Winning stories 2017

 

 

 

 

1. Trading for Diamonds by Julie Wise-Andrews

 

 

Scottsdale, Arizona 1989

 

I’m pretty sure I’m in trouble when I see Dad’s black Suburban pull up in the church parking lot. Mom sits next to him in the passenger’s seat. Dad never picks me up from anything. I can see that their faces are serious as I walk up to the car.
    “Both of them? We’re in trouble,” Mandy says, echoing my thoughts as she flips her blond hair out of her coat collar with a perfectly manicured hand. “They must have already called our parents. So stupid.” 
Our youth group leaders are keeping their distance from us over by the church van. The ride home from the ski mountain was colder than snow. None of the other youth group kids would talk to us. We weren’t allowed to ride back to Scottsdale in the other van with the guys, which is fine with me. I’m pretty angry that Matthew and Duncan didn’t get in trouble. Nobody wants to mess with Duncan. His mom is the mayor of Scottsdale, and their family is one of the biggest donors to the church. The group leaders searched our room instead and found Mandy’s tequila. If they had gone through Matthew’s room, they would have found the epic stash of weed the boys were smoking on the ski lifts all weekend. 
Dad gets out of the car and takes my skis from me. He loads them into the back of the Suburban. I hand him my bag and my boots, and after he sets them down, he turns and hugs me tight. Something is definitely up. I don’t think Dad has hugged me since I turned thirteen two years ago. 
 “Get in the truck, honey,” he says. “We’ll talk on the way home.” 
Mom clears her throat after Dad pulls out of the church parking lot. “We need to tell you something. There isn’t an easy way to say it, so I’m just going to tell you. Royce died this weekend.” 
I laugh. Royce is my best friend Traci’s stepdad. “No way. I just saw him the other morning. He drove us to school. He was joking with us.” 
Why would Mom say such stupid words that can’t be true? 
Royce didn’t come home last night. Mom thinks he’s going to kill himself. That’s what Traci said on Friday morning. It was so out of the blue, I laughed, just like now. Traci laughed too. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day, and then I left for the ski trip. I forgot until now. 
 I feel punched in the stomach. 
“Did he kill himself?” I ask. The words are surreal coming out of my mouth. 
Mom takes a sharp breath. “Yes. How did you know that?” 
“That’s what Traci’s mom said when he didn’t come home on Thursday night. We thought it was a joke. They always fight when Royce tells Deb she can’t have something she wants.” I stare out the window as we drive up Tatum Boulevard. It’s dark now, and light shines out of the tall windows of mansions on the rocky slopes of Camelback Mountain. We’re silent for a few minutes. “How?” 
“What?”
“How’d he do it?” I ask. 
“He…” Mom stops. 
“How?” I can feel Mom weighing how much to tell me. 
“With a gun,” Dad says, glancing over his shoulder at me in the backseat. 
“In their house?” I don’t know why it matters. 
“No. In the desert. After he dropped you girls off at school on Thursday.”
Thursday. I was tired that morning. When Royce pulled up to our house in their green Cadillac, Traci was sitting in the front seat. The shotgun seat. 
I’m shaking. I’m not cold, so it doesn’t make sense that I’m shaking like this. I look at the back of my hand. The streetlights shine on my skin through the window. Then darkness, then light again, a pattern back and forth almost like stripes, faster when Dad speeds up, slowing when he brakes to stop at a red light. 
“Are you all right?” Mom asks. 
“I’m fine.” I don’t know what I am. Dad’s profile shines in the light of the oncoming cars. My dad is here. He isn’t dead. Traci’s dad is dead. I guess I’m not in trouble for the tequila-boys-ski-trip situation. My stomach turns. I grab onto the handle on the door. 
“Can I call Traci? Is it okay to talk to her?”
“We can take you over there. Jessica is over at her house right now. She’s been there most of the weekend.” 
Of course she is. The three of us are always together. Church youth group is the only time when I do stuff without my best friends. Jess and Traci aren’t into church. 
“I guess we should go,” I say.
Royce. The only Dad Traci has ever known. Tall, always smiling. Dead. 
You girls are quiet this morning. That’s what he said, driving us to school.
When we pull up to Traci’s house, her circular driveway is filled with cars. It looks like every light is on in the house. 
“Will you come in with me?” I ask my parents. 
“Sure,” Mom answers. “We were here most of the morning.” 
“It’s a circus in there,” Dad mutters under his breath as he climbs out of the car. We moved to Scottsdale three years ago from Minnesota. My dad thinks everything is a circus. The flash of the nouveau riche offends his Midwestern sensibilities.
Besides, it’s always a circus at Traci’s house. Her sister Jamie is the president of the senior class and a member of our high school sorority. There’s always crazy stuff going on, like kids building the Homecoming float on the Landry’s tennis court in the backyard or hot football players eating Royce’s BBQ by the pool.
Their mom, Deb, is gorgeous but crazy, a total climber, and she’s making sure her daughters grow up in the center of everything. She grew up on a reservation somewhere, but when she was a teenager, she ran away to California and married Jamie and Traci’s real dad who made her into a model. He disappeared after Traci was born, and Deb married Royce who’s richer than God and spoils everyone rotten. Spoiled, I guess. Past tense now.
Dad doesn’t even ring the bell when we get to the front door. We walk into their large, circular foyer. Tons of framed family pictures sit on the round marble table in the center of the domed room. I can see into the great room filled with people I don’t know. Food is everywhere, and everyone holds a glass of wine or some other drink. It looks like a party except there isn’t any music, and no one is smiling. Mom leads me in by the arm. 
“The girls are probably up in Traci’s room. That’s where they were most of this morning,” she says. “Go ahead. I’ll tell Deb that you’re here.”
I’m heading up the stairs when a shriek splits the silence. Deb comes stumbling into the room dressed in a long black velvet dress. Her face is hidden behind huge black sunglasses even though it’s nighttime.  She walks like she’s drunk, and she bumps into the table with all the pictures. When one of the frames falls over, she picks it up and holds the picture of Reid up to her face. Then she throws the picture to the floor, crying.
“Fuck you, Royce,” Deb slurs as she cries. She falls into the wall. A bunch of people help her into a chair. 
Dad was right. This is a circus. 
“She’s been like that since the police came on Friday and told her. She’s taking fifty pills a day,” Jessica says from the top of the stairs. “Come on. Traci’s up here.”
“Is Traci like that?” I ask as I follow her down the familiar white-carpeted hallway. 
“No. She’s sad like a normal person,” Jess answers. “Sorry. Is that bitchy?”     “I don’t know,” I answer. “I don’t know anything at all.”
When we walk in the room, Traci is sitting on the floor by her stereo. Albums are scattered around her.
“Hi,” I say, standing stupidly near the door. 
“Hi. I’m supposed to be picking out music for the memorial service. How about this one?” Traci says, holding up AC/DC’s Highway to Hell album. “Just kidding.” 
I walk over to her and sit on the floor. “I’m so sorry about Royce. Are you ok?” 
As soon as I say his name, her face crumples into sobs. I grab her and pull her into me. Jess sits next to us and puts her arms around both of us as we all cry. “I’m sorry, Traci. I’m so sorry. What can I do?” I rush out the words through tears. 
“No one can do anything,” she says. “I just don’t understand. I don’t understand.” 
We sit like that for a long time, hugging and crying. Traci pulls away first and dries her eyes on the sleeve of her pink cashmere sweater. “I don’t know where all the tears come from. You’d think I’d run out.” 
“I don’t think it works like that,” Jessica says. 
“No, it doesn’t,” Traci turns to me. “How was the ski trip? Did you hook up with Matthew?” 
“No, Mandy and I got busted with tequila.” I look into her face. Her eyes are red and swollen, but she’s beautiful, my sweet friend. Carat diamond earrings sparkle from her ears. Royce gave her those earrings for Christmas this year. I was so jealous. “We really don’t have to talk about my ski trip, Traci.”
“I’d rather talk about your ski trip than my dead dad.”
Traci had so many presents under her tree this year, each wrapped professionally with rich-looking paper and big velvet bows. Later, Traci told me that most of those wrapped boxes were empty. Deb wanted to make sure it looked like they were all getting everything they wanted and more.
Have a good day. See you tonight, honey. 
Those were his last words as we got out of the car. 
What a liar.

 

***
    

Mom makes me breakfast the next morning. She doesn’t ask me about the ski trip, which is rare. Mom always wants to know everything about me: where I go, whom I’m with, when I’ll be home. She’s not like Jessica’s mom who throws money at her to make her go away. I have to really work to pull off as much crazy shit as I do.  
    “Traci’s going to be living with us for the next couple weeks,” Mom says as she puts pancakes onto my plate and sets the syrup on the table.
     “Because Deb’s such a mess?” I ask. “I’m surprised Deb doesn’t hire someone. Can’t she buy someone to manage her kids? She buys everything else.”
    “Don’t be rude, Julie,” my mom warns. “That family is going through the most awful thing I can imagine.” Mom clears her throat like she always does when she has to say something unpleasant. “There isn’t any money. They’re broke except for the insurance money, and there’s a chance they won’t get that either.” 
     “What? You’re crazy, Mom. How can they be broke? They have everything.” 
    Except Royce. 
    Mom makes herself busy around the kitchen island. “They don’t have anything, actually. The house and the cars will be gone by the end of the week. Most everything was paid for with credit that can’t be paid off.” She stops moving and leans back against the fridge. “Not everything is how it seems. You should learn that.”
The house with the tennis courts. The Laura Ashley dresses. Vacations and toys, manicures and spa days. All the things that made me feel bad for how much I wanted my parents to be cool like hers.
Mom continues. “And Royce thought that his family cared more about having the insurance money than having him alive. That’s the most tragic thing I can imagine, Julie. Think about that when you’re bugging me for new skis and diamond earrings.”

 

***

 

A week later, I hold onto Jessica’s arm as we walk down the aisle. Matthew, Duncan, and the rest of the guys are sitting behind us wearing black suits and black Vans. Most of the school is here. Traci and Jamie sit with Deb and the extended family in the front pew. Deb’s crying hard, but nothing can smudge the permanent makeup that is tattooed on her eyes. Mom and Dad, solid and serious, hold hands a few rows in front of me. Reverend Stanley waits near the pulpit. The sunlight shines through the stained glass and casts strange colors on the white cloth draped over the closed casket.
     When the service is over, I watch Traci’s face as she walks down the long aisle holding onto her sister’s arm. I can usually read her mind, but I have no idea what she’s going through now. She’s tough one moment, even laughing. Then, she’s on the floor, crying in my closet. She hasn’t been back to school yet. 
The service at the gravesite is a blurred, mind-numbing mess of tears and too-bright sunshine and hugs. Then, hundreds of people drive to Traci’s house for one last party before the bank takes everything on Monday. The sun sets over the city view that stretches out past the back yard. Someone hired caterers who set up long tables of food outside, and a uniformed bartender stands behind the makeshift bar on the patio. People eat and drink and laugh too loudly. Matthew goes to get us some drinks. I wander through the house, looking at more pictures of Royce that sit next to lit candles on every flat surface. 
Jessica puts her arm around me, and she picks up a picture frame. In this one, Deb and Royce stand with Jamie and Traci in front of the Eiffel Tower. Jamie’s sweet sixteen. She took friends to Paris for her birthday. Traci’s been planning to bring me and Jessica when it’s her turn next year. Jessica and I hug and cry until the shoulder of my silk party dress is soaked with her tears. Matthew comes up behind us with tears in his eyes too.
“Get a room, you two,” he tries to joke. We wipe our eyes, and he bear-hugs us. 
“Check out the party,” Matthew says, staring outside as half of the high school and their parents mingle around the back yard, looking out of the city lights. “Cheers, Royce,” he says, downing his spiked drink in one gulp and grimacing. 
“I’ve got to get out of here,” I say. I look across the yard to where Deb is holding onto Traci to stay standing. Traci looks down at her shoes as her mom points a long red fingernail in her face, berating her about something I can’t hear. “And we’ve got to get Traci away from her mom. She’s totally out of control.”
“Michael’s old place,” Matthew says. Michael is our buddy, and his house is just down the mountain. We all nod. “I’ll get the others.”
A few minutes later, I’m in Matt’s truck. Michael follows us with Traci, Jessica, and Duncan. We park down the street in the shadows of tall, old trees. Michael’s house isn’t really Michaels’s house anymore. His parents sold it a few months ago when they went bankrupt and had to move into an apartment. No one else has moved in yet, though.
“Is this a good idea?” I ask.
“Probably not,” he answers. “But screw it.” He grabs a plastic bag out of the dash and tucks it into the inner pocket of his dark suit. He waits as I climb out of his truck, and we walk across the shadowy street, my tall heels clicking on the uneven pavement. We’re all quiet until we walk through the side gate into the grass. I slip my shoes off and feel the cool yard under my feet. The only light is the moon. Matthew takes a swig out of the bourbon.
“Did you steal that bottle from my house?” Traci asks. 
“Yes. Yes I did,” he answers solemnly. “I didn’t think your mom would miss it.”
“Please. I doubt she’s missed me yet,” Traci says. She reaches for the bottle. 
She passes it to me, and I take a big swallow. Lying on the grass, whiskey burning my mouth and a cigarette in my hand, I feel like I’m breathing for the first time in a week. No more standing around in the crazy-town of Traci’s house. No more stained-glass churches. Just cool desert wind that feels cold on my skin as lightning flashes against the mountain. The wind picks up, and I smell wet mesquite in the desert air. A winter storm is coming over the mountain. 
Traci is crying. Michael and Jessica sit on either side of her. She leans her head on Jessica’s shoulder. I’m crying too.
“What do you think happens when we die?” Traci asks. “Do you think we go somewhere? Or do we just stop?”
“What do you mean? Like heaven?” I ask, wiping my face with my hand. 
“Or hell,” Matthew says. I punch him in the arm behind Traci’s back. She doesn’t need to think about places like hell. 
“Heaven? I don’t know. Maybe. I hope so,” Jessica says.
“If there’s a heaven, do you think that Royce’s invited?” Traci asks. Her voice is small and shaky. 
“If there’s a heaven, do you think any of us are invited?” I ask, trying to make things lighter. 
Matthew thinks for a second, and then, he answers. “Yeah, I think so, Julie. We’ve fucked up, for sure. But we’re kids, you know? It’s a long life.” 
“Or maybe it isn’t,” I answer. 
“Or maybe it isn’t,” he echoes. Matthew leans closer to me and whispers. “But it’s not our choice. And you sure as hell can’t trade it for diamonds.”

2. This is the life by Madévi Dailly

I think that if I joined the circus, I would get lost and end up traveling somewhere I am not supposed to be at. I'd be standing at a dusty phone box in Marietta, Georgia with the boss in some place like Manassas, Virginia shouting down the line at me. The line would be bad and crackle and spit and I'd have to keep on feeding quarters into it. I would trace my finger down the scratches on the phone box and stare down at the gap in the sole of my shoe where my sock poked out and blame it on the timetable that made no damn sense. I would say things like ‘Yeah, I know, I'm sorry’ and ‘I'll be there, I promise’ but the boss would just shout and tell me to get my ass over there pronto or he'd give my job to somebody who actually wants it. The line would go dead but there'd be peach trees everywhere, big flowers smelling of summer and fat bees buzzing around them, scaring little children who would scream and run to hide in their mothers' skirts. It'd be a beautiful day in Marietta, Georgia and I could think about staying there for a week or two. There'd be a girl there who had a sweet smile and she could introduce me to her folks who run the grocery store and they could take me in for a while. I'd sleep in the attic and do odd jobs round the place and at night the girl and I would sit on the porch and count fireflies. We'd sip soda in cold glass bottles that we'd sneak from the grocery store and talk about the fine things in life like our dreams and aspirations. She would hold my hand right there on the porch and it would be small and warm around mine. She'd want to be a nurse or a schoolteacher and I'd want to join the circus but I would have blown it.

It would be a lot easier for me, I tell you, if I could travel by circus train if there is such a thing. The train could stop to pick me up in Marietta, Georgia on the way to Virginia. There'd be steam and loud whistles on the platform. I'd wish my loved ones would be there to hold me tight and say ‘Take good care of yourself you hear’ and ‘Don't forget to eat your greens’ and make me promise to write home even though no one really does that anymore. I’d wish Dad would hang out at the back with his gut out and his vague eyes and Momma would kiss me hard on both cheeks. The circus people would smirk at me through the windows of the train but I'd have to let her, or she'd make a face like she was angry at me.

 

But there would be no one there for me, just me on the endless platform. The train would be painted dark green on the outside with big gold letters that said "CIRCUS FANTASTICO”. I'd walk past dark, musky cars for the animals and climb onto he train without looking back. I'd have an old suitcase with a gash taped up on one side and not much inside of it. I'd put it down on the thin dirty carpet and flop down on the bunk with my hands under my head and think ‘This is the life’. The train would roll away with all those hands waving on the platform. Then my bunkmate would come in and tell me to get the hell out of his bunk and I would move because he'd have a moustache and a shaved head and arms that bulged out of his vest. But he'd be OK and after a while he'd call me ‘kid’. At night I'd lie awake staring out the window watching the beat of lights in empty stations passing us in the dark. Sometimes I'd think about the girl in Marietta, Georgia but there'd be nothing to do about it so I'd roll over and try to get some sleep.

 

I probably need to start thinking about an act because I don't want to be the guy who sells popcorn or peanuts or one of the traveling clowns. I want to do something important and dangerous like maybe the trapeze or the tight rope. I wouldn't have a wire because that would get in the way when I tumbled high above the crowd in my costume of feathers and silver. They would twist their necks back and say ‘He's going to fall!’ but their shouts and gasps would fade away in the dark. There would just be me and the rope and the heat of the lamps and the sweat between my fingers and the great empty space below. I would hear the swoosh of skirts in Marietta, Georgia as I pushed the girl higher and higher on a swing beneath the sweet peach tree. There would be the sound of her laughter cutting through the air and her small hands clutched around the ropes and the golden haze of her hair as it spun around her face. Everything would smell of grasses and honeysuckle, when I would be up on that rope, even the crowds and the dirt below.

 

There's nothing wrong with clowns but I don't know if I could make people laugh like that, laugh like they remember that the joke is on them and that they know all the sadness in the world. I guess you have to start somewhere so it would be OK if I was the guy who sells popcorn or peanuts for a while. The children would smile at me and say ‘Thank you, mister’ and maybe I could save the tips to help me pay for my costume. I would like that, ‘mister’, because for a minute I'd forget about my thin arms and the way the trapeze girls never look at me. It'd take a while to sew all the feathers on one by one for my costume so I'd have to be patient about getting up on that high rope.

I've never been in the circus before so I would probably join a small one to begin with. We wouldn't travel far, maybe just up and down the coast in our old green train with chipped gold letters. After a while I'd get sick of the bunk sticking into my shoulders and my ribs and the loud rattle of the cars. People would turn up and disappear in every new town, clowns and acrobats and bearded ladies and trained dogs and soon the howdies and g'nights would start melting into each other and I'd just learn to keep myself to myself. There'd be little fairs in little towns with big stars like THE

LARGEST PIG IN THE COUNTRY or THE BIGGEST PUMPKIN YOU HAVE EVER SEEN and before the show I'd walk around on my own with my hands in my pocket and my collar turned up, wishing I had a scarf. I'd watch the families with their fat smiling faces gone rosy in the cold. I'd watch the kids on the merry go round spinning round and round and up and down in happy oblivion. I'd watch the teenagers pressed against each other behind the tents with their breaths tasting of cotton candy. At night when I'd try to sleep I'd see the bright neon lights of the carnival pulsing against my eyelids and I would hear the pluck pluck pluck of a bass in my ears. I'd smell the acrid stench of beer and burned onions on my skin. The big tent would be small and wet. I'd crawl under the dirty canvas to sit on the wooden benches and taste the salty smell of horses and sawdust and mildew. There'd be one guy, a little person, a dwarf, who'd wear a cape but no shirt and he would eat fire. We'd climb up the ladder and sit on the trapeze and talk about whores and fireflies and drink cheap whisky from a flask. He'd be the closest thing I had to a friend. He would get off the train in the next town and I would never see him again.

 

I'd like the train to take us to the coast because I've never seen the ocean. I'd buy postcards with pictures of piers and Ferris wheels to send back home. We'd stop somewhere out of town and set up on a patch of yellow grass with rusty fencing near the tracks. The highway would arch and fold around us. There'd be the roar of cars and trucks and when the lights went off the tents would just look like broken toys in the corner of a playground. I'd try to tell my folks back home about the smell of horses and the strong man's moustache and the sadness of clowns but when I'd sit down to write I would only think about how bad the food was, how bad the pay was, how grey the ocean was. I'd think about the aches in my arms and the back of my legs and the broken things in my suitcase. I'd walk between the tents stepping on cans and plastic bags and climb over the fence where they keep the animals at night. I'd want to tell my folks about the camel, the stench of piss and shit around its legs, how it would raise its head to look at me in the dark. The camel would stumble up on its dirty legs and push towards me until its long neck reached over the fence. It would just be a shadow straining against that fence with steam coming from its nostrils and spit in its mouth and dark grey eyes opened up to the night. I would warm my hands on its stinking fur and we would stand there in the roar of the cars and trucks from the highway overhead. I'd want to tell my folks back home about the camel but I would never send the postcard and they wouldn’t understand it anyway.

 

The next day I'd know I was done. Luckily I wouldn't have gone that far. I would leave my broken suitcase on the train and walk into the nearby town. There'd be no peach trees, not there in that place with its grey empty streets and its still gardens. I'd forget about the rope, the rope high up above the crowds, I'd forget about the feathers sewn onto my costume one by one and about the camel and the lights, I’d forget about the girl in Marietta, Georgia and I would get on a bus, any bus, and not know where I wanted to go.

 

3. All the horrors of the half known life by Joan Mathieu

 

Like right now, it all comes back to me -- the smell of dead crickets, the sound of Amber’s skull cracking. I remember I’d been thinking a lot about whirlpools that day. You know about whirlpools, right? How some fish linger near the bottom of these water tornadoes and all they have to do is open their mouths and inhale the small fish that get sucked down. Those are the smart fish. Those’re the ones that grow monstrous and haunt your dreams.

They’d issued me a walkie-talkie the size of a brick, and I had the whole day ahead of me, drinking my thermos coffee and watching the pine trees weep resin from their wounds. I had my own wounds. Nineteen years old, working a minimum wage job for the county, and failing in a very public way. I mean everybody I knew came to the park – old teachers, neighbors, camp counselors, and all those rich bitches from high school -- streaming by on their way to the beach. Laughing at me, you know, my ugly brown uniform, clodhoppers, and that stupid walkie-talkie. Being the park gatekeeper was only slightly less demeaning than operating an interstate tollbooth. I felt helpless. I needed to change. I needed to be somebody else.

And then it happened. A truck pulling a bass-fishing boat rolled up to the gatehouse. I stepped up to the window and, even before the driver rolled down the window, I became her. Sarah, my best friend in 5th grade. Sarah, who was pretty and kind and everything I was not. Instead of giving the fisherman his ticket in my typical gloomy silence, I waved and smiled – and it was easy because it wasn’t me, it was Sarah waving and smiling and saying, “Howdy!”

“You’re pretty chipper this morning,” he said.

“Maybe I should switch to decaf.” I sounded just like Sarah – or at least how she’d sound if she wasn’t dead.

The fisherman laughed. He was old, practically toothless and kind of gross, but I kept babbling at him like he was Leonardo DiCaprio. “So, um. Gunna get out there and catch some fish, huh?”

“What give me away?” he said. “The boat and tackle, I guess.”

“I’m pretty sharp like that.” I laughed and twisted my braids -- the way Sarah used to do, except she had golden hair and mine was shit-brown.

“Remind me, you’re a county rez?” I asked him.

“Pulling my leg? You know damn well I’m non-rez – heh heh.” His liver-spotted hand thrust three dollar bills at me. “Here you go, young lady.”

“Gee, thanks. Here’s your ticket. Catch a big one for me, kay?”

“I’ll sure try.”

I gave him a resident day pass, which only cost $2, and pocketed the extra dollar. That’s not what Sarah or, you know, decent people would do, but I needed gas money. I have to say it felt weird getting that fisherman to be so friendly with me. Most people steered clear of my sour face, so being Sarah kind of felt like a superpower.

I sat back down and thumbed through People, mostly looking at the photos, flipping through all the crap about the O.J. Simpson trial. Unlike the rest of the world, I was pretty bored with it all. About 8:30 my boss, Nick Grimsson, showed up, his truck barreling between the

pines. Nick was a Vietnam Nam vet and weirder than shit. He studied the ground when he walked like he was still looking for panji traps and trip boards, always whispering to himself, his red-rimmed eyes flitting up at the tree branches and back down to the ground. If he could help it, he never looked you in the eye.

He stopped his truck and rolled down the window, letting out the odors of a freshly lit cigarette and, if I had to guess, day-old semen. He had a black eye the color of a plum. He was clean-shaven, and wearing his softball shirt under his ranger shirt. Nick had a habit of getting drunk after ballgames and flirting with married women behind the bleachers. While I knew not to ask Nick about the black eye, Sarah didn’t.

“Gosh, Nick. Where’d you get that shiner?”

He looked out toward the lake, and rubbed his chin. “Fock it.” He coughed and spat out the driver-side window. “We got a new hire coming in. Amber something. She’ll do a little maintenance, and fill in for you and the like. When she gets here just, uh, send her down to the office.”

“Sure thing.”

Nick lived on a completely different plane of existence. You could almost hear the static in his head. Almost see the stray transmissions bending in and out like they did on my Dad’s old Zenith, carrying pictures of weird shit on a channel you could never tune in.

Nick hit the exhilarator and his truck growled down to the maintenance building – a cavern of galvanized metal sheets and reinforced concrete floor. This was the guts of the

operation: office, bathroom, and a bunch of park maintenance stuff like tarps, paint cans, utility ropes, tractors and utility carts.

I went back to my stack of People magazines, and spent a few minutes looking at pictures of people who died that year. Dean Martin, Orville Redenbacher, Burl Ives, Jerry Garcia. Pretty soon, Pete Conklin arrived in his Lincoln-Continental four-door convertible. He was a well- preserved 60-year-old, with a dyed black duck’s ass hairstyle and spotless white t-shirt. Always the same get-up. Typically, he’d drive by the gatehouse without a glance, but today as I was continuing my Sarah experiment by greeting him from the gatehouse porch, he hit the brakes and backed up.

“Wow, such a cool car.” That was a lie. I hated that car.

He grinned and handed me a pamphlet with a bloody, aborted fetus on the cover. I promptly handed it back to him. He did this with everybody he met, sort of on a constant basis like a nervous tick.

“This is gotta be the first time you smiled at me all summer.” He looked me over with his pinched, stupid face. “Thought you were this stuck-up brat. What happened?”

Pete was a compulsive masturbator – everybody knew it. But we all sort of felt sorry for him. He’d been written up for exposing himself to two female rangers in his 10 years working there. He’d been on his best behavior for a while, which was good because a third incident and he’d be fired. Nobody wanted that. Pete had five kids. Everyone figured it was bad enough they had a pervert Dad, but why make them destitute on top of it? Had I not turned into Sarah that day I would’ve never talked to pervert Pete. But Sarah had been a girl who took everyone at face value. Trusting. Always finding the good in everybody. Maybe that’s why she died.

For now, Pete channeled all his deviant behavior into that car. It had belonged to his mother, he said. He’d never had a father, so you had to figure she’s the one fucked him up. But who knows. Mostly all he cared about was that car, and overturning Roe v. Wade.

Pete pushed his eyeglasses up his nose. “Say, how bout I take you for a spin round the park sometime after work. I mean, what’s the harm?”

“Sure, sounds great,” I said, but thought never in a million years.
“So why the heck’re you so friendly all a sudden, Miss Snooty? You win the lottery or

something?”

I must have laughed or giggled or something because he just kept staring at me in wonder. Finally, he said, “Know what my mother would a called you? A keeper. And you’re a gate keeper. Get it?”

A car pulled up behind him, thank God, so I just waved at him, and he motored down to the maintenance building. About noon, the new girl, Amber, came up to the gatehouse on foot. Her Dad, I guess, had dropped her off. She was tall with curly hair, and a round face. She had skin the color of flour, and was kind of pretty in a 1940s pin-up sort of way. At the same time you could see she was roller rink trash and as dumb as any domesticated animal.

“Don’t you hate these uniforms?” I said, still in Sarah mode. “Makes me feel like Eva Braun or something.”

“Whatever.”
“So where’re you from?”

“California.” She began chipping red polish off her fingernails. “Have to stay with my Dad this summer. I hate it here.”

“Going to college or anything?”
“Yeah, like, I’munna be a brain surgeon.”

“Really?”

She looked me up and down like I was mentally defective. “No, jeez. I’m engaged. My boyfriend drives a Trans Am.”

“Sounds dreamy. In California?”

“Yup. He’s gunna come here and like save me from this shithole and my stupid asshole Dad.”

“This job isn’t bad, really. Except one thing.”

“What?”

“Well, this one ranger, Pete.” Normally, I wouldn’t say anything about Pete, but I wanted to keep him out of trouble, you know, for the sake of his kids. “Steer clear of him, ok.”

“Why?” Amber’s eyes got really wide, and suddenly she was interested in everything I had to say, which made me regret saying anything. “Just, uh, he will...he’s, you know, he’s been written up a couple times for... I don’t know. Misbehavior.”

“Like what kind of behavior?”
I really hated this girl. “Forget I said anything okay.”

“Yeah, well, whatever.” She jammed a stick of gum into her mouth and started chewing – like a cow. “I can take care a myself.” Chomp chomp.

That day, Pete came down to the gatehouse to talk to me (Sarah) about five times: at lunch, during his two breaks and as he was out checking the trails. It was that last time, when he came zooming up in the utility cart with Amber at his side that I knew things were going to go bad for Pete. I didn’t know what Amber’s angle was, but she was up to something. I’m very good at recognizing character defects. Like maybe she planned on suing the county for sexual harassment? Or wanted to get her kicks watching her boyfriend beat Pete up?

I was eight when my Mom, Bernadette Helen Mateo, went missing. Happened on Halloween. Sometimes, I wondered how I’d have turned out if she hadn’t.

An hour before sunset things got real quiet in the park. It was a Sunday night. I was listening to a blues channel on the radio and thinking, but not so much about whirlpools anymore. On his way home, Nick stopped by the gatehouse to collect the day’s receipts.

“You’re gunna show Amber how to lock up the park.”

“Sure thing.”

He gazed straight ahead as if he saw an army of ghosts darting in and out of the trees, and then, without another word, he hit the gas and sped away. A minute later, Pete crawled by in his Lincoln Continental. He gave me a thumbs up and shouted, “A keeper.”

God knows how I passed the time. I might have watched the spiders or read a book or something. Before long, a sulky-faced Amber came trudging up. The lake in the distance had turned dark purple, and it was close to dusk. Two small lights beamed out from across the water, where some kids were probably smoking dope in the cemetery. A single robin chirred from the blue pines into air that still smelled of burnt hot dog.

Amber, who was still chewing gum, stood there with her arms folded over her stomach. All the nail polish had been chipped away, and her hands were stained with yellow paint.

“Hi there,” I said, chirpy as hell. “Yeah.”
“Wanna get started?” “Whatever.”

After showing her how to lock up the gatehouse, we headed over to the bathrooms and concession, which reeked of Pinesol. We locked all the doors and headed back to the maintenance building.

“So now all we have to do is put away our walkie-talkies.”

By then it had gotten dark, and about all you could see were bats fluttering in and out of the blackness.

“So I saw you got stuck working with Pete,” I said.
“Yup.”
“How’d it go?”
“He never said or did anything, if that’s what you mean.” She seemed disappointed. “Okay good.”

“What’s his deal, anyways. Cuz that tall guy -- what’s his name?” “Nick.”
“Nick said something bout him, too.”
“Like what?”

“Like just ignore Pete, he’s harmless and that.”
“Did Pete give you one of those pamphlets?”
“Yeah. And like I told him about my boyfriend and he sorta clammed up.”

The light in the office burned behind a curtained window, but in the main warehouse, in the shadows, you could feel the big silent pieces of equipment, sharp objects and hazardous substances the OSHA manual had warned us about. What happened next, I can’t explain, except that some forgotten injury had swollen in the dark of my mind.

I told Amber to help me move the paint cans to higher shelves and roll up the tarp. The tarp was etched with yellow lines of paint and one of her boot prints. Sand sifted along the tarp creases as we dragged it across the floor. When she turned her back on me, I knocked her out with my walkie-talkie. The crack her skull made surprised me a little. And when she fell there was no sound. She fell right in the middle of the tarp, so it was easy to roll her up, same way I rolled Sarah up in that carpet in the room where they kept the big paper for cutting construction paper. The carpet spiraled around Sarah’s golden head. Amber had dark hair that sort of blended in with the tarp’s mud color. I found some nylon rope and bound up the tarp around her, and then I dragged her down to the mooring dock.

Here’s what happened. In 5th grade, Sarah stole Scotty from me. Scotty was a new kid, an exotic Southerner, skinny as a whippet, smoked cigarettes and had a glass eye – all the girls were crazy about him. Sarah stole him from me, just by being alive, you know, just by being Sarah. I guess you could make a case that Sarah died by accident. I mean, how was I supposed to know? But Amber was no accident.

The following day, after the toothless old fisherman’s lure got stuck on the tarp, they dragged Amber to shore. Nick radioed for me to call 911 and the sheriff. After they arrived with sirens blaring, I locked up the gatehouse and ran down to the lake. It was a beautiful day – blue sky, sparkling water and just hot enough to make you want to go swimming. A crowd of picnickers, dripping water and holding Frisbees and marshmallow sticks, had gathered around to gawk as the water pour out of the dead girl.

“Fock this.” Nick turned and looked right at me, and it was like he saw me in a way that no one ever had. And all the weird shit you try to understand, it was right there in his eyes.

4. Old People by Zoe Downing 

My Aunty Jan says there is no greater crime than hurting someone who can't defend themselves. She works at an old people's home in Matraville and she said that old people can't even feed themselves or go to the toilet without help, let alone defend themselves from a bad person. One of the old men she looks after got robbed by his own son. She said that the son made Mr. Patrick sign over his right to make decisions and once he’d done that he stole all of his money and belongings. I don’t understand how he managed to do it since Mr. Patrick is pretty much still all there. Well he did think I was his wife once, which is a bit weird since I'm only twelve and he's at least eighty but Aunty Jan said that sometimes, in order to cope with the fact that he needs someone to help him go to the loo, he transports his mind back to when he was happiest.

Sometimes I wonder what the old people Aunty Jan looks after were like before they got old. 

It’s really hard to imagine them being anything other than old, as if they’ve always had no teeth or could never quite hear what you were saying. It’s also really hard to imagine an old person being anything other than innocent. Like Mr. Patrick. Really, if you think about it he could have been a drug dealer when he was younger or even a murderer! 

My Sunday school teacher, Mr. Richards agrees with Aunty Jan. Once he said that there are two types of people who go straight to hell, those who hurt the elderly and those who hurt the young. 

I guess my step father Jeff is going to hell because he’s done both of those things. When I was younger, about six or seven, he hit me. He just came home from work one day, it was one of the days when mum and him had been arguing heaps, he just stopped and stared at me with a really weird look on his face and then slapped me. Mum wasn’t there when it happened, and I never told her. I was too embarrassed. 

Dad left when I was about two, good riddance my mum said. I don't remember him, although sometimes I think I do. False memories I think they're called, when you've heard a story so many times that you start to build a picture in your mind and then the next time you think about it you remember the picture you built before and then the next time it feels like a real memory. In my false memories dad doesn’t have a proper face, it’s like he’s too far away for me to see him properly. 

I have lots of false memories of mum crying when dad was around, but then I also have a lot of her crying from when he wasn't around anymore, and I think those are real memories. Mum said it was better without him,  just the girls, she’d say.  Before Jeff moved in. 

I told you Jeff had hurt an old person, well that happened about a year ago. He was with his buddy Craig. Craig is just as bad as Jeff, if not worse. They both smell the same, like stale cigarettes and beer and a cologne that either makes me want to puke or sneeze, I can never figure out which. Craig is always round our house, watching the footy and farting loudly. Jeff laughs at everything Craig says, even when it isn’t very funny, and especially when he farts. 

I don't think Mum likes Craig very much, even though I saw them kissing once. Well Craig was kissing mum more than the other way round. They were down by the side of the house where the bins go. Craig was leaving the house and he saw mum out there, he walked up behind her and put his arm around her waist, mum didn’t know he was there, I could tell because I saw her jump back in surprise when he touched her.  He turned her around and pushed her up against the wall.  I don't think she liked it very much, she tried to push him away but he’s so much stronger than she is. I watched them from my bedroom window and when mum came in to say goodnight she'd smelt like stale cigarettes and beer.

Anyway, about two months after that Craig and Jeff had hurt an old man. They’d knocked him over when he was alone at night and stolen his wallet. They hadn't been caught and they were pretty proud about that. Mum didn't know, she wasn't in the house when they were talking about it, but I was. I could hear them from my bedroom. We don’t live in a big place and my bedroom is right inbetween the bathroom and the living room.

Mum doesn't like old people.  Once she said to me, "Marianna don't let me get old, ok. I want to die before that happens." Sometimes I understand why she wouldn't want to get old but sometimes it doesn't seem so bad. Like Mrs. Gregg who comes into the shop where mum works. She must be at least ninety, her hair is really thin and white and she uses a walking frame. I serve her every weekend when she comes in to buy her lottery tickets and she always says the exact same thing to me. "You're a pretty young thing, what's your name dear?" I tell her my name is Marianna and she says it's a nice name and then she tells me to have a lovely day. She's a really nice old lady, I can't imagine her being a drug dealer or a murderer when she was younger! She’s obviously not quite all there but she always looks so happy which I think is the most important thing in life. My primary school teacher, Mr.Willoughby said that if you can be happy nothing else matters, but then I guess he also said Mathematics is your best friend so he’s not really that reliable.

Jeff and Craig are both tradies, I don't know exactly what they do but they drive around in utes and have toolboxes, sometimes they work together and sometimes they work with this other guy called Jon. I've only seen Jon once. He came to pick Jeff up for a job one morning. He has a really gross looking scar under his left eye. I asked Jeff how he got it and he said Jon got into a fight at the Palace Hotel and someone knifed him. He's a bad Cunt Jeff said. 

Jon runs scams on people who need work done on their house, he does some work but then charges them as if he did a lot more than he actually did. This is called fraud, we learnt about it at school.  

The worst part is that Jon has done this to Mrs.Gregg! I heard Craig and Jeff talking about it, they said that when Jon was at Mrs.Gregg’s house committing fraud he’d seen a safe in her room and he reckons that her husband was loaded and there’s probably something worth stealing in there. Jon’s planning on going back to Mrs.Gregg’s house and he’s going to try and open the safe and steal her belongings but Craig thinks that Jeff and him should get there before Jon and steal the stuff for themselves.                                                

When I was younger I used to hang around with this boy who lived next door called Jack. We always used to play together, our parents moved in next door to each other when they were pregnant with us and we were friends as soon as we were born. Sometimes we would run away from home together, we'd pack our bags full of sweets and then go down to the end of the road. When we got there we never really knew what to do next so we would just come home again. Once we’d got bored of running away we decided to become detectives and solve all the crimes happening in our street. They weren't real crimes, well if they were they weren't about very important things, like who took the last scoop of ice cream or who left muddy footprints by the back door. But now there's a real crime happening and I wish Jack was here to help me solve it. 

When we were eight Jack got locked in his car when his mum went to the shop. I don't know how but the car caught on fire and Jack couldn’t get out. Eventually the man from the 711 broke the window and rescued Jack but his face was really burnt. After that Jack and his mum moved away because his mum didn't like what people were saying about her and she wanted to go somewhere noone knew them. It's a shame because I think Jack would have really liked to help me save Mrs.Gregg from Jeff and Craig. 

It was a Monday when Jeff and Craig planned to rob Mrs. Gregg. I remember this because it was the day I was supposed to have a really big test at school. That morning I told mum I wasn't feeling well. I made my voice sound croaky and kept my eyes a bit closed so she would believe me, and she left me in bed whilst she went to work. 

When she'd gone I got dressed really quick and then got back into bed. I could hear Jeff snoring on the couch, he had got too drunk to even get into bed the night before. 

I lay there for ages thinking about my plan; when Craig came round to pick Jeff up I was going to follow them downstairs then sneak into the back of the ute and go with them to Mrs.Gregg’s house and when they went to break in I would call the police and then they'd definitely go to prison. 

I wondered if mum would be upset when Jeff went to prison or whether she'd be happy that it was just the girls again. Thinking about it being just me and mum again made me feel good, I almost forgot what I was supposed to be thinking about and nearly fell out of bed when Jeff’s phone rang. I think it made Jeff jump too because I heard him use the F word. 

I got out of bed and opened my door a tiny bit to hear what Jeff was saying. 

Mainly it just sounded like a lot of grunts but right before he hung up I heard him say, “no worries mate.” Then he muttered something about snoozing and losing as he walked past my bedroom.  I quickly shut the door and got back into bed.

It was a few minutes later that I heard the ute drive past outside, I don’t know how I didn’t hear Jeff leave the house but I suddenly realised that he must be going to Mrs. Gregg’s house now and I wouldn't be there to catch him and call the police!

 I ran downstairs as fast as I could and unlocked my bike. I pedalled really fast, probably faster than I ever had before, I even crossed the road without waiting for the green sign. I think it's ok to break those kind of rules when you're trying to save an old person. It's like the opposite of what Mr. Richards says about criminals going to hell, perhaps if I save Mrs.Gregg I’ll go straight to heaven. 

It was only when I’d got halfway up Bunnerong road that I realised I didn't actually know where Mrs.Gregg lived. Well I knew she lived in Chifley because I'd heard her tell mum in the shop. I kept cycling towards Chifley trying to imagine what Mrs.Gregg’s house would look like. It seemed like the kind of house that would have an overgrown garden because she can't bend down to do any gardening and there would probably be cobwebs on the walls. I started to think that after I save her from Jeff I could help her look after her garden. I was thinking pretty hard about Mrs. Gregg’s garden when I suddenly saw Jeff’s ute. 

It was parked between two houses; neither of them looked like the house I’d imagined to be Mrs.Gregg’s. 

I quickly got the camera out and took a picture in case I needed it for evidence. When I put it back I realised I had forgotten to bring my phone so I couldn't call the police! I felt a bit panicked, I thought about what Jeff and Craig did to that old man and I got nervous that Jeff might have hurt Mrs.Gregg as well.

The first house was red brick and it had grates over the window, kind of like a prison. I went up to the door but when I got close a massive dog jumped at the window. I don't like dogs and I didn't think Mrs.Gregg could have a dog like that so I thought she probably lived in the other house. 

 That house did look nicer, it was painted cream and had a brick wall around the garden and a green gate. At first I couldn't get the gate open, it had one of those latches that you have to hold up and either push the gate or pull it. I pulled for ages until I figured it was a push one. I crept up to look through the window in the door but when I leant on it it opened and I kind of tripped into the front room. The house smelt funny, like how the oxfam shop smells when mum takes me shopping there. By the wall there was a a big wood dresser with loads of photographs on, some of them had Mrs. Gregg in them with children who looked the same age as me and they were all wearing really colourful clothes, and looked really happy. Next to those there was one big photograph of a girl that looked like Mrs. Gregg and a man holding her hand, the photograph was a funny colour, like it had accidentally been put in the wash. I walked through the room as quietly as possible and looked into the living room. Mrs. Gregg was sitting down. She was in a rocking chair a bit like the one my Grandpa used to have, with wavy arm rests and when you lean back it feels like you might fall over but you don't. There was a ball of blue wool at her feet and she was holding a knitting needle. 

“Oh hello Marianna dear,” She said when she saw me. It was funny that she recognised me even though she never remembers my name when I'm in the shop. I was so happy to see she was all right, that at first I didn’t notice Jeff. 

He was lying down, I couldn't see his face because it was behind Mrs. Gregg’s rocking chair but I knew it was him because I recognised the boots he always wears. His arms and legs were at weird angles to his body and there was a blue piece of string hanging off his belly. When I walked around the chair I could see the piece of string was coming from his neck. It was wrapped around it really tight and the skin was all red and then I saw the grossest thing I'd ever seen, there was a knitting needle sticking out of Jeff’s eye!  

“Not a very nice man that one, is he dear.” I didn’t notice Mrs. Gregg standing next to me with her walking frame and she kind of made me jump.  She smelt like one of those purple things that mum puts on the wall to make the room smell nice and it calmed me down for a second but then she walked towards Jeff, really slowly with her walking frame, and when she got to his head she leant over and pulled the knitting needle out of his eye. It made a horrible noise, like how it sounds when the last of your bath water goes down the plug hole. There was blood and some other gooey stuff dripping from the needle, it went right into the carpet and looked like it would probably leave a stain. 

Then Mrs. Gregg just sat back down in the rocking chair. She got a scrunched up tissue from her sleeve and wiped the blood and goo off the needle and then picked up the other needle and just started to knit. 

I think I must have fainted then because I don't remember anything after that. At first I thought it was a dream but then Jeff didn't come home that night, and he didn't come home the next day or the next. He must have been gone for a week when mum realised he probably wasn't coming back. I don't know where she thinks he's gone but she cried for about a month non stop.

 

It's been about six months since that all happened. 

Craig still comes round even though Jeff isn't here and sometimes he stays the night. Him and mum whisper a lot and he never farts anymore. 

I still see Mrs. Gregg every weekend when she comes to the shop to buy her lottery tickets, it's funny because she still says the exact same thing to me every time, "You're a pretty young thing, what's your name dear?" and I don’t know what to say, so I just tell her my name is Marianna. It makes me think that maybe it never happened and I definitely just dreamt the whole thing, but sometimes as she leaves she kind of winks at me. 

 

5. Cherry Lip-Gloss by Aneka Brunssen

"Come get your shit". That’s what they said. That’s what they yelled.
Come get your shit! That’s what my brain keeps on repeating.
 
Dinner tonight is a can of tuna. I sit down on the kitchen counter and look around.
At the smoke-stained walls. Bare, old, smoke-stained walls. The broken balcony window. The half-faded 'Beware of Dog' sticker for the dog I always wanted but never had. 

The big empty dining room of my big empty apartment. Decoration inspired by my big empty insides.
"I guess tuna is good for me.", I am thinking in the voice of the old lady at the grocery store.
"Protein. Protein is good for me."
I forgot what else she said. I always forget.
She probably said: "It's good for you, honey, because of your pale skin, your stained teeth and your big, empty insides."
At 30, I blame those primo joints I used to smoke. I blame my parent's emotional absence. I blame my first boyfriend’s pithy remarks. I blame cigarettes, I blame the environment. I blame Obama.
Nobody comes to visit my big empty apartment.
I wash out the tuna can, throw it in a big plastic bag and close the bag tightly.
Tuna cans in plastic bags - The summary of my day to day life.
The smell makes me sick so I open the window and breathe in a fresh breath of summer rain and 2-day-old raw chicken juice from the garbage can.
Now part two of food digestion: "I fucking hate tuna".
With my head in the toilet I am thinking: I blame society, I blame that boy in second grade who moo-ed at me while I was eating lunch, I blame my mother’s genes.
Nothing means anything. Just rolling a rock up a hill. 

I quote Albert Camus in my head and feel smart. For a second, until all confidence attained by means of academic achievement transforms into what I see in front of me.
My reflection is the mirror. Just for a second I look at myself.
With a little chunk of tuna, halfway chewed up, hanging of my lip, mixed with bile and tears, I am thinking: LIAR! 

You photoshopped-illusion.
Nobody can see your cellulite.
Nobody can see your stretchmarks.

But they tell me: You are interesting. You’re unique.
I repeat: 

I am interesting. I am unique. 

I am interesting. I am unique. 

On my hand, I notice that scar from when I tried to open that beer bottle with a pair of scissors. Do you remember that? Andy told me it was going to look like a big worm was living under my skin once it was healed. You were hoping it would look like a big dick. 
So, then I think about scars. Symbolizing pain. Sylvia Plath pain. Innocent Michael Jackson pain. Losing someone-pain. 

My body feels bloated. Like another me is about to jump out through my belly button.
The bedroom floor is covered in dirty laundry. Dirty laundry, anal beads and a big, fat stick-on dildo stuck to the old treasure chest my grandmother gave me. 

Anal beads in treasure chests. Summary of my life.
And I think about getting fucked.

I think about my hair getting pulled and my ass getting smacked. 

I think about a beautiful pair of tits. Bouncing to someone’s rhythm.
And then I think about love.
I think about passion. I think about lips.
Your lips. Your beautiful cherry-lip-gloss lips. 

That arch in your upper lip that exposed your front teeth. 

Your crooked teeth. Your beautiful crooked teeth. 

I think about truth. I think about acceptance.
I think about happiness. Our happiness.
I think about the people that I loved, who never loved me back.
And I despise them. And I love them.
Expectation kills romance. You used to say that.
Why did you say that?  You shouldn’t have said it to me all the time.
I wash my face. I wash away all the self-esteem gained in the past 24 hours.
And I try to sleep.

 

"Come get your shit."
Their voices keep repeating themselves, getting louder and louder in my head.
"Come get your shit."
"Come get your pathetic excuse for being a woman out of your gorgeous ex-girlfriend’s home."
"Come and remove all evidence of your love."

“Come and erase your sad lesbian joke of a romance.”
Put an end to it.
"Your shit." Your shit?
It was supposed to be OUR shit!
It was supposed to be OUR life! I wish you would have just replaced me with some blonde porn-star. But you didn't.
You replaced me with peace of mind. With freedom. Death.

I made you miserable. That’s what the letter said. I made you give up.
My ultimate achievement.
I am the scum of the earth in a pretty, sunflower dress.
I will never get my shit! 

 

I need to relax. I need to calm down. 

From the dildo-treasure-chest I grab a bottle of Ambien. I take two. No. Three. 

I need to get some sleep. 

And I wish you would get out of my head. I wish you would fade away like Los Angeles did, from the airplane, as I was looking out of the window. That was the first time I met you. I remember the torn Jimi Hendrix-shirt you were wearing. I remember the beer beading off your beautiful cherry-lip-gloss-covered lips.
It's been 5 days since you regained your freedom. Since I lost mine.
Sometimes I wonder when they'll knock down my door and hold me accountable for world poverty.

I get up to see what time it is. 4:26. I can’t sleep. 

You left some things at my place. 

I walk into the closet to smell your Jimi-Hendrix-shirt. I will never wash it.
I miss you. I hate you. I miss you so much.

The stairs are creaking. I'm not going to look who's there.
I'm balled up in my walk-in-closet with your shirt in my arms. I haven't slept in days.
The creaking is getting louder. I don't bother to wonder who it is.
I lost you. You bitch. I lost you. 

Lost you to forgotten anniversaries and meaningless flirtations. 

Lost you to crappy birthday gifts and know-it-all remarks about the way you pronounced table-cloth. I loved the way your tongue touched your teeth when you said it.
Stupid, corny lyrics are going running my head.
I wish the voice in my head was not my own.

I wish the voice in my head was yours.
My stomach hurts. I need to eat more kale. Sauerkraut. What did that old lady at the store say again?
One more loud creak.
The door is open. I can hear footsteps.
It must be at least three guys.
My body freezes.
I can't move. I keep telling myself "Get up!", "Out the window!”, "Quickly, they won't notice!".
The footsteps sound desperate. They definitely chose the wrong apartment. I have nothing. 

Nothing but tuna and anal beads. And your cherry lip-gloss.
God, I miss you so much. 

The footsteps turn into voices. 

"Fuck this place. Let’s go!"

The state of frozenness I was in for a while lets off and I am free.
I walk over to the place where the phone should be. All the poetry in my head is gone.
Where's the fucking phone?
"Wait,", I hear a voice say.
"I think I heard something”.
Idiots turning out to be intelligent. The summary of my life.
The foreign idiot in socks and sandals, holding an American Flag screaming "Yeehaw!" That's me!
My fragile mind stutters. My body panics. I lock the door.
The window!
I run back into the bedroom. The steps get louder, the creaking gets harder.

They’re banging against the door.
I open the window and turn around. I stick my head through the open window. It doesn’t work. I have to break it.
The door is almost busted in. 

I’m in a hurry so I wrap your shirt around my hand and break the window. 

Headfirst and backwards I try to squeeze through the broken window. I’m in a hurry. 
My body wants to freeze but I keep pushing.
Keep going. Just a little further. 

I look up.
And the broken glass pointing at my throat loosens.
I watch it dis-attach in slow motion.
Like a magic trick gone wrong.
A big piece of broken glass stuck in my throat. 

The summary of my death outweighs the summary of my life.
So much more to say.
A body with a big piece of glass stuck in its throat spread out, stuck in the window frame of a room covered in dirty underwear and sex-toys. 

The summary of my death.
There it is. That last moment I have always wondered about. That split second of left over air. No light. No answers.
There’s nothing left.

Just the taste of your cherry-lip gloss. 

 

6. One Piercing Eye by Tom Marcantonio

I took the small card from the receptionist and checked the box that was next to the number seven. This was the number of the girl with the eyepatch. There were several girls to choose from, all at varying levels of prettiness, but I'm sure that even the ones who weren't pretty must have been appealing to the men who came here. After all, they all came for the same reason.

  The eyepatch girl smiled at me and led me through to one of the rooms along the narrow corridor with the old-fashioned flowery wallpaper. She showed me inside and asked me what I wanted to drink. I told her a whisky and water. She poured it for me herself from the miniature bar next to the door and then sat down in front of me and smiled.

  'Are you wondering about my eye?' she asked. 

  I had been trying not to look at it, but it wasn't easy.

  'You can tell me about it if you want,' I said. 

  'I had a cataract removed yesterday,' she explained. 'The doctor said I should wear this for a few days just for protection.'

  'Oh, is that so?' I said. 'Doesn't it bother you wearing that?'

  'Not at all. But it must bother some of the men. You're the first one who's chosen me today.'

  'And does that bother you?'

  The girl looked at her orange juice for a moment and bit her bottom lip.

  'Yes, I think it does. I mean, this place is just for talking, right?'

  'So I'm told,' I said. 'This is my first time.'

  'Is it really?' the girl asked, leaning forward in her chair. 'It's mine too! What are the chances that this is the first time for both of us!'

  'Maybe that's why I was drawn to you,' I suggested.

  She raised an eyebrow. 'Don't say that, it's creepy,' she said. 'Creepiness doesn't look right on you.'

  'Sorry, you're right,' I said. 'But you should probably get used to guys saying stuff like that in a place like this. That's just what guys my age are like.'

  'How old are you exactly? Like forty?'

  'Thirty eight. But thanks.'

  'Sorry,' she giggled, not looking sorry at all. 'Listen, I need to ask you. Why do you come to a place like this? I mean, I can see the ring on your finger, so I don't mind telling you that I have a boyfriend. He doesn't know I'm here, though. He thinks I'm in the library. Nothing's going to happen. You know that, don't you? But you're still here, paying to talk to me.'

  I looked at her. She wasn't even half my age. Her hair was silky black to the shoulders and she was still in her school uniform, the same as all the other girls. The one eye that was uncovered was dark brown with some life in it, and there was a little blob of black in her mascara that joined some of her eyelashes together at the tips.

  'Why do you think men come here?' I asked in reply. 

  'My friend said that you're all lonely businessmen and just want someone to talk to.' I pursed my lips and nodded in a 'that's an interesting theory' kind of way. 'It was my friend who told me to come along. She said it was easy money.'

  'And is it easy money so far?' I asked.

  'I didn't expect it to be,' she admitted. 'But it's just talking, really, isn't it? And you're not as weird as I expected the men to be.'

  'I suppose I can take that as a compliment.'

  The girl shrugged as though I shouldn't be too sure of it. I smiled. She was right; this was easy. I took a sip of the whisky and water that was in front of me. The girl leaned forward on the table and put her hands in a V-shape under her chin. It was like I'd just qualified as her new girlfriend and now she had an interesting piece of gossip for me.

  'So can you tell me about your wife? I'll bet she doesn't know you're here, does she?'

  'I'm not married,' I said.

  'But your ring?' the girl said, pointing to my hand. 

  'We separated,' I explained. The girl put her hands over her mouth as though I were a drama she was watching on TV. I offered a defeated 'that's life' kind of smile. 'So maybe your friend was right and I really am one of those lonely businessmen. Well, I'm a professor, actually, not a businessman.'

  The girl tilted her head to one side and her silky hair draped over one shoulder. I was the girlfriend again and now I was under post-break up assessment. 

  'That must be terrible,' she said. 'I hope I never get divorced.'

  'We actually never got divorced,' I said.

  The girl nodded in a sympathetic 'maybe, but it's only a matter of time' kind of way. 

  'Don't worry, you don't have to comfort me,' I said. 'I'm not that pathetic yet and you're not that boring. Just say whatever you really feel.'

  'What did you do wrong then?' she asked, her uncovered eye alight again. 'You must have done something wrong, right?'

  I smiled again.

  'Sometimes marriage just isn't easy,' I said.

  'No no,' the girl said. 'Come on. I'm not that innocent and you're not that boring. Just tell me.'

  I took another sip of the whisky and water. 'Okay,' I said. 'She cheated on me. Had been for months, apparently. An office fling, and I deserved it. The drink, you see; it almost ruined me. I'm back to the boring, honest life now, of course. Too late, it seems.' I sat back and exhaled. 'There,' I said, holding out my hands. 'I am that pathetic after all.'

  'There you go,' she said. 'At least you're being honest now. Isn't that better?' I raised an eyebrow as I considered it. 'Is this what you expected us to talk about?' she asked doubtfully. 'My friend said that the guys just wanted to hear about how our exams were going and gossip from our friends and things. You know, high school things. She said it makes them feel young again. Is that the kind of thing you wanted to talk about?'

  'High school? I don't think so. I'm not really sure what I wanted to talk about.'

  'Hmm. I hope I'm not as lonely as you when I'm your age.'

  'Charming,' I said. 

  'I didn't mean that in a bad way. I mean, you're a normal guy, aren't you? You're not that bad, really. But you are lonely, aren't you? That's why you're here.'

  I shrugged. 'I suppose I am.'

  'You're funny,' she said. 'Imagine choosing the girl with the eyepatch. I knew there must have been something wrong with you. So, do you want to meet me again?'

  'You mean here? I'm not sure if I'll be coming back, to be honest.'

  'What about somewhere else then? Like in a café or something? You could take me for a drive somewhere. I mean, I know they tell us not to meet anyone outside of here, but you don't seem that bad. And I don't think I'm going to work here again after today. I just feel so horrible waiting for men to choose me. But it's easy with you. You don't seem as pervy as all the other guys who have come in today.'

  'What about your boyfriend?' I asked.

  'Don't be disgusting,' she said. 'It's not going to be like a date or anything. You're ancient. That would be disgusting. My boyfriend is my boyfriend. You're just an old guy. I mean, you're more interesting to talk to. Stuff has happened to you, hasn't it? I bet you've been to all kinds of places.'

  I shrugged. 'Not that many. Getting married young will do that to you. I studied in America for a year, though. There aren't places like this in America, you know. You start to wonder what's wrong with this city when lonely men are paying to talk to high school girls for an hour.' I looked at the girl in front of me; so young and naive. 'And you have to wonder why nice young girls are spending their time here.'

  The girl shrugged. 'I just wanted some money to go out with my friends. My boyfriend's always busy and never takes me anywhere, and my mum won't let me get a job until I'm done with my studies. I just wanted to give it a try.'

  'Girls like you shouldn't be in places like this. You were right, there are too many weirdos out there. And once you've started doing this it's not far to the next step. It's not a road you want to go down. Trust me.'

  'Don't start getting judgemental,' the girl replied, pouting a little. 'We're not all naive little dummies, you know. Half of the girls here make a fortune from you bozos. I heard about this one girl who's seeing four older guys. Rich as hell, they are, and she gets all kinds of presents from them. All she has to do is tease them once in a while. You know, keep them on the hook.'

  I looked at the girl and suddenly started feeling hot and queasy. I needed to get out. 

  'I'm sorry, I have to go,' I said, standing up and attempting to smile. 'Just promise me that you won't work here anymore.'

  'Wait. What's your name?' the girl demanded as I made for the door.

  I sighed, turning back. 'Goro,' I said. 'Goro Nishimura. What's yours?'

  'Natsumi,' she said. 'Meet me for a drink some time, Goro, and I promise I won't come back here.'

 

#

 

Natsumi came to the campus a week later. There was a small café near my office that was quiet at night and I usually went there alone after lectures were done. I wanted to meet somewhere away from the lights and the sleazy alleys of downtown; it had made me feel sick, being in a place like that. 

  Natsumi walked in as confident as anything. She was still in her uniform and she slung her school bag over the back of the chair opposite me. There was no one else in the café apart from the girl serving at the front.

  'What's good here, Professor?' Natsumi asked, looking up at the board behind the counter.

  'I'm drinking a latte,' I said.

  'Eugh, I hate coffee,' she said. 'I'm getting a juice.'

  She waltzed off to the counter and ordered, playing on her phone while she waited. She came back with her glass and sat down in front of me. 

  'Is it okay to call you Professor?' she asked. 'I could be one of your students, couldn't I?'

  'You're still wearing the eyepatch,' I observed.

  Natsumi shrugged. 'Oh, I lied about that,' she said. 'Cataracts are mostly for old people, didn't you know?'

  'Is that so? Then what…?'

  'I lost my eye in a car accident when I was just a kid. Want to see?'

  I shrugged. 'How do you say no?'

  Natsumi lifted up the eyepatch slowly and revealed the place where her eye used to be. The skin there was dark and appeared to be stretched over the socket. My heart sank a little when I saw it.

  'Cool, isn't it? I only told you the cataract thing because I thought a businessman wouldn't pay to talk to a girl with one eye. People are too easily freaked out these days.'

  I nodded and closed the book that I had been reading. 

  Listen,' she said. 'I have a question for you.'

  I leaned back in my chair. 'Shoot,' I said.

  'Why did you lie about it being your first time in that place? One of the other girls said you'd come in a few times recently before I started. But you always walked out without choosing anyone. That's kind of freaky for me. You can see that, right?'

  I sighed and studied Natsumi's face. 

  'It's okay to be lonely,' she said. 'Your wife left you. How long ago was it?'

  'Fourteen years,' I said. 'Fourteen long years ago.'

  Natsumi's expression didn't change, but I could see her eye studying me. 'Fourteen years? And you've never found anyone else? Wow, you really are a loser, aren't you? You need to get out more, you know. And I don't mean doing this “compensated dating” thing.' She actually did the air quotes with her fingers. 'You need to get out there and be a man. Join a club or something.'

  I smiled. 'This is Sonaya. A man my age has limited options. Computer games, drugs and hookers don't appeal to me. And there was only ever one woman for me.'

  'But high school girls appeal to you, do they? That's kind of weird.'

  I nodded. 

  'You want to know why I really came here?' she asked. 'It's because you're different from all those other guys who came in. It freaked me out, to be honest, when I heard that you never chose anyone but you chose me. But I think it's really because you needed some help. And maybe I'm meant to be the one who's supposed to help you.'

  I sighed. Her face was so genuine, so concerned. 

  'A car accident, eh?' I said. I was starting to feel queasy again but I had to push through this time. 'What happened?'

  Natsumi shook her head. 'I was just a little girl. I don't remember anything, actually. But my mum told me it was my dad driving.'

  I nodded slowly. 

  'He was a drunk, apparently, and drunk at the wheel. I don't remember him. My mum said she fell out of love with him after that.'

  I fingered the handle of my coffee mug. 'And I don't suppose she talks about him anymore?'

  Natsumi looked at her orange juice and then back at me.

  'Mum died last month,' she said, and for the first time there was something stubborn in the way she arranged her face. She folded her arms and looked hard at me with her one eye. 

  'I'm sorry to hear that,' I said. I took a sip of coffee and tried to keep steady. 'That's why you started going to the date café, wasn't it? You must have been lonely after she died.' 

  Natsumi kept her stubborn eye fixed on me but didn't answer.

  'It wasn't your first time there when you met me, was it?' I asked. It was becoming more and more difficult to meet her eye. 'I'd wanted to… I mean, I wasn't following you or anything like that. I just wanted to… check. To check on how you were doing.'

  Natsumi was breathing heavily through her nostrils, her jaw clenched and arms folded tight. A vexed teenage girl, through and through. Part of me suspected that she'd known all along.

  It didn't matter how many times I might have rehearsed what I wanted to say. In that moment my throat was dry and I could barely look at that fierce eye and the eyepatch next to it.

  'I just wanted to say,' I started, but the words clogged at the back of my throat. I took a deep breath. 'I'm not the man I used to be, Natsumi,' I said slowly. 'I just want you to know that. If you ever...'

  Natsumi looked half like she might cry; half like she might attack me. Instead she rose suddenly from her chair and grabbed her bag.

  'Stay away from me,' she said, and stormed out.

 

#

 

Loneliness is like a plague in this city. You see it in people's eyes as they pass you on the street. You see it in every neon sign and seedy alley. You see it in the businessmen's suits, the schoolgirls' uniforms, the reflections in the puddles after the rains. You hear stories about it, and then you start to see it in the mirror. And once it takes hold of you you're lost to it, sliding ever downwards into your own dark abyss. I went there, and I let it consume me because I knew I deserved it. But if there's one thing that will drag you out, it's the fear of watching someone undeserving wander on the edge of the precipice.

  I wanted to claw myself out like I've never wanted anything in my life. I would claw and crawl on my hands and knees until I knew it was right; until I knew that I'd done right. Sometimes redemption isn't deserved, but sometimes it's needed nonetheless.

  It was another three weeks before Natsumi agreed to come to the campus café again. Once again I was all alone, postponing my lonely walk back to that empty apartment in the dark, and another quiet evening alone. The café door opened and Natsumi just stood there, lips pursed in the doorway, staring at me. 

  I picked up my things and we walked outside. The campus was dark and quiet. I'd always liked it best like that, when the students had gone home or off to their various nightly destructions. The campus was small and red-bricked and confined, but there was more peace there at night than anywhere else in the city. We walked side by side along the campus paths, Natusmi with her arms folded across her chest and me with my briefcase in one hand. She looked around at the brick buildings and the benches where students ate their lunch under the big oak trees.

  'Well, what do you want to talk about, then?' she asked at last, glancing at me with that one piercing eye.

  I looked sideways at her and dared to smile. 'Your exams,' I said. 'Tell me about your exams. Gossip about your friends. You know, high school things. That might be a good place to start.'

 

7. NIMBYisms by Peter Thomas Ricci 

It was a bitterly cold winter night in Chicago, and Ian Smith had been informed by his mother that they were going out. He was unhappy with the announcement – he had just settled down in front of the television with some chocolate chip cookies and a tall glass of whole milk – but his mother was insistent that they go. “This is an important meeting,” she said as she tied Ian’s boots, wrapped his scarf, arranged his hat. “Your teacher was telling you in class about how we’re a democracy?” Ian nodded. “Well honey, this is what democracy looks like.”

The meeting was at the family’s church, which was only a couple of block away. That meant Ian and his mother would be walking, not driving. He knew the route well. Holding his mother’s hand, they walked carefully down Foster Avenue, past a CVS, past modest homes of brick and wood, and past a park where he played baseball. “Somebody is saving us a spot,” his mother said as they approached the church. “We’ll be able to get in.”

After several more moments of walking, Ian understood why his mother had made that comment – there was a huge crowd of people standing outside the church, all wearing hats and gloves, their breath turning to fine cold clouds. Some of them were holding signs, some were shouting. Ian had never seen so many people before in such a small space, especially people who were so angry. They entered the church, and walked past the bulletin boards, doors, and ratty carpeting he had grown accustomed to Sunday after Sunday. The sight in the sanctuary, though, was something he was not ready for. Every pew in the church was filled. There were even people standing along he edges of the room, it was so crowded. The church was never this crowded, not even for baptisms…and those were always happy; the mood in the sanctuary, that night, was tense. It reminded Ian of how the house felt after his parents argued about something. He recognized some of the people in the pews – the librarian from his school; one of the youth leaders at church; his friend Joey’s mom, who helped him with math problems every Thursday – but they all looked different to him. He didn’t like it.

Ian’s mother led him to the second row of pews, which was where they always sat on Sundays – the left side, in front of the pastor’s lectern, near the big stained glass window of Moses. Marcia, their next-door neighbor, was saving their spots. “Isn’t this great?!” she said excitedly as they took their seats. “This is such an amazing turnout.” She looked at Ian. “This is an important lesson for you, young man. This is what it means to live in a democracy.”

At the front of the sanctuary, a large screen had been set up. Normally, it showed the lyrics to all the songs the congregation sang during service, but this time around, it bore a much different message – “Affordable Housing Development.” Ian did no know what it meant, and he did not have time to ask his mother any questions; shortly after they sat down, a man who resembled his father took the stage and began talking. Ian responded like he did to any church sermon – by staring at the tiled floor, scrutinizing the dark grim hat had accumulated between the tiles over so many years. He did notice, though, how the people around him were reacting to the man on the stage, who spoke calmly and softly. Everyone in the pews seemed to be shaking their heads, constantly. Some of them hissed. There was also plenty of indistinguishable muttering, especially between his mother and Marcia; those were all things he never saw in church.

The man spoke to the crowd for some time, and then he announced that it was time for “audience questions.” Ian asked his mother what that meant, and she responded that it was the neighborhood’s opportunity to “make our voice heard.” Ian was not sure what that meant, but he watched as microphones were set up at the front of the sanctuary; before they were even checked for sound, people were lining up to talk.

The first man to speak was Jim Thompson, who lived down the street. He cut his grass with a riding lawnmower, and Ian often wondered why he needed such a big mower for such a small yard. That night at the church, Jim was still swearing his hat, coat, and gloves, but he was not sweating, despite the fact that the sanctuary had, by that point, become uncomfortably warm. “You must think we’re stupid!” Jim yelled into the microphone. His tone frightened Ian, but the attendees applauded. Jim addressed the development’s “screening process,” and how the people who lived there could allow their “thug” relatives to live with them. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I’m opposed to this,” Jim concluded, to strong applause.

The next person to speak was Mrs. Andrews, who always gave away PEZ dispensers for Halloween. “You do not respect us!” she said. Like Jim Thompson, her tone was aggressive, and Ian found it unnerving. But the attendees applauded. “I do not want drug dealers and mental patients living two blocks from me and my kids.” More applause. “I mean, where will these people even shop?” Someone in the back of the church yelled “7-11!” to laughter and applause. For Ian, a picture was beginning to emerge. He was starting to understand why everyone was so tense, why the speakers were talking so loudly. From watching the news with his mother, he knew that drug dealers were bad people, and he knew that people with mental problems were dangerous; he also knew 7-11 as a place his mother never took him.

People spoke one after another, their statements generating more and more applause. After awhile, even Ian began applauding. Mr. Fitzgerald said the city should do what it did in Portage Park. Mr. Harris wanted a promise that “pedophiles” would be kicked out. A woman named Pam said the man on the stage should build the development in his own backyard, if he wanted it so badly. An older woman named Julie said she and other people “pay a lot of money” to live in the neighborhood. A man named Paul said the development was a “project,” and Mr. Johnson, who lived a block away and waved at Ian when he drove by, said it was “Section 8.” The woman who spoke after Mr. Johnson said she works with “Section 8 people” for her job, and that they “never change.” Ian asked his mother what “projects” and “Section 8” were. “Those are places where bad people live,” she replied. Ian may have been young, but he understood who bad people were. He knew what they looked like, what kinds of names they had, how their voices sounded, how they walked, how they lived in “bad neighborhoods” with ugly houses. As the people spoke, he learned more about those bad people – and he definitely did not want them living so close to him. He finally tugged on his mother’s arm and said to her, “I don’t want this.” Looking at him proudly, his mother replied, “Neither do I, sweetie.”

Several more people spoke, and then the man who talked first took the microphone for what he called a “closing statement.” It didn’t make sense to Ian. He told the attendees that all the bad people who would be living in the development were just like them. “They will buy sandwiches, cars, insurance,” he said. “It’s not fair to judge them.” The attendees booed the man as he spoke. Ian asked his mother how they could be “just like” the bad people. “You’re nothing like them,” she said.

After the closing statement, it was time for them to go; it was a school night, and Ian had stayed up past his bedtime. As they exited the church, Ian noticed there were even more people outside in the cold. From where he was standing at the church entrance, Ian was several steps above the crowd, and he could see all the signs, all the hats, all the winter coats. The crowd was saying something in unison. They were chanting “No Section 8!” Remembering all that he had learned, Ian joined them. No Section 8. No Section 8. No Section 8. He said it louder. No Section 8. No Section 8. No Section 8. He began screaming. No Section 8. No Section 8. No Section 8.

 

8. Where Energy Goes by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt 

Someone’s born. Someone’s dies. Someone laughs. Someone cries. 

All of this happens; all at once; all in the same moment.

His mam taught him that.

 

He stands in front of his reflection and studies the contours of newly built muscle – traces the line with his finger. The mirror used to be hers. It used to sit in the corner. Her room smelled of Johnson’s baby talc. Along the wooden edges are rows of little pink butterflies. Sometimes he thinks he sees them flutter. He used to stand and watch her through the crack – watching her watching herself, a finger trailing off the bony edges. Life is change, Stephen, she’d say. Life is change. Butterflies live such short lives – they teach us to make everything count.

Yeah, Mam. I know.

He moved the mirror.

 

He’s in charge now – Stephen’s the man of the house. When he thinks about it he has always been the man of the house – even before he was. But he cannot pick off the butterflies.

At eighteen he feels the weight of this moment as he stands, looks, touches.

Butterflies change form. 

He wonders what happens when you die.

He often wonders what happens when you die. Last year he wondered about normal things, like how many times can you resit your driving test, is it okay not to like the taste of beer, what if he doesn’t wanna go to college? Now he wonders what happens when you die, what happens to cancer cells when they burn, what happens to all that energy? 

In physics there’s a law. 

The energy wen’ into you, it’s inside you – that’s what his sister said.

He was holding his mam’s hand.

Don’t be daft, Jo. 

It’s not daft. It did. That’s where it went. 

He’d watched her as she nibbled at the chocolate on the sides of her double chocolate muffin, slowly picked chocolatey chips out with her finger. 

It wen’ into you, our Stephen. That’s where it went. 

 

As he stands he stretches out his hands; big man hands. He studies them as he puffs out air, pulls it in, whispers inside every curl, every stretch: be strong. The book says breath is everything. Without it we are we nothing. But if that’s true his mam is nothing – and she can’t be – can she? She can’t be nothing because he still hears her, still feels her, still reaches for her hands.

Don’t let go, Stephen. 

Never, Mam. 

He feels the ache, the tug – he feels it everywhere. His mam is gone – but he didn’t feel the energy leave. 

So if it’s neither created nor destroyed, where is it? 

What if Jo was right? 

Did the cancer go into him too? Does it lie in wait? A cat poised to pounce; a breath held? He’s in charge now. He won’t let it in. He knows how to build muscle; like a wall – stop it before it invades, before it makes him crumple – the way she did, like a wilted flower in front of a mirror edged with little pink butterflies. 

There were so many flowers. So many flowers that day. He didn’t know where she kept the vases.

The book is open on the bed. There’s an inscription on the inside cover.

He feels the heaviness of a single tear.

He can’t wipe it away, just as he can’t pick the butterflies off the mirror – even though Jo says it looks far ‘too girly’ for his room. That’s how she says it: too girly. It’s too girly, our Stephen. Far too girly. You’re a man now, Stephen.

His dad went to work one day and never came home. Stephen was three. Does a real man do that?

He tried, Stephen. That’s what his mam said. He tried. 

Not hard enough. But he never said that out loud.

There’s an Arnie poster in his room. He’ll stick it on the wall in the garage next year, when he builds his gym: dumbbell by dumbbell. It’s what he saves the pennies for. It’s why he works at the shoe factory; Mam’s ‘college’ dreams were piped into a house of butterflies … until they flew away. Now he is building his dream. He stands and grips on tighter, bending his fingers over cold metal, closing his eyes, breathe in, now push the air out as you lift. That’s what he said; at the gym. It’s the only thing that makes him feel connected to anything; that makes him feel alive.

He sneaks in at night; only two streets away. He sneaks in when Jo is sleeping, double locks the front door. At that time no one else is there. He can’t afford to join. He always lets him in.

Not too fast, not too intense, not for too long. That’s what he tells him. 

Muscles need time to heal. Everything takes time to heal. 

Someone must’ve told him; someone must’ve said about his mam. He was the one who gave him the book.

Control the pain, Stephen.

At least this way is better than his sister’s way. 

He has seen Jo’s arms, seen the criss cross patterns like she he has been playing noughts and crosses with a needle. He has seen her pulling her sleeve down on Mam’s pink too big for her dressing gown so no one sees; heard the slamming of the bedroom door. He knows it’s not right for a girl of thirteen to cut like that. He is supposed to save her. He is ‘the adult’ – but he doesn’t know how to be the parent even though he promised he was, well he could be, he must be. But how does he make her stop?  

He has read the inscription in the book so many times: three little words – from a stranger.

As he stands now in front the mirror he feels a line of sweat snake across his brow; it’s like rain dashing across a car window. He has watched Jo trace the line with her fingers. He watched her on the day of the funeral. It rained all the way to the crem.

Soon all the lines will criss cross, merge into one – sweat and tears – and you won’t be able to tell – you won’t be able to tell he was crying. 

Flex – extend. Flex – extend. Flex – extend.

He had a dream, Stephen. Your dad – he had a dream: that’s why ’e left.

Weren’t we enough?

But she never answered.

That’s when he sees her. 

Jo.

She’s watching him along the crack. He thinks she is going to say something but she doesn’t.

She is so thin; too thin – how did she get so thin? He doesn’t remember the last time he saw her eat. He goes to say something; to tell her not when he’s training, leave him alone when he’s training, how many times has he told her not to disturb him while he’s train— but it’s like he knows these words from somewhere else … from someone else. Today he’ll add how later they’ll eat – together – Mam would want that – it’s been too long. He pulls the weight towards himself, holds onto the pain. Not too fast, not too intense, not too long. Maybe he should say something, tell ’er to lay the table – they’ll have pizza. But it’s too late, when he turns around she’s gone.

Why do people leave, Mam? 

He had a dream, Stephen.

But—

He became British champion, Stephen. 

Yeah but why didn’t he come home?

Maybe because no one asked him to.

Promise you won’t leave, Mam.

I promise, Stephen. I’ll never leave you.

And for a moment, maybe less than that, he swears he sees her face reflected in the mirror: one form to another. Still here, our Stephen. You must find a way to hold all the pieces together. 

It will take all the energy you have.

 

A pizza turned cold on a table; a door slammed shut in an upstairs bedroom; a book opened out, spine broken.

Three little words.

He turns the key and locks the front door; just two streets away, perhaps always just two streets away. He glances up at the bedroom window. Then he lowers his head and walks – two streets. That’s all. Two streets; three words. He remembers when he gave him the book– that first night at the gym. Like he always knew he’d come.

  There’s another law that says we are all the same.

You are not so different, Stephen. 

He sees him standing in the doorway.

All the energy you have, Stephen.

Yeah, Mam.

He thinks of Jo; criss cross patterns in flesh, an Arnie poster on a wall. It was his; he found it in the loft.

Find a way to help Jo, Stephen.

Yeah, Mam.

Three words in a book: three small words.

So sorry, son.

And another three words; the ones he says now; the loudest ones of all – spoken in a whisper.

Come home, Dad.

***

© 2018 by Limnisa.