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.

The Old House by Frank Kozusko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goodnight, … Irene.

Goodnight, …Irene.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never drove down that street again.

The Absolution by Leila Allison

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“Is it fair?”

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

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

What I Won’t Be Saying Come Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

The Stuff I Should Say Come Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight for Me by L.T. Ward

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

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

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

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

“Blow!” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My new self.

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

“Geoffrey?” asks Brian.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sweetie, you need to be pragmatic.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

“What’s for dinner?” whines Abigail.

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

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

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

“How was your day?” I say.

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

“Yep,” I reply.

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

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

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

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

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

Him: Fine.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Seamus. A songwriter I mutually followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Accepted.

Accepted!

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

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

“Mom’s got her first singing job.”

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

“What? No,” I say.

“Pfft,” says my baby.

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

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

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

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

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

My phone dings. Brian: Congrats!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“But…”

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

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

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

“It’s all my fault,” Mom says.

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

“Mommy,” whines Abigail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the hits keep coming.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several moments pass before he answers.

It is. Congrats.

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

I hit Send.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight for me. Fight for them.

Assumptions by James Mulhern

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

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

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

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

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

Her story goes something like this:

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

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

“Not really.”

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

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

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

“Cure for what?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Extinction by Geoffrey Enright

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH MY GOD!

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

The Albino Kangaroo by Steve Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

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

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

“Yes, they’re rare.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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.

Keep Calm and Carry On by James Mulhern

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My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her. She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt. 

“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror. That’s much better, don’t you think?” 

I touched my scalp. “It hurts.” 

“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind. Now she’s in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous.  

I smelled coffee on her breath. There were blackheads on her nose. She pinched my cheeks. 

I reflexively pushed her hands away. 

“Life is full of pain, sweetheart. And I don’t mean just the physical kind.” She took a cigarette from her case on the back of the toilet, lit it, and inhaled. “You’ll be hurt a lot, but you got to carry on. You know what the British people used to say when the Germans bombed London during World War II?” 

“No.” 

“Keep calm and carry on.” She hit my backside. “Now run along and put some clothes on.” I was wearing just my underwear and t-shirt. “We have a busy day.” 

I dressed in the blue jeans and a yellow short-sleeve shirt she had bought me. She stood in front of the mirror by the front door of the living room, holding a picture of my mother. She kissed the glass and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Then she looked at herself in the mirror and arranged her pearl necklace, put on bright red lipstick, and fingered her gray hair, trying to hide a thinning spot at the top of her forehead.  

She turned and smoothed her green cotton dress, glancing at herself from behind. “Not bad for an old broad.” She looked me over. “Come here.” She tucked my shirt in, licked her hand, and smoothed my hair. “You’d think I never brushed it.” 

Just as she opened the front door she said, “Hold on,” and went to the kitchen counter to put her hand in a glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty single dollar bills. 

“Here. Give this money to the kiddos next door.” 

When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. They were playing on their swing set in the fenced-in yard. In front of the broken-down house was a yard of weeds. A rusted bicycle with no wheels lay on the ground. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. Her brother stood, arms folded, in the background. He had a mean look on his face and spit. 

“This is for you,” I said, shoving the money through the chain links. The girl reached out to grab it, but most of the bills fell onto the dirt. 

“Thank you,” she said. 

As I walked away, her brother yelled, “We don’t need no charity from you.” 

I opened the door of my grandmother’s blue Plymouth; she had the air conditioning blasting and it was already full of cigarette smoke. 

She crossed herself. “Say it with me. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ” 

I repeated the words with her and we drove to her friend Margie’s house, not more than ten minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at me. She always wore the same navy-blue sweater, and was constantly picking white cat hairs off her clothes, while talking about the latest sermon, God, or the devil.  

Nanna told me when they were young girls, their classmates made fun of her. 

“Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, and cats, and mothballs. 

“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent over to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!” 

“Don’t worry. I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He hissed. 

“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the front door? We go through this every time.” My grandmother pushed past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hot as hell out there.” 

Margie placed a tray of ham sandwiches, along with cheese and crackers on the round grey Formica table. I liked her wallpaper—white with the red outlines of trains. Her husband had been a conductor. He died when he got squished between two train cars. 

“I don’t know how I feel about all those miracles Father Tom was going on about.” Margie placed a sandwich on a plate for me with some chips. “What ya want to drink, Aiden? I got nice lemonade.” Her two front teeth were red from where her lipstick had smudged. And as usual she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where the cat sat all the time. 

“That sounds good.” 

She smiled. “Always such a nice boy. Polite. You’ll never have any trouble with this one. Not like you did with Lorraine.” 

“I hate when you call her that.” 

“That’s her name ain’t it?” She poured my grandmother and me lemonade and sat down with a huff. 

“That was my mother’s name, her formal name. I’ve told you a thousand times to call her Laura.” 

“What the hell difference does it make?” Margie bit into her sandwich and rolled her eyes at me. 

“Makes a lot of difference. My mother was a crackpot. I named my daughter Lorraine to be nice.” 

“Well, Laura is . . .” I knew Margie was going to say that my mother was a crackpot, too. 

“Laura is what?” My grandmother put her sandwich down and leaned into Margie. 

“Is a nice girl. She’s got problems, but don’t we all.” She reached out and clasped my hand. “Right, Aiden?” 

“Yes, Margie.” 

My grandmother rubbed her neck and spoke softly. “Nobody’s perfect. Laura’s getting better. She’s just got a few psychological issues. And the new meds they have her on seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being. And that’s what’s most important. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? My Laura has always been different. One of the happiest people I ever met.”  

Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you gotta use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal. 

“Yes, I gotta pee.” 

“Well, you don’t have to get so detailed,” she said. “Just go.” 

Margie laughed hard and farted.  

I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The old banister was dusty. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. I bent down and picked one up to examine it, then rubbed my pants.  

Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of her dresser. I took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. There was also a couple of pretty rings—one a large red stone, the other a blue one. These and a gold necklace with a cross I shoved into my pockets. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. I messed up the towel a bit so it looked like I dried my hands in it. 

 
When I entered the kitchen they were still talking about miracles. 

My grandmother passed our plates to Margie who had filled the sink with sudsy water. 

“Of course there was raising Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then the healing of the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too,” she said raising her hand and splashing my grandmother. 

“Let’s not forget about the fish. And the water into wine,” my grandmother said. 

Margie shook her head. “I don’t know Catherine.” She looked down. “It’s hard to believe that Jesus could have done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?”  

I imagined a fish jumping into her face from the water in the sink. 

My grandmother smiled at me. “Of course there are miracles today. As a matter of fact, I’m taking Aiden to that priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s gonna be cured, aren’t you, honey?” 

“Cured of what?” Margie said. 

“Oh he’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest is gonna take care of all that.” 

“Leukemia! Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, honey.” She motioned for me to go to the table. “We’re almost done here.” 

“You gotta take him to a good doctor,” she whispered to my grandmother, as if I couldn’t hear. 

“I know that. I’m not dumb. God will take care of everything.” 

We said our goodbyes and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets while she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook. Her eyes lit up. 

“Perfect. She isn’t lookin’, is she?”  

I glanced at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap. 

“Now put those in here.” She nodded towards her bag, and I did. 

When we were about to turn onto Tremont Street where the church was, I remembered the gold necklace and cross. I pulled it out of my back pocket and my grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.”  

In a moment, there was a police car pulling us over. 

“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said, as we moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and put her window down. 

“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” The policeman was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes. 

“I know officer. I was just saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross. I got distracted. I’m very sorry.” 

He leaned into the car.  

I smiled. 

“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?” 

“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.” 

“And he certainly did.” She patted my knee and smiling at the police officer. 

“It’s a good thing no cars were coming. You could have been hurt,” he said. “That’s a beautiful cross,” he added. 

My grandmother began to cry. “Isn’t it though?” She sniffled. 

The officer placed his hand firmly on the edge of the window. “Consider this a warning. You can go. I’d put that cross away.” 

“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.” 

The police officer waited for us to drive away. I turned and looked. He waved. 

“Are you sad, Nanna?” 

“Don’t be silly.” She waved her hand. “That was just an act.” 

I laughed and she did, too. 

We parked. “I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over 100-years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. Experts say it’s priceless. I’m thinking if I have your mother drink from it, she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me. 

I looked away, towards the church where an old man was helping a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?” 

“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing it for a little while to help your mother. I think God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.” 

We entered Mission church. It smelled of shellac, incense, perfume, and old people. It was hard to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the twelve or so Stations of the Cross. 

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of an old lady, who looked bewildered.  

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered kindly, smiling down at me. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt. 

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. We have to help a sick neighbor after this. I just want my grandson to get a cure.” 

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who was standing at the altar. He prayed over people then lightly touched them. They fell backwards into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and blue ties. 

“Aiden has leukemia.” 

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, sweetie.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced. 

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?” 

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?” 

I was confused. 

“He’s asking you about your illness, Aiden.” 

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly. 

The priest chanted some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest.  

I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me. 

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered irritably. Then she said extra softly, “Remember our plan.” 

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guy. He toppled over as well. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt bad. “Ow. My head is killing me.”  

Several people gathered around us.  

My grandmother yelled “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus on the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” Then she crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my moaning and fake crying. 

“He’ll be okay.” She put her arm under mine and helped the others pull me up.  

When I was standing, she said to the priest, “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh.” 

“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.  

The priest stared in confusion.  

The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed. 

When we were in front of Rita’s house, our last stop before home, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.” 

She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She opened the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those places are. Somewhere in the Middle East… And a tribulation is a problem.” 

“Oh.” 

After ringing the doorbell a couple times we opened the door. We found Rita passed out on the couch. 

My grandmother took an ice cube from the freezer and held it against her forehead.  

Rita sat bolt upright. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You scared the bejeezus out of me.” She was wearing a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in curlers. “Oh, Aiden. I didn’t see you there.” She got up and kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol. 

“So do you think you can help me out?” my grandmother asked. Rita looked at me. 

“Of course I can.” 

“Just pull me up and I’ll get my checkbook.” I suddenly realized all my grandmother’s friends were fat. 

At the kitchen table, Rita said, “Should I make it out to the hospital?” 

“Oh, no. Make it out to me. I’ve opened a bank account to pay for his medical expenses.” 

“Will five thousand do for now?” Rita was rich. Her husband was a “real estate tycoon” my grandmother was always saying. He dropped dead shoveling snow a few years back. 

“That’s so generous of you.” My grandmother cried again. More fake tears, I thought. 

We had tea and chocolate chip cookies. Rita asked how my mother was doing. My grandmother said “fine” and looked away, wringing her hands. Then she started talking about the soap operas that they watched. My grandmother loved Erica from All My Children. Said she was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and admired that very much. Rita said she thought Erica was a bitch. 

When we were home, listening to talk radio in the living room, I asked my grandmother if she believed in miracles, like the ones she talked about earlier in the day with Margie. 

“Sure, sure,” she said, not looking up. She was taking the jewelry and chalice out of her bag and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight streaming through the bay window.  

“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.” 

She put the items back in her handbag and stared at me. “Of course I am.” 

“Well do you think I’ll have a miracle and be cured of leukemia?” 

“Aiden.” She laughed. “You haven’t got leukemia. You’re as healthy as a horse, silly.” 

“But you told everybody I was sick.” 

“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.” 

“What does that mean?” 

“Make people feel bad so we can get things from them. I need money to take care of you, Aiden.” She spoke hesitantly and looked down, like she was ashamed. “I’m broke. Your grandfather left me with nothing and I gotta pay for your mother’s medical expenses. If Margie notices her jewelry gone, maybe she’ll think you took it to help your Nanna. I told her I was having a problem paying your hospital bills. 

“Sorta like a tribulation, right?” 

“Exactly, sweetheart.” 

“Is my mother a tribulation?” 

This time my grandmother’s tears were real. They gushed like water from that rock in the Middle East. I knelt before her and put my head in her lap. She hugged me, bent down and kissed my face several times. Then she looked out the window. It seemed the tears would never stop. 

“Don’t worry, Nanna. I believe in miracles, too. Someday Mom will come home from the hospital.” 

And we stayed like that until the sunbeams dimmed and the dust disappeared and her tears stopped.  

In the quiet of the room, she whispered, “Keep calm and carry on” to me or to herself. Or to both of us. 

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews,including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, anda Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.