskey likes to let her work speak for itself.

The Old House by Frank Kozusko

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I drove by the old house last year; it had less than a week to live.

It was the first and only house my parents ever owned. My father used his WWII GI Bill benefits to buy the Rose Gardens cookie-cutter house in Linton, Arizona. Linton, 20 miles west of Phoenix, was one of the many suburbs that sprang up after the war to house the families being created by the post-war baby boom. Rose Gardens contained 500 identical one-story ranch houses. My 1948-pending arrival prompted my parents to follow the crowds leaving the cities.

The 1000 ft2 house was adequately spacious even after my sister, Lisa, was born two years later. Over the years, several modifications were made to enhance the creature comforts. A covered back porch provided a big indoor play area. A master bathroom, a previously undreamed-of-luxury for my parents, left Lisa and me alone to fight over the original single bathroom.

For most of my seventy-two years, the house was the anchor of my life. The 1950s were my “Leave it to Beaver” years, grade school, and black-and-white TV. High school and girls highlighted the 60s. My college years of living at home and commuting to U Arizona led from the 60s into the 70s when I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. My parents unselfishly endured my years of PTSD until I was able to get a grip on myself in 1981.

When I married, I bought a big house in a luxury development a short traveling distance from the old homestead to ensure many grandkids’ visits with the folks. Lisa and her family were close by too. I once asked my father if he ever thought about getting a newer house.

He answered, “No! I like this house, and it’s good enough for me. It’s where I raised you and Lisa.”

The lure of a more modern house wasn’t going to outweigh his sentimentality, or his depression-era developed frugality. So, the house continued through the decades to host the holidays and family events. The birthday celebrations were first for me, later adding Lisa, then our children and, finally our grandchildren.

In her later years, Mom needed a wheelchair to get around. Dad had a ramp added to the front of the house. It wasn’t much of a ramp; the stoop was only two steps up. A little later, he added another ramp to the back door so he could take Mom out to her garden.

When Mom died in 2009 at the age of 84, Dad refused to leave the house. Lisa and I knew he was still active enough to function on his own, we just didn’t like the idea of him being alone in the house. When I recommended that he might be happier in a seniors’ development with lots of available activities, he strongly protested, “This is my home and I am staying right here.”

Dad lived and cared for himself until he passed in 2019 at 95. I inherited the house, which needed a lot of work. Not able to get passed my emotions and make a reasonable decision about the fate of the house, I let it slide further into disrepair. Over the next year, it was vandalized several times; I had it boarded up, doors and windows. Sadly, it wasn’t the only house in the old development that was succumbing to age.

My dilemma was solved when Windem Homes, a nationwide builder, decided to buy every house in Rose Gardens with plans for building upscale homes. Each new house would occupy four of the Rose Garden lots. When Windem offered to buy the house, I sold it. I didn’t have a choice. The owners who fought the buyout were forced into submission when the city of Linton invoked Eminent Domain.

I drove by the house that day as the last look. I knew Windem had scheduled the razing to begin in a few days. Mom and Dad had been early Rose Gardens buyers. Their house was near the entrance; it would be one of the first to go.

As I drove away, I was overcome by emotion, nostalgia, not quite tearing. I made a U-turn. I needed more than a drive-by. I parked at the strip mall across the road and made my way into the ghostly remains of past dreams.

I approached the house from the front then circled through the tall grass to the back. The area of my mother’s garden was distinguished by the weeds. I walked up my Mom’s ramp; so many times, I had pushed her up that ramp. The plywood covering the back door came off easily as if it had been pried loose and partially reattached.

The inside was dimly lighted by the narrow rays coming through the cracks around the plywood sheets. The one exception: the kitchen where the west-facing, and now open door, let in the late afternoon sun. It had been one of my father’s bragging points that he had been able to get a house where he could sit in his backyard and watch the sunset.

As I walked around from room to room, it struck me how small and simple the house was compared to my own and my kids’ even grander houses. In each room, I stopped to let the memories surface. Sometimes, I tried to force a chronological order to them.

My last stop was the front room, which my mother called the parlor. I stood at the spot where the old man had his chair for over sixty years, positioned efficiently for a view of the TV, and a look through the picture window across the lawn to his car parked on the street. There was no view for me through the boarded-up window.

I remained there for a while, contemplating my last departure. My head back, staring at the ceiling, I took and held a deep breath. I had the sensation that something external was mingling with my thoughts: a communication, not of words but feelings. It was the spirit of the house. There was loneliness. There was sadness. The best that I could do was to say out loud: “I am sorry old friend,” as I turned to leave. As I was about to step out the back door, I got an idea. I turned briefly to inform the house: “I’ll be back.”

I drove directly home. Luckily, Janice, my wife, wasn’t there to delay or stop me from what I had planned to do. In my study, I searched through digital copies of years of family picture albums, picked and printed the photos I needed.

I drove back, and once again parked at the shopping mall. I hurriedly retraced my steps to the house. It would soon be sunset. Inside the house, I went from room to room taping pictures to the walls. In my bedroom and Lisa’s were pictures scanning the years from infancy to adulthood. In my parents’ room: the picture of them toasting the last payment of the mortgage. In the kitchen: my mother pulling a turkey out of the oven. In the dining room: birthday parties and cakes. In the living room: Christmas trees and Easter baskets, and one picture of the old man in his chair.

I had one more thing to do, and that was the hardest. I gathered, in a pile, all the flammable material left after the last squatters had been evicted. Before I lit the match, with no forethought or reason, I started to sing.

“Goodnight, … Irene.

Goodnight, …Irene.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

It was a song Dad would sometimes sing to Mom, though her name was Margaret.

I threw the lighted match and headed for the back door. Halfway across the threshold, I turned, and over my shoulder made my final farewell, “Goodbye house. Thanks.”

In the twilight, I quickly made my way to the car. I sat and waited for the flames to light the night sky. A crowd gathered to watch, I joined. The firefighters came; they let it burn. The area had a long-time drought, no reason to waste water on a house that was a few days from scheduled destruction. Just a little water was used to wet down the nearby houses.

I watched as the flames engulfed the house. When the walls could no longer support the weight of the roof, the structure collapsed.

Janice must have detected my sullenness at dinner that night. She made no objection when I cocooned myself in my study, where I went through more old photos from my days in the house.

The evening TV news reported the fire, noting the scheduled razing. The blaze was attributed to vandals.

To save it from the wrecking ball, I had destroyed my family home and in doing so killed the spirit of the house. It wasn’t murder; it was euthanasia, a mercy killing.

I never drove down that street again.

The Absolution by Leila Allison

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“Is it fair?”

Those were the last words Eddie said to the man he had thought I was before he drifted back into the only honest sleep of his final days. A smiling sleep caused by my youngest daughter, who did one of the finest things I have ever seen a human being do.

Eddie died yesterday, and his parents have asked me to speak at his Celebration of Life this Sunday. I have plenty of harmless Eddie anecdotes to warm hearts and kill ten minutes with. It may be cynical of me to say it, but even though the most timid human being tends to live an R-rated life, few celebrations of such are anything less than family friendly.

What I Won’t Be Saying Come Sunday

When we were kids, slow was the polite term to describe what had been up with Eddie, while retarded had been the “scientific” word for it. He spent his entire fifty-five year run at the same house in Crestview Drive, two doors down from my childhood home. It’s one of those faux ranch-style houses that had been so popular in the suburbs during the early days of Camelot, NASA and Bonanza. Those homes have always reminded me just how cheerful and prosperous things had been, and how the future, even that for guys like Eddie, glittered with great promise. I catch a permanent sense of Sunday when I look at Eddie’s house nowadays; and his death isn’t the only cause of it.

Eddie was that kid. Everybody gets one of those in life, and everybody is told by their parents to be nice to that kid if you know what’s good for you. For whatever reason, I became the closest thing to a best friend that Eddie ever got (here I must add, except his dad, for they did everything together). And although I eventually went off to college, a career, marriage and family, we still lived close enough to each other as to allow the continuation of our friendship, which had lasted something around fifty years, until the same condition that had held back his mind at last silenced his heart.

All right, before I allow the current to sweep this thing off to the Purple Sea of Sentimentality (where it seems determined to go), it’s dishonest to fit the dead (even the special dead) with a harp and halo, and speak of them as though they were saints. Eddie could be hell, annoying, a petulant little asshole when he didn’t get his own way, and there were times when his handicap made being with, and looking out for him as burdensome as dragging around a wrecked Buick.

And there had been that terrible time when his in no way diminished sexual awakening had almost got him “sent away.” At twelve or so, he’d fallen into the habit of pulling down his pants and underwear around the girls and hoped (I guess), they’d do the same. Although Eddie had never touched anybody, and although his dad had somehow finally set him straight on the subject, there is no doubt in my mind if the trouser dropping had happened now and not in 1970-whatever, he would have been sent away. My opinion here is mixed: I cared for and perhaps loved Eddie, but was this part of himself that he (nor any other child about him─or herself, for that matter) could never possibly understand harmless? For the record I’m the father of three girls whom I never allowed Eddie to do more than shake hands with, even after they had grown up.

Still, Eddie was what he was. The older kids used to call that sort of a statement a “cop out.” Whatever. It really doesn’t matter anymore. Eddie was. He did the best he could with what little he had.

The Stuff I Should Say Come Sunday

Eddie’s parents had been told that their only child might live thirty, maybe thirty-five years, and never on his own. His parents are, I think, what Christians are supposed to be. They have a gentle and loving faith, and humor and kindness. His parents are the only lucky break Eddie ever got; thus he didn’t need a second. And I guess that this part might sound hard, but I’m glad he died first. His folks are “getting on,” as the old saying goes. I have a pretty good idea what happens to guys like Eddie after their parents die.

Eddie had nearly doubled his life-expectancy when his wheezy heart finally found itself no longer up to the routine of its master’s small life. He was abed in his room the last time I saw him. It had been three months or so since our last meeting, and he had lost a huge amount of weight and nearly all his hair.

Our youngest daughter, Trina, had been home from college when I got the call from Eddie’s mom. Although Trina had had the scantest relationship with Eddie─save for what I had told her over the years─she asked if she could come along.

We visited him for awhile in that same room where we had played trucks and drank Kool Aid all those thousands of years ago. We spoke of those times, and Trina listened. There were Seahawks and Mariners and UW Husky posters on the wall, as well as the various trophies and medals Eddie had earned in all the Special Olympics he had participated in. A little kid’s room; sweet and nostalgic.

After his mom (who at nearly eighty was still cheerfully caring for her little boy) came in and gave him a blue pill and said something about five minutes and left the room, we made as to say our goodbyes. Eddie had been shifting between the now and a fuzzy delirium for a bit by then, and he had confused me with the church deacon who had recently come by to visit every day. In Eddie’s mind everybody associated with the church was “father.” And toward the end, Eddie uncharacteristically complained about the fact that he had never gotten married. He called me father, and asked “Is it fair?”

This is when Trina drew close to where he lay and gently kissed him on the lips and said, “No, it isn’t. But it soon will be.”  

The sun came out in his face. He knew he had been kissed; first and last. He settled into a deeper and healthier sleep than what I guessed he had had in days. Maybe that kiss caused secret dreams to go on in there until the end. If so, it’s all right.

Fight for Me by L.T. Ward

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Geoffrey sneezes on my face as I bend to give him the kiss he’d pleaded for. My sassy four-year-old, my fourth child, has always been demanding of my affection, but this stage of still being unaware of anyone’s needs but his own is breaking me.

It has only been over the past year that I’ve been reclaiming me and who I want to be. Who I need to be.

I hand Geoffrey a tissue and he taps it to his nose before snorting the dripping vulgar mucus from his upper lip back into his nostrils. I gag but press the tissue to his face. “Blow,” I say.

He does lightly, the tissue fluttering from the air out of his mouth.

“Blow!” I say.

This time, I’m rewarded with a sopping tissue and a son without a clogged nose. “Good job,” I sigh.

Geoffrey wipes his nose on his sleeve then runs from the room. My wild children are always bringing home their school-cultivated viruses. Blech.

I roll my eyes as I toss the tissue into the kitchen garbage then go to the sink to wash my hands. I’m so stressed from being confined to my home over the last month. Pain. Degradation. Misery.

Two more months and I should be healed. That’s what the doctor said from the very beginning. The tummy tuck would be four weeks of hell followed by two months of restrictions.

But my doctor lies. She omits details, waiting to warn me until whatever horror would come is already here. First, about what came right after the surgery, then, at each follow-up appointment.

The worst were the two drains collecting my blood and other fluids from behind the incision for the first two weeks of recovery. Dr. Denali had mentioned them briefly at a pre-op appointment, but it wasn’t until the hour before the surgery that I was told exactly what was to happen. Two tubes stretched beneath my cut and sutured skin. From both of my hips dangled a tube that fed into a bulb─each needing to be strapped to one of my thighs by pinning them to the bottom hem of my full-body compression girdle.

In my oversized pajama pants post-surgery, I was at my least sexy with what looked like droopy testicles hanging between my legs. Hearing the muted sucking from them doing their job, knowing that they were filled with my fluids, I was furious and heartbroken at having to endure more humiliation and pain.

A heads up from Dr. Denali would have been appreciated. But the thing she did get right was the swelling. My skin had been tight and choking my entire body until a few days ago when it simply subsided. Now, I’m like my old self.

My new self.

I walk into the living room and ease myself onto the sofa. My belly is still sore, and after being on my feet for the last few hours─wrangling my children through homework, making dinner, and convincing them to stop killing off each other’s digital sheep in Minecraft─I need a break.

“Geoffrey?” asks Brian.

I nod. “He’s fine now.” Brian grunts, ignoring the television show across the room to flick a finger absentmindedly over his tablet. “Can you put the kids to bed in a half-hour?” I ask.

Brian grunts again. He lets out a deep sigh. “Sure.”

I roll my eyes and pick my phone from my pocket. A text from Seamus: How’s your night?

I smile and text back a censored version, noting how the villain sitting further down on the sofa is ignoring me and leaving out the snot fest that is my youngest.

***

After I drop the kids off at their two schools─because of course we live too close for the bus services─I make my daily phone call to my mother, my daily Russian roulette of either loving support or crushing judgment and unwanted advice. “Kristen, are you sure I can’t take the kids next weekend?” Mom asks.

Today, I am trying to recover from a bullet wound. “I’m sure, Mom,” I say through gritted teeth.

If I keep my cool, I can get her off the phone and get on with my day─my worthless day of trying to get a job somewhere in my small town where I’m nowhere near as connected to the local business owners as I need to be. I wasn’t born here and I’m no one’s cousin.

“But couldn’t you use the break?” Mom asks.

I pick up the socks from the living room floor. My teenager, Megan, had thrown them at me before telling me I was ruining her life because I wouldn’t allow her to leave the house dressed in denim shorts in the middle of February. Three feet of snow outside and ice on the roads, but I was the one being unreasonable.

“I’m sure, Mom,” I say. I could use the break, but a break would mean being alone with Brian, and my plague monsters being underfoot has been the only thing keeping Brian’s libido at bay. It certainly wasn’t the scabbed incision running across my belly. Or the fact that I had rebuffed every flirtation he’d made in the last three months.

“It’s just that you and Brian need to find a way back to each other,” Mom says.

I close my eyes until the darkness bursts to stars. “Mom, I told you that I don’t want to find a way back to Brian. I want out. I’m done.”

“But you’ve been married so long. Twenty-two years is nothing to throw away.”

I inhale and hold my breath for a few seconds before saying, “I’ve tried. For twenty-two years, I’ve tried. I want out. I want someone who wants me to be more than his family’s personal assistant.”

“But it’s hard out there. And you’ve been in so long. Why end it now?”

I feel my heart pound as my honesty pours out to my mother. “Because I no longer hate who I am and I want better.” My eyes sting and my stomach tightens.

Mom has another bullet in the chamber. “Honey, you’ve been through so much over the last year. You lost all that weight, and now you’re starting that new hobby.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. “Mom. It’s not a hobby. Singing is my career.”

Mom sighs. “There are so many perfect voices in the world. And you’re so old. I know you think you can become a professional singer, but I don’t want you to be disappointed. Wouldn’t teaching at Megan’s school be better for you?”

I flex my jaw and stare at the ceiling. “The high school isn’t hiring for the Music Department. Besides, I told you that I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to be on stage and sing.”

“Sweetie, you need to be pragmatic.”

“Mom, I love you, but I need to get going,” I say.

“Okay. Love you, too. Have a great day.”

I disconnect the call before she can slip more round into the chamber. I stare at my phone’s screensaver─a picture of my kids at an apple orchard last fall. My tweens, Mason and Abigail, smile happily for the camera, but Megan scowls as her usual pissy self, and Geoffrey is turning away from the camera, trying to ditch the picture to resume climbing the trees. Brian hadn’t bothered coming because he claimed he needed more downtime after a long work week. An outing with the kids wasn’t downtime, he said.

I head to my text messages and tap on Seamus’s name. Seamus, my unexpected and unplanned reward for the new me. His picture appears and I smile. My lower belly clenches with excitement. I bite my lip as I quickly type up a dirty text. He’ll be at work and arousing him gives me a thrill I haven’t had since I was a teenager.

I hit Send, then head to my sofa and laptop to search for any job that will allow me to earn income while I satisfy my soul, singing.

***

“What’s for dinner?” whines Abigail.

“Food,” I say. I’m standing at the stove, stirring spaghetti noodles in a pot. The sauce jar is on the counter, as is a cheese grater and a mountain of shredded mozzarella. My ten-year-old is somehow oblivious to the food before her.

“Fine,” she huffs, leaving me to prepare the rest of our dinner.

A faint rumble of the garage door catches my ear. Brian’s home. At least he’s on time for dinner tonight. The door to the garage thumps, and, seconds later, he’s in the kitchen, dropping his keys and phone into a bowl on the counter.

“How was your day?” I say.

Brian grunts. My apathetic caveman says, “Dinner almost ready?”

“Yep,” I reply.

“Cool,” he says, then leaves me to my domesticity while he heads to our bedroom to change into his lazy man’s attire. No kiss. No hug. For the last few years, Brian’s only attention to me is to work out the logistics of our lives. And, on occasion, to tell me I’m sexy a few moments before he wants me to perform wifely duties.

Before, I lived for those comments. Now, my stomach roils at the idea of being touched by Brian. Even before Seamus, I was done with Brian. Twenty-two years of begging for scraps of affection from my partner and being rebuffed over and over again.

I strain the steaming noodles into the sink and hear my phone ding. I blush. It would be Seamus on the other end. His daily check-in.

As the noodles drain in the strainer, I check the text. Good day?

I smile and text back: Same old. Same old. No luck on the job hunt, but I’m hopeful. How was your day?

Him: Fine.

I wait for another reply, but when one isn’t forthcoming, I brush it off. I assume he’s busy with a life thing, and I go back to prepping dinner.

***

It had been Brian’s idea that I take vocal lessons. Megan had been giving me a hard time for not going after my dreams, and, for once, Brian suggested something that was about me and for me.

As I’d attended the weekly sessions with Marjorie, I found myself liking myself more and more.
Then the pounds started falling off. I was no longer feeling the vacancy in my life’s purpose. The emotional, lonesome snacking was replaced by hours of studying music theory and working my diaphragm for the right pitch in a ballad. My self-image morphed into a fierce warrior who walked into a room carrying a big stick with a wall of fire behind her.

I was feeling amazing until I’d lost around seventy pounds. That’s when things changed. The slack skin was a particular brand of hell. I had developed a stomach apron that I had to lift to wash, and my bottom became a laundry line of skin sheets that folded and pinched when I sat. I watched as my warrior became a shrunken old woman identifying more with Sophia Petrillo than Wonder Woman.

My kids remind me of this with their own aging. Megan is my fifteen-year-old teenager and my mini-me in every way except her mouth. Her smile is Brian’s. Next year, she and I will be searching for colleges because I’m about to become a mother to an adult. I am old and I missed out on my life.

Trying to ignore my wrinkles and self-disgust, I refocused on my singing career. My research on becoming a professional singer required me to create an account on Instagram. Pictures and videos needed to be uploaded for my skills to catch someone’s eye. I needed to be visible and have a following in order for anyone outside of my hometown to give me a chance. For my profile pic, I chose one that Megan had taken of me that actually reflected the momentary goddess I had been, and I opened my account.

Enter Seamus. A songwriter I mutually followed.

I had posted a video of me singing The Streets of Laredo, and he’d sent me a direct message telling me how impressed he was with my rendition. After spending two hours cooking dinner, then convincing Geoffrey that the broccoli wouldn’t make him barf, followed by getting soaked as I washed the massive dish pile, I sat on the sofa to watch television with Brian. But he’d turned on Firefly several episodes past where we’d left off. When I asked him if he’d been watching ahead, Brian told me he figured I wouldn’t mind. The only thing we do together is watch a series, and he’d left me out.

So I got lost in my DMs with Seamus. For the next few weeks, we messaged daily. He lived in Ohio while I was in Vermont. Single, but divorced for six years. One child in college. Mid-forties and passionate about classic rock while enjoying diversity in genre from spirituals to punk to K-pop music.

Our DMs drifted from casual life and professional discussions into flirtations. One day, I became his “Kit.” He texted that I was an amazing woman while I carefully walked the line between flirting and remaining a faithful wife, but the messages that man sent about how gorgeous I was in my pictures and videos made me feel seen in ways that I’d long thought were impossible.

After a few app glitches, we decided to exchange phone numbers and became regular texting buddies. He knew I was married, but I let him in on a secret.

I’m going to divorce Brian. I have plans and they are in motion.

Seamus didn’t ask about Brian after that. Instead, he sent me a sext that I reciprocated. Our deliciously naughty words fell right into place. Sure, we continued texting about music and books we loved and the travels we wanted in life. Ninety percent of our conversations were about mutual interests, but that other ten percent was hot, dirty, and made me feel sexy as hell, despite the collapsing skin shell over my improved body.

Once the sexting began, platonic conversations between our digital dates were satisfying. The sort of discussions between friends where you both share so much of the same ideals, but the differences are easily discussed. He didn’t want a serious relationship or romance, wasn’t even looking. I was still shackled in matrimony. Everything about us clicked.

Our sexting trysts were initially impromptu, but after a few dates, we started scheduling with one another. On his end, it was when he was home. On my end, it was when the kids were all distracted and Brian was out with his buddies doing who-knows-what-and-I-no-longer-cared.

The highlights of my day can be broken down into five moments: morning hello text from Seamus; singing practice; my kids coming home from school, eager to tell me about their day; evening check-in from Seamus; and Brian going to bed before me.

I want out of my marriage. I want to feel alive. Singing started that feeling in me. But being seen again was taking my vitality to a whole other level.

***

“How’re we doing today, Kristen?” Dr. Denali says. I’m sitting naked apart from the full-body girdle and a cotton waffle-weave robe on the patient’s table before her.

“Fine,” I say. “When will I be ready for the next surgery?”

Dr. Denali smiles in that way I do when Mason asks if he can have an ice cream sandwich for breakfast because it is technically a sandwich. “Let’s see how you’re recovering from the tummy tuck before we get to the lower lift. Can you lower the girdle?”

I nod with my heart in my throat. I can’t leave Brian until I get through the second surgery and I land a job. I need this surgery. Vanity be damned. My soul is in pain.

I stand from the table and slip the robe back from my shoulders. My breasts are on display and I unhook the over-the-shoulder straps. I unzip each side of the girdle, then unhook each of the dozen eye hooks. I lower the girdle I’ve worn all day, every day, since my surgery to reveal my perfectly flat stomach. My first win in regaining my life.

“Looks good,” Dr. Denali says as she eyes my abs, oblivious to my nudity. She looks at my reconstructed belly button, the original having been tossed into a medical waste receptacle during the tummy tuck. Most of the scabs have fallen off, but there is still a little bit left within the superficial indentation which is otherwise a beautiful shade of rose.

Then, Dr. Denali lowers her gaze to my incision. She cocks her head to one side, then to the other, taking in the angled line. Still more scabs on my right side, which had the drain in longer, but the left side of the incision has been fading from red to a muted pink. My stretch marks run perpendicular to my scar. The tattoos of motherhood crossing paths with the scar of the New Me.

“You’re free from all restrictions unless your belly hurts. Then stop. And no more girdle except when you do something strenuous. Your muscles will want that support, at least initially. But, I think we can schedule the second surgery for eight weeks from now,” says Dr. Denali. My chest swells as I inhale a deep breath of excitement. “Go ahead and get dressed. Cleo will check you out at the front desk and schedule your next appointment in four weeks as well as your lower lift surgery.”

I squeal, “Thank you.” The good doctor leaves the room and I re-dress. My mind swirls at taking the next step toward freedom. I slip on my winter jacket and weave through the hallway until I reach the front desk.

“Kristen Yonce. I need to schedule two appointments.”

Cleo taps her keyboard, then pauses to look up at me with a smile. “Ah, the Mommy Surgeries,” she says.

My face flushes. I hate her. Her friendly demeanor and that horrific label. A tummy tuck and a lower lift. Common surgeries for any woman who has borne children. A breast lift would be the trifecta.

My abs tense and I feel the tight skin across my navel. Since my tummy tuck, I’ve worn a belt of pained-turned-desensitized skin. This is my championship belt for losing weight. For finding myself.

It’s not about my kids or motherhood. It’s my achievement.

“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth. “I need to schedule my follow-up and then the lower lift.” For the next five minutes, I ignore all impulse to tell off Cleo who is only doing her job.

When I leave the doctor’s office with my faux-fur hood pulled tightly around my face, I hear my inner mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

Home over the next two weeks is almost unbearable. Brian works late and texts with Seamus have been falling to the wayside. His wayside. I’m still keeping up with reaching out.

He claims he’s busy and that he hopes I’ll understand, but I miss him, and it hurts that the person who once saw me now seems to be dismissing me.

It’s not helping that the winter snow and ice keeps generating travel warnings and making any outings nearly impossible. I want to escape anywhere, even if that means driving forty-five minutes to the nearest Target with no interest in buying anything. Instead, my confinement at home continues.

Then, the kids’ extracurricular activities are canceled. One by one, my children are stuck at home with me and they’re bored. So bored that they fight over who sat on the spinney chair last until one of them is flung off said chair and is crying. Or they come up with disgusting games like who can spit in the sink with the most mucus.

The screaming and crying, followed by the banshee wails for Mom, are piercing into my spine. The dreadful secret I’ve held onto over the last year floods my brain as I break up Mason and Abigail from trying to bind Geoffrey to one of the kitchen chairs. They use Megan’s belts, which means all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are in my kitchen and screaming.

I wish I’d only had one child. I wouldn’t trade any of my four for a specific one of them. I don’t regret the people who are smaller versions of Brian and me. I resent the responsibility of raising plague monsters into adulthood─never-ending and exhausting. These are the people I chose to create when I wanted more people in my life to love me, but the moments of stress, constant worry, absolute grossness, and prioritizing all of them before myself are breaking me.

As I have discovered who I am, I realize that I was never meant to be the mother of four. Instead of my children fulfilling me, I have no one to build me up. All I want is to be saved. Even if it’s for a moment. Someone to care enough to take the burdens off my back. The most loving act, and I have no one.

With another shriek in the air, I’m fighting tears. This regret is my greatest shame.

***

The next Wednesday, school is canceled due to an ice day. Megan screams at Abigail for stealing her makeup without permission and using it to paint her whole face as a gothic fairy when my phone dings and I have a plausible reason to ignore the chaos around me. I open the email to see that I’ve been accepted to perform with The Vermont Chorale in the upcoming summer season.

Accepted.

Accepted!

My first singing win. And the ensemble practices are due to start five weeks after my next surgery. It pays almost nothing, but it’s a professional credit and I can make the schedule work. Another step forward in my plan to leave Brian.

“Kids,” I say. The mob ignores me. “Kids!” I try louder. They all turn, equally indifferent.

“Mom’s got her first singing job.”

Geoffrey says, “Does this mean you will be on YouTube?”

“What? No,” I say.

“Pfft,” says my baby.

“Congrats, Mom,” Mason and Abigail say flatly in unison.

“Megan, don’t you have anything to say?”

My beautiful eldest rolls her eyes and sasses, “Congrats.”

I shake my head to turn back to my phone while my children resume their fight for dominance over one another. I text Brian: I got the Chorale gig!

Then I text the same to Seamus. I want more rush from my acceptance, so I reread the email. And reread it. And reread it.

My phone dings. Brian: Congrats!

I shrug. Not the respondent I wanted, but at least someone congratulated me.

The day passes, and it’s not until I’m cooking dinner that I hear from Seamus. Nice. You up for a date later tonight?

My chest tightens. My big win and that’s all I get? But Seamus has been busy. Tone and context are hard in text. I exhale and text back: Sure.

Closing my eyes, I focus on my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

March has rolled into April. I’m two weeks away from the lower lift. My NOT-Mommy Surgery surgery. Over the last month, I’ve lost myself in prep work for the upcoming performances. I spend my days rehearsing and doing yoga to work my lung capacity. My evenings, I wrangle children while an exhausted Brian ignores the family chaos from the sofa. Always with the television blaring and his focus on his tablet.

After Brian leaves the house without saying good-bye and I’m left to contend with Mason who now requires and doesn’t want pinkeye medication, I desperately need something to cheer me up. Brian had pointed out all the hours I was putting in for my low-paying gig last night. Now, looking at the sheet music infuriates me. Brian has tainted my small win.

Instead of rehearsing, I reread the last texts between Seamus and me. My expectations for a pick-me-up fizzle as I see them with fresh eyes. My texts are full sentences, usually two or three. His responses are less than three words. He has stopped initiating the contact.

And I am no longer “Kit.” I have no name.

My throat clenches. He’s bored with me. I’ve annoyed him. What happened for him to lose interest in me?

I scroll through our texts. My heart races as the words lay out the story before me. I’m there for him with support about his songwriting. He never asks me about my singing. I ask about his day and follow up with questions. He asks about my day without anything more than a one-word comment.

Even our last few dates were all about him. Focused on his desires.

Choking on my breath, I head to my bathroom and lean over the sink. I rip off my shirt to view myself in my bra. I strip until I’m standing in only my socks before my mirror. I can only see my body from my hips up. My battle scar and motherhood tattoos glare at me. My belly is flat and the marks are soft silver.

I twist to check out my backside. The sagging horrifies me.

All of this work. All of this pain, and I’m a middle class mother of four who no one ever sees as anything but a mother of four. Even when I’m seen, I can’t hold anyone’s attention.

I re-dress and fling myself onto my bed to sob. I have three hours until I have to pick up Geoffrey. I cry for the next two, mourning my wasted life. My faltering dreams. My destroyed body. My worthless value.

***

“But if you leave him, how are you going to make ends meet?” Mom’s a pro at Russian roulette.

“Mom, Brian doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t notice me. Don’t I deserve better?” I say quietly from the kitchen. Abigail is in my bedroom, home with strep throat and watching a YouTube Fortnite video.

“How will you afford to live without his money?” Mom’s go-to worry. “You have four kids, Kristen. You chose to have them. It’s irresponsible if you leave.”

Steadying my voice, I say, “I’m leaving for them.”

“But…”

“Mom, my kids can’t keep watching their mother be weak because it’s easier than fighting for herself. Myself.” I’ve said this repeatedly to my mom for the past few months, but my explanations fall on deaf ears.

“Kristen, you think this will be better, but it’s going to be so hard.”

I sigh. “I know, Mom. But how can my kids ever think they’re worth anything if I don’t show them that I’m worth something?”

“It’s all my fault,” Mom says.

Tears choke my throat. “Not at all. This is about me. I’ve made mistakes in my life, and I need to fix them. I’d rather be alone than with a partner who never notices me. That’s it.”

“Mommy,” whines Abigail.

“Mom, I gotta go. Abigail needs me,” I say.

“Alright, sweetie. Give my angel a kiss and tell her Grandma wants her to feel better.”

“I will.” We hang up, and I compose myself before I enter my bedroom. My poor sick darling sits propped up against a pillow throne. “What do you need, baby?”

“Mom, can you snuggle me?” she says. Her pale face pleads with me.

I climb across my bed to wrap my arms around my fevered child. “Of course, baby.”

She nestles herself into the crook of my arm. “You’re my favorite mom ever.”

The words of my own mother in my mind are replaced by my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me. Fight for them.

***

“Welcome, Kristen,” Cleo says with her bubbly smile. “Doctor’s running on time. It should only be a few minutes. Have a seat and we’ll come get you shortly.”

I curtly nod then sit in the waiting room, avoiding eye contact with the other patients. I open my phone and scroll through my Instagram notifications. Seamus has been liking my recent posts. I smile.

I go into the main feed. He’s been liking a lot of other singers’ posts. All female.

Then, his responses populate. Kissy emojis. “That’s hot,” and “You’re incredible!” are his comments.

My mouth drops as a purple scrubs-clad nurse calls, “Kristen Yonce?”

I rise from my seat and slip my phone into my winter coat pocket. I follow the nurse as he leads me through the hallway, my mind in a haze. He ushers me into a patient’s room. “Go ahead and take your coat off.”

It’s my pre-surgery appointment, so he has me fill out several pages of medical history on a tablet. While I tap away, the nurse runs through the usual vitals check─temperature, blood pressure, and one blood draw for my hemoglobin levels. I barely notice the questions on the screen. When I hand it back to the nurse, I wonder if I marked that I have an infectious disease.

Turning to leave the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts, the nurse says, “Doctor will be in soon.” He flashes me a smile and adds, “You’re just a week away from your second Mommy Surgery.”

And the hits keep coming.

***

That evening, I plate the kids’ meals while I try to ignore my phone. I don’t want to see something that I can’t unsee, and I’m tired of checking for new messages that aren’t there.

As I sit at the table, my phone dings across the room. I shift in my chair, conditioned to get up to check the message, but it’s dinner time. With my kids surrounding me and babbling about their day, I don’t want to think about anything else.

Even Brian’s presence is far less grating. He’s actually jabbering on with Megan about something from her sociology course. Watching their animated faces, my heart winces. He’s a good dad, even if he is a terrible husband.

We finish eating and I clear the table. Setting the dishes on the counter near the dishwasher, I finally check the message I’ve obsessed over for the last twenty-five minutes. It’s a DM on Instagram.

I apprehensively open it. Then I read it, twice. Then a third time.

It’s an offer for a voice-acting gig! And it will pay me $500. With a possibility to add more gigs.

Sure, I’d be a singing rabbit in a commercial, not on stage, but it’s paying work for my voice.

I rush to Brian in the living room, his feet on the sofa and his finger swiping up and down the tablet. I tell him the offer and show him the email.

Brian stands from the sofa and hugs me. Then he places a chaste kiss on my lips and says, “Congratulations. I’ll take care of the dishes. You enjoy your win.”

I shake my head at his version of a supportive response and text the one person who I know will understand what an accomplishment this is. Moments later, my phone dings: Congrats.

That’s it? I text Seamus again. It’s big, don’t you think?!?

Several moments pass before he answers.

It is. Congrats.

My weighted sadness bubbles until it rages into my fingers. I type. I emotionally vomit everything into one massive text that I had previously held back while hoping we’d get back to what we had been. His distance. His indifference. His public flirtations with other women. His apathy.

I hit Send.

I stare at the screen and heartbreak floods my veins. I skim through what I’d written. Autocorrect and my fury had transformed several sentences into gibberish. But the rest, very clear. Very angry.

My eyes still fixed on the screen, Seamus’s response pops up: I’ve been meaning to bring this up for some time. I think we both know this isn’t working and we should just stop. This is too much drama. You took all the fun out of this for me. Congrats on the gig.

I swallow hard. I meant what I’d said, but Seamus viewed my pain as an attack from a madwoman. Except that I’m no madwoman. I’m a madwoman. A hurt woman.

I want to hide, but there’s nowhere to go. I resign myself to the living room. Brian’s not there for once, so I plop myself onto the sofa. Megan sits on one end, posing for selfies, having taken Brian’s usual seat. Geoffrey lies on his back on the floor, his feet in the air and his hands holding a Kindle above his face as he twists it around.

Mason and Abigail run in screaming. “Mom! Blabigail won’t let me play on the PS4!” Mason wails.

“Don’t call me that!” Both of my middle children push each other as they stand in front of me, waiting for my ruling on which child is in the right and dooming the other to shame.

“Hey, kids,” I say softly. “Mom has some happy news.” I hear the sadness in my voice, but I need to tell them. “Mom got a job today. I’m going to be the voice of a cartoon bunny in a commercial.”

“That’s so cool,” Mason shouts simultaneously to Abigail’s, “You’ll be famous!”

Geoffrey climbs off the floor and onto my lap. “You’re turning into a bunny?”

I smile and chuckle with tears ready to fall. “No baby. I’m going to sing for a cartoon bunny.”

“Okay,” he says and presses his back against my chest to resume play on his tablet.

“That’s really cool, Mom,” Megan says.

I turn to look at my daughter, shocked at the lack of sarcasm. I hear the click of her phone. “Had to take a pic. It’s a big moment,” she says. “Gonna post this.” Her attention leaves the room for the digital world.

Mason leans over his brother and hugs me. “Proud of you, Mom.”

Abigail overlaps her brother’s embrace. “I’m prouder.”

Next week, I will resume a state of pain from another surgery. As soon as I recover, I will tell Brian that I don’t want to be his wife. First the physical pain. Then the emotional.

But today, it’s a battle won for me and my plague monsters.

Fight for me. Fight for them.

Assumptions by James Mulhern

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(First published with Fiction on the web and previously published in The Writing Disorder Literary Journal)

“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” (Song of Solomon 4:7)

Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia.

Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this:

She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants—”slacks” my grandmother called them—for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

***

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when. After my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk. I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment. Even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course. Years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords, but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming, longing for her husband Jim. I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

***

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father.” Peg passed me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood.

“Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch.

Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us, Peg, Scruffy, and myself, canvassed the neighborhood. It was December and cold. The sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon.

What a sight we must have been. Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer.

I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and they expressed exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home,” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—”Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball.

Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV. Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job. What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise.

Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content. He had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

***

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Beth, with Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to us. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us—Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses—crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately.

I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary.

Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her Lovely Peggy, ” she whispered quickly.

“Lovely Peggy” was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots. There were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off. The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg. The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything. Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.”

I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls’ room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together.” Peg arched her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

***

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck. She shone like a miniature Sun.

Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her. We pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish. We scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl.

For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose, descended over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late, both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake.

Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle—my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried.

We helped lift them in between guffaws and groans that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair.

Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me.

I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

***

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall.

Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother came to my room to wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow.

She told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep.

I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs. I imagined Peggy “over there.” Eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflected the brightness of a blazing fire.

Finally she was home with her Jim. Completely awake—laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine—she rose once again to sing her favorite song. The sun’s great light shone upon and caressed her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting. His crossed arms relaxed to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, became hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.

Love and Extinction by Geoffrey Enright

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Andrew Moore killed my wife, Julianne Woodrow exactly six months ago. Ran her over with his car after drinking all afternoon at some work party. I couldn’t believe how many people took the stand in his defense, swearing up and down what a good guy he was, how “out of character” it was for him to get so lit. Luckily my brother, Jacob Woodrow, was able to present Andrew’s history of similar behaviour: four DUIs with an assault and battery to boot.

Andrew was sentenced to forty years in prison, which would put him close to eighty upon release. Assuming he’d make it that long. But I know he won’t, me neither, or anybody else hanging out on this planet for that matter. 

In exactly eight minutes an asteroid the size of Kansas is going to get into a slugfest with earth and it’s going to kick our ass. As a matter of fact, the radio just signed off; guy made a point to get in a bit about God. We’re about to see who God is and isn’t looking out for. Suppose it’s as good a time as any to start smoking again after three years without. 

***

You see, the federal government and NASA, that’s who I work for, have known about this asteroid for a little less than three hours. Three hours, that’s it? Yes, that’s it. We’ve never seen anything like it before, a “silent” asteroid that was never picked up until it was much too late. And it is very much indeed too late. At least someone had the sense to give a name to the planet we think the asteroid cane from, not that the record will survive: G9V5. 

Stub out a cigarette, light up another.  I know what some of you are thinking, what some of you may be thinking at least: why is everyone so calm if the world’s down to its final minutes?  There’s a very simple answer for that, we haven’t told them what’s going on, only the immediate members of the team are aware any of this is going on. 

“But what about the guy on the radio, the sign off?” you may say.  To that, I will tell you while the sign off was indeed very real, the reason we fed him was not. At this exact moment in our country we are going through something of a health scare, so we used that to our advantage. 

At this exact moment government personnel are flooding the streets to put a “quarantine” into effect in attempts of catching and stopping the supposed health crisis. Believe what you will about the federal government, but this quarantine was put into play in the hope of guaranteeing that nobody, at least in this country, will die alone. We all deserve to have somebody. 

From where I’m at, on the deck of my penthouse, I can see everyone moving inside, empty stores, and men in biohazard suits with assault rifles gathering everyone up in nothing more than an attempt to keep calm. I’m shocked nobody’s noticed the lack of tents, tanks, scientists, and whatever else they’ve seen in the movies. By the time their panic burns out and the rationality sets back in we’ll all be dead. But for now my cat Lacy, sitting on the deck at my feet beside the chair, doesn’t have a care in the world. 

All I can see now is my wife.  Stub out cigarette, light up another.  Julianne had my eyes, my heart, and my soul from the first moment we met at a house party back in our days at NMU together. She was the only person talking that night who had something to say. Being profound by nature was her gift from the god she believed in.

And her beauty, it was radiant and never ending. Her beige skin, straight black hair and brown eyes… the little arches on her long slender feet…the way her eyes always guided me out from the deepest pits of my soul. 

She may have been the only reason for me to ever consider God, because she was an angel. She was my angel. Always was, always will be. For a few moments longer anyway.

I would love nothing more than to reawaken and find her waiting for me but I just cannot bring myself to believe in such things. And for that, Julianne, I am truly sorry.

The sky’s getting brighter, fast. I don’t know if anybody else has noticed it. Like there was a film over the sky but it’s been since removed. Before long we all might live long enough to die from our suntans. That was a bad attempt at humor, none of us will live long enough for such a thing. 

My skin tells me so, Lacy tells me so as she begins to cry in discomfort from the heat that continues to grow rapidly. I reach down and grab her, scooping her up into my lap. She’s crying like birth now. My lips meet the top of her trembling head.

I whisper: It’ll be over soon, baby, I promise. 

It’s getting brighter…and hotter.  Brighter…and hotter.  Lacy is seizing and leaking bodily fluids into my lap, her desperate cries for help are gargled as she continues to liquefy in my arms.  I’m next, oh my it’s getting so hot. I’m going to die any second, it’s so hot, oh my it’s so hot.

OH MY GOD!

Geoffrey Enright lives on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean with his girlfriend and their dog Tasha.

The Albino Kangaroo by Steve Carr

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Perhaps I should have known from the beginning how it was going to end. Perhaps.

My mouth was as dry as the arid scrublands that the highway cut through like a surgical incision. Dust devils of brown soil whirled across the barren landscape, skimmed across the pavement as if purposely dashing from one side to the other. Even with all the windows rolled up, grit invaded the inside of the car, finding its way between my teeth where it settled; an irritant that I lacked the spittle to expel. The glaring sunlight that cooked the earth formed watery pond-like mirages on the highway that vanished just before they were reached.

The only indication that there was life in the region, other than the infrequent truck stops, roadhouses and ramshackle motels or motor lodges was the images of kangaroos, wombats and camels painted on the yellow signs that stood along the roadside. Occasionally, a land train with several semi-trailers pulled by a prime mover sped by, heading east. They were like huge, terrifying, roaring metal beasts. Their tires stirred up clouds of dirt and tossed rocks like solid raindrops against my windshield.   

My sister, June, had fallen asleep in the seat beside me soon after we departed Port Augusta. She curled up in the seat and remained motionless with her windbreaker pulled over her. She slept silently and motionless, inert like a pile of laundry. I fought the urge to shake her awake and remind her that it was her idea that we drive the 1,700 miles west, taking the Eyre Highway to see this stretch of the outback, the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. She had placed the cost for renting the car on her credit card, so there was that at least.

In the rear view mirror I glimpsed the Volkswagen van following behind. It kept the same distance from my car from the moment it suddenly appeared out of nowhere fifty miles back. It was a 1980s model, blue, but in need of a paint job. Its front grill was dented and one of the headlights was missing. I tried to check out the person driving it, but sunlight reflected from the van’s windshield and hid his face. He was male. That’s all I could tell. There was no one in the passenger seat.

For many miles, the scenery rarely changed. There weren’t abandoned structures or remnants of farms, silos, or ghost towns reminiscent of many highways in the American west. Unlike the plains of the United States, the vast space wasn’t broken up by miles of fencing. There were no road turnoffs.

It was apparent from the onset that the Eyre Highway would live up to its billing as the longest stretch of straight road on the planet. Looking ahead was mesmerizing, hypnotic, like staring into a never-ending tunnel filled with light. Miles of seeing nothing but the beige landscape sporadically dotted with a patches of saltbush and bluebush scrub produced the same effect I once experienced when becoming snowblind while trekking in the Alps; I lost my range of vision.

I might have missed the rest stop altogether had June not awoken in time to sit up in her seat and call out when she saw its entrance fifty yards ahead.

***

The heat was all-enveloping, so oppressive it made breathing difficult. It felt as if my lungs were being seared with every breath. Sitting on a picnic table bench in the shade under a corrugated tin awning I watched the visible waves of heat rise up from the pavement in the rest stop. Unlike back home in Seattle where there was always the feel of moisture in the air, on that stretch of the Eyre Highway, there wasn’t the slightest hint of it. The breeze came from the north carrying the scent of baked earth.

I guzzled a full bottle of water and was halfway through another as sweat ran down my back in rivulets. June stood at a map of the area pinned on a corkboard under a sheet of plastic near a row of soda and snack machines. She slowly traced the single black line that marked the highway with her finger as if unable to accept that the line never veered from its two-directional course.

Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail held together with a bright yellow scrunchie. She tilted her head from side-to-side, as if listening to music. Her hair swept across her upper back like the pendulum of a metronome.

It was moments like that I forgot she was only a few years younger than me and we were no longer children. At twenty-nine she had retained many of the same movements and gestures she had when she was a girl of six or seven.

An orange-colored dingo wandered into the rest stop, and she turned to watch it─entranced the entire time the wild canine sniffed about the trash cans and around the doors of the restrooms. June had taken time off from finishing her courses to become a veterinarian to take this trip, so animals of any kind were of special interest to her. When it ran off, returning to the open scrubland, she went into the women’s restroom.

I shifted on the bench to get a better look at the Volkswagen van that had sat parked in the driveway leading into the rest stop, arriving there within minutes after we did. The driver of the van didn’t get out. He sat hidden in the shadows inside the vehicle.

I was considering talking to the driver of the van when June came out of the restroom. She called out to me. “How far to go until we reach The Bight?”

“Another hour or so,” I replied. I looked to the west, uncertain even after looking at the map of Southern Australia a dozen times, where the Nullarbor Plain began and ended, and if we had entered it. The name alone conjured up in my imagination fantasies of places that seemed other-worldly, like the Sahara Desert and Machu Picchu.

June sat on the bench on the other side of the table. She rubbed her shoulder and winced.

“You shouldn’t still be feeling pain there,” I said.

“It’s not actual pain,” she replied. “It’s psychological.” She hesitated before asking, “Does anyone ever get over being shot?”

I looked to where the van had been sitting. It was gone. “I don’t know,” I answered her.

***

I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff holding binoculars to my eyes and looking out over the turquoise waters of The Great Australian Bight. A large pod of Southern Right whales breached the surface, shooting fountains from their blowholes. At the base of the cliffs, small waves washed up onto the narrow strip of beach that extended along the coastline. Seagulls circled and swooped above the white-capped currents. Far out, the white sails of a large yacht gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.

June sat on the ground near me, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. Bits of grass she tossed into the air fluttered above her head like wounded butterflies before being blown inland or sucked into the ocean breeze and pulled seaward.

After a long silence between us, she said flatly, “I miss Patty and Mom.” The suddenness of the statement took me out of the moment and hurled me back to Seattle the year before.

I had just returned from a trip to Iceland and was sitting at the kitchen table in our mother’s condominium drinking a glass of iced tea. She leaned back against the sink stirring a cup of coffee. The sliding glass doors that led out to the balcony that looked out on the Puget Sound were open and a fish-scented breeze blew in. She gave birth to June and I when she was young and as she gazed at me it struck me that she could have passed for a woman in her early thirties. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her face.

“Even when you were a toddler, I couldn’t hold on to you. You always wanted to run off and explore,” she said.

June came into the kitchen at that moment, her arm draped around the shoulders of her girlfriend, Patty. They were giggling like adolescent schoolgirls, which suited June’s bubbly personality at that time, but was unusual for Patty who was usually sober and restrained. They had flown in from Chicago the evening before to join me at Mom’s to celebrate our mother earning her masters in social work.

“What are the two of you so happy about?” Mom asked.

June kissed Patty on the cheek and with a huge smile on her face, said, “Patty and I have decided to get married.”

Just as quickly I was brought back from Seattle to that cliff when I realized June was sobbing. I let the binoculars drop against my chest and hang there by its strap and sat on the ground next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her against me. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat there staring out at the whales until they disappeared from sight.

When we stood up I turned and saw that the Volkswagen van was parked not far from where I had left our car. It pulled away and returned to the highway as we began walking toward our car.

***

Twilight saw the spread of bands of purple and gold across the darkening sky. The Nullarbor Plain stretched out beyond the opposite side of the highway like an endless dirt carpet, looking as if it had been bulldozed. I stopped the car a few times so that we could watch troops of kangaroos crossing the plain, the first large number of them we had seen, which was surprising given that their images were on every sign and their remains littered the highway. The landscape didn’t seem to offer much in the way of vegetation for them to eat.

June got out of the car each time we spotted a troop and took dozens of pictures, then got back in breathless with excitement as she chattered on about them. When we were children it was she who had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, canaries and fish. I was still inside the car when I heard her shout, “An albino kangaroo!”

I got out of the car and standing by her side saw an entirely white kangaroo hopping along with the troop. To me it resembled a large white mouse.

“Do you have any idea how rare an albino kangaroo is?” June asked as she took pictures of it.

“I think an albino anything is kinda rare,” I replied.

Minutes later I realized she was holding her camera up to her eye, with the lens pointed at the albino kangaroo, without snapping anymore pictures. “As rare as I used to think it was to be shot by a mass murderer’s bullet.” She put the camera back in its case and got back into the car.

I watched the albino kangaroo for a few more minutes before returning and opened the map. I spread it across the steering wheel. I had the town of Cocklebiddy circled in red ink. It was about a half hour away.

June rolled up her window and rested against the glass. Her eyes were closed.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She sighed, expelling breath like a punctured tire. “Now that I think about, maybe coming on this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“You got to see an albino kangaroo and you said they’re rare.”

“Yes, they’re rare.”

In the ambient light of night I could see the Volkswagen van following us, maintaining the same distance and always at the same speed.

***

Countless stars glittered in the night sky, distracting me from what would have been an otherwise very boring trip from the time we saw the albino kangaroo until we reached Cocklebiddy. June said only a few words during the long stretch of darkness, keeping her eyes closed during most of it, although I could tell from her breathing that she was awake.

I tried to entertain her with anecdotes from my travels, but after twenty minutes of not getting a response from her, I drove the rest of the way to Cocklebiddy in silence. Upon approaching and entering the small town I had the uncharacteristic response of feeling happy to see lights, my preference being to travel where there was less civilization.

There was a roadhouse in the town for those just passing through and a small motel where I had pre-booked two rooms for us before leaving Port Augustus. When I pulled up to the curb in front of the motel June opened her eyes and gently placed her hand on my arm.

“What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said, despondently.

“I know.”

***

The Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle catered to a gay clientele which is why June and Patty chose it to celebrate Mom’s achievement and their plans to get married. Although it was Mom’s car we used to go to the restaurant, June drove and Patty sat in the front passenger seat. Mom and I sat in the back seat. Along the way, Mom pointed out everything that had changed en route to the restaurant since it had been three years since I had last been in Seattle, which was to attend my father’s funeral. The trees that lined the curb in front of the restaurant were strung with white lights and two large rainbow flags hung from its facade.

We parked a block away and walked to the restaurant, merrily chatting and laughing the entire way. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be, so we managed to get a table by the front window. Before I sat down I looked out and saw a blue Volkswagen van park across the street from the restaurant. I sat next to June. Patty and Mom sat across from us.

We were almost done eating when I saw a man get out of the van and cross the street, but gave it little thought and didn’t see what he was carrying, until he walked into the restaurant, raised a gun and started shooting.

In a moment of disconnect, I thought it was firecrackers I was hearing and not gunshots, and then I saw Mom get hit in the back and Patty shot in the head. June was struck in the shoulder before I had the presence of mind to react. I shoved her from her chair and threw my body on top of hers. The shooting, the killing, seemed to last forever. It was only later that I learned the shooter had been tackled and pinned down by an off-duty policeman until help arrived. The killer owned the Volkswagen van.

***

The motel in Cocklebiddy had a sign in front of it with an image of a young kangaroo peeking out from its mother’s pouch. The name of the motel was Joey’s Motel. The woman at the check-in counter was gregarious and talked non-stop while I checked us in. When she paused long enough for me to answer her numerous questions, I explained that it was June who had decided on the trip across Southern Australia. I didn’t explain anything further. June had remained at the motel office door, staring out at the street as if lost in thought. When we got to the doors of our rooms that were next to one another, June opened her door and went in without saying anything, and shut the door.

My room was nondescript with hardly a suggestion that it was Australian. I threw my backpack on the bed, laid down next to it, and without intending to, I quickly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a few hours later overcome with a sense of dread. I bolted from my room, ran to June’s and pounded on the door. When June didn’t answer back, I turned the doorknob and it opened.

Moments later I found June lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, dead. She had slashed her wrists.

I’ve not seen the blue Volkswagen van since then.