The Dome by Katherine Mezzacappa

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Norfolk, England

The Dome is not a building, nor even a specific place. It was months before I realised they called it that because the word really means house, a corruption of domus. Later, much later, I hazarded asking where the Dome was. My companion waved an arm in the general direction of the derelict church through the minibus window.

“It’s here, everywhere.”

Let me try to explain.

The only women of the Dome I was allowed to see were those aged fifty and above, and the eldest living girl not more than ten years old. Their young men I first saw harvesting corn with long scythes in large, silent teams, dressed in old “good” clothes: suit trousers gone shiny and long parted from their jackets, palely striped collarless shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Dressed this way and using hand-tools, they resemble Amish, but they have not eschewed other benefits of modern life, like, for instance, travelling by minibus.

Should you pause to watch these men at work, they’ll stop, one by one, and watch you. Then, one will detach himself from the group and come and ask you what you’re doing there. In my case I just said it was because I was interested in their community. This is how it always starts, they respond to interest shown. Unlike other cults they don’t go canvassing members.

“There was a wedding here yesterday,” one of them told me.

Like the others, he was fitter and stronger than me. I’m taller than most men but slenderer. My wife once said, when she still loved me, that I don’t quite know what to do with my long, spindly limbs.

“Hilda, your mother’s cousin” he added.

Hilda, I hadn’t seen for years. How old would she be now? I did a rough calculation─at least sixty-seven. I wondered about her bridegroom. Her first husband had been packed into Norfolk clay at least twenty years ago. I cannot remember him.

“Go and have a look.” He pointed to the little church standing in its graveyard two fields away, muffled by yew.

I thanked him and walked off in its direction, being careful to skirt the corn, feeling their eyes on my back.

On reaching the little flint-built church I saw that it was really not much more than a chapel or oratory, the sort you might find in a city cemetery. Oddly, its entrance was not at ground level but up a row of four or five steps, crumbling and overgrown. Couldn’t someone at least have sprayed some weed killer over them, in honour of this elderly bride’s poor stumbling feet?

The panels of the door were bleached and warped as timber long tossed by the tide, greenish rot encroaching at its foot. I pushed it open, expecting despite this unpromising exterior the usual English church mixture of mustiness and polish: a Victorian tiled floor perhaps, some damaged brasses, poppyheaded pews, kneelers, neat piles of hymnals and a flyblown display of photographs of smiling Africans, members of a sister parish that they would never meet. Instead, a scene of utter desolation: crumbling masonry, a denuded altar table covered in bird-shit, crevices of light in the roof, some broken stacking chairs against the walls, and whatever was strewn across the floor crunching under my feet.

I fled. Knowing I looked ridiculous, I nevertheless kept a field’s breadth between them and me, struggling over barbed wire fences that plucked at my clothes, tumbling into mud, whilst they swivelled and followed my haphazard progress. I saw them do this out of the corner of my eye, for I didn’t dare give them any indication by the tilt of my head that I noticed them.

By the time I reached my car I was sweating, though the September afternoon was mild. There was a panicky moment in which I couldn’t find my car keys, my dancing desperation observed from three fields away.

Finally my frantic fumblings produced a faint rattle. My jacket pocket had given way (my wife had always complained that I stuffed too much into pockets. I think, absurd as it sounds, that this was one of those minor irritations that led her to kill our marriage). Almost weeping with relief I winched the keys out from where they lay within the lining of the jacket.

There was another cold moment when I couldn’t manage to turn the ignition. For some long seconds I convinced myself the battery was dead.

***

At my lodgings in Aylsham my landlady looked searchingly at me but contented herself with, “It’s a messy business this bird-watching.”

I smiled briefly, saying nothing, and fled to my room as soon as I’d eaten, and rang my mother.

“I didn’t hear from Hilda at Christmas,” she told me. “She was on her own, of course. Her daughter moved up to Ilford about ten years ago. We’d thought she’d never leave her Mum, but what’s there to do down there? You can have her address if you like…” She eyed me with a slight frown. “I still don’t understand what you’re doing there.”

“Doctor’s orders,” I said.

Afterwards, I looked up the church in my Pevsner for North-East Norfolk and Norwich: Emmington. St. Wilgefortis. Village disappeared at Black Death. Late Norman nave, one S window with a just-pointed head but a round-headed rere-arch.

Chancel of C13 with one lancet in each wall. W bell-turret on the ridge, timber substructure medieval. Restored almost to extinction 1866. Monument: John Chittleborough + 1714.

Wilgefortis?

A massive Catholic database in Sacramento, California, provided this explanation.

The curious story of Wilgefortis, (Uncumber;Liberata), who never existed, is simply an erroneous explanation of the crucifixes of the C12 and earlier which depicted Christ fully clothed and bearded…according to legend, Wilgefortis was daughter to a pagan king of Portugal. Her father wanted her to marry the king of Sicily, but she had taken a vow of virginity (some sources suggest Wilgefortis is a corruption of vierge forte). She prayed to become unattractive and miraculously grew a beard and her suitor withdrew. Her father had her crucified. On the cross she prayed that all those who remembered her should be liberated from all encumbrances and troubles. Images of her were to be found at Worstead, Norwich and Boxford (Norfolk), despoiled in the reign of Edward VI…there then followed a characteristically pithy comment from Thomas More concerning the custom of offering oats at her image: ‘Whereof I cannot perceive the reason, but if it be because she should provide a horse for an evil husband to ride to the devil upon, for that is the thing that she is sought for, insomuch that women have therefore changed her name and instead of St. Wilgeforte call her St. Uncumber, because they reckon that for a peck of oats, she will not fail to uncumber them of their husbands’.

Nowhere, I think is more desolate than a seaside town out of season. I know though why Mundesley had appealed to Hilda, it was the scene of so many childhood holidays, and the chance to exchange a terraced house in crowded Tottenham (next door’s radio audible through the sitting-room wall) for life in a bungalow.

16 Clunch Road was one of a string of lonely squat houses, huddled down against the elements, spattered along this coastal road without plan or design. Glass porches or verandas had erupted on most of their façades, providing places to sit when going out into the naked strips of garden seemed too exposing, too public. In Hilda’s porch I saw a flurry of unopened envelopes, mainly junk mail, and several issues of Reader’s Digest magazine. A pair of dusty Wellington boots lay on their sides and I remembered Hilda saying to my seven year-old self, :that way if the mice get in, they’ll be able to get out again.”

I couldn’t see much else. Hilda had net curtains. They even hung across the French windows. The back of the house gave onto a cracked, overgrown patio, some tangled, sprawling rose-bushes, and a green-house where bloated, split and mildewed tomatoes weighed heavy on their stalks.

Next door the woman in sweatshirt and trainers with the tangled hair looked at me unsmilingly. A smell of Brussels sprouts and elderly meat clung about her. “Hilda? Not seen her for ages. My Leanne saw her go with her sons. They wouldn’t speak to her. Just looked through her when she said hello.”

“I wouldn’t have thought Hilda would have brought them up to have no manners. She was always so polite. When was this, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Who wants to know? You family?”

“Well, yes, but not close. Hilda’s a sort of aunt.”

“You’d best come in then.”

Her front room was as disorderly as I remembered Hilda’s to be neat. She nudged a pile of newspapers to one side on a fake leather settee. I sat on its edge.

“Cuppa tea?”

I said yes automatically, and then wished I hadn’t.

“No milk, thank you.” I normally take it, but thought I’d better minimise the risks. In the flotsam on the chair opposite a half eaten sandwich was stiffening on a plate. The rays of sun that lay across the carpet highlighted a fine mesh of hairs, dust and crumbs. The dark brocade curtains looked as though they were seldom moved. They sagged where their hooks were missing.

I stared into my oily tea. It wasn’t warm. It felt viscous on my tongue.

She talked without stop, “It would need a lot doing to it of course. Can’t have been touched since she moved in. Needs rewiring, then central heating put in. Those metal window frames are getting rusty─they were never much good so close to the sea. She didn’t have much stuff, of course, but Leanne’s boyfriend knows someone who’ll take it away for free. He’s like that, likes to do favours for people. Anyway, it’d be like keeping it in the family, wouldn’t it? I mean, Hilda knew Leanne from when she was a baby. You wouldn’t need to bother about solicitor’s fees and all that, would you?’

On my feet, the half-drunk tea on the floor, I said sharply “My aunt’s not dead yet,” and stormed out.

I knew Leanne’s mother would be watching me from the mildewed kitchen window, but that she’d only see the top of my head over the listing fence panels. In Tottenham there’d always been a spare key in the toolbox in the hut in the back yard.

I gave the door of Hilda’s garden shed a shove and a rusted hinge gave way. Inside were some faded plastic children’s toys─perhaps Hilda really had befriended Leanne.

They didn’t look quite old enough to have been her daughter’s. A rusting bicycle with flaccid tyres was propped against one wall, alongside trays of daffodil bulbs which had sprouted palely and uselessly in the half dark. There was also a blue metal toolbox. I found the keys lying in a tray of nails.

The house smelt damp. It had new occupants. I found their droppings first on the nibbled copy of the Daily Mail on the silly occasional table in the sitting room, a Saturday edition from the previous May. Beside it sat a tea cup in its saucer, flowering with mould.

In the bathroom the doll in the knitted crinoline covering the spare toilet roll put her plastic arms out to me imploringly. The mice had laid waste to her skirts and their contents. One of them lay in the bath, its flesh dry and split. The products on the glass shelf testified to an inescapably elderly toilette: hair rinses, shrink-wrapped lavender soaps, a third-used bottle of Eau de Cologne, denture cleaning solution.

I pocketed a brown bottle of capsules prescribed in April. The Camberwick bedspread had been pulled straight and smooth. I traced my finger a moment along the velveteen grooves of its pink surface. I think this is something I may have done as a child. The sheets underneath felt damp, the intervening blankets synthetically harsh. A slight indent on the pillow contained one grey hair.

Empty suitcases were piled on top of the wardrobe. Inside was what my mother would call “a good winter coat,” some beige polyester blouses, checked skirts with elasticated waistbands. Her two hairbrushes lay face to face in a chaste missionary position on top of the chest of drawers. Her smalls, along with her surgically pinkish-brown tights in little bags, lay undisturbed inside, kept faintly fragrant with lavender bags.

I thought, No one else was meant to see these things. Yet the bureau downstairs had been arranged as though Hilda anticipated someone else settling her affairs. The sweeping copper-plate of her birth and marriage certificates lay alongside the daisy-wheel printed card that identified Hilda’s right to whatever resources the National Health Service could offer her, via her access to a GP.

***

“They all look a bit like that round here,” said the Asian boy at the newsagents-cum-grocer’s. He wasn’t discourteous, just bored and uninterested. How, anyway, do you describe a woman you have’t seen in decades, of whom you don’t have a photograph?

I had to wait two days before I could get to see her doctor. The first time I couldn’t get past an officious receptionist. “Doctor cannot possibly discuss confidential patient matters with anyone other than notified next of kin.”

The queue behind me was growing restive. I was conscious of a mother with a struggling baby behind me, repeating to the child, “Just be patient, it’ll only be a minute.”

I hate a scene, so I left. The next day I saw a different receptionist, and feigned illness to get an appointment.

“I’ll put you in with Dr. Munday at 11.”

“No, not Dr. Munday. It has to be Dr. Wilson. I like the name,” I smiled madly at her.

She looked away quickly, back to her screen. “3:30.” She refused to look up.

“These are for blood pressure,” said Wilson. “But haven’t you checked her whereabouts with the rest of her family?”

“She’s gone to the Dome,” I said.

The skin of the doctor’s face seemed to tighten and become shiny, as though someone were pulling all the loose flesh together at the back of his head. “Do you work, Mr…?”

“Doctor,” I said, a mite facetiously (I enjoy such exchanges.) “My PhD is in Restoration comedy.”

“I see.” He sneered. “And what kind of employment is there in Restoration comedy?”

“I work in a call centre. That is to say I did. Before that I worked in a bank, until they re-engineered.”

He stretched his lips, then stood up. “Your aunt will turn up. Try to enjoy the rest of your holiday.”

***

I wanted to observe them first so parked some distance away. They were dots in the field when I raised the binoculars.

They were looking at me.

As I climbed over the first stile the one who had told me of my aunt’s marriage stepped out from behind the hedgerow. He motioned to me to go back.

“But I need to speak to you!”

“You will. I’m coming with you.” His directions took us to a sprawling former council estate on the outskirts of Norwich. 17 Wensum Gardens had retained its local authority appearance when others all around had been “improved” and thus looked more original, more solidly designed, than all its neighbours. My companion led me through to the spartan kitchen.

“Sit down.” He nodded at the formica-topped table.

“Where’s my aunt?”

“She’s married, I told you.”

“Who on earth is her husband then?”

He smiled patiently. “She has no husband. There are no husbands among us, and no wives either. Those who come to us married abandon such ties. Hilda has sworn herself to us, to love us, to honour us, to obey us, and to endow the Deity with all her worldly goods. Our solicitor is drawing up her will.”

“Who are you?”

He shrugged. “We’re all kinds…farmers, teachers, bankers, council workers─we have a doctor. He’s particularly helpful to those who falter at the rigour of our rule. We’re happy to take from science whatever will help us in our life.”

“This Deity, then…is this some sort of cult?”

He paused. “Our Deity precedes all cults. She looked on as Mithras killed the bull. She heard the mothers’ shrieks in Nazareth when the soldiers came. She poured oils on Akenhaten’s bandages. She sang amongst the stones at Callanish. The Christians took her as theirs, but then they disowned her. They never really understood her. Christians accept pain, suffering and disappointment as though these are virtues. She frees us from all that. She accepts only what is her due in return.”

He stood up. “Your room is upstairs, the one above the front door. You’ll be able to live alone after a while, but you aren’t ready yet. There is everything you need here’. He nodded in the direction of the small fridge, the microwave on the worktop, tins on a shelf.”

After her left me, I watched him drive off in my car. I looked for my telephone and found he’d taken that too. Looking for a way out, I found there wasn’t one. They’d changed every pane of glass. They seemed to be made of the same stuff as the windows of high speed trains.

Much later, two more of them came. I’d already crept into the bed I found ready along with two ragged but clean towels laid out for my use. I saw the shadows of their movements in the sliver of light under the door, and heard them murmuring.

I don’t know what time it was when the light came on. A tight-skinned face came between me and the naked bulb, followed by a sharp pain in my upper arm. W ilson smiled, the light went out, and I dreamed of scything, my arm moving back and forth to ease the stiffness.

They woke me just before daylight, leaving me other clothes to wear─like theirs. Overnight my own things had gone. Breakfast awaited me on the formica table: two slices of buttered bread, a mug of weak tea.

They stood in the door whilst I ate, watching me.

***

“Time to go.” The door of the minibus swung sideways, and I felt a hand in the small of my back.

There was something the same about my six or seven companions. I don’t know a better way to describe it. They didn’t resemble each other as do relatives, because what stands out there is what distinguishes one brother from the other, what makes him different. A shared, silent, intentness was what linked them, a deliberation in their movements.

There was another oddity. They were smooth, as though their limbs and faces were formed of hairless wax, or latex. They were like images of locally venerated saints you find in southern European churches, bland effigies.

They put me to bundling the corn into sheaves, three laid against each other and tied round, to let the air in. I was slow. My bones enervated, my muscles slack as though they still slept. You might ask why I accepted this.

Understand that if you have some purpose in life, even if it is not enough to have you bouncing off your mattress at dawn or scribbling feverishly far into the night, then you can shrug off many things. You can affectively not notice the man asking for “any spare change” because you can look as though you’re going somewhere in a hurry, or are so deep in thought that you are beyond distractions.

If instead you live in a bedsit where muffled music thumps around you much of the night, where other tenants must talk loudly whatever time they come in at─if instead you took revenge on your patronising ‘pod-leader’ (and how are we today, Doctor?) by signing up every poor purchaser of bread-and-circuses that morning to the adult channels (with the exception of those that wanted them─I gave them Nickelodeon instead)─if instead your wife left you for the man who fired you from the Bank after giving you an assignment he knew was bound to fail (Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die)─if instead, even your own mother thinks you can’t ‘frame’ yourself, and in any case you want to leave her in peace with her new husband after she has endured years of your father’s infidelities, well, they found it easy to make me one of them.

I could believe this was my home. Ah, the freedom of not having to make any more decisions. It wasn’t as if I was giving up anything for this… or was I?

Dr. Wilson repeated his home visit two nights later, and in the same manner. The morning afterwards I realised that one of the few companions to my solitary life had deserted me.

I had no erection, my poor, hopeful, optimistic erection that nudged me most mornings of my newly single life, was gone, and could not be revived. I tried unsuccessfully to summon interest by recalling the few pornographic images I have seen. 

I’ve never been a highly energetic person, but as Wilson’s injections continued (for they did, although I was never able to predict his visits) a creeping lassitude took hold of me. In the fields I walked as though on the sea-bed, with feet of lead. Every action pushed against the weight of water. I watched my companions, their every move seemed to be studied, measured, timed, with that slow deliberateness of a Tai-Chi class I once stumbled upon in a church hall (I was looking for a second-hand book fair, but had got the wrong church).

With the coming of winter, I was brought to work in a vast barn where we sat at greasy trestles scraping the flesh and fat from sheepskins and cow-hides with flints, before these were then cured above the great fire that heated the place. Where I am now they brought me a pork pie for lunch once. I first separated the clear, solid jelly from around the meat, then tried futilely to pick out the pieces of fat. In the end I ate none of it. Clip-board man wrote notes about this.

Then one morning I was taken back to the church.

You too will have read those accounts of pyjama clad prisoners having to dig the pits they are to be thrown into. When life is lived at that extremity, then all that matters is that it is someone else you throw in the pit. 

We dug on the side farthest from the road, shielded from view by the yews. I believe yews can be very ancient indeed, and these had been plentifully nourished. Here the pestilence that had laid waste to Emmington had been folded into the earth, bones tangled indiscriminately. We dug deep, but not tidily, the clay sticking to our shovels.

“Come,” said my companion. I never knew his name. I never knew any of their names, and they didn’t use mine.

He held the church door open for me. The high stone lip of the threshold held in the stalks strewn all over the floor, crunching under our feet as I was nudged towards the chancel arch.

He caught me by the upper arms at my first shriek, and held me hard, laughing. The bruises where his fingers pressed stayed for days/ Clip-board man continues to ask me about self-harm.

“It’s not for you,” he kept saying, “It’s not for you.”

I believed him, because I wanted to. Peel back our acquired layers of civilisation, of values, of compassion, of courage, even, and we are revealed as naked, snarling beasts. Do you think that the priest who once ministered in this church resisted when the iconoclasts came and tore down the statues and smashed the stained glass? 

Threatened with a partial throttling, eviration, and the dragging out of his reeking bowels, do you think he backed against his altar and clutched the monstrance in his arms?

Of course not.

Yet when I thought they’d come for me that night in front of Wensum Gardens, I fought back. I wrestled in the darkness of the dusty blanket that engulfed me, but my arms felt as weak as sparrow-bones in the other man’s grip. I wept for their betrayal, the way they had brought me back to the place I had to think of as home, a place where I had begun to feel safe, even in the expectation of Dr. Wilson’s needle, only then to grab me from behind, throw a blanket over me and then to fling me into a deeper roaring darkness, the boot of a moving car.

When the noise stopped, I became aware of a babble of voices. I couldn’t make out words, just that peculiarly complaining cadence of the Norwich accent. Some of the voices I heard were female, young I thought. There was a rattle of keys, the sigh of the door lifting upwards.

“He don’t look too good.”

Their features loomed at me. Fleshy faces, stubbly faces, one olive-dark face, disgusted faces, kind faces. Hands reached for me. Then the swish of the automatic doors, the swivel of heads as all turned to look, the duty sergeant’s pen poised over his book.

A thin bearded man patted my shoulder. “Sorry to have given you such a fright, mate. When Leanne gets an idea in her head, there’s no persuading her otherwise─is there, my woman?”

Leanne smiled at me. I gaped at her mutely. When you’ve not seen an unfeigned, a real smile in months you want to reach out and touch it, to understand how the muscles move under the skin.

“Your aunt Hilda was always very kind to me,” she said.

This room where I am now is decorated to soothe: dove grey walls, a white cornice and ceiling, a pale mint green cover on the bed. I wonder if the man with the clip-board will come again today. I don’t want to have to tell him my story again. Clip-board man keeps asking me where I got the androgen blockers, though he’s said that chemical castration is reversible. I’ve told him already about Wilson, and he’s told me about my rescue, how Leanne had always insisted that Hilda had no sons, and that when I she heard I’d been to talk to her mother she decided to act.

I repeat to him what I saw in that church, but with every telling, it becomes somehow less believable though never less vivid. That vast rough-hewn cross propped against the chancel arch, the sheaves of corn piled around its base, the rents and gouges caused by the driving in, and the pulling out, of nails.

Blood glistening on wood, shining like varnish, those great dried brown-red gouts, layer upon layer, built up until it could be chipped away. My companion becomes technical. He explains that the nails must go through the wrists because if they were to go through the palms they’d would simply tear through the hands with the weight of the body. Those are the nails that bring death, that cause lifeblood to gush. The others are there only to still the kicking and trembling.

He urges me to look at the blackening wounds in those contorted feet, the sagging face beneath the hair hanging forward matted and stiff with blood. He explains what an honour this is, that the girl vied for this, hoping all year that she would be the one chosen to join the Deity. She must be the most beautiful, but to make sure that she remains unsullied, he and his companions submit willingly to Dr. Wilson’s ministrations. He asks me if I enjoy the freedom this has brought me too.

My binoculars have reappeared overnight. I climb down from the bed and go over to the window. It’s quite high up, so my shoulders are on a level with the window frame. I’ve tried moving the chair beside the bed over to the window, but it’s been screwed down, like the rest of the furniture.

I’m in Chittleborough Villa. Looking out, I can see three other villas dotted about, all built of Victorian patterned brick. On a veranda I see a man on a bench rocking back and forth, striking his knees, standing up, then sitting down and starting the whole process again. I train the binoculars on him; his eyes are closed and he appears to be talking.

Someone is wailing, but nobody takes any notice. I knock gently on the glass, not because I want to attract attention, but to hear what noise it makes, a dull sound, as of some kind of tough plastic, like that in Wensum Gardens. So if anyone throws a stone at my window, it’ll probably just bounce back again.

 I’m pleased about this, just as I’m pleased the door to my room does not open. This might sound odd given where I was before, but it makes me feel safe.

I see three figures on the path. One of them is in a uniform. He is just ahead of two women. The older one leans quite heavily on the other’s arm, and she shuffles. In her outer hand is a stick. Despite her slowed pace, I recognize something in the carriage of the other, in the tilt of her head, and then I see it is my mother.

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. Writing as Katie Hutton, her historical novel, The Gypsy Bride, was published by Zaffre in 2020, with a sequel to follow in 2021. As Kate Zarrelli she is the author of Tuscan Enchantment (2019) and The Casanova Papers (2020), published by eXtasy Books. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Katherine reviews for the Historical Novel Society. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Canterbury Christ Church University in addition to an MLitt in Eng Lit from Durham and a first degree in Art History from UEA.

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.

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

Featured

(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.

For the Smell of the Rain by Patty Somlo

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If anyone asked, I could say I was on the Granada-bound train for the ride, and for the smell of rain coming into the windowless car. I might mention the bright green banana leaves and peasants waving along the tracks, or the sellers of nacatamales and guayaba juice who boarded at every stop. I could add I was going to Granada to bathe in the sultry saltwater lake or to take a boat to one of the islands, to sleep in a thatched-roof hut and listen to the monkeys cry. Perhaps I could pretend I wanted to go back to the hospedaje where I first stayed, to sit in a rocking chair in the courtyard and listen to Doña Alicia gossip and complain.

The truth is that I was on the Granada-bound train to see Alfredo, only one week after I’d left him for the last time. I sat next to the open door and let the rain dampen my face, just as I had done the first time, when Alfredo took my face in his hands and said, “You look so beautiful.”

“You must see Granada,” the owner of my hotel said on my first day in this country. “And you must go there on the train.”

Granada, he explained, was a replica of its Spanish namesake, a jewel of a city set in a special spot between black volcanic hills and a vast blue-green lake that stretched further than the eye could contemplate. The water in the lake, he went on, was salty, the same as the sea, warm and filled with sharks. Throughout the lake were pristine islands, like emeralds spit into water. Parrots and palm trees, even monkeys, populated the islands, and local artists painted the landscape in colorful, minute detail, not missing a single chicken or banana tree or bright blue bird.

Moments after the train left the capital, I could see why I had been told to travel this way. The landscape we slowly moved through burst with color. The sky was dark, nearly purple in places, and the darkness helped saturate the land the richest shades. Banana and coffee leaves throbbed a vibrant green.

After the rain stopped, the leaves shone. Purple and reddish-pink bougainvillea spilled over fences like bright tongues. Smoke rose in wide circles from the chimneys of small red-tile roofed houses. Even in the rain, people came out. Men with dark faces wearing wide straw hats smiled and waved as we went by.

In the damp air, I imagined Alfredo’s face as I saw it that first day, peeking out under a green rain poncho. His dark eyes. The curls stuck to his forehead from rain blowing in the open door.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

Tiny beads of water clung to Alfredo’s black moustache. A few fragile crystals hung onto his eyebrows.

I smiled and turned away from him, not wanting to miss a minute of the breathtaking landscape rolling past.

When the train stopped to let on more passengers, Alfredo jogged away from my side. I thought he had gotten off and was a little disappointed but also relieved. While I was no longer surprised at how men here could suddenly become enamored with me – a light-skinned, green-eyed blond – I hadn’t gotten used to this at all.

The next thing I heard was the jittery sound of metal scraping against metal that signaled the train’s departure. Then I felt fingers lightly tapping my shoulder.

“You are beautiful, like the bougainvillea.” Alfredo handed me a slender stem with purple petals glittering from the rain.

The car was crowded with men and women, kids and woven coffee sacks, colored straw baskets overflowing with folded shirts and crisp bread and orange-skinned mangoes. The only place left to breathe was next to the open door.

How many times had I sat in this spot on my way to see Alfredo? How many times had I told myself the trip would be my last?

Alfredo was kind enough that first day to take me to Doña Alicia’s hospedaje, a two-block walk from the lake. He rented a royal blue motorboat and we sailed to one of the small islands, where we ate fresh-caught fish under a canopy of palm trees on a wooden porch. He told me that he traveled to the different islands to paint, sleeping in the simple huts, getting to know the peasants who lived there, and living off the fish and fruits and vegetables from the small plots of land they cultivated.

“I went all the way to Paris to study art,” Alfredo said. “Now, I have come back home to find that the peasants of these islands have more to teach me about art than all the world-renowned teachers in France.”

***

When I awoke with Alfredo in the small square room I had rented from Doña Alicia, sunlight slid through the narrow bamboo window slats─fell in lines across our skin.

Alfredo traced the light on my legs, his fingers moving up to my neck, and then my forehead.“What I love about this country is the light.” He kissed me and twisted his fingers in my hair. “The light is so thick and sad. It is impossible not to fall deeply in love here, because of the light.”

Riding the Granada-bound train, I couldn’t stop wondering how Alfredo would paint the passing scene. I felt sure he would want to capture all the details. The skinny dark-skinned boy wearing red shorts, with a scrawny gray and brown dog running behind him. White chickens pecking and scratching in a brown dirt yard. A woman wearing a bright green dress and pink apron, smiling and waving from the doorway of a turquoise stone house.

As the train moved along the tracks, I thought about that evening in the capital when I saw Alfredo’s paintings for the first time. It was raining and just getting dark, as I shook water from my umbrella and stepped inside. Glancing around the gallery, what struck me was the color. Small squares saturated with turquoise, red and a lush, lush green hung a careful distance apart on the clean white walls.

People stood in their colorful clothes, talking and sipping wine in the center of the room. Others, alone in front of the canvases, leaned in close to see the tiny birds and curled bananas hanging from the wide-leafed trees.

I looked for Alfredo and when I found him, I quickly glanced away. I felt his eyes on me until I turned and headed for the door. The quick thunderclap of my thin heels assaulted the floor beneath the steady hum of conversation.

On the porch, I stopped to open my umbrella. Raindrops landed with a smack on the thin curled metal roof.

“You are leaving before you have even seen the paintings,” Alfredo came up behind me, so close, I could feel his breath. “I wanted to introduce you to some people. Why are you going?”

“I can’t see you with her.” I refused to turn around, to see his face. “I’ll see the paintings another time.”

I opened my umbrella and Alfredo turned me around to face him.

“It is only a show,” he said. “What is real is what everyone does not see.”

 “How can it be real if no one sees it? How can I know it’s real?”

“It cannot be controlled. Doesn’t that make it real?” He reached his hand out from under the porch roof and cupped his palm. “If I catch the rain in a barrel, it is no longer rain. Rain must fall. That is the essence of rain. What you think you saw tonight was not love. It is as much like love as water in the barrel is like rain. She is my wife, the mother of my children. You are the woman I love.”

A mist clouded my eyes, brought on by the memories of Alfredo. They rose up whenever I rode the Granada-bound train. The sound of the rain hitting the metal car and the fertile smell of the dark dirt reminded me of an afternoon when I was swimming in the warm salty lake with him and the rain started falling. We watched the rain hit the water from a dark protected spot close to a nearly deserted island. The only sound interrupting the steady beat of rain against the leaves was the song of one lone bird.

Alfredo kissed my wet lips and pulled my bathing suit off in the water and dropped it on the high bank. With the rain wetting my already damp hair, Alfredo made love to me, as both of us listened to the insistent song of that one invisible bird.

“Would you mind if I sit here?” the voice said, almost in a whisper.

I looked up to see a dark face. Perfect drops of rain were clinging to the beige hood of the man’s thin plastic poncho.

“No,” I said and turned back toward the open door.

“It is a beautiful ride,” the man said, after he was seated. “Even in the rain.”

“Yes. I think the rain makes everything more beautiful.”

“I think you are right,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

We sat in silence, staring at the landscape. The train moved slowly south. I felt a light tap on my arm and turned to see the man holding out a long loaf of bread.

“Would you like some?” he asked.

“No. Thank you for asking. I will be having lunch in Granada.”

“So, you are going to Granada.”

“Yes.”

“Is this your first visit?”

“No, I have been there before.”

“Oh, that is good,” he said. “Granada is a very special place.”

“I think so.” I nodded. “But why do you think it is special?”

“It is a wild place. But it is also protected. The volcanoes are silent now, but we never know when they will burst with fire again. The lake is beautiful and warm but filled with sharks. They say that people have been lost on the islands in the lake, never to be heard from again. Once you have been to Granada, you must keep returning. I know. I have left dozens of times, yet I always find myself coming back.”

I sat in silence and thought about what this stranger had just said.

“It’s funny.” I shifted in my seat. “I thought it was just me. Even when I tell myself I am through with the place, I keep coming back. Now, you are saying it happens to others.”

“Oh, yes.” He laughed. “I have gone to many beautiful places in the world. I could practically live anywhere. But I keep coming back to Granada.”

I thought about the last time I was on the Granada-bound train, silently telling myself that the trip would be my last. I walked away from the train to where Alfredo stood waiting near the tracks, told myself to remember the feeling of Alfredo leaving in the night to go back home to his wife.

“I have missed you.” Alfredo held me so close I could barely breathe. “I am glad you have come.”

That night I couldn’t eat, stirring the metal spoon slowly, around and around the thick red broth of my seafood soup.

“You are not eating. Do you feel all right?” Alfredo asked.

“No. I don’t feel all right.”

“What is the matter?”

“I can’t keep doing this, Alfredo. I can’t. This visit will be my last.”

Alfredo made love to me that night like a desperate man. “It is so good with you,” he kissed me between words. “Being with you is like painting to me. Something comes over me in your presence and I lose myself. This is what happens when I am with you. Don’t you see that we must be together?”

“If you feel that way, Alfredo, why can’t you leave your wife?”

“What you and I have is wild. Something free. If we tried to capture it, it would be the same as putting the lion in a cage. He looks the same but his spirit is out there somewhere, running free. If I left my wife and married you, my spirit would be out there, running free.”

The soft voice of the man in the beige poncho suddenly broke through my thoughts.

“Are you in love with someone in Granada?” he asked.

My face grew warm and red beneath the humid dampness.

“Oh, forgive me,” the man said. “It is not my business. Please excuse me. “I always ask too much,” he went on. “It is impolite, I know. I have a curiosity, so I ask.”

“Yes, I am.” I leaned my face out the door to let the wind and rain cool me.

“That is what I thought.” the man smiled. “Why else would a beautiful woman be on the Granada-bound train, alone, again and again? I wonder, though, why he doesn’t ask you to stay with him in Granada.”

I waited in silence for the man to take back his question.

“Oh, I am going too far again,” the man said, almost as if he were talking to himself. “I know that. It is not a lack of manners that makes me ask too much. My mother and father raised me well. It is a game in a way. Like a puzzle really. What else is there to do on a long train ride but put the pieces together?”

I turned to the man and took several quick breaths, trying to calm myself before speaking. “So, you use people’s lives and emotions to amuse yourself. Is that it? And afterwards, what happens then? Do you sit with your friends drinking beer, telling them about the silly woman you met on the train, who goes to Granada again and again, to be with a man who will never leave his wife for her?”

“It is not like that all. You think I see this conversation as something trivial, something unimportant. That is not so. This conversation is everything. I could sit here in silence next to you, walk off the train and be hit by car. My life over, just like that! If I don’t live this moment, there is no point in going on. For this moment is all I have.”

“That’s a pretty morbid way of looking at things.”

“In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. Isn’t it sadder to think about living forever in silence? Isn’t it sadder to think I could ride all the way to Granada next to a beautiful woman and not know a thing about her? Isn’t it sadder to see all the pieces but never try to put them together?”

“You think about life in a way I never do,” I said. “I’m always planning for what’s going to happen next or brooding about the past. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole ride. It never occurred to me to ask you anything about yourself. I don’t even know your name.”

“Mario Pravia.” He held out his right hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”

I shook his hand and looked at him, without telling him my name.

“Okay, then. Let me ask you a question. If you were in love with a married woman who said she was deeply in love with you and not in love with her husband but wouldn’t leave him to marry you, would you keep seeing her?”

“I am not one to ask such questions.” Mario laughed. “I have ideas. Big ideas. But I am the last man in the world who can take these ideas and put them into my life. No, I am not someone to ask for advice.”

“From what you said, the future is irrelevant. Why should we plan for the future if it might never come?”

“Yes, I suppose I did say that. I don’t know what any of this means when it comes to love. Love is like the volcano. Completely unpredictable.”

“Are you in love with someone, Mario?”

“I am always in love.” He grinned. “For instance, right now, I am in love with you.”

I blinked at Mario and when my face grew warm again. I turned away.

“This is what I am saying. I am not a good person to ask for advice about love. But you see how easy it is for two people to get all tangled up. Here, I have only known you a short time and look what has happened to us.”

Mario reached under his poncho into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, holding it out to me. I slid a cigarette from the pack, even though I hadn’t smoked for nearly seven years. With his thumb and first finger, Mario pinched a cigarette between  his lips, struck a match and cupped it near my mouth, then moved it close to his.

Smoke swirled between us as we sat, inhaling and exhaling in silence. For the first time, I noticed the small straw bag set next to Mario, filled with books. I noticed the way his black hair was flecked with several strands of silver. I noticed the way his thick dark fingers curled around the slender cigarette, a breath from the filter.

“It is the same, you see,” he said.

“What is the same?”

“A man can make love to a woman with his body.” He twirled his cigarette in the air, making ever-smaller circles of smoke. “Or he can make love to a woman with his mind.”

I took a long, slow drag and let the heat of the cigarette burn the back of my throat.

“Look,” I said, pointing in the direction the train was headed. “We’re almost there. I know when we pass this farm, we only have a few minutes left.”

“Only a few minutes left?” Mario asked. “What can I say to you with only a few minutes left?”

“I don’t know,” I said, flicking the hair on top of my head with my fingers as I checked my reflection in a small mirror. “What is it that you want to say?”

“Only that I wish you were coming to Granada to see me.”

I gestured with my head as rain fell lightly on Mario’s poncho.

“There’s Alfredo,” I said. “I have enjoyed talking with you. I won’t forget what you said.”

I turned away and Mario slid a small slip of white paper into my hand. “Here is my address. I have no phone.”

Mario looked over to where Alfredo was standing, just inside the covered waiting area, out of the rain. “If you decide not to visit Alfredo anymore but you want to come back to Granada, you will find me there.”

I stared at Mario while the rain soaked my hair and face. He smiled and with his free right hand wiped the water from his chin.

“I have so many pieces to put together now,” I said. Mario glanced over again to where Alfredo was waiting, staying dry out of the rain. “All I know is that this piece is beautiful,” he said.

I watched him as the rain poured down and he stepped away from the train.

Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing); The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing) have been Finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, American Fiction Awards and Reader Views Literary Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times and for Best of the Net once, as well as receiving Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest and having an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014.

Legend by Jason Powell

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A month or so before the beginning of summer vacation of my freshman year, the homeroom teachers in my high school addressed the recent gang war problem in the city. It wasn’t so much a gang war, as in guns and knives and death and all that, as it was robberies and muggings of people who were wearing the wrong colors.

The two main gangs were relatively new, but there were so many rumors about them that their popularity grew, and everybody “knew” or was “related to” someone in one of those gangs. Whichever color you preferred determined which gang your family was in. None of us claimed to be in a gang ourselves; you were just cooler if you knew someone who was.

Only one guy claimed to actually be a gang member: Travis Brathwait.

I don’t know how it happened, but in the first few weeks of high school your status was determined. travis was one of the “tough” guys. He gained popularity among the guys and girls who wanted to be associated with him.

As for me, I wasn’t a nerd, but I wasn’t popular either. I had my friends, but I wasn’t on anyone’s cool radar which, for me, was fine.

The only person whose radar I wanted to be on was hers. The beautiful Kimberly. Kimberly something-or-other. Her last name wasn’t  important. To everyone she was just “Kimberly.” 

I’d been trying all year to get her to notice me. I was doing everything from, you know, dropping things that would make a loud noise to, like, coughing and… stuff. But they never worked.

A month or so before the end of the term, I decided to just be direct. Be forward. Be brave. I planned to walk up to her and give her a note. And that was the day that my life, as it had been, was over. The new me was born. The Legend.

Everything went according to plan. I wrote the note on the paper and folded it perfectly so that the “Yes or No” boxes on the bottom were separated by a crease. I got the spot I wanted on the lunch line, two people away from her─this way when she reached the end of the line and made a 180 to go to her seat she would pass me and I could give her the note and keep going in the opposite direction.

I was wearing my new cologne. I had a fresh haircut. Everything was perfect.

Then it wasn’t.

As soon as she finished on the line, I got nervous and I started rethinking things. A voice in my head was screaming abort! abort! My palms were sweaty, and my lunch tray shook so violently my macaroni nearly fell. I shuffled to save it and stepped back and accidently stepped on the foot of the person behind me.

Travis. Brathwait.

Travis freaking Brathwait. Wearing white sneakers. Bought for him, I later learned, as a birthday gift. My heart stopped racing. It stopped completely. The air left the room and the noise quickly followed.

A brown semicircle of dirt covered the toes of Travis’ left foot. I was conscience of everyone’s eyes on me and was a little comforted by that fact. No one kills a guy over a dirty sneaker in front of witnesses, right?

“Travis, man, I’m sorry,”  I said. “My bad.”

Travis looked around. He scanned the cafeteria and then gazed on Kimberly standing amidst a group of girls. They were watching us.

My heart started racing again. I could feel it rising in my throat.

Travis turned back to me. He looked back and forth between my eyes. “Clean it.”

I immediately felt my knees start to bend and the voice in my head started to speak. Just take one of the napkins from your tray and wipe counterclockwise swift and hard and you’ll be done in no time. Then you can live and Travis can leave. But before my mind got the signal to bend a knee my ego spoke up. Are you really gonna get on your knees and clean someone’s shoe in front of Kimberly? 

Time froze. I knew that if I knelt down to clean his shoe Kimberly would never love me. I knew that if I didn’t, Travis would kill me. I knew that it was impossible to clean it from a standing position but that if even it were possible my ego wouldn’t allow that either.

So… I killed myself. “I’m not cleaning that.”

There was movement in the air. I don’t know if anyone actually said anything. I wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the pounding of my heart in my ears anyway.

I had to read Travis’ lips to know what he said in reply. “Clean it now.” 

Pause here for a second.

Keep in mind that this wasn’t the movies. I didn’t say “No” and have him get so taken aback by my bravery that he backed up and made an idle threat and left the cafeteria with two of his goons while everyone else applauded me and patted my back. No, no, this was real life high school and we were both guys with egos. He was gonna see how far this would go.

And, don’t forget that part I told you about the gangs.

I had already decided to die to let Kimberly see my bravery. And I’m good with my words so this was gonna go as far as he took it. “Travis, you and I both know that the only way I’m cleaning them is if I’m taking them home with me. But if I wanted shoes like those I could just have your mom get me a pair too.”

Pause, again.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. You think the part about his mom was too much, don’t you? Maybe but… you know, I  might as well have gone out in style. Right?

And it looked like I did. Travis didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath, put his tray down, and walked out.

Now, don’t be too impressed. Travis still outdid me. He didn’t walk out of the cafeteria. He walked out of the school. It was the 4th out of 8 periods and he just left. You needed permission to leave, and he just walked out.

People were impressed with my bravery but the talk of the cafeteria was his exit.

By the end of 5th period the confrontation had spread across the school. By the end of 6th period rumors of Travis’ gang affiliation had spread too. By the end of the 7th I was sitting in the principal’s office surrounded by concerned adults discussing the situation. They all assured me that rumors are just rumors and that there was nothing to worry about but by the end of 8th period my parents had been notified, a cab had been called to take me home and I was given permission to stay home the following day while they figured things out.

When I got home my parents were waiting to discuss it with me. My dad is a genuine tough guy. He laughed when he heard the situation and told me I should go to school the next day and step on the other sneaker. My mom didn’t approve of that plan but didn’t see any real danger in going back to school either. “People talk,” she said. “Legends are made with words and not often earned.”

So the next day I went back. I got on the subway by my house and made the familiar ride to school. There’s a stop, 6 stops before I get off for school, where most of the kids get on. It took them all about a minute to see me on the train with my backpack and start whispering. One of my friends came up to me and asked me why I was doing this. He told me that I should just stay home and let things blow over. I assured him that there was nothing to worry about and we rode through the last couple of stops in silence.

When I got off the train all the other students let me go up the stairs to the exit before them. I know they were doing it so that if there was anything to see they wouldn’t miss it but it felt good anyway. I felt like royalty, you know? 

The subway was two blocks from school. The block that separated the school from the subway had a bodega, a bagel shop, and a barbershop (The B’s are just a coincidence). When I came out of the subway and looked across the street my heart stopped.

Travis was there. And he wasn’t alone.

Lining the store fronts was a group of guys all wearing the same color. Standing like soldiers facing the curb, lining the curb, was an equal number of guys wearing that color all facing the other dudes. It was a gauntlet.

I could feel the crowd stop behind me. The only sounds were the sounds of the morning traffic. I decided then that I’d be crazy to give up a free day off from school and no one could call me a coward for taking advantage of the system. I turned around to run and get back on the train,  but then I saw her. Kimberly. She was standing there eyeing me with a hint of a smile on her lips. Death.

I turned back around and considered my options. I could run through. If I made it to the school I’d have the teachers and the guards to protect me. Or I could just stand there. A gauntlet only hurts if you go through it. Just when I was leaning towards running I spotted a school guard on the corner of the school block, facing us.

Travis may have been brave but everyone feared the guards. I made a point of noticing the guard and Travis turned around and saw her too. He turned back to my block and glared at me.

I looked at Kimberly who didn’t seem to notice the guard and I saw my opportunity.

I dropped my backpack. Just slid the straps off my shoulders and let it fall to the floor. I rolled up my sleeves and turned my head side to side to loosen my neck. I checked for traffic on the street between my block and Travis’ then I walked across. I walked slow.

Travis stood in the middle of the block, 4 pairs of men down the gauntlet.

I walked past the first pair.

They glanced at Travis and then back at me and did nothing.

I smiled inside. I continued slow enough to look at both of them before I passed them. I approached the second pair.

They glanced at Travis. Did nothing.

I looked at both of them too, turned my head side to side and looked them straight in the eyes.

The third pair. Glance. Nothing.

I could hear the crowd of students crossing the street behind me. I could see the security guard watching. A teacher had joined her.

The fourth pair did nothing.

Now, I was standing beside Travis. I stared back at him and walked slowly past. I turned my head to keep my eyes locked on his. I let it turn until it was parallel with my shoulder than I left his gaze and just looked down. In my head the image said, “I’m not concerned enough about you to turn all the way around. You won’t do a damn thing.”

I passed through the rest of the gauntlet looking straight ahead. When I crossed the street to the school the security guard patted my back and I went inside without looking back.

Travis never came in.

By the end of 6th period that day, the story of the morning had spread and evolved. It started true: I came out of the subway and saw a gang of guys lining the sidewalk.

After that though, things took a bit of a turn. Apparently I had stopped in the middle of the guantlet, tossed my back pack at Travis, punched one of the guys, kicked another, flipped a third, used the 4th as a shield, and, well, I was here and Travis wasn’t so…

By the end of the next week people were impressed with how good a fighter I was. Everyone had seen me beat up those guys.

My story had been retold and reinvented a hundred different ways.

The following year, some new kid in the school had taken offence to something I did but quickly got over it when people told him what I could do to him. I got through four years of high school without fighting ‘cause everyone “knew” I was an awesome fighter.

Truth is Travis probably wouldn’t have needed anyone else to beat me down. But, who am I to complain. In my year book, Kimberly wrote, “Good luck in college. I know you’ll do well. You’re cool.”

So, you see? Everything worked out. Kimberly ‘caused the old me to kill himself, and in the void, a legend was born.

Jason Powell is a New York City Firefighter in the FDNY and an avid people watcher. He spends all of his free time and (some of his work time) writing and reading and eating chocolate covered pretzels.

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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“I’m saying it happens, mi hijo. It happens more than people talk about. The news certainly isn’t. What about those planes that crashed after taking off and then they grounded all of them? You don’t hear about them anymore, do you?”

I pinch at the bridge of my nose as my father rattles on, trying to keep a headache─that is turning from a yelp to a bark to a roar─at bay.

My dad perks up and glanced around the cabin of the plane. Flight attendants wander up and down the center aisle, closing the overhead bins as they fill with passengers’ overstuffed carry-ons. They tell the same passengers to fasten their seatbelts and ensure their tray tables and seats are in the secure and upright position. A woman two rows in front of me pushes the call button and demands a bottle of seltzer water. The flight attendant acknowledges her request, but continues her process of preparing the cabin for takeoff.

“Do you know what kind of plane this is? Do you think this is the kind that will crash?”

“Dad, you can’t say stuff like that. Not here.”

I look at the man sitting in the aisle seat across from me. He glances up from his phone. I flash him a meek smile, hoping he will not be alarmed by my father’s comments, but he smiles, then returns to scrolling through the feed on his phone.

“Do you smell lilies?” my father asks as a wave of relief washes over me.

“It’s probably just someone’s perfume.” I sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

“I’ve always loved lilies. When I’m buried, that’s what I want around me. Lilies.”

“Okay, Dad. That won’t be for a while, though.”

My father rummages through the side pockets of his tweet jacket. He does this often now. Random moments of urgency causing searches through his jacket. I wonder if he’s looking for something that might save his life in a moment of need, like a parachute.

Within a flourish, like a knight drawing his sword from its sheath, my father lifts a medical mask from his side jacket pocket. I have seen the same kind mask worn by vulnerable patients in hospitals.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

My father pulls the looped straps of the mask behind his ears. “You know that the air on airplanes cause cancer. See, there’s another thing no one is talking about, but we all know it’s true.” He points at the mask now covering his nose and mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I whisper. I scan the people in earshot of us. “None of that is true.”

My father raises his eyebrows followed by a glare I know well. Without warning─though I know it is coming─my father thwaps me in the back of the head with the palm of his broad hand.

“Miguel, no uses el nombre del Señor en vano.” My dad brings his hands together, allowing only a molecule to keep them apart. He turns his gaze to the ceiling of the airplane, though I know his attention is pressing beyond the confines of the metal tube with wings.

“Por favor, perdona a mi hijo, todavía tengo mucho que enseñarle.” He speaks to God as though he is talking with an old friend.

I feel my stomach twist at the sight. I have come to resent God in recent months, seeing him as a vile and vindictive being. My father, on the other hand, worships him daily. Each morning and night, he will kneel before his bed and give thanks, even the days when it was difficult for him to get out of bed.

My father finishes his prayer, then turns his attention back to me. A look of calm stretches across his face, like he knows that God has already forgiven me, and he has nothing to worry about.

“When are you and Julie giving your mother and I grandbabies, Miguel?” My father’s voice is muffled under his medical mask.

“Probably when God tells us to.” I wonder if he will get the sarcasm in my tone. My guess is no.

“I feel like I am going to die of old age before I become an abuelo.”

I sigh. “Honestly, dad, I don’t even know if I want any.”

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

My phone vibrates against my leg. I might be saved from answering more of the questions both of my parents have been pressing since Julie and I started dating three years ago. I rummage through my pockets, struggling to free my phone trapped between the denim fabric and my thigh. I pull my phone free.

The round face of my mother, radiating with joy illuminates the screen.

I draw in a deep breath before answering. “Hi mom…No, I’m on the plane…No, it hasn’t left yet, but we’re getting ready to take off.”

A flight attendant scans one row of passengers and then the other. I lift my gaze from the back of the seat in front of me and our eyes connect.

“Sir, you need to turn off the phone or switch it to airplane mode,” she says.

I nod. “Mom, I really have to go…No, the flight is only three and a half hours…No, I’m flying out of Philly. They don’t have any flights out of Pittsburg today, I have to go…The funeral isn’t until tomorrow, right?…Okay, so why are you worried about me missing it?…No, mom, I’m sorry, I know you have a lot going on. I—What?…Yeah, I think that would be nice. Dad said he always talked about being surrounded by lilies at his funeral.”

Jacob Schornak is a writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for his undergraduate program, receiving a degree in Professional Writing Studies. Most recently, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Augsburg University. He is kept sane thanks to his wife, Morgan, and dog, Tolkien. When he is not writing, Jacob enjoys traveling the world with his wife, seeing the sites and drinking all the beer.

An All-Nighter by S. Kearing

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Marta—achingly beautiful, worrisome, and stubborn as hell—refuses to let me drive her to the airport.

“You really should stay off that ankle, John,” she says. “Let it heal properly.”

I accept her disappointingly chaste kiss and settle back into my recliner. Marta wheels her luggage out the front door and over the narrow walk that separates my floor-to-ceiling windows from my lawn. She brings her face to the glass and canopies her eyes with her hands, peering from the muggy darkness into the air-conditioned glow of the living room. She grins affectionately.

Seconds later, we hear the choppy bleat of her taxi. We wave goodbye and she hurries off, leaving a tiny smudge where her nose was.

The next day I’m hobbling around my backyard, picking up dog shit and cooking under the relentless sun, when I come across four broken branches at the base of my favorite tree. My tree is pretty squat compared to the towering palms native to Port St. Lucie, but that’s why I love it. To see that it’s been damaged makes my blood boil.

“Son of a bitch.” I stare up through my tree’s network of robust arms and thick greenery. “God damn neighborhood kids act like they don’t have their own yards to play in…. Hey, Tootsie!” I call to my old bloodhound. “Any kids hiding up there?”

Tootsie trots over, throws her nose heavenward for a casual whiff, then snorts dismissively. Well, that settles it. The girl’s sense of smell has never failed me. If she says there’s no one up there, then there’s no one up there.

I spend the rest of the morning in my recliner, flipping between a few different news channels. Since the T.V. is positioned right in front of the windows, I notice when the mailman comes, when the sprinkler goes on, and even when Kimber walks by in those workout pants that make her ass look good enough to eat. But I don’t stare, and I don’t go out there. I’m faithful to Marta, despite what she thinks.

When I finally limp out front to get the mail, I’m shocked to see muddy footprints on the walk in front of my windows. The prints aren’t completely dried, and in this heat, that means they’ve been there less than five minutes. Who the hell could’ve done this without me seeing them?

There’s not a soul in sight. I even circle around to the back to see if the culprit’s hiding there. Nope. Finally, I hose down the walk and go inside.

When Marta calls, I speculate about the day’s one interesting event.

“Are you sure it was kids? I mean, where the footprints small?” Before I can answer, she says, “I’m booking a return flight.”

“You’ll do no such thing. It’s just little kids causing trouble. I think I can handle it.”

After I hang up, I probe my memories for one that reveals the size of the footprints. I find nothing. I just can’t help but think that if the prints were miniature, I’d remember them clearly.

On Thursday morning, my buddy Joe pulls up behind my garage, whistles his way through my sprawling backyard, and raps on my door. I let him in.

“Still letting Tootsie shit up the whole yard, I see.”

“As long as she goes outside.”

Joe flicks his head toward the door. “Why was that thing locked?”

“Oh, it’s these damn neighborhood kids. Yesterday they got pretty ballsy, messing around on my tree and running in front of my windows even though I was sitting right there. I can’t have those little fuckers coming in here.”

Joe’s mouth twists impishly. “No, you sure can’t.” He tosses some worn bills on the counter.

“Why, Joe Olson. I thought you quit.”

“I can’t sleep, man. If I don’t get some shuteye tonight, I’m gonna kill someone. I just need to get back on track.”

I tousle the money. “You just need to get back on track, huh? You brought enough cash for an ounce.”

My pal chortles and rakes his fingers through his thinning hair.

“Tell you what.” I slide some bills back in his direction. “Let’s start out with a half-ounce.”

“Yeah, okay.” Joe shifts his weight. “Sativa.”

“Nope. All outta stock. But don’t worry; I got something perfect for you.” I pour him some decaf and leave him to sort out his cream and sugar.

I lock myself in my temperature and humidity controlled basement. I fetch some Indica, which is far better suited to induce sleep than what Joe requested. I have no idea why he’s buying again, but his order sounded pretty damn recreational to me. I really hope he’s not off to the Keys for another party week with his twenty-year-old “girlfriend.” Dear Joe is too hopeful to realize that he isn’t so much as a shadow in that girl’s peripheral vision (unless he comes bearing illicit gifts).

Before I go back upstairs, I stuff a little baggie of Sativa in my pocket. I deserve to have a little fun, with Marta gone and all.

After Joe leaves, I roll a joint and settle into my chair. At first, I’m euphoric but alert, piqued by the national news. I keep my eyes peeled for sneaky tots in muddy shoes, but after a few hours, my eyelids drop leadenly. Disgruntled, I float off into a sleep that will no doubt be tainted by the Sativa’s unique influence.

I dream of Marta on top of me… of us walking Toots at dusk… of Marta, mistaking my natural friendliness for me flirting with another woman, throwing every tumbler in my kitchen. The sound of shattering glass bleeds into real life, and I’m startled awake. Tootsie is right at my side, eager to go investigate. She leads me out to the garage and bellows up at the roof.

“Hey,” I shout. “Whoever’s up there better come down right now!” I expect to see two grade school boys with dirty faces and bruised limbs peer over the edge, all sheepish apologies. But then my eyes settle on the garage window. “Welp, girl, we’re too late. They broke the window swinging their legs down, and now they’re long gone.”

Tootsie only bays louder.

“What, you think one ran away and one’s still up there?”

The bloodhound barks her assent.

I step back about ten feet and shield my eyes against the sun, but I still can’t locate any trespassers. I circle the garage, my ankle throbbing. “I really don’t think—”

My dog howls furiously.

Sweat sprouts from every inch of my body as I set up my ladder and gingerly maneuver up its aluminum rungs. When I get to the top, I don’t see anyone. I suppose they could’ve escaped down the other side, but Tootsie would’ve heard them if they did. I sigh and pull myself onto the rough tiles. I work my way to the opposite end of the roof and find that it’s completely deserted.

“I checked everywhere, girl,” I say as I struggle down the ladder. “There’s no one up there.”

My bloodhound unleashes a torrent of impatient sounds.

“Knock it off, Toots. There’s no reason to be acting a fool.”

She huffs arrogantly and sits.

“You don’t believe me, do you? Well, if you wanna stay here all damn day waiting for someone to come down, be my guest.”

Tootsie averts her gaze.

Minutes later, I dip one of my keys into the “sugar” jar and take a bump. No more nagging pain, and no more naps. I really need to catch whoever’s been treating my grounds like their own personal amusement park.

I sit on one stool, put my foot up on another, and lower an icepack onto my ankle. Then something occurs to me. It’s the middle of a school day. And yesterday, when I found the branches and footprints, it was during school hours as well. I’m not so sure anymore that it’s kids tearing up my property. Of course, I know that most adults are at work right now, but I think it’s more likely for grownups to be running around at this time than children. Hell, I’m an adult, and my schedule’s wide open.

I fire up my laptop and scour the local news sites for reports of vandalism in my neighborhood. All I find are bulletins about grocery store produce that’s contaminated with E. coli, human interest stories about local veterans starting their own social groups, and warnings about over-treating dogs for fleas. I scoff. I don’t know if Tootsie’s ever been clear of fleas for more than a week at a time. That’s just how it is down here. I take another bump and fix myself a gin and tonic.

Marta checks in. I tell her about the new developments.

“And Tootsie’s still out there?”

“Sure is,” I cluck.

“Oh.”

“Look, I don’t mean to worry you, honey. Actually, I’m glad you’re not here for all this. God only knows what’s going on. But I need to put an end to it before you get back, so don’t go booking any plane tickets. And don’t worry about Toots. My ankle’s actually feeling a little better, and I’m about to head out there with her water bowl.”

“John, you’re rambling. Are you on something?”

I emit a startled croak.

“I knew it. I just knew that as soon as I left, you’d throw all the positive changes we’ve made right out the window. You promised me we’d party on Saturday nights only, John.”

“Baby, relax, I’m just having a little Bombay and—”

“Oh, I already know exactly what you’re up to. First, it’s ‘just a drink.’ But in a few hours, you’ll be downstairs helping yourself to some pot. Then you’ll be blasting through the coke like there’s no tomorrow. You have no idea what the word ‘moderation’ means.”

I can’t help but laugh. My angry girlfriend’s got the sequence of events all wrong. I’m pretty sure I started out with pot, then I got into the coke, and I brought up the rear with booze.

Marta hangs up.

I stare at my phone incredulously. But I’m not mad. I bring my dog some water, then return to the kitchen and top off my drink with gin and lime juice. Five minutes later, Tootsie’s frantic barking sends me clambering outside. When I get to her, her front paws are up on the back gate. Apparently, someone’s jumped off the far side of the garage. And I can hear them. I can hear their feet pounding across the sunbaked ground behind my property. Yet I see nothing.

I squint in the blazing sun, mouth agape. “What in the fucking fuck?” My words are completely inaudible due to the racket of my bloodhound straining against the fence, sounding off in spectacular fashion.

Eventually, we go back in the house. I clean and oil my favorite guns: an AR-15 (overkill, I know, but you can never be too intimidating) and an HK VP9 (yeah, it pinches sometimes, but that’s only when I forget to mind my grip). I thread the U of the lock back through my gun locker, but I don’t click it shut. I may need quick access to my steel babies.

Nightfall brings with it Joe Olson.

“What happened, man? I thought you were gonna turn in early and make up for lost sleep.”

“I was, but… I need more weed.”

“What? What happened to the half-ounce I gave you?”

“I gave it to Rory. She really needed it for spring break with her friends.”

I laugh. “Joe. It’s late May. Spring break for the college kids was two months ago.”

My pal looks down at the floor.

“Hey, man. Don’t worry about it. Have a seat. I’m pulling an all-nighter in case these fucks come back.”

“What fucks?”

I tell Joe what’s been going on.

“What do you mean, you didn’t see who was running? Didn’t you say it was still light out when this happened?”

“Yeah, I heard feet hitting the ground, but there was no one there.”

“Hmm.” Joe smirks and plops down on a stool. “Shit, man, I’ll stay up with you. Put my insomnia to good use.”

I get out the Red Bull and vodka, which I’m hoping will play nice with the joint I made using the remains of my baggie from yesterday. Joe and I shoot the shit just like we used to. Tootsie watches over us with judgement in her eyes. When my ankle starts bothering me again, I make us some coffee with plenty of “sugar.”

“I gotta thank you for the coffee this morning, John. I took mine pretty, uh, sweet.”

We erupt into drunken laughter.

“Here I was, making you decaf so you wouldn’t be up all night, but then I went and gave you the ‘sugar’ jar. That fucking jar’s a big joke around here, cuz me and Marta don’t use cane sugar at all.”

“Why not?”

“It’s bad for you, man.”

Suddenly, my dog lunges at the screen door.

Joe starts, sloshing some of my special brew down the front of his t-shirt. “Holy shit, They’re here!”

“I told you I wasn’t imagining it, man.” I rush into my room for my pistol, then Joe and I follow Tootsie out into the foreboding night.

She goes straight to the garage and bays with urgency. When I finally get her to shut up, I can hear a rustling coming from inside.

Joe tries the door. “Why’s it locked?”

“You know I got two really nice cars in there, man.”

“Christ, so that’s what all this is about. Someone’s after your cars. I bet they’ve been casing the place all week. Then when you finally coulda caught them, you were so fucked up you couldn’t see straight.”

“I was not fucked up.”

Suddenly, we’re awash in the jolting glare of the house’s floodlights. Joe and I turn to behold my girlfriend swiftly approaching us.

Marta?”

“Who else?” she replies tightly.

“I told you not to come.”

“Yup, you sure did. And now I can see exactly why. Just look at you two!” Marta turns her icy gaze to my friend. “Hello, Joe. The kitchen looks like a time machine to five years ago. There’re cans of Red Bull and rolling papers all over the place, and the sugar jar’s damn near empty.” She looks back at me. “God help you, John, if you two had that prepubescent whore and her friends in there.”

“Rory’s a legal adult,” Joe says dumbly.

“Me and Joe were just waiting for the trespassers to come back, honey.” I drop my voice to a whisper, “They’re in the garage right now. Must’ve slithered in through the broken window.”

Without a word, Marta sifts through her keys and unlocks the door. I step in front of her, gun in hand, and flip on the lights. Tootsie nudges past me and bellows up at two raccoons that are cowering in a shelving unit.

Marta turns on her heel and storms back into the house. Inside, I find her standing at the sink with her back toward me.

“Marta, please, baby. There were no girls in here, okay? It was just me and Joe.”

“Just you and Joe, partying so goddamn hard that you got to being paranoid that someone broke into the garage. Who knows if anything you’ve been telling me the last few days is even true.”

“Look, I know the raccoon thing is making this look a certain way, but, Marta, I was sober as a judge when all this started.”

“I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. When Tootsie comes back inside, she can sleep with me. But not you.”

I pass out on the couch until about noon, when I’m jarred awake by the loud crash of the metal garbage cans that I keep in the yard for Tootsie’s poop and my grill ashes. I totter out back as fast as my tender ankle will take me. The cans and their contents are splayed across my manicured grass.

“Son of a—”

The flow of my outrage is stopped by the most bizarre sight. There’s a hole in the shape of a hand in one of the cans. When I touch it, I discover that it’s not a hole at all. The garbage can is perfectly intact, though it’s been stamped with some sort of paint. I inspect my fingers, which, astoundingly, look like they’ve been cut off.

I rush back into the house to show Marta the proof that something crazy really is going on, but I can’t find her anywhere. She probably left before I got up.

I call Joe and we spend forty-five minutes marveling at the handprint and my invisible digits. Tootsie sniffs around diligently. Afternoon rain drives us all back indoors. Joe and I make ourselves drinks and wait at the window, revitalized in our efforts. Now we know exactly what to look out for: branches moving, grass flattening, mysterious “holes,” and footprints that appear as if by magic.

“This is some crazy shit.” The ice in Joe’s glass rattles as he speaks excitedly. “Whoever has access to paint like this means business. They’re probably after every last thing you got. The cars, the drugs, the money. We better get strapped.”

This is when I discover that my HK VP9, as well as all my other guns, are gone.

“You think maybe Marta hid them?” Joe asks. “As a revenge thing? She sure was angry last night.”

“Marta hates guns and wouldn’t touch one, let alone move them all. No, it’s obvious that those invisible fucks were in here.” I kick my dresser. “God damn it. God damn it. They know I can’t go to the police.”

“Hey, man. I’ll go back to my place and get my gun. It’s just an old rifle, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Barely,” I quip, but I guess he’s right.

I spend the next half hour spooked that now—when I’m totally alone and unarmed—is the time they’ll strike, using my own firepower against me. I nearly jump out of my skin when the doorbell rings. I peek out the window and see a man who’s a little older than I am waiting patiently.

Tootsie’s going ballistic, so I put her in my bedroom. I open the front door, and when the man moves, I can tell that he’s carrying something in his hand. It’s clearly been painted with the same substance that I’d found on the garbage can. It has an iridescent sheen that gives away its shape: a long duffle bag.

“Hello, sir.” The stranger shakes my hand. “Name’s Jasper Wade. I believe I have something that belongs to you.”

I step aside and allow Jasper in. He lowers his burden to the floor, and a metallic thud reveals what the bag contains.

“My guns.”

“Yep. You really should keep them locked up.”

“I usually do, but… I needed to be able to get at them quickly. There’s been a prowler around here. Actually, I think it’s two prowlers working together.”

“It’s a group.” Jasper sighs wearily, takes a wide stance, and crosses his arms. “I got home early from work just now and found ’em all in my bathrooms, trying to get cleaned up so I wouldn’t know they were in my equipment again.”

“They’ve been in your house, too? Multiple times? What equipment? You say there’re more than two.”

“It’s my son and his friends. They use my cloaking spray for their little hide-and-seek games. Too bad one of ’em was dumb enough to bring the spray can out for touch-ups, then didn’t wait for it to dry…. He’s the genius that made a telltale mess on your trashcan. Yeah, they told me the whole story. It was like they were proud. God damn millennials, man. They live at home, they don’t have jobs, and before you know it, they’re criminals and they can’t even admit it to themselves.” Jasper looks at me like we’re old buddies. “They wanna feel like soldiers, you know? Dangerous and stealth. They wanna play at being hot shit, like me and the other dads were, but they don’t wanna actually enlist. Don’t wanna serve their country. They just wanna waltz into people’s homes and steal shit.”

“What do you mean, hot shit like you and the other dads?”

“We’re vets. Went on tour and lived to tell about it,” Jasper explains. “We started a group, you know, so we can stay connected. We do stuff to improve the community. We have barbeques where all our families get together. But I’ll be honest: Those barbeques are the worst thing we ever did. My son became fast friends with the other guys’ sons, and this is what the fuckers decide to do with their time.”

“So you have spray that… makes things invisible?”

“Not invisible. But damn near. They call it ‘cloaked.’ It bends the light around you or something like that. I don’t know. It’s a whole thing.”

“Interesting.” I couldn’t care less about Jasper’s delinquent son and what the kid’s put me through the last few days. Instead, my mind races with the opportunities that I could create for myself if I had cloaking spray. “Well, thanks for bringing my guns back, man. A lot of people wouldn’t’ve done that. The least I can do is set you up with a cold one.”

“Well, it’s a little early for that, but hell, why not? It’s been a rough day.”

Jasper and I sit at the island with frosty bottles of beer. I won’t offer him a joint or my special brew until we know each other a little better.

When Joe bangs through the back door, I’m surprised that I’d left it unlocked. Jasper doesn’t bat an eye at the tired rifle in Joe’s hands. I can tell that we’re all gonna be good, good friends.